I wasn't sure what was more disturbing, the absolute darkness or the silence. Had Saito forgot to let me out of the hyperbaric chamber again after another session with Bunny? No, this felt different. Something was off. The chamber always smelled clean and very slightly of ozone. This smell was sharp and made the back of my throat itch. I needed a drink.
"Saito-san?" I tried hopefully. Nothing. Of course.
"Bunny?" Silence, though not quite as thick as before. "Anyone?"
A laugh so soft I wasn't even sure I'd heard it. "Hello? Can someone let me out? I fell asleep again."
A gnawing uneasiness wormed its way into my gut. Something about that laugh . . .
"H-hai . . . who's there? Can you let me out please?"
"I'm sorry, that won't be possible." The silky voice informed me.
"Eh? Why? Is something wrong?"
"You could say that." A soft chuckle somewhere to my left. "So very many things are wrong . . ."
That was when I decided laying here waiting wasn't working. Sitting up didn't work either, actually nothing was working. I could barely feel my body. I focused on moving my toes and got only the slightest sensation. They were there and that was about it. Damn.
"But don't worry Tiger, I've given you a powerful sedative formulated specifically for NEXT. You'll stay conscious but immobile until preparations are complete."
"Preparations? For what? What's going on? Where am I?" I tried not to sound worried, but that gnawing feeling was getting stronger.
"So many questions. Suffice it to say that you are where you are because I saw fit to bring you here."
I frowned. "That doesn't answer my question."
This was going nowhere and I was getting annoyed. I just wanted to know where I was and why. What was the big deal?
"Can I ask you something Tiger? Why do you do it? Why are you a Hero?"
"To save people."
"Wrong answer." There was a note of satisfaction in his voice and I heard something pop, almost like the sound of a match being lit. The disturbing smell of ozone became stronger "You cannot 'save' anyone Wild Tiger. Least of all yourself."
"That doesn't make any sense!" I tried to keep my voice level but it didn't work as well as I would have liked. "Who are you?! Where am I?"
The silence returned. I refused to give in to panic. I'd faced worse than this. Right? Right. At least I hoped this wasn't going to be worse than other things I'd dealt with. I'd faced Jake without my powers . . . though that had come very close to killing me. Best not think about that now. The sour taste was back in my mouth and thinking was suddenly way too much work.
There was the sensation of movement, but I couldn't be sure. What I was sure of was that I was in some deep trouble. I couldn't even summon the slightest glimmer of my hundred power. It was just gone. Calm down. I admonished myself. Things will reveal themselves and then will be the time to act.
Sensation came back with a rush and I shuddered. The tingling in my extremities was painfully sharp but at least I could move to a degree. I realized with a start that I was wearing a hood of some kind, light filtering dimly through the thick fabric. It smelled clean, almost newly washed. I was now sitting instead of lying down but trying to move resulted in a sharp pain that felt suspiciously like wire tied around my ankles and wrists. My hundred power was still out of commission, had I activated it recently and hadn't been aware of it? I'd just have to wait and see.
"Feeling better now Kotetsu?"
I jerked, yelping softly at the question breathed in my ear.
"N-no . . . why won't you let me see anything? Wh-where am I? How do you know my name? Tell me who you are!"
The hood was ripped away and I winced as my hair was pulled in the process. I blinked against the sudden brightness unable to make anything out for a moment. Grimacing, I tried to pull away as my chin was grabbed by rough fingers, my head pressed back.
"Ah, our failure of a hero, the washed up veteran who could never reach the top."
My eyes widened as I stared up at the all too familiar mask. "Palm face?"
"It's Lunatic you idiotic excuse for a hero." He growled and pressed my head back farther so that I was staring up at the lights. "You seem to think you and your partner are god's gift to Sternbild. "
"You're the one who tries to play god going around killing people so I don't see what your problem is." I shot back.
"I'll show you what my problem is, Kotetsu, and I'm going to make an example of you." The grip on my chin disappearing and I caught a glimpse of the white garbed figure to my right. Turning my head I noticed the table set up over against the wall. I couldn't quite tell what was lying on the table but somehow I didn't think it was anything for my benefit. Glancing around the room I noted the strategically placed video cameras and shuddered. Something was very, very wrong here.
"Don't worry Kotetsu, I won't use my flame on you. I don't want to actually kill you. Just make a point."
"That being?" I ground out as I watched him walk toward me brandishing a long rod tipped with two metal spikes.
"That you are weak and powerless and your ineffectual attempts at preserving peace in Sternbild are for nothing."
I jerked against the binding as he stepped closer. "I am not weak or ineffective! The heroes saved Sternbild from being destroyed, how is that ineffective?"
"I'll concede that was the single time you've ever done anything right. You took out the threat by killing Martinez."
"That was an accident!"
He shook his head and I had the disturbing feeling that behind that mask he was smiling. "You and I both know that the only way to stop a NEXT like Jake is to kill them."
"That's not true-" I broke off as he stopped in front of me his head tilted to the side as he looked down at me.
"Yes it is and by the time I'm done with you, you will agree." There was a sharp crackling sound and without warning he rammed the end of the rod into my chest.
I was on fire, a livid white hot pain that shot through every part of me. I couldn't control the spasms or the yell that leapt from my throat. I gasped, trying to get my lungs to work as residual pain made me feel nauseous. Raising my head I glared at the figure before me. Speaking was a major effort. "Killing is not the answer."
The rod slammed into the side of my face with a crack and burst of stars. "What was that for!" I demanded once I thought I could speak.
"Stop asking stupid questions before I decide to gag you."
"It wasn't stupid." I muttered under my breath as I worked my jaw to try and get some feeling back into it. "What's stupid is that mask."
I cringed slightly at the tone, averting my eyes. Sometimes I really just did not know when to shut up, but then again it really was a stupid looking mask. How to divert his attention . . .
"So what is this really about? Why am I here?" I was slightly dismayed to feel blood trickling down my jaw and dripped off my chin. I couldn't let this lunatic get the better of me though. Ah, my head hurt.
"I told you. To make a point."
"To who? Why?"
A disturbingly soft laugh. "To whom? To everyone who matters."
"That doesn't answer my question." I pointed out as I watched him pick up another device off that damned table. This looked suspiciously like a belt. A belt with something attached to it. I forgot my question as he stalked over and with a flare of bluish-green light my shirt and vest went up in flames. The stench of singed hair filled the room and I shuddered. He had that much control over the flames? I was uncomfortably warm and starting to sweat, but other than that I wasn't burnt.
"I really liked that tie you know." I glared up at him. "And where is my hat?"
"Is that really something you should be worried about right now?" He seemed upset with me as he cinched the belt tight around my waist. A matching collar went around my neck.
"I like my hat." I informed him when he stepped back. He responded by taking a small remote out of his pocket and pressing a button on it.
My teeth clacked together as the voltage shot through me, snapping my head back, my limbs jerking against the restraints. This was a lot worse than the rod. It didn't stop. Pain ripped along my skin in agonizing spikes that drove all thought from before it. When it finally did stop I was powerless to keep from sobbing softly. I tried desperately to get a handle on myself. Oh damn, this was bad. He wasn't trying to kill me. He could have easily done that earlier. No, he was torturing me. But why?
"Now maybe you'll be quiet. You've always been so noisy going on about saving people, even the criminals you arrest. It makes me sick. Those who kill should themselves be put to death."
"And what gives you that right?" I gasped raising my head to look at him. "By that logic you should be killed yourself."
My only answer was my own scream as he activated the shock collar again. By the time he turned it off I was shaking with dry heaves. The pounding in my skull made focusing on anything impossible. I couldn't believe this was happening and I still didn't understand why.
Cold metal under my chin forced my head up and back. Though my eyelashes I could see Lunatic's jacked up mask.
"Look at me."
I did as I was told.
"What would it take for you to kill someone Kotetsu T. Kaburagi? What would drive you to that point? Losing your family? Your job? Your status as a hero? Your friends? Would you kill to get them back?"
" . . . n-no . . ."
"Why?" He let my head drop and I nearly passed out, the room seeming to revolve sickeningly around me. "Why not? They've taken everything from you. Your pride, your dignity, your reason for living. Taken it and destroyed it before your eyes. Why not give them the punishment they deserve?"
" . . . not-not for me to decide. Killing won't change things."
"It won't." He sounded incredulous. "Really? Maybe you are too altruistic for your own good. Did you ever think that getting rid of the cause means that the potential for continued suffering vanishes?"
I shook my head feeling blood splatter my arm. "Can do that by incarceration."
"But look at how that worked out with Jake. He still got out and wreaked havoc until he died. There is no point in trying to save someone like him."
I slowly raised my head to try and meet the crazy eyes of the mask. "Or someone like you?"
When I next opened my eyes I was dismayed to see nothing but gray until I realized I was staring at concrete. I was on the floor and no longer bound. Sitting up revealed all kinds of tender spots. There was dried blood on the floor under me but I didn't focus on that. I was in a warehouse of some kind. The steel girders overhead stood out like the ribs of an emaciated animal in the bright light streaming in from the windows. Windows! Maybe I could get away from this freak.
Sitting up fully I took quick stock of myself. The damn belt and collar were still on and even more disturbingly my pants and shoes were gone. I rubbed at the cuts on my wrists trying to decide what to do.
I slowly got to my feet, cringing a bit as cramped muscles rebelled. My stomach clenched as Lunatic suddenly appeared in front of me in a flash of green and blue. I took a step back to keep from falling on my ass.
"I'm up, whataya want?" I was getting tired of this, tired of being toyed with without any explanation.
"I want you to fight me."
"Eh?" I croaked.
"Use your power and fight me." He cooked his head to the side, somehow looking even more demented.
I glanced down at myself wondering how well my body would hold up fighting him basically naked even with my hundred power. Chances were pretty good I'd end up losing my boxers. And maybe the belt? But what was the point in fighting him in this empty warehouse?
"I don't like to use my power like that."
He stood there just staring at me until I started to fidget and finally couldn't take it anymore. I waved my arms at him. "Hey! If we're done here I'd like my clothes so I can go home you freak."
Something slammed into my chest. There was the short sensation of sailing through the air and the much less pleasant sensation of smacking into the concrete.
"ouch . . ." I managed once I could breathe again. My shoulder was throbbing as was my hip and several scrapes were already stinging. "That was seriously not nice."
"Neither was calling me a freak."
I flinched hearing his voice over head. "Get up and fight me."
"And you'll surrender yourself if I beat you?"
"You won't beat me."
"Heh-you really that sure?"
"Neither you nor that inane pretty boy partner of yours have been able to defeat me. Stall me, maybe but defeat me? No."
"First time for everything Palmface."
I dodged to the side as the blast of heat seared the concrete black where I'd just been sitting. "Hey! I thought you didn't want to kill me!"
"Don't call me Palmface."
"Why is Facepalm better?"
I didn't move fast enough. Lying on the cold concrete I wondered why I'd been singled out for this treatment. My leg was numb for the moment, but I had no illusion that the pain would start soon.
"You have as little control over your mouth as you do your actions. It's no wonder you're the most fined hero to date. You simply can't control yourself can you?"
"Not when lives are at stake." I staggered to my feet, ignoring the raw shooting pain in my leg. "No building is worth the lives of the people in it."
"And you must accompany that conviction with the need for childish remarks?"
"I like to think I'm being witty."
A snort that sounded very odd coming out of the mask. "Witty? He honestly thinks he's witty . . . Thanatos won't be the one to take you I think, but Keres."
He waved a gloved hand at me. "Enough of this prattle. You have yet to attack. Do so."
"Uhh . . . why are we fighting again?"
An exasperated sigh exploded from the mask. "I'm wanted by authorities for being a vigilante remember? Isn't that enough of a reason to fight?"
"If you'd asked me that a few years ago I would have said yes." He straightened, and I could feel his gaze on me never mind the skewed eyes of the mask. "B-but . . . if you know you are wanted, why don't you turn yourself in?"
The electric shock sent me to my knees, fingers scraping the rough concrete as if escape lay under it.
"You really do ask the most ridiculous questions. If I turned myself in, then I wouldn't be able to complete my mission."
"Wh-what's that?" I raised a trembling hand to wipe away the spit that had escaped my mouth.
"To punish those who break the law, to render judgment and carry out the execution." A gentle hand ran through my hair and I couldn't even summon the strength to move away. "I know you've felt it. That devastating horror at realizing that no matter how hard you try, how hard you work you cannot save someone. No matter what, you are destined to fail. I simply remove part of the equation in a more effective manner. Locking someone up for a crime doesn't change who or what they are. In fact they often become worse than ever. You cannot rehabilitate those who enjoy violence."
I didn't know what to say to that. He was right to an extent. I had felt that crushing sense of futility. "That's n-not true." The fingers tightened painfully, I pressed on. "If-if you can understand why they resort to violence. What makes them feel there is no other way? You must have a reason for being Lunatic, something painful-"
"Enough!" I was tossed back, my head cracking against the ground. "There is nothing about me for you to understand!"
A booted foot thudded into my ribs making me curl up coughing raggedly. "I will not be lectured by the likes of you! I will not have you interfering with my plans even if I have to cripple you to prevent it."
Panic flooded me. Crippled? But if that happened I wouldn't be able to keep my promise. And I definitely would never hear Kaede say I was cool. Bunny would make fun of me and say that my old age had finally caught up with me. Damn! Lunatic was still talking.
"I've tried to avoid fighting you and your colleges in public but you are just becoming too much of an annoyance. You've let too many criminals go free and I cannot allow it to continue. I won't allow it. So it's time to dissolve your 'partnership' with any means necessary."
"I cannot allow that." Taking a deep breath I was very relieved to feel that familiar surge of power return to me.