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Avenger Assembled

Stacked Like Cordwood

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October 2015 

Steve rarely exercised at the dojo. He was far more powerful than the school's equipment could handle - necessitating a special set built for him at Gina's house. Gina liked to watch him work, whether it was lifting weights, testing the strength of his weapon, or running on the armored treadmill. Initially, he had thought it was just a crafter's eagerness to see her new creation - but he now understood that she found it aesthetically pleasing as well. But Gina was busy with a 'raid' with some of her online fellows tonight so he had gone out to roam the city - and found himself at the Espadas School. 

Having arrived after classes were over, he took a moment to listen for the noise of the family upstairs before he headed for the weights. He couldn't use his armor here - not without having Caradoc appear in the dojo with its unlocked front door, and he would never use his unmasked armor in a place where the Espadas children might see. After a moment's consideration, he settled for the closest approximation. Ignoring the martial equipment on the walls, he headed for the weight-training table. Setting aside the weights, he picked up the heavy steel bar at the center of the weight bench. It weighed 44 pounds. It would do. 

Holding it as lightly as a normal man would a rattan stick, he began working through a series of katas with the pole; the mixed murder arts of the Terminus in which he had been so thoroughly programmed in ages gone past. The strike at the knees, vulnerable on so many creatures. The blow to the midsection to steal the wind - the bar horizontally across the face to break the teeth and finally the signature devastating move of an Omegadrone, the forward stroke at shoulder height that would tear through a man's face and out the back of his head. It didn't just kill the man. As spikes dug into the back of the skull like fish hooks, increasing the damage as the blade was pulled free, it killed the souls of any who watched. 

Steve dropped the pole to a rest position and stared at his own haunted face. The other advantage of Gina's basement for exercise was the lack of mirrors. 

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"I'd say 'nice moves' but you don't look like you want to hear that right now." It was Talya's smooth, clipped tones from the doorway - well out of range of where Steve was working. She'd come down stairs on silent feet - clearly not to work out as she wasn't dressed in the same manner as when she taught classes. There was no yoga pants or a leotard, but rather a worn pair of blue jeans and a simple tank top. There was dirt on the knees of the jeans and her blond hair was pulled up and back from her face. Clothing was a tool to Talya, like so many other things, and today she had spent the day in her house, searching for what few possessions she cared to relocate. In the end, it had only been two small boxes that would likely be largely unnoticed but it marked the first time that anything had been moved out of the small house in Hanover to anywhere else in almost a half a century. Talya had spent most of her day off in debate over whether to bring anything at all and searching about for exactly what felt right to move. It had been exhausting but none of that showed on the mildly concerned expression she turned towards Steve.

"I didn't mean to disturb you. Would you like me to go?" Talya asked as she remained where she was at the thresh hold to the dojo.

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"You may remain if you wish," said Steve, turning as he rested one end of the heavy pole on the mats at his feet. She watched the composure come - first to the dark face that showed no signs of exertion, then the eyes. "I hope I did not rouse the family upstairs," He thought about what she must have seen, then said, "I am glad to see you, Natalya Browning. I had hoped to speak with you privately." 

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"No, they're fine. Min is feeding Mia and Erik is trying to clean tonight's dinner from Eden before bed," Talya assured him as she crossed into the room on bare feet. Without the heels on, Talya made little noise on the ground. She could certainly walk quietly in shoes - and had - but without their presence to remind her, Talya moved like the thief she had been, ghost quiet but for her voice, "You're welcome to call me Talya. It's the name my friends use."

She made the offer easily, coming to a stop within comfortable speaking range but outside the spin of his weighted staff, should he choose to resume practicing once more, "You did mention that. I have time now. What happens to be weighing on your mind? Did your lady-friend end up googling me?" Talya asked, her words light and her smile easy.

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"Yes," said Steve, his voice and eyes serious. It was not a lie - that had been one of the many things Gina Evans had done to learn more about the newest Interceptor. "You have noticed I am not like other men. It is important that those I fight alongside are aware of my true nature - for their safety, and the safety of this dimension." He looked away and added, "And for...ethical reasons." He took the bar and held it in both hands in front of him; unconsciously providing a barrier between himself and Talya. "I am not a knight of Techno-Camelot. That name was crafted for me so that I could move among the people of this dimension without frightening them." He weighed the words in his mind, then spoke them. "I am an Omegadrone."

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"Ah," Talya said, understanding but not surprise flickering across her features. It was not what she was expecting from the taciturn Interceptor, but Talya generally lived her life without displaying surprise on her features if she could help it. She examined him, her gaze dropping to the lattice work of scars on his skin. Her expression turned thoughtful, "You were one, you mean. Were you part of the '93 invasion? That was a mess. I fought in that one, actually. Not officially, of course. I was in prison at the time theoretically. Then thirty years or so before it. That one too."

She eyed Steve for a long moment, "It's a good plan. The sight of an Omegadrone generally leads to hysteria and panic which is only in very small instances remotely useful. Sometimes though."

Talya looked at him for a long moment, her expression expectant as if she were waiting for him to say more.

Edited by alderwitch

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"No. I had never visited Earth-Prime before my escape from the Terminus. But there were other worlds." Some people might have called it an unnecessary addition - but it was obviously necessary to Steve. He actually looked away, planting the staff on the ground and looking at their reflection in the mirror. "Whatever crimes you imagine Omegadrones are capable of committing, whatever blood you imagine has been spilled, I have done it all in Omega's name." The words might have sounded like a demented form of bragging if not for the cold shadow of grief that clung to them like fog clinging cold, hard ice. "Erik dislikes that I call myself an Omegadrone. But it is still true. It will always be true."  

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"Truth. Lies. Reality is always something a little more complicated. You were an Omegadrone and did horrible atrocities in the name of the power you served. Nothing you do will wipe that clean from your hands, nothing can. You carry it forward with you, every day, and to pretend that it isn't there feels like the worst of lies. Perhaps the greatest of atrocities as it would be one you chose to commit fully of your own volition; to act as it had never occurred. Erik's not going to understand the way you see it, you know, not really," Her lips quirked up then, her tone briefly affectionate as she spoke of the Interceptor's leader, "He's a genuinely good man who has always worked to be better. He's not like us."

She shifted to lace her hands behind her back, tipping her head to one side as she watched Steve for a long moment, "He means it only as a compliment. In that you are your own creature and that he doesn't see the things you've done as the person you are now."

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"It is a common sentiment expressed by inhabitants of this dimension," agreed Steve. "There are others here on Earth-Prime and they too have been...welcomed by many." He set the pole at his side at parade rest, for a moment mirroring an Omegadrone at rest with its pike. "I do not agree with this sentiment," he said quietly. "What emerges from a doomforge will forever be an Omegadrone - whatever its ability to will. The other purpose of the Caradoc identity was to prevent the, the...welcoming of an Omegadrone in the skies of Freedom City. The terror and violence that my appearance produces is a sensible reaction. I would not have others attempting to negotiate with drones, or free the soul trapped within. That way lies only their destruction." He turned and looked back at Talya. "I would understand if you would choose not to associate with one who has done what I have. I will leave - and Erik need never know why." 

Edited by Avenger Assembled

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Talya's expression turned briefly amused, "Steve, you've become part of Erik's family. If you don't think the man would drop everything to follow you and ascertain why you've left - and then fix it - you have perhaps misjudged what that sentiment means to him. Regardless, as new a habit as it might be, I am trying not to willfully deceive my romantic partners especially in important matters."

She gave a small, slow shake of her head, "Which is all moot point as I don't need you to leave the team for my sensibilities. You know, usually I'm on the other side of this conversation. Generally, I'm the questionable character in any given scenario," Talya offered Steve a small smile in the mirror, letting her humor fall away then, "You were a weapon in a war not of your choosing and carry the burden of those actions. I understand the sort of atrocities committed in the name of Omega and I understand the resultant destruction on your hands. It doesn't cause me any inherent distress to associate with you either socially or professionally. Does that help set your mind at ease?"

Edited by alderwitch

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"Yes." He knew of course that a deep part of the words were fundamentally empty - no one who had not survived the streets of Nihilor or seen an invasion brought to its terrible conclusion could understand the true blasphemous depths of what it meant to burn in the heatless, lightless, loveless shadows of Omega. But what would saying such things in the here and now accomplish? No more than they ever had. 

Silence stretched out between them for a long moment, then another. Steve did not fidget; he did not sway the bar back and forth or otherwise betray the muscular fatigue that even a normal man would. Finally, just when Talya was beginning to think he was going to stare at his reflection forever, he turned and looked at her. "Erik or Christopher would no doubt invite you to spar with them now to remove the tension of the moment. But I find I am troubled by such things. Especially here, in a place like this." It seemed an odd statement to make in the middle of a dojo - until he went on. "In worlds across the multiverse, this world is a paradise beyond reckoning. And yet still the inhabitants of this dimension make wars upon each other, little and great."  

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As he stood and stared silently, Talya remained outwardly relaxed and loose limbed, apparently content to wait until he was ready to talk further. Internal tensions rarely disturbed her features so her impatience didn't register on her face although she did let out a soft breath when he decided to talk again. Talya touched the tip of her tongue to her lip, repressing the initial instinct to point out that the way she'd spar with Erik to relieve tension was vastly different than anyone else on the team. It hadn't been hard to pick up that Steve was largely uncomfortable with that sort of banter so she adjusted accordingly, "Well, yes, they're different people with a rather different modus operandi than you have. I imagine that's not the way you let off steam, so to speak."

Of course, it was hard to imagine how Steve ever did that. Talya wasn't entirely sure that relaxing was within Steve's operating parameters but she didn't venture onto the subject, "Well, of course war happens here. There is evil and there is stupid in any infinite number of forms. And sometimes there is stupid evil which makes for a truly obnoxious combination." Talya pointed out with a slight lift of one of her slender shoulders, "And when cruel, selfish or stupid people gain power, it leads to inevitable conflict. Where there is life, there's eventually going to be chaos."

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"That evil is done in this world, above all others, is a shame to those who do it." The word shame seem to burn with special intensity as he held the pole at his side. "I hope you do not think I criticize Erik or Christopher. For them, a just struggle is a song and battle a joy - even when they know fear. I lack that...inclination." And the walls dripped with blood and unholy screams echoed from the burning streets outside. He struck the pole against the ground with a thump, then finished turning till he looked at Talya directly. "Forgive me, I...am troubled recently. There has been more Terminus activity in the last few years than in the previous ten - and when that appears once in a world, it will appear again."  

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"Mmmm. I don't know Chris terribly well, but as for Erik, certainly there is a joy in the physicality of activity but I hesitate to say he finds even a just battle a true pleasure. Certainly, he puts on a confident, cavalier facade but few find the trepidation of their leader a comforting experience. He's well aware that his certainty becomes a touchstone for those who follow him," Talya pointed out, pivoting to face Steve when he turned. Her expression remained untroubled as she tipped her chin up to meet his disconcerted expression, "You are right. It builds to an inevitable crescendo. This world has long been an appealing target and I think that we'll see another full bore invasion in the next few years. Before the thirty years are up, I imagine. It is reasonable to find that troubling. Is there any particular sign that has you more concerned of late?"

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"A doomspectre invaded the city. There was a cult worshiping the Black Madonna some months later that sought to raise their children in her dread worship. There was an attempt to forcibly assimilate the population of a city on the Australian continent. Recently a turncoat Annihilist has taken shelter in the DuTemps Building." The last was still a sore subject, so he skated over the details. "And if I were not myself," he confessed ruefully, "I would mention that there are four Omegadrones living on Earth-Prime - and one of those still loyal to Omega."

He traced a pattern against the mat's surface, against the pattern of the fabric. "My suspicions are not shared by many. The great strength of the Terminus is that the sheer scale of its depravity makes the scale of its machinations unbelievable to those born to worlds raised in the light. And the only way to learn that is to be born beneath the red skies of Nihilor - or watch one's world crumble to ash beneath the Doom Coil." He looked back at her. "Forgive me. I do not usually speak so to those I do not know well." He turned and began heading for the weight room to replace the bar 

Edited by Avenger Assembled

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"I have that effect on people. Do you know what I used to do - other than grand theft, I mean," Talya asked as she trailed after him, clearly storing the information he'd shared away in her thoughts to calculate later. This whole 'sharing of information' business seemed to have a ripple effect that Talya had not entirely anticipated. She'd certainly worked with people in the last sixty or so years but never in anything like a formalized team format. If she were being entirely honest, Talya had avoided anything that seemed remotely like a team dynamic after her first, and last, rather disastrous attempt. It was hard enough to share with Min and Erik but she was aware enough to realize that working within a group meant disclosing at least in part her capabilities. Still, it was more than passing strange to point out, "Espionage. Well, infiltration, espionage and assassinations."

Potentially treasonous, as well, if she thought about it as she was relatively certain some of that was still classified. Ah, well, what the crown didn't know couldn't hurt her.

"I retain the knack for easing people into conversations about sensitive subjects. It's not something I can honestly turn on and off," Talya said, "I also have the advantage of edging out of a human lifespan. It doesn't take a tactical genius to recognize a wave attack pattern. Thirty years is long enough for the old guard to be old and the new guard to have no personal memory really of the wars that were. That, I think, contributes to the cycle of it all."

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Steve wondered if he should tell Talya what he had done in the armies of Omega - then realized she was continuing the conversation, not simply stating facts about herself. That was good - even people who asked did not actually want to hear those things. "There are far more sensitive subjects than this. I would stand atop a beacon and shout it to this world if I thought they would listen." He was silent at that. Or that they would listen too hard. Not for the first time, visions of Jack of all Blades leading the Interceptors in a heroic charge into the heart of Nihilor, and subsequently being flayed alive in a doomforge, swam before his eyes. The images were incredibly detailed - after all, he was intimately familiar with them. 

Before he could start actually hearing the screaming of his friends as they were tortured to abomination in the fires of Omega, a not uncommon thing when his mind turned to this subject, he abruptly changed it. "I plan to invite my woman to the Interceptors Thanksgiving. You are very socially adept. Do you think that is wise?" 

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"Ah. I'm not sure I want to go to the Interceptors Thanksgiving," Talya said, the words very dry as she fully recognized that her avoidance of Erik's mother would come to a firm end at any thing like a holiday gathering. It was not an experience she was particularly looking forward to. She liked Erik's mother - which, really, was the problem as she couldn't honestly imagine a scenario where the current arrangements would go over remotely well. She gave a small shake of her head, and uttered a full blown lie, "I'm sure it'll be a lovely day. Your girlfriend... is that Ms. Americana?" She'd heard the information and met the woman herself at the whole 'vanishing dumpster' incident but Talya had a hard time imagining a less likely pairing. 

"Is there a reason that she might not want to come to such an event? I'm sure that everyone would be most welcoming on this end." Talya wasn't at all certain that was true. There seemed some distinct tensions but she was fairly certain such things could be smoothed over with a modicum of effort. "I think you should invite her, yes."

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"There are reasons why Miss Americana has rarely socialized with the Interceptors, yes," agreed Steve frankly. "Miss Americana and I rarely attend family events." They'd actually spent the last Thanksgiving, when Steve was not yet formally on the team, working at a soup kitchen before he and Gina had spent the rest of that night together. "At Thanksgiving, we three will be social together." He spoke slowly, obviously considering every word, and continued - his big hands moving in front of him as if he was physically trying to tease the breath out as he spoke. "If there is awkwardness," he said carefully, "it will be shared awkwardness." 

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Talya smiled, for the offer was a kind one really. "Well, then, high time to rectify that situation, my friend," Talya said, the words easy, "Would it easy any tensions if you could have a smaller social gathering before the day itself or will having stalwart allies willing to see through the awkwardness be enough to suffice? I will see what I can do to help ease your lady-friend into the holiday. If nothing else, I am adroit at running social interference."

She reached out and gave his arm a friendly pat, "Regardless, you have my support at Thanksgiving and I will see what I can do to buffer things so that your companion feels welcome at the holiday to the best of my not insignificant abilities."

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"Thank you," said Steve, dipping his head in acknowledgement. "I should return," he reflected, his head turning to look at the door. "Miss Americana will be finished with her raid against the Alliance. It is not a real raid," he assured Talya seriously. "Or I would be by her side. There is a game people play on the computer where they are either the Horde, a multiracial confederation of dispossessed peoples, or the Alliance, a cruel, land-hungry empire, and launch mock raids upon each other." Gina had described the game to him and he was fairly certain he'd understood all of the pertinent details. "Miss Americana plays it very avidly." 

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"Miss Americana plays World of Warcraft?" Talya said, tipping her head to the side with a vaguely bemused expression on her face. It was hard to picture the consummate professional owner of ArcheTech having such a... normal hobby but Talya, at least, well understood the value of cultivating a public facade. Interesting to know that there was more to the woman than first glance, "You know, I hear that's an enjoyable bonding experience. So I've been told. If she enjoys it, perhaps she could teach you. It might be an engaging activity to partake in together."

Talya's lips quirked in a small smile. It was hard to picture the large scarred man with Miss Americana - not so much for the physical differences - but it was hard to picture Steve with the perfect, poised woman in ArcheTech's press releases. "You might like the cow-men. Have a good evening, Steve. Wish your lady well for me." 

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"I will," pledged Steve. Considering her words, he found himself truly surprised by the fact she knew what World of Warcraft was - but perhaps an immortal life allowed that sort of knowledge about every inch of life on Earth-Prime. "You are a woman of surprises, Talya," he told her with frank truth, before turning and leaving the dojo for the long walk back to Hanover. But perhaps the walk wasn't so long today. 

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