Kotetsu arrives late to work on Thursday, his hair messy and practically still bed-head, and Barnaby arrives a few seconds after him, looking as perfect as always. Kotetsu is all smiles and warm greetings, as always, while Barnaby sneaks inconspicuously past them and towards his desk. There is a soft smile on his face when he glances back at Kotetsu.
“You didn’t call,” Antonio says accusingly.
Kotetsu looks a little taken aback for a moment, and then says, “Oh right! I was supposed to call you.” He rubs the back of his head. “Sorry. Bunny and I were a little busy.”
Antonio guffaws something implicative at the same time Nathan makes an innuendo.
Ivan doesn’t hear what they say specifically, he only sees the way Kotetsu’s face goes a little red and he awkwardly laughs it off, still with the same easy charisma that he does everything with. No slip-up ever fazes Wild Tiger. He manages to make embarrassment look charming.
Karina moves away first. She ducks her head and steps away from the group, moving to sit at her desk. Her blonde hair falls in a curtain around her face, shielding her off from the rest of them.
Nathan notices first, gracefully stepping out of the conversation to sit at the edge of Karina’s desk. He starts talking to her in a much more subdued way than he did in the earlier conversation.
Ivan looks back to the main conversation to see Kotetsu and Antonio laughing together now, a brilliant thousand-watt smile across Kotetsu’s face, his eyes crinkled in mirth. It sends a pang through Ivan’s heart just to see. Smiles like his were blinding.
He lets out a soft breath and turns away. There’s only so much he can commit to memory anyhow, so staying around any longer to watch everyone except Barnaby and Kotetsu slowly flock over to Karina to be a shoulder to cry on would be useless.
Ivan does actually train. A lot. He spent a long time trying to copy Kotetsu until Kotetsu figured out and just helped him make a training program, which he followed religiously. Kotetsu was just that kind of person. He didn’t think Ivan was odd or useless, just, as he put it, “a diamond in the rough”, which had to be one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to Ivan.
And training was great. But what was even better was seeing Tiger train.
He has an amazing body. Okay, basic fact. He is a Hero who trained his whole life. And he is a good-looking guy with a nice face. But it really isn’t fair that he has both. But he does.
Sometimes Tiger would train alone – probably to clear his head or something, Ivan thinks, knowing from observation that one could not just handle near 24/7 contact with Barnaby Brooks Jr; it is simply impossible. Sometimes Ivan would coincidentally drift in during these times, and it was awesome, because Tiger is a people-person who naturally engaged others and it meant that Ivan got his full attention, however briefly it lasted. Ivan could walk in on his very worst day and Tiger would be there with a smile and a hand on his shoulder, saying some cheesy but encouraging line that Ivan would totally fall for.
He keeps a good pace running now, alone in the training room, wondering if Tiger has been able to escape from Antonio’s clutches yet. Maybe he has a lot of paperwork today. Maybe Ivan wouldn’t glimpse him once for the rest of the day.
Of course, then the doors slide open not too long later, and Kotetsu walks in. For a moment, Ivan’s heart jumps, before he notices Karina and Nathan walking in after him.
He quickly shoves that to the side and keeps training.
Kotetsu calls, “Good pace, Ivan! How long have you been at it?”
Not too long, Ivan thinks, but suddenly his heart is racing a lot faster than it was. He says some garbled thing about how it hasn’t been too long, not really, but he has been in here for a while, because he does actually train, and he ha been following the plan that he and Kotetsu made, which he is also very grateful for still.
Kotetsu just smiles and says, “Keep at it like this and Bunny will have to worry about keeping his King of Heroes title!”
Ivan’s heart stops and his footing falters. Kotetsu is quick to shut off the treadmill, before Ivan even processed that he probably would’ve fallen on his face if he tried to keep going.
Kotetsu doesn’t say anything about him stumbling. He hands him back the key he tore out of the treadmill and says, “Really, Origami, you’re doing amazing!” And he flashes that kind smile before turning away to work on his own training.
Ivan stands there for a moment under the guise of stretching his arms, because he’s certain that if he tries to move, his knees will give way. At least the red on his cheeks could be written off as being from exertion. His mind races a million miles an hour. Tiger thinks I’m doing good in training. Tiger thinks I could climb in the ranks. Tiger thinks I have a chance of beating Barnaby.
And then the doors slide open again, because of course they do.
Barnaby Brooks Jr walks in, and though Ivan’s type is generally a tiny bit shorter, has dark hair and amber eyes, even he can admit that Barnaby Brooks Jr is handsome enough to make even workout sweats look amazing. Ivan’s heart sinks before Barnaby even turns to meet Kotetsu, and there’s a soft, barely visible smile on his face at whatever greeting Kotetsu chirps.
The two begin talking, and though everything around him seems muffled, Ivan catches enough to know they’re planning on sparring. He’s never had the chance to spar with Tiger. He knows he’d lose, but he still wonders what it would be like to be that close to him for that long, to feel more than just a pat on the shoulder from those hands. Tiger seems to radiate warmth in every sense; he wonders if there’s a noticeable difference if you stay close to him for too long.
Ivan takes his towel from the treadmill and walks out of the training room. He takes a single glance back to see Kotetsu with an arm around Barnaby, laughing at something he probably said while Barnaby rolls his eyes and tries to hide a smile. On the other side of the room, Karina is making herself look busy folding her towel into a perfect square. Nathan moves over to sit by her.
Nobody notices when Ivan steps out.
Ivan tries to avoid Kotetsu when he can. Being around him makes his heart race, makes him feel like he could actually be the King of Heroes, but then Kotetsu will make some comment – “Me and Bunny did this” or “Me and Bunny are doing that” or “You like that color? So does Bunny!” – and Ivan’s heart dissolves under a tidal wave of anguish and guilt.
It’s not right, he thinks. He has a book in his lap that he’s not reading. He can hear Kotetsu and Barnaby on the other side of the common room, talking with what sounds like Antonio, but Ivan refuses to look up. You can hear Kotetsu’s smile in his voice and Ivan isn’t in the mood to have a smile infect his face as well.
He should not be in love with Kotetsu T. Kaburagi. Kotetsu already has a boyfriend – a boyfriend he seemed to be in a very serious relationship with – and Ivan doesn’t have the ability or the will to see that shattered. Kotetsu before Barnaby and Kotetsu after Barnaby were two different people, composed of minute changes. But Kotetsu after Barnaby smiled more, he loosened up a little, closer to what Ivan watched on Hero TV when he was younger, he seemed to have gained a new hope and a new fire for his career. Kotetsu’s relationship with Barnaby changed him and made him all the more desirable and all the more unattainable.
Karina isn’t here. Ivan thinks she’s already sulked off somewhere, probably with Nathan or Pao-Lin at her heels ready to offer comfort.
He almost slams his book shut. When he glances up as he pushes himself to his feet, he sees that Kotetsu is looking at him with a gleam of concern in his eyes, very parent-like. He smiles, tight-lipped, as he realizes he has found himself in the same predicament Karina has – even if Kotetsu did leave Barnaby and everything they made together, he still only saw Ivan as a kid to act like a parental figure toward, nothing else.
Ivan has always told Edward everything. So, Edward knows all about Karina’s desperate, hopeless yearning for Wild Tiger. He even, occasionally, shows a bit of sympathy for her. “He does have nice legs,” Edward once relented.
Today, Ivan tells Edward about his own predicament – about how Tiger will only ever see him as a figure to mentor, and it didn’t matter anyhow because Tiger and Barnaby were inseparable and Ivan kind of hates himself for even liking Tiger because he and Barnaby are so good together and on the wild 0.00001% chance Tiger did leave Barnaby for him, he would never forgive himself for doing that to Barnaby.
Edward gives him a dead stare and says, “That sucks, buddy.”
Barnaby Brooks Jr. is amazing at everything. He’s not Ivan’s type, but Ivan understands why everyone falls head-over-heels for him whether they know him or not. He’s a good fighter, a hard worker, and, unfortunately for Ivan, observant.
After a victorious battle, Kotetsu is happily inviting all the Heroes out to lunch. “Come on!” he says excitedly. “My treat! Let’s go celebrate!”
It’s a villain they’ve been trying to capture and hold on to for months now. If anything warrants celebration, this does.
Everyone is a little tired and very hungry, so they all flock over to Kotetsu to discuss options for dinner. Ivan starts to head their way, to listen in and watch Kotetsu’s eyes light up when they suggest something he likes or hear his quips when they suggest something he doesn’t, but then a hand grabs him firmly at the elbow and halts him.
Barnaby looks down at him. He has his glasses back on now. Even without his suit, he’s tall.
Ivan opens his mouth to say some sort of greeting, but Barnaby cuts it off: “You’re worse than Karina.”
Ivan’s mouth goes dry. His legs feel weak. He’s seen Barnaby jump through a ceiling multiple times. He wonders if this time he’ll take him with him and drop him.
Barnaby’s look softens the slightest bit. He looks over to the group, where Kotetsu is animatedly trying to convince a cross Nathan about the dietary importance of mayo. “He is quite charming, and very handsome,” Barnaby says.
“I wasn’t going to try to steal him away from you,” Ivan says quickly.
Barnaby looks amused at that. “I know. You’re too good for that.” He releases Ivan’s elbow.
Ivan mutters, “Thank you.”
Barnaby says, “He still sees you as a kid, just like Karina and Pao-Lin. He wants to help you, though. He does care about you, a whole lot. It’s not something he just acts around here; he talks about you at home too. Avidly. He has real faith in your abilities.”
Ivan’s heart is breaking at the same time it’s expanding so much it hurts, like a supernova. He can only nod.
They join the group, and Ivan doesn’t miss the way Kotetsu glances over at Barnaby, and the faint nod Barnaby gives back to him.
Next time Ivan visits Edward, he talks about other things. The criminal they apprehended. The new combat moves he’s been practicing. How he’s been doing on his training regimen.
Edward asks, “How’s Karina?” and it’s a veiled question.
Ivan smiles. “Ah, you know Karina,” he says. “Still completely head-over-heels for Tiger, but she’s been doing better. I think she knows he’ll only ever see her as a kid to him.”
Edward leans back into his seat. “Uh-huh. And what about this Barnaby character?”