Kotetsu had barely made it to Apollon's Hero TV van when he collapsed. Under the orders of Agnes and everyone else who was there, Barnaby helped escort his partner back to the hospital. As the doctors and nurses fussed over Kotetsu, Barnaby was pulled away to have an examination. Although there was heavy bruising all over his body, along with a nasty patch of skin scraped raw from hitting the inside of his suit the wrong way when Jake tossed him, Barnaby had somehow managed to come away with far less serious injuries than any of the other heroes who had faced Jake. He was given a prescription for pain killers and then sent on his way. Rather than going back to his apartment to rest, however, Barnaby decided to head over to where Kotetsu was being examined and pay him a visit.
It turned out to be a good decision. According to Blue Rose, who had been waiting outside Kotetsu's room ever since she arrived, Kotetsu had put up a fight, insisting that he would be okay when it was glaringly obvious that he wasn't. The doctors had ended up giving Kotetsu a powerful painkiller that had the side effect of making the user extremely drowsy. Unfortunately, the doctors had found that Kotetsu had allergic reactions to certain kinds of pain medication in the past, which is why they were doing their best to keep him awake for at least another half-hour.
From the way the nurses looked, Barnaby wasn't sure if they would last that long. Barnaby knocked on the door, and when he received no response, opened it and entered the room. One of the nurses was shaking Kotetsu's shoulder gently as the old man kept nodding off. The other nurse was rambling about dogs and cats, his speech punctuated with awkward pauses and uncertain "um"s. When Barnaby shut the door behind him, both nurses turned to him.
"Is something wrong?" Barnaby asked, and the nurse who was speaking shut his mouth for a moment before saying:
"Oh, Mr. Brooks. We're just trying to keep your partner awake for a little while longer..."
Barnaby glanced at Kotetsu, who was beginning to nod off again since the other nurse had stopped shaking him. He looked back at the two nurses and gave them a polite smile.
"Am I able to be of some assistance, then?"
The two nurses suddenly both relaxed their stances, relief washing over their features. "Could you, Mr. Brooks? I'm sure you can think of a better way to keep him awake than we could."
"I'll think of something," Barnaby said wryly, watching the other nurse suddenly realize that Kotetsu had gone to sleep and shake him awake. "Why don't the two of you leave him to me for a bit? How much longer is he supposed to stay awake?"
"Five minutes," Kotetsu slurred, speaking for the first time since Barnaby entered the room. The two nurses glanced at him nervously before the male one shook his head.
"He has another twenty-three minutes before he's clear. There's a timer on the table to let you know how much longer he has. If he starts to feel nauseous or begins to convulse, hit the call button, because those are signs that's he's reacting negatively."
"And if he makes it through the twenty-three minutes with no side effects, it means that the medication is safe for him to continue using?"
"It should be fully absorbed in the next ten minutes or so, but we'd like to play it safe. So, yes."
Barnaby nodded. "I'll do that. Thank you."
"No, no," the nurse who was shaking Kotetsu said. "Thank you, Mr. Brooks. We'll be outside if you need us."
She and the other nurse excused themselves and left the room. Barnaby moved a chair over to Kotetsu's bed and shoved him back into a sitting position as Kotetsu began to lean back.
"Bunny," Kotetsu whined as Barnaby unceremoniously shoved him so hard that Kotetsu was nearly bent in half. "Why are you so meeeeean?"
Barnaby sighed and adjusted Kotetsu so that he sat at a ninety-degree angle to the hospital bed. "Why are you so much trouble?"
"Hey! Hey. Hey hey hey hey. I totally saved your butt back there!" Kotetsu blinked wearily. "I deserve a nap!"
"You can take a nap in twenty-two minutes."
He spent the next few minutes bickering with Kotetsu in an attempt to keep him awake. That worked for the first five or so minutes, but then Kotetsu began to ignore his attempts at provoking him. When Kotetsu nearly fell off the bed sideways because he was starting to fall asleep, Barnaby grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him far harder than the nurse did. That caused Kotetsu to wake up and start yelling at Barnaby, and the ensuing argument kept him awake for another ten minutes more. When the nurses and Blue Rose poked their heads in to see what the yelling was all about, the two of them quieted and began to hiss complaints to one another instead. Unfortunately for Barnaby, Kotetsu also started to nod off again once the volume was toned down, and Barnaby resorted to rocking Kotetsu back and forth in various directions.
"This is making me sleepy and dizzy at the same time," Kotetsu murmured. Barnaby pushed his glasses up and scowled.
"You think I'm enjoying this, old man?"
Kotetsu gave a tired sigh. "Back to that so quick. Whatever happened to calling me by...my..."
"Hey," Barnaby said, grabbing Kotetsu with both hands and giving him a firm shake. "Stay awake. You only have a few minutes more."
"That's what you said earlier."
Barnaby sighed and jabbed Kotetsu in the side of his head with his index finger. Kotetsu let out a cry and grabbed the sides of his head.
"Bunny! That hurt! Why are you so mean?!"
"I'm trying to help!"
They began sniping at each other again, volume increasing with each line. Just as their bickering was on the verge of turning into full blown yelling, the timer on the stand next to Kotetsu beeped. They both stopped and turned to it.
"...Hey," Kotetsu said, "does this mean I can sleep now?"
Barnaby shrugged, but moved to arrange Kotetsu's pillows. "Yes, Kotetsu. You can sleep now."
Kotetsu gave him an admiring look as Barnaby moved to spread the covers, which had somehow ended up in a ball near Kotetsu's feet during their bickering, over his body.
"Bunny, you are the my favorite person in the world right now."
"Shut up and go to sleep."
"No, really. I love you so much right now."
Barnaby pushed him down by the shoulders. "Go to sleep, Kotetsu."
"Yes, sir," Kotetsu said, and just like that, he was asleep.
This was a bad idea. Kotetsu had somehow convinced Barnaby to get drinks with him, which was nothing new. What was new was that he had invited Nathan and Antonio with them, and with their influence, Kotetsu had moved quickly from "tipsy" to "rip-roaringly drunk". Barnaby was used to tipsy Kotetsu and knew how to handle him. A tipsy Kotetsu, after all, was just louder and more frank than a sober one. A Kotetsu that was drunk off his ass, however...
Barnaby had no idea how to deal with that. Sadly, it looked like Antonio and Nathan didn't either. If they did, they didn't want to do anything about it.
"You know what I loooooooove about you, Nate?" Kotetsu said, waving an empty beer tankard around as Nathan all but crawled into his lap. "You're so honest 'bout yourself! You don't take shit from anyone! You don't give a fuck! I am proud of you!"
Kotetsu patted Nathan on the back so hard that Nathan looked as if he was seriously beginning to reconsider trying to climb on top of him.
"Darling," Nathan said, grabbing the tankard out of Kotetsu's hands and setting it on the table before it flew out of his grip and hit someone on the head, "be gentle with me! I'm a delicate creature!"
Kotetsu laughed. Nathan looked insulted for all of two seconds before settling himself in Kotetsu's lap proper and smushing the sides of their faces together.
"Keep talking," Nathan said, wrapping his arms around Kotetsu. "I like it when you complement me."
Kotetsu slammed his mugless hand down on the table, causing Barnaby's own glass of wine to slosh and spill over the side. "Okay! I think you're terrifying when you're angry! I fear for my life! I fear...for the lives of others around us! It's like you're possessed or something!"
Nathan separated their faces and gave Kotetsu a look. "I said to compliment me," he said in a low, dangerous, very non-Nathan like voice. Then he sighed, placed his palm against the side of his face and scooted out of Kotetsu's lap theatrically. "How cruel, breaking a girl's heart like that," he said in his usual voice. "It's not fair to lead me on for so long only to break my heart in the end."
Kotetsu peered at Nathan curiously. "But I wasn't trying to lead you on."
Nathan sighed again before waving down a waitress for another cocktail. Barnaby looked at his barely touched glass of wine and sighed as well. Next to him, and across the table from Nathan and Kotetsu, Antonio chucked.
"Antonio!" Kotetsu suddenly yelled, slamming his fists down on the table. Barnaby barely managed to save his glass before it toppled over completely. "Buddy! Paaaaaal!"
"Hey, Kotetsu," Antonio said with a smile wider than Barnaby had ever seen on him before. "Enjoying yourself?"
"Yessssss! Did I ever," Kotetsu said, then swallowed and said again, "Did I ever tell you that you are my bestest, oldestest friend before? 'Cause it's true. You're older than money!"
"Hey, we're the same age," Antonio said, slamming his own half-full mug down on the table. Barnaby looked at the wooden table and suddenly started feeling very sorry for it. "You're no spring chicken, either!"
"I'm not a chicken! I'mma tiger! Who are you calling a chicken?! Wanna fight?!"
"Want to take me on?! Bring it!"
"Boys, boys," Nathan cooed as he received his cocktail from the startled waitress. "Calm down. You can have your macho display later, okay?"
"He started it," Kotetsu said, bringing his empty tankard to his mouth and attempting to drink from it. When he realized it was empty, he stared at it as if it was the most intriguing thing in the world for a few seconds before tossing it onto the table where, miraculously, it landed upright. "'Sides, I'd win."
"I doubt you could stand up straight right now," Barnaby muttered under his breath, "much less win a fight against a streetlamp."
Kotetsu looked at Barnaby as if he was shocked to see him there. "Bunny! Partner! Where did you get here?!"
Barnaby sighed as Nathan laughed and patted Kotetsu on the shoulder. "I think you meant to ask 'When,' not 'Where.'"
"Never mind, sweetie."
"Bunny! My partner!" Kotetsu exclaimed again, turning to Barnaby, who was trying his best to meld with the wall. "I'm so happy you're here!"
"You were the one who invited me tonight," Barnaby said dryly. Kotetsu beamed at him.
"I know! I'm so smart!" His expression then sobered, and in a serious tone of voice, he added, "I'm glad you came. Being with you makes me happier than you could possibly know."
Barnaby suddenly stiffened and felt his body grow cold. Then, just as suddenly, the cold was washed away by an intense warmth that started at his face and spread downward. Horrified, he managed to sputter out a, "W-what," before his voice squeaked and he bowed his head, clearing his throat and trying his hardest to kill the blush. He was aware of Nathan and Antonio staring at him from his peripheral vision, but was too flustered to respond or deny anything.
"It's true," Kotetsu said, still sounding far too sober for Barnaby's liking. "You're my precious partner. I love you."
Barnaby choked on air. Before anyone else could react to that last statement, however, Kotetsu slammed his fists down on the table again.
"Just like how I love Antonio! And you, Nathan! And that guy sitting behind us! I love you, man! The bartender, too! The waitress! Hell, I love everybody! Drinks for everyone on me!"
The blush died and was replaced with something that was either disbelief or anger. Or possibly both. As Kotetsu made to stand on the table, Nathan and Antonio were trying to discourage him from attempting to buy the entire bar drinks. Barnaby watched this impassively for a few moments before grabbing his glass and downing all the wine left in it.
"Hey, girl sitting all by herself with the scarf! I love you!"
He was just a scant six hundred points away from meeting Legend's record, and there was still thirteen days left before the end of the season. Barnaby lifted his faceplate and exhaled. He watched as the police cars and Hero TV helicopters left, and then turned to where Kotetsu was. His partner was sitting on a steel divider, faceplate also up, and looking gloomily at some device he held in his hand. As Barnaby approached, however, he quickly tucked the device away and gave Barnaby a smile.
"Hey, Bunny," Kotetsu said before putting a hand on his shoulder. "Only six hundred points away now, right?"
Barnaby smiled, but noted the distraction attempt. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you're more excited about this than I am."
"What can I say! It's not every day that my partner sets a new record, you know."
Barnaby nodded as the two of them began to walk back to the Lonely Chaser. Kotetsu took his hand off his shoulder, and Barnaby took in a deep breath before asking:
"Why are you doing this?"
"Huh?" Kotetsu stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and gave Barnaby a look. His fingers twitched slightly, and Kotetsu looked away. "What are you talking about?"
Barnaby watched him for a few moments before closing his eyes. "I'm talking about your behavior lately. Kotetsu, I appreciate you wanting to help me, but you have to remember to gain some points for yourself."
Kotetsu laughed and rubbed the back of his helmet. "Eh... I'll have plenty of time to get points after you beat his record. For now, I'm just trying to help you out in any way I can."
Barnaby gave him a look. "You're almost making it sound as if I wouldn't be able to accomplish that without your help."
Kotetsu sputtered comically. "N-no! Bunny, I wasn't saying that! You're more than capable of doing things without my help!"
"I know," Barnaby said, cutting Kotetsu off from saying anything more. "I was joking."
Kotetsu snapped his mouth shut and scowled. "Geez. I can't tell when you're joking or not sometimes. Your face always has that weird expression—"
Kotetsu sighed. "You know, what, even though you can't tell a joke to save your life, I'm still happy to be your partner."
There was warmth bubbling up in his chest. Barnaby coughed and turned towards the Wild Chaser. "If we're partners, then trust me to get points by myself."
"I do!" Kotetsu said, and Barnaby heard him jog towards him to catch up. "I'm just, you know, helping."
"You should be worried about yourself first. I can take care of myself."
Kotetsu suddenly swung an arm around Barnaby's shoulders, and Barnaby had to focus to avoid stumbling.
"You know, Bunny," Kotetsu said, "that's what I love about you. Even though the most important moment of your career is coming up, you still worry about others." His voice lost its joking tone. "I'm proud of you. You're a real hero."
He wasn't blushing. He wasn't.
Thankfully, Kotetsu didn't seem to notice as they stopped walking, having arrived at where the Wild Chaser was parked. Kotetsu jumped into the sidecar and leaned back as Barnaby straddled the bike. Before he turned the engines on, however, he couldn't help asking:
"Kotetsu, you'd tell me if something was bothering you, right?"
Kotetsu stared at him in surprise. "Huh? Of course!"
Barnaby gave him a small smile. "All right. Just remember that we're partners, and as your partner, I want to know if something's on your mind."
"Same goes for you," Kotetsu replied, smiling. Barnaby started the engines, and the two of them took off.
If the fried rice smelled good, then Barnaby couldn't tell. It sat on the table, as unappetizing as his carpet, and Barnaby huddled in on himself, ashamed that he couldn't feel anything other than an emptiness filling the cavern of where he thought his soul and heart should be.
Kotetsu's arms wrapped around him, and before Barnaby had time to register what was happening, his partner had seated himself on the edge of his chair and was hugging Barnaby tightly against his chest.
"Bunny," Kotetsu whispered, and Barnaby felt his chest constrict, squeezing in on the emptiness there. "It's okay— Well, it's not okay, but we're going to make it okay again."
"How?" Barnaby asked, and more shame flooded his being when he heard his quivering voice. "I can't remember! Kotetsu, I can't trust my own memories! How is anything going to be okay?!"
"We'll find a way. If you can't remember, then we'll just go find the truth."
Barnaby laughed, harsh as the sensation of the despair crawling up his ribcage and trying to find entrance to his heart. "You make that sound so easy."
"I'm not saying that it's gonna be easy! ...But I am saying that it's possible, and that no matter how hard it's going to get, I'll be with you."
Was it Kotetsu who was pressing him against his chest like that, or had Barnaby sought to move closer by himself? He couldn't tell, and it really didn't matter. The despair had lost its grip and fell into the pit of his stomach, but it was still there. The only thing Kotetsu's words did was make Barnaby feel more vulnerable.
More vulnerable...but not alone.
"Shh, Bunny," Kotetsu whispered into his hair. "It's okay. I'm here with you. If there's something you can't handle by yourself, then leave it to me."
"Why?" Was he crying? It felt and sounded like he was crying, but Barnaby was too shaken to feel ashamed anymore. "Why are you doing this?"
Kotetsu laughed sheepishly and held him a little tighter.
"You're my partner," he said. "You're the only partner I have. I love and care a lot for you. Why wouldn't I do this?"
Not like the way I love you, thought Barnaby. Not like the way I want you to love me. But it wasn't the time or the place, so Barnaby kept quiet and let himself be vulnerable in the only place he felt safe anymore.
The criminal's NEXT powers were an unexpected surprise when Barnaby realized that it was the same as Wild Tiger and his Hundred Power, but considering there were already two people with the same power, Barnaby quickly got over his surprise and returned to focusing on the battle.
Kotetsu T. Kaburagi was certainly an experienced fighter, but Barnaby had the advantage of rage and the benefit of not having battled Wild Tiger earlier without his powers.
"Bunny," Samantha's murderer said, and Barnaby felt a wave of irritation wash over his body. "Bunny, please remember me!"
"I'll remember you," Barnaby yelled as he aimed a kick at the criminal's side. "I will never forget that you killed Samantha."
"I didn't kill her!" Kaburagi protested, bringing up his arm to shield himself. "Bunny, I swear I didn't kill her!"
"Shut up!" Barnaby roared. "And stop calling me by that name! You have no right to call me that!"
Whatever he was going to say was cut off as Barnaby kicked him in the stomach with the flat of his foot. Kabruagi grunted in pain and skid backwards, but his Hundred Power prevented him from going down completely. Barnaby gritted his teeth and rushed towards him again, and Kaburagi took off in the opposite direction.
"Listen to me," he said. "Bunny, it's me. Kotetsu! Wild Tiger! Your partner! I made fun of your suit and called you a rabbit! I gave you a criminal and a stuffed bunny for your birthday!"
"Stop talking!" Barnaby made to kick him again, but the murderer caught his foot and threw it to the side. Barnaby quickly righted himself, but Kaburagi had taken off once more.
"I helped you to defeat Jake! And then we yelled at each other in the hospital because you were supposed to keep me awake! I take you out drinking, and you say you hate it but you still come with me anyway!"
Barnaby launched himself into the sky and came down with one foot extended. The heel of his suit scraped against Kaburagi's face, but the criminal managed to back away in time to avoid a direct hit. He back flipped away from Barnaby and ran again.
"Do you remember how you used to complain about me being too helpful? I— Bunny, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to lie to you, but the truth is—"
"The truth is," Barnaby said as he caught up to the murderer and attempted to land a kick on him, "you murdered Aunt Samantha!"
"No! Bunny, listen!" Kaburagi said, and Barnaby's already small pool of patience dried up completely.
"I am not going to listen to a word you say! I have no reason to listen to the person who took everything I had away from me!" He made to kick Kaburagi again, but used that as a feint for a punch. Kaburagi, who had prepared a guard for Barnaby's foot, was caught unaware by his fist and sent flying backwards. Before he had the chance to recover, Barnaby flew after him and grabbed him by the throat. He slammed Kaburagi into the concrete and held him there.
"B-Bunny," Kaburagi rasped as he grabbed at Barnaby's hands, but Barnaby picked him up and threw him into the concrete again.
"I want to kill you," Barnaby whispered, arms shaking from his attempt at suppressing his desire to do exactly that. "I should kill you."
"S-stop," Kaburagi managed to get out. The blue glow around him suddenly faded, and Barnaby saw Kaburagi's eyes widen in fear.
"...Your hundred power doesn't last as long as ours."
"B-Bunny... No... I'm sorry for—"
"It's too late to say sorry!" Barnaby tightened his grip, and Kaburagi made a choking noise as his air supply got cut off. "Do you think I'm going to forgive you for what you've done?!"
Kaburagi tried to say something, but Barnaby pressed him harder against the ground. When he saw the corners of Kaburagi's eyes begin to glisten with tears, he laughed.
"Are you afraid? Are you sad? Imagine just how Aunt Samantha felt right before you killed her..."
He picked up Kaburagi by the throat, and then threw him to the side. He hit a lamp post and let out a cry before falling to the ground.
"I want to make you feel that fear. I want you to feel that sadness. I am going to make you experience what Aunt Samantha must have felt and increase it by a hundred fold."
As he walked towards Kaburagi, the criminal actually began to try and lift himself up.
"Why are you so persistent?" Barnaby whispered. "How can you cling to life like that when you took the life of someone else?!"
"Bunny," Kaburagi said, and his voice was nothing but a hoarse whisper that was so faint that Barnaby barely caught it. "It's me... Kotetsu... Your partner..."
"You are not my partner!" Barnaby grabbed Kaburagi by the throat with both hands and lifted him up and pressed him against the bent lamp post. "I don't even know who you are!"
"I wanted to make you happy," Kaburagi whispered. "But I...went about everything the wrong way... I thought...you didn't need me, so I... I lied. But, Bunny... I love you. I messed up, but I love you... I just couldn't decide between you and K—"
"Shut up!" Something was wrong. Barnaby let go of Kaburagi long enough to punch him in the stomach, and Kotetsu coughed up blood before Barnaby had him by the neck again. "Do you think I care about how you feel?!"
"I..." Barnaby had to strain to hear him. "I was...so stupid... I didn't have to choose at all..."
Something was wrong. The tears wouldn't stop. It didn't make sense.
"Shut up," Barnaby whispered. "Stop talking."
"Bunny," Kotetsu said, "I'm so sorry..."
"Why are you like this?" Something was wrong. "Why aren't you fighting back? Why are you just taking this from me? You stupid old man, I—"
Kotetsu's body went still.
This was wrong.
...And the First Time Barnaby Says "I Love You" to Kotetsu
The room is cold. The only sound comes from a machine that Kotetsu's body is attached to that hums and beeps slowly to the rhythm of his heart. Each sound is a flash of hope, like a lighthouse beacon in the horizon on a stormy sea. In the darkness, surrounded on all side by the sterile blankness of the hospital walls, the monitor is the only source of light he has, painting the white walls their sickly shade of green. The windows are shaded, the light crawling through the door crack never manages to reach the bed, a steel monolith of a footboard blocking its progress and halting its advance.
These are all things that Barnaby is aware of, but as he sits on a lumpy stool, clutching Kotetsu's motionless hand, all his mind thinks of is Kotetsu.
There is nothing here to comfort him except the sounds of machinery proving that Kotetsu is still alive. Still alive, but not much more.
He tightens his grip on Kotetsu's hand and brings it up to his lips. He bows his head and murmurs meaningless words into his knuckles. He prays. He hopes. He wants and needs and desires more than anything else in the world, but no one is answering.
No one here can.
His chest is tight. His heart beats in an erratic, disoriented pace. It's too fast one moment, too slow the next, and sometimes he can't tell if it beats it at all. Sometimes he can't tell if Kotetsu's is still beating, because the seconds stretch on and on, tormenting him with each moment as he wonders, fears, dreads the possibility that this second of silence is not him experiencing the dilation of time but a signal that Kotetsu's heart has actually stopped beating.
He feels pressure build up behind the bridge of nose, where his glasses clumsily sit at an angle. It spreads out, infecting his head and eyes until his skull is pounding with pain that he is barely aware of. He draws in one shaky breath and exhales just as shakily, air blowing past Kotetsu's still fingers.
His vision is blurry.
He is crying.
There's something cold and sharp in his heart. He gasps, desperate to draw in breath, but it comes and goes in shallow puffs of air, cold as it enters his lungs and cold as it comes out. He can't feel anything, but his skin tingles and tightens as if needles were prodding him from every direction. His grip tightens so much that he can feel the bones in Kotetsu's hand, so hard yet thin all at the same time.
He is hurting him.
He has hurt him.
Barnaby sobs, and he feels the warmth of his tears cutting through the ice of his skin like a knife. He still can't breathe properly. His lungs are still cold. His sobs sound more like a drowning person's gasps for air. The tears flow down his cheeks and hit his lips, where he has Kotetsu's hand pressed tightly against them.
He murmurs nothing and everything into that hand, and the tears slide down his lips, roll across of the ridges of his knuckles, glide down the back of Kotetsu's hand, and then trickle down Kotetsu's motionless arm, cold and weak as Barnaby feels.
"I'm sorry," he whispers. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
The machine hums and beeps with cold, cruel efficiency.
"Please wake up. I can't do this if you're not with me. Please. Please..."
He can barely understand himself.
"Kotetsu, please..." His voice suddenly breaks, and he gasps, drawing air in but feeling nothing but ice enter his lungs. His voice struggles, fights, and beats down the cold with desperation.
"I love you...
"...I love you."
He repeats this again and again, over and over, until the words become engraved into the memory of his heart, until the sounds of his whispers sync with the mechanical beeping of the monitor, until those words become the embodiment of all the hope he has left.
The room is cold. The only sounds come from the machine Kotetsu is hooked up to and the frantic whispers of all of Barnaby's hopes and fears.