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Avenger Assembled

Amor Fati (IC)

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August 2012

When Gina went to take a shower, Steve sat alone in her darkened living room, turning off the long-ignored television and listening to the sound of Emerson quietly cleaning up around the couch. It had been a very pleasant evening, as they usually were, even if the discussion about his cybernetic upgrades hadn't gotten very far. (Really, those were best left to visits to Miss Americana's laboratory rather than Gina's house). It was very dark in Gina's living room with the lights off and the sky outside the deep darkness of a cloudy night after midnight; if not for the omnipresent glow of the city leaking in the windows, and the friendly, winking eyes of glowing electronic devices, it might have been completely dark.

I don't deserve this, he thought suddenly, a sharp pang of guilt that made his back go rigid and his posture inflexible as he pondered the deep meaning of the words. Darkness, and solitude, meant there was nothing but his memories in his vision, images of death and pain and loss that loomed impossibly deep in the depths of his mind. He looked down at his hands that had recently been touching gently, but had so many times created so many horrors. The smell of imagined blood, the feel of remembered broken things between his fingers, was sharply palpable in the recirculated air. How can I do this, having done all that I have done?

Suffering was something with which Steve Murdock was intimately acquainted. He deserved it; he understood it. But if I step back into the darkness now...I will not be the only one left alone. He could walk through fire unshielded for a cause, but the thought of wounding another, especially one he trusted and...loved, as much as Gina, was terrible. The past cannot be changed. The dead cannot be brought back to life. But perhaps the "...future," he said out loud, a moment before he heard the shower stop. "Gina?" he called.

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"Yeah?" Gina asked as she stepped out of the bathroom, bringing with her a puff of warm steam and the scent of pomegranate soap. She was wrapped only in a towel, with her wet hair hanging in ropes to brush her shoulders, but since it was dark and there was half a hallway between them, she didn't mind as much. "Shower's free," she told him, even as she stepped down the hall towards her room. "I ordered some of that guy-wash stuff you like, it's on the rack in there." It felt a bit weird to her to have Steve's shampoo, Steve's toothbrush and toothpaste in her bathroom, but with the amount of time he was starting to spend over, and how dirty he sometimes was when he arrived, it made sense. Plus, Gina was very particular about her own toiletries and cosmetics, so it was easier to just get separate ones for him. It wasn't as though Sharl ever went in the bathrooms, anyway. "You hungry?"

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The sensors that allowed him to see perfectly in darkness were part of his armor, and thus stored insensate behind his eyes at the moment, but rising to his feet with a groan of couch springs he could just make out Gina's shrouded outline in half darkness. "I...yes, I am," he said, remembering his conversation with Jack of all Blades and Gabriel about how to impress a woman. "Let me cook something for us," he offered as he headed quickly towards the kitchen. He had done this often enough, sometimes to Gina's bemusement, that he had a good idea of where everything was. He opened cabinets and dug out one of the box dinners that Gina preferred, busying himself in the kitchen with the fervor of a man born to a place without one. Yes, we will eat, and then we will talk.

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She dressed while he cooked, an operation that took rather a long time since she insisted on doing her hair and makeup even though it was the middle of the night. Though she wore sweatsuits and didn't bother with cosmetics when she was alone, whenever she was with Steve or had warning that he was coming over, that particular sort of feminine armor went on. It was sometimes odd to see Gina and recognize the same fashion sensibility that went into Miss Americana, just without nearly as striking a canvas. By the time Steve was dishing up a lasagna skillet and freeze-and-bake garlic bread, Gina was out and setting the table with two places, then pouring an incongruously nice wine for both of them.

"You'll have to take the leftovers," Gina told him as they sat down. "Sharl's dropping by tomorrow and he'll raid the refrigerator and make a mess." She took a sip of her wine and toyed with her fork, then picked up her bread and took a dainty bite from one edge.

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Steve had learned more table manners since his arrival on Earth-Prime, but he still showed no hesitation about avidly digging into his meal. At least he was relaxed enough to remind himself not to put any of the garlic bread aside for later. "He is quite eager to eat food that is not compatible with his systems," he agreed with a little smile at the expense of Gina's young assistant. "Perhaps he simply enjoys doing impossible things." He studied Gina across the table, her appearance a sharp contrast to his own. Hairless and covered in scars, even fully-dressed as he was he was an incongrous match for the carefully made-up Gina. He'd tried surprising her with unexpected visits a few times, but her carefully concealed distress at that had convinced him to go in another direction. He tried a compliment. "You are looking lovely tonight."

He swirled pasta around a fork before sticking it in his mouth, and said, "I have been thinking about our relationship."

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"Thanks," she told him, the slight twist to her smile making it clear that she didn't believe the words. Despite her general disdain for mirrors, Gina knew perfectly well what she looked like, and it certainly wasn't close to the beautiful superheroines they both worked with, and certainly not to the sculpted perfection of her own created counterpart. She came up to a sort of minimal adequacy when she worked hard enough at it, and that had to be enough. "I'm sure the lighting helps." Steve had turned on the overhead lights in the kitchen to cook, but she'd quickly employed the dimmer switch to give their meal some ambiance. She took another sip of wine and watched him eat. "What have you been thinking?" she asked, a note of caution creeping into her voice.

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"I have been thinking that we should be in public together," offered Steve carefully, or as carefully as the very blunt former drone could muster. He looked across the table at Gina, obviously trying to convince her of something he believed in, studying her for her own reaction in turn. "Either as you and me, or even as Miss Americana and me, if you would prefer. As more than just heroic allies. I am proud of you," he said with belief, "I am proud that we are together. Even if we do not broadcast it to the world, we could at least be in the world together with the meaning we have for each other."

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Gina considered that, her enhanced mind turning over options and possibilities much faster than the blinking of an eye. "Yes," she agreed complacently, "I suppose it wouldn't be much of a difficulty for us to have a public relationship in our heroic identities, or even you in your non-heroic identity. We do spend quite a bit of time together that way already, between me patching you up and all the diagnostics and schematics of Omegadrones we've made. It's the sort of relationship that could grow up naturally." She tapped her finger against her lips, considering. "There is the issue of ArcheTech and HAX technically being competitors, but Dragonfly and I already work together at the Lab and we've never had any problems. It's not as though I ask too closely what you're doing at work."

The idea of kissing and cuddling while inhabiting the robot body was strange and a little uncomfortable to Gina, but it wasn't as though he was asking for sloppy makeout sessions in public, she reasoned. Miss Americana and Harrier were both fairly reserved with their emotions, so no one would be expecting too much. And she could readily understand the social coup it would be for Steve as a man to be seen with the lovely Miss Americana on his arm. He'd made a lot of compromises to meet her where she was, literally, in terms of the relationship. Giving something back was only fair. "We'd have to be even more careful about meetings here, though. A public relationship will draw a great deal of attention, and I can't afford to have anybody finding my hideout."

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"I will be very careful," Steve promised. "I certainly would not want to sacrifice evenings with you for afternoons with Miss Americana." He sensed her vague unease, and pressed on, "I know it may make things strange, but I will not lose sight of you beneath the mask. We will take things one day at a time, as we have from the beginning." He'd thought of going out with Miss Americana as a compromise measure, and was relieved that Gina had embraced it rather than rejected. It would not be a normal relationship, but he knew those things were far beyond him anyway. "Perhaps one day we will do more, but that is a good first step."

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"Well, you can't get rid of me entirely anyway, the robot's not anatomically correct," Gina pointed out dryly. "There are some lines I don't believe in crossing, even for science." She seemed very complacent about the whole business, except in her fingers, which were busily shredding the crust of her barely-touched garlic bread into dust. "But I know spending all these evenings here has to be boring for you. Going out with Miss A should be anything but that. She's got no secondary identity, and she's not exactly easy to miss, so everything's going to be public with her. Do you know if you want to date her as Steve, as Harrier, as Caradoc, or some combination thereof?"

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"I would rather be myself for our dates," said Steve honestly. "A humble security guard dating Miss Americana will raise questions, but neither Harrier nor Caradoc will be a suitable companion for you." He reached across the table and took her hand. "They cannot touch you, and they would both attract attention for their own reasons." On the other hand, he supposed with a flash of dark humor, Miss Americana dating Harrier would certainly be a way to make sure they shared tabloid coverage: not that any of that was imaginably his goal. "The evenings I spend with you are never boring. I simply want to have more of them, and in different places."

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"Well, that will be a sure thing," Gina told him, in a voice that was very nearly rueful. "Miss A goes to a lot of red carpet events. I've been finding dignitaries and minor celebrities to escort her so far, but this will toss you right in on the deep end. We'll need to get you fitted for a tux and some new suits. I don't mind one way or the other, but if it will make you feel more comfortable, we can use cosmetics or technology to cover the visible scars when you're on the red carpet. I'm set for the VIP booth at the Opera House next weekend, ArcheTech is sponsoring a whole season of the Germanic operas. Do you want to go?" She set aside her full plate and took her pad computer from her pocket, jabbing at it with the stylus as she began making notes.

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Steve put his hands on his chin for a moment and seemed to be lost in thought as he faced the terrible prospect of everyone's eyes on him. "No. Let them see me for who I am," he said distinctly. "To be recognized for what I am is one thing, and that should certainly be avoided, but I do not want to hide in that way. But I would like to wear a tux, if only for a few nights. I have never worn anything more formal than a uniform." He had no plans to actually buy the tuxedo, but he thought it was unlikely Gina would ask him to pay anyway. "What is an opera?"

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"An opera is like a stage play... which is like a television show acted out in real time on a live stage," Gina added quickly, not sure Steve would understand plays either. "The audience sits in a large theater, many rows of seats and elevated boxes with the stage at the front. The actors stand on the stage and perform the story for the audience. In an opera, the performers are acting out a story, but instead of dialogue, they sing everything. In this case, they'll sing everything in German. It's interesting, but it can take some getting used to," she allowed. "The first opera in the series is Fidelio, by Beethoven, so that's lucky. You should find that a lot more accessible than The Ring Cycle. I'll find you a little book about it so you can read up beforehand. Opera is better when you have an idea of what everyone is singing about."

Gina smiled, a little amused that she should be talking about taking her boyfriend to see an opera, given where they'd both come from. "I endured a couple of years of singing lessons when I was younger," she told him, "and my teacher was very hung up on using opera as a talent. I absolutely butchered the Habanera from Carmen for at least six months before she gave up on me. These singers, though, are going to be very good. Do you prefer a double-breasted coat or... never mind, I'll take care of that part."

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"I have seen plays." He didn't elaborate. "And opera on television, but those were always large women in armor singing very loudly. I will be interested to see what one is actually like." He had learned, more than one, that despite how easy it was to see the world through television that it did not give an accurate depiction of human life. "I did not know you had taken singing lessons." Gina, in fact, had discussed her childhood with him extremely rarely, part of the unspoken pact that kept both their pasts off-limits. "Those are...for learning 'culture', yes?" he hazarded. "Like on Pride and Prejudice, where the women have learned music and poetry so they can find wealthy husbands."

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"Not exactly, but it's the same general idea," Gina said, so dryly that it had to be some sort of joke, even if it was one he couldn't understand. "Anyway, they didn't stick. I'm very nearly tone deaf unless I'm using a robot to hear. I can enjoy music, just not perform it."

She jotted a couple more notes, then set the pad aside. "The fat woman in the horned helmet is a parody of opera, she represents Brunhilde from Wagner's Ring Cycle. Which, incidentally, is playing sometime next year at the opera house as part of the series, but I'm going to make sure to be very busy. I like opera as much as the next uncultured engineer, but eighteen hours of it is a little much." She grinned at him conspiratorially. "At least in the VIP box, nobody can tell if you've pulled out your phone. Or gone to sleep."

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He grinned back with his oddly misshapen smile, though it was the smile that Gina knew meant he didn't really understand the joke. "It will be a fine time," he said, a little nervous as he contemplated the reality of all those eyes on him. It occurred to him, a little belatedly, that those eyes would surely remember the strange-looking man who dated Miss Americana when he was with some other woman, but he was too attached to this victory to give it up now. We have come forward impossibly far already. More will follow.

"I suppose I will have some questions to answer from my friends when they see me with Miss Americana," he said with a nervous laugh. "Hopefully they will believe our story. It is almost true."

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Gina waved a hand dismissively. "They shouldn't question it that much," she decided. "Neither of us has a romantic history that any of them would know about, and it's not like Harrier and Miss Americana haven't spent plenty of time together. Similar interests, and I'm sure your friends aren't going to be thinking of your history first and foremost when they look at you," she reasoned. "The strange factor, the one the public is going to pick up on, is going to be Miss Americana's superhuman pulchritude, but anybody who works with heroes long enough gets used to that. It's just that common in the business. Your friends will probably give you high fives and buy you a drink."

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"They will be very surprised that I am dating Miss Americana. I do not look like...the sort of man she would be with. But they will not pry," he judged. "They will accept it for what it is, and not go looking for the truth. As for that truth...will they ever know?" Steve asked Gina before he could stop himself. He regretted the words once they were out, but with the deed done pressed on with only a moment's hesitation. "I...I would ask nothing of you that you are unwilling to give, now or ever," he went on, looking across the table at her. "I am content with what we have had, and with the prospect of doing more together even through a disguise. But as things stand between us now, will there ever be a time that people can know what we are to each other?"

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"Why would you even want that?" Gina asked, her tone clipped. "Plenty of heroes aren't public with the secret identities of their lovers, even to the people they work with." She nudged her untouched plate of food in his direction, though the garlic bread was much too far gone to save. "This way you get the social boost of dating Miss Americana with none of the hassle of dealing with my panic attacks in public. In any case, it would be entirely impractical. You'll be making your personal life something for public consumption by dating Miss Americana. Anyone you date publicly after that would be subject to comparison and scrutiny that's bound to be quite unflattering. You really ought to consider the possibility that you have, in a sense, the best of both worlds."

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"All right," agreed Steve after a moment's hesitation. "I will not press the subject again." What right did he have to pressure her, anyway? With all that I am, and all that I have been. The feelings those thoughts gave him were reassuring, and almost comfortable. "It will be good to be out with you, even at one remove." He pressed on, adding, "And when I am recognized for what I am, which will happen when someone with experience with the Terminus watches television, there will be no...awkward questions for Miss Americana about being with something like me?"

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"None that I care about," Gina replied bluntly. She smiled a little, though without much humor. "I've spent the past year heading up a company whose last CEO literally turned into a sanity-warping monster and caused the death of hundreds of civilians around the world. He did this one year ago, in plain sight of the entire world. If the full story behind that incident got out, no one would ever trust ArcheTech products, patents, or personnel again. Despite all that, we've regained forty percent of our market share and almost that much of our favorable rating in consumer polls, largely due to the relentless public relations spin. After all that, do you think being seen with a man who was once a victim of Omega's forges would bother me at all?"

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Steve reflected on Gina's words for a moment, then said aloud, "I am not the worst thing that could happen to you." He actually smiled at that, one of the genuine ones that Gina had seen more than anyone else then living. "That makes me very happy." He savored the feeling. "Thank you, Gina." He knew Gina's eating habits were bizarre, so he took this opportunity to clear away both their plates and head for the kitchen. When he returned, with the dishes in Gina's very good electric dishwasher, his mood was still good, albeit sobered a little. "Gina, I want you to know something." He knelt down and looked her in the eye, keeping a discreet distance. "I have few years left to me. But I am very glad for the year we have had, and I hope to have all that we can together."

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Gina laughed at his comment about being the worst thing, leaning back and relaxing a bit as he carried the remains of the meal into the kitchen. Steve never wasted food, so she'd just go later when she was alone and warm up her supper from the fridge. "Only you," she told him, "would take that as such a great compliment. I like a guy who's easy to please."

Her grin lasted until he came back and knelt in front of her to say his piece. She looked startled for a moment, then confused and a bit concerned. "Normally I'd freak out over a statement like that and assume you were dying," she told him wryly, "but I'm also what passes for your doctor. I know for a fact you're in excellent health. Why would you assume you've only got a few years left?" Given his enhanced constitution and cyborg parts, it was entirely likely that, barring disaster, Steve would outlive her and most of the citizens of Freedom City. "You're not borrowing trouble, are you?"

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Steve looked confused himself for a moment, then got up again and sat next to Gina. "I have been dead a long time, Gina. I had thought before I met you that I would never live again, even for a moment." He looked away, then went on, "When we are together, I can usually forget the past and what has been, but other times, I close my eyes and I remember..." His hand on the table squeezed tight into a fist. "I feel guilt for what we have. That we have happiness. That I have happiness. When so many have suffered. When I have made so many suffer. So I remind myself that I will not die old, nor will I die in a bed. I will die fighting the Terminus."

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