It had been an afternoon of trips back and forth, from Hero TV to this and that administrative office and back to Hero TV and back to one more office because the form was supposed to be submitted in triplicate instead of in duplicate and Agnes hadn't signed all the copies because when she was in the middle of signing them she'd been interrupted by an intern who...
Well, it had been that kind of an afternoon. Most of the time Kotetsu had managed to leave Kaede somewhere around his desk or the Heroes' break room, but he'd taken her with him to deliver the final nondisclosure agreements (Yes, in triplicate! Yes, with all the signatures!) at Justice Tower.
"Is that the last one?" Kaede asked after they'd left another different-yet-identical functionary's office, their heels on the hall floor tiles a counterpoint to her words.
"It sure is. I don't know why everybody needs so much paperwork. After more than ten years you'd think they'd know who I am—" Kotetsu punched the elevator's down button "—and that I'm not going to talk about any of that complicated legal stuff that nobody remembers anyway. But you've been having a good time, right? You saw all the Heroes, didn't you?"
"Yes, I saw everybody! And I saw where all of you work and everything, and Ryoko and Maya are going to be soooo jealous!" Kaede almost danced with excitement. The elevator chimed softly as its doors opened. There was only one occupant: a man in a gray suit with a briefcase in one hand and a cardboard box under the other arm. He nodded at the two as they entered. "Wild Tiger. Miss Kaburagi."
"I'm not Wild Tiger any more, your honor."
"I'm not 'your honor' any more, Mr. Kaburagi."
Kotetsu looked shocked. "Are you resigning, too?"
"I was fired, Mr. Kaburagi. The mayor finally grew a—" glancing toward Kaede, Yuri edited out "a pair" and, as he pointedly stared at the elevator buttons, continued: "—a spine, and began doing something about the corruption that's been endemic to both the Stern Bild government and Hero TV for as long as Albert Maverick was involved in them. For which," he slowly added, "I must admire him, whatever my personal interests."
"But—but," Kotetsu protested, "you're honest! You're a good judge! Why would anybody fire you?"
"I'm connected to Albert Maverick. Do you really think a man as young as I am could gain the power I hold—held—by ethical means?" He gave Kotetsu a sharp glance. "My presence here, my advancement—it was largely Albert Maverick's doing. Following Mr. Maverick's ... involuntary retirement, there's been a movement afoot to root out anything connected with him. Your partner, Mr. Brooks—if he weren't resigning voluntarily, I assure you, he himself would be receiving a pink slip in due course."
Kotetsu looked puzzled and hurt, an expression that Yuri found satisfying and yet oddly poignant. Rubbing the back of his head, Kotetsu said, "That's kind of extreme, if they'd fire him just for that."
Yuri didn't respond. The elevator's descent continued uninterrupted for a surprising number of floors—or not surprising, actually, given the lateness of the hour. Yuri was Yuri and had worked until the close of regular business, then packed up his personal effects, a surprisingly time-consuming task given that his office didn't sport the usual assortment of framed family photographs, potted plants, or imported knickknacks. He was lost in thought—or, more accurately, the absence of thought, the emptiness of his circumstances finally catching up with him now that his hands were idle—when a minor explosion directly beside him made him flinch. Glancing down, he saw that Kotetsu had punched one fist into the opposite palm, and glancing up, he saw a grin topping that annoying beard.
"I know what you need!"
Yuri would have edged away, but his arm with the box under it was already pressing the elevator's wall.
Kaburagi's eyes were practically alight with excitement as he continued, "Kaede and Bunny and I are about to have a night on the town. You need to come with us!"
Yuri stared. Kaede looked at him, then at her father. "Daddy! It was going to be you and me and Mr. Barnaby!"
"So it'll be me and you and Barnaby and Judge—I mean, Mr. Petrov. The more the merrier, right?"
Kaede gave Yuri a look that estimated him as totally lacking in merriment. Yuri knew what often happened to peace officers who intervened in domestic disputes, and he held his tongue.
"It wasn't what you promised," Kaede pointed out, frowning. "You said you were going to start keeping your promises."
"And I am! I'm taking you and Barnaby out for pizza and ice cream tonight, and then we'll go sightseeing. We're just bringing Mr. Petrov along too."
Yuri found himself on the receiving end of a dubious look from a ten-year-old. As if to punctuate her anger, the elevator bounced and halted its descent, softly chiming as the door opened.
Barnaby Brooks Jr. stood in the parking facility's anteroom, highlights on his glasses half obscuring his eyes. Kaede dashed toward him. "Mr. Barnaby!"
"Kaede! Kotetsu! —And Judge Petrov. Good evening."
Yuri nodded as he stepped out of the elevator, but before he could return Barnaby's greeting, Kotetsu was saying, "Bunny! He's not Judge Petrov anymore. They fired him! Can you believe it? Just because he knew Albert Maverick, or something like that."
Barnaby looked appropriately solemn. "Mr. Petrov. I'm sorry to hear that."
"Thank you." Before Yuri could proceed to his car, Kotetsu grabbed his coat sleeve.
"So I've asked him to come with us!" Kotetsu continued. "Because a guy who loses his job just like that needs some distraction to cheer him up."
"Really," said Barnaby, clearly taken aback. "Well, then, welcome aboard, Mr. Petrov."
"I haven't said anything about accepting," Yuri protested, trying to pull his sleeve free without being obvious about it.
"Do you have other plans?" Kotetsu asked. Yuri wondered how the man could be easygoing and incisive at the same time.
"No..." Oddly enough, Lunatic didn't have an excursion scheduled for that night. Even vigilantes took days off.
"Then it's settled!" Kotetsu finally, finally released Yuri's sleeve to rub his palms together. "We'll park at my place—oh, I'd better give you directions." This last to Yuri.
Yuri shook his head. "I know where you live. I..." Am I actually doing this? "I'll be all right."
"Great! See you there!"
Proceeding to his car, Yuri gathered that Barnaby had succumbed to Kaede's pleas to ride with him, and Kotetsu's expressions of disappointment were audible over the hum of ventilators from several rows away.
I should drive home, he thought as he tucked his briefcase into the trunk and, after a few tries, settled his box of personal effects in a position that seemed stable. Just leave the whole merry lot of them to their own devices. Hell, Kaburagi's such a scatterbrain, by the time he's parked, he'll have forgotten he invited me. He'll have forgotten I even exist. His daughter will be so relieved. Probably Brooks, too. Yuri sat at the wheel of his car for several minutes, staring at the concrete wall, thinking and yet not thinking. Of home and his mother. Of pizza and ice cream.
Of a long drive to the outer suburbs that he didn't particularly feel like right now. Besides, he'd made a commitment. Better check that he was presentable.
Yuri had a love-hate relationship with his facial scarring. It looked dreadful; there was nothing else to say about it. His right cheek, his nose, his eyelids, and streaks on his forehead showed where fire had kissed him and made him its own. If he wanted people to see his face rather than scar tissue, a good coating of concealer was in order. But an important part of him considered that wide-ranging scar an outward and visible sign of an inward vision born of a rite of passage. He resented the need to reduce himself to a tabula rasa in order to be taken as something better than a charity case.
It was part of how Lunatic made him complete. After a long day of keeping up appearances, he could come home, have a brief session with facial cleanser and moisturizer (currently he was rather fond of extra virgin olive oil), and become himself, just for a little while, before quite literally taking up the mantle of justice. It was why he'd never looked into the more durable types of concealer, the ones you could wear while swimming, or the really amazing ones that lasted for days and even then needed a solvent for removal. It was why he would never for an instant consider any form of medical treatment.
It was why Lunatic himself bore that sign, but in a guise to inspire terror instead of disgust and pity. Fire had marked him, taught him, shown him that evil was ubiquitous, that nothing remained untouched by it, and for all the pain it had brought, Yuri was grateful for the insight. He was more grateful still for the power that enabled him to act on it, the wondrous fire that brought justice, that brought death to the dealers of death.
The blind and stupid world didn't deserve to see the insignia of truth on his flesh.
So he opened the glove compartment and pulled out the portable makeup mirror he kept there. The magnification distorted his features a bit, but it served its purpose: everything seemed to be holding up fine. Yuri wasn't surprised. His concealer had lasted unretouched through exhaustingly long days that involved after-hours meetings, running errands after work, or staying late to personally deal with some unforeseen contretemps at Hero TV. He supposed it would be different if he had to perform manual labor, but his on-the-job exertions usually inspired metaphorical rather than literal sweat. This would simply be another long day. After all, it's not as if they invited me to a sauna.
He knew where Kaburagi lived. He'd made a point of scoping out all the Heroes' homes, not that he had anticipated visiting any of them, either in propria persona or following the commands of Thanatos. What Lunatic had said that night at the Hero Academy was true: he really had no desire to fight the Heroes. Nonetheless, there was always the possibility they would stand in need of the justice only Lunatic could deliver. The Heroes were all good-hearted people: Lunatic often questioned their judgment, but Yuri never doubted their sincerity. Even good people, however, could fall into evil deeds, and their status and connections would make it easier for them to evade regular channels of justice.
You'd know, wouldn't you, Yuri?
Yuri drowned this thought in the engine's revving as he started his car.
Not only did Kaede score a ride to Kotetsu's with Barnaby, she shared the back seat with him when Kotetsu drove them to the pizza place. Yuri didn't envy Barnaby his popularity with children in general or Kaede in particular. Not that Kaede was unpleasant; Barnaby just seemed nonplussed at the unending focus on him, him, him, with the occasional foray into what Kaede's friends thought about him and his role on Hero TV. Kotetsu's intermittent efforts to redirect the conversation were almost laughably ineffectual, and he finally abandoned them. Nonetheless, he didn't look particularly upset about playing second fiddle to Barnaby not only with the world at large but with his daughter. Yuri mulled at this a bit before concluding that it made sense: From what he had gathered, Kotetsu was retiring specifically to devote himself to being a father, so he'd be seeing a good bit of Kaede in the future, and vice versa. Barnaby Brooks Jr. might well be vanishing from her life. Carpe diem was probably not yet part of Kaede's vocabulary, but she was practicing it all the same.
This last thought hadn't had time to settle properly into shape when Kotetsu grinned as he turned the steering wheel. "Okay, we're here! Next stop, Pizza Out, where they let the pizzas out at night, for happy folks to take a bite!"
It wasn't just the advertising jingle that made Yuri wince. It was his knowledge of how Pizza Out had scored on its latest health inspection. That one was, admittedly, an improvement over the one they'd failed only a week before, apparently due to communication gaps attributable to an influx of immigrant staff, but—
"Come on, Mr. Petrov." Kotetsu had gotten out while Yuri was lost in recollections of the inspector's specifics on improper food storage, improper disposal of refuse, and personal cleanliness citations. "We don't want to leave you behind."
Yuri got out. "If you're going to take me out to eat like this," he said, "for goodness' sake, call me Yuri." He glanced toward Kaede and Barnaby. "The lot of you."
Kaede cocked her head, puzzled. "Yuri?"
"That's Mr. Yuri for you, honey," Kotetsu said gently.
But Kaede shook her head. "I mean, is that his—is that your name? Sir?"
Yuri drew a hasty breath between his teeth. "We haven't been properly introduced, have we?" The Really, Kotetsu look that he gave her father was usually reserved for disturbances that led to ejection from his court. Perhaps as a side effect of having encountered milder versions of it in damage fine proceedings, Kotetsu froze, then recoiled a pace.
Barnaby stepped into the breach. "If I may. Mr. Petrov, allow me to introduce Miss Kaede Kaburagi. Miss Kaburagi, Mr. Yuri Petrov, lately of the Stern Bild Justice Bureau."
Kaede gave the whole procedure a deer-in-the-headlights stare, until Barnaby gently prompted, "The lady offers her hand first."
"Oh!" Kaede extended her hand, and as Yuri carefully took it, she said, "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr.—uh, Mr. Yuri."
"The pleasure is mine, I assure you."
"Well, then!" Kotetsu reached for Kaede's shoulder but managed to clap her neck instead, to her evident annoyance. "Let's get inside before all the good tables are gone."
They ended up at a booth rather than a table, Yuri between Kotetsu and a wall, and opposite Barnaby. Whatever else might be said of Kotetsu, no one could fault him for a lack of enthusiasm—or generosity. "So, I'm thinking a couple of medium pizzas with everything." As Yuri was eyeing the list of potential toppings with mild incredulity, Kotetsu continued, "As in everything! Oh, and double anchovies!"
In perfect unison, Yuri and Barnaby said, "No anchovies." Kotetsu didn't notice the startled glances that the two exchanged; he was distracted by Kaede's follow-up: "Daddy! Nobody likes anchovies!"
"Hey, I like anchovies." Kotetsu looked hurt. "Fine, only one with everything and double anchovies. You two wet blankets can share a ... hm ... how about a Sweets to the Sweet: 'Our Super Deluxe becomes an even sweeter deal with added red peppers and a crushed pineapple glaze!'"
"Sounds interesting," said Barnaby.
"Fine by me," said Yuri, who generally was all right with pizza toppings other than anchovies, though he found most vegetables bland. While Kotetsu and Kaede proceeded to negotiate further the toppings of the "everything" pizza, Barnaby turned to Yuri.
"I'm sorry about your job," he said. "I suppose it's a little soon to ask if you've thought about looking elsewhere for employment. But I guess there are plenty of law offices who'd welcome someone with your background."
Barnaby had meant this as optimistic speculation, but Yuri shook his head.
"I'm not ... all that well-regarded in the local legal community. Not that anyone doubts my probity, but it's generally recognized that I didn't get where I am on my own merits. People who aren't even old enough to run for president don't achieve senior judgeships in the normal course of events. I was..." Yuri regarded his fingers thoughtfully "...a tool of Albert Maverick's. He was behind—I wish I could say he was behind only my rapid advancement, but really, everything."
"Not my decision to study law. That was something I'd wanted since I was pretty young. Not my law degree or my score on the bar exam; there's a limit to how many strings even Maverick would try pulling. But he made it possible for me to go to law school, and he was rather direct about my potential usefulness as long as I did well. He was also ... sufficiently direct about the consequences if I didn't." My, that sounds nicer than saying he had me by enough balls to furnish a pool hall.
"I'm sorry. I..." Barnaby looked around uncomfortably. "I thought the world of Albert Maverick while he was alive, and now that he's gone, I seem to find new things that I'd rather not know about him every time I turn around."
"Maverick was cagey about who got carrots and who got sticks. He had no reason to threaten you. It was to his advantage not to, in fact; it's axiomatic that people will work harder to earn a reward than to avoid a punishment. For various reasons—" and Yuri's tone turned bitter "—I needed to know more than he cared to safeguard with positive reinforcement alone."
Barnaby, who had spent his entire recollected life an only child, had the sudden impression that he'd just encountered a jealous, and somewhat antagonistic, older sibling.
"But you did merit a lot on your own," he said. "Your legal degree, like you said, and your record as a judge. Everybody knows Judge Petrov is fair and trustworthy. Albert Maverick didn't give that to you. You earned it. You went out of your way to help me back when I was trying to learn about Ourobouros. And..." Barnaby hesitated, looking down: "you were the one who got the clearances lined up so I could see my full records, the real ones." He looked up again. "That meant a lot to me."
Now it was Yuri who looked down. "There was no reason you shouldn't have, and every reason you should. It was my job to see that the Heroes were treated fairly."
"I'm grateful all the same."
The server brought drinks and breadsticks and took Kotetsu's order for pizza, which had become quite detailed. Double anchovies on only half of the notorious "everything" numbered among its features.
Waiting for the pizzas, Yuri was content to munch breadsticks, sip his blueberry tea, and let the others' conversation eddy around him. Most of it focused on the future. Kotetsu wanted to reconnect with his family, and Kaede in particular. Now that Barnaby knew about the places he'd really been during the past twenty-odd years, he planned to revisit them, to see if they'd jog more latent memories. After some prodding—for really, he hadn't had time to contemplate the matter—Yuri decided he wanted to reacquaint himself with the museums and zoos in the area. After he'd spent a few days catching up on his sleep.
The pizzas were interesting. That the "everything" pizza would be—though perhaps not in the best sense—went without saying. To Yuri, it looked as if it should have been prepared in a deep dish ... one labeled "Fido." Kotetsu wanted it at his and Kaede's end of the table, an arrangement that suited Yuri excellently. He and Barnaby started on a pizza that was at least a bit more normal looking.
It hadn't occurred to Yuri that a Sweets to the Sweet pizza would be, literally, sweet. He'd never before eaten pineapple as a pizza topping, and he found he rather liked it. After a couple of slices, he worked up the nerve to try the non-anchovy half of what he had mentally dubbed the Heinz 57. (Kotetsu seemed determined to finish off the anchovy half single-handed, anyway.) After mulling the matter over (and a great deal of chewing), Yuri decided that while he didn't regret trying so many flavors and textures simultaneously, he didn't particularly want to repeat the experience. Another slice of Sweets to the Sweet made a good chaser.
"Come on, Bunny, try it!"
"Yuri tried a slice!"
"That was very gracious of him."
"Half a slice!"
Kaede slipped her arm across the table and helped herself to another slice of Sweets to the Sweet. Kotetsu made an aggrieved noise. "Kaede! Don't you want to help Daddy eat the pizza we put together?"
"I did eat a slice of it. I like this one better."
So much for custom pizza, Yuri thought dryly.
"Yuri? Want another?"
"I'm saving room for dessert."
"This is a masterpiece! Why doesn't anybody want more?"
"It's your pizza de résistance," said Barnaby, as if that explained everything. Yuri stared, impressed. During the five-minute explanation that Kotetsu required, Yuri's respect for Barnaby's command of the language increased a hundredfold. He even forgave the man for having demonstrated it with such an outrageous pun.
When the server brought his change, Kotetsu was alternately eating the last remaining slice of the Heinz 57 and extolling the virtues of their next stop, a relatively new ice cream parlor not too far from Apollon Media. Yuri wondered how the man could talk about food, never mind contemplate eating more, after the meal he had just downed, then reflected on his own day. Lunch had been a wrap (whose contents he no longer recalled) held with one hand while he scribbled on sticky notes with the other. Granted, Kotetsu had resigned voluntarily and given notice rather than having been summarily flung out onto the street like floor sweepings (Yuri was not going to lie and tell himself that he was not bitter), but it was nonetheless easy to imagine a day thick with paperwork and bureaucratic misunderstandings, particularly given that, as a Hero, Wild Tiger was answerable to both Apollon Media and the Justice Bureau, as well as individual sponsors. Perhaps he had skipped lunch.
"Time to rock and roll!" Coins clinked and rattled, weighting Stern Bild currency at the other end of the table as Kotetsu left a tip and levered himself out of the booth in a single gesture. "Real Real Real Ice Cream awaits!"
"Hey, not so fast," said Barnaby, whose napkin apparently had been heartless enough to fall on the floor while Kotetsu and Kaede were already halfway to the exit. Yuri downed the last of his tea and rose, glancing sideward at...
Kotetsu, really ... you call that a gratuity? Yuri shook his head. He suspected it was poor arithmetic rather than stinginess or dissatisfaction with the service that accounted for a single, small-denomination bill lying under the specie, but still. He dug out his wallet, hastily slid a bill under the side of his plate, and glanced up ... just in time to see Barnaby doing the same thing. Which would have been all right, but at that point Barnaby glanced up, and their eyes met.
Both men hastily averted their gazes, re-pocketed their wallets, and sidled out of the booth. Well, somebody's getting one hell of a tip. Kotetsu waved at them from the door. "Hey, are you two coming or what?"