4 MONTHS AFTER THE DEATH OF JAKE MARTINEZ
When Barnaby had bothered to mention he was going back to his apartment for lunch today, Kotetsu had chosen to take it as an invitation for him to come along. He'd now made it up to Barnaby's floor with him without yet being asked why he was here, so he must have been learning how to do something right when it came to being friends with this guy.
After they'd stopped at the right door, Barnaby dug around in his pockets briefly and then muttered, "Hm..."
"What?" Kotetsu asked, his eyes following Barnaby as he stepped over to the wall to their right.
"I must have left my key somewhere at my desk," he said. He was reaching behind one of the decorative statues that were displayed along the hallway in cubbyholes in the wall. He pulled out something flat and silver and then came back over to the door.
"You keep a spare there?" Kotetsu asked as he watched him sliding the key through the slot on the wall that gave a faint beep as it registered the chip inside.
Barnaby shrugged as the door automatically slid open and then stood aside a bit to let Kotetsu go inside first.
"Don't you worry about somebody finding it?" he asked once they were both inside. "A location like this has to be a magnet for break-ins."
"Well, I don't have much for anybody to steal, do I?"
"Some pervert could sneak in and watch you sleep."
"Yes, I suppose there's that," he replied in a half-sarcastic, uncaring drone.
They were heading back through the hall to the kitchen past Barnaby's bathroom and bedroom. The narrow room shared the same gaping view of the city that the sitting room had, with a long counter taking up most of the opposite wall and a bar to sit at in front of it. Kotetsu sat down on one of the spinning barstools as Barnaby went behind the bar and opened up the refrigerator to look inside. "There are three...no, four containers of leftovers in here from the past week or so," he said. "I think most of them are yours that you left here."
"I'll take that shrimp pasta," Kotetsu said, recognizing what was in one of the clear containers.
"Oh." His phone chimed in his pocket, and as he took it out he said, "I don't care, just pick something and I'll eat it."
While Barnaby got out a couple plates, he looked at the message he'd just been sent and laughed instantly. Karina had sent him a photo of a silver-toned key that looked just like the one Barnaby had just used, with the short message "Barnaby's?"
"What is it?" Barnaby asked.
"Blue Rose found your key," he explained, starting to type an answer to confirm it was his.
"How did she guess it was mine?"
"It looks like you dropped it somewhere in the training center. There are only so many people allowed to use that place." He set his phone back down after sending the reply. "I asked her to leave it at your desk if she's going home soon."
Barnaby nodded. He stuck the two plates now with leftovers piled onto them into the microwave and then looked a little thoughtful as he leaned back against the counter waiting. "Wasn't she the one who sent you a text late the other night to bug you about the mess you'd left in the lounge?"
"Yeah, what a doll, huh?" he said, sarcastically but not without affection.
Barnaby raised his eyebrows for a second. "She should get a boyfriend."
Kotetsu broke into surprised laughter. "That's what I'm always saying," he said. "She works too hard."
He just smirked a bit at that. "I guess you're pretty good friends with Ms. Lyle then."
"Hm?" Kotetsu looked up at him, trying to work out what was behind these questions as much as he could by looking at his face. He felt like Barnaby was trying to figure something out but not just asking about it directly like any socially competent person. "Oh, it's not like she regularly abuses the great privilege of having my phone number like that," he said with a dry smile. "How sad would it be if she didn't have anybody better than me to talk to outside of work, right? Nah. We're just two parts of the team like everyone else...I don't know." He smiled thoughtfully, fiddling with his phone on the table. "If I really think about it now, I guess I am especially fond of Karina. This job can get to some people's heads, but Blue Rose is pretty grounded, especially considering all she deals with at her age."
Barnaby was bringing the food to the counter. He pulled up a stool that he had moved behind the bar so that he was sitting opposite Kotetsu and said, "She can certainly beat you in professionalism most any day, I'll give her that."
He put on a smug look. "Is that supposed to hurt my feelings?"
"Well, that was pretty rude of you to leave all those coffee cups and crap all over the lounge," he pointed out as he picked up his fork.
"I told her, it was a stack of cups that Antonio and I had been making on the table, and we meant to keep adding to it the rest of the week. It wasn't a mess until somebody knocked it over after we left and ruined the whole thing."
Barnaby shook his head. "Maybe you're the one who needs a b—a girlfriend. Or something." He looked back down at his food awkwardly.
"You were the one who suggested we go grab some dinner after you finished that report and then took forever. I was just waiting for you to come rescue me from having nothing better to do."
"I see. What a relief."
"Shut up," he said at Barnaby's smartass tone, just getting another smirk in response.
As they both went quiet eating for a while, Kotetsu looked at his phone again to go through some other texts and delete a bunch of them. He'd taken three bites of noodles before his fork picked up a piece of shrimp, and then he actually looked down and paid attention to what he was eating. "Wait, this is the...You gave me your plate, Bunny."
Barnaby sighed, looking in total disbelief that he'd started scarfing it down without even noticing at first. "You jackass."
"I thought you wanted it!" he said, laughing a little.
"Whatever, that's from the place we went to right down the block from here, I can get it anytime. But if you're not even going to notice what you put in your mouth..."
As he reached over toward his plate with his fork, Kotetsu immediately pulled it forward and out of his reach. "Hey, no, not as long as those are my dumplings you're eating."
"These are surprisingly good reheated, you know."
"Dammit, give me a dumpling..."
A moment later Barnaby had slid his barstool around to the end of the counter so that he sat on the corner closer to Kotetsu, and they were eating from both plates together.
The apartment key that Barnaby had left on the edge of the counter caught Kotetsu's eye for some reason. Something silly he'd said earlier about watching Barnaby sleep randomly resurfaced in his head and drew his eyes over to the doorway to the hall that led to Barnaby's bedroom. He'd seen into the room a few times, and as far as he could tell the bed was always neatly made. Nothing about this apartment really felt lived-in.
He looked to his side at Barnaby, whose eyes were fixed down on the mushrooms he was finishing off. There were a lot of things he often found himself wishing he could figure out about Barnaby without having to ask about them directly. Many of these things were closely associated with the idea of the place where Barnaby slept, which he was thinking about in way too much speculative detail right now.
For instance, he wondered how much he wore to bed. And if he ever talked in his sleep, which was probably a mystery entirely unknown to mankind because Barnaby himself wouldn't know. And if there could be found in a drawer or slipped under the mattress any certain reading material with nothing to read in it, whether the pages would be full of women or just maybe not women. A lot of the time something about Barnaby seemed to forbid the very notion of either one, but who could tell, maybe he was only able to be so uninterested in such things out in the open because he was dutiful about taking care of himself in private often enough that he didn't get dysfunctionally repressed, and no, Kotetsu was not picturing that right now, he was just curious. Concerned. Nobody could have complete well-being living in a place as empty and plain as this apartment, much less never having their sheets the least bit messed up from anything.
...Never curling inward on his side under the blankets, shuddering gently with stiff shoulders, mouth open with his breaths coming out in little heaves tight against the pillow, his hand slipped down into his pants and stroking himself as a merciful relief. But maybe there'd be a wave of slight shame, too, a kind of bittersweetness, when it gets to where he's fully into it and there's no keeping it gentle and quiet, because his soft moans and whines would be the only sounds in this whole cold place with its lonely rooms that still made Kotetsu kind of sad every time he was here, and maybe it was easier to just keep desires like this shut out as much as possible and stay focused on other things rather than remind himself in any way what he was going without.
Wait, or maybe Kotetsu was partly just thinking of himself—himself as he'd been ever since he started spending so much time with Barnaby Brooks Jr., specifically. Clearly it was getting to be a problem.
But he thought of how he'd never known Barnaby to show any interest in dating, being so unyieldingly private when it came to his personal life that he might as well be considered unavailable. He thought of everything he'd seen popping up on Barnaby's screen that one time the mayor's kid was here, flipping everything in his home inside-out every time he got upset. The many files that had started coming up after the remote got tossed to the floor were quite personal discoveries for them to have to see on accident, but none of the kind of private stuff one would be less surprised to find saved on the computer of someone single. Kotetsu could hope the truth of it was that it just did nothing for him at all, whether with a woman or a man or an image of either to look at or imagine, even when he didn't have unhealthily consuming distractions like looking for his parents' murderer. There were such people, right? That would be so much better to know than what Kotetsu was sadly pretty sure was the reality because he knew too much else about this kid now to be optimistic enough to imagine it was that simple.
"Kotetsu?" Barnaby said, making him look up at him with a bit of a start. "Something wrong?"
"Huh? No." He dug his fork into something to show him so, getting right back to eating.
"You looked kind of...I don't know. Melancholy."
"It's just...your apartment," he mumbled with his mouth full.
"Yeah." He looked around at all the immaculately clean surfaces. "I mean...if you don't have to worry about anybody breaking in and stealing anything, is that the reason you don't keep a lot of stuff around?"
Barnaby just leaned back in his seat and rolled his eyes up to the ceiling with a heavy sigh, looking like he couldn't begin to believe Kotetsu was back to this again.
"I just don't get how you don't lose your mind in here. It would be thought unhealthy for a dog to be kept in a living space with so little stimulation."
Barnaby turned his face down momentarily, pinching the bridge of his nose in a way Kotetsu always tried in earnest to take seriously as a reaction of irritation but couldn't help but find really endearing. Not cute, not like that, just endearing. There was a difference.
"Kotetsu, you're doing that thing again," he hinted. "The thing I don't like, unless I've actually asked for your advice or your help, remember?"
"Oh. Meddling. Right..." He raised his hands up in a sign of surrender, then got up and picked up his plate to take it over to the sink. "I didn't realize you'd still mind it so much now...Can't partners get concerned about each other?"
He knew he was frowning a bit, but he said lightly, "Fair enough."
As he rinsed his dish in the sink behind the bar, he thought Barnaby might actually have a point. Now that the moment had passed, he could hardly believe what he'd been wondering about and imagining before Barnaby interrupted his daydreaming. He once again noticed the key set on the counter, and it occurred to him only then that just by letting Kotetsu see where he always had a spare key hidden, Barnaby had once again demonstrated trust in him in some way. It was just a little thing, but he'd figured out by now that with Barnaby none of these things were little. It made him feel kind of guilty now. Of course he was never going to abuse the knowledge by actually coming in here to spy on Barnaby sleeping or search his room for evidence of his sexual preference or just steal his underwear like some creepy stalker. But all the same, he was sure if Barnaby knew the kind of thoughts he had about him sometimes it would probably make him uncomfortable and seem very invasive, maybe even like a betrayal in a way.
"And only if it goes both ways, too," Barnaby added quietly once he'd turned the faucet off and was drying his hands.
"What?" he said absently as he turned to face him, trying to follow now that he'd momentarily lost track of what they were talking about.
"We can be concerned for each other, but it's only fair if it goes both ways, right? Are you going to tell me what's really on your mind or not?"
Kotetsu knew he could be a pretty bad liar. He tried to keep his eyes fixed straight on Barnaby's, but they still wavered a little. "I have told you."
"...Hm." Barnaby looked down as he got up from his seat and then said nothing more about it.
On their way back out of the building, Barnaby put the spare key back where it had been placed before behind the statue. Without really thinking about it, Kotetsu averted his eyes a bit as if that could undo the damage done.
"I think I really need to get laid," he blurted out to Nathan the next day.
Leaning against the circling banister in the center of the training center right next to him, Nathan choked a little on the pretzels in his mouth. Once his eyes had stopped watering and he'd managed to swallow, he looked to the side at him with still somewhat astonished eyes, and giggled. "Well, what are you waiting for, to get older?"
Kotetsu heard booming laughter coming from behind Nathan, and he looked past him with widening eyes to see Antonio doing stretches not even ten feet away. "Like you can talk, asshole," he said, getting pretty embarrassed now.
"You said that pretty loud," he said flatly in defense, awkwardly keeping his eyes away from him and Nathan. "And...I'd say you're at least three years late in admitting it."
Nathan looked over at Antonio, shielding one side of his mouth with his hand so that Kotetsu couldn't read his lips as he mouthed some question to him. Antonio put up six fingers in answer and Kotetsu cringed uneasily.
Nathan looked back toward him with his lips formed in a disbelieving "O" and his fingers raising to cover them. "Oh, you poor thing," he gasped.
"I'm flattered that you're so shocked," Kotetsu said dryly, grateful that it didn't seem like Nathan was going to pry for any more details about why it had been that long and how exactly Antonio could come up with a specific number. It was actually more like five and a half years now, not even that, but he was hardly going to volunteer any information just to correct him.
Anyway, even five and a half, he had to admit, was pretty sad.
"So where's this coming from all the sudden?" Nathan asked, turning back toward him.
"I don't know, I guess it's all just finally building up too much. My mind's wandering too easily these days."
Nathan examined him curiously with a finger over his lips, as if there was something more he'd be able to tell from Kotetsu's expression. "Hmm...Do you happen to get distracted like this more often when you're around your partner?" he asked with an impish smirk.
How the hell... "What? You're kidding, right?"
Nathan glanced around them to see that nobody was close enough to be listening anymore. "Oh, come on, you can tell me."
Nathan was one of only two people in existence who happened to know from first-hand physical experience that Kotetsu liked men in addition to everyone else. The other was West Prior, a fellow delinquent from his school who'd earned the nickname "Scorcher" for always tearing his shitty old muscle car through the parking lot with an obnoxious screech and the warm smell of burnt rubber, and sadly enough the first person he ever kissed. Once when they saw each other outside while both skipping class, he'd let Kotetsu have a couple drinks from the bottle of vodka he'd snuck into school and after a while pressed him into the shadows and against the wall. They'd made out for no more than two minutes before Kotetsu wondered what the hell he was doing, freaked out a little when West wouldn't take any hints besides Kotetsu's conflicted hard-on and back off, and then punched him in the jaw and walked away.
The experience with Nathan had not been much better, an amazingly undignified night exactly two years after Tomoe's death which had ended with Nathan as a happy drunk, him as a tremendously sad drunk, and the two of them nearly sleeping together before he once again wondered just in time what the hell he was doing. He was pretty sure he didn't remember any clothes ever coming off, but they'd made it to Nathan's bed and everything before Kotetsu remembered this was a friend he worked with whose face would potentially remind him for years to come of this totally depressing night of him overdoing it at the bar because he was having a crisis. After he muttered the third apology or so for being this year's King of Teases, Nathan just said sympathetically, "Oh honey, it's okay" and kissed him on the top of his head before turning the light off. Kotetsu had dozed off mumbling, "You're a good man, Mr. Seymour" and with them sort of cuddling, which felt nice enough while passing out drunk and full of stale two-years-old grief but just made a pretty embarrassing position to wake up in the next morning. In a weird way, though, the incident had cemented their friendship as it was now after Nathan further proved just how much of a solid guy he was by never telling a soul anything about this or even bringing it up with him again, which was a lot more than he could say about Scorcher.
Still, how he guessed about Barnaby so easily he really didn't know.
Kotetsu looked to the side with his arms crossed for a moment as he hesitated, then finally just said evasively, "I'm sure you get that way when you're around him, too."
Nathan generously humored him by pretending to have to think about it, for all of one second. "Mm, no, I don't think so. I shamelessly flirt with him enough that I pretty much get it out of my system."
"You think I should flirt with him?"
He'd only been joking, but when it got that kind of a reaction Kotetsu tilted his head a bit in confusion. "What?"
"You're different, idiot."
"Why, because I'm his partner?"
"Yes. You should do nothing. Well, nothing stupid, Tiger. I'm serious. Maybe Handsome doesn't let anybody know it too easily, but it still doesn't take a genius to see he's probably the kind of person you have to be kind of careful with. You must know that, right?"
"Sure. Jeez, it's not like I'm planning on letting him find out I'm one of the billion who'd jump his bones before he can say 'I'm so awesome I don't even need a catch phrase!'"
Nathan snorted with light laughter at his imitation of how Barnaby talked.
"I don't want to think of him that way at all," he went on. "Like I said, it's ridiculously distracting. And the worst part is knowing that my will is so weak after six years that if it actually were the slightest possibility, I would definitely go there. Even though everything's really good as it is now because we've finally started getting along as partners and friends and everything, and it was hard enough just for us to get that far, so it would probably be a terrible idea. I know it's not even a possibility, but just knowing...well, that brings me back to what I said in the first place."
Nathan looked like he was having trouble not laughing, but he had also started smiling at him very fondly. It made Kotetsu feel like he was missing some joke. "Oh my. That is a problem," he replied at last, unhelpfully.
Kotetsu's lips tightened in a smile and he just had to laugh, unable to believe how much he'd just said. "Goddamn," he muttered, reaching over into the bag of pretzels in Nathan's hands to grab some.
2 WEEKS LATER
"Don't tell me that's a Mad Bear," Kotetsu said to Karina. They were outside the Apollon Media building at night, and while she stood with him waiting for her ride home he'd just spotted the stuffed animal of a familiar-looking hot pink color tucked under her arm.
She grinned guiltily, holding the bear out enough to reveal its vacant-eyed face. "I needed to clean some stuff out of my locker," she explained. "I've had it around just as a silly memento...I guess that's a little morbid, huh?"
He shrugged. "Not like it would be if we hadn't beat him."
Karina's expression grew a little more serious. "Barnaby still hasn't been able to talk to Kriem yet, has he?"
"No. She still hasn't recovered enough to tell us anything."
The reminder of it seemed to settle over him like a dark shadow in the following moments while they both waited there side by side. He stared over at the bear held in her arm for a while. It was harmless now like she said, of course, but that mocking stare it had still bothered him somehow. It seemed to say, It's so obvious but you're never going to get it, Kotetsu.
Something that didn't add up right, even now. He couldn't put his finger on it...
"Hey," Karina said, snapping him out of it. "Everything alright, Tiger? You look like it's really depressing you."
Kotetsu sighed, not knowing where to start. "Sometimes I get this bad feeling about what's going to happen when he's finally able to get some answers from her, and I don't know why. When I think about how it all happened now, there's almost something about it that doesn't feel right. Do you know what I mean?"
She shook her head, looking honestly surprised by the suggestion. "No...Of course, I wouldn't know all the details that you do."
Karina seemed to think more deeply about it for a moment. "Well, Barnaby's sure been different since then, hasn't he? Just more..."
"Agreeable." Kotetsu smiled, seeing that she wasn't sure if she should say it.
"Well. Yes," she said awkwardly. "I can only assume it's because he's come to some peace with it. So I can see why you'd be worried that anything Kriem could tell him might take that away."
"Right...He was obsessed before. Needing closure is one thing, but...I probably shouldn't be letting you know this much, but I'm talking about years and years of research filling up his harddrive, that kind of obsessed. I might have expected that nothing would ever feel like quite enough of a resolution after all that. But even though he still doesn't know the reason, for once in his life he must actually be able to see that not revisiting it in some other way once again might be better for him, because he's not that concerned about it." He shook his head with bewilderment. "It's just incredible how lucky he got, you know? After all that time, when the chance of him actually being able to find his parents' killer once he became a Hero was always a long shot, a chance to confront Jake Martinez just gets handed to him within months of the start of his career. It seemed almost too easy, so I keep waiting to find out it isn't over somehow. Or...maybe it's just me, and I just can't help worrying that it's all too good to be true."
Karina seemed vaguely awed. She was looking at him like he might expect her to if he'd just gone off on an impressive-sounding rant in another language she hadn't known him to be fluent in and couldn't understand a word of.
"I'm just...Wow. You really have learned to like him, haven't you?"
He laughed mildly. "I don't know if I could describe what I do like about him," he admitted. "He's just...He's really worth having on your side, if you can get him. I don't know how else to put it."
Karina looked like she could somewhat understand. "I can't even guess how you did finally make it work. For a long time you appeared to be the only one trying."
He thought for a moment before replying. "You don't have to be a people person to get lonely," he said a bit quietly. "Everyone needs a balance between having space and having someone around that works for them, I guess."
She smiled and said, "Now you've definitely told me too much."
They heard a honk from the side of the street and looked over to see a car waiting.
"Oh, that's me," she said. Before moving to go, she looked down at her Mad Bear and turned it in her hand like she was looking at all sides of it in reconsideration. Then she lifted it up high and tossed it a few feet over right into a nearby garbage can.
Kotetsu laughed enthusiastically as he pat her on the head in goodbye. "See you, Blue Rose," he said.
"Goodnight," she said with a wave as she headed down the steps.
He heard a group of people talking far behind him and turned around to see Keith, Nathan, and Barnaby finally leaving the building together. On his way to go meet Barnaby, he passed the garbage can where the stuffed bear's face seemed to be staring directly at him.
What was it that seemed wrong about the whole picture? Kotetsu liked to think that besides having the book mostly closed on Barnaby's parents' murders, he might have had a little something to do with how much more content with his life Barnaby seemed now, but he still wondered. Sometimes Barnaby seemed so relieved with that burden gone that it was almost as if he'd been waiting for any reason to finally move forward, much more desperately than he'd been looking for whatever pieces of the puzzle of his past he could find. What had been holding him back that firmly?
And there was the way Barnaby had finally figured out the killer had been Jake right before Ouroboros demanded his release. He had never even realized what a coincidence that was until Antonio pointed it out a while ago, and now every once in a while he wondered about it, but what could it possibly mean?
"What's wrong with you?" Barnaby asked when he joined his side and began to walk with him.
"Me?" he asked, a bit surprised that he actually looked noticeably disturbed. "Oh, nothing, I'm swell. Just fine."
Barnaby cringed a little and said mockingly, "Did I misunderstand or did you actually just say 'swell'?"
It brought an uncontrollable big grin to his face, and he threw an arm around his neck as they kept walking.
"Seriously, what's with you, old man?" His voice had the smallest hint of amusement in it, and the way he brushed Kotetsu off of him seemed more shy and embarrassed than truly annoyed.
Kotetsu had already forgotten about those things that were occasionally bothering him now. They never seemed to occur to him when he was actually with Barnaby. It was both of them who had found themselves having an easier time ever since the Ouroboros debacle was over, and they'd started getting along more naturally. In just the past few months, Kotetsu had come to like having a partner so much it was now hard to imagine doing his job without Barnaby. And though he always seemed to find reasons to still be concerned about him, he could see how less burdened Barnaby was now. If he just pictured what he had been like when he first met him, with a certain shadow in the always-serious look in his eyes which had lifted now, he was too glad to worry about the rest.