chapter four

******
Appearing back in the common room of their quarters, Billy braced himself for the anger that had been simmering in his brother ever since they’d left Pierson’s. It seemed that their feet had barely touched the plush carpet and the faint glamour he’d cast over them to mask their – well, Tommy’s distinctive hair color – vanished when his brother put some distance between them and threw aside the bag of various snacks and items he’d picked up during their excursion. “So what the *hell* was that about, back there?”

“Uhm, you wanna narrow it down a bit more,” Billy asked, even though he had a good idea what Tommy was going on about – well, the *what*, though not the *why*.

Tommy was a blur of motion for a few seconds, whizzing around the room to toss various things about this way and that, to ruffle the pillows on the couch and pull out the chairs set by the small table. Once the room was enough of a mess, he came to a stop in front of Billy, his tantrum seemingly over for the moment. “That guy in the store – the surfer wannabe. He your type all of a sudden.”

Yeah, that would be it. “You mean Teddy?”

Tommy’s green eyes narrowed and he threw his hands up in the air before settling them on his hips. “Oh, *Teddy* is it? Since when do you get so chatty with strangers, eh?”

Feeling a headache coming on, Billy sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Okay, first, I think I said like… six words to him? Maybe? We bumped into each other, I handed him a book that he dropped and he thanked me for it, and that’s about when you showed up and dragged me away. Second, I thought you’ve been after me to meet someone. Hypocritical much?” Why did it have to be that when he’d finally stumbled across a cute guy that his *brother* had to be there as well and ruin things for him? Yeah, it was official – life hated him.

The accusation seemed to derail his brother’s thoughts for a bit, since Tommy stared at him with mouth agape, and then he huffed for a couple of seconds while his hands were once more thrown up in the air. “I said you needed to get laid, not to do it in the middle of Pierson’s!”

Okay, Billy had enough of this ridiculous conversation. “I’d say you’re crazy but that fact has long been established. I don’t know what type of perverted stuff you get into when you’re not here, but *talking* to a guy is not having *sex*!” He didn’t even wait for whatever bullshit Tommy was going to come up with next before he teleported out of the room, needing some space between the two of them at the moment. So what if the gardeners would be after his head for this, it was time to blow up some more rocks before he did something he, well, didn’t regret – and that was the problem.

Seriously, couldn’t Tommy had at least let him have a damn cup of coffee with the guy?

*******

Tommy watched Billy vanish into thin air and cursed himself while he kicked at one of the chairs that he’d pulled out, knocking it to the floor. Yeah, that had gone real well, hadn’t it? So much for putting Billy in a good mood and then asking him about the weird dream last night in an effort to find out what was going on with his younger brother. Just… as much as he did get on Billy’s case about meeting people, about not being such a loner dweeb all the time, it had been a bit of a shock to see Billy all flustered yet smiling at some stranger. At someone who didn’t know that Billy was an idiot around people, that he mostly said the wrong thing or would geek out when nervous which was most of the time and…. Tommy was just looking after the little shit, making sure that guy didn’t make fun of him or… or….

“Shit.” He kicked the chair again and pulled out his phone so he could call Kate. Maybe she could make sense out of… whatever this was.

The phone rang a few times before she picked it up. “T! Don’t know if it’s a good sign or bad that I was just thinking about you.”

“Always a good sign, princess,” he insisted as he settled on the couch. “How’s life? Getting bored yet redecorating that castle?”

“Eh, it’s coming along but I’ll have to put it on hold for a bit to go help out a friend. What about you? Is the family drama still going on? It have something to do with why you had to drop off so suddenly earlier?” It sounded as if Kate was busy on the other end as there was various rustling noises in the background.

“There’s *always* family drama going on,” Tommy explained as he picked at a loose thread in the ripped hole at the left knee of his jeans. “But yes, it’s being even more drama-y than usual. I had to leave because Billy came by and… well, that’s complicated, I’ll tell you another time.” When he figured out just what exactly he could tell her about the whole fucked up situation. “What’s going on with you that you have to halt your grand plans?” He wasn’t really paying any attention when Kate had gone on and on and *on* about this fabric and that and paint swatches and, yeah, *boring*, but what had caught his interest was how expressive she’d been and the lovely smile on her face as she described her plans for putting a major dent in her dad’s bank account while dragging the mini-castle’s dated exterior into the 21st century.

The other end of the line was silent for a few seconds, save for what sounded to be something zipped closed. “Oh, I think I’m going to leave it as a surprise for now, save to say I’m doing at least one friend a favor.” Kate’s voice just then was highly amused and just a little bit naughty, causing Tommy to sit up from the sprawl he’d been in on the couch. Dammit, he really wanted to dash over to England right now and find out what she was up to, to see that sexy smile in person. “So this family drama – you wouldn’t be contributing to it in any way, would you?”

“Aw, why do you have to be so mean to me,” he whined as he sank back down onto the soft pillows of the couch. “Is that how you really think of me?”

“As a grade-A troublemaker? Hell yes,” Kate informed him without the slightest pause. “It’s one of your finer points.”

He grinned even though they weren’t currently vid’ing each other just then. “I *knew* you were falling for me.”

That won him a laugh that somehow made him feel better, that made him wish that he had set up a vid chat when he’d called. “More like I feel responsible for you somehow.”

He’d take what he’d get and make it work out in the end – what was it about this girl? “Oh, does that mean you’ll spank me if I’m *really* bad?”

Kate’s sigh just then was a bit too exaggerated to mean that she was really upset. “T… I’m beginning to feel sorry for your family right now.” Yet there was a hint of laughter to her voice just then. “Do all of us a favor and try to stay out of trouble for five minutes, okay? Be a good boy and maybe I’ll have a nice gift for you, okay?”

“Only for you, princess,” he promised.

The sound of Kate blowing him a kiss preceded the call being ended. He was still smiling as he stared down at the phone, at least until he realized that he hadn’t gotten any advice on the whole Billy situation. Ah well, he would give his brother some time to cool down and then… knowing him, he’d just avoid the whole ‘all right, I was an idiot for overreacting to some guy hitting on you’ topic. Knowing Billy, his brother would probably avoid it, too, and life would go back to normal. At least, as normal as things were around here anymore, what with Billy’s powers going nuclear and Grandfather deciding that they couldn’t go two steps anywhere on their own.

Tommy really hoped that Kate wasn’t kidding about that whole gift thing, as he could use a *nice* surprise right about now.

*******

Finished packing her bags, Kate looked around her room and decided that she hadn’t forgotten anything of importance – well, anything that couldn’t be bought once she reached Genosha. Reaching for her phone, she flicked through her contacts and texted Cassie’s number as she headed to the bathroom for one last check – she figured her friend would see the message when she woke up. So it was a bit of a surprise when her phone rang a minute later.

“Cassie, what are you doing up so early? Or are you still up?”

“Uhm, it’s the first – there’s so much to do that we got up really early! We have to pack and make sure everything is taken care of here and – but wait, I’m calling to check up on you! How’s things there?”

Smiling at the energy evident in her friend’s voice even over the phone, Kate chuckled while she opened and searched through various drawers for any missed items. “I just wanted you to know that my flight leaves in about four hours, so I’ll be headed to the airport soon. When will you and your dad be leaving?”

“Oh my god, you’re really doing this? I can’t thank you enough!” There was what sounded to be a bit of a squeal on the other end, and then muffled speaking as if Cassie was calling out to her father. Kate smiled and shook her head – one of the things that she liked most about Cassie was how energetic and enthused the younger girl was, how… how refreshing she could be from Kate’s more… jaded friends. She didn’t approve of how Scott Lang often brought Cassie along to some of the corporate fundraisers, especially Stark’s, but he did look after his daughter and it meant that Kate had someone who wasn’t drunk or an idiot to talk to while at the usually boring dinners.

After a few seconds Cassie was back on the line. “We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning - I think he’s still clearing a few things. Will you be all right there by yourself?”

Touched by the girl’s concern, Kate smiled even though Cassie couldn’t see it. “Yes, it’ll give me some time to get set up and maybe get in touch with a friend or two I have there. Call me when you land, okay?”

“I will.” There was another few seconds of quiet and then Cassie spoke in a rush. “I’m so very thankful that you’re doing this, really. It would have sucked to be there all alone except for my dad and his science buddies.” She sounded so relieved just then that Kate almost felt a bit guilty that she wasn’t just doing this for Cassie’s sake.

“It’s… it’s not a big deal – I told you that I was getting a bit bored with the scene here and that I know some people in Hammer Bay. It’ll be fun for both of us,” she promised. “Now I really have to go.”

“Have a safe trip,” Cassie wished her before ending the call.

Done checking things, Kate went to put her phone away in her purse and then headed downstairs, where she could ask Oliver to help carry her bags out to the car. She was a little disappointed to leave the renovation project when it was incomplete, but she trusted Oliver and Emily to see it through in her absence, and knew she’d have more fun spending the next few weeks with Cassie than supervising people hanging curtains and painting walls. Besides, there was something Tommy wasn’t telling her and she loved a good mystery. At least, that’s what she told herself as she checked her flight status for about the seventh time in the past half an hour.

Just because he was fun, trouble and possessed some unexpected depths didn’t mean that Kate was interested. No, not at all. She was just helping out a friend, getting away from the party scene here and if she could manage to surprise Tommy at the same time, that was an added bonus. Maybe if she kept repeating that to herself, she could make it sound convincing by the time she reached Genosha.

*******

Finished smashing rocks and annoying the gardeners for the time being, Billy returned to his room hoping to find it empty so he could spend the time before dinner reading in peace. He just wanted to be alone, just wanted some quiet time when people weren’t looking at him as if he was… he didn’t know. As if he was a problem or a pain or… why couldn’t they look at him like that guy at the bookstore had – well, before Tommy had shown up. Well, maybe not his *family*, but-

He was spared from his thoughts growing any weirder when he stepped into his quarters and found Tommy zipping around, a white and blue blur as he dashed about appearing to look for something.

“What did you lose now?”

Tommy came to a halt before Billy and scrunched up his nose. “My favorite hat – the green and silver one. Had it just last night, I swear.”

The idiot was always losing things. Rather than watch him tear the room apart – it was already in shambles, Billy summoned his magic and ‘wished’ for the stupid thing to appear, which it did in a swirl of glowing blue in his upheld right hand. “Here, now slow down and stop wrecking the place,” he complained as he threw it in his brother’s direction.

Not that he expected some profuse thanks for his assistance, but it would have been nice to receive something other than a narrowed look for his help. Billy shook his head and concentrated more on the mess around him, which caused the turned over chairs, scattered pillows, drifts of garbage and tossed about clothes to either mysteriously disappear or return to their rightful places; maybe it was time to talk to Grandfather about the two of them getting their own rooms – this whole ‘you’re twins so you need to stick together’ thing was growing very old, very fast.

He had just made it into the bedroom and was headed to the nearest bookshelf for something to read when Tommy raced ahead and came to a stop in his path. “So, CC – Billy, you don’t think there’s anything odd about what happened here, do you?” He waved his hat about for some reason, his green eyes intent on Billy’s face.

“What, that you’re an inconsiderate pig? Nope, seems pretty normal to me,” Billy remarked as he scooted around his brother and figured that he’d read something off of his tablet instead. He’d just about reached his bed when the pest once more dashed into his path. “Do you mind,” he asked while flailing his hands about before resting them on his hips.

“Actually, I do.” Tommy shoved the hat into the back of his jeans and folded his arms over his t-shirt clad chest, a stern expression on his face making him look like a younger version of their uncle; Billy wished he had his camera to take a picture just then so he could tease his brother about that fact. “Look, in the space of like, a minute, you magic up my hat and then Mary Poppins this place as if it was nothing. *Nothing*. Doesn’t that seem a bit unusual to you?” His brows became even more furrowed as he leaned in a little closer. “You’re not even tired, and this is after you’ve teleported several times today and cast a bunch of other stuff.”

Taken back by his brother’s sudden interest in his ability, Billy ran his right hand through his hair and shrugged, uncomfortable and… and upset for some reason. “So what, are you unhappy that I’m not?” When something like guilt flashed across Tommy’s face, Billy felt his upset grow, felt a bit angry as well. “Is that it? You think I should be lying in bed or all exhausted after casting a few spells?”

“No, that’s not-“

“Well screw *you*!” The magic simmered inside of Billy along with his anger, so potent and *welcome* that it began to seep through his skin. “What, little Billy, your weak, *pathetic* carbon copy of a brother, is finally able to do something other than parlor tricks for once and you don’t like that?” The magic continued to spread, to grow, and Billy didn’t care. “You’re just going to have to get used to it, Tommy. Things change, and I’m not going to let you or anyone else be in control of me or my power just because-“

It was then that Billy noticed that Tommy was staring at him wild-eyed, that the room… that the room didn’t seem to really be *there* anymore. It was beginning to look a lot like the place of his dreams, that endless void with the infinite floating spheres. If he concentrated on them, weren’t those sparkling bits the-

No, he shouldn’t be here now, and Tommy *definitely* shouldn’t be here. Billy moaned as he focused on their room, the familiar plastered walls and the plush carpet and the mahogany furniture they’d always gotten yelled at if they so much as left a scratch in it…. After a few shuddering, almost hyperventilating breaths, the ‘dream’ world faded away and ‘reality’ returned, the cream colored walls cast with blue as Billy’s power pulled back somewhat into himself.

Tommy stood there gaping at Billy for several seconds as Billy stood there with his fingers dug into his forearms, waiting for his brother’s reaction, and then he shook his head. “Billy… what the *hell* are you doing? This is insane! It’s not like you at all!”

For a moment Billy was so relieved that Tommy wasn’t yelling at him, wasn’t calling him a freak or worse, and then his words sunk in. “How the hell would *you* know?” When Tommy looked ready to argue, Billy cut his brother off with a wave of blue sparks – not magic, just a show of frustration. “You’re *never* here anymore! You’ve been here more the last couple of days than you’ve been in the past three months, so how would you know what is or isn’t like me?” He wasn’t going to take this from someone who ran away every chance he got yet felt as if he could lecture Billy on how to live *his* life. “You don’t have any damn clue how my power really works, who the hell I should be dating, or even what I’m really like so do me a favor and butt out of my life!” DV was right – older brothers were nothing but meddlesome, controlling assholes. Well, Billy wasn’t going to put up with his any longer, not right now at least.

He allowed his power to pull him away from the bedroom and take him away, to the nearest place of sanctuary – his mother’s garden.

*******

Well, *that* had gone to shit quickly, hadn’t it? Tommy kicked at the bottom of his bedframe and yelped in pain a moment later, forgetting in his anger how the furniture was such a solid piece of wood – his anger at Billy, at Grandfather for ordering them to stay here, and mostly at himself for fucking things up with his mouth and his inability to think before speaking. Yeah, he wanted to call his brother out on his increased use of magic but really? Had Tommy really learned nothing in all their years together?

Rule number one – never push Billy when he was feeling defensive. Billy might be the quiet twin and seem all passive, but he was still a Lehnsherr; if he felt the need to fight, he didn’t hold back. And right now… right now Billy had quite the arsenal at his disposal. Tommy still couldn’t believe how the room had changed around him, and he didn’t think it was just an illusion. The very air had felt different, and the worst part is he didn’t think that Billy had meant to do anything. No, his brother had just been yelling at him and slowly everything had changed….

“Fuck.” Tommy rubbed his left hand over his face as his right fished his phone out of the pocket of his jeans. Even if he didn’t know what the hell he was going to say to Kate, he needed to talk to her right now. Just hearing her voice would make things better, someone not involved in all of this crazy stuff. She’d tease him and call him an idiot, maybe let him in on whatever secret she was up to and take his mind off of his brother and his grandfather and the rest of his crazy family.

So of course the call went straight into voicemail. Tommy groaned in annoyance while he waited to leave a message. “Really, princess? You’re leaving me hanging? That surprise of yours better be worth it, is all I’m saying.”

Done with his phone, he shoved it back in his pants and wondered what to do next – obviously not go after Billy, unless he wanted to start yet another fight with his brother. Considering that he’d already pissed him off over that guy in the bookstore and now this, Tommy figured he’d better leave Billy alone until the geek cooled off. Maybe he’d see about some sort of peace offering, like that pudding. Yeah, that way he could annoy Uncle Pietro in the process….

*******

Wanda couldn’t help but smile as she stroked her fingers through William’s unruly hair, even as she felt concern for her youngest son. “You know, there is a chair for you.”

“’s okay. M’fine.” William remained sitting on the ground with his right arm draped over her lap and his head resting against her knees. His pose reminded her of when he had been smaller and had half-hidden amongst her skirts as she sat in her garden, pressing against her whenever Pietro had come to take him and Thomas away at the end of their visit.

Her boys had grown so much since then, grown so big and powerful, and while Thomas was too much like Pietro – no, too much like Father to visit her very often, William was the true child of her soul. Oh, she didn’t love Thomas any less for his independence and knew that she was loved in return, but William wasn’t afraid to show the depth of his love, and William knew the peace to be found sitting amongst these blooming flowers when the world turned cruel.

As she had always feared, the world was indeed proving cruel to those she treasured most; Thomas had his uncle’s and grandfather’s ‘strength’ to shield him, whereas William… oh her poor William. He didn’t have their aloofness, their ability to hold parts of themselves back and Wanda ached for him. It would make him stronger in many ways, yet it also brought him here like this much too often for her to bear.

All she could do was be here for him, to give him her love; she combed through a particular stubborn tangle and leaned down to press a kiss against the top of his head. “My William.” His arm tightened around her thighs as she spoke and he closed his eyes. “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

“No?” Since it was clearly a question, she continued to stroke her fingers through his hair and waited patiently; she’d learned over the years that if she was quiet long enough, William would provide her the answers. “It’s just… lately….” He shifted about a little and rubbed his cheek against her knee. “Are you afraid of me?”

“Hmm?” She frowned and stroked her thumb over the tip of his left ear, which was just the slightest bit pointed as her own. “Frightened of you? *Never*,” she swore to him. “Frightened *for* you, all of the time, but never of you.”

William pushed away from her so he could look up, and something clenched inside of her chest to see that his eyes were reddened as if he’d been holding back tears. “Why is that?”

She reached out to brush her fingers across his cheek. “Because you’re my beautiful young man, so special that you glow with it at times, and… and the world isn’t always gentle to people like you, William. Because you’re so much like me, and I know how much I’ve been hurt even with everything your grandfather and uncle have done to keep me safe.” Her fingers uncurled so she could cup his face, his skin so soft and warm beneath her touch. “You’re so special,” she repeated.

He flushed a little and glanced downward. “You’re just saying that because you’re my mother.” Yet a hint of a smile lingered on his lips.

“Partially true, but it doesn’t change anything that I’ve said.” Wanda let her right hand slip to his chin to force her son to look up. “Even I can feel the power inside of you, William. That’s not a reason to be frightened – it all depends on what you do with it, and I know *you* well enough to trust you.”

He stared back at her with eyes that slowly turned a gleaming blue. “Do you really?”

“Yes.” She leaned forward to press a kiss against his forehead. “Always and forever.”

William let out a shuddering breath and by the time she sat back in her chair, his eyes were once more their familiar warm brown. He managed a shaky smile and rested his hands in her lap as he knelt before her, some of the sadness and shadow that had clung to him from before now gone. “Do you say the same to Tommy?”

She laughed a little and gave him a gentle flick to his nose. “Maybe, if he ever came to visit me.”

“Hmm, I know, I plan to get on him about tomorrow.” A frown settled on William’s face at the mention of his brother, leaving Wanda to wonder if perhaps Thomas wasn’t responsible for what had brought him here.

“Be sure to do that,” she chided; she wanted to see her sons together to gauge their behavior, to figure out if Thomas was responsible for William’s recent unhappiness or not. If he was… well, she didn’t like playing favorites but she didn’t condone bullying, either. If Thomas wasn’t the reason, then perhaps she needed to pay a visit to her brother and her father for some answers.

*******

His hands immersed in hot, sudsy water, Teddy had to smile a little in that he hadn’t seen it coming in that the ‘newbies’ also got stuck with the unwanted chores along with doing the coffee and food runs; he was usually a good sport about things, but if someone dumped their dirty laundry on him, he was going to do a load with lots of bleach and hot water regardless of whatever the clothes were before announcing that he was drawing the line *right there*. The local baristas already recognizing him and having the nearby pizza joints on speed-dial was one thing, but he was *not* dealing with anyone’s dirty underwear but his own. Even being stuck with the dishes wasn’t too bad, since he’d always helped his mom out with the chores back home.

He was down to the silverware when Clarice strolled into the kitchen, dressed casually in a pair of cutoff shorts and a loose t-shirt bearing a faded SHIELD emblem that looked as if she’d swiped it from someone a lot bigger. She leaned her back against the sink and waited until he was finished with the dishes to hand him an opened bottle of beer.

“Uhm, thanks, but I’m-“

“It’s one beer, Altman, and you look like you can use it. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to get you drunk and take advantage of you.” She waited until he accepted the bottle with some reservations and crinkled her nose. “Besides, you’re not my type.”

He blinked a little at that and cocked his head to the side. “What type is that?”

Clarice waited until she had a sip of her own beer – some brand he’d never heard of before, so probably local – before she answered. “Well, the whole ‘I like guys’ thing isn’t a turn-on, but mostly you’re just way too cute and earnest for my tastes. I feel like if we ever got in a fight, you’d do that thing where you look through those bangs of yours with those big blue eyes and it’s game over. Blech.” She grimaced and rolled her eyes. “*I’m* supposed to be the adorable one who gets away with everything in a relationship, I’ll have you know.”

Teddy almost spit up his beer upon hearing that, which was a shame because it was pretty good. “Oh please, this from a woman who got yelled at for nearly gutting the one target on her last mission who was supposed to be brought in alive. Yeah, I heard about it,” he told her when she gave him a sidelong look.

“Hmph, but I looked *utterly adorable* while doing it, you better believe it.” She nudged him with her left elbow and smiled. “There we go, now you don’t look so much like a big, blond, moping sheepdog.”

He was surprised to find himself smiling and had to tug on his bangs with his damp fingers; it had grown in nice and thick even if he was keeping it mostly out of his eyes. “Thanks, both for that and the beer.” He held up the bottle in a silent salute and had another sip.

“So you gonna tell Auntie Clarice what had you sulking all through dinner? You did all right through your shift today so it’s not work.” Clarice hopped up to sit on the counter and held her half-empty bottle of beer between her hands. “It’s not good to keep things bottled up when other people depend on you,” she informed him, her demeanor suddenly turned serious.

Conceding that she’s made a good point, Teddy stared down at the bottle in his hand and struggled to put his thoughts into words. “It’s… I met a guy, I guess. Well, sorta met.” He looked up and gave her a weak grin.

Clarice stared at him, green eyes mostly level with his own because of her perch, and frowned. “All right, and that’s a bad thing? What do you mean, ‘sorta’ met.”

“I asked him to join me for a coffee and I think he was going to say ‘yes’, but this other guy barged in and dragged him away.”

“Huh.” Clarice fiddled with the paper label attached to the glass beer bottle. “So he has a boyfriend? Can’t say I approve of your taste in men, Teddy.”

“No!” Teddy nearly spilled some beer as he waved his hands in denial. “At least, I don’t think so – the other guy looked enough like him to be related.”

“Then I *really* can’t approve-“

This time it was Teddy’s turn to nudge Clarice in the side, enough to risk jostling her from her perch. “Oh shut up, I don’t think it’s like that, you sicko.”

That earned him a laugh from his friend. “Okay, maybe you’re right, but you still didn’t get the guy’s number, did you? And that’s what has you bummed?”

“Yeah.” Teddy felt some of his good mood fade away at the reminder; for the last few months, ever since Greg…. He shook his head and banished all thoughts of his former- yeah, not thinking of *him*. “It’s… been a while since I’ve been interested in anyone, and when I finally find someone who’s cute and might be interested in me, it gets messed up.” All because of Rude Guy.

Clarice was quiet for a minute or so, and when she did speak it was with a tenderness that made Teddy wonder if she knew something about how he’d ended up in SHIELD. “The main thing is that you *did* meet someone. You’re young, and it’s a big world. Maybe you’ll run into the guy again – we *are* stuck on an island, you know, and not a big one at that – or maybe you’ll meet another cute guy who you’ll like even better and actually get to ask out on a date. Life’s funny like that.”

Teddy paused to consider her advice while he finished off his beer. “Do you really think I’ll see him again – the cute guy?” Maybe he could start hanging out that the bookstore or something.

Clarice looked up at the ceiling as if beseeching the heavens. “Oh hell, you already have it this bad for the poor guy? And did you not hear the part about being stuck on a small island?” She reached around to give him a gentle smack on the back of the head. “I can tell it’s going to be *so* fun being stuck with you as a partner.”

“Hey, no physically abusing the new guy,” Teddy protested as he cowered in mock terror. “The slave labor is bad enough.”

“Oh!” Clarice hopped off of the counter and tossed her empty beer bottle into the recycling bin. “That reminds me – we want some snacks while we’re drinking so run out and get a bunch of chips and some dips for us as well, okay?” She reached into the back pocket of her shorts and pulled out some bills in the local denomination. “We’re fine on the liquor.”

This was his life now? Feared SHIELD agent by day, lackey by night. “Yes, ma’am,” Teddy sighed as he accepted the money.

“Such a good boy,” Clarice cooed before she used her talent to teleport out of the kitchen, probably to the main room where David had set up an entertainment system.

Ah well, all of this running around was giving him a chance to learn the layout of the city, and something to do with his downtime. Teddy figured that while he was out on his errand, he could swing by a certain bookstore again to see if CS had returned….

*******

Tommy tensed when Billy walked into the bedroom a bit after eleven pm – he hadn’t heard a door open so assumed that his brother had teleported into their rooms from wherever he’d been. Since he was still dressed in the same outfit from earlier, Tommy assumed that he hadn’t gone too far away or gotten into any trouble.

“Hey,” he offered as he glanced up from his phone.

Billy gave him a frown, yet when nothing else was said and he noticed the stacked packs of chocolate pudding on his bed, the expression smoothed out. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yeah, I did.” Tommy lowered his phone long enough to give his brother a smile. “Look, being locked up is making me an idiot.” At Billy’s incredulous expression, he rolled his eyes. “More of an idiot, are you happy? Jerk,” he muttered while Billy cracked a smile. “I’ll try to stop cock-blocking you and being all paranoid – I’ll leave that to our dear uncle.”

“Gee, thanks…I think.” Still, Billy kept smiling as he picked up the pudding and put it on the desk before heading off to the bathroom to presumably get ready for bed.

Settled on his own bed with a large bottle of energy drink to his left, a bag of crisps to his right and his phone fully charged, Tommy was already prepared for the night. He pretended to barely pay Billy any attention when his brother finally came out of the bathroom and crawled into the other bed while wearing a pair of red boxers and a purple t-shirt bearing a ‘nyan-cat’ of all things - *such* a geek. How were they even related?

“Are you going to play that all night or what?”

“Eh?” Tommy blinked a few times as if distracted and then shrugged. “I’m really kicking ass here, CC, come on,” he whined.

“Oh for-“ Billy punched at his pillow before he yanked his blankets nearly over his head. “Keep the volume down or else your phone’s going to be turned into a bat – the blood-sucking type,” he grumbled as he fussed a little more with his pillow. “I’m beginning to remember why I like you out drinking your brain cells into goop.”

“My brain cells are perfectly fine, or else I wouldn’t be on level 83 by now,” Tommy shot back, but quietly since there seemed to be a faint blue glow emanating from beneath the blankets on Billy’s bed. After a minute or two of silence, Billy let out a soft ‘huff’ and rolled over onto his other side and eventually his breathing slowed.

Munching on a few crisps while he waited for his brother to fall asleep, Tommy wondered how long it would take for Billy to have one of his ‘dreams’ – or were they more along the lines of a nightmare? At that time, Tommy would be prepared, would capture the weird shit on his phone and then snap Billy out of it – hopefully without getting thrown across the room or frozen or anything else detrimental to his stunning good looks and razor sharp wit – and the hyped-up idiot would have to face the fact that something was going on here, that something wasn’t right with all of this glowing and warping and… and….

Tommy sighed as he drained the rest of the energy drink. Okay, maybe it wasn’t one of his best plans, but it was *something*. Even if he didn’t convince Billy right away, he’d have something to prove to Uncle Pietro and Grandfather, and then *they* could figure out what was wrong with Billy. He hated feeling as if he was ratting on his baby brother, but that whole thing with the ice had been freaky as hell and then to see Billy seem to shift them to another reality without even realizing it….

A quick glance at Billy revealed that he still appeared to be sleeping peacefully, so Tommy resumed playing his game. He’d just cleared another level when the screen began to grow blurry in front of him, the colors of the squares blending into one another and his fingers missing their targets as… as….

<So *you’re* the little pest, are you?>

Cold. It was so *cold*. Hadn’t Tommy been somewhere warm moments before? He spun around to attempt to orient himself but all he saw was the same desolate landscape, saw only the glimmer of ice beneath the barren, twilight sky. Tommy’s teeth chattered as he rubbed his hands over his arms and vibrated his body in a desperate attempt to generate some heat. “What? Is someone there?” Had he heard a voice? “Come out, asshole.”

<Hmm, not as polite as your brother.>

He couldn’t see anyone even though he could clearly hear them, a voice rich with contempt and as pompous as Uncle Pietro on a good day. Tommy dashed about in a frantic manner, clouds of sharp ice biting into his legs as he ran, but he never saw anything but the same damn icy landscape.

<Not as smart, either. You’re not going to find me that way.> Something seemed to slam into Tommy and made him stop, the pain as intense as the cold all around him, causing him to gasp and shudder even as he was held upright. <Now stay still for this – I detest seeing you dart around like some demented rabbit.>

“Fuck off, you-“

<Ah, ah, manners.>

Pain tore through Tommy, through his entire body but it was worse, so much worse in his head. He would cry out if he could move, if he could do *anything*, but the awful, terrible cold held him still, held him helpless and that was the worst part of it all…

<I’d say that I wasn’t enjoying this, but I’d be lying. Hmm, hm, just a little longer now. Must make sure I get it all out, that you’ll be a good boy from now on. I don’t appreciate meddlers, do you *understand*?>

Maybe Tommy was supposed to say something, to respond, but all he could do just then was rail against the pain as it washed over him, the awful paleness of the winter world replaced with darkness….

“-sleep forever? Come on, this is bad, even for you.”

“Huh?” Tommy swatted at something that crinkled as he forced himself awake, and found an empty crisp packet stuck to his face – that and Billy standing by his bed with his phone out. Had that been a flash. “Did you take a pic, you bastard?”

“Several – Mother is going to be so proud.” Before Tommy could summon the energy to charge out of bed, Billy’s phone vanished in a flash of blue sparks. “Don’t even think it,” Billy warned as a hint of blue lurked in his brown eyes.

“You… are pure *evil*,” Tommy groaned as he tried to lift himself from the bed but gave up after a couple of seconds to bury his face into his pillow. Just how late had he stayed up last night? “It’s like they say – never trust the quiet ones.”

“Maybe you still have a few brain cells left after all.” Billy was quiet for a moment and then there was the wonderful, sweet, *beautiful* aroma of coffee. “Here, maybe this will help.”

Tommy managed to lift his head enough to find out that his brother was holding a very large cup of… Starbucks? “You got me Starbucks?” It smelled to be pure expresso, at that. “OhmygodyouarethemostperfectdweebtoeverliveIloveyou!” He snatched at the cup and sat on his bed with his legs crossed as he drained it down as fast as possible, never mind his poor tongue. The caffeine was the perfect remedy for his headache and helped clear the fog from his brain.

“Thank you, I think.” Billy smiled at his antics and shook his head. “Did you sneak out last night and raid a bar or something? You’re really out of it this morning.”

Tommy belched as he tossed aside the empty cup. “Nah, just didn’t go to sleep until I spanked that game but good.”

“Ew.” Billy’s face wrinkled in disgust and he folded his arms over his chest; he was dressed for another fun day stuck in the palace, in black trousers and a light blue shirt that were understated enough to mean big time designer. The way he frowned at Tommy’s rumpled state set off warning bells in Tommy’s head.

“Uhm… I think I’m gonna head out for a bite to-“ However, before Tommy could speed on out of there, Billy waved his hand and ‘froze’ him in place with a blue glow.

“Nope, you’re joining me for breakfast with Mother – well, more like brunch at this point. She knows you’re here and she misses you.” There was an unusual amount of command in Billy’s voice, a cadence that was oddly simila-

A spike of pain shot through Tommy’s head, a sensation that he attempted to shake free as he whined in annoyance. “Dammit, CC, being the good twin is *your* thing. So let me go and-“

“No. It’s not like you have anything better to do,” Billy pointed out as he floated Tommy off of the bed and toward the bathroom. “Besides, think of how much it’ll annoy Uncle Pietro.”

Struggling against his magical bounds until then, Tommy stopped and considered that little fact. Huh, it *would* annoy the old fart, the two of them hanging out with their mother, and she always did have good food for them. “All right – I can wash myself you know!”

“Right, that’s why you always bathe in so much of that lousy cologne,” Billy grumbled as he released his magic. “We’re leaving in ten minutes,” he warned.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s plenty of time.” Tommy gave his brother the two fingered salute before he slammed the bathroom door shut closed. Sheesh, someone was being a bit bossy today, and heavy-handed with his power. For a moment there was another flash of pain in his head, something to do with… with…. Ah hell, maybe he *was* drinking too much and staying up too late. Might be a good idea to take it easy for a few days and give those ‘brain cells’ that Billy was always whining about a rest.

*******

“Where to, Miss Bishop?”

“The Four Seasons,” Kate told the driver she’d arranged to pick her up at the Hammer Bay International Airport, and slid into the waiting car as soon as he nodded in acknowledgement. She checked her phone while he piled the luggage into the Mercedes sedan’s trunk, flicking through the voice to text messages that Tommy, Cassie and her sister had left; it wasn’t much of a surprise that there weren’t any from her father, but she expected it to be at least a few more days before he figured out that she wasn’t in England anymore.

Cassie was about to leave New York City and should be arriving tomorrow, and Susan basically wished her a safe time in Genosha and sent along a shopping list. Kate had to smile at her sister’s behavior, grateful that there was at least one family member who cared about and supported her, and made a mental promise to track down everything on the list and then some. As for the messages from Tommy… for all of their mostly petulant air, she had to wonder if something was going on – hadn’t he said something about his brother on their last phone call? She didn’t know too much about William Magnus, but then again, neither did anyone else.

King Eric Magnus was very protective of his family, especially anything that had to do with his human daughter, Wanda. Kate had been shocked to discover that the cocky, carefree young man drinking and partying in some tiny club she’d snuck off to one night while visiting Genosha with her father was the very same Prince Thomas she was introduced to the following evening at a formal dinner. When the idiot had the bright idea to attempt to blackmail her to keep her quiet, she’d verbally ripped him a new one, and been surprised again when he started laughing and actually apologized to her. Tommy’s uncle and grandfather might have the arrogant act down pat, but Tommy… Tommy was something else. It was the only reason she’d forgiven the idiot and given him a second chance.

It was also the only reason she probably knew more about ‘Thomas Magnus’ than anyone outside of the Genosha royal palace, and that wasn’t saying too much. Tommy acted so much like a normal, albeit privileged, person with Kate, but she knew he was still keeping a lot of things secret – and his younger brother was one of them. He would start to talk about William - no, *Billy* - and then change the subject as if catching himself. All that Kate knew for certain was that Billy seemed to be much quieter than Tommy, was a ‘geek’, and didn’t like girls.

So what sort of trouble could a quiet, geeky young man get into? Kate tapped her phone against her chin and debated if she should spoil the surprise and call Tommy now or not, when she had thought to let him stew for a bit longer and maybe call tomorrow.

At the least, she’d wait until she checked into the hotel, which was in downtown Hammer Bay. The car drove through the city, which was as beautiful as Kate remembered it from her last visit. Palm trees lined the wide, clean streets, and a mutant dressed in a red and black uniform used some sort of fire talent to clear the little bit of debris that littered the sidewalk. He nodded to a young couple who were walking past, who nodded back in return. Everywhere Kate looked there were signs of humans and mutants co-existing peacefully, of people using their talents for the benefit of those around them and no one reacting at all except in mild appreciation. There was an acceptance here that was lacking in New York City and even London, despite those cities being much bigger and more ‘urbane’. No signs of protests, of unrest or unnecessary display of talents, just people going about their lives using the gifts they’d been given, be they human or mutant.

It was almost too good to be true, and Kate could understand why she caught the occasional glimpse of sentinels in their black and red uniforms. The House of Magnus had made it very clear that the peace of Genosha was not to be disturbed at *any* price and had their personal guard ready in case there was a need. They were the steel-taloned hawks guarding the all of these doves, ever vigilant.

Wondering if the jetlag was shading her thoughts a bit dark, Kate rubbed her eyes and felt some relief when the car pulled up to the hotel. “We’ve arrived, Miss.”

“Thank you.” She smiled at the driver and felt a bit bad that she’d forgotten his name in the fugue of traveling. Wasn’t it Abidemi?

He opened the door for her and motioned her inside. “I’ll handle the bags for you,” he told her as someone dressed in the hotel’s livery approached. “You look as if you could use some rest.”

“Thank you again.” She rested her hand on his arm and gave him a wan smile. “You’ve done an excellent job, Mr. Abidemi.”

Judging from his smile, she had remembered correctly and now she felt a bit better. Turning to the young woman with slightly pebbled green skin, she allowed herself to be led into the hotel and checked in right away, a courtesy that she was certain was due to her last name and father’s money. Ah well, it got her to one of the penthouse suites in a matter of minutes, which was the most important thing. While she waited for her luggage to arrive, she pulled out her phone from her purse and surveyed her current living quarters.

Tommy answered on the second ring, which showed that yes, he had been expecting her call. “Kate! Where have you been? I’ve called like six times!”

“I know, I’ve all of your messages and even a few texts.” She figured the smaller of the two bedrooms would be suitable for Cassie if her friend wanted to spend some nights over, and went out on the balcony in the bedroom where she’d be sleeping. “I’ve been busy.”

“Doing what?” Tommy sounded more than a little annoyed. “How is picking out wallpaper so hard that you have to take a break from it? Do you have any idea what *I’ve* been doing?” He didn’t even give her a chance to answer. “Having *tea*. With my mother.” He made it sound like the worst thing imaginable.

“T, I happen to know you adore your mother, so quit with the dramatics.” Oh, nice, she could see the ocean from here. Kate took in a deep breath and smiled, enjoying the feel of wind on her face even if it did wreck havoc with her hair. “So you had to spend time with someone who loves you. Poor you.” A hint of bitterness crept into her voice just then despite her attempt at teasing.

Tommy was quiet for a moment and then he laughed. “You sound just like Billy just then, you know. ‘Oh poor PJ, you have to visit the woman who gave you birth and who adores you, life is hard’. He’s the jerk who te- dragged me there.”

Kate had the impression that she would like Billy, if she ever met him. “Good for him.” Her smile returned when she hear Tommy sputter on the other end of the phone. “So what else has been happening other than your evil twin making you spend time with your poor mother, eh?”

“Uhm….” The line went quiet for a minute. “Well, there was this thing with Billy and a pushy guy, and we sorta got in a fight about that. But I think we’re good now. Other than that… not much.” Tommy sounded a little… off for some reason, maybe because he was talking about his brother and didn’t want to go into too much detail with an outsider. Yet why had he called Kate so much?

Feeling a bit confused, Kate tucked back a lock of hair that kept blowing into her eyes and frowned. “So that’s it, you two fought a little but are okay now, and he dragged you off to visit your mom?”

“Yep.” Tommy was quiet again for several seconds, and when he next spoke he sounded normal. “But what about you? What’s going on there? You get in a fight over some chintz and end up in jail or something? And when am I getting my gift, Princess?”

“Oh, I don’t know if you deserve it now after being such a smart ass.” When Tommy began to wail that he was sorry and that she didn’t have to be so mean to him, Kate chuckled as she headed back into her room. “If you must know, the reason I put all that decorating on hold is because I had to leave to help out a friend.”

“Eh? You’re not in London anymore? Where are you? Back in the States?”

“Nope, somewhere closer.” Kate noticed that her luggage had arrived and went to give the man some money for his trouble.

It sounded as if Tommy was pounding on something on the other end of the line. “Where’s that? Monaco? I can be there in like five minutes – that is, once I get around Grandfather. What hotel are you at?”

This was going to be fun. “The Four Seasons here in Hammer Bay.”

Tommy began to repeat it as if to memorize the location. “The Four Seasons- what?” There was a loud thud as if he dropped his phone, followed by muffled yelps. “You’re here?”

Kate had moved her phone away from her ear at that point so the shriek wasn’t quite too piercing, and shouted back ‘yes’ just to be on the safe side. She thought she heard “Billy, get your ass here,” before the line went dead.

Taking that to mean that she’d have company very soon, she chided herself for not jumping in the shower *before* she called the hyperactive idiot.

*******

Billy watched with some bemusement as Tommy charged out of their room through the new French doors, leaving him behind in the mess from his brother’s frantic effort to dress ‘properly’. This ‘Kate’ must be something special indeed for Tommy to put so much effort into his appearance, and for him to care if even Grandfather noticed that he’d left the palace grounds or not; he’d constantly bugged Billy to make sure that the spell to fool Caliban would hold up while Tommy was gone.

Between a pleasant visit with their very content mother and now being rid of his brother for what was probably the rest of the day, Billy was happy. He could catch up on his tv shows without his brother harping on how ‘gay’ or ‘geeky’ they were, or so do some reading in peace… or he could follow Tommy’s lead and make his escape as well. What were the chances that the hot blond guy, Teddy, might turn up at Pierson’s again?

Taking a moment to restore order back to the bedroom, Billy almost turned his power on to his own outfit after that before he thought about what Tommy had said the day before; he was using his magic an awful lot for trivial things, wasn’t he? Was that a bad thing or good? Letting the magic settle for the moment, he decided that he’d dress ‘normally’ for once and went over to his walk-in closet to select something to wear for today’s outing while he puzzled out his thoughts. His family used their powers as an extension of themselves, he’d grown up seeing Uncle Pietro speeding about as often as walking, and everyone had expected Billy to have a similar magnetic ability to his grandfather and aunt after Tommy had taken after their uncle. So was it such a bad thing that he used his magic so freely now that he seemed over whatever block he’d had with it that prevented him from using it so easily?

His right hand hovered between a sweater as blue as the glow his talent emitted and his favorite red hoodie. He remembered his mother’s words yesterday, her assurance that he would always know what to do with his power. That faith helped to ground him and bank his fears. It was probably just like DV had said – the others were used to him being quiet, dull little Billy who needed them for everything. It wasn’t so much that he was changing, it was just that he could stand on his own now, that they needed *him* for things. Well, that they needed his power.

Tugging the hoodie free from its hanger, Billy pulled it on over his blue dress shirt and then changed his dress slacks for a pair of worn jeans. After grabbing his wallet and a pair of sneakers to complete his outfit, all that was needed was a moment of concentration to cast a spell to both fool Caliban’s talent and discourage anyone from checking in on him or Tommy before he teleported to the alley near Pierson’s.

He remembered in time to cast a slight illusion spell to disguise his features, just enough to alter the color of his hair and eyes a little along with a bit of mental coercion to convince people that he really wasn’t Prince William. Once that was done, he left the alley and strolled into Pierson’s as if this was something he did every day, as if he wasn’t filled with anxiety and his palms were already damp from nerves. Nothing will go wrong, he told himself. No one is staring at you. Grow a spine, you friggen dweeb. Okay, that last bit sounded much too much like Tommy for his comfort, he thought as he tugged the hood of his shirt up over his head.

Pierson’s was busy with the afternoon crowd, people milling about as they got their afternoon fix of caffeine and sugar while browsing for new music and books. Billy joined the crowd in the music section for a little bit, disappointed that he didn’t notice any tall blonds with the gleam of silver in their ears, and listened to a few tracks of various albums. After finding a few things he’d buy online later, he went over to the books section to grab the items he’d been eyeing before Tommy had dragged him out of the store.

He’d managed to locate about three of the books when he heard someone clear their throat behind him. Worried that he was blocking the person from a section that they wanted to browse, he hurried to step to the side. “I-I’m sorry!”

“Well, you did leave in a hurry yesterday, but I don’t think that was your idea. Either way, apology accepted.”

Billy looked up to find Teddy smiling at him. Today he was dressed in loose jeans and grey t-shirt that hugged his chest just right, and Billy felt a faint blush on his cheeks when he realized that he was staring. “A-apology?” Kill him now, was he stuttering?

“Yeah, for leaving me like that.” Teddy laughed a little and rubbed at the back of his head, where his blond hair was cut short. “Uhm, sorry, that’s not funny, is it?” He was blushing a little, too.

Billy at first nodded and then shook his head, feeling utterly confused at the moment. “I think… uhm, hi?” He waved his free hand a couple of times as he attempted to get his idiot brain to work.

“Yeah, good idea, let’s just start over.” What appeared to be relief washed over Teddy’s handsome face. “Hi, I’m Teddy.” He waved as well and seemed to wait for something.

Billy shifted his weight back and forth for a few second before realization hit him. “Oh! I’m Billy.” He laughed a little in embarrassment and jerked his left hand through his hair, which caused the hood to fall back onto his shoulders. “Sorry about that.” He ducked his head as he shook it. “I suck at this,” he murmured. Why couldn’t he have some of Tommy’s confidence? His brother would be chatting away a mile a minute by now, not making an utter fool of himself. Maybe he should just walk away….

Somehow, Teddy seemed to hear that and laughed, but it didn’t sound mocking, it was a little nervous if anything. “I don’t know, you seem okay to me. Maybe some coffee will help?” Billy glanced up to see a hopeful expression on the other boy’s face. “I hear it’s a great icebreaker.”

A slight smile spread across Billy’s face. “Well, you’re in luck then, since they have great coffee here.” Perhaps things weren’t going too badly after all?

“I take that as a yes, then.” Teddy smiled as well and motioned for Billy to join him. “It’ll be my treat since you helped me out yesterday.” When Billy fell in step beside him, his smile strengthened and he gestured to the books tucked into the crook of Billy’s right arm. “So, what are you getting? That’s the new book in the All for the Game series?”

Pleased for once to be talking to someone who actually seemed to be interested in his hobbies and not to just mock them, Billy grinned and felt himself relax as he began to talk about books.

*******

Clarice was painting her toenails a bubblegum pink color when there was a knock at the door of the room she shared with Hisako. “I’m decent, more or less.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Sam answered with that sexy drawl of his and entered, still dressed in his uniform.

“Oooh, if I knew it was you, sir, I’d be wearing a lot less clothes.” Clarice capped the bottle of polish and batted her eyes at her senior office, only half teasing – damn SHEILD and their anti-fraternization rules during missions. Well, anti-fraternization for the poor schlubs at her rank….

Still, Sam gave her enough of a saucy smile to make her regret the fact that she was wearing a pair of yoga pants and an old t-shirt. “Maybe another time, but right now I need to talk to you about something.” All traces of flirtation left him and he was once more the cold, efficient leader she knew him to be during a mission. “How is Agent Altman holding up?”

“Teddy?” She set the polish aside and frowned as she mentally readied the report she’d kept ‘filed’ in her head. “He’s done well on his last two shifts, been focused on the task of guard duty and obeys orders well. He also is taking the slight bit of hazing in a good spirit and is doing his best to fit in. I think he’ll be a benefit to this assignment, sir.”

Sam appeared to consider what she’d said for a moment and then nodded. “Thank you. Continue to keep an eye on him and let me know if he has any difficulties, with *anything*,” he stressed.

Clarice found that a little odd and couldn’t help but comment. “Sir… is something going on? Is he in some trouble?” She understood how a new agent could be a weak link during a mission, but so far this was just a routine guard duty post, except for the fact that they were in Genosha.

It looked as if Sam was debating something for a few seconds, and then he finally nodded as if coming to a decision. “You are not to repeat this to anyone, Agent Ferguson, but the truth is our mission here is two-fold. We are to protect Dr. Wisdom-Pryde and her work, but we will also be receiving a new set of instructions at a further date.” Before Clarice could ask another question, Sam held up his gloved right hand. “And no, I don’t know what those secondary instructions are, I’ve just been told that Agent Altman will play an important role in them, so keep an eye on him, all right?”

“Understood, sir.” Clarice watched as Sam left the room, then chewed on her bottom lip as she resumed painting her toenails. Sam must be concerned about the secondary mission to bring her in on it like that, and it explained why he was being a bit tough on poor Teddy like that. She’d have to keep a closer watch on the kid to make sure the stress of the new assignment wasn’t getting to him, since he was more important to the mission than she’d thought; she wasn’t going to allow anything or anyone to impact her career.

It had been curious, them sending a newbie like Teddy on a mission like this – it was Genosha after all, and while it was a babysitting job, they couldn’t chance anything that might offend the royal family. Clarice didn’t know what the secondary mission was, but she bet that it required the need for a shape shifter. A very talented shape shifter at that. Things were about to get interesting on a routine babysitting job, yes indeed.

*******

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