Author's Notes: I want to thank everyone who came to review last chapter. This is, sadly, the last chapter of this particular story, as it was finished on the meme... but I've spent the month since then outlining the sequel. ;) Some of your commentary really made me laugh, and I thought about answering some things individually... but I don't want to give away my plans for what's coming next! I do promise you that this is far from the end of my foray into writing for T&B~!




The robots' guns are trained on the heroes, and flat on his back at their mercy, Barnaby's eyes roll towards the prone body of his beloved partner, his young daughter still bent over him in tears.

They are probably all about to die, and in that moment, Barnaby swears to himself…

If I had another chance… I would stop living for the past, and live for the future instead…

Across the room, Kotetsu is just barely regaining consciousness, and pissed as hell, he thinks of Barnaby and Kaede, and swears to himself…

When we get out of here alive… I am going to stop hiding from the people I love most…

Eyes close, and souls reach out to each other…

I'd make a different choice…

And somewhere in heaven, somebody smiles knowingly.


Kotetsu dozes on and off for a few hours, but it's too quiet in the country after more than ten years in Sternbild, and the smallest creaks in the house rouse him again. He can tell that only his mother is awake so far, but Kaede can't be that far behind.

Barnaby is still tucked against him, an arm draped loosely across him, their legs tangled under the blankets, and Kotetsu glances down, studying his lover's peaceful face. Lifting one hand, he traces a thumb along the line of fanned eyelashes on Bunny's cheek, then down over his slightly parted lips. So cute Kotetsu finds that he simply can't resist, and tipping Barnaby's chin up with one finger, he kisses him softly.

"Ko…tets…" Barnaby mumbles sleepily. It's three or four kisses before he responds, and even then, he's not quite awake yet.

Kotetsu smiles, knowing how much Barnaby is usually a morning person, and runs his fingers through messy blond hair while he can still get away with it. "Sorry to wake you, Bunny, but I wanted a chance to give you something while we were still alone."

"Give me something?" Barnaby echoes, looking up at his partner as Kotetsu leans across him, hand swiping the floor to grab something he'd secreted in the pile of his green button-down early this morning.

Kotetsu picks up Barnaby's glasses as well, handing them to his partner just as he turns to search for them. "A Christmas present, Bunny, obviously!"

"You're ridiculous," Barnaby sets his glasses in place and sitting up, he gives his partner a look. It feels surprisingly less awkward than he would have guessed, waking up like this together, and he wonders if they are just that much more used to being together than apart. "Waking me up for presents like you're still…"

"I'll always be a little bit of a kid at heart, Bunny," Kotetsu cuts him off, leaning in to kiss him again and then holding out a small wrapped package. "Besides, I think you like me that way."

Barnaby only hums in response, ignoring the proffered package to turn and search his own bag. It is absolutely true, but admitting to it would just inflate the old man's ego that much more. "I have a gift for you, as well, but… I confess that it was something I prepared prior to the entire debacle… not that it's any less…" Significant? Special? "At any rate, please open this first."

Kotetsu boggles as Barnaby withdraws from his bag a 2 ft green and red striped package wrapped in layers of thin, curling gold ribbon. "Bunny?" he laughs a little in complete surprise as he accepts it, having no idea what the enormous but feather-light package could be or how Barnaby had managed to smuggle it all the way here without him knowing. "Wait a minute…"

"What do you mean, wait a minute?" Barnaby looks vaguely insulted and crosses his arms, refusing to accept Kotetsu's present until his partner stops laughing at him. "Do you want a present or not?"

Barnaby's pout is adorable and Kotetsu stalls just to enjoy it a moment longer, now that he doesn't have to hide his feelings so much anymore. "Of course I want a present when it's from my partner, Bunny~," he grins and sing-song's Barnaby name, and then proceeds to shred the paper as if he has hidden claws.

"Then hurry up already," Barnaby fusses, leaning in, but there's a glint in his eyes that gives away the fact that he is a little bit excited too.

Inside the fancy wrapping, the package is all soft within white tissue paper, and Kotetsu slows down for a moment as he pulls it apart more carefully. It's… a plush toy, and not just any plush toy – a tiger. Pulling it free of the paper, Kotetsu lets his eyes run over the hand-stitched expression, so familiar, on the golden fabric, and touches the stitching of every tiny brown stripe. It looks just like

"I know you were the one that insisted on that absurd pink rabbit for my birthday last year…" Barnaby starts defensively, and then his words trail off when Kotetsu's face rises and he sees the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.

"I never told you that," Kotetsu protests with an enormous grin, even though the entire birthday-thief hoax had indeed been his idea, and the bunny his improvised stand-in during rehearsal.

Barnaby colors a little when Kotetsu hugs the plush to himself and though he decides to continue with his explanation, it's stilted and awkward as he realizes just how much of himself this gesture is giving away. "You seemed so overly fond of that rabbit every time you were at my apartment, always playing with its ears… I thought… if you had your own to manhandle… but there wasn't one. A cat, a dog, a bird, a frog, a lion, a giraffe, an elephant… so I had it custom-created, so they would be a matched set."

"You had a plush toy custom-made?" Kotetsu repeats, and then, without warning, he tackles Barnaby back into the pillows, hugging him tightly and kissing the corner of his mouth. That Barnaby would have gone to such lengths to do something special for him, the meticulous detail involved… it tells Kotetsu just how long his partner has thought of him fondly, if nothing else. "I love it, really, truly."

Of course, Kotetsu has interrupted Barnaby for the second time now before he can get to the end point, and seeing as Kotetsu hasn't noticed what's around the tiger's neck on a length of ribbon, Barnaby wavers on whether to point it out. After all, things are different now, so it hardly matters…

"Bunny? What's this around the neck?" Kotetsu is laying with his head on Barnaby's chest now, one arm holding the tiger up in the air above them for further examination. The length of pink ribbon flutters in the air, a golden key swinging on the end.

Barnaby is silent for a moment, giving his partner a chance to come up with the inevitable answer, but Kotetsu always waits until he is ready to spill his thoughts. "A key… to my place, in Sternbild. As I stated previously, the package was wrapped long before…"

But Kotetsu is a sentimental man, and even if circumstances have changed and life is confusing and wonderful and they don't really know what's going to happen next… he gets it. He understands what Barnaby is trying to say with this gesture in a way that he can't quite find words for, and he's listening to his partner try and excuse the depth of it away in the same breath. Kotetsu moves up onto one elbow, setting the tiger aside beside them, and looks down at Barnaby. He's pleased when his grin is answered by a flustered blond stuttering to a halt, and then he leans down to kiss Bunny, speaking a few words at a time in between each kiss. "You… wanted… to let me in… Bunny… to trust me…"

"You invited yourself over so often anyway," Barnaby says when Kotetsu finally stops kissing him, but this denial only makes his partner laugh and kiss him again.

"Ah, well, Bunny…" Kotetsu says once he calms down, and then holds up the small package again. "I'm not certain I put as much thought into this, but… it's got at least the same heart."

Barnaby's gut twists at the statement, and he finally accepts the package, carefully separating the tape from the paper to damage it as little as possible. Shaking it lightly, he holds up his hand to catch the two shiny metal objects that fall out. His heart jumps in his chest as he realizes what he's holding – something he spent the entire week Kotetsu was in the hospital searching everywhere for, to no avail.

"How did you…" Barnaby starts, thinking perhaps Kotetsu went back to replace it but no, as he turns it over in his hands, he can tell that the back is slightly bent. Either way, he hadn't said anything to his partner about losing it in the first place.

"I found it…" Kotetsu replies softly, hesitating before giving the entire truth instead of a glossing. "In Maverick's office… it took me a bit to realize I had two and it was yours, but… I knew it meant something wasn't right."

"These are… this is from the day that we fought…" Barnaby says, unable to keep the surprised choke of emotion out of his voice, running one finger over the colorful surface. "Why would you want to…?"

"It was a special gift, that ought to be returned to its rightful owner… a matched set… a cherished memory."

"The day we fought?" Barnaby is confused and the hurt shows in his eyes as he studies the pin, not meeting Kotetsu's gaze.

"The day I realized I was in love with you," Kotetsu answers simply, as if that ought to explain everything. In a way, it does.

The gift that Barnaby had rejected in his fear of his own feelings was now a precious memory, a reminder of what they had almost lost… almost never had. Barnaby doesn't respond verbally, but he sits up, rolling off the tatami mat and to his feet in one swift movement. Padding across the room, he lifts his jacket off the back of a chair and then sits down on the chair, looking over it carefully.

"What are you… You don't have to do that, Bunny!" Kotetsu's eyes widen in surprise as he gets to his feet, crossing the room in two steps to watch as Barnaby pierces the leather with the pin, securing it in place.

"I don't want to lose it again," Barnaby says very matter-of-factly, looking up at Kotetsu with decisiveness in his expression before he reaches to adjust his glasses nervously. "And isn't our partnership… forever?"

Kotetsu feels outdone by his partner, but when it's about him to begin with, it hardly seems to matter. "And Always," Kotetsu answers, his hand coming down lightly on Barnaby's shoulder.

The conversation is cut short as Kaede's squeal of excitement echoes up from the living room and Kotetsu chuckles.

"You should go downstairs," Barnaby says with a smile that quickly becomes a grimace as he turns to face the mirror above the dresser and gets a look at his hair. "I'll… be down in a little while."

Kotetsu doesn't know if it's just his good mood, but everything makes him want to laugh today, and so he does, kissing the top of Bunny's head. Pulling on his green shirt and running a hand through his own hair over Barnaby's shoulder in the mirror, he leaves his partner in the room and heads downstairs to greet his family for the holiday morning.

"Dad! Dad, that pile of presents is almost as tall as me!" Kaede's eyes light up when he reaches the doorway, and she can't decide whether to scold him or thank him. Instead, she jumps up from the kitchen table and hugs him tight around the middle.

The kitchen is already bustling with activity, his mother moving back and forth between the stove and the counters, preparing things for the day's extensive meal. The sweet cinnamon wafting from the fresh rolls makes Kotetsu's stomach rumble and he feels even more grateful to be home for the holiday. He's always missed the food too, even if not as much as the people. "Well, not all of them are for you," he teases, hugging her back. "Just most of them."

"Just in time for breakfast, as always," his mother says as Kotetsu takes a seat at the table between Kaede and his brother. Despite the amount of work involved in cooking for the entire family, she seems quite pleased this morning, a softening of her usual stern.

The table is piled high with plates of eggs, ham, pancakes, baskets of fresh fruit and the delectable cinnamon rolls. Kotetsu can never resist sweets, and he heads straight for the gooey center bun, prying it out with two fingers. "Mom, this is enough food for an army! There's only five of us!"

"You're complaining about being fed when you've lived on nothing but fried rice for ten years?" she snaps back at him, and he grins, shaking his head with a big "no" before cramming the cinnamon roll into his mouth.

Barnaby arrives just as they're finishing and Kotetsu pauses in carrying dishes to the sink to smile warmly at him. His partner's blond hair is perfectly curled again and he leans against the doorframe in his red t-shirt, apologizing lightly. "I hope I've made it in enough time not to be a nuisance."

"Nonsense," Kotetsu's mother says, jarring Kotetsu out of his momentary stupor by stepping on his toes. "Kotetsu, get him a fresh plate, there, on the drying rack."

Kaede greets Barnaby the same way she greeted her father during this exchange, running up to hug him around the middle. "Wait until you see the ridiculous pile of presents!" she exclaims, grabbing his hand and tugging.

"Kaede, let Bunny eat breakfast first," Kotetsu finally responds, flexing his stomped toes as he hands Barnaby a plate, amused by Kaede's exuberance. It's nice to see her act a little more like a kid for once.

It's a comfortable end to the meal, but before long, Kaede has dragged both her father and Barnaby into the living room, with a promise that her grandmother and uncle won't be far behind. Barnaby seats himself on the couch, taking in the enormous pile of presents half-obscuring the tree. The wrapping job goes, quite noticeably, from decent to atrocious as he scans across it and he can't help but snicker.

"Don't you dare," Kotetsu scolds his partner for the teasing, lowering himself to the floor next to the pile. "It took all night!"

"Dad, none of these have labels…" Kaede says in confusion, picking up one lumpy looking package and shaking it.

"Ah, well, I didn't have a pen…" Kotetsu makes excuses, thinking of his mental state the previous night. Behind him, Barnaby snickers again, thinking much the same thing. "But the ribbon! Silver for Kaede, gold for Grandma, white for Uncle, red for Bunny and green for me."

"Wait," Kaede says, raising an eyebrow. "You bought yourself presents too? Is Santa supposed to buy himself presents?"

"More sorting, less complaining," Kotetsu chucks a present at his daughter's head, pleased when she catches it, reflexes sharp.

Barnaby watches as they divide the pile together, a ritual that seems older than this moment, and happily accepts a cup of tea when Kotetsu's family finally joins them.

Working together, Kaede distributes presents to the family to open together, candies and cakes, silly pairs of matching socks with holly on them, fluffy scarves, a different color for every person, and with each gift, Barnaby finds he is more and more at a loss for words. There's a moment where Kaede is prancing around the room in her new sweater dress, pale blue with silver snowflakes, Kotetsu is laughing as he pops another caramel truffle in his mouth, and each of them, even his mother and Muramasa, is wearing a terrible beret with their names gaudily embroidered on them… Barnaby is laughing with them, and then he disconnects, floating...

"Bunny?" Kotetsu sits down on the couch beside his partner as Kaede is distracted, testing out a set of crayons, every color of the rainbow swirled across the pad of paper. "You okay?" There's a faraway look in his partner's eyes, though he doesn't seem upset.

Barnaby's focus snaps back in place, out of his memories, and he nods at Kotetsu. "Yes, I'm quite fine, Kotetsu… though I really hope you won't insist on me ever wearing this hat in public."

Kotetsu laughs and reaches for Barnaby's hand, squeezing it. "Maybe just for a family photo," he jokes back, surprised when Barnaby suddenly withdraws his hand. The word has reminded him of something important, and when Kotetsu's eyes meet his, worried yet again, Barnaby smiles, holding up one finger for "just a moment."

"Kaede," Barnaby calls to Kotetsu's daughter, fishing in the pocket of his pants. "If you have a moment…"

Kaede jumps up from her place on the floor, wading through the wrapping paper to stand in front of the two of them cheerfully. "Yes, Bunny?" The nickname appears to have stuck once again, but Barnaby finds it doesn't bother him.

"I wanted to give you a gift, to thank you for inviting me to share the holiday with you…" Barnaby says lightly, reaching out to take her hand and turn it over, palm-side up.

Kaede watches as he drops something small and shiny into her hand, and without even needing to know what it is, she beams. "Thank you!" Barnaby… Bunny has given her a present, and that alone makes it very special.

Barnaby continues to explain as Kaede untangles the chain, holding up a delicately carved silver locket. "That belonged to my mother…" Barnaby pauses for a moment when he feels Kotetsu sling an arm along the back of the couch, casually around the edge of his shoulders, but then he continues. "It's one of very few things that… that survived the fire, and… it's very special to me. I want you to have it."

Special Kaede traces a finger over the locket and opens up the heart-shape to blank space inside. "Barnaby, I…" She is about to refuse the gesture – it's too big, too important, she knows how much it must mean to him, which is to say… how much she must mean. Looking up to meet the too-green eyes of the man she's idolized, she sees something else now… something even more important than that… Bunny is family - someone who would be hurt if she was to reject a gift given with love. "…thank you," she finally whispers, then leans in to wrap her arms around his shoulders, hugging tightly.

Kotetsu doesn't try to hide the fact that the scene has made him teary-eyed, but when he moves to join their hug, both Kaede and Barnaby snap apart, looking sheepishly at him and not each other.

"I have to get my gifts for you!" Kaede says, climbing off the couch and kicking a piece of wrapping paper with a shy grin. "I'll be right back."

Of course, no sooner has Kaede disappeared upstairs when there's a knock at the front door, and though Kotetsu wishes he could stay on the couch with Barnaby, he jumps up to get it anyway. "Are we expecting company?" he calls back over his shoulder at his mother and brother, who both shrug suspiciously in response.

Kotetsu yanks the door open, a welcoming smile on his face, and stops short when he sees who is waiting on the other side. "Antonio!" he yells in surprise, pulling his old friend into a huge hug. "What are you doing here?"

Antonio lifts Kotetsu off the ground when he hugs him back, taking a step inside the doorway to reveal that he's not alone.

"Agnes Claus sent us last minute," Nathan answers for Antonio, swishing past the both of them and into the living room to greet the rest of the family. He's wearing the most elaborate holiday outfit ever – crushed red velvet, black leather and shiny gold trim – and carrying necklaces woven from tinsel, which he drops on each Kaburagi's head in turn. "Emergency present delivery~!" he gives a wink to Kotetsu's mother, who he'd called yesterday, after all, and then his eyes pause to linger on one Mr. Barnaby Brooks, Jr., white-faced and frozen like a rabbit under a spotlight.

"Wait a minute, Agnes actually gave the two of you the day off?" Kotetsu says, scratching the back of his head, unable to keep the mix of emotions – surprise, joy, melancholia – off of his face.

"Who said only two?" another voice booms, and it's at this moment that Kaede reappears in the kitchen doorway behind her grandmother's chair, her eyes going huge as Keith pushes his way into the room as well, dragging Ivan by one elbow. "And again, only two?"

"Merry Christmas," Ivan says softly, presenting a bouquet of exquisite paper flowers in a myriad of colors to Kotetsu's mother. "Thank you for hosting us, de gozaru."

"Really," Antonio finally cuts in, crossing his arms over his chest and trying to take a step away from Nathan before his butt can be pinched mid-sentence. "I mentioned to Agnes that I wanted to pay my old friend Kotetsu a visit this holiday, his first back at home, and she asked me to make a delivery."

"But as soon as I heard that Sweetcheeks here was headed this way, I couldn't possibly pass up the opportunity to tag along," Nathan smiles around at the group, glad to see his family together again. It's been too quiet without Handsome and Wild Tiger's squabbling… much too quiet. His eyes flicker over to Barnaby again, who hasn't said a word, and he raises one finely plucked eyebrow in curiosity.

"I had hoped to spend this holiday with my fellow hero friends," Keith adds, gesturing wide with one hand. "So when I found that this trip was planned, I asked to be included, and thus invited Ivan as well."

"But Agnes didn't trust any of them with such an important delivery," a new voice cuts in, and the boys back aside to let Karina and Pao-lin into the now over-crowded room, each carrying a small wrapped gift, red for latter and green for the former. "So she insisted that we go along as well, to make sure nothing gets broken."

Pao-lin nods and crosses the room to present the red gift to Barnaby with a smile. "Besides, it seemed right that we should all get to be together for a little while today."

Karina turns and holds out the green gift to Kotetsu, lips quirking in half a smile. She'll never admit it out loud, especially in front of anyone, but it's been a little sad without the two of them around. "Go ahead, open them."

Barnaby and Kotetsu meet eyes from opposite sides of the room, both a bit overwhelmed by the sudden houseguests, reminders of their real… old lives, but they both pull the paper off to reveal plain white plastic boxes. Without a word, Kotetsu suddenly crosses the room, sitting down on the couch beside Barnaby as if he feels it's important they experience this together. Kotetsu thinks he knows what's in the box, instinct, intuition, maybe, and as he and Bunny simultaneously lift the lids, he finds that he's absolutely right.

"I don't understand…" Barnaby says softly as he looks as his call bracelet inside the white box. "We can't…" Beside him, Kotetsu says nothing, but the tension in his shoulders makes his feelings clear to Barnaby easily.

"We know, honey," Nathan says sympathetically, coming around behind the couch to touch Barnaby's shoulder lightly, then Kotetsu's.

Antonio gestures to Keith with a "get on with it" roll of his hand, and the wind master snaps to attention. "Agnes wants you to have those, forever! Things are changing at Apollon now…"

"Those belong to both of you," Karina cuts him off, reaching to take Kotetsu's out of the box and dangle it in front of his face. "Not because we're trying to tell you what to do or that you have to come back. Just so that… you can always call on us."

"Because we are all family," Keith adds, tugging Ivan closer and reaching with his free hand to touch Pao-lin's shoulder. "We should never lose touch."

"Sometimes something just feels like the right thing to do, so you should do it," Ivan supports him and then points at Barnaby's box. "We all think… everyone feels you should have those, so, please… accept this gift."

Nathan watches the way the two partners conference in eyes and minute gestures, and he suddenly knows. It's there somewhere in between Kotetsu's head tilt, Barnaby's lip quirk, the unspoken body language – something has changed, he's convinced. And thrilled.

Kotetsu finally nods slowly, reaching out to take his green call bracelet from Karina's hand. "Once a hero, always a hero…" He's more than a little moved by the gesture, so much so that his hand actually shakes as he clicks the bracelet back in its rightful place. He's missed it dearly.

"I accept," Barnaby replies simply, withdrawing his own and snapping his into place as well. Underneath the bracelet, there is an envelope with his name on it in Saito's handwriting, but he snaps the box shut before anyone notices, vaguely uncomfortable.

There's a horribly awkward moment of silence in the room, and then…

"Who's watching the city?" Barnaby asks suddenly in alarm at the same time as Kotetsu says, as if he's just catching up to the entire barrage, "Wait, Agnes is in charge now?" and the conversation dissolves from there.

Kaede bounces from conversation to conversation as everyone makes the rounds of the room, so excited that she can hardly contain herself. All of the heroes of Sternbild are here at her house for Christmas and it's soooo awesome! The presents she'd brought down for Barnaby and her father are forgotten in her grandmother's lap as she tries to talk to everyone at once, offers to take jackets, get cookies, make cocoa, show off her presents…

Kotetsu can't help but play host when everyone has invaded his family's home, and he's off to the kitchen as soon as he can escape to collect glasses for drinks, and also to give himself a moment of breathing space. He hovers at the kitchen counter, fingering his bracelet thoughtfully, feeling a little guilty at having left his partner to the mercy of their friends. On the other hand, he knows just how flawless Barnaby's professional face can be and… and a lot has changed between them in only a few days. He doesn't know if Barnaby wants any of that revealed to anyone when they've hardly begun to figure it out for themselves and the timing of this visit is, as always with Kotetsu's luck, woefully awful.

Barnaby is tense right now, that much Kotetsu can tell, but he's worried that if he tries to get him to loosen up, he's only going to make it worse. Can they simply act like they always have? Not that he really thinks most of the other heroes would notice anything different… Kotetsu smacks himself in the forehead for how dramatic he feels like he's being about this, and thinks that maybe if he just keeps a little distance, he won't accidentally say something dumb or touch Barnaby absent-mindedly in a way that seems too… intimate. He's always been pretty good at following his partner's lead, but perhaps a little extra help on their side… perhaps getting everyone a little more… relaxed.

It's too easy, way too easy, when he finds the enormous pitcher of eggnog in the refrigerator. One swipe through the liquor cabinet – after all, he does know his alcohol by family trade – and he's spiked the holiday delight to loosen everyone up just the right amount.

Maybe it's not the best coping mechanism ever, but it's tried and true and it's still Kotetsu's favorite after all these years. And it's Christmas… he just wants everyone to be a little extra happy.

Kotetsu first carries out the pitcher of eggnog, the bottle of rose wine and a bottle of cola. He returns to the kitchen again, avoiding Nathan just before he "accidentally" stations himself closer to the mistletoe. Winding his fingers around half a dozen wine glasses in each hand, he returns again to the living room, handing them around. Once he has only his own left, he tugs Kaede by the arm, pretending to give her a hug as he whispers cheerfully in her ear. "Don't drink the eggnog."

"That stuff is gross anyway," She rolls her eyes at him and turns back to Ivan and Keith. Ivan is teaching her to fold tiny origami cranes out of the wrapping paper, but he's so ridiculously fast that she hasn't quite grasped it yet.

Next, Kotetsu catches Pao-lin by the shoulder as she's following his mother into the kitchen to help start on the sweet potatoes and says, very seriously. "Don't drink the eggnog."

Pao-lin looks at him like he's absolutely crazy and shakes her head, walking off, and finally Kotetsu turns to look at Karina, across the room, now sitting with Kaede, Keith and Ivan. She's making snowflakes on one hand while Kaede uses Sky High's wind powers to float them in mid-air, right alongside half a dozen colorful cranes. "I'll teach you snowflakes next, Kaede, if you want…"

Naaah Kotetsu thinks to himself, and says nothing to her of the eggnog as he circles the room, pouring all of his friends a drink. He ends beside his daughter, watching as she attempts to master the wind control enough to keep the cranes circling in a lazy spiral. Ivan keeps jumping to catch them as they spin away, tossing them playfully towards Keith so that his friend can flick them with one wind spiral back into Kaede's circuit.

When he sees Antonio and Muramasa heading for the kitchen, both being assaulted by Nathan under the mistletoe, Kotetsu tries to use them as a distraction to slip into the kitchen as well with little success.

"Wait just a minute, Tiger," Nathan coos, grabbing him by the wrist as he finally lets Antonio and Muramasa escape. "Don't you want your turn under the mistletoe with this fine lady?"

"Ahaha, of course," Kotetsu knows it's always faster just to play along, and he leans in to give his friend a big, sloppy kiss on the cheek. He's glad that someone is having fun with the mistletoe, but of course, things are never that simple with Nathan.

"Deliciously spicy eggnog, Kotetsu," Nathan leans closer to tell him, his other hand snagging Kotetsu's collar swiftly to keep him in place, adding in a whisper. "And an awfully blushing Bunny you've got yourself for Christmas."

Kotetsu's face colors sharply, giving himself away far too quickly, and he squirms out of Nathan's hold as fast as possible. "Have another eggnog, then!"

Nathan only chuckles in response, and then he smiles sweetly at Barnaby when his eyes flicker in their direction from where he is still seated on the couch, watching Kaede's display with the others.

Kotetsu is only too grateful to escape to the kitchen, where Pao-lin is cheerfully helping his mother with dinner preparations, and he steals a cookie from the open tin on the table. He has no idea how Nathan knows so quickly that something is different, but Kotetsu decides that passing back into the living room and giving him further chance to query or observe right now is not the best idea.

Thankfully, his brother and Antonio have moved to the back porch with bottles of beer despite the frigid weather, where they are talking about older days and catching up on each other's news. It's a safe haven from the madness his house has become in the last ten minutes and they both nod in Kotetsu's direction when he cracks open a beer and leans gratefully against the railing to join them.

Back inside the house, Ivan and Keith have moved to sit on the couch with Barnaby while Karina teaches Kaede how to make snowflakes, and he finds himself finally calming down. He's only on his third glass of wine, and it helps that the distraction of Kotetsu has finally left the room. It's a little easier to pretend like nothing at all has changed, and that they're just at another work function, another party where he can wear his polite face.

The city has been quiet since Maverick's end, but Barnaby listens to Keith's updates with interest, realizing that he still genuinely cares about the city he calls home, even if he's no longer its hero. After all, his parents' research is at the foundation of Apollon's hero suits, so he suspects he'll always have ties to this business no matter what he chooses to do with his life next.

"I am glad to hear that things have been peaceful," Barnaby tells Keith, surprised when Ivan cuts in.

"Things seem peaceful here too," he observes with a small smile. "You and Kotetsu look happier and much better rested than we've seen in the last month. It's a great relief, truly, for we all worried about the both of you upon your departure."

"I… " Barnaby starts, at a loss for words at the concern, but both Keith and Ivan are easy to talk to, and after the last week of his life, he finds it's not that hard, opening up to them. "I have been quite happy here, yes," he finally settles on. He's vaguely embarrassed after that exchange, though, and excuses himself from the conversation to retrieve another bottle of wine from the kitchen.

It's true, that he's been happier here in the last week than he really ever remembers being, except maybe during the stretch between Jake and Maverick. Ivan's words give him pause, make him wonder if his sempai sees the "more" that has grown between him and his partner, make him wonder how they would all respond if they knew the truth.

At the same moment in time, Kotetsu has finished his beer, and a little chilly without a jacket, he leaves his brother and Antonio with the excuse of checking on dinner and Kaede. He actually really wants to check on Barnaby too, and when he sees that Nathan has taken a seat at the table, helping Pao-lin peel potatoes, he knows the coast is clear.


Or not.

Barnaby and Kotetsu, each lost to their own thoughts, collide with each other in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, Kotetsu tripping and landing half in Barnaby's arms. Behind them, Nathan titters and points above their heads, and both partners go sheet white in the same instant.

"That's the way it's supposed to happen!" Kaede points out without even thinking about it, and then covers her mouth with one hand as she realizes what exactly she's insinuating.

There's an easy way out of this, Kotetsu thinks as he straightens up and catches his partner's eyes. He can just lean in, give him a quick peck on the cheek, and no one will be the wiser…

Barnaby stares back into Kotetsu's eyes, his hands going automatically to his partner's shoulders to steady him. For a moment, he thinks that Kotetsu is going to brush it all off with a laugh, avoidant and unserious, the way he so often does… and finds himself surprisingly disappointed at the thought.

Kotetsu sees the sad look flicker through his partner's eyes and that's all it takes to make the decision. Knowing that both rooms are currently riveted to the two of them, Kotetsu follows his heart without thought for the consequences. Lifting one hand, he tilts Barnaby's face towards his, leans in and kisses him – really kisses him, tongue and all, right in front of their entire extended family.

Barnaby tenses for a second, his mind blanking in surprise, but then he smiles. Melting into the kiss, he slides one arm around his partner's shoulders as Kotetsu's other hand wraps around his waist to tug him in hip to hip.

"Wo-oow~!" Nathan is the first of the stunned audience to respond, clapping his hands in delight and cooing ridiculously cutesy comments at the two of them.

"DAAAD!" Kaede yelps as she gets over the moment of shock, covering her eyes, her entire face flaming red. "I don't want to see that much!"

"Well, it's a fine display of holiday love and cheer!" Keith says loudly, beaming from ear to ear. To him, there's hardly anything better than the warm sentiments of someone dear to you, and to see it among his friends is a gift indeed.

Ivan's cheeks are as red as Kaede's, but he is not entirely surprised. He's always thought that the two partners were a perfect fit for each other, and unconsciously, he leans a little into Keith, still sitting at his side, surprised and pleased when the other man's arm loops automatically around his shoulders in response.

Kotetsu hasn't finished kissing Barnaby yet, and even when he finally relents, he lingers close, nose-to-nose, looking only at his partner with a decidedly goofy grin.

"Don't tell me I missed it!" Antonio's voice suddenly booms behind them as he elbows Nathan out of the way. "Damn!"

"That's rii~ght~! The bet goes to me, as always! You owe me one fabulous night-on-the-town when we get home~!" Nathan steps back, but only to give himself better access to pinch Antonio's butt. For good measure, he pinches Barnaby's as well, laughing when the blond jumps a mile with a yelp. "Oh, Handsome, you're usually too guarded for me to catch you~!"

Pao-lin is still sitting at the kitchen table, the potato peeler in one hand, and she really doesn't understand why everyone's making such a big deal out of this. It's just mistletoe, and anyway, haven't those two been oddly close ever since that baby-sitting incident? Ages ago!

Barnaby finally takes a step back from Kotetsu, his expression pleased and more unguarded than usual.

Karina means to catch Barnaby's glance, as she's been glaring at him heatedly this entire time, a sour retort on the tip of her tongue. But when she sees the happy smile and the look of adoration for Kotetsu so honest in his eyes, it all slips away, and instead, she finds herself saying, "Well, everyone's always talking about how you're… the perfect team."

"It's because I have the best partner," Kotetsu beams, looping an arm around Barnaby's waist and turning to press a kiss into his temple.

"No, no, I do," Barnaby protests, mocking too many television interviews they'd done over the last year. With the secret out, he can't help but calm down a little, even if he's still most definitely embarrassed. Or maybe that's the bottle of wine.

"To think how well you got along that first day," Antonio remarks casually, and both rooms of friends snicker loudly, mocking them both.

"If this moment of holiday revelation is finally over," Kotetsu's mother suddenly calls from the kitchen. "Then it's time to start re-arranging the furniture so that everyone has a place to eat dinner! Teamwork Heroes!"

Somehow that motherly command gets to each and every one of them, and everyone begins to shuffle around the house, collecting chairs from different rooms, dragging another table out of the attic or continuing to help with preparations.

o/~ Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la la-la
Tis the season to be jolly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la ~/o

Kaede turns the music up on the radio and sings along when she's given the job of separating the biscuits onto trays to bake, and waits for the inevitable visit from her father.

Sure enough, once the group has scattered into different tasks, Kotetsu finds an excuse to sit beside his daughter while no one is around besides his mother. "Having a good Christmas, Kaede?" he asks rather lamely, not quite meeting her eyes as he ruffles her hair with one hand.

"It's okay, Dad," she says calmly, placing biscuit after biscuit on the tray without looking up.

"Just okay?" Kotetsu asks in confusion with a worried tilt of his head.

"It's okay if… if Barnaby is your boyfriend."

If Kotetsu had been drinking anything at the moment, he would have choked on it. As it is, he bites his tongue hard, garbling his response. "I…umm… ah… Kaede…"

Kaede sets the last biscuit on the tray and looks up, meeting her father's vaguely embarrassed expression with a soft smile. "He's good enough for you…" She pauses, and then adds, "You're good enough for him. You're better together. So, it's okay. Really."

Kotetsu thinks that he's cried way too much in the last few days, but Kaede does him in yet again. Pulling his daughter into his arms, he hugs her tightly, kissing the top of her head. "I love you, Kaede."

"I love you too, Dad," Kaede whispers, hugging him back hard. "Thanks for keeping your promise."

Everyone is good and tipsy by the time dinner is served, and Nathan and Keith escape the table early to plan a surprise in the backyard for everyone. The heroes must return to Sternbild before the day is through, but there's just enough time for Nathan's favorite holiday tradition – a roaring fire. Keith flies off into the nearby woods to grab enough kindling, and before long, they've got a sizable blaze going.

Nathan's bonfire is hot enough to melt the snow in a circle around it, and everyone trickles slowly outside to stand around the warmth together, watching the sparks snap in the dusk. The sky is completely clear, and it's much darker out in Oriental Town than in the city of Sternbild.

Barnaby finds Kotetsu at the fringes of the circle, just far enough out of the light to shadow his face as he gazes thoughtfully up at the stars. He doesn't say anything at first, but simply reaches out to take Kotetsu's hand, standing at his side and gazing up with him.

This is an old habit of theirs, the stargazing. It goes back to the early days of their partnership, just after Jake - the rides out of the city on the motorcycle and sidecar… after a bad day, a long day, a frustrating day, just to sit in companionable silence overlooking the city and watch the stars… to simply remember their tiny place in the universe as a whole.

"Orion's bright tonight…" Kotetsu says softly, tugging Barnaby in closer for warmth, for intimacy.

"Best time of the year for it…" Barnaby answers him back, and leans in to kiss his partner softly.

Karina and Kaede are making snowflakes now, giggling together as they send ribbons of them into the air, some melting above the heat, others fluttering higher to sparkle in the light before winking out.

There are marshmallows to roast, and Anju brings out mugs of cocoa to go with them. Every single one of them wishes the moment could stretch out into eternity, but all too soon, it's grown late and the call of protecting the city rises again.

After the blaze has died and the heroes have all said their bittersweet farewells, Kotetsu carries an exhausted Kaede to her room, leaving Barnaby alone in the living room, collecting the rest of the wrapping paper and garbage into a bag as an excuse for something to do.

It's then that Barnaby finds the two rolled-up papers on a chair, each tied with a red or a green ribbon. He sits down on the couch, slowly untying the red ribbon and unrolling the drawing. Running his fingertips over the crayon, his eyes fill with tears he can't quite explain. It might be because he remembers drawing things like this when he was a child… but if admits it to himself, truly, it's far more than that.

Kotetsu is momentarily worried when he finds his partner sitting alone on the couch, hastily wiping tears from his eyes. "Bunny…?"

Barnaby smiles to reassure him, and then hands Kotetsu his own rolled drawing. He doesn't know if they are the same, but…

Sitting down on the couch beside his partner, Kotetsu pulls off the ribbon and unrolls his own drawing, knowing very well that it's Kaede's forgotten gift. His heart stops for a moment when he sees the familiar image – the rainbow, Tomoe – but there underneath the streak of color, standing on Kaede's other side, holding the hand not already held by her father… is Barnaby.

"I never give her enough credit, do I?" Kotetsu says, wiping tears from his own eyes.

"I think you're getting better at it," Barnaby says, sincerely and yet with a trace of amusement. It's easier than addressing the true significance of the gesture, or what it will mean in the coming days and months.

Kotetsu pulls Barnaby into his arms and they curl up together, a jumble of limbs on the couch, lips brushing in a kiss. For now, they are together and their hearts are light.

There are a few minutes, technically, left to Christmas, when Kaede logs into the Hero TV forums, yawning. Truthfully, she's been posting on here for a while now, and knows she left her friends hanging after her post last week.

Clicking to upload her image, she grins to herself. She totally owes her dad for getting this shot.

It's so awesome that she can't help hoping the fangirls are all a little jealous to see her being lifted by Barnaby Brooks, Jr. to put the star on her Christmas Tree.

But that photo she snapped of Tiger & Bunny, asleep on the couch, wrapped lovingly in each other's arms?

That one she's keeping all to herself.