The only sound in the room was Keith's breath, slow and ragged.
The only thing he had to do was to keep breathing.
It wasn't easy. The room had been sealed off some time ago, and he was fairly certain that the NEXT woman in green and black was deliberately poisoning the air. He hadn't been paying too much attention to her explanation, but he was pretty sure poison came into it somewhere.
There were more important things to worry about, like the fact that his sponsors were probably going to be mildly upset, or the relative time needed to evacuate two hundred people without drawing notice, or the increasing difficulty of separating the remaining oxygen and drawing it to his lungs with what little movements his bound arms allowed.
He closed his eyes, concentrating on the little eddies in the cramped confines, and continued to breathe.
As HeroTV assignments went, this one had seemed normal enough. The passenger liner Pretty Sailor had been hijacked mid-cruise and piloted to Sternbild, and the hijackers had demanded several billion in ransom money. The port authorities were currently stalling for time, which meant that as far as Agnes Joubert was concerned, this was the greatest way to spark some ratings for HeroTV since the Maverick scandal.
Or, as Rock Bison pointed out when they were dispatched, a cheap way to inflate point counts for saving that many civilians. Not that he was complaining, since the current HeroTV front-runner was tied up in a photo shoot that had gone horribly wrong.
"How often do you get a stampede at a petting zoo, anyway?" Bison continued to grumble over the audio link as the attack began. "I bet Kotetsu had something to do with it."
Very likely, Keith thought, though he was just the tiniest bit sorry that he hadn't gotten to help at the petting zoo. They had puppies, after all, and he liked puppies. Mr. Wild and Barnaby got all the really fun public appearances.
Although, he reflected as he landed on the deck of the Pretty Sailor, Mr. Wild would probably be as disappointed that he was missing this; they had a lovely view of Sternbild Harbor from here, and he'd often said that he liked looking out at the harbor.
Of course it was a little different when one was working. Keith ducked under one thug's arm and caught him with a blast of wind, then knocked another into the first. The thugs' leader seemed to be a tall, skinny NEXT with mild telekinesis, judging by the number of sharp objects that went flying past. It was a shame, Keith thought as he sent the gangly man crashing into a stack of deck chairs, because that was the kind of talent that might be useful in a day-to-day situation. But against someone who could simply knock away those knives with a breath, it was a little embarrassing.
He picked up the telekinetic NEXT -- now stuck in a folding chair -- and held him up for the HeroTV cameras, giving a thumbs up. "I am sorry," he said to the NEXT, "but what did you think was going to happen?"
The skinny man goggled at him, then shook his head. "You're kidding, right?"
"No, I am not! Tactically speaking, sailing to Sternbild was your first error -- after all, this is where you find the Heroes!" He gestured out to the sparkling skyline -- it was a real shame Mr. Wild couldn't see it -- then turned back to the NEXT. "And a power such as yours could be quite useful in other, non-criminal pursuits. Juggling, maybe. Or being a short-order cook. Or rescuing cats from trees!" He shook his head. "Why bother with being a villain?"
The man's shoulders twitched, and he began giggling like he'd just heard the world's best joke. Keith paused, an unwelcome shiver starting at the top of his neck.
The audio link in his helmet crackled. "No!" Dragon Kid yelled. "Blue Rose! Something's wrong --"
"What?" Keith dropped the skinny NEXT and turned to see a brilliant red figure fly backwards off of one of the lower decks: Fire Emblem, thrown off the ship entirely. The pyrokinetic hero recovered enough to turn his fall into a graceful dive, and the little iceberg not far from him showed that a similar fate had befallen Blue Rose -- but that both had been thrown from the boat was a problem all its own. Keith ran to the railing. "How --"
Behind him, the skinny NEXT edged away, still laughing, the deck chair scraping as he dragged it across the boards. Keith turned to apprehend him.
And that's when everything went wrong.
A tall woman in green and black ascended the stairs, smiling. First his wind control faded -- not escaping his control, but simply dissolving like sand through his fingers, as if there was no longer such a thing as wind to control. Then, as the black-clad thugs began to either collapse or edge away from the woman, his own muscles began to tremble, as if they'd been under strain for too long.
He dropped to one knee as weakness swept over him. The woman laughed, her eyes flaring with power, and he shook his head. "Halt, miscreant," he began, one hand sweeping back to switch on his jets.
The jets flared and died, and across his back something sparked. A little knife, like the dozens before, only this one had made it through to cut the circuitry. To his side, the skinny NEXT grinned, even as he tried to extricate himself from the deck chair and kept back from the woman in green. "What was that you were saying, Mr. Hero?"
"He was saying," the woman said, bending down to gaze at Keith, "that he accepts our invitation." One long finger brushed his cheek, and exhaustion swept over him.
The NEXT woman's name was Nerva, and she had been from Sternbild before fleeing the tyranny of the heroes' outdated ideas of justice, or something to that effect. Keith wasn't entirely sure; she'd been pacing in front of him and ranting about her backstory for some time, and he'd tuned her out in favor of working out how he was going to get out of this.
Besides, villain speeches were boring, when you got down to it, and generally not worth listening to, especially when they had you captured. He'd learned that lesson the hard way. No, either he'd get free of this cramped little vault and then he'd win, or one of the other heroes would do the same, and that was all there was to it.
"-- and sixteen parking tickets! Sixteen!" Nerva stamped her foot, then adjusted her pince-nez glasses and smiled. "Ah, but when I came into my power, when I realized that I too had the despised NEXT abilities --"
What was important was this: the cables currently holding him in place had a high tensile strength, but would probably part under a sufficient razor wind. Nerva's power seemed to weaken her enemies, both their NEXT abilities and physical strength, and even her proximity was enough to drain him. So all he had to do was wait until she left the vault, recover a little of his strength, and then blast his way out of there and save the day.
"-- my plan, my glorious plan two years in the making, and my friend here tells me that you thought it was all a big embarrassment! Well, let me ask you now, Mr. Hero, who is the embarrassment --"
Oh, and there was the small problem of his costume. The young man with the knives had apparently needed to work out some anger over Keith's assessment of his powers, and had entertained himself by slicing good portions of his costume. Most of the greatcoat was now destroyed, which was a pity because that was where his sponsors' logos were. In fact, most of his costume in general was gone, although he still had some of his pants.
"-- for I have seen the future, and it is a glorious one, free of the masses' ovine acquiescence to arbitrary laws --"
Did they still count as pants if most of the material had been shredded? He pondered the question for a bit, finally settling on the answer that it didn't really matter because they'd all go in the wash when he got home. Also, the vault was kind of chilly. Maybe it had been a freezer before now.
At least she'd left him his helmet, though it meant she'd gone on for a bit about how since heroes made such a big idea of their secret identities, she scorned to even bother with such a dilemma, etc., etc.
He rather liked the phrase "et cetera, et cetera." Wasn't there a bit about it in that one musical? Not part of the songs, which was a shame. Maybe someone could write a song with it.
"Sky! Oy, Sky High! Is this thing on?"
The audio link in his helmet -- silent for too long -- crackled to life, accompanied by the sound of Wild Tiger's shouting. Keith looked up, startled.
"I don't think it's working, Bunny. Oy, Sky! Are you there?"
Nerva rounded on him, slapping the side of his helmet. "Are you even paying attention to me?"
Keith cleared his throat. "Yes," he said. "I am."
Nerva glared at him, her eyes flaring, but she didn't use that exhausting touch again. "Idiot hero," she muttered.
"Oh, great!" Wild Tiger went on. "Good to know you're still doing all right. Anyway, we got here as soon as we could, but I gotta tell you, I am never doing anything at a petting zoo again. If Kaede wants to go, I'm telling her to go with my ma or something, because damn, those animals can get nasty!"
Keith let out a slow breath, smiling in the darkness of his helmet. Nerva was now relating her plan for the city of Sternbild at the same time as Mr. Wild went on about the horrors of fluffy animals, and between the two, he knew which voice he'd rather listen to.
"-- call it a pika, and it looks so harmless, but let me tell you, do not let that fool you. They bite! Or, well, they try to, but the armor does keep them from actually making contact, so there's that --"
"Kotetsu, I don't think he cares about that just now." Barnaby, cool and calm as always. That was another nice voice to listen to. It would have been nicer if he could see Barnaby in person, but he'd settle for the voice just now.
"You think? I mean, there have got to be a hundred of the little fluffy bastards in Sternbild alone -- all right, fine."
Nerva had finished her plan for the city and seemed to be waiting for some response, so Keith nodded, pulling himself a little more upright against the cables. It was an awkward position, but he'd been in worse. A good workout would knock out any of the cramps later on.
"According to the others, the NEXT on that ship knocked Rock Bison out immediately, then did something to both Fire Emblem and Blue Rose that's put them in the infirmary. Dragon Kid and Origami Cyclone are fine, but only because they retreated fast."
"Right, and there's one in particular --"
"I was just getting to that. Yes, there's one who's trouble: some woman who's sapping NEXT powers. She's the real problem -- if she hadn't headed up to attack you when she did, there's no telling if the others would have got away."
Nerva posed dramatically before the door of the little vault. "Tell me, Sky High, does your version of justice account for the nature of predator and prey?"
Unsure what this had to do with justice, and still listening to Barnaby, Keith shrugged. This was a strangely secure vault for something this close to the decks. Had she moved it up here for this purpose? She certainly seemed to have planned a lot of this ahead of time.
Barnaby continued on. "I don't know exactly how her powers work, so it's possible --"
"Bunny, none of that is the plan! Sky, listen to me, the plan is this: Bunny and I are going up from the harbor itself, and we're going to evacuate the passengers out from everyone's noses."
"Right," Barnaby continued. "But given that one power-sapping NEXT, we'll be in real trouble if she comes down in the middle of it. Kotetsu's power isn't going to be any use if she negates it for a full minute, and I suspect the same is true for me."
"What do you mean, you suspect? It's the same power, of course --"
Nerva grabbed him by the helmet, forcing his head up. "So here's what's going to happen to you, Mr. Hero Sky High. This room is airtight, and I can dump as much carbon monoxide in here as I like. So what I am going to do now is close it up --" she jabbed her finger at the smeary glass panels to one side, "-- and watch you, the wizard of the winds, the master of the currents, suffocate and die. Fitting, isn't it?"
Barnaby was still talking, oblivious to Nerva's side of the conversation. "-- so what we need from you is this: Can you keep her occupied while we get the passengers out? Once they're out, it doesn't matter so much, but we can't risk --"
"I understand," he said aloud. Simple enough, really. Just keep breathing.
"Good. Hang in there, and we'll be up soon."
Nerva's eyes narrowed, but she only struck him once, a new wave of enervation sweeping out over his chest. "Good," she said, unknowingly echoing Barnaby. "I'm going to look forward to this."
She paused at the door, glancing over her shoulder. "Do you know, Sky High, it was you who taught me that this was possible. Seeing you defeated by Jake Martinez, humiliated and suspended . . . it made it all clear to me. You're not invincible." Her lips curled in a smile. "And I'll get to watch."
Barnaby shut off the radio and paused a moment, sand and silt swirling up from the ocean bottom around the feet of his suit. "He sounded . . . distracted."
"Eh, it's Sky High. Distracted is his usual state." Kotetsu banged his foot on something, cursed, and staggered back. "But he's always willing to help, whether you want him to or not." He shook his foot, toppling over as the currents pulled at him.
Barnaby caught his arm and pulled him upright, knocking his fist against the thing he'd tripped over: the anchor of the Pretty Sailor.
"You know," Kotetsu went on, tugging on the anchor chain, "after Tomoe's death, it was a rough time for me. Kaede was home with Mom, the apartment was really empty. And Keith . . . well, he was just a new hero then, but he came over every Tuesday for two months. Said it was to show me some weird television show, but he ended up cleaning the place, bringing me dinner, talking me through each episode. Almost made up for the fact that I could barely figure out what was going on."
"Hm," Barnaby gave the chain a speculative look, then turned to face Kotetsu. "You called him Keith."
"Just now. You don't ever do that. Come to think of it, none of us do."
"Eh, well, it's Sky High."
Barnaby shrugged, then started climbing hand over hand, pulling himself up the chain. "You remember that lousy day I had last week?"
"Yeah. I've never seen a bunch of girl scouts so surly."
"I accidentally scratched Nathan's car on my way in, and Keith took the blame for it. Without even letting me know ahead of time, or asking if I wanted him to do it." He shook his head. "While Nathan was chasing him around the gym trying to set his hair on fire, I transferred over the repair fees . . . but he stepped in to take the blame without even knowing I would do that. I think he knew I was in no mood to deal with it."
"You called him Keith just now, too."
For a moment the two of them climbed in silence. "Kotetsu?" Barnaby finally said.
"We need to get those passengers out of here as soon as possible."
"I know, Bunny."
It was becoming increasingly difficult to direct breathable air to his lungs. His helmet did some of the work -- you couldn't fly above Sternbild without some kind of filter -- but there was only so much it could do when there wasn't much to filter.
He risked a glance at the glass panels. From this side, he could only see shadows, but the persistent drain on his strength told him that she was still there, still waiting for him to die. That was good; as long as she was present, he was still doing his work. It was all a little too familiar: captured by the villain, bound and made helpless, apparently defeated, like that horrible time suspended above Sternbild while Jake Martinez made short work of his friends.
And yet this time something was different. Maybe it was that he had been through it before, that he knew he was not invincible. Nerva was right, and back then it had been a hideous realization, but now . . . now it was enough. If you knew you could be hurt, then surviving was a task all its own. It became work, and therefore something he could devote his time to, rather than taking it for granted.
Something clanged elsewhere in the ship, a noise like a bell under water. He ignored it for now, concentrating instead on separating the last of the breathable air, even as more noise filtered through the heavy walls, thumps and shouts and the screech of metal on metal. At the window, the shadowy green form looked up, then stepped away from the glass, calling orders to someone.
The walls shook, and something struck the door, hard enough that one of the hinges slipped. It wasn't much, just a crack maybe half an inch wide, but it was enough.
Sky High raised his head and smiled.
What the viewers of HeroTV (currently broadcasting what Agnes had unthinkingly and unfortunately dubbed the Sailor Infiltration Special) saw from their vantage point was Wild Tiger getting picked up and tossed against a sealed hatch by one of the NEXT hijackers, while season front-runner Barnaby Brooks, Jr., faced off against the strange woman who had defeated two of the younger heroes already. Agnes had been just about to cut to commercial -- after all, Barnaby seemed to be in a standoff, and there was only so much ratings value in watching Wild Tiger get repeatedly slammed against walls -- when the hatch door blew off its hinges.
A gale shot over the decks, knocking the heroes off their feet and sweeping Nerva up out of Barnaby's reach. From the broken hatch, a battered Sky High emerged, his costume in tatters, leaning against the hatch for support.
(Up in the HeroTV helicopter, Agnes paused, her eyebrows rising almost to her hairline, then nudged her director. "Get us a close-up," she said. "From a low angle, if you've got one.")
"My wind velocity may not be off the charts today," Sky High proclaimed, and stepped out onto the deck. A few more shreds of his costume fell away. "In fact, we are practically becalmed!"
("Does he think these lines up ahead of time?" Blue Rose muttered at the far end of the liner, where she was busily helping the last few passengers off. Fire Emblem shook his head, smiling.)
"But!" He held up one hand, then pointed at Nerva, still suspended in mid-air. "There is a saying: where there is breath, there is hope! And there is hope this day -- but not for you, villain!"
Wordlessly, Wild Tiger handed him a set of handcuffs, and Sky High dropped the woman to the deck and immediately clamped them over her wrists. He staggered briefly but recovered as Wild Tiger and Barnaby came up on either side of him, then gave the camera a thumbs up. "Well done, my friends!"
He made it all the way inside the police helicopter before collapsing.
Keith woke to the plain, familiar ceiling of his bedroom and the sound of pages turning nearby. He turned his head to see Barnaby reading in the chair next to the bed. "You're awake," Barnaby said, looking up. "Good."
"I fell asleep?"
"Sort of." He closed his book. "The doctors said all you needed was sleep, so they gave you a shot and Kotetsu and I brought you home. You've got a few cuts, but nothing bad."
Keith lay back, staring at the light sliding through the blinds from the street below. After a moment, he pushed himself to sit upright. "Where --"
"Stay down. You shouldn't be up."
He shook his head. "I feel fine." Sore in places, and a little tired, but no worse than after a long day's work. Or a long week's work, maybe. "Where's John? I should take him for a walk. I always take him for a walk when I get home."
"If you mean your dog, he jumped on Kotetsu as soon as we got here, so the old man decided to take him outside. That was a few hours ago, so the galumphing idiot is probably having the time of his life." Barnaby helped him to his feet. The younger hero's hands were pleasantly warm, especially because Keith was still wearing the tatters of his outfit, plus a few small bandages from where the knives had grazed too close. "John's probably fine too," Barnaby added as Keith stood upright.
"Ah. That's good. That's very good." And now Barnaby was no longer sitting in John's chair, so the big puppy would be happy when he returned. He took a few unsteady steps to the door.
"Where are you going?"
"I have a spare uniform in the hall closet," Keith called over his shoulder. "I have to go on patrol."
Barnaby ran a hand through his blond hair, shaking his head. "Dragon Kid and Origami Cyclone are taking care of it. And Rock Bison is on call to help them if they need it. You can rest for one night, certainly."
"Sky High." Barnaby followed him out, leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed. "You've already done a lot today. And I --" He took off his glasses and began to polish them against his shirt. "I wanted to apologize."
"Eh?" Keith turned, a little too fast, and caught himself against the wall.
"I didn't realize what sort of situation you were in, and what I asked of you wasn't . . ." He sighed. "It's not exactly heroic to ask someone to survive. I'm sorry."
Keith's brows furrowed. "I'm not really sure I understand. We are heroes, right?"
"Yes, but --"
"So what we do is heroic. Even if it's something small. Even if it doesn't get us any points." He held out his hand to Barnaby. "Even if it's something like being powerless for a while."
Barnaby looked confused for a moment, then gave that little exhalation that was the closest he usually came to laughter. "You sound like Kotetsu."
"I am happy to!" He clasped Barnaby's shoulder and grinned. "Mr. Wild is a hero through and through, and I'm proud to work beside him." Barnaby looked startled, more from the touch than the words, and Keith remembered that he probably should put on something that counted as pants at some point.
At the far end of the room, someone sneezed, and the door swung open. "Chow time!" Kotetsu called, dragged into the hall by the golden retriever. "Oh, you're up! Feeling better, Keith?" His grin widened. "And you move fast, Bunny."
Barnaby gave his partner a sour look, but Keith paid no attention, instead kneeling down to greet John. "Hello there! Yes, hello again! Who's my good dog?" The retriever barked happily, then rolled over to show his belly. "That's a good boy. Thank you, Mr. Wild!"
"Yeah, well, after the petting zoo I figured a bigger animal couldn't be any more trouble. That was before this mutt dragged me halfway across Sternbild," Kotetsu added, but he was still smiling. "And I've told you before to call me Kotetsu."
"Everything all right?" Barnaby asked before Keith could demur.
"All right and more than all right. Heh, listen to me, I sound like you, Keith. I got dinner!" He held up a paper bag with STERNBURGER in big red letters up and down the sides. John immediately rolled to his feet and stared at Kotetsu, tail whipping back and forth. "Not for you, dog!"
"I meant about HeroTV."
"I'm getting to that! Nathan and Karina have the PR all taken care of." He picked up the remote and switched on Keith's TV. "Check it out."
Keith nudged John away from the burgers and glanced at the TV. Fire Emblem was mid-explanation of how a concerted effort among the heroes had saved the passengers, and as such the points would be distributed equitably -- although as far as he was concerned, the saltwater damage to his costume was one of the greatest tragedies of the day. "Ah, that's a good way to do it," Keith murmured, and settled onto the couch.
"You think so? You made the arrest, after all." Barnaby settled down next to him.
"And in spectacular fashion," Kotetsu added.
"But I couldn't have done it without all of you watching my back." He took a burger from the bag and wolfed it down, dropping a french fry for John to snatch.
"I expect all of Sternbild will be watching your back now," Kotetsu muttered, angling his burger away from John. "So to speak. Is there anything for this dog to eat that isn't my food?"
There followed a few minutes while Barnaby convinced John to eat his kibble instead of Kotetsu's burger, Keith accidentally ate half of Kotetsu's fries, and Kotetsu searched Keith's kitchen for mayonnaise. Keith eventually found a spare pair of pants, at which Kotetsu made mildly disappointed noises and Barnaby turned pink. John ran around the kitchen a few times, snapping at nothing. Eventually, John settled onto his chair in the bedroom, absently chewing on Barnaby's book, and Keith sank back onto the couch and ate the last of Barnaby's fries.
On the television, the interviewer was asking Blue Rose's opinion as to whether Sky High would be continuing with his "new costume." Keith shook his head and started to stand up. "I really should go on patrol."
"No, you shouldn't." Kotetsu and Barnaby, showing the unison that sometimes showed up in their crimefighting, pulled him back down to the couch. "Look," Kotetsu went on, "maybe you're right about not being able to do it without us. But we couldn't have done this without you. And you do a lot for us, every day."
"But that's what we do," Keith said, looking from one of them to the other.
"No. That's what you do." Kotetsu sighed, then scratched at the back of his head and exchanged a quick glance with Barnaby.
The two of them leaned in close to him, so close that the warmth of their bodies radiated on either side of him. "What we're trying to say," Barnaby said, his voice dropping to a whisper, the breath of it tickling Keith's cheek and making him blush, "is thank you."
"And again --" Kotetsu, from the other side, his lips brushing just to the side of Keith's ear, "thank you."
Keith drew a slow breath, still blushing, then wrapped the two of them in a hug. "You are the best friends -- the best heroes -- I could ever know!" He laughed and let the wind carry him where it would.
"Did -- did he just fall asleep?" Barnaby asked.
Kotetsu drew back. Sure enough, Keith had made it as far as his declaration of hero-ship before dozing off again, arms still around their shoulders. He slumped back against the couch as first Kotetsu then Barnaby sat up. "Looks like it," he said. "Probably still drained from that last brush with Nerva." He shook his head and stretched. "Well, there go my plans for the evening."
"Dirty old man," Barnaby said. He touched the curve of Keith's lips gently, but the exhausted hero only smiled in his sleep.
"You know, if it was anyone else, I'd be insulted."
"Yes, well, it's Keith." The two exchanged a glance over Keith's head, and Barnaby chuckled, removing his glasses. "He's got the right idea, though. I could use the rest, too. That NEXT packed a punch."
"Ah, you young people have no stamina." But he caught the gleam in Barnaby's eye and let the matter rest. "Besides," he added, "there's always morning."
In the middle of the night, Keith woke to find himself still on the couch, warm on either side. On his left Barnaby had curled up, blond head nestled against his shoulder. On his right, Kotetsu had sprawled over his lap, and a small puddle of drool had formed on his leg. Gently, he put his arm around Barnaby, who snuggled deeper against him, and again gently, he ran a hand over Kotetsu's back. The older man harrumphed in his sleep.
He lay back, listening to the sound of three people breathing, and smiled.