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Avenger Assembled

What I Did This Summer

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Week 1 (June 1-June 7) 
Lafayette, Louisiana 
As her sister approached, Ashley turned her head from looking up at the stars and said, without any real heat, “You are not supposed to be drinking that.” 

 

“Don’t be such a cop all the time, Ash,” said Agnes “Aggie” George-Tran, a smirk on her face as she sat down on the porch swing next to her sister. “If I’m old enough to enlist, I’m old enough to drink Dad’s crappy beer.” With her hair still short from bootcamp, Aggie looked like the brand-new airman she was. 

 

Hell no she doesn’t, she looks like my baby sister. “Okay, fine. But don’t let Bill hear you say that about his beer.” She didn’t hate her stepfather the way she had when she was seventeen and convinced her mother had betrayed her father by remarrying just a few months after his death - but Bill definitely wasn’t her dad. “So a couple more weeks, and then you’re out of the country?” 

 

“Couple more weeks and Airman George is getting the hell out of Louisiana,” agreed Aggie, handing the bottle to her sister so she could toss it back too. “I don’t blame you for leaving, you know. I know how hard it was, with Daddy, and Bill...you’re better off out in DC. Do I ever get to hear about your secret project, by the way?” 

 

“Trust me, em gái, that is the last thing I want to talk about today.” She smiled thinly, then said, “It doesn’t really feel like home.” She made a gesture with the bottle before handing it back to Aggie. “I only even lived here for two years before I went to college, and that was when I was in boarding school. The only one still here is Phillippa and even she got into goddamn Tulane, the little know-it-all.” She smirked. “Mary has a husband and lives in the middle of nowhere, Cecy’s off on that fishing boat doing god-knows-what, and Mom is…” 

 

“Happy. She really is, you know,” said Aggie softly. “She’s got Dad, she’s got C.O.P.S., and she says she couldn’t be prouder of her five girls. I know it sucks that she moves us out of East, but things were pretty good here.” 

 

“Says the girl who’s going to fly away from here at five hundred miles an hour,” said Ashley with a little laugh. “I just never…” She held up her hand and looked at the stars overhead. “When I was your age, I used to wonder all the time if I’d ever really find a home again. I’m not sure I have.” 

 

“Home is where you find it,” said Aggie softly, getting the look she knew that would get from her sister. “I read the book, you know. We all did. Like you said, we...needed some way to remember Daddy.” 

 

“He’d be really proud of you, you know,” said Ashley, tears at the corner of her eyes. She put her hand on her sister’s. “He loved you, and all the others, and he loved uniforms and he loved America. Even if I couldn’t make your graduation because of work, I know he was there.” 

 

“I know,” Aggie agreed. The two sisters were quiet for a moment, looking up at the stars together. “So I know you have to jet off to Washington every other weekend - but what the hell are you gonna do in the meantime, sis?” 

 

Ashley considered her response carefully for a moment, then said, “I’ve been thinking about that...and I owe something to some people around here." 
 

The next day, Ashley Tran became the first new volunteer at the Atchafalaya LGBT Center. 

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Week 2 (June 7-June 14) 

 

Atchafalaya LGBT Community Center 

Kitchen 

 

“So that’s that,” said Elmer, who with his white curly hair was old enough to have marched at Stonewall, if a “country boy” like him would ever have made it up to the big city. “We make a lunch for the children and the staff every day, and for the soup kitchen every other weekend, tradin’ off wid da parish down the road.” He looked over his horn-rimmed glasses at Ashley. “You spend a lot of time in the kitchen, young lady?” 

 

“No, but I’m the oldest of five, so I have a lot of practice,” said Ashley with an easy smile. “I’m surprised the school lets the kids come over here,” she admitted. 

 

“The headmaster over at the alternative school is a decent enough fella,” Elmer allowed as he slowly led the way out of the kitchen, quiet this early, well before even the lunch rush. “He knows that he doesn’t have the manpower to feed his chillun, so better to send them here than have them eat whatever slop the state lets them buy. And the boys in Baton Rogue, well, they don’t care that a bunch of poor children from all over the state get fed by the likes of us.” 

 

Having met the Governor of Louisiana personally, Ashley had to nod at that. “Okay. I’ll be here first thing tomorrow for the lunch rush. Thanks for the tour, Mr. Rochambeau.” After one more reminder that she really needed to call him Elmer if she wanted to make a habit of working for him, the old man slowly limped off, leaving Ashley in the lobby of the Atchafalaya LGBT Community Center. She took a moment to look around, wondering briefly if she was in the right spot. 

 

I owe it for pretending to be a lesbian, she thought to herself. Spending my summer days off feeding them seems fair enough. Besides, the center had more than she expected - it was the closest thing to an LGBT gathering spot between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, and one of damn few anywhere in rural Louisiana. The men, women, and non-binary people in the lobby mostly looked right off the street in overalls and plaid shirts, with an occasional splash of color showing somebody who’d brought in fashion from outside. Having expected to see weird stuff, she’d attracted more attention with her dyed hair than anything else. 

 

All right, well, I’m done here at 1, but Mom doesn’t need me home till she gets off work at four...She walked up to the bulletin board in the lobby and looked for things to do in the afternoon - craft classes in the library (too nerdy), trash pickup out by the nature preserve (too hot), classes on direct political action with Kennedy (too granola), self-defense classes...yes! . 

She took down a slip with a phone number, wrote down the time, and gave a twisted grin at the pictures of the Governor of Louisiana with his face x’d out and STOP FASCISM underneath. 

 

Maybe I can’t help with that - but maybe I can help kick ass another way.

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Week 3 (June 14-June 21) 
 

"So where are you from, Tran?" Toweling off after the match, Ashley turned and studied her interrogator. Technically it hadn't been a match, more of another session of the center's self-defense class - but class usually wound up with at least one good match between the instructor and the best student. Irene Kennedy was taller than Ashley and darker, with a mixed heritage that probably ran more to Louisiana's black history than its Asian. The first night of self-defense training, Ashley had volunteered when Irene has asked if anyone wanted to try and knock her off her feet - and when Ashley had, she'd stood up, shaken her hand, and thanked her for teaching her something about self-defense. Remembering her own self-defense training, it had knocked Ashley off her feet as effectively as a punch, especially when Irene had then flipped her over her head and onto the mat. 

 

"Lafayette, but I was born in the Nat," Ashley told her, which was true enough. "Same I said day one." She looked Irene up and down, thinking about how nice it was to be around an actual woman who wasn't a work colleague or an adult she was trying to convince she was 17. "You gonna tell me where you learned to fight like you do? Because Army grunts don't learn muy thai," she added with a little smile. She'd bruised the other woman with a hit to the ribs earlier - no reason to do it again. 

 

"Probably the same place a government bureaucrat learned to fight like a scrapper," said Irene with a grin. It wasn't that they were lying to each other, really, just keeping secrets in a playful sort of way. Ashley liked that too, a kind of teasing familiarity that was impossible when even the person you were pretending to be was a lie cooked up in a government laboratory "You're running late today." 

 

"Mom and Stepdad are out for their anniversary, so us girls are fending for ourselves. What about you,, back to Woodland Hills?" Irene lived in a mobile home park a few miles from the center, and was fit enough she actually rode a bike there every day even when she'd just got done with an hour of intensive calisthenics and martial arts training. Ashley got the impression that most of Irene's nights there were spent alone, but also that some of them weren't - and she was curious. Maybe it was the Raven's influence, even now, even here. 

 

"Yeah, maybe, but first I-" Suddenly the lights flickered, then went out for just long enough for the class in the shower to make some startled exclamations. As the emergency lights went on, Irene banged on the door. "Hey ladies, it's all right! Tran and I are checking it out, but you'd better finish up and get dressed - gotta get those butts in line for us to kick tomorrow!" Turning back, she threw on her jacket and said, "You coming? This is a lot bigger than gators in the damn power lines again." 

 

 

Outside, a circle with two triangle atop and eyes within looked innocous enough - but Irene cursed all the same. They'd let the class go home in their cars, leaving the two of them to investigate "the fès" outside. "Yeah, the Cat's been visiting us for the last two or three months," said Irene, deeply annoyed as she shone her flashlight at the graffiti. "The lights turn off, the sign comes up, and nobody sees a damn thing. Sometimes it's more signs than this, though..." 

 

Ashley hesitated a moment, putting two and two together. "It's a front. Back door's in the alley, right?" She turned and ran, automatically going for her piece, cursing to herself when she didn't find it - and coming around with her big, heavy metal flashlight in her hand. Irene was right behind her, and together the two women confronted the figure emerging from the metal firedoor in the rear. The figure...in the damn cat suit. "Hands on your head!" she barked. "Now!" Behind her, she heard Irene pull something from her waistband. Fff- 

 

"You girls will never catch - the Cat!" declared the supervillain, her hissing voice making her impossible to trace. She went for them, but Ashley's light in her face blinded her, and changed course midstream - throwing down a smoke pellet that blinded Ashley and Irene just long enough for her to make her escape. Over the sound of a roaring motorcycle engine, Ashley said a word she really wasn't supposed to say in front of Judy, then "When the hell did the parish get a supervillain!?!" 

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Week 4 (June 21-June 28) 


It was hot down in the center basement, which lacked the central air of the rest of the building. Ashley wiped the sweat off her forehead, looked around the half-filled room, and met Irene’s eyes. “You’re Black Bloc.” It wasn’t really a question; the signs, the balaclavas, the radios and medical kits - it was all here. It certainly answered the question of exactly where Irene had learned to fight beyond her service in the Army . “So Baton Rouge last month, New Orleans during Mardi Gras…?” 

 

Irene met Ashley’s eyes, and she spoke without apology. “The President of the United States is a gas-guzzling fatcat in bed with the American Taliban, and the Governor of Louisiana is a creepy-eyed thug like somethin’ from fifty years ago. I can't believe the damn Nazis are taking to the streets again. It’s not a crime to protest, even if the thugs in blue in this state want it to be. If you’ve got a problem with that, Tran, you can turn around and head right out of this building right now.” 

 

“No, I get it,” said Ashley after a moment’s hesitation. Creepy Eyes actually _was_ what people in DC called the Governor of Louisiana when his back was turned - and though she liked JT Cahill...yeah. “Sometimes you’ve got to wear a mask to get things done, especially if the people who make the laws hate your guts.” Ashley had rejected the hero life by personal choice - but she understood not everyone had the options she’d had, not with the way the world worked. “But why put it here?” she asked, making a little gesture at the center above their heads. “Aren’t you worried about-” 

 

“Yeah, of course I am,” said Irene, crossing her arms before she wiped sweat off her brow. It was a good ninety-plus degrees down here in stagnant air, and wet with humidity that suggested the place was at risk of flooding the next time a bad hurricane came this far up into Louisiana. She met Ashley’s eyes, obviously not ready to explain further. “Wasn’t my damn idea. But now you see why we can’t call the cops on the minou? State troopers would love to shut this place down, and if they found all of this, they’d fry our ass.” 

 

“Yeah. Yeah, all right…” Ashley leaned against the wall. “OK, well, this does mean one thing. The Cat can’t be showing up here because she wants to shut you down; she’s obviously been down here,” she pointed to tracks in the dust in the rear of the storage space, “she could just call the cops if she wanted that. Costumed weirdos like playing headgames sometimes, but surely she’d have escalated or something by now if that was her game.” She ticked off points on her fingers, then said, “You know what, I’m way too hot and dirty to play Girl Foreshadow down here.” 

 

“Yeah, let’s hit the showers,” agreed Irene, looking relieved. They both were filthy enough, the level of dust in the basement showing that when the Black Bloc came to the Center (only to pick up gear stored here; they did their actual meetings at sites in the large cities) they came in through the garage doors - not through the interior corridors that the Cat used when she snuck into the building. 

 

Ashley led the way, considering her options. Well, she wasn’t seeing any federal violations here, and it wasn’t her job to clean up after the State Police, which admittedly was going through an asshole phase at the moment. Having been an NOPD beat cop and then a Secret Service agent, she wasn’t really a fan of the boys from Baton Rouge anyway. Well hell, maybe this’ll make a good story when I get back to Freedom - with some edits. 

 

The center was mostly empty this late, with only a few of the secretarial staff still at work; there’d been nobody to catch the kitchen helper and the self-defense teacher going spelunking down in the largely abandoned lower level. In the women’s locker room, the tension about what lay below lay between the two women for a moment - and Ashley, glad to not have to play the thug, took a moment to break the tension. “Hey, Irene, can I ask you something?” She turned and asked “How are you so cut? Even with-” She made a little gesture over her thighs, then pointed in the direction of Irene's, which were quite a bit thicker even with the difference in height between the two of them taken into account.  

 

Irene grinned She had not been expecting the question, and she seemed to like it. “Practice, practice, practice.” 

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Week 5 (June 29-July 6) 

 

The next time the Cat attacked, Ashley and Irene were ready for her - or at least they thought so. 

 

"Goddamit," Irene opined in the back of Ashley's mother's Subaru as Ashley swabbed out her wounds. "Cat claws, really?!" They were alone in the Center parking lot with only the moths and salamanders for company; their late-night ambush having not gone according to plan. Luckily they'd both decided to leave their concealed carry pieces back home, not wanting to take chances with gunfire inside the Center even when it was just the two of them and the Cat. 

 

"Next time we do it my way," said Ashley firmly, putting a bandage on her friend's bare shoulder. "Figuring out her patterns was smart," every alternate Thursday for the last two months, except on days when it was too damn hot to go outside, especially if you were wearing latex and leather fetish gear, "but you can't just be smart when you're dealing with costumed psychos. You've got to outcrazy them too." She was cursing herself too - if she'd been willing to use her superpowers in front of Irene, they could have probably taken the Cat down together, and her hesitating had gotten her friend stabbed. "All right, I think I've got this all patched up." 

"How do you know so much about costumed creeps?" asked Irene, flexing the impressive muscle in her shoulder back and forth as if to make sure it still worked. It was a joke question - but to her own surprise, Ashley found herself answering - and answering truthfully. 

 

"I used to be one."

 

Irene turned, as much as her injury allowed, and said, "...get out? Seriously?" 

 

Committed to her course, Ashley smiled thinly. "If you're ever looking for a laugh, Google "Copycat" and "Freedom City" sometime. I was one of about a hundred people who thought that having some martial arts training made it worth dressing up like a damn cat and punching purse-snatchers in the mouth." Ashley expected Irene to laugh, but was met with a serious look from the taller woman. 

"That's pretty heavy," Irene said seriously. She'd turned around in the seat and was looking over at Ashley; sitting down being one of the few reliable ways to put them eye-to-eye."Do you want to talk about it?" 

 

"Not anymore than anything else I did when I was seventeen," said Ashley with a snort. 

 

"Thanks." She stood up, bringing her face a few inches above Ashley's. "Do you mind if I ask you something?" 

Ashley rolled her eyes. "The name came from-" 

 

"No, I mean - why'd you stop?" 

"Because I realized who I was when I was seventeen wasn't who I wanted to be my whole life," said Ashley frankly. "Because I wanted to feel like I was doing something that actually mattered with my life, and not just go through the same motions as everyone else around me." 

 

Irene smiled at her, eyes full of more understanding than Ashley had expected. "Yeah, all right, I get it." There was silence, and the crickets for a moment, before Irene said, "So...how do we outcrazy a woman who thinks she's a cat, wears knives on her hands, and threatens you with-" 

 

"Her legion of Kat-astrophes, yeah," said Ashley with a snort. "I've got some ideas. The first thing we need to do is gear up properly - and maybe try and figure out where she got her gear. And next time, let _me_ go in first..." 

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Week 6 (July 7-July 14) 

 

There really were Kat-astrophes. The next night, outside of the usual schedule, they went for the Center back walls, hissing and clawing, all black and red, with glowing eyes and sharp claws, and each one about the size and shape of a goddamned Persian cat. When the fight was over, Ashley wasn't sure what was worse - the memory of having blown up about half a dozen robot cats with a fire-ax, or the fact that nobody had bothered to call the police about the sound of a dozen exploding robot cats.

 

"Well that's Louisiana for you," Irene commented, a little out of breath and covered in artificial fur. "Full of smart assholes." 

 

Ashley gathered up the broken bits of cat monster - and accepted Irene's offer to meet for a run the next morning to talk about their future plans. It wound up being a long night, one that she found herself explaining to her mom with the same awkward deceptions as those very occasional nights when she'd slipped away with friends in college. Irene was a friend, and a good one, but she was reasonably sure her mother would not understand what she'd been up to the last few weeks.

 

But when Ash and Irene did meet that next morning along a stretch of rural road near the nature preserve, Ashley's first comment was one that she almost immediately regretted. "Are you sure that outfit's not conspicuous?"

 

Irene shot Ashley a look that was briefly sharply disapproving - then, after a moment, broke out into an odd smile. She stood, hands on her hips, and looked down at her jogging partner. "If you've got it, flaunt it, Ash. Why, is it hard for you to look away?" 

Ashley blushed, and did look away. "I...sorry," she admitted. "You can take the girl out of the church, but you can't take the church out of the girl." Plus I spend a lot of time dressing to impress a seventeen-year-old church girl! They had slightly different definitions of what counted as comfortable jogging wear in Louisiana in July; Ashley's T-shirt, fanny pack, and athletic leggings being a bit of a contrast to Irene's sports bra and shorts."I'm sorry, that was really uncalled for." 

""Sallright, I never get to see you blush anyway." Irene grinned - then they started running, Ashley lagging a little behind her friend. She really had forgotten how goddamned hot it was in New Orleans in the summertime. "So you find anything last night with your super-scope?" 

Ashley had used some of her standard espionage gear - and only called up a few people from her contacts through the third Raven. "Traced 'em to, tech guy in New Orleans. Too old and fat to be, the Cat, might know who she is." 

"Ash, honey, I saw what happened when you tried to program the DVD player at the center. Are you _sure_ you did this right?" Irene asked skeptically.

 

Ashley figured she owed Irene a little heckling, so she said, "Trust me!" 

 

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Week 7 (July 15-July 22) 


“All right, this is how we make it happen.” The air conditioning was working in the center office, which meant Ashley was actually cold in the T-shirt and jeans she’d worn to work in the kitchen that afternoon. Well that was how it was in old buildings in the South. “My contact got her address in the parish, and that means we don’t wait for her to come to us. Screw that reactive justice crap.” She unrolled the building blueprints on the card table, looking over at Irene. “Here’s my plan - we hit her with an EMP through the window, see how she likes the taste of it. After that I go in with the flashbangs, knock her as dizzy as the equipment, then we show her what we think of people who mess around in the parish.” 

 

“And she’s not going to have a gun?” hazarded Irene. “Everybody's got a gun in the parish. I mean, I have a piece and all I have is my mama’s old trailer and a warehouse full of protest signs.” 

 

“People like her don’t bother with guns,” said Ashley with a dismissive wave. “They think the codename and the costume makes them above it. I’ll make sure we go in with body armor anyway, though, in case she’s got those damn cats again.” She still owed Irene one for getting stabbed. 


“Well we found out they don’t like fireaxes anyway,” said Irene, looking across the table at Ashley. She spread her hands. “Jeezum Jim,” she commented. “We should have hired a superhero a long time ago!” 


“I don’t recall ever getting paid for this.” snorted Ashley. “Letting people come here and do their thing without worrying about a psycho with robot cats is payment enough.” She tapped her finger against the battleplan, then admitted, “I always...I always thought people who said they wanted a safe space were just being weak.” She looked away, not quite able to meet Irene’s eyes for a moment. “But that was before I actually saw what was one was like.” She made a little gesture, taking in the whole place, as she looked up at Irene. "I'm ready to fight. This place deserves it." 

 

Irene leaned down and kissed her on the mouth. Ashley stopped breathing, her hands clenching the tabletop - and Irene stepped back. “Oh, jeez!” Irene held up her hands, a look of mortification on her face. “I am so sorry, Ash I just... you give a really good speech, okay?” Ashley had suckerpunched Irene in the stomach and never seen her hit so hard. “I give everybody here the talk about getting consent and I go and do that without asking, I’m an asshat.” She had moved well out of reach of Ashley, and not just out of fear of getting suckerpunched again. 

 

“It’s...it’s okay,” said Ashley, taking a few deep breaths. Well you sure as Hell don't feel cold now do you! “Listen. My job is...really weird, and I’m really not looking for a relationship right now,” she said, which was certainly the truth. “But we’ve got a job to do.” She smiled at Irene, her heart still beating rapidly in her chest. “And really, it’s okay. If I didn’t like you, I’d never put _this_ thing on again.” Because it was a good place to put her hands, she reached down and picked up the faux-ivory mask on the table next to the diagrams.  "Copycat time..." 
 

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Week 8 (July 29-August 6) 

 

In the end, it was all a bit anti-climactic - which was the perfect way, in Ashley's mind, to have a real, actual fight. Ashley and Irene entered through the backdoor of the Cat’s garage hideout, caught her standing over her workbench and cursing as she tried to assemble a death ray with a Hello Kitty fitted over the projector, and they went for her. Copycat’s old costume and mask fit Ashley just as well as they had a decade earlier; and Irene’s body armor and black balaclava did go pretty well with Ashley’s white outfit. Copycat and Anarchkiss (Ashley had groaned at the name but Irene thought it was hilarious) were on the case! 

 

It was a tough fight. Ashley and Irene fought as one; the latter’s superior reach and strength giving her an advantage when they closed with the claw-wielding cat, Ashley’s superior training and ability to throw herself at a much more formidable opponent giving her the advantage in the extreme closeup. The Cat took the opportunity to take a hostage when she did, but even as the claws went against her throat Ashley reached down and grabbed the woman’s sides with her bare hands. “Eat taser!” she yelled, grabbing on - and feeling the almost-unfamiliar-but-never-forgotten sensation of the woman’s energy draining into her. 

 

She’d finally come clean about her powers to Irene a couple of nights before, once it didn’t make sense to keep it from her - and damn if they didn’t do the trick! Irene moved in with a punch to the side of the head as the Cat staggered, and with that it was all she wrote. Ashley staggered away, pushing feline images from her mind, then helped Irene wrestle their prisoner into submission. 

 

Irene slapped the cuffs on the Cat and hung her from one of the wallhooks, careful not to actually cut off the woman’s circulation. “There!” she exulted, sounding stoked as hell after her first real super-fight. “Got you sucker!” 

 

Ashley pulled off the woman’s mask, revealing the bruised face of Ann Keith, feline terror of the Gulf Coast and now their prisoner. “We taught you a goddamned lesson,” hissed Copycat as she glared down at the bound supervillain. “What were you trying to do, clean up the parish? Flush us in the lake? Well you’re the one going down the drain, sugar!” It really was easy to fall back into the quips, wasn’t it? She had to work on that. 

 

The Cat rolled her eyes and glared at the two women. “What, do you think I am some sort of homophobe? That’s crazy talk! So much for the tolerant left!” She nodded her head down at the ground. “Don’t you know your history? The pirate Pierre LaPierre buried his treasure in this town in 1729 - right on the site of your center! I just wanted to scare you away for a few days so I could dig for it!” She looked away at some impossible vision. Oh I could have bought myself so much tuna, if you know what I mean…” 

 

Ashley and Irene looked at each other, baffled, bruised, and not a little curious. Irene mouthed “There’s $(#Ing gold under there?” 

 

The next day 

Ashley looked over at Irene, her metal detector beeping wildly where they stood down in the garage. “There’s $(#Ing gold under here!” 

 

Two days after that 

Ashley, Irene, and the rest of the staff and volunteers watched as the archeologists from the University of Louisiana bent over their find. This close to the waterline, surely whatever was in those oak chests they’d uncovered that morning had been ruined by centuries of flooding - 

 

But then one of the scientists (the excitable-looking one, Ashley remembered) raised his head and called “There’s $(#Ing gold under here!”  

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Week 9 (August 7-August 14) 

 

They’d picked Irene’s place as the best spot to socialize during the renovation/excavation of the center, Ashley not being ready to explain Irene to her mom just yet. Naturally, their conversation there turned to topics of mutual interest. 

 

“You just can’t beat the Sig Sauer P229 DAK,” said Ashley as she looked down at the pistol, she and Irene practically bumping elbows on the latter’s small couch. “.357 rounds, extended range, and small enough you can fit it in a concealed holster. It’ll even take down low-level metas if you know how to pick your shots.” She looked over at Irene’s weapon and said, “The .22 LR is a smart choice if you’re worried about being spotted, but it just doesn’t have a lot of-” 

 

Irene snorted. “Sorry, I just realized, here I am sitting in my trailer, comparing guns with my, uh, hunting buddy. I guess I really do fit in wid da parish after all,” she went on with a smirk. She and Ashley fell silent for a moment as they focused on putting away their sidearms. Ashley liked how smart Irene was with her pistol - she’d obviously had long practice. Of course, the pictures on the wall of Irene’s Army service, cut too short, told the story why. 

 

“Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid with it,” Ashley said, giving Irene a serious look. "I don't want to hear about Anarchkiss getting in trouble with the cops, even if they're assholes." She didn't tell her not to get into trouble - she was pretty sure Irene would do that anyway.  

 

“Cross my heart, and hope not to die.” Irene exhaled, then fanned herself - it was hot in the trailer, even with the whining window air conditioning unit going full blast. “Let’s sit out on the stoop, like civilized folks.” 

-

“So what made you come back, even after everything?” Ashley asked, gesturing slightly with her beer. She’d only had about half of it, not wanting to actually get drunk when she had the ride back to Lafayette ahead of her. 

 

“Mama got sick.” Irene rubbed her eyes, then admitted, “I told myself she just wanted to make up because there was nobody else around for her, but I couldn’t leave my Mama in here by herself.” She made a gesture back towards the trailer, then said, “By the time she was gone, I had just about enough money to move in here and keep my benefits. Neighbors used to leave notes about how they wished I’d died in Iraq but now they’ve got cancer too so that’s Louisiana.” 

 

“Jesus, what a bunch of assholes.” Ashley remembered jeering taunts, and worse, from her own past - it didn’t mute her appreciation for Irene’s story so much as it made her understand it all too well, flavors of bigotry in a stew that was Louisiana but a million other places too. “At least your mama appreciated it.” 

 

“She was a good woman.” Irene picked up a rock and chucked it underhand, the thumb-sized pebble landing in the pond with a satisfying thunk. “So now you know. About Lieutenant Rene, and about the Army, and why I still live in a parish where probably half the people would spit on me so much as look at me. On the other hand, my job turned out to be sitting on top of $(#Ing pirate gold, so I guess things are looking up.” She took a drink, then turned to look at Ashley. Ashley felt her heart jump when Irene took her hand. “I think it’s your turn now, Ash.” 

 

“...okay,” said Ashley, reaching back to tuck pink-tipped hair behind her ear. “Okay, here goes. The, uh, the first thing I have to tell you is, I have been dishonest with you. I’m not just a US Treasury bureaucrat; I’m an agent of the United States Secret Service. My current assignment is classified, otherwise I’d have told you the day we met. I just...I’ve had to tell so many people so many lies, I didn’t…” She fell silent, looking down into her beer. 

 

When Irene replied, her voice was thick with emotion. “Oh, honey.” When Irene hugged her, Ashley didn’t resist - hell, she hugged back. When Irene released her, Ashley looked up at her friend and saw tears in her eyes. “It’s all right. I remember being there. But there’s only so much time in a life, Ash. Forget me for a minute. When are you going to be honest with _yourself_?” 

 

And for the first time in a long time, Ashley George-Tran had absolutely nothing to say. 
 

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Week 10 (August 15-22) 
Oklahoma City, OK

 

Judy had hardly slept in the same bed for more than a week at a time that summer. She’d been in DC with her mom and younger sister for a while, visits that were tense these days with all that was left unsaid between the Cahill women - and then out in Oklahoma with all her family for the official start of her daddy’s re-election campaign, an agonizing affair that had only been made tolerable by a surprise visit from Ashley to drain her powers and talk for a while. Then it had been back in DC, then back to Oklahoma to read books to kids in hospital, then down to Louisiana with its creepy-eyed governor (she’d never actually seen her father discreetly use hand sanitizer after shaking another man’s hand before), then out to Ohio...it had been a thoroughly exhausting summer. 

 

But now it was almost over, and she’d be ending the week on the road back to New Jersey to start another year at Claremont. In some ways her saving grace had been the ‘incident’ in Ohio, where the hotel room had burst into flames around her once she was thoroughly sure that her Secret Service protection was as far away as it could be from her. She’d felt guilty about that at the time, but her plan had worked like a charm - after all, wasn’t her mother safe downstairs with the church donors, after telling her daughter that if she couldn’t pull herself together for one night she could just stay up in the hotel room by herself? 

 

It was proof to everyone that she hadn’t quite mastered her powers yet, and thus proof she could go back to Claremont for another year. Another year with Leroy, and Micah, and Danica and all her other friends - a chance to really make something of herself, and really change the world. It wasn’t going to be the same this year, and not just because Daddy was running for re-election. 

 

“Ash-Agent George!” she exclaimed as her ‘sister’ stepped into the hotel room. She’d seen Ashley throughout the summer, of course - they’d kept the biweekly appointment to drain off her powers like clockwork. But tonight they started making their plans for Year Two of Ashley and Judy Smith, sisters in crime who had no relationship at all with the family in the White House. “It’s good to see you!” She gave Ashley a hard hug, not minding at all that her mother was in the room. “How are you doing?” 

 

Ashley took off her sunglasses and smiled at Judy. “Just fine, Jaycee. Good afternoon, Mrs. Cahill,” she said with a nod to an attentive-looking Rachel Cahill, who’d bustled over right away when Ashley arrived. “Let’s get to work, shall we?” She smiled her most professional smile, and that was exactly what they did. 
 

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