When Tomoe was ill, Kotetsu sat up by her bed for nights on end, his big, clumsy hands fumbling with each new sheet of paper. One thousand paper cranes, the superstition said, to cure all ills. And, even though Kotetsu knew it was silly, one after the other, lopsided, rumpled birds came into being from his fingertips.
Tomoe never pressed him about the cranes. She just smiled, and some nights when she was feeling strong, she would help him fold them into shape. Hers were always delicate and precise. Beautiful. But then, that was the way she’d always been.
“You should teach Kaede,” was the only time Tomoe had spoken of them. “She would want to help.”
Kaede was staying with Kotetsu’s mother, who’d come into town for these – Kotetsu refused to let himself think the word “last” – few months.
“I’ll do that some day,” Kotetsu agreed, but they both knew the words were hollow. Already, Kotetsu could feel himself slipping away, as if he were the one leaving this world instead.
Tomoe’s hand rested on his arm briefly, but then she pulled away, allowing him to fold more paper in vain and keeping thankfully silent when the next malformed bird came out soggy with tears.
Although Kotetsu wouldn’t admit it, even to himself, the cranes counted down their final moments together. Ten a night, and by the time Kotetsu reached a thousand, the doctor’s prognosis would be up.
He only reached 140.
Kotetsu being Kotetsu, it should have ended there. Buried, pushed aside, distanced, like anything else that cut too deep, too true.
Nevertheless, with the blazing ambulance sirens and fuzzy red strobe lights reflecting off the window panes in the pouring rain, and the paramedics screaming at each other for vitals, vitals, vitals…there, Kotetsu found himself involved again.
He and Antonio had been friends for ages, back before. Kotetsu had pulled away after Tomoe’s death and the emptiness that followed. But Antonio was still a part of Kotetsu, and Kotetsu still cared, and his heart was caught in his chest all over again when he watched Antonio being lifted on a stretcher into the ambulance.
Lady Night had caught the NEXT they’d been fighting, Kotetsu thought. Maybe. He might have heard something like that. It was all a blur.
Kotetsu should’ve used his hundred-power to chase the ambulance all the way to the hospital. He should have been in the waiting room right now. He shouldn’t have been sitting numb, in his apartment, staring blankly into space. He didn’t even know how he’d gotten there when he finally snapped out of it.
And, when he looked down at his hands to see what he was doing, there were ten paper cranes sitting in a messy row.
Maybe that was why the cranes had started again: pure instinct. Emotionally numb, Kotetsu’s hands had sought to create folds all on their own.
Kotetsu left the cranes on his coffee table. Thirty that first frantic night, then ten a night for the next four nights while Antonio was still conscious. And then, after Antonio awoke, three or four every day Kotetsu chickened out of visiting him.
Kotetsu knew he should. He knew Antonio needed him. But the thought of the hospital and its smell and all the little, beeping machines and the hushed footsteps, and so soon after…
He managed once or twice, bright and falsely cheerful. Laughing over the sound of his own pounding heart.
Antonio knew Kotetsu well enough not to buy the brittle laughter. “Go home. We’ll get drunk as soon as they let me out of here.”
Kotetsu had always seen himself as a hero, brave in the face of all adversity. He’d never imagined he could flee that quickly before. He was ashamed of himself, but he just couldn’t. Not in a situation like that. Not when he helpless to do anything.
When Antonio got out, he came to visit Kotetsu. “You owe me at least a thousand beers,” he said, understanding, like Kotetsu’s paralysis was nothing at all. “Do you know what utter hell that was, with no one to sneak me contraband?”
Kotetsu paid for his tab for the next year and a half. Some friends were so good they deserved ten times that much.
In a way, the cranes made things easier.
Kotetsu might not have been comfortable facing his own daughter anymore, now that Tomoe was dead, but he could fold a crane for Kaede every time his mom told him about a skinned knee or a bad test score.
He and his brother weren’t on the best terms anymore, but after the car accident (just a minor concussion, thankfully) and when mortgage payments were tight, the cranes were a way Kotetsu could care without really being there.
“You’re never here anymore,” Kotetsu’s mom said to him during one of their obligatory phone calls. “Kaede’s growing up, and you’re missing it.”
“I’ll be there for her birthday,” Kotetsu promised. “It’s just that, what with work…”
“What with work, indeed,” Kotetsu’s mom agreed, and her voice was tight.
She didn’t have to say anything; Kotetsu knew. Work was an escape, a fantasy world where there were heroes and villains, and Kotetsu was a hero, and at the end of the day the heroes always won. Work didn’t have blurred lines like cancer and daughters Kotetsu had no clue how to raise and fragile people Kotetsu cared about so much but could break without the slightest warning.
“I’ll come to visit soon. I promise,” Kotetsu lied.
And then folded a crane to make his mother and his brother and Kaede feel better when he didn’t keep his promise. Sometimes, the thought really didn’t count.
They still sniped at each other from time to time – okay, so Antonio had a point: all the time – but now whenever Bunny was being exceptionally pissy, Kotetsu just assumed it was Bunny’s massive issues at fault and made him a therapy-crane or two. Imagining the snooty, lemon-faced look Bunny would give him if he knew just made Kotetsu chuckle about it even more.
But in between making cranes for Ben when he was looking for a new job, and Karina when she was in a huff over something at school, and Pao-Lin when she’d had a tense call with her parents, and Nathan when all of Sternbild crazily accused him of murder, and Ivan when he seemed overwhelmed with self-doubt, and Keith when…well, Keith didn’t really seem to have any emotional or physical problems, per se, but Kotetsu didn’t want him to feel left out – somehow, among it all, Bunny-cranes started materializing in the line.
“He’s such an arrogant point-grubber!” Kotetsu would complain drunkenly to Antonio.
And Antonio would say, “I doubt there’s a cure for that, unfortunately.”
And Kotetsu’s perfectly logical solution would be to go home and fold some paper. Although the drunk-cranes always ended up looking more like wadded-up balls of old newspaper.
The Bunny-cranes increased proportionally as time went on, though, until by the time the Jake Martinez incident came about, they were outnumbering everyone else’s cranes ten-to-one.
And, when Jake Martinez was defeated and Kotetsu and Bunny had done it together in their own dysfunctional way and Bunny flashed Kotetsu a smile brighter than anything Kotetsu could have imagined, Kotetsu liked to think that maybe one or two of his cranes had done some good.
Now, if only he could find a cure for that stomach-twisting, light-headed feeling he got in response to that smile…
But now Kotetsu was older and wiser, and Bunny was about as subtle as Karina. Which, given how much older Bunny was, was kind of hilarious.
They flirted and flattered shamelessly in interviews, of course, ostensibly because bromance was great for ratings but actually because they both enjoyed it a bit too much. And Kotetsu really did enjoy it. Bunny was stubborn and finicky, but surprisingly sweet underneath that hard shell.
And it was fun being at the top again, too, finding someone that Kotetsu had that sort of synergy with. Kotetsu felt like he was in his prime again.
But still, whenever Bunny brushed their shoulders together (and then, on the other side of him, Karina would grab his hand to yank him off somewhere) or Bunny’s feet inched over on the couch until his toes just nudged Kotetsu’s thigh or Bunny’s cheeks flushed pink when they changed after catching a criminal, Kotetsu gave him his best big oblivious grin.
Kotetsu kept up with the Bunny-cranes throughout it all, because after all, wasn’t heartsickness just as painful as physical sickness? Kotetsu knew something about that, having suffered from the former for five years now.
It wasn’t that Kotetsu wanted to hurt Bunny or even reject him. It was just that Kotetsu couldn’t do it again. Kotetsu had sat by Tomoe’s side for two weeks, wasting his time folding useless paper, and he hadn’t done any good whatsoever. Kotetsu was a good hero, maybe even a great one. But a husband, a father, a friend, a lover?
All Kotetsu knew how to be to those people was a hero, not someone who could be close, not someone who could connect. Not even when a part of Kotetsu wanted to be close.
“I wanted to thank you,” Bunny said one evening when they’d taken carry-out back to Kotetsu’s place. “I don’t know how I would get through this without you.”
Kotetsu stroked his goatee thoughtfully. “Probably with a lot more opera,” he joked – he always joked – and Bunny gave him an annoyed look and a shove in the shoulder, and the dangerous, genuine moment was broken.
Kotetsu was a great hero and an even greater coward. All he knew was how to try to help people, even when it was a wasted effort. He continued to make Bunny-cranes, nonetheless.
He kept his fading powers from Bunny, at all costs. That was all he knew how to give Bunny – his heroics and their partnership – and he couldn’t bear to take that away. He just couldn’t bring himself to disappoint Bunny or anyone else. And the thought of someone else worrying over him, when he had failed most of all…
That was the one thing everyone had said to him after Tomoe’s death that annoyed him to most: “There wasn’t anything anyone could have done.”
Because there could. There had to be. Kotetsu had folded cranes too slowly or failed to figure out how his hundred-power could secretly defeat cancer or not pushed Tomoe into visiting her doctor early enough to catch it in time.
It was Kotetsu’s fault. That was the only way anything made sense. Why else would he have this crushing guilt in his chest? If he didn’t have the power to save the people he cared about, what did he have to give them?
It was almost a relief when Ouroboros reared their heads again.
Saving Bunny was a thousand times easier than saving himself.
It was a relief when Kaede manifested her powers, too.
Kotetsu could just devote himself to her, then, and ignore his own problems.
With each battle, each time Kotetsu’s power-window grew shorter and shorter, Ben would call him, frantic that Kotetsu would get himself killed the next time.
If that was what Kotetsu had to do – to give – to make up for the emptiness inside him, he almost thought that would be a relief, too.
He had thought he would for just one moment, while Bunny cried and held Kotetsu’s head in his lap. And in that one dizzying, freeing moment, Kotetsu had just let go. Sweet last words for what could have been: “You have pretty, long eyelashes.”
But he didn’t die, of course.
After, when they had both retired and Kotetsu had just about gotten enough courage to go back home, Bunny came over.
Kotetsu watched as Bunny tried in vain to straighten the chaos throughout Kotetsu’s apartment. Clearly, Bunny was agitated. Given that he’d just lost the closest thing he’d had to a father-figure, Kotetsu wasn’t surprised by that.
But when Bunny finally turned to face him, it wasn’t about that at all. “I really don’t know what I’d do without you,” he said, and the expression on his face was so naked that even Kotetsu couldn’t bring himself to feign obliviousness for once.
“Then,” Kotetsu said, mouth dry, heart in his chest, panicked eyes looking everywhere but at Bunny, “maybe you’d better figure it out.”
Bunny left simply, quietly. Kotetsu hadn’t even had to see the look on his face; Kotetsu didn’t want to know what it had been.
Kotetsu packed that night and went home. Maybe it was time he took his own advice.
Kotetsu couldn’t do an exact count, because he’d lost plenty over the years in his couch folds or in hospital waiting rooms, but for the cranes that had made it all the way to the line, there were now 992. That was almost a thousand.
When Kotetsu counted them on a lark one day and saw how close he was, he thought that maybe it was time for him to return to Hero TV.
He’d enjoyed helping Kaede learn to use her powers and his mother tend to her garden and his brother make his deliveries. But, in his heart of hearts, that wasn’t enough. The child in him that had always wanted to grow up to be a superhero didn’t belong in this quiet, rural life.
His first day back, Bunny caught him in his arms.
That night, Kotetsu told Bunny he had something to show him.
“If that’s a euphemism,” Bunny said when they were back in Kotetsu’s apartment nearly a year to the day since Kotetsu had broken Bunny’s heart in this very spot, “I won’t be amused.”
“Just wait here a second,” Kotetsu didn’t let the whole thing turn into a joke for once, “I need to get something.” He went to the bedroom.
When he returned, Bunny was scrutinizing his collection of old Mister Legend episodes with a prunish expression. He turned when Kotetsu entered the room.
“Here.” Kotetsu laid out the paper cranes along the length of the coffee table and sat down quickly, nervously on one end of the couch.
Bunny sat down more slowly on the opposite end. “Cranes?” he asked curiously, running his finger over one of the better ones. “Sort of,” he said skeptically, picking up one of Kotetsu’s more misshapen monstrosities.
Kotetsu had seen plenty of strings of paper cranes before. They were beautiful, brightly colored, delicate things. Kotetsu’s string was a chaotic hodge-podge: some newspaper and some wrappers and others regular paper, some neat looking and some passable and others atrocious, some dingy with age and others brightly colored. Nearly all spontaneous for someone, anyone, Kotetsu had failed.
Bunny scrutinized a couple more before meeting Kotetsu’s anxious gaze. “I don’t understand.”
“There’s this silly superstition. If you make a thousand paper cranes, it can cure sickness. Or grant your wish. Or give you a happy marriage.” Kotetsu laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. Just as he’d always feared, saying it out loud sounded impossibly stupid.
“And you made these for…?” Bunny raised one eyebrow.
“A lot of people. My wife, Kaede, my mom, my brother. My friends. All the other heroes. You.”
“I see,” Bunny said. “And did it work?”
“Making the cranes. Did they cure anyone?” Bunny fingered Kotetsu’s latest addition, a rare fine blue specimen made from actual origami paper for once.
“It’s just a superstition,” Kotetsu said. “In the end, it’s more for the person making the cranes, I think.”
“Did they cure you, then?” Bunny sounded very serious but also very soft at the same time.
Kotetsu gulped. “They… They gave me a reminder. Every crane is a moment I should have been spending with someone important to me, and instead I was hiding out here folding paper.” That was probably the most honest thing he’d said to anyone since Tomoe died. Maybe even ever.
Bunny didn’t say anything, just continued to file through the cranes, his lips twitching in amusement every so often when he came across one with remarkable character, either for good or ill.
“I think…” Kotetsu stopped, started, resumed. “I don’t know what to do. It hurts. I think maybe I need a good therapist or twelve.”
“I know a good therapist,” Bunny said, and then sheepishly: “Actually, I think I even know twelve.”
And Kotetsu laughed aloud, because here he was trying to do things the Bunny way with soul-wrenching angsty confessions, and Bunny was going ahead and doing things the Kotetsu way by cracking jokes.
Bunny let out a laugh, too, a startled little giggle that he immediately tried to cover as a cough with a hand to his mouth.
Kotetsu’s hand reached across the couch, almost of its volition, to bat it aside. “I’m…” Kotetsu began.
“Kind of messed up?” Bunny said with false sweetness.
“Like you’re one to talk.” Kotetsu rolled his eyes.
“I’m not,” Bunny agreed.
Kotetsu’s thumb carefully, lazily traced Bunny’s lower lip. It was strange, after all this time, to touch someone again. To remember what it was to be close, to want… “I can try,” was the only promise Kotetsu could give.
“I can listen,” Bunny said, looking equally unfamiliar with the emotions swirling between them.
It wasn’t perfect, and it would probably never be easy, and Kotetsu’s fingers felt an almost compulsive itch to fold. But Kotetsu didn’t, and Bunny actually popped in one of Kotetsu’s oldest disks of Hero TV, and they slowly learned to fill each other’s space as they watched Mister Legend defeat a gang of five single-handed.
Kotetsu suddenly couldn’t imagine how he had lived without this for so long.