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Love The One You're With (IC)


Avenger Assembled

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Busy as she was helping her still-in-the-doghouse sidekick organize his January expedition to Erde, Gina didn't see much of her boyfriend as the month of December rolled on and as the holiday season approached. Spending the holidays together was one thing they'd never really discussed, since for all she'd seen Steve didn't celebrate any Earth holidays. It certainly seemed like he was busy enough at HAX, or maybe with FLSCH, given that he wasn't coming over and wasn't calling. And indeed Steve was quite busy with his work at HAX and elsewhere, putting in time at the soup kitchen where he volunteered or just walking around as he took in Freedom City in December. His relationship with Gina, and with Miss A, was certainly on his mind, but there was so much else to deal with during the holidays in Freedom City. Dating Gina was a potentially dangerous thing with emotions occasionally so raw between them, and with her formidable mind always at work.

So he kept his distance, figuring it was better to do that than risk a blowup during the holidays. It wasn't that his feelings for Gina had changed, but he wanted to make sure she stayed happy. It was very important to him that she not think that anything had changed between them, and it was easier for him to believe that when they weren't together. Maybe it wasn't the right decision to make, but when he was honest with himself, his grasp of romantic behavior among people on Earth wasn't the best. So he walked the streets and worked late every night in December as the snow began to pile high on the streets around him, his mind occasionally going back to Gina as he wondered what she was doing.

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For her own part, it wasn't as though Gina didn't have a lot to do. A second terminally-ill child was just acclimating to his new robotic body at ArcheTech, and half-a-dozen research teams needed oversight and grant approvals as the end of the year approached, not to mention her own personal projects in her home lab. At The Lab, the D-Gray AI was fully scrubbed and needed some hand-holding as he built his strange new second life.The accountants for her own businesses and ArcheTech were calling every day with new questions and minor issues before tax season even geared up. And that was before she even thought of the dozens of holiday obligations, parties and fundraisers that demanded time and attention from the beautiful and charismatic Miss Americana. She kept very busy!

Despite all that, though, it was hard not to notice that she was spending more nights alone than she had since... well, since last year at this time, just before she and Steve had hooked up in the first place. It sucked being alone at the holidays, even if that just meant that there was nobody else in the house when you returned to your own body after hours away. Up until recently, it had seemed like Steve was insinuating himself into her life at a pace that was nearly uncomfortable, but now she hardly saw him. The extra food she'd started ordering by rote was beginning to pile up uneaten, the shoveled front walk went unused. She caught herself spending extra time at her bathroom mirror, the only mirror in the house, studying herself for an updated catalog of flaws and ugly places that might be enough to drive a lover away. That was stupid, she reminded herself, Steve's standards were obviously not that high. Far more likely that he was growing tired of her difficult personality. It had been almost a whole year, after all. That was a long time for anyone to hang in there on a painful and thankless task. Even an ex-Omegadrone could do better.

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Prompted by his conversations with Mara, Erin, and Jill, Steve finally did call Gina on the night of the 22nd. In retrospect he'd gone too far in his desire not to shake up their relationship with a lot of visits, avoiding her could cause as many problems for what they had together as being there too much. He certainly didn't want to make Gina unhappy with him, especially when so much was already going on in December and January. Making her upset now could ruin all their plans for the future. "Hello, Gina, it's me," he said on the phone in his usual dry, flat voice. "I was wondering if you'd like me to come over tonight. I have a supply of holiday-themed chocolates, and thought we could watch a Christmas movie." He fell silent at that, listening for her response patiently.

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The ringing phone caught Gina up to her elbows in red silk taffeta, half-buried in the voluminous skirt of one of Miss Americana's gowns. She snagged the phone and scooped it to her shoulder, rather surprised to hear Steve's voice on the other end. "Oh, tonight, huh?" Her eidetic memory displayed the evening's activities with crystal clarity: an important reception for ArcheTech's biggest investors and backers, followed by a $5000 per ticket charity ball where she'd promised to make an appearance. The Saturday before Christmas was a day that had been booked on Miss A's social calender for months.

"Sure, that sounds good," she told him, dumping the gown onto a worktable. "Come on over whenever, I've got a pizza to put in the oven for dinner. And I've got your present."

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"And I have something for you as well," Steve promised without hesitation. If he showed any sign of thinking about what an important day this was for a social butterfly like Miss Americana, he showed no sign of it as he spoke to her handler. "I will see you tonight, Gina." And sure enough, around the eight o'clock that was his usual time Steve marched up Gina's shoveled walkway with box of chocolates under one arm and wrapped present under the other. It had been a while since he'd seen Gina's house but there was no mistaking its familiar shape in the darkness. He wondered where Gina's electronic sidekick was today, but supposed that wasn't too likely to be an issue. Since catching the two of them together, Sharl had generally avoided Gina's house at night. Particularly with him with such ruffled relations with his mentor, too. Steve had heard all about that, taking note of how upset Gina had been about her security being violated. Was that why he'd stayed away, in retrospect? It was tough to say.

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The garage door opened as he approached, programmed to detect and allow his particular shape and facial features through the home's security network. He was met at the door by Emerson or one of its robot twins, flashing a message across its dome. I'll be right up. There was Christmas music playing on the stereo, and the air smelled of baking cookies. Obviously Gina had gone some out of her way for this visit.

Downstairs in her workroom, Gina was miles away at the fancy reception when she received warning that her perimeter had been breached by a friendly. Despite everything she'd wanted to do at home, she couldn't just not show up at the ArcheTech reception, not if she wanted to keep the investors happy until the business started showing a profit again! Miss Americana quickly excused herself from the gathering, pleading an important breakthrough on a research project, and sealed herself in her private office for the night. The second the gynoid was shut down, Gina was rising from her chair, cracking her back and heading upstairs. "Hey, I wasn't sure what time you'd come by. Sorry I got caught up."

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"It's all right, I know you're very busy," said Steve seriously. "HAX has been very demanding of my time as well this season. I am glad we could get together now. Here, I bought you some things for the season." He handed her first the box of chocolates, then the weighty present. "I know these things are very important for the holidays, and I didn't want you to miss out on anything." He looked around the house for a moment, smelling the air and nodding with satisfaction. From the sound of whirring robots in the corner to the soft glow of computers, it was just as he remembered. With a few additions! "It smells good here. How have you been?" he asked her with a smile that seemed to stretch his lined face.

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"Oh, keeping busy, you know how it goes." Gina waved a hand, dismissing the many balls she was keeping in the air. Talking about them would just be boring, and most of it would go over his head anyway. "Lots of research, lots of Christmas parties, lots of fundraising. It's really nothing like I imagined it would be when I decided to get into superheroing. But I guess we all serve in our own way."

She took the chocolates and set them aside for later, then regarded the present with curious interest. "Wow, this thing weighs a ton. I wonder what it is! I've got your present in the other room, I'll show you in just a minute." Without regard for propriety, she tore the wrapping paper off the present, tugging off the bow and placing it jauntily on Emerson's dome.

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There was a card showing a smiling bunny rabbit on a snowy field on the outside, signed with Steve's erratic block printing. "To Gina, From Steve." The box turned out to hold a snow globe from the New Year's 2012, a big fluffy one with sparkly white 'snow' on the inside and the date 2012 prominently painted on the glass cover over the model Freedom City within. It was real glass, too, this was not a cheap snow globe but rather a legitimate work of art, mounted in what looked like a real wood-carved frame. "I bought it as a commemoration of the beginning of our relationship. It was on eBay." He gave her a very serious look, and said, "I wanted you to know that our relationship is very important to me. That it is is very meaningful, and that it should not be forgotten. Do you agree?"

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Gina took the snowglobe from the box and studied it, turning it over in her hands. From anyone else she might have taken it as a backhanded commentary on how she chose to live, sealed in a bubble of safety, but Steve didn't have that kind of subtlety in him. From him, well, it was still tacky as all hell, but at least his heart was in the right place. Unless he'd realized at the last minute that he should have a gift and had just grabbed something at random, then made up a story about it...

She shook the snowglobe and watched the flakes swirling around the garish little city and listened to his speech. Should not be forgotten? Was there some danger of that? Ignoring the unpleasant churning in her stomach, she nodded. "Yeah, nearly a year now, hard to believe. Hey, why don't you go and check out your present? I set it up in the guest room, go have a look."

She'd needed the whole room to spread out the gift she'd arranged for him, an entire wardrobe created by the same designers who created Miss Americana's custom wardrobe. The room was full of everything from silk boxers and merino blend socks to blue jeans and polo shirts, to suits, a pair of black tuxes, and a full white tie and tails ensemble. A dozen pairs of shoes sat on the floor next to the bed, everything from tennis shoes to wingtips to steel-toed and cold weather pairs of boots. Gina followed Steve down the hall so she could see him take it all in. "I figured if I wanted you to go to events with Miss Americana, you should have the clothes you need, and once the designers had your measurements, I just sort of let them go where they wanted... do you like it?"

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"I do like it," Steve assured her, his back to her as he walked into the room to run his scarred hands over the fine clothes. He could tell at first glance how well made they all were. A perfect fit, most likely, given Gina's experience with his measurements and her intelligence. "There are well-made, and beautiful to look at. I am grateful that you had them made for me." He turned and walked to her, giving her that serious look again. "I would dress however you wanted to be with some version of you where others can see. But I am glad you have dressed me this way." A faint smile tugged at his lips, briefly, before he went on. "But what about _this_?" he asked her, putting his hand on her heart, and then on his. "What about what we have when no one can see?"

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Gina took a half-step back, shifting her weight uneasily to her trailing foot as she weighed the question. "Just because I don't go out with you in public doesn't mean this isn't important," she reminded him. "You're really getting the best of both worlds. You wouldn't want to be with me the way that I am when I have to go outside. Interfacing through the robot lets me be my best self instead of some neurotic wreck who can barely drive a car, let alone run a company. If I could be her all the time, I would be, for both my sake and yours, but the technology isn't there yet. Still, I think we've been making do pretty well so far. A whole year, right?" She tried a smile to hide the nerves, but had a feeling it was more like a grimace.

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"We have made it a year," Steve agreed with a nod, having had good cause to pay close attention to the date in the recent past. "And your robot disguise holds no terrors for me," he assured her with complete frankness, reinforcing a subject he'd never actually engaged her on. The thought of her disguising herself as the beautiful gynoid, given the manifold frailities of her human body, was only logical. "I would not force you to walk the streets as the woman you are, knowing how you feel. I am grateful for your present. Those clothes will let me do things, be a man, I otherwise could not be. But if I am to go beyond what I have been for your sake, and for mine, don't you think we should take that step beyond what we have been...together?"

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This evening was not going at all as Gina had thought it would. Why would Steve ditch her for weeks at a time, then come back and start making all this noise about anniversaries and... and togetherness, and sounding as though he was fumbling his way towards asking for a commitment she wasn't ready to make? It didn't make sense, even for Steve's screwed-up version of sense. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked up at him, her puzzlement plain on her face. "I'm not sure what it is you're driving at," she told him. "What sort of step are you suggesting?"

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Steve flinched; his shoulders seeming to slump at Gina's words. "I...perhaps it was a mistake to bring it up at all." He looked away, composing himself as he seemed to give up on something he'd been holding onto. "I had thought that things might be different after all this time, with all we have done for each other, but if it cannot be done, it cannot be done, and mere words will not change the facts. I will not ask you to say or do things that are beyond your power to do, even if they are things that I desire myself. I have stayed away because I knew I would...hurt you if I came too close. I...I love you, Gina." Silence fell, something he was evidently content to let lie in Gina's quiet house forever.

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Gina froze, her own arms suddenly feeling like iron bands as they constricted her chest and squeezed the oxygen from her lungs. She had no idea what to do or say, what to do with her face, her hands, her body besides standing there like a moron while he stared at her. Love? How could he love her? The very idea was ridiculous, laughable. Just look at her! In her distracted state, thought became deed, and suddenly she was in the house cameras, looking down at her own stupid stunned face, the big eyes, the slack jaw. It was horrifying, and surely Steve was already thinking better of the words!

She found her way back into her body before her knees could buckle, snatching in a breath of air in a room that suddenly seemed devoid of oxygen. There were already little spots dancing in front of her eyes, and she was afraid that if she didn't do something, she was just going to make her humiliation complete and pass out on the spot. "I... I have to go." She turned and bolted from the room, all but diving across the hall and into the safety of her own bedroom, with the door shut behind her.

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Steve walked to her closed door and said simply, "I will see you again," before he turned and headed for the door. Perhaps his handling had been rough, but the ending had gone as well as he could expected. Gina and Steve's relationship had always been a very complicated one, but taking it to the next level, even in words alone, would more than suit his purposes for the moment. And if she chooses to break it off, or never see me again? The thought wasn't a pleasant one, it certainly wasn't one that would please the heart of the former Omegadrone. If she does, well, then I will have learned all I need to know about this relationship. It was a cold thought, but as Steve braced himself against the chill outside, he decided that it was a very cold night.

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