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Tiger Stripes

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Barnaby freezes at the sight of the scars.

There's a smattering of small, faint ones cris-crossing down his arms, but they're not ones that draw Barnaby's attention. The ones that do are the five horizontal slashes running across his back. They're strangely ordered and uniform, as if they were scored into him deliberately. They look to be as thick as a man's thumb. The pale, slightly raised flesh contrasts with Kotetsu's tan, dark skin.

What strikes Barnaby the most, however, is how much they resemble a tiger's stripes. Kotetsu has always resembled the cat that shares his name – powerful, sleek, wild. The scars bring the similarity out further.

Kotetsu turns, and his eyes widen as he realizes that Barnaby has come into the locker room. The green shirt he held in his hands has dropped to the floor. He stands there silently for a moment before shame sets across his face and he looks away.

“I guess I couldn't hide them from you forever,” he says.

“When did you get them?” Barnaby asks.

“About a month before you came back.” Kotetsu picks up the shirt he's dropped before he sits on the edge of one of the locker room benches. “There was a NEXT. He had some sort of energy-claw power. Cut through the armor like butter, and I'd run out of power already.” He slumps and gives a weak laugh. “An old man's failures can pretty ugly. Sorry you had to see them, Bunny.”

“Don't be.” Barnaby takes his place next to his partner. “They look good on you.” There's no lie behind his words. Kotetsu has always had a subtle, feline beauty to his form, Barnaby thinks, and the stripes that now run along his back serve only to enhance it.

Kotetsu twists to look at Barnaby, bemused at his words. “You're crazy.”

“No I'm not.” Barnaby runs his fingers across the the uppermost scar that stretches from shoulder to shoulder, and Kotetsu shivers at the touch. “You're crazy for thinking they're ugly. They're beautiful.”

Kotetsu scoffs. “There's nothing pretty about screwing up.”

“Did you catch him?”

An eyebrow rises. “Huh?”

“The criminal. Did you catch him?”

“Yes,” Kotetsu says, lips thinning, “But only with some help.”

“Then you didn't fail, and you shouldn't be ashamed of these. They're marks of pride – The lengths you're willing to go to protect others.”

Kotetsu laughs once more. This one is not quite as weak as the first. “Sometimes I wonder if you realize I have faults, Bunny.”

“I'm fully aware of all of them, Kotetsu.” Barnaby puts a hand on Kotetsu's right shoulder blade, which is bisected by one of the stripes. “These,” he stresses before lightly kissing the first of the scars, “Are not one of them.”

Neither say anything more after that, but as Kotetsu leaves the locker room, Barnaby notices that he's standing taller than he's even seen him stand.