Kotetsu wasn’t sure what the argument even started over. He did know that he and Barnaby – and all the other Heroes in Stern Bild – had had a long past few days, between prison escapees, arsonists, robbers, and terrorists. Between fighting the most recent bad guy and attempting to overdose on coffee, the paperwork had created an insurmountable task back at headquarters. They were all running short on patience; even Nathan had snapped a few times.
Kotetsu hated to admit it, but he didn’t even think about Kaede during all the chaos. It hadn’t been long since she moved in with him and Barnaby on the Gold Stage, and they were all still adjusting to life as one family. Obviously, they had their bumps in the road – everybody did. It had never been anything a beer or an impromptu mission couldn’t fix. They had always been hotheaded with each other; it was never something that made them break apart.
By the end of the worst of it, Kotetsu was hungry and tired, but Barnaby’s long nights of obsessing over Ouroboros had trained him to stay awake and concentrating longer, so he took a chunk of Kotetsu’s paperwork for himself while Kotetsu retrieved more coffee.
Once he and Barnaby were told by an equally tired Agnes to just head on home, they trudged out to the streets and immediately headed for the apartment. Kotetsu spent the way home pressed against Barnaby with his head leaned on his shoulder, and Barnaby either didn’t care or was too tired to protest. They didn’t speak.
When they arrived at the apartment, they were greeted with a loud yell of, “Dad! Barnaby! You’re home!”
Kaede emerged from behind the couch – the TV was set on the Hero TV broadcast – and rushed over to strangle Kotetsu in a hug. She opened her eyes to see Barnaby and then transferred her bear hug over to him. Barnaby was stiff with shock. Kotetsu was staring at her with wide eyes when she stepped back.
“I was so worried,” Kaede confessed with a relieved breath. “Jenna texted me and told me there was a terrorist and you two were dealing with them, so I put on Hero TV, and then there was the robber on the Bronze Stage, and then the fires, and I just…” She threw up her hands. “I was worried.”
“You… were here,” Kotetsu said, “alone.”
Kaede stared at him. “Well, yeah,” she said. “You two didn’t come home. You couldn’t. There was…” She gestured vaguely to the Hero TV broadcast.
“You’re thirteen!” Kotetsu exclaimed. “And you were completely alone! For days! Bunny, how many days has it been?”
“Four,” Barnaby said hollowly.
Kotetsu continued, “Did you call your grandmother? Have you been eating? How did you get to school?”
Kaede was still staring at him. “No, because she would have just worried too, and I could do that fine on my own. Yes, and before you say anything, I’d like to point out that, unlike you, I actually know how to make more than fried rice. And I walked.”
“You walked! School is so far—”
“So now you’re complaining I exercised too much? Seriously?”
“It’s not that—”
“You were alone!” Kotetsu said. “For four days! You were all alone!”
Kaede still looked unperturbed. “So?”
Kotetsu covered his face with his hands in exasperation.
“Why didn’t you call someone?” Barnaby asked her. Then he turned to Kotetsu and asked, “Why didn’t you think to call her?”
“I was busy,” said Kotetsu dryly.
“What about when you went to get coffee?” Barnaby asked. “Kotetsu, seriously?”
“I was a bit preoccupied mentally!” Kotetsu retorted.
“You couldn’t be preoccupied if there’s nothing going on up there!”
Kaede said, “Barnaby, it’s fine, it’s not really that big of a deal—”
“It is!” said Barnaby. “It is, Kaede! You’re thirteen! You can’t just stay home alone for the good part of a week with no one knowing while terrorists and robbers and arsonists run around Stern Bild! What if something had happened here? No one would have known where to look for you! No one would have noticed if you were missing!”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Kotetsu.
“And you!” Barnaby turned to face him. “How could you? You had a break in between all this madness and you didn’t call her? What the hell, Kotetsu?”
“Hey, now—” Kotetsu began.
“Don’t!” snapped Barnaby. “Don’t even start. You had the opportunity to call her and you didn’t! Even with all this going on! What if something had happened to her? What if we didn’t know? She could have been at the marketplace when those robbers!”
“Actually,” Kaede said, “I don’t shop there—”
“You don’t start!” Kotetsu retorted. “You can’t talk! Why didn’t you think to call her?”
“Oh, you mean when I was doing your paperwork?”
“Some other time!” said Kotetsu. “If it’s so obvious, why didn’t you do it?”
“Probably because I was busy doing my job?”
“So was I!”
“But it never crossed your mind,” Barnaby said, “to call our kid when you went to get coffee? Not when you were walking there? Not when you were in line, or waiting for the coffee, or walking back? What the actual hell? Why didn’t—”
“Look, she’s not your kid, so back the fuck off!” Kotetsu yelled.
There was silence. The moment what he said sunk in, Kotetsu drew in a sharp breath and recoiled. The air went from being heated in argument in cold and tense in a heartbeat. “Barnaby, I didn’t— I didn’t mean—”
The next thing Kotetsu heard was the sound of the door slamming. Barnaby didn’t really slam doors so much as he angrily closed them, but the meaning was clear, even if it didn’t send the sparse portraits on the wall that Barnaby relented on rattling. Kotetsu was left in silence. His heart thundered hard in his chest, like he had just come out of battle. His eyes were fixed on the doorknob, waiting for it to turn again, for Barnaby to walk back in, to continue the argument, to—
Kotetsu was suddenly back at the mall with Barnaby, arguing over his retirement, hearing Barnaby say those horrible things and then the clap of his palm against Barnaby’s cheek. But that was different. Barnaby had been trying to provoke him then. This was… something else. This was Kotetsu drawing a line between the two people Barnaby loved like family and Barnaby himself.
“Dad?” Kaede said quietly.
Kotetsu recalled her presence in a flash and turned around to see her staring at him with wide eyes slowly filling with tears. He saw the telltale sign of her bottom lip beginning to tremble. “No, no, no,” Kotetsu murmured, crouching down to meet her eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” Kaede said. “I didn’t mean to make you guys argue.”
Kotetsu was quick to pull her into a hug. “It wasn’t your fault, not at all,” he said. “It’s just been a long few days. We’re just tired, and we snapped – I snapped.”
“Is Barnaby not going to be my dad?” Kaede asked softly, and Kotetsu felt the two pieces of his heart further shatter.
“No, no,” Kotetsu said. “I didn’t mean that.”
Her voice was muffled into his shoulder when she asked, “Is Barnaby going to come back?”
“Yeah.” Kotetsu pulled away and Kaede was fast to wipe away whatever tears had spilled out of her eyes. “Yeah. I’m going to find him.” He stood up. “I’ll be right back.” He paused to say, “Lock the door, and call your grandmother, please.”
There was a new glint in her eyes when she said, “I will.”
Kotetsu stood up and opened the door. He was sure to say, “Lock it behind me. And call your grandmother!” before he slammed it shut a bit more forcefully than necessary and headed right for stairs. Luckily, it was late out, so he didn’t run in to any of their neighbors.
Barnaby was fast. He was good at hiding, especially when he was hurt. He recoiled and vanished, and he didn’t have any pattern to his hide-outs that Kotetsu could think of to find him. Normally when they had their little spats (little being the key word) he would just excuse himself from the house, call up Antonio, and meet up for a drink or two. Antonio might talk some sense into him if it called for it. But then he would head home (or be driven home by Antonio, in one case) and Barnaby would either be there or appear sometime during the night.
Kotetsu stepped into the cold night air, let out a breath, and looked around. Of course, Barnaby was nowhere to be seen. It would be too easy to be found if he just took a seat on one of the faded green benches outside their apartment complex. Barnaby didn’t want to be found. Kotetsu felt like he was breaking in to pieces. He didn’t want to lose the family they’d built.
He checked the nearby park first, and Barnaby wasn’t there. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, scowled, and began making his way to the headquarters. Maybe Barnaby wanted to bury himself in work.
His phone buzzed. A look at the screen told him it was his mother. Kotetsu realized that maybe telling Kaede to call her after he and Barnaby had had a horrible argument was not the best plan.
He answered. “Hello?”
He forced a smile. “Hi, Muramasa.” He glanced around the picture. “Where’s Mom?”
“Mom?” Muramasa raised an eyebrow. “Oh, she stepped off into the garden and told me to call you after she hung up with Kaede.”
“How much did you hear?”
“Enough. Your kid is in tears. She thinks you two are done and she’s not going to have Barnaby in her life anymore. You messed up, brother.”
“Shut up and give the phone to Mom.”
“Wow. If this is how you talk to him, I can see why—”
The phone was snatched from Muramasa’s hand, and then Anju’s face appeared on the screen. She said to Muramasa, “Go. Don’t make this any worse.”
Muramasa trudged out of the frame.
Kotetsu was fuming from Muramasa’s comment. “Mom, Muramasa said—”
“I didn’t call you to talk about what Muramasa said,” Anju told him. “I called to talk about what you said.”
Kotetsu closed his eyes for a brief moment. “I’m sorry. I really am. I didn’t mean it.”
“I know that,” said Anju. “I remember how excited both you and Kaede were when you two got married. But she already lost her mother, Kotetsu. You can’t just threaten to take away another parental figure.”
“I didn’t mean to,” said Kotetsu. “Really. I… I was just angry, and I messed up with Kaede, and Barnaby was right – I should have thought about it – but I was tired and mad and I just wanted him to shut up.”
Anju let out a long breath. “I understand,” she said. “I understand, but Kotetsu, really. You need to think more before you speak, or act.”
“Don’t make this about Hero business—”
“I saw you jump in front of that robber today! What would have happened if your suit failed? What would we have done?”
“You apologize,” Anju said, “and the both of you hurry home. It’s too late for Kaede to be up waiting for you two.”
Kotetsu was going to end the call then, but he recalled something Muramasa said around the vague insults at his love life. “Was Kaede really crying when she called you?”
“Not when she initially called, no,” said Anju, and before Kotetsu could feel relieved, she continued, “but then she started telling me what happened, and then she started crying.” Anju’s face softened. “She loves the both of you. Remember that. Not just when you’re arguing, but when you’re working too. Just be careful, please.”
Nathan was horrified to be awoken at midnight. He needed his beauty sleep, especially after such a long few days, between Hero business and the paperwork. God, the paperwork. His eyes would never work the same.
But then he opened the door, and the weariness vanished from him. In the faint light of the hallway stood Barnaby, dressed in civilian clothes, his hair windswept and his eyes reddened.
Nathan gasped. “Handsome, what happened?”
Barnaby just shook his head. “Can I stay here for the night?”
“Of course! Of course!” Nathan said, stepping out of the way to let Barnaby in. He didn’t have anything with him – no bag, no clothes, no keys. He must have made an impromptu exit.
As soon as Barnaby sat down on the couch, Nathan asked, “So what did he do?”
Barnaby said, “Why do you think it’s something Kotetsu did?”
“Handsome, tact is not his strong suit.”
But Barnaby just shook his head again. “It’s stupid.”
“Maybe so, but clearly not to you.”
Barnaby paid him no mind. “If Kotetsu happens to come by, don’t tell him I’m here.”
“Will do, handsome.” Nathan flitted by, his robe trailing behind him, and retrieved a blanket from the closet. As he handed it to Barnaby, he said, “You know, my bed’s always open, if you think the couch is a little uncomfortable.”
Barnaby was not talkative tonight. He didn’t grace Nathan with even a witty or sarcastic response. Nathan’s heart sank, and he said, “Oh, honey. That bad?”
Of course, there was no response.
The next morning, the Heroes received an alert from Agnes that, now that they had rested, the remainder of the paperwork from the numerous incidents needed to be done. This called all the Heroes in to the office.
Kotetsu spent five minutes at his desk. He was late, and Barnaby was usually early, but now his desk was deserted. The paper was piled neatly into stacks. His computer was off. Nothing appeared to have been touched since they left last night. Kotetsu rubbed his face, sat up, and headed for the gym.
He was far from the only one.
When he arrived, he was cast a nasty look by Pao-Lin, who huffed and looked away from him as she exited the gym. Karina gave him a sad look from the weight rack and shrugged. Antonio walked up to him slowly and started to say, “Hey, buddy,” but Kotetsu cut him off when he asked, “Where’s Barnaby?”
Antonio’s expression was not happy or relieved or anything of the sort. He said, “He’s in the locker room with Nathan.”
Kotetsu walked in to find Barnaby and Nathan conversing quietly in one corner of the locker room. Nathan’s eyebrows rose when he saw Kotetsu walk in. Barnaby followed his gaze and froze. Kotetsu’s mouth suddenly felt dry. What was he supposed to say?
Nathan stepped away from Barnaby. “I’ll see you, handsome.” When he passed Kotetsu, he gave him a little nod, and then walked out.
“Barnaby…” Kotetsu said softly.
“What?” Barnaby’s voice was cold.
“I am so sorry,” Kotetsu said. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean what I said. I was tired and angry and I am so, so sorry.”
Barnaby closed his eyes. “Why did you say it, then?”
“I told you,” Kotetsu said. “I was just – angry. I lost my head.”
He looked at Kotetsu with a sad but steady gaze. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Is that how you really feel?”
“No!” Kotetsu said. “No, Bunny, it was so wrong. I love you. Kaede loves you. I love our life together. She loves having you in her life. I love you being in her life. I love you.”
“She’s your kid,” Barnaby said. “At best, I’m the step-dad.”
“She’s our kid. And you’re selling yourself a bit short. She doesn’t see you like that. I don’t see you like that.”
Barnaby was silent for a long moment, and Kotetsu said, “Please, Bunny. I’m so sorry. I know what a family means to you, I do. I’ll never be the thing that takes that away. I swear.”
Barnaby wasn’t looking at Kotetsu. “I didn’t want to be alone again,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to admit that I had misread the situation, that I had stepped into a role you didn’t want me to fill.”
“You didn’t,” Kotetsu said. “You didn’t.” He gave Barnaby a soft smile. “And if you’re interested in playing the role still, I promised Kaede her dads would treat her to lunch. Both of them. To make up for… you know.” He had done it that morning to prove to her that she hadn’t lost a parent, but Barnaby could think for the time being that it was about leaving her alone. There was time for conversation about Kaede’s parental figures later, at lunch. This was the situation at hand – convincing Barnaby he had a right to be there in the first place.
Barnaby was smiling too now. “That sounds nice,” he said.
Kotetsu closed the distance between them in two long steps. Barnaby didn’t back away, and with each inch he got closer, Kotetsu could feel another stitch closing the pieces of his heart back together. They would make it out of this. He knew it. The worst was over.
“I love you,” Kotetsu said. “Kaede loves you. You’re a great father.”
Barnaby let out a small chuckle. “I hope so. Otherwise that mug she got me for Christmas would be really awkward.”