One Luchador Romance, Grande.

As if holding down the championship title of an exclusive underground lucha libre ring wasn’t hard enough, Stephen is facing down a brand new challenge: a cocky young upstart who threatens to not only take his belt, but also…his heart!

CHAPTER 1

Cristóbal! Cristóbal!

He threw up his arms as he stood on the ropes, letting loose a primal cry that only made the crowd’s excitement spike. They were chanting his name as his opponent was escorted away in shame, the latest in a line of would-be challengers to fall. The deafening roar of the crowd reverberated through the concrete arena, bouncing off the walls and filling his head and chest. It was intoxicating.

The announcers were struggling to be heard, even over their microphones and carefully placed speakers. They, like all the others, were singing his praises. There had never before been a luchador like Christopher Spite, and they were sure there never would be again.

He’d come up from nothing, mocked by many of the former greats who were now ashamed to stand in the same ring as him. They’d called him el frijol pequeño, but his cruel and agile techniques soon put them in their place. It wasn’t long before the sharp gleam of emerald under the bright fluorescent lights became a sign of warning; his mask, with its signature tentacle motif, struck fear in all of his opponents’ hearts.

He did one last walk around the ring, arms in the air as he roared for his fans. He knew many of their faces, knew the ones who had been with him since the beginning and those who had joined in when his superiority had become evident. He knew their smiles and their cries, and their energy fed his own. No one could take him down. The championship title belonged to him and him alone!

A loud crashing suddenly interrupted the noise, a startled gasp rushing through the crowd as the spotlights swivelled to find the source. There, at the top of the diamond plate ramp, was a luchador he’d never seen before.

Tall, thin, and clearly confident, this mystery wrestler pointed straight at Christopher and a wide grin split the mouth of his mask.

“Your title”—his voice cut clearly through the now hushed arena—“is mine.”

The crowd murmured in excitement as the announcers struggled to identify this unexpected challenger. They exchanged frantic guesses at the man’s identity as he walked toward the ring, eyes still locked on Christopher’s as the latter watched the approach. He stopped short, grabbing a microphone from the closest announcer who sat slack-jawed at ringside.

“Enjoy this while you can, because next week, Spite, the crowds will be chanting ‘Ben’.” His words rang out, filling the domed concrete arena, but there was somehow an intimate tone to them, as if — despite the microphone — the words were meant exclusively for Christopher.

The champion felt goosebumps on the back of his neck, but he hadn’t made it as far as he had by giving in to nerves or letting bravado get the better of him. He held his ground, allowing no outward sign of fear or even curiosity. He matched the intense stare of this stranger with his own disinterested one. This wasn’t the first time a young newcomer had stormed in, guns blazing, making claims he couldn’t back only to be turned away within the first round, and it wouldn’t be the last. But there was something…different about this one.

This man’s arrogance wasn’t born of nothing; Christopher had been around long enough to be able to recognize that. There was skill there, something calculated in those deep brown eyes. And the precisely designed black lines that emanated from the face of his mask, adorning the otherwise startlingly red fabric, warned of something bigger. This was not a fight Christopher would be able to take lightly.

The thought was exhilarating.

“Well, Ben,” he answered at last, the crowd hanging on his every word, though his attention was fixed solely on the man below him, “challenge accepted.”

The excitement that rolled through the audience threatened to bring the arena down around them, and there were rumours in the days to come that the cheering had been so loud, the pedestrians dozens of feet above had felt tremors shake the ground. The announcers were scrambling to make sense of anything, shouting over top of the crowd and fuelling the fire. But the two wrestlers saw only one another, already measuring and weighing their opponent, planning their strategy. There would be no holding back; it would be a match for the history books.

Next week can’t come soon enough.

Morning, however, could.

Stephen groaned and rolled over, hitting the silence button on his alarm clock for the third time. Sitting in the doorway of his bedroom, Sirius let out a long, needy, yowl, demanding to be fed. Despite the aches and pains in his body, the world demanded he get up and get moving.

He dragged himself up and out of bed, following his cat into the kitchen so he could feed the both of them. One heaping scoop of cat food for Sirius, and one heaping scoop of no-name cereal for Stephen. It wasn’t as glamorous as his other life, but it was certainly more comfortable, and required far less grace and showmanship. It was, in his opinion, a good balance; after nights of pure adrenaline in which he was everyone’s hero, his mornings were more relaxed, and allowed him to center himself for the next match.

Which reminded him…That ‘Ben’ was nothing to sneeze at. Just the memory of those Machiavellian eyes, boring into his, challenging him, claiming victory before the man had even stepped into the ring, filled Stephen with a sensation he hadn’t known since he’d started out his career as an underground luchador. This pure, unadulterated, rush of excitement and anticipation…Just who was this man?

Stephen scratched Sirius behind the ears thoughtfully, staring out his apartment window as he pondered. He thought he was familiar with all of the underground lucha libre rings, and if there’d been an upstart like ‘Ben’ around in any of them, surely he’d have heard of him by now. But he hadn’t heard a thing. And this man must have beaten the others, or he couldn’t possibly have claimed a fight against Stephen so quickly. There was no way ‘Ben’ intended to climb his way up the ladder over the span of a single week; he’d be too tired to actually fight properly in the title bout. Where had ‘Ben’ come from, and just how good was he?

Finally, Stephen shook himself out of it; there was no use in worrying about it now. He’d treat it like he treated every match: prepare, plan, and execute. If he got up in his own head now, ‘Ben’ had already won.

“I’m gonna go for a walk,” he told Sirius as he cleaned up after the two of them. “Clear my head a bit. That guy really has the mind games down.”

The cat mewed in response before wandering off to settle on the couch, cleaning his face and paws after a satisfying meal. Stephen made a note, as he put on his shoes, to continue learning disaffected behaviour from his cat. He’d never known another animal to have such an effective poker face.

As he wandered down the streets, his feet carrying him along his usual root, he couldn’t help but notice that the small shop that had once been a German bakery was now some kind of upscale café. It hadn’t expanded the space much, and had kept much of the wood detailing on the walls and ceiling, but it seemed much more ‘modern’ now, and the smells that wafted from the door were certainly enticing.

He paused long enough to glance through the propped open doorway, and noticed that the place seemed relatively empty. It was late enough in the morning that the early commuters had probably already come and gone, but still early enough in the day that no one was just milling about, looking for a place to kill time between lunch and dinner. As he was debating whether or not to stop in and check the place out, his nose caught a whiff of fresh baked goods and his stomach reminded him that cereal was hardly enough to keep a champion going.

What the hell, he thought to himself, It’s always good to know the people who work around where you live anyway.

The café had a comfortably inviting air about it, and the small glass display case did a good job of highlighting the pastries and sandwiches the place offered. Behind the counter was a single barista, undoubtedly on shift alone for the ‘quiet hours’, who looked uninterested in his work but perked up when Stephen came in. He looked to be around the same age as Stephen, though he stood quite a bit taller, and had a head of surprisingly curly dark hair and a matching beard, cut short undoubtedly due to work requirements.

“Good morning,” the young man smiled, his voice soft but carrying in the small space, “what can I get for you?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Stephen shrugged. “What would you recommend?”

The barista paused for a moment, adjusting his glasses and revealing, for a brief moment, eyes that spoke volumes as to what he would honestly ‘recommend’ before he replied with his corporately mandated response. “We have some great new flavours for the season, if you’d like. And we’re having a promotion for our grand opening: sign up for our loyalty program within our first week, and your first purchase earns triple the points.”

Stephen stared for a moment before he made sure there were no other coworkers or customers. Then he decided to go out on a limb: “You wouldn’t recommend anything, would you?”

A wry smile crossed the barista’s face and he shrugged nonchalantly, dropping much of his practiced retail posture. “I’m not much of a coffee person. It all tastes pretty much the same to me. But if you’re looking for something to eat, some of the pastries are pretty good.”

There was something in the barista’s honest tone that made Stephen smile. Maybe it was the undertone of sarcasm, or the actual sense of genuine opinions, but the man’s whole way of speaking made Stephen feel comfortable. “What’ve you got that’s worth it then?”

The man snorted and glanced at the refrigerated display. “Worth it? Not a lot. But tasty?” He moved to stand behind the glass display, pointing out each item as he listed it. “The muffins aren’t bad, if a little sweet. The chocolate chip cookie is good, but I wouldn’t recommend the others. The loaves, though…Those are all really nice. But my personal favourite snack…” He moved back to behind the counter, tapping a carefully made pyramid of crispy rice treats. “These guys. I could eat way too many of them.”

Laughing and walking up to the counter, Stephen took stock of the items presented before making his decision. “I’m going to trust you on this and ask for a piece of the banana bread if I could.”

“Good choice.” The barista carefully picked out a large slice of banana bread and packaged it into a branded paper bag. As he was ringing through the transaction, he carried on his conversation in a surprisingly natural tone. “If you’re ever around for lunch, I’d only really suggest the chicken sandwich. They’re all pretty overpriced, but at least that one’s full of stuff. The others are pretty skimpy.” He glanced up and caught Stephen’s eyes with his own. “I take it you live around here?”

Stephen took his bagged snack and held the other’s stare. “Yeah, I do. How’d you know?”

The barista laughed and grinned crookedly. “Just a guess. Glad to hear it though. I like having customers I can actually talk to.” He then held out his hand. “My name’s Nick.”

“Stephen,” the other answered, firmly shaking his new acquaintance’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Nick replied with a curt nod. “I hope you like your banana bread.”

Glancing around at the empty tables, Stephen shrugged as nonchalantly as he could and offered, “Well why don’t I eat it here so I can let you know? That way, if I don’t like it, I can blame you immediately for lying to me.”

Nick chuckled dryly and gestured to the many vacant tables. “Go for it. I wouldn’t mind the company.”

Choosing a table relatively close to the counter, Stephen settled in and broke off a piece of the slice he’d been given. It had the right consistency and moisture, and when he put it in his mouth it had the perfect balance of sweetness. And it wasn’t too heavy either; while it wasn’t better than his, it was definitely worth it if he didn’t want to take the time to make a whole loaf for himself. And the café was nice. He could definitely see himself spending more of his down time here.

Conversation with Nick also came surprisingly easily. The two shared similar interests, and Stephen found Nick’s strong opinions engaging, even if he didn’t always agree with them. They fell into a couple of passionate debates, by the end of which they both seemed to feel happier for having. Before either of them knew it, nearly two hours had passed.

“Oh shit,” Stephen grumbled as he got up from his seat, “I should get going. I’ve got work soon.”

Nick laughed and leaned back against the counter. “Sorry to have kept you. It was nice talking to you.”

Smiling and shaking his head, Stephen offered a quick wave as he made his way to the door. “It was nice talking to you too. I’ll see you around, huh?”

“I’ll be here.”

Exchanging another farewell, Stephen quickly ducked out of the café and started walking briskly back up the street. That had been a surprisingly pleasant encounter, certainly different from the one the night before. He supposed it was fate’s way: offer you an obnoxious opponent, but balance it with a new and charming friend. A friend that he was maybe too excited to go see again.

Stephen paused, staring at his feet as he ran through that thought again. There was nothing wrong with wanting to see a new friend again, was there? No. He was just overthinking things again. Nick was just a nice guy, and Stephen had been a barista before. He knew how lonely those quiet hours could get. This was just a great opportunity to balance out his life again, to have somewhere he could go to just relax and talk to someone.

“Yeah, that’s it…” he muttered, shaking his head and refocusing his efforts on getting back home, “It’s just been a while since I’ve met someone like him. And it’s nice that he’s so close.” He couldn’t help but think it would also be nice to have someone close at hand to talk to when things with ‘Ben’ started to get ugly.

Still, it had been a crazy day and a half. First ‘Ben’, with his mysterious challenge and his nigh overwhelming confidence, and then Nick with his charming smile and eloquent arguments: fate really was trying to keep things in balance for him.

To Be Continued…