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Conversations: Objective


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April 20, 2011

Nearly noon

Jessica Parker circled the block in her black Explorer several times, looking in vain for a big enough parking space. She finally capitulated and paid for a space in a garage, parking on the roof and taking an elevator down. Lazarus Auto and Industrial Repair was a couple city blocks away, and not in the nicest neighborhood, all of which meant it would've been more sensible to fly in her armor, but Tom Walker was still trying to be circumspect about the whole 'hero' thing. Though to be truthful, she wasn't quite looking forward to this conversation.

LAIR's public space was roughly divided into two areas. The much larger, and much noisier one, was the garage where vehicles were worked on, machinery was repaired, and the actual work of the business was done. The other, cleaner area was a waiting room-cum-reception; it was walled off from the vehicle bay with a thick pane of glass, but the noise was still considerable. Jessica waited at the window until Tom happened to look up, then gave him a small wave.

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He'd been drowning out the noise with Rise Against on his headphones this time, bobbing his head as he took a wrench to yet another rich idiot's attempt at vehicular abuse. Gabriel lifted an oil-streaked face from his work, looking at what he thought was a fly-wheel. Emphasis on was. Sighing, he chucked it away, diving back into the hood before lifting his head up again in surprise. It'd been a while since Jessica had paid him a visit, not since she and Warlock had helped him revamp the security system. And he couldn't see her significant other in the waiting room, which was also surprising. He pushed himself off of the front bumper of the van, picking up an old rag and wiping down his face as he switched off the various machines and his own headphones. Hanging them around his neck, he walked into the waiting room and tapped his forelock before extending a (somewhat) clean hand, vaguely wishing he'd been dressed a bit better than an undershirt, jeans, and a hoodie tied around his waist.

"Heh, really should hire a secretary one of these days. Hey Jess, what's up?"

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Jessica didn't hesitate to shake Tom's greasy hand; she was used to working with people that smelled of brimstone, putrescence, or burning electronics. Grease and sweat didn't put her off like it might some other women her age. "Hey, Tom. Was in the neighborhood," she lied, "and decided to drop in and see how things are doing." She glanced out into the garage and noted the placement of cameras up at the ceiling and magnetic locks down on the floor. "The ED-209 system working out pretty well?" Her eyes darted around the reception area desperately and alighted on the clock high on the wall, its arms both pointing almost straight up. "And it's almost noon! Want to grab something to eat? I passed a Greek place on my way here, not too far away."

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Walker nodded, slinging the rag into a corner and untying the hoodie at his waist, yanking it down over his head.

"System's working fine since we upgraded. Helped keep a whole legion of thugs out a few days ago, as well as some ninjas, I think. Not sure if they tailed us back here after we kicked their keesters, a pack of us hadda use the basement as a bolt-hole for a few hours."

He shrugged expansively, in a 'whaddyagonnado' sense, before walking to a nearby coat hanger and seizing a handy denim jacket.

"And sure, I got time. Fixing that thing's going to take me all afternoon, and I'm not exactly in a hurry. Your favorite guy in the multiverse waiting outside, then?"

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Jessica shook her head, walking over to the door and poking her head outside. "Uh, Blake's not around, actually. I think he's out doing his investigator thing; not really sure where he is just now. I just came out here alone." She waited while Tom locked up the store and the garage, nodding to herself as the electromagnetic locks on the rolling doors thunked into place. They walked down the block to the Greek place; it was a greasy hole in the wall, and the pair ended up crammed into a small booth near the front window; Jessica stuffed her coat between the cold glass and herself, glancing over the menu. "Getting enough work?"

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Tom raised an eyebrow at her choice of restaraunt, but didn't comment. Instead, he shrugged and idly perused the menu on the table before him, pondering the likelihood that the gyros sold here would be vaguely edible.

"Can't complain, got enough to keep me solvent, although the occasional check from Mr. Black's keeping my hydro bill semi-manageable."

He actually enjoyed the coolness of the window, it was a refreshing change from the garage when all the machines were running and he was arm-deep in engine oil. Despite the greasy atmosphere, he was actually enjoying the chance to get out and do something social for a change...although something seemed slightly hinky with his tablemate. Chalk it up to nerves, probably.

"How about you? Any new projects on the go?"

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"Um. Kinda. That's actually why I'm here." Jessica put the menu down and twiddled her fingers. "Do you remember when you decided to become a hero? I mean, when you decided that you wanted to stand out in the rain, trail bad guys, get hit and shot at, not sleep enough and eat mostly fast food, just the for pleasure of knowing that you made an impact on someone's life?" She looked up and met Tom's eyes. "And if you could go back to that moment. Would you change your mind?"

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Tom went quiet. Like real quiet. The only sound in Jessica's ears was that of the few other patrons, what little lunch crowd the dive got. Walker stared at his menu, his face unreadable.

"That's...a long story, Jess. And parts of it I'd...really rather not get out."

He leaned on his elbows, the unreadable look changing to one of mixed emotion; chagrin, surprise, and thoughtfulness.

"You good at keeping secrets?"

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Jessica winced, remembering how easily she let slip some of Mara's secrets to Blake. And, for that matter, letting slip her own secrets in front of an entire emergency room. "Probably not," she said. "But what if you could go back and stop some of it? Go back to the critical instant, push yourself out of the way, or call the ambulance early, or make sure the fire extinguisher was charged, or whatever happened? Would you do it? Would you go back and have a normal life -- even if it meant that all the folks you helped as a hero now have terrible lives because you, personally, weren't around to save them?"

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Tom sipped at a glass of water, motioning the waiter away when he came nearby.

"I've asked myself that question hundreds of times, Jess. Thousands. Would I want a normal life? Would I tell myself way-back-when, when I was living out of my car, scrounging, doing odd jobs for a living, not to deliver that package to 35th Street, by the closed factory? I could be free. I could still be back home, still in contact with my parents, my brother..."

He was talking in a monotone, almost as if Jessica wasn't there. The words just came thick and fast, he was talking more to himself than the woman opposite him.

"I could have boot-strapped my way up somehow, I dunno. Wouldn't have had to worry about thugs, crooks, or crazy supervillains in spandex speaking enough ham to fill a deli. Wouldn't have met a girl who I came this close to marrying, and nearly ended up being strapped to a mad scientist's worktable because of it. Wouldn't have...wouldn't have gone to that museum. Half of the memories I've got in my psyche wouldn't be there, having their little parties and keeping me up at night. Wouldn't have gone haring across the States on an insane pursuit that's nearly killed me more times than I can count...and I'd be human, Jess."

The kinetic controller stopped and went quiet again, sipping at his water. They sat there in silence as a waiter came around again, and swiftly walked off as he felt the atmosphere around the table.

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Jessica watched Tom talk, watched his expression and body language. When he was done she slid out of the booth, pulling her coat along. "This was a mistake," she said, shrugging into the jacket. "I shouldn't have come here. I'm sorry I wasted your time, Tom, but I shouldn't be doing this." She walked out the door and back onto the street, setting off back towards the garage where her truck was parked. She only got as far as the corner, though. The young woman stopped there and hugged herself tightly, trying to figure out what she was going to do next.

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Tom didn't notice she'd walked out for a few seconds, staring at the table's surface like he was trying to bore a hole in it with his eyes. Then it registered, and he promptly whacked his head on the table, feeling like an idiot. Standing up so fast the chair fell over, he ignored the surprised looks of the other patrons and seized his coat, hurrying out after Jessica. After spotting her at the corner, he walked up, standing a few feet behind her. Apologies occupied his head, but he couldn't put them into words. A few minutes passed as the two stood there, and finally he walked up and stood beside her, saying quietly;

"Sorry. For unloading like that, I mean. I'm not...used to people asking me."

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Jessica stood there for a long minute, even as the light changed. She finally started speaking but kept facing out to the street. "My grandfather was the only real family I ever knew. My parents didn't have much to do with raising me, my tutors couldn't keep up me, so he was my only real friend growing up. I pretty much based my life on his, except for going into the military. But he's the reason I got into science, why I became a hero. He... died last November. It was really hard." Jessica tilted her head back; there were angry gray clouds churning overhead, blocking out the light and threatening rain. "Then last week, I went back in time and got to see him again."

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Push stood beside her, his hands in his pockets. He remained quiet, listening to Jessica talk about her family, and felt a pang of regret strike him. Shortly thereafter, that was swallowed up by a wave of sympathy for the young heroine, although he didn't say it out loud. He turned his face to the sky, noting with inner quasi-amusement that it would rain soon. Truly, the world loved a cliche sometimes.

"I'm sorry. He must've been a remarkable man."

Upon her mention of the previous week's...events regarding time portals, he froze briefly, although it was difficult to see due to the previous lack of movement. After his heart had steadied to a manageable rate, he nodded and murmured;

"Yeah. Last week was...interesting. For a lot of people."

The kinetic mutant let out a breath, rubbing the back of his head.

"You don't have to say what happened, Jess. I..." He ran out of words, falling silent again and wishing a great deal that he was far more eloquent.

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Jessica looked around at Tom's words, momentarily forgetting er troubles as she worked out his meaning. The ghost of a smile touched her lips and she waved one hand, dismissing his worries. "It wasn't anything like that," she assured him. "I was only there for a few minutes and --" Jessica glanced around and stepped closer to Tom, lowering her voice so they wouldn't be overheard. "He was killing people, Tom. This was back when he was in the military, but he was slaughtering those other soldiers. He wasn't even giving them a chance to escape, he was just gunning them down."

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Tom's expression went through a whole series of emotions. Surprised, stony, chagrined, sympathetic. He kept his hand on the back of his head, feeling decidedly awkward. What do you say to a friend who just said she'd seen her grandfather murder a whole army base in the past in front of your very eyes, while not noticing you? How do you react? He felt a deep pang of sympathy for Jessica, she was a good person, and the mantle she'd taken on as Ironclad had put her in danger again and again...but the guy who'd inspired her, according to what she'd said, had just literally thrown her world upside-down.

"I...what did you do?"

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Jessica blinked. "I stopped him, what do you think? I couldn't just stand around and watch --" She cut herself off and glanced around, then grabbed Tom's arm and started walking down the street with him. "I couldn't just stand there and watch my grandfather kill all those people. But even so, I feel like everything's gone topsy-turvy. I thought I knew my grandfather, but if I was wrong about him, what else -- who else -- was I wrong about?"

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Tom put his hands in his pockets, pondering as they walked along. It took him a while to cogitate a response, this kind of talking was never one of his strong points. Eventually, the two arrived back at the L.A.I.R, and the mechanic stared at the door, then cursed and pushed it open, motioning for Jessica to follow.

"Aaah...blast. C'mon, I need something with a ton of caffeine in it right now, before I start offering advice. Which I'm probably not qualified to give anyway. But honestly, I think we both need a friendly ear at this point."

He disappeared into the interior, and the sound of a metal trapdoor sliding open could be heard from the garage.

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Jessica followed Tom back to his garage, and stood blinking while she heard the sounds of metal on stone. She ducked inside and couldn't see Tom right away, but after a moment she spotted him behind a tall shelf of tools. She moved over to get a better look and noticed a steel plate set into the floor, rising into the air on hidden hinges. She blinked at it in surprise. "Cool," she said, then turned to the doors and waved a hand. The garage doors ground closed and locked as she started down the gangway into the area underneath L.A.I.R., glancing around at the furniture and electronics. "I've heard of a bachelor's cave," she commented dryly, "but et cetera, et cetera."

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Tom shrugged, tapping his commlink twice to start the dulcet tones of his combination coffee and hot chocolate maker. Walking over to the kitchen, he started rummaging around for mugs.

"Did some renovating after you and Warlock helped me install the ED-209, and those wards. And no mocking the man-cave."

The edge of his mouth quirked up in a half smile when he said the last few words, and he passed her a steaming mug and motioned for her to sit, flopping into one of the mismatched chairs himself. His next words came somewhat slowly, and he tried to pick his words with care.

"So...have you...uh...done any digging into what happened yet?"

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Jessica collapsed bonelessly on the overstuffed couch, accepting the mug of coffee and sipping it slowly, stalling. "I have his military records," she said, staring into the black drink, "but that doesn't mean much. He was 'officially' in military intelligence for most of his service. I only know what he did because I dug up the blueprints for his Ironclad suit before I started building mine." She sighed and closed her eyes, letting her head fall back. "Maybe that's the worst part of all this. There's so many questions surrounding it, and no way to answer any of them."

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The kineticist sipped at his hot chocolate musingly, his fingers tapping the arm of his chair as Jessica filled him in. He could almost feel her resigned attitude towards the dearth of information, one he'd long had to deal with whenever he tried to dig up information on Scratch himself. They sat in silence, for a moment, until a creeping thought edged up into his conscious mind, and he hummed thoughtfully.

"Hmm...well...maybe not entirely."

The idea grew and expanded in his head. It was a tad risky, but it wasn't like he hadn't asked them for more important things before...

"I might...I think I might know a guy who knows a guy. Who knows a lot of guys. Who might be able to help...I think. Your granddad, any idea what parts of government service he worked for? Regular army? Air Force? AEGIS, maybe UNISON?"

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Jessica look up at Tom. She didn't respond for a moment, and when she did she spoke slowly and carefully. "I don't really know. Originally, he was US Army, but he transferred to the USAF almost as soon as there was such a thing. I think he moved around with a particular group, but they're all pretty much shrouded in top secret levels of, well, secrecy."

Jessica curled her legs up, resting her gams on the couch while letting her shoes hang off the edge. "You know, when I talked this over with another friend, she suggested I hack into the government's files. Am I the only one who remembers things like the Freedom of Information Act?"

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Tom chuckled, sipping from his mug. He could think of a few heroes of their mutual acquaintance who might suggest that, and given the circumstances, he was willing to hazard a guess as to which one. Not out loud, of course. Taking another sip, the two lapsed into a pensive silence as Push stared at a spot on the coffee table, finally lifting his gaze and fixing Jessica with an intent look.

"Listen...I'm not sure how far this might go in government records, but..."

He looked at what seemed to be an innocuous radio in the corner, wrinkling his nose at it before turning back to her with the same look.

"Ok, you didn't hear this from me, but I occasionally do freelance work for a...particular government agency. The agent I work with, his name's Mr. Black. Now, I can't tell you any more than that, again, you didn't hear this from me, but he's fairly well connected in that particular government agency. Well connected enough that if I raise a little hell...well, he might be able to dig up a little information. I dunno how much it'll help, but..."

He trailed off, rubbing the back of his head, then shrugged. Reaching an arm over, he placed a hand on her shoulder, speaking in earnest.

"Jess...when I got my powers, I had to do a lot of soul-searching about my family. I never clued them in, truth be told. Thought it was too much risk. Right now, they still don't know where I am or what I'm doing, but I've resigned myself to that. You...you had your grandpa when you stepped up, took on the Ironclad mantle. He helped you, and without him, well, didn't you say he was the reason you got into science, why you became a hero? Remember him for that, Jess. He did make the world a better place with you in it. And hey, if he didn't do that, you wouldn't have met Blake, either!"

A wry smile creased his face as he commented on that one, and he leaned back in his chair.

"It's your call if you want me to rustle up some answers. And other than the advice I just dropped, I reckon you and Blake need a really long vacation."

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Jessica bit her lip to stop herself from reacting immediately to Tom's offer. Mara had suggested hacking into government servers and Jessica wasn't willing to go that far just to satisfy her curiosity, but if Tom has a legitimate source, she might get some solid leads. After a moment she leaned forward and grabbed a pencil and what looked like a receipt or invoice off the table. Holding the paper against her palm, she wrote four names at the bottom, then handed it to Tom. "I think these guys served with my grandfather. They all seemed to move around to the same places at the same times, you know?" She sat back and took a sip from her coffee. This was exciting; she'd assumed that her grandfather's past would always be a black void. The prospect of shedding light on it -- well, it was why she loved science.

Jessica curled up on the couch again and eyed Tom over the rim of her mug. "So what exactly do you mean that Blake and I need a vacation?"

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