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Avenger Assembled

Demon In A Bottle (IC)

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April 2012

Steve Murdock didn't have a lot of friends, which was really no surprise. It wasn't that he was anti-social so much as social and he simply weren't on the same team. Of course, that meant when it was time for something important, as in subtly finding out how he should go about pursuing a romantic relationship with his new girlfriend, he had a difficult task before him. Though watching television had taught him a great many things about how the people of Earth-Prime socialized with each other, as had occasional invisible observation, he just didn't know enough. He did know some things, however; a man looking for advice on women certainly never went to his female friends, so Miss Americana, Fleur de Joie, and Dragonfly were out; he'd have to talk to the men he knew like Jack of all Blades and Gabriel.

He knew how men were supposed to talk to each other, in smoky bars where sporting events were playing on the television, but one thing he didn't know was how to contact all the people he cared about directly. He'd made a conscious effort to avoid learning the secret identities of his fellow supers, which while good for his peace of mind did make it tough when he wanted to talk to them. So instead, using the new cellphone Gina had repaired for him, he sat in a quiet corner of the bar and called the contact number he'd exchanged with Jack of all Blades after they'd had a few adventures together. This was a social call, but Jack hadn't mentioned this was a line for emergencies only. Some heroes preferred only to be called for emergencies. (Some had stressed that to him specifically)

"Hello, Jack?" he said, his slightly mechanical voice sounding much more confident than the last time he'd spoken to the swordsman. "It's...Steve."

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Erik Espadas sat abruptly up in his seat as the called on the other end of the line identified himself. "Hey, Six Million Dollar Man," he greeted jauntily, reflexively slipping into the more jocular persona of Jack of all Blades, the wisecracking, devil-may-care master of swordsmanship. "Whadda we got, big guy?" he inquired, already moving to the concealed compartment at the back of the closet in the apartment over the self defense school he shared with Willow when she felt like sleeping inside. Shifting the false back to one side revealed a familiar royal blue greatcoat. "We talking the Big T? Should I be calling in the whole gang?"

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"Oh, no, no," said Steve, a little awkwardly. He talked to people so little, of course they assumed when he sought them out there was some sort of crisis. "Nothing like that. I was calling to see if you might want to join me for a drink. To talk about women. You know..." That was the sort of thing men talked about in bars, he was sure. "I am at a bar in your part of the city, it is called the..." he peered through the faint haze in the room. Though tobacco smoking was almost impossible to come by in Freedom City, a faint air of it clung to this old place with its smoothly polished, deeply-aged wooden bar with mirror hanging behind. "It is called Przezanski's."

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"Uh... what?" Jack responded dumbly, hand paused in the air halfway through reaching for his costume. He played back Steve's words in his head a few time, rolling them around and rearranging them as he attempted to parse their meaning in context. He recognized all the individual syllables, but they didn't make any sense coming from the former Omegadrone. "Wait, so... Steve, are you saying... are you having girl trouble?" The swashbuckler might have burst out laughing if conversation with the solemn cyborg didn't tend to dampen that reflex. "Ah, I mean, sure buddy. I'll be over in like fifteen, okay?" If might not have been an attack from the Terminus, but it was sounding like the call had been in regard to a different sort of crisis.

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When he hung up, Steve realized he'd forgotten to tell Jack that other people would be at what the television had called a "man-meeting." Oh well, no one was going to be giving away secret identities there, least of all him, so surely there was no potential problem. He'd just have to make sure to call Gabriel in a hurry. He ordered another beer, and this time called up Carson. "Hello, Carson. it's Steve," he said, his flat voice unmistakable even when he was relaxed. "Are you well?" His distinctive appearance was attracting some attention, as usual, but the quiet Polish bar wasn't the sort of place where people stared at each other much,

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Carson picked up the phone with a raised eyebrow, but gave a smile when he heard who was on the line.

"Hey Steve! I'm doing great! Good to hear from you. Anything wrong on your end, or are just calling for a chat?"

He moved to a chair nearby, flopping down in a casual pose. He was sure Steve would warn him straightaway if there was real trouble, so he was mostly worried it was a more personal thing.

"Sorry I haven't caught up with you much, it's actually been sort of busy on my end."

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"Yes, it has been a busy season," replied Steve with the earnest air of a man doing his best to make small talk. "And no, there is no crisis at the moment. This was actually a personal matter. I was wondering if you would like to catch up with me and talk about things. You know, about women, as men do." He nervously crushed a peanut between his fingers as he talked. "I am at a bar called Przezanski's in the West End, I can give you the address. The beer here is very good." Men were watching a soccer game between Poland and the Ukraine on a flickering old television in the corner, the smell of sausage in the air as the bartender laid out a plate of greasy stuff for a hungry customer.

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"Heh. The local brands usually have at least some taste to them. Sounds like a plan, Steve. Let me write down the address, I'll probably hop the bus or...something. Yeah.I'll be there before too long.

And as for the talking about women-matters, I'll do what I can. I'm a bit flattered I guess."

He writes down the address when Steve rattles it off, running it through his head. He'll have to Google it, he doesn't know the location offhand. Shouldn't be too hard. Might be wroth skipping the bus, though. If he wore a darker jacket he'd manage to go unnoticed, he figured.

"Right, got it. Thanks for the address, buddy. I'll be there in a little bit. Give me a ring if plans change."

He waits for Steve to acknowledge, then wraps up the call as he walks into his bedroom. He changes into a set of clothes he doesn't mind getting "bar smell" soaked in. He didn't mind it so much, but it wasn't something he wanted touching up all his outfits, especially if there was much smoke there. When he'd tossed on a jacket, he made sure the apartment was locked up, lights off, then walked out to his balcony. He listened for a few moments, and when he was sure the coast was clear, he zipped off into the night sky, quickly making his way above the city until he saw the street his goal was on. He started circling in for a landing on a rooftop, then a convenient alleyway.

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With his friends on their way, Steve sat at the bar table and began taking careful notes about what he wanted to say, precise and planning with his Bic pen on a cocktail napkin. HOW TO COURT WOMEN. IDEAS? And then MUST NOT TELL. He could trust Gabriel and Jack, but if anyone knew Gina's secret, he was reasonably confident it was neither man. Both Jack and Carson seemed like the sort of men who had experience in dealing with women; surely they'd have some good advice, even if his circumstances were singularly unique. Eventually he put his pen away and sat there eating peanuts, waiting for the others to arrive. Clearly visible with his bald head and scarred face in the dark bar, he had a table to himself as the other two arrived.

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The bar door opened wide to make way for the dusty brown haired man who confidently entered with a flashing grin for the pair of brunettes sitting at one end of the bar and nod of camaraderie for the bartender, who found himself smiling back before it occurred to him that he'd never seen the newcomer before in his life. "Hey, Steve," Jack greeted smoothly, pulling a chair out from the table with his foot, spinning it around with a flick of his leg before sitting down with his arms folded across the back, across the table from the somber man. "You look... good!" he managed with barely any discernible pause at all.

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It wasn't more than a couple of minutes later that Carson walked into the bar, having picked an alley that was large, dark, and empty, and casually walked out of it when no one was looking. Surprisingly easy, and since he didn't try to mug anyone, no one seemed to care. He saw the bar's sign and quickened his pace. He walked inside right after a much larger man, giving him a moment of...well, not stealth, but of not being noticed.

That moment was all it took to see that Jack was there as well. He gave a long-suffering sigh, sure this would be an "interesting" evening. He walked to the bar and pulled out a couple of bills, gently setting them on the counter.

"Irish coffee if you can, classic mix. That table over there if possible."

After securing a good drink for the coming events, Carson made his way over to the table, a wry grin on his face.

'Thank the Lord Lent's over, I'm not sure I'd want to go through this without a bit of alcohol now.'

He calmly slid into a seat that put him next to both of the other men, settling down with a relaxed air, eyebrow raised a bit in Jack's direction.

"I see it's Group Advice Night. Using all your resources, I suppose? Good to see both of you looking well."

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"And so do you," replied Steve automatically, his voice sounding more sure than in most of Jack's encounters with the other man. "It is good to see you, Jack. Thank you for coming on such short notice." He felt terribly shallow as he talked, but then he usually did in social situations, carefully memorizing surface phrases so no one would realize he had no idea what he was talking about. There was nothing fake about the greeting, though, or the honest affection in his eyes. He looked equally glad to see Carson, greeting him with a firm handshake before both men were at the table.

"It is good to see you, Carson. Thank you for coming on such short notice. Both of you." He took a breath. "I have invited you both here," he said with the same earnestness he might have used to speak of forming a new superteam, "because I trust you both, and I know I can rely on you to help me with a very complicated situation. You are my best friends. I want to talk about...women," he said, whispering the word like it was a great secret. "And what to do when you're dating one."

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Jack didn't notice Gabriel - or rather, Carson - until red haired man approached the bar, the better part of the fencer's attention of the man who had invited them there. Even so, between the Irishman's distinctive features and ability to light up a room without trying, for lack of a manlier expression, he was difficult to miss. It was equally hard to miss the careful politeness offered in his direction, and ultimately impossible to avoid a small, answering smirk.

The swashbuckler felt that he got on with the other hero well enough while they were working, but any time they had more than a minute or so to talk between themselves he inevitably got the impression that Carson was expending considerable effort good-naturedly tolerating his many shortcomings. Having no illusions of humility, Jack could readily admit to himself at least that the muffled air of judgement rankled more than any direct insult would have, just as he knew the sonic manipulator would never have actually intended offense. They rubbed each other the wrong way and there didn't seem to be much to be done about it.

In this instance, however, there was no saying no to Steve's earnest request. The former Omegadrone was the original hard luck case and as much as he sounded more confident than the last time they'd spoken, his stilted attempts at conversation made it clear he still needed all the help he could get. Raising one hand in the air and nodding to the bartender to order a beer, he turned back to the bald man. "Maybe you'd better start at the beginning, you old hound dog you."

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Both of Carson's eyebrows tried to approach his brow. He'd heard Steve on the phone earlier, but somehow it had more weight in person. He glanced at Jack as the other man asked what they were both probably thinking, though something occurred to him that could be important.

"Yeah. I mean, we can probably help you better if we know you're trying to catch her attention for the first time, if you're still in the first few "wooing" steps, or if you're sort of settling in and trying to decide where to go from here. Same principles apply, but a lot of the nuance is different."

He was determined that he would bring no conflict to this night. He knew good and well he'd likely disagree with some of what Jack offered as advice. That didn't matter; this meeting was about Steve, so Carson vowed to concentrate on just giving advice and letting Steve make decisions like the grown man he was. For all Steve's personal gloom-and-doom that Carson recalled from a couple of their meetings together, he knew the man had a good heart and a sharp mind, and those were the two biggest hurdles in this.

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"I am dating someone." As he spoke, Steve methodically crushed and sorted the peanuts from the small bowl by his hand, gradually assembling piles of shell and nut respectively. "It is a very complicated situation, as you would imagine. Because she has, er, unique circumstances, and I have very unique circumstances, she has asked that I not discuss who or what exactly she is with anyone. But she is a woman, a human woman," he added, suddenly wondering if they would suspect he was dating one of the more alien inhabitants of his apartments. Not that he had any prejudices about appearance, but it would certainly tarnish their advice if they thought he was dating, say, Kar'za, the Grue down the hall who lacked the ability to shapeshift. "We met through work, grew particularly close over the holidays, and have been more emotionally intimate in the time since." He cracked an especially large nut with a snap.

"I have only...dated once before. And that was many years ago." Before the gloom of the long-gone past could fall over the table and himself, he forced himself to add, "I had a need, and saw a need in her. But now I have no idea how to...go places in a relationship. We have stepped over a line, we are dating, but after that..." He shrugged, looking a little helpless. "I know very little about these alleys."

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Pausing the conversation long enough for their drinks to be delivered and a modicum of privacy to be restored, Jack had an odd moment of self-realization, muttering quietly to himself, "I think I'm more qualified when it comes to non-human women..." Drowning that observation in a long pull from his glass, he set it down slowly as he marshaled his thoughts. "Private people, makes sense," he assured Steve, rubbing the stubble along his jawline with one thumb. "But you get that without knowing her 'circumstances', some of what we're gonna say might not really apply, yeah? You already got a big ol' plate at the circumstance buffet yourself, Steve-o." Flicking his gaze in Carson's direction for a moment, he cleared his throat. "Which, uh, brings up another question. Just for reference!" he clarified a little defensively, raising his free hand palm outward. "How much of you is, y'know. Open for business?"

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"I am biologically functional," replied Steve, who was male enough to smile for a moment at what was, after all, an important question. "Removing the biological systems in question would have been an unnecessary alteration to the underlying systems, given armor plating and suppression of all hormonal desires. The same can be said for her," he added, not wanting to get into unnecessary detail. "She is a cyberneticist from outside Freedom City." He added with an awkward laugh. "You know, ha-ha, cybernetic scientist, after my body...well." He coughed.

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"I have a couple questions that are a bit more important."

Carson's voice was friendly, and he took a quick sip from the steaming drink that had just arrived.

"First, where do you want this whole thing to go? I'm talking emotionally, relationship-wise; do you want to become closer to her, perhaps in the future find some deeper level of connection and commitment?

Second, and just as important, what's her personality? You don't need to be super-specific, and definitely names aren't needed. But all women are different form each other, and what works for one doesn't work for another. Insight into what she's like, how she shows affection to you, that's the sort of thing that helps make the advice better."

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"Her personality is very..." Steve trailed off, staring down at his empty beer for a moment before crushing the metal in his hands. He suddenly imagined Gina's face if she had known he had discussed her problems, even with no names, before these smiling, confident men. "She is very quiet. She enjoys her work, and the company of machines more than people. She has had a difficult life." This was somehow more nerve-wracking than the heat of battle. "We sit on her couch. I cook for her, we watch movies...we let the silence speak."

"And I want to be happy. I want her to be happy. I never imagined that I could make anyone happy," he confessed. "Not like this. But here we are." In a more direct answer to Carson's question, he said seriously, "Given my circumstances, it would not be responsible for me to speak of commitments. I could ask no one to make such...sacrifices." He glanced down in confusion at a loud thump from beneath his feet; but forgot about it when the older of the two bartenders muttered an exasperated curse and headed downstairs via the cellar door behind the bar.

"But if I cannot safely plan for the future, I can plan for tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after...and I would like to spend what I can of those days with her."

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"Tch, easy to say it's not important when it's not your bits getting cyborg'd up the wazoo," Jack countered out of the side of his mouth, shuddering involuntarily and reaching for his drink again. Even so, he raised no objections to Carson's questions, conceding that they were indeed more important queries in the larger scheme of things. "Point. You're not going to get anywhere treating women like they're aliens. Even if they are. Or you are. Sort of. ...the idiom got away from me a little there, but it's important to remember that you're both people. If you're filling a need for each other, like you said, that's about all you can ask for."

Letting Steve respond in full, he found himself nodding along with the somber man's earnest answers. "That... was really pretty, man. You should tell her all that. Or maybe save it for when you're having a fight."

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Carson smiled at Steve's rather poetic description of his feelings.

"Jack's right, that's something you should express to her. She deserves to know, one way or another.

But the reason I asked what she seemed to enjoy, was because that lets you find ways to express your feelings for her. Caring for someone isn't all big grand gestures; it's lots of little things. You cook for her, you said? Try to experiment there. Find out things she likes. Like, try to find out if there's something she loves to eat, but hasn't had in a while, then fix it for her. Make it a surprise.

If she's a private person, taking her out to eat isn't a great idea. You have to adapt. Watching movies...hm. Try shaking up your viewing routine. Try a movie neither of you has seen, see if you like it. Even if you both hate it, that's fine, you can share that. Find out if she likes certain kinds of music. See if she likes a particular author, and buy a book for her birthday or Christmas or something.

Basically, try to find a lot of little things to do. Those require less planning, and you can more easily add your personal touch. Maybe try writing notes to her sometimes?"

He reached into his coat and pulled out a small, well-worn book. He slid it over the table to Steve.

"Take it, I've gotten all I can out of it. There are a few notes and such in there; feel free to pay attention or ignore as they might fit. Don't adhere to that thing like it's your only rules, but it's more useful than you might think. I realize the "l-word" is kind of...heavy...for where it sounds like you are, but the principles apply."

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Steve looked at the book, briefly concerned that he should have been reciting some sort of classical poetry to Gina before relaxing when the index told him the title was a figure of the so-complicated speech of Earth-Prime. "Thank you, I will study this text," he promised Carson, slipping it into his pocket. "We are only at the beginning of our routine, but there are things we can do that would change matters. I would like to be able to go more places in the city with her, and do more things. As for poetry, well," he said with earnest conviction, "that is how these matters should be spoken of. At the worst moments of human life, the most primal salvation can be the emotional connections between two people. It is the only art." He hmmed at that, and color showed along the lines of his face, the only place he could blush. "We have never actually had a fight," he confessed. "We tend to avoid unpleasant topics. The past. The more unpleasant parts of the present."

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"What? You can't plan these things out, it's not a chess match," Jack interjected, making an emphatic horizontal gesture with one hand. "Okay, yes, you should find about what she likes and figure out stuff you can do together, but you have to be spontaneous. Like, if you see something that makes you think of her, you don't have to wait for a holiday to give it to her. You don't want to be predictable." The emphasis the swashbuckler gave the last word was one normally reserved for highly contagious and graphically unpleasant ailments. "And I'm not saying you should get into a fight on purpose. But if somebody doesn't care enough to get well and truly cheesed off at you now and then, you've got other problems." As Jack saw it, Steve was already bound to treat this mystery woman with kindness and respect, making his biggest challenge the likelihood of playing things too safe. One couldn't have passion without a little fire, after all.

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"What are we here for if not planning? And I'm not saying it's a chess match, but you can't just go in wildly swinging without considering what someone's personality and feelings are like. No two women are exactly the same, so you have to custom-tailor everything. I'm just giving ideas and principles, Steve. It's up to you to think about how to apply them. Even that book I gave you is ultimately the same thing; it's not perfect, it's just one of the more insightful looks at relationships I've read in a long time. The guy who wrote it knows just a little bit more about these things than either Jack or myself, really.

As for "not waiting for a holiday", it's called budgeting, Jack. I don't know about you, but I'm not made of money. Besides, what you call "predictable" I call "consistent". The last thing you want is the woman being unsure what you're going to be like any one day of the week."

Carson was still pretty calm, but his brow was slightly furrowed. He and Jack had actually been doing okay with the "one-two punch" method, but suddenly something was off.

"And you don't know someone cares about you because they get upset at you. That's ridiculous. How they act after they're upset, sure. But fights happen because relationships involve more than one flawed person. It's kind of inevitable that people clash at least occasionally. What's important is how you go about those disagreements, and how you treat each other afterwards. Which, honestly, it sounds like you've got a good start on, Steve."

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Steve put his fingers to his lips, listening as two men he greatly respected gave sound, reasonable advice that nonetheless was obviously very different. "I think there is merit in what both of you say," he finally said. "I would like to have more spontaneity in our relationship. I would like to be able to plan more romantic occasions as well." He drummed his fingers briefly on the scarred wooden table, trying to summon the words that came painfully slowly at times like this. "She prefers not to go out, and that is not something I want to press on her. While we have had different pains, a desire for a certain flavor of solitude is something we both share. To stand alone together." He folded his hands before him. "As for fighting...it has never come up. We are both fragile, in our own ways, and both looking to avoid...explosions."

Crack

A sound like a gunshot made everyone to the bar, where the startled bartender was glancing in surprise over at a standing bottle of beer that had just cracked in half where it sat behind the bar, glass and beer pouring down onto the floor. And suddenly, with crack after crack, the bartender actually vaulting over the scarred wood to escape, the bottles and casks behind the bar began to crack and snap as if being crushed by invisible hands, the liquid pooling together behind the bar in a mixture of spirits, glass, and who knew what else?

Most of the patrons, Freedom City old-timers, were sufficiently quick-thinking to be on the move, but a few gawkers and curious were peering over the edge of the wood...

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