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Negotiation

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Lord Boxman led Professor Venomous through the bustling factory floors of Boxmore. Venomous’ high-heeled boots, as practiced and nimble as he was in walking with them, clicked against the hard tiled floors; but the sound was swallowed up by snarls of pipes and wires and exposed insulation, by the cavernous heights and supply-choked depths of the factory’s spaces, and most of all, by the ceaseless thrumming of its mechanical heart and production arteries.

Boxman directed him to look at the conveyer belts running like rivers, at the regimented rows of blank-eyed robotic henchmen awaiting the spark of life, at the already-sealed crates stamped with fresh fuchsia paint. TO: VENOMOUS LABS LLC.

Venomous cast an eye over it all, and nodded his head at the appropriate times. But really, he only wanted to look at Boxman.

Try as he might, he could not get a read on the man.

At their first meeting he had expected little, and he had gotten it. A disaster of a dinner, a disaster of a negotiation, a disaster of an evening… A boring disaster.

Until… The invasion of plaza kids. The conflict. The chaos. The pie cannon.

Long after he had completed the paperwork and gone home, Venomous found—to his surprise and chagrin—that Boxman was lodged in his thoughts.

At first he had thought his interest was strictly business-related. Before meeting him, he had thought Boxman’s skill was highly overrated; but after seeing him construct a beefy weapon in a matter of minutes from assorted parts, he had to admit that the man had a touch of mechanical genius when properly motivated.

Then he’d thought his interest was strictly social. Even academic. He was always checking POW ratings, seeing how his rating climbed (or rather, sank) after he succeeded at a new extortion scheme, seeing how his rank compared against other villains in his social circles. He had scoffed at Boxman’s -10 rating, thinking it must be some sort of glitch… But witnessing the power of Boxman’s fury had convinced him otherwise. To understand how another villain could be well-known as an abject failure—and with reason—and yet be such a roaring success in the right situation? That was enough to pique anyone’s interest…

… right?

But after recent drama, inaugurated by the appearance of one Dr. Barbara Blight, he’d had to think again.

The rest of the local villains had watched from the sidelines and through screens, paralyzed by muggy heat and secondhand embarrassment, as smothering fog had poured from Boxmore’s stacks, as the ocean had risen and swamped the parking lots of Lakewood Plaza and Boxmore alike.

Venomous had gotten a tight, itchy feeling in his chest as he had watched Boxman moon over Dr. Blight, Box’s posture servile and his eyes full of stars. And after the crisis was over and the environment had been restored to some semblance of normalcy, he realized that the ache hadn’t only been from acute cringing and environmentally-induced asthma.

It was jealousy.

He wanted Boxman to look at him that way. He wanted Boxman to bend to his will like that.

Once those thoughts rose from his id to his conscious mind, the floodgates were opened.

He didn’t just want Boxman to treat him the way he had treated Dr. Blight. He wanted Boxman to treat him the way he had treated the pie cannon. He wanted Boxman to strip him down to essentials. He wanted Boxman to grip his body with those work-roughened hands. He wanted Boxman to bend him over and brace behind him and…

Beginning to sweat uncomfortably, Venomous pulled his thoughts back to Dr. Blight.

Hadn’t Boxman looked at him in that same way?

From the moment Venomous had first walked through the doors of Boxmore, he had felt Boxman’s eyes on him, noticed the flush in Boxman’s cheeks. He had thought he knew what that meant. He knew what it felt like to be checked out, to be desired… not to be egotistical, but it happened frequently. He projected confidence and power, both naturally and through intentional cultivation—people responded to that, sexually as well as socially. He had gained a reputation in the streets, and in the sheets, and over the conference table (and, on one or two memorable occasions, on top of the conference table.)

Initially—at the beginning of that meeting—he had felt indifferent to Boxman’s apparent romantic interest. Maybe even a little repelled: he pursued sex for his own pleasure, and sometimes to strengthen social bonds when he was feeling into it; but never for the sake of furthering his business. That felt unsavory and cheap. If Boxman wanted him, and he didn’t want Boxman, he’d have to rebuff any advances while maintaining their professional relationship and taking care not to bruise Boxman’s ego; a tricky line to walk, and a pain in the ass.

But now that he realized he did want Boxman, he was suddenly unsure if Boxman had ever wanted him at all.

He had been flustered and fawning… but Venomous had to admit, Boxman acted like that with his board of investors too. And with anybody else with whom he wanted to be on good terms… It seemed to be either ingratiating servility or open hostility with just about everyone, really.

Standing shirtless in the wreckage of his dining room, Box had said, “You still want… me?” and had pulled Venomous into a bear-hug. Venomous’ heart had thumped at the contact. But by all accounts, Boxman was physically expressive and over-emotional… maybe he really had been only talking about the business deal.

Maybe Venomous had imagined the whole thing? Thinking about it was like a pebble in his shoe… especially because the more he thought about the possibility of being attracted to Boxman, the more acutely he felt it.

And that pissed him off. Of all the people to be attracted to. Boxman, with his clumsiness and his constant faux pas and his bottom-shelf social status. Boxman, with his stupid intriguing strength and distracting devil-may-care attitude and maddening secret pecs and abs.

Anxious, torn between wanting the possibility to come to fruition and wanting it nonexistent, Venomous watched Boxman for signals that he even had the capacity to desire him—to desire another man.

But Boxman gave out none of the signals Venomous was looking for: no ostentation in his clothing, no slink in his stride. He didn’t snark; he glowered. He was floridly emotional, sure, equally likely to break into tears or break into song when the mood hit… but other than transgressing that stereotype, the way he dressed and conducted himself projected plain masculinity.

The way he had melted at the slightest glance from Dr. Blight… The way she’d had him eating out of her hand so easily… Ugh, Venomous had thought. He’s straight. Now I’m sure of it.

Standing next to Boxman on a catwalk stretched across the factory wall, leaning his forearms against the sturdy metal railing, Venomous admitted defeat. He’d gone and gotten a crush, but it wasn’t to be. He could lay it to rest with a touch of grace, though.

“I wanted to give you my sympathy,” he said, staring out over the industrial jumble. Up here, the background noise of the machinery was quieter than down on the floor, so he didn’t have to raise his voice to be heard clearly.

“Oh?” Boxman asked, his organic eye squinting with genuine surprise.

“About the recent incident with Dr. Blight.”

“Oh… that.” Boxman flushed deep red and ducked his chin, turning his face away. “I sure bungled that one.”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying.” Venomous leaned on one arm, turned to face Boxman. “Using charm as a weapon the way she did? Was too cruel.” Then Venomous couldn’t resist adding, with a playful smirk: “And I say that as a devastatingly charming person myself.”

Boxman chuckled at that, and nodded… only to show polite appreciation for the little joke, Venomous guessed. Still, it felt good to see him smile. Even if the sexual relationship he’d been dreaming about wasn’t going to happen, he could still leave the man in a bit better place than he’d found him.

“She did you wrong. Most men would’ve done the same in your place.”

“Quit laying it on so thick,” Boxman chided him, grinning in that way he did so that his annoyingly cute little snaggletooth showed. “I acted a fool and I know it.” His smile slipped, and his voice sank to a brooding undertone. “Not really used to that sort of…” And then the smile and chirrup were back, full-wattage. “She just gave me some silly pet name and… ahahah I lost my mind! And she’s not even my type, heh heh!”

“Oh?” Venomous’ interest was piqued. “What is your type?”

Boxman stopped mid-cackle and went still and pale as a marble statue.

Now Venomous was really interested. He had expected a straightforward answer from this straightforward man, some category that would commonly grace the pages of a pinup magazine, like redheads or mermaids. If Boxman was looking this cagey, his tastes must run surprisingly exotic.

Against his better judgement, Venomous’ focus sharpened. He did love a good mystery.

“No need to be embarrassed,” he purred. “I’ve heard it all.”

Boxman’s hands gripped the railing so tightly that his bicep strained against his labcoat sleeve. Then all of a sudden he was gesturing with both hands.

“My type? Ee hee… I like…. I like a woman…”

Venomous’ heart sank slightly. He had been right.

“… who is shaped like this.” Boxman drew a shape in the air with his index fingers. It might have been an attempt at drawing Coke bottle curves, but it looked more like a bottle of Crisco vegetable oil.

Venomous’ heart really sank now—with boredom. Tall, rectangular women were common among both villains and heroes, and were commonly desired. So what did Boxman apparently feel was so taboo? A desire for a specific person, for a particular activity? If he had erotic fantasies of Foxtail crushing him between her thighs, or slinging him over her shoulder like a duffel bag full of dorm room laundry, he had plenty of company among other villains. Just Venomous’ luck, if the man he currently fancied turned out to be not only straight, but a prude.

But… wait a moment…

Box’s anxiety didn’t look like the blushing, leering nervousness of a man concealing taboo desires. The way he blanched and wrung his hands… he looked like he was actually afraid of something.

That description he had just given of an attractive woman… it wasn’t just mundane. It was generic.

Within Venomous’ brain, puzzle pieces fell into place. Boxman’s reactions, his words… his age, which Venomous often forgot was at least a decade older than his own…

Methinks he doth protest too much.

“Box…” A smirk tugged up one corner of Venomous’ mouth. “Box… are you gay?”

The response was as swift as if he had hit Boxman’s sense of self-preservation with a reflex hammer.

“I’m not! You are!”

“Yes.”

Venomous’ response was just as automatic. His pedantic nature caught up with him a second later, and he rotated a hand at the wrist. “hmmm sensu lato.”

Boxman’s expression was blank for a split second. In the next, a stunning series of conflicting emotions passed through it—shock, delight, fear, relief, bitterness, interest, jealousy—as if projected from a speeding film reel.

“Box,” said Venomous, his voice tender and his heart gone soft like pudding, “… are you closeted?”

Boxman turned his face away, the gesture sharp enough that his crest of hair flopped over, and Venomous knew he was right.

“No!” Boxman turned back towards him, his voice high and gravelly. “That’s not it! I’m just surprised! Because you… you…” He ducked his head. “You guessed my name.”

“Your… I did what?”

“The name I used to be called. When I was a kid.”

Venomous’ brow furrowed. “Other kids used to call you ‘gay’?”

“No, no. My civvy name.”

“… gggGay….?”

“Gaylord. My name is Gaylord. Was.” Boxman tossed his head so his crest flopped back in the other direction. “Or Gaillard. In the original French.”

“Oh.” Well, if it helped Boxman let down his guard, he would go along with the new train of thought. “I didn’t know you were French.”

“Not French exactly. My family started out in New Orleans,” Boxman said, looking out over the factory again, resting his arms on the railing, his face pensive and his voice distant. Venomous recalled the fleur-de-lis pattern on his dining room wallpaper. “And I guess you could say we’re half-Senegalese.”

Senegalese? But you’re as white as an economy-size tub of Cool Whip, Venomous thought, but didn’t say.

He chuckled. “You really shouldn’t give out your civvy name so easily. But now that you have… well, I guess I’ll tell you mine. Fair’s fair.” He raised a playful, warning finger. “But you have to promise not to laugh.”

“You’ve got a name that’s funnier than ‘Gaylord?’” Boxman leaned in slightly, his body language now calming down, growing interested. “Okay. Pinky promise.”

“It’s Armando, originally. But in English…” he allowed a dramatic pause. “Herman.”

Boxman’s cheeks puffed out and his eyes popped.

“You promised you wouldn’t laugh,” Venomous pouted theatrically while his eyes danced.

“erhm NERT,” Boxman managed through a mouth clamped shut, turning red, trembling with the pressure of a held-in giggle.

“You’re lying,” Venomous side-eyed him with a smile. “And also… you’re gay.”

Boxman deflated like a balloon. “Why do you keep saying that?” he squealed.

“What are you afraid of?” Venomous sighed. “The Code? That got thrown out decades ago. Being ‘deviant’”—he crooked the fingers of both hands into contemptuous air-quotes around the word—“isn’t a death sentence anymore.”

“Decades, huh? The Code was still on the books in 2010,” Boxman lobbed back at him in a dark undertone.

… He was probably right. Venomous didn’t know history as well as he should; he had daydreamed through his History of Film and History of Comics classes.

Embarrassed, Venomous’ voice got a squeaky edge. “Not here though! Maybe some places were behind the times, but here… nobody cares who falls in love with whom. The young people in Lakewood Plaza…”

“I hate those brats!”

Boxman’s voice had gone thick with bitter anger. Venomous backpedaled, held up his hands in a mollifying gesture.

“It doesn’t matter among us villains either. I’ve been out forever and nobody’s given me grief about it.”

An idea struck Venomous. “Here, I’ll prove it to you. Watch this.”

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and flourished it like a magician about to do a trick. He tapped open his list of contacts and showed Boxman the name on the screen.

Boxman’s shoulders relaxed as his anger ebbed away, and then hunched up to his ears again when he read the phone’s screen—the name alone intimidated him. Despite himself, he leaned in, hooked by the dramatics.

Venomous spoke as he typed. “Dear Cosma… I like… to kiss men.”

Oh wait. Boxman was French.

“On… the… mouth…” Venomous clarified, his fingers tapping rapidly.

Boxman’s eyes widened. Venomous’ gestures and volume grew as he showed off.

“With… lots… of… tongue. Aaand…” A final tap with the index finger. “Send.”

Boxman gazed at him in wonder, mouth slightly agape. Venomous basked in the attention like a reptile basks in sunshine.

Then his phone rang.

Venomous juggled it in surprise, nearly losing it over the side of the catwalk. Boxman dived for cover at the sound, as if the beep-y little tune were a rattle of artillery.

Venomous checked the screen… YEP… and, gingerly, held the phone to his ear.

“mnyEllo?”

Cosma’s voice was quicksand-smooth. “Professor Venomous… dear Venomous… Working hard, are we?”

Venomous scanned the factory. He locked eyes with Boxman, who was cowering—he could hear Cosma speaking.

“I am,” Venomous ventured.

“Have you checked that your fume hood is working properly? Do we need to open a window?”

“No, ma’am,” Venomous said. The honorific fell out unintentionally; her tone was eerily sweet, and the way she was saying “we” was giving him the heebie-jeebies.

She clicked her tongue in hollow concern. “By any chance… have you been drinking?”

Cosma. It’s ten in the morning. No, I am not drunk.” Venomous intentionally set his voice in a cool, challenging tone. Boxman raised his head, gnawing on his fingernails/talons.

“I’m not intoxicated. In any way.”

“Mmm. That’s good to hear,” Cosma purred. “In that case…

QUIT WASTING MY TIME WITH THINGS I ALREADY KNOW!”

The force of her roar punched Venomous in the side of the head. He went reeling.

He staggered upright, his hair in wild disarray, and fumbled the phone back to his ear. “Yes, Cosma.”

She hung up. Even the sound of the signal’s cut-off dripped with dismissal.

Boxman looked at Venomous, biting his lip. Venomous, eyes slightly unfocused from the blow of Cosma’s disdain, struck a confident pose and waved one hand in airy nonchalance.

“See? I told you she didn’t care.”

Boxman climbed to his feet and gazed at Venomous, his face open and shining with admiration.

He had stars in his eyes.

It was the way he had once looked at Dr. Blight.

Venomous’ chest swelled with triumph. With elation.

Boxman could desire him.

Boxman did desire him.

But…

Now Venomous would have to make a deliberate decision about what kind of relationship he wanted with Boxman.

Now Venomous would have to own all the possible outcomes, all the consequences his decision might bring.

Well… shit.

Chapter Text

Somewhere along the route from Boxmore to Succulentus’ house to pick up Fink, Venomous pulled into a convenience store parking lot and took out his phone.

He couldn’t stop thinking about the longing way Boxman had looked at him. About what Boxman had said—or rather, had refused to say—about attractions. About the possibilities that had opened up to him. The choices he now had to make.

So instead, he focused on a detail of something else Box had said. A question he could answer by typing it into a search engine.

When was the Code in effect?

He scanned the general overview of its history. How it had appeared and gained an authoritative chokehold on expression back when the world had appeared in black and white and infinite shades of gray. How its official authority had waxed and waned and faded away mid-century, even as its influences became subconsciously entrenched in collective mainstream culture. The public denouncements of heroes and villains alike in the 1950s that spawned a moral panic, leading to a new set of rules on the books, so similar to the old rules. The Code’s unofficial but insidious, pervasive influence when he himself had been a child.

He thought back to his adolescence, when the legal strictures of the Code had loosened. It had seemed that everyone was having fun playing around with the previously-taken-for-granted rules of sexual attraction and gender. Even heroes began to come out of the closet.

He had a vague, distant recollection of the wave of deaths, too.

The villains had more or less accepted the phenomenon as yet another, though particularly brutal, incarnation of the karma they’d always faced. Claiming a villainous identity often carried some threat of destruction, even in the most constructive parts of their lives. Raise a child? Wait for them to grow up and depose you. Employ henchmen? Beware double-crossers. Build a lair? Live with the knowledge, each and every day, that it could fall down around your ears.

The Code was just sneakier than other scourges, more unpredictable than any hero’s justice or rival villain’s revenge. It was the unseen, sudden force that knocked your foot from a solid hold out over a chasm; that made your knife twist in your grip and aim at your own viscera; that guided the stray laser beam to your chest. “That puts it into the minds of minions to rebel,” Billiam Milliam had said once, and Venomous had wondered queasily if he had ever said such a thing in Boxman’s hearing, had shot him an icy glare, but had not said a word to contradict him.

But the heroes had not been prepared to deal with it.

Venomous particularly remembered one heroine who had come out as a lesbian, fearfully but decisively, publicly and to some fanfare. She had enjoyed a brief time of living openly in the limelight. One year later, she was killed off-screen.

Venomous himself had been protected by wealth, and geography, and by being born just a little too late to experience the worst of it, and by sheer luck. He’d also always had a fascination with the underground culture of Comix, which wasn’t subject to the Code like mainstream heroes and villains were. While he’d been too lawful—and frankly, too intimidated—to actually join the freewheeling underworld of Comix, he had read the zines they produced whenever he could. And so he had never really internalized the Code—legal, cultural, or karmic. But the young queer heroes had. They were all driven right back into the closet, leaving the field of heroism straight and conforming and “wholesome” for years afterwards.

But villains generally tended to be more fluid than heroes in their sexuality—probably an effect of that time when the rules against “deviant” behavior had been strictly enforced and had an overwhelming determinate effect on one’s career path.

And many dropped hints, subtle or overt. When Venomous had first entered the evil dating scene, queercoding had already been in the process of changing from imposed outgroup-labeling to claimed ingroup-identification. It had become not just a means of signaling, but a popular fashion. That had suited Venomous just fine, as he had developed a commanding-but-provocative gait, as he had painted his eyelids with kohl and practiced a cool, haughty gaze in the mirror. He would let the world know exactly what he was and what he wanted.

But the popularity of the style had led to false positives in reading the signals. Like the time when Venomous had spent a long evening trading increasingly explicit and barbed insults with a feline anthro, confident that he had reached a new level of flirting; only to finally invite him home and be told, no, the cat was not interested in that, he was faithful to both of his wives, thank you very much. Apparently he’d just been naturally slender and graceful and enjoyed insulting people.

Back to the present, and the topic at hand. Venomous had found his answer. Boxman had been right. The last hold-out—one of the biggest, most populated mainstream hero-and-villain districts—had clung to The Code until 2011.

Things had started to get better long before that. Here and there, indie communities had started to openly embrace and support their queer members, and the mainstream communities had haltingly, clumsily, followed suit. The lesbian hero who had died off-screen returned in more powerful form (an example of the well-known heroes’ rule: never accept that a death is real unless you see the body… and sometimes not even then), and found more success than she had ever had before.

But even though things had gotten more inclusive, more accepting… even after the formally-enforced Code was officially in the past… heroes and villains were still not out from under its shadow. You still heard about it happening, every now and then: a hero came out. They got sidelined, inexplicably. They died.

Venomous sighed through his nose, put away his phone, and continued on his way.

 

* * * * *

As Venomous pulled into Succulentus’ driveway, Succulentus cracked open the front door and wordlessly crooked a beckoning finger. The two crept down the hallway, Venomous following Succulentus’ lead, until they reached the playroom.

Succulentus’ grandson Aloe and his twin grandchildren Kal and Chloe knelt in a circle with Fink, sing-chanting at each other in quiet, melodic voices.

“Banana banana banana terracotta banana terracotta terracotta pie…”

Succulentus raised a spiny eyebrow at Venomous. Ven smiled and opened his mouth to speak.

Suddenly the children howled, bouncing ecstatically. The same lyrics, but multiplied in volume, squared in vehemence. “Banana banana banana terracotta banana terracotta terracotta pie!”

Venomous blinked, and completed his thought. “Cute.”

The song went on. “Do we all / Learn defeat / From the whores / With bad feet?”

Venomous’ smile froze. “Did… they just say ‘whores’?”

Succulentus knitted his gnarled brow and guffawed. “Kids! Never know what they’ll pick up.”

“Do they even know what that means?” Ven hissed.

The kids kept singing. “Beat the meat / Treat the feet / To the sweet / Milky seat…”

Ven stepped into the room, murmuring an interruption. “I don’t know what that means but it sounds disgusting.” He waved a hand. “Fink? We’ve got important errands to run. Time to go.”

With an unholy screech, she turned to him, eyes gleaming with over-excitement. “Liar!!”

Ven almost stepped backwards, and cringed inwardly. He appreciated Succulentus’ hospitality in regularly babysitting Fink, even on short notice… but he was even more permissive than Venomous, and this wasn’t the first time she would leave his home worked-up into an over-stimulated frenzy.

Succulentus was unperturbed. He shuffled in and scooped Fink up, carrying her in the crook of his arm like a strapless handbag, head pointed backwards. The succulent grandkids trailed the two of them, giggling at Fink and still tossing song lyrics back and forth.

“Terracotta pie—”
“Hey!”
“Terracotta pie—”
“Hey!”

When Succulentus reached Venomous’ car he slung Fink inside with an easy underhand, like a bowling ball. Bringing up the rear, Ven took a hasty step forward and looked in at her with some concern; but she just squealed with delighted laughter and stuck her tongue out the window at the grandkids.

Venomous thanked Succulentus—getting a pat on the back in return that would have sent him sprawling if Succulentus still had the strength he once had—entered the car, and started the ignition. Unable to contain her energy, Fink was bouncing up and down in the passenger seat with such fervor that her shoulders and the back of her head whumped against the seat-cushion in a way Ven found disturbing. When he’d selected the DNA sample that he’d woven together with lab-rat DNA and his own to create her, he’d intentionally chosen qualities for his future protégé that complemented and contrasted with his own strengths, in hopes of keeping his business and legacy from going stale: dynamism, inventiveness, rejection of status quo, energy and physical stamina. But at times like this, he wondered if he hadn’t gotten in a little over his head.

“Fink. FINK. Bottom in your chair. Put your seatbelt on.”

She complied, smirking. But as they pulled away, her repressed kinetic energy transmuted into sound, and she started singing at full volume: the same melody as before, but just one word, over and over.

“Whores whores whores / whores whores whooores…”

Venomous clenched his hands on the steering wheel. “Fink. Please. Stop saying that.”

Fink gasped with wide eyes, and her hands flew to her chest. “Censorship!?” She turned her head to shriek at the window. “Help, I’m being censored!”

Venomous pitched his voice low, well-controlled. “I’m not one to make rules about what you can and can’t say. But words have power. You should understand them and use them thoughtfully. We’ll talk about it when we get home.”

Fink huffed through her nose. “I guess.”

“Sing about the stinky feet again,” Ven prompted, hoping to distract her.

“You mean, the milky seat?”

Ven gritted his teeth. “… um. Yes.”

They continued on home, Fink doing a damned admirable job at matching the lyrical speed, and surpassing the volume, of the previous group of four.

Terracotta pie—Hey!—Terracotta pie—Hey!—Terracotta pie…”

Chapter Text

Venomous’ phone purred out its ringtone.

“mnyEllo?”

“Professor Venomous.”

Venomous’ lips curled into a smile at the familiar sing-song intonation. “Box.” He infused the one syllable with acknowledgement, and welcome, and invitation to speak.

“Hey so… I’ve made progress on your henchmen since you were over here last! But uh… I have some uh… questions I’d like to ask you. Uhhh about the henchmen, of course! You wouldn’t… happen to have any free time today, would you?”

Venomous cringed. He was still bogged down in indecision about his feelings for Boxman, and what he might want to do about them. To be honest, the thought of seeing Boxman again lit a spark of pleasure in the back of his brain… but his unwillingness to have a decision made for him outweighed that feeling.

He ruffled a stack of papers with a careless hand, eyes fixed blankly on the far wall. “Let me just take a look at the old planner here and… would you look at that. Booked solid.”

“Oh.” Boxman’s voice fell with soft disappointment, like a dropped Kleenex. And then rose again, popping with bright hope. “Tomorrow, then? Friday? Saturday?”

“Sorry, no can do. Busy, busy.” Venomous felt a twinge of guilt for lying so shamelessly, but he would rather that than let himself get roped into attachments he sort of wanted but probably didn’t need in his life.

“Oh. Okay.” When Boxman spoke again, his voice was uncharacteristically soft, and hesitant. “In that case… Could I ask you something? Now? About… about something we talked about last time? Just before you left?”

Venomous’ voice softened. “Sure. Do you mean… when Cosma called?”

“Cosma,” Boxman echoed in a dark undertone, involuntarily sounding like a movie trailer announcer promising a dystopia. His voice lifted up again into its higher range. “No, before that. I mean…” his tone collapsed into a decrescendo, landing in a soft, uncertain place. “… about the… closet.”

“… yes?” Venomous waited.

“I was… eh-heh!... wondering if you had any eeahh-instructions for-uh how a person could be…” Venomous could practically see Boxman twisting his fingers together. “… not there.”

“Oh!”

Oh. Oh.

While he felt honored that Boxman would ask him for advice, Venomous was relieved that he’d refused an in-person meeting, certain he’d made the right choice. He’d promised himself long ago that he’d never get involved with a closet case—he refused to hide, himself, and he had little patience to shepherd someone else through a time of emotional upheaval like that.

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t happy to offer a few pointers.

“There’s… no instructions, really. It’s whatever feels right to you.”

Boxman’s voice rose and fell in incredulous waves. “No instructions? No strategies, no checklists, no… no scripts?”

Venomous huffed in amusement, but gently. “You don’t even have to say anything at all, necessarily. You could uh… You could change your personal style. That’s what I did, at the beginning.”

“Ugf… I’m not gonna have to wear make-up, am I?” Boxman muttered in distaste. A pause. “Uhhh… no offense. It looks great on you!… erm… I mean … eeeh-heh.” Venomous imagined him blushing furiously.

“None taken. Heh. And, no, it doesn’t have to be that. I mean more along the lines of… well, you could display a symbol.”

“Like?”

mmWouldn’t go wrong with a rainbow. Maybe on a lapel pin? Or tie clip?”

Venomous heard Boxman humming thoughtfully deep in his throat. Then he perked up with an interjection. “Ah! The lazy girl!”

“The… what?”

“That girl. The Lakewood twerp! Not the super-smart one. The one with the bad attitude who works under what’s-his-ass. The one with the… the foots.”

“I… am not really familiar with the Plaza staff, but go on.”

“She’s got a sticker like that on her bike helmet! It’s not a rainbow, though. It’s uh… purple, and blue…”

“Pink, lavender, blue?”

“Yeah, like that.”

“Bi pride. She’s saying she’s bisexual.”

Huhn. So it really does work. Just like saying something out loud.”

“Ee-yup.” Venomous shifted the phone from ear to ear. “There’s tons of merch online. You could spend some time browsing on evilBay… see if anything appeals to you.”

Venomous could hear Boxman thrumming thoughtfully, cheerfully, over the line. He grinned—this was going well, so far.

Boxman’s humming stopped. “All right, then. Anything else I need to know?” A hint of anxiety crept back into his voice. “There’s not a list of people that have to be told, is there?”

Buoyed by his relief, Venomous’ voice took a swing into grandiosity. “Not only is there no list of who to tell, you don’t have to tell anyone if you don’t want to. There’s just one goal, and that’s that you stop feeling afraid that people find out.”

Pffft. I’m not afraid of what anyone thinks!”

There. Right there, in that bold statement, in that careless intonation… that was the Boxman that Venomous loved. …Being around. Loved being around. Sometimes. Oof.

“Then you’re most of the way there already,” Venomous reassured.

A long pause. Then…

“Welp! This has been a productive conversation,” Boxman chirruped. “Thanks for the new specification details. Your henchmen are going to be top-notch, just you wait and see!”

“I’m sure they will be.” Venomous smiled into the phone. “And hey, Box… I’m glad you called.”

Eeey, no problem! I mean… uh… I mean…” His bravado melted into sincerity. “Thanks.” Pause. “H-hah! Toodles!”

click

Venomous could just imagine Boxman in his office, finger held against the End Call button, wincing, mouthing the word Toodles. Laughing, he set down his phone and went back to his paperwork.

Chapter Text

Several days went by, and Venomous didn’t hear from Boxman.

So when his phone vibrated with a text from Vormulax, he was a little slow on the uptake.

WHAT DID YOU TELL HIM

Venomous was less perturbed about her vague, accusatory message than he was about her all-caps font.

Tell who

?

Vormulax responded in a hasty volley.

BIXNAN

BPCMSN

FHDDGJFDJ

BOXMAN

Venomous sighed through his nose, slightly intrigued despite himself. Vormulax had been on the Boxmore Board for quite a while, so he’d heard her vent about Boxman’s shenanigans often enough before. Usually offhand and long after the event in question, though. Odd for her to be writing him about it directly. Odd for her to be flustered over whatever-it-was.

From the other room, Finks’ voice cut through his thoughts. “Boss! You gotta see this!”

Venomous called back to Fink, keeping his tone mild despite a twinge of annoyance. “I’m on the phone. Be there in a minute.”

He sent Vormulax a single character.

?

The typing… symbol undulated for a full minute before resolving into a line of text.

HE WENT GAY ALL OF A SUDDEN

Venomous almost typed back It doesn’t work like that, but deleted it halfway through, thinking. English wasn’t Vormulax’s first language; she’d learned it in a formal interstellar school in a liminal dimension. So while she had a large vocabulary and careful command of grammar, she didn’t always grasp idioms and slang.

Realization caught up to him of what her words must mean: Boxman came out to the Board!

His vicarious pride at knowing Boxman had knocked out a formidable task so quickly was followed by a wave of uneasy confusion: But Vormulax wouldn’t be upset over that.

From the other room, Fink’s voice again, starting to squeal and rasp. “Boss. Boss! Come here!”

“Fink. Be patient! I’ll be there soon,” he barked back. His fingers flew.

What did he do?

Her response: I’M SENDING A VIDEO

The text bubble vwooped.

Venomous clicked open the attachment.

He saw a line of blurry dark-brown, which resolved itself into the texture of varnished wood: the edge of a table. The image jittered and panned, and the garish gold figure of Billiam Milliam slid diagonally into the picture, along with a vague blue-light reflection on the table-top. Venomous turned up the volume. He could hear Boxman speaking, his voice uncharacteristically steady, reciting a list of numbers, units of measure, calendar dates. Not simply steady, but rote—oh! A progress report.

This must be the most recent Boxmore Board meeting, covertly filmed on Vormulax’s phone.

The picture twitched again, and adjusted, bringing the video-conference screen into full view. Venomous almost dropped his phone.

He held the screen at arms’ length, and then brought it close, squinting involuntarily, as if a phone call had woken him from sleep in the darkest part of the night and he had neglected to adjust the screen-brightness.

What was he even looking at?

A cacophony of colors, a riot of embellishments. Rainbows. Feathers. Rhinestones. Glitter. Tulle.

And in the middle of it, partially-obscured by the effect of screen-viewed-through-screen and the sparkling aura of his clothing: Boxman. Engaged in his task of reading, demeanor matter-of-fact.

Boxman finished, shuffled the papers in his hands, clipped them together—the paperclip had a unicorn’s head on it—and took off his reading glasses—no, Venomous had seen Boxman’s reading glasses, they were basic round wire-rims, they didn’t have wings and rhinestones and they weren’t pink.

“Will that be all?” Boxman asked, sounding more professional than Venomous had ever heard him.

A breathless pause.

Cosma’s voice, cool and smooth as linoleum. “That will be all.” Another pause. “Thank you.”

Boxman dipped his head in acknowledgement and signed-off. The video conference screen went blank.

Another pause.

Then Cosma spoke, her tone strained. “I grew on a planet in a trinary star system. In the 60s. But I have never seen anything so garishly bright.”

“I like the new style!” Billiam chirruped. Venomous wondered if he genuinely appreciated it, or if he was just happy to, for once, not be the tackiest thing in sight.

Cosma’s voice again, now distant, but with an undertone of amazement. “The numbers are better.”

The camera’s frame swung slightly and caught her face, eyes directed away into some far corner of space, expression smooth and thoughtful.

Her eyes twitched over, made contact with Venomous’ through the screen. Her saurian features went jagged with annoyance.

“Are you filmi…” She began to roar. The screen freeze-framed as the video ended, catching Cosma with mouth open and tongue caught behind her teeth.

Venomous took a moment to process.

Vormulax was typing.

SHE SAYS YOU SENT HER AN ODD TEXT LAST WEEK

YOU MAYBE KNEW ABOUT THIS

???

He texted back.

It’s called camp. He went campy.
I did not know he would do that

But I

may or may not

have said something to encourage him.

Vormulax’s response was a single grinning emoji.

Venomous mirrored the little circle’s smile. The expression caught, emotion blazed through him, and suddenly he was laughing, doubled over around his phone.

From the other room, Fink wailed in an agony of impatience. “Booosss!”

Venomous caught his breath and sent off one last text message—Thanks for telling me. Gotta go. TTYL—and walked into the next room to see what was getting his minion so worked up.

He stopped just inside the door, eyes gone wide, stunned for the second time in five minutes.

The TV was on.

“Aha! Boss—look!” Fink squealed, and pointed at the screen.

Action News 52 splashed its logo across the corner of the picture. The headline-crawl read Villainy Goes Vibrant.

A rainbow-colored block filled the remainder of the wide flatscreen. It was Boxmore.

It took Venomous a moment to realize that the effect was due to a series of seven spotlights stationed at the factory’s foot, each shining a different color up its walls. It took another few seconds for him to register that the asphalt in front twinkled with shining confetti and that the smokestacks were festooned with pink bunting.

Fink turned her face up to him, simpering. “You never gave me confetti like that. I want some!”

Dynamite Watkins was on-screen, posture as statuesque and eager as a hood ornament on a luxury car. “We’re on the scene, where the lair of local supervillain Lord Boxman has exploded…!” A series of explosions just behind her filled the air with showers of sparks and fluffy smoke-clouds, “… with colorful decorations.”

“And Dynamite Watkins is here to get to the bottom of it!” She pointed her microphone at the factory, taut and focused like a sighthound. “Is this really just a change of style? Or could this be a distraction from some nefarious plot set to simmer just below the surface?”

She put a hand to her ear, expression gone distracted, face falling. “Chief.” She shook her head. “Chief, I…!”

The camera angle cut off of her and onto the factory.

A few seconds later she was back, perfect white teeth gritted between her plum-painted lips. “Dynamite Watkins, bringing you news of the decorations, and only of the decorations.”

Then she perked up, raising her face to the sky. The camera panned around and upwards as the clouds parted, spitting a shaft of rainbow onto the asphalt, followed by a massive box emblazoned with the salmon-and-magenta BM logo.

Dynamite Watkins ran to the impact site, taking loping strides in her platform stiletto heels.

The box sides dropped in a shower of pink rose petals to reveal Raymond, Shannon, and Darrell. Raymond and Shannon were dressed every bit as flamboyantly as the factory, decked out in rhinestones and feather boas. Darrell was wearing his cowboy boots, hat, and vest; a slogan-button pinned to his vest that read “I support my Daddy”; and a subdued expression.

Raymond pointed a finger at Dynamite Watkins and team, bending the other arm behind his head and making an annoyed moue. “Coach says to quit it with the commotion, you obnoxious…” He blinked long fake eyelashes. “… are we on camera!?”

Raymond and Shannon began frantically serving face.

Dynamite Watkins held out her microphone towards them, but after having it accidentally slapped away twice by their furious voguing, she trained her sights on Darrell instead.

The news program’s title bar read Robot Lackey as she addressed him. “You! You look like… uh…”

He turned his eye to gaze into the depths of the camera, morose, and kept mum.

“… like you have something to say?”

Raymond interrupted her. “Oh, he’s just mad because it’s clear he’s not the favorite son anymore.”

Darrell buzzed like a phone vibrating with an angry text, a viscous tear gathering in his single eye-socket. He managed to sputter out, “mmmnnn-I’ve got glitter in my eyeball!” and fled back into the factory.

A strident, feminine voice called from off-screen. “Eyy Watkins! I got a comment for ya!”

The camera panned 180 degrees to find Enid, standing astride her bicycle.

Dynamite Watkins bounded up to her with evident relief, and offered her the microphone. “Yes! Give us the scoop.”

Enid grasped ahold of the microphone over Watkins’ own hands, pulling it in close to her mouth. She leaned into the camera so her face filled the screen, glowering.

“Listen up, Box-Butt!” she barked. Then her eyebrows lifted and her tone softened. “Hey. Congratulations. Must be a relief, yeah?” The storminess returned. “But don’t think I’m gonna go easy on you just because you’re in the community! You’re still a choad.”

Dynamite Watkins wrested the microphone back. “Oh-ho-ho-holy live broadcast, viewers! Action News 52 claims no liability for the language of guests…”

Fink’s voice drowned out Watkins’ broadcasted babble, and her glaring face eclipsed the whole of the screen. “You hearin’ me, Boss? What do you say?”

Venomous smiled at her, through her, expression mild. “Good for him.”

Fink clutched at his cheeks, digging in her fingertips, pulling his face up to hers so their noses were almost touching. “No! You’re supposed to say: Fink, I am going to throw you a confetti party.”

He just gave her a lopsided smile.

The next time Boxman extended an invitation to visit the factory and talk shop, Venomous accepted.

Chapter Text

Venomous winced, fingers gripping his car’s steering wheel. He was happy that Fink was excited, of course he was; but her little fingers dug into his shoulder and neck like stiletto blades. At least she wasn’t covering his eyes anymore, the way she had as he’d pulled the car around the last curve of road before Boxmore came into view. That had been… concerning.

“Seatbelt, Fink,” he admonished.

But she didn’t hear him. In his peripheral vision, he watched her expression slacken. “Bwuah,” she exhaled, eyes fixed on Boxmore.

There it was, the same old factory. The… same… old factory; without spotlights, without garlands, without glitter.

Fink stayed perched on Venomous’ shoulder as they exited the car, as an Ernesto came out to meet them and beckoned them into the factory. As disappointment set in, she got heavier and heavier.

The inside of the factory was just as mundane as the outside. If it weren’t for the occasional gleam of glitter ground indelibly into the floor, and the troop of Ernestos crawling on hands-and-knees picking confetti out of the carpeting, it would have looked like the factory had never seen any decorations.

“Where is it?” Fink whined.

A hot, sour tinge of adrenaline began to rise through Venomous’ body. Why was it all gone? Had somebody said something to Boxman? Had somebody insulted, shamed, scared him? His fingernails dug indentations into his palms, though he didn’t feel it.

Then Boxman was there. “You’re early!” he shrieked, barreling down the hall towards them. He peeled off heavy, long-cuffed gloves as he ran, chucking them to the floor. He was also wearing a helmet with a protective face-shield pushed to the top of his head, and a thick safety apron that shook with a whomp whomp with every step.

He slammed into Venomous, a bulldozer of affection, and squeezed him with both arms. Venomous tried to accept the gesture through a haze of pain; the edge of the safety-shield had barked against a rib and oooo that was going to be purple. But his hands relaxed out of their fists; Boxman looked healthy, he looked happy.

Boxman drew back his head, gazing up into Venomous’ face, his eyes a-sparkle. He opened his mouth, tongue against front teeth, “Than...” But though he kept smiling, tears welled up in his eyes with desert-flash-flood speed, and he smooshed his face against Venomous’ torso.

Gingerly, Venomous patted Boxman on the back. His own eyes stung, partially from a rush of empathy for this earnest, vulnerable tough little man, and partially because the face-shield’s edge was digging into the bruise again.

Fink coughed, a shrill theatrical rasp of annoyance. Locked in position, both men looked turned their heads to look at her.

She spread her hands to indicate the factory all around; the bare hallways, the simple and functional rooms. “Where’s the colors?” she hissed through clenched, fanged teeth; her eyes sparked harshly above a dark blush of building rage. “Where’d you put the fun!?”

“That!” Boxman’s voice cracked high as he waved an airy hand. “All that stuff wasn’t really me. Trying it out was nice and all, but I decided to leave the glitz and glamour to Raymond and Shannon; they’re much better at it, you know.”

Fink’s cumulonimbus cloud of rage broke into a soggy rain of disappointment, her posture drooped. “B-b-but… I wanted a glitter party!” she whimpered.

“The glitter? …OhHHhh,” Boxman crowed in falsetto, “Why didn’t you say so?” He skipped around to Fink’s back, stooped—he didn’t have to stoop far—and, hands behind her shoulders, scooted her down the hallway, hand-truck style. Her shoulders rose up near her ears as her booties skidded against the floor in front of them.

Venomous followed, striding evenly. He caught up with them just in time to see Boxman let go of Fink—her tiny arms windmilled at the sudden stop—and point to a door. “I’ve still got a bunch! Stashed it in this closet. There was plenty of room…”

Boxman gave Venomous a wink; but Venomous didn’t notice. He was having a realization: while he’d seen Fink’s eyes widen and her fang-tips bare as she had been pushed, she hadn’t panicked or turned to bite and scratch. So… she’d insult Boxman, she’d sink her teeth into him under the smallest pretext… But when it came to a split-second judgement, a moment of instinct and reflex, she trusted him. Interesting.

Boxman grinned crookedly, one eyebrow rising into a saucy arc. “… because there’s nobody in there anymore! Eh? Right!?” He made finger-guns, pointing them at Venomous. When Venomous didn’t react with enough appreciation, he pointed them in the air, moving them in little shooting-motions. When Venomous still didn’t give his wordplay the attention it deserved, he holstered his finger-guns in his belt and threw open the closet door.

“Tah-daah!” he gestured to a box inside. Glitter it said, scrawled in magic marker. The same was written on the box stacked above that. And the one above that. And behind that…

“See? Boxes and boxes of the stuff! You can take it all.”

Fink’s eyes sparkled, like the stars of a hundred galaxies. Like moonlight reflecting on the waves of a thousand oceans. Like every crevice of Venomous’ house was going to sparkle, despite endless vaccumings, forever, if he let Fink take any of that haul back home with them. Which, of course, he would.

Boxman put fingertips into his mouth and whistled sharply, FwwWEET. “Ernesto!” After several seconds of a distant-then-approaching metallic clang of robots clambering to their feet and loping down the hall, a pair of Ernestos presented themselves and stood at attention.

Boxman pointed with a flourish. “Load these boxes into P.V.’s car.”

Fink scampered around the Ernestos’ feet, giggling joyfully, as they stooped, and hefted, and walked away towards the car.

Venomous was only half-watching them, engrossed in his own thoughts. Hot on the heels of the tender feeling that had rose within him at Boxman’s affectionate greeting and gratitude came a chilling blast of annoyance.

When he had first met Boxman, his preconceptions, thoughts and emotions had been knocked off-kilter. He liked Boxman. He liked Boxman, he had finally grudgingly realized. He didn’t like being proven wrong, and he didn’t like feeling uncertain.

Then he had found a new simplicity of situation and a self-defense, fragile as it was: Boxman was closeted, and he would not let himself fall for a closeted man… end of story. Then, all of a sudden, that restriction no longer applied—and Boxman had moved past it with stunning swiftness, with single-minded determination, with thoroughness and success. It had left Venomous impressed, and exhilarated.

Those feelings had inspired him, had buoyed him to his lab. Boxman’s strength was chaotic—powerful, but dissipated… What if he had a little bit of assistance? Something to focus his destructive power to a fine point? The thoughts had whispered in Venomous’ ear as he had looked at lines of computer code. With Boxman’s brawn and heart, with his training and intellect… could they create something greater than the sum of their parts? A carefully-honed, monstrous tool for destroying heroes?

He had the finished code with him now. The chip weighed nothing in his pocket, but he could feel it all the same. In his imagination, he had given it to Boxman a dozen times over.

But now that he was here, now that he had the opportunity, he couldn’t bring himself to take the step. To accept the commitment it would certainly bring with it.

Give Boxman an inch, and he would take a mile. Give his own heart and inch, and it would take a mile. Venomous didn’t like this, this… susceptibility. He couldn’t logically blame Boxman for the emotions he secretly felt. BUT HE WOULD.

“So…” Venomous drawled. “Let’s get to those schematics you mentioned. It’ll only be a few minutes until Fink starts hounding me to take us back home so she can play with that gift. And I’ve clearly caught you at a bad time. Wouldn’t want to interrupt your work any longer than is strictly necessary.”

“My...? Uh,” Boxman stared. After a second, he fumbled for his safety-shield, ripped it from his head and tossed it backwards over his shoulder; it landed unseen with a crash. “Who’s the overlord of this place? It’s me! And I say, we’ve got all the time you want!”

Venomous gave an oily smile. “You’re really too generous. But I wouldn’t want to disrespect you by overstaying my welcome.”

Boxman’s eyebrows peaked with confusion. “Buh… b…” he trailed off. His eyes darted to the side, as if the wall would tell him where this conversation had gone off the rails. “Th… Thank you? Right… right this way.”

Head drooping, Boxman trotted off down the hall. Venomous followed behind, a knot in the pit of his stomach. That had been… crueler than he intended.

He would figure it all out. What he actually wanted from Boxman. What he actually wanted from his life, period. What he would have to do to get it. Soon.

Just… not today.