The whole damn thing was Antonio's fault. Kotetsu would go to his grave arguing this. Fortunately, the facts backed him up.
Antonio put his hands on Kotetsu's desk and leaned forward. "Come on. If I refer a friend, I get half off for the next two months. They're really killing me, buddy. Help me out."
"I get paid less than you do," Kotetsu argued. He dropped a report and two memos in the incoming, then thought better of it and put them in outgoing. "And how would I explain it to Kaede?" Kotetsu brightened. "Hey, did I show you the pictures from her recital?"
"Yes," said Antonio in the voice of doom. The voice of doom also said, Three times.
"Look," Antonio said, "I'm not saying you've got to marry nobody. Just show up, sign the paper, do the thing. They do a buffet at the group date. Shrimp, sausage, the works. You can cut your losses after that."
Years of friendship had led to this, their greatest trial. Beating the crap out of each other in the tenth grade was only the beginning.
"Still," said Kotetsu, "why me? What about--" His mind blanked. He scrabbled for names. Ji-hyuk. Kristen. "Keith!"
"Are you kidding me?" Antonio squinted. "Keith? I don't think Keith's ever seen a naked human being in his life."
"That doesn't mean you have to ask me!"
"Just one date," said Antonio. "That's all they need. You'd really be helping me out."
More or less, that was how he wound up wedged in a too-small plastic chair in the lobby of the Blazing Hearts Matchmaking Service. The lobby was spacious, the front wall a row of windows, and potted plants decorated the corners. Water burbled from a small fountain set in the center of the room. Kotetsu swallowed. His throat was very dry.
He jerked his head up and caught his hat as it slipped. A tall young man, pale with a truly absurd mass of blond curls, frowned at him. Hope welled within Kotetsu. Maybe they'd kick him out right now. Too old, too scruffy, too much leg. Rejected on grounds of gangly.
Instead, the blond man said, "Please follow me, Mister Kaburagi."
Morosely, he rose. The consultant led him up a short flight of stairs to a small, private room at the end of a hallway of small, private rooms. The name tag set beside the door said only Brooks. Kotetsu thought of the fountain in the lobby, how the water had whispered as it tumbled along its course. His palms were sweating. It was probably too late to fake a sudden and incapacitating bowel obstruction.
"Take a seat, please."
The consultant - Brooks? - had an even voice, light, cool, very pleasant. Disinterested. Kotetsu sat and the man took the seat opposite the table. Taking a paper from his clipboard, the consultant set it on the table. His wrist - bony, like his thumb - flashed out from his pressed sleeve.
Before him, Kotetsu felt under dressed and out of date. He'd worn a vest but forgot his suit jacket, and the tie he'd picked was one Kaede had given him three years before. A series of dinosaurs paraded solemnly across it. In contrast, this slim kid had a thin, soft scarf knotted precisely at the side of his throat and a pale suit jacket that pinched his waist then flared just so over his hips. His fingers were long and bare but for a square ring on the first finger of his left hand.
Kotetsu dropped his gaze to his hands. He'd worried the silver band on his finger without noticing. He set his thumb at the base of that finger and held the ring in place.
The consultant said, "I need to ask you a few questions that we might better help you find your best possible match."
"Shouldn't I know your name first?" Kotetsu asked. "If you're going to be, uh. Setting me up with someone."
The consultant looked at him then for the first time. The first time properly, anyway. He'd glasses, rose-tinted ones.
"Barnaby Brooks," he said at last. "You may call me Mister Brooks if you need to address me."
"All right," said Kotetsu. He scratched his arm. "Mister Brooks. So, uh, what do you need to know?"
Mister Brook's mouth pursed. His face, already composed, had sharpened. He pointed his pen at the hand on Kotetsu's arm.
"Are you married, Mister Kaburagi?" he asked. It wasn't really a question. He'd made up his mind. "We won't provide services to any client who misrepresents their marital status. If you've a wife, then we've no need for any additional questioning."
He collected his pen, his clipboard, the sheet of paper he'd slid across the table to Kotetsu; then he made to stand.
"No," said Kotetsu. He covered his wedding band. The metal was warm. There was a scratch in it he'd never repaired. He'd never had the time. Never gave himself the time, he supposed.
The consultant hadn't moved. His back was bent. His legs were tensed. The threat remained, that he would rise and then escort Kotetsu out. It would be over then, Kotetsu supposed. He'd apologize to Antonio later, then he'd forget this.
Mister Brooks waited.
"She, ah, died," said Kotetsu. "A few years ago." He traced that groove in the ring with his thumb. The sharp edges had worn with age. "Five."
At the door, Mister Brooks paused. His mouth was still a sharp line; that hadn't eased. But when he'd stood, his glasses had slipped, just a fraction down the length of his knife-like nose. His eyes were very green.
Kotetsu smiled lopsided up at him. He covered his wedding band with the other hand.
"I promise," he said. "I'm not the kind of guy to go around cheating on my wife. Plus, my daughter--"
Brooks left off the door. As he sat, he pushed his glasses back up with his third finger, pinky arched.
"We'll need employer and personal references," he said, still pleasant, still distant.
Kotetsu accepted the paper and another pen Brooks drew from his pocket. How many of those things did the kid carry on him, anyway?
"Everything needs to be verified by the agency before we can begin looking for a suitable match."
"Hey," said Kotetsu, "what happened to trust?"
The kid looked at him through his glasses. There was nothing childish about it. Then he smiled, very kindly. There was something disorienting about that.
"It's standard protocol, Mister Kaburagi," he said. "Blazing Hearts' reputation is built upon the honesty of all our clients. You're a widower?"
Mister Brooks turned back to his clipboard.
"Ah," said Kotetsu, "yeah."
"One daughter. Any other children?"
"Just Kaede," said Kotetsu. "She's ten and real smart, too. Second in her class in the entire school, you know! And she took bronze at the Stern Bild Junior Ice Skating Competition last year. She did karate for a while, but--"
Kotetsu sat back. He ran the pen between his fingers. Mister Brooks hadn't looked up.
"Ten years at Stern Bild PD," he said. "Got my detective badge four years ago."
"You're a cop?" Mister Brooks looked up at this. "Which department?"
"Uh, homicide," said Kotetsu.
The corner of Brooks's mouth pinched. "Homicide detective," he murmured as he turned back to his work. He tapped his pen on the table between them. "Please fill out your references, Mister Kaburagi."
"Right! Yeah," said Kotetsu. "Sure. Uh. Where's that pen--"
He found it nestled under his thigh, and how it'd got there, he didn't know. As he bent over the table, Mister Brooks' light voice went on.
"Your annual income?"
"Fifty-three thousand," said Kotetsu, "but I'm up for a raise this year. Probably."
Brooks' mouth pinched again then smoothed out, as delicately as if it had never pinched at all.
"Would you prefer someone with an income equal to or higher than your own?"
"That doesn't really matter to me," said Kotetsu, shrugging. "Oh. Uh, I do have two dependents, Kaede and my mother."
That got a sigh. Kotetsu frowned. Geez, what was this guy's deal? He squinted at Brooks, who sat with his back straight and his eyebrows faintly arched, immaculate and unreadable and not exactly the kind of guy Kotetsu would think anyone would want picking out their future sweetheart.
"Are you interested in--" A pause. Brooks' face flickered. Kotetsu's ring finger itched. "Women, exclusively?"
Kotetsu curled his finger in. High school loomed before him. Tomoe did, too.
"Not really," he said. "I don't really care about stuff like that."
Kotetsu owned his own home, yeah. A townhouse in the city. He didn't care if the other person had property. He didn't have any pets, but he didn't mind animals. It was just whether or not Kaede would remember to take care of a dog. He didn't personally mind smoking, but he'd prefer it be kept out of the house. He didn't have any real preferences as to personality, no. Looks, either.
"Absolutely anything would be all right with you," said Mister Brooks, "so long as they smoke outside."
Kotetsu scratched his arm. "Yeah. I guess, yeah."
Mister Brooks set his clipboard down. The little snap of it against the table made Kotetsu jump. Brooks' frown was heavier in his brow than his mouth.
"Mister Kaburagi," he said. "If you aren't serious about this, then please leave."
"You don't seem to have an opinion about anything," said Brooks. "You have no preferences. You don't care. You can waste your time however you wish, but you won't waste mine and you won't waste that of my clients."
Anger surprised Kotetsu. He hadn't wanted to come anyway; he'd only done it for Antonio's sake. A consultation, a group date, then sorry, it's just not for me.
"You know, you're pretty rude," said Kotetsu. "You're supposed to help me out here, right? But you keep acting like I'm playing around. Do you really think I'd be here if I wasn't serious about this?"
Brooks blinked at him, three long sweeps of his eyelashes. His mouth was soft, suddenly, and some of the sharpness had gone out of his face. Then he frowned again, and his young, smooth face creased with it.
"If you're serious," he said, "then please give me serious answers."
Kotetsu slapped his knee. "I did give you serious answers! I don't care about those kinds of things!"
"If I don't know what you're looking for in marriage, then I can't help you find it," snapped Mister Brooks.
"Marriage?" Kotetsu stared at him. "What about love! Isn't it more important to love someone first?"
Ire made Mister Brooks cold. It was a funny thing, to see him stiffen like that.
"If love is your requirement, then I would be more than happy to note that," said Brooks sweetly. Ice dripped from his tongue. "But it's impossible to winnow out a specific individual when you have no other requirements."
"They can't smoke indoors," Kotetsu shot back. "Secondhand smoke is dangerous for kids!"
"Thank you," said Brooks. "That helps enormously."
"Love isn't something you can mark off a checklist," Kotetsu said. He'd stood up, he realized, when Brooks tipped his head up to him. Kotetsu clenched the pen till the hook on the cap dug into his palm. "If you really love someone, you love them for the bad and the good, too. It's not like, like picking out a house!"
At that, any pretense of a smile went out of Brooks' face. He didn't look ugly, though, or even cruel. Just--just pissy.
"Have you finished filling out your references, Mister Kaburagi," he said, biting out each syllable.
"Maybe you're right!" said Kotetsu. "Maybe it was a mistake coming here. I don't think you're serious about this!"
"If you haven't finished filling out your references," said Brooks loudly, "please do so."
"Why?" Kotetsu challenged. "You already said you didn't want to help me, so why should I--"
"I never once said that," said Mister Brooks.
He smiled then, very meanly, in a gentle sort of way. A blond curl had fallen across his cheek. Very precisely, he tucked it behind his ear.
"Please," said Barnaby Brooks, "entrust your heart with Blazing Hearts Matchmaking Service. We have a ninety-eight percent success rating. Nothing," he stressed, "would make me happier than to make you happy."
The look on his fine face - sweet, cold, and a little bit cruel, a little bit of spite - made the back of Kotetsu's neck crawl.
It was because of Antonio that Kotetsu sat down again. That, and a little bit of spite.
"I'm home," Kotetsu called. He kicked the door closed behind him and his shoes off in the entryway.
"Welcome home," said his mother from the kitchen, then she resumed talking to someone else in a rapid fire mix of English and Japanese. The phone, probably, as Kaede was slouched upside down on the living room couch. The TV was turned to the Disney Channel, and a group of preteens were trading elementary barbs to a laugh track.
Kotetsu tickled Kaede's toes in passing. She squeaked and flopped her foot at him, but missed. He'd passed into the kitchen.
"You finish your homework?"
"Ye-es," said Kaede. Tinny music started blaring from the television. "It's on the table!"
He rifled through the stack of folders, color-coded by class. Her neat handwriting denoted each tab: language arts, math, science. Beneath each label she'd written the subject again in careful katakana. The organization system had been her idea. The Japanese classes, hers, too.
"How are your Japanese classes going?" he asked.
Kaede's feet, still sticking up over the back of the couch, were kicking in time to the music.
"Good," she said. "We're learning about furigana next week."
"Yomigana," corrected Grandmother, her hand on the phone. Her hand dropped. "What? No, iie, the children."
"Teacher says it's furigana," Kaede argued.
Kotetsu put on a teasing voice. "Yomigana, furigana, what's the difference?"
Kaede's feet dropped. Her head poked up, blocking the TV. "You don't know anything, Dad," she said, disgusted.
"Is that all you have to say to your old man?"
He advanced on her. Kaede fell back, squealing, but it was too late to run; he'd caught her. Her own poor posture had doomed her. Kotetsu rubbed his knuckles into her scalp as Kaede squirmed and shouted, "Dad! Dad! I'm watching the TV!"
"Dad doesn't know anything, does he?" He slung his arm around her shoulders and made to lift her up. "What time is it? Is it your bed time?"
"Grandma said I could stay up another hour! Dad, I'm missing the show!"
The phone clicked. "Kotetsu," Grandmother said, "did you eat?"
He set Kaede down again. Pouting, she wriggled to the far end of the couch and stuck her knees up in warding. Kotetsu made a face at her.
"If you haven't eaten--"
He turned and smiled. "Antonio and I grabbed something on the way out."
His mother frowned. "Fast food again? You'll make yourself sick if you eat too much grease."
"Only tonight," he protested. He bent to kiss her brow, but his mother nimbly evaded. She'd too much practice at that.
"You've missed dinner all week," she said in a low voice.
Kotetsu glanced over his shoulder, but Kaede was engrossed in the television again, her little chin set between her knees. The laugh track roared. Kaede didn't laugh with it.
"I know," Kotetsu said. "I know. I'm sorry. We've had a lot of cases this week, you know I can't help that. I'll be home early tomorrow, I promise."
She poked his shoulder, her gnarled finger pricking harder than any other could. "You work too many weekends. Kaede misses you," she said pointedly.
He held his hands up. Don't shoot. "Hey, I promised, didn't I? Six o'clock. What do you think about fried rice?"
"If you want fried rice so much, make it yourself," said Grandmother. "I'm sick to death of fried rice! Always fried rice."
Kotetsu laughed. When he swooped in for a kiss, this time she didn't move. His mother cupped his cheek. Her fingers were thinner now than when he'd been a child, and they were bony and wrinkled with age. But the feel of her fingertips brushing the corner of his jaw was the same. He hooked his arms around her and hugged her closely once.
"What's got into you?" Her voice was muffled in his shoulder.
"Can't I hug my mother?" He rested his head on hers and closed his eyes. A weight in his chest eased. "I'm allowed to do that, aren't I?"
"Only if you want something from me," she said.
"Shrimp fried rice," he said gravely, and she swatted him hard in the ribs.
Kotetsu pulled away, grinning.
"Be quiet!" Kaede shouted at them. "You guys! I'm trying to watch this!"
"When did you get so rude?" asked Grandmother. "Who taught you that?"
Kaede rolled her eyes at them. "Won't you be quiet, please?"
"Oi," said Kotetsu, "don't talk to your grandmother like that. You forgot to say 'obaa-san.'"
"I didn't know you knew Japanese," said Kaede.
"It's bedtime for you," said Kotetsu.
Kaede gasped, furious. On the TV, those kids were singing again. The whole thing made his head hurt. Jesus, when'd he get so old?
As a rule, he never drank till Kaede had gone to bed. His mother, too. He drank half a beer on the couch, watching the news in the dark. A fire had gutted a tenement building. Four people dead, seven more hospitalized for severe burns or smoke inhalation. A sobbing man held the hand of a young woman on a stretcher.
"But not everything's dark clouds in lower Stern Bild today," said the newscaster brightly, "as a young boy saved a pair of kittens that found themselves far from home."
Kotetsu turned the television off. The darkness swallowed him, and that was a comfort. He hadn't realized how his eyes stung till that last light went out. He laid his head back against the armrest and closed his eyes. His fingers were wet from the can of beer, and the cold of it made his palm hurt.
"One beer," he said. One beer. He'd allow himself that.
When he'd finished, he pitched the can in the metals bin and went upstairs, mindful of the stairs that creaked, mindful of Kaede sleeping in her bed and Grandmother in hers.
His bedroom was dark, too. Of course it was. He fumbled for the light switch, then he stopped. What would turning on the light do anyway? The bed hadn't moved. The desk hadn't moved, either. Everything was in its place. Everything was always in its place.
Kotetsu fell into bed, the same side he always did. Outside, back to the door. The emptiness of his bed spread before him, endless and cold and flat. He stretched his arm out, his elbow bent as if to accommodate the presence of another.
Then his arm dropped. His hand settled on the other pillow. The weight of his wedding ring pinched.
"Who do you think's going to come through the door?"
Tomoe had smiled at him. Her nose crinkled. If he traced her lip, she'd nip his thumb. This was just after they'd married. They'd put the bed against the wall and Kotetsu took the outside, nearest the door. To protect her.
"Silly." Her fingers threaded through his hair. She rubbed her nose against his, and her eyelashes showed dark on her cheeks. "The only person you have to worry about is me."
Tomoe's hip had filled his palm and fingers just right, like her hip and his hand had been cast together. The slide of her leg as she hooked her knee around his hip. Her thumb pushing into the hollow behind his ear. Her crooked teeth flashing as she smiled.
Kotetsu slid his hand down that long expanse of bed. The covers on the side by the wall were still neatly tucked in; he hadn't managed to pull them loose yet.
Five years. The hospital bed had been made for one, not two, and when he held her hand, he did so from a chair placed beside her bed. He couldn't protect her from that.
You couldn't quantify love. You couldn't predict it. It came and it stuck, even when you were alone. Even then.
He turned his face to his pillow.
Antonio clapped Kotetsu hard enough on the shoulder Kotetsu's pen went flying out of his hand, across his desk, and onto the station floor, in which untamed jungle was it doomed to wander forever.
"I'm trying to finish these reports," Kotetsu said sadly, watching as Det. Kowalski's boot caught the pen and sent it flying who knows where. The back end of nowhere.
"Yeah, sure, sorry," said Antonio. He didn't sound it. "But seriously, thanks. You did me a huge favor."
Kotetsu considered the reports. The first was a week overdue. He had avoided it not out of shiftlessness, as Chief Joubert darkly implied when she said, "Kagurabi, get your shiftless ass on that report," but because he did not very much savor the work of writing up a case involving serial murder. Three girls dead, two of them known prostitutes. The media had tsked about the tragedy of such young girls putting themselves in harm's way, such a waste but what could be done, etc. Jean Ellison aka Midnight Clover's mother had cried when Kotetsu called to tell her they'd caught the killer.
"My baby," she'd said. "My baby."
At least they'd caught him, though. Brox P.D. had a tip line open for that child-killer from a few years ago, and he'd heard the guys in lower Hamnon were still poking around a rash of disappearances from the nineties. Hell, Kotetsu had plenty of cold cases of his own.
Kotetsu rubbed his wedding band, stroking the groove. His head ached. It was the beer, he thought, but he'd only had the one.
"About that," he said. He shuffled the reports so the first was last.
"Hmm?" Antonio looked back at him. "'Bout what?"
"I don't think I can do it," Kotetsu said.
He'd known Antonio longer than he'd known anyone outside his family. Longer than anyone but Tomoe. They'd gone to the academy together, and at Kotetsu's wedding, Antonio had clapped his shoulder, just like that, and said, "Don't throw up," low enough the preacher didn't hear.
Antonio was quiet. On the other side of the pen, Kowalski shouted, "You gotta be fucking kidding me!" and slammed his phone down.
"Don't worry about it," said Antonio. He rested his hand on Kotetsu's shoulder. "I shouldn't have asked."
"No, hey, what are you apologizing for?" Kotetsu smiled up at him. "What are friends for, right?"
Antonio made that face that meant, Jesus, this guy, then the chief's door opened and the tyrant herself leaned out to say, "Kaburagi, for God's sake, where are those reports already?"
"I'm working on them!" Kotetsu shouted back. "Tell Lopez to get off my ass."
"Lopez!" yelled the chief. "Get off Kaburagi's ass!"
"I take it back," Antonio said, "you ain't nothing but a backstabbing son of a--"
"Ladies are present," said Kotetsu.
"Thank you, detective," said the chief, as if she had never once called a single detective an incompetent fuck-up.
During his lunch break, Kotetsu took the subway down to Thirty-Fourth and Main then walked the rest of the way to the offices of Blazing Hearts Matchmaking Services. It was a warm day and the sky was mostly clear, the few clouds light wisps wandering aimlessly through the blue. He enjoyed the walk. He would have enjoyed it more if he weren't imagining the know it all look on Brooks' face when he said, Sorry, you were right, I'm not serious about this. His gut crawled at the thought of it. He really needed to stop drinking the station coffee.
The lobby was busier than it had been the other day. An event, he supposed. It was a hunch. Also, there were streamers everywhere and a cascade of balloons bobbing against the ceiling. He wondered whose job it was to get all that crap down. He couldn't see Brooks with his down-turned mouth and up-turned nose doing it.
Kotetsu loitered just inside the door. Was he allowed to just walk up those steps and down that hall to the little room with Brooks' name? He could just ignore the company's phone calls, he decided. I'm sorry, who? Blazing what? You've got a wrong number.
Movement in the crowd caught his eye. A woman stepped out of the way, and there was Brooks, smiling at-- Kotetsu couldn't see who. It didn't really matter, but then, it did. Whoever he smiled at, he gave a smile far different from that which Brooks had allowed Kotetsu; it was a small one, not warm, but kind. His face hadn't changed, not really. His nose didn't crinkle. His cheeks hadn't creased. But his eyelashes were low and the shape of his mouth was soft, and if he was still distant, at least Kotetsu could see how he might be reached.
"Mm, he is handsome, isn't he?"
Kotetsu jumped. He hadn't even heard the man walk up to him. He was a dark man, beautifully made up, with a pin of rubies in the shape of a heart fixed to the breast of his pink suit. He smiled at Kotetsu as if they were old friends with a secret between them.
The man hooked his arm with Kotetsu's and started forward. "Why don't I introduce you?"
"Uh," said Kotetsu, "wait-- Who are-- Just a minute, I--"
He staggered trying to keep up. The guy was in stilettos, but damn, could he move.
"Barnaby!" called the man. "Yoo-hoo, handsome! I've got someone here who wants to see you!"
It was like being stuck in a movie reel. Kotetsu was still trying to figure out if it was a disaster flick (the beast with the face of an angel!) or a comedy (from the minds that brought you Old Guy Can't Get No Respect) when Barnaby turned. His curls shivered. His long, pale eyelashes swept his cheeks. His glasses had slipped low on his nose.
"Mister Seymour," he said.
"Oh, Barnaby, really," said the man, "I've told you, between us friends, it's Nathan. I found the cutest kitten right inside the door, and I thought, oh, I have to introduce them."
Kotetsu stuck his heels in; he still had a chance. But Mister Seymour call me Nathan's grip was very nearly as strong as Antonio's. When he tugged, Kotetsu stumbled forward. Barnaby Brooks's shoes filled his vision. They were red boots, leather probably, and they were dotted with pink and white confetti. A scuff mark marred the underside of the left toe.
Kotetsu raised his head. There was confetti in Brooks' hair, too, a mess of glitter and paper dropped like kisses in those wheat-gold curls. A spangle had stuck to his left cheek, near his mouth. Kotetsu's thumb twitched.
Brooks's smile snuffed out neat as a candle. Well, hell, Kotetsu wasn't all that psyched to see him, either.
"We're just so happy," burbled a man in fancy dress, then, clutching a plate of ice cream cake to his breast, he burst into tears.
Oh, God, it was a comedy. Kotetsu hated comedies. They were too much like real life. This is real life, he thought.
"Mister Kaburagi," said Barnaby Brooks. "I didn't realize you were a friend of the couple."
"Oh, my!" said Nathan. He touched his fingernails to his lips. The look on his face was definitely sly. "Do you two already know each other?"
Kotetsu decided it was time to just throw himself headfirst into the laugh track.
"Can I talk to you?" he asked Brooks. "Uh. In private."
A loud whompf blistered the air. Confetti showered upon them.
"I--" Brooks glanced at Nathan then the man in fancy dress, now embracing a woman who showered his face with kisses. "I couldn't leave. My job--"
"Oh, honestly," said Nathan brusquely. "Get out of here. You'll be begging me for a break in a few minutes anyway. With this crowd?"
"Banzai!" someone shouted, and a cork popped. Laughter rolled through the crowd.
A muscle in Brooks' face twitched. Why had Kotetsu noticed that?
"Thank you very much, Mister Seymour," said Brooks. He tipped his head.
"I've told you," said Nathan, "it's Nathan. You'll hurt my feelings like that, you know."
Then he shoved Kotetsu toward the door.
"What just happened?" Kotetsu asked the sidewalk. The sidewalk had no answers. It was stingy like that.
The door closed behind them, but the sound of laughter and of music lingered. Brooks made a little sound, a sort of puff like a laugh. Kotetsu chanced a look, but the man was facing forward and looking bored.
"You wanted to talk?"
"Ah," said Kotetsu, "yeah."
A woman brushed past them on the sidewalk. She threw Kotetsu an irritable look over her shoulder, but there were stars in her eyes when she swept by Brooks. Figured.
"Not here, though," said Kotetsu.
"Hm," said Brooks. His bottom lip puckered.
Kotetsu expected him to turn away. After all, there was nothing that said he had to - what? Entertain a customer out of the office. Consult with a customer out of the office.
"There's a bistro on the corner," said Brooks.
It was only a little shop, tucked in the very corner with just room enough for a bar with stools and three tables set up with a pair of chairs each. The air-con hummed. A glass case with cakes inside hummed, too. Kotetsu ordered two ham sandwiches with a bag of chips and a soda. Brooks ordered a salad and a water, then, after a pause, a cup of baby carrots, too.
Kotetsu grinned as Brooks wiped his plastic fork with a napkin. Brooks' eyebrow arched.
"Nothing," said Kotetsu. "It's just." He gestured at Brooks' plate. "Rabbit food."
Brooks pursed his lips. Delicately, he stirred the salad. "I'm a vegetarian."
"I'm an Aries," said Kotetsu.
Brooks stared at him. A line formed between his eyebrows.
Kotetsu tried again. "Vegetarian. No meat, right?"
"Yes," said Brooks. Some small relief loosened his shoulders. "Specifically, an ovo-vegetarian. I eat eggs," he added.
Kotetsu licked mayonnaise from his thumb. "Eggs aren't meat, huh."
"There's some debate," said Brooks. "But if the eggs aren't fertilized--"
He took a little bite of salad. His teeth flashed, his lips drawn back. Kotetsu huffed a laugh; he didn't mean to.
Brooks frowned at him. "What?" He touched his face. His fingers fluttered at his lips.
"It's just, you eat like a rabbit, too," said Kotetsu. He demonstrated with his sandwich. Mayonnaise squished between his teeth. His fingers, too.
"I don't eat like that," said Brooks. He sounded scandalized. His eyes flickered to Kotetsu's fingers then away again. "And vegetarianism is very common. It's practiced throughout the world, in a multitude of cultures--"
Kotetsu stuck his hands up. "Sorry. Pretend I didn't say anything, Bunny."
Brooks's eyes rounded. His lips parted, just so, in a little o.
Kotetsu stretched across the table. "Hey, can I have one of your carrots?"
"Those are mine," blurted Brooks. Barnaby. Bunny.
Kotetsu grinned around the carrot he'd snagged. Then he grimaced.
"Geez. How do you eat this?"
"I could ask the same of you," said Barnaby. He moved the plastic cup out of Kotetsu's reach. "Soy offers as much protein as can be found in meat. In fact, most nutrients provided by meat sources are readily found in common vegetation."
"All right, all right," said Kotetsu. "You're right. I'm a heartless carnivore. The bloodier, the better." It was the mayonnaise he liked best, though, he thought as he bit savagely into his sandwich.
"As long as you recognize it," said Barnaby.
He ate gracefully, without bowing his head or slouching. Kotetsu felt the bend of his own spine like a weight dropped on his back. The fork vanished into Barnaby's mouth, then it slid free again between his thin, pink lips.
"You're different out of the office," Kotetsu said. Oh, shit, he thought.
Barnaby went still again. He really was a rabbit, so easily spooked, like to run away. But all he did was frown a bit and swallow.
Kotetsu shrugged a shoulder. "You're not as mean."
"I'm not mean," said Barnaby.
"You're rude as hell," said Kotetsu.
Barnaby set down his fork. His fingers remained, index finger bowed along the length of the stem, the rest half-curled about it. He tipped his chin up.
"What, exactly, was it you needed to speak with me about, Mister Kaburagi?"
The arch of his eyebrow was simple but superior. Did he tweeze his eyebrows? Tomoe had trimmed hers with a little razor like a box cutter. In the light of the window in the corner, his hair gleamed honey-warm. The ends curled in towards his throat like fingers.
"I was, uh, just wondering when I should expect to go on my first date," said Kotetsu.
Barnaby lifted his fork again. His eyes dropped to his salad. "We usually start people with a group mixer," he said. "First dates are awkward for most people. It's better if they already know each other a little."
"Like if the other person's a vegetarian," said Kotetsu.
"Right," said Barnaby. He smiled. It was the sunlight that made his face shine like that. "Or if they're an Aries."
Kotetsu laughed and popped the tab on his soda, and wouldn't you know, the frigging thing foamed all over his hand.
He was late getting back to work, too. The subway never ran on time like it was supposed to, and the bigwigs kept promising they'd fix that, but they never did. Maybe that's just how things were. Sodas exploded and trains came late.
As he passed Antonio's desk, he rapped it with his knuckles. Antonio looked up, haggard.
"Would you believe," said Antonio, "I forgot to file the paperwork for that case last month."
"Yeah," said Kotetsu. "By the way, I decided to give that matchmaking thing a shot after all."
Antonio looked as if he didn't know what to say. It made him look constipated.
"I don't know what to say," said Antonio. He did not also say, I'm constipated, but Kotetsu figured that was assumed.
"Hey," said Kotetsu, "what are friends for, right?"
"You saw someone hot, didn't you," said Antonio. He turned around in his chair. Kotetsu kept walking.
"What's her name?" Antonio yelled at him. "Is she a blonde? If she's a blonde, you gotta introduce me to her. I love blondes."
"Why, Detective Lopez," said Chief Joubert, appearing in that way she had that was so very reminiscent of Batman, "I didn't know you cared. The Veckman report, on my desk, in the hour."
"Yes, sir," groused Antonio.
Kotetsu got out before the blood started flying. Or whatever.
He got home ten after six, "Just like I promised," he said to his mother. "Or close enough, anyway. You can't hold that against me."
He could've dropped a bomb and it wouldn't have shocked his mother as much. She nearly spilled the fish out of the pan, but years of reflexes turned the downward slope into the first part of a truly magnificent flip.
"You're home?" Kaede tipped her head back. Her eyes were wide, but not huge, and her mouth a little moue.
Kotetsu's chest tightened. He dumped his bag in his chair at the table and ruffled her hair. Kaede grumped and pulled away, whining, "Da-ad." A year before she would have pressed into his hand and laughed.
"Yeah," he said, his hand dropping, "I'm home. What, you thought I didn't know you were skimping on your homework?"
"I am not," she protested. She stuck her pen out at the folders, stacked slipshod before her. "Look, I already finished everything except language arts."
"Ahhhh," said Kotetsu, "but you haven't finished language arts, have you? I'm on to you, kid."
He made a pistol with his fingers and fired. Gotcha! Kaede rolled her eyes and went back to her work. Kotetsu held that pose a moment longer, then he straightened and brushed at his sleeves. Never could keep his shirts clean.
Grandmother's mouth was soft when he joined her by the stove.
"Something, uh, happen at school?" Kotetsu pitched his voice low. He jerked his head in the direction of Kaede, who'd started humming something he didn't recognize.
"Not that I know," said Grandmother. She stirred the egg drop soup and began gently fingering in chopped tofu. "Perhaps she only misses her father."
Kotetsu passed her the bowl of bean sprouts. The salmon crackled in the pan, and at his mother's tiny nod, he grabbed a spatula and began turning the patties over. As a kid, after his father's death, he'd helped his mother like this at the stove most nights; the familiarity of that warmed him. The tightness in his chest eased some, but still it stayed.
"I can't always get the time off work," he said. "Cop's hours, they aren't regular."
"I know," said his mother. She said it mildly. The soup burbled; she stirred it once again. "She's skating in a show at in a couple of weeks."
"I didn't forget," Kotetsu said.
"Even so," she said. She reached for the eggs, three set in a clear bowl by his elbow.
Kotetsu had never got the hang of adding egg to the soup, so he stepped back and out of her way. His mother cracked the first egg against the lip of the pot, then, holding a fork beneath the crack to steady the stream, she let the egg bleed out of its shell.
"So what're you working on?"
Kotetsu grabbed the chair by Kaede.
"School work," she said. She didn't look up. "We're diagramming sentences."
"Already?" He couldn't remember when they'd started doing that when he was a kid. To be fair, he was pretty sure he hadn't been good at it. Still. Kotetsu bit the bullet. "Do you need any help with it?"
"No, thank you." Kaede did look up then. "It's not like it's hard or anything."
Kaede set her chin in her hand and tapped her pen once, twice, again, against her cheek. For one strange and dizzying moment, Kotetsu saw her as a child, a baby, taking her first step from his hands and towards Tomoe. Probably when Kotetsu was ten, if his father had still been around, that was about the time he would've wanted his dad to stop grabbing him around the shoulders and lifting him up.
Kotetsu reached across the table and put his hand on Kaede's far shoulder, and as she said "Dad!" in a warning tone, he pulled her into the fiercest hug he could muster. Kaede squeaked into his collar.
"Kaede!" he said. His heart hurt; it swelled; it broke. "You're so smart! So very, really smart! Oh, I'm so proud of you."
"Dad!" She beat at his arm. "Dad, stop, I'm trying to do my work! Dad!"
He hugged her tighter, rested his chin on her head. His eyes burned. Too much dust. Kaede's shoulders were so thin, her hands so small. Still just a kid.
"Dinner's ready," said Grandmother, placid. She set a stack of plates on the table. "Kotetsu, go wash up. Kaede, clear your things off the table."
"Blech!" said Kaede when he let her go. "Dad, you smell gross."
"You're so mean," he said mournfully. "When did my baby girl grow up so mean?"
"When did you start smelling so gross?" Kaede demanded.
There wasn't really much he could say to that. He bussed her nose instead, and Kaede squeaked at that, too, like there was some sort of statute of limitations on an old man telling his kid he loved them. No respect anywhere. His mother swatted his arm.
"Wash up," she said, "you smell awful."
"Yeah, yeah," said Kotetsu, "nobody wants me around anymore. You said you were going to make fried rice," he called down the hall.
He should have known his mother would fake hearing loss at an important juncture like that.
Kotetsu didn't really know what exactly the etiquette was for something like a group mixer thrown by a matchmaking service, it not being something he routinely experienced in the course of his day to day life, which was why he showed up a half hour early and looking like an idiot.
It was the same thing as the week before all over again, in the sense of Kotetsu didn't have a clue what the hell he was doing; that was about all that was the same. For one, the day was overcast, and autumn had made its first shivering approach. Rain had just begun the work of spackling the sidewalk when Kotetsu pushed the door open. The lobby was quiet, empty, too, but for another consultant speaking with an elder man in an ill-fitting suit and there, at a little table set by the window, Barnaby Brooks. His cheek was cupped in his palm; his long fingers were pale suggestions just glimpsed here and there beneath his curling hair. He'd a large salad and a glass of water on the table before him and a fork in the other hand. It dipped uselessly; his wrist was lax, the tendons limp, his palm turned up to the lights in the ceiling. He was watching the rain come.
The wrought iron chair across from him was empty. Kotetsu pulled it out and sat. Barnaby started. His fingers arched from his hair. Those long lashes flashed behind his glasses.
Kotetsu smiled. "Hey, Bunny. Sorry, I'm late. You wouldn't believe the trouble I had finding a parking spot."
Barnaby's brow creased. That itsy bitsy pucker folded his lips.
"You're a half hour early," he said.
"I lied," Kotetsu admitted. "I took the sub."
"What?" said Barnaby.
"Hey, do you mind? I skipped lunch, I was so nervous," said Kotetsu. He reached for Barnaby's fork.
Barnaby snapped into motion. His fingers tensed; his palm turned over; he snatched the fork away. Barnaby's chin went up again, and he looked down his long, long nose at Kotetsu in a way that made Kotetsu want to hide his face in a napkin and laugh or maybe just pull Barnaby's hair.
He was expecting a lecture, but Barnaby said, "I thought you were an Aries," accusingly.
Kotetsu did laugh then. "Wow, hey," he said, "you remembered. I didn't know you cared, Bunny."
"My name isn't Bunny," said Mr Brooks, "it's Barnaby. And it's my job to remember things. If you want to help someone find love, you have to know who they are and who they want."
There was the lecture. Kotetsu slouched, grinning, then he leaned up again and stabbed his finger at Barnaby.
"Ha!" he said. "So you are trying to help people fall in love."
Barnaby tilted his head, one cheek scrunching while the other stayed flat, and oh, Jesus Louise-us, it was way too easy to confuse this guy. It was like he'd come down from outer space and nobody had bothered to teach him how to talk to people. Kotetsu was delighted.
"You know," Kotetsu said. "When I came in to sign up. You gave this whole speech about how you're not trying to help people find love and blah blah blah."
"I don't remember that," said Barnaby.
Kotetsu folded his arms and pushed back in the chair. "Well, I do. You were really rude about it, too."
Barnaby took a bite of his salad. The tip of his tongue showed. Kotetsu squinted at the rain, coming harder now against the windows.
"Mister Kaburagi," said Barnaby after he'd swallowed, "please try to keep in mind that most people don't care for such argumentative behavior."
"Ahhh," said Kotetsu. He bobbed his chair back and forth. "I'll keep that in mind."
Rain thrummed off the glass. Across the street, one person, two people, scattered persons here and there ran with briefcases overhead, a newspaper, an umbrella. Barnaby ate quietly. He did everything carefully, Kotetsu noticed. Kotetsu shifted. His hands tightened against his sides.
"Sorry," he said. "For being so, uh. Argumentative."
"Thank you," said Barnaby. He drank from his water.
"You're supposed to apologize, too," Kotetsu said in a stage-whisper.
Barnaby frowned over his glass. "What for?"
"This kid," said Kotetsu, mock-disgusted.
"I'm not a child, Mister Kaburagi," said Barnaby.
"Kotetsu," said Mister Kaburagi. He unfolded one arm to rest his hand on his breast, all generosity. "It's okay. I won't mind if you call me that."
"Old man," said Barnaby.
Kotetsu's chair settled on all four feet with a clatter. "Old what?"
Barnaby swallowed another bite of rabbit stuff. "Is that what you're wearing today?" He cast a long and lingering look down Kotetsu's chest.
Kotetsu touched his collar. "Why? What's wrong with it?"
The rude Mister Brooks rested his chin on the back of his hand. His eyes lidded, lashes low, the green of his eyes distorted first by his glasses then by the weight of his eyelashes. He gestured with his fork, all up and down Kotetsu.
"It's a bit old-fashioned, isn't it?"
Kotetsu fiddled with his studded tie. How long had it been since he'd gone on a proper date? Six years. He'd worn a t-shirt and a leather jacket, and Tomoe had gone in a sundress that clashed with her sneakers. "Oh, who cares about that?" she'd laughed, leaning into him at the drive-in. She'd pulled at his beard, teasing. "I think you're hot as hell."
"I wasn't sure what to wear," he said to Barnaby. He ran his hand down the waistcoat. "Does it look--you know, too old?"
"Most of our clients are in the same age range," Barnaby said. His eyes dropped, considering. "It's classy, I suppose."
"But does it look okay?"
"You look fine," said Barnaby. "But that tie..."
"What's wrong with the tie?" Kotetsu felt for his collar again. "I like this tie."
"It's tacky," Barnaby said bluntly. "How old is it? Is it from the seventies?"
"I was a kid in the seventies!" Kotetsu tightened the knot. "I got it in eighty-eight. Ish."
The corner of Barnaby's mouth twitched, just a bit and only for a moment; then it smoothed.
"Hey," said Kotetsu. "Were you making fun of me?"
Barnaby straightened. Kotetsu hadn't even noticed he'd bent till he stiffened.
"Of course not," said Barnaby. "That would be unprofessional."
"Like me," Kotetsu guessed. He was grinning again.
"Yes," said Barnaby. He stuck another forkful of salad into his mouth and chewed elegantly.
"You've got spinach on your mouth," said Kotetsu.
Barnaby's fingers flew to his cheek. They parted, the first two fingers, splaying wide. The one brushed his lip.
"Other side," said Kotetsu. He leaned forward, his hand out.
Barnaby's eyelashes stuttered. He pulled away, touching that other side with his own hand.
Kotetsu sat back down. He wasn't sure what to do with his hand, so he just put it on the table. His wedding ring clinked.
Barnaby swallowed. His Adam's apple, as sharp a corner as all his corners, slithered down then sprung up again. Wind drove the rain against the window. The back of Kotetsu's neck prickled oddly.
"Excuse me," said Barnaby. He was cool again, and distant. "I need to make sure the room is ready."
"Okay," said Kotetsu. "I'll be. Here."
Barnaby set the fork in his salad, lifted that and the glass of water, and left Kotetsu alone at the little table in the corner. Kotetsu wished he'd left the glass of water. His throat was very dry, his mouth parched.
Something strange was happening. He wasn't sure what. Well, are you a detective or aren't you? Kotetsu thought.
He looked down to his hands. His wedding ring had turned so the groove cut into it showed, peeking out from between his fingers. He would have known the shape of it in the dark. After a moment, he thought perhaps he should take the ring off. Carefully, Kotetsu straightened it so only the smooth side showed. Then he curled his fingers in to his palm and waited till the people arrived, first one, then another, and Barnaby, smiling, came down the steps and welcomed them all one by one. Then Kotetsu stood.
"Hello, Mister Kaburagi," said Barnaby, smiling pleasantly at his approach. "We're glad you could make it."
He stuck his hand out. Kotetsu took it and held it for a moment. Barnaby's fingers were rough with writer's calluses, but his palm was smooth and his skin was cool. Kotetsu let go.
"I already paid for it, right?"
The joke fell flat. Barnaby laughed politely and directed him to the room with a single, exact gesture. His arm extended, his fingers uncurling: there.
"How'd it go?"
Kotetsu grunted. Antonio made a gimme gesture with his hand, so Kotetsu forked over the box of french fries. They were stuck on stake-out, again.
"I hate stake-outs," Kotetsu said.
"Everybody hates stake-outs," said Antonio, munching peaceably on salted potato. In that moment, he was a man who had never known sorrow. "They're boring as shit."
"Why am I here?" It just fell out of Kotetsu. Exploded, more like.
Antonio offered the french fries, but Kotetsu waved him off. Antonio shrugged.
"Because Kowalski's a loose cannon and Keith's got the night off."
"No, I mean--" Kotetsu slapped the steering wheel. "Why am I here? Why am I here right now? I could be home with my kid--"
"So why aren't you?" asked Antonio.
"Because I have to be here!"
He hit the steering wheel again. Hastily, Antonio stuck his hand in front of the horn before Kotetsu could hit that.
"I have to be here," Kotetsu said, "waiting for this scuzzball to show his face so we can arrest his ass and put him in jail, and then we're gonna have to do another damn stake-out to catch someone else."
"You don't have to be here," said Antonio. "You've worked overtime, what, three days this week already?"
Kotetsu looked up at him. The shadows were thick in the car; the stink of grease and salt was thicker. Antonio was a hulking shadow pressed against the other door.
"I have to be here," Kotetsu said.
"Date didn't go well, huh," said Antonio. He punched Kotetsu's shoulder lightly, and Kotetsu looked away. "Sorry. I shouldn't have asked you to do that."
"It's not--" Kotetsu ran his hands through his hair. He was old and he was tired and he was alone; that, last of all, weighed most. "It isn't your fault."
"If you wanna spend more time with your kid, then spend more time with your kid," said Antonio.
His palms pushed against his brow. His eyes ached. So tired, all the time. Antonio was warm beside him, but all Kotetsu could feel was the coolness of the sheets in his bed; all he could see in the shadow of his wrists was that emptiness waiting for him.
"Listen," said Antonio. "When Tomoe died."
Kotetsu closed his eyes.
"Hey," said Antonio, "listen to me. Jesus. I'm your friend, aren't I? After Tomoe died, it's like you got hitched to your job instead."
"Shut up," said Kotetsu.
"I'm right, and you know I am," Antonio said. "I'm not saying you're a bad dad. You're a great dad. But hell, Kotetsu, when the fuck is the last time you took time off just so you could hang out with Kaede?"
Kotetsu dug his nails into his scalp. "I said shut up."
"Tomoe's dead," said Antonio. "I'm not saying you've gotta forget her, because that's--"
Kotetsu lunged at him. It was a doomed effort from the start; he'd known that. Antonio was bigger and he was meaner, too, and before Kotetsu could really punch him one in the head, Antonio had Kotetsu shoved up against the driver's door. He splayed one meaty hand across Kotetsu's face and leaned in real close and said,
"It's been five years, Kotetsu!"
Kotetsu scrabbled at Antonio's arm, hard, knowing it did nothing, would do nothing. "You asshole," he said, "you fucker, Tomoe was--"
"Tomoe's dead," said Antonio, like it didn't matter, like it was nothing, like he didn't care, like Kotetsu was wrong to care, still. "She's dead, and it's not your goddamn fault, so you need to stop punishing yourself. You think it's Kaede's fault?"
If Kotetsu could have got his hands around Antonio's neck, he would have throttled him; he would have choked him and thought nothing of it.
"Fuck you," Kotetsu snarled, "you--"
A car horn went off. They both froze, cop's instincts overriding anything else. Kotetsu looked over his shoulder out the window to see a short, pale man in a red shirt hurrying across the parking lot to the mark's car.
Antonio eased off. Kotetsu's throat was all but closed from the weight of Antonio's grip, from the thought of Tomoe smiling sleepily up at him from the hospital bed.
"Come on," said Antonio. "We still got a job to do."
Kotetsu popped his door open and stepped out.
The house was dark when he got home around two in the morning. No light gleamed in the window, and when he closed the door, the click as it settled in place was the only sound he heard. No one came to greet him. No one called to him from another room. Kotetsu bent to untie his laces. His fingers fumbled. Left, first. Then the right. He left his bag by the door. It didn't matter where he left it. He could have left it in the car if he wanted.
The stairs creaked as he went up them, too tired to bother stepping around the boards that had warped and moaned at his touch. Kaede's room was the second on the right. Her door was open; the light was off there, too. He stayed a moment in the doorway, watching her sleep.
She was so big now, he thought. He didn't know when that had happened. Kaede sighed in her sleep and turned. Her arm trailed from the side of the bed. When she'd been born, she'd been so small he'd cradled her in his cupped hands and still had hand left over.
"She'll be huge before you know it," Tomoe had said as he gave Kaede back to her. His fingers had lingered on Kaede's little face, so tiny and ugly, wrinkled and more perfect than anything he'd ever seen before in all his life. "You won't even recognize her."
Her room was so tidy; how a child could keep a room so clean, he didn't know. A stuffed tiger had fallen from her bed. When she breathed out, the tips of her fingers brushed its fat belly.
Kotetsu closed the door gently, holding it so the click was muted. He rested his head a moment against her bedroom door, then he moved on to his own empty room.
The moon was out; it was nearly full. The room was bright with it. The bed was mussed, the sheets tangled as he'd left them in the morning. If he wanted, he could pretend they were messy not because he'd been too tired to straighten things up before leaving for work, but because he'd caught Tomoe around her waist as she stood and pulled her back into bed and covered her with his body as she laughed and wrapped her arms about his neck and said, "Kotetsu--"
He didn't want to. He was tired of pretending. He was tired of the emptiness, tired of being alone. He was so tired.
Kotetsu shed his clothes as he crossed the floor to his bed. Pants, shirt, one sock and its partner. His toes curled. He crept under the sheets. In bed, Kotetsu spread his arms out and then his legs, till he filled the bed up all by himself.
The air conditioning kicked in with a rumble. Soon it would be too cold for the air-con and they'd have to weigh the price of heat against his pay.
"I miss you," he said.
A cloud rolled across the face of the moon, dimming but not extinguishing it. "There's a rabbit on the moon," his mother had told him when he was small. "There. You see it?"
"Where does it go?" he'd asked. "Where does it sleep?"
"It's always there," she said. "Even when the moon isn't."
Kotetsu covered his eyes. His face was wet. His throat caught; it stuck. He couldn't breathe for the pain in his mouth.
In the hospital bed, Tomoe had been pale and small, smaller than she was supposed to be. She reached across the bars to cover his hand with hers, but her fingers were so skinny and the bones in her hand so thin.
"This is not your fault," she'd rasped. The tubes in her nose moved with her breath.
God, he'd thought. God. But he didn't know what to say to God; he didn't know what to give to make Tomoe stay.
"You know that," Tomoe had said. Her voice had weakened. Everything was a chore for her body then. Breathing. Living. "It's not your fault."
Kotetsu curled around the space in his bed.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry."
He slept, exhausted, and woke at six. The rhythms of his body didn't rest. The moon had gone from the sky, which was bluer now than black, warming as the sun warmed. Kotetsu rubbed at his eyes. They were dry with grit and sore, too, but the knot in his throat had loosened. It was Saturday, and he was scheduled to work an eight-hour shift starting at seven.
"What the hell," he said.
Kotetsu rolled out of bed and found his pants by the door. His cell phone fell from the pocket. Scooping the phone up, he shrugged into the pants and punched in Chief Joubert's number.
Kaede stumbled downstairs at eight. Her hair was a mess, tangled at the ends and sticking out around her ears. Her pajamas were too small; her wrists and ankles jutted gracelessly out.
She stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Kaede squinted at him. She ground her knuckles into her eyes then lowered her hands. Her squint deepened.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Called out sick," he said. His voice grated enough he'd got away with it, too. With a flashy turn of his wrist, Kotetsu flipped the pancakes. One of them fell to the floor; the others landed in a gooey mess atop each other.
"Crap," he said.
Kaede sighed. "I'll get the towels."
"Hey," he called, "wait, I'm gonna try again. Watch!"
"Ugh!" shouted Kaede. "Dad! You'll just make a bigger mess."
She was probably right. He tried anyway, just to prove he could do it. He couldn't.
"So," he said, "that's one for you and one for me."
"I told you not to do it," Kaede said sadly. She tore a cartoonishly long strip off the roll of paper towels and bent to clean the floor.
"Hey, let me do that," said Kotetsu. He set the pan back down on the stove and crouched beside her. "You've probably got cartoons you want to watch, right?"
"Cartoons are for babies," Kaede informed him.
Kotetsu eyed her. "How old are you? Forty?"
"You're forty," she muttered.
"I am not!" said Kotetsu. He snatched the paper towels from her. "You know what, you're not cute at all. And I'm thirty-seven. Baby."
"You're a baby," said Kaede archly, then she covered her mouth and giggled.
"What?" Kotetsu loomed over her. He stuck out his jaw. "What's that? Are you laughing at your old man? You think he's funny?"
Kaede snorted. "Funny-looking," she said before bolting for the living room.
Kotetsu threw a wadded up paper towel after her, but the launch was a tragedy; failure had doomed it from the outset. Kotetsu fetched it from the carpet and dumped it in the bin.
The TV turned on. Cartoons after all. Kotetsu smiled as he set the roll of towels on the counter.
"She's visiting with the Matsumotos." He grabbed a spatula from the adobe cup.
"Wo-o-ow," said Kaede, "isn't that all the way across town?"
"Yep," he said, flipping the pancakes over, "so it's just you and me today, kiddo."
"Oh, great," said Kaede, "now I gotta look after you all day."
Kotetsu threw his head back and laughed; he laughed till his face hurt from it. "Geez! When did you get to be such a smartass?"
"Grandma says you're a bad influence."
"You're a bad influence."
"Stop copying me," said Kaede.
He slid the pancakes from the pan, the smaller to his plate and the larger to hers. The smaller was the most burnt, too. Yeah, Kotetsu thought, he was a great dad. Grandmother kept the trays in the drawer under the oven. He grabbed one of those and loaded it up: plates, knives and forks, a handful of napkins, the syrup and the butter.
"Move over," he said. "Drinks are buffet style. Get what you want."
Kaede scootched obligingly down the couch, then she finally noticed him. Took her long enough.
"We're not supposed to eat in here," she scolded him, but her eyes were greedy.
"You don't rat on me and I won't rat on you," said Kotetsu. He rested the tray half on his thigh, half on hers.
They ate quietly for a bit, watching cartoon mice running around on the TV with bazookas and dynamite. Kaede drenched her pancake in enough syrup to make the whole damn room sticky.
"What do you wanna do today?" Kotetsu speared a bit of Kaede's pancake off her plate when she wasn't looking. "Do you want to go to the amusement park?"
She turned, surprised. "Really?"
"Yeah, really," he said. "You've wanted to go for a while, right?"
"Can we go to the skating rink?" She sat up, brightening. "It's half off if you've got a season pass, and Grandma got me one last month."
The last time Kotetsu had gone ice skating, he'd been twenty and in serious consultation with four beers. He'd worn sneakers. The pond hadn't frozen through. He'd come away with six stitches, a knot on the back of his head, a cold, and his mother swearing at him in Japanese so the neighbors wouldn't know what she was saying.
Kaede beamed at him so hugely even her shoulders were drawn up. She looked like a kitten with her everything puffed out like that.
"Sure," he said. "Let's go to the skating rink. Oi, watch it! If you get syrup on the couch, we're both busted."
Kotetsu sat on the bleachers while Kaede went to work showing the rest of those punk kids what skating meant. A young woman with red hair tied up behind her ears sat next to him, but after he fist-pumped and shouted "Yeah! Do a spin!" for the third time, she got up and moved away. That was okay. The solitude gave him time to contemplate the joys of fatherhood. It also gave him time to wish he'd thought to bring his coat. Kotetsu folded his arms and hunkered down.
Kaede flashed by again, waving.
"Do a flip!" Kotetsu shouted.
Kaede pantomimed what are you even talking about did you hit your head at him and did a spin instead. Her ponytail whipped through the air. A boy who'd been gradually making his way closer to Kaede ducked, slid out of control, and fell on his ass. That's what he got.
Kotetsu's cell phone vibrated. He found it in his back pocket. Why the hell had he put it there anyway? That was just an invitation to lose it. Sometimes he wished he could lose it. He hated tech.
Pulling the frog up out of his chest and back into his throat, he flipped the phone open without looking and stuck it to his ear. "Hey, chief," he groaned. "I'm sorry, I really can't come in. I know, I know--"
Kotetsu stood up so fast his head hurt; also, he almost dropped the phone. He found he didn't want to lose it so bad, as it turned out.
"Bunny? I mean, uh, Mister Brooks? Sir?" Jesus. Kotetsu pinched the bridge of his nose. Down in the rink, Kaede was staring up at him, clearly wondering if her old man was having some sort of episode. He waved weakly at her and smiled.
"If this is a bad time," said Barnaby.
"No," said Kotetsu, "it's fine. I just thought you were, uh, someone else."
"Obviously," said Barnaby dryly. His voice was lower on the phone, thicker, almost.
Kotetsu had to sit down. The bleacher shook beneath him. What was this stuff made out of, tinfoil? He hoped Kaede didn't have to sit on this. He could just imagine it crumpling under her. He didn't want to imagine that. He thought of Barnaby's long fingers cradling a fork instead.
He needed to sit down. He was already sitting down.
"Kotetsu," said Kotetsu. "You don't have to call me Mister Kaburagi. It makes me feel old."
"Of course, Mister Kaburagi," said Barnaby.
"Yeesh," said Kotetsu.
"Nothing," said Kotetsu. "So, what's the reason for this--" His tongue stumbled. Pleasure? Honor? He made to loosen his tie, but he wasn't wearing one.
"Oh," said Barnaby. He made a little sound, as if he were clearing his throat. Probably with his hand at his throat, fingers curled. "Miss Richards expressed interest in seeing you again."
Kotetsu waited. When nothing else was forthcoming, he ventured, "Is she mad at me?"
There was a long silence.
"No," said Barnaby. "I don't believe she's mad at you."
Kotetsu scratched his throat. Below, Kaede executed a wobbly but impressive series of jumps.
"All right," said Kotetsu. "I give. Why does she want to see me?"
Another silence stretched out between them. Barnaby made another one of those throat-clearing sounds.
"Are--" He broke off. "You're serious."
Kotetsu wrapped his arm around his gut and made a face Barnaby couldn't see. "Are you making fun of me?"
"No," said Barnaby again. "Are you sure you're a father?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" demanded Kotetsu, indignant. What, like he'd made Kaede up? He waved as she passed.
Barnaby sighed. He did so as if he carried the weight of the world in his throat.
"This would be easier if I could see you," he muttered.
"Uh," said Kotetsu.
A sudden briskness came over Barnaby. "When is your lunch break? Are you available to come to the office some time today?"
Blazing Hearts Matchmaking Services loomed in Kotetsu's mind. The glass windows, the red banners, the hearts painted on the walls. And how, he thought, would he explain something like that to Kaede?
"Not really," he said.
"Oh," said Barnaby.
"I'm off today," Kotetsu added.
"Then--" Barnaby sounded confused; then he cut himself off. "All right."
A glimpse of silver. Kaede's skate cut through the air. She turned, pivoting on her toe. Kotetsu smiled at her. He wondered if she could tell, so far below.
The question, when he asked it, just welled up. It felt right on his tongue, though, so Kotetsu said, "Well, when's your lunch break? You get one, right? We had lunch twice, so you must."
"What--" A huff. "I don't really work formal hours, but I don't see why that's important."
"I can't really go to your offices today," said Kotetsu, "but if it's important, maybe you could come to me."
"I," said Barnaby, then he stopped. Even his breath hesitated.
Two lunches, sure, but one had been at the bistro on the same street as Barnaby's workplace; the other had been in the lobby. Kotetsu touched his face, fingers at his brow, thumb at his chin.
"Sorry," he said. "You're busy. Are you guys open tomorrow? I could just--"
"Where are you?" asked Barnaby.
"What?" asked Kotetsu.
"Where--are--you," Barnaby repeated crankily.
Kotetsu had to think a moment. Barnaby's breath whispered in his ear. It wasn't terribly difficult to imagine the little downward curl of Barnaby's lips, a frown hiding in the corner of his mouth.
"The Elliott Pintzer rec center. The skating rink."
"Please stay there," said Barnaby, then as an afterthought, "Good-bye."
The line died. Kotetsu took his phone from his ear and looked down at the screen. Huh. He snapped the phone shut. Huh, he thought again. That weird feeling came over him again, like something was happening and he should know what it was. Instead he thought of all the semi-respectable restaurants he knew and if any of them had a vegetarian lunch menu.
Barnaby showed up a half hour later, which was good time, given the distance, and good timing, too, as Kaede had just sat down to unlace her skates. Movement in the bleachers caught Kotetsu's attention and he turned to see Barnaby emerging out of the tunnel that connected the rink to the rest of the center. He had a scarf tied around his neck and tucked into his jacket, which was red with white piping. His collar was turned up and his chin was turned down. He looked terribly lost.
"Hey!" Kotetsu stuck his hand up. "Bunny! Oi, Bunny, up here!"
Like an actor in a love story, Barnaby turned. His curls trembled about his face; his eyes rose; the light in his glasses was muted and soft. He wasn't the only one to snap to attention at the sound of Kotetsu's voice. So did Kaede, and so did most of the people in the bleachers. Probably a few angels did double-takes, too, if they were hanging around the place.
Barnaby hunched his shoulders and hurried up the bleachers. Damn, but his legs were long. He took the steps like they weren't anything. His boots zipped up the sides, and the lips had folded over. It occurred to Kotetsu that he hadn't the faintest notion how old Barnaby was aside, of course, from "young." Younger.
"Couldn't find a place to park, huh?" Kotetsu put his hands on the bleacher and leaned forward, anticipating Barnaby.
"I take the bus," Barnaby explained.
"Carbon footprint?" he guessed.
Barnaby's eyebrows went up. Kotetsu leaned back and spread his shoulders wide, fifty percent cocky, fifty percent modest.
"Hey," he said, "I'm a detective, remember? It's what I do."
"Of course," said Barnaby politely. "I thought perhaps you were depending on stereotypes."
There was that phantom tie again. He really had to get rid of that thing. Think fast, old man.
"You're in pretty good shape for an office guy," Kotetsu said. Barnaby, in the midst of sitting, paused with his butt stuck in the air. Kotetsu was pretty sure that lady with the red hair was scoping it out.
Barnaby perched on the very edge of the bleacher. Didn't want to get his designer jeans dirty, probably. Kotetsu made a point of slouching so disgustingly his mother would feel faint, all the way across town.
"Am I," said Barnaby.
"Yep," said Kotetsu. He knocked the toe of his shoe against Barnaby's tidy, scarlet boots. "You walk a lot, so you probably don't drive, or if you do drive, you park a ways away from your office. It's probably not that, though. When you said you were a vegetarian, you made it sound like you were one for moral or environmental reasons." He counted these off on his fingers; his thumb, he tipped at Barnaby. "Plus Stern Bild's one of the most transit-friendly cities in the country. I drive to work, but I still hoof it most places, or I use the sub or the bus to save time. If you'd driven, no way you'd have gotten here so fast."
He crooked his thumb and stuck his first finger out. Bang.
The look on Barnaby's face was hard to place, then somewhere in the deeps of his old, wrinkled brain he found the word for it: impressed. Slowly, like a flower unfolding in the morning sunlight, the corner of Barnaby's mouth turned up.
"I have a bike, too," Barnaby said.
"With those legs?" Kotetsu blew his lips and rounded his eyes. "No shit."
Barnaby brought his knees together, but Kotetsu didn't have time to make anything of that. Kaede came clumping up the bleachers in her boots. Her skates were slung over her shoulders.
"You remember to put the guards on those?" Kotetsu called.
Kaede threw him a rude look. He shrugged with his hands. "It's my job, kiddo."
"Hi," Kaede said to Barnaby. She was a little more out of breath than the steps could justify, but hell, she'd been skating for the better part of the last hour and a half.
"Daddy," Kaede said, big eyes turned up to Barnaby like her daddy wasn't right there, "who's this?"
"This? He's--a friend," Kotetsu said.
Barnaby stiffened. Very discreetly, Kotetsu elbowed him. Like a towering oak in a hard wind, Barnaby bent gently to the side.
"Dad!" said Kaede. "Why're you hitting him?"
"I'm not hitting him," Kotetsu said. "Who hit him?"
"Mister Kaburagi," said Barnaby, "please keep your elbows to yourself."
"He doesn't look like your friend," said Kaede. She was gawking again.
"Close your mouth," Kotetsu said.
"Close your face," said Kaede.
"You must be his daughter," said Barnaby.
"I take after my mom," Kaede said very casually. Then she flipped her ponytail over her shoulder in a practiced move.
"I'm disowning you," Kotetsu informed her.
"I'm hungry," Kaede said over him to Barnaby. "Are you hungry? Do you want to get lunch with us?"
Barnaby smiled very prettily. Kotetsu was going to have to have a word with him about smiling like that at guys' baby girls, namely that he needed to not do that, ever. Under the bright, clean lights of the ice rink, Barnaby was almost unearthly beautiful.
"That sounds--" Barnaby paused. He glanced sidelong at Kotetsu, and his smile deepened. "Delightful."
There was a soup and sandwich shop a couple blocks over and it turned out they did indeed have a vegetarian lunch menu, and a vegan lunch menu, and several dishes suited to a pescatarian diet.
"A what-a-what-a?" Kotetsu claimed a booth with Kaede's bag and skates. The girl in question had run off to grab drinks at the soda machine. "Pesky-what?"
"Pescatarian," said Barnaby patiently.
"Ah," said Kotetsu. "It becomes clear now."
Barnaby adjusted his glasses. "A pescatarian abstains from all flesh but that of the fish."
"That sounds extremely creepy when you say it," Kotetsu told him. He felt someone should. Abstains from all flesh, yikes. "So, what, they're fish vegetarians?"
"Pescatarians aren't vegetarians, though many incorporate vegetarian dishes into their diet," said Barnaby.
Kotetsu digested this. "Well, I'll say this. I've learned a lot I didn't know about the world since I met you."
Kotetsu had meant it as a joke, but Barnaby reddened and touched his glasses again. When he lowered his hand, he smiled, very shyly and not at all elegantly. Great. Now Kotetsu was an asshole.
"I got your soda," Kaede said. She shoved the large cup at him. Coke shivered dangerously close to the plastic lid. Kotetsu barely caught it before it fell and spilled all over his pants. With enormous sweetness, she presented Barnaby with a juice bottle. "I got your orange juice, too, Mister Brooks. And a straw."
"Don't I get a straw?"
"I put it in your cup, Dad," said Kaede wearily.
She had indeed put the straw in his cup. Kotetsu sat down, blowing bubbles. It wasn't as satisfying with the lid on. Barnaby sat, too, cracking the cap off his juice with a firm twist. The flash of his wrist jerking like that made Kotetsu's back hurt.
To his surprise, Kaede opted to sit next to Kotetsu.
"I thought you turned traitor," he said.
"You looked like you were going to whine." She resumed blowing bubbles into her Sprite.
Love welled within Kotetsu. He set his elbow on top of her head.
"Dad!" She clawed at his arm. "Get off!"
"You're very close," said Barnaby.
"It's a trick of the light," said Kotetsu. "An optical illusion."
"You're breaking my neck," said Kaede.
Barnaby's hands were still. In one hand, he held the cap, in the other hand, the bottle. His eyes were very distant. Then he set the cap upside down on the table. His fingers engulfed it.
"Fifty-seven!" shouted the woman at the counter.
"I'll get it," said Barnaby. He rose.
Kaede leaned into Kotetsu.
"I like him," she whispered. "You should keep him."
"Where? We don't have a basement," said Kotetsu.
"You're so old," said Kaede.
Barnaby brought the tray back to the table. His head bent as he set to work separating the dishes. The back of Kotetsu's neck itched. The sensation of a sudden and immense emptiness pressed upon him, and for a moment, the dual feeling of deja vu and vertigo made his head spin. Then Barnaby smiled and slid a bowl of soup over to Kaede.
"Thank you very much!"
She grabbed a spoon off the tray before he could offer it. Barnaby looked startled. His fingers, still outstretched, curled at the tips. Kotetsu grinned and reached over to grab his sandwiches from the tray.
"You don't spend much time with kids, do you?"
"It doesn't come up much, no," said Barnaby.
"How did you guys meet?" Kaede blew into her soup, making tidal waves out of the broth. "Are you a cop, too? I bet you're a good one."
"Mister Brooks isn't a cop," Kotetsu said. "He's a, uh."
"I help people," said Barnaby. He smiled twinkingly.
"My dad helps people," Kaede said, indifferent. Barnaby's smile faded. "You're not a cop? How'd you meet?"
"At work," said Kotetsu quickly. Barnaby's mouth closed. He frowned. "His work. I was working on a very important case and he was the only person who could help me."
"Yes," said Barnaby. He said this slowly, and he was looking at Kotetsu. His eyes narrowed behind his glasses. The knot in Kotetsu's back tightened. "We're still working on it. Your father can be slow."
"That's not a nice thing to say," Kaede said to her spoon. She lowered it. Her eyes had narrowed, too, and the look she gave Barnaby was no longer simpering, but shrewd. "My grandma says if you can't say something nice, you shouldn't say anything at all."
"Mister Brooks wasn't being mean," Kotetsu said quickly. "It's true, right? Isn't it, Kaede?"
"It's not." She stuck her spoon into her soup with the innate cruelty of a man sticking a sword into another's gut. "You're not slow. My dad's a good cop," she said to Barnaby. "He's a really good cop. They gave him an award last year, and he's gonna get a raise this year."
"Ah," said Kotetsu. He stuck his hands out, placating. "Kaede--"
"And if you're his friend," Kaede said loudly, "then you shouldn't be mean to him."
"I think what Mister Brooks is trying to say is that we thought it would go a lot faster, but it hasn't," said Kotetsu. "He was just teasing, like you tease me. I tease Mister Brooks, too, don't I?"
Barnaby had a strange look on his face. Kotetsu widened his eyes at him and jerked his head. Come on already; help me out here.
"She's right," said Barnaby instead. He lowered his eyes. "I'm very sorry, Kaede."
"Don't apologize to me," she said. She pointed her spoon. "Apologize to my dad."
Kotetsu covered his face. "Kaede..."
"Mister Kaburagi," said Barnaby.
"Oh, God," said Kotetsu.
"Dad, you have to pay attention," said Kaede.
"Please stop," said Kotetsu.
"Kotetsu," said Barnaby.
He looked up. Barnaby smiled at him. There was nothing remotely apologetic about that smile. In that smile, Kotetsu saw death.
"I'm very sorry," said Barnaby gently. "Can you ever forgive me?"
The moment dragged out. Death loomed nearer. The corners of Barnaby's mouth began to droop and then to pinch.
"You're supposed to say yes," Kaede hissed at Kotetsu.
"I'll do my best," he said.
Like a deer drinking from a cool mountain spring, Barnaby bent his head to his spoon. The arch of his neck was languid; the roll of his throat was artful. Kotetsu broke into a sweat.
"Kaede," he said, "you know, I really do make fun of Mister Brooks a lot. All the time."
Barnaby dabbed at his mouth with his thumb. His eyes were sharp, his glasses bright. Kotetsu wished they hadn't sat by the window.
"Oh, never," said Barnaby. "Mister Kaburagi is always a perfect gentleman. He has never once called into question my capabilities or mocked my personal preferences. That," he said airily, "would be rude."
"Are you sure you're talking about my dad?" Kaede asked.
Kotetsu turned on her. "Did you or did you not just make Mister Brooks apologize for being rude to me?"
Kaede slurped noisily at her soup.
"Oi," said Kotetsu. "Oi. Kid. Hey. Kaede. Hello?" He poked at her.
"It's not the same," said Kaede calmly. "We're related."
"Excuse me," said Barnaby.
His hand trailed along the edge of the table, then he vanished down the hall toward the bathroom. Barnaby's jeans clung with terrifying tightness to his hips and thighs. It was a wonder he could even walk, much less with that little roll. Maybe it was because his butt was so damn flat.
"Da-a-ad," said Kaede for the third time.
"Yeah," he said absently.
"I like him," she said. She tipped her bowl up to suck away the dregs.
"Yeah," said Kotetsu, "me, too."
Barnaby returned in the midst of an escalating thumb war. Both sides were taking heavy damages, but a treaty was nowhere in sight.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Winner gets a brownie," said Kotetsu.
"Give it up, old man!" Kaede shouted.
Barnaby's brow wrinkled. "Why don't you just both get brownies?"
"That's not as fun," Kotetsu explained. "This way, you get bragging rights, too."
"Naturally," said Barnaby. He sat delicately on the very outside of the seat. "Bragging rights are of course the most important thing of all."
"So, you agree," said Kotetsu.
"Naturally," he said again. "After all, if you can't hold victory over a child's head, then what use living?" The asshole was smiling archly, pleased as punch with his own wit.
"Hey, Kaede," said Kotetsu, pointing, "Bunny's being rude again. Are you gonna let him get away with that?"
"Stop trying to trick me," Kaede growled.
"I'm not trying to trick you," Kotetsu protested. "Just look at him! Look at that smile! He--"
Kotetsu made the tactical error of following his own advice. He looked. Barnaby was mid-yawn, his mouth open just enough to show the soft, pink swell of his tongue. His hands were at his collar, spreading it open over his throat. Then, as if he hadn't realized he was in public, Barnaby crossed his legs. His jeans strained over his thighs.
"Ha!" said Kaede. "I win!"
Kotetsu was frying rice when his cell phone went off in the living room.
"Oi, Kaede, can you get that for me?"
Kaede thumped out of her cartwheel and went rooting through his bag. Kotetsu eyeballed the pan then slipped a few more shrimp in. He whistled tunelessly then added a few more.
"It's Mister Brooks," said Kaede. She handed him the phone.
"Hey, Bunny," said Kotetsu. He tossed the rice. "I might not be so good with pancakes but I know my way around rice."
"What?" said Barnaby.
Kaede turned the TV up and Kotetsu winced. Great. More pre-packaged preteen pop.
"So, what's up? You change your mind about that baseball game? You're not punking out on me, are you?"
Scallions, some greens. Kotetsu wiggled his hips in time to the music. All right, so it wasn't all bad.
"I still don't know how you got me to agree to that," Barnaby grumbled.
"No take-backs," said Kotetsu lightly. He tossed the rice again. Nice! "And wipe that frown off your face."
"I'm not frowning," said Barnaby.
"You're frowning," said Kotetsu. "I can hear it."
"You can't hear a frown," Barnaby insisted. "It's a visual expression, defined by physical cues."
"You are an incredible nerd," said Kotetsu. "'It's a visual expression, defined by physical cues.'"
"It's my job to know these things," said Barnaby, "Mister Kaburagi."
"Yeah, yeah." Kotetsu was grinning. He was dancing, too. He couldn't help it. That crappy music had got in his feet. "I'm sorry. You're right. I shouldn't make fun of you like that."
"Thank you," said Barnaby.
The line was quiet a moment. Kotetsu didn't mind. In the living room Kaede was thumping away to the music, and his own heels were click-clicking on the kitchen linoleum. When was the last time he'd gone out dancing? Years ago, years and years. He did a sideways shuffle that turned into an ow, I hit my elbow on the counter.
"Mister Kaburagi," said Barnaby.
"Kotetsu," said Kotetsu, then because his feet were still moving and he couldn't help it: "Bunny."
"Barnaby," said Mister Brooks, vexed.
"Sorry," said Kotetsu. "Barnaby."
Another toss of the rice, this one grander than any before. He only got a little on the floor. Victory was crisp, fried rice, a whole hell of a lot of shrimp, and a dash of mayo (no one the wiser).
"What's up?" he asked. His shoulders were loose. His back didn't ache at all. The thought that he was happy landed sweet as a drop of water into a flooded sink. Absurdly, the thought that he was happy only made him happier.
"We never talked about what it is I called you about earlier," said Barnaby.
"Come again?" said Kotetsu, mostly because he wanted to hear that clumsy mouthful all over again.
Barnaby sighed. "It's nothing. Good night, Mister Kaburagi."
"Hey," said Kotetsu before Barnaby could hang up. "Baseball game on Tuesday. Don't forget."
"I won't," said Barnaby. He hung up, then.
Kotetsu grinned at the microwave. God, he loved that digital display. Had he ever hated it? Complained that it made you lazy, having the time laid out like that before you?
"Turn the music up," he yelled at Kaede.
"It's a commercial," she yelled back, but she turned it up anyway.
"I have a confession to make," said Kotetsu.
They were sitting in the nosebleed seats past left field, Barnaby in a pink jacket and matching scarf and Kotetsu in tweed. Just tweed. Kotetsu had popcorn. Barnaby had his figure. It was the second inning and the Stern Bild Heroes had pretty much given up the game, the ghost, and whatever they had in their pockets.
Barnaby shot him a wary sideways look. It was the sort of look you gave a man when he'd just choked on the pitcher's mound for the bazillionth time this lousy season.
"I don't like baseball," said Kotetsu.
"How is it even possible to hate baseball," said Barnaby, rather bored like. He didn’t sound like he cared much whether Kotetsu loved or hated baseball. Gamely, Kotetsu grabbed at the bait.
"I didn't say I hated baseball," Kotetsu said. "I just don't like it."
"A vital distinction," said Barnaby.
Barnaby folded his arms. His lower lip stuck out.
"If you don't like baseball," he said, "then why are we here?"
"Antonio had tickets and couldn't come," Kotetsu admitted.
"Wait, are you offended?" Kotetsu leaned away. Barnaby was scowling. "They're free tickets!"
"For the thirtieth row up," said Barnaby.
Kotetsu tried again. "But they're free!"
"In the outfield," said Barnaby.
"Right," said Kotetsu. "Okay. The seats are bad. But the tickets were free."
"I hate baseball," said Barnaby glumly.
Kotetsu hoped his insurance would cover whiplash. "But you just said--"
"I was teasing you," Barnaby admitted. "You make it extraordinarily easy to do."
Kotetsu stuffed popcorn into his mouth and considered this. He got a kernel stuck between his teeth. That about summed it up.
"For a bunny," he said, "you're not very cute."
"Thank you," said Barnaby, unruffled. "Oh. I do like the statistics, though. I track those. Predicting the performance of a specific player or team on the strength of their previous outings is more entertaining than the matches themselves."
"You can't account for luck that way," said Kotetsu. "You make it sound, I don't know. Dry."
"It's only math," said Barnaby. "Math is never dry."
"Nerd," said Kotetsu fondly.
The teams swapped sides. The Heroes took to bat.
Barnaby's fingers tapped his arm. The nails were neat, clipped into perfect crescents. Kotetsu picked the kernel from his teeth with his tongue.
Barnaby shifted beside him. Their knees touched briefly then Barnaby pulled his leg back.
"What sports do you like?"
He was facing forward, for all the world fascinated by the turf. Thoughtfully, Kotetsu grabbed another handful of popcorn and then missed his mouth.
"Uh, boxing," he said, because he was too big of a dope to think of something that wouldn't make Barnaby shudder. Horror of horrors, boxing.
The grass ceased to entertain Barnaby. He looked surprised.
"Really? I would have thought--" He stopped. His face pinked. He touched his glasses briefly.
"Football?" Kotetsu guessed.
Barnaby lifted one shoulder then dropped it. So, yes.
"I like rugby better. It's more physical," Kotetsu said, but that wasn't it. "It's. It's a more direct contest. Strength against strength. Man against man. Nothing to protect you but your own guts and muscle."
Barnaby toyed with his fingers. Those clean nails slid over each other. His eyes flicked. There was a question in the shape of his hands, how they glided over and around each other and then were still.
"I boxed in college," Kotetsu offered. He demonstrated, two quick jabs. His left shoulder complained at the motion. He winced. "I did rugby, too, but I wasn't any good for anything but getting my head knocked. Which was true for boxing, too, but a hard head's a bonus there."
"What about you?"
"Soccer," said Barnaby, and then he said, "and mixed martial arts."
Kotetsu did a double-take. "What, for real?"
Barnaby ran his tongue over his teeth. Not openly, heaven forbid. But Kotetsu could see the line moving beneath his lip. He smiled again, smugly.
"You?" asked Kotetsu, because he still couldn't quite believe it.
"Yes," said Barnaby.
"Not, like--health center fake kickboxing," said Kotetsu.
"Please don't insult me, Mister Kaburagi," he said. He looked back to the field, where Stern Bild's coach looked fit to have a heart attack. "There's a unique grace to any form of combat that necessitates such fine balance."
A loud crack split the air. The pitcher had given up another ball. Kotetsu threw his popcorn in disgust.
"Oh, my God," said the announcer, "it's going, it's going-- It's in left field, and it's not slowing down--"
"Oh shit!" said Kotetsu.
Barnaby tensed beside him.
"Like hell you're kicking a baseball!" Kotetsu snapped at him, then the ball hit Kotetsu in the gut.
As he fell back off the bleacher, he saw Barnaby, wide-eyed and wide-mouthed, reaching out for him. His eyes were so very green. That was nice, Kotetsu thought. Then he hit his head on the row behind them.
"Are you sure you're all right?"
Barnaby palpitated Kotetsu's head, fingers wandering all through his hair, neat little nails digging in then letting go then digging in again. Kotetsu winced and held the bag of ice to his head like a Romulan war shield.
"I'm fine," Kotetsu said, "or I will be if you'd stop ow, okay, that hurts, ow-ow-ow."
Barnaby's mouth thinned. His thumb brushed Kotetsu's cheek, stroking the ridge of bone beneath his eye with a cool, lingering efficiency.
Very thoughtfully, Barnaby said, "You are the most accomplished oaf it has ever been my honor to know."
"It's not like I did it on purpose."
It wasn't that Kotetsu meant to whine. It was that it just happened like that. Whatever. He'd taken a fastball to the gut and a bleacher to the head; if he wanted to weep into his own cupped hands, he could do it, and if Barnaby wanted to come along for the ride, he could.
The doctor whispered something. The medical station in the ballpark wasn't much, just a small, white room with a bed and a desk and a computer even older than Kotetsu's back at the station. It was kind of homey. It needed curtains, though, pink ones with--little white rabbits running around. A window would help, too.
"You're spacing out again," said Barnaby.
"I like space," Kotetsu said. "It's friendly."
Barnaby ignored him. So much for friendship. Kotetsu rubbed the bag of ice against his war wound then regretted it; he regretted it so much, oh, God.
"Will he be like this for long?"
The doctor touched his glasses, tapped something into the computer, and whispered.
The world tipped slightly, and Kotetsu went with it. Coming back down to Earth was no fun, but at least Barnaby was there to catch him with his bony shoulder. Kotetsu rubbed his face against that joint. There was a hell of a lot more meat to him than that jacket suggested.
"You really should go to the hospital."
"Oh!" said Kotetsu, delighted. He pushed off Barnaby's shoulder. Wonder of wonders, the world stayed mostly the same. "Are you worried about me?"
Barnaby's jaw worked. "Don't be absurd. Why would I ever be concerned about you when you've blacked out for half a minute?"
It was like playing Charades with a robot.
Bunny even stuck his nose up in the air, la-di-da, look at me and how few shits I give.
Kotetsu wheeled on the doctor. If anyone was gonna be on his side, it was that rotund man with the voice of an angel.
"He's mad at me, right?"
The doctor's mouth moved, lips opening and closing and opening and closing. Nothing. Unless that sound like a printer working was the doctor's voice, he guessed, in which case Kotetsu had clearly identified the wrong person as a robot.
"I didn't get any of that," said Kotetsu.
The doctor handed him a sheet of paper. The sheet of paper said, Mild concussion. Patient lost consciousness for roughly thirty seconds (estimated by partner). Temporary distortion of senses upon regaining consciousness, e.g. noted vertigo, disordered thinking. The majority of these symptoms cleared up within five minutes. Recommended the patient seek additional treatment at a proper medical facility.
"I can't just go to the hospital. I got an HMO," said Kotetsu.
The doctor snatched the paper back, unhooked a pen from his breast pocket, and scribbled something on the sheet of paper. Barnaby shifted his weight discreetly in such a way that it almost looked as if he were trying to spy on the doctor's work. The line of his arm was a band of steel, unfurled.
The doctor handed Kotetsu the paper again. He'd scratched through within five minutes and written GO TO THE HOSPITAL YOU NUMBSKULL at the bottom.
"Hey!" said Kotetsu.
"Thank you for your time," said Barnaby. His hand closed on Kotetsu's arm. Holy shit, he really was made of steel. "I'll be sure to escort him to the hospital."
The doctor smiled pleasantly and waved them out, a kindly grandmother seeing her grandchildren go out into that cruel world of fastballs and head injuries and heartless medical insurance policies.
The parking lot was a maze of asphalt and light posts, turning on as the sun's slow and wandering descent grew serious and day gave way to burgeoning twilight. Several people were beating it now when the beating was good, the fifth inning spinning to a close and the Heroes trapped in a tightening death spiral. It was depressing was what it was, seeing all those headlights cutting up the coming night like that. No hometown spirit.
"I wish my skull was numb." Gingerly Kotetsu felt the shape of his own head. "Then it wouldn't hurt so much."
"By definition," Barnaby agreed. "Give me your keys, please."
"I can drive myself home," Kotetsu offered.
"Under no circumstances are you driving anywhere tonight."
Barnaby's glasses glinted.
"How do you do that?" Kotetsu felt in his jacket. As they walked, he pressed against Barnaby, giving him more of his weight. Barnaby bore it without remark.
"That thing with your glasses. The pchoooow laser beam thing."
"You really should go to a hospital," said Barnaby.
"Not with my insurance, I don't," said Kotetsu. "Hey, think fast!"
He tossed the keys in the air, and Barnaby stretched his free hand out to them. His fingers opened, his pinky still turned in toward his palm, his palm tipped to the asphalt. He plucked the keys from the sky, easy as that.
God or the rabbit in the moon or someone had smiled down on Kotetsu earlier; he'd managed to swing a parking space right near the stadium, at the foot of a light post. The minivan's green hump rose up behind a puny hybrid. Environmentalists, thought Kotetsu fondly. That was probably the sort of car Barnaby would drive if he drove.
"Wait," said Kotetsu. "How do you know how to drive?"
He turned, or tried to. Barnaby had already popped the passenger side door open and was grimly bundling Kotetsu into the seat. Kotetsu hadn't realized Barnaby was technically taller until that forest of curls loomed over him and Barnaby's long, narrow face filled the top of the door frame.
Kotetsu stared up at Barnaby. He felt, weirdly, like he should be holding his jacket closed across his chest, but his jacket was already zipped up to his collar. Light filled Barnaby's hair, flooded it with gold, and thrust his high cheekbones and sharp jaw into a strange and glimmering shadow.
"I did go to high school," Barnaby said. "Driver's ed was mandatory."
"Have you driven since then?"
Barnaby closed the door and went around the front of the car. Kotetsu struggled upright again and grabbed at his seatbelt, watching Barnaby's hips rise up and half-glide over the hood as he evaded the car parked opposite. The driver's door popped. Barnaby slid in.
"Seriously," said Kotetsu, "when's the last time you drove?"
"Let me see your head, please," said Barnaby.
His fingers wove into Kotetsu's hair. Kotetsu held his breath. The pressure was gentler now, less nail and more the soft rub of Barnaby's lightly callused fingertips over his skin. The sun was sinking lower now, and the light from the post by the car was its own sort of twilight. Barnaby's lips were lines of watered ink in his white face.
"I don't know why you bother with 'please' if you're not gonna wait for an answer," Kotetsu said.
"If I wait for an answer, you'll only pretend you're fine," said Barnaby absently. Then his gaze dropped. His mouth pursed. A lecture hovered anxiously in the wings, awaiting its moment in the spotlight.
"Soccer, huh," said Kotetsu with the grace of a drowning man making love to a buoy. "You play that in school?"
Barnaby sat back and turned the key in the ignition. Kotetsu's scalp itched. Barnaby never had told him when he'd last sat behind the wheel of a car. Maybe it was just the head injury, but he could still feel Barnaby's fingers in his hair, on his head, rubbing and scraping and digging in, digging out.
"Where do you live?" asked Barnaby. He flipped on the lights and began to back out.
Barnaby did all right on the highways, even if he did drive like he had something to prove and that something was he didn't give a fuck about minimum speed requirements.
"You know I'm a cop, right?" Kotetsu asked. "And legally you have to drive at least forty miles per hour through this stretch?"
"Stop talking," said Barnaby.
Hey, Barnaby was the man at the wheel. Kotetsu stopped talking.
Parallel parking, though, that was a mystery Barnaby had not yet begun to investigate with any real interest, and when at last forced to consider its many complexities, he froze up entirely. His hands were white-knuckled on the wheel. Probably it was a lost cause, hoping he'd just up and say, Kotetsu, I do not have the slightest idea how to do this thing, will you please help me, signed, with love, Barnaby Brooks.
Kotetsu unsnapped his seatbelt. "Get out. I'll do it."
"I'm parking," Kotetsu said. "Parking isn't driving. It's like sitting down. Sitting down's not walking."
"Driving and walking are not the same thing," said Barnaby. "Not even remotely."
"Well, hey," said Kotetsu, "if you really wanna do it, Bunny."
"I wouldn't wish to deprive you, old man," said Barnaby graciously.
So he got out and Kotetsu got (back) in, and Kotetsu parallel parked that sucker, hell yeah, that was how you did it.
"You didn't have to honk the horn like that," Barnaby said.
Kotetsu grinned at him from the driver's seat, arm hanging out the window. He blasted the horn again, toot sweet. Sweet toot. Further up the street, a car alarm went off; the car's lights flashed rhythmically. Barnaby winced.
"If you want, I could teach you," said Kotetsu. He thumped his hand against the driver's door, one-two-three. "But I'd have to charge."
"Stop," said Barnaby. "Please. Don't."
Laughing, Kotetsu switched the engine off and descended back to Earth where all the poor mortals and Barnaby Brookses languished. The descent did nothing to diminish his good mood. He peered, grinning, up at Barnaby.
"You really are taller than me," he said. "What, three inches? Two? Or is that just your hair?" He measured the difference with his hand.
"Your legs are longer," said Barnaby cryptically. Barnaby's shoulders went up. He'd stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets. His eyes flicked to the side; he wouldn't look at Kotetsu.
"You don't have to look so pissy all the time," Kotetsu said. "I won't hold it against you if you had a good time."
Barnaby squinched his mouth to the right, and the side of his nose wrinkled. Kotetsu braced for impact. Give it to him, all right, he was ready for it.
Then Barnaby sighed, and all the tension went out of his shoulders.
"Good night, Mister Kaburagi," he said.
Kotetsu caught him by the elbow. "Oh, no. You're coming in with me."
Over-balanced, Barnaby stumbled into him. His hips, bony too, hit right about at the top of Kotetsu's thighs, and his breast pressed into Kotetsu's side. Barnaby folded under his arm.
"You drive like that, you gotta face the penalty," said Kotetsu.
"I'd really rather just--," Barnaby tried, but three inches or two inches or whatever, Kotetsu was still bigger than him, and Barnaby didn't even really fight him.
Up the steps, key in the lock, door swung open.
"I'm home! And I brought company," he would have added, had Kaede not barreled into him at approximately three hundred mph, her head a fastball aimed at his gut. He didn't need that digestive system anyway.
"Ow! Okay," Kotetsu said, "I'm glad to see you, too, kiddo."
Kaede lifted her face and squinted fiercely at him. "You got hit in the head!" she shouted.
This was true, but: "Wait, how do you know?"
The television was set to the local news station. Channel five, keepin' the news alive! His mother was sitting on the couch. Very slowly, she turned her head. Doom nipped at Kotetsu's ears, but that was only Barnaby's breath.
"Let's take another look," the anchor said. She could barely get it out for her laughter. "S-shall we, Jake?"
"We most certainly shall, Sal!" said the sports guy in that corny, wouldn't you just like to smack the back of my head way local news required of all its sports guys. He hit a button on a remote, and a small window set into the corner of the screen maximized.
Kotetsu stared at his own face. It was a pretty good-lookin' face, he had to admit, though the handsomeness was offset by the way his eyes bugged when the ball hit him hard right there in the solar plexus; then, mercifully, Barnaby's shoulders hid him from the camera as he bent to Kotetsu.
The guys were going to razz the hell out of Kotetsu.
"You didn't even call!" Kaede's face scrunched. Her chest heaved and she was making little choking sounds, these awful scratchy noises strangling in her throat. "And you didn't answer your phone, and we called and called, but you didn't pick up--"
All right, this was an emergency. He stooped and hooked his arms under Kaede's tiny shoulders. Maybe she was too cool for her old man to blow her raspberries, but her arms wound about his neck and her knobby knees bit into his ribs, and when he lifted her, she buried her face in his shoulder. Her face was wet against his neck.
"Sorry, Bunny," he said, "I've gotta take care of this." He nodded at the couch, mindful of Kaede's head slipped under his own. "Uh, Mom, this is Barnaby Brooks. Barnaby, this is my ... mom."
She set her knitting down. Oh, there was going to be hell to pay later.
"Hello, Barnaby," said his mother. "Why don't you come sit with me?"
Barnaby gestured abortively at the door. "I was really just on my way--"
Kotetsu kicked at him. "Just sit," he hissed. "Please."
The look Barnaby shot him under his eyelashes said, You ain't fooling me, buddy. But he sat on the couch after all, and not even one of those delicate deer crouching in a sunlit meadow perches but a genuine, honest to God sit down. The significance was lost on Kotetsu's mother. She smiled anyway. That was the thing about his mother. She always knew just when to smile.
"Now," she said, "why don't you tell me how it is you know my son."
Oh, Jesus. Kotetsu hitched Kaede higher and abandoned Barnaby to the fire. He wasn't a noble man, but then he'd never pretended to be one.
Kaede didn't let go, even when he sat down on her bed in her dark room where no one could see her cry. She just tightened her arms around his neck and her legs around his chest and sat in his lap, like that. Kotetsu rubbed his hand down her back, down the tense and knotted line of her spine. She was just a kid, after all. Her fingers dug into his back. He tucked his head beside hers.
"I'm sorry I didn't call."
"You should have called," she muttered.
"I should have," he said. "I was wrong."
She tightened again. His little girl. His and Tomoe's baby girl. In the hospital, just after she'd been born, he'd put his finger to her palm and her own fingers, those teensy weensy fingers still so sticky, had closed around his knuckle. A reflex, the doctor said. But Kotetsu had known Kaede had recognized him even then. His baby girl.
He kissed her ear.
"Were you worried about me?"
She shuddered. Snot and tears slicked his neck. He didn't mind a bit.
"No," she said.
He pouted. "You're gonna break my heart."
"We called a lot," Kaede whispered into his shirt. "We called and you never picked up."
"I'm sorry," he said. He rocked her. Ten years old but she was still just a baby. "I'm sorry. I should have picked up. I'm sorry."
"They were laughing at you on the TV."
He sighed. "They'll laugh at work, too."
"They shouldn't," Kaede said angrily. Her knees dug into his ribs. "It's not your fault."
"It's what I get for not calling," he said. He looked up at the ceiling. They'd pasted glow in the dark stars to it, so long ago the glow had all but gone out of them. The stars were dying. "Does that make you feel better?"
"No," said Kaede.
He wrapped his arms around her, held her close to his chest, to his heart.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Kaede's eyelashes tickled his skin. She'd closed her eyes.
"Does it hurt?"
"A little," he said. "Not a lot. Daddy's got a thick skull."
He'd thought maybe she'd laugh at that, but she didn't. She sighed deeply.
"You have to be careful. Okay?"
He looked up at the stars, scattered in the shape of alien constellations all across her ceiling. So she'd have something to look at when she couldn't sleep at night.
"Okay," he said. "I'll be careful. I promise."
He knew as he said it that he was lying. He couldn't promise something like that and still be a cop. You couldn't promise to be with someone forever, because one day the doctor might close the door to the examining room and say, "The biopsy results came back. It's not what we hoped for."
"You have to mean it," said Kaede. She pulled away then. Her face was creased and hot.
Kotetsu touched her cheeks gently, one hand to each wet swell. He smiled.
"I mean it," he said. "No more ball games for your old man."
"And you have to call," she said. "If you're going to be late. You have to call."
"I'll call," he said.
He pushed her cheeks together between his hands so her lips pushed out and her nose squished. Kaede said, "Da-ad," but she was smiling when he kissed her nose, and if her eyelashes were wet when they dropped to her cheeks, well. She was smiling.
"Let's go downstairs," he said. "Huh?"
"All right," said Kaede. She wiped at her face, dragging her sleeves over her lips, her cheeks. "Is Mister Brooks still here?"
"You're too pretty for him," Kotetsu told her.
"You're embarrassing," Kaede groused, but she laughed as she said it, even as she tried to scowl.
Kotetsu smoothed her hair back from her brow. Her skin was warm to the touch. That was the crying, he thought, not a fever, but still.
"You doing okay at school?” He felt at her temples and checked her wrists. Situation normal, after all. “Nobody's picking on you?"
"Yeah," she said, long-suffering. "Nope."
"Okay," said Kotetsu. "Well, if anybody does pick on you, you know where to find me."
"Only if you answer your phone," Kaede said.
"Let's go see if Mister Brooks is still here," Kotetsu said. He held his hand out to Kaede. With one last swipe at her face, Kaede sniffed hard, making a truly delightfully gross sound, and then took his hand in her own.
Mister Brooks was still there, though he was in the process of winding his scarf around his neck. Kotetsu's mother was setting one teacup inside another. Two saucers sat peacefully on the coffee table.
Kaede's fingers tightened around Kotetsu's. A reflex, he thought; but her hand was firm in his.
"Mister Brooks," she said clearly, her throat still wet. "Thanks for looking after my dad. He's kind of dumb, but he's nice, so I guess it's good you were there."
"That was nice," Kotetsu muttered to her, "but you could have phrased it differently, would have been better."
The scarf was half-wound. Barnaby held the tail out from his throat, so it hung in a long arc. He smiled at Kaede, and at Kotetsu, and if it was small, it was warm. Kotetsu thought it was warm, anyway. It warmed him.
"You're welcome," he said. He tucked the tail of the scarf through the knot he'd made. "I should have made sure he called."
"Don't take my son's failings as your own," said Kotetsu's mother, stacking the saucers. It was a knife aimed at Barnaby, but Kotetsu flinched at the sting.
"I'm sorry," said Barnaby after a moment. His fingers fluttered at his throat; they pressed into the scarf.
"You don't have to apologize," Kotetsu said. "Were you, uh, heading out?"
"Yes," said Barnaby. He left off the scarf. "Missus Kaburagi was so kind as to call me a cab."
Grandmother vanished into the kitchen, teacups and saucers in hand. As Barnaby ran a hand down the front of his jacket, his face cast down, Kotetsu worried at his lip.
"Go get ready for bed." He patted Kaede's back. "I'm going to see Mister Brooks out, okay?"
"You don't need to do that," Barnaby said.
"All right," said Kaede. She hugged Kotetsu then, quickly, her face turned in to his gut. Her face was red when she pulled away. "Good night, Mister Brooks," she said. "'Night, Dad."
"Hey," Kotetsu called after her. "I'll be up in a little bit to make sure you brushed your teeth. Okay?"
"Eh," said Kotetsu. "Kids."
Barnaby was smiling again, wistfully now. "It's sweet," he said, "that she worries about you."
Kotetsu sighed happily. "It is, isn't it?"
"You say that like you've done something noteworthy," said Barnaby.
"Hey," said Kotetsu, "I raised her. So, when you think about it--"
Barnaby rolled his eyes. "Please, stop."
"You're going to brag again."
"I was not," Kotetsu lied.
Barnaby bent his head to his scarf; he was picking at it, adjusting the fringe, the knot. His mouth was a secret line turning up, just visible over the curve of the scarf.
"Come on," Kotetsu said. "I'll walk you out."
Barnaby shook out his hair, hand slithering through the curls, and he preceded Kotetsu out the door.
The cab was there, waiting, its light on. The driver was a crooked shadow, bent over a cigarette.
"Geez," said Kotetsu, "she must have called the cab right away."
"Thank you," said Barnaby, gazing at the driver.
"I had a good time," said Barnaby. He descended the steps. His boots clicked neatly on the cement.
"Good night," Kotetsu said.
Barnaby opened the passenger door and got into the cab. He didn't look back. Kotetsu waved after the car till it disappeared around the corner, then he lingered a minute on the stoop. He wasn't sure what he was waiting for. He kept thinking of all those cheesy romantic movies he'd loved in school. Person A watching sadly as Person B presumably left in a haze of exhaust or an airplane contrail or whatever, forever. Person B running down the sidewalk, calling out Person A's name. They clasp hands; they clinch; sighing, they kiss. I'll never leave you again. I love you. All that stuff.
It was chilly outside; a cold wind had kicked up in the north. Kotetsu went back inside. He toed his shoes off at last. He'd a hole in his left sock. His big toe peeked out of it. Next toe down the line, too. He'd become a bachelor in his old age.
"Has he gone?"
His mother was running water in the sink. Kotetsu skated across the floor in his socks, toes of his left foot arched so he didn't brake suddenly and die with the coffee table imbedded in his head. He'd done enough damage to the ol' noggin.
Kotetsu leaned into his mother's back. First his left arm, then his right: he draped them over her shoulders.
"I found your phone on your dresser," she said.
"I'm sorry," Kotetsu said. "I should have called. I didn't mean to make you worry."
"You shouldn't forget it." She scrubbed crust off a plate. "What if something had happened? Something serious? Should we just wait until the morgue calls?"
He rested his chin on top of her head. "Nothing serious happened. Barnaby was there."
"You're always like this." Another plate. Suds spurted violently out from under her brush. "Even when you were a boy, and now you're old enough to know better. Always, you make me worry. Always, always."
"Kaa-san," he said.
Her hands slowed. She clutched the plate. Under his arms, her shoulders tightened and then bowed.
His mother covered his hand with her own. Her gloves were wet and slick with soap.
"Don't forget your phone," she said. "You have to remember that."
He closed his eyes and swayed. Once left. Once right. His mother swayed with him. She petted the back of his hand.
"Can't you trust me?"
"You're a good son," his mother said softly. "Of course I trust you. But I worry. That's what parents do."
Kotetsu sighed. "I know."
They swayed together a little longer. His mother was small in his arms now, even for her broad shoulders, even for the memory of Kotetsu, a child, looking up at her as she walked him to school. It was his mother who had taught him to dance.
"Why'd you scare Barnaby off?"
"If he's scared, then he's no good," she said. She patted Kotetsu's hand once more then resumed washing the dishes. At least none of the plates were in immediate danger any longer.
"Kaaaa-saan," said Kotetsu, drawing it out. "What did you say to him?"
She sniffed. "I only told him to be careful. There are lots of people who care about you, and we don't want to see you hurt."
Kotetsu tightened his arms around her.
"Mama," he said. "Is it okay?"
"Silly boy," she said. "Of course it is."
Still, in his bed that night, whether it was the concussion or only the thought of all those movies, of violins singing and Barnaby's fingers moving gently, so gently, through Kotetsu's hair, he thought: Is it? Was it okay? He stared up at the rabbit in the moon and wished it were Tomoe making rice cake in the night sky instead.
He wished she were there with him. He supposed he would always wish that. Just because someone was gone didn't mean you stopped loving them. Maybe with time you learned to live without them; you could even learn not to miss them so much. He remembered his father as a collection of touches and words, never a face, hardly a feeling. Perhaps it was the same for Kaede when she thought of her mother.
He wanted to stretch his hand across the bed and find Tomoe stretching her hand across it, too. He wanted to ask her if it was all right. If it was okay, that he thought he could love someone else. That maybe he was already halfway there. It didn't mean he'd stopped loving Tomoe; it didn't mean he loved her less. It was like how he could love Kaede and his mother and his brother and Antonio, even if Antonio was an ass, and Tomoe, even if Tomoe wasn't there. How he could love the thought of his father if not the memory, because the thought existed but the memory did not.
Loving someone else didn't mean he had to stop loving Tomoe. Love wasn't like that. It didn't come with a limit and once you'd loved a certain number of people, that was it; you loved no more. You kept loving. People left, and love stayed. People came in, and love came with them.
"Is it okay?" he asked.
No one answered. Maybe that was something he had to decide on his own. He wished he didn't have to, but he did.
Kotetsu touched the back of his head. His fingers were thicker than Barnaby's, and they were warmer, too, but it was Barnaby's fingers he thought of. He wondered where Barnaby lived, if he, too, slept alone. The way he held himself, so apart from others, Kotetsu thought Barnaby must sleep alone, that he lived alone and ate alone. Perhaps he didn't. Perhaps he did. How sad it must be, to be so alone, but maybe that was how Barnaby wished to live.
Kotetsu's chest stung, too tight. He rolled over onto his side and closed his eyes. He was thinking of the shape of Barnaby's hands, cupping a bottle, or perhaps cupping Kotetsu's hand, when he drifted into a dreamless sleep.
"Hey," said Kowalski brightly, "congrats on the hot date."
Laughter rolled through the pen again. Kotetsu had woken up in such a good mood, he'd forgotten the entire escapade existed on film. That had been a mistake.
"Hey," said Jules, holding her hands up for silence and respect. "Wait. Shit. I had something for this."
"Ignore 'em," said Antonio. "They're just jealous."
"Yeah," said Kowalski, "it's not every day you take a shot to the gut and the head on national television."
"I hope you're feeling better," said Keith, worried.
"Geez, Keith," said Jules, "really?"
"All right," said Kotetsu. He set the case folder down. "I have something to say."
"You're retiring," guessed Jules.
"You're getting married!" shouted someone in the back.
"Don't nobody tell the frost queen," said Ellie, though what Karina in forensics had to do with that, Kotetsu couldn't guess.
"Who's he marrying?" Kowalski shot back. "The guy he embarrassed himself in front of?"
Kotetsu tapped the folder on the desk till the one-liners died down.
"I wanted to say, I respect all of you," he said, "and it brings me great pleasure each day to know I work with such fine and upstanding people."
"You're worse than Keith," said Jules.
"That was lovely," said Keith.
"Are we working or are we at a movie?" demanded Chief Joubert.
Everyone scattered, each individual for themselves, partnership and professionalism be damned. It was worse than the time Richie's Lunch Shack supplied free coffee and sandwiches to the station. They'd been so happy to eat something that wasn't made out of cardboard and sweat a guy had actually passed out, crushed against the buffet table.
As the chief passed, she winked at Kotetsu. "Hold on to that one," she said. "He's a looker."
"We're not dating," Kotetsu said loudly. No one was listening.
Okay, that guy was listening, whoever he was. Kotetsu eyeballed the crowd, but nobody volunteered any names.
Retreating to what was supposed to be the sanctity of his desk - his tower, his palace, his fortress against which no army would dare ride - he found Antonio already sitting on it.
"You're gonna break that," Kotetsu said.
"No, I'm not," said Antonio. "They make this shit out of riot gear or something. So they never have to replace it."
That would explain the avocado green. God, the seventies. Kotetsu had only been alive for half of them, but he still had bad memories.
"So," said Antonio. "You and Brooks, huh."
Kotetsu plopped down into his chair. "I'll let you get away with two cracks on account of our long friendship, and you're bigger than me."
"Thanks," said Antonio, "that's real generous of you. I appreciate it."
"He the hot blond?"
"I never said anything about a hot blond," said Kotetsu. "That was all you."
"You're not denying he's a hot blond, though," said Antonio.
Kotetsu contemplated the many and varied understandings of this remark, each equally as fascinating as the others.
"I can see everything on your face," Antonio said, amused. "You know that, right? Your poker face is shit. It's always been shit."
"That's two cracks," Kotetsu said.
"All right, all right," Antonio grunted. "I guess you always did like 'em a little mean." He considered Kotetsu. His jaw clicked, the way it did when he'd made his mind up about something. "Listen," Antonio said, "you know--you should be happy."
Antonio patted Kotetsu's shoulder. He'd got that constipated look again. "Just be happy." He pushed off the desk.
"Thanks for the advice," Kotetsu shouted after him.
Antonio waved. Asshole.
Kotetsu slapped the case folder down again. Work, he thought. Work, work, work. Lots to do. Bad guys to nab. Paperwork to file. He checked the time on his cell phone. Digital displays, damn. When'd people get so lazy they needed the time told for them? Indignation was a cover-up. Kotetsu rocked back in his chair. The ceiling was pocked with holes. They probably hadn't replaced that since the seventies, either.
"All right!" Kotetsu said.
Nobody turned. They were used to him by now. He sat upright, opened the case folder, stared down at the facts, then closed the folder again.
"All right!" he said again.
He flipped his cell phone open.
All right, he thought.
Kotetsu was lounging back against the hood of the minivan when Barnaby came walking down the path, hips doing that rolling thing, a steaming thermos cupped between his hands and a scarf hanging from his throat. It was like something out of a movie, except for the minivan and all.
"You do realize I have a job, don't you," said Barnaby in greeting.
Kotetsu slid off the hood. "Whatever happened to 'hello'?"
Barnaby neatly evaded this salvo by drinking from his thermos. "How's your head?"
"Solid as a rock."
Kotetsu knocked his knuckles against it to demonstrate and got a flicker of a smile from Barnaby in reply. Good. Great. Awesome. He could do this. He was a titan of manliness. He was an attractive single man on the prowl. He was not even a little bit prepared for Barnaby to step right up into his personal space and put his hand on Kotetsu's collar.
"Uh," said Kotetsu. His brain made a frying sound between his ears. Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me? "Hello. Bunny. You're kind of close."
"There's a stain on your collar," said Barnaby. He looked up over his glasses and right into Kotetsu's eyes. Pchow. Laser beams. It was worse with the glasses so low on his nose, his eyes all--naked. His fingers slipped down Kotetsu's coat's lapels. "Do you even look when you dress yourself?"
Kotetsu opened his mouth. He couldn't think of anything to say. He closed his mouth. Thankfully Barnaby was too busy stepping away and blowing at the steam coiling thickly out of his thermos to notice Kotetsu's brain had dribbled out his ears. Barnaby shook his hand out and sipped at the lid.
"Why did you call me out here? You made it sound important." He glanced at Kotetsu over the thermos. His back was bent, just a bit at the top, maybe with cold but maybe not. Barnaby licked at his teeth. His eyes dropped, unaccountably. "If you need to talk about setting up a date--"
But Kotetsu had stopped paying attention. He leaned into the car, grabbed his gear, and tossed it over to Barnaby, who caught it between his elbows. His glasses flashed, knocked crooked.
"You said you played soccer, right?"
Barnaby looked down at the ball, cradled to his chest by his arms, drawn in like a v. The thermos tipped at an angle. Kotetsu had found the ball in the attic, along with the rest of his old college crap. God bless pack rat tendencies.
"I'm not wearing the right kind of shoes," Barnaby said.
"Well, hey, if you're scared of losing to an old man," Kotetsu said, shrugging. He made to grab the ball.
Barnaby took a step back. His platform heel scraped over the gravel path, and he lifted his chin. He smiled pityingly at Kotetsu, all down that long, straight nose of his.
"Please," he said. "Don't embarrass yourself."
"Yeah?" Kotetsu peeled his coat off and got to work rolling up his sleeves. "You think you can take me?"
"Put these in your car," said Barnaby.
Kotetsu caught the thermos, then Barnaby's jacket, which he shed with a horrendous shimmy, his shoulders bending back, his belly thrusting out. Kotetsu was a dirty, old man, and he was going to die a dirty, old man's death, face down in a gutter.
For as sleek and carefully presented as Barnaby was, all he had on under the jacket was a black t-shirt. It was a very tight black t-shirt, though, and he had to pull it back down the flat plane of his stomach. He brushed the curls from his lips, little twists of hair stuck in the corners, and turned his face up.
"Well?" He smiled sidelong; his eyebrows arched. "Old man?"
Barnaby turned his hands out, wrists together, and passed the soccer ball back. Kotetsu caught it one-handed.
"Hope you don't mind if I kick your ass, Bunny," Kotetsu said.
"Please," said Barnaby, his smile sticky-cruel, "I'd hate for you to sprain yourself, Mister Kaburagi."
Even old dogs could learn new tricks, and the new trick Kotetsu learned was that Barnaby was a scary motherfucker with a soccer ball, which wasn't so much a new trick as it was a survival tip.
"Goalie and shooter?" he suggested.
Barnaby was tying his hair back with a rubber band he'd scrounged from his jeans. That had been hell to watch, Barnaby's fingers bending in at the first knuckle as he fitted them into that tight pocket at the crux of his thigh and his groin. It was like the universe was punishing Kotetsu for remembering he'd had a sex drive at one point. Barnaby's throat was unbelievably long, bared like that, and his clavicle jutted, the hollow at the center a mystery like the filling in a Valentine's day chocolate.
"I'll be the shooter," Barnaby said.
Kotetsu flipped the ball up and kicked it to him.
Barnaby snatched the ball out of the air with his toe, his toe, and rolled it down to his ankle then popped it back up, up - caught it on his knee, bounced it once, twice, off his thigh, then down again to his foot, then his other foot, the inside, the outside. He held it lovingly on his instep and then he flipped it in the air. His thighs tensed; his leg arched; he hit the ball with the force of a rocket taking off for the upper stratosphere, and Kotetsu caught it with his bare God damn hands.
The astonishment writ on Barnaby's face was flattering as all get-out. He was a lion. He was a tiger. He dropped the ball. His palms didn't look like all the flesh had shredded off them, but you never knew. Maybe it was a delayed reaction.
"What's in your legs," he said, "cement?"
"You caught it!" said Barnaby.
Kotetsu doubled over. His entire world was regret. What price tigerdom?
"My hands are going to fall off," he gasped.
"Stop whining and let me see," said Barnaby, exasperated, like Kotetsu hadn't just literally sacrificed limb, if not life, in that, his most heroic hour. Like he was being melodramatic.
"I'm serious," Kotetsu said, "I can't feel my fingers."
Barnaby bent over Kotetsu's hands. A flyaway curl of hair had managed to sneak past the guard of his impromptu hair-tie; it twisted at his temple. He turned over Kotetsu's left hand, sweeping his thumb down the slope of his palm.
"It doesn't look like the damage is permanent," said Barnaby. He was examining Kotetsu's right hand, his fingernails scraping over the lines in his palm. "Are you going to hurt yourself every time we meet?"
Kotetsu couldn't manage to look away from that curl. The very tip of it brushed the underside of Barnaby's cheekbone, like it wanted to kiss the shadow there.
"It's my good luck," said Kotetsu.
Barnaby held both his hands up then. "That's a strange definition of luck."
"I've still got my hands," said Kotetsu.
"Ah," said Barnaby. He looked up and smiled.
With his hair pulled back like that, he looked older and leaner. Softer, for all those cruel lines. The thought of cradling Barnaby's lean, soft/cruel face in his chapped hands and kissing him welled, blood from a cut.
"Kaede wanted to know if you could come to a show she's doing," Kotetsu blurted.
Barnaby's smile faded.
"It's this Saturday," Kotetsu said, forging on. "I told her you probably couldn't make it, but. She wanted me to ask."
Barnaby lifted Kotetsu's hands in his own. Lightly, he turned them and pressed them together, so Kotetsu's palms flattened against one another. Kotetsu's wrists itched, too hot. The tips of Barnaby's fingers were fitted to the spaces between Kotetsu's knuckles.
"I'll check my schedule," said Barnaby. "I might have a function for Saturday. I'll see what I can do."
"I bet I can still kick your ass," said Kotetsu, because he was a moron.
"You can try," said Barnaby. He drew his hands away. He was smiling.
"Oh, yeah," said Kotetsu, "I'm gonna kick your ass. Little bunny."
"It's so sad." Barnaby sighed.
Kotetsu took the bait. "What is?"
"When old people think they've still got it," said Barnaby breezily.
Ba dum tish.
The chief had wanted Kotetsu to clock in a few hours on Saturday, "catch up on your paperwork," she said warningly, but Kotetsu held his ground. He'd missed too many shows as it was and if he owed something to the force, he owed something to Kaede, too. She chattered all the way up to the big fancy rink in uptown. Some guy, Isaac, was going to be there, and he was a real hotshot in the world of competitive juniors ice skating, of which Kotetsu admittedly knew less than he should as the father of a prospective competitive junior ice skater.
Kaede doodled patterns on the passenger side window, little fingertip drawings only she could see.
"He's really cute, too," she said.
"Yeah?" Kotetsu signaled to turn into the rink's parking lot. "That why he's got so many ribbons?"
Kaede didn't even bother to dignify this with a squeal or a denial, just a dirty look, like she was too grown-up and mature now to call her old man names. They grew up so fast, he thought mournfully.
At the entrance to the rink, where the skaters broke off down their own private hallway and the spectators took to the stands, Kotetsu slung his arm over her head.
"Break a leg, okay, sweetheart?"
"Dad, that's theatre." She pushed his arm off.
"All right, then do whatever the ice skating thing is." He thought. "Uh, crack the ice?"
"You're so weird," Kaede said morosely. But she leaned up and pressed her cheek to his shoulder, just for a moment. "Thanks for driving me here, Dad."
He caught her before she could slide away. "I'm driving you back, too, remember?" He kissed the corner of her brow.
"Dad, stop," she muttered, "people are watching."
"There's nobody else here," he said, but he let Kaede go. He had to do it sooner or later.
She brushed at her hair, so carefully arranged at home. Grandmother had lent her a hairpin with a spray of brass cherry blossoms at the end.
"See you," Kaede said. She turned.
"You'll do great," Kotetsu said, and Kaede flapped her hand at him. Yeah, yeah. He grinned hopelessly at the door, then he made his way up the hall and into the bitter, welcoming cold of the rink. He'd brought a book, but he couldn't get into it, so he just sat and watched the entrance and tried not to feel like he'd tripped and fallen ass-first into his sophomore year of high school.
Barnaby had texted him that morning to say yes, he believed he could make it, and was he supposed to bring anything, so when Barnaby showed up a half hour before the show, Kotetsu did not start; he did not exclaim; he did not lurch so eagerly to his feet that he then fell on to his face and thus set the tenor for the rest of the day in a key of congratulations, you are an adult. Instead, he stuck his arm up and said, "Yo," like a cool dude.
Barnaby nodded and picked his way over to Kotetsu. The stands were filling now, local reporters setting up their gear in the space right by the rink. Same as before, same as always, people spotted Barnaby moving then started gawping. But it was Kotetsu Barnaby smiled at as he sat.
He risked a quick once-over of Barnaby. Tight jeans, yep, red jacket, curls masterfully tousled, hands empty but for a program. Nothing in his pockets. Kotetsu didn't stare even a bit.
"You didn't bring anything?"
Barnaby frowned. "You said not to."
"You could've got flowers," Kotetsu said.
"If I was supposed to bring flowers," Barnaby said, "then you should have told me to bring flowers. You don't have flowers."
"Flowers from her dad would be embarrassing," said Kotetsu, tragedy sharp in his throat. "She's at a sensitive age. But you're good-looking. She'd like flowers from you."
Barnaby's cheeks pinked with the cold. "I'm not your surrogate flower-giver."
Kotetsu leaned close. Barnaby's breath gusted out white between them, and his face went even pinker. Geez, Kotetsu thought, the guy had no cold tolerance whatsoever.
"If I gave you twenty dollars," Kotetsu said, "could you run down to the lobby and get some roses?"
"Get them yourself," Barnaby snapped. He spun around.
"Hey," said Kotetsu. He flicked his fingers at Barnaby. "Oi, Bunny, don't be like that."
Barnaby rounded on him. "I'm not a child," he said. "Please don't treat me like one."
His fingers drooped. "When did I treat you like a child?"
"I'm an adult and I would that you would try to remember that." Barnaby's jaw had set. He stared down at the skating rink, his breath gushing in a cloud of frost before his pink, pink cheeks.
"Okay," said Kotetsu. He dropped his hands between his knees. After a pause, he scratched his chin. He needed to shave again; the hairs were coming in between the patches.
"How old are you anyway?" He darted a look at Barnaby. His shoulders were pulled up again, his jacket collar swallowing his chin.
"I'm twenty-four," Barnaby said, stiffly, like he expected Kotetsu to tease him for that. "Twenty-five next month."
Kotetsu folded his arms across his legs. It was weird, he thought, that Barnaby could be so very pretty and yet all Kotetsu could think was how cute his profile, how darling the little upturn of the tip of his nose, how precious the delicate overbite and the shape of his lips. He'd called him bunny at first as a joke, to make Barnaby scowl--to piss him off, honestly. He hadn't figured he'd mean it.
"Ahhh," said Kotetsu, because he still kind of wanted to piss him off, "you're not cute at all."
Barnaby huffed. His eyes rolled. Look at the old guy, thinks he's clever. Kotetsu was charmed in spite of his better judgment, his taste, and his self-respect.
Kotetsu slid his leg over, just enough that his thigh brushed Barnaby's. A whole fleet of caterpillars hatched from their cocoons and discovered they were butterflies down in the pit of Kotetsu's stomach.
"Thanks," he said. "For coming."
"I didn't come for you," said Barnaby. He didn't move his leg. His knee was a knob pushing into Kotetsu's thigh. "With you in the audience, Kaede needs all the real luck she can get."
Kotetsu laughed throatily. "How do you know you're not the one who's bad luck? I only ever seem to get hurt when I'm around you."
Barnaby shifted; sitting, nevertheless he rolled his hips. Kotetsu felt it in the give of the bleacher, how the metal gave a little then steadied. When Barnaby had done, their legs were no longer touching. Kotetsu couldn't see his face. He'd turned it away. Very lightly, he fanned himself with the program.
"Bunny," said Kotetsu.
The lights dimmed. The show was starting. Kotetsu sat back. His fingers twitched, so he beat out an aimless drum solo against his knee.
"You're distracting," Barnaby whispered.
"Kaede's solo is in the second half," Kotetsu whispered back.
"I have a program." He displayed it.
The skaters circled, drawing closer in the vein of a spiral. They stretched their arms out, hands given to each other; thus connected, they wound together. Barnaby was tense beside Kotetsu, like he was thinking of cutting and running, like he wasn't there at all.
Kotetsu tapped their knees together. "Are you all right?"
The music swelled. The tight ball the skaters had made began to fragment, shedding individual skaters like bits of shell. A violent red suffused the ice, the huge stage lights above changing color as new lenses slid into place.
Kotetsu felt his beard again. He really did need to shave. What had he said? It was something he'd done, he was sure. Rewind the film reel. Start it all over again for the playback. All right, folks, let's try to spot where Kaburagi fumbled the ball.
How do you know you're not the one who's bad luck?
"I'm sorry," he said, softly so the lady sitting in front of them would stop shooting him death glares. "I didn't mean it. It was a joke." He grimaced. "I guess it wasn't a good one."
"You don't have to apologize for everything," said Barnaby. It was the sort of thing that should have been reassuring, but instead it came out sharp, a criticism and not a kindness.
"If I don't have to apologize, why are you mad?"
"I'm not mad."
Kotetsu snorted. "That's the worst lie I've ever heard in my life."
"I doubt that," said Barnaby almost mildly.
"Do you mind," said the woman in front of them, and someone in front of her said, "I'm trying to film this!"
"Sorry," Kotetsu stage-whispered. More people began to turn. "Sorry!" He glanced at Barnaby. "You want to chime in?"
"We're very sorry," Barnaby said, "really." He smiled. The woman clutched at her blouse. Her eyes went wide.
"Do you have to?" Kotetsu grumped.
Barnaby pressed a finger to his own lips, and slouching, Kotetsu gave up. At least Bunny looked less like he wanted to walk off.
Still. There was something to the way he'd clammed up, something more than simple offense. Neither Kotetsu nor Barnaby had ever been terribly concerned about pulling their punches; it was a bit late to start worrying about getting off on the wrong foot. If Barnaby didn't want Kotetsu teasing him, he'd say so. Right? Unless he had said so in his own stuffed-up way of saying things. But then why the hell was he teasing Kotetsu, if he didn't want Kotetsu teasing him back?
Barnaby shifted his weight forward. The show had arrested him. Kotetsu watched the lights playing off Barnaby's face, his glasses, his lips. Then it was Kaede's turn to cut up the ice, and Kotetsu had something else to care about, something that wasn't the consistency of Barnaby's eyelashes as they swept his lenses or the slow, sweet arch of his back as he set his elbows on his knees and folded his hands together, one on top of the other. Like that.
They went to an ice cream shop after, just the three of them: Kotetsu, Kaede, and Barnaby. The sky had clouded over again late in the morning, and the first drops of rain began to hit the windows as the door closed behind them. Score one for Kotetsu, though. He'd remembered to stick the collapsible umbrella in his coat pocket.
Sometime between Kotetsu's head injury and the ice cream shop, Kaede had decided she was in love with Barnaby again.
"You don't even eat ice cream?" She boggled.
"No dairy products at all," Barnaby said. "Milk's harvested by separating calves from their mothers shortly after birth."
"Dad!" said Kaede.
"Stop traumatizing my kid," said Kotetsu. "You wanted a chocolate-caramel swirl, right?"
Kaede accepted the cone, though she stared at the double scoops like a world of unspeakable horrors had been revealed to her. She trudged to the booth, cradling the cone between her hands as if it were the calf.
"Great," Kotetsu said. "Now she's going to pitch a fit every time we sit down for dinner for a week."
"Clearly she's needed a stronger moral influence in her life," said Barnaby. "Yes. I had the strawberry smoothie."
"I'm a strong moral influence," Kotetsu protested.
He was waiting for a smart ass come-back, but what he got was a vanilla sundae with two cherries, courtesy the cashier, and a winsome smile, courtesy Barnaby. Barnaby took a drag of his smoothie and left Kotetsu to ponder the probability that Barnaby was simply exacting a profoundly vague revenge for earlier.
"You did beautifully," Barnaby was saying to Kaede.
Kaede had a smear of ice cream on her nose and another dab tucked in the corner of her mouth. Was she beautiful? How could she not be? Perhaps Kotetsu was biased, but he knew it to be true. She smiled without artifice at Barnaby. Barnaby, with a design Kotetsu recognized now as caution, smiled back at her. The heart, that traitorous muscle, turned itself inside out in Kotetsu's breast. Neither of them noticed.
"This is nice, isn't it?" Kotetsu asked no one in particular. He didn't expect them to notice him then. Kaede was up to her soiled nose in love, and Barnaby was still mad at him.
But perhaps Barnaby had forgiven him his gracelessness, for he reached across the table and stole one of the cherries off Kotetsu's sundae. He smiled as he popped it in his mouth.
"It's all right," he said, "I suppose."
"Can I try your smoothie?" Kaede asked him.
If Kotetsu had doubts as to whether or not it was truly the first stirrings of love that drew him to Barnaby or, instead, virulent indigestion, he knew it was love or something like it when Barnaby got Kaede a clean straw so she could try the smoothie.
"You want this other cherry?" Kotetsu held it up, stem pinched between his thumb and his forefinger. A dash of whipped cream hung from the fruit; chocolate syrup stained the tip of Kotetsu's fingers.
Barnaby did a weird thing with his eyes, like: who? What? Where?
"If you don't want it," Kotetsu said.
Barnaby's fingers closed around Kotetsu's hand. His fingers slid slowly up the length of Kotetsu's thumb, rounding over the knuckles. Delicately, his nails closed on the stem. Kotetsu's joints were nerveless. His bones were goop.
"I never said I didn't want it," said Barnaby. His face was red again. His eyes were turned down to Kotetsu's hand. Though Barnaby had taken the cherry, the backs of his fingers lingered at the tips of Kotetsu's.
Then, because apparently Barnaby had freezer burn in his brain, he stooped and popped the cherry in his mouth. Kotetsu felt the faintest brush of Barnaby's teeth on his fingertip, then Barnaby straightened. The stem stuck jauntily from his mouth. He plucked it neatly and set it down upon his napkin.
"Oh, gosh," Kaede said. She was looking down at her phone. "Dad! They put my picture on the website!"
They had indeed, though it took a mortifying moment to get his eyes to focus long enough on the screen to verify this to be true. Kaede, clad in her blue leotard and sparkling skirt, held her arms aloft in the photo as if reaching out to embrace another, falling.
"That's very nice," Kotetsu managed. "You look gorgeous, honey."
Barnaby wiped his hands. The stem spilled off the napkin, off the table, and into his lap.
Barnaby stood. "Excuse me. I need to get some water."
"Get me some, too, please!" Kaede chirped. "What about you, Dad? Do you want anything?"
Barnaby hovered. His hip was even with Kotetsu's eyes, skinny jeans sighing against his skin as he shifted. If Kotetsu turned his head just so--
"No," he said, "I'm good."
Kaede squinted at Kotetsu, the bridge of her nose wrinkling.
"What's with you guys? Did you say something mean to him?"
"I didn't say anything!"
Kaede squinted harder.
"Your eyes will fall out if you keep doing that," Kotetsu said.
"No, they won't," said Kaede. She took a scoop out of her ice cream with her front teeth. "That's biologically improbable."
"My baby's so smart," Kotetsu cooed.
Kaede blanched. "Eat your ice cream, Dad."
Just to show her what's what, Kotetsu spooned as big a mouthful of ice cream as he could manage into his mouth. He lived to regret it.
"Brain freeze," he choked out, then he fell face first against the table.
A cool glass touched his arm.
"Here," said Barnaby from above, "before the damage is permanent."
"It's too late," Kotetsu said to the table. The back of his neck was warm. Barnaby's thin, pale lips closing around the cherry. His teeth ghosting over the tip of Kotetsu's finger.
"I'm dead," Kotetsu added.
"You can have his stuff," said Kaede.
"Thank you," said Barnaby, "but I'm not interested in vintage clothing."
"Hey!" said Kotetsu. He lifted his head. "I'm fashionable."
Barnaby smiled pityingly. Kaede just sighed again.
"You guys remember I'm the one who's driving." It was an important point. He thought it was worth mentioning.
"I was thinking of walking," said Barnaby. "It's so nice out."
"It's raining," said Kaede.
Barnaby paused. The straw fell from his parted lips.
"When did it start raining?"
Once a week, maybe twice, when they were able, Barnaby and Kotetsu met for lunch. Stern Bild was a large city; its bistros were countless, its diners many, its dives filthy but also plentiful.
The diner a couple blocks down and over from the station was crowded one afternoon, so they got their orders (pizza for Kotetsu, some kind of hummus sandwich for Kotetsu) to go. The weather was mild then, but the little bit of park at the corner was empty. Barnaby and Kotetsu sat together on the bench, Kotetsu's too-long legs sprawled out before him.
"It's no wonder you're so clumsy," said Barnaby. "Your legs are so long."
Kotetsu pulled his feet back. He hated how his socks showed out from under his trousers, but tailoring was so expensive; he could never justify the cost of special ordering pants fitted to his inseam.
"You sure know how to pick on a guy," Kotetsu grumped. He folded his slice of pizza in half and got to work on it.
"I wasn't picking on you," said Barnaby mildly. "I was only observing. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, long legs are often considered desirable."
Kotetsu stuck his left leg out and considered it. Long, yup. Skinny as all get out, too.
"Eh, I don't know," he said. "Yours are better. At least you don't look like you're running around on stilts. Hey, are you okay?"
Barnaby held a fist to his mouth and waved off Kotetsu with his free hand even as he coughed. He shuddered. After a moment, he swallowed again.
"I got something stuck in my throat."
"This is why you need to chew your food thoroughly," Kotetsu said, shaking his pizza at Barnaby. "What am I supposed to do if you choke out here?"
Barnaby ran his hand down his front, checking the fall of his jacket. "You're trained for CPR, aren't you?"
"That's not the point!" said Kotetsu.
"Please stop waving that in my face," said Barnaby. He picked his sandwich up again. "I'm trying to eat."
Without entirely meaning to Kotetsu began to note which restaurants tailored to a more herbivorous company than that with which Kotetsu was accustomed to dining. Did Barnaby note the effort? It didn't matter. That was another thing about love. You did the time because you wanted to do it, not because you couldn't get out of it.
At a smoky bar with a pianist and a singer who played with old swing tunes, songs Kotetsu half-remembered from college dates with Tomoe, they split an appetizer of spinach rolls. Kotetsu had a whiskey, Barnaby a glass of something red and sweet that shimmered when he rolled the glass between his hands.
Barnaby watched the pianist and tapped his thumb on the bar in time to the music.
Kotetsu sipped at the whiskey. The ice clinked, cubes splitting apart as they drifted. He felt absently in his pocket for his phone.
"You like swing music?"
"I prefer opera," said Barnaby without turning, "but yes. I do like swing music."
The singer embraced the microphone stand, trickling the back of her hand, fingers curled to her palm, down its length. Her voice dripped, warm as brandy tipped down the tongue.
"The moment that you speak, I want to go play hide and seek," she sang, the words vibrating in her throat. "I want to go and bounce the moon--"
"It's romantic, isn't it?"
Barnaby looked over his shoulder at this. He looked--caught off-guard. A shadow slipped into the hollow of his throat.
"Tomoe and I did some swing classes when we were at school," Kotetsu said. "Sinatra was her favorite. She used to sing some of his stuff for Kaede when she was little."
"Oh," said Barnaby. He reached for the spinach rolls. Only three remained.
"Hey," said Kotetsu, "leave some of those for me."
"Excuse me," Barnaby said down the bar, "can I have another glass of wine?"
"Please," Kotetsu added.
Barnaby gave him a dirty look over a spinach roll.
"What?" Kotetsu grabbed at the last of the spinach rolls. "It's manners, Bunny. Didn't anyone ever teach you that?"
The bartender returned with a bottle of wine. Barnaby rubbed the soft underside of his jaw as he watched the bell fill, red wine swirling around the glass.
"You make me feel so young," laughed the woman with the microphone. "You make me feel there are songs to be sung, bells to be rung, a wonderful fling to be flung. And even when I'm old and gray--"
Kotetsu tipped his tumbler back. The whiskey stung his gums, his tongue, but the burn of it down his throat, that was kind.
Anyway, when, after another round of one on one soccer, Barnaby bit into fried tempeh and his eyelashes didn't flutter, but drooped low and sweet over his eyes--damn. He'd sweat, still, on his jaw, his throat, too. His strong legs were crossed under the table. Every now and then, his foot brushed Kotetsu's calf.
"Come on, old man," he'd said, smirking as Kotetsu rolled up to his feet in the grass. "That can't be the best you can do."
"I'll show you what I can do," Kotetsu had growled, then he'd tackled Barnaby's legs, Barnaby shouting, the grass tearing up under their knees, mud on Kotetsu's trousers and Barnaby laughing as he tried to get his arms around Kotetsu's shoulder.
It was the same sort of feeling, wrestling with Barnaby on a wet field and watching him suck at his thumb, chasing a flavor to its hiding place in the soft lines on the underside of the first knuckle.
So Kotetsu made a note of dishes Barnaby loved (deep-fried potato pie, fajitas, a sort of creamy vegetarian stroganoff that brought Barnaby as close to drooling as Kotetsu had ever seen him, which sight had not been arousing so much as deeply hilarious), and if the list kept growing, well, hey: Kotetsu liked food. He was a fan of food; the fried, the better. Food had never betrayed him.
"You really should eat healthier," Barnaby said as Kotetsu bit into a cheeseburger--double-decker, slathered in mayo.
"Yes, dear," said Kotetsu.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," Barnaby nagged at him. He handed Kotetsu a napkin. "It's disgusting."
Only later, when Kotetsu wound the reel back up to play it again, did he catch the dear. Had Barnaby caught it? He remembered Barnaby's mouth creasing, how he'd huffed as he pulled a napkin out of the dispenser. How comfortable it had been, how easy. Maybe he'd caught it. Maybe he hadn't. Either way, it felt good, the shape of that word in Kotetsu's mouth, the taste of it on his tongue. Dear.
"Dear," he said to his empty bed.
He thought of how Tomoe had laughed in his arms when they cuddled. He thought: Tomoe would be happy for him. She'd laugh now, too.
Dear, he thought.
Kaede thump-thump-thumped down the stairs, half-sliding in her socks. Monday had come around again and with it, so had school. She slumped groaning into the little dining room and, having got up into her chair, collapsed upon the table, her arms thrown out before her.
He smiled over the mess of paperwork strewn across his end of the table at her, but she was too busy dying of the hour to notice.
"What do you want for breakfast?"
She stretched, catlike, her fingers claws. Then she was boneless again and grouchy as well. "I don't want anything."
"You should eat something," he said. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Do you want waffles?"
"I hate waffles," Kaede pronounced.
This was a lie. Kaede loved waffles, much as she loved anything she could drench in maple syrup, butter, whipped cream, and slices of strawberry. Kotetsu gathered up the more alarming case papers and then stuffed them away in the folder; he'd sort them out later. He ducked into the kitchen.
"We still have some melon left over, don't we?"
"It's probably moldy," said Kaede dourly. She hadn't lifted her head.
"Ha!" said Kotetsu. "Shows what you know, kid. This melon's in prime condition. It looks so good I think I'm gonna eat it all by myself."
"Go ahead." Kaede scrunched her arms around her head. "I don't want any."
"Looks like we've got some strawberries left over, too." Kotetsu sighed noisily. "Guess I'll have to eat those, too. And oh, hey, there's still some cake in here."
This got her attention. Kaede raised up, indignant.
"You can't have cake for breakfast! That's bad for your health."
"It smells funny, too," Kotetsu admitted. "When's the last time we cleaned the fridge out?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. Grandma does it."
"Eh, you're right." Kotetsu stood up from his crouch. His knees picked that moment to complain, tensing as he pushed up, but what could he do about it? He hip-checked the refrigerator door shut. "I'll just have waffles instead."
"Not all of them," Kaede said. She laid her cheek flat against the table. "I'll have two. I guess."
"You drive a hard bargain, lady," said Kotetsu, "but I think I can spare you one."
He stuffed the toaster oven and set the timer for two minutes. Kaede had sat up though her back was a crooked fish hook. She traced elliptical shapes on the tabletop with her finger. The skin under her eyes was bruised.
Kotetsu felt her forehead. "No fever," he said. "You been sneaking out at night to see boys?"
She swatted his arm away. "Dad. Don't be gross."
"Well, if it's not Isaac - Isaac? - with his big, dreamy eyes keeping you up at night--" Kotetsu batted his eyes.
"Oh, my God," Kaede said, covering her face, "why are you so weird?"
He tweaked her ear just to say he loved her. Then he said, "You want to tell your old man what's bothering you?"
"No," she said into her cupped hands. "It's silly. You'll just laugh."
"I won't laugh," Kotetsu said. He didn't like to think his own daughter would worry he'd laugh at her for something that kept her up all hours of the night, but then, she was young and she was also growing up.
He gave her his pinky finger. "Promise?"
For a moment she only looked at his finger, and he thought perhaps this was another little thing she'd outgrown without warning, then she stretched her own finger out and hooked it with his.
The toaster oven dinged. Kotetsu brought breakfast out to the table. He sat by Kaede, in the fourth chair they set by the table for symmetry. Most of the strawberries had gone mushy in the back of the fridge, and as Kaede picked through them, she handed the rotted ones to Kotetsu to set aside on another plate. She rolled a fat strawberry on her palm and passed it on.
"I have a math test on Wednesday," she said at last.
Another strawberry. Kotetsu held his hand out for it.
"Are you worried?"
Kaede sank into her shoulders. "A little. We're doing fractions." She pushed the bowl of strawberries deemed acceptable to him.
Pinning a strawberry beneath two fingers, one at a time he began cutting off the stems and then slicing the fruit into even slices. Mostly even.
"What don't you understand?" He kept mellow, not prying but waiting, if she wanted to talk.
She cupped her face in her sticky hands, her fingers spread across her cheeks, a pinky finger at the corner of each eye, a thumb behind each ear.
"Any of it. We're doing multiplications of fractions, but it's hard, and I don't get it."
Frustration scratched her voice up, made it drag out. Ah, thought Kotetsu. That whine was something she'd got from him, a tic inherited through observation. The realization made him go soft all over with love. He slipped her a strawberry, whole but for the stem. The green leaves sat glumly on the plate, a tumor excised.
"You could ask your teacher for help."
Kaede shrank. "It's embarrassing," she mumbled around the strawberry. "I've got an A in the class. I'm not supposed to need any help."
He pushed the bowl of cut strawberries to her elbow. He'd never really liked strawberries on his waffles, anyway. Kaede began sculpting a complex landscape on top of her waffles with whipped cream.
"It's okay to need help," said Kotetsu. He stuck a bit of berry upright in the cream, a pink flag in all that white. "You don't have to feel embarrassed for needing someone to help you out. Everybody needs help sometimes."
"You don't need help," Kaede said.
Kotetsu recoiled. "Who are you, and what have you done with my daughter?" he demanded, leaning forward to check her pupils.
"Sto-op," said Kaede, aggrieved. She shoved him back. Got whipped cream on his t-shirt, too. He smeared it off with his thumb and popped that in his mouth.
They sat together in mutual comprehension of the trouble of mathematics, or at least Kotetsu did, for Kaede had hunkered down to the task of cutting her waffles into even, bite-sized portions. It was the sort of thing Barnaby might do. Even as he thought this, he knew it was true, for Barnaby had done just the same thing the other day with a slightly burnt vegetarian pissaladière.
"Ah," said Kotetsu. "Hm."
"What?" Kaede stuffed two portions into her mouth at once.
"Nothing," Kotetsu said. "I just thought of something. But don't worry." He ruffled her hair, pulling it back from her eyes. He smiled down at her. "You'll do fine. Do you want some OJ?"
"I guess," said Kaede, which really meant yes, Dad, of course, thank you so much for asking. So he got it for her.
The last bit of September and the first of October had done its job of crisping the leaves and sharpening the air with it, so that autumn settled quite readily in Stern Bild. Summer had lingered longer than the year before, though. Kotetsu only really needed a jacket to walk the rest of the way from the subway station to Barnaby's work.
First, he crossed to the bistro on the corner and paid for a grilled romaine salad and two orders of yachae mandu. As he waited at the bar, he sent Barnaby a quick text.
hey u busy?
A few minutes passed. Kotetsu people-watched. With the weather poised at that perfect juncture between summer and winter, the wind cool but not bitter, Stern Bild was out and about its streets. But then, Stern Bild was always like that.
His phone buzzed on the counter.
I have an appointment, wrote Barnaby. I should be free in a half hour. Why?
no resn, Kotetsu typed back. jus wndrin. u bored?
"Your order, sir?"
He snapped his phone shut. "Ah--thanks a lot."
Kotetsu pushed off the bar. The brown sack was warm and heavy, and damn, if it didn't smell delicious. The bunny was rubbing off on him. Maybe he could sneak a couple of the dumplings. He'd paid for them, so it wasn't really like stealing. No, he thought regretfully. That was like buying a box of chocolates for somebody then eating the ones with caramel nougat out of it before giving it to them.
He was at the door when his phone buzzed again. Balancing the sack in the crook of his arm, he fished the cell phone out of his pocket. The door closed softly behind him. A bell chimed overhead.
Very, said Barnaby.
Kotetsu hitched the take-out higher. He wrote: hang on 2 ur turbn kid, and grinning at his own wit, he walked right into Nathan Seymour, owner and manager of Blazing Hearts Matchmaking Service.
"Whoa, there," said Mister Seymour as Kotetsu executed an elaborate maneuver to save the take-out, his phone, and his dignity. Seymour caught him. "Try not to ruin the suit, honey. I can guarantee it costs more than you make a year."
"Sorry," said Kotetsu. "I wasn't looking."
Seymour lifted one perfectly crafted eyebrow. "Yeah, no kidding. You always do the meet cute thing when you run into someone gorgeous?" He brushed Kotetsu's shoulders off.
"The what thing?"
He fluttered his fingertips, dismissive. "It's a romantic comedy thing. The heroine trips over her own feet and lands in the guy's lap. Kotetsu Kaburagi, right?"
"Yeah," said Kotetsu, surprised. "How did you know?"
"I never forget a face," said Seymour, one conspirator to another. "Especially not one as cute as yours. It comes with the job. You wouldn't believe how many names I've got up here, trust me. Some of the faces, I wish I could forget." His eyes narrowed with sudden incisiveness. "Is that for Barnaby?"
The take-out was warm at Kotetsu's shoulder, and the rich, fried fragrance of the dumplings made his mouth slick. His phone buzzed again in his palm. He stuffed it in his pocket and said, "Yeah. He doesn't always remember to eat, so..."
Seymour snorted. "Tell me about it. It's like pulling teeth with the kid sometimes, getting him to remember he's got a body and that body's got needs."
There was a question to it at the end. Kotetsu side-stepped it. Instead, he bounced the sack a little and said, "How'd you know it was for--" Bunny, he did not say. Barnaby, he didn't say either. "--Mister Brooks?"
"How, indeed," said Seymour wryly. "Let's consider the facts. First, Mister Brooks has been working here for three years and yet you're the first person I've ever known to visit him for reasons outside of work."
A stone dropped in Kotetsu's gut, not a large one, but one that caught on his ribs on the way down.
"No one else?"
"Not a one," Seymour confirmed. "Not a soul in three years."
Three years. He thought of Barnaby sitting alone in that little meeting room, the window blinds parted but the world outside the glass.
"He talks about you, too."
"He what?" Kotetsu refocused. "What does he say?"
Seymour waved him off. "I don't kiss and tell. Besides, half of it's not fit for polite company. You are polite, aren't you?"
"I try to be," said Kotetsu. He was thinking about the mess he'd left in the kitchen and how he kept calling Barnaby Bunny even after Barnaby had asked him to stop. Valiantly, he overcame. "Cops have to be pillars of the community. Set a good example for everyone else."
"And yet," said Seymour dryly. He crossed his arms, hands artfully limp, and sighed. "All I'm trying to say is, be gentle with him, Mister Good Example."
Kotetsu swallowed. His mouth had gone dry, and even the enticing scent of the dumplings or the grilled salad, tossed with roasted tomatoes, couldn't help him out.
"I haven't," he said, "I mean, we haven't--" His phone buzzed. Kotetsu jumped.
Seymour reached over and brushed the backs of his slender fingers down Kotetsu's shoulders, first one side, then the other.
"Barnaby's meeting should be over in ten minutes," he told Kotetsu. "Let's keep this little tete a tete between us. You know how he is."
"Yeah," said Kotetsu thoughtfully, "I do. Uh--thanks, Mister Seymour."
"It's Nathan," said Mister Seymour, his lush mouth deepening. "We're friends, aren't we, Mister Kaburagi?"
That was a threat if Kotetsu had ever heard one, but it was an invitation, too. An olive branch when Kotetsu hadn't known one was needed.
"Thanks," said Kotetsu. He meant it, too.
"If you break his heart, I'll kick your ass," said Nathan. "I have to dash now. My boutique calls. Ciao!"
He sashayed out the door in a cloud of glitter and a layered cologne that made Kotetsu's nose itch. Kotetsu rubbed at his mouth. He'd been charmed without realizing it was happening.
His jacket vibrated. Sitting in one of the chairs set up by that bank of heart-spotted windows, Kotetsu dug for his phone. Three new texts awaited him; all were from Barnaby, though they'd been spaced apart.
The most recent text said, *Turban. The one before it read, Aladdin didn't wear a turban, so that line doesn't even make sense in context. A-ha, thought Kotetsu as he read the first: Did you just quote Aladdin at me?
hav ssome rspct 4 th clasixs, he said comfortably. didnt u evr watch disny when u wer a kid?
The dumplings were going to be cool when the meeting finally ended, Kotetsu realized. He hadn't timed it very well. He was poking around in the sack, trying to decide if this meant he was allowed to dip into that metaphorical box of chocolates, when another text came in.
I respect you, don't I?
Barnaby emerged a few minutes later, still in conversation with a young, portly woman with a soft and pretty face. The woman said something, and Barnaby smiled and nodded and smiled again. The woman tucked her hair behind her ear. Barnaby's hands were folded before him. A chart hung from the fingers of his left hand.
The woman made for the doors. Barnaby flipped the chart open, his face turned down to it. His feet moved. His hips shifted, angling toward the hallway. Kotetsu scooped the take-out off the chair and caught up to him at the steps.
"Hardy har har," said Kotetsu. He threw his arm around Barnaby's shoulders. "I'm old. I get it."
Barnaby had stiffened when Kotetsu ran up against his back. Now, he relaxed. He tipped his head to one side and afforded a half-lidded look of immense condescension.
"You couldn't possibly call," he said.
"I texted. That's kind of the same thing." Kotetsu danced a couple steps in front of Barnaby, slowing him down though not stopping him. "Guess what I got you?"
Barnaby sniffed. "You brought dumplings?"
"Happy early birthday!" said Kotetsu. "Or late birthday, I don't know. Your birthday's this month, right? Anyway, here you go. Congratulations on adulthood."
Barnaby accepted the bag. A flicker of a smile wrinkled his mouth.
"My birthday isn't until the thirty-first."
Kotetsu followed him into the room. "Your birthday's on Halloween? Lucky. You must have had fun with that as a kid." He kicked a chair out from the little square table and dropped down into it. On reflection, he did not prop his feet up on the table.
Barnaby extracted the boxed salad and both sets of dumplings from the bag. "Not especially. Kotetsu," he said, exasperated, "I can't possibly eat all of this."
"You're too skinny," argued Kotetsu. "You should eat more, you know that, right? It's almost winter."
"I'm not a bear," said Barnaby patiently. "I don't need to store fat to hibernate." He pushed one of the cardboard boxes at Kotetsu.
"Bunny, no," said Kotetsu, "I couldn't. This is your lunch." Even cold, the dumplings would just fall apart right in his mouth--
"You're drooling," said Barnaby. He rooted in the bag. "Besides, they packed two sets of utensils." He handed a plastic-wrapped fork to Kotetsu.
"Don't come crying to me when your butt falls off," said Kotetsu.
"Noted," said Barnaby, "but please. You don't need to worry yourself about the state of my butt on my account."
"It's so flat, though." Kotetsu cut a straight line through the air with his fork. "It's like a washboard."
"What's a washboard?" asked Barnaby.
"It's a board," said Kotetsu. "For washing."
Thoughtfully, Barnaby bit into a dumpling. A bit of spinach oozed out the end.
"Oh, hey," said Kotetsu, "I've got a thing of sweet chili sauce in here. You want some?"
Barnaby did. They shuffled food around, setting the dumplings up as common ground between them. Kotetsu found a few packets of soy sauce in the bag, and he split those open on the inner lid of one of the boxes.
Barnaby dipped a fried tomato in the sauce and bit into it. He was smiling. It wasn't a grand smile, but it was a happy one. The tip of his tongue flicked at the corner of his lips. Kotetsu rolled a dumpling around in the chili sauce and stuffed it in his own mouth.
"I wanted to ask you something," he said around it.
"You'll choke if you don't chew that," Barnaby warned.
Kotetsu chewed noisily and gestured to his jaw to say, I'm working on it. Barnaby handed him a napkin.
"Kaede's got a math test Wednesday," Kotetsu said, swallowing. "I know it's kind of short notice, and if you don't have any time, that's fine, but if you do, could you maybe help her out a little? I know you're really good at math," he added, syrupy-sweet.
Barnaby swirled half a dumpling in the puddle of soy sauce.
"I'm free tomorrow evening," he said, "if that's not too late. What's she having difficulty with?"
"Fractions," Kotetsu said. "Multiplying them, she said, but I don't really know if that's all or what exactly."
"It shouldn't be too hard," said Barnaby. "She's very smart."
"Yeah," said Kotetsu. He smiled at Barnaby over the dumplings and the sauces and Barnaby's ridiculously healthy salad. "She is."
His mother was reading at the table when he got home - a favorite romance novel, the spine frayed white. A barrel-chested man with a fountain of blond curls clutched a swooning woman to aforementioned barrel on the cover. The guy looked like Barnaby, but the woman was too red-headed and too white to pass as Kotetsu.
"Hey, Mama," he said. He felt like a kid, traipsing mud into the house. "Is it okay if Barnaby comes over tomorrow night?"
"You're a grown man. It's your house," said his mother indifferently. She turned the page. "You can have your friends over if you want. Just don't make a mess."
"But if he stayed for dinner..."
His mother peered through her spectacles. She'd reached a much-read scene, going by the crease in the spine.
"How much does he eat?"
"Not a lot," he said, "less than Kaede. But he's vegetarian, so."
"Lots of people are vegetarians," she said. "Your great-grandfather, my grandfather, he was a vegetarian. He was a very strict Buddhist. I'll make tofu dotenabe and yakiudon."
"I love yakiudon!" Kaede bounced off the last step and landed, her arms outstretched, on her heels. "Are we gonna have it tonight? I thought we were doing oyakudon. Can we still do oyakudon tonight?"
"Oi," said Kotetsu, catching her by her ear, "don't you think one's enough for you?"
"Then I want oyakudon tonight," said Kaede.
"How lucky!" said Grandmother. "I'm making oyakudon tonight, and you can help me. The yakiudon is for tomorrow." She looked thoughtful. "Would he eat a coffee flan?"
"What's tomorrow?" Kaede put her hands on the table and arched onto her toes. "Who's eating coffee flan?"
"Mister Brooks is coming over," Kotetsu explained.
Kaede dropped onto her heels. She lit up. "He is?"
"You have to study for your test," Grandmother reminded her, and Kaede's face fell. So, too, did her shoulders.
"Who knows," said Kotetsu, remarkably casually if he did say so himself, "maybe Mister Brooks could help out."
Horror suffused Kaede. "If you tell him I need help, I'll never forgive you!"
"Why would I tell him?" Kotetsu looked vaguely about the room for support. "He probably wouldn't even want to help."
"He would, too," said Kaede. "Mister Brooks isn't like you. He's nice."
This, the same girl who had castigated Barnaby for his rudeness to Kotetsu. Love was truly a fickle thing, and the heart of a child, once lost, could never be regained.
"You invited him over for dinner?" Antonio set his soda down on the dashboard. "You don't think you're moving a little fast?"
"How is that moving fast?" Kotetsu grabbed the fries off Antonio. "That's what you do when you like someone. "You ask them out. You do stuff together. You get to know them."
"All right," Antonio allowed, "but I got a multi-part question for you. The first part is, how well do you know this guy yet, and the second part is, does he know you wanna date him?"
The fries were stale. Kotetsu ate five just to keep his mouth busy. Crunching noises filled the car. Antonio took a drag from his soda. Kotetsu swallowed. Salt stuck to his tongue, his teeth.
"I don't even know if he'd want to date me," Kotetsu said at last.
"Jesus," said Antonio, "you're still dumb as rocks."
"Why does everyone have to treat me like I'm a moron?" Kotetsu wondered.
"'Cause when it comes to love, you are a moron," said Antonio. "I've met Barnaby Brooks. He's an asshole."
"Hey," said Kotetsu. But it was kind of true. He ate another french fry.
"If Barnaby Brooks didn't want to hang out with you," Antonio said, "he wouldn't hang out with you. It's not like you guys work together."
"Right," said Kotetsu. "He's not stuck with me like I'm stuck with you."
"Anyway," Antonio said, "we all saw what happened when you hit your head. The guy was all over you."
Kotetsu opened his mouth. He was just being considerate, he meant to say. It didn't mean anything. That was what friends did. Then he thought: Did Barnaby even have friends?
"I'm old, though," said Kotetsu. It was the truth. "And I've got a daughter, and Mom." He rubbed at his wedding ring.
"Don't sell yourself short," said Antonio. "Maybe you can be his sugar daddy."
"Get out of my car," said Kotetsu.
The doorbell rang. In his rush to finish buttoning his shirt, Kotetsu misaligned the buttons and had to start over again.
"I'll get it!" Kaede shouted down the hall. She pounded down the stairs.
Kotetsu grinned and checked the fall of his collar, running his fingers under the lapels. He supposed he should fix the topmost button in place, but his throat was tight enough already. Tomoe had always liked it best when he left the top button or two out anyway. He smiled, thumb brushing his chest. All right.
He made his way down the stairs, pausing a few steps up when Barnaby spoke.
"Were you studying?"
Kotetsu had warned him to play it casual, though it had taken him a while to really get it out. Kaede wouldn't have been too happy if he'd just out and out told Barnaby she'd a kid's crush on him. He'd settled for "She's sensitive about her grades," and "Don't tell her I asked you."
"Yeah," said Kaede. "I've got a test tomorrow."
"Really?" Barnaby sounded genuinely interested. "What subject?"
Kotetsu peered around the corner. Barnaby was unwinding a lacy scarf from his throat and smiling at Kaede. She'd tucked her hands together at the small of her back, her head bent, dark hair tied up in a bun.
"Math," she said, "but it's really boring. You probably wouldn't like it."
"Didn't your father tell you?" Barnaby draped the expanse of his scarf over his arm. "I have a Bachelor of Mathematics. Not many people do, though," he said reflectively, "relatively few schools offer it."
"That's so cool!" said Kaede. "My dad's got an associate's in criminal justice," at which Kotetsu winced, "but that's not really the same thing."
"That's still very impressive," said Barnaby. He almost sounded as if he meant it. "Is it all right if I look at your book?"
"Sure!" blurted Kaede. "You can sit on the couch, by me. Dad, move your bag!"
Kotetsu sauntered down the last couple steps, fussing with his sleeves. "Sorry," he said, "what?"
Kaede held his saddle bag out, accusation thick in the set of her thin shoulders. "You're not supposed to leave it on the couch."
"What are you doing making me look bad in front of my guest?" He snagged the bag from her and slung it over his shoulder. "How do I look? Dapper, huh?"
"That's just how he always look," Kaede told Barnaby.
"I know," he said.
They exchanged a look that said, this poor old guy.
"I can tell when I'm not wanted," Kotetsu said. He dabbed at his eyes with his cuff, pulled over his thumb. "I'll just leave you two alone, forever."
"How uncharacteristically solicitous of you," said Barnaby. He lifted Kaede's textbook from the coffee table and set it on his knees.
Kotetsu lingered tragically, then he went to see if his mother needed help.
"Of course I need help," she said irritably. "Does this look easy to you?" She scraped diced pepper and onion from the cutting board and into a sizzling skillet with the dull side of a rather wicked knife. "Bring those noodles over."
Fixing dinner took another twenty minutes. Grandmother had done most of the work before Barnaby had come, setting the coffee flan to chill the day before and deep-frying the tofu for the dotenabe in the afternoon. Kotetsu laid out a fourth place mat at the table. His hand stilled upon it. He breathed out then in. The world hadn't stopped spinning. The house still stood.
"Out of the way," his mother warned. "Hot pot!"
In the living room, Barnaby was sketching something out in Kaede's notebook. A hank of hair had come loose from her bun, and it swayed at her ear as she leaned in to inspect his work. Barnaby drew another line, then a number.
"Oh!" said Kaede.
"Dinner's ready," Kotetsu said. He was smiling. "Get it while it's hot."
They gathered around the table, perhaps with a bit more noise than usual. Kaede was bouncing up on her toes and down again. Barnaby hesitated a moment before sitting. The chair scraped against the floorboards, and his eyes pinched.
Kaede clapped her hands together. "Itadakimasu," said Grandmother, and Kaede and Kotetsu echoed her.
Barnaby pressed his fingertips together, his wrists touching, a space opening between the ends. "Thank you for the meal."
Kaede didn't wait. "Dad! Barnaby showed me a trick, with the fractions! It helped, a lot."
"Did he?" Kotetsu rounded his eyes. "That was really nice of him. I can't believe Barnaby did something so nice."
Barnaby looked flatly at him across the table. The unspoken hey, asshole hung in the air between them. Politely, Kotetsu ignored it.
"It was easy," said Barnaby, smiling beatifically at Kaede. "All teachers should be so lucky as to have a student as clever as Kaede."
Under the auspices of so bright and so concentrated a smile, Kaede choked on her yakiudon. Kotetsu thumped her back. Tears dotted her eyes.
"Dad, stop," she hissed. "Not in front of Mister Brooks."
"Chew, then swallow," he hissed back. "You want to choke to death in front of him?"
Barnaby picked at his plate. He'd hardly eaten. Nervousness, no doubt, though to the ignorant observer perhaps it would like nothing so much as pickiness, and it was only because Kotetsu knew firsthand how astoundingly awkward Barnaby really was in anything resembling an intimate social situation that he knew it was not the latter. Barnaby lifted his spoon, laden and lightly steaming - Kotetsu held his breath - then Barnaby set it down again.
"Your granddaughter is very gifted," Barnaby said.
"Oh!" said Grandmother. She touched her collar. "You think so? Of course, her teachers say so. Do you not like the food?"
That jolted Barnaby out of whatever stupor he'd fallen into. He smiled winsomely again and said, "It's delicious," then, thank God, he finally ate. His lips pursed; he blew gently across the spoon, then he took the rounded head into his mouth. His cheeks fluttered then hollowed just so. When he slid the spoon out again, his lips pulled out with it.
"Chew and swallow, Dad," muttered Kaede vengefully.
"Have some yakiudon," said Grandmother to Barnaby.
After dinner, Grandmother enlisted Kaede to help clean off the table.
"Why me? What about Dad?" she protested.
"Your father helped cook," said Grandmother. "Bring those plates in, would you?"
Barnaby was taking his sweet time with his flan, cutting out segments with the edge of a spoon. His brow was light and his shoulders, normally held so tightly, had begun to slope inexorably downward.
"Thanks," Kotetsu said, soft so Kaede wouldn't hear. "She really needed that."
"Was that for me or the flan?"
Barnaby's lashes flashed. He sucked pointedly at the spoon then let it fall from his lips; it swung like a pendulum between his fingers. "I don't know why she needed my help. She really is very bright."
"Eh, you know how it is," said Kotetsu. "Sometimes you just hit a wall."
"You do?" asked Barnaby.
"You're sure you're not a robot," said Kotetsu. "One hundred percent positive?"
Barnaby's mouth curved and his eyes did a funny thing: they crinkled. "Well," he said, "my parents were roboticists. But I don't think I'm a robot. Not a proper one. Maybe a cyborg," he mused, the spoon denting his lower lip.
Kotetsu puzzled through this. "So, your parents--designed robots?"
"Conceptual designs primarily," said Barnaby, cutting out another slice of flan, "though they also made practical advancements in field."
"Is that why you studied math? If you have a degree in mathematics," he said, "how does that lead to matchmaking?"
"Part of the reason." Barnaby weighed the flan on his spoon, then he ate that, too, conscientiously. He'd eaten everything Kotetsu's mother had set on his plate till Kotetsu, alarmed by the increasingly ill look on Barnaby's face, had intervened.
"I didn't study math, though," he clarified. He licked at his lip. Crumbs had caught there. "I majored in computer sciences with a minor in conceptual mathematics."
"You studied math," Kotetsu corrected.
"You're simplifying things again," said Barnaby. "I'm a matchmaker because I needed a job and I'm good at it. Most of my customers," he said acerbically, "don't give me as much trouble as you do."
"I'm not trouble," said Kotetsu.
"Yes, you are," said Barnaby. He knocked the spoon against the plate. "You can't make up your own mind about anything, and you're always asking needless questions."
"But why matchmaking?" Kotetsu wanted to know. "Why not--teaching? Or doing that robot stuff, too?"
"See? That's three." Barnaby took another bite. He was thinking. "I guess," he said at last with some dry amusement, "I was lonely." He fingered the spoon, turning it around his fingers. "And I saw my parents everywhere."
Kotetsu figured he could understand that. "Must be rough," he said, "having to live up to that."
Barnaby looked up from his study of the spoon, now tapping against his thumb. He smiled strangely. The spoon stilled along his finger. "Must be."
Barnaby did an even stranger thing then. He reached across the corner of the table to straighten Kotetsu's collar.
Kotetsu lifted his chin. It was instinct made him do it, and the subtle warmth of Barnaby's little finger as it curled beneath Kotetsu's shirt, in the place where it gaped and his chest showed.
"It's cold outside," said Barnaby. He'd a wide spectrum of disapproving tones, each with its own unique meaning and tone. This one was fond. "You should button up."
"I'm not outside," said Kotetsu. When he breathed in, his chest brushed Barnaby's finger; the tip of his nail just barely pricked Kotetsu.
Barnaby sat back. After a moment, he remembered his hand. He cut off another piece of flan and stuck that in his mouth. The very tops of his cheeks were red. He was nearly out of flan. The edge of the spoon scraped across the plate as he gathered up the rest of it.
Kotetsu leaned forward onto the table and rested his head on his folded arms. Barnaby paused, spoon in the air, and eyed Kotetsu as though he thought Kotetsu had some wicked scheme to snap up the last of the flan.
"I'm not going to steal your dessert," said Kotetsu. "Mama only makes coffee flan for special occasions. I'd be a jerk if I deprived you of the honor." He nodded. "Go ahead and eat it. You need the calories anyway."
"What's the occasion?" asked Barnaby.
Kotetsu rolled his eyes, then, when Barnaby frowned, he realized he'd been serious. He hadn't known or even guessed. Kotetsu rubbed at his neck, still folded over the table.
"You really can't guess?"
Barnaby's frown darkened. "No."
"Just eat," said Kotetsu. He didn't want to say it, that his mother had made the four flans to celebrate Barnaby coming over for dinner. "If you don't eat it, I will. Good food's not meant to be wasted."
Barnaby popped it in his mouth. He held the spoon there, the bowl half between his lips. His lenses already made his eyes look smaller than they were; when he squinted, as he did now, his eyelashes obscured them.
"How bad is your eyesight?" asked Kotetsu. He unfolded his arm and touched a finger to the very corner of Barnaby's glasses.
"Twenty-four hundred," said Barnaby. His hand rose to brush that corner of his glasses. A nervous check. Even Barnaby could feel too big for his skin, he guessed.
"If you weren't wearing your glasses," said Kotetsu, "could you still see me?"
Barnaby set his spoon down. His head tipped back; his mouth hitched, lopsided. Such weariness for one so young and good-looking.
"I'm not blind, only near-sighted. Yes," he said. "I could see you. The details would be fuzzier. Your beard--"
His fingers rose. The tips nearly swept over Kotetsu's skin. Then Barnaby hesitated again, and it was only air he traced.
Grandmother and Kaede were laughing in the kitchen now. A pot clattered in the sink; water hissed. In a moment, Grandmother would call for Kotetsu to help her with the dishes. Barnaby's eyes lowered then rose again. A wall had come up his face, but there was something hungry peeking through it, something young and hungry.
"Why did your mother make the flan?"
Kotetsu smiled, warm and loose and a little rumpled at the corners. There were little golden-brown crumbs scattered across Barnaby's lower lip. He'd liked watching Barnaby eat, not just for that casual grace or the airs he put on, but for the comfort that came from watching someone you cared for eat.
"You're real smart, Bunny," he said, "but sometimes I wonder. How does this guy get through life? That's what I wonder."
Barnaby had started scowling again. "Old man. If all you mean to do is laugh at me, then--"
It was the old man that did it.
"Ahhh," he yawned, stretching. He did it to hide the disappointment he knew must show on his face. "You're not cute at all, Bunny." He laced his fingers behind his head. "She made it for you. You should thank her for it later."
Barnaby's eyes flickered. He looked up from contemplation of his plate and his spoon. Kotetsu's fingers tightened, digging into his scalp. The look on Barnaby's face--unreadable. His shoulders had gone tight again. It was as if he'd frozen.
Kotetsu dropped his hands. He said--but he didn't get the chance after all.
Kaede flopped her arms over Kotetsu's shoulders. "Grandma says you have to help with the dishes," she announced, "since I put stuff away. You don't have to do anything," said Kaede sweetly to Barnaby, "'cause you're a guest."
Barnaby turned his face away. His fingers were at his glasses. His mouth was a stiff line turning down.
"Dad," Kaede sang in Kotetsu's ear. She got up on her toes. Her arms pushed down against his shoulders.
"All right," said Kotetsu. He squeezed her wrist. "I'm going."
Kaede loosed him. Already, she'd moved on. She took Kotetsu's chair as he stood, sliding in as easily as if he'd never sat there at all. Barnaby had given up on his glasses; now, he fiddled with the spoon, setting it this way across the plate, now that way.
"I'll take that," Kotetsu said.
"Thank you," said Barnaby.
Their thumbs brushed, on the underside of the plate. A warm shot ran all up Kotetsu's spine, so his back stiffened and the insides of his knees wavered and then locked. Barnaby didn't react at all. He set his hand down on the table. His little finger twitched.
"Mister Brooks," said Kaede, "would you like to come over for dinner again?"
"Hey." Kotetsu rapped his knuckles lightly on Kaede's head. "He's my guest, not yours, kiddo." He didn't look at Barnaby.
"Maybe," said Barnaby, as Kaede knocked Kotetsu's hand away. "I'd have to check my schedule first."
"But if you're free," said Kaede.
Kotetsu booked it for the kitchen. He had his dignity, and he didn't want to stay to hear Barnaby hedge around the prospect of coming over to Kotetsu's place again. A funny dead weight swelled his chest. He couldn't tell if he was too full or empty inside. Well, what had he expected? Barnaby was young and clever with a promising future in hooking other people up, and Kotetsu was an old widower with a daughter, a badge, and a gun he didn't like to carry.
"What's got into you?" asked his mother.
He passed her the plate and the spoon then pulled on the second pair of rubber gloves. "Nothing much," he said. He took the sorrow out of his chest and expelled it in a purposefully dramatic sigh. "I just wish I could've had more of that delicious flan."
"If you'd learn to make it yourself, you could have it more often."
He stuck his hands in the warm water. Suds rose up the length of the gloves, engulfing his forearms.
"Then it wouldn't be special," he said.
"Still such a baby," said Mama, then she handed him the wok, scraped clean, to rinse and wash and set aside to dry.
They'd most of the cooking works put away on the drying board when motion at the entrance to the kitchen caught Grandmother's eye. When she turned, Kotetsu looked up from the last of the pans; oil had stuck to the bottom and refused to come off.
Barnaby was standing at the threshold, his scarf slung around his neck and a red wool coat with black buttons gaping over his chest. His eyes were very green. He was smiling.
"Thank you very much for the meal, Mrs Kaburagi," he said. "It was delicious. I especially liked the flan."
"Are you leaving already?"
"I'm afraid so," he said pleasantly. "I have to catch up on some work at the office, and I won't have time tomorrow."
Kotetsu began stripping off the gloves. It didn't matter if he wore them; he always got water in them anyway.
"You should stay for tea at least," said Grandmother.
His smile was pleasant, too. Pleasant, but distant, Kotetsu thought. A distance had opened between them all.
"I couldn't possibly put you out any more tonight," he said. "You've already given me such a wonderful meal."
"Oh, well," she said. "Before you go--"
She grabbed a plastic bag off the counter. Tupperware containers slid around in it, then she pressed the lot into Barnaby's hands.
He said again, "I couldn't--"
"Nonsense," said Grandmother. "You're too skinny. You should eat more."
Barnaby had opened the bag, each strap held in his curling fingers, his thumbs crooked as he looked into the bag. Now he passed the strap in his left hand to his right. There was a moment in there where Kotetsu thought Barnaby had looked to him, that Barnaby's shoulder fell just a hair; then it passed.
"Thank you," said Barnaby.
Kotetsu plopped the wet gloves down over the sink's lip. "I'll walk you out."
Barnaby's fingers fidgeted over the bag's handles. "All right," he said. He looked over Kotetsu's shoulder to Grandmother. "Have a good evening, Mrs Kaburagi, and thank you again for having me over."
"Oh, of course," she said. Another one charmed. "Such a nice young man--" She leaned over the bar. "When you've finished with the food, just give the boxes to Kotetsu and he'll bring them home."
Kaede looked up from her textbook. "Good night, Mister Brooks! Thanks again for all your help."
"It was no trouble at all," said Barnaby. "I'm sure you'll do very well on the test tomorrow."
"It's all thanks to you," Kaede called after them.
Barnaby paused at the door. His fingers stilled, caught up in the knot he was tying in his scarf.
"Never sell yourself short," he said to Kaede. "If you're talented, be talented. You don't owe anyone apologies for your abilities."
Then he swept through the door. Kotetsu shrugged at Kaede. He didn't know either.
Barnaby had gone down one step then stopped. His back was to Kotetsu; his shoulders were pulled up. He'd hunched a bit in the wind. The tips of his ears, poking out through his curls, were pink.
The cold bit at Kotetsu, so he stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"You'll need to start wearing a hat soon," Kotetsu said. He shivered. "It's getting colder."
Barnaby took another step down. One more to the sidewalk. Kotetsu could look over his head now, the distance between them eating up those few inches of height Barnaby lorded over him.
"You're always nagging me," Barnaby said, "about what I eat or what I wear or how often I sleep."
The scarf muffled him, but the edge of his tongue cut through regardless. His heel scraped as he turned. His face was tight, his mouth harsh where the edges showed over the scarf and through its laced pattern.
"I wish you'd stop."
Kotetsu had known it was coming. Goosebumps stood out all over his arms. The wind was roaring in his ears.
"What," he said, "I can't worry about my friend?"
Barnaby's lips flattened. He was angry then, really angry, in a way Kotetsu hadn't seen since they'd first met. Not even then. He made no pretense of kindness, offered no insincere smile.
"I'm not a child," Barnaby said. "I'm capable of living my own life without your interference. I'd done so for years very successfully before I ever met you, and I don't need your meddling or your patronizing to get through the day."
"What patronizing?" Kotetsu was shouting. He hadn't meant to shout, but he did it anyway. "I'm trying to help you--"
"When did I ever say I needed your help," Barnaby said, faster now, "when did I ever ask you to, to bring me lunch or--"
"I did it because you're my friend," Kotetsu yelled at him. "That's what friends do! They do things for each other, they help each other, they do things without having to be asked to do them, because they're friends and they care about each other!"
"Fuck you!" shouted Barnaby back at him. "You asshole. You--selfish old man--"
Kotetsu took the step before he'd thought of doing it. He felt his leg move, heard his slipper drag across the pavement, knew that slight tremor running up his thigh was the impact of his foot on the next step down. He was even with Barnaby now, their eyes on the same level. Barnaby's breath gusted out white and damp. Kotetsu's did, too.
"I never asked you to be my friend," Barnaby snarled. "Maybe I don't fucking want you to be my friend!"
Barnaby's lips were soft against Kotetsu's; he'd put on some sort of lip gloss after dinner, and the suggestion of raspberries itched at Kotetsu's tongue. When Barnaby exhaled, sharp through his nose, his breath was hot on Kotetsu's cheek. His mouth was hot, too, and the slide of his cool hair over Kotetsu's face was another sort of kiss, one even sweeter. Barnaby made a little noise.
Then he shoved Kotetsu back. The edge of the top step caught Kotetsu's ankle; he staggered.
Barnaby's face had flattened, emptied out of feeling--but that wasn't right. His nostrils were flared, his mouth jagged and hard, a blond curl tangled up and pressed to his jaw. He breathed as if he'd run an awful distance in a very short time.
"I'm sorry," Kotetsu said. He meant it; he did. It had been a mistake. They'd been fighting, he thought, and-- Loathing crawled in his gut. "Bunny, I'm sorry, I--"
Barnaby turned and walked away. He didn't say anything; he didn't strike out at Kotetsu. He only walked away.
Kotetsu stood there, shivering on the stoop, watching Barnaby and his red coat diminish. The wind pulled at Kotetsu, entwined its bitter arms about him and drew him up into its embrace. His eyes were wet. The wind stung them. He didn't know if Barnaby had passed out of sight or if it was only that Kotetsu couldn't see him for the wind blowing relentlessly down the street. It was nearly winter, and Kotetsu had forgotten to put on a jacket.
His throat itched. Kotetsu wiped at his eyes, then he straightened and he went inside.
"Did Mister Brooks say if he'd come back?" asked Kaede hopefully. Her math book was open, her notebook, too. Equations littered both, some of them in her child's scrawl, some of them in a careful, tidy notation that was Barnaby's.
"No," said Kotetsu, "he didn't say."
The next day came. That was the way of it. Kotetsu helped Kaede get her things together for school while she ate. He hooked her backpack over the back of the chair.
"Nope." She dragged her spoon through the bowl of Froot Loops. The colors had faded into the milk. "A little. But I'm going to do okay. Mister Brooks helped a lot."
Kotetsu tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Remember you have to brush your teeth before we go."
"I know," she groused. "I'm not like you, Dad."
"I brush my teeth," he protested, and Kaede snorted into her milk.
The morning routine helped; it was easy to fall into the rhythm of checking to see if he'd everything he needed for work, phone in his pocket, had Kaede brushed her teeth, did she have everything, did he have everything? His mother shuffled into the kitchen, still in her nightgown. He kissed her cheek as he grabbed a bottle of orange juice out of the fridge.
"Since when do you drink orange juice?" asked his mother, suspicious.
"Eh," he said. "I'm trying to eat healthier."
"You?" she said, but since he was at the front door already, he let it slide.
"You don't have to walk me to the stop," Kaede said.
"I want to," he said. "Don't you want your old man around anymore?"
"I'm ten," said Kaede, "I'm not a baby."
Three children were at the stop. Sarah from two houses down waved to Kaede.
"Have a good day, okay?" He tucked the orange juice bottle into her bag while she was waving back to Sarah. "You'll do great on your test."
"I know," she said, "now go away, please."
Kotetsu held his hands up. "All right. I can take a hint. Don't skimp on your lunch!"
"I'm not gonna!"
He got going. The car was cold, soaked through with the morning chill, so he let the engine warm up a few minutes. His pocket was heavy, his cell phone a rock weighing it down against his thigh. He dug it out and checked. No new calls. No messages, either.
It was seven in the morning. Blazing Hearts Matchmaking Service didn't open till, what was it--ten, he thought. He pocketed his phone again and pulled out into the street.
Work was a disaster. The internet had crashed again, and Antonio was out sick with a stomach bug, which meant Kotetsu was stuck with desk work and plenty of it. Halfway through the Park report, he glanced at his watch. Eleven-twelve. He tracked the second hand around the watch face for a minute.
"Anybody wanna order a pizza?" Jules shouted across the pen.
"Make mine anchovies," said Ellie, to the derision of the rest of the division. "What? What? They're good for you! Fuck you guys."
Kotetsu grabbed his cell phone. The digital time display was a minute ahead of his watch. Tech. He tapped in a B on his contacts list. Up came Bunny-chan. The photo attached was one of Barnaby popping a spinach roll into his mouth at the bar. He'd turned away, so it was his throat that was the focus, the pale column twisting, his jaw exposed. But the corner of his mouth showed and it was turned up.
hey, he typed. He hit cancel. Did he want to save the message in drafts? He clicked the phone shut.
Eleven-fifteen. Jules ordered the pizzas, no anchovies. At half past eleven, half the pen swarmed the pizza guy.
"Yo!" called Kowalski. "Kotetsu! You want some of this?"
"No, I'm good," Kotetsu said. He was finishing up the Park report. He was on a roll. He tapped the keyboard with a flourish. Yeah, check him out.
"Leave 'im," said Ricardo. "He's probably got a lunch date."
Kotetsu sent the report to the printer and closed the file. As he crossed the floor to snag the printed report off the outgoing, he pulled his phone from his pocket. Probably got a lunch date.
r u free latr 2day? he wrote. we need 2 talk.
At a quarter to two, his phone buzzed in his back pocket.
I'm busy, Barnaby said.
On Thursday, Barnaby said, I have work to do.
On Friday, he said, I'm in a meeting.
how long? wrote Kotetsu.
He waited a half hour, then an hour. Another hour.
I'm busy, said Barnaby.
On Saturday, Kotetsu turned his phone off, pulled the battery out the back for good measure, and stuck both in his bedside dresser.
"You wanna go skating?" he asked Kaede at lunch.
"Yeah!" she said. She slurped her noodles. Sauce splattered her nose. Kotetsu passed her a napkin. "Is Mister Brooks coming, too?"
"Why would you want him to come?" asked Kotetsu, feigning--not feigning--feigning hurt. "I'm not enough anymore?"
"Ugh, fine," said Kaede. "Stop whining. Gosh. You're okay, too."
"You've got sauce on your cheek, too," he said, pointing.
He left his phone in the drawer for the rest of the weekend. Okay. Barnaby needed space. Kotetsu needed it, too. Sure. Space, time, distance. He'd try again Monday. No problem. They'd talk, and it would be fine.
On Monday, Barnaby didn't write back at all.
Antonio cornered him in the break room; he did this by standing in the doorway and letting his entirely too large shoulders block the one escape route Kotetsu had.
"What's up with you?" asked Antonio.
"Nothing's up with me," said Kotetsu. To prove it, he grabbed a paper cup off the stack by the microwave and poured out a cup of coffee from the dispenser.
"Something's up with you," said Antonio. "You're dragging the whole station down."
Kotetsu leaned back against the counter and pretended to sip at the coffee. He'd forgotten how bad the station's coffee was.
"I'm fine," Kotetsu said. "I mean, I'm glad you're worrying about me, but you really don't have to. If anything, I should be worried about you. How's your stomach holding up?"
Antonio crossed his arms. This only served to make him look bigger. Kotetsu faked taking another sip and accidentally took a sip.
"My stomach's been holding up great," said Antonio as Kotetsu tried not to spit the coffee back out. "Haven't puked in three days."
"That's great!" Kotetsu enthused, but Antonio had known him too long and too well to be fooled by so feeble a stab at sincerity. The coffee had weakened him.
Antonio narrowed his eyes. "Something happened with Barnaby."
Kotetsu put on a laugh and flapped his hand at Antonio: hey, hey, what a thing to say. "Nothing happened with Barnaby."
Like a bull in an old cartoon readying the charge, Antonio huffed out through his nose, but when he spoke he did so rather kindly.
"I'm your friend, moron," he said. "You're supposed to tell me about this stuff. Maybe I can help you out."
"There's nothing to tell," Kotetsu said. "And even if there was--I wouldn't wanna bother you with that crap."
"Your face is already bothering me," said Antonio.
Kotetsu frowned and felt at his mouth. Antonio stuck one of his legs out in front and crossed it over the other, so his heel was propped against the door. He waited. If Kotetsu really didn't care about how it looked, he could probably slip through that opening. He could force his way past Antonio, too, but fighting him was even less desirable a prospect than diving into the hallway.
Kotetsu pulled the corners of his mouth down, thumb at one end, forefinger at the other. He glanced into the paper cup. The man reflected in that awful ooze looked as if he hadn't slept well in--how many days had it been? Monday was the sixth.
"I kissed Barnaby."
It just fell out of his mouth. As soon as he'd said it, it no longer seemed real. It was real, he'd done it, he could conjure up the glossy feel of Barnaby's lips shivering beneath his in a moment, and yet he could not have done it. Even he couldn't have been so impulsive as to jeopardize their friendship in such a way or to think Barnaby would have wanted to kiss him, too.
"And?" prompted Antonio.
Kotetsu stared at him. "That's it."
"What," said Antonio, "seriously? That's what you're moping about?"
"I'm not moping," said Kotetsu.
"You're moping," said Antonio.
Kotetsu looked down to his coffee again. "I'm moping."
Having reached an accord on this point, Antonio settled more fully into the door frame. He looked like a man who'd discovered plush armchairs existed.
"So, what," said Antonio. "You don't want to kiss him? If you don't want to kiss him, you shouldn't have kissed him. Did you want to kiss him?"
Kotetsu turned the cup around. The coffee shuddered, releasing one last, weak gasp of steam. Now it was truly lukewarm.
"I wanted to kiss him," he said.
"He wanted to kiss you?" said Antonio, bored, with a leading okay, now get on with it twist of his hand.
Kotetsu drained the paper cup. Lukewarm, the coffee was only sludge, thick and bitter. He'd got used to it over the years. He didn't know why it had started to bother him. He dumped the paper cup in the trash bin. Then he spread his hands: ta-da.
"Aw, geez," said Antonio. "You sure about that?"
"He called me an asshole," said Kotetsu. "He yelled at me for nagging him, too, and then he said some stuff about how he wasn't kid. And then he said he didn't want to be friends."
Antonio snorted disbelievingly. "Are you in preschool?"
Kotetsu rubbed at his face. His beard scratched at his palms, his wrists. He needed to trim it again.
"I shouldn't have kissed him."
"Maybe not." Antonio shrugged. "Maybe you should've just talked to him first."
"Same thing," said Kotetsu tiredly.
"Not by a long shot," said Antonio. "You really need to just talk to the guy."
"Yeah," said Kotetsu, "thanks. I figured that one out on my own. He's ignoring me."
"You tried actually going to his work?" asked Antonio.
"He's made it pretty clear he doesn't want to talk to me," said Kotetsu. He made for the door.
Antonio moved aside. "All I know is," he said, "if Tomoe hadn't asked you out senior year, you never would have figured it out."
Kotetsu paused, half in the hallway. "Figured what out?"
"Any of it," said Antonio.
If he had asked Barnaby. The thought returned, unbidden, at night as Kotetsu stripped off his shirt for bed. The cool night air pricked his skin, but he stayed there a moment, shirt in hand, chest bare. The bedside lamp cast a shadow at his back. If he'd asked Barnaby first--what difference?
Barnaby turned on the stoop. His cheeks were flushed with the cold. His thin lips had parted over his teeth; when he was angry, his slight overbite grew more pronounced. His green eyes narrowed behind his glasses.
"I never asked you to be my friend!" Breath spinning out, an ethereal white in the dark night. "Maybe I don't fucking want you to be my friend!"
Kotetsu closed his eyes against the warm, yellow light in his room and thought instead of the blood in Barnaby's ears, the white of his throat, his curling hair gold like wheat and not honey.
"Maybe I don't fucking want you to be my friend!" Teeth white. Breath white.
"Can I kiss you?" Kotetsu imagined himself saying.
Barnaby would stare at him, caught, in that moment, with his eyes rounded, his eyelashes glittering. Something frozen in that awful, cold night when winter snuck its first few fingers into Stern Bild.
"Can I kiss you?" Kotetsu might have blurted.
What would Barnaby have said? What would Barnaby have done, had Kotetsu asked?
He would have laughed, Kotetsu thought as he curled his toes against the chilly hardwood floor. Not out of humor, but out of disbelief. Angry, still.
Then Kotetsu uncurled his toes. The floor was chilly, that hadn't changed, but he could bear it. It wasn't so bad. He'd borne it before.
Did he really think so little of Barnaby as to believe Barnaby would laugh at him? Barnaby could be harsh, but he wasn't cruel, not purposefully. He'd said he hadn't wanted to be Kotetsu's friend, but he'd smiled at Kotetsu; he'd laughed at Kotetsu's jokes; he'd teased Kotetsu and called him names and been short with him. He'd left a spinach roll on the platter for Kotetsu to eat. He hadn't done those things out of sufferance; no one would.
Kotetsu dug his thumbs into the sides of his nose. The nails bit at the inside corners of his eyes, but the clouds in his head remained; even that couldn't clear his head out.
He pulled on sweatpants and a t-shirt worn thin and soft with age, and because it was cold in his room, he put on socks, too. Not thinking was easier then. Kotetsu turned out the light. After a time, he even slept.
Halloween neared day by day, then it was almost upon them all. Kaede made plans to go trick or treating with Sarah and Sarah's mother.
"Sarah's going as Batgirl," said Kaede, "but I'm going as Supergirl."
"You don't like Batman?" Kotetsu watched her copying furigana.
"Batman's okay," Kaede said, "but Supergirl's cooler."
At work, Kotetsu ordered lunch in or ate in the field with Antonio parked in the passenger seat. The third day in a row he got a sub from downstairs, Jules said, "What--did you and Blondie break up?"
"Leave him alone, Jules," said Antonio gruffly.
Later, when Kotetsu had shrugged into his coat and was checking the pockets, someone caught him by the shoulder. He jumped, but it was only Jules.
"Hey," she said. "About earlier. Sorry. I didn't know."
It was on the tip of his tongue: Didn't know what? But he was too tired even to pretend not to know. He could handle pity. He'd done it before, hadn't he? And anyway, he thought, it wasn't as if he and Barnaby had even really dated.
"Don't worry about it," said Kotetsu. He smiled. "You didn't know."
When he got home, the lights were out. He dropped his keys on the table and stood there in the dark, thinking how strange it was that in so short a period of time he could have grown so accustomed to coming home to a warm kitchen, Kaede messing around, his mother on the phone. He hadn't even known how late it was until he'd opened the door to silence.
"This is ridiculous," he said, but the darkness swallowed it so it was if he hadn't said anything at all.
He got a beer out of the fridge and then he went to bed.
He picked Kaede up from Japanese class Monday afternoon, two days before Halloween. Mrs Tanaka's house was made up with orange and black paper cutouts in the shape of pumpkins, skeletons and ghouls, a hissing cat pasted in the window, but it was a blue andon that shone on her stoop and the little paper bag Kaede carried out had molded mochi in it instead of Milky Ways.
"Ah-ah!" said Kotetsu as she reached for her seat belt. "Driver's toll." He stuck his tongue out.
Kaede sighed but she reached into the bag. The sides crinkled; the witch's silhouette imprinted on the front folded on one side as Kaede reached deeper. Kotetsu made an I'm still here, you know sound and opened his mouth wider. At last Kaede seemed to find the smallest sweet in the bag and she popped it in his mouth. It was very small and very sweet indeed.
He rolled it in his mouth as he chewed, stretching it out as long as he could. Kaede was sorting through the bag, picking out one mochi then trading it for another. The sun was setting over her shoulder, and in that fierce, hot light her hair shone a deep, burnt reddish rather than the dark brown it normally showed.
Kotetsu signaled to turn then hooked a right when the traffic allowed.
"How'd your class go?"
"Good," said Kaede around her first bite of mochi. "We made, um, paper bunraku puppets and Mrs Tanaka told some scary stories. I already knew most of them, but it was still really fun."
"Scary stories, huh?" He checked the rear view mirror. The car riding his bumper had backed off. As Kaede turned to look out her window, her ponytail, gathered high on her head, shook in the corner of the mirror. He smiled. "What about the ones you didn't know?"
"She told us about the kubikajiri," said Kaede. "It's a headless spirit that walks around at night eating people's heads." She bit deeply into her mochi.
"Aaaah-ugh," said Kotetsu, mock-clapping his hands to his ears.
"Dad, the wheel!"
Laughing, he grabbed it again and got the car straightened out. Kaede fell back against her seat.
"Gosh," she said, "I have to take care of everything."
"Sorry," said Kotetsu. Another turn.
"You know what else?" Kaede whispered. "It smells like fresh blood, too."
"Oh, no!" said Kotetsu. "I'm losing--control--spinning out!"
Kaede shrieked happily as he jogged the car briefly left then right in the lane. The car behind him honked angrily, and Kotetsu winced as he straightened the car out again.
"I really hope they don't call the police..."
"You are the brute squad," said Kaede into her bag.
"Okay," said Kotetsu, "new rule. We're cutting back on your TV time."
Kaede grinned meanly at him; far from outraged or apologetic, she looked thoroughly unrepentant. His was a hollow threat and she knew it. She handed him another mochi, this one a bit larger.
"I'm glad you're okay," she said. She rolled the bag up carefully and set it between her legs.
"I'm glad you're okay, too," said Kotetsu. He licked sugar off his fingers.
Kaede shook her head. "No, I mean. You've been kind of sad lately. I guess."
He flexed his fingers around the wheel. Some dad, if his kid could tell he was blue. "And what would I be sad about?" he asked lightly. "I've got the smartest, prettiest, nicest daughter in the whole world, and she's going to give me another candy right now--"
"You'll ruin your appetite," she said firmly.
Kotetsu made a show of sinking into a depressive mire and Kaede sighed again in that way that meant my dad is very silly. He smiled at the curve of her head, just visible in the rear view mirror.
They drove in companionable quiet for another few miles, then Kaede lifted her head from the window and said, "Oh! I forgot! We don't have class next week."
"You don't?" He glanced at her. "You're not trying to skip class, are you?"
She didn't dignify this with even the most sardonic of eye rolls. "Mrs Tanaka's daughter's getting married again."
"Mm-hm." Kaede had turned to the window again. Her breath fogged the glass and she began drawing something in the fog with her finger.
Kotetsu tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. He signaled for a left turn but hit a yellow light turning red. The car in front of them slowed. Kotetsu took a deep breath and let it out so his mouth puffed with it.
"Hey, Kaede," he said.
"If Daddy ever remarried," he said. "How would you feel about that?"
He looked sidelong at her then. She was still drawing, wiping through her first sketch with the side of her thumb.
"I mean," he said. "If I met someone. Someone I liked a lot. Would you be okay?"
Very gently, Kaede rubbed the fog off the glass with her palm. She sat upright then, but she didn't look at Kotetsu. She watched the road instead, watched it as the car ate it up. Then Kaede looked to her feet.
"I don't know."
"It doesn't mean I'd stop loving Mom," he said. His hands were tight on the steering wheel, too tight. He'd missed a turn somewhere in the last mile. "I'll always love your mom. Forever and ever, until I die. I'd never, ever replace her. You know that."
"I know," said Kaede. She set her forehead against the window again.
The sky was a dark violet heading into the deep blue of night. A spattering of stars showed just beyond the ever-present yellow glow of Stern Bild, and the moon was a brightening suggestion off the right. Kotetsu hooked a left. They'd be home soon.
"But if it made you unhappy," he said. Her hair was brown, nearly black, in the thickening twilight. "I wouldn't remarry."
"Stupid," muttered Kaede hoarsely. "I want you to be happy, too."
He turned on to their street. A light was on in the front window of their town house, there halfway down the block.
"I'm sorry I didn't call the other night," he said. "I came home late, but I forgot to call, didn't I?"
"If you really like them," Kaede said abruptly. Her face was hidden, shadowed and pushed to the window. "If you really like them, I'll try to like them, too."
He parked the car, unbuckled his seat belt, and reached across the seat. Kaede's seat belt held her back, but she still managed to tuck her face into his shoulder. Her arms wound around his neck.
"I miss Mom."
Kotetsu rubbed her trembling shoulder. "I miss her, too."
"I don't," Kaede said, "I don't remember her voice--"
He tightened his hold on her and Kaede tightened her hold on him, though the seat belt hacked into her shoulder. Kotetsu petted her hair, what of it he could.
"I think we have some tapes," he said, "in my closet. Of her singing. Do you want me to get them for you?"
"Yeah," said Kaede.
After a few minutes, Kaede sighed noisily and rubbed her face across his chest.
"You wanna go in?" he asked.
She nodded. Out of the car, Kotetsu crossed around the front to meet her at the sidewalk outside their house. She'd her backpack slung over one shoulder and the bag of mochi clutched tightly in one hand, and her nose was red from where she'd rubbed it. When Kotetsu held his hand out to her, she took it. He fished for his keys in his pocket.
"Does Mrs Tanaka need any helpers?"
Kaede thought. "I guess?" Then she said, "No!"
"Oh, come on." He pushed the front door open and preceded Kaede into the entryway. "Wouldn't it be fun, going to school with your dad?"
"No," said Kaede firmly. "And you already have a job."
"If I had two jobs, I could get you new ice skates," he wheedled. "Those pink ones with the white laces..."
Kaede squinted at him. She'd made the tactical error of lingering too close, the better to squint. He could hug her if he wanted to so he did, saying "C'mere!" as he hooked his arm around her head. He kissed her crown as she squirmed and faked sudden, terrible gastrointestinal distress.
"I love you," he said. "And I would never, ever give you up for anyone. No matter how much I liked them."
"I love you, too, Dad," said Kaede happily.
He held her another moment, thinking of Tomoe swinging Kaede in her arms and laughing as she sang, thinking of Kaede's fingers closing reflexively around his knuckles, thinking of love and how it came in whether you were ready for it or not.
Then his mother said, "Ah! You're home! Good, I've almost finished making dinner. Go wash up, then Kaede, you help me set the table."
"Yes, Grandma!" shouted Kaede, so Kotetsu let her go.
Nathan Seymour unlocked the glass doors to the matchmaking offices at eleven o'clock precisely. He was wearing a white and pink pinstriped suit with a red ascot, and when he saw Kotetsu standing there in the cold, all he said was "Oh, it's you." He didn't look at all surprised, nor did he ask how long Kotetsu had been waiting.
"Well, come in," Nathan added, "unless you want to freeze to death. It's your choice."
He went back inside. The door began to swing shut, its progress arrested only by the piston at the top. Kotetsu stooped to grab up his bags and stuck his foot out hurriedly to catch the door before it could close all the way. The inside of the building was blissfully warm. For a moment all Kotetsu could think of was how much he wanted to stay right there for the next forever or so.
Then Nathan said, "If you're here to see Barnaby, then follow me. But don't expect me to be nice to you." He was at the steps and showed no signs of slowing.
Kotetsu hitched his bags high and rushed after him. Nathan's heels click-clicked lightly off the faux marble, like soft kisses or a distant staccato beat. He turned a corner at the end of that first hall and walked the rest of the way to an elevator set into the wall halfway down the second. He didn't once turn to see if Kotetsu was following him.
Nathan punched the up arrow; it was the only arrow there was in the wall. "The only reason I'm doing this is because if it goes on much longer, my business will start to suffer. Understand?"
"Yes," said Kotetsu. "Thank you."
The elevator dinged. "Don't thank me," Nathan said. He stepped in and hit a button inside the elevator, so that Kotetsu jumped in case the doors made to close before he got on.
"I don't know what you did to Handsome," Nathan continued, "or if he did something to you, if you two had a lover's spat, if he called you names, if you didn't like to play the same games-- This has to stop."
Kotetsu caught one of the bags just as it was about to tip over. He thought perhaps he should say something, but as he straightened and Nathan kept talking, he supposed it was more important that he listen for now. As it was, he hadn't done enough of that lately.
"If you hadn't bothered to come here, I would have gone and got you myself," added Nathan. "That wouldn't have been good for business." He said this as if it were assumed he would have fought with Kotetsu and also won. "Run three companies and the only one that gives me a headache is this one."
The elevator stopped on the third floor and opened to spit them out. Nathan was off again. Another bank of glass doors rose before them; beyond, a sprawl of open cubicles showed pristine and very red. The color appeared to be a theme.
Nathan hauled the doors open, his padded shoulders creasing. "Tiffany, Charles," he said to the two counselors chatting by a window, "I need to talk with you downstairs. You," he said to Kotetsu, "wait here. Don't touch anything in case you break that, too. Charles, please."
Charles scooted through the doors at top speed. "He'll be with you shortly," said Nathan ominously, then he dragged the doors shut and left Kotetsu to his fate. Kotetsu shifted the bags, his arms having started to go numb, and the noise of the paper rasping against his coat was deafening in that bright, empty room. Nathan hadn't told him which desk was Barnaby's. It couldn't hurt to look, he guessed. He set the bags down on the floor by the first row of cubicles.
The first three desks weren't and he almost dismissed the fourth as unused until he spotted a picture frame behind the hibernating laptop. There were two photos in it, a large one that took up nearly the whole frame and a smaller one fitted to the bottom right corner. In the smaller photo, a slightly younger Barnaby smiled at the camera; he'd a graduation cap and gown on and his arm around a portly older woman with a lined face and short grey hair and a happy, proud smile to match. She didn't look at all like him. When Kotetsu looked at the larger photograph, he understood why.
"They died when I was six," said Barnaby from behind him.
Kotetsu jumped and fumbled the frame. He caught it against his chest. Very calmly, Barnaby reached around to take it from him.
The smaller photo just covered the face of a very young boy with a fountain of blond curls. A woman with as many curls had her hands on his shoulders and a man with a severe mouth had his arm around her waist. They were all smiling.
"It was an electrical fire," said Barnaby. "I wasn't home."
"I'm sorry," said Kotetsu. He was thinking, selfishly, of how little he had wanted the questions or the sympathy of friends and strangers when Tomoe passed. "I shouldn't have asked."
"You didn't mean to."
Barnaby put the picture frame back where Kotetsu had found it. His fingers lingered on the glass, but Kotetsu didn't know if they lingered on one set of parents or the other. He was looking at Barnaby's face. Barnaby looked very calm, very remote, but sad, too.
"I was just a child," he said. "Aunt Samantha took me in, and my parents left a great deal of money in a trust fund. That's all there is to it. I'm not the first child whose parents died."
Kotetsu looked at the little boy with the covered face and the thick curls, and he thought of Kaede. Barnaby was very quiet. He was looking at Kotetsu, like Kotetsu had looked at him. But Kotetsu could not quite believe Barnaby looked at him in much the same way, as if there were a chasm opening between them and Barnaby wanted to make a bridge by reaching out for Kotetsu. Even when he looked again at Barnaby and Barnaby pinked in the cheeks and turned away.
What could he say? I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for your loss. How are you doing? Are you all right?
In the end, what he said was only, "If you ever want to talk about it." He cleared his throat. A muscle had stuck inside it. "If you want to talk," he tried again. "I'll listen."
Barnaby rested his hand on the chair. He turned to Kotetsu again and he said, "I know you will," as if he had never doubted Kotetsu would listen.
The silence grew uncomfortable, for Kotetsu if not Barnaby. Barnaby looked content to stand rooted to that spot until he turned to dust.
"Why didn't you reply to my texts?" blurted Kotetsu.
Barnaby gave him that lidded look that meant, Don't be absurd. "I've been busy. I told you."
"That's not all," Kotetsu insisted. "You were avoiding me."
Barnaby pinked again, but he didn't deny it. Instead he stroked the back of his chair and said, "I needed to think."
"I'm sorry I kissed you," said Kotetsu.
Barnaby's hand stilled on the chair. His knuckles went very white. "You are," he said. His knuckles went even whiter. "Why is that? Was it not good enough for you? Am I not experienced enough? Too young?"
"No," said Kotetsu, "that's not it. It's just that. I should have asked first. I think."
"Should have--" Barnaby stared at him.
"You were angry," Kotetsu said. He found it was easier to say than he'd thought, turning it over in his head all the way over on the subway then again as he walked from the stop. "I should have-- I should have paid more attention to what you were saying."
Barnaby's hand had tensed so about the chair Kotetsu thought either the chair or Barnaby's wrist might snap.
"Wait," said Kotetsu, "before you yell at me again: I brought you something."
He fetched the bags. One was his saddlebag, and that he dumped on the desk next to Barnaby's, and the other was a recyclable cloth bag with a floral print; that, he pushed at Barnaby till Barnaby had no choice but to take it.
"My mom made too much food last night. Think of it as an early birthday present."
"Now you're giving me your leftovers as a gift," said Barnaby, but the wryness in his voice was very nearly soft. At the very least, he didn't sound as if he was ready to start shouting. "I didn't bring the Tupperware."
"Eh, who cares about that stuff?" Kotetsu cut his hand through the air: no worries. "We've got plenty of it. Take your time."
Barnaby was smiling faintly down at the bag of food, so faintly Kotetsu thought Barnaby hadn't realized he was doing so. Kotetsu licked the inside of his lip and wondered that he could have ever thought Barnaby cold.
"When you said you didn't want to be my friend," said Kotetsu quietly. "What did you mean?"
The smile had gone. Barnaby looked up, though his face was still turned down. His eyes were very, very green and very sharp. With curls licking at his jaw and his mouth a long, flat line, he looked wild.
"I want to be your friend," Barnaby said.
"But that's not all you want," said Kotetsu.
He knew he'd got it right when Barnaby lifted his chin and said, "No. It's not," almost angrily.
Kotetsu wished he'd been wrong.
"You don't really want to--"
"What," said Barnaby. "Date you? I think I can tell what I do and don't want for myself."
"But I'm old," said Kotetsu helplessly. "I'm--thirty-seven, I have a daughter, I'm a cop, I can't even make lieutenant--"
"I like your daughter," said Barnaby. He set the bag down on his desk.
"I don't think things through," he said in a rush, because he couldn't stop, and he was just proving his own point now, but that was what he wanted (wasn't it?), "and I'm not even really that good-looking. My legs are too long."
"Don't insult me," said Barnaby. He looked very remote again. He looked like he had when Kotetsu had first seen him there with a clipboard in his hand and a pen in the air, like he was weighing Kotetsu. "You're funny. You care about people a lot, but you don't care enough about yourself. You think about things more than let you on."
"I was married," said Kotetsu, turning his wedding ring round his finger.
"I know you were," said Barnaby. "That's one of the things I like about you."
Barnaby reached out and began adjusting Kotetsu's collar. He didn't appear to realize he'd done so. He spoke absently.
"I've had two relationships. They were happy and I enjoyed them, but I don't talk to either of the guys I dated now. I'm good at setting people up with each other, but I'm not good at managing my own relationships. People find me attractive," he said matter of factly, "but they don't like me. They like you."
"Nathan likes you," said Kotetsu. Barnaby's fingers were checking the fold of his coat collar at the back. "He read me the riot act in the elevator. My mother likes you; she made you food. Kaede likes you." Barnaby tugged at Kotetsu's lapels, straightening them. Kotetsu said, "I like you."
Barnaby said, "You don't know me."
"I want to," said Kotetsu. "And I already know a little. You played soccer in high school and you still exercise, not because you have to but because you like to. You don't eat dairy products for moral reasons but you do eat eggs, which doesn't make any sense."
"It makes sense," said Barnaby.
"Not really," said Kotetsu. "You're fussy. You have a short temper."
"I do not have a short temper," Barnaby shot back hotly.
Kotetsu scoffed. "See? You're mad now. You listen to opera, but you like swing music, too. I think you might be an older man than I am. You love spinach rolls. I think you miss beef. You play with your glasses when you're nervous. You're good at math. You have no sense of humor. You probably fart roses. You're nice."
"I'm not nice," said Barnaby.
Kotetsu caught his wrists. He held Barnaby's hands there, at his chest.
"You like me," said Kotetsu.
Barnaby looked at Kotetsu. "I'm twenty-four," he said.
"Tomorrow you'll be twenty-five," said Kotetsu. "You're not a kid, Mister Brooks."
"I like you," said Barnaby, and he kissed Kotetsu. His teeth were hard, his mouth hot; he didn't wait for Kotetsu to kiss back or pull him nearer. He took what he wanted with his lips and his tongue and his teeth. No one had kissed Kotetsu like that in years. Only Tomoe had ever kissed him like that.
Kotetsu let go of Barnaby's hands to cup his jaw. He smelled of some airy aftershave and he tasted like green tea and when Kotetsu stroked his tongue down the roof of his mouth, Barnaby groaned. Now Barnaby's hand closed over Kotetsu's wrist; his nails dug into the soft underside of Kotetsu's arm. Barnaby's hand tightened.
They parted. Barnaby didn't let go of Kotetsu's arm.
"I don't know how well I can do this," he said, supernaturally calm considering his mouth was still slick and his fingers a vise around Kotetsu's wrist.
"I don't know either," said Kotetsu honestly.
"But we can try," said Barnaby.
"Yeah," said Kotetsu. He slid his thumb along Barnaby's bony cheek. "We can help each other out with that, too."
Barnaby kissed him again. Kotetsu had thought him cold, but he'd been wrong. He was cold, but he was more than just that. You couldn't really know someone through and through, that was the thing. But you could try, and you could love them. You could love them.
Barnaby made a noise into their kiss.
"What?" said Kotetsu.
"Nothing," said Barnaby. He was smiling bashfully. That was something else Kotetsu had never seen before. "I was just thinking how lousy a kisser you are for such an old man."
"Yeah, well," said Kotetsu, "shut up."
Barnaby laughed, spilling over with delight. His eyes shone. His face shone. He was laughing. Kotetsu wanted to kiss his nose, so he wound his fingers in Barnaby's hair, leaned in so their breath mingled again, and kissed the upturned tip of Barnaby's nose.
"I think I love you," said Kotetsu.
Barnaby ran a finger behind Kotetsu's ear. The edge of his nail scraped over Kotetsu's skin, dragging up goosebumps as he stroked the corner of Kotetsu's jaw and then the underside of his chin.
"I'll allow it," said Barnaby at last, his mouth soft, and Kotetsu knew that what Barnaby meant was, I think I love you, too.