“Careful! He’s a NEXT!”
Wild Tiger heard the shout, but didn’t need the warning. He saw it for himself as Whorl turned and shot crystal spikes out of his hand, one of them lancing right through Lunatic’s torso. He winced involuntarily, but the wound hardly seemed to phrase Lunatic. Of course. He’s probably freaking immortal or something, he grumbled inwardly.
He activated his power, determined not to waste a single one of his sixty precious seconds. Sky High had cornered Lunatic, sounded like, but Tiger only had eyes for Whorl. The man was sick, picking off young couples out for a night on the town. The corpses he made of the men were bad enough, but the women…
Crystal spikes shattered on his armor, and he delivered a massive punch to the man’s gut with a roar. Whorl went down, but lashed out again with his power.
Pain blinded Kotetsu for a moment—why did criminals always go for that shoulder?—but he didn’t let it slow him down. He only had fifteen more seconds, after all.
Whorl snarled, threw spike after spike at him, and Kotetsu was forced to dodge as the clock ran down, down, down. He leaped forward, seeing an opening, and stretched his hand out to grab the criminal by the neck.
The blue glow died. He missed by inches. Whorl’s lips spread in a sick smile at the change, and he turned to flee.
Only to be met with a kick to the face as Barnaby stepped forward. He went flying, but not for long—Barnaby snatched him out of the air and cuffed his hands, making some quip for the camera as he did so.
Tiger forced a smile onto his face. Barnaby couldn’t see him behind the mask, but he’d be able to hear it when he spoke. “Nice catch, Bunny.”
“You distracted him,” Barnaby said, sketching a little salute to him—for the camera, of course. He handed Whorl off to the authorities, then headed back to Kotetsu. “You want to come out tonight? Karina found a new karaoke bar she wants to show you. Oops, I mean us.”
The pain in his shoulder spiked, and he shook his head. “Sorry. Whorl grazed me a little. Not bad,” he assured his partner, when Barnaby flipped up his visor to reveal concern. “I just want to go wrap it up before it gets infected.”
“Come to the med center, then.”
“Nah, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. You go.”
Barnaby wavered. “It’s not as much fun when you’re not there.”
Kotetsu laughed, buddy-punching the other man on the shoulder. “Go on. You’ll have fun. Get Antonio to stand you a drink. Make sure you don’t sit next to Nathan. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Only after Barnaby was gone did Kotetsu sag down to the ground, exhausted. His shoulder burned. He’d be lucky if he could use it at all, come morning.
He used his wires to get back down to the ground, the changing station set up to get him out of his suit, and hopped into his car. Without quite meaning to, he found himself turning down the familiar road to Judge Petrov’s house. I’ll just be really careful not to wake up his mother. What if he’s asleep? Well, if all the lights are off, I won’t go in. Or at least I’ll only knock once or twice.
He wasn’t quite sure what he’d tell Yuri when he got there, or how he’d explain that he’d rather trade old war stories with Yuri than go out with his friends, at least tonight. Maybe it was because Yuri wasn’t a NEXT. He wouldn’t look at Kotetsu’s declining powers and think he was useless.
No, he thought I was useless when I had all five minutes, Kotetsu thought with a lopsided grin. Strangely, the gray-haired man had been more friendly, not less, after Kotetsu had started losing his powers. He might be condescending, snide, and too fair for his own good, but Kotetsu liked all those things about him. The more time he spent with Yuri, the more things he found to like.
He couldn’t help turn over the night’s events in his mind. He’d been too slow, too old, too clumsy again. Barnaby had gotten the arrest again, and deserved it, and given him undeserved credit for the set-up.
Am I turning into Mr. Legend, letting arrests be staged for me? Or am I just so useless that they have to take pity on me?
No. That wouldn’t do. If he weren’t tired and in pain, he’d never have thoughts like that. He’d distracted Whorl for long enough. The man had been arrested. It even looked like they’d gotten a few good hits in on Lunatic. The night had been a success, and he shouldn’t spend it in morose contemplation.
Morose contemplation…that sounds like something Yuri would say. Kotetsu made up his mind that after he bound up his shoulder, he’d drag Yuri out to Karina’s new karaoke joint. It would do the other man good, to be around people other than judges and his mother for a change. Kotetsu wondered if he had a nice singing voice. Probably, given how smooth and deep his speaking voice was.
At first, Kotetsu saw no lights on in the Petrov home, and sighed. Then, about to knock anyway, he noticed the door was open. He eased it open farther, calling softly, “Hello? Yuri? Mrs. Petrov?”
No answer. He flicked on a light—he’d been to the Petrov home enough times to know where it was—and saw the blood on the floor.
Adrenaline coursed through him, but he had another half-hour before he could use his powers again. This would have to be all him, then.
The door in the hall was open. That was especially strange because as far as Kotetsu knew, there was no door in the hall. He ran through every visit he’d made with his mother, but came to the same conclusion: there had never been a door in the hall before.
He pulled out his phone, held it in his left hand, ready to call Barnaby immediately if there was any danger. Cautiously, he peered through the hall door, into pitch darkness. “Well,” he muttered to himself, groping blindly for a light, “good thing this isn’t too creepy or anything.”
No light was forthcoming, so he used his cell phone. It provided just barely enough light for him to see the stairs.
At the bottom was a body.
He couldn’t make out any more details, dark as it was, but he fumbled his way to the bottom of the stairs as quickly as he could. He heard breathing—good, the person was still alive. He appeared to be lying on his stomach, facedown. Kotetsu reached down, ignored the pain in his shoulder, picked the man up—
And nearly dropped him when he saw Lunatic’s mask looking up at him.
He backed up fast, falling against the wall, and accidentally tripped a light switch. He was carrying Lunatic, all right. If the mask weren’t enough to identify him, the rest of the costume was perfect, down to the pointy shoes, crossbow, and bloody hole in his abdomen.
Focus, Kotetsu. Lunatic or not, he’s wounded. He’s obviously not in any shape to hurt anyone right now, no matter what he’s done to Yuri and his mother.
He saved you once.
He looked around frantically, and found a cot that he could lay the man on. As soon as he moved, Lunatic relaxed in his arms and sighed, “Papa.”
Kotetsu’s mouth went dry. This was wrong. Lunatic wasn’t supposed to be like this. This wasn’t how Kotetsu wanted to catch him. It was supposed to be honorable, not after the man had been housebreaking.
He laid the dark-clad man down on the cot, stood up, and tried to figure out what to do. He had to make sure Yuri and his mother were safe, first of all. But what if he turned his back and Lunatic was gone? What if he lost him, now, when he finally had a chance to talk to the man out of costume?
His eyes went to the line of ceramic under Lunatic’s jaw. He had to know. Before anything else, he had to know what the man truly looked like. Was he a monster, as misshapen and twisted on the outside as he was on the inside, as strange to look at as his glove-mask?
The mask was hard, but warm under Kotetsu’s fingertips. He found the edge, breath coming quickly, and pulled it off.
No, it couldn’t be.
Pale gray hair cascaded onto the cot, unbound by clips or ribbon. Paler skin lay underneath, crossed by an old, angry burn in the shape of a hand, splayed across the man’s face.
That face, the one Kotetsu knew best sentencing him from behind a podium or smirking at him over the bar on Thursdays, was contorted in agony. His breath came fast in whimpers, and Kotetsu belatedly remembered seeing Lunatic jerk when one of Whorl’s spikes shot through him.
Long years of looking after other Heroes formed habits, and habits tended to take over when Kotetsu was under pressure. A medicine cabinet caught his eye, and he ransacked it, pulling out bandages, scissors, disinfectant, and so-expensive-they-were-probably-illegal-brand painkillers.
He administered those first to the man—not Yuri, it couldn’t be Yuri, there had to be another explanation—and wrapped the bandage quickly around his wound, stopping the bleeding for the time being. Then, he took a deep breath and looked around the basement.
He was in Lunatic’s lair.
There was no other word for it: this was a lair, complete with arcane weapons on the walls, racks of disposable capes—oh, so that was how he pulled off that trick—and mask upon mask upon mask, staring and judging him.
“Yuri?” The voice came from up the stairs, and Kotetsu could make out the silhouette of Mrs. Petrov in her wheelchair. “Yuri, you left the door open. Not too late on the computer, it’s a school night.”
Kotetsu swallowed hard. Then, an idea came to him, and he was shocked he hadn’t thought of it earlier. Of course, it would explain everything. He ran up the stairs, closing the door for Mrs. Petrov. “Hi, Mrs. Petrov. You remember me? I’m Kotetsu. I’m a friend of Yuri’s.”
She beamed at him. “You’re Anju’s son, aren’t you? Did you come over to study for midterms? Yuri’s such a good study partner.”
“Ma’am,” Kotetsu asked, too urgent to be polite at the moment, “does Yuri have a brother?”
“A brother?” She cocked her head, blinking. “We were only blessed with one child. Yuri’s our treasure.”
“He doesn’t have a twin brother?” Kotetsu asked again, desperate now. “With a scar on his face? Like a handprint?”
He knew instantly he’d said the wrong thing. Mrs. Petrov…changed, somehow. She lost her happy smile, instead looking a lot more like she had the first night Kotetsu had met her. “Murderer!” she screamed. “He’s a murderer! It’s all his fault! He’s a demon, sent from hell to torment me! You! You’ll listen, won’t you?”
Kotetsu swallowed around the dryness in his throat, then nodded.
She started weeping, face in her hands, as if her heart was broken. “My husband, my husband,” she repeated over and over.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Kotetsu tried again. At least this version of Mrs. Petrov seemed to actually be looking at him. “Mrs. Petrov, does your son have a twin? With a scar?”
“It’s his curse,” she spat, eyes full of terror and hatred. “He didn’t mean to, he didn’t mean to, he was a good man.”
Nothing else she said made any sense, just wailing screams that went on and on and hurt Kotetsu to hear. He stepped outside, dialed his mother, and tried to shut out the old woman’s screams.
“Kotetsu, it’s nearly eleven at night. What are you calling me for?”
“Hi, Mom. It’s Mrs. Petrov. I…” he hesitated, unsure how much to tell her. “I think it’d be better if she stayed with us for a few days.”
“What? Here? Why?”
“Yuri’s not feeling well, and he’s not up to taking care of her right now.” Please don’t let Yuri be Lunatic. Please let it be a mistake.
His mother let out a long-suffering sigh. “You ask for an awful lot.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’ll be right over.”
He tried explaining to Mrs. Petrov that it would be a good idea to come to his house, but she didn’t look like she heard him. She sobbed softly the entire way, twitching and crying out any time they hit a bump in the road. It was agonizing to get the wheelchair in and out of the car, as well as the old woman, with his shoulder the way it was.
Oh, well. That was why he was a Hero.
By the time he returned to the Petrov home, it was well past midnight, yet the thought of sleep never entered his mind. He kept turning over the events, trying to come up with any solution that made sense.
Lunatic was a bad guy. He killed people.
Yuri, on the other hand, was a good guy. Not a very friendly one at first, but he was great once you got to know him.
“He’s a murderer,” his mother had said.
What could have happened to this family? Was it the mysterious missing father? Kotetsu still wasn’t willing to count out his “identical twin” theory. It sounded like money.
Instinct told him he was being stupid for looking for other solutions. He ignored it. Yuri, his friend, couldn’t be Lunatic. Yuri was his friend. Lunatic was his enemy. That didn’t make sense.
Kotetsu avoided going into the basement for as long as he could. He went to Yuri’s room first, was disappointed when he couldn’t find any trace of the man from the last day or so.
Next, he went to pack up a few of Mrs. Petrov’s clothes, just for a few days. It felt weird to be going through her things, but it was for her own good, he told himself. He folded blouses and skirts, not even trying to match them up, and stayed away from underwear. That was something his mother could deal with, probably.
A photo on the nightstand caught his eye, and he sat on the bed to look at it. Yuri must have been eight or nine in the photo, a beaming kid with short gray hair. Huh, so it really has always been that color, he thought, solving a riddle he’d wanted to ask for weeks.
He was holding his mother’s hand, sitting on the shoulders of a large man that must have been his father. They looked really happy, Kotetsu saw with a smile. There was something really familiar about the man, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
He poked around a little more, not even sure what he was looking for. More pictures on the walls showed a trimmer version of the same man next to his pale-haired bride, each holding a lighted candle. Another, obviously on the same day, showed the Petrovs stepping on cloth-covered lumps. A third showed a kiss as he pulled back her veil, such a tender moment Kotetsu wanted to avert his eyes.
Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling he knew the man from somewhere. That was ridiculous, of course. Where would he have met Yuri’s father?
There was a large leather-bound book peeking out from under Mrs. Petrov’s bed. Kotetsu picked it up, but before he could open it, there was a scream from the basement. He ran down to the little dungeon again, only to see Yuri—no, Lunatic—thrashing from side to side, screaming incoherently. Fresh blood soaked through the bandage Kotetsu had applied, bright red even in the dim light.
“Stop it!” he ordered, trying to hold the man down. “You’re hurting yourself!”
If I let him go on like this, he’ll bleed to death.
I haven’t even gotten to talk to him yet.
Cursing under his breath, Kotetsu forced more painkillers into the other man’s system, then tied him down as soon as he went limp. Inexpertly, he stitched the wound closed, sprayed it with an adhesive bandage, then wrapped it up again.
He really hoped he was right about the Evil Twin Theory. Otherwise, he was probably killing one of his best friends with his horrible medical care.
At some point, Kotetsu passed out. He only knew that because everything hurt when he woke up. His shoulder was swelled to at least twice its usual size, and he recognized with a muttered oath that it was infected.
At least that’s the great thing about being a second-string Hero, he thought glumly when he hung up the phone. No one’s too concerned if I don’t come in for work. “Take as much time as you need.” What a thing to say.
Kotetsu really wished Lunatic would stop asking for his father. It made him inexplicably sad, like he should just take the man in his arms and rock him until everything was all right, like he’d do for Kaede, or like he’d done for Barnaby. He’d held Yuri like that a couple times, when the other man was in a really bad way. Kotetsu never asked, but it was pretty obvious that Yuri didn’t have other friends, not with how surprised he always was to see Kotetsu.
The leather book was a photo album, full of Yuri and his parents. Try as Kotetsu might, he couldn’t find any sign that Yuri ever had a twin brother. He did find out that Yuri was very smart, from the captions on the sides of the photos.
September 30, NC 1955. Yuri, 6 years old, wins First Prize in the science faire. A beaming gray-haired child, wearing a sweater and tiny pressed trousers, holding a clay volcano.
Christmas, NC 1957. Yuri and Papa and Mama. A family portrait. The man looked so familiar.
February 1, NC 1959. Yuri and Papa go to visit Baba Anya and Ded Nikolai. Yuri, red-cheeked and beaming in the snow, squashed between his father and an elderly couple.
June 12, NC 1960. Yuri, 11 years old, graduates eighth grade. As happy as he looked, there were no other kids crowded around wishing him well.
Yuri’s first High School report card: A+, A+, A+, A+, A+, A+.
The entries grew more sparse. They always did, in a kid’s photo album, as the kid got older.
August 4, NC 1962. Yuri brings home honor roll.
October 27, NC 1964. Yuri gets his acceptance letter to Sternbild University. Yuri, now a solemn teenager with wide, worried eyes, gave a perfunctory smile to the camera.
And that was it. No photos of his high school graduation. Nothing about his time in college. From what Kotetsu knew of Yuri’s career, from the man and from looking up the records, he’d enjoyed a fairly meteoric rise to the top. Not just anyone could be the top judge in Sternbild before turning thirty.
He moved to put the book away, then noticed something. It bulged a little in the back. He opened it again to the last page, and found that Mrs. Petrov, like so many mothers, had stuffed a lot of photos in the back flap without sorting them.
One fell out of the stack to land on the ground. Kotetsu picked it up.
October 31, NC 1956. Yuri wants to be Papa for Halloween. Seven-year-old Yuri laughed up at the camera, dwarfed by a massive Mr. Legend costume.
Something nagged at Kotetsu, some idea.
April 19th, NC 1959. Yuri and Mama and Papa at the beach. The family was together, but what was that in the background? The car was parked at an odd angle, but looked so familiar.
January 2, NC 1961. Papa and his little sidekick.
Kotetsu dropped the photograph, the stack in his other hand, and the book. He scrambled for the photo, picked it up, and stared.
Yuri, eleven or twelve, was wearing a homemade felt mask.
Sitting in the Legendmobile.
Next to Mr. Legend.
Yuri whimpered in his sleep. “Papa.”
Kotetsu had to contain his first reaction, which was to yell, “That is so cool!” To have Mr. Legend’s son right there, to find out that Kotetsu had known him for years, that was unbelievable! The stories Yuri must have. He must have heard about all the arrests after they happened, the really cool things the cameras couldn’t capture because the technology wasn’t good enough back then, the amazing stories of hanging out with the other heroes, the true facts of what Mr. Legend was like behind the scenes.
What he was really like.
Yuri choked off another sob, arching against his restraints, tears running down his face. They made strange tracks, diverted different directions by his scar, before splashing onto the cot.
Belatedly, Kotetsu remembered some of the things his mother had said, after her visits with Mrs. Petrov. Some sort of stress disorder, she’d said. Old trauma. Once, in one of her episodes, she’d started talking to her husband in thin air.
Begged him not to hit her.
Kotetsu hadn’t said anything to Yuri about it. It wasn’t his place to butt in, after all. Now, the knowledge burned like ice, sick and wrong and…no. It couldn’t be.
He wandered around the house in a daze, staring at photographs as if trying to memorize them. He found shoeboxes full of old memorabilia, receipts, a deed to the Legendmobile. Stuff that would fetch a fortune on the internet—mostly from people like Kotetsu, he admitted to himself.
Twice, he found hospital bills. Paid in full, no inquiry needed. Origa Petrov, admitted by her son Yuri with a broken arm, severe facial trauma. Origa Petrov, admitted by her son Yuri, with internal bleeding and a fractured collarbone.
Mrs. Petrov saved everything, until the night Mr. Legend died.
Kotetsu remembered that night. He’d been asleep, but woke up at the sound of his wife’s voice. “Honey? I know you’re tired from work, but you have to wake up. Can you come here?”
The TV was on, which was strange for so late at night. Tomoe sat in front of it, blinking rapidly so she wouldn’t cry, holding her hand out to Kotetsu.
Albert Maverick, CEO of Hero TV, was making a speech. A photo of Mr. Legend was on the screen behind him, standing proud and tall.
“He was not only the greatest Hero this world has ever seen,” Maverick was saying, “but a dear personal friend. He will be missed, and remembered, as the closest thing to an incorruptible man that has ever existed. The city of Sternbild will never forget Mr. Legend, or the good he did. Thousands of people are alive because of his courage and bravery.”
“What?” Kotetsu whispered, not wanting to believe the words. “Missed? He’s—Mr. Legend’s dead?”
Tomoe nodded, burying her face in Kotetsu’s shoulder. “They said it was a heart attack,” she whispered. “Mr. Maverick said he went peacefully, in his sleep.”
Kotetsu had never said it aloud, but he cried more that night, at twenty-three years old, than he had the night his father walked out.
Mrs. Petrov, twice that Kotetsu was there, had called Yuri a murderer.
He couldn’t have.
“Papa,” Yuri moaned.
Kotetsu looked from the photos to the man to the masks on the wall. His stomach twisted in nauseated apprehension.
He was almost completely sure Yuri didn’t have an Evil Twin.
But that meant that Yuri, his friend, Sternbild’s most respected judge, was a murderer. More than that, he was Lunatic, a super-powerful NEXT who had purposely killed people Kotetsu was trying to save. He remembered crossing paths with Lunatic many times, dragging him close with his wires, taunting him about the mask, feeling that green-blue fire sear into his shoulder when he jumped in front of Barnaby.
“Is this where your concept of Justice ends?” a voice asked in his memory.
Lunatic, for no reason at all, had saved him from the false Tiger, more than a year ago. Kotetsu heard later that he’d taken one of those pink robo-shots in the shoulder while distracting the machine.
Kotetsu told himself he was only taking off Lunatic’s costume so he could see the wound better. He certainly wasn’t looking for evidence. Besides, Yuri had bared a shoulder to him before. If he was really Yuri, and not his evil twin, this would be no big deal.
He pulled off the costume gently, to reveal pale, muscular flesh—too well-formed for a man who sits and judges all day, a voice nagged—marked by an old scar on the right shoulder. Kotetsu couldn’t help but remember his first night in the Petrov home. He’d brushed Yuri’s hair back from his face, and the younger man had jumped back. “Don’t look at me,” he’d said sharply. He didn’t like people touching his face.
Kotetsu gently traced his finger down the burn mark on Yuri’s face. How had he never noticed it before? He was pretty sure he wasn’t that dense.
He’d always hoped he’d be the one to catch Lunatic. He’d always thought, somehow, that maybe they weren’t that different. Maybe if he just had a chance to convince the man, to talk to him about what justice really meant, they could come to an understanding.
He decided right then and there. He wasn’t giving up on Yuri Petrov, not even if he was Lunatic. He’d never given up on Lunatic; he wouldn’t now that the man was one of his closest friends.
Maybe Yuri just needed to be hugged a lot more. It seemed to do him a lot of good, the few times Kotetsu had done it. He couldn’t deny that he liked holding Yuri, either. He should probably keep that to himself, though.
He needed answers.
The problem was, he was dead certain he wouldn’t like what he was going to hear.
Kotetsu got up, poured himself a glass of water, and waited for Yuri to wake up.