by Sora G. Silverwind
Summary: In another world, Kotetsu goes through with handing in his resignation, despite the abysmally bad timing.
Rating: PG-13 for swearing.
Author's notes: More anonmeme filling, because I don't have any ideas of my own, lawl. This one is basically a "what if?" for episode 18.
Disclaimer: If you don't like my fanfic, you can quit right now.
The first person Kotetsu tells about his resignation plans is Barnaby.
Well, a picture of Barnaby, at any rate. He's practicing his speech first before tracking his partner down and giving him the news.
For some reason, he feels more nervous about this than he thinks he should be. It's just a professional, formal announcement, isn't it? It's been a long time coming, too, since he's been in the business for over ten years (which is an eternity for such a strenuous career). And if that weren't enough of a sign that he should probably find something else to do, his powers — a longtime companion and the key to his Hero status — are fading irreversibly. Not that anyone really needs to know that particular bit.
The core message of the speech is simple: "I'm leaving." I'm leaving a job that I love because my body refuses to cooperate with me any longer. I'm leaving a partner I enjoy working with but who I'm probably dragging down with my impending uselessness. I'm leaving, I'm leaving, I'm leaving. All the pieces fit together like a puzzle, held together by the glue of impeccable inevitability, forming a clear, comprehensible picture.
So why does this feel so tricky and unsolved?
"Oh, you're back, Mr. Tiger!"
Ivan's voice cuts into Kotetsu's thoughts. He turns to see the rest of the Heroes running towards him, apparently having just come from training.
"You took time off so suddenly," Nathan coos, draping himself around Kotetsu's shoulders. "We were all worried!"
"Ah...sorry about that," Kotetsu apologizes, patting Nathan's arm before gently shoving him off.
"It was just for a few days, but somehow it still felt weird, didn't it?" Pao-Lin asks rhetorically as she turns to Antonio, who concurs.
Keith steps forward. "I'm glad you're back, Mr. Tiger." He poses. "Welcome back, and welcome back again!"
A simper. "Yeah, it's good to be...back." Kotetsu pauses and wonders if he should tell all the Heroes about his plans now. After all, they're already all here.
...no. Bunny's his partner. He deserves to find out first. Plus he'll kick Kotetsu's ass if he has to learn the news from someone else.
"Oh, please, what's everyone getting all excited about?" Karina snaps, walking past the rest of the Heroes to sit down primly on a chair that she then swivels around in to face Kotetsu. "You didn't have to come back, you know. It felt nice having one less rival to worry about."
Ouch. Kotetsu doesn't want to admit how much that stings, even if he's fairly sure that Karina's just teasing him. "Well, if that's how you really feel," says Kotetsu, grinning, "you should be very happy when you find out the big news later!"
Karina blinks at him. "Huh?"
"What big news?" Pao-Lin wants to know, her eyes wide.
"Does this have to do with the time that you took off, Mr. Tiger?" Ivan asks.
"Please tell us!" Keith chimes in.
Nathan and Antonio don't say anything, but they eye Kotetsu suspiciously.
Kotetsu waves all of them off. "Now, now, calm down, you'll find out eventually. For now, has anyone seen Bunny?"
A soy chai tea latte. It's Bunny's favorite item from the local coffee shop they go to on a regular basis.
Barnaby glances first at the offered drink, then up at Kotetsu. "You're back?" he asks, taking it.
"Yep." For now. "Did you get to talk to Kriem?"
"No. It seems her condition worsened after hearing about Jake's death." He cocks his head curiously. "What brings you here, anyway?"
Kotetsu couldn't have asked for a better cue. "Oh...well...!" And suddenly he can't remember the speech that he rehearsed earlier, which is absurd, because it was only one line and less than twenty words. He covers up his memory lapse with a swig of his own drink, and Barnaby, probably sensing his unease, mirrors him. "I have something important to tell you," he says.
"What is it?" Barnaby asks.
After a few more seconds of trying to figure out exactly how he'd worded his speech to be as official as possible, he gives up and settles for the plain (but not quite simple) truth.
Barnaby's eyes go wide behind his glasses, as though he's just been slapped. "You're what."
"I'm...resigning," Kotetsu repeats. He flips out his hands in a shrug-like fashion. "You know I'm getting old, Bunny. I'm not cut out for this work like I used to be. And you've been doing just fine on your own. Much more than fine, in fact." A wan smile. "You don't really need me anymore."
Barnaby delicately sets down his drink besides him before clasping his hands together loosely in his lap, his gaze now fixed on the sickly green hospital tile at his feet. His lips are pressed into a hard line, as though there are a million and one things he wants to spit out but he's rolling each one around in his mouth, tasting the strength of each verbal projectile and finding the one most likely to hurt.
What he finally lets loose with is: "I thought we were partners."
Kotetsu tilts his head, feeling guilty. "Yeah, but...does the King of Heroes really need a partner?" He snorts. "If he does, he should have, I don't know, a Queen of Heroes by his side, instead of some uncool old man like me."
"We're a duo." His tone is petulant. "That's how we're marketed. That's our thing. What is Lloyds going to do if you leave? Have you even told him yet?"
"No. I wanted to tell you first."
Barnaby inclines his head further and runs a hand through his hair. It's not the practiced, stylish performance he's given so many times before for the purposes of charming an audience, but a nervous gesture done in lieu of more destructive options. "But why do this now? When we've finally become so successful?"
"I already told you, I'm getting older — "
"There's something else." He looks up, eyes narrowed. "Isn't there?"
Kotetsu scratches at his beard with a finger, glancing briefly off to the side. "Well...yes," he concedes. "I found out when I went home that my daughter has NEXT powers." Technically true.
"Yeah. She's having trouble controlling them, and as a result she's causing some problems for my mom and my brother. I figured that I've been away from her so long, now's as good a time as any to finally focus on my family again and help out with things."
The change that these words induce in Barnaby's demeanor is unexpected and magical, like the transformation of a raging beast into a tranquil — yet somehow still tempestuous — beauty. He aims a placid smile at Kotetsu, and the older man finds himself fighting the urge to flinch.
"So that's what it is," Barnaby breathes, chuckling softly. "I understand, then."
A door just down the hall from the two of them suddenly opens. "She wishes to talk to you now, Mr. Brooks," a doctor says as he steps out.
Barnaby nods. He gets to his feet and picks up his drink, swirling it around a little before taking another sip. "Thank you for all your hard work, Kotetsu," he says with bright eyes and a wide smile. "I can take care of things from here. Please go home and help your family." He turns and heads for the door.
"Do you want me to come in with you?" Kotetsu asks, wanting to be by Barnaby's side one final time. "To talk to Kriem?"
Barnaby shakes his head without looking back. "I'll handle this on my own. Please don't worry about me."
And Kotetsu decides that he'll do as Bunny asked, because once upon a time he promised Bunny that he would trust him, and he broke that promise and upset Bunny, and even though he's breaking their partnership he'll be damned if he breaks their trust again.
Lloyds is predictably flabbergasted when he hears the news.
"You can't leave now!" he cries. "Not when Barnaby is doing so well!"
"But that's just it," Kotetsu stammers, confused. "If Bunny's doing so well, what do I need to be around for?"
"It's going to make you both look bad!" Lloyds gets up from his chair and starts pacing. "People will wonder what happened to break up the rising superstar duo of Apollon Media! The press is going to be asking questions, and the tabloids are going to be making up the answers, and we're going to be cleaning up the mess!"
Kotetsu crosses his arms. "Just tell them something like 'Wild Tiger has decided to pursue other opportunities'. That's a standard line for situations like these, isn't it?"
"We can't say something like that, that's practically an admission of guilt on our part! In addition to that" — Lloyds whirls on Kotetsu, brandishing a finger at him — "we've already invested so much time and money in you. Do you realize how much it would cost us to train your replacement?"
"Then don't get a replacement. Bunny doesn't need one." He grins. "And as for the money issue, maybe you can just auction off my Wild Tiger suit to get some of that cash back."
"We can't do that," Lloyds says, all traces of agitation suddenly vanishing from his person.
Blink, blink. "You can't? Why not?"
"There's...some thorny issues involved in the matter. Besides, even though you've gotten more popular since the Jake Martinez incident, your memorabilia still isn't fetching as much as either Sky High's or Blue Rose's, never mind Barnaby's."
Kotetsu winces. "But see, that just proves my point. I'm not really needed here anymore." He reaches up and tilts his hat over his eyes. "And...I'm just going to be more of a liability to the company as time goes on."
A raised eyebrow. "Kotetsu, you've been a liability from day one. And yet miraculously, we've survived, even prospered."
He shakes his head. "It's not like that." He shrugs. "I'm an aging man, Lloyds. This body can't take what it used to. I'm going to end up slowing Bunny down."
Lloyds' gaze turns sharp and calculating. "You're losing your powers, aren't you."
Kotetsu freezes like a robber caught red-handed, and hesitates for a moment too long to answer. "How did you — what makes you — "
"That is quite the problem," Lloyds muses. "But..." An outstretched hand, a sidelong glance. "You know that Apollon Media has dealt with that sort of issue before, right?"
Kotetsu does. He wishes he didn't.
"I don't want you to cover up for me," he says, resolute. "That's not fair to anyone involved. Besides, what about the costs of something like that? Wouldn't that be kind of expensive to keep up?"
Lloyds hums thoughtfully. "Well, the company's modified their approach a bit from the days of Mr. Legend. Why do you think you and Barnaby have those suits of yours? If you'd told us earlier about your problem, we could have Dr. Saito install the necessary upgrades to fake your Hundred Power abilities while wearing your suit."
The revelation sideswipes Kotetsu with a sledgehammer and leaves him reeling.
They can what?
"We'd really hate to lose you, Kotetsu Kaburagi," Lloyds continues with an irenic smile. "It's true we had a rocky start, but you've improved vastly since then. If you're dissatisfied with your compensation, we can certainly institute a pay raise, or a better benefits package, or whatever else you desire. Tell me what you want, and I'll give it to you."
Kotetsu's hardly listening. He's still stuck on the fact that he can, more or less, get his Hundred Power back. Which means that he can still be a Hero if he wants to.
For the first time since he initially decided on retirement, he's seriously rethinking that decision. Lloyds' offer changes everything.
...or does it?
He turns his back on his boss as he works through what he's just learned. The ploy is certainly a more effective way of managing his power loss than whitewashing police records or roping other Heroes into making up for his own inadequacies. Kotetsu only ever does active work on HeroTV while suited up, so no one will really be able to tell (or care) whether the power he exhibits is coming from him or his suit.
No one except him.
But does it matter, as long as you're saving lives? a sly little voice asks inside him. Does it matter, as long as it allows you to be a Hero to Sternbild?
But it does.
Because it means that he can't be a Hero to his little Kaede.
And that's a rescue that's long overdue.
"You can't give me what I want, Lloyds," Kotetsu says finally, slipping off his Hero wristband.
"Oh? And what's that?"
Kotetsu meets Lloyds' eyes. "My daughter's love." He tosses the wristband onto his desk before turning and striding towards the door. He's reaching for the knob when Lloyds interrupts.
"Does Barnaby know about this?" he asks.
"He was the first person I told."
"I see. And he's okay with it?"
"He said he was." Whether or not Kotetsu actually believes him is an entirely different story.
"Very well then." There's a creak as Lloyd sits back down in his chair. "Head over to HR before you leave to get the necessary paperwork."
"Oh, and Kotetsu?"
Lloyds smiles. "We'll still be here if you change your mind."
Kotetsu leaves, determined not to do so.
Later in the day, Kotetsu miraculously manages to gather the rest of the Heroes in the HeroTV standby room again to officially announce his resignation to them, reciting much of the same information as he did to Barnaby and Lloyds: he's an old man with a body that's not working the way it used to, he has to take care of his family, and so on and so forth.
Most of the reactions are as predicted. Keith, Pao-Lin, and Ivan are shocked and dismayed, but ultimately they wish Mr. Tiger the best for his future, and implore him to keep in touch, which he promises he'll try his best at. Nathan and Antonio seem disappointed but not surprised, which makes Kotetsu wonder if they've guessed the main reason behind him leaving.
But Karina's response confuses the hell out of him. He'd expected her to be at least relieved that she doesn't have to deal with him any longer, if not outright overjoyed at the prospect, but she actually appears to be the Hero most devastated by the news. Initially silent and horrified through Kotetsu's litany of reasons, she'd screamed out "You stupid old man!" before dashing out of the room, leaving him bewildered and a little frightened at this potential glimpse of Kaede's teenage years.
"Should I go apologize to her?" he asks Nathan.
Nathan shakes his head. "This isn't something that apologies can help with," he says gently. "Leave her to me, darling. You go do what you need to do."
Kotetsu turns down a farewell outing at the Hero's Bar. It's not that he wants to refuse that last chance to spend time with his coworkers, but the ghosts of his earlier conversation with Lloyd still haunt him, reminding him that his iron will is poisoned with clay. Every moment that he spends with this part of his life now is one more chance for it to drag him back from his promise to Kaede. And while he's undoubtedly had an amazing run as a Hero (public opinion notwithstanding), he knows all too well that good things aren't meant to last forever.
And so, at around eight o'clock that night, Kotetsu Kaburagi walks out of the HeroTV building for the last time in his life.
Antonio calls his house about two weeks later while he's in the middle of a study session with Kaede.
"I hope you're not calling me because HeroTV put you up to it," Kotetsu mutters once he's out of earshot of his daughter.
"I am, actually," Antonio admits without hesitation. "But it's not what you think. This isn't about trying to get you to come back to work."
"Then why else would you be calling me on their behalf?"
"It's about Barnaby. They want you to talk him out of quitting."
Kotetsu's brain screeches to a deafening halt. "Wait, what? Bunny's quitting? But why?"
"That's what everyone wants you to find out. Barnaby told Maverick that he's 'not fit to be a Hero anymore', but he won't say anything more than that. We think something happened after he visited Kriem in the hospital — who by the way is dead now."
"She killed herself after talking to Barnaby. Ripped out her life support."
"Shit. That's...bad." He glances around, making sure that Kaede isn't avoiding her math problems in favor of eavesdropping on him. "What's Bunny been up to since then? Aside from wanting to quit."
"Well, for the past two weeks he's holed himself up inside his apartment: won't answer his doorbell, won't answer or return calls on either his phone or his communicator, won't respond to e-mails or texts. Agnes, of course, is rather upset at suddenly losing her top Hero, to the point where she seems to be seriously considering making a special HeroTV episode out of sending the rest of us to storm Barnaby's apartment. Except Apollon Media doesn't want to do anything that could potentially tarnish the image of their golden boy."
"No wonder they've been showing reruns lately, then." Kotetsu himself hasn't been watching the show, afraid of what the reminders of his old life would do to his psyche. But Kaede's seen every episode aired since his return, talking about them to him afterwards, and he's recognized every single one of them.
"Yeah. Needless to say, it's a madhouse here. So would you be able to come up to Sternbild soon?"
Kotetsu hisses a sigh through his teeth. "Dammit, Antonio, I made my decision. I can't go back there."
"Not even for your partner?"
The question's asked without any hint of guilt-tripping, but Kotetsu's hackles rise anyway. He's about to say that Barnaby's a grown man who can take care of himself, but then he shuts his mouth because actually, he's not really sure that the second part of that statement is true, at least when it comes to emotional matters. The young man's startling fragility has remained with Kotetsu ever since he first witnessed it, and he's always treasured that revelation, odd as it may seem. After all, being allowed to see something like Barnaby crying was a sign of the young man's trust in him.
A trust that Kotetsu is now fairly certain he's just accidentally broken a second time.
"To be honest...I think I'm probably the last person Bunny wants to talk to," he mumbles.
"He didn't take the news of your resignation well."
Kotetsu remembers wide eyes and thinned lips, then winsome words and a blinding smile. And one last chance to be a partner, denied.
He swallows. "No. I don't think he did."
"I see." Antonio sighs. "Well, don't be surprised if you get some other folks from HeroTV trying to rope you into this mess. Me and Nathan will try to do damage control the best we can. Sorry for bothering you. Tell Kaede I said hi."
Kotetsu's first thought after hanging up is: Kaede's going to be so disappointed if Bunny quits being a Hero.
His second thought, the one he wishes he weren't having and the one that is far too familiar to him, is: I fucked things up with him. Again.
And the worst part is that he can't begin to figure out where he went wrong.
You could find out if you went back to Sternbild, you know, a little voice inside his head suggests to him. Surely you can spare one measly visit to check up on your former partner? If he trusted you enough to cry in front of you —
"Trusted." Past tense.
Kotetsu leans his back against the nearest wall and slides down to the floor, lightheaded with anxiety and guilt. He drops his head into his hands with another sigh. He wants to go back, he's practically dying to go back, but doing so is going to upset his mother and daughter...and actually, it's probably going to upset Barnaby, too. Not that upsetting Barnaby has ever stopped him before from trying to make things right. But now he's not sure that he can even do anything to make things right this time.
What did Kriem tell him? Kotetsu wonders idly, lifting his head and resting the back of it against the wall. It has to be about Jake, that's the whole reason Bunny was talking to her. He probably asked her why Jake killed his parents. He frowns. But what sort of answer to that question would cause him to want to quit being a Hero? It just doesn't make sense.
It also isn't what Kotetsu should be thinking about right now, either. He's just stalling on addressing the more important issue, which is that he's here in his hometown rebuilding his life while Barnaby is back in Sternbild with his life crumbling around him for some inexplicable reason...and Kotetsu is apparently just going to sit back and let Barnaby fall? What the hell is up with that?
Antonio's right, he suddenly realizes, more right than the man could ever know. This whole thing isn't a matter of going back to a job he's no longer suited for. This is a matter of abandoning a friend, because against all odds, he and Bunny had become friends in the past year. It's marvel enough for Kotetsu, who has very few friends as a result of his Hero work and self-imposed isolation in the wake of his wife's death; it's an absolute divine miracle for someone like Barnaby, who doesn't seem to have had any friends in his life at all prior to coming to HeroTV, who doesn't to have wanted any. Until Kotetsu came along and they worked things out between them.
Bunny...couldn't possibly have thought that my resignation meant that we weren't going to be friends anymore, could he?
The thought of it is silly.
And somehow it makes total sense.
Suddenly everything seems a hundred times worse.
I sacrificed my wife and my daughter to be a Hero, he thinks, clenching his eyes shut against the tears burning in them. And now I'm sacrificing a friend just to be a father.
Maybe there's still a way around this. He's got Barnaby's personal number, after all, he could try calling him. But there's still the little issue of Barnaby not answering said calls, and given how badly Kotetsu seems to have fucked up with him, he doesn't share the optimism of the HeroTV staff that he'll be the one to break that pattern. E-mail is too impersonal for something so serious, and he's already ruled out going back to Sternbild, at least for another week or so while he settles himself into his new lifestyle. But by then it might be too late to do anything about Bunny.
And if it were too late, could he shoulder that burden — a weight so heavy that not even his Hundred Power could begin to lift it?
...Kotetsu doesn't know.
But what he does know is that while he can be a Hero at anytime, anywhere...he can't be one to everyone. No matter how hard he tries.
And apparently wanting to be a Hero to both his daughter and his partner is asking too much of his life.
Resigned, Kotetsu gets up and trudges back to help Kaede with her homework.
Review if you will, flame if you must! Apologies for the depressing ending, but I didn't want this particular story to get too far away from me. Go right ahead and imagine Kotetsu eventually going back to Sternbild and saving Bunny if it'll help you cope. XD
-Sora G. Silverwind
god help me, I don't see how I can live this way