chapter two

*******

Eric felt the beginnings of a headache as he stared down at the pile of papers that were stacked upon the smooth surface of his mahogany desk and wondered how it was that he could feel so… so *trapped*. A minor use of his talent cracked open the windows looking out over the gardens a bit more, but even the slight breeze laden with the scent of a riot of flowers did little to lighten his mood just then, to loosen the pressure building in his shoulders and the back of his neck. He was expected to read through the documents, to go over the notes that Lorna had put together for him and then face another meeting where he smiled at T’Challa and danced around the matter of-

Someone knocking at the door of his office, the sound fast-paced yet hesitant, shook him from his thoughts. He frowned as he motioned to the heavy doors inset with swirls of metal and they parted with ease to expose the people waiting on the other side. The sight of Pietro wasn’t at all unusual, but Eric was interested to see his Head of Security and the Dean of Technology from Genosha University flanking his son.

“Your Majesty.” Pietro was pure formality as he bowed, dressed in a sleek black suit as if he was prepared for the dinner later tonight rather than a visit to his father. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I believe this is a matter that should be brought to your attention.”

Eric waved him and the others in as he rose from his desk and moved in front of the large, ornate piece of furniture. “What’s going on,” he asked as he stood with his arms folded over his chest. “Is there a problem with the university?” He directed that question at the two who stood behind his son, Sean Cassidy and Tessa.

His Head of Security spoke first, so stiff and formal in his black leather and with a vehement shake of head that sent his ruffled his greying red hair flaring about. “No, your Majesty – at least not yet. There’s been a request for assistance that may impact the royal family, though.” Sean glanced aside at the dark-haired woman who stood beside him.

For once Tessa was without her cyber glasses or any other enhancements that Eric could sense on her – he was certain that Cassidy would have insisted on that before allowing her upon the palace grounds – yet she still had a confident air to her. “Your Majesty, please let me explain the situation.” She continued when he gave her a slight nod of approval. “One of our alumni, a very talented young woman named Katherine Wisdom-Pryde, is currently involved in an amazing research project and has taken a sabbatical. However, it seems that someone is attempting to either sabotage or steal her research, so she would like to return to the university to complete her work.”

Eric thought he remembered the woman’s name and approving some funds for a radical project. “Is this the engine research? Isn’t she working with Forge?”

Tessa smiled in approval. “Yes, Sire. They’re making incredible strides and we all believe they’re going to revolutionize space travel - *if* the project is a success. That’s why we agree that she should be allowed back to the university.”

So far he wasn’t seeing the problem here and glanced at his son for enlightenment; Pietro gauged his confusion immediately and frowned as he ran his right hand through his white hair. “It seems that whomever or *whatever* is attempting to steal Dr. Wisdom-Pryde’s work is… well, her husband has some unusual connections and he had a few of those friends look into the matter. There were some odd energy readings and now SHIELD is involved, since they’re not entirely convinced that the culprit might be of Earthly origins.”

“What the prince is saying is that while Dr. Wisdom-Pryde and her husband feel that the best place to protect her work is a country inhabited by fellow mutants, just in case the person making a go at the tech is Tony Stark or some other jealous idiot, SHIELD’s gonna be around as well to ensure that there isn’t a threat to the planet,” Cassidy summed up. “So that means we need your approval for this, Sire.”

The headache from before had just gotten a hell of a lot stronger; Eric wanted to run his hands through his hair as well and massage the back of his neck, yet didn’t want to display any weakness in front of Cassidy or Tessa. He felt their eyes upon him and knew they were waiting for a decision. From what he remembered, the tech that Dr. Wisdom-Pryde was building could indeed revolutionize space travel and pose a serious threat to Stark’s technological empire; it made sense that if the man had found out about it that he would try to either steal its secrets or sabotage it – maybe enough to try to make it look like aliens were behind the deed in order to save his own reputation.

“Sire, what this discovery means to the university, if not the human race - the *mutant*-“

He held up his right hand to cut off Tessa before she could try to sway his mind and focused his attention on Cassidy. “SHIELD would have no reason to be anywhere near the palace, correct?”

Cassidy’s back became even straighter as he shook his head. “No, Sire. They’ve neither the rights to invade your home nor any reasons – not unless the research takes place here.”

His decision made, Eric turned toward Tessa. “Notify Dr. Wisdom-Pryde that she is welcome back at the university – but explain to her that for her safety that she is to curtail her research to the university grounds. I expect you to work with Mr. Cassidy to ensure that as few people are put to risk while providing as secure an environment for her project as possible.”

“Thank you, Sire.” Tessa gave him a deep bow and, after a curt motion from his right hand, both she and Cassidy left his office. He waited until they were gone and that they should be out of any telepathic range before he looked at his son.

“I want you to ensure that we know where the SHIELD agents are at all times,” he ordered Pietro.

Pietro bowed his head in acknowledgement of the order even as he fussed with the front of his fitted black suit jacket. “Do you think they will be any trouble?”

“I think they’re SHIELD and that they’re used to doing what they like, so we need to make sure they’re kept on a tight leash.” Eric clenched his right hand and had to struggle with his talent to keep all of the metal in the room from reacting to his uneasiness. “They like having the upper hand.” That was something that he’d never allow anyone to have over him again, *never*. Not when he’d fought for so long to have a safe haven for his family, for his people.

Pietro kept fidgeting with his coat as if he fought to remain still. “I know there have been questions about our recent turn of ‘good luck’. Do you think that they might be behind the sabotage in order to finagle a way onto Genosha?”

The thought had crossed Eric’s mind, but somehow he doubted that Tessa would let a detail like that slip by, not if she wanted a favor. “I think it’s more likely that SHIELD is seizing an opportunity presented to them.” He gave Pietro’s right arm a quick squeeze before he returned to his seat behind the desk. “We will make sure that William is kept on the grounds from now on.” Thomas would be impossible to fully restrain unless given an ultimatum, but William was the more obedient of the twins. They *needed* William to be obedient right now, because if SHIELD uncovered what the boy could do….

If Tessa thought that people were willing to go to such lengths for a bit of technology that could revolutionize space travel, could reduce the time and effort it took to bridge the distance between planets… that was nothing when compared to a young man who could change *reality* simply with his own thoughts. A young man who was Eric’s grandson. A young man who was going to be kept safe no matter what the cost. “Find William and bring him to me,” Eric ordered.

“Yes, Father.” Pietro gave him a curt bow and then was a white and black blur out of the room. Eric stared after his son for several seconds before finally giving in to the urge to attempt to rub away his headache.

******

The small park just off of the main street was the perfect spot for reading, its benches numerous and scattered beneath the many trees that lined the bit of green here in the heart of Hammer Bay. Billy reached into his messenger bag for another comic to read and had just flipped open the cover page of the latest issue of Planetary when he heard the familiar creak of leather and couldn’t hold back on an aggrieved sigh. “Can’t you just… I don’t know, go have lunch or something? I’m busy.”

Caliban stalked around the bench so he could face him, the black of his leather uniform a stark contrast to paleness of his skin. “Sir William, return to the palace at once, you should.” His rough voice was pitched low so as not to carry very far, and there was blatant reproach in his eyes as he stared at him.

“It’s nothing important.” Billy’s hands almost clenched around the comic before he remembered it in time, then he forced himself to remain calm. “I’m not doing anything wrong – I’m just getting some fresh air.”

“Do that at home you can, and after you talk to His- your grandfather.” It looked as if it pained the bald man to speak so ‘casually’ about the king, and he flexed his right hand at the moment as if he sought to latch on to Billy at any moment. “Come, come, you must. I have my orders.”

For a moment Billy thought about using his talent to whisk himself far away, to Monaco or Paris or *somewhere*, yet the moment he appeared out of his teleportation spell Caliban’s talent would latch on to his location unless he used his magic to mask it. A weariness settled upon him just then – he had so much power, so much ability… and unless he wanted to use it every waking moment of his life, he would be under his grandfather’s thumb. Sometimes he thought that he should just unleash his talent and be free of it all, free of the constraints, free of the demands upon him as a member of the House of Magnus… but what of his mother? What of Tommy? What… what of his humanity? There was a voice inside of him that whispered to him at times that if he gave into the power thrumming through his very veins, through his entire being that there would be no turning back….

So that was why he placed the unread comics with care inside his red messenger bag and stood to his feet while Caliban watched on with those unblinking eyes of his, and then cocked an eyebrow with some sarcastic exaggeration when the fellow mutant did nothing but stand there for a few seconds. Mindful of the few people gathered in the park around them on such a peaceful day, Billy sighed as he unleashed his power around himself and Caliban in a wave of blue energy and transported them back to the heart of his grandfather’s Court.

******

Teddy cursed as he shifted thicker skin, thicker *armor* around his chest and back to withstand the onslaught that the Instructor was unleashing upon them today. Considering that this was the last time through the Gauntlet, she seemed in a particularly foul mood and determined to wipe out a many of them as possible – Kiden was already down before she could shift into an altered time stream, while Molly was holding her own… for now. Doreen was knocked out as well, but Teddy wasn’t sure that he counted that as much of a loss… really, how much of a talent was *that*. Dominic was putting up a fight, but his flames were dying out against the onslaught of the course so it was only a matter of time. Teddy shared a look with Molly and the two of them used their enhanced strength and resilience to muscle through the rest of the course, Teddy shifting his body to take the brunt of the energy pulses and explosions while Molly used brute force to shatter her way through the rest of the obstacles, and to their surprise they actually made their way to the finish line before Molly expended the last of her energy.

“Well, looks like two of you are worth *something*.” Callisto’s husky voice seemed to carry some sort of pride beneath the usual derision, even if her model-worthy features remained the usual mask of derision that Teddy had become used to these last several weeks. “Nice to know I haven’t wasted my time this last round of training.”

He slid his left arm around Molly’s waist to help keep her on her feet – now that they were through the Gauntlet, she was fading fast. “Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled, doing his best to catch his breath as he shifted back to his more ‘normal’ appearance. Thankfully, SHIELD apparel had the ability to match his form so he didn’t go around in rags or baring his ass for the world to see.

Molly muttered something that was probably along the lines of what he had just said, her blonde hair falling onto her face as she tried to lift her head despite the evident exhaustion weighing her down.

Callisto made an annoyed clicking sound before she waved them aside. “Go wash off and get some rest – you two at least have passed.” Something dark flashed in her eyes as she looked back at the obstacle course and those who’d failed to come out of it as of yet. “Return to your quarters and get some rest while you wait for your official assignments.”

Teddy felt a trill of excitement as he heard that from his demanding training instructor – the last several months had been a special hell as Callisto had put him and the others through their paces, had torn them down and built them back up in SHIELD’s image of what an operator should be, and despite what he’d told his mother he’d been a bit afraid that he’d never make it through the program. So much had depended on him getting through – all because of his foolish slip, of letting his anger get the better of him… well now he’d done it, had graduated and had some sort of future ahead of him. Maybe it wasn’t what he’d planned a few months ago, but it *was* a future.

“Come on,” he urged Molly as he turned toward the exit.

“Oohhh… wanna sleep forever,” she slurred as she lolled her head onto his shoulder. “Sooo warm.”

It felt nice to have another person draped on him like this, to have someone trust him so implicitly. Teddy held his friend against his side and reveled in the sense of warmth from another person, even if it was just a platonic relationship, as he carried Molly back to her room. All that mattered just then was that Molly trusted him to see her to safety, that she *trusted* him… and that he could trust her in return. They had relied on each other back in the Gauntlet, had fought beside each other during the whole training regiment and knew that they could depend on each other. Wasn’t it sad that he could rely upon a relative stranger when he had been let down so spectacularly by someone he had grown up with, by someone he had trusted so implicitly?

He shoved aside all thoughts of Greg as he saw Molly safely to her quarters, and then shuffled along to his own room. All he wanted just then was to shed his uniform, take a long shower and then fall onto his bed so he could sleep for as long as possible – tomorrow he could Skype his mom and let her know that everything had gone well, that he should become an official SHIELD agent and receive a posting in the near future. Maybe this wasn’t how he’d expected his life to turn out, but it wasn’t bad. He’d made friends and he didn’t have to hide what he was anymore. If he could use his talent for something good instead of – no, he wasn’t going to think of that right now.

Letting his soiled and ruined uniform drop to the ground, Teddy forced all thoughts from his mind as he stepped into the shower so the water could wash away the stress of the final exam from his body.

*******

Billy detested the feeling that he was a disobedient puppy waiting for its owner to come home and rub its nose in the mess it had made – he’d expected to be left alone in his room after returning to the palace, only to have a frantic Caliban haul him away to the section which housed the formal sitting rooms where his grandfather and uncle entertained visiting dignitaries and the such. He guessed that the guard hadn’t been kidding about the ‘talk to your grandfather’ thing – he was just annoyed that he’d been made to come back home on such a nice day and now was being forced to sit around and wait; really, couldn’t they have left him alone until he returned on his own?

Refusing to be cowed by the overbearing presence of gilded antiques and what had to be one of the most uncomfortable couches in the whole damn place, he folded his legs beneath him and hovered in the air as he began to read through his stack of newly acquired comics – one hour and he was out of here. Surely Grandfather couldn’t complain too much about Billy refusing to waste his day waiting around as if he had nothing better to do…. He had several episodes of The Musketeers to catch up on, after all.

Unfortunately, he was about halfway through his fresh haul when the door opened and Uncle Pietro sauntered into the room, actually bothering with a nearly human pace for once. “Really, William? Couldn’t you clean yourself up first?” Disdain was evident in his tone and the look he gave Billy’s clothes.

Billy sighed as he put away the comics and allowed his feet to touch the floor. “Hello, Uncle, it’s lovely as always to see you, too. I’m doing well, thanks for asking.” What was it like to have a more… normal family? One that had *some* idea of how to do things like affection and personal space?

Uncle Pietro closed the distance between them in a blink of an eye, the speed of his passing causing Billy’s overlong bangs to flutter in front of his eyes, and fussed with the material of his red hoodie. “Father will be upset if he sees you dressed like this so do *something*.” His frown grew more pronounced, which sharpened the already pointed features of his face as he rocked back onto his heels with his arm folded over his chest. “Well?”

Wanting to mutter about how patience was a virtue, Billy decided to just get whatever this latest ordeal was about over with and did as he’d been told. He summoned his talent to him and willed his outfit to change into a more subdued version of his uncle’s suit, the color dark grey with red accents. “Are you happy now?” A hint of petulance shaded his voice despite his best intentions.

Pietro’s frown shifted into a look of contemplation as he reached out and attempted to tuck back Billy’s bangs. “Ach, your hair is just as unruly as your mother’s.” For a moment his expression softened as he shook his head. “So much alike….” Then his habitual sense of annoyance returned and he motioned for Billy to follow. “Come now, we’ve kept him waiting long enough.”

Right, *Billy* had kept the old man waiting by sitting in the room he’d been ordered into… but he’d learned long ago it wasn’t worth it to argue with his uncle – leave it to Tommy who liked insurmountable challenges. Instead, Billy wondered what it was that he’d be ‘asked’ to magic up this time, if it would be something physical or more intangible in nature. He’d recovered pretty quickly this last time, but the dreams afterwards had been so odd….

His uncle led him to Grandfather’s office, a huge room festooned with black and red banners that proclaimed the kingdom’s heraldry, past two guards who were silent and stone-faced at the door. Grandfather stood behind the large mahogany desk inlaid with delicate metal whirls, large gnarled hands clasped behind his back as he stared out through the floor to ceiling windows that lined the one wall. Eric ‘Magnus’ was still a very striking and fit man for his age, his light grey hair like a mane that rose up from his forehead and flowed back to his straight shoulders, his barrel chest finely robed in a heavy silk red tunic. There were times when Billy looked at his grandfather and wondered how they were related, what he had in common with this so-impressive man and then he sensed the power inside of his grandfather, felt that spark which called out to the blue fire burning so brightly inside of himself.

His grandfather turned after a moment and nodded once at them. “Pietro, William.”

Billy murmured out ‘Grandfather’ the same time that his uncle greeted the man as well, for once all arrogance and annoyance gone from his demeanor. Grandfather gave Pietro a quick look before he focused his attention on Billy.

“So, I understand that you were outside the palace yet again.” There was a hint of reproach in Grandfather’s deep voice as he stared evenly at Billy.

Why was it that Tommy never seemed to be called in here and given any lectures? Billy forced his hands away from the strap of the messenger back so they could to latch onto each other and not twist about as he made himself to meet his grandfather’s pale eyes. “Ye-yes, sir. I just we-went out for a little bit to fetch a feh-few things.” Why was he always reduced to a nervous wreck in front of the man? Tommy wouldn’t be standing here too afraid to look up and stuttering like a fool. Lucky Tommy was probably passed out in some club right now….

He flinched when Grandfather sighed in that awful manner which usually preceded a boring lecture about how ‘Lehnsherrs had to do their duty to the family’ and ‘with royal blood came royal responsibilities’ and a bunch of other gibberish that made Billy want to just teleport as far away as possible. There was a flash of anxiety at him being such a disappointment… and then a rare burst of anger, anger at how he *was* trying his best, at how he bled his talent dry for his family and if that wasn’t good enough for Grandfather then… then…. The magic bubbled through his veins, simmered in his bones and it would be so easy to just reach out and make everyone leave him alone. A quiet, smug voice in his head, one that sounded similar to the stranger in his dreams and whispered that all it would take was-

“William.”

Grandfather had approached Billy while he’d lost himself to his talent, to its allure, and he jerked a little beneath the heavy yet warm hand that rested on his left shoulder. “William,” Grandfather repeated with a slight frown on his face as he stared down at Billy, “I remember what it’s like to be young, I do.” His look of concern shifted into a slight smile, one that erased some of the years from his visage and startled Billy with its rarity. And just as quickly as it had arrived the smile was gone, to be replaced with the concern from before. “Yet despite all of my efforts since then, there are still some dangers to those I love – to those I would protect the most. *This* is why I ask you to remain here, where I can ensure that you are safe.”

“But who would want to harm any of us in our own country,” Billy demanded to know; sparks began to dance around his hands as he struggled to control his emotions. All he wanted was a little freedom, was that too much to ask?

“We are an open country – I can’t entirely control those who are outside of the palace grounds.” The weight of Grandfather’s hand upon Billy’s shoulder increased and whatever warmth he’d allowed between them was now gone – it was clear that this was Genosha’s king talking to Billy, and not his grandfather. “You will confine yourself to the palace unless otherwise notified.”

Just like that, whatever little bit of freedom that Billy possessed vanished – it didn’t matter in another year or so he would be considered an adult in most countries, or that he had more than enough power to protect himself. No, his grandfather the king had spoken and he must obey. “Yes, Sire,” he mumbled in response as he struggled to push back the magic surging inside of him.

Uncle Pietro stepped forward and joined the ‘conversation’ for the first time since they had entered the room. “I will be talking to Thomas very shortly. He will also need to curtail his escapades and be more active in his duties.”

Oh, great, so not only was Billy being figuratively chained up at home, but now he was literally being punished as well by having a pissed-off Tommy inflicted upon him. Could the day get any worse? “I’m sure that’ll be one highly enjoyable conversation,” he told his uncle in as deadpan a manner as possible.

“Look, Will-“

“He *is* right, Pietro.” Grandfather’s rather dry voice cut off Uncle Pietro’s disgruntled retort as he glanced back and forth between him and Billy. “I imagine half of the palace will be listening in on the forthcoming argument.” His demeanor slightly thawed from the ‘he who must be obeyed’ iciness of before, he nodded to Billy. “Dinner will be served in about another hour. While we still have some guests, the family will be there and it would be nice to have you join us.”

It seemed as if Billy was being given a choice for once, and normally he would jump at a chance to please his grandfather… but not today. Not when ‘the family’ didn’t include Tommy, who was still off having fun, nor his mother, who only ventured away from her rooms and garden for truly important events. Not when he desperately needed to find a quiet corner of the palace grounds and blast away at something until he could think clearly. “No, thank you. I’m not very hungry at the moment.”

There was an understanding gleam to his grandfather’s grey eyes which insinuated that he was guessing at Billy’s thoughts just then before he nodded once. “Very well, we’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

Billy didn’t wait any longer, he stuttered out something that was along the lines of ‘yeah, okay’ even as he gathered his talent around him and teleported as far away from his grandfather and uncle as he could and still remain upon the palace grounds.

*******

Pietro watched his nephew vanish in a wash of blue lights and sighed, as always amazed by the boy’s talent; it was as if William was a changeling, with the way his talent refused to follow along the lines of magnetism or hyper-speed, with the way he could bend reality and space to his whim so easily. If he didn’t look so much like Wanda….

“Well, I think that could have gone better.”

He glanced away from the fading blue sparks to find his father staring at the space where William had stood moments before, a rare chagrined expression on his face. For a man who ruled so easily over a country full of powerful, diverse people… well, Eric Lehnsherr had his challenges with his own family. “You *think*?” Pietro winced at how sharp that had come out.

He was given a rather cuttingly arched eyebrow in response as his father folded his arms over his chest. “I suppose you could have done better? Should I take notes during your conversation with Thomas?”

That… was a rather low blow, Pietro thought as he jerked his right hand through his hair; William for all his… his ‘otherworldliness’, his introversion, his seeming inability to carry on normal conversation at times… at least he had an eagerness to please. Thomas, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on being contrary, to thumbing his nose at the world. If the damn brat didn’t remind him so much of a certain someone….

“Sorry, Father,” he grumbled as he shrugged his shoulders. “Do you think he’ll obey you?”

His father seemed to give the question some thought for a few seconds before he mirrored Pietro’s shrug. “I think he’ll listen to me better than Thomas will to you, but it’s best that the guards have orders to keep their eyes on him. He *is* young, after all, and we didn’t give him much of an explanation.”

And there was little doubt in Pietro’s mind that Thomas would egg his younger twin on to disobey the order for the simple sake of being disobedient. Pietro would have to visit Wanda and see if there was some way he could sway her to his side without worrying her too much and have her intercede – William would *never* go against his mother’s wishes and even Thomas thought twice about upsetting her. For a ‘mere’ human, she held an astonishing amount of power over their family.

“I don’t see why you simply didn’t tell him that SHIELD may not have his best interest at heart since William is more than powerful enough to protect himself.”

Pietro actually reacted without thinking and ended up halfway across the room within a heartbeat after the cold look his father cast his way upon hearing that question. “Because William has never used his talent to harm another living creature, he has – for the most part – used it to solve things or make them better. I don’t believe it would be a good thing if he were to go down that path.”

Pietro wanted to argue, to say that a person could protect himself without resorting to violence, but there was a disturbing look on his father’s face just then, so much sorrow in his pale eyes that it reminded him about the darker side of humanity that the man had seen and lived through, had experienced himself before setting aside so many years ago.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized in a hushed voice with his head bowed.

There were footsteps and then gloved hands settled on his shoulders in a gentle manner for a few seconds before falling away. “I know. Now come, we still need to meet with King T’Challa before dinner.”

“Yes, Father.” Pietro lifted his head and took his place at his father’s side as they left the room together.

******

Tommy slowed to an excruciatingly feeble pace as he snatched at Kate, still catching her by surprise just as she set her phone down on the glass table beside her lounge chair. She let out a startled laugh and as he wrapped his arms around her to swoop her up, latched on to him in such a way that he wasn’t able to just dump her into the pool full of heated, crystal-clear water but had to jump in as well. They both were laughing as their heads broke out of the water, Kate despite the fact that her expensive blow out was now ruined and Tommy… well, it had been *ages* since he’d had this much fun with someone other than his brother. And, well, Billy hadn’t been up to tricks for a while now, thanks to Grandfather.

“You little shit, what did I tell you about acting like a five year old,” Kate chided as she pushed aside the thick strands of black hair that were plastered across her face.

“Aw come on, that’s at least a level of a ten year old,” Tommy whined as he kicked his feet and swum around her. He liked it when Kate smiled like that, when she didn’t act all aloof and dignified.

She made an inelegant sound and splashed water in his direction, a slight, knowing smile on her face as if aware that he was moving slow enough *to* be splashed just for her. “Yes, because that’s so much better.” She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Please tell me that it’s going to be *years* before there’s even the slightest hint of you taking the throne, or else Genosha’s in a lot of trouble.”

“Ha ha.” He moved his right hand through the water fast enough that a sudden trough appeared, causing Kate to rock forward with a faint yelp until she fell into his arms. “I figured I’ll just marry someone brilliant enough to rule the country while I lounge about and drink all day.”

“Now *there’s* a proposal that’ll make any girl swoon.”

“Who said anything about wanting a girl who swoons? I like ‘em nice and feisty.” Tommy grinned as he ducked his head, mindful of always about where Kate’s hands – or more accurately, fists – were, and moved slowly enough that she could shift away if she wanted. Her blue eyes narrowed yet she remained still, and just before their lips brushed together, her eyes went wide and she gasped as she pushed against him and floated away.

“Uhm, I think some…thing wants your attention.” She pointed in the direction behind his back while she continued to stare, her expression torn between what appeared to be amusement and surprise.

Pissed off that someone or something had interrupted just when he was getting somewhere, Tommy rushed out of the water in an instant, only to come to a stop at the edge of the pool when it registered on him ‘what’ the unexpected guest was – he barely had the thought to take the extra two steps to reach the cement platform surrounding the pool before he began to sink into water. “Billy? What the fuck are you doing?”

The glowing, two foot tall blue stuffed cat dressed in an elaborate black and red uniform coat bowed before it held out an equally glowing envelope to Tommy. Used to his brother’s odd magic tricks by now, Tommy grit his teeth together as he accepted the damn thing. “Do you have any idea how lousy your timing is? This better be worth it, dammit,” he complained as he snatched up the letter.

The odd magical construct had the grace to look ashamed just then, its ears flat against its head and its tail curled around its left leg as it stood there and waited for Tommy to read the message. “Aw, how can you be so mean to something so adorable?”

He almost jumped at the reminder that Kate was still here, now wrapped in an overlarge, fluffy white towel that hid her sexy purple bikini and her hair slicked back from her face. “It’s not adorable, it’s creepy is what it is,” he muttered as he opened the letter; somehow the thing even *felt* like paper. Billy’s powers were getting stronger every year….

“What is it? You said something about your brother?”

“Hmm?” Tommy looked up from the unread letter to see Kate motioning toward the waiting cat and silently cursed. “Uhm, yeah, it’s… a projection that a friend sends whenever Billy needs to get a hold of me.” He waved his left hand about while he turned his attention back to the letter and hoped that Kate bought the excuse, annoyed at himself for the slip.

“Seems an odd choice for a messenger.”

“They’re an odd person.” Who would have expected a young Billy to latch on to a favorite toy and ‘send’ it to Tommy in an effort to cheer up his grounded brother, and to keep doing so for almost ten years? Yeah, Billy was odd all right. Tommy pushed the memory of that day aside and focused on the letter, on why Billy had tracked him down this time, and cursed again. “Fuck, it looks like Grandfather has some new stick up his ass and is about to unleash the hounds on me,” he said in a rush as he leaned over to give Kate a quick peck on the cheek. “I need to get going before they track me down here,” he explained as he dropped the letter, which vanished into thin air as soon as it left his hand.

The blue cat bowed upon hearing him say that he was going to leave and spun around in a circle, quickly disappearing into pale blue smoke much as the letter had moments before. Kate stared with bemusement at the now vanished magical creature before shaking her head in Tommy’s direction. “So much for enjoying a nice weekend at my dad’s fancy new country estate.”

Bursting into motion, Tommy gathered up his scattered items before screeching to a halt in front of her. “We’ll do it another time – you’re staying in England for a couple more weeks, right?” When she nodded, he risked another quick kiss before dashing off. “Seeyousoon!”

The sound of Kate’s laugher trailed off as he headed back to London, where he figured he’d hang out in one of the family’s townhouses long enough for the ‘hounds’ to pick up his trail before leading them on a merry chase all over Europe; Billy’s letter hadn’t said too much, just that Grandfather was getting all pissy about security for some reason and had already placed him under lockdown while Uncle Pietro had mentioned doing the same to Tommy. While there were times that Tommy couldn’t understand his younger brother – a brother who could send a magical construct to another continent to warn him about what assholes their family were – he appreciated the little shit all the same. He just wished that Billy would get more of a spine one day and use all of that amazing power to have some fun and tell Grandfather and Uncle Pietro to fuck off a bit. Really, almost seventeen years old and his idea of a good time was to sneak off to a comic book store….

Maybe Kate had a cute gay friend she could hook Billy up with or something. Someone not too geeky, someone who would drag Billy out of his shell but knew he’d get his ass kicked if he stepped out of line. Slowing down as he reached the house on Sloane Street, Tommy reached for his phone the same time he held up his right palm to bypass the security to get inside; he figured he’d have about twenty minutes before Grandfather’s guards tracked him down here, which was *more* than enough time to chat with Kate, grab a meal, wash off, change out of his swim shorts and pack whatever he needed before dashing off to the next stop. He hoped the poor bastards were ready for the gauntlet he was about to put them through….

*******

As the helicarrier hovered over the New York City harbor it laid bare a spectacular view of the city, with the Statue of Liberty glowing softly in the dimming twilight and the lights of lower Manhattan sparkling ahead. This was one of Sebastian Shaw’s favorite spots in the city, one of the perks he relished with pride as the Director of SHIELD – to gaze down upon the greatest cities of the world from his sky-high perch.

He allowed himself a few more seconds to enjoy the sight before he turned his back on the wide expanse of windows and smiled at his guest, even if she couldn’t physically see the expression. “I received notice earlier that Genosha’s royal guard won’t object to our presence on the island, but they’re insisting that they alone are responsible for protecting the royal family and property.” His smile strengthened as he remembered how that particular missive had been worded – Sean Cassidy hadn’t been terribly diplomatic in his response.

Cassandra Webb sat in her hover chair with her hands folded on her lap and lifted her left shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “We knew that they would give in to a certain point. Just be positive to send the boy along with the others.”

Sebastian frowned at the ‘suggestion’ and strode over to his cluttered desk, where he picked up his tablet. After turning it on and flicking through several folders, he came across the latest status update from Callisto, which included the new recruits. “Are you sure about this? I don’t like the idea of sending a raw recruit on a sensitive mission like this, especially since-“

“Especially since there’s so much that I’m unsure about?” A rare hint of exasperation shaded Cassandra’s smooth voice and creased her unnaturally unlined face – if she wasn’t wearing those dark glasses, he was certain that she would be glaring in his direction just then. “No, I *can’t* see much about this supposedly talented mutant who has been able to greatly enhance Genosha’s fortunes lately, and that disturbs me more than you can possibly imagine. I am also disturbed by the fact that you’ve somehow discovered this information when *I* haven’t.” She paused for a moment as if daring him to explain how he came about said information. When all Sebastian did was stand there with the tablet held in his hands, she bowed her head and continued. “But the one thing I *am* certain about is that for some reason, you need to send young Theodore Altman to Genosha.”

So she had said before, but she never gave him a very good reason *why*, and she didn’t say any more now, either. When the silence continued to draw out, Sebastian sighed and shook his head.

“Fine, the boy will be included in the mission – it might put Cassidy and King Magnus at ease if they see him and one or two other younger agents in the group.” Perhaps the reason for Cassandra’s assistance was that the target was so young and supposedly isolated, and there was Altman’s talent as well. It would be useful to have a shape-shifter included on an assignment such as this.

“Altman must be there,” Cassandra insisted as she turned her chair around to leave the room. “He’s the key.” Yet again she failed to say the key to what exactly, causing Sebastian to frown as the precog left his office. If he thought it would do any good, he’d insist upon her explaining things before allowing her to leave but knew better by this point.

Keeping hold of the tablet, he went to stand before the large expanse of reinforced glass once again to stare out upon the city, the lights a brighter beacon than before now that dusk had given way to proper twilight. What exactly was the House of Magnus hiding? What power did Eric Magnus’ youngest grandson possess? It certainly wasn’t merely the ability to fly and control energy that was the official answer from the family’s communication department, or the rumored whispers of teleportation.

He grinned and flexed his left hand as he thought of possessing that power, *whatever* it was, of having it for himself.

A soft chirp startled him from his thoughts, and he looked down at the tablet to see a new message from L. Hewa. Scoffing a little at the man’s timing, he tapped out an answer to let him know that things were proceeding according the plan; it was more than a little curious how the intensely private Mr. Hewa managed to block his presence from Cassandra’s ability, much like Magnus’ grandson, but as long as he continued to provide Sebastian with useful bits of information then Sebastian wouldn’t pry too much. For now.

He would just have to have a contingency plan in place once they did secure Magnus’ grandson – there had to be a reason that Hewa was having SHIELD obtain the boy rather than go after the mutant himself. Sebastian refused to allow himself to be used as a pawn, and he had more than enough power at his command to ensure that he got his way.

*******

Tugging on the hem of his uniform’s jacket yet again, Teddy struggled to control his nerves and regretted having those few bites of toast at breakfast; why had he been ordered to Agent Drew’s office – and alone at that? Shouldn’t Molly be here when they learned their official assignments? He wasn’t sure if they’d be posted together, but was it really that big of a secret, where they would end up? It wasn’t like they were at any sort of security level where they’d be undercover or anything; most likely they’d be working on a helicarrier or a supply base or something like that.

He had just wiped his sweaty palms along his pants when the door swished open to admit Agent Drew, an imposing woman despite her slender build. She barely paid Teddy any attention as she headed directly behind the desk, her green eyes focused on the tablet she held in her right hand while her left raised to tuck back a lock of black hair that had escaped the messy bun she’d pulled the rest of it into with what looked to be a stylus pen. She settled into the leather chair with casual grace and continued to read for several seconds while Teddy stuttered out a greeting, and while Teddy pondered if he should dare to ask a question in order to break the uncomfortable silence, she finally set the tablet aside.

“Theodore Rufus Altman, commonly referred to as Teddy by your friends, seventeen years old and a talented shape-shifter.” Agent Drew leaned back in her chair and studied him with those cool, assessing eyes of hers. “Talented enough that there are people betting that you’ll give Agent Darkholme a run for her money in a few more years, once you get some more experience under your belt.”

Teddy felt a rush of heat to his cheeks and ducked his head to hide it, and missed the long bangs that used to cover his face; one of the first things he’d do once he was an ‘official’ agent was to grow them back out. “Thank you, ma’am. I can only hope to be as skilled as she is.”

“Hmm, polite, too.” Agent Drew reached out to tap a gloved finger against the tablet two times. “Between your ability and your mother signing off on your age, SHIELD took you on and you’ve completed the training with recommendations. You’ve a chance to go far with SHIELD, Altman, as long as you remember to keep your temper under control.”

The flush from before returned, this time for a different reason, as Teddy reacted to what Agent Drew was alluding to but didn’t come outright and say – he appreciated that she didn’t go into detail about what had drove him into joining SHIELD, and nodded as he mumbled “yes, ma’am.”

She continued eyeing him for a couple of seconds before she nodded as well. “You’re young, Agent Altman, and things such as control and better judgment are often… fine-tuned with experience. You’ve learned some valuable things for your age already, just be sure that you continue to make such excellent progress.” She tapped again on the tablet and then slid it across the mostly empty desk toward him. “Here are the details for your first official assignment as an Agent, provisional class, of SHIELD. Pass the six month probationary period and you’ll have secured your first clearance level.”

He picked up the tablet with a trembling right hand and felt as if his heart was in his throat as he swiped his left forefinger along the screen so he could scroll through the details of what he would be doing with his life for the next several months. It took a minute for the words to make sense – he had expected to be posted in some boring location, maybe the helicarrier supply base in New Jersey or down in Baton Rouge since everyone complained about those locations. Maybe even the Anchorage base if his scores were bad enough….

“Uhm, ma’am? Is this… this says ‘Genosha’.” That couldn’t possibly be right – someone must have messed up the document somehow.

Agent Drew continued to stare at Teddy in that cool manner. “It’s nice to know that they didn’t overestimate your reading comprehension skills, Altman. Yes, it does indeed say ‘Genosha’ on your file. Congratulations. I’m sure it’s completely redundant of me to stress how important such a post is, correct?”

“Yuh-yes, ma’am.” He wanted to ask *why* he was being assigned to such a far away place – did SHIELD even have a base there? – but something about the way that the older woman was looking at him, the calculated reserve in those eyes of hers, warned him that this wasn’t the time for questions. Instead, Teddy clutched the tablet against his chest and nodded once. “Thank you, ma’am, for this opportunity.”

“Such things don’t come often, Altman, so do your best to prove to us all that we’ve every reason to believe in you.” She dismissed him with a slight wave of her left hand. “Now I believe that you have a lot of preparation to do.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am,” he repeated, aware that he was almost babbling at this point as he stumbled to his feet. Agent Drew didn’t seem to be paying him much attention at that point, so he hurried out of her office with a sense of relief and wondered how he would break the news to his mother that he was going to be stationed halfway around the world for at least half a year….

*******

There was something odd with the world that hovered in front of Billy, something about the small figures that rushed about inside of it. Even as tiny as they were he could tell that they were brightly dressed, and some of them seemed to be oddly colored, to appear… was that green? He floated closer to the world as his eyes narrowed, drawn to two figures in particular, the one in black and red and the larger one of green and purple with what appeared to be wings-

/Ah, what did I tell you about meddling?/

Billy sighed in frustration and allowed the world to float on past him as he glared up at… well, *nothing*. “And what did I tell you about how annoying it is to be lectured by a disembodied voice, huh?” He folded his arms over his chest and was *not* pouting, dammit. This was his angry look, he told himself as he struggled to press his lips together in a firmer line.

/Why should I listen to you when you don’t listen to me?/

“Because… you, argh!” He threw his hands up in the air and allowed himself to whirl around a little, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth despite himself. “Circular thinking, much? Way to fight dirty, DV.”

As never-ending as the horizon filled with the small, floating worlds seemed to be, the disembodied voice – now a rich, goose-bump inducing laughter – did an amazing job of filling up the cavernous space just then. Billy’s smile strengthened as it seemed to pour over him, an almost tangible thing, and shivered when it stopped. /Is there any other way to fight, Imp?/

He rolled his eyes at the nickname, which was at least better than being called ‘young one’ all the time. “Let me guess, ‘all is fair in love and war’.” He floated a little higher from the worlds and folded his legs up beneath him, as if sitting on the air.

/Sometimes mortals can be wise,/ the rich voice answered back. /Yes indeed, all is fair. Would you allow such an important prize to be snatched from you, hmm?/

As often was the case during these… these ‘dreams’, Billy wasn’t entirely sure what the topic of conversation was most of the time, he just enjoyed having someone to talk to, someone who seemed to enjoy teasing him and playing along with whatever bit of silliness his mind wandered into that particular night. What it said about his subconscious… yeah, pathetic. “I think it matters what the prize is,” he admitted as he held his hands in front of him and allowed his magic to spring forth. The sparks burned so brightly and easily in his dreams, as if there were no limits or restraints upon them as in the real world.

/It matters if it’s truly important to you,/ DV – ‘disembodied voice’ as he’d begun to think of the ‘other’ – said, sounding thoughtful for once. /Oh yes, such potential you have. You just but have to realize it./

The sparks continued to build, the blue glow to encircle his body, but for some reason Billy wasn’t afraid of it since it was his own power, was a part of himself. He looked upward as if he could see DV and frowned. “Realize what?”

/Realize what you can truly be without all of the others holding you back. Without… *him*./

That… didn’t make any sense. Billy frowned as he shook his head, the sight of the myriad worlds drowned out by the intense glow of his own talent. “But… no one is holding me back.” Tommy, Grandfather… they all encouraged him to use his powers.

The laughter from before returned, but somehow… somehow it lacked its previous warmth. /No one will, now. Oh, what an *amazing* de-/

There was a noise, an awful keening sound, that rushed in and drowned out what DV was saying, that caused the blue glow, the *power* to overwhelm everything. Billy felt on fire, felt the magic burn through his entire being, felt it *become* his entire being, felt it reach out and touch those many, many worlds until it was as if he was sifting through all of them, catching too-swift glances of each and all it would take was just a thought to pick one and-

“WILLIAM!”

Billy blinked open his eyes to find himself upright and floating above his bed, floating in a room completely awash with blue while his uncle was a few feet away, green eyes wide in what appeared to be panic even as he stood with back ramrod stiff and right arm flung out in either to beseech or hold Billy at length. Huddled behind Uncle Pietro was Hope, the young woman who served as a personal assistant to Aunt Lorna. Her eyes appeared even wilder than his and a pallor was cast over her skin, and she refused to look in Billy’s direction as if her sanity depended upon her staring down upon the bit of carpet in front of her.

Confused over what had happened, Billy struggled to rein in his talent and floated down until his feet touched the bed. “Un-uncle Pietro?” The unnatural glow slowly began to die away, and to his amazement, he realized that things in the room had changed at some point during the night, that flowers similar to what grew in his mother’s garden now sprouted up from the floor and… oh… what had happened to the outer wall? “Uhm….” Grandfather was going to be *pissed*.

Uncle Pietro didn’t speak at first, instead he turned around to help Hope up onto her feet and then urged the girl toward the door. “Go on, go see the Lady Lorna,” he told her. Hope barely nodded before she scurried away as if a frightened creature, never once looking in Billy’s direction.

“Uncle?”

Billy’s uncle let out a slow breath as he ran his hands through his disheveled silver hair. “Your aunt wanted to know if you’d like to join us for breakfast,” Uncle Pietro said after a few seconds, his voice… his voice tight with *something*. “Perhaps… perhaps you can join us after you,” he paused to wave a hand about the altered room, “fix… this.” He didn’t wait for an answer before he left the room in a blur.

Falling onto the bed that was still warm from his body heat, Billy tugged the rumpled sheets around him and let out a shaky breath as he tried to figure out what the hell had just happened. He’d been dreaming, yes? So how did he go from dreaming to this? What the hell was going on in his head?

Wishing desperately that Tommy was here and regretting that he’d warned his brother away, Billy summoned his talent again and attempted to repair the damage he’d done… well, to the room, at least. Something told him it might not be so easy to fix the looks of fear he’d seen from Uncle Pietro and Hope.

*******

Teddy was once more tugging on the hem of his jacket in nervousness, this time the nice lightweight blue blazer his mom had bought him instead of his SHIELD uniform – it felt odd to wear something so… so ‘civilian-like’ after being in uniform for so long, and after tomorrow he’d be an official agent.

“There’s my boy – you always did clean up nice.”

Teddy felt heat creep up over the back of his neck and along his cheeks as he turned around and found his mother smiling at him, dressed in a lovely cream colored dress with a dark blue sweater. “We’re almost matching,” he told her as he held out his left arm.

“That we are.” She slid her right arm through his and hugged it close to her side. “Did I tell you how handsome you looked up there in your uniform earlier?”

“Just about ten times.” He ducked his head and smiled as he ran his right hand through his hair, hair that was still a little too short. Just a few more days…. As his fingers brushed over the tips of his right ear, he thought with some regret that it would be a while longer before he’d be able to wear all of his piercings again, until a few more levels of rank. At least he’d been able to put one set of them back in now that training was over.

“Well it’s true. If only your father could see you.” There was an odd note to his mother’s voice when she mentioned his father, something she rarely did; maybe joining SHIELD hadn’t been Teddy’s life goal, but it wasn’t so bad, not when he thought about his father and how he’d given his life in the military all those years ago.

“I think you just have a weakness for men in uniform,” he teased his mother, and felt a little better when she gave him a shaky smile in return. They continued to stroll down along Broadway, an old tradition of how they would spend a rare night off before heading somewhere quieter for dinner – it was comforting, to be surrounded by all the people and the lights and the noise.

She gave his arm an almost painful squeeze for a moment. “There’s nothing going on in Genosha, right? I mean… it’s so far away and you’re so new to everything.”

“It’s fine,” he hurried to assure her. “I might be the youngest agent going, but not by much.” He mustered up a smile and bumped his arm into her shoulder. “I think they just want someone to boss around while we’re over there, to be honest. From what Clarice’s told me, there’s always a poor lackey or two who gets stuck making the Starbucks runs and everything.”

His mother let out a weary sigh and reached over to fuss with the collar of his white shirt. “It’s comforting to know that the fate of the free world rests on your ability to know the difference between a grande skinny cinnamon dolce and a tall flat white.”

Teddy let out a low whine as he hung his head in mock shame. “You mix up an order *one time* and you’re marked for life.”

“Never mess with a mother’s caffeine *and* calorie intake, young man.” She laughed as she gave his forehead a gentle flick of her fingers before she rested her head against his shoulder. “Still, I am proud of you. It’s going to be difficult, you being so far away.” Her smile slipped for a second, and he could tell that she forced it back for his sake.

He swallowed past a throat gone tight as he gave her arm a quick squeeze. “It shouldn’t be that long, and SHIELD will give me room and board while I’m over there. That means I can send you most of my salary while I’m gone – that’s enough for you to find someplace nice.” He shook his head when she made to object. “No, I’m serious about this. There’s no reason for you to stay in that place by yourself.” No reason he couldn’t look after *her* for once, after all the years she had sacrificed for him.

It was clear that she wasn’t happy with the plan, but he could keep wearing her down with it until she left their ramshackle apartment building. “We’ll talk about this later.”

“I don’t have to be back until 23:00 – that’s 11PM to you civilians,” he teased as they headed toward Madison Avenue. “That late enough?”

“Ooh, listen to the big man talk,” his mother laughed and gave his arm a shove. “You better have some good arguments ready.”

Enjoying the sight of his mother’s smiling face and the warm late summer night, Teddy felt as if for once, things were going right in his life. That all the unexpected turns lately had led him to where he needed to be after all. Laughing along with his mother as they passed a busker tossing a set of glowing, humming balls in the air, he felt as if a weight was gone from his chest and looked forward to the future for the first time in months.

*******

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