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  1. James woke up to the sensation she was being watched. When her eyes snapped open, she found herself staring at Marshall’s big orange ones. At least he wasn’t on the bed. “What do you want?” she asked him grumpily. He made a coughing noise and rolled a cue ball out of his mouth with his tongue. James stared at the wet 8-ball and the puddle it was leaving on her bedding. “I haven’t had coffee. You don’t get fetch.” The tip of his tail rose eagerly; all he’d heard was fetch. Sighing, James sat up and grabbed her prosthetic. She pulled on a clean sock and liner, then examined the socket for signs of deterioration. She’d just gotten this prosthetic last year -- after dropping her pre-eruption weight -- and she didn’t want to have to buy another one just yet. She stood and tested the fit while Marshall watched her, almost vibrating. “Calm down,” she snarked to the dino as she picked up the ball and opened the back door into their yard. It was more like a racquetball room, with a cinder block walls and chain link fencing over the top. She’d insisted on the latter, to let light and fresh air in. Checking to make sure the far gate was still closed, she threw the cue ball and got the hell out of the way. Marshall shot past her and Semp wasn’t far behind. The bigger sibling was the faster, but Semp jumped on top of him when he stopped at the ball. The two collapsed in a squealing, writhing ball of play fighting. She propped open the door and went to start breakfast. Coffee was first, and it was done brewing by the time she had finished making Oscar’s lunch. She could handle PB&J, an apple, and chips but not anything more complex until she had her caffeine. Only once she had a cup in hand did she realize how late it had gotten. “Damnit,” she muttered, putting the mug on the counter and going back to her nephew’s room. “Oscar, get up. You’re going to be late!” When all she heard from inside was a groan, she opened the door and shook the lump of comforter in the middle of the bed. “‘Ho ‘way,” she heard him mumble. “No, get up.” James pulled back the blanket closest to the head of the bed, and found feet. Dropping the bedding, she tugged on the other end and found her nephew’s blond head. “You’re going to be late for class.” “Aww, I hate school,” he moaned, cracking open green eyes that would someday destroy many a heart. “So did every kid. They still went to school, even me.” James waited until he was sitting up before she added, “Hustle, sailor! You don’t want me to have to drive you.” That got him moving. Oscar was still unsure of the raptors, and easily unnerved by their presence. Since James didn’t leave them alone for long periods of time, he would have to ride in the big truck with their kennels in the back. James went back to the kitchen and finished making breakfast; today, it was leftover chicken breasts and rice from dinner. That was one thing she and Oscar had in common: a lack of desire to eat breakfast foods for breakfast. He was out in the kitchen twenty minutes, slowing when he caught James shooing Marshall off his chair. The raptors watched with hungry jealousy as the ten-year-old ate, and he watched them just as warily. “Checklist,” James said, looking at him as he started to shovel food into his mouth. Oscar sighed but said, “Socks, check. Breakfast, check. Lunch--” He hopped up from his chair and grabbed his lunchbox, putting it next to his backpack. “Check. My homework, check. My tablet, check. My baseball mitt, check.” “Well done, sailor.” James smiled at him and went to her wallet. She pulled out five dollars and handed it to him. “No more than one candy bar this week,” she said, firmly locking eyes with him. “And this is all you get, so use your resources wisely.” “Yes, Aunt Jim!” He grinned cheekily at her, enjoying that he was the only person who got to call her that. “Now, get going,” she told him, rolling her eyes fondly. He popped off a salute, grabbed his gear, and ran for the school. It was a small one but full of kids who were in his exact situation. He doesn’t have a chance, she thought with a touch of sadness. He’ll be in the military; it’s all he’s ever known. Once more, she resolved to never pressure him into one branch or even any at all. He’d lost so much; she’d never take his choice away. “Alright, monsters,” she said, addressing the raptors. “Your turn.” She opened the cans of wet dog food and mixed them with chopped, raw beef and the powdered vitamins CRRD provided. She sat their bowls down and went to change while the boys sucked down their food. By the time they were done, she was dressed in her sweats and her running prosthetic, holding their harnesses and carrying their gear in her backpack. “Aana,” she said in her command voice, and the boys moved to her side, looking up at her. Leaning down, she put their harnesses on them and clipped the leashes. “Ayrhee.” As a pack, they headed for the yard and then out the gate into the woods behind their complex. She avoided the walking path and headed into the trees, Marshall on her right and Semp on her left. She set a good pace, feeling her stride shift as she adjusted running with one leg lighter than the other. The spring in her prosthetic gave her an odd jumping lope. They went a distance into the wilderness behind the base before she called for a stop in a familiar meadow. Both of the raptors had burned off their anxious energy, and she unsnapped the leashes. “Ayrhee,” she reminded them, pulling out the binoculars and sighting in on the dummies in the middle. They were shaped like ornithos, and if someone had done their job right, they would smell like them, too. “Pehlu,” she ordered and the boys bolted away, swinging to the left and right in a pincher move. She ran forward as well, unholstering the paint gun and stopping thirty feet away from the first dummy. The boys closed to the same distance and stopped, waiting. When she rose again and fired, peppering the dummy with blue paint, they attacked the target, quickly tearing it down. “Good! Aana!” She grinned as they bolted back to her for their jerky treats. For the next several hours, they drilled over all the things that she’d taught them to this point. Their last hour was spent working on the holding concept. Raptors attacked by biting and holding with their jaws while kicking with their hind legs. James was currently trying to teach them to grab a target but not kick it. As she was going against their instincts, it was very slow progress. “Okay, okay,” she sighed as the alarm on her phone went off. “Rokna. We’ll try against tomorrow. Time to head home. Ayrhee.” They ran back to base, the boys now too tired to need the reinforcement of the leash to stay close. Without a path to follow, James was more or less estimating where they’d emerge, and she came out too close to the headquarters. Annoyed, she crouched in the woodline, whispering, “Chupana.” The raptors lowered themselves, only the tips of their tails vibrating with excitement for the new hunt. They made their way through the woods back to their yard, entering and locking the gate behind them. Once she removed their harnesses, they dropped to the grass of their yard, rolling and grunting with pleasure as they rubbed away the feel of the restraints. She watched them, grinning, before going inside to make dinner. She’d just finished the mashed potatoes when Oscar came in the front. “Hey,” she said, focused on her meal. “How was school?” She glanced up at him, smiling -- only to lose the smile when she saw the bruise on the side of his face. “What the hell?” “It’s nothing,” he muttered, dropping his eyes. “Okay.” James shut off the oven and cracked the door so that the pork chops wouldn’t burn. “Oscar, that is not nothing. Even if it’s something that you handled, I need to know the details so that I know you’re safe at school.” “It’s just going to make it worse if my aunt shows up defending me,” he growled, staring at his feet. “I’m not going to do anything like that, not without talking with you.” James took his hand and dragged him over to the couch. Marshall and Semp watched curiously from their doggie beds in the corner, but the day’s activities had worn them down too much to do more than enjoy the show. She sat him down and said, “Tell me what’s wrong and we’ll work out a plan of attack -- even if that plan is ‘do nothing’.” Oscar heaved a sigh and stared at the shredded Kong toy she hadn’t thrown away yet. “One of the boys at school was making fun of me.” He rubbed his nose and sniffled in a bid to hide pending tears. “He said my parents were dinosaur poop.” James couldn’t stop her angry inhale, and Marshall’s head rose. A second later, Semper Fi’s head came up too, as he caught his alpha and beta’s sudden tension. “Please don’t do anything,” Oscar begged. “I hit him really hard already! I took care of it!” “Alright.” James swallowed her turbulent emotions with great effort. “So you handled it?” The boy almost sagged with relief. “Yeah, I did,” he said, a hint of pride in his voice. “Oscar, how did you get the lump?” She pointed at the bruise, and his eyes dropped. “He hit back.” James nodded. “Did the fight stop him?” “Sorta. He’s twelve.” Oscar started to fidget with the cuff of his sleeve. “He stopped talking trash!” She wanted to ask if he’d won but she also didn’t want to encourage that behavior. “What are you going to do if he says that again?” “Hit him again!” Oscar’s indignation almost made her laugh but she kept it together. “Well, hitting doesn’t stop him, if he does it again. We need to have plan, in case he does,” she told him. “That’s strategy.” “I want to deal with it myself,” her nephew told her fiercely. “I understand. So let’s figure out what that means.” James walked him through all his options, and he settled on trying to ignore the bully. She wasn’t sure that would work, especially in the heat of the moment, but she was willing to let him deal with this on his own terms. If it persisted, she’d convince him to let her intervene. “Okay, let’s eat.” The potatoes held only a fraction of their warmth, and the meat was warm but too dry. She nuked the side and pulled ketchup and steak sauce out with the salad, and forced herself to have normal conversation when in reality, she wanted to hunt down a twelve year old boy and beat some empathy into him. After, she cleaned up, and Oscar did his homework. Then it was time for a bit of television, while she let the boys out into the yard for a while. They were house trained but not above using waste as a weapon of protest, and it did Oscar good to have some time without them around. When he went to bed, she geared up for the outdoors again and took them on a run. After dark was always best, as it let her jog somewhere besides the woods without scaring anyone or having to deal with the MPs getting called. Tonight, she took them on a long circuit around the nova complex, wearing them out so they wouldn’t get destructive in the middle of the night. As she was jogging back, she caught a sight of a stranger. He was in a uniform, but she didn’t know him, and she pulled the boys deeper into the shadows. “Chupana. Khamosh,” she ordered, watching as the man entered the complex, dragging a suitcase behind him. She’d heard they’d be getting a new nova; that must be him. She waited, forcing the boys to practice patience, too. Once she was it was safe, she rose and finished the run home. She showered and did the other minutia required for bed. She pulled the new Clive Cussler book in with her and pulled off her prosthetic. She read as she massaged her stump; the prosthetics were mostly painless due to good fittings but she was still asking her body to do something it was never designed to do. Sometime after she tucked herself in, she passed out, her novel resting on her chest.
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