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Generated: Apr 26, 2018 9:48 PM
Post last updated: Apr 03, 2017 1:44 AM
The Origin and Misadventures of the Avian Twins
Tabby and Zeke are mad science experiments in Rockeye's new world.
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Magic is so terribly finicky.

Herridan Lionheart does not like the way his body works. Humans were not meant to be shackled to one form for their entire lives, he tells himself. Magic exists that can change that. However, he is neither too stupid to understand the principles of magical-biological interactions nor unwise enough to test his theories on himself. He also has enough overall power to operate more or less freely in the low-hero-density areas of the world, and is devious enough to get access to some very... Unique source materials. The most powerful magic-entwined biologies alive today are very promising test beds for his work.

Progress is rapid. But there's a lot of progress to be made. Most early experiments are miscarriages. The first one to be successfully born dies within the minute, of... Probably oxygen deprivation, is what he eventually decided. The fact that it set very vigorous fire to the medical unit before dying was a hint.

More experiments. He got good at preserving the surrogates, honed convincing them to volunteer to a science - he was having to move around too much to escape angry crowds, before. (It's not like the big hero teams were going to come down on his door. People like him were a dime a dozen in these parts of the world. For now.)

Now he could stay in one lab for years, try to see some of the modifications develop long enough to prove the concept. Herridan really does qualify as a genius... Some of the relatively conservative experiments worked perfectly - children born in his labs grew (slightly faster than normal) to adolescence and adulthood with regenerative blood, or subtle magesight, or fingernails with high concentrations of precious metal. (This is about when Herridan Lionheart started getting rich.)

He's almost legitimate now, backed by and backing up some tin-pot dictator. A veneer of authority to the place. He couldn't stop there, of course. With proper facilities his experiments could be more extreme, push the limits further. The Lycan program is promising, and ongoing. Project Unicorn meets dead end after dead end but it would be so revolutionary he keeps pouring resources into it. He quickly graduates from tin-pot dictator to somewhere in Mexico. That "accountant" is really good at his job...

One pair of children have wing-arm hybrids for upper limbs, a forehead crest of brightly colored feathers, and dully glowing eyes. Their magical properties are promising - flight, of course, despite the wing structure not having nearly enough lift or control for how well they perform at it. Kicking reflexes and a foot structure that seem to be meant for hunting. Overall strength and speed boosts that are rather pedestrian compared to some exotic effects he's managed, but intriguingly stable. Psychology mostly unaffected. Excellent results, exactly the sort of thing the program is looking for, if only he could replicate them.

The two star experiments have every physical need catered to and many more luxuries than most in these halls. Free time, a real teacher for literacy and numeracy tests, games and toys and better food and even a specially built open-air cage with perches and such for them to stretch their wings... And no friends or family or real freedom at all.

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The male of the pair is currently sitting atop one of the perches, looking outwards. What does he see?

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Desert.

Barren and harsh and quiet... But he can see small animals out there even all the way out here. There would be food. There are plants - there will be sources of water somewhere. And there is so much space.

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The girl is walking around the edges on her enclosure, fingers trailing through the bars. 

"Do you think people can live out there?" she asks her brother.

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"Maybe..."

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Probably. The scientists have to get their food from somewhere, right? And there is light over the horizon, to the north, at night. It drowns out the stars in that direction.

And being out of the way is not exactly a perfect no-fly zone. They've seen airplanes every month or five.

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When the pair were smaller they sometimes tried waving them down. It was pretty disheartening. 

"Think Mr. Lionheart will come see us today?" he asks, with a tone somewhere between hope and fear.

 

 

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"Could do. It's been a couple of sleeps."

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...Is that music? It's coming from the lights.

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"Ooh, that's pretty," he starts doing a little dance.

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It's a steady series of tones on a short repeat. Ding, ding, ting, ding, tong, ding...

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"..Do you need to go to the bathroom or something?"

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"You can't hear that?"

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"I can hear the wind, some bugs, couple of birds."

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Zeke suddenly becomes very concerned about his sister's hearing. He suspects that Lionheart wouldn't take her going deaf kindly.

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There's more music coming from other places. Closer to the scientists' entrance mostly.

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"You seriously can't hear it?"

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Tabby is busy examining the enclosure's bars. "Maybe it's a boy thing."

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The door's music suddenly shifts. A steady thrum - not obvious until it's gone - disappears. And then Dr. Abraham, one of the 'flunkie' scientists who say 'yes sir right away sir' a lot, comes through. The thrum comes back when the door shuts. "Good afternoon, children! I've brought lunch."

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Anything to get excited over?

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Yes! The good kind of meat, their favorite kind of crackers, some mac and cheese, and ice cream.

And a chrome case, the kind of which usually contains a pointy syringe or two, and other doctory things.

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The twins tuck in, while Zeke ponders whether he should ask about the music that's suddenly playing. 

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"Are you still having growing pains in your elbows and phalanges, Tabitha?"

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"Yeah, but they're getting a little better."

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"I'd like to measure your wings again. It's important to track how you to develop."

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The twins let him do so. 

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"I like the music you've started playing."

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"Hm, music? I don't know anything about that." The tape measure shifts. He writes things down. "Sara's in charge of your facilities you know. I just try and make sure you two don't get sick or hurt."

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"...You can't hear it?"

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"You can hear something?" He suddenly looks concerned. "Is it a ringing noise that goes away a little bit when you move your head?"

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"...No. It's just this kinda a music that a lot of stuff is making. Like when you opened the door."

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"Oh my. I think it might be a latent talent. Mr. Lionheart will want to hear about this."

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"Is this a good thing?"

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"It's good and bad. You can do something new, which is obviously good, but we didn't expect you to get new abilities this late in development, which means we were wrong about something in how your magic works. It sounds like some sort of sensory overlay... I'm sure the research team will be able to tell more about it with enough tests."

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This isn't much of a comfort to Zeke.

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"He gets to do more things? No fair!"

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"There's a chance you will develop something too..."

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"That'd be cool."

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"Lets me just report this, okay?"

He pulls out a walkie talkie. "Something to report sir... No sir. New abilities! At least one. The male. Yes sir. Right away sir."

"..You two get another checkup apparently. They want to make sure everything is fine."

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"Is it the hurty kind of check up?"

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"That's up to Dr. Mendez. Sorry."

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He shakes his wings a little. 

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"I've got a new food for you two to try, though. It might be a good way to keep up with your huge metabolisms without overloading on protein. They didn't like the idea but... Have you ever heard of donuts?"

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"Aren't those like cake?"

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"Yes, a bit! I'm sure I can get Dr. Mendez to stop griping about nutrition long enough to let you try some if you two cooperate with his tests, okay?"

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They tentatively agree.

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"I'll see you two tomorrow then. Dr. Mendez will be over soon."

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"Bye," says Angie between ice cream licks.

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The door opening and shutting interrupts its low thrum again.

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"I hope it's just a new talent and I don't grow a beak or something."

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"I don't know, a beak might suit you." They both giggle.

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It's half an hour before the physician shows up. If Zeke investigates he can find out that further objects emitting 'noise' are: The heater in their closed-off bedroom, several but not all of their toys, books, games, and puzzles, and the elevator in one corner that non-bird people use to get to the top of the landscaping.

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Any music coming off the physician?

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Yes. Several of his tools - and their 'songs' are much more complicated.

The physician's first test is an exhaustive physical. All sorts of poking and prodding and lights shined in their eye, unpleasant stretching, height and weight, strength test... Then he starts quizzing Zeke on the music. Is it consistent? What gives it off? Is it really sound are you sure it's not something else that you just think is sound?

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He does his best to answer the questions. 

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And is Tabitha positive that she has no comparable sense?

Hm.

He has a hunch. Ezekial will have some specialized testing starting tomorrow.

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She is almost glad she doesn't get to do an extra thing now.

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He makes a perfunctory effort to cheer Zeke up - this could be really useful, it's a great talent! He's not very good at it though. And... Sigh. The donuts are approved.

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Can they at least expect any today?

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Yes, yes, they'll come with dinner, he has work to do goodbye.

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"I shouldn't have said anything."

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She hugs him. "It's okay. At least you got us doughnuts, whatever they are. Wanna play something?"

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"...Okay."

What is there to do in their enclosure?

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They can fly around, it's big enough that you can go straight for ten or fifteen seconds without turning. There are a bunch of mismatched toys, from balls to block sets to a small dollhouse, some even meant for aerial play - a plastic 'airplane' that glides fairly well, after they showed fascination in some of the real ones. Plastic figures with cloth parachutes. Some puzzles and games and books.

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They fly about until they tire themselves out, before reading for a while.

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It's not entirely clear whether any of these books are fictional or not. One of the scientists explained the concept of fiction when they asked to meet Santa, once. But the only book they know for sure is actually real is 'The Big Book of Plants and Animals'.

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And they're still pretty vague about whether they're literally related to birds. 

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Well, the story they've been told is that their mother couldn't have any babies without magic, but being magical children made them not quite human, so she gave them to the academy so they could help learn how they work and make sure they have happy, healthy adult lives. And dodging questions about said mother, and their father, and simply saying 'it would be best not to think about it' if they keep pressing.

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Hasn't stopped them from asking if she could visit or send letters.

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They've gotten letters before. Even a picture, and the chance to send letters back. It's fairly heartfelt and genuine, for a mom they never get to meet in person. But it would be best not to get attached to her, their physiologies are going to give them a different lifestyle than her you know.

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Zeke sometimes uses the picture as a comfort object.

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Dinnertime brings Dr. Abraham back. With donuts!

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"Not gonna lie, these might be the best things," says Tabby with a mouthful of doughnut. 

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"Well, food like that is called junk food for a reason. Like ice cream, it's going to be an occasional treat, you can't live off only donuts or your health will suffer."

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She pokes her tongue out at him. 

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"Did Mr. Lionheart say anything about my weird hearing?"

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"Mr. Lionheart is eager to start testing tomorrow. I, uh, can't say more than that."

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"...Okay." 

He suddenly wants to go to bed early. 

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The twins can go to bed early if they want. Lights out is at 9 P.M. and wakeup is at 6:30 in the morning, as usual.

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Zeke rereads one of their mother's letters.

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It says how she wishes the academy would let her see them some time, then she rambles about some of the children in her neighborhood and how she wishes they could be friends.

Parts of it are blacked out. The names of places and people, mostly.

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He was never quite sure why they blacked out those parts.

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The letters have no comment on that.

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He puts the letter back and goes to sleep. 

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In the morning Ezekial's breakfast is the bland health-food stuff. Tabby's is normal. "Sorry, Zeke. We have to have a baseline for what your nutrition is like. The scientific method is important."

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He nods blanky and eats.

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Tabby tries to sneak him some of her breakfast. 

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Dr. Abraham turns away from the cleaners who've come in to work on the habitat and confiscates it. "Ah-ah. Please cooperate. It's for the best."

(Zeke gets a little snuck past anyway.)

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He flashes Tabby a very forced smile.

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And then it's time for Zeke's testing. Dr. Abraham promises they can have lunch together - a proper lunch, maybe with donuts - provided Zeke doesn't act up during the tests.

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He perks up a little. "Okay."

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And then Zeke is shown to the testing rooms...

 

...Mr. Lionheart is in there. He stares at Zeke with those grey eyes. "You're growing up nicely. Good. Promising. It's about time to delve into you and your sister's more hidden magical properties... If we want to make the process easier for future people, lots of study is needed, you understand?"

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"Yes, sir."

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"Good. What your power seems to be is an isomorph of the mage sight we already know a fair bit about - you have mage hearing, you hear magic. We're going to map common patterns and stimuli and build you a library, possibly calibrate it to mage-sight, and then some physical experiments."

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"Okay."

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The tests are long and boring and very difficult. Mr. Lionheart gets impatient fast. He doesn't hit Zeke or anything... But he does look rather angry. He raises his voice a few times.

Eventually, "Enough of this. Mendez and Evans, you two do the physical exams, I have other matters to attend."

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"...I'm sorry."

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"It would be unreasonable to expect you to memorize an entire corpus in a day. But be sure to continue working hard. Good day."

The physical exams aren't hard to think about, at least. They draw a little blood, put him inside a big scanning thing, that sort of thing.

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He actually finds the scanning thing relaxing. Interestingly, the earplugs don't stop the magic music. 

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Tomorrow you're going to have to wear a bunch of wires and sticky pads on your head all day while you do the same thing. They are for studying thought patterns. This was just an introduction, but it was a good one with a lot of progress!

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"Can me and Dr. Abraham still have lunch?"

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Yes, but you also can't sweat certain chemicals, so it will have to avoid the following list of delicious things. It's only for a couple of weeks and then they can change the test schedule. It's for the best.

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Does he at least get to sleep in his own bed?

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That's fine. As long as they don't find he's been sneaking snacks or anything like that.

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He's worried that Tabby's got nobody to play with up there.

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...Alright, they can arrange some more free time. Maybe group time with some of the other children. (If it keeps them pacified.)

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Other kids? Man, it's a been a while since they've seen them!

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That's for later though. For now, lunch, then the tutor will see them for a couple of hours, and then whatever they want until bed.

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"Do you see the other kids much Dr. Abraham?"

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"I do, actually. They, ah. Some of them don't cope with the magic-infused biologists quite as well as you two do. You can fly, you're healthy and happy. It's not always that way. We do our best though."

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"That's a shame." 

He's honestly not sure if they're happy, either. 

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So the tutor comes and teaches them stuff. Today's topic is basic science, they're old enough for that now. Astronomy!

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Tabitha wants to go to space someday, even after being informed her wings won't be of much use that high up.

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Perhaps they can invest in or invent proper space travel when they're adults. Things haven't been very exciting on that front since the Apollo program got cut.

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Zeke is more concerned with the prospect of other kids. 

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If he cares that much... They can get some of the more stable children and arrange some sort of group playtime. Monitored of course. There are three or four good candidates for this.

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He is very eager.

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Well, if it makes Zeke happy.

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They'll look into it. Tomorrow, probably, it's for the best to plan this a little more. How about... The two children from the Lycan program with the best control over the shifting, and Sam, a girl with a body made of watery jelly?

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That sounds fun!

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Their tutor will arrange it, if Mr. Lion heart approves.

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"Thank you, thank you, thank you!"' He actually hugs the tutor.

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She hugs back. She does like kids.

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The prospect of extra companionship makes Zeke participate in the tests almost eagerly.

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And he starts to learns to use his inner magic. It's a matter of focus coupled with words and gestures. They hope he'll be better at it than average, given his ability. Slow going though. Today he managed to make a floating mote of light and that's about it. And it felt like overusing a muscle he didn't know he had.

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Despite herself, Tabby is trying to make an ability emerge. Mostly this involves shouting at toys that refuse to float or light on fire.

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They don't mind if he tries to teach his sister magic during free time, by the way.

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He tries, but she is not the patient of students.

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They'll have testing for Tabitha tomorrow too. Various things to try and... Provoke a reaction.

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She's not sure how to feel about this, but okay.

How's that play date coming together?

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It's on for tomorrow afternoon. But Sam is feeling more liquid than usual, and might not make it.

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Zeke hopes she can make it, but he understands.

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That sounds like it's pretty much bedtime.

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He falls asleep happy.

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Tomorrow morning's breakfast is mostly-unappealing health food for both of them! Delivered by Dr. Mendez and Mr. Lionheart.

Lionheart glances at them then scribbles furiously into a journal rather than actually interact with them in any way.

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Tabby's wondering what he's writing.

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He's certainly not going to tell them. He merely says, "Time to get to work, little ones," once they're done eating.

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"And then the other kids?" asks Zeke.

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"This afternoon, yes."

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"Yay!"

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"Come along, then. Ezekiel will be doing much the same as yesterday - I'm interested to see if you 'hear' your own workings - Tabitha will be given various exercises known to sometimes trigger latent abilities."

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They follow dutifully. 

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Ezekiel's tests are merely boring and mentally taxing. Tabitha's are arbitrary, and sometimes silly, uncomfortable, smelly, or painful.

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She is starting to remember why she was kind of glad she didn't get an extra talent.

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Lunch comes as promised, though Mr. Lionheart seems kind of disappointed with both of them.

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This bothers Zeke, but he's sustaining himself with the prospect of the play date. 

"How were your tests?"

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"They made me stick my arms in this horrible slime stuff that made them fall asleep, then they pocked with this hurty stick thing."

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"That sucks. Maybe they'll leave you alone now."

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Lunch comes with a warning from Mr. Abraham. "Sam is coming, she mostly recovered, but I'd like you to be careful not to upset her. Her health suffers when she feels sad or nervous."

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"I promise," he says very earnestly.

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"Good, good. We're bringing you all to a room in the compound. You can bring a couple books and toys if you like. We'll go in a minute or two."

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Zeke chooses to bring a puzzle and The Big Book of Plants and Animals.

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And then they're both walked to a sort of lounge or break room. There aren't any toys other than what they brought, it probably isn't usually used for this.

Three other kids are here. The roundish one - translucent limbs, bending where they're normally straight, it looks a bit creepy and wrong - bounces liquidly from her position sitting on the floor and grins. "Hi!!"

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It's weird, but he was expecting it. "Hi! Are you Sam?"

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"Yeah. You're Zeke. You look like you can fly!"

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"Yup." He tries to show her best he can in such a small room. "Pleased to meet you."

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She claps, and her hands stop being hands for a moment with each impact. They come back when she's done.

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"Neat!" 

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"I kinda wish I could keep myself solid all the time though. I can do tricks with being all liquidy, but I'm not very strong since I have no bones."

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"I'm sure the doctors will figure out a way."

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Tabitha meanwhile is introducing herself to the the other two children, a pair of related looking redheads. "Hi! I'm Tabby, what are your names?"

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The girl smiles a little, but otherwise doesn't respond.

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The boy meanwhile looks wary.

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"They're trying to help yeah, but sometimes it feels like they're just guessing... They gave me this thing." She pulls a necklace out past the clothes - it grabs a piece of her skin along the way, which turns to water. "It makes it need less effort to keep my shape, but it also makes it harder to do things like this..." She grabs their book from across the room with a stretchy arm.

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"Cooool."

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"I know right!"

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"It's better than my talent."

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"Oh, you mean besides flying?"

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"I hear magic. It's more boring than it sounds."

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"If you say so. I just hope I don't keep going all melty whenever I get upset."

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Tabby is still playing with the other two children, which is nice, though she ain't getting much information from them.

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"Can you hear anything from me and you and Angie and Joey?"

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"Yeah. Your music is very tinkly. Like wind chimes."

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"Huh. I thought I would sound like a river or something."

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"It never makes much sense. Angie and Joey-those are the ones with red hair, right-sound like drums."

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"I don't know much about them. They're all grumpy."

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"Sometimes people are. Especially after tests."

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"Yeah, guess so."

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"They make you do much?"

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"Mostly a lot of practice going liquidy and then back again. They also found out that I'm especially bad with, ahem, 'water soluble toxins', so they do stuff to try and help with that and then give me a little bit of this nasty stinging stuff to see if it worked. It usually doesn't."

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"They used that stuff on my sister yesterday." 

Speaking of Tabby, she and the redheads are giggling and wrestling in the corner.

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Sam edges away from it. "They'll punch holes in me if I try to wrestle..."

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"It's okay, we can play over here. You like puzzles?"

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"Puzzles are fun, yeah!"

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"What's your room like?"

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"It's got this anti-water stuff everywhere, and it's sort of like a bowl? Parts of me leak off sometimes and I have to go pick them back up or eat like five pounds of food. It stinks. My window goes to the outside though, it's a nice view."

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"Maybe you could come visit me and Tabby's room sometime. Like a sleepover!"

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"I'd worry about losing bits. But maybe. It'd be a milestone or something!"

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"...What happens if you go in a swimming pool? Me and Tabby sometimes get to swim when we've been good and it's warm."

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She looks uncomfortable. "They've tried that with special baths and stuff. I... Hey... Are there any parts of your body that you don't like? ...Let's look at your puzzle."

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"Sure....and my feet are weird."

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"I get all... Bloaty." Aand she's done talking about that. What's the puzzle like?

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It's a five hundred piece picture of a fantasy kingdom. 

Meanwhile, Angie and the little lycos are still rough housing. 

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She has no special skill at puzzle-solving, but knows you find all the corners and edges first, at least.

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Tabitha and the lycos are getting very, very excited. Probably a little too excited.

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When they cross the 'too excited' threshold, the adult reading in the corner says, "Hey, cut it out! You're not supposed to be roughhousing."

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And now the lycos are wolves!

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"Best magic, best magic!" screams Tabby while the two wolf cubs try to work their way out of their ruined clothes. 

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"Calm down this instant or I'll use the tranquilizers! You two agreed to play nice."

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"But they are playing nice." As self consciously fierce as the wolf cubs are trying to be, any objective observer would say they were playing. 

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"Roughhousing needs to be done outside."

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"Then let us outside!"

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"I'll need to clear that with the higher ups. In the meantime, no roughhousing."

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"...Okay." 

The two lycos relax and let Tabby pet them. 

"Good puppies."

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"Good. We'll see about outside time, if you three behave for now."

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Tabby and the lycos sit down next Sam and Zeke, the latter two resuming human form.

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"Cubs, not puppies."

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"Help us match pieces for the puzzle?" Sam asks kindly.

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"...Okay."

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"You just have to be patient and try hard. Everything will be okay. Like this puzzle."

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"I don't see why it's such a big deal," Angie mutters under her breath.

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"They're trying to help..."

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"Help with what? We weren't doing anything."

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"Help make us good enough to function in adult society and not need help anymore."

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"And not letting us play now is helping that?"

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"Adults can't play rough wherever they want. They'll break things by accident, or annoy people who are trying to do something else." She puts on a stern, slightly proud big-sister-look.

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"They also shouldn't shred their perfectly nice playdate clothes." 

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"Not as nice as fur!"

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"I probably shouldn't try to feel your fur, I'd stick to it. Kind of want to though..."

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Joey is now a cub again, in case Sam gets the nerve to try.

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Nope. She works on the puzzle, chatting about who found matches for this or that piece.

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"Angel pictures are silly. Their wings grow out of their backs!"

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"That probably makes it easier for them to hold stuff. I think if you had separate wings and arms... Well, but then you would be heavier and maybe have a hard time coordinating, huh?"

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"And we couldn't wear shirts."

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"What's wrong with that?"

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He giggles. "Shut up!"

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She giggles too. "I don't know if angels are even real though. A lot of things are fictional."

The supervisor gives a Look at this but doesn't correct her.

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"We must compare notes on what is fictional!"

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Sam is eager about this prospect!

She seems to have a good idea - lots of things she knows definitely are fictional. She's less eager to say something is very definitely real, since she hasn't actually seen any of the things.

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Zeke does have a little trouble remembering what superheroes are real and which are pretend.

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"Yeah, that's complicated. Did you know that 'Paladin' was actually a real guy? He just died a while ago. But they don't call being tough and flying Paladin Powers for nothing."

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"Cool! Well, I guess me and Tabby are halfway there."

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"Yeah, guess so!"

They spend some time speculating on which other heroes are probably real. Sam likes Vorpal because his power sounds a little similar to hers - he bends space and mostly uses it to move himself, people, and things around super fast.

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Tabby is a little too interested in the villains.

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The scientists think that if someone is going to be antisocial and uncooperative the time for this playdate is over now.

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"I'll be good!"

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"Do you understand what being good means here?"

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"Being nice and cooperative," she sing songs. Her smile is a little forced.

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"Well- Broadly, yes. We're trying to teach you all to be healthy productive members of society. A lot of that is knowing the rules and following them. If you play nice we can have... Another forty five minutes or so, sound good?"

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"Yay!" she nuzzles the Angie-cub.

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The big bad chaperone-scientist-guy retreats to the corner to read his stack of papers.

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"Your magic is so coooool."

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Joey prompt assumes a form somewhere between wolf and child. It's obscenely adorable.

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Sam still edges away from it. Fur and carpet and anything fluffy, she doesn't do well near. 

They've made noticeable progress on the puzzle, but are nowhere near done.

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Angie is surprisingly good at puzzles.

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It's still a pretty complicated puzzle for a bunch of kids to do in an hour.

When the chaperone calls an end to the playdate he offers to try and move the puzzle, as intact as possible, back to their room. Looks a bit bored about it though.

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"Um, Mr, could Joey and Angie take it?"

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"...Huh, let me ask."

He whispers into his walkie-talkie for a little while. "Yes, they can take it if you two don't mind. What a kind thought, Tabitha! Very good."

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The lycos give her a very appreciative look. 

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"Bye Sam. It was very good meeting you."

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"You too! I hope we can play together again."

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"Same."

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So they're all escorted back to their rooms. The wolves' are... Nice enough, though everything here is selected for being very durable.

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They're looking rather glum about being separated from the others, Tabby especially.

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"Dont worry, I'm sure they'll let us play together again soon. Maybe outside!"

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"Only if you do well in lessons and tests, though, children."

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"We will, promise!"

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They're left alone besides a delivery of dinner until bedtime.

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They eat with their usual voraciousness, and climb into bed, happier than they've been in a long time. 

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Good. Hopefully also more obedient than they've been in a long time.

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They are. Even Tabby tries a lot harder.

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Good! They can have some more play-dates, clearly patterned on when they behave well and do well in lessons. A few more of the children here get introduced, to make up for when Angie and Joey don't earn socializing time. Sam is very well-behaved and continues to show improvement. They treat her well - they want to see how her body reacts to puberty, if she even goes into it at the appropriate age. Zeke learns a little more magic, but it's hard and complicated - he can't do anything big yet. Tabby continues to not develop any special ability so eventually they give up trying to poke her into it and mutter about whether she's as good for the program as they once thought.

 

And then one day, looking very upset and rushed, Dr. Abraham bursts in and says, "Uh, hate to spring this on you two, but we've got to move to a new facility. Everyone's packing up and going. Here's, uh, okay sorry no time, grab your favorite toy and let's go."

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The twins each grab a stuffed animal, while Zeke tucks their mum's letters into his pocket.

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"What's going on?"

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"We're being attacked by meddling supers. Hurry, this way... There's a bunch of trucks."

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"Why would superheroes attack us?"

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"Did I say they were heroes? They're shutting down our research! Just, just shut up and hurry to the trucks!"

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The follow along.

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A lot of other kids, many scared and confused, and scientists grabbing bundles of notes and things, are in the halls.

There are half a dozen armored trucks down in a section they've never seen before. They can hear explosions and fwoosh sounds in the distance.

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Zeke clutches his sister's hand tightly, while they look around for their various playmates. 

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Sam is here, wrapped up in some kind of plastic bubble. Her legs are a pile of goo and she's shaking, eyes closed.

Angie and Joey went into that truck whose back just closed and is driving off. Other playmates vary - they only spot a few.

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Zeke thinks about calling out to them, but he finds himself unable to speak. 

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And now there are two unfamiliar supers here - a woman in a yellow costume with lightning bolt motif and a man in power armor of some kind.

They gape in mild horror at the assembled experiments before them. They knew Lionheart's reputation, but this...

Someone shouts, "Perimeter down! Scrub the samples!"

Gunfire from the more thuggish looking 'scientists'.

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Zeke screams and covers his ears, eyes screwed shut.

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Tabby's fingers meanwhile have suddenly manifested what look like talons made of light, which she immediately puts to work tearing out the guards' throats.

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Everything is chaotic. Twenty seconds that feel like ten minites.

When it's done the guards are dead or disarmed, all but two trucks are screaming down the road, the heroes are shouting at the children in Spanish, and most of the still-mobile experiments and 'scientists' are scattering in every direction.

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Zeke knows that at least some of the other children would have been killed. He can't bear to find out who, especially if Sam, or Patricta, or Gregor are in their number.

He takes to the air.

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"Zeke!" She follows him into the sky.

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The heroes shout at them to please stay, but are far too busy triaging to chase after them.

On the far side of the compound there is another running battle. Mr. Lionheart and a bunch of cronies with very powerfully magical looking gear versus a bunch of heroes. They appear to be in a standoff.

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Zeke just wants to get away. His sister is busy trying to keep up.

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The desert is wide, and they're faster and higher than everyone else who's running. A hero follows for a while but turns back. All of that is behind them soon.

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They fly till they're almost exhausted enough to fall out of the sky, and find a shallow cave to fall asleep in. 

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They must be hungry by now.

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Yes, very. What is there for them to possibly eat?

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Agave fruits are edible, one of Sam's fun facts. Some cactus fruit too but thry can't recognize which are which. There are some birds and small critters they could try to catch.

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They are surprised by how good they are at catching critters. And how agreeable they are even when eaten raw.

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"I don't think Mr. Lionheart cared about helping us," says Zeke over a freshly killed coyote. 

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"They called us 'samples'. I wonder if any of them really cared."

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"...Do you think Sam is okay?"

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"I don't think a bullet would've hurt her too badly. I'm worried about Angie and Joey, I mean, what if the people driving the truck got the same order and-and-" she starts crying. 

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He tries to comfort her.

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The desert gets surprisingly cold at night.

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They attempt to keep each other warm via snuggling.

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It helps, a bit. Starting a fire might prove necessary though. Or finding something blanket-like. If they don't, they won't get much sleep.

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Turns out prolonged contact with Tabby's new plasma talons can make things ignite.

The next morning, the twins take flight again. There's so much space

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Plasma does that.

Are they heading in any particular direction? They can see a lonely dirt road off to the south somewhere (and that's definitely the south over there, though neither of them will be sure why they know it's south). An unfamiliar scent is carried on the winds that blow from the west. And north is where they saw those lights at night.

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For now they decide to follow the scent.

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They pass a farm on the way there. Their books had pictures of farms, and this looks kind of like one except more rusty, muddy, and ramshackle than that guy Old McDonald's farm. It's got fields and goats, anyway.

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They stop to pet the goats...and maybe try and steal some food from their kitchen.

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They're interrupted. "¡Oy! Mi comida! Sal, ladrones! Tengo arma! Vete, vete, vola!" This guy is certainly angry. And he has a shotgun, which is being waved threateningly.

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They flee into the sky!

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He can't exactly chase, but shouts angrily up at them as they fly off.

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Is that scent still there to follow?

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Yes. It's kind of pervasive, actually, just stronger in the west.

There's more signs of civilization this way. More people than they've ever seen before. Dozens of houses, these strange wires running everywhere.

But they probably notice the hugeness of the ocean before that seaside town.

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"Wow, the pictures really don't do it justice."

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"I wish the others could see this."

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Before heading into town, the twins swim a bit. And discover how tasty fish can be.

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The salt gets into their feathers. It's pretty uncomfortable and makes flying harder.

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"Pool is definitely better."

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"Maybe we should walk into town?"

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The town: Is a small town. The people here all look more like Dr. Mendez than Dr. Abraham. There's trash bins they could dig through... It might be a good idea to avoid too much attention, they look strange and who knows what people will decide to do about that.

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They stay out of sight, and go dumpster diving behind a small restaurant. Not a pleasant experience. 

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There's better places to sleep. Right outside an exhaust vent, in a big warm metal tube. Minimally smelly, even.

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Then that's where they sleep.

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A cat finds them in its usual sleeping spot and picks a fight, but after they chase it off they can sleep soundly.

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"Cats are stupid," says Tabby sleepily.

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There's new garbage in the morning. Restaurants have a high ratio of fresh-ish food to other trash.

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Despite themselves, they're kind of missing the enclosure.

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What are they going to do next?

America is to the north. It's a better place to be than Mexico, everyone seems to think so. They have the Junior Hero Programs too.

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America seems like a good enough goal for now. Zeke seems a little interested in the junior hero thing.

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There is a proper city near the US-Mexico border. A strange sort of city though - very dense and heavy right up until the border, where a barbed wire fence turns the thick city into flat desert.

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Fences aren't much of a concern.

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Then, they're over America now.

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America seems much like Mexico at the moment.

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Well, the roads are nicer. And the farms are generally nicer too, though they still vary.

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How long does it take them to find a town?

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Not long... A big city starts on the American side a few miles past. Apparently that 'wilderness' was some kind of giant park. There's a sign that says 'Welcome to San Diego'.

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"Ooh, I heard about this place."

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There are lots of different buildings, shops, lots of people walking around, et cetera. Anything in particular they look for?

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A newsagent?

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Do they know how to recognize reporters?

They can probably recognize newspapers, at least, the scientists read them sometimes.

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They've seen enough television to recognise a newstand. 

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When they land near it, the news stand's operator gives a friendly wave. "New partsies, eh? Welcome to San Diego. Bit young for powers aren't you two?"

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"Partsies?"

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"Part humans. Supers who have glowing eyes, or blue skin. Or wings. Anything that's much different from what the rest of us have."

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"And what do you mean too young?"

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"Well, nobody's really sure how powers happen, right? Same deal for part humans. Except most of the time partsies get powers when they're teenagers. You two can't be older than nine."

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"We were born this way. So were all the kids we knew."

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"Wait a minute... I heard something about that. Mad scientist down in Mexico, Jesus, were you two with that sick Lionheart ba- guy?"

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"...Yeah."

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"...Augh. Whole thing is a giant mess, innit? You two hurt?"

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"...I hurt people."

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"Sometimes it's hurt or get hurt... Why don't you two sit down? Here, split my sandwich. I was gonna have it for lunch but you look hungry."

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"Thank you."

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He goes into the stand and makes a quiet phone call to the Superhuman Activity hotline while they're distracted by food. And also child services. These two need help.

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Food is very good at distracting the kids with boosted metabolisms. 

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He's back fast, despite the operator's urging to back away and let the heroes come deal with it. "How's the grub?"

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"Great! Got anymore?"

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"Not on me. Tell you what though, the local heroes... They'll take much better care of you than that jerk Lionheart. They actually care about everyone. That's what hero means. And they're probably on their way here to come look at ya. You're not exactly sneaky, just saying."

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"Where are they going to take us?"

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"I don't know much about it. Probably an orphanage or a hospital, at least at first. Give you somewhere to sleep while they figure out what you two want, and what you need. See if Lionheart's goons hurt you in ways you don't know about. You didn't take any medicine from him, did you? Some folks need medicine every day. I'd be worried you two do, too."

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"...They gave lots of medicines, but I don't know if we needed them."

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"That's what doctors - good doctors, not evil ones, I swear - are for. They'll know all about medicines and everything else. Even if partsies are all a bit different from each other."

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"What do we do now?"

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"You can wait here if you like. If you want to go with them. Or you can fly off if you don't trust the government. Heaven knows I might not, after what you two must've gone through. I happen to know that the only flying hero San Diego has is out of town, so you can probably get away if you want to. Just thought I'd explain things straight."

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Zeke curls up and starts rocking.

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"I think you two could use a family, is the problem. The foster system doesn't have a good score on that front. But neither does wandering around the city blind and friendless. I'm not sure how to help ya. I'm really not."

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"We have a mum, somewhere. I think."

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"Family's not necessarily about who you were inside when you were babies. More like love."

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"But she sent us letters."

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"Oh. Do you... Know where to find her? If the foster system believes you, she'll probably get to take care of you two, eventually. If they can find her and verify that you're really her kids. Still a long shot."

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"Place names always got blacked out for some reason."

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"Of course they did. Hey... Heroes are probably getting here soon. Go with them or fly off, time to choose."

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Someone absolutely humming with lots of shiny magic jogs briskly up to the newsstand. She's also wearing enough metal, particularly brass, that it probably counts as a costume. "Oh, it's that mechanic villain again..."

"Ahem. Not a villain, I am an independent super. Have you ever seen me rob a store? Nothing crass like that. Couldn't help but overhear what y'all were discussing. Let me suggest a third option. Come with me. I take care of runaways and orphans, seeing as I was one. Maybe can even point you towards your mum."

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"Take care how?"

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"Give you a warm place to sleep tonight. Food. Some secondhand clothes. A listening ear, if y'all want it. And find ways to let you earn money and keep yourselves going, later on. No traps. No strings, at least for the first day."

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"What do you think?" he asks the the newsstand owner. 

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"...She's probably still a criminal, but she's not violent. More Starfall than Red Ripper." Those being the names of two relatively famous villains - the first remarkable for cat burglar style heists, and the second for going on a brutal rampage before being caught and executed.

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"Will you get in trouble if we go?"

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"Nah. I was a helpless bystander before the might of the mysterious and powerful Mecharcanist."

She smirks and tips her be-goggled hat. "Thank you kindly for the compliment."

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"...I think we should go with her. And if she's bad, we can turn ourselves into the heroes."

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He nods blankly.

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"I won't try to stop you, if you do. Tell you it's a bad idea maybe. But nobody'll stop you from leaving if I have anything to say about it. Follow me, stay close, please." She unwraps one of her super loud magic things. "This'll disguise us. We just walk down the street and look confused when the heroes run past."

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They obey nervously.

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She does an 'exasperated big sister' act when a police officer warns her of villain activity, then waves him off and keeps going.

Soon they're out of the commotion and walking through a park. "I only heard part of your story. Lionheart, mad scientist, you two were raised by him? That sucks hard."

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"We didn't know he was a mad scientist till last night. We thought he cared about us."

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"You never know how to tell who actually hates you until you get punched in the gut by it at least once. Sometimes not even then." She grimaces. "You two okay at dealing with bad smells? Tunnels? We can go another way if not."

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"We can try."

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"Tunnels are sneakier but we can get to the safehouse above ground too."

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They'd prefer above ground.

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Above ground it is. 

She leaves a wax paper wrapped package under a dumpster and retrieved one that was already there along the way. And then soon they come to what looks like an abandoned warehouse from the outside.

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Is there any magic coming off it?

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Not nearly as much as Mecharcanist, but some. "Doesn't look like much. Let's hop up to the roof." She floats up slowly.

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The fly up to the roof. 

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And down a skylight that proves to have a ladder and into a rather plain and kind of small room. There's a large bed, a small bathroom with toilet and sink, a closet piled with generic clothes, and a shelf full of packaged food, and that's about it. In terms of magic: The light, the toilet, and the bed have some. "Welcome to safehouse thirteen... That number's a joke. I don't tell anyone how many I actually have and if I did I'd be lying."

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"It's nice," Zeke lies.

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"Hey, at least you're not stealing from a dumpster to eat today. Take this - it can call me. I'll be back in an hour. Relax if you can."

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"Do you have any toys? Or books?"

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"Here, have a puzzle thingy."

It's slightly magical. Looks kind of like a rubiks cube.

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"Thank you." 

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"You're welcome. I'll be back in an hour. Sorry to run off. If something happens fly away and call me with the crystal, okay?"

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"Okay." 

He curls up on the bed while Tabby tries to engage him with the puzzle.

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Nothing particularly alarming happens until they hear two voices arguing on the street. Teenagers. The object at issue seems to be which one of them should hold their gun.

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Guns do not a happy pair of bird children make. Tabby turns on her plasma talons.

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The teenagers don't notice the noise all the way down there. And they wander off soon enough.

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"We should've gone with the heroes," whimpers Zeke.

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"It's not that bad. Not like those guys had anything to do with Mercharcanist." 

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She's back in an hour. "Sorry again. I interrupped something to help you away from the heroes but that's done now. How you two doing?"

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"Me and Zeke finished the puzzle...Okay, I finished the puzzle. Zeke still a bit shaken."

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"Okay. Hope you can calm down, Zeke. You wanna go to the main halfway house now? This place is just for a couple hours. More people there, who'll take care of you good and proper. Or you can stay here if it feels safer."

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"We should go. There were people with guns outside."

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"Ugh, those idiots again. Well. They didn't know you were here. But I'm kind of an idiot here for leaving you in this bolt-hole. Maybe I should go teach them another lesson."

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"You're not going to hurt them are you?"

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"Maybe a little. You have to sometimes, to make your point stick in the thicker skulls. Not worse than knocking them over or something if I have to. They already know I make life inconvenient for gangs bein' openly nasty around here, so just being intimidating might be enough."

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"Do what you need to do."

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"Oh but first, let me get you two to the real carehouse. We can fly the whole way, I picked up different gear and the heroes probably gave up looking for you by now."

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"Yay!" 

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"You guys must think flying is pretty great, huh?"

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"Yeah. We've always had room to fly, but never for very long."

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'Probably best to do that over the state park by the border if you're going to do it anywhere. Less likely planes or helicopters or other supers will bother you there."

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"Thanks. But first, this foretold halfway house."

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They fly there, high above the city.

It's disguised as an old arcade and movie theater. It even has some machines and two screens working. But most of the place is given over to a lot of bedrooms and playrooms. A short blond guy wearing sunglasses and a kind of ridiculous gelled-spikes hairstyle meets them when they land on the roof.

"Hey Juno. This is Tabby and Zeke. They were in Lionheart's place. Don't scare 'em. He's nice, I swear."

"Nice to meet ya two! I don't bite. We're showing the new Disney movie in a few minutes if you wanna come watch."

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"There's a new Disney movie?"

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"Yeah!" He smiles at them. "It's called Cosmic Caster, about this girl who's secretly a space princess. Walta, you oughta watch it too! Wouldn't do to leave your new charges with a shady character like me, eh?"

"Oh, stop. I'll stay though. Good break, spend time with everyone, after a day like today."

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"I didn't even know they still made new Disneys!"

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"...Oh, it's not actually a Disney. Disney the company doesn't exist anymore. But a lot of the guys who worked on Disney movies did this one, including that famous director guy. Lasseter? The Pixar guy."

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"Close enough!" He follows Juno with Tabby.

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Walta talks with someone else a bit, and makes a delivery, then joins them in the theater.

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They settle in amongst the other children and introduce themselves.

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The other kids - whose ages vary from about seven-looking to smallish teenager - mostly rush over and crowd around them eagerly. "New kids! You're partsies! What's your powers?"

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"Um, well, it's kind of weird to think we have proper powers. I guess we're a lot stronger and faster than kids our age, and we can fly! Also, these!" Cue plasma talons. 

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"I can hear magic. Any of you guys have powers?"

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The general consensus is: SO COOOL!!

Juno breaks up the barrage of questions (on what Tabby can cut, on what Zeke hears magic as and how far and how strong they are, on who their favorite hero is...) short by wondering whether he needs to cancel the movie, just as Walta walks back in.

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"They haven't answered my question!"

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"None of us have powers... Roland did but he left the urchin gang a while ago. He was too old anyway." The girl reporting this sniffs.

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"What could he do?"

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"He bends space in really weird hard to understand ways and can make paradox things. Have you heard of M.C. Escher? Stuff like that, except it falls apart pretty quick. And we should really start the movie now if we're going to do it at all. I'll pass out popcorn."

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"Cool!"

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Popcorn is delivered in smallish bags by clicking (magical, a bright xylophone tune) little helicopter things.

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Zeke does a little dance in his seat.

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"What'chu dancing for?"

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"The magic coming off the helicopter is pretty."

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"Ooh! I want to show you some stuff later! ...Movie is starting now though."

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The twins sit quietly.

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The movie opens with a rip-off of Superman. The space princess's dad sends her to Earth in a little spaceship and defiantly tells the villain-looking guy that he'll never find her now.

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Tabitha is silently asking herself the same question she had about Superman: Why don't these people ever build bigger ships?

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The movie elides over this to show the space princess's Typical Suburban Life Growing Up, and how she likes astronomy, and then jumps right into the big exciting adventurey parts after only a few minutes.

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At least the movie has its priorities straight.

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Zeke enjoyed it more than most boys his age might care to admit. He's also singing the soundtrack once the credits roll.

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Soon it will be time for a barrage of powers-questions from the other kids again. But for now, "We don't do movies all the time, and you need to do chores or other work unless you absolutely can't... But do you think you two will be okay here?"

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"We've never really had to do chores, but they can't be worse than tests or checkups."

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"The guy at the newspaper stand said we should see a doctor, though."

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"I have a doctor. Not, like, all the time, but she comes by once in a while to check up on everyone. If you want me to be there when she comes then I will."

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"That would be good. You aren't going to make us rob banks or hurt people are you?"

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"Definitely no robbing banks. That's a horrible idea. Almost definitely no hurting people, and if you do, it would be because they tried to hurt you. I won't make you. My biggest idea was to have you deliver stuff."

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Zeke perks up at this. "Does this mean we'd get to fly a lot?"

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"Yeah, if you want to do that."

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"You have to ask?"

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"Yep. I do have to ask. You never know."

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"Do you want us to do anything now?"

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"Not yet. Couple days to plan stuff for you. Plus I should let you get used to here and think about stuff."

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"What do we do till then?"

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"There's playrooms. Juno will get you a room and show you the kitchen if you wanna eat or sleep. Maybe fly a bit, if you're careful not to lead people here."

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"Okay." This honestly sounds too nice to him.

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"Nobody will complain if you want to help with some chores, but you don't have to yet."

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"Good. It's nice having things to do."

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"Yeah. Do you guys want me to stay here, or be alone? Either's fine."

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"Some time alone would be nice, yeah."

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Zeke nods.

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"Got it. You can still call me with the crystal if you need me."

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"Thank you."

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So she leaves.

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"She seems nice."

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"So did the people at the Academy..."

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"I don't think they were all bad. Dr. Abraham loved us a bit."

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"I hope Sam and the others are okay."

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Somebody shouts 'DINNER!' In the distance, banging on a pot.

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Food never fails to raise the twins' spirits. 

 

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How do they feel about Mac and Cheese? And pancakes, for some reason.

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Is it food that isn't bland healthy fare? Than it's great!

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Thry may find other kids' suggestions on what to put on their pancakes dubious. Blueberries, maybe. But... Peanut butter? Really?

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Having other kids around at all is nice. They sometimes had lunch or even early dinner with the other "samples", but this somehow feels different.

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There's plenty of free socializing, for sure. And kids joking around and teasing each other. And kids asking questions about their powers.

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They try to answer these questions as best they can. Although they are a little self conscious about their feet.

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Their feet are mostly going unnoticed. They're under the table and all.

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"You know, I never really thought we had powers."

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Huh? They're obviously partsies. They can fly. That counts as powers.

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"It doesn't seem like that when you were born that way."

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The other children are mostly of the opinion that it counts anyway.

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"Flying is funner than fun, though."

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"I bet! It must be like a rollercoaster you can aim yourself!"

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"You've been on a roller coaster?

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"Just once. At the state fair. It shook around a lot, but it was fun."

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"Then maybe!"

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"Maybe you can try one yourself sometime and compare."

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"Cool. When's the state fair?"

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"I don't know. Summer probably? There are better rollercoasters. Miss Mecha says fairground coasters are cheap and unsafe..."

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"I'd take you guys flying if I could."

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"I was in a plane once," comments one of the relatively few pale-skinned kids, "It's not as good as a roller coaster."

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"How long has Miss Mecha been taking care of you guys?"

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Answers vary: Two weeks to three years. One teen-looking boy sheepishly murmurs that he'll probably have to leave soon, but hopes they'll let her stay and work at the theater or something.

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"Is she nice?"

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"She's... She cares about us. She's kinda scary sometimes. Not always nice..."

"Sandy deserved to get kicked out. She was stealing stuff."

"But she's fair I guess, yeah."

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"Nicer than the people who're supposed to take care of kids without parents?"

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Their opinions are really really divided on the government's foster system. They don't really seem to understand it either.

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"Sorry, sorry, shouldn't have asked."

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No, now he must listen to their opinions. Don't trust them! No, they're good if you actually get into the system right. Some of the parents are good but the caretakers doesn't care. Most of the parents will treat you like a prize dog actually!

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"We've never really known our parents."

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Real parents are just like foster parents but worse. The foster system kicks out really really bad parents but nobody is doing anything to help pick your birth mom.

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"Ours sent us letters."

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Good for them!

They were nice letters, hopefully.

...But you never know what she would be like in person, mutters one small boy.

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"If she didn't like us, why would she send letters?"

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He doesn't answer. Runs off scowling, in fact.

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He feels bad and goes after him. "Did I say something? I'm sorry!"

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"Leave me alone!"

The big theater-staff-hopeful teenager grabs Zeke by the shoulder. "Let him go. He's had a rough time."

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"And I didn't help."

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He lets go of Zeke's shoulder. "It's no good to remind people of their bad stuff if they don't want to talk about it. He's skittish."

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"Okay."

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That seems to have put a big damper on the whole conversation. A lot of the kids are wandering away now.

One girl stays back. She has a prominent scar from her eye, down her nose to her lip. "My pa gave this to me. He was drunk. He said it was an accident. It wasn't."

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"I'm sorry."

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"No you're not. You didn't do it. But that's the kind of sh- stuff, Miss Mecha doesn't like me to swear in front of littles, that's the kind of stuff we all on the run from. Some worse than others."

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"...The people who took care of us tried to kill us."

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"Yeah. Sucks to be us... Is that a bad one? I can never tell."

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"I've used it a few times and not been told off. But those were the shooty guys."

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"Guess not then. Words change. It used to be really bad, I know, 'cause my grandma hated it so much."

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"Like how one of our doctors tried to get me to use heck instead of Hell."

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She snickers. "Well, you're here now. Have fun in the urchin gang." She turns to leave.

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"We'll do our best!"

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The makeshift cafeteria is now empty. There are cleaning-sounds coming from one door. 

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The twins see if they can open the door.

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Yep. Behind it is a kitchen, in cleaning-mode.

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As in, people cleaning it, or it's cleaning itself?

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A little bit of both. The dish-washing is at least partially automated, and there is a microwave-sized (magic, woodwinds to Zeke) whirling brass contraption that appears to be sorting silverware. Most of the human cleaners are kids and teens.

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the twins ask if they want any more hands.

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Sure! Put on a hairnet... Feathernet? Needs to cover anything that could break off their heads anyway. Then grab some gloves and a sponge and start scrubbing dishes, there's plenty of room on the conveyor belt.

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It's a little foreign to them, but they try their best. Zeke sings a little while they work.

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Some singing is acceptable! The 'music' of magic is still 'audible' over the heavy noise of cleanup, at least to him.

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He's trying to put words to it.

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The cleanup moves along pretty fast. It's not clear of Zeke and Tabby in particular are speeding it up much, but in about fifteen minutes most of the kids start peeling off their hairnets and leaving only a few teenagers to finish up.

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The twins follow whoever's closest to their size.

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Apparently cleanup crew get double dessert! Mmm, brownies.

 

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"We'd have to have let people poke us all day for brownies back at the academy," announces Zele between bites.

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'That's terrible!' beats 'That's better than chores!' by about three to one. One kid is confused, what academy?

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"Place where we grew up. I think they sorta made us, too."

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"Was it an evil mad science lab? Was there lava and henchmen and guard robots?"

"Shut up Billy, that's rude to ask."

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"It's okay. But no, there weren't any guard robots or lava."

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Nobody else really knows what to say here.

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"There were other kids with magic, though."

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"Like what?"

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"There were these two kids who were as strong and fast as us, and they could turn into wolves!"

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"That's cool!"

"Aww, not tigers or lions or something?"

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"There was a girl who could do that!"

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"There was also a girl who was made of watery stuff and could stretch."

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"So many partsies..."

"I heard most of the ones they got out of the place are okay."

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"Really? Did you hear about any specific ones?"

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"They said the hospital 'declined to identify any specific patients'. Sorry."

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"Oh. Still, thank you."

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"I'm worried about the kids they already loaded onto vans."

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"I don't know what happened to them... Hey, you two have powers, that means you can get more favors from Miss Mecha than us. Maybe she can find out."

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"Of course!"

They continue to chat and play with the other urchins till either bedtime or they get to speak to Miss Mecha.

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Miss Mecha doesn't come to see them specifically. She did give them that call crystal, though.

They end up in a playroom sharing a bunch of (kind of damaged and worn) toys with other kids until Juno assigns them a room and makes sure the beds have sheets and pillows.

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Are they sharing with anyone else?

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Not currently, though there are four beds in this room.

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Company would actually be nice, but they're okay. The twins climb into the beds they somehow deem their favourites, and get the best night's sleep they've had for days. 

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Some several hundred miles away, two wolf-children are in... A much worse situation than they were a couple weeks ago. After the exhausting, terrified rough ride in the dark truck they were filed into a concrete room with no furniture other than two blankets and a pillow. No tests, no medicine, no food until late at night when the harried staff tossed prepackaged granola bars at them.

Things stabilized some in the next two days. But this facility is much less secure than the old one...

The heroes find it again. And this time, while being herded into trucks, there aren't enough scientists to keep track, to make sure none of the experiments slip away. They're rushed and not keeping track. A chance to slip away under the thundering blasts and sounds of magical combat?

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"Should we?"

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She nods.

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They change. They run. 

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Almost everyone is missing from this section. The sound of a crying baby is coming from that room. They have to negotiate some stairs.

There's the exit. Fresh air!

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And they're out!

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They appear to be in the middle of a hero fight! A massive man dressed like a luchador throws himself at the well-armed scientists again and again, ignoring all the hits they toss at him. A swarm of human-shaped plant amalgamations tries to advance on and attack the scientists. There is a curious spread of ice right across the only (well, the original) gap in the barbed wire fence.

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Are there any openings they could fit through?

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Not without getting cut. Maybe around the back of the bunker?

Some of the plant-things are running towards them.

Someone shouts - frighteningly loud - in Spanish, "You're wearing down! You're running out of ammo! Surrender and live!"

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The wolves lunge at the plant-things.

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This is exactly the wrong thing to do! The plant things do a very good job of entangling them! Even when they cut through part of it, they reform as vines and stems restricting their movements.

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They start rapidly shifting between their three forms.

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This doesn't seem to have much effect except making them uncomfortable.

The scientists retreat with some kind of jetpacks, eventually. The heroes all take deep breaths before declaring, "Okay, cleanup time, tell me what you see!"

"Your plants got two of those kids, Mrs. Avocado." 

"For the last time, don't call me that you idiot!"

The luchador comes over toward them and cheerily says, "Hola, what's up? You got in the way, sorry about that!"

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Angie only growls in response. 

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"Let us go, let us go!"

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"Gardener, loosen it a bit?" Their bindings relax to something somewhat comfortable. "We can't let you go until you calm down a little or we finish cleaning up. Sorry. I'm tough, but my friends aren't."

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The growling subsides a little. The two seem content to remain their wolf-child hybrid shape for the time being. 

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He runs off and makes a quick circuit of the place.

When he comes back, "I think you can let them out now, Gardener. We didn't save anyone else except a couple infants inside." He shakes his head. "What're your names, little wolves?"

The plants release them and flop to the ground, inert.

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"Joey."

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"Angie."

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"I don't know what you guys know about the outside world, but the people who were taking care of you before... Are not real doctors. They are evil people. Children should never be kept in a cage, or made as experiments. But since you and the others are already here, we must help them as best we can. We tried to rescue you and everyone else, but they are still very strong."

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"Are the others okay? Sam and the twins?"

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"I don't know who you mean. Sorry. Were they here?"

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"Don't know. We went in the truck first."

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"Eh, no idea. Sorry. What happens next... Well, it's a bit tricky. Thing is, that fool Lionheart has so many friends in the Mexican government. We can't just put you in the foster system. He'd find you and you'll disappear back into his hands."

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"Where do we go?"

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"Our thought is to bring you to our hideout and take care of you there until something better comes along. We're heroes, you see, and we get help from American hero teams sometimes, but we have to be sneaky because bad guys don't leave heroes alone."

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"You're not going to lock us up all day? Or not give us food because we've not tested good?"

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"Nope. You get to run around as long as you don't bring too much attention to our hideout, and you get food either way. You probably will have chores though. I think it will be better than... Tests."

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The little locals seem agreeable to this. 

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"Okay! It looks like Mrs. Avocado is coming back up with the babies... Eh, don't tell her I called her that? One of our members called Crow can fly everyone to the hideout. It feels a bit strange though."

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"Can we be wolves for that? Things are less scary that way."

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"That will probably work! You don't look too big like that. You two gonna need some kind of velcro clothes or something though if you change a lot, eh?"

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Wolf cubs!

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"Follow me." He walks over to someone wearing a dramatic-looking silver and black costume, with a big... Eyebrow thing? Sticking out from his forehead. He sounds old. "So we did manage to get a couple of 'em. Good afternoon, young ones."

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"The others are dead, aren't they?" says a suddenly human Joey.

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"Some of 'em are. Not gonna lie." Luchador gives him a look, which Crow ignores. "Maybe a quarter of the ones that were here. About a third of the ones who were there in the first big mess. The rest are in hospitals or with other bands of heroes or in America or still with Lionheart."

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"...Thanks for not lying."

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"Soundwave knows this internet thing. She talks to the other teams with it. She can ask them about your friends."

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Annnnd he's a wolf again.

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Crow and Luchador wait around for Gardener and Soundwave to show up. Gardener's costume is appropriately plant-themed, and Soundwave's is all curvy patterns dominated by purple and red.She's wearing one of those giant metal headphones you see DJs and airplane pilots have sometimes. They're both carrying two babies each.

"Let's get out of here before the Lion roars again."

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The wolves have no objection.

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And then everything is black as Crow spreads his 'wings' and it feels like they're flying.

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Their legs wave a bit in the "air".

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Luchador mutters, "This is always so creepy..."

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The lycos bark a bit.

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It lasts a few minutes, then the darkness retreats to reveal a very different place. The clouds are all different too - they're on a farm somewhere. "Here we are!"

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The wolves are suddenly children again. "Is this Old Macdonald's farm?"

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Soundwave bursts out laughing. 

"...Er, no. Old Macdonald is a story character. He's supposed to look like what American farmers used to. Real farms are a bit different."

"Why don't you two come inside," Gardener says. In a tone that is more a statement than a question. "I'll make tea."

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They trot along behind her, trying to take in as much of their new surroundings as possible.

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It's wide open! There are rows of plants growing all around. There is a big barn over there that has some kind of animals in it, from the smell. There is a tractor there. It smells like the trucks, but also like mud and moss and some other chemicals.

Farms... Kind of smell. A lot. It's pretty complex and layered - fertilizer, irrigation pipes, animals... The house in the middle of the farm has some more familiar smells and objects, and is very cheerfully decorated inside. They even have a big TV in the dining room. As soon as they come inside, the heroes each take off their mask or helmet and hang it on a coat rack.

Soundwave turns it on but doesn't stay to watch it. "I'm gonna go tell the rest of ghostwind how it went. See if we can get R to pick up these babies - I found their medical docs in his computer and they kind of need a hospital."

She walks upstairs.

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If anyone particularly cares, the lycos will need clothes.

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(They've already been given towels)

"Young ones, I'm bringing clothes for you two. I'd like you to wear them when you're human-shaped and try not to destroy them by shifting straight through them. You can change in the second room on the right - that will be your bedroom."

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They comply fairly readily. They know what happens if grownups aren't obeyed promptly. 

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When they come back, "Have you ever had tea? Do you know what kind you might like? Tea is an important decision."

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They shake their heads.

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"I see. Perhaps you will form a preference soon enough. For now, I'll make a nice green."

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"Thanks."

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"You're quite welcome. Do you like the farm? Is your room alright?"

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"It's pretty!"

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"I'm glad to hear that. That room hasn't been used in... Oh, at least six years now." She looks... Sad, yet happy at the same time. Wistful.

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"Other kids?"

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"Mm-hmm. My grandchildren. Their mother... Ah, we didn't get along too much. She moved to one of the cities on the border, looking for a better life. They don't visit very often."

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"I'm sorry,"

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"Oh, don't be. I was too harsh with her, I do sort of deserve it. And it's for the best. Helping people makes you a target in these parts - I'm glad they'll not be caught in the fight if villains chase us here."

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"So, tea?"

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"Good tea takes time, little ones. Rushed tea tastes terrible. It will only be a couple of minutes more."

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Anticipation builds!

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And then they have hot green tea in cheerfully colored mugs. "I do suggest some sugar, for your first green tea. Would you two mind quesadillas for dinner?"

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"What're those?"

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"Tortillas, which are like flat bread, with warm melted cheese inside, and some butter and spices and so on. They're a bit plain, but fast to make and still good."

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"Those sound nice. And so is this tea."

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"Very good." She nods approvingly. "Do you suppose you want to stay here for a while? Perhaps help us with the less risky brand of heroics? We could get you somewhere safer if you like, instead."

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"This seems good." His sister nods her approval.

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"I should hope it's better than that that devil Lionheart gives you."

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"It's nice."

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"You seem like good kids. I want to give you two a hug."

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They seem to approve of this.

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So Gardener hugs them. Both, at the same time. "My real name is Sarina Edros. Some heroes forget their old names, or ignore them. I think it would be a crying shame to do that."

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"It's a nice name."

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A slight nod and a sip of tea. "What are your names?"

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"Joey."

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"Angie."

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"Pleased to meet you, Angie and Joey."

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They both smile.

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"Would you two like to help me cook?"

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They nod enthusiastically. 

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"Well, to make tortillas you need good flour. This is corn flour made from the corn we grow right outside. You grind it up and dry it so it has just the right consistency, see how it just barely sticks to your fingers...?"

Cooking lessons!

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This might as well be magic to the lycos, so they're quite enthralled.

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The Luchador seems bemused by this as he passes them with a large shovel. Crow has settled down to watching the TV. Soundwave is nowhere to be seen.

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Cooking is weirdly fun!

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Gardener seems as cheerful as can be teaching them. The meal is going to turn rather elaborate very fast at this rate. No simple quesadillas here.

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It certainly smells nicer than the food they're used to.

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And then, "Ah, nothing more we can do but wait for it to cook. You two should wash your hands again and then you can snack on the chips and salsa."

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Alright with them.

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Soundwave comes back downstairs. The mask is off to reveal a teenager's face now, but her headphones are still on. "Crow and I need to ferry the tiny ones to St. Pedro's. We'll be back in an hour. Hey, wolf kids, 'sup?"

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Angie's not sure how to respond to this. "Farm is nice?"

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"Hah, that's unexpected."

"Dear, why don't you tell them if there's anything you could look up. I mentioned it to you already-"

"Oh come on, I'll do it when we get back, Auntie."

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"Bird twins? Water-girl?"

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"Yeah, I'll see if anyone knows what became of them... Probably take a day or two to find anything out." She rubs her arm bashfully. "Uh, sorry."

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He looks pretty depressed, but doesn't say anything.

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"I'll do my best to find out one way or another. Those guys are your friends? Maybe tell me anything else you can remember - a name, or just more description."

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"The water girl is called Sam, and she is made of jelly. The twins are Tabby and Zeke, and they have feathers and can fly."

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She writes these things down on a little notepad. "Anything else? Skin color? Eyes and hair? How old are they?"

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"Sam is a little see through and her hair is all yellow. It's kinda shiny, like a doll's hair. The twins' have these glowing eyes and weird clawy feet, and their feathers are all colourful. And their wings are on their arms."

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"Okay, last thing, their powers? Like you can turn into wolves. That should be plenty for me to ask around and find them."

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"Zeke can hear magic, I think, and they're both really strong and fast. And the flying. And Sam can be all stretchy and turns to water when she's upset."

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Nod, nod. "I will definitely see if anybody finds them later. Do you mind us telling other heroes about you two? In case Sam and the bird kids are just as worried or something."

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"That would be good. Thank you."

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"Okay. That's later though, like I said, I have to get the babies we rescued somewhere safer for them than this old dusty farm."

Gardener looks miffed at the adjectives used there.

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"What's wrong with the farm?"

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"...Oh, nothing wrong with it. It's just, I'm," glance at Gardener's grandmotherly face, "-Um, not really suited to farm life."

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"Okay. Bye, babies."

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The babies seem to be asleep in their stroller-ish thing. They don't respond.

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"Are they going to be okay?"

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"I hope so. They've all got some kind of - ice magic in them. Lionheart's notes said stuff about it. So the hospital will have an idea how to care for them."

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"Poor ice babies."

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"They look pale," Gardener comments. "They're old enough for solid food. You gave them that corn mash I made, yes?"

"Yep. They cried a lot, but they ate it, then Lucha helped me get them to sleep."

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"Why'd Lionheart make them? Or us?"

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They both look uncomfortable. Eventually Soundwave answers, "He's a villain, right? It has to be selfish. He wants to make a magic army, or sell powers to people, or something like that."

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"Probably. He never seemed to like us much. He wasn't even nice to the twins, and they were his favourites."

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Crow looks over from the TV's quiet news report and stomps on the ground just hard enough to make an attention-getting noise.

"I listened to that hypocrite rant during the first confrontation... He's sick in the head. He really believes he's doing a good thing because doing his experiments might eventually give powers to everyone. The kind of menace who can't understand that he's so far over the line there is no possible chance of redemption."

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"Me and Angie still like being wolves. Is that okay?"

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"Mm. You can accept what you are. You will be miserable if you cannot. It was making you without knowing that it would work properly and safely, and then neglecting you so much, and doing it to so many, that was the evil act."

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"I think I understand."

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"You can ask questions around here, if you have any."

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"Do we have a mum somewhere? The twins used to talk about theirs."

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"Don't know. We didn't get all of Lionheart's records. You must have a mum somewhere, probably, but there's no telling who or where, at least for now."

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"I don't think we know the right questions."

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Crow chuckles. "Ain't that the truth. Nobody knows the right questions, it feels like some times."

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"Being answered is nice."

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"Some things we might not want to answer for various reasons, but everything you've asked so far is okay."

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"Yay."

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Crow and Soundwave leave with the babies.

Gardener makes another pot of tea, oolong this time.

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Angie enjoys it, but Joey prefers the green tea.

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She has plenty of kinds of tea. Two is enough for one day, though.

Would they mind helping with some farm chores real quick before the sun sets? It will be bathtime and then bedtime soon after.

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Not al all! Although Angie will probably sing "Old McDonald" a lot.

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This is both acceptable and amusing. Farm chores for little ones include gathering eggs! The chickens are all really nervous of them... They flap away to keep their distance and make angry clucks.

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"I don't think the chickens like us."

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"I think you're right. They're quite docile, usually, but you two are a bit wolfy. Maybe if you feed them it will help. If not I'll just have to give you different chores."

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"They do smell real nice. Not going to eat them, promise."

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"Good. We only eat chickens that have stopped laying eggs."

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"Do you get foxes here? We can kill those."

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"Oh, they've learned to leave this place alone since the last time my plants nearly choked 'em." She smiles. "Greedy things. But give them a good fright and they'll decide it's easier to find a rat somewhere instead."

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"Tell us if they get brave again."

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"I certainly will. Wild pigs are a big problem too, but I'm less sure you two can handle them alone. Those things are big and mean."

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She lets out a growl that turns into a giggle. "Hey, before bath time, could me and Joey be wolves a little?"

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"Certainly. Don't go past our fence, though, and be back at sunset."

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They strip off, hand her their clothes, and change, racing off into the distance.

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Gardener has mobile plants taking care of various tasks like carrying things around. One is even sweeping the floors. The twins come back around sunset to a parade of potatoes matching themselves onto a peeler wielded by a grape vine.

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They resume human shape.

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"We're back!"

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"And just in time for a bath too! Which one of you wants to take yours first?"

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"Is it a small bath?"

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"...Not particularly?"

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"Could we go in together?"

Joey and Angie's conception of bath time is probably less than pleasant. 

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"It's not good for people to still have bath time together as they get older. But since you're still little, I suppose it will be alright for now."

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"Okay."

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Bath happens.

She makes them dry off thoroughly before dressing in pyjamas that appeared from somewhere. And then it's bedtime, please sleep quietly.

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"Nighty night."

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"Goodnight. I will make more tea for you two tomorrow morning, so sleep well so you can appreciate it."

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For the first time in their lives, they go to sleep happily.

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Back in San Diego, the avian twins probably wake up either at dawn, or at the traditional breakfast pots-and-pans-band-and-chorus. It's very loud, and accompanied by screaming and hooting kids of various ages.

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They scream and hoot with them. It's fun.

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Miss Mecha is makes a big speech about how proud she is of the seventeen year old Carlos Erwin and his new job at a real live research lab (as a glorified janitor, sure, but still!) while the volunteer cooks whip up pancakes behind her. "We all helped him when he was down, and now look at 'em! Three cheers for Carlos!"

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"Yay, Carlos!"

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Some of these kids don't seem very enthused. In fact, aren't there a lot more people here now than there were yesterday?

Walta steps off her makeshift podium and starts talking quietly to various individuals. Most of the children rush the pancake-line.

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"Where'd all these other people come from?" whispers Zeke to another child.

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"Hey, don't look at me. I'm just here for the pancakes. Half of us aren't even part of the urchin gang, just getting a hot meal on the way to school."

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"School?"

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"Yeah, school. You have to go to school if you live with parents. Guess it's different for partsies, you lucky..." The crowd pushes him away, still mumbling.

The smell of pancakes is so good and the sizzle of batter in the pan, of a line of them being poured and flipped, being served with flourishes to kids that rush to a table of toppings that is quickly becoming quite a bit of a mess - it's a surprisingly cheerful scene even with the childish shouting and roughhousing, and the nervous demeanor and immediate departure of many people here.

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Zeke is still wondering why partsies don't get to go to school.

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While his sister is enjoying the noise.

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Apparently "home-school" is a thing. One of the girls at this table is being made fun of because of it.

Miss Mecha is helping serve the pancakes, still.

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Zeke does not approve of anyone being made fun of. 

"You shouldn't tease her for something she didn't choose."

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"But home school is so stupid! You barely learn anything compared to real school."

Home Schooled Girl pipes up, "My ma needs me to make her remember her pills, shut up already!"

"Useless mom too-" Then the bully shuts up, because he received a fist to the face. The two are rolling on the ground clawing and screaming at each other in seconds.

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Zeke eeps, and tries pulling the two apart.

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Walta's brass robots, the same ones who distributed popcorn yesterday, help. They are quickly separated, glaring at each other.

"Calvin! That's your second strike. You know you can't start fights here."

"She started it!"

"Because you teased her about homeschool, right?" Calvin mutters something. "What was that?"

"I insulted her mom," he mumbles. 

"I'd like you to apologize. Both of you."

Calvin looks at the floor.

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"Did I do something bad?"

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"No, you're fine, Zeke. You tried to stop the fight. Calvin? Mary?"

Mary gives in first. "I'm sorry I punched you. I shouldn't have lost my temper even if you deserved it."

Calvin huffs. "I'm sorry for making fun of you and your mom, I guess..."

"And now," Miss Mecha tells them, "You're going to clean up the mess you made together and then Calvin gets to school before he's late." The two children assent slightly grumpily.

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"Miss Mecha, could I go to school some time?"

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"That's kind of a hard question. If you go to school, the heroes will maybe come and look for you. If they find you, you'll get put in the foster system and I don't know if you'd like it. But it'd be very hard for you to go to school and be sneaky. Maybe... Maybe I could make something to help. Something like what we used yesterday. I'm not sure."

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"Thanks for thinking about it." 

He goes to rejoin his sister.

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She follows. "How are you liking the place so far? Any problems?"

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"Being with people is nice. It can get a little noisy, but that's better than everything being all quiet and lonely."

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"I'm glad to hear it. Juno says you two are pretty well-behaved. The room we gave you yesterday was temporary - we can give you two your own room, or put you in one with two other people. And I want to start having you deliver stuff for me today or tomorrow if you don't mind."

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"I think company would be nice. And that would be cool. Have to ask Tabby, though."

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"If I can find the time today to work on a sneaky-thing for you two... I'd like for you to come to my workshop and help, I think your magic hearing has potential."

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"Neat! I'll be there!"

 

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"Let's find Tabby, I wanna get things organized with you two before I have to head out."

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Tabby is holding court over a gaggle of fascinated children.

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"Having fun showing off, are we?"

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"The people want to know, Miss Mecha!"

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"Oh, not you too! Call me Walta, or Mecharcanist. I'm not a giant robot."

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"What's wrong with Miss Mecha?"

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"'Mecha' means a Japanese style giant robot to a lot of people. I don't build mechas, I'm not a mecha. It rolls off the tongue but I don't like it."

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"Okay, Walta."

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"Anyway, you two want to start earning some money? I have some things to get delivered, if so."

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Yes! Television has taught them that money equals success! Where do they need to go?

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They need to follow her to a back room. "I sell my little gadgets to a bunch of shops around the city. I can make complicated ones much more easily, because of my power, and shops like buying cheap things." She leads them to a box that is... Very loud, magically. "This should weigh about fifteen pounds. Think you guys can fly with it?"

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"We can try."

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"Nothing irreplaceable in there?"

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"If you can get it to thy guy who's buying it, he owes you one hundred and fifty dollars. Thirty dollars are yours. So not irreplaceable, but a little bit expensive."

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"Um, Walta, could we ask you a favour? You can keep the thirty dollars if you want."

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"What's the favor?"

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"You know that guy who made us? He also made other kids. A bunch of them were our friends. We just want to know if they're safe."

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"Hm... I can have a look. I'll talk to the ghostwind network. They're like, secret hero teams in Mexico. Maybe some of them found them. Come to think of it, I should probably tell them you two found me and are safe, mind if I do that?"

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"Yeah, that'd be good."

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"Okay. And you still get the money. That's how work works. The guy's name is Rito, at Rito's Magic Shoppe. With two p's, because reasons. Let me show you where you need to deliver it on this map, and I'll give you the thing we used yesterday to look inconspicuous... If people bother you, just fly away with the box."

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"Post birds away!" 

They take flight.

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They can carry the box.

Rito's Magic Shoppe is in a sketchy corner of a retail center with a cracked and cratered parking lot.

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The twins knock on the door politely.

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"Look at the sign!"

The sign says 'OPEN'.

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"Delivery!"

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"From Walta!"

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"Oh, the Mecharcanist. Come in, come in."

Rito's shop has all sorts of doodads on the walls. One person is at the back, browsing 'good luck charms'. "Let's see the stuff. How much today?"

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"A hundred and fifty dollars...plus tip." That's a thing she's seen in movies!

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"Please ignore my sister."

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He raises his eyebrow at the idea of a tip, then takes the box and opens it. Starts counting things. "Right, all here."

He opens the register with the classic cha-ching sound, and counts out one hundred and fifty five dollars. "You do get a tip, 'cause this is earlier than I usually get it on Saturdays."

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"Thank you, sir." 

 

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"Just doing what post-birds do."

The two of them bid their goodbyes, and make their exit.

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The shopping center is still kind of empty. A big SUV blasting annoyingly loud rap music drives by.

They presumably fly back to Walta's movie theater-place. She's in that same workshop room, making magic things.

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"Packages got their okay!"

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Zeke is doing a dance to the magic stuff. "The guy gave us some extra money, do we keep it?"

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"Yep, you keep it."

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"Thanks. I like your magic stuff."

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"Want to learn how to make some? Or you, Tabby?"

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They both nod.

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Cue magic lesson! How much magic do they already know? Zeke: Some. Tabby: Almost none. She refreshes them both on the basics. Make a light~

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Zeke manages it in a couple of gos. 

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It takes Tabby a fair bit more.

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"People will say making magic things is super complicated, but it's not really. Basically any magic you can do on your own, you can enchant as an effect. You just have to hold the object you want to enchant and push the right way..."

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Could Zeke try this?

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Here is a penny! Copper is good at holding light.

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He succeeds! The dance of happiness can commence!

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"Should I show you my special thing?"

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"Sure, what is it?"

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Plasma talons!

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"That's a nice power. I don't see any obvious uses for it, except maybe see if you can weld with it? Want to try that?"

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"Yes!"

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"Welding is serious business. I'll have to set up some stuff and give you a safety lecture first. I'm going to go check my e-mail and see if they found your friends for now."

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"Thank you. Can we go play with the others while you do that?"

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"You should come with me - I still don't know the names or descriptions of anyone you're looking for. You can tell me and I can ask real-time."

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"That's a better idea."

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So they head to the computer room. Walta does some clicking and typing. "Okay... Some of them definitely died, and we have names and descriptions. Some of them are definitely ok. Some of them we don't know either way. Can you describe who you're looking for?"

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Well, at least some of them are okay. "There's Sam. She's like made of jelly and turns into water when she's upset. She has glossy yellow hair, and is a little see through."

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"And there's Angie and Joey, they're little redheads who turn into wolves." 

They describe a few other children, but those three seem to be at the front of their minds.

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At length, "Sam is okay. She's in a hospital in Tennessee. Angie and Joey are with a hero team in Mexico..." Most of the rest of the named friends are okay in various places. One is, unfortunately, dead. Two are missing.

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She's honestly overjoyed that any of them survived. "Can you tell them all we're okay?"

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"I already did. Sam's nurse says she's really happy you two are okay. The people taking care of Angie and Joey aren't online right now so they'll find out later."

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"Good."

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"You guys go play. Maybe you should see Juno for lessons. He does a not-school after lunch every weekday. It's not school, but it's kind of like it."

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Perhaps expectedly, they go play first.

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Various playmates and toys are available! Though the 'tidy up when you're done' rule is well enforced.

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Any of the toys magic?

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A few. Mostly they're plain old toys. Puzzles, blocks, dolls.

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"Anyone want to do a puzzle?"

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This six year old wants to do a puzzle! Her dyed-hair teenage sister follows her over to the table, their usefulness to the endeavor will be questionable. A couple other kids join.

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He efficiently assigns people to find corner and edge pieces. 

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Doing puzzles is fun! People come and go. They talk about the city's problems. Pretty much everyone here is dirt-poor or in trouble with the law or their families in some way.

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They somehow expected the outside world to be a little...nicer.

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"Oh, this is the seedy underbelly of San Diego. We're the ones who're hurting the most in the whole place. If you're part of the middle class, life is good."

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"You're all nice, though."

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"Nice and lucky don't always match up, sadly enough."

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"But we're lucky to have found you."

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"The whole city's less fortunate folks are all lucky it has Miss Mecha in it. She runs places like this, she keeps the kids out of all the trouble, she does her best to mend other stuff."

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"She told our friends we were okay."

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"The rest of the kids from that bastard Lionheart's labs? Good to hear. It warms the heart to see people come together over stuff like this."

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"I hope you guys get to meet some day. Couple of them turn into wolves!"

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"Maybe we will. Supers get around more than regular folks, you know?"

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"Especially when they can fly!"

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Everyone laughs.

The puzzle's edges are done. The inner parts are slower.

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"We will solve them on the beaches!"

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"We will put up a sign not to mess it up and go to afternoon lessons and finish it later."

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How does the education here compare to at the lab?

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Much more crowded and less strict. It's Juno wandering around teaching some twenty kids of various ages and attentiveness. Juno asks what kind of things they've learned so far for a few minutes, then they get a book and a list of questions he thinks they should think about while they read it, and an invitation to raise their hand whenever they have a question. The book is about the history of North America.

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Zeke finds the fact they're technically Mexican funny for whatever reason.

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Does he find the story of Native Americans suffering horribly at the hands of colonists funny? At least it's clinical about it and there's happier bits. Like the Declaration of Independence. That is a Big Deal according to this book.

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That makes him sad. History is meaner than his tutors made it sound.

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Yeah. History is kind of like that.

Juno tries to cheer him up with the old adage of "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

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This oddly enough seems to work.

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They can learn very effectively. 

Mecharcanist looks approving when she finds them studying. "I'm ready to teach you welding later if you want now, by the way."

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"Yay!"

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Well, back to learning. After maybe another hour and a half Juno calls everyone together to have a group discussion. Everyone is asked to say the most interesting thing they learned today.