A PIECE OF THE PUZZLE

A/N: This little scene was written for the challenge set by GeorgeAndrews, entitled A Room With Two Characters. My prompts are listed at the end, so they don't spoil the story by giving too much away...

-xx-

I'm not supposed to answer the door when Mom's sleeping. Bad things can happen, she says - like I'm still some kind of baby who won't understand about strangers unless she hides the truth in a fairy tale. Wolves and ogres and witches in disguise, all waiting to steal me away. But I'm no careless storybook boy. I'm me and I'm ten - and the real world doesn't scare me.

I sit at the table with my pens laid out neatly in front of me. Red first, then orange - and right through the rainbow of colours, warm to cold. I like the cold ones best. And the dark ones; black, brown and grey. I run my fingers over them, trying to choose. I love the feel of their perfect plastic barrels. Thinking of the sky outside, I hover over pale blue but, when I look through the window, I change my mind straight away. The evening sky is grey, not blue. It should be black, but the light from the city won't let the darkness come; not properly.

Grey it is, then.

I pick up the pen and pop the lid. The smell of cheap ink makes my nose itch and the nib is rough, catching on the paper as I draw a thick line of sky and, below it - almost touching but not quite - the first building. A tower, tall and strong, full of windows that stare out of the page like a hundred empty eyes. Staring at me, because I created them. I can fill them with anything I want to; curtains, flowers, people. But somehow I like them better when they're empty, so I leave them that way and move on to the second building.

That's when I hear someone knocking. I know straight away who it is. He always knocks the same way - not too loud, not too soft. Just clear and respectful, like his father taught him. I frown and keep on drawing.

"No one here," I mutter under my breath. "Go away, Mac Taylor."

But he doesn't. He knocks again, louder this time. "Andy," he calls through the door. "It's okay. It's just me - Mac. You can let me in."

Or I'll huff and I'll puff...

I want to go on with my drawing but I know that Jimmy will be mad if I leave his friend standing out in the hallway again, so I throw down my pen with a sigh that's almost loud enough for stupid Mac Taylor to hear and slide off my chair. Enjoying the sudden power, I take my time strolling over to the door.

"Jimmy's not here," I say loudly, before I unhook the chain. Maybe that will make him leave.

"I know. He told me to meet him here - him and Will."

I yank the door open so quickly that it startles him. He stands there in front of me and I look him up and down with narrow eyes, trying to make him feel uncomfortable. He's skinny like my biggest brother, Will, with long curly hair and a wide grin - but not so tall as he ought to be at fourteen. Jimmy's taller, and he's so cool. With one easy grin, he can make you do anything - fetch his coat; give him your sweets. Be a lookout when he wants to pull a prank. At least, that's how it used to be. All of a sudden, he's too old and I'm too young. I don't get it. What changed? And how did the gap between us get to be so big? I try not to let him see how much it hurts when Jimmy shoves me away from him or tells me to run and play. Crying is for girls, or something that you do when you're all alone and it doesn't matter if your eyes get red and puffy or your cheeks are all wet...

The scowl on my face makes Mac take a step backwards and I hide it quickly, blocking the bad thoughts. "Come in," I tell him, pulling the door wide and letting him step past me. No harm in sticking my tongue out when he can't see me, though.

He stops at the table. "Nice picture," he says, like some adult who doesn't really mean it. I stare at him in silence, hating him. You stole my brother.

"Thanks," I say, and I don't mean it either. I slip back into my seat and go on with my drawing. Mac stands next to me in silence, looking uncomfortable. I guess he thinks I don't want to talk but, in my mind, I'm looking for the right words. My brothers are keeping a secret from me. I can tell by the way they whisper together at night, in our room. They think I'm asleep, when really I'm hiding under the covers, breathing carefully and trying not to sneeze when the blanket tickles my nose. I listen hard but they're too good, and I can't pick up much of anything except the fact that they are up to something. I want to know what it is. And Mac Taylor is the key.

"Where you going?" I ask him casually, not even daring to look him in the eye in case he sees my eagerness. I'm on my third building now. It's short and skinny, and ugly. I add bars to the windows and turn it into a prison; somewhere I can put all the people that hurt me. The thought makes me grin and I look up at last.

Mac's hands are loose by his sides but they're awful twitchy. Something is bothering him. No need to worry that he'll guess what I'm after - he's too busy trying to hide his own feelings. Now I'm even more suspicious.

"We're going out with Will," he says finally, and his cheeks are pink like mine get when Mom checks to see if I've washed my hands. "You know - on his round. Delivering the Tribune."

I don't bother to point out that Will does that first thing every morning. Instead, I nod like I believe his lies. "Okay," I say. Putting down my pen, I pick up a pair of scissors. Mac watches curiously as I start to cut my finished picture into strips. I wait for him to ask, but he doesn't. When I take the first strip and cut it into careful squares, he nods and grins that dumb wide grin of his.

"It's a jigsaw," he says.

"So what?" I mutter.

"I like jigsaws."

Good for you. Is he trying to be my friend? I stop cutting for a moment and give him my very best glare; the one I learned from Dad, that works so well on Mom when she won't stop bossing him about.

It doesn't work on Mac. "I like all kinds of other puzzles too. Do you?"

"Some." I go back to cutting my squares. As they drop on the table, they fall into random piles. I swirl them around with my hand and mix them up even more.

"What's your favourite?"

"Hangman, okay?" I don't really want to answer him, but maybe if we keep talking I can slip in another casual question; one that'll throw him off his guard this time. "So, hey - when you two go out with Will, are you gonna be helping him with that other thing of his?" I try to sound big and important, like I know what I'm talking about.

Mac eyes me silently.

"What thing is that?" he says - and I swear, there's guilt in his voice. Guilt and worry. Whatever it is, I can tell that he doesn't like it. I wish I was big so I could pick him up and shake the truth out of him.

"Oh, you know," I answer casually. "The secret."

My jigsaw is all cut up by now and I turn to face him.

Instead of answering, Mac seems to be thinking. Maybe he's going to tell me. I hold my breath.

"My neighbour had a secret," he says. Okay, weird start. Folding my arms, I listen as he carries on. "Kelly. She was my best friend at the time - we were eight - and she kept disappearing at school. She wouldn't tell me why and I was worried so, one day, I followed her."

Now I'm hooked. I nod. "Go on," I say.

"I tailed her through the corridors, all the way to an empty classroom, out of the way. The door was open, just a crack, so I looked through. And that's when I saw - she was having extra lessons. Reading and writing, baby stuff. I never knew..." He frowns. "Kelly looked up from her book and she saw me at the door. I turned away but it was too late. There's no way to un-know a secret. And Kelly never spoke to me again."

"That's dumb. Why not?"

Mac shrugs. "Maybe she was embarrassed. And, you know, I broke her trust. That was wrong."

"But you found out the secret." A new idea is growing in my head. Mac isn't going to tell me; that much is clear. But he's given me the answer all the same...

"Can I try your jigsaw?" he asks, in a lame attempt to change the subject.

"Sure," I say calmly, and I offer him my seat. At the same time, I hear a key turn in the lock and I know that Will and Jimmy have come home.

Time to put my plan into action. After all, Mom's asleep. She'll never know if I follow them. No one will.

After tonight, there'll be no more secrets.

-xx-

A/N: Here are my prompts. The story had to involve Mac Taylor and Drew Bedford (Andy). They had to be alone in a room together. Mac had to be worried/concerned and he had to mention a childhood memory.

My initial approach was going to be far more straightforward as there was a very obvious way to put those prompts together. In the end, however, I decided to try something a little more interesting and write the whole thing as a childhood tale in itself, from Andy/Drew's perspective. I hope you enjoyed the result! What happens next can be found in the season 4 episode 'The Thing About Heroes'. (Watching the flashbacks again really helped me with this story.)

Coming up next, in a couple of weeks - the return of Adam, and some festive fun...