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Hard Being Pure - Part 2

 by GrimGrendel

10: Friends’ Visit

Monday early morning, May 23rd
Hospital room

Being able to sit and play with your toes was a great feeling after having been stuck in the same position for so long. Being able to speak also made things a lot easier than writing on a piece of paper, yet Noa kept her notebook close to her. It contained precious thoughts and personal reflections, and although she no longer needed it to express herself, she had grown to like having the book next to her in the past few days. It had been her only way of communication, and it was filled up with her half of every discussion she had had with other people since. It contained memories that she was sure a few years down the line would remain meaningful. Wherever she could, she wrote down the other half of her exchanges as far as she remembered them. Some of them she had forgotten the lines, and for some she improvised based on the lingering feelings of the moment. The talks she had with Milton and Richard in the park, the coin-catcher discussion with Carol, her mother and brother’s words when they came visit. All of these were precious.

She turned her head around, looking through the window from a point of view that she had thought out of reach just yesterday. Her neck still pulled in places if she turned too far, but not having the collar was as much a relief as being able to sit in the bed. The sun was bright, the cars and pedestrians moving along with their day. Normalcy was slowly seeping back into her life.

As much as being a mutant could afford you normalcy, mind you. She did not feel that different, but there were a few things that stood out and that reminded her how much her life had changed. The tray of food placed on a cart next to her bed, untouched yet slowly being absorbed into her was one such thing. The pen writing in the notepad by itself, moving only through the power of her mind, was another. Her eyes, once hazelnut brown with a golden highlight around the rim, were now a complex mix of blue, yellow, red, green and purple, changing in shape and patterns to every single movement she made like the patterns from a kaleidoscope. When the nurse had brought her a mirror, Noa lost herself in the complexity of her eyes and the hypnotic shapes it created. It was one more reminder of what she was, her eyes deep and receptive just like the patterns they created. They were so sensitive that she often needed to keep them close, to avoid thinking about all the creases and folds in the young nurse's skin despite her apparent twenty-something years old, or the scales on the hair of that boy, broken and unkempt at the root. Sometimes, she could take it all in and ignore everything that was not relevant and that she did not want to see, and at other times her mind simply refused to be distracted away from the details.

It was an odd feeling, to see so much that you had to stop and rest for a bit. The same was true of her other senses, but she had quickly learned to close them and to adjust their sensitivity. If she did not block her hearing with a thin telekinesis membrane, it was so sensitive that she could capture and distinguish a man talking on his phone and the reply from the phone speaker from a hundred meters away. With the membrane however, she could completely stop the air from entering her ears, making her deaf. By leaving smaller or bigger holes in the membrane, Noa could adjust her receptiveness to the ambient noise. She kept it at a baseline level, one that was familiar and simple. She used the same process to block particles from entering her nose and mouth, limiting her hypersensitive smell and taste to levels appropriate and expected of a human.

Even with her eyes closed and her senses under control, she was not completely blind. She could feel with her telekinesis field further than before, the volumes more distinct and clearer in her mind, the touches and tastes more indicative of the substances underneath. Her aura had almost taken a life of its own, constantly active and buzzing with energy despite her best efforts to reign it in. She was eating faster, the cart on her side holding the equivalent of two meals and changed every four to six hours. As far as she could tell, she was not getting fuller, yet Dr. Evans had confirmed, after discontinuing the IV nutrition, that she was indeed accumulating energy from the food she absorbed. Still, even with food around, it did not mean that the rest of her aura was laying still. Even if she limited her tasting to only things that nobody would miss, before long the room was purged of every little speck of dust, every bit of fat and pollen, every broken hair, or dried drops of water, or chemicals and smells permeating the floor, walls and ceiling. Even with the window open to let in some fresh air, pollen and bugs, the room remained pristine, not a single thread out of place on the sheet, not a single crack in the wall, not a single impurity or spider web laying in a corner. Eventually, she had to request to be moved to a dirtier room because even after all that, her aura would not sit still.

There was a lot of talk about her going around the hospital. About her miraculous recovery, an angel fallen from the sky, or some other theories to explain her sudden change for the best. Noa knew better though. She knew that it was some kind of Faustian pact with the devil on Dr. Evans’s part. She was glad he did, but she still could not help but be wary of the repercussions this would have.

There had been plenty more tests and MRI scans before the end of yesterday, mostly to figure out what exactly was filling up her belly now. When the scans came back to Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Evans, the comparison with the earlier scans was astonishing. Where before the had been a black emptiness, now there was a bright white patch of intricate lattices, brighter than anything else on the scan. A quick tissue sample confirmed that it was the same compound that had been created via the blood tests before. It was definitely not human, and even though it looked the part, it was not organic either. The complex structure did not interact with the rest of the body. It was simply there, connecting all around it and solidifying her internal integrity.

“Looks like a tumor,” commented Dr. Ferguson at one point, putting into words what Dr. Evans only formulated in thoughts. The mass extended all the way up, filling the space of the missing esophagus, stomach and intestine, with filaments extending from the lattice into the flesh all around it, reaching all the way outward to the skin. On the scan the lines were quite distinct and apparent, both them and Noa’s thin layer of skin shining the same bright white as the lattice.

Ensuing tests would take a little while, and the two doctors were considering what to do with Magnolia. Her state had improved enough that staying in the hospital was no longer required. With a normal patient, they would send them back home and tell them to get a couple of weeks of rest, but there was still the threat of Noa having another couple of attacks. Dr. Evans had Phobia's phone number at the ready, but he would rather not rely on her more than necessary. Although when he considered the number of artifacts of power Phobia expended for her last healing, he had doubts that she could repeat the feat this soon.

Their concern was real. Noa kept on changing in minute ways. At one point, the IV had ejected itself from her arm. When the doctors tried to insert it back, they could no longer find the veins. Noa's fingers no longer bled when pricked. The surface layer of veins and capillaries had fused into the compound that formed her skin, a sign that the compound was slowly expanding its way inward. The same process was happening from the mass in her belly, assimilating the surrounding flesh and blood vessels ever so slowly. There were other ways to inject nutriments and antibiotics into her, but this was a reminder that those methods too would fail before long. If they kept to the results of the last blood test, her liver was next in line, followed by her lungs anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It was hard to predict what would happen at that point, but she still had a respiratory system and still a lot of blood and human flesh. Lack of oxygen would probably be fatal within a few minutes.

Noa was still far from safe. Even though her apparent state could let her stay outside the hospital, Dr. Evans had no choice but to keep her for an indeterminate length of time. Of course, he would allow her to get comfortable, to get clothed properly, and to bring books and school materials if she so desired, but there was simply no way he could afford to take the risk of a crisis without access to immediate medical attention.

The day passed by without a fuss. Judith and Nathan came once again in the early morning, and were flabbergasted to see Noa well, sitting and without most of the tubes connecting her to machines. It had been another touching reunion, with the two family members expressing their thanks toward Dr. Evans even though he felt it was too early for thanks. Neither Noa nor Dr. Evans talked about Phobia directly, only that he had called a healer to help Noa recover from her injuries. Dr. Evans explained that he had to keep Noa until he could be sure that she would not have a relapse, and that this could take a while. Noa gave the two a list of things she would like to make her room more comfortable for a long stay, which included a few pairs of pants, some loose t-shirts, her school bag, and her fuzzy cat plushie named Piyu. She liked to sleep with the little furball. You were never too old to have plushies, especially the cute ones.


Monday late afternoon, May 23rd
Hospital hall

Later that day, a group of five kids entered the hospital, asking to see Magnolia Flores. The group was led to the third floor's reception desk, where Dr. Evans and nurse Taylor were filling in papers and reports.

“Remember gang, no fuss, and keep your voice down,” said Carol, leading the group. She held a large plastic bag in her hand, the content heavy enough for the handle of the bag to dig uncomfortably into her hand despite her thin gloves.

Behind her, the four other kids were looking around, some excited at the idea of being in a hospital.

The boy closest to Carol, handsome-looking if you had asked her, wore expensive headphones around his neck and looked around with a smirk and unbridled fascination. Behind him, his girlfriend, wearing enough makeup to paint a Picasso, tried in vain to get his attention to focus back on her. Carol never understood what Ross saw in Becky, but here she was, tagging along for the ride even though she showed minimal enthusiasm.

The pair at the back was much more lively. Mae, the girl in a tough-looking checkered dress shirt was bouncing ideas with Gene, her science fair partner, about their coin-catcher and other workshop projects. The boy had his arms up behind his head, his eyes fixed in an ever-bored stare that did not reflect his overflowing interest at their current discussion.

Noticing the group as they approached, both the nurse and the rat doctor turned to look in their direction.

“Dr. Evans!” said Carol, noticing the rat and waiving her arm at him. “I brought some friends of Noa. Think we can see her?”

“Carol. Nice to see you again. I am sure she would appreciate some company.”

Mae, the girl in the checkered shirt, bent over the edge of the reception desk, her hand outstretched over Dr. Evans as if she could not believe what she was seeing and was taken with an uncontrollable desire to touch. “A rat?” she asked, trying to catch the evasive doctor.

“I would rather you neither grab me nor poke me young lady.” Dr. Evans was moving around on all four, dodging her opened hand yet remaining more or less in the same area of the desk.

“A talking rat?” she asked again, with more emphasis.

“Oops.” Carol rose her shoulders, not really apologetic. The look on her friend's faces was worth the secrecy. “Guess I forgot to warn you guys.”

Mae stopped chasing Evans, which gave the rat doctor the time he needed to get back his countenance. Standing up, his hands behind his back, he addressed the group. “I assume you are all aware of Magnolia's condition, am I right?”

“You kidding?!” Ross, the cool boy with the headphones replied. “The whole school heard about it! How she puked out her organs and stuff. She's the freshest talk around!”

The other kids all nodded in agreement.

“Then you are aware she is a mutant?” The group paused slightly too long, which was answer enough. Dr. Evans looked severely at Carol, who rose her shoulders once again, much more apologetic this time around. She had hoped to get away with double the surprise, but alas, it bit her back in the butt. “Carol, this is no laughing matter. A lot of people could have taken the news very badly. You roped these friends into coming without even telling them the basics!”

“My bad, I goofed, sorry okay?” She faced the stares of the other four students. “There, everyone knows now. Do you guys still want to see Noa or not?”

“Sure I do! Especially now that she could be a huge scaly dragon monster,” said Ross.

Dr. Evans refrained from doing a facepalm. These kids...

“I'd like to see her,” said the bored-looking guy, Gene. “She missed a few days of class already. It's serious.”

“Of course it is! Anyone who saw the state of that bathroom would know that,” countered miss-mascara, looking away from her boyfriend for the first time since they entered the hospital.

Gene and Becky started bickering, him denying that he was worried about Noa, and her giving him a hard time for the fun of it.

Ignoring the two, Mae bent closer to Dr. Evans. “Can I hold you?”

“Only if you let me stand in your hand, and you don't drop me.” The agreement made, she opened her palm and the rat stepped on it.

“You're heavier than you look.”

“You could lose a little weight yourself.” The joke was taken with a hint of indignation, quickly forgotten in favor of the simple pleasure of holding a speaking rat in her hand. With a light step and a pleased smile, Mae followed Dr. Evans's instructions, leading the way to Noa's room.

Noa was aware of the group a few seconds before they knocked and entered. The five of them plus the rat took position where there was space, the little area around her bed not made to accommodate too many visitors. Becky drew back the curtains separating Noa from the other empty bed in the room, giving everyone a little more space and one more place to sit at the end of the unused bed.

“Yo girl, what's up?” Carol put down her rectangular bag by the bed, secretly relieved that she no longer had to carry the heavy thing. She gave Noa a once over. “Girl, you look great! What, they propped you up with Botox and implants or something?”

“It's good to see you too. Come here.” She opened her arms, inviting the other girl in. Noa's voice still sounded sore, as if she just got out of a nasty cold, but the words were intelligible. Worlds better than having to write down every sentence.

“Aw, you cuddly little bear.” Carol embraced her best friend. The feeling of her strong beating heart against her own chest made the worry she accumulated over the weekend fade like snow under the sun. “I'm glad you're okay.”

“Hey, don't forget us!” called the cool kid, pointing a thumb to the people a few steps back.

“Ross, Gene, Mae. What are you guys doing here?” She was happy by the surprise. She had not expected to receive any visit from the other students in her class.

Ross, broke into a grin. “When your rat told us you were a mutant, I was expecting an awesome fire-breathing dragon, but I see no scales, and no fire.” He shook his head, mock completely transparent. “I'm disappointed.”

His girlfriend slapped him on the shoulder. It barely made Ross move. He was enjoying it. “Stop that will you. She's lucky to still have her looks.”

"Oh, come on Bec. Wouldn't you like to grow some scales yourself? Being all awesome and exotic?"

She considered the idea much too seriously for the joke it was, dismissing it only after something else caught her attention. “I love your new eyes. They are so pretty.”

Noa giggled. “Thanks Becky. I like them too.”

“Let me see!” All at once, the four of them were packed in front of Noa's staring at her. The attention made her a little embarrassed, but to satisfy their curiosity, she looked at each of them in turn.

“Oh, it changed!”

“Whoa, so many colors.”

“Reminds me of mandalas or something.”

“I want eyes like that too!”

“Gotta be a mutant first. Scales after.”

“Oh, shut up Ross.”

Carol pushed back the pack of them. “Okay, that's enough. You're going to scare her if you keep going at it like that.”

“Carol, it's fine. Really...” Noa laughed as the other four stumbled backward, stepping on each other's toes in the confined space between the two beds. Mae at the back fell down, and one by one they each fell on top of each other, almost in slow motion as they tried to grab on to something or pushed the ones above them away. Still laughing, Noa was a little concerned for the girl at the back, who received the weight the rest of them. “Are you guys okay? Mae?”

The checkered shirt girl dusted her sleeves. “I'm okay. I'm fine.”

The four kids on the ground exchanged some looks, each making sure no one got hurt, before all breaking into laughter, the silliness of the situation apparent to all.

“Just seeing this was worth bringing them here,” commented Carol, not failing to notice with a tinge of envy the way Becky fell on Ross. When he helped her back to her feet, it brought back memories that Carol forcefully pushed aside. Not today. Stay focused.

They stood back up one by one, most still grinning sillily. “We came to check how you were going,” Gene said, as he offered a helping hand that Mae refused, standing back up by herself. “The rumors at school are all kinds of ugly right now.”

“What rumors?” Noa brushed away a tear of joy from her eyes.

Gene looked at the others, trying to decide what to tell and what to conceal. “A lot of people think you died. There are theories of conspiracies going around that you were some agent infiltrating a school, and got terminated with the press of a button. Others think you are an alien that got overwhelmed by Earth's microbes.” He looked around at the dumbfounded stares she got. “What? Those are the rumors I heard.” He crossed her arms defensively, camping out on his position.

“Maybe the more extreme theories, yes,” said Mae, having talked about it with Gene at length before. “More realistically, they are wondering how this all happened. Some think that you were hiding a sickness and they are feeling bad for not treating you better, others blame it on food poisoning and want to throw a petition against the cafeteria.”

“I’m being used as a reason to manifest against the cafeteria food?” That sounded absurd, yet a little more probable than the alien theory, or the Big Brother kill.

Gene came to help Mae's explanation. “You have to understand that the way you left the school on Thursday was spectacular. The word got around, and too many students left for the weekend with too little information. It's not really a surprise that they came up with all those theories about you over the weekend.”

“Don't worry about it,” said Carol. “Give it a little bit of time, and it'll settle down.”

“Of course,” added Becky, “there is also the rumor that you are a mutant circling here and there.” That remark made the other guests uncomfortable.

“It's not really a rumor now is it,” observed Noa.

“Yeah, but you are not one of those dangerous mutants.” Gene tried to defend her from some unsaid argument, but was taken by a doubt. “Are you?”

Ross humphed, challenging. “It would help if we knew what you can do Noa.”

Carol stepped forward, seemingly insulted. “She has nothing to—”

“It's okay.” Noa cut her.

She did not really understand where that outburst came from, but she could guess it was from some previous discussion on the subject. She knew Carol well enough that she could perfectly see her take her defense even when she was absent. Ross looked more like a mutant fan, but if he had played the devil's advocate and pushed Carol's buttons just right... She could see it play out.

Carefully, to not alarm anyone, Noa wrapped her aura around her pen and made it float up to everyone's eye level. Becky took a step back from the phenomenon, but everyone else was transfixed. Ross extended his hand forward, and Noa let him grab the pen.

“So cool!” The sentiment was shared by a few others. Carol felt proud of her friend showing off her new talent, while Ross looked at Noa with some longing in his eyes.

“I am also extremely aware of my surrounding. Super senses if you like.”

“I saw that on the television,” started Ross, nerding out on a mutant documentary he followed weekly. “They talked about a psychic package deal that’s common among a certain category of mutants. Usually, if they have telekinesis, they also get telepathy, and even some limited clairvoyance.”

“I'm thinking of a number between one and ten millions,” immediately said Mae, half teasing and half curious of the answer.

Noa shook her head. “I'm not telepath. All I have is a sort of... cleaning aura around me. I asked to be changed to another room because the previous one was getting too clean to my taste.” Noa did not want to go into the details of her aura and how she fed at the moment. It was simpler for them to grasp if she limited it to the outward effect only.

Becky gave a dry snicker. “That's a nice problem to have.”

“It's a problem nonetheless. I can't really stop it. To give you an example, what happens when you scrub a stain on the wall past the point where the stain is no longer visible?”

A light bulb went up in Gene's mind. “You start to damage the paint.”

“And the wall,” Noa added. Everyone seemed to understand the nature of the problem and why she had to change room.

“Huh,” Becky raised her hand up just like she would to draw the attention of the teacher in the classroom. “Not to offend anyone, but I took a shower before coming here.” Was it a problem if she was too clean herself?

“That's fine,” said Noa, a teasing smile on her lips. “You're all dirty enough to be delicious.”

The look of a deer caught in the headlight Becky gave her was precious. The others were shocked at her implied bloodlust, until Carol poked her in the ribs where it tickles. Noa struggled to keep a straight face and to ignore the poking, but she could only last so long before she folded away from the tickling finger, busting in laughter.

“Stop scaring the kids. They won't come back you know.”

“Hey! Who are you calling a kid!”

“Oh my god, your faces were priceless!” That relieved the tension for everyone. The two boys would not admit having been scared for a moment, but Mae and Becky commented on how intense the last few seconds had been. Mae's hat was off to Noa for the good prank.

After everyone calmed down a few notches, Carol bent down to pick up her bag. Noa, being too curious for her own good, had already felt the inside with her aura, excited by the potential surprised. She was disappointed with herself when she realized that she spoiled the fun, both for her and Carol. She tried to act as if she was not aware when Carol held the bag up and showed her.

“I brought a present. I know how flowers are overrated, so this is at least something that will be useful sooner than later.”

She gave the bag to Noa, who looked back appreciatively. Carefully pulling out what she already knew to be inside, Noa revealed a beautifully built wooden frame shaped in a triangle, with wheels placed at each extremity. In the middle of the frame was a modular support attached to two sticky roller dusters which could rotate and move up and down. The rollers were held in place with springs which, Noa assumed, would push the rollers down into the ground with enough force to make the coins it was supposed to grab stick onto it. Under the three edges of the triangle frame were large and powerful magnets. Not a single quarter would escape those.

“It's beautiful.” Her degree of admiration and respect for Carol's work was on par with that of a masterpiece made by Mozart or Van Gogh.

Carol blushed at the compliment. “I made some last-minute changes,” she explained. “During the weekend, a certain girl convinced me that a triangle frame would be better to catch the corners.”

“That's me. Guilty as charged.” Mae raised her hand to draw Noa's attention. “Don't worry, I also stole your sticky roller idea, so we're even.”

“That's a great idea,” complimented Noa, impressed. She should have thought of that. It was obvious in hindsight that a triangle would be more maneuverable in the corners than a square.

“Heh, thanks!”

Noa was still looking at the coin-catcher, amazed by the woodwork. A triangle frame was not easy to prepare, and Carol had not used any nails. She had instead taken the time to make a triangular wood joint on each side of the three square beams. It was an inordinate amount of work with very delicate precision. One mistake, or one stick half a centimeter too long, and the joints would not work.

“It's amazing! How long did it take you?”

Carol was embarrassed to admit the efforts that went into it. “Well, you see, the workshop during the weekend wasn't as empty as we expected. Not only was there a lot of people from our class, there were also people from other classes as well. It was twice as busy as during our allocated time slot! So by noon, I hadn't had a chance to cut the wood as I intended.”

Noa blinked. “So what did you do? Go home and work the wood with a kitchen knife?”

Mae supplied the answer. She had stolen the spot on the single available chair, laying forward with her elbows on her knees. “Mr. Harvey, the workshop manager, gathered the students that had remained after he turned off the machines and closed the workshop. A lot of students simply went home, even if they hadn’t got a chance at the machines. By the time Mr. Harvey and us were in the corridor, there was only me and a few others begging him to let us continue.”

“I stuck around to see if it would work,” admitted Carol.

“And it did,” continued Mae. “He brought us to his garage three blocks away from the school. We were only eight I think. He had all the tools we would need, and some more wood he kept for this part of the year, just in case something like this happened. He helped all of us with our frames.” Mae gave a complicit look at Carol. “Thanks to his help, we probably have the best built frames in our grade.”

“You can say that again!”

“We have the best built frames in our grade!” exclaimed Mae, obliging to Carol's choice of word. Carol stuck her tongue out at her, letting her know in all eloquence what she thought of the gag. Mae chuckled, pleased that she got a reaction out of Carol. “You should have seen Carol. She wasted so many pieces of wood trying to make it fit into a triangle, it was pretty fun to watch.”

“At least I didn't give up after the fifth try and nailed the whole thing up into a porcupine like someone I know.”

Mae gave her a condescending laugh, all in good humor. “Of course you wouldn't. After the number of times you slipped with your hammer and hit your fingers, even I wouldn't want to come close to a nail.”

Noa turned toward Carol, troubled over Mae's words. “Let me see.”

“It's nothing. I'm fine.”

“Stop being stubborn and let me see,” Noa insisted, realizing why Carol was wearing gloves today. She grabbed Carol's hand and carefully removed the glove. Carol let her, but she looked away, not wanting to see Noa’s reaction.

“Oh, Carol...” The motherly and disappointed tone planted daggers in Carol's heart. Her thumb, index, and middle fingers were bruised and swollen, turning shades of green and yellow that looked nasty and quite sensitive. In other places, there were lines of bright dark red, streaks marking where the skin had been pinched between the nail and the edge of the hammer. She even had one on her right finger. To get those kinds of wounds on her ring finger of all things, she needed to have stubbed her index and middle finger often enough to stop using those to hold the nails, instead relying on the next big digit around. “You didn't have to...”

“Yes I did.” Carol snatched back her glove, hiding the wounds away. “There was no way I was going to get lazy and hope you get well enough to do the work in my place. You were out, I took on the job.” Dismissively, she added “You'll repay me later.”

“The doctors, said that I'm well enough to study and do homework.” She confirmed with a quick glance toward Dr. Evans, who had not left the room since the group had entered. “You can come any time to study biology if you like.”

“You bet I will!” She took back the coin-catcher from Noa and placed it back in her bag with the same care she would handle the original Mona Lisa. It was clearly her baby. “But later this week maybe. The frame might be done, but I still need to work out the spring system to make it move forward.”

“That's another neat little invention we shared in the workshop this weekend.” Mae never seemed to be out of anecdotes to tell. “We tweaked the wheels so that our cart would run ellipses inside the tournament's square area. Someone I know even built a replica of the three by three meters our coin-catchers will have to work in. Naturally, we went to his place to try.”

“It's working nicely,” added Carol. “Ours runs into loops from one corner to the middle, before jumping to another corner and back. The wheels needed some tweaking to get the proper movement, but with this we should be able to catch a max.”

Noa was impressed. “You thought about all of this during the weekend?”

“It helps when you are stuck with a hundred other students on the same project, with too much time on their hands and too much ego to admit that their design is anything but the best,” explained Carol.

The small group chatted a while longer, until Judith and Nathan came in, bearing bags of the stuff Noa had claimed. They put a pile of fiction books on the floor on the left side of her bed, along with just as many school books, binders, loose sheets of papers, pens and erasers. Looking at the content, Noa had no doubt that Nathan had raided her locker at school, after finding her combination in her agenda. With this, she should be busy for a while.

Everyone eventually left the room, Ross and Becky first, uncomfortable in the even more crowed space and not really related to Noa's family. Mae had some more stories to tell of the weekend at the garage, and Gene and Carol stayed to give their own inserts in her tales. They left all three together when they felt like Judith and Nathan wanted to have some alone time with Noa.

The two told her about their day at work and university respectively, and the things that happened over the weekend. It felt normal, the kind of stuff they would talk about around a nicely cooked dinner. It felt like home, and that was worth the world to Noa.

She gave each of them a goodbye hug, a real one this time around, and the two were of, planning their evening.

Alone with the rat, she cautiously moved toward the end of the bed where there was no railing, and slowly pushed her legs out of the bed.

“Take it easy,” warned Dr. Evans, understanding what she was trying to do. “Let me call a nurse first.”

“Okay.” Her reply was strained. She might have healed significantly, but at the end of the day she was still recovering and her muscles had not yet had the time to adjust to the new mass in her belly. She was not sure she could stand upright, but she felt like she had to try, if only to measure how much longer she would have to recover before she could leave the hospital.

Dr. Evans came back with nurse Taylor, and he told her to support Noa as she tried to stand. Her feet touched the cold ground and as soon as she put some weight on them, her knees buckled. The nurse caught her immediately, and Noa put most of her weight on her, getting a feel for how much she could currently carry.

“I'm fine. Please get me back on the bed.”

The legs themselves were not the problem. It was all the muscles over and around her pelvis that refused to cooperate. Everything that the evacuation of her bowels had damaged and had yet to heal was unable to exert any strength. She could sit, but she could not stand. It put a damper on her mood, like dangling a carrot just slightly out of her reach.

“Maybe we could see to get you some rehabilitation in a few days,” proposed the doctor, “but I think you should rest for a while, even if you think you are doing fine.”

“I have books to read, and assignments to catch up to,” Noa agreed, “but I would love it if you could get me some exercise. I've been itching to go out since I came here.”

“I understand. It should not be an issue. Please just be patient a little longer.”


11: Hearsay Curbing

Tuesday morning, May 24th
School bus

It had become a regular habit for Carol to step into the bus and look expectantly at Noa's house when the bus would pass by. She knew Noa was still at the hospital, and that she would probably stay there for a while, but Carol could not help but hope to be surprised one day seeing her all fine and dandy coming out of her door, running to catch the bus.

Failing that, Carol had taken to hang around other friends of hers. There were always those friends that you enjoy spending time with, but you simply enjoyed spending time with another of your friend more, and one day or another you noticed that it has been weeks since you saw your other clique.

For Carol, that was the astronomy club. She usually spent most of her time with Noa, but once a week she would join the club at lunch, and one night every second weekend, depending on the weather, they would be out on the hill admiring the stars with their telescopes and binoculars. Carol was not cool enough nor willing enough to spend her pocket money on a tripod telescope, so instead she borrowed her dad's hunting binoculars. It did the job.

The ‘club’, unofficial as it was, had only two other members, James and Alvin, and they were also in Carol's classes. They shared enough interests outside of the starry sky to hit it off pretty well, and Carol even felt that Alvin was interested in being a little more than friends, but sadly she was not looking for a new relationship just yet. Not after the bittersweet taste of her recent breakup with Ross. She was still trying to accept how quickly he had moved on to someone else. At least Becky seemed nice.

Carol had had some time to think it over. Alvin had not confessed to her yet, but she had prepared what she would say to him in case he ever did. She half hoped he did not have the guts to go through with it, so she could avoid one awkward moment, but at the same time he would be a lot manlier if he got hold of himself and admitted his feelings. It was fun to watch him blush every time she joined them at their table. Not that his eyes ever went below her chin; he was too shy and honest for that. He was cute when he was doing that. It was flattering. As thanks, Carol did not tease him, nor did she makes things harder on him. They were friends, and they each had limits. She could respect that.

Her other friend, James, when he was not absorbed by the best time to spot Neptune in the sky, was a heavy gossiper, and a champ at eavesdropping. Whoever said that all gossip came from girls never met this guy. He was uninteresting, forgettable, one in a crowd, and he made full use of it. He would often sit down at or near a clique's table and listen in on their conversation. More than once, he walked along boys whose voice was just a little too loud, making it look like he was going to class in the same direction as them, before turning a corner once he had heard enough. He had a knack with names and could tell you what a hundred different people did in the past week. He had turned eavesdropping into an art.

Yet, the only persons he could share his gossip with was Alvin, and Carol when she deigned show herself. He talked loud enough and knew enough people that he could sometimes drag adjacent uninterested parties into one of his ravings. He would talk to them as if they were old friends and they knew each other their whole life, yet when he had his back turned around, the people he dragged into the conversation would ask 'Who's this loony?!'

Carol knew better than to judge by his exuberance. He was just lonely, that's all. A few times, she had suggested he join a sport team. With his level of energy, he would be an instant hit, but he refused, saying it was not his style.

Carol eventually got used to it, and by the end of the year, he had managed to corrupt her and Alvin into joining the gossipy hens pack.

“Alphonse found some steroids in Nick's gym bag the other day.”

“No way, not Nick. That's a scam, someone's out to get him. Probably any one of his four girlfriends.”

“Where did the fifth one go? Caught some STD?”

“Below the belt girl, that's not nice. No, she had some problems at home I heard, and he left her after she called him on his phone late at night. He couldn't be bothered.”

“Men. So insensitive.”

“Hypocrite, much?”

“I'm still a boy. I'll correct it to 'Jocks. So insensitive' if you want.”

“Speaking about men, you know Mr. Garner?”

“History class? What about him?”

“He caught two students cheating for a preparatory exam.”

“How can someone cheat on a preparatory exam? They let you take the exam home back with you.”

“He found an answer sheet written by a senior in both of their desk. He had doubts after the girls got a hundred percent, which is dumb. Everyone knows that if you cheat, you at least make the effort of making it look like you didn't. Eighty-five percent would have been more than enough.”

“And then?”

“And then, at the bottom of the sheet of printed paper, was an URL. He wrote down the URL in the browser, and bam! He found a website for senior students selling exam answers and services to freshmen and sophomores.”

“No way. He called the police?”

“You bet he did. The website was closed the next day, and several seniors got billed. The girls got detention.”

“Serves them right.”

“Changing the subject,” Alvin said, “the latest theories concerning the bathroom incident of last week just keep getting crazier.”

“You got any sweet ones?” asked Carol. Even though she got pulled into the rhythm of their talk, this one subject stroke closer to home, and Carol was a little more uncomfortable talking about her best friend behind her back.

“Magic, witchcraft, vampire bite, and tabletop avatar are the latest trends.” Alvin ate his breakfast unconcerned. He thought the event was overrated. Yes, there had been plenty of blood, an ambulance was called, and the girl had missed a few days of school. What's the big deal? Those people telling sillinesses like that should just get a life.

“You're pulling my leg on the last one.”

“Maybe I am exaggerating a teeny tiny bit.” He never said that James and him had a life. They really should get to it at some point.

“Who the heck is spreading those around?” Carol almost cried out in incredulity. People over at the next table gave her an odd look.

“Us?” replied both James and Alvin simultaneously.

“Beside us I mean. I can believe that one of you two started the one about aliens,” the two of them looked away, suddenly finding the color of the wall much more interesting than it should be, “but I can't believe someone would go so far as to suggest radioactive spiders.”

Alvin raised an eyebrow. “I never said—”

“It’s just a matter of time.”

“Oh.”

James cut in. “The problem is that we have nothing to go on. The teachers don't know anything either. You must admit that it's like she just vanished.”

“I know a small group went to visit her at the hospital,” said Carol, crossing her arms defensively.

James was attentive. “How do you know that?”

“Industrial secret.” She was not about to admit that she was part of said small group, nor that she went to visit her a couple of times. There was no telling where the things she shared with them would end up, and how grossly deformed they might become. She needed to control how and when the gossip evolved.

“So, what did they tell you?” More to the point. Thank you Alvin.

Carol shook her head. “Not much, other than she was feeling better, that she could receive visitors, and that they had a good time.”

“Well, at least she is feeling better. That's good for her. Hey, have you heard about—”

“James, I’m not done here.” He shut up to her interjection. “I mean, everyone's so crazy about it while nobody knows what's the big deal. Why won't anyone see her?”

“The students?” Bzzzt! Wrong answer. Minus ten point for James.

“The teachers.” Carol tried to hint at things so that the two would come to their own conclusions. She did not like the spotlight like James did, so if he could be convinced that it was his idea, he would stick to it and go rampant.

“Hm, it's true that normally they would contact the family and try to get some sort of info they could share with the rest of the class.” James was lost in thought, leaving the task of stating the obvious to Alvin.

“Maybe they did, but the family didn't give any detail.”

“Maybe she has no family, a sad and sick orphan on the street.”

“Maybe she's an alien.”

“Guys,” Carol snapped her fingers between the two guys to draw their attention back to the topic. “Why not ask the nurse and teachers directly?” Well, they were too moron to figure this one out by themselves. At this point, better feed them the answer. “Maybe one of the teachers would be willing to visit and bring some students with him. Something bigger and more official.”

“And we'd be with them.” Alvin had the right idea.

“Sounds like a plan,” said James, finally catching on. “I'll go talk to the teachers. Alvin, can you round up a few students from her class that would like to visit? And check the hospital's limit for visitor. We don't want to bring the whole school.”

“You can count on me.”

“And Carol, can you get back to those friends of hers that did visit? We could get more info from them.”

“I'll see what I can do.” She would not. No way she was feeding them more than what little she needed to pick at their curiosity. There was too much gossip going at school right now, and whatever she said would only feed the fire. It was much better if a gang of students and teachers saw the facts at the source. This way, the information would be more reliable, and would spread out more quickly and evenly.

The three of them went together to their first class of the day. The madam teaching English was interesting in how boring she was. It must be a trend for English teachers, since Noa had the same problem with hers. Seriously, you could do a dissertation analyzing the flatness of her voice, the blandness of her slideshow, the relevance and quality of the selected text, and finish with a survey of the students' enjoyment of the class, and the whole enterprise would be more engaging than just sitting, waiting for the bell to ring. Carol no longer bothered to listen. Instead, she used the hour and the judicious placement of her seat at the back of the class to do homework for her next class. Since the beginning of the year, she had discovered that she could remain afloat by simply looking at the slides once in a while and reading the entire textbook cover to cover. She was not bothered too much that doing so would only get her a passing grade. Having three more hours of free time per week was worth the shot.

James and Alvin had not yet found a way to deal with the class yet. Alvin tried to follow and to look interested (keyword being ‘tried’), whereas James simply gave up and napped. That too was a good use of his time.


Tuesday morning, May 24th
School

After the class, the three of them broke up, James and Alvin each having a mission to fulfill. They would not get much done in the fifteen minutes between classes, but if you added a couple of fifteen minutes together, along with lunch, it started to look like a decent amount to time. Carol, on the other hand, simply went to her locker, spending those precious minutes catching up on the trends and latest jokes on her phone.

Or she would have if she had not overheard something that triggered a bunch of red flags.

“... Definitely a mutant. She made a pen float just like in those ghost stories. Whooo-ooo-oo!”

“Haha! So you admit you were spooked?”

“Not! Ross was there. He would have protected me if she ever did something.”

The high-pitched voice was immediately recognized. Carol turned her head from her phone to see Becky chatting with a tall boy a year or two older than her, along with his girlfriend attached to his arm like a hand bag. The boy looked like he could be in the basketball team. With his height, muscle tone, tanned skin and cap, he would fit in like a charm, if he was not already a member. The girl at his arm was demeaning to look at. A skirt rolled high to show off her leg, plenty of cleavage in a shirt that was two of three years too young for her, and more makeup than even Becky. She hoped Becky was not taking makeup tips from that girl. They would definitely come with other 'tips' that any politically correct adult would call 'bad influence'.

Taking the time to close her locker, Carol walked toward the three of them.

“I bet she was all scary and manipulative.” The guy was not even paying attention to the girl squirming against him. Becky neither for some reason. If Becky knew the girl, maybe this was a daily occurrence for her and she was not disturbed in the least by the image it gave of women everywhere.

“She wasn't that bad,” tried to defend Becky, “although the doctor said she was not done changing yet. She is still pretty sweat and cute.”

“They all start like that. It's all an act though so don't get fooled. Especially those mind reader fucking psychics. They'll sweet talk you, tell a few lies here and there, and before you know it you're their slave. She might act cute now, but I bet you that by the end of it her powers will have taken over. That's the only fate for mutants.”

“If you say so. She does have some almost hypnotic eyes.”

“There, see? There are signs. What's to say that she didn't lie about not being able to read your mind? She might have planted some bad thoughts already.”

Becky laughed nervously. “You're making a big deal out of nothing. I'll be careful.”

“Becky?” Carol asked.

The guy looked at Carol, taking the hint. “Be sure that you'll be Bec, be sure that you'll be.” He left with his girlfriend, understanding that some girl talk needed to happen with the new arrival.

Becky did not pay much more attention to Carol than giving her a greeting glance before she opened her locker and started changing her books for her next class. “You want to talk?”

“What was that all about?” Barely repressed irritation was seeping through her teeth.

“Floyd? He's a nice guy. He runs the bowling center by the bus stop with his dad. He makes some awfully good deals for groups of students of six or more on Tuesdays and Fridays.”

“I don't want an advertisement of his shop, I’m asking about that talk just now.” Her irritation exacerbated up a notch, joined with a fair amount of annoyance.

“He had some past experience with mutants, so he was giving me a few tips. Why are you asking?” She finally turned to Carol for more than a second at a time. She looked so sincere, gullible and dumb that Carol did not feel like she could hold it against the girl. With the look she was giving her, Becky seemed ready to believe anything anyone would say to her.

With a little more patience, she asked “You told him about Noa?”

“Well, yeah.” Becky made it sound like it was a matter of course. “He has some experience with mutants, I don't. I wanted to get someone else's opinion, that's all.”

“So you just went up to him and told him everything you knew about her.” Statement, not a question. There was no doubt in her mind that that was what she did.

“Otherwise he wouldn't have had a full picture.” Becky was concerned about the emotions Carol was displaying, from anger to disdain to pity. Not emotions she liked to see from a nice acquaintance.

“Did you really think through this?” Obviously not. “He could spread that info around and cause trouble for Noa later on.”

She giggled as if Carol said a good joke. “Floyd wouldn't do that. He's a nice guy.”

“What about his girlfriend?” Otherwise known as the handbag. “Look, just from hearing a few words of your conversation, you made Noa sound bad.”

“No I did not. Noa's a nice girl. And besides, her power is really lame. Nobody would be scared of a 'cleaning girl'.”

“Yet you and the others all jumped when she joked about eating you guys.” Becky recalled the events for a few seconds, probably distorting them in her mind to justify that she had not been scared at the time and she was only playing along. Carol sighed. “Look, he said all those mean and false things about Noa, and you didn't deny them. How do you think he's going to take it?”

That seemed to set her off. “What do you know about what I said or not? I did deny that she was turning into a supervillain, and I did say that she was a nice girl. You only caught bits and pieces and you're making a huge deal out of it.”

Keeping her voice down to not escalate the debate, Carol countered. “What little I heard was enough. You came just because Ross came. You weren't even interested in Noa. I can see why you're badmouthing her behind her back.”

"Talking to my friends about the fun things I did is not badmouthing."

"It's not because you hang with bimbos and thugs that you have to follow their example. Not that I'd be too surprised if you picked their slang without noticing."

“Take that back!” She slammed her locker close, giving off intimidating vibes.

Carol was worried about the glances they were gathering from the kids around. “Becky, softer please.” She wanted to continue this conversation elsewhere, where the prying eyes and ears would not be so dense, but she doubted she would be able to force Becky to go anywhere she did not want to go.

“What.” Becky was talking louder just to spite Carol. “You're afraid the others will hear you insulting your friend's girlfriend just to keep him in you books?”

Carol spoke even quieter, trying to compensate for the noise Becky was making. “He's not your boyfriend yet.” The words came out as a mumble before she realized their implied meaning. She tried to take it back, but the words were already out.

“Louder! I barely heard you saying that you were still interested in him.”

All the eyes turned to Carol, some students mumbling comments to each other. The ones she caught mentioned how annoying an ex-girlfriend who wouldn't let go of her boyfriend could be. Others were sympathizing with Becky for being cornered by an insensitive bitch. Carol knew she could not win this one anymore. Becky was not even playing fair. It did not help that everyone had seen her smash her locker closed, indicating that this was her space and that Carol was intruding. She played the victim, and she played it well.

Carol did not answer. Anything she could say would just be more bullet in Becky's arsenal. Carol was not even sure whether the girl acted like that out of spite, or if she was dumb enough to really feel threatened by her.

However, Becky was not done. “The cat got your tongue now? Can't reply anything now that your secret got exposed?”

That bitch was even rubbing it in. Carol’s mouth opened slightly, even though she knew she was making a mistake. “Ross would at least defend his friends to the last word.”

“And so do I.” Becky picked up her backpack and threw it over her shoulder, hitting the locker with a bang, drawing the attention of a teacher who was walking down the corridor. “You insulted Floyd. He's my friend. Not your mutant friend Noa.”

With that, Becky walked away before the teacher arrived, asking what was going on here. The crowd that had been gathering dispersed at the appearance of an authority figure, everyone going to their respective classes.

Carol could not bring herself to make a step forward. She should have left when she still had the chance, but no! She had to open her trap. She was so pissed at herself, but even more furious at Becky. That whore had blown it all out. Before noon, the whole school would know the latest news. A mutant was coming to school. And naturally, it would have been exaggerated so much that Ross's joke of a fire-breathing dragon would pale in comparison.

Carol was scared to see the consequences of her little confrontation.


Tuesday at noon, May 24th
Cafeteria

When noon hit, James pulled out of the food line with his tray, only to find Carol depressing over the table. Her forehead was pressed down against it, and her arms were laying limp by her side. She had missed her chance of getting in line early, and now there was a forty minutes standing wait until you could checkout with what passed as food around here.

James sat down in front of her. “Feeling down?”

“Just kill me please.”

“The drug mart is doing a sale on tampons. It'll pass.” He started to chew on some potatoes, looking around and trying to spot Alvin somewhere in the mass of waiting people. No such luck.

She looked up, affronted. “How do you even know that?!”

“You're usually pretty jumpy this time around. But don't worry, I got used to it.”

It took a second to sink in for Carol that he had answered a completely different question than the one she had asked. “Oh, shut up! You're making it worse.” Someone, please put her out of her misery!

“There, there. Everything will be alright. Do you want some potatoes to hold up until the line thins up?”

“No thanks, I'm fine.”

“Girl talk, interpret the opposite.” He poked his forked into a potato and slid it in the small space between the table and Carol's mouth. Carol had no choice but to eat the incoming potato, or to be splattered with mayonnaise.

Munching on the treat, which admittedly calmed her stomach a little, she glared at him. “I hate you.”

James shrugged. “Girl talk—”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it smartass.”

Focusing back on his plate, James changed the subject, a skill he had mastered long ago. “Have you heard of the incident on the basketball field third period?” Not that he was subtle about it, but by being insistent enough he usually got people talking about what he wanted to talk about.

“Please spare me.”

“No no, this one has some punch.”

“You don't mean that literally do you.”

“Well, yeah. See, there was that guy named Floyd that picked a fight with a member of the other team.”

Carol perked up at the mention of a familiar name. When she stood back into a proper sitting position, James chuckled.

“What?”

“You got a big red dot all over your forehead.”

She hurriedly passed her fingers into her pink hair, pulling it in front of her so that it would hide her entire forehead and the red mark on her skin. James chuckled some more at her agitation.

“You were saying something about Floyd.”

“You know the guy?”

“Heard the name here and there.” If 'once' counted as 'here and there'.

“As I was saying, he started a fight with a member of the other team. Got suspended for a week for knocking the other guy on his butt.”

“Why did he do it?”

“Some comment about his father being poor and cheating the clients. Don't know about the details.”

So much for mister Nice Guy Becky was admiring so much.

Just as she was reordering her list of friends to put Becky at the bottom with the label 'untrustworthy', Alvin sat down at the table, his tray full.

“What did I miss?”

“Basketball guy hits another one for having insulted his dad. That got him a suspension.”

Alvin cringed. Violence, provoked or not, justified or not, did not sit well with him. He was idealistic in more than one way, but this particular subject was one of the few buttons he had that could easily be triggered.

Sensing his unease, Carol offered him an out. “Got anything on your side?”

“Yeah.” The change of subject pulled him out of his gloom. “I did a quick search on my phone about the Toronto General Hospital policies, but I did not find anything about a limit imposed on group visit. The only limits I found seem to be for the delivery room only. I called the hospital directly, but they put me on hold longer than I was ready to wait. I sent them an email instead. Hoping for an answer tonight maybe.” He took a sip of his bowl of soup, exhaling the steam in contentment, the liquid warming him from the inside. “My guess is that we don't need any forward warning if we expect the girl to be ready to see us. At worse, we would have to set up a date in advance, and maybe sign a paper, but I doubt it would go that far.”

“Good job Alvin.” James’s praise brightened the shy boy's features. “I haven't been idle either this morning. I talked to the nurse, who told me to contact Mr. Chavez, as he was the one who went to the hospital with her initially. Mr. Chavez told me that he had last called her family on Friday, and the response he got was uncertain and grim. He admitted having forgotten to share with her class what he knew. I got a promise out of him that he'll call her mom again tonight, and that he'll see if he can organize a group visit sometime this week.”

“Nice! Now we only have to wait.” The two with a meal resumed eating, temporarily enveloping the group in an unusual silence. It was quickly dispelled when Alvin opened his mouth to share his latest find. “I also heard that there is a girl called Noa on campus who's a mutant.”

Carol banged her head against the table hard enough to hurt. “Stupid!”

The other two glanced at her before exchanging a shrug. “Girls,” James commented. “They don't make sense seven days a month.”

He received a mayonnaise potato to the face for his trouble.


12: Requested Make Up

Tuesday afternoon, May 24th
School hall

At the end of fourth period, Carol got intercepted on her way back to her locker by a concerned Ross. Electro music was coming out of his headphones, which were lowered down his neck. His backpack was completely empty, more a fashion statement than providing the usual utility for students around here. That, and he could not be bothered to bring school books to his classes.

Not taking the time for pleasantries, he got straight to the point. “Becky told me about this morning.”

Rolling her eyes, Carol kept walking in the direction of her locker, Ross in tow. “Of course she would run to you as soon as things get a little heated.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

The frown on his face got deeper. “You’re making this difficult.”

“For whom? Me, Becky, or you?” She accelerated her pace, trying to lose him in the densely packed hallways, but his strides were longer and he had no difficulties dodging the incoming students and match her speed side by side.

“Look, can we talk?”

“I thought we were.”

“Looks to me like you're trying to run away.”

She came abruptly to a halt, letting him take a few more steps until he turned to face her. With anger and hostility in her voice, she snapped. “There, happy? What do you want?”

Refusing to let himself be stared down, Ross squared his shoulders, gaining a few centimeters over Carol who now had to look up to keep the eye contact. “I want you to apologize to Becky. You insulted her and her friend.”

“She was giving Noa a bad rep.” Carol knew that Ross was in Noa's class. Noa and him were not super-duper close, but they were acquainted enough for him to care a little. “She made her sound like a scary psychopath.”

“Two wrongs don't make a right. You didn't have to confront her the way you did.” He paused, his next confession making him uncomfortable. “Becky came to me crying at lunch.”

Just another manipulative ploy. Carol made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “She's crying for so little? Please, give me a break.”

She walked pass him. A dozen more meters and a flight of stairs and she would at her locker. The bell for the next class could not come fast enough.

“I just want you two to get along.” He trailed behind her. “It tears me to see the two of you at each other's throat like that.”

“What do you care.” She jumped the stairs, climbing them up two by two, and sometimes three by three, but Ross would not let her run away.

“I do care. I still do.” The end of his sentence trailed off into nostalgia, which more than anything else he had said managed to make Carol stop halfway up the stair. Repressing the tears was harder than she thought it would be.

“Now you're not playing fair. You just want your girlfriends to make up and be best buds. How selfish can you be!”

He sighed, sounding terribly apologetic. “I know. But can you blame me?” His voice cracked as he looked down in shame. “You probably can, can't you.” Taking a deep breath, he let his shoulder slop down, losing his defensive posture. “I'm sorry.”

The two stayed there in silence for a moment, remembering simpler times. The hallways were clearing up, students anticipating the bell any minute now and heading to their classes.

“Just... talk to her, okay?”

Torn between the need to get away and moving to her class, and standing there being an emotional wreck, Carol finally gave in. “You win.” she murmured, not softly enough for him to miss it. Before he could put a word, she established her own limits. “I'll try talking to her, but if she flips out on me like she did in the hallway, you won't ever see us in the same room again.”

He gave her a stern nod. “She won't. She's pretty down from what happened to Floyd. She's having a rough day. Just be a little patient with her, okay?”

Her opinion on the matter defined by what James had told her about third period basketball, she replied with disdain “Floyd's the one who started it.”

He shook his head in disappointment. “You don't know the half of it. The guy—” The bell interrupted his sentence and his train of thought. Carol took advantage of this moment to take off.

“I'll be late. You should get moving too.”

She left, leaving him standing in the staircase. Carol did not look back once.


She would have loved to be able to ignore everything and to just hide inside the blankets of her bed back at home, but the next two classes did not offer any reassuring blankets for her to hide into. The minutes ticked by as she tried to distract herself from the eventual meeting after school. She was not looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, that time came too fast. The last bell of the day rang, prompting a bunch of tired students to take the buses and go home. Carol would have loved to get lost in the crowd and simply go home herself, ignoring her promise to Ross, but the proximity of her closet with Becky's made it difficult to ignore the girl. She was looking down, shoulders slouched, more makeup applied to cover streaks of mascara tears. The slightly darker lines were still noticeable under the extra layer of foundation for anyone interested to look. The girl took her bag, not caring enough to put books or assignments in it, and left, walking pass Carol without giving her a glance.

Carol took more of her time, delaying the fateful encounter as much as she could. Waiting a time long enough that it was possible for Becky's bus to have left already, but short enough to feel like she at least made the effort to try, Carol closed her locker and walked down the main hall to the entrance. Becky was there, sitting at the top of the stairs leading down to the different buses, looking at every car that entered the parking lot. She was lost in her bubble, the hundreds of students passing by her and giving her a few meters of breath without them even realizing it.

Carol walked up to her, standing a step back and to the side. She would miss her own bus for this, but at the same time she knew she was only making more excuses to delay it further. After all, she could just as well take the city buses in an hour or two.

“Came to blame me some more?” Becky did not look at the girl behind her, her attention riveted to the cars that kept coming and going.

“Are you waiting for your parents?”

“My uncle. I'm not living with my parents anymore.”

“It's a bit early to be out of the house.”

“They're ambassadors in Ukraine. They forced me to stay and finish my school year.”

Either this girl was purposely laying down bombs, or she was clueless as to how a proper conversation was supposed to flow. Knowing how Carol herself wanted to be left alone at the moment and the methods she would use to blow away an undesirable bugger, she tended more toward the former than the later. “Sorry.”

Becky did not reply, nor did she further acknowledged Carol's presence, instead staring into the distance as the first two buses of a long line departed. Not allowing herself to be brushed off that easily, Carol sat down at her level, leaving a good meter between them.

“Ross told me you might come.” She laid eyes on Carol just long enough to transmit the full extent of her scorn.

“Then you know what I am here for.”

“Get this over with.”

Taking a deep breath, Carol attempted to sound sincere and apologetic, yet even to her own ears she could feel the edge of derision. “I'm sorry I insulted you and your friend Floyd. There I said it.”

Becky just ignored her completely, more interested in counting the cars once more than to listen to half-assed apologies.

Ross was right. The two of them were making it hard for no reason. Carol sighed, dropped the fake voice and made a second attempt. “I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean to sound paranoid. I just caught you talking about Noa and I freaked out.” She waited until a wave of student had passed so she could be sure no one would overhear before admitting the truth. “I don't know how to deal with her being a mutant. I thought it was supposed to be kept secret, so I panicked when I saw you talking about it so openly.”

The sincerity had reached Becky enough for her to give the pinkette a sideways glance and a listening ear. She noticed the other girl drawing her knees up closer and wrapping her arms around them, more insecure than she usually let on.

“I don't know how to deal either. That's why I had to talk about it with Floyd.”

“You trust the guy?” She could not comprehend how anyone could put their trust into someone like that. His whole demeanor was insulting. “He beat up a guy just today.”

That got a grimace out of Becky. “And the whole school knows already. But you're wrong. There's a reason to that.”

“Oh, yeah.” she could not help to sound dismissive. “The other guy apparently insulted his father. Not dangerous at all if that's all it takes to get a rise out of him.”

Becky stared back with a blank face. “Is that how the rumors make it sound like?” Carol nodded, expecting a different point of view over the events from Becky. “That's twisted.”

“I'm waiting for your enlightenment,” mocked Carol. Even though she knew she should be making efforts to bridge the gap between them, she could not help but resent the airhead and her friends.

The last of the buses was leaving. What few students that remained were gathering into small groups, walking back home alone, or waiting on the stairs or the grass for their lift to come get them, just like Becky. She took the time to gather her thoughts on the event. “I wasn't there myself, but Samantha saw the whole thing from the sideline, and she told me later.”

“That bimbo whore?” The dirty look she got back made it pretty clear that Becky was only going to tolerate so much bullshit, and that she was nearing her limit. “Sorry, that was uncalled for.”

“Yes, it was.” It took her a few seconds to calm her anger enough to continue recounting the events. “She was there. The other guy knew Floyd through some friend. He knew Floyd's working at the bowling center, and he started pushing him for some good deals for this Friday evening.”

“Like you were doing earlier?”

“I wasn't pushy about it,” she countered, with a bit too much ego. “I told him I was organizing an event, and that I'd like to know when his place was free. He told me he had half of the weekend booked, but none of the weekdays, and then explained the many deals they had. I only just started preparing the party, so Tuesday was out as I wouldn't be ready in time, so I told him I would ask everyone if Friday was okay with them.”

That was the first time Carol heard about a party. Knowing how much gossip she got from James, that meant the plans were either secret, or recent. “What's the party about?”

“Just some simple stress relief. It's one of the last free Fridays we've got before the frenzy of June and the exams. I thought everyone could use a little breather before jumping into the harsher stuff.”

“Makes sense.” Carol had to admit that it was a good idea. She was spending more time lately working on the coin-catcher and studying, and she felt like it would only crescendo up to a climax over the next few weeks. It would be nice to take a moment at some point and have fun, relax a bit, and get pumped up before the competition. “So you're going with Floyd and Samantha and another couple of friend.”

“Nah, they can take care on their own. I mean, they might be there since Floyd will be running the place, but they won't be playing or hanging out with us.” She snickered at the thought of playing with Floyd and Samantha and a bunch of sophomores and freshmen that would keep making 'ball' and 'strike' jokes. The thought crossed her mind that throughout adolescence, gaining a few more years actually made you more immature. “No, I'm inviting my whole class. Twenty to thirty people. I got a lot of positive responses this morning at breakfast and in class, so I think this thing will fly. The deal's that I'm paying the entrance fee, and everyone else provides the food and drinks.”

Carol was speechless. “How... thoughtful of you.” She was not a party girl, and listening to Becky organizing such a big event drove the point in. The biggest group Carol had managed to round out for something of her own doing was about seven friends coming for her birthday party. She never invited her whole class out. Heck, she had never been invited to a whole class event unless they were managed by the school. She was not even sure the students of her class did anything like this on occasions.

Becky nodded, not even proud of what seemed to Carol like a feat. It was as if it was everyday life for her. Clean her room, do your homework, round up thirty teenagers for a party. Nothing to see here. “To get back on track, I told Floyd I was interested and that I’d need the whole place. I'll be the first to admit that the center runs within his family, and that it’s a bit small and shabby, but six lanes are enough for what I'm planning.

“So when that other guy asked him if Floyd could get him something at a cheap price for Friday, he said no. The other guy insisted, saying he'd only needed one or two lanes, but Floyd still refused, saying that the whole place was booked that evening. Which admittedly it wasn't.” She almost confessed the next part. You could hear traces of guilt in her voice. “I hadn't asked everyone if Friday was better than, say, Saturday. And I had not yet payed for the reservation, so technically that guy could've ninja'd us and booked the evening up with a quick bill. But Floyd still refused. He was taking my side, and was protecting the place for my event, even though I wasn't even sure how many students would be there. We could end up only twenty, and use only four lanes, and then he'd have no problem with that douchebag.”

Becky was trembling a little, emotion filtering through. She was feeling partly responsible for what happened. Her control did not slip further however, and the trembling disappeared when she clenched her hand into a fist.

“Then it escalated. The other guy started insulting Floyd's dad, saying the place was falling apart, that the two were running out of business, and that they needed all the money they could get. Maybe he was still hoping to get the time slot or something. Floyd didn't take the bait however, and walked away. The other guy was insulted, and he came rushing at his back. Floyd heard the warnings of his team members, and turning around he threw a punch just as the guy was jumping him.” Becky curled up her legs under her in a position similar to Carol's. “I bet the rumors skip straight to the last part, where he downs a guy that was merely taunting. It's the juicy part after all. But it makes Floyd look a lot worse than he really is. He's really a nice guy, once you get to know him.”

Silence established itself between the two as Carol let the story sink in. It was not awkward or anything, more like a mark of newly found respect as she gave the words serious thought.

“I'm sorry,” Carol said, after a minute had elapsed. “He didn't seem too trustworthy when I first saw him, but he does sound like a good friend to have around.”

Becky broke a sad smile. “He gives off unusual vibes, I'll give you that. I think that's why he gets such a bad rep. Loud, tall, takes his space, slightly macho, and people file him up with the troublemakers.” It had taken her some time to get used to him when Samantha first introduced him, but before long he had grown on Becky, just like he had grown on Samantha. “You don't have to worry. He won't tell anyone about Noa's secret.”

Carol chuckled nervously, admitting to herself the ridiculousness of the situation. “That's a moot point by now. You screamed that secret loud enough for the whole school to hear.”

She blinked a couple of times. “Did I?” Recalling the events and the words she had said, Becky grew redder and redder as shame spread across her face. “Oops.”

“Ha!” Seriously, that girl is way too easily caught up in her emotions. It almost made forgiving her blunder easier. “You can say that again.”

“Sorry, I didn't mean to...”

“It's done, there's no taking back.” She had accepted the reality at lunch when the news had traveled its way back to her via Alvin. “Although I'd like to do some damage control if I can. As much as you don't like Floyd getting a bad rep, I would hate to have Noa come back to school to face and angry anti-mutant mob.”

“Yeah, doesn't sound too nice.” She was sympathetic to Carol's worries, having just lived through it herself barely a few hours ago. “Floyd's pretty scared of mutants in general.”

“From what I heard, a lot of people are.” She liked to think that coming from her, it meant that she knew what she was talking about, but she was now a lot less confidant in all those tidbits of fragmented knowledge she had been accumulating. Today had shown that she could be completely off the tracks over a specific issue. She knew not to trust everything that Alvin and James said, but somewhere along the line she had forgotten to stop and consider if the things she was gleaning were any more solid than theirs.

“Any plans on how you'll proceed?”

“More or less.” James and Alvin were smoothly organizing the visit. They had the support from two of Noa's teachers already, and Mr. Chavez had promised to get in touch with the hospital during the evening. “I'm preparing another visit to the hospital, although this time I plan to make it bigger.”

Becky raised an eyebrow. “I thought the five of us were already a lot.”

“I'm looking at inviting her whole classroom.”

This time it was Becky who was dumbstruck, her mouth gaping slightly open. “Copycat!”

“Hey, we planned this over at breakfast, before I saw you at our lockers.”

“I started planning when I was still at home this morning, and started to get people on board at breakfast. I've got dibs on this.” Who knew if she really started at home that morning, or the other day, or during the break at first period. The competition was on in Becky's mind.

Carol chuckled. “We have to call dibs now?” She flopped down on her back starting to feel drained from all this talk. “That's fine. You can have Friday. I'll look into Wednesday or Thursday.”

Becky had to incline backward and hold her weight on her elbows to get closer to the laying girl. “So, you're just going to show up with thirty students at the hospital? You won't make it pass the doors.”

“We've got a few teachers in, and we plan to call the hospital to let them know. I'm hoping they'll prepare a bigger room if they have one. This way everyone will see that Noa's the same as ever, not scary at all.”

Becky considered the plan and its ramifications. She did not listen too much to the talk going around, but if the words about Floyd were anything to go by, Noa could have it much worse when she got back. If she ever did.

That was another thing to consider. She knew some kids had joked about Noa dying off, but was that a possibility? She looked fine when they went to see her, but the rat doctor had looked perturbed, and Carol never breached the subject around her.

“Is she going to come back?” The end of the school year was drawing near, and Noa could potentially go to a different high school. If she was not, how did Becky wanted to act? If she was not going to come back, it did not really matter what kind of rumors spread around did it? She would not have to watch her mouth so much.

Carol understood the question differently than what Becky had meant: would Noa live through it? It was a question that she kept repeating in her mind every day. “I hope she will.” Admitting the doubts that still remained was painful, but she thought herself strong enough to pull through. She did not want to think about having to suffer the loss of her best friend. It was not a burden she thought she could carry. “And when she does, I want everyone to give her a huge group hug. She'd like that.”

“I can get a word in our class,” said Becky, hesitantly at first, then with more assurance. “I'll get you as many people as you can fit for your visit.”

Carol turned her head to her in surprise. “You'd do that?”

Becky shrugged, which was harder than it sounded when one is laying over their elbow. “It's not like it's a big deal. I'll already talk everyone into going bowling on Friday. Might as well talk them into visiting the hospital on Thursday.”

“Thanks.” Carol let her head roll to center again, her eyes opening to the blue sky and some unconcerned white clouds. Her mind raced for something she could do in return. “I'll pay you back,” she said, having decided on something appropriate. “I'll talk to students from other classes about your pre-exam party, make that forty instead of thirty.”

“The center will get cramped,” remarked Becky. “There's only enough lanes for a little over thirty players at once.”

“Then I'll talk them all into starting parties of their own, and let them know it was your idea. That ought to get you some good rep from the freshmen and sophomores.”

“I'm not sure you could manage that,” Becky chuckled. “And I'm not sure what I'd do with all that attention. If you really want to repay me back, just bring pizza for everyone on Friday.”

Carol sat upright in one swift motion. “Wait, you're inviting me to your party?”

Becky shrugged. “Why not? If you pay for pizza, you'll make everyone happy. Nobody will care that you’re from another class.”

Carol mumbled something about spending that much money and getting a telescope instead, but Becky did not catch enough of it to figure what she was talking about. “Okay,” she finally gave in, after running through all the different things she could do with that money. “You'll have pizza at your party.”

“And you'll have people for your visit.” Becky raised her hand in a fist, waiting for a fist bump. That was something she probably picked up from Floyd, Carol decided, but regardless, she bumped her fist, sealing the deal with newfound camaraderie.


13: Didja Call?

Tuesday early evening, May 24th
Hospital room

Compared to today, who were we yesterday? Who were we last week, or last month? We had goals then, dreams and ambitions, even if such ambitions were as simple as to watch the next episode of our favorite teleseries, or to pull through a difficult exam. What were today's goals and dreams? Did we stay on track, or did we drift, abandoning unreasonable expectation and creating new ones?

Such were thoughts that crossed Noa's busy mind as she relaxed in a sitting position, eyes closed, all senses shut down, her notebook sitting in her crossed legs. The notes she had scribbled were spontaneous reflections, a mix and match of thought that flowed to the rhythm of her emotions, the answers ever changing each time she tried to capture them on paper. The answers often ended up contradictory, but that was okay. For this kind of reflection, the questions were more important than definitive answers.

She was wearing comfortable baggy pants, yet her top was still the infamous hospital gown. It was easier in case anything happened, and it also maintained the impression that she was a patient instead of a guest, especially now that she was sharing her room with others.

It was her second time changing rooms, and it would certainly not be the last. The nurses had put all her clothes and school books on a large cart so that she could be easily moved around as needed. Along with the food cart, everything was on wheels, so anytime she would complain that her room was getting too clean to her taste, they would simply roll her bed and her two carts to a new room. This time they had put her with a patient who was prone to infections. Recently amputated above both knees, the lesions were still fresh and healing, wrapped in several layers of sterile gauzes and pads. Even though the wounds had been cleaned, the bits of dirt and rusted metal had penetrated deep, and left their mark as infected flesh. Dr. Evans hoped that Noa would be able to feel and heal the wound better than the rest of the hospital staff. It was half an experiment, and half blind faith. Naturally, they had received the approbation from the patient, although with the concession that 'The damn mutant keep to herself and better not disturb my sleep'. Overall an okay reception.

Schoolwork was moving along fine. She was not too far behind, and she had 24 hours a day to read and do exercises and assignments. Even if she kept being distracted for one reason or another every half hour, it eventually added up. Still, history dates were hard to remember, and without the help of the teacher guiding her reading, studying math gave her as much trouble as climbing the Everest.

Over the course of the day, another feeling slowly replaced general discomfort. It was a feeling of impending doom; there was just no other way Noa could describe it. Unreasonable fear and growing difficulty of imagining what the future looks like, accompanied with a general wave of futility. If the feeling had appeared right after her last attack, she would have understood it to be a simple depression or a natural reaction to the threat on her life, but the feeling she had at the time was the satisfaction of being with her family and the resolution and hope of eventually healing one day. The feeling of the sword of Damocles hovering just above her head only made itself apparent now that she felt all patched up and recovered. Somehow, it was now more than ever before that she felt completely certain that she would die. The irrationality of it tugged at her the entire day, until she finally admitted the feeling to Dr. Evans.

“That's normal,” was his response. “It's a valid medical symptom for a lot of issues. Some people feel it after a heart attack, and it is quite frequent after an organ transplant. In the case of a transplant, we sometimes call it a Post-Transplant Depression.” He turned away from his microscope sitting on the floor and jumped on the bed, walking to Noa and placing a tiny hand on her crossed leg. He stroked her gently, letting her know that he was there for her. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I... I'm not sure.” She furrowed her brows. The emotions were unclear, even after all the thinking she went through. “I’m not depressive, or at least I don't think I am.”

“Are you losing interest in things you liked before? Are you feeling empty inside?”

She gave a giggle. “A lot less empty than before, that's for sure.” Her face returned serious, her eyes moving this way and that under her closed eyelids, considering her options. “But no, I don't feel empty inside. And I am still motivated to win the coin-caching competition. It's just...” She trailed off, unable to find the right words.

“It's just there, and completely irrational.”

She nodded. “It's small. The feeling is there, but so long as I know it's there, I have it under control.”

Dr. Evans had seen many mutants suffering from post-manifestation depression, some breaking down once they realized that their previous life was no longer within their reach, others rejecting their new body and selves. It was a traumatic experience for many, and the fact that it happened most frequently at puberty when most adolescents were still seeking themselves did nothing to help matters.

“There could be other causes,” he said, mentally checking off a list. “Irregular heartbeats and difficulty absorbing oxygen can affect your neurotransmitters and produce this general feeling. In your case, your nervous system is completely reshaping itself. I am not surprised you are feeling depressed. In fact, I would almost expect you to have a lot more mood swings than you do. You are taking this a lot better than I thought.”

She blushed and, nervous, absentmindedly started to stroke the rat's fur. “I’m trying to rationalize this, and to stay optimistic.”

“Well, it's working it seems.” Dr. Evans allowed himself to be pet, even going so far as to climb onto her lap and rest in her other outstretched hand. He let her thumb run down his white fur, coming back in a soothing regular motion. With all the inconveniences that being a rat brought him, he would not trade the body for anything else. Animal-assisted therapy was also part of his function, the stroking motion calming both body and mind of his patient. It was also a role he enjoyed a lot, even though it was not often appropriate. How often had he been jealous of Noa's black cat plushie, cared with so much affection?

There was a knock at the door, answered by a grumble from the amputee in the bed closest to it.

“Might've someone's been wait'g for me?”

The surprise of Dr. Evans could be felt through the room as he bolted from Noa's lap to meet the man standing in the opened door. “Healbot! You came?”

The man standing in the door frame was tall and hairy. He had a thick brown beard and mustache that dropped down his chin for several centimeters, trimmed to the perfection. His eyebrows were two thick caterpillars, hovering over deep eyes of a light brown-going-on-orange tint. He was wearing a long sleeved orange dress shirt without a single wrinkle, and a pair of brown dress pant just as proper that called back his hair and beard. He was not wearing a necktie, his collar instead kept open, the only unruly touch to his otherwise impeccable attire. In his right hand, he held the handle of a large suitcase that was trailing behind him.

The first thing that Noa noticed however was not his clean shirt or the thickness of his beard, but the holes that furrowed both of his arms. Both arms had been replaced by metallic limbs that put high end prosthetics to shame. They were made from hundreds of pieces beautifully carved into curving and flowing shapes that levitated next to each other in a perfect assemblage. None of the pieces touched each other, but they gave both of his arms a contour that was unmistakably human and organic. Noa could feel her aura seeping through the gaps, and she let herself enjoy the infinite smoothness of the complexion. It felt as if she could just up and grab one of the pieces, but from the constant distance that was maintained between all slivers, she got the impression that the whole would not bulge even under the weight of an elephant. A true masterwork.

“How'sa going, lil' rat?” He bent down and offered a hand to Dr. Evans, who quickly jumped in it, glad to see an old friend. “I came as quickly as I could.”

“But, you didn't have to come you know.” Dr. Evans was perplexed at the man's presence. “How come you're here? I thought you told me you were busy until next week.”

“I made space in ma schedule for an ol' pall.” Without further ado, he turned to the man missing his legs in the bed by the door, and started inspecting the wounds, much to the man's annoyance. The new face was loud, and the man in the bed did not appreciate the disturbance. It was already bad that he had to endure a talking rat full of itself and a depressive mutant, they did not need to bring in another loony into the room. “Hm, this' all a special case. Nothing I can't fix though.”

“No, see, the girl is other there, Bot. On the other side of the curtains.” Addressing the irritated man, “Sorry for that.”

The man made a dismissive hand gesture, mentally keeping track of every single annoyance for later. He would file a complaint against the rat, that was for sure. He just had to endure it and appear civilized until they left his room. The cute nurse Taylor had clearly specified that the mutant was only to stay in his room for no more than 24 hours. Keep it in, at least until he could file that damned complaint and fire the stupid doctor. He just had to endure...

“Sorry, ma bad.” Healbot nodded off the fuming patient in his bed and made his way to Noa's bed.

“So, Bot, tell me again why you're here,” asked Evans with some amount of patience.

“ 'Cause you need me. Ya called, remember?” He put down his suitcase next to the bed and took a glance at Noa.

“You told me you were busy, so I called someone else. As you can see, Magnolia is all better now.” Healbot had put back Dr. Evans on the bed. He bent down and opened his suitcase, which was filled to the brim with gadgets and tools that had the same smooth appearance as his arms, only compressed to not take much space. He was ruffling through, apparently looking for something. “Why didn't you call me to let me know that you were coming?” pressed Evans.

“Why would I call? Ya already called for me.”

“But your work—”

“Comes after friends.” He finally found what he was looking for and pulled out a box that was barely longer than his hand. He did something with the box, and the little thing unfolded into a sort of tripod scanning camera, the pieces expanding and levitating at a fixed distance from each other.

“Have you been dricking out lately?”

The man shrugged. “Could hav'.” Evans could not help rolling his eyes at his friend's answer.

Noa was getting wary of the machine thingy pointed right at her, and at the behavior of the newcomer. “He's drunk?”

“A got it unda control, no worries.” Really reassuring, champ.

Dr. Evans shook his head, having to explain the man's behavior. “He is a case of Diedrick's Syndrome. He sometimes gets extreme mood swings, paired with megalomania and single mindedness. 'Dricking out' is the expression used for one of those phases.”

“I make for one great villain when 'am out cold.” He took another gizmo from his suitcase, this one ball-shaped and no larger than a golf ball, and he handed it to Noa. “Here, a gift. Ya like plushies?”

Before Noa could reject the gift, he pressed on a glowy dot on one side of the ball, causing the ball to expand into the shape of a teddy bear. The space between the flying components was hidden by a tissue kept taut between the pieces, and once expanded the teddy bear looked like any old teddy bear out there. It even had the proper texture, the pieces moving in sync and offering resistance as if the toy was filled with stuffing when it was anything but. A nice illusion.

“Thanks.” Noa squeezed the bear in her arm, feeling the satisfying give she would expect from a plush. “Does it do anything?” It was way too high tech not to. Maybe it had a button to make it shoot beams from its eyes?

“It builds stuff,” was Healbot's answer. “Press da nose and tell it to build som'thing, and it'll build it. But don't do that now.” Noa pulled back her curious finger, much to Healbot's amusement. “I got too many pieces handy here. I don't want ma stuff to get plushed, ya know. Press da nose twice to make it go back to a ball. Careful ya fingers.”

Two press later, and the plush was back into a small metallic ball. Noa could see hours of fun with this little thing, especially if the promise held true that it could build things.

“Now, let's see what I can do for ya.” He took place behind his tripod camera and looked intensely into it, ignoring a little white rat that was growing more exasperated by the minutes.

“Healbot.” Evans was tapping his foot, although being on the bed, it did not quite have the effect he was going for. “Could you stop for a minute so we can talk?”

The man only offered him a thumbs up, not taking his eyes away from his readings. “Receiving you loud 'n clear. What's up?”

“How much costs the plush?”

“Dunno. Some rich kids'd buy it for a couple of millions?” As if that was but pocket money.

“Magnolia, please give it back. I am not paying for this.” At the mention of the price, Noa's mouth gaped open, unable to believe her ears. She was sad to have to part with a gift so adorable, but her conscience agreed with Dr. Evans, that such a gift would not be right.

Healbot refused to take back the little ball. “She keeps it. It's a gift.”

“Bot,” continued Evans, growing more and more impatient, “Please go away. I don't need your help anymore.” Thinking ahead, he reconsidered. “Not today at least.”

“Sure you do. A can see she's all well 'n dandy, but ain't you know that she's got a molecular psychokinetic aura?” So that's what this tripod thing was for! And probably many more functions that only made sense to him.

“Yes, I know. I've known for a few days now. I was actually looking at it through the microscope before you—”

He got interrupted by a machine-gun list of everything the beardy man discovered in the last minute. “Twenty micron spheres, 'bout two digits billion particles in all, small enough to pass through the skin, phagocytosis of its own volume within thirty seconds, manifesting matter, highly receptive mechanoreceptors patterns, almost organic—”

“And they can flatten and merge to make a uniform sheet wrapping matter, yes I know.” His newest discovery through the microscope. 'Flat' was Noa's preferred way of absorbing matter or lifting things. A second later something clicked in his mind, the processing delay finally catching up. “Wait, what?!” Dr. Evans did a double take at some offhand comments Healbot had made. That got the attention from the man in question.

“Well, yeah. Look, the receptors' everywhere on these things. Couple 'f different corpuscles of a dermis I'd say.” He was gesturing to his camera as if to invite a look from Evans. It was instead Noa that took him up on his offer.

“Can I see?”

“Sure!” He turned the camera around for her to take a look. Noa reminded herself to open her eyes, which she had kept closed because of the headache they were provoking, and looked into the hole.

“Wow! That's so cool! I can see exactly what I'm doing with this. Flat, round, Flat, round. Smiley face!” Noa busted up in laughter, too engrossed by her knew plaything to give it back. “Whoooo, what's those diamond things poking out of the specks?”

“Proprioceptors,” answered Healbot, satisfied by Noa's smile. “Without them you wouldn't be able to feel your own field.”

“Fascinating!” She turned the camera around to look at another part of the room. “Pass through the loop, jump, and perfect landing! Applauses, bows! Flea circus has nothing on this!”

This was too much for the last man in the room to bear. He had had enough of this tomfoolery. “WILL YOU PLEASE BE QUIET!”

Noa looked away from the camera, sheepishly giving it back to its owner. “Sorry, I got carried away.” Then, calling a little higher to the other bed behind the curtain. “Sorry sir. I’ll try to keep it down from now own.”

“ 'Try' my ass, she said...” The rest of his barb got mumbled away, too low for anyone but him to hear. That darn complaint. Just file it for the complaint later.

The calm having returned to the room, Dr. Evans asked what he meant to ask before. “Manifesting matter you said?”

Healbot nodded once. “Ya see that crack in the wall over there?” He poked an eye back into his camera. “Here, lemme get a static for you. Bottom line is, she's patching it.” He dislodged the top camera from the alien tripod and offered it to Evans. What the doctor could see inside was a looping video of one of Noa's specks filling in a crack to make the surface smooth. “She's repainting da room too ya know. Bits of colors here and there.”

Noa could not believe how efficient Healbot had been. “How did you find all that?!”

A smile full of pride stretched over his face. “Gadgeteer seven, pretty face. And how'd ya think ma stuff holds together? Telekinesis has no secrets for me anymore.”

“You're a six, Bot,” countered Dr. Evans, giving him back the camera, “don't oversell yourself.”

“Six, seven, it's all da same. Nobody's able to replicate ma stuff. Could be a devisor for all they care.” He put back the camera where it belonged on top of the tripod. It snapped back in with delicate precision.

“Can't be a devisor; you've yet to throw the laws of physics out the window.” That made the two of them chuckle. Some sort of gadgeteer joke against devisors, maybe?

Noa was the first one to come back on topic. “So, wait, I can paint stuff?”

“Oh, more than that dear.” He gave her an appreciative look, thinking about a suitable way to demonstrate his point. “Evans, d'you have a paper?”

“We always keep extra sheets of paper on the tablet at the end of the bed. There should be a pen too.”

“No need for a pen,” said Healbot cryptically as he went to fetch the writing pad with Noa's status attached to it. He pulled out a blank sheet at the back and put the pad back into place. He made a small rip down the middle of the sheet and handed it to Noa. “Fix this,” was all he said.

Noa was not sure what to do with the sheet of paper, and so she settled with simply wrapping it in her aura and thinking of how it might look once fixed. Gradually, before everyone's eyes, the tear slowly receded, until it completely vanished a minute later.

“I didn't even know I could do that.” She was all the more amazed that even with her overly sensitive eyes she could not find any trace of the tear anymore. If she was handed the sheet again, she would not able to tell where it had been.

Healbot nodded, having expected the result, before coming forward and ripping the corner of the sheet, keeping the corner in his hand. “Fix it again.”

Nobody but him believed it possible, but within minutes the missing corner had receded, and before long the sheet was rectangle once again, as good as new. Healbot flickered the corner of paper he had kept in his hand, making everyone understand that Noa had generated new matter from nothing.

With a smug and superior expression, Healbot turned toward Evans, leaving Noa to play with the sheet in the background, tearing it up and repairing it as if her eyes kept deceiving her. “I came, and I was useful.”

Evans knew all too well that expression. The one that looked down upon mere mortal for a feat that he accomplished with a simple flick of his godly finger. The 'praise the sole of my feet and the ground I walk on' kind of look. One rooted in kindness to be sure, entirely magnanimous, yet awaiting a compensation without openly asking for it.

Evans sighed, giving up chasing the healer away. “Name your price.”

The look of self-satisfaction was short lived, replaced with a somber business stare. “I want your help finding Mary.” The admission stuck in his throat, a lot harder to confess than he would have liked.

Dr. Evans understood right away, sympathizing with his old friend. “You gave up then?”

“I ain't given up!” he snarled between his teeth, rage boiling up at the implication. “I'll find her no matter what!”

“I meant that you gave up trying alone,” said the rat, not impressed by his friend's display.

The man deflated, his anger forgotten in the next breath as he escaped a sigh. “Three years. How long till she comes home?” The weariness of the last few years was weighting down on his shoulders. What he had done and been ready to do just to see her once again, to tell her that everything was okay, to hold her in his arms like he used to.

“You'll find her.” Evans tried to sound reassuring, but the man would have none of it.

“Not if I keep being stubborn, I won't. She knows what it'll take to hide from me.”

“You're giving her too much credit. She's just a kid.”

“She's my kid!” With the implied meaning that she had inherited some of his smarts as well. “You've got ears everywhere. Tell me where I can find ma daughter.”

Evans shook his head. “If she doesn't want to be found—”

“Bullshit!” Anger let loose, uncontrolled. “You're hiddin' her, admit it! Or maybe you're suggestin' I give up on ma darling?! NEVER! I'll flip da world upside down if I need to! You won't stop me!”

Dricking out, once again. Evans just took the brunt of the assault, knowing well enough that Healbot was mostly harmless, even if he could get scary at times. Mary had been one of his triggers for the last three years now, and Evans would not be too surprised if the healer had come straight here on the single thought that the rat could provide assistance in his quest. Not thinking of anything nor anyone else, a one-track mind toward his goal.

However, someone else was less patient than him on this point.

“FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE! JUST SHUT UP ALREADY!”

His patience at his limit, Healbot reached into his suitcase to grab two bar-like contraptions that looked like long rulers the length of an arm. Walking heavily to the man in the next bed, he slapped down the two flat bar on the man's legs, the bars snapping around his thighs like collars. The man's screams of pain and fear were ignored as the healer did his magic.

“We're kind'f having a moment here. If you've got a problem with it, leave.” Unceremoniously, Healbot ripped away the gauzes and bandages that ended the stubs, eliciting another scream from the man.

Before the man's eyes, the fleshy wounds at the end of his legs closed up, cleaned from the inside by the two straps that were now fused with his skin. From Healbot's suitcase, two balls floated at high speed and snapped into position, each an inch away from the man's missing limbs, centered with the collars. The two balls unfolded much to the man's stupefaction, taking the distinct shape of two legs, each piece telekinetically snapping into place to solidify the whole. Just like Healbot's arms and his tripod, the whole was solid, despite no apparent connection between the floating pieces.

“I... can feel?” The man started playing with his toes, the movements as natural as if it was flesh. No pain, no discomfort, and all the expected sensations.

“Telekinetic membrane, with skin level proprioceptors and mechanoreceptors, nervous connections, regular healing maintenance, guaranteed two tons of pressure. Now, you'll please SHUT UP!”

The man could not have bolted from his bed any faster, his new metallic legs supporting him all the way to the floor's reception desk, where panicky nurses tried to make sense of the man's grievances.

Turning back toward Dr. Evans, Healbot took a moment to breathe out through the nose and to right his orange collar back into shape. “Now, 'bout that payment we talked 'bout...”


Healbot and Dr. Evans talked for a long while on the other side of the room, leaving Noa to play with her new toy. Healbot had categorically refused to take back his teddy bear, saying that it would not be fair on Evans's agreement since he had not really done much here. Noa wanted to argue that he had done a lot more than he gave himself credit for, but the beardy man's thoughts were focused elsewhere, and her case fell on deaf ears.

There had been some commotion with the nurses and the amputated man from before, but it got resolved quickly enough when Healbot proposed to take back the legs. That shut the man up quite nicely. In the meantime, Noa was asking the teddy bear to make her a paper crane, which the toy gladly complied. It seemed to have limited intelligence, and would not move without receiving an order, but the range of order he could take was quite varied. When she asked it to show her how to fold the crane, the bear went to the end of the bed and grabbed the hard pad with some more paper, and it started to fold the paper slowly so that Noa could follow, all the while correcting her mistakes whenever they occurred.

Once she had her own paper crane, more or less successful for a first attempt mind you, she decided to try this new aspect of her power. Focusing on the look she wanted to get, Noa placed two small dots of ink where the crane's eyes should be, all through the power of her mind and support of her aura. The blobs of ink were leaking a little, and it looked like the crane was crying and had messed its mascara up, but it was nonetheless a successful first attempt. Paired with the ripped sheet trick, she would have more than enough to keep her busy throughout the night and between her study sessions. What would happen if she ripped a paper in two and repaired each half? Could she duplicate the paper? Could she duplicate dollar bills? Dreams of fortune and fame cycled across her mind, obvious to more complex matters of economical inflation and moral rightness.

When Healbot left, Dr. Evans gave him a plastic bag with the same content he had given to Phobia, and the same instructions. Having a second opinion could not hurt, and Healbot was a pro. He would find out what that skin and bone were made of in the blink of an eye. They parted with a promise on each side, one to help find a missing daughter, the other to help decode a certain semi-transparent compound.

At around 7pm, a phone call got transmitted from the reception desk to Dr. Evans. A certain Mr. Chavez was at the end of the line.

“Dr. Evans speaking. What can I do for you?”

“The nurse told me you were the one in charge of Magnolia Flores, am I right?”

“I am. And you are?”

“Chavez, a teacher at Magnolia's school. I was one of the teachers that first found her on the floor of the bathroom.”

“I appreciate what you did back then. Can I help you with anything?”

“How is she?”

“From the outside, she appears almost completely recovered. Last time I saw her, she was sitting on her bed, reading school books and doing assignments with plushies in her lap.”

“Oh, thanks God she is okay. I tried to contact her mother, but she wouldn't tell me much, and the one time she tried she closed the line on me. When can we expect to see her back in school?”

“Not anytime soon, I am afraid.” Dr. Evans let the silence take place between them. What was he allowed to say? What would Noa want to share with this teacher? It all depended on how close the two were, and whether the lack of information would hurt the teacher in the long term. “Which of Magnolia's teachers did you say you were again?”

The voice at the other end became embarrassed. “Sorry, but I'm not her direct teacher. I was just passing by when it all happened, and I was pegged as the one in charge of this mess at school.”

“Mhmm.”

“So, hum, why won't she come back? Is she still sick?”

“Yes, still. She healed, but she is not healing, if you get what I mean. She had another attack recently, and we are expecting a couple more anytime in the next days or weeks.”

“Another one?! Was it as bad as the first one?”

“Without going into the gory details, she said it had been less painful, although I wouldn't have guessed just from looking at it. We had to resort to pretty drastic measures to help her recover.”

“Do I want to know?”

“I'd rather not tell.”

It took a few seconds for Chavez to gather his thoughts once more, trying to ignore all the worst case scenarios he envisioned in his mind. “You said that she was okay now?”

“Better I would say, energetic even, but not okay. She still has a lot of doubts, and still needs a lot of support.”

“Is she fine enough to take visitors?”

“She is. She received the visit of five of her friends just yesterday. Would you like to visit her?”

“If she doesn't mind? I was asked by a few students if it would be possible to do a group visit, although I don't want to overwhelm her too much if she needs to rest.”

“How many in total?”

“As many as you can receive. We got three adults, and the word is passing around her classroom, so at most thirty students.”

“Huh...” Evan's brain froze for a moment, trying to digest this twist of event. Over thirty people would come to visit?! Where would they house everyone?

The other man continued, not noticing Evans's lapse. “More likely less, but I needed to confirm your availability first.”

“We could fit that many, but I would need to reserve the cafeteria. Considering that our cafeteria is opened until 7pm for our staff and patients, I would ask that you come at 8pm at the earliest. Which day?”

“Thursday, if that's okay with you. This will give both of us enough time to prepare for this.”

“Don't assume too quickly. I need to ask Magnolia if she is fine seeing this many people. She might decide to set limits of her own. And I must confirm whether I can book the cafeteria for an evening. Can I call you back?”

“Of course. You have a pen and paper?”

“I can read your number on the receiver, don't worry.”

“In that case, thanks. It was a pleasure talking with you, and I hope this event can go as planned.”

“Have a nice evening sir.”

The line was cut. Evans did not lose a beat before running back to the reception desk and, looking at the list of internal phone lines and sections, he found the one for administration that he was looking for. Before long, he had the confirmation for what he needed to know. He could reserve the cafeteria at that time, so long as it did not involve any of the staff. He would be responsible for any disorder and any complaints from the rooms above if the event got too loud. They would also not tolerate any party, food, or waste inside the cafeteria, especially after they learnt that the group was a group of kids. They would allow Magnolia's bed to be moved down through the elevator, but she needed to keep her emergency remote with her at all time to call the nurses.

With this, the only confirmation he needed, and the only one that really mattered to him, was Magnolia's.

When he jumped on the bed, Noa was making Piyu float around. She was having fun watching the Teddy bear as it tried to catch the flying cat to fulfill its master's fetch order.

“You got a phone call,” said Dr. Evans unceremoniously, much to Noa's incredulity.

“Really? Who was it?”

“A certain Mr. Chavez. You know him?”

She tried to think for a little while, closing her eyes in concentration and forgetting to open them back again. It was quickly becoming a habit of keeping them closed half the time. “Nope. Doesn't ring a bell. What did he want?”

“He wanted to know how you were doing, and if you wanted to receive some visitors.”

She chuckled. “Visitors? Sure! Who's coming? People from my class?”

“Precisely.” At her expectant and confused expression, Dr. Evans elaborated. “Or more accurately, everyone from your class, along with a few teachers.”

Her face dropped. “Huh...”

“I had the exact same reaction.” He sat down next to her, his back resting against her thigh. Below the bed, Noa dropped her concentration over Piyu, allowing the teddy bear to grab it and, after some difficult climbing the side of the bed, to return the object of his fetch quest. Its task done, the bear dropped inanimate once more. Evans resumed talking. “I told him I'd call back, after I asked your opinion on the matter.”

“My opinion? I... don't know.” Noa was torn between two conflicts. Sure she knew everyone in her class, but she could hardly say that all of them were close friends. She did not think she would enjoy that much attention at once, yet on the other hand, everyone back at school had been worried and wanted to see her. But then she was a mutant, and she did not know how people would react to that. And there was Dr. Evans. And what would they talk about?

“You don't have to limit your options to yes or no,” provided Evans, trying to raise her spirit a little. “You can set your own conditions, or specify certain people that you don't mind coming and others you would rather go without. If you don't feel comfortable with more than ten people, then I will tell them that there is a cap on the number of visitors.”

It helped relieve a little of her tension. She could better see the options she had, and with an expanded understanding she regained a little confidence. “What about me being a mutant?” The black furball flew to her arms and she held her cat plushie tightly to her chest, finding every little reassurance where she could.

“You'll have to tell them,” said Evans in a breath.

“Me?!” She did not like the thought of having to out herself to so many people who were little more than acquaintances, and at least one, that Mr. Chavez, that she did not even know at all.

“This is a personal matter, so I would prefer if you told them yourself.” Seeing Noa's hesitation, he sighed and added, “But I understand if you feel like it might be too much. I'll tell them if you want.”

She almost wished to rely on him for this one, but seeing that he did not want to do it any more than she did, she resolved herself. “Thanks, but I'll be okay. I think.” Obviously not if she was still hesitating on how she felt.

Evans nodded, acknowledging her resolution despite her lack of confidence. “So, what have you decided for Thursday?”

“It's on Thursday...” What did she really want out of this? She wanted to see her friends again, as she could not shake the feeling that it might be one of the last time she saw any of her classmates. It would be nice to see everyone again, but then she did not want any fuss over the mutant thing, nor anyone too surprised by her favorite doctor.

It was taking her a long time to decide, so Evans prompted her again. “What are your guts telling you?”

“My guts are spelling D-O-O-M right now.”

“Charming.” He gave a chuckle to Noa's smile. Irrational, maybe, although she still had a mind to joke about it.

Finally, she gave him his answer. “I’m fine with everyone.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “That's an awful lot of kids kicking around.”

“What, you don't like kids?” Now that she had navigated through difficult reflections, her good mood was back, poking fun at the little rat.

“Pfft, as if. Why do you think I'm doing this job?” He felt himself get pulled up telekinetically. “Hey! Put me down.” His demand went unanswered, and instead he got squeezed in Noa's arms right next to Piyu, the girl flopping down on her back to stare at the ceiling. He stopped struggling after realizing that his every movements were met with equal resistance from her arms, keeping him in place. At her mercy, Evans decided to wait for her to get her dose of hugging for the day, hoping she would release him soon enough. Patting was one thing; getting crushed in an embrace was another.

“Thanks,” was all that she said in the lingering silence of the evening.

“What, for liking kids?”

That got a giggle out of her. “I didn't know you could joke around!”

“I try to stay professional while at work.”

The words between them went unspoken, each understanding and appreciating the other's presence in this quiet moment.

“You did so much for me,” started Noa, unable to stop the sentimentality to leak into her words, “I never took the time to thank you properly.”

Tucked in her arms, Evans patted the hand he could reach kindly. “Don't thank me just yet. We still have a way to go.”

“Then I'll thank you now, and I'll thank you once more when I get discharged.” To that, Dr. Evans had nothing to answer. From behind him, he felt growing contentment and peace, enough to fill this whole room and then some. Appreciation, admiration, and most important of all, a profound and overwhelming feeling of gratitude. “Thank you,” she whispered in a breath, “for everything.”

He replied with the only appropriate answer to such a display of emotions. “You are welcome.”


14: Pep Talk

Thursday evening, May 26th
School

“Everyone, quiet!”

The chatter in the main hall eventually died down as the teacher clapped his hands together, trying to get everyone's attention. For the last half hour, the sixteen students had slowly trickled into the school, otherwise vacant and silent at this late hour. The excitement was palpable, as though the group was about to spend a day in an amusement park, although considering that the sun was down on the horizon, some excitement probably came from a fear of the unknown, as if walking into a cemetery or doing some other daring activity.

The word had gone around, everyone's reason for participating different and unique. Some had been dared, others were planning to take pictures, others hopped to brag to their friends. Some like Alvin and James were in it for the sensationalism, while few like Carol and Mae were there to support a friend. Becky was in it because of peer pressure of her two other friends.

Mr. Chavez looked at the group from behind, fading in the background and leaving the spotlight to Mr. Garner, the class's history teacher. Chavez's role had been to gather everyone together and spread a word of awareness to everyone, letting them know what to expect and how they needed to behave. He had received a call from a sheepish Magnolia late on the evening of his own hospital call, and he had taken everything in stride. The girl had stammered her words into the receiver, agitated by the confessions she was making. It was that sense of panic coming from a vulnerable student that pushed his shock aside and allowed him to take the lead he needed to take. A student depended on him, terrified at the prospect of his rejection, and that more than anything validated his role as a teacher. He lost no time reassuring her that everything would go as expected, and when the call naturally came to an end, the weight of responsibility filled him with confidence.

Talking to her classmates had been delicate, but with the help of Magnolia's other teachers, and in particular Mr. Garner, he had been able to get a few minutes in front of the class to spread his message.

“You might not all know me, but I was the teacher who accompanied one of your classmates to the hospital last week.” Looking around the classroom, he saw that he had most student's attention, although most of their stares were blasé, thinking that what he had to say did not concern them. He would have to shake them up a bit. “She called me yesterday with a confession, one I expect you all to respect.”

Standing in the door frame, Mr. Garner supported his colleague's words by glaring at each student in turn, letting everyone know that this was a joint decision of all the teachers and that failure to listen would be met with proper punishment. The glare from a more personal authority figure succeeded in intimidating the classroom, everyone paying careful ears to the guest teacher.

Chavez gave his colleague a nod before continuing. “Before I go on, I want to stress that we do not allow discrimination on any basis, be it race, religion, age, culture, or gender. We have measures in place against bullying, and all your teachers have been warned to be on the lookout for such behaviors. We will not tolerate those kinds of actions to take place in this school.

“With that said, the main topic. Magnolia Flores is a mutant.” A few voices were heard whispering throughout the classroom, but Chavez silenced them by raising his own. “I notice that some of you have apprehensions over that fact. Keep them to yourselves. Magnolia never had a choice over this, no more than each of you had a choice over the color of your eyes or skin. No one can blame her for being different, and I expect each of you to accept this difference and to be able to look pass it to see the lonely girl hiding behind. She is still the same girl as she was before, the same personality you all got to know over the years. She did not ask to change, nor did she change where it really matters. I hope none of you are so vain as to forget the fact that she was and always will be another of your classmates, a human being, an equal, and a friend. Treat her with the same respect and dignity as you would like to be treated in return.”

Some students that had reacted more strongly to the announcement were looking down in shame, realizing their fault. Another part of the class was looking at him intensely, grasping the significance of the lecture. Chavez smiled internally at those proper and expected reactions, yet he could not help but notice that a third and last group of student bore expressions of challenge and provocation, daring the teachers to mess with them. He could only feel trouble coming from them. He would talk to Mr. Garner later and try to keep an eye on those kids.

Relaxing the intensity of his speech, he continued. “I warn you now, and I hope this warning will be put to good use, but the truth of the matter is that Magnolia might not be coming back to school.” A few more whispers rose from the students. This time, Chavez gave them a few seconds to collect themselves, waiting until the whispers died down, waiting for his every words. “From what she told me, her mutation threatens her life even at this very moment. She is in the hospital for an indefinite stay, and it is a very real possibility that her state keeps degenerating. I did not get too many details, but from what I gathered from her doctor, the bathroom incident looks tame in comparison.”

That got a reaction from everyone, the bathroom story now well known throughout the school. Many were gasping in shock, others were stunned, trying to imagine how it could get any worse. At odd with the majority of reactions, a few voices could be heard, saying things such as 'Got what she deserved' and 'Good riddance'. They were in the minority however. Unfamiliar with the voices of the classroom, Chavez could not make out which students had spoken, but hopefully, Mr. Garner would be able to take a few names.

“Now more than ever before, she needs support. I received permission from her doctor to bring visitors this Thursday to see her. The hospital has been warned that we might be bringing a large group, and they prepared accordingly. I already have three students who are on board, and now I extend the offer to your class. Anyone who wants to show their support is welcomed to come. Let her know that people are waiting for her back at school, and that she has a reason to fight for her life.”

The classroom fell into an odd silence. A few students wanted to cheer at his engaging speech yet refrained from being the first to do so, while the majority were debating whether they wanted to get involved with a mutant or not. Let them come to their own conclusions in time, decided Chavez.

“Anyone interested in participating, please talk to Mr. Garner. He will be accompanying me to the hospital on Thursday. Let me give you all one last warning though. Only come if you are ready to accept and support Magnolia as a mutant. She cannot deny her nature, and neither can we. I want those that come to come with an open mind and to be ready to accept a little weirdness here and there. Anyone who feels they would be put off by the situation, or who feels they might do something they regret, please abstain. That will be all.”

The frenzy and buzz coming out of the classroom as he left was so animated that the history teacher that stayed behind gave up on finishing the lesson.


Thirteen students had asked to participate to the visit, which when added to the three who had come directly to him amounted to a little less than what could fit three minivans. One parent had accepted to provide the third vehicle and to act as an additional authority figure for the evening.

Once everyone had arrived at the meeting point, the kids were split up into the cars and the group made their way to the hospital, a constant chatter betraying their enthusiasm.

“Oh, boy! This is so intense!”

“Anyone knows what's her power? Or her hero name even?”

“Beats me. Isn't it too early for her to get a hero name?”

“A real hospital! With real high tech machines!”

“I'm not looking forward to the smell. It always smells so... clean.”

“I'm definitely giving her a bear hug when I see her!”

“Hey, everyone signs this card and leave a little comment. I bought her chocolate as a class gift.”

“So thoughtful! I should have bought flowers or something.”

“Worst gift ever.”

“Why?”

“You'll see.”

“Could use a smoke right now. How long is this supposed to take?”

“Dunno. An hour? Two?”

“That's getting late.”

“Pass your bedtime?”

“Hey!”

“I wonder what will make a good title for next week's paper.”

“Wasn't she in the science fair? One less competitor I guess.”

“Hey! We'll kick your but even with half our team in a hospital bed!”

“Where's the pen and paper? I want to draw something.”

“Anyone knows some camping songs?”

Carol laid back in her seat, tuning out the five ongoing conversations bouncing back and forth in the car. Among all these strangers, she, Alvin and James stood out like sore thumbs. She ended up in a different car from the other two, and now she regretted having no one to talk to. Noa's classmates formed their own clique. Just like her own class, they had stuck together for the last few years, and they knew everyone in their class inside out, even though they might not be close friend with all of them. Among the thirteen of them, Carol felt excluded, a stranger, as if she did not belong, even though she was the only reason this event was taking place at all.

When they arrived in the parking lot, Carol trailed to the end of the group, staying close to James and Alvin. They had their own talk going on, one that did not involve Noa nor mutants.

“So, we are meeting up as usual on the hill this Sunday?” asked Alvin, sparkles in his eyes.

“Of course,” replied James. “I'll bring my brother's telescope. We missed Mars at opposition a few days back, but it's still a lot wider than usual.”

“That will make for some pretty pictures.” Alvin looked up at the semi-cloudy sky, smitten with his passion. “I'll bring two cameras. One for Mars, a few minutes of exposure with the shutter open to get enough light. If I get it clear enough, I might be able to overlay Mars on top of other pictures for special effects later. The second for a timelapse of the stars, Ken Burns for the zoom, continuous capture of a single film to get the trailing light effect.”

“Timelapse of trailing stars?” James whistled, shaking his hand as if it was burning. “Intense. Think you can manage?”

“I won't become a pro at this if I don't take risks.”

“Guys,” Carol interrupted. As much as she wanted to see whether Alvin would achieve that feat or not, she was not exactly in a starry mood right now. “You have to talk about this now?” She raised her eyebrows exaggeratedly, gesturing to the looming hospital to make a point.

“Well yeah,” said Alvin. “We're here, there's nothing more to plan. Now all we have to do is wait and roll with the flow. The other kids won't talk to us; you'd rather we stay silent?”

The group crossed the threshold and had to wait in an entrance too small to accommodate that many people at once.

“Can't you read the mood here?” Carol turned around, failing to see from her position at the rear a nurse that came to greet the two teachers and the parent.

Alvin shrugged. “So, did you prepare a few more mythical legends of the constellations?”

“Didn't have time.” Damn it! They were pulling her into their rhythm. Not that she was doing too much of an effort to resist. “I might have something on Zeus and Aquila, featuring Ganymede, but I still need to fluff it up a little.”

“Right. Looking forward to that.”

“Right back at you with those pictures.”


Thursday evening, May 26th
Hospital room

Nurse Taylor knocked on the door to draw the attention of the room's occupants. The door was open, the knock merely a formality. “The guests are waiting in the cafeteria. Is she ready to be brought down?”

“Give her a few minutes.” Dr. Evans turned back to Noa, letting miss Taylor position herself near the bed, ready to move it to the elevator anytime now. For the occasion, Noa had been fully dressed, a light transparent purple shirt over a matching tank top, with a pair of light blue jeans and black socks. It was simple, yet more than she wore throughout the week. “Magnolia, it's going to be alright.”

Noa was breathing rapidly, her pace dangerously close to hyperventilation. In between two breaths, she quickly got out “It's getting worse.”

“Calm down. Take deep breaths.”

For the nth time, Noa tried to control her respiration, forcing out the air in her lungs in as constant and long a blow she could manage, then inhaling just as gradually and slowly. Or so she tried, but what passed as slow in her current state of anxiety was still much too fast to make a difference.

“Skin crawling. Cells popping.” Her sentences were short and intermittent, each spaced by a few short inhalations within that many seconds. Inside, she felt a tingling sensation everywhere, coupled with needle sharp spikes in millions of different places at once. Her insides were tickling and pricking, a feeling not too unlike ants raging wars in her veins. The feeling was not new. It was that feeling of doom, the feeling of having her nervous system sending signals willy-nilly and having her insides scrambled at the cellular level. It had started after Phobia had healed her, at first imperceptible, then growing in intensity every day. The feeling itself would not cause her to panic so much as the prescience that came along with it. The more she was aware of it, the more she realized that the feeling indicated her internal changes. Her liver was the most uncomfortable, and with the feeling she felt at the moment Noa knew that it would not be long before it broke down just like her stomach and intestine.

“Stop thinking about it. You're causing the necrosis because you think it's there.”

“Can't. Overwhelmed. Not enough distractions.” She made another attempt to tune out the feeling, but when she was not focused on the tingling, she was picturing herself throwing up in front of her whole classroom. She had feared this possibility so much in the last few days that the scene was now engraved in her mind, every detail reinforced by the fear of mocking laughter and harsh stares. There was no way she was going to blow this up. Everyone was counting on her, coming to see her. She could not disappoint them.

And yet...

“Medication?” she asked between two breaths.

“Maybe I should bring the oxygen tank,” offered the nurse, growing worried about Noa's safety.

“It'll only accelerate the process. Magnolia!” The rat clapped his hands loudly to draw Noa's attention, and was rewarded by a short lapse in her breathing pattern before it picked back up. “I want you to focus on my voice, and my voice only.” He received a quick panicky nod. “You are scared. Say it with me. You are scared.”

“I am. Scared.” That was a good start. Admit the fear exist, and it becomes easier to manage.

“But you are not in danger. Repeat.”

“Danger. But I am.” Not good. Her breath was picking up pace. She was definitely hyperventilating now. “Stinging. Painful.”

“Magnolia, I'm here. Nurse Taylor is here. You can trust us. This is something we were expecting to happen eventually. You are not in danger. Please repeat: you are not in danger.”

“I am.” She curled up into a ball, trying to stop the incessant movement of her sore and painful diaphragm, yet unaware that doing so only worsened her condition. “Help. Make it. Stop.”

If Noa had been more used to panic attacks, he would have walked her through the routine, make her accept her fear so that she eventually settled down, but she did not have the proper preparation to realize that she was not in danger. The work needed to come from her, but she was too gripped to do it on her own. Dr. Evans hated having to do this, but he started to emphatically project comforting waves at her. He sent the waves in sync with his own breathing, calm and constant, in, and then out, the wave receding on each of his exhale and flowing in on each inhale.

“Focus on your breathing. Match it to mine, counting up to five, and then down from five.” He took long deep breaths, exaggerating the inflation and deflation of his chest for Noa to see. Gradually, Noa's breathing slowed down, although the anxiety was still present in her mind.

Still far from calm, she asked in a more sustained voice “Hypnosis?”

“Not exactly. Emotional manipulation, although it won't solve the issue.” He maintained the flow of his concentration. If he let it down, Noa would be back exactly where she was a minute ago. “You need to get a hold of yourself.”

“Can you hypnotize me?” she said, almost pleading.

Dr. Evans shuddered at the thought. “Yes, but—”

“Then do it. Make me stop worrying.”

He was about to protest when he received the girl's hope, faith, supplication and need full throttle. With a grumble, he had to admit that she was getting better at emitting. “Close your eyes, lay back in your bed, still your aura, and breathe slowly in from the nose, and out through the mouth.”

He changed his emitting pattern to one of dreaming, leading her into an alpha state receptive to suggestions. He did not like messing with his patients’ brains, unless it was a direct request from the patient themself.

After a few minutes of this manipulation, all the while whispering inconsequential noise to fill the silence, he was able to soothe Noa into the state he was striving for. Once he was completely certain that the waves he was emitting were resonating with the waves he got back from her, he began the more delicate part.

“Think about the worst case scenario for tonight. Picture it clearly while remaining distant and objective. You picture it, and are neither frightened nor anxious about it. This scenario occurs, but you let it proceed unconcerned. You have nothing to worry about. You remain casual and relaxed, and you let it pass. The scene floats away, and you are just as free of tensions as you were before it happened.”

Her closed eyelids were fluttering, moving this way and that, following movements from a scene only she could see. When the sequence finished and floated away, her eyelids stilled. That was Dr. Evans's cue to continue.

“Repeat this process with each of your worries. Let them unfold before you without affecting you. Feel how safe you are through it all, and let them float away one by one.” He waited again for the cue from the eyelids before continuing. “An unexpected situation occurs, one that you cannot picture and yet fills you with fear and doubt. You look at this unexpected situation just as you did every other, letting it unfold, yet not letting it affect you in ways that you don't want. You look at the fear, at the doubt, and just like the other times you let it float away. You remain calm and relaxed.”

After Noa finished the routine once more, Evans gradually relaxed his emitting, spacing out each wave more and more until Noa eventually regained complete awareness. She blinked a few times, her respiration normal and settled without any assistance from him. At the very least, he had managed to calm her down.

With the same soothing voice he used for the suggestion, he asked “How do you feel?”

Noa looked at both of her arms, then felt her belly and legs. “Calm,” she replied. The tingling was still present, but it was no longer synonymous of dread. “Appeased,” she said in a breath, one long and serene exhale carrying her final answer.

Evans eyed her critically. “You should have told me earlier that you were freaking out about tonight.”

“I know. I should have.” She laid back in the inclined bed, closing her eyes before the headache they induced came back humming at the back of her mind.

“You provoked it.”

“You said that before.”

“Well I'm saying it again. You are aware that you'll probably have an attack tonight?”

She smiled, quite self-conscious of the fact that she should be troubled about that and yet was not. “I'll deal. Besides, you told me that I don't need my liver anymore. No biggie.”

“Keep saying things like that and you'll traumatize your friends downstairs.” The doctor gestured to Miss Taylor that they were ready. She took position behind the bed, ready to bring it down to the cafeteria.

Noa giggled at Dr. Evans's comment. “I'll try to find another discussion topic then.”


15: All for One

Thursday evening, May 26th
Hospital cafeteria

“Takes a while,” one of the students commented.

“Do you think she bailed on us?”

“Maybe something happened.”

Before the group in the cafeteria grew too agitated and impatient, the doors opened, letting in a bed pushed by nurse Taylor.

“Ah, here comes the star of the show.”

Through her closed eyelids, Noa could perceive the difference in lighting as they crossed the door frame. The cafeteria was lit up brightly, a vivid yellow glow that contrasted with the growing darkness of the corridors and rooms. The rest of the hospital was only lit by streaks of distant dim light to avoid bothering the patients that wished to sleep, leaving the group of students in what was probably the brightest room around.

She let her senses flow into the cafeteria. She noticed the position of the chairs and table that had been pushed to the side to make space, and the counters emptied and cleaned for the evening. Despite the cleaning, to her the empty food stands were still filled with grease stains, drops of sauces stuck between cracks, bits of chopped salad brushed and forgotten under the ovens, and spice powder dropped on a tablet out of reach of prying eyes. The cafeteria might have been emptied, but for Noa a whole buffet still remained, waiting for her cleaning touch. She let her aura go wild yet unnoticed, the group awaiting her arrival none the wiser as to her eating habits.

As soon as she got in, sixteen teenagers whose excitement had been barely restrained up until now started talking all at once, surrounding her and asking her questions she could not make out in all the bustle.

Noa felt kind of like a celebrity. Chuckling at the thought, she tried to match the role just for fun. “Make space. No autograph. One question at a time.” This was fun.

Mae was the first to walk into Noa's privacy bubble, the other students keeping a respectful distance away from the bed. She walked up to Noa, a complicit smile appearing at her friends display of ego, and unceremoniously grabbed Noa's head under her arm, holding the girl down without really meaning to hurt her. “Don't get any delusions of grandeur now.” She roughed up Noa's hair playfully, and was met with resistance in the form of tickling. “Hey! No fair!”

“All shall bow in the presence of my magnificence!” Both girls let go, laughing their heart out at their own silliness. The other kids were at first taken aback by the rowdy display, but they quickly warmed up to the situation, settling into a comfortable atmosphere that felt natural.

Mae managed to break the ice, Carol noticed from the back. She was thankful for that, as the bouncy and nervous atmosphere from before was uncomfortable and a recipe for trouble. Yet, she could not help but frown at the other girl's belligerent nature. She was at times too brutal to Carol's taste. The girl was fine in her book most of the time, but Carol would not react nearly as kindly as Noa if she was suddenly aggressed like that. She wondered how her friend could put up with it.

“You could open your eyes you know,” said a boy at the front of the pack, drawing Carol's attention back to the center of everyone's focus.

Noa made a point of appearing to consider the question before dismissing the idea. “Nah, don't feel like it.”

“You could at least turn your head around when someone speaks,” pressed that same boy.

She chuckled, deliberately turning her head away from the boy and appearing to look straight into another girl's eyes, even though the girl had not spoken a word. “Oh, sorry Tom, I'll be more careful from now on.” She could feel the facial movements of both the girl she was 'looking' at and Tom on the other side of the bed, each confused and growing uncomfortable, not knowing what to say. Noa helped them both by poking a finger straight between Tom's eyebrows, turning to him with a mischievous look. “Got you.”

When he realized that she was playing him, he returned the grin. “Rascal! You can see!”

“Guilty as charged!”

A few giggles aroused around Tom, making him embarrassed for falling for the prank. “How?”

“I'm a bit more aware as of late. My eyes are sensitive enough to give me headaches, so I keep them closed more often than not, but I don't need them to know where things are around me.”

Another girl stepped out from the crowd, holding a voice recorder up to Noa's face. Noa recognized the girl as being on the school's journal committee. She had a lot more composure and confidence than Tom when she spoke up.

“So Noa, how does it feel to be a mutant?”

“Huh...” What was she supposed to answer to that? How could she recap all the intensity of the past week into just a few words?

The girl did not wait for an answer, instead taking her pause to mean that this line of inquiry lead to a dead end. “What's your superhero name?”

“Double 'huh'...”

“Any superhero groups you are looking to get into?” Not a moment of respite. Geez!

“I always looked up to the Amazing Three?” she said, unsure if it was answer enough.

The girl nodded as if satisfied by Noa's halfhearted reply. Noa could hear people at the back mocking the school journal, commenting that no one was actually reading that thing. It did not seem to perturb the wannabe reporter in the least. “Can you tell us about your powers?”

That she could do. She broke a smile, deciding to show them just like she did the first time. As of late, she always kept her two plushies close to her. She extended her consciousness around her black furball of a cat and made it float around, frightening away the students that were too close to the unexpected phenomenon. As the black cat floated around hauntingly, everyone took a step back. Everyone but the three for which this trick was old news.

“What are you all afraid of?” said Becky, turning around to the circle of retreating kids. The cat landed on her shoulders, burrowing its nose in her neck. She could not help squirming as the toy's whiskers brushes against her skin. A giggle escaped her. “Noa, that tickles!”

The plushy floated back into Noa's arms, squeezed by the triumphant girl. The faces her friends had made! Hilarious!

“See?” Becky addressed once again the rest of the group, who were easing back from their initial impressions. “Nothing to fear.”

“As if you didn't jump to the ceiling the first time you saw the trick,” commented Mae smugly.

“Nah ha, I didn't. I was expecting something like it.”

Mae smirked. “Scaredy-cat.”

“Hey!”

Some other students started chattering again, laughing at their friend's reactions and denying their own. Soon the whole group was chuckling one way or another, their recent fright all but forgotten. Silliness had a way of putting the kids at ease, and after exchanging a complicit smile, Noa, Mae and Becky joined the general laughter.

Once the babble died down a little, a boy that Noa recognized as Billy stepped forward, holding a wrapped box and a piece of paper. “Gifts from the group,” he said, as he gave the card and colorful box to Noa. “We all put in a little something. Hope you like it.”

“Oh, you shouldn't have. Thank you everyone!” She opened the card, reading a few of the multiple different comments written inside, much to the oohs and aahs of the few people in front that caught a glimpse of her eyes for the short time they remained opened. Each comment was unique, personalized with little drawings and doodles, the handwriting and words a piece of art in her mind. She closed the card and squeezed it against her chest, emotion filling her voice. “Thank you. It really means a lot to me.”

“Open the package!” called someone in the back.

Noa did not have to be told twice. Carefully as to not rip the precious wrapping, she unfolded the paper from a box of chocolates. With a sad smile, Noa felt a pang of nostalgia.

“That's a lot of chocolate!” she said, not letting her mood show. It was a gift, and she needed to honor the sentiment behind it, even if it reminded her of the things she missed. “I won't be able to finish it all. Everyone grabs one.”

“Don't be silly,” said Billy, still the closest to her. “That's a gift. It all yours.”

“Then it's also mine to share. It's only fair since you all went through the trouble of coming here.”

Without waiting for further protests, Noa levitated the chocolates out of the box, moving one in front of each student, teacher and parent in the cafeteria. Some reluctantly picked up the sweets from the air, while others were thankful for the treat. However, they were all waiting, unsure whether they should take the first bite or not.

Carol from the back figured she could give everyone a little push. She knew what Noa was up to, and that she could not enjoy the chocolates like the other kids were expecting her to. Holding her piece in her open hand, she raised her arm, loudly calling “Cheers!” before taking the first bite. Having made it official to start eating, other students imitated Carol, giving their thanks and swallowing the delicacies in appreciation.

Carol made a greeting gesture to Noa, as if saying 'I got your back', and even though her best friend was not 'looking' at her, she knew who her thankful smile was directed at.

“Are you not going to eat yours?” Billy was still there, next to Noa, expectantly looking at the box of twenty where a single truffle remained.

Noa picked up the truffle telekinetically, considering her options. “I guess I should eat too.”

With that said, she left the truffle float next to her head and started to break it down into ever smaller pieces. She had figured out over the last few days that she could absorb her meals a lot faster if she first broke them down into extremely small bits. Usually she would try to be subtle about her eating habits, but today she enjoyed showing off. And besides, the boy was so attentively riveted to her that she doubted he would be satisfied with anything short of the full display.

Within a few seconds, the soft truffle had completely disintegrated into a ring of floating particles circling around to Noa's left. The display attracted more than a few stares, and it was under gaping mouths and unsettled murmurs that the last tidbit of chocolate merged into her TK.

“Delicious,” she said, mostly to appease the shocked expressions she got from all around.

Compared to the other things she had tasted lately, the truffle ranked pretty poorly. Sugar and salt no longer had the similar appeal than they had before, especially now that her taste was mostly defined by the complexity of the molecules she was absorbing. Human skin, bacteria, pollen and dust tasted best, the stands of DNA being complex and rich in flavors. Fats and proteins were mostly okay, but their patterns were often repetitive and they usually got broken down with the heat of cooking. Sugar and salt? Plain and bland. Although everything was still leagues better than anything she had tasted before her manifestation, her standards were higher now that she was getting used to the new sensations.


From the sidelines, Mr. Chavez examined the uproar that ensured, Noa at the center having to explain in more details her powers and eating habits. The kids were having fun, which was the whole point of the visit. He felt like he could relax a little. Magnolia sure was full of surprise, the least of which being that she looked well and recovered. He had expected a lot worse, and was pleasantly surprised when his expectations were blown away.

Turning his attention away from kids chasing a teddy bear and a floating cat around, he edged closer to the young and pretty nurse that had stayed silent up until now. She had a large white lab rat with dark red eyes hanging on her shoulder, which could be considered almost banal compared to the other things going around this evening.

He laid back against the food counter, addressing the nurse. “I take it you are the one in charge of her?”

She blushed, shy and slightly uncomfortable at being addressed. “I am.”

“Nice girl. I was expecting her to look a lot worse.”

“She's tough, even though she has it hard.”

One of the kid had grown a mustache and monocle, painted telekinetically on his face. At the general laughter, a girl realized she got the same treatment. Noticing the prank, she made the most out of it and tried to impersonate some kind of Victorian gentleman, much to the crowd's amusement. Chavez chuckled at the sight.

He was about to ask her about Magnolia's eventual return to school when he noticed the rat, which had changed shoulder and was now examining him curiously.

“What's with the rat?”

“Oh, that's Dr. Evans.”

He snickered. “Oh the irony.”

“It does make for a good laugh from time to time.”

Mr. Chavez jumped at the unexpected male voice coming from the now standing rat. The rat's animal behavior disappeared, replaced by a distinctly human countenance.

“Mr. Chavez, I presume,” said the rat. Or rather Dr. Evans, Chavez corrected himself. The voice was familiar somehow.

“Geez, don't give me a scare like that!”

The rat's lips stretched out into something close to a grin. “Sorry. With the kids playing pranks all around I couldn't resist one of my own.”

“We talked didn't we? The phone call?”

“That we did.” Dr. Evans was still observing the man's reaction, but after having confirmed that he was a proper doctor, he was surprised to see the teacher relax. “For a first meeting, you are taking this quite well.”

The man shrugged. “I told the kids to take it in strides tonight. It'd be hypocrite of me not to follow my own advice.” He gave another good look at Dr. Evans, studying him from head to toes. “Besides, you could be a robot with a voice box for all I know. Maybe the real doctor is in a room at the other end of the world and I am talking to a remote controlled interface.”

“Not half bad for a first guess,” said Evans, genuinely impressed.

Chavez brushed aside the comment. “I don't need to know the details. I do remember some news a few years ago about an international rat. That was you?”

“Most probably.”

“Hm, didn't know you were a doctor.” He seemed to reflect on distant memories, but in the end gave up remembering anything else he heard from the news of that time. “Mind telling me how you work? I have a hard time seeing a rat fix a broken leg or something.”

“I don't do the operations,” explained Evans. “I am there mostly to identify the unique needs of each patient. I can recommend some procedures that may help, or I can contact the right people for the right task.”

“That's a bit generic. Mind giving me an example?”

Evans nodded, thinking through some of the most impressive cases he had been exposed to in the last few years. “There was that man whose body turned to dust, leaving behind only an inanimate empty energy shell. He was a bit old to manifest. It took me several weeks to figure out that the shell needed to be filled up, and that only live insects would feed him the energy he needed to move about. Somehow, birds, dogs and cats did not work too well.”

Mr. Chavez flashed a horrified look. Take it in stride. You have nothing to worry about. He had to repeat his mantra a few times before he was ready to speak again. “You made him into a colony of bugs? How sick is this?!”

Evans shrugged. “So long as he is alive and well, the appearance matters little. Last I heard from him, he was quite happy as a gardener.” He could see the teacher grow stiff and distant, his eyes judging. “Maybe you would like to hear a less gory example?”

Chavez edged slightly away in disgust. “I don't know if I want to know more than I already do.”

Evans made a dismissive gesture with his arm. “Listening to me won't make you insane.” He kind of enjoyed provoking the teacher a little. The kids were rubbing off on him tonight. “There was that woman. One of my failures. I only detected too late that she was an Astral Avatar and an Astral projector, able to send her mind out to explore places she had never seen and collect passengers on the way back. I was treating her for hallucinations at the time. One day, she didn't come back from one of her trip. Something else came back in her place, something primeval and powerful. She broke out and burned down half of the psychiatric ward, along with some of the neighborhood.”

In the heavy silence that followed, Mr. Chavez's expression was inscrutable. “This is less gory? How?”

“I will have you know that neither stories contain any blood nor maiming. I could have gone for worse.”

The man closed his eyes and took a deep breath, crossing and uncrossing his arms without finding a position that felt right. The stories had left him unsettled, to say the least. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because you asked,” said Evans, avoiding the man's stare. It was his turn to sigh and to let his shoulders drop. “And maybe because I am feeling a bit down lately. Feeling closer to my failures than my successes.”

“What are you talking about! Magnolia is doing fine. Just look at her.”

“A facade, I'm afraid.” Evans looked at the group that was pulling closer to the bed, everyone's attention caught by something or the other near Magnolia. “Which kid never stood up straight and smiled while feeling miserable inside?”

Chavez looked back at the group. “She looks peachy to me.”

“She asked to be hypnotized for tonight.” The coldness in his voice contrasted perfectly with the astonished look he got back. “She was having an anxiety attack before you came.”

“No way...” He looked at the group again with a new awareness, trying to find any detail that would hint at what the rat doctor was implying. The group of students was growing more agitated, something going on among them.

“I am still waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Dr. Evans had not missed the agitation, and when a student ran away from the group to the kitchen, fetching a large mixing bowl for lack of an appropriately sized garbage can, he knew what was going on. “That would be my cue,” he said, gesturing to miss Taylor to get moving.

When they got to the bed, Noa was just finishing spitting out and cleaning away the last trickle of thick blood running down her mouth. A number of the students were looking like they were about to be just as sick from the sight of the bowl's content.

Miss Taylor put down Dr. Evans on the bed, much to the consternation of several students quickly quieted by Chavez, Mae and Carol.

“How do you feel?” asked Evans, concerned and yet relieved that Noa pulled through this one without flinching.

She smiled at him, shifting a little on the bed to make space to put down the bowl next to her. “I'm fine.”

“Pain scale?”

“Two. Uncomfortable, but not painful.” A murmur grew among the rest of the group. Not painful? With that much blood?!

Dr. Evans nodded at Noa, ignoring the noisy lot behind. “Do you feel there's more coming?”

A shake of the head was her answer. “As I said. It's just a liver. No big deal. I'm getting used to it by now.”

“Sick!” exclaimed a disgusted boy's voice from the crowd. Other voices were starting to raise above a whisper, the words distinct.

“Used to it?!”

“That's a common thing for her?”

“They expected this.”

“No way!”

“I'm going to be sick...”

“What a mess that would make on a mat…”

“Pfft, that’s my cat on a regular basis.”

“I don't want to be a mutant, ever!”

Billy, ever so serviceable, was the only soul courageous enough to grab the bowl with its content, intending to throw it out into the garbage before undue agitation spilled the blood onto the ground.

“Ah, leave that here,” Noa interjected before he could make much of a step. “I'll eat it later. I'd rather not let it go to waste.”

Dr. Evans facepalmed at her innocent comment, the turmoil and agitation behind him growing overwhelmingly loud. Noa’s giggle at their reactions only made her friends and classmates grow even more confused as to what was going on.

“I thought we agreed on something regarding traumatizing comments before we came down,” patronized Evans, low enough for only Noa to hear.

“I thought that rule was thrown out the window the moment I got my attack,” she replied, her tone matching his while glowing a bright smile at all her friends.

It took a moment for Billy next to her to recover from his daze, the bowl still held in his hand, sloshing at his every movements. “A... Are... Are you really going to eat that?”

She took the bowl from his shaking hands and carefully placed it back on the bed, her aura already doing its thing, not that anyone noticed. “Why not? It tastes better than chocolate at least.”

His eyes being fixed on the bowl, Noa could not resist showing of. She focused enough of her aura in that one spot for the flesh's dissolution to be visible to the naked eye. Mesmerized by the display, and quite a bit repulsed at it too, he asked “Why didn't you use your witchy powers to do that while everything was still inside? Save everyone the gore, you know?”

Noa was nonplussed by his odd suggestion. “My telekinesis only reaches down to my skin, so I can't do that.”

No, that's not right, thought Dr. Evans. Healbot had said that her telekinesis specks were small enough to pass through the skin. Actually, Evans had thought all along that that was what she was doing already, and that her aura was changing her slowly from the inside. Now he remembered seeing, but not noticing or understanding its meaning: the intestine surgery, where her aura remained only on the utmost layers of her body; the MRI scans showing that her skin had completely morphed before the rest of her body. They had been missing the point all along.

“You never actually tried,” replied Dr. Evans at Noa's comment, having reached a conclusion that he needed to see through. “You never tried to pull all your aura into you.” He lifted his arm up and lit the room in a shade of blue that was familiar to them both, yet alien to the rest of the spectators. The bowl was filled with a denser shade of blue, the flow and movement in its vicinity a lot more perceptible. He looked at Noa straight in the eyes assertively, hoping this would work. “Please give it a try.”

Noa looked around, unsure. The intensity her doctor was giving off was at odd with the happiness and elation she was feeling at the moment. It was a bummer on her fun. “Now?” She was half hoping he would reconsider, but by his look and the nod he gave back, she understood that he was taking this matter seriously.

Complying, she let the blue cloud seep into her, passing through the pores of her skin, entering through her nose and mouth and filling uniformly every vein and artery of her body. Within seconds, the blue hue that had filled the room was absorbed into her. She felt no pain, no dizziness. Only the common exertion of pushing her aura to do things outside of its resting mode.

“Hey, I don't feel tingly anymore!” The feeling of needle and popping cells had completely vanished, instead replaced by an odd numbness that was far from unpleasant. After days of constant struggles, the complete lack of feeling was a solace, a moment of peace among a raging storm. The fact that she no longer had any tactile sensation, that she felt neither warm nor cold, that she was not aware of any movement she made, all was lost on her. Only the absence of pain mattered at this point.

The taste of flesh coming from her aura had however not stopped when she moved it away from the bowl to where it really belonged. Truth be told, the taste she was receiving was magnitudes greater than before, the volume filling her completely, the connections inherent to her own soul. She was one with herself, a feeling she could not have begun to imagine prior to experiencing it at this very moment.

Against her will, her body jerked, a spasm that took her as much by surprise as everyone else. She had not felt where it came from. She had not even felt the jerk itself through the complete deprivation of sensations, noticing it only by the movement she caused the bed and the gasps of certain friends. The numbness was annoying, so without thinking she pushed back her aura outside of her, once again illuminating the room in a blue that Evans never dismissed.

This was a mistake. Another spasm brought liquid up to her mouth from somewhere within, her body protesting at the sudden interruption of its internal reshaping. She turned in time to spew her discharge into the bowl, Billy the only thing that stopped her flailing arm from accidentally pushing the bowl out of reach. The storm was back in full force, her insides burning their grievance at the unfair treatment she had inadvertently subjected herself.

Her mind was growing dizzier and dizzier, so much so that she could not make out what Dr. Evans was screaming at her. His frown creased with worry did not suit him. She much preferred when he looked noble and proud, confident, admirable.

Trying to take a breath proved impossible, the area that for a lifetime expanded and retracted in an ever constant motion no longer responsive to even her most vocal thoughts. She was choking! The thought broke through her muddy mind and sent her in a panic. She desperately sought for air, but air was not coming. There was no longer anything to receive the air she tried to breathe in. Panic gripped her, her mind hopelessly seeking aid from the outside.

She was barely aware that she was being led to the closest emergency operating room on the floor, Miss Taylor pushing the bed at full throttle and Dr. Evans calling anyone available to help.

“Keep it in!”

The voice was familiar, the grip on her hand safe. Noa turned her head, her mind slowly falling into comforting unconsciousness.

“Don't you dare die on me!”

There was that voice again, jolting her just a little more awake. Carol, streaks of mascara coloring down her cheeks, crying while at the same time maintaining a brave resolve. Their eyes met, and for an instant Noa contemplated the features of her friend. Her pointy little nose, adorable in the middle of her heart shaped face. Plumped lips, delicate eyebrows that she knew her friend maintained with dedicated efforts. Deep blue eyes streaked with little white veins, reminding her of a nice summer sky.

Begging, pleading, imploring eyes.

Why, Carol, such a desperate look doesn't fit you either.

“Pull your aura in!”

The words echoed through the haze, reaching her and shaking her deep within, and with a herculean effort of concentration she pulled against the natural order of her powers, ordering her field back into her pores and veins once more.

Everything turned black, all sensations melting away and disappearing into a comforting void. The last feeling to disappear was the shape of a hand, delicate and warm, holding her own.


16: Well and Farewell

Friday early morning, May 27th
Hospital room

Roiling storms, primordial fear, undivided love, disgust, joy, pleasures and suffering. No complex thoughts remained stable in this restless sleep where everything was shifting, changing, reforming in a continual chaotic dance of concepts. Her inner self was fragmented down into its simplest and most basic components before being built back up piece by piece, expanding and contracting all at once, then breaking down for the process to restart anew, an ever expanding cycle that soon encompassed so much more than the simple components it started with. The complexity started to increase as the most primal components fell into place where they belonged, allowing memories to attach to the emotions in an incoherent soup of thoughts. The memories were refined like diamonds in the rough, polished so that every detail became crystal clear, every emotion more vivid, and once the stones turned into magnificent jewels, they were placed with the others in a proper and sequential manner. Piece by piece, a soul that had been broken down was built back up, all impurities washed away as if cleansed by a purifying fire.

Her awakening happened gradually, one sense at a time. Wind entered through the opened window in this new dawn, caressing gently the exposed skin of her arms, rubbing the sheet against her legs hidden underneath in ripples reminiscent of the waves at a beach. The simple touch felt new, delicious in its simplicity, sending shivers running under the surface of her skin, tenderly waking up her sleeping mind.

The sounds accompanying the morning sun poking through the horizon felt like so many melodies to her ears. The chiming of birds carried by the wind along with the sound of rustling leaves made up the harmonics, while the distant drumming of steps, the slow rumbles of cars and the constant rhythm of heartbeats carried the rest of the orchestra as the bases. Each sound echoed with every other, resonating and expanding into delightful dimensions of complexity that everyday people were unable to appreciate.

Noa opened her eyes, only to close them in the same movement, the morning light too bright and rich in colors to a sight that had spent the night in complete darkness. Blinking a few times, at first quickly before slowing down as her sight adjusted, she saw the colors carried by the rays of sunshine, more lifelike than reality had any right to be, scintillating in so many rich features that her mind struggled to comprehend it all. A slight ache made itself felt from her chest as she looked around, fascinated and distracted by every jewel that composed the room she was in. The longer she looked, the more the ache expanded, reaching down the flat of her belly, creeping over her shoulders and toward her arms, and edging up her neck, over her scalp and digging into her head. The confusion and discomfort ended as soon as she closed her eyes, the secrets of the world still too much for her to bear for more than a few seconds at a time. And yet, what secrets they were! So rich, so beautiful, so exciting. A giggle escaped her at the thought that no one else than her could lay eyes on something so magnificent, even for the briefest of moments.

Noa pushed away the sheets and moved away from the protecting bed railing, letting her legs drop down the edge of her mattress as she sat up. She took a moment to play with her toes, crossing them, expanding them, tightening them, enjoying every motion and counter-motion. She pushed herself away from the bed, her weight distributing in two perfect arcs under the sole of her feet, her muscles tightening slightly to support her body in the most natural of positions. Power flowed in every cell of her body, strength reacting this way and that as she shifted her weight tentatively from one foot to the other. Not a single dab of pain, not the slightest resistance in her articulations as she stretched her arms upward to the sky and then down to her feet. Every movement was effortless, as it was always meant to be.

She walked to the opened window, guided by the reassuring presence of her aura. The fascination of every new sensation was soon matched with the curiosity of some others missing. Neither the warmth of the morning's rays of sunshine against her skin nor the expected cold floor under her feet registered in her mind. She felt neither too warm nor too cold, just the perfect temperature for comfort, and yet everything she touched felt just as comfortable to her. There were none of the expected chill of the morning air, nor the heat from the heater hanging against the wall two steps from her, nor the griping cold from the metal railing of the window she was resting against. Not feeling heat and cold was odd, although not at all unpleasant.

Another odd feeling was the lack of satisfaction from breathing. She realized that her breathing had been inconsistent since she woke up, as she could spend long minutes without expelling or inhaling air. It was not necessary. She knew without having to test it that she no longer needed oxygen, and that if she so wanted, she could spend the rest of her life without taking a single breath. At the same time, the stream of delicate smells would stop if she forgot to maintain the rhythm, and she would not be able to talk unless she had some air to expel. Her curious mind strived for a solution. The smell problem could easily be fixed by having her aura provide a flux of air constantly stroking the receptors in her nose. As for talking, she might just have to take a pause and breathe in before she opened her mouth. Her mom always told her to think before she said anything, now was simply a good time to enforce this practice.

With that thought made, she let her breathing stop, the last motion of her body stilled. Lying against the window, she felt almost like a marble statue, no blood pushing through her veins, no physical cadence to indicate the flow of time. She stood there with her eyes closed for who knows how long, grateful for being simply alive.

In the opposite corner of the room was a sink with a mirror. After giving her thanks and appreciation to the world at large, Noa made her way to the mirror, careful not to make any sound that would disturb the other occupant of the room. The curtains had been closed shut, but they in no way prevented Noa from noticing a little boy asleep in the bed, his broken left leg stuck in a cast. Poor thing! She hoped he would recover soon and be able to run and do sport before long. She could relate to how boring being stuck in a bed was, compared to being out and about on your two feet.

Once she was in front of the mirror, she quickly blinked her eyes once, imprinting the picture of her reflection on her kaleidoscopic retina. She had to suppress a laugh, fearing waking the boy by being too loud, and yet she was unable to keep a straight face in front of what she saw in the mirror.

She had dyed hair! Oh, her mom would kill her for this. She snickered at the thought, too happy to care. Her initially straight brown hair had turned black at the roots, turning to shades of ever lighter purple as the color flowed down her newfound curls. Her hair was framing her face, flowing down just below her shoulder. The rest of her was a pale white, her skin translucent around the edges of her limbs. No veins were visible through the translucent skin, and it became cloudy too close to the outskirts to see down to the bone. Basked in the morning sunshine filtering through the window, her skin seemed to shine, the light passing through her translucent layer and diffusing every which way in a beautiful angel glow. It was alluring and subtle, although it would draw some attention under the right circumstances. As for the color of her skin, it was not a common white shade, yet it was just close enough to shades of pink to still pass as baseline without raising any questions from onlookers. People looking more closely though would notice the difference. And the glow.

Her lips were slightly more opaque than the rest of her skin, ever so slightly more pink, yet they did not have so much color that they stood out against the contrast of her darker hair. Beside her eyes and the color of her skin and hair, the rest of her had remained unchanged. She still had the same boring face, the same prominent clavicles, the same short neck and short arms, the same long legs, and never enough curves to her taste. Oh well, you can't win on every front. Merely having dyed hair made her giddy.

She went back next to her bed, enjoying standing up after all that time spend sitting and lying. On her bedside table was a note. She took it and blinked once to read its content.

'Call the nurse when you wake up.'

Okie-dokie! She was so happy that she felt like showing off her new hair to everyone in the building, although the one nurse would do for a start. She pressed the big red button on the remote and went back to the window to contemplate volumes, shapes, tastes and textures a little more through her aura. Her range had expanded a little, although the rest of it had remained more or less the same.

Tall and bulky Miss Barker came to check on her, and Noa could not resist jumping into her arms and giving the matron a good old hug. She was overflowing with happiness, of the joy of being alive, of simply existing. Everyone should the same way she felt right now. If the love spread throughout the whole world, all the bad stuff would disappear. She felt like she had enough joy to achieve such a feat.

The matron's eyes soften at the sight of the healthy girl, and after enough time passed, she gently pushed Noa away from her, breaking the hug. Noa was almost dancing in place, swinging her shoulders and hips to a melody only she could hear. “Now, now, stay still.” She kept her voice low, aware of the early hour and the sleeping boy a few meters from them.

“Can't, too excited,” replied Noa, unconsciously matching the nurse's low voice. “Becky told me about the party going on tonight, and I’m definitely not missing this, especially since everyone in our class will be there and then some, but she told me the place was small so it might be a little cramped, but I told her back that we'll only have to party harder and cuddle closer, and it's the last big party before the exams, so of course I'm going, since the exams are going to be a bitch and we'll need to study hard and no one's gonna have fun until summer rolls around, and...”

Miss Barker just smiled at Noa, tuning off her excited babble to look her over from head to toe, patting Noa's limbs and belly respectfully while looking for signs of pain. Once she finished her quick checkup, Noa was still talking, unaware that the nurse was not interested in listening. Talk of coin-catching, history exams, and pregnant teacher flew completely over the nurse's head.

“You look in top shape to me. Let's get Dr. Evans. Maybe you'll get to go home today.”

“Of course I'm getting out of this hospital. I've been here for ages, and I feel amazing, and there's so much to do and so little time, and I want to see Nathan again since I need to get him back for his teasing, but...”

Her chatter continued even as the nurse left to find Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Evans.


The light hitting her eye was painful. She could not bear to keep them open more than an instant without growing dizzy and getting distracted with the overwhelming influx of visual details even as Dr. Ferguson did his inspection with his small flashlight. They had to go at it a couple of times with frequent breaks, otherwise Noa would complain about the discomfort rising from her chest and quickly spreading to her whole body the longer she kept them open, a drumming that would keep increasing in intensity until she felt like fainting.

After a few tries, the light stopped and she closed her eyes, the headache dissipating soon after.

“I can't say anything about why her eyes cause her discomfort,” started the doctor as he stood back up. “Just like the rest of her, they are too far from the norm for any kind of prognosis to be valid.”

“I told you they're just too sensitive.” Noa rolled her eyes in exasperation, not realizing that the effect was lost with her eyes closed. “Can I go home now? I want to see my mom.”

Dr. Ferguson exchanged a look with Dr. Evans who was standing on the bed. Dr. Evans gave his nod of approval. “Doctor, please leave a message for Magnolia's mom to come get her whenever she is ready.”

The man stood up and, about to leave, ruffled Noa's hair. With a smile too warm for his usually strict business face, he told her “Glad you made it out kid. Take care.”

It felt kind of odd, but Ferguson was gaining cookie points in Noa's book. She thought at first that he was an insensitive bastard that liked to inflict pain on his patients, but she was gaining a second opinion of him as of late. Without much of a thought, she pushed her hair back into shape with her aura, turning away from the leaving doctor to her second best friend in the world who stood on her bed.

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked Dr. Evans.

He was a bit surprise that this was the first thought that crossed her mind after all that had happened. “I don't see why not.” He walked into her opened hand and, being brought up to Noa's chest, he let her hug him tightly. “You really gave us a fright last night.”

“Really?” Reluctantly letting go, she placed him back on the bed. “I don't know. I kind of blacked out after a while. What happened?” Unable to keep still, she started to pace around the bed, alternatively tiptoeing, sauntering, strutting, or sashaying.

Evans thought she was entertaining to watch, although he remained vigilant. If she tripped or hit a machine, it could wake up the other occupant of the room. “Well, after you pulled your aura inside you, you got your second attack of the night. Your lungs. It was a bit of a panic after that, but we managed to get you quickly connected to a heart-lung machine, which essentially replaced your lungs. That did not turn out too well however, as the machine stopped working when your arteries closed up. It took me some time to realize that you still had your telekinesis inside you and that you were finishing up your mutation too quickly for us to follow. I took a gamble, and decided to unplug everything and let your mutation do its work. We kept you inside the MRI throughout the whole process to make sure you were still alive, and to follow your development. When it became apparent that your transformation was done, we got you back here to free the MRI for another patient.”

Noa stopped her pacing abruptly and, her face turned toward the wall at the end of the bed, addressed Dr. Evans who was standing right behind her. “Whatever you did, it worked. I haven't felt better in ages!”

He sighed. “I wish I could say I did something, but really all I did was keep watch while your TK did all the work.” He paused, thinking back at those hours of concern, helpless to do anything but pray. “The scans were... interesting. An hour in, we were able to tell that you had no organs remaining, not even a visible brain. By the fourth hour, the scan was capturing 'brain activity',” he made the double quote gesture with his tiny hands for emphasis, “throughout your entire body, with enough activity to knock out five people from overstimulation.”

“Does that mean I'm smart?” Her teasing smile slipped into her voice as she spoke. “I always knew I was a genius, but it's always nice to get a medical confirmation of it.” She spun around, moved closer to the bed and planted herself by the railing, her elbows down against it while her hands supported her chin.

Dr. Evans smiled at the expression of superiority she was giving him. “I don't know if you're smarter or not, but you definitely have more brains.” The joke got a chuckle out of Noa, much to his satisfaction. “From what we understand, your whole body acts now as both muscle tissue and brain neurons at the same time. Congratulations. You are a literal musclehead.”

She giggled some more. “Oh, please. You'll make me blush.”

He let his smile and good mood linger for a few more seconds before turning a bit more serious. “Honestly, be careful. I don't know how your body or mind might react to the change. I expect it might take you some time to adjust and explore everything you can do.” He pointed to the cart next to the bed, on which were the two plushies, clothes, school books, a tray of almost finished food, and the thing he wanted to draw the attention on, Noa's notebook. “I'd like you to keep my phone number in case you need my help with anything.”

“I thought you already gave it to my mom.” She went and picked up the book and her pen, opening it to the first page to write behind the cover.

“You might not be able to rely on your mom in a time of crisis. I want to be sure that you have it if you ever need it.”

After giving her the number, the two of them exchanged a long stare, remembering the shared experience of the past week.

“Magnolia Flores,” he said solemnly as he bowed down, “it was my pleasure to assist you through your manifestation.” He stood back up, his voice back to a friendly tone. “I will keep in touch to see how you adapt to your new life. I hope you take care, and I wish you a successful life from now on.”

Noa was grinning from ear to ear, holding the railing stiffly as if she was restraining herself from exploding from joy. Evans was pretty sure she stopped breathing too. He had not felt this much happiness from a patient in a while.

“Any words before you mom gets here?”

She took a quick dry breath, just enough air to breath out her last request. “Can I hug you again?”

Evans rolled his eyes at her. “Come here you!”


Hug the nurse. Hug that other nurse. Hug the technician. Hug mommy. Hug everybody! That was how Noa exited the doors of the hospital, her eyes forward to the future. It was 8am, the papers were all filled up, and she felt like the world belonged to her. She could even go to school if she wanted, but both her doctor and her mom thought it was too soon for that idea. It did not matter, for she had stuff to catch up to at home too.

The ride back was eventful. Everything was interesting compared to watching the paint dry in her room, especially since in her case it was a pretty literal case of it. Since the visit of Healbot, she had regularly put down drops on paint here and there to unify the look of the walls. Adding to that the sensitivity of her eyes and aura and too much time on her hand, watching paint dry had been added to her list of activities to kill time. It was not really effective at that task, not compared to the feeling of a completely new environment, namely the car. Who knew that you could find this many quarters under the rug, or that one old hairband she lost a few years ago, or two French fries that had escaped someone's fast food paper bag at some point? Noa knew that she had not been guilty of eating fast food in the past year, and her mom denied any and all implications that it might be hers. Culprit: Nathan. It was one more ammunition to poke fun at her brother. Well, those fries were hers now!

In the confine of the car, moving at a brisk speed, her aura was limited to the small space inside. Unless she opened her eyes, which she thought was a bad idea, she had no way of knowing what was going on outside. Still, with the number of treasures just waiting to be discovered, she was not bored in the least. Ooh, shoe gum stuck on the rug. Hers!

Oh, and she got to ramble on and on about yesterday's amazing party at the cafeteria, and the surprise on everyone's face whenever she pulled a trick, and the chocolate thingy, and what she learnt was going on at school, and and...

Barely had the car stopped in their parking that Noa jumped out of her seat, running to the entrance.

“Noa! Grab your stuff!” called her mother from behind, but the door was already swinging open, the words lost.

Noa ran around the house, letting her aura expand everywhere from the basement to the first floor. She pouted when she realized that Nathan had already left. She had hoped to catch him before he went to school and to tease him a bit about the fries.

Judith made a phone call to her workplace as Noa unpacked her stuff from the car. She let her boss know that she would be taking the day off because her daughter just got discharged from the hospital. She received words of understanding and encouragement which would have warmed her heart had she not already been so content of seeing Noa safe and well and back at home.

Not a moment after she had put down the receiver, Noa was climbing the stairs two by two from her room in the basement, gunning for the door leading outside.

“Are you going somewhere?” asked Judith, following Noa into the entrance and seeing her put on her shoes.

“Going for a run. Can't keep still. See ya later.”

“Wait!”

But Noa was out before she could word her protest. She had just been discharged. Normally, that would mean that she should take the rest of the day easy, if not the rest of the week. If this had been Nathan, he would have to be careful of exposure to triggers and would have to limit any stimulation to a minimum. But really, what did she know about mutants and their manifestation? A little, but not enough to be able to tell what was good for Noa and what was bad.

How much did she really know about her daughter?

Judith closed the door, setting her mind back to the research she started this week. As soon as it had been confirmed that Noa was a mutant, she had decided to learn everything she could about them and be ready for anything that could happen to Noa. She prepared a cup of coffee and sat down at the desk in the office room. Papers were awaiting her, notes taken over the past week spread out next to the telephone and monitor. Sitting down, she continued her research on mutants, fueling more searches with terms like telekinesis, gadgeteer, esper, paragon, avatar, shape shifting, wizard and cyberpath. A lot of it led to dead end, or was knowledge that she doubted was applicable to Noa, yet she kept on reading, jolting down more and more notes about mutant stories and organizations, pattern theory and statistics comparing them to baselines.

In the first few days, her research had been wild and sporadic, everything new and seemingly important. After her initial curiosity had been satisfied, she had decided to focus her research more around a little rat doctor. The stories she got back hit a lot closer to home. Burnouts rivaling the explosion of a power plant, sick deformities known as Gross Structural Dystrophy, requirements for a Mutant ID card, MCO stories about re-establishing peace and order by capturing dangerous mutants, the list kept getting longer.

What she wanted to investigate today were the more striking findings of the day before. Stories of miraculous recoveries by an unnamed doctor, and within a few weeks reports of the MCO 'dealing with the dangerous mutant'. It did not take long for the pattern to become clear. Wherever Dr. Evans went, the MCO would follow, and 'triumph'.

What happened as the MCO entered the scene? What was the relation to Dr. Evans? And most important of all, how could she prevent the MCO from 'triumphing' this time?


Friday morning, May 27th
Magnolia’s doorstep

Starting at a walking pace, it was not long before Noa picked up speed, running down the length of the street leading to the bicycle path bordering the forest. Each step felt lighter than the last, the wind flowing through her hair and the rhythm of her breaths all too familiar. She had missed this so, so much! She felt free, liberated from everything that had shackled her to that hospital bed. Among the smells of the leaves and grass, she felt like herself again. Each breath she inhaled was pure and delightful, each step she took a lovely music to her ears.

Even with her eyes closed, there was so much to see, so much to feel. At a jogging speed, she passed a couple walking their dog, a trio of roller skaters, a man taking pictures of the wildlife by the side path, each an interesting meeting for the few seconds they were close to each other. Noa greeted each of them in turn, the polite smile she got back lighting up her day like no other.

The movements were easy, not even requiring any exertion on her part. She was not out of breath, for little that she could actually ever be out of breath from now on. Dropping the pretense, she picked up the pace, extending her strides into a sprint. She stopped breathing, the beat too quick for her to mimic, and instead directed her aura farther in front of her to avoid collision.

It was exhilarating, putting her every senses high in alert. Everything was clear, everything was one, and she was rushing through it like she owned it all. The euphoria was filling her completely, just asking to bust out and Noa could not be happier but to comply and give it her all. What little breath she had kept escaped her in a gleeful laughter. She had not felt this alive in so long, and no matter how much she pushed, her body obeyed without the slightest resistance, nor the slightest hint of fatigue. She could run at full speed and not even be the worst for wear, and maybe she would do just that if that was what it took to express the full extent of her jubilation.

Her steps led her farther and farther, and before she knew it she had reached the same park she had been brought to by the two paramedics, Milton and Richard. The smells were the same, reminiscent of a day that was only second to this one. The same bed of flower, the same lake framing her. She took it all in without slowing down the slightest and kept running, ever so forward.

When you have unlimited drive and never got fatigued, how do you stop?


Friday almost noon, May 27th
Magnolia’s house

Noa came back home several hours later. It was close to noon when she opened the door and threw her shoes in the closet. She felt just as fresh as when she had left the house, just as filled with enthusiasm as the first few steps she took in the forest, but in the last few hours her mind had calmed down, finding peace. The contentment of the run had brought into focus all those other things she wanted to do, and giving a thought to the time it would take, she had decided to go back for now.

When she walked into the kitchen, her mom called out to her. “Where did you go?” She was more than a little upset, especially since Noa had been gone without warning for over three hours.

“To the park,” stated Noa, not the least bit concerned. “Stayed there for a while. Came back when I felt like it.” She did not mention which park it was however. Her mom would have had a fit if she knew just how far Noa had run.

“I’d prefer if you didn't go out on a whim like that.”

As if she could help herself. “It's a medical condition, mom,” she said, as she opened the sink cabinet containing the garbage and compost. There was enough for a nice meal. For once, she was feeling pretty hungry since she had been running too fast to absorb anything while she was out. She usually kept her eating habits constant by nibbling on dust and pollen in between meals, which meant this was the first time since she got her powers that she went for a few hours without any kind of energetic intake. Finishing back the half-made thought to her mother's concern, she said “I can't stay too long in the same enclosed space. They had to move me to another room every day back at the hospital.”

“Or else what?” Judith was intrigued by this strange restriction.

Noa shrugged, leaving the cabinet open as she moved toward the stairs leading down to her room. “I start eating things I shouldn't eat.” She was back upstairs in the blink of an eye, settling her notebook and other school supplies on the kitchen counter.

Judith nodded. Noa had told her about her new eating habit, but it still took her time to come to grasp with it. She was not sure whether, or even if, she could manage the novelty, nor was she clear on all the implications that might unfold. “Give me an approximation. How long until you get uncomfortable in the house?”

“Two, three days maybe?”

She opened a schoolbook, and came face to face with her first problem. Okay, maybe not first, but certainly not the last either. How was she supposed to read long texts? She could take 'snapshots' of short texts without feeling the headache, but she would have to focus a lot longer to go through the few chapters she needed to read to catch up in ethics. Maybe she could take several consecutive snapshots, giving her the time to read a few lines at a time and... NOPE NOPE, not doing that. Oh, the headache!

“And if you spent all your time outside the house and only slept here?”

Oh, right. Mommy's discussion. “I don't sleep, mom. But if you're asking about spending eight hours each night here, along with all the windows open and the ventilation shut down to let the dust accumulate, I don't know. A week? A month? We'd have to try.”

Back to reading. So from her little experiment, one or two snapshots were fine, three started to strain a little, and by the fifth one her mind was spinning. It was only five snapshots, merely a second total! Why so sensitive?! Could she read through her aura? She was already doing so much with her aura, so why not add another function to it? Hmm, nope. Could not feel any difference in texture on the page that clearly indicated where the characters are. Maybe if she took just a little taste? Not enough to rip through the page or to erase the characters, but just enough to get the shape? She could even put the bits of ink back after she was done. Genius!

“What would happen after?”

God, she was still at it? Could she not see that Noa was busy? And what was with those long thought out responses anyway? Too long! If you want to discuss, keep the pace.

With a sigh of exasperation, Noa replied. “If I don't have dust lying around that my subconscious can pick up, I will start eating though the paint of the wall, the wood of the chairs, the threads of the curtains, anything really. And no, I don't control it, other than to prioritize things that I know nobody cares about. Like the garbage can over there.” To anyone else that might have looked at it attentively for the pass few minutes, the content of the garbage can had not moved in the slightest, yet for Noa it was clear that a lot of wastes were now missing the outer millimeter of their edges.

Before Judith could ask another excruciatingly slow question, Noa moved on to another subject. “Can I go to school?” Seeing her mom's incredulity and her half-opened mouth cut short from her previous train of thought, Noa elaborated. “I'd be doing homework and catching up anyway if I spent the rest of the day here, and going to school would delay the whole 'too-clean' problem. Also, my friends are going to play bowling tonight, and I'd like to join. So can I? Pretty please?”

“Your doctor told me—”

“Pleeeeeaaaaaaase!” Time for the puppy dog eyes that never worked.

“Uh, sure?”

Hey it worked! Wait, did she forget to open her eyes? Didn't matter. “Thanks mom! I love you!” Noa was already downstairs picking up her backpack and shoving her books inside.

While Noa was taking her merry time to figure out what attire to wear for bowling, Judith wondered how long it would take Noa for the rush of the mutation to pass. She knew that Noa had been bored out of her mind back at the hospital since her daughter kept rambling about it, but now that she was back home Judith clearly saw how much Noa had missed her normal life.

She smiled tenderly, looking down the stairs and remembering how her youth had been like. “I'm leaving without you. Don't miss the ride.”

“Coming! Now, where's that sock...”

Kids.


Friday early afternoon, May 27th
School

The walk from the door of the classroom to her desk in front of the stares of all of her classmates was the most thrilling thing that happened at school. Her mom had suggested to wear sunglasses to hide her closed eyes, but Noa had refused, arguing that sunglasses did not go with her carefully picked outfit, and that most of her classmates were used to it already.

Still, the other half was staring. Okay, everyone was staring, especially those who were there yesterday evening. It was obvious from their faces that they could not believe she had recovered so fast, but here she was, the center of everyone's attention for various reasons. Her outfit was another one of those reasons. Pale blue string tank top covered by a semi-transparent white crop top vest with barely any sleeves at all, completed with jeans shorts showing as much skin as the school allowed, which was not as much as Noa would have liked. The transparent vest matched her translucent skin, while the cyan blue and the jeans enhanced the purple of her hair. Coin-catching colors baby! She just needed to find Carol, and they would make a pair.

Unable to tell whether the stares were due to her hair, clothes, eyes, or simple presence, Noa defaulted to clothes and assumed all the stares were envious of her looks. She smiled at the effect she had on everyone. With eyes all around the head, she could tell which boys were eyeing her and which girls were deliberately avoiding looking at her. How fun it was to be daring!

Throughout the afternoon, she mastered her reading technique. By tasting small areas of a page one at a time and manifesting back the matter she took, she could get a good grasp of the flavor of ink. Imagining the visual space of the page she was feeling, she could read at an incredible speed. Incredible in the sense that it was incredibly slow. Reading through her aura was slower than she used to read before her mutation, which annoyed her to no end. She filed that under the list of things she lost by becoming a mutant. One could read 'Slow reader' right under 'Thermal insensitivity' if one was bothered to look into her mind, although the first one annoyed her a lot more than the second one.

Catching up in class was easier than she thought it would be. It turns out that a week of theory is not a lot of theory at all when the exams are so close. On the other hand, it is a lot of preparatory exams that she would have to bring back home. She would finish those during the night while listening to the television or the radio. As for the readings, she was slightly ahead except for ethics and math. Her studying at the hospital had paid off in the end. For math, she had to ask a few pointers from the teacher, but once that was done, everything became clear again. How come she got stuck on something so easy?

At the end of the day, Becky rounded up everyone she expected to participate to her party. Carol froze in shock as she stepped in their classroom, no believing her eyes. There she saw Noa, walking toward her and giving her a welcoming hug, even though logic dictated that her friend should be either at the hospital or the morgue. Carol remained stiff from her surprise throughout the hug.

She broke away gently. “You're here? Your hair! Your outfit! How?!”

“Hi Carol.” Her smile could not have stretched wider. “Now, if you could step out of the doorway so people can get in.” Noa pulled her friend aside, which gave them time to catch up to the latest news. Or at least to let Carol catch up since Noa was already quite up to date.

“I thought— Yesterday? You were so sick...” Poor her, she sounded so confused.

She patted her friend's shoulder, thanks in her voice. “I heard your voice, and I hung in there.” Aww, that was almost romantic. She did not want Carol to get the wrong impression of her though, so she quickly added “You give some pretty good tips sometimes. 'Don't die.' I'll have to remember that one.”

Carol turned her head, blushing and mumbling “Laugh at me will you.” With more assurance, she looked Noa in the eyes. “Glad you're safe, although at this point I can't say I was expecting anything.”

“Neither did I. The whole thing kind of fell into my lap you know.”

“Yeah. Changing the subject, is there a story behind the hair?” asked Carol with obvious interest. “Your mom was so glad that you were back that she brought you to the hairdresser first thing before getting back home?”

Noa laughed at the mental image. Let's be serious here, her mom was not absurd enough to grant her a dye job simply for being at death's door. “Magic!” There! Much better answer, and none of the explanation. Man, she should take a job as a journalist. She would be so much more eloquent than the guys writing the newspapers right now. Bonus points; she could play the whole Spiderman cliché down pat, all the way to taking amazing selfies.

“Oh come on. Don't hoard the secret!”

Noa laughed. “It's a s~e~c~r~e~t.” So eloquent!

Carol growled her annoyance. Hm, she might have competition for that journalist job.


17: Spare Me

Friday afternoon, May 27th
Bowling center

*ring* “Luigi's Pizza. How may I help you?”

Carol spoke into the phone, blocking her other ear to be able to hear the clerk over the noise of the bowling room. “Yes, I'd like to place an order. Twelve large pizzas, an equal mix of garden veggies, pepperoni, all dressed, and four cheeses.”

“Pickup or delivery?”

“Delivery.” Carol gave the address of the bowling center that she gleaned from Becky and Floyd.

“Your order comes with six two liter bottles of soft drinks. Any preferences?”

“Give me a mix of the more popular ones.”

“Ok. We'll be on our way before long. Cash or credit at the door. Enjoy your evening.”

Carol closed her phone. That would burn a hole in her pockets, but on the other hand it was a one-time event before the summer holidays. They could all afford to be a little crazy tonight.

She made her way back from the counter to the bowling lanes farther in. The noise reverberated against the high ceiling, and even though the place was small, the echoes and dark blue lights gave a completely different impression. Most people had come together from school, but a few more were still trickling in through the doors, either students that made a small detour to convenience store to buy snacks and drinks or some of Becky's friends who went to a different school. All in all, the six lanes barely fit everyone, and that was without counting Floyd manning the counter and his group of sophomore friends.

Carol stepped down the stairs separating the entrance from the play area and walked toward where she had left Noa. The later was engrossed in a conversation with Becky and her friends as they listened to Noa's recounting of her biking trip of last fall.

“... He lost control and went off the mountain path straight down the hillside into the forest. Luckily for him, he didn't hit any trees, and there was the lake to catch his fall at the end. You guys should have seen his face when he took a dive! All BAM and SPLASH and stuff! And the most hilarious bit was that when he got back up, trying to save his ruined bike, he got jumped by this huge stork or crane, don’t know the difference between the two. It was the size of a Labrador, I swear! It was all like, 'THIS KINGDOM IS MINE! I WILL NOT SURRENDER TO TRESPASSERS!' Or something like that, since you know, storks don't talk, but that one sure was territorial.”

The four girls and Becky broke into laughter as Noa mimed gestures to accompany the story, in turn playing the role of the poor boy that crashed followed by the sheer dominance of the crane as it attacked said boy. Carol did not think it was all that funny, but then again she did miss the rest of the tale. She did crack a smile at the funny expressions Noa was making though.

Allowing only a pause long enough for the laughter to die down, she continued telling the end of her story. “While the boys stopped to help one of their own, we kept rolling down the mountain trail, and the girls and I were the first to arrive to the abandoned tea house on the other side of the lake. So while the boys were dealing with raging stork and swamp leeches, we were sitting on the balcony of the teahouse, contemplating a beautiful flower garden with swans swimming in a large pond. Can't talk for the boys, but I know we had a blast!”

One of the girl sighed dreamingly. “I wish I'd been there.”

“Did all that really happen?!” asked another.

“Oh, that it did,” said a third. “I was with my own friends at the back of the group. I later heard about the guy who fell in the lake, and eventually everyone gathered at the teahouse, but I wasn't lucky enough to see any crane or swan up close.”

“Hahaha! That's precious!” The girl at the farthest back noticed Carol standing behind her, a bit too close to her comfort. “Oh, hey. Didn't see you there. Your mutie friend was just telling us about her bike ride with some classmates. You were there too?”

Carol's eye twitched at the offhand comment. “No, I wasn't. And my 'mutie friend', as you call her, has a name you know.”

“Oh Carol please,” Noa made a dismissive gesture, unfazed by the girl's lapse. “I don't mind. It's not like I bothered remembering any of their names either. Sorry girls, no offense.”

“None taken.” “That's fine.” “No sweat.” “We're cool.”

“See? Everything's peachy.”

“Okay, yes, sure.” Although she was not so sure she liked her friend being referred to only as 'the mutie'. How would people react if someone called a guy 'the negro'? Was it not the same thing? “Noa, we should get to our own lane at some point. Sorry girls, I'll be stealing my friend back.”

“Oh, can't she stay a little longer?” The girl closest to Noa turned to her with pleading eyes. “We don't mind you being here.”

But Noa already started to rise from her seat. “Sorry, Mae is waiting for us. Let's talk again sometimes.” She walked toward Carol, patting the shoulder of the girl at the back to punctuate her leaving. Or so she tried, if the girl had not jerked her shoulder away by reflex. Noa did not take notice, and left with Carol to go meet with their own group, leaving Becky and her friends in an awkward silence.

“What was the jerk reaction for?” asked Becky, as she maned the controls to setup a new game.

“Sorry, didn't mean to. I just was not expecting her to touch me. I can't help it that she gives me the creeps, especially with those eyes of hers.”

“Oh, come on. Her eyes are her cutest feature,” said the girl that had been sitting next to Noa a moment ago. “Just like an anime character. You know, kitsune no me style?”

“I don't speak Chinese.”

“Japanese. Not that it matters.”

“I read somewhere that you can't catch mutant-ness from simple contact,” said Becky at the intention of her friend in the back. “There's no reason to be jumpy around her.”

“Still, I'd rather she stays a fair distance from me.”


Is the grass always greener on the other side?

Hume was so wrong on the morals of sentiments.

Three smokers, five drinkers, four mints, thirteen with bad deodorant.

Joggers wear special clothes so people don't think we're running away from something.

'Wrong' is spelled wrong in the dictionary.

Can I taste the chlorophyll difference between yellow grass and green grass?

If a sentiment can't be universalized, what's the use of it existing at all?

Two with earplugs and music, nine loners who don't speak more than three words at a time, eleven sports enthusiasts.

We don't want general panic and people running around like headless chickens. We're nice like that.

Those people that 'do things like a boss' should really just pay someone else to do those things instead.

How about pesticides, compost, fertilizer? Density of moles holes and parasites?

It's hard to believe that he could be so off the mark about it.

Three geeks who talk exclusively about school, five emo sharing stories.

Noa's thoughts were racing. It was so nice to be brought up to everyone else's level. She had never realized before that she was slow witted and dumb. For fourteen years, she had been thinking at the snail pace of one thought at a time, and sometimes not even that. She never realized that normal people were thinking several concurrent thoughts all the time! She had been so blissfully ignorant for so long, but luckily her manifestation brought enlightenment. Almost bustling from joy, she threw complicit glances around. You think. You also think. We all think! And now so did she. She was in on the joke, and it was all she could do to shut her mouth in glee, basking in the unsaid agreement of those in the know.

Carol and Noa walked down to the very last lane, joining Mae and Gene who were throwing some practice shots before the real game began.

When it came Noa's turn to throw a few shots, both balls found the quick path to the gutter, much to her disappointment. It had been so long since she had last played bowling, and she had never been that good in the first place. Maybe she could use her telekinesis to cheat a little? Nothing too obvious of course, but a little push where it counted.

Making small talk with Mae and Gene over the end of year exams, they heard the resounding sound of Carol's first strike of the night, quickly followed a minute later by another one. Was Carol secretly a pro at this?

Which confused her since Carol came back grumbling as if she had just thrown the worst possible shots.

“Carol, you're on fire tonight.”

“That's just my luck. Get two strikes when it doesn't count, and I bet I won't see another one the whole night.” She made her discontent clear by dropping harshly into one of the chairs.

“We'll test that theory. Let's start the real thing.”

The game was on.


The first game resulted in Gene's victory, with Carol close on his heels. Mae was reasonably on par, while sadly Noa trailed far behind. She was getting better with every throw, no doubt about that, but so were the other three, and it just proved too much to recover from her initial streak of gutters. By the end of the first game, she was compensating for her lack of coordination with her telekinesis, although she made it a point to never tip the pins. Only giving a slight curve to the ball was allowed. In the end, even though she wanted the spotlight of first place, it was still fun to lose so long as it was in good faith. She could cheat so long as she kept it subtle and no one noticed, otherwise she would ruin the fun for everyone.

They kept mostly to themselves until the pizza arrived, at which time Carol had to interrupt her turn to go pay at the door. Noa was offered a few slices but kindly refused, saying that she preferred to wait until a few boxes were empty. Which did not take too long since every single one of the thirty hungry teenagers jumped on the free pizza like a pack of ravenous hyenas. Within minutes several boxes were already emptied, which was perfect for Noa as she brought them back to her lane. Cardboard was easy to eat, with all the folds and creases in which she could slip her aura, although it didn't taste like much other than chemicals.

Seeing that she packed the garbage back to her spot, several comments circled around about the garbage chick and the clean-up girl. Noa would not have minded too much, until people started to dump their trash in their corner, expecting her to clean after them. It was not even a matter of her mutant powers, only some bozo who started it as a gag and everyone picking up on it afterwards. Becky and Floyd tried to force the people to use the regular garbage cans instead of the floor, but eventually gave up when enough people sneaked pass them to throw their empty slush plastic glasses on her group's seats and mat. Now there were two large transparent plastic bags behind their seats, wide open to accept the trash. A pizza cardboard was attached to each, with the message 'Garbage in the bags or you pay the mat.' It was better than nothing, but Noa's friends were irritated that they had to clean up the area along with Becky and Floyd. It was the other guys who started it, why couldn't they clean the mess they made?

After that little incident, everybody settled down into their second or third game, their bellies appeased by the grease, crusts and soft drinks. Becky was doing a round, taking money from those that wanted nachos or slush from the counter and who were too lazy to get it themselves. At least she was helping Floyd make some money where it counted, even if a few groups treated her like some maid of some sort.

When she got all the way to Noa’s corner, she gave them a different offer.

“Floyd is feeling bad about the garbage thing, so he’s offering you guys a slush on the house.” Becky laughed nervously. “Sorry if it doesn't sound like much, but Floyd expects he'll need to change the mat, so he can't afford too much more.”

Unbeknownst to everyone, Noa was already on the task, leaving their mat as spotless as the day it left the factory. She did not say anything though. It would be Floyd's happy surprise later in the evening, after everyone had left and he would come to inspect the damage.

“I'll pass,” said Gene.

“Green lime for me,” replied Mae.

The variety was a little limited, with only three flavors to choose from, but Carol still found a way to stand out. “Red and blue. Be sure to tilt the glass so the two colors don't mix. I don't want purple if possible.”

Becky wrote down the special order on her notepad before turning to Noa. “And for you?”

What did it matter which flavor she chose? They would all taste almost the same to her. “Rainbow? Whatever you want really. Make the colors fun to look at.”

Se jotted that down. “I'll be back. It won't take long.”

As they resumed the game, Noa was happy to notice that she was no longer throwing into the gutter every second shot. She was catching up and giving Mae a run for her money, although Gene and Carol still remained far ahead of the both of them.

When Becky came back with the drinks, Noa was rolling her second spare of the match. She was getting the hang of adjusting her throws where she needed them, so she could make better precision shots and pick up the last few pins with her second shot, but the logistic of a strike on the first shot still escaped her.

When she sat back down, she took her cup of rainbow slush in her hand, blinked her eyes to look at the artistic mix of colors, and started absentmindedly nibbling on it. Just as she expected, it tasted mostly like water with a few hints of complexity due to the strawberry, raspberry and lime artificial flavors. Wait, there was something else! It tasted a little more complex than the other three, just a hint of spice in an otherwise bland drink. Feeling sneaky, she took a taste of the others' drink through her aura and could only find this flavor in hers. How nice of Becky to add a little personal touch just for her. Her smile extended merrily, her legs swinging carefreely under her seat at the feeling of being special and having something that no one else had. The others just assumed that she was happy about her last few spares.

After her throws, which were just as high ranking as usual for her, Carol had to excuse herself to go to the bathroom. Climbing up the stairs, she was about to open the door of the restroom when a few words from Floyd's friends stopped her.

“Rainbow my ass. She's in for a nice surprise.” The snicker that punctuated the sentence was definitely not friendly.

“Man, you're sick. How do you even come up with ideas like that?”

“I won't say I wasn't on the receiving end at some point, but—”

“Eww! Okay, don't want to know.”

The other guys' voices were a bit indistinct to her as she kept still, hidden by a plant and the odd shape of the counter's corner. Floyd’s voice however she recognized immediately as he spoke up.

“Do whatever you want but don't involve Becky in it next time.”

“Hey, you keep rambling about keeping her away from the mutant. I say better she gets burnt once, this way she'll learn to keep her distance. Sic her on the mutant while she thinks she's doing a 'service', get the mutant angry at her, welcome her crying soul into your open arms.”

“You're twisted.” Floyd's tone was half offended, half amused at the thought. No way! He was actually considering it regarding Becky?!

“I'll take that as a compliment.”

“Piss off.”

“Sorry, already did.” The same arrogant snicker left no doubt in Carol's mind about what the 'surprise' had been. Having heard enough, she quickly did her thing in the bathroom before coming back to her group, her mind preoccupied and disgusted.

Her disgust jumped up a notch when she noticed Noa's slush, half empty in her hands. Unceremoniously, she took the plastic glass and threw it in one of the garbage bags behind them.

“Hey, I was eating that,” said Noa indignantly. She still could, but old reflexes die hard, and the words escaped her before she thought better of it.

Carol was fuming. That was the kind of 'joke' that should get you a ticket in jail. “I'm going to punch the guy who gave you that.”

“Oh, that.” Indifferent to the topic, Noa turned her attention back to Mae making her next throw.

Carol paused, realizing something. “You knew? And you drank it?!”

“Carol, I've shared rooms with a few people back at the hospital, some of them in diapers. You know about my powers. It shouldn't come as a surprise that I know the flavor of urea.”

Carol did not know what to reply, too staggered by Noa's lack of concern. “And you are fine with that?!”

Noa shrugged. “It doesn't taste too different from water to be honest, but the hormones and cells mixed in—”

“I'm talking about the principle of taking an insulting and demeaning act with a smile, regardless of whether you enjoyed it or not.” Seeing no response, she pressed on. “Tell me you're going to do something about it.” No reaction. “If you don't do anything, I’m getting Mae and we'll beat his head out.”

“I thought you didn't do violence.”

“That's why I'm getting Mae. I talk, she throws the punches.”

Noa shook her head. “I can't see you do that, but fine. I'll give him a piece of my mind after we finish our game.”

“Why not go now?” Her impatience swelled by the second, every moment standing there another defeat in her mind.

On the other hand, even though Noa looked calm from the outside, she was farming plans to get back to them. Not for her sake— she did not really care about the drink— but to get Carol to settle down. Nobody riles up Carol and gets away with it. “They just saw you pass by them. If I went now, they'll assume that you rat them out to me, which you did. But I don't want you to fight for me over this, so just give them enough time to forget about you completely. Just sit down, relax, and have fun.”

Carol was too uptight to stay still, so as she sat down her leg started to jump up and down nervously. She crossed her arms over her chest, letting everyone know how infuriated she felt at the moment.

“Who was it?” asked Noa, paying closer attention to every single person she could perceive.

“Part of Floyd's gang, small guy, polo shirt, messy greasy hair.”

Noa nodded, not turning to look, yet following every movement of her new target.

“I'll make him eat it, just you watch.” She smiled as her mind formed mischievous plans. If she did not take this seriously enough Carol would be on her case all evening and she might do something she regretted later. Noa could not have that.


The last pins of the game dropped down, only amping up Carol's dread and anticipation. As Mae came back, Noa asked if anyone wanted nachos, her treat. Only Gene took her up on her offer. Carol did not understand what Noa would get out of this, but she had a feeling that her friend's plan was already in motion. As Noa jumped up the stairs heading to the counter, Carol tried to throw inconspicuous glances behind to see what would unfold.

“Hey Floyd,” greeted Noa as she got closer to the counter. Becky had mentioned Floyd a couple of time yesterday, and Carol a couple more today, warning her to stay away from the racist. He was just as tall as Carol had told her. “I'd like a nachos please.”

Floyd gave her the once over, clearly uncomfortable by her presence yet torn by his responsibility to man the counter. His three friends standing aside were giving her the same treatment. After hesitating for a few seconds too long, he turned to the nachos machine, took a single full chip, spread a few drops of hot cheese on it, and turned back handing it to Noa. “Five ninety-nine for a nacho.” His three friends broke into laughter, quickly joined by Noa, who found the joke just as arrogant as it was funny.

“Cute, but Gene will be disappointed if I only bring him a single chip at that price.” They did not need to know that she offered to pay for it.

“You'll have to beg more than that to get anything from us, bitch,” said polo guy by the side.

Floyd looked at her amusingly, waiting to see how she would react to a confrontation. Not that he would notice the reaction that really mattered. Inside her mouth, Noa manifested a few drops of concentrated lime and strawberry flavor that she rolled around with her tongue to spread the artificial taste throughout her mouth.

“Your mat's clean, Floyd.” She completely ignored the maggot that had spoken, utterly beneath her notice. “I made sure of it. Isn't that worth less bullshit?”

He only looked confused for a moment before his eyes lit with understanding. “Brian,” he ordered, “Go check.”

“Why me?!”

“Because,” was his only answer. She had him for something he cared for. He was hooked.

The tallest guy of his three friends left with an exaggerated sigh of exasperation, leaving only the shorty she was gunning for and another guy that had a predatory look in his eyes. He was undressing her as if she was already his, which Noa found extremely validating and exhilarating. Sophomores. Muscled guys. Big leagues. She was feeling the rush.

While Brian was confirming the state of the mat, Floyd served her a full plate of nachos with melted cheese. “It's still five ninety-nine.”

“I don't mind paying if it matches expectations.” She pulled out a twenty from her pocket, grabbing the change Floyd was giving her back.

“What a slut.”

She turned to the little maggot that Carol had told her about. “For you it'd cost an arm and a leg, but the first peck is free. Want a go?”

“Hmph, as if.”

She walked up to him, grabbed the front of his shirt and pressed her lips to his before he could draw back in panic. She let the sweetness of her mouth invade his, tastes of lime and raspberry mixing in sync with her tongue. At the same time, she invaded his mouth with a burst of her aura, a specific task in mind.

She pulled out lusciously, enjoying the reaction of disgust from him, along with the look of jealousy and need from his partner. “I wanted to thank you for the nice 'surprise' you gave me. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.”

She let him go, sashaying back to the counter as Brian came back giving his thumbs up. She thanked Floyd and left with the nachos, secretly keeping tabs on the little runt. Every single detail she captured spread her smile a hint wider as she walked away. The shape of his face as it twisted in horrified repulsion, the realization that he had kissed the same mouth that had drank (or so he though) his piss, then the panic as his mind made him believe the taste was present while it was not. That in itself would have been enough, but just to kick things into higher gear and because she felt invulnerable, she activated her aura in his mouth, making the imagined taste real and overwhelming.

Carol broke down in laughter as the punk ran to the bathroom door in abject terror, only to find the door locked mysteriously. As soon as Noa gave the nachos to Gene, Carol gave her a high five.

“You locked the door too.”

“Is this the face of someone who'd do such a thing?” Noa tried to look her most angelic part, but it only gave Carol another fit of giggles.

“You ruthless bitch!” All said in good humor.

“I love you too.”


18: Cranking Up the Heat

Friday late afternoon, May 27th
Bowling center

Noa looked around to see that most people were finishing up their second game, everyone more or less dozing off after the excitement of the past two hours. “This whole thing needs more partying.”

“Don't expect too much. People are getting tired,” commented Carol, supporting her statement with a long yawn.

Noa smirked, a thought crossing her mind. “All the more reason to liven it up.”

“What— Hey wait!”

But she was already climbing the short stairs, positioning herself in the center of the room for all to see.

Taking center stage and expanding her arms, she drew the attention she needed. “Attention everyone! This was a nice evening, and for that we should all give a round of applause to Becky,” she went to fetch her from Floyd's counter, pulling her by the hand and bringing her as the new focus of over thirty pairs of eyes, “who organized everything and without which none of us would be here. A round of applause!”

Noa stepped aside as everyone gave Becky the ovation she deserved. The girl took it in stride, smiling to her unexpected audience, bowing, then she jumped down the stairs to fetch Carol in the same manner.

“And here's the one to thanks for the food,” Becky said, raising Carol's hand up high for all to see.

Carol got even more cheers than Becky did, everyone who had not cheered the first time adding their voice to the brouhaha. Carol was a lot more embarrassed by the attention than both Noa or Becky, and after forcing a smile and shaking her hand mildly she quickly escaped back to her corner, hiding in her chair and hoping to be forgotten by all. She was more used to small groups of close friends, not large audiences of unfamiliar faces.

Noa let the clamor die down before she spoke again. “I'd like to end this evening with a bang, if any of you are okay with that.” The clamor started anew, but seeing that she had more to say, the shouts and whistles were silenced in short order. “So, to anyone daring enough, I propose a game of strip bowling.” Okay, this one deserved the racket it provoked. It took more efforts to get the silence back again. “Here are the rules. Whenever a player marks a strike, every other player that did not get either a strike or a spare this round must lose one article of clothing. Footwear don't count, and you are eliminated if you end up with only your underwear remaining. You can drop out anytime. So, anyone’s game?”

People were a lot more interested in watching the game than participating, although they did need a few people participating to enjoy the show in the first place. Friends were trying to set each other up for the challenge, and a lot of heat arose from people daring others or negotiating favors. The only problem was that no one was ready to take the first step, too frightened at the exposure it would get them.

The first voice to step forward unexpectedly came from behind Noa. “I'm in.”

It was the sophomore with the beastly stare. Judging by the muscle tone of his arms and legs, he was probably on the same basketball team as Floyd. A nice piece of man.

“That's two of us, anyone else?” Noa screamed to the crowd. “Or am I looking at a bunch of bone bags without a spine?”

Another boy came up, tipsy but not completely drunk. He was not as good looking as the sophomore standing next to her, but he would do for the ride. Seeing the group form, another girl stepped out from the ranks, an obvious beauty walking unfazed under the cheers of her fans and friends. Four was enough.

“Just to be fair,” asked Noa, loud enough that the closest spectators could hear and relay her words, “what is everyone's level at bowling? Me, I'm beginner. I got a single strike throughout the evening.”

“I expected more of you, mutant girl,” said the sophomore. “With the way you announced this, I was hoping for more of a challenge.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You're good?”

“I'd say I ain't beat easily.” His confidence did not seem faked, however she wanted to test him to see whether he was full of himself or he was the real deal. Noa bit her slip with glee, hoping for the later.

The other two confirmed that they weren't pros either, and once that was settled, the four of them walked to Noa’s corner. Her friends stepped out of the way, unsure and apprehensive at the prospect of this new game.

Carol grabbed her arm in passing, whispering in her ear with concern. “You're making a mistake.”

The crowed however pushed her out of the way before Noa could word a reply. For once, Carol was glad to be relegated to the sidelines.


She was in control. She had a master plan that could not fail. Everything could only go her way. As someone set up the players and the game, she asked to go last, prompting both the tipsy boy and the girl who wanted to show off to go first. Noa could easily get spares if she wanted, so she'd be hard to knock out of the competition, yet at the same time she did not want to appear obvious as to what she was doing.

The first strike was scored two turns in by the pretty girl, matched by a spare from the sophomore and Noa. Tipsy boy dropped his pants. The sophomore stroked the second strike a few turns later, and the two girls dropped their vests. Tipsy boy got this one scot-free. A surprise strike from tipsy boy later, matched by Noa's spare, and pretty girl was in her bra and sophomore boy was topless.

What a sight to behold! The crowd that had gathered was going crazy, taking pictures or videos of more than just the game. Noa felt the older boy sit next to her, noticing every edge of rippling muscle. She bit her lip in delight, the excitation getting to her. She could not resist blinking once to take in this magnificent specimen of sculpted man, and she blushed at the glimpse of him looking back, devouring her with his eyes. He was possessive in his gestures, fluid in his movement like a predator hunting his prey. And Noa could not be happier being that prey.

After her next ball, she let herself drop into his lap, alway expectant, always ready. He stared into her closed eyes, piercing through her and unfolding her deeper secrets. At the back, the gorgeous girl was having fun teasing guys from the crowd while maintaining airs of the untouchable queen. With only a bra and skirt, it was wonders that she could remain so dignified.

Tipsy boy was largely forgotten by Noa as strong arms closed around her. In a warm whisper brushing against her ear that sent jolts of pleasure rippling down to her bone, he said “I'm not letting you go.”

“I'd like to see that. Your turn's coming up soon.”

He took the challenge with wild abandon. When his turn came, he wrapped one arm around her to hold her still, his hand firm around her butt, and he stood up with Noa still in his arms. She yelped in surprise, holding her arms tighter around his neck. The crowd of kids grew unruly, the hormones driving the teenagers crazy at the sight of so much manliness. Every other player was forgotten before the anticipation of his next ball throw.

Balance was difficult, and Noa tried to help by not moving an inch. He took aim, made two steps and threw the ball. Noa noticed immediately that it would only hit the leftmost pin, which would have been too anticlimactic for the efforts invested, and before she realized what she was doing the ball flew straight in the middle, knocking a strike.

The crowd exploded, there was no other way to describe it.

“You have to strip now.”

She melted in front of his lustful stare. Deep down she knew that she wanted to drop the clothes, to let him take her, which was why she had modified the trajectory of his ball. With an effort of will, she forced herself to make him wait, to amp his anticipation and hers just a little more.

“Not yet. I still have my turn.”

His smile was ferocious. “I'm not letting go.”

“What, you mean— eeep!” He shifted his hold on her so that both of his arms carried her weight, and without further ado he led her to the ball return where several balls were waiting to be used. “Come on, that's no fair!”

He let out a laugh. “Do you want it to be fair?”

Noa pout, mumbling some defamation as she grabbed a ball. Of course she didn't want it to be fair! She wanted it to be fun. “Get to the line.”

Still hooked to his neck with one arm, Noa tried to swing the heavy ball from the other, compensating as much as she could for the weight with her telekinesis. Just as she was about to throw the ball, the guy startled her by jerking her up, breaking her balance. “Bastard, stupid prick! Why'd you do that?!” She hit him in the chest with her one available arm, ignoring the ball that slowly rolled down the lane. Regardless of the bad throw, she still managed to tip four pins off to one side. The slow roll, however, was completely anticlimactic, much to everyone's disappointment. “Keep still next time, or I get a free pass for the round.”

“You wanted unfair.”

“Well, there's unfair, and there's unfair! Know where the line is and don't cross it.”

She did not trust him to keep still at her next throw however, and she was half expecting him to pull another fast one on her, although he did not. This time, she let her TK do most of the work, and she led the ball straight into the remaining pins. Another spare. Safe.

“Well, I'm out,” said the pretty girl as she put her top and jacket back on.

Tipsy boy must have been drinking a few more bottles, because he got the amazing idea that he should remove his shirt and continue playing. He got booed by the other students, some of them turning their eyes away in revulsion. He was not a mister Olympia, nor was he anywhere close to the title. Two of his friends came to pick him up, throwing his clothes at him and trying to lead him to the side where he would not attract so much unwanted attention.

Still holding Noa, the sophomore looked down at her. “Want to keep playing?”

She bit her lips cutely, excitement mixing with the rush of danger. “I know better games for two.”

The glint in his eyes grew wilder, and with barely restrained eagerness, he led her back to the seats.

With the crowd fanning out and the excited atmosphere dissipating gradually, all that was left to greet them back was Carol, arms crossed and tapping her foot, decidedly angry.

“We have to talk.” There was no place for concessions in her voice, no taking ‘no’ for an answer.

Finally being put back down, Noa grabbed her semi-transparent cropped vest and turned one last time toward her catch. “I have to take this one.” She took the lead and kissed him passionately yet quickly. He growled as she broke the kiss, but a finger on his lips silenced him. “Patience.”

Unable to take any more, Carol dragged Noa away by the arm, letting the sophomore put back his shirt with visible dissatisfaction.

Once they were a sufficient distance away with a more or less privacy, Carol let her irritation speak.

“What was that all about?!”

“Just having some fun.” Noa waved at Becky's friends who were leaving. Here and there, groups were trading away their bowling shoes, preparing to exit the center.

“What kind of definition of 'fun' is stuck in your brain?! Everyone was taking pictures and laughing at you.” Right then, Carol reminded her of a bull, breathing out heat from her overextended nostrils, and probably seeing red to boot.

“Relax. I was careful not to undress too much.” She put her vest back on and stretched, her arms reaching high and her back bending. The stretch was more for effect and to capture just a few last stares rather than any kind of need to relax her muscles. “They'll be laughing at the drunk boy, maybe, but not us. They'll wish they had half as much nerves as the remaining three of us.”

“Which is what scares me. What were you thinking back there?! You literally fell into that guy's arms.”

Noa let out a dreamy sigh. “Isn't he just handsome?”

Noa's behavior was irking Carol more and more. The angrier she got, the tighter her fists and jaw tensed, turning her knuckles white and her face bright red. “He looked like he was about to kill you, rape you and eat you.”

“I wouldn't mind two out of three. Sixty-six percent, a passing grade.”

Carol could not believe what she was hearing. “He's from Floyd's gang. Raging anti-mutant. Weren't you the least bit scared?”

“That's half the point!” She sprawled her arms out to emphasize that she was expecting nothing more than an exciting one-night stand.

“And you're missing mine.” Carol paced around, passing a hand into her hair to evacuate the sweat dripping from her forehead. “You're not thinking.”

“And you're thinking too much.” Noa frowned. This was leading nowhere. “Look, I play by different rules now. I no longer have internal organs, no human biology, I can't get pregnant and I probably can't catch any STD. Add to that the fact that all my senses are in overdrive all the time and what do you think will be on my mind?”

Carol stared straight into Noa's eyelids, feeling the strength flow to her fist. She would punch her if she though that doing so would bring some sense back to her friend. As it was, she knew that if she did it would just escalate everything beyond reason. “I'm not stopping you from having sex, but from having sex with the wrong guy. Do you even know his name?” Noa's silence was eloquent. “See? You have no idea who he really is, or what he wants. Take a few breaths, wait a week, get to know him better, and I won't be such a stick in your wheels. If you’re still head over heels for him by that time, I'll know you're serious and not just doing this on a whim.”

Noa's attitude changed, turning snappy. She did not have to deal with this shit. She was old enough to know what she could and could not do, and the risks associated thereof. Losing her patience, the argument turned personal. “Why do you care anyway? Why are you so stuck up? Your dad's beating you again? Your cat died on you? What?”

“I THOUGHT YOU DIED NOT TWENTY-FOUR HOURS AGO!” Despite her best efforts to control her emotions, tears wet the edge of Carol's eyes, her every muscles tense from the emotion. “You don't know what it's like. You have no idea…” Her voice broke into sobs as the anxiety of the past week surfaced all at once.

Noa could not bear to see Carol cry. The thought that she was responsible for her tears made the remorse even worse. “Carol...” Oh, she was in for a guilt trip. She beat herself mentally as she closed the distance between them and hugged her friend tightly, causing Carol to completely break down in her arms. How could she forget that people cared about her just as much as she cared about them? It was shameful. For the last week, it had always been 'Me me me', trying to stay strong, to keep smiling, to stay together and optimistic. In that time, she had lost sight of something precious: friends can’t be taken for granted. She could only imagine what it must have been like for Carol, the fear of being left behind, of losing her best friend without being able to do a single thing, of waking up one day to the memories of bright laughter that would never again be heard by anyone. It must have been horrible.

It took a minute for Carol to calm down, gently cradled by Noa. People were walking away, giving the duo a wide berth. They did not want to get caught in the middle of girl drama. Half of the students had left by the time Carol spoke again. “You selfish bitch.” The was no edge in her voice, no anger. Only regret.

“I deserve that.”

“I don't want to lose you, or even think that I could lose you. Not after yesterday. Not after this week.”

“It's okay.” She kissed the top of Carol's pink head, then lay her cheek against the same spot, her heat imprinting the lingering sensation deep into Carol's scalp. “I'm not going anywhere. Not without bringing you at least.”

Carol gradually broke away from the hug, washing away her tears. “You better not. Or else I'll whack you around until you regain some common sense.”

Noa chuckled, yet Carol's expression remained impassible. “I've been lacking that lately.”

“No! You think!” The sarcasm was spread more thickly than frozen peanut butter on a toast.

Noa winced as they walked back slowly to their lane to retrieve their school backpacks. Nobody was left around the corner, not even the sophomore. “Come on, give me some leeway. Reason and logic got more or less thrown out the window during the past week. I'll need some time to adjust.”

“As in, 'what's common sense for a mutant?' ”

“You tell me!”

Carol was not yet laughing, but she no longer looked as gloomy anymore.

“Let's get out of here,” suggested Noa, noticing that beside them only a few small groups were lagging behind. Their bags on their backs, they mingled with the mass of students waiting to walk out the exit.

“What about your 'boyfriend'?” Had Carol turned around, she would have seen Floyd and three other pairs of eyes studying their back from a corner. She somehow knew they were still there, yet she did not want to acknowledge their presence. There was already too much to deal with from Noa's flaunting to concern herself with the repercussions of her flirting.

The presence of the sophomores however did not escape Noa. She would have to defuse that bomb, but later. Carol came first. “He left when he saw that our little talk would take a while.”

“Impatient isn't he.”

“Dreamy indeed.” The comment got her a punch on the shoulder, hard enough to hurt a little, to which Noa laughed back. At least Carol perked up at the joke.

Noa stopped abruptly when they both reached the doors. Lots of students were still circulating around the small space, picking up their vests, shoes and backpacks that layered the ground. She remained standing while Carol bent down to slip on and attach her shoes.

“Something's the matter?”

“I don't feel my shoes anywhere,” she said, perplexed since her awareness extended quite far around her. Seeking through holes and into garbage bins, she could not find the slightest hint of her footwear.

Carol gave a look around. There were not many pairs that remained. “Did you bring them in the play area?”

“I would remember if I did.”

Noa paced around, extending her perceptions as much as possible, while Carol poked her head out the door to see if someone did not accidentally kick them in the parking lot.

“Are they black running shoes with white laces?”

“You see them?” Noa could not feel their shape anywhere near. She had moved further in to cover the corner they had played in, along with the bathrooms on the far side.

“Mhmm, up on the electric line on the other side of the road.”

“Oh.” Her shoes were not lost! What a relief. Perking up, she removed her socks while giggling. “Well let's go get them then.”

“Barefoot?” Carol said, with disapproval. There could be broken glass on the pavement, and the pavement itself was already uncomfortable to walk on, especially after being heated up all day long in this warm summer.

“I'm sure the grass will feel pleasant.”

Jumping ahead, Noa stepped out into the parking lot, not feeling the burning heat of the asphalt. Small groups of students were waiting here and there, some gathering around a car waiting for their last friend to catch up, others waiting for their ride, some more just taking a smoke and finishing up their drinks. Those that were taking the bus were all walking in the same direction, signaling to Noa which way was the main street without her needing to remember. Turning in that direction, she blinked to take a snapshot and see where to find her shoes. Their laces attached together, they had been thrown up about ten meters on the topmost electricity line, close to the pole. Within her reach, no fret.

“Those that did this had the right idea,” she said. “The pavement is really interesting to walk on.” Rough, with little pointy rocks and lots of creases and valleys, the irregular shapes constantly reshaping the sole of her feet in different patterns.

“You're doing it again,” complained Carol with faked grumpiness.

“Do what?” They started walking toward the busy bus stop in the direction of Noa's shoes, the latter enjoying jumping back and forth between the pavement and the grass, and Carol keeping a straight face and more linear walking pattern.

“Be optimistic when people are not nice to you. You should retaliate more, not be a complete doormat.”

“We don't know who did it this time. It's hard to retaliate when you don't know against whom.”

“I'm willing to bet it's your 'boyfriend', after he got frustrated that you no longer payed him any attention.”

The chances of that were low, Noa thought, since he had stayed behind with the rest of Floyd's group.

They came next to the bus stop, and the range being short enough, Noa untied her shoelaces with her telekinesis and brought her shoes floating into her grasp, moving them in a wide berth to avoid raising suspicion. She did not put them on though. Pointing with her hand, she suggested to Carol they walked a little farther down the street to an earlier bus stop. This way they would avoid the huge crowd that had gathered right next to the bowling center, and they would get seats before the others.

While walking away from the crowd, Noa poked the edge of her friend's mouth, pulling it upward in the semblance of a smile. “Ca~rol~. It more fun to be happy than grumpy. You should try sometimes.”

“Don't wanna.”

“Are you sure? We still have some time to wait. If you don't remove your shoes and join me in the grass, I'll bug you until you do.”

“Try me.” No sooner had she said the words that the sensation of a feather flicking this way and that in the fold of her neck could be felt. When she put her hand to try to catch the annoying sensation, the feather impression moved to the inside of her opposite ear. “Hey! No fair! No tickling magic.”

“Give up already?” Noa cracked a smile seeing Carol try to get rid of her telekinetic feather by scratching the inside of her ear, then down the length of both exposed legs.

“No!” she said firmly, refusing to give in. “I'm not walking barefoot in the grass. I'll get dirty, and there's lots of crawlies around.” Carol turned to the sound of Noa's mocking laughter. “What's so funny?”

“You're afraid of getting dirty around me?” The stress put on each word made it clear that she thought the idea more than a little absurd.

“There's still ant and bugs and stuff.”

Another smirk. “Not anymore.”

“Okay, I give, you win.” Now that the tickling had stopped, Carol removed her shoes and socks before stepping in grass that was overdue for a trim. She stared back at Noa with a disgruntled look. “There, happy?”

Joy. Smile. Cheers! “Always,” she replied, her glowing smile matching the literal glow of her skin in the last rays of the evening's sunlight. “You?”

Carol tried and failed to remained irritated. “You're making it really hard to stay grumpy you know.”

“Thanks. I take my job quite seriously.”

The two of them teased and chased each other in the grass, waiting for their respective buses to come pick them up.


19: Sweet and Juicy

Friday evening, May 27th
Hospital

Working with baselines was remarkably less stressful than dealing with mutants. A punctured lung, a concussion, a nasty virus, constipation, asthma or a stroke, all of them had simple textbook answers that were evident with even the simple of diagnosis.

Dr. Evans was cycling around among various patients, offering a few words of encouragements from the top of the nurse's shoulder, answering technical questions, and appeasing the fears and doubts of those patients who accepted to talk to a lowly rat. Mutations were rare, and Evans often had a few gaps like this one between one manifestation and the other. In other places of the world, he was busy with different patients and mutants, but for the area that had been assigned to this body, no new requests had come. He enjoyed the respite. Sometimes, multiple manifestations would happen in a single designated area, yet in two different cities, and during those times he always felt torn to pick one over the other, and he always felt like he arrived too late even after repositioning his bodies to cover both. It was during those times that he regretted all the shackles that he was burdened with, his lack of practical skills, his presence stretched too thin.

He was talking to an old woman with cancer about not losing hope, researches he knew on the subject and technical advances that were occurring at this very moment elsewhere in the world, when he got interrupted with a call to his direct line. He apologized to the woman for the inconvenience, and took the call, stepping out of the room to a more secluded area. Most people who had his direct number were mutants, so he expected the call to be a little more important than a courtesy call. Since his calls were redirected to different bodies depending on the proximity with the caller, he knew the caller was within his current range of influence.

“Doctor Long Evans speaking. How may I help you?”

The voice on the other line was unmistakable, for he had heard it only recently. Leveled, monotonous, the dullness contrasting sharply with the upbeat words she used. “Hey Evans, it's Rosemary. How's it going? I'm calling about the sample you asked Felix to analyze.”

“Phobia. I'm doing well, thanks for asking.” He made sure to go just a little farther away from prying ears. You could never be too careful when talking to villains. Someone overhearing his half could get the wrong impression. “Rust was quick. What are the results?”

He did not get a response immediately, instead hearing some muffled noise from the receiver. “First of all, how safe is this line? I took as many precautions as I could on my side, with a few wards and Felix's tech, but I need to be absolutely sure that what I'll say remains between us.”

Evans frowned. It was not often that people doubted his security. He offered complete anonymity on his calls, and he meant it. “Nobody can listen in on my end.”

“You won't store any of this in some database? Your records?”

“I will, but those are encrypted by the brightest minds of this generation. I would doubt Rust's computer before doubting my database.”

“Okay.” While her voice remained flat, her speech pattern took a turn and became more cheerful. The incongruity was an effect that she had mastered over the years. “Perfect. Then there are a lot of sweet news, and one juicy news.”

“Usually, people say 'I have good news and bad news'.”

“You know me. I'm no people.”

“Give me the good news.”

“Sweet it is. Well, the sample you gave me? It's alive!” There was a pause where he knew he was expected to digest the reference, but the gag did not amuse him.

“It was a flesh sample,” he remarked. “It had all the reasons to be alive when I gave it to you.”

“I meant that in a more literal way. Brain wave patterns, sleep cycles, reaction to stimuli, feeding, hunger, growth, it's all there. Well, except for being made of cells; it's more like a semi-synthetic lattice of metallic polymer, but I'm getting to that.” Phobia took a breath and turned around in Rust's lab, looking at a computer screen where the list of characteristics was displayed. Shifting the phone in the crease of her neck, she started typing at the same time as she spoke to Evans. “The twenty or so millimeters you gave me ate practically anything that touched its surface. Oh, slowly for sure, but surely. The container you gave me was not affected, but other containers were. Just to confirm a theory, was this bit of flesh created inside the vial you gave me?”

“I believe it was.”

“That would explain it. It might recognize the original container as 'home' and not have the instinct to eat that too. Sweet discovery.” She typed a few more things and opened another report containing the details for another experiment. “Sweet fact number two, cutting it doesn't do much. The two parts recombine before long, unless we keep them apart.”

“Regeneration?”

“Not quite. The pieces can be recombined in whatever way we like, and they will latch together in their new form. But if we cut one part and destroy the other, the missing part is not recreated like it would for regular regeneration. Felix thinks it's more an instinct to stay whole more than anything else,” she added, reading the notes that his friend had left at the end of the report. She closed this one and opened another file. “Sweet fact number three—”

“Will you stop with that already.”

“—that thing is a single unified life form,” she said, not listening to his interjection. “No different level of organization or complexity, no cells, no irregularities or impurities. It is just one big blob of molecules that repeats ad nauseam without variations. Heck, her skin is more uniform than the national prototype kilogram with its seven significant numbers.”

“We kind of figured that one out when she finished her transition.”

Phobia turned around from the monitor, lying down in the comfortable leather chair and she picked up the phone to a more comfortable position than a cramped neck. “Already? That's quick. How is she?”

“Complete recovery, as far as I can tell. We were all glad that this was over with.”

“That's good to hear. But weren't you supposed to keep me up to date? That was your payment, remember?”

“It was quite a bit more sudden than I anticipated.”

“You owe me a favor.”

“And you know I pay my debts.”

“I know. I'll file it for later.” Coming back to the previous discussion topic, “How’s her heart by the way?”

“Missing, like the rest of her organs.”

“Good, good. And how much of her is made of the compound you gave me?”

“All of her.” The ensuing pause betrayed some amount of surprise from Phobia. “Is that an issue?”

Phobia shrugged in her chair, the movement conveyed to Evans by the creaking sound the leather made. “I don't know. I thought it was just her skin. I'm not an expert in biology, and neither is Felix, even though he gets by when needed. All I can tell from his reports is that the small amount you gave us had the brain capacity of a small lizard, which is impressive enough. I don't know how it would affect someone to have brains all over their body. Did she show abnormal signs? Time dilatation? Multiple personalities? Computer fast calculations? Lack of sleep?”

“Nothing but the lack of sleep.” Rotation of sleep cycles. That made sense. Some part of her would be awake, while other parts of her would be resting, just like a whale.

There was a slight hint of concern when Phobia spoke again. “Keep an eye on her. Just in case.” He did not need her to tell him that, although it would prove more difficult now that she was out and about.

“Anything else?”

In her chair, Phobia smirked, although she did not let it show in her voice. This part she knew by heart, no need to have the reports handy. “Yes. The juicy part.” She shifted a bit in her chair, stretching the anticipation with glee. This was what she had been most interested in since she had seen the samples. “Her bones are made of mithril and, get that right, orichalcum.”

“You'll have to forgive me, but I am not too familiar with the high-end technicalities of magic.”

“Alchemy, not magic. And you're forgiven. The two metals are extremely rare you know.”

“I have an idea, since I only heard the words here and there.”

“I don't think you do.” In her hands, she played with the vial containing the remains of the reflective blue metal he had given her. They had had to grind it to get a good read, but even as powder its power remained significant. It was a little gem that she was definitely not giving back. “Mithril sells at three thousand an ounce, minimum. If I assume that all her bones became mithril, just her skeleton alone would sell over a million and a half, and that's without counting the orichalcum. Orichalcum is the ultimate alchemical elements. It's practically invaluable. Even just the two-gram trace amount we expect her to have dwarfs the mithril in comparison.”

“Only two grams?” That was surprisingly little considering how highly she praised the stuff.

“As I said, trace amounts. Her bones are not exactly solid metal; they're spongy and stringy, and the orichalcum in an integral part of the structure. I know it seems small, but believe me, it is anything but. And it can be extracted.” She put stronger emphasis on the last part, her tone falling deep and weighty.

Evans took the warning signs as seriously as they were meant to be. “Is that a threat?”

“Nah, I don't mess with family, or potential family. Other mages however—”

“What if she doesn't want to be part of your clique?” He understood the risks some unforeseen mage would bring, but he had to be warry of a threat much closer to home. More was conveyed by Phobia's dark silence than words could have. Not an uncomfortable silence, but a determined and threatening one. He knew the answer, yet he still needed to ask. “She'd be fair game?”

“I won't turn the nose up at orichalcum.”

“I thought you had morals.”

“Sorry, I lost those a few years back along with my husband,” she snapped at him. “If you follow the news, you'd know that I'm a crazy selfish sociopath with more mental disorders than you can find in a dictionary.”

“I also know that news is often made up stories. I am more concerned about how you picture yourself than what the news makes of you.”

“Stop caring. You're not my psychiatrist anymore.”

“You could still get some help.”

“I've had my dose at the psychiatric ward. Not going back.” Reclining in her chair, she took a long breath to calm herself. “If ever I need help, I know my family will be there for me. Nothing else matters.” She was irritated at herself for bringing up past issues. It was like scratching at a scab and reopening an old wound that already took too long to heal. The itch just begged to be scratched, the words pushing to be heard, as if everything happened only yesterday. She thought she had moved past all of that, past the grief and acceptance, but the recent analysis got her to hope anew. She could not help it. Sighing, she gathered herself together best she could. “You have no idea what orichalcum can do. How indispensable it is to a mage. The one and only time I saw it used, it was on me, and you know the results.”

Understanding dawned on Evans. “The curse. You don't mean to use—”

“For now, this is the end of my report. See you around.”

“Rosemary!”

But only the dial tone answered him back.