Feathered Friends (and Non-Feathered Enemies)

We walked to Marie and Cammie's house, down a few blocks and over one. It was a little bigger than I'd expected. There were only two people and the house had three floors, for crying out loud!

Seeing me gape, Marie offered, "It's been in my family for a while now. I got it from my mother in her will."

I nodded as Cammie took out her key and opened the front door, which was painted in a faded green. The rest of the house was brick. Brick was good. It wasn't easily flammable.

"I'll give you the tour," Marie offered, as we walked into the front hall. She and Cammie hung their coats on a coat tree and Cammie motioned for us to do the same. I accepted, hanging up my jacked hesitantly. If we had to run, I really would need my coat, but I didn't want the pair to think we distrusted them.

"Sure, we'd love a tour," I replied politely to Marie's offer. Knowing the layout of this place would make things easy in a fight.

The house was more like a rather large cottage really. The house did have 3 floors, but they were all really small. A kitchen, living room, and cupboard-sized half-bathroom took up the first floor. Marie walked us through it, gesturing towards the old-looking furniture and ancient freezer, telling us to make ourselves comfortable. Total, who had been hiding in Gasman's coat since the library, hopped out and settled himself comfortably on the worn run in front of the fireplace in the living room.

Marie blinked exactly twice at Total, then smiled. "Scottie, right? I hope he likes casserole."

"Oh he'll eat anything," I replied quickly before Total could ask what kind.

"That's good. Too many dogs are eating all that processed garbage now. When I was a girl, we fed our dog table scraps, nothing else to it." She smiled and we moved on.

Despite my intentions, I softened a bit to Marie. How many people would take in six bird-kids without a fuss, then not even get annoyed when they brought along their dog? Unless she worked for Itex. Then my softened would be replaced with kick-some-old-lady-behind.

The second floor housed a full bathroom with a claw-foot bathtub and really interesting tiling, two tiny bedrooms, and a little study/library. Marie pointed out the bathtub with pride, mentioning happily that it was the original tub that her mother bought. A shower head had been added, and the tub had been fitted to the wall to make things more convenient, but it didn't seem to matter because both Angel and Nudge looked excited about an authentic claw-foot bathtub. What? They don't get many kicks in life. Give the poor kids a break.

The third floor was amazing. It was a large room, open and airy, with a few pieces of really beat-up furniture, a balcony and a skylight. Blankets were piled in one corner and a few boxes marked in black marker hinted that the loft was also used for storage.

The flock gaped openly at the open space, but security the loft had. It was a perfect spot, the sort I would have picked out if we had been on the run.

"This is Cammie's favorite room," Marie interjected. I nodded, not really listening, as I studied every aspect of the loft. There was a large square flap in one wall and I walked over to look at it.

"Laundry chute," Marie supplied with a laugh. "We used to climb down it as kids. My mother thought we would break our necks. Actually my brother Timothy broke his leg when he got stuck. He was too big and he tried to drop rather than climb, but I'll spare you the details. The laundry room is on the first floor and wasn't included because I figured you had better things to do than look at my laundry."

I nodded again, a faint smile tugging at my lips. The place had a secret entrance and exit in the laundry chute. I liked it here more and more. Looking up to see if the others had come to the same conclusion, I did an automatic head count. Angel, Fang, Nudge, Iggy, Gasman…Gasman? I did a second head count. No Gazzy anywhere to be found. On alert, I looked to Angel, who chuckled and send me a thought.

Laundry chute.

I walked over to the chute and peered down it. The distinctive smell that Gasman was named for puffed out of the square hole as I raised the flap. I gagged as I inhaled. Yup. Gazzy had definitely been here.

"Gazzy, once you come out of the bottom, come back upstairs," I ordered into the hole, the metal chute sides making my voice echo back to me. Marie chuckled behind me and I whirled.

"He's as bad a troublemaker as Timmy was."

I nodded again. I seemed to be doing a lot of nodding during then, so I accompanied it with an "You'd be surprised."

"I doubt it. Timmy got into a lot of things."

I merely repeated myself, "You'd be surprised."

Marie shrugged, "All right. Do you all want to wait up here while I make supper, or do you want to hang around the kitchen?"

"We'll just get to know each other a little better," I said, forcing a smile.

"There's tons we don't know about Cammie!" Nudge piped up helpfully. Angel grinned brightly,

"I'll go get Total." and trotted downstairs, calling the dog's name.

A few moments later, Total the talking Wonder dog was in the loft and Angel was scrambling up the stairs after. Marie gave a hesitant smile and went down the stairs.

"I'll call when supper's ready." She was gone a few moments later and I gave the place another good look-around, stopping as I heard Gazzy coming up the stairs.

"So what's it like living here?" Nudge asked Cammie. Cammie smiled and signed at her as Angel spoke the words aloud.

"She says it's nice. The food is good, she has lots to read, and no one notices her in this city. She's just another teenage girl." Angel petted Total as she spoke, and Total accepted the affection before going over to Cammie and asking,

"Any good places to walk around here?"

Cammie jumped and looked at me, signing frantically.

"Yeah, he talks." I said wryly and Cammie hesitantly sat back down, leaning back a little from Total's general direction.

After a few minutes of Cammie's studying Total with a mixture of fear and astonishment, she signed her reply back to Total.

"There's a park a few blocks over, but she only goes out with Marie." Angel appeared to enjoy her translating job.

"So…what's you favorite color?" Nudge asked brightly.

The answer was blue and Nudge happily chattered to Cammie about clothes and things like that. The rest of us kind of hung about. I walked over to the window where Fang was standing, with Iggy a few feet away, running his fingers over the smooth coating of paint.

"What do you think? Is this real?" I asked Fang in a soft whisper. He shrugged, being oh-so-helpful.

"Maybe. But even when Total talked, she didn't yell or anything. I think she would have if she was faking. The old woman seems all right too. And Angel says they're okay."

"But does it feel right to you?"

"Feels…safe here." The conversation was over and I nodded, walking back over to see Nudge chatting about the new style, the tunic-dresses that were at the moment, "in".

Cammie looked a little overwhelmed and she reminded me of…well…us. She looked at me a little pleadingly and a bit my lip, trying not to laugh. If she was an imposter, than this was our version of torture. And either Cammie was great under pressure or she was for real. And I knew a way to find out. I walked up to her, putting a quick hand to Nudge's shoulder to silence her.

"You're a bird-kid, right? What color are you wings?" I asked, trying to sound friendly and conversational. Cammie ducked her head shyly, then reached behind her.

"Scatter!" I shouted. Wings did not come on your neck, and the only thing I thought it might be was a weapon. The flock scattered, Gazzy headed for the laundry chute and Fang threw open the window.

"No, wait, STOP!" shouted Angel. We all whirled and Angel pointed to Cammie. "She's not going to hurt us."

Cammie was holding her hair up and underneath it was a thin layer of feathers resting against her neck. They varied in color from a dark tawny-brown to blackish gold and lay against her neck. They were short feathers, not down or for flight. But there they were. The group of us stared openly.

"She's not 2% bird like we are." Angel announced. "She's 3 ½ to 4% bird." Cammie nodded and lowered her hair so it covered the feathers in question.

"So up-dos are a no, huh?" Nudge asked sympathetically.

"They molt and she has them there on and off," Angel replied, translating Cammie's response.

"We're going to need to talk about this," I said in my best leader-voice. Cammie nodded and gestured at Fang.

"She says close the window." Angel told him. Fang grudgingly obeyed.

Cammie began to sign and Angel narrated, all while putting the images that Cammie remembered into our brains. It was kind of like a mix of movies and radio, but you wouldn't get what I'm saying unless you've tried it.

"There were seven of us. All together. In cages. They tested us. There were needles, drugs, trials. Every day. We never knew when they were going to spring something on us."

Cammie bit her lip and stopped and Angel paused in her narrative, waiting for her to be ready. Cammie took a deep breath and continued. Even Gazzy stopped looking around and listened.

"The oldest was Alec. He was the biggest and the strongest. He took care of all of us. Then came me. Then Hotshot, Shocker, Lilly, and Shiver. Then Holly. We were all 2% bird, then they added things. I'm 4% bird. Alec was part ox. Hotshot was part cheetah. Shocker was part electric eel. Lily was part rabbit. Shiver was part snake. Holly was part dolphin. …."

Cammie paused again, ducking her head and wiping her face with her sleeve. Angel looked to her, then me, shooting me a sad look. But Cammie was signing again and Angel continued.

"They tested things on us all the time. That's how Shiver got his name. He's start shaking whenever needles came near. And they made us run mazes, dodge things. Test our speed, strength reflexes. Hotshot was fastest. They didn't talk to us, or treat us like people. But we thrilled them. Shocker could electrocute people, just shock them. Lily had hearing like a rabbit. Alec was strong. Shiver had amazing reflexes. Holly…we never learned what she could do. She was just a little baby."

"What about you?" Nudge interrupted. Cammie shook her head and began to tremble. "You don't have to," Angel said quickly. Cammie's shaking slowed a little, but as she signed and Angel spoke, I could see it.

"One day, they tested us more than they had ever tested us before. Oldest to youngest. We all passed…except Holly. They tried to get her to swim, since she was part dolphin, and dolphins learn from birth how to live in the water. But…she drowned. They had to tie Alec down, Shiver was shaking so hard they had to tranquilize him… She was just a baby!"

Cammie stopped signing, her hands shaking violently. She bowed her head and we watched her shake. Wetness dropped out from beneath the hair masking her face, dripping onto the floor. And then the incredible happened. I never saw this coming, not in a million years, especially from one of my flock. Iggy slowly made his way over to Cammie as she shook and felt around on the floor until he found her knee. He gently squeezed it and it was as if he cued the rest of us. Angel came to one side, and Nudge to the other. I went around behind her and Gazzy and Fang came closer too. We all leaned in, holding her as one flock. Nearly silent sobs made their way up her throat and shook our group. And I felt like Cammie was one of us.

Cammie looked over to Angel. Her eyes were red and wet, and her face was a little blotchy. She signed to Angel.

"She doesn't want to talk anymore."

I nodded quietly. "That's okay."

Cammie leaned back into the rest of us, and just as I was beginning to feel a little attached and yes, teary, myself, (what? I know a lot of what the kid went through. If you had been there, you'd be bawling your eyes out.) the call came from down stairs.

"Kids! Dinner!"

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Cammie went to the bathroom and washed her face off. I directed the flock to wash up. I don't know about you, but I like to clean up when I can. Iggy and Gasman moaned, but I was firm and surprisingly, they obeyed me. We thundered down the stairs like…well a bunch of hungry mutant kids. The kitchen table had a bunch of casserole dishes on it and the smell was amazing. It was better than anything I'd ever smelled before. We all sat down at the chairs Marie seemed to have dug out of storage and as Fang reached for a serving spoon to help himself, Marie slapped his hand away. Fang was too surprised to react and after a long pause, he pulled his hand back, a look of surprise on his face. If I'd had a camera, I would have saved that picture forever. It was hilarious.

"At my house we pray before meals." Marie said. "And after we finish, I'll tell you what's what. Then you can dig in."

I couldn't remember praying before meals before and as the flock looked at me like I was psycho, I folded my hands, like I'd seen kids on TV do. The rest of the flock slowly followed my example, Fang last of all. (He was still in shock after being slapped by an old lady. He's NEVER going to live that one down.)

Marie folded her hands, bowed her head, and said aloud, "Dear Lord, we thank you for this food, for Cammie's friends coming to find her, and for the blessing you bestow upon us each day. Bless us oh Lord, in these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ our Lord, Amen." She touched her hand to her forehead, chest, then each shoulder, ending the prayer.

"All right then. That dish is meatloaf, that one's shepherd's pie, that's spaghetti bake, there's stew, there's pot roast, green bean casserole, and at the end is the Mexican chicken casserole. Help yourself."

I shot dirty looks at Gasman and Fang, who grabbed spoons like they were going to be snatched from them. Nudge filled her plate, then helped Iggy get some food too. After we all covered our plates in food, the only sound was chewing. Cammie looked really upset for a while, but as I shot glances at her all while we were eating, she calmed down a lot, until she was even smiling a little. Which, considering that her whole flock died and she lived most of her life in a cage, I think that's pretty much a miracle. Okay, I know what you're thinking. She feeds you a sob story and suddenly you're her number one fan?

For one thing, no. I was still on my guard. But the feathers, the story that sounded accurate, and the fact that she was sitting there crying made me feel just a bit more trusting. I know what you're thinking now, Geez Max, she could have faked all of that crap. Well I think the possibility of another bird kid clouded my judgment, okay? When you become one six people who are the only people of your species, you'll get it. Until then, shut up.

The whole meal was pretty much silent, and a little awkward. Total was pretty much sulking because we made him pretend to be a normal dog and eat table scraps out of a bowl, but afterwards, Marie said the magic words.

"Do any of you kids want a shower? Our water heater can take it if you each go really fast. I think that the dog can take a bath too."

Total bristled at "the dog" but Angel shot him a look and he grumbled and went back to his food. I think the food thing won him over a little.

"Showers would be great," I said.

"You kids don't have any pajamas do you?"

"No, we're fine," I said, but Marie just clicked her tongue at me and went up the stairs, calling, "I have some of my son's old clothes upstairs. And I think some of my husband's old things would fit the two bigger boys, and you."

I tried to protest, but Marie just kept walking up the stairs and out of sight. Cammie smiled and chuckled. I looked over at her. Marie had said that she made noise, but other than the sobs, which I really hadn't thought about, this was the first sound I'd heard out of her. Seeing my suspicious look, Cammie signed to me and Angel spoke without even glancing at her.

"She can make noises, just like Marie said. She just doesn't talk."

"Why?" Nudge asked. Tact was not something we had been taught at the school.

Cammie shook her head, then signed a bit more. "I can't." Angel replied, voicing Cammie's thoughts.

Marie came back downstairs holding a big cardboard box, which she set on the floor. She pulled out three big flannel shirts and three pairs of sweatpants. They had drawstring waists, otherwise they never would have fit us. She dug out a really worn pair of boy's pajamas that looked like they would fit Angel, and then she did a bit more digging in the box as we watched. A pair of jeans looked like they would fit Gazzy magically appeared out of the box. From the astonishment on Angel's face, I think she thought it was magic or something. I was pretty surprised myself.

"I just dumped some of the clothes from Kyle and Nathan's boxes into here. I think we can find some better pants and a shirt for you to sleep in, dear," she said, looking to Gazzy. "And if we dig a bit, I have some old things that might fit you," she told Nudge, "and if not, Nathan, my son, used to have this old sweatshirt and a pair of pajama pants that I might still have around. We'll go look while the rest shower, okay?"

Angel happily volunteered to go first so Marie showed her to the towels and pointed to the bathroom. I followed Nudge, Gazzy, and Marie up to the loft to look through boxes for clothes. We dug for a while, and after Angel, Iggy, and Fang had showered and changed, we had gotten a bunch of mismatched clothes for us to sleep in. Nudge went next in the shower, then Gazzy. I was last, which meant I had a really good chance of getting cold water. But everyone had gone quickly so I washed my hair really well, scrubbed, then just soaked until the water started getting cold. Showers were a luxury on the run and I wished the hot water had lasted longer, but I pulled on Marie's husband's old clothes and she put ours in the washing machine. Total did apparently get his bath, in the kitchen sink. Angel had given it to him during Nudge and Gazzy's showers.

Marie did the dishes and Cammie helped. Feeling a little guilty, I joined them, and slowly the flock helped out. Angel and Gazzy dried, Nudge and Fang helped rinse and wash. Cammie and I put away. Iggy sat at the kitchen table and listened to his I-pod.

As Marie shot a third or fourth glance at Iggy, Cammie signed something to Marie and Angel shot me a thought, She told Marie Iggy was blind. Marie feels sorry for him.

I nodded at her and once the dishes were done, it was eight-ish and Angel was beginning to yawn, which quickly spread to the rest of us. Have you ever noticed how yawns do that? They just keep bouncing from person to person and as more people yawn, they pass it on so even if it started with one person, the whole room would be yawning in a little while. I wonder if that could be used as a weapon? Attack of the yawns.

Marie smiled at us. "Tired?"

I nodded and she went upstairs, waving for us to follow her. She set up a whole bunch of blankets and a few pillows on the floor for us. It was like a big nest made of sleeping bags, quilts, old blankets and comforters. We used piles of old clothes for pillows since there weren't enough for all of us. After several bathroom breaks, two people getting up for water, and a whole lot of getting comfortable, we all settled in and fell asleep.

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When I woke up, I smelled bacon. Bacon in the morning is one of the best smells in the universe. I went down the stairs and found Marie frying bacon while Cammie cooked eggs. Nudge was manning the toaster, and Angel and Gazzy were sitting eating cereal. I guessed it was their third bowl or so because they weren't wolfing it down. Iggy and Fang were eating already and Total was eating a mix of bacon, eggs, and bread from a bowl on the floor. He shot me a suffering look as I walked in, but I ignored it and went over to the stove.

"Where did you get all this food?" I asked.

"Went to the supermarket a couple blocks over. I got a few loaves of bread, some bacon and sausage, and eggs." She flipped over the bacon and my mouth watered. Bacon just smells soooooo good. Nudge buttered toast and added it to a large pile.

"I think that's enough dear, come have something to eat," Marie told her. Nudge grinned and bounded over to get some food. I grabbed some toast from a pile that looked like that leaning tower in Italy or somewhere. Breakfast was almost as good as dinner and afterwards we all got dressed. As I came down the stairs, shoes ties, backpack packed, ready to go, I heard a crash.

Danger! This time my spidey senses were tingling and I knew something was wrong. I dashed down the last few stairs and into the living room and switched into fighter-mode. There was a person standing on the floor with glass all around him. Except he wasn't a normal person. He had scales all over him, and claws. And a tail. (Yeah I know. Surprised me too.)

First Erasers, then Flyboys, now mutant snake-people? I thought Itex was going for robots now, thus the Flyboys. I mean, robots obey. Always. They can't not obey because you program them that way. And we were back at square one with a mutant-person. The next time we met up with an Itex person (which hopefully wasn't soon) I'd have to take it up with them. Well, at least he didn't have fangs. …Oh I had spoken too soon.

"Going somewhere?" I asked, putting up my fists. He hissed and jumped at me, mouth open, fangs extended and looking really nasty. I kicked and he hissed in pain, whipping his tail around to hit me in the face. I ducked and it missed by an inch. A second later though, he was on the floor, writhing in pain. When I looked around to find the reason, I saw Fang, Iggy, and Nudge holding him down. Angel dashed into the room, took one look at the snake-thing, and announced,

"He's looking for Cammie."

I nodded, then turned to the snake-person, "Look buddy. You have two choices here. You run away, or we hurt you until you can barely walk, and then you run away.

The snake-thing hissed, "I'll strangle you."

"Option B then. Why do you guys always have to pick a fight? You're outnumbered."

Cammie ran into the room, followed closely by Marie.

"What is that?" Marie gasped. She looked a little faint. Bird-kids are one thing. Snake-men are completely another. I almost sympathized, but was a bit busy.

"A mutant snake-man. At least I'm pretty sure it's a man." I said pleasantly. The snake-thing hissed and Nudge jostled it a little so it shut up. The irony of Nudge inflicting silence was pretty funny, but this was no time for games.

"What does it want?"

"Capture winged children," the snake-thing hissed.

"You know, we don't want any trouble. All you have to do is leave and we won't follow you." I remarked.

The thing hissed again, and much to my--and everyone else's--shock the thing nodded.

"I go without a fight. Winged children no follow. I go alone."

I shot a surprised look to the group sitting on the snake-man. They looked a little suspicious, but very surprised. I looked to Angel for confirmation that the snake-man wasn't lying or something. She nodded at me, and I nodded at Nudge, Fang, and Iggy. They got off of him and all took a step back, giving him a little room. Plus, if he attacked, they needed a little swinging room. Punches are good at close-range, but not that close. The snake-thing stood and backed out of the window, then ran off down the street, looking once or twice over his shoulder to see if any of us were following. Cammie looked at me, a little shocked, then back after he snake-man, who was still running.

As he ran, he changed, back so he looked like everyone else. That explained the choice of mutant over Flyboy. If the mutant guy looked like a regular person, he attracted way less attention than a Flyboy. Big, gun-handed robots just seem to attract people's attention. I mean, it's just weird how that would work. (For those of you who aren't the brightest bulbs in the box, I'm being sarcastic.)

"This means Cammie has to go with you, doesn't it?" Marie asked me hesitantly. It surprised me a little that Marie was willing to let Cammie go.

I nodded, a little annoyed with the idea. I still wasn't too sure about Cammie. That sob story had been a little too Made-for-TV-Movie sounding for me. I mean, scientists were supposed to be smart, and killing off 6 mutant kids didn't sound particularly smart. Then again, it WAS the School. They weren't the brightest batch of humans I'd met, even by a long shot.

"Yeah. Otherwise there'll probably be more of those guys coming." I replied, remembering that Marie had asked a question.

"All right." Marie hugged Cammie tightly and went upstairs. "I'll be right back."

We waited until she came back with a bag of clothes. She also stuck a box of granola bars into the bag and handed it to Cammie.

"Take care of yourself, okay honey?" Cammie nodded and hugged Marie. Then we all walked out the front door and down the street. Once we got out of the city, I lead the group to a secluded spot and spread my wings. The others slowly followed suit, Cammie last of all. Her wings were just like the feathers under her hair, varying from dark tawny brown to blackish gold. I kept an eye on her, but then turned my attention to getting into the air. As we took off, I saw the snake thing again. It-well, he now. It looked human.-dialed a phone and watched us as we flew up into the air. He started talking, gesturing as he spoke. Well at least he wouldn't bother Marie anymore.

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As we glided through the air, I heard the voice again.

Hello Max.

I sighed loudly. Oh what now?

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Okie dokie! We now know that Cammie really is a bird-kid. But WHY does the flock need her? What happened to the rest of her flock? And WHAT does the voice want now? You'll find out the answers to some of these questions…in the next chapter.

Please rate/review!!!! I want to know what you think, how you like it, and you can even predict what'll happen next! Plus, reviewers are special! Don't you want to be special??? My mom says I'm special!!! *passes out with excitement*

PS: If you yawned when you read the bit about the yawning, then include that in the review. I think it's funny when that happens.