Machines beep and scream as the doctors work in an organized frenzy around Barnaby’s unmoving form.
On the patient monitor, the heart rate line spikes upward. Again. And again. Kotetsu watches it, thinking how his own heart feels like it’s thundering three-times faster.
He is staring past the curtain into the emergency room where Barnaby lies in limbo. There’s an unspoken rule in hospitals about family waiting in the hall and friends waiting in the lobby. Kotetsu is in the hall. He’d followed the gurney without thinking.
The monitor line spikes again -- sharp, like the rubble that broke Barnaby’s fall. Again -- sudden, like the explosion that blew Barnaby off the roof deck.
Kotetsu can barely breathe. Someone in the room notes with alarm, “ Pulse ox- is dropping. ” His heart flutters and pounds. “ --need to get him stabilized-- ” His head swims. “ --squeeze in that saline, get his pressure back up-- ”
This time the monitor line does not spike upward.
He waits, holding his breath. This is normal, he tells himself. Just a blip in their standard emergency treatment, they’ll have him back and conscious again in no time.
But the seconds plod by. The defibrillator does nothing. A few moments later, it does nothing again.
Kotetsu stares down at Barnaby’s still, limp body. At his face -- youthful, lax, expressionless. At his feathered movie-star hair draped across his pillow. At his unmoving, unscarred hands, IV tubes forced into their veins. There’s no blood, no visible bruises. Despite the trauma, his friend looks like he could simply stand up and walk out of there -- except for all the ways that it’s obvious he can’t. His friend...
Kotetsu suddenly wonders whether he should be here after all. He feels out of place. Out of sorts. Out of time.
The line stays flat. He stares at it, waits for it, wills it to jump back into its reassuring rhythm...
It stays flat.
Days later, Kotetsu stands in a funeral parlor where Barnaby’s body lies in a white casket. It’s so different from Tomoe’s funeral, yet also so much the same. Flowers fill the room. Mourners fill the seats. The other heroes are there in the front row. Kotetsu is doing his duty as the chief mourner -- standing at the front of the room, greeting guests and receiving their sympathies. Since Barnaby had no parents or relatives, there’s no one else who can do this for him.
Months later, Kotetsu races his motorcycle through Stern Bild’s streets in pursuit of another nameless criminal. He’ll do his best to bring the robber to justice -- he’ll do his best to help whoever needs it -- but he’ll still feel hollow as he does it. He chides himself in Barnaby’s voice about the importance of points and popularity. He reminds himself of his own promise to Tomoe. But beneath all his surface determination are the gnawing echoes of regrets: how he used to complain about Barnaby always driving, always reveling in the limelight, always calling him Old Man.. . And he finally realizes that, in spite of months of waiting for things to ‘get better’, they never really will.
Years later, Kotetsu watches Kaede walk across a stage to accept her high school diploma. He cheers, whoops and hollers, surely embarrassing her. Her eyes find him in the crowd, but she’s grinning at him anyway. His heart swells with pride -- and with sorrow. Muramasa and his mother are there, but there should be a fourth person here cheering with him. He’d accepted years ago that it wouldn’t be Tomoe. He’d never considered until now that he would have liked it to be Barnaby.
Decades later, Kotetsu stands over his stove, stirring a pot of rice. Like every other night, just enough for one. He stops for a moment and listens -- he hears the quiet hiss of the gas burner, the faint hum of his ceiling fan, the ticking of the antique clock. But mostly he hears the lonely stillness of his apartment swallowing it all. He thinks he feels eyes on him, turns to the side and finds he’s being watched again by the framed photos of Tomoe and Barnaby in his private shrine against the wall. Side by side they gaze out at him, always smiling, never aging. His heart rises up to choke him as he imagines the lives he might have led.
The tiny green diode spikes sharply upward. Kotetsu gasps, waits for it to cycle back through its unending path across the monitor’s lightless field.
It spikes again.
“ --think we’ve got him. ” “-- Mr. Brooks, can you hear me? ”
Barnaby’s eyes flutter open. He looks tired, pained, confused. He’s searching around the emergency room for something, or someone.
Kotetsu remembers how to move and steps through the curtain into the room, sidling up to the exam bed and into Barnaby’s view. Friends wait in the lobby, family waits in the hall… Partners stick together.
“Did the doctors tell you that you died?” Kotetsu asks him later as Barnaby recovers.
Kotetsu’s fingers flex restlessly against the sheets of Barnaby’s hospital bed, so many millimeters away from Barnaby’s. “They said I had to be resuscitated,” Barnaby subtly corrects him with a tired smile. “Sorry to have worried everyone.”
“Yeah, it was a scary forty-two seconds,” Kotetsu tells him. His tone sounds casual but his jaw has gone tight… and abruptly, Kotetsu’s hand slides forward to grasp Barnaby’s. His eyes -- red and glistening, but clear -- hold Barnaby’s gaze. Without asking, Barnaby can see all that transpired behind Kotetsu’s eyes in those long moments -- the lifetime lived, the realized regrets. Kotetsu just says with an over-large, joking smile, “Promise not to do it again, right?”
“Sure, I promise,” he replies and lets his fingers curl reassuringly around Kotetsu’s.
It’s a promise no one can make -- not really. But it’s what you say to a person who seems to have decided to never leave your side again. Or at least, it’s what you say when you want them to stay there.