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Avenger Assembled

Judgement

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It was late afternoon the day after the initial fight when one of the phone numbers the Scarab gave to Avenger rang. The salutation was a simple one. "Scarab. Need to discuss leads. Can you meet?" Avenger's voice was firm and steady, with no trace over the phone of the pain and anger he'd displayed when Scarab had last seen. There was a good reason for that: Jack had gone out in costume, beaten an Oliverti gangster so hard the man couldn't walk anymore, and then drained him deeply. That had made his subsequent investigations so much easier, and put a spring in his step as he used the man's cellphone.

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For once, Elena Guerrero had actually fallen asleep in her own bed, rather than in the command center of The Scarab's Lair. And the marked increase in comfort level conspired with her fatigue from the fight with Sister Sixtus to keep her asleep well past noon.

Elena grumbled, rolled over to bury her face in her pillow, grumbled some more, and finally, reluctantly, grabbed her cell phone from the nightstand adjacent to her bed. The area code of the number which showed up on her caller-ID indicated that it was one of the disposable numbers she had given to her fellow investigators, re-routed through The Lair. "*mumble* Avenger, hi. Sure. I mean yes, of course we can meet." Elena stammered as she rubbed her eyes clean. "I'm at home right now. Go ahead and put on some Real Person Clothes, and meet me in the lobby of 1 Pyramid Plaza. I've been meaning to show you that entrance anyway. You need me to get you a cab?"

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"Good deal. Gives me enough time to grab a shower and throw some clothes on. I'll be in the Starbase Coffeehouse." She snapped her cell phone shut, rolled over, reaching out to put it back on the nighstand, and promptly lost her balance and rolled off the bed onto the floor, slicing a shallow cut across her arm and banging her forehead. "OW! DAMMIT!"

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An hour later, a bike messenger arrived at 1 Pyramid Plaza, a package from one of Melinda's businesses under his arm. Keeping his borrowed motorcycle helmet on, the leather jacket-clad Avenger engaged in easy banter with the lovely young woman behind the information desk while he kept his eyes peeled for his contact. A little paranoia about his played into the persona of the half-crazed costumed adventurer well enough, and anyway it was an interesting challenge to try and set the young woman completely at ease with his head covered. She did have a lovely neck.

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Elena lounged in a plush chair in the corner of the coffee shop in the lobby, sipping at her drink. She wore a simple long-sleeved crimson turtleneck sweaterdress, with a pair of knee-high black leather chunk-heeled boots. Her long dark hair was pulled back in its usual pony-tail. When she saw Jack, she smiled and gently tugged at his mind. Over here. I'd have gotten a drink for you too, but...well, I guess that's one of the things we need to talk about. Her smile faded. Coffee in hand, she stood up and walked toward one of the service elevators in the center of the building. Follow me.

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Jack lost a step, but only one, on the way in as he followed the Scarab. He mustered a polite mental response to Scarab's mental greeting, but it wasn't hard to wish that he had on more than just a motorcycle helmet. This conversation, right in the Scarab's lair? On the other hand, if things did go bad, he had plenty of experience getting in and out of this place. He opened the visor of his helmet as soon as they were inside the elevator, his handsome face still protected by the shadows inside. A gesture of trust...and not.

"Competent staff. Asked to see my paperwork." He sounded appreciative, and he was, too.

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"They should be. Pyramid Plaza earns the Rhodes Foundation about two billion dollars a year. People pay top dollar to live and work in the heart of Downtown Freedom. They can afford not to cut corners when it comes to payroll. And fortunately, their last two C.E.O.s have both been sane enough to realize that."

Elena inserted and turned a key, and the elevator took them a couple floors below anything listed on the console. The doors opened onto a level that appeared to be empty and abandoned. She led Jack through a few secret tunnels hidden behind various facades, until they found themselves back at the entrance to The Scarab's Lair. "I had been meaning to show you this entrance anyway. Today's as good a day as any." She tossed him the key. "You can keep that one."

She went through the same process as before, entering a code on the keypad and scanning her retina, handprint, and voice. But instead of opening the door, she keyed in a different set of commands, then turned to Jack. "Submit your info. I want you to be able to come and go as you please. This will also allow you access to the mainframe downstairs. The computer and library systems, and the teleportal junction room."

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"You......what?" Jack blinked a few times, looking from Scarab to the door, the surprise visible even on his shadowed face. "You're just giving me all of that?" Jack's refined, cultured voice was, as always, quite a contrast to Avenger's grim, gritty growl. "Jesus, why?"

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Elena chuckled. "No, I am most definitely not 'just giving it to you.' You're my comrade, Jack. We've watched each others backs during these last few weeks. Fought side-by-side against 'The Forces of Evil.' Time and time again, you've proven yourself worthy of my trust, so I'm choosing to trust you. I think you'll find that Life is a lot easier when we do that." She stepped closer to Jack, and rested a hand on his shoulder. "I did found the Freedom League, you know. I know a thing or two about team-building. And that choice, to trust each other, to take that risk, is the foundation of it. I could try to rip your mind open and just take the information I want. And you could just punch me in the throat and disappear as soon as I'm not looking. But I won't, and neither wil you. Because experience has shown that we can accomplish far more working together than we can alone."

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"I...guess we can, at that." Jack pulled off the motorcycle helmet he'd been holding, gazing down at his reflection in the visor as he considered Scarab's words. Gestures of trust weren't something he had a lot of familiarity with, at least not gestures of trust that didn't come with heavy strings attached. "So what do I have to do in return?"

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"In return? Well, like any power or privelege, this comes with a responsibility. You have access to The Lair. That comes with an assumption that you won't abuse its resources, and that you'll try to defend it and keep it from falling into the wrong hands, same as the rest of us. It's not like you have to work guard shifts down here or anything. But if I call you for help, it'd be nice if you answered. Not that I have any doubt that you would." Elena grinned. "Other than that, I just hope we'll continue with the aforementioned fighting-of-evil and watching-of-backs."

She took a step back. "This is about trust. I trust you, hoping that you'll trust me back. And part of trust is honesty."

She led him deeper into The Lair. "You'll want to be sitting down for this." She brought up the "elevator," and exited at the next level down. As they passed through the antechamber, she pointed to the carvings on the wall, depicting an eternal conflict between two figures. "Those aren't abstract. They tell a story. A true story." She led him into the audience chamber, passed the massive lotus-style pillars, and took her seat on the throne at the far end. She waved her hand to direct Jack toward some cushions sitting off to the side. "Make yourself comfortable."

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"You already know I'm Elena Guerrero. That's the name I was born with in this life. In my first life, I was Heru-Ra, Crown Prince of what you now call 'Ancient Egypt.' I've reincarnated many, many times over the intervening millenia. My powers come from the fact that my ka, a piece of my soul as you would understand it, is 'awakened,' 'enlightened' in a way. It is difficult to explain."

"In my first life, I was betrayed and murdered by the high priest, Tan'Aktor. The gods wanted to devour his soul, but I insisted, demanded, that I alone be allowed to exact punishment upon him. The gods simultaneously rewarded my courage and punished my arrogance by condemning both of us to reincarnate again and again. We've chased each other down through the centuries since then. You might know his latest incarnation better as Wilhelm Kantor, a.k.a. 'OverShadow.' And yes, he's still alive. I last walked the Earth almost 30 years ago, as Alexander Rhodes, the original 'Scarab.'"

"So tell me, Jack...what exactly are you? Robot? Revenant? One thing I know you're not is 'alive.' At least, not in the traditional sense."

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Jack did not sit down as Elena spoke, but he did listen assiduously as she told him the story of her past. The look on his handsome face was hard to read as she spoke, but when she turned her question to him, a light seemed to go on behind his eyes. "You don't want to know. You'll be disappointed." He stood stock still in the lushly pointed room, still holding that motorcycle helmet between his hands. "I have been called a machine by a lady before," he said with the sort of wry banter he'd never use behind his mask, "but only in more intimate contexts."

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Elena bursted into laughter, then rested her forehead against her hand as she shook her head.

"Cute. So we know that, while you're not 'alive,' you are 'fully-functional,' just like Data on Star Trek. More importantly, we now know that you have a sense of humor. I honestly find myself more than a litte disturbed at the notion."

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"You know nothing about me," Jack suddenly fired back, the witty banter falling away to reveal the serious dilemma he was actually in. He actually looked contrite a moment later, emotions seesawing across his face before he came to a decision. If it doesn't work, I can go underground. She can't find all of us. "I'm not some punk kid keeping a secret identity because his parents will ground him if he's a superhero, Elena." As Jack spoke, his eyes began to change color, first to orange, then to a malignant red. "Do you know what they'll do to me if they find out what I've been doing?" His teeth sharpened and lengthened, extending out in wicked fangs. "If they find out there's a vampire superhero in this city!?"

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Elena responded with a look that was more skeptical than startled. "Jack, it obviously took a lot for you to tell me this. This is obviously an incredible gesture of trust on your part. So I'll do my best to suppress the sarcasm and be grateful. Suffice it to say, you're not the scariest thing I've ever seen. But if it's any consolation, you do look pretty terrifying."

She leaned in toward him. "If your fellow vampires found out you were playing both sides of the fence, they'd torture and kill you. Obviously. As for your fellow vigilantes...they might be more accepting than you think. A lot of us don't have room to judge. Where you came from, how you came to be, isn't nearly as important in this game as what you do with the power you've been given."

She looked down for a moment, sighed, and turned back up toward Jack. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but one of the heroes I used to work with? He's a Grue. I won't say who. He's a renegade who turned his back on The Unity. Any of his friends would trust him with our lives. And have, many times. But yes, if The World At Large learned about his true heritage, they'd probably cast him out, torches and pitchforks in hand. It's not fair, but that's the way it is."

She stood up, stepped down from the throne, walked up to Jack, and took his hands into her own. "But even so, he's not alone. And neither are you."

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Jack snapped back to a human face by the time Scarab had reached him, his hands cold at her touch. "This isn't something you should be tolerant of, Elena," he replied evenly, all dark charisma and charm again. "This isn't something anyone should tolerate." He slipped out of her grasp and was crouching on top of her throne between one sentence and the next, feral motion and predatory charm. Avenger didn't do that, but then Avenger was trying to pass for a man. "Superheroes kill vampires, Elena. Seven. Lady Liberty. Centurion. Somehow I don't think our sort are any better."

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"Are you really this determined to torture yourself? Because if you are, nothing I can say or do will convince you."

"I don't believe you. I think that at least some small part of you secretly, desperately wants to be The Good Guy in his own story. Otherwise, you wouldn't try so hard to do the right thing. You'd just stake yourself and call it a day. Or you'd embrace your condition wholeheartedly and start treating humans like pets and cattle, same as the others. But you don't. You risk bodily harm and Final Death every night, pushing yourself to the breaking point just to make Freedom City a slightly better place than it was yesterday."

"I don't tolerate vampires, Jack. I tolerate you."

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"Don't trust me." The words were cold and merciless, as close as Jack's voice had ever gotten to Avenger's. "You need to understand that, Scarab." He set the helmet down onto the throne beneath him, slowly, his bare hands flat on either side. "You think I'm Rick Danski? You think I'm crying over my lost humanity?" His voice tightened. "I maintain no illusions about what I am." He stood up, still balancing on the narrow ledge. "I suggest you do the same. I'll call you." With those words, he erupted into a cloud of smoke and mist, disappearing into the chamber's shadows as easily as breathing. Avenger was gone.

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