"What am I doing?" He tried to breathe but it didn't work. His body jerked and he lurched forward. Again. He looked straight ahead and saw his reflection in the off-white plastic sheen. He wondered if he was disappearing yet or if he was just becoming understandably paler. He couldn't see himself as well as usual. He wiped his eye and looked again. Maybe he was just tired.
He had started this too long ago but it didn't really matter when; what mattered was that he is still doing it.
He never did it for the results. He hates the results. This breakable quality, paper thin and frail, seeing all the sunken planes and protruding angles that hurt at the touch… Being everything he isn't supposed to be to everyone else. Everything they can never imagine him being. He can't stand to look at himself that way but… that's part of it, too. Letting out what other people get to see. Even if it's killing the last chance he has at his "real" side. He wants those feelings so much, letting go, all the weakness, and the shaking, and the various throbbings, the sheer rawness of everywhere… the side effects.
The more he gets to feel those things, drink them in, and convince himself that they're the only sensations out there left to make him feel real, the… "better" the results get, the farther they progress, and… the farther he gets from ever being able to look like "himself" again.
He's about to see Greg again tonight, much like every other night, and much like every other night he's about to go out and pretend to be someone else, then pretend to be half a dozen other people in the same time span. He's prepping himself to put on yet another great show of being this hardened straight guy who isn't insecure and doesn't have a thing for Greg and certainly does not blow liquid kisses to the china goddess every single day and night and every chance he gets. Really he's just on his way to hang out with his supposed best friend.
Maybe if it were that simple, he wouldn't feel the need to feed the houseplants, but lately it doesn't take much for him to start growling in the gutter.
On his way to their agreed-upon meeting place, the urge to fertilize the pavement crawls up at the back of his neck and the walls of his throat but he's quick to remember he doesn't have any fertilizer left to give, a situation he is quick to change with an in-and-out stop the nearest convenience store. He wipes a few crumbs from the corner of his mouth and does not think twice about littering before greeting Greg.
Easy. Like air or perhaps not and maybe not breathing either and probably not inverse intake and okay, maybe nothing's quite as easy as pasting a lazy grin on his face and saying hey and promptly turning into Tony Stark. He does kind of wonder who Greg is always talking to on his cell, especially since he's too much of a jerkoff to keep a girl for more than a week.
While Teddy strolls through the night and steal glances from the known piece-of-ass asshole walking next to Tony Stark—him—he stops himself to think about his mother and wonders if she is worried about him at all. It's a random—if justified—thought, but he doesn't get why he is starting to think about it now, after all the other times he spent sneaking out and doing just this. In any case, it does leave him standing right in front of a conveniently-placed flat screen.
Later that evening, Greg and he would infiltrate the newly abandoned Avengers' Mansion. Even later, Greg would cross a line that Teddy wouldn't cross with him. While he'd be looking catatonic and just about ready to give back that convenience store crap to mother earth's healthy soil—or to the soon-to-start-rotting hardwood floor—Iron Lad would show up and provide the answer to his troubles—and the start of another.
Iron Lad would barely have the time to leave with the door open behind him before Teddy's body would decide to perform a particularly violent bout of overpressure relief. He looked at his hands and was surprised to see they, like the rest of his body, had reverted back to his true form without consulting him. He played with his fingers, acting as though he should be careful not to break them even though he knew that wouldn't really happen.
He finally realized the scope the predicament he was setting himself up for one Tuesday night after practice. Billy and him were the only two left in the hideout and lived relatively close to each other by New York standards so it was only natural that they would walk home together. The team had only been a team for about a week and they had only come together on three different occasions in that time frame. So far they knew each other's full names, numbers, address, and email. Ely was impatient, Nathaniel was pragmatic, Billy was confident, and Teddy was kind. They had an easy chemistry that only needed a bit more time to grow before they could all call each other "friends."
"So," Billy broke the comfortable silence they had been walking in. "What do you do the rest of the day?"
"Apart from school?"
"Apart from school."
He could have said something else. He could have lied. He could have avoided the question. He could have pretended he was looking around for a crime being committed. He never even thought of saying anything else.
"I yell at the pavement." And from the bits he knew about Billy, he knew the other would know what that meant.
"Are you better now?" Though because they didn't know each other that well yet, he just thought Teddy was ill. He couldn't know that he never got sick unless he wanted to.
Teddy took longer than he expected to answer. Finally, he smiled.
"Yeah, I think so."
Teddy was really starting to like Billy. It wasn't just Billy's looks, though he was more than easy on the eyes, and it wasn't that he was pretty sure Billy liked him that way too. It was the bigger picture, the way they worked so well as a team, how they always had each other's backs, both in and out of battle, how they always ended up agreeing with each other, not because they wanted to be in each other's favour, but because it's what they really thought and it just happened to be the same. It was how the month they'd known each other felt like the longest and the shortest of time, the way they could tell what the other was thinking just by glancing at their face, and Billy. Just Billy, that attitude he had, snarky in a positive way, the way he carried himself like he knew just how great he was without coming off as cocky, the way he looked at Teddy like he wanted them to go there but was still kind of new at this "dating" aspect of liking someone.
Teddy was in love.
Teddy was in love, and he was starting to find that the feelings that went with that, the fluttering, and flustering, and simple happiness more than filled the place he usually reserved for self-induced reverse peristalsis. He didn't need his throat to feel raw when his heart felt so open, he didn't need to feel small when just standing next to Billy made him feel so humbled, and he didn't need to rid himself of the image everyone else had of him when he had someone interested in knowing who he really was.
Billy was interested in knowing who he really was. He would probably be interested in knowing what he really looked like, too, eventually.
And there was the issue.
Billy had no idea. They joked and flirted, and practiced, and tried their best to save some lives without throttling their other teammates in the friendliest way possible, and every night when Billy and him walked back to their respective homes, he would revert to what he looked like the last time he had looked anything like himself, right before becoming Greg's "best friend." He couldn't remember the exact details of that form so he modeled himself after Billy, and gave himself his true height and underlying bone structure to differ.
They would walk and talk and get closer to each other until one night the inevitable happened and Billy leaned in and kissed him, right on Teddy's doorstep, in the stark glow of the porch light. He kissed back immediately, not even trying to seem as though he hadn't been waiting for this to happen for weeks now. Billy had his hands on his shoulders and Teddy slid one of his own up to hold the side of his face, keeping the other on his hip. Billy squirmed and they broke apart and he laughed, every bit as breathless as Teddy, and Teddy laughed too because really, how could he not? They caught each other's eyes and held their gazes until their foreheads bumped slightly.
"It's my ticklish spot." Billy murmured.
"I'll make sure to remember that." Teddy whispered back, his voice lower than it had been before.
The next morning, he woke up to find himself aroused, which was pretty normal, but he also found that sometime in the night, his body had gone back to its original state of, well, decay. He glared at his reflection and his morning problem dissipated. He brought a twig-like hand to his face and felt the slight hollow of his cheek. He trailed the hand down his neck to the jutting edges of his collar bone. He could practically grip the thing like a handle. He glanced at his concave torso disappearing into his pyjama bottoms. His sternum made his skin look like fabric that someone was trying to rip. His chest looked like a butterfly with too many of his ribs showing below his pectorals. His hip bones were like triangles, a caricature of what they were supposed to look like in a boy his age. A boy like Billy.
Billy would want to see. Teddy would want to show him. He just didn't want to show him this.
They had been dating for four months when the subject came up. They had been at Teddy's place, watching movies one weekend while his mother worked and the rest of the Young Avengers had other occupations, and Hulkling had taken on a slightly buffer form than usual to serve as a better pillow to Wiccan who was tracing his abs over his shirt, absentmindedly going lower, and lower and—
"I'm not ready yet!" Teddy had blurted out, turning red. He almost shifted himself smaller in surprise when he felt that shot of pleasure course through him.
"Huh?" Billy looked back at his boyfriend's face then down at where his hand was. He removed it quickly and blushed too. "I-I'm sorry, I, uh…"
They freaked a bit before calming themselves down and talked relatively normally after that. They realized that neither of them were actually really ready yet. They agreed that this incident had been more of an impulse thing, and set boundaries that they could both respect. It was a bit awkward to start, but they made it through and made it work. After, they had a really hot make out session.
The topic hadn't ceased to exist, however, and it did resurface occasionally.
Teddy had been working really hard at reversing the effects of his bulimia, now that he could admit to what it had been. He was an odd case, he realized, when he searched information on the topic. He didn't really have a self-image problem, or, well, in any case, it wasn't any bigger than that of the average teen. He had felt as though he needed to get bigger in terms of muscles before he figured out he could just shift into some, but that was for the purpose of generally fitting in. He was a shape shifter, he didn't need bulimia to change his looks. He had needed it to change his outlook. Now that he was filled by better brighter things, it was easy for him to let go of the disease.
Too bad his body couldn't be so quick on the uptake.
The number of Google searches on the topic of "what to do if you screw your body up terribly" (he wasn't really one for grammar) were numerous on his browser. It had been a bit hard at first since he was used to eating whatever he wanted without consequences and he had to re-learn the entire ordeal of feeding himself. He was a bit surprised that his body had never tried to shut down on him before, back when he was still doing it regularly. He couldn't possibly have been getting enough nutrients to sustain himself before. Maybe it was because he was a mutant?
Things between Billy and him were heating up in a good way. They talked about sex, maybe not often, but enough. They started experimenting, slowly. Billy was losing his insecurities one by one. It helped in more ways than one that they trusted each other with their lives every day. Nothing quite like heroics to bond two people together.
This time they were in Billy's room, nestled on his bed between two piles of clothing, half-listening to the radio and trying to accomplish the feat of physics homework. Mostly they were just teasing each other.
"If we add two more weights, w1 and w2, to pulley x, would you mind if I told you that you have beautiful eyes?" Billy asked casually but with barely hidden smirk.
"That's from a book, isn't it?" Teddy tried to remember which one.
"Wide Awake by David Levithan." Billy smiled.
"Thanks." He smiled back.
"It's in here somewhere…" Billy cranked his neck to look around for show.
"I'm sure it is," Teddy just laughed.
When they ran out of clever references and words of their own, they started touching. Small, ticklish brushes of hands reaching for the same paper, even if Billy had no business with Teddy's assignment from last week, intentional light scraping of nails on fingers when asking for a pen he didn't need, the amusingly conspicuous poke of clothed toes reaching from an out-of-place outstretched leg. They soon gave up on the homework.
He had a hand underneath Billy's shirt, feeling the developing muscles he was gaining as Asgardian, and another massaging the back of his tense neck, another side-effect of heroing, while their mouths locked and unlocked, making wetter clicking noises than actual locks. Meanwhile, he had one hand tangled up in his hair and another feeling up his thigh. He must have pressed a sensitive spot in his boyfriend's neck because he felt Billy's body tense up everywhere and then release, more relaxed than he'd been all week. The hand at the back of his head lazily made its way to his shoulder to give Billy the leverage he needed to make his mouth reach Teddy's ear.
"I'm ready." He whispered, and in their new position, Teddy could feel the gradual hardening of his boyfriend's member in his pants. He would have been totally turned on, had he not instantly been paralyzed by fear.
"Billy," He managed to get out. Billy pulled away to look at him and Teddy was glad for it in a way because he didn't have the strength at the moment, nor the will, to push him away. On the other hand, the other could now read his face, which Teddy currently had no control over.
"Oh, um, well, that doesn't mean we have to do it now, I mean, if you're not… well, I'll wait! I mean, it's just, you seemed more confident than I was so I just assumed you were only waiting for me, and so, um, yeah, I mean—" Teddy finally slacked his jaw enough to talk normally and stop the spew of words coming from Billy.
"No, it's not that, really, I want to too, it's just, well, how do I say it, um, well, there was something I wanted to, uh, share with you? First, and this is a really awkward moment for it, but, uh, I can't go through with… it, without you knowing this. It's kind of a big deal."
"What's up, Teddy?" Teddy found a sliver of comfort in the worry saturating Billy's voice. He wasn't annoyed or mad, not that Teddy really expected him to be. He didn't, however, want what was coming up to increase that worrying.
"Well, you know how I shape shift, right?" Billy nodded politely even though Teddy was currently stalling and being quite the Captain Obvious. Billy then took his hand and squeezed and he smiled encouragingly, like he knew something was coming even if he couldn't figure out what exactly. Teddy took a moment to love the way Billy wasn't freaking out about their relationship in any way because he had been listening to what Teddy was saying and knew what to cross out from his list of possibilities for what this might be. "Well, I can change my appearance… like if I was really short for example, I could make myself look taller…" He looked into the deep brown eyes he had been avoiding up until now. They didn't let him go. "Or, more accurately… if I had an illness before and some side-effects were still noticeable." Billy's eyes widened just a fraction, but it wasn't shock per say. Just a sharp jab of worry he could feel in the hold that Billy's hand had on his own. He let him process.
"So you're all better now?"
"But I don't look okay."
"So what I see now…" Those eyes still wouldn't let him go and refused to look away themselves.
"Is what I looked like before. Healthy."
"…What did you have?"
And this is the part where Teddy felt a bit queasy, no pun intended. Because yes, bulimia nervosa was an illness, and yes it should be treated as such, but was that really what Teddy had? Bulimia consisted of taking in large amounts of food and then purging them somehow. The details varied for each person, but for Teddy, he had always eaten whatever he wanted because he had a fast metabolism; he had started this whole manual override thing because one day he'd eaten something gone bad and it had to come out and after it did, he felt better, and then somehow he started associating the act of vomiting with emotional release. He managed to convince himself that this made sense and it became a reflex, or maybe an addiction. This had nothing to do with what he looked like. Then Billy came along and he didn't need emotional release. He wanted the feelings he had to last. His addiction had no purpose and the reflex left him.
Calling this a disease made him feel like he was taking advantage of the term to facilitate the conversation. There were people out there who had this thing for real, people that didn't have shape shifting abilities and hated their bodies and were desperate… He thought about this… And then he remembered. How it was. A day in the life of Teddy Altman. He had also been desperate. He had also been suffering like all those other people. The causes and reasoning were different, but… yeah. After a while, he could say it.
"When you're ready…" Billy whispered, stroking his thumb against his hand.
And finally, he was.
"Bulimia." He said as strongly as he could manage, and, as he did, he slowly let his body morph back to its true form.
He looked down at their hands at the same time as Billy did. He must have felt different to hold, smaller and probably sharper. He wondered what that meant about his face, if it was less caved in than the last time he'd checked. He ran his gaze from his hands, to his wrists, to his arms, slowly. Billy didn't have a mirror in his room. Still, Teddy was surprised by what he could see. He was still frail-looking and definitely much skinnier than even the geekiest guys at school, but the more he looked, the better he could see he had gotten. He still looked sickly, and he wasn't about to leave the house in this form just yet. But it was getting better. It was finally getting better for his body too.
He looked back at Billy who was still looking at his body, shy and perplex in his observing. Teddy waited patiently until the other had formed his thoughts and decided to look back up. They held each other's gaze until they finally cracked and had to let out the awkward laughs that had been building up.
"So what do we do?" Billy asked. Teddy took the "we" as a good sign. Billy wasn't going anywhere.
"I don't really feel comfortable doing that kind of thing in this form yet." He admitted. "But what bothered me was that you didn't know. I could always go back to what I usually do and we could…"
"But…?" Billy read him perfectly.
"I don't want to make you wait too long, but… well it would mean a lot to me if I—we, if we could wait until the two forms match? So I could really by myself with you."
"You can always be yourself with me." Billy said exactly what he needed to hear and bent forward, tilting his head up to kiss his forehead. He mussed up his hair, gently like a parent would do to a child, then arranged their bodies so that he was lying on Teddy's chest between his legs. Teddy resisted the urge to turn back to his cover figure and tried to relax.
"You can switch back if it makes you feel better, but I don't mind either way." Billy said nonchalantly as he picked up his textbook from the floor where it had been kicked. Teddy did just that and marvelled at the truth in Billy's voice and how simple it sounded.
He smiled, picked up a pencil, doodled an equation in the margin of Billy's notebook, which had been buried halfway under the undone covers, and made the redundant vow to himself to keep getting better. He would get better. He was getting better. He was still recovering in a way, but in another, he already had. He kissed Billy's shoulder and corrected a number he'd done wrong.
"Thank you." He whispered in his ear.
I've been meaning to write a story about an eating disorder for a while now, I'm glad I finally got a chance to do it! Originally, I wanted Tim Drake (Red Robin / Robin III) to have anorexia but I couldn't make it work with his personality or his heroing. And then I read Young Avengers and thought "How Perfect!" with caps like that. AND NOW WE HAVE THIS. YES THIS. (Which is a re-post from my livejournal btw, link in my profile if you want it.)
SOUNDTRACK: Skin and Bones by Marianas' Trench
I was absolutely not aware of the number of synonyms available for "puking" before I wrote this. I am not sure whether to be glad about this or not. Anyway, tell me if you liked it, if you didn't, what I should improve, anything! I'd be glad do hear it!
AND HAVE A NICE DAY, TOO.