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July 2012

Freedom City was an especially alien place in the summertime, given that Citizen had come here from one of his too-few visits back home. The heat poured off the naked alien sky overhead in a hot, moist blanket of humidity, the bizarre scents of humanity en masse rising from above the streets as he wafted his way through the sky towards Claremont Academy. Citizen had been in contact with Miss Americana since his departure, of course, as well as sending emails to his friends, but this was the first time he'd been back on Claremont's campus since his departure at the end of the formal school year.

It was also the first time he'd brought his friend. "Hey, come here, Lora!" called Sharl, snapping his fingers towards the sky and bringing forth his dog! Lora was a black and brown canine from the German Shepard breed, an alien creature who'd had to board with a programmed sitter at Miss A's placewhile he visited a city where such creatures would have been an alien menace. But here on the streets of Freedom City, Lora was just another dog. It had taken some work to bond with the creature, but she was a nice doggie. Gina had made her well.

Lora jumped up and licked her young master's face for a moment, making him sputter and reset his glasses, before he affectionately scratched behind her ears and went to look for his friends, cyber-dog in tow. Lora's holographic paws skittered lightly as he headed up the steps into the dorm building that he and Koshiro had shared.

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The dorm was much quieter and emptier during the summer, with most of the students at home and the remaining few out doing their own thing during the morning. Koshiro's summer classes were all in the evening, perhaps in an attempt to curb his more antisocial tendencies, so he could reliably be found sleeping in and lazing his way through the mornings before heading to his afternoon job in the cafeteria. True to form, he answered Sharl's knock in boxers and a wrinkled t-shirt, his face shadowed with stubble. He blinked once in surprise. "Hey, you're back. I thought you were gonna be home most of the summer." He stepped back from the door to let Sharl in, then took a few more, quicker steps when he saw Lora. "Jeez, you brought a dog in here?" He gave the big, toothy animal a wary look.

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Lora looked up at Koshiro and woofed quietly before bending down to sniff his feet with a dog's curiosity. "Yeah, this is Lora. Remember I was talking about her? I finally had Miss A put her together before I left." Sharl reached down and skritched behind the dog's ears, and up close Koshiro could see the holographic dog glowed faintly just like Sharl did. "She hasn't had a chance to run around in Tronik much, so I thought I'd test her program in Freedom City. So far, so good." He grinned. "Whaddya think? She can do anything a real dog can, and she won't defecate on your lawn. Well, not your lawn, anyway."

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Backing up further would've meant actually climbing up into his bunk, which left Koshiro cornered for the moment. He'd met German Shepherds before, in situations that involved a lot more snarling and running, so he didn't entirely rule out scaling the bunk, but the loss of face from doing so would be nearly untenable. Instead, he glanced down at the dog, then back to Sharl. "Yeah, nice. Very, uh, realistic. A little big for the room, though. Maybe you can have her go run around in some computer field or something?" Moving slowly so as not to draw the dog's attention, he reached for his jeans and pulled them on, which at least made him feel slightly less vulnerable.

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"Sure, Koshiro, sure," said Sharl. "Here, girl, go fetch the stick!" He waved his hand and a stick snapped into existence in his hand, much to the barky interest of the now-very excited dog. "Go get it!" He threw the stick at his laptop, still safe on his desk in the room, and the dog dived after it without a second thought. "She'll be fine in there," he said with a wave of his hand, "I made a whole bunch of other stuff for her to do, like dog parks and things. I've got to say, I see why humans bond with those animals so easily. They're very affectionate. So, how's summer school?" he went on. "They letting you out of here any?" He knew Koshiro had his own ways of getting around, but you never knew who might be listening here!

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Koshiro shrugged, relaxing back to indolence now that the dog was romping around on the computer screen instead of sniffing his feet. "Boring as hell," he told his roommate, even as he pulled off his sleep shirt and grabbed a clean gray t-shirt from the drawer. Like usual, the room was surprisingly neat for a teenage boy's, one good habit that he'd held onto from juvie. "I'm making a little money anyway, enough to send home. Flipping burgers in the caf, tutoring freshmen history and geometry. It's too damn hot here to go out at night anymore. I don't know how people stand living here their whole lives." He made a face, then let it go. "How was your trip home?"

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"It was good," said Sharl a little diffidently. "I missed my parents, and my sister, and buildings that are tall enough. But it's weird going back to being somebody's kid; I kind of got out of the habit of that living out here." He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and added, "I had to explain to some of my extended family why I'm 'wasting my potential in the plankton fleet' when I could be working for the good of the city, but I guess that's the life of a superhero." He smiled thinly, then added, "People are still talking about Citizen's alien friends, by the way. The new way of being cool is dressing up like one of the aliens. This girl down the hall from us has started wearing Kimber's hair, it's kind of weird." He occasionally tossed a ball to Lora as he talked, the holographic rubber ball 'bouncing' right in and out of the computer screen. "How about you?"

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"It was too short," Koshiro said brusquely, "but it was nice to get the visit. I got to be there for my sisters' birthday party. They're old enough driver's ed this year, so that would be scary except they're never going to have an opportunity to practice with a real car. " Koshiro was generally close-mouthed about his family back in Detroit, but Sharl knew him better than most of the other students. Not that it was saying much. "My mom had this stupid summer cold thing," he said with a frown at the memory. "Except she's basically had it all summer because she's too damned stubborn and busy to rest. I told her she should go to the doctor, but she won't." He shoved his dirty clothes into the hamper harder than necessary. "I need to get back there to stay, so I can help out. This sucks."

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"That sucks, man," said Sharl, who understood Koshiro's feelings pretty well. Maybe it was easy enough for him to go home, if he didn't mind going through several different computer networks and waiting hours, but he was still far from home too, and worried about a family in their own way almost impossibly distant. "If you ever get like a weekend off for one of these hlidays, I can get you on a really fast plane Miss A owns, or something...I actually had an idea," he went on, "for something we could do sometime in the near future if you're interested. You know how the Next-Gen always uses their base under campus, and half the Irregulars hang out at that old hotel thing?" He spread his hands. "What if we got a headquarters for Young Freedom? A real headquarters, not just the common room downstairs. I've been using Miss A's files, and I've got a list of old headquarters in and around the area, and some even further, we can visit."

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Koshiro frowned at that, scratching his chin as he rustled up his keys and stuck them in his pockets. "A headquarters?" he asked, not sounding exactly convinced. "How do we even know there's going to be a team still in the fall?" he pointed out. It was too hot for a hoodie or jacket, so he tucked a few squares of paper into his wallet, just in case, then shoved the wallet in his back pocket. "It's not like we've even got a leader anymore since graduation, and CT was our big gun, whatever else he was. We start screwing around out there, we're liable to get our asses handed to us." At Koshiro's beckoning, a handful of cranes took off from the desk, fluttering into the air before obediently flattening themselves into his hand. He stuck them into his pocket too, then headed for the door. Sleeping through breakfast was nice in a lazy way, but left him ravenous. "You talked to the girls about it?"

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"No, I haven't had the chance. I don't think Kimber even has a computer, and I...well, I dunno, just showing up in Indira's computer would be rude." He winced, remembering his most recent talk with Gina on that subject. "And yeah, you're right about the team. But you know, I don't want to get sucked into the Terminus like whatever happened at Eve's party back in April. I'm a living computer program who can break machines by grabbing them, you're a badass origami master who once broke a universe with paper cranes. Maybe we're not fighting space gods, but we're pretty awesome." As they walked out of the building, he snapped open a holographic piece of paper, the sheet showing a list of addresses and GPS locations. "Do you know if they're around, though? They'd really come in handy for this, and we know we can trust them."

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Indira's home was simple, quiet, and utterly unremarkable: a simple little house in a simple little neighborhood full of simple little buildings buildings so alike that they may as well have been built out of kits.

She answered the door herself, looking a bit out of sorts, but with a mood that brightened considerably on seeing her friends. "" she announced, in Hindi, over her shoulder - not giving her unseen parents a chance to reply. ""

She stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind her, slumping; after a moment of hesitant waiting like she expected it to open back up again and swallow her whole, she stood up straight, took a deep breath (for show, of course, but it disguised her quiet re-settling of her own mass), and set her shoulders. "Thank you. I do not know why you are here, or what we are doing, but as long as it is not here I am in. I believe I would do anything to be out of that house for a while. ....what are we doing?"

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As Indira and the boys left the house, the friendly German Shepard that had been following them at a respectful distance came trotting up to investigate their new friend. "Indira, this is Lora. She's a holographic dog." He'd gone to retrieve the dog after breakfast, figuring that since he could pop her back into the system if there was a problem, and feeling bad about leaving her in the computer. It was irrational to care that much about a simulated program, but Gina had dropped some pretty strong hints about caring for the animal he'd wanted. "Lora, say hello!" With no fear of the shapeshifted alien, the dog gave a woof and nuzzled her leg. "Good dog." Sharl looked over at Indira and said, "We're here on a mission for the team," he said with a young man's seriousness. "I have a selection of potential team headquarters for us to explore for next year."

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Koshiro's snort of laughter suggested he completely understood Indira's eagerness to get out of her house for awhile. Indira's house was nice, and in a nice neighborhood, but everything about it screamed boring, conformist, and without the least shred of historical interest. Just to look at it, you'd never imagine that aliens lived there, which was, he supposed, exactly the point. "Sharl thinks we need to have a headquarters, and his boss is loaded enough to pay for one. I figure it can't hurt to check things out, right?" He was still giving Lora the holodog a respectful berth, but at least the creature was quite a bit less intimidating when it wasn't up close and entirely too personal. "We thought everybody should be in on it, though. You got any idea where Kimber is? We didn't see her floating around the dorm anywhere."

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"A hound!" Indira seemed genuinely pleased, kneeling down for a moment to gently pet the German Shepard's head. "Domestic home animals are so very interesting! Cows and sheep are simply large, stupid animals that deserve to be eaten, but dogs and cats...they are tame, but retain...you might say 'pride', I think. She is like you? It is a good choice, for a pet - she is very convincing."

She stood back up, reluctantly leaving Sharl's pet alone to focus back on the task at hand. "A headquarters could be very useful - and it would be a good excuse to sneak away, even during the school year. I believe I know where Kimber may be...."

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On the way to the cafe, his dog trotting along behind them, Citizen commented to the others. "I have some people we should approach about the team for this coming year, but that's something we should deal with after we get our headquarters. Corbin and Eve went looking for us last year, the least we can do is do the same this year. There's a legacy in our team that we should try and keep around." He put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the alien sun for a moment, then joked, "Besides, we need more than one human on the team. There's got to be a weight limit or something, especially if we want to go to nice parties now that we don't have Eve."

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Koshiro's brow furrowed at that. He was already leery about the idea of getting new people on the team, but he hadn't exactly stopped to consider the fact that he was the only human on the team, and the only one who did things like breathe air and eat normal food. He might need some more votes on his side in future debates on how missions were planned. Come to think of it, he'd better take a hard look at all the places Sharl was considering for headquarters. "Yeah, I guess we could maybe use another person or two, if they're good enough," he allowed. "Who did you have in mind?"

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"I don't know if you know Mali," he asked Koshiro and Indira, naming the Thai martial artist who was one of the few Claremont students without powers. "I've trained with her; she's very good. I've looked up her family and they have a big reputation back in Thailand; that might help if we ever have to go traveling. And she's...nice. Kirsten's good too; that Australian girl? My boss and I worked with her on a big case out in the Fens and she was there in a pinch." He grinned. "Hey, maybe we'll get to take more field trips with lots of students from other nation-states. I don't know about you, but there's a lot of world out here I still want to see." Both girls were pretty cute, at least from his own perspective of thinking most girls his age were cute, and he figured that would be a benefit for Koshiro, at least.

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"I do not believe I have met either of them - perhaps I need to socialize more?" Indira shrugged, putting her hands in her khaki pockets; it wasn't that she went out of her way to not meet people, but she had to admit that most of her time outside of class had been spent alone or with her team. Socializing with humans was still...weird, and she was at least sort of trying to not let her true nature slip out that much.... "If worst comes to worst," she jokingly added, "I believe I weigh enough to account for myself and at least one other person. Does the weight limit operate on an average?"

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Indira led the boy into Riverside and to a coffee shop with signage proclaiming it the Black Petal Cafe. Inside the cozy little shop they found the expected number of young people chatting over lattes or typing away on laptops while munching absently on biscotti. In the far corner, tucked away from any of the large windows, Kimber sat with a full coffee on the table in front of her, long since cold, and a russet and burnt sienna tabby perched on her shoulders dozing. Affecting the appearance of a living girl, her matching denim jacket and jeans paired with a neon pink top with abstract shapes strewn across it didn't do the best job of blending in, but nobody seemed to suspect that there was a ghost in the room. Although she had a worn paperback next to her drink, she was much more interested in watching the people around her and so immediately noticed when her friends appeared in the doorway.

Jumping up, she waved one hand over her head excitedly. "Hey guys! Over here!" The sudden movement roused the cat on her shoulders, who adjusted his balance and butted his head into her cheek reproachfully. Lowering her hand to scratch him about the ears, she began to rush forward but pulled back when her free arm wandered into the path of a sunbeam streaming through the window and was immediately revealed in its true, translucent blue-tinted form. Cringing and looking about quickly, she grabbed her umbrella from the table, its handle sliding towards her palm just before she actually grasped it, and raised the black shield between her and the light. Hurrying over the others once she was properly concealed, the poltergeist's eyes lit up at Sharl's new companion. "Ohmigosh, puppy! Hi!" Crouching down with her hands on her knees she beamed at the German Shepard. "Oh, you're gorgeous, yes you are! What's her name?!"

The tabby still resting on her jacket's shoulders sniffed cautiously in the dogs direction, leaning closer. "Mrrrowr," he decided definitively, the hair about his neck sticking up a bit as he raised his haunches to appear larger and attempted to stare down the larger animal.

"Avro! Be nice," Kimber chided, wagging a finger at the feline and giving him a stern look.

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"This is Lora," said Sharl, bending down and petting the dog's head to reassure her in case the unfamiliar person spooked her. "She's a German Shepard Miss Americana programmed for me." Sure enough, on close inspection, the dog had the faint air of unreality Sharl had, but seemed friendly enough despite that. She leaned close and sniffed Kimber curiously, then whined a little and gave her what might have been a canine's version of a suspicious look. Distracted by the cat, she turned and whuffed, obviously dog enough to know the face of the enemy despite her good nature. Sharl stayed down and kept reassuring the dog, remembering being an alien in a place like this.

"We've come on team business," he said to Kimber when he was sure his dog wasn't going to cause a scene by barreling right through her cat. "Are you free for the day? We may need to do some...traveling." He had a feeling the exuberant psychic fragment would be up for adventure, but they were all students, after all.

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Koshiro took in the cafe with some interest, especially noting the presence of several attractive girls around his own age, drinking coffee or chatting with friends. He was busy right now, and there were way too many potential monkeywrenches around to make a move anyway, but there was always another day. He took a closer look at Kimber when he realized she had a new pet as well. A housecat was definitely more his speed than a giant dog. "Hey, kitty," he said to the cat, voice quiet and surprisingly friendly. "That dog's not gonna hurt you. Are you nice?" He offered the cat his hand to sniff, then cautiously extended his fingers to pet its head.

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"Avro is very nice," Indira confirmed. She was caught between wanting to pet Lora and wanting to pet Avro, but with both animals occupied she settled for standing in place and casting her eyes around the cafe. The tall teenager was almost sad she didn't have a human appetite or metabolism - coffee wouldn't do much but make a mess if she had to shapeshift in a hurry later on, but she'd heard good things.

"I very much like the stinger on his tail," she belatedly added, turning her attention back on the 'tabby'. "It is very fearsome, though his poisonous spines are neat as well. It is a shame they must be hidden."

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Avro leaned forward from Kimber's shoulders and sniffed Koshiro's fingers curiously. Evidently the origami artist passed the rigorous inspection because the small creature craned his neck to rub the top of his head against the extended digits, quietly purring with a surprisingly brassy tone, like a low, rattling note being held on a trombone. "Oh wow! He really must like you, he usually tries to bite new people!" It wasn't until Indira's offhand comment that anyone noticed the oddly prehensile way his tail was shifting about, coiling and draping itself over the poltergeist's opposite shoulder. "He's not really just a cat," she whispered conspiratorially, giving Koshiro a terribly obvious wink and motioning for quiet.

Giving the leery dog and apologetic look as she rose, Kimber gave Sharl a broad smile. "I love traveling, you know that!" she confirmed enthusiastically. "I was working on a book report, but that can so totally wait!"

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"Hmmm." Lora was definitely growing uneasy around the strange cat, whuffing and whining as if to draw her master's attention to the strange creature. Sharl trusted that Kimber wouldn't have a dangerous pet, but explaining that to a dog wouldn't be easy. "Hang on just a second, I'm going to take her outside." He reached down and fastened on Lora's iridescent blue leash, pulling the unhappy dog along behind him as he headed outside, carefully keeping her from bolting through the wall. Once there, he headed for the alley next to the shop where he petted the dog before snapping his fingers in the air and opening an electronic gateway back to his laptop, where green fields awaited. "We'll talk later. You go eat your steak," he told her, and sure enough the dog obediently trotted through.

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