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Early Summer 2018 

Jordan International Airport 

 

The busload of tourists who had recently been getting ready for their tour of Freedom City were certainly getting an eyeful, thought Watchdog. As the driver recovered from the punch she'd landed on the side of his head, she had to wonder if the touring company was going to give them their money back. "You think you can smuggle poison dope in my city? Those kids _died!_" The truth was that Rodrigo here was a pretty low-level dealer, but a sound beating from a vigilante was just the thing to get him to lay off and move out of town. Or so the Raven had suggested, anyway, and so Ashley had passed on to her superiors. He hadn't actually killed anyone with the watered-down crap he was selling to the nightshift package handlers, but if he thought he had, he'd probably run off and do something stupid that would lead the Raven or the cops to his boss. 

 

"I didn't kill anybody I swear to God!" Rodrigo wept, putting his hands up as he braced himself against the side of the bus. 

 

"SWEAR TO ME!" responded Watchdog as she kicked him again, knocking him to the ground and drawing her pistols. She really did hate dealers, and that made it easy to put real menace in her voice as she advanced on him."SWEAR YOU DIDN'T POISON THAT LITTLE GIRL! GO AHEAD!

 

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A low whine became an almost-electric roar as an exotic, wide-wheeled bike rounded the corner. Cape flaring, the armored figure on it was like some figure carved from granite and shadows. While not the face and form Freedom City had formed and found fondness for, it was nevertheless unmistakable, If not the armor and vehicle, then the symbol on its chest, his chest, would tell the tale.

 

The Raven had arrived.

 

He pulled his bike up almost next to the vigilante as she moved toward the criminal.

 

"Didn't do it. No evidence. He's just regular poison-pushing scum, not the child-killing poison-pushing scum. Back down, before you embarrass yourself, kid."

 

They hadn't rehearsed that particular iteration of the lines but, well, improvisation, necessity, invention, etc.

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"Go to bed, old man!" Watchdog growled, her pistols out as she faced down the much larger Raven III. She snarled loudly enough for the tourist cameras to hear as she said, "You spent so much time fighting talking gorillas, you forgot what it was down here on the street! Where things matter!" In a real fight, both she and Raven III would be trading blows at this point - but they needed her target to do exactly what they'd expected him to do. As vigilante squared off with superhero, Rodrigo turned and ran like Hell, disappearing into the half-lit darkness of the airport darkness with impressive alacrity. 

 

She turned her armored head, face invisible beneath her helmet, to watch him run, and yelled, "You son of a bitch! HE'S GETTING AWAY!" She turned and ran for her car, pressing a button on her belt that made the Dawg (they had even spelled it Dawg, those bastards) growl to life with the sound of a gigantic pitbull. As headlights illuminated the Raven, seemingly blinding him, she leaped onto the car's hood and spun to fire. Pulsed energy projectiles hit the shaped charges Raven had placed on the Talon (for all that she'd been at least a little tempted to aim for the tank to see what happened) - and in a flash of plasma, the bike burst into flames! 

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"What matters is the truth."

 

An ironic statement, all things considered, which Ashley could likely intuit well enough. 

 

"That, and justice. Waving those things around won't make you anything more than a criminal. Now, stand do-"

 

Then she was yelling again, lights were in his face (he naturally shielded his eyes even if the sudden change did absolutely nothing to his vision), and tensed. He was already moving as the first pulses left her weapons, moving up through the air with pure muscle power, and then aided just a bit by his flaring cape as he landed in a crouch. His impassive face was lit by the dark orange and red flames of the Talon, casting it in a rather...unsettling...light. For about half a minute, he just stood there, watching the Dawg spin out and turn around. 

 

"Stubborn."

 

Then, he smoothly pressed a button on one of his gauntlets. Those present began to hear a faint growl that grew quickly to a roar. They beheld a vehicle thus far only known in rumors and whispers, quarter-glimpsed blurry smartphone photos the closest thing to "proof" of its existence thus far. A vehicle well beyond anything previously fielded by the Raven.

 

The Unkindness had arrived. And currently, it was speeding directly toward the back of the Raven. Just when it seemed like he'd be in real danger of it striking him, the huge...car?... squealed as its brakes applied and it began to drift-spin toward him. At the same moment, Raven once more left gravity behind for a few moments as he cleared the roof of his personal transport, his downward arc nicely coinciding with the driver's compartment opening up just long enough for the falling hero to land smooth in his seat. The canopy shut just as the car spun to a stop facing the direction the Dawg had gone. 

 

Then Raven gunned the engines, burned a bit of rubber, and raced off after Watchdog's own souped-up ride. The race was on!

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After much debate, the airport had been selected as the perfect choice for the car chase between the Dawg and the Unkindness. All the tourists and security cameras meant that it would be recorded in detail; detail that would (given the reality of life in Freedom City) soon find itself all over the Internet. The ease of a security lockdown (triggered the moment the Dawg smashed through the security fence) meant that none of those tourists (or TSA guys, or anyone else) were going to be taken down by a speeding super-car; also an important part of the deception. The chase between the two souped-up cars went well; both the Dawg and the Unkindness performing beyond specifications as the two vehicles chased each other all over the airport complex. When at last the Dawg was "tricked" into smashing into a warehouse door at speed - not hard enough to damage the heavily armored car but hard enough that it was 'pinned' inside the structure, it was time for the chase to enter its last act. 

 

Watchdog had to prove herself as reckless and headstrong, as a take-no-prisoners vigilante who could scare teenagers off with a look, as someone to be interested in as opposed to her mousy, quiet little sister who would hopefully just slide under the radar. People liked loners - it was one of the strange realities of life as a superhero. A life that Ashley Tran George had done her best to escape; but now was being thrust back into. No - had thrust herself back into. Inside the 'wrecked' car, she took a moment to compose herself after the crash, her heart pounding in her chest as she checked her gear. The last act of the 'fight' was going to be the hardest because it was the one they hadn't been able to rehearse, not when people all over the world would be watching the new Raven fight on-camera and would be able to tell if he was pulling his punches or holding back, or if his opponent seemed to know what he was doing before he did it. 

 

The last part of the show - meant that the Raven had to take Watchdog down. Her face set behind her helmet, Watchdog bailed out through the Dawg's gullwing doors just as the Unkindness pulled up behind her. "You ready to dance with the Devil, old man!?

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Raven had sent a couple of status messages to the Dawg's screens, subtle untraceable things that warned Watchdog of impending manuevers. Mainly the time he "herded" her with pulsed energy blasts from his car's weaponry, and then the final move that had side-swiped her into the crash that put them in this position. Talking things out or no, communication is key. But now they're past the need for words; their training under a common teacher would guide them the rest of the way. 

 

Now, the canopy of the Unkindness slid back, and Raven slowly stood, impassively observing the situation. Then he finally spoke, rolling his shoulders and neck as he did so.

 

"You're not the Devil, little girl."

 

He nimbly flipped out of the vehicle and dashed forward, a strong left hook that was dodged giving his right jab to the stomach an opening to hit, armored gauntlet striking armored torso.

 

"You're practice."

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Raven felt the shock of the blow ride up his arm and knew that the agent's body armor was worth the money the government must have spent on it. "Try harder!" she taunted, her heart pounding with the adrenaline of the beating she knew she was about to take. Only one way to make this look real, and that was to make Watchdog look good. In the old days, Ashley would have backflipped away from Raven but there weren't a lot of calls for acrobatic leaps and cartwheels in her current line of work. Instead she dropped to one knee, guns out. "It's open-mike night in Hell, old man!" From her crouching position, Watchdog aimed her pistols at the Raven's beltline and fired. She'd seen what she was about to do demonstrated personally, when she'd helped the second Raven test an early version of this suit years earlier. The lasers she fired ignited the surface of the stun grenades that the Raven wore on his armor, puffs of hot plasma erupting from the explosives an instant before the plasma triggered the grenades - the twin explosions sending him blasting backwards into the Unkindness. 

 

 

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Alek and Ashley hadn't practiced this fight or even talked through what was going to happen. They'd known it needed to be as real as possible, and improvising maneuvers on the fly was the only way to manage that. They'd tossed a few vague ideas out, though, things that might happen. And in talking with Miss Summers, he'd gotten the impression that "attack the gadget belt" was definitely something that had come up a few times. 

 

He'd rearranged his belt just a bit. It was subtle, the sort of thing most people wouldn't pick up on. Watchdog wasn't most people, and now Alek was wondering if this had really been the smartest thing. The armor plates on his back creaked dangerously after he struck the Unkindness, though the vehicle was fine, just rocking a bit in place on its suspension. He got to his feet, but under his mask he was blinking heavily, and he subtly stabilized himself against his car for just a moment. That had hurt.

 

But then, he was no stranger to pain. 

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Oh, geez! 

 

Grateful for the mask that hid the look of shock on her face, Watchdog holstered her guns and stood up. Maybe she knew how the Raven's armor worked but that didn't make it easier to see him take a blast that would have instantly disabled a lesser man. Filling her tone with the righteous wrath of the person she was pretending to be, she made her move. "I'd don't think we were ever properly introduced, old man. I'm Watchdog - the hero Freedom deserves." she said as she strode up to him. "And you? You're dead meat!" She put her back into the punch she threw at his face, her leather gloves catching the impact that would have bloodied her knuckles otherwise. "That's reality. Pleased to beat you!" 

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Raven's head snapped to one side as Watchdog's blow struck him. For a moment that seemed to stretch an eternity, his head stayed there. It was a good hit, one that would have knocked out the average criminal, and probably some hardened soldiers. Raven was not such people.

 

Slowly, he turned his head against Watchdog's fist, pushing it back and revealing that his mask had taken the blow. His expression had move from "calm and focused" to "focused and distinctly annoyed", which in cowl-speak came across as "really mad". Most of it was faked. Most of it. 

 

"I've heard of you. Watchdog? You're not a hero. You're just a cur, nipping at the heels of those trying to actually protect this city. You care more about looking tough than doing the right thing. Someone needs to bring you to heel."

 

His right fist jabbed out in a strike that would hit her at the junction of her two collarbones. A bit higher, and the force he used could have collapsed her throat for a few precious seconds. Instead, it struck some of her thickest armor plating and still sent enough through that by all rights she should have been knocked back. If his left hand hadn't snapped out, quick as a cobra, and wrapped a sudden arm-lock around her right arm, the movements showing more than a few hints of Krav Maga with a couple touches of Aikido and just a pinch of Keysi Fighting Method. Unless she slipped out, Watchdog would be forced forward, her left arm painfully extended all the way, Raven still only using one hand, the side of his torso, and a bit of carefully-applied leverage from his leg to keep the hold going.

 

"So sit, Watchdog."

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Ashley struggled, the part of her that had been trained by the Raven musing that this was why you didn't get into fistfights with six-foot guys in body armor until you were damn sure you'd softened them up enough from range. Damn, he's strong! She roared in frustration in his grasp, a snarl of anger that was only partially feigned. She cursed him, expending considerably more energy on it than she would have in a real fight, and said, "Gonna rip your #($# off!" She hurt, and was already gonna be purple the next morning - but she had to admit she was enjoying this. 

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"Unlikely."

 

Watchdog was yanked to a standing position, just as she felt a slightly numbing tingle in her arm where Raven's hand gripped her. Right before she felt his other fist drive itself into her chin, and a surge of electricity washed over her from his gauntlets. This was probably why he'd asked about her having a heart condition. The blow had almost assuredly loosened her helmet, high technology or no!

 

With a spinning flair (likely for the cameras), Raven pulled some sort of deft handwork, moving Watchdog around for a moment in a distinctly not-comfortable way, before she found one of his hands on her throat, and the other somewhat discretely on her belt. With a heave that seemed to take no effort from him, she went airborne for moments that might have seemed to stretch into an eternity...

 

Before her back slammed onto the Unkindness, leaving her almost horizontal as the hand not gripping her throat slammed into her solar plexus. 

 

"Bad dog. Stay down."

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On her back, getting beaten down and not able to do much about it, Ashley felt her engagement with the scenario beginning to slip. She knew intellectually what all this was about - the recorded fight was giving Raven a chance to make himself the bad cop, giving an image that he'd be able to 'soften' when dealing with actual teenage vigilantes and others who really needed a hand out. Still, she was a small woman getting her ass kicked by a big man - and it wasn't a lot of fun. Course I did shoot him below the belt. Seems only fair..."Go to Hell, you bastard!" she hissed. "You damn well finish it if you've got the balls!

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Raven's gauntlets cease their crackling, the electricity fading away as his grip shifts. Now, he's clearly focusing on keeping her immobile. Ashley is close enough, and well-versed enough in Subtle Cowl Facial Expressions, to know that Alek was picking up on her mood shift. One of his hands reached up toward her mask.

 

"You took this too far, Watchdog. And the only thing finished here-"

 

His hand gripped her helmet-mask and then tore it from her head, slowly at first (to avoid injury) and then rapidly, throwing it away once it was off, where it made a satisfying *clang* on the hangar floor. 

 

"-is you running around with that bloodthirsty attitude. I'm taking you in, and if you're lucky, maybe you won't end up behind bars."

 

He hauled her to her feet, not quite wrenching her arms behind her and marching her around the side of the Unkindness, A foot tap pattern in just the right spot opened up an armored door, showing three cramped side-by-side seats. Raven stopped the two of them next to the entrance.

 

"Either you sit down, or I make you sit down. Your choice."

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Ashley stared up at the Raven, a shiner forming under one eye and a look of barely-restrained fury on her face. "You put me in there, you better tie me down so I don't break your neck, $()#er!" Eventually Watchdog was inside the Unkindness and strapped down - and the doors were closed. Once inside and out of public view, her whole demeanor changed - she slumped backwards, looking exhausted and not a little pained. As the car sped away, she had nothing much to say until finally, "My first year with New Orleans PD, they put me on Vice - they thought I didn't look like your average New Orleans cop." She checked her teeth with her tongue as they talked, making sure they were all still there. "So of course not only do I get that, I get assigned Vice in East, where I grew up. I spent that whole year scared to death somebody I went to middle school with was gonna make me and then call my mom. Lucky that didn't happen." She fixed her gaze on the back of Alek's head. "You okay? I didn't expect your belt to brew up so hot." 

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Alek is silent for several moments.

 

"I'm not hurt. I've had way worse, and the armor took the impacts without issue. Might need to swap a couple of plates, but other than that the suit'll clean up. Wait, hang on."

 

Seeing that they're rapidly leaving heavily-populated areas, Alek flips a couple of switches on his dash, and panels cover the glass of the driver compartment as holographic screens take their place. Safe from even the most powerful prying eyes, one hand presses a few spots on his cowl, causing it to unfold slightly and slip easily off of his head. It's set to one side on a purpose-built stand even as another holo-screen setup lets he and Ashley speak "face to face". Without the cowl, he seems...younger. And while most of his expression is stoic, his eyes shine with concern for his fellow vigilante.

 

"I got in way more shots than you did. Are you okay? No irregular heartbeats, palpitations, anything? I didn't feel bones or teeth break but there were a couple of layers involved. I can tell if it's just-"

 

He stops, his jaw clenching for a moment as his eyes focus on the road. They're somehow almost distant until he starts up again.

 

"I almost lost myself, just for a moment. Because it felt like a contest of equals. Those are...more difficult to not lose myself in. Not most days, but some. Your low blow might have shoved that to the front. I'm sorry if I went too far, Ashley."

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"No, it's fine," Ashley immediately lied, "you had a job to do and you did it. I've gotten beatdowns like that before, remember?" She was pleased that Raven had used a familiar pattern with the restraints - one that she knew from practice sessions inside the ancestor to this very vehicle. Pulling on the pressure points on the straps that held her down, she soon had herself freed and merely seat-belted in. Pulling the gloves off her hands, she ran her fingers over her bruised knuckles. "You sure as hell put the fear of God in anybody watching, and if that stops somebody from trying to be like Watchdog, that's fine with me. Besides, I think I can put "fought Raven and lived to tell about it" on my next yearly evaluation. Maybe they'll give me a raise." At the reminder of normality, she grinned, and almost entirely meant it. 

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Alek is quiet for several long moments, simply staring at the wooded road ahead and around them. He was taking the long way, triple-checking they weren't being followed back to the Rookery. Finally, he spoke, his voice decidedly less certain.

 

"Do you think..."

 

He stopped for a few moments, his jaw working itself.

 

"Will they really be afraid I'll kill them?"

 

It was a hideously vulnerable question in the context presented, and showed that Alek trusted Ashley quite a bit. Probably more than he ought to, some might say. 

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"People have a pretty good idea Raven doesn't kill," said Ashley with a small shrug. "But at the end of the day, that's how it works. Raven, Midnight, Avenger, all the rest - if you don't have any powers, you're just one person in a mask. You need something that'll make people respect you as much as Phalanx or Captain Thunder, something that'll keep people in line who could take you out with one stray shot to the chest. Somebody like the old Patriot, they could keep people in line because everybody admired them." She hmmed, snapping open one of the vehicle's first aid kits to wipe down one particularly set of bloody knuckles.  "Most...people in your business, that's not how it is." It was one of several reasons Ashley herself had gotten out of that particular life, but there was no reason to get into that here. 

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Alek grunts.

 

"Valid points, and a good perspective. It's a tight rope we walk, a thin line. But I suppose the world needs us just as it needs the ones who walk the clouds."

 

He seems to relax a bit as he mulls the idea over. 

 

"I will admit that...admiration...is not something I've heard used much for the original Patriot, but my sources are likely somewhat biased."

 

His mind flashed to Trevor Hunter's mention of the Hunter family's yearly Christmas gift sent in honor of the Patriot. Alek could appreciate the layered symbology. 

 

"I always knew fear was one of our primary weapons, I guess I just didn't realize how close we dance to the Line to maintain the edge of that weapon, until today."

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"Mm." Ashley knew how easy it was to just start talking when you were inside this thing, and decided she'd unburdened herself enough today. "It's a hard life. I'm glad your predecessor grew out of it before anything happened." The truth was, she had fully expected to be called back to Freedom City someday to deal with the death of Callie Summers and the fallout that would bring. Maybe Chris and Alek and I would have had to wrestle for the cape - no, that's stupid. If she hadn't wanted to be Raven when she was eighteen, she sure as hell didn't want to be Raven now. "I must sound pretty full of myself," she said easily, "being a meta talking about how hard it is to be an unpowered operator." 

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"That was one of the main reasons I started this life, really."

 

Wait what?

 

"I'd met Raven years before, but after a while, I did some digging, put some pieces together, figured out who she was, and went to her."

 

What

 

"I knew she couldn't do it forever, and that someone had to do it. I figured, I had a bit of a leg up on some candidates. And this way, she didn't have to convince anyone to do it. Better the mantle be willing. 

 

As for your comments about being unpowered, not only did you undergo similar training to myself, your powers don't necessarily mean you enter every fight with an advantage. You risk bleeding the same as I do unless you fight a super-tough meta...at which point things are an even playing field again. I don't begrudge similar talk from Foreshadow, after all."

 

He didn't want to confirm Midnight's possession of meta-powers, but Foreshadow's ESP was at least broadly known about. 

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Ashley was silent for a while, considering the differences between Raven inside the mask and Alek outside it. I can tell his mentor runs a school. "That's quite a story," she finally commented quietly. "Nothing that exciting here - I was just a Claremont student she took an interest in." She shook her head dismissively. "I heard you were an orphan she took in." Well, she'd put that together herself from some of the comments Callie had made, and hadn't made, in the last few weeks. "Everybody needs to have a family." She thought of her mother and her sisters in far-off Lafayette, half a world away, and her cousins down on the gulf coast - both Tonkin and Mexico. "So how is the new Foreshadow?" she asked curiously. 

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"Oh, that rumor's still circulating? Good."

 

Alek actually smirked. 

 

"I am an orphan; my biological parents died when I was barely a year old. The Raven rescued me from the circumstances I spent several years in after that. I was adopted by others besides her, though; at the time I didn't know who was behind the mask. And as I said, I approached her fro training and eventually, possibly, inheriting the mask. But the story of 'Raven adopts an orphan she trains to replace her' has good thematics, and obscures the issue in ways we find useful."

 

At her question about Foreshadow, he smiled a bit.

 

"Heh. He's a good guy. Not much older than me, really. Lot mouthier, though. He seems to have taken the role well."

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When it was done, "Watchdog" was safely in Raven's custody - and Secret Service Agent Ashley George was on her way back to Washington DC on a government-chartered flight. She had business in town; Jaycee had been absorbing energy for close to a week without a drain, and it would give her a chance to recuperate. In the rare comfort of a jet with no civilian passengers, she leaned back in her seat and held an icepack to the side of her head, catching sight of her reflection in the plane's mirror. Well, she was going to look colorful in the morning. Still, it had gotten the job done. And she'd actually gotten to meet the new Raven - who wasn't very much like she'd expected at all. 

 

But then, Ravens were good at that.

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