Chapter 1: Stepping into the Frankenstein Role
It had just been a wild hare. Anxious and unable to concentrate from nights spent not sleeping, she’d quietly mumbled to herself “I wish we could just give him a body that actually works.”
They’d never intended for it to go any further than that. It was just going to stay the idle musing of worrying parents who knew so much, yet could do so little for their boy.
Then, the next morning, he’d refused to even touch breakfast, turning his head as soon as the nurse laid the tray on the table. Barnaby had never done such a thing in his life. Even if it was something he didn’t want, he’d always accepted it with a smile out of politeness.
It was the first non-physical sign of just how much the illness had taken away from him… and something in her cracked.
They were both exhausted. Her husband was rubbing aching, tired eyes after staring at coding screens for the entire night, and she had an uncomfortable crick in her neck from being hunched over wiring connections. Their hands shook as they soldered the last casing into place.
But when they were done, a childlike form lay on the table.
They still weren’t intending to use it. It was just something to make them feel better. A little less helpless. A way to at least pretend they’d done something productive after days and nights hearing doctors lay out just how little all the medical aid attempts were doing.
They were at the hospital the next time Barnaby had tried to use his NEXT to regain a little strength, and had lost consciousness for over seven hours as a result when it had gone dormant again.
Tightly holding on to each other’s hand as they looked through the observation window at him sleeping, they glanced at each other, then silently went back to the home laboratory.
The hardest part was assessing time. Barnaby’s health fluctuated and faded with such a mercurial speed that determining what their margin of error was and how wide their window was became more and more difficult. They wanted to give the doctors a chance, give Barnaby a chance, hoped desperately that something new might come along and he might yet be saved in the body he had now.
But as her husband crunched the numbers for the fifth time that week, she could tell by the look on his face that it wasn’t going to be good news. When he’d finished, he sank back in his chair and put a hand over his eyes, and she bit her lip, knowing what was coming.
“Today,” he said softly. “It has to be today.”
They made the caretaking arrangements with the hospital. Both had been active enough in his care that it was, thankfully, deemed unnecessary to assign him home visits by a nurse.
There wouldn’t be any interruptions.
As they waited for the nurses to get him situated as comfortably as possible on a gurney, she nervously fingered the capped syringe she was keeping in her purse. Her hand was trembling. Even though they’d been planning this for weeks, there was something in them both that still balked at hurting their boy.
She kept telling herself they had nothing left to lose. If they failed, he would be no more dead than if they hadn’t tried at all. if they succeeded, it would be worth all the pain.
It didn’t help.
Chapter 2: Design By Committee
When he woke and metaphorically poked his head into the laboratory to see what was going on, his parents were arguing.
That was nothing new. Aside from his voice, which he’d been able to develop himself while in the data streams, the elements of his future body had become the subject of an almost ritualistic cycle of debate and compromise.
In case of accidentally being misidentified as a medical emergency if something went wrong, anatomical accuracy in his physical build was necessary (awkward, in his opinion, but necessary). Weapons had been narrowed down to the ability to channel his cores’ power through his casings (and maybe one or two easily concealed and palmed blades, though that was still under discussion), as the modifications it would have taken to disguise anything as a side effect of his supposed NEXT ability were too unwieldy.
And so it went.
Stifling his amusement, he tuned in to the latest round.
“What good are all the other customizations if this is what blows his cover?” his mother was saying.
“I’m not denying that it serves a purpose,” his father argued back. “I just don’t see how it’s feasible.”
Curious, he looked up the current point of contention, and found a series of sketches for a false circulatory system to be embedded within the compound they’d created to form his skin. It was pretty ingenious, as far as faking human injury went, but in the network of tiny tubes and releases, he could see some of the problems his father had likely already brought up. Plus there was the fact of how the polymer had been chemically designed to react to cuts and burns in the first place.
He realized he’d been caught peeking when there was a gentle ‘poke’ against the back of his head. “What do you think?” his mother asked.
“It’s very elegant,” he said. “But, um, if my skin is going to seal itself and be re-cut for tubing repairs every time, that seems like a lot of extra mess and complication.”
Through the cameras, he saw his father simply raise an eyebrow as if to say ‘See?’ His mother rolled her eyes at her husband, then gave the digital blueprint a final once-over before sighing. “It does leave the problem of surgical number,” she conceded, then gave one of the cameras a look. “You take his side entirely too often, though.”
“I like a lot of your ideas,” he offered in a conciliatory tone. “The knives and bringing back the glasses especially.”
“I suppose I can be content with that,” she replied mock-loftily. “For now.” Choking back a laugh, his father joined her at the computer terminal, and they got back to schematic work in earnest.
Crisis of design dealt with, at least for today, Barnaby smiled to himself in the subsystem, then decided to go see what Kotetsu was up to.
Chapter 3: Through the Less-Than-Savory Grapvine
In which nothing gets past Nathan.
Set during 'The Accident of His Condition' and crosses into 'From Nothing, I Am'
With meetings and emergencies taking up nearly the entire day, most of the other heroes had opted to skip the evening workout and go straight home. Especially the girls, stressing out about missed homework. Nathan, on the other hand, generally found it to be the perfect cool off after a particularly bad day.
Apparently he wasn’t the only one either, he noted when he heard voices behind the glass door.
Kotetsu didn’t notice him come in, and, for once, Nathan thought it prudent to not give the man his usual enthusiastic greeting, especially after he heard the voice coming from the the PDA attached to his wrist and recognized it immediately as their mysterious caller from a week ago.
“Come on, Bunny, you gotta tell me something,” Kotetsu was saying as he toweled off by one of the treadmills.
“I don’t think we ever had a contract clause that I’m required to,” the strange, dual-synth voice from the other end of the line replied. Mechanical as it was, there was a distinct trace of humor in it, and Nathan had a feeling this argument had been going on for awhile.
“Not even a little hint?”
“Nope. You’ll have to find out when we’re done.”
“Maybe I’ll just ask your parents, then.”
That earned a distinct laugh. “You say that like Mom and Dad aren’t a hundred times worse than I am.”
“Point,” Kotetsu conceded grouchily after a few seconds, then tossed the towel over his shoulder and headed for the showers.
Hm. This was quite interesting.
It wasn’t that he meant to eavesdrop -all right, some times, he did- on Kotetsu’s conversations with the secretive ‘Bunny’, it was just that they were rather fascinating. Especially since Kotetsu was clearly going at some length to keep them from hearing certain ones.
And had, in fact, been doing so since their incident with the stolen robotics prototype.
It was on realizing the timing that the pieces began falling into place. Tiger had told them all that the rogue signal had been contained within his suit, but hadn’t told them what it was or where it had come from before sending them to assist the Brookses. Whose missing robot bore a… hardly coincidental child-like form.
Nathan idly considered some of the rumors he’d heard from people who claimed to have seen the little prototype puttering around the labs. That they’d heard the scientist pair actually referring to it with the name of their deceased son. None who’d made the claims had ever been able to produce proof, and, as far as he’d been concerned, it was all hearsay in an attempt to discredit the admittedly-just-a-little-off-kilter couple as having further lost their minds over the loss of their boy. A rather cruel and pointless mess of gossip mongering and attempts to play bad politics in a world that was just as cutthroat as his own dealings with other corporations.
But perhaps there was a grain of truth in it, though not the one that the whispering types were trying to peddle, of course. If there was ever a pair on the planet who were smart enough and driven enough to find a way to turn their dying son into a complete, whole digital consciousness as a way of saving his life -for a certain definition of saving, he supposed- it would have been the Brookses.
He didn’t give it much thought after that, to be honest. Whether ‘Bunny’ was actually Barnaby Brooks Jr. in a new form or not, the kid clearly shared the same smart, cheery, just a little bit out there nature as his suspected parents, which made him harmless. And as long as he presented no threat, Nathan saw no reason to further poke into the personal affairs of the family.
At least not until a couple of months later when he found Kotetsu sitting on a park bench with a young man who was clearly the adorable spitting image of the delightful Emily. Curiosity won out, and Nathan changed course from the restaurant he was headed to, seating himself on the bench in his usual dramatic way.
“Honey, you didn’t tell me you were seeing someone.”
Chapter 4: The Apple and the Tree
Set between 'The Accident of His Condition' and 'From Nothing, I Am'.
“This is kind of on the creepy side.”
“Oh, hush. It’s not like you’ve never been on a surgical table before,” Bunny says as he hunches over and bows his head forwards and Kotetsu holds onto his arms to keep him steady.
“Several times,” his father adds dryly as he begins cutting into the false skin with a slender scalpel, and Kotetsu feels his face heat in embarrassment at the light mixture of teasing and chiding..
“Well, yeah, but generally I wasn’t assisting, and I was unconscious for those.”
“Why do you have to be awake?” he asks Bunny.
“Even with my sensory net turned off, I can still make physical responses on command. We need that to test whether everything’s been properly reconnected,” Bunny replies, not even twitching as ‘nerves’ are disconnected and part of his casing is removed. It’s a fair enough point, but Kotetsu still has a hard time not squirming.
“This is just routine maintenance,” Barnaby Sr. says, selecting more tools and beginning to do something in Bunny’s systems that Kotetsu can’t see. “There’s a nerve bundle and a set of servos right here that tend to wear themselves out rather quickly. We’re working on a more permanent repla- er… whoops.”
“‘Whoops’?” Kotetsu asks nervously. “What do you mean, ‘whoops’? Did- gyah!”
He jumps back with a very unmanly yelp as Bunny’s arms suddenly break free from his grip and outstretched hands shoot towards his throat. Only after he’s already halfway across the lab in a near-panic does he realize that the older man is wearing that particular look of wry amusement that father and son sometimes share. “Oh, not funny.”
“Dad,” Bunny warns in a tone that’s mostly mild exasperation, but Kotetsu can hear the tiniest trace of humor in it, and he's sure the brat is probably laughing at him over the data connections where he can't hear it.
“Sorry,” his father apologizes, doing something else, and Bunny’s arms lower back to the table. “That setup was too perfect to resist.”
It takes a minute for Kotetsu to make himself reclaim his spot as physical assistant, but now he’s worried.
In the time they’d shared on Hero TV, he’d quickly learned to be wary of Emily when she’d been smiling… which had been damn near all the time. But Barnaby Sr. had been the stoic one. The safe one. If he was capable of these pranks as well…
Bunny had already shown more than once that the apple didn’t fall far from the social tree in this family, mostly because of how circumstances had kept them maybe a little too tightly-knit. Maybe Kotetsu was gonna have to start watching his back around him a little more often, too-
“Honestly, though, thank you for helping out,” Bunny murmurs too low for his father to hear, leaning just a little closer. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else, you know that.”
Kotetsu promptly forgets his own self-warning and can't help but return the soft, fond smile. “Of course. Any time.”
Chapter 5: Scales of Measure
Near the end of 'Gravity Keeps You Here for Me to Hold'
‘-Case File: H-72493-A01-’
Yuri leaned back in his chair, absently tapping a fingertip against the rim of the mug in his hands as he re-read the numbers for what had to be the thousandth time since this had begun. Though reading and adjudicating cases had become nearly habit, there was some part of him that still just stopped for a second when remembering just how much information a simple series of letters and numbers represented.
The right to exist, for example.
He had spent the last five and a half months as part of the study into how human the identities of ‘Rory’ and ‘Tora’ were and whether they could be granted rankings as citizens. The Brookses, of course, had insisted that their son was their son, no matter the body he existed in, though they had eventually been talked into not trying to reclaim the legal status of a dead name. And after some discussion, the Kaburagis had agreed to legally claim ‘Tora’ as one of their own.
But the final decision was still his.
He had his personal opinions on the matter, naturally. After having ‘met’ the pair for hearings and simple conversation several times, he, quite frankly, found them to be much more deserving of the title ‘human’ than many he’d dealt with, even outside of his activities as Lunatic. But his feelings weren’t what had to rely on at the moment, rather, the facts of whether the pair could be integrated into society with a minimum amount of trouble. Compromises had already been made regarding things such as the formation of a new citizenry status, should one be so granted, and restrictions on constructed weaponry, so all that were left were the three ‘keys’.
A single mouse click, and floods of information came out of the file. There had been sessions with psychiatrists and evaluations of memory banks and emotional ranges. All of the professional opinions were that both androids were, in their own separate ways, somewhat damaged in that regard, but no more than NEXTs who’d been subjected to their conditions would be, and were perfectly treatable like any person. While both had declined specific counseling until they had more to go on, they hadn’t entirely ruled out the idea, and had agreed to regular future assessments like any field employee at HeroTV. A good sign.
The Brookses had agreed to allow him to license a third party for the physical tests, provided no results were yet made public. Both had shown physical capacity that could possibly rival the Hundred Power, but a much finer control. Once he had clear records to be certain that strength-related property damage in the past had only occurred either under his own allowance or at a time when one of the androids had not been under control of his own body, it was clear that as long as they were properly maintained, they presented less of a possible headache than a certain Hero.
Which brought him to the third and currently most contentious round of tests: Digital capabilities. Of the two, ‘Tora’ currently had much less potential to be a problem, having only learned the basics of movement and control. But ‘Rory’… There was the primary concern. Between the ‘rebellion’ the body had incited and the firewall the ghost had channeled, they had all seen what ‘Rory’ could do, and that had some nervous.
Yuri took another sip of tea, thinking, then picked up the phone and called the contact number he’d been given. It was a rather odd way to test the not-quite-rapport he’d built, but if his hunch was correct…
‘Good evening, Justice Petrov,’ the consciousness he’d been looking for answered before the line had even rung once. ‘You’re up rather late.’
“Forgive my imposition at this hour, but I have one more question,” he replied formally.
‘No trouble at all. What is it?’
“If an agreement were to be reached regarding your position with the show, there’s a possibility that you may have to undergo some power limitations to work within the regulations. Would you agree to that?”
‘What sort of limitations?’
“Mostly regarding how wide a range you would be able to reach while participating in searches, and how many devices other than your body you would be able to exert full control over at one time.”
There wasn't even a second of hesitation. ‘Oh! Well, that’s perfectly understandable, I suppose, and as long as I can still work effectively, I don’t see any reason why not. I'll talk to Mom and Dad about scheduling an alteration session. Is that all you wanted to know?’
“Yes, thank you,” he replied, satisfied that the amiable agreement the android had shown to the idea would limit any future threat. When the line had closed, he clicked back into the assessment.
‘-Status: HAI-01 - ‘Rory Brooks’: Established-‘
‘-Status: HAI-02 - ‘Tora Kaburagi’: Established-‘
Chapter 6: Overload
He’d managed not to cause any scenes at their 'debut', of sorts, but at three in the morning, Tora was huddled on the floor in a corner of the room he and Barnaby sometimes shared.
His clothes had been flung into a heap near the bed, but even the air itself seemed to rasp over his skin.
Everything was just too much.
His nails dug into his arms, only for him to quickly release with a sharp hiss at the unexpected little bursts of pain that radiated out from the points of contact. Biting his lip produced a similar reaction, and soon he was finding it too hard to do anything but rest his head against his knees and shiver.
He didn’t hear the door open, and jumped when cool fingertips pressed against the base of his skull. Then there was a faint, shuddery feeling down his spine, and suddenly everything had muted to a degree tolerable enough that he could raise his head without squinting in pain at every sensation. “Angel? What did you do?”
“There are different levels between on and off in our sensory networks,” Barnaby said as he crouched down, having changed his evening clothes out for some loose pants and a sleeveless shirt. "I just turned yours down to about half-power." The hand on the back of Tora’s neck drifted up to ruffle his hair soothingly, and Tora found himself leaning into the touch now that it wasn’t overwhelming. “I’m so sorry. I should have warned you to keep it dialed down for awhile.”
Tora weakly shook his head. “I thought I could handle it. But… it’s different from being in the data streams. It’s just… There's... It's like everything presses in. Like no matter what I did... I couldn't-.”
Barnaby helped him to his feet and guided him to the bed. He laid his head in his teacher’s lap, relaxing with a small noise as skilled hands petted him in a way that was comfortingly familiar. “Needing time to adjust isn’t something to be ashamed of. I’m still learning too, remember?”
“But it’s different for you. You’re so far ahead of me.”
“I used to be human. It’s not so much being ahead as having started from a different place to begin with.”
“I guess,” he mumbled against his teacher's hip, still feeling a little embarrassed at his own reactions.
“We’ll try some small stuff before you have to meet anyone again, since there’s no need to rush things anymore. How about in the morning, we go see those flowers you liked before?”
Long fingers found a spot under his ear that made him shiver again, and Tora couldn’t help an almost catlike purr, tilting his head so Barnaby would keep his hand there. “Okay,” he murmured, finding the night a little bit more bearable.
Chapter 7: Truce
Karina glanced up over her history textbook as Kotetsu accepted a cup with a straw and a box she couldn’t see the contents of from 'Rory'. For the most part, she’d adjusted to the new status quo of there being two more 'unofficial' heroes. She kind of even liked having a couple of extra pairs of eyes on the job since the AIs were at least actually helpful, rather than withholding scene info to make things more 'exciting' the way the camera crews sometimes did. The occasional snarky response to the scene commentary didn't hurt either.
But there was one tiny little nasty part of her mind she was still having trouble with. The part that was more than a bit grouchy that not only had she lost Kotetsu to the guy before they’d even met, she’d lost to a guy made of metal alloys and synthetic skin. He'd never personally given her a reason to dislike him besides that, but the urge to snap at the blond every time she saw them getting snuggly refused to go away and itched annoyingly in her brain.
She tried to drown it out with boring history facts, shoving her nose back into the book. Then squeaked in surprise when a white cup suddenly appeared in front of her face. She took hold of it, then stiffened when she looked up to find the other hand holding it was Barnaby’s. “What’s this?”
“They gave us two as part of some kind of promotion. I can’t eat mine, of course, so I thought you might like it.”
She stared up at him, the rational, non-jealous part of her mind yelling at her to say thanks, or at least ask what flavor it was instead of just staring. Hell, she should tell him she was on a diet or something. Anything. This was getting awkward.
“Hey, Bunny, we’re gonna be late!”
Saved by the dork.
“Coming!” Barnaby called back, then gave her a smile and a wave before he left to catch up to Kotetsu.
She looked at the cup, then set it down and went back to her book in a pointed, if only known by her, refusal to touch it. She couldn’t help glancing over it every few seconds, though, and curiosity finally beat jealous spite. Taking a cautious sip, she made a noise of startled pleasure in the back of her throat at the taste of really strong strawberry ice cream blended with peanut butter. Settling it comfortably in front of her, she continued absently sipping as she tried again to focus on her book.
Halfway through the milkshake, she suddenly remembered Kotetsu saying something about how he always let Barnaby pick for him whenever they went out to eat… which meant that, even if it was sort of a roundabout way, he'd been the one to pick this flavor for her, right?
She settled deeper into her chair, taking another sip.
Maybe she could try harder at not giving him any crap if he stuck around. Even rivalries as important as this one came second to very good taste in milkshakes, after all.
Chapter 8: Learning Curve
This was originally three separate stories, but I think they work as a nice little arc of social growth for Tora, so they're going together.
Kotetsu stopped and blinked rather stupidly when he arrived at the hotel and found the android waiting on him wasn’t the one he’d been expecting. “Ah-“
“Angel requires further modifications to comply with the new rules concerning his involvement with the show,” Tora said flatly, not looking remotely happy about being present, or about the suit he’d probably been coerced into, even though he did cut a surprisingly nice figure in it. “He insisted someone had to accompany you.”
Most of the time, Barnaby’s insistence on keeping promises was rather endearing. Right now, though, he was kind of wishing the kid had just called him to back out of the night’s engagement. “Uh, well then, I guess we should get going.”
The elevator ride up was tense and awkward and for once, Kotetsu was glad that Nathan descended on him the second they stepped out, dragging him over to a knot of investors to make introductions.
Despite the initial confusion over how the show was going to be handled, the new season had been going better than ever. He was actually starting to get a little comfortable with these gatherings, since the new head honchos were a little less bureaucratic about their handling than Maverick had been. Or, at least, he’d been more comfortable until Sophia Jacobson, head of the Demeter Agricultural Corporation, cornered him by the wine table. “So, Tiger, I hear your contract is coming up on the table at the end of the season.”
Jacobson had been on his case about possibly switching sponsors ever since Apollon had bought out his old contract on the Brooks’ suggestion, and Kotetsu was more than aware of the multiple reasons why. Not the least of which were her notorious interest in male heroes close to retirement age and her long-standing feud with Emily Brooks. “U- um, well, I was planning to just renew here-“
“Company loyalty is all well and good, dear,” she replied, and he tried really, really hard not to flinch when she put a hand on his chest in a very non-platonic gesture. “But surely you have longer goals than-“
“He said no.”
Kotetsu started in surprise, looking back to find Tora having seemingly materialized by his left shoulder and giving the pretty redhead a look much icier than any he’d ever received. Damn, he was really good at looming scarily, even though he didn't have the armor anymore. Still, though-
Surprisingly, Jacobson did back off, though it was to direct an airy sniff in the android’s direction. “And you are-?” she asked equally coldly.
“His partner's assistant,” Tora replied. Kotetsu didn't fail to notice the reluctance to use their now-shared family name, but the insinuation of his identity was still blatant enough now that everyone knew of his and Barnaby's existence.
While it did make the woman back up another step, if anything, her expression grew even more disdainful. “Ah. I see. Well, then, Tiger, have fun playing with your dolls,” she said, waving dismissively as she left to join another sponsor discussion, and while Kotetsu was infinitely glad at the implication that Tora’s interference meant that this would be the last time he pinged on her radar, he also felt guilty.
“Hey, Tora…” he said awkwardly, suddenly wanting to apologize for the insult. “You’re not-“
“Her opinion is of no importance. I just don’t want her encroaching on Angel’s position,” the android replied, but Kotetsu had seen that brief look of hurt flash across his face, as it had when Maverick had called him an inferior model. On impulse, he reached up and gave Tora a comforting squeeze on the shoulder. It was only for a quick second, but Kotetsu was sure the android’s cold expression softened just a little before he pulled away and left to reclaim his vantage point away from the rest of the party.
Tora's hands are shaking a little, and he hides them in his sleeves, biting his lip as he makes himself sit still. Squeezing his eyes shut helps for a few seconds, then someone bumps him from his right and he’s tense again.
It’s just a skating rink. He’s not even on it, he’s just watching. But there are so many people crowded around, and he’s beginning to sorely regret insisting that he could go out on his own today.That the crowds would be no big deal.
There’s a gentle brush against the back of his mind, and he can’t help a tiny noise of relief as Angel’s ghost gently wraps arms about the shoulders of his own. ‘How is it going?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Tora replies quietly, still trying to get himself under control. Focusing entirely on the people on the ice is hard with all the noise and bustle around him. After a few more minutes of fighting, he looks down at the floor. ‘I think I made a mistake,’ he admits shamefacedly. ‘I can’t do this.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’
There’s some part of him, that sore, wounded part that still can’t let go of how his creator treated him or what Maverick called him that wants to rebel at that. To snap back ‘No, you’re lying,’ because he wants to prove that he’s better. That he’s not a failed project. That he can handle humanity with more capability than an actual human, no problems or mistakes. That was part of the reason he was built, wasn’t it?
But he immediately feels guilty for thinking that, because Angel never lies to him and has taught him to think beyond his programming, and Angel has always been open about the fact that he still can’t do most days what Tora’s trying to do now. So when gentle fingers comb through his hair, he tilts his head back to rest on his teacher’s shoulder.
He hesitates. He never likes admitting when he’s jealous. Never wants to acknowledge the feelings of inadequacy that never quite seem to go away. But Angel, as always, can see the emotions written on him, and doesn’t shame him for them. Instead, his teacher just holds him a little more tightly in silent offering. He closes his eyes for a second again, then nods, and Angel carefully splits his connection to stay with him, and ithelps. With just that support, he finds it much easier to relax, even with the jostling and occasional yelling.
And he stays for the rest of the event.
He’s not exactly sure how he’s supposed to act here.
Angel has been teaching him more on how to deal with social gatherings and now he can handle them much easier, but integrating into a family he resembles and shares a name with, yet hasn’t met is on another level altogether. Luckily, no one seems to mind his avoidance much, which lets him hang on the edges of the crowd and observe with little interference aside from Angel coming by every once and awhile to make sure he's still comfortable.
At least, no interference until a small body plops onto the bench beside him. Wide brown eyes look him over curiously, and he tries not to fidget or let the automatic desire to give a caustic acknowledgment find voice. He doubts that would go over very well, and while he doesn't particularly care about Kaburagi (he still doesn't want to call the man by name, but he might have to start, just for logistics' sake) getting annoyed, he doesn't want Angel to be disappointed in him as well. So he bites his tongue and instead silently braces himself for the inevitable flood of prying questions about his construction.
“So… are you sort of like my uncle now?”
…He wasn’t expecting that. “What?” He asks in an embarrassingly startled squeak, and the girl turns pink as she quickly tries to recover the situation.
“Well, um, I mean… they said you were made from- and, uh, you two kinda look- um… Can I start this conversation over?” she finally asks in a flustered rush. When he nods, still stunned, she thrusts out a hand. “Hi. I’m Kaede. Kotetsu’s daughter.” He manages to accept the handshake, not really needing to introduce himself since Kaburagi had done that for him and Angel earlier, and they sink into an awkward silence.
“You already knew about Dad’s job, too, didn’t you?” she asks quietly after a few minutes. “Bunny did.”
“Yes,” he replies, not sure where she was going with this.
“I’m glad he’s helping people, but… he’s not very good at keeping himself in one piece. Whenever I’d call and he was injured, he’d make up some stupid accident to hide that he’d been thrown off a building or punched into a car or whatever. Grandma says it’s because he’s too focused to care if he gets hurt, but I’m not sure I like it.”
He remembers Angel telling him about the fight they’d had over the perception of each other’s safety or lack thereof, and the fight at Justice Tower. And those were just two of the incidents that he’d been ‘alive’ to know about. And he thinks about other things he’d been witness to or heard about as well. “Angel tends to be the same way, unfortunately. He would rather it be him than someone who can’t be fixed. They argue about it a lot.”
Kaede snorts at that. “Yeah, I can see that,” she said, then looks at her hands. “How do you handle the worrying?”
“Make sure to be there to pick up the pieces, I guess. Angel would prefer that I didn’t get so involved, and I understand that it’s because he worries about me the same way he worries about Kaburagi, but I don’t want to run the risk that I won’t be able to help him if something goes wrong.” He shrugs. “I guess... I guess we all have a little blind spot towards ourselves when it comes to those we want to protect.”
Her nose wrinkles in thought as she digests that. “Yeah… yeah, I guess you’re right,” she says, then gets up, a strangely determined expression on her face for a second before she smiles. “It was nice meeting you!”
He blinks, returning her wave as she leaves, and wonders what the hell that had been about.
When Kaede Kaburagi is announced on the new student roll at Hero Academy three weeks later, he gets his answer.
Chapter 9: Upgrade
Once he’d run out of restaurant ideas, Bunny had taken over picking where they would go during their lunch dates. Ignoring reviews and websites, most were chosen out of mere curiosity from having seen it before, or long-ignored memory of having been there. A little bit of a dangerous way to go about it, Kotetsu kidded his partner, but if any ended up being pricier than expected or the food not as good as hoped, Bunny insisted on paying to make up for it, despite his protests.
They’d had a pretty interesting run of it so far, but eventually, Kotetsu noticed that they never seemed to go to one little cafe in particular. Which was kind of weird, since it was only about six blocks from Apollon, and the food designs in the window menu looked pretty enough that they’d normally catch Bunny’s eye.
It wasn’t until he was absolutely sure that Bunny was outright avoiding the place that he finally brought it up as they passed the wine red awnings one afternoon. “Why don’t we try this one?”
Bunny stiffened a little, just enough that he caught the motion, then looked away, suddenly fidgety and uncomfortable. “I… um… just… just haven’t, um, given it much consideration,” he mumbled in the most obvious lie Kotetsu had ever heard in his life. He didn’t want to put his partner totally on the spot, though, so he shrugged and guided Bunny away towards one of the diners they’d visited before.
He gave it a month or so before digging up the subject again as the now dark blue awnings came into view. “Did you get food poisoning there? That’d be enough keep me away from a place forever.”
“No,” Bunny said quietly, avoiding looking at him. “It’s nothing. I-“
Kotetsu squeezed his hand in a gentle nudge to go on, and Bunny finally sighed, pulling him over to the menu in the window.
“That’s the problem,” Bunny said quietly, pointing to the dessert section. Kotetsu leaned down to look at the one in particular his partner was indicating, identified by the little picture blurb as an almond and vanilla bean cream cake, with some kind of sauce that wasn’t named.
“What about it?”
“My grandfather was a professional chef. He worked here before even Apollon had been built, and that was his recipe. Mom used to joke that that cake was how my grandfather got my grandmother to marry him, it was so good.” Bunny put his hands in his pockets. “I’d always wanted to try it, but never got the chance for this reason or that.”
‘And now it wouldn’t be the same,’ Kotetsu finished in his head. The melancholy look on the blond’s face made his heart ache, and he kind of regretted having pushed the subject. He slid an arm around his partner’s waist and gave him an apologetic hug, then both jumped when his call band suddenly began beeping an alert. Once he’d gotten the details from Agnes, they were headed off back to Apollon to grab his armor and get into the fray.
But he didn’t miss the brief look of longing that Bunny shot that menu as they left.
And it was still bothering him three weeks later. He always felt guilty whenever he inadvertently made Bunny confront a hole in his physical construction, and this wasn’t something like the touch issue where they could solve the matter by accident.
It had taken almost a year after he'd first met Bunny, but he'd finally managed to weasel a birthday out of the parents. And when he checked his calendar one morning and found it was approaching fast, he decided it was time to take his problem to the experts.
“It’s an interesting idea, but since he’s incapable of processing food for fuel, I’m not sure it could be done,” Barnaby Sr. murmured when he’d explained what had happened and what he was hoping could be done. “And then of course there’s the matter of trying to program something that’s entirely subjective.”
“Well… maybe he doesn’t have to actually eat it? I mean, he has his catalogues, so he knows what he likes, so would it be possible to… I don’t know, just match taste to scent somehow?”
“Hm,” the older man muttered, tapping a pen against his desk in thought. “Perhaps… no, that would require too many modifications to his facial structure. Maybe we could…”
He never verbally finished that thought, but when he suddenly stiffened and got up, heading for the lab, Kotetsu perked up and followed, hoping for the best.
Once they’d explained in full what they were up to, Tora agreed to be the guinea pig for the upgrades and tests as his part of the ‘birthday present’, even though the android didn’t particularly understand what the big deal of a birthday was.
After three attempts and nearly forty trial runs, the results were finally installed in Bunny as part of his routine maintenance procedures, and it was up to Kotetsu to do the rest.
He’d had Saito keeping Bunny busy with tests all afternoon, which gave him plenty of time to buy dinner and a sweet surprise and get everything set up in his apartment. Bunny blinked in confusion when he came in to the soft lighting and food laid out on the coffee table, but Kotetsu just grinned and pulled him over to sit. Then Bunny noticed the cake, and froze. “Kotetsu-“
“Just trust me, okay?” Kotetsu said, pushing him down to sit on the couch. “You’ll like this. Now close your eyes and open your mouth.”
Bunny gave him a faintly suspicious look, then did as told, and Kotetsu had to resist the urge to just kiss him right off the bat. Surprise first, kiss later.
Reaching into his pocket, he took out the bracelet box Emily had given him for the present, then removed a slender metal pipette-like object from it. Carefully inserting it all the way through the slice of cake, he waited until the tiny indicator light turned green before taking it out. “Eyes still closed?”
“Yes. Kotetsu, what is this abou-“
Gently catching his partner’s chin to keep his mouth open, Kotetsu pressed the device against a soft space in the blond’s tongue that had been designed for this specific purpose. Bunny made a soft sound of confusion, then gasped sharply and jerked away, clamping a hand over his mouth. “Oh my God,” he mumbled, muffled.
The blond swallowed, and, looking like he might cry if he had the ability, buried his face into Kotetsu’s shoulder. “It’s amazing,” he finally choked weakly.
“Does that mean I get to ask you to marry me now?” Kotetsu teased, and got a half-exasperated swat to the arm in response. They just sat like that for a few minutes before Bunny finally managed to regain his composure enough to pull away.
“What did- what was that?”
Kotetsu held up the device. “Your folks made it; I just asked them to. It breaks down food to the basic chemical formulae, then reconstructs those in a manner your sensory net can understand.” He was pretty damn proud of himself for having understood and memorized that explanation, even if it had taken twice. Wiping off the device, he handed it over so Bunny could get a better look at it. “It’s not a perfect solution to not being able to eat… You have to clean it between foods, for one, and it can only hold the information on about ten dishes before it has to be reset, but-“
“It’s fine,” Bunny said, “I- I’m fine with all of that. This is more than I’d ever hoped for. I just- how?”
“We cheated. Tora volunteered to be the test subject, and your parents installed the response sensor during your last upgrade so I could set this up. To be honest, we still weren’t sure that there wouldn’t be a few bugs in it, but we wanted to be ready on time.”
“All of you are too sneaky for my own good,” Bunny murmured, then snuggled against his side. “But thank you. It’s the best thing I never asked for.”
Kotetsu grinned and hugged his partner tightly, stealing the kiss he'd been waiting for. “Then happy birthday.”
Chapter 10: Returned Favor
Kotetsu arrived at the laboratory at three sharp, as he’d been asked to do, but when he poked his head inside and found both of the androids smiling at him, he was sorely tempted to just turn around and walk away.
Before he could make up his mind to follow his self-preservation instinct, however, Bunny was on his feet and had taken hold of his hand and, suddenly, he found himself a lot more willing to play along with… whatever this was. Speaking of which- “So, um, you needed my help with something for the show?”
“Well, yes and no,” Bunny said, and his smile softened a bit, though there was still a hint of a little too much science glee in it.
“You’re here for testing, but it’s not for the show.” Oh, damn. Tora’s smirks had gotten a whole lot scarier now that he'd mastered the full range of facial emotion, and even Bunny elbowing his fellow robot with a silent, yet clear admonishment didn’t keep Kotetsu from shuddering just a little.
Before he’d recovered enough to protest, hands guided him over to a table where a sleek-looking little silver helmet and faceplate sat on a mannequin head, connected to a data cube that had several monitor screens glowing out of it. “Is this it?”
“What does it do?”
They both grinned again, and he swallowed, feeling his heart pick back up its nervous pace. “You’ll see once we get it all connected.”
He bit his lip as Tora pushed him to sit in a padded little reclining computer chair beside the table. Bunny’s hands, as usual, were much gentler as he deftly slipped the helmet on -perfect fit, they must have been planning to ask him in on this for awhile- opened it up, and began fiddling with assorted little electrodes that connected to his head. “This won’t hurt a bit,” his partner promised. “It’s just like being wired up for an EEG, and you’ve done that before.”
A soothing brush of fingertips against his temple helped considerably, and Kotetsu let out a slow breath. “Do I have to do anything in particular?”
“Just keep your eyes closed. And it’s best if you relax as much as possible. We don’t know yet how emotional or physical outbursts might affect the equipment.”
When Bunny finished, Tora took up a study position at the monitors to keep track of whatever data the helmet was feeding through. “We ready?”
“All right, then.”
The faceplate came down and the breathing filters kicked on, and Kotetsu closed his eyes and breathed deep as he tried to follow the command to stay calm. A surprise burst of light behind his eyelids almost made him jump out of his seat, but he managed to control himself, and when he’d recovered-
-he sucked in a soft gasp.
He could see the laboratory in perfect focus, but it was made out of… streams of data. Every table, every computer, every wire, all in perfect three-dimensional shapes of numbers and coding.
~Do you like it?~
Kotetsu turned his head and found Bunny floating beside him in a softly glowing pale blue form that made his heart skip a beat. Once his brain caught up, however, he slowly began to understand. “Is this…?”
~After you helped with so many of our upgrades to improve the human side of things, Tora and I thought maybe we could find a way to let you in on our side. At least every once in awhile.~
He ‘looked down’ at himself and found that his ‘body’ here was made of the same ghost coding as Bunny’s, with a greener tint to it. “How far does it go? Like, am I squirming around right now?”
~All of the information is responding to your brainwaves. You’ll still feel things as if you’re touching them, but your body won’t move.~
“Oh. So, like your old connections.”
~Similar, yes. It’s also limited to this room for now. Once we’ve finished all the testing stages, we’ll be able to monitor your body with our neural systems instead of a data cube, so Tora and I can show you around more.~
Testing these apparent movement capabilities, he ‘reached’ out a hand to grab hold of Bunny’s. The electric tingle that went up his ‘arm’ at the contact made him shiver deliciously. Oh, he wasn’t about to give up their usual routine of cuddling any time soon, but he was beginning to see why Tora preferred connecting to Bunny this way.
Even as a coding ghost, the smile was soft and warm, with just a hint of mischief. ~So.~
~Will it do as an early birthday present?~
Kotetsu stared at his partner, then gave a helpless little laugh. Clearly two, or three, could play the sneaky present project game. “It’ll do,” he agreed, and drew the other ghost in for a kiss.
Chapter 11: Sitting Outside the Life Cycle
For all the family’s strong belief in the powers of science, his father had never really bothered with doctor visits.
Had never needed to.
Barnaby Brooks had spent his entire lifetime being healthy as a young racehorse, despite too much coffee, too many late nights, and too many lab accidents. Seeing his father now, lying thin and exhausted much as he himself had once been years ago… It was just wrong.
Colon cancer, they’d been told. It had already started spreading, metasizing into his small intestine and further. No one was willing to give a definite timetable at the time, but it had been clear that even the best treatments in the world would only give him more time, not cure him. And in the end, the chemotherapy and radiation hadn’t even given them that, leeching his father’s strength and good nature and leaving him vulnerable to infections and depression.
Which had brought them to this point.
He spent nearly all his time in quiet vigil these days, keeping his mother company when she was there and just keeping an eye on things when she would finally wear herself down enough that she had to rest or eat. With the show having allowed Tora to temporarily take his place, and all of his friends except Pao-lin and Kaede having retired anyway, there was little in the way of emergencies to distract him.
The concept of a new robot had come up, but nothing had come from it. He'd begun having doubts after the first time he’d seen his mother’s hands shaking too much to handle the delicate wiring. He and Tora could have handled the construction themselves, but neither of them had been comfortable with the idea of having to exclude her from something so important due to physical limitations.
The project quietly died.
He’d just finished giving Kotetsu an update on the current progress -none- when the shift of skin and cloth made him open his eyes. He’d expected just sleep movement, so he was surprised to find his father looking at him, remarkably lucid after days of being in and out of consciousness. “Hey, kiddo.” His father’s voice should never sound like that, he thought, hiding his reflexive alarm at the low, guttural rasp. An unsteady hand reached out, and he held it, trying not to let his sensors read how thin the man’s skin felt. “Where’s your mother?”
“One of the nurses took her down to the cafeteria when I told them she hadn’t eaten today.”
His father made a faint tsking noise. “Always the stubborn one,” he murmured, then gave his hand a weak squeeze. “I’m sorry.”
He blinked, tilting his head a little. “For what?”
“Just… looking at you. You haven’t changed a bit. And that’s our fault.”
“Dad-” he started to say, but his father shook his head, hindered by the breathing mask over his nose.
“We never considered the future effects. We should have. This isn’t fair to you.”
He bit his lip. “You did what you thought was best. It was- I’m grateful.” That earned him another head shake, and his father looked like he wanted to say something else. But it never came as sleep or unconsciousness crept up on him again and he closed his eyes, weak grip loosening completely.
Six hours later, as his mother slept with her head on his shoulder, he felt the heart monitor stop a few seconds before the call alarm for the nurses sounded above their heads. As he held his mother and watched numbly while she cried and the nurses and orderlies tried in vain to revive his father, something in him ached. He’d put it out of mind before, but now he couldn’t help but face the knowledge that this was by far not the first failed vigil he would keep.
“This isn’t fair to you.”
As they sat in the back of the church, mostly unnoticed by the other mourners, Tora could tell that this was going to be the last time. He didn’t even need to look at Angel; the tremors in the hand he held were sign enough.
There would be no more funerals for them after Kaede Kaburagi's.
They didn’t stay once the eulogy had been finished, nor make any plans for attending the graveside. Pao-lin's sudden loss not a month earlier had left Angel as the only one who could handle Kaede's funeral arrangements, and that had taken enough of a toll on him as it was. As soon as they were free to do so, Tora gently guided him from the church to go home.
The house was as silent as ever when they arrived, and Tora hung up their coats before gathering his teacher/lover into his arms. They rarely spoke verbally anymore, choosing to mostly connect through the data streams, but now, he felt it was necessary to say something. “I won’t leave you,” he murmured, stroking soft gold hair.
“I know,” Angel said just as quietly. “Thank you.” He tucked his head under Tora’s chin, just clinging, and Tora let him.
He hated how tired Angel sounded all the time, lately. It had nothing to do with their physical condition; being able to look after each other meant they were still in perfect working order. No, the tiredness came from the fact that now the entire circle of humans they'd allowed themselves to bond with was gone. From the fact that they were now the only still-remaining relics of the second age of heroes. From the fact that Sternbild itself had almost become unrecognizable in their lifetimes and had taken nearly everything familiar and comfortable to them with it.
“We could always go somewhere else,” Tora offered as he let his hand drift lower, rubbing at slumped, tense shoulders. “Start something new.”
“I’ll think about it,” Angel said. And that was that.
It had been awhile since he’d physically been on the field. But all hands on deck damn well meant all hands on deck, and he and Angel joined the fray as first and second stringers alike struggled with some huge… giant… dragon-ish-looking-thing.
“What the hell-”
“It just… dropped out of some kind of big hole in the sky!” Flareburst said, throwing handfuls of sparks at one of six massive eyes to distract the beast from chomping down a knot of fleeing, screaming civilians. Tora launched himself at the head, landing a solid kick at what might have been some kind of ear space, and barely managed to get out of the way as it swung around to come after them. Angel didn’t move as quickly, and Tora made a noise of terror as those sharp white teeth prepared to snap his lover in half-
-then everything around them went blue, and slowed to a halt. Tora landed on the pavement, grabbing Angel out of harm’s way in case time started moving again.
“What a mess.”
The voice -multitude of voices blurring and weaving together in some kind of distorted chorus- sent a shiver through both of them, and they looked up to find what looked like a woman made of space and stars and light examining the creature. She didn’t seem to notice them at all, instead looking past the monster to someone else. “The portal it came through certainly feels like one of ours. What do you think, darling?”
“The readings match,” a man agreed as he came into view. Dark-skinned and dark-haired, he wore some kind of form-fitting flight suit pattered in a similar wasp-carapace style as the light designs etched across the woman’s body. He held a small, beeping device in his hand, scowling at it intently through a pair of goggles.
“E- excuse me,” Angel tried hesitantly when he’d regained his wits. “But what’s going on?”
Both of the newcomers blinked at them in surprise. “Looks like you missed a couple, dear,” the man said.
“So I did,” the woman replied. “Might be for the best, though. Who are you, sweeties?”
“Explain that, first,” Tora said, pointing at the creature, and both looked at it before the man scratched his head, clearly embarrassed.
“Ah. Well… Unfortunately, it was brought here using some of my tech.”
“But you didn’t bring it here, did you?” Angel asked.
“Oh, hardly, dear,” the woman answered, still hovering several feet off the ground. “We originally came here looking for some devices that went missing on our last visit. I would wager whoever has them now is responsible for big, scaly, and stompy here.”
“Your last visit?”
The man smiled, offering a hand. “Doctor Henry Pym, Interdimensional Cartographer. I'm head of a field team that keeps tabs on assorted timelines and pocket dimensions. This is my associate and exploration partner, Janet van Dyne. She provides the power for our little operation.”
"And he's the tech wizard," she added cheerily.
As Angel accepted the handshake, finally looking curious about something for the first time in months, Tora felt a strange little flutter in his chest. Despite his suspicions about the pair, he couldn’t get rid of the sudden feeling that maybe… maybe this would be the ‘something new’ they needed.
Chapter 12: Code Names
It had just been something out of boredom.
He’d never been much of a creative type, preferring to just get things over with. So when he’d been filing their information records for becoming permanent residents of the Infinite Observatory, he’d put them in just as space holders so he could move on to the next questions and get all this over with. They weren’t going to be permanent.
Janet -‘Entity’- had cracked up when she saw them after he’d sent in the files for approval, her attempt at covering her mouth with her hands doing nothing to muffle the thousands of twittering giggles. Henry -‘Yellowjacket’- had merely shaken his head with a wry grin and said something about it passing legal since copyrights were not yet enforceable across dimensions.
He still wasn’t intending on keeping them, though. Angel had always been much better at that sort of thing, so Tora had been planning on letting him pick something more suitable before their information was codified into the vast server space of records the Observatory hosted.
But when Angel saw them, he had laughed. Not a polite chuckle or a nervous giggle or that quiet noise of amusement he sometimes made. Angel had honest to God laughed for the first time Tora could remember in years, resting his head against his partner's shoulder as he recovered his composure.
He'd had to leave them alone after that.
And he also had to admit that the looks on a few of their new cohorts’ faces when Henry brought them to be presented to the other long-term residents during the ‘evening’ meal were worth preserving as well.
“All right, everyone. We have two new members of the corps to introduce. Welcome, ‘Skynet’ and ‘Matrix’.”
Chapter 13: Stray
In which Barnaby and Tora (sort of) get a pet, because I couldn't let *all* their adventures before meeting Hao be angsty.
“Look, really, the longer you fight, the worse this is going to go for you. Just-“
“I won’t take orders from some bitch NEXT!”
Barnaby rolled his eyes with an exaggerated sigh as Tora dropped down beside him and tossed aside the ruined cables of one of the wall turrets. “They think you’re a NEXT? That’s almost cute now.”
“We must have dropped into a world where my counterpart is organic,” Barnaby said, skirting the ruined shell of one rather rudimentary robot that had made the mistake of attacking him directly. “This is getting old fast, though.”
“Well, maybe you could try-“ A snarl from above them cut off whatever Tora was about to say, and something huge launched itself over the railing from the fourth floor balcony to land with a thud in front of them. Ignoring the humans entirely, Barnaby focused on the new assailant.
Quadrupedal and massive enough that his head only reached its shoulder, the shape was somewhere between canine and feline, as if the designer couldn’t pick a side. But it was rather pretty, though. Someone had clearly put a lot more effort into it than any of the other robots that had attacked them. Maybe it had a lot more in its head, too. Curiosity and design appreciation took over, and he stopped Tora from lunging at it, instead reaching out over the data streams into the creature’s neural control systems.
-‘Override: Central 822EC001’-
The creature snarled again, pawing at its head in confusion for a moment, then leaped at him-
-only to skid to a halt inches away and lower its head to lick his face, earning a surprised squeak.
He’d expected to break the command control, but he hadn’t expected that. Wondering what he’d caused by setting it ‘loose’, he ‘touched’ the central systems again to find out what the base layer programming had come from, then grinned.
“Aww, you’re just a puppy under those big scary casings, aren’t you?” he cooed, rubbing the big robot’s nose as Tora poorly tried to muffle his laughter at the confused outrage of the creature’s masters. “You’re really a good girl, aren’t you? Yes, you are!” Happy for the petting and attention, 'she' nuzzled him and purred, long broad tail swishing back and forth in a sort of wag.
“EC-001!” a voice snapped; the same man who'd insulted Barnaby before stood at the top of a pile of rubble, a control device in his hands. “What do you think you’re doing? Stop this foolishness at once!”
Both androids gave him duly unimpressed looks, then Barnaby tugged lightly on the mechanical creature’s ear. “Go bite him.” The big robot actually yipped before bounding off to do just that, gleefully chasing ‘her’ former masters down the hall.
“Not bad,” Tora said with amused approval as he leaned on a railing.
“Can we keep her?”
That got a surprised blink. “Can we what?”
“Please? It’s not like we don’t have the space for her. The observatory’s infinite size, after all. And you know the good doctor would be interested in looking at her.”
“Still, she’s kind of- Oh, God, don’t do that,” Tora groaned when Barnaby gave him a pleading look. “That’s not fair- ugh, fine, if it’ll cheer you up a little. But you get to handle her maintenance sessions.”
And EC-001 “Ada Lovelace” was added to the corps roster.
Chapter 14: Threads Across Space and Time
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
As long as he can remember, Hao has always been plagued by strange dreams.
From the time he falls asleep in calligraphy class and dreams of being able to jump an entire building, to the time he dreams of a wedding and wakes up wondering if he’d been dreaming of a funeral instead because of all the white.
But then he dreams of an actual funeral, and for reasons he can’t explain, it leaves him depressed for days, even though he knows that no one around him has died. In the weeks after that, he dreams of a child who isn’t his, who misses him and is disappointed in him and he wishes he knew who she was so he could make her happy again.
He tries telling his parents about the dreams once. His mother drags him off by the ear to a spiritualist and he spends the rest of the afternoon desperately trying not to sneeze from all the incense that choked the air.
After that, he keeps quiet, and just lets the dreams come without comment.
The strangest dreams of all come after he finishes earthbending classes and is judged strong enough to be sent to Republic City to begin learning how to bend metal. There he dreams of armored suits and brightly colored costumes and daring rescues in a city even bigger than his new home, built on pillars that lift it towards the sky.
And as he learns to shape the metal and make it move and follow his desires, he dreams of a young man made of metal cloaked in skin, of warm laughter and shy adoring smiles and bright green eyes, and he can almost feel the steel pulling at him, calling him.
Those dreams leave him aching when he wakes up, and he can’t explain why.
The anti-benders are out in force again, hiding under the guise of a labor riot so they can cause trouble. He drops one that tries to get the jump on him and ties up another, when suddenly, he feels it.
He nearly gets knocked out by a swung pole before recovering and flattening his attacker with a swift kick and a following dirt wave, then uses a wire to yank himself up above the crowd. He scans through it, trying to focus, to find the source of that pull, because he knows it has to be-
He drops back into the melee. His target is dark-haired and dark-skinned, more like a Water Tribesman than the confusing young man who appears his sleep, but he can feel the metal lurking under skin, drawing him in closer. His quarry escapes the mass of people and ducks down an alley, and he gives chase, using his wires to quickly close the gap. The brat is light on his feet and agile, but Hao is no slouch himself despite the heavy uniform he wears. He just needs the right opening…
One wire to snare around the legs, another to trap the man’s wrists at his throat, and he goes down with a yelp when Hao knocks him off balance and uses his weight to pin him. This close, every inch of his skin is practically itching with the sensation of the mechanics humming in the man’s body, sending an uncomfortably warm sensation through him. And when Hao finally gets the chance to look him in the face, he sees those eyes, and he knows.
“Get rid of the disguise,” he growls softly, tightening the wires in warning when his captive hesitates, feigning innocence as he looks away. “Do it.”
The stranger swallows nervously, then complies, and Hao sucks in a breath as black hair bleeds to pale gold, tanned skin lightens to cream, and facial structure shifts subtly. When the alterations are complete, Hao is staring at the young man from his dreams.
He knew it.
He knew it.
But still, knowing and seeing can sometimes be entirely different things, and for a moment, Hao can’t manage to form words. Then, softly, almost reverently, he finds himself touching the man’s face, brushing his fingers over a soft mouth. “It’s you,” he breathes weakly, and barely restrains himself from the sudden, desperate urge to kiss his captive.
He’s not insane.
He’s not overimaginative.
The proof is right here, staring at him in apprehensive confusion, clearly wanting to escape this stranger touching him. Well, he can fix that. Maybe. He hopes. Sitting back on his knees, he strips off the helmet and mask of his armored uniform, and is relieved when those eyes widen just a little in recognition.
Maybe now, he find out what it is he’s been missing.
After convincing his mysterious/familiar captive to explain what was going on, he’d been taken to a hiding place within the city where a bearded man in a red flowing cape had drawn strange symbols of light around him and spoken in a language he didn’t understand, before declaring him “likely”.
Whatever that meant.
Then others with clothing and bodies that also didn’t make sense had grilled him about what dreams he’d been having and for how long, until a woman made of stars -stars, of all things- shooed them off. And during all of it, that man had quietly watched him with a sad, anxious look that seemed so out of place on him for some reason. He’d never looked like that in the dreams.
He’d been left alone, then, and still sits in the same room now, disoriented and no more sure of anything than he had been before.
The door opens, and he feels that metal pull again as another sort familiar face greets him.
“So, it’s actually you this time.”
Hao blinks up at the man, not quite sure he understands. “This time?”
“Our first few missions with this group- some of the worlds we visited… Mostly he just wanted to help, but he’d never really let go of you. Some versions he was able to aid while keeping his distance. Others let him down gently once they figured out something was off. But a few… They were happy to take advantage of the resemblance before we could catch them out as not being the correct one.”
He’s not sure what boggles him more; all this talk of world hopping like it’s some normal thing like patrolling the streets, or the idea that there are other versions of him out there -which is stupid, again, because he exists in a world separate from the one he’s dreamed about, doesn’t he?- and that any of them would actually use their shared face to hurt the man who haunted his dreams. He remembers that pained, almost frightened look, and shivers, wishing he hadn’t asked at all.
“You shouldn’t have followed him.”
He blinks again up at the face that’s similar -not quite, the eyes are silver to his own green and the skin is as tan as the disguise his mysterious stranger wore- to his own. He knows this one somehow, too, now that he thinks about it, but he can’t come up with name yet. “Why not?”
“You’re only going to hurt him again.”
He remembers flickering emotions around this one, strange changes of color that are somehow important, and though he stays still, the distrust must have shown on his face, because silver eyes narrow and the man leans even closer.
“Don’t even try to turn this on me,” he warns, the softness of his voice seeming all the more dangerous. “This has nothing to do with my feelings and everything to do with protecting him. Can you even imagine the slightest inkling of what it was like for him right after you died?”
His breath catches in his throat for a second, because the logical part of his mind knows he would have had to die in that other life in order to be here now… and yet he honestly… hadn’t thought about it. The dreams had never progressed that far. “I-“
“He went home from the funeral and didn’t wake up for a month. A month. It took me half that time just to convince Kaede that he hadn’t committed some misguided form of suicide, and, if we’re being quite frank, even I didn’t know if he was ever going to come back from that. And I won't ever let him have to go through it again.”
Hao swallows thickly and stares down at the floor as the weight of that slowly sinks in. The mention of Kaede only makes it worse because he knows that's the disappointed child he sees in his mind sometimes. “I’m sorry,” he says, thinking of that pained expression again. “I wouldn’t have-” He wants to say ‘planned it that way’, but since he really has no idea how he died, he can’t even be sure. Any further words stick in his throat as he finally understands what he’s being told.
The door closes as the other man leaves.
He’s not sure if he’s a prisoner or not. They clearly haven’t decided whether or not to trust him, and yet after he’d done an inspection turn of the room, it was evident they’d put him somewhere he could easily escape from, despite knowing his powers.
One of the kids who’d been prodding at him earlier comes by with food. Pale as a Fire Nation girl, but with eyes so black that everything is swallowed in them, once the door closes behind her, her hair washes from black to pink and insect-like wings sprout from her back as he stares in mixed curiosity and horror. “Is… everyone on the team…um… different from humans?” he fumbles.
“Nope. I’m human,” she says with an accent he still has trouble understanding, and he barely manages to swallow back a noise of disbelief. “These are no different in my world than you being able to move the ground is here,” she adds, jerking a thumb back in the direction of her wings.
He considers that for a second and decides that he doesn’t really have anything to argue back with since she probably knows a lot more than he does about the rules of different worlds. “Fair enough,” he admits.
“Any other easy questions?”
“How long has it been?” She tilts her head in confusion, rather like a leopard-wolf puppy, and he makes a small embarrassed noise before trying to clarify. “I know how old I am, but I don’t… I’m not sure how long it’s been since the other me died.”
“Oh. Well, I couldn’t really tell you that.”
“Because time’s not the same on every world. Some move faster, some move slower, and they don’t all start in the same spot or have the same events pushing them along.”
“So… you wouldn’t know how long you’ve been doing this, for example?”
“Nope! See, everyone in the corps is disconnected from any one time stream. That's what lets us work more effectively. So we’re all just kind of... stopped, I guess. None of us change unless we decide to pick a time stream as our home and connect to it.”
An idea slowly started to take shape in his head at that bit of information. “Even the ones who'd be mortal at home?”
Once she’d gone, he chewed quietly at his food, thinking. If he stayed here, the dream person -'Rory,' 'Barnaby,' ‘Bunny’, he’d finally remembered, though for the life of him, he couldn’t come up with why he’d insist on calling someone the last one, no matter how cute they were- could visit him, but he’d get old and die, or get sick, or get killed. That was obviously what the metal man who looked like him had been insinuating.
He couldn’t do that to Bunny again. But now that he was starting to get more answers and regain some memories, it was getting harder and harder to think about just letting him and the other one vanish forever and take all that with them.
If he went with them…
Once he'd found out whom he needed to see in order to sign on, the starry woman was surprisingly easy to contact. He briefly wonders if she can just hear thoughts directed at her, to have come so quickly.
“Yes,” she says suddenly from nearby in that weird distorted voice of hers, nearly startling him out of his chair, and laughs at him as he scrambles to regain his balance.
Okay. He’d deserved that.
Despite the joke at his expense, she’s also very easy to talk to, for a woman made of stars, and agrees to make the proper disconnections provided that he heeds her advice that he should put his affairs in order as much as possible if he truly intends to join their "motley little crew of dimensional misfits," as she calls them. She tells him he has a week before she'll return to bring her people back to wherever it is they call home, and if he isn't ready, he isn't going.
So he makes a list.
Resigning from the force is easy enough. He was good at his job, but he’d never really made any friends among his peers, and there were new recruits being brought in every six months. Even if he’s missed at all, it wouldn’t be for long. The same for what few personal connections he'd made outside of it. There'd been a couple of failed relationships, a drinking buddy or two, and that was about it.
Sending a letter to his family is a little harder. He hasn’t exactly kept in close contact, but he isn’t sure how to tell them he’s going away forever. He finally settles on just telling them he’s going to begin looking for some ethereal source to the strange dreams he’s still having, because that will make them the least interested in following it up. He can even picture his father shaking his head and muttering “The boy just isn’t right,” as he seals up the letter and visits his hawk in the station's cote for the last time.
Finally, he goes to see his ‘brother’- ‘Tora’, he now knows- to tell him what he’s doing.
He’s rehearsed his responses to any arguments given so much that it throws him entirely off his guard when the other man just nods, looking oddly pleased. “You’re- ah- you’re okay with this?” he manages to squeak.
“I guess you don’t remember that much yet.”
“So… I guess we made peace at some point, then?” he asks, and Tora nods again.
“He loves me in ways you can’t have, and he loves you in ways I can’t have. And I’m fine with that, now. Having to share again is still better than any of the alternatives, so if you're really willing to go through with this, I'll let you.”
“Uh, yeah, I am,” he says rather stupidly, still reeling a little.
But he suddenly feels a whole lot better.
The kits are being tied up and their illusion disguises are back in place as the strangers prepare to hike out of the city and back to the landing site. Hao quietly waits in a corner of the room, unsure, until he catches Tora making a rather insistent motion almost out of his line of sight.
Then he swallows, screws up his courage, and approaches as Barnaby finishes tying the straps of his bag closed. “Hey, Bunny.”
The other man’s head jerks up, eyes wide in surprise at the unexpected name, and he reaches out to catch the bag that slips from frozen hands before it can hit the ground.
“Y-yes?” Barnaby asks him hesitantly, and the look on the man’s face makes Hao reach out to wrap arms around his shoulders, trying to ignore the hum of metal under skin.
“I know this is sudden, but- Mind if I tag along? For old time's sake?”
Barnaby just stares at him for a minute, thrown off by the teasing air he forces into the loaded question. Then he understands. A faint, achingly familiar smile finally crosses his mouth for the first time since the they met in the riot and it sends a little rush through him that just melts all the tension away. He holds on a little tighter, and Barnaby buries his face against his neck, voice soft and warm like he remembers.
“No. I don’t mind at all.”
What? You thought I was gonna throw in a possibility of dimensional travel and not do something like this? You don't know me very well, then.
Chapter 15: Made In That Image
They’d split up as they explored the compound, and he’d gone looking for anything that resembled defense systems. A promising signal led him deeper into the building, and like every other, the door’s keypad was easy to override.
It was what was inside that stopped him dead.
He stared, frozen, at all the copies of Kotetsu’s old appearance sealed in mechanical tubes or puttering about doing menial tasks. Red-eyed and blank-faced, none of them noticed his presence. Connected to the data streams, he only saw hollow voids where each of them was.
They had no ghosts.
They didn’t even have minds.
There was nothing there except for the pinging sound of wireless remote connections and black chains of pre-programmed commands. The thought came to him of what the others had described the robot girl who came before him as being like. And H-01 as well.
He suddenly felt lightheaded with anger, a strange sort of almost giddy feeling, as understanding sank in like a knife. “Oh,” he murmured, a weak, uncomfortable giggle hitching the words. “You’re my original purpose.”
At the sound of his voice, one of the robots turned a dead-eyed red stare on him, and something in the back of his mind snapped. White-hot rage blanked out his thoughts, and its head crunched satisfyingly between the wall and his hand before he tore a hole in the next.
Hands grabbed him by the arms from either side, snapping him out of the stupor of hate, and when he looked around, the entire room had been taken apart. Pieces of robots lay scattered about on the floor, embedded in the walls, snared in shredded, sparking, wires that hung uselessly from the ceiling. Looking down, he found there was hardly anything left of the one he’d attacked last.
And finally, he looked up into the worried faces of his partners.
“I hate them,” he rasped weakly, unable to explain what was going through his head in more coherent terms. It was more than just the appearance -he'd gotten over that long ago when he and Kotetsu had found their understanding- it was the purpose, the inventor, the patron… but he couldn’t make the words come out. “I hate them,” was all he could say again, closer to a sob as he became aware of the fact that he was shaking.
Thankfully, as always, Angel seemed to understand, expression softening from something akin to fear to warm concern. The other android released his arm and knelt down beside him, wrapping him into a tight hug. “Shh. I know,” he murmured, running fingers through dark hair. Tora buried his face into his partner’s neck, the aching need and inability to cry crashing over him as he clutched at the other android's shirt. There was a crunch behind him as Hao crouched down in the mess of shredded metal and bits of circuitry, then another hand was on his back, rubbing gently.
When he’d finally managed to pull himself back together, they carefully helped him to his feet and out of the room.
He couldn’t make himself look back.
Chapter 16: Advice
One of the nice things about the tech in the Infinite Observatory was that he and Tora no longer needed to be plugged in to recharge. Being able to constantly draw power meant being able to work much more efficiently for much longer, at least as long as they were within the Observatory’s reach.
“Hard at work again, I see.”
He no longer jumped at the sound of the crowd voice within his skull, and simply tilted his head back as Janet appeared behind him. The electromagnetic tingle of her presence still made him shiver a bit, but he smiled despite it. “Just running some numbers for Doctor Pym on that star system Kurt and Cassandra went to.”
“Mmhmm,” she murmured, lightly draping herself over his back and resting her chin on top of his head to look at the light GUIs scattered about them, and he leaned into her a bit in return. Getting used to her touchy demeanor with everyone had been awkward at first, but more and more often, he found it kind of comforting. “You know,” she said without looking down at him. “Henry got himself killed in the process of building the Observatory.”
Barnaby blinked and stiffened, startled by this sudden dark turn in what had previously been a mundane conversation, but she continued as if she hadn’t noticed. “I nearly had a heart attack, even though I already didn’t have a physical heart anymore. All the time I’d spent searching, rebuilding, recovering, and then he died anyway just a few days after the colonies had been completed and I’d ascended.”
“Of course, he regenerated,” she added with a faint scowl as she shifted position to rest her chin on his shoulder instead. “In all the fascinating scientific chaos of constructing the colonies, and then the Observatory, he’d forgotten to tell me about that little detail. Scientists.” The eyeroll was evident in her voice, and Barnaby found himself hiding a smile. “I don’t remember exactly, but I think I hit him after I hugged him.”
“Miss Janet… I always like hearing your stories, but I have a feeling this is going somewhere specific this time.”
“Very perceptive. You've always been a smart cookie,” she said, poking his cheek teasingly. “And I’m getting there. See, even though I know he and Greer are immortal now that they’re under my keep, that all of you are, and that my friends who joined the Asgardians can now be reincarnated, there are still times I worry about all of you. And worrying is perfectly natural. It’s a holdover from the times when we all weren’t immortal. But here’s the thing; you can’t let it become your only modus operandi, because sometimes the ones you worry the most about would rather have your company than your concern.”
Barnaby bit his lip, and looked down at his work, then a faint, rueful smile crossed his mouth. Caught. He’d been mostly avoiding thinking about it, at least as much as possible, but the surveillance feeds of the training rooms and the room Hao and Tora sometimes shared when they felt like it had been on his observation deck more than once just in the last celestial hour alone. “Did either of them ask you to talk to me?”
“Give me more credit than that, sweetie. There’s not much that escapes my notice here. This place was made from me, after all.”
“True. I’m sorry.” She drew back to give him space to move, and he began closing down windows. “Would… would it be all right if I didn’t finish this task right away?”
“I’m sure Henry won’t mind letting it keep for a little while. It’s not as though we’re pressed for time.” It was a terrible joke, really, but he still relaxed a tiny bit when she gave him a light, affectionate kiss on the forehead.
“Thank you, Miss Janet.”
“No problem, darling. If you want to make it up to me later, however, it’s been the equivalent of eons since I’ve gotten to kick anyone’s ass in a video game,” she added with a vicious grin.
He snorted. Like the touchy-feeliness, her mercurial changes of mood and subject had taken some adjusting to. “I’ll see what I can find, then.”
She waved cheerily and vanished, and he finished shutting down his work and turned gravity in the room back on before landing and heading out into the winding hallways.
Both of his partners were sleeping, and he made a small hand motion to re-merge the separate beds into the one large one that they very rarely all shared. Shedding his outer suit, he laid down, reaching out to brush a light hand over Hao’s hair, and again to ‘brush’ at Tora’s ghost. If he’d still had any doubts about Janet’s advice, being latched onto from both ‘directions’ without either of the other two even waking up dispelled them quickly. He couldn’t help a weak laugh at the situation, then as his partners snuggled closer, the tension in his body fully eased for the first time since Hao had stepped into the Observatory, and he closed his eyes to sleep.