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Chapter One: I Dream of Christina

Monk's Café had seen its share of curious characters, but perhaps none so famous as the celebrities who ate there that morning. Five men and three women, all outlandishly dressed, sat crammed into a booth near the door, as patrons and café staff alike stared in wide wonder. It wasn't every day that they could say they had eaten in the same restaurant as Manhattan's finest new champions, the Thunderbolts.

Oblivious- or nearly so- to the attention, the Thunderbolts talked among themselves. Their banter barely masked an air of apprehension over the day's impending events.

"You know that Britney Spears song you were listening to the other day? 'Genie In A Bottle'?"

Jolt laughed. "It's Christina Aguilera, Techno."

"Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Debbie Gibson. Whatever." There was an irritating grate in the metallic timbre of his voice. "Know what that song's about? A nymphomaniac."

A resounding silence hit the table. Jolt looked scandalized. Next to her, the platinum haired Songbird exchanged a nervous glance with the armored Mach-1. On the other side of the table, Atlas glowered at Techno. "Watch it, pal- there's women and children present!"

"Yeah, clean up the sewer mouth," Mach-1 chimed in.

Techno held up robotic hands in concession. "Hey. I was just saying."

"Go on, Techno. I'm listening." Meteorite's expression was, as ever, inscrutable.

"The freaking song gets played just about every 6.2 seconds somewhere in Manhattan, so its an effort tuning it out, right?" He tapped the side of his metallic cranium. "Anyway, I just sat down and listened to it the other day- really listened. And I'm telling you- the whole song is a metaphor for sex."

"No it's not. It's about a girl who is very vulnerable because she's been hurt a few times." This from Songbird. She rested a hand on Mach-1's arm as she continued, smiling serenely at her lover. "But then she meets some sweet, sensitive guy who teaches her what love is all about."

"Whoa, whoa! Disassemble Avengers!" Techno's inhuman gaze settled on the pair. "Save that sappy love stuff for the tourists."

Sitting next to Mach-1, oblivious to the conversation, Citizen V fidgeted with an electronic datapad. "Micawber… who is Micawber… think… think…"

"The song isn't about a nice girl meeting a sensitive boy." Techno refused to give up his pet subject. "Granted, that's what 'What A Girl Wants' is about. No arguments there."

"Which one is 'What A Girl Wants?'" The Thunderbolts' newest member, Concussor, had been following the conversation curiously. He seemed hesitant to involve himself in the discussion, perhaps due to his relative unfamiliarity with his teammates.

Atlas grinned. "You don't know 'What A Girl Wants?' That's a big hit for Christina Aguilera. Hell, I don't even watch that MTV 'Total Request Live' crap, and I've at least heard of 'What A Girl Wants'."

Concussor glared at the auburn haired strongman. "I didn't say I hadn't heard of it, all I asked was how's it go? Excuse me for not being the world's biggest Christina Aguilera fan."

"I love Christina Aguilera," said Jolt.

"I liked her work on Mulan the best. You know, 'Reflections'?" Songbird shrugged tentatively. "I don't know. I think she's getting a bit too commercial lately. I'm starting to get tired of her."

A high-pitched whistle drew everyone's attention back to Techno. "Hello? Remember me? I'm trying to make a point here. Take the noise level down before I get mad."

"Of course! The dwarf!"

All eyes turned to Citizen V, who was smiling beneath his mask. He regarded the datapad in front of him with satisfaction.

"Whatcha got there, boss?" asked Atlas.

Citizen V was suddenly very conscious of the others' attention. "Oh, nothing, Atlas. Just some last minute details to take care of before the mayor's upcoming announcement."

"Great, Citizen V. Now if I can continue?" Techno paused, frowned. "Where was I?"

Meteorite supplied helpfully, "You were trying to convince us that 'What A Girl Wants' is about a nice girl who finds a sensitive guy, but that 'Genie In A Bottle' is metaphor for sex."

"Right, that's right." He leaned his robotic frame back casually in his seat. "The song's about some girl who's never been with a guy- a virgin. She says she's saving herself for the 'right man', but secretly, she can't get her mind off of what it would be like to have sex. She's just dying to have it. Day, night, day, night, day, night, day, night, day, night… all the time, constantly."

"How many days and nights was that?" Concussor jibed.

"One thousand and one?" Mach-1 offered. Behind his mask, he grinned at the newcomer.

Techno continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Then she meets this guy, some Brad Pitt type, who tells her he loves her, and crap. You know, stuff guys say to girls that they just want to get in the sack and never call again."

"I'm not hearing this," Jolt muttered, disgusted by Techno's crudeness.

Techno smiled. "Suddenly, this girl is a nymphomaniac. She can't get enough. It's like all this pent-up sexual desire is suddenly released from where she had it corked up. Hence, 'Genie In A Bottle.'"

He concluded his speech, only to be met with a barrage of collective silence. Atlas snorted derisively. "Tell you what, Techno- next time you feel the need to share, don't." Songbird and Jolt nodded their agreement.

"Oh, I don't know, Atlas. I found his comments to be quite insightful." Meteorite smiled slyly as she raised her coffee cup to drink.

Techno jerked a shiny thumb towards his deputy leader. "See? At least someone appreciates my keen understanding of the human mind. What about you, Citizen?"

The purple clad patriot was not listening to his team, however. He was caught up once again in his datapad. "N'Kantu," he muttered.

Concussor reached over and grabbed the electronice device from Citizen V's hands. "Who's that?" A nearly endless list of names greeted his vision.

"What do you think you are doing! Give that back at once!" Citizen V's chrome mask was the picture of outrage.

"Geez- sorry…" Concussor made no move to give the Thunderbolts' leader back his datapad. "Just figured whatever you were doing had to be more interesting than listening to the Professor's Music Theory 101."

Citizen V snapped the datapad out of Concussor's grip. "You should learn to mind your own business, Concussor." He pressed a few buttons on the pad and then tucked it safely into his belt. "Since you are new here, I shall forgive your transgression this time."

"'Kay. Didn't mean to get your panties in a bunch, V." He indicated the controversial device with a nod of his head. "What's with all the names on that thing, anyway?"

Citizen V turned a cold glance on the newcomer. "It is a list of people that I wish to… pay my respects to."

"Lotta names on that list."

"When you have lived as long as I, you make many… friends."

Concussor shrugged. "So, what? You planning on inviting them to our little awards ceremony? Little short notice, isn't it?"

"Want me to take him out back for you, boss?" Atlas grinned, popping his knuckles in a mock show of force.

"Hah! I'd like to see you try," Concussor retorted. "I don't care how tall you get- 'the bigger they are…'"

Techno held up a hand, interrupting his teammates' posturing. "Hang on," his gaze was distant, robotic ears tuning in to frequencies only he could hear. "K-MARV's having a fabulous 80's week."

Atlas nodded. "Yeah, I was listenin' to that yesterday. Great, ain't it?"

"What's playing now?" asked Mach-1.

"J. Geils Band. 'Centerfold'," Techno replied. "Now if you want to talk about sexual metaphors…"

"Give it a rest, willya pal?" Concussor admonished.

Techno shrugged. "Just pointing out the filthy frailties of your flesh covered forms."

Mach-1 turned towards Atlas. "Actually, Songbird and I were listening to a song on the flight over here that reminded me of you, big guy."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. 'Put A Little Birdhouse In Your Soul.'"

Atlas frowned. "Why did that make you think of me?"

Mach-1 and Songbird shared a smile. "Because, silly," the vocal vixen chimed, "it's sung by They Might Be Giants!" There was a round of laughter.

"I was always more of a Springsteen guy, myself," said Concussor. "Every time I hear 'Born In The USA' I have to laugh. Makes me think of a friend of mine."

Songbird looked past Concussor to the team's golden armored deputy leader. "Your turn, Meteorite."

"I don't know. If I had to pick a song from that era…" She pursed her lips thoughtfully. After a moment, she smirked. "'Human Nature.'"

"Mmm. I'd have guessed 'Wrapped Around Your Finger,'" observed Citizen V. He had been listening to the conversation with only half an ear, his attentions elsewhere. "Where is that waitress with our check?"

Jolt scratched her head. "I hope you guys all know that you're dating yourselves, and badly." Another round of laughter broke out around the table.

"Hey, boss," Atlas said, turning towards their leader. "What's your favorite 80s song?"

Citizen V replied without hesitation. "'Everybody Wants To Rule The World.'"

He rose from his seat, adjusted his swordbelt and shoulder pads. "I'm going to pay our tab. Finish up here and meet me outside by the V-Wing."

As the Thunderbolts' leader left, Atlas reached for his wallet. "All right, folks. Everyone cough up for the tip." He tossed a dollar into the center of the table. It was quickly matched by similar donations from his teammates. Techno was the last to throw in, contributing a nickel and a handful of pennies. The Thunderbolts stared, open-mouthed, as the pittance of change clattered on the countertop.

"The hell is that?" Atlas asked, aghast. "Toss in a buck, like everyone else."

Techno shook his head. "I don't think so. That's my share of the tip."

"Whatta you mean that's your share? That's only…" The auburn haired man counted. "13 cents. You gotta put in more than that."

"It's 15 cents, actually." Techno held up a hand, extruding a tiny calculator. "All I ordered was a cup of coffee. So, 99 cents for coffee, 15% gratuity…" Numbers appeared on the viewscreen as he spoke. "0.148 cents tip. Rounding up, that's 15 cents.

"And mind you, the only reason I ordered anything is because Citizen V said it would be, and I'm quoting here, 'comforting if the common rabble believed there was still a human being underneath this robotic exterior'."

The rest of the Thunderbolts exchanged looks of exasperation. "That just ain't right," Atlas said. "What we got here ain't even enough to cover her tip. Just toss in a dollar, willya?"

Techno shrugged. "Don't look at me. It's one of you that's stiffing the lady. I paid my fair share. More than, probably. She wasn't a particularly good waitress."

"Oh, come on. She was sweet," argued Songbird.

" I didn't say she wasn't." Techno retorted. "I said she wasn't a good waitress. Personality is only one factor in customer service." He held up his coffee cup as a demonstration. "See this? She didn't refill my coffee. Not once."

Mach-1 pointed an accusatory finger. "And why would she? You didn't even drink any of it."

"Not true. I consumed exactly 4.23 ounces of this coffee- both for appearance's sake, as well as to perform a complete thermochemical analysis of its composition." He paused. "By the way, would anyone like to know what they've been drinking this morning?"

Concussor warily pushed his own mug away from him. "Think I'll pass, thanks."

"Probably a good choice." Techno proceeded in his grating mechanical whine. "Anyway, the point is, I expect my cup to be full at all times, regardless of how much I drank, if only to keep it warm. I'm a customer, right? So I can take my time with drinking it, but I don't want it cold."

Jolt ventured forth a suggestion. "She's probably intimidated by us. It's not every day you get to wait on genuine superheroes."

"That makes it even worse," Techno argued. "We're bringing them extra business, just by the very act of eating in their establishment. And when word gets out that we were here, even more people will come down, if only to bask in the afterglow of our long departed presence. That's revenue that we're not seeing a dime of, mind you- one of those intangible side-effects of celebrity. The very least they can do- and I'm sure the management here would back me up on this- is to make sure that my cup is always filled to the brim. I don't care if its Pope John Paul II or Kato Kaelin- you'd better bend over backwards to make them happy."

"You're harsh," Jolt criticised.

"Expecting someone to do their job is harsh? Come on. It's not like she's starving to death. She makes a good living. If she doesn't, she can quit. Find something worthwhile to do with her life."

Opposite him, the team's sultry siren's platinum tresses shook with denial. "You have no idea how difficult this job is. These people work their butts off."

"Yeah, it's regular rocket science, this job." Techno scoffed.

"These women count on the generosity of their customers to live." Everyone was surprised to see that Meteorite had opted to join in on the conversation. "Waitressing is the number one job option for female non-college graduates in this country. One of the few options for any woman," she added, pointedly.

"That's a crock. Don't talk to me about that college, crap." Techno tapped his chest with a metallic digit. "I don't have a college education- heck, I didn't even finish high school- and that didn't keep me from doing something with my life. There's plenty of jobs for men and women in this society."

Meteorite's scathing response was forestalled by an interjection from Songbird. "No, he's right about that. There are plenty of other jobs for non-college women." She ticked them off on her fingers. "Exotic dancer, female escort, adult film performer…"

"Nobody's asking for your resume," Techno shot back.

"Why you sonuva…!" Mach-1 shot forward in his seat, lunging across the table for Techno's throat.

Atlas' brawny arms were suddenly there, forming a nearly impenetrable barrier between the two. "Whoa there, you two! Ease off!"

"Quite. This has gone far enough." Meteorite's declaration was met with approval from the teenaged Jolt. Songbird refused to look at Techno, as Mach-1 held a protective arm around her. Techno merely grinned mechanically.

Concussor snorted aloud. "What a piece of work this guy is. First he's Casey Kasem and the Weekly Top 40, now he's pullin' a Morton Downey Jr. schtick." He shook his masked head. "All this over a measly buck."

"It's funny you should mention that, Concussor," Techno said. The display on his arm split evenly, forming a viewscreen next to the calculator. "On the left is our bill, broken down by individual tallies, and including calcuations on how much of a tip we each owe." Numbers popped into view as he spoke, clearly illustrating Techno's point.

"On the right is a video playback of our mutual contributions to the tip pile." A recorded feed, obviously from Techno's perspective, began to run as he spoke. "If you look very closely, you'll note the white gauntleted hand of our friend Concussor tossing in exactly one dollar." The monitor froze on this image, and zoomed in, expanding. "However, as can be seen by the total of his breakfast tab, his tip contribution should come to exactly $1.96."

All eyes turned to a red-faced Concussor. "Heh. Whoops." Almost instantly, two dollars found their way into the pile in the middle of the table. "A little extra, for all the trouble," he explained.

Fortunately for Concussor, the Thunderbolts' illustrious leader chose that moment to make his reappearance. "The mayor and citizens of New York are waiting, Thunderbolts. Is there some kind of problem?"

"Just some difficulties with the new guy, Citizen," Techno explained. "Seems he doesn't understand the concept of 'equal contribution'."

Citizen V turned towards Concussor. "Is that so?" he asked in deadly tones.

"The tip, boss." Atlas laid a hand reassuringly on his commander's shoulder. "Just a problem with the waitresses tip."

Chrome features stared expressionless at Atlas for a long moment. "You were all going to make us late for a tip?" Citizen V held up a silencing hand as the other Thunderbolts began to voice their various objections and accusations. "You are acting like a bunch of children! We have much more important things to do today, so shut up and get moving!"

As the Thunderbolts began to file out in enforced quietude, Citizen V looked over the object of their arguments. "Besides, it looks as if she was given more than enough to me. She never even refilled my coffee."