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Unhappy Families are All Alike

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It could have been a seven-hundred-million-dollar mistake. Thaddeus reminded himself of that as he turned out of the freeway and headed into Philadelphia. He gripped the steering wheel tighter. SCORA was nothing more than a fancy pile of silicon and circuits. The coders that programmed it had only a firm grasp on its input. The mathematicians that scribbled down numbers could only extend their algorithms so far. It was a machine, not alive but precise enough to pull numbers and theories and names seemingly out of thin air. An investment that calculated the possibility of a person becoming involved in magical incidents and nothing more.

No other name and location had been duplicated, no matter how long the lists got. Billy Batson had appeared three times. The names had first been apart only by six lines, before being repeated again nearly four-hundred lines later. Part of Thaddeus had expected his cell phone to ring and his secretary to tell him there had been another hit. Already, she’d called him twice that day to report on new findings and to discuss some new patients that had called in. One line of many was crossed off from the great cyber oracle’s list of predications.

The radio of his rented car was turned down low, and in the three hours that he had been driving, the sound only now reached his ears. It was an old song, a good forty years old or more. For a moment, he was a boy again, standing in a bakery eagerly eyeing a display of sweets. He shook the thought away.

Memories returned anyway. The city had gotten a face lift since he’d left, new stores and restaurants dotting the streets, but the skeleton was the same. It had been five years since he’d last ventured into the city, three since he’d sent his family a Christmas card. Now he was a teenager heading to the movies, only to be cornered on the sidewalk by Sid and a group of his friends. When he took a hard left, he was again a young man escorting his father to work, the two silent throughout the entire drive.

Thaddeus took a deep breath. The city housed over one million residents. So long as he stayed at a low-end hotel and ate simply, the chances that he would run into his father or Sid were lower than the Dead Sea’s shore. They certainly wouldn’t have been caught dead entertaining themselves anywhere near the part of the city that he was headed for.

Thaddeus ran the facts through his head again. Billy Batson, born 03 February 2003, was a four-year-old boy who had been in and out of three foster homes in the last seven months. The state was like a soccer player suddenly pulled out into the field, unsure of where to hit the ball. At this rate, he’d be halfway across the state in a few months. He’d gotten lost from his mother and the state had hit their limit trying to track her down. From what he’d read, the boy’s father had relinquished custody, and his records didn’t indicate he’d be able to win it back any time soon if he tried. Families were funny like that – sooner or later someone painted the paper trail red.

Still, tracking the boy down had been easy enough. Only three hours after his initial request, his secretary had brought him a pile of papers that he’d spent the night pouring through. Time had marched forward through a steady stream of phone calls and emails and faxing files. The flights to and from the city had been sparse, but necessary. Time was a luxury even he could not buy more of.

And then there was now. A day part of himself had never quite expected to come.

-

Billy twitched in his seat. Ms. Glover had been gone for five minutes, and in that time the silence of the room had seemed to crawl into his ears. His heart had been hammering since he woke up that morning. Did Ms. Glover really expect him to do this?

He looked down to the Magic Eight ball in his hands. Dr. Sivana had given it to him during his last visit. In the stream of toys and clothes that the man had bought him, something about it had stuck out. Maybe it was the chipped paint on one side, or the scratches near the end. Some nights, he would shake it for what seemed like hours, watching the blue triangle bounce up and down within some unseen ocean. He could decipher a few words from it. Since his last visit, Billy had read through the books Dr. Sivana had given him until the pages began to tear.

If he closed his eyes, he could still feel himself perched upon the man’s legs, hear his voice within his ear. He’d been insistent that they go to the library that day. A few times throughout that day, Billy had wondered if they would ever leave.

Billy looked to the Magic Eight ball now, to the floating “yes.” There was the answer but gone was the question.

“Keep it to remind you of me,” Dr. Sivana had said. As if Billy could ever forget. Ms. Glover was always eager to discuss him. Whenever the two were at one of their meetings, she always had some new tidbit on him.

Billy had smiled through those meetings. He grinned when Dr. Sivana had taken him to zoos and museums. Nor had he frowned when the man bought him ice cream or came to visit bearing a box of doughnuts. He smiled because frowns so far had gotten him nothing. Tears had only ever gotten him a face full of toilet water and bruises that dotted his skin like stars.

Billy ignored the way his stomach flipped and smiled when Ms. Glover and Dr. Sivana entered the room.

“Aren’t you excited to go home with your father?”

Billy’s smile was so large that it took up half his face. He nodded.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to hear you say that.” Dr. Sivana removed a pen from his shirt pocket and filled out one last form. As he and Ms. Glover fussed over that final form, Billy let his lips slip.

-

Billy awoke in a heap of stuffed animals. His face was buried into the stomach of a tiger. The plush was so large that he hadn’t quite believed it when Dr. Sivana – his father – had bought it for him. A number of other plush dotted his bed, including the entire cast of the Hundred Acre Woods and a zoo’s worth of safari animals.

Sitting up, he surveyed the room. The flight to California the day (night?) before had been the longest seven hours of his life. While the two had sat in the airport the afternoon prior, Billy had struggled to think of some way to escape, to get Dr. Sivana to reveal that this was all some grand prank. All the while, he’d scoured the airport in search of his mother. It was a habit that he had taken to whenever he went out. In the flurry of people, no one had stuck out.

“Are you scared, William?” Dr. Sivana had asked once they’d made it through security.

Billy had looked to the ground.

“Have you ever been on an airplane before?”

Billy shook his head. Where had he ever had to go?

“While I can’t say they’re the most pleasant way to travel, they are interesting to ride.” He put his hand on Billy’s shoulder. “Just think – soon we’ll be out of here.”

Billy hopped out of bed. Aside from his bed, his room had been sparsely decorated. A bookshelf near his closet was so tightly packed with books that Billy half wondered how it hadn’t broken through the wood sidings. A small desk sat next to it, bare except for the Magic Eight ball which watched over him like some misshapen eye. Next to his bed was a large window. Sunlight drifted in through the large curtains.

Outside, the sun was bright, and the world was green. A bicyclist rode past on the curving sidewalk. A flock of birds, some looking no larger than a comma, flew overhead.

His door pulled open. Turning, Billy met Dr. Sivana’s eyes, the only part of his face visible thanks to the large mug of coffee he was busily gulping down.

“I thought I heard you.” He smiled, but Billy didn’t return the gesture. “What do you think, William?”

Billy’s shoulders tensed. He’d never been wild about the name, and when Dr. Sivana had first started using it, Billy had thought that he was talking to someone else. Their handful of conversations about it had always been tense. Something would pass through Dr. Sivana’s eyes and his face would tighten.

“It’s…” He’d waved his hands around, as if the answer were hiding somewhere in this strange new room. How spacious it was! There were no foster brothers to share it with, no kids to push past whenever he wanted to do something as simple as walk down the hallway. The same could almost be said for their apartment. Aside from Dr. Sivana’s study, which was locked so tightly that Billy could barely even move the door handle, the whole place was his to explore and use. The night before, he had only seen glimpses in the dark. All he’d really noticed was the size and the faint outlines of furniture.

So many answers hung on Billy’s tongue, none that he could bring himself to voice. Dr. Sivana was a nice man. How could he not be, for putting up with Billy? But he wasn’t his father, no matter what the man and Ms. Glover insisted. All Billy needed was his mother, his real, true mother, and he wasn’t going to find her out here.

Before this, they had only discussed her once. It had been late, Billy had been tired, and he had been stupid enough to ask questions. Dr. Sivana had never mentioned her; for all Billy knew then, the man hadn’t known that she existed.

“Why does Ms. Glover say you want to adopt me if my mom will find me and take me back?” The words had tumbled out of him so quickly that at first he hadn’t been sure if Dr. Sivana had heard him. Just as he was about to repeat it, Dr. Sivana had spoken.

That woman doesn’t want anything to do with you.” He’d heard it all before. It was a favorite talking point of Ms. Glover, and his older foster brothers had often said the same thing, albeit with a zestier wording. Something about the way Dr. Sivana had said it had made Billy’s stomach fall into the pit of his chest. “Since she left you, has she so much as sent a letter? Has she looked for you? Gone to the police and filed a missing person’s report?”

Billy hadn’t been sure how to reply. All he’d managed to muster up was a “B-but-”

“But what? Am I wrong?”

Maybe he was. For all Billy knew, ever since that day of the carnival, his mother had been looking. How would she find him now, though? Why would she think that he was all the way out here?

“It’s n-nice.” A hard lump had formed in Billy’s throat that he could barely push the words past.

“It’s all yours.” Dr. Sivana crossed the room and squeezed his shoulder.

Chapter Text

“I mean really, Thad, a leash? What do you think the kid is going to do, run straight into traffic?” Sid took a long sip of his coffee. He looked down, eyeing the offending backpack. It was orange and covered with black stripes, and came with a matching colored plush leash leading out of the end. Thad had been clutching it tightly ever when he’d helped the boy out of his Lexus that afternoon.

“If you’d listened to me earlier, you’d know he’s been diagnosed with mazeophobia.” Thad’s fists tightened. “Considering the circumstances, I can’t blame him.” His eyebrows wrinkled together. He looked as though he was on the verge of saying something but stopped. The two locked eyes together, but his gaze was cold and unreadable.

“When I heard the rumors running around that you got a kid, I thought Great Aunt Fiona was pulling everybody’s leg. I never saw you as the parenting type.”

“And you’re taking the job so well yourself, eh Sid? Did you stop at Woody’s after work or head straight out to do your Christmas shopping?”

Sid gritted his teeth. It would have been so easy to deck his nose and send those black-framed glasses flying. As a kid it had been fun, nothing more than Sid doing his part to enforce the laws of the jungle. Now, though, it would just get them a stern look from their father. Knowing Adelaide, she’d hear about it and use it as proof as to cut off visitation with Annabelle altogether. Wouldn’t that make for a merry fucking Christmas?

But hey, he reminded himself, if worse comes to worst, I can always cover the cost of stitches.

“Dad and I were a bit surprised that you sent back an RSVP.”

Thaddeus looked to the wall. Their childhood home hadn’t changed much beyond some renovations to update the entrance ramps and elevators six years back. The furniture inside was close to a century old. When Sid was a child, before Thad had been born, he’d wondered through the living room at night, desperate to catch some ghost lounging on the couch.

“I had time to stop by.”

“And your other holidays have been so busy?”

“Actually, yes. I’d like to think you know a thing or two about getting caught up in work.” He took a sip of his own coffee. At the rate they were going, the two were going to be refilling the pot the entire night.

Sid was suddenly desperate for the bottle. Most days it was a low urge, simple to ignore; the old screech of addiction had finally gone hoarse. Now, though, it was pounding at him, desperate and alive and hungry. “Could you at least tell me why you got him? I just can’t wrap my head around it. You’re not married. Until tonight, Dad and I had no idea it even happened.”

“What do you two have to do with it?”

“Like I said, we just never expected it of you.”

“Maybe I thought becoming a father would offer more meaning to my life. Or maybe I just felt sorry for him.”

Sid’s throat tightened. He thought of Annabelle, who seemed to grow taller the longer the two spent apart. Some weekends she’d call up demanding - demanding! - to stay at a friend’s house instead of coming over. Half the time he couldn’t blame her. Why would she want to spend a quarter of her weekend filling him in on his ex-wife’s new beau anyway?

“Parenting can be hard, Thad.”

“Don’t remind me.” He walked back towards the kitchen, Sid following behind. The oven’s electric clock read in big green type that it was a quarter past one. There were what, one, two days until Christmas? There was a light dusting of snow outside, so thin that it might all melt by the time morning arrived.

“His mother walked out on him.”

Thad might as well have hit him on the side of his head with a hammer.

“Poor guy.” Sid hadn’t seen much of William. Throughout the evening, he’d stuck close to Thad or hurried alone across the mansion. When Sid had offered him his hand earlier that evening, he’d looked at Sid as though he had two heads. “You don’t even remember Mom, do you?”

“Not particularly.” He refilled his coffee mug and then began another pot. “In retrospect, I can’t blame her for walking out. Who’d want to stick around here?”

“Jesus, Thad, you don’t have to be so mad all the damn time!” His words echoed along the walls. “You act like Dad and I chained you in the attic.”

“I bet you wished you did.”

Sid bit his tongue so hard that he could taste blood. “And that’s why you got the kid?”

Thad shrugged. “Was there any particular reason you got one?”

“I’m just trying to talk to you! You haven’t sent word to us in years. If I didn’t follow your papers, I’d probably think you were dead.”

Thad’s eyes widened. “You’ve read my papers?” He was white as a ghost, maybe even paler than that.

“Well, yeah. Can’t say I really know what the hell you’re trying to say in half of them, but they’re pretty good. I mean, they’re long and-” Oh, what the hell was he even trying to say? Neither his brain nor mouth seemed to know what they were doing.

“The university certainly has been keeping me busy.”

“You’re certainly doing… Something.” He paused. “All these years later, I’m still a little shocked that you told Dad no to his offer. We really could use a guy like you at Sivana Industries.”

“You already know my answer to that.”

“I worded that wrong. All I’m trying to say is that we don’t need to be enemies. You’ve got a good thing going on, but you don’t have to be alone, especially with your new kid. This is the first time he’s ever been around the place. Philly has some great private schools that you’d probably have no trouble getting William into. I’m sure Dad would be thrilled if you said you were moving back!”

After a long silence, Thad cleared his throat. “Is this your idea of an apology?”

“Thad, I-”

“Is it?” He slammed his mug down. “Did you just think that you could wave some opportunity at me and I’d come running to you all, suitcase in hand? Do you honestly think that I gain so little from my research that I’d throw it all away to come play house with you and Dad again?”

“Thad, that’s not what I was trying to say!”

“Well, what were you? Are you trying to say that you and Dad have changed? Now that would be a Christmas miracle! But if that were the case you wouldn’t have to write alimony checks.”

“That has nothing to do with you!”

“It doesn’t? And here I thought Dad spent half the night silently stewing over how he lost the offspring lottery twice!”

“Would you shut your fucking mouth and just listen to me for five minutes?”

“Bet you wish you could fire me.”

His fist met plaster. They’d need to cover that up before the party the following – make it that – evening, but right then Sid didn’t notice it, just as he didn’t notice the pain sliding up his knuckles. Right then, he was seeing red. Was this why he had come home for the holidays, to rub his face in Sid’s nose?

“Dad and I were so happy when we got the news.”

“I’d sooner be the first man to colonize Venus then let my son be raised five-hundred feet within the vicinity of you two!”

“You really mean that?” Thad never got the chance to answer him.

-

“Dad, are you going to be okay?” It was the third time that William had asked him that since they’d left the hospital that morning.

“You heard the doctor earlier. In a few weeks it’ll be like nothing happened.”

He frowned. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Thaddeus shook his head. The last thing he wanted to think about was what had transpired early that morning. All he could really remember now was the crack of bone against flesh and the whir of his father’s motorized wheelchair as he hurried inside the kitchen. William had been close behind him, clutching a stuffed toy. He had said something when he arrived in the kitchen, but what?

Right then all Thaddeus could think about was getting a new flight. They’d spent half the day in the airport and judging by the wave of cancellations they’d be stuck in there far longer. Everyone wanted to be home for Christmas.

He wrapped an arm around the boy. The side of Thaddeus’s face that wasn’t numb still ached. And, thanks to the overhead music, this was his fifth time hearing “Silent Night” that day.

Thaddeus never had cared for the holidays.

Chapter Text

A doll draped in camouflage and flaunting rusted dog tags was still a doll. Thaddeus clutched it tightly between his hands, as if Sid might suddenly materialize and try to pull it away from him. Time had done little to honor this small soldier. The paint had faded, and dark dirt smudges seemed permanently glued to parts of his cheek and arms. His uniform was frayed near the edges, even torn on the right pants leg. Still, he smiled on, his painted blue eyes locked on Thaddeus’ own.

His father had never been one for luxuries, at least when they came to children. Of the handful of toys he’d owned, the majority could be found in the box sitting on his kitchen counter. There was his old monkey, its beady glass eyes locked on its gleaming brass cymbals which would never again clang together. A stuffed dog that had lost both of its ears sat limply against a worn teddy-bear. A toy car had lost its front wheels in some forgotten collision. Marbles, jacks, and dominoes weighed down the bottom.

There were two other soldiers. One, which was covered in scratches, was wearing a sailor’s uniform, while the other had lost one of its arms.

Sid had grabbed it from him and ripped the arm off as though it were easy as tearing apart a sheet of paper. There had been a sick pop as the joints disconnected, a sound so loud and sudden that it might as well have been a bomb going detonating. Thaddeus had stared at them with wide eyes. A protest had died inside of his throat, hardening into a lump that he tried to focus on as he hurried to push back tears. That was why his father had bought them for him, wasn’t it? To watch Sid rip it from Thaddeus’ hands with the same gaze and interest he might give to an afternoon television program, before averting his eyes back towards more pressing matters.

Oh, the other arm still had its kung-fu grip, but it wasn’t the same. He’d pushed it beneath a pile of old clothes in his closet with little ceremony.

It had been inside one of two packages that had arrived that afternoon, both with no return address. The other had been larger and stuffed to the brim with comic books. Was this Sid’s idea of a peace treaty? A late Christmas gift for when the anger and frustrations of the holiday had cooled? It just as easily could have been a warning. When he had moved out years prior, Thaddeus had taken about everything he owned with him. Maybe if he had dug deeper in the basement, he could have packed these along with him. Now, finally reunited, what use did he have to go back?

Thaddeus sighed. Tomorrow was trash day. Within twenty-four hours this all could have been lost beneath a pile of food wrappers and broken televisions at the city dump.

He shook his head. Though the old soldiers and sad stuffed animals brought an ache to his chest, there was someone who would probably be eager to have them.

Thaddeus grip tightened on the soldier again. William wouldn’t be home for another hour from his scouts meeting, maybe longer if the carpool driver got stuck in traffic. The day prior, he’d gotten home before Thaddeus had, wondering the house while his sitter babbled away on the landline and did who knew what else.

Perhaps he’d forgotten to pull the door completely shut, or he’d simply been moving so quickly that morning that he forgot to lock the door. Whatever the cause, William had pushed against his study’s door and for once it had opened.

What had he imagined when he saw it? Had he been excited or intimidated? Had he thought of pulling the door shut and hurrying away? Or had he just immediately run inside and begun grabbing whatever caught his eye?

It was likely the latter. By the time Thaddeus arrived home, William had scattered papers across the floor and begun playing with the stone figures by his laptop as though they were any everyday action figure. His heart had skipped a beat.

“Put those down, William! Those aren’t toys!” The neighbors probably could have heard him.

A stone gargoyle-like creature had dropped to the floor with a dull thud. William hadn’t said anything, just looked to the ground and the figures sitting across it.

Mass psychogenic illness or mysticism aside, he’d spent half the evening carefully rearranging the figures until they were again perfect. The stone wizard was the last piece he’d added. In that moment, as in now, he had replayed the afternoon’s events. He had hurried towards William, the rage so sudden and tight that he could have drowned in the sea of it, pulling William down into the dark depths with him. He almost had, his hands reaching for the boy’s red sweater but instead meeting with the stone temple’s walls on the floor.

Oh, how differently that could have gone. He could have picked the boy up and flung him like a rag doll. He was so light, one of the smallest boys in his class. Or the anger inside of him could have flown from his fists to William’s skin. How easy it would have been!

Maybe it was the look in William’s eyes, or perhaps it was the ache in his own heart, that had stopped him. Just as easily as the anger had come, so too it had passed, leaving only a blanket of confusion that even now Thaddeus struggled to pull off.

They’d hugged afterwards, and Thaddeus had gotten tissues to help the boy wipe tears from his eyes.

“Those aren’t toys,” Thaddeus had repeated. “One of my students designed the model based on shared reports we had received from multiple sources. We wanted to compare it with other’s claims, even show it to patients, but these take a good deal of time to make. If you had broken it, it would have been at least four months before I got another.”

He might as well have recited off the ingredients label on the back of a soup can for all William probably knew what he was saying. Still, anything had been better than silence.

Thaddeus shook his head and sighed. He’d locked the door tight that morning, checking it twice before leaving for work. William had happily dug into a plate of chocolate chip waffles, prattling on about spelling tests and friends that Thaddeus never could remember the names of.

Was this his own apology? The plea from twenty-four hours prior had been rushed, as sudden as the anger that had fallen over him.

Thaddeus sighed. Maybe William wouldn’t care for them, not when he had brand new toys decorating his bedroom floor. And if he did, what did it matter? Whatever Sid thought, Thaddeus didn’t need solid memories to weigh him down.

-

“Will the Avengers beat Kang or not?” William asked. His voice shook as he spoke.

“Oh, I’d think so. They couldn’t make more of these if the bad guy destroyed them all.” Thaddeus set the comic down. Perhaps he had the next issue, perhaps not. His comic collection was sporadic, just as his local drug store’s selection had been. The only thing these varied ten cent adventures shared were their yellowed pages and worn spines.

“Can we read the next?”

“Not right now. I was hoping you’d be asleep by now.”

“I’m not tired.”

“You told me the same thing last night.” Thaddeus ruffled his hair.

“But Dad, I’m really not!” Billy sat up, grabbing his arm. “Please don’t leave me. I want to hear another story.”

He chuckled. “I don’t. Some of us are sleepy.”

“Please?”

Thaddeus’ gaze fell upon the teddy bear William’s shoulder was brushing against. How many nights had he snuggled up with the same one, waiting for a sleep that never came?

“Fine, but only one more. I have to be up early tomorrow.” He paused, surveying the room. There were his old marbles on the floor, and his Joes decorating William’s dresser. “One night a young boy, only a few years older than you, vanished suddenly from his family. The world around him disappeared, and when he finally realized what was happening, he locked eyes with a wizard.”

Chapter Text

"And you don't have to worry about peanuts. Brandon is allergic to them too, so we don't have anything containing them in the house. My wife has the decency to keep her Reeses stash in her desk at work." Adriana chuckled.

"That's a relief." Thaddeus leaned his elbows against the kitchen table. "The last time he had a reaction was quite difficult."

"Oh, don't remind me. It's been years since Brandon's last reaction, but I still remember exactly how it felt to see him hooked to a bunch of tubes in the hospital. One bad cookie and my world just about fell apart." She paused. "I shouldn't have troubled you like that."

"William's allergy isn't anywhere near as severe. Still, I understand the sentiment. Sounds awful."

"Well don't worry. The worst thing that the boys will worry about tonight is running out of ice cream. You don't know how happy Brandon was when he heard William could stay over. I'll call you again later tonight to let you know how they're doing, all right?"

"Would ten work?"

"Yes. And I'll keep it quick. Unlike some people, I hope to sleep tonight!"

The world moved on when Thaddeus turned his phone off and sat it on the table. Ever since the refrigerator had stopped humming a few minutes before, the house had gone silent. Reaching down, he tapped his fist against the table. Once, twice, and twice again. He repeated the movement and listened to it bounce off the walls.

"We need you."

The lab was never quiet. Someone was always tapping away on a keyboard or asking a coworker a question. Machines whirred and buzzed mechanical melodies. Neither was the university silent. Students chattered and played music and scribbled into notebooks.

Coming home, William always had something new to prattle on about. A book he'd read, how his friends were doing, what he was learning about in school. His answer of what he wanted to be when he grew up was always changing, sometimes fantastical and other times honorable. Silly questions often came up as well. Did Thaddeus miss his hair? Why were grown ups always complaining? Why could cows make milk and not juice?

Right then, even the whirring of a fan's blade would have been welcome. Most anything could block out the sins' whispers, at least if it was loud and long enough.

"Where are you?"

One need only turn on the nightly news to see that the wizard and his former champion had not vanquished evil from the world. The sins could have been locked in statues or banished to the bottom of a volcano or the depths of space. It was all the same, for their footprint was forever etched into the world and locked into the hearts of humankind.

No, humans didn't need the sins. They could fuck themselves over all by themselves, thank you very much. But-

"We need you!"

They might as well have been screaming.

Though his fingers had never quite touched the silver globe, had some part of him been left on it? A piece of him for them to clutch tightly to when their own prisons ate into their flesh, and the wizard gazed ahead from his throne with contempt?

"I'm coming."

He'd said the same before and he'd say it again. Say it until his lungs collapsed like deflated balloons and his tongue became too heavy for his mouth to hold. Say it until it was the truth and he held the eye in his hands.

"Thaddeus."

"I'm coming!"

Each day new data came in. Patients phoned in, hits came up in searches, and colleagues sent news. The path of his life, the path he'd been walking since he was nine years old and the car suddenly vanished from beneath him, grew shorter. If he could just go a little longer-

"Thaddeus!"

He threw his glass to the floor, and his plate soon after. Shards flew across the paneled marble, and glittered beneath the overhead lights. Hurrying off the stool, Thaddeus rushed to grab a broom. Glass cracked beneath his shoes, a constant, strangely calming noise. With the way his night was going, it might as well have been Mozart.

-

"And so the wizard gave the boy great power, for he was pure of heart. A noble goal, but a mistake all the same."

"What do you mean, Dad?"

"I said the boy was pure of heart, not that the wizard himself. Before, the boy might have been unlucky enough to see evil in the world on television or in newspapers. Maybe he even saw it in his own family. Once, the boy could only keep to himself and hope that evil didn't turn its eyes towards him. Now, though, he looked directly at evil and remembered his promise to destroy it."

Chapter Text

The facade slipped almost as easily as the vanilla goop from his ice cream sandwich. The sun was beating down on his back, sending rivers of sweat down his sides. All the same, he hadn't wanted to go back inside.

"Are you sure we can't go back to the hotel?" His father pulled his glasses up with one hand and rubbed his left eye with the other. "We can always come back later for the fireworks."

Billy shook his head. Around him, the world was teeming with life. Lines for rides went on for what seemed like miles. People huddled in small groups outside shops and restaurants and took photos in what seemed like the park's every nook and cranny. Half the time he was bumping shoulders with someone, and for another fourth he seemed to be quickly darting out of someone's way. In his seven years of life, this was probably the most people that he had ever seen in one place.

Maybe it was the park's motto, or maybe it was just the smiles on everyone else's face, but Billy was grinning. The thoughts were there, but he didn't push them away. Most days, Billy saved them for the night, when he had the shroud of night and blankets to hide under. Now, though, what did it matter if his father could see the words written across his face, the glimmer of a hope that never could truly die in his eyes? If he could just find that same longing in the eyes of another...

Well, his wish could come true. He'd wished it silently each night in lieu of prayers, repeated it silently every time a comet crossed the sky, and thought of it each time he saw a birthday cake. It could happen anywhere. He knew that theoretically. Weirder things happened. Circumstances had torn them apart but could just easily put them back together again.

Billy could find his mother.

She may not have recognized the boy now, not with his height. Even as one of the smallest boys in his class, he was bigger than before. New clothes and a new name didn't help. But his heart was the same as ever. If they could just meet!

Some nights he'd wondered if she could stand going to places like this. Why would she? The barkers hawking stuffed animals and deep fried delights couldn't give her what she really and truly wanted. What she needed, what she had been searching for over years.

But then again, why couldn't she? She may have lost her son at a place like this, but they could just as easily find each other here again. A little slice of the world, almost every kind of person imaginable, was packed in that park on a muggy July day. So why couldn't she be there too?

"Oh, look at you," his father said. He sighed, reaching forward and dabbed at his chin with a napkin. His own pretzel lay untouched beside him. "Could we at least go inside somewhere?"

Billy only half heard him, but he nodded anyway. He chewed absently on his ice cream sandwich. It could have just as easily tasted like oatmeal or bologna. Taste was forgotten, smell suddenly elusive. All that mattered was the sight and sound of the voice of the most important woman in the world.

Billy continued to search for her when they went inside a store. Kids and tired eyed parents rushed past him, pushing strollers and yelling. Displays of toys went all the way up to the ceiling. Billy walked towards a wall covered in stuffed animals, his father close behind him.

He picked up one without really looking at it. All the dolls, action figures, and plush in the world couldn't avert his eyes from the surrounding crowd. Was she here, searching through hats or grabbing a new T-shirt? Had she just gotten off a ride or finished getting a meal?

"Is that what you want?" his father had asked.

Billy nodded. Just what had he been holding? A Tigger, probably, though the image was fuzzy. Did it really matter?

The memory jumped forward. They were in line, his father right ahead of him, his wallet held in one hand.

"Wait," Billy had said. He pointed to something (to a toy, a display, perhaps even the wall?). "Dad, can I get that? Please?"

"If you insist."

Maybe his father had looked ahead to the register, or maybe Billy had simply ran forward as fast as his little legs could take him. Either way, he was scooting past small groups of people and eventually racing out the door.

Wherever she was, Billy was coming.

-

Where is he?

It was rare that his and the sins thoughts were one and the same. Right then, though, Thaddeus couldn't tell where his mind ended and theirs began. All he could do was search the store.

"William! William?"

He was screaming. In the heavy din of passerbies, even he struggled to hear himself.

"William!"

Thaddeus dropped the toy and began searching. A few eyes were on him then. A woman, with a mouse pinned to her vest, came to his side.

"Sir, is there a problem?"

A problem?

"My son is gone!"

Find him. Find him!

"What does he look like? What's his name?" She practically had to run to keep up with him, her red ponytail bobbing as she moved. "I can get security."

"William!"

They were outside then, back in the cruel, blazing sun that shone on everything except who Thaddeus truly wanted to see.

"William!"

Another worker, this time a man in a black polo, came up to him.

"William Sivana, black hair, a bit under four feet. A red T-shirt and jean shorts." The words were mechanical, and as soon as they were off his tongue he was yelling again. "William!"

Maybe it was hours later, maybe minutes. Whatever it was, another worker clad in that same black polo appeared, his hand on the shoulder of his son. William was teary-eyed, his mouse hat askew. Tears dotted the sides of Thaddeus's own eyes, and he finally let them fall freely when he saw him. Grabbing him in a hug, he pulled him up and held him close.

"I got lost!" William seemed to say something else, but his voice broke and all Thaddeus heard was a squeak followed by more sobs.

"I know, William, I know. But I'm here, and I found you."

William said nothing else as they made their way back to the hotel.

Chapter Text

Billy didn’t take much notice of Brandon’s empty desk when he walked into class that morning. The flu was on the prowl, and it had already left a tenth of his classmate’s desks abandoned. Even his teacher was out that day, and in her place was a bleary-eyed substitute who was sorting through a stack of DVD’s at her desk.

That morning he’d eaten blueberry waffles drowning in syrup and freshly squeezed orange juice. By the time he left for school, the sun had been high, and it was seventy-four degrees. Once gym rolled around, he could only hope it hovered around that same number. He’d packed sunscreen in his gym bag, at least, though he hoped it didn’t leak onto his change of clothes like it had the week before.

They’d watched some documentaries about dinosaurs and the origin of numbers for half the day. A few kids had fallen asleep, but Billy was so engrossed in his doodles that he was able to keep his eyes open and ears half in-tune. All the while, one of the Ramones songs he’d been listening to on the drive to school with his father played on an endless repeat in his head.

Why these minute details about the day stuck with him even as the sound of his best friend’s voice slipped from his memory like sand between his fingers, Billy could not be sure.

With Brandon gone, he had to carpool home with Mrs. Verano. She was okay, at least as far as parents went. When she got into his car, she greeted him with a smile and a chocolate chip cookie. Though her daughter sat beside him, her nose was too deep in a paperback to notice him.

It was about three-fifteen when he got home. The phone rang about five minutes later. His babysitter was late, so Billy got the phone himself. Behind him, the refrigerator was left open.

The phone rang once, twice. By the fourth ring, he had it up to his ear.

“This is the Sivana residence. Who’s speaking?”

“William?”

Billy bit his lip. He recognized the voice but couldn’t place a face or name to it. “Yes?”

There was a heartbeat long pause. “This is Mrs. Andrews.”

Oh, Brandon’s other mom. She worked as a contractor for a construction company, with hours that varied by the week. They knew each other the way most kids knew their friend’s parents – in passing, only because social customs dictated they had to.

“Do you need my dad? Because he’s not here.” It was a stupid question (just what did she care about his father?), but right then Billy suddenly wanted to fill the silence around him.

“Look, Will - can I call you that?”

“Billy.”

“Billy, did you hear anything at school today about Brandon?”

He shook his head. “No, ma’am. He was out sick, right?”

“You could say that.” She took a deep breath. “My wife and I debated about calling you about this. Right now, it’s very difficult to say this. But I’d rather you know before some wild rumors get out. My son cared a lot about you, so at the very least you deserve the truth.”

Billy’s heart was hammering in his chest. “What do you mean?”

Another stupid question, though he wasn’t a stupid kid. Parents didn’t call their kid’s friends unless it was an emergency, unless they had a damn good reason to pick up the phone.

“Brandon died this morning, Billy.”

The phone hit the floor with a crack, pieces breaking off and bouncing across the floor. All the same, Mrs. Andrews’ voice came through from the other end of the line.

“Billy, Billy?”

-

He packed two changes of clothes, a toothbrush (but no toothpaste – right then his brain had been shut off to conserve energy), the whole of his allowance, and some comics. As he was about to exit, he noticed the magic eight ball sitting on his desk and shoved it into his backpack as well. Maybe he’d come up with some questions for it later.

He went out the apartment’s back entrance without looking back. Hurrying past the parking lot, he made his way to a trail that led to a nearby park. There were families out, but most were walking or jogging at a safe distance away from him to not notice the tears dotting his eyes. He rubbed them away with the back of his hands. This could all just be a mistake, maybe even some big joke. Brandon was a nice enough guy, but he could be an asshole when he wanted to be. Oh, and if it was, what a right hook Billy was going to give him!

But I’m not going to.

He knew that the way that he knew that he could never touch the moon no matter how far he stretched his arm. The way he knew that his father would sooner discuss the world ending then let Billy so much as say the word “grandfather.”

The causes ran through his mind. Car accident, cancer (just what that was beyond the big scary word adults used when discussing the end, Billy did not know), eating too fast and choking. There were too many possibilities, and right then none seemed as possible as Brandon simply stopping. Blinking and being no more. Being hit by lightning beneath a clear sky and vanishing in a stream of smoke.

If he walked a few blocks past the park, he’d reach Brandon’s house. Maybe Billy would find the answers there, or maybe even find Brandon himself. Would he look the way that bodies did in video games, all stiff and colorless, like mannequins left forgotten on the ground? Or would there be a whole pack of police cars around his house, their red and blue lights flashing?

Billy turned, heading down a different path. Trees rose overhead, temporarily shielding him from the sun. In the distance, he could hear children laughing, couples talking, and birds crying out. Bugs skittered beneath his feet. He clutched his backpack tighter, pushing the world and its sounds away until there was nothing but the path before him.

Wherever Brandon was (because he had to be somewhere, anywhere, even if Billy didn’t know where), had he seen Billy’s mother? He’d never enjoyed entertaining the idea, but anything could happen. How could be find a Marianne Batson if there was no longer one to find? The question screamed itself at him now. His mother had left the carnival and something could have happened to her too. One of those somethings that adults didn’t like to talk about. It could have happened to her, just as it had happened to Brandon, sudden and without consideration to Billy’s thoughts on the matter.

-

He was running down the stairs after his little sister, ready for breakfast. He’d been wearing slippers and hadn’t been using the handrail. As he was reaching for a step, his foot went a little too far out and he missed the next step and started toppling forward. At least that was what his other mother had told Billy. The rest was a crossword puzzle that Billy had to fill in for himself.

Had it hurt? Or had it been so sudden that Brandon hadn’t even been able to notice anything besides his face tumbling towards the floor?

-

The boy’s dead and now yours is too.

Even on their best days, the sins were never much help. Now, Thaddeus would have sooner had them rip off his toes one-by-one than say another word.

“Yes, William Sivana, ten years old, a fourth grader at Polk,” Thaddeus spoke into his cell phone. The man on the other end’s voice was clinical and detached, as if he spent eight hours every day listening to nothing but the same complaint. “I called home earlier after receiving word from his friend’s parent, but he never picked up. When I got back, he wasn’t home.”

His babysitter had actually been the one to call first. She had been screaming when he’d picked up, barely able to put one word in front of the other. The door had been unlocked when she’d arrived, and the house phone broken on the floor. William’s backpack was gone, as was the boy himself. By the time she hung up, Thaddeus had been out of his office as if the devil were at his heels.

The problem was that William could have been anywhere. A few blocks over or halfway across the city, in a neighborhood he’d never seen before in his life or at the bottom of a ditch.

He’d gotten the other call right as he was hurrying into his car. The area code was familiar but the number itself was not.

“Mr. Sivana, I apologize if you’re busy at work, but I figured if your son was going to know this then you might as well hear it too.” A nice of a hello as any. The woman on the other end of the line spilled the story, her voice cracking by the time she got to the end of it. “I just had to call him. It’s all so unreal, but I just had to let him know. I-I…”

“Have you seen him? His sitter called and said that he wasn’t home.”

“N-no. He didn’t even say goodbye when I called.”

“Did he say anything else to you after you told him?”

“No.”

Oh, what a champion Thaddeus was. Almost forty years of scratching symbols and no closer to discovering the power he’d almost grasped as a child. Oh, what he could have done if he’d had it then! If he’d just had it…

You’re racing home for nothing. He’s gone, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.

“Oh, could you all shut up for once?”

Thaddeus turned the radio up as he drove home, hitting the gas like his foot was tied down with cement blocks.

A policewoman was sent down soon after he called the police. She greeted him at the entrance to his apartment, a thin black woman looking to be in her early fifties. A small notebook was in her hands.

“I received word from dispatch that your son is missing.”

Thaddeus repeated everything he’d told 911. The more he said it, the less the words made sense. Individually the words had some definition but strung together he might as well have been reciting gibberish.

“Has something happened to him?” There was a desperate tone to his voice, a plea to the gods of the unknown to give light to the questions that ate away at his brain.

“So far I haven’t heard anything. I’ll call in to let the station know some more about it, and then go looking myself.”

Thaddeus straightened his back and bit down his tongue until he could open his mouth and speak straight again. “May I ride with you?”

-

William hadn’t said anything that night. His eyes looked down at his dinner, his fork moving mechanically through it, but the macaroni never reached his mouth.

They’d found him a few blocks away from the park near their apartment complex sitting between an alley. His face had been red and puffy, his clothes dirty. Some neighbor had called complaining about a youngster hanging near her house, sure that the kid was taking part in a gang initiation.

Thaddeus would have laughed at that in other circumstances. Now, though, he could only sip at his coffee and try to think of something to say. Something appropriate, at least. Right then, a million stupid answers fluttered through his brain but never reached his tongue.

Oh, Thaddeus could have apologized. But that would come in a few days during the funeral service. Why tell William that now when he could hear the same thing soon from countless strangers?

“You really scared me tonight.” He could have yelled. If he were more like his father, he would have. Thunder would have cracked with his every word. But just as the fear had melted from him when they’d found his son, so too had anger and just about everything else. Even relief was gone. With the sins quiet, there was barely anything left in him. “I thought you were-” He stopped himself before he could finish the rest.

“I,” Thaddeus continued when the boy met his eyes, “I can’t really blame you for what happened. If I found out something happened to you, if something did go wrong… Well, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Maybe he was just talking to himself while William sat in the same room with him. All the same, his shoulders felt a little lighter once the words were out.

“Thanks, Dad.” Billy ate one forkful of macaroni and threw the rest down the trash. He gave his father a quick, light hug, which Thaddeus returned much tighter. When he finally let go, William hurried down the hallway to his room, the door clicking shut behind him.

-

Funerals were a waste of time in Thaddeus’ opinion. They were nothing more than a way to shove grief into peoples’ faces. If William thought the same thing, he didn’t say it.

Following the burial, they skipped the reception. Thaddeus would have sooner eaten his own fingernail clippings than some well-meaning casserole. William was out of school for the day, and even if Thaddeus could find a sitter, right then he didn’t know what he’d do if he got to work.

“Why did Brandon have to die?”

Because someone with the great power to see everyone and everything in the world didn’t care enough to stop it. Because someone who would have prevented it, had he been able to, couldn’t.

“I don’t have an answer for you.” Thaddeus sighed. “If I did…”

Chapter Text

Of course the sins would think that this was a fantastic idea. They were at once both constant, steadfast companions and living migraines.

Give the boy what he desires.

That was easy for them to say, those backseat drivers in his life. As if they were the ones who had to sit and watch as their son spit all over their years of work and affection.

“Dad, I know you hate it when I bring this subject up. You probably wish that I’d never even think about it, and sometimes I do too. But I’m tired of pretending to not care about it, because it’s not working. You’re going to hate me for this, but…”

Thaddeus was no stranger to disappointments, but few were willing to try and sugarcoat what they said to him. All the same, he gripped the kitchen table like a life preserver. Oh, what a way to start out his Monday morning.

“Last night you asked me what I wanted for my birthday. It would have been so easy to lie to you, to just say money.” William gave a mechanical, almost practiced laugh. At this rate, by the end of the morning Thaddeus would need to call his G.P. to request a refill on his blood pressure prescription. “But all I’ve ever really wanted is to find out what happened to my mom.”

The color drained from Thaddeus’ face. He saw William but couldn’t quite keep his eyes on him. The edge of the kitchen table dug into his palm until it began to bleed.

Thaddeus Sivana may have been a different man than his father, but he was no doormat. “Your mother doesn’t even deserve the title.”

“I know this is hard to hear-”

“Hard to hear? I feel like I’ve been shot. I’ve spent more than half of your life raising you, doing more for you than that woman ever could! Do you really think she cares about you? That she ever cared about you?” He stood up. “If you care about someone and they go missing, you tear the world apart trying to find them!”

That was what he should have done then. Even standing right in front of him, his son suddenly seemed ten thousand miles away. There was a wall between them that he could not climb over or find a way around. A stranger was eating breakfast in his kitchen.

“Dad-”

“William, when you say that word, do you really mean it? If you even think of her as your mother, then what the hell am I?”

“That’s not what I’m trying to say!”

“Then what are you? Am I not enough? Did I fail somewhere along the line to make you want her? She threw you away like you were garbage!”

“We got lost! If I could just find her-”

“You’d what, walk out on me? Run headfirst into the arms of a woman who probably doesn’t even realize you’re alive?”

“Dad, I’ve heard all that before! You think the social workers didn’t say the same thing? But I know that if I found her, she’d be happy. I mean, it has to have been pretty hard for her. It’s not like she’s knows to look for a William Sivana!”

Thaddeus gritted his teeth. His heart was pounding in his ears. “Don’t you dare,” he said, his voice flat and low, “ever so much as speak of her aloud again. I care very deeply for you, William. I try not to breathe down your neck, and I want you to be your own person. But I mean it when I say that you are never to speak aloud about that bitch again! You are my son and no one else’s. Do you understand me?”

William glared at him. Maybe if puberty had hit, he would have looked threatening. But he was just a petulant little boy who couldn’t appreciate the world if someone were to hand it to him.

“Do. You. Understand. Me?”

William ran past him, racing to his room. Thaddeus ran after him, gripping the doorknob that refused to open.

“William!”

No sound came from the other side of the door.

If Thaddeus were his father, he would have ripped the door off of its hinges and-

Thaddeus stopped himself. Their earlier argument notwithstanding, he was not his father. His stomach tightened. Fighting was a rarity in their home. Growing up, as hard as it had been to watch his father’s face turn hard or feel his brother push him to the ground, at least it had been expected. This was another punch to the gut altogether. Just the night before everything had been fine. William had chattered on about the sets he was painting the next day for the school play and some new video game he’d started playing that weekend.

Thaddeus turned and headed for the living room. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he typed a quick email.

Something has come up, and I won’t be able to make it into work this morning. I’ll call into meetings through Skype as usual, but can’t guarantee if I’ll make it into the office.

Then he grabbed his laptop and pulled up some scanned files on the legends of Teth-Adam.

Were it not for the sins, it might have turned into a peaceful morning.

He has the right to know.

“He’s setting himself up for disappointment.”

Stop protecting him. Whether you like it or not, sooner or later he’ll find out the truth. All you can do is define your role in the matter.

“I believe I made that role quite clear earlier this morning.”

If he wants to hurt himself, you couldn’t stop him with all of the power in the world.

-

“Magic eight ball, will Dad ever let me find out what happened to my mom?” As if Billy needed his permission!

He shook it. Billy must have dropped it one too many times because it kept falling on the same answer: Outlook not so good.

Billy sighed, falling back against his bed. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but it hurt all the same. His dad was still his dad, but that didn’t mean he had the right to tell him to stop thinking about his mom. If his dad had his way, Billy would have forgotten about her and his old life altogether, something that time was making all too easy. How much longer until he couldn’t conjure up her face, when the carnival and everything before it was nothing but a hazy memory, if even that? Tears formed in the corners of his eyes, hot and salty, and he let them fall. There was no one around to see them.

Three short taps came on his door.

“Go away!”

“And here I thought you’d like the news I had for you.”

There was something in his father’s voice that made Billy sit up and hurry off of his bed. He unlocked the door, throwing it open with such force that he half expected to pull the knob off.

It was only when he and his father were standing face to face that he realized that he was still crying. Billy put his hands up to his eyes as if to shield himself. His father leaned down, holding him as the tears started anew and Billy’s whole body shook.

“Shh, it’s going to be okay.”

The tears came out faster. What did his father know?

“William, stop crying. I’d hate to tell you the news when you’re like this.”

Billy rubbed at his eyes with his sleeves. His father stepped away, then returned a few moments later with a box of tissues.

“What’s so important?” Billy’s voice shook when he spoke.

“I thought about what you said earlier. You’re right, it does hurt to do this.” His father stepped back, his eyes turning towards the floor. “But I’m not the first adoptive parent to have to do this, and I won’t be the last. I’m going to hire a private investigator to find your mother.”

-

It would have been easy to have his secretary look into the case, probably even a hell of a lot faster. But his life was his own business, and the last thing he needed was word of his home troubles getting around the office. Almost exactly two months after their fight, Thaddeus’ phone rang at eleven at night.

“Sorry to call you so late, but I’d rather tell you now, Mr. Sivana. I found her.”

Chapter Text

“The Franklin Institute looks interesting, but they have limited hours,” Thaddeus commented, his nose buried in a glossy brochure that he’d picked up by the hotel’s front desk. “We could stop there after lunch. Any idea yet where you want to eat?”

William didn’t respond. Thaddeus folded the brochure up and slipped it into his coat’s inside pocket. A wall could have offered him better conversation. Ever since Thaddeus had bought the plane tickets, William had talked about nothing else but the damned woman.

“I was so scared she’d died, Dad. I can’t explain why I thought she did, but until the detective called, I really thought she was.”

Oh, if only Thaddeus could have been so lucky!

“You said you wanted to get postcards for your friends at school, right?”

William was scribbling away in his notebook.

“William?”

He grunted, looking up. “Sorry, Dad, can you repeat that?”

Thaddeus gritted his teeth. He’d spent half the night tossing and turning, while the other half was spent staring at the ceiling, listening to the sins.

“We’re leaving in half an hour to get lunch at Moustaki’s before heading to the Franklin Institute. After that, we’re dropping by a shop to grab those postcards you wanted for your friends. Agreed?

“Mm-hmm.” William sat forward. “And then we’re seeing my mom?”

“I suppose.” By some miracle, Thaddeus didn’t choke to death on his tongue trying to get the words out.

-

If Thaddeus had learned one thing in his almost fifty years of life, then it was that the universe genuinely hated him. There were no accidents or construction detours when driving to the woman’s apartment building, nor any ambulances hurrying past or flashing police cars racing in their direction. Save for a few potholes, the ride was genuinely boring. The radio snapped between stations while William bounced in his seat. If he moved any faster, he’d jump out of his skin.

The day had passed too quickly. Neither had eaten much that afternoon. William had moved his food from one side of his plate to another, while Thaddeus had stared down at it indifferently. His stomach was still flipping hours later.

“Dad, I want you to know something.”

Thaddeus’ listened to the pounding of his heart in his ears. “Yes?”

“Even though I’m going to meet my mom, I’m not going to leave you or anything.”

Really? Thaddeus wondered. His smile was all teeth.

The apartment building looked to be at least thirty years old, if not more than that. The fire escape was rusted, the lines in the parking lot faded. Though it was still sunny out, faded light bulbs near the front door were on.

Thaddeus parked as close to the front as he could get. Most of the cars looked to be at least five years old. A few had beaten fronts and heavy scratches that stood in stark contrast next to their paint jobs.

He could have put the car in reverse and driven away at twenty miles over the speed limit. It would have been easy, maybe even fun. Welcome to Dr. Sivana’s guided tour of Philadelphia. If you want to enjoy it, be sure to strap in that seatbelt tightly!

Instead, he parked the car and slumped against the seat. So this was it. Months (hell, years) of worry all came to this.

“Are you coming in with me?” William asked. His seatbelt had been torn off before Thaddeus had even parked the car.

Thaddeus unbuckled his seat belt and unlocked the car. “Don’t even think of going in there alone, young man.”

-

The front door was unlocked. Billy had been sweating when he first reached for it. What if it was like their own apartment, where they needed a special card just to get inside the main hall? But though the door creaked when he opened it, it took little effort to push it open.

His father walked close behind him as they entered the front entrance. There was a front office door decorated with a large closed sign on one side of the hallway, a row of small metal mailboxes on the other. The elevator was straight ahead, and to its sides were rows of doors. His mother lived on the seventh floor in apartment number fourteen.

Billy pressed the elevator button. While it lit up, the glowing lights above its entrance remained on the fifth floor. Billy pressed his finger against it a few more times, each time with just a little more force.

“Stop!” His father took his arm. “The last thing we need is you breaking that thing.”

“Too old for the stairs?” Billy grinned.

His dad glared at him. Sometimes Billy wondered if he had been born frowning.

When the elevator doors opened, Billy had to move out of the way to let an elderly woman out. She eyed the two momentarily before hurrying away, her hand against the wall.

“Are you ready?” his father asked.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Other than a slight whirring as it moved upwards, the elevator ride was silent. His father wouldn’t meet his gaze when Billy looked at him. In his hoodie pocket, he clutched his small globe keychain. It had sat for years in a corner of his sock drawer. Some nights, when Billy couldn’t fall asleep, he’d pull it out and toss it from one hand to another. The compass would bob with the movement before finally stopping at north again.

When the elevator finally stopped, Billy rushed out the doors before they were fully open.

-

Stop.

Thaddeus might as well have walked into an invisible wall. His leg stood outstretched, but he could not pull it up. Was this how his father felt? A light sheen of sweat dotted the back of his neck.

You shall play no part in this.

Before, the sins had been nothing more than running commentators on his life. Now Thaddeus could practically feel them gripping his body like a vice. There was a heavy weight in his legs and around his chest. His back was rigid, his eyes locked on the boy slowly receding from his vision.

Retorts danced across his tongue but never left his mouth.

Thaddeus’ heart was racing.

Three knocks echoed down the hallway. Less than five seconds later, the door opened.

Thaddeus’ throat was desert dry. So this was it.

He couldn’t make out much of the woman who stepped outside besides her mess of chocolate brown hair and faded green T-shirt. “If you’re selling popcorn, we already got some from the boys outside Klein’s last week.”

William paused. Thaddeus couldn’t make out his expression, but he did see the boy fish around in his pocket.

“Mom, it’s me, Billy,” he said, holding out something. “I found my way back.”

For a moment, Thaddeus was a little boy again home sick from school, surfing through bad soap operas because they didn’t play cartoons on the weekdays. Thaddeus had a tunnel vision so deep that he could barely force himself to breathe.

“Oh my god.” The door slammed shut with a bang that made a gunshot sound like a whisper.

The weight was still there, on his legs and tongue. William turned to face him, his eyes wide.

Just as quickly as it had closed, the door opened again. “I-I’m sorry. That was rude of me. I just didn’t expect this.”

“I wanted to call you, but I didn’t know your number.”

“Heh.” She was mostly hidden by the door. “Look, I have to get ready for work. I don’t know how the hell you found this address, but it would have done you good to maybe get my schedule too.” She moved to close the door, but William stepped closer.

“Mom, I’m so happy to see you! I know it was my fault for getting lost at the carnival, and I’m really sorry about that. But I looked super hard for you after, and even got help when that didn’t work. This is so-”

“I have to get ready for work.” Merilyn's voice was hollow. Yes, she was called Merilyn. The name had suddenly escaped him, but now the word echoed through Thaddeus' skull. “Look, I know you’re a kid and you probably don’t understand this kind of stuff-”

Then came a man’s voice. Thaddeus could not make out what he was saying, but the sound made his stomach fall all the same.

“It’s just some kid selling candy bars for his school, Travis!”

William’s shoulders slumped. “Aren’t you happy to see me?”

“No.”

Right then, the earth could have opened up and swallowed the two Sivanas whole, and neither would have complained.

“Look, that came out wrong, okay? I don’t know where you came from or why you’re here-”

“I’m here to see you!” Suddenly William was that scared little five-year old boy who refused to look Thaddeus in the eyes. “I’m sorry I got lost! I didn’t mean to! But I’m here now and we can be together again!”

So much for staying with me!

“Billy, you look like a good kid. Whoever has been looking after you obviously knows what they’re doing. Believe me, I really am glad about that. But…” She stepped out, forcing William to step back with her. One hand tightly clutched the doorknob. “But there’s no place for me in your life, and there never has been.”

“Aren’t you happy to see me?”

“Of course not. Billy, I don’t know if you remember going to the police at the carnival, but I do. I saw you with them. They looked like the sort of guys who could take care of you.” She released an empty laugh. “Hell, just about anyone could have done better than I could. I didn’t even want you. But I was seventeen, and my dad wouldn’t let me get an abortion, but he wouldn’t let me raise my kid under his roof either. Your dad and I had just divorced two years prior, and I was working three jobs. You think I had time to do that and be a mom too?”

“M-mom…”

“I’m going to close the door and get ready for work. When I open it again, you better not be waiting for me.” She sighed. “Go home, Billy. Please.”

-

Billy could have set a world record with how fast he ran to the elevator. He just about ran into his father. All Billy could do was look at his shoes as he pressed the down button again and again.

When they got back to the car, the dam around his eyes broke. This was it, huh? His big moment, the one he’d been dreaming of every single night for as long as he could remember.

His father put his hand on his knee. “William, it’s going to be okay.”

“No it’s not!” he yelled. “You know it’s not!”

He could have yelled more, but the tears fell too quickly for him to focus on anything else. As a kid, his father had read him Alice in Wonderland before bed. Hadn’t she cried so much that she’d almost drowned in her own tears?

-

He needed this.

Thaddeus bit his tongue needlessly. The sins had a point. They’d been right a lot lately, after all. Maybe they always had been.

Chapter Text

“You know, whenever we go to these kinds of places, I always get plain vanilla with nothing else on it. I’m pretty boring, aren’t I?”

William didn’t so much as grace him with a huff. His eyes were glassy, and though his gaze was locked on the radiator, Thaddeus doubted he could see it.

“What kind do you want? I read some really good reviews online about this place. You ever tried Superman flavored ice cream?”

They’d driven halfway across the city. The tears had stopped, but not for William’s lack of trying. With the way things had gone down, maybe he now hated the city with all his heart too. Even born of different seeds, they still seemed to fall from the same tree.

Thaddeus parked the car. A smiling, glowing neon ice cream cone stared at him. Its stick arms were thrown up in joy. Next to it sat a flashing open sign that was almost as bright.

“Maybe I’ll just tell them to surprise me.” He pulled his phone out from his pocket. “Here, I’ll pull up the menu.” His hands shook as he pulled up the Safari app.

“I’m not hungry.” William’s voice was soft but clear.

“That’s a relief. Truthfully, I wasn’t feeling up to this either. But there’s always tomorrow.”

William leaned his head against the window. When Thaddeus looked into his eyes, all he saw was his face reflected back at him.

He sank further into his seat. “While I never knew the exact details, what your social worker helped me to piece together made me never want to come here.”

“You can say you told me so.”

“William…” He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Beneath him, William lay limp as a ragdoll. “This wasn’t your fault. It was stupid of me to think I could stop you from finding out about this.”

Oh, but if he only could have.

“I’m sorry I made you come here, Dad.”

How many times had he said something along the same lines? “Dad, I’m so sorry you’re in a wheelchair because of me. Sorry I couldn’t have been a better son.” Sorry this, sorry that, and what had it ever gotten him other than a slap so hard that his ears rang?

“Don’t think you’re free of me yet. I spent good money on those plane tickets. If I must drag you to the Love statue and the zoo, I’ll damn well do it.” That didn’t even get a grin. “There are some wonderful museums around here too. We went to some of them when you were a kid. About how well do you remember them?”

William shrugged.

“Oh, come on! I took the whole week off to come and do this. Don’t tell me you’re going to force me back into the office.” The smile was so quick that if Thaddeus had blinked, he wouldn’t have caught it. “There has to be something here you want to do.”

“I might have some ideas.”

“Like what?”

“Well…”

-

“Dad, if I fell into the tiger pit, would you jump in to try and save me?”

“Should I be nervous since you’re asking that question?”

Billy - William - laughed. “Just wanted to check.” He stepped forward, eyeing the sleeping tiger’s chest as it rose and fell. This was a new addition, though they’d seen the one from when he was younger earlier that day. According to a nearby sign, it had been saved from poaching when it was just a cub and brought here to recover.

“Can we get something to eat after this? I’m hungry.”

“As long as it’s not on the endangered species list, everything here is fair game.”

William rolled his eyes. “I was hoping we could get popcorn and go to one of the dolphin shows.”

“Sounds fine to me.” His dad wrapped his arm around his shoulders.

-

Thaddeus had to force his ice cream down. Superman ice cream was certainly something.

“Can I try some?” William asked. He was already halfway through his chocolate explosion.

Thaddeus pushed his bowl forward with his index finger and thumb. “Take as much as you’d like.”

It had been four days since they’d arrived in Philadelphia, and just then it almost felt like home again. Suddenly it didn’t matter that his father’s name graced one of the city’s largest employers. Nor could Thaddeus bring himself to think of what had happened the first night that they arrived. The sins were right – William had needed to face that, himself too.

This? Well, he could have lived without that aftertaste.

“Are you sad to be heading back home tomorrow?”

“Not really. It’s kind of cold here.”

Thaddeus chuckled. “The weather here has a mind of its own sometimes.” He pulled out his phone and absently flicked through pictures he’d taken over the last few days. “Hopefully this made for a halfway memorable spring break. It was either this or Florida.”

William’s eyes widened. “Can we go to the NASA station next year?”

“Sounds like a great idea to me!”

-

Thaddeus came back to a pile of mail and ten patient interviews to watch. He absently eyed a stack of envelopes as his messaging machine played back a week of missed calls. He was about to delete a sales call when the phone rang, causing the machine to vibrate.

He picked it up without checking the number, his eyes absently wondering his office. Little had changed since he left.

“Thad?”

His lungs suddenly emptied of all air.

“Thad, is that you? I’m hoping this is the correct number. I was just calling to say that I found out you were in Philly a few days ago. I couldn’t really believe it. You know, it would have been nice if you’d called.”

Thaddeus pushed the phone back into its holder and hurried out of his office.

Chapter Text

William waved the bread and can of beans at him, before placing them in the cart. "What's next?"

Thaddeus crossed off another two lines from his grocery list, then slipped the notebook and pen back into his pocket. "I need to grab some stuff from the frozen section. Do you need anything else?"

Need wasn't the right word. William could live his whole life without ever eating another pint of s'mores ice cream, but something told him it'd end up in the cart before they left.

He shrugged. "If I see something, I'll grab it."

The cereal aisle was on his left and pet foods on his right when Thaddeus pulled the cart back with a screech. A little girl, no more than six, stumbled forward, then quickly picked up her pace.

"Brianna, I told you to stay close to me!" A tired looking woman with thin blonde hair hurried forward. "My apologies," she said, pushing her own cart hurriedly ahead of him.

Thaddeus made a mental note to call his local Target later to ask that they start opening at six-thirty every morning. Though with his luck, he'd arrive to find a crowd of other eager early morning shoppers.

"Dad, if you had hit that kid, would you have gone to jail for manslaughter?"

"I probably would if I were stuck with you as my character witness."

Thaddeus parked his cart outside of the freezer section, then slipped past another cart and a tired-eye couple to grab some frozen peas. Just as he was about to close the door, he grabbed a bag of mixed vegetables as well. It wouldn't save William from rotting his teeth, but at least he could sleep easy knowing he'd eaten halfway healthy that evening.

Back at the cart, Thaddeus raised an eyebrow. "What's a cookie dough typhoon?" He picked up the ice cream carton and quickly scanned the ingredients label. No traces of peanuts or tree nuts. With that out of the way, Thaddeus placed it back down.

"What? It looked good."

"I don't understand how you don't make yourself sick from all of this junk."

"It's a secret I'll carry to my grave."

Thaddeus rolled his eyes. "Anything else you need?"

William's eyes widened. "Can we go look at video games, please?"

"Not unless you want this," he said, pointing back down to the ice cream, "to melt. Though I could always put it away."

William stuck his tongue out. "Fine."

Thaddeus handed it to him. "Go put this back. And remember to thank me forty years from now when your doctor isn't complaining about your blood sugar levels."

"Whatever."

As Billy hurried off, Thaddeus grabbed some more peas.

Chapter Text

Billy_Da_Kid has logged on.

Billy_Da_Kid: My dad about shit himself when I asked him to come to the football game.

Batmanatee: LMAO, “almost”

Billy_Da_Kid: Dude straight up forgot I was in the marching band. So I kind of, sort of mentioned it a million times to him again this morning.

Batmanatee: Think he got the point?

Billy_Da_Kid: Let’s hope.

Batmanatee: So how was it?

Billy_Da_Kid: Nothing special. We had cheese omelets with like lil broccoli pieces mixed in bc my dad is a health nut.

Batmanatee: nO the game!

Billy_Da_Kid: Oh duh

Billy_Da_Kid is typing…

Billy_Da_Kid: IDAK we played our number and then got the fuck out.

Batmanatee: I can’t blame you.

Billy_Da_Kid: Well, except Skylar. Her older brother is the quarterback, so she was stuck there. R.I.P.

Batmanatee: We remember and honor her sacrifice.

Batmanatee is typing…

Batmanatee: So what’d you do then???

Billy_Da_Kid: We all went and got pizza. Then ice cream. And then we had a mass orgy. Maybe not in that exact order.

Batmanatee: Haha you wish you did

Billy_Da_Kid: *middle_finger.png*

Batmanatee: I am speaking the truth and you know it!

Billy_Da_Kid: So that was my Friday night. What’d you do?

Batmanatee: I got dragged to Build a Bear at the mall after school let out yesterday. We spent like an hour in there and in the end she didn’t even get anything! Said the unicorns weren’t soft enough for her.

Billy_Da_Kid: Yikes!

Batmanatee: After that I just came home and played video games.

Billy_Da_Kid: Nice!

Batmanatee: Got my ass handed to me by Eugene, though. Never inviting him to play w/me again.

Billy_Da_Kid: Wish I could have been there to see it.

Batmanatee: I’ll have you know that it was a very close game.

Billy_Da_Kid: Like I believe that.

Batmanatee: *20_middle_fingers.gif*

Billy_Da_Kid: Owwww

Batmanatee: So did you ever see that movie I linked you to last week?

Billy_Da_Kid: I never finished it. It didn’t seem like your thing at all???

Batmanatee: That’s the point! That footage was totally doctored. All those “experts” they called up? I bet they’d say Superman was real if I threw enough money at them.

Billy_Da_Kid: Okay, but how is Superman not real?

Batmanatee: If you watched long enough, you’d know that the directors think superheroes are just a government plot to hide like… Bad shit. IDRK what that actually is supposed to be though.

Billy_Da_Kid: Wasn’t one guy saying Superman couldn’t be an alien because he didn’t look like one?

Batmanatee: That part was so fucking funny. You know if Superman had green scales or like 2 heads then he’d just be a guy in a costume to them.

Batmantee is typing…

Batmanatee: I’m actually thinking of making an episode about it.

Billy_Da_Kid: That’d be really funny.

Batmanatee: You should totally be a guest on it.

Billy_Da_Kid: WTF no!!! I’ve told you this a million times.

Batmanatee: I’m serious! I think viewers would really like to hear from you.

Billy_Da_Kid: Dude, last time I checked, I’m the ONLY one who listens to you!

Batmanatee: Fuck you, I’ve got like 7 other people.

Billy_Da_Kid: Your like 500 siblings don’t count!

Batmanatee: Fuck you, man.

Billy_Da_Kid: Look, I really do think it’d be fun. But, like, what if 10 years down the line someone recognizes me from it? It’d be weird and also probably bad.

Batmanatee: C’mon pLEASE

Billy_Da_Kid: No.

Batmanatee: PLEASE

Billy_Da_Kid: Still no.

Batmanatee: You’ve got experience.

Billy_Da_Kid: Reading the announcements at school doesn’t count!

Batmanatee: They do and you know it.

Billy_Da_Kid: What if my dad heard it???

Billy_Da_Kid is typing…

Billy_Da_Kid: Like, somehow

Batmanatee: Dude, your dad listens to my podcast?

Billy_Da_Kid: Of course not. Like he’d care.

Batmanatee: You never know.

Billy_Da_Kid: No, I know.

Batmanatee: If you could have superpowers, what’d they be? Invisibility or flight?

Billy_Da_Kid: Teleportation

Batmanatee: That wasn’t a choice.

Billy_Da_Kid: Yeah, but it’d be better than both. If I could teleport, I wouldn’t need a car. Plus I wouldn’t need to ride on planes or boats or anything either. Just think of somewhere and go there.

Batmanatee: Wouldn’t there be like limitations on it, though? Like you’d need to go there first? And what if someone saw you?

Billy_Da_Kid: You’re making this way too complicated.

Batmanatee: I get what you’re saying though.

Billy_Da_Kid: What’d you have?

Batmanatee: Flying would be cool, but I’d want super strength too.

Billy_Da_Kid: Would you have a costume and name?

Batmanatee: Of course! I’d have to go all in.

Billy_Da_Kid: Seems like too much trouble to me.

Batmanatee: Just wait until the feds break down your door bc they know you have superpowers.

Billy_Da_Kid: I wouldn’t wear a stupid costume, but definitely at least a ski mask.

Batmanatee: Honestly, that sounds awful.

Billy_Da_Kid: Who do you think you are, my manager?

Batmanatee: Look, if you ever get superpowers, let me know. I can work this all out for you.

Billy_Da_Kid: That’s what I’m afraid of.

Billy_Da_Kid is typing…

Billy_Da_Kid: I really should be getting back to this stupid paper I have due in two days. Message you later.

Batmanatee: Yeah, I probably should get to sleep soon. Probably. Maybe.

Billy_Da_Kid: Later

Batmanatee: See ya!

Billy_Da_Kid has logged out.

Chapter Text

Thaddeus got in just as the auditorium lights were being dimmed. He hurried to the third row of central seating, where seats were largely free and the view of the stage was unrivaled.

“Do not hit the button unless you are absolutely sure that you have the correct answer. Hitting before the question is finished being read means that you still must answer. Should you hit it, and we later read off the complete question, your team will be unable to answer unless the other team gets the answer wrong.”

Thaddeus searched the stage until his eyes landed on William. He was sitting at the far end of a table, his hands held close to a dull metal box. The matching polos and chinos that the trivia team was wearing did little to hide the fact of how young he looked. Having skipped a grade notwithstanding, at least three of the people on the team looked to be at least juniors. As the announcer spoke, the team was looking between each other, as if telepathically exchanging advice and commands.

“Now, parents, it may not be written in the official rule book, but we have some guidelines for you as well. No clapping until the end of the round, not even if your kid gets an answer right. The last thing we need is someone interrupting the audio in here.” The announcer turned back towards the group of students and nodded, before again meeting the audience with a wide smile. “With that said, let’s get started!”

The first question was on Norse mythology, and the opposing teams couldn’t hit the buzzers fast enough.

“Forseti?” a girl on William’s team asked. Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of thick glasses.

“Correct!” The announcer pointed towards a group of students sitting in the front row. “One for Franklin!”

William and his teammates began exchanging high fives.

The next few questions might as well have been pulled at random from a hat. One minute they were discussing dog breeds, the next calculus and geography. William got his chance to answer two questions, both of which were correct. But while they’d been beaten to the buzzer at the first question, Palisades could be quick when they needed to be.

“Bendich Ahen!”

“Another point for Palisades!”

The round ended with William’s team ahead only by two points, which was lucky considering they’d gotten four questions wrong. The teams stood up and reshuffled, with two new players coming out. William hurried off the stage, heading first towards the very front seats before Thaddeus waved him over.

“Nice work,” Thaddeus said, patting his shoulder as he sat down. “Guess you really were awake during breakfast.”

Ever since William had announced his intention to join the team, he’d started lugging around huge packets of questions with him everywhere. Thaddeus had spent parts of breakfast, as well as a small chunk of each of his evenings, going over them. He’d even considered memorizing a few and texting them to William at random during the day, but had stopped himself when he had remembered the accursed Google.

The second round was slower than the first, if only because there were more math problems to solve. William had taken out a notebook and calculator from his backpack and was busily trying to solve them himself.

“Thirty-seven percent.”

“Correct!”

“Shit!” William muttered. Palisades was ahead by five points, and they were just past the halfway point.

“Young man!” Thaddeus hissed.

While Franklin was quicker getting to the buzzer during the last part of the round, Palisades still dominated. With their combined totals from this and the last round, they were ahead by nearly fifteen points.

William returned to the game in the third and final round. Just before it started, the auditorium was filled with the cries of parents, who seemed desperate to yell louder than the other adults around them, as if that’d change the course of the game. Thaddeus merely locked eyes with his son and shot him a thumbs up. All he got in return was a shaky smile.

The next round was full of French verbs, World War I generals, and geometric theorems. A mispronunciation was enough to get the question handed to the other team. Perhaps he was a bit too far out to be actually sure, but some of the kids actually looked like they were sweating. The teams were tied at the halfway point.

“Before it dissolved in 1993, the capital of Czechoslovakia was this central European city.”

William hit the buzzer with such force that it could have broken. A light flashed red and a screeching buzz filled the auditorium.

“Prague!”

There were five more questions after that. While both sides missed a few questions, there were enough points to edge Franklin into victory. They won by a grand total of four extra points. Perhaps their reactions following the final count announcement was undignified, but Thaddeus couldn’t help but grin when the team threw their slips of paper into the air and cheered. Certificates were passed out, and teammates hugged.

“Dad, Dad, Dad!” William pulled him into a tight hug. “Dad, coach says we really might have a shot at state this year!”

“I believe that!” That could only mean he’d be shooting even more rapid-fire questions at him every day. Back when he was in high school, he had been lucky to get his father’s permission to join the chess team. How William managed to balance this and the swim team, as well as marching band in the fall, while keeping a 3.8 GPA still amazed him. “Though I was a bit surprised that both teams missed that question on the capital of Markovia.”

He shrugged. “I remember that one. I was still trying to calculate the answer from the previous question.”

This time Thaddeus was the one to pull William into a hug. “I’m quite proud of you.”

“You mean that?”

Thaddeus ruffled his hair. “Of course.”

-

His hand ached so badly that Thaddeus was surprised he could even pull the doorknob open. He’d meant to go to sleep some hours before, but flashes of inspiration and insight rarely took into consideration his need for eight hours of sleep at night. The electric clock on the microwave read 4:07.

Find us find us find us find-

“You’d think after countless millennia of being trapped with that damn wizard, you’d know the correct order of symbols to get inside his fortress.”

Oh, what a great help those sins were! Still, them aside, he’d gotten some great work done. Hours of drawing had led to him being able to draw the various symbols alleged to have been engraved on the Ring of Solomon from memory. He’d taken to varying what he drew. Just as different (if often un-simplified) equations, if used correctly, could calculate the same answer, so too could different symbols potentially lead to him opening the Wizard’s door. If he could just get the correct order…

With each passing day, his back grows more stooped. Soon he will no longer be able to contain us.

“Delightful. Drop me a call when you get out.” Then, for good measure, Thaddeus continued. “Find me, find me, find me, find me!”

“Dad?”

Thaddeus about dropped his empty coffee mug. “William, what are you doing up?”

He yawned. “I woke up about fifteen minutes ago and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I came down to get some water.” He paused. “Are you okay?”

Thaddeus bit his lip. What was he supposed to say? “Just talking to myself,” he explained, turning back towards the coffee maker. “I’ve been so packed with projects lately that I can’t bring myself to leave work at the office.”

“Okay.” There was something in his son’s voice that made Thaddeus tighten his grip on his coffee mug. “You sure you’ll be able to go back to sleep drinking that?”

He had to force back a smile. “Some of us need more than warm milk to survive.”

“Whatever you say.” William puttered around the kitchen for a few more minutes, then returned to his room.

-

Batmanatee has logged in.

Batmanatee: It’s not even fucking Halloween and they’re already playing Christmas songs on the radio!!!!

Billy_Da_Kid: Well happy early holidays to you too!

Batmanatee: Fuck you, you aren’t stuck listening to your little sister sing Jingle Bells while she sews her Halloween costume!

Billy_Da_Kid: *shrug.jpg*

Billy_Da_Kid is typing…

Billy_Da_Kid: IDK man, my dad and I don’t celebrate Christmas.

Batmanatee: Wait, you’re Jewish???

Billy_Da_Kid: No, my dad just hates it. Says it’s like commercialized tripe or whatever.

Batmanatee: Oh, I get that. Wait, so do you not celebrate Halloween either???

Billy_Da_Kid: My dad has always been fine with that. He never really has to do anything for it besides buy candy. Though one year he legit passed out raisins.

Batmanatee: FUCK!!!

Billy_Da_Kid: I know. I wanted to like do the equivalent of divorcing your parents to him when he did that.

Batmanatee: So you’re still up for Skyping on the 31?

Billy_Da_Kid: Wouldn’t miss it. Besides, my school’s Halloween party for some local kids is the Friday before.

Batmanatee: Nice! You said you were helping to run the haunted house, right?

Billy_Da_Kid: Yeah, “haunted”. There’ll be a lot of 5 year olds there, so we aren’t wearing anything scarier than a cereal mascot’s mask.

Batmanatee: IDK, those 500 million calories ARE pretty scary.

Billy_Da_Kid: :P

Batmanatee: So did you catch the episode I uploaded yesterday?

Billy_Da_Kid: Sorry, I’ve been busy with stuff. What’s it about???

Batmanatee: I interviewed some guy who met Wonder Woman!!!!

Billy_Da_Kid: Dude!

Batmanatee I know! It was the coolest. Man, I was so jealous. God I wish that were me!!!

Billy_Da_Kid: Okay, but if you met her what would you even say to her???

Batmanatee: Beats me.

Billy_Da_Kid: Also, can’t she like flick her finger and break your leg in 3 different places?

Batmanatee: Okay, yeah.

Batmanatee is typing…

Batmanatee: But that’s like -really- not a thing I’m worried about her doing.

Billy_Da_Kid: IDK man, I’ve known you long enough to know she might have a few good reasons to do it.

Batmanatee: You’re a really nice guy, you know that?

Billy_Da_Kid: Guilty as charged.

Batmanatee: Ah shit, my dad’s calling me for dinner. Talk to you later tonight?

Billy_Da_Kid: Yeah. I should get back to homework.

Batmanatee: Yeah right

Batmanatee has logged off.

-

Freddy had freaked when Billy had messaged him about nationals.

Batmanatee: What do you mean they’re in Philly??? I’M from Philly!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We have GOT to meet up IRL.

Billy_Da_Kid: Okay, but why should I trust you? For all I know, you’re an axe-murderer.

Batmanatee: Dude, you’ve seen me over Skype. Do I LOOK like a serial killer?

Billy_Da_Kid: The whole point of being a serial killer is to not look like a serial killer.

Batmanatee: I’m serious. Dude, I’d love to actually meet you!!

Billy_Da_Kid: I would too. But like, my team still has to fundraise and stuff. Maybe we won’t get enough money.

Okay, so that had been a lie. But bake sales and car washes were easy compared to talking to his dad. Their family vacation a few years back aside, his father rarely mentioned his home city. Really he didn’t mention his family at all. Save for some vague memories of a Christmas almost a decade ago, when his dad had still bothered to acknowledge the holiday, Billy had never met his extended family. He’d Googled them once, almost considered trying to email his uncle, but had stopped himself. Something about it had seemed wrong, though he hadn’t been able to place his finger on just why. If his dad didn’t want to talk about it, that was his own business. Who was Billy to tell him he was wrong?

Still, they were all going to be flying to Philadelphia. There was always a chance his father could put his foot down. Already, Gabby Almanzar’s parents had said she couldn’t go because there was a family event going on that same week.

Billy chewed on his fingernail. His dad had just left his study, locking the door firmly behind him, and headed for the bathroom. Knowing the time, he was going to start dinner soon. When he’d gotten home, Billy had already done his share and tossed a salad. His phone sat forgotten on the couch, a paused PS4 game on the TV.

Just how was he supposed to word this?

Oh, hey Dad, we found out today that after that little mix up at the last game, we really do qualify for nationals. And it’s in Philadelphia! You love Philly, right? It’s not like you have to go, though. There are enough parent supervisors signed up already. But I’d really love to go with the team! Please?

Okay, he’d probably have to add a million more pleases.

His dad exited the bathroom and headed for the kitchen, passing Billy as he walked.

“Hey, Dad!” Billy got up and followed up after him.

“Yes, William?” He opened the fridge and began digging through it.

“Turns out that the trivia team actually qualifies for nationals!”

“That’s great! You’re competing for scholarships, aren’t you?”

“Yeah! That’s the great part. And we’re all really excited to fly out for it.”

Just say it!

“Yeah, last year nationals were in Washington, DC. The year before that it was in Boston. I’m kind of hoping they ask us questions on that!”

His father pulled some chicken breasts out of the fridge. “And?”

“And this year it’s in Philadelphia.”

“Sounds exciting.” He didn’t look away from the cabinets he was sorting through.

“So I can go?”

“Of course. Now what dates will it be on?”

Billy quickly filled him in. Then, he hurried out to the bathroom himself, grabbing his phone as he went.

Billy_Da_Kid: My dad said I can go!!!!

Batmanatee: Yes yes YES YESSSSSSSSSSSSS

-

Billy_Da_Kid has logged on.

Billy_Da_Kid: Look, I just went past security. Soon we’ll all be on the plane and flying over, so I can’t talk much.

Batmanatee: I wouldn’t message you if it wasn’t important.

Billy_Da_Kid: You expect me to believe that?

Batmanatee: I’m serious. Look, there are some things you need to know about me before you actually meet me.

Batmanatee is typing…

Batmanatee: You never see them when I’m Skyping you, but I need crutches to walk around. I have cerebral palsy. It’s like, not a big deal or anything, but I guess I just never wanted to bring it up. Guess I didn’t really have a reason to. You should know. And, uh, I hope you’re not mad at me for not mentioning it.

Billy_Da_Kid: Why would I be mad? I can’t judge anyway, my grandpa’s in a wheelchair.

Batmanatee: Dude, everyone’s grandpa is in a wheelchair!

Billy_Da_Kid: Okay, but my grandpa has been in a wheelchair forever. He’s like old enough to have polio or something.

Batmanatee: LMAO

Billy_Da_Kid: So don’t worry about that.

Batmanatee: There’s something else you should know. My family doesn’t actually look like my family.

Billy_Da_Kid: ????

Batmanatee: I’m a foster kid, and so are all my siblings. We’re not related at all. But like, they still ARE my family.

Billy_Da_Kid: Again fine. And also I still can’t judge.

Batmanatee: Huh?

Billy_Da_Kid: I never had a reason to mention this, but I used to be a foster kid too. My dad adopted me.

Batmanatee: Nice!

Billy_Da_Kid: Yeah. So, uh, do you like have any more deep shit to spill before I get on the plane?

Batmanatee: Nah. But thanks. I was really worried about discussing this.

Billy_Da_Kid: No problem. Anyway, they just called us. GTG

Billy_Da_Kid has logged off.

-

“Billy da kid, in the flesh!” For a guy on crutches, Freddy could move fast. The only person faster than him was a girl who looked to be no older than seven. She pulled Billy into such a tight hug that he couldn’t breathe.

“Hey,” he choked out as Freddy joined the hug. Soon, a boy no older than ten joined in as well. To the sides stood a guy he couldn’t quite place the age of, as well as an older looking girl who could have passed for one of the trivia team’s contestants.

“So this is the guy you’re always talking about?” she asked.

“Yes, Mary! Billy’s great.” Freddy pulled out of the hug, dragging the little girl with him. Billy took in a deep, much needed breath. “We’ve been talking for like two years now.”

“I thought it was three.”

“What does it matter? You’re here now!”

“I told you talking to strangers on the internet was dangerous.”

Freddy poked the side of Billy’s leg with one of his crutches. “Does he look dangerous to you?”

Mary rolled her eyes.

The little girl stood on her tiptoes and stuck her hand in Billy’s face. “Hi, I’m Darla!”

“William, er, Billy,” he replied, taking her hand and shaking it.

“I’m Eugene!” the little boy said. He pointed towards the other guy. “That’s Pedro.”

Pedro momentarily locked eyes with Billy but said nothing.

“So welcome to Philly! What do you think so far?”

Billy bit into a muffin. “I haven’t been out of the hotel since the team and I arrived last night, but it’s cool.” Truth be told, he couldn’t imagine leaving the hotel. This was Philly, after all. Her city. As a kid, he’d searched countless crowds for his mother, certain that he would one day find her among the crowds of people. Now that she knew he was still alive, now that it really was a possibility… Billy took a long sip of orange juice to force the muffin down.

He gestured towards a nearby table. “C’mon, let’s sit down.” Hotel breakfasts weren’t fantastic, but right then he was hungry enough to tolerate it. “I’ve actually been here a couple times before. My dad has family here.”

“Nice! You visiting your grandpa while you’re here?” Freddy asked.

A lump rose in Billy’s throat. “No, uh, he’s…” Busy? No. Freddy had dropped some truth bombs to him before he arrived, so he might as well return the favor. “Truth is, I haven’t seen him in years. My dad and his family don’t really get along, and almost never talk.”

“Ah, that’s sad!” Darla bounced in her seat. “Hey, can I get something from up there?”

“Darla!” Mary cried.

“Hey, it’s fine.” Billy winked. “After all, we are all guests here, right?”

“Right.” Freddy got up, a few of his siblings following behind him.

“So, Billy, what brings you here?” Mary asked.

“The student trivia national tournament,” he replied. “I’ve been studying like mad for it.”

Her eyes lit up. “Hey, I used to be on that. We lost at regionals this year. You’re lucky.”

He smirked. “Due to some rule book junk, we almost didn’t make it ourselves.”

“You nervous? We almost made it to nationals last year too, but lost during state.”

“I can’t stop thinking about it. The first game is tonight.”

“I’ll cross my fingers for you. Where’s it being held?”

He filled her in on the address and time.

“We’ll be there.”

“Ah, you don’t have to do that.”

“We don’t have to do what?” Freddy and the gang were back with plates full of food in tow.

“You guys! We just had pancakes this morning.”

“Yeah, but that was earlier. We got hungry again.” Freddy shot Mary a grin. “So what’s happening?”

“I was just telling Billy how we’re going to his trivia match tonight.”

“Dude, that’ll be so fun. Let’s bring Victor and Rosa!”

“Yeah!” Darla agreed.

Billy’s face flushed. “Look, I really appreciate it, but you guys don’t have to come.”

“Oh no,” Mary responded, leaning across the table. “While you’re here, you’re stuck with us.”

“Yeah!” Freddy agreed.

“Well,” Billy said, grabbing his backpack from the floor and digging through it, “if you’re going to be here, you might as well make yourselves useful.” He handed Mary a giant packet of paper. Freddy pulled it from her hands and began to flip through it.

“So, uh,” he said, scratching at his chin. “Billy, what’s the national GDP of Kahndaq as of 2016?”

-

“Man, this sucks,” Billy said over the phone. “I mean, the ice cream we got afterwards was great. But this still sucks.”

“Yeah, that was not fun to watch. Darla started crying when the final scores were called.” Muffled voices spoke in the background. “Mary says you can’t always win, but that you really should have.”

“I know.” Billy looked out at the city across his hotel balcony. “The coach has already gotten us early flights back home. We’re checking out at seven in the morning.”

“Yuck.”

“I’m not excited for it.” He paused. “You know, I still haven’t called my dad about this.”

“Is he going to be mad?”

“Oh no, not at all. But he was really excited about us going.”

“There’s always next year.”

“Yeah, we have to rank back into nationals for that again.”

“Hey, I believe in you!”

“Heh, thanks. Cross your fingers that it’ll be held in Philly again, then. You know, I really appreciated your family coming. They’re great.”

“They have to be with a guy like me around.”

Billy rolled his eyes. “It was great meeting you too. It’s a shame we didn’t really have a chance to do much besides practice for the competition though. Too bad it didn’t get us anywhere.”

“Man, you were a winner to me.” Freddy paused, the muffled voices behind him continuing to speak, though Billy couldn’t make out what they were saying. “Look, I’ve got to get off, but I’m so glad I met you. I really hope I get to see you again sometime in person.”

“Me too, but I can’t make any promises. Thanks again, Freddy.”

“No problem.”

-

Thaddeus was about to put away his phone and be done with all of this nonsense, but he typed out the number once again. Or, rather, they typed it out. These days the sins were doing quite a bit. Right then, his arms were at once weighed down with lead but light enough for him to pull his phone to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Oh, Sid, I thought that you would never pick up.” The voice that spoke was Thaddeus’ own, but for once he himself did not recognize it.

There was a long pause. “Thad, is that you?”

“Of course. I was just calling to say that I got your invitation in the mail.”

“Oh, yeah? A-Are you coming?”

“That’s just what I was calling about. William and I will be over for Christmas.”

“That’s great! Dad has been wanting to see the kid.” He paused. “Look, don’t be mad at me for saying this. I only sent that card to be polite. I didn’t think you were going to accept it. Is… Is there a reason why you’re coming?”

“To celebrate Christmas,” Thaddeus responded. “Why else?”

“The party’s going to be big this year, so be prepared for that. Dad’s going to be having a ton of investors and just about the entire board there, not to mention who knows how many other people. He actually wrote most of the invitations.”

“But not mine?”

“That… That isn’t what I was saying. Look, it’ll be great to see you and Will!”

“William.”

“Yes, William. I’ll get the guests room cleared out and-”

“Oh, don’t trouble yourself. I’ll get a hotel.”

“Really, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

Thaddeus cleared his throat. “We are getting a hotel.”

“Okay, your choice.”

“Now,” Thaddeus continued, “is there anything specific you want me to bring?”

The rest of the call had largely involved exchanging pleasantries. Now, with the grip of the sins off of him, he suddenly felt like a deflated balloon. They’d been so confident. What was he supposed to do now, call back and say there was some huge misunderstanding and that the two couldn’t make it?

No, they wouldn’t let him do that.

With shaking fingers, he pulled up William in his contacts list.

“Dad, are you okay?”

“Hello to you too.”

“Sorry, you just don’t usually call me right now. Give me a sec, I need to leave the band room.” The indistinct chatter of students filled his ears. “Okay, I’m out. What’s happening?”

“I was just calling to ask if you had any plans for the holidays. Any school events or visits with friends that I wasn’t already aware of?”

“Uh, no, why?”

“Good. We’re going to your grandfather’s for Christmas.”

“But-”

“But what?” Thaddeus could feel his heart beating against his neck.

“We never do anything for Christmas.”

“Well, we are this year. Does that cause any problems?”

“Uh, no.”

“Good. I’ll be buying our hotel room and plane tickets tonight. I just called because I thought it would be better to tell you now than dump it on you after finals.”

“Thanks?”

“William, there’s no need for you to worry about it. I have everything under control. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“Good boy. See you tonight, all right?”

“Yeah. Love you.”

“Love you more.”

Chapter Text

"Dad! What happened to your eye?"

Thaddeus pulled his finger quickly away from the bandage he'd been rubbing at. In the three hours since he'd put them on, they were already loose.

"It's my eyelid," Thaddeus responded. "Some infection I just discovered this morning. I've already scheduled a doctor's appointment for this afternoon. I imagine he'll prescribe an antibiotic and it'll be gone within two weeks. It's certainly nothing that you should be worried about."

He had enough to deal with already himself. Even without the bandages, he couldn't keep his left eye open. The skin around it was bumpy and warm, practically a magnet to his fingers. He'd spent the morning squinting one-eyed at his emails and simultaneously moving his hands towards and away from the blemish.

"Are you sure?" William poured a bowl of corn flakes and sat down. "Will you even be able to drive?"

"Not if I want to keep my license." He stood up, heading towards the medicine cabinet sitting above the dishwasher. "You can take an Uber to school. I'll pay you back for it."

"Is that how you're getting to work?"

"I'll be working from home today." He pulled out a bottle of ibuprofen and swallowed two dry. "I'm serious. The only thing you should be thinking about today is that American government final of yours."

William laughed. "As if! Dad, I've already memorized the study guide." He swallowed a large spoonful of cereal, milk dripping down his chin. "I'll text you after it, okay?"

Thaddeus nodded, then motioned towards the bathroom.

-

Thaddeus awoke with a jolt. There was a pulsing burn around his eye. A few bandages had come loose, and now lay curled against his pillow.

He frantically dug through his sheets until he found his phone, flicking it on and hurriedly pulling it to his ear.

"Dr. Sivana, did you get my email?"

Thaddeus blinked. "Gloria, what's going on? I thought I told you that I was out today."

"I know that, sir, and I apologize if it was a bad time. But our newest patient says she forwarded you something last night and needs you to see it. She's been calling me about it once every hour."

Thaddeus' brow furrowed. "What did she send?"

"She never specified it, beyond saying that it would help with her treatment. As soon as you're able, I'd suggest looking at it." His secretary cleared her throat. "How are you feeling?"

"Well, I'm about ready to gouge my eye out." He sat up, checking his bedroom's electronic clock. "I see the doctor in two hours."

"Feel better. And do check her email when you can."

"Of course."

As soon as he hung up, Thaddeus hurried to his email. He'd only skimmed it early that morning. Right then, when the back of his eye felt like it was being held against a fire like a marshmallow on a stick, reading hadn't been his top priority. Now, though, the message from 10:30 p.m. the night before, with its large attachment, caught his eye.

When he clicked it, a thirty second video appeared. It buffered momentarily before starting.

Pictured was a messy bedroom, complete with clothes and fast food bags strewn across the floor. An electronic clock, not too different from the one on his own nightstand, read 7:38. Judging by the lighting, it was morning.

It glowed a steady green for a few moments, even changed to 7:39.

Thaddeus' heart was pounding in his ears even before the clock began flashing yellow. The crack beneath a door at the far edge of the video screen glowed with a golden light. An unseen inhabitant screamed.

Thaddeus narrowed his eye. Whatever the yellow stuff was, it was hard to make out, even though he had his suspicions.

With a shaking hand, he hit the pause button.

There it was.

The seal of Solomon.

-

Thaddeus bit his lip until it bled. The pain was sharp and immediate, enough to pull his mind away from his eye for the first time that day. He held the knife out in front of the study door. Carefully, he leaned forward and began carving.

Seven symbols repeated seven times - it was so simple that a grade schooler probably could have figured it out. All those years of searching for patients and digging through millenias old legends and this was the key back.

Sometimes he half wondered if his life began when the wizard sent for him that cold Christmas night. Had it been paused again when he returned or pushed onto fast forward?

Suddenly the years didn't matter. Now he had the key. Now he was going to fulfill a decades old promise.

Wood shavings decorated the floor. A few crunched beneath Thaddeus' feet.

As soon as he pulled his knife out from the last symbol, the etchings began to glow with a golden light. Smoke flew in from the surrounding cracks, caressing Thaddeus' face.

Just as quickly as he reached for the doorknob, he pulled it back. It was cool as ever, not the inferno he'd suspected, maybe even colder. Taking it again, he turned it and pushed the door forward.

Gone was his hallway and the doors and framed photos that lined its walls. Stepping forward, Thaddeus' foot met stone instead of carpet.

The surrounding air was damp and chill. His coat forgotten on a chair in his study, he shivered. He turned around, eyeing the doorway and the familiar room beyond it. How many hours had he spent pouring through a book in there or reviewing a day's worth of notes in there?

Thaddeus took another step forward. When he'd first arrived here years before, he'd never seen this part of Shazam's fortress. It was a room full of doors, big and small, square and round, and every color imaginable (a few, he noted, were shades he'd never imagined, let alone seen). Vague images from a movie William had watched countlessly as a child flashed through his mind.

Keep going.

The voice pushing him forward was his own. The sins had enacted radio silence sometime since he woke up early that morning and never quite fell back asleep. He held his hand against a grey rock wall. Even here, his eye ached.

The next room he came to was vaguely familiar. Smashed glass littered the floor, while surrounding plants drooped (as if, he noted, finally withering from seemingly decades without light). Whatever display had once stood was now forgotten to history.

The throne room was still further down. Thaddeus' throat was dry. He'd envisioned himself facing the wizard countless times, always with a righteous word on his tongue.

He shook his head. No, right now he needed the eye. Fading power or not, Shazam was still a wizard. Compared to him, Thaddeus was a magician who was almost out of tricks. The wizard would sooner chop out a silver tongue than Thaddeus' head.

It was only when he was almost to the sins' that the wizard finally noticed him. He stood up from his throne, hobbling forward on his staff.

"Who are you?"

Thaddeus rushed towards the eye. He could hear the sins again now, first all at once and then individually. In another situation it might have been perplexing. In his brain, they had whispered as one. Now, it was hard to hear what one was trying to shout above the other.

Had Thaddeus not stumbled on a rock on the way towards the eye, then he might have been hit by a bolt of lightning. He crawled forward on his hands and knees while his eye remained locked on the wizard.

I'm not going to die like this.

Not here, not now, not when so much was at stake. This was his life, his goal, his meaning.

The glowing globe surrounding the eye vanished like a fog when he held his hand out towards it. The tips of his right index and middle fingers rubbed against the eye's cool metal surface.

"You have no idea what you are unleashing, Thaddeus Sivana!"

Ah, so the wizard did remember him. He smirked as his hands wrapped fully around the eye. Old as Shazam was, he wasn't senile.

-

The pain in his eye was gone, almost as if it had never existed. Thaddeus ran his hand against the cold lump where his eye had been, sending a stream of sparks from his fingertips.

Hurry, he will awaken soon.

That was Lust or, perhaps, Envy. Thaddeus turned from the smoky figures surrounding him to the crumpled figure on the floor. He hadn't even had to think about attacking the wizard. As soon as the eye had floated into his head (funny, he hadn't felt a thing as it no doubt ripped through his flesh), sparks had ripped out from his fingertips.

There was an Eagles song about that.

Thaddeus grinned. All that power and the wizard couldn't even duck out of the way. He hurried towards the body, his steps sure.

"Is he-?"

He will be soon enough. That is no longer your concern.

"I want to see him dead."

You will!

That sounded like Gluttony.

We must go, champion.

The sins were one again.

"Of course." Thaddeus took one last look at the wizard, then hurried back towards the hall of doors.

Chapter Text

"Wake me up when the dinner cart rolls through," Thaddeus said as he positioned a satin eye mask over his gauze bandage.

With his ear plugs already pushed in, he could only guess at William's response. Judging by how relieved he'd been to finally get on the plane and sit down, Thaddeus might not be the only one settling down to sleep.

Well, at least one of them really was.

Since he'd returned from the wizard's lair, he hadn't slept a wink. Night would come and work would continue unabated. Come morning and Thaddeus wouldn't even bother to turn on the coffee maker. The little he'd eaten over the past few days had been ceremonial. A piece of toast there, some salad elsewhere.

"Are you sure you don't need to see the doctor again?" William had asked.

"It's probably nothing more than a side effect of the medication I'm on."

Had he even believed that when he'd said it?

No matter. At least for the next few hours, William would have a reason to be silent.

And Thaddeus could lay back and think.

Thinking - it was about the only thing that had kept him going over the years. Even when Sid seemed to be waiting behind every corner to pounce on him, or his father's wrath moved from his face to his fist, Thaddeus had had his mind. Elaborate fantasies and equations alike filled his hours. It was the only place his family couldn't reach, the one wall they could never surmount.

And oh, what his mind had done! Broken through enigmas and answered long-held curiosities while his own brother could barely pass as a bean counter.

But now his thoughts were focused. There was little to debate, few paths to cross. Now it was time to cut ties.

Oh, he'd thought of it before. When he was a boy, it hadn't been so macabre. He'd merely dreamed of making some grand scientific discovery that would have rocketed him towards a Nobel or digging up the remains of some lost civilization. Other times he pondered over the fantastic inventions that he would one day patent, devices that would so fill his pockets that the rest of the Sivanas would seem like Victorian urchins in comparison to him.

He couldn't remember exactly when his thoughts began to change, but he knew it had been before the accident. Finally, there had been a place where Thaddeus could reign supreme. In his mind, Sid's eye could bleed for hours before finally turning tar black. His father's teeth would come out, one after the other in a stream of coughs, his chin stained red with the blood and saliva that he could barely keep himself from choking on. Bones cracked, skin turned every color of the rainbow, and screams came easy.

Could those thoughts have helped turn the wizard against him? Many nights after, he'd lain awake in bed wondering if the force of his own mind had sent his father flying through the windshield.

Some days he'd considered buying a gun and making his dreams come true. Aiming the scope straight at Sid's quivering face and pulling the trigger. Listening to his father scream and sob, watching tears slip from his eyes as Thaddeus reloaded.

But no, he was no common criminal. That would have been too kind of a death anyway, if only in how ordinary it was.

No, what Sid and his father truly needed... What they truly deserved, they would soon get.

Chapter Text

Everything went to hell when Cissie Sommerly asked William to the Sadie Hawkins dance.

The night started out with William about choking himself trying to put on his necktie and didn't improve from there. As the two headed towards his car, Thaddeus swallowed repeatedly. Yet no matter how much saliva he forced down, his tongue remained limp and his throat hard and dry.

It wasn't as though his father had done this with him. Thaddeus had to piece things together himself based on what the other boys at school said. Crude as he was, Sid was no help in that department either. Despite the piles of magazines buried under his brother's mattress, the people inside had nothing that Thaddeus didn't see on himself.

William was clutching a cheap bouquet that he'd bought at the grocery store that afternoon. The rainbow hued flowers, still wet from the plastic vase he'd stuck them in, looked as though they'd fall apart if he clutched them any harder.

Thaddeus started his car. The rumble of the engine and the soft whirring of tires against the pavement momentarily filled the silence. Thaddeus let the sound wash over them, embrace them. Then, when he could bear its touch no longer, he spoke.

"William, it's time you and I had a discussion." Really, he should have done it sooner. But just when could they have done it? It wasn't as though there was a guide or rule book that laid out how and when these things should happen.

William sat up straighter in the passenger seat, eyeing him. "Yeah, Dad?"

Thaddeus cleared his throat. "Son, what do you intend to do with this girl tonight?"

"Dance? Eat her pizza? Girls always complain about food."

"I suppose I can't fault you for that." He gripped the steering wheel tighter. Maybe he was just digging himself into a hole. For all he knew, William already knew everything. That was how it was with kids these days, wasn't it?

No.

It was a comforting, if foolish, thought. Quitting now wouldn't sign away the future and its consequences. Quitting would only multiply his embarassment down the line.

"That may be all you two do tonight, and I truly hope it is. But you'll be a man sooner than I'd like, and that means you'll go through some changes. Someday that won't be all you want to do." He took a deep breath. "Because eventually a man finds a woman, or a man finds a man-"

Or a woman finds a woman almost slipped from his tongue, but Thaddeus quickly stopped himself. There was enough to deal with already without mentioning something completely out of William's realm of possibilities.

"And I don't mind who you ultimately end up with. Actually, I do. I hope you have good taste, but that's beside the point." Pausing, Thaddeus cursed that damn SCORA and all of the code scrawlers and math junkies who birthed it.

"Dad..."

"Yes?"

"How come you never got married?"

If William could have heard it, the only reply was Thaddeus' own heartbeat.

"I'm the one who should be questioning you."

What did the kid need, the truth? Oh, you wanted a second parent, William? It's the twenty-first century, you can only get married if you find someone to say yes.

And just what did he need someone for? Hormones and infatuation were fleeting, but his goal was forever. Romance didn't excite him the way rage did. Since he was young, love had long been a stranger to him. Why try and pursue it now?

"I'm too busy with my work." He paused again. "Does that bother you?"

William shook his head. "I mean, I was always curious but never found a reason to ask."

"And that's not your concern now, anyway."

Now or never.

"William, intimacy is an important act that two couples can share."

By the time Thaddeus had finished teaching William how to pronounce chlamydia, they had arrived at the Sommerly residence. A short-haired redhead in an ankle-length blue dress was standing on the two-story building's front porch, a man a few years Thaddeus' junior standing close behind her.

There were hugs and the exchange of flowers, discussions of curfew and warnings to not do "anything your mother and I wouldn't want to hear about." Mr. Sommerly's hands were covered in sweat, and there was something in his eyes that Thaddeus could never quite fully decipher, no matter how long he looked into them.

"Cissie, William's mentioned you a number of times."

She grinned, showing off a mouth full of money. "Aww, thanks." Or, rather, thankth. There was something about her tone that made Thaddeus wonder if she always sounded like that or if it was just a side effect of her braces.

On the ride to West Middle School, Thaddeus spoke again. "So you're both in a number of the same classes. How lucky for you two. Cissie, what do your parents do for a living?"

"Oh, my dad works at a bank. I like to go sometimes and ask him if he'll give me the keys to some safes." She giggled. "My mom is a doctor. That's actually why she wasn't home right now. Her schedule can be really weird. I don't blame her, though. It's not like she chooses when babies are born."

And just what would she say about Thaddeus' earlier speech? To the best of his knowledge, it was medically accurate.

"That's very nice."

"What do you do, Dr. Sivana?"

Doctor? William really had told her a lot about him.

"Oh, just try and solve the questions that many think have no answers."

After dropping them off, Thaddeus watched the two walk hand in hand inside the school's gym. Thaddeus looked around, taking in the crumpled petals in his backseat and the sheen of sweat on his forehead.

All in all, that could have gone a hell of a lot worse.

Chapter Text

So this was what his fifty-four years of life had been barreling towards – a death that for all means and purposes should have been a hell of a lot faster, a sputtering end where there should have been a crashing halt. Thaddeus surveyed the mansion before him. Rainbow colored Christmas lights twinkled beneath the dim sky, moving from navy blue to light purple. Thick shadows coated the side of the building. The winter had torn leaves from the surrounding trees, leaving their skeletons to shiver in the eastward wind. Though they remained green, the surrounding shrubs and grass looked thin.

“Uncle Thad! I couldn’t believe it when Dad said that you were coming.” Annabelle gave him one last tight squeeze before releasing him from her choke hold just as quickly as she’d pulled him into it. He breathed in the cold, dry air, embracing the chill that danced in his lungs.

“Well,” he replied, not quite meeting her in the eye. His gaze darted towards the windows, through which he could make out a large tree and an arrangement of multicolored stockings. “I only recently found out that I could make it this year.”

“And you’re Will!” She pulled William into another hug. For such a lithe girl, she could break bones if she put in the effort.

“Can we do this inside?” Sid called, his face hidden behind the opened trunk of his Mercedes Benz.

Thaddeus looked towards the sky. Clouds had begun rolling in, blanketing what little remained of the thin sun. On the drive over, the weatherman had mentioned a heavy possibility of snow.

“All right,” Annabelle replied, pulling away from William and hurrying towards the doors. “Hurry up everyone, I made cookies!”

Thaddeus looked towards William, but his face was already buried back in his phone. Between the ride from the airport to the hotel, and then the hotel to the Sivana estate, William had barely even looked at Sid. Whenever he asked the boy a question, William’s usual response had been a grunt.

“Need any help?” Thaddeus asked as Sid slammed the trunk down. His brother’s face was buried beneath a stack of neatly wrapped presents.

“Just hold the door open for me,” he replied.

Annabelle was waiting inside for them by the doorway. She was lucky enough to look nothing at all like her father. She was slim, her body lost beneath an oversized black and gold Vanderbilt University hoodie and a pair of faded jeans. Though she was both shorter and lighter in complexion than her mother, her cheek bones and chin were most definitely not Sid’s.

If the lights outside had made him raise an eyebrow, Thaddeus’ jaw about dropped when he got inside. The tree and stockings were the tip of the iceberg. Every conceivable wall was covered in paper gingerbread men, trees, and reindeer. The living room alone had four trees inside of it, three in the room’s corners and a small one on a coffee table. The top of the fireplace was covered in plastic elves, their beady eyes seeming to almost glow from the surrounding lights. Maybe his father had finally gone senile. Even as a boy, before the incident, his father had rarely put up more than a single tree. The less they put up the less that they had to take down, and he damn well wasn’t going to have the help sort through his fifty-year-old collection of hand-commissioned ornaments every season.

“Do you like it?” Annabelle’s eyes widened. “It was my idea. The place just didn’t seem peppy enough.”

All he’d need to do was throw on a fake beard and red suit and his father could have given the local malls a run for their picture and story-time money.

“And I was the one who got stuck helping to put everything up,” Sid added as he placed the presents down beneath a tree. “Any hints on what you got me?”

“My lips are sealed.” Thaddeus cleared his throat. “Sid, how the hell did you convince Dad to let you do this?”

“Oh, I begged and pleaded like a little boy,” Sid replied, chuckling. “It took some cajoling, but the old man finally agreed, on the condition that the moment December twenty-sixth rolls around, this will all be thrown down into the basement. But it was all worth it. Wasn’t it, Annie?” He stepped forward and reached a hand towards Annabelle’s shoulder, but she pulled away, her black curls bobbing as she moved. Despite this, he continued speaking. “It’s a shame that you can only stay until the twenty-third, pumpkin.”

“And miss out on Auntie Ruby’s sweet potato pie?” She turned away, motioning towards the kitchen. “The cookies should be about done cooling.”

William’s face brightened and he picked up his step.

It was only when they were gone that Sid’s words finally settled on him. Begged and pleaded like a little boy. Even before the divorce had been finalized, Sid had been living in an apartment a few blocks from the Sivana Industries headquarters. Some six months after he and his wife completed their split, he’d moved back into the family estate.

“Dad won’t admit it, but he needs more help these days than he used to.” Sid had said over the phone.

What was it like, working all day with their father only to come back home and still be stuck with him? The idea made Thaddeus’ empty stomach tighten. Did Sid not only like giving pain, but receiving it as well?

“Thad?”

Thaddeus’ back stiffened. “Sidney?”

Sid came forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I just wanted to thank you for coming. It was a bit of a surprise, but Dad really appreciates it. He’s really been wanting to see William.”

Without moving a muscle on his part, Thaddeus could have broken every bone in his brother’s hand. The old anger that always hung over him like a blanket now burned, an itch desperate to be scratched. It would have been so easy, taken shorter than the time it takes to blink an eye, and Sid could have been a groveling mess on the floor.

But no, that was too easy for him. What Sid needed was longer, harder, something that he would carry with him to his grave and never quite be able to break away from.

The sins were silent. Whatever suggestions they might have they kept to themselves. This was his brother, his life, his plan. His to make the most of.

“Oh, Sid, it’s my pleasure to come.”

-

Why did anyone need a house this big? Even some of his classmates, who had anywhere from five to eight siblings, didn’t need this much space. The curving, polished wood stairwell rose over twenty feet, leading into a hallway that held six doors on each side. The cream-colored walls were covered in Greek paintings. Potted plants – which Billy could tell were fake without even having to touch them – covered various small tables that were set against the walls.

Annabelle entered the third door to the right, holding it open for Billy as he stepped inside.

“So tell me more yourself, Will,” she said. She bit into a chocolate chip cookie, crumbs spilling onto her hoodie.

“It’s Billy,” he responded.

He surveyed the room. For a place that she would only have been living three weeks in, it already looked well lived in. A suitcase and cello case were both laying face down near her bed, which was covered in a wrinkled neon purple comforter. Against her matching colored pillows was a worn blue teddy bear missing one plastic eye. Her bookshelf was covered in thin paperbacks and framed photos. Several of them showed girls who looked to be about her age, while many others depicted a tall, well-dressed black woman that he assumed was her mother. A nearby desk held a laptop covered in stickers and a plastic vase holding an array of synthetic lilies.

She’d filled him in while the two were in the kitchen and heading upstairs. Annabelle, or Annie as she preferred to be called, was twenty-one years old and a year away from graduating with her music degree. She hoped to be a cellist in an orchestra. Outside of her studies, she enjoyed volunteering at local elementary schools and had considered becoming a music teacher.

“I’d probably only give private lessons though,” she had admitted.

Though she lived in Nashville with her mother, as soon as she’d taken her last final, she’d jumped on a plane for Philly. The last few days had been spent touring Sivana Industries and going to museums.

“Because my dad has no idea what else to do.” She’d rolled her eyes. “I swear, you see these places once and you’ve seen them for life.”

She hadn’t mentioned much about her mother and her eyes narrowed when she discussed her father. Billy made no comment.

“Well,” Billy said, sitting down at her desk’s chair. This was the first time he’d ever been inside of a girl’s room, cousin or not. He imagined Cissie’s must have looked a lot like this before she’d moved away in the middle of their freshman year. She’d loved flowers and tried more than a few times to genetically modify her own during their biology classes. He half considered bringing her up but decided his pathetic excuse for a love life was better left discussed another time. “I’m a sophomore in high school. My dad and I live in California, so I swim a lot, even when it’s not swim season. Some friends and I like to go to the beach sometimes to swim in the ocean. If you don’t go out when the tide’s bad, it’s really fun. Besides that, I read the announcements at school and take part in the trivia team. I also love playing video games.”

“Tell me about your dad.” Her voice rose as she spoke. “You know, I haven’t seen him since I was a kid.”

“I haven’t seen yours since then either.” Again, there wasn’t much to say. “My dad can be a bit naggy and takes grades pretty seriously. Even when he’s home, he works a lot.”

“Tell me what I don’t already know.”

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. My dad’s really a pretty chill guy.” Billy wasn’t sure why the next few words came out, but somehow it seemed wrong to not speak them. “I really do appreciate the time that I get to spend with him. Without him, I can’t even imagine what my life would be like.”

Annie smiled. “You’re really lucky. You know that?”

“Of course.”

The two continued eating cookies in silence. Billy finished before Annie did, who licked her fingers clean of frosting.

“You want some more?”

Billy nodded. “If it’s no trouble.”

“Ha! I’ve been living off these things since I came home.”

The walk downstairs was just as disconcerting as the walk upstairs. As big as the place was, and no matter what was set out on the walls and floors, it seemed empty. It was more like a museum exhibit that someone could walk through than a place that someone actually lived in.

“Why are you leaving on the twenty-third?”

“To be back home in time for my mom’s big Christmas feast. Every year she goes all out. If you think this place is Santa Land, you should see her house!”

Billy’s father and uncle were talking in the kitchen when they got downstairs. His father gave him a quick nod before looking back to Uncle Sid.

Annie grabbed a paper towel, and Billy helped to place cookies upon them. She motioned back towards the open door they’d come in through, and the two headed back towards the stairwell. They were halfway up the first flight when Annie froze on the steps.

“William, is that you?”

Billy turned, looking down. Near the base of the stairs was a white-haired, tired-eyed man in a wheelchair.

“You’ve grown so much. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Chapter Text

Billy’s grandfather reached forward, taking Billy by the chin and pushing apart his lips with his fingers. Bile rose in his throat, hot and metallic. He forced it down with a hard gulp.

“You have fine teeth,” his grandfather commented. “How many times a day does Thad make you brush them?”

“Father, what the hell are you doing?”

His grandfather let go of him, and Billy had to spread out his legs to keep from falling. He stepped back onto the stairs, taking the nearest railing and clutching it until his palms began to sweat against the smooth wood. He turned, catching Annie’s gaze. She tilted her head at him, her frown deepening. Then, she turned and hurried and back upstairs.

Billy’s father and grandfather both hurried towards each other.

“You have no right to speak to me that way, Thad, especially not in my own house.”

“And you think you can assess my son like a cow on display at the county fair?”

“Don’t be so dramatic! I was just making sure you were raising the boy well.”

“What did you expect me to bring, a street urchin?”

Despite himself, Billy stood riveted to the spot. He was like the Cheshire cat, at once there as the subject of conversation but at the same time far away and alien. No one was looking at him, and it was hard to imagine that they were only squabbling over him.

“Oh, hardly, but you can never know with parents these days. I do hope he’ll be wearing something else to dinner.”

With the way his grandfather and uncle were dressed, he had to wonder if there was anything in their closets except three-piece suits.

“What does it matter what he’s wearing?”

“You think he can go to Bellissima dressed like that?”

His father turned to glare at Uncle Sid, who was standing near the end of the hallway. “I thought you said you were ordering in.”

“Dad called me while I was in the bathroom earlier to say that he’d gotten an unexpected dinner call that he couldn’t refuse. Said he’d love if you guys could come.”

“You are coming.” Both men turned, locking gazes with the Sivana patriarch. “Really, Thad? You finally decide to return for a family holiday, and you don’t think I’ll use this time to make up for your absence? My investors have been wanting to meet you. It’s your share of the fortune that gets funneled into the university and that project of yours there that you never discuss, after all.”

“What I do with my money is my own business, father.”

“It damn well is when it comes out of my own shares!”

“Your own website uses it as proof of corporate philanthropy in support of higher education!”

“Thad, you know Dad doesn’t write that.”

“Oh, but I’m sure he loved the press coverage!”

There was an anger in his father’s voice that snapped Billy free, forcing his legs back up the stairs. As if suddenly remembering him, three sets of eyes again locked on him, but before he was even fully up the stairs, they were back to arguing. The distant voices followed him all the way back to Annie’s room. He pulled the door closed behind him as he entered.

“Do they always do that?” Billy sat back down in her desk chair, taking a chocolate chip cookie from her outstretched hand.

She shrugged. “Usually your dad isn’t around. My dad and grandpa don’t really fight, but that’s just how my dad is.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s a reason I wanted to stay at my mom’s.”

“Then why’d you come here?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Why’d you?”

“Because my dad said we were coming.”

She laughed. “Well, it wasn’t quite like that for me. But I figured if Dad was going to cover all my tuition, a few weeks with him would be an easy way to say thank you. Pretty stupid in hindsight, but in a few more days it won’t matter anyway.”

“I’m in the marching band at my school.” The words were out of his mouth before he fully realized them. Somehow the fact had slipped his mind earlier that evening.

Her eyes widened, her face again brightening. “Really? A lot of my friends from high school were, too!”

Billy grinned, letting her in on how the football season had ended. “If I’d bothered to stick around for the final game, I might have been disappointed!”

Then Annie started discussing her classes. She moved her hands as she spoke, gesturing towards her cello case and pulling up pictures on her phone. For a moment, she looked like the girl in the framed photos around her, smiling and eager to face the world.

“Any idea what you’re going to be studying yet?”

“Hardly,” Billy replied. “I went to some different career camps over the past few summers but haven’t really decided on anything. Guess it’s because I can’t do everything.”

“Hey, you don’t have to know what you want to be right now. It’s better to explore.”

“How’d you know that you wanted to study music?”

“Easy! Playing cello is the only thing I’m any good at.”

A knock came at the door. Her face stiffened, but she stepped forward and opened the door a crack.

“Annabelle, is William there?”

Her only reply was to open the door wider. Billy stood up, meeting his father’s gaze.

“Sid is taking us back to the hotel to get changed.” He rubbed absently at the bandages around his eye.

“Whatever.”

“Do you have any cookies left?”

Annie blinked. “Oh, yeah.” She held out a napkin. “Take whatever you want, Uncle Thad.”

“Thank you.” He took a gingerbread man and snapped off its head, swallowing it seemingly without chewing it. “I’m glad that you two had the decency to spoil your appetites.”

-

Considering the fanciest thing that Billy had packed were some school-logo polos and khakis, he’d had to wear some of his dad’s clothes. His father had traded in his usual brown weather waist-length jacket for a navy-blue suit. Billy wore a starched white collared shirt, a black tie, and matching colored dress pants.

“Be sure to put your elbows on the table when you eat,” his father had said. “And use the forks indiscriminately.”

“Won’t your dad get mad?”

“That’s the point.” His father’s face hardened.

“I don’t want him to get mad at you because of me.”

“He’ll be mad at me no matter what. Why not get some fun out of it?”

Billy gave a smile that was all teeth.

His father had changed into a fresh pair of bandages. As the two headed for the hotel room’s door, he considered asking about it but stopped himself. Just because the bandages were still there didn’t mean that the infection wasn’t healing. Wasn’t it better sometimes to not leave things exposed to open air and the germs it carried?

“Dad, why’d we come here if everyone is just going to fight?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Really?” Billy bit his lip. Was that his only answer? That was the kind you gave kids that you thought were stupid.

“I have my reasons, William. But if it makes you feel any better, I can already tell you that we aren’t coming back next year.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed.”

-

“What’s an Italian place without spaghetti?” Annie whispered into Billy’s ear. She was wearing a wavy black skirt that went down to her ankles and a light purple sweater that looked too thin to actually keep away the cold.

“What’s veal?” he replied.

There didn’t look to be anyone else their age in the restaurant. Billy had to keep himself from asking his dad if the reason the place was so packed was because they served a senior citizen discount. Not that he would have had the chance. His father had yet to touch anything on his plate, he was so busy answering questions.

He couldn’t remember the names of the other people at the table, only that they were board members of Sivana Industries. Every once in a while, they would turn and look at Billy and Annie boredly, even sometimes ask them to pass the bread. The rest of their time was spent discussing stocks, public image, and increasing revenues.

“This is why I didn’t let my dad talk me into business school.”

It would have been much easier for the two to text each other, but Uncle Sid had taken both of their phones away when they arrived at the restaurant.

“Dad insists on it,” he’d said.

Well, even if Billy didn’t get to tell him until later tonight or tomorrow morning, Freddy was going to love hearing about this. Surely he could find a joke in this mess.

“And your research, what practical applications does it have?” one board member asked.

“More than I can list,” Thaddeus replied. “The patients who come to me are confused and need to know that what they are experiencing isn’t something to be ashamed of. Such shared phenomena is fascinating but unfairly stigmatized.”

“Hey, what’s your dad talking about?”

“Beats me. He doesn’t talk about his work a lot to me.”

As if to prove his point, his father began quoting some of his papers word by word. At least Billy thought he did. He poked at his plate.

“Hey, uh, I didn’t get the chance to ask you earlier, but is it true that marching band kids get a lot of-”

The more people that entered the restaurant, the harder that it was to hear Annie even though she was sitting next to him.

“Annabelle!”

Annie’s sudden pause caused the next word that she had been speaking to die in a low squeak. She pulled away from Billy and sat up straight.

“I asked you to elaborate on your time at university.”

“Oh, of course, grandfather.” All eyes of the board members were locked on her. “In case my dad hasn’t mentioned this yet, I’m a junior-”

Billy sighed. He eyed the restaurant, taking in the waiters in flawlessly pressed suits holding bone white china plates. He’d seen the prices listed for meals on the menu and had to hold back a gasp. The wine his grandfather was sipping alone cost thirty dollars a glass. What he would have given then for a slice of pizza!

Luckily, the board members seemed so engrossed in their drinks that they soon forgot Annie. She sighed, stuffing a roll into her mouth.

She leaned forward and whispered into his ear. “See what you guys have been missing out on these last two weeks?”

-

Billy collapsed into the hotel bed before he had even changed into his pajamas. “Hey, dad, is it okay if I hang out with Mary from the Philly trivia team tomorrow? I know I told you about her after the competition.”

“Yes.” His father didn’t even look at him.

“I won’t be missing out on anything important tomorrow afternoon, right?”

He shook his head.

“I’m serious. I don’t want you getting in trouble or anything because of me.”

That was enough to get his dad to finally look at him. “William, I appreciate your concern. And though my father might not always realize it, I am a grown man. I can deal with him myself. If you’d had someone to stay with, I wouldn’t even have brought you here with me. This isn’t anything that you need to be worrying about.”

“But if you don’t like them-”

“William, when you get into the working world, you’ll meet a lot of people you don’t like. Sometimes you just have to deal with them in the best way that you can. Maybe that means compromising, maybe that means giving them what they deserve. But right now, that isn’t your issue.”

Billy held back a groan. He could ask all of the questions in the world and still get nowhere. But maybe his dad was right. What exactly did any of this matter to him? Once he and his dad got back on the plane to California, this Christmas would be nothing but a bad memory.

“Whatever you say, old man.”

-

“If your Christmas sucks, you and your dad can always come spend the holiday with my family. We love having people over, and Darla will be thrilled to share the tofurkey.”

“Just hearing you say that word made me lose ten years of my life.”

“Yeah, well you’re not the one who has to eat it every night.” Freddy put one box down and then grabbed another. “I already got my sister Vixen and Supergirl figures for her birthday, so all that’s left is to decide between Wonder Woman and Batgirl.” He held them up. “What do you think?”

“It’s your choice.”

“Man, you can’t put me on the spot like this. With my luck I might choose the wrong one.”

“There has to be one that speaks to you.”

“It would, but it says here on the back of the box that batteries aren’t included.” He placed the boxes back down, giving them another look over. “I’m a bit biased, but I’m definitely feeling Wonder Woman.”

Billy snickered.

“You know what I meant!” He grabbed the Wonder Woman figure, then headed towards the cash register. “So, where do you want to go after this?”

“I’ll have to check the directory.” Once Freddy was a few feet ahead of him, Billy grabbed the Batgirl figure.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Freddy said as they left the store, sticking the second figure and Billy’s receipt into his bag.

Billy shrugged. “I figured if I didn’t get it then you’d drag me back in there.”

Freddy gave him a playful punch on the arm.

“Hey, can we sit down?”

Freddy nodded. The two headed towards a bench across from a shoe store. For a moment, the two sat in silence, watching the crowds of people pass by.

“Is something wrong?”

Billy shook his head. Digging in his pocket, he pulled out a small, messily wrapped box. “I was going to give this to you earlier, but you were in such a rush to get to the toy store that I didn’t have time to stop you. It’s not much, but I hope you like it.”

Freddy grinned. As soon as he pulled it from Billy’s hands, he immediately began pulling off the paper. “Dude! I’ve been wanting this game so bad.”

“I mean, you never shut up about it.”

“And you think giving me this will make me stop?” Freddy’s smile wavered. “I really appreciate it, Billy. I wish I had something to give you in return.”

“Freddy, it’s no big deal.”

“I’ll have to find something for you now, at least.”

“Look, I don’t know what the next few days might hold. If something big happens, I might not even be able to see you again.”

“Then that means I really do need to find you something for you while we’re here!” He stood up, poking Billy’s leg with the end of his crutch. “Come on, there has to be something here you like.”

Billy almost protested, then stopped himself. Whether he actually found something he wanted or not, it was better than going home.

-

“You sure that’s all you want?” Freddy asked as he dropped his cup into the trash.

“It’s enough for me,” Billy replied, taking one last sip of his own milkshake. “I don’t want to drag a bunch of shit home with me on the plane, anyway.”

The two left Big Belly Burger, passing a number of smaller restaurants as they headed further into the food court.

“If you say so.” Freddy pulled his phone from his pocket. “Hey, Mary’s picking me up in twenty minutes. Anywhere else you want to look?”

Billy shook his head. “I should probably call my cousin soon and ask her to pick me up. She’s probably done shopping now anyway.”

Freddy cleared his throat. “I was serious earlier, you know. We’d love it if you came over for Christmas. Victor and Rosa are very chill. You couldn’t ask for a more relaxing family dinner.”

Billy scoffed. “I can’t make any promises. But if it gets any worse, I’ll tell Dad about your offer.”

Freddy pulled him into a hug. It wasn’t as tight as one of Annie’s, but it was firm and warm. “Thank you again for the game.”

“It was nothing. Thanks for dinner.”

“Do you mind if I give Darla the Batgirl that you got her early?”

“Feel free to.”

A few minutes later, as none other than Uncle Sid pulled up to the door to pick him up in a grey van, Annie waving to him from the passenger seat window, Billy thought back to his friend’s offer.

Chapter Text

At this point Thaddeus couldn’t even be sure if he was still in Pennsylvania. Once he’d tucked William into bed-

“Dad, you don’t have to do this. I’m not a little kid anymore.”

“Of course I do, young man.”

-and been sure that he was actually asleep, Thaddeus had left the hotel room to get some air. Now it was all around him. The wind embraced him. A shiver ran down his spine, but he smiled at the chill. Out here, where houses were far and few between and the only light was that of the full moon hovering over him, it was like being in another world. He’d left with no clear destination in mind, just hurried from the city and its peering eyes, planes, and cameras. Mountain slopes rose in the distance, while below him roads curved across ancient hills. Here, away from everything, it was as though he was the only man in the world.

Not that he was alone.

When shall we begin?

Their voices came together as one.

“Soon.”

If William weren’t here, he might have already finished with this madness. Sid and his father were living on borrowed time. But it wasn’t as if he could just buy William a one-way ticket back to California now…

Thaddeus shook his head. All this power and he still couldn’t bring himself to get the damn thing over with. Why waste time? If his family saw him now, floating forty feet above the ground, they’d all but fall down dead. All he needed to do now was-

No. Another face flashed before his mind, one that made his blood boil.

He smirked, heading back east along the wind. It was the Christmas season, after all. What was a better gift to give his family than a few extra hours?

-

Merilyn had just started taking off her shoes when a knock came on the door. She froze, trying to blink away the sleep that crept over her eyes like cobwebs. The subway ride home that morning had seemed even longer than usual. Even working the night shift, she’d been asked to stay an extra hour to help make sure the café was ready for an event later that day.

Right then she didn’t care if she slept in her bra or if Travis woke up alone the next morning. Her couch lay only a few feet away from her, worn but cozy. She stepped forward, ready to collapse onto it, when the knock came again, just a few notes louder.

She froze. Pulling out her phone, she squinted at the bright screen. Christ, who the hell needed her at three a.m.?

A knot tightened in her stomach. She’d known that they were getting a new landlord, even heard rumors that he was a real hard ass. But she’d paid her rent on time that month. Why not knock on Janet from down the hall’s door instead? Unless it was one of Travis’ friends. The thought made her chest tighten. If it was, she’d sooner wait and have them vomit all over her welcome mat than open the door.

The knocking came a third time.

“Mer, what the hell is that?”

Merilyn stiffened. “Nothing that you should be worrying about. Go back to bed.”

Taking a deep breath, holding it in for a few moments, and then releasing it in a long exhale, Merilyn headed for the door. Peering through the peephole showed little more than a dark blur. Slowly, she cracked the door open a few inches and peered out.

“Who is it?”

“Is this Merilyn Parker?” The man standing before her was bald, wearing dark sunglasses and a brown leather jacket that probably cost more than five of her paychecks combined. Most definitely the new landlord.

“What’s it to you? I’ll have you know I turned in my rent earlier this week.”

He chuckled. “I assure you, that isn’t my concern.”

Just as she tightened her grip on the doorknob, the door flew open. She moved back as if pushed by an invisible wind. The man stepped forward, his sunglasses gleaming in the hallway’s dim overhead light, shutting the door behind him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She searched around her frantically for an umbrella, a frying pan, anything. “Travis!”

The man flicked his wrist as she spoke. She didn’t know why the motion caught her eye, but the quick gesture was nothing compared to what she did when she felt her throat tighten. She reached towards it, grabbing at the skin of her neck as though she could pull it apart. Pant as she might, all air suddenly seemed a million miles away from her. She looked to the man with eyes wide as saucers, only to see herself reflected back in his lenses.

“Mer, what the hell’s going on?” When Travis got closer, his eyes turned from his not-quite wife clawing at her neck to the man standing in front of his doorway. “Who are you?” Travis picked up his pace, hurrying towards the man. As he came forward, he suddenly froze, his leg and arms raised, his face red. He was statue still, practically standing on one leg. Merilyn blinked. It occurred just quickly enough that she didn’t notice her throat loosening. She took in a sharp breath, feeling the air swim through her throat.

“Wh-what did you do to him?” She pushed herself against the wall.

“Oh, nothing yet.” The man gave her a small smile. Stepping forward, he pulled a hand from his pocket. She blinked once, twice, but no matter how many times she closed them, lightning sparks (as though he had just rubbed his hand along a freshly dried set of sheets) flew from his fingertips. They danced along the air, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to rise.

His whole hand was glowing when he placed it across Travis’ upper abdomen. His eyes widened while the rest of his body remained still, only a hollow gasp escaping his throat. Merilyn had to place her hands against the wall to keep herself from falling.

When his hand had touched Travis, no sound had been made. It was just as quiet when he pulled his hand away, though the large bruise across his chest about made her scream. But when she tried, only a mix between a whimper and a yelp came out.

The man’s other hand was glowing as well. Stepping forward, he pushed Travis back, causing him to collapse with a thud on the floor. The burn was twice the size as before. The edges of Travis’ undershirt released a thin line of smoke.

He looked back to her, eyeing her up and down like a farmer examining a cow about to be sold to a slaughterhouse. Then he turned back to Travis, reaching a glowing hand first for his neck and then towards his face. This time, she heard a soft sizzle as their fleshes met.

She reached for the door, turning the knob wildly in every direction. No matter how hard she pulled it forward, it remained stubbornly still. She was so caught up in it that she only turned around when she felt something wet fall across the back of her shoulder.

When she turned, she knew it was a nightmare. The creatures standing before her, after all, were nothing if not nightmarish. Two were only standing mere inches from her, their tongues outstretched. One’s moved like a snake’s, wrapping around her neck but not tightening.

“Wh-what…” she began. The most that she could get out was a whisper. “What’s going on?”

Behind the man stood four other monsters, grey as chalk and every bit as unreal. If this were any other situation, they would have looked comical against the backdrop of her worn living room.

“Not what, Ms. Parker, but why.” He pulled his glasses off, revealing a softly glowing orb where his left eye should have been. “Does the name Billy Batson ring a bell?”

She squinted at him. “What does Billy have to do with this?”

”Everything." The man’s voice had been calm before, a bit like a schoolteacher trying to not yell. Now, though, he seemed only a step away from screaming.

The nearest monster’s tongue tightened around her neck. Its tongue wasn’t smooth, instead covered in an array of bumps including, she noted as bile rose in her throat, suction cups. Seemingly effortlessly, it raised her almost half a foot above the ground.

“Was it lust that made you have him? Or laziness that made you walk out?”

The tips of her eyelids were burning. From this vantage point, she could see how still Travis was. Travis, who could jump out of bed with only a moment’s notice. Travis, who never stopped moving.

“Mister, I don’t know what you know about that boy, but he’s better off without me.”

“Oh, believe me, I understand that fact perfectly well.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “He knows that too.” He surveilled his nails. “How often do you think of the boy?”

“Wh-what?” she rasped.

“It was a rather simple question. How often do you think of the boy?” He tapped his chin. “Daily, hourly, only once a year when his birthday rolls around… I assume you get the idea.”

Her heart was beating faster than the legs of a leading Kentucky derby horse. “I-I don’t know. I’d say never but-”

She’d known it was a bad answer even before it left her lips but something, something, made the truth slip out.

“Never?” He stepped forward, moving over Travis as though he were nothing but a fallen tree limb blocking his path on some unseen road. “Never!”

“He-he isn’t part of my life any longer, with good reason.”

His left eye was glowing now, shooting sparks. A long scar ran up and below his eyelid, and still looked slightly red, as though it was fresh.

“Did you ever stop and think about how he might feel about that? Just what abandoning him might do to him?”

“Mister, I don’t know who you are, but you need to stop this!” It would have been a weak protest even if she could manage to say it a little louder.

“I’m his father.” He stepped back again, turning and taking in the apartment. “The rats must love this snug little shithole of yours, don’t they?”

His father? No, C.C. wasn’t that old, and he couldn’t afford that jacket if he won the lottery. Her mind flashed back to a few years prior, when a boy showed up on her doorstep. Was this-

He didn’t even look at her when he next spoke. “While I know you’re hungry, Lust, it would do you well to let Sloth have the first bite.”

-

They pulled Merilyn Parker apart like a child did a Barbie doll. First came one of her legs, sending a glob of blood onto the surrounding walls. Then her body fell to the floor with a loud thump when Lust took off her head. For a moment, what was left of her lay sprawled on the ground. The sins turned towards Thaddeus, their tongues outstretched, and he gestured towards the bodies.

“Take what’s left of them.”

Sparks glowed out of his skin, lighting the surrounding darkness. Reaching forward, he held onto a coffee table covered in old magazines and receipts until it burned. His hand went next to the nearby couch and wall.

He closed his eyes and saw William, first as the boy on the cusp of manhood back at the hotel, then as the tween running away from the same apartment that Thaddeus was currently standing in. Then he was a little boy again, so small and fragile looking, calling out for his mother.

In her last moments, had Merilyn truly regretted what she’d done? He swallowed the lump in his throat. Did it really matter? Last minute repentance or not, she was dead. Dead as she should have been to William when the police drove him away from the carnival.

And if in her last moments she truly didn’t care about what she’d done, the result was the same. So then did it really matter if his father and brother didn’t beg him for forgiveness? If tears didn’t run down their cheeks?

No, Thaddeus supposed, it did not. As the fire grew, eating away at the walls and carpet, Thaddeus struck the large glass window, sending pieces of it flying. He stepped through, his cuts closing over almost as quickly as they appeared, his feet touching air. Then, like a phoenix emerging from the ashes, he took off into the night.

-

In the end, he didn’t head back to his father’s estate. The twinkling lights of the city guided him back to the hotel, where he came in through the glass balcony to find William still asleep in his bed. Even at his age, he looked impossibly small beneath the covers balled up around him. Leaning down, Thaddeus brushed hair away from his face and kissed his forehead.

Chapter Text

Batmanatee: I barely got any sleep last night uhhhhh

Billy_Da_Kid: What happened???

Batmanatee: Every five seconds some police car or ambulance came running through our neighborhood at 3 in the morning!

Billy_Da_Kid: That sucks!

Batmanatee: I know. There was some big fire at an apartment building three blocks from our house.

Billy_Da_Kid: Are you okay?

Batmanatee: Really tired but otherwise okay. Rosa is freaking out though. She’s sure drugs are somehow involved. Ever since a meth lab exploded on the next block over from us 4 months ago, she’s been trying to find us a new house.

Billy_Da_Kid: DUDE WHAT

-

A loud crack echoed through the dining room, causing the table to shake as though the room had suddenly been hit by an earthquake. Annie stiffened, sitting up straighter against the hard back of her wooden chair. Her father looked to her from across the table, but she buried her gaze into the napkin folded across her lap.

“William! Would you please enlighten us to whatever wonders are on your phone?”

Billy looked up from his own lap, his eyes wide.

“William!” their grandfather repeated, raising his fist to smack the table again.

As childish as it was, she was suddenly glad to have left her phone buried under a pile of pillows in her room.

“Father, stop!” Uncle Thad stood up, his chair screeching across the wooden floor. “You have no right to speak to my son that way!”

“Thad, tell him to put the phone away.”

“Father-”

“For once act like the father you parade yourself around as!”

Annie bit her lip. A plate of roasted chicken, peas, and mashed potatoes and gravy lay below her, but she was sure everyone’s lunch was about to go cold. Billy’s face had gone pale.

“What did you just say?” Uncle Thad stalked towards their grandfather, his fists balled at his sides.

“You know damn well what I said. Really, Thad, you’ve had ten years to teach the boy some manners.”

“Now, Dad,” her father began, raising his hand outwards.

“Sid, this doesn’t concern you.” His glare could have broken twenty nazars. He turned back towards her uncle.

Annie’s stomach tightened, but for once the pain didn’t hold her down like a lead weight. She stood on shaking legs, clutching the cranberry red tablecloth tightly between her fists. “Oh, would you all just shut up!”

The room suddenly went silent, everyone’s gaze locking onto her.

Her father’s eyes were so wide that she half expected them to fall out of his head. “Annie, dear, let’s sit back down and eat-”

“No!” She stepped away from the table. “You want to know why I hate coming over to visit you, Dad? Because stuff like this always ends up happening!” She glared at her grandfather, with what she could only hope was a quarter of the power his own hard eyes held. “Jesus Christ, Billy was just playing on his phone! Who cares? Everyone does it!” She pointed her index finger at him. “And Uncle Thad was right – you shouldn’t have started yelling at him!”

“Young lady, I don’t know what you think you’re trying to do here, but you damn well better stop!” Her grandfather’s face was red as a tomato. “This doesn’t concern you in the least.”

“Annie, can you please sit down? Dad’s right, this isn’t your problem.”

She locked eyes with her weary-eyed father. How many holidays had she spent watching him sit with his shoulders slumped, unable to meet his own father’s gaze?

She stamped her foot. Was it immature? Probably, but she wasn’t the only kid in a roomful of overgrown toddlers. “No! This has been my problem my entire life. No wonder Mom hates you all. Dad, did you know she was glad when she found out what you were doing behind her back? She finally felt like she had a valid excuse to get out!” Tears burnt at the corners of her eyes, but she pushed them back. “I’m tired of coming here and trying to pretend that everything’s great. Dad, I hate this family! I hate you! I’m done trying to hide it!” She turned. “I’m calling Mom and getting an early flight home.”

“Annie!” The sound of her father standing only made her run out of the dining room faster, past the cabinets full of china dishes that no one was ever allowed to use, past the vases that cost more than the annual budget of the women’s shelter she volunteered at. Past the trees and stockings and paper reindeer and candy canes that she had spent hours putting up.

There were more voices behind her, but she focused only on the sound of her hard-soled flats as they hit the wooden floor. She hurried up the stairs, finally letting the tears stream down her face. She’d been waiting twenty-one years to finally say that and now that it was out, she was empty, deflated like a popped balloon. Hurrying into her room, she locked the door and collapsed on her bed. As she hurriedly scrolled through her contacts list, she tried to force back the sobs that sent her body shaking.

-

“Sid, go upstairs and tell that little bitch to get back downstairs and apologize.” His father wasn’t yelling any longer, but his voice seemed to permeate the entire dining room.

“Dad-”

“You heard me!” He pointed towards the open space carved into the wall that she’d run out of. “I swear, did anyone here raise their children to show an ounce of respect?”

Thaddeus walked towards his brother, putting a firm hand on his shoulder. Their eyes met, Sid’s shaking beneath his own gaze. Then, he turned to his son. “William, go upstairs and tell your cousin to pack her bags. Carry some stuff yourself if you must. She’s coming back to the hotel with us until her mother can get her a plane ticket back home.”

“But Thad,” Sid began.

He pulled away from his brother. “You heard her, Sidney. She’s leaving and so are we. I’m not going to stay here and let these continued antics keep ruining our holiday.”

“Like hell you are!” His father hurried towards them. “I don’t know what’s gotten into everyone, but this stops now!”

“You’re right, father, it does.” Thaddeus turned back towards William, who was still sitting wide-eyed in his chair. “William, get Annabelle. Please.

Without a word, he was up from his seat and racing towards the stairwell.

He cleared his throat. “Father, I’m not a child any longer. Though Sid might act like it, he isn’t either. It’s about time you stopped treating us like them.”

“You two are my sons-”

“As much as we all might wish otherwise.” Thaddeus crossed his arms over his chest. “I was serious when I said you had no right to speak to my son that way. If you ever yell at William again, I will crush your windpipe with my bare hands.”

“Oh, you little bastard, if you even think-”

“Not think, father. I know I can.”

“If you think you can say these things to me and expect your name in my will then you have more degrees than you do brains!”

Thaddeus raised an eyebrow. “A will, father? What a morbid thing to bring up at our little family get together.” He pulled his phone from his pocket. “Sid, don’t worry yourself about driving us back. I’ll call a cab once they’re done packing.”

“Thad!”

“Oh, it’s not a problem for me. Why would I ever want to trouble you, brother of mine?”

-

“I hate them! I hate them! I fucking hate him!” Annabelle threw her pillow at the wall, hitting it with a soft thump. As soon as it fell to the floor, she began stomping on it with her foot.

William looked to him, his lips creasing into a frown. Thaddeus shook his head, then leaned out his arm and squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “She needs this.”

Once they’d gotten everything into the hotel room, the anger that had suddenly appeared earlier had returned with a vengeance. Now, some two minutes later, Thaddeus could already see it beginning to leave her thin frame. His stomach flipped in his chest. How many family dinners had he sat through wishing that he could do what she had just done?

“You have every right to the anger that you’re feeling.” Thaddeus stepped forward, holding her now shaking body against his own. Her arms remained limp at her side. If she were to wrap them around him now, would he even feel it?

The collar of his jacket was turning wet. “Do you really mean that?”

He held her chin up. “Of course I do. You have more courage in your pinkie finger than your father has in his whole body.”

She gave a weak laugh. “Like that’ll do me any good.” Her tears were coming faster now. “Why hasn’t my mom picked up her phone yet?”

“I don’t know.”

She sniffled. “I wish she would.”

“You’re more than welcome to stay with us for however long you need.” He turned to William, giving him a weak smile. “Go on, tell her we aren’t as bad as we first seem.”

“Uncle Thad, was Grandpa always like this? Before… Before you put him…”

Thaddeus gritted his teeth. “For as long as I’ve lived, I’ve hated my father. Even if I knew why he acted the way he did, I don’t think I’d be able to change him.”

“I wish my dad were more like you. Maybe if he got away from the old man, if he…”

Thaddeus held back a sigh. What was he supposed to say to that? Oh, I’m sorry, but your father can fuck himself over without anyone’s help.

In the end, she locked herself in the bathroom and took a long shower. Even with the door closed, Thaddeus could still feel the steam.

“Dad, when she said you ‘put him,’ what did she mean?”

As if that mattered now! Thaddeus turned, looking out the windows of the glass balcony and into the city beyond. “My father blames me for the accident that left him paralyzed.”

William blinked. “Why?”

“Didn’t you hear him?” Thaddeus winked his one normal eye. “Because I’m an ungrateful little shit who couldn’t raise a kid correctly if I tried.”

-

Sid gaped when he opened the door that night. “Thad, what the hell are you doing here?” He leaned out, analyzing the empty driveway. “How did you get here?”

“Sid, open the door. I need to speak to you and father.”

He slowly opened the door. “Is this about earlier?”

“You already know the answer to that.”

The sound of Christmas carols, which had once filled the house through some unseen speakers, were now silent. Were it not for their footsteps, there would have been no sound at all. Thaddeus tried not to notice the fallen Christmas tree in the living room, or the broken ornaments scattered across the floor. The dining room looked as though a hurricane had passed through it.

“You really didn’t have to come here. Not now, anyway. Dad’s still in one of his moods.”

Thaddeus locked eyes with his brother, taking in the slowly darkening bruise along his cheek. “I never would have guessed.”

He was in his study on the first floor, his face buried in a stack of papers.

“Dad,” Sid called from the door, “Thad is here.”

The old man snorted. “I’m surprised with you, Thad. I half expected you to get the first plane out and to run back west with your tail between your legs.”

“Oh, luckily for you all of the flights got cancelled due to the bad weather.”

As if to emphasize this, a crack of thunder boomed across the sky. A yellow flash lit up the window over his father’s head.

“Funny thing about that. The weatherman said nothing about it all week, but this afternoon this huge storm just rolled in.” Sid gave a soft chuckle.

“Is that why you’re here, Thad? To discuss the weather?”

“Oh, hardly.”

“Did you think you could apologize for that little outburst and I’d forgive you?” He gestured towards Sid. “Go ask him how well that worked out. That little wretch can beg her mother to help pay for her useless degree. Your little hellions can grovel at my feet for all I care. And if you think your own funds are safe, you’ve got more nerve than you have any right to.”

“I’m surprised you ever gave us a cent, father. We all know how you love that money of yours.”

He snorted. “I earned every damn penny of it. If it weren’t for me, the Sivanas would have lost their birthright and become nothing. Why I ever wasted it on either of you, I’ll never understand.”

“And I bet you wish you had every wasted dollar back.” The door behind him slammed shut as if by some unseen wind. Though his father was still lost among his world of numbers, Sid’s face paled. “But again, that’s not what I’m here to discuss.”

“H-how…?” Sid leaned a hand against a nearby bookshelf.

Finally, his father turned back to look at him. “Then what the hell brought you here? I don’t have all night for your idiotic ramblings.”

“Oh, yes, Father, you most certainly do.” Another crash of lightning made the room go dark. When the lights came back on a few seconds later, Thaddeus’ bandages lay on a pile in the floor, his glasses held firmly in his left hand.

“That, your eye… What happened to it?” Sid put a hand against his own eye, as though he might protect it from… What, an infection?

“Oh, it was wonderful.” Thaddeus grinned. “After years of searching, I finally found that damn wizard.”

“Is that what this is all about?” His father was yelling again. Oh, how he loved the sound of his own voice! “Your crazy notions?”

“Yes, that’s all they ever were to you. The wild ramblings of a scared little boy that stole your legs.” He pulled the Magic Eight ball from his pocket with his free hand and shook it, watching as blue electrical sparks shimmered across its surface. He dropped it to the ground, rolling it towards the front wheels of his father’s chair. “But that’s not quite true, is it? Unless you got some high-end prosthetics since the last time I saw you, those look like legs to me.” He grinned, holding up a glowing blue hand. “Not that it really matters what they are, because I know you don’t need them.”

His father froze, his eyes locked on Thaddeus’ hand.

“How… How in the hell are you doing that, Thad?” Sid asked.

“Magic – how else?”

With a quick flick of his wrist, some books floated off his father’s shelf and crashed abruptly to the floor. An old record machine came unhooked and hit the wall opposite where it had been sitting. The storm outside continued, the banging of thunder sounding like angry little deities throwing plates at one another.

“I assure you I saw the wizard that night, father. I’ve only been trying to tell you that ever since it happened.”

“Why was I supposed to believe you?” His father wasn’t yelling now. “Thad, surely you understand! This is all just so…”

“Unbelievable?” Thaddeus chuckled. “All things considered, I think I took the sudden change in my world’s outlook rather well.”

“So you aren’t crazy! We were wrong!” That was Sid now, stepping between Thaddeus and their father. “We should have listened to you.”

“There are a lot of things you shouldn’t have done, weren’t there?” Thaddeus stepped forward, grabbing Sid’s tie. The fabric sizzled, breaking loose. Sid stepped back, staring at one of its smoking ends. “Oh, we all have our problems with father. It’s fun to commiserate on our shared misery over him. But like you said, Sid, he wasn’t the only one calling me crazy.”

“Thad, I know what I did was wrong. But I was just a kid. That’s what you do to your little brother, right?”

“Oh, yes. And I presume you were acting like only the most upstanding adult during our last Christmas together.”

He grabbed Sid by the neck this time, watching his eyes bulge out and his tongue flop like a ragdoll inside of his half-opened mouth. “I spent the first third of my life terrified of you, Sidney. The reason I never paid attention during mass was because I knew the devil was on earth, living in the same house as me.”

His mouth moved but no sound came out. Thaddeus could feel his body shaking, his arms and legs futilely scratching against the floor and air. By the time Thaddeus let go of him, his neck was black as a piece of coal. A stream of blood spilled down across his lips, dripping off his chin. His eyes moved wildly across the room before suddenly going still. The tips of his fingers were only a few inches from the Magic Eight ball he’d once torn from Thaddeus’ hands.

Thaddeus leaned down, looking into those glassy eyes that were once his brother’s. “Are you sorry now, Sid? I thought you were tougher than that.”

When he stood, he felt the hardy presence of the sins behind him. How many of these same incidents had they witnessed alongside him but been unable to intervene in?

“Yes, father, I found the wizard. But I found some other old friends of mine as well.”

His father turned from the smoking remains of his eldest son on the floor and back to the face of his youngest. “Thad…”

“Father, all your life you’ve been chasing power. When you couldn’t lord it over your wife, you took what little I had from me. If the lawsuit records are correct as well, you even got a few politicians under your thumb. Oh, you must have felt so big! Bodog Sivana, chief executive officer of Sivana Industries, the big man in the room!” He gestured towards the sins. “But that’s where you were wrong, Father. You can have all of the money in the world and you still wouldn’t have an ounce of real power.”

“Thad-”

“Thaddeus!” he roared. “My name is Doctor Thaddeus Sivana and you’d do damn well to remember it for once.”

“Thaddeus, be reasonable. If there’s some way that I can make it up to you… Is it the company? Take it! The house? A wonderful home for the boy, all yours.”

“If you ever speak of William again, I will rip your tongue out of your throat and make you eat it.”

His father stilled.

“I told you already, I don’t need your damn money. This house is nothing more than a fancy pile of painted sticks. What I need, I already have.” He stepped around his father, coming up behind his chair and wrapping his arms around his chest. “The sins are hungry. Why don’t we let them eat?”

As the sins ripped Sid apart into a bunch of little pieces as though he were made of nothing but paper, Thaddeus eyed the clock. He’d told William and Annabelle that he’d be out for a few hours. Somehow, only an hour and fifteen minutes had passed since he’d first left the hotel. It seemed like ages. He’d spent all his life waiting for this moment, so why let it end so quickly?

“What are they, Thaddeus?”

“The angels sent down to earth to give you your final retribution, father.”

“Please don’t do this to me. There must be some way…”

In all his life, he’d never seen his father cry. Not when Thaddeus was stupid enough to bring up his mother, not when the doctor told him what he already knew: that he’d never walk again. Now, it was as if all the tears he’d forced back were finally strong enough to break free from him.

When there was nothing left of Sid but bits of blood, bone, and a scorched black mark in the floor, Thaddeus called the sins back to him. All five returned save for Greed, who stood by the door, its four arms outstretched.

“Father, meet my little friend Greed. I’d think you two know each other quite well already, but it would rude of me to not introduce you two.”

“Thaddeus, please stop this!”

“Why? What have you ever done to deserve my mercy?” He turned and gestured for the creature to come forward. “I need only a few more moments with him and then he’s all yours.”

Its bulging yellow eyes never left him as Thaddeus placed his hands across first his father’s left leg and then his right. They twitched when they hit the floor before finally going still.

“And here I thought you didn’t have any nerves left down there!” Thaddeus grinned, looking up into his father’s eyes from where he sat perched on his knees.

His father’s eyes screamed since his mouth could not. Sweat poured down his face.

“No parting curse for me? Father, you’ve really lost your edge.” He gave Greed one last glance before heading out the door. He held his glowing hands against it until a flame broke through the wood. Another crack of lightning again turned the house dark. Thaddeus used the growing fire and the sparks from his hands to help guide him back outside into the cold night.

Chapter Text

“Oh my god! I can’t believe this!” Billy didn’t get a good chance to look at her face before she shifted, but he thought saw tears dotting the tips of Annie’s eyes.

“We’re going to have to start calling you Annie Oakley!”

With shaking hands, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone before handing it to him. “I want to remember this forever!”

Quickly, she pushed her hair off her shoulders and her put a hand across the dull metal gun chained to the game booth’s front. Billy stepped back, making sure that the picture showed what little was left of a piece of paper that now resembled a slice of Swiss cheese. It was hard to imagine that it had once had a bright red star in its center.

“Smile!” Billy took some pictures in quick succession from multiple angles.

“Let me see!” Annie said once he pulled her phone away from his face. Quickly, she scrolled through them. Billy leaned over her shoulder to get a look as well. “Nice! Just wait until I text Mom this.”

Due to sudden storms in the Philadelphia area, as well as plane tickets constantly selling out, Annie’s mother had decided it was best that she just leave on the twenty-third as originally planned. Though Aunt Adelaide had offered to pay for an extra hotel room, his father had agreed to cover the cost. By sheer luck, it was on the same floor as the one he and his father were staying in.

“Price is by no means an issue. It’s the season of giving, after all,” he’d said over the phone the night before.

“Excuse me, but there’s a line.” the carnie running the booth spoke. Billy turned, locking eyes with the tired-eyed twenty-something. He gestured towards the row of pillow-sized stuffed animals hanging above his head. “What’d you like, miss?”

Annie’s eyes widened. She turned towards Billy and laughed. “I never thought this far ahead. Any ideas?”

Billy looked over the toys, taking in the unicorns, teddy bears, and dogs. It was only then that he noticed a large plush tiger tucked into a corner.

“Billy, you look like a good kid… But there’s no place for me in your life, and there never has been.”

If he hadn’t decided to abstain on corn dogs and cotton candy until after riding some rollercoasters, he might have dumped some toxic waste. Shouldn’t he have known something like this would happen? His father’s one visible eye had about fallen out of its socket when he’d suggested heading to Chilladelphia for the day.

After all, there was always a chance that she could show up among the crowds.

Billy shook his head, forcing the thoughts away. What did it matter if he saw her? She probably wouldn’t even recognize him. And even if she did, what would she do? All she’d have to do is recede back into the crowds to become a stranger again.

“You’re right, I’m not feeling that cat either.” Annie tapped her chin, then grinned and pointed towards a sparkly blue unicorn with a purple horn and hooves. “That one, please!”

Just as the two had walked about twenty feet away from the booth, they ran back into Billy’s dad. His eye widened when he saw the plush that was larger than a small child.

“How much did that cost you?”

Annie was grinning from ear to ear. “Only five dollars on my first try!”

He gave her a small smile in return. “Should I believe that?”

Annie gave him a playful scowl. “Tell him, Billy!”

Billy quickly filled him in on the tale. “Hey, Dad, have you eaten yet?”

His father looked away from him to a nearby booth. “Oh, yes. What about you two?”

Billy turned to Annie. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

As three left the midway, swimming against a sea of people desperate to get on a ride or try their hand at a (very likely to be rigged) game, Billy continued to discuss the day’s event thus far.

“You actually rode that thing?” His father pointed to the Supernova in the distance, which stood almost thirty feet in the air and spun riders over three-hundred-sixty degrees in circles.

Annie nodded. “But I can’t say that I’m glad we did.”

Twenty minutes later, the three (four?) of them sat down at a picnic table. Billy bit into a turkey leg, savoring the warm meat as it heated up his cheeks. Annie was eating a cheeseburger on a stick and strawberry ice cream because, quote, “It’s best in the wintertime because you don’t have to worry about it melting.”

“So where have you been, Dad?” They’d taken an Uber to the carnival that morning, leaving his father at the hotel.

“In a lot of office calls, mostly. My coworkers must not have thought I was serious when I said to not email me for three weeks.” He shrugged. “I suppose I can’t complain. Anything’s better than getting dragged onto one of those rusted metal death traps with you two!”

Billy snorted. “Just for that, we’re dragging you on one before we leave!”

Once she had finished eating, Annie pulled her unicorn to her side. “Hey, did you seen anything you want? I think I can snag you a teddy bear or two.”

“Hardly! Dad only let me pack carry-on luggage.”

“I was just offering.”

“So, what should we do tomorrow?” It was the day before Annie left and one of the busiest days in the American calendar.

“That means I’m one step closer to going back to school,” she’d remarked dryly the night before when Billy had broached her leaving. “Whoopie!”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You two don’t have to go anywhere, you know. The crowds this time of year are awful.”

“Bah humbug to you too, Uncle Thaddeus!” Annie rubbed her chin. “I’ve still got nothing.”

“If we don’t finish all of the rides before we leave tonight, maybe we can come back here.”

-

“I can see Dad’s office from here!” Annabelle pointed to a building in the distance. Thaddeus turned his head away from it, locking his eyes on the rows of technicolor rides and ant-sized tourists wondering the fair. The whole place was lit up like a giant neon Christmas tree.

“I see Independence Hall!” William responded. The two leaned out of the gondola, taking in the sights.

“Sit back! The last thing I need is for one of you to fall out. They’d be cleaning up the concrete for months.” Thaddeus reached out and pulled William back by his shoulder.

“What a sick way to go, though,” William remarked.

“Sounds awful to me,” Annabelle replied, clutching her plush unicorn tighter. “Can you imagine?”

William shrugged. “There are worse ways to go. It’d have to be pretty quick, right?”

“Oh, you never know,” Thaddeus replied. He turned, taking in the Sivana Enterprises building in the distance. From this far out, he could only make out the first three glowing letters on its side.

-

When Annie exited the elevator, she adjusted her hold on her plush so that it was slightly covering the right side of her face. It was because of this that she bumped into the blue-clad police officer further down the hallway.

She froze, the two momentarily gazing confusedly at one another. Then the cop’s partner, a short-haired black woman, cleared her throat. Her gaze moved from Annie to her uncle. It was only then that Annie noticed the door that the two had been standing in front of.

“Are you Mr. Thaddeus Sivana?”

“It’s doctor Sivana.”

“Then you are related to Bodog and Sidney Sivana?” The younger cop, the one Annie had bumped into, spoke this time. She was a red-headed white woman who looked fresh out of the academy, probably only two years older than Annie herself was at most.

Annie’s throat suddenly went dry. Her voice shook when she spoke. “What happened to Dad?”

Not ”Did something happen to my dad?” Why would the cops be here if something wasn’t already the matter?

Neither of the policewomen even looked at her.

“Doctor Sivana,” the older officer said, “something happened recently at your family’s estate. I know it’s late, but we need you to answer some questions for us.”

“What happened?” Annie repeated. The toy slipped from between her fingers, but she hardly noticed its absence.

“I’m afraid that’s classified information.”

Chapter Text

"What can you tell me about your brother?"

For nearly twenty minutes, Thaddeus and Detective Lauren Sullivan had exchanged tense pleasantries in his hotel room. She watched him with a hawk like gaze while Thaddeus had brewed coffee and picked up and folded the clothes that William left littered around his bed.

"My apologies for the mess."

She snorted. "If you think this is bad, you'd drop dead if you saw my daughter's room."

He'd picked through the assortment of complimentary pods offered by the hotel - espresso, salted caramel, hazelnut - before settling on the one simply labelled "Doughnut Shop Delights" in honor of her profession. As the machine whirred and the room filled with the smell of coffee beans, Thaddeus' mouth watered for the first time in a week. It had been over two days since he'd bothered even to nibble on anything. The hotel waffles that William had spent the last few days gorging himself on had looked as appetizing as freshly poured cement. He'd barely looked at the plate of food that Sid had handed to him at lunch yesterday. Even the brightly colored food stands at the carnival hadn't caught his eye, even as he'd paid for William and Annabelle's dinners.

Now, he wanted to take the styrofoam cup of coffee he was handing the detective and drink it one gulp.

Yes, wanted. For the past few days, his mind had been locked on business. On putting his father and brother in their places, on ripping apart their fragile worldviews and watching them shake like tall grass beneath a harsh wind.

And what a joy it had been! For once he could lay awake at night and not worry about unexpected phone calls or Christmas cards. The memories that had clung to him for years like spiderwebs could finally be brushed off. He could draw back the curtains of his life and stare into a clear, sunny future.

"Thank you," she said. He licked his lips as he watched her bring it to her mouth and take a long gulp.

When Detective Ken Wakefield finally arrived, Thaddeus' own cup was halfway finished brewing.

"Sorry, Sully, I didn't mean to run so damn late. It's nothing but traffic between here and the scene. I swear, this time of year it's like people think all the laws go out the window."

She raised an eyebrow. "Did you write any tickets?"

He gave a throaty laugh. "I ain't adding to my job duties until the commish finally agrees to that raise I've been asking for."

The other detective was a good ten to fifteen years Sullivan's senior, with greying brown hair and green eyes dwarfed beneath a pile of dark bags. He looked Thaddeus over, his expression unreadable. He started another round of pleasantries.

"And you're Mr. Sivana, right?"

"Doctor Sivana," Detective Sullivan corrected him.

He raised an eyebrow. "What do you practice?"

Thaddeus chuckled. "I'm not that kind of doctor."

"Then what are you?" he asked, not unkindly.

"Oh, I have a few PhD's in psychology, archaeology, physics..." He paused. "And magic."

Detective Sullivan chuckled. "Oh, don't we all?"

"But that's hardly what you came to discuss, is it?"

"Of course not, sir." He gestured absently around the room. "We aren't here to waste your time." He turned, locking eyes with Detective Sullivan. Their faces shifted but neither spoke for a few moments.

Detective Sullivan cleared her throat, standing from the plush seat by the balcony windows that she'd been sitting in for nearly thirty minutes. "We're just here to ask you about an incident." She pulled a small black box from her front pocket. "You don't mind if we record this, do you?"

"Have at it." He furrowed his brow. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened?"

The real question should have been what hadn't. With his newfound calm had come a renewed anger. Had what he'd done been enough to repay his family for years of misery? Had his father and brother felt even a fraction of the pain that clung to him? There were just so many ways that things could have gone deliciously different. Could he really have expected what transpired the night before to be enough?

Not that it mattered, Thaddeus reminded himself. Bodog and Sidney Sivana were now nothing more than fading memories on this world.

"Well," Detective Wakefield said, "we can't go into the full details yet. I find it silly myself after what happened, but that's protocol for you."

"Let's cut to the chase," Detective Sullivan added. She folded her hands together. "What can you tell me about your brother?"

After a few moments of simply staring at her, she repeated her question.

"My brother isn't always easy to get along with." He took a sip of his coffee. It took a moment for his tongue to register the taste of caramel. "I was thinking of skipping Christmas with him and my father this year just to avoid the headache." He looked away from them. "Did something happen to them? Was he drinking?"

That caught their attention.

"Does your brother have issues with alcohol?" Detective Wakefield asked.

"Oh, I thought you all would have known already. I thought your type kept meticulous records." He shook his head. "I just can't imagine the incident twelve years back getting purged from his record."

"If you're referring to his last DUI, that was actually thirteen years ago." Detective Sullivan shook her head. "Did you read about it, Ken?"

"I called in Smith over the radio and had her read me the details." He locked eyes with Thaddeus. "Were you around when it happened?"

"Not at all! You see, my son and I live in California. If it weren't for the news eating it up, my father or brother might never have mentioned it to me." And what a delight it had been! He'd had all of the talking heads recorded just so he could watch them slam Sid again and again. For a while it had seemed as if karma or magic or whatever forces pulled the universe's strings had finally caught up to him. What had Sidney been thinking? Nothing, probably. Even when sober the man had a brain the size of a chestnut.

For months he'd followed the lawsuit, checking the news religiously. His brother had been shipped off to rehab and his father hired men to keep reporters away. Thaddeus himself had spent his evenings dreaming of lawsuits and criminal convictions.

Oh, but how cruel the universe was! His father had money and knew damn well how to use it. All of the serious charges had been dropped, the lawsuit forgotten once the victims' families had been handed a fat enough check. His father's lawyers had even convinced them to sign a contract agreeing not to discuss it or pursue legal action again further down the line.

The news media forgot the victims even quicker than it did the perpetrator. Sid sobered up and continued life as usual. Life moved on. Sivana Industries stocks initially plummeted, but had risen back to normal less than two years after all was said and done. His father had left retirement to take the CEO reins back from Sid. Some four years after and his brother was again a member of the board of directors. Even the tabloids stopped following him.

"So you were never part of the case?" Detective Sullivan asked.

"Oh, I got a call from my father requesting that I be a character witness. What a sad business that was... I assume you already know what I told him." He steeled his shoulders. "So was he drinking again?"

Thaddeus had to keep himself from laughing. Having the sins around had made everything so much easier. With them, people had a way of... It was hard to describe just what happened or how the sins did it, but people were so much more pliable for him now. Airline attendants ignored him, people looked away from the bandages around his eye, even the hotel staff had quickly changed the booking someone had on Annabelle's room and given it to him completely free.

And right then he didn't even need the sins! It was as if his decades of waiting had finally paid off. Things were looking up.

"No one has any idea. Frankly, we don't have enough details to tell you if alcohol is involved." Detective Wakefield absently rubbed at his arm.

They were silent for almost thirty seconds. Thaddeus finished his coffee, crumpled up the cup, and tossed it into a nearby trash can.

"Tell us about your father." Detective Wakefield broke the silence.

"He is...." Thaddeus sighed. "He's quite a man. I can only imagine how he reacted to Sidney's little incident. My father has his own history with car accidents."

"In general," Detective Sullivan clarified. "What was he like?"

"Oh, my father is hard to get along with. I blame it on his parents - Hungarian immigrants. My grandparents were never the touchy-feely type." He shrugged. "But while my father struggles to give affection, I greatly respect him. He fought for his fortune and respect in the world, even before his accident. We've had our own disagreements, but I'll always admire him." He bit his lip. "Has something happened to him?"

Again there was silence. Not even the vomit-inducing spiel that Thaddeus had just given them could pull their lips apart. What they clearly needed was a little push.

But before the sins could do anything, Detective Wakefield spoke again. "And how do your brother and father get along?"

"Oh, my brother respects my father as well as I do. Anyone who meets him would. But things have been hard lately. Dad is old and stubborn, and refuses to hire help in his old age. Sid does his best to look after him, but it's an uphill battle." He shook his head. "I don't want you to get any ideas. My father isn't the type that you can just throw into some home in Florida. But Sid would love if someone else were around to help him get into the shower and put his pants on."

Again there was silence. Thaddeus looked to the electronic clock on his dresser. Were they going to be here all night?

"The evidence is by no means conclusive, but we believe your brother may have killed your father and set his house on fire to try and hide it." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Detective Sullivan blinked.

"Have you recieved any contact at all from your brother within the last day? We've already got a team looking for him."

The detectives stared at each other. Wakefield had paled, while Sullivan was chewing on her lips.

Oh, what a help those sins were!

Thaddeus fell onto William's bed, the closest one there was to him. "Can you repeat that for me, officers?"

"We... We've already said too much."

"We don't fully know what happened yet. There's really no need to be worried."

"Worried? You just told me my father is dead!"

While both detectives bumbled over their words, Sullivan was able to pull some tissues from her pocket. Thaddeus wiped the tears that had quickly fallen from his eye.

"I can't believe it!"

"We'll call you when we know more." They quickly left the room. Thaddeus watched them and the third, young red-headed officer scurry down the hallway in silence.

Oh, he really could have laughed!

Instead, he went back into his room and began smoothing out the wrinkles in William's bed. Yes, it was turning into a merry little Christmas!

-

"It's been almost two hours." Billy hadn't been able to bring himself to open the door and peek down the hallway for almost sixty minutes. Whenever he did, the young officer standing outside the door would give him a death glare. "What's taking them?"

"I told you, Billy, I don't know. Don't they always take a million years in cop shows?"

"This is serious!" Billy collapsed against the door. "What if my dad goes to jail?"

Was this why he never discussed his work?

"We've already been over this." Annie stood from her bed, walking over and giving him a hug. "Unless your dad is secretly a drug kingpin, they have no reason to arrest him. It's not like his tacky fashion sense is actually a crime."

Billy didn't respond. What could he say to make her really listen to him? If his dad went to jail, his life was down the tubes. It would be back to foster care for him. But at least that would be more pleasant that being sent to live with his grandfather and uncle. If it came to that, he'd run away and squat in abandoned houses until he turned eighteen.

All of those "what-ifs" had been playing on repeat inside of his head ever since he'd come into Annie's room. He'd tried playing a game on his phone or watching the Peanuts Christmas special on TV, but nothing could stop his brain from running down the path it was on. What was going on? Was his dad okay?

The sudden knock on the door made him utter a very un-manly squeaking noise. He pulled away from Annie and hurriedly opened the door.

"Dad!" Billy wrapped his arms around him and squeezed him with every ounce of strength in his body.

"Uncle Thaddeus!" Annie quickly joined in.

Though his father returned the squeeze, he was the one who broke away from them. He ushered them further into the room, then pulled the door shut behind him.

Billy's throat tightened. His father's one visible eye was red and puffy.

"Dad, are you going to jail?"

He shook his head. "Of course not, William. I don't know where you'd get the idea." He sighed. Raising a hand, he massaged his forehead. "I don't know where to begin to explain this to you kids. I certainly don't want to..."

Chapter Text

"You take care of yourself now, Billy, okay?" Annabelle pulled William into a hug. When they pulled apart, she turned towards Thaddeus. "Thank you so much, Uncle Thaddeus. I don't know what I would have done these last few days without you."

He pulled her up against him. "There's no thanks needed. I just wish I could have given you two a better holiday."

She sniffled. "Yeah, well that's not your fault, is it?" When she stepped away from him, she looked him in the eyes. "You take care of yourself too."

He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Of course. Be sure to get straight A's, all right?"

She gave a weak laugh. "Now don't start sounding like my mom."

He and William watched her pass through security and into the waiting area. Her flight back to Nashville would begin boarding in twenty minutes. It wouldn't be too much longer before they themselves headed home, though he'd decided to stay a few extra days in case the police needed him. In a few short days, he'd say goodbye to Philadelphia forever.

"You hungry for lunch?" Thaddeus asked.

William shook his head. "I'm not hungry at all."

"Is this about...?"

"No." He wouldn't meet Thaddeus' gaze. "Just sad to see Annie go, I guess."

-

For Christmas, they got Chinese food and saw a movie. No wonder Freddy had thought they were Jewish!

Billy finished off the last of the popcorn, then threw the bag into the trash. He'd shoved it towards his dad a few times during the flick, but he'd always pushed it away. Halfway through, he'd closed his eye. Billy had considered waking him but had stopped himself. He'd been so quiet over the past few days, there in body but not in spirit.

"Did you like it?" He knew the answer already but asked anyway.

His father grunted. "Anywhere else you want to go?"

"No thank you, I'm kind of beat."

After Annie had left, he'd considered telling his dad about Freddy's offer but stopped himself. His father had enough family drama of his own already to deal with.

Just the thought of what his father had told him made bile rise in Billy's throat. Annie hadn't seemed able to comprehend it.

Could he? He supposed he didn't really. It was better to just push it to the back of his mind, to pretend that his father had been describing a movie's plot. That incident had occurred, he told himself, in someone else's life.

Freddy's face flashed through his mind. What was he up to? Had Darla recieved her Wonder Woman action figure yet? According to Freddy, she adored her new Batgirl. He'd filled Billy in on the presents he'd gotten other family members, too. He and Pedro had both chipped in to buy Mary a CalTech hoodie. Eugene had gotten a new case for his Nintendo Switch. Pedro had gotten some, quote, weird diet shake mixes that probably taste like dog crap. Rosa got scented candles. Victor got a new coffee mug.

No, Billy couldn't be sure just what they were up to that day. But something told him their Christmas was going miles better than his was.

-

The wizard lives.

End him before he can find a new champion.

Waiting only dooms yourself.

Thaddeus pushed the sins away. They'd get their revenge on the wizard in due time. It wasn't as if the old man had any strength left to regain. He was probably still stooped over somewhere in his cave, frantically searching for some perfect soul. Whether he died by Thaddeus' hand or not, his final wish would remain unfulfilled.

He couldn't leave, not now. William was still tossing and turning in the bed across from him. For a few hours, he'd gone still. Then, he began to moan out words that Thaddeus couldn't make out. The same thing had happened on the two nights prior.

A lump formed in his throat. He'd told the boy the police's words only because he didn't want him to find out about it on the news.

Every time he tried to bring it up again, William would look away. The boy always had some new subject on the tip of his tongue.

He sighed. Even if William didn't get much sleep that night, he'd have a long plane ride ahead of him the next day. Their bags sat packed against the wall.

Then, once they were back home, he could deal with the wizard. Finish this nonsense once and for all. And then...

And then what? The sins gnawed at his mind, cried out for more more more more-

But what they wanted he couldn't do. Soon enough he'd have all he needed - a life free of his family, a world cleansed of the wizard's prescense, magic at his disposal. He didn't need the unimaginable power that the sins whispered to him of, to have his boot held down on the neck of the world.

The sooner they realized that, the better things would be for all of them.

-

"Wake me when they land." His father was out cold almost as soon as the in-flight safety training ended and the plane was off the ground.

Billy pulled a book from his backpack, flipping through it but not quite reading it. Outside there was nothing but blue skies and thick clouds for miles.

He had called Freddy that morning and said they were leaving. He hadn't elaborated. Instead of asking questions, Freddy had gone on about the latest episode of his podcast that he was working on.

"That figure you got Darla gave me the idea. I hadn't looked into it too deeply beforehand, but Batgirl hasn't been seen in almost two years. It's like she fell off the face of the earth. What do you think happened to her?"

"How should I know?"

He thought back to what Freddy had said but could only half remember the theories he'd listed. She'd been arrested and was being held hostage somewhere by the feds. She'd gone rogue, abandoning Batman, maybe even gone evil. Maybe a villain had killed her. Which?

Freddy had asked him if he'd like to be a guest star on the show. This time, he hadn't asked again when Billy said no.

His phone in airplane mode, he flicked through the photos that Annie had texted him of her Christmas back home. Pictures of sweet potato and pumpkin pies made his mouth water, but they were only the tip of the iceberg. She'd set up a hot chocolate bar complete with sprinkles, whipped cream, and every type of candy under the sun. Roasted chicken and turkey were the crowning jewels of a table packed with enough food to feed an army. And the presents! Annie had sent about a million photos of her mother proudly holding up the blanket that she had knit for her.

Have you told her yet? Billy had asked the night before.

She texted back in less than two minutes. I can't, not when all of her family is here. Besides, why should I ruin her Christmas?

"I don't know where to begin to explain this to you kids. I certainly don't want to..."

He thought again of Batgirl, Annie, Freddy, anything that crossed his mind. They passed through his mind quickly, but his father's words echoed through his brain endlessly.

Billy stood, walking past the seats full of tired families and dreary eyed business types. There was a small line outside of the bathroom, so he waited about seven minutes before he got inside. Once he did, he slammed it shut and turned the lock as hard as he could.

The face staring back at him in the mirror was unmistakably his own, but that didn't make it any easier to look at. He turned the faucet on and splashed lukewarm water on his face. After what could have been thirty minutes or thirty hours, he shut the tap off, wiped his hands on the sides of his jeans, and reached for the lock.

For a moment, he was dumbfounded. Try as he might, he couldn't pull the lock to open the door. When his fingers hurt too much from vainly clutching at it, he balled his hands into fists and began pounding on the door.

"Hey! Can somebody get help?"

No reply came.

He turned, meeting his gaze's reflection momentarily before the mirror iced over. Billy froze, watching as ice spread across the walls. There must have been rough winds outside because suddenly the room was shaking.

"Hey! Can anybody hear me?"

He squished his eyes shut, tried to force away whatever was happening. When he opened his eyes again, the room was icier than ever.

"Someone, please!" If nothing else in the room was, at least Billy knew his voice was real. His breath fogged as he spoke.

Pulling his phone from his pocket, he frantically turned it on only to be greeted by flashing yellow symbols. With shaking hands, he forced down the power button, but to no avail. His phone hit the floor, the screen cracking on the impact. Small bits of glass littered the floor. When he picked it up, the symbols were still there.

He began pulling at the lock again. "Please! Can anybody hear me?" He forced tears back from his eyes. "Dad! Dad, can you hear me? Anyone?"

The plane suddenly shook so hard that he was knocked on his butt. Billy gritted his teeth. Glass dug into his hands.

"Please, someone-"

With another long shake from below him, the door suddenly opened. Billy put his hands to his face.

"H-Hello?"

There was no reply. No matter how many times he blinked, all he saw before him was a long rocky hall. It was like something the dwarfs from The Lord of the Rings would live in.

Billy pulled the door shut, slamming the lock into place.

"Please... If you can hear me..."

When he opened the door again, he was in the same rocky cavern. No words left his mouth, just a long, sharp scream.

-

"Shit," Billy mumbled, rubbing at the side of his throbbing head. His shoulders ached as if someone had been sitting on them. He sat up, blinking to get his eyes adjusted to the light.

"No."

He was still in that creepy cave. He turned around, searching desperately for the door to the frozen bathroom, for his phone, for anything.

He sat there for a long time, taking in heavy, fast breaths, half sure that he was going to pass out again. With shaking hands, he wiped pebbles and dust from the front of his hoodie.

This was all a nightmare, some wild hallucination caused by stress or jank hotel food. He reminded himself of this as he stood up and slowly began to walk around the room, his hands held out ahead of him. His legs moved slowly and unevenly, as though his muscles had been replaced with jelly. Was this how Freddy felt?

"Hey, can anyone hear me? Hello?"

He came into a room filled with doors. No matter which he pulled onto, they remained locked as tightly as the bathroom door had been. Kicking them only made his leg throb with pain. The next room was filled with broken objects. Smashed jewelry boxes and treasure chests, busted mirrors and the sharded remains of a glass dome surrounded him. Billy did his best to step around them.

Soon, on shaking legs, he arrived into a long hallway. There was a bit more light here than there had been in the rest of the cave, though he saw only tall stone walls leading into darkness when he looked above him.

A newfound strength shot through him when he saw the vague image of a man before him. He hurried forward.

"Billy Batson." The man could have been tall once, probably had been. Now, though, his back was stooped, held down as if by some unseen weight. His hair was storm cloud grey, his eyes glowing an unnatural blue. His robe, red and long enough to cover his feet, had a neon yellow lightning bolt stitched into its center.

It was glowing as well. Billy wasn't sure why that stuck out to him, not in this place that made Oz and Wonderland look everyday, but it did. For a moment, he kept his eyes locked on the glowing shape.

"I... I think you have the wrong person." Billy tried to keep his voice from squeaking. "My name is William Sivana."

"Don't you dare speak that name!" The man hit the ground with the tip of the staff he was holding, sending sparks flying across the room. Billy had to blink a few times before his vision cleared.

"I'm sorry."

"Billy Batson," the man repeated, stepping towards him slowly. "I have called upon you in my time of great need."

"Who are you?"

"I am Shazam, the last of the magic counsel. Once there were seven other wizards and witches as strong as myself, who could share in my power. They are no more."

"Yes?" Okay, so he was in who knows where with a really high guy who hadn't changed clothes since the eighties. It figured.

"My brothers and sisters died defending the world from the terror of the Seven Deadly Sins." He tapped his cane again, and from it rose golden images of cities long forgotten. People ran from glowing yellow monsters. A woman came racing towards him, her lips pulled back into a silent scream. Billy tensed, but before she could ram into him, she vanished into dust.

"Yes?" Billy repeated. He didn't know who this guy was or what virtual reality game he'd stepped into, but suddenly Billy was craving microwaved airline meals.

"For years I held them back as their only prison warden. I searched the world for ages to find a champion, someone who could share in my power and protect the world when I no longer could. My power weakened. No champion came." He gestured towards a pile of rubble that lined the hallways. Billy hadn't taken much notice of it before. He'd been too focused on the wizard, the only other person here, wherever the hell here was.

"Once I held the sins back, protecting the world from their wrath. Now they have escaped into the world again. I can no longer wait for a champion. My power has called upon you, Billy Batson. Submit to me and I will give you my magic." He was standing in front of Billy now.

"Seven Deadly Sins... Yeah..." So was this guy Catholic? No, they hated magic. His mind flashed back to an article that his sixth grade English teacher had made the class read about religious groups burning Harry Potter books.

"You couldn't begin to imagine the damage that they could do to this world." He held his staff out. "Take my staff and say my name. Accept my power."

Billy's mouth dried.

"Grab my staff!"

He stepped back. "Uh, sorry dude, but stranger danger."

This time, the man thrust the staff at him. Billy's fingers brushed against the gnarled wood and-

And he sat in the center of a brightly lit throne room, a much fancier version of the one before him. The place was so filled with gold and sparkling gem stones that it was comical. In the seats around him sat two other men and four women. They looked nothing alike, did not even speak the same language, but they were connected by a force stronger than the magic that shot from their fingertips. One of the women, with mahogany skin and black hair that went down to her feet, looked at him with glowing lavender eyes.

"We cannot hold them back for much longer." It was not the words she spoke that he truly understood, but the feeling behind them.

"We've held them off long enough. So long as we continue to combine our forces, they cannot defeat us." The man who spoke's hair wasn't blonde, but an almost jaundiced shade of yellow. He was impossibly thin, with skin so clear that it looked grey because of the rocks behind him.

"They feed off of our fighting," came another woman. Her short-cropped hair was violet in color, her cat-like eyes glowing green. Within her wrinkled brown hands was a staff much like the wizard's.

"But even you," Billy boomed, except it wasn't his voice but the wizard's, "must see that even we are not enough. If they escape again..."

And then he wasn't in the throne room any longer, but standing in front of a pyramid. Atop, glowing in the sun, was a four-armed monster with green wings. The wizard-who-was-Billy-but-wasn't sent a crackling stream of lightning at it from the tip of his staff. It fell, crying out, but its shriek was lost in a sea of screams as people rushed past.

Then he stood before a row of graves carrying a pain in his heart greater than any blow could inflict. Statues cried out to him, their taunts echoing in his ears as he clutched his staff tighter and his vision went red.

Then came the stream of people. Their clothes changed, and they were every race, nationality, ability, and origin under the sun. Men in togas, women in corsets, the old, the young, artists, merchants, cowboys, laborers, soldiers, nurses, chief executive officers. Always different but always unworthy.

Billy pulled away. He stared at the man, at his staff, at the cave around him that was so big that it threatened to swallow him forever.

"You saw."

Billy nodded. "I... I still don't understand. Mister, I'm not a champion."

"You can and you must be one." He thrust his staff at Billy again, who closed his eyes to force the images back. "There isn't much time left. Say my name!"

Billy gave a hard swallow before speaking. "Sh..."

"Say it!"

"Shazam!"

Billy's vision exploded. Lightning crackled, turning his world a blinding white before again going black. Shazam's staff clattered to the floor. The wizard's hands shook, turning to dust as the woman from his earlier vision had.

"Stop the sins! Reclaim the glory of our brothers and sisters!"

For the longest time afterwards, Billy stared at the spot where Shazam had stood. Other than his staff, there was no trace of him left.

Billy shuddered. His hands weren't his own, his body impossibly large. He stared down at the red fabric covering and the tip of a white cape, his brain only half comprehending what he saw.

"What happened?" He was yelling again. Perhaps if he spoke loud enough then someone, anyone would finally answer him. The voice was foreign; when he spoke heard only a stranger. "Please, Shazam!"

Another explosion. There was enough force behind it to knock Billy off of his feet. When he opened his eyes again, he was on his knees. His palms were bleeding, and tears stung at the edges of his eyes.

He... He'd turned into an adult, some sort of superhero.

A superhero! Freddy knew everything about superheroes. The dude probably even knew who Batman really was but wouldn't admit it unless he was being waterboarded. Freddy would certainly know what to do. He already had a whole list of things that he would do if he ever got superpowers, and had even showed it a few times to Billy as he updated it.

Billy closed his eyes. "Freddy! Freddy Freeman!"

-

Thaddeus pulled off his eye mask and blinked momentarily at the light.

Either William was in the bathroom doing anything and everything except what it was made for or he was somewhere else. Thaddeus couldn't quite imagine where. Had he tried sneaking into first class? Met someone else his age on the plane and gotten into some longwinded discussion about video games?

Whatever it was, he couldn't sit around waiting any longer. He stared at the empty seat beside him. Then, holding the chair in front of him, he pushed himself up and hurried down the aisle, his heartbeat echoing in his ears.

Chapter Text

Freddy pulled out the plastic batarang he kept under his pillow, searching the darkness for the source of the thunk that had awoken him. He'd been dreaming when he'd heard it, though the details of this night's mirage had slipped from his mind as soon as he opened his eyes. The noise was as loud as a thunder clap. Though the batarang was only a replica, he'd sharpened the edges enough to draw blood - a fact written into a set of scars that had never fully faded from his fingertips.

"Who's there?" Freddy called. He blinked, but no matter how hard he tried, the dark lump in the center of his bedroom remained hard to discern.

"Freddy!"

The lump rushed for him so quickly that Freddy couldn't even try to push himself further down his bed. It grabbed him so tightly that the batarang slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor.

"Billy?" Freddy hissed, reaching an arm out and pushing against his shoulder.

"Freddy, you don't know how happy I am to see you!" Billy squeezed him again. "I was just thinking about you. Look, I have to preface this by saying that I'm going to sound super high. I can't blame you if you don't believe me, but I really need you to!"

"Billy, what are you doing here?" He blinked again, his eyes finally adjusting to the low light. Billy looked... It was hard to precisely read the expression on his face, but something about it made his stomach tighten. With as much strength as he could muster, he pushed him away. Turning, he saw his windows and door were as tightly closed as ever. "How did you get here?"

"Look, I should just start at the beginning. So I was flying home with my dad when I went into the airplane's bathroom. When I tried to open the door to leave, it wouldn't budge. Then the mirror began to frost over and the room started to shake-"

He paused, stepping forward again and taking Freddy by the shoulders. "Look, it's really hard to explain here. You'd probably better understand it if you saw it for yourself."

-

Mary was going to murder Freddy and hang his head on the wall. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, she turned to his door and raised her fist. Winter break or not, she'd told him ten times already to stop blaring his video games in the middle of the night. Some people still had to wake up in the morning and accomplish something.

She banged her fist against the door. "I don't know what you think you're doing, but it stops right now."

No reply came. He must have paused the game.

She ground her teeth together. This was the third time in almost a week that he'd woken her up. She pounded on the door again. "I know you can hear me! Open up!"

There was a heavy creak as Eugene opened his door and peeked out. "Mary, what the hell are you doing?"

"Didn't you just hear something? Freddy's doing who knows what in there!" She pointed at the door, making a note to give Eugene a good chiding in the morning about his language.

"I only heard you." He rubbed at his eye. "Are you going back to bed?"

She forced back a groan. Considering her scholarship interview was at eight a.m. sharp at the city council's office that morning, she certainly should.

"Hey, Freddy," she directed to the wood. "At least have the decency to turn off the sound, okay?" Turning on her heel, she hurried down the hallway, her fists balled at her side.

"Good night!" Eugene called before his own door clicked shut.

-

Hey, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Darla had made him watch that movie a hundred times. Freddy had never imagined he'd actually have to live it.

"Wha-what's going on?" His heart was beating against his chest like a prisoner's fists against the bars of his cell. "Where are we?"

His voice echoed in the stone corridor surrounding him as he spoke. He tried to stand, but with nothing supporting him he could barely get his butt off the ground.

Billy leaned a hand out. "I told you it was going to sound unbelievable." His eyes widened, and he suddenly stepped away, hurrying towards a row of stone chairs further ahead. "Be right back!"

It wasn't as if he could go anywhere. Freddy shook his head, rubbing pebbles from his pajama pants. Okay, so maybe this wasn't The Wizard of Oz. Maybe this was a horror movie and Billy was going to come back and slice him open with a chainsaw or stab him with a glass unicorn statue. It figured.

But instead he ran back holding a gnarled wooden staff, its tips covered in gleaming stones. He dropped it at Freddy's feet.

"I'd just hand it to you, but weird things happen when two people touch it at once. It's kind of hard to explain."

Freddy held it tightly, using it to get onto his feet. He stared at his reflection in the gems' surface.

"What is this?"

"A wizard's staff." Billy threw his hands up over his head, gesturing around him. "So as I was saying, it was like a blizzard and earthquake were happening at the same time in the airplane's bathroom. When I finally managed to get the door open, I found myself here. I was totally flipping out. I must have passed out, because when I woke up the bathroom door was gone.

"I forced myself to go further into... Wherever the hell I was. I finally came here and saw this really old dude holding that staff. He looked really weird. I can't even begin to describe him. Dude started going on about being the last of the wizards, the sole survivor of some ancient battle against the Seven Deadly Sins. He said his name was Shazam-"

Billy might as well have set off a nuclear bomb. When Freddy pulled his hand away from his eyes, his ears still ringing from the earlier explosion, Billy was gone.

"And, uh, to get to the gist of it, he gave me superpowers." The man speaking to him was floating a good four feet off of the ground. He was dressed in a neon red one-piece with a glowing yellow lightning bolt at its center. A white cape with yellow embroidery trailed behind him. "And superpowers made me think of you! I knew if anyone could help me, it was you. So I ended up in your room by just thinking about it. That's actually how we got back here."

Freddy opened his mouth, gasping at air for a few moments, and then closed it.

"Shazam!" When Freddy opened his eyes again, Billy was back.

"You... You... You have to do that again!"

"Shazam!" This time, Freddy was just barely able to keep his eyes open.

"Super awesome, right?" Billy flexed his new muscles.

"How can you do that?"

"I told you, the wizard dude gave me superpowers. He had me clutch his staff and say, you know, that word. His name. And then he disappeared, leaving me like this. I was freaking out again. I called out for him and turned back into me. Then I thought about you, and well..." Billy shrugged.

Freddy leaned back his head and laughed. Oh man, this was better than meeting that guy who'd met Wonder Woman. Probably better than meeting Batman!

(Okay, he was still totally down for meeting Superman.)

"Billy, this is great!" He hurried forward, the staff tapping against the cold stone floor with every step that he took. He barely noticed the pebbles digging into his bare feet as he moved.

"Well," Billy replied, leaning his arm out and bumping against the hand that Freddy had clutched tightly against the staff.

"Mom! Mommy, where are you?" He was rushing through a sea of people, most of whom he was lucky enough to see up to their belly buttons.

"Are you okay?" A woman leaned down and grabbed him by the shoulder, but it wasn't her.

"I can't find my mom."

She gave him a smile that was like sunshine on a day in the middle of January, bright but unable to provide warmth. "I'm sure she's around here somewhere. Why don't I help you find her?"

But as soon as they found a policeman, she was gone. The policeman spoke to him slowly, even let him sit on the hood of his car and try on his hat.

The policeman reached out and adjusted his hat. "If we don't find her, we can always let you join the force!"

But then the policeman was gone too, replaced by a stream of foster parents and siblings. The only constant face in his life was his social worker.

"Have you found my mom yet?" he asked at a meeting.

She sighed. "Billy, you know the answer to that already."

Wait, Billy?

And then one day, a man joined them at their meeting. He wasn't sure why, but the first thing that stuck out to him was that he was bald. The man sat in a seat in front of Ms. Glover's desk, his hands held together in his lap. When he walked inside, the man smiled at him. He couldn't muster anything in reply.

"Hello, William," the man said, standing up and coming towards him. He got onto his knees, looking him directly in the eyes. "My name is Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. You don't know how excited I've been to come and see you."

He turned back to Ms. Glover, who was beaming down at him like a kid who'd just been gifted a whole bag of candy. "Billy, Dr. Sivana wants to adopt you!"

And from that day on, Dr. Sivana became another familiar face. He flew in whenever he could, even took time off from work to come stay in Philadelphia with him. He was at once delighted and wary. Dr. Sivana bought him every toy he asked for with no questions asked. He drove him to zoos, carnivals, and restaurants. Out went his hand-me-down foster kid clothes for a new wardrobe.

And yet...

They were waiting to board a plane now. He was frantically searching the airport for her. If she didn't appear now, then he really might have to leave forever. The idea made his throat tighten.

"Are you okay?" Dr. Sivana asked. He squeezed his shoulder.

"Dr. Sivana, I-"

The man frowned. "William, I told you that you don't have to call me that any longer."

"Daddy," he corrected himself. Saying the word hurt.

"Are you scared?" Dr. Sivana pulled him into a hug. "This is your first time flying on an airplane, isn't it?"

He opened his mouth to reply.

"What?" Freddy cried, taking a step back.

Billy was wide-eyed too.

Freddy ran a hand through his hair. "Dude, was that your life?"

Billy shook his head. "Your parents looked like assholes. I'm sorry."

"What did you see?"

"Some meth heads from the look of it." He rubbed his shoulder. "Really, it's more like what I felt."

Freddy gave a weak laugh. "When I first got assigned a social worker, she asked me if my dad was the reason that I used crutches." He looked back to the staff. "So that was weird."

"Hey, I want to try something! Freddy, I'm going to grab the staff again."

"What?" He hurried away, practically tripping over his own two feet. "No way!"

He'd seen enough Lifetime movies for the day already, thank you very much.

"Look, I'm just doing a little experiment. When I grab it, you say 'Shazam'-"

Another explosion.

"Please! I just want to see what happens." Then his huge hands were around the staff, anchoring Freddy to the ground more than the piece of wood ever could.

He was sitting in a strange bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, his head against his knees. In the kitchen, he could hear the man sorting through cabinets and grabbing pans to make dinner with.

"Sha..."

"Say it!"

"Shazam!"

When Freddy opened his eyes, his hands weren't on the staff and his feet weren't touching to the ground.

Billy's laughter echoed through the cave. "It worked!"

Freddy stared at his hands, his arms wrapped within golden guantlets, and the blue spandex suit covering him that almost identical to the one Billy was wearing. He could only imagine what his face now looked like.

"This is incredible!" Billy dropped the staff to the ground. "Freddy, you can fly!"

Freddy looked away from him. His body felt a bit off-center, as though he were floating at an angle. He bit his lip, raising his right leg before turning his gaze to the other. "Billy, I can't feel my leg."

He raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

Freddy gestured to it. "I'm serious." He put his hand against it. When he pulled it away, he vaguely felt the force it had exerted against his hand, but nothing on the leg itself.

His own legs - his real ones - were weak. The left was a bit stronger and longer than the other, but not by much. Years of physical therapy had made it easier to stand. As a young kid, he'd been in a wheelchair only because standing meant instantly falling on his face. While they could spaz randomly, often at the worst of times, he'd always been able to feel and move them. This...

If he couldn't see it, then he might not have realized it was there at all.

Billy didn't reply.

Freddy concentrated, floating to the floor. He about tripped. One foot hit the ground. He could feel the stone firmly beneath it. The other was in a ten inch hole in the ground.

"What happened?"

"I don't know." He floated up again, higher this time. There was no real effort on his part - his new body just did it. Below him, his left leg hung limp. He came down harder this time.

"Holy shit!" The force not only sent stalagmites to the floor and left a hole as wide as a soccer ball in the ground, but it knocked Billy off of his feet. "Dude, you have to do that again!"

Freddy didn't need to be told twice. While he still couldn't feel that leg, the sound as it came crashing through the ground and the earth shaking around him certainly made up for it.

Fuck invisibility - this was the coolest thing ever.

-

"William! Where were you?"

William wouldn't meet his gaze. "I'm sorry, Dad, I didn't mean to worry you."

"I've been searching the whole plane for you."

His cheeks reddened. "I've been around. It's just that I kind of got sick and a flight attendant had to take me back and help me vomit."

Thaddeus stood from his seat and pushed a hand against his forehead. "You don't feel warm."

"It was probably just the heavy winds or the airline food that made me do it The inside of my mouth still tastes a little weird, but I'm fine."

-

Batmanatee: I thought of some code names for us!

Billy_Da_Kid: New phone who dis

Batmanatee: Dude, you've already made that joke like three times.

Billy_Da_Kid: Whatever, and it has to be better than Captain Sparkle Fingers or so help me!

Batmanatee: That's a good name and you know it!

Billy_Da_Kid: Fine, then that's what you can call youself!

Billy_Da_Kid is typing...

Billy_Da_Kid: I actually realized something today. Kind of surprised that it took me this long.

Batmanatee: ????

Billy_Da_Kid: Well, my dad used to tell me these bedtime stories that were a lot like what happened to me. About this little kid meeting a wizard and getting superpowers.

Batmanatee: Dude!!!! Does this mean you told your dad????

Billy_Da_Kid: Of course not! He'd probably die of shock.

Batmanatee: I know! This is the weirdest secret in the world to keep.

Batmanatee is typing...

Batmanatee: My guess is your dad just heard some legends. Maybe he read about it somewhere. Other people have to know about the wizard, right?

Billy_Da_Kid: I guess.

Chapter Text

“Okay, so we can’t turn invisible, use telepathy, or walk through walls.”

“Don’t forget,” Freddy said, counting off on his fingers, “we also can’t warp reality, time travel, or create force fields. Also, we still need to see if we can breathe underwater, survive extreme cold and heat, and withstand fire and bullets.”

“Oh no way, you are not setting me on fire!” Billy shuddered. “Besides, where would we get a gun?”

“Doesn’t your dad have one?”

Billy shook his head. “Not that I know of.”

“Can’t we check his bedroom? I know that’s where Rosa keeps hers.”

“Jesus, I never should have brought you to my place. What if we get shot and die?”

“We’ll deal with that when we get there. Besides, if I can throw you against a rock wall and you don’t even get a scratch, what’s the big deal about a little bullet?” As far as Freddy was concerned, what they didn’t know could hurt them. Real superheroes got shot at all the time. They might as well bite the bullet now before some bank robber tried to put ten rounds through their chests.

But that just circled back to the main problem, didn’t it? No matter how much he goaded Billy, his friend was adamant that they not be superheroes just yet.

“It’s not like we’re ready. This isn’t something that we should be rushing into, right?”

This would have been a very reasonable statement if Billy also wasn’t trying to keep them from further preparing themselves. So far, they’d about ripped the lair apart fighting each other and testing their powers. Though they’d searched every inch of it, they’d found no physical entrance or exit within its walls. Opening the rows of doors didn’t help either, unless one of them wanted to one day step through and enter an unending abyss of darkness.

“You live in California, man. Can’t we at least go find an empty beach tonight and see if we can breathe underwater?”

Billy groaned. “I didn’t come back here to drown myself, Freddy.” He stood up from his bed, stretching out his arms. “I’m headed to the kitchen. You want anything?”

“That depends on what you have.” Freddy stood with shaking legs from the bean bag chair he’d been sprawled in.

“Well, my dad may be captain of the health police, but even he doesn’t eat tofu.”

“That’s all I needed to hear!”

Billy had always struck Freddy as the messy type, but his bedroom, like the rest of the apartment, was incredibly clean. Other than the photos covering the top of his bookshelf (and the assorted titles filling it), there were few decorations besides the large plush tiger on his bed and the Magic Eight ball on his desk. The living room, he saw, was just as bare. The refrigerator in the kitchen had no notes or drawings tacked to it.

Freddy dug through a cabinet before eventually pulling out a box of Oreos. He opened it, popping one into his mouth. Billy began to prepare himself a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich.

“Can we at least try a minor threat? Maybe there are some purse snatchers around here.”

Billy rolled his eyes. “I think we’re more likely to find a cat stuck in a tree.” He leaned over and took a cookie from him.

“Come on, you can’t just give me superpowers and not expect me to use them. Didn’t you ever hear that saying about great power and responsibility?”

“Great responsibility is not getting ourselves killed or plastered all over the news.”

“Can’t we at least fly around a little?”

“No!” Billy slammed his knife back down on his plate. “What if some plane full of people sees us? Or a drone?”

“Does it really matter? It’s not like anyone would think that we were those guys.”

“How do you know that? The last thing I need is the Justice League or the feds kidnapping my dad.”

Freddy held back a sigh. He’d been holding back his secret from his family for days. Usually, he was eager to tell them (or at least Darla, who always had a shoulder to lean on and an open ear) just about everything that happened in his life. What if someone did something to them because of him? Super villains didn’t have that pesky moral clause holding them back like he and Billy did.

“I get what you’re saying.” Freddy carried the cookies to a nearby table and collapsed in a chair, his shoulders slumping. “But I just can’t help but feel that we should be doing more. Why have these powers if all we’re going to do with them is fight each other and crush rocks?”

“Well, we’d have to consider what we’d do. Do we just stick to bank robbers or go after costumed criminals? Are natural disasters our issue? How does school factor into our lives?”

“Don’t remind me.” Freddy went back in four days and had nothing but pre-calculus to look forward to.

“It’s not like we aren’t going to do anything. The wizard said that I have to defeat The Seven Deadly Sins.”

“What even are those?”

“I think they’re these weird gargoyle-looking monsters. I haven’t seen any yet in person though.”

“Well hurry up and find them or I really will start rescuing cats from trees.”

Billy sat down and took a large bite of his sandwich. “Okay, I’m still not into this whole setting myself on fire thing, but it would be cool to see if we can breathe underwater. How about tonight at eleven my time?”

“That’ll be,” Freddy responded, wrinkling his forehead, “two a.m. my time, I think.” He wrinkled his nose.

“Hey, I can’t control time.”

Though for a moment, Freddy thought he could. They’d teleported from his room in Philadelphia to their lair at three-thirty that afternoon and spent what felt like hours there. Yet when they poofed back to Billy’s place, it had only been twelve thirty-five (it had taken him a minute to remember time zones were a thing).

“Just drink some coffee. It always helps my dad.”

“No way! That stuff tastes like shit.”

Billy laughed, but the sound suddenly died in his throat. His face paled.

From the nearby hallway came the clicking of keys. Before Freddy could so much as mouth a quick question to his friend, the front hallway’s door swung open and in walked the man from Freddy’s creepy magic-induced vision.

“William, I thought you said you were going out with your friends this afternoon. Did something happen?”

That was when Billy’s father saw him. Their eyes locked together from across the room. Dr. Sivana pushed his glasses up his nose, taking Freddy in. He looked from one boy to another wordlessly.

“Hi, Dr. Sivana!” Freddy hurriedly pushed himself up and walked towards him, his hand outstretched. “My name’s Freddy! Has Billy mentioned me to you?”

“Yeah, I think I have!” Billy stood as well. “Dad, Freddy, uh, goes to Palisades.”

Freddy slapped on a smile. “Uh, yeah.”

“Yes, I think William mentioned you.” He took Freddy’s hand and gave it a firm, quick shake. “I apologize, but I just went to the doctor today and I’ve been a bit out of it since I left her office.”

Freddy’s eyes widened. “Did she say that your eye was going to have to be amputated?”

“Dude!” Billy cried.

“Excuse me, young man?”

Freddy turned to Billy. “You were the one who said his eye problem was getting worse.”

“I never said you had to mention that!”

Dr. Sivana blinked, running one hand over the bandage that covered his left eye. “William, I don’t even want to begin to know where you got that idea from. I’ll have you know that while I did get a new round of antibiotics today, she never once so much as mentioned the word ‘surgery.’”

“That’s a relief.” Billy responded. “I wouldn’t want you stuck looking like a pirate for the rest of your life.”

“He could always get a glass eye.”

Dr. Sivana shook his head. “It was nice to meet you, Frederick, but I have a headache. Now if you boys would please excuse me…” He hurried down the hallway.

Freddy turned. “Frederick?”

Billy shrugged. “My dad’s weird with names. He’s kind of weird with everything, actually. But he’s a nice guy when he wants to be.”

-

Thaddeus’ jaw about hit the floor when he arrived back at the Rock of Eternity. He’d been too busy these last few days to go. Now, though, he could only run his eyes across the stones, frantically searching for some clue as to what had happened while he’d been gone.

The circle of thrones at its center had been turned to a pile of rubble. The various objects in its other room were burnt and smashed. Even the hall of doors looked as though they’d been scratched and scorched one too many times.

Only the staff remained unharmed. He held it up, running his fingers along it. His confused face reflected back at him from the gems decorating its tip.

Wordlessly, the sins appeared before him without prompting. He held the staff up, looking between them.

“What happened?”

The champion lives.

That was Pride, who stood closer to Sivana than the others sins.

You were too late.

“The wizard’s dead at least, isn’t he?”

His champion is stronger than he himself has been in ages.

We told you to come back sooner.

Do you not value your own life? The champion will squash you like a bug!

“Who is he?”

The only response Thaddeus got was one of Wrath’s arms against his stomach. The force was strong enough to send him flying across the room, stones digging through his back and his head cracking when it hit rock. He gasped, tasting blood in his mouth.

The sins walked towards him, standing over him in a circle. More than half of them had their tongues extended.

He will imprison us once again!

Find him now!

Kill him while there’s time left!

Sloth brought its heavy leg down onto his foot. Thaddeus would have screamed, but the sound died in his throat when another bit into his arm. His vision was shaking, beginning to go dark around the edges. He barely had the strength to stand, let alone find Shazam’s new champion.

A face flashed before his mind, but he shook it away. No, it couldn’t truly be him!

Just as quickly as they appeared, the sins returned to him. His vision cleared, the pain and bruises covering his body evaporating away like smoke into the air. All the same, it took him a few moments to finally pull himself back to his feet. He surveyed the piles of rubbles one last time. Then, he picked up the staff and hurriedly began to draw symbols into the dirt.

Chapter Text

"Shit!" Billy cried. His curse was quickly lost in a stream of watery coughs. His lungs burnt, grasping for oxygen.

Okay, so drowning was apparently one of his weaknesses.

"Holy shit!" Freddy was grinning from ear to ear. "Dude, you were under for over seven minutes!"

Billy rubbed at his eyes, wincing at the salty sting. "It felt like ten years! Don't even think of making me do that again."

Freddy threw back his head and whooped. His only witness was the thin sliver of moon overhead, which bounced and in out of clouds carried along by a northern wind. He looked ahead, taking in the ink black water that blended in so effortlessly with the sky that he couldn't tell where one ended and the other began.

"Here," Freddy said, throwing his phone to Billy. With their adult hands, it now seemed small. He imagined that pressing his finger too hard against the screen would be enough to make it crack. "Record my time. I think I can beat you!"

Billy snorted. His costume was drenched, water dripping from his hair and chin. "Be my guest," he responded, his teeth chattering as he spoke.

Freddy got on his knees, moving one leg with his arms. Grabbing him by the back of his cape, Billy shoved his face into the water.

-

"I've got bad news." Freddy collapsed into Billy's bean bag chair, his crutches clattering as they hit the floor.

"What?" Billy's eyes widened.

"I found Rosa's gun, but it wasn't loaded. I spent almost thirty minutes digging through her drawers before Mary heard and came in to yell at me."

"The hell! Why did you do that?"

"Because bank robbers tend to carry ammunition with them!" Freddy threw his hands into the air.

"I already told you that you aren't going to shoot me."

"Are you sure your dad doesn't own a gun?"

Billy groaned. "What am I supposed to do, ask him?"

"That sounds like a pretty good idea to me!"

He put his face in his hands. "Freddy, why do you care so much about this?"

"Why don't you give a shit?" Freddy grabbed his crutches and stood. "I can't just sit on my butt waiting for the world to get better. There are people out there who need our help now!"

"But-"

"But what? I can't even think about school or my family anymore, knowing what I do. We have to do something!"

Billy could sit in his bedroom all day concocting worst case scenarios for all Freddy cared. It wasn't like Freddy needed his permission to start saving the world, even if Billy had given him his powers.

"It's not like I asked for the wizard to kidnap me and make me a superhero!"

"Oh, he did? I thought that bright red costume and electrokinesis of yours were just to impress girls with!"

He turned away from Billy, closing his eyes. His bedroom flashed before his mind. When Freddy opened his eyes again, he was staring at a familiar shelf covered in Wonder Woman action figures.

"Where are you going?" Darla called as he grabbed his coat from the front hook.

"For a walk!"

"Be safe!"

Outside, the air was wet and cold, the sky cloudy. The weatherman had warned of snow that still had yet to appear. His shoes crunched against yesterday's dirty slush.

A few other people were out, some walking their dogs, others heading for their car. No one met his gaze or returned his waves. All his life he'd been... Invisible wasn't quite the right word. It wasn't that people couldn't see him, but that they didn't want to.

When he got to the empty lot a block away, Freddy surveyed the graffiti and discarded cigarette butts surrounding him. While it was shady, no one dangerous came out here until night.

"Shazam."

-

Thaddeus' threw the stack of papers to the floor, watching them fan out across the wood. He'd been reading for almost three hours straight, until his eyes couldn't focus on the words any longer.

Nothing! Everything about the wizard's former champion was speculation. Past scholars and storytellers had certainly done their part to embellish Teth Adam's life, until one account scarcely resembled the next.

He lay his head against his desk. The wizard's last champion had vanished thousands of years earlier without a trace. Empires had risen and fallen since then, turning the hero into nothing more than a footnote in Middle Eastern history.

Why had the wizard chosen him? What had made the former slave turned revolutionary worthy of unspeakable power? He'd lived east of Babylon in the early Biblical era, speaking a language that even academics had largely let rot into history. How could he even begin to resemble a modern day champion?

If only the sins knew! Though they squabbled in his head, they offered him no hints. They just as easily could have passed the champion in the street and, like Thaddeus himself, been none the wiser.

He tore out of his study, hurrying for the bathroom. Splashing water on his face, he surveyed the bandages he'd put on that morning. Even beneath the thick white gauze, his eye glowed.

-

"Freddy!"

Freddy groaned, pulling his phone away from his face. He hadn't even been home a full five minutes before it started ringing. "What's so important, Billy?"

"Have you gotten my recent messages?"

"What messages?" he spat. "I thought you just accidentally texted me 'What's up?' twenty times!"

"You're all over the news!"

"I am?" He kicked off his shoes. "You know, I never can keep up with that stuff. World affairs are very depressing."

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Stuff that would be a lot easier with a partner!"

-

Lightning Lord. Temblor. Captain Marvel. Seism. The names changed but the facts didn't. So far, he had appeared in New Orleans to keep a bridge from collapsing, Louisville to stop a bank robbery, and Philadelphia to rescue workers from an office fire within the span of eight hours.

None of the national or local news agencies had gotten clear footage of him yet. Conspiracies were breeding faster than Clostridium perfringens in a petri dish. Some thought that he was an alien or Atlantean. Others theorized that he was a superpowered SVR RF, Mossad, or NKSOF agent.

Thaddeus smirked. What would those keyboard warriors think if they really knew the truth?

Find him.

The sins didn't need to tell him twice.

Chapter Text

“Annie?”

The sound of her cousin’s voice crackling through her Android’s speakers almost caused her phone to slip from between her fingers. Annie sat up straighter in her swivel chair, tightening her grip on her phone.

“Hey, Billy,” she replied before pausing. She swallowed. Her eyes wondered across her desk, from the new stack of textbooks she’d recently rented to a row of framed pictures that decorated its edge. “Are you busy?”

“No, not at all. Are you okay?”

“I’m really not sure how to answer that.” She picked up the mug of hot chocolate her mother had warmed up for her earlier and took a long swig. It had gone lukewarm. Chocolate drizzled down her chin and melted marshmallows clung to the side of her throat.

“How are you?”

She placed the mug down and wiped off her chin. “Look, Billy, I called you because I needed to talk about what happened over winter break with someone. If you don’t want to talk about it, you’re free to hang up. I certainly won’t blame you if you do.”

She’d spent almost ten minutes staring at his name and smiling picture in her contracts list, her gaze hovering over his number until she knew it by heart. For as long as she’d spent doing that, how many more times had she dialed and redialed her father’s personal and work numbers? Though the clock on her wall drifted closer and closer to midnight, she couldn’t imagine going to sleep now while his voice mail still echoed in her ears.

“I’d never do that!” He cleared his throat. “I know you said you told your mom.”

She gave a weak laugh. “That was fun. Now she spends her half time on the phone with Dad’s lawyers and the police.”

“If it makes you feel any better, my dad’s been stuck doing that too.”

“It really doesn’t.” This time she gave a real laugh. “I hate to trouble you, but it’s not like I can talk about this with any of my friends. Even discussing it with my mom is hard because… Well, I just don’t think she’ll understand why I feel this way.”

“What do you mean?”

Annie reached for the box of tissues she’d left on her nearby dresser, cradling them like a child did a stuffed animal. Her waste bin was already half full of them. “Look, my dad and I never had a perfect relationship. He’d always try to pretend otherwise, though.”

The police had said he wouldn’t pick up, that if he had any working brain cells left he would have destroyed his phone and ran. Yet part of her had still expected him to pick up on the third or fourth ring and greet her with his usual “Hello, princess.”

“Growing up, I didn’t have much of a choice in seeing him. That’s just how visitation works. When I turned eighteen, I almost thought of cutting him off. My mom wouldn’t have blamed me if I did, and it would have probably saved me a lot of trouble. But… Well, I thought maybe he could change.”

Billy was silent.

“So, I kept in contact and let him pay for school. You can probably guess how well that went.” She shook her head. What the hell was she even saying? “Look, I’ve just been thinking a lot about him lately and trying to figure out how he could do what he did.”

“I wish I knew.”

“Do you really?”

That got a laugh from him. “Yeah, I guess not. But you can’t help but wonder.”

“I still can’t wrap my head around it. Part of me wonders if maybe if I hadn’t left with you and Uncle Thaddeus that things would have gone down differently. It wouldn’t have been a great holiday for me, but maybe Dad wouldn’t have…”

Fresh tears burnt the edges of her eyelids. Scenarios flashed before her mind like trailers before a movie.

“Annie, that wasn’t your fault!”

“How do you know?” She hadn’t meant to yell, but her voice was so loud she half expected to wake her mother. “Billy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… To…”

“It’s fine. But I’m serious. How is any of that your fault?”

“Maybe if I were there…”

“Hey, considering what he did, I’m glad Dad made us all leave.” He paused. “That way it didn’t end up like our last Christmas.”

“What do you mean?” She bit her lip.

“It’s kind of a long story. The gist of it is that my first Christmas at grandpa’s place ended with your dad punching my dad so hard he had to go to the hospital.”

“What?” The tissue box slipped from her between her arms and landed on the floor with a soft thud. She didn’t reach down to pick it up.

“Yeah, it really freaked me out. I couldn’t believe my dad when he said we were going back again.”

“I had no idea about that! Oh, Billy…”

He chuckled. “I think my dad’s the one that needs your sympathy. So, do you think that was your fault too?”

She furrowed her brows. “No?”

“Then what your dad did to grandpa wasn’t your fault either. He was just…”

“An asshole?”

“Hey, you said it, not me!”

Despite herself, she smiled. “I guess I just can’t believe it happened.”

“I feel the same way.”

“And I just wish there had been someone there who could have stopped it. Maybe that person isn’t me. Maybe I couldn’t have stopped my dad no matter how hard I tried. But if someone could have… If things could have gone differently…” She pushed her bangs back away from her forehead. “Am I making any sense?”

“I know exactly what you mean.”

Something about the way he spoke made her smile again.

-

Freddy ripped his headphones off, reaching for one of his crutches and holding it out like a sword. “Jesus, Billy, didn’t your dad ever teach you that it was creepy to teleport into people’s bedrooms in the middle of the night?”

Billy leaned against a nearby shelf, blinking against the dim light. “Yeah, well maybe if you’d replied to my messages I wouldn’t have had to stop by.”

Freddy’s throat tightened. “What’s so important?”

They hadn’t spoken in almost a week. If he hadn’t suddenly appeared in his house, Freddy would have kept it that way. Between school, his home life, and scouring the news online for breaking reports of emergencies and crimes, he didn’t have time to spare for Billy’s whining.

“I came to apologize.”

“Great,” Freddy replied, looking down to the floor. Images of the cave flashed before his mind, but he pushed them away. If he were to leave now, he’d only go to a place he knew Billy wouldn’t know where to follow.

“I’m serious.” He held his hands up. “Look, you were right about the superhero thing. If we have powers, we might as well use them.”

Freddy met his eyes but said nothing.

“There are bad things in this world that, while we may not be able to understand them, we have ability to stop. And I’m tired of sitting around and doing nothing about them.”

“You really mean that?”

Billy nodded. “And that’s why I came to you. You’re the one who knows everything about superheroes, right?”

Freddy grinned. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” He scratched at the back of his neck. “Hey, you want to know something?”

Billy raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“If you’re anything like me, then you are bulletproof!”