“That’ll be 2.78.”
The complete lack of customer appreciation laced in the coffee vendors tone was to be expected; what Lance hadn’t accounted for that morning was how very broke he actually was.
He rummages through his pockets first, feeling the gazes of several people behind him probably throwing him the stink-eye as he held up the line. He manages to find the exact change and nothing more, and when he hands it over all his gets in reply is a low grunt.
He takes the coffee and resumes his walk to work, his office building coming into view around the corner. He greets Meryl at reception once he steps out of the elevator, heading over to his desk in the back corner of the office. It’s cramped, and there’s a dead plant he’s too lazy to get rid of and an odd smell that—no matter how many air fresheners he buys—never goes away.
Iverson; his boss. He’s an old fart, but he’s damn intimidating along with the thickest eyebrows Lance has ever encountered. Lance steps into his office and swats hopelessly away at the cigarette smoke that greets him. Iverson is on the phone, writing something down Lance can’t quite see; he hangs up and looks quizzical.
“Álvarez, you worked on that Kerberos article last month, yes?”
Iverson leans back on his chair, and it creaks under him as he goes. Then he nods, “It was good work. I’m assigning you to look into the current events that have been happening in the eastern suburbs.”
Lance feels his eyes widen.
The past few months, there’s been an onslaught of crime mobs being targeted in the outer areas of the city. It had once been an underbelly paradise, notorious for smuggling in drugs and machinery, until one day the peace had been disturbed, and Kingpins had begun falling one by one. Some were running scared now, but others remained behind to continue their operations.
Allegedly, it was all due to the actions of a masked vigilante.
The man never left clues or fingerprints behind. Rumour has it he never utters a single word when he strikes his target. No one knew a single thing about him—only that he had seemingly decided to take out every crook in the city by his own hands.
It was impressive; Lance could admit meeting someone like that would certainly be something to tell the grandkids.
“I need you to take an excursion to the area—write down whatever you see, build up the atmosphere, conduct some interviews; I’m giving you the second page column for Wednesday.” Iverson instructs, looking down to his papers again to indicate the end of their conversation.
Lance nods again even though Iverson can’t see him, so he spits out, “Yes, sir,” before leaving the room to slink back to his desk.
Fuck. Fuck. He had to travel there? And all for one stupid column?
But… he needed the work. He’d been stuck with fluffy pet pieces and public transport mishaps since he’d started working at The Garrison Report, so perhaps it was time to take the reins and bang out the best damn column this newspaper has ever published.
People love a good underdog story. What could go wrong?
Turns out things could, in fact, go very, very wrong.
Typical, that he thought he could just wonder through the outskirts of town and expect everything to be peachy. He hadn’t brought anything valuable, just a notepad and a pen, and his train ticket stuffed low in his pocket.
It wasn’t like he was trudging through an old abandoned warehouse and whistling innocently like a scene in a movie. But honestly, as he walks down the streets of the almost deserted neighbourhood, he could easily imagine any bad scenario being a possibility right now.
There was an auto body shop that appears partially open for business, car parts piled into heaps and oil covering the ground. Across the street was a diner; it seems friendly enough with some kids playing on their skateboards out the front. Lance walks inside, hit instantly with the smell of burnt coffee and humidity. There were only two other customers sitting in the back, one man flicking through an old checkbook as the other works through a greasy looking burger.
“Can I help you?”
The voice calls out disinterestedly, and Lance angles his body a bit to see a small woman standing behind the counter, almost hidden front sight.
“Ah,” Lance scratches at his cheek absentmindedly, “Yes. I’m a reporter conducting research about the recent attacks in this neighbourhood, is it alright if I ask you a few questions, ma’am?”
She levels him a look. “That’s probably not the best idea, sonny.”
Lance quirks an eyebrow. “I understand there’s been a lot of crime around here, as well as reports of a… vigilante of sorts, suddenly wiping out groups of smugglers.”
Suddenly chairs were skidding back, the sound echoing in the virtually empty diner. Lance feels his shoulders tense, throat instantly dry as footsteps drew closer to the front of the shop.
“What do you know about this vigilante?” One of the two men sneers, eyeing him harshly.
“Nothing, that’s why I’m here,” Lance gets out, trying to keep his tone level.
“Wise guy, huh?” The other man circles around to Lance's other side, his right hand flicking his jacket back to reveal a holster at his hip.
Lance notices the old woman behind the counter was gone; Lance hopes to god she went to go and call the police. Although, all things considered, she was probably aware of who these men were already.
“I’m sure we can give you something to report on,” the first man says, an ugly smile stretching over his face.
“Guys, listen. I don’t wanna start any trouble, really. So if you can let me leave, I promise not to come back here, yeah?” Lance raises his hands in defense, nerves increasing.
“That’s not how things work around here,” the man continues threatening, “So, how about you just follow us out back and we promise not to shoot you right away.”
Lance swallows, legs suddenly acting like jelly. He takes the first step in the direction they were pointing, moving through the kitchen and out through an old, creaky door that took them to the employee car park. The man with the holster had his gun now pressing against Lance’s back, the cool metal shocking him under the glaring heat of the sun.
“Alright pretty boy, if you cooperate with us now, we’ll grant you with a quick and painless death, instead of—”
In the blink of an eye the man was promptly knocked to the ground, the gun flying out of his hands and landing with a loud ‘clack’. Lance sucks in a sharp breath, eyes wide as he turns slowly to inspect the cause of the attack.
“What the f—” the other man starts, until he too was jumped from behind.
The new threat - but hopefully savior - now has the other crook by his neck, twisting and turning as if performing a dance around the mob member. Barely several seconds later he was knocked out cold, body limp on the ground as the attacker rummages through the man’s pocket to pull out his ID.
“What…” Lance tries to calm the racing of his heart, brain trying to catch up to everything that just happened.
The man turns around, his face covered by a deep red mask.
“Are you okay?”
His voice sounds young, and it startles Lance a bit. He manages a nod in response, and watches as the man walks over to pick up the other man's gun from the asphalt. Lance grows slightly panicked, wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible.
“You’re not… going to kill them, are you?” He almost whispers.
Red-mask looks at him before looking back down at the two unconscious men. “No.”
“So you don’t… kill people?” Lance takes a step closer, “You’re the masked vigilante who’s been taking out mobs, right?”
Red-mask lets out a tiny snort. “Is that what people are calling me?” He pulls out some zip ties from a god damn fanny pack, jesus and proceeds to tie up both men's hands behind their backs. Once he was done, he looks over to Lance once more.
“You should probably leave; the police will most likely be here soon.”
“Right,” Lance stammers slightly, but his feet weren’t moving. “Uh, thanks, for… you know, saving me.”
Red-mask laughs quietly, and the sound was oddly endearing. He steps closer to Lance, merely one foot away now, and tilts his head slightly. “Well, these guys were right about one thing—you are pretty,” and with that, he was gone; jumping onto the diner’s roof and disappearing without a sound.
Lance places his hand over his heart, face feeling involuntarily warm. “Fuck.”
AN INSIDERS LOOK INTO THE MASKED VIGILANTE
The question on the tip of everyone's tongue: just what is his endgame? Writes Lance Álvarez
Late Tuesday morning I had been perusing the streets of some of the less visited suburbs in our city. Petty crimes and smuggling have been dropping significantly over the past few months, all due to the actions of one man in particular intent on taking down every mob boss in town.
I had been unlucky enough to have been caught up in a tussle that day thanks to my big mouth, a gun digging into my back as I accepted my impending death — and I was only halfway through my DVD box set of Seinfeld. Life was tough like that.
Only the hit never came. Instead I was treated to the sight of the masked vigilante himself in all his spandex covered glory. Blink and you miss him; the two men who had just held my life in their greedy, blood-soaked hands were taken down without a seconds notice.
I always felt like my life was like a Disney princess movie, where my knight in shining armour would appear one day and jump to my rescue. Only problem now is that my knight didn’t want to stick around — he had much bigger asses to kick, unfortunately.
Red-mask (as I like to call him since we’ve now shared such a beautiful bonding moment) remains at large, more than content with his quest to stop at nothing until our city is safe again, it seems. I wonder if he’ll want to settle down after this and watch 90s sitcoms with me? Who knows.
Continued on page 07
“Spandex covered glory, huh?”
Lance jerks awake from his almost-slumber when a voice wafts over to him from his bedroom window. He flicks his lamp on, trying to see past blurry eyes to focus on the figure perching on his windowsill. It's Red-mask, one leg draped out the window as he holds today’s paper near his face.
“Jesus,” Lance barks out, flopping back down on the bed and waiting for his heart to return to normal. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Red-mask is silent for a while, still reading—presumably—the article Lance had written today, and when he's done he places the paper back atop Lance’s dresser where it had been before. “Sorry to startle you, but honestly—I was curious to see what you were going to write about me.”
Lance pushes himself up again to rest on his elbows, eyeing him wearily. “I didn’t think you’d read it, or really care about it, for that matter.”
Red-mask makes a small noise, shrugging his shoulders once. “You’re pretty much the first person I’ve spoken to while on the job.”
Lance raises an eyebrow, a surprised smile tugging at his lips. “Huh… really?”
“Yep.” Red-mask tilts his head towards Lance, and Lance can practically feel the other man narrow his eyes through the mask. “You caught my attention, Álvarez.”
“Well,” Lance couldn’t wipe the cockiness off his face if he tried, “I don’t blame you, Red. Although breaking into my apartment isn’t really the best way to show your affection.”
“Sorry,” Red says, albeit mildly sarcastically. “I also wanted to make sure you got home alright. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Do other people receive this sort of special treatment after you’ve saved them?”
Lance receives no reply, but the silence was answer enough. Then Red says, “I’ll leave you to it now, Álvarez. Sleep well.” And then he was jumping out the window, and immediately Lance rushs over to peer down below in curiosity. There was no sound of a body splattering on the pavement; only the distant noise of sirens and the wind blowing past him. Lance rests his arms on the windowsill and looks out at the city, and he wonders if he’ll ever see Red again.
“Hunk, Hunk—you are not going to believe this.”
Hunk - his friend who works down the street as a mechanic. They’ve known each other for quite some time, since the day Lance had brought in his old busted Camry into Hunk's work after he’d swerved to dodge a deer and promptly crashed into a pole.
“What’s up?” Hunk slides out from under the van he's working on, some grease smeared on his forehead that Lance reaches out to clean off instantly.
“I met him, last night,” Lance starts, crouching down next to him, beaming bright. “Red—I met Red; he appeared at my window like he was bloody Edward Cullen or some shit.”
“Dude,” Hunk raises his eyebrows, “That’s weird. What did he do? Or say, exactly?”
Lance waves a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry, he’s fine, really. He wanted to make sure I got home safe. Not sure how he found out where I live, but, it was a nice surprise, I suppose.”
Hunk still had a disapproving look on his face, obviously worried for his friend, to which Lance appreciates. He was sure Red wouldn’t actually hurt him. Sure, the man seems to have superhuman abilities spanning across jumping from incredible heights unscathed to knocking a guy out in one hit. But in the two times Lance has seen him, he didn’t feel any threatening vibes from him, more like Red was the cautious one around Lance.
“Iverson was surprised I survived—he actually gave me a raise.”
“You need to find a better job,” Hunk mumbles.
After a seemingly never ending day at work and speaking to more people than he can count about his encounter with Red, Lance was relieved to finally head home, wanting nothing more than to kick his feet up and listen to some smooth jazz as he sips from a Long Island iced tea.
Only as soon as he walks through the door to his apartment and dumps his bag on the floor, he looks up to see Red sitting at his kitchen table, a trail of blood leading back up out the window.
“Sorry,” Red grunts by way of greeting, “I… I was hit badly, and, I sort of wasn’t paying attention to where I was going until I… ended up back here.”
“Jesus, Red,” Lance startles slightly, looking around his apartment as if expecting someone else to appear and attack them. He steps over to Red slowly, eyeing the man's wound and trying to hold back on a gasp.
“It’s not pretty, I know,” Red winces, looking up at him through his mask. “You got any tweezers?”
“Uh, yeah,” Lance nods meekly, rushing to his bathroom to pull out the first-aid kit Hunk got him for Christmas last year. He walks back out, suddenly catching on to the pungent smell of copper. He hands the tweezers to Red wordlessly, watching with wide eyes as Red brought them down to the gaping wound at his torso.
“Look away if you’re squeamish,” Red warns before shoving the tweezers inside him. Lance did; swallowing hard as he hears Red grunt and pant behind him. After a few short minutes it stops, and there was a small clatter atop the table. “Alright, it’s done.”
Lance turns back around, seeing a silver bullet resting on the wood, tweezers next to it covered in blood. He looks to Red, eyes wide in horror. “You’re not going to die, are you?”
“No,” Red groans as he stands up, “I’ll heal in a day or two. But, can I ask if you can do something for me?”
“Oh, god,” Lance mumbles, a looming feeling already crawling up his throat.
“Can you stitch me up?”
Lance glances at the wound again, contemplating the consequences if the situation were to turn sour - he wasn’t Florence Nightgale for christ’s sake. Just as he was about to apologise and say ‘no’, Red lifts the hand not resting over the hole in his body and tears the mask off his face. He drops it to the table unceremoniously, looking up at Lance with a sheepish expression.
“Perhaps I should properly introduce myself before I ask random guys to stitch up my injuries.”
“Yeah,” Lance pauses before he laughs unexpectedly, secretly admiring just how gorgeous Red actually was with his dark hair and unusually piercing eyes. “Yeah, that would be nice.”
It was a thing for them now, apparently.
Although it wasn’t as if they’d drawn up a schedule for when Red could stop by—he decides that all on his own.
Sometimes he’d visit in the night, tapping lightly on Lance’s bedroom window to be let in from the balcony. Other times Lance would come home and find him resting on the couch, some 50s movie playing quietly on the TV as he napped peacefully. More often than not he would just be there to wait out a small injury or two; Lance was grateful he hadn’t had to stitch him up again, but he had watched multiple Youtube videos to help improve his technique some more if the situation demanded it.
(The things he did because of a crush.)
Most times Lance would head off to bed, leaving Red to decide if he wanted to stay and sleep on the couch or go. He never knew what the man chose to do in the end, because he was always gone by morning. He’d leave a note occasionally, most of them thanking Lance for making a mean Cuban dish or promising he’d be back to clean up any mess he’d left behind.
So they got to know each other over the passing months—or well, Lance would do most of the talking and Red might have a comment or two to add. Lance wondered if he was bugging Red, but the other man assured him multiple times he liked hearing Lance talk. Lance smiled, hiding a blush as he went to go and get them more drinks. One day he’d even gotten Red to explain his “sort of” powers, the other man admitting it was like working with everything any human had, just amped up.
(“Like Captain America?” Lance wonders.
Red laughs softly. “Yeah, like Captain America.”)
But then after another fateful night where Lance did get to put his amazing sewing skills to good use, Red finally told him his name.
(“Keith,” he murmurs, head lolling back against the chair as Lance tries to keep him conscious by talking him through it.
“Keith, huh,” Lance ties off the string and steps back to admire his handy-work. “Man, what would you do without me?”
Keith looks at him, the beginning of a smile tugging at his lips. “I don’t really want to find out.”)
There was an unspoken agreement that Lance wouldn’t report on the encounters they shared to hide Keith's rep, and in return Keith promised not to bother him with so many injuries. So now, Lance left work these days hoping to come home and find Keith lounging around his apartment, eager to talk to him about any stupid thing he could think of.
Lance walks through his front door, the smell of something spicy greeting him pleasantly.
“God,” Lance sighs contently and finds Keith in the kitchen standing over the stove, stirring something in one of his broilers. He comes over until he's just a foot away, peering over Keith’s shoulder. “That smells great.”
Keith shoots him a smile, turning the knob to a simmer and rubbing at his neck. “It’s lame, but… I just wanted to do something nice for you, I guess.”
Lance tries his best to suppress a grin and fails comically hard. “Aw, Red. Not that I mind finding you here when I come home, but… do you have your own place?”
Keith hesitates for a moment, frowning at the ground. “Uh, yeah, I do.”
He sounds almost reluctant, so Lance makes it known to assure his company was welcome. “Well, it’s all good. You want me to buy you your own toothbrush the next time I’m out?”
Keith scoffs slightly and turns back to his cooking, but not quickly enough for Lance not to notice the flush evident on his cheeks.
At the end of another long day, Lance was more than ready to head home and draw a bath for himself and use one of the many bath-bombs his sisters had given him for his birthday.
The sky was an eerie grey today; a cold chill hitting his face as he walks the 10 blocks home. He pulls out his phone to send Hunk a quick text to ask if he wants to hang out tonight, but just before he can pull up his messages a car comes to a stop along side him and a large man steps into his line of path.
“Get in the car.”
Lance stops, fingers frozen as he dares to look up at the source of the voice. The man in front of him stands tall, a cigarette dangling from his mouth as his hand rests subtly over his hip. Another was sat behind the wheel, and Lance didn't recognise either of them. Lance feels his heart squeeze, body shaking.
“I said,” the guy repeats impatiently, “Get in. The fucking. Car.”
With no witnesses around to help him, Lance follows the order with an erratic heart, trying to type out a message to Hunk, but the man swipes his phone away before he can press send. He curses internally, sweat coiling at his neck, and then a bag was being placed over his head as the car speeds off down the road.
Another hit lands on his jaw, blood trickling down and dripping onto his shirt.
“Start talking. We know you know who this damn nuisance is who’s been sending our boys to prison.”
Lance pushes through the pain, panting hard as he looks to the metaphorical sky. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Another hit; this time to his stomach.
Lance coughs, choking on blood like hot lead, blinking up at the man through tear jerked eyes. “This is all very cliché—didn’t your mother teach you not to pick on someone smaller than you?”
“Can someone please shut this guy up?” a man out of Lance’s peripheral vision pipes up.
“We’ve seen him hide at your place, Princess. What’re his weaknesses? Where does he live? Every lie you tell me will cost you a pretty little finger,” the first man sneers as he traces a pattern across his knuckles for show, the purple tattoo on his arm flexing under the movement.
“But I don’t know anything,” Lance croaks. ‘Except that he loves watching movies that are older than himself; that he has a weak spot for having his hair played with; that he has no family of his own and lately I’ve wanted nothing more than to take him in and never let him go.’
The hand was back, striking him so fast he felt something on his face crack, pain shooting through him like an electric jolt. He curses, heart wild in his chest, his tied hands at his back jerking from the hit. He concentrates on breathing past the blood pooling in his mouth.
“Hey, boss,” another man speaks up, accent thick. “What if we hold him here, keep him alive. Surely ‘superman’ would come to his rescue.”
The large man still in front of Lance says nothing for a while, but his face seems thoughtful. Then finally: “You his weakness, pretty boy? Would he come save his damsel in distress?”
“Fuck you,” Lance mouths, earning an immediate slap across his cheek.
“We’ll wait,” boss man agrees.
Lance wasn’t sure how much time passed as they waited. He came in and out of conscienceless throughout the night, mind cloudy as the blood covering his body dried into an irritating mess. When he’d asked for some water they’d splashed a glass in his face, and he’d tried weakly to lap up all he could, dizzy for it.
With an unfortunate end seemingly getting closer, Lance has begun to accept his fate; dying at the hands of a wanna-be Tony Soprano, sitting in a chair that was doing nothing for his posture while a couple of guys off to the side were discussing the benefits of paying for Tevo. Life really was cruel sometimes.
“It seems he doesn’t care about you, Princess,” boss man heaves a sigh, a knife now in hand. “Looks like we’re going to have to go back to plan A.”
Lance shakes his head, tears forming again as he pleas, “No, no. Please, god no—”
And then boss man was knocked to the ground, a familiar flash of Red holding him down by the throat.
“Don’t you fucking touch him again you piece of shit,” Keith snarls, and a shiver runs through Lance at the tone. He didn’t know Keith could get that angry; it was like a full 180.
Feet were scrambling around the warehouse, men calling out incomprehensible things as gunshots blast around the open space. Lance watches through blurry vision as Keith works his way through each and every accomplice in the area, using men as shields to block the shots fired, picking up random objects to use as weapons to knock the rest out.
It was over in minutes and then Keith was by his side, tearing off the restraints quickly and coming around to cup his face gently.
“Lance, Lance,” Keith sounds desperate, voice wobbly. “Jesus, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—I tried to find you, I searched the whole city, I—” he helped Lance to stand up, the hand around his waist shaking. “It’s going to be okay now, I’m getting you help. You’re going to be fine, you hear me?”
Lance manages a pathetic smile. “Keith… my knight in shining…”
And then his vision goes dark.
Lance awoke in hospital, the whiteness of the walls blinding him momentarily before he adjusts. There was no one else in the room, the rhythmic beeping of the oxygen machine he was hooked up to and the soft hum of the air conditioner the only sounds to be heard. He tests his strength, wincing slightly when parts of his body scream at him in warning.
He presses the button for a nurse and waits.
A doctor visits him minutes later, going through the diagnosis of his injuries; a punctured lung along with several bruised ribs, a broken nose and a minor concussion. He was required to spend the next week in hospital while his lung heals up. Lance nods weakly, thoughts a swirling mess.
With Hunk as his emergency contact, the man had already come and gone to see Lance while he had been under. Hunk had called Lance’s parents and they had booked the next flight out to see him.
Iverson had given him the week off with pay, so it was nice to not have to worry about the bills at home. As the week passed by slowly Hunk tried his best to distract Lance as best he could, but between the silent nights alone and the stale hospital food, Lance felt like he was getting worse, not better.
Nothing he did helped to ease the other physical pain in his chest when he thought about Keith. He wanted nothing more than to hear his voice; to ask him if he was okay; to yell at Keith for abandoning him while he needs him the most.
It wasn’t until the sixth day, after Lance’s parents had left to go back to their hotel to sleep, that Lance finally received the visitor he'd wanted to see from the beginning.
After a gentle knock at his door, Keith steps into the room quietly, in casual attire and looking just as bad as Lance feels.
“Hey,” he murmurs, coming over to sit in the chair pulled up near the head of Lance’s bed.
“Where have you been?” Lance grits out, emotions bubbling inside him. “I-I… fuck, Keith, I’ve missed you all week, dammit. I didn’t even know if you were alright. You didn’t let me know. I was so scared I’d never see you again, I—”
“I’m sorry,” Keith cuts in, voice raw. “I had to drop you at the hospital without being seen. I had to, Lance, you were bleeding out—I had to leave you here. I thought staying away for a while was for the best. I went back to the hangout they held you in. I had to make sure they were all put away—I had to physically stop myself from killing each and every one of them for what they did to you.”
Lance feels tears pool in his eyes again; his body was so, so tired. He doesn't take his gaze off Keith, irrationally worried he might disappear again. Lance doesn't know when things had changed for them, but the idea of losing Keith now made something hot and sour burn unpleasantly in his gut. “Idiot.” He lifts up his hand shakily, and Keith’s own shoots out instantly, twining their fingers together.
“They were right,” Keith whispers, and Lance raises an eyebrow in question. “I do have a weakness.”
Lance almost asks what exactly, but then his heart stutters in his chest when Keith looks at him so adoringly, albeit nervously.
Lance smiles through a shiver. “You better come over here and kiss me right fucking now, Red.”
Keith blinks in surprise before barking out a wet laugh. He closes the distance between them slowly, merely a breath away, and he brings his other hand up to caress Lance’s cheek, eyes shining with mirth.
“I would watch 90s sitcoms with you for the rest of my life, Lance… if… if you’ll have me.”
And if that wasn’t a marriage proposal then Lance didn’t know what was.
Their lips meet in the middle.