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Avenger Assembled

But What You Make It (IC)

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continued from The Hard Hand of Fate

April 2012

It was after midnight when Caradoc touched down in Gina's neighborhood, his armor retreating beneath his skin once he'd landed in the deserted cul-de-sac near her house. He walked alone and bareheaded through the quiet residential streets, the lights and life he could see in a few of the houses a grim reflection of the dead and dying world he'd left behind just a few hours earlier. The smell of burnt flesh was in his nostrils as he reached Gina's front door, the looks of utter despair and screams of horror in his mind as he pulled the knocker. Her young sidekick was surely at his school at this hour, it would have to be just her home tonight.

Perhaps he was imposing with coming here with the way his relationship stood with Gina, but Erin had been right: this was no night to be alone, this was a night to be with one who cared for you and who you cared for in return. And in all the world; in all the worlds, there was no one who cared for him like Gina Evans did, just as there was no one he cared for but her. His life had a way of putting weight on everything.

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He caught the subtle hum of a camera turning on its mount and focusing on him, a very common phenomenon at Gina's house. "Steve?" Gina's voice came over a speaker near the door, sounding confused and a little uneasy. The unease, too, was not uncommon, but more so given the hour and the fact he hadn't called first. "I wasn't expecting you. Is everything okay?" The door unlocked and opened automatically, letting him into the darkened living room. As he stepped in, the lights rose to normal levels, but there was still no sign of his erstwhile girlfriend.

Downstairs in her basement command center, Gina kept one eye on the house security cameras with consternation as she tried to think of what to do with herself. Her hair was a mess and she probably had cheese dust on her shirt, and she'd thrown on the old sweatpants with the paint stains on them because she'd been too busy to program Emerson to do the wash this week. At least she'd showered this morning, but she was still looking even more horrible than usual. Why did he have to stop by now?

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Steve had a pretty good idea where Gina was likely to be, but he knew better than to go down there and beard her in her den unless it was a serious emergency. And this wasn't an emergency, not in the sense that it would have justified frightening her that way. He walked inside the living room and said aloud, "No, things are not well with me tonight. I have had a very...difficult day, Gina. I need to talk to you." He sat down on the couch, the springs squeaking beneath his great weight, and looked at nothing as he sat his hands on his knees. "I apologize for the hour of my coming, and for not calling. I preferred not to be alone today."

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Gina was quiet for a moment as she studied the screen. Steve always cut something of a tragic figure, but tonight seemed worse than usual. The damage to his clothes suggested he'd been involved in some sort of trouble, but why would he have been doing hero work out of uniform? Only one way to find out, really. Securing her console, she went up the stairs, dimming the house lights to 50% as she went. She paused in the doorway to the living room, looking at him. "Want a drink?" she offered, a half-smile on her shadowed face. "I'm rarely good company, but I can give you that, and an ear."

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Steve took a drink, almost pure alcohol from her vodka bottle that would do no more than get him mildly buzzed, and sat on the couch next to Gina. "My day began when we at HAX made contact with a world in the last stages of destruction by the Terminus." He told her in a slow, methodical way of how they'd learned of the brutal invasion, the rapid destruction of civilization and life, and finally their own trip across dimensional barriers to try and rescue the few tiny fragments of human life left over after the flame deluge of Terminus conquest. "I had never been, free, to a world under attack by the Terminus. But when I saw their faces and felt their terrible despair, I remembered what it was to see that in other times, and other places, and be the instrument of their destruction. We captured civilians. Not refugees. Humans who worked for Shadivan Steelgrave, tending Omegaforges. And I was tempted..."

He extended his hand half in front of him, fingers curling. "One dared beg me for mercy. And he got it, but it was...it was tempting."

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Gina started out in her usual position, six inches of space between her and Steve on the couch, but gradually slid closer as he talked about all he'd seen and done that day. "Sometimes it's hard to be the good guy," she agreed ruefully, "when it seems so much more just to dish out a taste of the bad guy's own medicine. But that's what makes us different and better." She ran a hand lightly along his arm, glad that he wasn't looking her way. "How many people did you manage to save?" she asked, hoping to divert his attention, but also curious. "What's going to happen to them?"

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"The survivors of the lost world will be debriefed by the Freedom League to gain more information about the mechanics of a Terminus conquest, then put in Special Circumstances housing until they can find a home for themselves. One little girl, I think, may be going home with Jill O'Cure, they seemed to have a particularly special bond." He hadn't missed that little candle in the darkness, for all that there had been so much else to deal with. He put his hand on Gina's and squeezed it lightly, not quite turning to look at her. "The fate of the Terminus technicians is more...uncertain. They will be debriefed as well, and closely screened for biological and technological agents, and after that...most likely put in protective custody. They have committed no crime here, but they are bloody-handed murderers all the same."

He turned and looked right at Gina for the first time. "I terrified them, and rightly so. A freed Omegadrone is vengeance incarnate to all who serve Omega. But I...I saw their faces, and I saw my parents reflected in them. I think...I think it is time I tell you their story." The weight of the past was obviously a heavy burden pressing on Steve, one he badly needed to unload.

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Gina dropped her gaze when he looked at her, then tipped her chin up to return his regard. She didn't know if she wanted to hear this story, in fact was pretty sure she didn't. Thus far, they'd kept their relationship anchored firmly in the present, with no past worth speaking of and no future assumed. Having him start sharing confidences about the horrible place he came from would have to change all of that for good. She bit her lip and considered making an excuse, feigning an emergency. But even in her ugly, impaired and all-too-human body, she was still a little bit of a hero, and it hurt her to see him in pain.

"Go ahead," she encouraged. "You were born on Nihilor, right?"

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"I was, beneath the grim towers of the Annihilists. But my parents were not." Steve closed his eyes, as if seeing a long-gone world he had only imagined in his mind. "When my parents came of age, their world was torn apart by a bitter civil war between its superhumans. The mighty Heroic Assembly, the guardians of that place, had fallen out into bloodshed and carnage, and the human population suffered. They went to work for a hero called Steelguard, an armored champion of justice, as his speechwriters and his propaganda ministers." He took a breath, let it out, and focused on her. "They found he was not the man they had believed. He had...cheated to help bring about the war, he had provoked it, in fact, so that all the world's heroes would answer to him. But he promised peace and order, as well as prosperity for his followers, and that was very attractive. So they stood by his side and praised his name as he broke the heroes of the world and made them his pawns, and were with him the day that the Terminus starships appeared in the sky. Steelguard went to meet Omega. Steelgrave returned. He gave them a choice between death and joining him and his allies in the Terminus as vassals of Omega. And so...they chose to live. And their world burned."

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Gina's immense intellect went to work processing and analyzing the story almost in spite of herself, drawing out the nuances from context and what she knew already of the Terminus. She chose not to focus for the moment on how old this story made him, if his parents hailed from one of the senior client worlds of the Terminus, and also made herself rise above the sheer horror of a world ripped apart by the malevolence of one of its own heroes. "The Terminus has a history of approaching planets at times of weakness, when they are ill-prepared to put up a fight. There was probably little your parents could've done," she offered.

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"They paid the price for their deeds, make no mistake. There was a rebellion some time afterwards, once it became clear to those that had survived that their suffering was not over. That if they wanted to live, they would have to help in the destruction of others. Heroes, criminals, all who might have stood against Steelgrave rose together against him one night. My parents...were afraid." Steve closed his eyes again and said, "So they hid in their room in Steelgrave's palace as battle raged around them. And when it was done, and all the others were dead, sent to the doomforges, or dying in the games, Steelgrave gave them the same life-extension drugs that Annihilists use, so that they could stay by his side and praise his name as they had done for so long in the old world. And so they did, through world after world and year after year, watching as all the worlds like their own died, forced to praise all they saw to all in Nihilor in order to prolong their own lives. They kept track of the years at first; a year, two, ten, a century...and then finally, numberless."

The look of pain in his eyes was deep as they turned on Gina again, the memory of someone else's pain still sharp after all these years. "And then, one day, after all that, my parents decided to have a child."

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Despite herself, Gina was visibly taken aback by that. "They decided to have a child on Nihilor?" she asked incredulously. "That..." She stopped and moistened her lips, trying to come up with something substantially more diplomatic than accusing them of complete insanity. "They must have held out a lot of hope, even after all that time, that things would eventually get better," she offered instead. "It can't have been easy for any of you." Even with what little she knew of the homeworld of the Terminus, her mind was boggled by the idea of trying to live a life there, much less raise a family.

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"No, I think they believed that Steelgrave would kill them," replied Steve frankly. "Or end the way they had lived in some other way. He had forbidden them to have a child, you see, all those centuries ago. Their lost world was complete within him, he said, and they existed only as reflections of his glory. To produce a child was proof that there was something they loved more than they loved him. They told me only that after uncounted centuries, they had simply grown tired of obeying. That they would choose to die alive rather than to live as the dead. But they lived, and so did I. They were cast out, and I was born in the Black Ghetto some months later."

He sat down again, putting his cold hand on hers. "The streets of Nihilor were far to fall for ones who had once stood by Steelgrave's side. The survivors of a thousand dead worlds, cast together in the darkness below, some gone mad and become as bad as the monsters above, some worshippers of the grim god of death who had destroyed their world and all they loved, all hunted by Omegadrones, Terminus dragons, and a thousand other monsters. Such was my childhood." He fell silent for a moment, then admitted, "I was lucky. My parents taught me to read, and about the worlds that had once been, and that Omega was a monster, not a god. And they finally died there, as all do. My mother of disease, my father in a fight over food. I was fifteen when I was alone."

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"I'm so sorry," Gina murmured, empty, hollow, useless words. What was there to say in response to a story like that, a story that she couldn't wrap her mind around for fear that internalizing it would be more than she could bear? "No one should have to go through anything like that. You saved people today from that kind of fate, or worse. You said there was a little girl, one who attached herself to Jill o'Cure? She'll sleep safe and warm tonight with people who care what happens to her, because of you. Maybe the technicians were afraid of you, but you're a hero to that girl."

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"With their loss, and the loss of...another I cared for, I decided that I should be more than just another survivor in the Ghetto. I tried to organize among the proles, with the idea that we had common enemies enough we should be working together as allies. I was eighteen when the drones came for me. Steelgrave himself had been watching me for this day. And then I was taken to the doomforges and broken there, and...you know how that story ends." He fell silent again, staring off at the far wall without blinking for several moments before he seemed to finally hear Gina. When he spoke, his hands shook slightly.

"I am not so foolish as to think I can make amends for what has happened in my life. But I could help make that little girl happy, and save all those people, and do good in this shining paradise. And that...that is enough. It will have to be." He turned to look at her. "You are the first I have been able to talk to like this. I always could, even when we were speaking through her."

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"She's really much easier to talk to than I am," Gina pointed out with the faintest hint of a rueful smile. "And way more likely to find the words to say. I'm sure you've heard all the words, the truisms, the tired lines from the doctors and the psychologists and the people who all mean well. I don't think I can tell you anything you don't know about how you heal or live with yourself after what happened to you." She sighed, then laced her fingers through his and held his hand tight, looking down at the join rather than at his face. "But to me, it doesn't matter what you did before. I see you now, and I don't see the Omegadrone. I see Caradoc, I see Steve Murdock. The man you made, not the thing they made you."

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"Thank you, Gina. There are those who don't see the Omegadrone, but few enough who see the man. And as for Miss Americana, she's not real. You are." He squeezed her hand gently, mindful as ever of cybernetic strength against human, and looked at her. "When I look at Miss Americana, I see Gina Evans behind her, and I know who the real hero is. And the real woman." He leaned in and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "And I like what I see. I may not be pleasant company, but I would like to stay the night tonight. I would rather not be alone."

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She met his eyes and held them for a brief moment before looking away, even in the dim light of the darkened living room. "I understand," she said finally. "You don't have to be alone tonight. Stay with me." Rising, she took his hand and led him down the hall, navigating effortlessly in the faint light. Every other time they'd stayed in the living room or gone into the white-walled and somewhat dusty second bedroom, but tonight she led him into a room he'd never seen; her own bedroom. Bigger than the guest room, it was decorated in a very minimal fashion, as made sense for a hyperintellect that needed rest and relaxation. Cream-colored walls were decorated here and there with small black and white art prints, and the dressertop held an abstract statue of green jade. A single bookcase held a well-read collection of books, with a recliner next to it for easy access. The bed took up most of the rest of the room; it was very large for one person, with lots of feather pillows and a comforter that looked deep enough to sink into. It was a comfortable room, a sanctuary for a very private person.

Gina made it all the way into the room before she had to stop, pressing one hand against her racing heart. "Just... just give me a minute," she told Steve, closing her eyes.

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Steve eyed the bed with some concern for a moment; would it support his weight? At six hundred pounds, he was within the realm of human body mass, but his relatively compact size meant he had damaged furniture before. Breaking Gina's private sanctum would ruin the moment! Tentatively, he sat on the bed with great care as Gina closed her eyes and took deep breaths, and though the springs squeaked it and he stayed intact. He was intimately aware that he was in a very personal place of Gina's, the emotionally intimate moment far, far removed from the terrible events earlier in the day. How is it that I have come so far? All unspoken earlier had been the hard nubbin of thought that Gina deserved better than him; that his warped body and blood-soaked past meant he deserved nothing from her or any other human being. But here they were, past another barrier together.

He patiently said nothing, his eyes on the wall and his hands on his lap, as he waited for Gina to recover or not. I still know nothing of what brought her to this. But she has come so far as well. It is enough. It will have to be, for now.

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Gina turned her back on him and stared at the opposite wall for more than a moment, more than a couple of minutes, even. Being infuriated with herself did nothing to stem the panic attack that sent her heart racing and filled her mind with catastrophic images; all she could do was hold onto her own arms tightly enough to bruise as she waited out her own demons. She was aware of him as he moved past her and sat down on the bed, but pushed him from her mind as she worked her way through the tedious mental exercises that sometimes helped. Filling her mind with mathematical calculations gradually pushed out the panic, and by the time she'd calculated the appropriate trajectory for launching a spacecraft between Mars and Europa during the aphelion season, her breathing was returning to normal and she didn't feel so much like she might faint.

"All lights off," she commanded the room in a voice that shook just a little. The room was plunged into darkness, so that she had to find her way over to the bed by touch alone. She found his leg with her hand, then his face, touched his cheek and jaw with her fingers. Without his armor on, Steve was as blind as she, surrounded by a velvet blackness so profound that even from inches away, they couldn't see each other. "This is what I can give you tonight," she murmured. "I can't do any better."

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The next morning, thanks to his cybernetically enhanced physique, Steve was up well before Gina. Disentangling himself from the bed was no easy task given how much the slightest movement of his body made the bed squeak and rock, but he was a very patient man and in better spirits than when he'd come there the night before. And it had been the night, he realized when he caught a glimpse of Gina's softly-glowing, unset alarm clock; he'd slept the entire night at his girlfriend's place for the first time since the beginning of their relationship. Heavy metal implants beneath his skin didn't make him terribly stealthy, but he was able to make his way out of the bedroom and into Gina's high-tech kitchen.

He was familiar with the kitchen at least, and by aid of the morning light streaming in through the window was soon cooking Gina up a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, the sort he ate himself when the money was there for it. It was all very domestic; the sort of scene he mostly saw in movies and on television rather than in his own life. His own life had been very different, very different indeed. I'm a superhero now, he reminded himself, or tried to, anyway, his mind wandering from his cooking efforts as he tried to stave off an all-too-power surge of guilt. "I wonder if Gina would be open to creating a superteam which bears Miss Americana's name..." he said aloud, all the while trying to stifle the bubbling echoes of ghosts who jeered at him for a callous monster.

He tried to drown them out with his own thoughts, his only weapons in the wars inside his mind. The past cannot be changed. The dead cannot be brought back to life. The past cannot be changed. The dead cannot be brought back to life. To dwell in eternal suffering is to dwell in the Terminus. To dwell in eternal suffering is to dwell in the Terminus. I am a free man. I am a free man.

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After a little while, Gina's little helper robot Emerson rolled into the kitchen on its nearly-silent electric treads. It began cleaning up after Steve, tossing away eggshells, washing the prep dishes, mopping faint scuffs from the floor. Steve knew Gina could inhabit the robot when she chose, but at the moment it seemed to be on autopilot, doing its job to keep the house clean. Faint noises from the back hallway indicated that Gina was probably awake and showering, but it took her a long time to come out. Breakfast was ready by the time she appeared, neatly dressed and with her hair done and makeup applied. It was the way she usually preferred to look when Steve was around, for all that she didn't think it helped her much.

"You're an early bird this morning," she noted without quite meeting his eyes, going to the timer-automated coffeepot and pouring herself a cup. "Didn't you sleep well?"

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"I generally rise with the dawn, even when I have been up late the night before." His mouth worked in a faint smile as he sat down next to Gina to eat his share of their breakfast. He was careful to sit next to her rather than across from her; they were close that way, but could talk without him staring at her or her doing her best to avoid his eyes. Steve didn't need to shave or comb his hair, and indeed looked nearly as fresh as when the evening had begun. "Truthfully," he confessed, "I suppose even after all these years of living on Earth, a sun in the sky is alien enough to wake me."

He balled his hand into a fist and rested his hand on it for a moment, trying not to think of red skies at night and day as well. "My sleep is rarely pleasant, but it was sound. I am glad I did not wake you. I will often be...unsettled in the night. Especially after a day like yesterday, with so many memories close to the surface." He ate with gusto of his own cooking, fighting the occasional urge to save part of it for later. "It was very...pleasant to awaken to your face."

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"I'm glad you got some rest," Gina told him, sipping her coffee and studying the rim of her cup. She herself had woken when he'd stirred, but had feigned sleep a little while longer. Waking up tangled with a man was a strange feeling, but part of her had liked it. When she was asleep she wasn't cripplingly neurotic, when she was asleep she could reach out and hold onto someone. At the same time she was glad when he'd gotten up and gone to the kitchen, since that gave her time to try and detrollify herself. For whatever that was worth.

"Sounds like you'll probably have a full plate again today," she speculated. "Anything Miss Americana or ArcheTech can do to help?" Gina ate a few bites of her breakfast to be polite, much as she did when they made popcorn for movies. It was good, but eating in front of people just provoked more anxiety, and that was the last thing she needed. "I should probably get in touch with Dragonfly at HAX, but not until the word gets out a little more. Wouldn't want to start rumors."

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Steve gave that one some serious thought, staring blankly past Gina's head as he did so. He'd long since learned that she didn't appreciate it when he focused his gaze on her like that. "An appearance by Miss Americana at FLSCH would be appreciated by many. Though she is not the one who saved them, Miss Americana is the sort of person to make a transition to a new life easier. And since I live there, I can invite you, er, her over without any worries." He coughed and sipped his coffee, trying to cover for his brief slip. "I would not worry about Dragonfly. Though I have mentioned that I am in a relationship to my friends, they would not make any assumptions about you. And if anyone asks, I can truthfully say that Miss Americana and I are only colleagues." Steve would have blushed, if he'd had the ability to do so.

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