At the very least, Tommy had stopped talking. Granted, that was because he was currently in the midst of the flamingos. His new pink hair matched them almost exactly.
The gnomes had surrounded Billy. They were advancing on him, holding out their pointy hats like swords. Billy would have laughed, but earlier one of the gnomes had shot lasers from the tip of his hat and taken out one of his mother’s framed degrees. So now he was fearing for his safety on top of worrying about how he was going to explain that to his mother.
At least Teddy wasn’t here. Billy didn’t want him a) getting hurt or b) finding out about this, ever.
The lawn gnomes had formed a semi circle, trapping him against the cupboards.
The head gnome approached, stopped two feet away from Billy, and then dropped to his knees.
“Chosen one,” he said with awe.
“Say what?” Tommy squawked.
Billy reflected that maybe this was a story better told from the beginning.
It started, like a lot of things, with Teddy being the best boyfriend ever.
More specifically, it started with Billy walking into the hideout to find Teddy shoving something – something large and leatherbound and, Billy suspected from the way the light glimmered on it, jewel-encrusted – into the closet.
“Uh. Hi?” he said.
Teddy started, jumping a few inches in the air, and fell backwards, taking half of the closet with him. Billy dropped to his knees and started to dig him out from under the spare clothes – Eli’s civvies, Kate’s ridiculously expensive coat and Cassie’s reindeer sweater – only for Teddy to shove a (suddenly very large, very green) hand in his face.
“Wait!” Teddy said, sitting up and covering the book still clutched to his chest with Tommy’s jacket. “You can’t see this!”
Billy sat back on his haunches and squinted at the corner of the book he could see poking out from underneath Teddy’s elbow.
“Is that a tome?” he said, eyebrows rising steadily towards his hairline.
“No?” Teddy said, and something that was a cross between a fin and a wing sprouted from his arm, covering the edge of the book.
Teddy was not a very good liar.
“That’s a tome,” Billy said, and, sheepish, Teddy shifted back, arms still crossed protectively over the book. “Why are you hiding a tome in the hideout’s closet?”
“You weren’t supposed to find out about this,” Teddy said. He averted his eyes and scratched the back of his neck, holding the tome out to Billy with one hand. “Happy early Hanukkah.”
Now Billy felt like a jerk.
“Oh, uh,” he said, words feeling thick in his mouth. “I can, uh, I can just pretend that I didn’t see it, uh –”
“Nah,” Teddy said, smiling. “Take it. It probably wouldn’t survive a week in the same house as Tommy anyway.”
Gingerly, Billy took the book from Teddy, holding it with his fingertips. It felt old and delicate, and he was worried that it would crumble away to nothing in his hands. He ran his fingers over the raised inscription.
“I didn’t get you anything yet,” he said quietly.
“No worries,” Teddy said, moving to sit next to him on the hall floor. “There’s still two weeks to Christmas. So, uh. You like it, right? Because I thought you’d want something kind of magic but it’s not like I’m an expert. You don’t have it already or anything, right?”
“The only magic books I have are from Barnes & Nobles,” he said. He ran his fingers down the edge of the pages. There was a claw-shaped clip holding the book closed. “Nothing like this. Where did you get it?”
“I raked leaves for Doctor Strange for two months,” Teddy admitted, sidling up next to Billy. “He is really picky about his lawn.”
Billy swallowed hard. Teddy had gotten him a magic tome. A magic tome that had belonged to Doctor Strange. Best boyfriend ever. And here Billy had been thinking about getting him a new video game. (Which was still better than his mother’s suggestion of “a nice pair of slacks.”)
“You really shouldn’t have,” he said, and Teddy slung an arm around his shoulders so that their sides were pressed together. He laid their heads together so Billy could feel it when he spoke.
“Yeah, well, you’re worth it,” Teddy said.
“He raked leaves for Doctor Strange for two months!” Billy said, flailing. Tommy shrugged and didn’t bother to look up from the television screen.
“Yeah, I guess that makes you a pretty bad boyfriend in comparison,” he said, narrowing his eyes at the screen and button mashing. “So what’d you get him? Socks?”
“I’ll get you socks,” Billy muttered, collapsing on the couch next to Tommy. “I was going to get him Robo Deathmatch 3, since Kate got that X-Box for the hideout.”
“Ooh,” Tommy said, looking up from the screen for the first time in five minutes. “You should get that for me. I’m getting bored with this game. Multiplayer?” He held up the other controller.
“What’d you get me?” Billy asked, taking it from him. He selected his fighter, a Captain America who looked nothing like the real Cap, and prepared to face off against Tommy’s Miss Marvel.
“Slacks,” Tommy said. “Your mom said you needed some.”
He did, but that wasn’t the point.
Billy needed help on this gift problem, so he called in the big guns.
The big guns brought Eli, who seemed none too happy to be sitting in a Starbucks at noon on a Saturday, talking about Billy’s love life.
“You have to get him something romantic,” Cassie said, her hands actually clasped together. “Like a mixtape!”
“I don’t think this has my extra shot of espresso in it,” Kate said, looking down at her cup with a frown.
Billy was starting to think that maybe he needed new big guns.
“Look,” Eli said, his Leader Glower firmly in place. “Stop worrying about getting him the perfect present. He doesn’t want the perfect present. He wants something from you – something personal, something that means something to him.”
Kate, Cassie and Billy all stared at Eli. Eli crossed his arms and furrowed his brow.
“What?” he said.
“That was nice,” Kate told him.
“I can be nice,” Eli protested.
“Nice enough to get me the right drink?” Kate asked with a smile, dangling her cup in the air. Eli took it from her and, Leader Frown in place, went to battle the barista.
“What he said was nice and all,” Billy said as soon as Eli was gone, “but it doesn’t tell me what to actually buy.”
“Think back,” Kate said. “Did Teddy ever mention anything he really wanted?”
“I don’t want to think,” Billy said, dropping his head down onto the table.
“It does get you into a lot of trouble,” Kate said. Billy threw a napkin at her.
Billy lay awake at night and tried, tried to think of something Teddy would want, something he’d talked about, but the more he thought about it, the less he seemed to remember. Teddy just didn’t talk about stuff like that, and sometimes Billy wished he would (because it would make things like gift shopping a hell of a lot easier).
Sometimes Billy wished he could solve everything with magic.
He had read enough fantasy novels to know that way led down the road of Very Bad Things, though, so he was just going to have to solve the mystery of what to get Teddy the normal way: by neurotically shifting through every conversation they had ever had in the hopes of stumbling upon something.
It came to him just as he was drifting off to sleep, a tiny moment from months ago:
“I know it’s kind of stupid,” Teddy said, fingers tracing the outline of the ad in the back of a ten-year-old comic book. “But I just think it kind of looks like him, you know? Like me.”
Billy stared down at the faded picture of Captain Marvel’s likeness, captured in plastic and ten inches tall.
“It’s not stupid,” he said. “You’re talking to the guy who owns ten different Scarlet Witch action figures.”
Teddy laughed and shook his head. “I had one,” he said. “Years ago, before I knew. I just thought it was cool, I guess. But we moved apartments and I guess I lost him somewhere. I’ve never been able to find another one.”
“Wow, the magic of eBay failed?” Billy said, and Teddy shrugged, and then they’d moved onto the next comic.
“Hey, bro, can I borrow a shirt, I set mine on – what the hell happened to you?” Tommy asked, superspeeding into the room. His shirt was smoking and missing a sleeve.
“eBay and I had an argument,” Billy said, scrubbing at his face with the heels of his palms. “Plates were thrown. Accusations were made. It went to go stay with its mother.”
“Uh,” Tommy said, arching an eyebrow. “Ouch? So about that shirt…”
Billy put his head down on the table and groaned.
There was a rush of wind, and Tommy came back in wearing Billy’s She-Hulk shirt. (The downside of having a magic twin: all of Billy’s clothes were up for grabs.) He sat down at the table.
“So why were you looking for a Captain Marvel doll anyway?” Tommy asked. Billy lifted his head up off the table just enough to give him a disbelieving look.
“You went through my internet history?”
“Relax,” Tommy said. “It’s not like there was anything interesting in there. For future reference? Your boyfriend’s name is not a very secure password.”
There wasn’t any point in arguing; Tommy didn’t understand concepts like “invasion of privacy” or “I can magic you to another dimension if you don’t stay out of my stuff.”
“I’m looking for a gift for Teddy,” Billy said, rubbing at his forehead.
“You realize you can get a Captain Marvel doll at like, any store, right?” Tommy said. “I think I’ve seen them at Wal-Mart.”
“They’re action figures,” Billy muttered before he could stop himself. Tommy burst out laughing.
Billy closed his eyes and Iwant’ed Tommy’s hair pink.
“Sorry, Billy,” Kate said later that afternoon. Through the phone Billy could hear the sounds of soothing muzak and the muffled abuse of personal trainers; Kate was at the gym again. “I pulled all my contacts – no one’s selling this thing.”
“Urgh,” Billy said. “Thanks anyway, Katie.”
“No problem. I always wanted to horrify an auction house,” she said. “Can’t you just, you know. Magic one into existence?”
“Doesn’t work that way,” Billy muttered. “It’s like the rules of magic, you know? You can’t pull something from nowhere. If I conjured one up it’d either be the equivalent of stealing, or it’d be like a bad bootleg. A bad magic bootleg.”
Billy’s eyes, as if drawn by some spell, landed on the tome.
“Uh, Kate, I’ve got to go,” he said.
“Alright,” Kate said. “I’ll keep an eye out anyway. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Billy said, and hung up.
“What happened to ‘I can’t just magic one up, that’d be wrong’?” Tommy asked, putting on a mocking falsetto. He had pulled a baseball cap down over his hair; a few pink locks still stuck out at the sides.
“This is different,” Billy said, placing the tome in the middle of the carpet.
“How?” Tommy asked.
“Keep lighting those candles and maybe I’ll turn your hair back,” Billy said. “That’s how.”
“This is going to be like Latveria all over again,” Tommy grumbled, but he lit all the candles anyway and settled down in the circle across from Billy.
“It isn’t,” Billy said. “It’s just a simple spell. There should be something in here – like maybe a way to travel back in time and get one that way.”
“Oy,” Tommy said.
“Shut up,” Billy said. He undid the clasp on the tome, and the world exploded in lightning and stars.
Reality rushed back at Billy in a whirl of color and sounds and, lying on his bedroom carpet with wax dripping on his jeans, he was reminded intimately of the time he’d been five and at Disneyland and very, very insistent that he was old enough to ride the big rollercoasters.
He’d thrown up on Mickey Mouse ten minutes afterwards.
“Tommy?” he groaned. “What happened?”
There was no reply. That was kind of worrying, unless Tommy had gotten bored waiting for Billy to wake up and superspeeded off to Rio. Or unless Billy had accidentally zapped him into another universe.
“Tommy?” he said, sitting up. His head was swimming, and it took him a moment to realize what he was staring at – his room was wrecked, and Tommy was kneeling by his bedroom door, peering out into the hall, clutching Billy’s replica Captain America shield like, well. Like a shield.
“What the hell are you doing?” Billy asked. Tommy turned haunted eyes on him, bright green in the light from the hallway, like something out of a particularly low budget zombie movie, and hissed through his teeth.
“Quiet. They’ll hear you.”
A couple dozen thoughts run through Billy’s head, ranging from oh, God, I’ve made my magic twin go insane to oh, God, I’ve accidentally sent myself and my magic twin to an alternate dimension filled with invisible robot monsters and now the only key to our survival lies in my ability to not be inept for five damn minutes.
“Is it vampires?” he asked Tommy.
Tommy gave him one of those We Can’t Possibly Be Related looks.
“You’ve got to stop watching movies with Cassie,” he said. “Get over here.”
“What happened?” Billy asked, creeping towards the door. He grabbed the lamp off his bedside, just in case.
Tommy made a face. Billy crouched down next to him; there were shadows out in the hall, small ones, and they moved stiffly, like they weren’t used to it. A shudder ran up Billy’s spine.
“There was this flash of light,” Tommy said, “and you went down like a sack of bricks, but the light stayed, and these things came out of it and, bro, you’re going to think I’m crazy but…”
“But?” Billy pressed.
“They looked like gnomes,” Tommy said. “And flamingos.”
“Well,” he said after a moment. “You’re right. I do think you’re crazy.”
If there were gnomes and flamingos in the house, then Billy had to get them out before his mom came home. He and Tommy crept down the hall towards the shadow, thrown larger than life on the floor from the light in the living room. Tommy pressed his back against the wall and held up three fingers.
“What?” Billy hissed.
Tommy rolled his eyes.
“That was ‘we move on three’,” he said, “but we might as well go now.”
He zipped around the corner before Billy could blink.
Billy took a deep breath that did absolutely nothing to prepare him, and stepped into the living room.
There was a small group of lawn gnomes clustered on one end, standing way too close the Seder plate Great Grandma Elizabeth had passed down to his mother, and they were in a staring contest with a group of plastic-looking flamingos gathered on the sofa.
Tommy was nowhere to be seen.
He stepped back, and then felt ridiculous – he was an insanely powerful mutant witch. People were afraid of him. Terrified, even. He shouldn’t have been backing down from anything less than an alliance between Galactus and AIM.
(And maybe not even then, because that would probably look pretty ridiculous.)
He still wasn’t entirely sure what to do.
Tommy zoomed back into the room in a rush of wind and lacy curtains. There was a small book in his hands and the pages turned like they were in a hurricane.
“Where did you get that?” Billy asked. “Did you pay for it?”
“Oh, yeah, I stood on line patiently and everything. Relax, I’ll bring it back,” Tommy said. He held up the cover so Billy could see read it: How to Survive a Lawn Gnome Attack was written at the top and the illustration of the gnome did look a lot like the ones currently staring at them. “This says we need an axe. Do your parents have an axe?”
“No,” Billy said, distraught. “Why would we have an axe?”
“Well,” Tommy said. “That’s probably bad, then. I could go get an axe?”
“Are they moving closer?” Billy asked, gesturing at the gnomes and the flamingos. They were – creeping towards him on legs that were stumpy and spindly, respectively. At least they were getting away from the heirlooms.
Then one of the flamingos opened its beak and shot a laser at Billy’s head.
He and Tommy threw themselves flat on the ground.
“Magic them!” Tommy shouted. “Magic them to death!”
Billy closed his eyes and, summoning up every spark inside, whispered, “Nomorelawnstatues.”
The magic fizzled at his fingertips.
“Have you ever considered an alternative career?” Tommy asked.
Which was how Billy had ended up trapped against his own kitchen cabinets with gnomes closing on all sides, pointy hats held like swords.
“I’m sorry,” Billy said to the gnome bowing in front of him. “Could you repeat that?”
“You are the chosen one,” the gnome said. Its voice was little and hollow, but threatening – gravelly. Billy swallowed. “You will return with us to our home dimension and help us defeat the birds.”
“Outrageous!” one of the flamingos surrounding Tommy squawked. “We got here first! We’ll be taking the chosen one back with us!”
The gnome gave the flamingo a piercing look.
“You have your own savior,” he said, waving his pointy hat at Tommy. “He even matches you.”
“That is not my fault,” Tommy said to the flamingos. The flamingos ignored him.
“He’s barely the slightest bit magic,” the head flamingo said with a sniff.
Tommy looked like he was about to say something in reply, but the flamingos were advancing on the gnomes and vice versa and Billy was busy trying to figure out how to resolve the problem without a) the use of magic, or b) the breaking of windows.
One of the gnomes had just lowered its hat when there came a great cracking noise from the next room and Teddy ran in, hair windswept and looking green in the best kind of way.
He stopped in the doorway, half-shifted, and stared at the scene in front of him.
“Hi,” he said, because really, he was standing in his kitchen with his brother, his brother’s new pink hair, and a bunch of alien gnomes and flamingos. What else was he supposed to say?
“You weren’t answering your cell phone,” Teddy said. “I need to tell you – that tome I got you, uh. Doctor Strange, he called, he says he thinks I grabbed the wrong one by accident and that you –”
“Shouldn’t open it?” Tommy piped up. “Or use it under any circumstances? Because we’re way past that point.”
“Tommy – ” Billy started.
“Getting Dr. Strange, right,” Tommy said, zooming past Teddy.
The gnomes and the flamingos didn’t seem to miss his presence very much. They had all rounded on Teddy.
“You would try to take the chosen one away from us?” the gnome asked, waving his pointy hat around. Teddy stared down at him, then back up at Billy.
“Chosen one?” he said.
“I’m going to magically free their kingdom from the flamingos,” Billy explained. “Or the other way around. It depends who wins the Battle of Kaplan Kitchen.”
“Well, if that’s the case,” Teddy said, sounding way too calm about the entire situation. He was smiling. Billy’s life was in shambles – magic alternate dimension lawn statue shambles – and Teddy was smiling. He swept an arm out and pointed, rather majestically, at the lawn statues. “I’m entering the battle for the chosen one.”
The gnomes and flamingos exchanged a series of glances.
“You and what empire?” the head flamingo asked.
Teddy seemed to consider it for a moment; Billy expected him to pull out the names of either of his actual empires, but Teddy just held his head up high.
“I don’t need any empire,” he said, larger than life in Billy’s kitchen.
He swept the lawn statues aside in one powerful move and was across the kitchen in a moment. Billy felt himself being manhandled into the air before he could register what was happening, and then Teddy was running down the hall with Billy flung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
“Romantic,” he said. Teddy wasn’t wearing his costume; his shirt had ripped when he’d shifted. His skin was cool and armor-plated underneath Billy’s hands.
“I thought it was pretty dashing,” Teddy said, and Billy rolled his eyes.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked.
“Someplace safe, where we won’t wreck the apartment,” Teddy said, and flung open the door to the hall closet.
They didn’t really fit, even with Teddy shifted down to normal size, but sitting in the closest with their sides pressed together, Kaplan family winter coats shielding them from view, was sort of nice. If Billy breathed deep he could almost imagine they weren’t hiding from living lawn statues hellbent on stealing him away to another dimension.
“So, are you going to tell me what happened?” Teddy asked, and Billy blinked into the gloom.
“Oh, you know, the usual,” Billy said. “Tried to find you the perfect gift, turned to magical means, unleashed the world’s tiniest crisis in my kitchen. You know how Sundays are.”
“Wait,” Teddy said. “Back up. All of this happened because you were trying to find me a gift?”
Billy was thankful Teddy couldn’t see his blush in the darkness. He scrubbed at his hair with one hand.
“I just wanted to get you something as perfect as you got me,” he said. “I was trying to find you the Captain Marvel figure. You know, the one you told me about.”
Teddy was quiet for a long moment.
“You mean, as perfect as the tome that unleashed the walking, talking, warring lawn statues on you and Tommy?” he said. Billy winced.
“That’d be the one,” he said, and Teddy laughed softly. He leaned to the side and knocked their shoulders together, and reached for Billy’s hand. Their fingers laced together.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about getting me anything much,” he said.
“But I’m really good at worrying,” Billy said to his knees. “And I want to get you something. You’re my boyfriend and I, well, you know.”
“I know,” Teddy said, and squeezed Billy’s hand.
“And I’m hiding in my closet and there are living lawn gnomes running through my house and my life is crazy,” Billy said. Teddy kept laughing in his soft, understanding way, close enough that Billy could feel the reverberations of it through his body. “And you raked leaves for Doctor Strange for two months.”
“Because Doctor Strange offered, and I couldn’t think of anything better,” Teddy said, and Billy looked at him in the darkness, squinting at his face.
“You’re serious,” he said after a moment.
“Yep,” Teddy said congenially, giving Billy’s hand another squeeze.
Billy let his head fall forward. “We’re both idiots.”
“Yep,” Teddy said, and he let go of Billy’s hand so he could put an arm around him. The heat of him seeped in through Billy’s sweater, a red hot line across his back, and it made Billy shiver.
There were rustling sounds somewhere outside the closet door, but the statues were small and slow and, it seemed to Billy, not terribly bright, so he wasn’t really worried. He leaned against Teddy’s shoulder.
“What do you want for Christmas, then?” he asked quietly. Teddy shrugged, the movement jostling Billy, and it took him a moment to answer.
“Shirts, I guess,” he said.
Billy sat up and stared at him.
“Shirts,” he said.
Teddy stuck a finger through a hole in his shoulder where he’d sprouted spikes.
“I go through them pretty fast,” he said, which was true enough. Maybe Billy should call Kate and ask if there was some kind of T-Shirt of the Month club.
“I’ll get you shirts,” Billy said, settling down against Teddy’s side again. Teddy leaned their heads together.
“And I’ll get you a better magic tome,” he said, and then the closet door exploded.
Doctor Strange was standing in the hall when the smoke cleared. Billy had had vivid daydreams about this, except that they had always involved saving the world from some kind of demon overlord, and in them Doctor Strange had always been wearing the Cloak of Levitation and not a windbreaker.
Still, Doctor Strange was in his hall, and that was pretty cool.
“Check it out,” Tommy said, standing behind Doctor Strange. “He fixed my hair on the way over!”
“Great,” Billy deadpanned.
“Hello, William,” Doctor Strange said, brushing the dust off his sleeves. “I see Theodore didn’t arrive in time to prevent you from opening that tome.”
“No, sir,” Billy said. “There are gnomes and flamingos in my kitchen, Doctor Strange.”
“At least they’re contained,” Doctor Strange said. “They’re hell if they run out into the city – you’ve got to search every antique store for a gnome that blinks. Terrible way to spend the holiday season. Come along, boys, we’ve got lawn figurines to banish!”
He turned on his heels smartly; Billy could just about picture the billowing cape.
“Dude, I can see why you’re so impressed with him,” Tommy leaned in to whisper.
“Thomas!” Doctor Strange called from the kitchen. “I require your assistance catching the beasts!”
“He requires my assistance,” Tommy said smugly before zooming off towards the kitchen.
Billy and Teddy exchanged a look.
“I bet Tommy’d rake his lawn for free,” Teddy said, and Billy snickered. Then Teddy ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Sorry about this,” he said.
“About what?” Billy asked.
“Well, it is my fault there are creatures from another dimension ruining your parents’ kitchen,” Teddy said, peering at Billy through his bangs. Billy grinned and grabbed both of Teddy’s hands.
“We’re superheroes,” he said. He snuck a glance at the kitchen doorway, just to make sure Doctor Strange and Tommy weren’t watching, then leaned in and kissed Teddy on the corner of his mouth. “This kind of stuff is supposed to happen to us.”