[CHAP. 1][CHAP. 2]
Characters & Pairings: Kotetsu/Barnaby, some Kotetsu/Tomoe, + ensemble (notably featuring Kaede, Nathan, Karina, Antonio)
Rating: hard R
Summary: The city was complicated and dangerous, everything shrouded in facades, and maybe it was no wonder someone like Barnaby who'd never known anywhere else would be so reluctant to trust anyone. Still Kotetsu could imagine nothing lonelier than the childhood he'd spent in a safer and simpler place.
How To Recognize Common Urban Pests
6 MONTHS AFTER THE DEATH OF JAKE MARTINEZ
It happened when they were having a drink together at Barnaby's. The thing Kotetsu didn't mean to happen, which just snuck up on him.
He and Barnaby were celebrating that they'd both gotten at least one place ahead of the other heroes in points in the past month. Maybe Kotetsu didn't care all that much about earning points for their own sake, but if the amount he had was a reliable indication of how well he was doing his job, then the truth was becoming undeniable: he worked much better with Barnaby as a partner than without him. In the last half year he'd been saving more lives, making more arrests, and even damaging less property than he ever had during any other six-month period of his career. In fact, the two of them were totally kicking ass together, by any standards. It was their teamwork rather than any quantifiable accomplishments that he'd felt so much like drinking to more than anything else. Though he didn't make any of this known, he had a feeling Barnaby maybe got the idea, not that he usually needed a whole lot of convincing to open up a good wine as long as he had someone to drink it with.
For a while they'd had the television on as some background entertainment they were half-watching while they sat beside each other, Kotetsu relaxing in a chair he and Barnaby had dragged out from his bedroom for him to use. Now as if to prove Kotetsu wrong about his observation that he never seemed to listen to music, Barnaby had put on something bass-heavy and kind of darkly atmospheric.
"What is this stuff you're listening to anyway?" Kotetsu asked after a while.
Barnaby rolled his head to the side to look over at him with a bored sort of sigh. "They're called Warsaw," he said. "Sorry I don't have anything more old-fashioned for your ancient ears."
"Actually, I kind of like it."
He gave a light laugh. "You're just saying that."
"Nah." Kotetsu started bobbing his head to the beat.
"No, don't—" Barnaby immediately started shaking his head with his look of second-hand embarrassment Kotetsu was quite used to having directed at him by now. "Please don't do that."
Kotetsu stopped with a shrug and took the bottle of wine from the little table attached to Barnaby's chair to refill his glass. When he turned back forward, he got up suddenly from his seat.
"Hey—" He rushed forward to where he'd tossed his jacket to the floor earlier and snatched it up off the carpet, right before something he'd spotted crawling across the floor toward it could touch it.
"What?" Barnaby asked, sitting up. Then he noticed the little dark dot moving across the room and squinted to try to see it better.
"It's one of those pain-in-the-ass gray beetle things," Kotetsu said eloquently, leaning over to get a good look. "Antonio has those in his apartment, too."
Barnaby frowned as he stood up to go look at it. "This damn city..."
"Stomp on it!" Kotetsu said, as he'd taken off his shoes at the door.
"Are you kidding me?" his partner answered, looking around for something else they could squash it with. "These boots cost more than your monthly utilities."
"Fine, wimp." He looked around the room to quickly evaluate their available resources, then pointed over to the small stack of mail Barnaby had left on the floor by his chair. "Give me that magazine, it's getting away..."
The bug was disappearing into the less well-lit parts of the room. By the time Kotetsu had the magazine rolled up and ready in hand, he thought he'd seen it hugging the edge of the floor where it sunk down a level, but when they turned all the lights on for a moment they could see no sign of it.
"Crap," he said. "Now it's gonna lay eggs in your fancy carpet and legions of them will be eating holes out of your designer clothes for lunch."
Not amused by Kotetsu's teasing smile, Barnaby gave his arm an annoyed shove. Kotetsu must have been starting to get drunk because it actually upset his balance and had him swaying for a moment with a low laugh.
For the next hour or so, they kept talking about getting a cab for him and then twenty minutes later would still be in discussion about some detail of their past week of work together, bickering about something stupid, or just lost in a relaxed silence for a moment looking out at the view of the city. The music had stopped playing when they were both standing right at the window for a minute so Barnaby could point out to him roughly where in the city the house had been where his family had lived when he was a kid. When Barnaby suddenly saw something on Kotetsu's shirt, he reached over quickly to swat at his sleeve, spilling a little bit of the wine left in the glass in his other hand in the process.
"That bug!" Barnaby said, grinning a little in a way that was rare and kind of strange to see. "It was just on you."
"Oh! Where'd it go now?" he said, looking down at the floor all around him.
"I don't know, I can't..." Barnaby set his glass down on the ledge under the window and then clapped his hands to make the overhead lights automatically turn on, which just left them both squinting a bit hilariously for a few seconds as their eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. He sighed when they still couldn't see anything. "This is impossible..."
He grabbed Kotetsu's shoulders and spun him around to make sure the offending beetle wasn't still crawling on him anywhere, and then they both started an intense search around the entire half of the room. They both dropped down to the floor and crawled around looking over every inch of the floor, examining closely every part that was more shadowed, until they came face to face again both turning up behind the bigger chair and both rose to stand again with looks of confusion.
"There are only so many places it can be in this barren room," Kotetsu said, looking around every side of one chair again. "Come on, Bunny, we can find the little fucker. This is what we do: clean up Sternbild, getting rid of one pest at a time...What's so funny?"
Barnaby had a tight smirk on his face. "Nothing...You swear a lot more when you drink. I'm not used to it."
He smiled back at him and said, "Here, grab that side to help me lift this."
They lifted up the chair from the bedroom to take a thorough look underneath it. Barnaby checked the bottom of the table. They looked under their feet to see if they'd stepped on it. Then they finally had to look around them in a resigned way, both leaning against the extra chair.
"What if that wasn't even the same one as before?" Kotetsu said just to make it even better.
Barnaby widened his eyes a bit for an instant. "Ugh. Don't say that." He clapped his hands to make the lights go back out. "Whatever. It got away..."
Kotetsu then looked down at the wet spot on the front of his shirt where Barnaby had spilled wine on him.
"Oh, sorry about that," Barnaby said. "Let me..."
He grabbed a small towel he'd used earlier and left draped over the arm of his chair. It seemed he was suddenly very close when he started dabbing it lightly at the faint stain on Kotetsu's shirt. He had his other hand on his chest as well, keeping the fabric smoothed out so he could see the whole stain. The music had stopped a while ago, and now they'd stopped talking too, and their breathing close together now sounded strangely loud.
Then Barnaby's eyes looked up and met his softly for a moment. It was a very brief look, the smallest little smile, but Kotetsu was sure he saw it: something sort of timid and embarrassed in his face as he seemed to realize what he was doing. And then his eyes fell back down, his hands started drawing away...
Kotetsu raised his hands up and held Barnaby's where they were, pressed lightly against him. He only had to effortlessly sway forward a few inches to kiss him. It was like a big bright green-eyed ditch just waiting there for him to fall right into without even thinking about it if he moved at all in that moment. A soft landing too, way too easy, way too sudden, Barnaby's lips molding against his slowly but without resistance for the first moment in a way that felt completely automatic. Just the single point of warmth and contact was already bringing a tingling of nerves all over him. He felt Barnaby finally breathing out slowly, and he did too, sighing, reaching a hand up to find his hair...
Then he heard Barnaby's breath catch in a way that sounded alarmed, no longer relaxed at all, and Barnaby pulled back as quickly as it had started. Almost seeming to shake himself out of something, Barnaby blinked and stepped back a little. "Wh...What are you doing?" he asked faintly.
Kotetsu could only wonder in the following moment of tense silence what kind of answer people actually expect in response to questions like that. After all, it was fairly obvious what he'd just been doing, he thought, but he still tried desperately for a few seconds to think of any possible explanation he could give as if that hadn't been a rhetorical question. Like something that didn't give away forever with no taking it back that he really wanted Barnaby, to kiss the hell out of Barnaby like they were about to die in a couple minutes, to make him come so hard that stick up his ass would fly right out never to return.
Okay, maybe the situation was still somewhat salvageable, as he couldn't have given away quite that much in a kiss that had lasted about five seconds. Except he still hadn't said anything and Barnaby was opening his mouth again, looking down and away from his eyes.
"I didn't know it was like that," he muttered with a somewhat sullen face.
"It's not," Kotetsu replied quickly, not that he was sure what Barnaby was talking about. "It's not like anything! This doesn't mean anything, it was just...I wasn't thinking, okay?"
He really didn't understand, but the reaction settling on Barnaby's face was even worse than he ever might have expected. There wasn't mere discomfort there more than anything, or a strongly negative kind of surprise, or even regret and despondency over this revelation. Any of those might have been in there somewhere at the moment, but most of all Barnaby had just started to look coldly withdrawn, like he was trying to pretend it all made less of a difference to him than it really did. It was worse than anything.
"Hey, I'm sorry," Kotetsu went on. "Really. It was stupid of me, it's not like I don't get it." He gave a nervous laugh and his next words kept coming out without thought as he tried to make light of it. "Even if you did like guys, it's not like you'd go for a totally lame old man who doesn't even know what Warsaw is or—"
"What?" Now Barnaby was just starting to look annoyed, in a way that made him a little more recognizable again as his friend he'd been for the past half year now. "I—I do like—Oh, for God sakes." He shook his head like he didn't even know why he was trying to honor that with a response. "Never mind!"
"Oh. Oh." Kotetsu put his hands up in a yielding way. "Well, look, that's perfectly fine! No problem with that, I mean...Hey, I do now and then, so..."
Barnaby rolled his eyes with a heavy sigh of exasperation. "Yeah, that would be pretty obvious now!"
"I think you'd better go."
With that, Barnaby started picking up everything from the table and then went over by the window to get his glass. He didn't look at Kotetsu at all, even as he went a while without moving yet.
When Barnaby started passing him on the way to go back to the kitchen, still not regarding him, Kotetsu said in a slightly pleading way, "Bunny..."
Stiffening at hearing the name in a way Kotetsu definitely didn't like, Barnaby stopped where he was but didn't turn to face him. Kotetsu reached out, almost touching his arm to try to turn him his way or something, but then thought better of it and dropped his hand back away from him.
"Okay," he said quietly in acceptance. Barnaby seemed to watch him just out of the corner of his eye as he went to pick up his jacket and then slip into his shoes, but Kotetsu didn't look at him again as he muttered a "Goodnight" before leaving.
He had barely been in the training center for an hour before Nathan somehow sniffed the whole thing out and soon found a good opportunity to corner him.
"I told you not to do anything stupid," he said, making Kotetsu look up quickly in alarm while he was sitting down to have a break and drink something.
The crazy thing was Kotetsu had pretty much forgotten all about it when he'd first woken up this morning, dismissing it as something else he'd just dreamed and letting it stay in the back of his mind. As he'd thought back on it more, the thing that was the real surprise to him at first was remembering how he and Barnaby had been acting kind of ridiculous together, crawling around on the floor trying to hunt down one stupid bug, which had seemed perfectly reasonable and of great importance at the time. It would have amused him a lot to remember if thinking about it hadn't automatically led him to remembering the rest of it the way it had really happened.
Then he'd hoped when he saw Barnaby this morning, everything between them would just resume to the usual so they could both comfortably forget the whole thing, but Barnaby's very distant way of interacting with him today was only making the whole thing that much more real and impossible to forget. Though Barnaby generally seemed to be trying to go about his business without letting his feelings about this get in the way, he also didn't seem to care if anyone saw that something was wrong and definitely wasn't making any effort to pretend otherwise.
That didn't mean Kotetsu couldn't still try. He guzzled down some juice, swallowed loudly, and wiped his mouth all with forced casualness, and said back to Nathan, "What are you talking about?"
Nathan took a seat next to him on the bench, crossing his legs with a slightly impatient sigh. "I'm talking about how depressing and especially unapproachable Handsome is being today, even with you."
"Didn't you know? He's just annoyed because he's going to have to call an exterminator about a problem with carpet beetles in his apartment."
Nathan cringed, not having to ask what in the world he was talking about. "Euw, you mean those dark-grayish ones that move kind of fast?" he said. "Those are getting to be a big problem here. I had to get rid of them in one of my shops."
Kotetsu dared to hope for a second that he was actually off the hook and Nathan was going to leave it alone.
Then he stared after him in shock when Nathan actually did stand up and start walking off.
"Wait, for real?" Kotetsu said, stopping him for a moment. "That's it? You're actually going to buy that and just leave it?"
Nathan smiled sweetly. "Hell, I've got better things to do than force you to take any help from me," he said. "It would probably do you some good to learn to ask for it anyway."
"Ah. Cute," Kotetsu said as Nathan blew him a kiss before turning away again. "Well, that's great! 'Cause I'm just fine without it, you know! H—Hi."
The last was awkwardly blurted out to Ivan and Pao-Lin as they passed him staring; he had started calling after Nathan pretty loudly without realizing it, drawing their attention right to him. They both gave him a friendly wave and then went into curious-sounding whispers to each other as soon as their backs were to him.
When Kotetsu had gotten the call to action earlier, he'd been told it was a fairly low-key crime in progress and only half the group of Heroes were even getting called in. Then he and Barnaby had managed to nearly screw the whole thing up with their involvement, leaving Sky High to make the arrest that had almost been one of theirs, and just barely at that.
Agnes had given the two of them some colorful warnings about how miserable she was going to make their lives if they didn't hold off on ripping each other's throats out over it until they'd gotten all the footage they needed, but their failure to cooperate together which was going to be witnessed by their viewership would probably give enough away on its own. They stayed in a tense silence until they'd gotten their armor removed, and then Kotetsu looked directly at him for what might have been the first time the whole evening.
"You want to tell me what the hell that was?" he asked gruffly.
"Why don't you explain what you thought you were doing?" Barnaby muttered as he started for the locker room to go change out of his undersuit. "I knew you'd started using your powers after me, and I had less than a minute left."
Following him out of Saito's armory, Kotetsu replied, "And I still had time left by the time you'd gone ahead of me to save that girl! I told you I had her, if you'd listened you could have gone after the guy and he wouldn't have gotten that close to getting away!"
"You only had seconds left by the time I'd helped her! That was cutting it too close."
"I was closer to her, and I wouldn't have said I could handle it if I didn't know I could! You just didn't want to listen to me!" Barnaby had walked far enough ahead of him that after he went through the sliding door into the locker room, Kotetsu had to hurry forward and throw his arm out to stop the door from sliding back shut on his face. "So what is this, you just want to punish me or something now?"
Barnaby glanced back at him with an angered look. "How immature do you think I am?"
"Oh, I don't know. Enough that you still sometimes have to take care of everything yourself, even if you're incapable of it, like when there's a bystander to get out of danger and somebody to arrest at the same time. Do you realize how totally irrational that is? It's two versus one. Simple-ass math. But you sometimes still obviously prefer the idea of being on your own."
They were faced away from each other now as they both changed clothes, and as Kotetsu agitatedly stepped into his pants he could hear the restrained anger in Barnaby's cool voice.
"Strangely enough, I've never screwed anything up for myself as you've done for me," he said.
Kotetsu looked over his shoulder at him as he snapped back, "I think you know damn well I'm not always the problem."
"Oh, please," Barnaby just said, shaking his head with annoyance.
"Well, it's always something, isn't it?" Kotetsu went on, slamming his locker shut and then bending over to tie his shoes. "Oh—I wasted three minutes of your life, oh no! Or—I don't know—made you look bad on a live show, or ruined your chances of interrogating that guy who was your first real lead on Ouroboros because you didn't tell me anything. Letting yourself rely on somebody isn't supposed to mean being even harder on them and treating them like a potential liability. You talk about trust and why I just won't cut it with the kind of mistakes I make, and it's all pretty damn rich when you're the one practically waiting to be let down."
"I wonder why," Barnaby said, his voice thick with bitter sarcasm, as he headed eagerly for the door to leave the room.
Hearing that somehow drained the anger out of him and just left him with his spirits trampled as he finished getting dressed. When he went out into the hall, he found Barnaby hadn't gotten far ahead of him yet because he'd stopped to look at his phone. Whatever he was reading on it wasn't seeming to make him any happier. When he put it away in his pocket and started walking the opposite way than he usually would to leave, Kotetsu followed him.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
Barnaby barely looked at him in the corner of his eye. "Mr. Maverick wishes to meet with me," he explained, no longer sounding quite angry, just as distant as he'd always been with him the past couple days.
Of course. Mr. Maverick. Now there was someone who could probably offer him some more useful advice than Nathan had the specific insight for. Kotetsu had often wondered what the story was with him and Barnaby. All he knew was that Maverick had known Barnaby's parents somehow so the two of them went way back, and whatever their exact relationship was, it was clear Barnaby had the utmost respect for him and highly valued having his approval and guidance. He was going to have to write that guy an e-mail or something. Dear Mr. Maverick, many apologies for bothering you with such awkward and personal matters, but I can't help observing that you're one of the few elite individuals who Barnaby is easily able to recognize as someone he can trust completely. It would mean a lot to me and surely be very beneficial to the company image kept by our partnership if you'd just let me know what the secret is to getting in that club and staying there, besides just somehow managing to never, ever make any mistakes. Please don't say it's that.
"Was there anything else?" Barnaby asked him after he'd kept following him a while.
Kotetsu felt his mood sinking all over again. He had no idea how he could help it now, but he really didn't want to just leave things like this between them at the end of the day. "Look...I told you I'm sorry," he said softly. "And I really am. I don't know what else you want me to say."
"...Whatever. I understand." The way it sounded, it might as well have been a dismissive "I get it." After a moment's pause he added in the same detached way, "You'd think I wouldn't be that surprised, anyway."
Kotetsu didn't like the sound of that any more than the rest. "What does that mean?" When Barnaby still refused to look at him and didn't say more, he went on in frustration, "Oh, give me a break. Don't lump me in with your creepy objectifying fans who send you pairs of their underwear for you to sign."
Barnaby shrugged, acting far too indifferent. "At least I know what to expect from them."
Kotetsu remembered Nathan's words from a while ago—"You're different, idiot"—and thought maybe he was finally starting to understand a little more. But it mostly just made him feel especially helpless to do anything about it, because he knew he couldn't talk his way around that one.
"Come on, this doesn't make things any different from before," he said. "It's not like that, okay?"
"Then what is it like, Kotetsu?" Barnaby finally slowed to a stop. He looked at him for a brief moment before asking, "How long...have you had that on your mind?"
He sighed. "I don't...have it on my mind, jeez. It's not like I've been waiting for a chance to—"
"You know what I mean," Barnaby interrupted impatiently.
Kotetsu scratched his fingers through his hair at the back of his head in an intensely awkward hesitation. "I don't know. Hard to say, I mean...w-well...Which part of it, specifically?"
The fact that he had to ask something like that seemed to tell him enough. "So all the effort you put into this...partnership. Even when I was being...Was it all just because...?"
Kotetsu felt his own mouth dropping open a little. "What? How could you...?" He shook his head, looking away in anger, and muttered, "Screw you for even asking me that."
"Fine," Barnaby just said back quietly, and Kotetsu finally turned back around to leave in the other direction.
Twenty minutes later, Kotetsu had driven all the way to a bar and found himself just sitting in his car in the parking lot, not quite wanting to step outside and go in. It felt too much like giving up. He didn't even get his keys out of the ignition before he realized there was somewhere else he could go and then started pulling his car back out of the space to turn around.