It had a thick black leather cover, and gold metal corners: a simple and old-fashioned photo album, nothing more, he had thought, until he opened it.
It weighed a lot, the cover seemed ready to burst; the book was filled with photographs, most of them in their rightful place, others stuck between pages. Those under the cover were in disarray, old mixing with new, a few negatives waiting to be developed.
He went through the whole album, turning page after page, looking upon pictures after pictures of a child who grew to live a thousand different lives.
He went slowly at first, unsure what he was searching for or why he had the sudden idea to snoop into Barnaby's wardrobe where a sealed box was pushed to the far back and forgotten. The urge to open it had been strong, and it grew even more when he saw the hastily scribbled 'Uncle Maverick' on its side.
Carefully, he peeled the tape back and peered into its content.
There wasn't much, nothing of true value either; a fountain pen, a tea set, a few ties, books and so on.
Any of those objects could have belonged to anyone but somehow, they reminded Kotetsu so clearly of Maverick he was going to shove everything he had so carefully unpacked inside the box again until he noticed the album.
Now, Maverick's personal belonging littered the floor where Kotetsu sat with the album in his lap, surrounding him.
The situation felt ironic for some reason; he couldn't find the humor to laugh, though.
Each photo told a story, from beginning to end, and then another series began: another feeling, another atmosphere, a different person each time.
The date on the first picture said '10/01/58'. Barnaby was four at the time, and looked like an empty shell, green eyes dimmed by chagrin, puffy from tears. A porcelain doll, beautiful and heart-breaking in its fragility, was what Kotetsu saw in this shattered little boy, robbed of a family at so early an age.
The first and the next two pages recorded Barnaby's fourth year and his slowly healing heart. By the end of the year, he had given a few shy, albeit genuine smiles to the camera. Kotetsu felt his chest constrict then expand in a quiet rush of air, pained but relieved that this boy managed as best as he could. Samantha – sweet and loving Samantha – had done so much for Barnaby, and his happiest smile was with her in the picture, carrying a cake to the table where Barnaby sat, having a hard time staying still. It had been taken on the thirty-first of October, on Barnaby's birthday. Kotetsu smiled fondly, remembering Kaede's fourth birthday: Tomoe had been alive and mostly healthy, and Kaede got to play with her Mom and her Dad together for the first time in a while.
None of them could have guessed it would have been one of the last.
Kotetsu turned the next page and arrived a few years down the road, in 1964. The boy had grown up, his hair was longer and didn't have yet the length to curl. His clothes had changed – no surprise there – but had stayed very British in its core, a style close to a boys' school uniform. For all he knew, Barnaby might have been to an all boys' school. In the picture, Kotetsu saw a clever kid, one who was a bit too old already for his age.
With the time lapse came the notes on the back of the photographs. A picture of Barnaby and a cheerful redhead held the very first note:
Barnaby is very intelligent, as expected. He's making friends, which isn't.
The redhead never appeared in the album again.
It happened countless times throughout his childhood pictures: Barnaby would be smiling at the camera with another kid, a pet, a toy, never to be seen again, as if they disappeared from his life after the photos were taken.
His stomach lurched knowingly, aware of the truth after reading every photo's commentary. They did disappear in a way; they forgot Barnaby, or Barnaby forgot them.
His teenage years were the most confusing and took a good quarter of the album (his childhood and the first three pages had covered more or less fifteen pages; the entire album counted a hundred pages exactly).
The dates had gotten closer and closer, until a picture had been taken once a week. On his fourteenth birthday, Barnaby had kept his neat style, and had had glasses for a few years. Samantha was serving the same cake she had baked for each of his birthdays.
The weeks that followed had Barnaby studying engineering, slaving away in a lab coat, flanked by busy scientists. The note on the back didn't explain much, some mysterious sentences about 'genetics' and 'a gift for the field'.
In December of the same year, the engineering suddenly stopped, replaced by grand meeting rooms, lavish receptions and a fifteen year old Barnaby managing corporates like a seasoned businessman.
He's too much like his parents: has the same ideals.
Might be better to keep him as far away from anything that had to do with his parents or he'll be of no use to me.
It lasted barely a month. In January, Barnaby returned to studying what looked like architecture. The holographic plans hovering under the teen's fingers were complex and scrambled. The last photograph of this period had Barnaby standing proud and tall in the middle of a group of men and women, all of them adults, in front of a Golden Stage building. (Kotetsu later realized it was one of many Barnaby drew plans for, which he had been unable to name when Barnaby had asked him about them on their first 'day-out as a team' with the Hero TV crew filming in the background. Barnaby not remembering what he had created tangled his guts in knots.)
In March, the architecture fused with modelling. There were no clean breaks, just notes praising Barnaby's usefulness and how he had turned out so much like his mother; it would be a shame to let it go to waste.
In April, the modelling took over. The shots in the album weren't professional, most of them with Barnaby mid-pose against the green background which would be edited later on, but Barnaby made them look good somehow. He modelled for clothes, various glamorous ads - and for Maverick.
His stomach turned to lead, his entire core doused in ice but his blood ran hot with anger. With each passing photographs of Barnaby, barely sixteen, either smiling sweetly to the camera, or flushed in happiness, or glancing with nervous excitement over his bare shoulder nurtured Kotetsu's deep hatred for this man. He'd give anything to punch him again, and again, and again until he bled and lost all his teeth or bit through his tongue.
It got worse.
The photos got more and more intimate, until none of them showed Barnaby out of the now familiar house. Maverick's hands were visible now and then, as well as his arms or his legs; Barnaby rarely wore clothes anymore, just underwear. His lithe body, even in still motion, spoke of great intimacy with the photographer, his body language coy and inviting, submissive and starved for attention. His face, smooth with youth, radiated joy, one of loving and being loved. The notes had gotten sparse, sometimes completely absent, as if Maverick had been so enthralled by the boy he had forgotten he was the masterpiece of his great plan.
For the first time in the album, a picture showed no sign of Barnaby, but a mess of broken china and squished pieces of cake.
It is time to stop playing games.
Barnaby's nursemaid frowned disapprovingly when the boy told her of me. He shouted and cried, not understanding what he had done wrong. The scene was pathetic at best.
He had his use, I'll find him another.
The photos picked up mid-November. The sweet, gentle Barnaby had been wiped clean of this new version. He was replaced by a serious, arrogant young man full of hurtful anger. Kotetsu recognized the enraged expressions, the desperate and the crying ones. His Bunny crumpled his brow the same way.
Maverick stayed at a distance this time, leaving Barnaby alone to feed his revengeful feelings. He now wore a red leather jacket, the same tight-fitting jeans and glasses as he did now.
The familiarity lifted a weight and pressed another on his shoulders. What if the Barnaby he knew was Maverick's creation? Had his memories and personality been so trifled with he could never be who he was supposed to?
He laughed, a hollow bark crawling out of his throat to resonate in the empty room in a short, too loud burst.
The album had slid out of his lap, falling to the floor sideways and crooked, photos spilling like it had been gutted.
Picking one photograph near him, he glanced at a sleep-soft Barnaby, striped by rays of sunlight, lying on his side with his hair perfect and curled upon a pillow. The bedding was a pale yellow and the photograph sent warmth, comfort. The date chilled him to his bones.
Barnaby came to me for help: had a quarrel with Wild Tiger.
Doesn't matter. Soon enough, I'll be rid of this nuisance and Barnaby will get his revenge and the fame I waited for.
Soon enough, he won't be of any use to me.
He went through the spilled photos, jumping from a sweet Barnaby as a child to a cold, closed-off seventeen year old to an adult stubbornly clinging to a symbol drawn on paper, the three of them scouting the streets for Ouroboros.
Everything came full circle.
The constant of the album wasn't Barnaby, like he had thought, but the revenge his partner had been so twisted and obsessed by. Even as a kid, Maverick had let the feelings of betrayal and hurt fester, diverging on purpose from the right path to attain and quench his thirst of power.
The manipulative bastard had been emotionally torturing Barnaby, erasing and remodelling his thoughts and memories countless times, but never losing the thin thread of sanity Barnaby had because he had created it himself.
Barnaby's revenge had been – was – the guardian of his sanity.
The spilled photographs showed Barnaby at all ages searching information, soughing out criminals in hopes of catching a lead to Ouroboros. From the notes on the back, Maverick made sure he never found anything worthwhile. Even the Benjamin case had been staged to drive him a little bit deeper into despair.
He breathed once, twice, sighed and looked up with a creased brow.
He tidied up the mess he made, put everything in the box, even the album he so desperately wanted to burn, rip to shreds and keep buried six feet under. He sealed the box, pushed it back to its previous place.
He didn't want to tell Barnaby, didn't want to talk or even think about it. His Bunny wasn't a robot to be broken and repaired until he was the perfect little toy Maverick had craved.
His partner, no matter how he got to be how he is, was his friend, a part of his life so important now he'd never have the courage to shatter him like this, not when he's doing better than he ever did.
Kotetsu won't tell, not today, maybe ever, not until Barnaby decided he'd open the box by himself and have a look, because his partner, his friend, his Bunny, is happy.