chapter seven

*******

The world before him was a sphere of pastels, of pinks and blues and lilacs, of pretty little whorls that moved in lazy twists and rosettes, so cute that it made Billy sick to his stomach. He poked at it with a hand surrounded with vibrant blue just to see what would happen, and felt a guilty pleasure when the world spun about in a frantic manner, the colors whipping about like some abstract painting.

“Well, I think you just jumpstarted the evolutionary chain by a few hundred years.”

“Huh?” Billy jerked his hand away and glanced around as if he could catch sight of ‘DV’. “What do you mean?”

There was silence for several heartbeats before he received an answer. “What has you here in such a… ‘pissy’, I believe the word is, mood? Something go wrong tonight?”

Distracted from the pastel world, Billy floated into the darkness as he tugged the cloak tighter around his body. “Yes. No. Sorta.” He hated how he was so indecisive about things, even when talking to his own subconscious. “It’s… I shouldn’t be bothered by how the date ended, right? I mean, it seemed real, Teddy’s excuse to leave. Everything was going fine until he got the call, and he looked upset about having to go to work.” Billy’s teeth bit into his bottom lip as he recalled the events.

“A date.” Was it Billy or did the planets appear to glow a little brighter while the darkness around them grew a little more overwhelming as DV’s voice took on a disapproving tone? “Let me guess, with the dashing young man of the free coffee?”

Why did his own subconscious side with Tommy? Maybe it was time for Billy to see a psychiatrist or something. “It was fun.” He huddled a little more beneath the cape. “He treated me to sushi and dessert and we were headed to Pierson’s so I could get us coffee when work interrupted.”

“Hmm, are you *sure* that it was work? And not just a friend offering… oh, what do they call it? A ‘lifeline’?”

Billy hunched over even more and picked at the soft material of his cloak. “But we were having fun. We were laughing and everything.”

“Well, *you* were,” DV assured him. “Perhaps he was just biding his time, knowing that he wouldn’t have to pretend for very long, or perhaps….”

“Perhaps?” Billy hated how his chest hurt, how he couldn’t help but replay every moment of the date with Teddy through his head now. “Perhaps what?”

DV’s ‘voice’ turned contemplative. “Perhaps he wanted to leave you anticipating more. Feeling ‘incomplete’. Maybe this one is… ah yes, you call them ‘players’, I believe. He’ll parcel out his time little by little, string you along, get what he wants from you and….” DV paused as if he sensed the pain growing inside of Billy, or maybe it was the way Billy’s magic flared and fizzled. “Oh Imp, so powerful yet so naïve. What you deserve is someone worthy of you, someone equal to you.”

“To what, an idiot?” Billy’s hands sparked like fireworks in the darkness. “Who deserves to put up with someone like *me*?” What if DV was right? What if Teddy was just looking for some naïve fool to string along while he was stuck in Genosha? He could have *anyone* he wanted, so why was he wasting his time with *Billy*? “I should have known better, should have figured it out after seeing how everyone stared at him, how-“

“Hush.” Just the one word, but ‘spoken’ with enough power that Billy was shaken out of his negative thoughts and forced to stare out at nothing. “You might not see what makes you so worthy of any sort of pursuit, and this… this ‘Teddy’ might underestimate your value as well, but you, dear Imp….” Billy lurched through the air, the motion sending him in a slow spin, as he felt an immaterial, cold touch to his left cheek. “Oh you are a prize beyond words. One day I’ll prove it to you.”

A jagged laugh escaped him as he raised his hand to trace along that phantom caress. “I’m going crazy – the only person who really likes me is my own mind.”

“Whoever said I was a figment of your own imagination, hmm?”

Billy’s head jerked up at that statement, at the humor and satisfaction in the deep, slightly mocking voice he’d come to depend on and even care for during these dreams. “But… how..? It can’t….”

There was another phantom touch, this one knocking back the hood of his cloak and rustling through his hair. “Not now, Imp. All will be revealed at the right time. Just know for now that someone believes in you, that someone is here for you, even as those who smile at you so sweetly wear false masks.”

Billy opened his mouth to say… to say what? But those phantom hands cupped his face and it was as if the cold *poured* into him; he stilled for a moment as the chill took away the pain, took away the need for thought and then his magic reacted, it began to burn hot and violent until he felt torn between the cold and the heat, felt as if the two were tearing him apart and… and… and then something inside of him just *clicked*, just took the two and accepted it and his magic burned even hotter.

“Oh yes, you will be *glorious!*, my Imp.”

All that mattered to Billy was burning, burning forever, burning and burning and….

*******

Wanda woke up, the sheets tousled around her and her hair falling onto her face from all the tossing about she’d done during the night. There was the vestiges of a dream, something about a dark shadow that had loomed over her… no, her *boys*. She sat up in bed, the left strap of her linen nightgown falling down her shoulder, and frowned at the sense of anxiety that the dream left clinging to her even in the waking world; she detested feeling as if she had failed her boys in some way, even if only in her mind.

There was the sound of soft footsteps and the door to her bedroom creaked open. “Mah lady? Ah, you… you should see this.” Rahne stared past the barely opened door with green eyes gone wide, an anxious expression on her pretty face and her red hair bristled despite its short length.

Wondering if there was a reason why the dream still lingered, Wanda swung her legs about from the bed. “Yes, what is it?” She made to stand, and Rahne hurried into the room to fetch her the red cashmere robe from the lounge chaise. “The garden, mah lady. It’s… well, Prince William is here.” Rahne’s hands trembled as she assisted in sliding the robe onto Wanda’s shoulders.

Wanda jerked the belt around her waist with more effort than necessary and nodded to the girl. “I’ll look after him.” When Rahne took a hesitant step after her, she shook her head. “No, stay inside.” If there was something wrong with William, if he… well, the last thing her poor boy needed was someone who showed open fear of him nearby. “Do *not* go to my brother or father, do you understand?” When Rahne didn’t respond right away, Wanda repeated it with more force. “Do you *understand*?”

“Yes, mah lady?” Rahne wrung her hands together, clearly torn between whom she should obey, but she nodded in the end; Wanda was the one who had accepted her as her servant, who kept her close and refused her father’s offer of someone ‘more proper’.

“It’ll be fine,” she assured the girl. “William… he’s just having one of his moods and needs to talk to me. He’ll be fine in a few minutes, so prepare some tea and biscuits, please.” She smiled at Rahne until the girl lost some of her nervousness and nodded.

“Yes, ma’am.” Rahne gave her a low bow and scurried out of the room, as if grateful to go hide in the kitchen for a bit. Meanwhile, Wanda sighed as she combed back the curls falling onto her face and prepared to face her youngest son.

There was still a hint of sunrise left in the sky, faint streaks of orange and red, and the color helped to add to the magical image William made surrounded by all of the flowers, some of them surreal with their vibrant hues – it looked as if he had increased the new additions. He was wearing that red cloak of his, and despite its voluminous folds she could see that his power… ‘leaked’ from him, a blue glow emanating from his pale skin as he floated several inches from the ground with his legs crossed. His head was bowed, his unruly hair, so much like hers, falling about his face as his attention appeared focused on something below him or in his lap.

“William?” She took a step forward and realized that she’d forgotten her slippers, but the grass in the garden was lush and soft beneath her feet, only slightly damp from the night’s dew. “What brings you here so early?”

“Mother.” William’s head remained bowed for a few more seconds, and her breath caught at how… how *distant* he sounded just then. “I was going to ask your help with something, but I figured it out myself.” He finally looked up at her, and her breath caught anew to notice that his eyes, his lovely eyes that were just like hers, were a pure and shining blue.

“Fu-figure what out?” Her hands clenched at the belt of her robe as she stared at her son, at the blank look on his usually animated face.

“How to make more playmates for Tails.” A slight frown turned down the corners of William’s lips as he held out his cupped hands, and Wanda realized that there was the glowing blue and white fox curled up on it from the other night – that there were in fact several more ‘foxes’ running about and laying down in the grass near William. “I didn’t like the thought of him being alone.” There was something wistful in his tone just then.

“Oh… how, how clever.” Wanda was careful of her steps as she approached her son, mindful of the small creatures. “How many are there?”

“Four of them.” William leaned over to set the fox he was holding down on the ground, and it made a high-pitched yipping sound as it ran toward one of its companions. “They seem to like it here.” For the first time since she’d arrived, he appeared to show some true emotion, a bit of guilt. “I’m sorry, I probably should have asked first, right? But once I started making them, they were so happy to have the space to run around in and everything.” He scratched at his head as a sheepish grin formed on his lips.

So pleased to see signs of her son returning, of breaking through the chilly façade that must have terrified Rahne, Wanda smiled as she checked the ground first before sinking down to sit next to him. “It’s fine, you can leave them here.” She laughed as one of the creatures ran over her bare foot, a light, tickling sensation due to its tiny paws. “They amuse me.”

“Thank you.” He bit into his bottom lip as he glanced at the foxes. “I’m sure Tommy would have complained if he went into the closet and found more of them.” His hands clenched around the thick material of his cloak, the blue glow flaring for several seconds.

Wanda reached out to grab his right hand, and caught her breath again at the feel of power, of energy that ran through her fingers and up her arm at the touch; it wasn’t painful, just a surprise and oddly invigorating. In all of the time since William had come into his talent, it had never once hurt her, not even when he’d struggled to learn what they had thought to be the odd ‘electrical’ sparks. “Thomas doesn’t like them?” Was that why he was here, behavior so unusual and radiating power enough to make even Father wary?

William’s teeth worried at his lip for a moment longer. “He doesn’t come out to say it, but he….” William waved his left hand about, a trail of blue following behind it for several seconds despite the light of day. “Funny, how he can show off his talent all the time, can run about here or there, can blow up things but I’m supposed to just sit around all day and do nothing?” A hint of rancor crept into his voice. “I’m supposed to *be* nothing?”

She went up on her knees so she could reach out and brush back the full hood, then combed her fingers through William’s tousled hair. “Is that what has you so upset? That Thomas doesn’t respect your talent?” William stilled at the first touch to his hair, then shuddered after a few seconds.

“No,” he breathed out as he sank down to the ground and rested his head on her shoulder, his body tense and thrumming with that electrifying power. “It’s….” His hands, still shrouded in blue, came up to cover his face.

“William… you know you can tell me anything,” she chided as she continued to stroke through his hair.

“I know,” he mumbled, and after a few more seconds let his hands drop. “I went on a date last night.”

At first Wanda thought that she misheard him, and then she recalled what Pietro had told her, that it was important for the boys to remain at home, to be safe. Her first impulse was to ask ‘how’, and then ‘why’… but she knew her boys, knew *William*, and so bit her tongue as she put her thoughts in order.

“Well, how did it go?” She tucked her head against his and gave him a hug as he groaned. “That bad?”

There was more silence and then William slumped against her; during it one of the foxes began to climb upon her son’s cloak. “It… it started out okay, but then he got a call and claimed he had to leave. He’s here for work. On Genosha, I mean.” There was something off to his voice, something doubtful.

Wanda wanted to know the boy’s name so she could ask for a background check, but that would ruin things, wouldn’t it? Her father and brother would know immediately what was going on and William would be so angry. “Is he nice?”

William picked up the fox and ran a finger along its back, which caused the creature to yip in excitement. “I thought so – he’s funny and, well, yeah.” A hint of red stained her son’s cheeks as he paid an awful lot of attention to the fox.

Ah, so that’s how it was, Wanda told herself as she hugged him again. “But despite him being ‘funny’ and nice, you’re upset?”

“Because he bailed on me.” William’s chin jutted out as he set the fox back down. “What if he-“

“What if he got a call from work and had to leave?” Wanda knew how her son’s mind worked, knew how he could be his own worst enemy at times; she didn’t understand how Thomas could be so confident and William… well, not, but she refused to let him ruin something before it even began. Not when this was the first time that she knew of him even trying to be social, of behaving like a normal teenager. “You’re being careful, right? He doesn’t know who you are?”

The questions caused her son to blink a little as he looked at her. “Uhm, yeah.” He motioned around him with his glowing left hand. “It’s… yeah. Aren’t you supposed to be mad at me?”

She smiled as she brushed aside the bangs falling into his eyes and was relieved to see that while they were still blue, it was only the irises that glowed with the unnatural color now; slowly but surely her son was returning to her. “It may have been *ages* ago, but I remember what it was like to be a teenager.” She gave him an impish grin. “How do you think you came into being?”

That prompted a distressed look from him, as well as a gagging sound. “Don’t want to know!”

“Not as if I was going to share *that* much,” she teased before becoming serious once more. “Still, as long as you’re careful, and I know you well enough that you will be, then… have a little fun.” She brushed the back of her fingers along his left cheek, which for some reason made him stare off in the distance. “Give this young man a chance – it may very well be that he has a good excuse for leaving you early last night. I fail to see how anyone could walk away from someone as handsome as you, after all.”

That shook him from the reverie and caused another blush. “You’re my mother, you have to say that.”

“Mother, yes, but not blind.” William might not be the traditional definition of handsome, but there was something to him, something that shone through the more he came into his power, the more he learned to hone his will, that combined with his looks and demeanor to draw the eye in and keep it captivated. “Which is why I choose to believe last night might have been a misunderstanding.” And if not… well, Wanda knew several members of the guard who would be more than willing to teach a young man a lesson for daring to play with her son’s heart. “Now come, let’s allow these dear things to settle in properly and have some tea. I’m feeling a bit thirsty.” She grasped at William’s hands as she rose up to her feet.

He rose up with her, the guilty expression back on his face. “Ah, yeah, sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up like this.” His cloak settled around him, but she caught a flash of what appeared to be a t-shirt and sweats beneath it, as if he hadn’t bothered to dress properly before coming to visit.

“It’s fine, I’m always pleased to see you. Now, tea.” She slipped an arm beneath the warm, heavy cloak and linked it with his. “There should be biscuits, but if you want to magic me some more of those delicious croissants, I won’t complain.”

That prompted a weak laugh from her son. “I think I can manage something.”

“Good.” She wriggled her toes in the grass as they headed back toward her quarters, and hoped that she could chase away all of the blue glow before William left her for the day.

*******

Teddy couldn’t quite stifle the groan as he glanced at his watch for what had to be about the hundredth time that morning.

“What? Don’t tell me you’re that eager to go fetch coffee.”

He sighed as he rubbed at the back of his head and shrugged. “Well, at least I’ll be on break then,” he admitted to Clarice.

“Oh for –“ She pinched the bridge of her nose and appeared to make a big deal of taking a couple of even breaths. “You’re still going on about this? If I’d known it was going to be such a massive headache, I would have spared calling you in and breaking your poor widdle heart.” As soon as she let go of her nose, she glanced around and lashed out to punch him in the arm – which *hurt*. For someone at least fifty… well, maybe he should go with more pounds than that just in case she picked up mind reading at some point….

“But he’s not answering my texts,” he tried to explain. “Maybe he’s really upset, or maybe something happened to him on the way home last night.”

Clarice rolled her eyes as she folded her arms over her chest. “Please, I’m sure it would be on the news if something happened to your little boyfriend.”

“Unless they didn’t find him yet.” Teddy tugged on one of his earrings as the worry set in. “Maybe he ran into someone he shouldn’t have, or maybe he got into trouble with his grandfather. From the little Billy said, I got the feeling that the old man’s really strict and might not be in favor of him dating.”

“Or maybe he’s getting back at you for ditching him and is making you squirm.” Clarice tapped her nails against her upper arms as she shook her head, the sound annoying as they hit the dense fabric of the uniform. “Which I have to give him credit, he’s doing a great job. Bet you’ll be groveling to him the next time you speak.”

“Well I do owe him something.” Teddy gave his earring one more tug before he forced his hand away; last night had been going so well, had been fun and revealing and… well, one of the best dates he’d ever had, and just as they were about a block away from Pierson’s, his phone had rang to tell him to get his ass back to base because there had been an attempted break-in at the lab. As bad as it had been to receive such a call, he’d been left stuttering and blushing as he tried to come up with some sort of suitable excuse to tell Billy, who had first stared at him with worry and then obvious doubt as Teddy attempted to explain that there was an emergency at work and he *had* to leave. While Teddy had promised that he’d make it up to Billy, his new boyfriend’s expression had become shuttered and he’d pulled up the hood to his shirt while shrugging off everything, had told Teddy that he hoped things would work out and turned around to walk away. Another message had distracted Teddy for a moment, and by the time he’d looked up to call out to Billy about offering to pay for a taxi home, Billy had just… vanished.

And now the silent treatment; Billy had warned him last night that there were times when he couldn’t answer Teddy, that his grandfather… well, his grandfather was old-fashioned and held a tight rein over the family, so Teddy tried not to worry too much. But it was after ten in the morning, surely Billy could have responded by now?

He got another smack for his troubles, which made him turn to glower at his partner. “Look sharp – Wisdom is on the warpath today and the last thing you want is for him to come out here and find you all mopey. I doubt he’s going to care about your boyfriend problems when some alien creatures are trying to steal his wife’s research.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t, thanks to Julian and Hisako.”

“Those two didn’t manage to catch any of them, either, so he figures he has a right to bitch.” Clarice rolled her eyes again as if to show that she thought the man was being an asshole, too, but since their team leader had spent a good half an hour chewing out Julian and Hisako last night, there wasn’t much more they could say on the matter.

“Fine.” Teddy straightened up and did his best to school his expression, the entire time mentally composing what his next voicemail to Billy would say – should he grovel some more? Or play it cool and leave the onus on Billy to reach out to him? There wasn’t that much more he really could explain about what had happened last night, other than the loose cover story about servers crashing and them needing him to assist at the labs while they ran out to purchase some new equipment. It felt really bad to be lying to someone he thought he was beginning to care about, especially when he wanted a relationship built on trust, but… well, he didn’t want Billy to be hurt. Well, hurt any more than the fact that Teddy might up and leave at any moment, as soon as the assignment was over.

Part of him wondered if he should just tell Billy that this wouldn’t work out, that he was a really nice guy but Teddy’s work would be too busy to let them hang out… but he thought about how gorgeous Billy looked when he laughed, when his brown eyes lit up and his dark hair fell onto his face, the way Billy bit his bottom lip when nervous or tugged on his bangs… There were all those little gestures Billy made, and Teddy was beginning to memorize them, to get them down – yet he wanted to learn them all. He wanted so badly to know what it felt like to hold Billy in his arms and to kiss him, to see if Billy would become still then or keep fidgeting, to see if he felt as fragile as he sometimes looked or would be warm and solid beneath his hands. Sometimes… sometimes he didn’t believe Billy was real, not after this past year.

So when his phone vibrated to let him know he had a message, he jumped in response and nearly shifted out of the stress, his uniform ‘groaning’ as it stretched to cover his enhanced muscles. “Sorry,” he mumbled as he controlled his talent, the same time he shoved his right hand into his pocket as if to grab his phone.

“Oh, go ahead,” Clarice told him, a disgusted expression on her face. “Run out and get me a cinnamon latte and a chocolate scone while you’re at it.”

He beamed at her as he pulled out his phone. “Thank you so much!”

“Anything so I don’t have to see your sickening face. Blech.”

Aw, he knew she adored him, so much so that he didn’t ask for any money for the coffee run this time, he just hurried down the hall while he thumbed on his phone. He nearly ran into a wall when he noticed that the text was from Billy, and had to slow down a little as he tapped on the message.

It wasn’t much of a reply to the ten or so he’d sent, but it *was* a reply. ‘Got home okay, been hanging out w/ my Mom this morning. Just saw your messages’ and what looked to be a sleepy fox face. Billy had talked a little about his mother, something about how she had some type of chronic disease or something, which was why his grandfather raised him, and despite not saying much, Teddy had picked up on how his boyfriend adored the woman – it was another thing they had in common. So he felt a little better about being ignored if he’d been blown off because Billy had spent some quality time with his own mother. Taking a chance, he dialed Billy’s number and prayed that the other boy answered.

The phone rang a few times, and Teddy’s heart was in his throat the entire time until it got picked up instead of going into voicemail yet again. “Uhm, hello?” It was Billy, yet he sounded a little off, as if he was distracted.

“Billy!”

“Yeah, one sec.” There was a muffled sound and some rustling, and Teddy thought he heard Billy tell someone to go away, but it didn’t really sound like Billy, it sounded like someone much older and colder.

“But Si-“

“*Go* *away*.” Teddy came to a halt and stared at his phone in confusion, because that *definitely* didn’t sound like Billy, it had been a voice without any emotion at all, just pure authority, and then there was more rustling. “Okay.” Billy was back on the phone, at least Teddy assumed it was his boyfriend, but he sounded distant, sounded ‘off’ once more.

“Uhm, everything all right there?” Teddy resumed walking as he tried to figure out what had happened on the other end of the phone.

“Yes just… someone being a bit of a pest.” Now Billy sounded more tired than anything.

“Okay.” Teddy let out a slow breath as he caught sight of an exit door. “Hopefully you’re not thinking the same thing about me.”

The other end of the line went silent for several seconds, during which Teddy felt his stomach drop. “I don’t know, what should I consider five voicemails and thirteen text messages?” There was a hint of something to Billy’s voice, dare Teddy consider it humor?

“Ah, persistence? I think it’s persistence, which is a good quality,” Teddy pointed out. “I’ve seen it on a bunch of cross-stitches and everything.”

“And not a bit stalker-ish?”

“Nope, nothing about persistence being stalker-ish, cross-stitches never lie,” Teddy swore as he smiled. “Would needlepoint steer you wrong?”

Billy was quiet for a few more seconds, and then there was a faint chuckle. “I suppose not, but I’ve only had experience with knitting to go by.”

“Oh, don’t even go there, it’s all purling and so forth. You can never trust purling.” Teddy felt the tension in his chest ease when he heard another faint laugh. “So, I was thinking since it’s my fault that we had to cut things short last night, I owe you another dinner.”

There was more of the dreaded silence, and then Billy took an audible breath. “What if you get another call?”

Teddy wished that Billy was in front of him just then so he could see the other boy’s expressions; Billy was so expressive, so open with what he felt. “Look, I can’t promise you that there won’t, but I’m really hoping there won’t be another server crash or emergency any time soon.” There *better* not be after the way Julian and Hisako had kicked ass last night. “So come on, take pity on a poor guy who didn’t even get his promised cup of coffee?”

He thought he heard some more rustling and then Billy sighed. “All right, but I’m only agreeing because you’ve never had Mineo’s pizza. I can’t on good conscience allow you to go on living without having decent pizza.”

Teddy did a little jump upon being granted a second chance. “Yes! I mean, uhm, yeah, thanks, that sounds great.” He cleared his throat and ignored the weird looks he was being given. “So, ah, does five thirty sound all right?” Maybe if they met a little earlier, they could finish a date before something bad happened.

“Yeah, that’ll work. I’ll meet you at Mineo’s.”

Teddy wanted to ask if he could pick Billy up at his house, but something in Billy’s voice just then warned him not to push – maybe Billy’s grandfather wasn’t ready to meet him just yet. “All right, I’ll see you there.”

“Okay.” The line went dead.

Left staring at his phone for a couple of seconds, Teddy remembered that he was out in public and put it away before he ran into someone. So he had another date. He would do everything he could tonight to ensure that things went right, that Billy didn’t regret giving him a second chance.

*******

“Oh yeah, definitely get that one.” Tommy sent his approval via text of Kate’s latest fashion rampage through Hammer Bay’s high-end shopping district then reached for his energy drink for another sip – and nearly dropped it when Billy reappeared out of thin air in a shower of blue sparks. “Uhm, hi.” He sat up higher on the couch and frowned since his brother was covered head to toe in that weird red cloak of his and didn’t bother with a reply. “So, you off blowing up rocks this morning or did you manage to get lucky last night? Doing a walk, well, teleport of shame?”

The blue glow around Billy flared at the joke, enough that Tommy shielded his eyes for a second, but at least it made his brother lower the hood of his cloak – not that it was that much of an improvement. Billy looked… he looked like Grandfather did during the Memorial ceremony, or whenever they heard about some human uprising; he looked *cold*, he looked inhuman, he looked utterly cut off from anything resembling emotions whatsoever. Fuck, but that wasn’t a good sign. “What-“

Before Tommy could ask what the hell was going on, there was a furious knock at the door, a rapid staccato which immediately preceded the door being flung open; Tommy jumped to his feet just in time as Uncle Pietro burst into the room, intent on getting in the way of the old man yet before he even took more than three steps a wall of translucent blue blazed into being. Oh yeah, someone was feeling his oats today, wasn’t he?

“Billy?”

“William!” Uncle Pietro’s green eyes went wide as he barely stopped in time to keep from slamming into the ‘wall’, an expression of shock in his face that was quickly covered with what looked an awful lot to Tommy to be false bravado. “Explain yourself!”

Billy, now floating in the air with his cloak undulating around him as if caught in a light breeze, rotated around to face their uncle. “Explain what?” He didn’t sound angry or confused, just… bored. Here they had a pissed off uncle in their room and Billy had used his talent against him, and Billy sounded *bored*. Tommy didn’t know if he should kiss the idiot or smack him, but that terrible expression was still on his brother’s face so he decided to just observe for now.

The lack of a response seemed to throw off Uncle Pietro, too, since he stood there with mouth agape for a couple of seconds, and then drew in a shuddering breath. “You teleported Caliban into the cove!” He was shouting so loud that his voice cracked on the last two words.

“Oh, that.” Billy crossed his legs so he could ‘sit’ in the air and managed to sound even more bored.

“Wait, what? You dunked Caliban? Way to go, CC!” Tommy grinned at his brother, his smile wavering when Billy stared back at him as if he was nothing – stared back with *blue* eyes.

“Do *not* encourage him!” Uncle Pietro jerked his gloved hands through his hair as he glared at Billy. “You do not treat fellow mutants that way! You do not treat *staff* that way! You-“

Billy held up his right hand, a hand surrounded by blue sparks so bright that it hurt to stare at it for more than a second or two, and the words caught in Uncle Pietro’s throat – Tommy had never seen anyone other than Grandfather cut off their uncle like that. “He was a nuisance,” Billy said in a too quiet voice. “He bothered me. I don’t want him following me around any more, or next time it won’t be the cove.” He tilted his head to the side as he considered his hand, seemingly unbothered by the sparks. “Next time it’ll be farther, maybe somewhere cold.” A slight smile crept over his face as if he found that thought amusing.

Okay, dweeby Billy was threatening to send people off to the North Pole or something, maybe Tommy had woken up in some alternate world. Judging from the stunned expression on Uncle Pietro’s face, he wasn’t the only one trying to figure out what the hell was going on here.

“He’s there for your own protection.”

Now Billy’s eyes narrowed, the blue in them blazing brighter and spreading to encompass even the whites. “I don’t *need* protection.” The sense of power, of magic, of… of whatever it was that Billy controlled, grew overwhelming inside the room. “Remember that.” Then he flicked his right hand and the wall surged forward to shove Uncle Pietro out of the room, even slamming the door shut behind him.

The room was eerily quiet after that, with Tommy wondering if he would be next. Then he remembered that this was Billy, was the dweeb who cried when his favorite characters were killed, whose idea of a good time was to curl up in bed with a *book* of all things – or worse, a *comic book*, who had been depressed for weeks when Grandfather hadn’t allowed them to have a kitten…. Yeah, it was Billy. A supped up Billy, but Billy. “You couldn’t have done that when I had my camera out? I mean, the look on his face as he got shoved out the door was *priceless*.”

Billy turned toward him, for a moment his face still that emotionless mask, and then it began to crumble as he slowly sank to the floor. “Ah, yeah, right?” His hands scrubbed at his face as he sat hunched over, the cloak pooled out around him, and shuddered. “What am I doing?” He sounded so confused just then, so broken, that Tommy only hesitated a second before racing over to his brother.

“I don’t know, other than the whole overkill with the power thing, I think you’re doing all right.” He knelt beside Billy and reached out to hold on to his shoulders; it had been a while since he’d done this, since Billy had been in an obvious need of reassurance, and for a moment he almost picked up the idiot and went running for their mother. Then Billy shuddered again so Tommy pulled him in close. “You’re right, we don’t need protection. It’s about time that Uncle and Grandfather realize that.”

Billy sniffed as little as he relaxed against Tommy. “I really wanted him to go away. Uhm, both of them.”

“Well, you were such a bad ass.” Tommy thumped his brother on the back. “Finally can tell we’re related.”

There was a long, weary sigh and Billy pulled free a little. “Maybe I stopped zapping people away too soon.” He rubbed at his face a little, but it was more as if in weariness than in desperation.

Tommy grinned as he stood up. “Come on, you know you adore me.”

“Yeah, I know I’m going crazy now.” Billy sighed as he stood up as well. “Shouldn’t you be out harassing other people or something?” He reached up to undo the clasp to the cloak and let it float away to rest on the back of the chair. “I think it’s safe to say that no one’s going to bother us for… oh, a week or so.”

Tommy rolled his shoulders as he made his way back to the couch and his phone. “I won’t complain – say, since we should be left alone for a while, then you can do a favor for me.” He ignored Billy’s snort at that comment. “Kate wants to do a double date now that you actually have some sort of social life.” For some reason, Billy’s talent flared up and caused the room to be filled with a blue glow. “What, don’t tell me you crashed and burned already?” Did he have to track down the surfer dude and kick his head in for messing with his baby brother?

Billy jerked his hand through his hair so quickly that it stood up for a couple of seconds. “Uhm, no. *No*.” A slight flush overcame his face as he waved his hands about in the air. “It’s okay, we have a date tonight. Another date. The two of us.” He lowered his head and peeked at Tommy through the wavy strands. “Alone. I mean, the two of us alone.”

“Sheesh, I get it. Way to go, CC, you’re a man-killer.” He rolled his eyes as he dropped down onto the couch. “Just make sure to bury the body extra deep.”

“Not funny!” Billy sent a wave of sparks in his direction and made a chocking sound. “It’s not- I mean, I’m not, gah!” He threw his glowing hands up in the air and shook his head. “Why does Kate even want to date you in the first place?”

“Stunning good looks and overpowering animal magnetism,” was Tommy’s instant response.

It wasn’t nice, the look of extreme disbelief sent his way by his own baby brother, but somehow Tommy would live on. “Right.” Billy magicked away the collection of candy wrappers that Tommy had scattered about while texting with Kate and appeared ready to head off to the bedroom. “Not about to get in the way of… *that*. Or see it. Or even think about it, thanks. I’ve nightmares enough from the women throwing themselves at Uncle Pietro.”

“Yeah, the ‘silver fox’ fangirls are rather scary.” Tommy did some shuddering of his own. “So what, you don’t want to hang out with your brother? See how a real date is done instead of… how do two geeks go about their mating ritual? Dance around a box of comics while flashing their first editions and collectible figurines?”

That earned him another shower of sparks, but it was so worth it. “Ha, ha, you’re about to beat Caliban to Antarctica,” Billy snarled. “And no, we’re headed to Mineo’s for pizza.” Billy sent some more sparks, well, because he could before he stomped off to the bedroom, and judging from the way the door glowed blue for a few seconds, Tommy had the impression that he was exiled from the room for the time being.

Oh well, at least his little brother was predictable on some fronts. Ignoring the most recent photos that Kate had sent him for the moment, he sent her a text that they had dinner plans, and hoped that she didn’t mind carbs.

*******

Eric stared at the stack of papers on his desk and wondered when things had become so… so banal. When his days were filled with signing documents, making small-talk with strangers and smiling for photos, when he spent the majority of his time trapped behind a desk, when the thought of a simple dinner alone filled him with joy. It was a far cry from the days of starvation and fear, of endless fighting and running, of despair over ever knowing peace… and yet there was something to be said for those days, of knowing that he was truly alive, of having something to hope for, to *fight* for, when all he was now was a glorified figurehead. A figurehead who signed his name to an endless stack of paper and whose most daunting task it seemed at the moment was choosing a theme for this year’s gala. Oh, if only Charles could see him now….

Picking up the proposal that Lorna had put together before she’d left for Wakanda, he was about to sign it when Pietro burst into the room, expression thunderous and motions jerky as he bent in a hasty bow. “Father, you *have* to do something about him!”

Casting the pen aside with a casual flick of his power, Eren propped his chin up with his left hand as he regarded his overwrought son. “I fail to see how I *have* to do anything,” he warned Pietro in a seemingly bland tone. “Although I am curious, what did Thomas do now?”

Pietro’s face flushed as he stood to attention, his movements still a far cry from their usual smooth flow. “It’s not Thomas this time – it’s William.” There was a rare note of distress in his voice as he spoke the younger twin’s name.

Mention of William made Eric sit up in his chair, his back resting against the comfortable padding. “William? What did he do?” It was unusual for the boy to act up… but there had been the display the other night at dinner, the flare of power that had made even Eric wary.

Seeing that he had Eric’s attention, Pietro began to pace around the room, his speed kept mostly under control but his gloved hands blurring now and then as he waved them about in the air. “Caliban was obeying orders – he reported that William was at Wanda’s this morning and followed him once he left her quarters.” There was a bite to Pietro’s voice which made it clear that he wasn’t pleased about William visiting his mother. “Not too long after that, he approached the boy and… well, William reacted in a most hostile manner. He insisted that Caliban leave him alone and then teleported him into the cove.”

For a moment Eric almost smiled upon hearing that, amused both at how powerful his grandson had become and the way he had chosen to deal with what he had considered an annoyance. “I assume that Caliban can swim?”

“Dammit, it’s not funny!” Pietro slashed his right hand through the air fast enough to cause a mini sonic boom. “Yes, the man can swim, but William defied us in that he knows that Caliban was assigned to him for his own safety! He cannot teleport people away just because… dammit, because he *wills* it!”

The amusement faded away as Eric made the pen float about in the air. “That’s just it, Pietro, he *can* do exactly that. He can do a great deal *more* than that.” He remembered the fox creature coming to life before his eyes, the way William had shone like a flame, the sense of awe he’d felt that very first time he’d stood before a young boy who had reached out with a hand wreathed in what appeared to be blue flames and made a toy cat shudder then become animated as if alive.

Pietro heaved several deep breaths as he pulled at his slicked back hair. “I went to his rooms to talk to him, and… he wasn’t himself, Father. He was… he wasn’t himself.” His hands fell to his sides as he shook his head. “He told me that Caliban was a nuisance and basically warned me that if the man continued to follow him, he’d send him somewhere far away, then forced me from the room. I haven’t been able to enter it since.”

Eric stared at his son as he considered what he’d just heard, the pen still floating about in the air; it wasn’t that much of a surprise, not since the day when he’d watched that toy appear to come alive. He had no idea where William’s talent had sprung from, why it had shown up in his bloodline… but he knew that it would continue to grow, that it wasn’t one to be relegated to parlour tricks and illusions. That was why he’d been so grateful that it was William and not Thomas who was so gifted, that it was the quiet twin, the one who resembled Wanda the most. William, while being a Lehnsherr, was kinder and gentler than himself, Pietro and Thomas, was more introspective. He didn’t seek out fights for the sake of fights, didn’t lash out first in fear of being hurt or want to take on the world because of some misplaced ego or sense of duty. So what had changed in the boy?

“You said that he had visited Wanda earlier?”

The question appeared to startle Pietro. “I… yes. Have you not heard anything that I said?”

Eric gave his son a quelling look for that tone of reproof. “Yes, I have, which is why I’m asking about Wanda.” When Pietro nodded in a suitably meek manner, he sighed and allowed the pen to rest on top of the desk. “Then perhaps it’s not as bad as you fear.”

“And why is that?” Pietro dared to take a couple of steps toward the desk, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Because if there was something truly wrong with William, she would have been here first.” Eric might not know his grandsons as well as he should, thanks to the pressing duties of running a country, but he knew his children. “She would finagle the guard to break down my door in one way or another and demand to know what was going on, what I’d done to him, and how I’d fix it.” He couldn’t hold back the proud smile at the thought of his daughter, his human daughter, and how she could be so deadly, so powerful when it came to those she loved. Ah, yes, she was the spitting image of Magda, body and spirit.

Pietro gave him a narrow look for several seconds before he tugged down on the black jacket of his tailored suit. “I hope for your sake that you’re correct, Father, because this… this cuckoo we’ve nursed in our home is turning into a proper cockatrice. Perhaps it’ll be your feathers he singes next.”

Eric leaned forward with his fingers steepled together as he regarded his son. “I never thought I’d hear you speak of your sister’s children like that.”

There was a look akin to shame on Pietro’s face as he glanced aside. “I never thought the day would come when I was helpless before one of them… and he’s still a child. Something to consider,” Pietro paused to execute a perfect bow, “my king.” He didn’t wait for a response before he fled the room in a black and silver blur.

Staring at the door for a minute or two after his son had left, Eric decided that there were more important matters worth his time than signing documents.

*******

“They’re adorable, ma’am!” Rahne laughed as she held out a tiny piece of raw meat, only for one of the foxes to leap up and snatch it away.

Wanda laughed as well, one of the foxes held cupped in her hands, its miniscule tongue lapping at her fingers for any remaining trace of meat. “I know! I’ll have to ask William to see what else he can make – the garden really comes alive with their presence.”

“Maybe some birds? They would be pretty.”

“Oh yes, or some butterflies. Imagine the colors he could create!” She smiled at the girl, grateful that Rahne had overcome the slight fear William had instilled in her earlier that morning.

They had just finished feeding the fascinating creatures when there was the faint creaking sound of the gate opening, and then Wanda’s father sauntered into her garden as if it were his own – it might be his land, his country but it was *not* his garden. She reached out to calm Rahne as the girl scrambled to her feet, face a scarlet blush and busy stammering out some sort of greeting, and then nodded. “Some tea would be nice.”

“Yuh-yes, mah lady.” Rahne took care as she stepped away because of the foxes, and then ran as if from a demon the rest of the way to Wanda’s quarters; Wanda supposed the poor girl was partially correct as she looked up at her father and noticed the frown on his face as he stared at the ground.

“What brings you here today?”

He didn’t seem to hear the question as he motioned at the foxes. “There’s more of them? Why are there more of them, and what are they doing here?”

Wanda sighed as she shooed one of the creatures off of her skirts and was careful as she stood up. “There are more of them because William believed that Tails was lonely and needed some companions, and they’re here because I like them.” She reached out to grasp her father’s left arm and ensured that he didn’t step on any of her new pets. “They’re very amusing, and I believe they’re scaring away the moles that were burrowing in my lilies.”

“You have magic foxes in your garden. A garden that’s filled with magic flowers.” Father covered his eyes with his hand for a moment as if attempting to come to terms with something. “I rule a kingdom of mutants and even I have trouble grasping this concept, Daughter.”

She gave his arm a slight smack before smoothing her hand over the rich red silk of the heavy tunic. “You need to get out more, then. I see nothing wrong with this situation.”

“Says the woman who barely leaves her magic garden.” Father sighed as they reached the small table and motioned for one of the chairs to move out enough for her to sit down, then pushed it back toward the table once she sat down in it with his own hands. “I’m recalling the stories of my youth and wondering if perhaps you’re not a changeling child.” Yet there was a slight smile on his lips as he teased her. “It would explain much.”

She waited for him to sit down across from her and leaned forward with her chin propped up on her palm. “Oh, about me or about my children?” Ah, his eyes narrowed slightly just then. “This is about my children, no?” It wasn’t often that he sought her out like this, especially during the day when he was so busy.

For a moment something akin to exhaustion settled on his still handsome face, only for it to be replaced by the usual stern expression he wore when he was dealing with matters of ‘state’. “With one of them in particular, I must admit.”

“William.” It didn’t take much to guess the answer to that, not after her son’s visit this morning and her father’s reactions to the foxes. She had to admit, it was a change from the usual complaints about Thomas’ antics.

Her father rested back in his chair. “Yes, William.” He turned to look out over the garden, and she knew he was gazing at the vivid flowers that William had gifted her with the other day, which she could smell so clearly with each breath she took. “I have to say, he is, as always, the devoted son.”

“He’s a good boy.” She was about to say something else when Rahne appeared, her face taut with tension, bearing a tray filled with a pot of tea, two teacups and a small tray of the remaining pastries that William had ‘fetched’ for her from Blé Sucré. As soon as the girl had set the tray down on the table, her hands trembling ever so slightly, Wanda patted her on the arm. “It’s all right, I’ll do the serving.” Rahne flashed her a grateful look before returning indoors.

Father sniffed a little as he surveyed the tray. “I don’t know why you insist on retaining the child, I can-“

“I like Rahne,” Wanda informed him as she checked the tea. “We get along well.”

“It’s not about ‘getting along,” he told her with a hint of reproach. “But very well, I will drop the subject.” He appeared annoyed at her constant refusal to accept more or ‘better’ servants, when Rahne was all she needed – if by some chance there was anything the girl couldn’t do, William and Thomas took care of her needs, and Pietro as well. “That’s not why I’m here.”

“No, you’re here about William.” She gave the tea a little longer to steep and pushed the plate full of madeleines toward him. “Why is that?”

He decided to answer her question with one of his own, a habit she detested. “Why did he visit you this morning?” When she stared at him with her jaw set, he sighed and reached out to stroke the back of her right hand. “Daughter… Wanda. He did something to upset Pietro today. It seems… there’s concern that his power is getting out of control. I thought it best to talk to you, to see what *you* think.”

A laugh slipped free as she pulled her hand away to settle it on her lap. “You talk to *me* about power?”

“No, I talk to you about your son.” There was a worried gleam in his grey eyes, a look she rarely saw on her father’s face. “If anyone knows about William, it’s you.”

She sat there in silence for several seconds before she sighed. “He was a little troubled this morning, but when he left here, he was fine. Did something happen to set him off?”

He looked aside as he picked up a madeleine. “Pietro said something about one of the guard following him around, which William took offense at for some rea-“

“Offense?” Wanda smacked her right hand against the table. “It was Caliban, wasn’t it? I often see him skulking around the gate when William comes to visit, no wonder my son was upset!”

There as a hint of her father’s ‘royal’ personality as his back stiffened and his chin lifted. “Daughter, I doubt I need to remind you that your son is a prince, and a very powerful mutant. He can be a target of any number of-“

“He doesn’t need a babysitter,” she insisted, uncaring that she had just cut him off again. “No wonder he’s so upset when he’s being stalked in his own *home*!”

“It’s for his own good!”

“How?” Wanda rose to her feet, both of her hands pressed against the table. “How is it for his own good? How can William feel anything but isolated and… and….” She felt dizzy from the strong wave of emotion, and the next thing she knew, she was seated in the chair with her father kneeling before her.

“Here, little one, drink this.” He pressed a cup of tea into her hands, the worried expression back on his face.

“Ah, I know it’s bad when you call me that.”

A slight smile dented the worry as he brushed back the curls falling on her forehead. “Well, you insisted that you weren’t so ‘little’… oh, I think when you turned sixteen? Even though you’ll always be my little one.” He helped her with the cup as she took a sip.

It was rare, moments like this when she felt as if it was her father before her and not the king, the man who had showed up that day so long ago when she and Pietro were starving and scavenging for food on the streets of Sibiu weeks after their mother had died. He had taken them in, given them shelter, and soon enough, a home where they would be safe. Yet she still remembered those awful times, the fear and the hunger, and wished to spare her sons the same suffering.

“You can’t raise William or Thomas up in fear,” she whispered once she finished the tea.

Her father sighed as he set the cup aside and then held her hands in his much larger ones. “I’m doing what I can to spare them that, I promise. I won’t let anyone harm my family.” The gentle expression he wore slowly began to harden into a familiar mask she had not seen for so long.

“I won’t let anyone harm my family,” he repeated as he rose to his feet. “And I won’t let anyone use William. Watch over him, Wanda.” He didn’t say anything else as he strode away, the gate opening before him with a flick of his hand.

She sighed as she watched him leave, before she could say anything about *him* using William, about *him* being the one to cause her children harm. Yet he wouldn’t see it that way, would he? Those who were the most driven never did.

“Mah lady?”

“I think I need to lie down for a little while,” Wanda told Rahne as the girl crept toward her. “If my brother comes by… ask him to visit another day.” She didn’t have the energy to put up with him right now.

“Yes, ma’am.” Rahne hesitated as she offered Wanda her arm. “And… and if it’s one of yahr sons?”

She smiled at the girl as she stood up, a little unsteady on her feet. “Them, I will see.” Though she hoped that William followed her advice and was out with that boyfriend of his, and Thomas… well, Thomas always found something to amuse himself with, didn’t he? As long as they both were safe.

*******

“Wow, just how much damage did you do today, Princess?”

Kate finished slipping on her sandals then crossed her arms over her chest. “Oh, it’s not as bad as it looks.”

When Tommy finished gawking at the few – oh, all right, *many* shopping bags strewn across the room, she sighed and flicked a hand as if dismissing the evidence. “Cassie was being stubborn about letting me buy her things, and it was easier to slip in stuff for her if it seemed ‘minor’ compared to what I was getting. Some of that is for my sister, and a good bit of it will end up being donated to the local shelters.”

“Yeah, because it makes sense to wear… is that Saint Laurent? The homeless are going to *love* Saint Laurent.” Tommy rolled his eyes as he picked up one of the shirts.

“Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of the women shelters, and just because you’re down on your luck doesn’t mean you don’t deserve owning something nice.” She stomped over and snatched the shirt out of his hands. “These can help them get back on their feet, to look presentable for a job interview, and even if they want to just go turn them in to a consignment shop then the money will help them out,” she snapped. “Not everyone’s lucky enough to be born into a rich family, you know, and take for granted having designer clothes.”

He appeared ashamed for himself for a few seconds, and then summoned up his habitual cocky grin. “Well, at least it’s not McQueen. I dare any of them to pull off McQueen as well as you do.”

“You…” She let the shirt drop back into the bag and gave his left shoulder a gentle punch. “What’s wrong? You’re talking *fashion*, which is… oh, I don’t know, one of the signs of the apocalypse? That or alien mind control. You start telling me about stocks and bond rates and I know it’s alien mind control.”

He laughed and grabbed her by the hips to spin her around, the room a colorful blur for a few seconds before he set her back on her feet with a quick kiss to her nose. “You’re… you’re you, Kate. Never change, all right?”

“Why would I do such a thing, hmm?” She wiped at her nose as she gave him a curious look.

Tommy rocked on his heels a little as he rubbed at the back of his neck, an almost sorrowful expression on his face for a moment. “Because… argh, it’s messed up lately, okay?” He sighed and in a blur he was sprawled out on the couch. “Look, watch out tonight, all right?”

“How come?” She slipped her hands – well, fingers – into the pockets of her jeans. “We’re just meeting up with Billy tonight for a double date.”

There was a flash of something on Tommy’s face, but as usual, it was gone too quickly for her to catch. “Yeah, but… he was acting a bit odd this morning. Our uncle did something to piss him off.”

“Yeah, so? From what you tell me, your uncle makes you mad on an almost daily basis.”

Tommy grimaced and picked up a pillow to play with, to punch and spin around as he talked. “That’s just it, Billy doesn’t usually do ‘mad’. He might sulk and refuse to talk to you for a couple of hours, but he doesn’t act up like the rest of us.”

That sounded ‘mad’ to Kate, who was used to a lot of yelling in her family. “And what do you consider ‘mad’?”

Tommy was still for a moment, and then he used his power to explode the pillow will giving her a solemn gaze.

“Oh, yeah, the whole… power thing, right?” She stared at the feathers slowly drifting to the floor. “That could make things… yeah.”

“Exactly. Things – well, metal things – shake and move about around Grandfather and Aunt Lorna, Uncle and I get all twitchy, and all of us take to yelling because we *have* to let it all out or else. I guess you can say we’ve learned to not keep it all in, to release it verbally at least. Billy… well, he never seemed to have a temper so it wasn’t a problem.” Tommy watched the feathers float about and then there was another blur. A few seconds later, the feathers were gone, except for a large pile on the coffee table and he was once more seated on the couch.

Kate was trying to follow this, she really was, except it sounded as if she was only getting part of the story. “And now he has a temper?”

Tommy paused as he stared at the pile of feathers. “I… don’t know? More like he doesn’t care to hide away the fact that he’s bothered anymore.”

“Ah, I see. And you’re not used to that.” Kate went over to pick up a garbage can and then over to the coffee table, where she slowly pushed the feathers into it. “Sounds like to me that you got used to Billy being that way, and now you don’t know what to do with him when he’s being more like… well, the rest of the family.”

Tommy stared at her while she cleaned up the mess. “I… that’s not… well… okay, maybe?” He appeared sheepish as he shook his head. “You don’t pull your punches, do you?”

“Life’s taught me that you might only ever get the chance for one hit, so make it count.” That came out a little harsher than she’d intended, so she softened it with a smile. “Look, he’s your brother so you should know him best, I’m just giving you an outsider’s perspective.”

“True, but I’d like to see what you think of him. I just… hope he’s in a good mood tonight.”

“I don’t see why he wouldn’t be, what with the date and all.” She set the garbage can down and rested her hands on her hips. “Now, unless you’re going to destroy any more of the room, which you are paying for, thank you very much, shouldn’t we be going?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tommy shoved himself off of the couch and offered her a flourished bow, his right hand extended. “You know, it’s getting rather difficult to tell who’s royalty here right about now.”

Kate sniffed as she rested her hand on his. “There’s a reason I’m called ‘Princess’ and you ‘Trouble’.”

Tommy laughed as he escorted from the room.

*******

Teddy double-checked his phone for directions, uncertain that he’d turned onto the right street; this close to the palace most of the shops had a high-end air to them, but he’d been directed toward a small cul-de-sac where the store fronts were older and lower key, were plain brick and mortar. He passed a bookstore, a pharmacy that appeared to sell just as many herbal remedies as pills, and a tailor. It wasn’t until he passed the jewelry store with some simple pieces containing a few of the largest gems he’d ever seen in his life in the window displays that he caught sight of a familiar figure leaning against the ivy-covered wall, dressed in black skinny jeans and a red hooded jacket. “Billy!” He waved to his boyfriend and hurried forward.

Billy pushed away from the wall and gave him a slight wave in return, the voluminous hood of his jacket pulled forward to shade his face; it was an odd jacket, archaic in style and zipped diagonal across his chest, the sleeves full and long enough to cover his hands. Teddy had the impression of Billy hiding himself way and became nervous. “Ah, so this is the famous Mineo’s? No wonder I could never find it before.”

“Yes, it is.” Billy’s voice was distant and a bit cold, and then he pushed back the hood and offered Teddy a shy smile. “It, ah, it’s a bit of a local’s secret, I guess?” He looked at Teddy for a few seconds and then directed his gaze toward the ground. “I, ah, may have to wipe your memory after tonight.”

Feeling better at the joke, Teddy offered Billy his arm. “Well, I suppose it’s better than you killing me, and there’s the memory of that horrid day back in high school when I grabbed the wrong sweat pants and didn’t realize I wore my mom’s with ‘juicy’ on my butt all day that I could do without.” He grinned as Billy groaned. “Too much too soon?”

“Maybe a mercy killing would be a kindness.” They paused just inside the door, and an older man with pale blue skin ushered them toward a table in the back. “How did you manage a mistake like that?” Billy seemed to lose some of his shyness and reached up to unzip his jacket; Teddy could spot some of a dark grey t-shirt and what looked to be a colorful emblem beneath it.

“Well, I was a bit scrawny back them, it was the first year in high school.” Teddy laughed in a self-conscious manner as he flexed his left arm. “Guess you could say I hit a growth spurt a little after that.” Or decided to take matters into his own hands.

Billy stared at his own hands – well, his fingertips peeking out from the overlong sleeves of his jacket. “Yeah, must be nice to have one of those.” His mouth quirked up on the left side. “Don’t think that’ll happen if it hasn’t already.”

Teddy reached out to cover Billy’s fine-boned hands with his larger, almost hammish ones and thought he felt a jolt of… of something at the contact. “Hey, not all of us can be big lugs like me. My mom always said that I was put on this earth to lift furniture and carry the groceries, so obviously your calling is something else. Maybe to get the last of the olives out of the jar and fetch the remote when it falls between the couch and the end table?”

That wrung a laugh out of Billy, and he was smiling as their server came to drop off two menus and take their drink order. Once the man was gone, Billy set the menu aside. “Nice to know I have such a glorious future to look forward to.”

“Hey, don’t look down on being the remote fetcher – he who has ownership of the remote wields the most power,” Teddy intoned in his most serious voice.

“I shall be certain to put that on my resume, I’m sure Google will jump at the chance to hire me.” Billy continued to smile at him for a few more seconds before he held up the menu, his chin propped up by his covered left hand. “So, on to the second round of tests. What, good sir, do you want on your pizza?”

Teddy pretended to look over the menu for a moment. “Uhm, pineapple and anchovies.”

There was silence from the other end of the table, and then Billy slowly put down the menu and began to stand up. “That’s it, I can no longer associate with a heathen such as you. Good bye, don’t ever call me again.”

Teddy laughed as he reached across the table and tugged on Billy’s jacket. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” He held on until Billy huffed and sat back down, his arms folded over his chest and a dubious expression on his face. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist.” Customers at the tables around them were staring, and Teddy gave them a wide smile as well. “I would never desecrate a pizza like that.”

“I hope not,” Billy muttered as he shook off Teddy’s hand. “All right, be serious now.”

“Okay.” Teddy cleared his throat, aware of Billy’s gaze on him as he picked up the menu. “Uhm, the meat lover’s looks really good, but my mom’s been on me lately to make sure I eat better.” Plus, hadn’t Billy said something about his family being Jewish? Just how Orthodox were they? Was ham acceptable? “So… how does mushrooms and peppers sound? Too new age or what?”

“It’s simple and almost a classic.” Billy nodded as if in approval. “You don’t want to get too fussy with-“ His eyes went wide as he stared in the direction of the door. “No, he *didn’t*!”

“Uh, what?” Teddy twisted in his chair, expecting to see the server with the wrong drink order or something, and caught sight of a young man who looked an awful lot like Billy headed toward them with a very pretty young woman in two. “Ah, that’s Tommy, right?” He recognized Billy’s brother, though this time the guy wasn’t glaring at him like he’d been doing back at the bookstore.

No, now Billy was the one doing the glaring. “What are you doing here?” he hissed as he rose up in his chair.

Tommy affected a surprised air, his right hand pressed against his chest and his hazel eyes wide. “What? You’re here too? What are the odds?” He then took to grinning as he grabbed the empty two-seater table near them and dragged it over. “Kate, I’d like you to meet my brother, Billy. Billy, this is Kate.”

The young woman pursed her lips and narrowed her grey eyes at Tommy before she sighed and tossed back her dark brown hair. “It’s nice to meet you, Billy, though this isn’t quite how I imagined it would happen.” She smiled and Teddy saw her kick Tommy in the shin as she leaned over the now joined tables to offer her hand to Billy.

Billy seemed to catch that, too, and blinked a little as he stared at her hand. There was an odd tension to the air just then, some sort of static electricity, and Billy shook his hand in the air for a couple of seconds before he offered it to Kate with an odd expression on his face, one that was almost wary; meanwhile, Tommy *definitely* appeared on edge just then. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”

Tommy let out a sudden breath and shuddered all over. “There, see! It’s all good.” He beamed at his brother and then at Kate. “Oh, yeah, and this is… Teddy, right?” He frowned a little in Teddy’s direction, and then yelped as Kate kicked him again and Billy… Teddy didn’t think Billy’s hand had connected just then, but Tommy jerked away from it all the same.

“Of course it’s Teddy! You… oh!” Billy shoved him toward the empty table. “For that, you’re picking up the tab tonight.”

“But I said I’d-“

Billy turned his glare Teddy’s way. “No, *he’s* paying.”

Unused to seeing Billy this irate, Teddy managed an anxious laugh and held up his hands in surrender. “Right, he’s paying. Maybe we should order some appetizers then? How’s the fried zucchini?”

“We’re getting the family sampler platter,” Billy spat out as he once more took to glaring at his brother, who looked ready to complain until there was a weird spark of static electricity when he touched the table.

Meanwhile, Kate grinned as she set the strap of her small purse on the back of her chair and then sat down. “Oh, I like him,” she told Tommy. “He’s feisty.”

“He’s being awfully free with my money, is what he’s being,” Tommy grumbled as he removed his grey baseball cap, his pale blond hair tousled beneath it.

The complaint prompted a laugh from Kate. “Oh, and just how hard did you work for that ‘money’, hmm?” She tapped a manicured nail against the table. “Slaving away, are you?”

Tommy grimaced as he leaned away from the table. “Okay, maybe this was a bad idea – like I need it from the both of you.”

“Too late,” both Billy and Kate said in unison, which prompted a groan of misery from Tommy and a laugh from Teddy. He watched as his boyfriend and Kate shared a smile, though Billy’s appeared rather uncertain; he wondered if Billy really hadn’t been exaggerating when he said he didn’t have many friends.

Deciding to help out his boyfriend, Teddy smiled at Kate. “So, are you a local, too?”

Kate was about to answer when the server returned with Billy’s iced coffee and Teddy’s soda, and left with Kate and Tommy’s drink order as well as that for the appetizer. “Nope, just visiting for the time being. I take it that you’re from the States? You don’t talk funny like these two do.”

Tommy scrunched his nose as he tossed a piece of napkin at her. “Ha, ha, we talk civilized, unlike you.”

Kate arched an elegant eyebrow as she picked up the scrap of paper and tossed it back. “You wouldn’t know ‘civilized if you ran into it.” She shook her head as she turned toward Billy. “Has he always been this hopeless?”

“Been that way since birth, as far as I can tell,” Billy admitted inbetween sips of his coffee.

Tommy threw his hat on the table in what appeared to be disgust, and then snatched it up, his movements almost a blur. “You guys suck.”

“I don’t know, maybe that’ll teach you not to crash someone’s date,” Billy told him, his lower jaw jutting out in obvious anger.

While it was heartening to see that Billy was upset about their time together being encroached upon, Teddy didn’t want his boyfriend to be upset, especially at his own brother. “But that just means I get another one, right?” He smiled as he reached out to hold onto Billy’s left hand. “I still owe you dinner, after all.”

At first Billy just stared at him, brown eyes wide and mouth slightly open, and then his cheeks slowly began to become flushed. “Uhm, I… okay.” He ducked his head, his dark brown hair falling onto his face as his right hand tugged at his bangs.

Beside him, Kate scooted down in her chair and Tommy yelped a moment later. “See, that’s how you do it. Take notes.”

“Stop kicking me,” he muttered to her before he turned to give Teddy a flat look. “Huh, you.”

“Me,” Teddy responded as he continued to hold onto Billy’s hand. For some reason, he was reminded of the times back in training, when Calisto would watch over his performance. Tommy didn’t look away until the server came back with his and Kate’s drinks and took their pizza order.

Tommy sneered when Billy told the man what they wanted on their pizza, and then gaped at Kate when she told him that she wanted mushrooms and spinach on theirs. “Aw come on! Spinach?”

“Some of us don’t have hyped up metabolisms,” she informed him as she jabbed at his arm. “And you can do with some minerals in you – what did you have for lunch, huh? Anything that didn’t come in a sealed bag?”

As Tommy took to groaning again, Teddy gave Billy’s hand a squeeze and leaned in so he could speak in a quiet voice. “You know, I was thinking about taking you to a movie, but I think I’ll save that for another time – this entertainment’s free and pretty good.”

Billy treated him to another of those sweet, slow smiles that made his heart race. “As much as I’m ready to kill him for pulling a stunt like this, I have to admit it is rather fun to watch.” His eyes flickered downward for a moment. “Sorry about… all of this.” He made a slight motion with his right hand to Kate and Tommy, who were still bickering albeit in a friendly manner.

“Nah, don’t worry about it.” Teddy gave Billy’s hand another squeeze. “You still have a long way to go to mess things up after I ran out on you last night.” He grimaced as he thought about how their previous date had ended. “Even if you eat the last slice of pizza and spill my drink on me, I still think I’m in the red.”

Billy’s smile had faltered at the mention of last night, but it strengthened there at the end. “Good to know, especially that last slice of pizza bit.”

Teddy groaned as he sat back in his chair, reluctant to let go of Billy’s hand. “Oh, now I’ve done it, right?”

“Just wait until our pizza arrives, you’ll regret it after the first bite.” Billy appeared rather smug as he picked up his half-finished drink. “I can’t believe you ate at lesser establishments.”

That seemed to get Tommy’s attention. “Wait, this is his first time here, too?” An expression of pure disgust came over Tommy’s face, so similar to Billy’s in some ways yet Teddy had a feeling he’d never confuse the two, and not only because of their different coloring; Tommy seemed too… too cocky to ever be mistaken for Billy. “What is it with these foreigners? Are you born with a gene for bad pizza or what?”

“I don’t want to be lectured on food by a guy who-“

Fortunately, they were rescued by their appetizer arriving then, and Kate sighed at the appearance of piled fried food on the huge platter. “Oh yay, and my point has just been proven for me.”

Teddy laughed as he handed her one of the side plates and some napkins. “At least I think there’s some vegetables beneath all that batter and grease?”

“I feel better about my hardening arteries already,” Kate drawled as she scooped a few fried mushrooms onto her plate. “I’m picking the place tomorrow,” she told Tommy as she poked a fork in his direction. “And you’re still paying.”

“Like I didn’t see *that* coming.” Tommy rolled his eyes. He moped for a second, and then draped his arm over Billy’s shoulders. “Hey, do you wanna-“

“No,” Billy cut him off, his tone flat and unusually cold. “Don’t even ask, unless you really do want to end up in Antarctica.”

For some reason the odd joke made Tommy jerk his arm away in a hurry and hold up his hands in surrender. “Fine, be that way.” Teddy was left wondering what the story was behind it, if it was one their grandfather threatened them with when they were bad, and reached out to tap his clean fork against Billy’s plate when his boyfriend didn’t look up from staring at the table.

“Hey, so how do we go about splitting up the appetizer now? Free for all or do we take these two on in a battle to the death? I think your brother is a piece of cake, but Kate… well, she looks pretty nasty to me. Might be trouble.” That assessment wrung a pleased laugh from the young woman.

“Oh my god, no wonder you like him, he’s as much of a dweeb as you are – stop kicking me!”

“Then stop being such a pest,” Kate told him as she grinned at Billy and Teddy. “And he’s right, you would be the first to go down in this fight.”

At first Billy gazed at Teddy as if… as if he wasn’t there, as if he was looking at nothing at all, and just as Teddy began to wonder what was going on with his boyfriend, if he should as Tommy for help, there was that shy, uncertain smile and Billy ducked his head as his hands slipped beneath the table, probably to tug at his jacket. For some reason Teddy thought he caught a gleam of blue in Billy’s eyes as his head dipped, but put that down to nerves – he wanted so much for this date to go right, for nothing to mess it up, and even if Tommy’s antics were rather amusing, he could tell that his presence here was getting to Billy. It was almost enough for him break regulations, turn off his SHIELD issued phone and drag Billy out of the pizza shop so they could have some peace and quiet.

Instead, he stretched out his leg and nudged his foot against his boyfriend’s. “Well? That a yes to the free for all?”

Billy looked up from tearing at his jacket and shrugged, that faint smile still hovering on his lips. “Nah, I think we can take them. Or, at least, Tommy. Kate doesn’t seem that interested in appetizers so maybe we can appease her with a salad instead.”

“Wow, I see where the brains went between the two of you,” Kate commented as she rested her elbows on the table. “Good strategy, there.”

“Aw, come *on*!” Tommy whined before he buried his face in his arms on top of the table.

While Kate made placating noises at her boyfriend, Teddy reached over to tug the appetizer plate closer to him and Billy and shared a grin of victory with his boyfriend.

*******

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