Billy is pretty sure he didn't signed up for this. Sure, there are probably aspects to being part of a super hero team that he's signed up for unwittingly, but he is verging on 100 per cent positive that this isn't one of them. Those things are things like never getting to run away when someone else is in trouble or having to explain blood stains on your shirt to your mother when she's folding your laundry or feeling this vague uneasy guilt about joining a super hero team literally hours after almost blowing up a classmate.
Billy is also pretty sure that he should feel worse about that than he does, that maybe he should have paused more when Iron Lad found him and told him that there were things that needed to be done and he – somehow, out of all the people out there – is one of the people who has to do them. That maybe concepts like responsibility and self-control should have taken precedence over holy crap, I get to be a super hero. He hadn't paused, though; instead, he'd practically cried tears of joy and gone on to tell this complete stranger about how he could name every Avenger in the order in which they joined and how, when he was nine, he had written lyrics for an Avenger's theme song set to "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain." Somehow, in the third tiny miracle of that day, he had held off, and Billy figures that is a good thing because admitting to dorky stuff like that is liable to get you kicked off the team before it even starts.
Which would maybe be okay because he really didn't sign up for this. "This" being an Arby's booth in the middle of one of their downtown locales, smushed up against Angry Boy (aka. Eli, aka. Patriot) to his left, Iron Lad (aka. I am surprisingly normal looking when not dressed up as robot, aka. who the hell knows?) on the diagonal, and the most ridiculously attractive guy Billy has ever seen (aka. Teddy, aka. Theodore for the love of God, aka. Hulkling, aka. Would you please button that shirt up some more, so that I can look forward to breathing again sometime in this next century?) straight across the table. Billy has to hook his ankles together and wedge them under the seat to keep from accidentally knocking the guy's ankle and thus triggering a sort of attraction overload-slash-epileptic fit that would also be likely to get him kicked off the team.
Eli and Iron Lad are talking shop. This actually consists mostly of Eli asking pointed questions in a loud whisper and then slamming the table with his fist when Iron Lad provides an evasive or cryptic answer. Example:
"So, who are you?" asks Eli.
Iron Lad smiles and says, "Let's just stick to Iron Lad for now." And Eli slams the table.
Twenty seconds later, the pattern repeats.
"How did you find us?" asks Eli, and Iron Lad shrugs and says, "I have ways."
All this trickles through to Billy's subconscious and is filed away to be considered later. Right now, Billy is too occupied with telling himself sternly, Must not be a spazz, must not be a spazz, must not be a spazz while Teddy picks away at his hamburger, seemingly unaware that he has shoulders twice as broad as Billy's, and hair that looks like liquid gold even under Arby's stupid fluorescent lights, and piercings all up and down both ears, and eyes that are so freaking blue that Billy is praying to God that they are contacts and not genetics because that would just be extremely unfair.
The twisted thing is that Teddy also looks exactly like the kind of guy that has been beating Billy up more or less on a regular basis since grade five. Billy wonders if this is anything like what having Stockholm Syndrome feels like and resolves to find a not-totally-embarrassing way to ask Mom when he gets home. He'll say it's for a school project or something.
"I realize I am asking for a whole lot of trust here," Iron Lad is saying, his finger bent into a pyramid over his empty plate, "and I also realize I'm not giving you a whole lot to base that trust on. But you aren't ready to hear who I am or how I found or why I need you, so –"
He's cut off for a moment as the sound of Eli grinding his teeth together is replaced by him shouting "Fuck you!" as loud as he can. Everyone in the restaurant looks their way and instinctively, both Billy and Teddy smile at the other patrons – Billy in a "Oh, don't mind us. We are insane but also totally harmless" way and Teddy in a broader smile that is simultaneously blindingly warm, friendly and reassuring.
Iron Lad stares at Eli until he is entirely certain that no more outbursts are forthcoming. Then he picks up right where he left off: "So I promise I will tell you as soon as I feel I can, but you're going to have to accept that I can't for now."
Billy nods at this. He understands secrets. It's something that comes from growing up with a Mom who's a psychologist. It makes you more careful about what you choose to hide and what you let show because there's always got to be just enough angst slipping through the cracks to convince her that you're a normal sixteen year-old boy with normal sixteen year-old boy problems. So that she doesn't come poking around, trying to get in at the important things.
Those things Billy's learned to bundle up tightly, keep compact and hidden so far down that even he forgets they're there sometimes. The gay thing is one. The being bullied at school is another. Now the spellcasting, shooting lightning from his fingertips, and fighting evil are rounding out the roster.
The point is when Iron Lad says "Just trust me," Billy's inclination is to say "Okay," so he does. He taps his fingers against the edge of his plate, regretting eating his turkey sandwich so fast because now he's still kind of hungry, and he says, "Okay, where do we start?"
Iron Lad smiles at him for a moment and then starts ripping his napkin into thirds. He takes out a black ballpoint pen and scribbles something on each before shooting them out across the table: one for Eli, one for Teddy, one for Billy. Billy's has the top of the Arby's cowboy hat on it and an address he doesn't recognize.
Iron Lad says, "We'll meet there tomorrow after school. I think it's a good idea if we all get used to what the others can do before we try to tackle anything big."
"So that I don't scream like a girl every time this guy hulks out?" says Billy, jerking a thumb in Teddy's direction and feeling both brave and like a complete lunatic at the same time. "Probably a good call."
Teddy responds by grinning, with a fry dangling between his lips like a deep-fried cigarette.
Eli scowls at them all like they are unbelievable tools. Maybe he's right, Billy thinks, and maybe they will regret trusting some guy who came out of nowhere and asked for their help but at that moment, Teddy pushes his half-plate of fries out into the middle of the table and says, "You can have some if you want. I'm stuffed," and it takes all of Billy's concentration not to grin like a complete goofball.
Billy spends the next morning being so hyperactive that even Michael, who is five and thus should not know about such things, keeps asking if he's on drugs.
"Shut up and eat your Cheerios," says Billy for the eleventh time, ladling blueberry jam onto a sliver of toast. He's feeling too good to get into an argument with anyone but after taking a bite and chewing meditatively for a moment, he adds, "And don't you dare say that where Mom can hear."
Michael rolls his eyes, but he does shut up, and he does eat his Cheerios, so Billy considers this a personal victory. The first of many, he hopes.
After all, he's a super hero now. He repeats this over and over to himself as he bikes to school. He's a super hero and not just some guy who put on tights one day either; he's part of a team. In Billy's personal opinion, this is approximately twenty times cooler than being a rock star. It's cooler than being a rock star and an astronaut and James Bond, all rolled into one.
His good mood lasts until he gets to school and remembers that the crappy part of having a secret identity is that most people don't know what it is and to everyone at school, he's still the freak who almost killed John Kesler. He's still not quite sure how he's managed to keep from being expelled or, at minimum, suspended for that. He figures the other kids are keeping quiet about what happened, out of fear in some cases and in others, out of the knowledge that this is one more valid reason to beat up Billy Kaplan.
By the time Billy gets to his locker, he's dragging his feet and wishing he could run back home, crawl into bed, and hide. He ignores the word "MUTANT" printed in big, black permanent marker on his locker door, retrieves his book, and slouches to class.
People give him funny looks and go out of their way to avoid him. After Kesler, even his friend are wary of him, and the few people who still try to be nice to him – like Christine, his lab partner – only do it when they're certain no one else is around to see. Billy knows that he could fix this. It's true that he doesn't quite know the full reach of what he can do yet – the power's part of him and yet it's still vast and troubling and hard to figure out, sort of like being sixteen – but he knows that if he were to think, really hard, that he wanted them all to forget, they would.
He doesn't, and he's not quite sure why. Playing with people's memories, undoing things that have been done – Billy just feels that those aren't the kinds of things you do just because it would make your life easier or make you feel better. You do them when you don't have any other choice.
So his day progresses in more or less the exact same pattern as every school day has for the past month. He keeps his head down, never meets anyone's eyes, and tries to avoid doing whatever it is he does that makes all the Keslers of the world want to hit him in the face. Except it's different now because underneath the fear and the anger is this incessant little reminder that this, school, isn't all his life's about anymore. It isn't the beginning or the end. He's a super hero and in t-minus three hours, he gets to prove it.
When the final bell rings, he literally jumps out of his seat and sprints down the hall, slams his books into his locker, and is biking away while most people are still packing up their things.
The address on the Arby's napkin turns out to be an open field in the middle of nowhere. It's lined by trees on two sides and off to the west, Billy can barely make out the beginnings of some carbon-copy, box warehouses. There's a big sign in the farthest corner that claims the lot is for lease, but it's old and weathered and graffitied almost beyond legibility, so Billy figures that the only people who ever come out here are dumb teenagers looking for somewhere to do dumb, potentially illegal stuff.
He picks his way over to where Eli and Iron Lad are already waiting, hoisting his bike over his shoulder so that he doesn't run over something sharp and end up with a flat. The ground is a weird patchwork of short grass, dandelions, and broken beer bottles, so it's a definite possibility otherwise.
When he gets into speaking range, Eli and Iron Lad are both sullenly silent in a way that suggests they were arguing right up until they spotted Billy and decided to stop. Billy waves, feeling awkward, and drops his bike onto a safe-looking stretch of grass.
"Hey. Am I late?"
Eli grunts, and Iron Lad rolls his eyes in an openly irritated way before shrugging in Billy's direction. "Don't worry about it," he says. "Hulkling isn't here yet."
"Hulkling," echoes Eli sourly. "These are the stupidest code-names ever. And I'm including the Living Laser in that count."
"They're part of the plan," Iron Lad says and then he looks up, past Billy's shoulder, and seems to relax.
Billy looks over his own shoulder and sees Teddy jogging towards them. Immediately, Billy has a minor stroke or something very similar. It's like a bright light goes off in front of his eyes and then out again, making everything dim around the edges and leaving him feeling tingly and faint. Oh my god, he thinks, please do not let me be so lame that this happen every time I get within half a mile of Theodore Altman.
"Hey!" says Teddy as he draws to a halt. He's wearing a light grey t-shirt today, thereby proving that his biceps are actually as big as Billy's entire head.
"Hey," replies Billy, trying to sound casual and not like he's hyper-aware of every single part of his body, including his cuticles and the end of each strand of hair.
"Hi," says Iron Lad, clapping his hands together in front of him. He suddenly seems looser, like a knot of tension Billy hadn't been able to see but had sensed nonetheless has finally let go. Like, and Billy is pretty certain this is exactly what's going on here, like he wasn't certain they were all going to show up, and now they have. "Let's get started," he says.
Iron Lad's suit seems to assemble out of nowhere, and he starts running through a demonstration of how it flies and what kind of heat it's packing. When he fires his repulsor-like-things, they let of a loud echoing boom that bounces around the field like it's reflecting off the sky or something. Then Patriot runs laps. In a flat-out sprint. For about half an hour. When he finally skids to a halt, he's hardly out of breath, but Billy feels sweaty and exhausted just from watching.
Teddy goes Hulk after conscientiously removing his t-shirt and giving Billy a sheepish grin.
"My mom has a fit every time I come home with my clothes all torn up," he explains.
Billy makes a strangled noise in the back of his throat, coughs twice, and says, "Oh."
He gets exactly four seconds to admire the view before Teddy's skin starts to change colour and ripple, expanding outward and upward. The transformation takes almost no time and then Billy's staring at a bigger, greener shirtless Teddy. Surprisingly, this does absolutely nothing to check the pathetic lusting, so Billy does what he always does when he's trying to avoid thinking about something: he focuses on irrelevant details.
"Your hair's still blonde."
Teddy glances up, trying to catch a glimpse of his bangs. "Damn," he says, "I always forget about that part." A second later, his hair's turned an almost-black shade of green.
Iron Lad's already given him a run-down on Hulkling powers, ie. shapeshifter with super-strength and not really Hulk-anything at all, so Billy guesses that the others know about him too and what he can do, above and beyond the lightning. When Iron Lad quirks a hand at him, in a your-turn gesture, Billy does a bit of lightning and a bit of floating and then tries to think of something really odd, really unexpected, to do. He looks at Teddy who has put his grey t-shirt back on but whose jeans are still split and ragged around the cuffs.
He focuses on them, trying to picture what they looked like before they were ripped, trying to want them back to that mental picture. All the noises around him hollow out, as if he's listening to them through a thick door. He can hear Eli say "What the hell is he doing?" and he can see Teddy staring at him in curiosity, but it's like they're in a different room while his own thoughts boom almost painfully loud inside his head.
There's a sort of internal pop when the spell works, and all the noises come rushing back. He can hear birds again, and the wind, and the sound of cars. The others don't say anything for a moment until, finally, Eli throws up his hands.
"Oh, fucking wonderful! Maybe we should change your code-name to the Seamstress."
Billy ignores him because it's not like the spell was intended to impress Eli anyway. There's only one person it was meant for, and he's still saying nothing, staring at his pant legs. When Teddy does look up, he's grinning so widely that it's hard to believe his face can contain it.
"That," he says, "is going to make my life so much easier."
If this was an action flick, they'd be thrown into a battle the next day – up against incredible odds – and they'd probably get their asses kicked all over the place, just to make it all the more dramatic when, in the final half hour, they manage to put aside their differences, band together, and save the world.
It's not an action movie, though, more like a screwball comedy, so they spend the next week training whenever Eli and Iron Lad can stop bickering long enough to get anything done. The idea is to get used to fighting as a team, but there's always something wrong. Either Eli is trying to do everything himself, leading Iron Lad to lecture him about teamwork, or Iron Lad's being particularly officious, causing Eli to flip his shit. Eli is especially pissed off when they find out that Iron Lad hasn't done anything like this before, and they have a really apocalyptic showdown over why the hell any of them should be taking orders from an amateur. In the end, Eli storms off, swearing and cutting the day's practice short.
Iron Lad sighs, rubbing his face with one hand. "Sorry, guys," he says.
"It's okay," says Billy, not entirely sure if he means that it's okay that Eli's insane and temperamental or that it's okay that Iron Lad wants to lead them into battle without ever having fought one before. He probably means a bit of both.
"Yeah," agrees Teddy, "don't worry about it. He'll calm down and then we can talk this out."
Iron Lad looks unconvinced; Billy feels unconvinced, but he's also learned that Teddy has a gift for saying exactly the thing a person needs to hear, so he isn't surprised when Iron Lad's scepticism fades, then disappears completely. He nods.
Billy and Teddy walk home after that, stopping briefly at a strip mall, four blocks to the east, for a couple of Cokes and a bag of chips which they split due to being mutually broke. They've done this every night since Teddy first noticed that Billy would bike off in the same direction he had to walk. Now, Billy walks his bike, and they talk about whatever comes to mind. At first, that's safe things – things they know will be of mutual interest – like who's your favourite Avenger? (Billy's is, duh, the Scarlet Witch; Teddy reluctantly admits that he's always kind of liked the Wasp.) Or which of Spider-Man's villains would you most like to take a swing at? (They both agree on Doc Ock. "But only because I think Venom would eat me," explains Billy, and Teddy just throws his head back and laughs.)
By the third time they do this, they've expanded to favourite movies, books, video games. Billy starts in on a treatise one night about how insanely frustrating it is to have a mother who feels the need to tell him how much she understands what he's going through every second day and how it's even worse because she probably does, because understanding is what she does, professionally, and she sees kids a hundred times more screwed up than Billy on a weekly basis.
Teddy responds the next night with a story about how he used to shapeshift into celebrities to impress a friend.
"That's pretty screwed up," Billy observes.
"Yeah, well," Teddy answers with a shrug. Billy loves the way Teddy shrugs because his shoulders are so huge that when he lifts them up to his ears, his head looks tiny in comparison. It makes him look young and silly instead of his default implacable friendliness. When his shoulders drop down again, Teddy adds, "People do some pretty screwed up things to be liked."
Billy must have made an odd sound at this because Teddy peers at him suspiciously. "I- I just have a hard time believing that you're in such desperate need of friends," says Billy. "I mean, come on. You're smart and nice and friendly and the captain of the football team--"
"I'm not even on the football team," Teddy interjects, but Billy ignores him.
"-- and I'm not sure if you've noticed this, man, but you look like you've just stepped out of an ad for the GAP or Abercrombie and Fitch or something."
Now Teddy looks sulky. "There's no reason to be insulting."
"What I mean," says Billy, talking around him again, "is that if you went to my school, everyone I know would be falling over themselves to be friends with you."
Teddy is silent for a while after that. He sticks his hands in his pockets and looks at his shoes. "Friends with Teddy Altman? Sure," he says. "But how many of them would stick around to be friends with Hulkling? And how many of the ones who did would only stick around 'cause they thought they could gain something from it?"
"Touché," says Billy, matching step with Teddy even though Teddy's legs are longer, and he decides to leave it at that.
It's weird the way they've sort of partnered off: Billy and Teddy on the one hand and Eli and Iron Lad on the other. It's not like it was official, the result of a group discussion or a necessary part of Iron Lad's plan or anything like that. It's happened organically and out of nowhere, the way things do when they are fate or destiny or freak accidents. Eli and Iron Lad are always butting heads, but it's like they've got a bubble around them that Teddy and Billy can't break, and every time they argue it just gets stronger. They're allies and rivals at the same time – and equals because neither one would waste their time arguing with someone who's beneath them. It's like watching that Contact Theory that Mom's always yammering about play out in reverse: the more Eli and Iron Lad come into conflict, the closer they seem to become.
Billy's glad that being friends with Teddy isn't nearly as stressful. He thought it might be for the first few days, what with being sixteen and socially awkward even on good days and having a huge freaking crush on the team-mate whose super power involves habitually walking around shirtless. But when Teddy is actually around, things are so easy it's kind of ridiculous. Billy gets to rant and make jokes without worrying that Teddy will think he's a loser or a geek, and Teddy will sometimes punch him in the shoulder in that affectionate, male-bonding kind of way and other times he'll just laugh and laugh until he actually has to wipe tears out of his eyes, and Billy will rock back on his heels and grin because yeah, he did that. He made Teddy Altman laugh like that. It's pretty awesome.
And yet. He still has doubts, the kind that slip in and out of his thoughts when he has nothing else to occupy them with. The kind that needle away at the back of his mind while he's jerking off – fingers curving, warm and sweaty, around his cock, toes curled tightly around his sheets, Teddy's hair and throat and eyes and mouth fixed firmly in his mind. Those are the ones that really worry him because they remind him just how seriously wrong this could go and how quickly.
Because, okay, Teddy can be friends with Billy, and he can even be friends with Asgardian, but Billy's pretty certain that if Teddy knew this part of him, nothing in the world would make him stick around.
Rebecca Kaplan's whole face lights up the night that Billy mentions – accidentally, a total slip of the tongue – that he's been hanging out with some new friends. She puts down her knife and fork and smiles her standard pleased smile. It's the one she uses on patients right before she tells them how proud she is of what they've accomplished in today's session.
"I'm really pleased to hear that, Billy," she says. "I know you've been having a difficult few months at school, and I think it's a wise decision to branch out to new social environments."
Across the table, Ken pulls a face and Michael giggles into his sleeve. Billy glares at both of them while he says, "Yeah, Mom. Thanks."
Dad is carefully carving the fat off of his steak and dividing the remaining meat into tiny mouthfuls. He asks, "So who are these kids, Bill?"
"Some guys I ran into," mutters Billy, trying to navigate his way to a safe answer that is also not an outright lie. "We met by coincidence and just... have a whole lot in common, I guess."
"That's wonderful, darling," says Mom, and she smiles over her glasses at him. She picks up her knife and fork again and returns to her dinner before instructing, "You should invite them over for dinner this week."
"Becky," says Dad in his oh-honestly voice.
"Jeff," replies Mom in the exact same tone before switching back to her regular, "I read this in a study" voice. "It's important that we show Billy that we value and accept his choices of friends so as not to damage his self-esteem or cause him to question his decision-making capabilities."
Billy focuses on a point on the far wall, just below where it meets the ceiling, and says, "I feel completely valued and accepted, Mom. Don't worry."
"I'm glad, darling," says Mom. "Invite your friends over."
For the next day and a half, Billy stresses out over how to ask Teddy over for dinner in a way that doesn't sound like he's asking him on a date or, worse, to meet his parents as if they were already dating. He doesn't even consider asking Eli because Eli is insane and while he briefly considers asking Iron Lad, he dismisses it because Iron Lad's been skittish and distracted recently, and the last thing he needs is dinner with Billy's parents.
So Teddy is sort of like a compromise, or at least that's what Billy keeps telling himself.
He worries about it all through class and team practice. He almost blows up the For Lease sign with a misplaced lightning bolt, causing Iron Lad to frown disapprovingly and Teddy to look deeply concerned. Finally, when he and Teddy are walking home, Billy summons all his courage and decide to just ask.
The night feels like summer, but that's still a month away at minimum. The trees are still just a scattered handful of green buds, and their shoes make scuffing noises over the sand and salt and gravel that the city hasn't bothered to clean up yet.
"Okay, my folks are crazy" is the opening gambit that Billy has finally decided on. He says it in an anxious way and makes some weird, wild gesture with his hands that is meant to demonstrate just how crazy.
Teddy lifts his chin and then his eyebrows in a polite inquiry. "Oh, yeah?"
"Mostly my Mom," says Billy, "but Dad isn't much better sometimes. And anyway, they want to meet you, so do you wanna come over for dinner or something tomorrow?"
If Billy didn't already suspect that his thing for Teddy was slipping out of semi-respectable – or, at least, completely understandable – "I would hit that so hard in, you know, theory" territory and into a pathetic "Can we walk home together forever and ever, until death do us part," he would've had to strongly consider it right then, when Teddy slips his hands into his pockets and smiles at the sky like he doesn't think this is odd at all, like he's actually sort of immensely pleased to be asked.
"What time should I show up?" he says.
Billy manages to not have a complete panic attack until the actual moment when the doorbell rings the next day. How he pulled that off is a mystery and looking back at the last two weeks, Billy is impressed that he hasn't fallen to pieces a hundred times already. Maybe this is a new super power. He's the incredible Keeping It Together Against All Odds Boy.
So when the doorbell does ring, he yelps, jumps off his bed, and thunders down the hallway, ignoring Ken who shouts something bratty like "Hey, Billy's boyfriend is here!" and Mom who launches into a lecture about how they all have to be supportive of Billy's life choices. That part sounds distressingly like Mom is agreeing with Ken, so Billy decides to pretend he didn't hear it as he throws the door open.
It's Teddy, of course, in an old hoodie that's fraying at the sleeves, looking a little nervous himself. He lifts one hand in a weak, awkward wave.
"Hey," he says.
"Hi," Billy replies, hoping he doesn't sound out of breath.
It takes a moment for Billy to realize that he's physically blocking the doorway and when he exhales an "Oh!" and moves out of the way, Teddy looks surprised like he hadn't noticed either. He gives Billy a look that is strange and considering, which Billy wants to parcel up and dissect later, but then it disappears as Mom descends on them in a wave of parental goodwill.
"Theodore," she says. "I'm so glad you could come. I was beginning to worry that the perceived qualitative dimensions of Billy's friendships were having an effect on his emotional well-being."
While Billy smacks his forehead with the palm of his hand, Teddy looks blitzed and scratches the back of his head. "Thanks for inviting me, Ms. Kaplan?"
The rest of the Kaplan clan is trickling into the hall to stare: Dad poking his head in from the kitchen, Ken and Michael leaning over the second floor railing. Teddy's smile is starting to look frozen at the edges, and his eyes keep darting over to Billy until Billy thinks Screw it! The meet and greet is over and grabs Teddy's sleeve, hauling him toward the stairs.
"Call us when dinner's ready, okay?" he tells Mom over his shoulder. Then he drops his voice and says, for Teddy's ear alone, "Sorry about that."
"Nah, it's okay," he whispers back. "Your Mom's just sort of terrifying is all."
"I told you that," Billy hisses in faux-exasperation.
"I know. I thought you were exaggerating."
When they get to Billy's room, Teddy makes a bee-line for his computer, spouting some BS about how the only true way to know a man is by looking at his Top 25 Most Played on iTunes. So Teddy clicks around for a while and Billy hovers, trying not to look like he desperately needs this kind of validation. Finally, Teddy shakes his head ruefully and grins.
"I have no idea who half these people are, dude," he says, pointing to the screen.
Billy's eyebrows shoot up instantly, and he pulls up a chair. "Are you kidding? These are classics. The only way you could not know who these people are would be if you were an alien from outer space."
"I dunno," says Teddy. "I guess I don't really listen to a lot of mainstream mus--"
Billy cuts him off with a groan, throwing his head back and staring at the ceiling like it's done something to offend him. "Oh my god, you totally listen to MySpace bands, don't you?"
Teddy makes the special harumph in the back of his throat that he reserves for times when he is too amused to be really defensive. "Some of the bands I listen to might have MySpace pages. Perhaps."
With a twiddle of his fingers, Billy shoos Teddy out of his chair and takes control of the computer. He pops the CD drive open with his left hand and fumbles around for a blank CD-R with his right while his brain tries to decide which parts of his collection are considered must-haves. Teddy leans over his shoulder in a way that would be incredibly distracting were Billy not on a mission. When he laughs, though, in not much more than a soft exhale against Billy's neck, Billy's whole body twitches.
"Are you seriously making me a mix-tape?" asks Teddy quietly, bringing into perspective just how close Teddy's mouth is to Billy's ear.
Billy feels his cheeks and the tips of his ears and the back of his neck all flush hotly. He imagines that they must be scarlet, and he kind of hopes that he will die instantly of mortification. But when he doesn't, he forces himself to swallow and points over his shoulder at his bed.
"Sit down," he says. "Shut up. I'm working."
Two days later, when Sunday afternoon is just tipping into evening, they're sitting around in the park just down the block from Avengers Mansion. Around them, people are jogging or chasing after dogs, children, angry soon-to-be-ex girlfriends. There's a guy with a sausage cart, walking in circles, and Eli has devoured at least two hot dogs in the last twenty seconds. They're all scattered around the base of this statue of some corporate billionaire that Billy does not recognize. Teddy is perched next to the guy's shoe, drinking a revolting iced coffee drink through a straw.
It's peaceful and companionable. The only thing that's even vaguely odd is that Billy looked at a calendar the night before and was surprised to find that it's only been three weeks since they all met each other. Billy thinks that three weeks is an awfully short time by any measure, not nearly long enough to have found this kind of comfortable equilibrium where they can sit in silence and not feel awkward about it.
And of course, he's right because a minute later Iron Lad opens his mouth and says some variation on "Hey, guys! So I guess I'm Kang the Conqueror?" and the whole thing implodes in seconds. There's a moment of terrible, stunned silence, and then Eli is on his feet shouting, and Teddy is throwing anxious looks at all the people around them. Iron Lad – Kang – sits perfectly still, looking tense and unhappy, and just takes it all in, every single last awful thing that Eli can think to say until he finally runs out of things and simply stands there looking flushed and angry.
Kang flexes his jaw a few times and says, "So you see why I didn't tell you right away."
Eli hits him then, right on the his left cheekbone, just low enough that he probably won't have a black eye. Billy feels a burst of sympathy pain spread out over the left side of his face, and he winces, which is the first movement he's made since Iron Lad opened his mouth and became Kang, and he's sort of surprised to find out that he can still move.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't haul your ass over to a police station right this fucking second," Eli spits.
Kang's head is still turned to the side from being punched. He reaches up and rubs his cheek but otherwise, he looks mostly unsurprised. He says, "Putting aside the dubious ethics of arresting me for crimes I haven't actually committed yet and also the part where I'd like to see you try?" He looks up. "Then I would say that my one good reason is that I wasn't lying when I said I needed you. Something awful is coming, and we have to stop it."
"What is it?" asks Teddy, and Billy looks up at him and sees that he looks worried and serious too. He's even a little green around the fingernails where he's gripping the base of the statue like that's the only way he can keep himself sitting at all.
Kang's answer is simple, and he opens his hand, palm up, as he says it, as if to imply "Well, obviously": "It's me."
That starts Eli swearing again, but it's half-hearted and mostly because he doesn't know how else to fill up the holes in the conversation. He rubs a hand back and forth over his head and then says, "Yeah. Yeah, I'm not sure I can do this. I didn't sign up for this."
Kang nods like he's okay with this, like it is yet another step in his ultimate plan to stop himself from growing into the guy that history says he's supposed to be. Billy's thought about the plan a lot, in between homework and family and Teddy. It's always bothered him how its goal were nebulous, and its stages even more so. He hates to think it, but now the whole thing seems nefarious.
Kang is looking at him, him and Teddy, in a way that is patient and impatient all at once. It's like the look that Mom gives him when he's done something that really annoys her but at the same time, she's decided that the best way to get what she wants is by being kind and understanding.
"Teddy? Billy?" he says. "What about you two?"
Billy has no idea. Yeah, yes, he feels betrayed in a numb and abstract way, but he's not really angry about it. He thinks that even Eli doesn't look all that angry, which is pretty miraculous given that he's Eli, and that if any of them walk out of here now it's going to be for a principle and not because they want to. None of them want to.
He looks up at Teddy, and Teddy looks back down at him. His lips are pressed into a smooth, tight line, and he exhales once, like he's saying "I'm not sure I like this, but I'll follow your lead." Billy feels steadier almost immediately.
"Can I get back to you on that?" he says, reluctantly breaking eye contact with Teddy and turning to face Kang. "I mean, can I have some time to think?"
This time its Kang's turn to exhale meaningfully, but Billy isn't as fluent in Kang-ese as he is in Teddy-ish, so he doesn't know what it means. "Of course," Kang says. "We don't have a lot of time, but yes. Of course."
Billy goes home after that. Part of him wants to hang around the park some more, even after Kang has politely but awkwardly excused himself and Eli's headed off to wherever it is he goes when he's moping, because part of him is terrified that the band is totally breaking up. But he's always been a thinking kind of guy, and he does his best thinking alone, so he says goodbye to Teddy, who seems distracted and thoughtful as well, and heads home.
When he gets there, he shuts himself in his room and thinks, a loop of "Can we trust Kang?" and "Can we afford not to?" that lasts a whole hour before Mom knocks on the door and lets herself in.
"Billy? Are you all right?" she asks.
He pushes his head off of his pillow, leaning forward on his elbows, and looks at her. Then he looks at the clock and realizes that it is 7:45, and he has completely missed dinner. "Yeah, Mom. I'm fine," he says. "I'm just having kind of an argument with my friends."
She comes a little closer, not invasion-of-personal-space close but just near enough that she can reach out and try to smooth down his hair. "I have full confidence in your ability to sort these things out for yourself," she says. "But if you do want to talk...?"
It's an invitation not a demand, and he laughs and shakes his head, remembering how there are times when she is the best mother in the universe. "It's okay. I just need to think some things through."
"Okay, darling," she hums and cards her fingers through his hair once more before backing off. She's heading out the door when she pauses to add, "There will be dinner in the fridge when you want it."
Billy's cellphone rings at almost the same moment the door clicks closed. He fumbles for it, following its irritating chime – that he stills swears he will replace with something cooler and less nondescript someday – until he finds it under his bedside table. He's barely managed to press the talk button and get it up to his face before he has Teddy's voice in his ear.
"Okay, so apparently I'm outside your house?"
Billy falls back on his bed and laughs a single, exhausted "ha!" He presses his right hand to his forehead, holding his bangs out of his face. "What, just all of a sudden?"
"I'll be down in a second," he says and hangs up.
He pulls on an old sweatshirt and sneaks down the steps so as not to alert the family that he's come out of hibernation. Teddy's waiting him on the steps outside, hunched over like a cuter version of The Thinker. Billy doesn't pause; he just taps Teddy on the top of the head, says "Follow me," and keeps walking. Teddy falls into step behind him and doesn't say a word.
They walk like that for blocks, staggered and spaced out, while Billy tries to figure out why he's so relieved to see Teddy here. The obvious answer, and probably the right answer too, is that if the team call it quits Teddy is no longer required to hang out with Billy, and yet he's here anyway. Of his own volition. Because he chose to be. Wow.
Billy's old elementary school is a couple of blocks away from his house and without any conscious decision of his part on Teddy's, that's where they end up. The playground has a giant hill right in the middle of it, the kind that would have leant itself easily to an awesome slide except that the PTA got all up in arms about how kids could get hurt on one of those when someone suggested it so in the end, nothing was ever built. They climb to the top of it where they can look out over the entire playground: the play structure to the north, some trees to the south and over in the east, some other teenagers smoking cigarettes in the shadow of the gymnasium.
Teddy sits down, bracing an elbow on either knee, and huffs. Billy stays standing for a moment but inevitably he crouches down too.
"This sucks," observes Teddy. The heels of his hands are digging into his cheeks so the words come out sounding mushy. Billy still gets the gist.
"Sucking is definitely what this is," he agrees.
"It's just," Teddy's hands fall away from his face, and he makes a fishtailing gesture with one of them, "I'm more angry about not being angry than I am actually angry, you know?"
Billy nods mutely and rocks back onto his heels. He tries to avoid looking at Teddy who is searching his face for some other reaction, something more, but it's hard because Teddy's eyes are so insanely bright and clear that they seem to stand out like on-coming headlights in the dark. Billy bites his lip and tries to sink down into his sweatshirt.
Eventually, he mumbles, "I'm just worried that if I keep doing this it isn't going to be for the right reasons. It's going to be because I think it's cool, not because I want to change the world or anything like that."
Billy is pretty sure he's never wanted to change the whole world, only the little part of it that's his. Only the way kids at school treat him, only the way he feels about Teddy – or, more and more, the way Teddy feels about him: the things about his life that always seemed hard or unfair but were always beyond his abilities to fix. But that's been changing, hasn't it? In fits and starts, maybe, but still changing. He's got a team now and a hard-drive full of bands with pretentious, artsy names and this weird urge to get a piercing even though he's been afraid of needles since he was, like, seven. He feels vast inside, as if the Scarlet Witch left a door open somewhere in his soul, and people have been slowly nudging it open, a little at a time, ever since. Some days, he feels like he could fix anything if he tried.
He looks at Teddy who looks strange and hungry, confused even, in the floodlights coming off the school. His cheekbones stand out sharply under his eyes. And Billy isn't certain what to do with the sudden bright courage that grips his chest and makes him want to grab Teddy by the neck and kiss him in really horrible Hollywood-fashion and not let go, not ever.
He thinks, I've flown after all. I've freaking learned to fly. How hard could this be?
But then he makes the mistake of dropping his gaze to his fingernails, breaking the tension with a gravelly noise in the back of his throat as easily as if he were throwing a light switch. When he looks up again, the weirdness has slid of Teddy's face, and he just looks steady and comforting instead, the friend you can trust to have your back, the Jenga block that holds the rest of the tower up.
"But I think," says Billy, "I think I can't walk away from this."
They start off small because Kang insists that the absolute worst thing they could do is screw up big on their first try, in front of the press and the entire U.S. of A. He says it in that cautious, worried tone he's developed, like he still can't quite believe that they didn't leave him to fight for freedom and the chance to grow up to be a better man than the world's said he's capable of all on his own. Eli rolls his eyes a lot at this but once you've forgiven someone for being a future evil dictator, it becomes a lot easier to forgive him for being bossy and occasionally a pain in the ass.
So they bop around the city, stopping car crashes and catching kids before they fall off roofs and then disappearing into the night. Billy spends most of this time feeling like they are part of a cosplay gone horribly awry – in response to which, Teddy just snorts and says, "Well, yeah. Duh."
The feeling stays with him until the night that crappy old apartment building on East 84th Street – the one with the fire escape that looks like a rickety railway track zig-zagging across the building's face – goes up in a blaze. It burns hot and fast, starting in the basement and swallowing the whole complex, floor-by-floor, in a matter of seconds. It's sheer luck that they're nearby, flying over the Upper East Side with Kang's suit tuned into the 911 frequency.
That's when everything clicks together. Practically audibly. Click. They scoop trapped residents up and carry them outside like they do it all the time. Kang and Billy concentrate on trying to contain the fire while Eli stands around shouting at everyone to get away from the goddamn building before it falls on their goddamn heads. A couple of the little kids are crying, and Teddy stays with them, explaining that they're okay, and their parents are okay, and thus everything is going to be okay. It shuts some of them up, but one particular girl keeps moaning about her teddy bear until Teddy agrees to give her a piggyback ride. It's literally the cutest thing Billy has ever seen.
When they hear fire truck sirens in the distance, Kang makes a swooping motion with his hand, like a plane taking off, and Billy shouts, "Hey, T-- Hulkling! Up and up and away time!" Teddy jogs over and catches Billy's hand. Then they're off.
They all but tumble onto Avengers Mansion's backyard. Billy lets Teddy go a little too soon, and he nearly topples into a tree, but he's laughing too hard to care. Billy feels light-headed, light-hearted, to such a degree that he figures he's probably inhaled way to much smoke. Even Eli is grinning.
"We are the best awful super hero team ever," declares Teddy, using the tree for balance. And everyone nods or laughs at that because, yeah, they sort of are.
They get changed and hide their costumes in the mansion's basement. Billy folds his up gently, lingering over it and dragging his feet as he puts his normal clothes back on; it feels weird going back to jeans and a t-shirt right now. Somehow, that seems more dishonest than wearing a mask and using a code-name.
When they've said goodnight to Kang and left Eli at the subway station, Teddy announces that he is craving pizza and drags Billy to a 24-hour, hole-in-the-wall joint where, Teddy swears, they will put anything you want on a crust and cover it with cheese. Billy thinks Teddy is sort of miraculous, the way he knows about places like this and the way he can wander downtown New York at 2 AM in the morning and look neither out of place nor scared out his mind.
Billy orders a regular, old slice of pepperoni pizza, although he caves under the combined pressure of Teddy and the frightening 30 year-old behind the cash and allows them to put barbecue sauce on instead of tomato. Teddy gets a thin crust slice with avocado and broccoli.
"That is the poser pizza to end all poser pizzas, you West coast wannabe. I'm never going to stop mocking you about this," Billy says later, and Teddy rolls his eyes and takes a big bite out of his pizza. He makes a big show of moaning over how good it is, fluttering his eyelashes and sucking sauce of his thumb. Billy's blush is hidden by the red neon sign of a tattoo parlour but when he lifts his hand to his cheek, it feels like you could probably fry eggs on it if you wanted. His heart's hammering a syncopated bass line against his ribs, dum-ba-dum-da.
Billy flies them back to Teddy's house when they finally get bored of wandering around. They've still got a mutual hyperactive buzz going on, though, so Teddy asks if he wants to come in to watch TV or play GTA, and Billy has to bite his tongue to keep from screaming "Yes!"
Teddy's bedroom is the whole basement minus a little laundry room at the back. This is because, Teddy says, the house is too big for just him and his Mom, so they keep devising ways to take up more space. A year ago, they turned Teddy's old bedroom into an office – despite the fact that Ms. Altman almost never has a reason to work at home – and he moved into the basement, which functions almost like a mini-apartment. There's even a small fridge.
"Welcome to the, uh, Hulk Cave, I guess?" Teddy says. He sounds bashful, but he looks really proud.
Billy does a few lazy pirouettes, trying to take in everything. Teddy's room contains: a computer plus computer desk, a couple bookshelves – on top of which, Billy is pleased to see, there is a football, so take that, Theodore Altman – a TV, a whole pile of video game consoles, and this stupidly gigantic bed in the upper left corner with a fluffy white duvet. It's sort of the most beautiful room to ever exist. Seeing no other alternative, Billy falls back on the bed and covers his face with his hands.
He mumbles against his palm, "Oh, eff you. Hulk Cave. When can I move in?"
The bed springs chirp, and the mattress dips toward the right as Teddy sits down. He huffs out a laugh and says, "I dunno, man. My Mom can be scary over-protective. She'd probably drive you crazy."
When Billy takes his hands off his face and turns in the direction of Teddy's voice to reply, his nose actually nicks the seam of Teddy's jeans; he's sitting that close. The loose, light feeling that's been buoying him up for the last few hours evaporates like the worst sugar crash ever, and all he's left with are a knot in his throat and a ragged breathing pattern and the keen awareness that the fingers of Teddy's left hand are micrometres away from touching Billy's hair.
Oh God, thinks Billy dizzily. Sensory overload! Man down! Man down!
They both smell like smoke and underneath that, there's something else that could be drying sweat or the mild, inoffensive boy smell of Teddy's bed. It doesn't matter. They could be surrounded by fresh, clean alpine air, and Billy would still probably be struggling to breathe, pulled under by a current of thoughts that starts with "How could I not see this coming?" and ends with "I can't possibly be this stupid."
He starts to shift away, trying to hide it in a stretch, and that's when Teddy's hand comes down on his chest. His touch is light – carefully so, given that he could probably put his fist right through Billy's chest if he wanted – but it's firm and decisive, brooking no arguments. Billy freezes, going almost comically rigid, like this is a Looney Tunes cartoon and maybe if he stays still enough Teddy'll mistake him for a statue.
Teddy is smiling down at him with his usual smile, although from this angle it has a nervous slant to it. "So, this?" he says. "Is pretty ridiculous." While these words are still hanging mystifyingly in the air, his expression shifts, a subtle slide that would be almost unnoticeable if Billy wasn't, well, openly staring. His eyes grow hooded, and that smile becomes just a little self-satisfied.
And then his free hand moves the requisite distance, and his fingers tangle into Billy's hair.
Billy sits up immediately, knocking Teddy's hands out of the way as a surge of adrenaline and surprise make his nerves all fire at once. He clamps a hand over his mouth to keep from making any really mortifying noises and stares and stares and stares. He probably looks like some anime heroine: all ridiculously huge eyes.
"What?" he demands through clenched teeth and a shutter of fingers.
Teddy's hands are gripped in the duvet now. His chin's tucked in toward his collarbones, his eyes wary. He licks his bottom lip once, getting ready to speak, to placate, to put his plan back on track.
Billy thinks, Fuck plans. He thinks, fuck people who keep secrets and people who dictate how your life is going to go without giving you a chance to have a say. Fuck people who decide who you're going to be before you ever have a chance to figure out who you even are.
"Fuck," hisses Billy, and he rocks forward, one hand arcing up around Teddy's neck and into the short hairs at its nape, and kisses him.
Teddy meets him with a hard, hungry inhale and swings his arm around to clutch at the back of Billy's shirt, right between his shoulder blades, and pull him closer until he's straddling Teddy's knees. Teddy's mouth is as warm and soft as it looks, but he kisses back in a hard crush, as if he's afraid that leaving any space between them will give Billy room to escape. Billy wants to say "Abandonment issues much?" but he settles for pushing his tongue into Teddy's mouth instead and then biting lightly at Teddy's upper lip when he draws back for breath.
Teddy's grip tighten, his fingernails digging right through Billy's t-shirt and into his skin. He groans, deeply, possessively, and somehow shifts his weight, so they topple back on the bed, Billy's hair spraying out darkly into his eyes and over the white sheets and pillow cases while Teddy presses down on him from above.
"I'm so confused," whines Billy when Teddy breaks off long enough to visually locate the bottom of Billy's shirt.
"You're like the least-subtle closeted gay boy ever," explains Teddy in a voice filled with affectionate exasperation. He hitches Billy's shirt up with one hand and kisses his stomach just above the hip bone. Teddy's nose is cold, and Billy finds himself laughing like the deranged lunatic he probably is, officially.
"This is ridiculous." His voice sounds wet and shaky even to his own ears.
Teddy plants his chin on Billy's stomach, his hand stilling over his left thigh, and looks up soberly over the plane of Billy's stomach. "No. Not really," he says. "I thi -- " But the rest of the sentence is cut off as Billy impatiently rolls up and yanks Teddy's shirt over his head.
They don't talk much after that. Partly because Teddy's mouth finds Billy's again, in wet, frantic kisses that demand reciprocation. Partly because there will be time to talk later. Partly because, Billy thinks, they still haven't quite learned the words yet.
Teddy is waiting for him outside of school the next day. It's the kind of surprise that Billy's heart isn't equipped to deal with yet, doubly so given that his day has been a long smudgy blur of 1) carefully thinking around the word "boyfriend" every time he thinks about Teddy, 2) thinking about Teddy a lot, and 3) worrying that being the least-subtle closeted gay boy ever means that Mom probably knows as well. So when he sees Teddy waiting at the end of the school's front lawn, he stops dead and has a mini-panic attack that lasts just until some pretty brunette smiles at Teddy as she walks past. Then he has a real panic attack and bounds down the steps in four seconds flat, ignoring the looks from the other students because whatever, they already think he's a freak.
Before he can open his mouth to even say hi, Teddy silently holds up today's Daily Bugle in front of his chest, fingers carefully held back from the headline and lead picture. "YOUNG AVENGERS?" it demands, and underneath is a full-colour, full-column spread of the four of them. Billy maybe gapes a little and grabs it out of Teddy's hands, holding it tightly but at full arms-length like he isn't sure he wants to claim possession of this yet but isn't willing to let it slip away either.
Teddy eases around behind him, so he can peer over his shoulder. His hand comes up and rests there, his thumb curling just slightly under the collar of Billy's shirt. It's got to be three hundred degrees out, but Billy shivers anyway.
"Pretty cool, huh?" Teddy says. His voice has an odd, unsettled quality to it, as if he knows the tune for this but hasn't quite settled on an octave.
Billy presses his heels into the ground and takes a deep breath. "Yeah," he says, "yes. Very pretty cool."