“Okay, gentlemen, get a little bit closer.”
Kotetsu wobbled dangerously on his ice skates. “Why can’t we do this in our hero suits?” he demanded. “And not on ice?”
Agnes sighed wearily. “It’s a calendar! It’s January! It needs to be winter-themed!”
Kotetsu scowled at her. “I don’t see why anyone would want to buy a calendar with heroes on ice skates.”
Agnes looked at him like he was hopeless.
“You really don’t understand fangirls, don’t you?” Barnaby looked at Kotetsu in disbelief, perfectly balanced on his skates as if he were deliberately mocking Kotetsu’s wobbly ankles.
Kotetsu raised one finger to tell Barnaby off and promptly fell forward right into Barnaby’s arms. Barnaby only barely managed to keep both of them from falling flat on their butts.
“Quick!” Agnes jabbed the cameraman as the two of them tangled together while Kotetsu tried to regain his balance. “Take it now!”
“Trust me,” Agnes said dryly, “you’re not going to get any better cooperation out of those two.”
The cameraman wisely took all the shots he could.
“What is this?” Kotetsu screeched in horror.
“It appears to be a glass filled with pink plastic foam that is supposed to resemble a milkshake,” Barnaby responded with false sweetness.
Kotetsu gritted his teeth. It was a marked contrast to the fluffy atmosphere generated by the red and pink hearts that gaudily decorated the walls around the diner-style booth in which they were sitting. “That’s it! I am not working with…with that! Especially not here!” Kotetsu smacked a Styrofoam cupid that was dangling a little too close to his head. “What is this anyway?”
“February,” Agnes said impatiently. “Valentine’s Day.”
“Can’t we beat up some bad guys or something instead?”
Agnes’ eye twitched. “Just drink from the goddamn milkshake and pretend you’re happy!”
Barnaby leaned in to take his straw in his mouth. He gave Kotetsu a smug look, like he was just so much more professional than Kotetsu.
“I’ll show you pretending!” Kotetsu took the unspoken challenge and grinned like an idiot before taking his own straw in mouth.
Contrary to what most purchasers of the calendar would later giggle about, the “fire” in Kotetsu’s and Barnaby’s eyes was anything but romance. It sold, though, so Agnes couldn’t care less.
“No. No way!” Kotetsu shook his head in horror. “What kind of calendar is this, anyway?”
“It’s the NC 1979 Tiger/Barnaby Calendar,” Barnaby said wearily. “You should be glad it’s not a swimsuit calendar.”
Kotetsu made a face of distaste.
“Fine,” Agnes smirked, “if Tiger’s too much of a coward to do it, then we’ll just—”
“Hey!” Kotetsu protested. “Who are you calling a coward?”
Agnes’ smirked turned several shades more evil, and she gestured to the cameraman to get ready.
Barnaby gave Kotetsu that same smug, challenging look.
Kotetsu gulped, leaned in, and pressed the tip of his nose to Barnaby’s in a perfect Eskimo kiss. His face went red as he did it, which just made it look all the more like they were out on a chilly March day.
The cameraman looked at Agnes in awe.
“Too easy,” she assured him. “Just wait until we get to December…”
“We’re a third of the way through this stupid calendar, and we haven’t been fighting crime at all yet,” Kotetsu whined.
“Do all old men whine as much as you do?” Barnaby retorted.
“I’m not whining!” Kotetsu lied.
“Just be quiet and pretend like you’re enjoying your rainy day in,” Agnes said, exasperated.
Barnaby ever obligingly cuddled up on the sofa so that his back was resting on Kotetsu’s chest and his body was between Kotetsu’s legs.
“I hate you so much,” Kotetsu growled when Bunny looked back at him innocently, like this was easy and Kotetsu was being unreasonable about what was clearly the stupidest photo-shoot ever.
Both of them looked self-satisfied at that.
Agnes waved for the cameraman to hurry before they started fighting again.
“Why am I even surprised at this point?” Kotetsu sighed.
“Aww, old man,” Barnaby fluttered his eyelashes, “you shouldn’t have!”
“Shut up,” Kotetsu grumbled.
“That’s perfect, Barnaby! Now, take the flowers from Kotetsu…”
“Tulips and daffodils!” Barnaby tormented Kotetsu. “You really like me!”
Kotetsu gritted his teeth.
Agnes whispered to the cameraman, “Let’s try to do as many shots as we can from now on with Tiger’s back to the camera. This is working fabulously.”
The camera agreed and finished shooting the scene before Kotetsu launched off his knees and strangled Barnaby where he stood.
“This is the most boring calendar ever. We never do anything! We haven’t even been in costume once yet. No one’s going to buy this. I mean, we’re what? Sitting on some grass, having a picnic? Who wants to look at their heroes doing that? Anyone can do that! The whole point of us being heroes is that we fight crime and have superpowers! This is completely pointless.”
Agnes’ eye began twitching rhythmically. “Tell me you got at least one shot where his mouth wasn’t open and blathering.”
The cameraman gave her a salute. He was getting good at this.
“I told you not to call me ‘Bunny’.”
“You know how you said at least this wasn’t a swimsuit calendar?”
“Can you stop talking already?”
“Because these look like swimsuits…”
“It’s July. What do you expect?”
“In fact, these look like skimpy Speedos…”
“No one will see them anyway, with the close angle,” Agnes cut Kotetsu off before he could start yet another argument. “We just need you two wet, like you’ve just emerged from the water.”
“Our powers don’t even have anything to do with water…” Kotetsu complained.
“Oh, shut up already,” Barnaby finally said in exasperation and dunked Kotetsu’s head under the water.
Kotetsu yanked his leg and dragged Barnaby down with him. The two of them broke the surface a few seconds later, drenched, gasping for breath, and wrestling in very tight quarters.
The cameraman got several perfect shots of their faces only inches apart, hair slicked back and wet, mouths open, and droplets falling from their parted lips.
“You’re getting a raise,” Agnes promised, looking between the cameraman’s stills and the actual fighting chaos of Kotetsu and Barnaby that the cameraman had somehow extracted the shots from. “And a bonus. Keep this up, and maybe I can get a company car thrown in as well.”
The cameraman grinned at her.
“I suppose this isn’t too bad.” It sounded like even Kotetsu had gotten tired of complaining.
Barnaby rolled his eyes heavenward.
“Camping is kinda cool, I guess. Although that background looks kind of fake. Is that going to be okay?” He scratched his head.
“We’ll Photoshop it,” Agnes assured him. “Now, I need both of you to squish into that one sleeping bag together.”
“What?!” Kotetsu screeched.
Barnaby sighed. So much for Kotetsu’s lack of complaining…
“Who writes this stuff?” Kotetsu demanded.
“People who come up with a lot less corny dialogue than you do,” Barnaby retorted. “Look, can you just let it go for one shoot? You’ve been talking non-stop all afternoon. It’s giving me a headache.”
“I get that it’s autumn.” Kotetsu squinted at the screen description. “But ‘pluck a leaf lovingly from Barnaby’s hair’?” He chuckled to himself. “Like our fans are going to want to see that.” He nudged Barnaby in the side like this was some clever in-joke.
“You really have no clue, do you, old man?”
“And you complain that I’ve been talking non-stop all afternoon,” Kotetsu said and, almost cooperatively, plucked one of the fake-leaf props from Barnaby’s hair.
The camera flashed wildly.
The brief moment of cooperation was not to last.
“It’s not that big a deal,” Barnaby insisted.
“It’s the worst sort of cliché ever!”
“People like that sort of thing.”
“And, comparatively speaking, I got off easy. I am genuinely offended on your behalf.”
“If it’s on my behalf, can you at least do it quietly, then?”
Kotetsu chuckled. “You’re the one stuck wearing the bunny ears and tail for Halloween.” Kotetsu reached out to poke the end of one fluffy, white ear. “If you’re not going to defend your own dignity, then I can get by with tiger ears.” He snickered some more. “You’re adorable. Really. Even with that scary face, ha!”
Barnaby snarled and looked about ready to murder.
“No, no!” Agnes cut him off. “Tiger’s doing the pouncing here! Barnaby’s doing the, er, receiving.”
“Sounds good to me,” Kotetsu said cheekily and pounced merrily away. He even gave Barnaby a fake bite on the side of the neck and a playful little growl.
“This stuff is gold,” Agnes sighed contentedly.
“So, uh,” the cameraman ventured to ask, “does he have any idea that…you know…?”
“Not a clue.”
“Well, I guess it’s Thanksgiving. So this makes some sense. But when am I going to get to all the cool, new hero poses I’ve been practicing?”
“Never,” Barnaby muttered under his breath. “We can only hope…”
Kotetsu glared at him.
“Okay,” Agnes directed them, “both of you in front of the stove.” One of her assistants shuffled them both across the kitchen set. “Didn’t we have an apron for Barnaby?” she demanded of another assistant.
The woman made an “eep”ing sound, but managed to locate the misplaced wardrobe in record time.
Kotetsu started snickering again when he saw what Barnaby was wearing. “‘Kiss the cook’? Seriously?”
Barnaby gave him a disdainful look and calmly pulled the apron on over his head and tied it in back.
“Excellent,” Agnes all but cackled. “Barnaby, you’re over the stove like you’re cooking. Tiger, you’ve just stuck up behind him to steal a taste.”
The cameraman tried not to laugh at the innuendo Kotetsu clearly wasn’t getting.
Barnaby held up the wooden spoon in front of him, and Kotetsu leaned in from the side to sample it.
“No, no!” Agnes corrected. “Get right behind Barnaby.”
Kotetsu scootched over a few inches.
“Still too far away. Press up right against his back.”
Kotetsu sighed wearily and did so. “I can barely even reach the spoon from this angle.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Agnes said testily. “Closer.”
Kotetsu squirmed behind Barnaby uncomfortably.
“This isn’t working…” Agnes sighed. “Okay, try putting your hands on Barnaby’s hips.”
“Wha?” Kotetsu blinked at her.
Barnaby snorted. “You’d think you’d never done a photo-shoot before, old man.”
Kotetsu gave him a nasty look. “Fine, fine!” he called back to Agnes and, incredibly awkwardly, placed his hands on Barnaby’s sides.
“Not like that! Really hold him! Give him a little squeeze or two.”
Kotetsu muttered something under his breath that sounded “give his neck a little squeeze or two.” Barnaby wiggled back against Kotetsu’s hips just to make him uncomfortable. Kotetsu started, his eyes went wide, and his fingers tightened over Barnaby’s hips.
“That’s perfect!” Agnes declared. “Now, lean in toward the spoon!”
Kotetsu did so, half-dazed.
Barnaby gave him a mischievous look and pulled the spoon back right as Kotetsu’s mouth snapped for it.
The camera flashed.
“No,” Kotetsu said stubbornly.
“You have to,” Agnes insisted.
“This is the last shot.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Well, it will be when this picture gets used.” Agnes tapped her foot on the floor impatiently.
“I don’t care!” Kotetsu shook his head vigorously. “No way am I—” He looked to Barnaby to object.
Barnaby made a face like he was debating refusing as well. “There’s a difference between doing a bit of fanservice for the cameras and, well…” He half-protested.
“What kind of professionals are you?” Agnes reprimanded them both. “It’s just a little mistletoe. A perfect end to a Tiger/Bunny year!”
Kotetsu and Barnaby exchanged a dubious look, for once in complete agreement.
Agnes chewed on her lip, faced with unified opposition on both fronts. “All right, fine. Just lean in. You don’t actually have to kiss.”
“Actually have to kiss?” Kotetsu sputtered. Apparently, he’d greatly underestimated the lengths Agnes wanted them to go to. “I don’t even want to be near that thing and him!” He gestured to the mistletoe and Barnaby and back.
Barnaby snorted. “I don’t bite…unlike some people.”
Kotetsu blushed, like he just realized that his earlier actions could be taken as suggestive.
“Come on,” Barnaby sighed, “it’s not so bad now. That’s an entirely reasonable request. And once we get this shot done, I can finally go home.”
Kotetsu gaped at him. “Not. So. Bad?” More gaping. “Reasonable?!”
“It’s in your contract,” Agnes pointed out. “Tiger/Bunny Calendar.”
“‘Calendar’ is not the same thing as ‘pretending to kiss a jerk under the mistletoe’!” Kotetsu insisted.
“Semantics,” Agnes waved him off.
“That’s easy for you to say! You’re not the one kissing him!”
“We already got her to back down on the actual kissing,” Barnaby pointed out. “Don’t push your luck.”
“She can’t make us do anything,” Kotetsu insisted. “And no way am I ever agreeing to this. What will my fans think?”
“Probably how completely unbelievable it is that a star like me would go for an old man like you,” Barnaby scoffed.
“I’ll have you now that I’m a total catch!” Kotetsu retorted irrationally.
“You’d be lucky to get anywhere near as good as me!”
“Old and delusional,” Barnaby shot back.
“Chicken, too,” Agnes cut in when she sensed the opportunity to close in for the kill. “I didn’t expect you to be scared off by a harmless little photo shoot, honestly. But, if it’s really that big a deal, I suppose we can scrap the whole ‘Tiger/Bunny’ idea and just reshoot a Bunny-only calendar. That will probably sell better, anyway.”
“Hey!” Kotetsu complained.
The cameraman snickered at Agnes’ ruthless manipulation.
“If you want to disappoint all your fans out there by not doing a calendar next year, that’s fine by me. Barnaby, how about we reschedule for—”
“Hey!” Kotetsu protested more loudly. “I’m not scared! And I’m not letting any fans down! In fact…” Kotetsu turned on Barnaby with such wild eyes that Barnaby actually took a nervous half-step back. “Does this look scared to you?” And he caught Barnaby up his arms right under the mistletoe and all but launched his lips onto Barnaby’s.
Barnaby flailed for one moment and then, slowly, melted into the kiss.
Agnes’ breath caught in her throat. “Whatever you do, do not stop shooting!”
The cameraman nodded numbly and kept clicking away.
Finally, Kotetsu broke away from Barnaby with an audible but triumphant smack. “Who’s scared now?” He sounded like he actually thought he’d just won that argument.
Agnes glanced over the thumbnails and concluded that, even if Kotetsu or Barnaby contested having the actual lip-locked shots in the calendar, she had more than enough heat in the seconds right after the kiss had ended to break every calendar record HeroTV had ever set.
“That,” she announced contentedly, “is a wrap. Good work, boys. And I’ll schedule the NC 1979 Tiger & Barnaby Calendar shoot for some time next week.”
Kotetsu froze and blinked at her. “But we just shot that,” he said.
“This was ‘Tiger/Barnaby.’ Next week is ‘Tiger & Barnaby.’”
Kotetsu scratched his head. “How are those any different?”
Agnes headed off, dragging the cameraman and his precious footage away by the arm. “Barnaby, explain to Kotetsu the difference between a slash and an ampersand. I want to get this to marketing, ASAP.”
Behind her, she heard Barnaby sputter.
Halfway down the hall, Barnaby must have finally managed to explain, because Kotetsu’s horrified “What?!” rang throughout the building.
Agnes smirked to herself. It was too late for Kotetsu to protest now. All the Tiger/Barnaby fangirls and boys out there were going to have a very merry Christmas, indeed.