Barnaby holed up at home for the remainder of the day after Kotetsu's departure, and the next few days after that. He had rescheduled media appearances to cancel, business at Apollon to wrap up, and he wanted to do as much of it as possible remotely. He didn't want to meet waiting paparazzi yet, answer questions at the office, get the inevitable pitch from Lloyds or Agnes or both that he should stay.
He reluctantly left three interviews in January on the schedule - he did have fans who would want to know what had become of him - and he didn't intend to become a hermit permanently, but he didn't want to be seen, either. Not yet.
So he was more than slightly surprised by the tone of his doorbell, and then by Fire Emblem's face, projected to the size of his living room wall. "Handsome, if you could do me one teeny-tiny little favor..."
"Yes?" he asked, warily.
"Open the damn door already!"
"Ah, right. Sorry."
The gruff, snarling persona had vanished by the time the door was open, and Fire Emblem sashayed in, a broad smile on his face. "So this is the mysterious Barnaby lair," he said. "It's... minimalist. I like the indirect lighting."
"Thank you?" He wasn't entirely sure what had brought this on.
"I assume you can get in touch with your partner?"
"Er..." He actually hadn't heard from Kotetsu yet, and didn't know his new number. "Not at the moment. He said he needed to buy a new cell phone."
"He's already skipped town?" Fire Emblem deposited a shopping bag on the floor and place himself in the chair.
"He'd been making preparations to move since just after he returned from his vacation, apparently."
"So inconsiderate. I wanted to throw a retirement party for both of you. I guess we'll just have to do without him."
"I... don't think a party is necessary."
"Oh, it's so cute how you think your opinion matters!" Fire Emblem exclaimed, then added, more seriously, "If you really don't want one, say so now. I always throw a small Christmas party after we film the holiday special, and I was going to make it a retirement party because I didn't think you'd want a Christmas party."
"Well, I certainly wouldn't want the latter." Barnaby seated himself on the windowsill.
"Oh, don't be so distant. Come sit in my lap."
"This is fine, thank you," he said with dignity, only to be greeted by a peal of laughter. "Don't worry, I know I need more chairs."
"So would you attend?"
"I'd... prefer not to. I appreciate the offer, Fire Emblem, but..."
"Oh, call me Nathan. You're a civilian now. Excellent work fending off my pouting, by the way."
"I wish I could take credit for doing it deliberately."
"It's a feat few men can claim."
"I know I should probably... make a point of socializing. But I also feel I need some time to myself."
Nathan nodded. "I wanted to leave you something, either way." He fished something small out of his pocket, and Barnaby rose to take whatever it was - a trio of business cards. "Three therapists - specialties listed - who've all had experience dealing with hero issues. I can vouch for Dr. Miller."
Barnaby glanced at the cards. Dr. Sylvia Miller. Psychologist. "You've seen her? Or is that too personal?"
"It's... a bit on the personal side," Nathan said. After a moment, he added, soberly, "I have seen her. Guilt's part of this job."
Guilt, Barnaby thought. He'd pulled the trigger. "Thank you, Nathan." Barnaby stood still as Nathan rose, reclaimed his bag, and kissed him on the cheek.
"Thank you, sweetie. Call me if you decide you're coming to the party, and I'll get the planner to tone down the evergreens. And if you're not, well, keep in touch anyway."
"All right," he said, trying out a smile. Nathan beamed in response.
He finally got Kotetsu's new phone number the day after Nathan's visit, when Kotetsu called to check on him. "Mom told me I should have invited you for Christmas," Kotetsu said. "Sorry I didn't think of that earlier, but hey, if you wanna come, we've got plenty of room! It'd make Kaede's year. I mean, like, next year. I guess making her year with a week left in it isn't that big a deal."
It was so good to see Kotetsu's face again, to see him smiling as he talked about Kaede, that Barnaby nearly agreed. "I'd feel a bit like I was intruding," was what he finally said. "Maybe next year? If Kaede's not too disappointed..."
"Didn't mention it to her yet," Kotetsu said. "I knew you wanted some time alone to get your head together, so I didn't want to get her hopes up."
With a pang of guilt, he admitted, "I'm actually attending Fire Emblem's party. Probably not for long, but he did invite me... he wanted to invite you as well."
"Nah, not for me this year," Kotetsu said. "Shame though. I'd like to see everybody. Didn't really make much of a goodbye."
"I thought that was deliberate."
"Kinda." Kotetsu looked away from the screen, and Barnaby's eyes narrowed.
"Is something wrong? Or is there something you're not telling me?"
"No, I... I guess I just called to see you," Kotetsu said. "Sorry. I didn't have much else to say."
"That's nothing to apologize for," Barnaby said. "Why would I have any objections to that?"
"I dunno, 'cause I'm kind of wasting your time?"
"Kotetsu. I have all the time in the world right now. What about you? Are you busy?"
"Nah, Kaede's at school, and my brother hasn't put me to work in the store yet, so I'm just taking it easy."
"Yeah, the family business is a liquor store."
"This explains a great deal about your habits."
"Hey!" Kotetsu protested, laughing, and Barnaby settled back in his chair, smiling at the sight. It felt good just to wander into conversation, to hear Kotetsu actually telling him things about his hometown and his family, and the fact it was all a phone call removed some of the tension, the pressure; much as he might want to be with Kotetsu, right now, he felt certain it would blow up in his face, and it was good to have that danger removed.
The next day, Barnaby decided he'd better call Nathan to inform him of the plans he'd announced to Kotetsu earlier. "I may not stay long," he warned. "So there's really no need to adjust the party's entire theme on my account."
"Oh, Handsome, I can't wait!" Nathan exclaimed. "I'll adjust the playlist. It doesn't have to be opera, does it?"
"No, that's not necessary," Barnaby said, smiling a bit. "I'll see you there."
It couldn't hurt, could it, to have something to distract him on the 24th? He'd still make sure to visit his parents. That was always how he thought of it; not as visiting their graves, but as visiting them. The only point of connection to them he had. The skeleton of the house had been cleared away long ago, the property sold; the mementoes he had and their graves were what was left.
The cemetary where they were buried was at the edge of town; a different one than Aunt Samantha's family chose. She'd had a grown daughter, at least a few grandchildren; the obituary said three grandchildren, and she'd also been survived by her brother and his family. He attended the funeral, and sent flowers as well as the donation to charity, but slipped out without speaking to her family. He didn't know if they'd know him, except as a hero, or how much they knew of Maverick's plot, but he couldn't face them knowing that she'd died because of him.
He forced himself to leave the house, one day, to try to find Christmas gifts; Kotetsu's present was still sitting, wrapped, on the table in his living room, and he felt the need to return the favor somehow. He finally decided on a liquor store, where he could pick up a bottle of wine for Fire Emblem - Nathan - and ask an employee to recommend a good shochu. Knowing what Kotetsu's brother did for a living made the idea seem distinctly redundant, but he didn't have any others. Maybe he could claim that he bought the gift before he knew.
He had all the time in the world. He could do whatever he wanted, if only he knew what that was. He ordered some travel brochures from an agency - he could have just looked up the information online, but there was too much, he didn't know where to start - and looked at photos of palaces and fjords and cathedrals. He'd taken some Italian classes, back when he was in high school, because his mother had loved Italian operas. Maverick had told him that. Did that mean it wasn't true?
Maverick had known his parents, had been their friend, until he'd murdered them. He'd been one of Barnaby's other points of connection to them; him, and Aunt Samantha. He'd raised Barnaby, hadn't he? Surely not all of those memories were false. Could you spend twenty years with someone and not care about him, at least a little, even if you were ready to replace him with a robot when he got out of your control?
Aunt Samantha had mentioned his mother's fondness for Italy, too. So maybe Maverick had sometimes been honest.
By Christmas Eve, it still hadn't snowed. The crunch of brown grass beneath his feet was the only sound, though other graves bore evergreen wreaths, poinsettia arrangements, and in one case, a tiny, fully-decorated artificial tree, signs that others had made the same trip he was making.
He just brought lilies. His mother had carried calla lilies at their wedding; he'd seen the photo.
He wondered if he'd ever stop looking for proof of every memory he called up, like citing a page number in a paper for school.
"I know, now," he said, kneeling by the headstone. "I'm sorry it took me so long. I'm sorry it cost so much. Aunt Samantha..." His eyes prickled with tears; he felt guilty, crying again when Aunt Samantha hadn't even been his mother or his sister or his real aunt. He wasn't her family, just the reason she'd died. If he hadn't grown so paranoid and suspicious she'd never have revisited that day. She'd never have found proof that would make Maverick silence her; she'd never have been sacrificed to a plan to take both her and Kotetsu out of his life.
And he'd never have learned the truth. He wasn't sure it was worth it.
"Lunatic killed him," Barnaby said. "I wish I felt worse about that. I should think it's wrong. Intellectually, I guess I do. It wasn't like he was a danger anymore. But the only reason I can come up with to regret his death is that we had no way of getting any answers out of him." He drew a deep breath, unsure if he wanted to even voice the thought. "If anyone deserved the kind of death Lunatic inflicts, it was him. I'm sorry. I know you probably wouldn't agree with that. Kotetsu doesn't, either."
He looked around the cemetary. The wind brought him a snatch of human voices, too distant for him to make out the words; he saw a car some ways away. He wondered how many other people had the anniversary of a death today. "You'd like Kotetsu, I think," he said. "You'd probably start to like him a lot sooner than I did." He tried to imagine bringing Kotetsu to the house he remembered, shaking hands with his parents. He wondered what he'd have been like, himself, if he'd had more time with his parents. "I'll bring him here sometime. Maybe in the spring, when he comes for a visit and all the trees are in bloom."
He stood, brushing dry grass from his knees. "I miss you both so much," he said softly. "I wish I felt like I'd done something to get justice for you. I wish I didn't need to."
The address Nathan had sent him was a distance from the center of town, nestled up in the mountains. He followed the winding, narrow road up, feeling his tension growing with each turn.
The road widened out in front of a builiding best described as a mansion. The gates stood open in front of a winding driveway; Barnaby spotted a Hero TV van as he drove closer, and sighed. He should have expected cameras. He parked, but sat a moment in the car, nerving himself up to go inside. He'd just dressed as he usually did, and it occurred to him for the first time that this might be more formal. He hadn't thought to ask.
Clutching his wine bottle like a lifeline, he walked up to the door.
Nathan flung it open at his knock. He was wearing a Santa hat in pink, instead of red, with a glittery gold puffball in place of the white pom-pom. Barnaby half-expected to find that he was wearing a dress in a similar theme, but no, he seemed to be dressed about the way he normally did otherwise. "So glad you're here, Handsome," he trilled, air-kissing him audibly on both cheeks. "Come inside! Wine? You shouldn't have." Barnaby trailed in his wake, steeling himself to the sound of "Jingle Bells." Maybe he shouldn't have reassured Nathan about the music.
He saw a number of Hero TV staff, without the yellow jackets or any cameras. Thank God. Sky High, Rock Bison - no masks, he realized. "Everyone here's a Hero TV employee," Nathan said. "No sponsors, no bosses - well, okay, Agnes is here." He inclined his head across the room - Agnes stood at the bar, holding some kind of cocktail. He saw Sky High, sending several paper cranes aloft on a gust of wind; Origami was sitting on the couch, folding another crane, while Dragon Kid seemed to be trying to catch the paper birds out of midair.
"It's a Wonderful Life is on in the TV room," Blue Rose said from around the vicinity of his elbow.
"I could never get past the title on that one," he said, turning to face her. "Kotetsu's not here."
"Did I say anything about him? I was just letting you know." She flounced off, the pom-pom on her Santa hat bouncing. Hers was blue. Was Nathan just handing them out as party favors? He hoped there wasn't one with bunny ears waiting for him.
Barnaby didn't really know what he'd expected, but no one seemed much altered by their experience at the top of the statue. Maybe they'd all been shaken, as much as he was, and they just weren't letting it show; they were at a party, after all. He knew they'd all been frightened, and battered, and they'd taken Kotetsu's apparent loss hard, but they hadn't had the responsibility for his injuries, or the ties to Maverick. Maybe it was natural that he was the only one who felt permanently changed.
He poured himself a glass of soda and took up a position near the wall. He let the noise wash over him until it no longer sounded like Christmas carols and a dull roar, catching snippets of conversation here and there - "I'm just saying Hanukkah ended a week ago, it really is just a Christmas special," and "None of this year's graduating class is first-league material," and "Can you make dragons?" - and wondering if it would be rude to just leave now. He'd come. He'd greeted Nathan. He wasn't good at parties, not when he didn't have a job to do like charming the sponsors or being the guest of honor. He didn't understand what went into enjoying them.
Maybe he'd thought he should say his goodbyes to everyone, but had he really had friends among the heroes, other than Kotetsu? He'd still be in Stern Bild. It wasn't as though he couldn't see them if he wanted to.
He set down the plastic cup and slipped out the way he'd come. Nathan, he suspected, would not be surprised.
He'd intended to mail Kotetsu's gift, but the clerk at the post office counter had noticed the sloshing sound the package made and explained to him that it couldn't be mailed. She'd been very polite, and she'd clearly recognized him, and he'd nodded understandingly and left. Instead, he took a photo of it at home the night he returned from the party, and texted it to Kotetsu with the words "Merry Xmas!"
"You better not have opened yours yet," Kotetsu responded. "Tomorrow morning only."
Barnaby thought of calling him, but it was already after eleven, and Kotetsu was probably in the midst of Christmas celebrations with his family. Or wrapping last-minute gifts, or assembling a bike for Kaede, or something along those lines. He'd wait for Kotetsu to call.
His gift, he learned the next morning, was a stuffed tiger. He smiled and placed it with that odd pink bunny, which he'd taken out of the linen closet now that the odds that anyone would be at his apartment to see it were greatly reduced.