Last place in Stern Bild didn't mean last place, literally. It meant "down there with Origami." The little guy was lucky - his bosses just wanted him onscreen, no matter how embarrassing his points tally was. Antonio had no such luck.
Antonio hadn't had any luck to speak of for years. Sometimes he wondered why he'd even moved to Stern Bild. California had treated him pretty well, all in all; he wasn't King of Heroes for LA or anything like that, but he'd come in as a solid runner-up several seasons running. But then his mother got sick, and he'd been sidelined with a knee injury at the time, and renting out his house and coming back east to help take care of her had seemed pretty reasonable; his sister still lived pretty close, but she had kids of her own. And Kotetsu had convinced him, once his mom was in remission and he'd recovered from the surgery, to try for the Stern Bild hero scene instead; he had a solid track record in a major city, he was a known quantity to several sponsors, so it was easy to get a Stern Bild launch.
Five years ago, now. He'd made a pretty solid showing that year, come in second, behind the Blue Streak. Looking back, he figured Maverick had been throwing softball criminals at him so he wouldn't have a disappointing rookie season. A lot of things like that made more sense now that they knew how much had been rigged. After that it had been a swift drop to the bottom. Whenever someone who outperformed him retired, he thought maybe this would be his year, but no; Nathan had replaced the Blue Streak, and while he didn't overtake her in first place, he'd hovered around the middle ranks ever since he debuted. Sky High replaced the Gray Ghost, and he'd gotten to King of Heroes in his second season and stayed there until Barnaby came along. Blue Rose and Dragon Kid were always duking it out for second or third, and Barnaby, well, no one could beat the Super Rookie. Outperforming Origami didn't count for much.
Now it was just him, down at the bottom, and Origami had actually outdone him on points - he'd gotten a lot better with his shuriken, and he could move pretty fast when he felt like it, which was pretty much the opposite of Antonio. He was actually dead last now. With Kotetsu retired, he was also the longest-term veteran in the cast, even if it hadn't all been in Stern Bild, and the oldest Hero.
The oldest hero, and completely washed up. Kotetsu had at least made King of Heroes before, and he'd had a good reason for his slump, even if he hadn't wanted anyone to know. And he'd turned it around later, when he and Barnaby partnered up. Antonio didn't have any of that. No glory days, no partner, no luck, no job, soon enough; his manager, Terry, had made it abundantly clear he was on thin ice. A heavily armored stone buffalo. On thin ice. You could hear it cracking from miles away.
"Hey, can I leave my car overnight?" Antonio asked the bartender.
"You already asked me that, man," the kid said. Jeez, bartenders looked like kids. When he first went out to LA they'd looked like... well, they tended to look like movie stars because a lot of them were aspiring actors, but they looked like adults. People he needed to impress. Prove to them he was old enough to order a drink. "Like an hour ago."
"Oh. You must have said yes if you didn't cut me off, huh?"
"Right," the boy said, grinning. "Think you need to call it a night?"
"One for the road," Antonio said. "Sidewalk. You know."
Antonio looked around the room while the kid poured his beer. Spinning a little, but he'd been here before. With Nathan, he thought. Wasn't too far from Nathan's place. One of Nathan's places. He had that mansion out in one of the nice edge-of-town neighborhoods where people had a lot of big yards and trees, and he'd talked about having a place on the beach, but he had a fancy apartment or something around here, didn't he? Hell, he probably owned the whole building. It was kind of annoying - not like Nathan had any reason to be a hero. It wasn't like he needed the money.
He'd go ask. It was late, he was in no shape to drive himself home, and he needed a place to crash. Nathan would put him up, he was pretty sure. Or give him a ride home in some car Antonio was way to drunk to fawn over like it deserved. He could always count on Nathan to grab his ass, and do nothing more than grab his ass no matter how drunk he got, and take care of him when he was completely shit-faced.
Was he shit-faced? He'd been working on it most of the night. Maybe this last beer would do it.
Antonio was at least a little unsteady on his feet as he wandered through the lobby of the building. The doorman had actually recognized him, go figure. He must have crashed here more than he'd realized. He stepped into the gleaming elevator, squinting at the buttons to find the highest number. 45? No, there was a P after that. That'd be it.
He leaned against the elevator's back wall, hands in his jacket pockets. Hi, Nathan, I'm feeling really sorry for myself, want to grope me so I know somebody likes some part of me? Then I'll fall asleep on your couch and drool all over throw pillows that probably cost as much as my first car. Maybe a little too honest. Not that it was all that hard to find things that cost more than his first car had. Had he actually kept the passenger door closed with duct tape, or was that just a joke he told about it later? Hi, Nathan, I promise not to puke in your bathtub this time. The elevator was all mirrors and gleaming metal and bright lights, enough to make him a little dizzy. He closed his eyes, which didn't help much. Damn, this thing took a while. Hi, Nathan. Why are you even a hero? I just realized I have no idea.
The muted chime as the elevator stopped jerked him out of a half-doze. Didn't getting drunk used to involve a fun, tipsy phase? Maybe that only kicked in when you were with people. Or at least not drowning your sorrows. He lurched out of the elevator before it could change its mind and went to the only door in the little lobby area.
He leaned against the doorjamb after he rang the bell. Might take a bit. It was late. Shit, what if Nathan had somebody over? That'd be awkward. Nathan's usual type was pretty much the polar opposite of Antonio, which made Nathan's thing about his ass that much harder to understand - unless it had just always been a joke all along, which was entirely possible - and also pretty much the polar opposite of the only type of guy Antonio had ever been interested in, so it wasn't like he was afraid he'd wake up next to someone unexpected. But he'd always made a point of knowing absolutely nothing about what his coworkers did in bed, or as close to nothing as he could get, and he really did not want to change that tonight.
When the door opened, he nearly fell through. "Oops," he mumbled.
"Antonio?" Nathan asked. Antonio blinked him into focus. Damn, Nathan had some shoulders on him. How come he'd never noticed that in the locker room? No makeup to speak of. He was pretty damn handsome without the eyeshadow. He was cut, too - he had those hip muscle things, what the hell were those called, leading down into the loose pajama bottoms he was wearing. They were all he was wearing. Oh, right, people liked you to look at their faces when you talked to them.
"Hey," he said, smiling.
"Do you know what time it is?"
"No?" Maybe he should have checked. "Late?"
"Come on in," Nathan said, wearily. He had a pretty respectable ass himself, Antonio noted as he followed. Maybe Nathan wasn't as far off from his type as he'd thought. "Is something wrong? It's been a while since I saw you get drunk by yourself."
"You should know. You were there."
"Okay, it wasn't the most graceful rescue, but none of those kids were actually hurt. And it's not like you were the one that threw the schoolbus. You caught it. You got rescue points!"
And then he got knocked off an overpass and left a crater so deep he broke a 48-inch water main. The sinkhole nearly swallowed up a car, and you damn sure didn't get points for saving people from problems you'd caused. "Still pretty sure my bosses aren't gonna be happy."
"Aww. Well, get some sleep, honey. Maybe it'll look better in the morning." Antonio sunk down onto the couch, feeling a little neglected, but Nathan yawned, and Antonio glanced across the room. Two-thirty. No wonder. "You need a blanket or anything?"
"I'll go find one." Nathan left, yawning again, while Antonio took off his shoes. Maybe it was just more personal, seeing him running around his own home in pajamas, compared to seeing him change in the training center, where Antonio was pretty busy not ogling anybody. Maybe he was just drunk enough that he wasn't trying not to look. Maybe it was beer goggles and he'd be back to normal in the morning.
Nathan woke that morning feeling vaguely guilty. By the time he sat up and stretched, he'd remembered.
Poor Antonio. He'd had a rough night of it, points or no - though the rescue points would do his standing a world of good - and Nathan had barely been able to get his eyes to focus, let alone be comforting. Of course, part of the reason for that was that Antonio had gone off to comfort himself first, but it wasn't like Nathan couldn't see that hadn't worked.
At least, he could see it when his eyes were all the way open. In other words, not at two in the morning. Now, he was just fine, and he could fully appreciate the sight of Antonio stretched out shirtless and face-down on his couch, blanket draped over one leg, even if he did nearly trip over the heap of clothes on the floor by the couch. He considered whether it would be wrong to take advantage, but really, it wasn't like he was doing anything to hurt Antonio if he leaned over him, ran one hand down his spine, enjoying the damn-near-sculpted effect of his back, and gave his ass a loving squeeze. Or if he then leaned over and nibbled on the edge of his ear.
"Mm," Antonio mumbled into the couch cushion. "I can think of worse ways to wake up."
"Oh, so can I, darling," Nathan purred into his ear, just in case Antonio was groggy enough not to know who was doing this. "But I thought it was supposed to be hands off your fiery-"
"Shouldn't you be the fiery one?" He yawned, propped himself up on an elbow, then changed his mind and flopped back down.
"I'm getting the impression you don't mind?" This time it was more like a caress than a grab. A long, lingering caress.
"Unless you've got a boy stashed in the bedroom or something."
"Excuse me. I sleep with men." So was Antonio shifting in discomfort, or something else?
"Not what they look like to me."
"Whuh?" Antonio halfway rolled over, though unfortunately he brought the blanket with him when he did so it draped over his front.
"You think I only take home cute young things you could bench-press, so those are the ones you remember seeing me with. You don't bother to recall the heavyweight boxer, or the rugby player..." he sighed nostalgically, "or the two different cops, or-"
"Okay, okay, fine, I don't need the full list."
"Besides, do you think I would have been asleep when you got here if I'd had someone over?"
"You seem to assume I was thinking."
Nathan chuckled, sitting back on the floor. "How silly of me."
Antonio heaved himself to a sitting position, and Nathan feasted his eyes on a lot more chest hair than he normally got to see. "Today's gonna suck," Antonio said. "Thanks for letting me crash here, Nathan. I never even thought of calling a cab."
"You wouldn't have gotten such a delightful wakeup call if you'd done that."
"True," Antonio said, and it took Nathan a second to process that syllable. Seriously?
"There's more where that came from," he offered, with a wink, and Antonio still didn't produce the expected spluttering and protests. Instead, he reached out and ran his hand over Nathan's jaw, stopping at his chin, and Nathan might have forgotten to breathe for a second.
"I've never seen you with stubble," he said, and Nathan smacked his hand away.
"You are just cruel," Nathan protested, standing up and heading for the bathroom with the most exaggerated, hip-swaying sashay he could muster under the circumstances.
"Stubble's not bad," Antonio called after him, loud enough to be heard through the door, but Nathan wasn't going to answer that. Maybe it wasn't inherently bad - it could be sexy enough on certain guys, who weren't Nathan - but he didn't like having it or being seen with it.
More to the point, though, something was up with Antonio. Nathan had thought for a second that Antonio was going to go in for a kiss when he'd touched Nathan's face. No, Antonio wasn't straight, but all the relationships he'd ever mentioned had been with women - which wasn't many, he hated talking about that kind of thing - and when he slept with men, from what Nathan had seen, he always went for the big, macho types. Never anyone like Nathan, who felt kind of naked without makeup. He didn't seem to fall for guys, and usually Nathan didn't sleep with people he'd been friends with for years unless he was going for something more, which seemed pretty unlikely with Antonio.
Well, hell, he thought as he shaved. Just because he didn't usually do something didn't mean he couldn't. It wasn't like he was pining after Antonio or anything. What was a little casual sex between friends? He'd go out there, seduce Antonio, get whatever it was out of his system, and fortify him for the day ahead. Which did, indeed, sound like it might be pretty unpleasant. The water main breakage had left several blocks of Silver and Gold without water for hours, in the evening no less, and Kronos had been twitchy about him for some time.
When Nathan emerged from the bathroom, though, he found Antonio fully dressed and holding his keys in one hand and a glass of water in the other. "I gotta go," Antonio said.
"What, already? You don't need any aspirin or anything?"
"There's some in the locker room at work."
"Breakfast?" Nathan had liked his plan. Especially the element of surprise. You didn't just announce you were seducing someone, just like you didn't tell them what was in the present before they unwrapped it. He'd really been looking forward to the unwrapping part.
"No time. Terry already left me two messages. Thanks again for letting me crash here," Antonio said, polished off the water in one gulp, and let himself out.
Nathan didn't need to call himself stupid out loud, for the benefit of his empty apartment, but it did help give vent to his feelings a bit.
You didn't spend four years groping a man's buttocks without giving some thought to having sex with him, especially not if you were Nathan Seymour. He'd given ample thought to that. He'd also given some thought to an actual relationship, around the time he'd spotted Antonio in a gay bar and realized that all that grumbling about ass-grabs really had been about the fact they were in public.
And his conclusion had been that it wouldn't work. Antonio liked women, frequently and openly if not usually successfully; men seemed to be kind of a bonus side dish for him, and Nathan was nobody's side dish. Nathan was the main event, always. Straight boys were trouble, bi guys who didn't think that's what they were were only marginally less so, and Nathan was through with that phase by the time he had his MBA. He could appreciate that masterwork of an ass and be friends with its owner without falling in love.
So it was best just to put all of this out of his mind and go about his day. Which he did, successfully, until he stepped out of a merchandising meeting to find two missed calls from Antonio.
"How bad is it?" he asked without preamble when he called Antonio back.
"Pretty damn good! They actually filmed me accepting this big thank-you card the kids on the bus made me. And I'm not fired." Antonio was grinning on the screen, and Nathan could see one drill, so he must have just left his appearance.
"Darn, so you won't be living on my couch."
"It'd save on my house payments," Antonio said. "But nah, not just yet. Hey, can I buy you dinner?"
Nathan wondered if that wording had been deliberate. It hadn't been hey, let's go get dinner, like he might have expected, but could have just meant he didn't want to let Nathan pay. "Someplace that serves a lot of dead cow, I'm guessing. You cannibal."
"Hey, I eat all kinds of dead animals."
Nathan chuckled. "When should I pick you up?"
"I could pick you up..."
"Honey. No. No one else drives when I'm in the car. Will you be at the Kronos building?"