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Avenger Assembled

On Your Way Out (IC)

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In late May, just a couple of weeks before Claremont's graduation, Mr. Archer took Erin aside after a particularly vigorous Doom Room workout. She'd been fighting simulations of nearly the entire Crime League solo, and though her costume was a little singed, she'd given as good as she got. "Erin," he said with that informality that only teachers could get away with. "Good hustle down there. I liked how you handled the bat when you hit Wildcard with Orion. Hit the showers, then join me in my office. I'll give you a note for history." She'd had some idea that Mr. Archer had a private office, most of the teachers did, but he'd never mentioned it to her. She'd certainly never gotten an invitation back there. Really, the whole conversation was strange: Mr. Archer usually only came down to talk to her when she'd been working out with another student.

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Erin's mood was dark as she headed for the showers, slapping on the lights in the locker room and stalking to her bag. She hadn't done anything, she groused mentally. Knowing that Archer was watching always made her uneasy, but she knew she'd turned in a good performance today. Being careful was second nature now, and she hadn't even come close to really hurting anybody, not even when he'd ratcheted up the difficulty to the point where she was taking blows and feeling them. Her scores had been good, just as they'd been consistently top-notch for months now. She wasn't much of a student, but goddamnit, she could at least fight.

Maybe he just wanted to gloat, she thought darkly as she stripped off yet another tattered and ruined uniform and stepped into the shower. He had friends in the hero community, he'd probably heard by now that she hadn't made the cut for the League in Freedom City. And it wasn't her fighting ability that was the problem, so it wasn't even on his head. He'd been expecting her to fail for two years now, and he had his wish. Well, gloating was better than detention, she guessed. She just hoped he wouldn't take long. If she played her cards right, she could finish with him and dash into the cafeteria before heading back to class. These long sessions always left her starving.

It only took about five minutes for Erin to be clean and back in her civilian clothes, her wet hair twisted up and clipped snugly behind her head. The clothes she'd come to school with were fading and looking worn after a couple years of heavy rotation, but they were still perfectly serviceable. And there was still time, if not much time, before she had to worry about buying new clothes and more importantly, her own uniforms. Like that was going to happen. Mentally, she wadded up all those worries into a ball and shoved them aside for later. She had a meeting to go to. Knapsack in hand, she headed for Archer's office.

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Mr. Archer's office was relatively spacious thanks to Claremont's big budget, but for all that looked like your typical high school gym teacher's space. there were the usual rows of filing cabinets full of school records, the pictures of school teams on the wall in their uniforms, and of course a few athletic trophies from years past. Claremont hadn't really competed with other schools since 1993, but Archer was evidently still honoring those teams from the school's past. There were signs around that this was no ordinary gym teacher, though: some of the students in the more recent pictures were flying or showing other signs of superpowers, and of course there were a few pictures of Mr. Archer in costume as well. He had never really made a secret of the fact that he had once been Hot Rod, one of the fastest men in the 1970s, and on the wall there were a few discreet pictures of him in the open-chested jumpsuit he'd once worn.

Erin didn't pay much mind to those, though, not with Mr. Archer himself standing behind his desk. "Come in, Erin. Leave the door open." For all that Erin was much, much more dangerous to Mr. Archer than he was to her, Claremont obeyed the same regulation as any other licensed high school. "How are your classes going this term?" he asked her. "Senioritis setting in yet, or are you powering through?"

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Erin shrugged. "There's not much time left for senioritis," she said guardedly. "Finals are in two more weeks. I don't pass, I don't graduate." Part of her wondered if that would really be such a bad thing, but she didn't think she could handle another year at school with a reputation of being both scary and stupid. She shifted from foot to foot and stayed within range of the door, not out of any real nerves, but just from the desire to keep this audience as brief as possible.

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"I'm sure you'll pass," Archer told her with the reassuring awkwardness of any high school teacher trying to relate to his senior students. "You've already come much further than most of your colleagues, and I don't mean the physical distance you traveled." He hmmed at that, seeming to sense that he hadn't reassured Erin. "Sit down, Erin," he said, trying to make it a suggestion. "And relax. I'm not going to criticize anything you did today. You've already gotten the polish you're going to get in high school. You don't need to hear anything more from me about combat."

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Erin sat, thrown off-balance by his words. She wasn't sure what they had to talk about outside of combat training. He certainly wasn't going to talk to her about her wind sprints or acrobatics training. She also wasn't sure whether having all the polish she was going to get in high school was a good thing or a bad thing. It was probably a true thing, she had to admit, with as little time as was left in her school career. If she hadn't learned a technique by now, she wasn't going to pick it up in two more weeks. Folding her hands, she deliberately relaxed her shoulders, trying to look more casual as she waited for him to get to the point.

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"Erin..." Archer looked like he was struggling for words for a moment before he spoke. "Everything you've done over the last few years shows me a student who can not only learn from her mistakes, but grow from them. You've gone from one of the students I worried about the most to one of the students I'm the most proud of, and you've tested yourself against the kinds of things that even most teenage superheroes never deal with. When you first came here, I didn't have the experience I do now with working with students who have a background like yours. I didn't give you the respect or the education that you deserved. All of my students are unique, and forgetting that was one of the biggest mistakes I've made as an educator. You haven't just grown past your own mistakes, you've grown past mine as well."

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Erin just sat for a moment, startled at the sudden frankness from the man who'd been a worse nemesis than most of the villains she'd fought. It was hard to wrap her brain around it, honestly, and even harder to try and come up with some response. "I know I was dangerous," she finally said, "when I first came here, I mean. Is that why you've always been so hard on me? I worked so hard with that da- with the bat, and with unarmed training, with tactics." Two years of angry frustration couldn't help eking through a little. "If you were proud of me, why didn't you ever ease up?"

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"I was tough on you at first because you were dangerous," he said frankly. "You were the most powerful student in your class when you started, and even though some of them have since heightened their abilities beyond yours, you're still one of the toughest students we've ever graduated. And after that...it was because I knew you could be the best if you applied yourself. I have students who are more powerful; I have students who are smarter, students who are better at strategy. But I don't have anyone in my class who is the complete package the way you are: no one who has worked as hard and strived so much to get where she is today. Whatever anyone else says."

He hmmed for a moment. "The Freedom League is to our school what college is like to most private high schools. Most students don't just see it as a goal, they see it as the only choice and the only path to success. But there's nothing wrong with being skilled labor, whether that's working as a reservist, as a super-agent, or any other career path that's open to you. I never made it onto the Freedom League," he said, "and while I may not be the most popular teacher here, I've done a lot of good with my life, and I've had a good one. And I think you can too."

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Erin thought about that for a minute, after the immediate instinctive recoil at the idea of growing up to be like him. He was totally right, in a way. She wasn't particularly special in her powers the way that Alex and Mark were, she wasn't a clever or innovative thinker like Trevor, she couldn't lift continents on a whim the way Mike could. She wasn't anywhere near as good-looking as any of them, and she had a record that would continue to shadow her. Trying to join the Freedom League had been almost as far-fetched as thinking about college had been. But people could go without either of those things and still be okay. Mr. Archer wasn't living in his car and scraping by, he was doing all right for himself in a job with insurance and a pension and all that stuff.

She scratched the back of her neck uncomfortably, shifting in her seat. "Where would you suggest I go to look for a job, then?" she asked him. "Where do they need people who aren't good at any one thing?"

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"Keep your name on the Freedom League registry," he said immediately, "even if you're on the reserve list, those are still valuable contacts for you professionally. I know you've mentioned an interest in working in law enforcement, and with your background I think you'd be well-suited to that role, either in the public or the private sectors. If you worked for AEGIS or UNISON, you wouldn't even have to give up being a superhero, you'd just have to make sure you put your costume on in your own time. As for the private sector, there are always people looking to hire bulletproof bodyguards, costumed or otherwise. Despite what movies tell you, super-bodyguarding isn't all working for Socotran drug barons or what have you, it's good, honest work."

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Erin nodded at that. "Yeah, they said they'd keep me on the list. It's just... I worked really hard," she began, not at all sure why she was saying this to Mr. Archer, of all people. "For two years, to try and be ready and have myself pulled together and trained. They knew I didn't have anyplace else to go. And it makes me angry," she admitted. "Part of me just wants to give it up and do something else, just solo work or something. But I know I can't, because the city needs all of us to work together."

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"It's not the first time the League has opted not to pick up a promising student because of something from their past, whether it's a troubled personal history, a criminal record, or anything else." Mr. Archer pursed his lips, and added, "I'm sure you've heard that you shouldn't take it personally, and you shouldn't, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be angry. The question is how you handle that anger. You have a lot of potential, Erin, and a lot to give back to the community, whether that's Freedom City or wherever you choose to live. Don't let getting turned away here, even by the Freedom League, keep you from doing that."

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Erin nodded slowly. "I already owe the League a lot. Maybe it's better if I get a job on my own anyway. Then I'll really know I've done something on my own, for myself." She shifted in her chair a little bit, thinking about the interview she had coming up. She knew Fulcrum had helped her get the interview, but that didn't exactly count. Everybody did that, networking was just being smart. Returning her attention to the task at hand, she asked "So should I be expecting something really big and nasty on the final exam?" She was only half-joking.

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"Expect...a lot of surprises," said Archer, a faint smile curving his lips. "The real world is a lot more complicated than what you'll face in the Doom Room, and I want to make sure you leave here prepared for that. Just as long as you don't rip the projectors out of the wall like Megastar did last year, you'll be fine." Mr. Archer's semi-secret final was a common subject of discussion among students, especially seniors, wondering what it was exactly they were going to face. But Erin, like I said, you've already passed the exam that really matters. Just not the graded one."

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