Disclaimer: All Tiger & Bunny elements belong to Sunrise.

Practice
Chapter 12: Epiphany

by archfaith

There had been sake, plenty of it. A variety of snacks hawked by sellers in yukatas, alternating between cooking their wares and taking cash from their patrons. The crowds of people, young, old, and in-between. Karina, with her half-mask, and the Sky High plush nestled inside her pouch. And Barnaby, eyebrows knit, giving him an incredulous stare.

Kotetsu raised his head.

The pounding headache he had been trying to suppress suddenly came to hit him again, and he sank back down into his pillow with a groan. He should have known better than to drink so much, but then again, who was he kidding? He always knew better. The testament to his weak will lay in the empty beer and wine bottles strewn about his apartment, not to mention the unopened cache he hid in the drawers beneath the stairs. If excessive drinking was some sort of problem, he reasoned, it hadn't stopped him being a hero for all those years after Tomoe passed away. He knew to control it, when to refrain from indulging himself.

Just once in a while is fine. That was what he wanted to believe, anyway.

He mustered the strength to open his eyes. He was dressed in his underwear and undershirt, lying face up on his bed above the covers. His spied his yukata and obi neatly folded on top of the chest of drawers in the corner. Bunny, he thought simply. Somehow, Barnaby always stuck by him during these escapades; despite the disapproving glances and chagrined looks, Barnaby would be by his side, through thick and thin. No matter how drunk he got at any bar or lounge, if Barnaby was with him, he knew he would end up home by the end of the night.

He sat up slowly, though the room still seemed a little fuzzy in his vision. His head still throbbed, but he knew these headaches would only last until the early afternoon; he had gotten used to hangovers by now. A quick glance to the digital clock on his night table told him that it was already 11 A.M; it was Sunday, and a day for resting up for the coming week. But there was no doubt there would be a crime to deal with later in the day; every time he thought he would get a few hours to himself, his call band sounded, and off he went to be Wild Tiger again.

He swung his legs off the bed and stood on slightly wobbly legs. He pushed the hair back from his eyes, his fingers sliding down to the cat-shaped beard on his chin. Need to shave, he thought dully. I must look terrible.

Luckily, there was no one to observe his morning appearance. In the old days, back when he and Tomoe had lived together in Stern Bild, he would always make sure to look his best when he woke. He would leave Tomoe lying blissfully in bed, rushing to the bathroom to make himself presentable. She would inevitably be awake by the time he returned, smiling, asking why he went to the trouble to shave and comb his hair when they saw each other each day.

So much for that.

Scratching the back of his head absently, Kotetsu ambled over to the closet in the corner, pulling out a nondescript gray robe that Muramasa had given him as a birthday present. His older brother had never been very imaginative, and his gifts were much the same-boring and practical. But the robe worked. It functioned, it had its purposes. At least it still has its purposes.

He slipped the bathrobe around his shoulders and opened the door to his room. He carefully descended the staircase, going down slowly since he still felt dizzy. If he couldn't get back to sleep, perhaps he could at least try to sober up. He had promised Kaede that he would proofread one of her school essays first thing in the morning. She was much like Tomoe in regards to being responsible for schoolwork; he had no doubt that she had already e-mailed the essay to him, and was now waiting impatiently by her computer for his response. In his younger days he had never been a good student, but he could at least try to help her. As much as he tried to be there for her in any capacity he could be, the distance between them had never fully healed. When he had spent a year at home with his family, it had been Kaede who told him that he was becoming a couch potato. He had sensed that there was a deeper sentiment in her childish scolding.

Maybe one day, when she's older, he told himself as he reached the bottom stair. Then she can-

The idle thoughts evaporated out of his mind as he observed the scene on the couch.

Barnaby was lying on his back, eyes firmly shut, his normally perfect hair askew. This may not have been so surprising to Kotetsu, but it was the addition which made him curious-Karina was sprawled out on top of him, her head tucked under his chin, fingers spread against his chest. They were both dressed in underclothes; Barnaby was in black undershorts, and Karina in a pink bra and panties. Their yukatas and obis had been laid out neatly on the small loveseat across from the long couch.

Both were fast asleep, Barnaby's chest rising every few seconds with a calm, peaceful rhythm. One arm was draped over the front of couch, but the other hand was resting against the small of Karina's back. Kotetsu suddenly noted that Karina's hand was curled firmly around Barnaby's glasses, resting inside her closed palm on top of his chest.

What are they...?

If it only been Barnaby, it might not have been so surprising. Barnaby had escorted Kotetsu home a number of times before, when the older man had too much to drink; Kotetsu knew that his partner would sometimes stay an extra hour or so after making sure Kotetsu was safely in bed. But Barnaby had never elected to stay the night. When Kotetsu would emerge in the morning with his inevitable hangover, the only sign that Barnaby had been there at all would be the presence of a slightly cleaner, less cluttered living room. Barnaby had never enjoyed sleeping in beds that weren't his own; even when the duo had been called to work on an action movie a few months back, Barnaby had grudgingly agreed to stay at the luxury hotel provided to them by the film crew.

The presence of Karina made Kotetsu even more confused. He knew that she and Barnaby had been trying to know each other a little better, but had it gotten to the point where she was comfortable sleeping in his arms? It was odd-when they had all gone out together the night before, she and Barnaby had been acting so comfortable with each other that Kotetsu could have sworn they had been old friends or something.

He stood there for a few moments, watching the sleeping pair. They looked so peaceful with each other, so quiet. He had seen Barnaby asleep countless times before, mostly during the nights when his partner let Kotetsu stay over at his apartment after a drinking session. Barnaby had never offered him his bed when Kotetsu stayed over, but the older man had to admit-he would not have minded sharing it. He was still confused about his feelings towards Barnaby; he had never been attracted to men in his young adulthood, but there was something about Barnaby that was magnetic. It hadn't been that way at first, not when they had first known each other. But something-he wasn't sure what-had formed between them in the two years they had known each other. It didn't help that they spent so much time together, during their work as heroes and in their off time. Kotetsu had often caught himself staring at the outline of his partner's form as they rode together in the Double Chaser, or watching the delicate eyelashes that framed Barnaby's green eyes.

Yet the feelings had nowhere to go, and had eventually tapered down over the past few months. The year that he and Barnaby had spent apart had been good for them, he reflected. Although he had missed the days when he and Barnaby patrolled the streets as Tiger and Bunny, he appreciated the quiet days spent at home with Kaede, his mom, and Muramasa. It had helped to take his mind off Barnaby, at any rate. Now, back with Barnaby in Stern Bild, he had had inklings of those old feelings rising up again. He had sometimes wondered what kind of pair they would make if they became romantic with each other, but he resigned himself to the fact that Barnaby seemed highly uninterested in anything resembling a relationship. Besides, what would a handsome young guy like him want with an old man? Kotetsu thought glumly.

His thoughts turned to Karina. He had never seen her asleep before. Her eyes were closed lightly, and she sighed as she shifted against Barnaby's chest. She really is cute, Kotetsu reflected. She had started out so young in her career as a hero; she had been barely sixteen when she first appeared as Blue Rose. Kotetsu had watched her rise to fame with interest, although his fondness for her had grown into something else along with her age. He recalled what he'd told Barnaby a few weeks earlier, when he'd discovered that his partner and Karina had slept in the same bed. If I was as young as you, I don't know if I could have kept my hands off her.

It was the truth. He hadn't meant to say it in such a casual way, but he acknowledged that he had never been one to think things through. Karina was young and ambitious, even if her sentiments as a hero were misplaced. If they had been closer in age, he might have considered going after her. But that was only a wistful thought. Hell, if he and Barnaby had been closer in age...

Too much baggage, he thought dully, throwing a glance over to the framed wedding photo of himself and Tomoe, resting on a side table. Such a broken old man.

Bringing his thoughts back to the scene before him, he raised an eyebrow as he observed Barnaby and Karina. Those two have to be careful, he thought to himself. A few more nights snuggling up like this and they might even start to...

...like each other.

The realization hit him swiftly, and he almost took a step back in his surprise. The thought sped through his mind, starting at the base of his skull and trickling down through his chest, his stomach, all the way down to his legs and to the tips of his toes.

They like each other.

Barnaby and Karina...they had begun to talk to each other more, both onscreen for HeroTV and in their off-duty hours. Barnaby had gone after Karina after her mishap with the wine at Nathan's club; they had emerged from the guest suite the next day, confessing they had slept in the same bed together. And now, only last night, they had arranged to go to the Harvest Festival with each other.

They like each other.

Kotetsu almost smacked himself in frustration. How could he not have noticed before? There had been signs, now that he looked back on it-the concerned look Barnaby had on his face as he went to tend to Karina's injury, the curious tone that Karina had in her voice when she summoned Barnaby's call band. And the looks on both of their faces as they emerged to breakfast in Nathan's kitchen. They had both looked so surprised and embarrassed to reveal themselves. And I only egged them on!

He looked back to their sleeping forms, blissfully unaware that he was thinking about them. Such a strange couple they made-he never would have guessed that out of all the possible combinations, Barnaby and Karina would willingly chose to start seeing each other. But of course, it had probably gone past the point of just trying out the relationship.

They must have really good sex.

He shook his head in embarrassment, mortified that the thought had even crossed his mind. But he could not help but wonder about this point. They were both healthy, athletic, decidedly attractive. He assumed they had both been virgins, though they had most likely left this title behind them back in Nathan's penthouse a few weeks ago. It was hard not to imagine what happened when they were alone together...

Barnaby shifted slightly, and Kotetsu felt a jolt of surprise, wondering if he could somehow sense that his own partner had been contemplating his love life. The blonde opened his eyes slightly, squinting in the late morning light. His eyes first traveled down to Karina's partially nude form, although they did not seem to carry any hint of surprise there. Next, he raised his eyes to Kotetsu, a few steps away from the couch.

Kotetsu mustered a smile and raised a hand to scratch the back of his head. "Good morning, Bunny," he said, plastering a smile on his face. He could already sense it was too late; he could practically feel his cheeks turning red.

"Good morning," Barnaby answered, his voice slightly heavy from sleep.

"I'm sorry that you and Rose had to bring me back here. I overdid it again."

"As usual."

"You decided to stay over?"

It seemed that Barnaby was only now noting the lateness of the morning hour, as his eyes noted the time on the clock above the television. "I was going to drive Karina home, but she insisted on staying for a while. I suppose we ended up falling asleep."

There was a pause here, as the two men stared at each other, Karina still fast asleep against Barnaby's chest.

Kotetsu dropped his hand, his expression growing serious. "You could have told me, you know."

Barnaby cocked his head. Any other person would have asked for clarification, but Kotetsu knew that Barnaby already understood what he was referring to. "I wasn't sure how to address it," he said after a few moments.

Kotetsu raised an eyebrow. "You weren't sure?" he repeated. "How about, 'Hey Tiger, Karina and I are seeing each other'. That sort of thing."

Barnaby sighed, and Karina's prone body rose slightly against his own. "It's not that easy," he answered. "There were a lot of factors. We...Karina and I...we're new to this kind of relationship."

Kotetsu crossed his arms over his chest. "I know," he said. "I was just thinking maybe I could give you guys some pointers, that's all."

Barnaby made a small sound then, something between a sigh and a chuckle. "You?" he repeated. "That's an interesting assumption."

"You forget that I was happily married for over ten years?"

"I didn't," Barnaby answered smoothly. "But that was a much different situation than this one."

"Well," Kotetsu said simply, and for once he found that he had nothing to say. "Congratulations. I'm happy for you guys."

Barnaby raised an eyebrow. "I don't know if 'congratulations' is the right term here," he said. "But thanks."

Kotetsu still felt an odd feeling inside of him; he was confused about their relationship, and confused towards his feelings towards both of them. But this was no time to ponder the intricacies of a new relationship-for all he cared, it wasn't even his business to meddle about in the first place. "Hey, how about I make you guys breakfast?" he asked, deciding to grow a little more enthusiastic. "To thank you for bringing me home last night."

"If you insist," Barnaby answered. "Nothing too heavy though."

"No," Kotetsu agreed. "I'll whip up something light for the three of us." He turned to head into the kitchen. "You two can wash up if you need to."

Even though he was barely awake, Barnaby still managed to move gracefully. He merely nodded his head as Kotetsu turned to go into the kitchen. The older man pushed open the door, and strode across the floor to the cabinets. The odd feelings were still there, but he had to push them aside for now. He couldn't let the feelings of a tired old man interfere with this new connection Barnaby and Karina had made. It didn't matter how he felt about them, anyway-they didn't feel the same about him.

It's okay, he told himself as he took a few plates down from the cabinet. He had to be happy for them-they were young. Perhaps not in love-not yet, at any rate-but that could develop, in time. If it was really meant to turn out that way.

He resolved that he would try to watch out for them as best as he could.

...

Barnaby watched the door to the kitchen swing shut, a slight frown on his face. The entire matter could have been handled differently-he sensed that the time wasn't right for Kotetsu to know about him and Karina. There had to have been a better way.

He had not intended to stay the night on Kotetsu's couch. The night before, Karina had indicated that she was not in the mood for going home yet; they had elected to spend some time at Kotetsu's place, as Barnaby often did after bringing the old man home after a long night. They had only intended to talk for an hour or so, just to ensure that Kotetsu did not get into any trouble during his drunken state. They had tried watching some of Kotetsu's superhero DVDs, but one could only be interested in the exploits of Mr. Legend for so long.

The next thing he knew, Karina was nodding off next to him, her head on his shoulder as she sank in closer to him. He would have escorted her home just the same, but his own tiredness had gotten the best of him; it had been the least he could do to quickly undress the both of them, laying their yukatas out on the smaller couch before settling down with Karina. He had sworn that he had been wearing his glasses when he had fallen asleep, but Karina was now clutching them between her fingers.

He initially thought they would wake before Kotetsu and leave quickly, but those plans had gone awry. He had to admit-ever since he and Karina had started seeing each other, he had become a little less calm, less organized. No one else would notice, of course, since these changes were so tiny; but Barnaby himself was beginning to observe the changes in his demeanor. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? he thought to himself as Karina stirred slightly, raising her head with half-open eyes to peer at his face.

"Hey," she said, her voice raspy and idle.

"Good morning," he answered, tilting his head.

"Hmmm," she muttered, opening her eyes a little wider. She looked down at her closed palm, enveloped around his glasses. "Where..." she blinked a few times, her brown eyes bright against the sunlight of the couch.

Barnaby sighed. "We ended up staying over," he told her. "It was my plan to leave early in the morning, but Kotetsu beat us to it."

Her eyes widened. "He's awake?"

"Yes," he confirmed. "And he knows."

Karina was silent for a moment, her brows furrowed. He wondered what exactly she was thinking behind those reflective eyes. "How?"

Barnaby shook his head. "He just seemed to guess, I suppose. I guess his intuition finally caught up to him."

"Okay," she said simply. "Where is he?"

"He's making breakfast," Barnaby answered. "He expects us to stay for that, at least."

Karina shook her head against his chest. "This just gets weirder and weirder," she commented with a frown. "It's odd, trying to explain this to everyone."

"You think?" Barnaby answered. "I'm going to wash up. You'll have to give me back my glasses."

Though he expected her to hand them to him, she took the opportunity to unfold them herself, gently pushing them down onto the bridge of his nose. He could not help but give her a brief smile, though they stayed silent as Karina pushed herself up, and stood up on wobbly legs. Barnaby rose from the couch, stretching his arms with a catlike yawn. The pair proceeded to the stairs. "Did he see me in my underwear?" she commented dryly as she followed him up the stairs.

"What else?" he asked. "Besides, your Blue Rose outfit leaves about the same to the imagination." He looked down at his own, unclothed body. "I'm wearing as less clothes as you."

"But that's not the same," she argued as they reached the top of the stairs. Barnaby pushed open the door to the bathroom. "Haven't you seen each other changing before?"

"Well, those are some stories..." he began. He entered the bathroom and swiftly pushed open the shower curtain. "I'll go first," he said. "You can-"

He turned around, expecting to see her standing in the doorway; however, the door was now closed, and Karina was reaching behind her back. A quick snap, and the clasp of her bra came undone.

"I'll join you," she volunteered as she laid the bra on the counter. "We'll take less time if we shower together."

"We will?" Barnaby asked, raising an eyebrow. He honestly had not even thought of asking her to join him in the shower; they were in Kotetsu's house, after all, and he was feeling slightly nervous about the way Kotetsu had asked him about himself and Karina. The last thing he wanted to do was to play with temptation.

She shook her head, with just a hint of a smile playing on her face. "If you can control yourself, so can I," she offered.

"Is that a challenge?" he asked, lowering his voice. At any other time, he would have been tempted to take advantage of the situation; but here, the issue was time. And conduct, he thought. They had been rather thoughtless during their first tryst at Nathan's penthouse.

"No fooling around," she said, holding her hands up in the air. "I'll be good. If you are, that is."

He found that he did not really want to argue with her; besides, he felt that there was really no reason to. "Well, after you."

A few seconds later, they had both undressed; he stepped in after her nude form, pulling the shower curtain firmly behind him.

...

They knew when to be take their time, and when to be efficient. At any other moment in time, taking a shower together would have been considered an invitation; now, it was merely a way to get clean. Less than five minutes later they were finished, bodies steaming and fresh as they dried themselves off in the small bathroom. They did not have spare clothes except for their yukatas in the living room, though Barnaby informed her that Kotetsu would not mind if they borrowed some of his items. He knows Kotetsu so well, she reflected as she watched Barnaby open the hall closet next to the bathroom, where a few stacks of pants and shirts were neatly folded on low shelves. "Take this," he told her immediately, handing her a dark blue button-up shirt and a pair of leggings.

The leggings fit well, but the blouse was oversized, and hung halfway down to her knees. "Nothing a little more feminine?" she joked as she slipped it around her shoulders.

Barnaby chuckled. "Not unless you want to wear some of Kaede's spare outfits." He had settled on a pair of loose black pants, with a more fitted thermal t-shirt. His hair was still damp, and had not yet regained its familiar curls.

"The leggings fit fine, though," she said idly as they headed downstairs. "Who did they belong to?"

Barnaby narrowed his eyes, but the gesture was not in contempt; it was rather wistful, if she was deciphering it properly. He did not say anything, but she guessed the answer almost as soon as she asked the question. Although Tomoe had been gone for almost seven years now, her ghost still hung over Kotetsu's life.

As they headed down the stairs, she silently wondered if these awkward situations with Barnaby were ever going to come to a close; their entire relationship had been built on strange encounters in the first place. For once, it would have been nice to enjoy a normal morning together; the addition of Kotetsu, who now knew about their relationship, would make it challenging. Maybe next time.

They entered the kitchen as two slices of bread popped out of the toaster, crisp and brown. Although the breakfast spread on the table in the kitchen was nothing compared to the array of foods found in Nathan's penthouse, it still looked hearty. Kotetsu was standing near the stove, impatiently coaxing a huge mass of scrambled eggs from a frying pan onto a plate. The small table was set for three, with glasses of orange juice and a plate of slightly burnt bacon.

"Ah, there you are," he greeted, triumphantly setting the empty pan down. He was wearing a plain gray robe, fastened tight around his waist. His eyes were slightly red, and his cat-shaped beard was sprouting some loose hairs.

"Hey Tiger," Karina greeted. She mustered a smile, trying to forget how she had needed to reach into his yukata just the night before.

"You call this a light breakfast?" Barnaby commented, settling down onto one of the wooden chairs. Karina took his cue, and settled down next to him.

Kotetsu placed the plate of eggs on the table. "You caught me off guard!" he explained. "I didn't have much else."

"Cereal would have been fine."

"For you, maybe," Kotetsu answered. "But Rose has never eaten breakfast here before. I wanted to prove that this old man can still serve up something good!"

She giggled. "You don't have to prove anything to me, Tiger."

Kotetsu shook his head and joined them at the table. "Well, eat up!" he instructed.

Karina was not particularly hungry, but dutifully gathered some scrambled eggs onto her plate as Barnaby sipped his glass of orange juice. As far as she was concerned, the eggs were tasteless, and the bacon much the same. Still, she took a forkful of egg and chewed. "Not bad," she commented, though she had the idea to ask for salt.

Kotetsu had placed some of the eggs and toast on his own plate as well, but he had not touched it. He stared down at it, as if in reflection for a moment, before looking up and addressing both of them directly. "Listen...I'm sorry if I barged in your date last night. I didn't know you guys were seeing each other," he said earnestly.

Karina frowned. "You didn't barge in," she corrected. "It was fine. We all had fun."

"Did you?" Kotetsu asked. "With this old man playing third wheel?"

Barnaby set his glass down, though Karina noted that he had not touched any of the food. "If we hadn't wanted you to come, I would have put my foot down and told you from the beginning," he admonished. "If anything, this is our fault-Karina and I. We should have told you sooner."

Kotetsu sighed, although it seemed more expectant than regretful. "Alright, alright," he said. "I know you're just trying to make me feel better. Thanks. But really," he continued, poking his fork into the eggs, "you two make a great pair."

You two make a great pair. The statement was almost the exact opposite of what Agnes told them those few weeks ago, during their failed audition in front of Robert and Lloyds. Karina stayed silent; Barnaby, to her surprise, spoke. "You think so?" he asked, leaning forwards.

"Yeah." The familiar, idle smile had returned to Kotetsu's face, and Karina felt a sudden, inexplicable rush of relief. "I mean, you're both pretty attractive. If you don't mind me saying so, Bunny," he said, throwing a quick look at Barnaby's face. "It's definitely not a pairing I would have imagined, but it could work. You might be able to learn a lot from each other. Boyfriends and girlfriends usually do."

"We aren't boyfriend and girlfriend." "We aren't boyfriend and girlfriend."

Karina felt the words leaving her lips as she heard Barnaby echoing them. They had said the exact same phrase at the same time, with no inkling of how the other would react.

Karina felt the red blush descend on her cheeks; looking over at Barnaby, she was gratified to see that he had the same shades on his face. Why had they both had such a strong reaction to Kotetsu's words? In essence, those were the titles normally bestowed on people in such a relationship; why should it be any different for her and Barnaby? Boyfriend? She rolled the word over in her head. It didn't fit, and there was no way for her to alter her idea of Barnaby to fit him into that frame. Judging from his reaction, he probably felt the same way.

As much as they liked each other and grew closer in each other's company, there were still hurdles to face here. They had specified that they were in a relationship that was neither meaningless nor frivolous, but no one had yet labeled it for what it was. That much was obvious.

They both sat, slightly mortified, as Kotetsu eyed them both fondly. "Well, whatever you guys want to call it," he continued, finally giving up on the eggs. "You guys are more alike than you'd think. But I'm guessing it wasn't love at first sight."

...

To be continued.

End note: Another chapter in the weird, confusing love life of Barnaby and Karina. I hope you enjoyed it. I did say that this would be the last chapter; originally it was much longer, so I thought it might be better to divide the super long chapter into two chapters. I feel as though I've been promising the last chapter for some time now. Perhaps I don't want this story to end!

I loved finally getting into Kotetsu's head for this chapter. I love Tiger so much, and have been trying to get him into the story when appropriate. I hope you enjoyed this chapter as well. Please don't hesitate in leaving me any comments, suggestions, or constructive criticism. I truly enjoy hearing from other T&B fans.