I. An honest man is always a child
The terrible thing is that when Kaburagi Kotetsu doesn’t get in his own way, he’s a pretty decent father figure.
Barnaby doesn’t set out to uncover this fact.
It’s definitely not his idea to start bringing the man along for the ride on his weekly visits to Sternbild Orphanage. Kotetsu sidles his way into an invitation via a spectacular guilt trip, which Barnaby allows because it’s more or less justified. He’s mature enough to admit he could have prevented a lot of hurt feelings if he’d been honest about where he was spending his time and money. His only defense, which he isn’t willing to share with anyone, let alone Kotetsu, is that he didn't want to see the all-too familiar expression of pity on his partner’s face when realization dawned yet again. Bunny really hasn't got anybody at all.
Even if it is pretty much true.
Barnaby likes the school, and the sisterhood of nuns who run it. The visits center him. But he’s also been defined by the label: “orphan,” for two-thirds of his life. He’s carried it like a badge, sometimes made a deliberate target out of it. The weight of that word kept him upright, but brittle-- shoulders back and spine stiff with single-minded purpose.
He’s working to adjust his relationship with it.
Self-analysis has yet to determine whether he’s trying to be part of the community or place himself more firmly apart from it, acting as some kind of benefactor. Outside commentary, especially in the form of his well-meaning but hopelessly overbearing partner, is not needed or wanted right now.
So far all he knows for sure is that these are good children-- and they’re lonely, and he likes spending time with them.
Meanwhile Kotetsu walks into the orphanage with no baggage at all, a big boisterous breath of fresh air. Of course the kids love him on sight. And either he is much better with other people’s children, or attention-starved orphans are just less picky. He’s pretty much instantly their favorite adult and everybody’s best friend.
At first it just feels unfair. Then it turns into an actual problem.
II. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me
The first time Kotetsu visits he brings a storybook as a gift.
Barnaby has to admit the gesture appeals. He doesn’t have very many memories to cherish these days, and even fewer he trusts, but he still treasures the nights he spent snuggled deep under the blankets between his mother and father, more lulled than listening while they took turns reading to him. Later books became a private, quiet escape-- mostly into his studies, to be honest. But even textbooks can hold worlds if you decide to care about them.
He’s beginning to open up again, one page at a time. He reads simple stories with the younger children, and it turns out he likes to be listened to. The way his audience settles, quietly enrapt no matter which book he chooses, is gratifying in a way that a room full of sycophantic reporters will never be.
Kotetsu has his own precious memories, although typically they revolve around his daughter. The man is only saved from helicopter parenting because his orbit is too wide, encompassing all his friends and a number of people who would probably only call him an acquaintance at best.
“This was Kaede’s favorite,” he says, giving the little hardcover a gooey smile that they both know would churn his daughter’s stomach. Since the outpouring of sap isn’t aimed at Barnaby, he finds it a bit sweet.
He holds on to that feeling through most of their joint visit, until it's story time and he looks up over the crowd of eager young faces to find Kotetsu, who is neither of those things, wedged into a corner with his head down, already gently snoring.
The man has less attention span than the average five year old. It’s not a surprise, but it is disappointing.
On subsequent trips, a pattern emerges. Now it’s become traditional for his partner to wander off just before the climax of every story. The children have figured that out too; if you want to talk to Mr. Wild Tiger about something, the best time to do it is when he’s avoiding books like the plague.
He half-suspects, or half-hopes, that Kotetsu is pulling this vanishing act on purpose to give them the chance.
They're a few weeks into this one-sided comedy now. Today he finds Kotetsu sitting on the front steps with Rita, one of the oldest orphans still in residence. They jump like guilty co-conspirators when he comes into view. Kotetsu is less afraid of Barnaby’s raised eyebrows, so he stays sitting and gives the skittish girl a grin and a big thumbs up. It seems to relax her, though there’s no accounting for how red her face is under her fringe of dark hair. At least she manages to flash them both a shy smile as she hurries back to class.
Barnaby unbends a little and smiles back. He poise is compulsory, bred into him after more than a year in the spotlight and more pre-stardom grooming than he cares to think about. Actually, he feels like there’s a gathering pool of ice-water in his stomach, waiting for a probable flood of bad news.
This is conjecture. But only partially. After all, Rita is one of the students the nuns have circumspectly pointed out to him because she’s a NEXT. In a year or two she might go train at the Academy, though Barnaby’s not sure her power or her personality are exactly right for Hero work. Unless Sternbild’s hiding a flock of unusually aggressive pigeons.
Sister Marthe, hands folded softly but fingers stiff with tension, has taken him aside on more than one occasion now and described the mornings when she catches the girl hanging dangerously far out of her dormitory window, blue-tinged palms outstretched, singing like a bird. To hear the nun tell it the sky goes practically dark with wings, sparrows and crows both equally enthralled with her voice.
He knows it’s not the power that worries the sisters here. They’re all good people. But the children, Sister Marthe admits softly, and only when pressed, may not understand. Might not take it well if she kept doing these things.
So he takes Rita’s seat one step below Kotetsu with a fair amount of trepidation. It's not comfortable but he tries, letting his elbows settle against sun-warmed brick. His voice is carefully neutral. “What was that all about?”
Kotetsu picks at a crumbling line of cement on the stair between them. “Eh. No big surprise. One of the boys in her class keeps asking her to use her NEXT power.”
“Sister Marthe told her not to.”
“You try saying that to a kid who’s seen something cool. A grown-up going ‘oh hey, now that’s forbidden!’ isn’t exactly going to help.” He sucks on his teeth a little, shaking his head. It’s an action more suited to a grandfather than the parent of a young girl. “Actually, it probably hurts. He’s been following her around and begging for days, whistling at her across the hallway… really pulling out all the stops. Today he called her a birdbrain, so I guess that was the last straw.”
“That’s awful,” Barnaby says, automatically, then realizes that he actually means it now. Back at the Academy it had been easier to brush off rumors about bullies in his class with vague sympathy, declining to take sides. He’d been too obsessed with staying on the fast track and becoming a hero. Ironic, obviously, but at the time it hadn’t occurred to him that garden variety pre-teen angst might actually be hurtful to people whose hearts didn't already feel like a lump of scar tissue. “You told her to talk to one of the Sisters, right?”
“What? Of course not, I said he probably likes her!”
Sometimes it is very difficult not to gape back at his partner. Barnaby does his best, because sitting around with his mouth ajar is a bad habit of Kotetsu’s, and one he doesn’t want to pick up. “Excuse me?”
Kotetsu fidgets again, tapping his fingers together. “Well, you know... kids don’t always express themselves very well. For a boy that age it’s pretty embarrassing to admit when you like someone. Bothering a girl is way easier than talking to her.”
He can feel his head tilting five degrees further with every sentence that falls out of Kotetsu’s mouth, but he can’t help it. “That makes no sense at all.”
“Are you kidding? This is so common there’s a word for it.” At Barnaby’s blank look he continues. “Pigtail pulling?”
“That's two words.”
“Fine, sure. But you really never heard of it?”
Barnaby shakes his head. The term sounds vaguely familiar, but all of this is too far outside his comfort zone. “I don’t think I hit many of the usual childhood milestones.”
“Guess not . . . “ Kotetsu mutters, and lapses into silence. Which would be fine-- comfortable, even. They’re sitting quietly together on a nice sunny afternoon. Except that he keeps sneaking sideways glances at Barnaby, especially when he doesn’t think Bunny’s watching. Like maybe this conversation isn’t over yet, and there’s only so much of that Barnaby can take.
He reaches up and taps Kotetsu on the knee. His touch is light enough to avoid an automatic kick, and a second later his fingers settle there. There's a natural purchase around his partner's kneecap. “If you have something else to say, let’s hear it.”
“I was just wondering . . . “
Never, Barnaby wants to tell him, words on the tip of his tongue. Childhood teasing, let alone childhood sweethearts, were definitely not a part of his life. But he’s suddenly struck by the memory of the sour-lemon way Kotetsu’s mouth used to scrunch up when he called him an old man. How he flails his arms like a surprised crab at the barest hint of insult or disagreement-- still frequent enough as they navigate this rocky thing they're calling a partnership.
Kotetsu cross-legged on the ground and griping is a funny mental image, and one he doesn't usually have time to appreciate when he's working. Now it catches at the corners of his mind and the edges of his lips until he finds himself actually smiling.
He thinks about Kotetsu, stubbornly hanging onto a stupid nickname for his partner even now they're on the best possible terms, and he can feel the heat rising up the back of his neck.
Kotetsu catches his eye, face plastered with a ridiculous grin. “Did you ever wear your hair up like that when you studied?” He makes some kind of bizarre bull-by-the-horns gesture, which presumably says pigtails to him, and forges on despite the clear and present danger. “Bunny-tails! That sounds pretty cute.”
Then he beams like this is some kind of compliment.
Sometimes when confronted with extreme idiocy, hand signals are the simplest and most effective form of communication. Barnaby shoves a palm in Kotetsu’s face and grips the bridge of his nose for balance while he pushes himself upright.
“First: never ask about my past again. You just lost privileges.” There’s a nasal sound of agreement-- or possibly discomfort, but Barnaby chooses to believe his message has been received. “And secondly, I’m telling Sister Marthe.”
“--I was just kidding!”
“Not about you.” The nuns, bless them, are not equipped to babysit on this level. “About Rita getting teased like that. You might be misjudging the boy’s motives.”
But he’s not.
They're walking to the Sisters’ private offices when Barnaby sees Rita and another student (at least a head shorter than her) tucked away in the long afternoon shadows at the back of the orphanage, sharing a tentative first kiss.
Barnaby still thinks that was just a shot in the dark on Kotetsu’s part. He’s going to have serious words with the children about bullying on some future visit.
But the universe is on his partner’s side.
III. Respect is greater at a distance
“Leave me alone!”
The words echo along the hallway, fed-up and brimming with frustration. Barnaby feels immediate kinship with the shouter, whoever they are.
Technically what happens inside the classrooms is the teacher’s business and he’s just a volunteer. But plausible deniability says he’s allowed to make sure there’s not a serious problem, so he follows the noise to its source.
Two little girls are facing off across the art table. Or at least, one is. She has her hands on her hips, puffed up like a small, angry creature on the defensive. After a moment he realizes that she's actually drawing in a deep breath so she can keep shouting. “I’m never working with you again! You make me do everything.”
The other child is not keeping up her side of the argument. She’s practically hiding under the table, and her face is as crumpled as the tissue she’s twisting in her hands. “But-- that’s not fair! Your art’s so good, I don’t want to ruin it ...”
“It’s too late,” the first girl wails, “you already ruined everything!” It looks like she’s about to shove her friend’s face in the nearest can of poster paint.
Barnaby’s almost ready to intervene when he's jostled out of the way. Kotetsu takes over, a proper mediator for once in his life, grabbing both girls by the shoulders and frog-marching them off for a conference in a cardboard castle. The next time he sees the pair they’re working on a mural together-- a truly bizarre mix of well-shaded flowers and handprints with beady eyes and triangle beaks. He presumes they're actually supposed to be bluebirds, not avenging squid monsters.
“What did you say to them?” he asks.
Kotetsu leans in close, as if any of the children are listening. “Just reminded them that sometimes Hero Worship is a dangerous thing.”
“Hero Worship.” Barnaby repeats blandly, rolling his eyes and looking around for any particularly devout nuns who might object to the term. The only Sister present seems more concerned with the mess the two newly reaffirmed best friends have made of the wall. Apparently this was an unauthorized piece of public artwork. She bears down on her charges like a modern incarnation of Sternbild’s own avenging goddess. “Sounds like a stretch.”
“You can call it whatever you want, Mr. Dictionary. But talking somebody up is just as dangerous as underestimating them.”
The smaller girl throws herself between her friend and incoming retribution, probably taking the blame for this whole escapade. Unfair, really. It’s obviously Kotetsu’s fault.
Kotetsu continues, in his best lecturing tone. The one that would grate on anyone over three years old. “It’s important to recognize when someone needs help.”
The thing is, it’s a terrible speech. Objectively. But it almost sounds like a confession. Or at least an admission that maybe he and Bunny have both been guilty of that particular mistake.
It’s practically a promise to do better, for all that Kotetsu can’t say so directly.
Barnaby turns his head away. There are tears pricking at the corners of his eyes, which is as embarrassing as it is unexpected.
Kotetsu pretends not to notice. Or, more likely, he's actually oblivious. He’s finally realized there’s more tiny drama happening as the two girls vie for the chance to be punished. Their hands are intertwined, and it appears to have been the nervous child’s idea given how hard her angrier friend is blushing. Strange.
Barnaby elbows Kotetsu back into the conversation. “What if they already hated each other though?”
Kotetsu scratches his ribs, wincing and overacting. “It was obvious they didn’t? She wouldn’t have been upset if she really wanted to work with somebody else.”
And that hits uncomfortably close to home too.
Maybe these things shouldn’t bother him so much.
Barnaby steps a little nearer, shoulder to shoulder with his partner. He can feel the seam of his t-shirt brushing against the lighter material of Kotetsu’s sleeve, folding the fabric until it presses against his arm.
Then Kotetsu ruins the moment by humming, practically in his ear, unreasonably smug. “They’re a pretty sweet couple now, right?”
Barnaby disentangles himself as quickly as possible. “You assume you know way too much about other people’s relationships.”
“What? They’re tiny girlfriends! It’s cute, isn't it?”
IV. Love and war are difficult to stop
“I suppose you’re going to tell me that means they’re getting married soon,” Barnaby snaps when he finds Kotetsu indulgently watching while two first-graders wrestle in the remains of Sister Marthe’s garden. Sister Soo-jin is watching too; Barnaby doesn’t think she’s quite as pleased as Tiger. Someone needs to talk to these women about stepping in before the trouble’s started instead of hovering on the sidelines.
Kotetsu has the temerity to look baffled. “What? And-- No? I was just thinking that the little guy’s doing pretty well. He’s got a few good moves!” He gives an exaggerated wink. “Wanna guess who taught him those?”
His pride deflates with a practically audible whistle when Barnaby skewers him with a glare. “Guess we should break it up though, huh?”
“That’s a novel idea.”
Sarcasm never has more than a fifty-fifty chance of phasing Kotetsu. He stays where he is, fingering his beard thoughtfully. “Now that you mention it, fighting like an old married couple all the time is pretty suspicious…”
Barnaby deposits a squirming, screaming orphan in Kotetsu’s arms and walks away, enjoying the aggrieved shout when two muddy hands make contact with his partner’s clean shirt.
V. Mistakes are the foundations of truth
Kotetsu points out the window to the courtyard below. “Hey, look at those two--”
“Don’t,” Barnaby snaps, heading off today’s teachable moment with an impatient gesture.
Kotetsu’s sentences don't alway stop when you cut him off. Sometimes they break back down into their component parts and he keeps spitting random words for a minute or two after he’s lost his train of thought. Barnaby, used to this, talks over him.
“Just. Stop. Don’t say it. If you’re about to compare our relationship to those two, it’s unnecessary. I already get it--”
“--you’ve made your point--”
“--several times over. And it’s insulting to always be compared to a kid with a crush--”
Barnaby stops. Cold certainty has suddenly wrapped a hand around his guts. “... you haven't been doing this on purpose.”
The expression on Kotetsu’s face makes it obvious he hasn't been. He sounds out every word with the air of a man testing unfamiliar terrain for quicksand. “You think… I think… you have a crush?”
“Bunny,” Kotetsu says, raising his arms, hands flapping in a manic gesture of surrender, “I have no idea why you’d think that. Who would you even be into?”
It’s possible that he could still get out of the conversation at this point, dignity the only casualty. But for all he’s made a career out of looking calm and cool, Barnaby’s self control is never more than one push away from a crash and burn that always feels a lot like hurtling off the side of a cliff. “I don't know,” he snaps, “Maybe the person I'm always arguing with? And getting teased by, and all the rest of those things? But of course there are so many people who fit that description!”
Then his brain catches up with his mouth and he stops, too late.
The problem is that Kotetsu isn't actually stupid. It's easy to see him that way-- everything he does is larger than life, and that has always included the mistakes he makes --but Barnaby knows better. The man has his priorities, everything in his world skews around them. But give him a problem and convince him it's really important, and come hell or high water he'll solve it.
And they both value this partnership.
Barnaby feels sick.
“... me?” Kotetsu says, and-- god, his voice actually cracks a little as he says it.
He nods again, tight and miserable. Kotetsu reverses the gesture, shaking his head slowly. “But.... Bunny…. we’re not kids.”
“That really just makes it worse, doesn't it?” Barnaby snaps.
“It's different when you're older.”
Kotetsu’s expression is rarely unreadable. He wears every single feeling on his sleeve, loud as his signature roar. But Barnaby has no idea what he's thinking when he holds out his hands, palms up, an open and empty gesture. “Are you telling me it's not?” he asks.
Barnaby thinks he could grow to hate that particular gentle tone of voice.
“Bunny,” Kotetsu says, even though Barnaby hasn't spoken yet, hasn't even moved. “Hey. Barnaby…” It doesn't sound the same at all, even though both of these words are, supposedly, his name.
Kotetsu gives him a pleading look. “I didn't know,” he says, reaching for his partner’s shoulder.
Barnaby jerks away, defensive even though he doesn’t know if they’re still fighting or not. “Yes. Obviously.”
Tanned hands come down on his arms, vise-like. “No, I mean-- I didn't know-- Aw, hell. I'm crap at this.”
Next thing he knows, Kotetsu is kissing him.
It's not very good. Kotetsu’s lips are damp and planted hard against his mouth, and he keeps moving them, somehow managing to make this too fast and halting all at once. Barnaby realizes too late that at least part of the problem is that he's just standing there, frozen in shock. But by the time he figures that out he’s missed his chance. Kotetsu pulls back, inhaling high and short and frantic. “Shit,” he mutters, “Sorry, Bunny--”
Barnaby surges forward, grabbing at the back of Kotetsu's head.
Kissing is much, much better when he's the one anticipating it. When he can drag his hands over the rough patches of Kotetsu's beard, guide him back to a better angle and catch his wandering lips with soft suction and pressure. Kotetsu's reflexes beat Barnaby’s hand over fist; he kisses back almost immediately, and with no hesitation. When he puts his hands on Barnaby’s hips to haul him closer, his palms are heavy and sure, resting over the pockets at the back of Barnaby’s jeans, enthusiastically intimate.
It’s exactly what Barnaby wants. He feels like all the tension coiled inside his chest has just released, a hair-trigger catch, and then the world explodes around them.
This is not some kind of earth-shaking metaphor, although for a dazed moment Barnaby could almost believe that. But no, every piece of furniture has actually slammed across the room towards them. And he has literally just been smacked upside the head by a flying chalkboard.
“Unbelievable,” says a shadow in the doorway, and Barnaby jumps-- first because someone was there, possibly the whole time, and that's enough to sent his heart racing with discomfort instead of excitement. Secondly because he knows that voice. He coughs out chalk dust and fumbles up around Kotetsu's back, a position that feels significantly more awkward now than it did a minute ago, trying to pull his glasses off so he can wipe them clean and confirm the impossible.
“Sister Marthe?” he gapes.
Marthe (the Sister part seems questionable now) steps towards them. The chairs and tables, still animated, skitter out of her way. She's removed her wimple, her eyes are flashing blue. Power and frustration are rolling off of her with equal force.
Confronted with a hostile NEXT, there’s no time for awkwardness. Kotetsu pushes Barnaby away, and he follows the momentum of the movement without question, stepping back and giving his partner room to pivot so that they can face whatever’s about to happen side by side.
Their target stops moving, drawing herself back into check. “I was trying,” she says, “To teach these brats a lesson.” Her soft, sweet smile and the use of her perfect Teacher Knows Best voice is deeply out of sync with her words. “A very simple lesson. Love is a lie. Friendship’s a pain. Now I see why you keep ruining my plans.”
“Er,” says Kotetsu. “Actually, I was just trying to help the kiddos out. This whole.. Thing… is pretty recent, since Bunny just got up the nerve to confess to me. Also: you're nuts, lady.”
“I did not confess to you,” Barnaby mutters, aware that he’s being hopelessly pedantic but also sure that if he agrees to Kotetsu’s version of the story he is never going to hear the end of it-- and, oh, there’s going to be a later. They’re going to have to actually talk about what just happened here. The thought is doing an absolute number on his concentration.
“I really don’t care,” Sister Marthe says. Which is only fair, even by criminal standards.
Barnaby pulls his focus back to the trouble at hand. The unhinged, powerful problem that he would really like to encourage to keep talking, while he and Kotetsu edge forward. “You set up all of those fights between the students?”
It works. She smiles and folds here hand together serenely and begins to lay out her mantra again. “I did, and I have no regrets. You see, I’ve been in enough relationships to know that all of them are doomed. I was just speeding up the inevitable.”
Kotetsu kicks the chalkboard out of their way, working across the room. “If you want a relationship so badly, why did you become a nun?”
It’s the wrong thing to say. Her mirror-smooth expression disappears. “I don’t think I need to take this from you.”
“Actually he has a point,” Barnaby chips in, and regrets it instantly when she pitches a desk at his head. At the same time the chalkboard under his feet bucks and Kotetsu flails backwards, and Barnaby finds himself springing forwards to catch his partner again. It’s the second time in ten minutes, and the situation couldn’t be more heart-stoppingly different.
Kotetsu hits his chest with a bone jarring thump. Barnaby hooks his arms under his elbows and manages to keep them both more or less upright, but there’s no way he’s going to land a surprise attack on her now.
He can hear a commotion in the courtyard now, children and adults both shouting in confusion. If they don’t finish this soon there are going to be civilians on the scene, and the dangerous possibility of collateral damage.
“Why are you always the one catching me?” Kotetsu grumbles, and Barnaby looks down, ready to reprimand him-- for not trusting him, for even worrying about his dignity right now --but he stops when he catches sight of Kotetsu’s face, tilted so that only he can see it. His jaw is set, eyes blue as impossible oceans. Exactly how many seconds of Hundred power he has left Barnaby can’t guess, but he knows Kotetsu is counting on him to make sure they’re enough.
“Maybe I ought to catch someone,” he continues, and Banaby knows exactly what he means.
“Right,” he agrees, and pushes Kotetsu bodily back upward, forwards, throwing him with enough force to send him crashing through all of the schoolroom detritus and directly into Sister Marthe.
The rest of the fight takes no time at all. Marthe might be one of the most overpowered NEXTs Barnaby’s ever encountered, but a wrestler she is not. A few moments of grappling and Kotetsu has her pinned with a hand over her eyes so that she can’t send anymore furniture flying in the right direction.
It’s all over a moment before their wristbands begin to vibrate-- disturbance at Sternbuild Orphanage.
“Better late than never,” Barnaby sighs, raising his wrist to acknowledge the catch.
But Kotetsu beats him to it.
“Hey,” he says over the communicator to Agnes, their fellow heroes, and probably the world: “Love wins!”
I am rubber you are glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.