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Avenger Assembled

Worse Places Than This

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November 2015 

The Fens 

 

Riley had had to come to the Fens separately from the girls - after weeks of detention and extra 'practice', he'd been authorized to carry his crossbow off school grounds again, and he hadn't wanted to miss the last day of training that earned him those rights. He knew some of his friends didn't like Mr. Archer very much, but as much as he'd screwed him over with that Metropolis thing, Riley had come to respect the drive and determination of the man. Not a lot of the teachers at the school would have been willing to put in these hours with him. A long Saturday morning of shooting at rapidly moving civilian targets had left him drained, but it had gotten him on the street in his costume. 


He'd made his way to the Fens on his own terms, walking along the South River's bank right under the Boardwalk, marveling as usual at how strange everything in the city had looked. Crossing the South River where he was from meant a difficult hike across a swaying, unstable passenger walkway, here the Mona-Glenn Bridge was alive and well and roaring with traffic. He wound up using his grapple arrow to make his way from stanchion to stanchion, far above the eyes of tourists, and then disappeared into a dark alley near the foot of the bridge, where the Fens themselves met the river. 


Closing his eyes, he thought of the Fens he knew with its marshy ground and dying buildings, its pine forest and the creatures that dwelt within. Opening them, he was at the gas station/convenience store that was evidently one of the few businesses in this part of town, and the spot he was supposed to meet Robin and Fred. A business with history, he thought as he loitered in the parking lot, remembering how the place looked with trees through the roof and a family of bears living inside. 

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Robin had taken Fred on the bus which let off right in front of the convenience store. Along the way, she'd pointed out pertinent landmarks of the city, giving a brief narration for any questions that she might have had. Although Robin's home turf was the Fens, she'd been born in the city and knew at least the path off of the bus lines fairly well. The area had grown steadily depressed as they moved from the more affluent areas towards the water and the Fens itself. "You just pull the cord when you want the bus to stop at the next place," Robin said in undertone as she did just that, giving the cord a firm tug. With a grunt of acknowledgement for the driver, Robin hustled Winifred off of the bus and into the gloomy parking lot. 

 

Swinging her backpack down off of one shoulder, she fished around in it for the 'costume' such as it was that she wore. Coming up with a pair of worn t-shirts, Robin pulled her jacket off her shoulders to tug the thin t-shirt on over the layer she was already wearing. On the breast of the grey t-shirt was a red bird in flight. As she shouldered her jacket back on, she waved, "Hey, Riley. Weren't waiting too long?"

Edited by alderwitch

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Between Robin explaining every little thing to her and her own rubbernecking as she got to see more of the City of Tomorrow, Winifred certainly gave the impression of an overawed tourist. Her long white coat proved a match for the cool weather combined with the knitted jumper Cathy had insisted on lending to her despite the alchemist stressing that she couldn't guarantee its return in good condition. Her messenger bag clinked conspicuously with the sound of glass on glass and her black hair was pulled back from her face and up into a bun. Curious as she was about everything around her she did have the good manners to avoid staring at any of the other people on the bus - they were all going out of their way to avoid eye contact with each other, too, and she followed their cue - focusing her attentions on the variety of buildings and other vehicles passing by out the windows.

 

Following closely behind Robin as they exited the sputtering conveyance she sniffed the air lightly. "Ah! It smells much less of manure than I expected from your warnings. Hullo, Smith." She gave Riley a polite wave but was more interested in the gas station and its unknown purpose than in the survivalist.

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"Not too long for you, baby," said Riley, whose eyes had lit up at the sight of his girlfriend. He was aware, out here on the streets of Freedom City and away from the bubble of Claremont, that he was not like the other boys - he'd gotten the usual baffled stares on the way out from jackasses who couldn't keep their damned eyes to themselves. Because of that, and more importantly because Robin was very cute, he greeted her with a kiss, his arms going around her waist and his lips against hers. She really was, he decided, an excellent kisser. 

 

"Hey, Fred," he said, his eyes narrowing just a little at the sight of her. He'd caught sight of her when the two girls were still inside the bus, of course, but he'd made assumptions then that maybe weren't true. "You gonna be our chaperone?" he joked as he tried to figure out why the sheltered scientist was there. 

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"Well, it's more pee that the alleys smell like," Robin explained and then turned a small smile on Riley. Robin's affects were generally flatter than most, small smiles where other people laughed but her eyes were warm and affectionate. His embrace was welcome as Robin had felt jittery over taking even these two to the neighborhood that was her home. Perhaps more so than most of the others, if Robin was being entirely honest with herself. Fred and Riley's opinions had begun to matter to her so she couldn't just hide behind the wall of angry defiance that carried her through so many other social interactions. "I think I might have given Fred some concerns about the amount of times I get shot at on my weekends at home."

 

She gave one wave of her hand towards the gas station, "People get the stuff that makes their cars run here and they sell junky snacks but there's no market for real food so some people get like, eggs and bread and stuff here as its closer than the real markets. They also sell, you know, cigarettes and that sort of thing."

 

Robin lifted the thin, ratty t-shirt that she'd made into a make shift mask. "Are we going costumes and rooftops now or d'you want to get the ground floor tour first?"

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"Yes, naturally," Winifred agreed amiably with Riley, evidently not picking up on the intended humour. She wasn't exactly looking forward to having to sit through his recitations of poetry or whatever passed for courtship in the dreadfully forward modern day but it seemed like the least she could do as Robin's roommate to facilitate the couple having a good time without encouraging any untoward talk among the student body. Several of the other students were terrible gossips, she'd found and even if she wasn't entirely clear of the... mechanics in this case she wasn't about to tolerate any lewd supposition about her friends.

 

Turning to Robin she continued with more verve, "The whole city is so clean, almost preternaturally so. Certainly the plumbing is much improved but I've seen rubbish receptacles practically everywhere; where does it all go?"

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"Uh..." Riley shot a look at Robin past the back of Fred's head, his eyebrows knitting together at this turn of events. His Whaaat? was clearly written on his face. He hadn't really discussed things with Robin ahead of time, but he'd spent the last few days doing some very personal research and had made...plans for the weekend. "City's got some, uh, dumps," he said, his voice a little awkward (and once again dipping into the contralto) before he brought it back under control. "Used to go there for the methane. Good backup power source. They come'n trucks'n take it away." Most of his childhood experience in garbage trucks had been the ones converted into emergency housing, but that was neither here nor there.  

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"People put trash outside and people come clean it up," Robin agreed, unaware of Riley's research but well aware of her roommates Victorian sensibilities by now. She gave Riley's consternated look an apologetic shrug before continuing on with her explanation, "Actually, a lot of the folk who work for the trash company live out here. My, uh," here her voice briefly hiccuped before she continued on, tone flattening out to the dispassionate affect that did not welcome further inquiry. The fact that she even mentioned her parents was really progress, "My mom used to clean people's houses in the nicer neighborhoods for money."

 

Giving a short, sharp shake of her head, Robin forced down those memories. Thoughts of her parents were always closer here in the Fens. Dr. Marquez thought that might be why she had such a hard time leaving it behind but Robin hadn't given that observation much more than a flat stare. "Anyway, folks 'round here usually work a couple of low paying jobs in service like that - if they have 'em. They pay people awful wages to literally clean up their crap. C'mon, we'll head down towards the bars. Maybe Henry's got some information on who needs some tough love this weekend."

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Riley pulled up his poncho's hood and started walking, falling into Woodsman mode as they patrolled the streets. This was familiar enough, at least, even if doing it at street level put him on edge. Coupla hundred in each building, he thought, scanning each one with a practiced eye as he walked by. If they all came at us at once, I let Fred do her thing while I go up and snipe from rooftop level. Robin can be backup for Alkahest, she's got the muscle for it. It occurred to him that there were probably more normal people in a few blocks of the Fens than he'd seen in his whole life back in his version of Freedom City. "Why do they do that?" he asked, his voice serious. "Don't they know they'd be choking on their own crap if those people stopped?" 

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"If one paid 'the help' what they were worth they would cease to be 'the help'," Winifred supplied with a cynical world-weariness, posture as straight-backed and prim as ever as she followed a pace or two behind Robin and Riley. "Those wealthy enough to pay others to do unpleasant tasks have little desire to see those others become wealthy themselves. And surely were they no lazy or otherwise fundamentally at fault they would have s more pleasant, lucrative profession and so those low wages are inherently justified, hm? I very much doubt that charming bit of human nature has changed significantly while I was indisposed." She tilted her head in her roommate's direction, seeking confirmation from the only one of them native to both the time period and dimension. "I'm more surprised that you're surprised, Smith."

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"Folks in Riley's world, I think, have too much else to worry about for that sorta thing from what he's said but, yeah, more'r less. My folks, at least, always used to talk about moving outta the Fens but they were both immigrants and didn't have a whole lot they could do for a living. Dad was going to night school, but," Robin gave a shrug and fished her t-shirt out of her pocket finally to knot the black fabric into place over her eyes and the top of her head. Sliding the ad-hoc mask into place that served as Nighthawk's disguise, she continued on, her voice flat and harsh, "Well, that never happened, obviously. More to the point, people can't get out because they gotta eat, and they gotta try and keep a roof over their heads and there's not much time to do much else. Henry says this is where dreams go to die but he's kinda dramatic. He's right though, this is where people get forgotten about. The only way to make enough to actually live on usually means ending up in a gang or worse."

 

Robin gestured towards the brighter lit street ahead, "We'll cut down the alley. That's probably where we'll find one of the folks I know. Henry. Maybe Honey's out and about. Dunno, kinda early for her still."

Edited by alderwitch

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"That's stupid," said Riley, anger boiling at the injustice of it even as he stalked after Robin down the alley. "Not you, that's just...the superheroes just let this happen?" He thought of a gospel passed on at a martyr's deathbed, one of compassion and justice above all else. "Lady Liberty just lets it happen?" He seemed especially scandalized by that, even as he reached back to undo a strap holding his bow on, readying it for a quick draw-and-ready when he needed it. "People here have enough that everyone could eat anytime they wanted to - and sleep anywhere too, even as crowded 's'tis." He checked to make sure the Velcro on his hatchet was loose enough for a quickdraw, but not so loose as to attract a theft. "Not s'posed to be like this here." 

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"Hark, the refrain of the immigrant," Winifred chimed in dryly but not unsympathetically. Her own father had had the major advantage of a well-off patron when moving to London and even so by the time she'd been born the Wei family had still had to be realistic about which opportunities were beyond their reach and which indignities had to be suffered in silence. She was well acquainted with the frustration that came with learning that a nation rich in resources did not necessarily mean a population free of indignity. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be glib. Though I expect it's meager consolation, in the London of my time, choking on one's own... 'crap' was ofttimes a legitimate concern. Some types of progress are faster than others, it seems. Is this Henry a patron of a narcotic den? I've seen men under the influence become unusually poetical." The alchemist didn't sound particularly judgmental about that; some of her contemporaries had habitually indulged in their own concoctions and insisted with dubious justification that was the secret to their insight and flashes of inspiration.

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She cast a look towards Riley's outrage and offered a phlegmatic shrug. "Sometimes people have pushes to 'clean up the Fens' but usually it just ends up shuffling people around." The alley Robin led them down was less clean than the street had been and the Fens was not as pristine by any stretch as Bayview was. "Drugs? Nah, Henry's a drunk. Honey deals sometimes but only low end stuff like pot. The drug dealers aren't too fond of me in general enough to talk to me but I busted Honey's pimp in the nose when he was beating on her and the others. Sometimes they put my hair up in braids in thanks, when nights are slow," Robin offered as if it was explanation. She whistled once, a low note as they rounded the dumpster towards the back end of the alley and a mangy, one eye dog came trotting out. "Hey, Rufus. Where's the old man?"

 

Robin asked the dog as she knelt down on one knee to scratch the dog's snarled head as he sniffed her coat. "Yeah, yeah. You want my sandwich, I know." Robin muttered as she fished out the requisite slightly squashed peanut butter sandwich in plastic bag. "The Chinese place is at the end of the alley and it's almost closing time so its a good time to wait for the trash to get dumped out. There's almost always rice that they toss out."

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Riley tried to loosen his tightly-wound anger, aware it was impressing neither of his companions. The unfairness of it still gnawed at him, though, as he watched the dog chew up the sandwich and kept rear watch as their little group entered the alley. He'd seen, and eaten, worse things than this in bad times when the harvest hadn't come in or the scavenging was poor. Hell, he'd helped shovel crap onto the fields personally during planting time. But that was different. People lived the way they did at Raymond because there was nothing better than what they had, because it was all they had left. People lived this way here because other people didn't let them have enough. 

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Winifred didn't seem any more surprised by the mention of prostitution than she had by the idea of drug dens, simply nodding in amiable understanding and making little sounds of appreciation as the unkempt dog appeared, keeping back enough so as not to spook him but placing her hands on her knees to crouch slightly and get a better look. She blinked more at the explanation of their destination. "A Chinese restaurant, do you mean? ...why?" She hadn't noticed a particularly high concentration of Chinese immigrants on the bus or sparsely peopled streets and she couldn't imagine who else the target audience would be for such a business. Robin's home neighbourhood seemed like an odd place to cater to any sort of 'exotic' fad. "They peddle Chinese food as one might specialize in French cuisine? Do I have the right of that?"

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"Well, it's not - you know - it's not super high end. There aren't any French places in this neighborhood but the Golden Dragon is where we used to go for special meals, yeah," Robin said, fond memories of 'fancy' evenings out warring with the nascent understanding that anything she thought of as 'the nice place' probably wasn't an opinion shared with other Claremont kids. "They, uh, have lunch specials and my dad would take me out to get fried rice and kung pow for like my birthday. I mean, years ago."

 

Robin side stepped the memories swiftly as she gestured towards the place at the end, "But, I mean, its not like rare. There are probably a couple over near Claremont too, I mean, I imagine." Robin glanced to Riley uncertainly as she wasn't entirely sure if that was true. She certainly never ordered take-out like some of the other kids did. 

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"Yeah," said Riley with a little shrug. "People eat all kindsafood here." Not much of it was like what he'd eaten growing up - which was all to the good. "You wanna try Chinese food 2015 style?" he teased Fred with a little grin. "Might be better than whatever unwashed stuff you ate back in the dark ages." Fred had corrected him before about the dark ages referring to the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of medieval scholasticism, but he as usual did not seem bothered by his error. He pushed open the door for the ladies as they headed inside the restaurant, as usual scoping out the place for potential hostiles, visible rear exits, and means of taking cover in case the patrons rushed them. 

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"You're a delight, Smith, truly," Winifred drawled coolly, biting back of a sharper rejoinder about the crossbowman's home. That would only lead to hurt feelings; home was a difficult topic for either of them and neither was much good at backing down from an argument once they got going. She really couldn't afford to let herself 'get going', either. Better to simply remind herself that Riley thought he was funny and leave it at that.

 

Walking past him into the restaurant she looked up and down at the decor with an expression of terribly wounded aesthetic sensibilities. "You're sure this isn't a narcotics den?" she asked Robin quietly, doing her best not to stare at the seated patrons.

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There were only a few patrons still eating as the Golden Dragon was closing for the night. The odd trio only drew a few looks and those quickly turned back down to hurriedly finishing their meal. People in costumes in the Fens generally meant that conflict was imminent. Under her mask, Robin's mouth curved in a small smile, "I'm sure its not, Fred. That's about a block and a half over."

 

Robin didn't sound like she was kidding as she led the way to the woman cleaning tables. Robin pitched her voice a little lower, "Everything going okay, May? No trouble?"

 

The woman - May - turned as she was addressed. She was young, probably not that much older than the trio of teenagers, but she looked tired and worn around at the edges. Still, she only glanced at the trio briefly before she gave Robin a brilliant smile. "Nighthawk! Haven't seen you around in days! I thought... Well, no matter." Now her compatriots drew a more curious look, "Starting a team or something?"

 

"Something like that," Robin agreed with another half smile, rocking on her sneakered heels, "Got any leftovers I can take off your hands?"

 

"For you? Of course!"

 

As the server bustled off to get some of the surplus from the evenings cooking, Robin turned back to her friends and tucked her hands into her pockets. "We can go beat up some drug dealers later if y'want."

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"Why'ld I wanna do that?" asked Riley, cocking his head at Robin questioningly as they waited for the food. "Are they causin' trouble, or...?" Riley had heard a lot about drugs growing up - about the things that had suddenly become impossible to get after the end of the world and the people who had died, gone crazy, or been lost to the Forest trying to find the thing they couldn't get. He'd stick with the wine he and Fred had brewed up; anything else was just crazy. It was, if he was honest, one reason why he'd never tried brewing up hormones back home, not even the stuff you could make from piss. But he didn't understand why people on this planet were so obsessed with the people who threw their lives away over that stuff either. 

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Winifred gave May a polite nod, wondering if she ought to introduce herself but deciding that if Robin was going to use a pseudonym in this context she ought to defer to her roommate's vagueness. Further debating whether she wanted to risk sitting down anywhere in the restaurant in his white coat she gave Riley a quizzical look at his own confusion. "You don't-- ah, I suppose your community had other distractions," she realized before giving him a grave look. "The sort of men in question are predators, Smith, to put it in your parlance. Violent ones, most often, where greed leads to wrath. Consider the sort of person who would seek out the desperate and mentally ailing and burden them with a soul destroying chemical dependency for profit." Some such substance abuse might have been considered relatively acceptable recreation in her time but she understood the chemistry involved well enough to take the subject more seriously. Many of the rogue scientists she'd learned from had looked to such narcotics to 'expand their minds' but she could not think of a one who had not been left worse for it. "You wondered how a community can be allowed to remained impoverished; these peddlers are both symptomatic and vectors of that condition."

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"You don't have dealers?" Robin was surprised. It was hard to imagine a world where there weren't people trading illicit substances in back alleys. She nodded along with Fred's explanation, almost as surprised at her deft understanding of the nuances of the situation. Once the scientist had finished, she added, "Yeah, I mean, the whole drug dealer trying to make sure people get meds that the system won't give 'em is mostly the stuff of television. Some times good people get mixed up in it though as its a good way to make money. There aren't a whole lot of options to make ends meet. Some of 'em aren't any older'n us."

 

Robin paused to accept the small bag of food from the server with a smile of thanks and a brief promise to swing by later. Plastic bag in one hand, Robin took a few steps away and gestured with her chin, "I got a bolt hole, not too far from here. We can eat up there."

 

She paused and then picked up the thread of conversation, "Meth's the worst though. The stuff is toxic as hell and sometimes the labs themselves just blow up, taking chunks of the area around it with 'em. S'bad enough people get addicted to this crap but then you got the dealers cutting things with pure poison to make a better profit. Bad drugs kill. We had a string of that going on two years ago when I first started. It was awful."

Edited by alderwitch

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"Jeez. Well, we'd prolly hang somebody who tried making that." Riley fell silent for a moment as he looked at his friend and girlfriend, wondering how they'd take those words. He knew Fred at least could read between the lines, and probably Robin too with her experience with crime - someone making dangerously addictive drugs and making potentially lethal bombs in a closed-off world without heroes and few resources, where a breach in a wall could be gory death for everyone was going to meet a painful end, one way or another. "Anyway, it's not a thing where I'm from. We don't need help feeding on each other. Sounds like a real problem here." He kept his eyes open as they headed for Robin's bolthole. "You know, Mr. Hawke talks a little about how he was on drugs. He said he doesn't know if he stole to feed cocaine, or if he did cocaine to have a reason to go steal." 

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