chapter six

*******

Buzzing, there was a buzzing sound like annoyed bees flittering around Billy’s head. He groaned as his shoulders hunched together, for a moment terrified of moving further, of opening his eyes, and then he woke up enough to identified the sound as Tommy’s snoring. Groaning again, he rubbed at his face as he sat up in bed, his fingers shifting upward to tangle in his hair as he shivered, for some reason feeling cold deep inside. His left hand fell down to rub at his chest, at the center of the coldness, but the feeling didn’t dispel even as he huddled forward.

Hadn’t been there something about ice in his dreams? Something… something…. He shook his head as he shivered again, wanting nothing more than something hot and heavily caffeinated in his system. Magic bubbled up and burst forth, for a moment bringing delicious warmth with it, and then a venti espresso macchiato appeared in his left hand; DV was right in that magic was the one true thing that he could rely upon, that would always be there for him. It certainly made mornings bearable….

As the coffee helped to clear up his muddled thoughts, Billy’s phone made a chiming sound. Frowning a little since the person responsible for all of his texts was snoring away on the opposite side of the room, he finished the last of the hot beverage before he reached for the phone and felt some more of the chill inside of him vanish when he saw Teddy’s name come up on the screen. Hesitating for a moment, he bit into his bottom lip as he thumbed past the lock screen of the device to see what the other boy had sent to him, and blinked when it was a message about them doing something later that afternoon. At first Billy thought that perhaps he was imagining things since part of him had been waiting for the inevitable let down of never hearing from Teddy again, but this… *this*.

Fumbling to set the empty cup on his nightstand, he then placed his phone on his lap and rocked back and forth while he attempted to figure out what to do next; he should answer, yes? Yes, he should answer. But how? Emoji? No, that was so lame, wasn’t it? Well, maybe one emoji, maybe a sleepy one… no, wouldn’t that make Teddy feel bad about waking him up? Should Billy wake Tommy up for help? *No*, he wasn’t so helpless as to need his brother’s help for this, and besides, he’d never hear the end of it….

Handling his phone as if it was a venomous creature and would turn on him at any moment, Billy pecked out what he hoped wasn’t a too eager message of ‘sounds great, how about sushi’, which allowed him to use a smiling cat icon. He held his breath the entire time it took for Teddy to respond, with a grinning cat icon of his own, plus a sushi one and party hat. Teddy asked which sushi place Billy wanted to go to, and Billy replied ‘Rollo’s’ since it was farther from the palace and less likely to be patronized by any of the staff. His heart thundered in his chest when Teddy offered to pick him up for their ‘date’, and he had to delete his garbled reply before he typed out that he had some running around to do and would just meet Teddy there.

Teddy sent a couple more texts, along the lines of reminding Billy that he was on the hook for coffee after their dinner tonight, before signing off that he had to go to work. Billy stared down at his screen, at the rows of messages, at the winking cat face, at… at the proof that he hadn’t made too much of an idiot of himself either yesterday or this morning, at the prospect of seeing Teddy again. *Teddy*. Someone funny and sweet and as much of a geek as himself and so gorgeous it hurt to look at him for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

A date. Panic built inside of Billy and pushed aside the cold, pushed aside air, pushed aside the familiar sight of the bedroom for something dark and spacious until Billy scrambled to contain his magic. He leaned forward to bury his face against the soft material of his grey duvet and forced himself to breathe in and out until his emotions calmed down, and then got up off of the bed. Take a shower, he told himself. Get ready and then grab something to eat, maybe get out of the palace for the day. One good thing was after dinner last night, he doubted that anyone would come looking for him for the next day or two….

He grabbed a clean pair of boxers then headed to the bathroom, and stood under the hot water for several minutes before he even bothered to start washing anything. It wasn’t long after that when he was standing in front of one of the sinks and staring into the fogged up mirror, the towel around his hips threatening to fall off as he stared at his blurry image. Yeah, nothing spectacular there all right, he thought to himself as he tried to figure out how Tommy, his identical twin, managed to look attractive enough to date someone like Kate Bishop, and Billy looked like *this*. Could his chin get any pointier? Ears stick out any more? What was up with his eyebrows? Why couldn’t he have gotten green eyes as well, or his grandfather’s grey? The color looked fine on his mother, but somehow with his darker hair it just turned… muddy. Yeah, muddy was a good word for him. Muddy and boring and… he sighed as he poked at his bony chest. A failure all around. He couldn’t even skip shaving because the bit of dark hair growing in was so sparse and uneven, unlike the full beard of Grandfather’s the few times he’d deigned to grow it out. On the whole, Billy hadn’t felt the lack of a father while growing up when there’d been Grandfather and Uncle Pietro around – if anything, there’d been too much of dominant male presence in his life – but there were times when he wish the man was there so he could yell at him for the sorry lack of genetics the asshole had contributed.

So why was Teddy interested in him? Pity? Insanity? Did Billy have ‘desperate’ branded on his forehead or something? He might not have a problem with the latter if it meant he got to spend some time with the gorgeous guy. Certain that his spell was holding up, he didn’t think that Teddy had a clue who he really was, so it couldn’t be to get in good with the royal family or anything. Was it some sort of prank? But Teddy didn’t seem like the type….

“It’s too early to think like this,” Billy muttered to himself as he finished getting ready. After brushing his teeth, dealing with the pathetic bit of stubble and rubbing a little gel into his hair with the faintest of hope of wrangling some sort of order to the mutinous strands (again, why did the riot of curls on his mother look lovely, while on him the floppy waves looked like a mess? A disastrous mess at that?), he pulled on the boxers and left the steam-filled room. No big surprise to find Tommy still dead to the world, drooling onto the pillow and snoring away. Billy resisted the urge to magic him up to the ceiling since their last prank war had cost him a mint condition first issue comic (and Tommy some stupid pair of sneakers, and the palace almost an entire wing before Grandfather did that evil eye glare thing for a whole twenty minutes at them and doled out the ‘I am rather disappointed with you, when I was your age I was too busy fighting for my survival to be blithering idiots such as yourselves’ speech).

Billy couldn’t help but smile when he entered the closet and saw the cage he’d conjured up last night, along with the glowing blue and white fox running around inside of it. “Hey, up already, Tails?” He reached inside to stroke a finger along the tiny fox’s back, and swore it shook itself beneath his touch and yelped in what seemed excitement as it remained in the one spot until he pulled his hand away. “Want some breakfast?” He concentrated until a few scraps of raw meat, probably filched from the kitchen, appeared in the cage in front of his new pet.

Tails didn’t wait long to descend upon the feast, and Billy only watched for a moment before he went to get dressed; he didn’t care what Tommy said, he was keeping the pet and might even try to give Tails a companion or two if he could figure out how he’d created the fox in the first place. Did he need his mother to make another origami fox? Or could he just crumple up a napkin and will it into being? Something to ponder later, after he got some breakfast in him. For a moment he was tempted to go see his mother, but after having company for a good bit of the day and then joining them for dinner, she probably was exhausted and needed some time for herself. No, he’d go have breakfast at Amma’s, leech the wifi at Nico’s, see if any new comics arrived at the Attic and read in the park for a little bit, until it was time to meet up with Teddy.

He almost pulled on the red hoodie before he decided on something different, a greenish-grey sleeveless hoodie which he slipped on over a black t-shirt and some jeans.  For some reason the darker colors called out to him, the layer of fabrics helped to make him feel warm even though it wasn’t like it would be cold outside.

Whatever. He was hungry and didn’t want to remain at home any longer, so it was time to go. Allowing his magic free rein, Billy concentrated on the illusion spell to keep people from realizing who he really was and that he wasn’t in his rooms, and then teleported away.

*******

Tommy fidgeted with his phone while he waited for Kate to choose a pair of shoes to wear. “Eh, go with the blue pair,” he told her.

She frowned at the strappy stiletto heels and chose the gold sandals instead. “Trust a guy to pick the ones that aren’t meant to be walked in for more than fifty feet at a time, and on a flat, carpeted surface at that.”

“Then why do you have them?” Sometimes he didn’t understand women.

“Because sometimes you want to go for ‘devastating’, and they do the trick.” She smiled as she slipped on the sandals. “That and have you ever seen the damage one of those things can do as a weapon? Almost as good as a knife.”

And most of the time he didn’t get Kate, such as right now. Was she joking? He couldn’t tell if she was joking, especially when she smiled at him like that, with her blue eyes shining and a slight quirk to her lips as if daring him to take her at her word. But it was okay, because that’s what he really liked about her, that he couldn’t figure her out. Too many people were willing to be exactly what he wanted them to be – no, willing to be what they thought *Prince Thomas* wanted them to be – so someone like Kate was precious. “You planning on using them on me any time soon?”

“Hmm, I like to keep my options open,” she teased as she finished with the last buckle on the shoe then leaned over to give him a quick kiss. “But I’m hoping it’s not necessary.”

He grinned up at her as he tucked his phone away. “I always figured you’d just smack me with a rolled up newspaper or something.”

“Not heavy enough, I’m thinking more like a full wine bottle for the best effect,” she told him as she tugged him onto his feet from the couch.

“Eh, what a waste of a good wine.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t waste the good stuff on a scoundrel like you.”

“Scoundrel, I like that.” He pulled his hand free and raced around her several times, enough to generate a gust of wind that caused her lilac-colored skirt to flare up around her knees.

She laughed as she batted the flimsy material down, and gave him a light slap to the right shoulder when he slowed to a ‘normal’ speed. “It certainly fits you, T. Now come on, or we’re going to be late.”

“If you insist.” He tugged his grey cap down a little tighter over his hair as he followed like a well-trained puppy as they left Kate’s penthouse suite, on their way to meet this ‘Cassie’. “You said her dad’s a scientist?”

Kate gave an elegant shrug while she waited for the elevator to arrive. “More like a specialist. He’s among the top in the field for micro-electronics and security systems, stuff like that. I don’t pay that much attention to it.”

Yeah, right, and Tommy barely had any money to his name. “Okay, so don’t ask the guy questions about electronics unless I want to be bored stiff.”

That prompted a laugh out of Kate as she stepped into the elevator. “Yes, pretty much. But Cassie’s a sweetheart, so I think you’ll like meeting her.” She folded her arms over her chest and gave him a stern look. “I’d like to be able to say the same about meeting your brother.”

“Uhm, yeah, about that.” Tommy jostled his cap as he rubbed at the back of his head, a sheepish grin spreading across his face. “I meant to ask him about that this morning, honest, but the dweeb woke up early and was gone by the time I got out of bed.” Guess the dinner last night must have really bothered him; Tommy had even checked his mother’s garden in case Billy was hiding out there, and had been told by Rahne that Billy hadn’t stopped by. “Not like he has that busy of a social life, though, so I’ll get him another day.”

“Be sure that you do.” Kate pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her small purse and set them on top of her head in anticipation of the sunny day outside. Once the elevator reached the lobby level of the hotel, she strode out of it with confidence and headed for the seating area, and it only took a few seconds for Tommy to figure out that the petite blonde huddled in the middle of one of the overstuffed red couches was probably ‘Cassie’. The girl, who appeared in her early teens, leapt to her feet when she noticed Kate’s approached and waved. “Kate!”

Yeah, definitely Cassie. Kate waved as well and went over to the girl, who jumped up to give her a hug. Cassie Lang was cute, if you liked ‘em young, blonde and obviously American with the cut-off jeans shorts, the colorful layered tank tops and messy ponytail. “It’s so good to see you,” the girl proclaimed. “I think they’re about to kick me out,” she mumbled in a quieter tone when Kate stepped back.

“Please, if they let Tommy here wander around without a leash, they should have no problem with you. Cassie, this is my friend Tommy. Tommy, Cassie.” Kate introduced them to each other with a negligent wave of her manicured right hand, mindful to leave off any last names despite the fact that Tommy had one lined up – even had the fake ID as well. “He’s a local.”

“Oh, really?” Cassie’s blue eyes went wide and she toyed with the end of her long ponytail as she looked up at him. “You really live here? Have you ever been to the palace? Seen the royal family?”

Tommy caught the way that Kate’s lips twitched, which she smothered by rubbing at her nose, and did his best to act nonchalant. “Eh, I’ve seen them a couple of times from a distance,” he lied. “You can’t help but run into them now and then because of some fancy event or parade, but it’s only special people like the Princess here who gets the royal invites.”

Kate laughed a little as she led them to the front doors of the hotel. “Right, like your life is lacking so much for that fact.” She slid the sunglasses in place and waited until they were a little further down the sidewalk to come to a stop. “What’s the plan for the day? This is Cassie’s first time here so where should we take her?”

Tommy gave the matter some thought for a few seconds. “How about the piers? We can get a bite to eat and there’s better trinkets there if she wants some souvenirs for her friends back home.”

“Oh!” Cassie clapped her hands together as she almost hopped to keep up with his and Kate’s longer steps. “I’ve heard about them, and the cafes overlooking the ocean! That sounds like fun, and the memorial to the Fallen isn’t too far away, is it?”

He did his best to keep from wincing at her question. “Yeah, it’s close by.” It was bad enough when the whole family had to join Grandfather every year at the anniversary of the monument’s commemoration, but he should have expected that Kate’s friend would want to see the gleaming metal sculpture and eternal burning flame dedicated to all of the mutants who had given up their lives to the fight for equality and freedom.

“Hmm, be sure not to eat too much at the cafes, since there’s the Harvest Market on the way back,” Kate told Cassie as she held on to her friend’s wrist and urged her to turn around so they could go in the opposite direction. “You’ll be amazed at the food you can buy there.”

“Really? I wonder if I can find something for my dad. He’s been into a lot of organic stuff lately-“

Tommy tuned out the babbling since it didn’t sound that interesting and pulled his phone out of the pockets of his cargo pants. Maybe he should see if Billy was off sulking somewhere and could come hang out with them, to act like some sort of buffer between Cassie and Kate. However, when he started to tap on his phone, Kate caught hold of his right arm and slipped her left one through it. “So, you think we’ll see anything interesting down at the piers?” she asked him.

Distracted by her wide smile, Tommy put his phone away again and shrugged. “Eh, sometimes you have water and fire manipulators down there putting on shows, especially since it’s getting close to the yearly gala. Some of them are hoping to be hired for the festivities so yeah, there’ll probably be a bit of flash.”

“See, I knew there was a reason why I put up with you,” Kate teased as she patted his forearm.

“What, other than my stunning good looks and overwhelming sexiness?”

“Well, I was thinking more about how my mother always told me to be kind to the underprivileged, so you keep thinking that, T.” Kate’s smile took on a wicked grin while Cassie attempted to stifle her giggles with the back of her right hand.

Tommy snatched away Kate’s sunglasses and put them on before she could even blink and grinned as she gazed at him in surprise. “Oh, I’ll be ‘thinking’ things, all right.” He slid the glasses down so he could waggle his eyebrows at her.

Kate scoffed as she plunked the glasses off of his face. “I think someone’s going to end up pushed off of a pier since he needs a dose of cold water.”

“Hate to break it to you, Princess, but the water’s nice and warm here. Why don’t you join me?” He laughed as she stomped on his right foot.

“Maybe I should have worn those blue shoes after all,” she told him in a too sweet tone of voice.

Meanwhile, Cassie followed along beside them, giggling while she snapped a couple of pictures. “You two make the cutest couple. I hope to find a boyfriend of my own someday soon.” She sounded a bit wistful just then.

Kate shoved Tommy aside when he tried to wrap his arms around her. “Great, you can have this scoundrel.”

Aw, she was crazy about him. Tommy smiled as he dodged another stomp to his feet and wondered if he really should work on introducing her to Billy, since he was going to need the dweeb’s help in ensuring that Kate survived formally meeting the rest of the family if she didn’t come to her senses any time soon.

*******

A smirking brown cat with one green and one golden eye stared up at Xavin as she gawked into the open cardboard box. “Kar, what the hell did you buy now?”

“Oh, did the Snookie Cats shipment come in?” Xavin’s fiancée wrapped sparkling arms around her chest and dug a pointy chin into her right shoulder. “Yay, they did!” She gave Xavin a quick kiss on the cheek before swooping in to snatch up the box and flitting away, excited enough to emit various waves of colored light.

“’Snookie Cats’? Do I even want to know?”

“Just that they’re really popular right now and these’ll sell, I promise!” Karolina flashed Xavin a pleased smile as she went to find some place to unpack the new goods in their already crowded store before they reopened from their lunch break.

It had to be an internet thing. Xavin closed the x-acto knife and slid it into the back pocket of her jeans before she set about cleaning up the rest of the unpacked boxes, a slight smile curling her lips as Karolina hummed along to some mystery song as she worked. Since it had been a busy morning at ‘Marmalade Skies’, there was a bit more clean-up to be done as well, shelves that needed reorganized and restocked, trash disposed of and glass wiped clear of smudges, a bit of order restored that made Xavin feel proud once it was done. It wasn’t much in the grand scheme things, but this was her home, this shop and the apartment above it – was hers and Karolina’s. Despite what they could have, this was what they wanted.

“So, what do you think?”

Turning around at her love’s question, Xavin approached the new display and wrapped her arms around Karolina’s waist and nuzzled the other’s soft, silky blonde hair for a moment while she contemplated the odd collection of cats. “They’re so cute it’s sickening,” she admitted after a moment’s debate.

Karolina laughed as she patted Xavin’s forearms. “See! I told you they’ll sell!” It was a long-standing joke between them about how anything that annoyed Xavin was certain to be a hit with the humans.

“They better, or else they’ll be going in the big bonfire they have around here soon,” Xavin warned.

Her lover made an exaggerated sound of horror before giggling as she turned around. “How can you be so mean to anything so cute?”

“Because you use up all of the cuteness quota in my life,” Xavin informed her as she leaned down for a kiss, one that lingered for several seconds – at least until the phone rang.

Pulling away with a smile, Karolina headed toward the door. “You answer that while I run out for some coffee, okay?”

“All right.” Kavin waved goodbye as she went over to the counter and reached below it for the store’s phone, wondering if it was that kid asking if the Gloomy Bear purses were back in stock yet. “Marmalade Skies, how can I help you?” She even managed a semi-polite voice for once.

You can assist me with a favor, Prince Xavin .”

As soon as she heard the words come through in *that* language, with *that* title, Xavin struggled to control both her rage and her shape before she did something she regretted. “Whoever you are, you are-“

“Save the insults,” the mystery person continued in English. “Now isn’t the time, and you *owe* me, remember?”

Recognition began to filter through the rage. “Wait, is this S’-“

“It’s *Sarah* now, if you’ll remember.”

Xavin took a few deep breaths and forced her hands to shift back into human specifications, for the green to fade to warm brown. “Yes, Sarah. Okay. Not to be too much of a bitch, but why the hell are you bothering me?” She thought the woman was too deeply buried to risk reaching out to her like this.

“Because I need your help.” It sounded as if Sarah wasn’t too pleased about that, which hey, suited Xavin fine because she wasn’t in the mood to risk Karolina and drop everything to run to… wasn’t Sarah in the US? She was the last time Xavin had seen her.

“Look, you helped me out, I’ll admit that, but I’ve got something good going on here and I’m not willing to just up and-“

“Yes, you do,” Sarah cut her off with a ruthlessness that wasn’t surprising for a former royal bodyguard. “And you owe it to me, that new life you and your girlfriend have. So here’s where you pay off that debt.”

Closing her eyes, Xavin wondered why it never mattered how far or how fast you ran, you never really could get away from your past. “Look, leave Kar out of this, okay? Whatever shit you drag me into, make sure she stays clean.” Or else she didn’t care what she owed ‘Sarah’, if she became labeled an oathbreaker or worse, she’d hang up and never look back.

There was silence on the line for several seconds and then Sarah sighed. “It might not be so bad, all right? Teddy is there and-“

“What the fuck? Why is *he* here? Are you here, too?”

“No, which is why I’m calling-“

Xavin kicked the counter’s base, and cursed when she forgot about her strength at the sound of breaking wood. “Why is he here?”

“Because he joined up with SHIELD and-“

“Dammit! Of all the stupid-”

“Would you let me finish!” Sarah’s loud, irate voice burst through the phone’s speaker and made Xavin blink in surprise. “He’s old enough to determine his own future, even if this is not one I entirely approve of for him. And… there were extraneous circumstances.” Sarah paused for a couple of seconds and sighed. “I can’t be there for him, not without raising suspicions, but you’re right there. All I’m asking is for you to keep a distant eye on him and *should* there be trouble, to help him out. Take whatever precautions you need, but we both know that having a hidden agent can make a big difference should something go wrong. I’m working on having more help there as well.”

Xavin chewed on her left thumbnail as she considered the request, her gaze drifting over the shop the entire time. She had such a good life here, a happy one… and it was in large part owed to the help Sarah had given her once she had arrived on Earth. She and Karolina had decided to settle in Genosha as it was the best place for them to ‘blend’ in, so in theory, if she did have to use her powers to help out the boy…. “If I do this, I’m in the clear, understood? Even if he doesn’t need any help.”

“Yes, that’s fine.” Sarah sounded so relieved just then that Xavin felt a bit guilty for the condition. “I’m hoping it’s just a case of nerves, that I’m being paranoid over him leaving home for the first time.”

“Yeah, empty nest syndrome or stuff like that. Look, I still have the online account you set up for me when you helped us out, send me whatever information you think I should have, all right?”

“I’ll do that. And thank you.” Sarah didn’t say anything else before she hung up.

Maybe it was a case of empty nest syndrome, but Xavin didn’t buy it – ‘Sarah’ was one of the best, had been trained to defend those in her care with her very life. Even if she had been on Earth these past eighteen years or so, that wasn’t enough time to make her weak – not when she was still carrying on her duty. So that left Xavin with deciding when to tell her fiancée that they would have some extra work to do for the foreseeable future.

*******

“Come on, they fry up really good!”

“Oh my god, are they… no! They’re still alive!”

“Fresh octopus! Caught this morning! Come, pretty girl, buy some and make it for your boy, give him lots of energy.”

“But- he’s not my boyfriend! Stop *laughing* you idiot!”

Kate smiled as she watched Cassie smack a guffawing Tommy and shove him away from the table where a hopeful young man with what looked to be gills in his neck held up a handful of squirming baby octopi, while a couple of women waited with obvious impatience for them to get out of the way. The two continued on to another table, where Tommy pointed out another local delicacy, earning another smack from Cassie even as she grinned.

At the start it had been clear that Tommy hadn’t been too happy to have Kate’s friend tag along, but over time Cassie’s cheerful attitude and willingness to explore everything with an open mind had won him over, and soon he was treating her as if a younger sister – was teasing her even as he went out of his way to make her laugh. It probably didn’t hurt that he would glance aside to see if Kate approved and that she did, happy that two people she cared about were getting along and having fun. These were the types of days she needed more of in her life, days where she smiled enough that her cheeks hurt, that she lost track of the time because it flew by too fast, that she was with the people she wanted to be and-

“There’s no way this will work, right?”

Kate blinked as Cassie held up some fragrant-smelling pouch to her face, the bag wrapped in vibrant fabric and tied off in a red ribbon. “What is ‘this’?” she asked as she wrinkled her nose. “And why does it smell so strongly of vetiver?”

“It’s supposedly a love charm.” Cassie motioned to a table several feet away. “There’s a bunch of charms over there.” A young woman with dark green hair and flawless pale green skin sat behind the table and gave her a placid smile in return for the attention.

“Navi’s known for her stuff,” Tommy remarked as he poked at the charm, which released an even stronger scent of greenery. “Maybe it’ll help Shortie here find a boyfriend.”

Cassie scoffed as she jerked the bag away from his fingers. “As if I need to resort to this,” she informed him with a glare. “And how would you know? You use them?” Her blue eyes narrowed and a sly grin curled upward. “You use the love spell?”

It was Tommy’s turn to scoff as he rolled his eyes. “Oh please, as if I’d need something like that.” He made a dismissive wave with his right hand.

“What, you don’t believe in magic?” Kate pulled down her sunglasses and looked over their dark rims at him.

He frowned as he reached out to flick the bag. “No… magic is… no.” His expression just then was a bit odd, and then he gave his entire body a quick shake. “Someone as awesome as me doesn’t need any love spells,” he reiterated.

It was her turn to roll her eyes. “Okay, T.”

Cassie appeared just as dubious as she returned the bag to the table, yet hovered nearby for a few seconds before she made a purchase. As the green-skinned woman gave her a small paper bag with the goods, the girl blushed and thanked her before returning. When Kate gave her a questioning look, Cassie shrugged as she fumbled to put the bag into her purse. “Eh, I got a charm to help me with my studies and another for my dad. I figured it couldn’t hurt.”

“Not at all.” Kate reached over to give her friend a quick hug. “Now if only she had a spell to give someone a sense of humility, all would be good.”

“Hey! Why do I have a feeling that was about-“

“Kate? Kate Bishop?”

Used to hearing her name be called out, Kate didn’t think much of it as she spun around, a plastic smile plastered on her face that almost faltered when she recognized the man standing a few feet away. “Mr. Petros?”

“Please, call me Dominic.” He smiled as he reached out his right hand toward her, and it took her a second to realize that she was to grasp it with her own. “I’m not on official business right now.”

“Ah, that would explain the casual attire.” Beside her, she caught a muttered curse from Tommy and the way he edged behind her and struggled to keep from reacting, to keep from doing anything that would draw the Assistant Minister of Arts from noticing that his country’s wayward prince was a mere seven or so feet away.

Dominic Petros laughed as he smoothed his now free hand along the front of his blue cotton shirt. “Yes, it’s nice to have a reprieve from suits on such a lovely day.” He stared past her at Cassie and Tommy, and Kate caught her breath as he merely continued to smile. “Are you here with friends? I didn’t receive any communication that you or your father would be visiting.”

“My father, as always, is occupied with business while I am very pleased to say that I’m here purely for my own pleasure,” she told the older man as she reached out to touch his left arm with as much of a disarming smile as she dared to give a happily married man. “My friends are visiting so I decided to come as well, since I didn’t get to enjoy your lovely island as much as I’d liked during my last trip.”

Dominic’s gaze past over Tommy in a polite manner and focused back on Kate, a pleased gleam in the brown eyes. “I am very happy to hear that! You’ll have to let me know if you and your companions are staying long enough to attend this year’s gala so I can send along some invites. We’ll be delighted to see you there.”

Kate nodded as she took a step back, which allowed Tommy to edge closer to the crowd of people checking out a table covered with handmade jewelry. “Yes, I’ll do that since I’ve heard so much about the event. Thank you for your generous offer.”

He waved aside the thanks and then glanced at his watch. “It was wonderful to see you, but I have to get going – my wife’s waiting for a few things she needs to make dinner and I know better than to keep her waiting too long.” He smiled at his joke as he wished Kate a wonderful visit, and nodded when she told him goodbye.

“Huh, he seemed nice,” Cassie commented as she watched him leave. “Do you really think he’ll give us invites to the gala?”

“Yes, since he was very helpful to me during my last visit.” Kate looked past her friend at Tommy, who seemed to have developed a suspicious interest in beaded bracelets. “Do you need anything else here?”

Cassie shook her head. “No, I’m good. I should get going, too, since Dad will probably be back at the hotel soon.” She reached out to enfold Kate in a hug. “I’ll call you later?”

“Yes, please. We’ll figure out what we’ll do tomorrow.”

The assurance that they would meet up again made Cassie beam with joy. “Great!” She danced back a step or two before turning around and heading toward the nearest exit, a huge grin on her face – and stopped after about three feet. “See you too, Tommy!”

Hearing his name be called out made Tommy flinch, but when he realized it was Cassie telling him goodbye, he managed to give her a weak smile and wave back. Kate watched Cassie leave before she latched onto the troublemaker’s arm. “Come on.”

“Where are we going? Back to the hotel?” He summoned up a leer and even managed to raise up his eyebrows a couple of times, but she could tell his heart wasn’t into it this time – which just made her even more suspicious.

“No, to someplace where we can talk in private.” They left the marketplace and went down the street, toward a small park with several benches lined up beneath the huge palm trees. “Okay, sit down and talk,” she ordered when she found an empty bench away from the rest.

Tommy pulled away for a moment with a surly look on his face, before he sighed and dropped down onto the bench in a sprawl of long legs and arms. His expression was now a pout as he stared up at her, but the look in his green eyes was more troubled than upset. “I don’t know what you want to talk about, I mean, I was pretty good today, right?”

She let out a slow breath as she nudged his left leg aside so she could sit next to him. “I think you know what this is about.”

“My undeniable animal attraction?”

It was second nature by now to just lash out and smack him in the stomach, causing him to double over. “Ow!” He whined a little for a few seconds. “You sure you’re not a mutant? That really hurt.”

“Nope, just very intelligent and skilled at making every hit count,” she informed him. “Now quit deflecting and ‘fess up. How could a man whom I’ve seen stand right in front of you at a palace function and address you by your title fail to recognize you today?” She reached out to tug at the grey cap he wore. “Don’t even try to tell me this thing is a clever disguise, *T*.”

“It’s…. complicated.” Tommy grimaced as he sat back on the bench.

“No, it’s not,” Kate argued. “Are you bribing him or something? If so, he’s a hell of an actor because I didn’t pick up anything. Or do you have some special talent besides the speed thing?” A talent which concerned her, because she wasn’t sure she liked him being able to influence people like that, to be honest.

Tommy must have picked up on what she’d left unsaid because he grabbed at her right hand and gave it a squeeze. “No, nothing like that – at least, not me.” He sighed as he rubbed at his face with his right hand. “Look… it really is complicated.”

“No it’s not, you open up your mouth and explain things to me.” She twisted about on the bench so she could better face him, and caught how conflicted he appeared just then. As she studied him, the way he bit into his bottom lip, the way he clutched at her hand, the way Petros had looked past him as if he didn’t exist…. “Does this have anything to do with your brother?” she hazard to guess.

The reaction was instantaneous – Tommy’s head shot up and he stared at her with green eyes gone wide. “How- wait, no.” He shook his head and cursed. “Why do you think it has anything to do with Billy?”

Yeah, that was a definite slip there. “Because there has to be a reason why he’s almost never at the palace functions, right? I mean, I’ve seen pictures of him and footage of the few times he is, and he appears normal. You talk about him as if he’s normal, too, if a bit shy. And back in London, you knew someone who could help us out.” She paused to give his hand a comforting squeeze. “I don’t think you’re the type to run to just anyone for help, T. From what I can tell, you’re not really close to… well, besides your mother, there’s Billy.” Billy and her; that was part of the reason she’d taken a chance on such a brash, crazy guy. “So did he do something to Mr. Petros? Was he the one who helped us out?”

Tommy remained quiet for a minute or two and then he laughed, the sound low and a bit strained. “You asked me if I believed in magic back there.” He reached up to take off the cap. “Billy… it’s like he *is* magic, you know?” He glanced at her and smiled. “Well, you would if you saw him when he’s… doing whatever he does, when it looks as if he’s burning from the inside out with this blue fire. The world… changes around him.” He fell silent for a moment as he stared at his hat. “We thought all he could do at first was cast these sparks, and then one day he was flying because there was something in the tree he wanted to see. Something he *wanted*. After that… well, that’s when we realized it was all based on what he wanted, and Grandfather, you know.” He grimaced as he dropped the hat into his lap and gazed up at Kate as if waiting for something.

She attempted to wrap her mind around what he’d just said. “So he can… anything he wants?”

“As far as we can tell – at least, as long as he has the energy to will it into being.” Tommy scratched at the back of his head. “The thing is, he doesn’t want much. Some weird-ass flowers to make Mom happy, animating toys to give us something to play with when we’re bored, stuff like that. Grandfather’s the one- well, he normally doesn’t anything for himself.” A faint hint of color bloomed on his cheeks as he caught himself again.

It was probably wise to play it safe with any questions right now. “Playmates, huh? So he was behind the cute blue cat who came to visit us that day, too?”

That prompted a groan from Tommy as he tugged at his hair. “Him and that stupid cat.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he looked back at Kate, there was a beseeching expression on his face. “You know you can’t say anything about this, right? I mean, I don’t even want to imagine what Grandfather would do if he found out you knew but, well… it’s Billy.”

She didn’t know if he meant that she couldn’t say anything because it was about his brother, or he didn’t want anything to get out. Somehow, she thought it was the first and he really wanted to protect Billy, just as it was evident that his brother looked out for him. “You know I have a sister, and even if we’re not twins, we take care of each other,” she reminded him. “I get it. You don’t rat each other out, you don’t date each other’s exes, and you don’t ruin each other’s clothes.”

Explanation of the ‘sister code’ wiped some of the tension from Tommy’s lean body and made him laugh. “What the hell? It’s not quite the same with CC and I, okay?” He shook his head as he let go of her hand so he could wrap an arm around her shoulders and pull her close. “Yeah, no ratting each other out and there’s no way in hell we’ll date each other exes since I’m not into guys. I don’t think we give a shit about each other’s clothes since I don’t do geek chic and he prefers stuff with some cartoon character on it.”

“Why hasn’t he turned you into a toad or something already?” Kate asked as she shoved at his arm.

“Ha, ha, that would be so funny if Billy hadn’t said something similar to me just the other night.” Tommy grimaced and hugged her closer. “You two are going to get along just fine, I can hardly wait.” He didn’t sound very happy just then.

“Good, then you can definitely ask him about us meeting up tomorrow or the next day, maybe for dinner.” Cassie should be busy with her father then.

Tommy sighed as if being put upon but sneaked a kiss to her temple, which she allowed. “Only for you, Princess.” When he wasn’t hit for his presumptuousness, he settled back on the bench. “You really don’t mind meeting him? I mean, now that you know?”

She readjusted her sunglasses before she shook her head. “It’s a bit odd, knowing that he can… well, whatever he did with Mr. Petros.” She glanced aside at Tommy for an explanation.

“Ah, something to do with making sure people back home don’t realize we’re gone and that we’re not recognized while we’re out,” he said as he tapped his hat with his fingers. “It’s the only way we can run around out here without being mobbed, really. Well, more me since I resemble Uncle Pietro a bit more.”

Yes, Tommy’s coloring was more distinctive, and Billy – well, Prince William was almost as reclusive as Princess Wanda. “That makes sense. I guess I’ll reserve judgement until I meet him.” In the end, she didn’t think anyone whom Tommy cared so much for could really be so bad, not someone who had created such a cute helper and sent it to warn his brother, not someone whom Tommy turned to in a time of need.

Tommy made a rude noise as he sunk a little lower on the bench. “Yeah, well, just don’t bring up any zombie shows, or that one with the space guy who travels in the weird police box or you’ll never get him to shut up. Why he has to be such a dweeb I’ll never know.”

Kate summoned up a sweet smile while she pulled back her right elbow in preparation for another blow. “Well, better a dweeb than a troublemaking drunkard,” she informed Tommy as she nailed him in the ribs, figuring she could do Billy a bit of a favor in anticipation of their first meeting.

*******

Half-tempted to just shift into a pair of clothes, Teddy paused as he ran a towel over his hair and shook his head. No, that would be too weird, would leave him feeling odd through the night and worrying about his concentration. Best to just take the time to get ready and send Billy a text that he might be a few minutes late; he hadn’t planned on needing a shower after work, but Dr. Wisdom-Pryde had ordered servers to help with her project and Mr. Wisdom had only been too happy to volunteer SHIELD’s services to help carry in the heavy equipment. For ‘security purposes’, the man had proclaimed. ‘Wouldn’t want a spy or saboteur to slip in that way’. Yeah, right, he had just enjoyed barking out orders, and who knew that electronics could be so heavy? Though it wasn’t so much their weight that had bothered Teddy, but the fact that he’d had to carry them from all the way from the storage facility to Dr. Wisdom-Pryde’s lab without Clarice’s help since she remained on guard, on such a warm, sunny day.

Oh well, at least he’d done something other than hold up walls during his shift, but now he jammed his fingers through his hair and twisted them about to spread the gel, going for a tousled look. One good thing about the shorter cut was that it didn’t take too long to style, because as soon as he brushed his teeth, threw on a t-shirt and some jeans, his favorite pair of sneaks and grabbed his phone and wallet, he was out of here.

“Whoa, someone cleans up nice,” Hisako told him as he rushed past.

“Thanks!” He flashed her a smile but didn’t slow down, and nearly ran into David at the bottom of the stairs since he wasn’t looking. “Sorry!” He clutched at the wall to keep from falling onto the poor guy.

His glasses knocked slightly askew, David shook his head as he straightened them out. “No, it’s okay, I was distracted.” He held up the phone in his left hand. “Ah, you look… well, it’s not your uniform,” he said after a moment’s pause.

“Yeah, one gets a bit tired of the constant blue,” Teddy agreed with a grin as he ran his hand over his faded red t-shirt.

“Yes, one does.” David adjusted his glasses but didn’t move out of Teddy’s way. “So, uhm, heading out? Feel like some company?” For some reason he seemed to ask the question more to his phone than to Teddy.

A little surprised by the invite when David normally appeared happy to spend his spare time in his room, busy reading or posting on some forum or another, Teddy raised his hands and spread them apart in a bit of a hopeless gesture. “Maybe another time? I’m running late to meet someone.” Someone he really need to text.

“Okay.” David stepped aside and motioned for Teddy to move forward. “Have a nice time.”

“Sure, thanks.” Teddy gave him a smile as he pulled his phone out of his pocket and began texting Billy that he was on the way; he was a couple of blocks away and debating if he should flag down a taxi when his phone pinged back with a response. It wasn’t much, just a simple ‘ok, see you soon,’ so Teddy hurried a bit faster. At least there wasn’t too much traffic on the sidewalk so he was making good time, even if he had to check his phone a time or two and make sure he was going in the right direction.

Soon enough he saw the sign for Rollo’s, an artistic rendition of waves in bright blue, green and white colors with even brighter fish swimming about the waves. Leaning against the reddish bricks of the building was a slim figure in black jeans and a dark top, the hood of his sleeveless top pulled over his head. Guessing that was Billy, Teddy waved as he approached.

Billy started, his right hand lifting a little and then paused, as if he wasn’t sure of himself so Teddy called out to him. “Hey! I’m really sorry about being late but work got a little crazy and I figured if I didn’t go home to wash off, they wouldn’t let me in there.” He motioned behind Billy to the restaurant.

Finally pushing away from the wall, Billy shrugged as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Well, it’s not the fanciest place around, but I’m sure they wouldn’t want you driving away the other customers.” He sounded uncertain just then, his smile a bit wan.

“Well, to make it up to you, I insist on picking up the tab tonight – you can order whatever you want.” He smiled as he came to a stop right in front of Billy. “Even the *special* rolls. More than one.” He arched his brows for added emphasis.

Billy was quiet for a few seconds and then his smile warmed as he ducked his head, causing relief to rush through Teddy. “Wow, you really pull out all of the stops, don’t you? What if I want *three* specialty rolls and dessert? And an appetizer?”

Teddy chuckled as he motioned for them to head into the restaurant. “Even if it means I’ll be stuck with instant ramen for the rest of the week, it’ll be worth it to see if you can eat all of that.” He grinned when Billy fell in step beside him and pushed back the dark grey hood.

“The *only* reason I concede is because you haven’t seen the size of the rolls here,” Billy said with an air of ruffled dignity. “I swear that their Godzilla roll is longer than my arm.”

“Oh, I’m liking the place already.” Teddy, always the gentleman his mother raised him to be, held the door open for his date, which made Billy blush a little as he ducked inside first. “All I had for lunch was some ham sandwiches from the cafeteria.”

“Yeah, so what was it that you do again?” Billy waited just inside of the restaurant for a pretty girl with neatly plaited braids to grab some menus once she confirmed it was just the two of them then walk them to a table; despite the early hour of the evening, the place was already half-filled, which Teddy took for a good sign.

Keeping in mind the ‘cover’ story he’d worked out with Clarice, Teddy urged Billy to precede him to their table. “Ah, it’s nothing too fancy, really. We’re here at the university to help out a friend of a friend with some research project, doing the grunt work with the servers and the errands and stuff like that. I’m really lucky that Clarice managed to get me on this job, since the money will go a long way to what’ll eventually be college loans and the such.” He was passing it off as a ‘gap’ year, and Clarice had warned him that the best cover story didn’t go into too many details. So yeah, play it cool, play it simple, and distract the cute boyfriend as soon as possible.

“Still, at least you have a job. Must be nice to be trusted with some responsibility. Well, with being able to live your own life.” Billy sat at the table and stared at the menu in his left as if it contained the secrets of the universe, his brow furrowed and mouth downturned while his right hand rubbed at his chest as if it was sore.

Teddy got the impression that there were a few issues lurking about at the Kaplan home, which might not be a good topic for a real first date. “Well, you’re still in school, right?” He thought Billy hadn’t said anything about graduating yesterday.

“Yeah.” Billy continued to stare at the menu. “School.” Something in the way he said the word made Teddy wonder if he had difficulty at the place, something similar to what Teddy had experienced in the last couple of weeks. “Oh, are you seeing anything on the menu you really like?”

There was so much forced false cheer in Billy’s voice just then that Teddy decided to drop the topic, as it was an obvious ploy to change the subject. “Uhm, the Green Monster roll looks good, since I like jalapeno peppers. Or the Spicy Mama roll.”

“Hmm, that’s really good, if you like spicy salmon. I’m going to get that one and the Beauty and the Beast.” His good mood restored, Billy leaned onto the table, his chin propped up on the palm of his left hand with his bangs falling onto his face. “You won’t have to worry about appetizers or dessert since I’m ordering those two, unless you want something.”

“Or maybe we can get the vegetable tempura and split some rolls?” Teddy grinned as he placed his menu on the table as well. “How about that, since those rolls sound good to me, too?”

Billy gasped as he made a dramatic gesture of clutching at his chest. “Sharing? Isn’t that moving a bit too fast, Mr. Altman?” Then he laughed as he waved his right hand about in the air. “No, that sounds good, since I’m always so full if I try to eat two rolls.”

“All right then, veggie tempura, Spicy Mama, Beauty and the Beast, Green Monster, and I think I need to try the Rollo Rocker.” Teddy grinned as he saw tall woman with light blue skin approach their table. “Uhm, a pot of green tea?”

“Yeah, sure.”

He repeated the order to their server, who returned soon with the tea and some water. During that time, he leaned back in the chair and smiled at his date, who had taken to playing with the strings of his hoodie. “So, you come here a lot?”

Billy shrugged. “So, so.” He held up the string in his right hand for a few seconds before letting it go. “There’s a lot of good places around here, and this is one of them. Tommy likes it so….” He shrugged again, and for some reason, Teddy thought he caught a flash of blue in the warm brown of Billy’s eyes.

“So you tag along a lot with your brother. What about with other friends?”

The dark bangs fell over Billy’s pretty eyes as his head hung lower. “Uhm, well….” Whatever he said just then was a lost mumble of words, especially since the server chose to return with their drinks. Teddy smiled at her in thanks and waited for her to leave before he asked the other boy to repeat what had been said. “Ah, really… don’t have many friends,” Billy admitted in a quiet voice.

“Oh.” Teddy took a few seconds to check the pot of tea, but it needed a little longer to steep. He didn’t know why someone as cute and nice as Billy didn’t have a ton of friends… but high school wasn’t always kind to cute gay kids who liked to read. A flash of guilt went through him as he thought about Greg, about what the- what his ex-friend would do to someone like Billy. Why should things be any different in Genosha? “Your brother… Tommy? He likes it here?”

“Yeah.” Billy peeked through the thick bangs of his disheveled hair and grimaced a little, but Teddy thought the expression was mostly for show since he straightened up in his chair and stopped fidgeting. “He eats… well, he eats a lot more than I do, so he’s always complaining about food and stuff. And about me needing to get out of the- the house.” For some reason he ducked his head again. “If it’s his turn to pick a place, we often come here, even if I like Shinju a little better. We both love Mineo’s, though, so it’s good.”

“Ah, the pizza place us heathens haven’t been worshipping at,” Teddy teased, and earned a grin that made his heart stutter in his chest. “That’ll be next time, yeah?”

Billy nodded as he reached for the pot of tea. “Oh, most definitely.”

Okay, Teddy felt as if he’d been punched in the chest when Billy confirmed there would be another date; he had to gulp down some water to calm himself, and was grateful when the server returned with their appetizer. As he eyed the large plate filled with battered vegetables and a bowl of dipping sauce, he picked up his chopsticks and smiled at Billy. “All right, now we find out just how compatible we really are – anything you’re about to stab me over if I get it first?”

“Hmm.” Billy frowned at the appetizers as he readied his own chopsticks. “How do you feel about taro?”

“Like it, but not as much as the sweet potato I’m seeing.”

“Then I’ll give you the sweet potato for the taro, what about the mushrooms?”

“Huh, think there’s four of them, want to do a split?”

Billy chewed on his lip as he grabbed the taro. “That’ll work. You like lotus root?”

Teddy grimaced as he grabbed the sweet potato slices. “Not particularly.”

“Okay, then you want the squash?”

“Deal.” Smiling as he grabbed the rest of the battered vegetables, Teddy laughed and began to dunk a slice of sweet potato. “See, no blood shed, no drama.”

He had a set of chopsticks jabbed in his direction while Billy went with a jaded air for a few seconds. “Hush, just wait until the sushi comes out. Deep fried veggies are great and all, but raw fish? Nothing brings out total warfare like raw fish, my friend.”

Teddy waited until after he finished his bite of sweet potato to answer. “Of course, how could I forget that? Isn’t that the very first line of the Art of War?”

“Huh, think it’s in the opening montage to Kingdom Hearts, why the Heartless attack and all.” Billy bit into his bottom lip as if he was struggling not to laugh, which was an utterly adorable sight.

Teddy was doing his best not to smile just then as well. “No, no, wasn’t that part of the opening credits to the original Star Wars movie? ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a great and evil war started over sashimi’. Yeah, that’s totally it.” He grinned when Billy lost it and gave in to laughter.

Okay, so they were garnishing a lot of strange looks from the tables around them, but Teddy couldn’t remember when a first date – when a *date* had started off as well as this one. When he had felt so comfortable, so *happy* sitting across from someone. He couldn’t stop himself from grinning while Billy continued to laugh, and if he had a strange feeling that maybe Billy didn’t do this very often, didn’t go out and laugh, then it only made the evening more special. Made him want to be out with Billy like this even more. So what if Clarice had warned him that this was supposed to be a temporary thing – he wanted more of this, wanted a chance to get to know Billy properly. Now just to figure out how to make that happen.

*******

Clarice smiled as she caught sight of Teddy racing out the door, intent on not being late for his date. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed David lingering in the doorway leading from the kitchen to the living area and cocked her head to the side. “So, you sticking around for dinner or what? Sam said he’s tired of pizza so we’re thinking noodles.”

David hesitated for a moment before he entered the room and headed to the fridge. “Noodles sound good, anything spicy with shrimp, but I’m not running out for them.” His eyes narrowed behind his glasses, and Clarice had to resist the urge to roll her own; yes, yes, hazing was bad, they were all so mean. Wasn’t like they made him drink too much or beat him up or did anything truly nasty, and Teddy handled the teasing just fine. Hell, everyone but the mutant genius handled the mild pranking just fine, even poor Alani when her first mission had been in Anchorage during the winter.

Figuring she’d go see what everyone wanted and find a place that delivered, Clarice turned to leave when David called out to her. “Yeah?” She spun around to find him standing in front of the open fridge, a can of energy drink in his hand. “You change your mind on the noodles?”

“No, I just thought,” he shrugged as he closed the door to the fridge. “About Altman, you know the guy he’s going out with tonight?”

Oh, this might be interesting. Clarice tucked back a lock of hair falling onto her face and shook her head. “Just that he’s a local, and Teddy  got the speech about keeping it uncomplicated.”

David’s jaw clenched as he stared at the can held in his hands. “Yeah, but he’s new at this, you think he’ll manage that?”

Clarice laughed as she started for the living room. “A sweetheart like Teddy? Hell no, which is why if you wanted to look into this Billy Kaplan kid, I certainly won’t complain.” Not when Sam had said that Teddy was important to the mission somehow, and all Teddy could focus on today was his date tonight.

David didn’t say anything in return, but she knew him well enough, knew that if he’d brought up the matter, he was too interested to let it rest. Either Sam had said something to him or he didn’t like the chance of a newbie messing up a mission by becoming distracted, it didn’t really matter to her. They didn’t have an official reason to go digging into a civilian’s background… but David was good, was *more* than good, and what Genosha didn’t know wouldn’t hurt it.

*******

Hisako groaned as she leaned against the wall, her expression turning into a grimace as the rough paint caught at the hair pulled back into a ponytail. “How much longer do you think we have left?”

“At least two more hours.” Julian chuckled when she grimaced again. “Too bad Altman’s past the runner stage or we could ask him to fetch us some coffee. Though the kid’s such a go-getter, maybe he’ll still do it if you text him and ask nicely.” He fussed with a lock of dark hair that kept falling onto his face.

“I hear he’s out on a date,” she told her partner. “Don’t want to bother him and mess up a chance of him doing us a favor another night. You think maybe-“

Julian held up a gloved hand and frowned, his blue eyes narrowed as he stared down a darkened hallway. “Yeah, maybe,” he answered in a quieter tone, even though she hadn’t finished what she’d been saying.

Knowing him well enough to realize that he must have heard something, Hisako smiled as she began to concentrate, to summon her power but not *quite*. “Okay, so two double espressos,” she continued, also in a softer voice. “And maybe some scones.” Ah, there it was, a scraping sound as if something sharp was dragged along the floor. Considering the fact that it was after 9pm at night and there weren’t any classes in this part of the university, she doubted it was a wayward student. Dr. Wisdom-Pryde and her scary husband had left two hours ago, and the cleaning crew weren’t scheduled to be here until morning.

There was a sense of pressure in the air, a signal that Julian had activated his talent for force fields; when she pushed back with her hands, she could feel the familiar tingling sensation along the wall, so he was protecting the entrance to the lab. She had just nodded to him when the scraping sound was louder, and all of a sudden what appeared to be several very tall, very broad dark shapes rushed out of the darkness.

“I got left,” she shouted as she fully activated her talent, the world going red as the armor formed around her. Even with the protection, she felt the impact of one of the dark shapes slamming into her, before she leveraged her right arm free and *swung*, reveling in the fight, in seeing the creature fly through the air away from her. Another one took its place, its face oddly smooth as if it wasn’t a real being, and she lashed out as well, punching at it while it attempted to slice  through her armor, to reach her with what appeared to be razor sharp claws. A knee to the gut had it bent over, and then she shoved it to the floor and made sure it stayed there.

Another shape when flying past, a victim of Julian’s psionic blast. “No, sir, we’re holding steady. Might be some minor damage to the external structure.” Ah, sounded as if he had contacted Guthrie to let him know what was happening here. “Yes, sir, we’ll leave one of them more or less intact.” Another psionic blast slammed an attacker into the wall, causing cracks to spread out from the impact. “You hear that?”

“Yeah, yeah, let me stop pounding this one’s… well, I think its face into the floor.” She got off of it when it seemed to stop struggling. “Boss on his way here?”

“Yes.” Julian appeared to be using his talent to keep the other two creatures pinned to the wall. “Wasn’t there four of them?”

“Shit, yeah. You still got the room sealed?” She stomped on the creature’s head just to be certain and looked around, but didn’t see the missing one. “Where the hell did it go?” It would help if there was a bit more lights; while searching for some sort of power source, she noticed that there was a dark shape moving on the ceiling. “Fuck, it’s above you!”

Readying to jump at the thing, she startled it into leaping at Julian before it was ready, so it was off on its attack. Still, it messed with her partner’s concentration and caused him to relax the psychic hold he was using to pin the other two creatures, and all of a sudden the four of them were racing back the way they’d come. She and Julian gave chase, but when they rounded the corner after the dark shapes… they came across an empty hallway.

“How is this possible?” Hisako risked willing away her armor so she could better examine everything around her; there was nothing, no sign of damage, no broken windows or doors, nothing. The only thing she could find… “do you smell something?” She inhaled a deep breath and thought there was a hint of fresh cold air, of snow.

Julian panted a little and shook his head. “No, I’m thinking of how Sam’s going to have our asses when he gets here and finds out we let those bastards get away.” His face was flushed and damp with sweat. “Come on, I need to get back there, I can’t be this far away from the force field.”

Hisako wanted to keep searching, to see if she could track down that elusive scent, but they couldn’t take the risk that this was some sort of feint, that the enemy was using it as a diversion and breaking into the lab right now. “Okay.” It was bad enough they let those four get away, Guthrie really would have their heads if any of the research went missing.

Still, why did she think it felt colder in this hallway?

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter