The fugitive had been spotted, appropriately enough, in a particularly bad neighborhood, full of empty storefronts and crumbling apartment buildings with more homeless squatters than tenants. Just the kind of place that people went only because they were out of other options.
Fire Emblem and Blue Rose were keeping an eye on the perimeter, Sky High flying overhead for a bird's-eye view, Dragon Kid and Origami Cyclone were combing the streets and alleyways. That left Rock Bison and Barnaby Brooks Jr., the two physically strongest and most resilient heroes, to do a building-by-building search, out of sight of the other heroes and the cameras. It was by far the most dangerous role, but one they both accepted willingly, agreeing that they would check in with Ms. Joubert regularly through their headsets. If they spotted the man, they would call for backup.
"Nothing here," came the message from Rock Bison. "Moving on to the next one."
"Excellent," came Agnes's reply. "Barnaby?"
"I just entered 6518," Barnaby replied quietly, scanning the dark, empty hallway of what had once been an office building. No significant heat signature, no movement aside from insects scurrying into the corners. "I'm on the first floor now; it looks like there are eight floors. This might take a little longer than the last one."
"Very well - check in again in five minutes to report your progress."
"Yes, ma'am," Barnaby agreed. No significant heat signature, but there were traces in the hallway, barely noticeable even with the technology in his suit. Cooling rapidly, but still warmer than the surrounding floor. It could have been fresh rodent droppings, given the unoccupied state of the building, but there were no heat signatures to indicate a small animal nearby, either. Barnaby knelt by the closest instance, and lifted his helmet's visor to get a clear look at the carpet in what light streamed through the broken window at the end of the hallway.
As he had suspected, the dwindling heat came from small drops of what appeared to be fresh blood. Barnaby replaced his visor, noting the location of the droplets along the corridor, and followed them to the stairwell.
There were no droplets in the second floor hallway. Barnaby made only a cursory check of the offices, glancing in to confirm no movement or heat signatures that could possibly be a person, and moved on to the third.
He saw no sign of anyone having been in the third floor hallway either, or the fourth. There were more drops of blood in the stairwell leading up. Barnaby didn't bother checking the offices on the third, fourth, or fifth floors. While glancing around the sixth, he thought he heard a noise, above him and to the west.
There was a larger drop of blood, still quite warm, at the landing to the seventh floor. Barnaby didn't waste time examining it - he opened the door to the hallway and peered out, just in time to see a person-sized shape disappear into one of the offices. Perhaps knowing they were being followed, the person didn't dare close the door behind them, potentially giving themselves away with the sound. Since Barnaby had seen their movement, however, it did them little good.
Aware that he had no idea what he might be walking into, or even if the person ahead knew he was there, Barnaby remained quiet as he made his way down the hall towards the open door. More drops of blood along the way, still almost human body temperature. During the last encounter, only about an hour and a half past, Origami Cyclone had scored a hit with one of his shuriken; Blue Rose had found it lying behind a dumpster later, two of the points smeared with blood, but the fugitive had disappeared too quickly for anyone to gauge how badly he'd been wounded, or where. If he was still bleeding this way, Barnaby thought, either the injury was severe, or he simply wasn't taking care of himself.
He hadn't confirmed that the person in the building with him was the fugitive, though. He couldn't make a move until he was sure of the identity. Barnaby steeled himself for whatever might come, and stepped through the door into the office.
There was no attack. No movement, no sound, no person-sized heat signature, Barnaby observed, looking around the small empty room. There was another adjoining room behind it, though, and...
The sound made Barnaby whirl, looking up in the direction from which the voice had come. ...Of course. One of the ceiling tiles in the corner had been moved aside, and there was the heat signature, now swinging down through the opening and stumbling as it landed on the floor. "Bunny, thank goodness..."
Barnaby felt dizzy all of a sudden. The stress, perhaps, of all he'd been through recently, collapsing in front of Mr. Maverick, being taken away for a vacation only to find out about Samantha's murder...
"I was worried about you," the voice continued, and Barnaby lifted his head to let his suit illuminate the person slouched on the floor in front of him. "No one knew where you were... and then all this..."
Unmistakable, though he didn't look so neat and tidy now as the picture they'd been flashing all over the television. He had a giant bruise on one temple, his vest was filthy, the tie was gone, and one sleeve of his shirt had been torn off, wrapped raggedly around the shredded left leg of his pants, though it obviously hadn't stopped the bleeding. Even so, even through the sudden bout of vertigo, Barnaby recognized Kotetsu Kaburagi.
And he looked concerned. "Bunny, are you okay?"
What the man was saying wasn't making any sense. But somehow, it wasn't surprising. Barnaby shook his head, trying to clear it.
It was beginning to make Barnaby angry, for some reason he couldn't quite identify. He was startled out of his confusion, however, by Ms. Joubert's voice breaking in through the comm link. "Barnaby...? Are you still with us?"
Barnaby took a deep breath. "I'm sorry - I lost track of the time. Still no luck."
Over Agnes's reply, Barnaby heard Kotetsu breathe a heavy sigh. "All right - check in again in five minutes."
"Let's make it ten," Barnaby suggested. "There are a lot of rooms here, and it's taking longer than I expected. I'll let you know if I find anything."
"Agreed. Good luck, Barnaby."
Kotetsu chuckled as Barnaby pushed up his visor, pressing the button to cut off the communications link. "Thanks..."
"You really are a fool, aren't you?"
The man looked up at Barnaby, only appearing somewhat dismayed at his cold, scornful observation. "Do you think I was going to let a murderer get away?"
The dismay deepened. "...Not you too-"
He was cut off by Barnaby grabbing him by the collar, shoving him up against the wall. "Of course me - me more than anyone," Barnaby growled. "The woman you murdered wasn't just any woman - she was Samantha, my family's housekeeper. She was the closest thing I've had to a mother for twenty years, and you murdered her."
"Ahhh..." The man seemed to have lost all his wits, stammering helplessly. "B-ba..."
As well he should have. "I didn't cut communications because I was going to let you go," Barnaby told Kotetsu. "I cut communications because I don't want anyone else involved. I'm going to deal with you myself."
With that, he tossed Kotetsu to the floor. When the man lifted his head, he didn't look scared, but only sad and tired. "Bunny, please - listen to me..."
"Listen to you? You can't even pronounce my name!" Barnaby said disdainfully. "It's Barnaby, not Bunny."
...Not Bunny, Barnaby...
Kotetsu was talking over the disconcerting echo in Barnaby's head. "...going on, I don't know how it started, but everything's gone to hell today. I didn't kill anyone, you of all people should know that, but you don't remember-"
"Why would I believe anything you say?" Barnaby demanded, picking him up again to toss him against the wall. "Your fingerprints were all over her house, even the murder weapon. What possible defense could you have?"
"Oh, Bunny..." Kotetsu just gazed up at him worriedly from where he'd landed in a heap. "What did they do to you?"
"'They'? They didn't do anything, it was you who killed her. You murdered her!"
The word was cut off in a choked sound as Barnaby punched him in the face. "Get up."
"Get up. Or do you want me to end your useless life without even putting up a fight?"
Kotetsu just sighed, rubbing his injured jaw. "I'm not going to fight you."
Then that was that. A flash of blue illuminated the room, as Barnaby activated his powers. "Then you're going to die," Barnaby stated, and lunged.
His fist was stopped short, by Kotetsu's own hand gripping it. Kotetsu's eyes glowed blue as well. "I can't die," he said, quietly and evenly. "I especially can't let you kill me."
"I disagree," Barnaby growled, and pulled away, turning the motion into a roundhouse kick.
Kotetsu blocked it with his arm, but didn't counter-attack. "It's not like you to kill."
"What do you even know about me?"
Kotetsu blocked the next kick, and the punch that followed, and the punch that followed that. "You didn't kill Jake Martinez."
"I didn't have to!"
"You decided not to." No matter what attack Barnaby used, Kotetsu simply blocked, staggering a little under the force of Barnaby's blows. "Why didn't you kill Jake? No one would have blamed you if you had. He killed your parents, he ruined your life."
"Shut up!" Barnaby didn't want to recount it again, not when he'd just put Ouroboros to rest at last. ...But why hadn't he killed Jake? He'd wanted to, he'd been moments from crushing the man's throat... but he'd stopped. Why had he stopped? He'd seen something...
And thinking about it was distracting him; Kotetsu ducked under a kick and disappeared through the door. "You can't get away from me!" Barnaby shouted down the hallway, giving chase.
"I'm not trying to get away," Kotetsu's voice echoed back down through the stairwell where he'd vanished, and Barnaby followed it. "I'm giving you time. You're losing focus - what's distracting you? Are you remembering?"
"Of course I remember!" Barnaby looked both ways down the hallway; the eighth floor was where utilities had been housed rather than offices, and there were mostly adjoining corridors rather than doors, set into plain concrete walls. Kotetsu had vanished into one of them before Barnaby could catch up.
"Do you remember who was with you?"
Kotetsu's voice echoed. Barnaby couldn't tell which direction it was coming from. What Kotetsu was actually saying was unimportant, but it nagged at him nonetheless as he glanced back and forth, trying to figure out where the voice had come from. Had someone been with him? He remembered having Jake at his mercy, twenty years of rage built up behind his eyes and about to explode... but something had stopped it. He'd seen something. Someone...? Who else could possibly have been there?
"How much have you forgotten?" Kotetsu's voice echoed again. "Do you remember Wild Tiger? Your partner? Good Luck Mode?"
Good Luck Mode... That's right - he'd had a partner. Where was he now? ...And why couldn't he remember the man's face? All he could remember was that despite getting on each other's nerves a lot, somehow Barnaby had grown fond of him. He'd been patient and unselfish and determined to do the right thing... he'd taught Barnaby what it really meant to be a hero. He'd been there when Barnaby caught Jake Martinez. So where was he now? Why wasn't he at Barnaby's side?
...And why couldn't Barnaby remember his partner's face, when he could see the face of his parents' murderer as clearly as if Jake were still there, smirking at him through the flames?
He was shaken out of his confusion by a sound behind him, and he turned to see Kotetsu stepping out from one of the corridors. "...Bunny..."
Barnaby's anger returned. "Stop calling me that!" he snarled, his kick knocking a chunk of concrete off the corner as Kotetsu ducked back. Barnaby wasn't going to let him get away with that, though, and ducked in after him.
They were in a big concrete room now, with rows of counters - a food service area, Barnaby thought. It was no less filled with echoes than the hallway when Kotetsu spoke again. "Not until you get used to it. You got used to it before..."
"What are you talking about?" Maybe if Barnaby kept him talking, he'd be able to pinpoint his location. Somewhere at the far end of the room, Barnaby thought, and slowly moved in that direction. "I've never had anyone call me by such a stupid nickname." Or had he...?
"Then why do you have a cute little bunny head emblem on your hero suit?"
...Wait. Barnaby stopped himself just in time. "You're just trying to get me to look away so you can escape," he snapped. "I'm not falling for the oldest trick in the book."
"If I come out with my hands up," Kotetsu called back, "will you look? Just for a second? It's right on your chest, by your left shoulder."
What was with this guy, Barnaby wondered? He'd surrender himself if Barnaby looked down? It had to be some kind of a trick... but something was nagging at him. Something in the back of his mind was filled with dread, giving him the sense that something wasn't right here. Something beyond the obvious, which was that he was actually listening to what a murderer and likely sociopath was saying.
Regardless of what else was wrong, he apparently was listening. "...Come out," Barnaby told him. "Hands where I can see them... no sudden movements."
"All right..." Slowly, carefully, Kotetsu straightened from where he'd been hiding behind one of the counters, still faintly glowing with the aura of his powers, plainly showing his hands in the air. Exactly where Barnaby wanted him.
Which meant that Barnaby didn't need to look down towards his left shoulder, but he couldn't help himself.
"Wh..." When Barnaby looked back up, Kotetsu hadn't moved from his position - he was still just standing there, staring at Barnaby with tired, unhappy eyes. "How did..." Maybe Kotetsu had put it on him somehow while they were fighting. But Kotetsu hadn't been fighting - Barnaby had been fighting, and Kotetsu had been blocking, but he'd never laid a hand on him.
"Mr. Saito put it there on your birthday last year," Kotetsu said, quiet and firm. "To go with my tiger emblem. Because I kept calling you 'Bunny'. You hated it at first."
If Barnaby had had a partner... even one he couldn't remember, admittedly... anyone would have known about it. Anyone would have known Wild Tiger. But not Saito... and how else would that emblem have gotten there?
Kotetsu had the gall to smile faintly. "And you used to call me 'old man'. Maybe I shouldn't remind you of that," he chuckled, "considering how long it took you to call me by my name."
"But you still don't call me by mine." The words slipped out before Barnaby could think about them, and left him stunned.
"You stopped hating it," Kotetsu said with a shrug. "Bunny... do you remember now? Can we stop this?"
"...No." Barnaby didn't remember. The word was more than a negative answer, though - it was a demand. "No..." This made no sense, a partner he couldn't remember and a murderer using a stupid nickname and their engineer putting a meaningless emblem on his armor... and every time Kotetsu said that word, his head hurt a little more. "You're... you're doing something, messing with my mind."
"I think someone else messed with your mind," Kotetsu said. "You and the rest of the heroes. I'm trying to set it right."
"No!" Barnaby exclaimed, clutching his head. Why couldn't he remember... why didn't this add up? "Stop it!"
"Bunny, if you can't remember, I'm all out of chances," Kotetsu told him earnestly. "I'm never going to get out of this without your help."
Kotetsu had lowered his hands, starting to take a step closer. "No!" Barnaby vaulted over the tops of the counters at him, aiming a kick to his chest; Kotetsu dodged, coming up again at the end of the counter. "You're not going to get out of this! You killed her!"
"I didn't kill her!" Kotetsu protested. "Think, Bunny! You're so sure about that - can you be sure about anything right now?"
"Stop messing with my head!" There was truth in his words, but Barnaby couldn't stand to hear it. It hurt. It was a trick, some kind of trick, maybe something to do with his power as a NEXT - but Kotetsu Kaburagi was the man who had murdered Samantha. "Don't think I won't kill you, if that's what it takes to stop you!"
"I won't let you," Kotetsu said, between dodging the kicks and punches Barnaby threw at him. "I can't die - if I do, my little girl'll be an orphan, just like you. I can't let Kaede go through that."
"K... Kaede..." Barnaby had heard that name before.
"Yeah, Kaede!" Kotetsu repeated, ducking another kick as Barnaby drove him back out into the hallway, and rushed away down the corridor to the stairwell. "Do you remember her?" There was a tremendous crash from inside the stairwell, and a door, ripped off its hinges, slid down the stairs in a sudden burst of sunlight from above as Barnaby tried to follow. "You only met her once, when you saved her at that ice-skating rink, but she's a big fan of yours!"
Dodging the broken door, Barnaby burst onto the rooftop after Kotetsu - and realized he did remember her. Not from the ice-skating rink - he'd saved a girl there, yes, but never learned her name - but from conversations about her. Kaede thought Barnaby was the greatest hero. Kaede was angry a lot nowadays. Kaede thought her daddy's beard was stupid.
Kotetsu's beard, currently drenched with blood from one of Barnaby's kicks that had connected, was definitely unusual enough that a kid might find it embarrassing.
Kotetsu himself looked far worse in the sunlight than he had in the dim light in the abandoned building - there were more cuts and bruises visible on his arms and face, his lip was swollen, his shirt was bloodstained in several places, and a small red pool was collecting by his left foot, dripping from the ends of the makeshift bandages. His expression was pure exhaustion. "...My power's gone," he admitted, and Barnaby realized he was right - there was no more blue glow to his eyes. "I can't take any more attacks from you... I'll surrender if I have to. But please... remember."
"...I..." Why would Barnaby know so much about a little girl, and not remember the father who had told him about her? Why did he have that emblem on his armor? What had happened to his partner, who had taught him what it meant to be a hero?
And Why had this murderer, this... man... not once tried to fight back, when Barnaby had made it clear he was going to avenge Samantha?
"I... don't remember you." Kotetsu's face fell, but Barnaby dropped his fists as well. "But I..." He pushed up his visor, to look at Kotetsu directly. "...I remember someone... who might be you."
"Bunny," Kotetsu murmured, and that word, once again, carried over the sound of the wind and the helicopters and everything else to give Barnaby a strange sense of vertigo - but this time, it didn't make him angry.
"Why can't I remember you?" Barnaby whispered. "I can remember a partner, and his daughter... why can't I remember you?"
"I don't know," Kotetsu said honestly, taking a few painful steps closer. "I don't know..."
Barnaby could feel all the pressure inside him resting right behind his eyes, and he rubbed at them. It didn't help, and he sniffed deeply, trying to stop himself. "I'm sorry... Kotetsu..."
"Bunny," Kotetsu murmured again, and this time it was simply comforting, coming as Kotetsu's arms slipped around him, holding him. "It's okay."
"It's not okay," Barnaby insisted through his tears, letting Kotetsu lower them both to the ground. "Nothing's okay... I still can't remember you. Why can't I remember you?"
"I don't know," Kotetsu repeated, stroking his shoulder despite the armor. "It's not just you - no one remembers me. Somebody erased me from everybody's memories, so they could set me up. I don't know how or why, but I've been doing some thinking... I'm starting to get a few ideas about who's behind it."
Barnaby wanted to ask, but the weight of the last few days was too heavy, and Kotetsu's presence was familiar and comforting, even though he couldn't recall ever meeting him before. He just curled up against Kotetsu, who held him safe and secure as he let himself cry into the ragged remains of Kotetsu's shirt.
After a short time, though, Barnaby felt Kotetsu shift, leaning back. "...Bunny, sorry to interrupt, but... I think it's your move."
Wiping his eyes one more time, Barnaby looked up, and followed Kotetsu's line of sight up into the sky. The HeroTV blimp was circling overhead, surrounded by helicopters. "Kaburagi!" rang out a voice that was both familiar and readily identifiable; Sky High hovered near the edge of the roof, his arms crossed in a firm stance. "You're surrounded. Surrender our fellow hero at once, and you won't be harmed!"
Dragon Kid, Origami Cyclone, and Fire Emblem dropped onto the rooftop from one of the helicopters. One of Blue Rose's ice spires lifted her into view beside the building. Rock Bison emerged from the stairwell.
Barnaby lifted his head to meet Kotetsu's eyes, warm and concerned as they stared back into his own, and he made his decision.
He had only a few seconds left. Barnaby took a deep breath and shifted to a kneeling position, slipping his arms around Kotetsu in return before he leapt into the sky, streaking past the cameras and helicopters too fast for anyone to follow.