kiev4am: (underwood)
[personal profile] kiev4am
RicStar fic drop.

Title: Smart Money
Fandom: X-Factor
Pairing/Characters: Rictor/Shatterstar, Monet St. Croix, Longshot, Strong Guy (all Marvel Comics)
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Just swearing.
Words: 3,259
Comments: Rictor conducts an interview while distracted by the burdens of leadership and an argument with Shatterstar. I've had this idea kicking around for a while, but thought it'd be funnier to tie it into 'The Short Straw.'

Like so many things, it was Longshot's fault.

They'd gone to the rendezvous in the team's beat-up, anonymous stakeout car: Rictor driving, Monet beside him, Longshot and Shatterstar in the back. As he'd navigated unfamiliar sidestreets, the two Mojoworlders had been having one of those tortuous, circular, mindbendingly trivial understanding-Earth-stuff conversations that Ric had trained himself, for his sanity, to tune out. The grim little corner bar was a known offworlders' hangout, and if they were lucky they might get a lead in there as long as everyone stayed cool, stuck to their lines and didn't do anything random.

Boy, did he pick the wrong people for that last part.

An hour later they crouched breathlessly on the roof where Monet had flown them, watching bottles and the odd chair crashing through the bar's windows as the law roared up. On a purely artistic level, Ric had to admire the brawl. A good bar brawl was like a good fire; if you set it up right, you could walk away and leave it and it would go on blazing gamely for hours. This was definitely one of 'Star's better ones. Even the cops weren't slowing it down much.

He slammed a fist on the edge of the roof. "What. The fuck. Was that?"

'Star looked miserable. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.

Monet flicked broken glass out of her hair, glowering. "For once I agree with Rictor. Even for you two, tonight was moronic. Do you even know what 'discreet' means?"

"Twenty minutes. You only had to not pick a fight for twenty goddamn minutes." He was shaking with anger, most of it aimed bitterly inward. He'd screwed up, simple as that – focused too much on 'Star and Longshot's offworld credentials and not enough on their well-deserved rep as helplessly exhibitionistic trouble magnets. Which was just one more reason why he sucked at this job and needed somebody, anybody, to man up and publicly admit that choosing him to mind the store in what he doggedly referred to as Jamie's 'absence' – as if Madrox were vacationing in Europe and not breaking several civic ordinances by lying, ghoulish and blue, in their basement freezer – had been a giant fuckup of common sense by everyone involved.

'Star ducked his head pathetically. "I didn't mean to."

"It's true," said Longshot. "Those other guys started the fight – "

"Yeah, after you bombed their table with broken glasses!"

"Only because someone pushed me," 'Star protested.

"Which is what'll happen when you're causing a scene by juggling eight pint glasses on the points of your friggin' swords," Ric shouted. "Jesus H. Christ. We'll never get back in there now. Even assuming they don't get closed down, they'll be extra suspicious of strangers. Goddammit, 'Star, it was the best lead we had."

"I'm sorry," 'Star said pleadingly. "I didn't think – "

"Yeah, evidently." He hated the sound of his own voice, its pissy snap of authority. In the back of his head another voice – shrill, petulant, quite possibly mohawked – was wailing I'm not this guy! I'm the guy who gives this guy shit every day! It's not fairrrr! If Cable could've seen this, he'd have laughed his techno-organic ass off. Poetic justice was a total bastard.

The infuriating thing was that he'd actually begun to think he might be getting the hang of this team leader stuff. Rictor's first few weeks as leader had been brutal, a nerve-jangling collision of house politics, bureaucratic horrors and dead-end cases all worsened by his flaring insecurity and panicky bad temper; if he'd been the diary-keeping type, each page would have been a scrawled variant of: Lost files. Forgot meeting. Yelled at Monet. Yelled at Pip. Yelled at Layla. Lost client. Fired everybody. Yelled at 'Star. Got drunk. Said sorry to 'Star. Went to bed. But then there'd been this missing-persons case, which looked all right. Or maybe he'd just straightened out enough to handle a case again. Whatever the reasons, he was calming down, taking charge, making choices that seemed to be the right ones, and things were improving.

Until they weren't.

So naturally he'd reacted to the setback in a mature, presidential sort of way by saying a bunch of awful stuff he couldn't take back and storming down the fire escape to the car, leaving Monet to get the rest of them home. And here it was a day later and he still wasn't really speaking to Shatterstar, still too knotted up with angst to fix things, sitting at Jamie's old desk and feeling like a big lonely pity-filled fraud and trying, without success, to keep his attention on the old guy who sat hunched and fidgeting in front of him.

He'd been in such a terrible mood that he'd welcomed the distraction when Guido had stuck his head around the door and asked, with a coded grimace, if he'd got a minute. Ric knew that look; it was Guido's brick-subtle way of warning him that the would-be client who'd just showed up was, in his judgement, a crank. But X-Factor had built itself on ill-favoured cases, and Jamie had believed in an open door and an interview for all, and anyway Guido's definition of 'crank' started with anyone who wasn't him and narrowed just far enough to exclude some, not all, of his teammates.

Though Ric was beginning to wonder, now, if perhaps everybody's crank-sense got to be right at least once. The man in front of him didn't check a single one of his 'reliable witness' boxes. He hadn't spoken a word in the five minutes since he'd arrived, just shaken Ric's hand in an absent sort of way and then sat peering at him with watery, reddened eyes from the cover of a nondescript old man's hat. Ric clocked a pouchy pale face, lank brown-grey hair, a cheap creased grey suit, worried restless hands and a heavy reek of cigarettes.

"So, uh... my associate said you wanted to report a kidnapping?" Aliens or CIA? Ric thought sourly, then felt like a bad detective. The man paused, shook his head and rummaged in the rumpled jacket, eventually producing a dimestore notebook and a gnawed pencil. As Rictor waited, he leaned over the desk and began to write with painstaking slowness. The letters were large, jagged and tremulous.


"Oh... okay. Please, take as long as you need to answer."


Rictor blinked. "What?"

An aeon passed as the man wrote at length on the pad. Ric could read upside-down, but the man crooked his free hand protectively over the paper like a school-kid writing a test. The tic did not inspire confidence. As Rictor waited, he brooded.

Eventually it'd come out, why 'Star was juggling the stupid glasses in the first place. Longshot had bet him he couldn't do it. Gambling had never interested 'Star before... but in the car, Longshot had explained bets to his compatriot-sibling-whatever as 'sort of like a duel, but with money.' Which was about on a par with dangling a blood-red rag in front of a really vain, gore-happy bull whose entire nervous system would probably flop out on the floor, twitching, if he ever walked away from a fight.

Yeah, he was still mad.


The man pushed the notebook across to him.


Ric's eyes widened. Seriously? he thought. Did an actual, honest-to-God lead just walk in the front door? So much for crank-dar. He grabbed his own notebook and leaned forward. "Tell me everything you can," he said.

It was slow going. The man paused many times to mull over a word or squint at Rictor from under the hat, but gradually, block letter by block letter, they built up the picture.

"So she wasn't being blackmailed? Then... what was the money for?"


"She was paying those guys to get off Earth?" A nod. "Where to?" A shrug. "Why would she do that?"

EX-MUTANT, the man wrote laboriously.

"Ohh." Ric did his best to rid his face of expression. Now there was a detail the girl's father hadn't seen fit to mention. Instincts vindicated; he'd known the bastard was hiding something. But the man had radiated genuine concern for his daughter, and she had friends and a kid brother and a fiancé who seemed to check out; all the love and support in the world... or was it? Maybe they said she should be happy, he thought balefully. Maybe they couldn't understand why she wasn't grateful her 'curse,' her 'shame,' was lifted. Was it infinite destinations that drew her, or the pull of nothingness; dreams of escape, or suicide by stealth?

Out of nowhere came a vision of shoes – his own shoes, looking down, and the chipped brick of the outside window-ledge they stood on. Memory was too dignified a name for it; it was a sensory flash, a stress trigger he was wearily familiar with. The funny thing was how banal it had been. There'd been no last straw, no lightning strike, no cri de coeur; he'd simply gone to the kitchen, opened the fridge for a beer and then blinked, turned away without shutting it, and shuffled to the window. He still didn't know what he'd thought, in that blink. Maybe nothing. Maybe he just broke.

Mechanically he asked, "So, did she go then?"


"So you don't know for sure that they held up their end? Didn't take her money and run?" He wrote notes blind, guiltily distracted as his thoughts wound backwards. He hadn't wanted to tell Shatterstar about the depowering at all, but there'd been no way to hide it; he'd been a mess of raw edges and shocked-loose emotions and the carefully ironic summary he'd practiced – so, guess which lottery I didn't win! – just fell apart. He'd glared at 'Star as the words died, seriously ready to punch his teeth out if he saw any pity, thinking don't cry you bastard, don't you dare cry and not quite sure which one of them he meant. But 'Star had just nodded, blinked a bit too hard, and taken a single deep breath. When he finally spoke, it was in the guttural refuge of his own language. A warrior is still a warrior – with all his honours – when he's injured. Then he'd tugged stubbornly at Rictor until he slumped over into his arms. Later he'd build elaborate schemes of vengeance, describe with his usual grisly relish what he'd do if he ever found the person responsible for M-Day, and Rictor would appreciate those violent promises as the endearments they were; but that first night, 'Star had known to stay quiet.

Ric scowled. Suddenly he felt like not just a lousy team leader, but a really bad boyfriend. Right on cue, his mind flipped up the full transcript, all the horrible crap he'd yelled at 'Star on the rooftop.

You are a fucking liability, you know that? This isn't some TV game, this is a job where real people get really hurt and lost and it really fucking matters! You can't switch off the goddamn glamour for one fucking second, you just have to be the centre of attention even when it fucks things up for everybody else! I'll make you a solid gold bet, right now. I'll bet you any money you like – a hundred, five hundred bucks, sky's the limit – you couldn't be a nobody for five goddamn minutes, even if I begged you to, even if somebody's life depended on it. It'd kill you. I honestly think it'd kill you, you freaking attention junkie.

Rictor squirmed. Fuck I am such an asshole. He was especially an asshole because 'Star did know about being nobody – he'd practically written the book about rootlessness and drift, the unbearable freedom of being light, numb and empty. Just because he'd changed didn't mean he never thought about it; he was good at hiding his old ghosts with flash and belligerence and antics, the whole smoke-and-mirrors dance of what people expected, and he trusted those closest to him to get this without his having to talk about it, ever. He was infuriating, reckless, an actor and a showoff and a big kid and Ric was still cross with him, but his pride was startlingly fragile depending who stomped it, and he really hadn't deserved for Ric to take his shitty leadership issues out on him as if he was the poster boy for never screwing up.

Reluctantly he refocused on the witness. "Okay, thank you. I mean it, this is really helpful; if you leave your contact details, we'll get back to you with a reward when the case is formally closed. Is there anything else you want to tell us right now?"

To Ric's surprise, the man nodded emphatically. He stooped to write some more, then pushed the pad across the desk.


"Huh?" Rictor stared at the words, then looked up. His mouth fell open as the bowed, shabby figure of his witness stretched himself in the chair, rolling his shoulders, somehow gaining a foot in height and inches across the chest with a few sparse movements. Ric felt half his brain yelling at the other half as the man pushed the hat to the back of his head, folded his arms, looked straight at him for the first time, and grinned: a smug searchlight grin of perfect teeth, slightly feral, wildly at odds with the lumpy pallor of his face and the hungry redness of his eyes.

Later, Ric would tell himself firmly that he hadn't really almost fallen off his chair. Unfortunately, he did remember sitting there like a total moron making incoherent whaaaa noises as the man popped a boxer's gum-shield out of his mouth, pulled a soggy foot of lint bandage after it, then scrubbed at one eye with the heel of his hand and removed all doubt. Ric's voice came out as a ridiculous cracked splutter. "'Star?!"

Shatterstar swept off the hat and frisbee'd it effortlessly onto the coatstand in the corner. His voice was croaky with glee. "I can't believe you fell for that."

Ric flailed, trying to get his face to work. "What the fuck," he said hoarsely. "What the actual – " He couldn't take his eyes off the freakishness of 'Star just sitting there, half-unrecogniseable, yanking at the knot of his seedy tie and trying to pull his face straight. He felt winded, speechless and very, very punked.

"One of the TV channels had an old Sherlock Holmes series last night," 'Star explained. "It gave me the idea. I just wanted to show you – "

"Yeah, I get it," Ric barked, his face burning. "Fine, 'Star – you win, okay? Victory is yours. You can be a nobody, you can go undercover, I take it all back. Shame that poor kid's still out there though, right? And that we still don't have a damn thing to go on now that this... lead... turns out to be bullshit." He picked up his notebook and tossed it in the trashcan. He was being a dick and he knew it, but nobody had ever accused him of being a good loser.

"You don't understand," 'Star said contritely. He reached over to fish out the notebook. "All this stuff is... legit. I got it this morning, at the bar."

Ric started. "You went back to the bar?"


"Dressed like that?"

"Yes. Well, more or less. I cleaned it up a bit, and I borrowed one of your fake S.H.I.E.L.D. badges. I made some threats. It seemed to work," he said judiciously. He leaned forward, the weirdly grey hair flopping into his eyes, his face very grave under streaked, sickly makeup. "I just wanted you to see that you can trust me, when we're working. I'm sorry for yesterday. I'll try not to let you down again." He reached across the desk, stopping just short of Rictor's hand. "I wasn't trying to win," he said hesitantly. "Well... not much. Mostly, I was trying to make you laugh. You haven't laughed much, lately."

"Aw, 'Star." Rictor shook his head like someone waking up, and looked at him sadly. "I'm sorry too. I never should've said any of those things." He reached out and took 'Star's hands, turning them over. What was wrong with him, that he hadn't recognised these hands? And what the hell had been wrong with him the last few weeks? So he'd pulled the 'herding cats' straw in Jamie's wake; so what? With a rush of shame, he realised that his habits of depression had been so deeply ingrained that even with 'Star back, with his powers back, he'd been moping on autopilot: reflexively side-eyeing everything good and embracing the bad, when it came, like an old strayed friend. And the bad wasn't even true bad; it was just life, screwy and faltering, little frictions muttering against bedrock.

I forgot, he thought in disbelief. I am a lucky son of a bitch, and I am such a jerk that I forgot.

He tightened his grip on 'Star's hands, put on his sternest face. "Okay, Sherlock, new team rule. Nobody gets to dress up unless they tell me all their disguise-y tricks, so what the hell did you do to your hair?"

Shatterstar grinned with relief. "I rubbed Pip's cigar ash in it."

Ric cackled. "Well, that explains the smell. And that suit?"

"Thrift shop around the corner. And I used some face cream of Terry's for my eye."

"Better hope she doesn't find out." Ric squinted at him. "What is with your eyes, anyway? They're bloodshot as hell."

'Star shrugged. "I put tabasco sauce in them."

"Oh my God!" Ric cringed, his own eyes watering in sympathy.

"Healing factor," 'Star said imperturbably. "They just itch."

"Acckkk." Rictor did laugh then, crazily, his head in his hands. "You're insane. You actually are insane." He looked up and grinned sheepishly. "Okay, let's negotiate. What'll it take for you not to tell everybody about this?"

'Star looked apologetic. "Guido knows already. He recognised my voice, so he said you would. The notebook was his idea."

"Ah, shit." Rictor laughed again, helplessly. Now Guido had to sprout actual detective skills. He was never, ever gonna live this down, and why should he? It was the most epic piece of pranking in the history of X-Factor, and the bar for that was pretty high already. Oh well, he'd just fire any wiseass who mentioned it. Or make room for them next to Jamie in the deep-freeze. That'd totally work. Right?

"Beer," he said finally. "There needs to be beer, and I'm not buying. Gotta save my money for this fucking bet I owe."

"I'll waive the bet if you take me to the cinema," Shatterstar said hopefully. "You could get beer on the way."

"Yeah? What's the movie?"

"Isn't that all-night spaghetti western thing you wanted to see tonight?"

Ric peered at him. "You think you could sit through that?"

'Star rolled his eyes in mock agony. "Eight hours of looking at Clint Eastwood. How will I cope?"

Five minutes later, Longshot did a double-take outside the open door of Jamie's office. "Why does Rictor get to kiss the clients and I don't?" he wondered in aggrieved tones. He was none the wiser when the odd couple glanced at him, then collapsed in a fit of muffled giggles.
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May 2012

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