It was not until he heard the police car drive away before the truth finally sank in. Slowly, heavily, a lonely rock through the murky depths of a swamp, until it hit the bottom and stopped there, never to move, never to leave.
The truth was they had lost. He had lost.
His stand for the greater good, his fight for the freedom of himself and his fellows, his imprisonment for his choice, his pain for what he witnessed, his suffering for what he endured, his determination to see through it all until the very end… all of it, all of him, and still he had lost.
Everything he bore on his back up to this point had been for nothing, and that was what, ultimately, broke him.
He had thought of trying to help, of maybe assisting in piecing the many broken fragments of the city back together – he had done it before, maybe he could do it again. He thought of the others, of Eli and Kate and Tommy and Vision, even of Cassie. He thought of Teddy, wondering over and over why he couldn't see Teddy anywhere nearby.
He stopped thinking, his mind slowing as he looked again at his surroundings. At the war he had given his all only to lose.
What was the point in trying anymore?
I just… I just want to go home…
He blinked. The street was gone. He was in his room, and he was sitting on his bed. By his feet was one of his photos taken while he was in pre-school. And beside him…
Rebecca trembled, one hand still slack from dropping the picture and the other reaching for her son, just shy of touching him.
"… baby, is it really you?"
He stared back at her, swallowing through the strange dryness in his throat he had not known was there before. Finally, he spoke anyway, his voice hoarse and breaking: "… Hi, Mom."
And suddenly she was wrapped around him tightly, and he vaguely heard her calling for his father. He leaned against her and closed his eyes. He could feel her warm hand in his hair, her wet tears against his skin.
He could pretend all of it had been a bad dream he had finally woken from. He could rest here. He was safe here…
But the second he felt his father's hand gently touch his shoulder and he opened his eyes to find him, he saw instead the cold, emotionless golden mask of Iron Man staring back at him, all the way from across the room behind a thin, thin layer of fragile glass.
He was not safe anywhere.
They were everywhere. No matter which way he turned, their faces were there. Their eyes were on him.
Iron Man. The Fantastic Four. The Avengers. Spider-Man.
He opened another glass cover and tore the poster from its resting place to land in its severed halves on the floor.
Go away. Leave me alone. Go away.
Another case, another poster. Another plain black empty surface.
He was better off this way. He was safer this way.
His hand landed square in the middle of an old Avengers poster he had kept since forever, before they broke up and abandoned the mansion that first time, before he had powers and before he became a… before…
He moved his finger to reveal the Scarlet Witch's face. He moved it a little more to see Captain America standing next to her.
The paper ripped down the center line, cutting off one side from the other. The shredded pieces curled inward before tumbling into one of three plastic trash bins.
One for the comics he had collected over the years, the older ones laminated to maintain them longer.
One for the action figures, all of them in mint condition within their unopened boxes.
One for the crumpled pieces of paper that had been his posters, all held together with so much tape and so much care up to this point.
His walls emptied. The bins filled.
As the last poster disappeared into a scattering of colored scraps, he figured maybe he was feeling a little better. He spied a wary look at his fingers, in case they tried anything. Not one spark of blue answered him. He flexed his wrist, just in case. Nothing restrained him there. Nothing was holding him prisoner. He cleared his ears. Nothing was blocking them. He worked his throat again, and nothing hurt him for swallowing or even breathing.
He was going to be okay. He was going to be okay.
I'm going to be okay…
He reached down to pick up one of the bins, and then he looked down into it. Crammed against the bottom and half hidden amongst all the wads and balls and bits of sticky tape was his costume, unwashed and untouched since he took it off his first night home. Silver band, tattered red cape, spandex, gloves, wrist bands and all.
He had not noticed his father's approach. He had not even realized he had spaced out or stopped breathing. He decided now was a good time to go back to it, and exhaled shakily.
Jeffrey reached forward and took the bin from his son's hands; all too easily, considering what that young man was capable of.
"I'll take care of this, son," he spoke gently. "Dinner's on the table – you go on ahead."
Billy looked back at his father, then down at his suddenly empty hands. Slowly, he turned and walked out the door he hadn't heard his father open earlier.
They didn't talk about it, all throughout the passing of dishes back and forth and his parents' light chatter over trivial everyday things. It was as though it never happened.
He knew he wasn't okay. They knew he wasn't okay.
But this… this pretense… he guessed he was okay with it.
He was used to nightmares. Nightmares stopped being new to him since his first Thor impression in school that had nearly killed John Kesler in the process. There were dreams where he had gone too far, dreams where he had not done enough. Dreams of failure and loss of control that, according to his mother, were a result of his suppressed emotions of guilt and fear and all that. Those were the sort of dreams he was able to deal with.
But now there were nights – every night – where he woke up, and he wasn't in his bed. He was back in the Cube, chained to the wall and forced to watch as the Warden cut Teddy open over and over again, his only pause to wipe his blood-stained hands, or maybe turn and taunt him for his struggling failure to use his magic.
"Do keep trying… I find it so soothing."
And then he would pick up a sharper blade and cut into his victim again.
I want them to stop. I want them to stop. I want them to stop.
And then he found himself looking up at a different group of men in surgeons' uniforms. He could hear Yellowjacket speaking to them, telling them what to do with him.
"If the ear implants don't work, we'll have to try inhibiting the vocal folds. I don't want to lobotomize him unless there really is no other choice."
I want them to stop. I want them to stop. I want them to stop.
One of them touched his ears – pushing the needles even deeper into place – and when they pulled away, once clean blue gloves were already red and soaked to the point of dripping. He looked up when something blocked the light overhead.
He could see Mr. Fantastic's hand. The device he held opened like a set of claws, each "finger" tipped with a thin, gleaming needle.
I want them to stop. I want them to stop. I want them to stop.
"I assure you, this won't hurt half as much if you don't fight it."
Cold metal shoved against his throat. Needles pierced his neck and sank into his muscles. For a while, he told himself he could handle this. It wasn't so bad. it was just distinctly uncomfortable and invasive…
I want them to stop. I want them to stop. I WANT THEM TO STOP.
His throat was a sudden and rapid explosion of pain, searing fire burning his tongue and freezing ice filling his heart and lungs.
He wanted to shut his eyes, but he couldn't. He could see pass their heads, where the Warden was still standing over Teddy's bleeding body. This time the Warden had picked up a reciprocating saw. He pressed a switch, and the blade started to move, so fast it looked like a silver, vibrating blur.
He tried to scream.
STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP.
Nothing came out.
Nothing but blood.
The blade tore into Teddy's chest.
And then Billy was suddenly free of his bonds and sitting upright. Suddenly he was breathing again – choking and coughing and desperately breathing.
He was home. He was in his room. He was in his bed.
It was too dark with the lights off.
He got up and hit the switch, momentarily blinding himself in a rush of light, before he stumbled back to bed and sat down and slumped forward, his hands wrapped protectively over his head and his fingers buried in his hair. It was too bright for him to sleep like this. Good – he didn't want to. Not for the rest of his life.
The dreams had been so much easier to deal with when they had not been real.
"Billy? I'm coming in, honey."
When she opened the door, Rebecca found her son sitting in front of his desk with one of his textbooks open. Although he was not ready to return to school yet, she still suggested he try getting back into his studies to take his mind off things. Even so, she had not expected homework to become a coping mechanism.
Billy did not look right at her, but he turned in his seat to at least face her general direction. It was progress.
"You have a letter, sweetie." When she handed it to him, he hesitated. "Your brothers wrote to you from camp."
When he at last reached to take it, there was the slightest hint of regret, with maybe a little guilt. If it had not been for the whole … mess that kept him away from his family, all three of them would have gone together. He missed them, but they would not be home for a few more weeks still.
As he looked down at the opened envelope in his hand – the front of the folded letter already reading "GIVE THIS TO BILLY MOM NO PEEKING!" – he noticed his mother had not left, and was setting something down at the foot of his bed.
The spandex and cape – both washed, mended, ironed and folded neatly – and sitting atop them was the polished headband and wrist bands. The costume.
He did not want to look at it. He did not want it there.
"… Honey, there's something we need to talk about."
Whatever it was, it probably had something to do with the costume and with the life he had when he used to wear it. He was not entirely sure he wanted to listen. It took him a while to finally nod in agreement, if only to get it over with. When she sat on his bed, he stayed where he was, this time turned slightly further away.
"Billy," she started, "your father and I have been talking, and… we think maybe you should register and join the Initiative program."
At last he showed some genuine emotion on his face.
How could she even-?
"Hear me out, honey," his mother pleaded. "… Billy… when your father and I first found out what you were doing, neither of us knew what to do, or what to think. You being out there, getting into fights and probably getting hurt without either of us ever noticing it? We spent every night worrying about what might happen to you …"
He calmed down a little. She went on.
"But even then, we could see it. We could see the changes it made – you were more confident, you had friends you earnestly wanted to spend time with, you found Teddy… You were happier. Even if we couldn't see why you would do this, we knew it was what you wanted with your life."
It's not anymore…
"Maybe signing up, being recognized for what you do… You wouldn't have to hide anymore."
I don't want to go back…
She had stopped. The psychiatrist knew when a troubled patient was closed off. The mother knew when her son was hurting again.
"… whatever you decide, sweetie, your father and I just want you to be happy. Take your time."
She did not need him to say it to know he understood what she meant.
Then they both noticed the sudden bustling of noise outside the room, and she smiled.
"I see your surprise is here for you."
There was a muffled call of "We're coming in!" before the door opened, his father standing aside instead of entering.
And in padded a golden retriever, tongue lolling and tail wagging. Immediately it singled Billy out and came up to him, its head bumping insistently against his elbow. He attempted to ignore it, but it whined and tried harder.
Billy turned and stared down at it.
It stared back up at him with its big blue eyes.
"… go away," he told it, his voice still hoarse and wavering.
It whined again, this time getting under his arm and settling its head and a paw on his lap.
When the door clicked shut, Billy looked up to find that his parents had left him alone with the animal. With a deep sigh, he continued to ignore the intruder and took out the letter, unfolding it.
"To Billy:", it read, "David and Ethan and Joe and Josh say hi. Camp is boring without you around, and the other camp helpers are no fun. We miss playing Justice League, but no one else gets it and Joe stinks as Batman. We can't wait to see you when we get home (and if you tell anyone, we won't give you your share of the candy)."
The dog was whining for his attention again. Folding the letter and returning it to the envelope, he put it at the top left corner of his desk before pushing a cold wet nose away from his ribs.
"… Ted, quit it," he finally grumbled. "This is just… weird…"
The dog looked up at him innocently. A second later, Teddy was sitting on the floor in its place. Not Hulkling, but Teddy. He appreciated that.
"Sorry," Teddy replied, now that he regained his capability of speech, "but you wouldn't return any of my calls, and your Mom told me you weren't seeing anyone. This was the only way I could think of."
"By turning into a dog?"
"A therapy dog, actually," he explained. "Still, I didn't expect you to find me out that quickly."
"Do my parents know?"
"I'm not sure about your Mom, but your Dad helped."
Billy glared at a bit of air by Teddy's ear for a second, his throat working up something he might have said if he had not chosen to go quiet again. The last two minutes in Teddy's company, and he had spoken more words than he had for several nights. His throat ached from it.
"Hey…" Teddy rose from the floor and brought an arm around the smaller boy. "Talk to me. What have you been up to?"
"… I just… I want to be alone right now," Billy answered. "I need some time away."
"Even from me?"
He didn't want to answer that. He didn't.
Teddy was getting upset; that much was evident in his change of tone. "… Well, you could have said something to us, you know, before you upped and left like that. The rest of the team's worried about you. Even Tommy's getting worked up enough to start slipping and calling you his baby brother-"
"He's not my brother."
Teddy was stopped cold in his tracks. "… what?"
"He's not my brother," Billy repeated bluntly. "He never was. It was just some delusional idea that needs getting over."
Thomas Shepherd was not his brother; his real brothers were away at their annual camp with other Jewish kids from their synagogue and he should have been there with them, pretending to be Batman to their Superman and Flash. His real mother and father were outside his room, trying not to eavesdrop if only to make sure everything was okay.
He had his real family right here. He was not some far-fetched idea of the S… of someone's… He was not.
He had to be realistic and just stop lying to himself. He had to stop thinking of himself as something he was not.
It was all he could do to keep functioning.
"… Just… just go, okay?" he started again. "I can't… I'm not doing this anymore."
As he turned his back, Billy could feel Teddy's eyes burning into his head. It was taking him everything to keep himself still, to stop himself from reacting.
"… Is that it?" Teddy asked him. "You're quitting?" When again Billy remained silent, he posed another question: "What about us? Are you quitting on us, too?"
Just go away. Please. Just leave me al-
A hand grabbed him by his shirt and turned him around. "Look at me!"
Teddy was crying.
Teddy was crying, and he still had a death grip on his shirt that came perilously close to tearing it.
He had not seen Teddy like this since his mother's memorial service.
"Do you have any idea how scared I was?" Teddy demanded. "I couldn't find you for the second time after a battle, and I had no idea if you were hurt or dead! I was ready to tear people apart to find any sign of where you were or what happened to you!"
Let me go.
"What is wrong with you? I love you. I fell apart when I couldn't find you. I would have done anything. Because of YOU!"
"Well, then WHERE WERE YOU?"
The Negative Zone.
He had been useless.
He had been helpless.
He had been alone.
Where were you when I needed you most?
Why didn't you need me enough to drop everything and find me no matter what it took?
Why didn't you, when I would have done it for you in a heartbeat?
Teddy still had him by the shirt, and abruptly jerked him forward. Before he could think straight, arms had wrapped around him in a tight embrace, keeping him from getting free no matter how he struggled or fought.
And just like that, he gave up. He melted, his hand desperately clutching onto Teddy's sleeve to keep himself anchored.
"… where were you?" he whispered again. He heard his voice breaking. He felt his body shaking. "I thought I would die… all I could think about was never seeing you again, and you…"
"I know," Teddy's voice rumbled in his ear. "I wasn't there. I wanted to be there, but I wasn't. I'm sorry."
The first tear fell, sliding down his face and staining Teddy's jacket.
Just as he had cried when he was forced to watch the Warden hurt Teddy while he was helpless to stop him.
Just as he had cried when he sat curled up in the corner of his small cell while fighting to breathe through the pain of his inhibitors.
But this time Teddy was here, holding him close and keeping him safe from the world.
"… I need you so much." His voice was hoarse again from crying. "I can't lose you."
"I can't lose you either. I love you."
He felt the gentle push against his shoulder, but he refused to slacken his hold on Teddy. When, reluctantly, he raised his head, Teddy leaned in, pressing their lips together.
The kiss, slow and tender and cutting him through his heart, told him everything he needed to know: He was going to be alright. They were going to be alright. It would take them some time, but they would get there.
They would get there together.
The pain was not over. Not yet. It would get better a step at a time, but until then it was still there.
Staring down at the costume in his lap, Billy wondered if he was really ready for this, to become Wiccan again and step out there into the world that was set to beat him down the first chance it got.
"We're going to be late."
When he looked up, Teddy looked back at him, already dressed in costume but still appearing very human. He must have seen something, and he reached forward, hand enveloping his.
"It's okay if you don't feel like going. Cap will understand."
Billy breathed in deeply, then exhaled quickly. His hand turned to squeeze back.
"I'm fine," he answered. "I'll be ready in a second."
"Want some privacy?"
"I want you to stay."
Teddy smiled at him and sat back.
"Don't worry," he replied. "I'm not going anywhere."
Billy relaxed. He managed to smile back.