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How To Guide: Adulting

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The phone sits ominously on the kitchen counter while Nico and Karolina hover over it staring at each other. “Why are we doing this again?”

We aren’t. I am. And I’m doing this because I can’t spend the rest of our lives sleeping on your futon.”

Nico looks down at the phone briefly before looking back up at Karolina’s frowning face. “You know you haven’t been here a full day, yes?” Karolina’s frown deepens, “furthermore, you’re hardly an inconvenience—”

Still frowning, Karolina shakes her head. “If you wanted a roommate, you would’ve gotten a two-bedroom apartment.”

“Arguably, I could say had I known my best friend planned on moving out of her parents’ place I would’ve gotten a two-bedroom apartment.” Nico counters, “then, wouldn’t you know it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“I wasn’t planning on moving out. I mean, I was just... not the moment it happened... or the way it happened.” Nico makes a go-on gesture. “Okay. We were arguing about my student debt, an argument we’ve had time and time again over the course of the past four-and-a-half-years so it the argument itself wasn’t anything new. Mid argument, all of a sudden they said if I didn’t like the way they ran things I was welcome to leave... so I did. Leave, that is. I didn’t even grab my toothbrush or Ms. Snuggles! Hell, I wouldn’t’ve had my wallet or phone if they weren’t in the clutch I was carrying!”

“Ms—hold on. You’re talking about that damned stuffed rabbit you’ve had since we were six? You’re mad you didn’t grab it?”

Her. Mad I didn’t grab her. And she’s been a constant fixture in my bed for seventeen years so, yeah, you’re damn right I’m mad.”

“That is such a you thing, Karolina.” Nico laughs, “you’re more pissed about missing your favorite stuffed animal than you are about being homeless. Ordinarily, I’d say you not wanting your parents to pay off your student debt just isn’t a smart decision on your part. However, your parents always have some bullshit up their sleeves so it’s even smarter not to risk it. Also, I gotta applaud you for giving it to your folks; they’re definitely not the easiest people to talk to.”

Karolina snorts. “That’s for damn sure.”

“Having said that, creating a profile on an apartment finding app makes me uneasy as hell.”

“How’d you find this place?”

“Uh. The old-fashioned way: An apartment booklet.”

“A what?”

Nico shakes her head. “Never mind. Having randos looking at your information like this is how people end up hacked to bits and thrown into ditches.”

“Nico, I’m begging you, please stop binge watching horror films.” The phone pings and Nico picks it up before Karolina can reach it, holding it out of her reach. “Hey!”

Nico looks over the text. “Your payment went through? You already paid for a place you haven’t seen?”

“I saw the place.”

“When?”

“This morning when I took the digital tour.”

“A digital—you realize how utterly ridiculous you are, right!? You don’t have a clue what the place truly looks like and you know absolutely nothing about who you’re gonna be living with! I swear I don’t know how I keep forgetting how impulsive you are. You are the same person who decided to test just how allergic to latex you were by shoving your face into a box of gloves.”

“Yeah, not my finest hour.”

“I’m sure the hospital would agree with you. Or when you figured to shove your face into a bowl of jordan almonds?” As Karolina frowns again, Nico shakes her head. “‘I’m sure they’re not real almonds.’”

“You’re gonna hold something against me that I did nearly thirteen years ago?”

“Considering you haven’t changed since then? Yeah. I am. With your ever-present penchant for both figuratively and literally shoving your face into things without thinking, I need to personally make sure you don’t wind up between the thighs of a serial killer.”

“There are worse ways to go then death by post sex thighs.”

Nico rolls her eyes. “I’m not even gonna address that.” She sighs, “I don’t suppose you made sure you can back out of the apartment if it’s not what you want?”

Karolina gives her a one-shoulder shrug.

Nico facepalms. “I’m only surprised that I’m surprised.”

“I’m sure, legally, it has to be, right?” Nico’s still facepalming but she’s shaking her head now too. “And I know stuff about my roommate. We texted before I decided I wanted to take the digital tour.”

“Yeah. Okay. Great. I’m still checking this place out with you.”

♠️♥️♣️♦️

Sneaking into the mansion was a lot easier and far more exhilarating than Karolina anticipated. She never had the “luxury,” so to speak, of needing to sneak out then back into her parents’ place during her teenage years, but people often say there is no time like the present.

Although Karolina didn’t have her key on hand, Nico still has the spare given to her almost ten years ago. Come to think of it, Karolina doesn’t think Nico ever used or needed to use the key before today.

They enter the mansion through the kitchen/side door to minimize the risk of being seen. Leslie and Frank Dean only use the kitchen when they’re hosting one of their (in)famous dinner parties. Other than that, the kitchen is purely a decorative piece. Even the butler seldom uses the kitchen.

Coincidentally, the kitchen entrance is also the quickest route to Karolina’s (old) room.

The second Karolina enters her old room, she makes a beeline for the closet grabbing the doughnut backpack hanging on the door. Next, she heads to the joint bathroom and tosses in her medication bottles along with a few choice toiletries. Then, she grabs Ms. Snuggles off her bed and gently places her into the backpack. After that, she heads back to the closet and puts an orange pencil case in it.

“Was that a pencil case full of cash?”

“Yup.” Karolina replies, taking clothes off their hangers then crams them into the bag.

“No. Never mind. I won’t ask.” Karolina digs into her closet and pulls out a unicorn backpack then proceeds to fill that halfway with more clothes. “You’re only taking two backpacks worth of your shit?”

She walks over to her entertainment center and unplugs her xbox one before putting that and all its games into the unicorn bag. “I’m only taking what I can carry. Might have to make a second trip for my computer though.” She goes back over to her bed and rummages under the pillows until she picks up her 2ds and puts that into the bag as well, along with all its games from her bookshelf.

“Yeah, unplugging and taking that thing with you will require a box. Plus it’ll need a mode of transportation that isn’t a bus. If you need to bring more of your shit gimme a backpack and I’ll carry it.”

“I don’t need a third bag, I just need something small for my jewelry and make up. Ooh. I have the perfect purse for that.” Karolina heads back into her closet then comes back out with a Hello Kitty purse.

“You never cease to amaze me, Dean. Truly. And I say that will all the sincerity I can muster.” Nico takes the purse then goes into the bathroom. “You know you should’ve put your meds in the purse instead of a bag.”

“Don’t worry. The Karolina klutz-proof caps make sure they won’t spill into the bag. Oh. Speaking of my meds, can you put the pill cases in there for me?”

“Got it and don’t forget your keys this time. Unless you think Leslie and Frank will change the locks.”

“I wouldn’t put it past them to do that but I’ll get my keys regardless.”

Nico comes back in the room looking around, “you’re not bringing along any more stuffed animals? Won’t your precious Ms. Snuggles get lonely?”

“I know you’re making fun of me but I’ll have you know I thought long and hard about my decision not to bring any more of my stuffed animals.”

“Maybe because reasonably not even a third of your collection of stuffed animals will fit into an apartment?” Nico gestures to the wall shelves filled with stuffed animals.

That and it was difficult deciding who else to bring.” Nico shakes her head.

♠️♥️♣️♦️

Nico’s grateful Karolina’s new building is two blocks away from hers. That means when Karolina (inevitably) gets herself into shit, Nico’ll now only be ten minutes away instead of a forty-five minute bus ride.

They take the stairs to the third floor and ring the doorbell of apartment 3I.

A few seconds after Nico rings the doorbell perhaps the most beautiful person in existence opens the door with a bright smile that could produce puppies out of thin air (if physically possible). “You must be Karolina!” They step out of the apartment to hug Nico.

Nico’s never considered herself much of a hugger but despite that she quickly wraps her arms around Karolina’s new roommate. And despite not being able to see her best friend, she knows Nico has a blissed out expression to go with her content sigh. Karolina shakes out of her stupor. “Actually, I’m Karolina. That’s my best friend Nico.” Her new roommate looks up at her then releases Nico with an apology. Damn, maybe she should’ve thought this through. How the hell is she supposed to live with someone this good looking?

Before she can think more about how screwed she is—and not in a good way, her roommate hugs her “It’s good to meet you. I’m looking forward to living with you.”

“Me too.” Karolina chirps. She can see why Nico let out that sigh. “You told me the app auto-corrected your name to Xander?”

They release Karolina with a smile. “Yeah. Guess Xavin isn’t a typical name and I hadn’t even realized it changed my name until you texted me. Oh. You bought some of your stuff with you already? Good! Come in. Come in.” After entering the apartment and closing the door behind her, Karolina looks around. Huh. Seems like the digital tour was pretty accurate. “Guessing you want a proper tour that isn’t through a lens?”

“That’ll be great.” Nico replies.

Xavin gives them the tour and Nico dutifully albeit distractedly asks about the building and its amenities as well as the neighborhood.; like she doesn’t live in the same neighborhood. Karolina’s only half listening because Xavin has a real nice voice. The star of her fantasies nice.

Karolina hears Nico ask: “What happened to your last roommate?”

“My last roommate was my cousin Teddy. He’s a personal trainer, you see, so he needed a smaller place to stick his clients along with all his workout equipment. I got too accustomed to this place and didn’t wanna downsize – plus there was the lease. He suggested the whole roommate ad thing and...” Xavin shrugs, “here we are.”

“Wouldn’t your roommate—cousin need a bigger place to fit in his workout equipment?”

“Common sense would suggest that, right? Unfortunately, his clientele are very... particular. They viewed a roommate as a distraction and for some that ‘distraction’ – otherwise known as me – was unwelcome. Plus, less room means less hiding places. They found that out the hard way. Right. Speaking of Teddy? He still has his key which means he’ll just pop up from time to time under the guise of looking after me when in reality he’s gonna gossip. Sorry in advance.”

“That’s alright. I’m gonna cut myself a spare to do the same thing.”

Xavin laughs. “That’s good. It would be unfair otherwise.” Nico nods in agreement. “By the way, is Karolina okay? She seems a bit... dazed.”

“Yeah, she always looks that way. It’s when she doesn’t is when you should worry.”

“Uh. Got it.”

Nico snaps her fingers in front of Karolina’s face. “Huh? Wha—!?” She looks around. “What happened?”

The door opens and there’s a tall, pretty blond in a black t-shirt that’s not too tight but definitely tight enough to show off his unfair amount of muscles carrying a rolled up mattress. “Oh. I’m on time then.”

Xavin sighs, “this is Teddy. Teddy, my roommate Karolina and her best friend Nico.”

“I’d wave but...”

Does pretty run in the family? Nico subtly checks her mouth to see if she’s drooling. “I can’t thank you guys enough for giving me a bed.” Karolina says.

“Teddy had a spare and I’d rather not have my roommate sleeping on the floor.”

“Wait. You have a spare bed?” Nico asks.

“A friend of mine bought me one of those fancy, overpriced beds.”

“A friend who buys you an overpriced, fancy bed typically wants to use said bed with you.”

Teddy chuckles, “he wanted to but things didn’t pan out the way he intended so he never got to ‘test out’ the bed he bought.”

“But doesn’t using the bed nightly remind you of him?”

“I thought it would but I’m usually out like a light the moment my head hits the pillow.”

“He was an asshole.” Xavin adds, “so the less you think about him the better. I keep telling my darling cousin he can do better than the assholes he seems exclusively attracted to but he never listens.”

“I’m not exclusively attracted to assholes.”

“Could’ve fooled me.” Xavin mutters, “I’ve never seen a halfway decent guy brought into this apartment when you were still living here.”

The cousins stare at each other until Teddy scowls. “I’m gonna put this mattress in your room.”

“Wait. Isn’t that my mattress?”

“I doubt you wanna be sleeping on his old mattress.”

“And you think yours is any better?” Teddy calls out from Xavin’s bedroom.

“Unlike you, I don’t sleep with people on my bed.”

“Then where do you sleep with them?” Nico can’t help asking.

“I’m more of an against the wall kind of person.”

Karolina hopes her blushing isn’t obvious. She saw on the profile Xavin uses they/them pronouns. When they hugged earlier, she didn’t feel anything soft against her body and it was a close, full-body, fronts touching hug. Not that breasts matter to her much. She enjoys a good fondling as much as the next gal loving gal but she’s been with girls without breasts before. Now because Karolina’s an optimist and Xavin is both pan as all hell and not a dude, she’s hoping she’ll end up against a wall with them some time in the near future.

“I respect that.” Nico says with a hum. Karolina was trying to slip into her new room unnoticed but Nico turns to her. “Need help setting your room up?”

“I—uh? Sure?”

“I’ll help out too.”

Karolina hopes she’s smiling and not grimacing at Xavin. “Thanks.” No real surprise the bedroom is empty safe for the full size bed in the middle of the room. Not that she was paying attention but Karolina doesn’t remember any doors being opened in the tour. The physical tour. Karolina and Nico place Karolina’s bags on the bed. “I need to buy some curtains... and sheets.”

“We don’t have any food so we can pick up your stuff when we go grocery shopping.”

“Sounds good.”

“You’re vegan, right? Teddy tried going pescetarian for a while. Didn’t work out.”

“Veganism isn’t for everyone. But you don’t have to change the way you eat because of me or anything.”

“Okay but I’ll make sure not to cross-contaminate meats with your food.”

“You don’t have to worry about her going aggro for stuff like that. I’ve eaten plenty of hamburgers in front of her and she hasn’t batted an eye. As long you don’t try converting her to a carnivore she’ll be okay.”

“Noted.”

♠️♥️♣️♦️

Nico unlocks her phone. The wallpaper is a picture of the two of them wearing pink heart-shaped glasses (Karolina’s idea) holding a spoonful of frozen yogurt in front of their opened mouths. (Karolina’s spoonful is pink while Nico’s is green.)

After leaving Karolina’s yesterday, she didn’t hear from her. Knowing Karolina, Nico’s not sure if this is a good thing or a bad.

Her doorbell rings and Nico stills. Despite never using it, Karolina has a key to her apartment. Her mother also has a key and honestly Nico’s not sure how but she’s not surprised. She, thankfully, gets her craftiness from her mom.

When Nico looks through the peephole she hardly expects to see Leslie and Frank Dean on the other side. Shit. Of course they’d look here first for Karolina.

“I know you’re in there, Nico.” Leslie says. “Open the door. I have no problem standing out here all day.”

Sighing, Nico takes the chain off the door and opens it. “Can I help you two with something?”

“As a matter of fact you can. I’d like to speak to my daughter.”

“She’s not here.”

“Then where is she?”

“Maybe if you hadn’t kicked her out of your house you’d know the answer to that.”

“Is that what she told you?”

“Is she wrong?”

“No. But we both know Karolina. She’ll be back within a week. Two tops.”

“You didn’t learn your lesson from the last time you underestimated her?”

“I’ve carried that girl for eight months and twenty-two days, I believe I know her better than you do. The college situation was a one-time thing.”

“A ‘one-time thing’ that lasted four-and-a-half years.”

“She’s a Dean, Leslie, which means she’s powered by spite – same as you.” Frank says.

Leslie smiles. “How I forget. Nico, when you see Karolina tell her we have no intention of changing the locks or re-purposing her bedroom. She may no longer be living there but she’s welcome to visit whenever she wants.”

“I’ll be sure to relay the message.” Nodding, Leslie and Frank leave. Nico sighs closing the door. Honestly, that went better than expected. Last time Karolina sought refuge at Nico’s there was an hour long staring contest between their moms. You haven’t seen a staredown until you’ve seen Tina Minoru do one.

She picks up her phone, unlocks it again, then dials Karolina’s number. Karolina picks up on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hey. Your parents paid me a visit.”

“They did? Damn. What did they say?”

“Your mom said they’re not gonna change the locks.”

Karolina huffs. “That’s something, at least.”

“But that was after she said you wouldn’t last two weeks.”

“She once told me I wouldn’t last two days in my composition and rhetoric class. Not only did I stay in the class the entire semester but I got an A+. I’m used to my mom not giving me the benefit of the doubt. What did my dad say about all this?”

“That you were powered by spite?”

“Guess that’s true when it comes to them.” She hears Karolina sigh on the other end. “Thanks for the heads up.”

“Anytime. I’ll call you later, alright?”

♠️♥️♣️♦️

Xavin comes around the corner as Karolina puts her phone back into her pocket. “Was that Nico? Is everything alright?”

“Hmm. Yes and no. My parents are... being my parents. They don’t think I’ll last all that long not living under their roof.”

“Am I your first roommate ever?” Xavin claps their hands together, “your mine too! Other than Teddy. Ooh. We should have a toast: to living without family members for the first time.”

“I’m in. Frankly, I’ll use any excuse to have a celebratory day drink.”

Xavin nudges her, “that’s the spirit.”

Karolina manages to grab damn near everything she needs in one shopping trip to the superstore. A friend of Teddy’s lends them his car. It’s more like he drops them off at the store then picks them up since neither of them have a license. She’s considering heading to her parents place for her computer but since they just showed up at Nico’s there’s no doubt in her mind they’ll have some dramatic confrontation she’s not interested in having.

Just as well, since she doesn’t have anything to put her computer on. Yesterday, Xavin and Nico helped her put away her clothes into the closet because that was all she had to set up. Today, she has sheets and curtains for her bed, more clothes for her closet, a laundry basket, a 32” television, and one of those cute jewelry cases. Plus, there were a dozen multi-colored storage cubbies on sale.

Looking around her room, she realizes there’s nothing to put the television on.

The room is still fairly empty but she’s not sure if that’s a bad thing.

There’s a knock on the door and Karolina turns to find Xavin’s head in the doorway. “I figured we should go out to toast. Seems more official that way.”

“I’m game. Where are we headed?”

They fully walk into Karolina’s room, Karolina is momentarily distracted by the navy romper Xavin is wearing. “Ever hear of The Prime?”

Karolina tilts her head to the left, “can’t say I have.”

“Great! This’ll be another first for both of us to share.”

Karolina looks down at her pink t-shirt and pair of jeans. “I’m guessing I have to change?”

“Ooh. I’ll let you borrow something!” Xavin grabs Karolina’s hand leading her into their room. This is her first time in Xavin’s room so she’s looking around. Xavin digs into their closet then holds up a low cut black sheath dress on a hanger. “What do you think?”

“My God that looks tight.”

“Perfect! Try it on.”

Karolina takes off her shirt, silently thankful she’s wearing one of her cuter bras, then slips the dress over her head pulling it down over her jeans. Xavin lets out an appreciative hum and Karolina gives a little twirl. “I like it but is there an option two?”

“Too much frontal attention?” Karolina nods. Xavin has to admit their eyes slid down to Karolina’s ample cleavage in that dress, a bit more than their eyes usually slide down because the girl’s definitely a D-cup. “Personally, I think you should show the twins off but if that’s not what you’re into I can see what else I have.” Xavin has three more dresses like the one they pulled just in different colors. In fact, a large number of the dresses Xavin pulls are low cut or shoulder dresses.

“I’m sensing a pattern here.” Xavin gives her an apologetic shrug but the look on their face is anything but apologetic.

Xavin goes back into the closet then pulls out a garnet one-shoulder bodycon dress that has a crisscrossing slit on along its sleeved left side in one hand. In the other hand is a dress the same color that’s also one-shoulder but most of its mid section is cut out. “Here. Your breasts will be safely tucked away in these.”

Karolina takes off the dress she’s wearing then tries on the one Xavin had in their right hand. Or tries to. “Just my luck this one is too small.” Then she tries on the other which is thankfully too big.

“I have rompers if you don’t wanna go the dress route.”

“You have a lot of clothes.”

“I like clothes.”

Karolina eyes the collection of dresses laid out on the bed. “I noticed.” She picks up a violet off-the-shoulder bodycon dress then tries it on.

“You know, it’s really unfair that everything you try on suits you.”

“I’m sure the same could be said about you.”

Xavin grins at her. Karolina grins back then tries on some more dresses. In the end, she settles on a dark grey one-shoulder bodycon dress.

Xavin also lends her a dark grey clutch and a pair of dark grey heels. “You’re like a walking clothing store, Xav.”

Xavin tries (and fails) not to blush at the nickname as they put the finishing touches on Karolina’s make up. Damn, there’s gonna be some other lucky bastard getting this close to the blonde? Honestly, Xavin’s not sure how they feel about that.

Thankfully, the bar’s not crowded when they enter and there are people in far tighter outfits than what they’re wearing.

The two of them make their way to the bar. The bartender looks them over with a smile. “What can I get you folks?”

“Two cherry cosmos, please.” The bartender nods then starts making said drinks.

“One of those is for me, right?”

Xavin laughs, “of course. I mean, I could easily drink them off myself but we couldn’t very well toast if only one of us has drinks can we?”

“True enough.”

“I did some research last night and I had no idea a lot of liquor is already vegan.”

“You did research?”

“Of course, I don’t wanna accidentally give you something not vegan friendly.”

“You’re so sweet!” Karolina hugs Xavin. The bartender sets the drinks down in front of them. They both thank the bartender before turning to each other holding up their glasses. “What are we toasting to?”

“Hm. How about to each other and sharing kickass adventures?”

“I like the sound of that.” With a smile, Karolina clinks her glass against Xavin’s then they start drinking.

After a satisfying swig, Xavin notices the glint coming from Karolina’s left hand. “Ooh. Your bracelet is so pretty and it even matches the dress.”

“My what? Oh. That’s my medical alert bracelet. That’s honestly not why I picked this dress but this isn’t the first time I used this thing as a fashion accessory.”

Xavin lifts Karolina’s left hand and examines the bracelet. “What’s written on it?”

“My allergies, medication—it basically puts most of the stuff wrong with me in plain sight.”

Xavin puts her hand down, “there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“I have over twenty years of doctor’s notes and referrals that would disagree.”

“I’m not saying you don’t have issues or struggles, I’m saying you aren’t in the wrong for having them.”

“Oh. Huh. Um. Thanks then. As you can probably tell I’m terrible at interaction.”

“I think you’re too hard on yourself.”

Karolina motions to the bartender for another drink then eagerly gulps it down when she gets it. With a sigh, she sets down the empty glass. “I get that from my mother. Unfortunately. She’s been hard on me my whole life, but talking about my mom will turn this into one of those sad day drink sessions and we’re supposed to be celebrating today.”

“You’ve had sad day drinking sessions?”

“Oh, frequently. Especially when I was still in college and didn’t have afternoon classes.”

Xavin lifts up their half-empty glass and toasts against Karolina’s empty one. “May there be more happy day drinking sessions in our future than sad ones.”

“Here’s hoping. So, tell me a little about you that we didn’t text about.”

“Well, I’m an only child. I was raised by my grandfather then Theodore’s mom.”

“Theodore? That’s Teddy’s first name?”

“Not his first name but yeah. It’s what Teddy’s short for.”

“Huh. Um. You were raised by Teddy’s mom and you guys’ grandfather? What about your parents?”

“I don’t remember anything about them.”

“Oh man. I’m so sorry. Here I am complaining about my parents and—”

Xavin shakes their head, “no, it’s alright.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I am. Oh and I also like day drinking as much as you.” 

“All friendships start with a common interest.”

“That they do. And I no longer have to worry about drinking alone because Theodore’s a lightweight.”

“Is he?”

“Yeah. It’s actually ridiculous. We were out celebrating and one drink later he was face down on the table snoring. I’ll find just about any reason to celebrate.”

“So? That’s not a bad thing. I love celebrating. Who even needs a reason?”

Xavin smiles at her, “hey, since we’re just here sipping cosmos see anyone that strikes your interests?”

Karolina nearly spits out her drink, “hm?”

“You know...” Xavin lolls their head from side to side, “anyone you’re interested in sleeping with.”

“I know what you meant. I just wasn’t expecting it.” With her third drink in hand, Karolina looks around the bar. As beautiful as the women around her were, she’d much rather spend time with Xavin. “I think I’m good. What about you? Anyone tickles your fancy?”

“When I got a smoking hot lady beside me? Nah.”

“Are you trying to get into this dress that you let me borrow, Xav?”

“Not on our first outing.”

Karolina lets out a full-body laugh.

A melodious sound Xavin could get used to hearing around the apartment. Teddy said this roommate thing would be hit or miss and needless to say, Xavin is extremely pleased it is a hit. The last thing Xavin wanted was a boring roommate, they already experienced that with Teddy. The most exciting thing Teddy ever did was occasionally bring home “company” but he even managed to do that in a boring way. Plus, all his “guests” were assholes.

Suddenly, the bartender sets a rainbow colored drink in front of Karolina. “The gentleman at the end of the bar purchased this for you.”

“Boy is he gonna be sorely disappointed.” Xavin mutters. The two of them lean forward to eye the guy at the end of the bar lifting the same drink in his hands in a salute. There’s an adorable crease between Karolina’s eyebrows as she stares back at the drink. “Do you know him?”

Karolina looks back at the end of the bar but the guy is gone. “He looked familiar, but I gotta admit I’m actually quite terrible with faces.” With a shrug, Karolina sips on the drink. “Wow, that’s sweet. Try some.” Xavin takes a sip and recoils. “Don’t have much of a sweet-tooth?”

“I like sweets as much as the next person but not when it’s threatening to coat my tongue in sugar.” Karolina shrugs then keeps on sipping. “Does this happen often? Random guys buy you drinks at bars?”

“Not so much guys, but I’ve had my share of women buy me drinks and chat me up.”

“Why wouldn’t you? You’re adorable.”

“Thanks. I’m sure you’ve had people tripping over themselves and other people trying to buy you drinks.”

“Well... I don’t like to brag.” Karolina laughs. “Come on, let’s walk around and mingle. Your dress really isn’t for sitting.”

“That’s for sure. This thing’s been riding up like no one’s business.”

♠️♥️♣️♦️

There was only a handful of other twenty-somethings in the bar to mingle with but there was a nice elderly couple who recognized Karolina’s voice from some of her voice acting projects.

It’s noon when they make their way back to the building. Much like Nico, Xavin is an early riser but unlike Nico, Xavin is actually out and about instead of spending hours laying in bed watching Hulu or Netflix on their phone. Karolina normally doesn’t like waking up before 11:30am if she can help it.

As Xavin puts the key into the door, another apartment door opens. “Are you just getting back?” Karolina watches Xavin turn to the opened door across the hall. A beautiful black-haired woman in a purple jumpsuit is leaning against the doorway with an apple in her hands and a quiver on her back. “It’s pretty late, even for you Xavin.”

“Relax, Kate, we were celebrating.”

The woman—Kate—turns her attention to Karolina. “Found someone to celebrate with you, then?” She walks across the hall to Karolina and engulfs her in a hug. “Sorry about Xavin in advance.” She whispers, then she leans back to get a good look at Karolina. “Damn, you’re pretty. Name’s Kate, as you probably heard.” With a pat on the shoulders, she releases Karolina.

“Um? Thank you. I’m Karolina.”

“You’re quite welcome.”

“Kate’s the building’s main source of gossip.”

Rude!” Kate huffs, folding her arms over her chest. “I didn’t hear anything about a new tenant.” Xavin gives Karolina a look. “Oh. Shit. I just proved you right didn’t I?” When Xavin nods, Kate snaps her fingers in disappointment.

“Karolina’s my new roommate.”

“Is she? That’s great. I’m in 3B if you ever need to get away from Xavin.” Xavin flips Kate off, “I’m also the building’s factotum.”

Karolina blinks. “The what?”

“Handywoman, in layman’s terms.” Karolina nods slowly. “Since you’re living with Xavin, we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”

“No, that was Teddy who always broke things.”

“I guess we’ll see, now won’t we?” Kate gives them both a two-fingered salute. “Gotta pick up my dog from the groomers. Catch you later.”

Inside their apartment, Teddy is at the kitchen table on his phone. Before Xavin can say anything he points to the living room, “your new rug is here. Had to let the people in to put it down and take away the old one.” Karolina takes her shoes off then heads to the living room to admire the new rug.

“Thanks.”

“No problem. I also got your spare key to my apartment and the spare for Karolina and another for her friend.”

“Thank...” Xavin blinks at the container on the table, “did you buy muffins?”

“Cupcakes.” Xavin’s eyes snap up to Teddy’s. “Muffins are—never mind. I need your help with something.”

“Is it legal?”

“Is it—what? Of course, it’s legal!” Xavin gives a one-shoulder shrug before making the go-on gesture.

“I went into that vintage comic book store that opened a few days ago and inside was the cutest boy I ever laid eyes on.” Xavin whistles, “and his voice...” Teddy clears his throat. “I need an excuse to go back in there.”

“Why don’t you just buy some comics?” The cousins look over at Karolina laying on the new rug. “You said it’s a comic book store, right? Oh, was this a private conversation? I’m sorry. I’ll just continue to starfish-it here.”

“No, you’re fine. Huh. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”

“Because you’re a scatterbrain in the face of a hot guy.” Teddy scowls at Xavin but doesn’t bother defending himself. “I’m assuming they have a wide, non-linear selection of comics?” Teddy nods. “Karolina, you read comic books right?”

“Yup. I used to read all kinds but recently I’ve stuck with LGBT+ superheroes. Ooh. Maybe that place has some. Can I go with you while you try and woo your new crush?”

“And there is your reason. Taking your friend – make sure to specify she isn’t your girlfriend and isn’t even into guys – to see the spread.” Xavin points in Karolina’s direction, “you owe her for coming up with something.”

“You don’t have to tell me that, I already know. There’s a vegan friendly ice cream parlor near the comic store.”

Karolina pops up. “That’ll do. You wanna head out now before you sike yourself out? I gotta change out of this dress first. Oh and we’re getting the ice cream before heading to the comic store.” She heads to her room whistling.

Teddy glares at Xavin, “don’t look at me. You told me to try the roommate ad.”

“Didn’t think I’d be getting a peppier version of you.”

“Isn’t that great, though?”

“Yeah. Of course you'd think so.”

“Are you sure you wanna wear that?” Teddy looks down at his plain brown t-shirt and pair of black shorts. “It’s a comic book store, right? Throw on one of our thousands of nerdy comic book related shirts and a pair of jeans that really show off your ass.”

“You can’t turn the fashion consultant off, can you?” Xavin shrugs. “Fine. I’ll be back.”

Karolina comes out of her bedroom in a black Hello Kitty t-shirt and a pair of jeans, holding Xavin’s dress on a hanger. “Didn’t wanna just leave this laying around.” She hands the dress to Xavin.

“Thanks. Teddy went to change.” They hand Karolina the two spare keys. “Here you go.”

“Thanks. Nico will love the skull key.”

“I’m gonna go change. There’s no way I’m gonna miss Teddy embarrassing himself in front of a cute boy.”

“I’ll be here.”

Teddy arrives back at the apartment the same time Xavin emerges from their bedroom. “Better. No guy who’s attracted to other guys will be able to keep his eyes off you.”

The short trek to the ice cream parlor is only made longer by Xavin and Karolina having to forcibly drag Teddy down a block because nerves stilted his movement.

After ordering their ice cream, the three of them sit at a table. “Were you always vegan?”

“No, not always. I started when I was twelve. It was the latest dietary fad my parents wanted to try so they made me do it with them. It was a struggle at first because a lot of places weren’t vegan friendly all those years ago but as the years went on it got a whole lot easier. Xavin said you tried going pescetarian?”

“Yeah. Did it for a month, I was working with a client who tried it and I said I’d try it with her. She barely lasted the week, but after I gave myself food poisoning I figured I’d hold off on fish for a while.” Karolina whistles, “never tried going full-on vegan though. I’ve heard mixed reactions to it.”

“There are mixed reactions to pretty much everything in life.” Xavin comments, sipping on their smoothie.

“True.” Teddy spends the next fifteen minutes slowly eating his melted ice cream before Xavin gets up and throws it away then pulls him up and drags him to the comic store next door.

When the door opens the chime sounds like the intercom noise from Star Trek. “Welcome!” Someone calls out.

Making their way to the register, Xavin sees a woman with a shirt that says: “Beam Me Up Scotty, There’s No Intelligent Life Down Here.” She’s also wearing a pair of earrings with the Star Trek insignia on them. Her “name-tag” says Dammit Jim I’m A Cashier is filled out in a neat cursive handwriting. Below that says Not A and Rocket Scientist is also filled out in the same handwriting.

The woman is typing away on the laptop in front of her, long brown hair tied up into a low ponytail. “I’ll be with you in just a sec.” She says without looking up, which honestly amazed and startled Xavin.

“S-Sure. Take your time.”

After a few more seconds of clacking away, the woman looks up from the laptop at Xavin with a smile. “Sorry about that. Taking inventory. What can I help you with?”

“What do you sell here?”

“Comic books, mostly, but we also have other types of books – mostly cooking from what I’ve seen. There’s also collectibles, posters, toys, DVDs, other forms of videos, I think I saw some records laying around, retro video games, some current video games. We also accept that stuff and give you a trade cash value.”

“Sounds cool. How long have you guys been open?”

“Less than a week. It’s just the two of us and our boss at the moment.” As cute as this woman is she isn’t Teddy’s type, so it’s either the other employee or the boss that has Teddy nervously fumbling around the store.

“So you take just about anything for trade?”

“Just about, yeah. Everything we have so far came from the boss herself—” That takes the boss out of the equation too, “and some of her friends.”

“Sorry it seems like I have so many questions but what do you do with the money you make here?”

“That’s alright. Everybody’s got questions about this place. The novelty hasn’t worn off yet. We donate our profits to LGBT+ shelters. A customer came in the other day and told us about a few places that needed some help. If you have any more we’re all ears. I know I sound strangely rehearsed but the boss made sure I had this stuff down.”

“That’s perfectly fine. I like that you’re to the point. I had a friend who ended up in one of those shelters because their parents kicked them out for being who they are instead of who their parents expected them to be. I’d be out of my mind not to help donate.”

“What happened to your friend?”

“Thankfully, my building had an opening and she’s now living in it and fixing it up.”

“Glad to hear it.” Teddy makes his way over to the register with a stack of comics. “Wow.” He looks up and blinks at the cashier. “You got these from the dollar bins, right?” He nods. “How many do you have?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Let’s see with a 6.6% sales tax, your total comes up to $34.12.”

Xavin whistles, “you just did that in your head in two seconds. That’s amazing.”

“Thanks. Most people don’t see it that way though.”

“Well I’m a total math snob, I need to be great at it in order to get paid.”

“Same here. Plus, you know, I like math. I didn’t always like it but I do now.” Xavin nods in agreement.

A yawning woman with bright pink hair comes out of the door behind the register. Karolina comes from behind a shelf and gasps. “You’re Alison Blaire!” The woman sleepily rubs at her eyes but nods. “I love you! Wait. That was weird. I mean—”

Alison chuckles then finally opens her eyes. “It’s—wait. I’ve heard your voice before. You’re Carnation from Princess Crayon Castle!” Karolina blushes as Alison dashes over to her and grabs her hands. “I love you!”

“I’ve seen that show.” The cashier says, “I love Carnation too. She’s my second favorite princess after Teal.” While Alison and the cashier are talking to Karolina, Xavin pulls out their phone to see what the hell they’re talking about. This princess... thing is a cartoon, with a relatively small fanbase, that was released last year. Essentially all the royalty are named after obscure crayon colors with a few exceptions such as teal (a fan-favorite) and scarlet. Karolina voices a major character, although not the main character. Oddly enough, this Carnation Princess Karolina voices favors her slightly minus the aptly named princess’ skin color.

“When do you think they’ll get PCC merchandise?” Alison asks.

“I don’t know. They don’t tell me that stuff.”

The Star Trek sound starts up and Xavin can hear Teddy’s sharp intake of breath. Wearing a pair of oversize red headphones is a brunet with a thin pair of brown glasses wearing the same grey t-shirt as the cashier and a pair of black jeans. Objectively, yes, the guy is attractive so Xavin can see Teddy’s instant crush. Speaking of Teddy, he might as well be projecting hearts straight from his eye sockets with how intense he’s staring. His “name-tag” has the standard Hello! My Name Is: but written in the same handwriting as the other cashier is: Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Closing the door behind him, the guy is carries in two boxes that nearly reach his glasses. Although this would’ve been a perfect opportunity for Teddy to initiate a conversation or – for fuck’s sake – move, he just stands there gaping at the guy as he reaches the register. He takes his headphones down to around his neck. “Star said Julio doesn’t need these anymore.” Huh. Teddy was right about that voice.

Alison takes a break from her barrage of questions at Karolina to thank the guy. “This is Princess Carnation. I mean, shit. That’s not right. I’m sorry. What’s your name?”

“Karolina.”

“Karolina: The voice of Princess Carnation.”

“From that crayon show?” The cashier and Alison nod. “Nice. I’m—” He blinks at Karolina who blinks back.

“Billy.” Behind her, Xavin and Teddy exchange a glance. “It’s good seeing you.”

“You too. I’m not as knowledgeable about that crayon show as Kamala or the boss so that’s probably why I didn’t recognize your voice when I first heard it.”

“I wouldn’t say my voice is all that distinct.” Billy laughs. Xavin notices the Miraculous Ladybug earrings in his ears now that they aren’t covered with headphones. “This is my roommate Xavin and their cousin Teddy.”

Teddy actually flinches at his name, and lets out an audible gulp (that thankfully only Xavin hears) when the four of them stare at him. “H-Hi.”

“Good to meet you both.” Alison says, “and thanks for the purchase.”

“Ah. I haven’t gotten anything for me yet.” Xavin says then walks toward the shelves pointedly ignoring Teddy’s panicked expression.

When Teddy came in here yesterday, he toppled over the display because he was gawking at Billy who was seated behind the counter. As far as embarrassing himself went, it was a 6.5 compared to some of the other shit he’s done. Because he basically wasted a day’s work with his clumsiness, after helping fix the mess me made, he just grabbed the first thing he could reach and purchased it. It’s in an unmarked box so he still doesn’t even know what it is. The two of them talked a bit about comics while they were fixing up the display but Teddy never got a name nor did he give his name.

“Good to see you again.” Billy greets.

Thankfully suppressing a whimper, Teddy nods. “You too.” He’s surprised his voice came out at all let alone evenly; he’s also thankful he hadn’t said something idiotic in return to that greeting.

“Are you paying for your stuff separately or together?” Alison asks.

“Together.” Teddy says. Any excuse to just stand here and not doing anything is alright in his book.

Alison nods then starts pulling out stuff from the top box, examining them.

Xavin and Karolina return to the register from different parts of the shop and put their purchases on Teddy’s stack of comics. There’s an adult coloring book and a pack of scented crayons. The two of them look down at the stuff then at each other.

“Weird.” Karolina says. “I was just about to look for a coloring book.”

“And I was gonna get some crayons.” Xavin says, chuckling.

Why did Xavin have to have all the damn charm in the family? “Kamala will ring you guys up.” Alison says, handing the unopened box to Billy. “Let’s see what my son brought in today. Thanks for stopping by.” She says then disappears behind the door with Billy.

“Did you guys find everything alright?” Kamala asks. Teddy almost wants to say no so Billy will re-emerge but he refrains and nods instead. “Great.” Kamala rings everything up and puts them in a paper bag and hands it to Teddy. “Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you guys again.”

“Definitely.” Xavin says, “and I’ll bring all my comic loving friends by.”

“Thanks.” With a nod, the three of them exit the store.

Teddy manages to wait until they’re across the street to hang his head down and sigh heavily. “You got no one to blame but yourself.” With another heavy sigh, he nods.

“Can’t really blame him, Billy wasn’t there for most of the time we were.”

“Oh. I can blame him and I will. You didn’t see him carrying two boxes Theodore could’ve easily helped out with and had the opportunity to flex in one go.”

“I don’t think Teddy needs to flex to get his muscles noticed.”

“Although that’s true, a little flexing never hurt.”

Karolina hums. “Guess that’s true too.”

“But I guess if you know him all isn’t lost. He’s gonna owe you more than just some ice cream though.”

♠️♥️♣️♦️ 

Karolina normally doesn’t plan ahead and Nico often berates her for it. This time it isn’t Nico who’s gonna berate her as she steps into the apartment finding herself face-to-face with Tina Minoru. “Karolina. You’ve gotten taller since the last time I saw you.”

“Honestly, I’m not all that sure... but thanks?”

Tina gives Karolina one of her rare smiles. “Leslie told me you moved out.” That’s not surprising. “Good for you. Are you getting my daughter out of this dump?”

“No. I moved in with someone else.”

Tina hums. A small sound with far too large a meaning. “You’d rather live with a stranger than my daughter?”

“What? No.” Tina purses her lips. “Nico loves this place. I wasn’t gonna force her to move to accommodate me.”

“If that truly is your reason, I thank you for thinking of Nico. Still, she could do a lot better than this place.” She hums, “where are you living now? I mean, how far away is it?”

“Less than ten minutes walking.”

“That’s good. Are you still on speaking terms with your parents? Will you be joining us for brunch?”

Shit. Karolina forgot about brunch. Tina is Leslie’s agent so they get together weekly to go through all Leslie’s acting offers. In recent months, neither Leslie nor Frank got as many offers as they usually do.

“I’ll have to see.” Fuck. Tomorrow is Saturday – otherwise known as brunch day. Does she really wanna sit through her mother passive-aggressively bullshitting her over a three-course meal? No. But if she doesn’t have a legitimate excuse, one that excuses Nico as well (because Nico will never forgive her otherwise), she’ll have to show up.

She heads to Nico’s room and puts the key under her pillow with a sticky note.

As she’s leaving, Nico is coming into her apartment. “Hey, you.”

“Hey. Your mom’s here, I gotta go.”

“What?” Karolina’s already running down the stairs. Sighing, Nico enters the apartment. “Mom.”

“Nico. I was just asking Karolina if she’ll be joining us for brunch tomorrow.”

Nico grimaces. She forgot about brunch. Hardly her favorite meal, but it keeps their moms occupied long enough to stop criticizing every decision they’ve made for the past week for a few hours. “What did she say?”

“‘She’ll see.’” Dammit. That means she’s got nothing. Not that Nico’s in any position to talk. “You look as though you’re thinking of a scheme to get you and Karolina out of joining us tomorrow.”

“And here I thought I had a really good poker face. Mom, you don’t like talking to Karolina’s parents anymore than I do.”

“I do when it concerns business. Managing one of them is difficult enough, I can’t imagine the hell I’m getting myself into becoming Francis’ agent as well.”

“Then why do it? You have plenty of better clients than the Deans.”

Tina shrugs, “every little bit helps. Besides, you and I know both know those three would fall apart without our help.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to play babysitter.”

“At least this way, I’m getting paid to babysit.”

“Yeah, okay. You got a point mom.”

“And the Deans aren’t terrible clients. Terrible people, sure, but not terrible clients.”

♠️♥️♣️♦️

When Karolina comes into the apartment, Xavin and Teddy are staring at a black box sitting on the table. “I’m back. What’s that?”

“Theodore doesn’t know. He made an impulse buy because he felt like an idiot knocking over a display at that place we visited yesterday.”

Karolina hums, takes her shoes off then joins them at the table. “Open it. Unless either of you have x-ray vision, you’ll never know what’s inside otherwise.”

Teddy sighs then carefully unwraps the plastic from the box before slowly opening it. Inside the box are four workout DVDs, a pair of grey eight pound dumbbells, a pink and white stripped jump-rope, a black reusable water bottle, and a deflated red workout ball. “Oh.”

“Damn. I was thinking something heinous was in there. Hoping more like.”

“I already have all this stuff already, do you want it?” Xavin shakes their head, “what about you, Karolina?”

“Yeah. I’ll take ‘em. Thanks.” Teddy puts the box in her hands. “I need a workout regiment that involves more than taking the stairs.”

“What’s in the bag around your elbow?”

“Oh!” Karolina gently places the box down on the table then puts the bag next to it. “I got a brand new, still in the box Star Trek Bluetooth Communicator for $10 at Dazzler’s.” Xavin and Teddy blink at her. “The store we went to yesterday? It’s called Dazzler’s Warehouse: Making Vintage Shine Again.” They both nod slowly. “Anyway, someone brought it in yesterday after we left. I have no idea how to even use it but I’ve always wanted a communicator replica.”

“Personally, I’ve always wanted a phaser replica.”

“One replica at a time, Teddy.”

“Did you get one of those shiny lightsticks?”

“That’s Star Wars, Xavin.” Teddy says with a frown, “and it’s called a lightsaber.”

“I knew it was Star Something with a light-something.”

Karolina giggles, “I’m not into Star Wars. A boy Nico was dating was completely obsessed with it and made her watch the most recent one? She brought me along because the guy conveniently had a female friend he could set me up with. Turns out the two of them were in an open relationship and they both wanted to sleep with the two of us together.”

They’re both silent for a while before Xavin blurts out, “did you do it?”

“No, Nico did though. Wasn’t into the girl... or her boyfriend so I passed on the opportunity. Besides, last time Nico and I went the group route it got us a stalker.”

“Have you two ever had sex without a buffer?”

Karolina’s nose scrunches up adorably. “Is that a sex thing?”

Teddy barks out a laugh and Xavin elbows him in the stomach, “I meant have you two ever had sex without someone else there?”

“Oh. Oh! Yeah, once. Twice, actually. Thank God it wasn’t weird. I don’t know how I would’ve survived senior year otherwise. But back to the movie, I guess I didn’t get it because I didn’t see the other... what was it eight? Seven? However many movies exist. But ask me about every Star Trek series and the reboot movies and I can tell you just about anything.”

“Have you watched Discovery yet?”

Karolina sighs, “sadly no, but I’ve never watched a series as it was airing live so—” She trails off with a shrug.

“When you say the ‘most recent’ Star Wars movie, are you talking about Episode Eight or the Han Solo movie?”

“If I’m being completely honest, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. All I remember was the cute technician. I didn’t have to pay for anything and I got an extra large tub of popcorn I put kettle corn seasoning in. Everyone could’ve been set on fire in front of me and I wouldn’t’ve noticed.”

“I sincerely hope you mean everyone in the movie getting set on fire.” Teddy says.

“Yeah, you know. That, too.”

Teddy looks at her suspiciously. “When did you see the movie?” Xavin asks.

“Uh. What is it now? August? It was definitely before A Wrinkle In Time. Ah! I still have the ticket stub.”

“Xavin collects those too.” They elbow Teddy again. “Ow. Stop that.”

Karolina takes her wallet out of her pocket and shuffles through it. “Huh. I have the Wrinkle In Time stub and the Power Rangers one from last year? Nope, no Star Wars. Just those two with some old receipts I should be throwing out. I could ask Nico but she’ll need a few hours to cool off because I ditched her because her mom stopped by her apartment.” Xavin and Teddy whistle. “Yeah. Not my finest moment. But~” She cradles the communicator box. “I’m gonna put this baby somewhere to display proudly.” Then she scoops up the box with the workout equipment under the communicator box. “Thanks again, Teddy.”

“Anytime!” The two of them watch Karolina head to her bedroom. With a hum, Teddy sits down at the table. “Let me ask you a serious question: How screwed are you?”

“You can’t already tell?”

Teddy cracks a smile, “I wanna hear you say it.” Xavin glares at him, “come on! You’ve given me so much flak for my crushes. Hell, you did it not even an hour ago when you were talking about Billy!”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is, it’s not like you to develop a fondness for someone so quickly.”

“Yeah, well.” Xavin shrugs, “you’ve met her have you not? Can you tell me you aren’t fond of her already too?”

“Maybe not to the extent that you are but yeah, she’s something else.” He puts a hand on Xavin’s shoulder, “good luck. I have a feeling you’re gonna need it. First comes roommates, then comes what?”

“Closer friends, naturally. She slept with her best friend and suffered no moral conflict so it’s not a question of whether or not we’ll sleep together, it’s when and what happens after.”

“Sounds like you got it all planned out.”

“I’m an expert strategist, my dearest cousin. I’m not gonna let an extremely attractive person with her adorable dimples, very long legs, bubbly personality, and incredible breasts distract...” Xavin scratches their head, “shit, I forgot where I was going with my monologue.” Teddy slowly shakes his head.

Karolina comes out of her room. “I don’t know how Nico found out about Dazzler’s but she wants to check it out tomorrow after we go to brunch with our parents.” She sticks her tongue out at the last bit, “did you wanna come with us, Teddy?”

Teddy raises an eyebrow, “to brunch?”

“What? No. I wouldn’t put you through that. I meant back to Dazzler’s. We can put in a good word with Billy for you.”

“Yeah?” Karolina nods. “That’s—”

“Maybe you should wait a while before trying to set them up. Theodore did dismantle an entire display attempting to be subtle.” Teddy glares at Xavin who smiles back.

“Yeah?” Sighing heavily, Teddy nods. “That’s okay. You just have to do something that’ll make him forget all about that.”

Xavin laughs. “Oh. This’ll be priceless. No way I’m missing that.”

“No one’s asking you to come.”

“You’re not asking, you’re practically begging.”

Chapter Text

Moving is always a hassle, even when you’re not the one doing said moving. Karolina didn’t have much stuff to bring into the apartment she now shares with Xavin but Tina? Nico’s been carrying boxes into her mom’s new house all morning and even now, well into the evening, with the additional help of both Teddy and Xavin, the moving van is still half-full. Helping Tina move dialed up to an eleven on the awkward scale with her father/her mother’s ex-husband, Robert, also deciding to lend a hand this morning. Nico had no idea her parents still spoke, let alone were civil enough to be around each other without slinging a single insult. (If only they exhibited this behavior during the fourth grade spelling bee.)

Tina claims she’s forgiven Robert for his unfaithfulness (or “moment of weakness” as he calls it) but Nico’s reserving judgment. Despite constantly butting heads or perhaps because of it, Nico has no problem admitting Tina’s always been her favorite parent and losing contact with Robert wasn’t that big of a blow. The only thing it meant was she required only one signature for all her permission slips from sixth grade onward and that just Tina would be attending her parent-teacher conferences.

All throughout the morning, Robert kept attempting to make conversation with her. If he truly wanted to say anything to her that mattered, he wouldn’t’ve waited twelve years to try. Especially if he and Tina were apparently still in contact with each other the entire time.

Now it’s about 8:30pm and it’s just the two of them in the house, “I’ve ordered takeout from that quaint little vegan place you and Karolina spent the majority of junior and senior year in.”

Nico plops down on the sofa arm shaking her wrists, “oh yeah? The one with that weird techno interior? That place is still open?”

“Why not? Questionable décor aside, that place does have exceptional food. Besides, you two didn’t graduate high school that long ago. I mean, I have throw pillows over six years old.”

“I’ve noticed. You buy anymore pillows and I’m nominating you for Hoarders.”

Tina scoffs, “really? That’s a little extreme, don’t you think?” Nico raises an eyebrow at her mother then gestures to all the pillows of varying sizes scattered around the living room, then at the multiple boxes in the corner marked pillows. “Huh. I-I had no idea I compiled so many. I suppose I could always place some on my bed—”

“Wait. That’s your solution?”

“You have a better one?”

“Sell some? Give some away? Seriously, mom. You can open your own store with how many you have in this room alone.”

“Give some away...” Tina taps her chin, “do you need any throw pillows?”

“I honestly wouldn’t know what to do with them.”

“They’re for decoration, Nico, you’d use them to decorate.” Tina deadpans, “or at the very least, you’d use them like regular pillows.”

“I—and you say I’m a smartass?”

Tina shakes her head, “I won’t even dignify that with a response.” Nico shakes her head, “what about Karolina then? I haven’t given her an apartment-warming gift yet and her birthday is a few days away.”

“Karolina has a mountain of stuffed animals on her bed and you wanna add throw pillows into the mix? Nu-uh. Bad idea.”

“A mountain? She brought her stuffed animals from the house to her apartment?”

“No, she just bought new ones.”

Tina nods, “ah. Makes sense, but I bet she brought that rabbit you won her when you two were six.”

“Wait. What? I won that for her?”

“You don’t remember? Your eyes just lit up when you spotted that little tie-dye three-eyed rabbit hanging with the rest of the bizarre looking prizes. You said Karolina would love it and were determined to win it for her. In fact, you declared you weren’t moving until you won it and you stayed true to your word. I honestly have expected the guy to give it to you out of pity but you managed to win it by yourself. The entire thing was adorable. I think that’s when Leslie started getting hopes of you two getting married one day.”

Nico pinches the bridge of her nose, “I-I can’t believe I’m responsible for Karolina’s stuffed animal addiction. All the years I’ve been ragging on her and I’m the reason behind it? What the hell was I thinking?”

“For one, you were six. And secondly, you were thinking your best friend got shots then some teeth pulled within a few hours of each other and was in desperate need of cheering up. Besides, she won you that stuffed squid I know you keep on your bed.”

“It’s an octopus that I keep on my vanity. And I didn’t remember her winning it for me, I just remember her giving it to me.” Nico runs a hand through her hair, “doesn’t change the fact that six-year-old me was such a sap.”

Was? Nico, my darling daughter do I have news for you. You are still very much the same sap who still very much loves that same best friend as much if not more than you did eighteen years ago. That’s why with every harebrained, in the clouds scheme that girl comes up with you are always right beside her bringing her back down to earth.”

“She does have a lot of harebrained schemes, doesn’t she?”

Tina nods slowly, “that she does. It’s a miracle she turned out to be such a luminous free spirit with Leslie and Frank as her parents.” Nico nods in agreement. “When is she due back?”

“Tomorrow, hopefully.” Nico’s face falls, “aw man, I am still a sap.”

“Only when it comes to her.” Tina pats her leg, “come on. The food’ll take a half-hour. Helping me organize my bedroom will take your mind off how much you miss Karolina.” With a groan, Nico gets up and follows her mother up the staircase.

“Why’d you decide to go the house route now of all times?”

“I needed extra storage space.”

“I’ll bet. Especially with the massive army of throw pillows. But you got the house before you realized you had them so what’s the reason?”

“You really wanna know? The apartment was stifling. Not to mention I wanted—no needed a change of scenery. Something out of LA. Also, I wanted to have a spare room for my daughter in case she needs it.”

“That’s—” Nico’s eyes narrow suspiciously, “you expecting me to get evicted from my place?”

“No, smartass. It’s just in case your place gets quarantined again.” Nico grimaces, “I don’t understand why you don’t look for a better building? One, preferably, that doesn’t have multiple health scares a month?”

“I’m comfortable there.”

“I did not raise you to be content with comfortable.” Nico sighs heavily and looks like she’s about to argue but just ends up sighing again. “I know your lease ends this month and that you haven’t renewed it yet.”

“I didn’t get the renewal letter yet.”

“Before you sign another year at that horrible place, keep your options open. There’s a new building that just opened last month and the rent is significantly cheaper than what you’re paying and it’s in a better part of the neighborhood. Plus, it’s only ten minutes from Karolina’s building.”

“Where are you getting this information from? I thought you stopped being a real estate agent years ago?”

“I did but I didn’t lose all my real estate intel or friends.”

Nico stares at her mother before realization hits her. “That’s why Robert was here, wasn’t it? This building that sounds too good to be true is one of his, isn’t it? Mom—

“Would you rather some stranger buy up all the buildings and gentrify the neighborhood? At least your father isn’t gonna hike up the rent price or kick out tenants who are paying.”

“And what’s the catch for his sudden act of generosity? He could’ve bought any building in any neighborhood but he comes to mine and makes a new building seemingly out of thin air?” Tina clicks her tongue and Nico stops walking, “don’t forget I get my stubbornness from you too.”

Sighing, Tina stops walking then turns to her. “You have to live in the same building as him.”

“Naturally.”

“Daily greetings. Simple small talk. Weekly lunches. You wouldn’t have to pay any rent.”

“Would you move into Robert’s building and force yourself to interact with him?”

“If I didn’t have to pay rent, sure. I’d give it a shot.”

“What’s he want? To try and be the father he should’ve been all those years ago?”

“Your father made a mistake, Nico.”

“A mistake big enough for you to divorce his ass or am I wrong?”

Tina purses her lips, “no, you’re right. I’m not completely sold on the idea of you essentially living under his roof either, but you need a backup plan that doesn’t involve hopping from homeless shelter to homeless shelter. And as an added incentive, think of all the money you’ll save on the rent you’re not paying.”

“Did he buy my current building?”

“I honestly don’t know.” Tina starts walking again, “last week was the first time I’ve even seen him in twelve years.”

“Yeah? I thought you two were all buddy buddy the whole time.”

Tina scoffs, “please. We couldn’t even be in the same room without arguing and that was well before the divorce.” They reach the master bedroom and Tina opens the door. Nico whistles. She stuck mainly to moving boxes into the house so she didn’t see Tina’s bedroom at all when she started helping. Like the rest of the house, it’s not finished but the room itself is almost as big as their combined bedrooms in the last apartment they lived in together. The boxes are all stacked in columns of three and are all labeled bedroom.

Nico looks around in awe, “where’d you stash all this stuff when we had the apartment?”

“The garage unit. Neither of us had a car so I used it for storage. Told you the apartment was... stifling. I didn’t want to keep everything in boxes until the end of time. Start with the pile near the bed, I’ll grab a box of pillows from the living room.” Nico salutes her as she heads back downstairs to the living room.

The spare bedroom, aka “her bedroom,” is downstairs next to the kitchen, but Nico also saw another box-filled bedroom down the hall from the master bedroom with its own bathroom attached. She doesn’t know what or who that room is for but Tina is nothing if not always overly prepared.

Nico starts with the box on the top of the first pile closest to the bed and as soon as she opens it the damn box cuts her thumb. “Ow, dammit.” Wincing, she puts her thumb in her mouth sucking the blood off. The third box from the bottom, fourth from the top starts glowing red and shaking violently until it flies out of the pile and into her knocking her down.

Tina comes into the room and drops the box in her hands then holds out her hand and the box on Nico flies into her arms. “What happened?”

“Good question.” Nico sits up rubbing her head. Tina notices the action smears a bit of blood onto Nico’s forehead and the box stirs in her hands. “I cut my thumb on the box as I was opening it then another box tackled me. I think it was glowing?” She squints up at Tina then at the box, “but I don’t think that beats your apparent telekinesis.”

Tina sighs, gripping the shaking box in her hands tigther. “I’m not telekinetic.” Sighing again, she puts the box down and opens it pulling out a staff. “This is the Staff Of One. It’s a Minoru family heirloom.”

“Minoru?” Nico stares at her mother, “is one of the reasons you married Robert was because you two had the same surname?”

“Not that it matters anymore but that wasn’t the first thing on my mind when we started dating. However, I was glad I didn’t have to change my name in marriage or divorce, and hyphenating to add a second Minoru made no sense.” Tina shakes her head, “in any event, when you started bleeding you activated your connection to the staff.”

“Bleeding, huh? Glad I wasn’t over here a week ago.” Nico mutters as she gets up.

Tina holds the staff toward her. “It’s yours, if you want it.”

Nico skeptically eyes the staff, “there’s a catch, right? I’ve never heard of this thing until it knocked me on my ass ten seconds ago.”

“It’s an heirloom, you’re my heir. It’s yours. It should’ve been yours years ago. I thought you’d be thrilled to have a magical staff. You’ve only been into magic since you were eight-years-old and Leslie took you two to the circus.”

“Yeah. Sure. I like magic. I also like cool tones and dyeing my hair.” Nico keeps eyeing the staff in Tina’s hand, “did you always have it? Seems like the kind of thing I would’ve noticed at some point, right?”

“No. I didn’t always have it. My mother didn’t give it to me until I was pregnant with you.”

Nico’s eyes snap up toward her mother’s. “Didn’t grandma die when you were pregnant with me?”

“She did.” Nico continues to stare at her, “what’s with that look? I didn’t kill my mother.”

“Whoa. Okay. Wow. My mind did not go there but you are not convincing me otherwise.”

“It was three months before her death that she gave me the staff. I was twenty-two when I got pregnant. My mother didn’t think I was ready to wield the responsibility.” Tina scoffs, “as if she had any other candidates.”

“She did have other candidates. Like your sisters?”

Tina laughs, “oh. You’re serious.” She clears her throat, “I’m the eldest therefore it should’ve gone to me. Without question. Or, you know, she could’ve given it to any of us at any time since she damn near bragged about it constantly. I think she wanted to hold onto the staff as long as she could.”

“Uh-huh and I take it you have a completely unrelated reason for never mentioning your family had a magical stff before? Hell, you even said you should’ve given it to me years ago.”

“Should I have given it to you when you were fourteen and on that cutting phase?”

“That wasn’t a cutting phase, that was me irresponsibly shaving.”

“Then you expected me to endanger you further by giving you a weapon that draws on your blood when you couldn’t handle a razor?”

“That thing needs my blood to work? Never mind. I’m suddenly glad I didn’t get it before.”

Tina places the staff on the bed, “I intended on giving to you for your twelfth birthday but as I was preparing for the party I caught Robert making out with our neighbor in the linen closet.”

In the closet?” Tina nods, “is that why you were carrying around extra knives in your toolbelt?”

“That’s... one reason, yes. I guess I put the staff in the back of my mind after that. I haven’t even used it since then. Hell, I didn’t even know where it was until I saw the box. I used to practice magic with Robert all the time.”

“You’re not back together with him, are you?”

“Oh honey, that ship has long past sailed. I bumped into him at the grocery store last week. Haven’t seen or even heard anything about him since we walked away from him in court. What did you have Karolina ask him? ‘Why did he ruin our family?’” Nico grimaces but nods. “The petty part of me felt good that he looked so miserable, picking up a dozen packages of top ramen but the rational part of me that will always care for the father of my daughter was slightly concerned.”

“And what part of you do we have to thank slash blame for him now knowing where you live?”

Tina’s eyes widen, “shit. I can’t believe I didn’t even think of that.” She facepalms, “guess that’s the petty part of me too. He told me about his sad little one bedroom apartment in one of the buildings he now owns and I guess I was feeling particularly spiteful that day.” The doorbell rings, “huh. I almost forgot about the food. Let me get that.”

When Tina goes downstairs, Nico stares at the staff on the bed. Admittedly, on one hand it’s a badass looking staff. On the other hand, it doesn’t just work with any blood but Minoru blood; I.E. her blood. (Or her cousins’ blood but she doubts they’ll be interested in it, and she honestly wouldn’t blame them.) She can always talk to Billy about this shit, if anyone has an opinion on magical whatever it’s him. Or Doctor Strange but Billy is easily the lesser of two magical evils.

She takes her phone out of her pocket and takes a picture of the staff before putting her phone back in her pocket. It’s a good idea to learn more about the magical, blood siphoning staff before putting it near the blood it’ll siphon, from her body.

Tina returns about a minute later with two plastic bags on top of a box. “I don’t remember that place delivering food before.”

“Everyone delivers nowadays.” Tina puts the food on the bed and puts the box on the floor near her feet. As she reaches for a bag her phone rings. Her phone is on the bed so Nico sees the word P.R.I.D.E. flash on the screen before Tina scowls, hits ignore, and blacksout the screen again then sits on the bed.

Nico sits on the bed and reaches for the other bag, “hope that wasn’t important.”

“Nothing is as important to me as you.”

“Cryptic but I’ll let that slide. What is pride anyway? I have a feeling it’s not the pride Karolina and I go to every June.”

“No, it’s not that kind of Pride. People And Resources Identification For Distributed Environments.” Nico’s eyebrows furrow, “it’s what keeps your father buying all the buildings in the neighborhood. We work with several other families from around the wonderful city of San Diego to keep it for the people.”

“That was even more cryptic, and I can’t say I remember you ever mentioning this organization before.”

Tina shrugs opening a container, “it was mostly your father’s side project but I’ve recently stepped up to be more involved. I know. Why don’t you come with me to P.R.I.D.E.’s fundraiser next month? You can see first-hand what P.R.I.D.E. does.”

“Uh, sure, okay. What about the staff? Are you gonna tell me more about it before you pawn it off on me?”

“What do you want to know?”

🌈

Nico yawns as she leans against the wall. The last time she spent all night talking to her mother she came out as bisexual. Of course Tina being as omniscient as she (often) is, she knew before Nico did. It took Nico weeks after having sex with Karolina senior year to realize it; although having sex with Karolina in the first place should’ve been an indicator of some sort.

“You look half-dead.” Her boss, Daken, comments as he passes by.

“Thanks boss, I knew I can always count on you to make me feel better.” He gives her a two-fingered salute as he heads into the back room. Nico yawns again and pushes herself off the wall in time to see Teddy enter the shop. After his go-to adult store closed down last month, Nico recommended he come here but this is the first time he’s stopped by since said recommendation.

“Hey.” He greets as she approaches him.

“Hey yourself.” She yawns behind her fist, “thanks for helping out yesterday.”

“No problem. In fact, I should be thanking you. I had no idea I could lift a couch by myself so that definitely helped me up my morning workout routine.”

“If you say so? So, glad you decided to make the trek over here. We have a sale on edible massage oils today.”

“I—huh. I did not know that was a real thing. How would that even work?”

“According to what I heard from Karolina, it works wonderfully. It works like regular massage oil except you get to lick it off afterward.”

“Seems like a wasted effort to put massage oil on your partner only to lick it off when you’re done.”

“Not much for foreplay are you?”

“I don’t mind foreplay, I just don’t think it’s practical to spend time putting on the oil just to take it off; tongue or no tongue.”

“Not even if you accidentally put on an excess amount?” Teddy raises an eyebrow at her, “no? Still not sold? Okay. We’ll avoid the massage oil then. But I’ll have you know, Mr. Skeptic, practical or not the edible massage oil is our third best seller after the anal fleshlight and edible bodypaint.”

“Did you say edible bodypaint?”

“We have loads of edible things here. There’s a whole section in fact.” Nico jerks her thumb toward the sign displaying the edible section of the store. “Wanna check it out and find more things to complain about?”

“I do, actually.”

As they make their way to the edible section of the store, where the majority of the customers are shuffling around, Teddy bumps into a lingerie-clad mannequin nearly knocking it over. “Is—is this mannequin wearing men’s lingerie?”

“Unisex.” Nico corrects helping him set the mannequin upright. “Hell of a conversation starter, am I right?” Teddy nods as he looks the mannequin over. “We have ‘em in all sizes and a variety of colors~”

Teddy continues to stare at the lingerie-clad mannequin then shakes his head as he tears his eyes away. “I’m gonna pass, I don’t have anyone to wear lingerie for.”

“That’s the problem? Who says you need to wear them for anyone? Wear it for yourself if you like it.”

“Doesn’t that seem like a waste though?”

“First the edible massage oil and now the lingerie? Are you always this confrontational?”

“No not always.”

“Personally, I don’t think it’s a waste because whether you’re showing it to another person or not, it’s going on your body. Ordinarily, when buying underwear – if you buy that sort of thing – you’re thinking about how comfortable or nice looking they are; not how someone else is gonna perceive them. Unless you are buying underwear with the sole intention of having someone see you in them, then having that aforementioned someone take you out of said underwear. In which case, you can forget I even said anything.”

Teddy bites his lip, “that’s... a good point.” He never understood the appeal of lingerie before. Not that any of his past lovers ever wore it nor asked it of him. Seeing it up close and feeling the soft material against his fingertips aren’t necessarily swaying him into buying a pair but it’s also not deterring him either. It’s a curious feeling. However, feeling it around his palm wouldn’t have the same effect as feeling it... elsewhere.

“Are you gonna keep feeling up the display or do you wanna feel up some different pairs not on a mannequin?”

He sends her a glare as he removes his hand, “after the edible stuff.”

“You still wanna look at them after you found something else to complain about?”

“It’s still early.”

They make their way to the edible section and Teddy stops walking causing Nico to bump into him. Before she an question what happened she sees Billy crouching at the bottom shelf holding two different flavors of edible bodypaint bottles.

After the initial outing to Dazzler’s with Karolina and Xavin several months ago, Karolina dragged him along with her when she took Nico there the next day. Karolina and Nico told him and Xavin they met Billy through his best friend, David, who attended the same university as Karolina.

It took no small amount of pleading and bribery on his part to get Xavin to not show up as well but he finally managed to succeed. In the end, it wouldn’t’ve mattered whether Xavin was tehre or not because he just stood there awkwardly for the most part of the trip only inputting monosyllabic replies when someone prompted him into the conversation.

And Karolina did try, more than she should’ve probably. He realized he’s beyond help in both the conventional and unconventional sense but Karolina promised him she’d help out again.

Unfortunately, she then went to Maine for the press tour of some new show she’s in and has been gone for almost three months now. With Karolina gone, he enlisted Nico’s help and she agreed only not as eagerly as Karolina.

Snapping himself back to reality, he realizes this isn’t the ideal location to bump into your crush – especially when you’ve run out of any sex related paraphernalia because you were fantasizing about said crush and exhausted your already paltry supply. And seeing said crush look exceptionally mouth-watering this afternoon holding bottles of edible bodypaint is not helping his predicament in the slightest. It’s instead bringing forth all sorts of dirty thoughts to Teddy’s head, most of which involve various uses for those particular bottles. Not to say Billy doesn’t always look mouth-watering because he does but for some reason today he looks even more so. Black Grey Warden t-shirt, pair of grey jeans, black and white high-top Converses, small black hoop earrings, and grey framed glasses.

He sees Nico out the corner of his eye walking toward Billy and he tries to grab her arm to stop her but she side-steps with a huge grin on her face as she walks over to Billy. “Hey, stranger.”

Billy gets up and grins at her. “Hey, stranger.” He looks over Nico’s shoulder at Teddy and gives him a little wave. Teddy returns the wave, a bit too enthusiastically, but Billy’s thankfully not paying attention to him anymore so he sighs heavily in much-needed relief. “I’ve never heard of or seen that staff but I can check my spellbook and let you know if it’s in there.”

“Thanks. We can practice magic together.” They high-five each other.

“Is Karolina back yet? I forgot to ask David before I left.”

“Nope. She sent me a text this morning saying the flight’s been delayed because of a snow storm the night before and she should be back tomorrow in time for the convention but she doubts it.”

“I bet she’s miserable. I recall you guys saying cold weather and Karolina don’t mix.”

“They don’t. Hell, if the temperature is under seventy-five she’s grabbing a sweater.” Billy hums, “and she’s never been around snow before.”

Never? Doesn’t she travel for work?”

“Sometimes but that’s only occasionally. Most of her acting gigs record in the state so it’s only press tours and things like that that have her out of the state or out of the country. Not sure how but she somehow avoided snow for twenty-three-and-a-half-years before yesterday.”

“Yeah. You two have been in California your entire lives, right?”

“Lived in, yeah, but we’ve visited other states before. If I remember correctly, David said you’re from the east coast?”

“Yup. Brooklyn, New York born and raised. I used to think the summers up there were warm but my whole life was a lie the first summer day I spent here.” Nico laughs. “Are you dressing up tomorrow? I didn’t have time to put a costume together so I’ll just half-ass something.”

Teddy miserably slinks over to the duo and eyes the penis-shaped basket hooked on Billy’s bandaged left arm, along with its contents. There are three beige boxes of a variety pack of flavored condoms. (Thank goodness those aren’t edible.) There’s also at least twenty bottles of the edible bodypaint, various flavors from what he can see, and a pair of fuzzy pink handcuffs.

“I got this black cloak but I don’t know what I wanna wear with it.”

“Would it even matter? I doubt you’ll take the cloak off.”

“Good point.” Nico elbows Teddy, “I can’t remember if Xavin said they were dressing up tomorrow. This’ll be their first convention, right?”

“Technically. We tried to go to one last year in LA but they canceled the event because central air was stuck on the coldest setting and people were getting first degree frostbite”

“Wow. Did you guys dress up? Who were you?”

“I was Jax and Xavin was Tanya.”

“Mortal Kombat? Nice.” Billy says.

“You two went as two of the series’ best and least dressed characters? Did either of you get frostbite?”

“No. We only took one step in the building before security kicked everyone out.”

“Are you gonna be Jax again this year?” Billy asks with an adorable head tilt to the left.

“No. I would’ve but I can’t find my metal arm sleeves. I did have a couple of other fighting game characters in mind though.”

“Will you be shirtless?” Nico asks. “We didn’t know you last year and I feel like we missed out an experience.”

“I’ll consider it.”

“Good. You should. Also why just fighting game characters? Is no one else buff enough for you or something?”

Teddy laughs, “no, that’s not it.” A pause, “at least I don’t... think it is? Fighting games are kinda my—”

“Jam?” Billy finishes, “mine too. Fighting games and RPGs. I never tried a first-person shooter game until Overwatch and Paladins, respectively.”

“Me either, and that wasn’t until a few months ago when Xavin made me get both of them because Karolina has them and Xavin doesn’t have an Xbox One. And since they live with Karolina, it doesn’t make any sense to get another Xbox One.”

“Ooh. What’s your Xbox gamer-thing? We can play together. Matter of fact.” Billy takes his phone out of his pocket, “you can put it in my notepad since I’m probably not gonna remember if you tell me.” Nodding, Teddy takes the phone and inputs his information.

“You might as well put your number in there while you’re at it.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Teddy glares at Nico as he puts his number in Billy’s phone. At least he hopes he’s putting his number in Billy’s phone. Honestly, he could be inputting any random assortment of ten digits with his brain only functioning at about thirty-five percent and steadily dropping. Nothing’s making sense to him at the moment.

Billy’s phone’s wallpaper is a picture of him and who Teddy assumes to be David presumably at pride wearing the gay and bi pride flags on their faces, respectively. If they have the same relationship Xavin is hoping to have with Karolina, Teddy will certainly have his work cut out for him because David is as unfairly attractive as Billy.

“Hey. I thought you had a Switch?” He hears Nico ask.

“What? No. I have an Xbox, David has a Switch. I only play Let’s Go Eevee and Smash Bros on it.”

“Didn’t Smash Bros come out, like, this morning?”

“It had a midnight release.” Teddy replies, “I was thinking about getting it but I had to remind myself I don’t have a Switch yet.”

“We already started playing it this morning and already unlocked a bunch of characters.”

Nico shakes her head, “you couldn’t wait, could you?” Billy shrugs.

Teddy hands Billy his phone back, “thanks.” He hits the talk button and Teddy doesn’t know why he’s surprised his own phone starts ringing its generic ringtone. He takes his phone out of his pocket and dumbly stares at it for a few seconds at the unfamiliar number until Billy reaches over and presses talk. Teddy blinks up at him. “Just making sure you had my number too?” Teddy nods slowly. That makes sense. “I’ll text you my gamertag, I’m always confusing it with my 2DS one since they’re both pretty similar so I gotta confirm which is which before giving it to you.”

“Let me ask you a question, Kaplan. What’s your opinion on edible massage oil?” Teddy shoots Nico a look she pretty much waves off.

“Edible what now?”

“Massage oil. You didn’t see the sign? Edible massage oil is on sale.”

“Oh. It’s not the bodypaint?” Nico shakes her head, “damn, I gotta put some of these back.” He looks down at his basket with a sigh. Should’ve known it was too good to be true. As far as my opinion goes, if it’s anything like the bodypaint it could be a fun mess.” He starts texting on his phone with his bandaged left hand. “Gotta let David know I misread the sign and see how he feels about edible massage oil.”

“Damn. These aren’t all for him, are they?”

“No. I was gonna stock up since I thought they were on sale. Painting is very therapeutic.”

Nico looks him up and down, “I’ll bet. What’s his name?”

Billy looks up from his phone at her, “huh?”

“The name of the guy who has you interested in painting? Because in the four-and-a-half-years I’ve known you, you have not once expressed an interest in anything paint related.”

Teddy almost misses Billy’s quick glance at him. Almost. Or was he just imagining it? “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Minoru. Am I suddenly not allowed to pick up new interests?”

“Is that what you’re calling it? Fine.” She puts an arm around Teddy’s. “We have to finish the tour. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

🌈

When David opens the apartment door, Billy is struggling to fit inside with about eight different plastic bags in each arm. “What the fuck did you do, Kaplan? Buy the whole store?”

“No. I went to a bunch of stores but I had to carry everything down the hall because the old lady in 7B with the very vocal dislike of telekinesis was eyeing me the moment I got out of the elevator.” He somehow manages to put all the bags on the kitchen counter. “I’m very tempted to give her a show.”

“Please don’t. I just unpacked my last box this morning, and every time you set out to prove something against a racist, homophobic, mutant-phobic, or anti-semitic neighbor we end up getting kicked out of the building.”

“Which really isn’t fair and also proves said racism, homophobia, mutant-phobia, or anti-semitism.”

“Yeah, I know it sucks but as I mentioned I just finished unpacking and there are only so many buildings in our price range in the neighborhood.”

Billy sighs heavily, “fine. I’ll leave it alone, for now. But if she gives me the evil eye and bares her cross at me again I can’t be held responsible for my actions.”

David eyes all the bags on the counter, “this is the last time I send you out to do any shopping.”

“You actually did me a solid today because I saw Teddy at the sex shop.”

“Who? Wait. The guy you never shut up about? The one built like a brick shithouse? His name is Teddy?”

“Yes and I shut up about him.” David gives him a flat look, “I do!”

“Uh-huh. The only time you shut up about Teddy is when you’re prattling on about Miles.”

“You prattle on about Miles as often as I do!”

“Yeah but I work with the guy so I’m allowed to prattle because I’m not gonna make the mistake of sleeping with a co-worker and screwing up our friendship.”

“That shit only happens in poorly thought out movies. I don’t understand you sometimes, you’ll think of going skydiving on a fucking whim but won’t bother asking out a hot guy interested in you.”

“He’s interested in me?” David shakes his head, “no. I’m not going down that road.”

“Why not?”

“Why would I?”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“Why should I?”

“Stop going around in a loop and answer the question. What’s keeping you from dating anyone? You’ve hooked up with our old classmates from the institute. I mean, you even had sex with Keller which is just – eww. For starters and secondly you two hated each other and still do.”

“Yeah. Never saw the point in hate sex before him.” Billy cringes. “You wanna know why I face the facts that I’m doomed to be alone forever? With my brain picking up pieces of everyone’s business, I’m not even sure what I’m doing in life. Everything I know is second-hand knowledge from someone else’s experiences. I can’t even find new things to do because someone else gave me the knowledge whether I realize it or not. And ‘trying new things’ just ends up being boring and predictable for me.”

“So you just stop trying? Did you forget who you’re talking to? I may not be to absorb people’s knowledge but everyone is always in my head and sometimes I can’t even differentiate my thoughts from someone else’s. At least I’m out there getting laid semi-regularly.”

David gives him a look, “yet you’re blatantly avoiding getting into a relationship with a guy you like more than his ‘rocking bod.’”

“What are you talking about?”

“You don’t even realize it? The way you talk about Teddy leads me – someone who’s known you for over ten years and has seen you at your absolute worst – to believe you have more than the standard physical interest in him.”

“I... wait, what?”

“Remember when you bitched at me when you first saw him? How he stumbled into the display window and fucked with your regular bitching about the lack of blueberry bagels at the bakery down the street?”

“I mean, if you boast about being the only kosher, gluten-free bakery in a fifty mile radius why the hell wouldn’t you have anything blueberry?” Billy shakes his head, “but I—I don’t remember bitching at you about Teddy.”

“You’re so very lucky I record your ranting sessions now.”

“You do?”

“You rant a lot, Billy. You can’t blame me for wanting proof.” David taps his chin, “I know I have the recorders somewhere—”

“Speaking of finding things, do you know where my spellbook is? I need to look up something for Nico.”

“It’s on the bookshelf. You put it there once the Charmed Reboot came out.”

“That’s right. Thanks.”

“Also, also. I have more proof. Your incessantly horny ass would’ve climbed Teddy like an apple tree thrice over already like you do with most guys you just wanna sleep with. However, I noticed when you have more than simply a passing interest your powers come into play which means you don’t proposition them because you’re wondering how being a telekinetic, telepath with magic powers can start a conversation. Or if it’s a dealbreaker or not.”

“I’m a little pissed I have such an obvious tell.”

“Well, I’ve known you a long time. Plus, with me not having much of a life I people watch.”

“I’m gonna find you someone you can be yourself with – that you’ll wanna sleep with. Not that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind in the past.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. But then we became like brothers and I already have two little brothers so that is a line I will not cross.” Billy heads over to the bookshelf and plucks a purple book from it. He opens the book and starts flipping through pages. “Where was I? Oh yeah. You need someone who makes you wanna be the best possible version of yourself. Not some tool who still sees you as the bitchy seventeen-year-old obsessed with defying everything the institute taught him. Oh wait. I just described myself too. Scratch that last part. You wanna move forward, not backward and remember my mom’s a shrink so my advice is legit.”

“Paraphrasing her advice doesn’t make it your advice.”

“Yes it does. Back on the subject of bakeries, they’re opening a new kosher, gluten-free one.”

“They are?”

“Yeah. Just a block away from the one we normally go to. We need to go to this new one, otherwise I’m gonna have to pick up baking and that’s not a hill either of us wanna die on.”

“If it keeps you alive I don’t see another alternative. Other than, you know, me doing the baking and for all the skills I unwittingly picked up over the years baking is sadly the one skill I never got down.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Baking is nothing more than a science and you’re the king of science.”

“Tell that to the shit I try and fail to bake. I can follow a recipe to the letter and still fuck it up somehow.”

Billy shrugs, “well, at least you’re bad at something. Keeps you from being completely perfect which is completely boring.” He sighs, “let’s say you’re somewhat correct in your assumption. How am I gonna know if he’s anti-telepath? They never look the part and that’s when they get you.”

“I do wish I had known you before coming to the institute. I bet you weren’t such a cynic.”

“The feeling’s mutual, pal.” David comes over to the bookshelf. “There’s something else keeping me from sleeping with him.” David raises an eyebrow at him. “He’s basically perfect. Like a Disney Princess perfect.”

“You serious?”

“His charming smile. His muscle definition. His ass. The fact that his impure thoughts about me are PG-13 at their filthiest? He makes me wish I could go around telling every guy I wanna fuck that I read their interest in me just to skip the bullshit pretenses and get to the fun stuff. Wait. That just reminded me that he’s also pretty damn dense.”

“Silver lining. Can’t be perfect if he can’t see someone who exudes the antithesis of subtle wants to ride him like a mechanical bull.”

“I don’t wanna ride him, I want those perfect thighs wrapped around my legs. Or my face. Or both. I’m not picky.”

“He’s versatile?”

“Mind reader, remember? His fantasies often feature us switching things around. Which is a bit surprising because when guys fantasize about me I’m the one being fucked.”

“Ten times out of ten, gay media suggests the shorter guy gets fucked and thoroughly enjoys it too. I’m sure if he’s as tall as you drool about then it’s the opposite for him.”

“Is that what happens to you? The majority of the guys who want you are thinking of climbing you like a firefighter up a pole and the small percentage of men who are actually taller than you see you being fucked?” David nods. “I don’t think I’ve ever been with a guy shorter than me. Teddy is slightly taller than you are. Does this mean I have a fetish for tall guys? Is that even something that can become a fetish?”

“Anything can become a fetish. However, in your case, I think you can safely rule out wanting a taller guy as a fetish seeing as how many guys shorter than you are children.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to be happy about being 5’7”.”

“It’s okay. I have nothing but love for my bite-sized best friend.”

“Cute. You’re really fucking hilarious.”

“What if Teddy is one of those hot guys that wasn’t always hot? The guy who had to grow into his hotness and still doesn’t see himself as hot?”

“You mean he wasn’t lucky enough to be hot his whole life like you were?”

“I appreciate the compliment but I wasn’t always hot. I was lanky as hell when we first met.”

“Lankiness notwithstanding, everyone wanted to makeout with you David, and that was before you dropped the bombshell of your bisexuality. Then when you started working out and getting muscle mass people’s interest in you spiked to dangerously high levels. Why do you think you had so many roommate changes in the institute?”

“I never thought about that. I thought everyone rotated roommates every two weeks.” Billy slowly shakes his head. “Huh. That’s... something.”

“Ordinarily, I’d say you shouldn’t apologize for your rocking bod but since you make me look bad in comparison, I have to say you should – in this instance.” David laughs. “I don’t suppose I could use a time-warping spell that’ll keep me and Teddy from meeting, huh?”

“A time-warping spell? Did you somehow conveniently forget when you broke time at the institute?”

“For like five minutes and Doctor Strange fixed it—”

“All the while telling you to never do a spell like that again, and if he has eyes everywhere like he says he does I doubt you wanna go all the way back to New York just to hear him once again lecture you on safe magical practices.”

Billy groans, “you’re right. I hate seeing him monthly as it is, and I bet he’ll bitch at me an extra eight days worth since he pushed back our meeting until after Hanukkah.”

“Sorry to have to break it to you but there’s no magical solution to your problem.”

“You sure? I’m this close to hitting Teddy over the head with a two-by-four and screaming that no, he isn’t imaging things and yes, I did hit on him. I even had Karolina, who is far less subtle than me, tell him I was gay. That did nothing.”

“I’m sure it did something. Just not much.” Billy scoffs, “did she or Nico happen to tell you if he was the passive type? Maybe he wants to be wooed? I can’t imagine a guy bigger than me gets that very often; if ever.”

“I never really asked. Ah-ha! I found the staff Nico showed me.” He takes out his phone then snaps a couple of pictures of the page then closes the book and puts it back on the shelf.

David looks at the pictures on the phone, “the Staff Of One? Blood magic? How very Dragon Age-y.”

Billy sends the pictures to Nico’s phone. “Hey, are you gonna dress up tomorrow?”

“I doubt it. Why?”

“Just asking.” Billy drums his fingers along the shelf then sighs. “You think I should try and woo Teddy? That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.”

“It does but I can’t wait to see it all the same.”

🌈

The thing about befriending a handful of nerds is, eventually you will become a nerd yourself. At first Nico resisted, but she eventually embraced the nerdiness Billy, David, and Karolina continually subjected her to. Like these damn annual conventions, only this year the group expanded with the addition of Teddy, Xavin, and Kate. Now Teddy doesn’t bother hiding his nerdiness but Xavin is a different story alltogether. It seems as though Xavin endures this to support/pacify Teddy in a similar way Nico used to with Karolina before getting semi into it.

Nico’s donning her black cloak with her black thigh-high boots and a plain black t-shirt and a pair of jeans underneath the cloak and the Staff Of One tucked away in one of her cloak’s pockets. After leaving it at her mother’s house the other day, Tina not so subtly brought it over yesterday when she once again talked about the pros of moving into Robert’s newest building. Nico still hasn’t agreed to it, or to keeping the staff but Tina clearly missed both of that. Once she’s done getting a semblance of understanding of the staff, she can focus on the cons of moving into Robert’s building that even Tina can’t ignore.

Instead of making additional trips to meet everyone at their homes, Nico opted to meeting up with everyone at the community center where the convention is being held. There weren’t any alerts for delayed or canceled flights from the Northeastern part of the US, meaning Karolina is probably at the convention as well. At the same time, Nico didn’t receive any texts from Karolina either.

Teddy is the easiest person to spot in a crowd given his 6’5” frame, which has him two inches taller than David. Nico spots Teddy and Xavin leaving the funnel cake foodtruck line. Because Nico’s a full foot (and then some) shorter than Teddy and about six inches shorter than Xavin, she has to pick up the pace in order to catch up to them as they make their way to the outdoor eating area. “Nico!” Xavin greets when she approaches their table.

She instantly recognizes Teddy’s outfit but not Xavin’s. “Hey.” She sits in the empty chair in front of them and Xavin slides their paper plate toward her. Thankfully, she isn’t out of breath because she often has to walk briskly in order to keep in step with Karolina. “Thanks. So, um, I get Balrog but who are you?”

“Me? I’m an Inkling.”

Nico tilts her head to the right, “a what?”

“See? I told you no one would understand your costume. They had to explain it to me too. Apparently, ‘Inklings’ are squid-people hybrids from the game series Splatoon.”

“Never heard of it.” Teddy shrugs his agreement.

“It’s hard finding non-binary characters to cosplay. While it’s my understanding the Inklings have gender differences no one can tell which one I am.”

“Can people even tell you’re an Inkling at all?”

Xavin nods. Ponytailed blue hair bobbing with the motion. “Yes. Some people have.”

“As far as non-binary characters go, I recommended Stevonnie but Xavin’s never heard of Steven Universe.”

“I know that show but what the hell is... that thing you said?”

“See? I’m not the only one.”

Teddy steals a piece of funnel cake from Xavin’s plate ignoring their protest. “Stevonnie is Steven and Connie’s fusion.”

“Right. Yeah. Nope. Sorry. I don’t even remember the last time I saw Steven Universe.”

“Karolina doesn’t watch it?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“If you don’t know about Stevonnie then it’s been a while and there’s so much you’re missing out on.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Nico takes a piece of Xavin’s plain funnel cake. “Where’s Kate?”

As if one cue, a sprinkle-filled concoction is set down next to Nico. “Best funnel cake ever?” Kate points at her plate, “right here. Red velvet with chocolate chips and sprinkles.” She takes the seat next to Nico. “Hi.”

“Hi.”

Kate looks around, “no Karolina?” The three of them shake their heads, “then we’re just waiting for your other friends?”

Xavin sends a sly look Teddy’s way, “ah yes, and my dear cousin regaled me in yesterday’s interaction.”

“Because you kept hounding me.” Teddy mutters.

“What is family for, Theodore?” Teddy scoffs with an eye roll. “Speaking of family, I am very interested in meeting David.”

Nico looks Xavin up and down as much as she’s able, “I’ll bet you are. You just want someone new to cough up more information on Karolina.”

“I don’t even know her favorite food! How am I supposed to make an adequate welcome back dinner if I don’t know what to prepare!?”

“And none of this has anything to do with the fact that you’re hot for my best friend?”

“I... wouldn’t say none of it, no—” Xavin clears their throat, “I don’t go into things half-cocked. I need to have a strategy in place for every contingency.” Nico and Kate glance at Teddy who shrugs in a “what are you gonna do?” fashion.

Nico shakes her head. “You’re trying to bed your roommate, you’re not trying to fit together the theme for fashion week.”

“See, I’ve done that before twice and it’s far less complicated than this.”

Kate looks at them incredulously, “as someone who’s been to fashion week I can only ask: how?!”

“By the way, Kate...” She turns to Nico, “what’s with the purple spandex suit?”

“Purple’s her favorite color.” Xavin replies, “but I too am at a loss as to what the hell you’re wearing.”

“I’m The Amazing Hawkeye.” There confused pairs of eyes look at one another before landing back at Kate, still confused. “You guys don’t keep up with The Avengers?”

“Is that a TV show?” Xavin asks.

“What?” Kate shakes her head, “no. The Avengers are a superhero group—or were—that operated in Manhattan. Actually, I think they’re still around. You guys seriously never heard of them?”

“No but I don’t like superheroes in general.” Xavin says with a shrug.

“I don’t have a problem with most superheroes but I couldn’t stand The Avengers.” Nico adds.

“I’m personally an X-Men fan.” Teddy confesses.

“Obviously, why else would you buy a bust of Northstar?”

Teddy shoots Xavin a dirty look before turning back to Kate. “The Avengers were too ‘everything I stand against’ for my tastes.”

“That too.” Nico says.

Kate massages her forehead, “I can’t believe this. They weren’t perfect but they weren’t bad.” Teddy and Nico make seesawing motions with their hands. “I was an Avenger briefly.”

The three of them stare at her, “you were?”

“Yeah. I was Hawkeye.”

“And you wore that horrendous outfit?” Xavin asks. “In public?! That’s one more reason to dislike this group.”

“No! I never wore this. The original Hawkeye wore this outfit back when he joined the team. I became Hawkeye after he retired. He nominated me to join in his absence. I got to work with Captain America. It was surreal.”

“Okay. Dislike for the team aside, we can all agree that Captain America was hot.” Teddy and Kate nod in agreement.

“Show me a picture of him.” Xavin instructs.

“Sure. I used to always have one on hand. I think it’s still in my gallery.” Teddy says, flipping through his phone’s gallery.

“You too? I had different pictures of Captain America as my computer’s wallpaper all throughout high school.”

“So did I!” Teddy laughs, showing Xavin a picture of Captain America.

“Oh. Yeah. Okay. I agree. He is hot. Damn.”

“How’d you even get to be an Avenger?” Nico asks, “it seems like the kind of gig that’ll put you in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Hawkeye saved my life when I was kidnapped by a rival company for Bishop publishing. I think him finding me was an accident but seeing one dude in a bow take down a dozen of gunmen was cool to a nine-year-old. Since then I started practicing archery in hopes of running into him again. I didn’t until I was much older and... much different...” She clears her throat, “but he somehow still recognized me.”

At the picture Kate shows them, Teddy tilts his head to the left. “This is the homeless looking guy that came out of your apartment this morning.”

“He’s...” Kate pauses, “okay technically he is homeless but yeah. That was him alright.”

“Why do you have a homeless man in your apartment? Does Logan know?”

Kate grimaces, “Logan’s the one who brought him to me. I kinda took his dog when I drove out here and he followed said dog.”

“The one-eyed dog with the limp?” Teddy asks. “That’s his dog?”

“Yes. Well, Lucky’s kinda both of our dog. Clint can barely take care of himself so I take care of Lucky who takes care of Clint.”

“And I thought I was having apartment drama.” Nico mutters.

“Right. You said your dad buys buildings and your mom wants you to live in one of them?” Teddy asks.

“Yup.”

“I hate my dad so I’m not the best person to ask.” Kate says.

“I don’t know my dad so I’m also not a good person to ask.” Teddy adds.

“I also don’t know my father but for the sake of free rent I’d put up with a lot worse.”

Nico sighs, “that wasn’t what I wanted to hear.”

“I know but you need to hear it.” Nico groans, “what did Karolina say?”

“I didn’t talk to her about it. I haven’t even spoken to her since yesterday morning.”

“Suffering from withdrawal?” Kate teases.

“Funny.”

“You guys have known each other for damn near all your lives and before this three month separation the longest you’ve been apart was a week. Anyone would be suffering from withdrawal in that scenario.”

“Plus Karolina is really pretty and I like looking at her face.”

“Careful Xavin, sounds like you have competition.”

Xavin slowly turns to Kate who’s eyes widen. “I-I don’t want her I just like looking at her face. I like looking at a lot of faces! Uh, shouldn’t we head inside now?” Kate gets up and dumps her empty plate into the trash bin.

After finishing up their funnel cakes, Nico gets a text from Billy and the four of them meet up with him and David near a cardboard cutout with a group of people pirouetting in all different angles including an upside down Karolina with her red-orange hair in a bob.

“Oh my God. She is rocking that bob!” Kate gushes.

“We need to take a picture with this masterpiece.” Billy says gesturing to the cutout.

The six of them get around the cutout and Billy takes several pictures that clearly captures all of them and the people on the cutout. “Damn. Look at you using your photography skills, Kaplan. You need to send me those.” Nico instructs.

“Done deal. I’ll send all you guys copies.”

“Sounds good. I’m Kate by the way. I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Billy.” She shakes his hand, “and my best friend David.” She then shakes David’s hand. “And in the spirit of newfound friendships, Xavin I’ll need your number to send you a copy.”

“Sure. That can be easily rectified. You’re Billy’s roommate.” They hold out a hand toward David who shakes it.

“You’re Karolina’s roommate.” Karolina appears to have a knack for befriending ridiculously attractive people, Xavin muses as they get their hand back from David. And so tall too. Not to mention that voice...

“Guilty as charged.”

“Nice to finally meet you.”

“Likewise.”

Nico frowns at her phone, “has anyone heard from Karolina?” The rest of the group take out their phones and scroll through their messages and missed calls then collectively shake their heads at Nico. “Alright then. I’m gonna call her.”

“We saw a PCC booth on the way over here or she might be at the booth for this S.P.I.N. show? Should we split up?” Billy asks.

Before she can respond, Nico’s phone starts blaring the song She’s A Rainbow and everyone turns to her, “can you find a song title more fitting for Karolina?” The other shake their heads, “didn’t think so.” She hits the talk button, “hello?” Karolina’s voice comes in static-y. “Wait. I can’t hear you.” The others inch closer to Nico and she puts the phone on speaker. “Hello? Karolina?”

“Hello?” More static but that definitely was not Karolina’s voice. “Hold on.” There’s more static interference until it clears out. “Sorry about that. The reception is as bad as the service. There’s no vegan food in any of the fifty million food trucks around the community center so we’re at the nearest vegan place half a block away.”

Nico stares at her phone, “uh-huh, and who are you?”

“My name’s Maritza but you can call me Molly. I’m with Karolina but she’s ordering us some food so she told me to tell you that.” The six of them can hear Karolina’s voice in the background and it sounds like she’s reciting something complicated.

“Does Karolina want us to meet her at the vegan place?”

Both Karolina and Molly’s voices are muffled in the background then there’s someone else’s slightly higher, slightly less muffled voice butchering the pronunciation of Molly’s full name. “I knew this would happen.” Molly states with a sigh, “here’s the phone. I’ll get the food.”

“See if they’ll give it to you for free for the inconvenience!”

“I doubt it but I’ll try.”

“Hello?”

“Karolina?”

“Nico? Hi. Sorry. I had to find something to eat because I was getting lightheaded but I wish I had found some place a little less sketchy.” There’s some muffled voices in the background, one of which is definitely Molly’s, yelling. “Oh shit. I gotta go. You’re at the community center, right?”

“Yes but—”

“Great. I’ll meet you there. Bye!”

“Wait—” Nico stares at the phone as she hears the dial tone.

“That doesn’t sound good.” Kate says.

“Tell me about it. Guess we’re waiting for them.”

“There’s a Maritza ‘Molly’ Hernandez Hayes on the wiki page for this S.P.I.N. series, and this face—” Xavin turns their phone toward the others showing them a picture of a curly-haired brunette in a Maddie Hatter teacup hat, “is on that cutout next to Karolina’s.”

“The big brother in me wants to coo at how adorable that picture is, but the adult in me doesn’t wanna come off as a creep or pedophile.”

“The page says she’s fifteen so you were right to listen to your adult half.” David replies, “uh-oh. I’m seeing that ‘I feel my big brother instincts kicking in’ look on your face, Kaplan.”

“You’re a big brother too, and you can’t tell me you don’t immediately feel the need to protect that kid from all the sickos that’ll lust over here because she’s wearing a sleeveless jacket and ripped jeans.”

“I’m not even an older sibling—or a sibling at all for that matter—and now I’m starting to feel that protective need.” Xavin says.

“It must be contagious because now that we’re talking about how people are gonna inevitably sexualize a fifteen-year-old girl I feel the need to be a big sister to her as well.” Kate shrugs, “oh well, I’ve always wanted a little sister.”

“Same here.” Nico agrees. “She’s our little sister now and there’s nothing we won’t do to protect her.”

“Don’t you already have a little sister figure in Karolina?” Billy asks, “she’s like two months younger than you. Matter of fact, it’s not even a full two months.”

“Two months...” Xavin repeats, “that—that means Karolina’s birthday is this month!”

“Yeah it’s—oh. You didn’t know.” David rubs the back of his neck, “and now I’ve made things awkward.”

“Did I miss it? Why didn’t she tell me?”

“Karolina and her dad share a birthday so Karolina’s never got the opportunity to celebrate it because Frank always makes the day out to be all about him. And you didn’t miss it yet, it’s Monday.” David replies.

“I don’t recall Karolina saying anything about your birthday.” Nico pipes in.

“She never asked. I guess that’s why. And my birthday is no big secret, it’s the first of January.”

“You’re a New Year’s baby?” Billy asks, “did your parents get free stuff? I hear you get free stuff for being the first baby born on New Year’s day.”

“I—I don’t know. I don’t know anything about my parents beyond the fact that my father is the child of my grandfather, who raised me before Theodore and his mother came into the picture.”

Billy winces, “now I’ve made things awkward.”

“No. It’s alright. I’ve long since made my peace with it.”

“You sure?”

Xavin nods, “yes.”

Nico stares at Xavin, “okay. I’m not gonna try and figure it out. How old are you?”

“Twenty-one.”

Four pairs of eyebrows shoot up, “no way.” Kate says. “I thought you were a bit older than that.”

“That means you’re gonna be twenty-two next month...” Nico asks trailing off, “you’re two years younger than the rest of us?” She stares at Teddy, “how old are you?”

“Twenty-five. I’m gonna be twenty-six in February.”

Teddy spares a glance at Billy counting on his fingers. “I’m really gonna lose my shit if you say your birthday is Valentine’s Day.” Teddy stares blankly at her, “it is, isn’t it?” Nico chuckles, “you’re just too perfect, Teddy. So Xavin’s the youngest, then David, Billy, Karolina, and me—hold on.” She turns to Kate. “I forgot about you. How old are you?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“You are?” Xavin asks, “I thought you were younger than that.”

“Nope. Just turned twenty-nine in October. October 25th to be precise.”

“Then it’s Xavin, David, Billy, Karolina, me, Teddy, and Kate – respectively.”

“When’s your birthday, David?” Xavin asks. “I’m curious if you’re the second youngest.”

“My birthday’s April 19th but I was born in ‘95 so I’m a year younger than Nico, Karolina, and Billy.”

Billy’s still counting on his fingers when Xavin turns to him, “when’s your birthday?”

“April 20th.” Everyone, aside from David, blinks at him. “I know. It’s weird. My birthday is three-hundred-and-sixty-four-days before my best friend’s.”

“Not to mention David’s about eight inches taller than you.”

“I’m sorry, how many inches shorter are you than your best friend?”

Nico’s eyes narrow. “Fair point.”

🌈

Molly adjusts the scarf on her head, “sorry the food was such a bust but hey, bright side? We didn’t pay.”

“That’s because you taught me a few new swearwords in Spanish.”

Molly shrugs with a grin, “I love to spread my knowledge around.”

“Speaking of which, I’m loving your Fortune outfit.”

“Yeah? When my moms wouldn’t let me shave my head like Sombra I had to think of another character I could accurately be. You know, if you put a hat on you can totally be Braddock.”

“With blonde hair? Besides, Nico would never forgive me for cosplaying Agents Of Mayhem slash Saints Row without her.”

“Aren’t you even gonna ask how I know about Agents Of Mayhem slash Saints Row in the first place?”

“I was fifteen once too, Molly. I’m not gonna rat you out to your moms. Besides, they’ll somehow blame me so it’s better if they don’t know you’re playing M rated games two years before you’re supposed to.”

Molly hugs her, “and that’s why you’re my favorite.”

As they reach the entrance of the community center, a motorcycle pulls up into the empty half space in front of them and in seemingly slow motion a curly-haired brunette lifts off her helmet and does the sexy hair flip motion revealing half of her shaved head.

“I love her hair.”

Gulping, Karolina wordlessly nods. Damn she’s pretty. “We should—” Karolina does a double take as she spots Molly approaching the woman. “Son of a—” Grumbling under her breath, and simultaneously slash subtly checking her breath, she walks over to Molly. “Didn’t they teach you about stranger danger in school?” She hisses.

“Yeah. Keep an eye out for creepy old dudes in Scooby Doo vans offering candy. I know the drill.”

“I—there is so much more than just that.” Karolina straightens up as the woman gets off her motorcycle.

“Traje lindo.” She says to Molly, “Fortune es mi personaje favorito también.”

Suddenly, Karolina wishes she knew more than swearwords in Spanish. And that voice? Karolina suppresses a shudder. “Me encanta tu cabello.” Molly replies.

The woman sexily flips her hair again. “Me encanta tu cabello.” The woman says. “¿Cómo te llamas, chica?”

“Maritza. Pero mis amigos me llaman Molly. ¿Y tú?”

“América” She looks up at Karolina who hopes her gulp wasn’t as audible as she believes. “¿Cuál es el nombre de tu amiga?”

Molly nudges her, “Karolina.”

The woman puts her helmet in her left arm and extends her right hand which Karolina all too eagerly shakes. “Encantado de conocerte, Karolina.”

“Ella no habla español.” Molly says with a shrug and head shake. Okay. Karolina understood that. Felt the universal disappointment too.

“Ah.” América nods, “mi inglés está un poco oxidado.”

“She says her English is a little rusty.”

“Oh... my Spanish is practically nonexistent but why didn’t you start translating before?”

“Huh. Didn’t think of it.” She turns to América, “¿Vas a entrar también? ¿Quieres pasar el rato con nosotros?”

América nods, “s—yeah.”

Karolina’s on Molly’s other side as the brunettes happily chat away in Spanish and she’s only picking up every fourth or so word that isn’t a name or place. Molly is the only person she knows who fluently speaks Spanish and as someone who spent her entire life picking up Japanese because her best friend spoke it because said best friend’s parents spoke it, Karolina’s certain her head can fit in another language. Specifically if it leads to conversations with América they can both understand. Because having Molly in between them both figuratively and literally is an instant mood killer and she can see América’s biceps threatening to rip her navy leather jacket so to have a bucket of 5’6” fifteen-year-old Latina cold water doused on that just isn’t fair.

América meets her eyes and smiles. Karolina feels her legs turn to jelly with that smile but she’s somehow keeping herself upright. Never has she felt so grateful to be an actress as she has in this moment.

Nico and the others are posing near a S.P.I.N. cardboard cutout and Karolina resists the urge to facepalm. The six of them applaud when they see her and Karolina actually does facepalm then. “I know. I know. I missed you guys too.” Molly giggles as the six of them envelope Karolina in a group hug.

After being released from the thirty second embrace, Karolina introduces Molly and América to her friends.

Being the youngest one on set, Molly is nearly ten years younger than the second and third youngest members of the cast who are Karolina and another woman named Sylvie, respectively. While Karolina’s been with her during press tours and things like that she can tell Molly wishes she had a couple of friends closer to her age because when Karolina was fifteen the last thing she wanted was to hang around a bunch of twenty-somethings.

With introductions out of the way, the group begin walking around the convention. “Where’s the, uh, thing you had to show me?” Karolina asks. Nico unbuttons her cloak and opens it revealing the Staff Of One in an inner pocket. “Whoa.”

“Yeah.” Nico rebuttons her cloak. “I spoke to my mom about it and Billy even sent me a page from his spellbook about the staff. To think all those years the neighborhood kids were right when they called her a witch.”

“How do you know it’s a witch staff?”

“What other kind of staff could it be?”

“Good point. Did you try any spells?”

“Not yet.” Nico looks up at her, “huh. Just realized your hair has black streaks in it.”

Karolina absently lifts a hand to her head, “forgot about that.”

“I like it.”

“Yeah?” Nico nods and Karolina grins at her, “better than the lime green?”

“Oh hell yes.”

Karolina puts an arm around her, “you have no idea how much I missed you.”

“I have some idea.”

Understandably, there isn’t enough space for the nine of them to walk side-by-side, particularly because five of them (Karolina, Xavin, David, Teddy, and América) are fucking giants but Billy’s wondering when the hell did everyone pair up? Karolina and Nico paired up to catch up, David is with Xavin and Kate talking about everything and nothing, Molly is speaking to América in Spanish, and that leaves Billy stuck walking near Teddy who is valiantly avoiding making eye contact with him.

He’s never gonna get laid if this continues.

He’s also never gonna be able to sleep again seeing that ass in those shorts.

But telling Teddy that he wants to be his personal throne isn’t the best way to start a conversation. At least the type of conversation that could be had with a minor in present company.

Either way, let the wooing commence.

“Haven’t seen you in the shop in a while.”

Teddy rubs the back of his neck, which Billy associated him doing when he wanted to make himself seem smaller. “My mom roped me into helping her at the dance studio. Plus, I bought a Northstar bust from Dazzler’s last month and I still have no idea where I’m gonna fit it.”

“You bought a bust of Northstar at Dazzler’s?”

“Yeah. Perfect condition too. Verity sold it to me for $85. She said your boss has been trying to get rid of all the X-Men merchandise for a while now.”

“She’s not wrong but I haven’t seen a bust of anyone in the stock room, let alone an X-Men. Wait a minute. Did you say your mom has a dance studio?” Teddy nods, “does she teach ballroom dances? I have three months to learn one so I can have a cheesy mother and son dance at my parents thirty year wedding anniversary slash vow renewal thing.”

“Your parents have been married almost thirty years? That’s amazing.” Billy gives a one-shoulder shrug, “yeah my mom knows ballroom dances but I can teach you if you want.”

Billy can’t help eyeing him skeptically. He really can’t be that perfect, can he? If he were Jewish too, he could hear his family yelling at him to marry the guy on the spot. “You can ballroom dance?”

Teddy nods, ducking his head. “Yeah. It’s how my mom got her studio. She signed us up for so many dance lessons she became a pro herself. Growing up she told me it never hurts to be graceful.”

“Huh. Is that why you’re so damn light on your feet no one ever seems to hear you coming?” Oops. That was supposed to stay in his head.

Teddy laughs and the sound does weird things to Billy’s insides. Damn David for making him think about this. Things were so much simpler when he thought he just wanted to fuck Teddy instead of trying to get to know him beyond the rippling muscles and charming smile. And just how the fuck did he manage to not rip that tank top any further?

“If you think I’m bad, you should see Xavin. They can move around wearing bells and have them not make any sound.”

“Really? That’s cool. Did dancing do that to them?”

“No? Well, I’m honestly not certain but I didn’t even know Xavin existed when I started taking lessons and they never took dance lessons with me so I don’t know their secret.”

“I see. So there’s no guarantee I can be as stealthy as you, right?”

“Not sure but I’d be willing to find out if you are.”

“I’m definitely willing to find out. Are you doing anything next weekend? Could we start lessons then?”

“Next weekend? Sure. Sounds good to me.”

“I can’t thank you enough for this Teddy. You’re amazing.”

Blushing, he rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t know about amazing but I’m—” Billy tiptoes to kiss Teddy on the cheek, “h-happy to help.”

“Guys. América passed a gluten-free, kosher, vegan dive bar on the other end of the community center. Let’s check it out.”

“That checks all of my boxes.” Karolina agrees, “let’s go before I pass out or the director finds us.”

“We’re just gonna tell my moms before they send out a search party.”

“Okay. Do you need me to come with you?”

“Nah. América’s got it covered but thanks anyway.”

“You’ve been replaced by that hot lady in the biker leather.” Nico whispers as Molly and America walk off.

“I honestly can’t be mad about it though.”

🌈

After eating and spending another two hours at the convention, everyone went home. Well, almost everyone went home. Nico decided to spend the night at Karolina and Xavin’s. Karolina rolls over on her bed, “we haven’t had a sleepover in years.”

“Aren’t you forgetting when you crashed on my couch a few months ago? The day you left your parent’s place and found the apartment you live in now?”

“No. I meant us sharing a bed sleepover.”

“Oh. Then yeah it’s been a couple of years.” Nico places the staff on the bed then sits beside it. Karolina turns to her. “Billy said I should give Doctor Strange a call.”

“That guy gives me the creeps.”

“Me too but I can’t go around having a staff I don’t the full capabilities of that draws on my blood.”

“That what?! You never mentioned anything like that before.”

“I know. I wasn’t sure how many octaves your voice would jump if I told you in public.”

“How dangerous is this staff, Nico?”

“I honestly don’t know. Hey, you know that vegan place we hung out junior and senior year? Not only is it still open but they deliver now.”

“Everyone delivers nowadays or has some delivery app.” Karolina sits up, “I saw Julie in Maine.”

“You’re shitting me.” Karolina shakes her head, “damn, that must’ve been awkward.”

“It was and she didn’t even see me. She was with an objectively attractive blond white guy doing the whole date fake giggle thing.”

“You only have yourself to blame for breaking up with her.”

“I know. I still feel like a jerk though.”

“You callously broke it off with her to save face and avoid being the one to get dumped, by all accounts you deserve to feel like a jerk. You were a jerk. And I’m your best friend saying this to you. You know I’m always on your side no matter what but you gotta admit as noble as you thought you were being you were just being an ass.”

“She was a superhero, Nico. The most amazing thing I could do was tie a cherry stem with my tongue.”

“Superhero my ass. You can’t go around assuming you aren’t worth being with because you can’t fly or stop a natural disaster or... or... or do whatever the fuck she did.”

“I’m fairly certain she had the whole standard superhero powers set but honestly all I remember is her flying and leaving a rainbow trail in her wake.”

“I don’t care. You know you were in the wrong. Furthermore, I don’t even think you liked her as much as you claimed to.”

“What? You know I liked her.”

“Uh-huh. I know you liked her but not as much as you keep trying to get yourself to believe. Otherwise you would’ve tried to make it work.”

“I didn’t wanna be the girl that kept someone I liked from doing something they loved.”

“Then maybe you should’ve asked her what she wanted instead of taking the choice away from her. Ever think of that?”

“I—no. I didn’t. Aw man, I am an ass. I, of all people, know what it’s like to have your agency taken away and I should have never done that to another person; especially the person I was dating. I should’ve apologized to her when I saw her.”

“You’ll get your chance. Besides, if she was doing the whole fake laugh thing I doubt she would’ve appreciated her ex interrupting her.”

“True.” Karolina taps her chin, “that guy she was with looked familiar though.”

“Don’t bother, Karolina, you know you’re terrible with faces you aren’t sleeping with.”

“Rude.” Karolina leans over the bed and pulls a shoebox from under the bed and flips through several magazines.

“Do I want to know why that’s there?”

“It’s nothing pervy. Ah-ha!” She pulls out a magazine and turns the cover to Nico, “this was the guy.” She points at the blond on the cover.

“Chase Stein: heir to the Stein Tech Company and P.R.I.D.E.’s tech division. It’s this damn Pride thing again.” Karolina opens her mouth, “it’s not that kind of pride. It’s something my dad was involved in and now it’s got my mom more involved too.”

“What is it?”

“I’ll find out next month when I go to the gala with my mother.”

“Need backup?”

“Always.” Nico looks over the cover again. “Stein is pretty. Not as pretty as you but – how did you describe him? Objectively attractive?” Karolina nods as she opens the magazine and starts skimming. “Did that say November 2018? You weren’t even here.”

“I asked Xavin to put them here for me.”

“Why do you even still get magazine subscriptions? And why Tech Monthly?” Karolina’s fingers twitch, “wait. Don’t tell me. You subscribed after they did that piece on that hot mechanic. What was her name?”

“Riri Williams.”

Nico shakes her head, “you are absolutely shameless, you know that?”

“Shameless or not, I’ve never been more interested in technology.”

“That reminds me. Billy stopped by the shop yesterday with a shitload of edible bodypaint and tried to feed me some bullshit about ‘painting being therapeutic.’”

“It is. Heard it first hand from my therapist but I agree that sounds like the type of bullshit he’d spew to justify sleeping with a painter or artist in general. There was a guy, right?”

“Most likely but he was strangely tight-lipped about it. I’m guessing it was because Teddy was within an earshot.”

“I can’t try any harder than I have with him.”

“After wearing what he wore today, I don’t think we have to do anything else for him. Half the people in the community center were checking him out and if those shorts don’t get Billy’s attention I’m afraid he’s a lost cause. I mean, Teddy won a costume contest he didn’t enter because he wore a tank top and shorts.”

“He made a very convincing Balrog, and that’s something everyone can agree on whether they’re attracted to guys or not.”

“And the fact that all four judges slipped him their number?”

“Yeah that was because they wanted to sleep with him. I mean, the lady judge passed out when she handed him the trophy. Now I don’t wanna sound slut shame-y but I don’t remember Billy ever taking this long to get into the pants of a guy he’s expressed an interest in, do you?” Nico shakes her head and Karolina sits up again, “do you think it’s about his powers?”

“It could be. But I’m sorry to have to say Billy’s not at fault here, Teddy is as dense as he is attractive. He got Billy’s number yesterday at the shop and all he could do was stare at it.”

“Everyone gets that way around a crush. Remember when you poured creamer all over yourself when that goth cashier put her number on your coffee cup?”

Nico frowns, “yeah, I remember that. After we had sex she shared so many good makeup tips.”

“Uh, at least you got more than sex out of it? I’m at a loss as to what to say to that.”

“I bet Billy’s wondering how to even ask about his powers. Even the most unassuming looking person could have a ass-backwards way of looking at things and that would fuck all of us over if Teddy or Xavin happened to be anti-telepath.”

“That’s for sure but Teddy’s had a telepathic therapist he talks about so he’s not anti-mutant or anti-telepath.”

“I remember him talking about a therapist but I didn’t know he was a telepath and I bet Billy doesn’t know that either. Ooh. Let me tell him?” Karolina gives her a go-on gesture. “Speaking of people being into people...” Nico raises an eyebrow.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Are you into Xavin?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. I mean, yes, I like looking at them but I haven’t really spent a lot of time with Xavin. I’ve been in the middle of Nowhere, Maine for nearly three months. Talking on the phone is one thing but it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction.” She looks at Nico, “why do you ask? Is Xavin into me?”

Nico gives a one-shoulder shrug. “Maybe.”

“‘Maybe?’ What kind of half-assed answer is that!?”

“My half-assed answer, that’s what. You don’t wanna screw up your relationship with your roommate just to satisfy your libido.”

“Noted. But it wouldn’t be screwing up if Xavin likes me.”

“And you sleeping with Xavin because they like you when you don’t like them?”

“I could come to like them more if we had sex?” Nico frowns at her. “What? It could happen. In fact, it has happened in the past numerous times.” Nico’s frown deepens. “Fine. I won’t do anything until I’m sure of how I feel. Happy?” Karolina pauses, “wait a sec. Do you like Xavin?”

“Of course I—”

“Nico, before you lie to me you know you have a tell that I pointed out to you, right?”

Nico sighs, “fuck. I nearly forgot about that.” She sighs again, “I don’t even know. I mean, I like being around Xavin but I don’t know if I seventh grade style like-like them.”

“Why not go for it? It would hardly be the first time we gravitated around the same person.”

“And if I screw up things with your roommate and make you need to find a new place to live?”

“Then we can find an apartment for the both of us?”

“Ah! Speaking of which, you won’t believe what my mom told me...” 

Chapter Text

Kate is loudly crooning along to Holding Out For A Hero with her dog (surprisingly) yowling along to the words, when Xavin rings the doorbell to Kate’s apartment. There’s a loud thud on the other side of the door then a few seconds later the door swings open and Kate in faded, presumably blue at one point in time, cloud pajama bottoms and a greasy, hole-ridden grey tank top (with various mystery stains Xavin is certain aren’t all coffee) is standing in the doorway brandishing a gold-plated ladle with the music still blasting from inside. “Wha—”

“You texted me five minutes ago and told me to come over?”

Right!” Kate opens her door wider letting Xavin in. She walks over to the television, stepping over Barton’s asleep, softly snoring body on the floor, and hits mute. Then she steps over Barton again and picks up her wallet before leading Xavin into the kitchen.

“Is he gonna be okay?”

Kate waves them off, “don’t worry about him. He’s slept on worse than my floor.” Xavin nods slowly because there really isn’t much else to do or say about that. “So, how would you like to accompany me to Manhattan today?”

“I’m assuming you aren’t referring to the city on the other side of the country so I’ll go ahead and ask why you want to shop at a store you once stated was for ‘pretentious asswipes with overcompensating bank accounts?’”

“I still feel that way but we’d get to be said overcompensating asswipes!”

“And why would we want that?”

“Because~! Cha-Ching~” Kate holds up a platinum credit card she pulled from her wallet, “I’m back, baby.”

Xavin squints at the card then up at Kate’s grinning face, “it says ‘Katherine.’”

“I know. Surprised me too. Thought my old man was gonna be his usual asshole self and address it to the deadname he continues to call me. I mean, he did it with the last package he sent me back at Avengers Mansion so I didn’t think this time would be different.” Kate shrugs, putting the card in her wallet. “I’m guessing wife number four has a more tolerant attitude.”

“I know at work I’ve encountered people with the tendency to continuously marry like they were racking up points on a scorecard but your dad’s had four wives?”

Kate lolls her head from side to side, “in his defense – sort of, the first three are dead. I know my mom – may God rest hr soul – didn’t die by his hand. The other two, though? Not sure. His second wife died in a car accident and I use the term ‘accident’ loosely. She as the only one in the car when it drove into the divider. Derek Bishop has dozens of drivers at his disposal. I never learned how to drive a car until I came out here! The Avengers had that flying jet thingy so I never needed to learn—but I digress! Why would he let his wife drive a car by herself when his drivers carted his kids around their entire lives? And he never let mom in a car without at least two bodyguards beside her at all times. I’m thinking he had her murdered. I know he has his lackeys carry out shit like that. I once saw his bodyguard who I’m fairly certain moonlighted as a professional bodybuilder beat the shit out of a man from a rival publishing company. Wait. No. He beat the shit out of two men from a rival publishing company. Anyway, the dude was massive. And as for Derek’s third wife, the official story was she killed herself, shot herself straight in the head after an ‘argument’ but I’ve seen a lot cause of death documentaries and if you were to shoot yourself your pointer finger would be curved as you pulled the trigger yet her finger in the autopsy? Not curved.”

“You really think your dad is responsible for killing two of his three former wives but not the first?”

“Huh. Not the question I was expecting, not gonna lie.” Kate puts her wallet on the table, “my mom died of lung cancer. Both my parents were smokers but only she got cancer from it. It sucks. I get the whole ‘everything happens for a reason’ spiel but it still sucks. I got stuck with a transphobic jerkwad instead of her. And all the women he brought into the manor were fucking repulsed at the sight of me and they let me know it too. Even when Derek was around. He wouldn’t even stick up for me either, he’d just give me this pitying look. I know my mom would’ve accepted me.” She sighs, “I-I just wish I could talk to her, you know?” She pauses, “I think The Avengers knew a necromancer—”

“Hold up. They know someone who sleeps with dead people?”

“What? No! That’s a necrophiliac. A necromancer is someone who raises and slash or talks to the dead.”

“Really? I thought that was a shaman?”

Kate opens her mouth then shuts it. “Huh. You know, I don’t know. I remember there was a manga called Shaman King but I don’t remember what the hell a shaman was.” She shakes her head, “we got off topic. I wanna head to Manhattan and charge the ever fucking hell out of this card then return its smoldering, shredded remains to the old man and tell him to fuck himself! I can’t put a price-tag on the amount of suffering that shitstain caused when he kicked me out of the manor but I can stick him with an outrageous bill for clothing I’ll donate to charity on his dime!” She rubs her hands together and chuckles maniacally.

“I was gonna ask why you thought of that store in particular but you gave me my answer. Well, I’ll go with you. Lord knows you could use some good clothes.”

“I... own good clothes.” Okay. That didn’t even sound convincing to her. “Ah! I still have the jumper you helped me pick out so I can look more like the building’s super.”

“Are you referring to the same jumper with the mystery ooze from the elderly polyamorous couple in 2B’s old refrigerator?”

Kate grimaces, “oh. Right. Forgot about that. Still haven’t been able to identify what that shit was and I was ingested by an alien squid—” She holds up two fingers, “twice.”

“That sounds like a story I have absolutely no interest in hearing.”

“You sure? I can get really graphic with the details.”

Xavin holds up a hand, “I’ll pass. Theodore might be interested in hearing it though.”

“I’ll pass it along. Hey! You think Teddy would be up for some shopping?”

“Is that a serious question? Theodore’s typical attire is composed of shirts with horribly unfunny puns and board shorts. He couldn’t differentiate chartreuse from apple green if you hit both color palettes upside his head.”

“I think you just made up that charmander word so he isn’t the only one.”

“Charmander is an orange lizard Pokémon with a flaming tail that turns into that badass looking dragon who isn’t even typed as a dragon; chartreuse is a yellow-green color... and also a liquor.”

“I’d ask how you know that, about the Pokémon not the liquor; I know you know all there is to know about alcohol, but even I know that much from watching Teddy fanboy about Pokémon Go.”

“Actually, I got Theodore into Pokémon so I apologize for his ongoing obsession.” Kate gives them a disbelieving glance. “I was twelve when I first laid eyes on the game, cut me some slack.”

“I will, for now, but you’d better believe we’re getting into it later.” Xavin sighs, “and anyway, Teddy can wear all the board shorts his heart desires. When you have killer legs like his it’s practically a crime covering them up. Besides, we can use Teddy’s unfair amount of muscles to help us carry the obnoxious amount of bags I intend to walk out of the store with.”

“Assuming they even let Theodore and myself into the store.”

“I’m not exactly as white passing as my sister and they let me in.”

“But there’s a glaring difference between being half-white and all black. When I first started working for Janet we both got turned away from some of the ‘high-class’ stores in the city.”

“People seriously turned away Janet van Dyne?! She’s not only a fashion icon but was a goddamn superhero!”

“Yes but all people saw was a petite Asian woman with great hair and her gender ambiguous black accomplice in crisp suits.”

“Fucking racism.” Kate groans, “if they so much as give you a blatant or even a passive-aggressive staredown I’m going off. You’re one of my best friends and I’ll punch out every racist or heteronormative asshole we come across without hesitation.”

“My hero.”

“Yeah, well, if you punch them out it’ll just give them more racist fuel for the fire I hope burns their houses down.”

“That went a little dark but I appreciate the sentiment.”

“I’d do anything for you, man. You picked me up from a low point in my life and I will always have your back.”

“Okay. I get it. All these feelings are too mushy for us, Kate.”

“I know.” Kate groans, “we don’t do feelings. We drown our feelings in your expansive knowledge of alcoholic beverages. Speaking of which, you were only able to legally drink last year. How the hell did you learn so much when you couldn’t even drink?”

“I told myself when I legally became able to that I’d know everything I needed to know.”

“A strategist to the very core. I love that about you.” Kate loops her arm through Xavin’s, “let’s go bug Teddy until he agrees to come shopping with us.”

“Let me get my wallet and you might want to change.”

Kate looks down at her clothes and nods. “Good call. I’ll meet you at your apartment. If we can’t get into Manhattan, we can always stop by one of Janet’s boutiques.”

Xavin changes too because if they’re heading to one of Janet’s boutiques or any other fancy high-end store in sweatpants their fashion consultant card might get revoked.

By the time, Kate comes in the apartment – surprisingly not decked out in purple - Karolina’s bedroom door opens and the blonde sleepily strolls out of it. Kate takes in the oversize shirt and the knee-high socks of Karolina who is pressing her head against the refrigerator. “Uh, is she not wearing pants?”

“You sleep naked, are you really gonna judge?”

“Fair enough. That’s some spectacular bedhead you got going, Dean.” Her blonde and black hair is partially in a high side ponytail and the rest is sticking up in odd angles.

“Hope you’re not looking for one of your energy drinks because we’re all out.”

With a groan, Karolina thumps her head against the fridge. “Hey. I know something that’ll cheer you up. You can come shopping with us. We’re trying to go to Manhattan and if not one of Janet’s boutiques.”

Karolina slowly turns to them squinting, “Manhattan? Isn’t that the place that has an entire section of $15,000 fur coats?”

“I forgot about the furs...”

Karolina lifts her head from the refrigerator, “my mom shops at that place to spite me.”

“Not that I’m down with animal furs or whatever but if Leslie Dean can shop there we shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

“Why do you wanna go there anyway?”

“To piss off her old man by sticking him with an outrageous bill.”

“Oh. Well I know a place even better than Manhattan where you can waste your money and get cute clothes. Because if you’re gonna make your dad angry you might as well get something good out of it. Plus, no offense Kate, but you could use a wardrobe upgrade.”

“You should’ve seen what she had on earlier.”

“I can’t see how that’s something I shouldn’t take offense to.”

“Sorry. It’s just... you have that whole grunge look going, only it’s not rockstar chic—”

“It’s more like her hobo mentor who is sleeping on her floor now.”

“He’s sleeping on your floor?!”

Kate holds up her hands, “relax! It’s only been a few days, it’s not a permanent thing. And even if it was, I mean, it’s my apartment. And Barton may be a disaster but he’s not a bad guy.”

“You totally fucked him, didn’t you?”

“Gross! He’s like pushing fifty!”

“Katherine Elizabeth Bishop, you have a soft spot for useless older men.”

“I do not—”

Xavin holds up their left thumb, “the building’s old super.” Kate grimaces and Xavin’s left pointer finger goes up, “the guy who used to run the laundromat.” As Kate’s grimace deepens Xavin’s left middle finger goes up, “Logan’s blue friend—”

“Alright, alright! I do. Dammit.”

“Huh. You know, I wanted to see how long that would go.”

Xavin opens their mouth but Kate cuts them off, “no, you don’t. And it’s not like I slept with any of these guys... other than the old super and he wasn’t even that much older than me.”

Xavin massages their forehead, “I just—I don’t even have words for you, Bishop.”

🎤

Stephen is in the middle of pouring himself a cup of tea when he hears a loud flashing noise and sees a star-shaped portal materialize in the middle of his living room. Out the corner of his eye, he spots América dragging herself out of the portal then it dematerializes behind her. “Welcome back. You’re just in time for tea, shall I pour you a cup?”

“Only if it’s infused with the strongest booze you got.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” As he routs through his kitchen, América takes a seat on the barstool at the counter.

“Reincarnated or not, he can’t be the same Demiurge from my universe, Doc. He just can’t.”

Stephen hums, “and what brought you to that conclusion? You’ve only spent the last month-and-a-half observing him.”

“And it’s been one disappointing month-and-a-half. The Demiurge I knew could sense me immediately from fifty feet away, and I was four when he died! My powers only got stronger in the past twenty-four years and they come from his! My moms told me he could see into the future and had contingency plans set in place for every possible outcome. I can’t sit here and believe this was something he did deliberately. Even omniscient beings can make mistakes, right Doc?”

“Admittedly, yes, they can.” América opens her mouth and Stephen holds up a hand, “however, your travels would not have brought you here if he wasn’t the one you were seeking.” The brunette blows out a breath as Stephen hands her a cup. “I’m somewhat of a magical expert and have taught many students in my tenure as Sorcerer Supreme; while I agree with you that William hardly has the control or awareness of an omnipotent, omniscient, omniparient being he has the raw potential that cannot be taught.”

América downs the contents of the cup and sighs heavily, “what are you saying then? Keep on observing? Hope he comes to realize he’s stronger than he thinks on his own?”

“No. That’ll never work. I’ve been working with him for about nine years now and he’s not once given himself the benefit of the doubt.”

“That’s nine years just underestimating his magical abilities and maybe even the whole damn twenty-four underestimating himself.”

“Exactly. He needs a not-so gentle nudge in the right direction. If he continue to collaborate we’ll get him there. But naturally there is something else.” América raises an eyebrow. “You told me only one Demiurge can exist in the multiverse at a time yet I picked up on an energy signature identical to William’s.”

“That’s impossible.”

“That’s what I thought but then it hit me. Perhaps the reason William isn’t as strong as your Demiurge is because one of the contingency plans you mentioned him possibly having was him splitting his essence across the multiverse. That was, of course, my original thought. That too felt wrong as it’s only in this universe that I sensed the energy signature, and it is only one other signature even remotely equal to William’s.”

“You’re saying there’s a second Demiurge in this universe I gotta find?”

Stephen nods, “I believe so yes. Now having said that, the signature I’ve sensed doesn’t stay in the same location for very long. It’s like a blip.”

América tilts her head to the left, “a what?”

“You know...” Stephen lolls his head from side to side, “a blip” He wiggles his fingers, “it’s something too fast for me to pinpoint. It appeared one morning during my meditation and disappeared before I opened my eyes. I barely registered its existence and assumed I was simply imagining things but I feel the signature fading in and out of existence around the same time every morning the following week. Only for approximately three seconds during the start of my meditation. I had to start later just to be able to catch it but it’s so fast I can’t find the source no matter how often it pops up.”

“Like how they say you can’t trace a short phone call?”

“Exactly like that. Only the most experienced hackers would disagree with that sentiment.” Stephen’s eyes widen. “Ah. That’s it. Yes. That just reminded me of something. I alone might not be able to pinpoint the source but I do know other magical experts who can lend me their expertise. Together we might be able to find the source better than any of us alone.”

“And if you guys can’t?”

“If Demiurge himself could not have predicted an unknown, unchecked source of power that could rival his, it’ll be detrimental not only to his reincarnated successor but to all magical beings existing in the multiverse.”

“So we not only gotta keep this Demiurge’s head above water we gotta find this duplicate Demiurge and do the same?”

“Unless said duplicate is purely evil in which case we’d need to vanquish them quickly without fail.”

“Yeah, that goes without saying.” América groans, “but the only way to vanquish anything with the power of Demiurge is with the power of Demiurge. Dammit. I didn’t wanna spend any longer than I had to in this ass-backwards universe.”

“I’ve traveled through the multiverse and this universe isn’t so terrible; granted it isn’t one of the best ones but it also isn’t one of the worst.”

América gives a one-shoulder shrug, “let’s agree to disagree.”

“Either way, I guarantee you’ll find something worth sticking around for.”

“Again, let’s agree to disagree.”

🎤

Doctor Stephen Strange was nice enough to let her crash at his little magical emporium after she literally crashed into it two months ago. As Sorcerer Supreme, he was this universe’s leading expert on all things magical and perhaps the only entity used to seeing humanoids from neighboring universes.

When she told him about her reason for being here, he told her about the only student of his that fit her description. Her world was gone and Demiurge was the only being alive that could bring it back. Too bad she had to settle for a Demiurge in training. When she first laid eyes on William, that whole don’t judge a book by its cover phrase rattled around in her head then after a week of recon and not once seeing him use any sort of magic, Stephen suggested approaching him.

Admittedly, she got sidetracked by meeting Maritza – who was not in his circle of friends according to her recon – and Karolina – who was but sidetracked her in an entirely different way.

The best way to watch over Not Quite Demiurge and see what he was truly capable of was to insert herself into his entourage. It was easy enough to befriend everyone and she didn’t even have to fake it. At least, if nothing else, Mini Demiurge kept himself in good company. They were friendly but not in a phony or forced way and they were all pretty which was another bonus.

One big ass downside was she had to constantly portal from New York to California.

New York, particularly Manhattan where Stephen resided, was fucking crawling with cliché supervillains in gaudy, bright, eye-melting outfits and América found herself punching out more assholes than she had the tolerance to. It figures this fucking universe would take away her love of punching things.

The second she steps out of her portal and it disintegrates behind her, something hits her in the back of the head and something green (probably the thing that hit her) drops onto the sand by her feet.

“Oh shit! I am so sorry!” She hears someone yell. América picks up the green disc-shaped thing and turns to quite possibly the most beautiful woman she’s ever laid eyes upon. She’s never experienced time-altering paradoxes before but time appears to slow down as she takes in the blue-haired woman before her.

América hands her the green disc-shaped thing and she shifts it in her arms along with the purple and blue disc-shaped things. “It’s alright. My moms did always call me hard-headed.” Real smooth, Chavez. América mentally facepalms. She meets a beautiful woman in one of those “meet-cute” scenarios Karolina gushes about and her brain oozes out of her ears.

“What’s taking you so...oh.” A guy runs over to them, puts his hands behind his head then makes an about face but not before taking the disc things from the woman’s hands. “I’ll be by the food trucks.”

The woman grumbles something as she watches the guy’s retreating form before turning back to América. “Sorry. My brother is the furthest thing from subtle.” She extends her hand. “I’m Ramone.”

América accepts the hand and shakes it. “América.” Stephen helped her as much as he was able but there were still some customs in this universe that baffled her. Like the obsession with touching hands. Although she’ll admit Ramone’s hand feels very nice against hers.

“Can I buy you lunch? For hitting you in the head with my brother’s frisbee?”

“Um. Sure.” Hopefully her brain will reboot itself before she has to kick her own ass. Wait. Could Stephen see into the future? Is that why he had that knowing look on his face when he said she’d find something worth sticking around for? No. He was always telling her to “go out and meet new people because she never knew what she’d find.” And before this moment all she wanted was for Demiurge to fucking fix her universe so she could head back there without looking back. Now though? She still wants that but desire for another woman wasn’t something she fully felt in this universe. Karolina, Nico, Xavin, Kate, and Kamala were all attractive and sure she was attracted to them but she wasn’t feeling the same pull she feels from Ramone currently.

América follows her to the “food trucks” lined up one after the other on the street. Thankfully food wasn’t too different in this universe although universally it was more bland than what she grew up eating – or perhaps it was solely the food Stephen had in his possession.

Ramone’s brother is by the navy food truck with the bowls of noodles on it. When he sees them approaching he waves them over. “I don’t know what my twin did to do but I apologize on her behalf—”

Ramone elbows him in the stomach, “my twin brother Johnny.” As he recovers, he points finger guns at her before holding out his hand which América shakes. “This is the only food truck we haven’t eaten from yet but you can get whatever from any of the others.”

“Personally, I’d recommend Meat-ball Me In The Middle. Their subs are the shit.” Ramone lolls her head from side to side before nodding in agreement. “Or anything from Donuts & Go Nuts.”

“Unless you have a peanut or tree-nut allergy.” Ramone adds hastily.

“Yeah. If you do then I rescind my recommendation.” Johnny adds, just as quickly, with a nod.

“Uh, no allergies.” They both sigh in relief. América looks at the menu on the board near the food truck’s open door. Based on the large bowls on the truck, she should’ve realized every item on the menu was noodle based. While she has nothing against noodles as a whole, she’s really not in the mood to eat them now. She looks at the rest of the trucks as much as she’s able and the pink one catches her eye. “What’s that one?” She points at the pink truck and the twins follow her hand.

“Pizza Party.” The twins chorus (adorably). “It’s a spin on stuff you’d find on a pizza.” They continue in unison.

América tilts her head to the right, “pi-sa?”

The twins exchange a wide-eyed glance before turning to her. Even the man in the food truck is staring at her bewildered. “Y-You’ve... never had pizza before?” Johnny asks.

América shakes her head. “Yeah. I know what we’re eating for lunch.” Ramone grabs her hand, “c’mon. I know the best place in town to eat pizza for the first time. Let’s go, Johnny.”

“I suppose we could always try something we never had from there.” He shrugs at the man who is still looking at them strangely. In fact, every person in the line is staring at the three of them as they make their way out of the line. “So she’s never had pizza before, it’s weird but it’s not the weirdest thing in the world.” At that everyone turns forward in the line. Grinning triumphantly, Johnny nudges her arm. “You couldn’t’ve found two better people to ease you into the wonder that is pizza.”

América looks down at the hand entwined in hers before looking up at the woman attached to the hand, “is it really that weird?”

The twins nod, “never heard of anyone who never ate pizza before. Sure there were people who tried it and didn’t like it but they at least tried it.” Ramone shrugs, “but like Johnny said it’s not the weirdest thing.”

“You wanna know what’s weirder than never eating pizza? Ultimate frisbee.” América stares at him.

“Rugby.”

“Cricket.”

“Curling.”

“March Madness.”

“March Madness fans.”

“Gender reveal parties.”

“Damn.” Ramone snaps her fingers, “that was a good one.” Johnny blows his sister a kiss and takes a dramatic bow. The two of them continue to chat while they walk. América loses track of how long their conversation goes on until they stop walking. “Okay. We’re here.”

América looks up at he neon sign – that’s lit in the daytime. The words I Only Have Pies For You is written in neon, multicolored cursive writing and there are circular objects in place of the O’s.

“This place is great!” Johnny cheers. “They have all sorts of pies. Pizza pies. Cake pies. Regular pies. And they have the best coffee this side of Venice Beach.”

“Cough-what?”

Johnny groans, “you’re killing me, América!”

“We need to go inside now.” When they enter the shop, Ramone belatedly realizes she’d been holding her hand the entire time and sheepishly mutters an apology while letting go.

“If it isn’t my two favorite people in the world!” América blinks at the large orange rock man that comes through the door wide enough to accommodate his size.

“Ben!” Johnny exclaims, “This is América. She’s never had pizza or coffee. We need to fix that.”

“Damn right we do. You know where the coffee is. I’ll get started on making the pies.”

“Thanks Ben, love ya~” The man—Ben—disappears behind the door he came from and Johnny ducks under the empty space on the side of the counter and stands in front of something América can’t see from her angle.

América follows Ramone who leans on the other side of the counter, “start her off with something simple. We don’t wanna overwhelm her or scare her off.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“Says the guy who takes no less than fifteen scoops of sugar in his coffee.”

“Can’t help I got a sweet tooth.” He turns around and there’s steaming brown liquid in the cups in his hand, “this one’s for you.” He holds out the cup in his left hand toward her, “and your usual, M’Lady.”

“Thank you, My Good Sir.” She inclines her head at him then takes the offered cup. “It’s hot so you should blow on it.”

América nods then blows on the liquid watching the ripples it makes in the cup. Johnny has his back turned to them again, probably pouring himself a cup. Ramone’s busying herself with her cup, so América takes a tentative sip of her drink. It’s bitter and sweet and warm and fucking delicious. She downs the rest of the drink with a satisfied sigh. Stephen had various beverages in his pantry but the one drink he had copious amounts of was tea and if she didn’t pour half a glass of sugar or alcohol in it the damn thing didn’t taste like anything.

“That was good.”

The twins high-five each other, “try this. I don’t think your ready for Johnny’s coffee just yet.” Johnny shrugs as he knocks back his drink. She takes a sip of Ramone’s drink. It’s a little sweeter than hers was but just as warm and delicious. There’s also a flavor she can’t identify but it adds to the deliciousness. “Reminds me of the first time we let Ben’s godkids try coffee.”

“I thought their mom was gonna decapitate us.”

“Decapitate you maybe.”

Me? It was your coffee!”

“Hey, see if there’s any samples back there we can eat while we wait.” As he crouches, América notices the glass case for the first time. All kinds of things of different shapes and sizes were behind the case. América crouches so she can look at everything clearer. Beside her, Ramone crouches as well. “I’m not even gonna bother asking if you tried any of this. I’m just gonna let you taste ‘em.”

“That’s probably for the best.”

Johnny leans over the counter and is holding several things on toothpicks. “Here. These were in the back so I don’t think Ben’ll miss ‘em that much.” She and Ramone both take two things from Johnny and América tries the square shaped thing in her right hand. It’s cloyingly sweet and fucks with her heightened senses so bad she hastily puts the circular thing in her left hand in her mouth. Thankfully, it offsets the other thing with its spice.

A man comes out of the same door Ben did and shakes his head, “Ben your little mooches are back and are behind the counter!”

“The only mooch here is you!” Ben yells back.

Three women nearly knock her and Ramone over as they run over to the counter. “Hi, Johnny!” They coo in a pretty cringe worthy pitch. And damn was she ever sorry she had super hearing. The tone actually causes her to shiver.

Ramone stands and helps her up, “you okay?”

“Yeah. That was just loud.”

“Tell me about it.”

Johnny’s behind the counter chugging away another cup and the three women are crowding the other guy, basically and almost literally throwing themselves at him. “Wait. His name is Johnny too?”

The women turn to her with narrowed eyes, shrill voices reaching eardrum piercing octaves. “You don’t know Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four!?”

“Would she be asking if she did?” The women gasp loudly and peel off the other Johnny and angrily step toward Ramone.

Stephen told her to keep a low profile but if the rock man wasn’t turning heads, she shouldn’t either. Regardless, she takes a step toward the women who take a step back. “I wouldn’t.” She accentuates her point by making her eyes glow.

The women huddle together and whimper. The other Johnny barks out a laugh. “I was gonna say something but I see you got this.” He claps his hands together, “if you ladies aren’t gonna buy anything, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”

“But they don’t buy anything!” One of the women hisses, then the others turn to him nodding furiously.

“Of course they do, they’re regulars and they bring in new regular all the time. Like their new friend you’re clearly pissing off.” The women huff loudly then stomp out the door. The other Johnny sighs, “that was badass. Not gonna lie. Thought I saw it all but I was clearly mistaken.”

“Wait!” Ramone comes in front of her then turns to the other Johnny, “what did she do?”

“Yeah. I kinda missed it too.”

The other Johnny laughs, “that was pisspoor timing, truly. I’ll let her tell you.” He heads back through the door whistling.

Johnny comes from behind the counter to stand by his sister, and they’re both staring at her. “Uh...” América rubs the back of her neck. To hell with a low profile. In for a penny and all that. Her eyes start glowing and the twins inch closer with wide eyes and even wider smiles.

“That is badass.” Ramone says in awe and her twin wordlessly nods. “Wait. Are you an—” She looks around the store, taking in the other patrons then inches in closer, “alien?” She whispers. “Is that why you don’t know what pizza or coffee is? Do they not have them where you’re from?”

América nods, “I came here looking for Demiurge.”

“What the fuck is a Demiurge?”

“I was gonna ask the same thing.”

“He’s a powerful magical being. The most powerful magical being in the multiverse.” The twins simultaneously let out an impressed whistle. “But he currently has no idea he has this sort of power and I’m taking a much-needed reprieve from knowing this.”

“Sounds tiring. Hey, Ramone, teach her to surf. There’s nothing more relaxing than that.”

“Hey, yeah. I can teach you to surf. Or you can just lay on the board like my brother does.”

“That’s how I surf.”

“This is why I only let him sell surfboards and not offer lessons at my shop.”

“We gotta play to our strengths.”

Ramone fondly shakes her head, “so where is this Demiurge being person thing?”

“California.”

The twins’ heads (adorably) tilt toward each other’s. “What part of California?”

“Right. Forgot this is California. Um. San Diego? Wait. Where is this?”

“This is Venice Beach. About two-and-a-half hours away from San Diego.”

“Motherfucker. I just kicked a portal open and jumped through. I wasn’t even paying attention to where it took me.” She should’ve realized sooner she wasn’t near where she needed to be the second she landed in sand.

“Portal?” Johnny repeats, then nudges his sister who nudges him back then they continue to nudge each other until Ramone steps on Johnny’s foot. “Fuck. Okay. Damn.” He hops on one foot. “Can you take us through it after pizza? Unless it’s something we shouldn’t do after eating.”

“I always feel fine after eating but I’ve never had anyone else through my portals.” She watched a television show where the characters had starry eyes and although their eyes do not literally have stars in them this is about as close as one could come.

🎤

Pizza (with two z’s and not an s), as America discovers, is fucking delicious. Even moreso than the coffee was. It was gooey and crunch and messy but so damn good she ate an entire pie – much to Ben’s delight. The man seemed to immediately decide he liked her and that was before he heard about the almost confrontation from the other Johnny.

He invited her to come by the shop whenever she was in Venice Beach and she wholeheartedly agreed. Especially if she can get free food out of it.

It didn’t take longer than it does for her to portal alone but the few seconds it took appeared to have a lasting impression on the twins. “That was so fucking cool. You are so fucking cool.”

“I couldn’t’ve said it better myself. You gotta hang out with us some more.”

“Of course. You still gotta teach me to surf after all.”

Ramone clears her throat, “r-right. So, um, w-where can we find Demiurge?”

“He goes by William, I believe? The shortened version.”

“Shortened version of William?” Ramone glances at Johnny who shrugs, “Will?” América shakes her head. “Bill? How else do you shorten William?”

“Billy?” América nods pointing at Johnny. “Cool. Cool, cool, cool. Does Billy The Demiurge Of San Diego have a surname?”

“Surname?”

“A last name. Like ours is Watts.”

“Oh. Uh. Yeah. It’s—um. Shit. I forgot.”

“Do you have a last name?”

“Chavez.”

“I thought you were a one-named alien like Thor or Hulk.”

“I don’t think Hulk is an alien.”

“Then where the hell did he come from?”

“Fair. Big green vigilante dudes typically aren’t not aliens.”

“Are aliens normal here? You guys didn’t bat an eye at Ben.”

“Ben’s not an alien. He was mutated by cosmic space rays. I think ‘cosmic space’ is redundant.” Ramone shakes her head. “Long story.” América nod slowly. “But yeah, aliens became more normal around here than in Manhattan.”

“Used to be a whole fucking slew of them there about ten, twenty years ago but I guess all the rich white superheroes in overcompensating large buildings coupled with all the gentrification drove ‘em south. Which is cool because I’m all for hot aliens coming to our planet.”

“He plays a lot of video games.”

“You can honestly tell me you wouldn’t fuck a hot alien?” At his raised eyebrow and smirk, Ramone glares at him. “I rest my case. I remember the wallpaper you spent two weeks searching for when you got your new phone.”

Anyway.” She interrupts, giving her twin one last glare. “Although they’re not aliens, the other Johnny and Ben came out here to get away from all that white nonsense.”

“Isn’t Ben white? Or, well, you know, used to be?”

“I thought he was Jewish?”

They exchange a glance, “anyway. Ben opened the shop and Johnny S. met his fiancé but brought a shit-ton of groupies like those lovely ladies you threw your glowing eyes at.” Johnny elbows Ramone, “dude, ain’t Johnny’s guy in San Diego?”

“Yeah. What was his name again?”

“Draken? Dracken?”

“Isn’t that the main villain from Kim Possible?”

“Oh fuck, you’re right. It’s something with a D though. He’s hot and if I found someone that hot and we shared the chemistry those two have you’d better believe I’d slap a ring on that ass too. Not their ass but...” He shrugs helplessly, “you know.”

Ramone pats him on the head, “we know.” América chuckles. “Let’s pay D-guy a visit, see if he gives us something free.”

“As I recall, he owns a sex store.”

“Okay. Maybe we don’t need anything free.”

“Speak for yourself.”

Ramone narrows her eyes at him, “how could you remember something like that from someone you met all of two times but you never remember when garbage day is?”

“You don’t remember garbage day either. You damn near flashed the garbage dude last week.”

“I fucking ran out of the shower because I heard the truck approaching and I didn’t know where you were!” Their eyes widen as they look at each other, “son of a—today’s garbage day, isn’t it?”

“I think it is and we have a fuck-ton of trash.” They both sigh heavily and hang their heads.

Yeah. América’s absolutely gonna hang out with them again. They’re such a refreshing breath of air and best of all they have nothing to do with Demiurge. She just doesn’t wanna see Stephen’s smug expression when she tells him he was right all along about her going out and having something to do that had nothing to do with Demiurge or his non-magical entourage. (Though Nico does give off an eerie magical vibe.)

They head to the sex shop owned by a Daken who is indeed Johnny S.’s fiancé, with a bitching engagement band to prove it. (Johnny S. wasn’t wearing any rings on his fingers though he did have a green gold ring looped through his necklace.) Daken gives them all free vibrators in discreet boxes and América can’t find it in her heart to turn the gift away. She hadn’t gotten any since she came to this miserable hellhole and when she refused the initial vibrator Daken offered he found her one she was more curious about.

As they’re leaving the store, América spots Nico doing a double take in their direction.

Johnny twirls the box in his hands, “where to next and will we be portaling there?”

“I don’t think so. I’m trying to catch Demi—” América shakes her head, “Billy in his natural habitat. He works at this place called Dazzler’s.”

“I heard of that place but never came out here to visit. One of my favorite streamers works there.”

“Oh boy. Here you go again with the damn streamers. It better not be that Alex guy you were blowing kisses at when you were looped up on Severe Nyquil.”

“I did what?!”

Ramone ignores him, “lead on. I don’t know this area at all but it doesn’t look gentrified so I’ll take that as a good sign.”

“Hold up. I blew kisses at which Alex?”

“‘Which?’ There’s more than one?” Ramone sighs, “of course there is. Why am I surprised? He was light-skinned and had glasses and an afro. I wasn’t paying much attention to the guy because I was busy recording your theatrics.” Johnny massages his forehead.

The twins argue the two blocks it takes them to get to Dazzler’s, only stopping when the door flies open nearly hitting Johnny who Ramone pulls out of the way. “Sorry!” A blonde carrying a cardboard cutout... of herself exclaims setting the cutout down against the opened door. “I didn’t see you until I nearly ran you down!”

“Aren’t you—oh.” Ramone nods, “yeah. That’s why this place is called ‘Dazzler’s.’” Johnny mouths something to his sister América doesn’t catch thanks to her angle but she sees Ramone mouth back later as she releases him.

“You know me, who are you?”

“I’m Ramone, this is my twin brother Johnny and our friend América.”

“Welcome to Dazzler’s. I’m Alison the owner, aka Dazzler herself as you already pieced together. Today’s our five month anniversary so everything is fifty percent off! If you have any questions ask for Billy, Kamala, or Julian; there’s Verity too but I guarantee she won’t be much help.”

“Door’s wide open, Boss, we can all hear you! And how could you say Keller would be more help than me?!”

The blonde give them a knowing look. “Teddy should also be around. He doesn’t work here but he’s a regular and I asked him to help out.”

When Alison walks back into the store, América jerks her head back and the twins walk over to her concerned. “If I remember correctly, I was told Billy and Teddy have this weird nerdy courtship dance thing going on.”

The twins exchange a glance then they huddle with América, “we’re not exactly well-versed in the art of nerd macking.” Ramone lifts her head from the huddle then looks around, hums, then rejoins the huddle, “but if this Teddy guy is the tall dude with the dimples, chiseled jaw, smedium shirt, and kitten producing smile then I’m gonna need some context because I can’t fathom him not having a following or a cult or a damn harem throwing rose petals at his feet while he walks.” She turns Johnny’s head back toward them without looking in his direction. “Perhaps you need a reminder Billy The Demiurge Of San Diego—dammit now you have me calling him that.” She shakes her head, “we gotta shorten that nickname. Anyway, point is, he’s the most powerful magical being in the world and is hot for this dude. You really wanna do this? Seriously? I know you have a severe lack of self-preservation but this is ridiculous, even for you.”

“Do what? I’m just gonna look.”

“I’m not cleaning up your brain matter when you get vaporized for trying to mack on a super powerful magical being’s love interest, Johnny.”

Again. I’m just gonna look, Ramone. And if I get vaporized I won’t have brain matter to clean up.”

América lolls her head from side to side, “he has a point.”

Ramone points at her, “don’t encourage him.”

“Look. I doubt this will happen but if Billy comes at us—at Johnny—with even a sliver of homicidal I’ll kick open a portal and toss Johnny in it.”

Frowning, Ramone dubiously folds her arms over her chest, “and just how fast can you open a portal?”

“Never timed it but it can’t be longer than five seconds.”

Ramone’s still frowning but she nods with a heavy sigh. Johnny lifts his head and looks around then quickly rejoins the huddle. “Saw the underwear model in the extremely tight shirt. Nine-point-eight out of ten. Would hit that in a heartbeat if propositioned.”

After breaking up the huddle, Ramone pinches the bridge of her nose. “I should point out it would take an unprecedented amount of possessiveness to mutilate someone for simply looking at or just flirting with someone you’re into but not dating.” The twins both turn to América and she shrugs, “he hasn’t given me that vibe so I think Johnny’s in the clear as long as he doesn’t strip Teddy down and tongue him in the shop.”

“There goes my motivation.”

Ramone elbows him in the arm, “don’t joke about your potential mutilation. I have zero interest in seeing your brain splattered across the retro 80s wallpaper.”

“Why do you think it’ll end badly? For all we know, Billy-urge can be down with polyamory. What all-powerful magical being wouldn’t be okay with mixing shit up every once in a while?”

“I’m sorry. Poly-armor-whatnow?”

“Polyamory.” Ramone repeats, “it’s when you’re in a sexual or romantic relationship with more than one person.” As América hums to process this, she turns back to Johnny, “and not everyone is as open and accepting and free-loving as you. Promise me you’ll silently appreciate how tight that shirt is? I don’t even like guys but I can’t unsee all those muscles threatening to rip that stretched out material.”

Fine. Ignoring your last comment, I can assure you I’ll rein it in like a good boy.” Ramone sighs in relief, “we might as well buy something since we’re here.”

“Yeah. Might even get something signed by Dazzler herself.”

“Shame Storm doesn’t own her own shop.”

“Right?” Ramone shakes her head as they stroll into the store.

When they step inside the store, América spots Billy by the register skimming over a comic book in his hands. She pinpoints the exact moment his eyes land on them—or Johnny in particular—because he drops the comic and flat out gapes. All throughout the day, América saw a fair amount of people do double takes and even run into things before letting their eyes run appreciatively over the twins’ bodies. Kamala is beside Billy and when she looks in their direction her jaw drops too though she recovers much quicker than Billy who is still staring until she elbows him.

Teddy is within the line of sight of the register, and América does not believe that was done coincidentally. However, he is busy with his “kitten producing smile” charming the hell out of a bunch of kids happily clutching superhero coloring books, and the guardians of said kids projecting their heart eyes onto him. Next to him is a scowling, black-haired guy with metal gloves who looks like being around so many people is physically painful for him.

There’s an ajar door behind the register but the opened door looks like the only way in and out of the store from América’s perspective. As she’s scanning the store, she spots Maritza wearing a pink, purple, and blue unicorn beanie rummaging through a bin full of large black discs.

América taps Johnny who is examining a doll of the landlord of Kate, Teddy, Xavin, and Karolina’s building. (Okay. She’s gonna need an explanation regarding that soon.) She gestures to where Maritza is and he nods at her then taps Ramone when she heads over to the teen.

“América!” She greets, holding up a disc. “Do you know what this is?” The only other person aside from Stephen, and the twins now, América told she wasn’t from this universe was Maritza. The teen reminded her of some of the kids she grew up with on Utopia, that it just slipped out. To her credit, Maritza hadn’t seemed phased at all by the news. Then again, the kid’s an actress that starred in several television series and movies with far more outrageous plots than América’s real life adventures leading her up to arriving in this universe.

América shakes her head, “nope. Should I?”

Maritza frowns, “I don’t know. I don’t even know what it is.” She taps the shoulder of a guy with gold skin who walked by, “excuse me? Do you know what this is?”

“A record.” He answers, “they’re what people used to listen to music before CDs were invented.” Maritza scratches her head, not bothering to hide her confusion. “You know what a CD is, don’t you?”

“Maybe?”

“You’ll need a record player to listen to to it. I think I heard Julian say there was one in the backroom, I’ll get him.” He walks off.

A few seconds later the gold guy brings the metal gloves guy over to them. Maritza hands him the “record” and he flips it over. “Wanna see if it works? That’s fair. Let’s see what we have to work with.” He flips it over again and tilts his head to the right, “‘X-Men Passover Album?!’” He shakes his head then shoves the record in the gold guy’s chest before walking off grumbling.

“Pardon me?” The gold guy looks down at the kid smaller than Maritza, with her brown hair tied up and wrapped around her head in two thick braids holding up a gardening book in her hands. “There is no price on this book.”

América feels her eyes starting to glow but no matter how much she tries to stop them they won’t. Maritza does a double take then takes the star-shaped sunglasses hooked into the front of her shirt and puts them on América’s still glowing eyes. Thankfully, the gold guy and girl miss this. América turns to her, “thanks.”

“Why are your eyes glowing?” Maritza whispers.

“It happens when I’m close to Demiurge’s power some...times—” She turns around and Billy is still near the register. The first few times she trailed him during her recon (and what kind of all-powerful being doesn’t even realize they’re being followed?!) her eyes started to glow. She turns back around and the girl and gold guy are still chatting away. Can this kid be the second Demiurge? No way. She doesn’t look older than Maritza and one would think Demiurge would evenly distribute his powers – meaning the second Demiurge would at least be closer to the age of the first. At the same time, she never thought Demiurge’s contingency plan would involve a second him (or her).

América takes the sunglasses off her no longer glowing eyes and puts her hands on Maritza’s shoulders, “Necesito una favor, chica.”

Maritza eyes her warily. “¿Qué clase de favor?”

Getting the refresher courses in english from Maritza were all well and good but she missed speaking in her native language; so far Maritza is the only person she encountered fluent enough for them to have full-on conversations in Spanish. While both of her moms were fluent and english and Spanish, before she came here América didn’t have many uses to speak english.

Billy told her David was fluent in multiple languages but he’s the one person in the entourage América’s yet to spend any time alone with. Considering he’s the closest to Billy, that is a horrible inconvenience as the one universal truth about Demiurge she’s come to realize is, it’s his relationships that strengthen his abilities and resolve. His strongest relationship would obviously be his greatest source of strength. To not build her own relationship with Demiurge’s greatest ally and confidant would be foolish. Even her Demiurge had both her moms to confide in.

“Si esto es Demiurge, tienes que hacer amistad con ella.”

“Why me?” Maritza hisses.

“Because you’re both kids. You two would have way more in common.”

Maritza glowers, “me debes por esto, a lo grande.” As the gold guy (finally) walks off, Maritza approaches the shorter brunette. “Hi. You like gardening?”

The girl startles for a bit then looks up at Maritza smiling, “I love it. Flowers make me feel at peace.”

“I like flowers too but my allergies won’t let me get too close to them.”

“I-I had no idea people could be allergic to flowers.”

“People can be allergic to just about anything but I took my allergy pills this morning so I’m good.” She sticks out a hand, “Maritza.”

“That’s such a beautiful name.” Maritza blushes, and if possible her blush intensifies when the girl shakes her hand. “My name is Klara.”

“T-That’s a real pretty name too.”

América massages the bridge of her nose. “Mierda. Esto es avergonzante.” And here she thought Teddy was awkward at flirting interacting. In the time she’s known her, Maritza’s had a serious lack of interaction with other teens, and the two of them look like they’re the only ones old enough to be in a store by themselves. (Minus that really, really tall kid with the baby face following Teddy around like a duckling.) América initially thought it would be better for Maritza to approach the possible second Demiurge and make a friend, but she’s not so sure anymore watching the poor kid flail around.

Before she can have mercy on Maritza, Ramone heads over to her. “Hey. Where’s Johnny?”

“He met that streamer he wouldn’t shut up about. I’d say she decided to take pity on him and take some pictures together, but with the way her hands lingered on his body when they were standing next to each other, I couldn’t say her actions were charitable in the slightest.” América chuckles, “what about you? Did you take care of what you needed to take care of?”

“I saw a friend of mine and happened to sense the second Demiurge in the process.”

“You’re shitting me. There’s another one?” América nods, “just when you thought one all-powerful magical being was what you had to worry about. Where is he?”

She jerks her head toward Maritza. “The one on the right.”

“Huh. Not gonna lie. Far from what I was expecting.”

“You’re not the only one.”

“Also, I had no idea you knew Molly.”

“You know her?”

“Johnny won tickets to E3 last year. I didn’t have anything better to do that weekend. Plus, you know, it was free so I went with him. We met her standing in line to enter the building. My hair was pink back then and she just about tripped over herself gushing over it.”

“And here I thought I was special when she did that to me.”

“Oh no. As badass as your hairstyle is, we counted over fifty people she gushed in the span of ten minutes.” América whistles. “Thankfully there weren’t any creeps trying to hit on her; though that must’ve been due to the heavily muscled bodyguard beside her.”

Right. How could América question the idea of non humans in this universe when she’s met Maritza’s green, seven-foot-tall hot lawyer slash babysitter.

🎤

As soon as Kamala turns around to walk, Xavin and Kate are standing in front of her. “Who was that hot guy you were feeling up?” Xavin asks.

“F-Feeling up? I wasn’t feeling him up, we were taking pictures.”

“Ah.” Kate nods, “then I suppose we simply imagined your left hand lingering on his waist, hovering pretty close to his ass? Or your right squeezing one of his broad shoulders?” Kamala runs a hand down her face, “not judging. Hell, given the opportunity I’d find myself doing the same.”

“She’d totally do worse.” Xavin adds and Kate merely shrugs, “but seriously though. Who was he? I’ve never seen him around and I should hope I would notice a guy that ridiculously hot.”

Kamala blushes, “his name is Johnny. He told me he’s a fan of my stream.”

“You mean that gaming thing you and Karolina do together?” Kamala nods, “I livestreamed some of the fights I was in and I was even seen on the news a couple dozen times. Not once did a guy half as hot as the one you were taking pictures with come up to me claiming to be a fan!”

“Are you talking about here or just in general? Because you know people south and slash or west of the tri-state area genuinely don’t care about the Avengers, right?”

Kate sighs, “yeah, I know. Back in New York, being an Avenger got me free stuff. Here, I got more action telling guys I was a fucking building super than a fucking former superhero.” She shakes her head, “but I trailed off. Was there a Q & A portion of your picture taking? One where you asked your new friend where he was from or if he was single?” Kamala gives her a disbelieving look, “hey, if not for yourself, think of your single friends!” Xavin nods in agreement.

“I thought you liked Karolina?” Kamala points at Xavin, “and you liked Nico’s boss?” She points at Kate.

“The one engaged to Johnny Storm?” Xavin asks, “what person who doesn’t like guys doesn’t wanna sleep with him?”

“No.” Kamala shakes her head, “not the sex shop boss. The erotic bakery one.”

Xavin looks at Kate incredulously. “You wanna sleep with him?! I always knew you had questionable taste, Bishop, but ew.”

“That is so rude. Genny’s hot.” Xavin shakes their head and shudders. “Kamala, back me up here. You’d sleep with him, right?”

“No. Not at all.” Kate gives her a disbelieving look. “Sorry, Kate. Dude’s just not my... usual comic genre.”

Xavin chuckles. “Okay. That’s cute. I’m gonna use that one.”

“I don’t know why I even bother sometimes.”

Billy skids to a halt behind them grabbing Kamala’s arm, “hot guy. Register. Form words. Need you.”

Kamala sighs, “that’s more than he got out last time. See you two around.”

They wave as Billy all but drags her to the register, “you’d think someone who shares their damn living space with someone as scorching hot as David wouldn’t lose their shit around a lower-tier hottie.”

Xavin shrugs, “you’d think so, wouldn’t you? His definition of hot must be askewed.”

“He’s attracted to your cousin!”

“I know what I said.”

Kate laughs, “what about you? Any changes in your living situation I should know about?”

“As you asked me yesterday, the answer is still no.” Xavin rubs the back of their neck, “I should be used to dealing with dense people but I don’t know if Karolina is being deliberately obtuse or if she’s not registering I’m asking her out on an actual date.”

“I hope your ‘used to being around dense people’ comment wasn’t including me.”

“Of course it was, Bishop. The fact that you even have to ask proves my point.”

América heads over to them, “yo. Your landlord used to be an X-Men. Guess you really do learn something new every day.”

“Yup. I once bought a doll of him just to see how he’d react, he not only liked it he autographing the damn thing.” Xavin shakes their head, “you plan on introducing us to your pair of hot friends?”

América grins at Xavin, “and spoil the mystery? I think the fuck not.”

“You’re pure evil.”

She shrugs, “besides, Kamala didn’t show you the pictures? You were just talking with her.”

Kate facepalms, “we didn’t even think to ask her to show us the pictures! I am dense!”

“She took pictures with both of them?”

América nods, “at first she just took some with Johnny but when his sister introduced herself we all took pictures together. I think she felt up Johnny in a few of them.”

“I knew it!”

The siblings walk over to the trio with Molly who is carrying several paper bags in her arms. “Ready to go? Molly has a lot to talk about.”

The brunette nods miserably. “Yeah. Just about. Uh, these are my friends Kate and Xavin. Meet the twins Ramone and Johnny.”

As the others are shaking hands, Molly nudges América. “¡Necesito tu ayuda!” She whispers, “¡Creo que acabo de invitar a Klara a salir!”

“Eso es bueno, ¿no?”

“Is it?!” She sighs loudly, “I need to leave and bury my sorrows in soft serve. I don’t think there’s an accurate translation for that.” She miserably trudges out the store.

“Hey, wait up!” Johnny heads after her.

“What’s the matter with her?” Kate asks.

“It’s um... first date. ¿Cómo se dice? Nervios.” América waves off the looks of concern Kate and Xavin give her, “todo está bien. Hasta luego.” She jerks her head to the door and pulls Ramone out of the store.

Kate shakes her head, “she’s so weird.”

“Yeah but she’s hot so it’s okay.”

🎤

Walking into the backroom watching Teddy bent over a pile of boxes damn near made Billy forget why he entered in the first place. He clears his throat then winces as Teddy hits his head on the shelf above him. “Sorry.”

“No you’re fine. I kinda zoned out.”

Getting dance lessons from Teddy were simultaneously the best and worst decision Billy’s ever made sober. Having Teddy physically guide him through the steps had to be a new form of torture, but overall spending time with him – watching him pirouette or do whatever the fuck moves he did so gracefully and arousing – was fun. And nowhere near as awkward as he thought they’d be. Seeing all the parents openly and downright shamelessly ogle Teddy in his uncharacteristically tight shirt made Billy realize what a shlemiel he’s been. Though Doctor Strange would be proud of his level of ironclad restraint. (Of course, not masturbating and sitting through ten minutes of meditation hovering weren’t normally in the same range in terms of restraining oneself.) Oh well. In for a penny, and all that.

Teddy’s been rambling for the past five minutes Billy’s just been staring at him conked out so he approaches Teddy and puts a finger on his mouth effectively silencing him. Fuck. His lips are soft. If he doesn’t do this now he’ll lose his resolve both with the whole no masturbating thing and just asking him out in general. “Want to? Drink get? Me later?”

As Billy moves his finger, Teddy’s face goes through about four separate adorably confused expressions before finally settling on an understanding and fond smile, “I’d like that.” They’d been going out for brunch after the dance lessons, which just made the whole no masturbating thing damn near impossible, but Billy’s evidently a serious glutton for punishment. “Have you ever been to Moth?” Billy shakes his head, “it’s great. It’s one of those bar and gaming places.”

“Sounds fun. I’m in.” Teddy’s face lights up like someone flashed a damn 150 watt bulb suddenly in a previously blacked-out room.

Verity sticks her head in the doorway, “B, your cape wearing friend is looking for you.”

Billy sighs, “of course he is. I’ll be right back.” When Billy exits the backroom, Doctor Strange is leaning against the counter reading an X-Men comic of all things. “Didn’t we just see each other a few days ago?”

Strange closes the comic and turns to Billy frowning, “then you know I wouldn’t just show up out of the blue unless it was something dire.” That draws a heavy sigh out of Billy because it’s all too fucking true. Strange leads him out of the store then folds his arms over his chest once they get outside, away from the shop. “I have a friend who all but confirmed the presence of a second Demiurge.”

“The fuck? I thought you said only one of those existed at a time?” Since Strange’s magical inner workings or what the fuck ever make him immune to Billy’s telepathy, he had a feeling the doctor wasn’t being one hundred percent forthcoming on this whole “Demiurge” bullshit. Now he knows for sure. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Strange’s face goes through a series of complex, indecipherable emotions before he mutters, “she’s gonna kill me.”

Before Billy could question who he’s talking about there’s a loud flashing noise then a star-shaped portal of all things appears in mid-air directly above them and América drops out of it gracefully landing on her feet. “¿Se lo has dicho?” She asks Strange, staring at him.

Sighing, Strange rubs the back of his neck. “I was about to.” América folds her arms over her chest then gestures at Strange to continue. He sighs once more for good measure then turns to Billy. “I didn’t want to overwhelm you—” He glances at América briefly before returning his attention to Billy, “but the Demiurge I’ve been telling you about? To put it bluntly, it’s you. Well, half of Demiurge is you.”

“What? How? I can’t even mix potions together without causing a small fire yet you’re telling me I’m partly responsible for shaping the entirety of magic?!”

Strange grimace but nods, “fortunately, with this second Demiurge around you don’t have to carry the burden of shaping the entirety of not only magic abut the entire multiverse—”

“You only told me Demiurge was responsible for magic!”

“Oops?” He clears his throat after chuckling awkwardly, “as I said, I didn’t want to overwhelm you. That’s not solely why I’m here. This is very important, William. Was there anyone in Alison’s store you couldn’t get a read on?”

He jerks his chin in América’s direction, “other than her? No.” He turns to América, “are you going to tell me why that is?”

Her eyes and the star-shaped tattoos on her wrists start glowing which, for some reason he’s probably gonna find out soon, make his eyes and fingertips glow the same white-blue color. When she stops glowing so does he. That explains the vague sense of familiarity he got when they first met. “We’re telling you this because while the previous Demiurge could see into the future, the two of us cannot. Fate has been set into motion whether I shield you from it or not.”

“So I’m gonna meet this other half whether I’m ready for them or not, huh?” They both nod. “Great. And whoever this is came to the store?”

“That I’m not so sure of. América sensed a power like yours coming from someone who isn’t you and called me. However, I must’ve arrived too late because I no longer sense the bare minimum of its signature.”

“It couldn’t be the kid. She must be close to whoever Demiurge is though.”

Strange nods, “I agree. Then again, unorthodox might be our best bet. There’s a fifty-fifty chance it’s the child you mentioned and a fifty-fifty chance it’s someone the child is associated with. Either way, tell your friend to be careful on her date.” América nods, “now... where did you stash your other friends?” She points a glowing finger at him. “Fine. Fine. You have no reason to answer. I was just curious. I am happy you are making friends.”

América rolls her eyes. “Did your little magical study group find anything?”

“No. The four of us together combined multiple magic seeking methods and came up empty.” He rubs at his throat, “I don’t think it’s simply magic we’re dealing with.”

Billy throws his hands in the air. “Why would it be? That would be too simple.”

“Stay on guard, William. This other Demiurge will either be drawn to your power or see it as a threat.”

“Then come for you and everyone associated with you.”

Strange glares at her, “not how I would have put it but... there it is. If we’re lucky, they won’t want anything to do with this and will willingly relinquish all power to you. Assuming that’s even possible.”

“And I just have to ask. What if we’re unlucky? I take it being hunted is the least of my worries?”

“If we’re unlucky, you’re either gonna be involved in a magical, multiversal fight to the death or Demiurge 2.0 could kill you in cold-blood then assume your identity. Or, or, they could assume your identity without killing you. Trapping you in some sort of magical prison for the rest of your days. You know, these are getting dark. I’m just gonna stop.”

“Does this mean we’re gonna change up my magic lessons?”

“Oh no. There’s physically nothing I can do to assist you with this endeavor – other than informing you.” Billy blinks at him, “however, you could learn a few things from her.” América is staring at him with a blank expression. “Come to think of it, you two could learn several things from each other.” They both slowly turn to him. “We’ll continue our normal sessions but you two should meet at least once a week. If nothing else, you’ll need to get familiar with each other. I have a feeling you two are going to need each other’s support dealing with this new unknown.”

América punches the air and a star-shaped portal spins into existence followed by a loud flashing noise, “sure, just as long as he doesn’t slow me down.”

“I know this isn’t what you were expecting or hoping for but you know I’ll need your help in training him.”

América puts one foot in the portal, “as long as he does what needs to be done.” Then she steps in the portal and it closes and disappears behind her.

“She’s charming, isn’t she?”

“I’m sure you’d be less than a barrel of laughs if everything you’ve ever known was destroyed and the one person who could help you get it back together has no idea of what they’re doing.” Strange sighs, “but the saddest part is, even if you do develop the full powers of Demiurge you might not even be able to bring her universe back.”

“Does she know that? Or is that something you conveniently left out so she’d help me?”

“I said you might not be able to, I’ve never met a fully fleshed out Demiurge before.”

“Either way she should know. I’d hate to have my entire world destroyed then find out the person I was supposed to trust lied to me so he wouldn’t inconvenience himself.” Billy shakes his head, “I have to get back to work.”

“If you decide to tell her, make sure you do it for the right reasons and not simply to spite me.”

“I don’t see how it can’t be both.” Then Billy heads back to the shop.