Barnaby would never have admitted it aloud, especially not within Kotetsu’s hearing, but his partner’s new hero name terrified him. It was a constant reminder of how much had changed, but worse it was a like a timer continually ticking away in the back of his mind. One minute. They had all seen how quickly any situation that required Hero attention could change. Hell, even the day he had learned about Kotestu’s reduced power had been clear evidence of how little leeway that one minute gave them, that one minute very nearly leaving him without a partner. And yet here they were, still Heroes, still out here risking their lives day after day…still risking Kotetsu’s life.
Because as much as he hated to admit it that time limit was a risk, and part of him wanted to say it to Kotetsu, to make his partner see just how much he was risking each time he went into the field. He wanted to tell Kotetsu that he could stop, that he didn’t need to keep being Hero, that he had nothing to prove to the world, to Kaede…to Barnaby. He wanted to plead with him to stop, to whisper the fears that kept him awake too many nights. He wouldn’t though, because he knew that Kotetsu wasn’t still here for any of those reasons. He wasn’t even still here for his sake, although he had made it plain that he probably retire again when Kotetsu did.
No, Kotetsu had returned to being a Hero and continued to be one in the face of the limitations, naysayers and mishaps that came with his reduced time limit because that was who he was. He was a Hero. It didn’t matter if he was wearing the suit, if he was alight with his power or relying on the tools, they were introducing to stretch that one minute to it’s maximum, or whether he was just his usual, chaotic self walking down the street. He wanted to help. He needed to help. That had been one of the reasons Barnaby had returned, and why he had pushed so hard to remain his partner even if he could admit that his power should’ve had him back with the main Heroes. Maverick had shown him one side to being a Hero, one that left the taste of ashes in his mouth, whereas Kotetsu had always shown him another one. Was still showing him one, and that was why he was still here, the doubts and fears kept under wraps as he glanced across at his partner as Kotetsu donned his suit.
He had spent days after one near miss had landed his partner in the hospital attempting to calculate everything that could possibly go wrong in a minute and everything that could be done to eke out those precious seconds, to make sure his partner kept coming back alive if not in one piece. He’d made lists, calculations, and wound up so hyped on coffee that he’d scared Kotetsu when he’d gone to visit the idiot in hospital. All of it had pointed to the fact that one minute just simply wasn’t enough, that there were too many variables, too many things that could go wrong, and that one day, whether sooner or later, it wasn’t going to be enough time.
Those calculations were playing through his mind now as they sped towards the skyscraper where their target was supposedly holed up, his suit creaking in protest as his hands clenched tightly on the edges of the sidecar.
It was a mantra in the back of his mind, a countdown that was waiting to start. He glanced across at his partner, wondering if the other man had the same countdown in his head, but he couldn’t see Kotetsu’s face at this angle, and he was focused on the road. Focused on getting to the scene, on being a Hero…on risking his life again.
Metal creaked in protest again, and not for the first time Barnaby wondered what would happen if he put a stop to this. If he put his foot down and refused to attend. He would still go, he thought, answering his own unspoken question with a heavy heart. Deep down he knew that he could probably find the right approach, the words that would convince Kotetsu to stop and hang up his suit. Just as he knew that the other man wasn’t ready and that he would regret leaving before he was ready…and that at some point those feelings would bleed through into resentment, or some other seeping, innocuous feeling that would ruin what they had. He was honest enough, at least with himself, to know that was a large part of his silence because he wasn’t ready to lose this, not yet.
He just prayed that he wouldn’t run out of time.
As they scaled the side of the building, their path lit by the lights of the circling police and media helicopters Barnaby could almost pretend that nothing had changed. Almost. Because while his own form was glowing faintly, power pulsating through him as he bounded up the wall, aware that he was very much living up to his nickname at the moment, Kotetsu was on his heels. Only there was no comforting glow of his power, which was being saved in case anything went wrong, and the steady catch and release of the grapple that was allowing him to barely keep pace with Barnaby. If he misfires. If the grapple breaks… He couldn’t think like that, not now, and he forced himself to look away, to focus on reaching the roof and on the reports flying in over their communicator, his heart sinking at the mention of a hostage.
“Kotetsu…” Don’t do anything reckless…
“I know,” Kotetsu answered the unspoken words, but not without hesitation, and Barnaby knew what he wasn’t saying. I’m sorry, I can’t promise that, and not for the first time he wished that he didn’t understand his partner so well. That he didn’t know that Kotetsu could never promise not to be reckless when someone was in danger, and he cursed under his breath before lunging forward, using his powers to force himself higher, faster, anything to get to the top first.
To keep Kotetsu safe.
He should have known that it wouldn’t be that easy, and he had a split second to appreciate the fact that Kotetsu’s ceaseless training was paying off as he easily matched his acceleration, although ragged breathing over the communicator told him that it wasn’t without effort. Then they were up and over the edge, landing on the roof in perfect sync, as though nothing had changed, and for a moment Barnaby forgot about his doubts, and the countdown waiting to go off in his mind.
“STAY BACK!” Reality came rushing back with the sharp shout, and Barnaby moved to cover Kotetsu without thinking even as he searched for the source, the light of a circling helicopter illuminating two figures near the roof access and he tensed as he realised that the hostage was considerably smaller than the other. A child. He held out an arm to stop Kotetsu who had just realised the same, a beam of light now focused on their target, no doubt to give the audience at home a better view. “I’ll shoot.”
“No, you won’t,” Kotetsu said firmly, a tone that Barnaby had only heard a couple of times and when he glanced at his partner, it was to find that he usually jovial features had hardened even as the older man took a cautious step forward and then another.
“Kotetsu what are you doing?” Barnaby demanded, torn as his partner pushed by his halting hand. He knew that at the moment he could easily stop the other man, but he never wanted to use his power against Kotetsu ever again, and so he settled for following him and hissing urgently. “Kotetsu?”
“If you shoot her the whole world is going to see,” Kotetsu was ignoring him, utterly focused on what Barnaby could now see was a man only a little older than himself, before tilting his head towards the circling helicopters. “The whole world will see, and they will know your face, and there will be no coming back from this.”
“There’s no coming back from this.” The words lacked the volume and alarm of the earlier shout, but there was a finality to them that had Barnaby tensing, especially as the man was beginning to back up, away from them, away from the roof access. Towards the edge and the sheer drop waiting beyond. “Either I shoot, or we fall…that’s the only options we have left.”
“Is that really what you want for your daughter?” Kotetsu asked, voice calm and it took Barnaby a moment to register what he had said because he was caught up in how focused his partner was. Daughter? Out here, they were more visible, and he realised that there was more than a passing resemblance to their features and his eyes narrowed.
“Your daughter?” He demanded incredulously.
“His daughter,” Kotetsu confirmed, still inching forward. “Who he just got told he was losing custody of, probably because of his NEXT powers although maybe there’s something more to it…”
“I would never hurt her!”
“You don’t think this is hurting her?” Barnaby asked although he had to admit that there was no way of knowing whether the tears in the girl’s eyes were because of her father holding her while armed with a gun, or because he was in trouble. “This isn’t the way to convince them to let you stay with your daughter.” His instincts screaming at him to end this now. But they didn’t know what the man’s powers were yet, and Kotetsu’s words seemed to have struck a nerve, as panicked eyes were now locked on his partner.
“He’s right,” Kotetsu added, still moving closer, although he paused when the gun twitched towards him, trying to appear as unthreatening as he could in his Hero suit. “You need to stop this, and let your daughter go. Then we can talk about this.” Barnaby heard the creeping note of doubt this time because they both knew how this would go. The Heroes had done a lot towards getting people to except NEXTs, but it was a work in progress, and incidents like this were always treated harshly.
He could see the same realisation in the way the man glanced towards the edge which was far too close now, back at them and down at his daughter, and he was already moving, even before the man closed his eyes. However, Kotetsu was quicker, blue flaring around him as he darted forward with a shout that had Barnaby’s blood running cold, even as the dreaded countdown started up in the back of his mind. One minute.
“Bunny, I’m sorry!”
The answer came in the shape of Kotetsu lunging forward, a blur of blue and determination as he closed the gap between himself and the pair before they had even cleared the edge. The girl was the first he grabbed, and Barnaby knew that Kaede was in his thoughts as even in his desperation he was gentle as he pulled her back onto the roof and nudged her back to safety. However, he didn’t stop there, still moving forward, still heading towards the edge. Then he had hold of the man, a harsh yank forcing the gun out of his hand and sending it tumbling down to the street below, but he was still moving. Twisting until he was behind the man, his eyes meeting Barnaby’s for a second and there was still no fear, no hesitation, as he tossed the man back up onto the roof. “Catch!”
Stunned, Barnaby did, grabbing him in iron grip with a growled warning not to try anything, but his gaze was on Kotetsu waiting for him to grab the edge, to bound back onto the roof with him, or hell, even to use the grapple that had got him up here in the first place. Instead, the chill that had gripped him when Kotetsu had apologised turned to ice when he realised that there was a fading gleam of blue around his captive’s hands and that Kotetsu was falling, suit dark even though the blue glow of his power remained.
Falling, and making no effort to catch himself.
“Kotetsu!” There was no hesitation, no debate about what was more important here. The old Barnaby would’ve faltered and tried to find some way to ensure they didn’t lose the criminal and stayed within the rules. But today he dropped the Next to the floor with a sharp, overpowered clip to the forehead, not enough to kill him, but enough to stop him escaping before charging forwards without a backwards look. He didn’t have much time left, and he cursed himself for activating his power so early even as he flung himself over the edge in pursuit of his partner.
It wasn’t going to be enough time.
Numbers, calculations, a scenario that he had thought about but never wanted to contemplate happening right in front of his eyes, terror gripping him as he saw the blue around Kotetsu beginning to flicker. One minute. His power isn’t going to last… Barnaby’s was barely going to last, and he was pushing it to the limit, trying to catch up to the falling figure of his partner, aware of a second countdown starting in the corner of his display. It’s not enough. One minute is not enough.
The ground was rushing towards them, and Barnaby was barely aware of the fact that he was screaming, praying. Shattering under the knowledge that he wasn’t going to make it in time. That the doubts and fears that he had been holding at bay for so long were about to come true in front of his eyes.
For a second, he thought that the flash of blue was just a figment of his imagination, a trick of the tears that were blurring his eyes. Then Ice was rushing to meet him, cracking beneath the impact as he slammed into it, before it hardened again, slowly his fall and guiding him to earth and he was vaguely aware that it had to be Blue Rose…that it was Karina who had saved him. However, he only had eyes for Kotetsu, twisting awkwardly against the ice, breath catching as he found his partner coming to rest at a graceful curve of ice
“K-Kotetsu.” His voice cracked and broke, just as the ice around him shattered as he scrambled to his feet just as the blue glow faded from around him. He staggered across to Kotetsu, fumbling to remove his helmet as he dropped to his side, paying no mind to the alarmed voices around him, the rush of feet as medics arrived on the scene, or the glimpse of familiar suits out of the corner of his eyes. One minute, he thought with a brittle, broken laugh that was more like a sob as he reached out to grasp Kotetsu’s hand, reaching up with his other hand to remove his partner’s helmet. It was only when it fell to the side, granting him a clear view of closed eyes, and lips parted as his partner drew in ragged breaths, that he felt something in his chest relax.
One minute is all it would take for me to lose you.