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Avenger Assembled

Cheesetopia (IC)

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Pleasantville, PA

October 5, 2012

For the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Pleasantville, the annual Cheese Festival is the absolute highlight of the year. This week-long event is the most exciting

thing that ever happens around these parts, the backwater equivalent of Mardi Gras, and this year anybody who is anybody will be there. The festival even

attracts revelers from the neighboring towns of Ten Commandments, Yellow Banks, and Small. To the folks of Pleasantville this makes it practically an

international summit. The Mayor has hired a bouncy castle and some clowns, and Sheriff Byrne has put together a band – the Boys in Bluegrass – to

welcome the out-of-towners. This year’s festival looks set to be the best ever: Benjy Reed, the ten year old son of Cedric Reed, the town's dairy manager, won the Freedom League's essay contest: "What the Freedom League Means To Me" and two League members, Fleur de Joie and Gaian Knight, are coming out to meet Benjy and be celebrity cheese judges at the festival this year. Fleur and Gaian Knight are scheduled to arrive at nine AM sharp on the morning the festival starts, October 5. Meanwhile, another hero was being summoned. At around six AM on the morning of the fifth, Vector returned home from a long night of patrolling to find a message had been left for her on her apartment answering machine. Someone had been calling her secret ID, not her heroic identity.

On the other end of the phone was a clattering sound, movement in the background and the static rush of the outdoors. Then a familiar voice said “Hey, it’s me, Charlotte?" Charlotte was a specialist in rural architecture, and had been on an extended field trip for a forthcoming paper. "Listen, I’m in Pleasantville, PA. You know, with the cheese festival? It’s really weird out here, there’s something strange going on. These people don’t like strangers. I mean, they like them too much, if you know what I mean. I’m stuck, I can’t get out of town. You’ve got to come get me. Damn, it’s the ice cream truck! I think the dairy owner is behind--” There was a clattering sound, a scuffle, and the line went dead . .. but not before Vector heard the strangely disturbing sound of rhythmic

mooing.

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Catherine blinked, frowning, then nodded as she took off her mask and headed to the wardrobe. "Can't leave her to... whatever that is. Better get some coffee into me, then hit the road."

She pulled on a long-sleeve shirt and some jeans over her superhero outfit, and brewed herself an instant coffee, downing it and grimacing. "Urgh. At least I'm not going to fall asleep with that in my system."

The young hero headed down to the carpark, unlocking her car, a nice new Subaru Forester, and pulling out, driving out of the city and heading towards Pleasantville...

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It was a beautiful October day, just the sort of weather the Cheesetopia organizers had probably been praying for. There was a crisp fall bite in the air, but not so much that Stesha wasn't perfectly comfortable with her regular-weight uniform and cowl. Winter was coming, and with it the fleece-lined and insulated set, but not today! "Hey pumpkin, are you ready for the festival?" she asked Amaryllis as she buttoned the little girl into a hand-knit sweater the color of fall leaves. "What are we going to eat today?"

"Chee!" Ammy replied happily, dancing in place as her mother struggled with the buttons. She was dressed for the weather too, in sweater and matching hat knitted by Grandma Madison. Stesha had debated bringing her along or leaving her in the village to play, but a cheese festival sounded like a fun and harmless outing. Ammy needed to spend more time on Earth Prime, anyway!

"That's right, cheese! Lots of it!" With the ease of long practice and some cooperation from Ammy, Stesha wrapped them both up in the cloth sling that held the toddler secure on her mother's back. "And remember, say hi to everyone! We're on a goodwill mission." With Ammy's enthusiastic "hihihihi" in her ears, Stesha teleported to Earth Prime, popping out of the plant the festival organizers had set on the dais for her. "Hey look, there's Gaian Knight!" she told the little girl. "Let's go say hello."

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"Aw, come on. Just one."

"No."

"They'd never miss it."

"Yes they would."

"Give me three good reasons."

"The cows aren't yours, you'd spook the locals, and you don't actually want one - you're just trying to get a rise out of me because you're bored."

Teagan Delphyne didn't dignify that with a response - mostly because she didn't have one. Rather than admit her friend was right, the tall redheaded woman just snorted and stretched her arms over her head as they made their way through town. "We could have flown you know," she pointed out, the red eyes behind her domino mask taking in the area. She actually kind of liked it - it was nice and rural, and reminded her a little of home. "It would have been a much better entrance than walking."

Tarrant McLeod - Gaian Knight - chuckled and shook his head, sticking his hands in the pockets of his coat. "I don't think having you swoop over a little town in all your scaled glory is really the impression we want to make. Maybe next time. Hey, Fleur!"

One of the hands came out of his coat to give his teammate a wave as he made his way onto the dias. "I see you brought a little guest - or are you throwing a mystery judge into the contest?"

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"She's here strictly as an observer," Fleur assured GK with a grin. "Just between you and me," she added, dropping her voice conspiratorially, "her favorite cheese is processed American slices. Don't tell!" Chuckling, she turned her attention to Gaian Knight's companion. "And you must be Teagan," she guessed, extending a friendly hand. "I've heard about you, but I've been so busy I haven't had the time to come by when you two were at the castle. It's so nice to meet you."

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It was in the low-to-mid sixties in Pleasantville that day, just the sort of good weather the townsfolk were hoping for. As Catherine pulled up from the state road onto the town's main drag, however, she found a quiet, nearly deserted small city, with brightly-colored banners hanging on deserted streets that pointed the way to "CHEESEFEST 2012: WITH SPECIAL GUESTS THE FREEDOM LEAGUE!"

The festival itself was mostly in the meadows just outside of town, which were full of brightly-colored banners and stalls. All the typical trappings of a

country fair in summertime are on show: clowns with bunches of helium balloons, stalls selling farm produce, a large bouncy castle in the shape of a ridiculous looming Friesian cow, a face-painting stall, and sundry other attractions. Most of the revelers looked to be locals, although apparently the festival usually attracts visitors from the neighboring towns – Ten Commandments, Yellow Banks, and Small – and they seemed to be a fairly typical small-town crowd. Dairy was, unsurprisingly, the overwhelming theme of the festival: between the samples of cheese on plates, men dressed as giant wedges of cheese, stalls selling yogurt from the local dairy plant, kids drinking milk from locally produced cartons, this place really could be called the "DAIRIEST PLACE ON EARTH" as one of the overhanging banners proclaims. Everybody there was either holding, selling, moving, or consuming a dairy product of some kind. There was even an ice-cream truck driving slowly around the perimeter of the fair, playing a slow tink-tink-tink of familiar music as it circled the area, and several cows just wandering around among the humans as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. Getting through the crowd hadn't been easy for Gaian Knight and Teagan; everyone had been eager to press free samples of cheese, milk, delicious milkshakes, ice cream, and yogurt on them, enough that they'd attracted quite a crowd as they went. Enough that they'd attracted some attention.

A four-piece band stood on a small raised stage nearby as the heroes met, working on their instruments slowly and carefully. Above them, a banner said “The Boys In Bluegrass.” The banjo player wore a sheriff’s uniform."Hey folks," said the town's mayor (or his twin, if the pictures sent in advance had been any guide) a big smile on his face as he stepped up to greet them, a plate of cheese samples in his hand. "Hey there, little lady," he added with a wink at Fleur. "Welcome to Pleasantville! I'm Mayor Stanley and I'm glad you could all be here today. Try a bite of our All-American Surprise?" he offered with a smile as he took a piece and handed it to Ammy with a huge smile.

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Catherine parked her car, getting out and heading towards the fair. As she entered the fairgrounds, she looked around, trying to keep any obvious caution out of her face while still being cautious. After all, the cows looked harmless, but... Catherine frowned slightly as she remembered the call, and stared walking around the fair, trying to see if anything was wrong while she walked.

As she saw the other heroes, she smiled slightly, which quickly disappeared once she saw the baby on Fleur's back. That... made things very difficult. As she walked, she started thinking over whether she could try to warn the other heroes.

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"'Tiamat' when the mask's on," the woman confirmed, giving Fleur a strong and surprisingly respectful handshake, what with the grief Gaian Knight had just been getting. "Not that I have a whole lot to protect, but it's the spirit of the thing, I guess. Sorry I haven't flown by to talk - I've been busy getting up to speed. Phones, computers..."

"The fact that cars aren't dangerous, people-eating monsters," Gaian Knight interjected.

"That happened once," Tiamat countered, sniffing like she'd been stabbed right in the dignity. "It was a perfectly reasonable mistake. Anyway, we should sit down sometime - I want to know how I can help. I don't like the idea that I'm...'freeloading'."

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"Tiamat, of course," Fleur corrected herself. "You should definitely come over soon, the both of you. I feel like I hardly get a chance to socialize anymore, we've all been so busy." She gave the dragon-woman a gracious smile. "And I hope you feel nothing but welcome on Sanctuary, but there is always room for a pair of willing hands."

She was distracted then by the approach of the mayor, giving him a polite and friendly smile. "We're very happy to be here!" she told him, even as she deftly intercepted the veiny yellow cheese he'd been passing to Ammy. "Bleu cheese is a little too strong for her," she said with pleasant firmness. "But I've heard wonderful things about Pennsylvania mozzarella. She's a big string cheese fan." To take the sting out of the rejection, Fleur ate the bit of cheese herself, though she wasn't much a fan of moldy cheese either. "What time does the judging start?"

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The minute Catherine set foot on the fairgrounds, the dairy crowd was on her. Smiling men in cheese hats pressed cheese trays on her; little boys in cow costumes and little hats smilingly offered her fresh cups of milk, milkshake merchants began pressing their wares on her from their stores. Even the ice cream truck approached, closing in behind her as its music played in a cheerful rhythm. A cow approached her, bell jangling as it sidled along and parked itself on the grassy path behind her. The heroes could see Catherine arriving easily enough; she instantly became the most important person in the fair for everyone anywhere near her. The Mayor, however, smoothly kept his attention on the heroes and company. "Aw, well, we do have plenty of regular American for a young lady's palate," he said with a wink. "Try the cheese, try the milk, enjoy the fair!" As he spoke, one of the 'cowboys' approached carrying a tray loaded with milkshakes.

"As for judging, Mz. Fleur, that'll start at the hour of noon sharp. We have to make sure our special blends are all ready for serving, you know how tempermental a cheesemaker can be. Haw-haw-haw!" He threw back his head and guffawed before adding, "Feel free to help yourself while you wait. There's no charge for the Freedom League, of course, or their special guests." The All-American Surprise tasted just fine for a blend of American and bleu cheese, albeit a little mild if you were a bleu cheese devotee.

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"That's very friendly, thank you," Gaian Knight complimented, carefully taking a milkshake from the tray and pulling his face cloth down to take a sip. He leaned to the side as he did so, though, to get a better view of the young woman getting mobbed. "Er, perhaps a little too friendly," he chuckled. "You folks swarm that poor young lady any more and she won't have room to breathe."

"They did the same to us when we came in," Tiamat pointed out - she took a shake of her own, but rather than drinking she held it up and dubiously peered at it. "You take your diary very seriously, I think. It should make for a good festival."

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"It doesn't seem like they get a lot of out of towners," Fleur murmured to Gaian Knight, her voice pitched low so that the mayor couldn't hear. "Which seems a little strange for what should be a big tourism thing. We used to go to cheese festivals in Wisconsin, and they had people from all over the region " She took a piece of string cheese off a tray and handed it back to Ammy, who squealed with delight and began chewing on it with gusto, then stepped off the dais. "May as well play the hero and rescue her," Fleur quipped.

Making her way through the crowd took some effort, a lot of "excuse me's" and a little out-and-out pushing, but eventually Fleur made her way to the young woman. "Friendly crowd, huh?" she said cheerfully. "Why don't you come on up to the dais where there's some room to breathe?"

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Catherine freezed as the crowd started... well, crowding her, the way they were trying to push the dairy products onto her making her more than a little nervous- heck, even if she didn't know something was wrong it would have made her nervous. Thankfully, she got a rescue from one of the Freedom League. Catherine breathed out in relief. "That's understating it. Thanks for the offer, miss Fleur. I'm Catherine Fields."

She breathed in and out gently, accompanying the superheroine towards the dias. "Even the cows seem friendly. Must be really well-trained."

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"See, that's another reason why you can't have one," Gaian Knight quietly joked Tiamat's way, and earning himself a good-natured snort in return. She was still giving the milkshake a thorough visual inspection, and apparently didn't have time to lecture him on why well-trained food was still food.

"I guess the out-of-towners will just have to stick together a bit," the hero offered, smiling and turning his attention back to Catherine as she and Fleur made their way up to the dias. "I get the feeling it'll be pretty easy to get overwhelmed around here - if we're not careful, we'll get stuffed so full of cheese and milk they'll have to roll us back out."

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"I can think of worse fates," Fleur said easily, even as she accepted a little cup of chocolate ice cream. She wasn't quite fast enough, though! Ammy caught sight of the treat and immediately disregarded her cheese in favor of the new treat, complaining loudly when none was forthcoming. Fleur passed her back a spoonful and resigned herself to getting ice cream in her hair. "Just remember," she told GK, "it's still nearly three hours till the judging, and you and I have to be able to taste-test a few dozen kinds of cheese without bursting."

"So Catherine," Fleur went on, turning her attention to the new girl, "you don't look to be from around these parts yourself. Where are you from?"

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Catherine smiled at Fleur spoke to her. "I'm from Australia, actually- born and raised in Sydney. I came over here to study at Freedom City University."

The young hero grinned. "It's been really cool over here in America. Bit more crowded... and you've got a lot of interesting things going on. A lot more superheroes, for one. Dad does a lot of business with superheroes, but he doesn't tend to bring work home."

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Gaian Knight laughed. "It's not so much the bursting I'm afraid of, Fleur," he replied, putting his hands on the front of his armor in protest. "If I fill up too much, samples and contest and all, I'll have to get a whole new breastplate made! Though maybe it'll help keep my poor stomach from bursting in the first place; if it can keep bullets out, maybe it can keep my poor belly in."

"Freedom City University is a good school," he noted - a bit more seriously and with clear approval. "I'm sure they'll treat you well. Do you have a major picked out, or are you just getting your feet wet?"

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Catherine grinned a little at the banter, then nodded. "I'm majoring in architecture right now. On my last year of my bachelor's degree, then I'm moving to a Master's degree."

Catherine thought for a moment. Maybe if she worded it right... she could try and give a bit of a hint to the other heroes.

"Made a lot of friends there, too. One of them, Charlotte, actually told me about this festival- she's been on a field trip for an assignment- and we were going to meet here. Not sure where she is, though..."

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"If the crowd keeps on this way, we'll certainly see her when she shows up," Fleur pointed out with a wave of her hand towards the crowd. "I just hope she isn't lactose-intolerant!" She took her spoon back and caught a bite of ice cream of her own, then gave another to Amaryllis. "I'd like to go look at the childrens' entertainment, but I think we'll just have to wait on that till the crowd thins down a little bit." She took a seat at the table that would be used for judging later, sitting sideways and looking perfectly comfortable. "So you're going for a masters' in architecture? Do you want to teach?"

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Catherine shook her head at Fleur's question. "I'm planning to work for my dad's company for a while- if I work with some of the people he brings in when they're doing construction work, I could get some experience."

The young woman shrugged. "After that, I'm thinking of getting a job at a construction firm, with some experience already gained. Haven't planned out which one, but that's years away."

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The crowd continued to pay warm, eager attention to the celebrity judges and their friends as time went by. There were offers of ice cream and milkshakes whenever their supply seemed to run dry, and the crowd of fairgoers were as interested in sticking close to them as they were to taking in the fair proper. A few cars with out of town license plates were starting to arrive by now, but they seemed to be coming up the access road from the town rather than down from the highway proper. The whole thing seemed to have a lively, carnival atmosphere, clowns forming up beneath the dais and performing for the crowd and the heroes as they sprayed each other with seltzer bottles full of milk, the ice cream truck from Reed's Dairy having moved up behind the stage, slowly circling as music played over and over again.

Suddenly, there came from everywhere a terrible mechanical wail, a rising and falling shriek that made the out-of-towners start but didn't do more than make the townsfolk glance at each other. "Ah, sorry folks, I think some joker pulled the tornado alarm," said the mayor, turning to reassure the crowd before turning back to the heroes. "We can't shut it down from here, it has to be shut down from the hardpoint that called it in. Sheriff?" he asked the banjo player on stage significantly.

"My boys are on it already," said the sheriff with a reassuring smile, his voice penetrating the noise thanks to the mike he was wearing, "they'll take care of that."

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Fleur winced as Amaryllis, already overfull and overstimulated, began to wail right along with the siren. She took the baby out of the sling and gave her a cuddle, which stopped the crying for a moment. "Hush, hush, hush, the bad noise will stop in just a-" Her head jerked up as she heard the gunshot from over the rise. She held up a hand to beckon the others to silence and heard another, then another. "Gunshots," she told them tersely. "A shotgun, I think. There's trouble over there."

She jerked a hand towards the plant on the dais, which obediently opened an outsize, yawning flower. Without hesitating, Fleur stuck her head through and called "Darcy, I'm sending Ammy your way. Keep an eye on her, would you?" Apparently satisfied with whatever response she received, Fleur put the baby into the flower, which immediately closed and disappeared. That taken care of, she looked to Gaian Knight. "If you fly us, we'll get a better view," she suggested.

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Catherine's eyes widened as Fleur announced the gunshots, and she leaned towards Fleur and Gaian Knight, speaking softly and trying to avoid being overheard by anyone else. "...I came here because I got a call from my friend. She sounded like she was in trouble. And..."

The young woman breathes out. "Well, I want to come with you. This sounds related. Besides, you're not the only superheroes on the dias."

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"Hmm? Ah, yes." Gaian Knight's attention was off on the crowd, frowning at the family that had just showed up. Fleur mentioning gunshots shook him out of it, though, and loose rocks and dirt from the surrounding area started spinning together into a simple platform big enough for two.

Catherine got an appraising look before he nodded, expanding his platform out for four. "Right, well, then. All aboard - you too, Tiamat. Not really enough room on the dias for you and you know it."

When three people and a (reluctant) people-shaped dragon were all ready he took them into the air, waving an apology to the rest of the town as they made their way toward the gunshots. "So," he said, carefully, "how many big rural families - from out of town - do you suppose own sports cars?"

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Fleur blinked at the question, most of her attention still concentrated on the place where the shots had come from. "Probably not too many," she decided, "but this is a tourist area with Gettysburg so close. People rent cars they'd never drive otherwise. Why?" Seeming perfectly comfortable on the platform of rock careening through the air, she looked over at Catherine. "So what can you do?" she asked point-blank. It wasn't the time for chit-chat, much as Fleur thrived on that.

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