"This broadcast concludes this series of "X Minus One." We sincerely hope you enjoyed it. "X Minus One" was directed by-"
As the music faded into the usual nothing around them, Tora quietly tightened his hold on his teacher.
'What's wrong?' Barnaby asked as he closed down the file and returned it to the digital archive he'd pulled it from.
'It's over... I know some of the stories weren't very good, but-'
A hand reached back and gently petted his head. 'It's just one series,' Barnaby said soothingly. 'There are other radio programs archived, and television, and even movies. Maybe we could try some non-fiction this time for a change of pace... I've seen a few nature and space documentaries that are good.' Tora squirmed closer, not caring how puppy-like it looked, and long, slender fingers obligingly stroked the back of his neck. 'Like Kotetsu says, there's a whole big ol' world out there to investigate.'
Tora hid his scowl against his teacher's shoulder. 'You're okay with starting something else?'
'Of course.' He raised his head, and Barnaby favored him with a smile that never failed to leave a little dark pink creeping into his coded form. 'Why wouldn't I be? Let's get started.'
As they made their way through more library files, he began keeping notes in his coded memory. He really liked shows where Sagan and Hawking talked about space. While he loved birds and Attenborough's voice, nature documentaries tended to make him doze more often than not. Some history he found fascinating. Most just disturbed him.
And he absolutely hated anything about robotics or human biology.
'I just... It bothers me. I don't know why.'
'You don't always have to have a specific why,' Barnaby said as he closed the offending file. 'It's just one of those things about developing personal preferences.'
'How come it only bothers me with the shows, though? It doesn't bother me when you talk about it, or when you let me watch your parents at work in the labs.'
'Hm... Context, perhaps? Some narrators are very cold and distant from the subject they're discussing, so maybe that's the problem. Especially since these are subjects that affect you.'
It was sort of like whenever his creator had ever bothered to actually address him, Tora realized. He'd heard and read from multiple sources how Rotwang's involvement with his line of work bordered on obsession, but... that had never seemed to carry over into what few conversations they'd ever had. The dispassionate nature his creator had always taken around him had been more like someone saddled with a job. A chore. Like a lot of the narrators. 'I think you may be right.'
When he looked up from the closed file, Barnaby's expression was concerned. 'You all right?'
'I'm not sure. I don't miss him at all, but it still hurts whenever something makes me think of the one who made me. Is that normal?'
Arms encircled him, warm and comforting. 'A lot of people probably feel that way about bad parents. There's nothing wrong with it.'
The affectionate reassurance made him feel considerably better, and he relaxed, just contented with being held for a little while. A soft beep roused him out of a light doze and he checked the time.
And went a little pinker when he realized Barnaby had just let him sleep on him for three hours. 'Ah- sorry. What was that alert?'
'Just my lunch time alarm.' Barnaby drifted back a bit, releasing him. 'And I don't mind. You looked like you needed it. Is your adapter cord not working properly?'
'I've been forgetting,' Tora confessed, though he didn't want to admit why.
'Well, I have to go meet Kotetsu, so why don't you get some rest and think about what you want to try out next? Maybe we'll go back to fiction for tonight.'
'Okay.' When his visual receptors snapped on once the other ghost had gone, Tora got up and pulled his connection cord from the system he'd attached himself to. Instead of plugging himself into a wall outlet, however, he began to agitatedly pace the abandoned foreman's office he'd been hiding in.
Unlike his dislike for his creator, he didn't understand why it grated on him so much whenever Angel mentioned Kaburagi. He'd never even met the human, at least not in a context he could remember. He'd been told about the fight when he'd been under directive control, of course, but that didn't count. He just...
He just didn't like the human being so important to Angel.
Part of it he could deal with. After all, Angel had been very up front with the fact that part of the reason he could handle the lessons so easily was because he was still going through a similar process himself. That wasn't so bad. But Tora remembered how quiet and sad Angel had been when the human had started ignoring him. He'd insisted Kaburagi hadn't meant to hurt him, but it still wasn't fair. How... how could the human have... have abused their connection like that?
He would never do that to Angel... would he?
Tora hated these questions. Anything else in the world, he would have felt comfortable asking Angel to explain, but this... he just couldn't.
Maybe he should take the advice to rest, he decided. Spending time fretting had been cutting his charges short for the past few weeks, and maybe that was just making his mind blow everything out of proportion. Whenever Angel said 'Tonight', he always meant around seven, since that was when his human family ate, and that was more than enough time to get a good recharge in.
Slipping out of the office, Tora made his way to his favorite hiding spot in the empty factory, pulling the gating of the freight elevator shut in case some homeless humans happened to wander into the building again. He plugged himself in and set a waking alarm, then settled himself comfortably into a corner to power down.
Tora quietly drifted through the streams and eddies of data, not really paying attention to anything in particular. Occasionally, a stray bit of information would be interesting enough to rouse him from his light doze, but mostly, he was just happy to rest.
By Angel's information, he was coming up on his three month marker of being out of the lab at Apollon. Of no longer being under his creator's control. Sure, it wasn't a huge number like a year or anything, but... it had been enough for him to ask for a few days to think.
He couldn't stay in the factory forever, he knew that. Abandoned places, from what he'd seen in the information streams and history documentaries, never lasted long in Sternbild, especially not in the industrial areas. Having already been here three months, he probably had a few weeks to go, at best. Really, he'd probably been pushing his luck already.
But honestly, he was afraid of leaving.
Because he knew he couldn't go out in public either. He'd long shed the black armor that marked him as an enemy, but still, a robot wandering around without a master would draw too much notice. Angel had told him about all the years he'd spent in isolation because of the social and legal rules concerning robots.
Tora's coded body shivered at the thought. It was probably a terrible thing to think, but he would rather stay in the streams forever than have to live like that. Staying in the factory alone wasn't the same thing. At least he'd picked this place, instead of being told to live here. But still...
Angel had offered his own home as a possible place for him to stay when he was ready, but that had been over a month ago. He didn't know if it had been rescinded.
A warm feeling slid down his spine at the nearby passing of a familiar presence. Guess it was time to find out, he decided, and reached out over the connections.
Barnaby 'turned' at the light touch, and Tora had to fight to keep from fidgeting under the affectionate smile. 'There you are. I was beginning to worry a little.'
'Huh?' He checked the date- Oh. He'd been drifting for nearly two weeks. That was a little more than just the few days he'd asked for. 'I'm sorry. I sort of... just got lost in thought.'
'Did you think about anything interesting?' Barnaby teased, and it was all Tora could do not to go completely pink, even though he knew what came to mind that second probably wasn't what his teacher was implying.
'Ah- actually... I- I think I'd like to move somewhere else.'
'That's great! Have you figured out where you'd like to go?'
Okay, moment of truth. 'I would... I would like to stay with you. If- If that's still okay-' He cut off with an embarrassed squeak when he was pulled into a hug.
'Of course it's still okay,' Barnaby said as he pulled back. 'You're a bit bigger than my old body was, but everything in our house is still arranged for accessibility. And my parents already know all about you, so you're more than welcome.'
Nervousness and embarrassment slowly gave way to an almost giddy feeling. 'Really?'
'So... um, what do I do? Anything special?'
Barnaby floated around him, examining. 'Did he build you with some kind of homing signal?'
'I don't know, let me see.' It was much harder for him to work with both his solid parts and his coded parts the way his teacher did, but he rifled through his programming banks. 'I think this might be-' He yelped as the right eye of his coded body began flashing yellow. 'Is that it?'
'It's kind of... itchy. Is it supposed to be itchy?'
'It's not for me, but mine's not in my head. We can try to relocate it once you're home, if you like.'
'Yes, please. Is that all I have to do?'
'Mmhmm. We'll be out to get you as soon as possible.'
'We?' Another time check. Oh. He'd probably interrupted a lunch meeting. He tried to not be too obvious, but Barnaby noticed the uncomfortable squirm anyway.
'Could... could you maybe come alone?' he asked hesitantly, hoping that he wouldn't be asked why.
Instead, a hand gently brushed over his head. 'Tora, I have to bring someone. We need a way to hide you in order to get you home, and I'm not legal to drive.' As much as he wanted to, Tora couldn't argue with that logic. 'Would it be better if it was one of my parents? Can you wait until then?'
Tora awkwardly fiddled with nothing as he considered the options. On one hand, he really didn't want Kaburagi there. On the other, he wasn't sure he would be able to go through with the decision to leave if he had to wait very long. After a couple of minutes, the latter won. 'I think it would be best to go now. I'm... I think I might chicken out if I don't.'
Barnaby reached out and took hold of his hands, and the reassuring squeeze helped a little. 'All right. Just sit tight, we'll be there in just a little bit.'
Tora managed a nod, but when the hands let go, he felt that swelling of nervousness come back. 'Stay?' he pleaded. 'You can, can't you?'
'I can. Hold on a second.' Barnaby's form faded a little turning from a brilliant pale blue to a softer, more muted tone. 'There.'
Curiosity overcame nerves, and he reached out to find his teacher's form was still solid, but not quite as much as usual. He wondered if that was what it would be like to touch water. 'What did you do?'
'I halved our connection to be more similar to what I use when I talk to Kotetsu through his PDA. This way, I can stay with you and be conscious in my body at the same time. And actually,' Barnaby added with a calculating look. 'This could work to our advantage. Homing signals aren't pinpoint, so with us following my signal as well as yours, we should be able to find you faster.'
'That's so cool,' he said, unable to help being a little awed. 'Will I be able to do that eventually too?'
'I don't see why not. Once we've determined what about your construction is different from my old one, a wireless installment shouldn't be too hard.' Barnaby tilted his head slightly. 'Ah. We're on our way. Shouldn't be more than twenty or thirty minutes, even with traffic.'
Thirty minutes. Maybe that was too soon. He could feel himself starting to get agitated again, but before it could get to a panic stage, he found himself wrapped in a calming embrace. Or maybe he'd be fine, he decided, snuggling in closer.
"Ugh," Kotetsu muttered, huddling deeper into his coat and shoving his hands in his pockets. "I know we're supposed to be having a global warming problem, but I swear it gets colder sooner here every year."
"If you'd quit forgetting your gloves, it would help," Barnaby pointed out, and Kotetsu stuck his tongue out at him, not caring how childish it looked.
"Thanks, Mama Bunny. And how are you being so calm about the weather, anyway? You hate the cold even more than I do."
"I cheated," Barnaby replied cheerfully, and offered a hand when Kotetsu gave him a confused look.
Kotetsu made a noise of surprise at the radiating heat he felt when he closed his hands around his partner's fingers. "Geez. How the hell-"
"I figured out last week how to channel the heat my inner mechanics make through my casings via the sensory network. This way, I stay warm against the cold, and keep my insides from overheating all at once."
"Cheating or not, that's pretty smart. So are you just wearing the coat for looks, now?"
"Well... yes and no. I don't really need it for warmth anymore, but I like the way it feels... and having a hood and a scarf is useful for weather and... um... other reasons."
Oh. Right. The unwilling celebrity thing, Kotetsu remembered, and slid a reassuring arm around the blond's waist. "Well, nobody's noticed you so far, so I'd say it's working. Anywhere in particular you want to go for lunch today?"
"Maybe we could try that new place on Fifth? The techs in your suit department seem to unanimously think the potato soup is worth killing for."
"Heh. With a recommendation like that, now I have to try it. Lead on."
The park they ended up settling in once they'd gotten their food wasn't their usual one, but he didn't mind. The bench was still comfortable, and for all Barnaby couldn't actually taste anything, his taste by scent was excellent as always. "Damn, Bunny. You're going to end up getting me fat at this rate," Kotetsu teased when Barnaby handed over the soup cup he'd finished adding to his records.
"As much running around and falling off things as you do, I don't think it will be a problem any time soon," Barnaby kidded back, settling more comfortably onto the bench. Kotetsu leaned into him as he sipped at the soup, reveling in the warmth coming off his friend.
"Mm, you're like a furnace."
Barnaby made a noise of amusement and looked like he was going to say something, then suddenly, his eyes went glazed over and distant. Recognizing the signs of someone, probably his parents or Tora, trying to get hold of him, Kotetsu didn't ask, instead finishing off his lunch and snuggling in closer as he waited patiently.
After a few minutes, Barnaby blinked again, still looking a little fuzzy around the edges.
"Who was it?"
"Tora." The blond smiled faintly. "He thinks he's ready to leave his hiding spot."
"Oh, hey, that's good! Is he going to need any help settling somewhere?"
"Actually... I know you probably don't have much time, but would you mind helping with transport?" Barnaby asked a little sheepishly.
Kotetsu checked his watch. Technically, he only had about twenty minutes left for lunch, but since he was actually ahead on his paperwork for a change, thanks to Barnaby's assistance, he figured he could squeak by taking longer. "As long as there's not an emergency call, I think we're good," he said as they got up to head back towards Apollon. "Lemme call in and give them warning, then we can grab my car."
As they arrived at the factory that Tora had been holing up in, Kotetsu made a soft whistle. "Damn. Good thing he decided to go ahead and leave."
"This place is scheduled for demolition in two weeks. They're gonna turn it into a mall."
Barnaby looked slightly alarmed by the possibility. "Lucky timing indeed."
The gate had already been broken long ago, so it was easy enough to get in. Following Barnaby's directions, they parked near a bay door on the south side and slipped into the building.
They found a freight elevator first, and Barnaby wrenched the gating open, causing Kotetsu to stare. As delicate as he looked and as quiet as he was, sometimes he forgot just how damn strong the mechanics under Bunny's skin were. He quickly shook off his shock when they found the elevator wasn't on the ground floor, and Barnaby scowled after an investigation of the controls. "Something wrong?"
"Nn. Tora's been here, but it looks like this must have gotten stuck in the basement recently. We'll have to take the stairs."
The floor they ended up on had no signs to guide them, but now they could see the weak flashing of the homing beacon through the dusty window of one of the doors. Kotetsu gently pushed the door open, and they found Tora huddled in a corner by a ruined desk.
The months had not been kind to the robot. While he'd kept himself in working shape, he clearly hadn't cared much about outward maintenance, as he was as dusty and dull as everything else in the room. Kotetsu politely hung back as Barnaby went and crouched in front of the other android.
The robot's visual receptors snapped on, and Barnaby shivered before looking more himself again. Kotetsu made a mental note to ask what exactly he'd done later. Tora blinked, then looked at the blond, the lights in his eyes changing from pale blue to a sort of dark purple. "You're here?"
"I told you we'd come," Barnaby replied, soothingly petting the robot's head before offering a hand to help him up. Getting connections unplugged and cords carefully stowed away was quick work, then the robot tightly hugged Barnaby, before finally noticing Kotetsu was even in the room.
Kotetsu couldn't help the little chill that went up his spine when Tora looked at him over Barnaby's shoulder. Though the android's expression had otherwise gone unchanged, he would swear that for the briefest moment, those 'eyes' had turned red.
Despite the uncomfortable little moment in the factory, Tora didn't flinch away when he had to help Barnaby get the robot lying down as comfortably as possible in the back seat and covered up. The drive out to the Brooks estate posed no problems either. They'd successfully arranged everything to look like a harmless pile of cloth, and no one on the road ever got close enough to notice a metal hand poking out of the mass to clutch at Barnaby's sleeve.
There were houses within seeing distance, but no one seemed to notice Kotetsu and Barnaby carefully guiding the robot in. Side benefit of the doctors' reputations, Kotetsu supposed.
"Okay," Barnaby said once they'd made it down to the main laboratory. "Let me get some cloths to clean you up a little, and then we'll get you moved into your new room, all right?"
The robot nodded, and Barnaby vanished down the hall. Then it glanced in his direction, and Kotetsu was sure that creepy red color came back. Well... they hadn't really properly met, had they? Maybe that was the problem. He could at least try. "So, uh-"
The metal head very pointedly looked in the other direction, turning so fast that the dust made the linings of the neck squeak.
"Well, uh, okay then," Kotetsu muttered, awkwardly scratching the back of his neck. Suddenly feeling very out of place, he took a seat as well, and they waited in tense silence until Barnaby returned.
The blond blinked at both of them. "Did I miss something?"
"Nothing," Kotetsu said with a forced cheer. "Ah, look, since you've got him here and all, I should probably get going. Leeway only goes so far, you know?"
"Oh. Okay. I'll see you out, then," Barnaby said as he laid down the towels, still looking a little confused.
Kotetsu almost refused -he was sure that somehow, the robot was managing to give him an annoyed look- but when Barnaby's hand brushed his, he went along with it, letting the other man follow him back outside.
"Are you sure everything's all right?" Barnaby asked quietly when they reached his car, and Kotetsu managed a smile as he reached out to ruffle blond curls that had already been mussed by the chilly wind.
"It's fine. This is probably a hugely stressful day for him, so I'll give him a while to get settled in before I try introductions again," he said with a shrug. "See you at lunch tomorrow?"
"Of course. Be careful getting back, and keep our line open if there's an emergency call, hm?"
"Always." Bunny's warmth against him as the other man affectionately nosed his neck made him feel considerably better, and Kotetsu returned the gesture before pulling away to get in.
Once he'd passed the gates of the estate, however, that creepy feeling settled itself back into the corner of his mind. Remembering those red eyes, he couldn't help shuddering. Maybe he'd ask about that later, too.
"How are you holding up?"
Tora looked down at himself as Barnaby gathered up the pile of damp, filthy rags. Deft, skilled hands had made quick work of the mess coating his casings, and even though he technically couldn't feel, he still felt better being clean.
"Okay, I think."
"We've still got a few hours before my parents get home. Do you want me to plug you in for a bit?" He nodded and offered his power cord, and Barnaby crouched to attach him to an adapter before dumping the rags in a laboratory sink to begin rinsing them out.
"What will they do when they get here?"
"If your concern is that you'll be a surprise, don't worry. I already told them you'd be coming. They'll probably want to take a look at you, though. Nothing too serious."
"How serious is 'too serious'?" he asked cautiously, and Barnaby chuckled.
"They'll just want to see what about you is different from me. Your casing designs were cribbed from my old ones, so they'll want to find out what else might have been, and get a basic layout of your workings in case it's necessary to fix something later. That's all."
"Oh." That didn't sound too bad. From what he'd seen through the cameras, his teacher's makers were much more gentle with handling their work than his creator had been. "Could they maybe go ahead and move the homing beacon?"
"Sure. We could probably go ahead and install a router like mine in you, too. No sense in forcing you to keep plugging in to net dive when that can be altered rather quick."
"Okay... That's all right now, though, right?" Tora asked nervously, twisting his cord a little. Barnaby dried his hands and reached over. The gentle pet on the head wasn't nearly as effective as it was in the data streams, but it did make the skittish discomfort loosen its hold just a little.
"You don't have to have any modifications made at all yet if you don't want to. You know that, right?"
"Yeah." Sort of. His only experiences with repair and construction in the real world had been with his creator. Though, now that he thought about it, he was a little ashamed that he'd expected Angel and his parents to similarly walk over his desires. This wasn't like getting crammed into the black armor. They wanted to help, and he was being given the choice to say yes or no. This was a good thing. "I'm okay with it," Tora said, the tension in his mind easing.
"As long as you're sure," Barnaby said, then twitched slightly before glancing off to the side, eyes growing distant for a brief second.
"What is it?"
"Just Kotetsu checking in. He's back at Apollon, no emergency calls yet. Oh, and he hopes you're doing all right getting used to the place."
Tora was mildly surprised that Kaburagi would be concerned at all, but it didn't really make him feel any more charitable towards the man. Angel thankfully didn't notice his brief flash of jealous dislike, straightening to finish hanging up the last rags.
"Well, that should finish the cleaning job for now. Anything you want to do while we wait?"
He perked up at the question. As much as nature shows put him to sleep, ever since he'd gotten a physical body, he'd been kind of curious to see what these 'plant' things were for himself. "You said awhile back the house had a garden?"
"And a greenhouse. Would you like to go see them?"
"Yes!" he said, quickly re-stowing his cord before hopping down off the heavy metal table to follow Angel, his ill thoughts about Kaburagi temporarily forgotten.
"My God, what was the man thinking?"
Tora had learned two things within five minutes of meeting his teacher's makers. One, Angel had been correct in telling him that they wouldn't mind him staying in their home. In fact, they'd been very kind to him from first introduction.
And the second thing he'd learned was that in the eyes of Emily Brooks, chrome was a design sin on an active robot.
She paced around him in agitation, fussing over the dented and scratched condition of his casings while her husband and their son watched and were clearly trying their damnedest not to laugh.
"Dearest, you're going to give the poor boy a power failure," the elder Barnaby finally said, intervening to save him from the Wrath of an Offended Artist. Tora took the opportunity to hide behind the younger. It didn't work particularly well, considering he was bigger than the blond, but he didn't really care at the moment.
"Your mother is... um..."
"A force?" his teacher asked, not even trying to hide his amusement. "You'll get used to it. And she's not this way all the time. The circumstances of your creation and some unfortunate design choices just combined to strike a nerve."
Tora warily eyed the human adults, who were deep in discussion about something. "Promise?"
All the same, he couldn't help cringing when the scientists approached them, at least until he saw the much more placid expression Emily wore.
"I apologize, Tora," she said, sounding much more like he was used to hearing from his camera watching. "Mind if we try this again from the top?" He hesitantly nodded, and Barnaby stepped aside, giving him a little push forward. This time, he actually made it as far as lying down on the exam table without incident, which helped him relax as the two doctors began to give his body a more thorough look-over.
They'd just gotten started on removing the offending homing beacon when he saw Barnaby twitch off to the side of his field of vision. "What is it?"
"Nh- Sorry. You'll have to continue without me for a little bit. There's been an emergency call."
"The south study's open, if you need to sit," his father said, and Barnaby nodded his thanks and gave Tora's right hand a gentle pat before vanishing.
He must have tensed at his teacher's leaving, because both of the humans looked at him in concern. "Do you need us to close you back up?"
He almost said yes, then remembered that along with moving the beacon, he'd been offered a router of his own. And with that, he wouldn't need to be connection-plugged to keep an eye on Kaburagi during these calls. "No, I'm fine. Let's finish."
Wild Tiger landed next to the latest destroyed ATM, and made a low noise in the back of his throat when he felt the brief jolt of Barnaby entering his comm system. "God, am I glad to see you."
'Your announcer is being unusually vague tonight. What's going on?'
"Criminal's got some kind of overload power or something. He can't control machines like you do, he just hits them with some kind of pulse that fries them. Teller machines spitting cash, traffic lights randomizing, and shit like that."
'Handy ability for a thief. I wonder a little why he's just now taking it big time.'
"Dunno, but he works fast, and he's hard to hit because of the need for damage control." Kotetsu hesitated, then dropped his voice a little lower. "Um... I know you've been kind of uncomfortable with doing any active work on the show after what happened with Tora, but... maybe...?"
'I'll see what I can do,' Barnaby replied, and Kotetsu made a tiny noise of relief that there was no apprehension or anger in his voice. On one of his side screens, a map of the surrounding blocks came up with a number of little blue dots lit up on it. 'This is the current area I can reach via your suit. I can expand it further-'
"Don't," Kotetsu said. "I'm grateful, but I don't want you overexerting on this, okay?"
There was a moment of silence from the other end. 'Okay,' Barnaby conceded. Then one of the streets that had been previously marked in blue lit up red, about six blocks south. 'Got him. I'll try to slow him down as much as I can.'
Kotetsu neatly leaped up the side of a fire escape to vault the wall blocking the bank off from the alley behind it. "On my way."
Even with the situation at hand, the scene that met him when he arrived at the site of the interrupted crime in progress was pretty damn comical. Their elusive criminal mastermind was waving his arms as he swore and yelled at an ATM as though he were a perfectly normal customer who'd been stiffed on a withdrawal. Too bad about the glowing blue eyes and the two sacks of money that already lay at his feet.
He had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing, then quickly regained his composure and jumped in to make the arrest before Dragon Kid could steal it out from under his nose. As Mario made the points announcement, he only half paid attention, switching his and Bunny's private communication channel back over to primary. "What the hell did you do to piss him off so much?" he asked as the still-cursing thief was being loaded into a police van.
'Well, unfortunately, I had to let him break a machine before I could figure out how his power actually worked. After that, I just used his own trick against him.'
"Sneaky. So what did you do?"
Barnaby made a faint little laugh that made him feel a bit warm. 'I have no idea if he's even aware of it or not, but his NEXT works by forcing the machine to cycle through all of its coded combinations too fast for the processors to keep up. So every time he tried to use it, I'd sneak in an extra coding chain before the sequence could finish.'
It took him a minute to process all that. "So... whenever he would try to fry the machine, the pulse would just cut off whenever it hit your chains, and he'd have to try again. Right?"
The clearly-approving 'Exactly!' made Kotetsu's face threaten to go pink. He could just picture that brilliant smile Bunny got whenever he finally managed to pick up on some bit of technical jargon. He was never going to be some mechanical genius like the kid or his parents, or even Tora, but hell, that smile made all the effort it took to follow along worth it.
He wasn't going to think about what his desire for that approval might mean. Especially not now that Barnaby was saying something else.
'-have to come back and fix it before morning, or some poor tech is going to spend all day cursing me.'
"Hey, just broken's better than broken and being empty of money, right?" Kotetsu joked when he figured out what Barnaby was talking about, then turned his head when a reporter called his codename.
'Go have fun with your interviews,' Barnaby prodded when Kotetsu hesitated. 'I should be getting back to the laboratory anyway. Mom and Dad are probably finished with Tora by now.'
"He's not damaged, is he?"
'No, just an exam and fixing some minor design flaws. He's getting his own router.'
"Oh, hey, tell him I said good luck with it, yeah?"
The channel closed, and Kotetsu switched back on his main communication line as he approached the reporters. When he'd finished with that and returned to Apollon's transport, he slumped into his seat, his mind starting to wander a bit once the adrenaline had fully worn off.
Things had gone back to quiet lately, with their relocation of Tora being the only major event in months. Of course, he and Bunny and Nathan and the doctors were all still keeping an eye on things, just in case, but even with that, he'd been pretty comfortable.
He had Bunny to thank for a lot of it, really. The kid had saved his neck from being crushed by homicidal robots, what, twice now? And his job... just having Bunny along for the ride had cut his damage problems almost in half. He'd even been able to afford getting Kaede a really nice pair of skates that his mother had hinted she'd had her eye on as a birthday present.
So he definitely owed his friend something... He just wasn't exactly sure what. Most conventional presents were out of the question, and it wasn't like he could just straight up ask Bunny what he might want. The only thing Bunny ever seemed to expressly press an interest in were their lunch dates...
Oh, hold on a second. That gave him an idea.
Barnaby was waiting for him in their usual spot when he got out of work, but even from a distance, he could see something was wrong. The blond was blinking fuzzily, head drooping every few seconds like he was struggling to keep himself awake. "Hey, you okay?" he asked, crouching in front of Barnaby worriedly when his friend didn't respond to his initial greeting.
"Nnh? Oh! Sorry," Barnaby apologized, sounding a little distant. Not 'busy' distant either. More like exhausted. "Am I late?"
"No, you got here before I did," Kotetsu said as he gently swept blond curls out of his eyes. "You look drained. When's the last time you charged?"
"Ah- It hasn't been that long. Just... Getting Tora used to the router turned out to be a little harder than we were expecting. I spent most of the night connected to keep him stable."
"How is he?"
He helped Barnaby to his feet, and didn't miss the unsteady little sway before the blond regained his balance. "Looks like you should be too. Bunny, you should have called me."
Barnaby looked away, but Kotetsu still saw the faint look of embarrassment cross his face. "I didn't want to miss," he admitted sheepishly.
Kotetsu gave him a light squeeze, unable to help being touched by the subtle devotion. Especially since it had been his fault, not Barnaby's, that their regular meetings had temporarily halted back then. And that gave him an idea of how he could handle his original plan for the afternoon. "Tell you what. Let's find you a comfy spot to get some rest, and we'll go to dinner after work instead."
"You're sure? I don't want to interrupt anything-"
"It'll be fine. I can just grab something to eat from the cafeteria, and if anyone asks, we'll use the caretaker excuse."
Barnaby looked hesitant, thinking it over, then Kotetsu caught him when he swayed again and that made up his mind. "Okay, lead on."
They managed to bluff their way past the secretary on his floor, and he swiped the most comfortable visitor chair he could find, dragging it over to the wall outlet closest to his desk. "Not sure how to hide the cord, though..."
"I can do it. Go eat something."
"You're bossy when you're tired," Kotetsu mock grouched, but headed for the door. He'd just arrived at the cafeteria when his PDA made a little beep, and he found a text that Barnaby was all set up and in warm shutdown. He bought himself some lunch and headed back to his floor, unwrapping the sandwich in the elevator.
A tiny part of him was a little disappointed that his surprise was going to have to wait until later. But when he got back to his desk and looked at Bunny, snoozing peacefully and trusting him to look out for him, he squished that thought and reached out to ruffle his friend's hair before settling in to get back to work.
That evening's dinner went off without a hitch -Barnaby's expression of surprised pleasure at Kotetsu making the effort to take him somewhere nice had been completely worth the wait- but over the next few weeks, Kotetsu was starting to get a little uncomfortable. The few times he'd crossed paths with Tora since their first meeting had made it clear to him that the robot didn't plan on warming up to him any time soon.
He understood that Tora needed help with fixing issues and learning how to live in a home environment, but he would swear that, sometimes, it was like the robot was intentionally trying to keep Barnaby home and too busy to talk. Barnaby had said his fellow robot just needed some time to get used to things, but it seemed to Kotetsu that 'getting used to' him only went as far as managing basic politeness as long as Barnaby was in earshot. Whenever the blond left them alone, Tora stopped acknowledging his existence at all. And he was also sure that he hadn't just been imagining things when it came to Tora's visual receptors constantly turning red whenever the robot had to be stuck in his presence.
"Hey, Bunny, can I ask you something?"
"You just did," Barnaby pointed out teasingly as he handed over a still-steaming cup of coffee from the new place they'd decided to try.
Kotetsu lightly elbowed him. "Smartass," he muttered before taking a sip. "What does it mean when Tora's eyes change color?"
"Usually an emotion change. It seems to have carried over from his data form, though to a much less degree."
"So each color or pattern of colors shows what he's thinking?"
"Mmhmm. I have a whole catalog of recorded emotions."
"Sooo..." Kotetsu toyed awkwardly with the paper cup. "What would shades of red or pink mean?"
"Depends on the shade, really. Anything from anger to embarrassment to jealousy. I haven't seen any of those since he's started staying in his physical body, though." Barnaby glanced over. "Why do you ask? Has something happened?"
"Ah- no!" Kotetsu said quickly, holding up a hand. "Everything's peachy. I was just curious, that's all."
Green eyes narrowed, as Barnaby clearly didn't believe his bluffing for a second, but before the blond could press, a hand tapping him on the shoulder surprised them both. They looked up to find a redheaded girl in glasses, about high school age. After a second, Kotetsu thought he'd might have seen her at a hero event recently, but he couldn't specifically place the face.
She stared back at them for a second, then a wide grin appeared. "It is you!" she squeaked. "Ellie said it was you, but I totally thought she was full of it, and she was all 'So go say hi if you think it's not', and, um, could you sign this?" She asked, thrusting an autograph book at Barnaby.
"W- what?" He and Barnaby glanced at each other. They'd gone so long without Barnaby being recognized, how the hell-
Then as he reached up to scratch his head, he felt it. He'd been so harried today that he'd forgotten to take off the mask when they met up for lunch.
Unfortunately, rectifying that mistake wasn't going to do them any good, as the redhead's reaction was garnering more attention and more people were beginning to crowd in. Barnaby had gone rigid and wide-eyed in the face of all the questions, and Kotetsu could feel the hand holding his coat sleeve beginning to tremble. Shit, they had to get out of this now, before a full panic attack set in.
With a quick, "Sorry, folks, now's not the time," he grabbed Bunny in his arms and activated his NEXT, not slowing down until they were safely in Apollon's central lobby.
Barnaby clutched at his clothes as he set the blond on his feet, and Kotetsu could feel the tremors running through him. Carefully, he folded his partner into a tight hug and began rubbing his back to calm him down. "God, Bunny, I'm so sorry."
"I- It's okay. Accidents happen," Barnaby mumbled, a weak, nervous little giggle hitching his voice and completely ruining the attempt at being reassuring. Kotetsu gave him a squeeze, neither particularly worried about any affect the Hundred Power might have. In fact, being held tightly enough that probably would have broken bones on a human only seemed to help right now, Barnaby's own grip on Kotetsu beginning to ease just as his power faded out.
"Tiger! What the hell is going on?"
Or not, Kotetsu amended as he felt the seams of his coat sleeve give a bit. He looked over his shoulder as Agnes approached, expression dark. "Er, now's really not-"
"First I get a report that you-" Agnes cut off whatever she was about to chew him out for when Barnaby made the mistake of looking up. "You!"
Yep, sleeve was definitely a loss now, but that was the least of his worries, as Bunny was getting that rabbit-in-headlights look again now that Agnes had focused on him. Kotetsu quickly shifted their positions to put himself between his partner and his boss. "You're not putting him in front of the cameras," he said quickly, sure that something to do with that was going to be the next thing out of her mouth.
Judging by her look of surprise, he'd been correct. "And you're calling the shots for him now?" she asked sharply when she'd recovered.
"Well... no... but considering he's on the edge of a nervous breakdown because of a dozen or so people, I don't think being the center of attention for an entire city is gonna do him any good."
"I would really rather not," Barnaby managed to mumble in agreement against his shirt.
Agnes looked back and forth between them, then pointed to the elevators. "My office," she said, tone brooking no argument.
Agnes was pacing in thought, and Barnaby was agitatedly fiddling with the buttons of his coat. Kotetsu nudged his hand gently and Barnaby latched on. The point of contact helped him ease up a bit, even when Agnes leaned against her desk, fixing them both with a flat look. "These panic attacks. Some form of social anxiety?"
"Y- yes. Ma'am. I don't- I don't do well with more than one or two people."
Luckily, they had the story rehearsed down to an art. "Medical isolation," Kotetsu cut in. "Almost a full decade."
"For what causes?"
"Aspergillosis," Barnaby said hesitantly when Kotetsu had a little trouble managing the word. "Um, I developed it as an allergic reaction to a type of pneumonia." That was all true, at least, since it had been what killed him. "And then my NEXT ability developed while I was sick, and I had to be quarantined because I kept breaking the equipment the doctors were using." Which was half true. His actual NEXT ability hadn't done anything to save him, and considering the number of things he'd destroyed while getting used to his first mechanical body, that counted.
"Why did they pick you to assist?" she asked Kotetsu, a trace of doubting ire in her voice.
Kotetsu turned his hat over in his hands and put on his dorkiest grin. "Dumb luck, really. I was there when he was released because I was doing the followup on that prototype theft last year. He didn't freak when he saw me and the Brookses knew me from back when, so I got the job."
After a few nervous seconds, Agnes' scowl finally eased. "This is unfortunate," she said, walking around her desk to sink into her chair. "Story and face like that, he'd be a perfect draw, even without going through the Academy. But you're right," she sighed. "No sense in putting him on the roster if he's just going to freeze up every time the camera hits him."
They sat in awkward silence as she tapped her pen in thought. At least the semi-cover story had worked so far, but the fact that they hadn't been dismissed did nothing to help nerves. "You don't have to touch the machines you control, correct? It's all in your head?"
"Er- yes. It's sort of second nature now, really," Barnaby said, unsure where this was going.
She took her cell phone out and laid it on the desk. "Show me."
Barnaby bit his lip, then reached out. He had to relay through Kotetsu's PDA to get the number, since that took less effort than forcing a direct connection, but after a couple of seconds, the phone started beeping an incoming call.
Surprisingly, Agnes looked rather pleased. "What's your range?"
"I... don't know. I've never tested distance."
"Can you connect to the tech we use as well?"
"Y- yes. I've done it multiple times."
They both realized almost as soon as the words came out of his mouth that they'd been backed into a corner, and the smile that crossed the woman's face only sealed that dread. "So, what you're saying is that you're capable of participating without actually being seen or identified on camera, yes?"
"Yes," Barnaby murmured, clearly wishing he could just vanish into his coat by the look on his face when Kotetsu looked in his direction.
Well... shit. There was no getting around it now, Kotetsu thought, scratching his head again. "He helped us catch Felgrade. You know, the guy who was breaking teller machines? And... there have been a few other assists, too," he confessed.
"Well, then. Since you obviously already know how to act as field support, I see no reason why we can't make things a little more official, if for no other reason than to have something to fall back on legally if something happens on the show. A few confidentiality clauses and a decision of terms, and you should be set."
"O- okay," Barnaby said, still fidgeting and unsure.
Agnes leaned back in her chair, still smiling. "Excellent, Mr. Brooks. I expect to see you here tomorrow to discuss what will be going into your contract. Say... about nine-thirty?"
"Glad we had this talk, fellas," she said in a clear dismissal, and Kotetsu gently ushered his partner out of the room. He could still feel Barnaby trembling a little when the elevator opened for them.
"Hey, Bunny," he murmured once the doors had closed them off from the rest of the building. "You don't have to go through with this. We could just cut back on the assists until she forgets about it."
"No... she's right," Barnaby said quietly. "I don't want you to possibly get in legal trouble or get your work invalidated because of my tagging along, but... But I'm not sure I could give it up. I like going out on the field with you."
Kotetsu wrapped his free arm around the blond's shoulders. "If you're sure. Just don't let her push you into anything you're not comfortable with."
"She's sneaky," Barnaby agreed. "But I think she might be reasonable enough. She dropped the idea of putting me on camera pretty quickly once we explained... um... some of my problems. And... um... sorry about your coat."
The elevator doors opened to let them out. "Don't worry, it'll be an easy fix. Do you want me to go with you?"
"I think I'll be okay. I hope. Besides, you have suit testing in the morning."
"Still. Call me if you think things are starting to go south."
"I will. Want me to call afterwards so we can meet for lunch?"
"Sure, that sounds good," Kotetsu said, and Barnaby hugged him again before pulling away to leave. He watched his friend out the door and waved cheerily when the blond looked back, but he couldn't shake a faint feeling of dread that tomorrow was going to be a very trying day.
Tora's visual receptors snapped on when he heard the front door open and close, and he pulled himself out of the data streams to head downstairs. Barnaby was hanging up his coat when he approached. "You're a bit later than usual," Tora said, tilting his head a little.
Barnaby smiled and reached up to pet him on the head like normal. "Sorry about that. There was... a minor incident at lunch."
"You aren't hurt, are you?" he asked, prepared to check for injury.
"No, I'm fine. It seems I've been drafted, though." Tora made a questioning noise, and Barnaby gave a rueful chuckle. "Ms. Joubert cornered me on my activities concerning my supposed NEXT powers. Once she got me to admit that I'd worked to help Kotetsu before, she wouldn't take no for an answer."
"So you're going to be home less. For the show," Tora said. He managed to keep his eyes from changing, but couldn't help the faint note of resentment that leaked into his voice at the thought of Angel being gone with Kaburagi even more than he was currently.
Barnaby seemed to pick up on it, and took hold of his hand. "Tora, it won't be any different than what I'm doing now," he said. "Just now I'll have less to worry about if someone catches me at it. We'll still have plenty of time for your lessons and upgrades. Now then-" He switched topics, walking towards the laboratory door. "Did you keep occupied while I was out?"
"I decided to give Attenborough another chance," Tora replied, following after as quietly as he could manage. "That's okay, isn't it?"
"Of course it's okay. I know how quiet and boring this house can be when you're stuck here by yourself. I don't mind you doing lessons on your own if you want to."
Tora eyed his teacher, deciding to push his luck a little. "Even if I save the really, really dull stuff for when you're home?" he asked, even though he knew he wouldn't.
Most of the time.
"Even if," Barnaby agreed with a smile, and that made him feel a lot better about having been home alone for an extra hour.
Which wasn't to say that he felt any better about Angel signing on to become part of the show, even though he knew his reasons for doing so. Maybe especially because of those reasons. Seymour leaving a message with Barnaby that something important had come up and could he please call when he went to meet with Kotetsu had done nothing to help his apprehension.
About fifteen minutes after Barnaby left, Tora followed.
It was much easier to hide once he reached the inner city itself. The Brookses had switched out the hated chrome casings for non-reflective white ones, and that let him blend into the architecture as he trailed his teacher's signal across the city via the data streams. Following him into Apollon was another story. He ended up having to find a place to hide, then sent himself into the security system as he'd seen Barnaby do a hundred times.
It was kind of ticklish when he went by himself.
Barnaby was talking in the main lobby with a woman that Tora recognized from his times watching the show with his teacher as Agnes Joubert. The cameras in the lobby and the elevators didn't allow him to hear what they were saying, but he was able to get close enough to see the blue-grey ghost of Barnaby being half-connected to the data streams as they spoke.
For a second, he considered reaching out to let Angel know he was there, but decided against it. Technically, he wasn't supposed to be here, after all.
So he hung back, trying to keep an eye on the cameras and on his teacher's ghost at the same time.
It proved to be both easier and more difficult than he thought. Easier because Barnaby didn't go anywhere for awhile once he reached Joubert's office, and that camera had sound, and harder because the conversation was insufferably dull. Only by constantly reminding himself that his body was still waiting for him in a bush did Tora manage to keep himself awake through the seemingly endless discussion of confidentiality terms and legal clauses. Despite himself, he still ended up dozing a little, and roused with a snort when Barnaby got up, shook hands with the woman, and left the office.
A short chain of data swished past his face from Barnaby's direction. Curious, he reached out to touch it, and found messages to Kaburagi and Seymour that his teacher was now free to meet for lunch. Letting the coding go on its merry way, Tora thought perhaps now would be a good time to reveal himself-
-then quickly stopped short when he saw Maverick approach Barnaby. Oh. Oh, this couldn't be good.
His teacher's ghost moved away as he -clearly unwillingly- followed the guiding hand the old man put on his back to draw him down the hall, and Tora strained to reach through the communication systems to find out what they were saying.
"I must admit~ ~really quite impressive~"
The nervous, uncomfortable hesitance in Angel's voice combined with the way the human wasn't moving his goddamn hand from the curve of his lower back made Tora hiss quietly, and he drew away from the cameras. Maybe he'd get in trouble, maybe he wouldn't, but he had to let Angel know he was here so that they could get the hell out of here. Letting him go to lunch with Kaburagi was a thousand times better than this.
His fingertips were mere centimetres away from the other ghost when a sudden backlash of something knocked him back several feet. The shockwave left him dizzy and disoriented for several seconds, and when he got his vision to clear-
-his nonexistent stomach dropped into his toes. 'Angel!'
He managed to grab the crumbling form before it could dissolve entirely into useless coding, wrapping some of his own around it to keep it as stable as possible. The body had gone from the soft blue-grey to a washed out, lifeless ash color, and what terrified him more was that the normally expressive face of his teacher had gone almost featureless.
What the hell had-
Cradling the unmoving form against his chest, he dove back into the camera network. Angel's physical body lay in a crumpled heap on the floor of a room Tora didn't recognize, mouth slightly slack and eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling as Maverick put some kind of device into his pocket. The old man walked over to a desk and pressed a button, and this camera, Tora could clearly hear through.
"Go ahead and send Nicholson up."
Tora held the body in his arms tighter, sick with fear. They should be getting out of here. But he couldn't just leave Angel's body when this had happened to his ghost. There was no telling whether he could be repaired like this. So he was stuck watching as Maverick returned to the body, fingers tangling in blonde curls as he tilted the unresisting head back. A broad thumb brushing over the lower of parted lips in a blatantly possessive gesture made Tora see red a little.
"You truly are an amazing piece of work, my boy. It's just a pity that none of you could play your roles right."
Get away from him, Tora wanted to snarl in a way that even Kaburagi had never inspired. Get away from him!
He couldn't control machinery the way Angel did, but some of the electronics in the room still sparked and squeaked in response to his anger as a man in a white laboratory coat strode in, looking surprised at the crumpled heap on the floor.
"You sure this is the one?"
"See for yourself."
'Stop touching him!' Tora half-shrieked, sending more sparks through the camera, but then he froze when the man in white moved enough that he could see what was going on.
Memory chips and a panel lay in the palm of the man's gloved hands as he pulled out more. Angel's memory chips.
"What do you want done with these, sir?"
"They're of no use anymore. Dispose of them."
Splitting himself hurt. Really hurt. He didn't know how his teacher managed to do it so casually on a regular basis. But he succeeded in getting his body to move, hunting for a way in while most of his consciousness remained in the building's camera system.
He didn't want to leave Angel's body behind, but right now, getting those chips before they could be destroyed was far more important. His consciousness followed the tech who'd removed them as his body finally slipped through a large basement steam grate.
Once inside, he had to pull himself fully back into the data streams to concentrate. The tech was approaching an automated door. 'Please work...' he thought, reaching out.
He couldn't hear it, but the imagined thud as the man's body hit the ground when the door snapped open before he'd even hit the button was still very satisfying. 'Yes!' Carefully making note of the place the unconscious human lay, he retreated fully into his physical body, taking Angel's ghost with him. Having the inert consciousness within his own left him somewhat off balance, but he shoved himself to his feet and got moving.
Lucky for him, the man he'd knocked out wasn't so far away that he'd have to worry about the cameras. Crouching beside the senseless human, he found an innocent-looking white box lying on the floor and peeked inside. He carefully counted to make sure all the chips and panels were there before making off with his prize.
Returning to the bush he'd originally hidden in, he cradled the box to his chest as he debated his options. The best thing to do would be to let the Brookses have them. They'd know how to fix this wouldn't they? But they wouldn't be home for hours yet, he remembered after checking his clocks.
Well, then. He hoped he remembered where their work laboratory was located.
For what seemed like an hour, the two humans sat in stone silence as Emily cradled the box that contained half of what was left of their son's consciousness in her lap. Then she said, very quietly and without her expression changing in the slightest, "I'm going to break his neck."
Tora blinked in surprise from his perch near one of the computer terminals. He'd seen the woman angry before... several times, actually, but that had always been on the loud ranting side. This quiet rage was new.
And really scary.
"No. This is the absolute last straw. He's gone too far this time, Barnaby."
The elder Barnaby put his hands on his wife's shoulders. "I know. I know. But right now, we focus on keeping our boy alive. That's the most important thing. Then we'll work on dealing with the rest of it."
Emily took a deep, slow breath. "Right. Kill him later," she muttered, getting out of her chair with the box in her arms. Barnaby got up as well, going to begin running programs that Tora didn't recognize on the terminal he was sitting next to.
He didn't miss the quiet "And death might be too good for him at this point," and involuntarily shivered, his casings rattling a little.
Even though he agreed, suddenly Angel's parents were both a whole lot scarier than he'd ever given them credit for.
They'd been working for nearly an hour when Emily called him over to the station where she was assembling a temporary casing for the chips. "Did you notice anything strange about the room?"
"Not about the room..." Tora said. "But I did see Maverick putting something in his pocket after A- Barnaby collapsed. It looked almost like a taser, but without the prongs."
"Thought so," Emily muttered in disgust, and when Tora tilted his head in confusion, she held up one of the tiny circuit boards. "Do you see these?"
He had to adjust his receptors, heightening the color contrast, but, after a second, he did see tiny red spots in the protective coating on the chip. Like some kind of glitter. "What are those?"
"When we developed this polymer for robotic memory boards, we designed it to protect against and react to any electromagnetic interference."
"So... he was knocked out with some kind of pulse device." And being half connected to the data streams and half in his own body, that could explain why his ghost corroded as a result of the attack instead of just separating like it had when his old body had been stolen. Even if the memory chips had been protected, the connections to the rest of the brain probably hadn't been. Wouldn't have needed to be, under normal circumstances.
"Exactly. I'll have to strip the coating and reapply it before we can put him together. Once it's been hit with a hard enough burst to cause this reaction, it's essentially useless."
"Did Maverick know about the coating?"
"It was developed after we left the show, so I'm not sure. Possibly not, or he would have likely just hit Barnaby with another pulse to be sure the chips were destroyed. The fact that he had the device on hand means he had to have known Barnaby would be going to Apollon, though. Those aren't safe to just be carrying around uncovered."
"Barnaby had a scheduled visit to talk to Agnes Joubert."
"That would do it," she said, rubbing her head and muttering a few other unkind things about the man before taking a deep breath and getting back to work. Recognizing that he'd given all the help he could for now, Tora nodded and returned to his perch, trying desperately hard not to fidget.
Eventually, he had to plug in and retreat into himself, both to recharge and look after the inert ghost. It hadn't degraded any further, thankfully, but even just looking at it was worrisome and painful.
Still, he kept vigil, until his teacher's father prodded him awake. The man looked exhausted and haggard, and Tora could see why once he checked the time and realized the humans had been working for over a day and a half. "Yes, sir?"
"We're ready. We need you to connect to the main terminal and upload him into the subsystem numbers we give you... and then keep an eye on him to make sure this works. Can you do that for us?"
"Yes, sir," He said solemnly, allowing the man to hook several cables into the back of his neck before he dove back into the data streams. Getting out of his body and into the computer subsystem he was fed was simple enough, even pulling the ghost along with him. He gently pushed it into 'position' and made himself move what seemed like a safe distance back.
'Initiating upload one,' he heard from somewhere over his head, and a dark blue, almost black chain of coding trickled down to spear into the featureless body, making it jerk like a tossed rag doll. The rest of the uploads were no better, and it was all Tora could do not to hide his eyes. Had this been what it was like when he'd had to go through data infusions? But he'd promised to make sure that there were no problems or information corruption, so he forced himself to keep watching until that mechanical voice intoned 'All uploads complete.'
The ghost had regained its normal pale blue color, but he still approached it with caution, craning his neck to see that it had regained all his teacher's usual features. 'Angel?' he asked hesitantly.
After a few minutes of tense silence, a delicate hand lifted slowly. 'Ngh,' Barnaby murmured, weak and barely audible as he covered his eyes. 'If this is what a hangover is like, humans can keep it.'
Tora made a noise of glee and grabbed his teacher in a tight hug, barely remembering to send an alert through both their comm channels to the doctors that everything had gone successfully.
'Ow, ow, easy. What happened?'
'Maverick offlined you with an EMP device, stole your body, and tried to have your memory chips destroyed.'
'Oh, is that all?' Barnaby asked, and under the dry tone and still clinging disorientation, Tora could hear the traces of cold anger. He gave Barnaby a few minutes to communicate with his parents as he puzzled over the similarity between Barnaby's reaction to the news and that of the humans earlier. Was it possible that could be hereditary, even if his teacher wasn't human anymore? Weird.
He blinked, surprised out of his musing when Barnaby reached for a strand of the coding that made up the subsystem. 'What are you doing?'
'I recognize this place. Mom and Dad must have reconstructed the system I was in when they originally built my human form. That means I can warn Kotetsu and Nathan, hopefully before Maverick makes his next move.'
He caught the other ghost's wrist before he could make contact. 'You've been offline and corroding, you should be resting. And besides, we don't need their help for this. They're useless.'
'If you'd had to rely on them when Maverick went after you, you'd be dead. Gone. Why should you go to them now?'
Barnaby didn't answer, just staring at him, and when Tora looked down, he realized why. He'd forgotten that it was much harder to hide his emotions in the data streams, and amongst the greens and yellows of his fear and concern for his teacher was a blatant ribbon of dark red resentment and jealousy slashed right across his chest.
'Oh,' Barnaby said quietly. 'This was what he meant.'
He didn't sound particularly disappointed or angry, just mildly surprised, but Tora still felt and saw the guilt and shame wash through him as he released his hold on Barnaby's wrist and backed off. He hadn't wanted his teacher to know about this...
'Tora, come here.'
'You're mad at me.'
'I'm not.' Barnaby held out his hands. 'Come here.'
Tora held back for a moment, then allowed his teacher to draw him close. He'd felt pretty big and bold when he'd made the successful rescue of sorts, but all that had washed away and now he just waited to be scolded like a child for crossing the line.
It never came. Instead, Barnaby held him warmly and petted him like his teacher had always done when he'd gotten upset before. Even his anger at Maverick seemed to be gone for the moment. 'Why does it bother you so much?'
'I don't know.'
'My parents don't bother you, do they?'
'No! It's just... It's just different.'
'It's not going to make me just up and dump you,' Barnaby said, and Tora couldn't help twitching as that hit the very nerve he couldn't identify. Barnaby seemed aware of it, and continued. 'That's one of the things that makes you and me special. We're not like other machines, just programmed for a few functions. We can love as many people as we want. I just haven't gone looking for a lot of them because I'm not ready.'
'I'm... What if I'm not ever ready? What if I like staying in my limited circle?' Tora asked, tucking his head against Barnaby's neck.
'That's okay, too. Remember our talk awhile back about personal preference? I'm not saying you have to love Kotetsu, or even like him. I just need you to understand that I do, and I trust him, and I'm going to need to work with him and want to spend time with him sometimes. And just because I do, it doesn't mean I don't love you. Okay?'
Tora bit his lip, turning this new information over in his mind for a minute or two. Then he reached out and grabbed the coding chain himself, handing it over.
Barnaby gave him a soft, affectionate kiss on the forehead. 'Thank you,' he said, then turned serious again and activated the link to Kaburagi's PDA.
After he'd gotten Barnaby's text, Kotetsu had gone out to their usual spot to wait. Nathan had arrived as well, per their agreement that morning.
After ten minutes, he tried texting back. And again at twenty. At thirty, he tried calling. When he got nothing but a dead tone for three calls in a row, that was when he began to worry in earnest. Barnaby never missed, and never cut off their communication channel without forewarning unless something was very, very wrong.
He'd gone to Agnes first, but she'd had nothing particularly helpful to tell him. Yes, 'Rory' had come in for their meeting -on time, she'd added with a slight emphasis- and they'd worked out the terms of his contract. Then he'd mentioned meeting Kotetsu for lunch, left, and that was it. Absolutely nothing unusual.
Except that Kotetsu couldn't find him.
No one else on the floor seemed to have noticed him, which was weird, since even when he wasn't recognized, Barnaby tended to draw some unwanted interest. The receptionist who'd been there when Barnaby would have arrived had gone to lunch herself, so she wouldn't have known if he'd left, and her relief was... not the most observant person Kotetsu had never met. It was like Barnaby had just vanished somewhere in the halls of Apollon.
And in light of what Nathan had had to tell them, that was definite cause for fear.
By dinner, he'd tried calling each of the Brookses, only to be sent directly to voice mail. He half considered maybe going to the house to see Tora, then decided against it. Even if the robot did know anything about Barnaby's whereabouts, Kotetsu doubted Tora would have any inclination to tell him.
He ended up not leaving Apollon at all that night, just hoping that maybe, maybe he'd missed something. The sun was just starting to peek over the edge of the city when he decided to search the upper floors one last time. As he exited the elevators into the visitor area near Maverick's office, he got an uncomfortable prickle up the back of his neck. He scratched at it for a second, before recognizing the feel.
The entire room was charged with static. And it wasn't the same as when Pao-lin would sometimes get annoyed, or when something was malfunctioning. He'd only felt it twice before, and both times had been when Barnaby had overclocked something while in ghost form.
He suddenly felt cold. "God, Bunny, where the hell-"
His call bracelet went off before he could finish the thought. His hands clenched at this sides, but he bit his lip and tapped to acknowledge the alert.
Two more emergencies and a rather panicked meeting with Nathan later, he was hunched over his desk, staring listlessly at a folder of paperwork. He hadn't eaten at all. Hadn't been able to make himself do so when lunch time had come and gone and Bunny still didn't show.
The secretary was long gone, it was nearly midnight, and he was beginning to doze off from exhaustion when his PDA suddenly beeped a familiar pattern. His heart leaped into his throat as he snapped awake and grabbed it, punching the button to accept the call. 'Please be Bunny, Please be-' "Bunny?"
He hadn't been so glad to hear his own name in a long time. 'Not dead,' his mind babbled weakly as his breath left him in a rush of relief that was almost painful. 'Not dead, not dead, not dead.' "Where are you? Do you need me to come get you?"
'Ah- no. That won't be necessary. Or possible.'
"Why not?" he asked cautiously.
'Maverick has my physical body.'
"He kidnapped you?!"
'More like theft, really, since I'm not in it. Attempted murder, too, since if Tora hadn't followed me to Apollon, my memory chips would have ended up dumped in a company incinerator.'
"Jesus," Kotetsu muttered, sagging against his desk. Barnaby sounded entirely too calm, but he knew better, and for his own part, he wasn't even trying to pretend not to be rattled. "Wow- damn. So where are you?"
'My parents reconstructed my old protective subsystem. Looks like I'm going to be here until either we can recover the rest of me, or he gives up trying to kill me.'
"I- yeah. Yeah, that's probably a good idea. At least you'll be safe there. And... um... this actually explains a lot about what Nathan wanted to tell us."
'Oh, he talked to you? What was it?'
Kotetsu bit his lip, then took a deep breath and decided to just come out with it. "Rotwang washed up four days ago. Nathan got the word the night before he contacted us."
There was a very long silence from the other end. 'Washed up as in-'
"Police found him near dock three at the south side freight harbor," Kotetsu said, awkwardly raking a hand through his hair even though this wasn't a face to face conversation. "Official coroner ruling was suicide by drowning. I was already having doubts after what you said awhile back about someone maybe making him vanish, but after Maverick's gone all grand theft you directly after the discovery, I think it's pretty clear what really happened."
'I'll let Mom and Dad know,' he said, sounding a little 'thinking' distant.
'It still... I don't know, feels a little too connected. Getting rid of Rotwang for screwing up too many times is one thing, but I'm not sure why he would want my specific hardware. It doesn't fit in with any of his prior plans.'
"If your parents have a set location they want, I can call Nathan to come for a brainstorming. This many people on it, we gotta be able to track down something, right?"
'Right. But first, you are going to sleep.'
'Don't even try. I can hear you drooping. Go to bed.'
He snorted, but couldn't muster up any annoyance. He'd even missed the bossiness, as worried as he'd been. "Yes, Mama Bunny," he teased weakly, then closed the call. Sinking back into his chair, he scrubbed a hand over his face, and a weak little laugh bubbled up. 'Not dead,' his brain reminded him once more before the loop of addled relief finally died down, taking the tiny spike of adrenaline with it. Covering a yawn, he pushed himself to his feet and headed down to the parking garage.
Much as he kidded his partner for henning, sleep really did sound like the best thing in the world right now.
It was decided that one of Nathan's holdings would be the safest place to meet, since he had the fewest ties to Apollon of any of them, and, therefore, was the least likely to have any risk of a leak. Kotetsu tugged at his tie, resisting the urge to squirm in his seat. Even though Nathan had taken the precaution of setting them up a private room, he still felt awkwardly out of place in the upscale restaurant.
A light pat on the shoulder broke into his discomfort, and his nerves eased a tiny bit as Emily sat down, her husband claiming the seat to the other side of her before pulling out a laptop. Nathan breezed in a few moments later while Kotetsu was setting out his PDA and getting it speaker linked so that Bunny and Tora would be more easily able to join the conversation. "All right, dears. Why don't we start by tallying up what we do know before we begin speculating on what we don't?"
With father and son working in tandem through the laptop to keep notes organized and the timeline in order, they began compiling all details for incidents any of them knew of or suspected Maverick's involvement in. The listings stretched back as far as the Brookses' days on Hero TV, all the way up to Rotwang's death and the theft of Barnaby's hardware body. As the information piled up, Kotetsu was beginning to feel more than a little uneasy. He tried to tell himself that maybe he was just reading too much into the facts being laid out, but when Tora told them what the old man had said to Bunny after offlining him, Kotetsu noticed Nathan's shudder of disgust out of the corner of his eye. Not just him, then.
He wasn't sure whether to find that unspoken confirmation reassuring, or even more disturbing.
Unfortunately, their efforts didn't end up uncovering much that he didn't already know. Maverick was setting up something big, and it had to do with some weird inclinations towards the family, and that was about it. Inclinations towards Bunny in particular, he thought, but kept that particular opinion to himself while the family was present.
Once the parents had gone and his call connection to the androids had gone dormant, however, Kotetsu heard a quiet "Creepy old bastard," muttered as Nathan gathered up his own notes and stored them away. So they were still in agreement.
"What do we do now?"
Nathan sighed, snapping the glittery leather briefcase closed. "I hate to say it, honey, but it looks like all we can do right now is keep an eye on the family and keep ourselves sharp. Whenever this breaks, they're going to be stuck in the center of it."
"Right," Kotetsu mumbled, tugging at his tie again. A couple of heavy rocks of apprehension weighed heavy on his chest and stomach as he made his way out of the restaurant.
Sleep didn't come easy. His worries about the shadowy unknown plan plagued him even in his dreams. He was staring helplessly at Barnaby's broken, mangled body, unable to do anything but watch as Maverick almost tenderly caressed the pained expression on his partner's face before ripping out some vital connection that left the blond's mind shutting down permanently, when a low, urgent beeping broke through the haze surrounding them and snapped him awake.
For a minute, he could only lay in a cold sweat, staring up at the ceiling as he tried to calm his pounding heart and slow ragged breathing. Then he became aware that he was still hearing the beeping. What- oh. He rolled onto his side to retrieve his PDA off the nightstand, not even bothering to check and see what time it was. "What is it, Bunny?"
'Angel's sleeping,' Tora's voice replied quietly instead. 'And I need to talk to you.'
That was a surprise. Kotetsu sat up in bed and cradled the device in his lap, switching it over to speaker. "Okay. I'm listening."
'Let's make one thing perfectly clear first, Kaburagi. I still don't like you,' the robot said flatly, and Kotetsu had to bite down on the sarcastic retort that automatically settled on his tongue. 'But,' Tora continued with considerably less bite, 'Angel explained a few things about the nature of relationships to me. I know that if you go and get your stupid self killed by whatever is coming, he would never recover. And his parents can keep watch over him in the subsystem, so he won't need me. So. If it comes down to combat, I'm going with you.'
Kotetsu just stared at his PDA for a moment, brain catching up. Even with the robot's low opinion of him, or maybe because of it, he was a little touched by the insistence on watching his back. "He'd miss you, too," he said, swallowing when his voice caught in his throat a little. "So... what do you say? Truce until Maverick gets taken down?"
'Truce,' Tora agreed before the connection closed.
It took a little while before he laid back down, possibly due to having to remind himself that the conversation had actually happened. And it took longer for him to finally fall asleep again. But when he did, he dreamed pleasantly of nothing.
Another day, another robbery. The criminals weren't even NEXTs, just lucky and apparently working off a good plan. Frankly, Kotetsu was glad to have some mundane crimes, after three weeks of being on constant alert. He was searching a construction zone for a thief who'd taken one of the bags, when a crash and several voices screaming drew his attention away.
Workers were fleeing as an automated crane flailed at the scaffolding it had just finished settling in place. Kotetsu caught a passing man in a hard hat. "What the hell happened?"
"I dunno, man! One second, everything's fine, and then the thing went completely batshit! Spiers and Taylor tried to shut it off, and it chucked Spiers halfway across the site!"
Which meant this 'Taylor' was probably trapped on it somewhere. Robbers were going to have to wait, Kotetsu decided as he let go of the worker before activating his power and lunging at the machinery.
It caught him by surprise when the crane suddenly wheeled to hit him in the chest with the hook. Like it had been expecting his charge. What the hell- His powers let him recover quickly, and he managed to evade the next swing, grabbing the hook so the recoil would throw him towards the body.
The crane rolled forward, stopped, jerked to the side, and rolled back, clearly actually trying to throw him off. He dug the fingers of his gauntlets into the metal roof to anchor himself, and leaned over to spy his target clinging to the side of the crane in terror. Shit. If he didn't get the guy out of here, he'd be tossed straight under the treads if he lost his balance, which the crane was currently working really hard to make happen. "Give me your hand!"
"No fuckin' way, dude!" the man screamed, clinging to what little purchase he had even tighter. Okay, gonna have to go for the quick rescue. He shot a wire from the hand holding on to the roof of the crane through it, then launched himself off. The construction worker screamed again as he lost his grip and fell, but Kotetsu successfully grabbed him and snapped his wire, momentum throwing them clear of the crane's reach.
For a second.
Then he had to quickly jump again when it came after them, now followed by a rogue backhoe. He threw his rescue to the man's coworkers a safe distance away, then turned his attention back to the machines that were making a very good effort at killing him. "Sorry, boss," he muttered under his breath. "Looks like I'm gonna be in damage court again."
He'd succeeded in putting down the backhoe, and was working on that goddamn crane when the private channel with Barnaby crackled -wait, crackled?- to life. 'Kotetsu!'
"Sorry, Bunny, just a little busy right now-"
'Machines~ haywire~ It's a citywide~'
"Bunny? Hey, Bunny! You're cutting ou-" He barely managed to keep the hook from taking his head off. Dammit, he only had half a minute left- Wait, had Bunny said citywide?
He got his answer when the crane dropped dead on its own, only for a feedback screech to make him collapse with a howl of pain as something overrode his main comm channel.
'People of Sternbild-' the dark, mechanized version of Bunny's voice intoned over his suit's sound system, and Kotetsu felt a cold wave of fear wash over him.
"Oh, shit," he murmured softly. Their 'whatever' had just arrived.
Even what warning Barnaby had been able to give him didn't prepare Kotetsu for the sheer scale of the disaster they were going to have to deal with. From construction equipment to train schedule boards, everything automated in the city had been hijacked by the program operating out of Bunny's stolen body and turned against humans. Communications on all channels his suit had access to had been similarly jammed, leaving him more or less solo. Backup Directive 23-B it was, then. Head for Justice Tower, rescue as many civilians on the way as he could, and hope the other heroes had thought of the same plan so that they could regroup.
The tower hadn't been spared from the pandemonium. A panicked, screaming crowd was pressed and pounding futilely at the bulletproof main doors, sealed in by the security system. Finding another way in wouldn't be a huge problem, but if he didn't do something now, some poor sucker or twenty was going to end up getting crushed as everyone tried to force their way out. "Move back!" he ordered in his loudest 'I-am-here-to-save-your-ass-do-not-give-me-any-crap-right-now,' voice. As soon as there was enough space, he kicked out at the aluminum framework of the doors, using the weight of his suit to break them off their tracks so he could rip them out. Barely managing to avoid being trampled himself at the resulting rush, he went inside once the crowd had fled.
He'd barely made it halfway across the lobby when the lights above him suddenly burst as the power went out. "Dragon Kid?" he called out, hoping against hope that it had been his fellow hero who'd caused the short, and this wasn't some kind of next attack wave.
Relief speared through him when a small, familiar voice called from an upper balcony "Tiger? That you?"
"Yeah. Why'd you kill the power?"
"I had to stop the elevators somehow," she said, jumping down beside him. "The firefighter keys weren't working, and there wasn't time for anything else."
"Fair enough," he said, following her to help free the trapped. The elevators turned out not to have been 'playing' in synch; they had to go from shaft to shaft locating where each dead car had stopped, then climbing to get above it so they could pull people up out the maintenance hatches. The others had arrived to lend aid by the time they got to the last two, and Kotetsu froze when Agnes stormed out of the knot of passengers rescued from the last one, brushing off Sky High's attempts to check the bruises and gashes she'd suffered.
"Explain. Now," she said flatly, thrusting her cell phone at him.
The replayed announcement was so much worse with video. In the time they'd known each other, even when Bunny had just been a ghost in the machines, he was Bunny. Warm, shy, protective, eager to please Bunny. Seeing that exact same face with red eyes and such a cold, stark, soulless expression as it ruthlessly intoned goals of domination was just alien.
"You told us we could trust him, Tiger. Then he vanishes off the planet as soon as the background check starts and now this?"
"That's because it's not him!" Most of the civilians had fled, but he noticed that, much to his discomfort, Justice Petrov, of all people, had apparently refused assistance, and was now staring at them along with the other heroes. "I mean... It's him physically. But not mentally. He's not the one controlling his body to do this."
"Someone has taken over his mind?" Sky High asked with some understandable confusion, as they'd never really faced a criminal capable of that particular trick.
"Well... sort of. It's kind of complicated."
"Un-complicate it, then," Agnes snapped, and Kotetsu took a deep breath, hoping Bunny would forgive him later.
"He's a robot. A sentient android, created by the Doctors Brooks, from their son."
"That's not funny," Blue Rose said, sounding somewhere between nervous and affronted.
"It's not supposed to be." He took off his helmet, raking his hair out of his face. "We all know the story, right? Kid took ill, parents left the show, kid died. Except, during the actual dying part, they managed to convert his thought function into a complete program and raised their son in a mechanical body."
For a long minute, no one moved or spoke, and he could see them struggling with the very concept, just as he had during that conversation with Emily Brooks back when. "Can anyone else confirm this besides them?" Petrov finally asked just a tiny bit too neutrally.
"I can," Nathan replied, startling the others. "I've been in regular contact with Barnaby for a few months now after crossing paths with him via Tiger. And most of you have met part of him before as well."
That got more confused looks. "We... have?" Dragon Kid asked. Then Cyclone stiffened, and Kotetsu could imagine the kid had gone wide-eyed under the helmet.
"That prototype body we recovered for them after it was stolen last year. That was him, wasn't it?"
Nathan and Kotetsu both nodded. And slowly, he could see confusion beginning to turn to horror as they remembered the condition it had been in when they'd found it. "Oh my God," Rose whispered quietly, putting a hand to her mouth. "Someone did that to their-"
"No wonder they were so upset," Bison rumbled. "But how can we be sure that this isn't him we're dealing with now? It could be some kind of serious programming malfunction."
"It really couldn't," Kotetsu said. "Because his memory chips and the resulting... person-ness are in a protective digital subsystem in one of his parents' labs. His body was stolen, just like that last time."
He and Nathan traded glances. Okay, they'd gotten the others to accept, at least for now, that Bunny wasn't everything he'd seemed, which was better than they'd been expecting. But now it was either sink or swim. "Maverick. Just after he came to Apollon to meet with Agnes."
"That's a very serious charge to be leveling," Petrov said. "Do you have any proof?"
"Remember that incident when a robot kidnapped the Brookses? It was constructed by Ernst Rotwang on Maverick's orders, and Rotwang had been the one to send it out. I have the records for that," Nathan said, thankfully sparing Kotetsu. "Barnaby stopped its objectives by breaking the command leash, and the Brookses have been looking after it as a sort of Sentience-in-Training since. It has admitted it followed Barnaby to Apollon on that day, and we've seen the visual records in its memory bank."
Getting Tora to supply them as official evidence would be a trip, but since this was all coming down to protecting Barnaby and his parents from the fallout of whatever the hell Maverick's plan was, Kotetsu had a feeling he'd comply. Before anyone could ask anything else, though, his connection to Bunny came back to life, audible to all the heroes now that his helmet was off. '~please respond?'
He quickly switched on speaker. "Go ahead, Barnaby," he said.
'We think- we think we've found a way to cir-cum-vent the rogue signal,' Bunny said, sounding tired and pained, and that instantly had Kotetsu worried. 'Right now it's- it's just for- for the labs, but we can wall the broadcast within a- a- twelve- twelve block radius. Just gotta pinpoint the epi- epicenter.'
"Barnaby, are you okay?" he asked, not caring at the others seeing his obvious concern.
'O- oh. That.' Bunny made a weak little laugh that had a bit of a punch-drunk quality to it. 'We- we had to- to channel the... um... I guess it's a kind of firewall? It- it had to go through me. I'm the- the only thing the si- signal can't control. I thi- think too fast for it.'
Kotetsu felt sick. He and the doctors knew from Tora's descriptions of the revival process just how horrible it was for a digital ghost to be data infused. And for Bunny to be willingly taking that on continuously while conscious...
The others didn't know, but his expression must have given something away, because even Petrov looked a little uncomfortable. The man shook his head. "This city is going to tear itself apart. Take out the source first, then we'll deal with the legal ramifications of Brooks' identity."
'Oh, h- hey, is that Justice Petrov?' Barnaby asked, probably recognizing the voice from security system hopping.
"Yeah, we're at the tower. Why?"
'You're- you're right on top of it. Or it's on- on top of you. C- can feel it in- in your signal. Really hurts.' There was a weird sort of humming over the comm. 'Epicenter lo- located.'
He barely managed to keep from dropping his helmet and everyone quickly jumped back away from it as a charge of- something pulsed out, creating a terrible cloud of static.
Kotetsu could swear he heard Bunny screaming in it.
When the noise finally died down, he hesitantly tapped the comm. "Barnaby?" Nothing. "Barnaby please respond." Still silence. "Come on, Bunny," he pleaded.
More nothing. Then a very weak, barely audible voice replied 'Twelve- twelve block perimeter es- established,' before the connection died altogether.
Kotetsu bit his lip, then took a deep breath and straightened. "Okay. The Brookses have bought us some time. Sky High, Bison, Cyclone, and Dragon Kid, you're on the ground. Protect any civilians within the signal's remaining range. Shove machines past the firewall if you have to," he said with an authority pulled from desperation to get this done before Bunny couldn't hold out anymore. "Emblem, Rose, you're with me."
"Shouldn't I be going with you, too?" Pao-lin asked.
"Maverick used electro-magnetism himself to offline Barnaby," Nathan said with a shake of his head. "He's probably had the body shielded against that working again."
"Besides, you can take out the rogue machines with the least damage. You'll do best keeping people from getting hurt," Kotetsu added, and the girl nodded.
Three stories into their search for where the fake Barnaby was being kept, Blue Rose jumped with a startled squeak when a heavy figure dropped down from an open-air stairway in front of them. Kotetsu automatically shifted to a defensive position, then stopped when he saw familiar blue visual receptors standing out against the red of the emergency lights all around them. "Tora? What are you-"
The robot tilted his head to the side, and damn if that wasn't a whole lot creepier in mostly-darkness. "Did you forget our discussion, Kaburagi? I am going with you."
Thankfully, the helmet hid his responding expression. "I didn't forget. But you should have stayed with Bunny, dammit. He's-"
"I know what his condition is," Tora snapped. "But there's nothing I can do to help him right now," he added in a more subdued, but no less frustrated tone. "And he managed to send me your location once the wall went up, so I think it's fairly clear which one of you two Angel wants me to watch out for right now."
Kotetsu swallowed thickly, hesitated, then nodded. "Right... Sorry. Okay. Are you still in contact?"
"No. Aside from my cases, the only thing in me made by the Brookses is the router, leaving too much risk if the pirate signal manages to get past their safeguards. I had to turn it off as soon as I crossed the wall. I can still tell right now that you're in the wrong place, though."
"I can feel the pulse from it," Tora said, pointing up. "You're way off."
"But Barnaby said it was in the tower," Rose protested.
"No, he said either we were on top of it or it was on top of us," Kotetsu pointed out. "There aren't that many floors left below us, so our surly friend here is probably correct."
"But all the upper floors are accounted for on the directories," Nathan said. "So where else could it have... possibly..."
All three humans stared at each other as the same idea struck them all at once. "God, I hate that statue," Kotetsu muttered, kicking in the magnetically-sealed door of a maintenance ladder. "Nathan, hang on. Karina, can you let Tora carry you?" Rose eyed the robot dubiously, but when it shifted, she allowed herself to be picked up princess-style. Kotetsu fired a wire up to wrap around a landing several stories up, and off they went.
They reached the top floor of the main building and, once they'd left the maintenance shaft, found that yes, the shafts for the elevators did, in fact, continue upward into the massive statue. "Tora?"
"I don't know how, but it hurts. Very close."
At least they were on the right track. The wire shot out again and he was just about to swing out into the shaft when another cloud of static nearly deafened him. "Bunny?"
"Tiger? Oh, good, it worked, then."
He blinked and stepped back to regain his balance. "Agnes? How-"
"I managed to find Doctor Saito. We can't piggyback directly off the signal the Brookses created without disrupting the firewall, but he's trying to find a workaround so we can at least re-establish communications. Yours was the first we tried."
"That's helpful," he said, indicating Tora to go ahead and then following.
"Your suit's recording functions should work like normal," Agnes said after a whispered conversation away from the mike. "Get us evidence."
"Can do, but we still don't have a motive, and I doubt he's gonna be in much of a talkative mood when we bring him in."
"Tell me what you've got and how much you can back up."
By the time he and Nathan had landed on the last floor of the elevator shaft to catch up to Tora and Karina, he'd explained everything as best he could, Agnes occasionally making 'thinking' noises whenever he stalled. "Your problem is you're thinking about this all wrong," she finally said.
"What do you mean?" he asked, waving the others off when they gave his sudden stillness questioning looks.
"You're trying to think about this as direct revenge. He's still playing a long game, he's just changed the rules and tone of the story."
He had a feeling he really wasn't going to like what came next, and braced himself. "Go ahead."
"Maverick may act a lot more low-key than the rest of us, but he's still a showman by trade. By making this big flashy display and pinning it on the Brookses, he's ensuring that even if they manage not to be arrested for the rampage their supposed son is causing, their reputations as roboticists will still be completely destroyed. On top of that, if the heroes lose, he has a perfect recurring villain completely under control, and if the heroes win, the scandal will be the biggest ratings draw in history."
"If Tora hadn't rescued the memory chips, Barnaby's mind would be dead while his body would be at Maverick's command, and whether or not his parents knew it would all depend on how sadistic Maverick was feeling," he said, catching on and feeling his stomach lurch. "They publicly lose everything and he profits from it."
He had to put a hand on the wall to steady himself. Dammit. Laid out like that, it all suddenly made sense, but he almost wished it didn't. "Okay, then," he said weakly, this time letting the others hear him through the suit's speakers. "We're not gonna let that happen."
"What's going on?" Nathan asked.
"Agnes has given us the missing pieces. I'll let her fill you in once she and Saito get more communication channels up. Right now, we keep searching."
The statue's single hidden level was even more labyrinthine than those of the building. They'd been searching the dark halls for nearly twenty minutes when Tora jerked to a stop. "What is it?" Kotetsu asked.
"Some kind of humming. It's not the signal, that's everywhere now. I think... Yes! It's a generator!"
"Which would explain how they're still keeping this mess going with the rest of the building dead," Rose said. "Can you follow it?"
"I think so."
"Good," Kotetsu said. "Lead on."
Even with Tora's electronic perception leading them, it was still a dizzying mess of corners and loops before Blue Rose murmured a soft "Oh, crap. Hey, guys, come here," as she peeked through a door.
Kotetsu was so not ready for what they were looking at right now, and, judging by the weak noise from behind him, Tora hadn't been either.
The video announcement, centered on the fake Barnaby's head, had massively understated the setup. The body hung from a mess of wires connected to ports in the neck and shoulders, like some sort of macabre crucifixion homage. Screens all around the room ran series of numbers and coding chains, possibly the data streams that controlled the signal sending the machines berserk. A lone tech -Kotetsu recognized him from Tora's memories as the 'Nicholson' who'd removed Bunny's memory boards- was monitoring the flood of information and the physical toll on the body. And standing in front of Barnaby-
"Ah. The other players have arrived," Maverick suddenly said without turning around, surprising them all. "I expected more of you."
"We won't need the whole crew to handle you."
"Three heroes and an inferior model. I'm terrified," Maverick replied blandly as he turned, and Kotetsu saw Tora stiffen, receptors briefly going grey from the casual insult before turning red. Before any of them got the chance to attack, however, the old man made a small hand motion, and something hit them from behind.
When Kotetsu stopped seeing stars, he looked up to find a very unwelcome and familiar face staring down at him. "So Tora's 'inferior', but you brought back this relic?" he asked with a bravado he really wasn't feeling at the moment as the malevolently blank face of H-01 stared down at him. Then he quickly had to dodge as the robot buried its fist into the floor where he'd been. And they were in bigger trouble, he realized.
It had brought friends this time.
He quickly activated his power.
This was not going well.
The armor on the robots had been improved since his fight against the first one. Rose's ice couldn't break them and, unfortunately, neither could Emblem's fire, though Nathan was having better luck slowing them down. Tora's upgraded casings had managed to land some dents, and he'd ripped the arm off one, but he wasn't looking so great himself.
One of the metal giants chucked him solidly into a wall and was about to make a good attempt at crushing his helmet into his skull when a jet of blue flames sent it skidding and screeching across the metal floor.
For once, Kotetsu wasn't about to get pissy about Lunatic's decision to get involved. Especially not when he was busy evading another robot. "You know, most people get hobbies when their friends leave!" he snapped at Maverick when he landed near Barnaby's body. "Hobbies that don't involve this comic book world domination revenge shit!"
He thought he saw the old man's face twist slightly and, to his surprise, Barnaby's body shifted too. Like it was responding to the emotion somehow.
Hm... maybe he could use that.
"So what gives, old man?" he asked mockingly, evading another H-model. "You mad they kicked you out of the family? I mean, Jesus, how dare they have a crisis of ethics, right?" Dodge, punch, don't get roasted by fire, punch again. "Or maybe it was an unrequited crush? That one's always a classic."
He wasn't sure if he'd found the particular nerve or was just hitting a bunch of them at once, but Barnaby's body definitely moved that time, and Christ, the expression on Maverick's face was pretty damn scary now that he'd dropped the kindly old man facade. He kept pressing his luck.
"God, I hope it wasn't on the kid. He's, what, a fourth your age?"
Blinding pain suddenly erupted in the left side of his head, and he found himself pinned to the wall by Barnaby -not Bunny, this isn't Bunny, Bunny's still holding up the firewall- who was glaring at him coldly with those red eyes. The robot was no longer connected to the wires, hand locked around his throat.
He was rescued when Tora tackled Barnaby from his right, and he threw himself at the pair of robots.
The tech had long fled, scared off by the fire and ice being flung about, and the screens were going dark one by one. At least that meant they'd broken the signal by pissing off their quarry, he thought. And between the three of them, Emblem, Rose, and Lunatic had managed to 'kill' four of the H-units. But there were still three to go and Barnaby could outpace them all.
And he only had a minute left.
Then he noticed them when he managed to get in close to wrench Barnaby away from Tora. Tiny little fissures in the synthetic skin. So maybe this model wasn't so invincible after all. If they could get it closer to-
The beep of his communication line to Bunny interrupted that train of thought. 'Kotetsu?'
"Bunny! We've broken the signal! And I think we've almost worn your body down to a manageable state, the skin's starting to crack a bit."
'Did you say the polymer is cracking?'
"Yeah. Sorry about the damage, but it should be-"
The sudden flat, dead seriousness in Barnaby's voice stopped him still for a second. "Bunny?"
'Get everybody out. Right now.'
'That polymer is designed to withstand temperatures of up to 1500C. If it's cracking, it's heated enough to dry out, and that means the casings on the power cores have already melted.'
And without casings, the power cores would burst, Kotetsu remembered from his lessons on Bunny's physiology. "But- I thought you had a bypass for that."
'I did, but I temporarily turned it off when I went to meet with Ms. Joubert. She might have noticed I was weirdly feverish if I hadn't. They must not have known to turn it back on.'
Shit, Kotetsu thought with a very acute sense of alarm. The power contained in Barnaby's power cores would take out the whole room by itself, nevermind if it managed to set off the H-units as well. "Rose, Emblem, Tora! We gotta fall back now!"
In the course of thirty seconds, three things happened.
A shot from Lunatic aimed at one of the H-units struck Barnaby instead when it dodged, dead in the stomach.
Kotetsu managed to shove his two human companions out the door just as the fireball erupted, only to feel his own powers run out.
Something grabbed him from behind, flinging him out into the hall.
He managed to grab the door frame, swinging himself out of the very literal line of fire, and both he and Nathan covered Karina with their more fire-resistant bodies as a searing burst of flame and smoke erupted out into the hall.
"Everybody still breathing?" Nathan asked weakly when the shockwave had passed, and Karina made a tiny noise. They'd kept her from getting roasted, but she was still going to be dealing with a nasty sunburn-like effect, from the look of her skin.
Kotetsu raised his head and felt a slight crunch of metal in the back of his suit, making him realize what had thrown him. "Hey, Tora, thanks for the-" He looked around, and the robot wasn't with them. "Tora?"
"Tiger," Karina said quietly, and when he looked in the direction she was pointing, his heart sank. The robot lay in a sparking heap halfway out the door.
Visual receptors were flickering when he carefully turned the robot over. "Heh. Told you it was better for me to come with you," Tora said with a giddy little giggle that Kotetsu recognized from the few times he'd been wounded so badly that his perception was altered.
"What happened? Your casings should have been able to withstand that."
"They did, see?" Tora tried to lift an arm, but couldn't. "It was the wiring that melted."
His old wiring. The wiring Rotwang had put in while building him. And with the state Tora was in, he wasn't going to last long enough to get him to Saito or the Brookses so they could replace it. "Can you turn your router back on?"
Dammit. "Rose, Emblem, find a connection cord and a cable port somewhere." He switched his communication channel back on. "Bunny, I know you're exhausted, but we need help. Tora got hit by the blast, and he's in really bad shape. I need some kind of workaround to get him out of his body."
Karina returned with everything she'd been able to find in other rooms, and Nathan helped him drag Tora's body to a wall outlet. He took off his helmet so they'd have speaker connection and ripped off his gauntlets. "Karina, I'm sorry, but I need your hands too. Mine aren't small enough for some of these gaps."
Following the instructions relayed by Barnaby from the Brookses, they struggled to get some kind of connection to work. Kotetsu could hear from the other two's communicators that the pirate signal had stopped and cleanup on the ground was starting, but he couldn't think about that right now.
The last connection clicked, and Tora seized with a sharp noise, eyes flaring bright blue similarly to how Barnaby had done when his father had deactivated him on the floor of Kotetsu's apartment months ago. Then his receptors shut off altogether, and the three humans held their breath. 'Please...' he thought, biting his lip.
Then Bunny's voice came over the system again. 'I've got him.'
Kotetsu laid his head on the still-warm metal of the chest casing as they relaxed. "Good. That's good. Okay, we're heading down now."
He pulled his helmet back on, and both Karina and Nathan had to hold on to him now as he eased them down the elevator shaft via his wrist wire. They'd just reached the top level of the building when another voice spoke over the connection. 'Kotetsu.'
He almost lost his grip in surprise. As far as he could remember, that was the first time he'd ever heard Tora use his first name. "Y- yeah?"
"Ah- uh- really, you rescued me first," he managed when he'd recovered a little. "If you hadn't thrown me, it woulda been me in the fireball. So... um... how about we decide it was a mutual ass-saving and call it even?"
'Agreed,' Tora said, sounding amused despite being completely drained, and Kotetsu pretended he couldn't hear an equally exhausted Bunny laughing at his choice of words in the background.
"Thanks for giving me a heads up," Kotetsu said, then sighed and closed his phone.
Nathan looked up from idly stirring honey into his tea. "That can't be good."
"It was Agnes. Forensic teams found nothing definite, just some stuff that might possibly be human. They're going to have to resort to trying some kind of new DNA tests."
"I have a feeling what the results will be, and they won't say Lunatic. Bastard's got more lives than a shelter full of cats."
Kotetsu snorted and took a sip of his coffee before sending off a text to Barnaby to pass along the information.
"Hearings are starting this week. Right now they're just to determine whether the good doctors hold any fault in what happened. The verdict will decide whether or not Bunny and Tora get to argue their case for legal identities."
Nathan gave him a nudge. "They'll do fine. The tapes Agnes gave up, plus my records, plus Tora's memory bank should be more than enough to put them in the clear."
"Hope so." He downed the last of his coffee. "Thanks for lunch," Kotetsu said, leaving a little cash anyway for tip, and Nathan just smiled and airily waved him off. He headed outside to go find his car in the parking garage down the block, glancing up at a news broadcast on the way.
The season had been halted on the orders of the Justice Department, with Agnes arranging for a lower-paid leave for the heroes as interim CEO until Maverick, or what was left of him, probably, was found. Kotetsu didn't really mind the time off -he'd gone home for a few days at Barnaby's prodding- but there was still a lot to worry about.
What was going to happen to the Brookses and Tora, mostly, but also what was going to happen to the show, and them. The head of the biggest media company in the city causing a robot rebellion made for a hell of a story, but wouldn't exactly sit well.
He tried not to think about it constantly, really he did, but he still might have cried a little in the courtroom two and a half weeks later when both scientists were found non-culpable.
Now he just had two to fret over. And decide what he was going to say when he got called to the stand.
There were no cameras when he sat down, but Kotetsu wasn't as stupid as he liked people to believe. Even in a court presided over by a hardass like Petrov would have a hundred hidden recording devices on what few persons were in attendance, ready to have their guts spilled to the gossip media.
He really hoped he didn't screw this up, he thought nervously, waiting until the bailiff prompted him to speak into the recorder. "Er- Hero Codename: Wild Tiger, on the Subject claiming to be Barnaby Brooks Jr. and the Subject known as Tora. I first met Barnaby during-"
"How did today's arguments go?" he asked Barnaby two days later as he waited for Nathan to drop by with news on the continued search and cleanup of the destroyed lab.
'Tora's fairly sure he torpedoed our chances, but I'm not nearly so pessimistic,' Barnaby replied, smile evident in his voice. As was the grumbling in the background.
"Why, what happened?"
'Rescheduling of a criminal case meant we ended up first on the docket this morning after spending two days assisting Mom and Dad with a coding project.'
"Aha." He didn't need any further explanation as to what Tora's demeanor in court would have been like. Even without a body, he was just as grouchy when tired as Bunny was bossy. "I'm sorry I missed that."
'Kaburagi, why don't you-'
'Hush,' Barnaby cut off the other android before a fight could start. 'Go get some sleep, okay? And Kotetsu, no provoking.'
"Yessir, please don't red card me, Ref," Kotetsu teased. "So, really, how bad was it?"
'It wasn't, actually. Petrov seemed weirdly amused by the fact that Tora could out-snap him. It might have even earned some points in favor of our necessity to prove distinct personalities, since I don't think even my parents are capable of programming that kind of morning grumpiness.'
"I bet they've already started construction on new bodies for you two though, haven't they?"
That was so a yes.
He didn't get the chance to see them in progress, though not for lack of trying. However, one could only get caught and whapped on the head with a rolled up lab report like a disobedient child -the androids seemed to find it hilarious every time. They'd probably been selling out his presence, the brats- so many times before taking the hint and finally giving up.
He wasn't going to lie, though. Like before, the secrecy had just made him a little more excited to see the final results.
The Brookses and Agnes had arranged with Petrov that the reveal of both the physical bodies and and what their new personage status would be would take place in the same meeting. Of course Agnes had brought along Cain and Mary, unwilling to give up the chance to film something this landmark for later, but all parties had agreed that it would take place behind closed doors, with only the other heroes in attendance. No sense in terrifying the robots half to death with a crowd waiting for them after they were just getting to interact with the physical world again.
Kotetsu fought the urge to squirm or pace, but couldn't help drumming his nails nervously against his thigh as they waited for the laboratory doors to open. Nathan finally sighed and elbowed him to make him stop. "Calm down. You think they'd be going through with this if it wasn't going to work out for the best?"
"I know, I know," he said, pulling his hat low. "Just..."
"It'll be fine," Nathan soothed, then all looked up at a rap on the double doors.
Barnaby Sr. poked his head out. "Everything set?"
"We're good," Agnes replied from where her small crew had set up.
Kotetsu held his breath.
Then let it out in a rush when the two scientists came out, gently leading a pair of young men. Barnaby looked the same as he had in his second body, if maybe just a little shorter and thinner, and Kotetsu bit back the need to just go crush him into a tight hug.
But Tora... Tora was a surprise. The robot's hair was darker than his own, almost stark black, and slightly shorter than his own, and he was clean-shaven. Darker complexion, a little bit taller, some subtle changes in facial structure... and his eyes were a mercurial silver.
Emily nudged him as the two androids were gently pushed to meet their well-wishers. "What do you think?"
"I'm impressed," he said when he'd found his voice again. "I mean, there's some resemblance, but it's not like anyone will ever confuse us."
"The original design was a bit closer to you, but after Barnaby brought up the identity clashes you two were having, I decided to go back to the drawing board."
"I- thank you. He's probably glad too."
When she left him to go talk to Agnes, Nathan had apparently taken Tora under his wing, who looked a bit intimidated, but okay with it. Barnaby, on the other hand, had been pulled into a conversation with Keith, and was giving off the air of being a bit trapped. Kotetsu took the opportunity to swoop in. "Sorry, Keith, but can I steal Bunny for a few minutes?"
"Of course! Have a nice chat!"
"Thank you," Barnaby murmured when Kotetsu pulled him back into the laboratory.
"Sure," Kotetsu replied, then folded him into the fierce hug he'd been wanting, burying his nose into soft hair. "God, I missed this."
"You missed my hair?" Barnaby asked in a feigned wounded tone, and Kotetsu gave him a light punch in the arm.
"Brat. I missed everything. I missed you. It's not the same anymore when you're just a voice all the time."
"I know," Barnaby said softly, brushing slender fingers over his neck. After a few minutes of just reveling in getting to hold his partner again, Kotetsu finally made himself pull back to give his partner a little space.
"Look... everything that's happened in the past months, I..." He faltered and bit his lip. Christ. This might be even harder than being on the stand at the personage hearing. Then those long fingers touched his cheek in a familiar, achingly missed comforting gesture, and that gave him the nerve to go on. "Dealing with Tora and what happened with Maverick, I think... my feelings might have changed a bit," he said awkwardly, motioning between them. "But... I need to know what you think."
Barnaby chuckled, and for a brief second, Kotetsu was afraid the blond was laughing at him, but the warm touch on his cheek didn't leave. "You know, I've probably been thinking about that a lot longer than you."
He blinked, surprised. "Really? So... what did you figure out? I hope it's more than I did."
"Maybe." The hand brushed lower, returning to his neck. "From what I've seen of the other people you're around, I doubt anyone who's seen us is going to call us just friends. We're not exactly lovers either, though. And... I'm okay with that. I mean, I don't want to end up with forced feelings or hurt because we tried to squish ourselves into one box or another. We're not exactly a normal pair to begin with, you know?"
A smile crossed his mouth. "Yeah. So just keep what we've got and que sera sera?"
"Mm-hmm, if you're okay with that."
"Very okay. What about Tora, though?"
"I don't know what he wants yet. I don't really think he does either. So I'm just sort of holding off to see what he makes his mind up for before I decide how to handle it."
"Tch. Well, as long as he doesn't go trying to hoard you like some dragon again, I suppose I can be a big boy and learn how to share."
Barnaby did laugh at him then, before leaning in to kiss him on the nose just as Kotetsu tilted to kiss him on the cheek, and somehow that translated into a brief, very warm contact between their mouths. Barnaby quickly pulled back, looking embarrassed, but a hesitant, shy smile appeared and he didn't break away entirely. "And... maybe... I could get used to that, too."
Kotetsu grinned, and was about to give a more thorough lesson on the subject when someone cleared their throat and both turned to find Nathan peeking in the door. "I hate to interrupt this adorable scene, but you two are going to miss the announcements if you don't come back."
"We're coming," Barnaby said, and the man nodded and vanished out the door.
"Can you give me any spoilers, so I don't have a heart attack when we get out there?"
"Well, you'll have to get used to calling me Rory in public, for one."
"Mmm... nah. You're still Bunny to me," he said, holding out a hand. Barnaby made a show of rolling his eyes, but accepted the offered hand with a smile, and they entwined their fingers as they went out to rejoin the others.