Kotetsu will not become a deadweight.
The loss of his powers is an obstacle, not a death sentence, and he understands this. He can still be a hero – still help people – without them. Even if he can't do the things he used to, he's not useless. He can make up for the limits that the world sets for him.
He's arrived at the training room half an hour early today. Even if he's a Second-League hero now, he's still allowed to use the same facilities as the Heroes he knows so well. Ben's an angel like that.
His time limit has gone down by three seconds this week. The decline is slower than it used to be, but it's still there. He can deal with it, though. When he's done with his stretches, he adds an additional ten pounds to the bench press. No one's here to spot for him, but he's okay with that. He can handle the risks.
The most of the other heroes come in an hour later. Kotetsu sees a flash of concern on Antonio's face, but he ignores it. He's fine. Things might be harder for him now, but he can fend for himself if he pushes himself harder.
He won't become useless. He refuses to.
"I thought you retired."
"I could say the same for you."
In hindsight, Kotetsu really should have expected Barnaby to return, but he didn't.
Barnaby's holding him in his arms right now. It frustrates Kotetsu that the very first thing Barnaby has to do upon his return is rescue him. "Kaede thought I was uncool for being a couch potato," he says. It's a lie. He suspects that Barnaby knows this, but his partner doesn't say anything.
"Just don't become a burden right off the bat." Kotetsu knows it's a joke, but it still stings. He plays it off by starting a faux-argument, trading barbs with Barnaby that neither take seriously.
He won't become a burden to Barnaby, he thinks but doesn't say. He'll promise him that.
Kotetsu is starting to scare Barnaby.
For the most part, he hasn't changed. He's still the same man that Barnaby knows and loves – warm, passionate, and utterly selfless – but there's something that doesn't feel right. Even if it isn't showing up in his performance, he seems so tired. So drained.
Barnaby's noticed how much of his free time he's been spending in the training room. Kotetsu's always worked hard (although he bizarrely seemed to hide it from others), but now he's pushing himself harder than he ever has before. Too hard.
He's going to hurt himself if he keeps going like this, Barnaby thinks. The human body isn't designed to take the stress Kotetsu has been putting it through lately.
Barnaby occasionally tries to get him to let up. He asks Kotetsu to take breaks with him, tells him to take it easy and (irony of all ironies) checks to make sure he's eating right. Kotetsu complies with a few of his requests, but only a few, and only with significant reluctance.
This isn't right and it has to stop.
He's lost another two seconds.
He's down to thirty seven seconds. That's okay. What isn't okay is that he had to rely on Barnaby again to bail him out. He promised he wouldn't slow his partner down, but he's failing.
Kotetsu can fix it, though. He starts ten minutes earlier and adds some more resistance to the cycle than usual. He considers investing more time into judo. While he's already a sandan, he can stand to be at a higher rank.
Kotetsu doesn't know how long he's been in the training room today. The others have left a long time ago, and he hasn't taken even a single look at the clock on the wall. He's drenched in sweat, his shoulders ache, and it seems warmer than usual, but he's not worried about any of these things. As long as he remembers to hydrate himself and take breaks (short breaks), he'll be fine.
He has his communicator set only to take emergency calls. There hasn't been one today, and he's fine with that. He's a bit more tired today than he usually is, and work would just add to it. He can deal with it, though.
When he's finished with the leg press, he stands up and suddenly he doesn't feel alright anymore. Pain shoots through his shins like acid. Dizziness and nausea take over, and he has trouble keeping his balance. He feels hotter than he ever remembers feeling, and his vision starts to blur.
The last thing he sees before things go dark entirely is a red-clad blur entering the room.
Barnaby has been more terrified than this, but it's a close call.
Kotetsu was gone all of yesterday. He didn't show up at his desk. He wouldn't answer any calls. Barnaby was only kept from calling on a manhunt because Nathan said he saw him in the training room. His expression was worried, which meant that Kotetsu had been there for entirely too long, but at least Barnaby knew where he was.
When he entered the the Justice Tower's training facilities that morning, the first thing he saw was a collapsed Kotetsu. He was scorching to the touch, and for a moment Barnaby feared he might die. His exact thoughts are hazy to him now (there was guilt, though – so much guilt. Why did he let Kotetsu stay in there?), but he distinctly remembers how Kotetsu's body felt heavy and distressingly lifeless as he carried him to the infirmary.
He now paces by Kotetsu's bed, waiting anxiously for him to wake up. The doctor said that he'll be alright, but Barnaby still worries. This won't be the last time something like this happens if he doesn't put a stop to it.
After what is an entirely too long a period of time, Kotetsu's eyes flutter open and he gives a small groan, and Barnaby is awash with relief. At the same time he's angry.
"Hyperthermia and exhaustion. You've been out for over an hour."
Kotetsu starts to climb out of the bed before Barnaby pushes him back into it.
"Don't stand. It'll only make them worse."
"Make what worse?" Kotetsu asks.
Barnaby informs him of the stress fractures in his arms and legs. Kotetsu's been collecting them for weeks, and Dr. Badesha cannot comprehend how Kotetsu could continue to work with them without constant pain, much less how he failed to notice them.
Kotetsu protests that they're nothing, and that's when Barnaby calmly drops the second bomb: neither of them are returning to work tomorrow. Kotetsu has been put on a forced vacation for rest and recovery, and Barnaby's going to be there to make sure he complies. It's a month and a half at the bare minimum, probably longer, and the other heroes have been ordered to escort Kotetsu off the premises if he tries to return sooner.
A hand slams on the table beside the bed. Kotetsu's angry and frustrated, and Barnaby can feel pain in his expression as well. He hates seeing Kotetsu like this. He hates that Kotetsu's doing such things to himself and that he has to take such measures to keep him from getting hurt even more.
Kotetsu doesn't shout and scream at Barnaby. He only falls silent and refuses to talk to him anymore.
Barnaby leaves the infirmary, but not before he apologizes to Kotetsu for what he has to do.
Kotetsu hates this. All of it. He hates the bed he's confined to for much of the day. He hates Barnaby's painfully bare apartment that he has to stay at. He hates the walking casts he has to wear on both feet whenever he stands or walks. He hates how he's forbidden running, weight training, or anything else that might exasperate the hairline fractures in his legs and arms. Some things are allowed, but not enough and not for long enough. It's only been a week and he's already going crazy.
Barnaby's not home at the moment – he went out to get foodstuffs for the both of them. He's also gotten magazines, movies, and books to occupy Kotetsu, but Kotetsu feels too wired and antsy to bother with any of them. The TV's also available, but all he can think to watch is HeroTV, and watching it knowing that Barnaby can't work because of him just depresses him. Even calling Kaede every day, there's too many hours left, and there's something in Kaede's eyes – a glint of worry – that makes him feel sick.
To kill the endless volumes of spare time, he does stretches and crunches – low impact things that the Dr. Badesha allows him to. He's not supposed to do this sort of thing for very long, nor is he permitted to do it this early into recovery, but he's feeling better and has to do something.Besides,he doesn't want this forced vacation to make him sluggish.
He hears Barnaby entering the apartment, and he throws himself into bed in an instant. A couple of magazines rest atop the covers. He grabs one before he pulls the bedding over himself. When Barnaby enters the room, bag of groceries still in hand, Kotetsu acts as if he's been reading the whole time.
"How are you faring?" Barnaby asks.
An eyebrow raises, and Barnaby comes closer to scrutinize him. "Kotetsu, you're sweating." Kotetsu's blood freezes at the words. "You're ignoring Dr. Badesha's orders, aren't you."
"... Yeah." Kotetsu doesn't bother to lie. Barnaby would see through it anyways, and lately the old diehard habit has been fading away. Lying to his partner is painful now, even if the truth will only worry him.
Barnaby gives a frown. It's a scolding one, but there's genuine anger behind it. He puts the groceries down on the floor and folds his arms. "You can't get better if you keep straining yourself, Kotetsu."
"I don't have anything else to do," Kotetsu counters.
"Yes you do." Barnaby raises his voice. He's just a notch below yelling. "We can go somewhere tonight. Anywhere you want, as long as it won't hurt you."
"There's nowhere to go."
"Yes there is. You're just too fixated on destroying yourself!"
"How the fuck else am I supposed to keep up with you?"
Kotetsu didn't mean to say those words, and Barnaby didn't expect to hear them. They kill the argument instantly, and both men fall into an awkward silence.
Barnaby is the first to speak again. There's no frown anymore. "Kotetsu, can you just let yourself slow down for a while? Just for a month?" His voice doesn't have the force or anger it had before. Instead it's filled with anxiety.
"... I'm not sure I can hold out for that long."
Not satisfied with that, Barnaby approaches the bed. He leans over Kotetsu and puts both hands on his shoulders. He's so close that his face takes up all of Kotetsu's peripheral vision. "Please, Kotetsu. Everyone's worried about you. I'm worried about you. If you keep doing this to yourself... God, I don't want to think about it."
Kotetsu sees a hint of terror in Barnaby's face, and his mind goes back to the look it had when Barnaby thought he was dying. It hurts more than stress fractures ever could.
"Please, just do this for me." There's a hint of tears in Barnaby's eyes. When Kotetsu sees them, he feels weak and ashamed. "Can you do that?"
Kotetsu can't find the will to say no.
He's been having nightmares.
Nightmares aren't new to Kotetsu, but he's never had ones so clear and so frequent. In every one of them Barnaby dies, and every time it's Kotetsu's fault. He's too weak, or too slow, or too incompetent. For nearly a week he finds himself jolted awake every night.
The one occurring now is especially real and terrifying. The ground opens up underneath Barnaby. Kotetsu tries to catch him, to keep him from falling to his death. He grabs Barnaby's hand, but his own arm is ripped off of his shoulder. He's powerless to stop Barnaby from plummeting through the endless chasm that closes up and swallows him whole. Blood wells up from the cracks in the ground – Barnaby's blood. Soon, it's drowning Kotetsu.
He doesn't know whether to scream or cry, so does both.
The sound of Kotetsu's screaming startles Barnaby awake. He bolts to the bed and finds his partner thrashing violently in his sleep. Immediately, he realizes it's a nightmare – he's had so much experience with them himself – and moves to shake Kotetsu awake. A flailing hand strikes him in the process, but he succeeds.
"Oh god..." Kotetsu is breathing heavily – hyperventilating, even. "Oh god, you're alive." He's on the verge of tears. "I thought you..."
The sentence is never finished, but Barnaby knows exactly what Kotetsu was trying to say. With that in mind, he tries his best to soothe the panicking Kotetsu. It was only a bad dream, he assures. It wasn't real, and he's alive. He lets his partner touch his face to confirm his safety. His own hands reach to brush Kotetsu's mussed brown hair out of his face. They stay this way until Kotetsu's breath slows and stills. Once he's calm again, he apologizes for the scratch he gave Barnaby in his fit and tries to return to sleep. However, Barnaby stops him.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on, or are you just going to keep bottling it up like you always do?"
Kotetsu can't stand to look at him. He makes excuses, saying that he's not used to talking about things like this and doesn't really know how to start. Barnaby is frustrated at his silence, but he doesn't argue with him. It won't help to drag the answers out kicking and screaming. He'll just have to wait for Kotetsu to tell him willingly.
However, he has methods of drawing the answers out gently that he wants to try.
He gets onto the bed himself. "Turn over and take your shirt off." When his request is met with confusion, Barnaby elaborates. "Just a massage. As tense as you are right now, you'll never get any sleep. Not any good sleep, at least."
Kotetsu seems to understand what Barnaby is saying, and he's willing to at least try. The shirt is tossed aside of the bed, and now Barnaby sits over Kotetsu's bare back, legs straddling his waist. His hands fall just below his partner's neck and he starts to knead. Kotetsu lets out a groan, but not a pained one. Barnaby's glad that it's working. He's never really done this thing before – he's only read how to do it in books and not for some time – but he's at least making things better for Kotetsu.
He works systematically, from the top down, to find and rub out any knot or kink he can find. While he does this, he notices that Kotetsu's shoulders are a bit broader than they used to be, and his back is more defined. The changes are not surprising, given the circumstances. Barnaby's ambivalent about them. The slight addition of muscle is anything but unattractive – the twisting and fluttering in his stomach can attest to that – but it's a product of Kotetsu pushing himself so hard that he's literally breaking. It reminds Barnaby of why he's doing this, at least.
As his hands move down Kotetsu's back, Barnaby begins to ask questions. He starts out with small, frivolous ones and slowly moves to the ones that Kotetsu was reluctant to answer before. He's read this technique in a book too.
At the start, Barnaby only asks irrelevant things and Kotetsu only tells him about minor annoyances. He doesn't like how the walking casts itch. There's nothing on TV during the day. Most of the things he wants to do like ice skating aren't allowed yet. Small frustrations, but Barnaby is willing and even happy to hear them out.
When Barnaby is below the shoulder blades, he gets more insight to Kotetsu's worries. The power loss is still bothering him a little. He doesn't want to fall behind or get out of shape because he's forced to take this respite. There was a mission a while back that he feels he failed because the assailant wasn't caught before she shot a man in the leg. (Kotetsu tells Barnaby that he checked on his recovery. He's not expected to regain full use of the limb, and the fact pains him.) If he was better at his job, he could have prevented it. He doesn't want something like that to happen again if he can help it.
Barnaby starts truly getting through as he reaches the midpoint, and his feelings are mixed. He's glad that Kotetsu is finally opening up to him, but at the same time his heart breaks from what he hears. Kotetsu's voice becomes strained as he confesses that he often feels useless, and that he's doing more harm than good still playing at being a hero. He thinks he's fooling himself that he can balance his work with taking care of Kaede. Barnaby can hear the cracking in Kotetsu's voice when he tells him that he's just holding him back, and that Barnaby would be better off without his sorry attempts at help.
It feels wrong to Barnaby that Kotetsu thinks that he's anything but irreplaceable.
The massage stops before Barnaby even reaches the small of Kotetsu's back. Kotetsu's in no state to talk anymore, and Barnaby moves to comfort him. "Kotetsu, you're anything but a burden to me," he whispers. Off his back now, he draws Kotetsu into a hug.
Kotetsu's sobs wrack both of their bodies as Barnaby embraces him. There's so much he wants to tell Kotetsu and so much that he does: Kotetsu is the greatest thing to ever come into his life. It's his presence that drives Barnaby to be a better hero – to be a better person.He admires so much of him that he can barely keep track. Kotetsu is irreplaceable. More than irreplaceable. More than Barnaby deserves. Barnaby isn't sure how many of his words are reaching Kotetsu, but when he sees his partner's sobs slowly dying down, he breathes a sigh of relief.
When Kotetsu has stopped completely, Barnaby pulls back and looks him in the eyes. They're red and puffy, but they still shine with resolve. Kotetsu is finally willing – happy – to cooperate with Barnaby in this.
There's little that Barnaby wants more than to show Kotetsu how much he means to him and to repay him for all that he's done. Looking at Kotetsu's raw eyes, Barnaby feels that Kotetsu finally understands.
And finally Kotetsu lets him in.
The full recovery takes another two months, but this time Kotetsu cooperates. He's still not happy about it and he gripes regularly (and then there's his complete inability to clean up after himself, Barnaby laments), but he pulls through.
Things seem to return to normal when they both come back to work. It's not a week and they're already taking potshots at each other for silly, inconsequential things. Barnaby's happy that things are okay again, but at the same time there's one thing that Barnaby misses.
That night two months ago, Kotetsu was more open and vulnerable with him than he'd ever been before. For the first time it felt like Kotetsu needed him as much as he needed Kotetsu. Barnaby knows he's selfish for wanting it, but he wishes he could feel like that again, if only in lighter circumstances.
An hour after after Barnaby thinks this, while he sits at his desk, someone grabs him from behind and he stiffens instantly. When he sees a tan arm wrap around his neck and feels a fist playfully mess with his hair, however, he realizes who his "attacker" is and relaxes.
"Kotetsu, if you keep doing that, I'm going to have to get a restraining order against you."
"Bah, you love it." Kotetsu's voice is light and playful. "Besides, your childhood was sorely lacking in noogies. I'm correcting that."
"Honestly, sometimes I wonder if you aren't actually twelve instead of thirty-eight." Barnaby's tone is even, but inside he's enjoying himself and trying hard not to show it.
What follows is their usual back and forth of snark, with Kotetsu never leaving his place behind Barnaby's chair. He pokes at Barnaby's preoccupation with his hair, and Barnaby returns with a jab at his inability to adequately tame his own. It's business as usual until Kotetsu does something that catches Barnaby entirely off guard: he pulls Barnaby back from behind and kisses him on the cheek.
Barnaby touches the spot where Kotetsu's lips touched. It feels hot. "What was that for?"
"It's a thank you, Bunny."
He doesn't expect to hear this, but Barnaby has no problem collecting himself. "It's late."
"Not just for that," Kotetsu says. He hugs Barnaby and kisses him again. "For everything."
This time Barnaby can't quite compose himself after the surprise. He almost tips over in his chair, but Kotetsu catches him and laughs at the rare bout of clumsiness. Barnaby frowns, but inside he's laughing too and knows that partner can see right through him.
As Kotetsu turns away, telling Barnaby that he'll see him in a bit, Barnaby gets up and launches his own surprise attack. He grabs his partner by the shoulder, spins him around, and kisses him back – not a simple peck on the cheek like the ones Kotetsu had given him, but a forceful, impassioned one straight to the lips. He apparently fails to catch Kotetsu off guard, however, as the kiss is welcomed as soon as it comes. The failure doesn't bother him in the slightest.
The kiss doesn't get to last for long, as Barnaby has forgotten that they are not the only ones in the room. The woman who works across from them clears her throat loudly, making it known that she's not fond of coworkers' antics distracting her. Barnaby pulls away, embarrassed, while Kotetsu jokes that they'll just have to wait for her sick day.
They only last until that night.