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Summer 2022 

Southside 

Paseo Boricua 

 

It was summertime, which meant the Patriot was back in Freedom City from her time in space, which meant she was doing her civic duty. Her helmet and jacket on, she rode down the streets of Freedom's Puerto Rican neighborhood, keeping an eye out for the Claremont student she was supposed to meet. Guess she didn't have anywhere to go. Too many damn super-orphans, she thought, thinking of her own childhood commuting back to New Orleans every summer from Claremont boarding school. She caught the usual flash of cameraphones when people recognized America's most famous patriotic hero but there were advantages to Freedom, the locals were hard to impress - one woman riding a motorcycle, even if she was a superhero, wasn't enough to get the big crowds out on the street. 

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Puma sat on the small concrete porch of a church caretaker building. Having no family of her own to go back to, an agreement been made for her to board at a small Catholic church that one of the nuns back home had ties to. She would have rather gone back home, but the cost at the moment was out of the question for the time being, besides the necessary extra-curricular school activities that she had been up to and some of her mediocre grades made her take some remedial courses during the hot and sticky summer months. Island beaches and familiar faces clung to her mind like a distant dream.

 

She'd sigh, hearing the sounds of a motorcycle coming her way. Today was supposed to be some sort of mentor training program day where she would hang around with an official hero, perking up a little as they got closer. Puma would stand up, stretching a little bit and waving them down once she'd spot them. Even in these Summer months she still wore the varsity jacket over the more suitable heroic blue and yellow unitard she typically wore, letting her at least stay cooled off with the hot weather, a bit of her not wanted feel exposed, even if it meant dealing with the heat. 

 

"Is this my babysitter?" she'd think to herself, waving them down while she walked over to the street.

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The Patriot parked her bike by the side of the road, dropping the kickstand and stepping away after a quick, careful inspection. When that was done, she headed straight for Puma. The second Patriot was of average height for a woman, a little shorter than Puma herself, with a quick, muscular build that wouldn't have been out of place in an MMA ring. She was wearing her familiar blue helmet, hiding her eyes, and a leather bomber jacket adorned with various colorful pins - the Puerto Rican flag the newest among them. "You must be La Puma Negra," she said, giving the girl a firm handshake. "Do you need anything from the house?" she asked, cocking her head towards the door. She gave a little wave to the windows, trying to make eye contact with anyone inside even though of course they couldn't clearly see her face with the helmet on. 

 

Ashley had grown up in the church too, even if her raising had been more about regular Sunday attendance at Mary, Queen of Vietnam in the heart of East New Orleans rather than actually growing up in a nunnery. The orphan girl's story reminded her of the kinds of stories she'd heard from Catholics her parents' age, or older; but the superheroic life had a way of attracting all kinds of odd customers with strange stories. Yeah, and you'd know, she thought. 

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The teenager looked towards the professional with a look of curiosity, thinking that they'd potentially be a little taller than she was, but that was not the case. As Patriot gave a wave, an older Hispanic woman's face looks through a curtain with a raised brow before seemingly turning back to her whatever work she was doing. It was the church office, Puma lived upstairs mostly by herself. Others from around the neighborhood did snap a picture or two however, seeing a hero come through their area in somewhat plain clothes wasn't too common an occurrence, not for a long time.

 

"Yes, and you must be Patriot, right?" Puma spoke, her hands in the jacket pockets. She definitely was a sight, a black furred werecat like being with a lithe body, long curly black hair tied back into a ponytail, "So what do you want to do? The school only really said that you'd be here I guess in a mentorship program or something?"

 

 

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Ashley studied the girl, feeling more than a twinge of sympathy. Metahumans who wore their identity on their faces could make a fine living as a superhero if they moved out to one of the states that paid salaries; but between the laws against employing meta-soldiers and meta-cops in most places, not to mention peoples fear, superheroing was the only thing they'd be able to do with themselves. So she didn't ask Puma about her future, not wanting to raise a subject she figured was probably a sore one. And she may not want to eat out, either. 

 

"Do you like to ride?" she asked as she walked back to her motorcycle. Looks like her hips are shaped the right way for it, anyway. "I can get this thing up to sub-sonic speed on an open road, and she turns like nothing around corners. I can show you some spots they don't usually take the kids..." 

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"I've never rode a motorcycle before, I don't even have my license to drive yet," Puma would respond to her, cat like eyes moving over towards Patriot's bike. The closest thing she had ever driven was that of a bike back on the island.  She'd walk over towards the bike, hands still in her jacket pockets, inspecting it inquisitively. Puma knew nothing about car's nor bikes, but she could still see how cool it was to have something like this in your garage.

 

Her head turned to face Patriot, "You said it can go sub-sonic, where would you go to do that?" she'd ask her. The werecat wasn't really the most knowledgeable when it came to the sciences, but it did interest her when it came down to cool sounding words that seemed at a least a bit scientific. This was especially so, she never really got to go out unless it was a class trip, while living and staying at the church it was like being locked away, not that she minded it too much. She drew stares much of the time from the non-meta populace, whispers of her looking like an older former hero that intrigued her but served only annoyance at the moment.

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"Here, put these on." The Patriot pressed a button on the bike's handle, causing a compartment to open in the side of the bike with a faint hiss. What she produced turned out to be a collapsible helmet in Puma's size, and a plain leather jacket to go with it. "The helmet is made to fit your head," she said, "and you should be able to wear that jacket over your costume, no problem. I know you have enhanced stamina and toughness," she said as she climbed on the bike herself and gunned the engine, "but falling off at super-speed is no joke." Her own helmet was obviously bike-worthy, among other things. 

 

Once they were on the road, she called out over the noise of the engine, "The best place near Freedom is on the road to the naval base! Straight and level, and there's hardly any traffic if you take the military roads! How often are you able to get off-campus!?" 

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Puma held the jacket in front of her, inspecting it before rushing back to the house to change, switching from the varsity jacket to the bike riders' jacket that was handed to her. Natural curiosity and excitement had gotten the best of her and all she wanted now was to get on and have a ride. Once back she donned the jacket, politely grabbing the helmet and positioning it over her head until it was snug and comfortable. She'd give a thumbs up when she was ready, mounting up on the bike with a little uneasiness before getting properly situated. her arms would hold on tight to Patriot's waist as they drove on at speeds that she could only dream.

 

"I get a field trip here and there. Sometimes they let me out with supervision, usually with another student or something," she responds to the best of her ability, recognizing a few of the landmarks as they passed by as she was familiar with. It was an exciting time, one that let her adrenaline slowly come out as she traveled around in style with Patriot.

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"See if you can get out to the Fens!" the Patriot called as they sped up, zipping their way through the streets. "There's enough space there you can get around without a lot of cameras; and the locals don't turn up their nose at metas!" That much she'd had a chance to confirm herself, back in her Watchdog days; and she knew enough about Nighthawk to know the cyborg girl would welcome the assistance. She considered what to say next, then said, "Listen, Puma - what do you like to do for fun?! When Summers isn't breathing down your neck?!"

 

It was the perfect day for motorcycle riding; traffic was light today on a weekday that was too early in the summer for the public high school and college kids to be out on break, late enough that the morning rush was long since gone. Ashley gunned it, enjoying the wind on the lower half of her face as she went. 

 

 

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"I guess I could try and get out that way sometimes. Maybe I could get someone from the church to drop me off over there. They aren't that bad, not as weirded out by me I guess, something about seeing another one like me from awhile back," she responds, watching the world go by at breakneck speeds and exhilarating rush that only a motorcycle could offer. Puma hadn't put too much mind to it, but from her small world back home, Freedom City and Claremont had opened the door to find more than just self-loathing. For once in her life, she was starting to like she had some sort of purpose, but just couldn't put a finger on it at the moment.

 

She held a little bit firmer as they increased the speed, pushing forward as they made their way, "I like to do track at school, but since schools out... well I guess climbing. I do some sketching when I can, really nice when you're up in a tree, good view."

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"Good for you!" Ashley called. "The only extracurriculars I had were boxing, wrestling, and tutoring with Summers!" If that's what you want to call it, anyway. "High school and college are the last time you can just sneak off to draw something, or run track, or be in a play just because you want it!" She was taking them out of the city, weaving through cars on the interstate as they picked up speed, getting the occasional blast of a horn from someone who recognized the Patriot - or just didn't recognize their speed. "You deserve some time to actually grow up." 

 

That was one thing Ashley certainly hadn't had in high school - or so it had felt, anyway. "You ever get out to the state forest!? That's where we're headed!" 

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The idea of growing up certainly wasn't what she was thinking at the moment. If anything, the idea of leaving Claremont only haunted her as she had little idea of where she would be going after that. The school gave her a place to be, to learn and grow, but she hadn't thought about the after much at all, what sort of work she would be doing once she graduated. Puma wasn't entirely sure what sort of work somebody like herself would be doing. As they drove on through the interstate, she threw the thought out of her head for the time being.

 

"No, I haven't. I didn't even know there was one nearby," she responded over the roar of the engine and the wind, her grip slacking as she got a bit more comfortable riding on the bike at higher speeds, "Are we going on some sort of hike?

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It turned out not to be a hike, not really. 

 

The forest was thick, and older than you might think given its proximity to the coast. This wasn't an old-growth forest of hardwood like you might find further upstate; it was a forest of pine and cedars on sandy soil, the acidic and nutrient-poor soil having made conventional agriculture useless ages ago. This was the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and the Wharton State Forest was perhaps its greatest point. At least, that was what the brochure they picked up on their way in said. 

 

"I never came here much," said Ashley, the bike slowing as they moved through the twisty backroads of the state forest. "I was always a city girl, you know? But it's gorgeous out here, and if you look in the right direction, you can forget it's super-central back there!" She cocked a gloved thumb back at Freedom City. "The super world can get pretty nuts! Ah, here we go..." She stopped them at the edge of a gravel road and parked the bike, then crunched her way up the drive to step over the chain that blocked the road. 

 

The forest was alive with scent and sound; birds in the trees and small mammals scuttling about, and it occurred to Ashley that maybe she was about to see something get eaten. Oh well. Seen worse.

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Heightened senses allowed her to take in the clean, fresh air of the park forest around them as they moved ever further away from the city scape and into the wide and vast range of countryside and forest. Here however it would grow thick as they hit the pine barren, the terrain rich in cedar and white pine trees. She may have grown up on the island, but she had some familiarity of the flora of North America and the creatures there from school both back home and at Claremont. Such a calm and clean area was almost relaxing, though it was far cry from her native tropics.

 

She'd look at the chain link that blocked the road, hopping off and taking off her helmet alongside Patriot. Puma thought that something felt off being out here, thinking they weren't entirely supposed to be here, "So why are we here then if we aren't going for a hike?"

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"When I was at Claremont," said the Patriot reflectively, "my teachers would have told me it was to build character and not actually explained a damn thing. I'm here to show you a place you can get away from it all." The walk up the hill (which you could technically call a hike if you wanted to) turned out to end in a tower, a wooden tower that actually rose above the treeline and ended in what looked like a small house. "The woods here catch on fire all the time," said the Patriot as they started climbing the steps up the side of the tower, "so they put people out here in the firewatch tower every summer to keep an eye out for smoke. Even in the days of cell phones and superpowers, nothing's better for protecting the woods than eyes and a phone." 

 

Up inside, the three-room dwelling turned out to be covered with a fine layer of dust that suggested nobody had been here in a while. "Nobody's on duty right now, but they'll be filling it up soon with fire season starting."

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It appeared as though things did turn into a quasi-hike as the two made their way along the path. Being out here in the forest, it felt relaxing, surrounded by only the sights, sounds, and smells of nature around them. For Puma it was like a dream, a reprieve from the constant droning of the city proper, with only the sound underfoot of crunching gravel before they reached the towering fire tower before them. The climb up was even more a sight as it felt like back home for the young hero, scaling above the tree line, the tree far in the distance. 

 

"So people live up here or something, just watching for fires and stuff, right," she responds back, looking around  the dusty room. Puma sniffled slightly from the dust, wrecking her senses temporarily before she adusted, "Seems pretty lonely living all the way out here?"

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Ashley hesitated, thinking about what to say. Yeah, tell the girl who'll never be able to sit down at a restaurant without people staring that you know how she feels. 

 

"Claremont has a way of forgetting there's a real world outside of putting on a costume and adopting a codename. But there is a real world out there," she said, tapping the window. "If you're a superhero 24 hours a day, you'll go crazy. You need to figure out who you are." She hesitated again, then said "Listen, if you're interested, I can -" 

Whatever she was about to say was interrupted by noises from down below. Peering out the window over the small kitchenette, the pair realized there were strangers outside - an old-fashioned car had just pulled up nearby the tower, a big black roadster full of men in old-fashioned suits that came quickly tumbling out. 

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"At least it's a place where I can find something to do, see people that are at least somewhat like me," she responds with a bit of a shrug. Patriot regardless may have hit a slight sore spot for Puma as she walked around, tail behind her swishing around as she gave an annoyed look. Puma was so annoyed that she wasn't even paying attention to the growing noise of a car engine, something that she would likely have heard easily if not for the upset feeling that was growing, continuing to speak, "Interested in what?"

 

She'd quickly move to the window, looking down below to the car that had pulled up. Something wasn't right at all, quickly keeping herself small and out of sight as she peered downward, "¿Qué pasa con los trajes? (What's with the suits?) Are these your friends?"

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The men down below appeared to be in the middle of an argument, some shouting, some waving their fists, and one with glasses peering at a paper roadmap. Pressed up against the wall behind Puma, the Patriot was peering down too, and her breath caught audibly as the map with the map opened the trunk of the old car to reveal full cloth sacks with dollar signs on them. 

 

Ashley muttered a rude remark under her breath and checked something at her wrist before murmuring softly, "It's still 2022." 

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"No sé (I don't know). You think they are some sort of robbers or something, they kind of remind me of when a friend and I went to some abandoned place," she spoke, remembering the strange encounter she had with a fellow classmate at school. Just thinking about it made it feel even more strange as she thought back to that evening. For these anachronistic potential criminals, there was no doubt they stood out in the green forest.

 

"So, what do you want to do about the guests," she spoke, still observing from their position.

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Summers would have used this as a teaching opportunity, Ashley mused: but those men had what looked like real machine guns and this was a teenager. Superpowered or not. 

 

"There's no cell service out this far, but you can use the phone on the wall..." She glanced towards the phone and relaxed fractionally when she realized it wasn't a rotary dial. Thank God, place isn't that old. 

 

And then something happened. The two heroes were joined by two more people; well, one man and a baby. The man looked to be in his mid-twenties, a short brown goatee on his chin wearing what looked like old, comfortable clothes. Sitting on his lap was a chubby-faced tot in a cat costume, really a black onesie with floppy ears. Naturally the baby reacted eagerly to La Puma Negra, chortling happily and waving pink fists at her. 

 

The Patriot almost shot the man in the face before she recognized him. "Oh-" 

 

"Ssh!" The man held up his finger and though the Patriot's lips moved, no sound came out. "Don't swear in front of the baby." 

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"Why can't we just take them out, aren't we heroes or something? We should do something about it, stop them," Puma looked over to Patriot, looking for some sort of answer that she might give. The direction to go for the phone however surprised her, "The phone, why would we use the phone why can't we..."

 

Before she suddenly found themselves not alone. She had been so distracted that she couldn't tell that they hadn't been alone, holding herself from jumping a bit in surprise as before them a man and a small baby were now present behind them. The young heroine wasn't sure whom they were, but it seemed like Patriot recognized him, seeing her refrain from attack him. Her own eyes kept towards the baby, watching as it waved to her in their cute little cat outfit. Did they think she was just a big giant house cat in their infant mind? Puma didn't seem to mind as thoughts went back to the issue at hand.

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The Patriot would have told La Puma Negra that her responsibility was to protect everybody, even her - until the godling showed up. Sweating, Ashley tried to speak again and found that she couldn't, her mind already spinning ahead with images of permanent muteness, her career, her relationship...no, that's stupid. You know how it is with Quirk. He plays his game, then he's done. You just have to play the game right. 

 

While she was having a small existential crisis, Quirk raised his hand and said "Hello there, kitty cat. I am Quirk." He smiled as the baby on his lap waved exuberantly. "My little girl here is a big fan. I bet you can give her a good show, can't you?" He gave a cold, pitiless look to the Patriot, then smirked faintly. "Oh my dear Patriot, upset that your kitty days are behind you? What a shame, what a shame. Stay up here and don't interrupt, or there'll be two catgirls going back to Claremont." 

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Puma was slowly starting to get the picture that something was right with this picture and a bad feeling started to arise in her. It made the stomach churn, growing slightly slick thay whomever this individual was, Patriot had history with this pendejo (idiot), and none of it felt like it was good history between them.

 

"I'm not some kitty cat, and I do not do tricks," she says in response.There was a temper slightly growing as the comment had struck a nerve. She had never dealt with the Quirk individual, unlearned to any sort of potential danger that they might represent.

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Patriot waved her hands at La Puma Negra, a silent warning on her face, but Quirk didn't seem to be paying attention to her. 

 

"You'll make baby upset," said Quirk, looking about as annoyed as a suburban parent trying to make the kids down the block turn down their music. He waved a hand at Patriot and La Puma and suddenly - 

 

They were down on the gravel by the gangsters, who looked as surprised to see them as they were to be there. The group had been engaged in a vigorous argument over an old-fashioned paper roadmap, but the new arrivals threw those plans into a tizzy. 

 

"Aw jeez! It's some kinda Girl Patriot and Cat Lady!" went up the cry as the men went for their tommy guns. "Blast 'em!" 

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