Characters & Pairings: Kotetsu/Barnaby, some Kotetsu/Tomoe, + ensemble (notably featuring Kaede, Agnes, 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.
On a Losing Streak
It was the kind of day in early spring when the mild weather still feels so new and revitalizing, not taken for granted yet. While Kotetsu was wearing short sleeves for the first time that year, the open air and the warmth of sunlight on his exposed skin was like the relief from some burden he'd forgotten he'd been carrying.
He would remember everything about this day. The flowers that were starting to bloom there in the park near the Stern Bild University campus, the way Tomoe almost fell out of a swing while leaning far backwards in it so he could bend over and kiss her, exactly what she looked like then wearing a mint green sundress and yellow headband and with the outdoor light giving her dark eyes a certain sparkle. The dress was a thin and delicate fabric, and every time Kotetsu touched her he could imagine what the pleasant spring breeze felt like breathing right through the material onto her skin. Always mindful of things like grass stains on such light-colored clothes, she made a point of lying mostly on top of him while they relaxed on the ground in the shade of a tree, her long hair blowing over his face a little while they watched students and parents with little kids going by.
At one point after Tomoe mentioned her roommate Bonnie, Kotetsu asked, "Has she stopped trying to guess what my power is?" He'd been told about how Bonnie was a very friendly girl to room with but almost invasively curious. When asked once about her boyfriend, Tomoe had mentioned that he aspired to be a Hero. Not feeling quite right giving away every detail so easily, she'd at first been vague about it so it wouldn't seem she meant to brag, but over time as she and Bonnie had become better friends it had simply turned into too much of an amusement to leave her wondering about it.
"Well, she might have figured out that it must have something to do with how fast you're able to get here after I call you sometimes," she answered. "But of course I can only tell her she's kind of getting close, since speed isn't all there is to it."
"She was talking about it with our other friend there once and now I feel like everyone's going to make an embarrassingly big deal about meeting you when I finally get the chance to properly introduce you to all of them," she said a little wearily. "It's a relief that they all think it's pretty cool, though. Even with people here, you never know..."
"Mm-hm." Kotetsu had closed his eyes for a while then, one of his arms put back under his head as a pillow.
"A lot of the time it just turns into a conversation about what kind of powers they'd like to have most," she said with a light laugh. "Of course Karl settled on hangover immunity right away."
He laughed again, running a hand down her back to rest on her hip. "What kind would you want to have if it could be anything?"
"Hmm..." He opened his eyes as she sat up a little, propping herself up with one elbow on the ground right by him. Then as they looked directly at each other, a soft and slow smile of realization came onto her face. "I'd want to have the same thing you do."
Kotetsu's eyebrows raised a little. It struck him as such a strange thing to say, but still it seemed he could feel the idea settling in him as some warm, healing thing. "Really? But why?"
She crossed her arms on his chest and then rested her chin over them. "I don't know, it would just seem right," she said. "Maybe then, even with all the trouble you used to have, you could feel kind of like you've never really been alone."
The words rendered him silent at first. He just looked up toward the tree branches above with an uncertain smile and said sort of teasingly to alleviate the tone, "Well...that's a boring answer."
Tomoe didn't laugh or nudge him annoyedly. She waited until he looked back at her and smiled at him in that way again. "It's the only answer," she said softly. And Kotetsu's grin melted away, along with some kind of barrier. He pulled her forward to kiss her, his hands holding both sides of her face, bright light burning behind the red of his closed eyelids whenever the tree branches swayed in the wind to let the sun through.
"It's starting to get cold, isn't it?" Barnaby's voice came softly from behind him as he came outside to join him on the terrace.
Maybe Barnaby had usually been acting a lot happier with his life in the past year than he was when Kotetsu first met him, but he'd seemed to be in an especially lightened mood lately, and it was no wonder. He had just been named MVP after only his first year as a Hero, and now the banquet tonight was in honor of him breaking Legend's record. He had every reason to feel pretty good about himself, and maybe all this was helping him feel that life was finally being pretty good to him, too.
It was one of the last times Kotetsu would see him so happy before nearly everything that had come to them in the past year got yanked out from under them.
For a while they stayed alone together outside in the nighttime chill, looking out at the city lights, sharing their dreams and plans for the future as if there couldn't possibly be anything ominous around the corner. When he told Barnaby that his only aspiration was for his daughter to say he was cool, Barnaby seemed a little amused by how small a thing that was. But as they fell into a calm silence, staying outside a couple more minutes so Barnaby could avoid having to return to his big party and do the obligatory mingling just a bit longer, he realized just how much it was true. His only wishes really were that simple, even in a sense where his partnership with Barnaby was concerned.
Though he still usually tried not to think about it, Kotetsu knew he still cared about Barnaby as more than just a partner or friend. In fact, ever since he'd become a lot more conscious about keeping them at bay, it seemed those feelings had only kept getting stronger. But he was as sure as ever right now, as the two of them found a certain momentary solace in each other's quiet company away from the crowd of fancy suits inside, that just this was enough. He could only wish that things would stay like this. Of course he was only human, and there was a part of him that wanted more from Barnaby, but he prayed this would always be enough and being denied all the rest would never make him too unhappy to appreciate it anymore.
He only hoped Barnaby knew that much. He liked to think that he did, that their relationship had strengthened enough that Barnaby could see more easily now how much it meant to Kotetsu just to be able to be together like this, standing in such a comfortable and understanding silence. It seemed simple enough and kind of silly, just like the one thing he wanted from Kaede, but it felt like so much more than he'd had with anyone before they'd come into each other's lives. That didn't even make a lot of sense—they hadn't known each other nearly as long as it sometimes felt like they had now, after all, and Kotetsu couldn't explain why it always felt so natural and easy to be around him—but still he hoped Barnaby understood that. And that he was right in suspecting Barnaby felt the same way.
"What are you thinking so hard about?" Barnaby asked, turning around to lean back against the rail.
Looking to the side at him, Kotetsu smiled. "Just about how much things have changed," he answered.
Barnaby returned the look fleetingly, his smile a small one but full of warmth and a silent agreement. "Come on," he said as he nodded his head toward the entrance inside.
The unspoken request was obvious: Please don't leave me by myself with these people. Kotetsu smiled again as he started following him in and took a quick glance around the hall. "If you're really running low on fake smiles for the evening, it looks like we could take refuge with our own kind over there," he observed, gesturing to a corner where most of the other Heroes had started accumulating into a group. Then he put a hand at Barnaby's elbow and turned close into him, talking directly into his ear with a smirk. "Watch out for Emblem, though. He's a cuddly drunk."
"Heh," Barnaby laughed. "Why does it sound kind of like there's an experience behind that insight?"
When Barnaby then slowed to a stop to turn to him and found the reluctant admission written all over his face, his own expression immediately turned uncertain and awkward. "Oh," he said in a stiff voice, suddenly avoiding his eyes for some reason.
"Oh no—Nothing happened," Kotetsu said. He started laughing, and then as the absurdity of the idea and Barnaby's reaction settled in he couldn't seem to stop, dropping his forehead onto Barnaby's shoulder for a second.
"What?" Barnaby now looked sort of embarrassed and obviously wasn't seeing as much humor in it.
"Your face just then," he said, eyes still squinted in his laughter.
"Shut up," Barnaby said with a roll of his eyes, and then his face took on the look it did when he was about to regain control of a conversation with some slightly mean wise-ass remark. "You watch out for Blue Rose as well."
He stopped laughing and asked in confusion, "Why?"
Barnaby shrugged. "She can't drink, so she's her usual self."
Barnaby was going to have to explain that one to him later, because just then someone Kotetsu couldn't remember by name but was pretty sure was some Apollon employee caught sight of them drifting by and instantly turned to Barnaby.
"Ah, Mr. Brooks," he said, extending a hand. "Let me congratulate you as a professional associate and a big fan."
Of course Barnaby was able to pluck his name right from his memory bank as he graciously shook the man's hand. "Thank you, Mr. Qureshi."
"What an exciting time to be involved in the industry you've made it now!" he went on. "This accomplishment is sure to set the bar higher for the show."
It was only then that Mr. Qureshi dropped Barnaby's hand after holding it just a little too long in a way that looked just a little too familiar. So he was one of those. Kotetsu resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
If Barnaby minded or had even noticed, he didn't show it. "That is my hope as well and is great to hear," he replied with his tone as friendly as ever. Then he spared just a second to glance to the side at Kotetsu with a small smile, and in return Kotetsu gave him a brief sympathetic look before inevitably having to separate himself from him by turning to go join their friends.
Over the next twenty minutes, every time Kotetsu looked over at him Barnaby seemed to have gotten swamped with attention from someone new he couldn't pull free from. It wasn't long after he took one of the few seats over in the corner that he found himself with Nathan squished tight between him and Keith on the small couch not meant for more than two people. He had his arm draped around Kotetsu's shoulders as he sipped at his wine and only made matters worse by making gently mocking and hysterically funny remarks about what many people in the room were doing now so that Kotetsu kept laughing loud enough to draw people's attention to their loss of decorum. At one point when Barnaby looked over the shoulder of the woman he was now talking to and met eyes with Kotetsu across the room, he instantly looked like he was struggling to keep a straight face as he watched Nathan adoringly kissing him on the cheek with one hand sort of petting his hair. As Nathan grabbed a napkin right from Keith's hand and started wiping his own pink lipstick off Kotetsu's face, he flashed Barnaby a hopeless "You see what I'm talking about?" kind of look, and Barnaby immediately covered a hand over his mouth to cover up his amused grin.
As soon as he was back in Sternbild after visiting his family, Kotetsu got busy packing up almost everything in his house because at least that much was going to be easy to do.
He packed away the video he'd forced Barnaby to watch with him once, and then almost every other item in his Mr. Legend collection went into a box of things to get rid of. Even that felt almost easy now, insignificant compared to the rest he had left to deal with.
"Ouroboros is gone. She'll tell us that when she wakes up..."
"It's starting to get cold..."
"We are just a small faction. Ouroboros will never die..."
If he'd just kept his mouth shut and let it be, everything wouldn't have gotten so much worse now. He knew it was pointless and unreasonable to regret it because he'd been right and Barnaby had needed to know, but he still couldn't help feeling like it hadn't done Barnaby a lot of good. As much as Kriem's words had clearly troubled him and left him without any of the final answers he'd been hoping to get from her, Barnaby had still been certain enough that he remembered seeing Jake in his house that night twenty years ago. But something in his gut hadn't let Kotetsu be satisfied that Kriem had to have been lying, and he had to dig up some footage of Jake that would show whether he had the tattoo, he had to let them check and know for sure.
And then somehow he hadn't exactly been surprised by what they found. He was a man who relied a lot on his instincts, but in a situation like this he wasn't sure that was what he'd call it. With everything else that had started going bad for him recently, maybe it had merely seemed like it would be just his luck for this thing not to stay dead.
All this had him so deep in thought at the moment as he stared down into a mostly-drained glass of whiskey that he didn't see Antonio coming up beside him before he heard him.
"I'll get him another of whatever he's drinking," he said to the bartender, gesturing toward Kotetsu as he took a seat right next to him. "And I'll have one, too." He pat Kotetsu heavily on the shoulder. "Hey, bud, what are you doing spooking around here all by yourself?"
He gave a short, dry laugh and replied, "Look who's talking."
"Point is I don't look so gloomy about it...I kinda expected you'd be with Barnaby tonight. I heard he took the day off because of personal stuff."
"Yeah...I guess I'm sort of avoiding the next time I'll have to see Bunny," Kotetsu admitted.
Antonio looked confused. "Why's that?"
"I have to tell him something important. I've already put it off too long, and now with how things are going, I know he isn't going to take it well."
They had been served their drinks now, and Antonio took a drink of his before saying his next words with a somber tone. "Nathan told me what happened. That Jake wasn't really his guy, or so Kriem said...That's got to be rough on him."
Kotetsu idly stirred his ice around in his glass with the tip of his finger. "Yeah."
"Does it have something to do with all that?"
"No...That's exactly why it's been so hard to find a way to bring it up. Now that something else has come up, I'm not going to be able to help him with this like I should be doing. I don't know how I can possibly tell him that without it just seeming like I'm ditching him now that things are getting really bad and he needs me the most. But it has to be him first. It's bad enough for me to have to figure out how to break the news; if he somehow found out from somebody else, that would be a disaster..."
Antonio nodded after taking all that in. "Hey, it can't be that bad, can it? You have to take some more time off soon to go help out Kaede with her powers, is that it?"
Kotetsu didn't meet his eyes. He swallowed down some of his drink and then just answered, "Something like that."
His friend kept staring his way for a moment, as if he thought maybe Kotetsu would cave in and give more away if he just looked at him long enough.
Oddly enough, it seemed to work after a few seconds, though the truth that started coming out probably wasn't what Antonio was waiting for. "It's a really bad time," he said, his voice taking on a note of hopelessness and vague dread. "He's...I think he's in pretty bad shape over it. I've never seen him like this. He's been thinking about quitting because he doesn't even know if he can handle the job right now. He swore it was Jake, and now he says he keeps remembering it differently than before, and he doesn't know what's going on. I know he feels kind of like he's losing it right now and I don't know what else to do for him. What the hell are you supposed to say to someone who's afraid he's losing his mind when his reasons for feeling that way honestly have you kind of scared, too?"
Eyes widening with some bewilderment, Antonio took another long drink and then shook his head before finally answering. "I don't know...but if things are getting that bad, I know you must have good reason to have to prioritize something else for a while. Whatever's going on, I'm sure if you just explained it to him he would understand."
He couldn't know how much harder that would be than he was making it sound, of course. When Kotetsu avoided his eyes again for a while, knowing he didn't look any more encouraged than before, he heard Antonio sigh.
"You know...you're my best friend," he said. "The oldest one I got. I'd say we know each other pretty damn well. And still sometimes...I feel like I just don't get you, man."
Kotetsu looked up, his eyebrows drawing together in an unspoken question.
Shaking his head, he went on, "Like I say, you and I go pretty far back. But how often do we even have a serious and real conversation like this?"
Kotetsu lifted his shoulders in the slightest shrug. "Well, that seems to suit you as well as it suits me."
"And you're so sure about that why?"
He couldn't pretend not to be a little caught off guard by the question. "I don't know. For instance, after everything fell apart with you and...and, uh...Dammit, I know her name. Tanya, or something? You know, that whole thing. You made it pretty clear you didn't want to talk about it."
"You're fucking kidding me. You mean Talia? That was almost eight years ago, Tiger."
"Okay, whatever! What's the difference?"
"I was an idiot back then, that's the difference. So were you a bit."
"Still are a bit."
"You said it, I didn't."
"I was talking about you."
"Like it or not we're not talking about me right now, and I'm gonna finish what I'm trying to say about the subject." He pointed emphatically at him, jabbing his finger into his shoulder, in case Kotetsu was still unclear on what that subject was. "Damn, man, you've got me almost losing my train of thought here! Look, I know it's not like you and I are good with the touchy-feely shit, but I'd like to think I don't always totally fail people when it comes to that kind of thing. Hell, I seem to remember a pretty heavy conversation we had that time after school at Marianne's once, and you said years later that what I had to say then may not have sounded all that profound but was exactly what you needed to hear at the time in order to start getting your shit together and just be with her already. So I'd imagine you don't regret that one."
Softening a little, Kotetsu allowed himself the smallest bittersweet smile at the memory.
"But still...you usually have a way of making it known that you only want me in your business to a certain point, and maybe we've gotten a little too comfortable staying that way. Then of course there's your daughter. You have this great kid and it's obvious you miss her all the time, but then that's it. You just go on missing her all the time...And now you've got Barnaby."
Kotetsu felt one of his eyebrows twitch. He waited in a stiff silence while Antonio took another drink in preparation for the rest.
"I mean, he's the perfect partner for you, right?" he said, not exactly being sarcastic but still with something biting in the words. "Because you don't mind that he can be kind of a self-absorbed little prick who's used to having way too much on his own plate to deal with alone. In fact, I think you're real comfortable with him that way, because it makes it easy to keep him out of your business, too."
Kotetsu was now frowning deeply at the counter. "So what was the part you don't think you get?"
"It's just that I don't know anybody who deserves to be happy more than you. You go out of your way to help and support the people around you, but then you never take anything back. A guy can't just live that way. And whatever it is you think you'll be bothering Barnaby too much with by telling him about it while he has his own problems to deal with too, well, it's not fair to let him get the wrong impression instead, is it? If he's such a mess right now, he doesn't have the same option you have of playing it cool, now how fucked is that?"
"And how's it going to be so much better to let him know if I'm kind of a mess, too?" It was not a loud outburst, just a string of tense and slightly bitter words, but for him maybe it was a lot to let out. "I'm trying to manage my own problems so I can carry the load for now. It's no good for both of us to be..."
"You don't have to be a damn savior all the time, Kotetsu." Antonio's voice had become very hard and serious, like he was giving this everything to try to drive the point home. "He's not fooled anyway, he knows it's bull. Everybody knows you're just human. If you're always pretending with him, how's he even supposed to be able to tell that you're for real? How are any of your gestures in the name of your so-called friendship supposed to mean anything that way? I just think that's kind of screwed up, that's all."
Letting all that settle in sourly, Kotetsu finished off his drink with his face still firmly pointed down. "Thanks for the drink," he muttered wearily as he got up to leave.
A chime from his phone stopped him before he had completely crossed the bar to the door. It was a text message from Barnaby: How long would you boil frozen broccoli? I think the package is wrong.
Oh. This was bad. This was worse than he had thought.
First of all, it was well past midnight now, so if Barnaby was trying to contact him about something so stupid at this hour then he must not even have had much of a sense of how late it was, which was exactly the kind of absent-mindedness Barnaby could be fussily unforgiving of in other people, never prone to himself. Also, Barnaby was not a self-reliant creature when it came to even the simplest domestic tasks, and Kotetsu knew if it wasn't convenient to go out then he was usually much more likely to skip a meal altogether than take the time to prepare something for himself. For Barnaby, even if it was certainly better than not eating at all, being driven to the sparse contents of his freezer probably indicated both a desperation to stay inside and an utter detachment from and disinterest in everything.
Worst of all, it seemed there was no way what Barnaby really wanted was a second opinion about the way to cook some vegetables. As if he didn't know Kotetsu would probably be the last person to ask.
He just typed back, Coming over there. Is that alright?
Barnaby's reply came by the time he'd gone back toward the bar: Fine.
Antonio's attention had been drawn to one of the TV screens and he didn't notice Kotetsu back at his side until he asked him, "You have your car here, right? Could you give me a lift somewhere?"
He shrugged and answered, "Sure. Looks like I better take off soon anyway." He gestured toward the screen where a scrolling marquee was warning about the worsening weather. "Says the streets are getting bad to drive on."
A while after Kotetsu got to Barnaby's apartment, the view of the city out his window started to emerge from the blinding wall of white as the wind calmed enough to allow more visibility through all the snow. It kept drifting down thickly, covering the smooth glass surfaces of all the skyscrapers with an icy sparkle and giving all the flashing advertisements and other lights all around the cityscape a more faint and gentle glow behind the covering veil of bright dust. Kotetsu thought Sternbild was a pretty beautiful sight in the winter, but he knew Barnaby had no appreciation for it now. Even when he wasn't in such a troubled mood, this time of year surely only held bad memories for him. For it to be coming back to haunt him all over again now of all times, so close to the day it had happened, seemed like some sick joke fate had to be playing on him.
Kotetsu had come in to find him sitting down with a glass of wine which he was still nursing half-heartedly in hopes that it might make him get sleepier. Both of them would usually be starting to get tired at this hour any night, but the deep circles under his eyes told Kotetsu he was probably still suffering from very little sleep the night before.
"Did you end up eating anything?" he asked after neither of them had spoken for a moment.
"Oh. No." Barnaby sighed. "It's so late I just want to get to sleep. If I'd realized the time I wouldn't have said anything."
"Don't worry about it," he said, shaking his head. "It was the first I'd heard from you since last night, so I wanted to come check on you."
"Well. I'm okay."
His voice sounded so hollow. The words were obviously untrue, but he wasn't fully making the effort to put on an act. It was ordinarily such a natural skill for him, but right now it seemed he was beyond being able to do that.
"Anyway...there's nothing you can do," he finished.
They were words Kotetsu couldn't accept but was still starting to fear might be true. He was taking care to hide it, but inside he kept feeling pretty helpless to do anything for Barnaby. He'd seen him go through some pretty intense things before, nothing quite like this but similar enough for this to feel familiar in a way that was giving Kotetsu some growing dread that the last year had only been a long break from this nightmare that was supposed to be over. But he hadn't known Barnaby as well back then, and it was making him potently aware now in a new and not-so-gratifying way of how much things had changed between them. It was so much worse to have to see Barnaby this way now that he meant a lot more to him and he'd learned to appreciate the difference between when Barnaby was happy and when he wasn't.
Kotetsu was looking back out the window for a moment when he swayed on his feet for a second, realizing all at once how exhausted he was. It was probably getting close to 1:30 now.
"Sorry if I made you think..." Barnaby's voice trailed off into silence like he wasn't even sure what he meant to say. He stood up from his chair as he finally found words again. "I'm sorry you didn't need to come over here. Especially while it's like this outside...You could just stay here if that's easier."
Kotetsu's face probably didn't hide his slight astonishment. "But...haven't you only got your bed?"
Barnaby shrugged with the tiniest movement of his shoulders. "It's big enough for two if it has to be. I mean...I don't really mind if you don't."
He looked at him closely, which was practically useless because Barnaby just turned mostly away. Kotetsu certainly didn't like how numb he still sounded while suggesting it, like he just couldn't care. But maybe it would make Barnaby feel a little better not to be alone and he just had no other way of saying he wanted him here. The more Kotetsu considered it, the harder it was to actually think about the time it would still take to get home to his place on the middle level of the city. And he didn't want to leave Barnaby alone like this for another day, so it was just as well that he'd already be here in the morning.
"If you're sure that's okay," he said, starting to follow after Barnaby headed back to his room. "After all, I kick sometimes."
As Barnaby stopped at a small closet in the hall to get a spare pillow for him, there was no dry remark in response to that like he usually would have given. He just looked at him very briefly before opening the door, showing the faintest and weakest smile.
The bed was a pretty large one for such a small room where just one person usually slept. As soon as Kotetsu had followed him in, Barnaby lay down on his back over all the sheets. While Kotetsu shed off his vest, tie, belt, and shoes, Barnaby just stayed still with his eyes open and fixed on the ceiling, looking kind of like he still didn't even expect to be able to get to sleep soon. After Kotetsu took a place on the other side of the bed, also spreading himself over the covers instead of getting under any of them, Barnaby reached over to his bedside table and switched off the lamp. Eventually Kotetsu heard him shifting position beside him and then his breathing seemed to get calmer, and it was the last thing he was aware of before slipping into heavy sleep.
When Kotetsu opened his eyes in the morning, both of them had moved.
A golden head was tucked right under his chin, warm breath landing on Kotetsu's skin where the collar of his shirt was opened up, and Kotetsu had an arm partially draped over Barnaby with his hand idly fallen on his waist.
At first he wasn't sure what to do, too cautious to even move out of worry of waking him up. And then he looked more closely at Barnaby and it seemed he couldn't just yet.
Barnaby looked so different without his glasses on, so much more vulnerable, and with his eyes shut in sleep like this with some locks of hair fallen over them he made a sight that Kotetsu somehow felt kind of like he wasn't supposed to be spying on, as if he hadn't been invited to sleep here. It had to be Kotetsu's mind playing tricks on him, but he even seemed thinner now than he was supposed to look.
So what else was he supposed to feel in a moment like this than this creeping, foreboding fear of how completely screwed he was? Because he was, and right now knew it so undeniably. He could feel that dangerous ditch opening up in front of him all over again, ready for him to fall into if he didn't watch himself carefully, only it wouldn't be a soft landing anymore. There were sharp edges on the way down, and no climbing back out of it this time. Maybe Antonio had been right about the point he'd been trying to make last night, because now for the first time he could clearly imagine where this would probably go if he didn't have to leave Barnaby. He could see himself getting too comfortable with the way things were between them, even if he only kept wanting him more and it slowly killed him inside, because he knew in a way it would still be easier to handle than if Barnaby wanted him too, just like being away from Kaede killed him but was still easier than actually being a father.
And Tomoe. The endless cycle of guilt and irresolution that Tomoe meant to him now, the purpose he had left in his obligation to her, that was sometimes just a safe thing as well. Living without her the only way he'd managed to learn to and still holding onto her with this ring on his finger, even that was easy compared to even touching the idea of trying to actually move on and start over. Because what he willingly forgot so often now was that struggle is a part of it, that it had never been perfect, and sometimes loving her while she was still alive had been hard, too.
Leaving her side that last time had felt almost impossible, but even that had maybe been an unjust mercy on him. He had tortured himself thinking about it at times, how painful it could have been in a whole different way to be there in the very moment the life went out of her. Having to see Barnaby this way now was almost kind of like how he imagined it. The more he watched him going through this, the more it felt like the life was getting drained out of him from staying so close, putting so much into this when it was going to end with him alone no matter what. It was falling in slow motion without feeling the drop in his stomach, only the helplessness of being thrown adrift with nothing permanent to grab, nothing to be done. Eight months he remembered the doctor telling them, and then suddenly it was three she had left if they were fortunate, everything sucking away into whatever it is that has to so cruelly feed on time.
And he wasn't ready to go through it again but it was coming, the time the glowing aura around him would fade into dark and the timer would say he's supposed to have over four minutes left. There was nothing he could do to stop that moment from coming.
He knew he would come to feel better about starting a different life once it meant he could finally be there for Kaede, and the change wouldn't have to mean completely losing Barnaby, not really. Like his brother had said, this didn't mean his life was over. But to a part of him, all of that was just words and desperate hopes. It still felt like the end. Not of his life, but still of something so great and so much a part of who he was that he couldn't begin to imagine how he was going to move forward from it. No matter what Antonio said, how could he possibly be honest with Barnaby about that without giving him too much to worry about now?
Kotetsu turned over onto his back, suddenly needing to look away from him. He had to, had to get up today and deal with this, but at the moment he felt like he couldn't find the strength to even move from this bed.
"Mm..." Barnaby was stirring, his eyes opening in time to see how close together they still were just before Kotetsu completely let go of him.
Fuck. And he was crying a little now, he realized. Wiping quickly at his eyes with his face turned almost completely away, he said quickly, "Crap, I...Sorry, Bunny."
"Oh..." Looking behind him, Barnaby saw how far he'd strayed from his side of the bed, and then he started pulling back from him.
Kotetsu sat up and went on, "I was..."
"Don't worry about it," Barnaby muttered, turning onto his back. "I know you didn't mean to." His eyes fell back shut and he added in a still weak and tired voice, "Use the shower if you want."
He nodded even though Barnaby couldn't see it, a gesture to assure himself. Right. Shower. That was the thing to do now. He'd start there.
Afterwards, he went out for a while to go down to the nearest grocery store and pick up all the ingredients for the kind of fried rice he knew how to make. He didn't know if Barnaby would be ready to hear something like the news that he was quitting anytime soon today, but Kotetsu was going to stay around as long as it took to help him through this. In the meantime, he could at least get Barnaby to finally eat something.
He couldn't go through this again.
After he found out Barnaby was missing, it was all he kept thinking during every silent moment, a thought he kept forcing away because it couldn't be that bad, he had to be okay. But then he kept thinking about how horribly Barnaby was feeling and the kind of things he'd been saying that disastrous last time they saw each other—"I'm going to be tormented by the past for the rest of my life"—and he couldn't help but still fear that something terrible had happened.
The very distinct kind of pain that he'd carried through those first days and first months and then first couple years living without her had not been the kind of thing that seemed to heal. It merely became more bearable and manageable as it was adjusted to, an inevitable acceptance of what little was left and what could never be found again. During that time he had often thought about that nice spring day they'd spent together around her college campus once and the words she had said then that had always stuck with him, "Maybe then you could feel kind of like you've never been alone," and he'd wished that he had told her at the time what he'd known but been unable to articulate even to himself. That she already did make him feel that way. There had been a long time when he'd had little hope of ever having a life as good as she would make his because he wasn't normal, but when he had been with her she'd had a way of making it seem that all of that trouble not only was over but didn't matter anymore.
He had never told her that, not in so many words, and then one day she was gone and he was left with the most profound loneliness like he could never describe. It was a hollowness inside as well as outside, as if there was so much less of the world than there had been before, just unstable left-over fragments of the wreckage barely supporting his weight with every forced step he took forward without his heart in it. He still had his daughter and he had his job, but there was no central heart connecting it all as a system anymore, nothing holding all the pieces of his life together the right way they were supposed to go, because he hadn't been the one to make it possible in the first place. He had never been any good on his own.
So after six years he had learned to live familiarly with the fact that he was now left alone and always would be. And then one day when Albert Maverick was introducing a new Hero to their viewers, he said this man had the same power as Wild Tiger, and right at first Kotetsu just thought in a senseless knee-jerk reaction of disbelief, No. Impossible. He was hearing it, but it couldn't be. Nobody could have been through what he had been through. There couldn't be another soul in the world who shared that with him.
All this was what Kotetsu remembered distantly in the moment that he finally saw Barnaby again, feeling like it had been so many more days than it really had been since that terrible argument, when Barnaby came to face him and Kotetsu saw for himself now that he had no memory of who he was. It was what he remembered as he prepared himself to fight Barnaby if he had to and make him remember, make him, or try until he lost, and it suddenly registered with a bitter acceptance that if this didn't end well he was going to die alone like she did.
The others had all recovered their memories and finally knew him again, but it was Barnaby he most needed to snap out of it, to be Bunny again. In a way this was even worse than the other loss, because if he never remembered it would be as if all the time they'd known each other had never even happened at all. Barnaby would go back to having that cold look in his eyes that he'd had when they first met and he would never know. He would never know anything.
His determination hardened with the last of these crippling worries he could allow himself to be distracted by, and then he said quietly to Antonio, "Take care of Kaede if anything happens to me."