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I'd never written a classic high school coming out/first time slash fic before. So now I have.
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It was the heat. Hottest Dakota summer in two decades and none of it would have happened if he hadn't been so damn hot. Hurting and tired and not thinking, even if that's what he was supposed to be, the thinker, the genius. The super-brain, and Richie wished it would shut down now like it had then. Instead it kept repeating the evening over and over in his head, like an old cassette, rewind and playback, until he wished he actually did have a tape deck between his ears, so the tape would have a chance of breaking.
Lying on his bed, staring up at the water stains on the ceiling as the fan hummed and rattled in the window, all he could see was Virgil's face, all he could hear was his best friend's voice. His brain was supposed to be his super-power but he'd never felt so powerless.
He'd heard of crime waves before, but had thought they were hyperbole, journalistic metaphor. Crime wave, like a heat wave, as if a hot front of illegal activity might descend over the city like the oppressive summer swelter. According to the FBI analysis touted on the news, the burglaries were the work of either a single, highly organized ring of professional thieves just come to town; or a couple of up-and-coming gangs competing. Either way, they were cleaning out the city like a bank vault, and while they were mostly targeting the people who could afford it, a few guards and cops and victims had already gotten hurt. Someone was going to die, sooner or later, if they weren't stopped.
"There's no metas involved, it's a job for the police," Richie had pointed out once, but just once, because Virgil didn't buy it and neither did he. Crime was crime and a hero was a hero and if Static was going to go out hunting, then of course Gear was going with him.
The thieves had been striking in the dead of night, not for the cover of darkness, Richie suspected, so much as because it was cool enough to move then. So they patrolled at night, every night, dividing their time between the uptown penthouses that were the thieves' targets, and the dark alleys downtown where heroes were always needed. And tried to sleep days, amid parents calling them lazy slackers and friends calling them out for fun, and this was no way to spend the last summer of high school. But by now he'd come to accept that his life was never going to be normal, had come to expect it.
If only it weren't so damn hot. Difficult to sleep, when your muscles were aching from the night's work and the rising sun was beating through the curtains, and even stripped to boxers the sheets stuck to your skin. He'd been designing a coolant system for his suit so he could at least be comfortable on patrol, but there hadn't been time to install it.
V didn't mind the heat, generally. Richie had speculated on ancestral trends, Virgil being genetically equipped to deal with Africa's tropical climes while his own Viking blood was acclimatized for Scandinavian winters; but the fact was that Virgil didn't mind the cold much, either. He just was more resilient, still wearing his costume's jacket on patrol, though by the night's end the T-shirt underneath would be sweat-soaked, wet black cotton molding to his chest like sheer silk and Richie would have to look elsewhere, V's face, his boots, the sky.
The humidity was getting to Static, though, draining him, so the constant sub-audible hum of energy running through him was dampened, the currents that Richie was used to prickling his scalp now imperceptible. Even touching Virgil, bumping into him or a casual brush against his arm, there wasn't the usual fuzzy static field playing against his fingers, just sweat and skin and it was too hot for contact anyway.
It was harder for Static to control his powers, not a dangerous strain, but the extra effort gave Virgil headaches, made him cranky. So they had been fighting anyway, the usual sniping spats of friends close enough to get under each others' skins, maybe snapping more than usual but they could let the heat apologize for them. It was August first tomorrow, and soon it would be fall, and it would be better in the fall. Cooler.
But still, this wasn't the way Richie had planned to come out to V.
Not that he'd exactly had a plan, per se, but he'd had some ideas. Most of them involving alcohol, at college, a couple years from now. When they were older. More experienced. And Virgil would probably have a...girlfriend, and he'd...have a...
It wasn't like V hadn't said it other times, and yeah, it had gotten to him then, too, but not enough to bring it up. Virgil didn't mean it, not like that, it was just something you said to piss the other guy off. It wasn't like Richie hadn't gotten far worse just playing video games online; no one really meant it, no one even thought about it, and he shouldn't be so goddamn sensitive. Sticks and stones. If only it hadn't been so hot, even so late at night, dark like an oven as they patrolled the city's warren of alleys.
The heat, and the bruises from Hotstreak blasting him into that dumpster. Francis at least enjoyed the weather, his fire raging higher and hotter than usual. Maybe something to do with the sun, his mutation modifying his cells to absorb more than vitamin D from the sunlight, though solar flares didn't have a significant effect on him. But definitely stronger.
Richie had picked himself up off the pavement, shaking his ringing head as he registered Virgil shouting his name—"Gear! You okay?" He'd been about to answer when Hotstreak had loomed over him, the fists raised over his head flickering with flame, orange hellfire in the murky night. Then a brighter, whiter light flashed and the fire streaked up into the sky, exploded in a starburst as it met the electric blast.
For a moment Richie was blinded, the speakers in his helmet crackling with the overcharge. Heart pounding in his ears, he blinked frantically into the darkness above him. Virgil had been flying straight into that attack, if he had miscalculated—and then Static swooped around the column of gray smoke, growling, "You don't touch him, you son of a bitch," and threw another lightning-white bolt. Before Hotstreak got off an answering blast, Gear fumbled to toss out the cuffs, automatic binders reinforced against metahuman abilities that snaked around his arms and legs, trussing him like a red-and-yellow-crested turkey.
A few minutes' questioning proved it was all in vain anyway. Hotstreak didn't know a thing about the burglaries, and whatever he had been up to climbing that balcony, they'd stopped him before he'd done anything illegal. They left him for the police to pick up, and he'd probably get out on bail by tomorrow, with nothing on him but the usual disturbing the peace. So in the end another night had been wasted, nothing to show but his bruised back and Static's irritated frown. Hotsteak had almost been smirking, squatting on the pavement with his arms locked behind him, not sweating—fire's a dry heat. "If I got electric burns I'm gonna sue, you cocksucking Superman-wannabe."
"Aww, I'll send you some aloe lotion," Static shot back. "Since no lawyer's gonna touch it. Superthugs like you are too hot to handle." He'd grinned, but Richie hadn't the energy even to groan. He'd hoped to get some sleep tonight while it still was night, but the sky was already getting light, sunrise only an hour away.
Virgil had picked up on his fatigue, nudged his arm as he turned away from their catch. "C'mon, partner, let's blow."
"You asking him to, or you volunteering?" Hotstreak sniped after them.
"Hey, I'm not the one who's flaming here. Missing your cellmate so much you can't wait to get back into prison, huh?"
Hotstreak had snarled like a rabid dog and Static kept smirking as they flew out of range. But once they'd touched down on the rooftop a few blocks from Richie's house, Virgil shook his head, grimaced. "God, I hate that fired-up faggot."
And he shouldn't have, but his back was hurting and it was too late, too hot. "Don't say that. Don't say things like that when you don't really mean them."
"But I do hate him," Virgil said, blankly.
"You don't have to call him—things like that. Someone might be offended."
"I was trying to offend someone. It worked, too, the way he was foaming." But there must have been something in his voice, because Virgil threw up his hands. "Okay, man, okay, Static will try to be more PC."
"It's not about being politically correct." If his face were flushed, it had been heavy exertion for such a sweltering night, and anyway the visor would hide it. "It's about saying dumb things when someone might hear you and might be insulted, might be hurt. Even if you're not actually a homophobe. Because you're not, right?"
"I got it, Rich, I'll watch my mouth," Virgil said, easily, one hand casually resting on his shoulder. "But it's cool now, bro, there's no one up here to hear but you."
And Richie saw it then, exactly how it would go, the chain reaction of conversation, like a chess game in which setting down one piece guarantees the mate six moves ahead. He could see all the possibilities, every alternative calculated as carefully as any supercomputer, but by that moment he'd already said it. "Yeah, I'm here."
Virgil's brain might not have been mutated like his, but he always was plenty smart. Too smart, and they'd known each other for too long. "Yeah, Richie, you're here. But I wasn't talking about you." They'd known each other for far too long; he could see how desperately Virgil wanted just to laugh and ignore it. And couldn't. "I wasn't. Right?"
"I don't know. Were you?" Sweat was sliding warmly from his stifling helmet down his neck, prickling where Virgil's gloved hand was too hot on his skin. "Did you mean you hate Hotstreak? Or just faggots in general?"
"You're not a—" V began, and stopped, and started again, "you don't—you've never—"
He didn't say anything, and didn't have to. Virgil lifted his hand, took one step back, then two. Three, opening clear space between them, too far to reach across. A careful distance, like Richie was something dangerous. Contagious, and it was no better or worse than he expected, and wasn't prepared for all the same.
"So you're..." Virgil sounded calm, not upset, but uncertain. "You like...you're really..."
The first pale reflections of dawn glowed on the smog and clouds overhead, and the traffic noise below was rising with the sun. He couldn't see what Virgil's expression really was, under the mask. Hatred or disgust, anger or fear—nothing he wanted to see anyway.
"How long?" Virgil asked finally. "I mean, how long have you been..."
"I dunno." There'd been so much going on, there had always been so much, and he hadn't really wanted to think about it. Hadn't thought about it, had tried to think about other things, he'd tried as hard as he could, with every cell in him denying it. Even a supergenius can't outthink everything, apparently. "I guess I've really known for about a year."
"A year," Virgil repeated, slowly, like he was making sure that was what he'd actually heard. "You've been—for a year—"
"Gay," Richie said, and his voice sounded angrier than he actually was, but he didn't know what to do about that. "I've been gay for longer than that, I'm pretty sure. Always, probably. I just didn't...I didn't notice before."
"You didn't notice!?" Virgil made a strangled laugh. "So how'd you notice, Richie? Was it me? Have you been checking me out? Peeping when we sleep over—Jesus, how many guys have you slept with for real? How many guys have you—"
"No, V, I wouldn't—even if—I don't—it's not like that!"
"Then what's it like? What's it like, now that you—you're a—a--"
"A fag! Say it! A homo! A dicklicking, cocksucking—"
"Shut up!!" V's yell was loud enough to echo off the brick walls, stirring sleepy pigeons into a flutter of white against the hot gray clouds. "Shut up," Virgil said again, quieter, breathing hard. "I didn't say that."
This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. The air was too hot, too humid; he felt like he was drowning, suffocating under the weight of the empty sky bearing down. "Sorry."
"I didn't say that," Virgil repeated, but his eyes were like he was looking at a stranger, wary, unwelcome.
It terrified him, more than anger ever could have. "I'm sorry, V," Richie said, desperately, "Sorry, just forget it, okay? We can just forget about it and—"
"No." Virgil shook his head. "No, Rich, we can't."
"Virgil, please. We can talk—"
"What do you want to say?" Like he was talking to a stranger, too, cool and reserved. Not spiteful or mean; he was the hero, after all, even now. But that reticent kindness was a worse cruelty. "You got some more secrets to spill now? Or you gonna keep the rest of them to yourself?"
"I'd've kept this one, too," Richie whispered, "if I'd known—I thought we were friends."
For a moment the city seemed to go silent, the traffic, the motors, the voices, everything stopped, like he had issued a challenge to reality itself, the very heat holding its breath. Then Virgil said, "Yeah, I thought so, too," as simple as that, and tossed down his disk, charged to a blinding glow in the fading night. By the time Richie had blinked away the afterimages he was just a glittering trail of sparks against the sky.
Richie didn't try to follow, just dropped down to the street, took off his costume to walk the couple blocks home. In the last year he had become an expert at entering too quietly to wake his folks. Once in his room Backpack crawled off his shoulders and onto its shelf, powering down next to his helmet. He locked the closet door, stripped off his t-shirt and jeans and sat down on the bed in his boxers, pressed the shock box's transmitter with his thumb. "You there?"
The only static to respond were erratic crackles of interference. "Virgil," he said over the hiss, "can we talk? Please? V?"
He waited, but there was no answer. Finally he put the radio on his nightstand, next to his folded glasses, and laid down. Outside the sun cast blunted shadows on the street, another muggy, hazy morning. Virgil should be home by now, flopped down on his own mattress, trying to snatch what sleep he could before it was too late in the morning to bother.
If he called the Hawkins' house Virgil might pick up the phone. Or his sister might, or his dad, and they could give Virgil a message if he were asleep now. If he didn't want to talk now, or later.
But Richie didn't know what message he could leave, didn't have anything that needed to be said, and it was too late now not to say anything. And it was so hot anyway, too exhausting to try to move through the thick blanket of humidity draped over the room. He should take a shower but that could wait until he got up later; he was sweating just lying here anyway.
He thought he should be angry, should be outraged and disillusioned and furious, and maybe later he would be, but now he just wanted to sleep. To shut his eyes and forget the heat, and his bruises, and his brain repeating the night, the words, the look on Virgil's face, over and over and over. This wasn't the way he had planned it, and maybe if he really was as smart as he seemed he never would have planned it at all, because as painful as it had been before, saying nothing, this was worse. Nothing could be worse than this.
Virgil's hand on his arm and he could feel where the glove had rested like a burn, invisible blister on his skin.
The shock box hissed softly on its empty channel, white noise muting the waking city outside. Stretched out on top of the sheets, he stared blindly up, not moving, just lying there, awake, because it was too damn hot to sleep, but that was okay, because it was also too hot to cry.
Five days later the heat wave had yet to break. Virgil didn't care, since it was just another excuse not to leave the house anyway. Sprawled sweating on the couch, he flipped channels, the television volume cranked high to be heard over the labored hum of their ancient AC unit.
News, boring. Cop show rerun, boring. Stupid superhero kiddy cartoon, boring. Discovery Channel special on a desert that was probably the only place on the planet hotter than Dakota, boring.
He could call Frieda, beg for a swim in her family's backyard pool. He could ask Daisy out to the movies, where the air conditioning might actually be functioning. He could put on his costume and zip a circuit around the city, let the wind cool him down—just a joy ride, since even the stupidest crooks wouldn't be out in the worst of the heat.
Ten-year-old sitcom, boring. Car commercials, boring. Local city talk show, boring.
He could nap, make up for all the sleep he still was missing, even not on patrol. Damn heat wave. Throwing down the remote he rolled over the couch. "Two zillion channels and nothing on."
"Because it's the middle of the afternoon," Sharon said from the doorway. "And why the hell don't you have a job yet? You planning to hit the lottery before college?" Virgil didn't look up as his sister crossed the room, fanning herself with a folded newspaper. "I should've just pulled overtime. The office has AC, and it's too hot, walking home in this," she complained, undoing the top buttons of her blouse. "Yuck."
"You could go take a mudbath," Virgil offered, not raising his head. "That's how pigs stay cool."
"And here I was gonna offer you some lemonade." Several layers of newspaper fluttered down over his face. "Go get a job, slacker."
"Shut it." Virgil brushed the wanted ads to the floor without sitting up. "Lemme alone."
"You shut it. I wanna veg, move over. You're taking up the whole couch."
"The chair's right over there."
Sharon put her hands on her hips and glared. "You're impossible. So when does the Boy Wonder get back from vacation to cheer you up?"
"You know, Richie? Blond dweeb, about this tall? I figure since he's not been planted here he must be on a trip with his folks."
"No, he's still in town, I think." Virgil sat up.
"You think?" Sharon repeated, incredulous. "So why aren't you out bugging him, if he's not here bugging us?"
"Couch's yours," Virgil said, getting up and tossing her the remote. "Watch whatever you want."
"Hey, hold on—Virgil!" When he didn't stop, Sharon grabbed his arm. "You've been even more annoying than usual, going around looking like that all week. What happened?"
"Looking like what?"
"Like your best friend just died. What happened to Richie?"
"Nothing happened to him." He shook her off before his rising temper gave her a more literal shock than that in the look in her eyes now. "He's okay."
"You guys had a fight?" she persisted.
"Not really." He'd thought it over enough times to decide it couldn't quite be called that. It had been too quiet, too calm. Too fast, over before he'd even realized what had happened. More like a sucker punch; a week later and he still was reeling. He couldn't remember exactly what he had said, what Richie had said, but thinking about it was enough to get him angry all over again, so he tried not to. Not when Richie wasn't either, apparently.
Every time the phone rang he expected Richie, but it hadn't once been him. He hadn't turned his shock box on—it was only for Static anyway, and he hadn't been out on patrol. Not like they'd—he'd—had much luck catching the gang before anyway.
Sharon's stare looked like she was suspecting him of stabbing Richie and stashing the body in a car trunk. "It's none of your business," he said. "Just, sometimes you think you know someone, and it turns out you really don't."
"O-o-oh," Sharon said, pressing one finger to her lip. "So he told you."
"No, he didn't tell me, he—wait, how do you know!?"
His sister winced, then blinked, all false innocence. "Know what?"
"Dammit, Sharon, he came out to you? When?"
"He didn't, not to me," Sharon said. "But since I happen to be female, I'm not blind. So I asked Daddy."
"Our dad!? Pops knows he's gay? Richie told everyone but me!?"
"No," Sharon shook her head. "Just Daddy, I think. Probably practice for with his own folks." She frowned. "Is that what this is? He's gay and now you're not talking?"
Virgil tried to walk away, but she reached up to grab him by the shoulders and sit him down again. "You ain't going nowhere. This is because of that? What'd you do? Richie hasn't even called here for a week, what did you say to him?
"What'd I say to him?" Virgil snapped. "Richie's the one who did the talking. Only it was an accident, he didn't even mean to let it slip, otherwise I might've never heard. And Pops knew all along and didn't tell me!"
"So you find out your best friend is gay, and you're not friends anymore? I should slap you, you bigoted, homophobic little shit!"
"Homophobic's got nothing to do with it!" He yelled it loud enough that Sharon rocked back on her heels as if he had physically shoved her, giving him the space to surge back to his feet.
Virgil ran one hand through his dreads, wondering when he had gotten so much taller than his sister. Richie had always been the right height to look him in the eye, and still was, but Sharon used to tower over both of them. She looked short now, not giving more ground but staring up at him wide-eyed as he caught his breath. "It's not the gay thing," he said, more quietly. "Yeah, that's kinda weird, but I'm not a total asshole. I've been thinking it through, I can get over that. But Richie didn't want me to know. He kept it to himself, all this time."
"Maybe he was just trying to figure out the best way to tell you," Sharon suggested. "I mean, that's a pretty big secret. He can't know how people would react to it, so he's being careful."
"You don't have to be that careful around your crew, not if they're really your brothers! You didn't see Richie, the way he was talking. He was really upset that he'd let it slip. It was a big deal to him, it mattered so much to him that he didn't want me to know a damn thing. It's a big secret, yeah, but the stuff that counts, I've always told Richie. Right away, not accidentally a year later. Even when I wasn't telling anyone else, even when I wasn't totally sure how he'd handle it. I still let him in. Hell, I told him right away when I became—" He stopped himself just in time. "Uh, even really big things. I've told him. But he didn't want me to let me hear this."
"Ah," Sharon said, remarkably passing over the chance to pry in order to nod knowingly. "So it's because he didn't trust you."
"Doesn't trust me. He hasn't even tried to call. We're supposed to be friends but he doesn't care enough to bother."
"Have you tried calling him?"
"Hey, he doesn't want to talk anymore, I don't want to bug him."
Sharon continued to tap her lower lip thoughtfully. "Does Richie know what got you mad?"
"Huh? He was the one who said he didn't want me to know!"
"So you told him?" she pressed. "That it was the trust thing, not the gay thing?"
"Well, I didn't say it exactly like that."
"Boys," Sharon said, disparagingly. "So Richie didn't want to tell you he was gay, probably because he was worried you'd freak out over it and wouldn't want to be friends anymore. But he finally does have the guts to open up—and my stupid little brother freaks out and doesn't want to be friends. I totally should slap you."
"You don't think Richie really thinks that..."
"I think your entire gender is born brain-damaged."
"Shit," Virgil said, and sat down again on the sofa. Trying hard not to think of Richie, yelling at him like his voice would crack if he lowered it. He still couldn't remember exactly what he had said, not even whatever it was that had started this. Some stupid thing about Hotstreak, and Richie knew he didn't mean it like that. He had to know. Virgil had said things like that before, hadn't he, and Richie hadn't cared, Richie had known it was nothing more than verbal sparring. Throwing back at their enemies what was thrown at them, because that was always the quickest way to rile the bastards up. Same as you insulted a guy's mother, even though you'd never met the lady, because it was the kind of thing that pissed someone off. Just the way everyone talked, and Richie had said himself that Virgil didn't mean it. He had to know.
Okay, it had thrown him a little when he had caught on to what Richie was talking about, maybe he could have handled it better, but you had to give a guy a couple minutes to adjust to something like that. But Richie had backed off, his shoulders hunched in—not just embarrassed about his slip. Like he was bracing for a blow, like Virgil was going to punch him out or something once he really figured it out. Like he hadn't believed Virgil would be cool enough with it even to let it drop.
And it hurt to think he wasn't trusted even that much, but it hurt as much to remember that last glimpse of his friend, standing alone on that rooftop. Watching him go, not trying to follow. Possibly not because he didn't care, but because he didn't dare to follow. Possibly feeling just as betrayed as Virgil himself had felt.
As terrifically annoying as it was to admit, Sharon might be right. Richie could be an awfully dumb super-genius sometimes.
"Well, maybe not all men," Sharon amended. She was looking at the TV; when he followed her gaze to the screen he saw a news program had come on. Shaky camera footage followed a figure in green rocketing across the city skyline, as the anchor cheerfully reported, "--the FBI is joining forces with Dakota's own local heroes to—"
Virgil bounced up onto his feet. "What the—who's joining forces?"
Sharon gave him an odd look. "It's Static's partner. You know, that guy with the crazy equipment, Gear."
"Yeah, obviously, but why the hell is he working alo—uh, I mean...isn't it hot to be out heroing?"
"Unlike some lazy bums, other people got jobs to do, and they do 'em," Sharon sniffed. "I bet Static doesn't waste his summer sulking and being a jerk."
"Well, that's—ah, forget it, I got—something to do—" Virgil vaulted the couch.
"Oh, for God's sake, don't forget the phone, you idiot!" Sharon snapped after him, but her brother was already pounding up the stairs.
The phone wouldn't have done any good anyway if Richie was out on patrol. Virgil slammed shut his bedroom door behind him as he dodged for the desk, snatched the shock box from the drawer and flicked it on. "Gear, you there? It's Static. Come in, Gear. Please."
The channel crackled for a moment. Just as he opened his mouth to try again, the answer came, "Roger, Static. Gear here."
Richie's voice was emotionless, rigorously, professionally calm. Virgil was still glad to hear it, hadn't realized how much he had missed it until he had. "You alone, Gear, or you busy right now?"
"I'm at home, alone," Richie said.
Missing him didn't mean he wasn't still pissed as hell, though. "Great, so you can tell me exactly what the hell you're doing working with the FBI!"
There was a brief pause; then Richie said, "What do you think I'm doing? They've asked us to help shut the burglars down."
"If they asked us, then why'd Static have to hear about it on the five o'clock news?"
"Because Static," Richie said, low enough that Virgil couldn't tell if he were angry or just being logical, "didn't answer the call I sent over the shock box, after they contacted me through Backpack's police channel this morning. And I didn't want to compromise your identity by giving you a phonecall from their headquarters."
"Ah." It did make sense. "So you just got back?"
Richie's pause was longer and hence more noticeable this time. "A couple hours ago."
"I've been home all day," Virgil said, feeling his own temper start to rise again. "Phone hasn't rung once."
"I didn't—I wasn't sure if I should call. If you'd want to be in on it."
"They don't want Static?"
"No, they do, they kept asking where you were. They've noticed you haven't been around much this week. But they want Gear, too. They're running a computer analysis they want me to tweak, and I already told them I'd do it. But I told them I can't speak for you. You don't have to do it. Just tell me now, and I'll let them know tomorrow."
"Of course I'll do it! Why wouldn't I help them out?"
"Because you'll have to work with me," Richie said, and Virgil thought he must be angry, the way his voice fell even lower, unless he had dropped the shock box. "And I didn't think we were partners anymore."
Virgil sat down on the corner of the desk. His room was stifling hot with the sun slanting through the curtains, but there must be a draft coming from the AC downstairs because he shivered. "You don't want to be partners anymore, Richie?"
"It's not what I want, V. Virgil." But there was a little catch in Richie's voice, and Virgil suddenly realized that quiet wasn't anger. "It's what you're comfortable with." It was anguish. "If you—if we can still work together sometimes, that's good. That's really—"
"Work together? I don't want to 'work together'!" The shock box crackled, and Virgil noticed the faint sparking aura dancing over his skin. Hastily he backed away from his desk before he could fry his computer's circuits.
"It's okay, we won't have to, not after this. Like I said, you don't even have to work with them, and—I can't quit being Gear, not now, but I'll be careful not to—"
Virgil didn't think he'd ever heard Richie sound so miserable, not any of the times they had fought before, not even when he had run away from home after Virgil had first met his dad. He couldn't listen to what Richie was saying, didn't want to listen, just wanted him to stop. Not just because it didn't matter but because it hurt too much to hear it. "Hey, bro, listen to me—I didn't—Richie, shut up!"
With a gulp that would have been a sob if he had been crying instead of babbling, Richie did. "I didn't mean it like that," Virgil said quickly into the gap. "I meant—of course we're partners, but I don't want just to do the hero thing together. I want to be friends, dammit!"
He sounded so surprised that it surprised Virgil in turn to a stunned quiet. "Yeah, Rich. I do."
"Even though I'm..."
"What? Gay? Jesus, bro! You really thought I was gonna freak so bad over that?" Stunned, and a little sick. Not just because his big sister had been nauseatingly correct. "Come on, Richie. Why'd I care what you jerk off to? We've been friends for long enough, I thought you'd know me better than that. I thought you'd trust me better than that."
"Trust you?" Now Richie sounded bewildered, too. "That wasn't—I knew you wouldn't tell anyone else, and I knew you'd try not to hold it against me. But it was easier, not saying anything. It wasn't complicated—"
"It's not complicated now," Virgil said. "You're supposed to be a genius, how difficult is it to say, 'By the way, bro, I'm gonna date guys.' Dammit, Richie, you didn't have any trouble telling my pops!"
"V, your dad's the only other guy I've told. And I was terrified, talking to him about it."
"Terrified?" Virgil tried to imagine anyone frightened to talk to his father, and failed badly. When it got down to it he had a lot of respect for his old man, but he wasn't exactly terror-inspiring. "Of my dad?"
"I was scared, if he knew—once he knew—that he wouldn't want us to be friends anymore. That he wouldn't let us be."
"He'd never do something like that," Virgil said, amazed. "Shit, he'd probably smack me if I did. And even if he did, my father doesn't decide my friends, not any more than yours does."
"Virgil, if I told my father I was...I'd be lucky if he just disowned me. He's trying to get over the racism thing, but he hates gays more than he ever hated blacks. He...the things he calls them. Us. It's worse than anything you've ever said, and he's not joking."
Virgil didn't know how to answer that. Richie was so much like him, so much like a brother, that it was difficult to understand that his home, his real family, could be so completely, scarily different. "Richie," he settled for saying at last, since there wasn't anything that could make that any better, "I'm really sorry about the crap I've said before. That hurt your feelings. I'll watch my mouth."
"Yeah, well. I'm sorry, too. For overreacting."
"You weren't, not to that stuff. I was being an asshole."
"No, you weren't, you just weren't thinking about what you were saying. I knew you weren't, I'm an idiot. And I should've known better. I'm sorry, V. I should've trusted you. It was just..."
He stopped. Virgil waited a moment, but Richie didn't continue. And he could have asked, but what they had now felt so fragile, an understanding too new for questions that could wait until Richie really wanted to talk. He sighed, forced his voice light to say, "Okay, so tomorrow morning, we on with the FBI?"
"We're on." Richie's smile sounded so clearly even through the walkie's tinny speaker that Virgil almost could see it, and some of the hurt of that unspoken refusal eased. He could wait, if his friend needed him to that badly. "Just come to the main police station downtown, second floor, third window on the right. They're not gonna expect us before 10 AM, they know we're teens."
"How much else do they know about us?"
"Not sure," Richie admitted. "Though they seemed like they'd like more, if they could get it. That's why I was worried about calling. They're supposed to be the good guys, but...hard to tell who you can really trust. In the government or anywhere else."
"Yeah." Too damn hard to tell.
"V, we—we're cool, right?"
Virgil grinned, hoping Richie could hear it over the box as clearly as he had heard Richie's. "Cooler than cool, bro, and always will be." Then he grimaced, wiped his brow. "Even when it's thirteen zillion degrees outside."
Richie snorted. "That in Fahrenheit or Kelvin? Though as a matter of fact I've almost perfected a miniature cooling unit for my suit. I could see about installing one in your jacket."
"That would be sweet! Uh, wait, unless it backfired like that mini-vacuum thing that blew air out instead of sucking in. That'd not be so hot."
"Actually it'd be very hot, which would be the problem. Besides, the vac works great now, I just needed to swap the manifold—"
"See you tomorrow, Rich."
"See you, V."
The shock box hissed blank air. Virgil's thumb was on the switch when it crackled back to life. "Hey, V?"
"I...uh...nothing. Forget it."
"Hey, Richie, why don't you meet me tomorrow at 9 in the lot? So you can fill me in on what the FBI's up to in person."
"Sure thing. Later."
"Later." Virgil shook his head, switched off the box and put it back in the drawer.
Then he took it out again, turned it back on and clipped it to his jeans under his t-shirt. With the volume lowered no one else would hear it, but his electromagnetic aura would pick up the change in the signal pulse if he were contacted again. Just in case Richie figured out tonight what else he wanted to say.
The heat wave must be breaking; the breath of evening air through the window was cooler than any in days. He was grinning as he went back downstairs to see what was for dinner.
They hadn't talked much about it. Partly because the week had been tremendously busy—even more than usual, between the FBI's requests, and Static and Gear's impromptu leave of absence the week before. Partly because they were leaving it alone, not picking at the wound to let it heal.
Besides, if Richie wasn't going to bring it up, Virgil certainly wouldn't. None of his business anyway. Like he said, he didn't care what—who—turned Richie on, but it took a little work to wrap his brain around it, that a guy could go hard looking at another guy who wasn't Brad Pitt. Maybe not normal, because there was no way Richie could be called normal by any definition. But okay, because Richie was such an awesome guy, so this had to be, too. But that didn't mean Virgil was at all curious about the exact details of being homosexual.
Except for the part where he totally, totally was.
"So, uh, what's your type? Of guy, I mean?" he finally asked, casually, cautiously. And, "So can you always, you know, tell, if another guy is?" And, "So the reason you wouldn't give me the password to your porn is 'cuz it's all, er, that kind of stuff?" And, "So am I, uh, you know? Hot?"
And Richie answered, very shortly, "Tell you later," and "I wish," and "Yeah, pretty much," and "V, I really don't want to talk about this, okay?"
"Okay," he said instantly, because it was Richie's right, after all.
Except it bothered him. Usually he and Richie would talk about anything and everything; they'd never had topics that were out-of-bounds before, except when one of them got too obsessed with a game or a movie and the other would insist on a moratorium out of exasperated boredom. And of course they talked about sex. They were teenage boys.
Though when Virgil thought about it now, whenever conversation had turned to the latest actress or centerfold, Richie tended to go quiet, letting Virgil do most of the talking. Maybe all of it. And he'd never been clear about what girls at school he liked, had shrugged off any suggestions of a date with a quick joke. The girls who had asked him out—Virgil knew of a couple at least; it had to be the glasses—he had politely put off.
Maybe Sharon had a point, with the not being blind thing.
He was seeing now, though. And as far as he could see, Richie was the same guy he had always known, same glasses, same hair, still into comics and scifi, still easy-going and easily distracted and wildly funny. And smarter than any human had any right to be, of course. Not that Virgil bought into stereotypes anyway, his dad never would stand for that, but it was nevertheless reassuring that Richie showed no signs of being about to bust out in leather and lace and showtunes.
But Richie didn't want to talk about it. And that threw off their rhythm, that natural give-and-take that they'd effortlessly maintained since they'd first met in grade school. Virgil couldn't help but think about this new angle to his friend. Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it drove the superhero up a wall. Gradually Virgil found himself running out of things to say that wouldn't lead to It, sooner or later. Which meant for the first time ever, he was finding himself with nothing to talk about with Richie.
And Richie, who usually could be counted on to fill Virgil's occasional silences, was way too quiet. Maybe he didn't have as much to say anymore, or maybe he was also concerned about bringing up anything that might lead to It.
So they kept getting quieter, not the easy calm of two friends who don't need words, but an uncomfortable silence that was, in its way, as bad as when they had deliberately stopped talking to each other. Until one day, Virgil realized that other than their discussions with the FBI agents, he hadn't exchanged more than a single-word greeting and farewell with his best friend.
And that sucked. And he wasn't going to stand for it, especially not when Richie had to hate it as much as he did.
As Static he had become used to tackling problems directly. Maybe too directly sometimes, but then again maybe a shock to the system was what their friendship needed now. An outright fight would be better than this wasting peace. "So why don't you want to talk about it?"
They were sitting side by side on the brick rim of an apartment complex rooftop, across the street from the penthouse the Bureau agents had given a fifty-percent-chance of being targeted tonight. The other three most likely possibilities were being watched by the police. Since the agents' predictions had been accurate with a ten percent margin of error the last three nights—an impressively accurate model, given the inconsistency of the crimes, Gear had stated—Static and Gear had decided to go along with the stake-out.
So far, however, they hadn't spotted so much as a creeping rat on the opposite rooftop. But Richie must have had other things on his mind than their lookout, because he was distracted enough to answer, "Talk about what?" without glancing over.
Then he sat up straighter, and Virgil could almost feel the sudden tension in his body, like a subtle current. "Oh. You mean, about that. About me."
"Yeah. Or no, not about you, just the gay thing in general. Why you so tight about it?"
"Why you riding me?" He didn't sound angry, though. "I thought—you said you didn't have a problem with it, V." Less like he was gearing up for a fight and more like he was looking for an escape route, a fox hole to dive into and hide.
And Virgil didn't want that. Not for one of them to run again. "I don't have a problem with it, I swear. But right now it's feeling like I'm trying to ignore a ten-foot-tall meta mutating into a dinosaur right in the middle of the room, you know, bro? Like, I'm not trying to offend you. And I get that you don't want me to know, but I still want to."
"You know. What it's like. In general, and for you, too."
"Why?" Richie asked. "If you don't care."
"I didn't say I don't care," Virgil corrected. "I care." Richie's head started to turn away and Virgil elbowed him in the ribs, hard. "Don't be an idiot. Not like that, dammit. I care because you're my friend, and I'm trying to understand this."
"It's not that I don't want you to know," Richie said. "It's just...I want to be your friend. Your partner. Like I was before. Not your gay buddy."
"My what? How's that? I mean, you are—"
"I'm gay, yeah. But—okay, V, how'd you like to be my black friend?"
He put just enough spin on the words, a contemptuous twist probably learned from his father, that Virgil couldn't help but react, recoiling a second before blinking and nodding. "Ah. It's not about being politically correct, right? Or being a token. Richie—"
"I know you wouldn't do that to me, V. I know you wouldn't, but then you were asking those questions, and I—I don't want to tell people I'm gay, it's not that I'm ashamed of it, but it sounds like I'm pretending to be something, when inside I just feel like I always have. When I realized I was becoming a metahuman, and my brain had really changed—that felt like something. Like I was really different. But being gay, that really only says what I like, it's not who I am. Except—when you found out, when I told you, and I thought...it was different, then. I felt it then. And I don't want to again, not like that. Not with you."
"You won't have to," Virgil said. "You're who you've always been. My best friend. That's not changing, I ain't gonna let it. It's just—I want to know who my best friend is. Not just that he's some gay guy. I'm used to not knowing what's going on inside that crazy brain of yours, but I thought I had a handle on what was happening here," and he poked his finger into Richie's chest, the left side below the ribs, where his heart beat under the reinforced contours of his suit. "And now I find I didn't have a clue about that either, and it...kinda scares me. Like I don't know you at all, when I thought I had you down pretty good."
"Shit, Virgil." Richie's voice stuck and he turned his head away again. This time Virgil didn't try to stop him, as he flipped up his helmet's visor, brushed his hand over his face like he might be wiping away sweat. "You do. Know me. Better than anyone."
His computer chirped a response to a muttered question, and Richie took off his helmet, ran his fingers through his hair. Sweat stuck the short spikes up at peculiar angles. Dropping the helmet on his lap, he sat back, leaning on his arms. "Backpack still doesn't detect any motion across the way. Looks like we're gonna be here for a while. So...what do you want to know?"
"For real. Anything. Shoot."
"So." Virgil said. "Um. Er. ...Have you talked about this much?"
"Nope." Richie shook his head. "Like I said, I haven't told anyone except you, and your dad."
"So why did you tell him, anyway? And when was that?"
"Just a couple months ago. And because...I figured I had to start somewhere. I knew a couple kids at the center were out, so I figured he could deal with it. And he's always been square with me. Sometimes I wish he really were my...anyway, he was totally cool with it. Didn't give me so much as a weird look."
"Yeah, well..." Virgil ducked his head, a little ashamed. "That's my pops." Who would probably be plenty disappointed with him if he ever heard what had happened between them. Even if it had been a misunderstanding.
Richie misinterpreted his look. "V, your dad wanted me to tell you. That was the one thing he got on my case about. And I'm sorry I didn't listen to him sooner..."
"S'okay, Rich." Virgil reached across to sling an arm over his friend's shoulders. "Don't sweat it."
He could feel Richie slowly relax, the tense set of his shoulders loosening as he leaned in a little. It was, Virgil realized, the first real contact they'd had since Richie had dropped that bombshell, other than poking with a finger or bumping fists. Well, it had been hot. Still, he was relieved to find that it didn't feel weird or awkward, just the same easy companionship as always. He'd always been a physical guy, and sometimes he thought he might have gotten moreso after becoming Static, like he needed to ground himself.
Not that he'd had any reason to worry. It wasn't like Richie was going to be copping a feel. They were best friends, close as brothers. It would be weirder than that brief time he'd thought he had a crush on Frieda. Besides, other than gender he probably wasn't even Richie's type.
"So, Virgil," Richie interrupted his musing by elbowing him teasingly in the ribs, "what other burning questions about gaiety have been frying you? You gotta have some good ones. Give."
"C'mon. There's no such thing as a stupid question."
"What about a question that will get my ass kicked?"
Richie considered. "I promise not to kick too hard. Oh, just say it, V. Now I'm dying to know."
"Uh...so...which one are you, when you...like, in bed?"
"Are you on, you know, top? Or do you usually...I mean...uh..."
"Oh." The ambient streetlight was enough for Virgil to see Richie's face turn florescent pink. "I...uh...I don't know."
"Jesus, V, I'm a virgin as much as you are."
"I—I am not! I—uh—Daisy and I—"
Richie just eyed him. The blush receded to just his ears, and his gaze was so steadily fixed that Virgil finally ducked out of range, laughing, "Okay, fine, you got me. But almost, man! Third base at least." He nodded decidedly. "But you, you haven't done anything at all...?"
"Not nothing," and the blush was promptly back. "Just...not all the way."
"When? With who...?"
"Last semester, with Whittaker. We—he'd heard of this place, this club downtown that's open to underage kids some weeknights. We went together mostly 'cuz we didn't want to go alone, but a place like that...we ended up fooling around a little. But Gil graduated anyway, he's going to Dakota U, and he's met a junior there—"
"Ah, so—wait, Gil? Gilbert Whittaker?"
"The quarterback Whittaker? 200-pounds-of-pure-attitude Whittaker the Undertaker?" Virgil frowned. "Didn't you tutor him a couple times in pre-cal? And then he kept calling you Egghead."
"Well, er...yeah..." Richie's blush became a full-force magenta that clashed with the green of his costume.
Virgil smacked his forehead. "Oh, man, don't tell me, that was, like, some kinda petname? Were those tutoring gigs really study sessions, or—" He held up two pairs of fingers to frame quotes, "'study sessions'?"
"No, the tutoring was real. At least, he needed it. But the second time after school he told me about that place—he guessed about me, Gil's good at calling them."
"So he asked you for pre-cal help on purpose? To ask you out?"
"I dunno. He thought I was. Uh. Cute."
"Cute." Imagining Richie as cute wasn't that difficult. He had that friendly, open face, and the brightness of his mind shone in his eyes; they were the same kind of things that Virgil found appealing in girls. Imagining a big buff super-jock like Whittaker thinking such a thing was a little trickier.
"He likes blonds. Or glasses. Or maybe it's the brains, the guy he's seeing now is a biochemistry student at Dakota U, wants to be brain surgeon."
A super-jock who liked boys. Who liked boys like Richie...had they kissed? With tongue? Had someone's hand gone down someone's jeans—whose jeans? How do two guys actually make out? "So you guys aren't going out anymore?" Virgil asked.
"I don't know if we were ever going out, really," Richie said. "The stuff we did, we both knew it was just for fun. But yeah, he's pretty serious with this guy now. Last I talked to him, he was even thinking of coming out completely, except he's going to be on the team at Dakota U and he's not sure how that'll go."
"Man. And I thought Whittaker was doing half the cheerleaders." The guy had to have five inches on Richie, at least. Richie would practically look like a girl next to him, except Richie didn't look at all like a girl, even when he wasn't showing off his biceps in his costume. All guy, the way he dressed and talked.
"Yeah, the cheerleaders were all covering for him, they thought it was cute. They all knew about him, though the team didn't."
Not quite as uber-masculine as Whittaker, but still all guy, and just how far had they gone anyway? "Whittaker—geeze!" Virgil shook his head. "Unbelievable."
"V, you don't...knowing me and Gil did anything together, you don't have a problem with it?"
"A problem with it? Oh yeah, I got a problem. Richie, I am gonna kill you."
"All this fantastic gossip and I wasn't in on any of it! And now Whittaker's graduated, it doesn't do any good!"
"Okay, now I am gonna kick your ass." Grinning, Richie raised a fist in mock threat, but before he could give Virgil a shove Backpack beeped softly. Grabbing his helmet from his lap, Richie crammed it back on his head as Virgil shot to his feet, scanning the opposite rooftop. "What? You detecting motion?"
"No!" Richie activated the rockets in his heels, kicking off into the rooftop in an explosive burst, heading away from their targeted building. Virgil scrambled onto his disk to zoom after him as Richie called back over his shoulder, "It's a police report, there's been another burglary, not at any of the places being watched!"
"What? Shit!" The two heroes burned a bright trail through the night sky.
In the end they got there too late; the police were at the scene, and the burglars had already fled, taking with them some quarter of a million in jewelry. After an hour and a half of fruitless searching for any trace of the thieves, they called it a night. "You think they could be Bang Babies?" Virgil remarked, as they made their way home. "Vanishing without a trace like that."
Richie shrugged. "Maybe, but you'd think someone would've seen something, if they were. The guards and owners who've been knocked out haven't noticed anything weird."
"Maybe we should just forget this. I mean, they're crooks, yeah, but not that many people have been getting hurt, and those FBI guys seem on top of it."
"Yeah," Richie said, "and I'm getting as frustrated as you, bro, with these crooks showing us up like this. But we did promise our help."
"I know, but there's gotta be better things to do with our time than sit on buildings all night."
Richie laughed. "Actually my social calendar's pretty empty."
"I was thinking more like sleeping. But what, no hot date tomorrow?"
He meant it mostly as a joke, and Richie answered it mostly as a joke, "Not tomorrow, or the day after that. Or the year." He sighed in exaggerated self pity, or something else. "Told you, V, I'm not seeing anyone now."
"Ah, well," Virgil said, "when I get a girlfriend I'll make sure she's got a hot brother."
"In other words, I should look into a computer dating service or something, if I want any hope of getting some action?"
"We'll get these crooks soon," Richie said, before they parted for the night. "We're almost onto them, I'm sure of it. Let's give it another week. Static always gets his man, right?"
"Static and Gear, always—right on!"
But it wasn't the burglars occupying Virgil's thoughts as he crawled into bed, whatever those crooks were up to. Instead he found himself picturing Gilbert Whittaker, the brawny, good-looking quarterback standing next to Richie. Looming over him, tall and broad-shouldered, auburn hair and handsome tanned face; was that what Richie liked? Whittaker, putting those big arms around him, and Richie—would have been grinning, that happily absorbed smile he got when concentrating on something he was enjoying, like a new comic or a particularly tricky mathematical equation.
Virgil had told Richie he didn't have a problem with it. He hadn't been lying. Why should he? It wasn't his business anyway, and while it had lasted Richie had been happy enough with it, the way he had been talking. Whatever it was that they had had. Whatever they had done.
Virgil had a good imagination, and it wasn't something he found innately gross, the idea of two guys getting it on. Sex was sex, and sex was hot, and he'd had his share of odd dreams about more than girls. It was part of being a teenager, all those overactive hormones. He didn't really want to imagine this, though. Too weird, when it was his best friend.
Richie had kissed him, they must have gone at least that far. Whittaker would have taken off Richie's glasses, and his eyes looked bigger without them, clear bright hazel, even if he was virtually blind without his specs. Whittaker would have cupped his face, pale cheek against his tanned hand, and Richie would have pressed into it, would have closed his eyes and leaned forward with his lips opening, just a little.
Richie and Whittaker, with their mouths mashed together, and Whittaker's big hands feeling Richie up, touching him, wherever he liked to be touched, his back, and his butt, that particular spot under his ribs where he was especially ticklish, and why the hell was he thinking about this? Why wasn't he just asleep; he was tired enough to be.
And Richie wasn't seeing Whittaker anymore anyway. Wasn't seeing anyone now.
Not all the way. Just a little making out; it wasn't like Virgil didn't see guys making out every school day in the high school corridors, even if usually it was with girls. Even if Richie was his friend, it couldn't be any weirder than Sharon making out with Adam; he'd accidentally stumbled across that a couple times, which was a couple times more than he would have preferred.
Richie deserved to have someone making him happy. Even joking around, Virgil hadn't missed the slight loneliness in his friend's tone. The same frustration he'd felt himself—it would be difficult to manage a girlfriend and still be Static, he'd had a hard enough time juggling regular friends, but a guy couldn't help but want a relationship all the same, sometimes.
Someday. And it would be one damned lucky guy, who got someone as awesome as Richie for a boyfriend.
Virgil fell asleep wondering who that guy might be.
A week and many dreams later, he shot awake realizing he knew.
He closed his eyes, the images from the dream still lingering behind his lids, the feel still on his lips when he touched them. Flopping back on his bed, he covered his face with his pillow to block out the rising sunlight. Wondering if it was some secret rule that a superhero's life had to be this complicated. "Ah, hell...Richie..."
Virgil had something to say to him. The way his eyes kept sliding to Richie as Agent Statler droned on was a dead giveaway.
Actually, Virgil had had something to say to him for the last week, at least. Richie could tell by the way he jumped between non sequiturs when they talked, the way he literally jumped when Richie jostled his arm to get him on track, and fidgeted all through the one chance they'd had to crash on the couch watching a movie. V hadn't managed to spit it out even when they were alone, however, much less sitting in costume among a group of policemen listening to an FBI agent lecture.
Though in all honesty Richie hadn't given him much chance to say it. They'd been talking a lot, but even out of costume most of their discussions had centered around the current case. They really needed to find a better way to disguise their hero conversations than by referring to their mutual favorite, absolutely non-existent TV show, but right now everyone was discussing the burglaries anyway, so that wasn't much of an issue.
Better that than the gay thing. Virgil seemed to have exhausted his immediate curiosity; or else reached the point the questions had started embarrassing him. Either way, Richie was grateful. They had fallen back into their normal routines, hanging out together as much as before, and the give-and-take teasing banter didn't have any more of an edge than it ever did. His coming out might not have even been a blip on the radar.
Except now Virgil had something to say to him, and the odds were against it not having anything to do with that. So maybe Richie had been changing the subject or cracking jokes, not giving Virgil much chance to talk seriously of late, unless it was about the burglars. They didn't have time for more of that drama now. They had a job to do.
Professional responsibility. And that he had no idea what Virgil wanted to say, but was pretty sure he didn't want to hear it.
At times Richie regretted that mindreading hadn't been included in the whole super-genius mutation package. He at least wished that the human equation were as simple as chemistry or quantum physics. Human beings were ultimately made up of the same elementary particles that comprised everything, but they didn't follow the same predictable natural laws as everything else.
He had read extensively in the field of psychology, especially when he had first realized he had become a metahuman and was trying to figure out precisely how his brain had been affected. Dakota University was happy to give Gear a card and full access to their library stacks. But while he had gotten a good grasp of neuropsychiatry, and was fairly certain he had deduced a couple properties of synaptic action that hadn't actually been proven by any neurobiologists yet, the higher functions of human behavior remained as baffling as ever.
It was an amazing thing, really, that Richie knew Virgil better than anyone in the world, and yet still couldn't understand what was really going on inside his head. He could forecast criminal behavior with a better degree of success. Statistics don't apply to individuals, and Virgil was even more individual than most. Even after being friends for a decade, Virgil still could surprise him. Maybe that was just V. Or maybe it was the combination of him and Virgil that made it so unpredictable.
A whisper interrupted his contemplation. "Yo, Gear. You're on."
The agents and officers were looking at him expectantly. "Right," Gear said, standing and clearing his throat while he quickly collected his thoughts. Once settled, his pre-memorized speech poured as easily from his mouth as a recording. "Well, gentlemen—and ladies—while, as you all know, we've yet to find a single fingerprint at any of the crime scenes, I've been over what evidence we have found, and given the consistency of the methods of break-ins, taking into account the different environments, I've calculated an eighty-seven percent probability"--roughly rounded, of course—"that we're dealing with a single, experienced gang..."
Everyone was watching him, nodding thoughtfully along with his conclusions. After a couple years as Gear, the respectful gazes of the agents and cops were pressure he could handle. Harder to deal with was Virgil's steady attention, those dark eyes looking at him with—whatever it was. That anticipation, almost apprehension. He was the one talking, but Virgil had the stage fright, for a week now, working up to whatever he was going to say.
If Richie gave him the chance say it. What was he afraid of hearing, anyway? It wasn't like Virgil was going to say, sorry, the gay thing wasn't working after all, and call off their friendship. Well, he could, but he wouldn't, and any doubts Richie might have to the contrary were no more than a flawed self-confidence, the legacy of years living with his father's prejudiced views. Richie could follow elementary psychology that well, at least.
It might be something innocuous. Maybe nothing to do with him, even. Virgil had his own life. Maybe he hadn't said it yet because it actually wasn't any of his business. "Richie, I want to go to college in New Zealand." "Richie, I like the new Star Wars movies better than the old ones." "Richie, I want to ask Daisy to marry me."
He played them all in his head but none of them seemed right. Who knew, though. He could calculate to the eighth decimal place the probability of his body spontaneously combusting, but this was pure guesswork.
"Richie, I know how you feel about me."
That was the big one. The most likely one, if he had to guess cold with no statistics to back it up, nothing but instinct and a creeping dread.
No, V, I haven't been honest with you. Even knowing how upset you got about my secrets before. Even though you probably have a right to know.
He'd almost said it a couple times. That first night, even, when the truth had first come out. And later, the couple times Virgil had skirted around the issue of what he liked. Who he liked.
'Am I hot?'
Geeze, V, ask someone else. A gay guy who's not in love with you. Don't want biased results, do you?
No, he couldn't help but be grateful that Virgil had stopped the questions. Honesty will only get you so far. It's one thing to come out to one's best friend. It's another thing to mention, "Oh, and by the way, one of the things that really clued me in that I was gay was realizing how much I want you to do me, hard, all night long."
Mid-thought, mid-sentence, he happened to glance at Static, and quickly looked away before he blushed hard enough for V to notice even through the helmet's visor. Though at that moment his friend seemed as preoccupied with his own thoughts as Richie.
He finished the presentation on autopilot, re-enaged his brain enough to answer a few questions before stepping down from the podium, upon which Virgil immediately pulled him aside. Then let go of his arm, just as abruptly, and rocked an uneasy step back, crossed his arms with fake confidence. "So, Gear, we going back to homebase now, for you to keep cracking this thing?" Virgil's eyes weren't meeting his, instead drifting away to fix on a point somewhere behind his left ear. Nervously.
"Er, actually," Richie said, "I'm planning to do the work here at the station—it's easier to access the police database directly, and I have some more questions for the agents. But you don't need to stick around for that."
All of which was entirely true, and besides Virgil looked a bit disappointed but more relieved, so there was no reason for Richie to feel like such a total, pathetic coward as he added, "Uh, I'll meet you at HQ this evening, before patrol."
"Got it," Static said, "see you then," and he paused for only a couple awkward seconds before heading for the door with a wave.
It was after dark by the time Richie made it back to the station, and that had apparently been enough time. He saw it as soon as he walked through the door, and Static was waiting for him. Standing in the center of the garage, facing him, empty-handed, in costume but without his mask.
Virgil had reached some kind of equilibrium; there was an equanimity about his face, the calm of a decision already made. Resolution. Resignation. Richie could have mouthed the words along with him. "We need to talk, Rich."
Except they didn't have time for this now. "Yeah, we do. Sorry I'm so late but I've got something now, and it's big."
"Richie, this is important—"
"So's this. You want to catch these thieves, or lose our last chance?"
"We're on a deadline, V," Richie said. "I've finally been over all the data gathered on this gang's activity in other cities. If the thieves strike tonight—and there's an eighty-eight percent chance they will—then there's a ninety-four percent chance that this will be their last heist in Dakota."
His partner blinked, former train of thought derailed. Richie didn't feel guilty. Much. "You mean they're splitting town?" Virgil asked.
"If they follow their previous patterns, yeah. Tonight."
"You know," Static remarked, "since this is kinda urgent, it would've been helpful if you and those FBI brains had mentioned it a little earlier. Like, before tonight!"
"I know, V," Richie said. "And it's my fault, I should've realized sooner that I was missing such crucial information, but I was operating under the assumption that they were being honest with me—"
"Whoa, back up. Who's not being honest?"
"The reason I didn't realize this before now was because I didn't have complete data from the other cities. A few crucial heists were missing—I was going over the dates from St. Canard and realized there were a couple gaps, so I contacted the SC police directly, and they gave me new records. Different information than what I'd gotten before from the agents, and when I queried the other cities I got new stats from them, too. I really should've realized the discrepancy before, but since the FBI model's predictions were so accurate, I figured the information it was supposedly based on had to be, too. I should've seen the elemental design flaws, should've looked at it more carefully..." He'd been distracted lately. Because Virgil had been distracted; they worked so closely together that the lack of concentration was contagious.
Well, and V himself tended to be quite the distraction. Even when he wasn't talking. Breathing was enough. Especially this close.
"Hold it." Especially when his eyes got that particular bright spark of comprehension. One could almost see the electric field surrounding him flicker in reaction; the urge to reach out and touch him, to feel it more directly, was almost overwhelming. "Are you saying what I think you're saying, Gear?"
He caught himself. "Depends. Do you think I'm saying that one or both of our FBI allies were deliberately falsifying my data, because they're in league with the thieves? In that case, yes, I am."
"Damn! So what do we do, find the agents?"
"It's probably only one of the agents. This is the first time they've both been on the case together, after all. But I don't know which one, they're both computer-savvy, either of them could have screwed with the data."
"So we go after both of them and sort it out afterwards. Do you know where they were going this evening, before we meet up for the late-night burglar patrol?"
"They didn't say, but it won't be too hard to find out. Backpack, engage tracers."
Virgil rocked back on his heels, looking impressed. "You bugged FBI agents?"
"Not bugs, just a couple trackers. A listening device might have been noticed, but the signal these put out should be low-level enough not to be caught even if they have scanners. I'm counting on you boosting the Mark III ShockVox enough to pick it up."
"No sweat. Allow me." Static took out his own radio and accepted Gear's, held one in each hand and closed his eyes. Electricity hummed, and after a brief moment the red overcharge light blinked to life on both boxes. Backpack gave a quiet beep of confirmation.
"That's it," Richie said, taking back his radio and flipping up the display. "Two signals, both clear. Downtown, looks like, from these readings. They could still be at the station, but if they're elsewhere we can find 'em, as long as they haven't changed boxers."
"How'd you get the trackers in their underwe—never mind." Virgil shook his head. "Don't want to know."
He couldn't resist. "Just used my magic gay powers to get into any guy's pants."
On occasion Richie greatly regretted that Virgil couldn't really blush. His expression still was a picture. "I said I didn't want to know!"
"Joking, come on, man! Those agents? Even if one of them wasn't a bad guy, they're both old enough to be my dad! Agent Kruepke's got no hair! Now, if they looked like, oh, Krycek..."
"TMI, man!" But Virgil was grinning, and Richie didn't need to read his mind to know he was as pleased as Richie, relieved that this could be added to their stockpile of personal jokes and ribbings like it was no different than Virgil's taste for pineapple on pizza.
Only then Virgil's bright grin lowered a few watts, determined resolution folding his brow once more. He hadn't given up yet.
They still had a job to do, though. "Now," Richie said, before his friend could open his mouth, "tonight's heist should be late, after midnight. And it's going to be big, so they might still be planning. Maybe with their agent buddy. Follow him, and if we're lucky—"
"We'll catch 'em all in the act." Static nodded, hesitated only a moment before reaching up to pull his mask down over his eyes. "So let's go get the bad guys."
Virgil took their heroing seriously, too seriously to let personal things get in the way when they had a job to do. Richie had to suppress a sigh of relief when the mask covered that clear resolve.
He was such a coward.
Virgil, heading for the door, turned around. Richie spread his empty hands, defenseless. "You had something to tell me?"
Virgil's eyes slid to him, slid off again as if he were coated in oil, too slippery for his gaze to settle anywhere. "Nothing. It can wait. Stuff to do. And all."
Not the only coward, though. "Then let's get these guys."
Once they were further downtown, the signals resolved at two separate locations, so they split up to each follow one of the agents by air. Static decided to track Agent Statler—"Something about that guy is just not right"--and Gear didn't protest. He would have chosen to follow Kruepke anyway. While he had no solid leads on either agent, circumstantial evidence put the higher odds on Kruepke .
He didn't mention this, of course. Virgil wasn't happy about splitting up anyway. Neither of them were, as a rule, if it were for more than a routine patrol. They were partners; they worked better together than separately. But neither of them could be two places at once, and requesting police backup might alert the agent. Double agent. Especially if he had already recruited one or two of Dakota's finest.
Besides, once in a while it couldn't hurt for Gear to get the limelight for catching the villain. Especially since half the papers still referred to him as "sidekick," no matter how many times Static corrected them.
Though who would get the glory wasn't Virgil's real concern, Richie knew. He had his ego, definitely, but being a superhero wasn't exactly a safe career choice. Teamwork was less dangerous. They probably wouldn't be more than a ten minute flight apart, but a lot could go down in just the time it took to call one another, and even after over two years of Richie being a fellow Bang Baby, Virgil still worried. About Richie. Static wouldn't ever even consider the possibility that something could happen to himself.
Which was the primary reason Richie was hoping Kruepke was their man. He didn't mind Virgil worrying about him—maybe he should want to prove himself, maybe it should be an insult to his masculine pride that his friend wanted to protect him, but he couldn't help but find it...nice of V. Endearing. Cute. He wouldn't admit that aloud in a million years, but it meant something to him, knowing V cared.
It meant a lot to him. Maybe more than it really should. They were best friends, totally natural that they'd want to watch each other's backs. It shouldn't make him have to hide a blush, when Virgil let some thug have it for knocking him down.
He hoped V hadn't ever noticed.
He wouldn't mind Virgil worrying about him anyway, because he spent a good deal of his time worrying about Virgil. That had been a habit even before he became Gear, long before he had any idea that what he felt was more than simply friendship. Static was the coolest thing ever but it hadn't taken him long to realize how dangerous a superhero's life could be. And Virgil was fast, and smart, and his powers were strong, but he took risks, enough risks that sometimes Richie had thought about asking him to stop. Begging him. Or just walking away from the whole thing, though he'd never actually do that, couldn't. But if anything ever happened to Static...
There was quite a lot he wouldn't say in a million years, when you got down to it.
Backpack chimed an electronic reminder that he had successfully triangulated Agent Kruepke's position. Maneuvering over an alley, he cut most of the power to his rockets and dropped to the street, caught himself most of the way down when the tracer signal changed, indicating the second floor of the brick building to his left.
He hadn't been paying much attention to where he had been flying, but these were slums, this roach motel almost certainly condemned. Not the kind of hotel where an FBI man would stay for a month-long furlough, and not at all like the upscale places the thieves had been targeting, either. There was no logical reason for the agent to be here.
Rockets at the lowest, quietest power possible to keep him hovering level with the second story, Gear had Backpack press a microphone-equipped sensor to the brick wall. The amplified sounds played through his helmet's headset, crackling with the building's creaking, footsteps, voices—there. He re-angled the sensor cup and turned up the volume.
"--said we should just forget about it." That was Kruepke's voice. "Not tonight. Maybe not again in Dakota."
"The job is set. It won't be more than half an hour's work, and the take—"
"The take will be thirty years hard time, if we're caught. I'm telling you, that green kid's bright. He figured out something today, it was all over his face, even in that ridiculous helmet. He's likely onto us, and that means Static could be, too. If you have any sense you'll call off the job and leave town tonight."
Other voices chimed in, arguing. Three other men besides the agent. No, four. The place they were speaking wasn't directly behind the wall, maybe one room removed. There was a window a couple feet to his left, but it was boarded over and there was no good way to determine the layout of the floor; there might be no easy access to the gang's room. Without the element of surprise he wouldn't have much chance of taking them alone.
Static might have tried. Static almost definitely would have tried and Richie was glad that the odds had fallen in his favor. If Virgil had followed Agent Statler to the thieves instead, and taken them on by himself...they were professional burglars, not killers or Bang Babies, but they were damn good at crime and like most criminals, they had no wish to get caught. And Kruepke was a trained FBI agent who carried a gun—two, actually; Gear had observed an ankle holster in addition to the Smith & Wesson on his belt.
Virgil wasn't stupid. Maybe he wouldn't have been able to calculate the exact percentile of risk here (only thirty-one point two that he'd actually get shot, and the chances of it being a lethal wound were much lower, but one out of three weren't exactly encouraging odds, either, and bullets hurt like hell) but he'd have certainly realized the danger. But Static would take those odds anyway.
Something about being able to fly made a man feel invincible. Or maybe it was the being able to survive being struck by lightning. Either way it scared Richie, that foolhardiness, or daring, or courage, or whatever it was. He liked it, too; it was one of the main elements of character that made Virgil so absolutely Virgil, and he understood it, felt it himself, the drive to be a hero, to do something, to really make a difference and damn the consequences. But if something happened to Static...
If something happened to Virgil, and Richie hadn't told him, never got the chance to tell him... Even if Virgil didn't really want to know. Even if he'd guessed already. To not have the chance to say it to him...
Not that having the chance was helping, particularly. At least V was trying with whatever secret he had to confess. Richie didn't even know where to begin, and didn't want to. Not when telling him could screw up so much; he'd followed in his head so many scenarios of how it could go wrong. Enough to not even want to try. That hurt, too, but not as much as it might. Virgil was the risk-taker, the courageous one. The hero. He was just the genius.
Kruepke and his men were still arguing—no, probably not his men, not with language like that. Associates, not employees. From the tone of their debate they were going to be here for a while yet.
Rockets tilted so he was effectively leaning against the wall while standing on air, still listening through the receiver, Richie raised the shockvox, flicked it on. "Yo, Static, you there? I've—"
Upon which a gloved hand reached down and plucked the box from his hand, then flung it to the ground. He didn't protest, being unable to speak anymore into it anyway, thanks to the sudden strangling cord around his neck, cutting off his breath.
If he turned his head he would make it worse, but out of the corner of his eye he could see the long shadow of a rope dropped down from the roof, and a dark figure beside him grasping it, standing perpendicular from the wall. "Thought I saw something go by," a harsh whisper hissed in his ear, as the cord tightened around his throat. "Now float down to the ground, nice and slow. And stop struggling, kid. Don't want you blacking out before you and my partners have a chance to chat."
Richie rather preferred to be conscious for that conversation himself. It sounded fascinating. Maybe it could include a tangent about getting distracted by emotional confusion while working a dangerous job. Or the pitfalls of a superhero falling in love with his best friend and partner.
Better still if the conversation would include said friend. Said partner. Live and in person. As soon as possible. Richie was always happy to see Static, but he would be especially glad at this particular juncture. He wouldn't even care if he started blushing.
"What do we do with him, boss?"
Richie had guessed right. Agent Kruepke wasn't the leader; instead he stood in the back of the room, glaring uneasily, while a dapper old man in a well-pressed suit and tie looked Gear up and down. "So you're the local vigilante."
"That'd be me."
This gray-haired senior citizen must be the brains of the operation. Certainly he was too old to be as physically capable as the acrobat thief who had rappelled down from the roof to capture Gear. She was on his left now, holding his arm, having exchanged her plastic garrote for a good old-fashioned pistol. Since they had landed the gun had been pressed to the back of Richie's neck, wedged in the narrow gap between his suit's collar and helmet. The goon holding his right arm didn't have a gun, but was flexing enough muscles to make firearms superfluous. Looked like more of a hands-on kind of guy. Natural muscle-mass, though, not augmented by mutation. One zap trap would truss him up in a flash.
"Looks like you were right, Kruepke," the old man remarked, sounding amused. "They were onto you."
Except the capture units were with Backpack, and the acrobat had pried Backpack off Richie's back the moment they had touched down on pavement, before bringing him inside to meet the gang. Another member of the gang—six total, counting the acrobatic roof guard and Kruepke—held the computer now, poking at the buttons cautiously.
"He's not the hero," the agent said. "I told you, Static's the real threat. This is just the sidekick. Bright kid, but he's not the one we have to watch out for."
Richie wasn't especially worried that Backpack would get damaged, even if a gang of catburglars might possibly possess the diamond-tipped drill needed to breach the shell's titanium alloy. But the computer didn't do him much good in enemy hands. He could command it through the helmet, and Backpack might be able to capture the two closest guys, three if they were slow. But that wouldn't do anything about the gun against his neck. Capturing half the gang only to have his head blown off would be sub-optimal.
"So how many FBI agents do you got on your payroll?" Gear asked. Might as well keep them talking. Backpack's mic would be recording it all. And more talking hopefully meant less shooting. "When I followed Agent Kruepke tonight I wasn't really expecting you guys to be so friendly with him." Better to imply he had been maintaining visual contact all along, rather than start them searching for the tracer, and he picked his singular pronoun carefully. If they didn't think about it too hard, they might assume he was working on his own. Give Static the element of surprise, when he got here.
Shouldn't be too long. Static was coming. Hopefully. Maybe. Gear didn't actually know if his signal had even gotten through before the shockvox had been dropped to shatter on the pavement. On their way in the acrobat had stomped on the sparking pieces for good measure.
He wondered if V would be pissed with him for getting caught, or just make fun of him. It was becoming a tradition, it seemed. An annoying one, even if he did sort of enjoy the rescues. Why did he have to be the damsel in distress all the time? Couldn't they take turns?
"Sidekick or not, he's heard enough," the acrobat growled. "Let's just get rid of him and get on with it!" and she cocked the gun to make her point. Richie felt the click echo through the cold metal muzzle against his neck.
Pissed. Virgil would be really pissed, if he went and got himself shot. He wouldn't be too happy himself. True, getting shot in the head probably didn't hurt as much as getting shot in the leg. But dying a virgin? Totally uncool.
"You don't want to do this," Richie began to say, entirely honestly. Static would be too much for these non-super-powered hoods to handle anyway. Static pissed off would be more than the building could handle. Possibly the entire block. Obviously it would be difficult to give the criminals a fair trial if they were buried under several tons of rubble, but Richie wouldn't be able to point this out to his partner if he were, say, dead.
Virgil better be coming. And soon.
Before he could compose a more logical argument, an unlikely advocate spoke up. "He's right," Agent Kruepke said, coming forward. "If you kill a superhero, do you think the Justice League would ever stop hunting you?"
The old man watched the agent with the laconic calm and narrow eyes of a sunbathing serpent. "What would you suggest instead?"
"We're not going kill the kid," Kruepke said. "We're just going to see that he can't cause trouble. If you'll allow me..."
The old man nodded thoughtfully, then gestured to the acrobat, who reluctantly pulled back the gun, though she didn't holster it, or loosen her grip on Richie's arm.
Kruepke reached for Gear's head. His helmet. Richie instantly realized his game—once his identity was compromised, he could be blackmailed, or publicly exposed. If exposed—as a highschool student, genius or not, how much good would his testimony in court do against an FBI agent, or the kind of finances that must be backing this ring? Not to mention managing the superhero gig would be a lot rougher once Richard Foley went public.
Decidedly sub-optimal. Except, fortunately, the gun was no longer an issue. "Sorry, guys, can't stick around," Richie said, and kicked his heels to activate his boot rockets, sending himself into a jet-powered backflip.
The acrobat and the thug couldn't keep their grips against that force, and while it hurt like hell wrenching his arms free—probably tore something—at least he was free. "Backpack," he called over the gang's protests, "offense mode, six caps, now!"
Another shriek sounded as the goon with his computer received a several hundred volt jolt and dropped Backpack, just as six small charge-propelled capsules hurled from the computer's side compartments. Three bounced harmless off the walls, but the other three hit their marks, wrapping coils around the thieves in a secure metal embrace, leaving free only the agent, the acrobat, and her boss.
Before he could fix that, a gunshot thundered and something clanged hard off his helmet, ringing through his skull. He staggered, found his footing again and looked up into the wild eyes of the acrobat. Agent Kruepke was screeching, "I told you, no shooting, you dumb bitch!"
Either that distraction or the surprise of him surviving a shot to the head without even a dent froze her, long enough for Gear to kick the gun from her hands. Richie dove for one of the fallen traps as she somersaulted after her weapon, only to be brought up short by the cold-blooded hiss of her boss's command. "Stop, Wanda. No shooting, as the agent says."
Which was enough time for him to snatch up the trap and fling it at her, whipcord wires winding around her arms, forcing them to her sides so the gun pointed harmlessly at the floor.
But at the corner of his helmet's visor, Gear saw the old man move, swung around to see him draw a pistol—no, not a pistol, Richie realized a split second too late, as the boss aimed and pulled the trigger. There was no gunshot, just the soft poof of an airgun, and a sharp prick on his bicep.
He looked down, already knowing what he was going to see, remembering the knock-out darts which had taken down guards in previous burglaries. The drug was fast-acting; by the time he pulled the red-feathered dart from his arm, his head was already swimming.
If he fell unconscious here it was all over. Since he didn't have much choice about the unconscious part, the 'here' was all he could do something about. Richie tilted his boots and shot toward the window.
The glass shattered as he burst through the frame, arms folded against his body to protect them from the shards. The heat outside hit like a second tranquilizer after the chill of the air-conditioned building, and the night's darkness was blinding. Or his vision was going dark; probably a little of both, but he just about could figure which way was up through the dizziness. Up was definitely the best choice, the hardest direction for them to follow. Get high enough and Static would see him. He should be here by now.
Somewhere beneath him Richie could hear shouting, getting fainter. He wasn't sure how high he got, whether it was high enough, before he blacked out. Falling, but he wasn't sure if it was through the air or just dropping down into the tranquilizer's vertigo. Either way, he wasn't aware of hitting bottom.
So maybe he'd panicked. A little.
But Richie hadn't been waking up, and Virgil didn't know how far he'd fallen, and it had been too dark to see anything on that rooftop. The hospital was only a few blocks away but Richie had been so still in his arms as he flew, so heavy, with his head fallen back and his limbs hanging limp. Virgil hadn't been thinking about secret identities, or getting out of costume, he'd only been thinking about how Richie wasn't stirring, no matter how many times Virgil said his name.
It was a mistake anyone could have made. Anyone with a secret identity. Well, probably not the Green Lantern. Or Batman. Batman didn't panic. Batman wouldn't panic if the world were ending.
He wasn't the Green Lantern or Batman. It wasn't like he hadn't had reason, though. Gear's transmission had cut off so abruptly, before Static had even had time to pick up his shockvox. He hadn't heard any of the message, only felt the minute spark of the signal. But Agent Statler was looking like a dead-end, and Gear didn't answer his return call, and one didn't need to be a super-brain to put those two and two together. By the time he did, he had already changed course to track Agent Kruepke, hoping that Richie had run into the agent and the gang, rather than some other trouble elsewhere.
You'd think he'd be used to it by now. You'd think it would get easier, but every time Virgil's heart was still in his throat, pushed up by a sickening surge of fear and anger and a terrible helplessness that was the worst of all. That his best friend was in danger, that Richie might get hurt, or even...
It was worse now than ever, and Virgil didn't quite understand why, whether it was simply out of guilt left over from all their recent issues, or because he'd finally realized how much more he really stood to lose. He didn't know why, but following the tracer, he kept accelerating his flight, until the speed nearly blew him off his disk. Hunkering low to minimize wind resistance, he gripped the leading edge with one hand and forced himself faster still, racing towards Richie, the charged metal leaving an incandescent streak through the sky.
Even as the adrenaline pounded through him he tried to tell himself it was nothing. Maybe Richie had just gotten distracted; he'd been a little out of it lately. Or maybe he'd decided to take them out on his own. It wasn't like Gear wasn't a superhero, too. He could take care of himself. Usually.
If Richie had been distracted long enough for the bad guys to get the drop on him...
Maybe he was overreacting. Maybe the shockvox was just malfunctioning and Richie wasn't in trouble at all.
Even Gear would have to grant that past evidence did not especially support that hypothesis.
So Virgil had been a little worried. Enough that when he overshot the tracer's location he didn't slow down, just whirled a scorching u-turn a thousand feet in the air and dove toward the building. He generated a field strong enough to smash apart the boards over the window before he crashed through them, swooped inside the building and down the dilapidated stairs to burst into the room shining like an avenging angel.
Only to find most of the avenging already done, with the erstwhile victim nowhere in sight, four criminals trapped in zap caps, and Agent Kruepke holding up his hands in surrender, the last tenacious wisps of hair on his head standing on end in the ambient electric charge. He and the other four all gaped at Static. By the shock showing in their open mouths and the coruscating light reflecting in their eyes, Virgil guessed he was cutting a pretty intimidating image. It didn't hurt that they had no way to defend themselves, lying on the floor neatly cocooned in silver coils.
Standing up on his disk, Static crossed his arms and shook his head at the conquered gang. "Aw, you called him a sidekick, didn't you?"
He rotated the disk to face Kruepke. "Now how come you—"
"Save it," the agent said. "The boss has gone after Gear."
That was when Virgil noticed what he'd missed before, lying in the corner. He zoomed down and picked up Backpack. The computer, responding to his unique electrical signature, came to life and attached itself securely to his disk, as it was programmed to do in the case of being separated from Gear.
Which it wasn't supposed to be. Unless something had gone wrong. Very wrong. Virgil's heart, which had been slowing to a reasonable rate, skipped a beat and then started hammering at triple time as he grabbed Kruepke by the lapels. "Where?"
Kruepke pointed out a broken window. "Out there. You just missed him. There's still a chance if you hurry—go, I'll stick around."
"Yeah, you will," Virgil agreed, and fastened him to the window frame with extra-strong static cling before soaring out the window.
He had found the boss almost immediately—had to be him, no other reason for such a well-dressed elder to be out on these streets, and his look of pure venom when Static stopped him was a dead giveaway. Impossible not to recognize the glare of a hardened criminal confronting a superhero, even if it was almost immediately covered by a veneer of civilized patience. Ignoring the protests, Static attached the man to a streetlight pole by magnetizing his belt and watch and asked him, quite politely under the circumstances, where Gear was.
The answer he got was not nearly as civilized, and neither was his response to it, especially, but he had very little space to feel guilty. Not when the guy was in no real danger—he had checked for the charge of a pacemaker before zapping—and he could find no sign of Gear.
Naturally he was a little concerned. Trying the shockvox again got no response, and Backpack sounded no locater beacon, the computer sitting silently, stuck to his disk like a gigantic barnacle. If Gear could have signaled somehow, he would have by now, surely. He should have. Richie was smart enough to find a way. Way too smart to get himself...injured, not by these two-bit villains, not even Bang Babies, just jerks with a couple tricks.
Just a little concerned. No reason to lose it.
Static asked again, where his partner was. And funny thing, though this time Virgil didn't so much as raise his voice, much less his hand, the man didn't protest or even refuse to answer, just gulped and pointed up at the building towering beside them, with his eyes gone all round like a scared rabbit's.
Virgil didn't question it, though, didn't have the chance to because he was too busy shooting up to the roof of the ramshackle office complex. "Gear! Gear? Where are you?" Up above the streetlights, it was too dark to see anything clearly. Static fired off a bolt of electricity that burst like a flare over the nighttime city, throwing streets and rooftop into sharply shadowed relief.
In that glare he didn't see Richie at first, just the damage, a short trail where the tar had been seared off the roofing shingles by Gear's booster rockets. In his uncontrolled flight he had crashed through the remains of a long-abandoned gardening project, and Static had to throw aside a few fallen boards and buckets to uncover his partner, sprawled on his side with his arms over his head.
Richie hadn't responded to Virgil's shout or the flare burst; he didn't move when Static took him by his shoulder and shook. Looking back, Virgil reluctantly concluded that was when he actually did lose it.
At least he hadn't been so panicked that he had just decided Richie was—gone—and thrown himself weeping over the body or something nearly as embarrassing. He had had the presence of mind to realize Richie was still breathing, so had scooped his partner up, leapt onto his disk and soared straight for the nearest hospital.
Which, fortunately, was nowhere near the clinics Virgil Hawkins or Richard Foley usually visited, but that had been pure dumb luck, because he hadn't been thinking about it at all. He hadn't been thinking about anything, except how still and heavy Richie was, hanging in his arms like deadwe—like a sack of cement.
Once at the hospital he hadn't even dismounted the disk, just plowed through the emergency room doors screaming—or rather, calling for help, very urgently. The nurse at the desk, unprepared for the sudden appearance of superheroes in their midst, had stared at the two of them and hadn't moved at first, until he demanded she do something, and then she had jumped and summoned a couple doctors, but they just peered at him nervously without approaching, and maybe he had screamed a little. Or maybe it was because of the electric field snapping around him that they kept their distance.
Luckily at that moment a third doctor appeared on the scene, a matronly, no-nonsense woman who took one look and, firmly but kindly, sent the other doctors back to their patients, assigned the nurse to deal with the ER's panicked patrons, and ordered Static to stop sparking, get off his disk, and carry his partner to a private room.
Virgil obeyed and followed the doctor, tugging the disk with Backpack on top of it after him on an invisible cord of ions. Once they were all inside the room, she had him lay Gear down on the closest bed while she locked the door, then turned back to the bed and asked, "Is it all right for me to take off his helmet? From the looks of it I doubt there's anything wrong with him besides the tranquilizer, but best to be sure."
"The tranquilizer?" Virgil repeated blankly, upon which she reached past him and plucked a red-feathered dart from Gear's clenched fist, where he had completely failed to notice it.
"I'm guessing they shot him with the same drug used on their previous targets. This is from that burglary ring, yes?"
"Then barring any atypical allergic reaction, which he's showing no sign of, he should wake normally in a few hours. We could try to counter the tranquilizer, but I'd rather not introduce any more chemicals into his system if it's unnecessary. Did you get them?"
"Huh? Who? What?"
"The burglars, did you get them?"
Virgil gaped at her. "Uh. Yeah. We—he—he's going to wake—he's okay?"
The doctor placed a hand on his arm. "Almost certainly. If you'll let me take off his helmet I can be more sure. Besides, he's going to wake with a terrible crick in his neck if he sleeps wearing it. But if you're concerned about his identity—I can give my promise that I'll preserve doctor-patient confidentiality to this extreme, but I know how closely you heroes guard your secret—"
"No, it's cool—he's really okay?"
She nodded, smiling. "He should be fine."
Static helped her take off the helmet (Gear's equipment was difficult to handle without a special electric touch) and then watched her thoroughly and swiftly check Richie's vitals, nodding reassuringly at every juncture. It gave Virgil the time to sit down and take a few deep breaths and realize precisely how stupid he had been. Richie didn't look lifeless now, just asleep, stretched out on the bed but clearly breathing, his chest rising and falling evenly. If he had realized it was just a tranquilizer—well, it was probably best he did get examined, just in case, but if Virgil had known it wasn't an emergency he could have taken the time to strip him out of costume and check him into the hospital as Richard instead of Gear. Now Virgil couldn't call Richie's parents or anyone else, and a random doctor knew Gear's real face.
He'd panicked. His heart was still going at double time. Some superhero he was. Stupid.
But when the doctor finished her examination and gave him a cheerful thumbs up, it was hard to feel anything but relieved. Maybe Batman or the Green Lantern could have hid it, but lightning powers couldn't do anything about the smile that broke across his face, fit to hurt his cheeks. Richie was okay.
"Now," the doctor said, "I do want him to stay here for observation at least until he wakes up. I'll make sure the door stays locked and no one but me attends. You can stick around, but he should be fine, so if you want to be leaving—"
"I'll stay. Thanks," he said.
The doctor smiled at him again, kindly. "My pleasure," she said, "after what you boys have done for this city. It'll be a couple more hours. Feel free to take a nap, or I can bring some magazines—do you read People? I think this week's has a photo spread of The Flash. "
"I'm okay. Thank you, really."
"How about you sign something for my niece, and we'll call it even? I'd ask for my nephew, too, but the signature he'd really want will have to wait a bit," and she angled her head toward Gear.
"You got it," Static promised for both of them.
After the doctor left, Virgil took out his phone. First he called the police to let them know that the burglary ring had been shut down and where to pick up the perps. The static charge wouldn't have worn off yet, so he didn't have any worries as far as that went.
Then he called home, which was somewhat more stressful. He could have waited; his dad wouldn't expect him back before morning anyway. But his father would want to know, and it never did any good to put these things off. Not merely because a superhero could hardly be a coward around his own family, but because his father would find all sorts of ways to make him pay for it later.
Even if it was a little nervewracking, when the phone was picked up and he said, "Hey, Pops," and his father instantly asked, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I'm fine. Honest. Sorry to call so la—"
But before he could say anymore his father demanded, "What happened to Richie?"
"Nothing—nothing big. He's going to be fine. Just had a little trouble with those burglars. Richie got knocked out with a dart. But the doctors say he's going to be okay."
"We're at the hospital now, and it'll be a couple hours 'til he wakes up, I'm going to wait up for him. We should both be back tomorrow morning. I mean, this morning," he amended, glancing at the room's clock. "As long as Richie checks out okay when he wakes up. Uh, Pops, if the Foleys call—"
His father sighed the sigh of a long-suffering parent who was the sole keeper of the secrets of a pair of young superheroes. Virgil had come to recognize the sound well; he had heard a lot of it in the last year. "If they call, I'll cover for you," his dad agreed.
"Thanks, Pops. For real."
"So what did happen?"
"We caught the burglars. Well, Richie did, really, he had it in the bag by the time I got there—we split up to look for the guys, there were two trackers..." The story spilled out in a couple minutes of disjointed babble, but by the few questions he asked, his father didn't have much trouble following it. He might sigh, but he was getting used to the superhero thing.
Virgil wondered if he'd be as good at getting used to other things. When they came up. If they came up. "Anyway, I flew Richie to the hospital, and he checks out okay, so it's all good. I'm just going to stick around in case anything comes up."
"It sounds like quite a night." His father paused a moment. "You're sure you're all right, Virgil?"
"I told you, I didn't get hurt. Couldn't even touch me, those guys."
"I could come down to the hospital, if you'd like the company."
"I'm fine, Pops! And I should be getting off my phone, the police might be calling back—there could be trouble with that agent going bad on them, might need testimony, or something."
"If you're sure..." His dad's sigh was softer, and inflected a little differently. The more usual sigh of a father realizing his son is old enough to take care of himself. "Good work catching those guys, son. I'm proud of you. You and Richie."
Virgil might be old enough not to need his father's approval for everything he did, but he didn't think he'd ever outgrow how glad it made him to hear it. "Thanks, Pops. G'night."
"Good night," his dad said, "take good care of your partner," and he hung up.
Virgil blinked at the phone before pocketing it, then glanced over to Richie's comatose form. "Uh, Rich? Don't look now, but I think Pops is onto us."
Richie just continued to breathe deeply.
"Onto me, anyway." Virgil leaned over his bed, propped his chin on his elbows and studied his friend's sleeping face. It didn't look that different from his waking one, really. Even with his eyes closed and without his glasses, there was still an intelligence in his expression, something about that tiny cute furrow between his dark brows, or the way his lips were slightly parted with his teeth white behind them, like he was about to speak and was just thinking of what to say..
It was a little weird, watching him like this and knowing he wouldn't get caught, that Richie wasn't going to wake up in the middle of his study, and no one was going to come through the door and interrupt. That no one was going to know, if Virgil reached out to touch Richie's short hair, a little stiff from dried sweat but still fine, not wiry like his own. If he ran his fingers down the curve of his scalp to his neck, not to check his pulse, just to feel his skin, warm, not too warm, smooth but not too smooth.
Richie was still sound asleep, neither aware nor caring. Virgil's cheeks were burning, and his fingers resting so lightly against Richie's neck were tingling, like static electricity used to feel like, long enough ago that he'd almost forgotten the sensation. It felt a little weird, a little dirty, even, like he was doing something almost wrong, but it felt good, too, the way it can, to break the rules a little.
And this close it was easy, it just slipped right out when he let his mouth open. "Love you, Rich."
Richie didn't stir, not even a twitch. But it felt like a weight off Virgil's chest, literally, like he had been drowning and suddenly his head had broken the surface and he could breathe again. Really not that hard to say, after all.
And it didn't feel wrong, or dirty, or weird. It just felt good.
"Gonna tell you again, soon," Virgil swore, and grinning, he settled on the chair between the beds, took out the Gameboy stowed in Backpack and started a new game, while he waited for his partner to awaken.
Richie knew Virgil was there when he woke up. He could have deduced it logically, since he wasn't lying where he must have fallen, on a hard street or rooftop; and as his limbs weren't tied, he likely hadn't been captured by any criminals. Thus the odds were that his partner had found him. But he didn't deduce. He just knew.
Opening his eyes proved the hypothesis. Virgil was slumped in a metal chair beside his bed, his neck crooked at a seemingly impossible angle for sleeping but his peacefully closed eyes indicating otherwise. Fluorescent lights shining on gray walls and the crisp white sheets under him informed Richie that he was in a hospital.
That Virgil was in his Static outfit, minus jacket, gloves, and mask; and that a quick glance down at himself verified he was still in costume as well, save for his helmet, informed him of trouble. Maybe big trouble, though Richie didn't feel especially damaged. Sitting up aggravated a set of bruises, but nothing worse than after a rough night on patrol; and a momentary dizziness quickly blinked away. The mild nausea and headache could be chalked up to the tranquilizer. He prodded his skull but felt no bumps that might have meant a concussion. His helmet and his suit's emergency booster rocket system should have broken the worst of his fall, wherever he had come down.
So why would Virgil have rushed him to the hospital without even taking the precaution to get him out of costume? Virgil wasn't dumb. Frowning, Richie snapped his fingers in the triplicate pattern to activate and summon Backpack. The robot, dormant on the floor, activated and clambered up onto the bed to settle in his lap. He took out his glasses from a side compartment, shoved them on and checked the onboard computer's display, noting only four hours had passed.
Before he could query Backpack further, Virgil yawned, stretched, and blinked sleepily at him, then bounced out of his chair. "Richie! You're awake!" He was grinning, a great big two zillion volt grin that pulsed through Richie and effectively short-circuited all logic and questions and most other systems of higher reasoning.
"Uh, yeah," he managed, hoping his return grin wasn't as dopey as he dreaded it might be. It had been a while since Virgil had smiled at him like that, so complete and totally, like the only thing on his mind was how happy he was.
"How you feel?" Virgil asked, leaning in to inspect his eyes. Maybe checking for dilation or mismatched pupils. "Okay? Not sick or anything? You look okay." His hand came down over Richie's, quite casually enough to be accidental. "Maybe a little flushed."
"I, uh, I feel fine," Richie stammered, trying desperately to coax the hot blush down from his cheeks. "Just thirsty, that's all."
"Yeah, doc said you might be." Virgil squeezed his fingers, so quickly he might have been imagining it, then let go to dart across to the room's sink and pour a glass of water. "Here you go." Virgil returned to his side to hand him the glass, then picked up his mask draped on the adjacent empty bed and slipped it over his face. " I've hit the button, the doctor should be here in a few."
"Thanks. Where's my helmet?" Richie asked, gratefully swallowing the water. Sliding his legs off the bed, he tested them on the floor. They seemed steady enough, so he stood up, stretched and looked around.
"Under the chair," Virgil supplied, pointing, "but you won't need it. Doc's seen your face already. Uh, sorry about that, man. But don't worry, she's cool."
"V, why'd you bring me to the hospital? Did I have a bad reaction to the tranquilizer?"
"Uh, no, not really. Except for being knocked out."
Richie rubbed the back of his neck, seeking to dispel the last muted throbbing in his temples. "Well, that's to be expected, being as that's the point of a tranquilizer. So what about the bad guys, did we get them?" He summoned a mental picture of the room. "There were five of them, plus Agent Kruepke."
"Yeah, we got all of them. Or you got them, I mean, the job was pretty much done by the time I got there. You kicked their asses." Static punched his partner in the arm, triumphantly. "I just needed to grab the agent and that old guy. They're all in police custody now. Along with the evidence—most of their equipment was stored there. Looks like an open-and-shut case, shouldn't even need our testimony. Except maybe for Agent Kruepke."
"He's claiming that he was working a deep-cover sting operation, and we screwed it up."
Richie frowned. "Not likely, from what I heard. He was telling them to get out of town before they got caught. And there's the false information he gave me."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Though he did help me when I got there, told me right away where you and the boss had gone. I'm thinking maybe he really was running a sting to start out with, but then he got tempted. Whatever. Internal Affairs or the FBI, they can sort it out.
"By the way, speaking of the FBI—Agent Statler wasn't the guy, but you'll never guess where I found him!"
"Well, okay, you can guess that, but I bet you couldn't guess how many girls there were. Or how many feather dusters."
"I don't want to know," Richie said with fervent honesty. "So you caught the boss, and then went after me—where'd I land, anyway?"
"Rooftop next door, you crashed right into some garden supplies." Virgil demonstrated the conjectural landing, smacking his palms across each other. "You're lucky they weren't storing fertilizer."
"Better that than the street. I got bruised enough as it is." Richie rubbed his elbow, which felt like it might have been the first part of him to hit. He could still bend it without difficulty, however, so it wasn't broken.
"You sure you're okay?" Virgil asked, standing right there and poking at his injured arm, gaze intent with concern.
"Fine," Richie assured. If he leaned forward just a little bit he would be resting his forehead against Virgil's, could see the concern in those dark eyes that much closer...
He rocked a step back instead. "But you brought me to the hospital straightaway, in costume—how badly hurt did I look?"
"We-l-ll," Virgil said, in a drawn-out tone that indicated he wasn't especially planning on continuing from that opener. Luckily for him, the door opened at that moment and a doctor entered, a woman of average height and indeterminate age in a white coat. "Yo, doc!" Static said, raising a hand in relieved greeting. "He's up."
The doctor smiled a hello back at him, looked Richie up and down and nodded in satisfaction, then had him sit down on the bed so she could take his blood pressure and tap his knee and more standard doctor rigmarole. Richie tried to sit still and not fidget, or blush. Medicals exams were always a bit embarrassing, and in his Gear costume without his helmet, he felt downright naked, even though he didn't think he had ever met the doctor before, and it wasn't like Richard Foley's face was that famous. But even if she wouldn't recognize his alter ego, it was the principle of the thing. A superhero shouldn't be exposed like this.
At least she didn't actually have him strip down. Not with Virgil right there. He'd be bright red from head to toe, he knew it. Very attractive, the tomato look. Stupid fair-skinned genes.
"Well, Gear," the doctor said at last, "you look to be shipshape. I recommend putting some ice on that elbow and taking it easy today, if you don't have any urgent hero business. No meetings scheduled with the Justice League, right? Good. I want you to call me—" she took a business card out of her pocket and handed it over—"I'm off-duty in a couple hours, but my cel number's there, so if you have any unusual symptoms in the next twenty-four hours, dizziness, double-vision, vomiting, I want to know. But I don't expect any problems."
Richie glanced at the card, then pocketed it automatically, though he wouldn't need it now that he had memorized the numbers. "Thank you, Dr. Slinger."
"Now, did Static explain our arrangement?"
Virgil laughed. "Sorry, didn't get a chance. You got a pen?"
The doctor smiled and whipped out a purple glitter ballpoint, along with two comic books. Taking the comic offered to him, Richie realized they were one of the local independent fan productions, copied at Kinko's and stapled by hand. The art was impressive all the same, vibrant and dynamic. And flattering. Even if he would never actually have musculature like that, no matter how many steroids he took. He didn't think it was anatomically possible for his skeleton to support such mass. Not to mention it would require a complete redesign of his suit. But it was the thought that counted.
"Whoa, look at this page!" Virgil exclaimed. "I am smoking! I'm gonna sign here, on the bicep. It's for your niece, right? What's her name?"
"Gwen. And my nephew's Roger, if you'd be willing to autograph your picture, Gear. He's a huge fan of yours."
"Oh yes, he's told me so quite a lot. He thinks you're cool, and cute."
"He's got excellent taste for a six-year-old."
After they had signed and returned the books, the doctor thanked them, then said, "It was wonderful to meet you boys in person. You won't appear in the hospital records after this, so you don't have to check out officially. Go when you're ready, I'll keep the door locked for now, and come back to check at the end of my shift. I'm assuming you'll be taking the private exit?" and she nodded significantly at the window. "Have a good day—and for all you've done for our city, thank you."
After she left, Virgil flopped down on his back on the bed opposite the one Richie was sitting on. "I vote we stay here and nap until she comes back. There's air conditioning!"
"It's not as bad as it was last week."
"Yeah, like being in a furnace isn't as bad as being in the sun's corona."
Richie had to agree. "It's been so muggy, I don't think I've slept a full night in a week."
"Me neither," Virgil said, but thoughtfully. He sat up, took off his mask, then slowly slid off the bed to stand. "Rich."
Richie resisted the urge to scoot back on the mattress, away from the focused determination in Virgil's face. "Weren't we going to nap?"
"We're gonna talk first."
"V, I don't think—"
"Good, don't think. I won't, either, or else I might chicken out again. But this is important, Richie," Virgil said. "I need to work this out. I screwed up tonight, and it came out all right, luckily, but it might not the next time. And what we do—I can't risk it. So I need to say it, even though I'm not sure how it'll turn out, but just not saying it is not working. I don't know how you didn't for all that time, I can't stop thinking about it, and I don't really want to, actually, even if I'm scared about screwing up this, what we've got already, since it's more important than that anyway, but we gotta be able to talk through it, since we did before, and once I get it off my chest—"
"V. Virg. Virgil! You're babbling."
Virgil blinked at him, strangled a high-pitched half-giggle and awkwardly rubbed the back of his head. "Uh. Yeah."
"I should know, you tell me when I am often enough," Richie joked, but Virgil didn't laugh again, just stared at him like something in Richie's face had caught him so he couldn't look away. His expression was half deer-in-headlights, half—something else. Richie wasn't sure what, couldn't recall seeing it in his friend's face before. Not quite desperation, not quite yearning, but it was like he was reaching out, with also his strength, and Richie realized he couldn't look away, either, could only stare back.
Virgil had moved a couple steps forward, was now close enough to touch, but Richie couldn't move, sitting on the bed like he was paralyzed, his mouth frozen closed, with no words coming to mind. He had reached the limit of what he could avoid, what he could put aside or sidetrack or run from; Virgil was right here and he couldn't escape. Couldn't even close his eyes.
"Richie," Virgil said, speaking all nervous and fast, blurting it out in a hurry like he was afraid it wouldn't be heard, like he didn't know he had Richie trapped so he had no choice but to listen, "I've thought about it a lot, and I know it's not the same for you and I know it's weird, but I think—no, I know, I actually, really—okay, here's the thing, I love you, Richie."
For a moment Richie just stared at him, with that same trapped look. Then he tilted his head fractionally, so the light bounced off the lenses of his glasses and Virgil couldn't see his eyes anymore. "Yeah, V, I love you, too, man."
"Not like that!" Virgil protested. "Or, I mean, yeah, like that, too, I love you like a friend, obviously, but not just like that. Okay, Richie..." Dammit, he had worked this all out on his head, but now none of the words were there, and he really should've taken notes. Public speaking in class he had never had a problem with; Static's one-liners always came without effort. So what the hell was wrong with his brain now? Thanks a lot, brain. Just when he needed it most.
And Richie was giving him that look, a different one now, not quite 'you're a moron' because Richie never did think that, for all he had perfect right to, with his own IQ. But a furrowed-brow confused expression, like he was trying to figure out what Virgil was trying to say but was coming up blank. Or maybe just fighting the impulse to put words in his mouth. He had to have noticed by now, right?
This had been a lot easier when Richie was asleep. When he couldn't be heard and wasn't being watched with that curiosity, that genius, that feeling.
Avoiding those eyes, Virgil deliberately focused on an unremarkable point on the ceiling somewhere past his friend's head, and gave it his best shot. "Okay, Richie, the thing is, I'm not gay, right? I know I'm not gay, I like girls, they turn me on. With the breasts and the hips and the—all that.
"But I've been thinking about it—not just thinking, actually thinking doesn't have much to do with it. But trying to get it. And I guess the only way it makes sense is that I'm bi. Like Ms. Howe said in the psychology course—wait, you didn't take that class. But I did, it was my elective last semester, remember. So there's this theory that most people are actually bisexual, they just don't know it, because of societal pressures, and I kind of thought that was bullshit when I first heard it. But then I kind of thought you were crazy, when you said it took you a while to realize that you were gay, and I get it now."
"I've been trying to tell how long it's been there without me noticing, but I haven't figured it out. Because really, I've always liked hanging out with you, being with you, more than with anyone else. We get on each other's nerves sometimes and we need space sometimes, but I always have more fun with you than anyone else. More than any girl, even Daisy, even if I like Daisy. I mean, I like Daisy but I like you more, and I always knew that, but I was thinking it was two different things. Only it isn't, not with me, anyway. Which I should've realized a while ago, some of the dreams I've had—I think my subconscious knew all along, but I was ignoring it, I didn't think it meant anything. Except once I started thinking about it for real—once the possibility occurred to me, you know? Then I couldn't get it out of my head, even when I was—especially then, actually, which helped clue me in.
"So, I think I'm bisexual, like maybe a lot of people are, and maybe I've always found guys hot, too, and this is just the first time I've noticed. Or maybe it's something else. Anyway, what it comes down to," and Virgil took a breath, but still didn't look at Richie. Almost there. "What it comes down to, is that I like you. Richie. I like you like that. That way. That way that means that I think about you all the time, more than usual, I mean, and think about doing things with you, more than what we usually do, a lot more, actually, and—I'm pretty sure I'm in love with you."
"Virgil," Richie said, as he had at least four times before in the past couple minutes, but Virgil held up his hand to keep him from continuing. There was a moment of silence, but for the faint hum of the AC, and Virgil finally screwed up the courage to drop his eyes down from the ceiling and meet Richie's. He wasn't done yet, and he knew he had to finish.
This wasn't the first time he had spilled out his feelings like this, and yet it was totally different, so different it might as well be the first. With a girl, even a girl as brilliant and understanding as Daisy, it was still somewhat a case of figuring out what to say, what she wanted to hear, how to put it so she wouldn't misinterpret. But with Richie, he always knew what to say; he just told Richie the truth, and Richie could figure out anything that he forgot to mention. Usually; they'd messed it up for a bit there, but they were over that now. Back to what their friendship had always been, which was that he could be himself, as big a dork as he might actually be, and never fear that Richie wouldn't have his back because of it.
Except that wasn't enough anymore. But while he knew what to say, he didn't truly know what he wanted from Richie now. Well, one part of him knew, very well, but that was not helping, and he tried very hard to think of other things besides Richie being right there, with his hair just that soft and his skin just that smooth and his eyes and his hands and, seriously, not helping—
"Rich, I'm not telling you because I want to—look, I'm not asking you out, or making a pass. I just wanted to be square with you, to tell you, because it'd be weird if you didn't know. It'd be wrong. I don't want to do that to you, bro, I can't shut you out. But I'm not expecting you to return it or anything—yeah, you're gay, but I know that doesn't mean you like all guys. I'm probably not even your type, right? And I don't want you to feel—obligated, or anything, like it's your fault, because it's not like I'm going gay out of solidarity, or something. I'd've felt like this even if you were totally straight, it just might've taken me longer to realize it. And I'm going to get over it. I just wanted to tell you. Had to tell you, because I was scared I'd do something to screw us up otherwise, if I tried pretending it wasn't there. And I don't want to do that.
"I mean, this could be some dumb crush, I am a teenage guy. Our friendship, Richie, that's what really matters. Whatever happens to us later, whoever we're dating, if we get married or have kids or adopt or anything—you're still going to be my best friend. I don't want anything to screw that up. So I want you to know that I like you, and all that other stuff. But the important thing really is that I love you."
And Virgil took a final deep breath, and stopped, and waited.
And thought he finally knew what he wanted, what he was going to get, which was Richie saying, "'Me, too, Virgil," in that quiet, intense way he had, that you could absolutely tell he meant it, down to his soul.
Virgil was expecting it, listening for it, primed to hear it, mind and heart alike. Which is why he was so surprised when instead Richie shook his head, took Virgil's face between his hands, and pressed their mouths together.
It wasn't Virgil's first kiss. That one brief time with Frieda at that party, they both had pretended afterward it had never happened and done their best to ignore it for the sake of their far more important friendship. But the times with Daisy hadn't been single, or brief, and neither of them had tried to forget.
This wasn't like kissing Daisy; it wasn't as easy, as sweetly natural. Warmer and wetter and they didn't fit together the same way and he didn't know where to put his hands. But it wasn't like kissing Frieda, either; that had been a few years ago, a younger kiss, so furtive and ignorant, and this kiss was as unsure in its way, but not innocent like that had been, not unknowing, just doubtful.
Then he opened his mouth, and Richie took that permission, wholehearted and urgent, and Virgil found places to put his hands.
Nothing like Daisy. Daisy was all slim, tender curves that felt like if he spread his fingers wide enough he could hide all of her under them, not this lean but solid body striving against him. He was used to being accepted, being opened to, but not being met, welcomed by strength that matched his own. It left him breathless, when the kiss ended, more than just the vigor of the kiss itself.
He blinked at Richie, verifying that it was still Richie. That body, that contact, he should have known it so well; he'd seen it all before, hadn't he, and touched his friend often enough before. Not like this, though, and that made all the difference, apparently. But it was still Richie after all, peering at him nearsightedly—he had taken his glasses off, they were safely clutched in his hand—and with a little confusion, pulling back, putting space enough between them that Virgil could breathe again. Sort of.
"V?" Richie began, hesitantly when Virgil didn't move, perhaps a little hurt, aching pain bleeding into his tone even as he tried to sound cool. "I'm—sorry, Virgil. What you said, I thought...not what you were expecting, huh? It's okay. We can just forget—"
Virgil pounced. Not what he was expecting, too damn short, that had been, and Richie wasn't saying no—he did make some sound, but probably not a protest, though it wasn't articulate enough to tell, with Virgil's tongue in the way.
Rocking forward, he pushed Richie down into the mattress, and Richie pushed back, but that wasn't a protest either, not with his hands moving the way they were down Virgil's torso. This was like they often wrestled, only Richie wasn't struggling quite forcefully enough to get himself free, and Virgil had the advantage, being on top already. Richie's legs were trapped under his and he forced Richie's head down into the pillow with his kiss and the way Richie was shoving his hips against him was the hottest thing Virgil had experienced. Ever.
It was so overwhelming that he pushed himself away, sat back on the bed, almost trembling, forcing himself to pause before he crossed a threshold he might not be able to return from.
"What?" Richie raised his head, propped himself up on his uninjured elbow.
His face was flushed, his lips red and swollen, and his blond hair was tangled beyond the damage a cyclone would wreak. He looked nothing like Richie, and more like him than ever before, and Virgil gripped the mattress hard with both hands, hanging on for dear life. "I—just—you're okay with this?"
"Virgil..." Richie drew it out slowly, like his processing power was mostly otherwise occupied. "Was anything giving you the impression I wasn't okay with this?"
"I know, but I don't want...I mean, I do, obviously, but..." Virgil shook his head, trying to straighten out what few coherent thoughts remained. "We're friends, and we love each other, but you don't have to do this just because of that. Not if you don't want to."
"Don't want to?"
"You sure you don't want someone who's, uh, more gay? Less straight? I mean, I still think women are hot, I'm still gonna think about wanting them, probably—"
"And I'm going to find other guys hot, probably, but right now..." Richie sighed and sat up. "Okay, Virgil, you asked before, what my type of guy was. Truth is, yeah, I have one." He made a motion like he was going to adjust his glasses, aborted at the last minute when he realized he had put them on the tray beside the bed. "My type. Is about six feet even, dark skin, dark eyes. Built, but not too built, nice pecs, especially in tight black t-shirts. Good arms. Dreadlocks, definitely the dreads. And did I mention I have this major thing for super heroes?"
Richie nodded, then looked away.
"For—a while now?"
"You asked how I figured it out. How I was gay. Well, that wasn't the only thing. But it helped."
"Huh." Virgil cocked his head. "So—have you been checking me out? Secretly? When I wouldn't notice?"
"V, are you checking out Daisy every single time you're in class with her, or just sitting having lunch?"
"Uh. Yes. Definitely."
Richie nodded. "Well, then."
"Really?" Virgil glanced down at himself, wonderingly. "I'm that hot?"
"So I don't have to feel guilty about all the times I've been checking you out in the last week, then."
"Really? You have?"
"You know, it's funny. Girls, I like brunettes best. But with guys, apparently, I really go for blonds. And glasses. And did you know you have a great ass?"
Richie turned bright red, which was about fifty percent of why Virgil had said it, the other fifty percent being that it was totally true. But then Richie had to outdo him by leaning forward until he was almost against Virgil's chest, and dropping his voice like someone might overhear, to whisper in his ear, "Prove it."
So he did his best, but came up for air in a couple minutes, gasped out, "Richie—"
"Yeah?" Riche sounded just as out of breath. They might have been running a marathon.
"You're totally sure—I mean, I go any further, I'm not gonna be able to stop. Seriously."
Richie set his hands on Virgil's shoulders, looked him in the eyes. "Are you sure about this, V? That what you want is—"
"You. Oh yeah. Sure. Absolutely sure—but you sure you're ready—"
"Virgil, we're seventeen year old guys. Of course I'm ready! I'm always ready! I'm gay, not a eunuch!"
"No," Virgil had to agree, from what he could feel in their present position. "Definitely not."
"Y-yeah. About that." With considerable effort Richie drew back. "Maybe we should check out of this hospital."
"But the AC! And the bed..."
"I suppose I could set Backpack to sound an alarm in an hour."
"Only an hour?" Virgil asked.
"The doctor will be coming back around then, right?"
"Oh. Yeah. So, the couch in the garage?"
"Works for me." Richie summoned Backpack to crawl onto his shoulders, then retrieved his helmet from under the chair, while Virgil donned his mask and took out his disk, then slid open the window, letting in the roar of traffic and the hot night breeze.
Posed on the sill, he looked back at Richie, grinned. "Race you there?"
"We gotta make a stop first," Richie said. "Find a drugstore, pick up a few. Uh. Necessities."
"Umm, don't sweat it. The gas station's fully equipped. I made sure."
Richie's eyebrows shot up. "So. All that stuff about just being friends, that being the important thing, that being enough..."
"I mean all of it. Always," Virgil said. "But a guy's gotta have hope, right?"
Richie laughed. "Totally." Activating his boot rockets, he hovered up to Virgil, chin almost set on his shoulder to use that same whisper, so damn tempting it hurt, "So, you wanted to know before, whether I like it on top, or...?"
"Let's find out," and Richie shot out the window to soar into the summer night, with Virgil right behind him all the way.
I've been a fan of Static Shock since the second episode aired, and have been wanting to tell a V/R story since about that time. So it was great fun to finally get around to playing with these boys, and I'm tickled pink that others have had fun with it as well. Thank you for reading!
Love to know what you think!
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