chapter three

*******

One of the nice things about the night shift was how quiet it always was, especially down in Archiving.  Harold turned up the volume on his Stark bBox a little louder since he really liked the sixth track on the latest Dazzler album (not as good as her third, but better than the previous one) and got back to the task of filing away the various mission details that had piled up in the past week (really, what was with all the hard copies? Sure, SHIELD was big on the artifacts, a layover of the big war days, but couldn’t they just link to digital reports or something?). Ah well, he should be happy that he had such an easy job….

He’d just started to sing along to the eighth track and spun around in his chair when he noticed the disapproving face staring back at him from the monitors lined up against the far right wall. “Dammit, Sarah, you’re going to give me a heart-attack,” he screeched.

“It’s not my fault that you’ve been ignoring my pings for the past five minutes,” she informed him while sounding rather annoyed. “This is important, Harold.”

“Yeah, I gathered that from the way you cracked the firewall,” he muttered as he turned down the music. Knowing better than to take her to task over it – she knew what was at stake for both of them just as much as he did - he shook his head and did the best he could to still the frantic beating of his heart. “So what’s up – you wanna know about Teddy, right?”

Her expression softened a little at the question, morphed more into worry than anything. “Something’s up, I can feel it. Why are they sending him to Genosha like this? He’s too new, too raw.” All of a sudden her eyes narrowed into a look he was well familiar with, one that made him want to push away from the screen. “What have you found out?”

“Not much.” He held his hands up in a placating manner as if she could come through the screen at any moment. “Look, I’ve been watching out for him like you asked, and as far as I can tell, they truly do buy into the whole ‘he’s a mutant’ line. Something’s going on with the mission, that I *do* know, but it’s come down from the higher ups and I can’t sniff out anything other than they want your kid because he’s a shapeshifter – his cover’s still intact. The rest of the part *seems* nice and general, but I can say that the older agents got a good bit of experience while the younger ones are just that, younger and random.” He’d done his best to look into the matter as surreptitiously as possible, knowing that Sarah would be after his ass as soon as Teddy was involved.

The deadly anger was slow to fade from Sarah as she seemed to consider the information. “I don’t like this – you and I both know that the perfect agent for a royal assassination is a shapeshifter.”

“Yeah, but Teddy doesn’t know anything about… well, anything about *that*, right?” They’d both left their pasts behind when they’d come here, and only the fact that they were exiles in common and needed allies had bonded the two of them together, them and the others.

Sarah was quiet for about a minute before she answered. “Yes, and it’s going to stay that way.” She rubbed at her eyes a couple of times before offering Harold a tired smile. “Thank you.”

He smiled back and shrugged. “No problem, looking after him these last few months makes me feel like the kid’s honorary uncle or something. He’s certainly grown up from the last time I’d seen him.”

“He’d make both of them so proud.” The exhaustion slipped away from Sarah’s face as she smiled with evident love, quickly replaced with that deadly determination and anger. “That’s why I refuse to let him be used as a pawn.”

Harold nodded then motioned to the various servers humming along behind him, as well as the rows of filing cabinets. “I’ll keep looking on my end, too.”

The smile from before returned to Sarah’s face. “Thank you, Har-vell.” Then the screen went blank.

It had been a long time since Harold had heard that name, and for once it didn’t fill him with a sense of loss and shame. He stared at the blank screen for several seconds before he pushed away from the desk so he could finish with his work as quickly as possible in order to devote the rest of his shift to digging around for the information that Sarah had requested.

*******

Feeling rather put out at the moment, Tommy tugged at the vice grip Uncle Pietro had on his arm and huffed; the game of cat and mouse he’d been playing with the guards that Grandfather had sent after him had been amusing as hell – he’d been leading them on a merry chase through Southern Asia at the time when Uncle Pietro had to step in and run him down in Chiang Mai. As if that hadn’t been bad enough, he had to be *lectured* about family responsibility the entire way home – it was enough to make him wish for a case of selective deafness or something. “Come on, as if it wasn’t sheer torture spending the past five minutes with you, you’re gonna drag me off to Grandfather and give him a chance to repeat the same old boring shit,” Tommy complained as Uncle Pietro hauled him through the palace hallways.

“No, I’m not in the particular mood to inflict your idiotic presence upon Father at the moment, so you’ll go to your quarters instead,” Uncle Pietro informed him in that infuriatingly snobbish tone of his. “Perhaps you can be of some use there.” The ‘for once’ was way too blatantly left unsaid just then.

If it wouldn’t upset Mom so much and probably get him an earful from Billy as well, Tommy would punch the arrogant bastard just then, he really would. Instead, he settled for a disdainful scoff and managed to yank his left arm free so he could finish the last few yards to his room on his own, and turned to give his uncle the finger before pushing open the doors leading inside. Demanding, arrogant, smug bastards who thought that they could be so bossy because-

It took Tommy a moment to realize that something wasn’t quite right, that something was *off*; a lifetime of being raised as a potential kidnapping target – or worse – had honed an awareness to his surroundings, and it took him less than a second to take in the disheveled state of the common room he shared with Billy. Why were things left scattered about? Why hadn’t the servants been here to tidy it up, and what was that odd, intoxicating scent permeating the air? Bursting into motion, he dashed into the large room that was still technically their bedroom, even though he barely slept there anymore.

If the common room was slightly off, then the bedroom… the bedroom was *fucked up*. Blue light filled the room while Billy floated a couple of feet off of the floor, his legs tucked up beneath him and wearing a red cloak, of all things. But what really made Tommy stare in shock was the patch of flowers in the center of the room, a patch of flowers that glowed in a myriad of colors, in pinks and lilacs and pale yellows, their petals unlike anything that he’d ever seen – they were the source of that amazing scent. Billy tended to them as if a demented gardener, his hands hovering over them as their petals shifted shape and hue right before Tommy’s eyes.

“Billy… what the fu-“

“Quiet, I’m trying to get these just right.” Billy sounded distracted, because, yeah, he was floating in mid-air while fucking around with a bunch of flowers that were growing right from the carpet in a third floor *bedroom* of all things, so why wouldn’t he? A slight chuckle slipped free of Tommy without him realizing it as he dropped his bag to the floor and leaned against a small table covered with comics and books while he stared at his younger brother messing with… with… what the *hell was he messing with, exactly?

“Uhm….”

“They’re for Mother,” Billy explained, as if reading Tommy’s mind. He frowned at a particular set of blooms until they morphed into something like violet roses on steroids and let out a sigh as the glow around him started to… well, sink back into body as he shifted away from the freaky flowers and allow his feet to settle back onto the ground. “I thought she might like something new for her garden.”

Yeah, she’d probably love the mutated things – especially once she learned that Billy had made them especially for her – but that wasn’t what was important here. “You have *flowers* growing in our *room*, CC,” Tommy felt that he had to point out to the oblivious idiot. “How the *hell* did that come about?”

Billy’s right arm snaked out of the heavy red cloak as he scratched at his head, his black hair even more a rat’s nest than usual. “Ah, yeah, about that.” He gave a nervous laugh and went to settle on his unmade bed; when was the last time a servant had been in here to clean things up? “I… ah… well, I guess someone sorta tried to wake me up when I was having a weird dream and things didn’t go very well… I think my talent reacted and this happened.” He gestured to the room around him, to the flowers and… was the outer wall different? Tommy had to grasp at the table he was leaning against as it sunk in that yes, the entire outer wall of the room was indeed different, that it now sported elaborate double glass doors instead of the row of windows. “Fuck…”

Billy was doing that thing where he hung his head and tugged on a strand of his longs bangs when he was both nervous and embarrassed. “I figured it would be easier for you to get outside now, I mean I’d already wiped it out so what was the big deal with a few cosmetic changes, right?”

‘Wiped it out’…. No wonder Uncle Pietro had personally hunted Tommy down, if this was an example of what was going on back at home. ‘Be of use here’, indeed. Tommy stared at his younger brother, at the faint hint of blue that still lingered in the normally brown eyes that kept glancing his way as if trying to gauge if he was upset or… or something worse, and at the unnatural yet beautiful flowers growing a few feet away.

“So, what possessed an idiot like you to send a glowing blue cat as a messenger rather than just call me on the phone like a normal person?” He noticed the way that his brother’s shoulders tensed as soon as he began to speak, and then slowly relax when it was clear that he wasn’t taking him to task about the room or whatever else happened that time.

Billy finally looked up and rolled his eyes at Tommy. “I don’t know, maybe your lousy track history at answering the damn thing? It’s kinda difficult to ignore Sir Pouncalot.”

“My precious widdle bro, still playing with toys at his age - no wonder you’re single,” Tommy teased as he stepped away from the table, just in time to avoid a cascade of blue sparks.

“I’m single because unlike you, I have some taste,” Billy replied with a dignified sniff as he hugged his cloak around him tighter. Then he grimaced and shook his head. “Though neither of us are going to have much of an opportunity to meet anyone while we’re stuck at home, you know.”

Tommy did some grimacing of his own as he settled on the bed beside his brother. “Don’t remind me – so did you ever get a better explanation out of the old bastards besides ‘it’s for your own good’?”

Billy shrugged and leaned against Tommy’s right side; his hair and the cloak smelled strongly of the strange flowers along with a hint of ozone – it was a weird yet comforting combination. “Not really, just something about how Grandfather’s worried that he can’t keep us safe unless we’re under his thumb, basically.”

Right, one of the fastest mutants alive and someone who could change any weapon into a weird-ass flower with a thought – they were totally helpless. Even if Billy wasn’t all that gung-ho about fighting unless his precious comics were at stake or he’d been called a little girl in front of someone he had a crush on, and in that case the little geek turned *vicious*. The problem was, somehow Tommy doubted that Grandfather and Uncle Pietro were willing to listen to reason right now – to listen to reason *at all*. It was as if the old bastards refused to believe that he and Billy had ever grown up past the toddler stage at all.

“Well, if they won’t listen to us then we don’t have to listen to them, right?”

Billy didn’t have much of a problem following his thoughts just then and sighed, his dark brows drawn together and his hands more plucking at the rich material of his cloak. “You’re just as stubborn as they are, PJ.”

“No, I’m *even* more stubborn, which is why we’re going to win this round,” Tommy insisted as he urged his brother up from the bed. “Grandfather is just having some sort of snit and is taking it out on us – I mean, what’s this ‘security risk’? Countries are lining up to sign treaties with us, things have been pretty peaceful lately and SHIELD squashed that one pain in the ass terrorist group. If there was a big problem, Grandfather would just have you wish it away, wouldn’t he,” he pointed out as he flicked his fingers at Billy’s forehead too quickly to be swatted aside.

Billy frowned, either at the logic or the slight sting, then pouted in a manner in a way that meant that Tommy had won the argument. “I thought you were against him using me like that.”

“I am since there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned fight,” Tommy paused to flex his arms for a moment, “but the old man’s sneaky enough to take out a threat in any manner he can. So I think he’s just making up something to keep us around and bore us to death.”

“Yeah, because that’s how he gets his kicks, by tormenting us,” Billy snarked as he undid the clasp of his cloak and let it float away to settle on a chair across the room; Tommy stared at his brother, at the casual display of power that wouldn’t have happened a few days ago. First the flowers and altered room, now something as seemingly little as that and the gleam of blue in those dark brown eyes that were as familiar as his own. Just what the hell was going on here?

“Uhm… you okay, CC?”

In the process of running fingers through his tangled hair, Billy turned toward Tommy with the corners of his mouth tugged down. “I’m locked down with Caliban trailing after me any time I set foot outside of these rooms, and I think the gardeners are going to riot if I blow up any more of the lower back lawn even if I do my best to restore it to how it was before, but other than that….” He let out a nervous laugh. “First world problems, right?” His shrug just then looked more like a nervous tick, especially since he was tugging at his bangs at the same time. “Or something like that. I’m starting to go a little stir crazy and it’s not as if I really went out that much.” The way that he didn’t quite look Tommy in the eye was rather telling.

“Eh, then why are the rooms such a mess? Did you piss off the servants as well?”

If Billy tugged any harder on his hair, he was going to be bald. “Yeah, that.” He huffed a little as he finally let go of his hair in favor of twisting about the hem of his faded dark blue t-shirt. “I mentioned that I got woke up, right? That’s what set off… all of this?” His left hand waved in a feeble manner about the room to take in the freaky flowers and new doors.

Tommy’s patience, never his strong suit, was wearing thin quickly. “Billy… get to the damn point before we grow old, okay?”

That earned him a weak glare before his brother continued. “Well, I guess whatever Hope saw at the time sorta freaked her out, and now everyone’s afraid to come back in here. I’ve basically been looking after things myself.” He blinked a few times and glanced around the room as if finally realizing that yeah, they were a bit of a mess. “Oh, sorry. Yeah, flowers for Mom, little distracted.” His eyes flared blue first and then the glow consumed his entire body as he began to hover a few inches above the ground. He seemed to stare about the room – it was difficult to tell when his eyes were glowing like that – and then suddenly the room… the room *shifted*.  Tommy didn’t quite know how to describe it, other than one moment it was messy and then one moment it wasn’t, with the bed now neatly made and the table organized, the random bits of clothes and items no longer scattered across the floor and even the damn flowers seemingly lined up in nice rows.  And all without the annoying chanting bit that Billy usually did.

Ever since their powers had manifested years ago, at a young age for what was considered the norm for mutants, Tommy was used to Billy being able to do… well, maybe not weird things but *unusual* things. Unexpected things.  When it came to Tommy’s power, there had been Uncle Pietro to guide him through most of it, but Billy… no one really knew what Billy could do, including himself. For the most part, Billy seemed inclined to stick to small things, to harmless things, to whatever drew the least attention to him…. Yeah, someone was being a late bloomer.

Still, it was a bit pathetic to freak out over something that seemed so small so all Tommy did was blink a couple of times and scoff as he leaned against the now clean table. “Wow, is Grandfather *really* going to put you to work if he finds out about this.”

Billy was quiet for a moment as he floated back to the ground and then he grinned, the expression strained for a moment, as he fussed with the front of his t-shirt in a manner that made Tommy think he was a little embarrassed. “I mean, what does a feather duster have on me, right?”

“I don’t know – you start prancing around in a maid’s uniform and I’m *outta* here.”

That startled a laugh from the idiot and made Billy shower some sparks his way, so Tommy had to run around him in a tickle attack until Billy cried mercy. Tears sparkling in his eyes as he tried to hold back the laughter, Billy *finally* looked a bit normal for the first time since Tommy had returned home, finally looked as if he wasn’t barely holding back on the magic or afraid of something, as if he wasn’t truly all ‘there’.

“Okay, so now I don’t have to hide the porn since we don’t have any more snoops coming in here, but Grandfather thinks he’s put leashes on both of us,” Tommy summed up as he collapsed on his barely used bed. “Pros and cons to everything, CC.”

Billy gave him a sour look and shook his head as he retreated to his own, now neatly made bed where the red cape was folded in a nice pile. “Just how much drinking have you been doing lately? Just for the sake of science, you know – we can compare cognitive function between us and make a nice afterschool special or something on why alcohol is bad.”

Tommy gave the little shit the finger. “Oh please, as if you were ever on my level in the first place. And there’s not enough alcohol in the world to make this family bearable, Grandfather’s latest action being a prime example.” That got an understanding nod from Billy, his previous smart-ass comment aside. “As I was trying to say, Grandfather thinks he’s put a leash on us. What’s this about Caliban?”

Billy fell back onto his bed while toying with a lock of his bangs. “He follows me around whenever I leave the room, so obviously I haven’t been doing it much unless I get dragged off to some family dinner or stuff.” He waved his left hand about in the air, and Tommy noticed that a faint blue glow emanated from it; since when did Billy… ‘bleed’ so much energy? What the *hell* was going on these last few days?

Deciding to deal with one problem at a time, Tommy forced what he hoped was a casual grin on his face while his right foot tapped against the plushly carpeted floor; the rich, exotic scent of the flowers was beginning to give him a headache. “So… tell me that you can mojo a way to whammy his mutant radar.”

The question earned a rather exaggerated sigh from his brother. “That’s a bit redundant, but yes, I think I can ‘whammy’ his radar. The trick is just to do it in a way that he doesn’t know I’m ‘whammying’ him, but I *think* I can do that, too.” Billy stared rather cross-eyed at the piece of hair he was holding out for a moment before he let it fall down. “Why, what do you have in mind? If you go off on another drunken bar crawl, Uncle Pietro will just track you down again.”

“We’ll just have to be subtle for once,” Tommy said. When Billy lifted up on his elbows to give him an incredulous look, he rolled his eyes and sighed. “Okay, *I* have to be subtle for once, are you happy now?”

“Deliriously so – or at least I’m delirious if I actually believe you’ll be subtle. Didn’t even know you had that word in your vocabulary,” Billy scoffed as he sat upright. “Just to be clear here, you do know that ‘subtle’ doesn’t mean restraining from setting the place on fire as you tear down the upper floors, right?”

“Oh fuck you,” Tommy muttered as he threw a pillow at the sarcastic bastard. “Don’t you have some flowers to play with – and speaking of which, how much longer are they going to stay here?”

The question got Billy off the bed and over to the freaky things, where he poked and prodded for a few seconds. “I think they’re ready now.” A simple wave of his hand had the things gathered in two potted tubs, which he held in either arm. “Want to come along?”

“Nah, no reason I need to be there when you make Mom insanely happy with all your hard work or whatever.” Tommy waved his brother off and did his best to not react when Billy vanished in a swirl of blue sparks; yeah, someone had definitely leveled up a bit since it normally took Billy a few seconds to work up a teleportation spell. Sighing as he took out his phone, he wondered how you asked your maybe-girlfriend what was the best way to go about interrogating your younger twin on where the hell they were getting the super mushrooms or whatever to gain the bonus powers. Except said maybe-girlfriend wasn’t supposed to know that baby brother was able to do a fraction of what he’d just done.

Was that why Grandfather was putting them both under lockdown? It made sense if Billy’s powers were getting out of control, but why Tommy? Tapping out a quick message to Kate that some family shit had come up and that he wouldn’t be around for a little bit, he figured that he’d play good only long enough to figure out what the hell was going on around here and then Grandfather and Uncle Pietro could go fuck themselves – what use was it to come from one of the most powerful mutant families around if you couldn’t look out for yourself? Tommy put up with enough bullshit that went along with being a prince, he wasn’t going to live his life in fear because he *or* Billy weren’t your average mutant. The rest of the world could go screw itself.

Feeling the need to do something, Tommy burst into motion and left the quarters he shared with his brother, intent on roaming around the palace until he picked up on some sort of clue about what the hell was really going on around here.

*******

Teddy took a deep breath and checked his surroundings once more; yes, the air was warm and humid even though wasn’t it supposed to be winter here? Weren’t they below the equator? His grades had always been good since he’d intended to go to college, but maybe he should have paid a little more attention in world geography….

“I think I see smoke coming from those cute ears of yours,” Clarice teased as she gave him a pat on the back. “Which I must say, like the new bit of flash.” She reached up to tug at the steel rings he put back in now that he was an official agent; they were just small hoops, nothing too big or ‘flashy’, but it felt comforting to have them in all the same. “And the improved hairstyle. You shifters are lucky in that regard.”

He gave her a shy smile as he combed his hair through the bangs that were just short of his eyebrows, mindful of keeping the blond locks out of his eyes. “It was pretty rough, the basic training.” He understood why SHIELD was so tough on them during that period, but now that Teddy had made it through, it was time to reassert some independence.

Clarice laughed and swept a hand over her own hair, the dark pink strands pulled back into a neat ponytail. “Callisto kept calling me ‘EE’ for ‘Easter Egg’ because of how I looked.” She rolled her eyes over the insult and shook her head. “Woman’s a bitch, but she makes sure we know what we’re doing and she always calls me ‘Agent Ferguson’ now.”

“Yeah.” Teddy managed a smile as he leaned against the brick exterior of the building that SHIELD had appropriated for their headquarters during the mission and hoped that he had sounded convinced just then; Clarice most definitely knew what she was doing, but here he was in a strange country on his first mission, and he was utterly lost – figuratively and literally.

Somehow, his new friend picked up on that and leaned against the wall beside him, a distant look in her green eyes. “Look, Teddy, everyone goes through their first mission wondering what the hell they’re doing. This one *should* be easy in that it’s largely a babysitting job – we keep our eyes open and watch for any weird shit, and if it happens then just let the senior agents take the lead. Should doesn’t mean will, and that’s why you’ve had Callisto bash your head in the last few months, okay?” Clarice turned to smile at him, her white teeth bright against her pale lilac skin. “If you can survive her, then you’ll be all right.”

Not for the first time, Teddy wished that he’d met people like Clarice, Molly and Hisako back when… well, instead of Greg. Maybe if he’d been willing to accept what he was, that he could use his talent for something other than fitting in and sucking up to people…. No, there was no changing the past and despite all the upheaval in his life, he was realizing that he was happy with how things had turned out.

Speaking of Hisako, the young woman came outside as if she was looking for them – or him, as it turned out. “There you are,” she called out as she waved to him. “Guess what? Everyone’s hungry so it’s time for you to make a take-out run,” she informed him with a huge grin on her face.

Teddy groaned as he cast a look Clarice’s way. “I thought you were kidding about that!”

“Nope,” his friend and senior agent informed him with a huge grin. “Lowest agent on the totem pole always does the Starbucks and take-out runs, and that’s officially you now.”

Hisako nodded in agreement, her black ponytail flopping about with the motion. “Oh yeah, I was stuck with it these last few months, but now *I’m* not the newbie anymore.” She smiled so much that her full cheeks nearly eclipsed her dark brown eyes.

“Yeah, I can see it’s really breaking your heart, passing on that baton,” Teddy drawled in a sarcastic manner as he pushed away from the wall. He paused for a moment to run a hand down the front of his dark blue uniform. “Uhm, should I change?”

Clarice seemed to ponder the question for a moment before she shrugged. “Check with Guthrie to make sure it’s okay, but my understanding is it’s not a secret that we’re here. We just didn’t park a helicarrier since it seemed a bit blatant and disrespectful to the local authorities.”

Teddy nodded as he headed inside to check with the senior agent leading the mission; Sam Guthrie seemed nice enough and was approachable for the most part, which gave him hope that this mission wouldn’t be too bad. At least he already had the opportunity to leave the small site designated as their headquarters, even if it was a food run, so there was hope that he wouldn’t be too bored and could get some site-seeing in – Genosha was supposed to be beautiful, and Hammer Bay said to possess a lot of interesting shops, restaurants and bars. Teddy wasn’t quite eighteen yet and so legal in Genosha, but he could still have a bit of fun, he was certain. There had to at least be a decent bookstore or comic book shop *somewhere*.

Maybe he could ask around while picking up the food and if not, search online later tonight. There had been no word on how long this mission would last, so Teddy was determined to both do his best to prove to SHIELD that he deserved to be in the organization and enjoy what time he had in such a lovely country while it lasted.

*******

It was really sad how the best part of Billy’s days lately were his dreams, at how finding himself in the familiar dreamscape of the infinite tiny worlds that brought a soft luminance to the darkness around him, a darkness that oddly enough wasn’t overbearing or frightening. No, somehow he felt at peace here, felt as if he belonged, a sensation that was evermore lacking in ‘reality’.

/Back again, are we? Well, I guess you do manage an iota of stimulating conversation…./

Billy smiled as he looked ‘up’, even if it didn’t help him catch a glimpse of the source of that rich, sardonic voice. “What, you’d rather I go away and leave you to play with all these balls? Do you knock them about like cricket or snooker when I’m not here?” Never mind that ‘DV’ was just a figment of his imagination, he rather liked the idea of someone sexy enough to match the voice having fun in this dream world when he wasn’t around. He realized that he once more was wearing his comfortable red cloak and floating in the air, so he folded his legs beneath him and waited for an answer.

Rich laughter filled the air and for some reason made him blush. /That seems rather insolent, even for *me*. No, I don’t do anything quite so mundane./

“Then what do you do?”

/Oh, this and that./ Didn’t it figure that Billy couldn’t even get an answer from his own subconscious? Somewhere, some psychologist would have a field day with this. /Now, how goes *your* mundane little existence, Imp? Did your mother enjoy the flowers?/

Billy felt some of his good mood vanish at the question and he was grateful for the cloak’s existence as he could hunch inside of it, the hood falling over his face. “Eh, she was really happy about them and spent about half an hour deciding on where they should go in her garden. Hopefully they won’t have any problem growing there.”

/Considering they are *your* magic, I think not./ DV was quiet for a moment and then continued, his voice… somehow quieter. /Methinks that you should be happier since your gift was so well-received, Imp. What is wrong?/

Tears prickled in the corners of Billy’s eyes and the back of his throat went tight at the question; why did it seem that no one but his own subconscious asked him that particular question? “It’s… well, I could tell that the flowers upset Tommy. Maybe ‘upset’ isn’t the right word – he was freaked out but tried not to show it.” No one tried to show it to Billy, they either just pretended it wasn’t true or avoided him altogether – everyone except his mother or a figment of his imagination.

As he pressed the heel of his right hand against his eye in an attempt to stem the tears, one of the shining globes broke away from the others and came to a halt in front of him. “Uhm, I thought I wasn’t supposed to look at them.” He stared in confusion at the miniature world, his tears all forgotten.

/Listen to me, Imp, and listen well. Your talent, your very *being*, is a wondrous thing, is something that many of those less- is something that those around you may not be able to grasp./ DV spoke with obvious fervor, the gentleness of before gone from his rich, hypnotizing voice. /You are coming into your own, and such a metamorphosis is always confusing to those who are used to the caterpillar and now behold the glorious butterfly. Do *not* let their narrow expectations define you./

Something about the words, the authoritative tone called to the power inside of Billy, made it hum inside of him until he felt as if he was made of nothing but magic – and it felt *good*. It felt *right*. Yet he recalled the too-blank look the other day on Uncle Pietro’s face, the way Tommy’s face had morphed through expressions in the bedroom earlier when he had noticed the changes, the flash of shock that had been replaced with such false cheer. “But… but what if I drive everyone away?” He didn’t want to be alone, to lose everyone he loved because of what he was.

The world floated closer to Billy, and looking down into it he could just barely make out a figure with a bright red cloak who then became engulfed in a brilliant sphere of blue. Despite the intensity of the light surrounding the figure – surrounding *him*, because somehow he knew that’s who it was – another figure stood nearby, a figure in green and black armour, a figure who clearly wasn’t letting all that power drive… him? yes, him away as he fought at Billy’s side against what looked to be an army of some sort of-

/See, you will not be alone, there will always be those who know you for your true worth,/ DV assured him as the world was whisked away.

“Even my brother?” Billy hadn’t seen Tommy in that world, hadn’t seen… wasn’t there supposed to be someone green dressed in purple as well?

The question prompted a bitter laugh from DV. /Trust me, older brothers can be… resistant to accepting the fact that their siblings are their equals or better. Give him time to realize that you are no longer… what does he call you? Ah yes, a ‘carbon copy’ of himself but an individual in your own right, and a powerful one at that./

Billy stared longingly in the direction that the world had gone off in, desperately hoping that DV was right – every day his magic felt more and more natural, felt more an integral part of him that he didn’t know if he could go back to just sitting meekly in his room and using it for silly tricks to keep himself and Tommy from growing too bored. And he also longed for what the glimpse of that world had shown him to come true, for him to be himself and have someone accept him for it and be at his side – though yeah, maybe not have to fight whatever the heck those things had been.

He sighed and rubbed his right hand over his face and then jerked it through his hair. “How fucked up am I that I need nightly pep-talks from my own… Id?”

For a moment it felt as if something cold washed through him, cold yet oddly comforting. /You’re not as alone as you think you are, dear Imp. Just a bit more patience./

Billy sighed and hugged the cloak around him. “You know, the next time I decide to dream up a subconscious playmate, I hope I give him a body so I can kick him in the ass for saying annoying things like that.”

More laughter rung through the dreamscape and tugged a reluctant smile from Billy. /Ah Imp, such potential you have. I foresee some interesting times ahead. Until then, let us work some more on your control./

Yep, Billy definitely needed to figure out how to give DV some sort of physical form in these dreams.

*******

Tommy clutched at the sheet covering his soft mattress in an attempt to keep himself from charging off of his bed and across the room to wake up his brother; hadn’t Billy said something about the room getting all fucked up because someone had woken him up the other day? What would happen if Tommy snapped him out of… was it a dream? It sure looked like some sort of fucked up dream or nightmare, like some sort of trance from over here, considering the way that Billy was so still on the bed, illuminated with a bright blue glow that shone through the blankets that covered most of his body. There was even a slight smile on his face so okay, maybe it wasn’t a nightmare, except it *wasn’t* normal for Tommy to wake up feeling as if the air in the room was slowly being sucked out, that *something* was pressing against his lungs because there was an overpowering feel of magic, of… of *potential* and it all radiated from his little brother. His little brother, who was oblivious to it all….

The idiot kept on dreaming with that silly smile on his face and the blue glow around him growing stronger, and Tommy shivered as the temperature in the room began to drop. He had to tug the blankets on his bed around him and start ‘vibrating’, to twitch the muscles in his body in an effort to generate heat against what he swore was the now frigid cold, his breath coming out in frosted puffs of air, yet Billy still slept on peacefully. It wasn’t until he noticed that frost was forming on his brother that he finally got his ass off of the bed and raced across the room – only to be stopped a couple of feet away.

*Something* kept him from reaching Billy, from grabbing hold of the idiot and shaking him awake, and as he stood there in frustration about to yell for help, the frost that had completely encased his brother slowly began to disappear. In fact, the room slowly began to warm up as well and Tommy was forced back to his bed. “What the *fuck* is going on here, Billy?”

He didn’t get an answer, at least not right away. It seemed forever before Billy let out a long sigh and shifted on the bed, the blue glow around him slowly sinking back in to his body. As soon as he moved, Tommy was off of his own bed and pouncing on the little shit, which startled Billy awake – okay, maybe that wasn’t the smartest move he could have made, since it ended up with him being blasted away from his brother. Since when did Billy go on the offensive like that, Tommy thought as he slammed into the wall.

“To-tommy? What?”

“Yeah… my question… exactly.” Oooh, yeah, that was going to leave a bruise… Tommy groaned as he fumbled about on the floor with his limbs and checked to see if anything was busted besides his pride. “Guh-good one, CC.” Other than things being a bit blurry, he thought he was okay.

Billy scrambled from the bed and nearly fell down beside him. “Are you all right? What the hell were you thinking?” He patted gingerly along Tommy’s legs and arms, and once Tommy could focus on just one version of his brother, Tommy could see that the idiot was genuinely concerned about him. “What if I’d hurt you?”

“Please – I’ve taken worse hits from girls half your size who think I’ve gotten too mouthy with them.” Tommy groaned a little as he pushed his brother aside and fumbled to his feet. He felt a little woozy but didn’t think it was anything too serious. “Must have been a nice dream if you freaked out like that over being woken up, eh?”

Billy stared at him with apparent confusion for a few seconds before sinking back on his heels. “Eh, there wasn’t anything special about it.” He pushed back the unruly locks of dark hair that was falling onto his face, a hint of blue still sparkling in his dark brown eyes. “Are you sure you’re all right? Maybe I should get-“

“Nah, I’m fine.” Tommy dashed around his brother to prove that fact, and only felt a little queasy for the first second or two. “Takes more than a wimpy attack like that to do me in.”

Billy appeared a bit doubtful just then, but all he did was frown as he waved his hand at the wall that Tommy had smacked into so that the web of cracks smoothed away before he rocked up onto his feet.  “I’ll remember that for the next time you decide to rearrange my comic book collection from ‘the least dorkiest cover to the most’ again.”

“Aw come on, who still collects comics when they’re old enough to drive a car,” Tommy protested as he shuffled over to his bed. “You’re never going to get anything but a pity fuck if you keep this whole geek thing up, you know.”

“Oh yeah, definitely throwing you harder against the wall next time,” Billy muttered as he crawled into his own bed. “’I’m sorry, Grandfather, but I thought it was someone breaking into the room and just reacted. He didn’t reek of cheap beer and pot for once so how was I to know?’”

Tommy glared and stabbed a finger in his younger brother’s direction. “I *never* go for the cheap beer, I’ll have you know. It’s top shelf or nothing.”

“Nice to know your brain cells are dying in style.” Billy fussed with his bedding until he had the blankets just so and then tugged them up to his chin. “What does the latest girlfriend think of your hedonistic lifestyle?”

Unwilling to talk about Kate just then, Tommy found a certain interest in his own bedding, which was a tangled mess on his own bed. “She thinks I’m perfect,” he mumbled as he righted the twisted pile of sheets and blankets.

“Yeah.” The word came out more as a yawn as Billy seemed to be falling back asleep. “Sure she does, PJ.”

It was a wasted effort on Tommy’s part to give the little shit the finger just then, but it did make him feel better. The bedding finally straightened out, he laid down as well and cast a cautious look across the room to find that Billy was once again out for the night. It was then that he noticed that the room was darker, that he could barely make out his younger brother’s features; he hadn’t realized it before, but Billy must have still been glowing somewhat the entire time that he was awake.

So something weird was going on in Billy’s dreams, something that affected his power. Tommy didn’t know what, exactly, and either Billy was clueless or he didn’t want to speak about it to anyone – which was rare and a bit worrisome.  Whatever the hell was going on, Tommy was going to get to the bottom of it one way or the other. He stared across the room at Billy for a few more seconds before closing his eyes and succumbing to the aches that throbbed through his sore body. Nobody messed with what Tommy considered his, nobody.

*******

Struggling with the urge to shift into a more impressive form, something bigger, more muscular or just… just *better*, Teddy stood to attention while Agent Guthrie talked to Dr. Wisdom-Pryde and her husband, a rather distrustful looking man dressed in a simple black suit who kept casting glares in Teddy and Clarice’s direction. “We have all the sensors installed, Sir, so at any sign of trouble we will ensure that Dr. Wisdom-Pryde is safe as well as the-“

“*I* will handle Kitty’s safety,” Mr. Wisdom insisted, his back going straight and an odd orange glow in his blue eyes.

“The doctor isn’t too bad at watching after herself, you know,” Dr. Wisdom-Pryde murmured, and when her husband turned his rather disgruntled expression her way, threw her hand up in the air then went back to typing something on one of the numerous keyboards scattered about. “No, no, never mind, it’s a male ego thing, I get it. Helpless damsel, right. I’ll order up some corsets right away.”

Mr. Wisdom’s lips twitched for a moment before he turned back to face Agent Guthrie, who had a hint of pink to his cheeks. “*Your* job is to keep any freaky things from messing with her *work*, got it? You blokes seem to think whatever’s doing it isn’t just some run of the mill mutant or mercenary, so here’s your chance to play with something new for once.” That hard, fiery look came back to his eyes, and Teddy had the impression that crossing this man was *not* a very smart thing to do. “Have at it, but don’t get in her way.”

Agent Guthrie’s spine stiffened as he met Mr. Wisdom’s eyes. “We know how to do our job, Sir.” Some of his faint Southern accent came through, either from suppressed anger or insult Teddy wasn’t certain. “You shouldn’t know we’re here unless there’s another attack.”

“That’ll be a first, SHIELD being subtle,” Mr. Wisdom scoffed, but something his wife whispered had him roll his eyes and back away. “Right, we’ll all play nice since we’re guests here.”

“We’re here because *you* went looking for help,” Agent Guthrie pointed out, and judging from the way his steel blue eyes narrowed as he spoke, Teddy got the feeling that he took some pride in saying that.

A cold look settled on Mr. Wisdom’s face, but before he could respond, Dr. Wisdom-Pryde pushed her husband aside and gave Agent Guthrie a nervous smile. “And we’re grateful for everything you and the university is doing for us.” She fiddled with the tortoiseshell glasses that were on her face, the sleeves of her over-sized sweater sliding down her right arm. “But I’ll work best if I don’t have too many distractions, and that’s part of what Pete’s worried about.”

Agent Guthrie’s expression softened and he bowed his head. “Yes, Ma’am, understood. My agents will be stationed nearby but won’t bother you.” He gave her a quick nod and then turned away, and motioned to Teddy and Clarice as he headed to the door. As they left, Teddy could hear Mr. Wisdom ask some questions about corsets and was quite happy to leave the couple alone.

They fell in step behind their commander, and weren’t surprised when he waved them to stop as soon as they were outside of the lab. “You’ll remain here for the rest of your shift – one of you will always be here at all times in case the alarms go off but don’t bother the doctor unless necessary.”

“Wow, Wisdom really does live up to his reputation.” Clarice rubbed the back of her neck as she glanced at the wall behind her. “While I’m glad that he’s around if there’s a fight, I don’t want him mistaking me as the enemy.”

“Just make sure you don’t give him an excuse to start a fight with you.” Agent Guthrie let out a slow breath and ran his gloved right hand over his trimmed blond hair. He didn’t look that old, especially for a senior agent, at least until his jaw became set and the look in his blue eyes hardened. “Everything you’ve heard about that man is true, and then some. That’s the only reason I agreed to have everyone stay out here, even with all the sensors.”

Clarice nodded once as she straightened up. “Any sign of trouble and I’ll teleport us in there, Sir.”

“Good. Proudstar and Ichiki will be relieving you in four hours. Try to stay sharp until then.” He gave Teddy a lingering look before waving goodbye to them.

Teddy felt himself begin to relax for the first time that day, since waking up and reporting to the University of Genosha with Clarice and his new superior. “Uhm, I don’t think he likes me too much.”

Clarice gave his left arm a gentle punch. “Aw, it’s all in your head! There’s no way Sam would hold back if he didn’t like you – you’d *definitely* know it.”

He rubbed his arm even though the punch hadn’t been that hard and hoped that his new partner was right; he should know by now that it was foolish to hope that everyone liked him, that he didn’t have to gain everyone’s approval but some habits were harder to break than others. “I just don’t want to mess up this assignment.”

“You newbies are just too cute. I’d give you a hug but I’m afraid that Wisdom will gut me if he catches us.” Clarice smiled as she settled against the wall, her arms folded across her chest. “So to show you my love, I’ll let you run out for coffee and snacks in an hour, okay?”

Despite himself, Teddy chuckled as he made himself comfortable for the long and hopefully boring watch as well. “You’re just loving this whole ‘newbie as your personal slave’ thing, aren’t you?”

“First thing you learn as an agent, Altman, is take advantage of whatever perks come your way. I’m sure in another year or two it’ll be you sending the newbie off for a latte and scone.”

It was nice to know that someone had faith that he was going to be around after this mission. Ducking his head in embarrassment, Teddy did his best to smother his smile before someone walked past and noticed him grinning like an idiot.

*******

“I can’t believe how well they’ve taken to the garden!” Wanda smiled as she bent down to gently stroke along the petals of a softly glowing lavender… well, Billy wasn’t sure if it was trying to be a lily or a hibiscus, to be honest, or some weird hybrid of the two. It certainly had its own unique scent, something almost cinnamon-y yet with a hint of vetiver as well, odd but invigorating.

“Just let me know if they run rampant, okay? I like your roses and hydrangeas too much to see them go.” He smiled at his mother and helped her to stand to her feet.

“I’m sure it won’t come to that.” Wanda brushed a speck of dirt from her full red skirt before she linked her right arm through Billy’s left and led him away from the blooming garden. “Thank you again for the flowers, and for coming to check up on them. Are you sure you won’t stay for something to eat?”

Billy felt a little bad for turning her down, but he also felt that he was pushing things by visiting every day as it was; he didn’t want to get into trouble from wearing her out, even if his mother seemed so happy to have him visit so often. “I’m sorry, Mother, but I promised Tommy that we’d do something later.”

Wanda gave him an understanding smile as she patted his forearm. “I’m so happy that you boys get along so well.” For a moment her smile faded as she stared off in the distance. “It’s special, being a twin. Even though I’m a… well, even with our differences, your uncle and I share a unique bond. It brought me much joy to know that my children have that in their life as well, especially since I can’t be there for you all the time.”

Shifting about so he could face her, Billy shook his head as he cupped both of his mother’s hands in his own. “We *never* feel as if you aren’t there for us, Mom,” he said in a rush. “You love us more than anything, and *that’s* what matters.” Yes, it sucked that she’d grown weaker over the years, all of the doctors and healers unable to explain why exactly, but it just meant that the time Billy and Tommy did have with her was all the more precious. She was there for them when it mattered, would storm into Grandfather’s office if she thought they needed defending, and Billy wished that he dared do something with his talent if he had any faith that it really would make her better. Yet for some odd reason, his mother seemed to be the one thing that was resistant to his magic….

Her smile returned as she brushed aside the bangs that always seemed to want to fall onto his eyes. “Oh William, you’re such a good boy.” She brought their foreheads together for a moment and let out a soft sigh. “You and Thomas are the greatest gifts in my life. I don’t know what I’d do without you….”

“You never will,” Billy promised as magic thrummed through his veins. “I won’t let you be hurt that way.”

Wanda pulled back to look at him for a few seconds, her lips pressed together and brows drawn tight; he thought he saw a gleam of blue reflected in her brown eyes and wondered what he looked like just then. Yet she didn’t pull away any further, didn’t push him aside in fear or rejection, she merely leaned in to give him a kiss on his forehead and the magic… faded back into his bones and being. “Yes, you are a good son,” she murmured before she resumed walking.

“Will you come tomorrow?”

“Probably. I’ll see if I can pry Tommy away from his bed long enough to have some tea and biscuits,” he offered as she led him to the small, wrought iron gate that led out to the main gardens.

His mother laughed and shook her head. “You two may be twins, but you’re definitely not identical. Still, it would be nice to see my wayward son again – feel free to tell him that.” She waved him goodbye, a lovely woman in an elegant red and black dress, one who looked as if she belonged in some fairytale with her beauty and kind smile and a hybrid ‘rose’ tucked into her wavy brown hair.

If Wanda was a fairy princess, then Billy barely took a few steps before he ran into… what, a troll? Hmm, might be a little too short and scrawny for that. “Caliban, this is getting very old, very fast,” Billy complained to the bald, pale mutant who had been lurking around just outside his mother’s garden.

“Orders I have, Prince William. You are not to disappear.”

“So that gives you the right to stalk me all over the place, even to my mother’s garden?” Billy struggled with his temper, tired of being followed around whenever he left his quarters. “I won’t have you disturb her,” he warned as blue sparks filled the air around him.

Caliban took a step backwards, his expression wary. “The king’s orders-“

“I *know* my Grandfather’s orders.” Billy’s hands clenched into fists as he fought to control himself. “I haven’t stepped foot out of this damn palace in days, so leave me alone!” He called his power to himself and willed himself away, back to his room, to someplace away from people who stared at him as if he was some sort of monster. His power washed over him and within a moment he was in the common room of his quarters.

The anger bled out of him as quickly as it had risen, leaving him feel cold and shaken. Unsure of what had just happened, he ran his right hand through his hair and let out a slow breath.

“-uhm, Kate? Something just… popped up. I’ll call you back later.”

Tommy was sprawled out on the couch with what looked to be a couple of empty bags of chips scattered around him and some crushed bottles of sports drinks as well. “So, have a fun time with Mom,” he asked as he tucked his phone into the back pocket of pants as he stood up, which sent another empty bag floating to the floor.

“Yeah, *that* was fine.” Billy frowned and magicked the mess away; why did he have to have a pig for an older brother? “She said it would be nice if you stopped by tomorrow.”

“Eh, wasn’t I just there like a week or two ago? See, you do this filial shit too much and you raise the bar too high for the *both* of us,” Tommy bitched as he rummaged through one of what looked to be several bags filled with various snacks.

“Yeah, because god forbid you make the woman who gave birth to and raised you happy at all,” Billy drawled. “And where did you get those things?”

Tommy held up a pack of what looked to be something incredibly fattening, fried and delicious. “I told Uncle Pietro that if he insists on this ridiculous lockdown that he better send someone out for some snacks.”

“And it actually worked?” Billy went over to check out the goods, and immediately snatched up the pack of chocolate pudding.

The grin on his brother’s face just then was pure evil. “It did after I followed him around for about two hours, whining and griping the entire time. I figure if he wants us here so badly, I’m going to drive him crazy. Just wait until you see what I have planned tomorrow.”

Billy hoped that his brother knew well enough to leave Grandfather out of the line of fire – there was no way he wanted to end up any closer to the throne than he currently was – but hey, if Tommy was happy and occupied then who he was he to rain on his brother’s parade? “Whatever floats your boat, PJ.”

Tommy flicked a chip at him for the nickname and snorted. “So, you said that ‘that’ was fine. What wasn’t so fine, eh?” He stared intently at Billy while he crunched a handful of chips with an open mouth.

Disgusted by the display and aware that the asshole was doing it on purpose, Billy grimaced while he willed a spoon into being and pulled his legs up under him so he could sit and eat one of his puddings. “Caliban’s still in stalker mode.” He paused to lick the foil top of the pudding container clean before he made it disappear. “I’m getting a little… annoyed at him being my shadow.”

There was a rarely seen serious expression on Tommy’s face as he watched Billy eat the pudding. “You, annoyed? And it’s not over a crease in your special edition comic or some obscure series being cancelled?” Despite his teasing, his expression remained unchanged. “So, did you ever figure out a way to block the pale creep’s talent?”

Billy paused in eating his pudding to give the question some thought. “I think so.”

Tommy was a blur as he left the room, and within a few seconds returned in a new outfit and holding some clothes for Billy. “Fine then, let’s get going.” When Billy made a sound of protest, the last few bites of his pudding was snatched away and a pair of jeans and a black sweatshirt that were Tommy’s were shoved into his arms. “Come on!”

“But my pudd-“

“I’ll buy you a friggen case, you loser! Get dressed!”

Billy glared as he set his feet back down on the ground. “As if I’m wearing your sweaty clothes.” He shoved them back at his brother and concentrated – the grey dress slacks and white shirt he was wearing changed into a pair of jeans and a red hooded jersey. “There.”

Once again, that too-serious expression was back on Tommy’s face, yet all he did was toss the clothes aside as he raced into their bedroom again so he could return with Billy’s messenger bag and cap that covered Tommy’s white hair – well, most of it. “Okay, no more fucking around. Let’s get out of here for a little bit.”

“Where are we going?” Billy clutched at his brother’s arm as panic began to set in. “I mean, I’m *pretty* sure I can block Caliban’s talent so he won’t know we’ve left, but-“

Once again, Tommy cut him off. “Then we’ll play it safe this time around. We’ll just go downtown for now – Grandfather can’t get into too much of a snit if he finds out. But we need to get out of here before we both go nuts.”

That… didn’t sound too bad. “Please, as if you’ve any sanity in the first place,” Billy teased as he summoned his power first to fool Caliban’s talent into making the mutant believe that they weren’t going anywhere and then to teleport them to Hammer Bay.

“Says the guy who *cries* every time someone dies on that zombie show. *Cries*!”

“I do *not* cry over every death!”

“You were sobbing like a baby that one time!” Tommy was too busy pointing out Billy’s ‘flaws’ that he didn’t even seem to notice that they’d arrived in the small alley behind the pizza shop and that the teleport spell was over. “Flat out bawling!”

“That’s because she was a very important character, you asshole!” Billy tugged his hood up over his head with a bit too much force and wondered, not for the first time, just what it was he’d done in a past life to deserve to be stuck with a brother like Tommy.

“Oooh, CC, help me, I think zombies are coming to get me,” Tommy cried out in a falsetto voice as he shivered in an exaggerated manner and clung to Billy’s arm.

“You’re safe, you moron, they only want people with *brains*.”

Laughing at the insult, Tommy dragged him toward the street. “Aw, you’re so cute when you’re all pissy. Come on, let’s get some caffeine.”

*******

What did it say about him that it was beginning to feel a bit weird to be walking around in ‘civilian’ clothes, Teddy wondered as he entered the large coffee shop/bookstore/music store that he’d spotted while running back and forth to fetch Starbucks. In an age of chains and digital downloads, it was nice to find something like Pierson’s still around, and just walking into the place, to smell the roasted coffee and see people sitting around in the scattered chairs as they read, made Teddy feel a bit more comfortable even if he wasn’t wearing his SHIELD uniform. Now if only he could find Bankston’s, the local comic book store….

He gave the hem of his green t-shirt a tug and then went up to the sprawling counter of the coffee bar, where he ordered large iced mocha. Once his drink was ready, he headed to the book section so he could find something to read during his down time – Agent Guthrie had them on short shifts so they didn’t get too bored or distracted, which meant that Teddy had a lot of time to kill. While he liked Clarice, Hisako and most of the others in his new team, Teddy was the youngest and wasn’t in the mood to hang out at clubs even if he could cheat and change into a more ‘legal’ appearance. No, he wasn’t going to do anything to mess up this assignment, wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again. Better to play it safe and if that meant he’d have some boring nights ahead of him, so be it.

One thing he had to say about Genosha so far was that it amazed him, the amount of mutants around him – New York City had its share of them, but even here, in this store, he had to say that almost half of the people were mutants just from their appearance or from some casual use of talent. It made sense since the country was one of the first safe havens for their - *his* - kind, but it still took some getting used to how normal it all seemed.

Shaking his head at the weird turn his life had taken in the past year, he reached the fantasy/sci-fi section and sipped his drink as he perused the books. Within twenty minutes he found several interesting choices, probably because he was overseas and so had a new pool of authors to select from, and had just grabbed a book from the lower shelf when he stood up and bumped into someone else who was checking out the section.

“Uff! I’m sorry!” Teddy fumbled with his armload of books and his drink for a moment and only caught a flash of faded blue denim and red. “Crap!” One of the books headed toward the floor as he saved what remained of his drink from splattering all over the place.

“Ah, I got it.” The stranger bent down to pick up the book and held it out to him. “And I think I’m partially to blame, too.” Said stranger turned out to be a kid, no, boy, no, aw, heck, he looked to be about Teddy’s age and a little shorter, with unruly dark brown hair that crept out from beneath the red hoodie he wore and flopped into these incredible brown eyes. Wait, not incredible. Just brown eyes. Everyday brown eyes. There was nothing remarkable about this guy at all, Teddy tried to tell himself as he stared with his hand on the book being held out in his direction.

“Uhm, yeah, thanks.” Teddy didn’t take back the book just yet. “Do I… you seem familiar.” Did he know this guy? Surely he would remember meeting someone as… not going there. Sure, it had been a while since he’d… yeah, not going there.

An adorable redness spread across the pale cheeks of the cute stranger – oh hell, Teddy shouldn’t be thinking these thoughts. “I… ah… your book,” the guy stuttered as he latched on to the hem of his red hoodie and began to twist it about in a rather savage manner.

“Thank you,” Teddy repeated. “Can I… buy you a coffee? You know, as thanks?” If he said ‘thanks’ one more time, he was going to bash his head into the wall. But it did seem to get the poor guy to stop tearing at his shirt.

Just as the cute stranger – *stop it*, Teddy ordered himself – appeared ready to answer him, some other guy rushed up to them and bumped into cu – CS. “Hey! Think I’ve got enough music ideas that’ll drive Uncle *crazy*!” He spoke so fast that it was a little difficult to understand him at first, and just when Teddy made sense of the words, he caught the new stranger staring back and forth at him and CS beneath the rim of the black baseball cap he was wearing. “What’s going on?”

CS produced a strangled sound and made an abortive motion with his right hand in Teddy’s direction. “Nothing! We just… this is… uhm….”

Were these two together or something? Was that why CS was freaking out and the new guy all of a sudden seemed so protective? “Your friend was helping me out. I’m Teddy.” He shuffled his books and cup about in his arms and held out his right hand. “Nice to meet you…?”

He caught a quick sight of baleful green eyes and then Rude Guy was dragging CS away. “Yeah, whatever. Come on, we have more shit to do before we- let’s go.”

CS allowed himself to be dragged away, yet he turned back to give Teddy a small wave and a smile as he left. Feeling like a dork for being cheered up by that fact, Teddy waved back with an idiotic grin on his face.

Maybe he would see CS again….

******

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