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Geez3r

Can't Change Their Stripes

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Eric had been out of prison for over well over a week by this point, and he was still staggered by how much the city had changed in his absence.  Not only were entire buildings simply not where they once stood, it seemed like everything that stood in the same spot was different.  And the cellphones were everywhere.  Sure they had been popular before he was locked up, but not every 5 year old had to have one.  He didn't recognize anything on the radio anymore, and he certainly knew nothing about what was on TV anymore.  In short, he felt old and out of place.  The constant death threats didn't do much for his self esteem either. 

Now it would be rather in keeping of character to just bottle up those emotions and deal with it, but Eric had been down that road before, and frankly no one wanted that to happen again.  So he made a few calls to try to see if there was someone who he could talk to, who had gone through this before.  Turns out there was.  And so Eric had donned his finest suit (at least of the variety that didn't come with a power supply), and invited his guest of honor to a rather swanky restaurant.  He was initially surprised he got a reservation so quickly, but he figured the owners might feel that he would take vengeance if they were to snub him, an opinion Eric felt no immediate need to correct.  He had arrived early, getting a requested table in one of the darker areas of the restaurant, his mechanical fingers idling drumming on the table while he waited. 

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Natalya Browning was easy enough to get word to. The once-thief had a very public face that she presented to the world. Considering her assorted history, that was likely just one facet of many but at least it made contacting her easy enough. That she'd agreed to meet wasn't all that surprising. Talya had nothing but time on her hands lately, and there weren't all that many villains looking to go straight. Fewer of them maintained the course. Perhaps Talya merely wished to see which side of the aisle the one-time Malice might fall on. 

Regardless of her reasons, she showed up exactly on time, cutting an elegant swath through the dining room in her traditional black. The dress brushed the floor but a slit up the side ensured mobility in case things went significantly south. Hopefully it wouldn't as Talya was very fond of the pair of high heels she was wearing. 

"Mr. Michaels," Talya said as she reached the edge of the table, offering one hand. Her voice was low, husky and a slow smile curved Talya's lips, "How do you do?"

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Eric's eyes went wide as Natalya made her appearance, but he was gentlemanly enough to regain his composure in short order.  "Ms. Browning, a pleasure to meet you, and I must say you look positively stunning." replied Eric stating the obvious as he shook her hand with his own mechanical one, which was surprisingly gentle and a fair bit warmer than Natalya was likely to be expecting.  "Please, have a seat." he said as he pulled the chair out for Natalya.  "I did not forget all of my manners, but I make no promises on remembering which fork is which." he added with a wry smile before taking his own seat. 

"I'm... glad to be breathing fresh air again." replied Eric after he weighed his words a little.  There was clearly more to it than that, but he seemed to at least want to attempt to get through all of the pleasantries first as he continued "I just want to thank you for agreeing to meet with me, especially on such short notice."

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Talya inclined her head, the gesture oddly regal as she accepted the compliment with a quiet, "Thank you," before accepting the gesture of being seated. Rather than lift the menu, Talya crossed her long legs and turned her full attention on her erstwhile companion for this meal. "It takes time to adjust. Even if you happened to be in the habit of taking more day trips than was, perhaps, entirely sanctioned by those in charge."

A faint, sardonic smile curved Talya's lips. It was, after all, very difficult to keep the thief a place she wasn't willing to be for very long. Finally breaking eye contact, she lifted her slender shoulder in a negligent shrug, "You owe me no thanks. I've seen the news - I imagine that you have few things in life right now going smoothly or pleasantly. I am happy to provide a respite in that. I wouldn't say that EVERYONE deserves a second chance - I'm not that altruistic - but I don't live in a world of black and white. My world has always been grey."

She lifted the water glass then to her lips, only to add, "And please, call me Natalya."
 

Edited by alderwitch

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Eric could not help but chuckle and shake his head as Tayla rather skillfully got straight to the heart of the matter.  "I suppose my intentions for tonight were more than a little transparent?"  replied Eric seeing no reason to hide the matter.  "And since we're being so familiar, please call me Eric." he continued extending her the same courtesy she had to him, sounding quite relived to do so. "Yes, the difference between life inside those walls and life outside has smacked me in the face a little harder than I anticipated.  Off the record..." he started, dropping his voice. "The first morning after I got out, I sat in my bedroom for over an hour before I realized I could leave whenever I wanted to." he admitted. 

Eric reached for his own glass of water, but abruptly stopped as a thought occurred to him.  He folded his arms on the table in front of him before he took his turn to gaze at his dinner companion.  "What made me one of the grey, and not one of the black?"

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"You're Schrodeinger's grey, my darling, grey assumed until you prove otherwise," Talya offered back, smiling over the rim of her water glass. The endearment in her clipped British accent was clearly an affectation although her tone remained cordial. "I am a decent judge of character. You turned yourself in. You were clearly chosen to be the poster child of this reformation process which means that they have a great many evaluations that say you're unlikely to blow up large chunks of the city in the very near future. Now, evaluations can be faked, of course - I certainly have misled any number of people over the years. You're very bright, clearly, so it's something you could do."

She paused, touching the waterglass to her red, red lips before setting down, "But you did call me. Anyone engaging in a sham for the masses is unlikely to have thought of that."

Talya spread her elegant hands wide, the deceptively delicate knuckles of her hands bare of rings or jewelry, "Which means you have either come to test me out to see just how deep my reformation goes - unlikely. You're not in need of any of my skills. So, I have to assume that you've called for the only other possible reason."

Her blue gaze was very direct then, the keen understanding of the woman that had played cat and mouse with the Reich and won more often than not. It was the sort of gaze she usually hid behind flirtation and verbal fencing - a direct gaze but not one without empathy, "You're trying to find someone - anyone - who's been where you are. The blood on your hands. Life after life inside a cage. Understanding, not absolution. Am I close?"

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"Innocent until proven guilty.  Heard those words rather frequently, only recently have I seen them acted upon." replied Eric nodding.  "But you pretty much hit the nail on the head.  If only everyone else could take a moment to think through the course of actions that lead to my release, they would see that I'm either playing a very long game or actually innocent.  Instead they follow their baser instincts, and demand further retribution for my past misdeeds."  he started, a bit of a bite creeping into his tone as he eyebrows furrowed into a scowl.  He let out a frustrated sigh and his shoulders drooped a little.  "Much as I hate them for it, I can't blame them either.  I've been where they are and I've gone to the places where those thoughts take you."  he said looking past Natalya more than at her.  "People see me walking around, a free man and they feel that the system has failed them.  That feeling turns law abiding citizens into people who think that they're above the law.  I don't want to be someone else's start of darkness.  How do you look people like that, people that you've hurt, in the eye and tell them that their anger isn't justified?"

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"You don't - at least, I don't, but then our situations are a little different. The darkest things I've done were all on the side of the angels," Talya said, her thumb rubbing along the delicate glass of her goblet. Her gaze dropped to the movement, thoughtful as she sifted through years and years of memories. "Most of my official 'crimes', I can't honestly say I regret. I stole things from very rich people that failed to appreciate them. I can't say that my personal moral compass finds that problematic. Some people say it's a flaw in my character."

She smiled faintly, her gaze flicking back up, "But the war. Oh, the war. Yes, I've hurt people and had to look into their eyes afterwords. That fades with time but the memories... the memories you keep forever." Talya flipped one hand up, the gesture elegant, "For the short term, you build a public facade that is utterly rock solid. You keep your answers short and you come up with them long before the questions get asked. You make that facade as natural as the real you. More, in some ways. Then you let that be the buffer between who you are and what they need you to be."

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Eric chewed on his tongue as Natalya laid out her strategy.  I should have expected this.  She is a thief and a spy after all. he thought to himself as he made a conscious effort not to look her in the eyes as he took a sip of water.  He turned his attention back to her, trying to keep his voice as muted as possible "I appreciate the advice but... I don't think that would work for me.  Out of everything involved in this... life, the part that always was the hardest was hiding who I was."  He sat up straighter and this time made sure to look intently into Natalya's eyes.  "At any point in my career, I was sure of what I was doing.  I was sure that I was being the man that I needed to be.  When I was apprehended, it meant that I no longer needed that facade.  For the first time in years, I was I.  To go back now that I'm, and pardon the use of your phrase, on the side of the angels is incomprehensible to me." 

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"Then you'll have to find a way to manage it. There's a reason that many keep something private and it isn't just for those that have vulnerable dependents," Talya offered with a nod of her head. She was well aware by this point that her style of coping was not for everyone. There even could have been an argument made that it wasn't even entirely healthy for her but some habits were ingrained bone deep by now. Talya rested her chin on her hand and eyed Eric for a long moment.

"For one, if you are always you, how do you decide when to rest? There is someone, without question, needing help at all times of the day - day in, day out. Right now, I imagine there's any hapless civilian being accosted in an alley somewhere - just in Freedom City." Talya offered, her gaze thoughtful, "It is very, very easy to run yourself mad trying to even the tally marks. Do all the good you can without break or respite. And it is a Sisyphean task, my friend, nothing actually wipes the slate clean, you know."

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"I may be more notorious for my work in the fields of science, but I was also a businessman for many years; I am quite familiar with the concept of diminishing returns."  he replied in response to her comment about finding an off switch.  "I have always been in tune with my limitations.  I know I cannot be everywhere and I cannot save everyone, all I can do is prepare.  Because my talents are technical in nature, rather than through training, mysticism or some other boon that sometimes to be prepared, I literally have to sit in my lab and do my homework." he said, spreading his arms wide.  "But turning to the other matter, I think we might be at an impasse at this point." replied Eric after a moment's contemplation.  "If I did not think I could be redeemed, I would have stayed in jail." he said simply.  "Earlier, you said that there were those who were beyond redemption.  I don't believe that.  Certainly, it is far easier to fall than it is to rise, but I think that's why we allow that concept into our minds in the first place.  If there is a limit to how much I can accomplish in my life, then that means that the amount of good or ill I can do is finite.  And even if I were to die, as a scientist, my work lives on after I die, laying the foundation for progress in the future."  replied Eric, while also starting to wonder if the waiter was ever going to make an appearance. 

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"I didn't say that you can't make the net-worth of your life a positive rather than a negative - just that nothing makes it ever go away," Talya clarified with a shake of her head, "Redemption, certainly, can be found. Without a doubt. You can always choose to turn away and walk a better path. A brighter path. But you can't ever actually change where your journey started. It is very easy to become Lady MacBeth, ever scrubbing at the bloodstains only you can see."

She gave a flick of her fingertips to dismiss the subject, "Ah, but those are words of wisdom for a later point in your journey. Let us return to the point at hand, the immediate, which concerns how to interact with the public without running mad - and also without my personal preference of delicate compartmentalization. Hm." 

Talya paused to tap one elegant fingertip against her lips. "Well, do you want advice on how to be accepted more quickly or how to soldier on through the worst of it?"

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Eric contemplated for a moment.  He was about to answer when the waiter finally made their appearance.  He was young clean-shaven man, probably only in their mid-twenties, but never the less carried themselves with an air of professionalism that only came with years of experience.  If he recognized either of his patrons this evening, he did not show it as he ran through the list of specials for this evening.  "I will have the house merlot to drink, and I will have the filet mignon with the rosemary and mushroom gravy as my entree.  Thank you." said Eric passing the menu back to the waiter.  Either Eric had eaten here before or picked out what he wanted earlier as he had not cracked the menu so far this evening.

After Natalya placed her order and the waiter returned to his duties Eric finally answered her question.  "I think soldiering through it would be the better option.  I am not particularly well known for either my tact or subtlety.  My stubbornness however?  Besides if I can stick with this - correction: when I stick with this - they'll all come around; but I need to maintain the mental fortitude to complete my objectives first."

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Talya, too, ordered without opening the menu. She offered the waiter a sidelong, flirtatious smile, "I'll have the same as my date. Thank you."

She handed the menu over then, the urbane mask firmly in place, only to let it fall away forgotten as the waiter walked away. Without missing a beat, she shifted gears and let the coquettish smile fall away like the mask it was. The pleasant expression she fixed on Erik was likely just as much of one, in its own way, as she asked lightly, "And what objectives might those be?"

Talya relaxed back into her chair, shifting to cross her legs once more. She continued on, "It'll pass, you know, in a few years at most. Everyone loves a redemption story - at least on the surface - and sustained anger is exhausting. A few obvious charitable works, saving some children or the elderly and the tide will turn. The angry words and altercations will fall away to grumblings and mutterings. Acceptance. That takes a bit longer but isn't impossible if you're actively courting it."

Which made it sound an awful lot like that wasn't Talya's own personal goals with her interactions in the world.

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When Talya asked him about his objectives Eric suddenly leaned forward and began talking in such an animated fashion, that'd you'd be willing to wager a year's salary that he had just been dying to tell someone.  "Okay, so like step one is a new base of operations.  I already have most of the layout in my head - I did a semester of architecture in my undergrad so I'm not useless in construction - but after the last one... happened, I believe getting zoning permits is going to be a bit of an issue.  So what I'd need is either an investor or some start up capital.  So I'm going to be starting up my own business again.  And it's not going to be weapons this time, don't worry.  I've been sitting on something actually-" he leans in even further and lowers his voice to a whisper.  "- hard light technology.  I call it Bastion tech."  He leaned back in the chair and started talking normally again.  "It's actually something I got Archeville to work on years ago.  He was able to solve the magenta problem or rather he pointed out the problem and I've been working on solving it since.  Right now I've got a working prototype, three guesses to what it's hooked up to and the first two don't count.  If I can stabilize the materialization process, boom - game changer.  It's like 3D printing to the nth degree.  Given enough power I could build anything - okay granted it can't build anything electronic - but walls? roads? bridges? Yeah.  If I get this off the ground, I literally build tomorrow's foundation and that will be my legacy."

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The science was well beyond Talya's paygrade but she leaned forward with interest nonetheless, her eyes widening to look suitably impressed. Any time a scientist wanted to confess their secret plans, Talya was always happy to lean forward and listen. Oh, she'd likely never ever do anything with it, or mention it. But secrets, after all, were easy to keep and often extraordinarily handy. Her gaze dropped from his face to the metallic arm, "I assume you want to keep such things... close at hand."

She gave a slow, sidelong smile and reached for her wine. Taking a small sip, she glanced down and then back up to him. "There's a few power players in the tech industry. I assume you know that ArcheTech remains running under new management. You could see if they might fund your projects. There's a few others out there, although tech really remains solidly in ArcheTech's hands from what little I know of the market. I wouldn't though, if you want to found your own company. Wealthy solitary investors, however, mean moving in high society and courting the idle rich. Philanthropy is your best inroad to that sort. Well, that or old family connections. There's always a fundraiser for something or other being held and that sounds like what you want to work in eventually anyhow."

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When Natalya's glance went to Eric's arm a strange grimace crossed his face for a moment before he just burst out laughing.  It took him a few moments to regain his composure alternatively silently shaking with laughter and trying to avoid Natalya's gaze lest he return to the previous state.  "You've been hanging out with Jack of All Blades too much.  Seriously, everyone I talked to had a "that was actually pretty funny" story."

 

When the topic turned to raising funds, it was Eric's turn for a coy grin.  "So, funny story?  Before my incarceration, most people know that I was the head researcher for a company called Darts Inc.  What they don't know is that I was also the majority shareholder.  My outing had a rather detrimental effect on the company's stock price, for that you can thank irrational investors as my true identity and subsequent removal from the hierarchy of the business did little to affect our EBITDA.  It did however allow for an independently wealthy, scientifically-minded individual to make a rather cheap acquisition, his name was Dr. Victor Archeville.  Now at the time, many of my assets were being being divvied up for restitution and reparation, but the public sector moves rather slowly in this regard, so by the time they figured out the exact amount I owed, the stock I held was essentially worthless.  So instead of selling it, it was held in escrow with the remainder of my assets.  Darts became Archetech and I became very rich."

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Talya's slow blink was her only tell as to how genuinely that observation startled her. Rusty. She was clearly getting rusty at filtering her banter if idioms and turns of phrase were starting to permeate her vocabulary. Sloppy, Talya. If it had been decades ago, that sort of mistake could have cost lives. Today, though, it was only her ego at stake. She arched one golden brown to cover and said easily, "It isn't as if Jack of All Blades has cornered the market on terrible jokes and puns. He could hang up the sword if that were the case and wouldn't that be a pity."

She glanced down, her fingertips on the wine glass before she met Eric's gaze with acute interest, "Rich and brilliant. Honestly, you have very little to worry about. You're a rich, white male with brilliant inventions and genuine regret for your actions. Give it a year or two and they'll be wanting to write the biopic of how you turned your life around. Everyone, as I said, enjoys a redemption story. Especially the redemption of your particular strata of society. Public perceptions are very, very easy to adjust and address. Your personal emotions and regrets - those are far more tricky," Talya said and then offered a slow smile, "For what its worth, I think the plan sounds both interesting and sound. I am looking forward to watching it play out."

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Eric didn't seem to realize how much his mentioning of Jack of All Blades affected Natalya, instead being more interested in the aroma of the wine that had just arrived.  You do notice that he seems to be a little ginger with the wine glass in his metallic hand however.  "Yes it should be an interesting ride this one." he replied nodding in agreement.  "Phase two is trying to figure out to make this thing ready for the mass market." he said raising his wine laden robotic arm in the air like he was giving a toast.  "But one mountain at a time." 

"Well I feel as if we've talked about me an awful lot so far, so how about you?  You kind of fell off the radar for a while there if my sources are correct, and you've only recently returned.  Hubris would lead me to believe that it's because you somehow knew about my impending release, but scientifically I believe the real answer is coincidence.  So what have you been up to, or is it all the cloak and dagger stuff that never officially happened?"

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"Ah, no. My spy days are behind me. Which, really, is what I'd tell you even if they weren't but it's been a long time since I answered to MI:6. Thankfully," Talya said as she too reached for her wine. She lifted it up slightly, "To fresh air." She added, with a knowing little smile before taking a small sip. Talya set the glass back down on the table. 

"An old colleague called in a favor that I owed him so I went off to help with some 'minor issue' he had," the quotes around her words were clear. Talya's expression turned briefly long suffering. "Minor issue, ffft. Three years later and we're in some alternate reality, or it might just have been a part of Earth that I've never been to - and have no idea how to get back to, mind - with some sort of insurrection against totalitarian authority. I'm still annoyed at Ace for it. Not all of us enjoy hieing off for a handful of years for antics. He's fine. Enjoying his just rewards as the figurehead of their rebellion but I decided to come back here and see if I can sort things out. Thankfully, I have a trustworthy accountant that would need more than a few years of radio silence to have me declared legally dead."

Talya paused and added after a moment, amending, "Well, again."

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Eric there silently for a moment before replying flatly "I don't know why I was expecting a simple answer."  After a sip of wine he added "I was just thinking to myself you must lead an awfully interesting life if heading back to Freedom City is your idea of a return to normalcy; forgot who I was talking to for a second."  Of all the things Eric had seen and heard of in his life, immortality was one of the ones that would just leave him flabbergasted.  How could one just live forever and never age?  How would someone in that position live out their days?  Those were questions he desperately wanted to ask, but those aren't exactly "first date" questions so he put a pin in them. 

"Speaking of coworkers and integrating into society, do you have you heard any grumblings on who I might want to avoid in the coming months?  And actually if you could do me one better, do you know what ever happened to Dark Star?  He vouched for me after the incident, but no one has seen him in years.  I'd like to talk with him if possible."

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"Believe me, that's unusual even for my life. Ace Danger is a whole different scale of bizarre," Talya said with utter truthfulness. "But the whole Danger family is really a little bent. His father is a real piece of work, let me tell you."

That seemed to be genuine disdain that colored Talya's voice for a moment before she smoothed her inflection over, a ripple in an otherwise still pond. Either it was the best act in the world or she had some genuine loathing for Ace Danger's father for whatever reason. Giving a shake of her blond head, Talya flipped her curls back over one shoulder with a flick of her fingertips, "No one's seen Dark Star, as far as I'm aware, in ages. There was some dust up in the tabloids a while back about it but I only give the sleezy papers the most cursory of followings. If I were you, I would seek out the newer heroes that might be less prone to have poor memories of your past exploits. There's a surprising amount of churn in the super hero community. Well, not too surprising I suppose. It's a hazardous occupation, really, although even with all the ugliness that happens in Freedom City, people rarely stay dead forever. Well, super heroes. Normal people aren't quite so lucky."

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"Touchy subject the Danger family?" asked Eric tentatively.  He wanted to know more, but he figured if there was a place where bad blood could boil, it would be between immortal bloodlines.  He didn't want to poke the tiger with a stick at the moment. 

"I was afraid you might say that.  Masks do have a tendency of making it hard to keep tabs on each other when the masks come off.  Shame, I liked that guy too." said Eric as Natalya relayed that she didn't know Dark Star's whereabouts.  "And yes I figured that the heroes that I might get along best with are the ones I haven't personally shot at.  But I was more asking in relation to the circles they ran in.  Or does that not really happen all that often?  Sorry, but from the "outside perspective" I guess you could call it, when you see a bunch of completely unrelated heroes show up at the scene of a crime in mere moments, one would figure that they knew each other.  Or do all just randomly cross paths with strangers in the course of punching bad guys in the face?" asked Eric suddenly quite unsure about the mechanics of crime fighting. 

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"Oh, I'm cross with Ace at the moment but that generally fades given a year or two. I don't care for his father, no, but that's more due to my friendship - such as it is - with Ace. The man was a dreadful father. Honestly, no one takes their seven year old to disarm crusty traps in temples." Talya's voice was well under her control once more. Certainly, there was more under the surface, but sharing the most superficial of why Johnny Danger was a terrible person was easy enough. Honestly, even odds that Ace himself would mention it. There was little love lost there. "But he's also a sexist ass. I mean, I might be a century old but at least I don't let the narrow minded views of the era I was born in color my ethics. Or my politics."

Talya's smile was sudden and bright, animating her features at the question, "Sometimes. I have met some of my very favorite super heroes when stumbling into them on rooftops but those are better stories told after more than a glass of wine," Talya admitted with a light laugh, "It depends, usually you end up working with one or two heroes - or ending up on a team - and then once you've gotten past who's behind the mask the social networks begin to develop. I can ask around in my admittedly very small circle but I'm afraid my lack of being a proper team player has somewhat narrowed the field of contacts that I have. There are also a few superheroes with public identities; Torpedo Lass. That AEON girl." 

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"That does seem like it would cause more than a few issues growing up like that.  I was rather blessed with a fairly normal childhood." replied Eric as he internally reminisced.  "That always did strike me as an oddity with immortals.  Staying current with trends as the years pass you by.  Most of the older generation can't get a grasp on technology newer than the past decade, and unless my math is wrong, the telegraph was still widely used when you were a child, and now you're talking to a guy with a robot arm that owns a personal flying tank with laser beams... it's been a weird century." said Eric leaning back as he did some mental arithmetic.  "Sorry if that came off cold, I meant no offense." he added after he recognized the taste of shoelace.

Eric couldn't help but smile back as Natalya's expression lit up when she started talking about the other heroes.  "Story for another time perhaps?" he replied in her "more than one glass of wine" stories.  "Bounce around on rooftops for a while and see where I fit in huh?  Sounds about right.  I'd ask you to go on patrol with me one of these times but I think my skill set clashes just a tinsy bit with yours.  That and the suit's not quite up to snuff yet."

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