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October 2018 

Outside Claremont Academy 


Her long dark hair safely tucked away beneath a Freedom City Heroes hoodie, her face hidden by a dark pair of aviator sunglasses, Judy Smith waited by her sister's side for the arrival of their friends. "This is gonna be so fun," she told Ashley with a smile. "Ah can't believe we're gonna go shopping in a mall! It's gonna be the best day ever!" It had been a long, long time since she'd been able to go shopping by herself - and this didn't remotely count as by herself, but it was still a lot closer than she'd have been able to come under normal circumstances. Ah'm gonna find some jewelry for the dance, and maybe get a present for Leroy while I'm there - it's gonna be great! 

 

Secure in leather jacket and jeans, eyes hidden by her own dark glasses, Ashley thought about the vetting that the Secret Service had done before selecting the Patriot Shopping Center as the best 'mall' choice for Judy and her friends from Claremont to visit, the quiet checking she'd done herself into Danica and Micah's backgrounds, the advance scouting her team had done of the site, the advance driving she'd done to plot out the drive to Lantern Hill, the hope and the prayer that Lantern Jack wouldn't show up - and Watchdog grunted. "Hrm.

 

It was going to be an interesting day, at any rate. Now where were Danica and Micah, the two friends Judy had invited along for a "crazy, secret trip to the mall!"

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Micah slowly walked out from the Academy and finished zipping up his jacket. It wasn't a horribly cold day, but he'd grown up in the warm flatlands of Oklahoma, where winters were generally not fierce, and were short lived compared to Freedom City. The young Roebuck lad was also not the sort to enjoy the cold anyways. So here he stood, in a sturdy windbreaker, hands in his pockets, considering the girls and the car in front of him.

 

Judy was a nice gal, he liked her well enough. Ashley was...she seemed like she cared about her sister, but Micah never felt at ease around her. Which seemed like the natural thing around her. 

 

"Hi Judy, Ashley. So, uh, who else was coming?"

 

Micah suddenly had a feeling he was going to have to carry something at some point. 

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A soft whirring of tires announced  Danica moments before she rounded the corner and came into view. She was beaming as usual to see her friends, dressed in jeans and a soft green sweater with a blue backpack on her back in place of the tortoise shell. Her Segway had a blue handicap placard affixed prominently to the front today, presumably so nobody would give her a hard time about it at the mall. She waved and drove up to the others. "Hi, am I late? I was trying to get all my homework done before I came, and then I had to wait foreeeeever for that slow elevator in the dorm. Is this everybody?" 

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"Hi Micah, hi Danica!" said Judy cheerfully, lighting up at the sight of her two friends. "It's just the four of us today," she went on, "but Ashley said if things go well, maybe we can bring more people next time." 


"Hrm," said Ashley, looking around for a moment before saying, "This way." Ashley led the group towards what was evidently their ride, an older-looking Cadillac sedan that was nonetheless a striking shade of bright, cherry red. "This car is called the Dawg," said Ashley, heading over to manually unlock it, popping open a truck full of tools for Danica to slide in her Segway - and to quickly help Danica once it was clear how heavy the thing was. Good Samaritan or not, she added in a growl, "She's gotten us through a lot of scraps. This is the first time I've gotten to drive it since-


"since the thing with the Raven," said Judy conspiratorially. "But it's a real nice ride, and not just for urban combat," she said, hesitating a little on the last phrase, popping in the back seat once Ashley had opened the door for her. "It's got a snackbar, and a television, and it's tough enough to keep out any Grue," she went on. "Look how thick the glass is!" And sure enough it was; on closer inspection, windows and windshield alike had to be a couple of inches thick. "Ah thought we should ride to the mall in style." 

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Micah's eyebrows rose at the sight of the car. They seemingly tried to reach his hairline at the mention of the Raven. But when Judy listed off the features, they fell again, for just a moment, before Micah's expression shifted to polite interest. 

 

"That's a lot of stuff, Judy. It's pretty cool."

 

He reached out and tapped the glass, then the car's body.

 

"Yeah, that's pretty solid. You got some grape soda in there? And maybe some Animal Crackers?"

 

He moved to climb in, smiling a bit now.

 

"I suppose rolling up in this baby will make some kind of statement, anyway."

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"Wow!" Danica exclaimed, peering out the window as she climbed into the car. "Are these windows bulletproof? Is the whole car bulletproof?" She buckled her seatbelt conscientiously. "I watched a documentary on the presidential limousine once, and they said that those cars are so armored that they weigh as much as three or four cars, but they still have to be able to go as fast as a police car in case of an emergency! And I saw a show one time about a really rich musician who got a limousine with a hot tub inside of it! Hey, have you got wifi in the car?" she asked excitedly. "You can use a laptop in the car if you have wifi in it, and watch TV and everything!" 

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Judy looked at Micah - then looked away. "There aren't any snacks in it," she said softly.

 

Ashley's fingers tightened on the steering wheel of the car for just a moment, a faint audible creak of leather as girls and Micah crowded into the backseat. "Don't know whose car it was," she said evenly to the rearview mirror. "Took it with us.

 

Pulled firmly out of her reverie, Judy blinked at Danica uncertainly for a moment, then said, "Well, um, you can't believe everything you see on TV, but...this car does have a lot of cool stuff! W-watch this!" She concentrated for a moment, then smiled as the TV (built into the back of the armored front seat) opened up for them without touching a button. "Ah learned to do that mahself," she said, her Southern accent unusually thick for a moment. "But yeah, it's got wifi, and can get satellite transmissions, and all sorts of other things." 

 

Ashley made sure everyone was buckled in, then they headed out into traffic, the car's big engine making a sound as they started that did indeed sound like the growling of a big dog. 

 

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Micah winced at Judy's reply in regards to snacks.

 

'Smooth move, Micah. Real smooth.'

 

He sighed and got in the car, trying not to crowd Danica or Judy. Ashley's gaze felt like blazing searchlights that saw into his very soul, even through the rear-view mirror. He did smile at Judy's "trick". 

 

"That really is impressive, Judy. And this thing seems like it'd be great for road trips. Or being stuck in traffic."

 

As Ashley gunned the engine, he closed his eyes for a moment and tilted his head slightly to one side, listening to the sound of the engine.

 

"Mm. You keep this girl in good shape, Ashley. The turbo's smooth. Sounds like you're not running rich, either."

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Danica bounced a little in her seat, then leaned forward to study the TV. "Totally sweet!" she decided, poking at it enough to change the channel once. "It must have been really scary for you guys to have to run away from your world like that." She wasn't sure of a lot of the details, but word got around in such a small school. "It's a good thing you had this car to protect you. Does it have any, you know, powers?" she asked guilelessly. "Is it how you got here?" 

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"Yeah!" said Judy, sounding quite pleased with herself. "It's a really cool car. Ashley says it'll even stop a tank. If, um, one shows up, anyway." 

"Not gonna fight a tank," said Ashley, but her tone was considerably less severe than her usual interactions with the other students - maybe because they were all in the car. "Had to set it up like that," she said to Micah, "not much of the good stuff where we're from." She tried to avoid direct lies around the teens, so instead she let Judy change the subject as they headed for the mall. 

 

"So what do you want to get at the mall?" she asked Danica and Micah excitedly. "Ah don't get to go to malls a lot, but Ah had some ideas. Ah was thinking the girls could all hit the fashion stores and get some nice things for ourselves, and Micah, there's a leathercraft store and an outdoor supply store y'all might like." She looked at Danica, considered diplomacy and tact with a politician's daughter's training, then said, "Ah know you don't want to go to the fall dance, but Ah bet we can get you some nice stuff that's just for, um, you!" 

 

By this time they were just pulling up to the Patriot Mall, a small open-air mall located near the edge of Lantern Hill proper. Her eyes on the road and on the scene, Ashley stared at the half-full parking lot for a moment, then seemed to nod in satisfaction before executing a quick turn inside. "I already have enough girl stuff," she told her sister with an air of patience, and a toss of her pink-dyed hair.

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"Cars that only run on the highest-grade fuel are toys for rich people. Good engineering for non-racing vehicles allows for any legal octane rating without major performance differences."

 

Micah sounded like he was somewhere between quoting a book and speaking from experience. 

 

"Just speaks more to the quality of the vehicle."

 

Micah blinked at Judy's suggestions for stores. Did...did he seem like an "outdoors store" sort of guy? Still, the leather-crafting sounded at least mildly interesting, and outdoors-type stuff might have a few interesting bits.

 

"Seems good to me. I'll probably look for an electronics parts store, too."

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Danica sort of wanted to visit the leathercraft store too, but it didn't seem nice to leave Judy all by herself when she was the one who'd invited them in the first place. "Sounds like fun," she told the other girl as they  drove around the back of what was apparently a mall these days, even though it wasn't enclosed and didn't have a movie theater or anything. Danica wasn't sure why Ashley chose to park in the back of the mall, in place she wasn't 100% certain was legal, but it did get them close to the big stores. With some help, she was able to unstoke her Segway and settle her backpack into place, ready to face the wonders and rigors of the mall. "And after we finish our shopping, we can hang out at the food court and have Orange Julius!" She gave the mall a slightly skeptical look. "Do strip malls have food courts?" 

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"Mm," said Ashley, considering. Jeez, she is from the 80s "Think they have those at Dairy Queen," she said, making a little gesture to the fast food restaurant that was one of the mall's brand-name fast food chains. She'd made sure to do some rigorous checking, or at least the field agents she'd sent ahead had. Shooting a quick, almost invisible glance up at the helicopter that was hovering overhead, she led the way under the mall's cover. An outdoor mall had been quite the subject of debate among Judy's expanded Secret Service detail; but Ashley had persuaded them that the substantially lowered supervillain risk was worth the mundane security risk. Blind spots though this building had, it wasn't the sort of place a supervillain would want to rob. They headed first past the small Christian bookshop, where Ashley was proud that Judy didn't do more than walk a little faster past the pictures of her mom's book in the front window "RAISING A FAMILY IN TODAY'S AMERICA." 

 

Wonder what they'd think if they knew. 

 

She was rather glad Danica had brought her Segway along; it helped make sure they were moving past all the places she did _not_ want them to linger. She kept the smile off her face as they headed inside the mall's first clothing store, a small place that looked to be the sort where a lot of college students and artsy types shopped. Once inside, Judy turned to Danica and smiled. "Okay, Ah know you have a nice wardrobe, and Ah like how you dress, but it's always more fun to shop together." She was pretty sure of that anyway, never actually having had the chance. "We could, um, pick out stuff that goes with your color. Ah bet there's some nice black and gold here...look at this!" It didn't take her long to spot the first case she liked, a long black dress with faux gold leaf designs - it looked a bit warm for Danica's Arizona tastes though, going down to ground level and even covering her sleeves.

 

"What do you think, Micah, won't this look good on her?" asked Judy.

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Micah had been trailing the group, just kind of scoping out the mall. He didn't know Freedom well enough to realize this was an outdoor/strip mall until they were already on-site, not that he really cared. He didn't pay too much attention to where they were going. When they walked into the store, he idly looked around, eyeballing a few more sedate pieces of men's clothing, then all but backing away after seeing the prices. 

 

Then he got asked his opinion about a piece of clothing. Now, this wasn't some full-on "modeling session", that would have been more than a bit of a brain-fizzler, but as it was, the agents discretely posted outside might notice the gentle breeze just...stopping...for a few moments.

 

"Um."

 

Sheer eloquence, that boy.

 

"I mean, the color seems okay, I guess? But...Danica, you don't really wear that many things with long sleeves, do you?"

 

His eyes weren't quite "deer in headlights" but Ashley would likely have to fight off a laughing fit at how out-of-his-depth the boy looked right now. 

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Danica gave the dress a look that was frankly skeptical before schooling her face to something more diplomatic for Judy's benefit. "I do like black and gold," she enthused, "but I usually wear solids of one or the other so I don't get the crazy contrasting patterns look with my shell, you know?" She hadn't been nearly so discriminating when she was little, but back then everybody had liked crazy patterns and it hadn't been weird. It was now, though! "Anyway, I thought we were gonna be looking for a dress for you for the dance?" she reminded Judy, then shot Micah the briefest of commiserating glances. "And then maybe we can visit the bookstore?" 

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Judy frowned, and for a moment it looked like she didn't know what to say. At that point, Ashley spoke up, her voice a firm, but not unfriendly, reminder. "We couldn't afford it. We can barely afford your dress." She locked eyes with Judy, who sighed softly, then admitted, "Yeah. Ah forgot, sorry, Danica." She hung the dress back up, then smiled slightly. "That would have been way too long for you anyway, Ah don't know what Ah was thinking. Ah just like pretty things a lot." Her smile broadened as she looked at Micah, "You can probably get something for your dance outfit while we're here, Ah know Ashley got her tux from here last week." 

 

"Tell the world, why don't you," said Ashley, pushing herself away from the wall as Judy began looking through dresses for herself with Danica, more quickly now that she knew where the other girl's interests really lay. "Men's section is all right," she said with a wave of her hand. "Might find a nice tie, or socks." This was one area where she did not know as much as Watchdog. "Might be better off getting something for a girl over in jewelry," she offered, then looked away, casually making eye contact with the plainclothes agent walking by outside for a moment. 

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"My mom likes pretty things, Judy. There's nothing wrong with that. I mean, I guess the point is we're working together, right?"

 

He shrugged. 

 

"Second opinions and all that. Anyways, I'll go look in the men's section. I could use a tie. We don't have to hit a bookstore next or whatnot. I'm here just to stretch my legs as much as anything."

 

Micah, seemingly a bit more at ease, ambled over toward the men's section, quickly angling for the ties. While not cheap, they weren't too unreasonably priced, and he did have some discretionary income. 

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Danica edged closer to Judy as they shopped, pitching her voice low so as not to be overheard. "It's all right," she murmured, "I mean, if you haven't got enough money for your dress and things. I know your situation's got to be pretty tough, even if Claremont gives you a place to stay. My folks give me an allowance and I hardly ever spend it," she went on, telling just a bit of a white lie. She hardly ever spent it on anything really important, that was closer to the truth,, but not exactly what she wanted to say. "If you need a little extra to get the dress and shoes you want, just let me know." Glancing around, she pinched the sleeve of a plain black dress and pitched her voice back to normal volume. "Oh, this is a pretty one, but I'd probably have to hem it." 

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"Ah, um...." Judy's eyes popped wide at Danica's suggestion, not in anger but in what read more like genuine surprise - a surprise that seemed to leave her at a loss for words for a moment. "Ah...ah have enough money for what ah need," she whispered, "but...but thank you," she said, a little nervously. "That's very nice of you. Ah brought some with me and it's, um, still good here. If you have more, you should save it up for yourself - you've got a lot of years to save for, right?" She spoke a little louder too and said, "It would look nice on you, though! Maybe you could buy that and wear it for Christmas..." She dug around a bit and found a modest blue dress that looked pretty and was within her somewhat modified budget - once it had Danica's approval, she briefly disappeared into the changing room to try it on. That brought Ashley across the room from where she'd been waiting, leaning negligently between the two changing room doors and filing her nails with an ostentatious lack of care. 

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"That's true," Danica mused, examining the blue dress before nodding approval. "My parents have stayed young for a long long time now, but when I'm a grown-up, they will start living the rest of their lives, so someday they'll get old and retire. I'm going to have to get a good job!" This idea seemed to preoccupy her a bit more than the idea of finding a dress, though she did enthusiastically encourage Judy to try on the one she'd found. With Micah off browsing, she found herself standing quietly next to Ashley. "What are you going to do when you're done with Claremont?" she asked curiously. Ashley looked like she was maybe a little bit older than the other students in her class, like maybe in the rush to escape their world she'd missed enough school to need to repeat, but that wasn't really polite to inquire about. 

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"I ask myself that question every goddamn day," said Ashley with perhaps more sincerity than she'd intended. Blinking a moment, she readjusted her sunglasses and said, "Somewhere far away from all this. Where Judy can go to college and I can take out the trash." The first was true enough but the reality of the latter was hopefully going to involve the Presidential Protective Detail and maybe some goddamn Scotch while she was at it. She looked Danica up and down and said, her tone softening a little, "What about you? Any plans?" She could think of several different agencies that would love to get Chelone on their payroll. 

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Micah had been gone for several minutes before he absently wandered back over, a tie in each hand. One had a subtle red-and-blue tie, while the other had a brighter single-shade blue tie. He finally looked up when he got near the girls, oblivious to the deep, thoughtful conversations they were having.

 

"I can't quite make up my mind...which one do y'all think would look better on me?"

 

If he was going on a mall-crawl with 3 girls, he was getting some dang fashion advice. 

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"The blue," Danica advised immediately, with great confidence. "Unless you already have a lot of ties, or you only want to wear white dress shirts. Single-color ties are easier to match with a lot of different things. But if you get a nice dark red one, it could be a Christmas tie too," she pointed out, before considering Ashley's question. "I don't know," she began, "I guess it's more a question of what I'm going to do first. I have to go to school for a long time still, but that means when I'm done, I will know lots of things, from lots of classes. I'm not sure I'm cut out for hero work unless I get like a jet-pack or something," she admitted with a laugh, "but I've thought about maybe becoming a doctor and going to places where it's dangerous to be a doctor. I'm pretty hard to hurt!" 

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Ash peered at Micah from behind her glasses for a moment, her face expressionless, then looked back at Danica. "There's all kinds of jobs where you don't have to wear a stupid costume and you can use your powers, I heard. That must be nice-" They were interrupted by Judy, stepping out of the dressing room in a dress that went just a bit below the knee - about as liberal as Ashley had seen her charge go. The lace pattern and antique blue colors fit Judy's coloring and personal style, and Ashley nodded her approval before Judy popped back into the dressing room to change back into her regular clothes. 

"How about you?" asked Ashley of Micah from the security of her sunglasses. "Could make good money with what you've got."

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Micah hummed thoughtfully at Danica's suggestions.

 

"Hm. Well, I've got one that's a dark green. And I barely ever wear ties; my only tie-worthy shirts are white...hm. You know what, the red...and...blue..."

 

Outside, the breeze picked up, and for a few moments, so did the temperature.

His sentence trailed off as Judy walked out in her dress. It was a simple look, but Micah was a simple man, really. After a moment, he shook his head, turning to Ashley.

The weather calmed down (such as it hadn't been calm) and went back to the natural pattern of a moment ago.

 

"I...um. Honestly? That would feel weird, and I'm not sure how well it could work? Stormchaser mainly does storm-busting, and even then she tries to break up as little as possible, right? Because you can't just flip the switch at that stage; you make a 5-foot raincloud, whatever, no big. You make a 5-mile raincloud, well, it comes from somewhere. To give this guy a great bucket of rain, that guy's field goes dry. I can massage weather patterns, break up the big, destructive stuff. But...I wouldn't feel right taking money for that. Or hero-ing, if I do that after school. No, I want..."

 

He stops, blushes, and shakes his head.

 

"Sorry, it's silly. Don't worry about it."

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