chapter five

*******

Okay, this was so not good, relatively speaking. Half an hour into – well, could they call this a date? Teddy was so calling this a date, which was part of the problem here; he’d been out with a few other guys, nothing too serious, but Billy…. First, there was the constant fidgeting which could be really annoying but was actually endearing for some reason, maybe because Billy didn’t seem to notice how his hands would move from toying with his hair to tweaking with the hem of his red hoodie to spinning his cup of iced mocha around to tapping against the table-top to back to playing with his very tousled dark brown hair and – there was also the slight blushes whenever his brown eyes met Teddy’s, which was *adorable*. Because after Greg – because after the *asshole*, as he was now going to be known in Teddy’s mind, it was nice to know he wasn’t falling for another idiot who didn’t have a single bit of attraction to him. Oh yeah, there was also the fact that Billy was sexy as hell, in a refreshing, unique way. The longer they sat here and talked, the more Teddy wanted to get to know the other boy.

“Anyway, so yeah, that’s why I believe that all sparkly vampires should be destroyed on sight,” Billy finished up as he fidgeted a little more in his seat.

“Oh, you’re preaching to the choir there, though I’ve nothing against a bunch of cute werewolves running around shirtless,” Teddy teased, just to wring another blush from Billy. “Now that we’ve established that we’re compatible on the vampire front, which is a must, let’s talk about pizza.” He smiled as Billy grasped his now empty plastic coffee cup and leaned forward, as if in a conspiratorial mode. “Thin crust or thick?”

“Oooh, thin crust, definitely,” Billy replied as he narrowed his eyes. “If you say thick, then we leave here as mortal enemies. That’s even worse than sparkly vampires, I’ll have you know.”

Teddy was quiet for a moment to draw out the suspense, and then he grinned. “Well, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful… friendship, because thick crust is definitely out.” He laughed as Billy did a little fist pump in the air with his left hand. “Though I’ve gotten some complaints from my friends as I’m stuck on food runs most of the time, but if they make me pick it up, then I’m going to decide the crust.”

“Heathens,” Billy hissed as he scrunched up his nose. Oh yeah, utterly adorable, Teddy thought as he found himself wishing he could take a picture just then. As it was, he memorized the image, certain that he’d be staring back at it in a mirror later on just so he could enjoy it some more. “Where have you been getting them?”

“Huh?” Teddy stared at Billy in confusion, momentarily derailed in the conversation.

“The pizzas, where have you been getting them?” Billy didn’t seem too upset by his lack of focus, if anything he seemed used to people not following him, Teddy had noticed during their conversation so far.

“Ah, all over the place – Portos, Pizza Loco, Toppers, uhm…”

Billy scrunched his nose some more and shook his head. “Sounds like you’re going everywhere but the one place you should, which is Mineo’s.” He waited to see if Teddy recognized the place and shook his head some more. “Like I said, *heathens*. It’s just the best pizza place on the island, if not the southern hemisphere. Give me your phone.” He held out his right hand in a rather imperious way, as if expecting to be obeyed without question.

A little bemused by how bossy his date could be in regards to the right topic, Teddy did as he was told, and noticed how Billy’s eyes lit up when he recognized the Totoro cover case on it. “Yeah, that was a gift from my mom.”

“She’s a woman of excellent taste,” Billy remarked as he began to swipe through and tap on the screens. After about a minute, he handed the phone back to Teddy. “Here’s Mineo’s, hopefully it’s not too far from where you live.”

Teddy examined the site for the restaurant and found that it had a lot of five star reviews, and wondered how he’d missed it before. True, it was a little farther than he usually went for pizza, in fact was just a few blocks from the royal palace, but judging from the reviews it would be worth the effort. “I’ll give it a try next time.”

“A wise choice.” Billy leaned back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest and an inscrutable expression on his face.

“So tell me, oh learned scholar of the fast food, what other good places are there? For sushi? Coffee? Comic books?” Teddy gave him a teasing grin as he propped his chin up on his left hand and leaned over the table. “I am your eager student.”

“Hmm.” Billy flipped his hood over his head and pressed the tips of his fingers together in front of his nose while he closed his eyes as if meditating; it was so… so *nice* to find someone willing to play along with Teddy, who didn’t find this weird, let alone someone he’d just met. “Let me consult with the great aether to see what it advises.” Billy made an eerie humming noise for a few seconds, which earned them some annoyed glances from the surrounding tables. “The great aether has spoken.” He opened his eyes and spread out his hands in a waving gesture, a hint of a grin hovering on his lips. “For comics, you need to go to The Attic.”

“Wait a moment, I’m getting this all down,” Teddy told him as he made notes for himself so he could google these places later. “Okay, continue, oh learned scholar.”

Billy’s lips quirked a little more while his hands took to twisting in the hem of his hoodie. “For sushi, the aether was divided – Rollo’s has some amazing rolls but they’re not very traditional, while you can always count on some fantastic sashimi from Shinju. And as for coffee, obviously you’re off to a great start here, but there’s also Nico’s on Tenth Street.”

Teddy nodded to show that he was following all of this. “That the shop that has the weird plants in the window? I wasn’t sure if they were selling coffee or it was an illegal front in there, to be honest.”

That startled a laugh out of Billy as he gave up on his ‘sage teacher’ front and started to play with his cup again. “No, the owner just has a thing about plants – he makes things grow, apparently. On a really good day, flowers bloom all over the place. He also does these amazing tea blends.”

“Okay, then I’ll give it a try.” Maybe Teddy would see about sending some tea home to his mother. “So I take it you’re a native, huh? You seem to know these places really well.”

The question made Billy duck his head, the voluminous red hood falling forward to hide his face from view. “Yeah… I grew up here. My… my family’s been here since… well, since Genosha’s been founded.”

“Wow, that’s impressive.” So that probably meant that Billy was a mutant, or at least from a family of mutants. Teddy almost asked what his talent was, but wondered if that was a little personal since Billy hadn’t displayed any powers yet – plus, Teddy didn’t want to do a ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’. Part of the reason he’d kept the fact that he was a mutant hidden so long was that it usually freaked people out when they found out that he could change into, well, *anything* or *anyone*, that or they thought up ways to use it to their advantage, like the ‘asshole’.

“Yeah.” When Teddy didn’t say anything else, Billy peeked past the edge of his hood and then smiled, just a little, before lifting his head. “So if you, uhm, need any more advice on where to go, or, ah, need any help….” His voice faded away as he spoke and he took to fidgeting again, that faint blush making a return to his cheeks.

It was an incredibly roundabout way to do it, but Teddy was rather certain that he was being asked out. Doing his best to not smile too much, he held up his phone as he nodded. “That would be really great if you could show me around – work is pretty steady so I have most of my nights free.”

Billy began to chew on a thumbnail as if considering something. “I should be able to meet up then,” he agreed after a few seconds’ pause.

“Then why don’t you give me your number so I can call you?”

The faint blush became much stronger and Billy ducked his head again as he mumbled something.

“Ah, what was that?” Teddy leaned over the table some more so he could try to make sense of what the other boy was saying. “Something about my phone?”

“I, ah, already gave it to you.” Billy looked ready to tear a hole in his poor hoodie, he was twisting it so hard. “Uhm, earlier….”

It took a moment for Teddy to make sense of that, and then he realized that Billy must have slipped in his number when he was looking up the pizza place. Flicking on his phone, he searched through his contacts and sure enough, there was a new one under ‘B’. A sense of warmth filled him and he couldn’t help but grin like an idiot. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Billy seemed to be glancing around at everything but Teddy just then. “I just….” He waved his right hand around a few times and didn’t say anything else.

“No, it’s fine!” Teddy continued to grin as he motioned toward Billy. “Why don’t you give me your phone so we can exchange numbers, okay?”

The question seemed to surprise Billy as he finally looked at Teddy and blinked a few times. “Oh.” He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment and then shook his head. “I, uhm, didn’t bring my phone with me.”

That seemed a bit odd, but maybe he forgot it or something. “Okay, I guess I’ll just text you a message and you can respond later, how about that?” Teddy began typing on his phone to Billy’s number. “Just so you know, it’s the message about how it’s your turn to buy coffee on our next date.”

Billy’s cheeks turned a brilliant red as he began to tug his hoodie forward enough to hide his face. “Ah, yeah, coffee. Date. That’s… that’s good.” He gazed downward for a moment at his hands twisting in the now stretched material before he peeked upward. “You really want to go out again?”

Teddy felt a little bashful himself as he reached over to nudge the tip of Billy’s hood aside with his phone. “I sorta thought that was the point of wooing you with coffee and asking about you showing me around,” he admitted.

He didn’t think it was possible for a human being to blush any more than Billy was doing at the moment, yet the smile directed Teddy’s way just then was one of the most beautiful ones he’d ever seen. “’Wooing’?” Billy gave up on torturing his poor shirt to reach for his empty cup of coffee, which he held up for a moment. “With this?”

Teddy chuckled a little as he rested his elbows on the table and propped his chin up on his left hand. “Well, I didn’t have a horde of jewels or a magical ring on hand, sorry to say, so yes, wooing with coffee. Good coffee at that.”

“I am duly impressed with your improvisation skills.” Billy bowed his head a little as if bestowing a great honor upon Teddy. “So I guess I’m obligated to ‘woo’ in return, no?”

“Hmm, that or it’s a sword duel at dawn.” Teddy waved his right hand about in a swooshing manner. “I warn you now, I kick ass in WOW with my warrior character,” he insisted as he fixed the other boy with an intimidating stare.

For some reason, however, Billy refused to be intimidated. “Puhlease, mages rule, but I guess we don’t want to be breaking any etiquette rules.” He pushed his empty cup aside as he stood up. “So you’ll let me know when you’re free next?”

“Yes!” Teddy scrambled to stand up, too. “I think I can meet up tomorrow, but I’ll let you know for sure.”

“Okay.” Billy picked up his bag of books and looked uncertain for a moment. “I, ah, have to go home – there’s… stuff going on with my family.”

“That’s fine, I should probably head back and see what my friends want to do for dinner.” Teddy hesitated for a moment before he stepped forward to give Billy a brief hug; it felt weird to shake hands yet he didn’t want to just wave goodbye. “Tomorrow, okay?”

At first he thought that maybe he’d gone too far, yet the pink was back on Billy’s cheeks along with a shy smile as the boy nodded. “Yeah, see you then.” He tugged the hood down a little further before he turned around to leave.

Feeling as if he’d just won some sort of prize, Teddy couldn’t stop grinning as he picked up the empty cups and placed them in the trash, then went to leave as well. He thought that maybe he’d catch sight of Billy because of his distinctive red shirt, but didn’t see the other boy anywhere in the store or out on the street. Wondering if maybe he’d flagged down a taxi or been picked up by someone, Teddy hoped that Billy got home all right and began to think about what they could do tomorrow on their first proper date – and what he’d probably have to owe Clarice to ensure that he could have the night free to himself.

*******

 

Pietro slowed down as he approached the small wrought iron gate to his sister’s garden, the canister of tea tucked into the crook of his left arm. For some reason he felt nervous, so he ran a hand through his hair and tugged at the hem of his dark grey vest. Should he have put on his coat? Wanda hated too much formality, but-

“Stop hovering at my gate, either come in or go away.”

Smiling at the annoyance in his sister’s voice, Pietro pushed on the latch and opened the gate, and made sure it shut behind him. “Who dares to speak to the crown prince in such a manner?” he asked in the most imperious tone he could summon.

“The woman who will box his ears if he steps on her daylilies, like he did the last time.”

Laughter rumbled inside of his chest and burst forth as Pietro – mindful of those damn flowers – rushed forward and circled around his sister a few times before snatching her up in his arms. Her lovely tumble of curls and the voluminous skirt of her red dress flared out for a moment as she spun with him, her laughter a higher note than his own, and he only allowed himself this joy for a moment before he set her back down on the ground; there was a hint of shadows around her shining brown eyes and a tremble in the hand that rested on his shoulder. “The boys were here earlier, weren’t they,” he accused as he stepped back.

“And a good day to you, too." Wanda blew at a lock of curls that had fallen onto her nose and shook her head. “Yes, they were, and I was so happy to see them.” She began to walk away, toward the small table set out in the garden. “I asked William to bring Thomas by for a visit, so don’t you go blaming either of them.”

Pietro clenched his hands in anger for a moment before he forced the emotion aside; he should have known having the boys here would mean that they would be seeing their mother more often – William was by often enough as it was, but at least she was spared both of their presences while Thomas was out being a drunken fool. “And how was it? Oh, I stopped by to pick you up more tea.” He held up the tin he’d gone all the way to Istanbul for as he approached the table as well.

A slight smile flittered across Wanda’s face as she sat down in one of the chairs. “Thank you. Would you like some?” She looked around as if to summon the girl who attended to her needs.

“No, that’s fine. I really just came to see how you are.” He sat across from her and reached for her left hand, which he held cradled in his own. “They didn’t wear you out, did they?”

Wanda shook her head but didn’t pull her hand away. “Pietro, you worry too much. No, they didn’t, they left before I could grow too tired.” She sighed a little and propped her chin up on her right hand, for a moment looking so much like the young girl who used to tease Pietro about how if he continued to be so serious and brooding he’d turn into their father one day. Well, to be honest, she still did that a lot…. “They just stopped by for something to eat and for me to fuss over them, and it made me happy. It’s not often that I have my boys here with me.”

“No, but William is by often enough these days.” All Pietro had to do to see evidence of that was to look around, to *inhale*; the unnatural flowers had made their home in his sister’s garden, had become intertwined with her beloved flowers.

There was a hint of steel to his sister’s brown eyes, a hardness that anyone familiar with their father would recognize in an instant. “Yes, and he is more than welcome here.” Wanda’s hand turned in Pietro’s until her fingers tightened against his own. “He used to come here exhausted and seeking solace, a place where he could rest before returning to his rooms. Now he comes for reassurance, for… I think he wants to know that there will always be someone who will accept him, who will accept what he’s becoming and what’s inside of him.” It wasn’t often that Wanda revealed that she was a true child of the House of Magnus, that even though she wasn’t a mutant that she was a Lehnsherr through and through, but right now as she sat there and stared at Pietro with an iciness that would do their father proud; he couldn’t think of anything but how magnificent she was, and how powerful she could have been if only… if only. “What are you doing to him, Pietro? What are you *and* Father doing to him?”

“We aren’t doing anything-“

“No!” Outbursts of anger were rare from his sister, and out of the corner of his eye Pietro saw the servant girl, Rahne, dart forward from the location of palace and stop about a dozen steps away. “Don’t lie to me about this, Brother, not about *my* children.” Wanda pressed her other hand against the top of the table and glared at him through the fall of her brown curls. “What are you doing to William?”

“Nothing!” When her nails dug into his hand, Pietro cursed softly but didn’t pull way. “Nothing that I understand, I promise!” He jerked his left hand through his hair and attempted to put his thoughts into order. “You know about his talent, how he makes things – how the world *twists* for him!” His free hand waved at the horrid, beautiful flowers that bloomed alongside the normal roses, lilies and hydrangeas, their perfume so overpowering that he felt lightheaded. “Father has him do things that ensure we’ll be safe, that is all!”

Wanda loosened her hold on his hand as she cast her eyes downward. “So Father uses him.”

“Father uses us all,” Pietro remarked, and couldn’t hold back on all of the bitterness he felt just then. “Only you are free from his machinations.” At least there was something for him to be grateful about, he thought as he rubbed his thumb along the back of his sister’s delicate hand.

A laugh as bitter as Pietro felt just then broke free from Wanda as she once more shook her head. “Free? Oh no, not as long as he has my boys.” She inhaled sharply as if to choke back tears. “And here I sit while he’s tearing poor William apart and driving Thomas away.”

Pietro wanted to argue with her, to deny those words, but part of him wondered if this lovely garden wasn’t so much a sanctuary as a cage to hold her in, to ensure that the boys would never wander too far from Genosha, just as he could never really leave. So much power in their blood, but their hearts certainly were caught, weren’t they? “He’s not tearing William apart, at least not intentionally.”

“Oh really? Then what is happening to my son?”

“I don’t know.” Pietro hated admitting that to his dear sister, to show her any failure, but it was the truth. “I honestly don’t know, but it’s not Father’s fault – if anything, he’s doing his best to protect William. In fact, it’s in part why I came here today. I need you to try to keep the boys close, to make sure they obey Father and don’t go wandering off.” William was a dutiful child in most aspects, but Thomas… well, Thomas certainly was a Lehnsherr.

Wanda pulled her hand free while she gave him a cool, assessing look. “And why should I do such a thing, when you just admitted that Father is using one of my sons?”

“Because there are people out there who would do far worse than make William put his talent to use for the good of our family and country,” Pietro reminded his sister as he did his best to keep his tone civil. “They would do more than ‘ask’ him for his help.” He didn’t want to hurt Wanda, his precious sibling, but there were some truths that one shouldn’t avoid.

She held his gaze for a few more seconds before once more ducking her head. “So I see. I’ll do what I can, but you must realize that too much pressure from any source will only drive Thomas away.”

“He is rather headstrong.” Pietro couldn’t help but feel a sense of affection for the foolish child despite all of the times that Thomas went out of his way to cause trouble.

Wanda’s lips curled in a sly smile as she picked up the tin of rose tea. “They both are – you just fail to notice with William because he’s so quiet, but he’ll surprise you one of these days.”

“Actually, he’s been doing that a lot, lately.” Pietro’s stomach roiled with acid as he gazed about the garden; the new additions were beautiful, but no one would ever mistake them for natural. “I am telling you the truth, drăgălaş, in that we are trying to keep him safe. Have the boy – have them *both* listen to Father for once, all right?” He reached over to caress her cheek with the back of his left hand before he rose from the table, mindful of her frail state. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Goodbye, trâmbă,” Wanda bid him as he strolled through her garden, mindful of the delicate blooms. Once he was outside he put his speed to use and returned to the palace, where he had many duties waiting for his attention. For a moment he debated stopping in on the boys to see if they were getting into any new trouble, but decided to leave them be for the moment; he could always send a servant by later with an invite to dinner.

*******

“Can Ah get you anything, ma’am?”

“No, I’m fine for the moment.” Wanda offered Rahne a reassuring smile to put the poor girl at ease. “I’ll just be a few more minutes before I head inside to rest.”

“All right.” Rahne gave her a slight bow before returning inside, probably to prepare the bed in case Wanda wanted to lie down for a nap.

It had been a trying day so far with all of its visitors, but Wanda didn’t feel as exhausted as she sometimes did after dealing with too many people; she got up and went over to one of the new additions to her garden, a tumble of impossible pink and golden blossoms that were probably meant to be a bramble of honeysuckle yet were a little too round of petals and a little too spicy of scent. For all their oddity, the juice that dripped from their stamen was oh so sweet, and she swore she heard a faint singing sound whenever the wind rustled through their leaves, a humming melody that put her at ease. All of William’s gifts made her happy, made something inside of her feel cherished when she saw them take root and grow in this gilded cage of hers, made it something wild and unpredictable and no longer her father’s land; she had done her best with the seeds she had ordered and the cuttings that Pietro had brought back for her, but it was her own son, *her* blood that had forever altered the soil that her father had claimed.

She licked her fingers clean of the slightly sticky offering and moved on, toward the ‘roses’ and their rainbow hue to admire petals of blue and royal purple and lavender, of air scented with such sweetness that she knew she would be spoiled for any perfume from that moment on. Perhaps she could ask Lorna to have something made from these flowers, since it was clear that Pietro disliked their origin….

She believed her brother when he said that he hadn’t done anything deliberate to hurt William, but the fact remained that something was going on, something was driving her father to push her son to his limits at the same time that he feared for William’s safety. If she went to him and asked him what, she had no doubt that he would give her a kiss on the forehead and tell her not to worry, would treat her like some breakable doll that needed to be kept tucked out of harm’s way and admired from behind afar. No, she would need to ponder upon how to best approach him, to uncover at least what the real threat was against her son since most of her father’s machinations had to do with keeping his family and his people safe.

******
“You do love your curries, don’t you?” Kate paused in combing through her damp hair to shake her head; she had taken advantage on sending Tommy back to England for something she’d ‘left behind’ to grab a very hasty shower, and it appears he’d decided to pick up some take-out on the way back.

“Eh, I figured since I was swinging through London I might as well hit that one joint you really like.” Tommy finished unpacking the containers from the bag and set what smelled to be some chicken jalfrezi in front of her, along with some jasmine rice. She reached over for a container of mango lassi, and raised an eyebrow at Tommy’s feast of samosa, rojan josh and dalma. At least he’d gotten enough naan that they shouldn’t be fighting over it… she decided to snatch up a couple of pieces now, just to be safe.

“Someone’s certainly a growing boy.”

He paused in shoving the samosa into his mouth with a blinding speed to shrug then reached for one of the remaining three containers of lassi. “Eh, running around makes me hungry, you know that.”

“It’s a good thing your family has money or they’d go broke keeping up with that belly of yours.” She had a bite of chicken and had to admit that yeah, Tommy did know her tastes very well.

He shrugged again and tossed the empty container into the bag. “It’s the least they can do after being such pricks. I mean, come *on*, do they really think that Billy and me can’t take care of ourselves? Okay, maybe not Billy since ‘naive’ doesn’t begin to describe him, but me? I know how to look after myself.”

And now they were back to where they were before she’d sent him on the errand, to ranting about his family and the whole ‘lockdown’ situation. Kate sort of understood it – her father had been after her to employ bodyguards a couple of years ago, before she pointed out that they just made her stand out and got in her way – but she was getting tired of hearing about the subject and not the ‘why’. “You know how to get yourself into trouble.”

Tommy paused in decimating his lamb dish to make a rude noise. “Get in and get out of trouble, thank you.”

“Still, you’re trouble,” she reiterated. “And you’re second in line for the throne, with Billy third until you produce an heir. I can see why they’d want to ensure that you’re safe.”

Nearly finished with his food, Tommy shuddered with what appeared to be exaggerated horror. “Gah, don’t mention the ‘t’ word, okay? Grandfather is going to live forever just to spite us all and to keep barking out orders, wait and see. You gonna finish your food?”

She shook her head as she allowed him to swipe away her barely touched meal. “Still, you know you’re important to Genosha and there’s legitimate reasons for you to be under protection. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that you’ve been allowed this much freedom. You don’t see any other prince quite literally running around-“

“Kate.” The way that Tommy spoke her name, the utter lack of levity to his voice, made her look up from the piece of naan she’d been shredding apart to meet his green eyes. “How many other princes out there can make things explode or run at supersonic speeds? I’m far from helpless, and Billy-“ He cut himself off and shook his head. “We can look after ourselves.”

Whatever was going on, Kate had a growing suspicion that it centered on the other twin with the way that Tommy kept deflecting anything that had to do with Billy. “All right, then. When do I get to meet this ‘fanboy dweeb’ of a brother, eh?”

Tommy blinked a few times, a forkful of chicken jalfrezi halfway to his mouth. “Huh? You want to meet Billy?”

“Yes, since he never was around those two times I was at the palace.” She found it a bit suspicious how the younger twin managed to get out of so many social events yet Tommy, a walking PR disaster, didn’t. “Don’t tell me that you’re embarrassed to be seen with me,” she warned while she gave him a narrowed look.

“No, no!” Tommy waved his fork around and nearly flung the food about in her extravagant suite. “It’s just… he *is* a dweeb, you know. Sure you want to inflict that upon yourself?”

“I’ve survived knowing you these past few months, I think a ‘dweeb’ is moving up in the world.”

Tommy choked on his food and sputtered while glaring at her. “No-not nice, princess,” he informed her once he could breathe.

She gave him a cool look while she finished off her drink. “And you should know me better by now, trouble.”

He huffed a little as he looked away, yet she could tell that he wasn’t really upset. “Fine, I’ll see if I can find some time on CC’s busy social calendar – in-between the constant rearranging of comic books and fangasming over new episodes of zombie shows.”

“I love the boy already.” Kate dumped her empty drink container in the bag as well as she stood up. “Now, give me some time to get ready and then you’re going to take me out for a bit – I’m tired of sitting around and I don’t want to go to sleep just yet.”

A leer came over Tommy’s sharp features as he leaned back on the couch where he was sitting. “Oh, I know some things we can-ow!”

Kate’s right hand stung from smacking the idiot in the head since it was solid bone, but it had been for a worthy cause. “Your family’s right to be concerned, because you’re two seconds away from being assassinated by a straw. Don’t make me do it.” She waggled her finger in front of him when he gave her a dubious look. “I have my ways.”

Tommy pouted as he resettled his hat back on his head. “I know, that’s usually what I like best about you. Don’t take too long,” he whined as he began to clean up the mess from his meal.

“I take however long I take, but I promise it’ll be worth the wait.” She smiled when he sighed at that but didn’t complain; oh yes, he was coming along nicely.

*******

Billy fussed with the collar of his blue shirt and wished for about the thirtieth time that Teddy was with him at the moment, instead of ‘out with a hot babe’ as his texts had indicated. More than a little upset with his brother for ditching him like this – sure, Billy’s spell could cover their absence, but people would start to wonder if they were *never* seen around the palace – Billy none-the-less continued on his way to the ‘informal’ dining room where he’d be joining his grandfather, uncle and aunt for dinner.

Candlelight gleamed against freshly oiled teak panels and polished metal, and Billy felt his stomach clench over the prospect of having to spend the next couple of hours at sitting here when he could be back in his own rooms or even better, out with Teddy. He forced his shoulders back since he knew that his grandfather detested ‘slouching’, and nearly hunched forward again when he noticed the servants placing settings for only three people. “Ah, Aunt Lorna isn’t joining us?”

Grandfather put away the tablet he’d been reading and shook his head. “She accompanied King T’Challa back to Wakanda for a few days to help cement our new alliance and finish a few negotiations, which you’d know if you bothered to leave your rooms to do more than antagonize the gardeners.” Despite the verbal reprimand, he didn’t seem too upset with Billy since he wasn’t frowning and the cutlery remained unmoving upon the table.

“Ah, well… I put the gardens back the way I found them?” Billy wanted to fidget in the worst way, felt the urge to make himself invisible or to levitate the table or do *something* that would make his grandfather stop looking at him, but he forced himself to remain still – mostly still since his fingers kept twisting upon themselves - and look the man in the eye. Almost in the eye. The slight wrinkles around Grandfather’s eyes were truly fascinating….

“At least he does something other than search the palace for endless supplies of sugar and caffeine, and then stay up all night playing video games, unlike Thomas,” Uncle Pietro added as he came to a sudden stop a few feet away, the tablecloth fluttering at his presence. “Do we want to know what game has captured his attention tonight?”

Billy attempted to shrug in a nonchalant manner as he lied to his family. “I wasn’t really paying any attention, I just made him put on his headphones when there was a lot of screaming and explosions for about five minutes straight.” It really wasn’t that much of a lie since most of Tommy’s games sounded like that, it was just the fact that Tommy wasn’t playing one right now.

Uncle Pietro reached for a wineglass that one of the servants had just filled. “Wonderful, so pleased to know that the future of our country rests in the proper hands.” He didn’t stop drinking until the glass was empty.

This time Grandfather sent the disapproving look Uncle Pietro’s way. “I’m sure that Thomas will mature in his own time. I remember that the same could be said of you.” Uncle Pietro didn’t appear pleased about that reminder.

Unwilling to spend the evening with two feuding family members, especially *these* two, Billy hurried to his normal spot on the table. “Well, we wouldn’t want the food to, uhm.” Salad plates had been set out for the first course. “Why don’t we eat?” He was just about to pull out his chair when he felt… ‘something’ and looked at the door.

“William?” Grandfather paused as well to stare at him, and so missed the sight of Wanda walking through the door, dressed in a lovely gown of red silk with white lace and her hair pulled back from her face. Uncle Pietro, however, noticed almost as soon as Billy had that she had joined them, and raced to her side.

“Wanda? What are you doing here?” He grasped at her hands and held them to his chest. “Is something wrong?”

She laughed a little as she tugged her right hand free. “Does there have to be for me to want to have dinner with the men I love?” She touched her hand to his chin for a moment before glancing around him to smile at Billy. “Everyone looks so handsome tonight.”

Billy hurried around the table so he could give her a hug while Grandfather asked the servants to put out another setting for Wanda. “It’s so great to see you.” Judging from the wink she gave him, she knew how grateful he was that she had come.

“Yes, it is always a joy to have you here, and you look beautiful, daughter.” Grandfather waited until she had released Billy to lean down to place a gentle kiss on Wanda’s forehead as if afraid that anything more would damage her, yet it was clear from the sparkle in his grey eyes and the tender smile on his face that he was indeed pleased that she had joined them. “Now I regret allowing Lorna to go off like that.”

Wanda shook her head as she reached out to slide her hand along her father’s left arm, which ended with him giving her hand a gentle squeeze. “Oh, don’t say that! She stopped by before she left, and it was clear she was excited to get away for a little bit. She said that she’d heard about how beautiful Wakanda was and wanted to see it herself.”

“I think that she just wanted to try to find some vibranium to play with, myself,” Uncle Pietro teased as he led Wanda over to the table, to the spot closest to Grandfather. When she saw that this would put her opposite from Billy she paused for a moment, but Billy caught her eye and shook his head; he appreciated that she wanted to be near him, but he also knew how much his grandfather and uncle adored her and how much it must mean to them that she had come to dinner tonight. All that mattered to him was that she was here and not where she sat, not when he could stop by and visit her another time.

The joke prompted a rare laugh out of Grandfather as he raised his glass of wine for a toast. “Well, then may she be clever enough to get away with it. Here’s to family, may ours always find peace, happiness, health and prosperity.” His gaze lingered first on Wanda and then on Billy as he clinked their glasses together.

Feeling a little self-conscious then, Billy fidgeted as he sipped a little of his wine before he set the glass aside. “So, Mother, did you give Rahne the night off or something?” He glanced up at her through his bangs as he picked at his salad.

“No, I just thought about how nice it was to spend time with you, your brother and Pietro today and wanted to see you a little more.” She smiled as she set her fork down. “I should have known that Thomas wouldn’t be here tonight.”

“Video games,” Uncle Pietro remarked with a sense of heavy censure. “I suppose it’s better than him out there drinking, but still.” He sniffed in obvious disapproval.

“As if you never did anything worthy of Father’s ire.” Wanda toyed with a stray strand of hair while she gave her brother a knowing smirk. “I distinctly remember-“

“Wanda, please!” Uncle Pietro’s face began to lose color as he stared at his twin in a beseeching manner. Meanwhile, Grandfather was rather bemused and Billy knew that Tommy would be outright *pissed* about missing this dinner.

“-that time when you decided to do a pub ‘race’ around Monaco and ended up crashing into the Costeau Aquarium, claiming you would free all of the ‘poor fish’.” She appeared so impish just then, that Billy refused to believe that she was old enough to have children at all, let alone teenagers.

“Oh yes, I remember that one,” Grandfather remarked. “No idea what got into your addled brain on that night, considering that you detest fish.”

“I think it was several liters of alcohol,” Wanda offered while Pietro ran his hands through his hair and groaned. “Then there was that time that you and-

“Drăgălaş!” Uncle Pietro shouted as he smacked his hands onto the table. “Enough of… of this reminiscing!”

Wanda gave Billy another quick wink before she schooled her expression into one of remorse. “Of course, Pietro, if you insist. I just thought it would be nice to recall a bit about our past.”

Uncle Pietro actually appeared a bit ashamed just then, before he jerked his hand through his already disheveled hair and fixed Billy with a look that conveyed the message of ‘you will *not* repeat a word of what has been said tonight’. After dealing with his family for so long, Billy managed to blink back an innocent façade while he sipped his wine.

Meanwhile, Grandfather presided over the meal with a slight smile lingering on his lip as if tonight was of great amusement to him; his gaze flickered over all of them as he held his glass of wine to his chest. “We don’t do this often enough.”

“What, embarrass me?” Uncle Pietro reached for the wine bottle nestled in the ice bucket and filled his empty glass to the brim.

“No… just… *this*.” Grandfather waved his left hand about to include the table. “We don’t merely sit here and talk enough.” For a moment, something dark flashed across his face.

Uncle Pietro paused in draining his wineglass to stare at Grandfather, and even Billy had to admit he was surprised by the admission; usually ‘family’ dinners were all about being uncomfortable and lectures about duty and politics and… he always felt they were something to be suffered. Then again, it was rare that his mother was here to partake in them, so maybe tonight had something to do with her; even if she was ‘human’, was supposed to be without any powers of her own, there was indeed something special about her. There was the undeniable fact that just being in her presence made everyone better, made the family feel ‘whole’ for once.

Billy pushed aside his unfinished salad as he glanced at his mother through his long bangs. “Uhm, this is nice.” He felt his cheeks heat up as his grandfather turned to look at him.

“And what have you been doing lately, William, other than your efforts in the garden?”

“Nothing,” was Billy’s quick retort. He didn’t want Grandfather to know about Teddy because then he’d lose all contact with the other boy, would have to break off the bourgeoning relationship just like Aunt Lorna had lost her one chance at love. He also… thoughts of DV filled his mind, echoes of the other’s comforting yet mocking voice as they talked about family and limitations and magic…. “What can I do when I’m trapped here all of the time?” His vision narrowed down to the half-empty plate of salad before him, of leafs wilted by dressing and bits of dried berries, and a wave of frustration overcame him that *this* was his life – he could be doing *anything* right now, could be anywhere in the world, the multiverse and he was sitting at a table eating something he didn’t even like instead of-

“William.”

-instead of exploring all of those worlds, all of those *possibilities*, with DV by his side-

“William!”

Billy blinked, and for some reason found his vision flooded with blue. He blinked again, and this time gave in to the pressure against his face which turned him to look to the side, to look toward his mother. Wanda, awash with that comforting, glowing blue, was kneeling beside him with a concerned expression on her lovely face. “William.”

He blinked again, and realized that his body was thrumming with magic, that it sizzled not only through his blood but in the air around him. “Mother,” he whispered as he fought to control it, to pull it back in to his bones.

“Yes, darling,” she whispered back as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders without any hesitation, unheeding about the blue haze that still surrounded him.

Scared by how much his magic had slipped free even as he cherished her fearlessness, Billy hugged her as he fought for control of the magic. He nearly lost the battle when he felt something clamp down on his shoulder, until he looked up to see that Grandfather had come to stand behind him. Letting out a shuddering breath, he closed his eyes and concentrated on reining in the last of the magic, a struggle that left him oddly drained and feeling as if he’d lost one of his senses.

Now that the blue glow had vanished, Wanda loosed her arms around Billy even as she slipped into the chair beside him, her right hand clasped around his left. Billy held onto it as if a lifeline as he slumped forward, his right hand buried in his hair as if to hold his head upright.

Grandfather’s hand lingered on his shoulder for a moment before pulling away. “I think it’s time for the next course.”

Billy felt a flash of anger at the way his grandfather oh so casually moved on as if nothing happened, but when he looked up, there was a rare glow of warm understanding in those grey eyes. Unsure of how to deal with this acceptance, Billy ducked his head while his plate was cleared with a trembling hand.

“Maybe I should go,” Billy offered since it was clear he had made the servants nervous with his latest display of power.

“*No*,” his mother insisted as she held firm to his hand. “You did nothing wrong.” There was a defiant note to her voice, as if she dared anyone to say otherwise.

“No,” Grandfather agreed as he poured more wine. “I want you to stay. You rarely join us for dinner as it is.” If there was a lot of sloshing as the wine poured out, Billy decided to ignore it.

Uncle Pietro was quiet for once, which was rather unusual, and then he cleared his throat. “You are more preferable than Thomas, I must say.” He didn’t look at Billy, but at least he spoke. “Less insults and better dinner topics.”

The magic still simmered inside of Billy, barely contained and eager to be unleashed; he didn’t know what had brought it to the surface like that, when it had been quiet the entire time he’d been out with Teddy. Maybe it was the stress of dealing with Grandfather, maybe it was the fact that he’d rather be back in his rooms and not feeling as if he was under scrutiny; at least he had his mother by his side to make it more bearable.

Yet a part of him kept thinking about what DV said about families, about how they never truly understood about power, how they sought to keep you in your place because it made them feel more comfortable. As he sat there while Grandfather ordered another bottle of wine to be opened before restarting the conversation on how it would soon be time for the ‘founding’ families gala, Billy wondered if the recent orders to stay at home, to obey, were Grandfather’s attempts to control *his* power.

But that, that didn’t seem right, did it? Confused by the thoughts that filled his head – the voices that sounded too much like Tommy’s and DV’s – Billy took a deep breath and nearly called upon his talent again, called upon the comforting surge of magic. Just as he felt it burn forth from his bones, there was a slight pressure against his left thigh, which caused him to look down past the edge of the table and see-

-a lace handkerchief, one of his mothers, folded into a simple, floppy fox face. He couldn’t help but smile as he remembered her doing this, often with napkins or ribbons or any scrap of cloth she could find, to cheer him and Tommy up when they were younger and forced to suffer through breakfasts and teas with Grandfather. Focusing the magic into his forefinger, he touched the delicate fabric, and his mother let out a startled gasp when it twisted about to form a proper fox shape, albeit one tiny, white and electric blue, which then leapt up onto the table.

“-was thinking that the theme this year could be… I… don’t believe that I’ve had that much wine yet, no?” Grandfather arched his eyebrows as he watched Billy’s creation scamper across the table to snatch up a lamb medallion appetizer that was almost half its size before racing to the edge and disappearing. “Well, that was… unusual.” He sat back in his chair and peered at the spot where the fox had vanished as if waiting for more of them.

“We’re going to need more wine,” Uncle Pietro announced with much deliberation as he snatched at the bottle that one of the servants had fetched for them. “Wanda, I adore you, drăgălaş, but I wish you’d just gotten a pair of kittens or something instead of unleashing these undisciplined brats upon the world.” When Billy felt his face grow hot at that comment, Uncle Pietro shook his head as he poured more wine in first Wanda’s and then Grandfather’s glasses. He seemed to consider something before he then topped off Billy’s. “Really, can’t you do something better than a fox?”

“That was my fault – I fear I was thinking of you at the moment,” Wanda told her brother with a little too much sweetness as she held up her glass as if in a toast.

Uncle Pietro choked on the wine he was drinking upon hearing that. “Wha-? I am not some mangy dog! I am-“

“Ah yes, this seems so very familiar, this squabbling. Though I’m not sure that I missed it,” Grandfather remarked as he used his talent bring a tray of fresh breadrolls to him. “Would you care for one, William?”

“No thanks.” Between maintaining control of his unpredictable talent and watching his mother rile up Uncle Pietro, Billy didn’t have much of an appetite anymore; all he wanted was to get through the meal without any more incidents.

“Good.” The rolls settled back onto the table as Grandfather leaned forward with his fingers steepled together. “Now then, enough with the bickering, and while I find it fascinating, that’s enough magic for the time being as well. We will continue with our dinner in a civilized manner and discuss an appropriate theme for this year’s gala. *Understood*?” He cast his unwavering gaze on each of them in turn, the cool look in his grey eyes only softening when it rested upon Wanda.

“Thank you. Now, Lorna mentioned to me that she was rather enamored with the idea of a masquerade this year. What do you think brought that on, Wanda dear?”

“Ah, I think it had something to do with King T’Challa talking to her about some ceremonial masks, Father. He described a few of them to her and-“

Billy pushed his spoon about in his chilled soup while his mother and grandfather talked about the party. Across the table, Uncle Pietro didn’t appear very happy, and Billy doubted that it was the sour cherries in the soup that were to blame, especially when his uncle refused to look his way. Wondering how much longer he had to sit here before he could work up an excuse to leave, Billy hoped with some bitterness that Tommy at least was enjoying himself.

*******

Tommy ‘snuck’ back into his room, moving too fast to be seen by most everybody in the palace and avoiding the security cameras with a long-practiced ease, to find his brother stretched out on the bed with his left arm draped over his eyes. While the bed part wasn’t anything new, the fact that Billy wasn’t reading or watching some weird show was, so Tommy heaved a sigh while thinking ‘why me’ as he dropped onto his own bed. “Okay, so what, they kill off another beloved character or something? New writer come on board and the main guy suddenly not gay? Or no longer semi-oh-let’s-tease-the-audience-some-more-gay?”

Billy was quiet long enough for Tommy to wonder if the dweeb was asleep, until he moaned at the same time that his arm shifted away from his face. “You know what? I’m left to wonder why I’ve never wished hard enough that I was an only child,” he mused while he stared up at the ornate ceiling, a disturbing blue in his dark eyes.

Stilling his bouncing about on his bed, Tommy stared in surprise at his twin as he attempted to decipher if that comment was a joke or not; Billy had his tells, had this way of quirking his mouth on the left side just a little when he teased, or would duck his head or lower his eyes, yet just then had spoken in such a flat manner while lying still. This… this wasn’t *Billy* - at least, not Tommy’s Billy.

So he did what he always when he was nervous and uncertain, he laughed it off. “Ha, ha, very funny, CC. As if you could live without me.” He waited for his twin to laugh along with him or make up a joke to go with his, and frowned when Billy remained quiet, his eyes fixed upon the ceiling.

“Okay, I get the impression that you’re not happy with me, though why that is, I’ve no clue.” Tommy jumped up from the bed the same time he tossed aside his cap and began to stalk around the room. “I mean, I’m perfect, I’m hot, what’s not to love? And most importantly, I wasn’t even here to piss anyone off, so yeah, no reason at all for the silent treatment, CC.” He folded his arms over his chest as he scowled at his brother, who continued to treat the ceiling as if it was a crystal ball or something. “Oh come *on*!” If there was one thing Tommy hated, it was being ignored; he’d rush the bed and shake the little shit if he didn’t suspect that it would get him slammed into the wall again.

At last, Billy turned his head and looked at Tommy, his eyes still containing that hint of blue and unfocused, as if he was seeing something other than Tommy at the moment. “You missed dinner.”

“Yeah, well, I had a better offer, remember?” Tommy dug his phone out of his back pocket and held it up. “I told you that-“

“Hot date, yes.” Billy’s right hand lifted from the bed and twirled through the air, leaving blue sparks behind. “Mother was sad you weren’t there for it.”

“Yeah, right.” It took a couple of seconds for Tommy’s brain to catch up with what had been said; they never had dinner with their mother because most times, she was too tired by evening to have any company. “Wait, you went to visit her?” When all Billy did was continue to stare ‘at’ him, Tommy cursed beneath his breath. “You’re not telling me that she came to dinner, are you?”

“Yes, she did. It was nice having her there, at least….” For the first time since Tommy had returned, Billy began to show some emotion as what looked to be unhappiness flashed across his face. “Well, it probably would have been better if I hadn’t been there.”

“Oh please, as if she’d be happy if her baby boy wasn’t there to fuss over,” Tommy scoffed as he crept closer to Billy’s bed. “What, you and Uncle Pietro get into a fight over who should unfold the napkin in her lap? Who got to fill her water glass?” Ah, that did it, that brought a hint of a smile onto the geek’s face.

“Not… quite.” Billy groaned as he sat up on bed, the back of his grey t-shirt riding up a little; he stared at the space between his crossed legs much like he had the ceiling and picked at the hem of his boxers as they lay across his left thigh. “It got away from me again.”

“It? What, you smuggle another peacock chick from the garden into dinner?” That had been an amusing tea back when they had seven – the look on Grandfather’s face alone had been *priceless*, and Aunt Lorna had giggled for days.

“No, *it*.” Billy stared at Tommy as if he was an idiot and twirled his hand through the air again, causing even more blue sparks to scatter about.

“Ah, yeah, that ‘it’.” Okay, maybe he was a bit slow on the uptake tonight. “So what, everyone freak out?” He frowned as there was a sudden pressure in his head, a feeling as if something was pressing against his brain. Why would anyone freak out? This was just… just Billy being Billy. Was the room colder all of a sudden?

“Well, I doubt Uncle Pietro is going to invite me to any uncle/nephew excursions, but what else is new?” Billy stared at his hand for a moment and then sighed. “At least the spell seems to be working well, because you were barely missed.”

“Great! About the spell….” Tommy chuckled a little when Billy stopped contemplating glowing fingers to narrow a suspicious look his way. “You can keep it up for a while, right? Because Kate – you remember me mentioning Kate, right? Well, she’s in town and gonna be for a couple of weeks and….” Uhm, yeah, what was he supposed to say now? And why was Billy staring at him like that.

Billy continued to give him that narrow, piercing gaze that had *way* too much of Grandfather in it for Tommy’s comfort and then floated off of the bed until his feet touched the ground. “Let me get this straight – you’re going to hang around with a girl, the same girl, for the foreseeable future? Kate, as in Kate Bishop?”

“Yeah, is there something wrong with that?” Despite the fact that Billy was acting all, well, un-dweeby all of a sudden, Tommy did some narrow-eyed Grandfather-glaring of his own. Well, he tried. Dammit, it was harder that it seemed, all this squinting was giving him a headache.

“Just that she always struck me as a very intelligent young woman.”

“Oh fuck you, CC!” Tommy gave Billy the finger, which caused his twin to stop with the Grandfather impression and smile. “It just goes to show how smart she is to want to spend her time with me.”

“If you say so.” Tommy flipped off the bastard again for sounding so unconvinced. “I’ll keep up the spell, but you can’t spend all of your time away from the palace, you have to at least visit Mother a little and annoy Uncle Pietro from time to time or someone might notice you’re never around.” Billy pulled at a lock of hair as he frowned. “I’ve never cast anything for so long, so it’s best not to push things too far.”

If it were anyone other than his twin, Tommy would accuse them of having a hidden agenda, but Billy always did have a confidence problem. “All right, I should be able to manage that at least.”

His agreement appeared to cheer up his brother, who smiled as he floated back to his bed. “So, you do anything else tonight than suffer through a lousy family dinner?”

In the process of tugging down his blankets, Billy froze for a moment. “Uhm, I sorta… ran into Teddy?”

It took Tommy a second or two to figure out who the hell ‘Teddy’ was and why Billy was so hesitant to mention the guy’s name. “What?” Giving up on getting ready for bed, Tommy detoured from the closet so he could continue this conversation. “You ran into surfer dude? Where?”

Billy looked ready to pull the covers up over his head before he squared his jaw and met Tommy’s gaze. “At Pierson’s – I figured there was no reason you should be the only one out having fun so I went back for some books since we left in a rush yesterday. Teddy was there as well and… he’s nice. He’s nice and we’re going to meet up again. For a date.” He said the words in a rush, his eyes lit up with a different kind of light than the eerie blue one as if daring Tommy to say something, to object.

Tommy wanted to do just that, to point out that Billy had no idea who this guy was, had no idea if he was human or a mutant, if he could be trusted, if – aw hell, he really was turning into his grandfather and uncle, wasn’t he? Muttering to himself as he ran a hand through his hair, Tommy forced himself to calm down and think this through, to not start another fight. There was no reason to believe that this ‘Teddy’ was out to hurt Billy, not when he didn’t even know who Billy was. Not when Billy could magic the asshole to the moon if he so much as got shitty with him. “Okay, so you finally have some hope of getting some. Way to go, CC.”

If it wasn’t for his superspeed, there was no way that Tommy would have dodged the magically propelled pillow launched directly at his face. Laughing as his brother called him an asshole, Tommy raced into the closet so he could grab a change of clothes before going to bed – and came to an abrupt stop once he entered the room.

Now, he knew that Billy had been doing a few ‘tweaks’ to the place lately, but he was certain that the room had been about half as small earlier in the day. He was also certain that there hadn’t been a large… enclosure? Cage? Whatever the hell you wanted to call it filled with a way too realistic environment of miniature trees and grass and even a fucking running *stream*. All of which was for the benefit of a white and all too familiar glowing blue little fox that appeared to be shredding Tommy’s favorite Burberry scarf.

Yeah, okay. Magicked closets, freaky cages and impossible pets. Life as usual in the Lehnsherr household.

Perfectly normal.

The fox paused in its decimation of tan and plaid to bark at Tommy.

“BILLY!!!!!”

*******

Floating in the vast darkness, Billy wrapped his cloak a little tighter around himself and wondered why he never seemed to dream about his mother’s garden anymore, or about the sea, or about… well, anything other than the infinite spread of tiny worlds. It was beautiful here, if a little sterile with the absolute darkness above and below; the darkness was only broken by the soft glows cast off from the endless globes that sparkled as if priceless jewels. Any other night he would be drawn to them, would hover over them to catch a glimpse of what they contained, what minute change made them differ from the sphere on either side, yet he allowed himself to drift above them with no direction of his own as he waited for the dream to end of its own volition.

“Something wrong, Imp?”

“What is the point to all of this?” Billy slipped his right arm from beneath the weight of his cloak to gesture at the spinning globes. “What am I trying to tell myself, hmm? That the future is filled with possibilities? No, not really, not when I’ve got so many obligations crammed down my throat. That anything can happen? No, it can’t, not the things that truly matter.” He knew that better than most; even with his talent he couldn’t make his mother better, couldn’t free himself from his family’s responsibilities or gain Tommy’s confidence in things. No, some things remained impossible even if he could teleport in a blink of an eye or create things just by wishing them into being. “I don’t think I want to dream this anymore.”

“Ah, I see.” Things were quiet after that, while Billy waited for the dream to fade, for something else to replace the familiar dreamscape, yet he couldn’t even control his mind that much. “And what will you do then? Be content with your lot as poor little William, ignored by your family except when they want you for something, ignored except for what your power can bring them?”

Billy hugged his cloak to him as he shook his head. “That’s not true, they don’t ignore me.”

“Don’t they? How often did your grandfather seek you out before he realized what it was that your power could do for him? How often does your brother, your own precious twin, abandon you – the dweeb? The pathetic *geek*?” DV’s voice, which had been so soft and soothing before, took on a viperous bite now, each word distinct and sharp and so clear it was as if he spoke them directly in Billy’s head. “Your uncle – ah, that’s right, he doesn’t even acknowledge you unless it’s with scorn, does he? Always such a pest in his eyes, a horrible mistake that never should have been born.”

Huddled inside of his cloak, Billy clenched his hands into fists as he shook his head. “It’s not like that – Grandfather – they’re busy. I keep to myself, that’s all.”

“You keep to yourself because you’re different, you’re special. You keep to yourself because even if you bothered, they would just ignore you, would push you away… unless they had a need for you. Well, for your talent,” DV corrected with a snide tone.

“Mother isn’t like that.” Billy felt his magic seethe inside of him as the words ground out. “She loves me.” Why was DV doing this – why was this happening? Wasn’t this all in Billy’s head? Was he more messed up than he’d thought?

There was silent for several heartbeats, and when DV next spoke it was without any of the previous nastiness; in fact, he sounded full of remorse. “No, she does, but then mothers always love their monsters, don’t they?”

Hearing that – hearing his fears said aloud even if it was by some figment of his own imagination, made Billy gasp. The magic flared out of him, so brilliant and chaotic, so powerful, and even as he burned with it he thought he heard laughter.

“Yes, that’s it, Imp, let it out! Oh how magnificent you’re going to be!”

It- no, *he* continued to burn, the darkness transformed by all of the magic as if a blue star had been born, and he couldn’t stop it, couldn’t do anything as he grew weaker the longer the magic poured out. It felt like forever, felt both incredible and so frightening, and all the while DV murmured in his head, murmured indecipherable things that skittered about the edge of his consciousness. Billy tried to understand, to grasp the words, but the magic swept him away.

As the magic finally burned out, a cold began to sink into him, at first on his skin and then into it, into his veins and muscle and very bone. Billy felt the darkness take over as the cold settled in.

*******

“You know, I didn’t think I was *that* sheltered, I grew up in New York City, after all, but I’ll never be able to look at a computer the same way again now,” Teddy admitted as he rubbed at his left ear; it still felt odd to only be wearing only one earring, but at least he had one small hoop back in now.

Clarice laughed as she glanced at the closed door to the lab. “Yeah, I’ll admit that the good doctor could even make Logan blink. Whoever said academics are the stodgy types never spent the night at a bar with them.”

Teddy didn’t know about that, but he’d certainly learned some new things about researchers and their tempers – along with their language – when they grew upset over new motherboards that didn’t want to cooperate. Judging from Mr. Wisdom’s reaction to his wife’s fit, it wasn’t a new thing, so Teddy was very grateful that he could just drop off the requested supplies and beat a hasty retreat back out of the room.

“Still, I’m picking up some new things, so I’ll be able to hold my own the next time I get in a fight with someone over a taxi.”

“There you go!” Clarice reached over to clap him on the shoulder. “I’m a firm believer in that there’s always some good to come out of a bit of mental scarring.”

“Says the woman who lives to do said mental scarring.” Teddy continued to stare straight ahead as he spoke, and did his best to keep from smiling.

“Of course, have to make this life count, don’t we?” Clarice hummed a little and appeared to rock back and forth on her toes with her hands clasped behind her back, an odd look for a woman dressed in stark SHIELD dark blue and armed to the teeth. “Speaking of making life count, one couldn’t help but notice that a certain blond sheepdog was in a good mood last night. Care to tell Auntie Clarice what’s going on? You run into that cute guy again?”

“Well, it *is* a small island,” Teddy repeated back to her, and this time he did fail in keeping his face straight.

Clarice paused in mid-rock and turned her face in his direction, her purple brows arched above her green eyes. “Oh, you are *so* going to get it when we get back to base. Sassing a superior officer, Altman?”

“Merely repeating some words of wisdom passed down to me, ma’am.” He even tipped an imaginary hat while continuing to more or less stand on guard.

That earned him a disdainful scoff. “Fine then, withholding information. I’m foreseeing some midnight snack runs in your future.”

Teddy had a feeling that this was what it felt like to have siblings, a bunch of sadistic, meddling siblings. “Fine, yes, I did happen to run into the cute guy yesterday.” He folded his arms over his chest and attempted to pout over the abuse he was suffering, but it just felt so good to think about Billy again. “We had coffee, and I’m hoping to go out with him tonight.”

Off to the side, Clarice wrapped her hands around her throat. “Oh my god, the cuteness… it’s suffocating me.” She made a gagging sound while Teddy glanced around to ensure that no one else was around then before he reached over to smack her – at least, he attempted to do that, but she teleported just out of his reach. When she reappeared, she was laughing, her green eyes bright and a huge grin on her face. “Aw, I’m just teasing, Altman. You’re so adorable when you’re all frowny.”

“So does that mean you’ll fetch your own dinner for once and leave me in peace tonight so I can meet up with Billy?” He glared at his partner as he settled back against the wall before someone noticed them fooling around – especially Mr. Wisdom.

Clarice did the same, though she was still grinning even as she rested her right blades. “I suppose – I mean, you’re taking the whole newbie hazing thing better than most. David hacked into his team’s Facebook’s accounts after the third day because he was so annoyed about all of the coffee runs.”

“Ouch.” Teddy cringed at the thought of the damage the quiet genius could do, and wondered if that had anything to do with why David seemed to hold himself a bit aloof from the rest of the team. “That must have upset a few people.”

“Just a few.” Clarice hummed again for a couple of seconds. “So, this guy’s named Billy? What do you know about him?” She was still smiling, yet she didn’t come across as playful as she had a minute or so ago. “Other than he’s cute.”

“That he has a brother – that was the guy who interrupted us the other day, his family’s been on the island since it was established and that we share a lot of the same interests.” Teddy wasn’t quite sure where his partner was going with this. “What, am I supposed to get a blood sample and bank account statement next time?”

That startled a brief laugh out of Clarice, but she was quick to return to her professional demeanor. “Well, it wouldn’t hurt, but where I’m going with here is, did you tell him what you do for a living?” She raised her right hand to tap against the SHIELD badge on her chest, and when Teddy shook his head, she sighed. “Look, a bit of advice from someone who’s been there – it’s not a smart thing to let people know what you are, especially when you’re just going to up and leave sometime soon. Tell him… tell him you’re working on a project here or something, but don’t tell him you’re an agent. It’ll be less grief in the long run. It’s not like you’ve got any sort of future with this kid.”

Anger washed through Teddy upon hearing her ‘advice’, though he couldn’t quite pinpoint why; he was here in Genosha for a mission and was looking forward to when he could see his mother again. Clarice wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know, so why should he be upset? Why did the prospect of lying to Billy, of acknowledging that their relationship wouldn’t be more than a temporary thing, bother him? Yeah, Billy was cute, was more than cute, was so much of what Teddy wanted in a guy, but there were a lot of other cute, adorable guys out there.

He smacked his head back against the wall as he jerked his hands through his bangs. “You’re… yeah, you’re right. I hate lying, though.” After… after the *asshole*, the last thing he wanted to do was to lie to someone.

“I usually am.” Despite the smug response, Clarice sounded more subdued than cocky. “Look, I know it’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s for his sake as well as your own. The less this Billy knows about what you do, the better; it’s safer for him.”

Yeah, because for the last few days Teddy had risked his life holding up this wall; despite the sarcastic thought, he knew the point that Clarice was trying to make, the same point that his instructors had drilled into his head during training. Still…. “I thought this wasn’t supposed to be such a dangerous mission.”

Clarice was quiet for a few seconds before she answered. “You willing to risk his life on that? Because I can give you a list of agents who would give anything to be in your shoes right now and have the ability to make another – a better – call.”

It wasn’t the trite words that got through to him, it was the quiet conviction in Clarice’s voice. He let out a slow breath as he gave his head another smack against the wall. “So what, we never date anyone outside of SHIELD?” He blinked when that startled another laugh from his partner.

“Please, if that was the case, there wouldn’t be a SHIELD within six months.” Clarice giggled a few more times. “No, you just be smart about it, Altman. Have fun with your cute island boy, but don’t tell him too much, and never forget that it’s a temporary thing. During our break we’ll work up a decent cover story for you.”

That didn’t exactly sound like a fun way to spend a break, but did he have much of a choice? Teddy wanted to enjoy the time he did have with Billy without worrying about his job or anything else. “All right.” He just hoped that when it was time for him to leave, that Billy didn’t hold any of this against him.

*******

Sebastian was reviewing Drew’s summary of the Algiers report when his phone began to ring from an outside line – the phone which wasn’t supposed to ring unless Naomi approved a call through to him, first. Suspecting that he knew this caller, he sat back in his chair as he answered it. “Shaw speaking.”

“You’re sounding rather solemn there, Director. Having a bad day?”

Sebastian removed his right hand from the arm of his chair before he crushed it in anger; he rather liked this chair, its leather backing was broken in just perfect. “Mr. Hewa, I wish I could say that this was a pleasant surprise, but then I’d be lying.”

“Come now, lying is such a little sin compared to the others you’ve committed, don’t bother to restrict yourself on that front on my account,” Mr. Hewa chided, humor plain in his cultured, smooth voice; he sounded almost British - *almost*. There was something just… ‘off’ about the man, enough to warn Sebastian to be careful about him. That and the fact that he could never trace these calls nor record them.

Considering his busy agenda for the day, there was no time to play word games with the mysterious stranger. “There is little I do on your account unless it benefits me. Speaking of which, I assume this call is about the Magnus boy?”

“Ah, quick to the point as always, such an amusing trait with you Americans. Yes, I was calling for an update in the acquisition of our ‘boy’.”

Sebastian risked tapping his fingers against the tablet on his desk as he called up Agent Guthrie’s latest report. “Everything is in place, though there have been comments in how quiet it’s been since Dr. Wisdom-Pryde has relocated to Genosha.”

There was a chuckle on the other end of the line. “In other words, you would appreciate a reason for your people to be so diligent and hard-working, I understand. Very well, one rather spectacular display, coming up soon.”

“Good.” Sebastian closed the file, certain that Guthrie would have his people prepared for anything that Hewa would send their way. “Is there anything else?”

Hewa laughed again. “No, not as long as you moved the pawn I requested into position. The boy is coming along nicely, so all we need is to have the final piece into play and wait for the right events to come about.”

“I’m doing my part, be sure to do yours.” Sebastian slid his hand into his lap before he destroyed the tablet.

“Oh, that I am.” The other end of the line went silent as Hewa ended the call without allowing Sebastian another word.

Frustrated at how the man manipulated their conversations like that, Sebastian forced himself to take several breaths to calm himself down. Then he pulled up all of the files on the Genosha mission, determined to mine through the data to look for what he was missing, to find some sort of clue as to what Hewa was trying to pull off, to find some sort of leverage over the man. Sebastian detested the idea that he was being used, and would turn the tables on the man somehow.

*******

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