Although she hadn't been a resident of Stern Bild since she was much too young for picking out her own scarves, Kaede knew the names of the stores where All The Right People bought their accessories. Yuri wondered what in the world he was going to do while Kaede went scarf-shopping, and he got his answer only two doors from the galleria entrance.
There was a florist's.
"I'll just stop here, if you don't mind," he told the others. Kotetsu grinned and winked; Barnaby looked puzzled but amiable. Kaede was several lengths in the lead, glanced back, and called, "Okay!" as she waved to him.
Yuri had already made up his mind that he was going to buy an enormous bouquet of white roses. Even absent their florilingual significance—purity, silence, "I am worthy of you"—he considered them beautiful for their combination of stark shade and soft shape. If he got enough of them, he'd have an excuse for using a vase too heavy for his mother to throw.
Yuri liked it when purity of motive had practical side effects.
The woman minding the counter, who wore a large red flower over one ear, told him the shop didn't have such a bouquet at the ready, but white roses were in stock, and the order could be assembled while the gentleman waited, if he wished? Yuri was agreeable. He found the florist's restful, the right angles and gold trim of its glass display cases a pleasing counterpoint to the riot of colors in vases and baskets. Gazing to the work area beyond the counter, he noticed that all the staff wore floral hair ornaments of one sort or another. He'd been in Stern Bild long enough to see it for the subtle marketing it was—so much in Stern Bild was one or another sort of marketing—but couldn't find it in himself to be annoyed. He knew most employees in retail worked long hours, often in less than ideal conditions, and if something as simple as a hair ornament made their workplace a little brighter—well, let them do a bit of marketing.
"Mr. Yuri!" It was Kaede, entering the store at a run, almost in tears.
"Kaede—what's wrong? Did something happen to your father?"
"No! My father happened to Stern Bildtique! He put his arm RIGHT THROUGH the jewelry counter! I can never go in there again!"
"Oh dear," murmured Yuri, even while thinking, Now, why am I not surprised? "He wasn't hurt, was he?"
"I don't care if he was! I can't believe anybody could do something so stupid!"
I can. Aloud, Yuri said, "I suppose it's a case of old habits dying hard. Kaede, I am sorry. Surely we can find you a scarf elsewhere."
"There's nowhere like Stern Bildtique!"
Yuri let Kaede's invective flow unfettered for a few sentences—anyone related to Kotetsu Kaburagi needed an opportunity to vent—but finally interrupted with "Here, here, calm down. I'm sure we can mend things somehow."
Kaede sighed. "Didn't you find any flowers you liked?"
"They're putting my order together right now. It'll be just a few minutes."
Having gotten the rawest of her emotions out of her system, Kaede began taking notice of her surroundings. A display of single orchids was not far above her eye level, and she studied it. "These are pretty."
"They're all pretty," said Yuri, and as he glanced from Kaede to the women working behind the counter (some of whom had clearly just gotten their evening's entertainment), something clicked. "Kaede..."
"Do you think you'd like a flower in your hair, instead of a scarf?"
The suggestion was completely unexpected—on both their parts—and as Kaede hesitated, Yuri filled in the obvious gap: "I'll get you one, if you'd like."
"Oh!" She glanced from Yuri to the orchids and back several times. "Yes, please! This one?" She pointed to a frilly white flower with a few candy-apple-red marks in the center. "Except I don't know how to make it stay in."
"Let's ask one of the ladies to help."
Some floral tape and a hairpin later, Kaede was stylishly accoutered with a live orchid that would, according to the sales staff, last for a few days if properly cared for. (Only a very few, since its stem was completely taped over, to prevent sap from leaking onto the wearer.) Of course the saleslady told Kaede how lovely she looked, but Kaede glanced around unhappily. "Isn't there a mirror in here?"
The one thing that had gone right at Stern Bildtique, Kotetsu reflected as he left the premises, never to return, was that Yuri hadn't been there. He'd never seen Yuri laugh, but he could easily imagine that reaction to this latest misadventure. On second thought, maybe Yuri would have yawned, having heard enough about Wild Tiger's acts of destruction to be bored of them by now. And to add insult to injury, his own daughter had said, "I'm going to see Mr. Yuri! He knows how to behave in public!" Well, Yuri did know how to behave in public, but it's not like he was the only one. Kotetsu knew how to behave. The knowledge just didn't always make its way into his body before other things happened.
What he'd told Yuri earlier was true, however: Kotetsu knew Kaede was safe with him. He was sure she'd gone directly to the florist's, where Yuri was probably telling her how her Daddy had broken more significant things than jewelers' cases on any number of occasions. In front of the florist's display window, Kotetsu hesitated—and as Barnaby started to walk past, the former Wild Tiger flung out an arm, effectively clotheslining his partner in the gut.
Barnaby gasped. "What was that f—?"
Kotetsu was pointing through the window. Beyond and between the various glass cases, they had a clear view of the counter, where Kaede and Yuri were standing, Kaede with a flower that definitely hadn't been in her hair earlier. Yuri was digging in his coat pocket and finally pulled out something—a mirror that he handed to Kaede, who looked in it and practically bounced up and down, then flung herself onto Yuri in a hug. Yuri's "Hey!" was audible through the glass.
Kotetsu started laughing. "When I told Yuri everybody liked flowers, I didn't think he'd take this direction with it. Well, I guess we don't have to worry about scarves for the moment."
"I guess not," Barnaby murmured, as he followed Kotetsu into the shop. Yuri was retrieving his mirror and whispering something in Kaede's ear that made her gasp and blush. Seeing Kotetsu, she dashed toward him.
Kotetsu grinned at her. "So, Kaede, who's your boyfriend?"
For an answer, Kaede grabbed his little finger and gave it a hard sideward yank that elicited a yell of pain. "I'm going to the women's room!"
Yuri watched Kotetsu nursing his hand and found himself, for the first time in his life, mentally applauding an act of domestic violence.
"Here are your roses, sir," said the woman at the counter. She was trying not to laugh, with only moderate success.
Even though he basically considered Yuri trustworthy, Barnaby couldn't help wondering about Kaede's reaction just before they'd parted. As the three headed out of the florist's, Kotetsu still rubbing his hand, Barnaby asked, "Yuri, what did you say to her?"
Sotto voce, Yuri replied, "'Go and touch your father before you set something on fire.'"
Yuri had spent his share of nights seeing Stern Bild from one perspective or another—sometimes his office window, sometimes Lunatic's aerial view—but the perspective of a sightseer was a new one to him. The soundtrack wasn't bad, either: The business towers that ringed the Justice Tower inspired anecdotes from Kotetsu of Heroes past and present, and Barnaby explained the symbolism of the company names and of the figure topping each of the great structures. Yuri added an occasional footnote to the latter (or refrained; he was amused by the irony of Kronos Foods being named for a mythological figure known for having devoured his own children, but it didn't seem quite the thing to tell Kaede); mostly, however, he held silence and drank it all in. All, as in the whole experience. The sights, yes: the statues and fountains; the lights, the darkness, the architecture old and new, the people passing. But also Kotetsu's jokes, however corny or stale; Barnaby's equanimity, suffused as it was with a quiet joy feeding from springs Yuri could only begin to guess at; Kaede's excitement and playfulness, her willingness to include him in her observations and questions even as she kept her physical distance (sensible girl).
Even a round of sugar- and caffeine-laced vending machine drinks, however, went only so far toward counteracting the effects of the lateness of the hour and the exertions they'd all been through. Even Kaede didn't really protest when Kotetsu announced it was time for everybody to pile in before the coach turned into a pumpkin. The bundle of roses was too big to hold comfortably on his lap, and Yuri let it rest on the floor. Kaede was silent, her fatigue having finally overcome even her admiration for Barnaby. Apparently Kotetsu had run out of words also, but after a few minutes, he turned on the radio, punching buttons until music emerged. The station was playing oldies that night, and Yuri found himself savoring lyrics about pretty blue lights and wondering why the street lamps were the wrong color. Next thing he knew they were stationary again and Kotetsu was poking him.
"Yuri! Come on, wake up. You look really cute like that, but it's bad for your neck."
Yuri blinked and tried to sit up. Kotetsu was right. Not for the first time that evening, his neck felt awful.
"Sorry," he murmured, unfastening his seat belt. "Guess it's been a long evening."
"But we had fun, didn't we?"
It took a little coordination to get himself and his bouquet out, but he managed. "Yes. Yes, we did. Thank you." Kaede and Barnaby had already gotten out, and by the time Yuri got there, Kotetsu was also behind the vehicle, waiting for him.
"I guess this is it." Kotetsu was smiling, but it was not one of his more effervescent smiles. It was nostalgic, Yuri supposed, not realizing he wore much the same expression.
"Yes," said Yuri. "Thank you for having me. I—well—thank you." And because there was nothing else to say, he extended his hand.
Kotetsu took it with a firm grip. "You're a great guy. Maybe we can do this again sometime."
Yuri waited for a mental rejoinder of Maybe not, but the portion of his mind in charge of such things apparently had taken note of the hour's lateness and retired.
Barnaby took his hand next. "Thank you again."
"It's been a pleasure. Truly."
Kaede was still holding Kotetsu's hand with her left as she shook Yuri's with her right, and she held on even after Yuri had released his grip. "Daddy, if I touch two NEXTs at the same time, do you think I'll get two powers?"
Yuri pulled his hand away. "Please, Kaede. If you try that, start with a power more innocuous than mine."
Kaede looked crestfallen, but only for a moment. Then, smiling: "Okay." Still holding Kotetsu's hand, she yawned, and Yuri breathed a sigh of relief. At least she wouldn't try that experiment immediately.
The orchid still looked pretty. Yuri hoped she'd remember to put it in the refrigerator.
The streets were quiet, and so was the house when Yuri arrived. His mother usually didn't wait up for him on nights when he came home at past-the-pumpkin hours. The heavy vase was in the third cabinet he tried, and not very dusty. Once he'd arranged the roses to his satisfaction, he put them in place of the red silk flowers that usually graced the dining table.
It was so late. Yuri hastily spread out his still-wet clothes on one or another article of furniture, exchanged his suit for pajamas, undid his hair, and practically dove under the covers. He wondered if he'd fall asleep when his head hit the pillow but didn't stay awake long enough to find out.
Blue flames suffused Yuri's dreams that night. They defied earth and water, air and any lesser fire, sweeping over Stern Bild, melting the highways and toppling the great towers, leaving screams and piles of ash in their wake. But when the smoke had cleared, three figures remained untouched, and one of them had a flower in her hair.