Barnaby landed on the ground and set down the twins he'd pulled from the car. Two women immediately ran up and swept the kids into sobbing hugs, and Barnaby turned back to the bridge, searching to see if they'd missed anyone. He couldn't see anybody else trapped from this angle, but that didn't mean they were in the clear.
"Congratulations, heroes," Agnes said over the radio. "Looks like you got everybody safely off the bridge."
The other heroes cheered, and Barnaby breathed a sigh of relief. It was always difficult with rescue operations to make sure they got everybody, so it was good to hear they'd done it.
He glanced around and didn't seen any reporters, so he might have time to find Kotetsu before anyone wanted an interview. Kotetsu tended to sneak back to the van and leave Barnaby to the interviews by himself, and Barnaby was determined to get him in front of the cameras more often.
A small hand tugged on his, and Barnaby looked down.
The twins he'd rescued—a boy and a girl—were looking up at him with bright, hopeful smiles.
Barnaby flipped up his visor and returned the smile. He wasn't quite as good with kids as Kotetsu was, but he'd been getting better.
"We want to thank you for saving us," the boy said.
"You don't need to thank me," Barnaby said. "I'm glad you both got out of the car safely."
"We want to thank you," the girl insisted. "It's important."
The emphasis she put on the word was a little strange. Barnaby frowned.
The girl and her brother glowed blue.
Instinctively, Barnaby took a step back. If they intended to thank him, it was doubtful their NEXT powers would be too dangerous, but it didn't hurt to be careful. Especially since he had no idea what their level of control was.
After another few seconds, they stopped glowing, and a goose waddled out from behind them.
The girl grinned. "This is Herbert!"
Barnaby blinked. Their power was a goose? Did they summon animals? Were they trying to give him a pet? He hoped the latter wasn't the case; he really didn't have the time for a pet. And even if he did, he had a feeling a goose wouldn't be happy in his apartment.
"Herbert is our goose," the boy said. "He has special powers."
"He'll help you find your soulmate!" the girl said.
Barnaby had even more questions now, but the one that came out was, "My...soulmate?"
The girl clasped her hands to her chest. "Yes! Herbert can tell when people belong together. He'll find your soulmate for sure."
Barnaby had absolutely no response to that.
"Don't worry," the boy said. "He'll disappear once you kiss them."
That had not been terribly high on Barnaby's list of questions, but he supposed it was good to know. "I... appreciate this, but I'm really not looking for my soulmate right now."
He wasn't looking for anyone, period, because he was hopelessly in love with his partner and had been for more than three years, but the kids didn't need to know that.
"It's too late," the girl said. "Herbert's bonded to you. He won't stop until he finds your soulmate."
The boy puffed out his chest proudly. "He's really good at it."
"I'm sure he is," Barnaby said, at a loss for anything else.
Herbert hissed and spread his wings. Herbert was a very large goose.
The girl jumped up and down and clapped. "He's found your soulmate! Herbert's found your soulmate. Follow him!"
Great, Barnaby thought, and then Herbert flew at him.
Barnaby hopped backward, putting a solid twenty feet between him and Herbert, and the goose honked and barreled toward him, wings outstretched.
Herbert was a lot faster than Barnaby had anticipated. He jumped again in a different direction and took off for the van. From the furious honking behind him, Herbert was hot on his heels.
Barnaby could already guess how many interviewers were going to be asking him about being chased by a goose.
He spared a glance back. He'd put some distance between himself and Herbert, but Herbert was making impressive time cutting through the crowd after him. How in the hell was he supposed to follow a goose hellbent on chasing him?
Barnaby spotted the van and bolted straight for it. He cleared the steps with one jump and slammed the door shut solidly behind him.
"Bunny, you okay?"
He turned to see Kotetsu already out of his suit, lounging on the couch and now staring at the door behind him in confusion.
"I'm fine," Barnaby said. He was not telling Kotetsu about the goose. "You can tell Saito we're ready to go."
"That was fast," Kotetsu said. "No interviews?"
Barnaby walked straight back to get out of his suit. "Not today."
No interviews, just two strange kids and a goose. Really, wasn't Kotetsu normally the one who got the weird rescues? Barnaby preferred it that way; Kotetsu handled them better, anyway.
He didn't breathe easy until the van rumbled off back toward Apollon Media, leaving Herbert well and truly behind.
Barnaby didn't see the goose when they got back to the Apollon Media building, and it wasn't in the parking garage after he and Kotetsu had finished changing back into their street clothes. Thank God. He supposed it was nice of the kids to want to help him find his soulmate, but really. Soulmates weren't a thing. If you were very lucky, you found someone you clicked with in every way, that you could trust with everything important in your life. Someone who lifted you up, supported you, encouraged you.
If you weren't lucky, you found someone who annoyed the hell out of you on a regular basis and you still somehow managed to go and fall in love with him. Them. Barnaby was thinking in a general sense.
He shot a glance at Kotetsu, who was leaning back in the passenger seat with his eyes closed and his hat pulled halfway down over his face.
Or maybe you hit it somewhere in the middle, where the person who annoyed the hell out of you was also the one you could trust with everything important in your life. Who was supportive, and encouraging, and the most genuinely caring person you'd ever met.
Barnaby spent half his time wondering how he'd fallen in love with Kotetsu and then the other half wondering how he could ever not have.
He pulled into a spot in front of Kotetsu's apartment and parked the car. "Wake up, old man, you're home."
Kotetsu shoved his hat back on his head. "I wasn't sleeping!"
Barnaby rolled his eyes. "Of course you weren't."
Kotetsu opened his door. "Hey, do you want to stay for dinner? I'll make fried rice."
Like he'd make anything else. Barnaby wanted to, but there was a pile of paperwork at his apartment that needed doing tonight. "I can't tonight. Tomorrow?"
Kotetsu nodded and tapped the top of the car. "Do you have food at your place?"
Barnaby sighed. "Yes, I have food at my place."
"Don't say it like that! Sometimes you forget to go grocery shopping!"
"That was one time," Barnaby reminded him. "And I eat healthier than you do."
"Okay, but if you need me to bring something over—"
"If I suddenly develop an inability to cook for myself, I'll call you," Barnaby said. "See you tomorrow, Kotetsu."
Kotetsu grinned at him. "See you tomorrow, Bunny."
Barnaby watched him walk up the front steps, and then started to pull back into the road.
Something huge and gray landed on the hood of his car and Barnaby slammed on the brakes. Had someone thrown something on his car?
He was about to get out and check when the gray thing unfurled two massive wings and lifted its head.
It was a goose.
It was Herbert.
Barnaby stared at it in shock, trying to figure out how in the hell it had gotten from the Brox Bridge to his car in front of Kotetsu's apartment.
Herbert flapped his wings against Barnaby's windshield and pecked at the glass.
Damn it, he was not going to replace his windshield because of this. Barnaby put the car into park and opened his door to throw the damn thing off the hood.
Herbert flew at him the moment the door cracked open, honking like a demon. Barnaby yanked the door shut before the goose could get more than a feather through it.
That did nothing to deter Herbert. He went back to the hood of the car and pecked at the windshield with a vengeance.
This was ridiculous.
Barnaby took a deep breath, turned off the car, and very slowly got out. He would not be bested by a 14-pound bird.
Herbert stopped pecking at the windshield and watched him with one beady black eye.
"You need to get off my car," Barnaby said, and then wondered why the hell he was talking to a goose.
Herbert honked and charged.
Barnaby threw his arm in front of his face and jumped backward, but not quite fast enough. Herbert bit him hard enough he felt it through his jacket.
Barnaby swore and shook the goose off, but Herbert came right back for him, honking angrily.
Barnaby bolted for the building, took the stairs to Kotetsu's apartment three at a time, and banged on the door. Maybe he should have a little more composure, but he'd never been chased by an angry goose before.
Kotetsu answered the door with a spatula in one hand. "Hey, Bunny, did you change your mind?"
Barnaby shouldered past him. "Let me in."
"Why? What the hell?" Kotetsu looked behind him. "Is that a goose?"
Barnaby slammed the door shut and locked it, muffling Herbert's angry honking.
"Why are you being chased by a goose?" Kotetsu asked.
Barnaby stepped away from the door and examined his jacket. It didn't look like Herbert had torn it, thank God. "Because two kids summoned it with their NEXT power."
"Jeez, what did you do to tick them off?"
He couldn't hear Herbert now, but that didn't mean Herbert wasn't out there. "I didn't tick them off. They wanted to thank me for saving them."
"So they summoned a goose to attack you?" Kotetsu scratched the back of his head. "That's a weird way to thank someone for saving your life."
Barnaby didn't really want to explain, but given the situation, it didn't seem he had much choice. "The goose is supposed to lead me to my soulmate."
"Your...soulmate?" Kotetsu repeated. "How is a goose supposed to know who your soulmate is?"
"I have no idea." Barnaby sighed. "I thought we'd lost it with the van, but somehow it found me here. It attacked my car."
"It's been following you since the bridge?" Kotetsu pressed his eye to the peephole in the door. "That's a determined goose."
Barnaby huffed and went to get a drink. "It'll lose interest eventually. And your rice is burning."
Kotetsu swore and ran back over to the stove, and Barnaby breathed a small sigh of relief behind his glass. It was only natural that Kotetsu had questions about the goose, but Barnaby really didn't want to think about it. Especially since Herbert had gotten suspiciously quiet in the past few minutes.
He edged back toward the front door, keeping an ear out for Herbert, but there was still no honking. Cautiously, Barnaby eased the door open.
Herbert sat right outside the door, head tucked in his wings. As soon as Barnaby took half a step outside, Herbert lifted his head and hissed.
Barnaby closed the door.
"Is it still outside?" Kotetsu asked from the kitchen.
"Yes," Barnaby said. "It's sitting in front of your door."
"It's just sitting there?"
Barnaby braced himself for another question, but thankfully Kotetsu didn't ask anything else until they sat on the couch to eat.
"So is the bird just going to follow you around until you find your soulmate?"
Barnaby shrugged and picked at his rice. "The kids said it was supposed to lead me to my soulmate, but so far all it's done is chase me and try to take a bite out of my arm."
Kotetsu frowned at the door. "That's not going to help you find your soulmate."
Barnaby sighed into his rice. "I don't want to find my soulmate. I want the goose to leave me alone."
Kotetsu turned to him, eyes wide. "You don't want to find your soulmate?"
"Soulmates aren't real."
Kotetsu gaped at him. "How can you say that?"
"Millions of people in this city alone, and there's only one who's a perfect match?" Barnaby scoffed. "That's unlikely, to say the least."
"Not only one," Kotetsu said. "But at least one. And you don't even want to try and find them?"
"The word 'soulmate' implies just one," Barnaby argued. "And no, I don't."
"Why not?" Kotetsu asked.
What was the point in following the goose when he was already with the person he wanted in his life? "I'm happy with my life the way it is. I don't need a goose stalking me until I kiss some stranger."
"Kiss?" Kotetsu repeated. "What's kissing have to do with it?"
Barnaby focused on his food. "Apparently the goose doesn't go away until I find my soulmate and kiss them."
"There's no other way to get rid of it?"
Barnaby pushed a piece of shrimp across his plate. "If there is, they didn't tell me about it."
"In that case, we have to find your soulmate," Kotetsu said. "Otherwise you'll be stuck with this goose following you around for the rest of your life. Do you want that?"
"I can deal with a goose," Barnaby muttered.
"Bunny, you came running inside because it attacked you."
"I came inside because it was destroying my car."
"Running," Kotetsu pointed out. "I've never seen you run away from anything. Besides, how are you going to save people if you constantly have a goose attacking you?"
Barnaby pressed his lips together. That was something he hadn't considered. A goose following him around while he went about his daily life was one thing. A goose following him while he was trying to do his job was something else.
He set his plate down and went to the door.
Kotetsu scrambled up to follow him. "Don't let it into my apartment."
"I'm not going to let it into your apartment," Barnaby said. "I'm just seeing if it's still here."
Indeed, Herbert was still there, settled in front of the door like he'd decided this was the best place to build a nest. He looked up when the door opened, but this time he didn't hiss. He just eyed them both.
"He's not trying to bite you," Kotetsu said. "Maybe he's tired?"
Barnaby wasn't going to count on that. He gingerly tried to step over Herbert to leave the apartment.
Herbert shot up and snapped at his ankle, and Barnaby jerked back. "He's not tired."
Kotetsu knelt and poked at the goose, and Herbert gave his finger a bored look and settled his head back on his wing. "Well, how in the hell are you supposed to find your soulmate if he won't let you leave?"
That was an excellent question, and Barnaby was about to respond that he didn't have a damn clue when it hit him.
Herbert had chased him to the van where Kotetsu was. Herbert hadn't shown up while he was driving Kotetsu home. Herbert had appeared out of nowhere when Barnaby tried to leave. And now Herbert was parked in front of Kotetsu's front door without a care in the world...as long as Barnaby didn't try to leave Kotetsu.
He couldn't believe he hadn't realized it sooner. Kotetsu was one of the several million people in this city and he was also the only one Barnaby had any desire to spend a significant amount of time with. Why the hell wouldn't that make him Barnaby's soulmate?
Barnaby glared at Herbert. Herbert honked smugly.
Barnaby looked down at Kotetsu, who was still frowning at the goose. He hadn't realized the answer to his own question yet, and Barnaby did not feel like enlightening him. Kotetsu had made it pretty clear over the years that he didn't feel the same way, which was fine. Barnaby didn't need Kotetsu to return his feelings. He just needed him not to leave.
But he was very quickly approaching a point that the fucking goose was going to put all of that out there in the open, whether he wanted it there or not. Kotetsu was no fool, no matter how he acted on a daily basis. He was very good at putting the pieces together, and Herbert was giving him every piece he needed.
Barnaby had never been the type to wish harm on an animal, but right now, he wanted to kick the goose into next week.
Kotetsu straightened back up. "Maybe we need to carry it to the car or something. Honk once for left, twice to go right, three times to go straight?" He turned to Barnaby. "Bunny, are you okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I'm fine," Barnaby said. "The goose is giving me a headache."
"Honk," said Herbert.
"Do you need to lie down?" Kotetsu asked. "We can leave the goose out here and go looking tomorrow. Or maybe it'll disappear overnight if you don't find your soulmate."
Herbert gave a honk that sounded very negative.
"Somehow I don't think that'll work," Barnaby said.
Kotetsu scratched the back of his head. "Well, what does it want, then? If you can't leave, you can't find your soulmate. I'm the only person here." He paused. "Wait a minute."
This was it. This was where he realized. Barnaby braced himself.
Kotetsu snapped his fingers. "I bet your soulmate's in this building! That's why the goose won't let you leave."
"At least that's easier than searching the whole city," Kotetsu said. "I don't have that many neighbors. We can find them pretty fast."
Herbert gave Barnaby the clearest really? This guy? look Barnaby had ever seen on a non-human creature. Barnaby narrowed his eyes. He didn't need a goose judging his taste in men.
Kotetsu went and grabbed his hat. "Come on, Bunny, let's go."
This could go one of two ways. Barnaby could let Kotetsu drag him all over the building, explaining the situation to all his neighbors while Herbert waddled beside them and probably attacked Barnaby for every person he interacted with who wasn't Kotetsu.
Or he could just admit it and get it over with.
Barnaby sighed. "We should start here, then."
Kotetsu frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
Was he really going to have to spell it out? "With you."
"Me?" Kotetsu blinked in surprise. "Why would it be me?"
Why wouldn't it be you? Barnaby wanted to shout. "You live in this building. Herbert's not letting me leave your apartment. It stands to reason that it could be you."
Kotetsu rubbed his neck. "Well, okay, if that's what you want?"
He pecked Barnaby on the cheek so quickly Barnaby would have thought it was his imagination if he hadn't watched Kotetsu do it.
Herbert did not disappear. Instead, he ruffled his feathers and honked, distinctly unimpressed.
Kotetsu laughed nervously. "Well, I guess it's not me."
"Probably because that wasn't an actual kiss," Barnaby said. "We should..."
Kiss on the lips, he was going to say, but he couldn't make himself finish the sentence. He was already ten seconds away from evaporating from embarrassment.
Kotetsu's eyes widened and he flushed, and then coughed. "Are...are you sure?"
"I think that's all the goose will accept," Barnaby said.
Herbert honked in agreement. Barnaby did not kick him, but it was a close thing.
"Well, yeah, but..." Kotetsu got serious. "I don't want to make you do something you don't want to do."
Of course he didn't. And the fact that he thought about that was one of the reasons Barnaby loved him. "I know. I don't want to make you do something you don't want, either."
"But it might make the goose go away," Kotetsu said.
"Okay." Kotetsu smiled, small and soft. "Let's do it."
It felt like getting kicked in the heart. Barnaby swallowed hard. "Okay. But...you should probably know, I haven't ever..."
"I haven't ever kissed anyone before," Barnaby admitted. "So I'm not going to be any good at it."
Kotetsu waved the objection away. "That's fine. This won't count as your first kiss, anyway."
"No! Your first kiss should be with someone you like. Maybe after a date when you're walking hand-in-hand along the street and watching the sunset. Or when you're on the roof looking up at the stars. Not forced on you because of a goose."
Barnaby should've figured Kotetsu was a romantic.
"So," Kotetsu said. "It doesn't count."
Barnaby's mouth was too dry to actually respond, so he just nodded in agreement.
They were standing so close together. They usually did, but there was a difference between standing together and standing together while knowing you were about to kiss. Barnaby's heart was about to beat right out of his chest.
Kotetsu leaned in slowly, like he was giving Barnaby the chance to back out if he wanted.
When are you going to realize that I'm not going to say no to you? Barnaby thought.
And then Kotetsu kissed him and Barnaby stopped thinking entirely.
It was gentle, much gentler than Barnaby had thought it would be, but it was definitely a kiss and Barnaby definitely wanted more.
Kotetsu pulled away from him and it took every iota of self-control Barnaby possessed not to grab him and pull him back.
At their feet, Herbert waddled in a circle, honked once, and disappeared in a flash of blue light.
Kotetsu stared down at the empty space where Herbert had been. "Oh. That worked."
Barnaby tentatively stepped outside the door, waiting to see if Herbert would appear out of nowhere and attack him again. But there was no honking, no beating wings, no nothing. Just the faint sounds of life from the other apartments and the click of an air conditioning unit turning on somewhere.
He looked back to Kotetsu, who had an expression on his face that Barnaby couldn't read. Bewildered, maybe, but something else, something that made Barnaby's heart hurt.
Fuck you, Herbert, Barnaby thought. "I'm sorry," he said out loud.
"Why? Because of the goose?" Kotetsu shook his head and walked back over to his couch. "That's not your fault. You didn't summon it."
Even if he hadn't, it had still tipped something in their relationship in a way Barnaby wasn't sure they could recover. He followed Kotetsu back inside and shut the door. "I didn't mean to drag you into this."
"I know." Kotetsu gave him a half-smile. "It's okay, Bunny. I know you don't feel that way about me, no matter what the goose says."
It was an easy out, and it would let them go back to the way things had been before with minimal issue. But the way Kotetsu said it gave him pause, and even though Barnaby knew he should probably let it go, he couldn't.
"Why do you say that?" Barnaby asked.
Kotetsu rubbed the back of his neck and his eyes darted away. "Aw, come on. You probably know dozens of people who are younger and better-looking." He grinned. "Why would you be interested in an old man like me?"
Barnaby wanted to hit him. How could he have absolutely no idea how Barnaby felt about him?
But he took another look at that stupid, self-deprecating grin and knew. Kotetsu didn't think he was good enough.
Barnaby remembered, with frankly enraging clarity, how Kotetsu had let him go back to the First League alone and with a new partner because he didn't think he belonged there anymore. But Barnaby had assumed that was only to do with hero work.
He hadn't even considered Kotetsu would think that way about this.
There wasn't much now that could make him lose his temper, but Kotetsu had always been an exception to every one of his rules.
Barnaby stalked across the apartment, grabbed Kotetsu by the shoulders, and kissed him again. Not because of a goddamn stalker soulmate-finding goose, but because he wanted to and no matter where the chips fell after this, he wasn't going to let Kotetsu continue thinking that it was impossible for Barnaby to be in love with him.
When he pulled back, Kotetsu had the same gobsmacked look on his face that he'd had the first time Barnaby had used his actual name.
Heat rose in his cheeks. Barnaby did his best to pretend it hadn't. "That one counts."
"Uh," Kotetsu said very articulately.
Barnaby resisted the urge to shake him. "What the hell did you think I meant when I said I learned to make fried rice for you, old man?"
Kotetsu's brow furrowed. "That...you learned to make fried rice?"
"Yes. I did. For you. Because I'm in love with you, you idiot, and I have been since you healed yourself after being beaten into a coma to come and help me."
Kotetsu gaped at him and for once, he was totally silent.
Barnaby sank to the couch and sighed. "I don't know about soulmates. But I refuse to sit here and listen to you convince yourself it's impossible for me to have feelings for you when that's demonstrably not true. If you aren't interested in me...if it wouldn't work out between us, it's going to be for a real reason and not one you made up."
"But...why?" Kotetsu said quietly. "You could do so much better than me."
Barnaby swallowed over the lump in his throat. "There isn't anyone better than you."
Kotetsu was still staring at him with that unreadable look on his face that made Barnaby's heart hurt, and really, Barnaby couldn't deal with this anymore. "Kotetsu, I'm tired, I have a headache, and I've spent too much time today getting attacked by a goose. Please, just tell me you don't have feelings for me so I can go home."
Barnaby snapped his head up to argue, because Kotetsu would not be cruel enough to prolong his misery and give him hope where there was none, but he took one look at Kotetsu's face and closed his mouth.
"Maybe I should." Kotetsu shoved his hands in his pockets and looked down at the ground. "It would probably be easier if I told you that. But you said it yourself, if it won't work, it should be for a real reason, not one we made up." He met Barnaby's eyes again with a wry smile. "And I've caused enough trouble hiding things from you, haven't I, Bunny-chan?"
"Kotetsu," Barnaby said.
"I didn't know for a long time," Kotetsu said softly. "I didn't think I'd ever have it again, and this...it's different from what I felt before. It took me awhile to see it for what it was."
"Why didn't you say anything?" Barnaby asked.
Kotetsu shrugged and looked away again. "You could have absolutely anyone you want. And you deserve...everything. I know that's not me."
"Why isn't it you?" Barnaby asked.
Kotetsu blinked, like he hadn't expected the question. "What?"
Barnaby stood and walked over to take his hand. "Why do you think you aren't everything to me?"
Kotetsu looked down at their hands, and then back up at Barnaby. "For someone who's never done this, you're pretty good at being romantic."
"I'm not trying to be romantic," Barnaby said. "I'm just telling you the truth."
Kotetsu smiled. "Yeah, I know. That's why it's romantic."
Barnaby leaned forward hesitantly, partly because he wasn't sure if Kotetsu wanted to kiss him again, and partly because he really didn't know what he was doing. The previous time he'd been running off pure irritation. Now...
Now Kotetsu cupped his cheek and whispered, "I've got you."
Of course he did, because he always had. Even when Barnaby hadn't wanted him there, Kotetsu had his back. They were partners; it was what they did.
"Are you sure about this?" Kotetsu asked.
Barnaby nodded. "Are you?"
"Okay," Barnaby said.
"Maybe we should thank the kids for Herbert," Kotetsu whispered.
Barnaby shuddered. "I am never thanking the kids for Herbert."
Kotetsu laughed and kissed him, and Barnaby sank into it with a soft sigh. It felt new and familiar at the same time, like starting on a journey and coming home all wrapped into one.
Okay. Maybe he should thank them for Herbert.
...At some point far, far in the future.