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Family Portrait (IC)


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Sharaf found the picture near the end of the school year, a steady black and white photograph in a book about the Hinomaru. The Hinomaru had been Imperial Japan's version of the Ubersoldaten of World War II; cruel agents of empire who had mostly come to a sticky end at the hands of American, British, and Chinese super-agents during and after the Second World War. This particular book had been put together by the US National Archives just after the war, a murderer's row of assassins, terrorists, and killers of various stripes. (Socotra of course hadn't been involved in World War II; the first Typhoon had been just a boy living under British rule off the Arabian coast in those days.) 

 

He found the girl near the end of the book. Akuma no Neko, aka "Devil Cat" had fought several Allied incursions on the mainland of Japan at the side of Crimson Katana, and had vanished in engagement against British heroes during the campaign in Burma just as the war was entering its final stages. There was an image like an identification picture; a pale-eyed girl with shockingly white hair, standing modestly in a schoolgirl uniform like a sailor suit, one of her standing at a podium, standing on a stack of books so she could address a small unit of IJA troops, and an artist's rendition of the girl surrounded by illusory devils. She was by all accounts a black magician, an infernal sorceress of the Green Dragon Society, and - well he had seen that girl before, walking around the halls at Claremont, sitting silently in most of her classes, her accent thick and English often uncertain.

 

There really could not be that many young Japanese women with white, fuzzy hair and big visible cat-ears atop her head, or a tail visible in the rear shot at the podium. This was Neko Musume.

 

 

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Sharaf had honestly read the book out of a year-long curiosity. After some discussions with his mentor/boss early on, he'd been determined to get as complete of a picture as possible about the "super soldiers" of the Second World War. At first, it was just the Patriot. The first one. And while many parts had been encouraging, when he'd read the memoirs that Ashley and the Headmistress gave him access to, it was...more complicated. If nothing else, it had been war. Reading these books, it had become clear how much more lethal things were at the time. 

 

This latest book had been difficult. The records of what the Imperial Japanese Army had done during the War were....unpleasant. Most of the Hinomaru had not been much better. But this "Devil Cat", while fighting on the enemy's side....the records were less clear. 

 

What was clear, is that something was going on. But there was no way that the Headmistress didn't know. Something like this? She knew. So to Sharaf, that meant that this girl was not an immediate danger. Something else was going on. But what? How did she end up here, looking almost the same? 

 

He gently closed the book and set it aside, standing. He looked around the library, and saw only a couple of students studying. None of them his tar-his fellow student. So now it came down to going out and seeking her down. He'd start with the courtyard; he recalled her enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, out of the corner of his eye. If that failed, he could discretely ask around.

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Cats can be hard to find if you go looking for them. A little discreet inquiry got Sharaf directed to the big old tree in the middle of the quad, one that Claremont students had been carving their initials into and climbing on for a great many years now. Neko was high in the tree, some ten feet off the ground, and was walking along a fairly thin branch that extended out over the green. She didn't usually wear geta and kimono on campus anymore, but it made the climbing and balancing harder, and so made it all worthwhile as she walked along the wood, her wooden shoes clicking as she went. She sang softly to herself as she walked back and forth, pacing out the limits of how far the wood would bear her weight. It was a good tree; one of her favorite spots, and she didn't even mind the green leaves stuck in her hair as she moved. Gradually she lowered herself down to all fours, still balanced on the limb, and looked down to spot Sharaf. 

 

Her eyes were big and distinctly yellow, her ears pointed and atop her head, her tail twitching behind her, and for a moment she locked her gaze with Sharaf before she blushed slightly and looked away. 

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Sharaf had done his best to ensure that anyone he asked about Neko knew he just wanted to talk, and not that she was in trouble. He'd already developed an unfortunate reputation as a "teacher's pet", despite what even his sometimes-clueless self could pick up as more than a bit of tension between Patriot and Headmistress Summers. Ashley had thus far refused to elaborate, but as she hadn't verbally and explicitly told him to either "forget it" or "do not investigate", his personal side-project was building a case-file of the situation to come to a conclusion. He considered it practice for having to do that sort of thing down the road, and didn't trust that he could just blindly accept intelligence or mission briefings every time. 

 

He was pretty sure it wasn't some kind of torrid affair with the current Raven that ended in heartbreak, but he was pretty sure the Raven was involved somehow. Even though Patriot and Raven got along pretty well, especially since The Incident. 

'Thoughts for later.'

 

For now, he smiled gently and waved at Neko up in the tree. When she looked away, he glanced down. No stains or other weird things on his shirt. Odd. He looked back up and tried to be as non-threatening as possible. 

 

"Hey. So. Um. I was...can we talk? It's, like...a history thing. No one's in trouble. I'm just curious, and I think you might be able to answer the questions better than anyone else."

 

 

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Neko blinked down at Sharaf, and when she opened her eyes some half-dozen white bobtail cats were looking down at him from the tree alongside her, some resting in her hair, some her back, some on the branch itself. He knows. She was many things and as she'd had occasion to teach a few people in her life, one of them was clever. She considered her response, then leaped down from the tree, landing neatly by Sharaf's side and folding her hands behind her back. The cats up in the tree disappeared at that, but then reappeared around her, all of them watching Sharaf even as she looked away, her cheeks coloring slightly as her tail twitched behind her. 

 

"Yes?" 

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Sharaf blinked a few times at the probably-illusionary cats that came and when a couple of times before they disappeared. He shrugged slightly and moved to lean against the tree, crossing his arms as he did so. For several moments, he seemed to study Neko; there was no judgement there, just curiosity.

 

"Are you her? The one from the Forties?"

 

He gestured with his head back at the Library.

 

"Was doing some research, down a bit of a rabbit hole. I'd been reading about the first Patriot, then all the American supers, then all the other supers. All of the other supers. Goo-Allies and Axis both. And when I was looking over documents about the Pacific, I saw a bunch of stuff about the Hinomaru. Most of it's about Crimson Katana. But there's a few things about this young lady who did weird stuff. 'Magic', according to most. And then she disappeared. Not, like-" He made an odd sound and dragged his thumb across his throat in an unmistakable gesture,"-but just gone. And then I remember seeing you around. This place tends to pick up...strays."

 

He lapsed silent for a few moments.

 

"They're not hunting you, are they? The Feds, or Japan, or some weird ninja cult? Wait, crap, is that racist, to assume 'ninja cult'. Shoot. You know what I mean though, some sort of...weird third party."

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"I was born in 1929 in the Iya Valley," said Neko, not quite meeting Sharaf's eyes as she recited what was obviously familiar. The cats at her feet were nuzzling her leg and she bent down to pick one up, stroking it behind its ears. "I was frozen by American weapon during the war." She thought about Owain, but that was his secret to tell, not hers - besides, if Sharaf had found the one, he could find the other easily enough. She gave Sharaf a yellow-eyed look. "I am - safe here. Thank you for asking." She thought about telling him how alien even Japan was now, but kept that to herself as she did much else. "And you are the Arab boy. Will you go home when you are done here?" 

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Sharaf nods as she confirms his suspicion about her identity. He smiles as she mentions being safe.

 

"Okay, cool. I figured you were cool, if you were here. Headmistress is not the sort of lady to let actual villains roam around."

 

He blinked at being described as "the Arab boy".

 

"I mean, technically Socotran, but I am yes. I somehow didn't realize I was the Arab boy, though. Sadly they don't recognize my talents more."

 

He winked and summoned a tiny lick of flame as he snapped his fingers, then it faded. He grew a bit more serious.

 

"Freedom City is my home. My parents are from Socotra, political refugees. They've talked a bit about going back now that that new gal is in charge, but they're gonna give it a few years. I'll visit, but....I was born here. Not, like, this school, but this city. This country. It's my home. It's not perfect, but nowhere is. So...here I am."

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Neko shifted where she stood at the way Sharaf described himself, wondering if she'd made another mistake. She kicked out of her shoes, high old-fashioned wooden ones, and slipped them into her sleeve. No wonder he likes America so well, she thought, if it has given him so much. "Okay," she said agreeably. "I don't know anything about Socotra, the island?" she hazarded, vaguely remembering something from geography class. "But America is very big." She looked up at the buildings around them, then at the city that surrounded them. "My village, it only has...few hundred people. All in the mountains. Not like this."

 

She looked at Sharaf and said seriously, "Headmistress is nice. I never had teachers like her before." She thought of Katana, shook aside the memory, then said, "I thought - more people would know. Would care." 

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Sharaf shrugged at the mention of Socotra.

 

"I've read some books, asked my folks a bit. They get tense when we talk about much more than the food and music, so I don't push. Your village sounds nice, though. Peaceful. All this, can be a lot."

 

He gestured vaguely at the skyline of Freedom City as he said that.

 

"Know about you? Well, you have to dig. Most folks know about Crimson Katana. He's flashy and memorable and he was active after the war. And another guy took the same name, did a lot of the same crap for a long time, too. Everyone else in your old group kind of...fades into the background. And honestly, you kind of doubled down on that, fading in the background I mean. I don't know everything, but like I said, I trust the Headmistress. And I can do the math, you joined up young. I'd wager you didn't quite know some of what went down, at least at first? Everything I read, seems like you mostly just...scared folks. Way I see it, at this point, past is past, you're here trying to make a new way for yourself. I'm not gonna knock that. I just...I wanted to make sure I was right."

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Neko's ears twitched, and she gave him a cool, sharp smile like silk wrapped around steel. She stood there with her bare feet against the carefully-trimmed Claremont grass and was silent, her tail twitching behind her. Ah. So that is why he's not afraid of me - and probably why no one else is, either. The Hinomaru are the dead past to him, a sad thing that happened to a distant people in a distant land, perhaps before his grandparents were born. Hardly anyone was still alive who had seen those days, of course. A boy his age in 1944 would be a great-grandfather by now. If he had survived the war. 

 

"You were right," she said simply, folding her hands before her. "The headmistress is very nice," she conceded. She considered what to do next, then smoothly stepped forward into a forward flip, so fast her kimono didn't quite have time to fall down, landing on her feet with inhuman grace. "Socotra was an enemy nation. Does anyone fear you?" 

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Posted (edited)

"People don't even need to know what country I'm from, specifically, to fear me. Bit over a couple decades ago, some evil people made sure that people, especially men, who look like me, who worship like me, are feared. They just look at me and cross the street, and I'm only halfway through my teenage years."

 

He couldn't look her in the eyes. Despite this clearly being something out of his control, and his modicum of anger, he also bears at least a touch of shame.

 

"Sorry. Bit of a hot button for me. And for people who don't know me first, if I do mention being 'Socotran', they double down on it. Maybe in a few years, if the new lady's not bad. But for now, yeah. Folks around here are pretty chill, I think a few of them come from even harder or shadier backgrounds."

 

He almost looked to be blushing when he looked down at the ground even more and almost mumbled the next words.

 

"A lot of people are less scared when I'm in my costume."

Edited by KnightDisciple
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It took Neko a little while to remember recent history classes and to understand the event Sharaf was talking about. Such a small thing, to make them so angry for so long. She looked down at her own pointed nails and thought about what she'd learned about Japanese history after she'd slept. About cities that had burned, and people that had died. Perhaps it's for the best I missed seeing those things with my own eyes. Would I be able to stand here now if I had? 

 

"Ah. And what is your costume?" she asked curiously, folding her hands before her. Sometimes that was a question the students here didn't want to answer, but sometimes it was, and that was something she could add to her storehouse of information about this place. "I have none," she said, putting a hand to her chest. "No - longer?" 

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Sharaf blinked, then smiled.

 

"Heh, yeah, hang on."

 

He stood up straight and took a couple of steps away from the tree. A glance around showed no on else looking their way, and nothing touching him. He then shook his left hand just a bit. That motion drew attention to the large, somewhat odd-looking watch. 

"Here we go!"

 

His right hand reached over and twisted something on the watch, and in moments Sharaf's entire body was covered in a writhing mass of metal...powder? The material settled, and when it did he was clad in a red, white, and blue costume that was rather obviously patriotic. A twitch of his hand, and the rings on his left arm flowed and shifted until it was a large shield with an eagle logo upon it. His face smiled from a half-masked face, even as his lenses faded from solid silver to clear.

 

"I'm, well, Patrioteen. Not the most inventive name, but there you go."

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Neko stared at Sharaf unblinkingly, her golden eyes wide, ears twitching atop her head. "Oh," she said after a time, her hands folded neatly before her. "An honorable name, I am sure." She considered what to do next, tail swishing behind her and then closed her eyes for a moment and remembered another life that wasn't quite so far away, and the terror and rage she would have felt under other circumstances. She did not retreat, instead simply ducking her head slightly to look up at the transformed boy. "What does it mean?" 

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In a flow of fading colors, Patrioteen was gone and Sharaf was back. He wasn't always the most observant, but he'd picked up the costume had triggered something for her.

"Sorry if that dredged up memories. I got caught up in the moment there. Anyway. It's a new one, and I won't keep it forever. Because, you know. "Teen". Anyway."

He returned to slouching against the tree, trying not to loom or anything. 

 

"The official 'meaning' is just that I'm the kid sidekick to the Patriot. To me, it means I get to show young people we can be heroes, but more importantly it shows brown kids like me that this is just as much our country, as it is the country of the rich and powerful and...less tanned. I'm not always perfect at it and a few folks get cranky about it. But the way I see it, I'm about reminding people about what this country can be. Not what it is."

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Neko considered her options and said suddenly, "Would you...like to be on the Internet? I have show." She took out her phone and showed Sharaf a Youtube channel, Tiktok account, and Twitch hookup, all of them adorned with her image and the cheerful words "CATGIRL REACTS!" The top video link appeared to be "CATGIRL REACTS...TO FLAMING RANCH DORITOS" with Neko making a disgusted face and giving two thumbs down. 

 

"I have never had, um, a guest...but the teen Patriot could be very good for my hits and subscribers." She smiled at that, looking downright avaricious at the thought. "You could be, ah, incognito, and I could give you question." She gave Sharaf a hopeful look.  

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Sharaf tilted his head at the request, before a huge grin erupted on his face.

 

"I think that would be great. I need to do it as Patrioteen, and I'll have to let Patriot know so she doesn't find out three days later from someone at the office. But yeah. As long as it's me as Patrioteen, and only me as Patrioteen. I don't mind you knowing, but that knowledge being public would be bad."

 

He laughed a moment at the video Neko was showing him. 

 

"They're disgusting, yeah. Cool Ranch is much better, and the only spicy Dorito worth touching is Spicy Sweet Chili, the blessed Purple Bag."

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Later that night: 

 

"That's not a bad idea," said Ashley thoughtfully. The Patriot was deployed to Indiana today "trust me, this isn't something you want a piece of" but she always had time for a late-night conference call with her mentee. "You're going to have to get used to operating in the public eye if you're going to be a government meta, and an interview with one of your classmates is a good test case. Just don't say anything stupid for God's sakes." She ran her fingers across her short-cut, blue-dyed hair, and frowned at her phone's camera. 

 

"What's your read on Musume?"

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"I figured reacting to Dorito flavors would be low-impact. I'll make sure to talk to her beforehand in case anything might be haram. I kinda figured you'd be okay with it, though, so, hey, taking initiative?"

 

Sharaf did a weak jazz hands.

 

"I'll do my best to not say anything stupid outside the context of what's expected in a 'teenagers react to things' video. I make no promises about being All Business."

 

At her question, he became serious.

 

"Skittish. She was scared of my costume. And seems to be putting politeness at the front, almost like she's afraid of someone getting mad at her. I was up front that I was trusting she was okay people because of the Headmistress, and she just said 'the Headmistress is very nice'. So there's that."

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Ashley considered her options, not wanting to screw up her protege's head but  not wanting him to walk into a bad situation. 'I'm just a weak, helpless girl' was a game she'd played herself more than once, and she was reasonably sure a magical girl who'd been trained in the school of the Hinomaru would be smart enough to play that game with every heroic boy (and maybe a few heroic girls) at Claremont. But teaching him to mistrust his classmates certainly wouldn't do him any favors, even if he did listen to her. 

 

"Just be careful," she finally said, keeping her tone light. "Remember that if she is afraid of you, she may be trying to be your friend just to protect herself. If I was her, it's what I'd do - and you have to assume she's just as smart as you are." She smiled. "Have fun on the show. I'll make sure to be watching." 

 

 

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Neko's Claremont studio was set up in a spare reading room in the library, the soundproofing in the walls just what she needed. The wall behind Neko was decorated with anime posters and Japanese art by the time Sharaf arrived, a seeming broad assortment of colors and shows picked with no particular theme. Neko herself was sitting in front of her laptop, ears up and tail behind her, wrapped in a bright pink kimono that seemed a little at odds with how she usually dressed on-campus. When Sharaf arrived, Neko gave him a wave and said "Ah, Patrioteen!" She smiled, eyes wide, ears up, her front teeth just a little pointed. "How is the weather?" 

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As Sharaf walked into the room already dressed up as Patrioteen, he had a smile beaming already. He returned Neko's wave and moved toward the other chair. 

 

"It's fine. A bit humid today, but there's enough buildings to stay cool today."

 

He glanced at the laptop, then at Neko, his mask suggesting a raised eyebrow.

"Are we about to start, or do we need to review some stuff?"

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"Take a chair," offered Neko warmly. "We can talk." She folded her hands in front of her and gave Sharaf an alert, big-eyed look, ears pointing towards him. "I will ask ten things," she offered. "Is there anything I should...not?" she inquired, tail lashing behind her. Inwardly, Neko was excited - her first interview! Merlin was pleased at how well this was going to raise their profile; and Neko herself was delighted both at that and how it would surely help cement her ties to her temporary - current? home. "Do you mind that we will be live?" 

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  • 2 weeks later...

"I would like to avoid any questions that would directly connect to the identity of myself or my parents. As well, anything that might lean on sensitive government information. If need be, I'll just say 'pass'. I don't mind if we're live, if those boundaries are okay."

 

Patrioteen sat down in an offered chair and relaxed. He wasn't quite slouching, but it was a near thing. Neko was smart, and could likely recognize that the other teen was trying to be as non-threatening as possible, to avoid ramping up her anxiety. 

 

"I feel like the sort of stuff you'll want to ask will be a lot lighter and more fun, though, so we should be fine."

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