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Avenger Assembled

The War's Not Done (IC)

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December 2016 

Hunter-White Mansion 

 

It was snowing outside, thick and heavy, unusually so for this part of New Jersey at this time of year. But that hadn't put Riley off - the wiry teen was working in the garage of the Hunter-White Mansion, putting in the hours for his part-time job here with classic cars. A lot of things had changed in his life and at the school in the last year - but not his job and his relationship with Erin and Trevor Hunter-White. He'd closed the garage door as he worked but left the outside door open, the direction of the wind meaning that only a small amount of snowflakes were actually blowing into the increasingly cold room. He'd turned off the room's heaters as he worked, and even his sensitive hearing could detect nothing other than the wind and the sound of his tools as he carefully tested the troublesome headlights of this 1931 Model A Ford. On and off, on and off, but he couldn't get a steady illumination despite what he knew were perfectly good bulbs. 

 

Must be the wiring, he thought as he stepped out over the running board, a fuzzy knitted hat atop his shaved head. 

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At the front of the expansive garage, a good dozen yards from where Riley was working, the garage door opened and allowed in a blast of frigid, snowy air. Erin's blue truck pulled in and the door shut quickly behind it as the garage fans kicked on to quickly balance the temperature and remove the humidity from the air. Erin herself climbed out of the truck, swinging around the back of the cab to jump into the bed in one of the carelessly acrobatic maneuvers that Riley was becoming used to after a lot of time spent around superheroes. She reappeared a moment later with an armload of grocery bags and jumped out of the truck just as easily. "Hey Riley," she greeted casually. "How's it going?" 

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"Goin' fine," he said. He debated the relative merits of offering to help carry a bag - but dismissed it quickly. Erin didn't need his help carrying anything (not when she could have lifted the truck) and she was fast enough that she didn't need an extra hand. "Hey, could use your help with somethin' when yer done. Not this," he added hastily with a look down at his machinery. He knew enough to ask for help if he was actually in danger but he'd be damned if he'd ever be a burden to the people who had taken him into their home (at least sometimes) and given him a job when everyone else thought he was a maniac with strange cares. "School stuff. Supposed to talk to a veteran super." 

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"Wow, okay." Erin laughed a little. "You're gonna make me old before my time, but I guess I count. I've got to get the food put away, come on in and have some cocoa." She led him into the house, still not exactly warm thanks to its age and size, but much warmer than the frigid garage. The Manor had way more kitchens than any one house needed, but Erin headed for the main kitchen at the center of the first floor, where the appliances were brand new and the lighting had been upgraded to warm hominess instead of industrial foodservice. She put on the electric kettle, then started unpacking the groceries. "What do you need to talk about?" 

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Riley held the steaming hot mug in his hands, feeling the heat radiate through his fingerless gloves. Hot cocoa was one of the many things he had grown up without - and he took a moment to savor the smell and the taste it put in the back of his throat before he took a sip. "We're, uh, takin' ethics class and we're doin' a round table about 'lethal force'." The euphemism still sounded odd in his mouth - just as it had in yet another classroom discussion where he'd had to keep his mouth clamped shut. He was talking about killing. He sipped his cocoa again. "I got the 'personal interview' group. Everybody'n our group's supposed to find a veteran super and ask why supers don't kill people. Good ones, anyway." 

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Erin paused for a moment, can of beef stew in hand, then resumed her methodical task. "Lots of reasons," she told him. "We don't want people to be afraid of us, or see us as some kind of force outside the law. If we make a mistake and capture somebody innocent and turn them over to the police, that's fixable. If we kill somebody and it turns out we were wrong, nobody's going to fix that, and it's going to be hard to hold anybody accountable. Now most of the time we're really sure of who the bad guy is and that wouldn't even be an issue, but the people we protect don't have any way to know that for sure. They feel safer when we use restraint. Plus there's the fact that even the guilty ones deserve a trial, and they don't get that if we kill them." 

 

She dumped a bag of potatoes into the bin in the bottom of the pantry and tossed the plastic sack away. "And there's the fact that when we kill people, it hurts us too. Even if they deserved it, there's something about killing that is bad for humans. Every so often the situation will come up where you have to and there's no other choice for whatever reason, and then you do what you've got to do. But it's not good for you." 

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"It's not good," Riley agreed. He looked down at his own reflection in the mug for a moment, closed his eyes, then kept talking. "I know here isn't like home. Things have to be different, because the world is different." There were no crimes grave enough to warrant the gallows or the ax - not when a super was usually just a stone's throw away. People did terrible things to each other - but there were limits. "Sometimes you can't stop 'em any other way, though. You know they're gonna get away, you know they're gonna hurt people, or kill people - and even if somebody stops 'em later, they're not gonna stop. Sometimes it just doesn't get better." 

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"I know how it is," Erin assured him. "That's why you work as hard as you can to come up with a hundred strategies and tricks and skills to make sure you can stop somebody without killing them. You go out in teams so you've got the backup, you practice your ass off until you know in every fiber of every muscle that you can make the hit or take the shot and it's not going to be lethal." She hopped up to sit on the edge of the counter and face him. "You sit through every one of those ethics classes and you pay attention even when they're stupid, even when it seems like nobody in there has any fricking clue about how the world works. You and I don't come from here, and it's easy to forget what this world is like. We have to remind ourselves, because this is better. This is the kind of world I want to live in, you know?" 

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"It's real nice," agreed Riley, who hardly ever felt cold, stabbing terror whenever he saw a figure flying in the sky anymore, or a colorful costumed person on the street. As much as he missed his home, and his family, and his people, he'd be crazy not to appreciate the virtues of this place - like unexpected friends, and hot cocoa. "Least nobody glares at me when killin' comes up anymore. New semester wasn't so bad." He smiled thinly - a bit of gallows humor given how difficult things had been at the beginning of summer. He paused for a moment, remembering, and took out a little camo-patterned pocket notebook to write down Erin's words. His handwriting was neat and small, more precise than most people his age who had grown up with computers everywhere. "I worry still about things getting worse," he admitted. "People might shake out good - but a lot of bad stuff can happen before that." 

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Erin waited patiently while Riley wrote down her answers, pulling her phone from her pocket so she could check her email and play Fruit Ninja. Not destroying her own phone while playing Fruit Ninja was another significant accomplishment of fine superheroic control. She looked up when he asked the question. "Things can always get worse," she agreed. "The ones of us who've seen how bad it can get have to be more watchful than anybody. But I'm hoping that by being here, I've helped keep this place good." She shrugged. "I've seen entropy at work, I've fought entropy. I don't think it's something that's inevitable. Are you worried about anything in particular?" 

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They'd already hashed out his worries about what had happened at Claremont - he had the idea that Midnight and Wander had launched their own investigation, even if it hadn't turned up much more than Raven's. "The Forest, a little," he said quietly. "But not even that much lately." The spectre of trees erupting through the world and maddening it would haunt him until he was old - but it wasn't something that woke him up much at night after a year on Prime. "I just keep thinkin' how easily things break. Some bad stuff happened at Claremont and people starting shootin' at each other, and I know they were just kids, but..." He made a little gesture in the air. "It's like you cut enough rope, eventually the whole house falls down."

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"That's why when you see somebody cutting a rope, or notice one that's fraying, you fix it," Erin told him. "That's why people like you and I are important. We know what certain kinds of dangers look like, so maybe we notice them earlier. But to do that, we have to become part of the world. And that means we live by their code of ethics, even if it's hard, and even if it means having to relearn everything about how to fight. You want more cocoa? Or I've got some cookies in one of these bags." 

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Riley did indeed want both cocoa and cookies - though he promised himself he would make up for it by jogging back to Claremont that night rather than taking the bus. (He wasn't confident enough to take his motorcycle out on potentially icy roads - not when he'd spent most of a year working on it!) That thought reminded him of the job he'd left in the garage, though, so when he had a cup of one and a plate of the other, he said "I'm just gonna eat this then get back to work. Wanna make sure that old Model A's workin' when that guy comes to pick it up again. Thanks, Erin," he said after a minute. "You'd be a good ethics teacher." 

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She laughed. "Nope, that sounds pretty terrible. Also, they make you go to college if you want to be a teacher, and that's not really my thing. But if you ever need to talk about stuff, well, you're here at my house almost as much as you're at your dorm, so I'm pretty easy to find." Erin paused for a moment, studying him with his cookies and his cocoa. "What are you doing for Christmas this year? You going to be with Peyton and the other Riley again?" 

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"Probably. Peyton's not my mom - but when she's happy, it's like I'm making my mom happy." Riley's voice got a little shaky at that, but he was doing his best to be strong in front of Erin. "I'll probably bring Robin too, get everybody together." It would make sure Robin wasn't trying to sleep in an alley in the Fens, at least for the night, which made Riley happy too. "Why, are you guys doing anything?" he asked her, dipping sugar cookies in cocoa as they spoke. 

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"I dunno," Erin admitted with a shrug. "We don't really have any Christmas traditions. The first couple years I was in-world, I didn't want to do anything with anybody. I couldn't handle being with my family the way you can, it just didn't work out. Then there were a couple years I spent with Trevor and his grandpa, but they usually got interrupted by superbattles, and one time I was kidnapped into space and replaced with a robot doppelganger over Christmas. We'll probably figure something out, maybe get an aluminum tree and drink eggnog and watch Christmas movies." She grinned at him a little. "Is this the first Christmas you're bringing Robin to?" 

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"Yeah, I heard about that robot thing!" The idea of people being replaced by machines was threatening, he supposed, but not particularly compared to the things he'd seen with his own eyes. It was more like some exotic novelty. "We still have to get full body scans every time we get a physical." Teachers had to do the same thing in the wake of what had happened to  Mr. Archer - but that was a different story. "Yeah, we've had Christmases before, but never with her over at, uh, our place. It'll be pretty cool. Peyton, uh," he coughed and said, "she really likes Robin." He'd been about to tell the story of how Peyton had declared how glad she was that neither of her sons could get a girl pregnant, but that really wasn't a memory he wanted to dwell on when he thought about it. 

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"That's nice, should make the holidays more peaceful. I'll let you get back to work." Erin gave him a quick smile before turning back to her own tasks, shoving more groceries into the already well-stocked larder. Every kitchen Riley had seen in this house had a well-stocked larder, in fact, full of nonperishable foods and canned goods enough to last the two residents of the house for weeks. Even though Riley and Erin didn't talk too much about it, in some ways they really did have a great deal in common. 

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