Lord Boxman led Professor Venomous through the bustling factory floors of Boxmore. Venomous’ high-heeled boots, as practiced and nimble as he was in walking with them, clicked against the hard tiled floors; but the sound was swallowed up by snarls of pipes and wires and exposed insulation, by the cavernous heights and supply-choked depths of the factory’s spaces, and most of all, by the ceaseless thrumming of its mechanical heart and production arteries.
Boxman directed him to look at the conveyer belts running like rivers, at the regimented rows of blank-eyed robotic henchmen awaiting the spark of life, at the already-sealed crates stamped with fresh fuchsia paint. TO: VENOMOUS LABS LLC.
Venomous cast an eye over it all, and nodded his head at the appropriate times. But really, he only wanted to look at Boxman.
Try as he might, he could not get a read on the man.
At their first meeting he had expected little, and he had gotten it. A disaster of a dinner, a disaster of a negotiation, a disaster of an evening… A boring disaster.
Until… The invasion of plaza kids. The conflict. The chaos. The pie cannon.
Long after he had completed the paperwork and gone home, Venomous found—to his surprise and chagrin—that Boxman was lodged in his thoughts.
At first he had thought his interest was strictly business-related. Before meeting him, he had thought Boxman’s skill was highly overrated; but after seeing him construct a beefy weapon in a matter of minutes from assorted parts, he had to admit that the man had a touch of mechanical genius when properly motivated.
Then he’d thought his interest was strictly social. Even academic. He was always checking POW ratings, seeing how his rating climbed (or rather, sank) after he succeeded at a new extortion scheme, seeing how his rank compared against other villains in his social circles. He had scoffed at Boxman’s -10 rating, thinking it must be some sort of glitch… But witnessing the power of Boxman’s fury had convinced him otherwise. To understand how another villain could be well-known as an abject failure—and with reason—and yet be such a roaring success in the right situation? That was enough to pique anyone’s interest…
But after recent drama, inaugurated by the appearance of one Dr. Barbara Blight, he’d had to think again.
The rest of the local villains had watched from the sidelines and through screens, paralyzed by muggy heat and secondhand embarrassment, as smothering fog had poured from Boxmore’s stacks, as the ocean had risen and swamped the parking lots of Lakewood Plaza and Boxmore alike.
Venomous had gotten a tight, itchy feeling in his chest as he had watched Boxman moon over Dr. Blight, Box’s posture servile and his eyes full of stars. And after the crisis was over and the environment had been restored to some semblance of normalcy, he realized that the ache hadn’t only been from acute cringing and environmentally-induced asthma.
It was jealousy.
He wanted Boxman to look at him that way. He wanted Boxman to bend to his will like that.
Once those thoughts rose from his id to his conscious mind, the floodgates were opened.
He didn’t just want Boxman to treat him the way he had treated Dr. Blight. He wanted Boxman to treat him the way he had treated the pie cannon. He wanted Boxman to strip him down to essentials. He wanted Boxman to grip his body with those work-roughened hands. He wanted Boxman to bend him over and brace behind him and…
Beginning to sweat uncomfortably, Venomous pulled his thoughts back to Dr. Blight.
Hadn’t Boxman looked at him in that same way?
From the moment Venomous had first walked through the doors of Boxmore, he had felt Boxman’s eyes on him, noticed the flush in Boxman’s cheeks. He had thought he knew what that meant. He knew what it felt like to be checked out, to be desired… not to be egotistical, but it happened frequently. He projected confidence and power, both naturally and through intentional cultivation—people responded to that, sexually as well as socially. He had gained a reputation in the streets, and in the sheets, and over the conference table (and, on one or two memorable occasions, on top of the conference table.)
Initially—at the beginning of that meeting—he had felt indifferent to Boxman’s apparent romantic interest. Maybe even a little repelled: he pursued sex for his own pleasure, and sometimes to strengthen social bonds when he was feeling into it; but never for the sake of furthering his business. That felt unsavory and cheap. If Boxman wanted him, and he didn’t want Boxman, he’d have to rebuff any advances while maintaining their professional relationship and taking care not to bruise Boxman’s ego; a tricky line to walk, and a pain in the ass.
But now that he realized he did want Boxman, he was suddenly unsure if Boxman had ever wanted him at all.
He had been flustered and fawning… but Venomous had to admit, Boxman acted like that with his board of investors too. And with anybody else with whom he wanted to be on good terms… It seemed to be either ingratiating servility or open hostility with just about everyone, really.
Standing shirtless in the wreckage of his dining room, Box had said, “You still want… me?” and had pulled Venomous into a bear-hug. Venomous’ heart had thumped at the contact. But by all accounts, Boxman was physically expressive and over-emotional… maybe he really had been only talking about the business deal.
Maybe Venomous had imagined the whole thing? Thinking about it was like a pebble in his shoe… especially because the more he thought about the possibility of being attracted to Boxman, the more acutely he felt it.
And that pissed him off. Of all the people to be attracted to. Boxman, with his clumsiness and his constant faux pas and his bottom-shelf social status. Boxman, with his stupid intriguing strength and distracting devil-may-care attitude and maddening secret pecs and abs.
Anxious, torn between wanting the possibility to come to fruition and wanting it nonexistent, Venomous watched Boxman for signals that he even had the capacity to desire him—to desire another man.
But Boxman gave out none of the signals Venomous was looking for: no ostentation in his clothing, no slink in his stride. He didn’t snark; he glowered. He was floridly emotional, sure, equally likely to break into tears or break into song when the mood hit… but other than transgressing that stereotype, the way he dressed and conducted himself projected plain masculinity.
The way he had melted at the slightest glance from Dr. Blight… The way she’d had him eating out of her hand so easily… Ugh, Venomous had thought. He’s straight. Now I’m sure of it.
Standing next to Boxman on a catwalk stretched across the factory wall, leaning his forearms against the sturdy metal railing, Venomous admitted defeat. He’d gone and gotten a crush, but it wasn’t to be. He could lay it to rest with a touch of grace, though.
“I wanted to give you my sympathy,” he said, staring out over the industrial jumble. Up here, the background noise of the machinery was quieter than down on the floor, so he didn’t have to raise his voice to be heard clearly.
“Oh?” Boxman asked, his organic eye squinting with genuine surprise.
“About the recent incident with Dr. Blight.”
“Oh… that.” Boxman flushed deep red and ducked his chin, turning his face away. “I sure bungled that one.”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying.” Venomous leaned on one arm, turned to face Boxman. “Using charm as a weapon the way she did? Was too cruel.” Then Venomous couldn’t resist adding, with a playful smirk: “And I say that as a devastatingly charming person myself.”
Boxman chuckled at that, and nodded… only to show polite appreciation for the little joke, Venomous guessed. Still, it felt good to see him smile. Even if the sexual relationship he’d been dreaming about wasn’t going to happen, he could still leave the man in a bit better place than he’d found him.
“She did you wrong. Most men would’ve done the same in your place.”
“Quit laying it on so thick,” Boxman chided him, grinning in that way he did so that his annoyingly cute little snaggletooth showed. “I acted a fool and I know it.” His smile slipped, and his voice sank to a brooding undertone. “Not really used to that sort of…” And then the smile and chirrup were back, full-wattage. “She just gave me some silly pet name and… ahahah I lost my mind! And she’s not even my type, heh heh!”
“Oh?” Venomous’ interest was piqued. “What is your type?”
Boxman stopped mid-cackle and went still and pale as a marble statue.
Now Venomous was really interested. He had expected a straightforward answer from this straightforward man, some category that would commonly grace the pages of a pinup magazine, like redheads or mermaids. If Boxman was looking this cagey, his tastes must run surprisingly exotic.
Against his better judgement, Venomous’ focus sharpened. He did love a good mystery.
“No need to be embarrassed,” he purred. “I’ve heard it all.”
Boxman’s hands gripped the railing so tightly that his bicep strained against his labcoat sleeve. Then all of a sudden he was gesturing with both hands.
“My type? Ee hee… I like…. I like a woman…”
Venomous’ heart sank slightly. He had been right.
“… who is shaped like this.” Boxman drew a shape in the air with his index fingers. It might have been an attempt at drawing Coke bottle curves, but it looked more like a bottle of Crisco vegetable oil.
Venomous’ heart really sank now—with boredom. Tall, rectangular women were common among both villains and heroes, and were commonly desired. So what did Boxman apparently feel was so taboo? A desire for a specific person, for a particular activity? If he had erotic fantasies of Foxtail crushing him between her thighs, or slinging him over her shoulder like a duffel bag full of dorm room laundry, he had plenty of company among other villains. Just Venomous’ luck, if the man he currently fancied turned out to be not only straight, but a prude.
But… wait a moment…
Box’s anxiety didn’t look like the blushing, leering nervousness of a man concealing taboo desires. The way he blanched and wrung his hands… he looked like he was actually afraid of something.
That description he had just given of an attractive woman… it wasn’t just mundane. It was generic.
Within Venomous’ brain, puzzle pieces fell into place. Boxman’s reactions, his words… his age, which Venomous often forgot was at least a decade older than his own…
Methinks he doth protest too much.
“Box…” A smirk tugged up one corner of Venomous’ mouth. “Box… are you gay?”
The response was as swift as if he had hit Boxman’s sense of self-preservation with a reflex hammer.
“I’m not! You are!”
Venomous’ response was just as automatic. His pedantic nature caught up with him a second later, and he rotated a hand at the wrist. “hmmm sensu lato.”
Boxman’s expression was blank for a split second. In the next, a stunning series of conflicting emotions passed through it—shock, delight, fear, relief, bitterness, interest, jealousy—as if projected from a speeding film reel.
“Box,” said Venomous, his voice tender and his heart gone soft like pudding, “… are you closeted?”
Boxman turned his face away, the gesture sharp enough that his crest of hair flopped over, and Venomous knew he was right.
“No!” Boxman turned back towards him, his voice high and gravelly. “That’s not it! I’m just surprised! Because you… you…” He ducked his head. “You guessed my name.”
“Your… I did what?”
“The name I used to be called. When I was a kid.”
Venomous’ brow furrowed. “Other kids used to call you ‘gay’?”
“No, no. My civvy name.”
“Gaylord. My name is Gaylord. Was.” Boxman tossed his head so his crest flopped back in the other direction. “Or Gaillard. In the original French.”
“Oh.” Well, if it helped Boxman let down his guard, he would go along with the new train of thought. “I didn’t know you were French.”
“Not French exactly. My family started out in New Orleans,” Boxman said, looking out over the factory again, resting his arms on the railing, his face pensive and his voice distant. Venomous recalled the fleur-de-lis pattern on his dining room wallpaper. “And I guess you could say we’re half-Senegalese.”
Senegalese? But you’re as white as an economy-size tub of Cool Whip, Venomous thought, but didn’t say.
He chuckled. “You really shouldn’t give out your civvy name so easily. But now that you have… well, I guess I’ll tell you mine. Fair’s fair.” He raised a playful, warning finger. “But you have to promise not to laugh.”
“You’ve got a name that’s funnier than ‘Gaylord?’” Boxman leaned in slightly, his body language now calming down, growing interested. “Okay. Pinky promise.”
“It’s Armando, originally. But in English…” he allowed a dramatic pause. “Herman.”
Boxman’s cheeks puffed out and his eyes popped.
“You promised you wouldn’t laugh,” Venomous pouted theatrically while his eyes danced.
“erhm NERT,” Boxman managed through a mouth clamped shut, turning red, trembling with the pressure of a held-in giggle.
“You’re lying,” Venomous side-eyed him with a smile. “And also… you’re gay.”
Boxman deflated like a balloon. “Why do you keep saying that?” he squealed.
“What are you afraid of?” Venomous sighed. “The Code? That got thrown out decades ago. Being ‘deviant’”—he crooked the fingers of both hands into contemptuous air-quotes around the word—“isn’t a death sentence anymore.”
“Decades, huh? The Code was still on the books in 2010,” Boxman lobbed back at him in a dark undertone.
… He was probably right. Venomous didn’t know history as well as he should; he had daydreamed through his History of Film and History of Comics classes.
Embarrassed, Venomous’ voice got a squeaky edge. “Not here though! Maybe some places were behind the times, but here… nobody cares who falls in love with whom. The young people in Lakewood Plaza…”
“I hate those brats!”
Boxman’s voice had gone thick with bitter anger. Venomous backpedaled, held up his hands in a mollifying gesture.
“It doesn’t matter among us villains either. I’ve been out forever and nobody’s given me grief about it.”
An idea struck Venomous. “Here, I’ll prove it to you. Watch this.”
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and flourished it like a magician about to do a trick. He tapped open his list of contacts and showed Boxman the name on the screen.
Boxman’s shoulders relaxed as his anger ebbed away, and then hunched up to his ears again when he read the phone’s screen—the name alone intimidated him. Despite himself, he leaned in, hooked by the dramatics.
Venomous spoke as he typed. “Dear Cosma… I like… to kiss men.”
Oh wait. Boxman was French.
“On… the… mouth…” Venomous clarified, his fingers tapping rapidly.
Boxman’s eyes widened. Venomous’ gestures and volume grew as he showed off.
“With… lots… of… tongue. Aaand…” A final tap with the index finger. “Send.”
Boxman gazed at him in wonder, mouth slightly agape. Venomous basked in the attention like a reptile basks in sunshine.
Then his phone rang.
Venomous juggled it in surprise, nearly losing it over the side of the catwalk. Boxman dived for cover at the sound, as if the beep-y little tune were a rattle of artillery.
Venomous checked the screen… YEP… and, gingerly, held the phone to his ear.
Cosma’s voice was quicksand-smooth. “Professor Venomous… dear Venomous… Working hard, are we?”
Venomous scanned the factory. He locked eyes with Boxman, who was cowering—he could hear Cosma speaking.
“I am,” Venomous ventured.
“Have you checked that your fume hood is working properly? Do we need to open a window?”
“No, ma’am,” Venomous said. The honorific fell out unintentionally; her tone was eerily sweet, and the way she was saying “we” was giving him the heebie-jeebies.
She clicked her tongue in hollow concern. “By any chance… have you been drinking?”
“Cosma. It’s ten in the morning. No, I am not drunk.” Venomous intentionally set his voice in a cool, challenging tone. Boxman raised his head, gnawing on his fingernails/talons.
“I’m not intoxicated. In any way.”
“Mmm. That’s good to hear,” Cosma purred. “In that case…
QUIT WASTING MY TIME WITH THINGS I ALREADY KNOW!”
The force of her roar punched Venomous in the side of the head. He went reeling.
He staggered upright, his hair in wild disarray, and fumbled the phone back to his ear. “Yes, Cosma.”
She hung up. Even the sound of the signal’s cut-off dripped with dismissal.
Boxman looked at Venomous, biting his lip. Venomous, eyes slightly unfocused from the blow of Cosma’s disdain, struck a confident pose and waved one hand in airy nonchalance.
“See? I told you she didn’t care.”
Boxman climbed to his feet and gazed at Venomous, his face open and shining with admiration.
He had stars in his eyes.
It was the way he had once looked at Dr. Blight.
Venomous’ chest swelled with triumph. With elation.
Boxman could desire him.
Boxman did desire him.
Now Venomous would have to make a deliberate decision about what kind of relationship he wanted with Boxman.
Now Venomous would have to own all the possible outcomes, all the consequences his decision might bring.