Nathan And The Underground

August 16, 2010
Nathan, Zeroman, The Rat Queen
Summary: Nathan gets invited for Chinese by two of the underworld's more colorful characters.

It's always night in China Underground, the dim streetlamps cast the main roads in a twilight like haze. The streets are fairly safe, in that the only crime on the main roads is that done by the Tongs. If you pay your protection money on time, nothing bad happens to your store. Even the occasional tourist comes down here, and leaves intact. On the backstreets, however… well, bad things can happen. The Rat Queen is curled up in a niche in a pile of debris, her consciousness ranging over her furry little accomplices as they patrol the back alleys and forgotten byways.

Zeroman is down here not to apprehend some idiot or doing investigative work. In fact, the masked man is simply looking for that great Chinese place that he found last year while he had to sit on a witness for six weeks and the Six Silver Stars tong offered use of a safehouse in return for some work he'd done weeks before. What was it? The young man doesn't pay attention to the furtive glances at his costume, mask, or visible guns in his quest to find that little hole-in-the-wall dim sum place.

The dark grey and grid pattern of Nathan's jacket blends in fairly well with the surroundings at night, concrete and metal shaded similarly; the hood's down, the young man's head shaven down to a buzz-cut, a bit of scruffy attempt-to-grow-a-beard shadowing his face. Despite that, he can't be quite old enough to drink. He's not in the 'safe' part of the city either, strolling along down the back alleys with an unhurried walk, hands tucked into his pockets and gaze down— earphones trailing from his hood's fabric to his ears, so maybe he's not even listening to things.

He finally looks up when his path's crossed by the masked figure, jerking to a halt and watching Zeroman with a furrowed brow, craning his neck to glance to either side as if checking for some other mask or cape in pursuit, or being pursued.

A little rat runs up to Zeroman, and perches on his foot, looking up at him curiously. None of the bystanders seem to be surprised at the rat's behavior… and after a bit a voice comes from the alley. "Zman… Something I can help you with, or just visiting?" The little rat runs from Zeroman to the cloaked figure and scurries up the cloak to perch on her shoulder.

Zeroman hehs as he sees the rat, and from a belt pouch he unsnaps he extracts some crackers to toss to the rats as he walks over to the woman. "Heya, Ratty. Nah, just sightseeing. Looking for this place I ate at last year, had a six-clawed dragon twisting on itself in the window. Know it?" he says, squatting down to look at the rat-masked woman on the pile.

That's interesting. Nathan's shoulder leans to the side of the building he was just stepping out beside, arms folding over his chest as he observes the pair with a slightly-tilted head. Okay, he might be staring just a little, and chances are all he can see is Zeroman talking into the shadows, but he's still watching.

Rat Queen chuckles, "You mean that Dim Sum place two streets over? I eat there sometimes. Good food, and they don't ask questions." She turns and gestures with her head. "This way." It means stepping out on the street, but this is China Underground. No one down here will bother her, except the Tongs… and they aren't mad at her… this week. "Things have been quiet down here… well, mostly. No one got killed in the last two weeks that didn't deserve it. How's the world above?"

Zeroman stands up, puts hands in his jacket pockets. "Sounds good, and .. eh.. radioactive turnips, what can I saw?" He looks over at Nathan, seeing the man staring, and quirks a smile. "I could give ya a picture, but I'm fresh out of business cards. Canna help ya?" the masked man says.

"Hm? Me?" Nathan hesitates, then flashes a quick, tight smile, "No. Just don't see many masks down here, is all." He shrugs a bit, shifting away from the wall, "Sorry, didn't mean to, uh, stare or anything."

Rat Queen's voice is harsh. "Most masks would rather live above… I was here when the masks and super scientists shut out the sun. Before the Tongs came back. And I'll be here after they're gone." The eyes behind the mask are dark, shining, and definately not friendly.

Zeroman shrugs back. "So, we're going for dim sum," he says, nodding for Nathan to join in. "You're obviously curious and I don't much care." He quirks an ironic smile at the rat-masked woman. "I'm sure you will be; back it down a bit, Mama, he seems cool."

A brow quirks up, Nathan hesitates… then shrugs, pushing wordlessly out from the building's edge and heading after them, hands still tucked into the pockets of his jacket. No introduction, just mute agreement.

Rat Queen says, "You're getting soft in your old age, Zeroman…" Her voice is teasing, her mood shifting quickly. "They call me the Rat Queen, stranger… or Mother of Rats. What should we call you?" Not asking his name, but what he should be called.

Zeroman snorts. "Since I turned 20, it's been all downhill.." They move over a couple of streets and then the masked man pushes open the door of the dim-sum place, eyes closed, nostrils flared. "Yeeaah, this is the place," he says.

"I'm just a dog," replies the young stranger, his head shaking a little as he slants a look to the rat-masked girl, "They called me Nathan." As they near the door, he pauses, then reaches into a pocket to pull the wallet out, flipping through the scarce, ID-lacking folio for money.

Now that gets the masked man's attention. "So, who's 'they'? The secret cult that trained you in the ways of the assassin? Or, OK, I have no cute remark for that. 'Dog'?" he says, curiosity evident on Zeroman's face.

Rat Queen dismisses her rats before entering the restaurant. She speaks rapid Chinese to the staff, and the three of them get a table in back corner. "I can cover dinner tonight… if you ever see me above, Zeroman, you can return the favor." She takes the back corner seat. This puts her back to the corner, and the lets the two guys also have their backs to walls. Yes, it means she's cornered. But somehow that doesn't bother her as much as the idea of having her back to a room.

The look that the masked man gets shot is either 'what the fuck are you smoking' or 'HOW DID YOU KNOW' and it's impossible to tell which it is— for someone who can't legally drink yet, Nathan's got a pretty good poker face. "Nathan," he reinforces firmly, and as the offer's made, he shrugs, tucking the wallet into his pocket and walking into the shop with the others. He takes one of the other seats, his back to a wall comfortably, gaze turning to look over the room, just a quiet guest for the moment.

Zeroman ohs, heys. "Well, if Mama Rat's buying, certainly. And of course I can, even if I have to pull you up there myself sometime." He quirks a smile at Nathan's look, and then: "'Nathan'. OK, 'Nathan''s good. So what are you doing in everyone's favorite underground city, 'Nathan'?"

A teapot with hot green tea is brought, along with three cups. The Rat Queen pours tea for the other two, then for herself. She nods to the staff, and every few minutes a cart comes by with little plates of various foods. If something looks good, one simply helps one's self, and at the end of the meal they total up the plates. She sips her tea, keeping an eye on things.

"I… live here?" Nathan's brow furrows a little as he looks back over to Zeroman, rubbing a hand at the side of his neck as he reaches over— once the tea's poured— and lifts it, admitting, "Sorry. I'm not very good with, uh, conversation."

Zeroman takes some shrimp in sauce and oh one of those bean-jam buns and this soup here.. "Hey, 's cool," he says to Nathan. "Zeroman, by the way," he says by way of introduction. "Well, conversations overrated sometimes but hey, beats just staring, right?"

The Rat Queen's mask leaves her mouth and chin bare, though shadowed, so she can eat and drink without removing it. "Zeroman's not the best at coversation either… he's got more practice with interrogation." She has a bowl of soup and a plate of dumplings, murmuring her thanks in Chinese to the server. "Then again, I mostly talk to rats, so I'm a bit rusty myself."

"Zeroman?" Nathan takes a careful sip of tea, regarding the other man curiously before asking apparently without realizing how rude it sounds, "Self-esteem issues?" He sets down the cup, reaching over to grab some shrimp for his own after a moment's hesitation, settling them neatly on his place, "Rats?"

Zeroman barks a laugh. "No, just that I have zero in the way of any superpowers. I'm just like this guy, you know?" he says. "I'll have you know that hitting is a form of conversation, which means I'm pretty good at it," he says in response to the Rat Queen. "Yeah, that's her thing. Talks to rats." He makes sure to ease a bit of pork roll down under the table to one of the rats undoubtably there.

Rat Queen sips her tea. "Why do you think they call me the Rat Queen or the Mother of Rats? To the chinese, they are a symbol of good luck and wealth. It may be not much of a power, but it's mine." Indeed, this restaurant like many businesses in China Underground has a small statue of a Mother Rat with a coin in its mouth and five little baby rats climbing over it. "And hitting is -not- a form of conversation. Fighting, perhaps, but not just hitting." And while there are no tell tale squeeks, there won't be any crumbs under the table."

"Huh," mumbles the only unmasked person at the table around a mouthful of shrimp, "Useful ability. Rats go a lot've places. See a lot've things." The shell of the sea-bug is dropped to clatter onto the plate, and he reaches back for his cup, musing, "Fighting as conversation…"

"Well,it certainly says a lot about a person," Zeroman says, then he gives a thumbs-up to Nathan. "Got it in one. No-one ever thinks twice when they see a rat, if they ever do see it."

"And a rat can squeeze through any hole big enough to fit its head through." Rat Queen finishes her soup and nibbles delicately at the dumplings, using her chopsticks with ease. "Which I'm sure is part of why Zeroman puts up with me. It's certainly not my charming conversation. We help each other out from time to time."

Zeroman simply nods at this, his mouth full.

"Mask business?" Nathan sips at his tea for the most part, just picking at the food, cradling the cup delicately in his hand, "Guess it's needed, all've the problems down here."

Rat Queen says, "Eh, China Underground is fairly quiet… but the rest of things underground tend to be a hell hole. And not always Mask business… Lines down here are…blurred. Not like above."

Rat Queen sips her tea. "I guess its because most cops wouldn't come down here unless you put a gun to their head. Since the Undercity is lawless, criminals from above flee down here. I don't want them causing problems for us who live down here, and Zeroman's willing to drag them upstairs. It works out."

Nathan listens to the explanation, breath stirring over the surface of the tea now and again. Finally he asks curiously, "And… what happens then?"

Rat Queen says, "He hands them over to the cops… which is better than some of them deserve. Still, it save me from feeding them to my Rats… I really would rather the little darlings didn't get the taste for human flesh."

"And then?" Nathan's brows raise a little, "Do they really stay away, after? They don't just get out've prison again later?"

Rat Queen says, "If they're smart they stay away. If not, in China Underground, it's a race between who finds them first… me, or the Tongs." She grins, "By the way, Zeroman… someone in the Tongs has a sense of humor. They sent the Weasel a half million in the fake money used for funeral offerings."

Zeroman laughs out loud. "Hey, a stack of hell-money is about the only cash The Weasel is likely to see, ever," he says. He nods to Nathan, after he pops a pork dumpling in his mouth, chews, swallows; he handles the chopsticks really well, after all. "They may stay, they may not. Not my problem unless they step over the line, or someone pays me to find them."

"So you're a… mask-for-hire?" Nathan's laconic curiosity continues to chip away at things as he leans forward a little, the emptied tea-cup set down for the moment and his hands reaching over to gather up the chopsticks set neat his own plate, adjusting them deftly in his hand.

Rat Queen sips her tea, amused by the turn the conversation has taken.

Zeroman nods at Nathan. "Something like that. Let's say I'll take the money if someone's offering. Some things, I do pro bono but don't let that get out."

A thoughtful sound against a dumpling tucked into Nathan's mouth, and he chews thoughtfully. "Mm. Interesting." A swallow, and he picks up another with the chopsticks, wielding them deftly and easily before glancing to the Rat Queen, "And you?"

Rat Queen sips her tea. "I make my money here and there, but living below the only bills I have to worry about is food for me and my little friends. I gave up on everything else… some time ago." She pauses, "The person I might have been died in the quake. The mask is who I am now. The fighting…" She shrugs. "I like it here. I want to keep it safe."

Zeroman's mask partially hides the sympathetic glance in his eyes, there just briefly, and he's turned to get some more bean paste from the cart so the woman can't see him but Nathan probably can. "It's a living; have to have something to pay the bills and being a superhero is something I'm good at, I found. The mask is, well, freedom from some uncomfortable entanglements."

Nathan's chin bobs in a slight nod, then again, murmuring, "Can understand that. There's a lot've predators down here, too. In here, outside here, all over down under the city." Another dumpling's devoured hungrily, and then he leans back, "Most people can't protect themselves."

Rat Queen nods. "And those of us who can… well, we have a choice. Defend just ourselves, turn predator, or do a little bit extra. I go for the third." She grins, "And if the scum I

I'm taking down has more money than he needs… well, I can put it to better use than he can." Of course, a lot of the time that use is helping people make their protection payments so the Tongs don't come after them, or paying for a trip for someone to a doctor above. But well… she and her pets can live on boiled rice for a long time. Longer than someone can go with an inflamed appendix. She doesn't talk about that though Zeroman suspects.

You say, "I can agree. I do it, well, because I can. And I know what it's like to not have someone there to do that thing you need done," Zeroman says simply. "I didn't like it, and if I can keep that from happening to someone else, well, I figure the rest will take care of itself.""

"How do you know who the bad guys are, though?" It's a quick question, a bit sharp, Nathan's gaze moving between the two. "Like— the Tong. People say they're criminals, but rely on them. If you took them out, everyone'd just be sheep for the slaughter. So where do you draw a line?"

Rat Queen says, "That's a decision you have to make case by case… It's easy sometimes, when you see someone committing a mugging or dealing drugs. Other times its harder. Like I don't make war on the Tongs because they don't deal drugs in China Underground, which is a real change for them. Something's happening there, and until I'm sure what it is… I'll wait and see."

Rat Queen gets the check, and pays it in cash, leaving a second red envelope under the payment.

Zeroman shrugs, waves his chopsticks. "It's a decision you make each day, really. No real 'good' or 'bad' guys, at least all of the time. They're pretty few and far between. Usually you just got 'guys' who are trying to make it until tomorrow. You nudge some towards 'good', you put away the ones you can't nudge.. it works out, mostly." He eats some more bean sprouts. "OK, sometimes."

A noncommitant sound, as if unsatisfied with the answers, but Nathan doesn't argue; just finishes cleaning off his plate, glancing over to the masked Rat Queen, "Thanks. For the food."

Rat Queen stands up, pulling her cloak tight around her. "You're welcome. You hear the pretty speeches on the news from above… the Freedom Brigade or some polition making it sound black and white… Maybe its different up there. I'll never know. Down here, you do the best you can, one person at a time." Even if it's just treating someone to a meal. She slips out the door, into the twilight streets outside.

Zeroman waves to the departing Rat Queen, and then he finishes up himself and stands. "You look like you can take care of yourself, and I like your attitude. Look me up if you need work, and we'll see what comes of it, OK?"

"Work?" Nathan regards the other man with a bemused sort of expression, scratching behind his neck a moment before allowing, "…alright. I'll keep it in mind, uh, Zeroman."

Zeroman hands the man a business card; a waterfront address on it. "OK, cool. See you around, K?" he says, finding his own way out.

The card's taken, and Nathan examines it curiously— then nods his head up, managing a slight smile, "See you around."

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