Rupert turned his back to the bar to stare at the milling crowd. He'd come because Josiah had wanted to, had expressed a desire to network with the superheroes who had taken over Warriors - Las Vegas. He had come because he understood the real reason behind the request: the loneliness that had haunted Josiah since his powers had first manifest.
Truth was, it wasn't Rupe's scene. He couldn't mingle the way that some of the other obviously civilian partners were doing, chatting easily with the costumed figures in the room. Or rather, he could, but it would be with the artificial smile that he reserved for clients, the lawyerly suaveness that worked to a calculated end. That seemed somehow wrong in this place, with these people. So he'd left Josiah deep in conversation about conflicts of interest arising between the clientele of the Power Company and the greater good and drifted to this seat at the end of the bar.
"Another one?" a voice behind him asked, and he turned to the bartender.
"Yeah," he agreed, and she picked up his glass. She didn't move away immediately, though - her attention was caught by someone else.
"Hey, Maggie," a man's voice greeted.
"Ray!" the bartender exclaimed. "It's been an age!" She leaned over to accept a peck on the cheek from a wiry man with an outdoorsman look.
"You know how it is," he replied, settling onto the empty stool next to Rupe.
"Sure, honey. The usual?"
He nodded, and the bartender moved off. Rupe turned his attention back to the crowd, noting that Josiah had joined a different conversation. He was impeccably dressed, but it was like they could smell the meta on him despite his lack of costume. He allowed himself a mental sigh. He'd learned to live with the distance that Josiah's powers had put into their relationship, but at times like these?
"Here you go," the bartender announced, setting drinks for Rupe and the man called Ray on the counter.
Rupert reached for his wallet, but then Ray said, "I've got it."
"Thank you for the offer," Rupe said firmly, pulling out his billfold, "but I'm with someone."
Ray only smiled and handed the money to the bartender. He held up his left hand as he did so, letting Rupe see the thin platinum band around the fourth finger.
"Don't worry," Maggie interjected with a smile, accepting the cash. "Ray never picks anyone up. He'll make you buy the next round."
"Fine," Rupe acquiesced, putting his wallet back into his jean pocket. He lifted his glass. "Cheers."
Ray returned the gesture, took a swallow of his drink, then turned to join Rupert in watching the crowd. "First time?" he asked.
"Thought so," Ray remarked. "It can be... overwhelming." His tone was somewhere between sympathetic and matter of fact.
Rupe regarded him curiously. He didn't look meta. "You here with your - partner? Or are you -?" he gestured toward the costumed crowd.
Ray took another drink and gave a little grimace. "No. To both questions. Bruce isn't the public type."
Rupe understood what he meant. Not really out. He'd dated a man like that, before Josiah. It had been okay for a while, but eventually Rupe found himself escaping to clubs more and more often, desperate for a larger social circle. Oddly, the memory comforted him now. Josiah could have disguised this as a business trip, have despaired of Rupe ever understanding that there was a part of his life that needed release. He hadn't.
But Ray's answer raised a larger question. "So why-?"
"-do I come here?" Ray shrugged. "Over the years I've gotten attached to a lot of the folks here. They're good people."
Rupe sipped at his drink. Good people. Not in the larger save the world type way, but as people. He could believe it as an abstraction. Right now, though, he couldn't really see past the gaudy costumes.
There was a longish silence, then Ray gestured toward Josiah. "That your man?" Rupe could hear the appreciation in Ray's voice.
"Josiah," Rupe confirmed. "How-"
"Josiah Power?" Ray asked. "So that's the man behind the name." The appreciative note cranked up a notch.
"You've heard of him?"
"Honey, everyone here's heard of the Power Company. The heroing business is a small world."
"I could see that."
"Almost surprised to see him here. Although -" Ray's eyes left their study of Josiah to regard Rupe thoughtfully.
"What?" Rupe bristled.
Ray smiled disarmingly. "Sorry. I was thinking about Bruce. The race issue... complicates things."
Rupe started, not expecting such bluntness. "We're fine with it," he said defensively.
Ray sighed and looked into his drink. "I'm sure you are. I'm sure I am. The rest of the world?" He drained his glass and returned it to the bar.
Rupe felt suddenly guilty, realizing he'd misjudged something here. "Bruce is-?"
Ray gave him a sidelong glance. "Let's just say we're familiar with ... cultural differences ... inside the relationship. And how other people react to it."
"Is that why...?"
"No. Bruce wouldn't come here anyway. And I don't think I'd want him to. It would be to at odds with who he is." Rupe could hear the love in Ray's voice, and the longing. He knows about the distance, he thought.
"But you come."
"Another one, Ray?" the bartender asked.
Ray half-turned. "Sure."
"Hold on," Rupe ordered, draining his own glass and setting it down. "Remember, I've got this one."
Rupe nodded, and Ray gave him a faint smile.
A man in a red and black costume drifted by. "Hey, Ray."
"Hi, Al. You met-" Ray paused. "Okay, this is the embarrassing moment where I realize I should have asked your name earlier."
Rupe chuckled. "Rupe," he introduced, shaking hands with the costumed man.
"Al," the other man answered. "Ray, just wanted to thank you for the advice a while back."
"Things are better, then?"
"Oh, we're still having our moments," Al replied vaguely, "but we're still together."
"Yeah, it is." Al glanced at Rupe. "Stick close to Ray, here," he advised. "He's the best goddamned listener on the planet."
"You got that right," the bartender agreed as she set down the fresh drinks and accepted Rupe's money. "Course, now he's spending all his time with his honey."
"That's right, I heard you got hitched. Congratulations."
"Thanks," Ray acknowledged, picking up his drink. Rupe regarded him curiously.
"Listen, I gotta run. But I wanted to make sure I thanked you."
"Anytime, Al. You know that."
"Yeah. See ya. Bye, Maggie. Nice to meet you, Rupe."
Rupe waited until the other man had gone to ask his question. "You and Bruce - it's a new thing?"
Ray played his thumb over the band on his finger. "Little less than a year."
"Whirlwind romance. We'd known each other for a lot longer, but -"
"Yeah." Rupe sipped his drink. He knew about that. He remembered the long days of subtle flirtation with Josiah, the uncertain workplace game before they'd realized the attraction was mutual... "So you were coming here before-?"
Ray gave a slight smile. "You caught me. I was pretty much part of the furniture here before Pizza Night started. Back when it was just a few of the guys coming in from time to time to unwind. Had a few good drunks with some of them, watched relationships on the rocks, saw some recover, some shatter." He looked out into the crowd. "You help enough heroes home, you start to see the men under the bright colors. Or the power suits." He glanced at Rupe. "Or in jeans."
"Bruce isn't meta either."
Ray shook his head. "A hero in his own way. But no. Just a man."
Just a man. The way Ray said it, it sounded like the highest of possible praise. Rupe raised his glass. "To just men."
Ray's thoughtful expression gave way to a brilliant smile, and Rupe felt suddenly as if he could really like this man - that he could find a friend in him. "To just men," Ray echoed.
Rupe felt a presence behind him as he drank, and then the familiar scent of Josiah enveloped him just before his lover's large arm hooked his waist. Then the smoothness of Josiah's beard and the perfectly shaved cheek above it leaned against his neck. "Made a friend?" he asked.
Rupe turned his face to kiss Josiah. "Yeah. Ray, this is Josiah. Josiah, Ray."
Josiah accepted Ray's offered hand, and Rupe was faintly thrilled to see the hint of jealousy in his expression. "Nice to meet you, Ray," he said with careful politeness.
"Likewise," Ray answered, meeting Josiah's eyes frankly.
"You have a good time?" Rupe asked, slipping his arm under Josiah's suit coat.
Josiah nodded, still keeping his eyes on Ray. "Made some good contacts. I'm sorry I made you wait so long."
Rupe tightened his arm. "It wasn't so bad. Ray was just telling me about his partner."
"Oh?" Some of the tension left Josiah's body, and his gaze mellowed.
"Bored Rupe to tears, I'm sure," Ray commented.
"Not at all," Rupe disagreed. "You ready to go?" he asked Josiah.
"We can stay longer if you like."
Rupe slipped his fingertips under the waistband of Josiah's trousers. "Nah. There'll be other nights."
This got Josiah's attention. There was a flare of hope in his eyes. "You wouldn't mind?"
Rupe shook his head. "It's a nice change of pace. And there's good people here."
Josiah smiled. "Yes, I think there are."
"So let's head back to the hotel, and you can tell me about your night." Rupe took a swig of his drink, then contemplated the balance of it. "You want to finish this?" he asked, offering it to Josiah.
Josiah accepted the glass and took the final swallow. Then he set the glass on the bar. "You wanna walk, or shall I call a cab?"
Rupe snuggled in a little closer to Josiah. "It's a nice night."
Josiah nodded. "Well, then - I guess we'll see you next time, Ray."
"You'll catch me sometime," Ray agreed. "Good night, Josiah. Rupe."
Rupe stood and let Josiah lead him from the bar and out into the night. "He seems like a nice guy," Josiah commented.
"Yeah," Rupe agreed. "He's good company." He hooked a finger around one of Josiah's belt loops. "Can't hold a candle to you, though."
"Oh?" Josiah prompted.
Rupe smiled wickedly. "I don't want to go through his briefs."
Josiah actually laughed, wrapping his arms around Rupe and kissing the top of his head. "You never let me forget why I love you."
Rupe let himself relish the feel of Josiah's body pressed against him, nuzzling his chest a little and feeling the bulge in Josiah's pants twitch. Hero or not, meta or not, he was still a man. Still his man. "Hotel?" Rupe suggested.
"Hotel," Josiah agreed firmly, and with no further discussion, they walked off into the night.