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Where At Least I Know I'm Free (IC)

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Claremont Academy 


The Patriot made no bombastic arrival when it came time to pick up her mentee; she didn't pose in her costume out among the other adult heroes there to impress teenagers that there was something noble about spending your life in combat. Costume on, she sat by her motorcycle in the outer Claremont parking lot for Sharaf, running a cloth over the red, white, and blue finish. The bike didn't need to look so patriotic, of course, or really gaudy if you asked her opinion - but it was something the kid would go for, and that was nice enough.


For once she was in costume and in public and nobody was taking pictures or asking her opinion about crime or the Second World War, and that was just fine. She adjusted her jacket, the blue and gold sunburst of the Smithsonian having joined the pins on her lapel, and waited for the Patrioteen to arrive. 



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It took a couple of minutes after she arrived before the young man who was...well, was "apprentice" quite the right word? They'd met, and worked together a couple of times, but it wasn't the same dynamic as Alek shared with Charlie, or was forming with the younger Callie. He exited the entrance in his costume, his shield tucked away in that odd wristband of his, his red gauntlet and boots smooth and silent for the time being. He looked...nervous. There was a slight stutter in his steps when he drew within a few feet before he stopped. He almost went into an extremely sloppy parade rest, then kept trying to do something with his arms. He finally settled on having them crossed over his chest, hands tucked almost in his armpits. His left foot tapped a couple of times before going still. Finally, he spoke, his voice filled with a bit more confidence than Ashley wagered he felt in truth.


"Hey. So. Uh. Ma'am. Miss. Patriot. Sir. Uh. Hi."


That pompadour of his waved in the gentle breeze. 

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"Ma'am is fine," said the Patriot dryly. She studied the boy for a moment and thought, not for the first time, what a damn awful thing this was to do to a teenage boy. Surely they could have tried a little harder to get the damn thing off him. She considered another moment, then reached down and pressed a button on her bike. The red white and blue colors rippled for a moment before fading into a sedate brown. Another moment and she reached under the chin of her helmet to snap it free, displaying her face to the boy for the first time. The Patriot was an Asian woman who looked to be about twice Sharaf's age, her dark hair cut short and partially dyed a deep shade of crimson. "Come on, let's get out of here. My treat." she said, adjusting the helmet so it resembled a normal bike helmet and reaching down to toss another one the boy's way. "It's not gonna mess up your hair," he added not unkindly. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sharaf settled down a bit as she at least gave him direction. His confidence in front of his peers when in her presence was likely due to not feeling the entirety of her focus upon him. As he saw she had adjusted the bike to be "civilian" colors, his head tilted in curiosity. 


"Okay that's neat. Hm."


He looked down at his right wrist, then slightly clenched that fist. His super-suit shimmered in an unearthly way, then began to flow up his legs and left arm, and down his head, the colors muting to a silvery mass until everything had flowed into what looked like, for all intents and purposes, a large-ish smart watch. He was left standing there in slacks and a button-up, whose top couple of buttons he re-fastened before donning the helmet. 


"Thanks for remembering the hair. Most people just laugh about it."


He spoke almost absent-mindedly, perhaps self-aware enough to know that his concerns about his styled hair were mostly an affectation. He waited for her to get on board first before sliding onto the bike and getting a grip however best he could; he would spend several moments looking for some kind of secondary handlebars or something, because the other option was more than a bit awkward. 


"I've never ridden one of these before, honestly."

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"Here and here," said Ashley laconically, steering the boy's hands towards her ribs. "Just hang on." She drove the bike fast without actually breaking any traffic laws, weaving their way through Freedom City traffic with a professional's eye. She wasn't much for talking on the way, communicating in the occasional shout over the noise of traffic until they reached their evident destination. 


When she put down the kickstand of her bike, they were in a neighborhood of Riverside Sharaf had never visited, a place with Asian writing interspersed with English on the walls, a neighborhood of check cashing places, inexpensive cellphone stores advertising low international rates, and the distinct smell of good food. They were in front of a restaurant just labeled SAIGON FOOD, and with a nod Ashley put down her kickstand. 


"Welcome to Saigon Food," she said. "This is the best place for New Orleans Vietnamese food in this whole damn town." Inside the place was packed, and from the look of things mostly from people in the neighborhood, with only a few tourists off in one corner. Ashley smiled big at the server, said something rapid-fire and handed over a tip, and the two of them found themselves in a small private room. 


The walls were adorned with pictures of Vietnam and New Orleans, and jazz was audibly coming over the speaker system as Ashley handed Sharaf a menu. Pictures were printed next to the names of the dishes, whose contents had been imperfectly translated into English. "I recommend the ca kho to, the 'family fish'," she said, tapping the laminated page. "but the banh min boys are good too." 

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Sharaf very carefully held on and didn't move his hands at all, the entire time. His body leaned just a bit as they went, now and again, but that was it. He didn't try to talk much on the way either, due to the noise. He took a moment to carefully take his helmet off, place it back on the bike, and take stock of the area. When he spoke, before they walked in, his voice was surprisingly soft.


"Haven't actually been down to this area before."

He seemed almost sad about it. He followed her in, gave the server and other staff he saw a big smile and a nod, and sat himself down. He eyeballed the menu but mostly listened to Ashley. 


"I'll do the ca kho to. Always like a good fish dish."


He was clearly trying to steer clear of something that might contain pork. 


"I'm still working on Socotran stuff and more traditional 'southern' food. I've toyed with trying to fusion them but haven't gotten there yet. Do you tend to prefer fusion, or do you alternate between it and the more 'traditional' recipes?"


Cooking was a "safe" topic, but Sharaf seemed genuinely curious. 

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"This is 'traditional' for me," said Ashley with a faint shrug. "I went to Vietnam when I was in college, but everyone made me for an American the minute I got off the plane. It's the accent," she said, not wanting to get into how a Eurasian face could look Asian among white people and white vice-versa. "My dad used to tell me that the great thing about the United States was that you could have a piece of home here even when you were far away, but it was never quite the same." She thought about Socotra - like any US government agent, she was familiar with the details of the recent 'bloodless' coup there, and as a superhero the legacy of Typhoon's rule was something she knew very well. She couldn't blame Sharaf's parents for staying in the US when they'd made a new life here; she doubted her father would have gone back to Vietnam if somebody overthrew the Communists. 


She looked across the table at Sharaf, hesitated almost imperceptibly, then said, "Tell me about yourself. Not the line you feed your teachers at school, which I know you do because every single teenager does," she said with great feeling. "Tell me about yourself." 

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  • 2 weeks later...

"Ha! I do understand that, about the cuisine. So many 'fusion' styles. My mom still likes to cook like they did back in Socotra, so I have something of a 'baseline' to compare it too. But I get that."


He took a sip of his water as he pondered her question. Request. 


"Hm. Well, I'm sure you know all the boring information already. And you've probably heard from my mouth and others that I like cooking. But it's..."


Here he stopped for several moments; Sharaf was clearly trying to figure out the proper words to articulate his thoughts. Everyone had to do that from time to time, but teenagers more so.


"For me, it's just kind of...right. Something about cooking. I wonder if the heat feels, ah, natural. If you catch my drift. But it's more than that. It straddles art and science in a way almost nothing else does; all the measurements and temperatures and motions and things have so little margin for variation, but you can just...there's so much you can do! I like basketball, I play now and again. But if you asked me what I wanted to be as I was growing up, the answer would have been 'a chef' for years. Which my folks don't mind. My mother still brags about how I'm a teenage boy who wants to help out in the kitchen."


His smile faded as he continued.


"Now..." He sighed.

"Now there's so much more. At first I was just excited, you know? What guy wouldn't be! But now it's...part of me misses the simplicity of things...before. But a bigger part of me...I can't just pawn this off on someone else. I have to believe Allah gave me this for a reason."


There was a metaphorical fire in his eyes at those words. A passion.


"If this is the path before me, I'm not going to second-guess it. I'm going to do the best, be the best. For all the kids and adults out there like me. And to prove to others that it can be done. By people like me."


Any thoughts Ashley may have had about trying to convince Sharaf to give up his newfound burden would wash up against the solid rock of his conviction in this moment. 

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"The path before you is to eat good food on the government dime," said Ashley with a faint smile. "Deciding where your life is going to go when you're sixteen isn't always the smartest play." When the food came, they fell silent as plates and cups were placed by the server, a smiling woman who was generously pleasingly plump, and Ashley took a moment to drink her Coke and study her Vietnamese po'boy. "You don't have to sell yourself to me. I'm not your teacher or your boss." With that, she dug into her sandwich, watching the Socotran-American boy carefully. 

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