Disclaimer: Tiger & Bunny and all its characters are property of Sunrise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: Written for Steelneko in Yuletide 2011. I would qualify the story as gen, but I did try to mimic the delightfully ambiguously gay sheen to Kotetsu and Barnaby's friendship found in canon. Their relationship may be interpreted as you please. The title comes from Basement Jaxx's "Where's Your Head At?," which is sort of this fic's theme song. I would like to thank my beta, Oberstein, for all her help. I now owe her an Orange Julius.
Concrit: Always welcome.
. . .
"When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened."
- John M. Richardson
. . .
Difficulties with the seatbelts aside, Kotetsu could not be more excited. A small pack of rogue NEXT had taken over the new international space station. Naturally, Hero TV seized the opportunity to send their heroes into space to defeat them. Since the astronauts assigned to the space station had escaped, Kotetsu felt guilt-free about his odd gratitude towards the terrorists. If not for them, he would not be strapping himself into a seat on the so-called Hero Rocket (known as The Santa Maria until Hero TV managed to convince NASA to temporarily re-name it for the rescue mission). As a child, Kotetsu once dreamed of becoming an astronaut (as well as a fireman, a police officer, a paratrooper, a samurai, the President of the United States, the Emperor of Japan, and-though he would never admit it aloud-a fairy tale princess). That dream was now becoming a reality (none of the others had, which was just as well, since the fairy tale princess gowns looked scratchy).
"Now, remember," Agnes said, her cold gaze boring holes into Kotetsu's head, "you cannot damage the space station. Not only are the costs ridiculously high, but if you damage its integrity, the lot of you will come crashing down to earth like meteors. Not even your space-adjusted suit and one minute-long super powers will save you."
Kotetsu smiled. "Sixty-three seconds, actually. I just call myself Wild Tiger 1 Minute because-"
Agnes turned away and cut him off. "Everyone, be careful up there. We'll be using recordings from your suits, so try not to damage the helmets."
"Yes, of course," Barnaby said. He had managed to figure out his seatbelts, sitting perfectly in his seat as if born an astronaut. "No need to worry." Kotetsu studied Barnaby's seatbelts, trying to memorize the configuration before turning to his own and trying to mimic it.
"We shall perform to expectations!" Sky High said, beaming. "Thank you, and thank you again!"
"What are you thanking her for?" Origami Cyclone asked, looking confused.
"Good luck!" Agnes shut the door.
"That," Sky High said, turning his million-watt smile on Origami Cyclone.
Antonio sat quietly in his seat, already looking green, even without his hero suit on. Kotetsu knew his old friend had a morbid fear of outer space, but he also knew Antonio was far too proud to admit that and stay home. Kotetsu hoped Antonio could overcome that fear-or at least manage not to vomit on anyone.
Barnaby sighed and loosened his seatbelts so he could lean over and fasten Kotetsu's. He slapped Kotetsu's hands away, locked the belts in place with ease, then sat back and redid his own straps. Kotetsu resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at Barnaby. Not only did he feel uncomfortably warm by how casually Barnaby violated his personal space, but he was back on the A-Team because Barnaby was back on the A-Team, and he was Barnaby's partner. He often felt useless in comparison to his fellow heroes, but he could not complain about being back in action again-especially if that action took him into space: the final frontier.
Antonio glanced around the cabin. "Why aren't Fire Emblem, Blue Rose, and Dragon Kid here?"
"Oh, right, you were busy being sick," Barnaby said. "NASA absolutely forbade anyone who could produce fire or lightning anywhere near their space station. Too dangerous. There's not enough moisture for Blue Rose to work with. Sky High is to stay on the rocket as emergency back-up. His wind powers are too dangerous inside the space station, but might be useful if we run into trouble outside. We will be the only ones allowed inside the space station."
"I wanted to be in the space station, too," Sky High said mournfully, for all the world resembling his dog.
"I wasn't sick," Antonio said, quickly enough that Kotetsu grinned at him. "I just, er, had a big breakfast, and I-"
"Spare us. Please," Barnaby said, wincing.
The rocket rumbled to life, drowning out any further conversation. Kotetsu felt as if he were sitting on a very large vibrating bed-one that shook the whole building. He clutched the seat and glanced around. Antonio crossed himself, Sky High grinned like a fool, Origami Cyclone stared out of the window with his brows furrowed, and Barnaby looked, near as Kotetsu could tell, bored out of his mind.
This ought to be fun, Kotetsu reflected and leaned back, ready for his first adventure in space.
. . .
It turned out that adventures in space were not all Star Trek cracked them up to be. One, there were no dancing half-naked alien girls. Two, they did have seatbelts, which still confounded Kotetsu. Three, the food sucked.
"But I like Tang. I don't understand," Kotetsu said, staring at the crumbly remains of his freeze-dried dinner and trying to wriggle out of his seat again.
"You were supposed to re-hydrate it first," Barnaby said with a sigh. He glanced at Kotetsu, and again, without warning, reached over to undo Kotetsu's straps.
Kotetsu wriggled free from his seat, distracted from the warmth of Barnaby's hands by how he lifted up into the air. "I'm floating!" It was the strangest sensation, to suddenly weigh nothing, and have no balance. He could not even compare it to floating in water, because he had a sense of nothingness around him.
"So is everyone. We're all floating," Sky High observed.
Antonio clung to his seat with his eyes closed. "Please, for the love of Our Virgin Mother, stop saying that."
"Look!" Origami Cyclone cried, pointing out the window. His half-drunk pouch of Tang escaped his hand and floated towards Kotetsu, where it bounced off his head. He grabbed the pouch, orange liquid squirting into the air, and turned to the window. Bubbles of orange floated past him.
The international space station gleamed white under the sunlight. It looked like a giant metal wheel in space, slowly revolving around the planet. The flags of many countries decorated its metal siding, and Kotetsu smiled to see the red circle on a field of white from Japan. Though he, his brother, and his father had been born in America, his mother had been born in Japan. He had a soft spot for the country, but not nearly as soft a spot as Origami Cyclone's, who grinned like a kid on Christmas morning at the sight of the flag. Kotetsu once again reflected how odd it was that Origami Cyclone found his mother's country even more interesting than he did.
"Time to suit up," Barnaby said. "Double-check all your diagnostics to make sure you are space-tight."
Kotetsu ripped his gaze off the space station and pushed himself off the wall towards their suit lockers. He felt a small thrill in his stomach, the same one he always felt before a long, hard fight.
. . .
Sky High hovered by the shuttle's hatch. "My wind tunnel should probably get you directly to the airlock door, but you'll want to make sure not to struggle, or you'll veer out."
"Understood. I'll take it from there once we arrive," Barnaby said with a nod, double-checking his suit. "Is everyone ready?"
"Yes!" Origami Cyclone said, attempting to strike some sort of pose, but without gravity, he only spun around awkwardly.
"No!" Antonio cried, clinging to his chair once again. Whether he was answering Barnaby or shouting at Kotetsu, who was trying to tug him free, it was impossible to tell. While he had agreed to put on his suit, he had not let go of the chair.
"C'mon, Antonio! You can do this!"
"No! There's nothing out there! Nothing! I can't go!" Antonio clung harder. The seat began to groan under the strain.
"Well, I suppose he could always stay on the rocket with me," Sky High said. "We could play checkers. And Go Fish. And-"
Antonio stared at Sky High. Kotetsu imagined his expression behind the helmet to be one of horror. "Okay, fine, I'll go. Anything's better than Go Fish."
"Attaboy," Kotetsu said and helped Antonio pry his fingers from the seat. Antonio left small holes in the upholstery. Kotetsu glanced back at Barnaby. "We're ready!"
"Let's do this." Within seconds, Barnaby, Kotetsu, Antonio, and Origami Cyclone whirled out of the shuttle hatch through a wind tunnel, all courtesy of Sky High.!"
Even though he did not share Antonio's fear of outer space, the experience of spinning through space made Kotetsu gasp. A cold pit opened in his belly as he stared down at the pleasant blue globe of Earth beneath him, soon replaced by a field of stars, the space station, the shuttle, then more stars. He spun around with nothing to grip, nothing to land onto; absolutely nothing. Antonio's shrieking through their intercom systems beat against Kotetsu's eardrums until Antonio went limp, still spinning through Sky High's wind tunnel like a rag doll as they neared the space station's airlock hatch. Kotetsu managed to grab him by the wrist and gripped with all his might. It would not do to lose one of his closest friends.
"Hang on!" Barnaby cried as he landed, feet first, onto the side of the space station and activated his magnetic boots. Kotetsu landed on his back just behind Barnaby, still clinging to Antonio. He grappled with Antonio's wrist device until the other hero's magnetic boots snapped on. The unconscious Antonio now stood mostly upright as his boots attached to the space station, but he leaned weirdly to one side. Origami Cyclone landed gracefully on the other side of the hatch.
"Let me get the door open. Be ready for anything," Barnaby said as he placed a small blinking device on the door.
Kotetsu expected to hear a beeping noise as the opening device set to work, but he heard nothing except the breathing of his companions through his open communications link. The realization that where was no sound, not even a thump from when they landed, disoriented him more than anything else, at least until he activated his own magnetic boots and got to his feet. The entire space station now stretched out beneath him, reversing his sense of up and down. Kotetsu suddenly wished he had not eaten the space M&Ms. The sugar sat poorly in his stomach.
Before he could get his bearings, the airlock burst open. No wild NEXT attacks escaped the open hatch, so Barnaby called out "All clear!" before leaping in. Origami Cyclone followed suit. With a sigh, Kotetsu did the same, pulling Antonio behind him. They all landed inside the airlock, their magnetic boots weighing them down to the floor. Barnaby released the magnetic pulse from his boots and floated up to the hatch controls. Within a minute of his fiddling, the hatch door clanged shut.
"They have to know we're here, but they don't appear to be doing anything yet." Barnaby frowned and fell against the airlock's wall. Kotetsu, Origami Cyclone, and the unconscious Antonio all fell against the wall as well, their boots still sticking to the floor.
"Release your magnetic pulses," Barnaby said, coming to his feet, now standing sideways from the wall. "The gravity just turned on in here, and you're all stuck to the wall."
Kotetsu tried to push himself up, but fell against the wall again. "No, you're on the wall. We're on the floor."
"Reverse that," Barnaby said as Oriagmi Cyclone released his magnetic pulses and also came to his feet.
Kotetsu no longer knew up from down, walls from floors. Vertigo ruled his senses. He took a moment to consider that he was actually lying on the floor with his feet stuck to the wall, same as Antonio, before releasing the magnetic pulse of his boots. He slumped against the floor as Origami Cyclone helped Antonio, still not entirely sure he was on the floor. He finally understood why dizzy people saw stars and planets and moons, only he now believed they should see space stations, too. He had never been more confused in his life, which was saying something, given his predilection for confusion (once, a doctor had even suggested his near-permanent state of confusion might be his second super power).
Barnaby helped Kotetsu up to a standing position. He glanced at the closed door to the space station's inner halls. "I don't like the lack of reaction. They should be doing something. We need to be on guard for anything."
Antonio groaned and sat up with Origami Cyclone's help, cursing softly in Spanish. Kotetsu smiled, swelling with pride that he understood at least half of Antonio's blue streak, which centered on damning the space station's mother. Antonio had once said that in Spanish, everything had a mother, just so you could damn it when angry. Kotetsu thought it a very strange, if practical, language.
"I'll go first," Kotetsu offered and moved to the door.
Barnaby nodded after a moment. "Be ready." He pushed the door opening button.
Kotetsu could never recall properly, but it was around that point, give or take a few seconds, that all hell broke loose.
. . .
A week after his trip to space, Kotetsu decided to enjoy the bounties of planet Earth. He could not quite sort out what had happened in the space station-he had been rendered unconsciousness, and everything else was a blur. This nearly cemented his suspicion that his state of confusion was actually a superpower. Truth be told, space had not been the super awesome really cool thing he had hoped-he actually found the food unpalatable and the environment baffling. Earth was far superior, especially since Earth had Orange Juliuses (or was it Julii?). He decided to console himself with one while shopping for Kaede's birthday.
Once Kotetsu inserted the straw of his Orange Julius into his mouth, all his irritation with the giggling teenage girls that lay in wait around the mall for Barnaby quickly disappeared. The sweet orange delight made Kotetsu's existence seem tolerable, in spite of the girls' lack of interest. While not opposed to signing backpacks and books, Barnaby beat a hasty retreat the moment they requested he sign their underwear. Kotetsu could never quite understand Barnaby's disinterest in his fangirls. If Kotetsu had pretty teenage girls drooling over him, he would certainly show a little more enthusiasm towards their attempts to seduce him.
"Present for Kaede, right." Barnaby panted as he hid behind a pillar. "Maybe we should shop somewhere that girls don't frequent. Is there a store here for men's underwear?"
Kotetsu sucked up more of the sweet Orange Julius nectar. "At the other end, but do you really think Kaede will want a pair of boxers for her birthday?"
"You said that she'd like anything I'd pick."
"Maybe not anything. Besides, I bought her socks and underwear last year. She told me I was a pervert and that they were three sizes too small."
"She's very opinionated, your daughter."
"You have no idea-" Kotetsu took another sip, but he only received airy plastic rattling and a few precious droplets. His orange ambrosia was gone. He grasped his hat, his heart gripped by ice, and screamed, "Oh, no!"
"What's wrong?" Barnaby snapped upright. "Is there an attack?"
Kotetsu glanced behind Barnaby and noted a woman with a large gun parting mall shoppers like some biblical prophet might part a body of water, but then glanced back down at his empty Orange Julius cup. "Yes, actually, but more importantly, I'm out of Orange Julius!" The screams of shoppers reflected his horror.
Barnaby did not seem sympathetic to his plight. He whirled around to see the woman with the large gun. It was not until Barnaby clenched his fists that it occurred to Kotetsu, through the fog of his post-Orange Julius depression, that the gun-toting woman marching towards them did not promise good things. This thought was confirmed within seconds, when the woman opened fire. Kotetsu dived for cover behind a massage chair, but he could not save his cup, which was blown to pieces. Dregs of Orange Julius that he had somehow missed at the bottom splattered all over him.
"Son of a-"
"Incoming!" Barnaby cried, and tumbled forward. He dodged the woman's bullets and kicked at her, but she somehow managed to roll with his kick and fall neatly onto a bench. She opened fire again from her sitting position, grinning.
Kotetsu took advantage of the woman's fixation on Barnaby-did he produce pheromones or something?-and slid out on his back. He slammed into the bench, but just as the bench started to tip, it caught on a floor rut and refused to budge. The woman grinned down at him, wild white hair flying every which way, and swiveled the gun towards him.
Kotetsu knew he had no chance of escaping death now without activating his Hundred Power, but that would take too long. Even so, he started to glow, determined to try. He felt no fear as he tried to scramble away, hearing her pull the trigger. Instinctively, he knew Barnaby would save him.
Barnaby did not disappoint. He ran towards the woman, but his shoes scraping on the floor gave him away, and she turned just in time to avoid his tackle. With unusual grace, she leapt backwards. As luck would have it, the display behind her was a perfect height for her to leap upon and continue to fire. Barnaby's glasses clattered to the floor as he dodged and rolled. He lay low behind a vending machine, squinting.
"I've got this," Kotetsu said, knowing Barnaby was half-blind without his glasses, and barreled towards the display. The woman leapt off, just in time, neatly dodging the flurry of plastic shrapnel. Barnaby, however, was not so lucky, and a piece smacked him in the face, knocking him on his ass. Kotetsu avoided a large piece of plastic attempting to behead him, but then slipped on the little splatter of Orange Julius stuck to his shoe. Kotetsu felt betrayed.
"You two don't get it. Luck is on my side, not yours!" The woman opened fire again, the whine of the barrel hurting Kotetsu ears. He hated guns.
"Take the right, Tiger!" Barnaby shouted, already dashing towards her, barely dodging the bullet spray. He glowed blue now, and his nearsightedness no longer seemed to matter.
Kotetsu sprung to his feet. "Right!" He only had a few precious seconds left. He dived towards the woman, determined to rip that damned gun from her hands.
They met right over the woman, their fists simultaneously slamming into her stomach. She gasped and fell back, her gun skidding across the floor. As she doubled over, grunting, Barnaby grabbed her head and slammed it against the tiled floor. She lay still now, white hair sticking to her bleeding forehead.
The police arrived a few minutes after the fight. The woman regained consciousness after they cuffed her and placed her in the prison van. As the police fussed with their computers and reports, they left the van doors open. Kotetsu scratched at the skin under his domino mask, feeling almost sorry for her. She looked rather pathetic there, with her shaggy hair obscuring her haggard face. The woman's black catsuit had grown dusty in the fight; without her gun, she did not seem so threatening.
"Who are you?" Barnaby asked, scowling.
The woman looked up, her handcuffs rattling behind her. She blinked watery gray eyes at him. "Just call me Lady Luck."
"Lady Luck?" Kotetsu asked. He was not sure she was a NEXT, but that sure sounded like a NEXT code name.
Lady Luck's lips twisted into something like a smile. "Luck is on my side, I told you. The problem is that my luck runs out sometimes." She scowled.
"Why did you attack us?" Barnaby demanded as the police started to close the doors on her.
"Oh, just to deliver a message." Lady Luck grinned again, her teeth bright and sharp. "Maverick sends his regards."
Before Barnaby could respond, the van drove off, with Lady Luck grinning at them through the back window. Those eyes of hers looked familiar, so familiar-as gray as Maverick's had been.
Kotetsu caught Barnaby before he collapsed onto the sidewalk.
. . .
"You're not enjoying yourself."
Barnaby looked up from the fern he seemingly had been contemplating. He said nothing as Kotetsu handed him a plate of hors d'oeuvres he had taken from a passing waiter. In the main ballroom, the party raged on and the gentle melody of Blue Rose's latest pop song drifted in through the door. On the terrace they stood on, Barnaby had much to admire-an entire horizon filled with glittering Sternbild City at night, a bright full moon reigning over a dark blue sky, and even an interesting tile pattern on the ground. Instead, he had chosen to stare at a fern planted by the door.
Kotetsu sighed and handed Barnaby the glass of champagne, before sipping at his own. "You should talk about it, you know."
"She escaped before the van even arrived at the prison. Those handcuffs are specially designed to restrain NEXT, but they somehow shorted out. Luck does seem to be on her side." Barnaby set the hors d'oeuvres on the railing and gulped down half of his champagne glass. "But I know she's him. He must have planted his memories in another NEXT at some point."
"We don't know that for sure."
"I know it. I saw her eyes." Barnaby tossed the half-full glass of champagne on the ground. The splatter of liquid reminded Kotetsu of his Orange Julius with a pang of regret.
Kotetsu shook the thought of Orange Julius from his mind and stepped forward to put a hand on his friend's shoulder. Warmth spread from the contact, easing the smile Kotetsu offered his partner. "We'll find her, and we'll make her talk. Remember, she said her luck runs out. Luck or not, she couldn't stand up to our combined Hundred Power. We'll beat her again."
Barnaby tilted his face up, though his gaze remained cast down. His long lashes feathered against cheeks, and his lips shined under the lights from the party. He looked criminally beautiful. "What if she's one of many he created?" Barnaby asked.
The question felt like a hot knife sliding into Kotetsu's belly. Because of Maverick, he had almost lost everything-including his own life. What would he do with multiple Maverick identities hidden in NEXT bodies? Kotetsu knew he could not let that doubt show, not in front of Barnaby, who truly had lost everything to Maverick as a child. Barnaby had lost parents, home, memories, and even faith in himself. Kotetsu could not let Maverick rob his partner again.
"Then we'll deal with that, too," Kotetsu promised, squeezing Barnaby's shoulder.
Lunatic's fires raged around them. Barnaby moaned in Kotetsu's arms, but Kotetsu could not pause to check on him. He just kept running, his metal suit clanking with every step. As many times as Barnaby had saved him, it was his turn to save Barnaby.
Kotetsu ran past another burning figure, a man this time. He screamed like a little boy as the blue fire consumed his body. Kotetsu could only hope it was another of Maverick's mental doppelgangers. If it was an innocent bystander, he could not bear it, but there was nothing he could do. He did not have the power to quench Lunatic's fires, and Blue Rose was not there to cool everything down.
Barnaby moaned again, and struggled out of Kotetsu's grasp just as they reached the street. No cameras rolled today. Another of Maverick's mental doppelgangers had destroyed Hero TV's equipment with a wave of technological destruction. His mental doppelgangers each had a unique NEXT power-they had once been different people, with their own personalities, but now possessed the identity of the most evil man Kotetsu had ever met. Barnaby glanced back at the burning brownstone. Lunatic was long gone, but his fires raged on.
"One of them got away," Barnaby choked out. He raised his visor and started coughing. "He moved too fast to be caught by the fire."
Kotetsu stared at the burning brownstone. The screaming had ended, leaving Kotetsu feeling sick and cold, despite the radiating heat. In the distance, he heard sirens, and he knew they had to leave soon, but he could not help but feel sorry for all those people who had died inside. He wondered if he was responsible. Once Origami Cyclone had infiltrated Maverick's ring and located their base, it was Kotetsu who had emailed the information to Barnaby. Had Lunatic intercepted his email?
Barnaby wiped his eyes and rose to his feet. His face appeared blank as he stared at the building, but as the sirens grew closer, he snapped his visor shut. "We should leave," he said.
Kotetsu nodded and followed Barnaby as they fled the scene.
. . .
"What if I become one of them?"
Kotetsu exhaled and leaned back in his chair, his heart aching from the look on Barnaby's face. Barnaby stood by the window to his darkened living room, the city lights casting him in black and white, like an old movie. Thinking of how to respond, Kotetsu took another sip of his beer. It was a Japanese brand, special-ordered through the mail from his brother's bar, and he wondered when Barnaby had started ordering from him.
"I could be," Barnaby continued. "He had twenty years to plant his memories inside of me like he did all his drones. At any moment, I could snap and turn into him."
Kotetsu held out his brother's beer. He knew the answer to why Barnaby bought his brother's beer, despite how many specialty beer shops could be found in Sternbild City. This was Barnaby's way to support Kotetsu's family. Kotetsu smiled and looked up. "It's not possible."
Barnaby leaned against the wall and stared at him. His blond curls bobbed as he tilted his head back, and the city lights flashed off his spare pair of glasses. "Of course it is. He practically raised me, he-"
"It's not possible," Kotetsu said more loudly, and took another sip of his beer. "You already defeated his memory tampering. Even if he put a copy of his memories inside of you, like the others, you've already conquered that. He doesn't have any more power over you."
Barnaby stared at Kotetsu for a long time and pulled off his glasses to wipe his eyes. It always surprised Kotetsu how easily Barnaby could cry sometimes, given his rather cold public demeanor. Kotetsu set his beer on the desk and went over to give his friend a hug. If he had a million dollars, he would bet it all that Barnaby had not been hugged enough since his parents died. With a sigh, Barnaby pressed his face into Kotetsu's shoulder. Kotetsu warmed at the touch. Since he started living alone in Sternbild, he had not had nearly enough hugs, either.
"You're stronger than you think," Kotetsu promised, patting his partner on the back. "This is almost over. Just hold on."
When Barnaby let go, his face was dry, and his expression determined. Kotetsu smiled and rubbed at his shoulder, now wet. Nothing would stop them now.
. . .
The wind picked up as Speed Demon raced past him, dodging all of Kotetsu's attacks. He stopped at the other end of the hallway, grinning widely. Maverick's gray eyes shone at them. He seemed to enjoy this.
"You won't win. You can't win," Barnaby ground out, and lashed out at top speed, his suit glowing pink from the Hundred Power. Even so, Speed Demon was faster.
"You seem to have our positions reversed, Barnaby. You already lost," Speed Demon taunted. Kotetsu grappled for him, but his powers had burnt out two minutes ago. All he caught was a rush of wind.
Barnaby dashed again, jumping high into the air. "You lost, Maverick. You lost everything, and all you have now is stolen goods. Speed Demon is the last. Just give it up, let him go." Speed Demon zigged and zagged, dodging Barnaby's attack by a hair-rather literally, for Barnaby tossed aside a tuft of red hair he had ripped from Speed Demon's head.
Kotetsu could not help but wonder who Speed Demon had been before Maverick implanted his memories inside of him. Had he been hero material? Or villain material? Had he just wanted to lead a quiet life? How had he been unfortunate enough to encounter Maverick and have Maverick's memories planted inside of him?
"It doesn't matter. You'll join me in just a moment."
Kotetsu stood still, his suit running battle mechanics, knowing this battle was beyond him now. He had no shot at catching Speed Demon. All he could do was pray for his partner's success. Barnaby had two minutes left.
Speed Demon laughed and held up a small device. He pressed a button once, grinning as he ran circles around Barnaby, kicking up dust and wearing a path on the cement from his high speed running. Barnaby stood stock still, watching the blurred figure circle him. He gave no reaction to the device.
With a burst of wind, Speed Demon raced up onto a light pole and clicked the device's button several more times. It seemed like some sort of garage door opener, but there were no garage doors to be had on Sternbild's port. Barnaby only stared up at him.
"Why isn't this working?" Speed Demon demanded, his words running against the other as he spoke too fast.
Kotetsu thought he heard Barnaby chuckle as he jumped up at the light pole. No matter how many times Speed Demon clicked his device, nothing changed. Barnaby continued his ascent.
Barnaby's fist swung into Speed Demon's face before he could rush away. The redheaded NEXT fell to the ground below, crumpled into a twitching heap.
"I don't belong to you anymore. That's why," Barnaby finally responded.
. . .
"Well? What do you see, Fortune Teller?"
Kotetsu's head pounded. He had not opened his eyes yet, but everything still swam in front of them. His stomach burned, and he felt quite grateful that he had eaten so little of his freeze-dried dinner.
As Kotetsu opened his eyes to find himself strapped to some sort of pod in a smooth, metal facility, breathing stale, recycled air, he realized that he had never left the space station. Vague memories of a heated fight in the halls of the space station surfaced. He remembered a black-haired girl, glowing blue, and he felt sick, so sick he had passed out. These memories seemed less than real compared to Kotetsu's strange dreams. He could almost feel Barnaby's tears still drying on his shirt, and, dammit, he wanted an Orange Julius so badly that his stomach stopped aching.
An old woman with gray eyes blinked at a tall, thin black man wearing a lab coat. "We will all be defeated here. His future does not reveal even the possibility that we will win."
The black man, too, had gray eyes, as cold as a mid-winter day in Sternbild City. "That is not acceptable. Look at Barnaby's future."
The black-haired girl who had made Kotetsu sick enough to pass out sat atop a console, surveying Kotetsu and the others. Her long hair hung in front of her face, obscuring her eyes. She occasionally ran her hands over her budding breasts, as if trying to memorize the contours of her own body. "It doesn't matter. Just activate Barnaby and play the memory disk for the boy. Lose the spare. His powers are fading and he's of no use to us as a drone."
Kotetsu realized, with a chill, that the girl was staring at him. He glanced to his right and saw Barnaby, lying in a pod like Kotetsu, strapped down by metal cuffs. To Barnaby's right also lay Origami Cyclone, in a similar position. Both appeared unconscious, and all of their armor had been piled in a corner. Kotetsu started to struggle against his metal bonds, but they would not budge. He cried for help, but no sound issued from his lungs. He felt like a movie trapped by the pause button.
The black man turned to the old woman. "If we kill him, does that change the future where we're defeated, Fortune Teller?"
Fortune Teller frowned. "I'm not sure."
"Barnaby will be one of us in just a moment," the girl offered. "I'll push the button myself to activate his memories." She leaned across the blinking consoles, but the black man snatched her hand away.
"Wait, Black Malady. Let Fortune Teller finish. Your youth makes you too impetuous."
"Why wait, End Game? If this man's future promises our defeat, and we kill him then turn Barnaby into one of us, we win."
"It's not so simple. The future is always changing," cautioned Fortune Teller. She brushed strands of white hair from her gray eyes. "Give me a few moments to examine Barnaby's future, and then I can-"
The door suddenly burst open, flying across the room and striking End Game into a wall, leaving a bloody smear behind. Antonio leaned against the door, his green armor glittering under the lights. He lurched forward.
"I thought you said he was dead!" Black Malady screeched.
"Just distract him!" shouted the old woman, as she hobbled towards the fallen black man.
Black Malady glowed blue, but Antonio continued to lurch towards her. "I can't! He's-he's already sick! I can't make them sicker when-" Antonio's armored fist slammed into her stomach, and she slumped to the ground, black hair fanning around her as she lay still.
Antonio fell to his knees, opened his faceplate, and vomited all over the polished metal floor. "I hate space travel." He stumbled up to Kotetsu's pod, still smelling of sick. "I really hate space travel," he gasped out as he yanked on Kotetsu's bonds. The horrible wrenching sound of metal filled the room, and Kotetsu sucked in his breath, ignoring the pinch as Antonio managed to tear his bonds off. He never felt so grateful to have a man smelling of puke stand beside him.
Fortune Teller pulled End Game to his feet. "You'll hate this more." End Game snarled and held out a glowing blue hand. Antonio wheeled around and froze. Even the little trail of spittle dangling from the bottom of his lip froze like an icicle. He did not blink, he did not breathe. It was as if he had turned into a still photo of himself.
Kotetsu ripped himself free of the pod and found his voice again. Letting his power surge through his body, he roared as he launched himself at End Game. He felt as fast as the Speed Demon from his visions. Before End Game could even wheel around, he slammed the Maverick drone into the wall, knocking him unconscious. If he could spare Barnaby's future misery from the knowledge that Maverick still existed in these unfortunate souls, he would, but he did not think killing these people would accomplish that.
End Game collapsed into a heap, his face already swelling and reddening from Kotetsu's attack. Kotetsu whirled around to find Antonio blinking and glancing around in confusion. When Kotetsu turned to Fortune Teller, the old woman held up two liverspot-covered hands.
"Free Origami Cyclone. I'll free Barnaby," Kotetsu told Antonio, and ran over to rip Barnaby free from his pod. Barnaby moaned as he fell into Kotetsu's arms. Kotetsu glanced at Antonio. "Thanks, man."
Antonio glanced up as he pulled Origami Cyclone free. "What else are friends for?" he said.
"Wh-what happened?" Barnaby slurred. Kotetsu still held him tightly. Barnaby felt heavy, despite his slender size-he packed a lot of muscle.
"We were taken hostage, but we're free now." Kotetsu glared at Fortune Teller. She gazed back with cool gray eyes. "Let's just get our suits back on."
"Nothing I can do would change anything." Fortune Teller blinked, and her eyes seemed to become a warm brown for a moment. She leaned against the blinking console, apparently having grown weak. "I can read the future of anyone I touch-except myself. I can't see any of my copies' futures except through people like you. No matter how it played out, we would always be defeated here."
Origami Cyclone started tossing outs pieces of armor to Kotetsu and Barnaby. Kotetsu caught a leg guard and glanced at the old woman. "Well, I can see your future, if you can't. Your future involves prison, for you and your friends."
Fortune Teller's eyes shifted back to gray, and she smiled. "Leave the fortune telling to the experts." Her hand came away from the blinking console. Everything on the panel now glowed red. "I'm sorry, but I have to do this."
"Shit!" Kotetsu cried. "What did she do?"
Barnaby and Origami Cyclone dashed to the console, both half-dressed in their armor. They pushed the old woman aside, and she fell to the floor with a small cry. Origami looked up from studying the console after a moment, his face pale. "It's a self-destruct. They somehow wired in a self-destruct. I don't know how to stop it."
"Sky High! Can he help us?" Kotetsu asked.
Barnaby glanced back at Kotetsu. "Sky High… yes! Finish putting on the armor and check your fittings." He grabbed his helmet and snapped it on. "Sky High! Come in, Sky High!" he cried over the comm link.
Sky High's voice crackled in, as cheerful as ever. "Hi, Barnaby! And hello!"
"The space station is going to self-destruct. We need some help."
"Oh, is that all? That's easily dealt with. I'll make sure the explosion blows away from the shuttle."
"That's not the only problem, Sky High," Barnaby said. Kotetsu could tell he was trying to hide his irritation. Kotetsu felt slightly jealous that Barnaby actually bothered to hide his irritation with Sky High. He never bothered with Kotetsu.
"It's not?" Sky High asked.
"We're still on the space station."
A pause. "Ah, yes, that is a very good point. Also easily fixed. Just have Wild Tiger punch a hole in the wall and come out. He likes breaking things, so it should be no problem. I'll funnel you back to the shuttle."
"I used up my minute already," Kotetsu told Barnaby.
"I thought it was sixty-three seconds?" Barnaby responded, sounding droll.
Kotetsu made an irritated noise and checked to make sure his suit was space-tight.
"I guess I'll have to punch open the hole," Barnaby said, his tone sharp. "Give me the shuttle's direction, Sky High, and we'll come out on your side."
As Sky High gave the readouts, Barnaby motioned for the other heroes to follow him. They dashed from the room, except for Kotetsu, who glanced back at Fortune Teller. She was sitting beside Black Malady, stroking the girl's hair.
"You should take the escape pods." Kotetsu was not Lunatic. These three people had once been their own individual identities. For a moment, Fortune Teller's eyes had shifted to brown. Maybe there was something left of them, after all. He could not hate them as he hated Maverick.
"End Game has a second power. He can mass teleport. He'll wake in a moment, and we'll be fine." Fortune Teller studied Kotetsu, her eyes brown again. Behind her, the console blinked furiously. "The future is always changing, you know."
"And so are your eyes."
Fortune Teller put a hand to her face. "We're always fighting for dominance of my body, Maverick and I. But I won. I use his memories, as he once used mine. His defeat is inevitable now."
"But if the future is always changing, why is his defeat inevitable?"
Fortune Teller smiled. It was not Maverick's smile, but the smile of an old woman who had seen too much. "Because I'll lead him to it, every time. Save us this time. Don't let us burn. Restore us to ourselves."
"Take care of young Barnaby. Maverick will still try to activate the memories he hid inside of him, and he has many NEXT at his disposal."
Kotetsu worked his jaw. "He'll never have Barnaby. I'll never let Maverick hurt him again. Just you watch." With that, he turned on his heel and ran after his friends.
Barnaby was waiting for him.
. . .
Agnes kept bitching about the lack of footage from their helmet recorders, but Kotetsu no longer paid her any attention. He leaned back and smiled at his friends. All of them sat on the bench, ignoring the huge video screen with Agnes's rant about preserving Hero TV's ratings. Origami Cyclone was the most blatant about it, as he had brought out his Nintendo 3DS. Sky High continued to smile and nod, but his eyes seemed glassy and far away.
Barnaby turned to Antonio, who looked considerably less green now that he was back on Earth. "I don't understand. I remember the fight, sort of. The one called Black Malady had made me so sick that I fell down. End Game had frozen Origami Cyclone and when he unfroze him, hit him in the back of the head to knock him unconscious. He must have done the same to me before I could get back up. Wild Tiger just seemed to pass out from Black Malady's sickness powers, but what about you, Rock Bison? You fell down before the pair of them even showed up."
"I passed by a window." Antonio balked as he spoke. "Seeing all that open space, well-I think I passed out. It seems I was immune to Black Malady's powers because I was already sick."
"The old woman was there, just in the background. I saw her just before I passed out," Origami Cyclone. "She told the other two you were dead and not to worry about you. I'm really glad you're okay, Rock Bison."
"She lied to help us out." Kotetsu grinned. "We have to pay her back by saving her and the others."
Barnaby narrowed his eyes. "Saving them? They're terrorists. We don't even know their agenda or why they took over the space station and held us hostage."
The arrival of their fellow heroes saved Kotetsu from having to explain too early, and had the added bonus of interrupting Agnes's tirade. As Blue Rose, Fire Emblem, and Dragon Kid burst in, demanding to know what had happened and if everyone was all right, he beamed. If Fortune Teller could win the battle against Maverick and Barnaby could resist Maverick's memory implants, Kotetsu was confident they could save all the Maverick drones.
Barnaby would have to face dark times soon, but he would not do it alone. Kotetsu would be there, every step of the way, proving to Barnaby that he and all the other drones could beat Maverick.
Their victory was inevitable.
The moment the attendant placed the Orange Julius in Kotetsu's hand, he entered a state of sugary bliss. All his cares faded away, turning into smoke before his orange delight. He stood in the middle of the mall, slurping up all the goodness through his plastic straw.
Barnaby stared at him, looking rather haughty with his glasses balanced on the end of his nose. "What are we here for, again?"
"Orange Juliuses. Or is it Orange Julii?" Kotetsu said around his straw. "Should buy one."
Kotetsu took another slurp of Orange Julius, but Barnaby's glares interrupted his sugar-laden ecstasy. He sighed and reluctantly pulled the drink away from his mouth. "We're here to keep the future the same." He still had not told Barnaby of the Maverick drones. He wanted to spare him that pain as long as possible. But they had to face the future at some point, and Kotetsu would make sure it ended the same way, with Barnaby victorious. He only wished to change the drones' fates.
"What?" Barnaby asked, blinking.
With a loud slurp, Kotetsu finished his drink and tossed it into the trash. It bounced off the top and onto the floor, but no matter. He was feeling pretty good-not to mention a bit hyper from the sugar-as he saw Lady Luck marching towards them through the crowd. She held a large gun on her shoulder, and her face bore the familiar Maverick smile. Shoppers began to scream as they noticed her.
"Whatever happens, Barnaby, don't worry," Kotetsu said before Barnaby turned around. "We'll make it through just fine. Trust me."
"I don't understand," Barnaby said, shoving his glasses up his nose.
Kotetsu grinned and pushed Barnaby down just as Lady Luck opened fire. "You will."
. . .