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October 2015 

Riley sat alone under the tree, methodically field-stripping his crossbow, his physics textbooks tucked away in the thick grass at his feet. So Headmaster Summers, after a serious conversation with him and promises of a serious conversation with his instructors, had set up a meeting with a famous superheroine. He'd heard of Erin White, of course, and the students of Young Freedom who'd helped save the world so many times. He didn't really care about most of them, half of whose names he didn't even know, but Erin White was someone whose name he knew very well. 

Alone in isolation in the Goodman Building, Riley ran his hands across the words carved into the bathroom wall. My name is Erin. 

He'd heard plenty about the dimensional refugee, or at least enough to know he wanted to learn more. But she's prolly gonna talk with me about not shooting anyone in the damn head, he decided gruffly. Like I haven't heard enough of that already. No one looked his way as he held his impervium bolthead up to the sunlight - something which didn't surprise him a bit after that damn accidental video had gotten around. Everybody knew the story. Bolt in hand, he judged the bolt by the way it reflected the light, the glow showing how unmarred the surface of the bolt was. Impervium could be a tricky thing, especially when you were working with scraps. 

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He heard her coming before he saw her, deliberately loud steps to announce her arrival and avoid startling him while he was armed and looking in another direction. Erin was wearing sturdy and practical clothes today, jeans and a flannel pullover covering a t-shirt, ankle-height boots and a sturdy backpack. She walked up to him and stopped a few feet away, looking him over. "Are you Riley?" she asked, mostly for form's sake. "I'm Erin. People around here usually call me Wander. Can I sit down?" 

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"Yeah, go ahead," said Riley with a little nod. shooting a glance up at her before going back to his work. Erin had the feeling of being tightly scrutinized, a look more intent than the usual high school student could manage. "Riley Quinn." He kept working on his bow as they talked, screwing the arbalest wheel back into place with his pocket knife's screwdriver. "Just cleanin' this thing up. Gotta field-strip it every week, make sure none a' the gears are rustin'" He smiled for a moment, truly proud of his homemade weapon, even if his skill with it had gotten him into some trouble lately. He shot a look at her again, evidently waiting for something. 

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Erin sat down crosslegged on the grass and watched him work, observing the weapon with a practiced eye. "You keep it in good shape," she noted. "I don't have a lot of experience with crossbows. I used one for a little while when I was younger, but the things I was fighting, putting holes in them wouldn't have done much good. Though I hear you've got some bolts with a little more punch. How long have you been practicing with it?" Her voice was mild, interested, just shop talk between two people interested in weapons. 

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"Joined the Woodsmen when I was fourteen. Had a bow before, but that was mostly for hunting." He shrugged diffidently, but it was clear he cared about the praise. "Some old folks still use guns, but better to save the chemicals and the metal for stuff people need. Arrow's a lot quieter too, you need that out in the Forest. This is the big one," he said, holding up the bolt he'd been inspecting earlier. "Impervium head means I get penetration." He turned the bolt over, exposing white and black compartments inside the arrow itself. "Binary explosives slam together when they've hit something and boom - like setting off a hand grenade in their head." He smiled thinly. "But I guess you heard about that already, huh?" 

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Erin held out her hand for the bolt, her smile wry. "You think you're the first student to make Archer wet his pants during a power assessment?" she asked sardonically. "The first scenario he ever ran me through, I wound up twisting one mugger's head clean off his body, then crushing another one to death inside his own super-suit. I was less than six months out from my apocalypse, and raw as hell. I barely understood the concept of not fighting to kill. From the way I heard it, you made a principled choice that was different than the one somebody who grew up on Prime might have made. That about right?" 

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"Made it look like the Green Man was eatin' Dr. Metropolis. Like he was gonna eat the whole damn city. Green Man was as big as a house, so I shot Metropolis." Riley shrugged, but she could see the tense set to his shoulders that told her he wasn't as casual about it as he pretended. "Figured no power t' steal, can't eat the city." He fell silent, methodically stringing his bow's line against the crank. "Seen people get eaten," he said suddenly. "Couldn't letit happen. Thought it was better than just sit there and watch 'im die." He set his jaw. "Then the coach shuts everything down, one of t' other kids pukes, and next thing I know my gear has to stay on campus for a week while they check me out. Make sure I'm not crazy." 

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"It's hard to see somebody die for the first time, even in simulation, I imagine," Erin commented, turning the bolt he'd given her in her hands. "And Archer's a well-known asshole. I honestly don't know why they even keep him around, except that he's got no other skills. But serving detention isn't so bad. You can serve it in the Doom Room or the gym if you want; better than study hall and you get more done. This is nice work," she commented, handing him back the crossbow bolt. "Did he tell you what the solution to the simulation was supposed to be?" 

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"I was supposed to call for backup," Riley said, sounding deeply skeptical of the idea. "Call in people from my team who wouldn't have gotten turned by the Green Man, so we could work together in taking him down. I pointed out that I don't actually have any freakin' powers except crossbow bolts that blow up, so that if everyone was getting blasted by pollen that I'd probably be Feral too." Erin could hear the capital letter he put on the word, and the bitter rage in his voice as he went on. "So that got me more detention, because I maybe yelled it. That's not so bad, though," he said with a shrug. "Training back home's worse. Least my girl was all right." 

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"It's a good lesson, taught in a stupid way," Erin told him. "One of the most important things you learn at Claremont, no matter what your skills and powers are like, is that you can't do it on your own. The impulse is going to be there to go it alone, especially when it feels like nobody understands where you're coming from. People who are from Prime can be incredibly stupid about responding to deadly threats." There were years of frustration in those words, but it was an old, settled kind of annoyance. "But when you do hero work, you need a wide base of skills to draw on, and people to watch your back. Going it alone is a good way to get yourself hurt, and for the day not to get saved." 

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"Yeah, I know," said Riley, frowning. "I've been in fights before. I just didn't think about it, 'cause..." He looked around at the school and waved his hand. "None of this is here where I'm from. There's nobody who can fly, there's nobody who can run fast - all the people are just regular people. Nobody'dve been there back home." It didn't look like he was rejecting her advice so much as he was still trying to process it. "Everything's different here. People walk around like they have problems when most of them live like kings, and the city, it's...I couldn't even be sitting here like this, not in Bayview, 'specially not at Claremont. Too dangerous." He looked at Erin, then asked, "What happened where you were from?" He scratched the back of his head, where his hair was beginning to grow back in. "They, uh, they told me you were a refugee too. I remembered you from Goodman. They still talk 'bout you there." 

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Erin hrmphed a laugh. "That's not exactly reassuring," she admitted. "I did a lot of time in the Goodman Building before they decided I was safe to let out onto the street." She hesitated for a minute, obviously trying to decide what and how much of her story she wanted to tell. "There was a pandemic in my world. The Terminus engineered it and set it loose, and it was killing people by the millions, starting with the superheroes. Every genius who was still alive got together to work on coming up with a vaccine, and when they found one, they rushed it into production. And everyone who got the vaccine turned into a zombie within a few days and started killing everyone around them. Since the people who got the vaccines first were soldiers, health care workers, infrastructure workers, families, it got ugly really fast. Between that and the flu, the world was an empty wasteland within a year, except for hordes of starving zombies. I wound up traveling from Southern California all the way to Freedom City, where Dr. Atom helped me get offworld, to someplace safe." She didn't look at him as she told the story, her eyes were distant in a way Riley could recognize from the adults who'd lived through the worst of the Forest Wave. 

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"You saw it," Riley commented quietly. "I...I missed it. I mean, I was alive, but I was just a tiny baby. I don't remember anything about it." He told her the story of the Forest Wave that had swallowed the world at sunset on the Millennium - and how the heroes who had gone out to fight it had been the first to turn into monsters worse than anything the old world had ever known - the monsters had destroyed what hadn't died when impaled through the heart by a forest of monstrous animals. "Everybody I talk to says how bad it must have been, and it was for all the adults I knew, but f'r me, it was...how I grew up. I think I was, maybe ten, the first time I saw one. Kids go into lockdown when the Ferals are at the fences, but I snuck away one time and got my dad's old binoculars and I climbed up the side of the old parking garage." He shrugged. "There was enough of them that they could have gotten through the first fence, so the Woodsmen were there with bows and blades, killing the ones hanging off the wire. Must've been...a couple hundred on the fence that day. I didn't sneak away again after that, not till I was older." 

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"Yeah," Erin confirmed, her voice oddly flattened. "I was fourteen when people started getting sick. My mom smuggled my sister and I out of Seattle when my dad started coughing, so we watched most everything on television from this isolated compound my crazy uncle had. Eventually a crowd of zombies found the compound, and that was the end of that, for everybody but my sister and me. The experimental flu vaccine he used on us gave me superpowers, but that only takes you so far, especially if you're fighting alone." She shook her head, changed the subject. "Sounds like you joined up with the Woodsmen as soon as you were old enough. Did you like doing it?" 

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"'Sgotta be done," he said with a shrug."Couldn't just live behind the fences my whole life and let other people fight for me. You'd be surprised how tiny a couple square miles feels when you've got over ten thousand people stuck in it." He smiled faintly, sliding the bolt she'd returned back into place. "Snice, when you're not running and hiding. You get to see the city, scavenge stuff, not just work in the fields or reactor-tendin'. Used to go in places and try and find old books and put 'em in our library. Didn't really give me a lotta skills for Earth-Prime," he admitted. "Least I can handle myself better'n most people who just have powers. No offense or anything," he added quickly. 

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She gave him a side-eyed look and a little smirk. "None taken," she told him evenly. "Just don't go making too many assumptions about who can handle themselves and who can't. Looking like a badass and acting like a badass tends to mean the opposite of actually being a badass. But some of the toughest people I know haven't got much in the way of superpowers. If you can use your brain and your skills and your good sense, you'll get by just fine. You planning on trying to do hero work while you're here on Prime?" 

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"Once they let me carry my bow off-campus again," said Riley with a tight shrug. "Don't like going out without it," he admitted. "Can't do that back home. I know, it's not the same here, I mean, my girl took me out to the Fens and that was all right, but it's just..." He scratched the back of his head, not quite able to go on, then went on, "Hey, uh, can I ask you somethin'?" He looked at her, then went on as if he was phrasing a completely alien question. "Is there another, you know, you here? Do you guys get along?" 

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An expression that was hard to quantify flitted across Erin's face, before settling back into her bland expression. "There are two, actually," she told him. "My legal name now is Keeley Erin White, I reversed my first and middle names so I could have a legal identity separate from the Erin White native to this timeline. Once they let me out of the Goodman Building, I went and lived with the Whites in Seattle for a few months before we all decided I'd be a lot better off at Claremont. I see them once a year or so, we exchange some emails and photos, but we're not close. You went and stayed with your double's family for awhile too, right? They're here in Freedom City?" 

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"Yeah. It was weird. being with Peyton and the other Riley, they've both had it so good. Hell, Riley's dad isn't even dead - he just walked out when he was thirteen." Riley was quiet for a moment, not quite able to look Erin in the eye. "I had to...I had to leave after he and I had a fight. It was just stupid kid stuff." He ran his hand over his smooth chin before admitting, "He'd never been in a real fight before. I thought for sure he'd be able to..." He bit his lip, looking like he was visibly swallowing emotions. "The hell of it is," he whispered, "Peyton still sends me money, and says she's the closest thing to my mom here. But after that, when Bowman found me, we decided it was best I go to Claremont too." He looked around suddenly. 

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"It's hard," Erin agreed. "Seeing your life the way it could've been, and this other person who gets to live it, and doesn't even appreciate how good they have it. Makes it feel like there's no room for you in your own family, and how is that even fair? And maybe you see things in them you don't really like in yourself, and it's just so annoying. Erin Keeley and I get along a lot better now that there's most of a continent between us," she admitted with a rueful grin. "We couldn't make it work in the same house, and only part of it was that I couldn't handle being around copies of the people I'd lost every day. You should let her help you," she added abruptly. "If she wants to help you, count it as a blessing. It's weird for them too, having you around and not knowing what to do, but maybe it helps if she feels like she can take care of you at least this much." 

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"Yeah, I guess." He smiled thinly, thinking back to the home that wasn't quite his home. "The other Riley's kind of a dick, so maybe there's some of me in there too." He actually snorted at that. "He's gonna go be an astronaut, I think. He never did have to pick up a weapon in his life. And my mom can keep a nuclear reactor running after the world ended, so I guess it makes sense Peyton doesn't wanna give up on anybody either. She mostly sends money and clothes, mebbe I can buy stuff or somethin'..." He hesitated a moment, thinking back over Erin's words. "So the two, is that you and the other Erin?" 

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"Nope," Erin said ruefully. "Two besides me. When I was at Claremont, we ended up getting thrown into alternate dimensions pretty regularly, for all kinds of different reasons. I met a bunch of different versions of myself, and we almost never got along. But one time we got swapped here on Prime with our counterparts from Anti-Earth, and I found out that the version of me there wasn't evil, she was a split of me from my world, and they were... they were doing horrible things to her." Erin's voice made it clear how much she wasn't going to discuss details of that. "So my friends and I mounted a rescue mission and brought her to Prime, and she lives here now too. She picked the name Jessie, and her codename is Singularity. She's in Freedom City, you may meet her one day." 

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"Geez." Riley thought about that one, a rueful look on his face. "Well, if there's an evil Riley, he's prolly dead. Can't imagine a bunch of evil people surviving the Forest Wave - and if they did, I bet they wouldn't take in some traveler. I'll, uh, I'll keep an eye out for another you." He obviously wasn't entirely sure what to make of Erin's revelation, but he'd certainly heard crazier things on this Earth. "Did anybody else make it off your world?" he asked her. "The original one, I mean." He asked it carefully, knowing it was gonna be a touchy subject. "The Freedom League said there was a place called Sanctuary where they put refugee when they come in big numbers. They were talking about finding a place for us, if they could find where I'm from." 

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Erin went very still for a minute, till it seemed like Riley might have gone too far. "It was a very comprehensive apocalypse," she finally said, her voice careful and flat. "I tried to keep my little sister alive, but she was only seven. After her, the only non-zombie humans I met were a little cult somewhere around Ohio and they ran me off with torches and pitchforks. They wouldn't have gone anywhere. After I left, the Terminus came to pick over what was left. Very comprehensive," she said again, then seemed to shake herself, remind herself that she was supposed to be mentoring here.

"I've been to Sanctuary, it's really nice," she told him. "There's this plant controller named Fleur de Joie who runs the place, but it's like almost this old fashioned farming community, except they've got electricity and medicine and stuff. And giant firebreathing bees sometimes, but they're friendly. That definitely wouldn't be a bad place to evacuate to, and I'm sure they'll find your world eventually. It's just a matter of time." 

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"Yeah, I heard about the damn plant controller." Riley became one of the few people Erin had met, at Claremont or anywhere else, to get that look in his eye about Fleur de Joie - the kind of terror and fury that she herself might have once felt towards someone like Dead Head. "I just...god, it seems so sick." He set his teeth. "You know , I think I heard she has kids? I heard about that when they were trying to talk up Sanctuary to me. We never found out what happened to my world. All the super-scientists, all the magic people, they just were...were food for the Forest. Every time I think about her, or someone like that woman on the Interceptors, I wonder if that was them, if they just...went crazy, or evil, and they decided to screw the world into their own image. Nobody should have that kind of power over other people's lives."

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