The hospital room they'd hidden Kotetsu away in was a small, airless thing that smelled too strongly of bleach mixed with all the flowers the other Heroes had sent. The biggest, most elaborate bunch had a beautifully calligraphed note declaring, "From your dedicated fans," and Barnaby secretly wondered if senior management had sent them to cheer Kotetsu up. And to go some way towards apologising for labelling him a murderer.
That was something Barnaby wasn't sure he could ever forgive himself for.
Kotetsu was the most honourable, the kindest man Barnaby had ever met, and to believe him capable of anything even close to that- Barnaby couldn't comprehend it. He studied the flowers instead, and out the corner of his eye watched as Kotetsu and his daughter argued animatedly with one another. In truth, he didn't know why he'd come here. He wasn't family, and he felt like an intruder, listening to their teasing and insults and through all of it Kotetsu's endless, obvious affection. He took every cold word and insult as though his daughter had said something nice, grinning warmly and poking her lightly in the arm.
He hadn't come to apologise, because Barnaby wasn't sure there was anything he could say that would ever be enough. But sitting alone in his empty apartment had left Barnaby feeling achingly alone, after days of madness and emotion and half of it he could barely even remember. Now, he had no one else to turn to.
So Barnaby studied the flowers, and it was enough for him just to hear Kotetsu's voice. To know that he was alive. Nothing could ever have prepared him for the strength of his loss, his regret, when he'd thought Kotetsu was gone. That he'd never get to fight alongside him again, or get drunk with him again, or see him again.
Maybe that was another reason why Barnaby was here. Without having the physical presence of Kotetsu right there, in front of him, it was hard to forget the way his friend's body relaxed in his arms. Dead, Barnaby had been sure.
"Kaede," Kotetsu was complaining. "I can get a job. As soon as they let me out of here-"
"As soon as you're out of here," Kaede said, frowning and stubborn and at that moment she looked almost exactly like her father, "you are going to rest. The doctor said so."
"But I need to-"
"No." There were tears in Kaede's eyes. "You have to get better. You were hurt." She turned to Barnaby, her voice pleading. "Tell him, Mr Barnaby."
He had hoped they hadn't noticed him loitering, which was ridiculous because they were in a tiny hospital room with nowhere to hide. Kotetsu leaned his head back against the pillow and looked up at Barnaby, raising an eyebrow. For all that Kotetsu had hidden just how much damage had been done to him in that final battle he couldn't hide it here under the harsh artificial lights with the doctors telling him to stop, to lay down, he needed help, his heart was beating too fast and there was internal bleeding. For the second time that day Barnaby had felt his stomach turn cold with fear at the thought that Kotetsu would not be there with him. Under these lights Barnaby could see how pale Kotetsu was, the exhaustion in his eyes and the pain in the tightness of his expression every time he shifted.
It was easy to say, "You should listen to your daughter, Old Man. You are in no condition to do anything more than lie there and get better.
Kaede's expression was triumphant. Kotetsu frowned.
"Partner, I have to feed my family-"
"They've been doing well enough so far. It isn't as though you've earned a lot this season-"
"Hey! That's because you kept stealing all of my points."
Barnaby scoffed. One of the first things he'd learned about Kotetsu was that he had little or no interest in points. For him it was all about the responsibility that came with his power; to keep people safe.
Kaede patted Kotetsu's arm consolingly. "It's okay, dad. We know you tried. Once you're better you can win lots of points-"
She cut herself off, covered her mouth with her hands, remembering. It must have been hard for her, Barnaby thought, to discover what her father did for a living and then for him to just quit. No matter how much Barnaby understood his reasoning he couldn't help but feel- bereft. He had no right. He knew that. Kotetsu had his own responsibilities. He'd made him no promises. But it hurt to think that maybe this was the last time he would see Kotetsu. For all that he was irritating, naive, a ridiculous embarrassment to them all, no one had ever been able to get under Barnaby's skin quite like Kotetsu. He'd never found himself wanting to spend time with any one before.
It would be easier, Barnaby decided, not to linger.
"I should go," he said. He meant to turn and leave. He really did, but his feet wouldn't move and he was just standing there looking at Kotetsu and Kotetsu was looking right back.
It was Kaede who spoke first. "No, Mr Barnaby! You have to stay and help me! Dad will never stay still. You have to use your power! He'll listen to you!" She looked thoughtful before adding, "I think."
This, staying here, felt like intruding. This wasn't his family. Barnaby was alone. He had been for a long time and would be for the rest of his life.
"That isn't a good look on your face, little Bunny."
Kotetsu had that sad smile on his face that Barnaby had come to hate. It was both self-deprecating and understanding and Barnaby didn't want anyone to understand.
"My name is not Bunny, "Barnaby replied automatically. "It's Barnaby."
On the other side of the bed Kaede was looking between Barnaby and her father in confusion, her hands twisting in her lap as though she had done something wrong.
"So it is," Kotetsu nodded. He finally looked away from Barnaby, towards the door. "Well, you can at least help an old man escape this place, right? Before you go?"
"I won't." Barnaby didn't know what Kotetsu was thinking. He was bruised, his exposed chest an ugly mass of purple and yellow, the bandages covering the scars of surgery a contrast of bright, clean white. He was clearly in pain. He had a family to think of.
"Come on," Kotetsu wheedled, "We're friends, aren't we? Friends help each other." He reached a hand out to Barnaby, even though Barnaby could see how much it hurt to do. They were friends, yes. They had been partners. Kotetsu was an idiot. Perhaps it would be best for Barnaby to stay, just for a little while longer. To make sure he didn't do anything stupid. To make sure Kaede was safe. And Barnaby ignored the feeling that Kotetsu was somehow tricking him into staying, and the even stronger suspicion that he was tricking himself too.
It was how, two days later, Barnaby found himself driving through open countryside, Kotetsu in the seat beside him and Kaede fast asleep in the back seat.
"You'll hate it," Kotetsu announced cheerfully. "It's a draughty old house. The wiring's so bad the fuses trip all the time. There isn't an inch of chrome anywhere in the kitchen."
Barnaby didn't bother to disagree.
Kotetsu went on, "My big brother owns a shop. Alcohol. Local-made, mostly. Maybe we can go there tonight."
"You are not drinking."
Folding his arms, sighing, Kotetsu shook his head. "You don't have to come, if you don't want to," he said. "I'm fine. My mother will make sure I stay in bed and brush my teeth and take my vitamins."
He was nervous, Barnaby realised. He'd known Kotetsu long enough to know he babbled when he was nervous and Barnaby couldn't work out why.
"If you don't want me here-"
"No! That's not it," Kotetsu interrupted. "Turn off the highway."
Barnaby obeyed, found himself driving down a narrow road hemmed in on both sides by fields. It had been a long time since he'd been to a place like this. Not since he was young and his parents had brought him to the country on holiday. To relax, they'd said. To get away from the stress of the city. For their health.
It fit that Kotetsu was from somewhere like this; honest and honourable and uncultured.
"I'm glad you're coming home with us," Kotetsu assured him once he'd directed Barnaby down more side-roads, each smaller, rougher than the last. The railway ran beside them but he had yet to see any trains. Barnaby wondered how often they travelled this far out. "I wouldn't have suggested it-"
"Kaede invited me," Barnaby reminded him.
"Right," Kotetsu agreed after a pause.
It was a warm day, sun filtering in through the car windows, but Kotetsu still had a blanket over his legs and Barnaby hadn't missed the way he rubbed his arms like he was still cold. Barnaby reminded himself that it was nothing to worry about. That the doctors knew what they were doing and would never have released Kotetsu from the hospital if they hadn't thought him well enough. But he also knew how good Kotetsu was at hiding things. He was determined to keep a close eye on his partner- ex-partner. Friend now he supposed. Just friends.
"We do have a TV though. And a videophone. There isn't much to do." Kotetsu sounded apologetic and Barnaby wondered if he was nervous because he worried Barnaby wouldn't like his home. Anything was better than that cold, empty apartment he called home but had only ever felt at home in when Kotetsu was there, drinking and eating everything he could find and smearing his fingerprints all over the polished tables and workstations. It was only fair, Barnaby thought, that he should see Kotetsu's home too.
This was another thing he wouldn't admit; Barnaby didn't know what he was doing. He didn't know what he would do once Kotetsu was well again and no longer needed a keeper. Once Barnaby had outstayed his welcome. There was nothing for him in Sternbild.
"My mother makes mean dumplings though," Kotetsu was saying. "She never cooks fried rice for me. Hey, you should show me how good your fried rice is. You said you'd been practising."
Barnaby's hands tightened around the steering wheel. He checked the mirror. Kaede was still asleep, completely unaware. "I thought you were dying," he frowned, unhappy at the reminder. "I thought fried rice might make you not die."
It was a ridiculous thing to think, but Kotetsu nodded, turned to look out the window at the passing fields. Field after field after field. They hadn't passed a single car since turning off the highway and Barnaby wondered if that was why Kotetsu talked so much; because once there had been no one to listen.
"Sorry," he said quietly, which just irritated Barnaby even more. It wasn't Kotetsu's fault he'd nearly died. Except where it was. "This street," Kotetsu pointed to the next turn off. "Second house."
For the entire journey Barnaby hadn't let himself think about actually arriving, about going into someone's house, and now that he was actually here he felt his stomach turn. He'd never been afraid of thieves or murderers and here he was breaking out into a sweat at the thought of meeting Kotetsu's mother.
The house was ordinary, nothing special, and really, what had Barnaby expected? This was where Kotetsu had grown up, he'd said. This was where Kaede was growing up and where his mother was growing old.
Barnaby pulled up into the drive. Upstairs the windows were open, towels and mattresses airing over the windowsills.
Beside him, Kotetsu turned to Barnaby and smiled. "Welcome home."
Kotetsu hadn't been exaggerating about his mother. Within ten minutes Kotetsu was escorted to a back room and ordered to bed, bedding that looked too warm for the season piled over him, and Barnaby was hugged by Kotetsu's mother in greeting and put to work making tea and arranging sweets onto tiny, ornate blue plates.
"You must be sick of him," she'd said as she left the kitchen. "He's such a baby when he's hurt."
Barnaby was neither sick of Kotetsu nor did he think Kotetsu complained at all when he was injured but he appreciated the reprieve. He stood in a stranger’s kitchen, arranging cups onto a tray and wondered if it was normal out in the villages to have guests make the tea. He was certain it was usually the other way around.
Somewhere near by he could hear Kotetsu and Kaede and Kotetsu's mother talking, each as loud as the others, talking all over each other.
"Your brother will be over later," Kotetsu's mother said and another round of loud, chaotic talking broke out. It was a mystery to Barnaby how they heard each other at all.
After he had rearranged the teacups three times, trying to work out if he should disturb them or not, Kotetsu's mother appeared beside him.
"It looks lovely, dear," she said taking the tray from him and making for the door. "Now come and drink it before it gets cold."
Now that there wasn't the urgency of their arrival, of helping Kotetsu through the house, Barnaby could look more closely at his new surroundings, couldn't help looking curiously at the pictures hung on the walls of the corridor as he followed Kotetsu's mother. He peeked into the rooms they passed, all clean and tidy and not at all like Kotetsu's messy apartment. It was true; there wasn't an inch of chrome anywhere.
At the end of the corridor was a closed door, and when Kotetsu's mother slid it open Barnaby was hit with what felt like a wall of heat.
"Hurry, hurry." Kotetsu's mother waved him inside, shutting the door firmly behind them.
There was a heater in the corner of a room, screen doors open but the doors to the outside themselves shut tight. There was a garden beyond filled with tall green plants all in neat rows. And in the centre of the room lay Kotetsu in his bed, looking forlorn.
"Bunny! Help me! It's too hot in here. Tell them."
Kaede turned stern eyes on Barnaby.
"It is a little warm," he offered in what he hoped was a diplomatic answer. Barnaby wanted nothing more than to take off his jacket. And possibly his socks.
"You see!" Kotetsu pointed at Barnaby. "He agrees with me. Can we open a window now?"
His mother ignored him. "Barnaby made tea," she said instead, laying the tray down beside the bed. "Do stop hovering, Barnaby, and sit down," she added mildly.
Barnaby did as he was told, received his tea, took a sip and tried not to pass out from the combined heat.
"Now Kaede," Kotetsu's mother said, sipping from her own cup. "Would you go and buy the groceries for dinner? I just haven't had time."
She pulled a list from her pocket along with a few notes and Barnaby caught a glimpse of neat, precise writing listing; apples, soup paste, sesame oil-
Reluctantly, Kaede took the money and the list, torn between wanting to help and staying with her father.
She looked down at Kotetsu, studying him carefully before coming to a decision, leaning down and kissing him on the cheek. "I'll be back as soon as I can, okay?" Standing up, she waved at her grandmother, then at Barnaby. "Look after him while I’m gone."
A welcome cool gust of air bled into the room where she slid the door open and Kotetsu's mother called, "Close that door!" The breeze was cut off in an instant. Barnaby almost wished he'd been asked to go shopping instead.
They listened as feet ran across the wooden floor, the front door opened and closed and then the house was in silence.
"Do I get any tea?" Kotetsu asked. He had never liked quiet.
"Yes," his mother nodded. She turned to Barnaby. "Help my son up, would you?"
"I'm capable of sitting up," Kotetsu protested, but fell silent at his mother's glare. As Barnaby put his teacup down on the tray, stood and made his way over to Kotetsu he tried to remember if his mother had ever glared at him that way. He remembered coming home once, his clothes wet and muddy from the rain, and his mother scowling at him as he tramped dirt and water across the carpet. Her expression had softened though when she'd noticed Barnaby shivering, and had wrapped him up in blankets and given him hot chocolate. It was a good memory, even if it hurt to remember.
It was true enough that Kotetsu had the strength to push himself upright but, under the watchful eye of Kotetsu's mother, they both made a show of it, Barnaby holding onto Kotetsu's shoulders dutifully.
"Your hands are cold, Bunny," Kotetsu murmured under his breath.
"I'm not sure how in this heat," Barnaby mumbled in reply, eliciting a grin from Kotetsu.
"Tea," Kotetsu's mother offered, and Kotetsu gratefully took a long drink.
"Now we should talk," she said when he had finished, and that sounded ominous. Kotetsu was fidgeting, his expression worried. He didn't like the sound of that either.
"What about?" Kotetsu sighed. He let Barnaby help him to lie back down without complaint. Tired, Barnaby thought.
"What you're going to do with yourselves."
"I'm going to be steamed in a sauna, apparently," Kotetsu quipped.
"You know what I mean," his mother frowned in reply.
Kotetsu glanced at him.
"When you let me out I'll find a job."
"I'll have Kaede and you." Kotetsu paused, glanced at Barnaby again. "And Bunny if he wants to stay. And it'll be fine."
It surprised Barnaby that Kotetsu had thought to include him. That, in Kotetsu's thinking, Barnaby would still be there in the future somehow.
His mother did not look convinced.
"Hm," she said, and turned to Barnaby. "And you?"
He'd never been one to lie, if he could help it. "I don't know," Barnaby answered honestly.
"Hm," she said again. "Do you want to stay here?"
That was easy. Even if it was too hot in this room and he didn't know what he was doing here and it made him think too much of the parents he'd lost Barnaby couldn't think of anywhere he'd rather be. After everything they'd been through and everything more Barnaby had lost he needed something familiar. Something he was sure he could trust. He wanted to stay with Kotetsu.
"Yes," he said.
Kotetsu's mother nodded and smiled and then sent Barnaby away to clean the teacups and fetch foul-smelling herbal medicine from the bathroom cabinet.
Kotetsu's brother owned an old, rickety shop with boxes piled high against every wall and a worn long counter. It was a place for locals to drink and talk and complain about city folk and high prices and the weather. There was no sign on the door outside. No tourists ever found their way here; no outsiders.
The first day Barnaby offered to help Kotetsu's brother with his deliveries, restless in the house and needing air, the regulars took one look at Barnaby and labelled him City Boy. It was, at least, a step up from Little Bunny, Barnaby thought sourly.
"They're just teasing." Kotetsu's brother patted Barnaby on the back amiably and set him to loading up the van. It was hard work; not the short-term physical exertion of hero work but long drudgery. Endurance. For a long time all Barnaby had to think about was not dropping the crates, stacking them correctly. Barnaby loved every moment of it.
By the third day Kotetsu was complaining to his brother, "You broke him! Bunny is gonna want to open his own liquor store at this rate, then you won't be pleased when you have him as your competitor. You've had a monopoly around here for too long, big brother."
It had been a week and Kotetsu's mother had finally allowed him out of the bed, and Kotetsu sat at the kitchen table drinking water and picking at his breakfast. He didn't eat enough, Barnaby thought. There were still dark smudges under his eyes and he winced every time he moved, hunched over.
"His name is Barnaby," Kotetsu's brother said, and Barnaby couldn't help but smile smugly at the look of utter shock and betrayal on Kotetsu's face.
"It's a conspiracy!" Kotetsu declared.
"Ignore him," his brother advised and Barnaby nodded.
Two weeks passed and Barnaby did the grocery shopping on Tuesdays, picked Kaede up from after-school club on Thursdays, worked the late shift at the liquor shop on Friday nights when the counter was crowded with customers and Kotetsu's brother was run off his feet.
"I should pay you," his brother frowned when they were wiping down the tables just after closing one night.
"You already do," Barnaby said.
Every evening he ate with this family that wasn't his but welcomed him like he was. He sorted laundry, helped Kaede with her homework when Kotetsu was sleeping, was second in line to have a bath before bed. It hit Barnaby how easily he had fit in to this world of theirs, how assimilated he'd become, when the family started referring to the small side room they'd given him to stay in as his own.
"The towels are in Barnaby's room," Kotetsu's mother said, and asked, "Is it alright for Kaede to go in there to get them?" As though it was his space, and his alone.
"Yes," Barnaby replied. "Of course." Kotetsu's mother smiled and ignored his surprise.
Sometimes they watched Hero TV, and Kaede would ask, "What's Blue Rose like? Or, is crime-fighting as easy as it looks on TV?" Barnaby could see the interest in her eyes, and so could Kotetsu by the wild, exaggerated tales of suffering and woe he inflicted on his daughter.
"It's dangerous," he told her. "You never get any time off." Kotetsu grinned at Barnaby. "You have to put up with partners who have no idea what they're doing."
Kotetsu didn't realise the truth of it.
Barnaby could tell from the way his eyes followed his old friends that Kotetsu missed being a hero. He worried when thugs pulled out guns, his fingers curled around his teacup so tightly they'd turned white.
They never talked about leaving Sternbild, or going back, or Maverick. Kotetsu never mentioned his powers. Those evenings they spent together, the long shadows of the waning summer sun warming their backs as they sat on the porch, Kotetsu would tell him tales of his misspent youth. It was enough for Barnaby just to listen to Kotetsu's voice, to know that he was alive and well and there.
A month had long since gone by before Barnaby even noticed. Sponsors stopped calling the house, put off by Kotetsu's mother and Barnaby's disinterest.
There was a heat wave and finally Kotetsu was allowed out of the house. He joined Barnaby and his brother on their delivery rounds, got in the way more than he helped but it was good to have him there anyway.
"He's better at talking to people," Kotetsu's brother told Barnaby as they unloaded at a local grocery store, sweltering under the sun whilst Kotetsu napped in the passenger seat. Barnaby saw what Kotetsu's brother had meant that night when the counter was filled with people, all the shutters and the doors wide open in the vain hope of letting in a breeze, and Kotetsu seemed to know every single person there by name. They welcomed him back with raucous laughter and cheering and Barnaby watched as the night wore on and Kotetsu could always be found in conversation with someone or other. Sometimes loud, glasses clinking and language crude, sometimes hidden in a quiet corner, heads leant together and sombre.
All those times, Barnaby remembered, when they had talked or argued Kotetsu had always known what to say.
The customers gradually left, some walking and cursing the heat, some stumbling and singing enthusiastically into the night air, until it was just the three of them. Kotetsu's brother poured a drink for them all and Barnaby sipped at the whisky in his glass, savouring its sharp tang. His feet ached after a long night and it felt good to sit.
"You wash your mouth before you leave," Kotetsu's brother told Kotetsu sternly. "If Mother finds out I let you drink she'll have my head."
Kotetsu nodded eagerly, took a grateful drink. "It's been too long."
"It's been five weeks," Barnaby said.
"Too long." Kotetsu took another drink before putting his glass down on the counter and looking Barnaby over appraisingly. "You make a good barmaid," he teased, and received a slap to the back of his head from his brother for it.
"He's more useful than you."
"I’m telling you, big brother," Kotetsu grinned. "Future competition."
His brother rolled his eyes and picked up a tray loaded with dirty glasses and empty bottles. "Make sure he doesn't drink that too fast," he instructed Barnaby, then was gone through the open back door.
More quietly, now they were alone, Kotetsu said, "You like it here." Not really a question, but Barnaby answered anyway.
For one terrible moment Barnaby was certain Kotetsu was going to say it was time for him to leave, or that he was going away, or something equally bad. But he just smiled and raised his glass.
"Good," he said.
Despite the heat and the late hour and the exhaustion it was easy to lift his glass to Kotetsu's and smile back.
Yelling was the first thing Barnaby heard; a distant sound in his dreams that mixed with the crackle of fire and his own voice- still a child- begging his parents to wake up.
This was different though.
In the long, ornate hallway of his childhood home Kotetsu stood, the door thrown open. "There's a fire," he said urgently.
Of course there is, Barnaby would have told him if he wasn't a scared child crying in the ashes of the life he'd once had. There was always a fire in Barnaby's dreams.
Lights were turned on and Barnaby could see Kotetsu outlined in the doorway. He looked annoyed. "Barnaby," he called. Had Kotetsu ever called him that when he was awake, Barnaby wondered? "Wake up."
Shaking, then. He was being shaken awake and Kotetsu really was there, urging him to get up, to get dressed; they were needed.
Then Barnaby could smell it; smoke thick in the air and Barnaby was awake in an instant. He wasn't panicking, he told himself. This wasn't the same. He was a hero now. He could save everyone.
"Where?" Barnaby asked, fumbling around his room for pants, pulling a t-shirt over his head not caring that his hair probably looked like a bird's nest.
They lived in the next street. Barnaby had said good morning to the grandmother that lived there every morning for two months. He had delivered premium sake to the father for a work party. There were three children, one in Kaede's class at school. They played together in the street sometimes and Kotetsu would tell them to get out of the road because cars could knock them down, forgetting that this wasn't the city. The only people who used these narrow lanes were the families who lived in the small town, who all knew each other.
The night was already close, heavy with heat, but as Barnaby raced after Kotetsu, out the front porch putting on the nearest pair of shoes he could find, down the road and around the corner, Barnaby could feel the temperature rising. Thick black smoke poured from the roof of the house and Barnaby could feel it catching in his lungs.
They turned a second corner and then Barnaby could see it; the flames licking at the veranda. The grandmother swept it clean every morning. Now the once-polished wooden floor was reduced to crumbling, black-tarnished timber.
There was yelling, people gathered on the other side of the street. Kotetsu spotted his mother and Kaede and headed straight towards them.
"What's happening?" he asked.
There were tears in Kaede's eyes. "Mr Takeda." She pointed to a group of people huddled around the frantic father. He held his youngest child in his arms. Barnaby couldn't remember her name but she was crying softly into her father's shirt. A second child clung desperately to his father's arm, watching the flames with wide, horrified eyes. Kaede swallowed and shook her head.
Kotetsu looked to his mother. "Mr Takeda," she said, pulling Kaede into her arms. "He thinks the others are still in there."
The grandmother and Kaede's school friend.
There was a loud crash and the entire left side of the building exploded into flame. The crowd gasped, cried. The fire must have reached the gas tanks.
Kotetsu's brother ran up to them, phone in hand. "I called the fire service but it'll take them a while to get out of here. Kotetsu."
It was clear what his brother was asking; for Kotetsu to be the hero he had left behind. It struck Barnaby then that none of these people- his friends- knew about his powers. Not once had any one mentioned anything to suggest they had any inkling of where Kotetsu had been all these years other than to the big city. That, it seemed, was enough for them.
Without hesitation Kotetsu nodded, put his hand on his daughter's head.
He turned to Barnaby. "I can do this myself," he offered.
Stupid, selfless, arrogant fool to think he was capable of doing anything without Barnaby at his side.
Barnaby hated fire. He hated the way it hissed and whispered and reached out, grabbing, devouring everything it could find. There was no doubt, no hesitation, when he shook his head. "I'm coming with you."
There was no more time to waste. No arguments. Kotetsu's brother clapped them both on the shoulder, said, "I'll keep everyone here," and then Kotetsu was running and Barnaby was following him around to the back of the building.
They stood before the blaze, oranges and yellows washing across Kotetsu's face, his eyes almost black in the dark, lit up with the reflection of flames. The heat of it was incredible and it was difficult to imagine how any one could survive in what had turned into an inferno.
"You don't have to do this," Kotetsu said even as they both raised their arms to set their watches.
Barnaby ignored the comment. "Four and a half minutes?"
Kotetsu grimaced. "More like four."
His powers were slipping fast. He set his watch and drew on his powers, feeling the familiar surge of static rushing through his blood. Beside him, Kotetsu did the same, his eyes a bright blue now. It was strange, Barnaby thought, to see him like this without his suit.
"Stay together," Kotetsu ordered as they rushed the back door, and that was one command Barnaby would gladly obey.
The second they broke through the door Barnaby was almost overcome by the heat, almost blinded by the brightness of the flames. They engulfed everything within sight as though the whole world was made of fire. He was sweating. Even through the protection of his powers he could feel his skin burning, could smell the hairs on his arms smouldering.
"Fast." Kotetsu had to yell over the crackling, creaking around them, and the breath it took made him cough. The house wouldn't stay upright much longer and powers or no Barnaby did not relish the thought of an entire burning building collapsing on top of him. Smoke bellowed thickly around them making it hard to see even with the clarity of sight their power provided. There was no hope, he thought. Nothing could survive this. Not for long.
But with Kotetsu there was always hope and Barnaby followed his lead, hurrying up the precarious staircase. Barnaby could feel it buckling under their weight and found himself glad they weren’t wearing their suits. They sped through every room on the top floor and found nothing but fire and heat. Glancing at his watch, the time read two minutes thirty seconds.
They had to go faster. Brushing past Kotetsu, Barnaby took the lead, tore through a wall when the door to the back of the house wouldn't open. He found himself in a child's bedroom, poster peeling from the wall, plastic doll being slowly eaten away by flame. An electrical socket popped behind them, shattering the glass of bulbs and Kotetsu was on Barnaby in an instant as sharp shards rained down on them. Kotetsu pulled Barnaby against his chest, covering him with his arms. He heard Kotetsu hiss and Barnaby shoved him away angrily. They didn't have time for this. Two minutes, and all the time Barnaby would spare for Kotetsu's idiocy was a scowl. Kotetsu shrugged sheepishly but thankfully followed when Barnaby turned away, headed back to the first floor.
This time the stairs cracked as soon as Barnaby set foot on the top step and he decided it safest to jump the rest of the way, hoping the sturdier floorboards would hold when he landed. They did, but as he turned back to check on Kotetsu Barnaby knew their luck wouldn't last. He could see it before it happened; the floor above the stairs warping, bulging downwards.
Barnaby tried to warn Kotetsu, yelling at him to move, but it wasn't enough. It was never enough.
Watching in horror as the ceiling collapsed on top of his friend, it was like being that helpless child again. It was like a nightmare, and maybe if Barnaby wished hard enough he would wake up in his small room, and Kotetsu would be snoring loudly in the room next door and the only sounds would be that and the cicadas.
The crashing of burning wood against burning wood, splitting, creaking, the ferocity of the heat the fire threw out were all too real.
And Barnaby wasn't that child any more. Now he was a hero, and he could- he had to- help his friend.
Without thinking he rushed into the new flame, careful where he put his feet but reckless with the boards he pulled at, threw away, digging through the wreckage for his partner. He'd thought he had watched Kotetsu die once and he wasn't about to let it happen again. It hurt his hands, the smoke choked his lungs and his chest heaved, fighting for enough oxygen but somehow Barnaby managed to find the strength to call Kotetsu's name.
Somehow, miraculously, his partner found the strength to call back.
Barnaby followed the sound, digging through wreckage frantically before he saw a hand, an arm, Kotetsu.
His partner gave him a weak smile, waved from where he was pinned beneath the bannister of the staircase. There was no time to stop and check but Barnaby knew they couldn't have more than a minute before Kotetsu's power blinked out and then- that didn't bear thinking about.
The bannister was jammed somewhere and wouldn't move so Barnaby snapped it in half instead, pushed it off of Kotetsu and pulled him to his feet. He was unsteady where he tried to stand so Barnaby pulled Kotetsu's arm around his shoulder and hung on as he made his way towards the exit. He kept his head down, his eyes stinging and his throat dry as bone, and he almost didn't hear Kotetsu's insistent, "Have to find them."
Barnaby gritted his teeth, tried to pull at Kotetsu. "They're not here." Not any more.
Kotetsu wouldn't budge.
Holding onto Kotetsu, he could see his partner's watch. Thirty seconds, it read.
"There's no time."
Kotetsu remained still. He was listening, Barnaby realised.
Then, his eyes shot open. "The basement."
Together they ripped open the trap door leading down. It was dark, smoke-filled but there, huddled in a corner, were the old woman and her granddaughter. The grandmother was unconscious but alive; Barnaby could still hear her heartbeat. Faint, but there. The girl was coughing but awake and that was more than Barnaby could have ever hoped.
Barnaby picked up the old woman as gently as he could, made sure Kotetsu was upright and moving, the girl in his arms before climbing the steps back into the blaze. Somewhere near by there was another explosion that shook the entire house, knocking Barnaby to his knees. The house creaked ominously.
He stood quickly, knowing the grandmother had limited time in this heat. Knowing Kotetsu had even more limited time. Trusting Kotetsu to follow he ran for the door, burst into the night air, putting Mrs Takeda down safely onto the ground, patting at the hem of her dress where it had caught alight.
Looking back, he saw Kotetsu clear the doorway and in that instant his power fizzled, blinked out and Kotetsu tripped across the veranda, fell heavily just beyond the fire with the girl wrapped protectively in his arms. Too close.
Faster than he thought he had ever moved before, Barnaby was at their side, pulling them a safe distance away and just in time as the building groaned, another explosion ringing out, and then the roof collapsed in on itself. The collapse threw up flames several floors high that lit up the sky, a great cloud of thick smoke blocking out the moon.
All Barnaby could do was breathe, chest heaving, and hold Kotetsu against his knees. He curled his back over his partner to keep him from falling debris. In Kotetsu's arms Kaede's friend looked up at Barnaby with awe, her eyes red and puffy, face stained black with soot, streaks made by tears tracking down her cheeks. She lay on top of Kotetsu, who grinned up at Barnaby. His face, too, was streaked with black and red, sore-looking skin.
"We did it," he said. More of a wheeze than anything, but they were all breathing and in one piece and that was good enough.
The morning broke silently over the vegetable garden, the fields beyond, light glinting off the open windows. The stench of burning lingered in the air and even more strongly on Barnaby's skin and his hair. He wondered if he'd ever be able to wash it off.
It had been a long night and Barnaby should have been asleep like Kotetsu, dozing on the tatami matting beside him. But Barnaby found himself somehow too exhausted to sleep. Restless. Maybe it was the last burn of adrenalin, or the fear, or all the memories churning through his head.
The Takedas had long since been taken to hospital and despite their burns and bruises and their choked lungs he and Kotetsu had refused to go with them. They would recover quickly. No one had the energy left to argue.
Kaede had cried and cried and for a long time Kotetsu had sat with his daughter just holding her, telling her everything was alright. Everyone was alright. After she had fallen asleep Kotetsu had put her to bed and Barnaby had closed the windows in her room to keep out the smoke and together they had collapsed in the back room, not wanting to pollute their beds with the stench of this night. With the dirt and ash that still clung to them.
Barnaby looked down at Kotetsu, limbs sprawled, his breaths even if sometimes laboured. It was a rare sight to see him so still and quiet. Under the dirt, in the bright, clear morning light it was easy to see how red Kotetsu's skin was. There were blisters on his arms, his palms cracked and burned. Not that Barnaby's were much better.
"The staring is creepy, Bunny." Kotetsu's voice cut through the silence suddenly and for a long moment Barnaby was too surprised to respond.
Tired eyes blinked open, watched Barnaby lazily.
"Go back to sleep." Barnaby said finally. It was early yet.
"Could say the same to you." A pause. "If I thought you'd actually slept at all yet."
"I was-" It was too blatant a lie to say he wasn't tired. Too much truth to say he was waiting for the sun to rise. "-thinking," he settled on.
Kotetsu nodded. "I could hear you thinking from over here."
"I know it's something you're not familiar with," Barnaby allowed, and Kotetsu's lips twitched into a half-smile.
Sunlight crept over Kotetsu's outstretched toes, yellow and red reaching up to his legs, a softer colour than fire. The hems of his pants were blackened and singed.
Fingers curled around Barnaby's forearm, warm and dry. It had to hurt, Barnaby thought, but Kotetsu didn't seem to care.
"I think," he said, "we saved everyone. We're okay. And you're worrying too much."
He wasn't worrying.
Barnaby couldn't meet Kotetsu's eyes.
"We're heroes," Kotetsu continued. "Whether we're on TV or just here, at home. We do what he can."
"At home," Barnaby said quietly.
"Yes." Kotetsu's grip tightened around his arm. "This is your home too, now. It always was. Why do you think my mother had you in the kitchen the second you arrived?"
"I thought it was because she was worried about you. She needed the help."
Kotetsu scoffed. "I don't know if you've noticed but that woman does not need help."
Barnaby had realised, and he had considered the possibility that Kotetsu's mother put him to work because he wasn't a guest in their home and had never been. But it had been too much to let himself hope for.
He felt grimy, every muscle ached and Barnaby wished they didn't have to do this now. Or ever. He wished Kotetsu didn't have to always talk. To always push. His eyes stung when he rubbed at them.
"Like any home you can stay, or you can leave, but you can always come back," Kotetsu went on. "You can tell me what's wrong or you can tell me to go away. But I would prefer it if you stayed and talked to me. My grandmother always said keeping things inside gave you an ulcer."
That might explain why Kotetsu never shut up.
Barnaby didn't want to talk. He didn't want to explain that if he slept all he would see was flames and burning flesh and the dead bleeding and asking him why he didn't save them? Why wasn't he strong enough? Barnaby didn't want to admit that for the first time in years this house, with this family, was somewhere he wanted nothing more than to stay. Except he was afraid of losing it all over again, and that he didn't think he could bear.
"Okay," Kotetsu nodded, even though Barnaby hadn't spoken. "We'll try something else then."
He levered himself slowly upright, groaning as he moved and mumbling under his breath about how he was getting too old for this and how he was supposed to be retired now, dammit. Barnaby watched him cautiously.
"I'm not going to bite," Kotetsu laughed, and reached out his arms towards Barnaby, grabbing his shoulders and pulling him roughly against his chest. This close the smell of smoke was almost overpowering but Barnaby couldn't bring himself to pull away. He let Kotetsu hold him, and he held Kotetsu back because he was right; they had saved everyone this time.
And, right at that moment, they were both okay.