No profit intended, and I don't own a damn thing of this. I just had this idea stuck in my head, and so here we go...Antonio/Kotetsu memory-loss fic. Sorry? (Also my mind's a bit fuzzy on details from the show, so if I'm making/messing something up, please let me know!)

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A thorn, an echo

...

It is better to be a thorn in the side of your friend than an echo. – Emerson

...

10 seconds into the fight, Antonio shows up.

10 seconds too late.

Kotetsu gets hit by a blast. Not uncommon, and Antonio doesn't think anything of it, besides the usual spike of concern for Kotetsu's safety. But Kotetsu's wearing the Wild Tiger suit, and he's taken thousands of hits before, and always come out (mostly) okay.

So Antonio does what he always does. Activates his power. Runs into battle.

He's wearing a suit, too.

It's not until later that they figure out something's wrong. It wasn't a normal hit, or a normal explosion, that knocked Kotetsu out. Some kind of NEXT thing, but they don't know for sure, because the bad guys got away.

10 seconds too late.

Antonio lumbers over to Kotetsu, stirring on the ground. He flips a piece of concrete out of the way with a grunt, and stands over Kotetsu with his hands on his hip.

"Get up, lazy bum! You missed out on all the action."

Kotetsu stares at him, or at least his mask is looking directly up at Antonio. He's slow, knocked a bit senseless (even more so than usual, Antonio thinks), so Antonio catches his forearm and hauls him up.

Kotetsu struggles with his helmet, flips the front visor up, and stares.

"Hey. Did you get knocked out that bad?" Antonio grabs the ring on his helmet and opens it up, too. He leans down, studies Kotetsu's eyes, searching for a tell-tale waver.

"Lopez? What the hell are you doing here?"

"Excuse me," he shoots back. "Doing my job! Unlike you, ya bum."

Kotetsu stares.

"What job?"

Antonio pauses. This is when he feels the first spike of true concern.

"Wild Tiger?" he asks, slowly.

"Huh?"

Uh oh.

...

Brook's not here, although he should be. Did someone call him? Should I call him? Antonio wonders for the third or fourth time as he sets another piece of his armor to the side of Apollon Media's company vehicle. They've got the suit off of Kotetsu, Antonio and the small, soft spoken guy, and Antonio's in the process of removing his own suit. He really shouldn't be, not here, in another sponsor's van, but it's too heavy to move around, and he's got to keep an eye on Kotetsu.

Kotetsu is stroking his suit, hanging up, looking around the van, touching everything he can. He even tries to push several red buttons, the fool, and the small guy has to knock his hand away and push him back towards the couch in the middle.

Antonio finally gets his armor off and sits down heavily on the opposite couch.

"Alright," he sighs, and he's about to start thinking up a plan when Kotetsu interrupts him.

"Hey, are we rivals again?" Kotetsu asks. He's clamped on to the hero business damn quick, that's for sure.

"Yeah," Antonio replies. "We work for different companies. We fight the same bad guys, though, for points."

Kotetsu hmmphs at the mention of points.

"So we're on the same side," Antonio emphasizes, just in case Kotetsu was thinking otherwise.

Kotetsu flips him a lazy smile. "I knew that already!"

Antonio feels relieved. He still remembers that bad time when no one remembered Kotetsu, when Maverick made them believe he was a murderer. He feels...he can't stop thinking about it, sometimes, but. Now's not the time for that.

"Just like school, eh?" Kotetsu smiles at him, almost fondly. Good, so he didn't lose all his memory. Antonio smiles back.

"So, where's Tomoe?"

His smile falters.

The small guy saves him from answering, thankfully. He comes over and whispers something.

"What?" Both him and Kotetsu lean forward to catch what he's saying.

"...temporary. There's a chance it will wear off, it's hard to say until we know more about this NEXT's power. Catching them should be our top priority, but until then..."

He looks between Antonio and Kotetsu and mutters something else.

"What'd you say?" Kotetsu and Antonio practically bump heads, bending over to hear the guy.

The guy yells. "Take care of him!" He waves furious hands in Kotetsu's direction.

Take care of...? Yeah, Antonio guesses he should. He's his best friend, after all. That and the other mind-wipe incident is enough for Antonio to haul himself to his feet and once again, extend his hand to Kotetsu.

"C'mon, I'll take you home. Or to Brooks," he mutters as an after thought.

...

Kotetsu is staring at every building like they're made of diamonds, or gold, or both. Antonio suspects some of them could be, at least the fancy up-town ones. Kotetsu's acting like a tourist, like he's never been here. Like he hasn't lived here for over ten years.

"Kotetsu?"

Kotetsu is spinning, hands in his pocket, eyes to the sky. "Yeah?"

"What's the last thing you remember?"

Kotetsu looks back down to the ground, although as far as Antonio can tell, his mind's still flying high. "Uh...let's see. I remember fighting you, saving Tomoe, going home, moving here, getting a suit – not as fancy as that one, though."

So he remembered high school, and becoming a hero, up 'til Tomoe. Did he remember his daughter? Antonio was loath to bring it up. It seemed like he already would have to bring up Kotetsu's late wife, and the thought of that was like a stone in his stomach.

"I don't remember you wearing anything that big and clunky, either..."

Antonio hadn't become a hero right away, like Kotetsu had, and it wasn't until a year later had he made his debut. His first suit had been a lot more streamlined, it was true.

"It's not that bad!" Antonio had his own private thoughts about his current hero costume, but he'd be damned if Kotetsu badmouth his suit. "Your little wimpy one was hardly any better." Always getting torn, hanging off his body. He'd be practically naked by the end of a day.

That's probably why he wore it, actually.

Kotetsu was looking at the sky again. Of course, the city'd changed a lot in ten years, what with the NEXTs and the heroes and Wild Tiger wreaking havoc.

"So, where are we going? Home?"

"Uh." Where did he think home was?

"Where's Tomoe?" Kotetsu asked again, and the stone in Antonio's stomach doubled in weight.

"Tomoe...what do you remember?"

"We're married." The look on Antonio's face must have been bad enough for him to ask, "Aren't we?"

Antonio looked away, trying to compose his expression, and Kotetsu's tight grip on his bicep made him look back.

"Lopez."

"I – she died," Antonio says, looking into Kotetsu's eyes. He's wearing his mask, like usual, but for a moment he looks like a stranger.

Antonio had to do this once before, in the days after Tomoe died, when Antonio took him to the bar and got him drunk, drunker than he already was, and Kotetsu never said anything about Tomoe. Talked about everything in the weather, but never once about Tomoe. Kotetsu cried, silently, and talked about nothing.

"How?" His hand tightens, and Antonio will have a bruise tomorrow.

"Cancer."

Kotetsu actually looks relieved, and Antonio – doesn't want to know. It's hardly the biggest thing right now.

"Oh." Kotetsu doesn't say anything else. He stares off into space, somewhere behind Antonio, and Antonio lets him process the information. After awhile, he touches Kotetsu's hand – still on his arm – and Kotetsu swings back into himself. He drops his hand, reaches back to scratch his head.

"Huh."

Throat tight, Antonio swallows. "Yeah."

Kotetsu looks back at him, really looks at him. More than he's looked in a long while, a little part of Antonio thinks, deep inside of him, and he squashes that voice mercilessly.

Kotetsu smiles. "We're friends, aren't we?"

Antonio nods. They're still gazing at each other, eyes locked, and Kotetsu is really looking, for once. Looking at him like he looks at Kaede, or at Brooks.

"More than that," Antonio hears himself say, and probably his eyes are widening in shock just like Kotetsu's are.

"Eh?"

"I mean, uh." Why the hell did he say that? Idiot, idiot, he fumes at himself. "We're friends. Let's go. Where do you want to go?"

"What?"

"I'm taking you back to your house, okay?" That hadn't been the plan, originally, Antonio was going to take him to his place, call Brooks, let him sort out his partner. He doesn't even want to call Brooks now, not for many reasons, not for the dumbest reason that barely exists.

"No, what do you mean, more than that?" Kotetsu is following him, at least, although he's doggedly pestering him. It's like he's his old self. That's good, Antonio can focus on the crappy part of his personality and not think about what he just said.

"Lopez."

Years of keeping a secret, and ten seconds of Kotetsu staring in his eyes is all it takes to blurt it out.

(10 years too late.)

"Hey! I'm asking you a question, Lopez!"

Antonio's going to be angry at himself later, but right now he needs Kotetsu to stop asking him questions.

"Lopez!"

"It's Antonio!" He snaps, whirling around to loom over Kotetsu. Antonio still hopes that one day he can scare Kotetsu into submission with his superior height and weight, but today is not that day. "For the love of – we're friends, call me Antonio!"

Kotetsu leans back as Antonio looms over, but he's not in the least bit perturbed.

"More than that."

Antonio twitches. Once again, they're staring into each other's eyes.

"Right?" A beat, and then, quietly, Kotetsu adds: "Antonio."

Wild Tiger wins again. Antonio sinks back. "Kotetsu," he starts, but where to begin?

"Best friends."

Kotetsu nods. He accepts this with no comment, and he believes it, Antonio can tell. He believes the things that Antonio is saying, all of it. It'd be so easy just to say –

"Boyfriends."

Antonio can barely believe the words are coming out his mouth, but he can't pretend he hadn't been thinking them. He knew it, knew what he was doing, and the lie wraps around him immediately, strangling.

But then Kotetsu nods, again, thoughtfully, and it feels good. There's relief, too, in not being caught immediately in the lie, but also – a small opening, a possibility, an ember of happiness. Waiting to be sparked.

Kotetsu ambles down the street, one hand in his pocket, one stroking his bearded chin.

"Let's go home," Kotetsu waves a hand at him, and Antonio catches up, starts leading the way. It's hard to say if Kotetsu believes him, but he seems satisfied. He follows Antonio all the way to his apartment without asking questions.