Kotetsu circled the dance floor three times for Barnaby. He checked in the back studio in case his partner had gone searching for him in return, scanned the other studios and the administrative office, (spent a little time encouraging a tearful Intermediate girl passed over for graduation, tutoring her in foxtrot until she felt better), and even hovered by the bathroom for a few minutes, just in case.
With no luck finding his partner, Kotetsu started tracking down and asking anyone who might help him. He asked Pao Lin and Karina if they had seen him, he asked Keith and Nathan if they had given him their keys, he wanted to ask Antonio, but with Molly in full paso doble nut mode, the most he could do was signal bunny-ears to his old friend, who shook his head. But then he asked Tanya, and she didn't know, and she she had ninja skills second only to Ivan, who was still hiding somewhere in the crowd. In hopes of rooting out the hidden hero, Kotetsu asked some unfamiliar faces if they knew where he might find a tall blonde man with curly hair and glasses, but no one could help him.
C'mon, Bunny, where are you?
The last Kotetsu had seen of Barnaby, he had been happy. Joyful, even, as he shouted Kotetsu's name after his tango. But then he vanished just before Kotetsu's graduation. What had happened in that span of time? If he had been recognized, the crowd should be buzzing that the great Barnaby Brooks Jr had attended. This night couldn't end before Kotetsu talked with his partner, at least to explain why he didn't talk about his hobbies at work. And the longer it took to find his partner, the more anxious Kotetsu got.
The ballroom floor gradually emptied as people gathered their friends and left. Kotetsu picked the heroes out of the crowd more easily now: Pao Lin and Karina were "dancing," Pao Lin leading as the two skipped around with little regard for whether the steps matched the song. Karina tried to count the time aloud, but their dance fell apart when Pao Lin attempted a princess-carry lift and the unprepared Karina half-shrieked, half-giggled, "Put me down! Nooo, put me down!" Then to the side, Nathan was flirting with Mahnaz; not sexually harassing him, because as far as Kotetsu could tell, the dancer enjoyed the attention, laughing and smiling.
Wait, Mahnaz is gay? Kotetsu froze for a split second, before continuing his search. Huh…
Kotetsu noticed Keith bouncing among the remaining dancers, begging them to share the secrets of the waltz, finding new teachers as old ones left. Eventually, he encountered Natalie, who started drilling him in the standard frame. Kotetsu interrupted them for a second, but neither had seen Barnaby. And Antonio and Molly were off the dance floor, talking, which impressed Kotetsu even more: little short of a natural disaster could get Molly's mind off her favorite dance, so if Antonio had managed the feat, he a strong chance of getting a new girlfriend. Considering how difficult it must have been to change her frequently one-track mind, Kotetsu resisted asking them again if they had seen Barnaby, especially since he should be getting easier to find as people vanished.
Losing hope, Kotetsu sat in an abandoned chair and surveyed the room. Where could Barnaby have gone?
"Look, um, Origami?" Kotetsu talked to the air, feeling a bit foolish, but out of options. "I promise I'm not mad. I'd like some answers, but… I mean… I'm really worried about Bunny right now. So… if you're one of these people still hanging around…"
A blue flash glinted out of the corner of his eye, and the chair at the end of the row transformed into the blonde hero. Kotetsu, rather understandably, freaked out.
"You—You were a chair? You can be a chair?!"
Ivan just nodded slightly. "I'm trying out a new way to use my power."
Swallowing hard, Kotetsu nodded, mind boggling with the possibilities of being able to change into objects. If we thought he was a sneaky ninja before tonight…
"You're worried about Barnaby-san?" Ivan took the seat beside Kotetsu.
"Y-Yeah," Kotetsu said. "I didn't see him at graduation, and no one else has, either. I think he might be upset about something, but I don't know what."
"He left after your performance."
"He left? Fire Emblem said he doesn't have a car!"
Ivan shrugged. "I didn't see anything else, but he left the studio after your tango with Molly-san."
"Do you know if anything happened after the tango? Anyone talk to him, or… something?"
Ivan shook his head. "I didn't see anything, but he's been a little strange all night. I think… this is my fault, Tiger-san."
He stared down at his shoes. "You promised you aren't mad, but… we found this place because we followed you from your home. We saw you leave your house, dressed very nicely, pick up a woman at her house, and give her flowers. So we all thought she was your girlfriend, and we tried to figure out how long you had been dating, how serious you were…" Ivan stopped and quickly backtracked. "But you aren't dating Molly-san at all! We were completely wrong!"
"I'll say," Kotetsu struggled to rein in his anger, as per his promise. But they invaded my privacy! Heroes don't do that! "But why did you decide to follow me in the first place?"
"You've been acting very strangely!" Ivan insisted. "Not meeting anyone outside of work, walking in strange lines, humming odd songs…"
"You noticed all that?" Kotetsu scratched at one of his beard-kitties. Dance practice and graduation had definitely been on his mind, but affecting his behavior that obviously?
"We were discussing it during training today, and I brought up that I had seen you meet Molly-san outside the Apollon building, and I'm the one who said she was your girlfriend. Then Fire Emblem-san and Blue Rose-san wanted to investigate, but it wasn't until Barnaby-san said he was worried about you that everyone joined in."
"Bunny was worried about me?" Kotetsu pointed at himself in disbelief, and Ivan nodded.
"At times when he thought no one was watching, he'd look lost in thought, and a bit sad. He might still think you and Molly-san are a couple."
"So is…" Kotetsu didn't even want to bring up the possibility that Barnaby might be jealous, because a part of him felt like that reaction from his partner was too good to be true. Now Kotetsu really had to find Barnaby. "Never mind. Thanks for telling me. And congrats on a new way to use your power. Even scared me."
"Sorry," the blonde mumbled, but Kotetsu laughed.
"Don't be sorry! That means it'll scare a criminal half to death!" He stood, heading for the exit. "If the others ask, I stepped out to look for Bunny, okay?"
He didn't hear the reply as he entered the cramped stairwell, taking the stairs two at a time down to street level. He hoped Ivan was right, hoped Barnaby hadn't found some other way to leave, hoped he wasn't angry, hope, hope, lots of hope.
Out in the street, Kotetsu scanned the parking lot, sparsely dotted with some stragglers' cars, faintly illuminated by a few tall streetlights. He quickly noticed someone sitting on the curb a few meters down the sidewalk, the only figure in the dark night.
"Bunny!" Kotetsu cried, approaching his partner. "How long have you been out here? You'll catch a chill!"
"It's not cold," Barnaby corrected him. And he was right; the night was mild, and between Barnaby's usual jacket and Kotetsu's tailcoat, neither felt the temperature.
"E-Either way… Graduation ended ages ago," Kotetsu sat down on the curb beside Barnaby, subtly glancing at his partner's face. His expression was blank. "You missed the ceremony."
"Did you graduate?"
"Of course!" Kotetsu gave Barnaby a thumbs up. "Molly, too! Only six of us graduated. We were so awesome!"
"Congratulations, then. That's very impressive."
Kotetsu frowned. What was with this cold, formal Bunny? He remembered what Ivan had said a few minutes before, about Barnaby's concern for him, and how everyone had operated under the assumption he and Molly were together. Did that really bother him as much as Kotetsu thought—all right, hoped—it did?
Before Kotetsu could say anything, Barnaby spoke up. "I heard about your previous partner. Carly?"
"Carlotta," Kotetsu mumbled.
"Right," Barnaby said flatly. "She had an injury, didn't she?"
"How long ago?"
Kotetsu thought. When had he first seen Carlotta in that wheelchair, shame and regret written all over her face as she explained the doctor's estimates? Her femur, a difficult bone to break, and even harder to heal. Kotetsu knew first-hand from years of hero-related injuries. "Four months ago, I think. It's healed, but she doesn't have the strength for dancing yet."
"You had four months to find another partner."
"Yeah, I did…"
"Why didn't you ask me?"
"Huh?!" Kotetsu's jaw dropped. "Bunny, you dance, too?"
"No," he admitted. "But I'm a quick study. I'm as strong as you, and there was no ban against same-sex pairs. We could have done it."
"Me, teach you all of ballroom and Latin in four months?"
"Just those four dances. We could have done it. One dance a month."
"I can't teach someone three years of Elite work in four months, no matter who. Even if we took that four months off from work."
"You still should have asked."
"Bunny, I didn't ask because you're my hero partner. I needed a dance partner."
"I'm your partner!" Barnaby insisted, the force in his voice surprising both of them. After a minute of timid silence, Barnaby looked down at the asphalt and amended softly, "I want to be your partner in everything."
Kotetsu blinked, staring at his partner, half-lit with smoky yellow light.
"Just... how much do you mean by 'everything?'" Kotetsu asked.
"I mean, everything."
Kotetsu stared at Barnaby, while Barnaby tried his best to ignore Kotetsu's gaze, or maybe pretend that his startling confession wasn't really that earth-shattering. Partners in everything, huh? Dammit, he can be way too cute sometimes.
Finally, Kotetsu moved, and placed his hand on top of Barnaby's, fingers curling slightly. Barnaby jumped and looked at his hand, now covered by Kotetsu's darker one, then shifted until they had a firm but gentle hold. But before Barnaby could get too comfortable, Kotetsu stood, pulling his partner to his feet.
"What are you doing?"
"Lesson number one," Kotetsu said. "Frame. Arms, like this…" He molded Barnaby's arms into the right shape—broad shoulders, arced arms, hands hovering at about belly-button level. "Never let your elbows go completely straight, or go behind your body. Keep them strong."
Barnaby nodded. Shifting his partner's hands into kitten-paws, Kotetsu took Barnaby's hands in his book-hold grip. "If we both have a strong frame, we'll move. I'll lead this one, okay?"
Kotetsu took a long, slow step backward, pulling Barnaby toward him. Barnaby followed, and they walked together, Kotetsu setting a rhythm for Barnaby to follow. Once he thought his partner was comfortable with that motion, Kotetsu switched direction and walked forward, pushing Barnaby back. The blonde made a small sound of surprise as their direction suddenly changed, but he maintained his frame, and in spite of that little hiccup, he fell back into step soon, letting Kotetsu guide him.
Kotetsu switched directions a few more times, inventing a wilder pattern, until Barnaby found the follow's stride—simply lifting his foot and letting it fall wherever Kotetsu directed, using a solid frame to keep them from crashing into each other.
"Good," Kotetsu murmured. Bunny's really good, actually… "Then if I do this…"
He added another dimension to the exercise—curves. Rather than straight forward and backward, Kotetsu gently arced his partner toward the buildings, then back, curving off the sidewalk, and curving again, approaching a parked pickup truck.
"Should we be doing this in the parking lot?" Barnaby asked, but he didn't drop Kotetsu's hands or stop the exercise.
"It's not busy."
"But… automotive safety…"
"We've got Hundred Power. If a car hit us, the car breaks."
Barnaby smiled, and Kotetsu grinned back, guiding Barnaby through large, lazy rings and figure-eights around the mostly-barren parking lot. Barnaby matched him without even thinking. No matter which way Kotetsu turned him, no matter what rhythm he picked, Barnaby followed, staring straight into Kotetsu's eyes the whole time. Rather than feel awkward under his gaze, Kotetsu met it, using peripherals to watch their surroundings as he focused his attention on Barnaby, the young man practically glowing under the streetlights.
"Lesson two," Kotetsu spread his arms wider to draw Barnaby closer to him, and then dropped his right hand, looping it under Barnaby's arm to rest on his left shoulder blade. Then his left hand adjusted his hold until their hands were palm to palm, Barnaby's fingers lightly curling over the space between Kotetsu's thumb and first finger. Barnaby blinked in surprise, and Kotetsu felt him tense as he tried to predict and avoid Kotetsu's suddenly much closer feet.
"Relax, Bunny. Nothing's changed. Your wrist goes on my arm," Kotetsu instructed. "Then let your hand fall onto my shoulder. Don't grip."
Kotetsu eased up on the direction changes, leading Barnaby in a simple line, back and forth, as he adjusted to the new contact points of standard closed position. Rather than in his hands alone, pressure on his back meant come forward, while force on the left arm looped over Kotetsu's meant to go backwards. But still, he remembered lesson number one and kept his body taut and receptive to all of Kotetsu's moves.
Soon, a pattern emerged in their steps, and Kotetsu added a little scoop into their steps—one long, low stride, then two closer, taller ones, before another long step.
"Are we… waltzing?" Barnaby asked. Kotetsu smiled a little broader, and started singing a little tune, which his partner also recognized. "Tchalikovsky."
"I didn't sneeze. Tchalikovsky was a Russian composer. You're singing the Waltz of the Flowers."
"You don't know?"
"It's a waltz, that's what matters."
"Honestly, you call yourself a ballroom dancer, yet you don't have the decency to learn the names of the songs you dance to."
"Hey, that's not important! We're dancing, not playing 'Name That Tune!'"
"That show's been off the air for years, old man."
"Well, when's the last time anyone listened to one of your old operas, huh?"
"The Canis Major Players performed Don Giovanni last month, to a full house."
"When have normal people listened to operas?"
"You're an exception to current norms as a ballroom dancer, Kotetsu. Please don't be hypocritical."
"Who are you calling hypocritical!?"
As they settled into familiar bickering, the dance shifted. Steps shortened and sped up, like a sloppy fusion of the waltz and the faster Viennese. The arc of their turns tightened, and they drew closer, chasing each other in a tight spiral, faces inches apart.
"I knew you'd find something to complain about. I just knew it!"
"This is a perfectly legitimate criticism. Art is meaningless if you don't know its context."
"Why do you need a context to do something you like?"
"To better understand your enjoyment of it."
"If I like dancing, then I like it! What more do I need to understand? Do I need to know the third concerto in the second movement of—"
"That's backwards! A concerto is made of movements, there's no such thing as—"
A car horn blared, and the two heroes leapt apart, instinctively taking fighting stances. A gray hatchback inched closer to them, easing them out of its way. Kotetsu smiled sheepishly and waved at the driver as Barnaby tried to pretend he had not been dancing in the middle of a parking lot, a fact he and Kotetsu had both forgotten.
Once the car vanished into the night, the two partners awkwardly returned to the sidewalk, leaving their impromptu dance floor.
"You know," Kotetsu started. "I'm not dating Molly. I brought her flowers because I wanted to thank her for bending her schedule all out of shape and putting up with me when I canceled for hero calls. She did me a huge favor."
Barnaby said nothing, so Kotetsu continued. "They were carnations, anyway. Apparently you guys thought they were roses, but I looked it up. Pink carnations are for thanks. If you guys had just asked, I would have told you. No need to follow me all over town." Kotetsu paused. "I heard that was your idea, too."
The blonde finally reacted. "It's no more outlandish than staging a robbery as a birthday surprise. I think we're even."
"Even? I thought you forgave me for that!"
"I had not."
"But I gave you the points for arresting that diamond NEXT!"
"That was your present to me. The damages from the earlier stunt remained unaddressed. Not only did the thief have live bullets, but you also tried to use me as a shield." Barnaby's eyes narrowed slightly, accusing.
"I'm sorry, Bunny," Kotetsu twiddled his thumbs. "I didn't mean it, I promise…"
"Forget it. We're even now."
"But wait, two wrongs don't make a right!" Kotetsu insisted. "You think we can have a partnership where we act like that?"
"Then how would you settle the score?"
Kotetsu scratched at his beard, thinking, before he brightened. "I got it! My dance!"
"My special performance!"
"What about it?"
"I dedicate that tango to you."
Barnaby's forehead creased in a scowl. "You danced like that for Molly. I won't accept a second-hand dedication."
"No, no, it was for you," Kotetsu held up his hands, placating. "Just hear me out."
The blonde folded his arms impatiently as Kotetsu gathered his thoughts.
"It really shocked me when I saw you guys, but I didn't think there was anything too strange about it then. Antonio or someone could've gone upstairs one night and found out. But once I got over how you found me, I wanted you all to see me do well, so I tried my absolute best. I did even better than I thought I could. Then I realized…"
Damn, this was hard to say, and his face grew hot just thinking about it, but he had to say it. Barnaby had to know.
"Realized what?" Barnaby prompted.
Here goes nothing… "The person I most wanted to make happy with my dancing was you. Before, during, and after that tango... The whole time I was dancing... I couldn't get you out of my head."
Now Kotetsu felt awkward, and he played the look-away game as Barnaby stared at him.
"And I—I guess it's rude when you're dancing with one person to think about someone else, but… it's true. I wanted to impress you, and make you happy."
Barnaby stared at his partner, astounded. "You were thinking of me?"
Kotetsu nodded. "Even if I wasn't dancing with you, my dance was for you." After a beat, he added, "So then, can we call it square for your birthday?"
"…I suppose," Barnaby managed to smile, the small, honest little half-smile Kotetsu liked so much, and he could swear he saw a blush on his partner's cheeks in the dim light. "But then, what will you ask for in return? I still approved of everyone stalking you across town."
"Hmm…" Asking Barnaby for anything? Wow, Kotetsu had a chance to call a really big favor on this one. He could slough off paperwork for a while, get a really special gift for Kaede's birthday, maybe even ask Barnaby to complement him in an interview, boost his popularity...
But just one look at Barnaby's expectant face instantly drove all of those thoughts away. Kotetsu smiled and held out his hand to Barnaby. "Dance with me again."
Barnaby stared at the outstretched hand, then returned Kotetsu's smile, and took it.
With no music but Kotetsu's intermittent humming, bits of gravel digging through the soles of their shoes, barely enough lamplight to see each other by, and basic, endlessly repetitive choreography, the pair danced on; together, content.
Shall we dance?
On a bright cloud of music, shall we fly?
Shall we dance?
Shall we then say good-night and mean good-bye?
When the last little star has left the sky
Shall we still be together with our arms around each other,
And shall you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance? Shall we dance? Shall we dance?