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Generated: Jul 02, 2020 12:08 AM
Post last updated: Jan 26, 2019 9:23 PM
turn my power on
A Margaret in Fabulous
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Very little is more important than school, but this algebra test means nothing next to the sight of her body against a starry background.

She’s been aware for years that her body is wrong, skin and meat and juices and Incorrectness, but none of the makeup ads and style magazines had understood the reason why or what she wanted to do about it. The dream state almost gets it.

Would she like to recolor her hair? Sharpen her cheekbones? Grow wings? A unicorn horn? Claws, fangs, crystals, purple eyes, pointed ears, platinum teeth?

So many options, so much freedom, but the first thing to do is obvious. She has to get rid of her skin. Pores and hair and sweat glands melt away, replaced by blue metal scales as shiny as a just-washed car. And as the metal spreads, power accumulates.

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That's enough all by itself. She's got magic. Not much, because she didn't color coordinate her outfit with her scales when she got dressed this morning, but enough. Which means no going back now, but who wants that?

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Not her! This is awesome. And she looks awesome, or she will anyway, once she gets out of these ratty jeans and into something pretty. What goes with royal blue . . .

Math test. Arrgh. She needs to stop admiring herself and deploring the state of her pants and get back to the classroom.

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One of her classmates is distracted by her change and is staring at her.

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That's a pretty reasonable response! Margaret smiles sheepishly (smiling with metal lips feels different!) and tries to get back to test-taking.

Between the time she spent in the starscape and the time she spends staring at her hands and tapping her fingers together to hear the soft clicking noise they make, there's no way on Earth she's passing this test. 

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The teacher has also noticed the scales, and says, "The guidance counselor probably has a pamphlet about this," when she collects Margaret's test.

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"Oh, thanks, good idea." She thinks about apologizing for not using her time well, but has to move out of the way for the kid behind her to hand their test in and then it's too late.

Next class is English, which Margaret spends doodling dress shapes. Fortunately this looks pretty similar to taking notes from where the teacher is standing, and she's with it enough to provide the occasional comment on The Tempest when called upon. And then school is over and she skips chess club to visit the guidance counselor.

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The guidance counselor blinks at the scales. "Congratulations," he says. "What can I do for you - uh - I do know most of the students' names but the scales are throwing me, here -"

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That gets a giggle. "It's fine, I probably wouldn't recognize myself in a mirror right now! Uh, Mrs. Hicks said you might have pamphlets? Or, like, advice on what I should be thinking about next?" She tries to fidget with her hair, remembers she doesn't have any, and goes back to fidgeting with her fingers.

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"I do have pamphlets somewhere. Who are you please -?" He rummages for literature.

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"Oh right. Margaret Perry. Sorry."

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"Margaret! All right, congratulations, Margaret. Here you are -" He hands her a glossy pamphlet. So You Could Be A Magical Girl! it reads. "I don't have anything specific for people who've already taken the plunge - I'm assuming the scales count -"

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"Yup, they count! I am definitely doing this. Pamphlet should still help though." She takes the pamphlet and opens it, keeping one eye on the counselor in case he has anything else to say first.

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He seems content to let her read the pamphlet. It has the following sections:

The Ins And Outs Of Starscape - mostly stuff she already knows and has obsoleted for herself anyway, like that she has a week to decide, longer if she changes something, and a little chart of examples of things that she could fix if she had them (acne!) and things she could not fix without some research or expert guidance (asthma!). It explains how to get usable magic beyond what the starscape itself starts out by offering you need to change things about your body - enough, but not too much; there's a little infographic with a frowning girl with blue hair and no other changes on on end of the spectrum, a smiling girl with solid black eyes and wings in the middle, and a frowning girl who has turned herself into an octo-mermaid with pebbled cuttlefish skin all over herself on the right.

Magical Romance - a "so you're gay" introduction aimed at people who may be weighing the decision to become thaumosexual, written by someone who was trying to be PC but wasn't really sure how to do that.

Powers And You - vague and not particularly helpful, since powers vary so much, but it has examples, and it gives basic tips on how to dress for success - no copying more than a partial element of someone else's outfit but getting advice is fine, pick a theme and wear your theme hard, wear a skirt, hair emergencies are real emergencies, if your magic lends itself to anything visible you can get more out of it than you put in by using it to boost your costume, using "second layer starscape" effects for Technically Makeup is nearly as good as using "first layer starscape" effects for Actual Skin Repigmentation, the difference being that you're more likely to have to fix your makeup if it smudges but it won't cause more psychological changes...

Further Reading - a list of website URLs with names like elementsofstyle.com and swarmwatch.com and pairwise.com and inskirts.com, which are respectively "costuming tips" and "a community for swarm-hunting magical girls" and "magical girl dating site" and "magical girl fan and networking forum".

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That infographic is cute but decidedly unhelpful when it comes to walking the tightrope between "more cool changes" and "should probably try not to die".

Magical Romance is uninteresting for the moment; she hadn't figured out which if any genders she was into before and it's kind of nice to have that nailed down now.

Powers And You will be more interesting once she's gotten some more magic and taken the time to figure out what it actually does.

Those websites look like an excellent next destination, especially Elements of Style and Swarmwatch, but she resolves not to look at the former until she's gotten as far as she can on her own ideas.

If the guidance counselor has no further input, Margaret will thank him for his help and start walking home.

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The counselor is happy to answer questions but if she doesn't have any he's got nothing to spontaneously volunteer besides more paper (scholarship applications for magical girls: apparently a thing).

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Sure, Margaret will take some scholarship applications on the way out. You can't not go to college, after all. Then home and into her bedroom for some uninterrupted designing time before her parents get home.

First off, how much more physical change is she willing to risk? Minor cosmetic changes should be no problem, so she lengthens her fingers and makes her face more symmetrical while thinking about the weirdest girls she's seen on TV.

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Weirdest TV-going girls include "Dryad", who's skirting pretty close to turning into a tree; Laurie Brown (no code name) who is a rainbow mermaid; and "Aquila", who's still got arms and hasn't traded her face for a beak but is otherwise going really hard on being a giant bird.

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None of those are her cup of tea, which is just as well given the plagiarism penalty, but they provide a good sense of where she'll have to stop. And it isn't yet. Next up, a tapetum lucidum. And slit pupils to go with it. And all this blue is a bit one-note, let's turn her irises and the scales where her fingernails used to be silver.

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She does not turn into a cryptid on the spot! Good for you, Margaret!

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There's just one more temptation she can't resist. Scaly dragon wings sprout from her shoulders, blue to match her skin at the base and shading to silver at the edges. Yes, she thinks as she stretches them, that feels just about right.

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She looks almost cool enough in spite of the clothes that she can detect little bits of magic trying to come in. She could probably cast a spell if she were naked-and-scaly instead of schlubby-and-scaly.

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Yeah, these clothes have got to go. The jeans and robotics club t-shirt Margaret is in were picked for being durable and free respectively and those are no longer concerns. Also she probably ripped the t-shirt putting the wings on. Anyway, now she's nude.

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Magic!

...It's not doing anything, but it would be if there were something for it to do!

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Well, that's not ideal, but magic!!! Surely it'll do something eventually. In the meantime, outfit!

She'll start with a white shirt that leaves her arms bare and stays on with a loop of cloth around her neck, the back scooped low to leave plenty of room for her wings. Then a matching skirt, ankle-length, as light as possible to make sure it billows and twirls.

Now to start adorning them. The skirt can be embroidered with hundreds of tiny blue gemstones, densest near the hem and swirling up like snow in the wind toward her waist. The shirt can be similarly bedazzled, with the stones densest at her throat and radiating out and down across her chest.

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Now she has two spells that aren't doing anything!

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Maybe one of those websites has tips for finding out what your powers do. Or maybe she'll never find out and just fight the swarms with the power of flight and the biggest blowtorch she can convince her parents to let her get. She'll just have to drown her sorrows in accessories. 

Silver wedge-heeled boots, check. Small silver tiara with more blue gems in it, check. Hmm, the bare arms look is cool, but maybe just one arm? She adds a band of white fabric cinched around one arm just below the shoulder, with more fabric spiraling down around her arm until the last six inches dangle from her wrist, then bedazzles it to match her shirt and skirt, densely sparkly at the top and fading out on the way down.

She thinks the final ensemble is totally gorgeous. Does the magic agree?

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The boots are fine, the tiara's good, the arm thing is okay, better once it's jeweled. Now she has three spells that aren't doing anything!

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Alright, this is getting super bogus. No more starscape, time for science! . . . In the backyard, in case one of the things that isn't happening is laser eye beams or something.

She tries throwing her arms out to the sides and calling out, "Magical girl powers activate!" She tries pointing imperiously at a tree and yelling "Magic, I command you to come forth!" She tries going back inside and doing an Internet search for "my magical girl powers won't turn on" and "how do I cast my first spell".

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If your magical girl powers won't turn on, you probably haven't done enough body modification yet! Wings are always enough, do you want wings? You could also try Lu Jiu's Thirty Point Checklist for things you might want to modify!

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Yeah, okay, she should have expected that. If "I can feel my spells but not cast them" and "do magical girl spells require incantations" and "magical girl spells with activation conditions" don't produce anything helpful, she'll try going outside again and flying around. It should be fun even if the only magic involved is the bit letting her wings handle her weight.

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Some magical girl spells require conditions, like pointing at a swarm bug before you can fire a beam of energy, or a weak spell you're only just fabulous enough to unlock being finicky about how much of your own detail work you have to do and how much you have to concentrate. Some people have passive powers that do luck or defense or sensory things.

Some magical girls find incantations helpful! The swarms can't understand language so they don't telegraph what you're doing to the enemy, and if they're aesthetic they may or may not provide a boost (or that could just be a superstition) (forty page forum argument).

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Pointing at a swarm bug seems like a good thing to try, as does being on the lookout for passive powers. The forty-page forum argument is fascinating but reminds her that she has a history essay to finish. Three more paragraphs on the industrial revolution and half a biology assignment later, Margaret makes a Swarmwatch account and looks at what they recommend for non-magic weapons and for one's first fight.

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Swarm bugs aren't very tough when they first start out. If you want to fight the big ones that have been running wild in the ocean for several days gradually turning into a kaiju you get military grade stuff, but if you just want to be able to respond intelligently to a new spawn in your neighborhood, the popular model is something called a stardarter; it's got about the character of a Nerf dart gun, but heavier duty, so you can squash bugs but a shot gone wide poses little threat to people or property. They cost about $200 for a midrange dual-wielding pair, plus a starter batch of ammo (you can, if on a budget, collect the ammo, run it through the dishwasher, and reuse it), and are available in an enormous array of colors because they kind of have to be; for a little more you can get personal emblems engraved, embossed, or printed on their various surfaces.

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Fighting a kaiju sounds amazing, but it should really wait until she's figured out what her powers do and gotten a lot of practice on the smaller ones. Her money will stretch to stardarters; she doesn't get that much of an allowance but she doesn't have much to spend it on either. Still probably best to ask a parent's permission first.

Actually, now that she thinks about it, she ought to call her parents as soon as possible, so they have some warning about her new appearance before they walk in the door.

Ann Perry is a bit worried because Margaret rarely calls her at the vet clinic unless there's an emergency; then she's more worried, because her daughter is going to go fight swarms and potentially get injured or fail her classes. Then she's proud. The news that her daughter took a huge pile of alterations surprises her not at all. "Well, you've never been afraid to be weird," she points out affectionately.

Jordan Perry needs a bit more reassurance about the details of "Dad, I look like a dragon". No, she doesn't breathe fire; no, she doesn't have fangs; no, she's not thinking about dropping out of high school and will probably even stick with robotics club. (Chess club is definitely getting dropped.) No, she won't go looking for fights alone, though no promises if anything spawns where she is. Yes, she knows he's only worried because he loves her. Yes, he can trust her to take care of herself and do her best. Yes, she will be awesome at it, thanks Dad. Love you too.

When they get home, they both want to see her fly. Flying feels just as great as it sounds and looks just as cool as it feels.

After the flying demo, they're happy to let her buy a pair of dart guns and some ammo. She goes for her shade of royal blue with no customization and the cheap shipping; they'll arrive sometime the following week.

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The next morning she has an invitation on her homeroom desk to the school Magical Girl Club.

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Sounds like a good place to make friends and/or swarm-fighting partners! Maybe one of them will even know how to make her powers do things. (She spent the walk to school examining her senses in detail and making random gestures, with no discernible result beyond looking even odder than her new default. She'll head there after classes are done.

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The magical girl club meets in an offseason sports field, different ones depending on which sports are in session. There are six people in it besides Margaret; two of them go to a neighboring school that isn't big enough to have its own magical girl club. The members' themes are approximately "butterflies", "just barely not a TRON ripoff", "elf princess", "catgirl", "classic sailor suit plus wings", and "fire!".

Margaret will notice that they are all really hot.

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Oh wow, that's new. Well, obviously magical girls looking amazing isn't new, but the amount she *notices* this is new. Thinking that the catgirl looks soft and pettable is definitely new, what the hell Margaret you don't even know her name yet.

"Hi everybody! I'm Margaret Perry, just activated yesterday. Nice to meet you all!"

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"Hi Margaret!" says "fire!" girl. "I like your whole dragon kind of deal! I'm Hattie. Shiny lines is Josephine," (TRON girl waves), "long dress is Larissa, sailor senshi over there is Sumiko, the cat is Aaliyah, butterfly has a real name but she goes by Mariposa."

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Margaret recites everyone's names back and adds, "Thanks, the dragon thing is a lot of fun. Your thing is pretty excellent too! Do you do fire magic, or just like fire a lot?" 

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"Fire magic!" says Hattie. "My first draft was basically a prom dress and then when I figured out what I had I ditched it to do this instead."

"What have you got?" asks Aaliyah.

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Oh no she has to admit to everybody (and especially Aaliyah) that she doesn't know what she's doing aaah. But this is half the reason she came here in the first place.

"So it's the weirdest thing, but I don't actually know? I have spells, I can feel them existing, but I haven't been able to cast any of them. I don't know if they only unlock under certain conditions or I'm not concentrating right or what."

At least if she gets kicked out of the club for having really lame magic she'll probably have set some kind of speed record. Also this armband thing is pretty great for nervous fidgeting.

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"Huh," says Aaliyah.

"How many spells?" asks Josephine. "My second one only does things around swarms."

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"Huh" isn't great but at least it isn't "you phony".

"I have three different things, and they're all like that. I haven't been near a swarm yet, I'm hoping that does it if nothing else does. What's your second one?"

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"Swarm-seeking projectiles," says Josephine. "I'd show you, but, uh." Shrug.

"I don't have anything good for swarms at all," says Larissa. "I mean, I can sense them, but if I actually want to kill them I need stardarters."

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"I've got a pair of stardarters in the mail! I'm planning on looking into maintenance and aftermarket mods, see if there's any way to improve on the commercial version. Got any cool tips?"

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"They're pretty point and shoot," says Larissa. She displays hers; they're more crossbow-like models than the dart gun style Margaret got. "Recycle your ammo, it gets pricey if you aren't actually paid to kill swarms."

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Margaret admires the crossbow stardarters and nods solemnly at the advice to recycle her ammo. She should make the time to mark each of her darts when they arrive, so she can't get them mixed up with somebody else's.

"So what sort of magic do you have, if none of it is combat stuff?"

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"I've got basically magic GPS, and a thing in the radar-echolocation kind of genre that tells me where stuff is, which is useful for combat just not extra useful against swarms on top of swarm sense, and if I'm jazzed up in my less-comfortable-than-this outfit I can teleport short range," says Larissa, "but the outfit is actually so uncomfy I don't like to try aiming darts in it, I'm still trying to figure out what I can do that looks that good and doesn't cut into my arms."

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"That's really cool! Not the uncomfortable part, I mean, just the rest of it." She kind of wants to see what the even prettier uncomfy outfit looks like, but it seems like a rude thing to ask.

Margaret doesn't know what this club usually does, but she's happy to listen to the other girls talk about their powers and similar for quite a while.

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Mariposa says, "We have targets but if you don't have your stardarters yet that won't do you much good. Sometimes we do cardio so we're in better condition, that'll especially help with you since you can fly, Sumiko can stay in the air a lot longer than she could last year."

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"Cardio is a good idea! I'll definitely want to use the targets when I can, but for now, Sumiko, do you want to go flying?"

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"Yeah!" says Sumiko, and she takes a short running start and gets into the air. She has shorts on under the sailor skirt.

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Margaret needs a few more steps of running start to take off than Sumiko did, but she gets in the air and does also have shorts on under her dress. Between the lack of practice and the heavy metal skin she's not the most maneuverable of airborne beings, but there's plenty of space out here. 

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"You might want another couple inches of wingspan," says Sumiko, maneuvering into position ahead of Margaret so she can use her wake and craning her neck to see. "It can make a big difference, and you can shrink 'em back down when you land if you prefer."

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Margaret checks that she has enough altitude to recover from a midair stumble and isn't about to crash into Sumiko, then tries lengthening her wings on the fly.

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She does stumble; it's hard to fly when you can't see where you're going, little though it might seem to matter in the sky. But the change doesn't take that long and she has an easier time getting loft.

"I don't know if you've already cut scale weight as much as you can - what are they?" asks Sumiko. "It doesn't matter that much how scratchable or whatever they are since you can always fix them in starscape."

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Margaret had gone for steel in the initial rush of excitement and hadn't remembered to update it when she took the plunge on wings. She lands, letting her wings drag on the ground for a minute (no pun intended), and swaps the steel for aluminum. Thin plates but not too thin, she wants a bit of built-in armor. The result is a fair bit lighter, though she still weighs more than any baseline human of her same (rather small) height and girth.

When she takes off again, she's still no hummingbird but she's a lot more graceful than she was. She gets back up to Sumiko's altitude and calls out, "Thank you, that did a lot!"

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"No problem!" Sumiko calls back.

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Margaret will enjoy her new airworthiness for a while before she gets worn out and lands, well before Sumiko needs to. Cardio: definitely a priority.

For that matter, she wonders if bulking up her muscles in the starscape will actually make her stronger. Something to experiment on when she gets home.

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Back on the ground, they're all standing in a circle around Hattie, suggesting aesthetic adjustments for her to try and seeing what the magic thinks of them.

"No, that's not any better than the version with the brass fittings," reports Hattie, and then she opens her eyes. "Hey, we should do this for Margaret, she's new."

"Ooh, yeah," says Aaliyah.

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"That sounds awesome! What should I try first?"

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"What are you going for with that sleeve thing?" asks Larissa. "Asymmetry can work but you have to be pretty careful and I'm not sure the way it kind of wraps is working for you."

"Yeah if I were doing that I'd do the one sleeve in very open-work lace," muses Josephine.

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"I didn't want to have nothing at all on my arms", says Margaret as she enters the starscape. "Hmmm . . ."

The arm thing disappears. After a bit, it's replaced with a sleeve in open lacework, in a diamond pattern that echoes but doesn't directly mimic the overlapping scales underneath. Select intersections in the lace get little gems, white this time to show up better against the blue.

She makes the sleeve bell out at the end to keep having a drapey wrist-thing. It was just too fun to fidget with to give up that easily.

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"Ooh, that looks better to me, does it feel better on your end?" says Hattie. It does, a bit.

"You have to make a lot of really subtle changes at the high end, you get a lot of the low hanging fruit just by putting on a dress," says Aaliyah.

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"Hard to say, it really is subtle."

She switches back and forth a couple times, "listening" carefully for any magical feedback. She also tries turning the gems on the lacework sleeve from white to green and back to see if that does anything.

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It prefers lace to the swirl and it prefers white gems to black or green.

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She'll go with those, then, she likes them best too. "The lace does help, yeah! What else should I try? Maybe different shoes?"

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"Yeah, yours aren't very interesting - but don't go with heels if you can't run in them, you can't take off indoors," says Hattie.

"I just change my shoes real quick if I have to run," says Larissa, who is wearing high heeled sandals that do not look running-friendly. "Like this -" She quickchanges into snug high boots of soft leather with no fasteners. "Oh, and don't fall into the trap of making it so you can take them off, who needs that? If you need laces for the aesthetic you can do it for that without worrying about practical off-and-on."

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Shoes are hard. Margaret hikes up her dress a bit so the others can see her shins better, and thinks.

The boots extend up above her knees, and get tight enough around her lower thighs to be self-supporting. Then they split into a collection of separate diamond-shaped panels held together by fine chains, each panel pierced with an elaborate swirl of small holes. 

Margaret is pretty sure this is either awesome or total garbage, but couldn't begin to say which.

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"Hmm, I think something like that could work for gloves but it doesn't look great for shoes..."

Her magic thinks it's an improvement, but not much of one.

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"Yeah, it helps a bit but it's not great. Gloves are kind of a pain in the neck unless you go fingerless, though, and I'm not sure this is a fingerless-gloves kind of outfit . . ."

Does it help to ditch the leatherworking but keep the panel structure? Add even more leatherworking but fuse the panels back together? Change the base color from metallic silver to something more opalescent?

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Fusing the panels and upping the leatherworking helps, opalescent is a little worse.

"I like the opaly thing," says Josephine, "if it's not helping it might be because you're not doing much else with it yet..."

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If she changes the silver bits of her body to the same shade, and adds a single opal to her sapphire tiara . . . ?

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Substantial jump!

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"Oooh, that worked great! You were right, I just needed to commit to it." She admires her newly opal bits from various angles. "Doesn't seem to have made my magic any less shy, but it did do something."

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"Maybe you just got a really passive power theme," says Hattie.

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"It's definitely starting to look that way! I'll just have to get into a lot of different circumstances and see if anything happens."

Does anyone else have aesthetic ideas?

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They continue to troubleshoot - has she tried many hair options, how does she feel about belts, she could do a pretty stardart ammo bandolier, she could have a few of her scales inlaid with gemstones -

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Any form of hair would look weird coming out of her scales and she doesn't want to add spines, but how about a pair of wraparound earrings shaped like tiny silver Japanese dragons holding opals in their claws?

She feels good about belts! She'll add a wide blue belt-and-bandolier combo with silver embroidery and a totally unnecessary silver buckle, and ask to borrow some of Larissa's darts to make sure it looks good loaded. 

Inlaid gemstones is a difficult question. First of all, her scales are already very shiny, and second of all, she's not sure whether sticking gemstones into what's already metal will push the mental changes any farther. But after a bit of dithering in which she makes more belt buckle tweaks than is really productive, she'll add a single opal in the center of her forehead and a smaller one on the back of each hand.

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The earrings help! Sumiko lands and critiques the authenticity of the dragons.

Larissa loans her some darts. They're pretty, though hers are in the wrong color for Margaret's color scheme.

The opals help!

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Margaret's family is sufficiently long-assimilated that she'll happily take dragon authenticity advice from someone who sounds like she knows what she's talking about, as long as the result looks good and doesn't fall off her ears.

If the belt doesn't help she'll ditch it and just have the bandolier. Also now she's impatient to get her own darts. And her own guns, she didn't pay any detailing and still doesn't have an emblem but she has a couple ideas involving masking tape and spray paint.

She makes a couple dramatic arm gestures that show off her hand-opals and grins.

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The belt helps a bit. Josephine advises against DIY alterations; it's easy to screw up and make them look dumb.

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That's reasonable. Better to play with things it's easy to revert than to mess with a nonmagical gun and risk permanent damage. If she was as comfortable with a paintbrush as she is with a soldering iron--but she isn't, and between cardio, target practice, and actual swarm fights on top of her existing schedule she doubts she'll have time to get there any time soon. Maybe a thing that clips to the gun and can be trivially removed if it doesn't work out, or maybe she'll just give herself a pair of really cool holsters. Yeah, the belt's going back on so she has something to attach eventual holsters too.

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"You don't actually have to fight swarms, and it might be a bad idea if you don't know what your magic does," says Sumiko. "Not everybody gets combat relevant magic, and we can only sort of cheat at self-healing."

"I have healing spells," says Aaliyah. "But they can't fix everything."

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"I want to try it at least the once, though! I won't know how well I'll do until I try. And anyway sometimes you don't get a choice, if a swarm starts at my house I want to be ready to do something about it."

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"Evacuating and calling the emergency responders is always an option," says Hattie firmly. "One bug isn't very intimidating but if there's a thousand of them you really want a team, with experience, not a solo novice."

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"Oh, definitely. And I'm not planning to jump into fights until I have my stardarters and some sort of usable combat magic and other people to watch each other's backs. But it never hurts to be prepared, if only so I know what I can and can't accomplish."

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"Sometimes me and Larissa run around to see if we can catch any swarms before they get nine-one-one'd," says Aaliyah. "You could come with us sometime and we'll be able to cover you."

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"I'd love to! I bet I'll learn a lot that way. Do you have a next time for doing it planned?" 

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"Thursday after school," says Aaliyah.

"Do you have a bike?" says Larissa. "We usually bike, not literally run."

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"Thursday works, I should have my stardarters by then. I don't have a bike but I bet I can borrow somebody's."

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"If you're hurting for money there's modeling gigs," says Josephine, "they love hiring magical girls, you might want to take a bunch of photos of your current look so you can get it back after you do looks they want though."

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"That would be great, I kind of spent most of a year's allowance on weaponry last night. Do you have any particular agency you'd recommend or for that matter anti-recommend?"

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"I used to do Ricci's," says Josephine, "they're fine. Modeling's a skill, though, don't try to totally phone it in, you've got an advantage not a push-button-to-win."

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"I've never been a fan of phoning things in", she chirps. "My skills-to-pick-up list sure has gotten bigger in the last 24 hours, though!"

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"What's on there?" asks Hattie.

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"Cardio, stardarter use, patrolling and battle tactics, healing myself and my outfit in a hurry, modeling, fashion theory, and if I still have time after all that I should probably learn to run in heels."

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"Not worth it," says Larissa, "just have two shoe versions."

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"Yeah, I've already got two wing versions for similar reasons." She adds "selfies" and "look up Ricci's" to her phone's to-do list and tries making her boots stilettos for a few seconds.

"Does anybody ever, like, practice healing with magic? Because on the one hand it seems good to do it in not-an-emergency before doing it in an emergency, but on the other hand, yikes?"

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"Super yikes," says Sumiko.

"I'm sure people do it but mostly you just let it come up incidentally, you know?" says Hattie.

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"Oh good, that is not something I wanted to add to that list and if everybody else was doing it I would sort of feel obligated."

 

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"I mean, it could be an obligatory army training course for magical girls for all we know," comments Josephine. "But I know emergency responders don't have to just to get certs."

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"Good to know." Margaret casts around for a less gross topic. "Oh hey, can somebody take some pics of me with my phone while the lighting's still nice? You mentioned I should document my look and It'll be easier than trying to get everything into bathroom-mirror selfies tonight."

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"Oh, yeah, sure," says Aaliyah, and all the other girls take photos.

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And now she has a thorough collection of pictures of herself! She probably isn't going to make any radical changes except for modeling, or if her powers stop being hidey and turn out to be come with cool visuals. But if and when she does, she'll be able to get back to "jewel-encrusted dragoness" with no trouble.

"Thanks so much guys!"

Does anybody else want to do costume workshop? It might be fun to be one of the people brainstorming suggestions for another girl's theme.

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Aaliyah has four different costumes and can't decide which one to focus on! She's got an all-black ensemble and a black change of fur to match, lots of obsidian and ebony and black titanium and black gemstones in Art Deco patterns, excessively buckley boots. She's got an outfit to go with Siamese coloring, navy blue and white and beige, smart and professional-looking and with a three-diamond symbol. She's got a calico coat and a loud white and orange ruffly costume to go over that, with bows and ribbons and a pawprint motif - "this was my first tack, but I was eight," she says. And she's got a green and silver outfit to go with grey fur, long dress, silver claw caps, elaborate ear jewelry, malachite buttons and emerald beads. "I've got them all refined so I get the same spells out of any of them but I should really pick a primary for good or at least for a few years and start getting more subtle stuff out of it," she says, when she's modeled each.

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"The black and the green-and-grey are both really great! If you've been refining since you were eight I doubt I'll think of anything you haven't tried already, but what do you think of gold detailing on the black one? Say, gold eyes and boot buckles and maybe also the claws?"

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"I haven't tried gold claws, maybe that'd pull it together..." She changes into her black variant and makes the suggested change. "- it's a little better, maybe if I go a little harder on the gold it'd come together. I could make some of the embroidery gold, some of the jewelry metal..." She closes her eyes and tweaks things. "Yeah, that's not a big boost but it's a little bit."

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Eeee, she helped! 

"Try making your ears more like a lynx's ears, you know, with the tufts? Maybe make the tufts gold too."

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Aaliyah looks up what a lynx looks like, and tries it. "Nah, it doesn't like that as much. Maybe I can make my nose gold." She does that. "That doesn't help either."

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"Gold tail-tip, then? And I don't know if ear studs would be uncomfortable but it could be worth a try."

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"I've got earrings, they're just hard to see 'cause they're all black..." She tries the tail tip, reverts it, tries gold whiskers, keeps those, tries adjusting jewelry till she finds a local maximum.

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"You have such good taste in jewelry! Try gold mascara or eyeliner to match the gold whiskers, and a belt that echoes your boots?"

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"Mascara's worse," Aaliyah reports, "belt is better..."

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"If the mascara didn't work, I'm not sure where to go from there. Roughly how much more did you get out of all of that, can you tell?"

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"It's all really small at the high end," says Aaliyah. "At a certain point it gets hard to even tell if something's better or worse."

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"At least the experimentation is fun!"

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"Yeah! I feel sorry for people who just literally don't care how they look and get magic, it must be pretty tedious for them... I guess they outsource."

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"I bet! Magic makes looking good so much easier, though. I used to pick clothes based on what was cheap and wouldn't wear out quickly. Now I can wear whatever I want and I'll never have to spend hours doing my hair and makeup by hand!"

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"I think I make up for it taking forever to dry off after I take a shower," says Aaliyah, "but you're probably saving loads of time!"

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"So much time! I'm never shampooing my nonexistent hair again!" That giggle was definitely about her hair and not about the mental image of Aaliyah's face shortly after a blow-dry.

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"I don't dry my wings," says Sumiko, "I just remove one and then put it back dry, then the other."

"I don't want to get rid of half my fur! I'd look stupid!" says Aaliyah.

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"I wouldn't want to either if I was you! I wonder if taking the layer of color off my scales and putting it back would dry them off."

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"Might, I don't know much about scales," says Sumiko.

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"Something to try tomorrow! So is taking the wings off and putting them on again, they're kind of awkward to reach."

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"I'd expect yours to dry off if you flapped them," says Sumiko, "no feathers."

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"My bathroom has approximately zero room to flap, but yes, I bet that'll work too, I'll just have to go out in the hall".

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At this time Hattie has to leave to catch her bus, and shortly after that Josephine's mom arrives to pick her up.

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Margaret will fly home for the first time! Her neighborhood looks pretty different from the air!

Dinner and homework are less exciting than flying and magical shop-talk, but the routine is kind of nice all the same. And the next day is a weekend.

Margaret looks up Ricci's modeling agency. What does acquiring a modeling gig as a magical girl look like?

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If she is under 14 they need to talk to her parent or guardian instead of her, but since she's older than that she can directly phone them for a consultation!

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She's not sure what kind of hours modeling agencies keep, but she'll give them a call tonight if they're still open.

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She gets a machine that wants her to push various numbers for various purposes ("model inquiries" is 3), and then she can leave a message with her name, number, and hours of availability!

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Her name is Margaret Perry and her number is thus. She is available over the weekend, on Tuesday any time after school's out, and every evening (except Thursday, in case patrolling goes late).

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She gets a call back on Saturday morning.

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She got up a little earlier than usual to get some flying in (so much better than gym class!) but she's home when the phone rings.

"Hello! Margaret Perry here." Huh, that was fast. She hasn't even done any research on modeling skills yet.

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"Hi, Margaret! I'm Rosa Ferrari. We got your message about modeling, but you didn't specify - are you a magical girl?"

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"Yes, I am! Very new at it, but yes."

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"That's great! You've got a fantastic leg up in the industry. What do your powers do?"

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"I'm afraid I don't know yet. I'm pretty sure they're all passive powers, and whatever sets them off hasn't happened." Hopefully this won't be a dealbreaker, there are probably other girls whose powers are useless for modeling but who do it anyway.

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"That's all right, it's by no means a requirement, but if you happened to be able to do special effects I could slot you in for jobs that called for them. Are you interested in any work in particular?"

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"I don't really know what the options are, and I'll probably be up for whatever you have, but work that takes advantage of my ability to do really out-there stuff with my body would be fun."

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"Hmm, people mean different things by 'out there' - especially magical girls - can you go on about that a bit?"

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"I'm guessing most clothes are designed for people with two arms and two legs, more's the pity, but I wouldn't mind an excuse to experiment with being made of different materials, or do animal heads, or, or grow gills and model stuff underwater, or whatever."

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"Oh, models aren't just for clothing ads! If someone appears next to a car being advertised, they're a model."

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"Oh, neat! Wow, I have so much to learn. What sort of things are you looking for magical girls to do these days, clearly there are more possibilities than I was imagining."

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"It's not that we have a pile of standing requests we can't yet fill, it's that if you sign with us I can keep an eye out for opportunities you'd be a good fit for and then call you up if someone says they want an image with a girl swimming next to a submarine, say. Recent shoots that girls I agented for did include a perfume line - they wanted her to grow flowers all over herself - and a My Little Pony merchandise box photo. How old are you - if you only just got magic you'll be under 18, but for our records, if you wanted to appear in adult work later on."

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"Okay, that makes sense. And I'm fifteen. What else do I need to do to sign up with you?" She . . . kind of really doesn't want to do adult work but that won't even be relevant until three years from now. And it's not like she's planning to make a career out of this anyway, it's just a better way to get money as a high school student than 15 hours a week waiting tables.

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"I need you to spell your full name for me, and I need your date of birth and social security number and a few other things - if you're more comfortable giving those in person, that's fine, we'll need you to come in to the premises anyway to sign things, and bring a parent or guardian since you're under 18."

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Margaret is happy to read off her various identifying information over the phone, and wants to know what times she can bring a parent to their office and how long she should expect to be there when she does.

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The operating hours are supplied - they are open Saturday, but not Sunday - and it will probably take about an hour, not more than two.

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If all goes well, she should be able to come in this afternoon. Anything else they should get to while she's on this call?

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"If you have any limitations on what you're willing to work on besides things that would be inappropriate for your age, you may as well let us know in advance so I can get you the right version of the contract - some people don't want to advertise meat, or go against boycotts endorsed by certain organizations, or particpate in religious campaigns -"

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She'd prefer not to advertise for tobacco or against same-sex marriage, but the former is probably irrelevant for under-eighteens anyway. Anything else should be fine.

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"I can write that in, no problem," says Rosa.

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Oh good. If there's nothing else then she'll see them in person in an hour or two.

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In person they have a contract printed out for her! It is complicated. It acknowledges that she can quit at-will (and they can dismiss her at-will) but that while she works for them she has only limited discretion on assignments assuming reasonable attempts are made to make best-fit matches between work and model; her working hours are limited to evade child labor laws; part of her pay will be withheld for mandatory cryptid insurance to be paid to her next of kin; she relinquishes rights to the photos; she may be invited to wear things for shoots she is not welcome to copy with magic for everyday wear and will be notified at the time if this occurs; etc. etc. etc.

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The cryptid insurance is a bit unnerving, but if they ask her to do anything that sounds significantly beyond what she's confident is okay then she can always quit, and looking at it another way it's proof that they're not going to ignore her full shapeshifting potential.

They're definitely not going to copy her current outfit and then say she's not allowed to use it, right? If they say they won't, then she's fine with this contract as-is.

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"Oh, things you invent are fine. The problem would be knockoffs of name brands. It's a losing battle, if you want to know what I think, but people who want to keep their trademarks have to fight it anyway, so we have to put it in the contract - you model authentic Louboutins, you wear something else home."

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This is reasonable, and it's easier to invent things custom than to fit copied pieces together anyway. She'll steer clear of IP shenanigans and sign their contract.

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"Wonderful! I'll keep an eye out and call you if I find something I think you'll like," beams Rosa.

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What a conveniently simple process. It's probably more complicated for non-magical girls.

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And since Rosa doesn't have anything on deck for her right away, once all the papers are signed, she is free to go.

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Then she'll have the rest of the day to get ahead on her English reading, practice getting pen marks on her clothes and clearing them up by magic while pacing back and forth without tripping, read the news on Swarmwatch and the FAQ on Elements of Style, sketch some thoughts on the control circuitry for robotics club's latest project, and go to bed at a reasonable hour.

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Swarmwatch asks to know her location, and says a swarm in the nearest national park had time to coalesce into three dog-sized monsters before it was found and defeated by professional swarmhunting team Seraph Squad. Swarms were defeated before coalescing by first responders in the following pinned locations on the map of her area in the last week. People are invited to participate in a randomized controlled trial series on what causes swarms to spawn in homes and yards; compensation is available. Remember to buy your swarm manifestation insurance before the new year for tax incentive reasons.

The Elements of Style FAQ is like so:

Do I really have to wear a skirt? Some girls get good results with pants... but it's much, much harder. If you're going to try to be a heavy magic-user and you can't stand skirts, not even over a pair of snazzy leggings, you're probably going to need professional consultation.

Does my motif have to relate to my magic? Not necessarily. If your magic is strongly visual, a theme that cooperates with it will let you look cooler while you're casting... it won't affect how much magic you have available from a standing start. And if your spells can't be seen, then there's no there there for your motif to cooperate with!

How about drag? Avoid. Pants are hard enough already. We're not aware of any professional-grade magical girl costumes that don't look emphatically feminine. Note, of course, that there are all kinds of ways to be feminine - if eight year old girls can be little powerhouses without C-cups, so can teenagers who just don't want the extra ballast!

Do my clothes have to harmonize with my physical changes? Yes. A pair of plain feathered wings goes with almost anything, but if you're doing cool stuff with colors and textures, your clothes need to match for good results. Contrast can work, but do it advisedly and thoughtfully, don't just slap snakeskin on over seal fur and expect a second spell.

Does it matter if I'm pretty, as long as my clothes are? What does being pretty mean? We'd like to be able to tell you that everyone is pretty in her own way. But whatever we might think of your looks, you probably want to smooth them out before you expect the big spells. You will be fighting an uphill battle if you're sentimentally attached to pudge, acne, a unibrow, snaggle-teeth, or any but the very coolest-looking scars. That's not our judgment call - this is the same magic that has something against pants, for crying out loud. And if you're really determined, maybe you can pull it off - Maria Cordova weighs a hundred and eighty pounds, and she doesn't even have wings.

What counts as plagiarism? This one's still a subject of major research. You can draw on references and influences - it can even help you stay in-theme to do so. What you shouldn't do is look at something in a movie or a shop window, say 'that's part of my base costume now', and copy it. The rule of thumb is that you need to change at least two things: if you copy boots but change the color and length, that's fine, though it'd be better if you also adjusted the heel and added your emblem to it. If you copy a dress but swap the sleeves with some you saw on a different dress and add ruching to the bodice, that's fine, though it'd be better if you hemmed it and altered the neckline too.

Is Elements of Style affiliated with the Church of Thaumatology? Some of our writers are members of the Church but we're not a Church organization or affiliated with the Church.

Does Elements of Style provide style consults? We have a section where we post profiles of style consultants, but EoS itself does not provide this service and someone featuring on the site is not an endorsement.

How much is too much, when it comes to getting close to turning into a cryptid? If you're venturing into uncharted territory, all we can tell you is to be very, very careful. There's no warning when you're half an inch from the edge of the cliff, so even going slowly won't necessarily help. However, for common additions, we've got a "point system" that we think is conservative enough to trust. Stay under 325 points picking exclusively off that list, and you're golden. (Or whatever color you want to be!)

What else should I be reading if I'm just getting started? We particularly recommend these articles for newbies: Motifs 101, Visual Dictionary Compilation, Strongest Magical Girls Of The World - Photo Album And Detail Discussion, A Guide to Honing Aesthetic Intuition, and Playing Hotter And Colder.

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The point system thing is pretty neat. Just for fun, are enough of the things Margaret's done to herself on the list that she can get a sense of how many points she's at?

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Yup. Scales - full body is 145 points and Wings (with skeletal additions - e.g. bird or bat/dragon type wings) is 120 points.

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Hmm, only 265. And the eye changes probably don't add much . . . how does the magic feel about extending her nails into claws? 

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A mild positive!

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 . . .yeah, she's probably not going to be able to fire a stardarter like this, is she. She certainly can't hold a pencil. The claws go. What else is there in the 40 points-or-so range? Fangs could be a good addition to a battle outfit if she can talk around them, even if she wouldn't want them at mealtimes.

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Fangs are actually just 12 points. She could do various configurations of horns and head ridges for fifty points per individual or paired spiky bit (complicated ones go according to this formula, and it has a WARNING: SPECULATIVE plastered on the chart).

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Ooh, horns! She'll go with a pair of slender opalescent ones, shaped like integral signs with the tips pointing outward. They add six inches to her height, but she didn't start out tall enough to put her at risk of hitting doorways. 

The fangs are kind of fun, but definitely not an all-the-time thing--they make her lisp. The horns she likes enough to keep unless they actively make her magic worse.

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The horns are great! The magic likes the horns.

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The magic has such good taste, if she does think so herself. She really should go to bed though, she wants to wake up bright and early tomorrow and get some more exercise in.

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The magic has no opinion on this. Well, it has an opinion on pajamas (they're not great). Otherwise no comment.

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She'll be back out of pajamas soon enough. Breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal and a banana and No Coffee even though it really couldn't matter less if she stunts her growth now, and then she'll take a jog around the neighborhood. Flying is great, but she shouldn't let her legs atrophy either. 

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There's a swarm over there. She can't tell if it's new or not; it enters her range when she approaches, it doesn't start within it.

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She should call 911, but they'll want to know how big it is, and if there's anybody else in the area. She heads a bit closer.

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She can tell where the swarmlings are, but not how big. There are a couple hundred of them, and they are spaced closely enough that they could be new.

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She'll get airborne, try to get a line of sight on them.

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They seem to be inside that parking garage there.

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That would be a really easy place to get trapped if you can't fly. Flap flap to the appropriate level of the parking garage, hoping there's nobody in there.

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Nobody's in there! Just cars.

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But can she see the bugs?

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Around the corner, mostly clustered under a Jeep and adjacent Audi, yes, there they are, roiling across the pavement.

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Okay, that's enough to be calling emergency services with. Cell phone out of disguised skirt pocket, dialing 911. 

And while she's doing that, she notices that what she's feeling is more than the combination of swarm-sense and ordinary trepidation. She *knows* the bugs are a threat to her the way she knows that water is wet and fire is hot.

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The bugs have noticed her. They creep along out from under the cars in her direction.

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Come on, 911, pick up.

It is at this point she realizes she has made a tactical error by landing in the parking garage. There's not enough room to take off in here. If she wants to get out of this building, she has to either get past the bugs, get all the way to the roof, or jump out the side and hope really hard that her wings catch air before she eats asphalt. And she knows that last thing isn't happening.

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"911, what is your emergency?"

Some bugs sprout wings. They are plenty small enough to maneuver in here.

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She realizes they must be about to sprout wings a couple seconds before they do, and the resulting moment of How on Earth did I know that? is enough to make her trip over her words. 

"I'm, uh, I'm in the parking garage at ninth and commerce, and there are bugs, I mean the black swarm bugs, between me and the exit, and I don't have any combat anything, please send somebody."

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"Ninth and Commerce parking garage," repeats the voice, "all right, I'll send a swarm response team. You may be able to outrun the bugs, or get into an elevator they can't enter before the team gets there."

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"Okay, uh, okay." She turns and starts legging it up the parking garage, awkwardly trying to keep her phone on her ear in case the dispatcher has anything else to say.

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The bugs are not quite as fast as her, though they're getting faster. "What floor are they on?"

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"Third floor, or fourth I think, they're following me up." Keep going, keep going, if she can get a decent lead on them maybe she'll have time to call the elevator on the next floor--

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The bugs chase her faster and faster; she's still gaining on them but by less with every passing second.

"The girls are on their way. Just keep running."

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Feeling the swarm flying and hopping behind her is weird. Her swarm-sense seems to be seeing double, with one set of bugs lagging a few seconds before the other. She gets around the corner and into the next level, the bugs gaining precious meters from going over and under cars she has to go around.

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There's the elevator.

It doesn't come right away when she calls.

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Of course it doesn't. But she can't stay ahead of the swarm for much longer; she'll make a stand here with a wall at her back and hope.

There's a moment of almost relief when she turns around and sees that the further-back instance of her "double-vision" is the true one. But a skittering nasty about to leap at her face isn't much better than one that already is. Now seems like a good time to put those claws back on.

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Individual swarm bugs are not very threatening. She can geesh it. This deteriorates her magic on account of ick.

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Yuck. She gets another two, then takes advantage of a second's gap to delete the claws and put them back clean. 

Where is the elevator???

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Ding! The doors slide open much too slowly. The swarm can get in before she can, but only a handful of bugs, pretty easy to step on or smush into walls in a confined space. They keep flowing in even after she's pushed the door-close button, though.

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Now would be a great time for elevator doors to start working the way they do in movies, where they slide shut super-fast and crush anything in the way into a pulp.

The doors do not start to work that way. But better to fight part of a swarm than the whole thing.

She tap-dances on the crawling ones and swings one wing through the air as fast as she can, trying to sweep a bunch out of the air at once.

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She is able to defeat the elevator contents, but not without getting a little chewed up in a few places.

Outside the elevator she can hear magic noises and girls calling to each other.

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Oh thank goodness. She hits the button for the ground floor.

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Down she goes. She can feel the swarm dying as the response team hits it.

A girl meets her when she comes out of the elevator. "There you are! You okay?"

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No longer being viscerally aware of how much danger she's in feels good. "I'm alright, I hid in the elevator--sorry I wasn't any help, I don't have any weapons yet--um--"

Aaaand there's the adrenaline crash. Her muscles are aching and she's covered in death and some of the bugs got pointy bits between her scales ow. Leaning on the wall time.

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The girl supports her at the less injured of her elbows. "Bess has a healing spell, let's get you to her, okay? You don't have to be helpful with these things, I know it's tempting but if it's not your job you can leave it to us."

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"Okay, healing, yes." She lets the other girl lead her along, swaps her wings out and back in to get the gross off, stumbles at the change in center of mass but keeps walking.

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"Hey, you're gonna be okay, you did good. I'm Jennifer, what's your name?" The girl who met her has scales, too, though hers are gold and she still has hair. There's also Bess, the healer, who has very conservative physical changes - she's just supernaturally beautiful and her green hair defies gravity and anything else she's got is hiding; she dresses like a runway model displaying somebody's blue period; and there's one who introduces herself as Nora, has black angel wings, and is doing the pants thing in leather with extremely elaborate tooling on the material and very aggressive accessorizing on the theme of copper Celtic knots. Bess needs to touch each of Margaret's injuries to fix them, and it takes a while per, even though she changes up her shoes into something less practical and adds a long trailing cape first.

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"I'm Margaret. I'm alright, or I will be soon at least."

"Thank you!" she says to Bess as the pain fades from one minor wound after another. "And thank you all for getting here so fast, it's good that there are people who do this."

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"It's good you were here to notice it," says Nora. "If those things get out of hand they're much harder to stop."

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"Huh. Yeah, I guess it's for the best that I came this way. And I've already got some dart guns in the mail, so hopefully if this ever happens again I'll be in less trouble than I was this time. I hope it doesn't happen again very soon, though."

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"We cover the whole county eight hours a day and we get called out about three, four times a day," says Jennifer.

"Sometimes that's a false alarm though," clarifies Nora.

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That's definitely enough information to do some math about, but she'll do it when she has pencil and paper and steadier hands.

"Alright. Thanks again you guys, I guess I should go home now. Good luck with the rest of your shift!"

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"Thanks, Margaret!" says Jennifer. Bess offers her an application form with a wink. Jennifer and Bess board motorcycles; Nora jogs up to the roof.

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Margaret takes the application form with a little smile and heads home on foot. By the time she gets home she's able to outline the series of events to her parents in a calm enough voice that they don't lose their minds over it. She resolves to go out jogging again tomorrow in the exact same area; she is not letting one bad experience give her a phobia.

She doesn't fill out the form, but it goes in her desk drawer where she'll be able to find it again easily.

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The next morning at school is pretty normal. She isn't in classes with any of the other magical girls - Mariposa and Larissa are older than her, Sumiko and Aaliyah are younger, and Josephine and Hattie don't go to the same school. And their club only meets once a week.

Larissa and Sumiko have the same lunch period, though, and they sit with her.

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"Hi Larissa, hi Sumiko! So, you'll never guess what happened yesterday."

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"What was it?" asks Sumiko.

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"So I was out for a jog and I sensed a swarm starting in a parking garage! I went in there, found out where it was, called 911 and then booked it back out, but I had to kill some to get out and got bit a few times. It was pretty scary. I got to meet the local emergency squad afterward though, they were super nice and patched me up really well." 

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"Ooh, which squad, there's four," says Larissa. "For round the clock and holiday coverage."

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"The one with Bess and Nora and Jennifer, I dunno if they have squad names or anything."

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"I think they're called Team 44 and don't have a real name," says Sumiko.

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"Huh. I'd've thought having a cool team name would be one of the perks of the job. I guess if you have enough of them trying to keep all the names straight and find new unique ones would get kind of impossible."

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"Yeah. It's the same problem with code names, the good ones are all taken. There are probably dozens of Mariposas but our Mariposa doesn't like her real name," says Sumiko.

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"Yeah, I haven't even looked at what dragon-related names are taken, there have to be like three of anything decent and I like going by Margaret."

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"Margaret's a perfectly good name," agrees Larissa.

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"So's Larissa! And I'm not sure what codename I'd pick with your theme, actually, do you know what you'd go with if nothing was taken and you had a real name you hated?"

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"Oh, Larissa's actually my middle name," says Larissa. "I'm not sure what I'd do if I were on the hunt for an elf-themed name."

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"Yeah, everything I can think of is either cornball or would have the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien hunting you down with swords."

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"I don't think all his character names are trademarked but so few of his characters are women, there's like... three," says Larissa.

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"Ugh, true, and knowing him they probably all die tragically. How about you, Sumiko, got any names you wish you could have grabbed dibs on?"

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"Nah," says Sumiko. "I like my name. And I'm not very strongly themed anyway."

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Margaret nods. "I like having a theme, but you take 'just beautiful' and make it work. Speaking of beauty, I talked to that modeling agency Josephine suggested, so maybe I'll end up doing something there."

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"Cool, I hope that works out for you!" says Sumiko, while Larissa nods.

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"Did either of you do anything exciting this weekend? Hopefully more the 'job hunt' kind of exciting than the 'minor injuries' kind."

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"I met with my flying coach," says Sumiko. "She thinks I could make it to the Olympics but only if I drop everything else to practice."

"Church thing," says Larissa, "we're Thaumatologists."

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"Oh wow, the Olympics? That's so cool, are you going to go for it?"

To Larissa, "I wasn't raised anything in particular, but that's neat. If it's not too personal a question, were you Thaumatologists before you activated, or did you start afterward?"

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"I might but it'd take up so much time," sighs Sumiko.

"Magical girling runs in my family," says Larissa. "I have an aunt and a great-aunt who are magical, so my family's been Thaumatologists for a while. On that side. My mom converted."

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Sumiko gets a sympathetic nod.

"Oh, nice, I didn't know any others until I activated. I bet you knew a lot more than I did going in."

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"Yeah, maybe. Lots of it is trivia that isn't important though."

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"I suppose. Do you have a favorite piece of unimportant trivia?"

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"For a while my church had a cryptid living in it?"

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"Woah! What did they look like, what did they do?"

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"You say 'she' about cryptids still, it's polite. She was a lizard ferret thing but like really long, like a big python with lots of little rodent feet and some fur."

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"Oh, oops. She sounds really interesting."

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"She was neat. She'd sometimes go across a whole pew on people's laps."

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"Awwww!"

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"She was pretty soft. And she seemed to like it if we petted her, I mean it was hard to tell but she seemed to."

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"Awwww. That sounds lovely.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you! While I was running away from the bugs yesterday I think my magic did something!"

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"Oooh, what?" asks Sumiko.

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"My swarm-sense was, like, predictive? I could sense where the bugs were, but I could also sense where they were about to be. It sounds confusing but it was actually really helpful, I needed to kill a bunch to get out and I could see which ones were going to get to me first."

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"That's very cool," says Larissa. "Does it only work on swarms, do you think?"

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"Hard to tell! I hear we're playing dodgeball in gym today, maybe it'll work for anything coming at me."

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"If it does they make us rejigger teams so no side has a magical girl advantage," scowls Sumiko. "If there isn't another magical girl in your gym class - not all of them are in the club - then they just load up the other side with extra people."

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"That's probably better than not doing that, I guess. Otherwise one team might give up and then it would be boring. There's no others in my class, so I guess we'll see if I have advantages in anything."

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"I always used to love doing boys against girls and now I never will again," pouts Sumiko.

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"Yeah, it is kind of sad. Maybe if you ever get a class with a lot more than half boys for some reason."

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"Maybe. Whatever, I should be getting gym periods free to fly, but they won't even let me do that."

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"They really should be more flexible. At least dodgeball is exercise, the days when it's just a lecture on stuff we all know already are worse."

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"Ugh, yeah," says Larissa. "I used to wish they'd do that? Like I used to be super out of shape. But now I'm not, so I wanna move around."

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"Exactly! I never really cared about athletics until it started letting me do things like fly around."

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"Poor nonmagic folks," says Larissa.

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Nod nod. "I can't imagine getting magic and then letting it go away without doing anything. Say, Larissa, does your church have an opinion on that?"

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"On turning down magic?" asks Larissa. "I mean, it's not actually forbidden, but it's discouraged."

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"That makes sense, I guess. If there's a God who gives you magic it's because they want you to have it, but they won't insist on it, or something."

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"We say 'she'," says Larissa. "Anyway, it wouldn't work very well to forbid it, all you'd have to do would be ignore it for a week and not tell anyone."

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"God being a she would sort of explain why it's only girls, wouldn't it. And yeah, it's a lot easier to hide ignoring the magic than taking it!"

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"Some people do try to hide taking it," says Sumiko. "Try to keep everything under their clothes or under their hair. You can do it if you try really hard to get everything you can out of every square inch of skin, but I'm so glad I didn't have to hide from my parents or anything."

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"That does sound awful. My parents were really cool about it, I called them at work and was like "don't freak out when you get home and see that I have dragon wings" and they didn't. Just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to let magical girling stop me from doing my homework."

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The other girls giggle.

When gym class arrives it is indeed dodgeball time. The teacher asks Margaret what her powers are.

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"Well, I can fly, but I can promise not to if you want. And I have some kind of precognitive thing that might kick in for dodgeball where I can see where things are going to move before they do it. That one I can't turn off and on, it just happens or it doesn't."

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"You can turn it off if you wear gym clothes like everybody else," says the teacher, raising an eyebrow.

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"I want to at least find out it it works for dodgeball, though! I'm still trying to get a handle on what I can do. And isn't the point of gym class to get practice using our abilities?" Also the gym clothes are grey and olive green, and after a few days in her color-coordinated gown she'd rather not be caught dead in olive green.

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"You can practice running covered in tinfoil or whatever that is," says the gym teacher, "in gym clothes like everyone else."

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Why is high school so bogus. She'll wear her gym clothes (actually a conjured set, laundry is for other people) instead of the dress. But she's keeping the boots and the jewelry and the tiara. It's not that much more than some of the non-magical girls in the class are wearing. . . . Well, all right, the tiara is, but it's an awesome tiara, so there. Hopefully the teacher has better things to do than watch everybody coming out of the locker room and complain about their jewelry.

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"Perry! What'd I tell you?" he barks, totally watching her come out of the locker room with jewelry. "Tennis shoes, and get the sparkly rocks out of here."

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Larissa and Sumiko should have warned her that Coach was as much of a hard case about outfits as he was about push-ups. Blue high-tops and no jewelry. And she'll adorn her chest with opals under her shirt, where nobody can tell unless they minutely inspected her boobs before and after. Pretty much just for fun, though; it's not like she expects to be capable of magic in this state.

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Indeed she is not. Dodgeball teams are assigned; she is on the smaller one but not by a huge margin.

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Then she will dodge some balls, and throw some balls, and do her usual tactic of sweeping ammo when it piles up in the back of the gym, and learn to keep her wings folded tightly to present a smaller target.

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The gym teacher does not otherwise give her a hard time about anything for the rest of class.

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Then she will revert to her previous level of gorgeousness the instant she exits the gym. Also, now she's really curious if her spell will do the prediction thing with arbitrary projectiles. Something to test at the next club meeting, if not sooner.

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When she gets home she has a message from the modeling agency asking if she'd like to advertise vegan coconut ice cream; this would involve chest-up coconut shell texturing on her skin and being posed as though eating a cone, and comes with money and also complimentary coconut ice cream.

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Well, that's about as awesome as gym class was lame! She'd be happy to. What's the time and place?

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To avoid having to squeeze the shoot into an afternoon, they propose Saturday at nine in Ricci's studio.

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Great, doesn't even clash with robotics club. She'll be there.

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The next day her stardarters appear in the mail. They're heavy when they're loaded - the ammo needs some heft to it to reliably squish a swarmling more than fifteen minutes old - but they're very pretty.

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Margaret is so! excited! to have a set of stardarters! Her wings actually provide a decent counterweight to the guns when she holds them at arm's length and sights down the barrel like the website says. Time for some backyard target practice!

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She has no supernatural aim improvements at all! Even if she goes looking for a swarm to take potshots at, the swarm sense is not actually any better than looking at things, only more omnidirectional and independent of light.

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She does not go looking for a swarm! She just shoots the trees a lot. She also gets her dad to throw baseballs skeet-style, which produces the interesting result that while hitting moving targets is very hard, she can in fact sense where they're going to go before they do! It sort of rides on her swarm-sense in a way that feels really weird for things that aren't swarm bugs.

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On Thursday, Larissa and Aaliyah wait for Margaret to join them. They have their bikes.

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Margaret also has a bike, albeit her bio lab partner's rather than her own. She has also tweaked her skirt to be a bit shorter and more generally bike-compatible, and put her stardarters and ammo on her belt and bandolier respectively.

"Hi Larissa! Hi Aaliyah, how's your week been?"

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"Doing good!" says Aaliyah, and Larissa nods. Aaliyah's in her silver-and-green getup. "Do you wanna pick a direction?"

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"How about east towards the library? It's pretty that way."

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"Sure!" says Aaliyah, and they head east.

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East is a park, and the elementary school, and a bunch of nice houses with really old trees in their yards!

And around the third block of nice houses, Margaret says, "I've got a bad feeling about this block. I think . . . that my magic thinks something bad's about to happen."

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"...like a swarm, or like a mugging?" asks Larissa.

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"Like something that could hurt me. Probably not a mugging? This is a pretty safe neighborhood. I think it's that way." She points into a cul-de-sac to their right and scrutinizes it for anything out of place, from a swarm to a mugging to a downed power line. Her magic keeps insisting that something over there is not safe to be around.

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And - there's a swarm! They appear under and around a park bench and start creeping around.

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"Okay looks like it was a swarm!" She points at them, rather redundantly since all three of them know exactly where they are. The predictive sense kicks in as soon as they appear.

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Aaliyah and Larissa have already drawn their stardarters and start shooting. Larissa's the better shot.

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Margaret gamely draws and starts in. She's a worse shot than either of the others, but she can pick ones that aren't about to make any sudden moves and take a little longer to aim at them, and she does pulp a few.

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They have to back up a few times as the swarm moves sluggishly in their direction, and Aaliyah has to run to her bike to get more ammo out of her panniers, but they have the whole swarm killed before it accelerates past a brisk scuttle.

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"That was a lot better than Sunday! Also, apparently I get advance warning on swarms, that's neat." Margaret starts sweeping her ammo, starting with the large majority of misses since they don't have any ick on them.

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"Did you get warning for the Sunday one?" asks Larissa. "Or do you have a shorter range?"

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"I think the swarm-sense goes further than the threat sense; I found the ones on Sunday with swarm-sense first. It had already started when I got into range, though."

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"Huh. Maybe you can make it better if you get your outfit more finely figured out," says Aaliyah, materializing gloves so she can pick up ammo and bag it without getting her fur gooky.

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"Yeah, that would be good," Margaret answers, shamelessly copying the gloves trick to get the rest of her darts bagged up. "Do outfit improvements always help with existing spells in addition to getting you closer to the next one?"

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"Usually. If you have a spell that's already basically perfect at what it does, it won't change."

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"Nice. I'm not sure how the prediction thing would improve--maybe working on more different things, or going farther ahead--but more range on the danger sense is a good prediction. And of course whatever my third thing is is still hiding."

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"The third is truth when the time is right." she adds, in a voice that comes with its own echo.

 

 

"Okay, apparently it's prophecies. Delivered via my mouth. That's awesome and kind of creepy."

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"Wow," says Larissa. "Spooky."

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"Very spooky! Fits the theme, though. Except it's less combat-focused."

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"Yeah. It's a neat powerset, that's worth pushing real hard, you should get a style consultant," says Aaliyah. Larissa nods.

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"I really should! I could get information about all kinds of things, wow. Maybe the people at Ricci's will know somebody good but affordable, I'm doing a thing with them tomorrow."

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"They might, but I'm not sure, they'll usually be going for things other than 'God's own artwork', you know?" says Larissa.

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"Yeah. I'll look around a bunch of places, read reviews, all that. And keep working on it on my own, of course."

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"There's a pro who goes to my church but he only works on other believers," says Larissa, "or I'd try to hook you up."

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That seems like a weird restriction to have, but Margaret isn't going to judge. She just nods. "Something to look into tonight. Speaking of tonight, do we want to do more patrolling before we turn around? We've got some more time before it starts getting dark, even with sunset being so early."

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"I think one swarm's enough for the day but we can figure out a route to all our houses and bike it together," says Aaliyah, "so there's more of us together for most of the trip in case there is another manifestation?"

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"That works!" She gives directions to her house, which isn't in this neighborhood but isn't that far off either.

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Aaliyah's house is farthest away and Larissa's only slightly out of the way between Margaret's and Aaliyah's, so Margaret gets home first.

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Where she does her homework and shoots at the trees some more and studies for the bio exam and goes to bed.

Friday morning, she gives her lab partner his bike back. "Here you go! You will be tested on the power of your cells. Uh, sorry, magical girl thing, apparently I prophecize now."

Her lab partner is somewhat disconcerted by this! "What's that supposed to mean though?"

"It means I say true things out of nowhere. I think this one is about the bio exam? I'm still getting the hang of this."

The bio exam focuses heavily on mitochondria.

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At magical girl club, everyone's there except Josephine, who Sumiko reports said she had a headache.

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Margaret nods at the other girls as they arrive. Hattie shows up last, having had to get here from the other school.

"Hi Hattie! Looks like that's everybody who's going to be coming." Then she turns to Larissa to ask if she has the targets and instead says "Her heart burns as bright as her magic, for you."

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Everyone stares at her.

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She'd be staring at her too, if that was an option! "Ack! So it turns out my precognition has no sense of discretion and also no off switch? I'm so sorry." Her fidgetable sleeve is getting quite a workout, she'll pop a gem off if she's not careful.

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"Maybe you should have a more civvie outfit for regular situations," growls Hattie, "so you can turn it off."

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"It could be useful in any situation, though . . ." But she does take off enough of her jewelry to prevent a recurrence in the next five minutes. "Maybe if I get my main outfit better I'll get some control over it." How is Larissa reacting to this?

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Larissa's not looking at Hattie or at Margaret. Turns out her elf ears are a little mobile; they're sort of drooping.

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Poor both of them. "So, um, Larissa, do you have the practice targets?"

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Larissa gets them out and sets them up and claims one and starts shooting at it. Everyone else awkwardly follows suit.

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Target shooting! So much target shooting! And no other things!

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Hattie leaves early. Sumiko jogs to catch up with her and they talk out of earshot, then Sumiko comes back and Hattie leaves.

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" . . . I hope she's okay. My magic is a jerk." She has in fact fidgeted enough during target practice to tear her lacework sleeve a bit.

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That's not very fabulous, Margaret.

"She'll get over it," says Sumiko. "I don't know how soon though."

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"I hope so. I should go home."

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"See you later," says Aaliyah, tone apologetic.

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"See you!" She heads home, complains to her parents about how even magic can't make high school not be high school, and works on her outfit in the mirror for a while. Now that she has a spell that could really benefit from improvement she's going to grab every bit of beauty she can wring out of her imagination, starting with a couple of silver bangles on the arm that doesn't have a sleeve.

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The bangles are good!

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Ah, excellent. Bangles=good. This is much more the sort of magical information she would prefer to be receiving. How about if they're elaborate chain-link bracelets instead of single pieces?

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Those are even better!

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Yay! And how about a necklace that's a web of tiny sapphires and sort of extends the pattern of gems on her shirt up to her neck? It might take a few iterations to get it arranged how she wants it.

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Once she has that down the magic likes it a heck of a lot.

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Putting effort into things and getting results is so rewarding! She has no idea how much it will take to make her prophecies more benevolent, if that's even a direction they'll improve in, but this can't hurt. Also, jewelry with no need for clasps is the best jewelry.

She tries wrapping her opaly horns in silver wires, two loose spirals on each one with opposite handedness so they crisscross.

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The wires are a little worse like that.

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No, that really doesn't work with the way her horns curve, does it? Off they go. 

Speaking of "opaly", opals don't all look the same, do they? She does some online image searches and cycles all her opals in unison from "white fire opal" to "black fire opal" and then "blue opal".

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Blue is best!

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Then she will check a couple different shades of blue and then switch to doing her nails! Right now they're just single pieces of opal; what if the makes them longer and slightly pointer and paints the tips silver?

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Neutral.

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Well, she likes them; she'll put then back if she can't find anything better than "plain". Tiny silver dragon silhouette on each middle finger, smaller than any but the most expert nail artists could do by hand?

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Weak positive!

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This suggests an experiment. If she fills in the dragons with details too small for the unaided human eye to make out, does the magic seem to notice one way or the other?

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It doesn't care once they're really that small.

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Well, if you could hack ultimate power with a microscope, somebody would have done it by now. Does the mild positive effect of the having the paint job at all increase if spread to the rest of her fingernails?

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Yes, just a little.

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How about flame designs instead of dragons? That still fits the theme in an abstract way, and she can make each one subtly different.

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Almost the same, so close she can barely tell, but if she switches back and forth and pays close attention the flames are a tiny bit worse.

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Back to dragon silhouettes, then. She's pretty proud of getting them to read as dragons that well at that size, even if she got to cheat on the manual-dexterity bit.

She should probably stop doing this and go to bed, she's got that photo shoot in the morning.

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The photo shoot is surprisingly complicated for someone whose previous photography experience amounts to "aim a cellphone at it". They want her to try a lot of slight variations on the coconut skin idea, and then a lot of facial expressions, while they screw around with lights and suggest other additions, and they have to tell her not to eat the ice cream because it's fake ice cream that won't melt under the hot studio lights, she'll get her real ice cream after the shoot.

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Margaret will coconut her skin in various ways, and learn to translate their words about expressions into subtle things to do with her face muscles, and hold the ice cream up to her mouth without actually getting any on her.

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Eventually after about five thousand pictures she receives a few tubs of vegan ice cream and a check!

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She will fly the vegan ice cream home to her freezer and then immediately head out again to a bike shop! The bike shop proprietor is a bit confused why someone who arrived on the wing wants a bike, but nods at "bike rides with schoolmates" and sells her a used three-speed and a can of blue spray-paint to make it match her scales. This eats a chunk of her pay, but only a chunk; she probably has enough left to afford a session with a style consultant.

Bike securely in her garage and a bowl of ice cream in hand, she checks out Elements of Style again. What does the world of magical girl style consulting look like?

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There are a wide range of consultants, most of whom include photos of themselves in case you worry that an unseen style consultant might have a combover, and some of whom include pictures of girls they've styled. The price varies likewise, up to very expensive on the high end. If she'll take an amateur she can get half an hour for less than the bike.

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She'd normally be wary about taking the advice of an inexperienced person on something she's not experienced with herself, but being able to perceive the magic's responses directly means they won't wander off into total wrongness together. Do any of the amateurs have reviews she can read?

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Some of them have a couple!

Nelson really helped me patch my look!


Paula was a delight to work with and helped me get my third spell unlocked.


Now I can wear pants again! Thanks, Tori!
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Margaret will look through the reviews, prioritizing reported competence over reported niceness but looking out for signs of total jerks, and end up on Nelson's booking page. Is he free at all tomorrow or Tuesday?

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He has an open slot on his booking website Tuesday morning and another one from two to four!

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She's not cutting class for this, but school lets out early enough that if she flies fast she can get to his studio for a 3:30.

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Now she is his 3:30 appointment.

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Then if nothing happens on Sunday beyond the new routine of cardio and target practice, and if nothing happens on Monday beyond the old routine of academics and robotics club, she will arrive at 3:30! With slightly tired wing muscles and wearing her backpack as a front-pack, but on time.

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Nelson's there! "First thing," he says, smiling slightly, "lose the backpack if you can."

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Margaret laughs and dumps it in a corner. "Oh, definitely. I just came here straight from school, I don't normally haul this much stuff."

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"There's some anecdotal evidence that time spent in plainclothes can hurt you later even once you're dressed up. They only notice that in the very top tiers of professional magic, but they do claim to notice it - go to a family reunion and dress down to placate bigoted grandparents, have an off-day at work next Monday."

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"Sounds like the sort of thing someone should do a study on. And I might save up for a nicer bag that works with the wings later, just in case I ever need to do lots of magic while carrying textbooks.

So, what else on my outfit needs the most work?"

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"I like the sleeve, but it's the only asymmetrical element you have and it's not enough of a statement piece for that to work," he says. "Can you think of anything else you'd like to unbalance?"

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"Maybe I could unbalance my horns, but that could hurt my neck . . . One leg as one arm, for harmony. Oh, it looks like my spell has opinions! How about a legging?" She extends one leg of her shorts out from under her skirt and into her boot. "Hmm, that helps, but it looks a bit plain right now. . ."

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"Your spell does costume consultation?" says Nelson, bemused. "You could lace-ify the legging too."

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"My spell does seemingly random true statements from nowhere, of varying levels of usefulness." She lace-ifies the legging, first in the same pattern as the sleeve and then in a slightly denser one.

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Both kinds of lace are about the same. Nelson asks, "How'd it react to those versions?"

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"No real difference between the lace patterns, but having it be lace at all is good."

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"That might mean that this lace is better, but matching is also important so it's giving you a bonus when it's the same as your sleeve, and updating the sleeve to something more like this would be an improvement."

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"Could be!" Shifting the sleeve and the legging through lace patterns in sync? 

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Matching is definitely better and the magic liiiiikes - ooh, that one!

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"Oh, you were totally right, matching them is better! This pattern works best of the set; think it could benefit from some gems like the sleeve has?"

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"Probably, makes it matchier. I think maybe you want the gems a little smaller so they don't overwhelm the lacework."

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Little tiny gems on the sleeve and the leg!

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Yay!, says the magic, metaphorically.

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"Excellent!" says Margaret, literally. "Say, what are your thoughts on decorative boot buckles? Yes, no, tongues shaped like tiny dragons . . .?" She inquires of Nelson and the magic at the same time.

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"Have you tried metal filigree to match the lace? You could also go harder on the dragon motif, but you're not overall shaped very much like a dragon even though that's the obvious extension, so I don't think you're going to get a lot of synergy out of it unless you wear a lot of little dragon symbols. In general unless you're walking a particularly difficult razor-wire of minimalist elegance whenever you ask 'should this be less plain' the answer is yes."

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"I guess what the magic reads as dragonish isn't the same as what a random human does, huh." Filigree metal buckles down the outside of each boot, in a pattern that matches her chain bracelets! And she can probably push the heels a little higher now, too; she's gotten better at using her wings as a balance aid rather than an encumberance.

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The magic likes all these things, though it's less impressed by the high heels than the filigree.

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What if she makes the heel itself out of metal filigree, huh, what then?

"Filigree's good, going to see if I can push that a bit . . ."

(She leaves it dense enough not to collapse under her weight, but that isn't much of a constraint if she goes for aluminum with the blue opal as a color layer.)

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If she makes the high heel out of filigree that's good!

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She takes a few steps back and forth to confirm that the weight is how she likes it, then adds "That helped!" to Nelson.

How about a single little sapphire in one of the holes of the filigree on the back of each heel? Or a couple? She turns around and points so Nelson can see what she's doing, and says, "Trying some gems, not sure how to arrange them."

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"Hm - my first guess would be in a swoop along here, and then one strung onto the metal here, and the corresponding swoop on the inside."

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She has to turn around and watch his hand gestures to get clear on what he means, but then: that.

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The magic thinks he has a good eye, apparently.

"You might want to do more variety of setting like this elsewhere, see how that takes."

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"Nice! And more settings sounds good . . . " Margaret doesn't really know that much about how to set gems, does he have example descriptions or pictures or anything?

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Nelson shows her some different gemstone settings. "And that's for conventional manufacture; you can also make the stones improbable, fragile shapes and anchor them to underlying materials in hidden ways."

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The references are helpful! She will switch a couple of the prong-set gems on her tiara to bezel and channel settings, and string an impossibly-carved piece of sapphire on each of her bracelets, interfacing with the woven rings. Is she doing this right?

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The magic thinks so!

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Excellent! "My horns are looking a little bare, now, know any good horn adornments?" 

(Blue opal horns are arguably only 'bare' by magical girl standards, but that's what matters.)

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"Hmm. Have you tried anything on them before?"

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"I tried a loose wire-wrapping thing and that was bad; I could do silver tips?" She does silver tips.

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That helps! "The contour you've got going on there is gorgeous, I think you wanna work with the contour and not introduce contrasting lines. You could have little horn collars at the base?"

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Horn collars! Little silver ropes made of two pieces wrapped around each other? Little silver three-part braids? Miniature copies of her bracelets? Simple silver bands? Bands of flush-set sapphires?

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Bracelet copies is best, braids is second best.

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Bracelet-copies it is! And maybe a single thin vein of silver going up the inside of each horn, following the curve?

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Slightly worse.

"That's a promising angle - how'd it like this version?"

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"The horn collars are good but the lines are actually a bit of a step back. Maybe they don't mesh with the tips?" She turns the silver horn-tips off and on to check.

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That's not it; the magic misses the tips.

"I think they might be overstated. Maybe taper them faster than the horn tapers?"

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The magic can have its tips back; she misses them too. "Could work . . . " Faster taper?

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Now the line is neutral.

"Thinner, maybe? On a different side of the horn? It seems implausible there's nothing you can do with this at all."

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"Yeah, I mean I really like them, and this version is at least neutral . . . " Even thinner? Front of the horns? Outside of the horns? Both inside and outside?

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Even thinner helps. It's worse when there's two; front is worse, outside is better.

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She'll go with outside-only, then. What if instead of a single line it's an ultra-thin 2D replica of the chain pattern from her bracelets and horn collars? 

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That is slightly worse.

"I don't see your feedback directly, you know," Nelson remarks.

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"Yes, of course, sorry," she says. "The faster taper helped, moving them to the outside helped but moving them to the front and doing both inside and outside were both worse, that pattern I had up for a second was a bit worse too. The way I have it now is the best I've found so far."

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"Okay. We have another seven minutes, what else do you want to focus on?"

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"Should I be wearing rings? I think I should be wearing rings."

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"It's very likely that you should! Anecdotally I see best results from ring and index fingers, symmetrical across hands, if you want more than one."

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She'll start with a pair on her index fingers, round opals with smaller sapphires on each side, set flush into silver bands.

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The magic approves!

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"Rings are a yes!" How about a pair of signet-style rings on her ring fingers, with opals on top of the bezels and little clusters of sapphires, what was that term, pavé-set on each shank?

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Not as good.

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"Signet rings aren't as good as the flat ones." she reports, and changes them to match the index-finger ones to get a baseline. "Maybe I could do the kind that wrap around the whole finger in a really loose structure?"

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"You could, or also consider handflowers for times you don't need manual dexterity," he says, pulling up a reference that calls them "slave bracelets" instead.

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"Something to think about, but I want to see if I can avoid having to make that tradeoff." She'll try the full-finger rings first: pieces of silver filigree with little opals in the centers, one on each of the two biggest finger-segments, connected by tiny silver chains.

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Yes, the magic likes that.

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"Well, these are at least good if not the best possible. Any last suggestions or have we run out of time?"

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"We're technically out of time but my four o'clock's not here yet - you might want to consider reshaping your head a little, you look slightly unbalanced even with the horns since you don't have any hair."

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"I have no objections to reshaping my head in theory, but which direction?"

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"Something more dolichocephalic, maybe - ah, there she is - thank you for coming, Margaret - come in, Juniper -"

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And that's her cue to clear out. "Bye Nelson! Thanks for all the help!" She grabs her decidedly unfabulous backpack and takes off for home.

When she gets there she looks up some pictures of dolichocephalic heads, decides she tentatively  approves, and takes a bunch of pictures of her head to make sure she can back up easily. Then she thins and lengthens her skull a bit, staying within the outer edge of the human range and paying attention to not messing up her teeth.

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The magic likes that a little. She's picked most of the low-hanging fruit and the differences are getting hard to distinguish.

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And there are other important things to do, too, like homework and flying and target practice.

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Next school lunch Larissa doesn't sit with her. Sumiko looks conflicted but sits with Larissa.

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Margaret fiddles with her new rings for most of the much period, looking over at the other girls every few minutes. Toward the end of lunch she screws up her courage and walks toward them.

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Larissa has a textbook out to flip through before Margaret arrives. Sumiko says, "Hi."

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"Hi Sumiko. . . . Hi Larissa. I just wanted to apologize again for Friday, I didn't realize my spell could invade people's privacy like that. I've been working on my costume a lot to try to make it friendlier, and also I was wondering, um, can I still patrol with you and Aaliyah after school tomorrow?" The last part especially comes out in a rush.

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Larissa glances up. "I'll talk to Aaliyah about it."

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That's better than she was afraid of. "Okay. Thanks. See you around." And she nods to Sumiko and gets out of there.

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That evening she shoots the living daylights out of every tree in the yard, flies around until she's about ready to fall out of the sky, finishes her schoolwork, and manages to fall asleep through sheer physical exhaustion.

The next day starts with a piece of good news in the form of biology class having a lab session. They're doing gel electrophoresis!

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Her lab partner was absent when they discussed this last class and he's pretty lost.

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Margaret was not absent, and can give a quick explanation while taking the lead on getting the apparatus set up.

"See, we're going to break the DNA into fragments, and the size of the fragments depends on the exact sequence. Then we shove all the fragments through the gel with an electric charge, and the smaller fragments move faster so they spread out and you can see all the sizes. Then we'll compare the pattern of fragment sizes to see how similar the samples are!"

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"...okay," he says. "Do you even have DNA?"

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"Yeah, I do! Not in my scales because those are metal, and probably not in my wings or horns either I don't think, but all my organs and stuff are still about the same."

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"Weird."

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"It is a bit! At least I can still have kids if I ever want them."

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"No you can't, you're gay now, right?"

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"Well yeah, I'd need a sperm donor or whatever, I just mean I could do it biologically." She pours the liquid into the other liquid and sets a timer for it to set.

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"And your kids wouldn't have scales or anything?"

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"Nope. They'd look like I used to and like whoever the sperm donor was."

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"Huh."

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Margaret pipettes the samples into their little holes and steps aside while her partner hooks the electrodes to the end. 

"So I'm guessing you don't know any other magical girls?"

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"Not like personally, no."

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"Well, I don't mind answering more questions about it if you have them, though of course I'm hardly an expert."

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"You're not? But you are one."

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"Only since, like, two weeks ago. There are people who've been doing it for way longer, and scientists who've studied magical girl biology, and so on."

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"You don't just know stuff?"

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"Nah, we have to figure it out as we go."

"Echoing a living thing echoes its sequence also."

". . . Okay, I do "just know stuff". But that's because I have precognition powers, it doesn't happen to everybody. Also, copied animal parts copy the animal DNA. Neat! I hadn't heard that before."

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"Whoa," he says. "Precognition powers. I don't think I'd heard of those being a thing."

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"Yeah, it's not one of the common ones. I like it, though." At least as long as it continues staying out of other people's business.

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"It sounds like you could make a lot of money like that."

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"Only if I can get it to do the stock market or sports results or something reliably. Right now it's just some stuff that helps with swarms plus the random facts."

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"How's it pick which facts? That one was about what we were talking about," says her lab partner. "Maybe the government would want to talk to you about government stuff and see what happens."

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"It did give me costume advice while I was at a costume consult. I'd rather talk to a sports team or a finance person than the government, but it's worth trying."

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"Oh, yeah, I guess they'd want it too."

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"And they're less likely to use it for bad things."

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"Why don't you like the government, are you an illegal?"

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"What, no, I just don't want to be targeting drone strikes for the Air Force or something."

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"So if something about where terrorists are hiding comes up you don't wanna say it?"

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"I really doubt I'm gonna start getting prophecies about terrorists. I'd call the police if I got one that there was going to be a bank robbery or something, I just don't want to promise some institution I don't know about that they can use my powers for whatever."

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"But you might be able to get terrorist ones if you talked to people who were hunting terrorists."

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"Maybe. Oooh, you know what I should do once I have enough reputation for it, I should go to hospitals and try to diagnose people."

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"Like Dr. House?"

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"I haven't seen that show but my understanding is that yes, quite a bit like Dr. House."

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"That would be cool."

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"Yeah, I like that idea. Thanks for helping me speculate!" The gel is steadily doing its thing; they seem to have gotten a Sample 1 and a Sample 3 that match, and a Sample 2 and a Sample 5 that match. She writes this in her lab notebook.

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Her labmate copies off her pretty blatantly.

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That is between him and his own interest or lack thereof in learning the material. Especially since he's still catching up from being absent. She'll leave her notebook open as long as he needs it, and offer to answer questions if he doesn't understand some bit of what he's copying.

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"Oh - yeah, what's this abbreviation stand for -"

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"It's the thing where you replicate the DNA a bunch, let me check . . . " flip flip flip "polymerase chain reaction, because the polymerase is what replicates it and then chain reaction because the replicas get replicated a bunch."

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"...okay."

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If he's about done, she'll pack up her notebook and head to the next class.

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He's not about to stop her.

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Class happens. Lunch approaches rapidly. She sits in the same place she did yesterday.

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Sumiko sits with her. Larissa arrives a little later and doesn't say hi but does nod at her.

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"Hi Sumiko! How've you been?" Margaret nods back at Larissa when she arrives.

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"I've been good but American History's kicking my butt," says Sumiko.

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"I had that last year, those reading assignments were endless. Interesting, but endless."

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"And there's so many dates and so many people named John."

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"Dates are always the hardest for me, there's no way to rederive them from partial information if you forget. Like in math you can sometimes jog your memory by working off some related thing, but dates there's no hope."

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"...I can't do that in math," says Larissa.

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Larissa said something in response to something she said, help.

"You sort of have to know the trick to it? Like, take note of what things are related to what other things, so if you're blanking on something you know where in your memory to look? I'd offer to give an example but you're a year ahead of me, I don't know what stuff you're learning."

 

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Larissa shrugs.

"I guess you're good at math, huh," says Sumiko.

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"It's one of my better subjects, yeah. I wanted to be an engineer before I got magic, I might still go for that instead of anything magic-centered."

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"Lots of girls do," nods Sumiko.

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"I did have an idea earlier; if I get better control of my precognition I could maybe use it for medial diagnosis. But that's more of a hospital volunteering thing than a real career path, I don't think I'm cut out for medicine."

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Larissa gets up and leaves before finishing her Rice Krisipie treat, though she does take it off the tray before bussing it.

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Crap. She shouldn't have mentioned it. She didn't even get to ask about patrol.

After school she brings her bike to the general vicinity of where she and Larissa and Aaliyah met last time, close enough that they'll see her but far enough away that they'll have the option to pretend they didn't

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Aaliyah's there and Larissa isn't.

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Well that's . . . a way for things to go. Does Aaliyah respond at all if Margaret nods at her?

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"Hi Margaret! I was waiting for you!"

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"Hi Aaliyah! Want to pick the direction this time?"

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"Yeah, sure." Aaliyah picks a direction and then takes a turn a couple blocks later. "I don't know why Larissa and Hattie are making such a big deal out of the thing."

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"Well, it's got to be pretty awful having your personal business revealed by magic like that. I think if I was in Hattie's shoes I would try to pretend I hadn't heard anything and hope everybody else did the same."

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"The thing is that Hattie actually told her six months ago."

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"Huh. I guess that explains why Larissa didn't say at the time whether she liked her back, I would've expected either happiness or letting her down gently. Still, now all of us know instead of just the two of them."

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"Larissa doesn't wanna date somebody outside the Church and Hattie's an atheist," Aaliyah explains. "And then Hattie kind of laughed it off and let everybody think she got over it. For a while she was dropping hints that she was dating some girl who's not in the club."

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"She could be dating some other girl and also not over it."

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"I think the other girl is made up but yeah that too."

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"I don't usually say this but that's a piece of information I would love to never find out." As soon as she says this she swaps into her gym shirt for a few seconds, just in case.

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- Aaliyah stifles a laugh when she does that.

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Her laughter is contagious. "It seems to like to be on topic", she explains. "I should probably avoid gossip altogether." She casts around for another topic. "What's not gossip? Oh, I saw a style consultant on Tuesday."

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"You do look a little more put together, I'm bad at figuring out exactly what's different but I noticed."

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"Thanks! It's mostly jewelry and boot improvements. I think I got a decent amount of magic out of it."

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"Does that make the spell more convenient or does it just make it go off more?"

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"I don't have much of a sample size yet, but my last couple have both been pretty convenient. I got some costume advice out of it the other day, and then in bio lab it told me that magical girls' animal parts have animal DNA. Which I could probably have found on the internet, but still."

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"Huh, I didn't know that. So I have cat DNA?"

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"Pretty sure you do, Yeah! And goodness knows what's in my wings."

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"Maybe you could clone a dragon."

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"That sounds unlikely and like a terrible idea and like a totally awesome idea all at once."

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"You should so clone a dragon," says Aaliyah. "...or try to get your power to comment on cloning a dragon."

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Margaret's power has no opinion on whether she can or should clone a dragon. 

". . . No comment, apparently. But I should look into biology more. There are scientists studying magical girls; maybe I could get involved in that."

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"Sure. Just don't let them talk you into anything too dangerous."

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"Yeah, not going to join any labs that seem suspiciously interested in cryptids or anything."

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"Cryptids or how your internal organs work or whatever."

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"Yeah, no, all my internal organs are staying right where they are."

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"Good."

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". . . I wonder, if I talked to a biologist about their research for long enough would my power suggest an experiment or something."

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"Maybe, if that's how it works."

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"So far it seems to be  . . . on-topic, sort of? Bio stuff while I was talking about biology this morning, costume advice while I was with the stylist, even the thing with Hattie happened when she walked up to us. And the first thing it did was explain itself."

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"I guess you need to be careful what you talk about glammed up, then, huh?"

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"Yeah, if you start speculating about classified government secrets or somebody's medical condition the gym shirt is going back on."

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"The gym outfits are so bad," groans Aaliyah.

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"The gym teacher isn't great either, I get that he doesn't want magic use in class but I wish he'd let us keep our jewelry on."

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"Oh, we probably should've warned you about that. I think Larissa gets a religious exemption."

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"Warning would've been nice, I think he dislikes me now, but whatever. I doubt he liked me much before this; I was never any good at sports."

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"He's a jerk," Aaliyah says. "He wanted me to get rid of my tail, and I said I was a catgirl full time, and he said I was gonna have to be a Manx for gym class, and the principal overruled him but it was kinda scary."

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"He objected to one of your limbs?! That's awful. Would he have made somebody take their prosthetic leg off? I'm glad the principal stepped in."

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"I don't know how he feels about prosthetic legs. He didn't say anything about your wings? Maybe he wasn't sure if you can take them off, he probably doesn't have the point value for scales memorized."

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"He didn't mention them at all, maybe he just thinks of it as 'wings can't come off'. I won't tell him if you don't."

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"Lips are sealed."

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"We might want to turn around in a bit, we're getting kind of far from my house."

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"Sure." Aaliyah takes the next two rights.

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And soon they reach a logical place to split up.

"Patrolling with you is fun whether we find anything or not. This is my turn, but, same time next week?"

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"Sure, see you then."

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"See you!"

When she gets home, she looks up "magical girl research" and "participating in magical girl experiments".

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She can get $50 for taking a survey if she can prove she's a magical girl!

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She can't really prove that over the internet unless the proof-wanting entity has a webcam, and presumably this survey doesn't. What sort of proof does it want?

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It asks for state ID.

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Oh yeah, she needs to get that updated, doesn't she. Does the DMV do magical girl certification if you don't have a driver's license?

. . . Huh. She could probably skip ever learning to drive if she wanted. She'll probably learn anyway, cars have more carrying capacity.

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The DMV distributes state IDs that are not driver's licenses that include magical status!

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Then the next time she's free and they're open she'll stop in. That probably won't be tomorrow, though, since tomorrow is magical girl club.

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Tomorrow is magical girl club. Hattie skips it. Josephine, in her absence, declares that they're going to all read her favorite YA magical girl short story together and discuss it while jogging and trying target-practice-on-the-move.

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Margaret tends to go for lit fic and nonfiction more than YA, but that still sounds fun! What's the story about?

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It is about a girl who starscapes and attempts to use her unrealistic "coincidence arrangement" spell to deal with various high school social problems in her life, fails, and Finds Out Who Her Real Friends Are.

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"That was a pretty cool story," Margaret says to Josephine as she jogs. "I liked the bit where Carrie was crushing on Joan and on her secret admirer without realizing they were the same person."

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"That's one of my favorite parts!" says Josephine. "If you pay attention they use some of the same turns of phrase but she doesn't notice!"

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"Oooh, I didn't pick up on that, clever author. Though I have to say the whole deal with the talent show felt a bit contrived."

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"I think she had to keep it under wordcount, it didn't have enough room to develop."

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"Yeah, It would've benefited from more setup. Such is the short story format." She swings past the targets and opens fire. Her markswomanship is improving.

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Eventually the club concludes.

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"Target shooting while running was fun," she says to Josephine on the way out. "We should have a water balloon fight or something, deal with the case where the targets are moving."

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"That's a great idea, I wish I'd thought of that in time for today because Hattie'd hate it," laughs Josephine.

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"Well, maybe if she's absent again sometime. Full disclosure, part of the reason I thought of it is because my prediction sense would give me an advantage."

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"We'd give you a run for your money," says Sumiko.

"I would also hate this idea," volunteers Aaliyah.

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"Oh, I'm sure you would, you're more experienced, I just want to practice using the sense. Aaliyah, would you hate it because of the getting wet, or something else? Because we could probably find nerf guns somewhere and that would be even better, practice-wise."

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"Getting wet."

"That's also why Hattie would hate it," clarifies Josephine. "We should absolutely do a Nerf gun fight."

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"This is totally happening. Does this club have a budget, or do we all have to get our own armaments?"

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"We have a little budget. I'm not sure it covers enough Nerf for everybody but it could cover some for people who can't get their own," says Josephine.

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"Sounds good. I can get my own, if we agree to stick to the simpler ones and not get into an arms race of increasingly ridiculous nerf artillery."

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"There's some good stuff in the girly line, crossbows and things," comments Larissa.

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"I think I'd want to go with something that aims more like my stardarters, so I can reuse some of the muscle memory. Of course you have crossbow stardarters, so that's sort of an argument in the other direction for you."

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"Yup. Just let's not overstandardize," says Larissa.

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"Yeah, I think we can do it on the honor system. If someone will pass a message to Hattie, we can all try to have nerf by next week?"

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"I'll tell her," says Mariposa.

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"Great!" And with that concluded, club breaks up for real.

At home, she tells her parents excitedly about the planned nerf gun fight while finishing her homework, then starts planning the weekend. Any chance the DMV is open between now and Monday?

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The DMV nearby is not open on weekends but there's a faraway one that has weekend hours.

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Well, is it within flying distance? She was planning on lots of exercise this weekend anyway, and if the weather is nice she can stop in a park and rest partway there if she needs it.

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She could fly there in under an hour.

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Then on Saturday she will wing her way there.

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There is a long line.

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This was only to be expected; she brought a book. Is she the only magical girl in line today?

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Yup.

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That is also unsurprising. She'll take a number and read about the history of the Coast Paladins until it gets called.

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The Coast Paladins in their modern form were founded as an arm of the Coast Guard in the late 1700s to protect the ships that were sailing around enforcing tariffs. The organizations split up during Westward Expansion when more kaiju were encountered in the open spaces of the American West, and it became clear that seeking and destroying kaiju proactively was worth the cost needed to hire squads of combat-ready magical girls. The Coast Paladins became their own government organization and were joined by the Rockies Paladins; a new division of the Coast Paladins was opened up when the western seaboard was colonized; there are also Alaska Paladins who handle both Alaska's coast and tundra, and Island Paladin divisions for Hawaii and other United States island territories, who are basically like Coast Paladins but have an area more than a line to hold. Paladins must perform at the absolute top of their game; they need combat- or support-applicable power sets and exquisite, personally tailored costumes appropriate for all outdoor lighting conditions and weather. There are photo insets of some prominent Paladins and their day combat gear, night combat gear, and storm combat gear, which often don't look anything like each other. They work in squads of five to twelve depending on power synergy and personality compatibility; more than that and it gets harder to handle the tactics in their heads. Their helicopters and boats have sound systems that play individually composed theme music so they can wring out that aesthetic benefit too; they usually name and call out their attacks.

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This is all extremely cool. And they're doing such a noble and important job! Margaret doesn't have any magical attacks, but she wonders if being able to tell what a kaiju is going to do before it does it is a useful suport power. She resolves to try to ride along with the local emergency squad and find out.

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Eventually it is her turn and she can fill out a form and be asked for her birth certificate.

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Form: is filled. Birth: is certified.

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And she will receive her real ID card in the mail in a couple weeks, and here's her temporary.

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And flap flap flap all the way home. Her town looks lovely from the air.

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Time to fill out that survey! What do these scientists want an Officially Liscenced Magical Girl to tell them?

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They want to know a LOT of things. The survey asks for general background information about her (date and time of birth, degree and number of magical relatives, date and time of manifestation, how long it took her to make any changes, how long it took her to make sufficient changes) and more specifics about her powers and costume (color scheme, power theme, specific spells, number of accessories, motif(s)), how much she's sought style consultation... and then totally random things like details of her diet and whether she has a family or personal history of these 34 diseases and which way she eats corn on the cob and her grades and her previous sexual orientation if applicable and how she performs on this miniature IQ test and this test of facial recognition and which of these pictures of magical girls is the hottest.

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She's fifteen and her birthday is in two weeks. Her great-great-grandmother was magic but that's it. "Any changes" and "sufficient changes" both took about 30 seconds.  She eats corn in straight lines and her IQ is in the ballpark of 130 and that girl with the compound eyes and dragonfly wings is super hot.

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There are actually 14 sets of magical girls they want her to pick the hottest ones of, and then the test is done and she can provide an address for a check and, if she likes, sign up for further magical girl research related communiques by this organization and their affiliates, and she could subscribe to their newsletter.

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She will sign up for both further studies and the newsletter, and then she will purchase a nerf six-shooter and a fifty-pack of darts.

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Those will arrive in time for her next magical girl club meeting.

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This time Margaret is excited enough to be the first one there. Did everybody bring a nerf to a fun-fight?

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Everyone did, even Hattie and Larissa, who seem to be letting things go back to normal at this point.

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Things going back to normal is good. Margaret suggests a free-for-all among the fliers and one among the non-fliers, and then after a bit they can all land and split up into teams.

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This suggestion is accepted. Many darts are shot. Sumiko is the best of the fliers and Larissa's best on the ground.

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Margaret still isn't great but she's better than she used to be, and her predictive sense even lets her hit Sumiko once or twice before the other girl learns to just out-turning-radius her instead of feinting.

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Eventually everyone is tired and giggly. Aaliyah flops onto her back and fires a dart in the air and it lands on her face.

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Margaret laughs. "And Aaliyah scores a solid hit on Aaliyah, bringing the score to Lots vs Also Lots!" she proclaims in a sports-announcer voice.

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This gets a laugh, especially from Aaliyah.

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"So, unrelatedly, my birthday's a week from tomorrow, and I was thinking of throwing a party. So if anyone wants ludicrous amounts of pizza and cake, stop by my house next Saturday around six." And she adds her address.

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"Are you inviting any normies?" asks Hattie.

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"Well, there're a couple of cool normies in robotics club, but on the other hand it might be rude to invite them and then spend the whole time talking about magical girl stuff."

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"We can ever talk about other things, you just only meet us in this club," says Mariposa.

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"Hah, true. And you'll like Tim and Julio, they're fun."

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"I know Julio," Mariposa says. "He is my brother's friend."

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"Hey, small world. Or at least, small town. Feel free to bring your brother if he wants to come."

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"I don't think he'll want to," says Mariposa, "but thank you."

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"Fair enough. I'm feeling a bit less wiped out now; I'm going to head home."

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"Bye!" says Sumiko.

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Margaret's weekend goes without incident, except that it includes even more flying and target practice than usual. On Monday Tim and Julio both assert their lack of schedule conflicts and their interest in pizza and cake. 

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With her sixteenth coming up, Margaret is almost old enough to ride along with the neighborhood's emergency response squad. It's time to fill out that form she got from Bess last month.

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When the form is turned in she receives a phone call about it! She can pick any shift but since she's in school probably wants afternoon. She doesn't have to show up every day. They're location sharing the afternoon squad truck's location on Google Maps.

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She does want afternoons, and she will show up on Thursday if they don't mind that her birthday is on Saturday. If they do mind she can go out with Larissa and/or Aaliyah as usual.

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She can come early if her parents okay it, otherwise the age sixteen cutoff is strict.

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Her parents think if she's going to do it at all it doesn't make any difference whether she does it this week or next, and after she promises to be careful they'll sign a note to that effect.

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Then she can come Thursday!

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She shows up at the squad truck with her stardarters loaded and her outfit in perfect condition.

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"Hey there Margaret!" says the squad leader, who has a very put-together, pseudo-military look in burgundy going on and devil-themed mods (wings tail horns). "I'm Vanessa and these are Caroline," (lowkey griffin aesthetic, eagle wings and lion tail), "and Susan," fish scales in some but not all places, fin-like frills, very sheer diaphanous fabric.

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"Pleased to meet you all!"

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"Likewise!" says Susan. "What do you already know about this program?"

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"So I know I ride along in the truck with you and wait for you to get called in somewhere, but I'm not sure if I'm supposed to join in if there's a swarm or just watch."

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"You hang back a bit. You can take potshots at strays, or if it's outdoors and we can surround you can do that from a ways farther back than us. Do you have combat magic or just stardarters?"

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"I don't have offensive powers, but I have a thing where I can see what the bugs are going to do before they do it, plus a danger sense that picks up on swarms before they start and may or may not be longer range--I haven't encountered a swarm since my outfit was significantly worse."

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"The anticipating thing would probably work better against bigger monsters - if you have to communicate about a hundred bugs' behavior they'll be done doing it before you spit it out - so you should look into a rural squad once you have enough hours under your belt for that. Okay. Try real hard not to hit people. With stardarters and non-damaging magic you don't need the spiel about when you're allowed to cut loose, s'pose."

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"A rural squad is a good idea. I can also see where people are going to move, if I'm in something enough like a fight for the sense to come on at all, and I'll definitely try real hard not to hit anybody. I wouldn't mind hearing the spiel just for educational purposes, if you wouldn't mind giving it."

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"So if a swarm's more than six hours old, which almost never happens but it's not impossible if it manifests at the top of a tall building right after we pass by and there's nobody in the building, then we're allowed to do a lot more property damage to get it dead, if we have to. Also allowed to kill animals - I mean, nobody cares if you kill a pigeon anyway, but you can kill somebody's cat if you gotta if a swarm six hours old is behind it. If we're in a real pinch with a swarm over six hours, we're allowed to set fires too. The threshold's higher if you're in a building with specifically protected architecture or contents. I'll tell you which those are before we go in. By default you don't have to worry about breaking windows to get in places, or doors, and you don't have to worry about getting gunk or stardart dents on stuff outside the special buildings - sometimes we try to draw swarms out of those, it's riskier but you don't wanna get swarm gunk on the Mona Lisa or whatever, but you otherwise try to be a little conservative."

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"Thanks." It's good to know what protocols everybody else will be operating on. "So now we just drive around and wait for a call?"

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"That's right. A call or a sensed swarm. More of the former than the latter. If we get a call the sirens go on and we get there ASAP. You don't need wings to work local, they do insist on it if you're covering a bigger area and you can't fast travel otherwise."

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"I only take 'em off to sleep."

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"Yeah, but not all of us have them, so we take the truck, sirens on," Vanessa says. "Don't make more victims; don't wade in underhanded. Just because you and me and Caroline could leave Susan behind and get started doesn't mean it's a good idea."

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"Oh, of course, I just meant that if I switch to a rural squad the wings rule won't be a problem."

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"Yeah, just reminded me of the don't make more victims rule."

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Margaret nods and then sits there in silence.

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Around and around goes the truck, weaving through the town to cover the whole thing with their senses. The squad is on various devices. Susan is playing Pokémon.

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Margaret will idly browse Wikipedia on her phone and listen to Susan's occasional happy or frustrated muttering.

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Susan is apparently collecting Horsea.

This would be a great job if you didn't get carsick and had a lot of reading to get done.

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Fortunately Margaret does not get carsick. This truck bed is actually spacious enough she could do homework in here; she'll bring it next time.

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Her swarm-sense and her danger sense both go off at about the same time. It's a big one.

She stands up and looks to the others for cues.

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Caroline bangs on the cab of the truck and shouts a heading to the driver. He turns his siren on and speeds where she tells him to. Susan drops her game and checks her stardarters. Vanessa stands up and starts charging some kind of power that gathers in her fist in a ball of yellow light, wings poised for takeoff.

"It's up," says Susan, "it's moving, that means it's older -"

"Only one of it, so it's probably big," says Vanessa.

"A stray lone bug would explain why nobody called it in," says Caroline.

"It might just have stayed high enough," Vanessa says. "Be prepped for a monster. Margaret, stay behind Caroline. Not just back, behind her, with her always between you and the monster. You don't shoot at it unless through tragedy beyond your control it's gotten around her and you can't get her between you again.
Got that?"

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"Got it."

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It's a big monster. It's a small swarm's biomass, but all melded into a single creature, flapping with surprising speed considering its number and type of wings changes from moment to moment. It has so many eyes, eyes in all directions.

The girls leap out of the truck before it's come to a complete stop. Susan's on the ground, running pell-mell to get under the monster, stardarters raised high. Vanessa launches herself into the air and throws her lightball at the monster; it glances off and bounces back to Vanessa's hand for another run. Caroline gets into the sky, staying in front of Margaret, and throws something invisible at the monster, slicing it open in a way that looks briefly impairing before it slides its flesh back together.

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Margaret gets behind Caroline and matches her movements, hands on her stardarters but not actually drawing them. She's never actually seen pros fight a swarm before. She watches carefully, thinking about how best she could communicate the monster's next moves in future fights like this one.

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The monster rushes Vanessa. She dodges, dropping out of the sky and barely catching herself before she hits the street. It brakes - it moves as much by shapeshifting as by actually moving; "braking" takes the form of flattening itself as though hitting an invisible wall and letting air resistance slow it down, then sprouting new wings to take off in a new direction, at Caroline. Margaret gets to see why it's Caroline she's supposed to follow: she makes an invisible square shield and this time the invisible wall the monster pancakes itself against is real. Caroline can't do any spells but sustain the wall, but Vanessa and Susan can. Susan's empowering her ammo somehow; it sings high-pitched notes as it streaks through the air to tear chunks out of the creature, and Vanessa hurls her lightglobe again. The monster sizzles until the globe returns to her hand, and it grows many feet and starts trying to climb the shield, spreads out along its surface looking for handholds. It can't fall while Susan's still shooting at it, but it can get thinner and leave less mass in the path of each stardart.

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When the monster is about to go for Caroline Margaret almost shouts a warning, but chokes it off at the last moment, wary of distracting her. This fight is nothing like what she's encountered before--less "pump darts into enemy", more coordinated tactics. Watching it once through her magic and again through her eyes, she can tell just how good these girls are.

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The creature reaches an edge of the shield, but finds it impossibly thin and gets a tendril sliced off for its trouble. It suddenly shoops into a much smaller area, and several of Susan's darts miss, and it falls, then regains the power of flight and dives at Susan. Caroline dives after it.

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Margaret swoops down too. Can Susan get out of the way in time?

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Susan runs, but Caroline intercepts first, lands, and gets a shield in the monster's way again. Vanessa hits it with her ball again.

It's definitely smaller, but not by much.

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"Stay on the opposite side of Caroline from the monster" is kind of hard to implement when Caroline is on the ground and the monster is above her. There's a brief window where she's out of position.

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Nobody calls her on it.

Susan climbs a parked car to get shooting vantage.

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The important thing is that the monster doesn't call her on it.

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It is still slammed up against this shield getting shot at. Quicker this time, it shoops into a narrow profile and drops to the ground, trying to go under Caroline's shield and eat her toes. She dances back and throws invisible rectangles at it, slowing it down.

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Margaret dances back and gets on top of a car so as not to get pinned against it.

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The monster leaps into the air on frog-kangaroo-monster legs and trades them for wings at the top of its arc. Vanessa misses; Susan hits, but only most of the time; Caroline's accuracy is just okay but she can make her rectangles double back and hit it from the other side when she misses, if she's not trying to keep up a shield. They whittle away at the monster.

It goes suddenly after Vanessa on a shapeshifted helicopter blade's speed, right after she's recalled her ball from it to charge up again. Caroline tries to get there first but she's too slow, Vanessa tries to dodge but she's too slow, and Vanessa has to punch the monster in the center of mass with her charged-up fist. This does a huge amount of damage to the monster but it takes Vanessa temporarily out of the fight, splattered with goo; she flees the reeling creature to do emergency field patch on her costume while Caroline closes and pelts it with rectangles and Susan continues harrying it with stardarts.

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Margaret really wants to start taking potshots, but as long as Caroline is up she'll stay behind her with her stardarters pointed down.

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Caroline's up! The monster doesn't approach her again; it tries chasing Vanessa, but Caroline gets in its way, and then it tries Susan again, who's starting to run a little low on ammo. Susan jumps off the car and runs in Margaret's direction. "Ammo," she says, "I don't have time to regather it and I can make it go farther than you can."

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Margaret grabs the belt of ammo off her bandolier and runs the rest of the way over to Susan to hand it off.

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Susan reloads while Caroline does her best to solo the monster. Vanessa finishes handling her wardrobe emergency and flaps back in, charging her sphere. With a hail of darts, invisible rectangles, and lightglobes coming from all directions, the monster is finally reduced to its constituent ick and becomes a stain on the street.

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Hooray! Margaret waits a moment to make sure it's dead, then starts sweeping everybody's ammo.

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"Phew!" says Caroline. "Hell of a fight to run into your first day out."

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"No kidding! I'm not sure if that was more or less educational than a smaller fight where I could have participated more. Though of course the important thing is that you took it out before it could hurt anybody."

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"It's usually little ones we'll be happy to have you help shoot at," says Susan. "Carrying the extra ammo in did help, though, I don't generally need more than looks neat on my outfit for a younger swarm so the tradeoff's different."

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"I'm glad I could be at least a little useful. How many shifts do you think I'll need to put in before I'm ready to join in the bigger fights, or do support with my precognitive stuff?"

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"I think we'll need to actually drill with your precog stuff to interpret short-enough warnings in combat," says Vanessa. "We can borrow somebody with illusions who helps with that kinda thing for the whole county, and you can tell us what you see coming - if you work on illusions, do you think you do?"

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"Drilling to work out a protocol sounds like a great idea. I could tell when Caroline was about to move her shield or you were about to do something with your light, so I expect I would work on illusions."

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"Great. We can set up time for that on our overlap day - there's four squads, so three can cover round the clock and the other can substitute for our days off and training sessions. We call in a county substitute squad if somebody's sick but otherwise we're on six days a week."

"Which is fine since we can mostly screw around in the back of the truck," says Susan.

Vanessa goes on, "If you're gonna keep coming back, it's worth spending training sessions on your power."

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"I'm definitely going to keep coming back. I have school, obviously, so I won't be able to do the full hours, but I'll be around as much as I can." She doesn't need precognition to foresee a massive drop in the amount of homework she does anywhere other than this truck.

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"Yeah, school's important," says Caroline responsibly. "Cool. We have patrol tomorrow and the day after, then training."

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"Awesome! I can be here after school tomorrow and until 5:30 on Saturday and then here the whole shift for training."

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"Sounds like a plan. Do you need to scoot now? We're still on shift till the night crew gets in, monster or no monster," says Vanessa.

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"No, I should be good for the rest of the shift. My parents aren't expecting me back until late." She'll have to stay up later than usual to finish her homework, but she got most of it done at school.

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On and on they drive, but they don't get any more calls or sense any swarms, and they eventually return to their station and swap drivers and squads.

"I assume you can fly home?" Vanessa asks Margaret. Susan boards a motorcycle.

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"Yup! See you tomorrow!" Flap flap, sandwich for dinner, biology worksheet, zzzzzz.

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On Friday she stops by magical girl club long enough to explain why she's dropping out, then goes patrolling again. Saturday she gets in her first fight as part of the squad, shooting some just-appeared bugs alongside the others, and is waiting at her house when the time of her birthday party arrives.

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All the club girls show up, Sumiko first.

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Tim and Julio arrive as well, Tim bearing an X-box.

Once everyone is there, Margaret starts pulling pizza boxes out of the oven. "All right people, fess up, which of you likes anchovies on your pizza?"

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"Me!" says Aaliyah.

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"Living up to the stereotype, eh? My power went all "salty fish for a sweet meal" while I was on the phone with the pizza guy, I think he thought I was nuts!"

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"Oh no!" Aaliyah giggles, but she takes the anchovy pizza anyway.

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"Hey, better some guy think I'm bonkers than that I order sub-optimal pizza." She helps herself to a slice of onion and garlic, and also lays out a plain cheese and two pepperoni.

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Everybody takes pizza. Mariposa has arrived in a nonstandard but still butterfly themed outfit; perhaps it is what she wears to parties.

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Julio grabs the ketchup out of Margaret's fridge and puts some on his pizza. "Whaaaat, it's not weird, it's already got tomato in it."

"Of course it's weird, Julio, if you weren't weird I'd suspect you were an imposter. Nice outfit, Mariposa, I haven't seen that one before."

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"Thanks, I don't have it up to the standard of my other one yet but I like it."

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"Say, I don't think I've ever heard you describe what your powers do. Not that it's any of my business if you don't want to say."

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Mariposa levitates a slice of pizza to her mouth and bites it out of the air.

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"Oh, nice, lots of everyday utility on that one."

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"Yes, I like it. I can also fly without having to stay in condition, but I am afraid of heights and working on that."

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"Good for you not letting that stop you from trying. And good luck."

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"I usually zoom around a few inches off the ground but I still have to go around mailboxes and things."

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"Still beats walking, I bet. Can't trip, can't step in mud . . . "

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"Yes, it is good for that."

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"Pretty neat how some people get broadly useful stuff and some people get combat stuff. The local first responder squad thinks my tactical sense will be good for support; we're going to practice with it tomorrow."

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"Were you there when that monster showed up over Seventh Street?" asks Sumiko.

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"Yeah, I was! I didn't join the fight, they just had me hang back and watch. It was good getting to see how monster fights work, they're really different tactically than crowds of the little ones."

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"Are you going to be a paladin?" asks Josephine.

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"If I can manage it, yeah. More support than direct combat, probably, but if I get good enough I can help coordinate attacks and maybe even get prophecies about where the kaiju are going to be."

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"Awesome," Josephine says.

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"Thanks. I might try to join a more rural squad next summer, when the commute will be less of a problem. Since my powers are better against single big ones than a bunch of the little ones."

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"Those are so much more dangerous though," says Aaliyah.

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"Absolutely, but I'll have the whole spring to build my skills. And if I don't feel ready when summer starts I can always wait another year."

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"I want to be a paladin too," says Hattie, "but I'm not old enough to ride along without my parents' say so and my parents think there's probably a reason they make the age cutoff where it is."

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"That seems a bit silly. Yeah, there's a reason, and that's because it's the age at which *most* girls would be mature enough. Your parents should decide whether you're mature enough on their own without outsourcing their judgement to an organization that doesn't know you and isn't even trying to evaluate you in particular."

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"Yeah. It's stupid," sighs Hattie. She toasts her pizza a bit; it is too cool.

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"That was clever; can I get a reheat on mine too?" Margaret holds out her pizza.

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Toast! Hattie toasts many pizzas.

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"Looks like you're the toast of the town!"

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This gets a groan.

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As it deserved.

Tim wants to know if anybody wants to play Smash Brothers.

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Larissa and Josephine do!

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Margaret will join in for a round and play meta knight and probably get creamed because she only knows how to mash buttons and the x-box doesn't cooperate with her tactical sense. She has fun anyway.

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Larissa is Zelda and Josephine is Samus.

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After a few rounds of losing really hard Margaret brings out the cake. It is chocolate with a layer of raspberry jam inside and the top is an inch thick of buttercream flowers.

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"That's gorgeous," says Sumiko. "Where'd you get it?"

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"There's this little tiny bakery on magnolia street, I don't know why they're not famous, everything they make is awesome."

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"Does it taste as good as it looks?" asks Hattie, waiting for the birthday girl to have some so everybody else can too.

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Margaret finishes chopping it up and passing it out, then when everyone has a plate she takes a bite of hers and shuts her eyes. "Yes. Yes it does."

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Om nom nom cake.

"Magnolia Street," repeats Aaliyah to herself under her breath. "Magnolia."

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"Here, I can write it down for you." Margaret grabs a post-it note and jots down "Sugardream Confections, 26 Magnolia St".

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"Thanks!" Aaliyah pockets it.

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There is enough cake here for everyone to have a good chunk.

"Turning sixteen is awesome."

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Josephine starts singing Happy Birthday and everyone chimes in.

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Eeeee!

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The training session is held on grounds used by the whole-county swarm response system. Vanessa is already there, practicing throwing her lightball, but Caroline and Susan aren't there yet when Margaret flies in. The illusions girl is also there, making targets for Vanessa.

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"Hi Vanessa!" She turns to the illusionist. "My names's Margaret. Mind if I shoot at those targets too?"

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"Go for it. You want extras?" the illusionist asks. "Easier ones?"

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"Can I get some that are a bit bigger, but move around?"

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"Sure thing hon." There they are! Big blobby monstery illusions.

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Margaret's tactical sense does work on illusions! She practices leading the target, aiming the right fraction of the way between its present and future to hit center mass.

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Eventually Caroline and Susan appear!

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Then she will stop finish up her target practice and get ready for group training.

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"So," says Vanessa, "what is it you get when you get a warning?"

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"So, the danger sense is a rough distance and direction, about the same range as my swarm sense, with the knowledge that something is there or about to be there that could hurt me. Maybe if I improved my look I could learn to tell the difference between a swarm about to spawn and a downed power line, but right now I can't.

Then the tactical sense tells me where anything involved in a fight--targets, allies, projectiles--is going to go and what they're going to do, a few seconds ahead. It feels like swarm-sense but for trajectories instead of locations, and not just on swarms."

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"Okay. A few seconds is enough to yell a couple words, but we're often fighting in three dimensions. Thinking back to the monster fight, what could you have told us, let's work backward from that."

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"Well, it sort of took turns charging at different people, I could have called those in advance. I saw when it was going to shrink and drop, and when it was going to go for altitude again; if I'd given warning on that last maybe Vanessa wouldn't've had to punch it. I think for directions in 3d, if you usually try to surround them like that, up/down and then which of us it's targeting would be a better bet than trying to do a three-axis system. Maybe up/down, grow/shrink, and names when it's it's going to retarget, assuming that was a relatively typical fight."

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"That means you can't use our names for anything else," Susan points out.

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"Well, of all the things I might want to say to a specific person in a fight, 'the monster is about to come at you' is probably the most common. But is there something else you think would work better?"

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"We do have codenames. Don't use them much because they're not globally unique, but you could assign codenames to one use and regular names to ordinary outbursts of alarm or whatever," says Vanessa.

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"Codenames makes sense, and then I could say 'Vanessa, get higher' if it's about to get over top of you or something. Do your attacks have names I can use if I see an opening for one, for later when I have a better grasp of how you use them?"

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"Not good ones," says Caroline.

"I call mine 'hellfire'," Vanessa says.

"I just call mine shooting at things, whatever I do to the darts," says Susan.

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"And you know how to use them better than I do . . . maybe I should focus more on saying what a monster is about to do, grow or shrink or take off or jump or dive or bank."

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"Yeah. Do you have a good sense of cardinal direction, like north and so on?" asks Vanessa.

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"Yes, I could get in the habit of keeping track of which way North is, and I already know some of our patrol area pretty well."

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"Okay. So cardinal directions and up and down. There's so many ways a monster can shapeshift, unfortunately, I'm not sure how to cut that down to something you can spit out under stress that we'll understand right."

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"Might be a job for lots of practice." She looks at the illusionist. "Do you want to maybe do an illusion of a monster doing a bunch of stuff, and I'll call it in advance, and everyone else can decide if I'm making any sense?"

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"Yeah, sure," says the illusionist, and her monster target grows teeth and wings and flies up, preparing to extend a neck to bite Vanessa.

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She calls out "flying", "stretch", and "Vanessa" in quick succession.

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Vanessa ducks, but not in a useful direction. The illusion monster closes its jaws on her head.

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"Hmmm, looks like it would help if I told you which direction to dodge. If I said "Vanessa, left" would that be clear as meaning "Vanessa, I recommend you go left" as opposed to "the monster is going for Vanessa and then left"? Since we'd be using cardinal directions for the monster?"

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"Yeah, I think that works because left is relative to individuals."

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"Let's try again, then."

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The illusionist recalls the monster, then has it dart between Susan and Caroline, intending to bite Caroline from behind.

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"South! Caroline, right!"

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Caroline dives right, breaking her fall with an invisible shield; she dismisses it and erects a new one between her and the monster. The monster misses her and the illusionist - doesn't know the shield is there, so the monster goes through, but. "That would have worked on a solid monster," Caroline says.

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"Nice one! I bet we can get really good at this with enough practice."

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"I bet!" agrees Vanessa. "Darlene, how long do we have you for?"

"All day," says Darlene-apparently, "but some people think I'm predictable if they keep practicing with me too long in a row."

"Well, as long as it's Margaret you're predictable to. Let's get three dimensions going on here." She takes off. Susan identifies north for Margaret as Caroline takes to the air, too.

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Margaret also gets airborne, since that's where she'd be in a real fight, and yells names and directions and "grow" and "shrink" and "spin" and "tentacle" and suchlike.

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And with enough practice they get pretty good at obeying her directions and using her warnings!

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It's pretty awesome how willing they are to take her advice, even magically enhanced advice, when she's so new to fighting. She gets better at saying the right thing as quickly and comprehensibly as possible, while also dodging the illusion-monster whenever it goes for her. By the end of the day her voice is going to be extremely hoarse.

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They can call it a day when shouting gets difficult and they're all tired. There are couches inside the building for flopping on, and a vending machine with cold drinks.

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Margaret gets a bottle of water and downs half of it in one go, then flops on a couch. "That was awesome," she croaks, "but I don't know if my throat or my wings are more wrecked."

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"You'll get more used to lots of flying with practice," says Vanessa.

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"Yup. Say, is it allowed to fly alongside the truck sometimes during patrols? Or do we need to stay in it?"

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"We can fly it towards the end of the shift. You don't want to get tired out in hour three. Since you can leave whenever you want, if you feel like it you can fly the whole time."

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"Logical. I can start about an hour before I plan to leave, then, and if nothing happens I get in an hour of flying a day."

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"Sounds good," says Vanessa. "I usually fly the last two but I've been at it longer than you."

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"Practice makes perfect." She drains the rest of her water and unflops slightly. "I will definitely get off this couch and go home any minute now and not accidentally fall asleep here for several hours."

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"You're allowed to fall asleep here if you gotta," says Caroline.

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"Good to know. Shouldn't do it tonight, though, it's a school night."

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"Makes sense. You need any help getting home?"

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"That's nice of you, but no, I'll just walk part of the way until my wings are a bit more rested and then I'll be fine." She pries herself off the couch.

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"See you later!" calls Susan.

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And she part-hikes, part-flies home and collapses.

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The next few weeks are really excellent. She kills swarms and becomes a better tactician and a more accurate markswoman and a stronger flyer. She eats lunch with the other magical girls and experiments with different jewelry designs. She gets a prophecy about a sudden downpour that lets the squad get the cover over the truck bed before the sky opens up, and one about what she should get her father for Christmas.

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She gets an email from the organization behind the survey she took which wants to do a specific data collection on her. They'd like to pay her by the month to carefully note the contents and circumstances of each prophecy she gets.

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She already had partial notes, but she starts being rigorous about them. Date, time, location, exact wording of prophecy, her interpretation of the wording, other people present, prior conversation topic if any, reactions of third parties, and any actions she took/predictions she made on the basis of the prophecy and how they turned out.

A typical entry looks something like this:

Time: January 7, 3:30 PM

Location: robotics club lab

Others present: 3 other club members, one involved in conversation

Prior conversation topic: why a certain circuit wasn't working

Prophecy wording: "the seventh is on the ground"

Interpretation: pin seven of the microcontroller was incorrectly connected to ground

Reaction: checked pin seven

Result: found misplaced wire, pin seven was in fact connected to ground

Reactions of others: nearest club member was mildly surprised (prior familiarity with prophecies)

The general themes that appear are that the prophecies happen a couple times a week on average, are generally relevant to the situation at hand, are generally helpful to neutral, and that she's better at interpreting them than random bystanders, though it isn't clear if that last is a magical effect or just practice and not being as surprised.

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The money for this is pretty modest but it keeps coming as long as she keeps sending in prophecies.

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