"Bunny?" Tiger tapped on the suit's exterior and waited for a response. The suit did not move and Barnaby did not answer.
"I'm really, really sorry!" the girl was saying. "He surprised me and I just…." Tears welled up in her eyes and yanked hard on Tiger's heartstrings.
"Hey, hey there, it's okay. It's always hard in the early stages. No real harm done, right? Right?"
The girl did not answer. Tiger began to really get worried. What was this girl's power anyway? Vaporization? Teleportation? Instant Death and Mummification? He tapped on the suit again. "Bunny? Bunny, are you okay? Hey, answer your partner, will you?"
"I'm sorry," the girl mumbled again. "I… I neutralized him."
"Neutralized him?" What was that supposed to mean?
"I thought he was a threat," the girl said, "so I made him… not one."
Tiger's insides twisted. "He's…?" He grew frantic, pounding on Barnaby's suit to give up its secrets. "Oy, Bunny! Bunny!" The helmet flipped open to an empty space. "No." Tiger reared back, ready to drop. "What did you do?"
"I don't understand!" the girl said. "He should still be there." The suit tilted over and collapsed. Tiger stared, horrified at the blank space where Barnaby's head should have been. The girl pointed. "Look, there he is!"
"What, I don't see-" Tiger looked. A furred, snuffly wuffly nose poked out of the hole. "What the-! You turned him into a rat?"
"Not a rat," the girl said. "I heard you call him 'Bunny' at the last second and, well…"
Barnaby crawled out and looked around. He turned around in circles, examining his paws and his fluffy tail. Tiger flipped his own helmet up out of the way. "iThis/i is my partner?" Barnaby sat up and sniffed most disdainfully at Tiger before using his paws to smooth and groom his fabulous ears.
Then he grinned. "Yeah, that's him. Looking good, Bunny!"
"He's a what?" Lloyds was almost beside himself.
"You can see for yourself," Tiger said, pointing to the furball on the desk. "Bunny's a bunny."
Lloyds narrowed his eyes at Tiger. His hand strayed towards the phone, ready to organize a search party for the company's top earner and a psychological evaluation for the veteran who had clearly passed his 'best by' date. The rabbit sat up on its hind legs and sniffed at him.
"It's true, Sir." The small voice came from somewhere behind Tiger. The man stood aside to let a young girl, barely more than fourteen, step forward. "My name's Lola, Sir. It's my NEXT power. I turn danger into harmless things."
Lloyds blinked and sputtered. "You do?" The girl nodded. "Well, change him back!"
"I can't!" Lola began to wail. "It only works when I'm scared and I never turned anything back before."
"She hasn't been at this very long, Sir," Tiger put in.
"So what exactly do you suggest we do, Tiger-san? Enroll her in Hero school and wait until she graduates?"
"Um, it wears off," Lola said.
Tiger turned. "It does? Hear that, Bunny, you're going to be just fine. How much longer?"
"I'm not sure." Lola looked down at her feet. "Cockroaches turn back in minutes. Mice take about an hour. I've never turned anything as big as a human before."
"Oooh." Tiger grinned at Barnaby Bunny. "I hope you like carrots, Bunny-chan. Sounds like you're stuck like this for a while." Tiger had never known that rabbits could scowl.
"This is not good," Lloyds was saying, picking up the phone anyway. "Maybe there's something Saito can do. He better do it fast, too. Maverick is not going to like this."
"We can still make it work, right? He can be the cute Apollon Media mascot until we find a way to fix it." Tiger poked finger at the golden brown rabbit. Barnaby made to bite him and then hopped away. "Hey, that's not cute, Bunny." Barnaby showed him his rump.
"But he had a photo shoot scheduled for tomorrow!" Lloyds was beside himself. "What are we going to do now? Do you know how much trouble it was to get the designer to sign on for the wardrobe?"
"That's easy," Tiger said. "People dress up their pets, don't they?" He leaned down and grinned at Barnaby. "Would you like that? Maybe we can find you a little red shirt just like the one you already have. OWW!" Barnaby kicked at Tiger's face, then once more for good measure. Tiger stood up, holding his nose. "So Bunny-chan is a secret nudist, eh? I always suspected."
Lloyds sank into his chair, head in his hands. "Just… just go. We'll figure something out."
'Something' turned out to be having Barnaby checked out by four doctors, then a vet, a NEXT specialist and a leading expert on hares and rabbits. Saito came in for a look too and Tiger thought he heard something about 'hare modifications'. At the end of the day, Bunny was tired and being avoidant. He also showed no sign of returning to normal. Paperwork was in motion to fast track Lola into Hero school, with extra training on the side to investigate reversing her usual power. Tiger hoped her NEXT effect on Barnaby wore off before they really did have to resort to her training.
"Come on, Bunny, tell you what, let's pass by the gym and see how everyone else is doing. That'll cheer you up." Tiger tried to scoop Barnaby off the floor but the bunny dodged his hands and hopped between his legs, sending him crashing down. "Bunny!" Tiger wailed. "Let me help you! You can't go home by yourself like this. You can't see over the wheel to drive."
Barnaby stopped in mid-hop and turned around. He huddled in on himself on the floor, possibly making sense of Tiger's words. He waddled over to where Tiger lay and sniffed at Tiger's hair. Tiger laughed. "That tickles, Bunny-chan. Come on, I promise I'll take care of you until you're better."
Nathan looked up from his gym mat. "Tiger, have you gone and got yourself a pet?"
"What? Tiger got a pet?" Blue Rose hopped off the treadmill. "What is that?"
"It's Bunny," Tiger said, relaxing his hold so the others could see.
"Oh, he's cute!" Blue Rose said. "Can I pet him?"
"Can I pet him too, Tiger?" Pao-Lin joined the huddle. "He's so cute! Where did you get him?"
Tiger set Barnaby down on a bench. "He's not mine, I mean he's not anyone's. He's Bunny."
"You mean you found him?" Pao-Lin asked.
"No, I mean he's…."
"Oh, goodness!" Nathan put a hand over his mouth. Tiger exhaled in relief. He could always count on Nathan to catch on quickly. "Look at those gorgeous ears!" Nathan squealed. Tiger sighed.
"It's Barnaby," he said.
"What?" Blue Rose gave him a funny look. "Are you sure that's a smart thing to do, naming your pet after your partner?"
"Mmhmm, Barnaby might not think it's funny," Pao-Lin said.
"Believe me, he doesn't," Tiger said, still feeling the bruises from his fall.
"Where is Handsome, anyway?" Nathan tapped well-manicured fingers against one cheekbone. "I was following the report on TV but it cut away rather suddenly."
"Yeah, about that." Tiger scratched the back of his head. "We ran into a young NEXT who's having control issues at the moment. Apparently she has a neutralization attack."
"A what?" Blue Rose did not even look up from petting the Barnaby.
"She turns things that scare her into things that don't. Bunny-chan took her by surprise and she hit him with it."
"Oh, dear, is Handsome okay?"
Tiger stared pointedly at the rabbit. "See for yourself."
"WHAT?" Blue Rose shrieked, startling Barnaby into a half-hop and an impatient foot-thump. "This… This is Barnaby?"
"In the fur," Tiger said. "It'll wear off, supposedly."
"When?" Pao-Lin asked, suddenly wary of touching what was really, underneath, a naked man. She hoped Barnaby didn't hold the petting against her.
"We're not sure," Tiger said. "We're just going to wait it out and see."
"But what are you going to do with him in the meantime," Nathan asked. "He can't fight crime like this, can he?"
"I don't know," Tiger said. "He still has a pretty good kick."
"Wait, wait, are you sure it's him?" Blue Rose stood. "How can you even tell?"
"Easy," Tiger said, flashing her a grin. "Bunny-chan, isn't my beard cool?"
Barnaby turned his back to Tiger and showed the man his bunny bottom. "It's him, alright," Pao-Lin said.
"Now I just have to figure out how I'm taking him home," Tiger said. "He doesn't like being picked up."
"Because you're doing it wrong," Pao –Lin. "Here, let me show you." She put both hands on Barnaby and scooped him towards her, one hand supporting his rump. "You hold him against you like so, and he'll feel safe and won't try to kick you so much." She was suddenly aware that Barnaby was resting with his nose in her cleavage. Sure, she didn't have much, but still. She set him down. "You try now."
Tiger approached sideways. "One hand like so?"
"And don't take too long or he'll get nervous."
Tiger scooped Barnaby against his chest and held him there. "Huh. This is easy. You like this, Bunny-chan?" Barnaby squirmed. "Okay, okay, Barnaby. Hmm, actually you're Bunny B. Brooks now, eh? Ahaha ow, okay, okay." Tiger stroked Barnaby's coat and Barnaby, surprisingly, allowed it. "You like that, eh? Let's go home, Bunny. It's been a long day."
Nathan watched them go, shaking his head, one hand on his heart. "Takes a full metamorphosis for them to get cuddly. What are we going to do with those two?"
"Here we are! The Tiger's Lair!" Kotetsu gestured grandly to his living room. Barnaby thumped a leg against his chest. "Okay, so I don't have a big screen TV. You're just going to have to deal with it for now, partner. How much bigger a screen you want when you're as a big as a shoe, I don't know." Barnaby twitched his ears.
"Want to sit on the couch? It's comfy." Kotetsu set the rabbit down and watched Barnaby make himself comfortable. Barnaby stretched and hopped from one end to the other, investigating every corner and feeling out a soft spot before deciding, at length, that the couch was within acceptable limits. He sat and began to groom himself.
"Let me go get dinner," Kotetsu said. "Leftover chicken okay with you?" Barnaby twitched. "Ah, right, rabbit. I'm sure I have carrots." He slid into the kitchen and began to raid the fridge. "Chicken for me, carrot for you. How about some celery? You like celery? You look like the kind of guy who'd like celery." Barnaby could not answer so he stretched himself out full-length on the cushions and waited. Kotetsu muttered, or maybe sang to himself while he danced around the kitchen reheating his own dinner and seeing about Barnaby's.
Barnaby got restless and began to explore again. He went to one arm of the couch, then the other. He pawed at the remote but couldn't quite get the power button down. Eventually he went to the edge of the couch and put his new hind legs into action.
"Dinner is served, Bunny-chan!" Kotetsu announced, rounding the couch with two plates. "Uh, Bunny? Bunny? Where'd you go?" He glanced around the room. Barnaby was on the floor, sitting up on his hind legs, staring at Kotetsu's family pictures. Kotetsu smiled and set the plates down.
"That's Kaede," he said, walking over. "You met her once, but you probably don't remember." Barnaby turned and wriggled his nose at him. "Come on," Kotetsu said. "You haven't eaten all day and your dinner will get… room temperature." Barnaby hopped back towards the couch, pausing once to look back at the person Kotetsu hadn't named.
'Dinner' for Barnaby was a carrot, a big celery stalk and a sliced apple. "More in the fridge if you want," Kotetsu said. "I'll stock up tomorrow if you're still feeling rabbity." Barnaby snuffled his nose in thanks and fell to his plate. "Heh. I knew you'd like celery," Kotetsu said. "Kaede's supposed to call soon but we can watch some TV in the meantime. What's your channel?" Barnaby glanced up and went right back to chewing. "Right, right," Kotetsu said. "Just… thump or something when I get to it." He set to channel-surfing, past the movie channels and the home learning networks and the weather and the porn. And the porn. And the porn.
Barnaby stopped chewing. Kotetsu grew aware of rabbity eyes one him, watching him, judging him. "Hey, I'm a single man and I live alone," he said, flipping past the channels as fast as possible without his Hundred Power. "Besides, you have no room to talk, with that big theater screen and that chair. Don't think I don't know how handy all that elbow room comes in." He settled on HeroTV to watch Origami Cyclone's latest attempt at moving to the forefront. Barnaby thumped a foot and went back to eating.
He was halfway through his apple when the phone rang. "Ooh, it's Kaede!" Kotetsu turned the vid screen on. "How's my little girl?"
"I'm not little, Daddy." Kaede pouted at her father for point four of a second before she was utterly distracted. "Is that a bunny?"
"Oh, this?" Kotetsu turned to Barnaby. "Yes, it's… Bunny."
"Why didn't you tell me you got a pet?" Kaede bounced up and down with excitement.
"He's not mine, Kaede," Kotetsu said, trying to shove Barnaby out of view. Barnaby scratched him and kept on eating. "I'm… I'm just taking care of him for somebody from work. They got called away suddenly and needed somebody to bunny-sit."
"He's so cute!" Kaede squealed. "What's his name?"
"Barnaby," Kotetsu said without thinking. Well, it was the truth.
Kaede squealed again. "It's perfect. How long are you keeping him?"
Kotetsu scratched his head. "Not sure, exactly. Maybe a few days."
"Will you still have him when you come over this weekend? You have to bring him with you!" Kaede frowned at Kotetsu's face. "You're not coming, are you?"
"I am, Kaede, I promise. I just don't know if it's smart to drag a rabbit all over town." There was no telling when Barnaby would change back and introducing his daughter to a suddenly naked Hero was the last thing Kotetsu wanted to do.
"I'm sure it's fine if you put him a pet carrier," Kaede said.
"You know, one of those crate things with the handles. With some toys in there so he won't get bored."
Kotetsu glanced down at the rabbit. Barnaby seemed to be in agreement. "Huh. I'll see," he said. "If his owner doesn't come back for him before then, that is."
"You better make it this time!" Kaede warned. "I want to play with Barnaby."
"What's new?" Kotetsu sighed. "Is your Grandma there?"
When the phone call had wrapped up, Kotetsu leaned back in the couch with an arm across his eyes. Barnaby hopped over and put a paw on Kotetsu's leg. "What is it with you?" Kotetsu said. "Even when you're four-legged and furry she's nuts about you. You're her favorite Hero, you know." Barnaby huddled against Kotetsu's side. Kotetsu was silent for a while, but then sprang up in a whirlwind of research and organizing, getting the place rabbit-ready.
"Where do you want to sleep, Bunny? Do you need the bed?"
Barnaby stretched out right on the couch where he was.
"Gotcha. Want a pillow?"
Barnaby thumped a leg.
Barnaby paused, then raised his head. Kotetsu ran to get him a spare one from upstairs and arranged it into a sort of nest on one end of the couch. Barnaby curled up in the center, eyes drifting closed as Kotetsu made a clatter behind him. "Okay, there's food and water in bowls by the fridge in case you get hungry in the night, and I put some newspaper down in the corner."
Barnaby twitched his ears at Kotetsu. "Hey," Kotetsu said, "you have to go somewhere, right? If you're still a bunny in the morning I'll buy a proper litter box." Barnaby looked resigned. He slumped into his blanket nest and stared at the floor. Kotetsu reached down, hand hovering over Barnaby's head. Barnaby spotted it and nudged upwards, reaching for the touch. Kotetsu sighed and sat beside him, stroking his ears. "It's not ideal, I know, but we'll make the best of it, okay?" Barnaby closed his eyes.
Kotetsu leapt out of bed as the sun was rising and hustled to the bathroom with what felt like a five-gallon tank. He danced in place as he reached for the light switch. The light went on. Barnaby raised his head from where he was perched on one side of the toilet seat and thumped one leg, fixing Kotetsu with a cold bunny glare.
Kotetsu turned right around, needs forgotten, and headed to the kitchen to distract himself. The noise he made didn't quite cover the sound of the toilet flushing. He turned around, eggs in hand, just in time to see Barnaby hopping in.
"Hey, Bunny-chan," Kotetsu said, forcing a smile. "What would you like for breakfast?"
It was a day of frustration for everyone. There was no change in Barnaby, there was some commotion involved with rescheduling the photoshoot, and Wild Tiger ended up making a solo appearance at a high speed chase. The crooks were stopped, but according to some people, it wasn't good for the company image for the team to not show as a team. Tiger had rarely been more relieved to call it a day.
"Okay, Bunny," he said, collecting his partner from Ivan's watchful care and a pile of origami vegetables. "Time to go shopping."
Neither Kotetsu nor Wild Tiger had ever visited the big pet emporium stores in Sternbild, but it seemed like a good place to start, and pets were welcome. Kotetsu kept Barnaby huddled against his chest as he browsed the aisles. "Look, they've got feed bowls with your name on it. 'Barnaby' is popular these days, isn't it?" Barnaby twitched. "You're right, we already have perfectly good dishes at home. How about a pet bed? Oh, you like the couch. OOH! Pet clothes!"
Kotetsu raced over to the racks, inspecting the merchandise. "Look, they have your jacket! Your little red jacket, Bunny B. Hey, I didn't know pet clothes were part of the official merchandise." Kotetsu scanned the selection while Barnaby squirmed in his arms. "Alright, alright, no clothes. Yours are all sold out anyway. You'd look good in Fire Emblem's too, though. Ow!" Kotetsu pulled the rabbit off his chest. "Just for that, I'm dressing you as Wild Tiger!" He glanced at the shelf and found the tiny suit and mask set. From the looks of it, not a one had sold. "Aw."
"John, wait!" somebody yelled from the other end of the store. Barnaby twitched out of Kotetsu's hands and fell to the floor. "John! NO!" A big hairy dog came bounding down the aisle, bowling Kotetsu over in pursuit of rabbit. Kotetsu's stomach lurched. The dog stopped. Barnaby didn't. He leapt up and executed a mid-air twist, rabbit-kicking the dog in the muzzle. John yelped and backed off just as Keith caught up with them.
"John, no chasing, remember?" John rolled over onto his side, baring his belly and neck.
Barnaby sat tall nearby, looking quite pleased. Kotetsu scooped him. "Forget the clothes. What we need to get you is one of those pet carrier things."
"I'm really sorry about this," Keith said, wrapping John's leash twice around his hand. "He knows not to attack but he still tries to investigate."
"Eh, no harm done," Kotetsu said. "At least not to Bunny." John rolled over on the floor in a ploy for sympathy and belly-rubs.
"Is that really him?" Keith's voice dropped to a whisper as he leaned in for a look. "He's cute." Barnaby took it as a matter of course.
"We're just trying to get some supplies," Kotetsu said. "It looks like he's going to be here a while."
"John and I came for doggy treats. You need any help?"
"Guess it shows, eh?" Kotetsu slumped. "We need a pet carrier thing and some toys and a litter box." Barnaby kicked him. "Okay, no litter box!"
"Two aisles over. The store clerks sometimes have some good advice." Keith smiled and bent down to pet his dog. "Hope it works out for you."
"That makes three of us," Kotetsu said, waving. He wandered down the aisle, staring at the contraptions and doohickeys that passed as toys. "Well, the chew toys are for the dogs, and the string toys are for cats, but what kind of toys are for bunny rabbits?" He held Barnaby up. "What do bunnys like to do?" Barnaby had no answer. "Hmm. Maybe I should get you a girl bunny. Pretty sure bunnies like to do that." Barnaby twitched. Kotetsu glanced down at him. "Boy bunny?" Barnaby twitched some more. "Okay, we'll stick with the porn."
They came upon a wide selection of carriers. "Wow." Kotetsu checked the aisles carefully before he set Barnaby down on the floor. "Which one do you like?"
Barnaby sat up and sniffed at the selection, hopping back and forth to inspect the goods. He came to a rest by a series of bright-colored carry bags, with mesh screened sides and roll-down shades. "Not bad, Bunny," Kotetsu said. "Which one do you like?" He let his hand hover over the rack, looking for some sign from Barnaby. Sure enough, Barnaby stood up on his hind legs when Kotetsu's hand reached the right one. "Great!" Kotetsu yanked it off the rack without looking.
"Hey. Bunny, this is pink."
Barnaby twitched an ear.
"I know you like pink, but I'm the one who has to walk around with it."
Barnaby licked his belly.
"Aw, come on, Bunny-chan, pink is not a good color on me!"
Barnaby thumped his foot. Kotetsu sighed. "Fine, fine, but only because a good partner shares the pain. Pink it is."
"You know," Antonio started, "when a man walks into a bar with some kind of animal under his arm, it's usually a set-up for a really bad joke."
Tiger took the stool next to him and set the rabbit carrier on the bar. "You heard, right?"
"Yeah, Nathan filled me in. That him?" Antonio leaned in to look through the mesh screen. "He's cute." Barnaby scratched himself.
"Hey, Kotetsu," the bartender said. "I'm going to have to ask you to take the animal off the bar. Sanitation rules, you know."
"Sorry." Kotetsu pulled the bag onto his lap. "It's okay if I keep him in his carrier, though, right?"
The bartender shrugged. "What is it, a rabbit? Can't be worse than those yappy little purse dogs."
Antonio got them some beers and watched Kotetsu down half of his in one go. "Rough, huh?"
"Can't say it's an everyday occurrence, but we'll manage." Kotetsu looked down. Barnaby was thumping furiously. "What is it, Bunny? Hungry? Hang on, I packed carrot sticks, and there's that radish Karina gave you from her lunch." Barnaby thumped harder.
"What is it?" Antonio asked. "Are you trying to tell us something?"
Kotetsu finally caught on. "Ah, I get it. Hang on." He unzipped the top of the bag and set Barnaby out on the floor. "Bathroom's that way."
"Oh," Antonio said. "Maybe you should get the door for him." Kotetsu slid off and ran to hold the door to the men's room open.
"The hell?" the bartender said. "What's going on?"
"Nothing, nothing," Kotetsu said as Barnaby slid by. "He just needs to use the facilities is all."
The bartender nearly dropped the glass he was holding. "Your rabbit can use a toilet?"
"Yeah." Kotetsu shrugged. "He's well-trained."
"I'll say." The bartender was impressed. He joined Antonio keeping watch for when Barnaby would make a reappearance. The toilet flushed and there was a slight thump at the door.
"Ready, Bunny?" Kotetsu slid the door open carefully and waited for Barnaby to exit before scooping him up and putting him back in the bag.
"Damn," said the bartender. "That's got to be the smartest rabbit on earth."
"Not really," Kotetsu said. "He doesn't wash his paws."
"Are we in trouble?" Tiger asked. Barnaby thumped in his bag. Through the door they could hear the voices. One was Lloyds and he did not sound pleased. The other was possibly a woman's. The door swung open.
"It's not what the company had in mind at all," Lloyds said.
A tall woman in an immaculate suit marched out, eyes glinting as she spotted Tiger. Her eyes raked over him twice. "That may be, but this photo shoot is happening today." She approached Tiger on perilous high heels. Tiger swallowed. He felt Barnaby shifting restlessly in the bag.
The woman stopped just short of Tiger's personal bubble. "Pleased to meet you, Wild Tiger. You'll do perfectly."
"Don't mess too much with his hair. It suits him." Sita Sadhukhan had the bearing of one who had spent a lifetime in the fashion industry and knew how to look the part. She had come with a squadron of stylists at her command and ordered them to capture Wild Tiger at any costs.
"What are we doing again?" Tiger asked, holding Barnaby's rabbit carrier in front of him like a shield.
Ms. Sadhukhan looked up from her cell phone. "Why, the fashion shoot, of course, Wild Tiger." She prowled around him, getting a good look from every angle. "Time is money in any business, you know. Barnaby Brooks Jr. may not be available but the work remains. You don't mind stepping up, do you?"
"Um, no?" Tiger inched around, feeling like he should hide some part of himself from view. "But this really is more Barnaby's thing, you know. He has the look and he's good in front of the camera. I'm just… an old-fashioned Hero." Barnaby thumped against him in agreement.
"And that's exactly what I want, Tiger," Sadhukhan said. "Apollon insisted on promoting their young pretty thing." She leaned in closer, almost as close as she could get without Barnaby's bright pink bag standing guard over Tiger's virtue. "He's a looker, I'll give them that, excellent for roping in young girls still dreaming of absolute perfection, but I wanted someone who can speak directly to a different demographic."
Tiger cleared his throat. "Which one is that?"
Sadhukhan straightened up and gave him his space. "A somewhat older woman, perhaps. One who appreciates experience and a man who is honest enough not to hide his flaws."
Tiger gulped. "I'm not sure I'm really what you're looking for, Miss Sad- Sadha-."
"Of course you are," Sadhukhan said, "that's why I asked for you in the first place, and please, call me 'Sita'."
"Oh, my, god, Mr. Tiger, your bunny is, like, so cute!" the hair stylist shrieked. "What's his name?"
"Barnaby," Tiger said, utterly resigned. That made what, five, six of the stylist squadron squealing how cute Barnaby was, and Barnaby was loving every minute of it. He posed. He preened. He threw heated glances fit to melt the coldest heart. Of course everyone else just thought he was being a cute bunny, but Tiger knew what was up. "Playbunny," he grumbled. "Still should be you doing this."
"Aw, that's so sweet, naming him Barnaby," the hairstylist said. "The other Barnaby doesn't mind, does he? That you named a rabbit after him?"
"No, he doesn't mind," Tiger said, wondering what exactly Lin was doing to his head with the flat iron and the hairspray. He couldn't see any difference. The actual dressing wasn't too bad though. Sita's designs were comfortable, dark things in earthy tones. Bit flashier than he went for but otherwise he would have said they were made with him in mind.
"Hey, there, cute bunny-bunny," Lin said, leaning close enough over Tiger's head that he could feel breasts by his ears. "You've got a great owner, you know, bringing you to work. You want to say 'hi' to Lin? Say 'hi' to Lin? Awww, you're so cute! Maybe while Tiger is in front of the camera I can give you a little comb and curl. Would you like that?" Barnaby looked up and twitched his ears in approval.
"Of course he would." Tiger smirked. "You miss that, don't you, Bunny-chan?"
"Tiger," Sita called. "We're ready for you." Tiger choked.
Maybe it was just the shading effect of the mesh screen, but he thought Barnaby looked smug. "Don't give me that look," Tiger said. "It's your fault I'm stuck doing this." He got up and marched off to his execution.
"Don't worry, Mr. Tiger!" Lin called back from a crowd of gathering hair- and make-up artists. "I'll watch him."
"I've got to hand it to you," Agnes said. "He cleans up well."
"Doesn't he just?" Sita kept her arms primly folded. "Shame he's so stiff, though."
"Now you feel my pain." Agnes shook her head. "It's such a chore getting that man to play along for the camera."
"Maybe he needs to relax a little more," Sita says, eyes sliding sideways to gauge the reaction. "Does he have anyone who could help him with that?"
"There's Barnaby, I suppose," Agnes said without thinking.
Sita frowned. Did that mean the rabbit or the man? Well, she could figure that out later. "Tiger, give us a smile." Tiger gave her a plastic, worried sort of grin. "Oh, dear."
"I can't help it," Tiger said. "I'm no model. I don't know how to show clothes off, and I don't even know what to do with this thing." He picked at the scarf that had come with the outfit.
"Here, let me fix that for you." Sita moved in, fixing and rearranging, all business. Her nails were terrifyingly long but she never scratched Tiger even once as she worked on his collar. She smelled interesting when she leaned in close. "There," she said, brushing some of his hair into his face. "Now close your eyes and take a deep breath." Tiger did. "One more. Now you're ready." Tiger opened his eyes. Sita had a rather nice smile up close. She stepped back before he could stare too long, but he thought he felt her hand brush the back of his fingers.
"Get that," Sita whispered to the photographer as she exited the set. Wild Tiger had the most contemplative expression on his face.
"Nice," Agnes said. "What's your secret?"
"Gave him something else to think about besides the cameras."
Agnes nodded. "That's Tiger."
"Barnaby, no!" A shout went up from wardrobe. Instantly Tiger was back to looking like harried prey.
"What's going on?"
"Barnaby's getting away," Lin shouted. Barnaby bounced out of the collective grasp of half a dozen people, right at the cameras, right past Sita and Agnes, right into Tiger's waiting arms.
Tiger nearly fell in surprise. "Bunny, what's gotten into you? Do you have to go weewee again?" Barnaby only snuffled his nose at Tiger. "What is it?" Tiger wasn't sure what to make of anything that wasn't a thump, an ear twitch or a disdainful rabbit bum.
"We're real sorry, Mr. Tiger," Lin was saying. "I shouldn't have taken him out of the carrier."
"But everybody wanted to pet him," Jorge, the make-up artist said. "He was fine with it at first."
"What happened?" Tiger adjusted his grip, putting support where Barnaby needed it.
Lin shrugged. "I don't know. The last half minute he just started twitching out."
Tiger had his suspicions. "Bunny-chan," he started, holding Barnaby up. "Are you jealous that the pretty lady was paying attention to me instead of you?" Barnaby kicked out. Tiger laughed, and off on the side, Sita and Agnes made twin happy sighs.
"Put the rabbit in the shots," Sita instructed. "How about it, Tiger? Let's see you with your cute little bunny."
Tiger's face brightened. "Great! Hear that, Bunny, you get to be in the photo shoot after all."
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, I would call the day a success." Sita was pleased. Wild Tiger was much more at ease cuddling his darling Barnaby in his arms. His smile had been brilliant and real and the later shots had done a spectacular job of capturing the Tiger's softer side. The rabbit was rather photogenic too.
"I suppose it will do," Lloyds said, studying the initial prints.
"Do?" Agnes scoffed. "Typical man talk. Tiger'll be beating the women off with sticks once these go public."
"Eh?" Tiger clutched Barnaby's carrier to his chest.
"You think so?" Lloyds said. Agnes and Sita shared a look.
"Please, let me take you all to dinner tonight," Sita said, "to celebrate a good day's work."
"Good day's work, you call it," Tiger said, cleaning an ear. "Blue Rose and Dragon Kid had to handle a robbery on their own and I hear Fire Emblem was busy all day at a construction accident."
"You have an admirable work ethic," Sita said. Barnaby thumped in his bag. "Seven tonight? La Couronne?"
"I don't know," Tiger said, "I really should at least try to patrol-"
Agnes slammed her hand down on the table. "We'll be there."
Tiger sighed. "Fine. I'll be there." Barnaby thumped. "What, you want to come too?"
"Monsieur," said the Maitre d', "it is highly unusual to bring an animal into a restaurant."
"Is it?" Tiger asked. "But he's in his little bag and everything." The man made him feel like a bug under glass. It was bad enough he had to get all dressed up for this too. Good thing he was accustomed to wearing a tie, because he felt dry-throated enough as it was.
"Monsieur, I must ask you to deposit the animal somewhere else before you enter."
"I can't leave him in my car," Tiger said. "There are laws against that kind of thing. Besides…" He held the carrier up to show the Maitre d' Barnaby's adorable bunny face. "He wanted to come." There had truthfully been no stopping Barnaby. He had been a restless pest all evening, refusing to let Tiger out the door without him.
The Maitre d' withheld a sigh. "Monsieur, I am afraid I cannot allow you in with an animal not meant for service."
"He is meant for service," Tiger said. "What, your establishment doesn't serve rabbits?"
Understanding showed on the man's face. "Ah, of course, Monsieur, but please, permit me to have the animal handled elsewhere. It would not do for you to walk into the dining area with him."
Barnaby thumped like a wild thing inside his bag. Tiger looked concerned. Who was going to tell him which fork to use now? "Okay," he said, holding Barnaby up to eye level. "You be good. See you later." He handed the carrier over.
"Tiger!" Sita rose to meet him. "You look wonderful."
Tiger awkwardly returned her hug. "I look the same as I did three hours ago." He let go. She didn't. He waved at Lloyds and Agnes, who were already at the table. Agnes was signaling something to him. "What?" Agnes pointed to her head, grimacing as she mimed taking off a hat. "Oh!"
Tiger pulled away and sheepishly yanked his hat off his head. So that's why Barnaby had been making such a fuss. Tiger thought he heard Agnes sigh. He fussed with his cloth napkin, not entirely up to date on what was proper. He opened the menu he was handed and tried not to bolt. The entire thing was littered with curly lines and accents and letters that didn't look like they belonged together. He could barely pronounce English and they expected him to read French? His tie felt tighter than it had in years.
"I suppose Monsieur will be having the Lapin au Vin," the waiter said beside him, "seeing as he has put himself through such trouble for it."
"What? Yeah, sure, that's fine," Tiger said, relieved to have the decision taken out of his hands.
The waiter nodded as he took the menu. "The chef is already seeing to the preparations."
"I'm surprised at you, Wild Tiger," Sita said, sipping her water after the waiter had gone. "I thought people weren't inclined to eat the same kind of animals they kept as pets."
"Say what?" Tiger asked.
"You know, rabbit."
Tiger looked up. Agnes was staring at him. "Tiger?"
It clicked. "Oh, CRAP!" Tiger lurched upwards, knocked his chair backwards and ran, dragging the tablecloth and all the place settings down after him. "Bunny!" he shouted, drawing angry looks from the other diners. He launched himself at the kitchen doors, activating his Hundred Power. "Bunny!"
The doors went flying from their hinges, taking a good chunk of wall with them. The chef turned around, struggling rabbit in one hand, butcher knife in the other, just in time to get knocked off his feet by debris. "Bunny-chan!" Tiger leapt and caught the flailing rabbit in mid-air.
"What is all this commotion? What is going on here?" the Maitre d' demanded, working his way through a crowd of curious onlookers. Agnes, Lloyds and Sita pressed their way through the throng.
Agnes glanced around the kitchen, spotting the bright pink carrier on the ground. She was speechless. Lloyds was not. "This is coming out of your paycheck, Wild Tiger!" A murmur rippled through the crowd. The dazed chef sat up, trying to make sense of it all.
"Somebody, please," the Maitre d' said again, "tell me what is going on here!"
Sita blinked, hand on her heart, watching Tiger cradle Barnaby against his chest in a haze of glowing blue. "I think this is the result of a great misunderstanding." The chef passed out again.
"We're home, Bunny." Tiger didn't even bother to get all lights. He opened the carrier and let Barnaby out, watching Barnaby hop away from him at an odd, stately pace. Tiger made his way to the couch to sit and bury his face in his hands. "I'm so sorry, Bunny. Barnaby."
Barnaby ignored him. They sat in silence, apart, halfway in the dark. Barnaby hopped around to the kitchen to get his water. He was noisier than usual, hammering home that he was ignoring Tiger. Wild Tiger was in the same position when Barnaby made his reappearance. He cast a contemptuous rabbit-glare at the man and walked away.
There was nowhere to go, really, in Kotetsu's small apartment. Barnaby circled the perimeter, keeping a cool distance between himself and Wild Tiger. When he was bored he looked up and sniffed for a change of view. The pictures made him stop.
Wild Tiger did not see the rabbit balancing on hind legs. He did not see Barnaby's head moving back and forth, reading the story. He had almost grown used to the silence when a furry ball dropped itself on his foot and sprawled.
"Eh? Bunny?" Tiger peeped out between his fingers. Barnaby looked back over his shoulder and settled in. Tiger leaned over for a better look. "Bunny, are you… still mad at me?" Barnaby twitched an ear, thumped a foot and licked a shoulder. Tiger scratched his head. "Are you hungry?"
Barnaby raised his head at that and shifted off Tiger's foot. Tiger grinned. "Hang on, I'll get you your carrot. Oh, and some bok choy. Will you eat that?" Tiger bounced around the couch, stubbed his toe in the dark and went sprawling to the floor. Barnaby set his head back down.
In time Tiger managed to gather himself together enough to flip the lights on and get Barnaby his food. "You have an appetite tonight, Bunny," he said, "but I guess it's past normal dinner time. Well, better to have dinner than be dinner, right?" Barnaby kept eating.
"I'm so sorry, Barnaby." Tiger's hands lay limp on his knees. "I never would have let it happen. I would never have let it go so far if I knew what the hell everyone was saying. I don't want anything to happen to you, Bunny. We're partners." A soft paw touched his knee. Barnaby was sitting up, giving him an earnest rabbit stare. Tiger hunched down. "I'm completely embarrassing myself again, right?" Barnaby twitched an ear. His eyes left Tiger's for a moment and his nose snuffled at the fingers of Tiger's left hand.
Tiger put a light hand to Barnaby's ears and when Barnaby did not kick, continued to pet. Barnaby seemed at ease. Tiger sighed. "That's going to be a big damage fine." Barnaby seemed to be in agreement. Tiger petted him some more. "Worth it, though."
"Hey," he said, "you know tomorrow I'm going to see Kaede, and I sort of promised I'd take you over." Barnaby looked up at him. "If you don't want to go it's fine, I'll just say your owner came back or something. How about it?" Barnaby twitched. "Really?" Barnaby twitched again. "Great! She'll love you. Well, she does already, since you saved her that time, but she was really looking forward to seeing you. Hmm, you think I should get her a pet?" Barnaby gave Tiger a stare he couldn't decipher. "Right," Tiger said, "I'll pack you some clothes in case this wears off on the way. My little girl might like you but that's no license to flash."
Barnaby thumped a foot before launching himself to the couch. He nudged the remote. Tiger got the hint. "HeroTV? Let's see what everyone else was doing today."
The screen flared to life on a series of still shots of the restaurant kitchen they had just demolished. "And here we have Wild Tiger, animal hero," the narrator was saying, "rushing to the rescue earlier this evening, of a pet rabbit that was accidentally sent to a restaurant kitchen. Tiger was perhaps a bit reckless in the attempt but the rabbit was saved! The chef will be out of the hospital by tomorrow."
The camera cut to a live shot of the restaurant owner, flanked by the Maitre d' and Agnes. "It appears it was a grave mistake on our part," the owner said, "and in the interest of minimizing conflict with the animal's owner, we are not holding Wild Tiger responsible. He only did what was necessary." Agnes smirked beside him.
"And what does this eyewitness have to say?" Someone shoved a microphone in a woman's face. It was Sita.
She tucked her hair behind her ears and gave the camera a flawless smile. "It's a fine show, seeing a Hero's softer side, and I always appreciate a man who can make me laugh."
Tiger stared. "Is that what you call 'damage control', Bunny? They're good." Barnaby agreed.
"All set, Bunny-chan?" Kotetsu was ready to go. Barnaby's carrier was secured in the passenger seat and there was a grocery bag full of supplies for the trip. Kotetsu straightened his hat and began to drive. Barnaby did not appear to have any complaints about Kotetsu's choice of radio station, but he thumped furiously at any attempt to sing. "Ah, you're no fun, Bunny," Kotetsu said, but he only hummed from then on.
They pulled up in a small place on the outskirts of the city. "Shh," Kotetsu whispered as he left the car. "I didn't tell her for sure I was bringing you." Barnaby shifted around in his bag, ears perked. He heard Kotetsu greeting his mother and the muffled conversation that followed. He angled his long ears upwards, trying to catch any sound. He heard light footsteps instead. Kotetsu was still talking when the door opened.
"Oh, you're so cute!" a little girl whispered, clasping both her hands together in glee. Barnaby recognized her. "Come on," she said, freeing the carrier. "Before he misses you." Barnaby thumped in the bag as hard as he could but Kotetsu didn't hear a thing.
"Where is Kaede?" Kotetsu said. "Just wait till she sees who I brought for a visit."
"What, the rabbit?" his mother said.
"Yep. She's going to be so excited." Kotetsu opened the passenger door and reached down. He stood up. He looked around. He bent down and looked around the car again. "Uh, Bunny, that's a very good trick but it's time to stop playing now." He checked the back seat and the floor boards and the trunk. "Bunny?" He really did not like how this was going.
"Kotetsu," his mother said, coming back from the house. "Kaede's gone."
"Kaede too?" Kotetsu looked around. "Is it a NEXT? Some sort of vanishing ability?"
"Really, Kotetsu, use your head," his mother said. "Kaede's bike is gone too. She must have taken the rabbit while you weren't looking."
"But where would she go?"
"To the park, of course. It's not far. Go on, you can catch up."
"Thanks, Kaasan!" Kotetsu grabbed the supplies from the backseat and took off. His mother sighed and went back inside to watch her shows.
"He is so cute! Are you keeping him?"
Kaede sat in the small circle. "No, my dad's just taking care of him for somebody else."
"Aw, so you have to give him back?" another friend said.
"Are you sure it's a him? It's really pretty. If it's a girl maybe you can keep one of the babies."
Kaede thought it over. "You think?"
"Well, yeah, I hear rabbits are practically born pregnant."
"Huh. I'll ask. I'm going to take him for a walk over by the bridge now."
"Let us know if she has babies, okay? I want one too!"
"Okay!" Kaede waved and set Barnaby back in his carrier. He had never been more happy to go. Kaede slid the handles onto one shoulder and hugged the bag close to her body. "Come on, Barnaby."
She took him to the bridge and sat down in the middle, legs hanging over the side. "Nice, isn't it? It's all liquid now but I skate here sometimes instead of at the rink in winter. It freezes over pretty thick." She felt Barnaby moving around in the bag. "Don't worry," she said, hugging the bag closer, "I won't drop you."
"See that spot over there by that tree? We had a picnic there when Mom was still around." Barnaby stilled enough to take in the view. It was pretty, all blue and green and summer flowers, butterflies and birds and one hot, sweaty idiot racing his way up the track. "Shoot, he found us."
"Kaede!" Kotetsu called. "Ka! E! De!" He stopped halfway and bent over at the waist to catch his breath.
"I can spell my own name already, Dad," Kaede said.
"Just making sure," Kotetsu said. "Did you steal the bunny?"
"I didn't steal him. He came willingly," Kaede replied.
"Oh, really?" Kotetsu frowned. "Let me see him." Kaede held the bag up for view. "Barnaby, did you go with Kaede willingly?" Barnaby twitched an ear. Kotetsu deflated. "Can't argue with that. Who wants lunch?"
Kaede gave him a wary eye. "Did you make it?"
"No, I got it ready made at the store."
Kaede breathed out in relief. "That means it's safe," she told Barnaby.
"Hey, there's nothing wrong with my cooking," Kotetsu said.
"Except for all the mayonnaise." Kaede screwed up her face.
"Fine, suit yourself," Kotetsu said. "More for me. Let's go over there."
Kaede paused. "By the tree?"
"Yeah, your old man needs a backrest for his old bones," Kotetsu said, exaggerating the ache in his lower back. "Humor me, why don't you?"
It was a nice spot, shady and cool. Kotetsu shared out prepackaged sandwiches and juice, and a plate of carrots and kale for Barnaby. "Dad, how come he's not eating the carrots?" Kaede said.
Kotetsu looked down. Barnaby was working his way through the greens and not touching the carrot. "Maybe he's tired of it. Bunny, I have celery. Want some?" Barnaby shifted aside to make room for it. "Guess the old carrot diet gets kind of dull after a while, eh, Bunny? Maybe we'll try some of that pellet food when we get back." He leaned back against the tree, satisfied and tired.
Kaede ran along the river bank with Barnaby for a while, always circling safely around the tree. When they finally tired and sat down, Kotetsu was napping. Barnaby hopped closer and nudged Kotetsu's knee. Kaede sank down beside him, studying her father. "You know," she said, reaching out to stroke Barnaby, "he uses a stencil for that beard."
Barnaby fell asleep in the car on the way home. Kotetsu supposed it might have been the stress of Kaede's goodbye. "Any harder and she might have popped you in two," he said, scooping Barnaby out onto the couch. Barnaby stirred and made a sleepy blink. "Did you have a good time?" Kotetsu asked. Barnaby did not do much of anything. He looked content enough, so Kotetsu took it as a 'yes'.
"Thanks," he said, "you know, for not changing back into a naked man in front of my little girl. Or my mother. Although I think Mom went for your type, back in the day." Barnaby scratched an ear.
Kotetsu sank down beside him. "I hope you change back soon," he said. "This was fun, but I miss old Bunny. He could open a bathroom door by himself, you know." Barnaby twitched, but he hopped closer to Kotetsu's lap. Kotetsu scooped him up the way he had been shown and held Barnaby against him. "Yeah, I know, you miss it too." Barnaby did not try to kick him even once. He curled up against Kotetsu's chest and let himself be stroked. "You do make a cute bunny, though," Kotetsu said, yawning. He slid sideways to stretch out on the couch and fell asleep.
It was pitch black when Barnaby opened his eyes. He felt stiff all over and completely worn out. He tried to settle into a better position and could not get himself to move properly. He blinked into the darkness and took a look around.
He had arms again, and when he shifted, he could feel his legs. He tried to speak but could only manage a hoarse groan. He was cold without fur, but he lay on something warm. A quick glance at the bearded chin just above his head confirmed it. He sighed.
Kotetsu stirred in his sleep, noticing the extra weight. "Bunny!"
"You're human again!"
"And you're naked."
"You have a hand on my butt."
Kotetsu jerked. "Sorry."
"… I didn't say you had to move it."
"Quite a pair, aren't they?" Agnes said.
"They certainly are." Sita watched the Apollon Media duo posing under the lights and sighed. There was an understanding between them that her trained eye could not miss. "Wasn't meant to be, I suppose. Jamaal?" She called to her assistant. "Bring me my sketchpad. I've got wedding attire in mind."