Teddy Altman lurched upright, staring blindly into the sudden expanse of darkness. He could still hear the thunderous echo of Billy screaming—could hear him begging, Teddy’s name cracking off his lips in harsh, wet gasps.
Teddy’s eyes darted around the contours of the night-shrouded room. His heartbeat pounded like a drum in his ears, deafening him to the sounds of late-night taxi cabs blaring their horns, of drunk men and women in the streets below the apartment window. His hands—fisted into trembling claws—found unfamiliar coils of dark, sweat-dampened sheets around his waist.
He sat upright, heart thumping like a jackhammer. He glanced around, at the high walls, the Star Wars posters, the Captain America pinup, the Battlestar Galactica screensaver bouncing across the idling computer monitor, and finally remembered where he was.
Teddy turned to look to his right, and beneath the posters taped next to the bed, Billy was with him. Short, ink-black hair fanned across the white pillowcase. Billy’s eyes were closed, the bruises beneath his lids frighteningly dark in the dim light. Curled on his side beneath the thick blue comforter, Billy looked too small and too still, like a broken wind-up doll or Sleeping Beauty awaiting a life-restoring kiss.
Teddy waited, frozen with horror—and then he saw the long, slow rise and fall of Billy’s chest, the telltale sign that he was still alive.
Teddy turned away with a shuddering sob of relief. He buried his face in his hands; he breathed in through his nose and out his mouth, a deep sound like wind rustling through an empty church.
Billy was alive.
He was safe.
Both of them were.
In the peaceful silence of the bedroom, Teddy disentangled himself from the comforter and perched on the edge of the mattress. He bit down on the length of his index finger to muffle his heavy breathing. He didn’t want to wake Billy—God knew he needed to sleep after what they’d been through—but he didn’t want to leave, either.
If he wandered out of the bedroom and returned, and for some dark reason, Billy wasn’t there, he’d break apart. He’d lose his mind, or go ballistic, or Hulk Out, or something much worse than that.
Leaning forward, elbows digging into his thighs, Teddy stared out the bedroom window at the endless nightscape of New York City.
It looked ravaged with war. New York at night had always been an endless galaxy of light, shining from millions of windows in thousands of buildings that reached into the sky. Advertisements and ambulances and police sirens raced through the rivers of traffic lanes below.
In the wake of the unrest between superheroes—the Civil War, Teddy had heard news reporters remark, in the hours following the street brawls—local power outages had swallowed more than half of the city. In a single day, New York had been transformed into a vast expanse of storming darkness, broken only by the malignant peppering of innumerable fires.
Teddy would have been out there, assisting in evacuations or putting out the fires, but Kate and Eli agreed it would be best for the Young Avengers to steer clear of the Avengers and local officials for the time being. The authorities would be searching for the degenerates on Captain America’s ragtag team—but they would not be on the lookout for Wiccan and Hulkling, or Hawkeye II and Patriot.
And more than that, Teddy didn’t want to leave Billy. Not after the Cube. Not after the N-Zone. Not after he’d been forced to help Billy rip the voice-cancelling devices from his ears like an infected set of earrings. His heart still sank at the memory of Billy’s bitten-back whimpering.
Teddy didn’t know how long he sat there, staring out into the city. New York City looked like he felt. Damaged, wrenched apart in battle, frightened for his life. But he’d rather look at the city than think about the reason he was awake at this ungodly hour in the first place.
Billy hadn’t been the one strapped to the examination table, scoured by scalpels and drifting in and out of red darkness. It had been Teddy, and some part of him was morbidly grateful for that. Teddy’s organs had shifted to avoid the brunt of the damage. It hadn’t been pleasant—far from it—but Teddy could heal from most anything, and he’d been unconscious for the duration of it.
Billy would not have been able to heal from it. With the voice-cancelling devices pinned into the shells of his ears, he wouldn’t have been able to scream out a healing spell if the scalpels had breached his abdomen, if the Warden had grown bored with Teddy’s lack of response and shifted targets.
The mattress creaked behind him, the shifting of the comforter sliding off stick-thin shoulders. Billy moved like a strip of shadow, but Teddy felt him approach. Billy took his place beside Teddy on the edge of the mattress, stomach pressed against the curve of his spine. His right arm wrapped around Teddy’s shoulders, his left hand resting along the back of Teddy’s knuckles. Somehow, in the course of his city gazing, Teddy had dropped his hands to the sheets and shifted his claws back into human fingers.
Billy didn’t say anything. He sat with Teddy, pressed tight against his side, heart fluttering against his spine. He stared over Teddy’s shoulder at the hauntingly dark expanse of New York City, waiting for Teddy to tell him what was wrong.
Teddy could feel the warmth of his body and the sure, swift beat of his heart. Billy Kaplan was not known for his patience, and Teddy was immeasurably grateful that Billy knew him well enough to know that pressing for answers would only result in aggravation.
Billy trusted him—and he trusted that Teddy would tell him what was wrong when he was ready, whether that moment came in ten minutes or ten years.
He and Billy sat in comfortable silence, listening to the sounds of each other breathing, taking in the knowledge that the two of them had survived the War together.
Billy’s breathing had evened out by the time Teddy calmed himself down enough to even consider trying to speak. He reached his hand across his waist and laid it on top of Billy’s fingers.
Billy murmured against his shoulder, a questioning, sleepy sound.
“Nightmare,” said Teddy, angling his head back so Billy’s chin came to rest on his left shoulder. He could see the dark strands of Billy’s hair, the off-blue tone of his skin in the lights of the sleeping computer screen.
Billy accepted this with a slow nod. “Cap?”
“No—not Cap,” Teddy replied carefully. He couldn’t look at Billy. He peered back out the window, tasting the saltiness of a fresh onslaught of miserable tears. Blood. Screaming. Scalpels ripping through black spandex and into paper-thin ribs. “It was—it was about the Cube.”
Billy’s lips pressed against the column of his throat, warm and cold at the same time. Teddy shivered, but he didn’t pull away. “The Warden?”
“Yeah, but—” Teddy looked down at Billy’s slim fingers, dwarfed beneath his own. He untangled their fingers and turned Billy’s hand over, pressing their palms together like a knot of flesh. “It was—it was about you, too.”
Billy didn’t answer for a long time. He just sat against Teddy’s back, keeping their fingers intertwined. Teddy could feel the hummingbird-beat of his heart against the notches of his spine; he felt Billy’s throat move over his shoulder blade.
“OK,” said Billy carefully, and Teddy angled his head to look at him. In the blue glow of the bedroom, without the rainbow lights of nighttime New York, Billy looked like some haunting raven straight out of Poe’s worst nightmares—but also terribly beautiful, like a daydream Teddy would never reach. “OK, it was about me, too.”
When Teddy would finally make himself speak, his voice was raw and hoarse as if he’d been shouting for hours on end—he supposed he had, bellowing commands and pleas and vicious retorts at Stark and his flock of underlings. “We were in the Cube, except you were the one on the table, and the Warden kept taking the scalpel and—,” Teddy broke off with a breathless gasp, fighting back the twist of bile in his stomach.
He could still hear it, the phantom sounds of Billy shrieking as the blade ripped into his intestines, the sobbing cries to Teddy to help him, the wet gurgle of his lungs filling with blood.
“Oh,” murmured Billy, and that was it.
Teddy had relived, through nightmares and horrible imagination, the terror that Billy had experienced firsthand, and so Teddy knew that Billy understood how he felt.
And yet, at the same time, he didn’t understand.
Billy had watched Teddy get tortured—but there had been no actual chance of losing him. Teddy could heal. Teddy could shift his organs out of the way and survive.
Billy couldn’t, not without his magic.
If the Warden had picked Billy—
If the Warden had put Billy on that table—
After a moment, Teddy felt Billy move from behind him. The mattress creaked as Billy scooted to the edge, his bare legs swinging over the side. Teddy made to grasp him, but then Billy was in front of him, sliding into his lap and throwing his arms around his neck.
Fingers brushed below his chin. Teddy angled his head up and peered into Billy’s eyes—pitch black in the dark bedroom, like pools of spilled oil. He couldn’t stand this. He couldn’t watch Billy be so calm and understanding about his own imagined death. He bit down the rising pain inside him and shut his eyes against a wave of tears. He sucked in a sharp breath.
Billy’s body shifted in his lap, leaning forward, and then Teddy felt cool lips brush against his own. Light as a feather, the faintest trace of a question hovering between them. He couldn’t move. He tasted the remnants of smoke and metal on Billy’s lips—he clenched his fists into the sheets, wanting to grasp Billy around the waist and haul him close, but too afraid to touch him. He was not in control. If he moved now, he might hurt Billy, might make those nightmarish screams into a reality.
Thin arms traced across his shoulders, drawing formless patterns into the fabric of his sleepshirt. Billy made a breathless sound against his lips, and then he drew back. Teddy blinked his eyes open and peered up at Billy; he chewed on his lower lip, self-conscious and questioning. Teddy remembered the first time he’d asked Billy out on a date. Had he looked this small and nervous then, too?
“Is this OK?” murmured Billy.
Teddy blinked up at him. “What?”
“I mean—,” Billy gestured to his position on Teddy’s lap. He shifted his hips, knees digging into the mattress on either side of Teddy’s thighs. “Is it helping? I can stop, if it’s not. I just—” He chewed on his lower lip, glancing to the side. “I don’t want to hurt you, and—yeah.”
Teddy’s heart hammered behind his ribs like a stone. He reached up and pressed a hand to Billy’s cheek, turning his head so he had no choice but to look into Teddy’s eyes and understand that he meant every word of what he was about to say. “It’s OK. Don’t worry about protecting me, Billy. I’m fine. Just—just kind of scared at the moment, but it’s completely irrational. You’re fine. You’re here and you’re fine. So, I’m OK. Trust me. I really am OK.”
Billy untangled an arm from Teddy’s shoulders and laid it over the hand on his cheek. “It’s OK if you aren’t,” he said in a firm, powerful voice. “It’s OK if you aren’t fine, Teddy.”
Teddy drew in a sharp, unsteady breath. I love this boy. I really, really do. “Billy, I—,” he choked, feeling the rush of stinging tears behind his irises. He didn’t know how long he could fight them back.
Billy kissed him again—on the cheek, this time, and everything in Teddy’s body ached. He wanted to cry and he wanted to go outside and find the Warden and rip him to shreds for what he’d done to both of them.
But he couldn’t leave Billy, didn’t want to leave Billy, and he wished he could turn his anger into a weapon like the Hulk did and bring Iron Man and his band of monstrosities to justice.
He felt Billy sliding from his lap. A spike of panic forced his eyes open, but Billy was crawling back onto the bed and staying with him. Teddy relaxed, forcing his shoulders to unclench from their tense coil. He shivered at the feeling of Billy’s fingertips tracing along his shoulder blades.
“Come back to bed,” murmured Billy, his voice already heavy with the need for sleep.
Teddy felt like a jerk for waking Billy up with this nonsense. A nightmare was nothing to be worried about, after all. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Billy was tugging at his shoulders and urging him to lay down with him, and Teddy complied without a sound.
Once he was beneath the covers, Billy plastered himself at Teddy’s side. Teddy allowed himself to be pulled and repositioned like a ragdoll; Billy’s legs slid in between his own, arms wrapping around his back, pulling Teddy to rest beneath his chin. Teddy breathed in the scents of shampoo and soap, the lingering remnants of smoke, the ozone-smell of Billy’s magic.
Billy. He shuddered, and the shudder transformed into a shiver that quickly turned into trembling. He put his arms around Billy’s waist, delicately, as if Billy were fashioned of glass, and drew him close. He buried his face in Billy’s chest, listening to his heartbeat, feeling the warmth of his body.
“It’s OK,” whispered Billy. He pressed a kiss to Teddy’s hairline, and after a moment of quietly holding him in his arms, Billy said, in a firm, clear voice, “If the day ever comes again where you feel like just being alive is painful then at that time again, and again I’ll save you.”
Despite the tremors rattling through his body, Teddy huffed a laugh against Billy’s collarbone. “You,” he said, “are such a dork.”
“You knew what you were signing up for,” replied Billy. He traced mindless patterns down Teddy’s spine. “But I meant it—every word.”
“I know.” Teddy closed his eyes and took in the comforting scents of his boyfriend wrapped around him, the wail of sirens outside drowned out by the pleasant thump-thump of Billy’s heart. “Me too. Always.”