.

.

Keith groans, then rolls over on the bed. His head is throbbing. For some reason, he's lying crooked on top of his bed, and he isn't under the covers. The television is on, but he doesn't remember watching it.

"And now, breaking news. Footage of a wind-powered NEXT, wreaking havoc on Sternbild city. More on the story, after the break."

Keith reaches over and fumbles for the remote, before switching off the television. His eyes crack open and sunlight seems to sear into the back of his retinas, and Keith groans, shielding his eyes with his arm.

He rolls over. The time is 11:00 AM. His shirt is yanked up to his armpits and his pants are unbuttoned.

Keith jerks upright. Yes: his pants are unbuttoned and partially unzipped, and his bare chest is exposed: there are lipstick marks on his chest, one lip-shaped print on his stomach and another one planted squarely above his left nipple.

There's a sound, something clattering in the kitchen. Keith freezes. It could be John, but it sounds like someone's cooking something. He's in battle mode when the bedroom door finally opens.

"Yoo-hoo! Lover boy," Nathan says.

The bedroom sheets are tangled. There's a feather boa lying unceremoniously on the floor.

xXx

.

Nathan is laughing his ass off.

Sky High is spinning around the room like a bull in a china shop, and for the life of him Nathan can't calm down. It is entirely too entertaining: all at once Sky High is trying to straighten the sheets, button his pants, wipe off the lipstick and pull down his shirt, except the movements are spastic and wild and Nathan is vaguely afraid the poor dear will pop an aneurysm, or at the very least trip and hurt himself in the chaos. "Sit down, sit down," Nathan said. "Let Mother Nathan take care of you."

"Mr. Nathan, what happened? Why are you here? Why am I dressed like this?"

"Why do you think?" Nathan says. Purrs, really, letting the implications ooze off his tongue.

"Were we-" and Sky High's voice cracks, just a little, "-intimate?"

And Sky High rushes to finish, "-not that there's anything wrong with being intimate! Love between two men is a beautiful, wonderful thing! But...but I'm attracted to women," Sky High says. His voice is very small. He looks around.

"Where is John?" Sky High says.

xXx

.

It was nearly 1 AM when Nathan sashayed home from the club, slinging his purse over his shoulder and twirling his keys in his hand. Nathan was looking forward to a long, luxurious soak in the tub, after which he would paint his toes a fiery red. Yes, Nathan mused. He certainly would.

His car was parked a few blocks down, but Nathan took the long route, opting to walk toward the department stores where the billboard of Barnaby was hanging: somehow Handsome had snagged a comfy underwear modeling contract, and the latest and greatest was a larger-than-life billboard of Barnaby in black-and-white, reclining on the floor with a pair of boxer briefs pulled suggestively low on the hips. It was Nathan's most favorite billboard yet, and he fully intended to get a proper picture this time, wanting to save it on his cellphone before Barnaby could deny it ever existed.

He turned a corner, ready to snap a picture of Barnaby's advertisement with his cellphone, when he saw a man lying in a heap by the dumpsters. "Sky High!"

Sky High was passed out, face-flat on top of a pile of cardboard boxes and half-empty garbage bags. Nathan rushed forward.

For a brief moment, Nathan was afraid the boy scout's late night patrols finally got the better of him, but on closer inspection, he didn't appear injured. In fact, he smelled something like alcohol and red bull, and Nathan frowned. Grunting, he hefted Sky High over his shoulder, dragging him across the alley and to where his car was parked.

He found Sky High's keys still in his pockets; his apartment was closer than Nathan's flat, and besides, Nathan was curious to see how a boy scout lived. Dumping Sky High on the bed, Nathan paused a moment at the doorway, about to turn off the lights when a devious idea hit him.

Nathan would never molest a drunk man in his sleep. Nathan was too suave for that: beautiful men threw themselves at Nathan's feet every day, there was simply no need. Pranks, on the other hand, were absolutely on the table.

First, he pulled up Sky High's shirt, yanking the hem to his chin and exposing his chest. Sky High's chest was perfectly shaped, his skin was perfectly smooth, and the top button of Sky High's pants exposed the waistband of his undershorts, which were adorably, but not surpisingly, of the tightie whitey variety.

He looked at Sky High, admiring his handiwork.

Nathan considered. He unbuttoned Sky High's pants, then unzipped the zipper for good measure.

xXx

.

"John?" Nathan says. "I thought you said you were straight." Keith ignores him, rushing around the bedroom.

"John! John! Come here, boy! Come here!" Keith looks in the living room and in the kitchen, Nathan following him, frowning.

"Oh no," Keith says. "Oh, no, oh no..."

"What? Sky High, what is it?"

And Keith whirls around.

"Mr. Nathan! I've lost John!"

He runs around the apartment, frantic and practically flash-stepping to all corners of the room, bursts of whip-like wind speed threatening to break the rest of his furniture. "You need to calm down," Nathan says.

But Keith can't calm down. John is missing. John is missing and it's his fault. He squeezes his eyes while Nathan rummages through the cabinet, pulling out a glass and filling it with water.

"Here. Take a Tylenol. Here's a glass of water. Drink that. All of it," Nathan says. "And here's a banana for the electrolytes. It'll help the headache."

"Headache?" Keith says. Nathan huffs.

"For the hangover, darling. You're panicking too much to realize it, right now."

Keith swallows the Tylenol, then drinks the water. His eyes are burning. He can't stop thinking about John.

"I found you outside a dumpster near Mercy Park," Nathan says. "You were passed out. At first I thought you were injured, but you reeked of sweat and alcohol, and it didn't look like you were drugged," Nathan says. "I don't know how you ended up like that."

"But what about John?" Keith says.

Nathan sits down heavily beside him, then presses a hand on his shoulder.

"I think I might know where he is," Nathan says.

xXx

.

They return to the alley where Nathan found him, and Keith jumps out of the car, searching. "John! John! Here boy! Come here!"

He searches around, frantically, while Nathan waits by the driver's side door.

"Are you sure he was here?" Keith says.

"Sweetheart, you were carrying a leash," Nathan says. "In any case, John is a smart dog. He wouldn't have gone very far."

They walk down the street, searching. Keith walks a few paces ahead, fighting the images of John shivering in the cold or getting hit by a car.

"Oh no!" Nathan says. He stops, suddenly. "Sky High, what did you do?"

Keith looks up. The billboard of Barnaby's underwear ad is shredded, a huge, man-sized hole punched through the center of Barnaby' crotch.

"I need to fly," Keith says. He turns to Nathan, pleading. "If I fly upward, I might get a better viewpoint. I might be able to find him."

"You can't," Nathan says. "You can't have anyone find out you're a NEXT."

"I have to try," Keith says, but something barks.

Keith looks up. John is shivering on top of a very high ledge, thirty stories above the ground.

"John!" Keith says, and he vaults upwards.

There isn't much room to maneuver on the ledge of the roof, but Keith manages to carry Nathan all the way up in a single burst, dropping the other man on the rooftop and falling to his knees.

"John! John you're safe!"

John barks. Keith hugs him, tight. "Oh John, I'm so sorry," Keith says.

Nathan is frowning. He steps beside Keith, then pats John on the head.

"Why on earth did you leave him up here?" Nathan says.

xXx

.

His master came home late that night, but this wasn't anything new: his master's job was busy and very important, and John had already discreetly used the bathroom on the pile of newspaper his master laid down on the kitchen floor. John was a good boy; his master told him so. So when the door unlocked, John was surprised to see another man hauling his master forward-Rock Bison, one of his master's friends-before dumping him unceremoniously on the couch.

"I'm fine," his master was saying. The man was shaking his head, but his master continued, "Mr. Bison, I promise I'm fine!" His eyes were wide, wild; his hair seemed to stand up on all ends with a frenetic energy.

John whimpered. He sniffed the man's hand, then licked his master's fingers as a greeting.

The man left, and his master was acting odd. He was moving in jerky, spastic movements; his eyes darted. It was like someone hopped up on drugs, like the ones his master arrests sometimes, jerky, spastic men with white-tipped noses and beady eyes.

"Come on, boy, I feel like a run!"

John's ears perked. He ambled slowly beside him, his tail thumping, slowly.

"Here we go," his master said, and he fastened on the leash. John sniffed. His master was acting strange. His words were jumbling together, like a deck of cards spilling onto the table, disordered and chaotic. But John yawned and stood up, tail wagging. He followed his master outside.

They never jogged this late at night. John sniffed, smelling the cold air and the faint burnt smell of gasoline as he trotted along. His master started jogging faster. John tried to keep up.

"C'mon, John! I feel energetic! Like I can take over the world!"

His master started running. John was sprinting. He couldn't keep up.

"John! John! This isn't doing it for me, boy! This isn't cutting it!"

He was running at full sprint. John could barely keep up.

"We need to go faster, John! We need to fly!"

What?

"We need to fly, John! C'mon! Let's fly!"

And all at once, his master scooped him up and vaulted him into the air.

John barked. He barked and they flew and he barked and his master turned somersaults, clutching John firmly against his ribs.

"Yeah, John! We're flying! We're flying!"

John whined. He would have struggled but he was a million feet off the ground, and John was not dumb enough to try to move.

They passed a billboard. John whined. He recognized his master's friend: the one his master called Barnaby, posing without any clothes on. His master's grip tightened. John whined. Slowly, they landed on a ledge thirty stories above the ground.

"I hate that billboard!" his master said. He set John down carefully, taking off his leash. "Now you wait here, John! I'm going to take a closer look at it!"

John whined. The wind was cold. They were very high.

"Don't worry, boy! I'll be right back."

John barked, but his master launched forward, zipping fast before ramming head first through the giant billboard.

The wind blew. Everything was quiet. John whined, then curled up into a ball against the brick. He pawed at the ledge, then tried not to look at how far up he was from the ground.

xXx

.

"You were really drunk," Rock Bison says.

"Drunk?" Keith says. They're standing in the middle of the gym, Rock Bison doing reps on the stack machine while Blue Rose stretches on the mat. "How can this be? I do not drink. I only drink shirley temples."

"Yeah right," Blue Rose says. She towels off her face, walking past them. "You were chugging down red bulls and a bunch of girly drinks. Seriously, it was really gross."

"It was my fault," Rock Bison says. "You seemed really depressed. I'd never seen you like it."

"Yeah, and Rock Dumbass over there thought a couple of Agwa Bombs would cheer you up," Blue Rose says.

"I see," Keith says. The door opens. Kotetsu and Barnaby walk inside.

Keith's eyes widen. They're sporting black eyes and cuts on their arms and faces: Barnaby's upper lip is swollen. Kotetsu has a bandage around his head. Keith jumps up, alarmed.

"Mr. Tiger! Mr. Barnaby! What happened?" Keith says. Kotetsu jumps back; Barnaby takes a stance.

"Mr. Tiger?"

"Oi oi oi, I already said I'm sorry!" Kotetsu says. "Look let's just be calm, use our words, and just think things rationally, okay?"

"But-"

"Just think things rationally!" Kotetsu says, before grabbing Barnaby by the arm and yanking him outside the gym door.

"What happened?" Keith says. He turns, looking at Blue Rose and Rock Bison, alarmed.

"You beat them up," Rock Bison says.

"I beat them up? Why? How?"

"Because you guys are morons," Blue Rose says, and she proceeds to tell them what happened.

xXx

.

She was getting ready to go on-stage when she saw it: Rock Bison and the old man Kotetsu, tossing back drinks and laughing with flushed faces. Idiots. They were clearly drunk, or at least very close to it, and it really wasn't very attractive.

"And they were going on and on about which was better, hundred man strength or impenetrable skin," Blue Rose says. She takes a drink from her water bottle, remembering. "Of course stupid Tiger had to start yelling. 'Hundred Man Power is the best power!'and stupid Bison had to go and argue with him. And then they were punching each other," Blue Rose says.

"Little better than children," Nathan says. Keith leans forward, listening.

"And then what?" Keith asks. Blue Rose shakes her head.

"Well Bison goes, 'Oh, well my skin can withstand your hundred man punch!' And Tiger was like, 'Let's see if we can do it!' And then Bison stood there with his power, letting Tiger punch him over and over," Blue Rose says. "It was so stupid. Bison was standing there grinning like an idiot while Tiger kept hitting him, he was all, 'see? My skin can totally take it!'"

"And then you got involved," Rock Bison says.

"How?"

"You wanted to know if his power measured up to ours," Rock Bison says.

"Not in a fist fight," Kotetsu said. "It might be hard to hit you, but once we do! BAM! No more Sky High."

"You insult me, Mr. Tiger! I could take you if I tried!"

"Yeah right," Kotetsu said. He tossed back another drink, then wiped his mouth with the side of his arm. "Maybe Bison over there. But no way you could take it," Kotetsu said. "My power would split your insides in half! It'd be like getting run over by a dump truck, seriously!"

"You guys are idiots," Blue Rose said. Sky High stood.

"Then we should make it fair! How about without our powers?" Sky High said.

"How about what?" Kotetsu said.

POW. Kotetsu pitched sideways, the brunt of Sky High's fist making a sickening crack against Kotetsu's jaw. "What the hell are you doing?" Kotetsu said.

"Brawling!" Sky High said, happily. "Like you were doing with Mr. Bison a few minutes ago."

"But Bison has impenetrable skin! What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Punch me!" Sky High said. "Or see if you can try!"

"Oh now you're pissing me off," Kotetsu said, drunk and irritated and rubbing his nose. Sky High grinned. Kotetsu lunged forward.

"So it was mostly Tiger's fault," Rock Bison says. "Barnaby came in and he tried to intervene, but then he got caught up in the brawl. I had to use my power to break things up."

Keith puts his head in his hands, despondent. "Only a terrible person would willfully hurt his friends! Why didn't they subdue me?" Keith says. Rock Bison shakes his head.

"They probably didn't want to hurt you," Rock Bison says. "You got kicked out after that. I walked you home, but you were still pretty amped. I don't know what happened after that."

"Evidently he took a jog and left his dog on the roof of a thirty-story building," Nathan says. "He destroyed Handsome's billboard. I found him passed out in an alleyway shortly after."

"Goddamn red bulls," Rock Bison says. Keith slumps over, ashamed.

xXx

.

Because he feels sorry for Sky High, Nathan offers to drive him home. John jumps into the back seat and sticks his head out the window. "There's one question I haven't figured out," Nathan says. "Why did you go to the bar in the first place? It's not like you to go out drinking like that."

Sky High stares at his thumbs, as if choosing his words, carefully.

"A lot has happened," Sky High says. His eyes lift upward, looking at him. "I'd rather not talk about it."

"That's fine," Nathan says. He turns a corner. "For what it's worth, you're still a good hero. Even if Barnaby takes first place. Everybody knows this," Nathan says. Sky High shakes his head.

"Thank you, Mr. Nathan," Sky High says, and Nathan sees him smile.

xXx

.

It was getting late, but Keith still sat on the bench, the bouquet of roses wilting in his hands. It had been over a month since he last saw the girl, and he had been faithfully coming to this spot, hoping that she had a reason to stay away. But it was clear now that she wasn't coming. She probably never would.

Stupid. He was so stupid. He probably scared her, came on too strong. It was the story of his life, really.

He stood up. He dropped the bouquet of roses in the trash. Every week he bought a fresh bouquet while he waited, and this was the fifth one he bought. The fifth and last, most likely. He blinked hard at the darkening pavement, jaw clenched and ignoring the warmth gathering behind his eyes, which threatened to spill over in furious drops. But they didn't. He caught himself, gathered his bearings, and turned.

He needed a drink, needed to clear his head and get some air. He walked toward the bar with purpose, hoping one of the other heroes was already there.

end.