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Monday, April 13, 2015

10:30 AM

Earth

 

It was a Monday morning when Erin made it back to Earth, nearly six full weeks after she'd taken off for her first space adventure since her Curator-enforced vacation. She blasted in out of a clear blue sky, her life-support suit holding in both her oxygen supply and her wildly triumphant shout as she and Redbird made their re-entry at white-hot speeds. As soon as they dropped enough altitude for there to be atmosphere, she pulled off her helmet and drew in a deep lungful of air. "God, it's so good to be home!" she crowed. "Space is nuts. Let's leave it to the aliens for awhile," she suggested to her AI companion as they arced towards the familiar skyline of Freedom City. 

She was half-tempted to dive off the motorcycle at twenty-thousand feet and splash down in the Great Bay, wash away the grime of a month and a half without a proper water bath. Sonic cleaners did an adequate job of keeping dirt and smell at bay, but she never truly felt clean after using one. That would wait, though. Instead, she steered the motorcycle northward, towards home. "I guess maybe we should've called ahead," she decided. "He'll probably be in school at this hour. But that just means we can surprise him when he gets back."

In just a few minutes they were touching down on the smooth paved roundabout in front of Hunter Manor, which was currently picturesque with a full spread of carefully tended flowerbeds and green lawn. Erin took another moment to enjoy solid Earth beneath her feet, then vaulted the front steps to go in the front door. "Hello, I'm home!" 

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The Hunter that stepped into the foyer to greet her was not the one Erin was expecting, although his footsteps were just as silent across the hardwood floors of the manor and his expression just as carefully neutral. "Ms. White." It had been quite a while since she'd seen Trevor's father, Ted Hunter, but he looked exactly the same as she recalled, having evidently inherited the stubborn defiance of passing time that made his own father so vital even in old age.

Well, perhaps not exactly the same; there was something about the corners of Ted's eyes, something the reminded her of Trevor when he'd gone two nights without actual sleep and was starting to hit the wall. He looked tired. Even his movements were a little off as he brought a thumb and forefinger to his eyes. "Tt. Pardon. Erin. Good that you're back."

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Erin backed up two instinctive steps when she saw an unfamiliar person in the house, one hand reaching for her bat before her brain caught up and reminded her of who this stranger was and why he had a right to be in her home. It still didn't make any sense, but she dropped her hand and relaxed her posture a touch. "Mr. Hunter," she replied, because she didn't know what else to call him and "Ted" seemed way too familiar.  She was grateful that she'd decided against the quick ocean dip and coming home dripping wet. "I really wasn't expecting to see you here. Trevor didn't mention you had a visit planned." From what she knew from Trevor, Ted never planned any visits to Freedom City at all. "Where is he?" 

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"Out. Back shortly," Ted explained in his terse manner, words almost seeming to resent passing over his lips as he added, "Wasn't planned." Out of his office and no longer behind his desk he looked like a man acutely aware of the space he was occupying, his frame perhaps an inch shorter than his son but significantly broader at the shoulder, broader than Erin could ever imagine Travis having been even in his prime. The expertly tailored suit he wore helped, slate grey with a faint, almost invisible pinstripe, but he still looked profoundly uncomfortable to be standing there talking to her.

"This kitchen looks as though it was stocked from a supermarket," an exasperated female voice criticized from down the fall before Janet Pryce-Hunter rounded the corner, raven black hair pinned up over the neck of a blood red blouse in a style that rode the line between thoughtlessly casual and impossibly chic. She paused in her tracks as she saw Erin, a mere beat as she assimilated new information and carried on. "I didn't hear you arrive, dear. Has anyone...?" Ted made a flat sound in the negative in the back of his throat and Janet pressed her lips together into a thin line in response. "That may be best. Why don't you sit down, dear?"

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Erin's eyes widened as soon as Janet rounded the corner. She took another backwards step, putting her back against the front door for all it didn't make her feel any more secure. Neither Ted nor Janet had ever visited the Manor in the three years she'd lived there, nor as far as she knew, had they spent any time with each other. That they were both here at the same time bespoke either alien doppelgangers or something worse. "I don't want to sit down," she said immediately, her fingers curling as though around an invisible bat. "I want to know what's going on. What the hell are you doing here, either of you? And where's Trevor? Did something happen?" she demanded, her voice harsh.

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"That's fine, dear, just a suggestion," Janet told her placatingly, raising her hands as if worried she'd frighten Erin off and moving slowly from where the foyer met the hall toward Ted. "I do think--"

"Don't handle her," Ted interrupted tersely, irritable impatience creeping into his otherwise carefully neutral tone. He quite obviously did not wish to be there talking to either of them but between Erin's terse demand for answers and Janet's attempts to ease into the topic at hand it was the latter that seemed to bother him more.

The raven haired woman didn't so much bristle as give him a look that masterfully managed to be something other than the glare it implied. "Empathy is not the same thing as manipulation, Ted. You can't just--"

"My father passed." Ted articulated the words clearly, almost painstakingly, as though worried that he might be forced to repeat himself otherwise. He met Erin's eyes directly but had some difficulty focusing on the young woman, looking slightly past her and through the door she'd backed herself against. His lips parted slightly, about to say something else but closed again in silence. Next to him Janet let out a breath of sigh and clasped her hands in front of her.

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There was a beat of complete silence, at once brittle and overwhelming, like the vacuum of space when Redbird's engines had gone quiet and Erin had held her breath. She felt like she were there now, like she couldn't catch a breath or catch hold of any sensible thought. "He... passed?" she finally asked, her voice a soft plea that she didn't even recognize. She wrapped her fingers around her collapsed bat, hoping it would make her feel stronger. "How- I mean, he can't. He was just a little sick when I left, and Trevor was going to keep an eye on him till he got better. And he was healthy before that, and people don't just..." She trailed off because that was patently untrue. People just sickened and died all the time, and there was never any reason, and only the coldest of comfort. "When did it happen?" she asked instead, listening to the echo of the thousand-thousand miles between her brain and her voice. 

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Ted shifted to turn halfway away from Erin, unclear how to respond to Erin's emotions at the same time he was keeping a tight lid on whatever he was feeling himself. "Six days past." There was a beat of silence that suggested he was going to leave it there before he added a little more quietly, "Peaceful. In his sleep." His mouth twisted slightly like he'd bitten into something with an unexpectedly sour flavour, unsure what to make of it. Knowing that Travis' end had been as comfortable as possible should have been a comfort but given the life he'd led and the energetic zeal that had characterized the man it seemed oddly incongruous.

Janet took another small step forward, glancing briefly at Ted before turning her full attention to Erin. "Travis took a turn for the worse about a three weeks ago. He had a number of acquaintances with rather specialized fields, as you may have realized, but in the end it was just his time." She frowned a bit at that, the rote phrase unusually saccharine for the forcefully direct woman. Neither she nor her ex-husband had much experience with or talent for providing comfort and they were equally unused to floundering like this. "We've been helping see that everything is put in order but Trevor has insisted on shouldering most of that himself, of course. He should be back soon." There was another awkward pause as she looked at Ted to see if he had anything to add but the square-jawed stock trader seemed to be off in his own world. "Can I... get you something, dear? Wine? Tea?"

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"No," Erin murmured, still so remote she could hardly hear her own words. She took a deep breath, held it, let it go slowly, just like she'd learned in therapy. "No, thank you, I don't want anything." She prised her hand from the bat, one finger at a time, and picked up her small duffel from where she'd dropped it. "I need to put my things away and take a shower. Could you please let me know when Trevor comes home?" There, she could hear her voice again and it was nice and even. That was good. Dumping her grief all over them wouldn't make anyone feel better. With a brief nod, she headed down the familiar hallways to the room she shared with Trevor, shutting the door behind her and leaning against it before turning on the light. 

The room wasn't in shambles, but it was obvious that Trevor'd had more on his mind than picking up after himself the past few days. Six days. Erin dropped the duffel and put her face in her hands. She could've been home six days ago. Once the Communion's back had been broken in that big coordinated effort, everything else had been mop-up, just trying to get the last pockets of them before they caused any more trouble. Other people could've done it, but she'd... she'd been having fun, she admitted to herself, enjoying the travel and the time without responsibilities, and the respect she'd started to get once she proved her worth in an environment with far fewer superheroes than Freedom City. So she'd screwed around, helping with one little clean-up after another, taking on that dinosaur thing that landed her in the space hospital for a couple of days, visiting with a couple of friends she'd made during the fighting. If she'd come home when she was supposed so, she would've been here, and Trevor wouldn't have been all alone. 

Dashing her hands impatiently over her eyes, Erin stripped to the skin and all but ran into the bathroom, dialing up a shower hot enough to scald normal skin. She let herself weep for ten minutes, tears of grief for the man she'd come to feel great respect and affection for mingling with the tears of self-reproach for not being there when it had mattered. There were tears for Trevor too, for the pain he'd be going through, all the tears she didn't want to shed in front of him. When the water heater ran out, she scrubbed her face in the cold spray, washed her hair, and stepped out to dry and dress again. She didn't know what to wear. She didn't actually own much black. Would wearing black be like rubbing everyones' faces in the loss, anyway? In the end she chose dark jeans and a purple pullover sweater, then put on the black armband she'd first worn over her uniform sleeve at Rick Lucas' funeral. Trevor would understand. Studying herself in the mirror, she gave one approving nod to her calm face, then went back out to see if he'd come home yet. 

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By rights the manor shouldn't have felt any different. It had always been considerably too large for three people to fill even discounting the network of caves below, had always had plenty of quiet spaces where one could go undisturbed for long stretches of time. Still, knowing that there was no chance to walking in on Travis reading in the library, tinkering with his chemistry equipment or pouring tea from a kettle made the entire building feel entirely more empty.

"--death before." Ted's voice wasn't pitched to carry but Erin's hearing was good enough to pick it up coming from the living room closest to the main entrance from where she was in the hallway.

"Exactly my point," Janet replied, her word quick and clipped in a way that made the younger woman think of rabbit punches. "The girl's traumatized, improvement or no. The 'ripping off a band-aid' method does not apply here, Ted, you don't know how she might have reacted. You weren't entering data into a damned spreadsheet."

Ted made a sound in the back of his throat that indicated just what he thought of that attempt at insight. "Underestimate her. Done now, anyway." The sound Janet made in response was actually quite similar.

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"Well, guess you've done some homework since back in the day when you didn't even know that Trevor drinks coffee," Erin commented caustically, walking into the room on silent feet. "Though the "Trevor's girlfriend is a psycho" gossip isn't exactly a news flash either." There were piles of books on the end tables, old scrapbooks and photo albums. She couldn't look at them right now, even from the corner of her eye, so she picked them up and began putting them away, neat, quick, efficient. She wished she'd done the same in their bedroom, made it nice for when Trevor came home, but maybe he didn't want it that way. Maybe he wanted everything to stay just the way it was. Some people did, she thought she remembered. Grief was a strange thing. She had little memory of the days after her mother and uncle had died, little memory for months after Megan's burial. Would she remember all this when it was over? 

"In any case, you don't have to worry about me," she continued, her voice still cool but lacking the bite. "Very stable now, haven't hit anybody who wasn't a bad guy in years. And grieving doesn't drive most people crazy." She tucked the last book away. "Where did Trevor go, anyway? Should I be worrying about him yet?" 

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Neither of Trevor's parents gave a start at Erin's sudden appearance. Ted didn't even look up from the almost implausibly thin laptop he was working away on but Janet at least pursed her lips and looked over to the auburn haired woman. "It's not gossip, it-- Mmh. I'm sorry, dear. Rude, regardless," she admitted reluctantly, standing near the fireplace with her arms folded across her chest. "We've only met briefly previously and yes, given the reason I was coming it seemed prudent to do some research. Frankly, yes, I thought this might be triggering for you but there's no need for melodramatics. We're not a high school rumour mill and self-deprication is never endearing; no one thinks you're a 'psycho'." She managed to convey a rolling of the eyes with her delivery of the word even if she kept the actual gesture from disturbing her high cheekbones.

"Speaking with attorney," Ted interjected, still largely engrossed whatever he was doing but not wanting Erin's actual question go unanswered amidst discussions of societal niceties. "Texted as he left. Fifteen minutes, about." He finally looked up as he said that, frowning slightly and considering way he'd seen Trevor drive while picking him up from the airport. "Five," he corrected himself before resuming his work.

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Erin's retort that clearly Janet had not been speaking to the right people was set aside when Ted answered her question. She nodded, at once relieved that Trevor was coming home and nervous that she didn't have a little more time to pull her thoughts together. She almost asked his parents what his state of mind was like, what he was going to need, but she highly doubted they would know. They seemed even more unsure than she herself was. "Thanks," she told Ted, and nodded acknowledgement of Janet's apology. "I think I'll go wait for him outside. It's a pretty day, and good to be back on Earth again." 

She walked out onto the front porch, blinking in the rush of sunlight,  and went carefully down the steps she'd leapfrogged an extraordinarily long half-hour ago. "Redbird?" she called softly, trusting the communicator to still be functioning. "Are you around the garage still?" 

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"Ah, shieldmaiden! Indeed, I was about to contact you," the autonomic machine intelligence replied over the comm line before the Night Cycle rolled back out of the garage and onto the driveway. Redbird had had the presence of mind to revert the vehicle back to something less conspicuous and to generate her holographic avatar walking next to it holding the handlebars, dressed in a stately chauffeur's uniform sized to her statuesque proportions. "I believe something may be amiss here. I have been attempting to reach the elder shadow walker on his communication device. I am familiar with the routines of each of your daily cycles and there is a statistical near certainty he would be awake at this time." The avatar's expression was dark, glancing about warily, half expecting an enemy ambush to appear from behind the landscaping. "He has been teaching me of human games of stratagem and it was my turn in the chess when we left. Our mission offworld has given me time to deduce his method, I was eager to resume the match. Could the Communion have returned to Earth without our knowledge?"

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"Redbird..." Erin swallowed hard, put one hand on the Night Cycle's handlebars. A stupid thing to do, maybe, but it was done before she could even think about it. "You know how old Travis was, right? For a human? How he... he lived a long life and f-fought many battles very bravely. And then he raised Trevor too, rai- raised him to be a brave warrior as well. He was sick when you and I left, but I... I didn't realize how sick. I didn't know, or we wouldn't have stayed away so long!" She pressed her knuckles against her forehead, took a breath that was more like a gasp. This being calm after letting out all the emotions wasn't working as well as she'd hoped. "Travis died while we were gone. Six days ago. Trevor's not here right now but he'll be home soon, and you and I have to be there for him." 

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"Eh? He can't have died," Redbird scoffed, her avatar turning to give Erin a look like she was being quite simple. "Human, yes, but the elder is not like the bland citizenry in the city whiling away their too-short lives make-work and idle entertainments! He is a-- a valorous warrior! A respected source of wisdom earned in-- in perilous battle! Battles he won without dying!" Her voice, coming from the speakers of the motorcycle rather than the mouth of her holographic projection, started off boisterous but doubt began to creep in as she listened to her own words and considered them against what she actually knew to be true of human biology. The red haired avatar's gestures became broader and more hurried as though emphatically willing her argument to be correct. "He cannot have been... used up, have simply ceased to be without weapon in hand and foe's blood on his fists! He cannot. That would be absurd! That would-- it would be-- be--" She struggled to find a way to express the sentiment but she came from a people born into endless war against unspeakable horror. The Furions had no word for 'unfair'.

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"It doesn't seem right, does it?" Erin asked rhetorically, her voice hollow. "But... but maybe it's what he would have wanted. If he died in a battle, we would have to think about how we hadn't protected him, how it shouldn't have happened that way. He was retired, you know? And I think he was happy to be retired, and not always looking for the fight anymore.He got to live a long time and see so much, and he got to see Trevor grow up and make sure he was taken care of. That..." She raked her fingers through her damp hair, leaving it standing on end in spots. "A lot of people don't get to have that, and it's terrible. Or they waste away over a long time, or they lose their memories and their abilities before they go. He just..." She swallowed, blinking hard to keep the tears safely behind her eyes. "They said he was sleeping, and it didn't hurt him. Maybe it wasn't glory, but there are a lot worse ways to go. I just wish he hadn't left us behind." 

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"But... He..." Erin felt the motorcycle shudder slightly under her fingers than nearly topple over to one side, going limp until her hand on the bars was all that was holding it upright. Redbird recovered her equilibrium quickly but from the expression on her avatar's face she was still floundering. The hologram flickered momentarily, the flesh tone going from pale to pallid. "My emotive response is consuming processing normally reserved for basic functions. I do not know how to... 'deal' with this information. I am angry but I do not have an appropriate target for my fury." The Night Cycle's tires rolled forward half a rotation then back again, fidgeting uncomfortably. "How... how must we 'be there' for our pair bond? Tell me what to do, shieldmaiden! Please." Erin didn't know if she'd ever heard the autonomic machine intelligence make a request like that before.

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"I... I'm not sure," Erin admitted, hating the words as she said them. "I haven't really had a lot of experience helping somebody else grieve. When Mark's dad died, Mark just wanted to be alone for awhile, and then when he came back he didn't want to talk about it." And when she'd grieved, she'd done so alone because there was nobody else, till doing it silently was second nature. "I think... I guess we need to just make it be about him. You and I hurt because Travis was part of our family, but he was Trevor's dad in all the ways that matter. So it's not about us, you know? So if he needs to talk, or to be alone, or to cry, or to fight, we should try and give that to him. It's like, it's like he's in a battle, and we can't get in there to fight it, but we can be his support and supply line." She shaded her eyes with the hand not holding the motorcycle, looking down the driveway. "He should be here soon." 

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They heard the familiar rumble of engines before they saw Erin's metallic blue pickup turning onto the long, curving path up to the mansion. It was strange for Trevor to be driving the truck at all let alone without Erin there herself but she realized that it was the only vehicle in the garage that wasn't a smooth matte black and among only a handful that had their origins in the past decade. All of them fit neatly into the motor pool that was half preparedness for every situation and half enthusiast's collection his grandfather had started in the 1940s. Clearly he'd needed something that could stand apart from all that.

Trevor saw them as well as he pulled up because the engine had barely had time to quiet before the driver's door was swinging open and the dark haired heir was sliding hurriedly out. He was clean shaven and tidy, wearing a respectable if understated suit for whatever meeting he'd been in, sunglasses as always covering his eyes. His tousled black hair had been cut at some point during her absence but what drew more attention was that she could see it clearly, his beaten but sturdy fedora no where in sight. It was hard to say what was more concerning, the lack of hat or the garish line green sling holding his left arm in place against his torso.

The latter didn't prevent him from rushing over to Erin and wrapping his right arm around her in a fierce hug, burying his face in the crook of her neck without a word and holding her tightly.

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Erin spent a moment stariing at him, drinking in all the changes, wondering for a second if this was how he'd felt when he first saw her aboard the Night Saucer after her sojourn on the Curator's world. Love and relief and guilt and worry, all lodged in one big lump in her heart. How had he hurt himself? Where was his hat? He didn't look right in a suit and no hat, he looked unacceptably modern, especially with the horrible sling ruining all the lines. For the first second she nearly panicked, not knowing what to say or do, but then his arm was around her and it was okay. She could do this part. She wrapped her arms around him, firm on the healthy side, gentle over the injury, and held him to her like a lifeline. Turning her head slightly, she kissed his hair and breathed in the scent of him, much missed after so long away. "I'm so sorry," she murmured into his ear. 

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Trevor's shoulders shuddered slightly as he inhaled thickly, breath catching in his throat and eyes stinging as faint wisps of sooty mist rose from behind his sunglasses. "You're safe," he managed after one abortive attempt that same out more as an unintelligible rasp. Letting out the breath heavily he squeezed his good arm around Erin more tightly. "Home and safe. All that matters." Stepping back slightly, he ran his fingertips along the side of her face, convincing himself that she was really there. Looking over to the Night Cycle, he nodded stiffly. "Good work, Redbird. Thank you."

The motorcycle's front tire turned back and forth while the holographic avatar shifted uncomfortably. "I... yes, of course. I was about to reintegrate myself with the manor's security systems. I shall give you a measure of privacy." With a curt bow the projection winked out of view and the Night Cycle retreated back in the direction of the garage.

Watching the vehicle roll silently away for a long moment, Trevor turned back to Erin. "Parents told you?" His voice didn't crack this time but it sounded rough, parched.

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Erin nodded, sorrow writ large across her face and in her eyes. She reached up and gently removed his sunglasses, setting them on the hood of the truck, then cupped his cheek in one hand. "I'm so sorry I wasn't here," she murmured. "You shouldn't have had to go through it alone." She hugged him again, kissed him very softly. "I didn't hear very much, we only got back about forty-five minutes ago. And I... I'd rather hear about it from you, when you're ready. How are you holding up?" she asked. It would be stupid to ask if he was okay. She studied him soberly. "You got hurt." 

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Trevor followed her eyes down to the sling, its plastic making an annoying sound as it rubbed against his suit jacket. "Just a sprain," he assured her dismissively, voice to weary to be properly embarrassed. "Joe's been covering my patrols, went out looking for a fight Saturday anyway. ...hadn't slept in a few nights. Got sloppy." That was a tough thing to admit while she'd been off saving the galaxy from threats of unimagined scale but with everything else he couldn't work up the energy to really care. "Mark's been planning the... 'in-costume' memorial. Been tricky; half the community assumed he was already-- Nnh."

Unable to complete that thought out loud, he rubbed his eye with his good hand, mouth twisting into a small grimace. If he'd slept since his misadventure on Saturday it hadn't been for as long as he obviously needed. Even for someone with his nocturnal schedule he had noticeable bags under his eyes and Erin could have sworn the onyx black of his eyes was tinged with red. "Eve has people making sure no one tries to take advantage. Magic or..." He made a vague gesture and grimaced. There were plenty of villains who wouldn't have hesitated to defile an old heroes remains for their own ends given half a chance. "So. Wasn't... wasn't alone, I... So glad you're home," he admitted halfway through trying to assuage her professed guilt, pressing his forehead to her own and trying to keep his breathing steady and shallow.

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"Shhh, I'm not going anywhere, I promise," she murmured fervently, running her hands through his hair, then rubbing his shoulders lightly. "Whatever needs to be done, we can do it together. We're still here." She held onto him for another minute, not saying anything, not sure what to say or what to do, except that holding onto each other was keeping her from falling to pieces and she hoped it would work for him as well. "But maybe it can wait a little bit. I'm exhausted," she told him, which was not entirely untrue, though she was probably in far better shape than he was. "Been a couple of days of straight travel getting back to Earth. It looked like there were sandwiches and Chinese food boxes in the big kitchen, do you want to have some lunch and a nap with me?" 

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