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It Stops Bullets

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It's a long time since he's seen Justin. A long time. Now a phone call, and they're back in the old rhythm: Justin calls, and Lance comes running. Lance can check off a list of twenty times this has happened before, but it's been years. It's been a lot of years. Justin sounded excited on the phone. Feverish, even. Dude. There's something I want you to see.

So, obviously, Lance gets in his car and drives, swallowing down the flash of irritation. It's just a flash, because behind the irritation is sheer pleasure at hearing Justin's voice, down a phone instead of on the TV for the first time in months, and more pleasure at the idea of seeing him again. Maybe what they had before is gone - no, scratch the maybe - but people grow up and change, and that's how the world is.

He wonders what kind of person Justin is now.

He switches on local radio as he drives, and changes the station in annoyance two minutes later. They're running yet another story about LA's "superhero". Joe loves the idea of a masked vigilante running around Los Angeles, beating up criminals, but then he would. Lance, who actually lives in this city and everything, isn't so thrilled at the idea. It's just little too Hollywood. Not that Lance has anything against Hollywood; but in this town? It's some guy with too much money and not enough brains, thinking one person can change the nature of the world, when Lance knows better.

Country music suits his mood better this morning, and he hums along to Patsy Kline as he drives. Crazy for loving you. That song always makes him think of himself ten years ago, tanked up on bitterness and vodka in Justin's London hotel, fresh from the crushing disappointment of Russia. He'd wished so hard, back then, for something to happen that never had. He thinks it was in London that he first realized: the brotherhood they'd had during the group years was gone, and there was nothing to replace it with.

He spent a lot of years missing the hell out of Justin, and a lot more years figuring out how to live around the hole.

Two minutes on the phone, and it's like the last decade never happened.

***

Justin answers the door instantly - like he's been waiting right there for Lance to show up. He's unshaven but bright-eyed, curls cropped close to his head, and without saying anything he reaches in for a hug. Lance finds himself with his hands on Justin's broad back and his face pressed against Justin's shoulder, smelling freshly-laundered shirt and soap. Justin pats Lance's back with one big hand and draws back, and up to his full height, grinning.

"Good to see you, man," Justin says.

"You, too."

Justin ushers Lance in, closes the door, and Lance admires the hallway of Justin's fancy house. Well; none of them are badly off for money. "Come downstairs," Justin says.

Downstairs? Lance thinks. We're on the first floor.

He expects the door that Justin leads him through to lead to a regular basement, but it kind of... doesn't.

The stairs go down and down and down.

"I'm thinking about an elevator," Justin says. "It'd be faster. On the other hand, the exercise is good."

Lance has no idea what Justin's talking about, so he offers a non-committal mm and follows Justin down the long stairway. Finally - shortly after Lance starts to wonder how exhausted he's going to be climbing all those stairs to get out again - also exactly how far down are they? - they come to another door. Justin pulls a keyring out of the pocket of his jeans and unlocks it.

"Joe would think this was hilarious," Justin says over his shoulder. "But I wanted you to see it first."

He pushes open the door, steps back, and waves Lance forward.

***

The first thing Lance sees is the bank of computer screens. Or maybe they're TVs. It looks like a mega version of the security desk in a corporate building, except all the screens are blank. While Lance is frowning at the screens, Justin darts over to the right and flips a switch. The screens fill with grainy black-and-white images. From - from all over the city, if Lance isn't mistaken.

"What the," Lance begins, turning to look at the rest of the room.

There's a more conventional computer on the other side of the room. And on the nearest wall is a display case. In the display case is - if Justin were performing, Lance would think that it was maybe a costume for a show. It looks a little like one of their outfits from Pop Odyssey - black, form-hugging. But Justin wouldn't wear a helmet. He'd never cover his face on stage.

"Justin," Lance tries again. He turns to look behind him, where Justin is almost bouncing on the balls of his feet with excitement. Like a kid showing off a new toy, Lance thinks.

These stories, they've been running for three weeks. That's three weeks, Justin's been putting his life in danger. Not to mention breaking the law. The cops don't seem very committed to hunting down this particular vigilante, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't arrest him, given half a chance. Then what? Lance's brain is immediately in damage control mode. Lawyers, PR consultants, glossy TV interviews. He doesn't even want to think about the potential mess.

"You're the guy," Lance says. "The masked hero. The - "

Justin grins ridiculously. "Yeah."

"Justin," he says, "this is really fucking stupid."

Justin just looks at him, all puppy dog eyes and open, honest face. For a few moments, Lance finds it impossible to believe Justin's almost thirty. Then the puppy dog eyes dissolve into a thundery frown. "It's not stupid," he says, petulantly. His lip comes out in a childish pout.

Of course he's not thirty, Lance thinks. He's five. "Yeah, it's stupid," he snaps. "You could get yourself killed. Did you think of that?" His voice comes out a little louder than he intended. No; a lot louder.

"Of course I thought of that." Justin's voice is loud, too. He strides over to the display case, yanks open the glass door. "The suit's lined with - "

Lance has heard enough. He cuts Justin off with an angry gesture, turns and makes for that endless flight of stairs.

"Lance, it can stop a bullet!" Justin calls.

The thing looks like it's made of Lycra. Already on the first step, Lance rolls his eyes and doesn't bother looking back.

***

Two miles away, Lance sits in an underground parking lot to get his breath back.

Damn it, he thinks. He knew Justin was dumb sometimes, but he didn't think he was stupid.

The radio started up when he turned the ignition, and it's still playing country music. Now he shuts the radio off and takes one deep breath after another. Staring sightlessly out the windshield and thinking. Yelling at Justin always takes it out of him.

Man, he thinks, laughing at himself just a little, it's been a while.

He's about to start the car again when his attention is drawn by a commotion in the corner of a parking lot. He looks, and he regrets it. Behind a white Camry, two guys are holding a third up against a wall. One of the assailants has his hand inside of the victim's jacket. The other has a knife to his throat.

Lance finds himself watching the robbery, unable to move from the driver's seat of his own car, and wishing himself invisible. The guys finish up, and the knife wielder throws a punch into his victim's stomach for good measure. The guy doubles over, wheezes, and the robbers run.

Still frozen, Lance watches the victim recover, straighten up, get into the Camry, drive away.

It's not until he gets out into the sunlight that it occurs to Lance: Justin, in his form-hugging battle suit, or whatever it is, would have done something. He'd have gotten that guy's wallet back. He'd have beaten the robbers up. Or turned them over to the police. Maybe both.

Justin, Lance concludes, was always a doer.

***

Lance is on his third Jack of the night when Justin calls.

The irony, lame as it is, of drinking Tennessee whisky while speaking to Justin doesn't escape him. He takes a hefty swig and answers the phone. "Hey."

"Hi," Justin says. His voice is soft, contrite, and Lance recognises Justin in apology mode. That's well-practiced, Lance thinks, and in a way that makes it unreal. "Look. I don't - I didn't - I wanted you to know what I was doing."

Lance takes a breath to keep himself from yelling. "Putting yourself in danger?"

"Helping people out, Lance."

Lances thinks of the guy with the Camry this morning. Then he thinks of the two guys and the knife, and of Justin rushing in. He feels sick. "Justin," he says. "This is dangerous. It's really dangerous. You do understand that, right?"

"It's a good suit," Justin says, which doesn't make any sense.

"Great," Lance says with a small sigh. There's a pause. Then he says, "Justin, I don't get it. Why me? Why did you call me? Why'd you want to show me this?"

"I wanted you to see," Justin says. There's a silence. Then: "I wanted you to see that I'm doing something real."

Oh. That stings. "Unlike me, you mean."

"No - no, Lance, that's not what I meant." On the other end of the line, Justin clears his throat. "I just meant - I wanted you to know. About this, about me. I wanted someone to know."

"There's no one else?" Lance wants to know.

"No."

Lance is mildly impressed that Justin figured this all out by himself. "Wow," he says. "Um. Thanks, I guess, but - "

"You don't wanna know," Justin says. There's a hard quality to his voice, the tone that says Justin's made up his mind how this is going to go. He sighs; Lance still has no idea what's expected of him, what's going on in Justin's head. Seriously: anyone who ever bitches about women, he thinks, has never made a serious attempt to understand another guy.

"I don't want to see you get hurt," Lance says, and means it.

"Okay," Justin says.

There's a silence, like the ripples flowing out when you drop a stone in water. Lance can feel Justin thinking, but he can't figure out what's going through Justin's mind.

"I guess I'll see ya," Justin says, and hangs up.

***

Twelve days pass.

It's a quiet evening. Lance switches on the TV and pours himself a drink and settles down in front of the local news. He never used to watch it before, but now he knows that it's Justin, fighting to keep the streets safe, he can recognise the body shape, the way of standing, in the occasional blurry photo. Justin must be doing this every night, because most mornings there's a new story.

Tonight, they get breaking news.

Mystery Man Injured? says the caption across the screen.

Lance sits up to look closely at the grainy video the news is showing. The high-pitched voice of the announcer becomes static in his ears as the video repeats once, twice, a third time. It's CCTV footage from a gas station. Justin interrupts a robbery, two guys holding up the cashier, making him empty the register into a bag. The robbers have guns. One of them turns and fires, and there's enough time to see that he hits before the robber shoots out the camera, too.

It can stop a bullet, he thinks, and remembers the Lycra-looking suit hanging in Justin's basement.

He dives for his cell.

***

Justin doesn't answer and doesn't answer and doesn't answer.

After trying for twenty minutes, Lance jumps in his car and drives to Justin's house. Late at night, and on the streets he needs, traffic is light; it only takes fifteen minutes before Lance is sitting in his car in front of Justin's place, looking at the one lighted upstairs window and wondering if Justin is in the hospital. Wondering, somewhere in the back of his mind, if it's all going to be in the papers tomorrow.

No one knows. Not JC. Not Jessica. Not Lynn. No one. Just Lance. Why me? Lance wonders, not for the first time. He gets out of the car, makes himself walk in a measured way to the door, then pounds on the doorbell.

He's about to quit and start calling hospitals when Justin finally answers the door.

He's holding his right side with his free hand, and he looks tired and a little pale, but Lance can't see any blood. "I'm fine," Justin says.

"Why didn't you answer the phone?"

"I just got home ten minutes ago," Justin says. "There aren't any pockets in the suit, I don't exactly carry my cell with me. Come inside."

"You saw the news?" Lance asks as he walks into the hallways.

"Just now."

Justin shows Lance into a room, and unsurprisingly, it's one of Justin's grand TV rooms. Local news is still playing the video, but Justin's muted the TV. Comfortable and in really terrible taste. Justin throws himself onto a couch, and Lance sits on another. Justin reaches for the remote and switches the TV off entirely, glances at Lance, settles back against the couch.

"So - " Lance gestures to Justin's side. "What happened?"

"Oh, I got hit," Justin says, but he lifts his hand and there's not a trace of blood on his shirt, nor of a bandage underneath it. "I told you the suit could stop a bullet. I got a hell of a bruise, though."

Lance grins. Oh, the relief. "I'll bet," he says. Justin lifts his shirt a little, so that Lance can see the dark stain against Justin's abs. It's large, Lance thinks; must hurt a lot. But Justin, Lance remembers, is a tough kid; he'll be fine.

"You want a beer?" Justin offers.

"Sure."

Justin gets up and fetches two bottles from the fridge at the back of the room. He passes one to Lance, but he doesn't go back to the place he started; he sits on the couch next to Lance. Lance remembers when it was the five of them crammed into a much smaller room, watching movies or playing video games, and how he and Justin would so often be hip to hip. Justin touches Lance's beer bottle with his own.

"Did you stop the robbery?" Lance says.

"I did. They were surprised as hell when I got up again." Justin laughs, and his eyes sparkle, and Lance joins in. He can just imagine it. It'd be like a stage gag; like getting into a box and disappearing, or flying over the crowd. Lord, but Justin does love to put on a show.

"Well, here's to that." Lance takes a sip of his beer.

"Here's to it."

There's companionable silence for a few moments, while Lance swallows his mouthful.

Justin turns to him, his lips curling into a smile, and sets the beer bottle down on the floor. Lance wonders what he's going to go for - Lance expects something on Playstation, or a horror movie, or - anything but this.

Anything but Justin leaning in to kiss him, hesitant and gentle and all too brief.

There's a moment when Lance doesn't know how to react. Justin says, "Um," and it makes Lance think immediately of when Justin was about sixteen and sure of everything except when he wasn't. Justin's eyes cut away, looking anywhere but Lance.

"You're not allowed to get yourself killed," Lance says, and grabs hold of Justin's bristly jaw.