Chapter 2: Duo
Tetsuko was still pissed off when she stalked into Mr. Lloyds’ office at the end of school. How dare he call me old! I’m only two years older than him! That’s not that much…right?! She slumped into her seat and waited for the men of the meeting to show up. She’d cleaned off her uniform as much as she could and the nurse had to tape a cold compress to her swelling jaw. The bandage was making her itch and it was hard to talk with pain zinging up her head. Her ribs were aching from the fight as well as her legs and butt. But the butt problem was all his fault. She huffed and turned her head towards the windows to watch the other students leave for the day or attend their club activities. Antonio used to be on the wrestling team and Tetsuko had been on the kickboxing team last year until they kicked her out for missing so many practices. The girl hadn’t even tried to get into a club this year, what was the point? Any one she’d join would probably kick her off because of fights this year too. It seems I can’t do anything right anymore. She sighed as she thought about all the fights she’d tried to dissipate and all the arguments she’d ever had with Antonio and her mother that she, maybe, could’ve prevented.
Just then, the brat showed up wearing the most ridiculous headphones. They were red and pink and had attachments like looked like fins on a car. Or rabbit ears. Tetsuko had to choke down her laugh as she pictured Brooks as a rabbit. Barnaby sat up front in his usual seat and completely ignored his classmate. Tetsuko wondered what type of music he was listening too. He wasn’t bobbing his head or anything, so it must’ve not been anything popular on the radio. Tetsuko gave up and stared out the window.
Mr. Lloyds showed up a few minutes later, carting a whole bunch of papers in his arms. He dumped them on one of the desks and sat down in his chair. Tetsuko saw that Barnaby had put away his head phones with lighting speed and watched the teacher with rapt attention.
“It occurred to the school board that Sternbuild High is in need of a new Public Relations committee.” He turned to Barnaby as Tetsuko gaped at him with an open jaw (or as much has her jaw could open). “Your guardian, Principal Maverick, personally recommended you, Mr. Brooks, for multiple reasons: your looks, grades and upstanding record are all excellent qualities that would come in handy on the committee.” Barnaby seemed to glow with ego as he turned to smirk at Tetsuko.
“So why am I here if Brooks is going to take care of it?” Tetsuko asked, miffed.
“You’re a familiar face in the community. You’re family has lived here a long time you yourself get along with pretty much everyone in this town, if I’m told correctly.” Lloyds paused here, seeming to choose his words carefully. “So the board wants you two to team up and get the school’s name out there for sponsors. We need donations, sponsors for sports teams and clubs, and funding for events.”
“What? You want us to team up?” Tetsuko nearly shrieked. She had to hold her jaw when she opened her mouth too wide.
“I don’t agree with this either, sir.” Barnaby was on Tetsuko’s side for once and she didn’t know if she wanted him to be there. It was damn creepy.
“It’ll be okay, Mr. Brooks. I’m sure Ms. Kaburagi will shape up and everything will go smoothly.” Mr. Lloyds spoke as if he were consoling an upset child, which Barnaby was in Tetsuko’s eyes. He also gave Tetsuko a look that said if she didn’t shape up she’d be in huge trouble.
“You want me to work with that skinny brat?” She asked once Lloyds turned away from Brooks.
“You seem to have nothing else to do with your life since you are repeating a grade and haven’t joined any clubs.” Tetsuko was about to crack open her arsenal of mostly polite yet completely disrespectful speech when the brat spoke up again.
“Can I go now?” Brooks asked politely.
“Yes, of course, Barnaby. You must have other duties to attend to right now. Thank you for taking time to meet with me.” Lloyds switched into child mode again and let Barnaby leave with Tetsuko glaring daggers into his head.
“But what makes you think I want to be on the P.R. committee?”She asked once Brooks had disappeared. Mr. Lloyds was sitting at his desk and Tetsuko was standing at her own desk, hands flat on the surface, leaning over to argue.
“You will be on the committee or I will have to ask the board to suspend you for lack of corporation, disregarding joining a club which is mandatory I might add and blatant refusal to help the school. Or you could just drop out. But then you won’t have a high school diploma and without that, getting a decent job is hard and you can’t go into college to get a degree-” Lloyds listed as Tetsuko began to sweat.
“Okay I get it!” She admitted he had a point. She needed her diploma. “Fine. I’ll try this, but I won’t be happy about it.”
“I’m not asking you to be happy; I’m asking you to deal with it.” His voice took on a threatening tone as she spoke.
“Fine. Good day, teach.” Tetsuko departed the class and sulked down the hallway only to run into someone.
“Bonjour, Tetsuko. It is true that you and Barnaby Brooks Jr. are on the Public Relations committee together?” The suave voice that fired off the question belonged to nobody but the advisor to the Newspaper Club.
“How do you know that? Were you eavesdropping? Aren’t the students supposed to be the ones doing the reporting Ms. Agnes?” Tetsuko dodged the microphone shoved into her face as she took a few steps back and the brunette followed her. Ms. Agnes Joubert was a lovely woman with just the right about of curves, cleavage and make-up to be irresistible. The only problem was that she was a strong woman with fierce green eyes and a tongue to match that no man wanted to deal with her.
“Yes, Ms. Kaburagi, but I like to be in on the chase as well,” Agnes shoved the mic in her face again.
“If you say so, Ms. Agnes,” Tetsuko backed up some more, trying to disengage the advisor.
“Well, if you’re not going to say anymore about your handsome partner, then I’ll leave.” She gave a humph, her lipsticked mouth turning into a fierce pout.
“Who said he’s my partner?”
“You two being a team makes you partners or did you flunk elementary school too?” Joubert’s bard stung and Tetsuko glared at her hotly, saying nothing.
“Fine, if you’re not going to talk I’m leaving. I’ve got to go find Cain anyway; he’s supposed to have that new footage for the show up and running.” Not only did Ms. Agnes head the Newspaper Club’s gazette, she also produced the school’s TV channel that was broadcast every Wednesday during the lunch period. “But, I will be back to interview your partner. We’ll do a whole feature on him! He’s so popular that I can just picture the ratings!” Her eyes got the crazy look in them that almost made Tetsuko felt bad for the torture Barnaby was going to have to go through. Then she remembered that he was a jerk. She didn’t feel bad anymore.
“Wait,” Tetsuko dawned on the part where she wasn’t included in the segment, “Just him? What about me?”
“Everybody already knows about your screw-ups. We can air a blooper segment with your name on it when I’ve got the time if you want.” Agnes giggled evilly. “But you’re old news.” She waved off the teen’s protests as she fiddled with the tape recorder strapped to her hip. A couple of her pens fell out of her pocket and clattered on the floor. Despite being tagged as “old news” and threatened with bloopers, Tetsuko decided to be nice and bent down to pick up the writing utensils.
“No you don’t!” Ms. Agnes’ voice stopped the girl mid-crouch. The advisor’s perfectly manicured red nails grabbed onto the girl’s blouse and yanked her off the floor. They then they pointed right in her face threateningly. “Remember what happened last time you touched my stuff?”Tetsuko recalled one electrical outlet, a lot of plugs, and a school-wide power outage. She blushed and scratched the skin in front of her ear while tucking her other arm behind her head in embarrassment.
“I said I was sorry already, geez!”
“Still doesn’t change the fact that you deleted valuable footage from my system.” The pencil-skirted teacher carefully bent down and retriever her own pens. “And it took Dr. Saito half the school day to get the power back on! So, no. You can’t touch my things ever again.”
“Fine then! I’m gonna go now.” Tetsuko pivoted on her heel and sped-walked away from Ms. Agnes before the lady ripped her a new asshole. Again…probably the seventeenth time if she really thought about it.
“On Friday we’re doing the interview so make sure you’re in the club’s room by three pm! I still want you there with your partner!”
“Got it!” Tetsuko called back, waving her arm up in the hair as a goodbye. “Bitch.” She whispered under her breath.
Honestly, that lady’s crazy! And when did I become “old news”, Tomoe? Everybody seemed to like me well enough last year, even the teachers tolerated me. Now they just single me out for no damn reason for every little thing! So what changed that? Is it the new blood in the school? The fact that I’m a screw up? That I’m a disappointment for having to repeat a grade? I just don’t know anymore, Tomoe. Tetsuko walked outside and headed towards the front gate. She spotted Barnaby talking with another hall monitor by the gate, his wacky headphones slung around his neck. Great, now I have to walk past him to get out of this place.
As Tetsuko approached, the second monitor moved away, ending their conversation. Barnaby gave the guy a suave, two-fingered salute as if to say “see ya!” and it looked really dorky to the girl. So he really does salute! Tetsuko giggled as her previous thoughts on the shadow walk turned out to be true.
As she passed the junior, (who happened to be glaring at her goofy smile) she gave himsaucy, yet mocking, imitation of his “see ya!” with a lot of hair flipping and a glare to rival his own.
“Bye, bye, Bunny!” She called as she walked out of the school grounds.
“What did you call me, old lady?” He gave Tetsuko’s retreating back a startled look. She decided to stop and offer and explanation.
“I called you Bunny, Bunny.” Tetsuko smirked evilly. That’s pay back for calling me and old lady, punk! “You headphones look like bunny ears when you wear them, hence ‘Bunny!’”
“My name is Barnaby! Not Bunny!” He yelled as Tetsuko practically skipped down the sidewalk. I like getting under his skin Tomoe. I think I’ll do it more often! “Get back here, Kaburagi!”
“No can do, Bunny! I’ve got to go to work!” She gave him one of her signature over-the-head goodbye waves and dashed down the street. “See you tomorrow, Bunny!” I really do like calling him that!
“It’s Barnaby!” He yelled after her. She just laughed, tossing a wave over her shoulder.
The girl caught one of the bus lines into the city. Sternbuild was Tetsuko’s kind of place, enough glitz and glamour to make anyone feel fabulous but enough down to earth shops and people that you didn’t get overwhelmed by the sheer glare of the city. Sternbuild was set up with the Gold Stage in the center of the city, encompassing all the high society neighborhoods, the tallest skyscrapers of the wealthiest businesses and the most expensive shopping complexes and theaters all tinted with a golden luster. The Silver Stage was in the ring around the Gold Stage where more affordable amenities were housed and the middle class neighborhoods were. As with the Gold Stage, that ring had a silver sheen to it. That’s also where Tetsuko’s high school was. The Bronze Stage was the outermost ring and was less glamorous that then other two stages but was still privileged in a way that most normal people outside the city weren’t. The only problem was that gangs like to run in their packs in the bronze shimmer of the Stage. Watching the Silver Stage fly by outside of her window, Tetsuko thought about her dream of getting an apartment in the Gold Stage and making something of herself. She didn’t know what she wanted to do in her life yet, but she did want to help people. Soon the silver tinted buildings took on a golden gleam and Tetsuko gathered up her things to get off the bus. Her work had been built at the border between Silver and Gold before the Stages had been fully established and even though it had that crumbly feel, the place was actually respectable and very popular.
Tetsuko made it to work just in time to change into her uniform in the dressing room and get out onto the restaurant’s floor. Her boss, Ben Jackson, owned one of most popular hangout spots in Sternbuild: Hero’s Bar. It was really a restaurant with a bar attached, but saying Hero’s Bar is easier than Hero’s Restaurant. The spot served all ages and walks of life, with a superhero themed crew and décor. All of Tetsuko’s close friends worked here, they got hired on over the years, but Tetsuko had been here the longest. Ben hired her when she was fourteen (way below the legal age limit) because he knew the Kaburagi’s needed the money at the time and Tetsuko already looked sixteen. (Thank you, boobs!)
Tetsuko donned her tight spandex pants in a bright blue with a black underwear-like crotch. Seriously, she felt like Superman in those things. She clipped on her belt with the her tiger icon and yanked her calf high, yellow bordered boots on next, followed by the long-sleeved, low -cut, belly top in blue, yellow and white that fit snuggly over her breasts and stuck her arms in the sleeves. The middle of the shirt was white that flowed over her shoulders and her chest was cupped by yellow designs that also circled her arms. Her forearms had the same white and yellow chevron pattern as her boots. Next she yanked on the black gloves with blue fingers and her gold cuff bracelets. Tetsuko walked over to one of the mirrors fastened to the wall and carefully pulled the compress off her jaw. Her bruise extended from the edge of her jaw bone all the way down to her chin, and happened to still be that icky reddish color of a new bruise. The teen whipped out her make-up bag and coated the injury with several layers of cosmetics until it nearly matched her skin. Last of all – after she had brushed her hair into submission- Tetsuko placed her cowl-like half-mask on the top half of her face. The mask had blue coloring up to her eyes that also extended into the points on her cheeks and nose and then swooped into black cat ears with a bright yellow “T” in the center of her forehead. The hard mask stayed on her face pretty well as long as she didn’t make any overly weird expressions. All dressed, Tetsuko made to dash out the door, but remembered to clip on her short blue cape to her shoulders.
“Hi, Ben!” She greeted the African-American man cheerfully as he passed her in the commons.
“Hey, Tigress.” His dark brown eyes lit up as he came to a stop. Ben smiled warmly at his favorite server. At Hero’s bar, every server had code names to keep their identities “secret”. It was mostly just for fun, but Tetsuko liked it. It made her feel cool. When she’d first started out, Tomoe suggested that she use the kanji in her name to spell out “tiger,” and it just kinda stuck. Tetsuko fondly remembered how Tomoe had given Antonio his name Rock Bison, something to do with being strong like a cow. If only he hadn’t hung up his costume, he’d be with me right now. But I can’t blame him, the Japanese place pays better. The hero started to once again make her way out the door.
“Hey, Tetsuko,” Ben stopped her from entering the restaurant with a hand on her shoulder.
“What’s up?” He seemed to being going over something unpleasant in his head and his face gave him away. Eventually Ben just went the direct approach and told Tetsuko right out.
“Next week you’ll be getting a new uniform.”
“Why?” she asked, curbing her swear words because she was talking to her boss. “My uniform’s good the way it is.”
“It’s time to update and that thing looks a little worn out.” Ben gestured to her current costume. Tetsuko had taken really good care of this one and it only had to be replaced once when she outgrew it. Boobs will be boobs after all.
“But I’ve always worn this one!” Tetsuko pointed to her spandex, trying to convince her boss to keep it. Panic started to rise in her chest when she thought about parting with her beloved Wild Tigress get-up.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Ben held up his hands in defense, “I love this costume, but it’s just time to spruce up a bit, get with the times.”
“We’ll talk after you shift, okay?” Ben cut her off and pushed the teen out onto the floor. Tetsuko had no choice but to disguise her hurt feelings and panic behind a false smile as several greetings of “Hey, Tigress!” were thrown her way. It’s a good thing she took that acting class in junior high, or this would be really hard. Time to get to work.
Hero’s Bar was what Tigress liked to call retro. There was neon everywhere and bright, old fashioned posters from superhero movies and comics. Two levels of brightly colored tables wrapped around the restaurant with short stairs leading to each section, and TVs where propped up so guests could watch superhero related shows while they ate. It was in this tumultuous atmosphere where Tigress preformed to her utmost ability.
Nathan Seymour was already in his Fire Emblem attire: red jumpsuit and mask with a cape and flames that looked real. He started working this job for fun when he caught Tigress in her costume outside the bar for an event. He thought it was a great way to get out and meet new guys. Yep, guys. He had no interest in women, except for friendship and shopping. Right now he was chatting with Pao-Lin Huang, the youngest member of the crew as they filled up drinks at the soda fountain. Ben must be going for the kawaii look this season because that’s the second time he’s hired someone under the legal limit, Tigress pointed out to herself.The Dragon Kid had on a Chinese themed costume, with a yellow top with red and green dragon designs and bright green poofy shorts. She also wore chunky white arm and leg sleeves that extended up to her elbow and knees with gold ornaments to keep them up and finished off the outfit with red doll shoes. Dragon Kid sported a short green wig to hide her dirty blonde hair and her red headband that held her huge tassel-decorated circle ornaments slipped under the green bangs, completing the look. The two disks had cool dragon designs circling the Hero’s Bar logo. Fire Emblem’s cape had the same logo on it only wreathed in flames and Tigress wore the simple version on her chest in a yellow oval.
As Tigress checked her section of the floor, she spotted Karina Lyle at the karaoke machine (waiting to sing in between showings of old superhero episodes on the TV screens) in her Blue Rose costume that was even more revealing that the tiger’s. Another thing it did was make her boobs look bigger in that skimpy bodice. The dark blue bodice felt into a stiff, see-through skirt that showed Rose’s blue underwear and basically everything on her costume had either yellow stripes or boarders. Her tall, white stiletto boots ran all the way up her thighs with the bar’s logo surrounded by silver soda bubbles. The other wacky thing her costume had was rose-like thorns sprouting from her back in a heart shape. Blue Rose blew some of her blue hair out of her face and examined her ice-nail fakes with her blue contacts and picked some lint off her shoulder high white gloves. She didn’t do a very good job and pinning her hair up today and her hat was off kilter. Tigress got her attention and pointed to her own head to get Rose to fix it. The singer rolled her eyes but did as she was told.
Tigress grabbed her order booklet and went off to her station. Shouts of “Tigress!” echoed across the floor as she greeted her customers, socialized with the other waiters, tipped Blue Rose when she sang and generally walked about flaunting her curves in the tight spandex. Tigress had to take over one of Emblem’s tables when he kept hitting on a twenty-something man in front of his girlfriend.
Other than not get in trouble, the second priority at work was to serve as many people as fast as possible so they tipped you well. The person who got the most tips at the end of the month got to have the losers pay for something expensive. Fire Emblem won last time and Tigress (along with everyone else) had to chip in to buy a whole new collection of limited edition eye shadows and platinum finish nail polish. The bill cost almost three hundred bucks! Tigress was determined to win this month because she had managed to save up three-fourths of the purchase price of a really awesome motorcycle, and if she won, by the end of the month she wouldn’t have to take the bus anywhere anymore!
As the night wore on in the noisy restaurant, Keith Goodman and Ivan Karelin showed up in their Sky High and Origami Cyclone costumes, respectively. Sky High’s entrance was loud and cheerful while Origami’s was also silent and unseen. By the time Tigress had hung up her cape, she was sore in places she didn’t even know she had. The fight today definitely didn’t help at all. I feel old and I’m only nineteen! That’s messed up! She then tried to convince Ben to let her keep the old costume but got nowhere with him. She’d have to deal with the new costume when it came in.
“Tomorrow before you leave, we’ll need to take your measurements again for the new suit.”
“I can tell you for a fact that my boobs have gotten bigger.” She joked grumpily.
“I can tell. Your spandex doesn’t hide anything, you know.” Ben chuckled at her.
“Yeah well, you ordered it in the first place,” she jibed back.
“Okay, Tigress, time to go home.” Ben gave her that comforting smile she loved. “You look beat up.”
“I did get beat up.” She rubbed her sore jaw delicately and came away with a layer of make-up.
“You really have got to be more careful. I know for a fact you don’t want your wallet to take a hit from a hospital visit or damage fines. You want to get that bike you’re obsessed over.”
“Yeah, but technically it was the guys who attacked me today who broke the crates. After I threw them into the air, of course.” She replied factually.
“Tigress, what am I going to do with you?”
“Love me, Ben. Love me.” She winked as she waltzed at the door.
“I’m always in your corner, Tetsuko!” Ben shouted from the door.
“I know!” She called back.
“Oh, and one more thing!”
“What is it now?” she replied irritated. She turned around under a streetlamp to listen to her boss.
“A new kid’s coming to train tomorrow and I want you to mentor him.”
“New kid?” Tetsuko felt that panic she suppressed rise up again. “Since when did we need someone else?”
“Since Antonio hung up his helmet.” Ben followed Tetsuko out onto the street. She looked like someone had kicked a puppy right in front of her. “You know I’ve been looking for someone to take his place for weeks now. It’s not like I’m replacing ‘Tonio or what he meant to all of you, we just need more help.”
Tetsuko sighed, trying to see his side as a feeling she couldn’t describe welled up in her chest and strangled her. Too much was happening too fast for her to keep up with and Tetsuko felt helpless in the tide of change. First she was informed that she had to repeat her senior school year, Antonio left work, and then she got paired up with the brat and now this? Ben said something to her but she was busy being sorry for herself to catch it.
“If you ever look like that when you’re the legal drinking age, I’ll take you out for a beer.” Ben chucked sympathetically.
“You know for a fact,” Tetsuko began, “that I’ve already been in my old man’s liquor cabinet.” She paused, “And my kaa-san’s. And my brother’s for that matter.” Ben outright howled with laughter and Tetsuko couldn’t help but join in until tears ran down her face and the ache in her chest lessened just a bit.
After that the goodbyes were short and sweet and the Japanese girl made her way home on the bus, dreaming about that white and green monster of a bike that she wanted. When she stumbled into her house with barely a “tadiama” to her mother. She sunk into a dream filled sleep where bunnies chased tigers on motorcycles and Yuri hall monitors wore pink headphones and climbed trees.
The next day at the bar, Tetsuko worked in black slacks and a deep green Hero’s Bar T-shirt tied up to expose her toned stomach (training sucked in her spandex when the newbie kept staring at her boobs, just ask Ivan or Karina). Now Karina was by no means a lesbian, but she had this fixation on giant boobs that made some situations awkward and Ivan was just too innocent not to not look. Tigress completed the ensemble with her black domino mask that she wore to keep her identity secret. After waiting for twenty minutes for the newbie to show up Tigress was getting really pissed off. She slumped against the bar’s counter and nodded to each greeting thrown her way until she saw Ben walk in. he was chatting with a familiar set of golden curls (with product in them) and dorky looking hexagonal glasses.
“It’s you?” Tigress gaped at her trainee. Before her stood Barnaby Brooks Jr., brat extraordinaire.
This is ridiculous. Barnaby thought as Kaburagi glared at her boss. I can’t seem to escape her, can I? I didn’t even know she worked here. But despite his irritation at being coupled with the hold-back again, Barnaby could at least appreciate her outfit. It accented just about the only good things about the woman. Like her hips…and her chest…and the long lines of her endless legs… As Barnaby let his eyes discretely roam over Tetsuko, he was pulled back into the conversation by his new boss’ voice.
“Oh, so you two know each other?” He looked from one teenager to the other.
“Yes, Ms. Kaburagi and I go to the same school.”
“And we have the unfortunate situation of being on the P. R. committee together.” Tetsuko pointed out. Their recent argument in the school building still ringing in both their heads and it totally started when Kaburagi fell asleep on Barnaby while brainstorming businesses to ask for donations. Barnaby lost his cool and both teens had almost been to blows when Mr. Lloyds walked in. And then Barnaby had to be polite to her against his will, which he did not like. Being polite to everyone else? Sure. To her? He’d rather shave his glorious curls off.
“Well then, if no introductions are needed, I’ll leave you two to it! Good luck Barnaby and welcome to Hero’s Bar.” He leaned towards Barnaby and stage-whispered into his ear. “And try to keep Tigress in line.”
“What did you say?” Tetsuko asked sharply.
“Nothing!” and then Mr. Jackson left Barnaby alone with the hoodlum.
“Tigress?” “Barnaby?” They asked each other at the same time.
“You seriously used your real name as your hero name? Where’s the fun in that?”
“How did you know that?” Barnaby was impressed with her non-existent powers of deduction.
“Ben always calls us by our hero names on the floor, no exceptions.”
“So you’re Tigress?” Barnaby stifled a laugh behind a cough after his inquiry.
“Wild Tigress, actually.” She said curtly, popping one hip out and placing her hand on it. An aggressive, yet defensive gesture, he noted.
“Why exactly? Is it because you take lots of cat naps? Or are you just lazy all the time?” Her face scrunched up in anger and Barnaby decided that anger didn’t look good on her face. In fact, it was scary, but he didn’t want her to know that.
“The kanji in my name spells out ‘tiger.’ That’s why.” She snarled back, imitating her namesake.
“So where’d the ‘wild’ come from?”
“You don’t want to know.” Her tone whiplashed from furious to flirtatious, implying something Barnaby didn’t want to think about at work. They privacy of his bedroom seemed like the perfect spot to sort that one out. “Anyway, welcome to Hero’s Bar. Come back to the dressing rooms, and we’ll grab you a T-shirt. You can’t wear that on the floor.” Barnaby glanced down at his cargo pants and red and white leather jacket and found nothing wrong with them. His tall red boots clicked on the floor as she followed the girl to the back.
“What’s wrong with my outfit?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” was her unhelpful reply. Barnaby hated not being put together properly and Tigress’ unwillingness to tell him what was wrong with his clothes ticked him off.
She led him into the back and into a dressing room that smelled like a girl. Metal lockers ran along one side of the room and mirrors on the other. A long bench spanned the length of the room that also doubled as a table since Blue Rose’s make-up was strewn all over it. Tigress leapt onto some crates stacked in the corner and grabbed a box of the top of the tower, the reach shortening her shirt so much that Barnaby saw her bra. She really needs to wear less revealing clothes. Dropping the box on the floor, she crouched down with her knees open to frame the cardboard box and glanced up at Barnaby.
“We’re got green, red, blue, yellow, and purple. What color do you want?”
As she began searching the box, Tigress randomly pointed out the other three rooms that made up the back. “We’re in the girl’s dressing room right now and after this you’re not allowed in here, ‘cuz that’d make you a pervert and you will get fired. The boy’s dressing room is over there,” vague hand wave, “bathroom’s around the corner and Ben’s office is that way.” Two more hand waves followed the first, but Barnaby got the idea. “Ah ha!” The girl fished out a packaged red shirt in a size XL and triumphantly held it up to him. “I think this is your size.”
“Why do you guys have these anyway?”
“We did an event once that allowed guests to buy a T-shirt in the color of their favorite hero from the bar. I won that one so there’s hardly any black left at all.” She grinned goofily and began packing up the mess of shirts she’d made. Barnaby’s eyes drifted over the logo on the front as she ripped open the plastic cover. It was a tasteful shirt, but he hadn’t worn something so simple in a long time.
“I have to wear this?”
“Yes.” The hostile tone of her voice said that it was not open for discussion. Apparently she wasn’t going to take any of his “crap” as she liked to put it. Barnaby shrugged and took off his jacket and pulled his black undershirt over his head. He saw Tigress blush and hurriedly go back to putting the shirts away.
Good to know that I’m not the only one affected by a good looking body. And Barnaby knew he looked good. His body was conditioned to perfection, complete with a six pack and gorgeous limbs from countless exercises. He smirked as he pulled on the red T-shirt and looked around as Tigress clambered up the crates again with the box in hand. He spotted and open locker with the girl’s name on it. While she was wrestling with the haphazardly stacked storage crates, he snuck a look inside. A gaudy, bright blue costume was housed in the metal locker and pictures were taped up everywhere. Barnaby recognized the SBO of Sternbild High and all the people who flocked around Tigress at school but he didn’t recognize one girl. She looked to be in middle school and was giving Tigress bunny ears in one of the photos. He glanced again at the costume hanging in there and tried to picture the goof in it. He couldn’t do it without laughing so he stopped looking. He turned back to girl just in time to see said goof slip and start to fall.
Tigress yelped and fell backwards off her crates. Barnaby dashed over and caught her under one armpit and wrapped his other arm around her bare stomach, successfully saving her from banging her head against the bench. He blushed as she leaned back heavily against his chest and settled her butt on his thighs. God, I hate blushing, he complained to himself as the girl in front of him stammered her thanks.
“Be more careful,” he replied as he helped the long-legged girl onto her feet, accidently brushing his hand across her breast. “Sorry,” he apologized. When she was up he brushed off his new shirt and said, “I can’t always be there to catch you. Don’t expect it to happen next time you decide to fall.” She nodded, still turned away from him. She switched from damsel in distress mode to mentor so face Barnaby’s curls had whiplash, obviously trying to move past her embarrassing tumble.
“Let’s go get you a locker so you can stow your stuff.” She led Barnaby to the other room and had him pick out a storage space. Then she began to explain the rules of the bar as they both walked back to the floor. “As a server, you are assigned a section of the floor that you’re in charge of for you shift. You always wear your costume, you don’t pinch anyone’s butt, and you always treat guests politely not matter how annoying they are.” Tigress listed off the basic rules of the restaurant.
“I’ll have lots of practice on that last one if you’re around.” Barnaby quipped, glancing around.
“Ha, ha, very funny.” She replied sarcastically.
“And the butt pinching thing? What’s with that?”
“Courtsey of Fire Emblem.” Tetsuko replied. Barnaby gave her an eyebrow raise. “Nathan Seymour.” She explained with a shrug, clearing up Barnaby’s confusion. “Come on, I’ll show you what to do.” She grabbed an order booklet and Barnaby followed close behind as she walked up a set of stairs to a raised section of tables. Barnaby snuck a glance at her butt. Yep, it even looked good in pants. Then Tigress was talking to a couple that just sat down.
“Hi, I’m Wild Tigress and this is Barnaby Brooks Jr. and he’ll be training under me today. We’ll take good care of you.” Barnaby was then ushered around and taught where everything was and helped Tigress serve guests.
Girls who came in seemed to pay more attention to Barnaby than the waitress talking to them and when the pair left to check on other tables, the girls would giggle behind their hands and then squeal when he gave them a “see ya” salute, as Tigress had dubbed it. The cat would then get pissed off every time he did it and would growl for him to hurry up. But despite his attention to popularity, Barnaby caught on so quickly to his job that that the other crew members began praising him.
Fire Emblem (Nathan) gave him the nickname “Handsome” and Tigress had to fend off his pinching fingers when he made a grab for Barnaby’s butt. Dragon Kid (Pao-Lin, she’s the one I didn’t recognize in the pictures) may not have been star struck like other girls, but she definitely respected him enough to give him compliments. Origami Cyclone (Ivan) didn’t say anything, but then again, he rarely said much, but he nodded to the blond in respect. Sky High (President Goodman) praised Barnaby every chance his got…twice. The only ones who were cold to him were Blue Rose (Karina), and his “partner”, but that was to be expected.
The hours ticked by and Barnaby was actually beginning to enjoy himself. He slyly noticed the Tigress was not. She put on a good face (almost perfect in fact except that Barnaby could sometimes see her frustration in her eyes) but the second they were out of sight or in the kitchen collecting meals, her eyebrows would come together in annoyance.
“What’s wrong?” Barnaby went for a concerned, yet triumphant tone of voice.
“I’m being ignored. Half the time no one’s listening to me because they’re staring at you.” She grumped at him.
“That’s because you’re old and I’m handsome.”
“I’d use the word ‘pretty.’”
“You flip your curls like a girl.”
“I do not!”
“Yes, you do!”
“Arguing already?” The falsetto voice sent a shiver of fear up Barnaby’s spine. Fire Emblem waltzed in from his break and swished his cape behind him dramatically.
“Barnaby flips his hair,” Tigress stated.
“I noticed, and I think it’s attractive!” Emblem cooed, reaching for Barnaby’s hair. He ducked the red gloved hand and went back to picking up orders, keeping a wary eye on Fire Emblem’s fingers.
“I’d say ‘cute,’ not ‘attractive.’” Tigress argued back.
“Either one works as long as he keeps it up,” Nathan conceded. “We haven’t had his many girls in here since Sky High first started and its only Handsome’s first day!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Tigress loaded up her tray with orders and glared at the red-clad man. “We’re off in about a half an hour so don’t make trouble or I can’t bail you out.” She sounded like a mother scolding her child. I guess Tigress kind of is the mother figure here since she’s worked here the longest.
“I will try, but some butts I just can’t resist!” Emblem’s high voice went wistful, “If only my sweet Antonio were here! Then no one else would matter!”
“Who’s Antonio?” Barnaby asked, finally speaking up.
“The guy you replaced.” Tigress growled threateningly, glaring from under her mask. She then stomped away without rattling any dishes. Considering how clumsy she was everywhere else, Tigress had a stealthy grace out on the floor that surprised Barnaby.
“What was that about?” The blond asked.
“She’s just had a tough time lately, especially with Antonio gone.” Fire Emblem started, “He’s known her for, like, forever and they both worked here for years. He quit recently because he got a better job offer and Tiger’s not over it yet.”
“Oh, well that’s too bad.” Barnaby’s voice betrayed nothing, but he was actually kind of concerned…but not too concerned…he just didn’t want to get snapped at again for mentioning something he shouldn’t.
“She’ll get over it eventually, Handsome. Just don’t push her buttons to far you’ll find yourself unconscious on the floor. That girl has a temper!”
“Noted.” Fire Emblem wandered off to attend to his tables and Barnaby went back to work as well.
Their shift ended without disaster and Barnaby avoided Tetsuko as she took off her mask and gather her things. The atmosphere was so thick that someone could cut it with a knife. She went into Mr. Jackson’s office where Barnaby heard him rattle off some numbers that he took to be Kaburagi’s measurements, which adhered to her very tall, yet voluptuous figure. So she’s getting a new costume as well, Barnaby thought. He’d gotten measured earlier today on his break.
Barnaby clocked out and made his way out into the parking lot. He’d parked in one of the stalls meant for motorcyclists and he took stock of his bike to make sure nobody had scratched it. His Lonely Chaser was part of a new and upcoming line of motorcycles and had only one other counterpart in the series so far. Barnaby’s bike was very sleek and streamlined with mainly white and red coloring with bits of black thrown in and forward reaching handles so the rider had to lean closed to the bike to steer. It could turn on a dime and was the number one bike of its class for accelerating and braking. Barnaby had only had it a few months and was still very protective of his ride.
The restaurant door opened and slammed shut as Barnaby shifted his backpack on his shoulder. He watched as a fuming Tetsuko stalked off into the night. He shrugged his shoulders, straddled the motorcycle and put the key into the ignition. The engine revved with a feline purr, disguising the sheer power of the machine as he backed up and headed toward the street a few minutes later. The headlights added to the sheer brilliance of Sternbuild. As he pulled up to a light in the far right lane, he saw Kaburagi sitting all alone at the bus stop, resting her head in her hands. On the spur of the moment, he pulled over and stopped right in front of her, sitting up in his seat. She didn’t appear to notice him. Then Barnaby did something uncharacteristically nice.
“Want a ride?” Her head snapped up at his voice, face was torn between pissed off and dead tired as she glared up at him.
“Why would I want a ride from yo-“ her biting remark was cut off and she stared at Barnaby in shock. Or more specifically, his bike.
“Is that part of the Lonely Chaser line?” She instantly ran over, trailing her school bag behind her to reverently touch the metal of the boy’s bike. She didn’t even wait for an answer before running her mouth again. “I’m saving up to buy one of these, you know. The green one.” Barnaby knew the bike. Come on, there were only two out at the moment! It was a great model, just too bulky for his taste. “When I finally save up enough, I won’t have to take the bus anywhere or get shuttled around by my brother in his antique van anymore. He’s moving out in a few days anyway so I’ll need a ride soon.”
“Do I look like I care?” Barnaby said, but he was ignored as the girl began rattling off random facts about her bike that tried the other teen’s patience. “Do you want the ride or not?”
“Hell, yeah!” Grumpy Tetsuko had vanished as she hopped on without complaint. Barnaby thought it was kind of nice to have her behind him on the bike with her strong arms wrapped around his waist. He passed his backpack to the girl so she could hold it looped over one arm and still have her own strapped across her back.
“Oriental Town.” Barnaby knew that the neighborhood was located in the Bronze and near the Silver boarder and made an acceptable estimate route to make good time to Tetsuko’s house. He surprised her when he leaned over to grip the handlebars and began moving back into traffic that she squealed and clutched him even tighter. Barnaby chuckled inwardly, conscious not to let it slip out in front of the girl, but he couldn’t help the small smile that graced his face as she continued to whoop and yell in delight. As Barnaby sped across the bright city, Kaburagi would point out random things like, “that statue had to be replaced when a semi-truck ran into it,” or “That office building was a slaughter house when my grandparents were kids,” just to name a few. Throughout the ride, Barnaby was also conscious of her legs tightly spooned against his and her breath ghosting against his ear as she leaned in close to talk to him.
Occasionally he’d ask for directions to Kaburagi’s place and she’d supply the necessary information. But once they were near the Silver Speedway Tetsuko asked, “Can we go fast, please?” in a desperate voice that sent a shiver down Barnaby’s spine (the good kind this time). He couldn’t deny her, and he wanted to show off his bike. The speedways were situated at each of the Stage borders and were the fastest roads in the city, up to 100 mph in some places. They got commuters in and out of the Stages with relative ease and ran in three separate continuous loops around Sternbuild.
“Sure you can handle it, old lady?” Barnaby turned onto the speedway’s entrance, suddenly feeling reckless.
“Oh! Shut up, Bunny, and hop to it!” Barnaby’s despised nickname and rabbit pun ticked him off enough that he floored the accelerator.
He leaned forward even further over his Chaser and Tetsuko followed him on instinct, her body flush against his as her breath got taken away as the sheer speed of the freeway. Barnaby decided he needed to do that more often. A breathless Kaburagi didn’t yammer in his ear.
The lights of the city streamlined into continuous blurs as Barnaby merged into high speed traffic. He made a show of dangerously weaving in and out of lanes, causing the girl behind him to squeal as they circled around the city’s center from a considerable distance. I probably should be wearing a helmet, Barnaby told himself as an afterthought when tears started streaming from his eyes. Kaburagi laughed again and again, whooping and yelling like she was having the time of her life, her arms wrapped tightly around the boy’s torso just enough to be secure. The moments on the speedway stretched out, the two teen’s companionable excitement bubbling underneath their skin until Kaburagi’s exit came up.
Getting off the speedway safely, Barnaby took to the streets with Kaburagi guiding him. Oriental Town was a sprawling neighborhood housing all types of ethnicities, but mainly people from Asia, hence the nickname it was known by. This far out from the Gold Stage where Barnaby lived, you could almost feel like you weren’t even in Sternbild anymore. It wasn’t as shabby as the blond expected it to be. The houses were well maintained, streets and yards were clean and there was even a few shopping complexes catering to Asian tastes. Tetsuko began actively giving Barnaby directions like, “turn here,” or “go straight,” or “there’s a dip here,” until they came to her residence. The Kaburagi house was bigger than the houses sitting next to it with a pale blue wash on the walls and a bright red roof. The architecture was styled after some traditional Japanese houses that Barnaby had seen with a wraparound veranda enclosed by sliding doors and a space for a garden on the side of the property. A white van was parked in the drive way with a snake and kanji adoring the sides. That must be her brother’s van.
Tetsuko dismounted Barnaby’s motorcycle and smoothed out her pants and handed Barnaby’s school bag back to him. Looking disheveled and hair wildly sticking out everywhere, she thanked the blond with a bow and wished him a safe journey home, wherever that was.
“I live in Gold.” Barnaby stated with disinterest.
“And you drove me all the way out here? What possessed you to do that?” I don’t know, actually. He shrugged at her.
“Why do you go to Sternbild High when you live here? It seems a little far for the school boundaries to come out here.”
“It’s different nowadays, but when I was a kid they bused a bunch of us in-city when we didn’t have enough students to warrant building schools out here. And because I started in a certain elementary school, they just had us all go to our respective secondary and high schools instead of relocating us again to school out here.” She shrugged like it was no big deal. “Well, thanks anyway. Be careful going home, okay?” Her mother-mode turned on again, but Barnaby was surprised that she directed it at him. All night she’d been ignoring the boy and getting under his skin for no reason. Barnaby’s thoughts turned to his nearly empty apartment and bitter thought, home? That’s a joke. His home died a long time ago. Before his thoughts could turn any darker, Tetsuko trotted up her front walk and almost made it to her door when a neighbor’s door opened and as Barnaby looked toward the sound, something black shot out of it and raced down the street.
“Hakubi, come back!” A woman shouted and Barnaby recognized the jingle of an animal’s collar. Kaburagi instantly dropped her bag on the lawn and dashed after the pet calling, “Hakubi! Come here kitty!”
Barnaby spotted the cat headed straight towards him as it dodged Tetsuko’s arms. Barnaby swung hi s bike around so his headlights illuminated the pavement and the black cat on it. Kaburagi dashed behind Hakubi as fast as she could while the cat was terrified of the blond’s motorcycle. He revved the engine and the cat turned tail and dashed right into the Japanese girl’s waiting arms.
Barnaby killed the engine and swung his leg off the bike to follow Kaburagi to the neighbor’s as she soothed the frightened feline with soft words and a lot of petting. The owner, a middle aged woman in a bathrobe and curlers that looked similar to Barnaby’s sleep-in ones, ran up to the pair and let out a string of Japanese chatter that Barnaby couldn’t understand. Tetsuko answered and handed the cat back to its owner with a smile. When the woman was back in her house, Tetsuko turned to Barnaby.
“Mrs. Hoshiyomi thanked you for helping too. Hakubi is always escaping when the door opens.” She paused, thinking something over, “That was smart, using you bike to scare him to come running right to me. Thanks.” Barnaby felt his cheeks head up and was glad for the semi-darkness of the street.
“It’s the least I could do.” He pushed his glasses back into place like the whole ordeal wasn’t worth the significance the girl was giving it. Then Barnaby noticed the scratches adorning Kaburagi’s arms that he could just make out in the dim lights of porch lamps. “You’re bleeding.” The girl looked at herself as if she hadn’t noticed anything wrong until now.
“Oh, I didn’t notice.” Well, that proves it. She unobservant all the time. Figures. She tried to laugh it off with one of her goofy smiles.
“You need to get those looked at before they become infected,” Barnaby lectured sternly.
“Geez, okay!” Kaburagi conceded as she headed back towards her house. “Anyway, see you tomorrow!” She called back to him. Barnaby walked back to his bike and straddled the machine as Tetsuko called out again, “Thanks, Bunny!” She waved from her porch and Barnaby rolled his eyes big enough so she could see it and scowl back at him.
“Don’t be late tomorrow or else I’ll have to card you!”
“It’s Barnaby, old lady!”
“I’m not old, you asshole!”
“Whatever you say.” She said
something at him that Barnaby assumed was a Japanese swearword and the sliding
door slammed shut so hard that the track squealed. The blond chuckled and
zoomed down the street. Barnaby left Oriental Town and took the speedways back
into the center of the city. He decided that the drive home wasn’t as much fun
because he suddenly got cold. Once he was back in his apartment, Barnaby sat in
the single chair he owned and started out his floor-to-ceiling windows,
wondering if he could see Kaburagi’s house from here if he really tried to