On The Same Page

From the Story Arc: Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Previous Story in the Arc: Revelations by Victoria Victrix (Saturday, January 10, 2009)

Next Story in the Arc: Moving In by Victoria Victrix (Saturday, January 10, 2009)

(posted Saturday, January 10, 2009)

No one troubled you in Dark Astoria, unless you were stupid enough to go looking for it. Perpetual darkness and mist had its advantages, after all. In his line of work, Rancor had learned that a laser site could appear anytime. He could remember a time or two he had allowed the tell-tale dot to move across him, seeking his head. He’d watch, gauging distance and skill of the sniper by the speed and steadiness of movement. Ah, the old days…

Dark Astoria was one of the few places he could sit in the open air and relax. Here he had found darkness, mist, and a basal level of magic permeating the very air, providing a mystical background of static interference for targeting and positioning spells. Good thing too, the past week had wound him fairly tight. The razor’s edge was a place he needed to visit, but he knew staying there too long had its consequences. CCCP’s open war on the Council had kept him busy with damage control, but it was done, it was over. Thing’s were back to normal, as normal as they could be in Paragon. Nemesis had almost seized a golden opportunity, but he’d been stopped, thwarted by Rancor’s quiet machinations.

Silently he removed his disguise, an outrageously foppish yet generic hero suit, which could pass for any number of the spandex-clad supermen-wannabes running around the city. A useful tool when you wanted your quarry in the dark, clueless to the identity of his hunter. He engaged the pack command, the suit folding to a small, economically dense block. He packed it away into a belt pouch, put on his civvies with a grunt of relief, and hunkered down in his alleyway perch, his sanctuary. Striking a match, he brought a small flame to his mouth, a subdued haze in the mist and gloom, and lit a fat cigar.

Now, what’s happening in the city…

He brought up the display on his communicator, keyed in a code, and initiated a customized log search, both personal and for the city. He began with the standard villain reports, incarceration rates to the Zig, recognizing a few key higher-ups in various organizations. A few contacts had sent some unusual reports of Crey, Freakshow and Thorn activity. He skimmed through headlines, made a few brief notes on some unusual occurrences in King’s Row and Brickstown. The stories were superficial, the reporters had obviously been hushed up. He’d have to hit up a few contacts on the west side of town to get the real story.

Not bad, things seem more-or-less manageable. Wonder how long that’ll last this time?

As his comm unit broke the silence, he mused to himself on the folly of tempting fate.

“This is Victoria Victrix attempting to contact Rancor. Respond or leave a message at this transponder code.”

“What the... I thought I adjusted this comm unit for restricted access...”

“Yah. And I have hacker friends.”

Victoria Victrix, Djinni’s new girl.

Aw great.

“Alright, bonus points for finding me.”

“Not hard when both your parents are Feds.”

“You don't say...”

Feds. She’s got FBI contacts… well, whaddaya know. Red’s new girl might be the answer I’ve been looking for.

He keyed in her name, and ran a check. “I'm busy, what do you want?”

“I understand you don't like me.”

“And where did you hear that from?”

“A little bird.”

The comm unit hummed with life, and search results flew across the read-out.

Let’s see what we got here… keep her talking…

“I never said nothing about liking you or disliking you.”

“OK, let me clarify that, you don't like anyone that might get under Red's skin.”

Bingo. Victoria Victrix, daughter of Special Agents Alexander and Moira Nagy…

His eyes ran over the names, and he was mildly surprised he knew of them. Nagy. He wondered if there was a connection with Althea Nagy.

Possible, but let’s leave that ‘til later…

He had been trying to unwind, but work had a habit of calling at any time. His mind had relaxed as he sifted through the latest city reports, letting his instincts guide his eyes to the pertinent information. Now, his thoughts were racing.

“You got psychics or somethin’ working for ya?”

“I got a friend who's currently in high places.”

“They must be, to get into my noggin'. Few that can do that, fewer still I've left alive.”

“Yeah well you'd have a hard time getting rid of that particular little bird.”

In the background, there were sounds of battle. Victrix seemed removed from it, but Rancor could hear her muttering.

“Sonuvabitch, I can't even get across the freaking park...”

He hit the trace. Sure enough, she was in Perez.

“Look, if this is a ‘I'm yer buddy's girlfriend, you better get used to me’ call...”

Her response was immediate. “No.”

“Then interest me, or I smash this comm unit and get a new one.”

“One: I already told him the worst thing you can dig up on me, so don't bother going after the Crey Elven Protector story.”

She hesitated. She was nervous, he could hear it.

“Or were they calling them ‘Elven Champions’? Yeah, that was it.”

“Two: we both have the ability to hurt him. You do that, and I will keep coming after you until I'm for real dead. And I can't even break one of your fingernails. I know that.”

Rancor chuckled.

“And three?”

“There is no three.”

He sighed and got to his feet. It was an act. On the inside, he was practically gloating over his luck.

“Alright girlie, stay put. You’ve got ol’ Rancor’s interest. I’m coming to you.”

Within minutes, Rancor found himself meeting Victoria Victrix in Perez Park garbed in his North American Protectorate uniform. A shorter, cigar-smoking version of Cap America. He landed silently next to her, looked her up and down in appraisal, and started with no preamble.

“I'll give it to ya straight darlin'. Red's like a brother to me. A stupid, naive, opinionated, egotistical brother, but a brother. I watch his back, he watches mine. Don't know you yet, well... not yer whole story, but yeah... I've done some diggin'.”

He noticed she was shaking slightly. The girl was more than nervous. She was petrified. And what’s more, she was fighting it with every part of herself. She had guts. He decided to test her.

“My opinion? Yer damaged goods. So here's how it works. Red's stupid for you. That much, I can see. Ain't nothin' I can say that'll tell him different, he thinks yer it. So I gotta accepts ya. But no way in hell I trusts ya.”

She wasn’t backing down. Still shaking, but she stood her ground. He cut it back a bit.

“Yet.”

That seemed to relax her. Not much, but at least she was looking him in the eye now.

“That... you earn. Like me earning yer trust. We clear on that so far?”

She nodded.

“Now, I think we can help each other out. Got a proposition for ya. About a month ago, I asked Red to look into somethin' for me, through a mutual contact. I could a’ asked myself, but I needed to distance myself from it. Short story, he got killed while on the case. I need a new contact with higher ups on the Council and Nemesis. My current one sucks, so I need to supplement his info. You say yer folks are Feds?”

She nodded again. He gave her a penetrating look. His eyes dropped for a moment to look at her hands. They were shaking a little more. She steadied them, and he brought his gaze back to her eyes.

“Interested in a working relationship?”

She paused and bit her lip, as if deciding something.

“OK. Damn straight I'm damaged goods. Said as much myself. I kept an entire suite of shrinks in condos in Founders. F-ing should have named a scholarship fund for their kids' college for me. We clear on that? I have no illusions about myself.”

It was Rancor’s turn to nod. Slowly, she pulled off a glove and held up a horribly scarred and scorched hand.

“I lost my illusions when this happened. Can't afford them anymore.”

Again, Rancor’s eyes fell to her hand. He blinked, then brought them slowly and adamantly up to her beautiful, unmarked face.

“If you haven't already found out that I'm like that neck to soles, I'd be shocked and amazed.”

Carefully, she pulled the glove back on.

“I have a network of my own, mostly magical contacts. I can probably work up something more on Council and Nemesis, but those I won't have the ability to verify personally.”

Rancor shrugged. “I told ya, I got contacts already, I need more is all. I can sift through data, and make my own damn conclusions. Let me be clear, I’m not asking for favours. This is a two-way street. You need a hand in something, you tell me, I might just help ya. I might not...”

He went silent.

You can trust this one, go with it.

“Might as well lay it out for ya. You know what Moderators are?”

“Not a clue. Just crawled out of my hole and into the real world a couple weeks ago.”

“Alright, the summary of it then… Paragon's a mess. Got groups coming outta the woodwork all the time. The established ones usually have little to worry about with the newer ones, but heroes have got it wrong. It's not us versus them. It's everyone versus everyone. Sometimes things happen, come to a head, and the parties involved are fueled up and ignore the big picture.”

“Take the recent CCCP strike for example.”

“I don't think even the CCCP realize how badly they crippled the Council. Point is, the city's made up of more than just them two. Nemesis smelled blood in the water, and he needs certain bits of Council tech to do his plan.”

“He gets it, this timeline’s dust, pure and simple.”

“Moderator's are the ones who make sure this kind a thing don't happen. Or if they do, we fix it. Paragon only has a few Moderators, I'm one of 'em. This costume? Membership in the NAP? I use this as a screen. My real work's in keeping balance. So when I say I'll try to help ya, I'll do it only if it doesn't mess stuff up.”

He let that sink in.

“We on the same page?”

She nodded.

“Look… if it had been me…”

She shook her head. “The CCCP thing was handled all wrong. Should have been a surgical strike, in and out of there. Rely on magic instead of tech. Council has a big hole in their defences that way. But it wasn't me, and I'm a f-ing cripple.”

“Don't worry about it, that's done, and I took care of the mess.”

It was her turn to do the testing.

“But I am kind of curious why you gave Big Red a slap in the face over it.”

“'Cause he doesn't know what I do, and he never will. We don't tell people we don't have to. I tell you, because...I need you.”

Vickie’s jaw tightened, and she felt herself nod.

“On the same page. He won't hear it from me.”

“I had to get Red off my back. The reasons I gave him were true, but one. I didn't want the Nagy girl dead, and I did care. Still, I needed to undo the damage done by those blood-thirsty commies... didn't have time to add to the problems.”

Whatever he said, it seemed to help. There was a slight relaxation of the stress lines around her eyes.

“Red's a forgiving idiot at times, he'll forget about it. You guys did get her out, after all.”

‘And what profit a man if he gain the world and lose his immortal soul?’

“I need you to answer two questions, and now.”

“One: Do you understand that you can't tell anyone what I do?”

“Two: Are you willing to work with me here?”

“Yes and yes. Magic is about balance too. Especially Underhill.”

“Good. I hate threatening people if I don't have to.”

“I came close to tipping that balance by being stupid once. I don't want any more of that on my conscience.”

“Then we should work out just fine. I'll be in contact with you from time to time... you obviously know how to reach me. Can I see yer comm unit?”

She removed it from her belt and tossed it to him. He switched it on, noted its security frequencies, and keyed them into his own. Finished, he tossed it back, noting how deftly she could catch even with trembling fingers.

“I noticed on yer comm you got a ‘kill ten’ here. Circle of Thorns.”

She grimaced. “Yep.”

He chuckled. “Sorry, ‘capture ten’. I hear Red's still up in arms about that. A while back, Big Red made me promise not to kill anymore, that's how he heard it anyway. What I actually promised was I'd only kill when necessary.”

“Kill, capture. I go non-lethal if I can. Sometimes there's no choice. You want the dirt?”

He smirked. “No, I've heard all about it. It's what I do, after all.”

“Like I said, I told Red the bare bones with no excuses. And I won't bulls**t you, I almost lost him over it.”

“Nah, you weren't in danger of losing the big lug. I've known him a long time.”

Her look was sceptical.

“My gut tells me he'll be sticking with you through thick and thin.”

His eyes hardened.

“Just don't test that.”

She closed her eyes. “I would rather die. Scratch that. I will die. I have sworn a Vow.”

He shrugged. “Whatever.”

Her eyes opened, and with a fierce glare she held his gaze.

“Understand this. I have sworn a Vow. If I deliberately hurt him my life is forfeit. This is not one of those stupid ‘I promise to love you forever, love means never having to say you're sorry’ pieces of crap. I make a living writing that. Nice illusions for those who can afford illusions.”

“I can't.”

“Accidents happen. I can say or do something that will hurt him by accident. But I am keeping myself honest, because I know about the temptation to hurt. If I deliberately hurt him I will die. He doesn't get it. I didn't explain. He thinks it's pretty words. It's the most powerful magic there is, and about the only powerful one left to me.”

“Are we on the same page about this?”

He returned her glower with his own. Then he relaxed, almost smiling.

“Sure. Didn't mean to rile ya up, darlin'. Just meant in this, I think I can trust ya. Speakin’ of trust, let’s start that right now. Want a hand with this Circle of Thorns assignment?”

Vickie gave a rueful smile. “Yes, I would greatly appreciate your help. I was just thinking how ironic it was that they used to flee in fear from my sword... now I can't even get across a piece of lawn to get to them. And I don't have my sword.”

“Don't need no swords...”

He popped his claws.

“Let's do it then.”

Together they strolled into the park, to do battle with mystics.

Vickie was no longer shaking.