Soft jazz scratches over a gramophone, bright bouncy notes dancing with a smooth baritone brass, accompanied by the pop and sparkle of champagne. Pale gold liquid spills over a flute, the froth overflowing and staining careless fingers.
Just as careless is the smile shot at him, a direct hit that makes his chest seize like he’s climbed up too fast through the atmosphere. The air is thin, and he’s soaring, weightless and hopeless, at superhuman velocity.
“A toast,” Kotetsu declares, raising his glass. The champagne drips over his wrist, trailing down his arm until it disappears at the crook of green cloth. Barnaby follows it with his eyes.
“A toast,” he agrees. They tap their glasses together to conduct a single, harmonious note, which hums between them and against the syncopated beats of cymbals and saxophones.
Kotetsu downs his drink with thirsty greed, but when the glass is empty, he doesn’t pour more. Instead, he lets out a big, gusty sigh and kicks back, his feet propped on the table. Black socks, loose pants, half-unbuttoned shirt. Unlike other people, when Kotetsu relaxes, he doesn’t just unwind, he unravels, his neat old-fashioned image stripping away into this sloppy loose man who slouches with his eyes closed in pure pleasure-relief, his body thrumming easy like the strings of a plucked bass.
Barnaby longs for the same slack solace, because he’s tensed up in all the wrong places, his body convinced it’s still accelerating against gravity. He’s rocketing out of orbit, lost without reference, unable to communicate with ground station. He wants to fall back, wants to unravel, so that the pieces of himself collaged from fake scrapbook memories can flutter to the ground with the sheet music, can be tossed aside in favor of improvisation.
Kotetsu is improvisation personified. He breaks the rules of convention by smashing out strange chords and running chaotic over scales. Destruction and deconstruction and reconstruction, built upon by layers of explosive emotion, played relentlessly and unrepentantly, fall to pianissimo at abrupt measures, a minor key in melancholy. Then, without warning, the melody will change again, switching to a hopeful, swinging color, only to transform angrily, then humorously, then to something else entirely different.
That strange discordant nature captures Barnaby, leaves him unable to concentrate on anything else because Kotetsu is too loud and too quiet and too busy and too slow. He is offbeat, and Barnaby is out of step, lurching and stumbling through the uneven path of their partnership.
Of course, Kotetsu calls to him, opens his eyes and invites him with a simple flicker of his fingers to join in the madness. He says,
“I know this isn’t your style but — ”
he waves his flute, weaving invisible spirals with his mock baton
“— it’s nice, right?”
Over the gramophone, other instruments fall silent as the drums perform a solo, pounding rushing crushing rhythm, frantic as heartbeat, blasting and rolling the same heat Barnaby can feel pooling at the veins in his wrists.
“It’s…” he says, but the drums overpower his soft reply.
Kotetsu grins all the same, perhaps able to catch that tiny accidental note from a piano through all the percussion. His toes wiggle and stretch, tickling Barnaby’s knee, inviting him to play louder, with more confidence.
“This isn’t a business meeting. You don’t have to sit so stiff,” he says. “Is Bunny nervous being at the old man’s house for the first time?”
Teasing, teasing, prying at Barnaby’s fingers, urging him to touch the hard, glossy keys. Play along with me, Kotetsu demands.
It only makes him more wound up.
“Old man,” he says, reverting to habit. He can still taste the champagne, dry and sweet on his tongue. “You take up too much space.”
He gestures at how Kotetsu manages to dominate the couch and the coffee table by laying starfished.
“Want me to move over?”
A trombone offers three curious notes, awaiting a callback.
“…” Barnaby stares at his empty glass, twirls the stem with his fingers. He thinks about knocking off his boots, joining Kotetsu with his feet on the coffee table. He thinks about reaching over, stealing a black tie knotted loosely around a well-muscled neck, tugging so they’re nose-to-nose.
Instead, he pours himself more carbonated courage, his eyes falling half-lidded. Kotetsu’s toes aren’t tickling him now, but they curl over his kneecap, leaving a tingling sensation that mimics sustained vibrato.
“Bun-ny~” Kotetsu sings, amused and affectionate. “I won’t bite.”
He takes a sip.
Fingernails scratch over the metaphorical piano keys, tempted, tempting.
“You really like it,” Kotetsu says, his head cocked to the side in fascination. The tempo creeps up faster. “I can tell.”
He doesn't answer, because he’s stuck in hostile inertia, his body paralyzed and his momentum unchanging. Trying to strike the keys would be like trying to smash against the lifeless moon. He knows something will shatter irrevocably from the impact.
Yet, the more he listens, the more he wants to shatter.
“Kotetsu…” His fingers are burning, the heat coiling around them with barbed wire. He wants to match the tempo.
Maybe, impossibly, Kotestu understands, because he takes his legs off the table and slides over so that he’s sitting beside Barnaby, their feet touching together.
He feels Kotetsu tap his foot to the music, his socks brushing against the unyielding leather boots. So close. The heat spikes, shooting up to his head and leaving him near asphyxiated. He doesn’t speak.
Eyes are on him. Barnaby turns, hesitantly, to meet the gaze.
That’s when it happens.
Barnaby can feel himself already crashing, the exoskeleton of his former self exploding and scattering into space dust. All because of a careless, fatal smile.
Kotetsu, his power isn’t the fading song of a superhero, but it’s this.
Yielding to the force of something unknown, Barnaby plummets to the blue-green earth. He’s unraveling with each slap and pluck of a bass line, the worries from a moment ago melting with the sweetness of a jazz violin, which joins with a tenor saxophone in a conversation quick and clever. Kotetsu lets the conversation meander over their heads, watching Barnaby as he becomes undone, right here in the living room.
It’s okay, Kotetsu says, the touch of his hand over Barnaby’s cheek grounding him before he can catapult out of the stratosphere once more.
He closes his eyes completely and sees the music swallowing darkness to create bursts of firework color. Kotetsu’s hand leaves his skin and squeezes his fingers, as Barnaby collapses against him and releases a breath full of animated soul.
“Kotetsu,” he sighs, and the piano begins to play, tinkling raindrops over the scratchy, deep tones. “That’s not fair.”
He leans forward, so that his lips are a mere centimeter from Kotetsu’s. He hears the stutter of a trumpet, the flat note of a drum, as the piano offers a majestic solo.
Kotestu may have undone him with his smiles and his seductive music, but Barnaby can play that game too.
With a fatal kiss, Barnaby takes Kotetsu, unraveled and careless, and ties him up, makes him tense in all the right places, and lifts him from the earth. He plans to undo Kotetsu, slowly by each caressing note, until neither of them knows what is heaven and what is ground.
Together, they make a new kind of music.