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Avenger Assembled

Calamari On The Menu (IC)

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A few days after Erin took part in the rescue of Fusion, the Portland heroine, from disaster, she received a hand-written letter sent to her care of the Claremont Academy. Inside, she found:
 

Dear Wander,

I hope this finds you and your friends well and happy. I've been thinking lately about how I can thank you for helping me beat that toothy bastard the other day, and I have an idea. How would you like to come to my family home for dinner, my treat, some day this week? At this point in our relationship, now that you've seen me nearly dead, I think I can bypass secret IDs. I've included my cell contact number if you're interested.

Yours, Joan Collier.

 

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Erin waited a whole day after receiving the message before returning the phone call. She wasn't very good with family gatherings or normal people. It was easy to think of a thousand slips she could make that would make the whole thing uncomfortable or worse. Surely it would be easier just to say that no thanks were necessary and she was too busy with school to get away right now. But if she went, it would be one more normal thing she tried to do, and surely Dr. Marquez would approve. She needed to earn some points back with that notable, after things with Dead Head had not gone the way the therapist had wanted them to. And she wanted to do what normal people did.

She finally called on Tuesday evening, carefully dialing from the phone in the dorm basement. "Hello, Ms. Collier? This is Erin, um, Wander. From the beach? I got your message, and Thursday or Friday would be good nights for me, if that works for you."

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"Oh, hello! I'm glad you got my message." She laughed, sitting back in her custom-built easy chair as she and Charlie watched football together. It was a quiet evening at the Collier place, the night only punctuated by her daughter's stereo in the other room and the occasional slither as Joan reached into the kitchen for a slice of ham. "I had to pull a few strings to get your contact information. Thursday night my daughter has a school meeting, but Friday night would be perfect. Do you prefer Erin or Wander?" she inquired. "I know some heroes don't like using their real names, especially you young people. Either way, I'll expect you at our place in the West End around seven if you can make it."

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"Um, either is fine," Erin said, leaning on the washing machine as she spoke. "Erin, I guess, if it's going to be out of uniform and with your family. I don't really have a lot of secret identity. Seven is okay, just give me directions and I'm sure I can find it." She'd neglected to bring pencil and paper with her, but part of her recent training had been to learn the streets of Freedom City, so she was sure she'd be all right. "Is there, I mean, should I bring anything?"

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"Oh no, honey, you're my guest!" said Joan quickly. "I wouldn't expect you to have to bring anything! Do you have any allergies or dietary concerns I should be aware of?" she asked gently. "Right now I have salmon casserole and sweet potato pie on the menu, but if that's not right for you, just let me know. I want you to feel welcome." She'd talked a little bit with the girl's headmaster before contacting her, part of a vetting process, naturally, and had gotten the hint that maybe no one was inviting Erin over to a lot of dinners. "My daughter is looking forward to meeting you. She, ah, drew a picture of the fight that she saw on television."

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"It's fine, I can eat anything," Erin assured her, then wondered if that sounded insulting by accident. "I mean, it sounds good, and I don't have allergies or anything like that. I'm looking forward to coming over." Maybe that was half a fib, but it was a polite one, and totally normal. "Anyway, I guess I'll see you on Friday then. Thank you for inviting me." After a couple last pleasantries, Erin hung up and tried to shake off the nerves. It was just dinner at somebody's house. How badly could she screw it up?

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Friday was luckily a cool day, quiet enough that Joan could sit out on her front porch in her usual voluminous skirts, making notes for an upcoming story about the city's declining budget for promoting minority superheroes. She kept a close eye out for Erin, and raised an eyebrow when she watched the girl step out of the nice near-mint blue pickup truck that she'd carefully parked in their neighborhood. They didn't get a lot of traffic on Carver Street, one reason why she'd made sure to pick the neighborhood. "Hello, Erin!" she waved without getting up. "Over here! Did you have any trouble finding the place?" she asked as Erin reached the creaky steps. She slowly pulled herself to her feet, careful to keep the bottom of her skirt inline with the floor at all times. She certainly looked much better than Erin remembered.

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Erin was dressed neatly in a blue blouse and khaki slacks, both of which looked clean but a little worn, and she carried a small storebought bouquet of colored daisies. She'd looked up some stuff on the internet about dinner at peoples' houses, and hostess gifts seemed pretty important. She figured it was better to be safe than rude. "Hi," she said, extending the flowers. "No, your directions were good. I ran into some traffic over the bridge, so I hope I'm not late."

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"Thank you," said Joan, taking the flowers and smelling their daisy fragrance. "I'll put these on the table for the centerpiece. Come inside, and I'll introduce you to the family." Her family didn't usually eat many sitdown meals, but tonight was a company night. The Collier house was a small one, smaller certainly than the Albright manor or the Lucas suburban dwelling, but the little rowhouse was cozy with flowery wallpaper and high-quality yardsale brand furniture, though most of that was modified to accommodate what Erin quickly realized were her host's appendages. Joan sighed with relief as she let her arms wiggle free, the limbs poking out from under her dress. "I hate, hate, hate the summer weather out here," she admitted. "Keeping myself under wraps is not easy. Ah, here they come now."

A smiling, bespectacled man and a round-faced girl of about nine came over to say hello. Charlie was a balding, bespectacled man of about thirty, his slight paunch and soft hands showing he worked indoors much more than his wife. "Hello, it's so nice to meet you," he said, a little formally. "Welcome to our home." Lois, Joan's daughter, still hadn't shed her babyfat, and peered up at Erin through thick glasses before saying, "It was really cool what you did to that shark guy! Thanks for saving my mom!"

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Erin studied the little girl for a minute, making sure she had some kind of smile on her face while she did so. She was as old as Megan would be, as old as Megan in this world, but looked very different. That made it easier, she guessed. "You're welcome," she told Lois gravely, "but your mom is the one who defeated the sharks. I just helped her out afterwards to make sure she was okay. She really showed them a thing or two." Looking up, she shook hands with Charlie as well. "Thanks for having me over," she said, then followed Joan towards the dining room. The tentacles looked decidedly odd, even odder than when Fusion was in costume, but everyone here seemed quite used to them.

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"Yeah, she's pretty cool," said Lois, who wasn't quite old enough yet to be jaded about her mom's accomplishments. "We haven't had other superheroes over for dinner since we moved into this house! It's cool!" At the table, Joan kept her promise and made the flowers a centerpiece as they all sat down around the salmon casserole that Joan herself had learned to cook in her native Portland. They passed the dishes around so everyone could get some of Joan's heaping portions, and everyone dug in without much fanfare.

"I noticed how strong and fast you are, Erin," Joan commented as she ate, "Do you work out a lot at school?" She gave her daughter a suggestive look, earning her just the faintest trace of an eyeroll. Maybe she's getting older faster than I thought, Joan thought wryly. "I'm just saying, doing sports and physical activities can be very important."

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The food was very good, and a nice change from the slightly monotonous cafeteria menu, so Erin had to finish chewing and swallowing before she could speak. "I spend a lot of time in physical training," she agreed, "it's important for the hero work I do. But I also spend a lot of time studying and doing schoolwork. They want to make sure that we have a solid education before we graduate, too. I guess they want us to have balance." She could sense the undercurrents between mother and daughter, but peacemaker wasn't exactly a role that came naturally. "What grade are you in?" she asked Lois.

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"The fifth grade," said Lois, surprising Erin given how young she was. "I was born real early, so I've usually been a year ahead. And the lessons I took in Japan let me test out of American fourth grade." She smiled nervously, her round cheeks blushing slightly under her faintly bronzed skin. "It's tough being small, but at least I'm way ahead of all the dorky kids my own age."

"Honey, they can't help they weren't as lucky as you were," said Joan gently, not wanting Erin to think Lois was any more spoiled than she already was. "Lois and Charlie came out with me when I was working with the Defenders in Japan, so Lois spent three years in Japanese-style preschool and elementary."

"And I got to be a house-husband," said Charlie with a chuckle. "Those were the days, huh?" It was hard to tell if there was a tension there between husband and wife, but Joan did change the subject in a hurry, reaching for a plate with an irritated flick of her long, suckered tentacle.

"How do you find balancing hero work and being in school?" Joan asked Erin.

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"You're about the same age as my... my sister," Erin said with a momentary stumble, "but she's in fourth grade. She lives on the other side of the country, though." Rather than get into that any further, Erin turned to Joan. "Well, Claremont's sort of set up to make sure we get plenty of both. I learned really early on to not put off my homework, since there could be an emergency any time, and the teachers aren't very impressed if you didn't finish your book report because you were sucked into an alternate dimension to fight Nazis. But I guess it's easier than regular school, because you don't have to worry about your secret identity if anything comes up that needs to be dealt with. You do the secret identity thing, right?" she asked Joan. "How does it work?"

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"It's not easy," Joan conceded. "Especially when you've got four extra arms that don't go away," she added, one idly poking up from under the table as they talked. "But I have a morphic costume that helps me cover my face and conceal my identity, and I dress up like Scarlett O'Hara most of the time when I'm not in costume." She sighed a little and added, "I envy you kids a little, it must be nice to be able to blow all that off. But I've made a lot of enemies over the last few years, and I can't let Charlie and Lois get in trouble because of that. For that matter, I don't know how many heroes would spend a lot of time talking to me if they knew my job. I'm a columnist," she added, "for the Ledger."

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"Yeah, I know," Erin said, "I recognized your name. We had to read that article you wrote about the Scarab for Heroes and Civics class." She didn't seem to be too bothered by it, or else she was just absorbed by the sweet potatoes. "About how we can't do anything public without thinking about what people might say, because you never know who might be watching even when you think you're alone. That's the good part about secret identity, I guess. You can't get away with anything if people know who you are."

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Joan hmmed, considering how much to weigh the girl's words. "It's very handy," she agreed. "And a sacred trust," she added. "Scarab pitched a fit when she talked to me after the article, as you can imagine, but one thing she couldn't say was that I'd threatened her identity. I think you're forgetting, though, that superheroes are technically the same people, whether they're in masks or not. I didn't hurt the reputation of Scarab's ID, but I did cause problems for her in costume. Because her judgement was impaired, and that was where she needed to worry."

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Erin shrugged. She didn't want to get into an argument with her host over dinner, even if she'd had a lot of strong feelings on the subject. She planned to avoid the press wherever possible, and given her lack of distinguishing characteristics, it probably wouldn't be a problem unless she did anything really stupid. "But what do you do if you're like sitting in a meeting or at your desk and suddenly something comes up that you need to go deal with?"

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"That's one reason why I've tried to be on teams," said Joan with a little laugh. "Or live in a place like Freedom, so I can trust emergencies are being taken care of if I can't get away. As for the rest, well, I just have to be careful. It helps that I can turn invisible, and keep my costume on under my clothes and put it on without thinking about it." She demonstrated, letting black, shiny cloth flow out from under her clothes, then back underneath in between bites of salmon. "Morphic costumes are a godsend. Best money I ever spent in our line of work. And," she added, meeting her husband's gaze for a second in what was obviously a private joke, "it helps that my job puts me in harm's way. Or at least gives me an excuse to be there. I actually got my powers through a workplace accident."

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Erin nodded at that, enjoying her food while she listened to Joan talk. She asked a few more questions about the reporter's job, mostly for the sake of polite conversation, and congratulated herself that things were going all right so far. Sure it was too early to call the evening a success, but so far she hadn't said anything stupid or done anything weird, and that was definitely a point in her favor. It probably helped that this was a family a little closer to her own than Mark's bizarre home, so she sort of had the rhythm down. And the food was really good, too.

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Eventually Charlie got up to get dessert out of the oven, a chocolate cream pie that everyone seemed to be looking forward to. "Charlie's a great cook, you'll love it. He learned a lot of new dishes when we were in Japan, and I think it really upped his culinary talents. We're really eating well these days." She laughed, then said, "Erin, you mentioned you were from Seattle, yes?" She'd picked up on the tension in the girl's voice at the thought. "Did your family send you out here so you could get hero training in Freedom? I know we're pretty thin on the ground in parts of the West Coast."

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"Yeah, pretty much," Erin said, turning her fork over in her hands. She could do this without being a freak about it, she reminded herself sternly. It was just a polite question, and she could answer it without getting all weird. It wasn't like the reporter was asking for an interview. "I live in Freedom City now, but they're still all out on the West Coast. I don't know if I'm ever going to get used to the weather here in summer, though. It's when I really start missing the mountains." There, that was good, she congratulated herself. That sounded normal.

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"I know the feeling," Joan agreed whole-heartedly. "Freedom City summers are the only thing that's seriously made me contemplate just vacationing from my ID for a few days." That sparked a conversation between her and her husband as he came back with the pie; it sounded like that was something of a sore subject. When they'd gotten that straightened out, and everyone was eating again, Joan studied the girl, putting some details together about her backstory. "It's a long way from here to the West Coast. We're going to have to pay to fly Lois' grandma out here rather than everyone go there for the holidays this year." It wasn't hard to make some guesses about the girl's life, given where she was during the summer. "Were you able to make it home over the holidays?" she asked gently.

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"I spent Christmas with friends in the city," Erin said evasively. That was stretching the truth till it yelped for mercy, but it was true that most of her friends lived in Freedom City, so technically she'd been in the city with them over Christmas. And she hadn't wanted anyone with her but Oliver over the holiday itself, and he was a friend too. "It's a long plane trip out to Seattle, and expensive, plus you never know when something's going to crop up. 'Crime never takes a holiday' is a cliche for a reason, right? Do you think you'll ever move back to Portland?" she asked, clumsily attempting to change the subject.

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Joan didn't press that subject, not wanting to scare off the girl who'd saved her life. It was evidently an awkward one, and the last thing she wanted to do was hurt her feelings. "When I'm older, maybe," she said, shooting a look at her husband who carefully concentrated on his pie. "Right now this is where I'm working, and Charlie's working, and Lois is going to school. We can't keep moving her around." Lois piped up then with some stories about being a little kid on Macek Island, a fascinating place that sounded like it had a lot of aliens on it. When she was done, Joan asked Erin, "Do you find it's tough being a teen superheroine in today' society? I've seen some Young Freedom coverage and I've noticed how much press the boys always get."

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