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The More Things Change The More Things Stay The Same

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At forty-one, Kotetsu was practically a dinosaur in the Hero business. He knew this even before interviewers began bringing up the topic of retirement in their interviews . Like any sports athlete, a hero’s prime lasted only for so long. He was an anomaly that kept on trucking on even after his powers had dwindled. Most heroes would’ve hung the cape at that point and he was very fortunate to not only have the stubbornness to keep on going, but have the support of his family, friends, and a decent amount of fans.

Whenever the topic came up, he fielded the questions with his usual bumbling ease. He was Kotetsu T. Kaburagi, after all, an expert in the art of avoidance and obfuscation. “I don’t know when to stop, really! I think I’d like to keep going until I can’t!” he’d exclaimed at an interview to the raucous laughter of the studio. He actively made light of the topic, much to the amusement of people around him and Barnaby’s mild annoyance. In those moments, he could believe his own words, but knew better than anyone else that his hero-ing days were numbered.

For all the pain the incident with Maverick had brought him and his friends, it had led to some good. Aside from Barnaby finally getting a second chance at life, there was the treasure trove that was the Brooks’ research in robotics. That knowledge was taken in by Saitou who, in turn, used it to improve their suits greatly. As Kotetsu’s powers dwindled even more, Saitou used what he could to tweak his suit specifically so it would compensate for his lack of powers. But even with the power suits, Kotetsu was aware there was only so much Saitou’s tech could do. And with each mission accomplished, every injury, every scrape and bang-up that came with the job, the limits of Kotetsu’s aging body were becoming more and more apparent.

He’d certainly lasted far longer than anyone had expected him to. Heck, he’d lasted longer than he’d expected him to. His Hundred Power ground down to grand ol’ zero seconds a month after he’d turned thirty-nine. That could have easily been the end of his career.

(It wasn’t.)

The complete loss of his powers had happened during a mission, naturally. There had been an explosion at a mall in the Gold district. The perpetrators were easily apprehended but the search and rescue that followed was a challenge. The Heroes decided to separate to rescue different targets. “If you need help – call me, Kotetsu,” Barnaby sent through the private comm between them.

“Sure thing, Bunny,” he said.

It had been routine; Kotetsu had been saving up his powers for the moment when he absolutely needed them. Eventually, he’d found his moment and did what he’d always done: reached into that place deep within him where that mass of power slept. When he was younger, he hadn’t been wise enough to really identify that something inside him, but years of experience had taught him how to find it and coax it to burst. As Hero, naturally, he had to know how to switch his powers on and off at will. But this time, doing that yielded nothing. The familiar place he’d drawn from was empty.

Finally , he thought, unable to really be surprised at that point.

There was no time to mourn his loss. With Hundred Power closed off, he had to find another way to save the people trapped before him. Barnaby’s words echoed at the back of his mind and he shrugged it off. There was nothing Barnaby could do, he reasoned to himself. It would just be an unnecessary distraction  for his partner.

He knew he was falling into old habits but that was easy to do. There was an injured man in front of him in need of rescuing and a five-floor plunge in the form of a gaping hole standing between them.  Not to mention a fire that threatened to weaken whatever pillars were keeping up the floors beneath them. It was the worst time to be without his Hundred Power.

‘Maybe it’s time to hang up the suit, Kotetsu. If you can’t handle something like this-‘  

Shrugging the thoughts of, Kotetsu decided to take his chance. He found ledges to shoot his grappling hooks at and swung with all the weight of his power suit to reach the injured man. Somehow, that had worked and he was lucky the wall didn’t collapse on his way back.  

Looking back, it was stupid and unhero-like. Though nobody got hurt for it, Kotetsu knew he shouldn’t have put lives in danger because of his petty feelings. He should’ve called someone for help. Or Barnaby.

But he didn’t.

In the end, his stubbornness landed him with a broken arm and a few burns here and there. Barnaby was understandably pissed – “I told you to call me, Kotetsu.” –  and at first Kotetsu was able to laugh it off. Easy to do with the other heroes there to laugh with him and pacify Barnaby.

It was a lot harder to keep up the act once they got back to the privacy of Apollon’s trailer.

“Bunny-“  he began, causing Barnaby to pause as he helped Kotetsu remove the rest of his suit.  “….It’s gone.”

“Gone?” Barnaby parroted, not understanding what Kotetsu meant at first. It took a few moments before he realized exactly what Kotetsu meant. “…. You didn’t tell me. Not even that. You didn’t want to tell me.”

“It wasn’t like that… It was just-“

“I told you to call me if something happened. We were out there for that long and you-“ Barnaby frowned. “I thought we were past this, Kotetsu.”

“I know- and I’m sorry. I didn’t want to –  I don’t know, distract you. We were on the job and there were these people – this problem is just… something , you know? Something we knew would happen sometime.”

“It isn’t just something and you know that.” Barnaby sounded hurt and, worse, Kotetsu knew it was for him.  A few beats of silence passed between them. Kotetsu knew there was more Barnaby wanted to say but instead, his partner sighed and seemed to settle for something else. “If something happened to you, I don’t know what I would’ve done, Kotetsu.”

Kotetsu hung his head, recognizing how upset Barnaby was. “I know,” he admitted. The feeling was mutual.

“We can work this out. We knew this was coming. But if we’re going to stay Heroes together, I need you to be honest with me.” Moreso now. Kotetsu heard exactly what he didn’t say.

“Is it really okay with you? “

Barnaby’s eyebrows drew together and he looked almost hurt by Kotetsu’s words. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t, Kotetsu.”

“I just – I don’t want to be a burden to you, Bunny. It’s gonna be different. Just-”

“Do you want to quit?”

“What – No no –!“ Kotetsu answered quickly and caught the (somewhat) smug look on Barnaby’s face. ‘If you don’t want to quit, why are you bringing that up?’ Kotetsu could easily imagine Barnaby thinking those words.  He couldn’t help but smile a little self-deprecatingly. “I want to keep going. No way I’m quitting… at least not now. Not like this.” Maybe one day.

“You won’t be a burden, not unless you want to be. Besides, it’s not going be much of a difference. You don’t use your powers most of the time. What’s another minute or so?”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment or are you ragging at me, Bunny?”

“Maybe it’s both?” Barnaby smiled slyly and Kotetsu felt the weight on his shoulders lift a little.

“Thanks, Bunny.”  

The media, of course, made a bigger deal out of Kotetsu losing his powers. There was no getting out of it, really. And Agnes, not wanting to be  beholden to the whims of gossip sites, decided that Kotetsu’s power loss was going to be explained by Hero TV directly, and in their own terms. She set up a special episode for it and  Kotetsu grit through each and every interview after that with an iron-clad smile and series of pre-planned responses.

“If you want to continue in the business, you better not let them catch any cracks. I know they’ve got a sweet spot for you, Tiger, but if there’s one thing everyone likes more, it’s something to talk about,” Agnes lectured before the first set of interviews. “Don’t give them anything to talk about and Tiger & Barnaby will continue as is.”

Together, with Agnes’ expert guidance, they weathered the media uproar together and when that was past, Kotetsu found life clicking back into place. Barnaby was right: in general, life without Hundred Power wasn’t much different. Ever since his powers had dwindled down to sixty seconds, he’d become accustomed to being even more hyper aware about using his powers to the point of not using them unless he absolutely needed to. And now? Well, it was just a matter of taking Hundred Power off the table completely.

There were changes, naturally. Without Hundred Power, he no longer had a safety net and had to be more careful, more resourceful, more mindful of the limits his body had. Rapid healing, super strength –  gone. It changed the way he fought, something the media noticed after a few months. He also goofed around less against real threats and his actions became more deliberate. He was pushing his body past the original limits he’d put on it. He wasn’t actively doing it and didn’t know he was until Origami Cyclone brought it up one day, letting Kotetsu know that he was more like a ninja now and how awesome was that? Kotetsu couldn’t really imagine him – big and decked in his clunky hero suit – being a ninja, so he laughed it off, but the popularity polls said otherwise.

There was a small surge to his popularity after his power loss. There was something fascinating about watching someone almost completely non-powered perform superhuman feats, apparently. The vast majority of the city wasn’t NEXT, which meant there was a lot of people who found it easier to relate to Kotetsu. He was officially an underdog, a stubborn mule who refused to break down against all odds. It was somewhat flattering, though Kotetsu only cared about how it seemed to make his daughter, Kaede, prouder.  

And then, there was the added benefit of his destructive potential taking a sharp nosedive. Sure, there were times when his suit collapsed rooftops and caved in a wall or two – it was a sturdy thing Saitou had made, a veritable human-sized tank. But at normal strength, there was only so much damage he could really do. It was only when he was doing something like purposefully chucking grenades at vehicles to save people that he was really racking up the destruction points after his power loss. Less damage meant less pay docked and that was something Kotetsu appreciated very much.

It was strange when he caught himself one day thinking about all of this; how losing his powers completely wasn’t the rock bottom he’d envisioned it to be. Now that he was over it, all he really had to worry about was the loss of his sponsorship, right?

And that seemed so far away to Kotetsu, still.

 

***

 

It had been hard for Kotetsu to notice, really. A Hero’s life was busy; between saving lives and promoting their sponsors, there wasn’t much time to contemplate. Or tally. Scrapes and bruises, burns and broken bones; these things were an expected part of a Hero’s life, ones that Kotetsu had long accepted were part of the job.

Months after his complete power loss, he’d chalked up his getting banged up a bit more than usual as a consequence of said power loss. Without his powers, naturally, his job was a bit harder. If he wanted to be on equal footing with Barnaby, he had to bring his A game every time. That meant more training. And that didn’t exactly guarantee things going smoothly during missions.

He didn’t realize he wasn’t just getting banged up ‘a little bit more than usual’ but ‘quite a lot more’ instead until one of the nurses at the med bay joked about setting up a permanent bed for him.

“Mr. Tiger, I’m seeing you a lot more lately. Maybe we should be charging you for rent, hmm?”

“What’s that even mean – you don’t want to treat me anymore?” Kotetsu pouted, waving his injured arm in protest.

Barnaby came up behind him and scoffed. “Maybe they just don’t want to see your face so often. You’re getting careless.”

“Well, if it means seeing Barnaby more often, we don’t mind,” the nurse winked as she pulled Kotetsu closer to check the injury. They’d treated it out on the field but the med bay check- up was to see if there were fractures that needed to be addressed. “Looks like we don’t have to do anything more. But really, Mr. Tiger, you should really be more careful. Not getting young anymore.” She gave the bandaged arm a light slap before sending him off with the usual recommendation of less exertion with the injured parts.

Leaving the med bay, Kotetsu turned to Barnaby with a frown and mumbled, “It’s not that often.”

Barnaby was quiet for a moment. “It’s been pretty often,” he said.

“What, no way?”

“You were here two days ago,” Barnaby pointed out, and then pointed at his head. “Cut on the head? Checked up for concussions?”

Kotetsu made a disgruntled sound. “Alright, so there was that. But still not that often.”

“Just be careful so they don’t put a name plate on your bed, Kotetsu,” Barnaby teased lightly.

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Kotetsu harrumphed, crossing his arms as he did so.

It did make him think from that point on, though, and he became more conscious about the strain he was putting on his body. It was more than before, indeed. It wasn’t just because of his powers being gone either. Abnormal resilience or no, he was still getting older, and when he paid attention, he noticed the little aches and pains the plagued his overworked body. Broken bones and torn muscles took longer to heal now.

He began to realize then that, perhaps, it wasn’t going to be his powers disappearing, or his sponsorships backing out on him that would pave the way to retirement… but himself. His own body.

The problem was, like this, with everything going well again… when should he stop?

When was the right time?

He shook that thought off when it first came to him, refusing to dwell on it at first. “Focus on the present, that’s somewhere in the future.  Not now ,” he told himself. “Think about Bunny –  Bunny’s in this job for you! And think about Tomoe too!”

At the back of his mind, however, he did know – had always known – that the end was always going to be there, whether it was by retirement, being forced out of his job, or…

He found himself at Ben’s office one day, fidgeting with his hat as he waited for his friend to finish signing some contracts with Lloyds. He waited until Lloyds was gone and the doors behind him were shut well and tight before gingerly stepping forward.

“So! Kotetsu, what brings you here?”

“Hi Ben, just thought I’d…. drop by?” He offered a weak little smile.

“What’s going on? Something’s up, isn’t?”

“Well-“

It was hard to get it out, but somehow Kotetsu did manage to ask about the subject of retirement. “Not mine, of course. Not yet- not soon,” he clarified, waving his hands to cancel out even a whiff of the thought. “Just, you have any idea about… how you know? How anyone knows?”

Reading him well, much to Kotetsu's chagrin, Ben smiled. “Hard to retire when the going gets good, huh?”

“I’m not retiring!” Kotetsu denied vehemently.

“Yeah, I understand. In times like that, I suppose you just rely on your instinct. Something that, you just know. You remember what you felt last time when you retired, Kotetsu?”

He thought about it and sighed. He did- somewhat. It felt like years ago. “Yeah, I did. That was different back then though and you know it.”

He had felt useless, as if the only reason he was able to become a Hero had beenwas taken away from him. Back then, he didn’t think a minute was going to be enough for him to be a good Hero. And there was his family  to think of- “It felt like the right time,” Kotetsu said anyway. But he didn’t think he could feel that way again.

“You know how some people retire on a high note? It could be something like that too. Just a feeling.”

“Just a feeling.”

The bottom line was that he didn’t want to retire yet. That day, Ben talked candidly about his high school sports career and how his retirement from that had gone. Kotetsu wanted to say he gleaned something from Ben’s story, but he was probably more focused about imagining Ben as a basketball player.   In the end, Kotetsu left the office without one last “I’m not retiring, yet, okay?” before Ben could ask if his inspirational talk helped.

He met with Barnaby at the office  afterwards and offered to treat him  to drinks later that night. It was something to get his mind off the depressing  thought of retirement.

What would he even do afterwards? He didn’t want to even begin thinking of that yet.

There was a rash of brazen robberies that summer and gang violence that spilled out into the streets of Bronze Stage. There were NEXT involved, naturally, and with their specialty being melee combat, Tiger and Barnaby were in the middle of it all. More than once, Kotetsu found himself wandering back to the med bay to get himself checked out, the most serious incident leaving him with two broken ribs after falling off a building in the middle of the fight. He was lucky it was just that, and had Saitou’s tech and his lucky stars to thank for not walking away with something worse.

Lunatic was, as expected, involved when dead bodies started turning up in unwanted places – and boy was it always fun to deal with him. Especially because Lunatic’s spiel nowadays involved taunting him for his lack of powers.

“What can your justice do like this, Wild Tiger? Do you wish to perish for your justice so badly? And what will that do?”

“Maybe, but that’s what heroes do! Fight with everything they’ve got to the end!”

“And what will your end exactly be?”

That had him stopping in his tracks – and Barnaby calling out after him in alarm- but fortunately Lunatic was content to fly away with a flourish without shooting one of his blue -flame- charged arrows at him.

If he didn’t think Lunatic was seriously out to kill him, he would think that was the man’s own way of trying to get him to retire. But Lunatic caring about him in any capacity beyond his own self-serving agendas? That was a laugh. Still… Lunatic’s words had hit a raw nerve and when Barnaby ran up beside him and asked him if he was okay, he couldn’t help but be a little defensive.

“It’s nothing. Lunatic’s got nothing on me- Don’t worry about...”

“Are you sure you’re not hurt anywhere at all? Kotetsu-“

“I said I’m fine-“ He realized he had just raised his voice. “I mean.…. Bunny, I don’t think he wanted to fight after we chased him off the guy. Just wanted to talk or something. In that creepy way of his. You think he’s lonely?”

“Don’t change the subject like that. I just wanted to make sure… alright?”

“I got it, Bunny,” he said, smiling weakly at Barnaby before turning away.

And then, that was the first time he heard it in Barnaby’s voice: ‘Maybe it’s time to hang up the suit?’

He turned back at Barnaby sharply only to find Barnaby arching an eyebrow at him quizzically. “Kotetsu?”

That hadn't been Barnaby, but a voice that sounded like him. He realized then maybe- what if- he wasn’t doing well enough anymore? What if what he was waiting for was for Barnaby to ask him those words?

He realized he didn’t know what he would do if Barnaby said them to his face.

But fortunately for Kotetsu, Barnaby said nothing of the sort. Not when he was bedridden for two weeks after pushing a kid away from getting hit by a truck just because it was his last and only resort without Hundred Power in his arsenal. Not when he almost got shot during a gunfight with gang members. And certainly not when he went head first against Lunatic again to keep him from straight up murdering the leader of a child slavery ring.

Kotetsu almost wanted to ask but each time he found he really couldn’t. Barnaby looked so happy working as a Hero with him, Kotetsu didn’t want to know if Barnaby was faking it or not. They would always be friends, that he knew, because they’d gone through so much to not be friends. But he didn’t know if he was a good enough partner anymore and didn’t want to ask.

Even if it was driving him up the wall.  

The topic of retirement during interviews hit him harder too, even if he’d gotten good at dodging it or joking about it. He didn’t know when it’d started to get to him, or why, because he’d gotten too far without his powers for that to bother him and make him think of retirement now.

He came close to talking to Bunny about it one night after his second glass of red wine, Barnaby’s preferred alcohol.

“Bunny… you’ll always be my partner, right? I mean, while I’m a Hero.” There was no way he was going to ask Barnaby directly; he managed to go about it the roundabout way.

“For as long as you like,” Barnaby answered in his usual cool tone. Not always –Kotetsu wondered if that was what wasn’t said.

He gulped at his drink and then smiled as he raised his glass. “Thanks, Bunny.”

“Make sure you tell Kaede you’re here if you’re drinking some more,” Barnaby quipped, but got up anyway to fill Kotetsu’s glass.

“I will. Thanks for the drink!”

He drank enough that he hoped to forget he had even asked Barnaby that night, but he was from a family whose family business involved liquor. Barnaby’s words most definitely stuck.  

And then he was forty-one and one of the oldest heroes on Hero TV’s line up, if not the oldest. Antonio had retired a year before and Nathan’s age was something he was purposefully keeping under wraps (“ A woman’s age has to be a mystery ~”). His birthday was held at the Hero-themed bar they frequented, a surprise, really, courtesy of Nathan who booked the whole place and arranged for drinks on the house.  Forty-one wasn’t a milestone so Kotetsu hadn’t been expecting it all, but when he asked Nathan why, his friend just winked at him and said, “Just because I can, honey.”

And so there they were, a party comprised of Kotetsu’s coworkers, Hero friends and Kaede.

His cake was round and green, with numerous candles decidedly not forty-one in number lining its edges. The piping that made up the number forty-one was off-white, light green almost. Kotetsu noticed all that because when they started their little birthday wish speeches, out of embarrassment, he found his eyes darting towards the cake and its shiny lights more often than not.

“Happy Birthday, Mr. Tiger. I hope this year’s a good one too!”

“Kotetsu-san! Please let me teach you some ninja techniques this year!”

“It’s an honor to have worked with you this year! And again, to work with you next year!”

“I hope you have a good one this year…. If you need help- I mean, if Kaede needs help with anything, let me know. Okay?”

And then finally, it was Kaede’s turn. His daughter had grown up a lot and opted to study high school in Stern Bild to be with him more. She’d wanted to stay with her grandmother too but decided she wanted to spread her wings a little out in the city with her father.

“Happy birthday, daddy! I’m proud of you. I think, whether you’re a hero or not… you’ve shown me how important it is to give it your all.”

Kotetsu didn’t know whether to laugh or cry in response to that and settled for hobbling towards his daughter for a hug. Fortunately for him, his daughter let him go for one.

He wasn’t quite ready when it was Barnaby’s turn.

“I’m glad to be able to partner with you for another year, Kotetsu. Every day, you show me what a real hero should be and I can’t ask for a better partner. I’m glad to have you and everyone else.”

“Bunny…”

He must have been smiling because Barnaby was smiling back at him when he looked at him. It was honestly … he wasn’t sure what he was feeling back then and would have been content to just smile back if it weren’t for Kaede jabbing at him with her shoulder. “Daddy, don’t ogle in public, sheesh.”

“Pfft… I’m not ogling anything…” he argued before sneaking a quick look back at Barnaby. Thankfully, the blond was preoccupied at that point, chatting with Nathan and Karina instead. Probably talking about the season and current standing. It made him think about where he stood in the rankings. He was, honestly, close to the bottom rankings and only got by by virtue of being Barnaby’s partner. And last season, Barnaby was edged out by Blue Rose again for the coveted King of Heroes title. That was probably on him.

“Hey, Kaede…”

“Huh?”

“What do you think about papa retiring?” he asked quietly, and wasn’t surprised when Kaede made a little squeak of surprise.

“Whaaat?”

“Don’t give me that, Kaede. I’m just- I guess I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Is it because you don’t have your powers anymore. Because you know you’re still doing well, right?”

“It’s not that, really... just. I don’t know.”

“You don’t want to be a hero any more?”

“I still want to, of course but…” He took a deep breath and tried to quantify all his thoughts, all the thoughts that had been swirling around his head. “I want to continue for Tomoe, for myself, but…”

“But?”

He glanced back to where Barnaby was. “It’s not even about being a burden, just. I don’t know when to stop.”

“It sounds like you need to talk with your partner, Daddy,” Kaede said sternly before giving him a slap in the back. “So why don’t you get that sorted out? I’m going to go over there and hang out with Pao Lin and Karina instead.”

Before Kotetsu could say anything, Kaede was skipping away to where the girls were huddled together on one table. “Not even giving me a word edgewise. Growing up just like her mom,” he mumbled before wandering towards where Barnaby was.

“Talk. Right. That’s something we can do, right?” Kotetsu told himself as he approached. And talk he did, except he ended up talking about work instead and the weather, and the cake, and then Antonio, who was already drunk, was offering him drinks and together they were egging Keith on to drink more-

And talk most certainly did not happen.

 

***

 

When Kotetsu came to, it didn’t take long for him to figure out that he was on Barnaby’s bed. By this time, he was well-acquainted with Barnaby’s ceiling and the minimalistic design of his room.

“You really let go, huh?” Bunny murmured, coming up beside him with a glass of water in hand to hand to Kotetsu.

Slowly, Kotetsu got up. His head was throbbing – that was going to be one hell of a hangover in the morning – and he felt all sorts of sluggish. He smiled as he took the glass from Barnaby’s hands and that was when he noticed Barnaby’s other hand was holding a glass of wine.

“Can’t turn down offered drinks- ss’rude,” he mumbled, before pointing to the glass flute in Barnaby’s other hand. “Late night drinking, huh?”

“Didn’t drink earlier. Figured I might have to drive you back. And if you’re wondering about Kaede- I didn’t have to. Nathan had her chauffeured home.”

“Good for Nathan.”

As soon as Barnaby had handed Kotetsu the glass of water, he went on to lean on the wall beside the bed. There was a slight pause there, Kotetsu noticed, as if he was remembering something. “Something on your mind, Kotetsu?”

“Hmm… “ Kotetsu hummed before taking taking a gulp of water. He wondered if he’d have the guts to say it. Kaede had suggested he talk to his partner – that much he remembered before he started drinking with Antonio and the others.

“I’ve been thinking of retiring, Bunny,” he admitted after a long drawn out sigh.

He heard Barnaby’s sharp breath. “Is it- you don’t think you’re being a burden, are you? Because you’re not, Kotetsu. I don’t care if you don’t have any powers anymore. You’re still my partner. Will be my partner no matter what.”

Kotetsu had to laugh a little at Barnaby’s words, recognizing the earnest feelings in them. Years ago, Barnaby wouldn’t have said that, it was touching whenever he looked back to how they were before. “I know that, Bunny. Don’t worry. It’s not you-“

“You’re not using a break up line on me, are you?” Barnaby narrowed his eyes at him.

“It’s me,” Kotetsu finished anyway. “I’ve been thinking, as much as I want to… there’s no way this body can hold up, you know?”

“We’ll improve the suits…”

“I know you and Saitou keep on improving the suits. I’m grateful. But I don’t know if I’m … overstaying? S-something like that.” The words were hard to find, his mind was still slightly foggy. He knew, sort of, what to say though. “If I’m pushing my luck and used up all my warning flags.”

“Worried you’ll go out in a blaze of glory,” Barnaby murmured quietly. “I know that.”

“Bunny?”

“What I mean is, I think I know what you’re worried about, Kotetsu,” Barnaby said. “I want to be your partner for as long as I can. But I also don’t want you to get hurt. I don’t think you’ve gotten weaker without you powers but I know with this job, more is better at the end of the day.”

“Ah…. “Kotetsu had to smile. They were probably thinking of the same things, just not connecting verbally, again.  “I guess I really should’ve talked to you about this sooner.”

“Old habits die hard… huh?”

“Damn right… I’m just thinking, anyway. I don’t know if I want to yet but, my time limit’s probably, really, coming up real soon.”

“I’ll support you, whatever you choose.”

“Thanks. What about you? What are you going to do, Bunny?”

“I’ll probably retire too.”

It took Kotetsu a few moments to process that. “What!?”

“Don’t be so surprised. You know the only reason I’m still in this business is you. All I wanted back then was to find out who killed my parents. If I didn’t have you around, I might’ve found something else to do.”

“Huh.” Those were big words coming out of Barnaby’s mouth. Kotetsu didn’t know if it was the alcohol or what but he felt his cheeks warm a bit. “That’s… kind of a shame. You’re in the prime of your life, Bunny! I kind of feel guilty now…”

“Don’t be. Besides, I like working with Saitou part time. I feel like I can learn a bit more about my parents by exploring their research. The pay’s good too.”

“You guys have really been doing good work,” Kotetsu acknowledged. “I’m happy for you. I guess, I can rest easy knowing whenever I retire, you’re going to be okay.”

“Mmm.” Barnaby said. “The question is; will you be okay if you retire? What are you going to do?”

Kotetsu sighed. The question he never bothered to ask himself. “Well- I guess there’s the family business back home. That was what I was doing back when I first retired. Might stay here for a bit and do some odd jobs until Kaede graduates, though.”

“Oh,” Barnaby said before taking a drink of his glass.

“Is that an ‘Oh, is that so?’ or an ‘Oh, Kotetsu doesn’t know what he’s doing’ Oh?” Kotetsu asked, pointing an accusing finger at Barnaby.

Barnaby scoffed. “It was just that. An ‘oh’. Don’t read into it too much, Kotetsu.”

“Well, sorry I don’t have it all planned out… yet. Honestly didn’t want to think about it for the longest time. I think, maybe, being a hero is all I knew because that was how I dealt after… you know, Tomoe… too.” Kotetsu took a deep breath. “But I’m going to be thinking about that now… I guess.”

“If you need help, I’m sure I can find a better job than being a taxi driver. You’re lousy with directions, old man.”

Kotetsu sniffed. “I’ll have you know I was a pretty good taxi driver.”

“Mmm mm. The offer still stands.”

They talked about about other things after that: Kaede’s ice-skating, work, the party. But when the conversation ran its course. Kotetsu decided to go home after all. He was no stranger to crashing at Barnaby’s from time to time, but tonight didn’t seem like the kind of night for that. There was a lot to think about and honestly, he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to do that while intruding at Barnaby’s loft.

Just as he was about to leave, though. Barnaby called after him.

“Kotetsu.” Barnaby waited until he had turned back around before continuing. “You’ll tell me, won’t you. When you decide.”

Kotetsu nodded. “You’ll be the first to know… next to Kaede, anyway. I’ll make sure to tell you this time, Bunny. Don’t worry.”

“I won’t worry. I trust you, Kotetsu.”   Barnaby offered him a smile to get the point across and Kotetsu couldn’t help but smile back.

Entering his apartment, the first thing Kotetsu spotted was his daughter curled up on the sofa in front of the TV. He smiled at the sight and briefly wondered if his daughter was waiting for him… or taking advantage of his absence. He wasn’t strict about curfews but it was definitely way past the normal bedtime.

For a moment, he wondered if he should try and carry his daughter back to her bed. She was definitely bigger now and without his powers, that wasn’t as smooth as it would’ve been in the past. He settled for grabbing some blankets from her bed to drape on her.

When he’d done that, he padded over to where the TV was so he could switch it off.

“Daddy?” Kaede asked as she sat up, rubbing her eyes. “Didn’t stay with Barnaby?”

“Nope. I wasn’t that drunk.”

Kaede yawned. “Uh huh. You don’t usually have to be drunk to stay at Barnaby’s…”

“Can’t I decide I want to spend the night with my darling daughter instead?” Kotetsu deflects.

Kaede snorted.

“I’m hurt… ! And here I was, excited to come home…”

“Yeah yeah. Like I believe that.” Kaede playfully stuck her tongue out at him.

He stuck his tongue out too before finally switching the TV off for real.

“So… how did it go?” Kaede drew her legs back and rested her head on her knees. “With Barnaby?”

“Is that why you stayed up, so you could ask?”

“I had feeling you’d come home… and if you didn’t, I was going to watch a whole season of Boys over Heroes. It’s on Sternflix right now!”

Kotetsu made a face at the mention of the show but decided not to comment on it. Karina had told him not to say anything about a girl’s shows if he wanted peace in the house. He was abiding by that advice.

“Well, I talked with Bunny and… he’s okay about it. It went a lot easier than I thought it would. He really knows me… I mean, even before I said it, I guess he had me figured out.”

“Mmhmm…”

“So, I guess I’m thinking about it seriously now. It’s tough,” Kotetsu wanted to tell her all about Tomoe and how that was one of her last requests. For him to continue to be a Hero no matter what. “But it’ll be fine. Bunny and I will figure it out.”

He posed a little, to show how confident he was everything would work itself out. Kaede yawned and then hummed in agreement again.

“So that’s okay… but what about you two ?” Kaede asked, emphasizing those last two words.

“Us two..?” Kotetsu pointed at himself.

“You know… the two of you. Barnaby and you.”

“Barnaby…. And me?” He tilted his head sideways, confused. “Didn’t I just go over that earlier?”

Kaede heaved a big sigh. “Alright, let’s do this.  You do know it’s okay if you want to date again, right?”  

“Date?”  Kotetsu shifted uncomfortably and found his eyes darting to the remote control. “Papa doesn’t know what you’re talking about, Kaede -chan . Is this because I’m planning on retiring? Is that what this is it about?”

“Just in general.”

“….Right. But-… Kaede, I never even thought about that!”

“Mmm mm. Right. But maybe you should ?”

“I… should?” Kotetsu put on his best innocent face. Though, to be fair, he really didn’t know what his daughter was getting at.

Daddy. You know, you really can be a pain. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I… do?”

Kaede groaned.“ You know what I’m talking about. You know— Buh-ny?” She enunciated each syllable with exaggeration, as if Kotetsu wouldn’t get it if she didn’t.

“Bu- bunneh?” Kotetsu followed dumbly. Slowly, the piece clicked into place. “Oh.” That was what she meant. Suddenly it made sense that she had asked about the two of them .

“Yeah, Bunny!”

It was probably because Kaede rarely, if at all, called his partner by his nickname that  it had finally clicked. But just to be safe, he asked anyway: “What about Bunny?”

“Daddy, why are you so difficult? What I’ve been trying to ask is… when are the two of you finally dating!” She rolled her eyes. “I’ve been wondering. We’ve been wondering even though everyone’s too adult-like and proper to butt their heads into your stupid matter. I’ve told them you won’t get it unless we beat it into your head.”

“Whoa, why so violent? – and Bunny and me, dating? Why even? We’re-“

“Partners. Yeah, I know. Partners who spend Valentine’s, Christmas, and every holiday together at his penthouse drinking champagne while you watch over Stern Bild.”

“I feel so attacked right now, Kaede- that’s- partners just do that!”

Kaede shook her head at her dad. “ Dad , you did those with my mom…. Didn’t you?”

“Well… yeah.”

“And -?”

“And… we’re partners?”   Kotetsu said lamely.

“You’re practically dating, daddy. You care for each other. You think about what’s best for the other person and you practically… read each other’s minds.”

Kotetsu narrows his eyes. “Partners….do that?”

Daddy ,” Kaede groaned. She rolled her eyes again and then sighed. “Okay. Let’s put it this way. I think he likes you.”

“Of course, he does! He wouldn’t put up with me otherwise!” Kaede levelled an unimpressed stare at him.

“No, I mean he likes you . As in wants to date you. Get into your pants. Bed you-“

“Whoa, whoa-… Bunny?” Kotetsu couldn’t imagine it. He was handsome, very handsome, but the idea of Barnaby being attracted to him that way was so farfetched. “Honey, besides me, Bunny has a lot more options. Dating an old man like me- I don’t think that’s something he’d be into, really.”

“So…” Kaede challenged, “what’s he into?”

Oh, Kaede was good. Kotetsu scratched his head and thought back. Maybe there had been  times when he talked about it in an interview? It was hard to think with his head buzzing with alcohol. It wasn’t something they talked about, for sure, and by now he had a good sense of what Barnaby liked when it came to everything else. “…. G-girls?”

“See, you don’t know.”

“It’s just never come up,” Kotetsu said defensively. “Besides, if Bunny has someone he’d tell me-“

“He wouldn’t tell you if it was you.”

“Well,” Kotetsu lifted a finger to argue and then put it down when he realized he didn’t have anything. “You’re not wrong… but I still think, if it was Bunny… it just wouldn’t be me, you know?”

“You’re his partner, you said it yourself.” Kaede points out.

“A partner’s different… besides, I mean all this time I’ve kind of been a burden, you know? Dragging him down a bit- not having any powers… he could’ve been King of Heroes last season if we won more points, for example. Or maybe not that because we talked about that earlier-  just. I just know that if there’s someone he likes it’s gotta be someone better- someone more like him? Put together?”

Kotetsu made useless shapes with his hands as if to try and form the silhouette of Barnaby’s perfect person. “Right?”

“What I think is that you’re going to hurt someone thinking like that,” Kaede said softly. She didn’t let the sombre tone settle, though, and continued animatedly:  “There’s UST so thick some NEXT out there could probably slice it up with a knife! Daddy… can’t you see?”

Kotetsu didn’t know what to say that and thankfully, Kaede was nice enough to shift the subject a bit. “If you retire, he’s retiring too, right?”

Dating, love, and all those abstract thoughts he wasn’t man enough to face aside, Kotetsu answered honestly. “Yeah. Said he’d like to go into robotics like his parents.”

“…and you’re going to go home and take care of grandma, right?"

“Uh huh, To help your uncle with the business. That’s always been the plan when I retire.”

Kaede sniffed and curled back onto the sofa, turning the blanket into a virtual cocoon around her. Her voice was muffled when she spoke again from behind the blanket. “Just think about it, daddy? I don’t want anyone getting hurt. Not you or Barnaby.”

“I will,” Kotetsu answered honestly, raising a hand to give Kaede a pat on her head. She scrunched up her nose but doesn’t quite protest and Kotetsu couldn’t help but smile as he watched her close her eyes to go back to sleep.

“Ah… I forgot to tell her to go back to her room,” Kotetsu groaned, remembering just as he was entering his room.  It was one of those moments when he realized just how much bigger his daughter was. A long time ago, back when Tomoe was alive, he would carry Kaede back to her bed. “She was waiting for her daddy, Kotetsu,” Tomoe would tell him when he came home late.

Kaede was grown now, a young woman who was capable of making her own decisions. Decisions like choosing where to sleep without her daddy intervening. Decisions like telling her dad what she exactly thought about things.

Maybe, thinking about it now, he wouldn’t mind Bunny in that context; someone who was someone more than a partner. He wasn’t lying when he said he couldn’t see it, though. Someone like Barnaby… the world had so much to offer for him, so much more than what Kotetsu could. But what if things were as Kaede saw it? What if Barnaby could be attracted to him?

The thought made him feel strange, as if just entertaining it was dangerous. He put a hand on his chest, wondered if that was his heart beating just a bit faster. ‘ Don’t get your hopes up…. Don’t think about it, Kotetsu!’   

That night he dreamt about riding along Stern Bild with Bunny on their motorbike. There was sense of satisfaction there, the feeling that he could go on forever like that. And then they were stopping and Barnaby was telling him this was his stop.

He got off, because apparently that was what he wanted to do in the dream.  And when he looked around, realized that Barnaby had dropped him off back at his house in Oriental Town.  When he turned to look back at Barnaby, both his partner and their motorbike was gone without a trace.

“Are you sure this is okay, Kotetsu?” someone asked.

Turning around, he found Tomoe standing behind him. “Is it okay to let him go?”

He looked towards the empty road. “It has to end somewhere. He can’t stay with me, right?”

“I want you to be happy.”

He had a distinct sense that he wanted to tell her that he was happy but then he was awake. Tomoe was gone.  And there was a strange sense of sadness weighing in his chest.

He wasn’t sure what to make of it all.