The light in Sternbild was the chameleon kind. In the city center it washed over its citizens in a calming brightness, gleaming off statues and illuminating the commercial districts where its workers commuted; in the alleys the light was damp, trickling down the grimy sidewalks and rising like a muted steam from the manholes and the gutters.
In Nathan's penthouse suite, the light was harsh, sharp, and exacting. Barnaby stood, looking out the window, as the light made twin bright slants through the Japanese-style blinds, bouncing off marble and landing at precise angles to artfully light up the corner of Nathan's bed.
It was probably planned that way. Nathan if nothing had an eye for detail.
Barnaby dressed. He paused only to glance at himself at the mirror: reddened eyes and dark circles, his hair falling in limp pieces around his face. He pulled on his shirt and turned, leaving the bedroom and quietly closing the door.
If one were to ask Barnaby what happened, he would not be able to answer.
It was about a month ago, and the old man was spacing out again: Barnaby watched, at turns irritated and transfixed, as Kotetsu fiddled with his wedding ring. It was a nervous habit, probably, something the older man did after a particularly grueling battle or before a pumped up enemy his partner was unsure he could take. "Stop it," Barnaby said.
"Stop what?" the old man turned.
Barnaby pushed up his glasses. "If you're so senile you don't realize it, it's not my place to tell you."
"Aw, Bunny. You're in a bad mood."
"I am not," Barnaby said. Kotetsu clapped him on the back.
"Let me make it up to you," Kotetsu said. "Like Antonio always said: a good ass-kicking warrants a good beer drinking! Especially if the asses kicked were mine." Kotetsu paused thoughtfully but didn't move his hand. "Ne Bunny. If Sky High wasn't there to catch us, we'd be out of luck, huh?"
Barnaby pushed him off.
He didn't know at the time that Nathan had been watching him; he had been too tired and flustered to realize that Nathan had been standing there the entire time, hanging up the rest of his Fire Emblem costume and putting on his make-up. So when Barnaby made it out of the locker room, he was taken by surprise when Nathan said, "you like him."
"What?" Barnaby said.
"I can see by the way you look at him: you're infatuated," Nathan said. The consonants seem to stretch luxuriously into his vowels. "A girl can always tell."
"I have no idea what you mean," Barnaby said, but before he could turn the corner Nathan caught his arm.
"What?" Barnaby said, but Nathan's face had changed.
"It's a hard thing, trying to hide it," Nathan said. "Someday someone's going to out-scoop your secret, and your partner will find out in the most humiliating of ways. My advice is to embrace it," Nathan said, but Barnaby shook him off.
"You shouldn't hide," Nathan said. Barnaby continued down the hall.
It was at a dinner with the others that Barnaby couldn't keep lying to himself.
The others were laughing. Antonio was pounding drinks while Sky High laughed and the old man made an idiot out of himself, hands and arms out in ridiculous gestures as he told his story. Barnaby sat a few seats away from them at the bar, preferring to watch quietly as he sipped his drink.
Kotetsu's sleeves were rolled up: Barnaby noticed how the fabric seemed to ride up the muscle of his bicep. He could see each sinew and attachment, the deep groove of the muscle belly to the crook of Kotetsu's elbow. He gestured again and Barnaby could trace the way Kotetsu's veins were mapped along his skin, or at the strong line of his shoulder and broadness of his back, the result of years of beating or training or both.
This was the man who saved him. The one who saw the darkest parts of his soul and reached out for him when he was lost in the dark.
But the wedding ring gleamed, and Barnaby looked back down at the bar.
There was a lull in the conversation when Kotetsu finally seemed to notice. Face flushed, he moved toward Barnaby and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Oi Bunny. You're awfully quiet today. Come on! Tell them what happened."
Kotetsu's fingers were strong and deep against the groove of Barnaby's shoulder. "You already told them," Barnaby said. "I don't have anything to add."
"Ha! Of course you don't!" Kotetsu said, and he clapped Barnaby again, a friendly, brotherly clap, and Barnaby watched darkly as the old man tossed back another drink. There was a shadow just beyond the collar of Kotetsu's shirt, and Barnaby could see the beginnings of Kotetsu's left collarbone and the deep groove at the hollow of Kotetsu's throat.
He left. Gave a quick goodbye before stuffing his hands deep into his pockets, trying to avoid his partner's eyes.
"He isn't like us," Nathan said one morning, when it was just the two of them at the command center and Barnaby working out at the gym.
"Gay," Nathan said, and Barnaby could swear the camp act dropped a little bit, the word harsh and stark like a splash of blood spattered on a white wall.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Barnaby said. He moved to a different machine, concentrating on increasing the strength on the rungs.
"I understand why you're not out to the public. It's a perfect image you're cultivating, I get that. By why not come out to us?" Nathan said. "You're among friends here. Hell, you could just come out to me. I promise you, it'll make you feel better."
The machine clanked loudly. Barnaby glared.
"You haven't denied it," Nathan said.
"It isn't any of your business," Barnaby said, and stood.
Barnaby was not used to dealing with people. Dealing with the old man was aggravation enough, in the beginning. His constant questions, his fatherly concern. Kotetsu was the first person who truly cared about him. It wasn't like this, this shameless need for gossip or forced camaraderie. "Leave me alone," Barnaby said, again.
Nathan looked at him sadly, and for once the garish lipstick and the overwrought eyeshadow didn't look so ridiculous, nor did the man underneath the caked-on layers of makeup. He looked at him the way a mother would look at him, or a friend would look at him, except that Barnaby had neither and his only friend in the world was now the object of a stupid crush.
Kotetsu went back home to visit his daughter, and Barnaby was alone with his thoughts. His apartment was empty, and as the sun began to set, it was as if everything around him was being swallowed up with shadows, the long streaks of sunlight fading into an umber grave.
"Yoo-hoo! Handsome! Knock knock, I know you're in there."
Barnaby sighed, then went and opened the door.
Nathan fluttered inside; the man sparkled, if there was ever such a thing, bold sweeps of pink eyeshadow glowing from his eyelids. "What do you want?" Barnaby said.
"Dinner and a date, of course. It's a Friday." Nathan caught the door before Barnaby could close it again, muscling his way into Barnaby's apartment. "Hmm. Kind of drab, don't you think? It kind of lacks personality."
"I asked you, what do you want?" Barnaby said.
"I want to know why you've got that stick shoved up your ass, and it's not even a Saturday night," Nathan said. "Tell me, Handsome: top or bottom? I'm more of a topper myself, but honestly most people tend to switch it up.
I'm sorry, did that offend you?" Nathan said. "Because you're making such an exquisite face, and I'm worried it will give you wrinkles."
"Are you done?" Barnaby said. Nathan grinned.
"Honey, I'm only getting started," he said, and he pressed a carton of ice cream in Barnaby's hands and proceeded to sashay back inside.
Nathan's car was as fast as his outfit was loud, and when he dragged Barnaby to the club ("It's called 'Glitter'?" Barnaby said), he seemed to know half of everybody already there.
Nathan's plan was simple: get Barnaby's mind off of Kotetsu, either through sex or booze or both, and spending time at the most fabulous club in Sternbild should have kick started it. "Someone might see me," Barnaby said.
"Good," Nathan said.
Nathan didn't understand: Barnaby grew up with nothing but revenge on his mind, and friendship and romance were nothing but distractions. "It didn't even occur to me to think about this kind of thing," Barnaby said.
"But you knew, didn't you?" Nathan said.
"My parents were murdered," Barnaby said. "Me liking boys wasn't really at the top of my priorities.
What?" Barnaby said, because Nathan was grinning at him. The club was loud and he was getting irritated. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
Nathan grinned. "You're a virgin, aren't you?"
"I'm done," Barnaby said, and he took a step outside, pushing through the door.
"Oh c'mon, Handsome! You wouldn't have come if you weren't the least bit curious. You've never been kissed before, have you?" Nathan said. "How about I show you what it's like, first?"
"I'm going home," Barnaby said.
"Wait," Nathan said, and Barnaby turned.
Nathan's demeanor had completely changed. "He won't love you back," Nathan said.
"I don't know what you're-"
"Kotetsu," Nathan said. "Kid, I've seen it a million times. That man is your rock. Your world. When he turns you down, you'll be shattered. I just don't want you to do something stupid when that happens."
It was a curious thing, Nathan's voice. On a day-to-day basis, it was camp, fey, an exaggerated wink and a lisp with a touch of stardust. But now the theatrics were gone, and Nathan was watching him, concerned.
"I wasn't going to tell him," Barnaby said, quietly. Nathan nodded, and said nothing, motioning him to get into the car.
When Nathan talked about his past, he explained it thusly: "My legs were too long for my torso and I had terrible skin, and my voice would crack whenever I said certain words, and I just looked weird and funny and everyone thought kicking the fag was a fun way to spend the afternoon. And by the way, I accidentally burned down the school cafeteria. My childhood wasn't picnics and roses either, you know."
"Huh," Barnaby said. Nathan took a swig, then offered the bottle to Barnaby. Barnaby shook his head.
"So what did you do?" Barnaby said.
"Well what do you think I did! Threw it in their faces, all of them," Nathan said. He puffed up his chest, demonstrating. "I became more fabulous, more fucking flaming in more ways than one. And when they became even more uncomfortable I'd do something like this," and he proceeded to give Barnaby the bedroom eyes, inching into his personal space, "until the assholes got the hint that I wasn't going away."
His makeup was his war paint. One streak of glitter eyeshadow, another upward swipe of blush. Barnaby watched, transfixed, as Nathan painted on his mask, lips stained a deep plum red, before reaching to do his nails.
"Don't even try to pretend you're too good for this," Nathan said. He swiveled around, crossing his legs with a long, graceful arc. "I see the way you do your hair after a mission. Most men just towel it dry," Nathan said, and he wrinkled his nose. "Handsome. You curl your hair more than the girls do."
Barnaby's mouth quirked. Nathan batted his eyes and stood, one perfect wrist dropping elegantly as he walked.
Barnaby watched. It wasn't that he was uncomfortable, exactly, but something was bothering him. Evidently it was plain on his face, because Nathan turned and asked, "What is it? Spit it out already, you're giving yourself wrinkles."
"Are you...flirting with me?" Barnaby asked. Nathan laughed.
"Oh, sweetie, no. You act as if I have no options. And believe me, I have plenty of options." Nathan winked. Barnaby frowned.
"Who?" Barnaby asked, and Nathan stared at him, incredulous. "Antonio? Ivan?"
"Good lord, you really are stuck on the farm," Nathan said. "You do realize most of us date outside of work, yes?"
"Yes, but..." Barnaby frowned. He was out of his element again, and it irritated him.
"If you are wondering," Nathan said, slowly, "Just because you're gay doesn't mean I'm going to try to get in your pants. You're not my type," he said, and Barnaby nodded, relieved. "I prefer sweet and dumb to moody and brilliant, believe you me. I suppose if I had to pick someone from work, it would be someone like Sky High," Nathan said, and he sighed, wistfully. "The man is the biggest airhead on the planet, but you and I both know he's completely adorable."
Later, Nathan proceeded to harass the rest of the male members of the team, pinching Antonio's cheeks and batting his eyes at Ivan's butt.
The closet thing Barnaby ever had to a relationship was with a classmate at the Academy.
The boy he fell in love with wasn't too bright; his powers were weak and he was not talented in any other field to speak of. But he had a full, soft face and large wide eyes, and a calming, sort of soothing way about him that was different from the other students. Barnaby had lots of acquaintances but no real friends, and the boy's loneliness touched him. It reminded him of himself.
He never told anyone, and the boy never knew. Had no idea the strongest, most talented kid in the class secretly dreamed of soft skin and full lips, had wondered what it would be like to reach out and take the boy's hand.
Barnaby couldn't place when he started to find Kotetsu attractive. Not that he never thought Kotetsu was good-looking before, when you discounted his stupid beard or the way he goofed around or how he took his hero-ing business way too seriously.
But sometimes, the light would catch Kotetsu in a certain way, or he would stand in a certain position, or he would come out from a hard mission and he would remove his helmet to reveal soulful eyes and dark brown bangs, or he would catch the markings of an old but particularly vicious scar.
And every time, his breath would catch, and Barnaby would stop being able to think, stop being able to breathe, and every fiber of himself would tingle at the thought of a single touch.
He "accidentally" bumped into his partner on more than one occasion. More than enough times for Nathan to notice, and enough for Kotetsu to wonder if he had sustained a concussion or hurt his leg, somehow.
There was one time, after a particularly grueling mission, that Barnaby had walked Kotetsu home. Kotetsu was bruised and beaten and he walked with a considerable limp, having been fished out from a pile of broken concrete after being slammed into the factory wall.
It was a humiliating defeat. Kotetsu fell, body splayed out at weird angles and lying like a broken marionette, the remnants of his Hundred Power lasting barely one full minute before collapsing. At the time, Barnaby had said nothing, only stooping down to help his partner onto his feet.
He had never seen Kotetsu look so defeated. Slowly, Kotetsu pulled off his helmet, damp strands of hair sticking to his forehead, before discarding the breast plate and the rest of the armor on his suit, and despite himself Barnaby couldn't help but trace the way the sweat rolled down the side of Kotetsu's forehead, and at the dark bruise forming by Kotetsu's temple.
They walked silently; Barnaby said nothing about Kotetsu's powers, and Kotetsu seemed grateful for that. When they reached Kotetsu's apartment, Barnaby waited respectfully as Kotetsu fumbled for his keys, the fingers on his hand swollen and mangled.
"Want me to help?" Barnaby said, and he reached forward.
Their fingers brushed. Barnaby sucked in his breath. Suddenly he was aware of how close he was standing to him, the heat from Kotetsu's skin and the bruise on Kotetsu's lip. Reflexively, he wondered what it would be like if he were to lean just a little closer, if he would gently suckle at the tender swell of Kotetsu's lip. The thought made him dizzy and he had to catch himself, before fumbling with Kotetsu's keys.
"Oi," Kotetsu said. "You look out of it. You want to lie down?"
"No!" Barnaby said, and it startled him. "I mean, no. I'm fine. I'm just tired."
He turned, and started to walk down the porch steps when Kotetsu touched him on the arm.
Barnaby froze. It was like a million sparks tingling in his skin, making a heated path to his cheeks before spilling down further south. "I need to go," Barnaby said.
"You look like shit. Come inside."
But Barnaby pulled away, at once grateful for the thick suit and the length of his jacket, covering him. "You're annoying. Go to bed," Barnaby said, and he left before Kotetsu could see him.
That night, he fisted his hand over his cock, pumping so hard it hurt. When he came, it was with a harsh, guttural cry, shuddering and hunching over.
This was the reason why Barnaby rarely touched himself: the emptiness was not worth the fleeting pleasure of the preceding orgasm, and Barnaby squeezed his eyes, ashamed. He came with thick, white stripes, which landed on his chest and stomach, breathing hard and still clutching the remnants of Kotetsu's burned sash, when tears suddenly, but not unexpectedly, began to prick his eyes. Shakily, Barnaby rose to wipe himself off; he balled up the towel and threw it into the hamper with disgust, before stepping inside the shower.
"I don't understand," Nathan would say, weeks later, after he had guessed Barnaby's secret and proceeded to shatter his calm with his good intentions. "Why don't you come out? Why don't you say something?" Nathan said.
"Because," Barnaby said.
Because it could ruin his image. Because things like that do not happen to people like him.
Kotetsu was coming back. For a brief, panicked moment, Barnaby considered ignoring him altogether, but Kotetsu insisted he take his partner out to dinner. "Oi! Stop acting like a jerk and come out already!" Kotetsu said. "I missed you, okay? Just gimme a break and come over."
His heart was in his throat. Dinner was silent, but Barnaby managed to look more bored and disaffected than absolutely terrified, which was what he was feeling at that very moment. His heart thrummed like hummingbird wings and he was painfully aware of Kotetsu's every movement, the way he winked at the waitress or laughed a little too loud, or how the corners of his eyes creased when he smiled.
Idiotic. The whole thing was idiotic. Barnaby stared at his fork, which was suspended in mid-air, focusing his mind on the food in front of him.
"I'm in love with you," Barnaby said, softly. Kotetsu blinked.
Barnaby said nothing. He wondered what it was Kotetsu saw: inscrutible look, the light from the ceiling catching the lens of his glasses so that it obscured his eyes. Kotetsu blinked, then cocked his head.
"Sorry, Bunny, it's too loud in here. What did you say?" Kotetsu said.
He wasn't mocking him. Barnaby's hand was shaking. He stood.
"I'm sorry," Barnaby said. He pulled out his wallet and tossed the money on the table. "I need to go."
Barnaby strode out of the restaurant. His control was perfect. He was about to round the corner when Kotetsu cut him off.
"Hey!" Kotetsu said. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Barnaby said.
"You've been acting weird for weeks! Stop lying to me," Kotetsu said.
"It's none of your business," Barnaby said.
"Leave me alone!" Barnaby said. "You're always meddling. You're always sticking your nose in everybody's business! But you're not going to solve my problems, Kotetsu-san." Barnaby turned. "I don't think you can."
Kotetsu's eyes widened.
"Hey," Kotetsu said. "Hey, Bunny-"
"I said leave me alone," Barnaby said, and his power flared in taut bursts, before he hurled himself upward, launching up the walls and springboarding off the rooftops above them.
Nathan was painting his nails when Barnaby found himself on the outside of his penthouse, face blotchy and tear-streaked and leaning against the door.
Nathan took him in. He said nothing, just let him cry, hugging him tight and shushing quietly into his hair.
The next morning, Barnaby woke up in Nathan's bed, the curtains drawn and light streaming inside. His face felt taut and his skin felt drawn, and every cell in his body ached. Slowly he moved, pushing back the blankets, and only dimly surprised to find no one else there.
He took a cab to Helios. He wanted to talk to Nathan again, to try and sort everything out. It was a huge mess in his head, jumbled and confused and Nathan seemed to be the only one with any sort of insight. "Just be yourself," Nathan had said. "Don't give a fuck about what other people think. Life doesn't have a dress code, honey, so do whatever the hell it is that feels right. Believe me," Nathan said.
Barnaby believed him.
The receptionist at the desk was starstruck but also nervous, glancing back behind her shoulder and fiddling with the scheduling book. "Mr. Seymour is in a meeting. Do you have an appointment?"
"No," Barnaby said, and he hesitated. "He let me stay at his place. I only wanted to thank him."
"Oh." The receptionist smiled. "Well he should be coming out soon if you want to take a seat."
Barnaby sat. He hunched over, watching the men and women in business suits walking past him. Nathan was a CEO of his own company, and while the others sniggered and while Nathan himself only ever talked about the strip club he owned, no one really knew the extent of Nathan's assets. High ceilings, marble tile, two personal assistants and a full-time Hero gig to boot: "If only they could see me now," Nathan once said.
The doors opened. Slowly, businessmen filtered out of the conference room, filing papers into briefcases and shaking each others' hands, when out from behind them, Nathan walked out into the hall.
Barnaby's eyes widened. Nathan was not wearing any makeup.
Barnaby gaped. Not only was Nathan not wearing makeup, he was wearing a suit and tie, he was standing straight, and when he spoke he sounded nothing like he did around the others.
Barnaby's head spun. Nathan had said, Be yourself, be loud and proud. But come to find out, everything he said was horse shit.
The paperweight on Nathan's bureau gleamed in the afternoon light, and Barnaby startled when Nathan finally emerged from his meeting with his investors, shaking hands and chatting easily. "Barnaby," Nathan said, and the name sounded wrong, "What brings you here?" And Barnaby waited for the rest of the investors to trickle outside before following him in his office.
"What the hell was that?" Barnaby said. Nathan raised his eyebrows.
"That?" Nathan said. "That was a business meeting. Are you feeling better?"
He asked it as if he were referring to a stubbed toe or a common cold. Barnaby stared.
"How could you?" Barnaby said.
"I-are you angry with me? I don't think I understand," Nathan said. Barnaby seethed.
"You made me feel ashamed. You pressured me to do something I didn't want to do. And all this time you were doing the exact same thing," Barnaby said. "You said life doesn't have a dress code, but what the hell was that? Was everything you said to me bullshit?"
"You're upset," Nathan said. "You didn't get much sleep and you're probably still hung over. Just get some rest, I'll have my driver take you somewhere-"
"I told him and it's your goddamn fault."
Nathan sighed, then rubbed his temples, "I'm the one who told you to try and date other people, hun, you're getting yourself confused."
"You're a hypocrite," Barnaby said. "Walking around with that make-up and that voice and acting like you're so goddamn high and mighty and free, but look at you. You're as much in the closet as I am," Barnaby said, and he felt his voice rising to a fever pitch. "I hate you. You think you know everything. I can't stand the sight of you."
"Grow up," Nathan said.
Barnaby's eyes widened. It was like a slap to the face, but worse: Nathan was not the type of man to dignify his tantrum with such a gesture. "Would you wear a mini skirt to a job interview? No. Would you slut it up for your employers before a quarterly meeting? No. It's called being professional," Nathan said. His voice dripped acid. "Only an idiot would consider it otherwise."
There was a knock at the door. "Mr. Seymour? Your two o'clock is here."
"Just a moment," Nathan said.
"A moment," Nathan said, and the assistant shut the door.
"Look," Nathan said. "He didn't hear you. You told me so yourself. Consider yourself lucky. Other friendships have ended for less."
"I don't understand," Barnaby said. Nathan shook his head.
"He won't love you back," Nathan said. "At the most he might just feel awkward and the worst he may avoid you altogether. And don't tell me he might be bi," Nathan said. "You might win the lottery too, but the chances of that are slim to none."
"So what should I do?" Barnaby said. Nathan shook his head.
"Honey, how should I know? I'm late for my meeting. Just don't do anything stupid," Nathan said, and he disappeared behind the door.
In a perfect world, it would happen like this:
Barnaby would confess, and Kotetsu would be taken by surprise. Neither of them would speak, and Barnaby would rise, humiliated, in one hurried, awkward movement. He would rush out the door and down the alleyway, when Kotetsu would catch him by the hand.
This was how Barnaby imagined it. Their eyes would meet, and Kotetsu would take one long look, searching Barnaby's face. A strand of blond hair would fall over Barnaby's eyes, and Kotetsu would step closer, brushing it back. Barnaby's breath would hitch; Koetsu would ghost over Barnaby's lower lip with his thumb, before letting it dip into Barnaby's mouth.
They would crash onto the bed. Barnaby is unsure of the logistics but he could imagine how it would be, damp flushed skin and arms and legs tangling into each other, one man's mouth on the other man's jugular, a desperate, hungry movement. They would kiss hard and long and Barnaby would bend forward and take Kotetsu into his mouth, swiping his tongue along his glans and gasping at the muted taste of salt. And afterward, they would lie there, breathless from the aftershock of orgasm, and Barnaby would shyly confess that he loves him, that he's always loved him, and Kotetsu would smile and answer.
It doesn't happen this way, though.
The restaurant Barnaby picked was a quiet one, with only a few diners and a tired waitress with bags under her eyes. Barnaby sat still, muscles tense and completely on edge, as he waited for Kotetsu to arrive.
How could he explain it? How Kotetsu had muscled his way into Barnaby's life, knocking down the walls and throwing his arms around his aloof facade. Before, there was no loneliness, just the clarity of purpose driving him toward his goal.
But Kotetsu happened, and Jake happened, and in his darkest moments Kotetsu was there, letting Barnaby lean on him when he was weak. Stupid, eager old man. He spouted rainbows ad unicorns wherever he walked, and in his darkest moments Barnaby was convinced that he was no different, that to Kotetsu he was just another charity case, a luckless soul like Ivan or Blue Rose, just another young buck needing sunlight and good advice to help nurture and grow.
But there was one thing of which Barnaby was absolutely certain:
No matter what would happen between them, no matter what secrets Barnaby confided or what problems Barnaby shared, Kotetsu would be there for him. Kotetsu was family. And it was the first family Barnaby could consider his own.
"Oi, Bunny. What is it? You really have me worried. What's going on?"
Barnaby fiddled with his cup. Reflexively he imagined his hundred power activated, permeating his muscles and throwing him through the roof and up into the sky, and away Kotetsu and the hard questions inside. "Tell me," Kotetsu said. "What's wrong?"
Barnaby paused, then searched for his words.
"I'm gay," Barnaby said finally, and he waited for Kotetsu to answer.