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Who Do You Think You Are? (IC)


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July 3, 2021 

 

In between calling her mother, her sisters, and even Judith Claudia Cahill, who had certainly had enough things kept from her by adults in her life, Ashley Tran was left with the unavoidable reality that she had once again made a promise and she was going to have to live by it. But she wasn't the same woman she'd been when she agreed to be Judy's undercover escort at Claremont - and taking on the role of the Patriot the goddamned Patriot! was a little bigger than acting as an undercover high school student. So she'd reached out to Jill O'Cure, who'd reached out to somebody she knew, which turned out to be the elder statesman of Freedom City's queer hero community. 

 

Still doesn't sound right in my mouth, she thought as she studied her reflection in the Uber driver's window. But it's easier than spelling out 'hey I like men and also women.' She had a cut over her left eye and a fading bruise on that cheek, all stuff that the helmet and makeup would cover the next day, and the Uber driver hadn't said anything about it. She wasn't sure if that meant he deserved a bigger or smaller tip, but she left him one anyway as she stepped out onto the Lincoln street. 

 

There's only one person to talk to, she remembered Jill saying as she walked up to the front door of Keith LaMarr's apartment building. And okay, he saw you in character, but that was a couple of years ago and you had a whole different look. Her black skirt and white blouse could have been on any office worker, though they perhaps wouldn't have been wearing the blue and purple lapel pin and pronouns badge that she'd picked up at Pride. Even if he does recognize you, what's he going to say about it? Hardly any adult hero actually gives a crap about what goes down at Claremont as long as the kids are all right. 

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Once Ashley actually made it to the apartment building's shallow lobby and buzzer it didn't take long for Keith LaMarr to appear, filling the space left by the door he opened. He wore a simple short sleeved black and gold banded dashiki that would have loose and billowy on a smaller man and light khaki trousers and took off a pair of reading glasses as he gave his visitor a once over. Ashley had spent enough time on the other end of a practiced investigator's careful eye to recognize it then, noting him stop very briefly on her pins and bruises.

 

With a sigh that rumbled like a great weight settling into soft earth LaMarr folded his readying glasses and hung them from his deep collar. "You look like this is about the last place you want to be," he observed. "Probably means it's important that you are. You coming in or do you need me to go somewhere?"

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"I can come in," said Ashley, waiting until she actually got the signal that it was okay to step into the apartment before she did so. She looked around to each side as she stepped in, then up, casting her eyes over Keith LaMarr. She mused briefly that usually men who were giants in their communities weren't actually giants. Freedom always had a way of making the fantastic literally true. But she'd been the smallest person in the room most of her professional life (at least when she wasn't stuck working with teenagers, even if a lot of them were taller than her too!) so she was only a little bit intimidated. "Thanks for agreeing to see me." she added as the door closed behind her. "Except for Jill and Dragonfly, I don't actually know a lot of other queer people in Freedom," she admitted. 

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"Hah, we oughta have some sort of meet-and-greet. Like a parade or something, there's an idea." The furniture in LaMarr's apartment was all broad and sturdy looking, mismatched from where pieces had been replaced one at a time despite the forethought. The walls were all but covered in framed photos and newspaper clippings, mementos of an eventful life. He picked up a piece of mail sitting in a stack on an end table and used it as an impromptu bookmark for a textbook he'd had open next to a handwritten lesson plan. He refilled a glass of sweet tea that was mostly ice from a pitcher, raising it slightly in offering to his guest. "I shouldn't joke. This is still new to you, yeah? Not so old I don't remember what that's like."

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Ashley took the tea, took a sip, and was profoundly glad to find at least one person north of the Mason-Dixon Line actually knew to put sugar in their tea before you drank it. "I will, thank you. Good tea." She sat down herself on an easy chair that was solid enough to support three of her, feet flat on the ground and her glass in hand. I've been in worse bachelor pads than this. She caught several glimpses of 1-800-JUSTICE history on the walls, and several of Keith with the man she knew had been his late husband. She considered those, then the textbook. "Bart's History of New Jersey, huh? We had the same book back when I was in high school." She took a deep sip of her tea to hide the face she made at that comment. Better not to mention how different her high school experiences, both of them, had been from what LaMarr's students likely had. 

 

"But, uh, yeah," she went on. "I've only been out to myself for about two years now, much less the rest of the world. I've spent most of my life working in law enforcement," she added, giving LaMarr a look to see if he'd react to that. "It's better than it used to be, but it's not a great culture for gay people, especially if you're an Asian woman." 

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"First piece of advice: when you go to say 'it's better but' ask yourself if you're really saying 'it's hot bull and'," LaMarr suggested in a dry, rumbling drawl. He met her sidelong look and raised one eyebrow. "If you're looking for surprise you're gonna have to learn not to stand like a cop. I'm not a fan of the police as an institution but you already guessed that. We're luckier in Freedom than most American cities but any system that relies on local vigilante justice to hold officers accountable has fundamentally failed." He spread his hands in a broad gesture that seemed to invite introspection as well as rebuttal. "I can give you the benefit of the doubt for now, assume you got into for good reasons and not the power trip. My question for you is who do you take orders from now?"

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"The American public," she said with a thin smile as she gave what was obviously a familiar response, thinking of the conversations with Judy where she'd eventually explained to the girl that despite what her father might have implied, the Secret Service protected the President, they were not employed by him. "They don't always make good decisions, but I'll take them over anybody else I've called boss. And if that makes me as a fed, I don't really care," she added with a shrug. "I wouldn't have come here if I was planning on keeping a lot of secrets. I don't think anybody's ever called you quiet, right?" That, she decided, deserved another drink. 

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LaMarr rubbed the bridge of his nose and gave a rueful grunt. "Jiminy Cricket, look at the after school special on you. Guess I walked into that." The big man sauntered over to a love seat across from the armchair Ashley was sitting in and lowered himself onto it, frame creaking softly. "Smart ass. You don't need me to tell you that a good chunk of the 'American public' hate you because of your skin or 'cause you're a woman and overlapping chunk will hate you 'cause you're queer. Seeing as how you're a lady cop with muscle definition you got called a lesbian plenty of times before you decided maybe that wasn't all the way wrong." None of that was a question or a revelation. "And none of that scared you off which suggests you're thinking about making some big noise in particular and you want to make sure it's the right kind of noise.  I on the right track?"

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Posted (edited)

"You probably heard about the big announcement the President is making tomorrow," said Ashley. "It's about me." She reached up and rubbed the cut over her eye and admitted, "It was going to be about a different guy, but a couple of weeks ago he decided he had some issues with the current administration and is now a fugitive from justice. They're-we're bringing back the Patriot. Not the original, he's in the ground. But me."

 

She hesitated, then went on. "I lived this life when I was a teenager because I thought it had to be done, and I did it again for a while because nobody else could do it, but I thought for sure I was finished." It was a frank admission. "I was really looking forward to doing the job I was hired to do again, and not have to pretend to be someone else every day of my life. But now there's an asshole running around in red white and blue who thinks that America needs to be made great again, and that he's just the man to do it now that he can punch through concrete. And it makes me goddamn sick, because people are going to buy it." 

Edited by Avenger Assembled
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LaMarr simultaneously raised his eyebrows as high as they could go and closed his eyes, a combination of surprise and careful processing. "Alright. This went from a sweet tea conversation to a beer conversation. Hot holy damn." He rose back to his feet and made his way over to the refrigerator. The handle didn't match the rest of the design and looked like it had been replaced at some point. Opening the door and shifting the contents about he muttered audibly, "Never could say O'Conner didn't have a pair on him." That seemed to jog his memory and the civics teacher paused, straightened and turned to give Ashley a careful look. "...they had you protecting the Cahill girl at that school. That's where I've seen you before. Knew I shouldn't have let Summers talk me into letting that one go, for--- nngh." He grimaced and rotated his head until something popped loudly in the superdense muscle tissue of his neck. "Damnation, girl. I've taken some lousy, thankless jobs in my time but you're really working on a resumé, huh?"

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"Christ. Of course the high school teacher is the only one who can actually tell teenagers apart," she grumped out loud. After that, Ashley was quiet for a moment, thinking about what was confidential because of her job and what was confidential because of a girl who'd have been infinitely happier as nothing more interesting than the first metahuman from the Oklahoma Panhandle. "It was actually Cahill who got the Patriot Project started," she admitted, "O'Connor just kept it going. Most people like superheroes; most of the time." she said with a shrug. "And as for Judith Cahill...well, she already told everybody her story. I helped her find her voice. That one wasn't a sonic joke, by the way," she added after a moment. "Thanks, I'll take whatever's cold." She'd already finished her tea, anyway. Guzzling your tea? Bà Tran would never approve. 

 

She hesitated, took a chance, and when she cracked open the beer said, "I became a cop because of my father. Back in the old country, he used to tell me, he'd have spent his life chopping wood in the jungle somewhere, but in America, he got to go to school, he got to wear a uniform, and he got to hold his head up. He was just so...proud of it. Here we were living in a Section 8 apartment in New Orleans East, and he would walk down the street and ask after people's grandmothers like he was the Asian Andy Griffith." 

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"Spent a whole class talking to my kids about that press conference. Lot of feelings." LaMarr shook his head as he returned to his seat. "Bad situation." She didn't need him to tell her that posing as a teenager around a bunch of actual kids was deeply twisted. She'd helped the Cahill girl get out from under her piece-of-work father in the end so all her could really do was trust she'd done her best with the options available.

 

He listened to her talk about her father in attentive silence. "It's a good dream, s'why we fight to make it true. They want you to represent that dream and you'll do it because the alternative is letting some loudmouth turkey twist it without any opposition." He ran a hand through his white streaked beard. "But you also want to start living your own truth. You think you can do both?"

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"My truth is that I am a sister of four and an aunt of three, and out of all of them, I'm the only one who's ever put on a mask." She looked at her reflection in the bottle, then said, "So that part's out. I just..." She blinked and thought for a moment. "It has always really pissed me off when someone thinks I got anywhere because of who I was, just another goddamned diversity hire." She said it with the venom of someone who had been described that way to her face. "I don't want to be the gay Patriot, or the Asian patriot, or Lady Patriot, or some nonsense like that. But...Hell, how can I not be?" 

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"It'd for sure be 'Patriette', though. Like the Rockettes." He took a sip of his beer and watched her face to see if the joke had eased some tension or just wound her up more. "Jav, my husband, he was a linguist, yeah? Saying 'Asian American' used to drive him up a wall, lumping all of those countries, all the distance and variety together. Me, I'm black 'cause I got no good way of telling what part of Africa my ancestors came from and the way he figured it 'Asian American' was that same sort of thing." He let his gaze fall to a large framed photo on the wall behind Ashley, eyes unfocusing a bit.

 

When he looked back to meet her eyes LaMarr set his jaw to one side. "He also knew that model minority bull was a damn trap. You're a queer Asian lady. Doesn't mean you speak for me and my experiences. If Jav and Yelena were still here you wouldn't speak for them, either. But." He held up an index finger to emphasize his words. "Somewhere out there there's a little girl with a crush on her best friend who's convinced she's a freak. There's some brother with a PhD driving a cab sick of being told he's what's wrong with this country. And there's some mayonnaise loving fool browning his pants he's so mad you stole a job from a straight white dude. I'd say those are all pretty compelling reasons to tell anybody who's got a issue with what you are that they're welcome to come and try to do something about it."

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"Hmph." A corner of her mouth lifted even so. "God, I can only imagine. You saw what they put me in for 'loudmouthed teenage lesbian vigilante.' Good thing there's no time to change the branding. Or the costume." She considered Wail's words and added, taking another risk, "Vietnamese. As I was reminded at language camp every Saturday and two weeks in the summer." She didn't sound angry at the memory, just a little fatigued. "There's no way to make the pricks happy; so might as well go all out?" She smirked a little. "It is a little late in the day for the US government to decide they want to part with my services. Unless O'Connor wants to spend his reserved time tomorrow telling the story of the the time he got replaced by a Grue again." 

 

She turned the beer around in her hand and said, "You know, my mentor uses you and your team as an example to her pupils, the ones who have soaked up so much Freedom League stuff they think there's something wrong with getting paid to do what you do. If you're helping people, the whys don't matter so much as the hows." 

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"Lord, if I have to tell one more kid not to settle for an unpaid internship or submission contest or some other fool thing. She tell you about the time Typhoon tried to run out on a cheque? That story's still worth a free drink or two in the right bar." That brought a smile to his face, bittersweet at not having anyone these to give him a hard time for trotting that anecdote out once again. He took another sip of his beer. "I'm saying other folks don't get to be happy or not about you being who and what you are. They got an issue with you actual behaviour? Fine, that's maybe a conversation to have. Just existing in public shouldn't be 'going all out'." 

 

LaMarr heaved a rumbling sigh. "The bad news is I can tell you you'll get it coming and going. There's lesbians who'll hate you 'cause you don't meet some bull gold star purity test and a gay white man can be as racist and misogynistic as anybody else. That's equality, hah. I assume there'll be Vietnamese and other Asian folks who have one issue or another. You just can't let it be about all that. I promise you there's more, decent people who'll be in your corner, they're just not always as easy to hear over the loudmouths. I say stay off social media but I've been told that's a completely untenable strategy by 'the youths' so what do I know."

 

Thinking about age had him furrow his brow briefly and do some quick math. "Now wait. You're telling me you were posing specifically as a gay high schooler before you were out to your bosses or yourself? Girl, what in the Sam Hill?"

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Ashley looked over her mostly-empty beer to see just how mad Wail actually was, then she rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, somebody in denial is asked to come up with a cover identity for themselves and the first thing they think of is an out and proud queer person. It's a real conversation for my shrink." She spread her arms in a 'what can you do' gesture. "Even Judy Cahill, bless her hillbilly heart, asked me if I thought that meant anything. Kids." Her tone about her former charge was obviously affectionate, even so. "Trust me, if that was a sin, I've done my penance. Hey speaking of which, it turns out 'Catholic, but not in the sense of believing what the Church says' is not a good answer for questions about the Patriot's views on religion, according to my social media guy." 

 

She smiled thinly. "So that's going to be a thing. As for the rest of it..." She hesitated, then gave Wail a sympathetic look. "I bet you got a lot of that back in the day. I'm sorry." 

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"Jiminy Cricket, our tax dollars at work. This is why I always say that secret identity jazz isn't worth it, it gets away from you. I realize this goes counter to what I've been saying but I think it's better that whole mess stays top secret or whatever you call it. I'd have probably thrown you into the bay if I'd heard half of that nonsense without knowing what was happening with little Judy Cahill. Mhh." LaMarr rubbed his temples, calling upon the patience of a man who had guided years of teenagers through roughly the same stupid mistakes over and over. Not quite the same as the mistakes Ashley was describing obviously but even so.

 

Leaning forward he rested his forearms on his knees. "It was... complicated. I wasn't out for most of the 1-800-JUSTICE days, not the way people are now. Nobody was going around making a statement on their newsletter blog and updating wiki pages. If you knew, you knew and even then most folks figured the polite thing to do was pretend they didn't." He paused to try to put complicated feeling into words that would be helpful for the younger woman. 

 

"For a lot of years it just felt like just being black, that was enough, yeah? I was loud - literally - and angry so to a lot of turkeys I was the wrong kind of young black man, even. And I was always going to be an ex-con even after my name was cleared and having powers, being a metahuman, that scared a lot of people, worse that it does now. Every room I walked into people saw a three kinds of threat all at once and that was the closest I was ever going to get to respect from a lot of them. And I didn't think I could be a tough guy and gay." It was a frank admission. He'd worked through the shame over his shame a long time ago but there was still a sort of embarrassment to saying it out loud. "And it wasn't their business, right? But keeping that secret, trying to split off part of myself because it didn't fit the idea I had of who I was? That was poison, for me and for the people I cared about. And eventually I realized that what I was doing to myself was worse than anything they could do to me. Worse than that, by saying nothing I was participating in that stigma, that hate. And I got complicated feelings about God myself but I look at my gifts and how could I ever think I was meant to be silent?"

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"It was what she wanted," said Ashley softly, more to herself than anything else. "I think I was the only one in those rooms who gave a damn about that. So if I have to eat dirt for the rest of my life for it...it was worth it," she admitted, with the expression of someone who had never quite said those words out loud before. She smiled slightly and took that opportunity to finish her bottle. 

 

She unhooked her bisexual pin and stared at it for a moment. "See, you've got all that, and me? I can talk about being a woman, about being Vietnamese, about being a cop, even..." It was polished enough she could just make out her reflection in it. "I've had boyfriends since I was in college," she said, "but only the one girlfriend." Her lips curled at the thought of Fa'Rua, who wasn't quite close enough to the Solar System to have gotten the message about her forthcoming career change yet but would surely get it soon. "And I know, nobody's just a little queer, but I feel like a tourist," she admitted. "Even the word feels wrong. Growing up, 'queer' was something kids whispered to you in the hall when they thought the nuns weren't listening." 

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  • 2 weeks later...

LaMarr regarded her thoughtfully as she stood by her decisions, one hand on his beard. It was hard to ignore the feeling of being graded. "Hm. I've known a lot of tough guys. I'm getting the feeling you're the real sort of tough." He lowered his hand and gave a small nod. "That's good. Can't usually teach that."

 

He seemed to consider for a moment whether or not he wanted to admit something then sighed and shrugged. "Don't know if this'll help but I slept with a... significant number of women when I was young." He spread his hands wide is a resigned sort of chagrin. "They did most of the work. Just seemed like the thing to do at the time." He wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "Point being they don't hand out or revoke membership cards. If they start that's probably a red flag. You call yourself what you're comfortable with and you let other people call themselves what they want. There's a certain type of gay that gets off on policing that nonsense and I've got no patience for it."

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Ashley made a noise in the back of her throat. "Sorry, I just...I didn't think we'd bond over stories of all the tail we used to pull." She waved her bottle around for a moment, considering what to say, then said, "Don't blame yourself. Everybody's stupid when they're young, especially about who they want to hook up with. Believe me, I should know, I had to do it twice." Having slouched down in the chair, she sat up. "My first real boyfriend thought I was in college to find a Catholic husband and get married. Which, first of all, this was 2010, not 1910, and second, I was a criminal justice major, what was I going to do, run the neighborhood watch and raise the kids while he went off to work every day? What the hell, Tyler."

 

She rubbed her bicep thoughtfully, looking off at the memory. "I think the Lor have it right. Just date who you want, and if you want a baby, boom, visit the clone tanks. They'll even grow you your own actual kid." 

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