Joshua Portman came sauntering down the stairs at 7.30 a.m., yawning while shamelessly scratching his tummy through the thin cotton of his shirt. His brown hair was a mess, standing up on one side. The faint sprinkling of freckles on his nose and cheeks stood out under the pale morning light peeking through the living room curtains. It was late summer. Autumn was on the verge of making a not-so-spectacular entrance and the city was beginning to awaken from its holiday slump: the number of early buses increased, kids started going to school again, institutions re-opened their doors to the public and everyone was yet again ready to ensure the success and full productivity of the year ahead. At least, that's the way it was supposed to be, Josh guessed.
He grimaced as he came into the kitchen and the stink of rotten food and dirt hit him in the face. His grandmother was standing by the stove, mixing batter in a giant bowl. She turned the whisk methodically, now and then hitting the plastic with a clattering noise.
'Good morning, where's mom?' Josh asked as he carefully grabbed the bag from the trashcan, tying the ends together so the smell could no longer escape.
'She's upstairs', his grandmother said, not turning around.
Josh swung the grey bag over his shoulder, crossing the kitchen to the balcony door. As he threw it open the noise and smell of traffic filled the small room. He stared down at the cars and the people on the sidewalk raging past, ten at a time, every one of them as anonymous as the other. Josh quickly dropped the bag and retreated inside.
'Page three, bottom left', his old granny said, pointing a ringed finger. There lay a newspaper on the table.
Joshua thanked her and pulled out a chair, browsing until he found the right article. The accompanying picture immediately caught his eye. 'Oh my God', he muttered, eyes rapidly scanning the first paragraph.
The bold black lettering read: "FEARLESS, STATE'S ALLY AFTER ALL? Not long after the controversy caused on the 19th August, when Black Lagoon's gang leader Min Seung Woo was found unconscious in front of the Federal Police station on Orchard Road, there is a growing consensus of opinion that it wasn't Public Safety pulling overtime. In fact, with all governmental assumptions made, the interference of a masked hero still turns out to be the most plausible of them all. Some have even gone so far as to claim that police were desperate enough to seek Fearless out themselves. The number of people supporting this opinion seems to be growing with every passing day. Mark Johnson, Attorney General for Homeland Security's Federal Law Enforcement Training Centre, stated the following in a recent interview with NTS: 'Whether he [Fearless] was asked to assist in the Black Lagoon case is no longer the question, it's whether or not they'll have the guts to ask him again.'"
Joshua's hands were close to trembling as he carefully ran his fingers up and down the black and white picture: a nightly view of City Hall's front with in the centre, on the last marble step, Fearless.
It was an unclear shot, taken from behind. The ink was blurred in places, but Josh could still clearly distinguish the hammer caught above the hero's left shoulder, as well as the slim wooden panel held up against the door. The bottom of Fearless' long black jacket was blown up by the wind in a theatrical gesture. His head was held high, revealing a glimpse of the ominous white mask.
It was an old picture, Josh knew. Five months ago he'd raided practically every newspaper store and kiosk in the neighbourhood in an attempt to gather as may printed articles as possible; all Fearless-related, naturally. The one hanging next to his bedroom mirror said: Fearless, aka 'The Janitor', now cleaning up City Hall?
Those five months ago, in early April spring, Fearless had made his first bold public appearance. He had pinned a wooden panel to the Mayor's door, bearing the names of all officials involved in a massive swindle the police had been unable to bring to light. Needless to say his action had caused enormous uproar. Not only due to the fact that someone was pointing a finger directly at some of the city's highest councillors, but also because it was a wake-up call. A cold shower for both the police and politicians.
Federal Security had hesitated to take measures, partly because the testimony wasn't official and therefore technically invalid, partly out of fear. But by that time, the fire had begun spreading. After days of protests, a lowly office worker had stood up to provide the first of many testimonies to come, which in turn resulted in a thorough internal investigation.
For the first time since his name had gone public, Fearless became less of a haunting shadow and more of a man of the public, a fighter of justice, his panel and hammer a fitting symbol of resistance against oppression.
Josh grappled for a pair of scissors, nearly hyperventilating when he wrinkled a corner. That article deserved a medal and a place on his bedroom wall.
'Joshua', his grandma said. 'There are empty bottles in the box under the table. Could you throw them out, please?'
Josh glanced at the elderly woman's crooked back. She spoke in that weird, cheerful tone of voice she used at random. It never quite sounded appropriate.
'Sure', he said.
The narrow stairs down from the balcony were slippery and wet. Josh took the railing in a firm grip, shuffling down slowly. The rusted metal creaked under his weight. Just as he was about to reach the last platform, one of the plastic handles broke off and a few bottles and jars tumbled out, shattering at his feet. Joshua hastily jumped away. Some of the broken glass slipped through the metal bars onto the pavement below.
'Shit, fuck', he hissed, running down to inspect the damage and nearly bumping into someone on his way. The shock made him recoil and stumble over his own feet. At the last second, two strong hands reached out.
Joshua blinked, first at the hands gently gripping his shoulders, then at the face of a handsome stranger.
'Watch out', the man said. 'Nearly got hurt there.'
Joshua swallowed, feeling an obnoxious blush creep up his cheeks. He loved his girlfriend, really, he did, but he also knew that the eyes didn't lie. Neither did his lower half for that matter.
'Thanks', he replied, straightening himself on the railing. Dirty blonde hair, stunning green eyes and a pair of perfectly toned arms. 'I don't think we've met?'
The man kindly offered his hand: 'Kevin. I just moved in last week.'
'Joshua Portman. I live with my mother and grandmother on the third floor.'
'Oh, there's two more people in there?'
Joshua gave a one-shouldered shrug. Honestly, the two women didn't show their faces very often.
'Now that I think about it', Kevin said. 'Maybe it would've been polite to bake a cake for introduction.'
That definitely brought a smile to Josh's face. 'It's alright, the second floor couple are assholes anyway.'
He made to gather the broken glass, which Kevin abruptly forbade, stating it was too dangerous. The man ran inside, returning with a pair of protective gloves. 'Please let me, it's no problem.'
Joshua agreed reluctantly, feeling like a kid more than anything. On closer inspection Kevin did look older. He felt brave enough to ask.
Turned out Kevin was to be twenty-eight soon, topping Josh by eight years. He worked for the State, loved swimming and football, owned a pet kitten named Hellsing and thought the taco place around the corner was "out of this world".
Joshua climbed the stairs with a huge grin on his face and a promise to pay his neighbour a visit sometime in the near future. When he entered the kitchen, his mother had already taken her usual seat at the table. She was in her pyjamas and slippers, silently smoking a hand rolled cigarette. Right above Josh's newspaper.
'Mom!' he all but yelled, dashing forward to secure the article's safety.
'What now?' His mother chose to press out the burning stump on the table instead. 'Shouldn't you be at work?'
'Not until nine.'
She grunted in response, grabbing her nearly empty pack for another smoke.
'I'll go get you a new one on my way to the office', Joshua offered.
His mom rolled her thumb over the surface of the lighter, flicking it on swiftly. Josh forced his lips into a smile. 'It's a bad habit, though. You'll get old fast.'
She did look worn out. For the past couple of years, the bags under her eyes had grown more prominent, until eventually they'd decided to just make themselves at home and take permanent residence. It became difficult for Josh to walk past his mother's room in the morning, evening and afternoon, knowing she sat brooding in there, having all sorts of thoughts. Didn't know if he wanted to know, thought he probably should. But asking wasn't an option. All he could do was tiptoe around his own apartment, hoping she wouldn't break or burst.
His mother blew a trail of smoke into the air, tilting back her head with a sigh. Just as Josh was about to speak again, taking a step forward as he opened his mouth, she reached out and slapped him hard across the cheek.
The noise seemed to bounce off the walls, echoing through the small kitchen before it disappeared through the flour and ceiling, soaked up by the dimmed Monday morning rush. Josh had drawn back, blinking away tears of surprise. His vision slowly adapted to the bleariness as he looked at her again. She was staring back, unmoving, like a worn corpse with greasy black hair, sockets too big for its own head. The corpse opened its mouth:
'What are you doing? When are you going to start doing something? You're a waste of space, Joshua. You make me sick. And this,' she snatched up the fallen newspaper, 'this stupid obsession of yours, it has to stop. Do something useful for a change.'
Joshua thought, more so than her words, her voice was the worst. He obediently shook no, rubbing at the sting his mother's hand had left.
Grandma was washing potatoes in the sink.
a/n: Prologue to Fearless, mystery, romance and lots of angsty drama ahead. English is not my first language, so if any awkwardness arises, please blame it on the language barrier! Please review and have fun reading.