Notes: Some readers have asked if this is getting close to the end. Not even close, actually. I'm working with a fifteen-chapter outline by now so this is only about the mid-point. I always meant for a great deal of this story to deal with K/B in an established relationship, so really everything so far has just been set-up. I don't think I ever would have drawn out the UST this long without the pacing of the overall story calling for it because there's equally extensive payoff coming. That's just no fun. :)


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Chapter VII
Laughing Like a Heifer To the Slaughter

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After Barnaby told him he wanted to stay at the hospital a while and would join him later, Kotetsu used his Hundred Power to get back to Apollon. When he ran as fast as possible on foot he could be practically invisible, and at a time like this it was better to be as discreet as possible about where exactly he or his partner were to avoid attention. It also allowed him to accelerate his healing a little, which would get him through the rest of the night easier even though that aspect of his powers always had the unfortunate effect of being a little draining to use in its own way.

Swarms of people had accumulated across the street from the part of the building that was now burned to a crisp, but inside most of the place was still almost eerily empty. He was glad to find his clothes still right where he'd stashed them in one of the bathrooms when he'd managed to sneak past security into the building before and had to change into his old costume. After hiding out in the streets dressed in them, he was sure these were not fit to put back on without a wash, but now at least he had his phone, wallet, and keys back.

When he went to his locker to get into an extra change of clothes he kept around, he found a note taped to it in Nathan's handwriting that just said Fifth floor offices. As long as he was here, he decided to grab a quick shower before changing clothes as he was sure he probably needed it badly. As he buttoned up his shirt, he peered into a mirror a moment, checking how good a job he'd done healing everything up at least externally. It was no longer hurting to swallow like it had been before and the bruises he'd felt around his neck from Barnaby choking him were gone, but after the beating he'd taken from both Antonio and Barnaby he could tell his stomach and the place where he'd been hit in the head were still going to be sensitive for a while.

On the fifth floor he found almost everyone waiting around with somewhat morose faces. Ivan, Pao-Lin, Antonio, and Kaede were all seated or standing in a group around a table and watching something on a computer screen, while Nathan stood off in a corner with Agnes in what looked like a quite cheerless conversation. Some other associates were also hovering around, including Pao-Lin's agent and Mr. Lloyds who were both off in their own spaces with their voices lowered in conversations on their phones.

When Kotetsu approached the four gathered close to the screen, he saw what they were watching. The footage was a close-up of him and Barnaby on the bridge earlier, a dull and distant but still understandable audio track of everything being said accompanying it as Barnaby was yelling, "He's with Ouroboros! He always has been!"

Antonio and Pao-Lin had just noticed him there and turned their heads. For a moment they seemed a little uneasy as they watched him watching this, as if it made them feel suddenly kind of guilty that they were. It was certainly strange and kind of uncomfortable seeing it like this, terrible in a whole different way than it had been to experience it. It had been the resolution of something with such intensely personal repercussions for Barnaby that he knew neither of them at the time had been able to think of anything else and be aware of anything but each other, but as he saw it like this in what looked like some kind of twisted imitation of their program, it only now completely hit him that all of that had happened while they were being the Heroes Tiger and Barnaby. Everyone had actually seen this, Barnaby uncontrollably losing that whole cool exterior he had always maintained in his image on TV.

And the worst part wasn't even that, but the way the episode just ended with this and no encouraging finale. It kept going all the way until Barnaby passed out, and then right after a marquee at the bottom of the screen told of an unexplained fire that had just started at the Apollon Media headquarters, it cut to a commercial in the recording.

"All of that was what went on air?" Kotetsu said.

Pao-Lin gave a small nod.

His eyes went wide a moment. "Holy crap..."

"Dad!" Kaede said, just then turning and seeing him after hearing him there. She rushed over to his side and he smiled down at her, wrapping an arm around her and pulling her close to his side. He looked up at Antonio and murmured, "Great, just let her watch this."

He looked a little guilty but still replied under his breath, "They didn't catch much of him beating the crap out of you."

He replied sarcastically, "Not much. Thank goodness."

"She's gonna see it somehow sooner or later!"

He sighed, having to admit that was probably true.

"How is he now?" Ivan asked him, now turned around to face the others.

Unable to give that any definite answer while everyone was now looking at him, he just shook his head. Then he looked around the room, suddenly realizing who was missing. "Wait, where's Sky High?"

"He had to go to the hospital, too," Antonio said. "Got brought in right before Blue Rose, I thought you might have known. Don't worry, it's nothing too bad."

Kotetsu nodded and then looked down at Kaede. He was about to finally talk to her before Antonio groaned quietly, "Oh, here they come," suddenly looking a little annoyed while someone approached them, a man with a small group of armed people here who Kotetsu had assumed at first glace walking in were some of their security guards. Only now as his attention was drawn to this one did he notice they all had police badges.

"Kotetsu Kaburagi?" he said. "We need to speak with you, please."

At that, Antonio looked affronted and cut in, "Pardon me, but he's still Wild Tiger. How about a little respect as long as we're getting the civilian treatment here?"

"Woah, easy," Kotetsu said with a smirk, holding a hand out to quiet him.

"I'm sorry to inconvenience you," the officer said just a little snidely, "but recent events have made it especially important that even guys like you don't consider themselves above the system, don't you think?"

As he let his eyes slowly shift back over toward Antonio, Kotetsu kept a straight face, but he was starting to see why Antonio seemed to have a problem with this guy. "I seem to have missed something," he said. "Why are we getting this kind of treatment?"

Antonio cut off the officer when he opened his mouth to answer again. "They can't just hold the case on Samantha Stone and wait to read our reports on this one," he explained. "They need to get statements from almost everyone to clarify a lot of things before they can be sure they don't still need to arrest you."

"Oh." Now that he heard it that way, he felt like he should have expected this, but he didn't like it at all. This meant they were probably going to have to talk to Barnaby, too, which he was sure he wouldn't really feel up to right now. He turned back to the police officer and pointed down at Kaede's head. "I need a moment to talk to my daughter first, if you don't mind."

"Very well, we'll wait." He pointed toward a meeting room where the other couple officers were sitting to show him where they would be.

"I've already been in with them," Antonio said. "I could go ahead and take Kaede over to your place if you're probably gonna be here a while longer. It's getting pretty late."

"Yeah, that's not a bad idea," Kotetsu said. He fished into his pocket for his keys, handed them to Antonio, and then put a hand on Kaede's shoulder as he turned to face her.

"What's going on?" she asked him with a worried look fixed on all the cops. "Don't they know now you didn't do it?"

"Yeah, yeah, it's not that," he assured her. "They just need to ask everybody some questions about what happened. I'm sorry if all this has been pretty scary for you, but it'll all get worked out now."

As soon as that concern was put to rest, her mind automatically went to something else like she'd been urgently waiting to say it all the time she was waiting here. "Dad, you aren't really going to quit now, are you?"

"Huh?" he asked in surprise.

"Please don't quit being a Hero! I don't want you to!"

As soon as it was all out of her mouth, he realized everyone near had heard and was looking at them in surprise. He looked up at Antonio with an apologetic look while nearly the whole room was quiet. Agnes was the first to break out of the spell of awkwardness as her startled reaction was replaced with the completely resigned look of someone who has finally been pushed past the limit of caring about anything for the time being except getting a cigarette or cup of coffee. She just turned away to leave the area, muttering under her breath, "Merde," and then the others all drifted off a little ways to give them some more space to themselves.

"Oh boy," he said with a sigh and a nervous smile as he looked back at Kaede.

"I'm sorry for making you promise to come home," she said. "Now I know it's not important."

Kotetsu looked at her very seriously and directly, kneeling down in front of her and then reaching up to grasp both her shoulders in a firm hold. "What do you mean 'not important'? It's important to me, okay? And anyway, there are other reasons...We'll have to talk about it tomorrow, alright?"

"So you won't make me go back home already tomorrow? Please let me stay with you a while!"

He bit his lip, thinking. "I'd like that, but it's hard to say what the next several days are going to be like right now. You just call Grandma as soon as you get to my place and tell her we're going to have to figure it out and let her know later. I'm sure she and your uncle are staying up going crazy waiting to hear something from us. Then I know you'll be a good girl with Antonio here and go right to bed, right? You need to soon if you do want to hang around long tomorrow."

She nodded with a bit of obvious reluctance, probably too excited right now to really be aware of the need to sleep yet.

"Alright, I love you," he said as he got back up on his feet and then hugged her close. "I'll be home as soon as possible, 'cause Papa really needs to go to bed, too."

"Okay," she said softly as he bent over to kiss the top of her head before turning away.

When he went into the meeting room moments later, he found the police officer he'd talked to before wasn't there, just another guy and a woman. He sat down as they told him their names and then replied a bit dryly, "Tiger. Since you apparently already know."

"Oh, we can assure you that no information that confirms your real identity will be released to the public," said the woman, who had introduced herself as Sergeant Leung.

He nodded. "What happened to the other guy?"

The two looked a little hesitant to answer. "He admitted that it may not be best for him to be involved in this investigation because it's become somewhat personal for him," Leung explained.

He lifted an eyebrow. "How, may I ask? Did he know Samantha?"

There was another pause of hesitation before the other officer gave in and said, "His father-in-law was killed in one of the bombings during the Ouroboros incident in January."

His stomach sank a little. In January, she said, because now there was a need to specify. Now the public knew there was no telling what incidents hadn't been connected to Ouroboros and couldn't be traced back to the very network that had aired recordings of them happening.

"What's that got to do with me?" he asked with a frown.

Leung's tone was not accusatory, just matter-of-fact, but what she said still hit him coldly. "Well, nothing, of course, besides that it was the event in your careers that allowed you and your partner to gain the success and popularity you have now." She paused as he stiffened a little in reaction to that. "Anyway, we'll try to get through with this as quickly as possible. Please start by telling us what you were doing at Samantha Stone's house and be as precise as you can about when you were there."

His mind was getting so tired and sluggish by now that some of the details they asked him about were a little difficult to remember clearly. Certain shocking moments from the last few days stuck out so strongly in his memory he was probably never going to forget exactly how they happened, while nearly everything else now felt like it had passed in a quick blur of adrenaline and stress. He knew by now they must have heard enough from the others to be fairly certain he was innocent and mostly just needed to confirm a lot of specifics, but the interview was still thorough enough that once it was done he felt it had taken what was left of his mental energy out of him.

He went back out of the room to find Barnaby and Nathan sitting together as if they might have been talking before, but now just waiting in silence. Nathan told them he was going to go drop by the hospital to see Keith and Karina and took off. Before Barnaby was brought in to give his account, Kotetsu told him he was going to find an office with a couch somewhere around here so he could close his eyes a few minutes while he waited.

"You don't have to stay around for us to get a ride home together," Barnaby said. "Not that I...I appreciate it, but it could be a while now."

"Nah, there's no hurry for me to get out of here now that Kaede left," Kotetsu said, shaking his head. "At this point, I might as well just wait."

Barnaby nodded. In the following brief moment of silence between them, he looked to the side at something and nodded his head that way. "It's a pressure cooker in there," he said dryly.

Kotetsu looked in that direction to see one of the other meeting rooms on this floor. Inside the windows he could see Agnes with the rest of the main Hero TV staff and most of the corporate superiors engaged in what looked like a very tense meeting. Almost everyone was apparently too worked-up and agitated to even sit down, their body language giving away even from this far away that there was definitely some arguing and even yelling going on.

"I guess they aren't very thrilled about your news," Barnaby added.

It took Kotetsu a moment to realize he had to be referring to the inelegant dropping of the bomb of his plans to retire. It could hardly be the main subject being addressed in that room right now, but it certainly had now become a pretty bad time for him to leave the show.

He gave Barnaby a heavy pat on the arm before they parted and he walked off to wander down a nearby hallway of office doors. At a time like this it was kind of like wandering through a graveyard, seeing inside all the dark and vacant offices. He finally peeked through a doorway into one that had a couch inside right by the door. As soon as he lied down, he seemed to finally feel the complete weight of how tired he was. It gave him some momentary peace to know only Barnaby knew where he was at the moment, because he couldn't be Wild Tiger right now. Wasn't anymore, in fact. It seemed the company was facing some serious predicaments right now, and for the first time it actually felt easily like a blessing that all those things weren't his problem anymore.

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A sound from someone's phone down the hall woke him up and he looked around, disoriented until he remembered where he was. There were less lights on around this floor than before, but in the dim light coming from outside the room he was able to squint to make out the time on a clock on the wall. More than half past midnight.

He heard someone breathing close to him, then saw a blond head by his knees. Barnaby had dozed off sitting on the floor in front of him with his head fallen back against the couch.

Kotetsu let his eyes fall shut again.

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"Uh...Mr. Wild Tiger, sir?"

The unfamiliar voice above him and a delicate shake of his shoulder woke him up to bright lights. A tall woman with a thick afro of hair was peering over him and looking a little apologetic about waking him.

"Woah," he said, sitting up abruptly and then cringing a little at the lingering stiffness and soreness of his body. "What time is it?"

"Getting close to eight," she answered. "You...are Tiger, aren't you? Because if you are, everyone seems to be looking for you. I was told they haven't been able to reach you on your...thing." She pointed to her own wrist to indicate what she was talking about.

"Oh," he said, looking down at his now useless callband. "Yeah, I guess it's still deactivated...So what, are they having the whole building searched for me?"

"Uh. No." She smiled a little awkwardly. "This is my office."

He went still a second and then looked around, seeing what must have been her bag set on the desk where the lamp was now illuminated.

"Oh, of course," he said with some embarrassment as he stood up. "Crap. Sorry..."

"Don't worry about it," she said. "With all the offices that fire took out, I'll probably have to get used to sharing mine for a while."

Kotetsu laughed briefly at that, which felt a little surreal and strange after the kind of night he'd just woken up from, and told her thanks as he left the room. When he headed right for the nearest elevator, he was surprised to find Barnaby waiting near it. As soon as he noticed Kotetsu coming his way, he got up from the chair he'd been sitting in to go meet him.

"You still haven't been home?" Kotetsu asked.

Barnaby shook his head. "I did what you did and haven't been awake long. Besides, I...kind of wanted to talk to you." His eyes shifted down briefly as he said it, and it was unclear exactly what he meant by it, if there was actually something specific he wanted to tell him about. Before Kotetsu could wonder that much about it, Barnaby remembered something else and said with a change of subject, "Sorry, but when Blue Rose was around earlier I made the mistake of mentioning I was here waiting for you."

"She's already gotten out of the hospital and been over here?" he asked in surprise.

Barnaby shrugged. "Well, apparently her employers didn't even wait until she was out before letting her get the news that they're screwing her over."

"What are you talking about?"

Shaking his head, he said, "I'll tell you later...Anyway, she didn't realize there was reason not to repeat what I said to anyone, and now the word got around that you never even left last night."

Kotetsu took a quick look around at everyone in this area, where it seemed things were just getting busy enough by this hour of the morning to have provided them some cover so far. He gave Barnaby a nudge to signal him to follow as he started for the elevator. "Don't worry, hardly anyone's seen me yet..."

Then right after he pressed the button by the elevator to go down, he heard "Tiger!"

Recognizing Agnes's voice, he closed his eyes a second and muttered, "Dammit."

They both turned around in surrender as they heard her heels fearsomely stabbing across the floor toward them. "I need to speak with you," she said to Kotetsu, seizing him by the arm as if he needed to be restrained from trying to make an escape. "Immediately."

"Seriously, Agnes?" he said in a wince. "I haven't been home yet!"

"Do you want to have to come back in today?"

"Well, I realize this has been a pretty bad way to spring this on you, but I don't really plan on having to..."

She dropped her hand with a frustrated groan and seemed to take a moment to make the effort to stay calm. "Right," she said. "Can we talk about that?"

Kotetsu sighed in resignation. He supposed he might as well get this conversation over and done with now. "What's with you meeting with me? Isn't Mr. Lloyds in?"

"Yes, but I'm not even sure where he is right now," she said, her eyes widening in an overwhelmed look for a moment. Obviously things weren't proceeding with the best organization today, but Kotetsu still had a feeling Agnes had been put up to this because everyone knew how compelling she could be, or in other words, kind of scary.

"Barnaby, you don't have to be here at all," she said with surprise as she turned to him. "You haven't even had any time off since..."

Since Samantha was found murdered, since this whole nightmare got started. It was probably impossible to make Agnes Joubert feel awkward, and Kotetsu could see it was merely uncertainty about how to put it that kept her from finishing that statement more than delicacy and sensitivity. Still, he felt a little grateful to her for just letting Barnaby off the hook for now even though everyone had to realize the possibility of him staying was now in question, too.

"I know, it's alright," Barnaby replied. "I'm just going to wait for Kotetsu."

Agnes glanced down at her watch in a lightning-fast movement and asked them both, "Do you even have a way to get home?"

"Uh, no, not yet," Kotetsu said, remembering they had neither of their own cars here and frowning at the thought of how hard it would be to get a cab right now. "Bunny, do you just want to—?"

He was cut off when Agnes turned around and called across the room, "Paul! Who's seen Paul?"

"Here, Ms. Joubert," said an assistant just then rushing by them. "Sorry, I'm taking care of it right now."

She stopped him a moment as she said, "No, forget what I just sent you to do right now. I need a car for Mr. Brooks and Mr. Kaburagi in twenty minutes."

At the words "twenty minutes" he instantly hustled off with only a quick nod in response.

Barnaby left to go downstairs, telling Kotetsu he'd meet him around the front entrance, and then Agnes led him into her office and shut the door on the screaming of phones outside. He sat down in a chair in front of her desk with a quiet groan of effort, moving slowly because bending forward still hurt around his abdomen a little, which Agnes seemed to notice as she went around the desk to her seat.

"You look awful," she said in a bleak monotone as she sat down.

"Give me a break, I haven't had a chance for a shave in days." The attempt at brushing it off with levity came out dry and half-hearted and probably just made it all sound worse.

Agnes picked her purse up from the floor and started digging through it. After Kotetsu watched this in some confusion for a while, she pulled out a bottle of pills. "Here," she said, sliding it across the table for him to catch it.

Kotetsu looked at the label on the bottle of painkillers and gave a low huff of laughter. "This is not weak stuff," he said. "Should I be worried you carry these around with you?"

It got a reluctant smile from her. "I'm always prepared for anything."

As Kotetsu opened the top and then knocked back one pill right into his mouth to swallow it dry, she got down to business. "So," she said, folding her hands together on the table. "All the terms haven't been agreed on yet, but I'm supposed to be letting you know that we're prepared to offer both you and Barnaby a very generous amount of money with a contract that will commit you to at least six more months on the show."

In spite of himself, Kotetsu had to give himself a moment of somewhat amused satisfaction. Even if partnering up with Barnaby had made him a much more valued Hero than before, all the times he'd thought of having this conversation he'd never imagined it turning into him practically being begged to stay.

"But that's not what you're actually doing, of course," he replied with a smirk. "That would suggest you actually think we can be bought back, which would be pretty rude."

She sighed, seeing this obviously wasn't going anywhere. "Do you even want to know what the number is?"

"It doesn't make any difference," he said with a frown.

"Tiger, if both the Heroes who represent us quit right after all this, what is that going to look like? There's no Hero TV without Apollon Media. Even if you're not feeling a lot of loyalty at the moment, despite the fact that you and Barnaby are far from the only ones here who feel pretty screwed over by who we were working for, you must realize what's bad for this company is bad for everyone."

"Yeah, I know it's bad timing. Believe me, I don't want to leave here completely biting the hand off. It's not even about what just happened, I'd already intended to quit as soon as possible."

"What's making you have to leave your job so much you can't stay for just six more months? What about a few weeks?"

"Look, I literally can't keep being a Hero for much longer. My powers have been declining. A few months are probably all I have left in me before my time limit will have gotten so low you'd only find me even more of a useless pain than usual."

Agnes's eyes were sucked blank in her surprise. "You're kidding."

He shook his head, looking down at the top of the desk. "There isn't any insurance claim to file for this kind of thing," he said, utterly failing this time to manage a joking tone. "...It's just over."

She settled back in her chair slowly, her hands falling into her lap, and finally just said with defeat, "I'm sorry about that."

Coming from Agnes, it was a lot. He replied with a small, grim smile.

Her face now full of heavy resignation, she let out a long sigh and said, "We're going to lose both of you, aren't we?"

"Would that make you sad?" he said, giving her a familiarly mocking sort of smirk. "Or just professionally disappointed?"

Some annoyance crossed her features, but then she shook her head with something almost like a smile on her face. "If I say it would make me sad, will you talk to Barnaby?"

His look sunk right back into a frown. "God dammit, Agnes—"

"Have you seen the footage that went out?"

"Yeah, I did. I know it all looks really bad. But that evil bloodsucking bastard was the one who maneuvered him toward this career in the first place through murder and manipulation, and now you want me to try to convince him it's really his calling after all?"

"Would you really rather see him just give up and disappear now?"

"I don't know. I don't know what he'll want to do with his life from now on and I doubt it's the first thing on his mind right now."

Agnes closed her eyes for a second, seeming to recollect herself. "Yes. I understand all that. I just really, really need you to grasp the state of things right now, if there's any chance you could get him to think about it more. Do you even know what's been happening ever since last night?"

"You mean besides everybody leaving their TVs on to stay updated on the train wreck?"

"Oh, not just that. The sponsors have been calling in one by one, all very unhappy. The concern is that even with Albert Maverick gone, the show may never be able to recover its reputation. Surely as long as this scandal is still hot news the ratings will stay high, but everyone's worried about what will happen after that now that the show has been exposed as more or less a farce for suckers, at least in the eyes of many of the public. Two companies have already decided to cut ties with us and cease funding for their Hero agencies indefinitely because they don't think it's best for their brands to be associated with the name of Apollon Media anymore." Her aggressive tone had completely gone away now; she wasn't still trying to convince him of anything as much as just venting about the nightmare they'd fallen into. "We lost business with Pepsi, for Christ sake."

Kotetsu was actually starting to get surprised. "Seriously?"

She nodded, closing her eyes as she rubbed her fingertips over her forehead like she was getting a headache. Then she let out a long exhale of breathe and took on a more distant look, saying musingly as a stray thought, "My sister's kids are the biggest Barnaby fans...She told me she couldn't get them to go to bed after watching that mess last night because they were so upset."

"Yeah. I bet."

"The thing is, though...Kids like them, they don't really know or care who Albert Maverick was. They don't care about the corporations behind the Heroes or get why it should reflect badly on them for one of the CEOs to turn out to be the bad guy. All they want is to see that Barnaby is going to be okay and that somehow the Heroes won this one, too." She looked up to meet his eyes. "If this show can be saved from turning into a small fraction of the success it was before, I just need to get it back on the air as soon as possible with some good news to follow up that disaster."

"What do you want me to tell you?" Kotetsu said with a regretful shrug. "I can only hope he will be, but Barnaby isn't okay. I don't know what good news there is to give now unless you're just going to make up some more bullshit. Maybe you could find Maverick's little book of Ouroboros contacts and set something up."

She sighed with a quick shake of her head. "I know...I don't even know yet how I can put a more positive spin on this. I'm just asking you to think about this because quitting so soon is only going to make it even harder. And none of the other Heroes are out of the job yet, but me and possibly some of them are going to be the first to go if this takes a big toll."

"Why you?" he asked, not expecting that.

"Because I was the one who let all of that go on air," she said. "I figured nothing could be worse for us than him killing somebody while he was out of control. But it's the sloppy presentation more than the content they're saying could kill us, because it was very obviously unanticipated what would happen, which quite possibly makes it look like we never would have let this information go public except by mistake. So now the kind of risks I'm willing to take have suddenly become a serious concern. Poseidon has agreed to continue to support Hero TV only if I'm removed from the show as director within three weeks, so I have that long to prove I can still turn this around into a good thing or else my bosses will have to make what they assure me will be a difficult decision."

Kotetsu had grown more and more angry listening to this. "That's so screwed up! So basically they wouldn't have cared about Barnaby killing some fugitive off-camera because that they could have covered up or at least changed the story of somehow."

She smiled sourly. "You're not always as dim as you seem."

"Well, I do know some dark secrets about this industry," he said in a low voice, suddenly thinking of Legend. At the words, Agnes's eyebrows lifted in some mild surprise. "But nothing that could have prepared me for this, of course."

After a serious look of agreement, Agnes started gathering her things together and speaking with some finality. "I'm afraid your real name is irreversibly made famous now, but you should know Wild Tiger's real identity is still protected. We agreed on a story to go with so we can all be consistent in what we say if it comes up at a press conference some others and I are doing tomorrow. Kotetsu Kaburagi is an employee here and a friend of Barnaby who was at Samantha Stone's house to find out if she'd heard from him since the time he'd gone missing. Maverick altered his memories to make him seem insane as part of his plan to frame him for her murder since there would be difficulty determining a rational motive, but now Mr. Kaburagi has recovered his memories and no longer thinks he's Wild Tiger."

Kotetsu nodded in acknowledgement, relieved to know that at least that whole mess had been tidied up for him. As they both stood up to leave, he said, "Listen, I don't know what I'll be able to do. But I will think about this."

She let out a long, tired breath as she went to open the door. "We'll get repairs on your suits started just in case."

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Not long after leaving the elevator on the bottom floor, he spotted Karina standing among everyone in the bustling main entrance area. She was almost unrecognizable with her face covered in bandages, no make-up on, and her hair pulled back in a ponytail looking like she'd barely had a chance to put a brush through it in all the time since he'd last seen her. If Kotetsu hadn't overheard her voice as she finished a call on her cellphone he might have passed by without even noticing it was her.

"Don't worry, I'm finally coming home now," she was saying. "Dad's just been running late so I got breakfast here...Yeah." She caught his eye then as he started crossing the moving crowd between them. "Okay, see you later."

She hung up and then they turned to each other with weak, tired smiles.

"Hey, you alright?" Kotetsu said grimly. "I heard Pepsi dumped you."

"Yeah, it's no big deal," she said, shaking her head, and then gave a dry laugh. "Between you and me, I don't think I'm going to miss my manager all that much. And I'll probably be able to work something out with another company, so..." Her lips went tight and she started avoiding eye contact with him, looking like this was making her think of something awful, and then he saw her eyes start tearing up as her next breaths came loud and shaky.

"Hey! No, don't do that!" he said, reaching out and clutching her shoulder. "What's...?"

"It's Origami," she said with her voice starting to break a little, wiping at one eye. "He lost his sponsor, too, and...unless someone else decides to pick up his contract, it's pretty certain he's going to have to go."

Kotetsu's mouth slowly dropped open a little and his shoulders sank sadly. "Oh no," he said.

"I just can't help but think...it should be me. If somebody has to lose this job..."

"Come on, don't say that," he said as he pulled her into an attemptedly comforting but careful hug, remembering she was cut and stitched up all over.

"This was never even what I most wanted to do," she said through her sniffling. "And he...He didn't even do anything, it's so unfair!"

"I know," he said, looking back down at her face as they drew back away from each other. "But you shouldn't feel bad. And hey, maybe something will work out still. We don't know yet if all this panic is needed."

"Yeah..." She wiped her eyes dry one last time with a final sigh, calming down.

"So somebody else already bought you or what?" he asked.

"It's not official yet, but I'll probably be able to go over to Fire Emblem's company and partner up with him. The Fire and Ice Duo or some bullshit like that."

Normally Kotetsu might have been a little alarmed by her using such strong language, but given the situation he just found himself muttering with a frown, "Yeah, 'bullshit' is right."

A heavy look fell over her face, as if something had just been made all the more real to her. "I never thought you'd have that kind of attitude."

He looked down from her eyes, having nothing to say to that.

"Listen..." Karina wiped at her nose as she hesitated a moment. "Some of us heard from Barnaby why you're leaving. What's really going on." She shook her head, looking at him with such blindingly honest sympathy he could hardly take it directly. "I'm really sorry, Tiger. That has to be hard."

"Hey, don't worry about me," he said, shaking his head as a knee-jerk reaction. "I'll be okay."

Her expression turned a little more withdrawn, and then in the way she quickly looked away from him for a second he sensed something that made him feel strangely guilty for shrugging it off like that. After a moment of silence he just said wearily, "It's not like I can do this forever, right?"

She gave him a small, understanding smile. "It just won't be the same anymore. With three of you gone if both Ivan and Barnaby..."

"Yeah."

"Oh my God. Barnaby!" She looked like she couldn't believe she'd forgotten something. "I should have told you right away—I guess a lot of reporters must have been tipped off by now that Barnaby still hasn't been sighted coming home or even leaving the building since last night, 'cause when I was by the doors just a while ago I could see them everywhere."

"Ugh, nuts," he said in agitation. "He was probably hoping to avoid that by waiting so long to leave. How many are out there?"

"I don't know, I could see maybe a couple dozen. But that was half an hour ago."

He gave her a quick, grateful pat on the shoulder. "Thanks, Karina." Just before turning to go he added, "And for crying out loud, go home and take it easy for a minute or two."

She rolled her eyes and called after him, "I am, okay?"

He found Barnaby about halfway from there to the doors, standing against a pillar with his arms crossed. When Barnaby saw him coming his way, there was a strange and instantaneous change in his face that made it look like he now knew where he was again. It was such a subtle thing to see yet so great and undeniable at the same time, and it sharply pricked his chest and made him feel unreasonably sorry that he'd had to leave Barnaby on his own here just for this long. Even being out at parties for very long came to feel like a demanding activity for someone like him, so at a time like this he was probably incredibly eager to be away from the company of so many people and finally have some privacy.

Once Kotetsu reached him, he opened his mouth to say something but then didn't when Kotetsu immediately took him by the arm to lead him away. "Have you looked outside?" he asked.

Starting to walk along with him, Barnaby answered, "No, but I was told our ride should be waiting by now."

"Yeah, and so are the press."

Barnaby looked forward and said flatly, "Oh."

"We could use our powers and make a beeline for it," he suggested.

"You don't have your mask, though."

"Oh, that's right..."

"It's okay," Barnaby said wearily. "Let's just go."

Sure enough, they hadn't made it halfway down the steps outside before they started getting spotted and followed by a gathering crowd. By the time they were getting close to the street, Barnaby had cameras flashing at him and voice recorders getting poked at his face from all angles while various voices from the swarm spoke up with prodding queries.

"Barnaby! Can you give us a comment about your position on supporting Apollon Media after the recent discoveries?"

"Do you intend to quit being a Hero now?"

"I don't know yet what I'll do," he answered, sounding uneasy and, probably uncontrollably, a little bitter. As they were making their way through the crowd as fast as they could, Barnaby had taken on a very guarded appearance with some obvious discomfort leaking through the surface, and even something like confusion. All the painstaking grooming of him for getting far in the world of celebrity had not prepared him for a situation in which it was only appropriate to be human. With the overwhelmed state of mind he was still in, putting on his usual charming and self-possessed face without letting it crack was not even an option, so a part of him seemed to have just shut down while he had no idea how to react to everything coming at him.

"Does this exposure of the CEO's corruption not put into question for you the integrity of the whole company you've worked for?"

"Didn't Maverick influence your choice to become a Hero in the first place? Is it true he was close to your family and like a father to you?"

"Okay, that's all!" Kotetsu's voice whipped out over all the others. He brought a guiding arm around Barnaby's shoulders as if some protective instinct made him feel like that could keep them at a distance, and then once they were moving closer together they were able to push through the crowd quicker.

"Mr. Brooks, do you feel any differently about Lunatic's methods of punishing crime now that it's clear there are some NEXT criminals who can't be—"

"Will you get lost?" he shouted as they finally made it to the black limo waiting for them. The driver was standing by it holding the back door open for them, and Kotetsu nodded toward the car to tell Barnaby to go ahead first.

It was an instant relief when they were both seated inside and the door was shut on all the shouts and flashing cameras, softening the outside noise into just a vaguely resonating muffle. The sunlight was starting to bear down harshly by this hour, coming through from the front seats where the windows weren't tinted to shine almost directly in their faces. After Barnaby asked the driver to go first to his apartment building and they started moving, Kotetsu thought about moving to the seats on the opposite side that faced the back of the car. But before he could bother, Barnaby reached up and pressed a button on the ceiling that raised a screen between them and the front seats, blocking the light out.

They had both hurried into the car without bothering to settle into the most comfortable and practical positions; Barnaby had slid over enough to let Kotetsu in after him but not much more, and he was still sitting quite close to Kotetsu's side near the middle of the seat. With the screen obstructing the view of the front of the car, even the sound from the radio station the driver was listening to was now almost completely blocked out and very faint, and it was welcome but strange suddenly being somewhere so quiet now.

Relaxing with a quiet sigh, Kotetsu let his head fall back against the seat and started leaning into the arm rest on the door, putting some breathing room between him and Barnaby.

Then Barnaby reached a hand to the side and stopped him with a sudden strong grip around his tie. "Kotetsu..."

He never got a chance to answer before Barnaby had pulled him close. He closed in almost as soon as Kotetsu turned his head, too fast for him to see what was coming, so with a sudden press of warmth and softness bringing an instantaneous light-headedness and no understanding of how it had happened, he just found himself being kissed by Barnaby.

Maybe it was because he was so physically and mentally exhausted at the moment, so ready for something that would let his mind just let go of the rest for a moment, but at first he just accepted it with a quick and eager intake of breath. He raised his hands up to Barnaby's shoulder and neck, feeling the need to touch something right in front of him to steady himself. And then with no thought, as their mouths started moving together with more purpose, his hands started slowly roaming, running through Barnaby's hair and finding the small of his back. His eyes had fallen shut somehow, his brain shutting down a little for the first time in this entire fast-paced morning. Then as they both seemed to settle more acutely into the feel of each other, the soft low sigh that came from Barnaby, sounding so desperately relieved, was the thing that brought Kotetsu back into focus.

"Wait," he muttered almost incoherently against Barnaby's lips before pulling back. He had to wait a second for his breathing to even out more again before he felt like he could speak properly. "Bunny, this...Are you okay?"

As Kotetsu looked at his face and scrutinized every little detail of his appearance right then like that might help him understand, the traces of all he'd been through in the past couple days were still there in some form, a vaguely sad hollowness in his eyes. But as he seemed to be trying to find where to start, Kotetsu could also see a kind of agitation he was very used to seeing in his features, like he thought Kotetsu's worrying about whether he was actually thinking this through right now was irritatingly typical of him.

"Never mind—Stupid question," Kotetsu realized after letting him struggle long enough with trying to answer. "I just...seem to remember you feeling very differently about this?"

"I know. I'm sorry, I..." Anxious frustration growing in his eyes, Barnaby lowered his eyes down with a heavy and slightly shuddering sigh, and only then did it start to show how nervous and uncomfortable he really was, now gripping his knees a bit tightly. Of course he would be, Kotetsu realized. This was probably like nothing he'd ever risked doing before in his life.

Which was fair enough because Kotetsu didn't really know what he was doing either when he reached out to lay his hand on one side of Barnaby's neck again. The rare impulsive abandon in Barnaby's behavior just moments before seemed almost completely gone, but when Kotetsu touched him he raised his eyes back up to him and managed to get out, "Dammit, Kotetsu, I'm not...What do you want, a sonnet?"

Kotetsu grinned a little, running his thumb soothingly along his jaw. "Fine, we can talk about it later," he said. When he leaned in close and came within an inch of closing the distance, he could feel Barnaby's still slightly tense breathing, and he murmured, "Relax."

The last inch between their lips closed again, as natural and effortless as an inhale, and he could tell the instant Barnaby let his instincts take over again. After a last tentative moment, he let go so completely he seemed to melt right into his arms with a slight sway forward as they both turned their faces at an angle to deepen the kiss. They kissed slowly and languidly in their exhaustion, all of this such direly needed relief from the weight of all they'd been through that allowed them to finally feel some sense of calm. Barnaby made a content humming noise in his throat as Kotetsu reached inside his jacket to run his hands down both sides of his waist, lightly pulling him closer. He shed off the jacket and tossed it aside as he lifted a leg over Kotetsu and then turned into him, straddling him over his lap, and then immediately lowered his head to press his lips to his neck. Kotetsu lightly pressed his nails into his back and felt his own breaths coming heavier as Barnaby started tasting his way from under an ear down to the pulse at Kotetsu's lower neck, dragging his lips along his skin as he gave light and warm little kisses with wet flicks of his tongue.

After a while of this slowly making him crazy, Kotetsu's breath dragged out in somewhat of a soft growl and he raked one hand back in Barnaby's hair to direct his head back upward and his mouth back to his. Soon it was all open, wet sliding warmth again, their mouths and tongues pressing together with a building pressure as their bodies also unconsciously pressed closer together. Before long Kotetsu's skin was prickling warmly all over with the sudden awareness that Barnaby had started rocking against him just a little in a slow rhythm, and as they were pressed together so tightly Kotetsu could feel, down there between his legs, what it was doing to him...

"H-hey there." His raspy voice came out sounding teasing and somewhat astonished at the same time as he reached down to clutch Barnaby's hips tightly. "I guess you do really mean it."

Right before he spoke, Barnaby had seemed to realize just then what he was doing and stopped moving against him—perhaps only so successfully with the added restraint of Kotetsu's grasp on him, if the thick and heated look in his eyes was any indication. But then his expression quickly sharpened to one of mild annoyance. "'Hey there'?" he said back in a cringing tone.

Kotetsu rolled his eyes. "I don't know!"

"Please don't say that in this context ever again."

"Whatever, princess." The annoyed look on Barnaby's face got a little more defined, but when Kotetsu grabbed him close and started kissing him again, Barnaby's hands were back all over him right away. Kotetsu started it over slow and easy again, knowing Barnaby hadn't meant to react so strongly and they should probably pull things back a notch. He was overcome with more of a ridiculously light feeling than ever now as he let it sink in how Barnaby had just said "ever again," because he really was serious, he really was counting on them ending up "in this context" many more times, and oh yeah, that was even better than the great luminous revelation that he'd just gotten Barnaby Brooks Jr. hard.

It was as if his body had disconnected from his brain at some point in the last ten minutes and his hands were doing what they were doing completely naturally and without thought, but he still kept feeling like any moment he was going to lose feeling in his arms and just completely freeze up because he had forgotten how to do this after so long. He knew that being touched like this mightnever have been a very familiar thing for Barnaby, which really shouldn't have mattered, yet the thought of that possibility right now was doing wonderfully undignified things to his stomach.

When he hitched Barnaby up a bit higher on one raised leg so he could reach his neck easier and then went right to kissing the sensitive skin behind one of his ears, Barnaby said his name in a low sigh. It sounded totally unintentional, articulated so softly it almost seemed Kotetsu could have imagined it, but the way his body automatically shuddered in response said otherwise. He circled his arms tighter around Barnaby and brought him close with his face still buried against his neck just to hug him in a full and secure grasp. He closed his eyes when Barnaby wrapped his arms around his shoulders just as tightly, and for a while they just stayed still holding each other this way, feeling each other breathing.

Then Kotetsu turned his back to the window to lean against the door and put his legs up on the seat, both of them adjusting their positions until Barnaby was lying across him with his head against his chest. A look out the window behind him told Kotetsu they were only about halfway to Barnaby's block now, and he was nothing but grateful for the thick traffic. They stayed in a tired silence for a minute before Barnaby spoke with a soft, worn-sounding voice.

"Kotetsu, when I acted the way I did that time...after you kissed me..."

"Mm-hm?" he said softly. It hardly seemed to matter to know now, but he waited and listened, running a hand down Barnaby's arm.

"It wasn't because I didn't think of you that way then. I knew I kind of did. Whether I was ready to deal with it at all was another story...But even when I told you I didn't want that kind of relationship with anyone, I think I already knew that if I did I would want it with you."

Kotetsu had to smile. "I really had no idea."

"I was pretty confused about it, and mostly just felt ridiculous about it." Barnaby gave a sigh, sounding like it seemed almost embarrassingly stupid to him now. "I'd never been close to anybody the way we were becoming close, and with the kind of thoughts I'd sometimes have about you out of nowhere, I thought maybe I was just getting carried away with myself out of curiosity more than anything. Because I'd always felt weird and uncomfortable about the thought of...well, everything I'd never tried with anyone, but I realized it was quite a different thing to think of it being with someone I know and trust. And thinking about it that way and remembering how inexperienced I was only made me feel even more ridiculous about the idea of actually..." Breathing out a little forcefully, he seemed to gather himself for a second like he was close to losing the nerve to admit all of this. "So you know, then when you kissed me like it was as simple as that, part of me felt like yelling at you about how stupid you were to think you wanted to do that...I guess what I just never considered then is that you might have felt almost just as awkward and uneasy about the idea of going there as I did."

Kotetsu gave a light, low laugh. "Yeah. I knew I was really attracted to you, but obviously neither of us was ready to seriously think about it."

"No...After we'd defeated Jake, I was enjoying moving forward with my life, and there were things about the idea of being with someone that I knew had maybe begun to appeal to me more. But having that much obligation to somebody besides myself for the first time in my life was what I still felt like I couldn't even consider. I just don't..."

Seeming to struggle to find the right words to explain, Barnaby hesitated as he wrapped an arm around Kotetsu's middle.

"I don't like to rely too much on other people, you know that," he said. "It's hard for me to see the potential reward in investing a lot into any kind of relationship, especially because dealing with things on my own feels easier and I have to sort of force everything else. I'm usually only interested in other people in whatever capacity they can be of some use or benefit to me. I know how that sounds, but it's just how I've always been and the way I know how to accomplish everything."

Kotetsu lowered his head so his lips brushed against the top of his head as he said softly, "I know."

"But I guess the problem is...that's all I know and understand," Barnaby continued. "I so easily assume that everyone else is the same way and just not as unapologetic and practical about it. I don't understand things like selfless generosity, so it's hard for me to trust it. I always have to assume there's something behind it. And when I realized this is what you wanted between us, it just felt like...it explained a lot. And more than anything I think I was just frustrated with myself for feeling disappointed, because it meant I'd been foolish enough to start expecting anything different from you than I would from anyone else. I knew deep down I was probably making way too much of it, but it hurt just to think that your motivations might be more complicated than you let on and maybe you really didn't get how much it meant to me just to be friends."

"But complicated is just what people are," Kotetsu said, now absently stroking fingers through his hair. "Maybe I never expected anything from you through everything I was doing to make things work between us, but I honestly can't say for sure that my eagerness to get you to like me had nothing to do with me feeling something...possibly even early on, I mean."

Barnaby smiled just a little. "Well, that's easy to understand now. But I was still figuring you out back then. Even though I was kind of doing the exact same thing after you kissed me, when you tried to brush it off like it was no big deal at first, that didn't really help my confusion about it. I didn't understand yet then how often you're just putting on a tough front and it has nothing to do with taking things lightly."

"Yeah," he said with a low sigh. "Fair enough."

In the silence while he stopped a moment, the look on Barnaby's face started darkening. Kotetsu had a feeling the real point he wanted to get to was coming. He raised a hand back to Barnaby's head to brush some of his hair out of his eyes and then smoothed his fingertips soothingly around the back of his neck under his hair, which made Barnaby shut his eyes briefly and seemed to give him encouragement to keep talking.

"But always just looking after myself...all that time...it was all pointless," he said bitterly, even with a hint of shame. "All the worries I have about trusting anyone too much, they've never even mattered. The whole time I couldn't really rely on myself at all. I couldn't even trust my own memories. I know my determination to be so self-reliant just made it easier for him to keep using me like that. If you hadn't been around and didn't question what was going on and complicate things for him, I would have gone on believing it was Jake and never would have gotten free of his control. And to think how close he came to turning me against you so there'd be no one to..."

As his voice took on a tense and horrified edge, Kotetsu just held his head close against him as he wrapped his other arm around him tighter. "Hey, it's not your fault he took advantage of that," he said. "It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the way you are because you feel the need to look out for yourself. Especially considering there hasn't been anyone else looking out for you most of your life. What matters is you did allow yourself to rely on me so that there was someone around when there really needed to be. What use is it that you've got me now if it doesn't mean you can keep doing things your way and just leave it to me to question it sometimes?"

Something in Barnaby's face now looked hesitant and doubtful. "Is that really what you want?" he asked, his voice going especially quiet.

He had to take that in for a second of slight surprise. "I wouldn't have it any other way," he answered surely. "Hell, is that one of the reasons you've been so scared of this? Did you think being with me would just mean having a whole new set of someone else's expectations to follow?"

"Well, when you say it like that...But it's still hard to imagine you understand what you're signing up for."

"Like it doesn't go both ways. Do you think this is an easy thing for me?" He took one of Barnaby's hands and pressed it against his chest. "Maybe it seems scary, but I just want...you. The real you who I already know. Anybody can turn on the TV and get the fake you that takes all that effort. Things will be kind of the same as they've always been, I'd think. Except now it won't make me a little sad being with you sometimes because I can kiss you when I want to and always tell you what I'm really thinking and...well...other things," he finished with a kind of timid little smile, even as Barnaby couldn't see him.

"Mm." Barnaby turned his face down for a second, partly hiding the smile on his own face that immediately followed that, and then he just looked vaguely amused. "The same as it's always been...So what you're saying is it's practically never going to be simple."

He laughed. "Well, that kinda goes without saying. For anybody." He reached down to the floor to pick up Barnaby's jacket and then put it over his shoulders so that it covered him like a blanket. "You going to be okay if I'm kind of busy the next couple days?"

With a small nod, Barnaby said, "I think so...You wouldn't believe how much I've been going without sleep the past few days. Hopefully I'll finally start feeling it soon and can use today to crash for a long time. Anyway...I'm sure you need a lot of time with your daughter while she's here."

"After just one day I'm not gonna trust that I'm remembering this morning right," Kotetsu said. "I already feel like I need to pinch myself and don't even know where I am...Might partly have something to do with the awesome drugs Agnes gave me."

Barnaby raised an eyebrow at that but decided not to ask. "Well, don't worry." He closed his eyes with a warm smile. "When I see you again, I'll remind you."

He grinned at the sound of that. "But promise you'll give me a call if you need to, or want to, for anything. Then I won't worry so much."

Barnaby's look had grown serious when he opened his eyes. "Kotetsu...at this point, I don't see how I can possibly survive any of this without demanding a lot from you, whether I like it or not," he said uneasily. "That's one thing you need to know you're getting yourself into. So if I don't call you soon, you can be sure I'm managing alright."

He wouldn't have thought anything could be so brutal and so incredible to hear all at once, showing how much Barnaby had been beat and broken down into nothing but honesty. He said it like a part of him really meant it as a warning of how little there was to be gained here, but there was also so much more strength in the words than Barnaby probably realized. At least Kotetsu knew hecould probably never admit so blatantly that he depended on someone that much, even in a time of such desperate need and vulnerability as Barnaby was in now.

He squeezed Barnaby's hand, holding it tighter against him, and just murmured, "Okay. Good."

A slightly numbing drowsiness was taking over him now. He didn't know or want to know where they were. It felt kind of like the world was falling down around them and he didn't care. It couldn't hurt them.