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August 15, 2015 

Hanover 

Steve had slept poorly that night, a victim of bad dreams and worse memories - but this was not uncommon. Luckily, sleep was something he rarely needed. He was up much earlier than Gina and in the kitchen, cooking shirtless since he didn't worry about the spatter from the electric stove. Particularly not with what Gina preferred to eat - which usually didn't require the use of the nearly spotless stove at all. Toaster strudel went in the toaster and Fountain Mist from the soda machine, and within a few minutes he had Gina's favored breakfast. After some consideration, he took the eggs and potatoes from the previous night and reheated them in the microwave. When it was done, he had breakfast all ready for her - and for himself as well. With his limited sense of taste, he usually ate whatever she was eating, albeit in considerably larger quantities. 

While he waited for her to wake up, he took a seat at the table and began paging through the phone that was a present from her, digging out that day's weather report. It would be cool, for Freedom City in August, beginning the day at seventy degrees and not rising much above eighty even at the day's height. With clear, dry skies forecast and a breeze coming in off the ocean, it was by all accounts a good day to go outside. With things having settled down recently, and Steve himself having returned from his exile in 19th century Utah, it was a good time, he had decided the night before, to change things for the better. 

 

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The smell of breakfast had Gina stumbling in within a few minutes, her hair wildly tousled from sleep, her eyes still half-closed. She picked up the glass of soda from the table and drained the entire thing in long swallows, shuddering a little as she finished. "Whew. I gotta stop staying up all night in the lab. Poor Miss A's having a sleepover in her office. As her eyes and mind began to focus, she looked over the spread on the table. "This is nice... did I forget some kind of special occasion?" Highly unlikely, since for all her faults Gina never forgot anything, but sometimes Steve imputed meaning to the damndest happenings. She'd hate to miss the anniversary of the date they both sat on the couch together for the first time or something. 

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"Not yet," Steve said with a small smile. He pushed the meal her way and ate, concentrating on his own repast. He had learned to eat slowly, the better to encourage conversation - and the better to make sure Gina could eat her own meal in his company. "What are your plans for today?" he asked in an unsubtle sort of way as they dug into their breakfast together. "I know Miss Americana will not be needed until later in the day, and you said your next tournament was not for another two weeks." He didn't really understand Gina's online games, but they meant something to her and so they meant something to him. Still talking, he seemed to change the subject - but his mind was still on the very same thing. "These are the final days and weeks of your summer," he went on seriously, as if gravely discussing an imminent catastrophe. "Soon the rains will fall, and perhaps the snow, and the streets of Freedom City will be cold, its skies dark with cloud."  

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Gina shrugged, drizzling icing over her toaster strudel. She was very precise with her lines, so that the completed pastry looked as though it were topped with a circuit diagram. "I dunno, got some projects I haven't been able to work on for awhile, the responsive home theater lighting in the living room, designing Miss A's winter wardrobe for this year, tweaking my private investment portfolio. Maybe do a quick pass as Cyberknife, make sure nobody's sneaking around online where they shouldn't be. Maybe just sit around in my pajamas all day and play Minecraft. Could go either way." She glanced up as she took a bite. "How about you?" 

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"I have made a plan," said Steve, folding his hands over the table. "After we eat, you and I can go outside together. The day is fair, but not so fair that the neighborhood will swarm with pedestrians. This is our best opportunity to go outside before the end of summer." He looked levelly at her across the table, knowing he didn't need to remind her of her promise. "After that, we can shower, and I can read while you use the Internet." It would make things a pretty typical day off for both of them - with the exception of that voyage to the streets. "I have been reading field guides to the natural life of Freedom City. We can keep our eyes open for certain birds, and small mammals, and perhaps if we are fortunate, the city's own flowers growing in the green lawns hereabouts."  

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"Are you serious?" Gina's face fell, and then her head fell as well, as she thudded her forehead lightly against the table. "I thought you wanted to do something fun, and instead we're having a "Let's work on Gina's issues" encounter-session day? That sounds like a way more productive use of my time than any of the actually enjoyable things I was planning on." But she didn't actually come right out and say no. She'd made the stupid promise, she was over a barrel, and she knew it. That didn't mean she was going to submit with any kind of grace, however. "It's gross out today, anyway, the dew point temperature's like 65 degrees." She pushed away her plate, suddenly much less enthused about her intricate toaster strudels. 

Edited by Electra

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Finished with his own food, Steve stood up, keeping the low rumble of his voice even. "I will find something to wear." He had a substantial wardrobe of clothes thanks to Gina's good offices, and he knew she liked seeing him in them. Once in the bedroom, he paged through the neatly ordered clothing on its hanging racks, looking for just the right outfit, then headed for the bathroom so Gina could dress herself without his presence in the room. He knew that might make her feel more uncomfortable than she already was. He had picked blue jeans and a red T-shirt that Gina had previously said went well with his dark skin, donning the clothes then studying himself thoughtfully in the mirror. He was never any judge of these things. With a sigh, he stepped out of the room to go looking after his partner. It would not be an easy day, he was confident, but it would be a good day nonetheless. 

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Though Steve did not hurry through his dressing process, by the time he was finished dressing, there was no sign that Gina was anywhere close to finished. She'd shut him out of the master bedroom, but occasionally he could hear muttered curse words and the closet door opening or shutting. Running water in the master bathroom, a quick conversation by phone with someone who needed advice from Miss Americana, more silence, more cursing. Finally, after more than an hour, Gina slumped out into the hallway, looking like someone ready to be led to the gallows. She'd put on a pair of baggy blue jeans and a blouse a size too big, done her makeup flawlessly, then obscured it with a giant straw sunhat. "How long do we have to do this?" she demanded gracelessly. 

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"Around the block," suggested Steve as he headed for the door, Gina slowly following him. "We can take in the scenery and enjoy the weather." He didn't add greeting the neighbors, knowing how Gina felt about the idea of getting to know the people with whom she shared block space. That would come on the outside, if she opened up. Probably. He opened the door and stepped out into the sunlight of what was by all appearances a perfectly pleasant Freedom City summer morning. He stayed on the concrete stoop ouside, giving Gina her space inside the door. "You look beautiful," he told her as she stepped out into the sunlight to join him. "There is a red flower in a lawn on the other side of the block," he told her, "I've been wanting to show it to you so I might plant it in our garden." How strange it was, even now when it was just the two of them, to use the word our! 

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Gina followed Steve to the door, but hesitated before crossing the threshold, her petulant anger dissolving away in the face of actually stepping outdoors. She'd left the house a couple of weeks ago to talk to the psychologist, even though she'd never mentioned that to Steve, but it had been different. Garage to tinted-window car, car to secured elevator, a quick walk down an empty corridor. when her attention was so focused on manipulating both herself and the robot that she'd barely had time to panic. Walking out into the sunshine, into a public thoroughfare, out where people were going to see her... not ready. Not to mention sorely out of practice.

The curtains moved in the window of the house across the way. A car passed by, driving unusually slowly so the driver could look around. Everyone was looking. Everyone was going to watch her make a fool of herself yet again. Gina rocked back and forth on her heels, cupping her elbows with her hands. She would've made some sardonic, quippy remark to take focus off the fact she was acting like a complete nutcase, but her mouth was too dry right now. 

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Silence fell as Steve turned back to Gina, and understanding spread through him. No talking. Not now. There was only one thing to do now. Steve offered her his hand wordlessly, knowing that pulling her out certainly wouldn't help anything. The heat of the day was nothing; the sun on his bald head was nothing. He would stand there, silently, waiting for her, until she was ready to come out - however long that took. She was suffering in a way that very few people he knew would understand - but it was suffering all the same. And that is something I know only too well. This was a small step outside; a giant one for Gina. 

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Time stretched out, thirty endless seconds, then a minute, but Steve's hand never even wavered. Finally Gina reached out and put her hand in his, exposing her fingers to the naked sun. Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she stepped over the threshold and off the stoop, till she stood with him on the sidewalk. "I don't think I can do this," she whispered, her voice raspy. "It's too hard." 

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"When I was taken away to the depths of space, you built a machine to bring me back to you. When I was cast into the depths of time, you were there to greet me when I came home." He squeezed her hand lightly and said, "There is nothing too hard for you." The words were said with a lover's faith - and belief. He took a step, carefully, making sure she had the feeling of walking with him rather than being dragged. They were on the sidewalk in what was to anyone's eyes simply a suburban street in Earth-Prime; but it was a place of fear for the woman he loved. "I have heard of another Hanover," he said, his voice cast to distract her from what lay around them. "From the boy in the Goodman Building, the dimensional exile. Where all this is one vast forest, and the beasts of the wild hunt here still. I prefer this one." 

A car passed by, an electrician's minivan, passing them on their side of the street on its way down towards one of Gina's neighbors. 

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Gina flinched at the sound of the car, though her eyes were still closed, and hid herself behind Steve's considerable bulk. "Fear is the mind killer," she muttered under her breath, quick and staccato like a prayer. "Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to... permit it... goddamn it, I have an eidetic memory, why is this so hard?" Steve could feel Gina's pulse hammering in her wrist like a trapped thing beneath her skin, could see the sickly sheen of perspiration on her face. By now they were approximately fifteen feet from the front door of the house, standing on the empty sidewalk. 

She forced her eyes open, squinted against the sun, then hid beneath her hat. "What now?" she demanded curtly. 

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"We continue our walk," said Steve, doing his best to be reassuring. There was no point, for example, in telling her just how far they had to go. He took up a position with himself on the outside of the sidewalk and Gina on the inside; eventually she would be thinking more about the gaze of people inside their houses, but for the most part it was the cars that were her nemesis now. He kept talking, pulling up words from nowhere as they went down the road together. Normally he was one to let silences stay empty, but not today when GIna's fear was filling in the empty places in the conversation for her - and to the peril of her peace of mind. "Your neighbor across the way has grown a large structure out of bushes in his front yard that you might find intriguing; Sharl said it was a patriotic symbol from your nation's history." 

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"Sharl has weird views on patriotism," Gina muttered, her fingers like steel bands around his arm as she let him guide her. "But that guy across the street is a jackass. He almost makes me want a homeowners association except that would be insane." She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, took a couple of deep breaths, and forced her eyes open, then spent another minute blinking away the dazzle from the sunlight. "It's the Liberty Bell," she told Steve, after risking a quick glance across the street. "Cut the crack in there and everything. What a terrible thing to do to a nice bush." Her words were too low, too fast, but at least she was talking and not running. "Wow, that was a lot of innuendo for a couple of sentences. Don't suppose I could keep going and talk you into going back inside for a nice make-out session?" 

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Steve could tell some of Miss Americana's mannerisms were slipping into Gina in the outside. Gina generally did not use the word "make-out" sessions to describe their sex life. "We can discuss that later in intimate detail - perhaps on your desk." He had a feeling this would not be a day that ended that way, but for a chance to take Gina outside he was willing to make the sacrifice. He kept them moving, not wanting her to linger too long in one spot and growing affrighted of it. "Almost five years we've been doing that," he commented. Emotion came, suddenly, perhaps drawn by Gina's emotional nakedness. "I would by now have died on Nihilor but for you." 

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"That's a limited time offer, pal," Gina muttered at his refusal, hunching up her shoulders like she could cover her head with them if she tried hard enough. Being told not tonight, or not today as the case may be, was another of her many touchy areas, but it was almost subsumed under the consuming need to just not be outside anymore. When he started talking about death, about Nihilor, she scrubbed her face with both hands, rubbing the heels of her palms over her closed eyes. "Christ. I can't imagine being with me and doing the hero schtick has improved your odds of survival all that much. Stuff we do is stupid dangerous. You'd be better off with some woman who's actually a computer programmer, and actually sane, and just... much, much better." She reversed course without turning around, suddenly taking tiny backwards steps towards the house. 

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Steve quietly interposed himself between Gina and her house, so that she either had to stop or bump into his broad chest. He could see her emotions being pulled tight, and wanted to keep himself from making matters worse. "I am better off with you." He hugged her, then released her - claustrophobia was definitely not one of Gina's problems, but being boxed in sometimes was. "If we go back that way," he suggested, pointing in the other direction that meant finishing their journey, "we will be home in nearly as much time, and we can see the remainder of the block." Gina's home block was not very large; a typical residential block in this part of Freedom City. 

Edited by Avenger Assembled

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"This block is stupid and boring," Gina muttered, but her steps changed direction once again. If she kept acting this way, she told herself, she was just going to attract even more intolerable attention. She probably already looked like a complete freak, the least she could do was not make it worse. Somehow she managed to pick her head up and lengthen her stride a little, so that she only looked like a woman being led to the gallows. "I picked it for that reason. Nothing interesting happens here, nobody would ever look twice at it. That's why it's perfect, and why I never need to bother to go outside. Also I think my allergies are starting to flare up." 

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"Hmm." Steve didn't comment on that as they continued down the sidewalk together, the normality of the day a sharp contrast to the abnormality of the two of them. "It is a typical block in this neighborhood." And Steve should know - he'd walked them all at one time or another, usually in the dead of night when Gina was asleep but his own demons kept him away. "But it is pleasant for all of that. The trees are in their last green stages, and the flowers do yet bloom." He bent down and plucked one of his favorite flowers of Earth-Prime, a pretty yellow dandelion, and handed it to Gina. "As beautiful as you." 

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Gina frowned at him, momentarily able to sublimate the feelings of exposure under a general annoyance. "You know those are weeds, right?" she asked. "Though I guess I can't get mad at you for paying me false compliments, so that's something." She took it anyway, but could barely keep from crushing it between the fingers she couldn't stop kneading together. "Tell me something interesting that's not about any of this. What did you do at work this week? Anything going on at HAX I should know about that's not protected by your NDA?"

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"It was Take Your Daughter To Work this week, so Yolanda was visiting." He had never quite mastered the use of the young woman's nickname. Though she had always thought it amusing when he called her "Yolo" instead of "Yoyo", he preferred the name the young woman had been given. "She watched Mara build for a time, but she was more interested in demonstrating her combat prowess to me. After that, there was an adventure where one of the technicians manufactured a thinking, mobile armchair and I had to sit on it while we evaluated its sentience. Fortunately, it was no smarter than an insect, and so they could continue their work without fear of a sentient mind. I should offer something to Sharl Tulink to thank him for his help," he went on, on that subject. "What do young people from his civilization like?" 

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"Eating terrible food and sassing me," Gina muttered. "At least to go by the representative sample I had access to  I've got some upgrades make for his holosynthesizer, you can give him the new version once it's ready, if you want. He should actually be able to ingest food and dematerialize it to energy so that it doesn't spill out all over everywhere. A gift to both of us, really." She grimaced, and barely noticed the houses they were passing, at least until she thought about how she was barely noticing them, whereupon they jumped back to the front of her mind once more. "We really should've done this at night. It's too hot." 

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"You can bathe when we are finished," Steve suggested. "Cucumber melon is very pleasant." He trudged along behind her, close enough that he was with her without giving her the feeling of being pushed. "Your sun is beautiful. it burns so cleanly in the sky, so free of contamination." He looked up at the star overhead for a moment longer than a man could have held. "Other news. Erin White will be wed soon. She has invited me to 'whatever we wind up doing'." Gina knew that extending an invitation to Steve did not always mean he actually came. "Erik has offered me a position at his school. Only in the afternoons when you are at Archetech and I am not guarding HAX," he clarified. "As an alternate teacher of the smaller children. I do not know if I will accept," he confessed. 

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