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Avenger Assembled

Fatherly Advice (IC)

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It was several days after the team's return from the Lost World and the battle with the forces of the Terminus, and not long after Erin's consultation with Phantom, the dimensional guardian. It was one of those few nights when she had custody of the room and Alex was out, in this case on a date with her unhandsy boyfriend. She hadn't seen much of Mark in the last couple of days; after his return from the custody of Shadivan Steelgrave, even his ultra-tolerant parents had kept him at home for a couple of days.

Erin was just settling down with her math homework, Oliver entangling himself on her lap, when she heard a knock at the door.

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Erin had no qualms about pushing her book away as soon as a distraction presented itself, sending her pencil to the floor where Oliver chased and pounced on it. Really, anything was better than advanced algebra, and she was working ahead anyway. If the trip to Erde that summer had taught her anything, it was that you couldn't always count on having time to finish your homework at the last minute. And she'd spent too long catching up to risk falling behind again. "Come in," she called, turning her chair towards the door.

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When the door opened, she was greeted with a thoroughly unexpected sight. Rick Lucas was looking unaccountably somber in a black cardigan, his white hair combed flat in a style strongly reminiscent of Mr. Summers. A little apologetically, he said, "Ah, hello, Ms. White." He was an open-handed kind of guy, but he was from a different generation and she was much his junior. "I know I'm in your hall after-hours," he said with a half-smile. "but I just dropped my son off upstairs. I was hoping we could talk about what happened the other day."

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"Oh, hi Mr. Lucas," Erin said, startled by the unusual nature of the evening visitor. She took a quick peek around the room to make sure things were mostly in order, a reflex that a visit from anyone's parents could trigger. The formal greeting and the sober expression clued her in that this might not be a happy talk, but she wasn't quite sure what he might want from her. "Sure," she replied, "you can sit down if you want." She gestured to Alex's desk chair. "How's Mark doing?"

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"He's fine," said Rick, who moved slowly as he sat down. He was in very good shape for a man his age, but he was still past sixty, having lived a physically active, demanding life before then. And tonight, for whatever reason, he was looking his age. "There wasn't time for any surgical alterations, thank God, and he's already forgotten most of what happened between being taken and being rescued. Sometimes I think they could drop The Bomb on that boy and he'd walk away without a scratch." He looked about ready to break into another one of those expansive stories that Erin associated with the family, before he paused and said, "I understand you fought with Steelgrave." He caught her look and added, "Mark didn't tell me a thing, but when I heard you people had fought the Terminus, I used the pull I had to get a look at the reports you kids filed."

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Erin nodded. "I distracted him long enough that my teammates could get Mark out of the prison they had him in, and destroy the weapon that they'd been setting up there." She wasn't sure where Mr. Lucas was going with this, but as far as she knew, none of this stuff was top secret. Maybe he just wanted to know what had happened to his kid. She could understand that. "I subdued him, but he distracted us and then teleported away before we could secure him." And that was a failure that still rankled. "Mark was conscious when Psyche got him out, he seemed kind of woozy, but mostly okay."

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"I heard about that. You kids really know your stuff," he said honestly. "And you're braver than I was at your age. When I was a teenager, all I could do was run away with as much style as I could muster." He thought for a minute, his face lining with concentration, and said, "Do you know why it was you?" He studied her at that. "I went into Nihilor in '65, and I was there in '93 the last time they came. Steelgrave...even if you were whipping him a lot more than he expected, he wouldn't have been fighting you in particular without a reason. Did he say anything to you? Offer you anything?"

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"It wasn't much of a fight," Erin replied without false modesty, petting Oliver as he hopped back into her lap and started purring. "I snuck up on him from behind and laid him out while he was sputtering at me. But he knew who I was." She hesitated, not really wanting to get into the details with Mark's generally very cheerful dad. "Omega destroyed my world by seeding it with a disease. When Steelegrave saw me, he somehow recognized where I came from, and he seemed kind of interested. Then when I had him pinned, he said he could tell me what happened there." Erin jerked one shoulder in a shrug. "You know how it is in fights, say anything to throw your opponent off."

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"Oh, Jesus," said Rick, looking appalled, but not surprised, at Erin's words. "Steelgrave is a corrupter. Gets in your head, plays games with you. I can't believe he's still active after all these years, but I guess the Annihilists don't age." He sighed. "You were right not to listen to him. Anyway, he doesn't really work on that kind of cosmic scale. Sounds more like Friendly's department than anything else." At that name, he muttered a soft curse. "You know, when I was with the Centurion, we saw some pretty nasty things. I saw him mind-controlled, drunk, turned into a woman, grieving his world, ready to die for this one, but..." He shook his head. "Only once did I see him mad enough to kill. That was in '65, when we broke Freedom Bird out of his butcher shop, and saw the man for ourselves."

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"You saw him?" Erin asked, sitting straighter in her chair. "Did the Centurion actually fight him? What sort of defenses did he have?" It was a long time ago, she knew, and the information would be very dated, but any scrap of knowledge might be what provided the key. Of course, given Phantom's reaction, it might be unwise to let on that she had any intention of actually trying to stop Friendly herself. "I mean, it must have been a terrible scene, if it made the Centurion react that way."

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"He ran away when he saw we'd busted through his robot goons," said Rick, lip curling at the memory. "Cowardly as he was twisted, right up to the end. His place was...God, I've tried not to think about it in the years since." He made half-formed gestures with his big hands. "Picture a skyscraper, big as the Pyramid Plaza, but going down as deep into the planet as it goes up. And on every level, there are...things happening."

He shot a look at her, as if wondering how much to tell a teenage girl, but went on. "Like Auschwitz. Or worse, because there's more science behind it, and more time, and the people there have been tortured so long they don't think anyone's coming to save them. With robots running the machines, and the...the procedures, robots with human faces painted on and no souls inside. Tough bastards too. I was damn glad we had the Centurion along, because they could fight your average super on almost even terms, and there were thousands of them." His mouth worked in a hard little smile. "Him running away meant no one was controlling the machines, at least. We smashed the machines, saved who we could, and the Centurion and Freedom Bird tore the building out of the ground and threw it into space. One of the finest things I ever saw."

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