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Hard Being Pure - Part 3

by GrimGrendel

20: The Two Sides of Optimism

Sunday afternoon, May 29th
Magnolia's house

The ringing of the phone echoed in the otherwise silent house. It had barely rung a second time before being picked up by Judith, sitting in front of her computer in the office.

“Hello?” she asked, already guessing who it might be.

“I'm at your door,” replied an aged male voice, confirming what she suspected.

“Hang on.” Stepping out of her chair, Judith walked to the front door and opened it to a little white rat standing upright and holding two fingers to his temple. When he lowered his arm away from his temple, the line on Judith's phone went dead. “Dr. Evans. Come on in.”

Dr. Evans stepped into the house, looking around to appreciate to elegant simplicity of the entrance. Space was minimal, but it was well used, the small corridor that extended forward kept devoid of obstacle for easy access.

“You came dressed?” remarked Judith as she closed the door, addressing the fact that the white lab rat was wearing a nicely cut doll-sized brown jacket and a similarly small set of jean pants. This was the first time she saw him wearing any kind of clothes.

“I keep to the white fur for when I'm in service,” he explained, following Judith inside while throwing glances around at the decorations. “The white makes me look more professional. I wear more casual clothing outside of work.”

She could not repress a laugher at the backward logic of the rat. “So you stay naked while at the hospital and only dress up when you want to relax?” She placed her opened hand down in front of Evans, letting him step on it before raising him to the kitchen table.

“Believe it or not, I draw less attention dressed like this when walking outside. The white fur is more noticeable against the color of grass and concrete.”

“You must admit that it's pretty funny, no?”

He cracked a smile. “Irony is part of my design.”

Stepping away for just a minute, Judith came back from the office with the papers and notes she had accumulated throughout the last week. Notes on mutants and the MCO and rules and rights. This was what Evans was here to confirm today, to go with her through all the implications, legal or otherwise, of having a mutant for daughter. Taking a seat at the table she started to spread the papers around, organizing her thoughts for the coming discussion.

Dr. Evans however was content to delay the business talk by a few more minutes. “Magnolia is not here?”

“She's at a friend's place for the afternoon. She's catching up on school stuff and her science fare project.”

“How is she?”

Judith stilled her agitated hands, putting down the files she was currently holding. How could she answer that properly? “She's fine,” she admitted, with a slight doubt in her voice. “She's doing well. Too well even. Magnolia goes out to jog at night. She started playing the traverse flute again after all these years, and she even sometimes starts to dance for no other reason than to express her happiness.” Judith sighed, the weight on her shoulders contrasting with the joy she knew she should feel at seeing Noa so full of energy, so happy. She suppressed a tired chuckle. “ 'Well' doesn't even begin to describe it. Just yesterday she decided to learn proper cooking.”

“Sounds pretty innocent if you ask me.”

“… at two in the morning. The fire alarm went off when she dropped steak blood on the stove. Talk about a brutal awakening for us sleepers.” She rubbed her eyes, the memory of her broken night bringing back to her mind that she had not been able to get back to sleep afterwards, and that she was currently running on coffee and a two-hour nap taken late in the morning. She straightened up, keeping her fatigue in check in front of Evans. “It's only been three days. Three days, and I feel like I can't keep up already.”

He came closer, patting her hand, understanding. “You don't have to keep up with her you know? You need to respect your own limits.”

“But I must!” she exclaimed, her eyes conveying her determination. “I'm worried about her. She can run a marathon just for fun, leaving the city on a whim in the middle of the night. She's barely ever at home more than a few hours at the time, spending most of her time out with friends, or in the park, or at the library or even the shopping center. I never know where she is, and she doesn't hide the fact that she's a mutant at all. Anything could happen to her.” Evans could feel the tinge of irritation emanating from Judith, but much deeper he could also perceive the repressed fear of the unknown, the doubts, the incertitude.

“It will pass. As much as you need to come to grips with the changes, so does Magnolia. She needs to explore her new condition in her own ways, but eventually she will find a middle point where the novelty dies out and concessions can be made. It doesn't mean that you should allow everything she does though. Did you set a few home rules when she got back?”

Judith exhaled a long breath. The past few days had been frenzied, but even in this empty house, even in the company of Evans, she could not relax. “It's been such a short time that I haven't had time to really think about it. Up until now, I felt like I've only been reacting to whatever happens.”

“Does she have a phone?” That would always be one more mean of keeping tabs on her, and to ensure a little more security.

Judith shook her head. “No, but I'll get her one as soon as I can. I can at least afford that.”

“Sorry for the bill. The hospital—”

“That's fine, no need to apologize.” When she first saw the costs for a whole week at the hospital, plus the intensive surgeries, medications, testing, and Dr. Evans's salary, all color had drained from Judith's face. It had taken her a moment to digest the news and to change any upcoming plans she had for the next two years. “I made that concession a long time ago for Nathan. It's only natural that I'd do the same for Magnolia. I'll make it through somehow.”

Evans looked down, sad that he could not do much for this issue. “Everyone needs to make concessions when such a thing happens, not just you. As much the school as Nathan, Magnolia's friends, and Magnolia herself. She needs to know what she can and can't do, and as much for your sake as for hers, you need to give her guidelines to follow.”

“What kind of rules would I give her?” she said defiantly, trying to make a point. From her tone, Evans understood that she was repugnant to the idea. “Tell her no cooking at night? No walking out of city bounds without telling me first? No dancing in the house? That's all common sense! I let her know what I think every time something bothers me, but there will be more situations that I can't even imagine right now. I can't anticipate her anymore. She just changed so much in so little time.” The last sentence was admitted with nostalgia, she realized.

“If you find it too hard to raise a child with such specific needs, there are institutions in place the can help.”

She scowled at the thought. “I read what the MCO does. I am not handing Magnolia to one of their 'training camps’.”

“I didn't have the MCO in mind,” Evans was quick to add. “I don't agree with their methods. But there are jurisdictions and NGO around dealing with mutant children, and I know a school for mutants that offers the kind of support Magnolia would need.”

“And I don't suppose having access to those services will be free?” Evans's silence confirmed her suspicions. With a weary sigh, she said “I'll think about it. Right now, my issue is how to deal with a child who runs at a hundred percent twenty-four-seven when neither I nor anyone I know have that kind of energy.”

“I can recommend a few books on hyperactivity if you'd like. There are some parents’ discussion groups and a few workshops that might help.”

“Thanks,” said Judith, at first sharply and with limited patience, but then with tired resolution. “That would help a lot.” Simply having a single medical term to link to Noa’s condition helped relieve a weight from her shoulders. Taking a few moments to let go of the tension of the previous talk, Judith turned her attention to the reason she had called Evans today. “What can you tell me about the MCO?”

Evans took a long breath, switching gears from the psychiatrist to the informant. “The Mutant Commission Office is an international non-governmental organization that deals with mutants. Their creed is to protect baselines at all costs. They have powers on par with a police force, and coupled with the lack of rights and protection given to mutants in several countries, then tend to be more aggressive than their counterpart.”

Judith nodded, not daring interrupting his description of the agency. Up until now, this confirmed her findings on the net and in the news.

Evans continued. “They issue the MID, which acts like a passport for a mutant. Without it, it is illegal for a mutant to cross a border. They also provide some life services that other organizations would refuse to a mutant, like insurance, reallocation, and protection of identity. They can also act as an intermediary between mutant-baseline interactions and can help a mutant find work or habitation, sometimes even writing recommendations for them.”

Judith raised an eyebrow. Evans's view of the MCO diverged from her searches. From what she had gathered, the MCO was there to protect baseline and to eradicate the mutant threat. Their aggressive actions were embellished, while some other less prestigious acts were thrown under the rug. 'Disappearances' of young mutants were fairly common when the MCO got involved. “If I hadn't done this much research this week, I'd be inclined to think they're the best help around.”

Evans looked the other way, unwilling to face Judith's stare. “They have... conditions.”

Judith sat back in her chair, crossing her arms under her chest. “I'm ready to believe that a bit more.”

“See, they offer all those services only to those mutants who are spotless, yet very few of them qualify for that demarcation, even within heroes.”

“Keep going.”

He looked back at her, this time meeting her eyes with intensity. “They'll test her. They'll push her around, threaten her a bit, maybe even beat her up until they have a good idea of her limits. If she snaps, she'll be branded as dangerous and they'll rob her of any social freedom she might have.”

She stared back with the same intensity. “You mean they expect her to just take it without fighting back?” Nod. “How long?”

“It depends how many other mutants they have on their plate at once. It can go from a couple of days if they are busy with something more serious to a couple of months if they can give her their undivided attention.”

“How soon?”

“They are already here,” said Evans with a grim tone. “They've been watching over her during her stay at the hospital.”

Judith frowned, coming closer to Evans and sitting straighter on her chair, slightly intimidating. “You called them?” She had had her suspicions for a while now, but by admitting the MCO's proximity, Evans had just confirmed everything.

He shook his head, yet his expression did not deny her assumption. “They tail me. They keep a close watch on me, and by my international agreement I need to make public any detail I find on mutant patients I help.”

Realization dawned on Judith's face. “Her records are public? But I thought code names…” She trailed off, not knowing enough about policies to finish her thought.

“She is listed under an anonymous number, but it is traceable nonetheless. The hospital still has her listed as Magnolia, and anyone aware of the time sequence at her school can figure out which record is hers.” He then conceded another point to reassure her. “Even then, I didn't share everything I found on Magnolia. Some info is best kept secret for her security.”

“What are you keeping from me?” she inquired, displeased to know so little.

Evans, from his low height, stared down her curiosity. “I can't trust that you'd be able to do anything with this info.”

She nodded, her curiosity unsatisfied but still reined in by logic. “Fair enough.” She fetched a file containing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with several sections surrounded by colored circles to indicate their potential significance in the fight she was about to undertake. “I can't expect they'll stop, right? So I'll have to force them to stop.”

“Although the MCO's influence is impressive, their power is extremely focused and thin. They won't make any easy concessions.”

“That's why you're here.” Judith took a pen and a pad of lined paper, ready to take some notes. She looked back at Evans expectantly. “Now, tell me their legal weaknesses.”

He sighed. He knew that he was going against his agreement of non-intervention, and that he could get in trouble for that later, but he thought the risk was worth taking. When Judith had called him last Friday asking to meet him, he prepared himself for this kind of defiance. If he could set a precedent here, if would serve to help many other mutants throughout the country.

Readying himself to strain his national agreement, he started. “Magnolia has no precedent criminal records of any kind, and that is a valuable strength. She'll be put under intensive probation, but we can contest that.”

For the rest of the afternoon, Evans and Judith went through every legality and every little loophole they could think of, filing everything to be delivered to her lawyer on the next day. She would not go down without a fight.


Sunday afternoon, May 29th
Mae’s house

“What is the name of the jelly-like substance that’s inside the cell?”

“Ectoplasm,” replied Carol.

“Wrong. It’s cytoplasm.”

“Cytoplasm. Right”

Noa was sitting with her legs crossed on the floor's mat, a biology book opened in front of her and the preparatory exam in her hands solidly resting against a hardcover book serving as a tablet. Carol, Mae and Gene were all in various sitting positions all over Mae's living room, studying for their upcoming exam on Monday. Carol was laying down on the couch, looking at the ceiling as if the answers to the preparatory exam could be found there, while Gene was sitting at the table, his legs lifted comfortably on a second chair as if it was a footstool. Mae was laying on her belly next to Noa on the floor, resting on her elbows while rereading the section from their textbook on the cell's biology. They had been at this for the past few hours, and everyone felt fairly confident about the exam except for Carol who still got some questions wrong.

“Next,” read Noa, at this point knowing the questions and answers of the sheet in front of her by heart. “Where in the cell does DNA replication take place?”

“Can we stop now? I feel like my head is about to explode.” Carol flopped down her arm over her eyes, giving up on remembering the right answer.

“I suppose we could,” said Mae, turning awkwardly from her elbow position to throw a glance at Carol. The latter looked a little desperate. “Anyone wants a drink?”

“Coke,” replied Carol, hoping the sugar would restart her whole machine properly.

“Sparkling water with ice for me,” said Gene, standing up from his recline to stretch his sore muscles.

“Noa?” asked Mae, about to leave the room.

“I'll pass, thanks.” Noa could feel Carol on the couch behind her raising slightly her arm and glancing her way, trying to read her mind as only best friends can do. After the events of last Friday, Noa no longer accepted drinks in Carol's presence. It was not like she needed the liquid to function, so she decided that the bland satisfaction of a drink was not worth the bad memory it evoked in her friend.

While Mae was out in her kitchen preparing the three drinks, Noa stood up, matching Gene with the stretching. “Anyone wants to play a game?” she suggested, multiple ideas already popping up in her mind.

“Sure,” replied Gene, his bored eyes failing to transmit genuine excitation at the prospect. “What do you suggest?”

“I brought Teddy with me.” Noa pulled out a little metallic ball from her pocket, careful to not touch the red dot that would become the bear's nose. “I wanted to give it a test ride eventually, get to know what it can do.”

“Didn't you say it can build stuff?” Carol sat up on the couch, remembering the explanation Noa had given half her class back during the hospital visit.

Mae came back with the drinks, handing them to Carol and Gene while remaining attentive to the discussion.

“It's supposed to, but I haven't really got the chance to build anything complex with it. I thought we might dig into Mae's recycle bin and take turns ordering Teddy to build something from it. It'll be fun!”

“If we do,” commented Mae, “we stick to the garage. I don't want a mess of wood and paper inside the house.”

Carol stood up, leading the way to Mae's garage knowingly. “Sounds interesting. Let's get to it.”

“Anyone wants to take bets on—”

“No!” everyone replied at once. By a silent agreement, they had each decided to limit Noa’s exuberance after the strip bowling.

“Aww, no fun,” she pouted, although her mood lightened up immediately after they crossed the door leading to the garage. “Woah! Mae, how much recycling does your family put out?” Next to the wall were two large depot recycling bins, each filled to the brim with all sorts of polyester, plastic, wood pieces and sometimes nail and metal pieces.

“My dad likes to work wood in his free time.” She pulled one of the bin away from the wall and into the center of the empty garage as she spoke. “The decorations across the house are all his, and during the summer he sometimes goes to the artisan market to sell his work.” Joined by Gene, she started rummaging through the stuff in the bin, pushing empty bottles this way and that to evaluate the quality of the materials they'll be working with. “I picked up a few of his tricks here and there.”

“And yet your coin-catcher still looks like a porcupine.” Carol snickered at the irony. A classic case of a poorly shod shoemaker.

“Hey, I can work wood, not nails.” Mae tried to defend herself but even to her the argument fell flat.

Noa came closer to the bin, joining the other three who were looking inside. She pressed twice on the red dot of her metallic ball and within a few seconds the ball inflated into a nice-looking teddy bear. She handed the teddy bear to Mae while Noa explored the content of the bin with her aura. “Press the nose once before giving your order.”

Mae looked back apprehensively at the teddy before deciding on something simple. “Make me a crane statue.”

The plush came to life as she placed in on top of the bin. It reached for a piece of paper and quickly folded it in the shape of an origami crane. Its task done, it dropped inanimate again.

Carol and Noa started laughing uncontrollably at the joke, while Gene broke a grin.

Frowning, Mae threw the plushie to Carol, annoyed at being the laughingstock of her friends. “You do better.”

“Won't be hard” Bringing her laughter under control, she brushed her pink hair to the side and looked straight at the bear. “Let's try that again. Make me a wooden statue of a dog.”

Once again the teddy jumped into the bin, out of sight of everyone, and when it came back up a couple of minutes later, it was holding a vaguely recognizable set of pieces that evoked a sitting dog looking up. The statue made use of only wood and nails, although some pieces had been fit together in a wood joint that could not have possibly been there before.

Carol looked up to Mae brightly, showing off the poorly looking statue just to taunt her friend stuck with the origami.

“My turn,” said Noa. “I want a laser gun!” Three mouths fell agape as the bear got to work, this time heading away from the recycle bin. “What? A trusty laser beam is always useful. You'd know that if any of you read comics.”

Mae shook her head. “Sometimes, you scare me.”

It took several minutes, but eventually the bear came back with a modified electric drill. Its plastic case had been opened, and the wires that were supposed to link to the rotating head had been redirected to another contraption placed on top, a sort of metal tube with grossly inserted parts. As Noa took the heavy gun, everyone took cover behind the recycling bin.

“Please don't aim inside, or at us, or anywhere that could potentially have valuables,” said Mae, apprehensive and scared at her parents' response if their car suddenly melted down from an uncontrolled laser beam.

Noa walked out of the garage and took aim at the ground a couple of meters in front of her, wary of a potential explosion. When she pressed the trigger, nothing happened.

“Huh, guys? I think this thing is crap.”

Gene went up to her, curiosity gaining the upper hand over his nervousness. “Let me try.”

Grabbing the gun, he aimed it at the same spot as Noa did and pressed the trigger. The chuckle he let out evacuated the tension for the rest of them. “It's a pointer,” he said, turning the laser toward his hand to test the nonexistent heat before aiming it at the floor in front of Carol and Mae to show them the little red dot. “We made a big deal out of nothing.”

Her main worry washing away, Mae mumbled “My dad's going to kill me for breaking down his drill.”

“Just tell the bear to put back the drill as it was before. Now it's my turn.” Gene ran back inside the house, fetching something in his backpack that he had left in the living room before coming back. None of the girls had any idea what he was up to, until they saw the stack of sheets he was holding. “Out of only the stuff in these two recycling bins,” he addressed the bear, “I want you to make the best vehicle possible following these technical specifications.”

The bear activated, but unlike the other times, it took the time to read through the stack of paper for the science fair project that Gene handed to it. It eventually reached the last page and got to work.

Gene looked at the three girls, explaining his train of thought. “When making wishes of any kind, better be as specific as possible.”

It took several minutes, but eventually what was left in front of them as the bear dropped was a work of art. A square frame with wooden wheels and an engine system made of springs and gears that required to be cranked up. Underneath, a discarded dustpan had been modified to have a flexible thin rubber edge, and the incline of its cavity had been exaggerated so that no coin that entered would jump out. A set of wood pieces was also linked to more springs and gears, not that any of Noa's friend could guess at what they did.

Gene turned to Mae. “Bring down your three-by-three replica.”

Working on the project together, they had decided to replicate the environment of the competition after seeing other do so during the workshop weekend. Turning to a corner of the garage, Mae pulled out the large three meters wide square frame and placed it on the ground. Gene figured out how the machine worked, and after orienting it in a specific direction, he cranked the robot up as much as the springs would allow. The coin-catcher started moving forward, trailing the edge of the frame until it hit the other side. Without turning its frame, its movement changed by 90 degrees as it started trailing the next perpendicular edge. When it hit the next wood frame, it changed direction again, although this time a wood bar of the same length as the robot stood out from it in the direction it just went through. As it kept hitting edges and turning at right angles, the wood bars kept sticking out of it on each side, until their purpose became apparent.

“It's blocking it from doing the same path twice,” commented Gene, as the bot started another cycle, its extended 'arms' keeping it at a distance from the edge so that it rolled on new ground. The bars kept expanding at each ninety degree turn, and once the bot came to a stop, it had spiraled all the way through the inside of the square, hovering above every inch of it and not covering the same ground twice.

“Wow!” Not the most eloquent comment from Mae, but nobody else had anything better to say in front of this overwhelming display of efficiency. “Um, is it too late to change our design?”

“No way!” The tantalizing prospect of victory clouded Carol's mind. “It's our team's plushie that created that. We have dibs.”

“We could ask Teddy to make another one with a different design?” supplied Noa.

“I still want the first one. We asked him to make the best prototype, not second best.” Carol was almost drooling as she set back the robot's arms back into positions before picking the whole thing up like a precious jewel. Mine!

“Guys, guys!” Gene held his hands up to stop the chatter from breaking down further. “We are not evaluated on the performance, but on our logbook and evolution of our design. How are you going to explain how we came up with this?” The girls looked at him as his he had grown a second head or something. “We'll get a failing grade if we use this.”

“But, but... I wanna!” Carol's whine fell on deaf ears. Even she knew that Gene was right.

“Do you even understand the design of this thing?”

“I do!” said Noa, raising her hand. She had had the time to explore the internal mechanism and get a feel for the machine while it was working. Not that she could replicate this own her own, but it was a start. “I own the creator, so I own the creation.”

“God owns it all,” Carol said, half agreeing with her team member for her own sake, half mocking said team member for her dubious choice of words.

“Can you really fake a logbook of this thing in two weeks?” Gene was persistent that it was a bad idea, and for most of it, the others unconsciously agreed. It was only the hunger for fame and victory that leaked through their voice. “Tell you what, we are evaluated for our project in school, but if our performance is good we get to go to the regional. And they don't care for any logbook there.”

“So what, we get a good rank at school, and we switch to this for the regional?” Carol gave the idea some thought. It had some merit.

“Let's agree to this then,” said Mae. “Whoever's team ranks into the regional gets to switch to the bear's prototype. Is everyone fine with that?”

Carol and Noa agreed, not needing to deliberate too long on that one.

“With that said,” continued Mae, “since I provided the materials, I'll keep it here safely in my garage.”

“My Teddy built it. Of course I keep it.”

“I got the idea, so I should bring it back home.”

“No fair! I have nothing, so I should have it.”

“Try again Carol.”

The talk eventually devolved into an argument of who would keep the prototype for the next two weeks. It was eventually decided that Mae would keep it, since Gene didn't trust it safe back at his home with his drunk father around, and the argument was made that Noa was too unpredictable to trust with such a prized possession. Obviously, Carol had no claim to it.


Monday morning, May 30th
School

Another perfect day was poking out on the horizon. Since she got out of the hospital, every day was a perfect day in Noa's book. She walked nonchalantly to her locker, hopping over the legs trying to trip her, avoiding thanks to her prescience the group sneaking ahead for an obvious ambush, and she even flipped a paper a student tried to stick on her backpack that read 'Kick me'. She telekinetically applied superglue to the tape and paper before kindly sending it back to its owner. That kid should be careful where he drops his papers. What would happen if it had been an exam paper? He should thank her for being so considerate.

Yep! Another perfect day ahead!

Humming happily, she reached her locker. She removed the lock that had been cut open for some reason and opened the door, making sure to support with her aura the pile of ping pong balls, dirty tampons, paper tissues and hate mail that threatened to burst out. How nice of them! They gave her an early treat to nibble on. She let the broken lock float merrily next to her as she gave half a thought to trigger its mending and another thought to start absorbing the waste littering her space. She whistled quietly a song of rainbows and sunshine that she was teaching herself on the traverse flute lately. Grabbing her books and pencils for her first class of the day, she closed back her locker. Making herself comfortable laying her back against it, she read a few more chapters of her book before the bell rang, her mind busy with a dozen different thoughts at once, the two ongoing processes of her aura being but drops lost in the ocean.

By the time the first bell rang, her lock was back in a single piece and a good chunk of the things people had given her today were comfortably assimilated where they should. If was so nice to have so many friends in such a big school!

She giggled at the thought.


21: Courtesy Meeting

Her first period was interrupted by a call on the intercom.

“Magnolia Flores is requested at the secretary's office, Magnolia Flores at the secretary's office. Thank you.”

Every pairs of eyes in the classroom turned to her, not that she did not enjoy the attention. She had no idea what they were calling her for though. Nobody had told her anything. Maybe they wanted to give her an award?

She left her things behind thinking that it would not take long. Just sign a few papers, take pictures with a multi-million oversized check, talk to a few celebrities. Just the usual really.

She was disappointed to find not half a dozen reporters wishing to throw themselves at her feet, but two men dressed in formal suits standing up-straight in front of the secretary. The one closest to her had his hair pulled up and back to display the full extent of his large forehead, showing the wrinkles of age that matched those from the corner of his eyes. His hair neatly trimmed on the side, his face clean shaven, he had a serious air despite his cocky smile. The other policeman was younger, although being solidly in the thirties, 'younger' remained relative. His hair was unruly, his two-day beard unkempt. He had the eyes of someone who knew how criminals think, most probably for having a shady past himself. Both were wearing a belt under their jacket which held what appeared to be police equipment. Handcuffs, radio, gun, munitions, and a slew of other things that Noa did not recognize. The handgun was hidden a bit deeper in their vest, probably to avoid alerting people of its presence, but such a trick would not fool her. On multiple spots of their suit, namely the breast pocket, on both arms and in large letters on their back, was the MCO insignia and acronym, printed in hard plastic that stood out against the fabric of their suit.

The police, she thought, not recognizing the acronym for what it was. Maybe they wanted her opinion on a case? She would make a great detective with her ability to find details. Oh, they wanted to recruit her, that's what!

“There she is,” exclaimed the MCO agent that seemed to be in charge. His greeting was warm, although the warmth of his voice did not extend to the rest of his features.

“Can I help you with anything?” asked Noa. How was her hair? Makeup— no need for makeup! Although if she had known ahead of time she would have dressed a little more professionally than a skirt, a revealing t-shirt and a necklace. Gotta make a good first impression after all.

The two agents turned her way, examining her from head to toe. Before the starring became embarrassing, the older guy stepped forward, introducing the pair. “You must be Magnolia Flores. I am Mitchell Chandler, from the Mutant Commission Office, and this is Arnold Schwartz, my partner. We would like to have a little chat with you, if you don't mind.”

“If this is for an interview, the answers are yes, no, and Colonel Mustard in the lounge with the candlestick.”

Mr. Chandler turned to his colleague, his cocky smile stretching wider. “I like her already.” He turned to the secretary as he grabbed a set of keys that she had left to his intention on the counter. “Room two-fourteen you said?”

“Magnolia will guide you there,” confirmed the secretary. “Don't take too long in there however. There will be a class in that room next period. And put everything back in its place once you're done.”

“Why do we need a whole room to ourselves? Couldn't we just talk in the office?” Noa asked as the three of them left, guiding the two agents to the room they specified.

“We have some questions to ask you, and we thought you might not want anyone to overhear your answers.”

“Oh, okay. Thanks!”

The two agents exchanged a look as Noa resumed her happy humming, completely unconcerned.

Once in the empty classroom, Mr. Chandler pulled a desk and two chairs to the side, inviting Noa to take a seat in one of them as he sat in the other. Mr. Schwartz locked the door with the keys so that they would not be interrupted. Once that was done, he passed the keys to Mr. Chandler before walking back to stand beside the door, keeping watch.

Sitting down, Noa was poised, looking forward with interest to the upcoming discussion. Her behavior contrasted sharply with the arrogant attitude of the man in front of her.

“How are you today?” started Mr. Chandler to break the ice.

“Wonderful! Thanks for asking. There's been so much going on lately, and so many interesting things to try, it's all so exciting! I started playing music again, did you know that? It's been so long, and there are so many pop songs on the radio I want to try, and it's hard to play only by ear. They say it takes years to develop a musical ear, but I can hear the tone just fine, I just need to put a name on the commas I listen to. You wouldn't believe how many artists get it just a few hertz off. It sometimes drives me nuts, and the thing is—”

“Yes, yes. Very interesting.” Mr. Chandler had come here prepared for most difficulties, but he had not predicted that he'd have to deal with an airheaded idiot. “I am not here to talk about music, but about your reentry into baseline society.”

Noa dismissed the subject with her hand. “I'm already back, so there's no need to talk about that. It's boring. How about we talk about shopping deals? I'm sure you know a few. There's this clothe store at the mall where everything is at a bargain! I'd throw all my money at it if I had any on me. You should go check it out.”

“Riiiiight.” The harder cases are the dumb ones. Talking to her randomly would not help much, so instead he decided to get straight to the point. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a fancy metallic bracelet. The bracelet was thick and cumbersome, visibly hiding some sort of electronic system inside. There was a single digital display visible on one side, along with a single small button. The bracelet was open at one end, not unlike a cuff, although the rounded edge would probably feel better against the skin that the squared edges of the latter. The object grabbed Noa's attention.

“Is that Colonel's Mustard's candlestick?” she asked, getting a feel of the intrinsic mechanism of the bracelet through her aura.

“Don't worry, nobody murdered anyone.” Mr. Chandler brought the bracelet closer to Noa's face, forgetting for a moment that the gesture did not have the same impact for this particular mutant. “This is a tracker. It will give us a GPS location of where you are, and it will monitor your energy and activity levels.”

Noa chuckled. “I don't need that! I'm perfectly healthy, thanks for your concern.”

“This is not for your sake, but for ours.” He laid back in his chair, feeling better now that the discussion was running in his favor. “You see, your existence poses a problem for us. You are public. Everyone knows that you are a mutant, and you don't try to hide it.”

“All as should be. I could use some more secret admirers.”

“The thing is,” continued Mr. Chandler, refusing to get distracted, “many people have a problem with that. They are scared of you, of what you can do.”

“Pfft, please! I'm not scary.” The simple thought was plain ridiculous. Cute? Of course. Amazing? Don't mention it. But scary? Where the two of them really talking about her?

“I would tend to disagree, miss 'uncontrolled wide area disintegration'.” That shut her up nicely. Taking advantage of her discountenance, he pressed on. “I read your records. Quite impressive I must admit. You convincingly played the role of the victim up until now, but my managers see it from another eye. Microscopic telekinesis control? Unrestricted matter manifestation? As soon as they saw that, my bosses put you in the extreme danger mutant category, and urged us to take the highest-level security measures to deal with you.” He raised his head to indicate his partner standing by the door. “Some of us contested the measure, saying that it was too early and that we didn't know enough. Thanks to Schwartz and I, we have a few weeks of leeway to understand what you are capable of.”

Noa furrowed her brows. This was way over the line. “I'm not a threat. I haven't done anything until now.”

Mr. Chandler shook his head. “It's not about what you did, or didn't do, but about what you can do. You need to understand. We can't allow any mutant that can potentially create radioactive uranium at will to casually walk down the streets.”

Noa was suddenly extremely aware that Mr. Schwartz at the door had not once turned his eyes away from her. Far from keeping watch of intruding students or teachers, he was there to prevent her from leaving. Gradually, it dawned on her what kind of situation she was in.

“Are you planning on taking me away?” Her mind started formulating more and more scenarios, each more extreme than the last, yet to not alarm the two agents she asked only the most benign one she could think of.

Mr. Chandler smiled in triumph. He had her attention now, and she was taking this seriously. This was his fighting ground now. Confident in his lead, he paused for a moment for effect, as if considering the blind girl's question. “The higher ups would prefer you under lockdown and close supervision, yes, but once again you have Schwartz and me to thanks for an alternative. You see, being public grants you some amount of protection. The medias are already aware of you. Someone you know probably opened their big mouth, and thanks to that the media caught a sudden interest in you, not that I blame them. Asking you to come with us would create too much exposure, and we would risk losing big against many other NGO that are more progressive toward mutants. We can’t have that. That's why we are giving you another option.” He glanced at the bracelet for emphasis.

With each word spoken, Noa was more and more on edge. She wanted out of this room, feeling trapped even with so much room to spare. Her awareness cranked up a notch, searching every corner of the room for something she could use to escape the two men. She thought of ways to deal with them as she spoke calmly, trying to mask her growing fear. “I am not going anywhere. I am fine here at school, and everyone is fine with me being here.”

“I'll judge of that myself.”

“I promise that I'll be a good girl and not use my powers for evil,” she said, sounding condescending despite her best effort to not taunt them. “This meeting was unnecessary. I have to get back to class.” Noa stood up from her chair and turned to leave. Schwartz made no attempt to stop her from trying the door.

“I wouldn't do that if I were you.”

Noa stopped in her track, her hand on the handle. Those two were people she did not want to provoke, and yet she did not want to spend a second longer trapped in this room with them. “You have anything more to say?”

“I locked the door with this key.” Mr. Chandler made a show of pulling out the key from his pocket and placing it on the table next to the bracelet. “I’ll give you my permission to leave only when I give you the key willingly, and you unlock the door with it. Then, you’ll kindly bring it back to the secretary’s office.”

Noa was not impressed, nor did she understood his intention in playing this little game. She pushed on the handle and opened the door slightly. School locks never prevented the inside from getting out in case there was a fire. Was he dumb or what? “Doesn't look locked to me.”

Chandler's cocky smile was back into place. “The key is a metaphor. This society has rules, and mutants like everyone else need to follow those rules. If you cross that door, you'll be making a statement about breaking the rules, and we will have to take more serious measures than what we have here.” He stared at Noa's back, taking her hesitation for a victory. “Really, we only want to talk a little. Give us a chance. The measures we’d like to implement are really tame, you’ll see.”

Mr. Schwartz pushed Noa away from the door, without haste but still firmly. She felt her way to freedom close on her, the sound of the triggering lock emphasizing this small defeat. She turned to stand against the wall, remaining defiant despite everything. “Say what you have to say. I'll decide whether your little metaphor is worth playing along or not.”

Chandler knew that she had little choice in the matter. The simple fact that she had stayed meant that she was at least partially convinced and cooperative. This discussion had to take place, for both his sake and hers. Conceding her the wall, he continued his explanations. “There are sets of rules that every mutant should follow depending on their power set. You won't find these in most legal documents, as they have no value for baselines, but regardless most governments will consider you guilty should you break any of them.”

“Get on with it already.” She could not leave this place soon enough, although she suspected that this Mr. Chandler was keeping her longer just for his entertainment.

Just to confirm her doubts, the agent spent a little too long nodding and smiling at her. “Starting with your telekinesis, you are not allowed to open locks, pickpocket, move anything in contact with people, assault people, sabotage infrastructures, nor create any sort of collateral or environmental damage.”

“Define 'environmental damage'. You know that I can't stop my aura from doing its thing.”

“I'm getting to that. Anything larger than a scratch is considered damage. More damage with draw more attention, and obviously will be met with harsher consequences.” He then added a quick concession, reality often being much different from theory. “Of course, we won’t be able to monitor everything you do, but if we hear that you breached these conditions—like, say, someone notices their wallet is missing and they have proof that it’s you—you’ll be charged for the crime just like any other citizen.”

Noa gave him a nod. Until now, it was mostly just regular common sense. So long as the 'harsher consequences' he was talking about matched the similar retribution a baseline would get for a similar offense. Nobody would bat an eye if a kid scratched a wall by accident, but the school did try to discourage kids from engraving words in their desks. Not that they were successful at it, but that was the kind of damage that started to annoy people. She could stay below that.

Mr. Chandler continued down his list. “For your disintegration—”

“Can you not call it that?” The word made Noa wince.

He paused to look at her. “For your disintegration,” he repeated, enjoying Noa's struggle to keep her expression blank, “you are not to use it on anything larger than a grain of salt; in other words, one or two millimeters max. Same thing as the telekinesis applies. No affecting someone else's possession, no assault, no damaging electronics or anything you are not supposed to. Nothing too unreasonable.”

“A grain of sand is too small,” contested Noa. If she had to fight for the use of her powers, then she would fight tooth and nail to the end. “I still eat meals at the cafeteria, even though I do it a bit unconventionally.”

“You don't need the meals,” dismissed Chandler. “The rat had you eat meals as a precaution during your manifestation, but you should be able to survive with just the energy provided by your background noise. No meals.”

Noa scowled at him. She did get hungry if she did not get enough to absorb. Every time she went out for a run, she came back famished since she was unable to eat anything while she ran.

“What about gifts?” Recalling the evening at the hospital with her classmates, she added “I was offered chocolate once. It would have been rude to refuse.”

He had read about this little fiesta of hers back at the hospital. “Anything you are expected to put into your mouth, you do like everyone else and put it in your mouth.”

“But—”

“Your biology is not an issue. I know that you can move your aura inside you. You can play the part and act normal from now on.” He had expected her to contest these limitations, even though they were as reasonable as can be. He himself had had trouble convincing his own manager that they could get away with so little as a start, and then adjust the restrictions as Magnolia’s situation progressed.

Yet, from her perspective, Chandler irritated Noa to no end. Why did Dr. Evans ever shared her files with this knucklehead? “What about trash? You're not going to tell me you care about paper tissues and tampons?”

Where the hell does she get tampons and tissues? She doesn't produce any liquid! He shook the thought away. “No exception. Trash has a place to go. You put it in the bin your whole life, you will keep putting it in the bin from now on. Nothing bigger than a grain of sand must disappear, no exception.”

Noa did not acquiesce to that condition. She was not even sure if she could follow something this tight. He essentially told her 'Don't use your power'.

Not giving any external hint of her thoughts, Noa prompted him for the last part. “Next.”

Mr. Chandler however took it to mean that she agreed to the previous conditions. Satisfied, he moved on. “While you are under supervision— which, by the way, we were able to reduce to a mere three months— you cannot create matter. No exception.”

The atmosphere became so tense that you could cut it with a knife. He was crossing her limit. She did not have to listen to such stupidity. For her, this conversation ended there.

More than fed up with the two agents, Noa reached for the door. She wanted out. These two were not reasonable, and just listening to them made her feel dumber with each passing seconds. What was the saying again? Never wrestle with a pig; you get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it? Yeah. That.

Pigs.

Her arm was grabbed by Mr. Schwartz as she wrapped her hand around the handle. The strength of his grip prevented her from moving the handle any which way. She was trapped.

“Don't TOUCH me!” They were trying to get her, to corner her, to kill her. She panicked, her instincts screaming at her to escape, to defend herself, to stop the threat from coming any closer. Her mind went into overdrive, her aura rippling with unrestrained agitation and aggressively. She sicked everything she could on the hand that was holding her back, anything to pry herself away and out of there.

The look of surprised on Schwartz’s face at her outburst was short-lived, as he quickly pulled his hand away as if the mere contact with Noa's skin burnt him. Far from providing relief, the added distance only exposed him more to the invisible aura that surrounded his hand, the pain picking up with every passing instant.

Not missing a beat, Noa pushed the door open and tried to escape into the corridor, but before she could take a single step a hand jerked her back inside with enough strength to throw her to the ground. A kick in the stomach sent her skidding against the wall, a wrenching agony taking her from the point of the impact. What little air she had stored in her lungs escaped her under the intensity of the shock, preventing her from screaming in pain. The first kick was followed soon after by many more as she tried to cower away from the assault.

“Stop that! I said stop doing it!” Schwartz was holding his forearm as tightly as he could, hoping the tightness would numb the pain away to manageable levels, but the longer he waited the deeper the prickling sensation reached, sending cold shivers of fear as the sensation started to lick the bone.

Before long, the pain of the onslaught clouded Noa's mind enough for her to lose her concentration on her attack, and as Schwartz felt the feeling recede, he gave her one last kick for good measure.

“And don’t do that again.” He walked a few steps back, exchanging only a glance with his colleague to warn of the danger ahead while Chandler walked up to Noa and crouched down next to her.

Forcing her back up into a sitting position, his strong hand digging painfully in the gap of her collarbone, he looked straight into her eyelids. Despite the situation, his cocky grin seemed plastered on his face, his arrogance taunting her to do better than just this feeble attempt. “We just want to talk, no need to get all jumpy. If you don’t calm down now, someone could get hurt. I promise you’ll like our next topic. It’s about the protection your cooperation grants you.”

But she was not listening to him anymore. Her meager efforts to scrape away the skin of his hand with her nails were met with a punch to the guts, and once more when Chandler felt his hand and arm start to prickled from the inside. Once more, she lost her focus, Chandler none the worse for wear.

Yet, as soon as his assault stopped, she would try again. “You better stop that, ‘cause I can keep going all day,” he said, as Noa's struggles became less lively with every hit. “Your bones don’t break. You have no blood to bruise. No pulse or breath to hint that you’re even alive.” With his free hand, he squeezed her cheeks together until Noa felt her jaw ready to explode. “You’re like rubber. No matter how hard I hit, the only impression I get is that of a punching bag, not a human. And you know the best?” He let go of her jaw, causing her to gasp in reflex at the release, but before she could even understand what was going on she felt the font of her head explode in pain as if a baseball bat stroked a home run with it, immediately followed by a similar blast from the back as her head recoiled straight into the concrete wall. “You have no brain. Hitting you in the head is the same for you as a punch in the guts, but it's way more satisfying for me.”

“Sir—” started Schwartz disapprovingly.

“Yeah, yeah. I know. Going too far. Sorry, old habits die hard.”

She could not get away. Pushed so far against the wall, the two agents standing tall in front of her, she felt completely outmatched. The pain receded to make place for abject terror at the prospect that they would kill her right here and now. She could barely think through the fog of her suffering, but what little thoughts she had were dedicated to find a way out of here. She needed help.

First thought that came to mind: scream. Mr. Chandler had anticipated that since, before she could let out more than a yelp, he stroked her again in the jaw, sending her sprawling on the floor. He came on top of her, pressing his hand so tightly against her mouth that she felt as if her head was digging into the floor.

“No yelling in the classroom.” That bastard was enjoying all of this! “Now, you'll be a good girl and stop resisting. You put on the bracelet willingly, I give you the key, and you are free to go. Easy and simple.” Seeing that she did not cease her struggles, he sighed. “You are making this more painful than it should be. It's only a small monitoring device and your agreement to regular common sense. Why are you making such a fuss about it?”

It was shackles in her mind, the equivalent of a prisoner judged guilty for crimes he had not committed. There was no justice to this, only concealed hatred.

“Hm, sir?”

But Chandler noticed it at the same time as his partner. Drops of blood were splashing Noa's t-shirt. Another drop fell from his nose just as he wondered where the blood came from.

“Damn you! How stubborn can you get?!” He stood up while kicking her straight into the pelvis bone, the shock reverberating throughout her whole body in echoes of agony. Her concentration slipped again, not that his nosebleed stopped for so little. It was not enough. He'd be back and punch her and kick her until she was nothing more than a rag doll. She needed to think of something else, something that would disable them or distract them long enough for her to flee.

“What's the damage?” asked Schwartz, handing some more paper tissues to his boss. The trickle of blood was constant, the bleeding significant.

“Dunno. Didn't feel anything.” His head was growing dizzy. Had they waited much longer, there would have been no telling the extent of the internal damage the girl could have inflicted. “Don't take your eyes off her. Don't she dare try anything else.”

Schwartz did not take three steps toward Noa that Chandler was stumbling through the desks, trying to find a chair to sit in. The later tripped on air and sprawled on the ground. He was gripping his head with both hands, the tension in his neck stiff enough to pop a few veins as the coloring of his face turned a glowing red of pain.

“She's... still...”

Schwartz had enough. With a few quick strides, he was on top of Noa as she was trying to crawl away. He wrapped one hand under and against Noa's mouth to prevent any screaming and, unceremoniously, he twisted one of her arm far up around her back, stretching the joint of her shoulder to its utmost limit. She felt like he was about to rip her arm off completely.

“Stop!” he commanded. “Or I'll dislocate your arm.” The whimpering noises and muffled screaming coming from his boss did not stop however, and the urgency of his tone picked up, his patience at his limit.

It was too much to bear. She could not make a sound; she could not shed a tear. The only thing that occupied her mind was that impossible ripping sensation as her shoulder socket finally decided to give up with a sickening wet popping sound. She had long stopped whatever she was doing to Chandler.

Thinking that the arm had not been enough, Schwartz grabbed her by the neck and raised her up against the blackboard wall. Her feet were no longer touching the ground, and along with the choking sensation around her neck Noa also felt him deliberately press his hip against hers, pushing her back into the chalk rail, ready to split her spine in half.

“Stop immediately!”

She could barely breathe out the words, his hand choking anything higher than a whimper. “Did... stop...”

He looked back at his boss, who had folded himself in a fetal position, his hands never releasing their hold on his head. The younger agent turned back to Noa, his hatred threatening to explode at any moment. “What did you do to him?”

“Nothing...”

He would have none of that. With his free hand, he pressed his knuckles in the gap of Noa's dislocated shoulder, his other hand choking the scream she was about to leak. Her eyes flickered open and closed a few times under the ever-increasing straining pressure stretching her flesh away, her mouth hanging open in a silent complaint that refused to express the excruciating torment she was in.

When he released the pressure, Noa fell limp, all her strength washing away with just this small amount of relief.

“I'll ask again. What did you do to him?”

“Alcohol... in... brain...” At the time, she had thought that getting him drunk would incapacitate him enough. She had only generated a very small amount, and to make sure that the effect would kick in quickly, she manifested the molecules in the veins closest to his brain. She did not think he would react like that though, although he more than deserved his share of pain.

Still holding her up against the wall, Schwartz called into his radio. He called some backup, telling the guys on the other line that they had a man down and a mutant to keep a watch on. He told them the name of the school, the room they were in, and his plan to reach the infirmary as soon as possible. Efficient as he was, the call did not take more than fifteen seconds. Regardless, it would take some time for the other agents to get to the school, and he did not want to be seen by the students about to enter this classroom when the next period would start.

Putting Noa back on the ground, he pulled her by the neck to the table on which the key and bracelet laid. He locked the bracelet around her wrist without asking her permission, took the key, and bent down to help Chandler back to his feet. Chandler was no longer holding his head in abject agony, but he was not any more solid on his feet either, his stunned stare the only hint that he was still conscious.

“Don't make any fuss,” Schwartz ordered Noa as he started dragging the other two to the door. “Lead the way to the infirmary.”

With every movement she made reminding her of the lack of support for her dislocated shoulder, Noa was happy to oblige.


Sitting on one of the few beds of the infirmary, Noa tentatively stretched her fingers, opening and closing her hand, testing for any lingering pain or undesired sensation. Despite the brutal beating she received, she had no bruise whatsoever, just like Chandler had said. Her shoulder had been put back into its socket, the short and intense pain quickly forgotten in favor of the feeling of rightness again. Her flesh receded gradually back into position, the overstretched feeling disappearing as if everything had only been a bad dream.

Yet, the man lying in the bed across from her reminded her that it was anything but, and so did the new bracelet digging into her wrist. She had tried to eat away at it or to pry the lock open, but while activated the bracelet was surrounded by a tight force field and her aura was unable to pass through. The label said 'Exemplar 4 resistant', not that it meant anything to her. She would have to ask her mother to search online how to remove the annoying thing.

Other MCO agents came to school shortly after they reached the infirmary. Schwartz had told his side of the story, greatly exaggerating some of Noa's reactions and omitting some of his own. Listening to him, he made it seem as if the two of them came in to explain social regulations on the use of mutant powers, and that Noa had attacked them once she got fed up with the warnings and rules. Noa did share her version of the events, but having six agents supporting the claim of one of theirs, one more agent unconscious in a bed and not a single sign of any strike or bruise on Noa, it was hard to justify that she, and not Schwartz, acted in self-defense. By the looks she received from the principal, the nurse and a few teachers who were passing by, she understood that nobody believed her version.

Mae and Gene came in during the break. They had been redirected to the infirmary when they went to the secretary's office to fetch Noa. Mae was holding Noa's school bag, the one she had forgotten in class.

“Don't leave it lying around next time,” warned Mae with concern. “A few people were eyeing it as if they wanted to steal it or something.”

“I'll be more careful.” No way she was leaving without her stuff anymore. There were her notebook and Piyu the cat inside, along with her coin-catcher logbook. The rest could go, but these had sentimental value. She kept them with her since her locker got vandalized, not trusting them safe there anymore.

“What happened?” Gene had been surprised to see several agents outside the doors of the small infirmary, and even more surprised to see one laying down in a bed. He could piece together a few theories though. He had seen similar stuff enough times to have a vague idea of the situation.

Noa rubbed the uncomfortable bracelet that now graced her right arm, blind to the digital display that adorned it. “They put me on a leash and showed me the stick.” She was still angry at them for starting the whole thing, but after the stress of the last half hour, she had resigned herself to not make any more waves. Not that she was going to follow every single one of their absurd rules, but if they wanted her to be a good girl then she would play the part.

Mae put her hand over Noa's. “You don't have to tell us if you don't want to, but are you okay? Is there anything we can help with?”

“It's fine.” She sighed, realizing that Mae was not buying it. “I'm okay. Nobody believes my story anyway.”

“We'll believe you.”

“You'd believe me if I told you that they got me alone in a room, essentially told me to never use my powers, that it got more and more heated until they beat me up, kicked me around and punched me in the face, that when I tried to fight back this” she gestured to the comatose Chandler lying next to them, “happened, that the other guy dislocated my arm to make me stop, and that now everyone believes they acted in self-defense?”

Mae gulped at her rambling, but Gene had already pieced enough of it that he was not surprised. “Of course we believe you. And don't worry about all that. I saw worse. At least you have a justifiable excuse, and they have no more objective witnesses than you do. They provoked you. If they ever try to bring it to court or charge you with offense, you can do the same to them, and it'll be a tie.”

“Thanks for the support.” Noa's mood brightened up slightly knowing that her friends were supportive, even though they might not know what problems she dug herself into. “I'll need it, since I think they're discussing sending me to jail or something.”

“Good luck with the Youth Court,” said Gene knowingly. “It'll be long and tedious, but the judge will probably be lenient. If they try to play up the fact that you are mutant, ask your lawyer to describe your whole situation as if you'd been a baseline. That's a common trick against discrimination.”

Mae raised an eyebrow at his comment. “How come you know about mutant discrimination in court?”

He shrugged. “Black, white, dropout or talented kid, the trick remains the same regardless of the type of discrimination.”

“I appreciate the tip,” Noa said, her smile matching Gene's. “And who knows? Getting some jail time might be an interesting experience.”

Gene laughed at her naive thought. “Don't expect too much. Detention centers are mostly boring. You've got to talk to shrinks all the time, and they actually expect you to do your homework.”

“Sounds fun!”

Now she was just teasing him. He smirked at her. “There's no getting through your thick skull is there?”

“Nope! And I wouldn't have it any other way.”


Tuesday morning, May 31st
Hospital room

The first sensation that swarmed Chandler when he opened his eyes was the harsh brightness of the sun leaking into his otherwise dark room through a gap in the curtains. Disorientated and confused, he took a moment to let his eyes grow accustomed to the ambient darkness. The meager light seeping through the curtains was much too bright for him to take in right now, so he instead focused on the areas of the ceiling where the light did not reach. This simple movement stretched his eyes out of their stuck position, moving parts of his face in ways that felt utterly strange and uncomfortable, as if his facial muscles were numb for some reason.

He recognized the place. A few monitors, the bed's railings, the white walls. He was in a hospital, nicely tucked under white sheets. His head swam at the recollection of past events, the dizziness threatening to force empty his stomach. Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths to evacuate the dizziness away, yet he soon regretted he did. Behind the fog was the most brutal headache he had ever had. His mouth was dry, his heart was racing. What the frigging hell got him into such a bad shape?

Waiting for the dizziness to pass, he reached for the nurse call button, unwilling to go back to sleep. Memories came in a scrambled mess yet they hinted at something important that he could not put the finger on.

He needed to talk to Schwartz. His partner would know.


A few hours later, Schwartz pulled a chair closer to the bed, ignorant to the fact that the scratching noise it made was plain torture for the bed's occupant.

“How do you feel?” Schwartz's voice was soft, yet the mere sound resounded through Chandler's head as if he was in the middle of a huge cathedral bell banging the twelve strikes of midnight.

“As if a group of teenagers played soccer with my head.” Chandler tried to hold his head with his hand, but even his arm was feeling the ache, his muscles sore and complaining. “What happened?”

Schwartz looked over him as his boss rubbed the dizziness and pain away from his face. “What do you remember?”

Chandler grimaced. “Too fuzzy to think of anything right now. Just tell me something, anything.”

“Do you remember the meeting we had with Magnolia Flores?”

It took him some time, but slowly the memories started to fall back into place. “Yeah,” he said, thinking back over the jumble of images. Their order was still indistinct, and he was not yet able to tell which events came before which others. “She attacked you, right?”

Schwartz nodded. “Yes. Do you remember what happened after?”

“Can't tell what's after and what's before in this mess. Did she put on the bracelet?”

Schwartz neither denied nor confirmed his boss's question. It would make more sense if he worked the events chronologically. “When we defended ourselves, she knocked you out. She injected alcohol inside your brain apparently, or so she said.”

Chandler groaned. “Worst hangover ever.”

Schwartz took a breath before moving on to the next few events. “I dislocated her shoulder after that.”

“You WHAT?!” The ringing in his ears came back full force at the sound of his own voice, but he pushed through, expressing his utmost outrage at his colleague. “That's NOT what we agreed on. We said no visible wounds, no matter what. Even if the mutant was aggressive.”

“You were down, and I didn't know what she was doing. I had to get it out of her.”

“Do you know how much trouble this will cause us?”

“I have a good idea. Her lawyer called yesterday evening.”

That's it, we're doomed. Chandler brought both hand up to rub his sore eyebrows, fighting through the fog to understand the ramifications of what had just been said. “She has a lawyer already?”

Schwartz was hesitant to share the next part, rubbing the back of his neck as if it could not be helped. “From the look of it, I think they had a lawyer at the ready for a few days now.”

“WHAT?!!!” His exclamations kept getting louder and louder at each new surprise. “How is that possible? We only got there this morning!” He tried to sit up in his bed but his head spun so much that he caught vertigo and had to lay back down.

“Yesterday morning actually.” Schwartz tried to keep Chandler from making another attempt at sitting. It would not do him any good to rush out in a frenzy. “Magnolia started her mutation a little while back. I wouldn't be surprised if her family prepared for every scenario while she was bedridden at the hospital.” Schwartz let out a breath, waiting for Chandler to calm down before continuing. “The higher-ups denied any premeditation regarding our actions and refused any responsibility for anything past a courtesy meeting. They support us on the fact that she was at fault, but they put the blame and responsibility on you for the girl's wound and, as the lawyer calls it, potential mental trauma. The managers are safe, since the lawyer doesn't have enough going on to pressure them. The girl quickly recovered from her wounds, there were no witnesses, and everyone at school supports us.”

“And let me guess. The bosses wouldn't have cared if it took me years to wake up and take the blame. If the one responsible never wakes up, they can just brush the whole thing under the rug.”

Schwartz remained silent for a while, knowing that this possibility had been accounted for. “You moved a lot in your sleep, so we were pretty sure you’d wake up quickly. As for the managers, they have yet to decide whether they want her locked away. For now, they'd rather not feed the media for a little while, although from what I heard they lean more toward her eventual capture than letting her roam free in society.”

“What the hell, after all these efforts to make compromises.”

In the short while since her appearance had been noticed, Schwartz and him had pushed for cohabitation with a potentially very destructive mutant, saying that her willing cooperation might be worth pure gold down the line. It’s not every day you find a mutant that can manifest microscopic molecules of matter. If they trained her, she might be able to create intricate circuitry or replicate expensive chemicals and materials at extremely low costs. Although now, his manager would only take this incident as another incentive to lock her up and waste her talent.

It was hard to argue with the managers, but even harder to argue with this frigging headache. “Okay, fine. At this point, whatever they decide, I'll roll with it. Give me some time to sort this out. A few days maybe.”

“And Magnolia?” Neither of them wanted the mutant to go without supervision, but nobody else in the area wanted to deal with the lawyer guarding her either. “I was able to put the bracelet on her.”

“Good, at least that's done. Although I would have much rather she put it on willingly. If she'd just been more cooperative, none of this would have happened. Damned mutant.” One step forward, three steps back. He was in so much deep shit right now that even this small victory felt insignificant in comparison.

Schwartz dropped his shoulder, assailed by guilt. “I'm sorry. It's all my fault. I shouldn’t have stopped her from leaving.”

“Don't beat yourself up with this. Just remember; next time things go south, use the Taser gun.” Chandler exhaled, feeling the weight of everything that happened while he was unconscious crush him. Schwartz was under his orders, so no matter the man's actions, Chandler was responsible for the consequences. “For now, have someone watch over her from a distance, with orders not to intervene no matter what. Keep the monitoring up. I'll deal with the legal crap as soon as I can.”

Schwartz put a hand on Chandler's shoulder, patting a man he admired. “Take the time you need to recover boss. The rest can wait.”


22: Yes-Man

Wednesday morning, June 1st
School

Noa rubbed the thick bracelet absentmindedly. She had given up on removing the damned thing, but it still dug uncomfortable into her wrist, and its presence was a constant reminder that people were watching her every movements. It was annoying and irritating, although she could bear with it. She was not going to act any differently even under scrutiny. Let them all see what she was made of!

Surprisingly enough, the events on Monday did not make too many waves back at school. Some students had seen a couple of agents in the nurse’s corner, but being the nurse’s corner it could have been one of so many possible scenarios that it was not even worth spreading rumors about it. Only Noa's classmates had a vague idea that the agents had overlapped with Noa's call on the intercom, but even then they did not know the details. Many students were expecting the MCO to take away the mutant threat, but when Noa came back on the next day without a trace of the MCO, those rumors died down quickly. The agents had been in the school only for a single break between periods, meaning that most students who had payed attention only noticed them for all of fifteen minutes. Not a word spread about Noa's wound, neither about the unconscious agent, nor the beating that took place in one of the classrooms. It also helped that an agent went and got the room back in order before the break was over. Noa thought that she should expect as much from them. If they 'disappeared' mutants on a regular basis like Chandler implied, they would know how to cover their tracks. The thought sent a shudder down her spine.

When she arrived at her locker, she noticed the lock had been cut again. This time, instead of used tampons and paper tissues, what littered her space were pieces of torn pages from her school books. Not a single sheet of paper that had stayed the night in her locker remained intact. If she had had a lot more time and the guarantee that all the paper was in front of her, she could have tried to puzzle the books back together and stitched them up with her power, but there was a high possibility that some pieces of the books had leaked out and had been thrown into a garbage can elsewhere. And besides, she might have a lot of time on her hands, but she wanted to spend that time doing things she enjoyed, not fix someone else's mistakes.

Well, it was as good a time to clean up her locker as ever. Most of her important stuff remained secure in her backpack at all time, although she might have to pay for the damaged school books that stayed in her locker. Bummer, and she did not have that much pocket money either. She might have to borrow a book from a friend to study here and there, but then again, answering the preparatory exams and reviewing them in class should be enough at this point in the year to pull through the last segment. It was a challenge she felt she could tackle!

As Noa's attention was dedicated to packing her backpack full of loose paper and damaged books for the first trip of many to the secretary's office, she felt someone walk by behind her, and in the same swift motion the weight on her head subtly decreased. Noa froze as some of her hair fell down the length of her back, her purple locks falling to the ground. The rest was in the hands of a girl holding scissors, a trophy that she was proudly showing her friends. By the time Noa snapped out of the realization that someone, anyone, had cut her hair in passing, the group of girls was long gone, lost among the crowd of the school.

It's just hair, she thought. It'll grow back. Although it was still a rather mean thing to do. She liked her hair! Otherwise, she would walk around bald, like some of the guys. These guys definitely did not like having hair if they took so much effort to remain clean shaven up top. Did they go to a hairdresser regularly to maintain that?

Oh, getting a job as a hairdresser would be so nice! She could make everyone's hair so soft and deal with all the cowlicks and sebum and grease. She could even adjust the length of her client's hair on the fly, taking half an hour to an hour to grow them slightly longer, and the trim she would make would be super accurate. And what about dye jobs? Easy! Her powers could even mimic the perfumes and gel products! The dream life!

Forgetting about the girls who just passed by, Noa broke a smile at the thought of everything going perfectly in her life of excellence, the prestige of being a world class hairdresser. Better start somewhere though, and what better place to start with than her own head? Using her telekinesis, she brought the remains of her hairstyle up into a wild bun, the strands of different length organized to make a gradient of hair pointing out and away from the bun's center like a peacock's tail. She kept her front curls on each side of her face, framing her delicate features with more focus now that the mass behind her had disappeared. Not bad for a first try! She would have to try a few more different styles, and so she decided to slowly but surely regrow her missing hair, this time with varying lengths from what she had before. It'll be her project of the day, Miss. Hair Glamour.

Picking up her now full backpack, she made her first trip to the secretary's office. She waited for the woman to finish her call on her phone before speaking up.

“I'd like to return my school books ahead of time. Is that possible?” She asked this in her most innocent voice, knowing that every little bit would help prepare the secretary to the sight of the books' state.

The woman looked at her with a doubtful glare. “Are you sure you don't need them anymore? The exams are coming up you know.”

“Oh, no, it's not that. Somebody played a prank on me.” She first pulled out the cut lock and pushed in on the counter for the woman to see, then she pulled out her topmost book, the cover ripped in half, half the sheets missing and the remaining half hanging loose in various irregularly shaped fragments. The eyes of the woman bulged out at the sight, just like Noa expected.

“Who did this?!” She stood up from behind her desk, skimming through as best she could through the book.

Noa shrugged. “I don't know, but I have seven more books like that between my backpack and my locker, and it's the second time this week that someone cuts through the lock, so if possible I'd like to give back my locker early.”

The secretary grabbed the lock and looked at it attentively. Most prominently featured were the two pointy edges left by a large cutter into the usually cylindrical arc. “Why didn't you tell us the first time it happened?” she admonished.

Noa squirmed a little under the strict voice the woman was using. “Well, the first time it was innocent enough. Just some garbage, tissues and tampons. It didn't really bother me at the time.”

“You're Magnolia Flores.” The statement was self-explanatory. Everyone knew about her, and her teachers had let everyone know that she might receive discriminatory treatment for being different. It did not take the secretary long to make a decision. “Of course you can return your closet early. Wait a minute.” She left to go grab something into one of the adjacent rooms, and came back with a large topless box. “Here. You can put all your damaged books in here. Do you need help to clean away your locker?”

“No, I'm good. Thanks.”

The secretary made a mental note to have a talk with the teachers about this, and having the books at hand would show more than anything else the seriousness of the situation. “If you want to store your personal things during the day, or even for the night or weekend, I can set another box for you in my office over there. I can guarantee that no student other than you will get to them. I'll get you a key double as soon as I can.”

Noa stayed poised as the woman showed her where her office was. “Thanks you. I appreciate the help. But the key won't be necessary. I can open doors myself.” To demonstrate, she walked to the woman's door, which locked automatically as soon as it closed, and with a few twists of her telekinesis, she pushed the door open without a hassle.

The woman looked at her with a strange mix of apprehension, relief, and puzzlement. In the end, she settled for a forced smile, the role she had taken forcing her to see it through to the end. “That’s a useful ability. This way I won't have to worry about an extra key landing in the wrong hands. Use my space as if it was your own.”

“Will I have to pay for the books?” Innocent looks, do your work!

Hesitant, the secretary preferred not to promise anything she could not see through. “I'll talk to the administration. They'll figure something out.”

Noa hugged the kind secretary tightly as thanks, and with a spring to her step she went back twice more between her locker and the office, emptying the one to fill up the box in the other. By the time her locker was empty, another box was waiting for her in the woman's office, her new unofficial locker, out of reach of pranksters.


Wednesday at noon, June 1st
School

As the third period ended, announcing the students' freedom for the lunch hour, a girl came up to Noa as the later was about to exit. It was obvious that she wanted to ask her something, and from her barely restrained eagerness, it was probably something good.

“Veronica?” Noa recognized the girl as being the same one from the evening at the hospital who asked her questions for the school's journal. She was outgoing and confident and she never shied away from asking embarrassing questions, a nice asset to have on their committee. Noa greeted her with a warm smile. Gotta spread the joy! “How are you doing?”

“You've got to look at this,” she said, pushing an article right up Noa's nose. Catching up on her word choice, she quickly corrected herself. “Or, you know, whatever it is you're doing to read.”

“... Right. What's this about?” She was already skimming through the title, but it would go so much faster if Veronica just explained. “ ‘Young mutant survives her dramatic mutation’?”

“Isn't the title catchy? I thought so long until I got one that fit exactly what I needed.” Veronica spent a few seconds raving about the illumination leading up to the article's title, during which time Noa read a bit further down the page, all while nodding at the enthusiastic girl next to her.

When she was done, Noa pointed out a few inconsistencies in the report. “You exaggerated a little my powers here. I can't lift a car with the force of my mind. I can go up to about a full backpack. And here, no I do not hypnotize people when I open my eyes.”

“Can I test that?”

“Only if you are fine with a single blink.”

“One blink. I won't bother you after that, I swear.”

*Blink*

*Gasp* “Do it again, do it again! I barely saw anything!”

“You promised...”

“Just once more, pleeeeeaaaase. I wasn't ready the first time.”

“Last one then.”

“Mhmm!!!”

*Blink*

“They weren't the same colors!! Will they change again if you blink a third time?”

“Veronica, I'll get a headache if I do it any more than that.”

“Well, at least this discredits that. Oh well, too late to make a change anyway since it got published today.”

Noa stepped around to a quiet spot, conceding Veronica a few more minutes before Noa joined the frenzy of students trying to grab seats at the cafeteria. Carol should probably be in line right about now, so Noa had some time to chat with Veronica. “I liked the article, but Veronica, did you just come to me to brag about it? I mean, I lived that stuff. There's no need for me to read it.”

Veronica put a fist on her hip and swung her index finger left and right, exaggeratedly denying Noa's point. “You're wrong. This is not about you reading your own story. Don't you see it? You're is the journal! Now everyone will read and know about you.”

“That’s sweet! Although to be fair,” Noa commented, bursting the girl's bubble, “I don't know a lot of people who read the school's journal.”

Veronica made a sad face at that. “I know, but that's why I reached out to the eight o'clock news channel and got a word in for you.”

Noa raised an eyebrow. “You sold me to the news?”

“Get this straight. When I told them about you, they got all over my case to get pictures and recordings. I think they might be interested in giving you a five-minute montage and an interview, if you agree.” By the way she was jumping around, Noa was sure that the euphemisms she used did not make the journalists' enthusiasm justice. Veronica grabbed Noa's hands in hers tightly, hoping to elicit a promise from her. “Tell me you're going to do it.”

It did not take Noa long to make up her mind. “Sure! Sounds like fun. What do I need to do?”

“Okay. Oh my god this is happening.” She breathed a few times really quickly, artificially hyperventilating before taking a deep breath and settling down. “Here's what you have to do.”


Wednesday early afternoon, June 1st
MCO office

Chandler stared alternatively at the phone on his desk and at the slip of paper in his hand with the phone number he had to call. He had put off the call long enough, having recovered enough to get back to work at the office this morning. He still had a lingering headache, but nothing compared to the one he had when he regained consciousness after the incident with the mutant. Taking a deep breath, he dialed the number and braced himself.

“Gabrielle Campbell, from the Toronto Lawyers Association. How may I help you?”

“This is Mitchell Chandler, from the MCO. I am returning your call.”

“Oh, Mr. Chandler. Perfect. Please wait a moment.”

Chandler was put on hold for over a minute, the little background music annoying him, not helping at all his previous apprehensions. It was the little touches that dictated the roles in a discussion, and by making him wait, Ms. Campbell was putting herself in a role of dominance. She was the one setting the pace, not him. Details, maybe, but when the law was concerned, impressions did matter, regardless of what anybody else said.

“Sorry for the wait,” she said, as the waiting music came to a stop. “I would like to record this phone call. I hope you don't mind.”

Second point for her: she came prepared. “It's fine.” Yet, to him it felt as if he was dealing with an opponent while blindfolded. He was not prepared, nor did he know what the lawyer had in store for him.

Ms. Campbell flipped a switch on her recorder. “There. For the record, I'll repeat that this call is recorded, and that I got your agreement Mr. Chandler.”

“Yes.” He needed to gain back some control over this, or else Ms. Campbell would simply play him in the palm of her hand. “You called about the incident regarding Magnolia Flores, am I right?”

“Yes. This is to let you know that Judith Flores filed complaints against the MCO to the police, for assault and aggression. She is considering pressing charges, although she would prefer an amiable resolution of the matter. No need to bring this in court, don’t you agree?”

“I’d rather avoid that as well, yes.” He had been expecting this. Keeping his voice calm, he defended himself. “Magnolia attacked us first. It has been documented extensively in a report made by my colleague Arnold Schwartz while I was unconscious due to Magnolia's aggression, and it has been approved by the school principal and no less than four other MCO agents. With all due respect, I should be the one pressing charges against her for those same reasons.”

“We both know that there has been no other witness of the incident beside Schwartz, Magnolia and you. The support you obtained from the principal and your other agents came after the fact and could have been manipulated in your favor, rendering their support meaningless in court. From a purely external perspective, two agents of the MCO, field experts with extensive military training, came to Magnolia's school, requested her alone in a room, and got back from that isolation room with an unconscious agent and Magnolia suffering visible trauma. Taking Magnolia's history since her mutation, which has been made quite public by several factors, we can see that Magnolia never hurt anyone else before you came along, nor was she one to pick fights before her mutation even kicked in. With the history the MCO has with dealing with mutants, this has all the markings of provocation.”

Following her conclusion, the silence that dropped on Chandler was heavy. “It wouldn’t be the first time that a kid’s behavior changed after manifesting. I maintain that it was self-defense against an overreaction on Magnolia's part.”

“Whether she attacked first or not matters little, Mr. Chandler. It would be easy to manipulate one of your so called dangerous mutants into attacking first if the child was provoked, cornered and afraid. I would like to ask, where was Mr. Schwartz positioned in this room?”

Chandler knew where she was going with this line of inquiry, but remaining silent or lying would be worse than honesty at this point. “He was standing by the door while Magnolia and I were sitting at a desk, talking about her reentry into baseline society.”

“From what Magnolia told me, Mr. Schwartz was blocking the door, preventing her from getting out. From her point of view, she was cornered.”

“We never intended it this way. She was free to go at any time, although escaping in the middle of a civilized discussion would make a statement on her ability to manage stress around baselines.”

“So you are saying that this 'civilized discussion' was conducted to put Magnolia under stress, that it was a test to see how she was reacting under stressful situations, and that you orchestrated such a test without her consent and without clearly indicating your intentions?”

Damned lawyers, distorting every last word to extract meaning they did not have! “No, this discussion had no such goals. We were only explaining to her the extent of acceptable uses of paranormal powers, along with the benefits and protection she would gain from us after a streak of good conduct. Unfortunately, we never got to that point of the discussion.”

“I am not surprised. Had you prepared better, you would have started with the positive news, if any, before telling her that any use of her power would be perceived as a threat.” A hint of disappointment leaked from Ms. Campbell's otherwise very objective and professional tone. “As it is, do you agree that your words, even with the best intentions you had, could have been interpreted by Magnolia as a threat to her liberty and her agency?”

Chandler frowned. “Look, we were not trying to threaten Magnolia. The conditions we shared with her were more than reasonable, and it was more than the head director of the MCO was comfortable with considering her potentially destructive power.”

“Put yourself in her shoes. She just got exciting new powers. She kept to her own moral compass and never did any mischief with them, and within only a few days, two intimidating adults come and tell her that she was still doing it wrong and that any use of her power was a crime. How would you feel in her situation?”

“But that's not—”

“I know it's not how you saw it, but please answer the question. Could Magnolia have perceived it this way?”

What kind of question was that?! He grumbled his displeasure as he considered the thought. “Of course she could have interpreted it like that. She could have interpreted it any way she wanted!” He brought his steadily increasing voice back down to a more respectful level. “I met my fair share of mutants in the past, and more than a few are paranoid that every institution around them is out to get them. I am no longer surprised if one of them twists my words and interprets them as threats when they are anything but.”

“That might be true in other cases, but Magnolia has a predominantly optimistic nature. The school's secretary confirmed that she left her office smiling, happy, compliant and completely receptive to a talk from officers. The next time she saw the girl, the secretary told me that Magnolia had lost all trust in the MCO agents. Regardless of what you tell me you did in that room, Magnolia got scared enough to label you and Schwartz as a threat, and this happened after you had her complete trust when coming out of the secretary's office.”

As he had expected, she came prepared and had done her search. Chandler just decided to accept to be chewed on for a while. “Moving on.”

There was a pause from Ms. Campbell as she collected the points she still wanted to make. “That accounts for provoked, cornered and afraid. You might not think you are at fault, but somewhere along the line you or Mr. Schwartz did something to push her over the edge. I will leave it at that.” He heard the rustle of paper through the phone, punctuating her change of topic. “Let's talk about the monitoring device you imposed on her against her will, the bracelet.”

“I was unconscious by that point.” Not that he could blame Schwartz from acting on the spur of the moment. Even unconscious, Chandler was still the one responsible for it.

“That’s fine. I fully understand that it was a mistake from Mr. Schwartz, who acted by instinct against a perceived threat. I am not here to blame you. I will simply request that you remove the device.”

Chandler had to think quickly. The monitoring device needed to remain in place, as it was the only thing keeping the higher ups from putting a restraining order on the mutant's head, especially after what she did to one of their agents. However, he could not share with the lawyer this aspect of the MCO's direction. “GPS monitoring is a common way of dealing with misconducts made by minors. It's a valid response from the police force, and we are entitled the same actions as them when we judge it necessary when dealing with mutants.”

“That might be true of the police force, but the MCO has no legal authority outside of what the police agrees with. The MCO's main tasks are to provide a MID for mutants which acts as an international passport, and to check borders to control mutant traffic across countries. Anything more than that requires the approbation of the local law enforcement.”

“As I said,” Chandler was getting tired of all this play, “the local police did give us this authority. We have papers to confirm it.”

“Then you wouldn't mind sending me those papers, since the local police would not have been able to legally put this kind of restraints in such short order. They would need to provide a certificate validated by two different agencies or psychologists assessing Magnolia's condition and mental state over the course of at least four weeks before they could put her under intensive probation, in the case as it is now that she caused no offense. The police would then need to issue a report to the court for approval, detailing the measures deemed necessary and acceptable, before they could take any action. Since the MCO's power can at most match the power of the police force, this is a clear violation of the legal process of probation and a violation of human rights of liberty and privacy.”

He rubbed his face, the words of the lawyer hitting so many nails in his coffin. “Are you planning on pressing charges and taking this case to court?”

“My client, Judith Flores, would settle for simple reparation, since little harm has been done on that front. She did express a complaint, but will only press charges if the monitoring device is not removed in short order.”

“I will see what I can do. You must understand that with the line of questioning you just gave me, I will need my own lawyer to go over your recording. You won't mind sending me a copy, would you?” At least he could secure his ass on that front for a little longer, hiding behind the babbles of his own defense.

“Not at all. I will send you a copy by email right after we are done.”

“Good. I appreciate that.”

“And I your cooperation. However, please take this seriously and give me and my client a quick reply. If nothing is done, Judith expressed the intention of pressing charges in a week's time after this call, so next Wednesday at the latest.”

“An ultimatum, huh?”

“Simple respect of the human rights of her daughter. Lastly, the current probation and supervision needs to stop. No more intrusion at school, and no tailing or parking an agent near her home for close monitoring.”

“Will that be all?” he asked, noncommittal.

“The rest of my client's concerns are about protection and security, but you said this was part of the deal you wanted to offer to Magnolia. I will need a copy of the documents detailing both the protection and services offered, along with the conditions imparted. If you see no inconvenience to this, then yes, that is all. Thank you for your patience. I will await your next call before long.”

Chandler took a moment to make sure the call had ended before placing the phone back on its stand. Damned rich kid and their lawyers! They make everything more complicated than it should be. He quickly sent an email to his director, detailing a recap of the discussion he just had and highlighting the main points of Ms. Campbell's arguments. He ended his message with a simple question: 'Should I draw back for the time being?' It would almost have been easier if the answer had been positive, but Chandler could not say he was expecting anything other than 'No'. The quick preliminary answer he got back was clear: 'Keep up the surveillance, we'll figure out something before next Wednesday'. Great, now he was the dead man standing in the line of fire of the two camps.

Chandler sat back in his chair, going over the discussion one more time in his head, considering each of his answers. The whole thing sounded like a legal trap. There was no time, the one week ultimatum seemingly nonexistent. Magnolia would not listen to them, and neither would their authority be able to impose anything on her without jumping through some hoops. But maybe they did not have to. If they were attacked on a legal front, where else could they counter-attack? Could they give up this approach for something radically different? For someone that Magnolia would be a lot more inclined to listen to, and whom the MCO could manipulate behind the scene?

Chandler picked up his phone for another call. “Schwartz? Yeah... I need you to do something for me. Yeah... finding someone. Shouldn't be too hard. Before the weekend ideally. Just get me a phone call with Magnolia's dad.”


Wednesday afternoon, June 1st
School

Not having a locker anymore was one less concern on Noa's mind. The locker had been filled up with garbage and death threats once again by students who did not get the latest news, but it was no longer her responsibility to keep it clean. Those students would just get in trouble if they continued, and their fervor would soon die down once they realized that the content of the locker would be left untouched by an uncaring girl from now on.

Noa had let her hair grow back since yesterday. It took some time, but she reconstructed the shape of the hair one scale at a time. She had to confirm with a glance in the mirror that the color was right and she adjusted appropriately to the violet of her original hair, but otherwise it was as if the incident never happened. She took pleasure in braiding them and fashioning them this way and that with her telekinesis. Today she sported a dozen thin French braids sticking to her scalp all the way to the back of her head. It looked nice! To match a hairstyle that reminded her of the Caribbean, she dressed up the part with thin see-through outfits, a bikini underneath, and two layers of different length beach skirts to at least try to comply with the school's dress code. Oh, and some obvious earring. Why? Only fools need to ask!

It did not prevent people from throwing food at her in the cafeteria, or from applying glue on her seat in the classroom, but at least she felt amazing and sexy while dealing with those minor issues that were quickly becoming a part of her every-day life.

When she got out of school at the end of the day, mixing with the rest of the students coming down the stairs and filtering to their respective buses, a large hand grabbed her arm and pulled her aside, trailing back the edge of the stairs and walls. She could recognize that hand anywhere, the strength she experienced firsthand quickly confirmed by the volumes of the six pack barely hidden under his t-shirt. Noa smirked deliciously. Was it time for round two?

The sophomore pushed her against the wall once they reached a more private corner, both of his hands against it, blocking her escape. Behind him was the little maggot from the bowling on Friday, dwarfed by the huge guy that she remembered Floyd calling Brian.

“Hey big boy,” she slurred to the budding man in front of her. “You missed me already, admit it.”

He shook his head slowly, his ravenous eyes never turning away from her as a smile stretched his face. “Not today girl.” Without warning he sent his knee flying straight between Noa's legs, the force of the impact stretching his smile further.

The pain surged upward as her knees buckled, her hip and legs unresponsive from the throb that was quickly spreading outward from her crotch. The sophomore did not let her fall to the ground however, and with his left hand raising her by her armpit, he sent another quick jab up her solar plexus. The hit pushed all the air out of her, cutting her breath short as a surging pain took hold of her.

“Today's payback bitch!” The other two behind him closed in on the two of them, blocking each side.

His hand still holding her up, Noa tried to break a smile at the situation she was in. “The little worm, I understand, but I did nothing to the two of you.” Talking back got her a hit in the jaw from the bulky Brian, her head twisting a lot faster and harder than she thought neck muscles were supposed to sustain.

“What, being a mutie is not enough?” said Brian, justifying his blow.

Her 'boyfriend' grabbed her shin and propped her head back up so that he could look straight into her closed eyes. The look of defiance and confidence she maintained sent more thrills of anticipation down his spine at the prospect of breaking that pretty face apart. “You left me hanging, and I'll have you know that I hate waiting!”

Noa smirked mockingly again. “Sorry, mommy said I needed to get to know a guy for a week before the first date. Are you free on Friday?”

This time the attack came from the smallest of the three. Although she expected it to hurt less than Brian's hit in the face, it was quite the opposite when brass knuckles came colliding with her ribs like a freight train. Her ribs compressed under the impact sending waves of torment through her bones and across her belly. The gasp that escaped her was met with more as the hits came quicker and quicker.

“You filthy sick whore, will you shut the fuck up bitch!”

She tentatively stopped the onslaught with her free hand, but as she turned around to do so she was hit from behind, Brian's strength sending her sprawling to the ground outside their little circle. She didn't have the time to think when her 'boyfriend' grabbed her by her freshly made braids and pulled her back in the shade of their corner. The fire in her scalp was all she could think of as she tried to grab his arm and distribute her weight away from the hair he was holding, without much success.

“Idiot!” He slapped the guy across the head while Brian took it with a guilty look. “Stick to the corner.” It'd take a moment for all the buses to leave with the students, and until then they did not want to draw too much attention.

“Sorry, I'll be more careful,” apologized Brian, before turning an angry look to the crap that was trying to stand back up at his feet. “This is all your fault you damned gene filth!” He kicked her back into the corner, although by the way Noa blocked the kick, it did not hurt as much, only pushing her into a precarious position. “Floyd was way too lenient about you! Things like you should just disappear!”

Noa used the wall to stand back up, the small space around her shrinking as the brute closed in. The small respite their bitching gave her was enough for Noa to collect her thoughts again and to ignore the pain. “I'll be going home now.” Using her aura, she poked the big guy in the eyes, the surprise and pain causing him to lose his balance and drop in the space she occupied just before she dodged his massive body. Seeing her chance to escape, Noa leapt away from the corner into the hole Brian was guarding. A strong hand grabbed her three meters in, stopping her movement, but with the same tactic as she used on Brian, her 'boyfriend' let go by reflex, bringing a hand to his sensitive eyes. The shorty was not quick enough to catch up with her, and in the few seconds it took the two tougher guys to be able to see again, Noa was already a dozen meters away from them.

Felling safe enough with this much distance between them, she turned around to taunt them one last time. She brought her hand shaped like a phone to her ear as she said “Call me maybe!”

The three guys sprinted after her, but she was an experienced runner and could maintain a top speed for hours despite the lingering pains of the beating coursing her body.

Out of breath, the three sophomores gave up after a few blocks.

“Fuck!!” A nearby garbage bin was the unlucky victim of Noa's 'boyfriend's' fury, his rage unable to be expressed in any satisfactory manner despite all the kicking and punching. The other two shared the sentiment.


Wednesday afternoon, June 1st
Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario

Four hundred kilometers north of Toronto, a student in the late twenties was dutifully finishing up her thesis in the computer lab of her university when her phone buzzed in her pocket, distracting her from her screen. She rarely received any calls since nowadays SMS were trending.

“Hello?” she asked, a little annoyed that the call was either an emergency or random publicity, neither of which she felt like dealing with.

“Astrex, it's Snatch. Check the chat box.” And with that the line cut short, the boy's voice at the other end too excited to communicate with her directly.

The girl, codename Astrex, put down her phone with a touch of annoyance and opened a private website that would link her to the group's chat box called Blue Moon. She made sure the connection was secure and that the various plugins and applications that would render her signal anonymous and encrypted were activated. Once she was certain she would not be the weak link in their communication system, she connected to Blue Moon. She had to scroll up slightly through the chat to see what the excitation was all about, but once she started reading she could no longer tear her eyes away from the screen.

bandersnatch | 3:47 PM
My bot caught something precious today. Anyone ready for a hunt?

H43T4N | 3:51 PM
Spill!

SideStep721 | 3:52 PM
Is this going to be like last time with the fake call?

bandersnatch | 3:52 PM
Kay, just two keywords for the suspense.
Mithril and orichalcum.
Interested??? :3

Alkahest | 3:53 PM
Definitely! Tell us more.

SideStep721 | 3:53 PM
Isn't that worth $$$?

H43T4N | 3:53 PM
More like $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!!!!!
Snatch, whatever this is, I'm in!

ichorDrip | 3:53 PM
What is this little thing I see on my screen?! Snatch, what have you been up to?!

bandersnatch | 3:54 PM
Oh, just snatching up stuff as always. I deleted the tracks, so this is completely exclusive.

H43T4N | 3:54 PM
STOP DELAYING OR I'LL KILL YOU!!!

bandersnatch | 3:54 PM
Ok ok!! Geeze ._.'
There's a girl with mithril and orichalcum in the composition of her bones. New mutant freshly born, ripe for the taking.

H43T4N | 3:54 PM
WHERE?

Alkahest | 3:54 PM
This is bound to be good!

bandersnatch | 3:55 PM
I don't know where the girl is, but the lab where the analysis was made is in North Bay.

Alkahest | 3:55 PM
If only it had been in the states. I'm kind of stuck with something important in New York.

ichorDrip | 3:55 PM
Hmm, boss? This is mithril we're talking about. What are you so busy with that'd take precedence over millions of dollars of alchemical components?!!

Alkahest | 3:56 PM
You don't want to know...

ichorDrip | 3:56 PM
._.
DUN Dun duuuuun!!!

Alkahest | 3:56 PM
Thanks for the atmosphere Ichor. Snatch, keep me up to date on this one. Everyone else, enjoy the hunt. I'm out.

H43T4N | 3:57 PM
Okay, taking names, who's in?!

ichorDrip | 3:57 PM
We need a sniffer for the girl. Who can play scout?

SideStep721 | 3:57 PM
Haeten, I'm in. I'll get you where you guys need

bandersnatch | 3:57 PM
Contacting some people who might be interested now

Astrex almost jumped out of her chair with trepidation. She quickly reduced her laptop, packed all her thesis books into her backpack along with the computer and as soon as she was out of the computer lab she locked herself in the first bathroom stall she found for some privacy. She pulled out an artifact from her backpack, which looked like one long ribbon with tiny plastic vials attached to it. In each vial was a bit of DNA, mostly hair and nails, but also sometimes bits of dried flesh or bleached phalanx. Names were written on a small sticker over the vials. She grabbed one of them which read 'Snatch' and projected her mind through the glass and into the lock of hair.

In the next instant, Astrex was in a room in a basement, the main light illuminating the otherwise dark room coming from a monitor with a short boy in front of it. The rest of the room was not completely dark though, as small led lights placed on the many robotic creations of the devisor lit up the walls like so many stars in the sky. Without bothering with those, Astrex moved forward, her immaterial body phasing through the mess that was this room.

A red light of a webcam lit up as Astrex came closer, forcing a window to pop up on Snatch's screen. He had tuned the webcam to detect spiritual frequencies, which he needed in this instance since otherwise Astrex would have been invisible to him.

“You came quickly,” he remarked, looking at the image showing Astrex on his monitor as said girl looked at his screen over his shoulder.

“Save me a spot on the team and tell me everything you got until now.” Her voice, usually inaudible, was picked up by more specialized microphones and transmitted to his headset, solidifying the illusion that she was in this room and not in her school’s bathroom stall.

Snatch made a few clicks and sent a quick private message to Haeten to get Astrex in. “You should be in now. I don't have much to be honest. I got the location of the lab, and some details over the molecular composition of the bone the guy was analyzing. I stole the documents he wrote, but other than a few keywords, the rest is way too cryptic for me.”

She raised an eyebrow unimpressed. “I thought all devisors could pick up on one another's tech.”

He shook his head. “Not really. We can usually try to replicate someone else's stuff with our own quirky method, but we're far from all being on the same page.” He turned to the webcam screen, looking more closely at Astrex's reaction. “You write a thesis for your school, right?”

“Yeah? So?”

“Would you be able to understand another student's thesis?”

She gave that some thought. “More or less yeah.”

“Even if they're from another program?”

“Heck no!” As if she could read archaeological papers or understand computer systems. There was a limit to common sense.

Snatch smiled, having made his point. “Same thing here. That guy's a biomechanical freak. I'm a mechano. No way I can ever get close to his stuff.”

“But you did get something from his paper.” Astrex crossed her arms above the back of his comfy desk chair.

“Yeah, my bot got something. The samples come from a girl, and her bones are made almost entirely of mithril. If you take a person's average weight, that's between one and two million dollars on resale. Her flesh is most likely a complicated alchemical... something, stuff, babble. That's one of the bit where the techno-talk just flies right over my head. Maybe you could look a bit more into it since I know you have a soft spot for alchemy.”

“From time to time,” she admitted. She was not that good at alchemy, but it did round out her magical baggage nicely. If the girl's skin was some kind of alchemical component, Astrex could consider skinning her. “What about the orichalcum?” She asked this nonchalantly, even thought this was what interested her the most. Blue Moon was a herd of sharks, with several dozens of mutants just waiting for the right opportunity to make a power grab. If she got her hands on even just a sliver of orichalcum, her magical abilities would increase exponentially. She might even become powerful enough to be on par with Alkahest. And to think that everyone else was simply lured by the price of the mithril!

“From the percentage extracted and, again, the average bone mass for a girl, I calculated there's about two grams of it total.”

Oh. My. Freaking. God. Two grams of the ultimate alchemical material that was so precious the only people known to be able to reliably produce it were a group of Sidhe older than the world who curbed any attempt at replicating their work! Two grams free of charge, without the trouble of millennia of intensive research and arcane processes. It was too good to be true. Astrex glanced at Snatch, noticing that the boy was disappointed by the amount. Clearly he had no idea what he was dealing with.

Snatch's attention was grabbed by a reply to his private message. “Oh, it's Haeten.” He frowned, a bit exasperated at the woman's strictness and stubbornness. “As usual, since Alkahest won't be there, she took up the leading role. She won't listen to me. You'll have to convince her yourself.” He slid his chair away from the monitor to give way for Astrex. “Convince her you're essential, otherwise she'll turn you away. The less we are, the bigger share each, right?”

Astrex took the keyboard. “Right.” Focusing energy into her hands, she moved the mouse and keys as if she was physically present. From Snatch's point of view, the desk seemed to be manned by a ghost. Astrex disconnected from Snatch's account and connected to the box again with her own, Snatch doing the same on another one of his many computers.

J.T. Astrex | 4:06 PM
Haeten, count me in on that one.

H43T3N | 4:06 PM
It's alright girl, we're already four on this one. We don't need one more.

J.T. Astrex | 4:06 PM
Who's in?

H43T3N | 4:06 PM
You don't need to know since you're not coming.

J.T. Astrex | 4:07 PM
You do know that we are hunting a girl from a piece of her bone, right? You remember what I can do?

H43T3N | 4:07 PM
We got the team covered. We'll be able to find her without problem.

J.T. Astrex | 4:07 PM
I'm probably the best scout you could possibly have on this one. I touch the bone and I'll be able to know where the girl is, what she looks like, what kind of environment she lives in.
I'll even be able to put a few curses on her at a distance.
You can't say no to that.

H43T3N | 4:09 PM
No.

J.T. Astrex | 4:09 PM
:'(
You're not even fair! If you're worried about a smaller share of money, just kick your other scout out from the team. I'm leagues better that whoever you have right now.

ichorDrip | 4:10 PM
I vote to have Astrex on the team!

H43T3N | 4:10 PM
DAMMIT ICHOR, I'M IN CHARGE AND I SAID NO!!!

SideStep721 | 4:10 PM
Vote #2

H43T3N | 4:10 PM
WHAT THE HELL SIDESTEP NOT YOU TOO! WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU GUYS?!! DON'T YOU KNOW THAT SHE'S A TOTAL BITCH?!

bandersnatch | 4:11 PM
Haeten, this is work. Keep your personal problems outside of it. She's the best scout and you know it.
And by the way, I vote Astrex

J.T. Astrex | 4:11 PM
:3
Hae~ten~ <3<3<3

H43T3N | 4:11 PM
FUCK YOU ALL!!
FUCK YOU ASTREX!!!!!!! xxxxxkillkillkillxxxxxxx

J.T. Astrex | 4:11 PM
Looks like I'm in? :3

H43T3N | 4:11 PM
NO!! NO YOU'RE NOT!! I REFUSE, NO WAY!!

J.T. Astrex | 4:11 PM
Kay guys, so apparently Haeten doesn't want to come with me, so you three must choose. Are you coming with me, who'll be able to pinpoint exactly where our target is and what she's capable of?
Or are you going with angry Haeten who won't have a clue where to go after she destroys that laboratory?

H43T3N | 4:11 PM
BITCH!!!!!! THIS IS NOT A FREAKING DEMOCRACY!!!!!!

bandersnatch | 4:12 PM
Astrex

ichorDrip | 4:12 PM
I'm with the astral scout

SideStep721 | 4:12 PM
Same.

H43T3N | 4:12 PM
FFFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-

SideStep721 | 4:12 PM
You should try to calm down from time to time. All that stress and tension isn't good for your health

J.T. Astrex | 4:13 PM
:3
So Haeten, do you want to join MY team?

H43T3N | 4:21 PM
i hate you all...


Thursday past noon, June 2nd
Toronto, Magnolia's school

Chandler waited, looking at the mostly empty corridor from his half-hidden position in the larger recess of a classroom's door. A few students were starting to trickle up from downstairs, the lunch hour about to end and the afternoon classes about to start again. There was not much to do but wait until Magnolia showed up. In the morning, he asked for a copy of Magnolia's course timetable, so that he could check over the mutant without having to look for her.

Ms. Campbell would probably not be happy with the continued close watch, but he had received his orders, and he would comply, else he got downgraded or lost his job. For the nth time, he cursed his position stuck between two authorities, as if his office and the lawyers were playing tug of war with his responsibilities. At least his manager had his back on this one, so long as he kept to his duties. He just needed to take it one day at a time, and everything would work out in the end.

The first bell rang, announcing the end of the lunch break. Pulled out of his reverie, Chandler looked around the now quite crowed hallway in search of his target. He had to look twice to notice Magnolia talking with two guys from her class, their demeanor telling Chandler more than he needed to know about their intentions.

Bullies.

Not overtly aggressive, but still imposing and over-confidant and reaching into the girl's personal space more than was respectful. The racket made by the hundreds of students circulating around covered the bullies' words, an environment that would prove effective against eavesdroppers more than a meter away.

Chandler stepped out of his concealed alcove, quickly checking two things as he walked against the flow of students. First, Magnolia's face was an unreadable blank mask, neither the hint of a smile nor the stretch of a muscle betraying the slightest emotion. Second, the bracelet at her wrist had not lit up its screen in bright red, meaning that she was not currently using her powers in any significant fashion. He still had time to stop something from happening.

Yet, what was his surprise to see another teacher step in before him, much to Magnolia's visible relief. The teacher— the kind of man with charisma, presence and a strong sense of responsibility that made you want to respect the guy with a single glance— admonished the two defiant boys, obviously taking Magnolia's side of whatever argument had gone on between the kids. Chandler slowed his pace, the situation already defused for him, but there was still something he could gain from stepping in regardless of the teacher.

“... and don't start again,” said the teacher to the two boys, not that his words would have much of an impact with the insolent look the two guys kept plastered on their faces. “Shoot, get to your classes now.”

Chandler intervened before the boys could turn away, much as they had been released. “What is going on here?” Magnolia was back to a blank expression, tellingly enough, while the two guys looked exasperated at the sight of yet another authority figure.

“Nothing,” replied Chandler, eyeing the newcomer with curiosity. “These two were just getting back to class, isn’t that right?”

Only one of the two kids agreed with a curt nod. Not much enthusiasm around here. Chandler turned to the two kids. “I'd like to have a word with you two.” Their shoulders slumped, dejected. “It's about a protection program against the mutant threat. I'm making a list of potential victims.” And they perked right back up, a smirk stretching their lips once they understood on which side the MCO was standing. Kids were so simple. He addressed the teacher one last time before taking his leave. “I will borrow these two for a few minutes. Sir, nice day to you. Magnolia.” He finished his farewells to the last person in the group, a familiar grin he wanted polite accompanying the single word.

She and the teacher did not dare move until Chandler was out of sight with the two kids in tow. The quick encounter left a sour taste in Noa's mouth, before she decided to ignore the stupid agent and focused on things that really mattered, lie what should she draw in the margins of her agenda during class today?

Chandler did not go too far, not wanting to take too much of the kids' time now that the afternoon classes had officially started.

“Is it true that you'll protect us against that mutie?”

He looked up to the more arrogant looking of the two. Giving him his friendliest smile, Chandler replied. “That's what the MCO is here for. We protect baselines against the mutant threat.” He pulled out a notepad from his utility belt and started asking questions in his warmest tone. “But first, would you mind telling me what this was about?”

The boy crossed his hands behind his head, completely at ease and confidant. “Well, the bitch got the both of us detention today. Can you believe it?!”

Chandler raised a skeptical eyebrow. “How did she do that?”

The boy shrugged. “She exists, that's what. First day she comes back to school, BAM! The teachers start giving out detentions like crazy. Some of my friends got two of them for no reason! Today I had soccer during lunch, and I had to skip it just because the mutie exist. She spoils everyone's lives! It's just so unfair!”

The second boy, slightly more reserved, judged useful to had his two cents. “The teachers are all over the girl. Especially that Mr. Chavez. They're practically licking her shoes and doing her chores. I even saw her walk into a teacher's office like she owned the place. She must be manipulating everyone's mind, or something.”

Chandler played along with the two boys’ distorted view of the situation. “That would definitely be a threat to be reported. Can I have both of your names?”

“Tristan Tremblay, and he's Jeremy Lerocher,” provided the confidant kid.

“Thanks for your report. I will add you two to the list of protected witnesses as soon as I get back to my office.” Such a list did indeed exist, but not for the purpose he was hanging in front of the two boys, although for his purpose these kids did not need to know that. Their apparent delight at finally finding an adult who believed them made Chandler smile for a vastly different reason. “In exchange, I'd like the two of you to do something for me.” At their look of apprehension, Chandler was quick to add “Nothing bothersome I assure you. I just want to ask you guys to not interact in any way with Magnolia from now on.”

Tristan's brows furrowed a bit at the sugar-coated order. “Why?”

“To protect you from the mutant threat.” He got them hooked now, their minds riveted to his every word. “Us MCO agents are trained for years to be able to deal with mutants in the safest way possible. Have you two considered what would happen after you provoked or angered Magnolia?” The timid Jeremy shook his head, while Tristan kept his stare on Chandler, not admitting to anything. “Did you two think ahead what kind of reactions you wanted her to have from your little talk?” Again, one shake, and one leveled stare. Chandler shook his head at the foolishness of these two. “Magnolia's power is disintegration. I bet neither of you thought about what she would do to you if you poke or annoy her just a bit too much, am I right?”

The color drained from their face in an instant, a layer of fear taking root deep in their psyche.

“The clean-up girl?” exclaimed Jeremy. “No way!”

But his friend did not share his disbelief. “You're not lying.” More of a statement than a question, even though Tristan did not like the answer.

“I'm not. We have summer camps for kids like you if you are curious about what it takes to become a MCO agent.” He pulled out two folded fliers from a pouch in his belt, extending one to the two boys' extended hand. “If you think you're ready to meddle with mutants and do my job, here's a quick tip: you're not. For your own safety, keep quiet around Magnolia.” He gave the two of them a pat on the shoulder, pushing them ever so slightly away to signify that he was done talking to them. “Get back to class, and spread a word of caution. If you're in the mood for some action, we might see each other later this summer.”


23: Dollhouse Family

Friday evening, June 3rd
Magnolia's house

The doorbell rang, interrupting an otherwise pleasant family dinner that everyone helped prepare. Nathan had come early, no longer having any afternoon labs on Friday evenings since the exam season had kicked in at the university. Closer to the entrance, he got up to answer the door, exchanging a glance with his mother while Noa played with her food.

“Awaiting someone?” he asked, receiving only a shake of the head for answer. “I'll go check.”

He recognized the silhouette behind the glass immediately, and it was with excitement and joy that Nathan quickly opened the door. “Dad?”

The face on the other side of the door was all too well known. Randall, sporting the same thin beard as Nathan always knew him to have, along with the same independent eyes that looked upon the world as so many adventures, discoveries and challenges made just for him.

“Hey! Nat! How're you doing?”

“Fine!” Nathan stepped outside, grabbing the offered hand tightly before starting a complicated handshake with his dad. At the end of the perfectly executed handshake, the two men started laughing, happy at the reunion. “You haven't lost it I see.”

“What?” Randall replied with an affronted smile. “I thought you'd forget all the moves if I wasn't around to remind you from time to time.”

“Fat chance dad.” Oh, it was good to see the man again. They had so much stuff to catch up to. It had been so long!

Having taken too long in the entrance, two pairs of footsteps came up behind Nathan to see who was the unexpected visitor. Noa realized who it was as she came closer to the threshold, and turning the corner of the door with haste she jumped into her dad's arms. “Daddy!” Lucky that there was a small fence around the elevated porch, or else Randall would have fallen backward from the catch. “I missed you!” Noa snuggled closer in her dad's arms.

“Hey kiddo.”

He gently pushed her back and bent his knees to be at her level, taking his time to get a good look at her. The smile on his face became strained as he noticed all the little oddities of Noa's features. Her closed eyes, yes, but also her translucent skin which, at such proximity, hinted at the bone structure of her face just a few millimeters underneath. The discrete shine her skin gave in the light of the evening sun, the texture of which was without fold and inorganic, as if she was made of plastic. Her lack of noticeable heat as he tenderly stroked her face, neither warm nor cold compared to his hand, but merely lacking the expected sensation. Randall swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat. He had been warned to expect some changes, but knowing about it did little to prepare him to the sight. Was this how the family of a child with cancer felt? Knowing about it from a distance, completely obvious and unprepared at the sight of a bald sickly kid strapped to IVs? Seeing Noa as she was now, Randall felt as if, for the first time, he realized that his child had cancer.

He had to catch his voice from trembling, patting Noa's head as he stood up. “You grew so tall since I last saw you.” Diverting his eyes from the oddities, he forced himself to notice the rest of her, the few inches she gained in the last few years, the change in her voice from a chirpy kid to a suave adolescent, the little touch of rebellion of her braided dyed hair. Anything to stop thinking about a sickness he was helpless to heal. “I'm sure pretty soon you'll give Nathan a run for his money.”

Noa giggled. “I'm counting the days! Especially now that he finally stopped growing. I swear, even just last year he gained another two inches!”

“Hey, what do you want,” shrugged Nathan mischievously. “I'm just that awesome.”

“As if you aimed for that.”

“Broccoli Mags. Lots and lots of broccoli.”

Randall's forced smile turned genuine at the friendly bickering of the two. He had missed these two.

Looking away from Nathan and Noa, his gaze turned to the open door frame against which Judith rested. The same warm smile lit up her features, at least until she realized that he was staring at her. Then it became much more polite and distant. The two of them understood each other from a glance.

“Noa, Nathan, your father and I need to talk. Would you mind?”

Noa's excitement subsided. “Dad can eat with us, right? Just for tonight?”

Randall made no gesture to refuse the offer, a reaction that Judith noticed with a frown. “You two were just finishing up.”

Her kind but firm voice put a lid on this topic, silently urging the two inside. Not resisting any longer, Nathan and Noa walked back in, the later speaking a quick 'See ya later!' before the door closed on her, leaving the two adults alone for their talk. As Noa walked back to the kitchen table with her brother, she secretly opened the valves of her TK which usually blocked her ears, extending her hearing until she could follow the discussion happening outside, no one the wiser.

“Why did you come back?” asked Judith without preamble. No anger, no sadness, no joy, only detachment.

He sighed, knowing that he could not walk away from a good chewing. “I came to see how you and the kids were doing.”

“And the fact that you showed up so soon after Noa's mutation is a coincidence maybe?” She was not foolish enough to have failed to notice the way he detailed Noa from head to toe earlier. The fact that he hid his reaction so well could only mean that he was aware of something before meeting up with them.

He stroked the back of his head in unease. “I'll admit the news was a bitch of a wake-up call.” He let his arm drop back to his side in shame. “I should have been there for that. I... I should have been there for a lot of things.”

“But you weren't.” Judith remained unreadable, yet he knew she had all the rights to throw accusations his way. “Where have you been?”

“Doing stupid stuff with friends.” He did not want to hide his past from her. If he was to ever be a part of their family, even just to see the kids from time to time, he had to do this, to expose himself. “Blowing away money traveling through the US or visiting Europe. I did random jobs here and there, joined the network of the moment left and right. I... needed the release.”

“Good for you. You got what you wanted.”

He looked up to meet her cold eyes. Despite the proximity, there was a distance between them that seemed impossible to bridge.

“Would it be too much to ask to see the kids again? Like we did before.” Before he disappeared from their life.

“Randall, you were gone for four years.”

“Three. We managed the separation well enough during the first year.” A year where Noa and Nathan spent a weekend here and there at his place. Where both he and Judith still invited each other to parties and events, even though they no longer lived together. A time he believed they were still friends despite it all. Then he was gone. He would not admit that he had come back in Toronto two years later, stayed either locked up in his apartment or out at whatever job he found, never making that last small step to pick up the phone and mend burnt bridges. The guilt was too strong to make that confession.

Judith thought for a second. “Three years,” she conceded. “Three long years with you never returning a call or email, only sending postal cards with a few words on their birthdays.” Her facade broke for a moment, her voice catching as she debated speaking the next words or not. “... and mine.”

“I never forgot.” Although there was no pride for so little. “It's just that incident—”

“I know.”

“I wasn't ready—”

“I know.”

The two of them stood there for a moment, recalling the event that had led to their separation. It had been a simple mistake, Magnolia forgetting to change out of her clothes as she came back from her friend's place, who owned a dog. Walking around the house, sitting on the couch, touching things. When Nathan came back home that day, he went into anaphylactic shock, and had to be urgently brought to the hospital. A near miss. Not an isolated incident, nor the worst by far. Randall had endured thirteen years of this, of either Judith or Nathan having a terribly severe allergy attack for apparently no reason, only because fate decided immunodeficiency disorder was a thing. The strain put on Magnolia and himself not being enough, the doctors eventually came up with a treatment for allergies, which consisted of gradual exposure. In Noa's case, they prescribed complete exposure to allergen triggers, to avoid she developed the same allergies as the other two due to their sterile environment. Avoidance would cause her body’s responses to allergens to wither with time, potentially exposing her to the same condition Nathan and Judith suffered, especially since there was a hereditary predisposition to the disorder. It was not enough that Judith and Nathan's lifestyle pressured Noa and him, Noa's well-being pressured the other two just as much.

And Randall had been caught in between. Thirteen long years of constant worries, constantly second-guessing whether he was clean enough, or the label of the latest cereal box, or the flower pots of a friend. Ten of those years where, on top of that, he was required to encourage one of his child in the complete opposite direction, the incidents growing more and more common. He had considered leaving with Magnolia, their lifestyle too different from Nathan and Judith's, but he had been too much of a coward at that time, and had only left alone. Now he could do nothing but regret his decision.

Randall sighed. He was already here, better do what he came for. “How are you doing?” There was a lot his eyes asked that was left unspoken.

Judith relaxed her shoulders, the fact that he still cared stirring emotions she thought she abandoned years ago. “I'm managing,” she said, knowing what he might be concerned about. “I'm getting better, the gradual exposure treatment working slowly but surely. I can now eat a thin slice of cheese here and there, and I can share a room with a cat for over an hour.” Small pleasures that had been denied to her for so long.

He nodded at her progress. “And Nathan?”

She shook her head. “Three shocks in that many treatments, gradually worse even, and on the smallest therapeutic dose at that. Thank god it was in a controlled environment, otherwise...” She left the rest unsaid, as they both knew how bad it could get. “We gave up after that.”

“How's work? School?”

Judith sighed, sounding tired at the thought of work. “Again, I'm managing. It's a shame they don't pay overtime for managers, ‘cause I could definitely use the money right now.” She kept going even as he was about to open his mouth. She was not sure she wanted his assistance, even if he did offer it. “Nathan is doing well at school. He stays steady even if he has to miss a few weeks of class from time to time still.”

“About money—”

“Don't.” Her glare made him clearly understand that it was too early to offer this kind of unsolicited help.

“What about Mags?”

“She prefers 'Noa' nowadays,” she replied, avoiding the question.

The shadow of a smile showed at the corner of Randall's mouth. Kids will be kids. “When did she change it?”

“Four years ago.” Whatever hint of amusement vanished from Randall's features. The topic and reminder made Judith look away, uncomfortable. “I don't think she realized why she did it at the time.”

The statement hit like a knife stab, digging and twisting in the wound of his past. “How is she taking all the... mutant stuff?”

“How much do you know? And how did you learn about it?” An eyebrow raised and arms crossed, Judith got defensive.

“I was called by the police on Wednesday about something involving Ma... Noa, at her school. They filled me in on a few things. Her powers. The bullying. The fact that she's no longer... she's not...” The word refused to come out, just as he refused to admit that his daughter could no longer be labeled as human anymore. “That she's got a unique biology.”

“It's the MCO that contacted you, isn't it? You know they aggressed Noa at her school?”

Randall shook his head. “They were trying to help.”

Anger boiled up at his dismissive comment. “They kicked her, choked her, punched her in the face and dislocated her shoulder! How's that for help?!”

He winced at his own lack of tact. “Excuse me. I just learned about everything two days ago, give me a break! I'm glad they called me, since I'm sure I wouldn't have heard a word from you.”

Judith stood agape in outrage. “You are blaming me for not keeping in touch?!”

Realizing his second blunder, Randall turned aside to put his elbows on the fence, holding his heavy head dejectedly. “Sorry. I didn't mean it like that.”

“Oh sure! You just come strutting along, know-it-all, throwing the blame left and right and you think it'll solve things? Do you have even the slightest idea how hard the last few years have been for me? You don't have a single clue, and yet you think that by just showing up one day you'll fix what took you years to destroy?!”

“I'm trying, okay?” What started as a yell was brought down to a softer volume, wishing the argument not to escalate further. “I want to help, I really do. I'm sorry if I misspoke, and I can't guarantee I won't make more mistakes, but I want to make an effort. I want to be there, to catch up, regardless of the time it takes to achieve that. Just, right now, everything's so overwhelming. Give me some time to adjust.”

“No.” The blank mask was back on Judith's face. “You'll just leave again once things get a little hard to handle.” She wanted to hope, oh so badly, but she knew. It was cruel of her, but it would be even crueler of him to raise her expectations only to shove everything back down to the ground again. She did not think she could get through that a second time.

“Ask the kids,” pleaded Randall. “They're big enough to choose. Let them decide if they want to hang at my apartment for a day, or a weekend, just like before.” She shook her head, having none of it. “Judith.”

She stared him down, refusing to get roped by his sweat words. “If you have nothing else to add... leave.”

“But Mags—”

“Leave!”

Her scream and tears were too much to handle. Downcast, Randall turned around, about to do what he did best: running away when things got out of hand, when the door swung open and short arms wrapped around him from behind.

He turned around in surprise. “Mags!”

“I want to spend time with daddy!” She turned her face toward his and beamed at him, melting away his stress of the last few moments. Randall wrapped his own arms around Noa, hugging her close as nostalgic memories flowed into his mind. “How about tomorrow?” she asked.

The suggestion raised more than one eyebrow. “Yeah, I guess we could.” Randall threw a glance at Judith to get her confirmation. Apparently, she was still reeling from Noa's sudden appearance, as she did not know what to say.

To help her mother fight her indecision, Noa came up with one more argument. “Mom, at least this way I won’t be at home for a whole day.”

Understanding dawned for Judith. “Okay,” she said, much to Randall's surprise. “Back for supper though.”

“Kay!” Noa left her dad's embrace, dancing back toward the entrance with obvious delight. “When do you pick me up?” she asked, stopping just long enough in the door frame to hear the answer.

“How about ten?”

“Don't be late!”

And she was gone, her smile the last thing to vanish just like Alice's Cheshire cat. It seemed to him that everything just occurred in a flash, his mind having to spend a few more seconds registering his seemingly first victory.

“What was that about?” he asked, referring to Noa's nonsensical argument. “Staying away from home?”

Judith shook her head, still staring at the doorway in which Noa just disappeared. “It's nothing.”

He nodded, accepting the dismissal without a blink. It was not like he really cared about that answer anyway, and if it was something he needed to know he would learn about it in time. “Will Nathan come with us?”

“I'll let him know, but usually he works starting at noon on weekends.” Judith started toward the door, turning back for one last glance while her hand remained on the handle. She met his stare, hers heavy with mixed feelings. “Welcome back,” she greeted, resigned and without joy.


Saturday morning, June 4th
Magnolia's house

The next day, as promised, Randall showed up around 10 with his car, ringing the doorbell with some amount of nervousness. He received the expected overenthusiastic greeting hug from Noa but was pleasantly surprised when Nathan walked out, closing the door behind him.

“Your mom told me you worked on weekends,” said Randall, letting go of Noa to exchange his handshake with Nathan.

“Are you kidding?” Nathan was just as eager to spend a full day with his dad as Noa, and it showed in his grip. “First day with you in ages? No way I'm missing this! I called in sick.”

“Glad you did.” Randall patted him on the back as the three stepped into the car. Before he turned the key, Randall bent over Nathan to reach for the glove compartment, taking out a fancy pair of shades that he extended to Noa at the back. “Put these on.”

“But I want people to stare!” Despite her whining, she took the dark glasses, contemplating whether to put them on or just hide them inside her small purse.

“With the way you're dressed, I'm sure you do,” said Randall, drawing attention to her skimpy outfit, “but you don't want them to stare for the wrong reasons.” He waited as Noa put the shades on, hiding the most obvious trait of her mutation. “I'm surprised your mom even lets you out the house dressed like that.” He started the car and pulled out of the entrance.

“Guess what, I'm grown up now,” said Noa, proud of her outfit. It had taken her extra-long this morning to fit the colors together and to find the perfect match for today. Special garb for a special day.

Nathan chuckled from his front seat. “Mom tried to get her to cover a bit more, but we wouldn't have that, heh Mags?”

“No way!” She grinned at their provocative attitude. Independence at last! “And thanks for the support by the way.”

Nathan dismissed the thanks with a wave of his hand. “Just get yourself a boyfriend already so we can talk about the real things.”

She giggled. “Working on it!”

Stopping at a red light, Randall gave a thought back to the little ten years old girl who still talked about plushies and TV shows instead of boyfriends. The jarring discrepancy left a tinge of melancholy despite the playful talk going back and forth between the two kids.


Saturday late morning, June 4th
Food stand around the Cinema

“Three Chicago dogs,” said the man behind the street stand. “Here you go.”

Randall took the three packed hot-dogs in his hands, the various toppings threatening to spill out if he was not careful about his every movements. It was a bit early to be eating lunch already, but considering the movie would overlap with their regular lunch time, it was best to eat now rather than wait until later. Stepping away from the stand, he extended one wrapped hot-dog to Nathan and Noa, the first digging in with hungry eyes while the later simply held the warm treat in her hands, apparently waiting for something.

“Wow, this stuff is good!” said Nathan, his meal disappearing one large bite after another. “I didn't know they had this kind of quality around here. I'll have to bring friends to try this out.” He gave an appreciative nod to Randall, motioning to his half-eaten hot-dog as if it was the best delicacy in the world. “Thanks dad!”

“No prob Nat.” Randall turned to Noa who had not yet touched hers. “Are you not going to eat?”

“Oh, no! It's quite good,” she said, trying to sound reassuring. “I like it.”

Nathan picked up on the implied meaning immediately. “Bland? Like the rest?”

She shook her head, not quite able to put the finger on it. “No, it's interesting alright. Just... cooked? Processed? I had better.”

Randall looked between the two of them, thoroughly confused. “What are you talking about?”

Nathan looked around to make sure they were not in earshot of anyone else. “Mags tastes things differently now. We're trying to figure out what she likes and what she doesn't like, so we can better plan for meals and such.”

“I told you,” she said with an exasperated sigh, “I don't mind eating anything.”

“Yeeeeaaaah. We gotta work on that.” Nathan shook his head. “Especially after last Friday.” Noa mumbled something about making a bigger deal than it was, sore at the reactions that particular subject got out of her mom and brother once they learned about it.

“But Mags,” Randall asked, obviously missing something that happened recently, yet wishing some light to be shed on their inside talk. “You haven't even tried the hot-dog. Give it chance. I'm sure you'll like it.”

Noa gave him the 'Are you kidding me' stare. Seeing that he was ignorant on the subject, she showed him the state of her hot-dog, about one third disintegrated, the process visible if one took a glance inside the paper wrap. At the sight, Randall grew nervous and agitated, throwing looks around and trying to hide the hot-dog from nonexistent onlookers with his body.

“You can't do that in public!” His voice was a whisper, more demanding than a moment ago. “Stop that!”

“But that's how I eat now.”

“You can put it in your mouth. Bite into it like me and Nat.”

“But—”

“Please!” he pleaded. “You'll have to learn to pass for normal eventually. Why not start now?” His agitation was getting to her, the last push administered with the next few words. “Do it for me and Nat. For the family.”

She gave in. “Okay, okay! I'll eat it properly. Jeez.”

Peeling the paper wrap a little, she brought the hot-dog to her mouth and froze immediately after her teeth sunk deeply into it. She felt the expectant stares from Randall and Nathan, yet even knowing that she was doing the right thing, she could not stop a shiver of disgust from shaking her. She forced herself to chew on the piece she had, mixing her aura inside so that she could start absorbing the repulsive stuff in her mouth. The mixed tastes were even worse, her telekinesis telling her that the stuff tasted like heaven while her tongue ruined the whole thing by damning her through hell. Her TK was not working fast enough, and too eager to get rid of the horrible sensations, she swallowed, forgetting for a moment that the only cavity she had was used for her vocal chords and some air. She choked, unable to breathe or speak until a few minutes later, letting her aura absorb the foreign element completely. She felt miserable throughout the whole ordeal, and the pats in the back and looks of concern from the two guys did nothing to appease her dispirited mood.

In the five minutes it took her to get rid of the lump stuck in her throat, Randall hurriedly went back to the stand to buy a bottle of water. “Here.” He extended the uncapped bottle to Noa. “Wash it down.”

“Thanks,” Noa said, dejectedly, “but no thanks. I'll do a better job washing my mouth with my powers than with water.”

The lingering awful taste slowly receded from her mouth. From the experience she just had with something she would have thought delicious before, she was not ready to try something as bland as water just yet. She did not think anything could taste worse, but on the other hand she did not want to test her luck either. The thing that hurt her the most however was not the unexpected bad taste, but the disappointed look her dad gave her as she failed to meet his expectations.

“I'll give it another try,” she said, meeting their protests with another comment. “I wasn't ready just now, but I think I have a way to manage.”

Under their worried stares, Noa first coated the inside of her mouth in her telekinesis sheet, covering every surface hoping it would provide a safeguard against the intrusive matter. Carefully and reluctantly, she took another bite, smaller this time, and lost no time attacking it with her aura once her mouth closed.

She winced after a few chews, her face a grimace as she spat out everything, unable to hold out any longer. Her protective TK sheet tore under the pressure of her teeth munching down the sausage. “I'm okay.” She laid her back against a nearby tree, once again cleaning away the remnants of her failed attempt as she tried to think of anything else to distract herself. “I'll have to practice that bit a lot before I can finish a regular meal like everyone else.”

Randall held her in his arms, Nathan supportive from the other side. “You tried,” said her dad. “That's all that matters. You'll get the hang of it eventually.” Her grimace was plain as they started walking away from the stand. If she truly wanted to master the technique for this, Noa would have to go through many more failed attempts. She shuddered at the thought. “I'm sure a good movie will distract you,” he said, oblivious to the implications of his statement.


Noa squirmed in her chair. In the darkly lit theater room, her shades had found their way into her purse as she tried to take snapshot blinks of the movie every few minutes, relying a lot more on her hearing than her sight to fill in the gaps. She did not enjoy the movie as much as she thought she would, her sight constantly distracting her with the threat of a killer headache should she blink slightly too often. Beside her visual difficulties, her mind kept slipping to random thoughts, all of which she found more interesting that the movie on the spur of the moment, before quickly discarding them to think about other things.

She kept fidgeting around, picking up her purse to play with the strap before putting it back down between her legs, pushing it under her seat, then reaching down to grab it again at the thought she pushed it too far back before repeating the whole thing again. She shifted in her seat, never finding a position that was comfortable for more than a few seconds at a time, in turn sprawling down over her back, or pulling her legs under her on the seat, or laying over by putting her feet on the empty seat next to her.

After much wiggling and writhing, someone at the back getting annoyed with her antics shushed her. It was the excuse Noa needed to pick up her purse and leave the theater room. Hey, she'd been patient okay! She almost waited thirty whole minutes! And that was after the ads! Can anyone imagine the efforts it took?!

Randall looked over as Noa left his side. Exchanging a glance with Nathan, the two of them picked up their stuff and excused themselves from the theater room, much to the other spectator's annoyance at the disturbance.

They found her in the arcade section of the cinema, throwing basketballs at the machine made to steal your money, the kind with a dozen balls, a net two meters in front of you, and a panel to keep track of the score. For every four throws she shot, three missed and one lucky ball randomly found the net proper.

“Mags, are you okay?” asked Randall as the two men came closer.

“We dissected a sheep's heart back at school this year.” It took him a few seconds to register what she was talking about. “Do you think moles are out this time of the year? I'm sure Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's all the rage right now. It's like a banana peel, it only makes sense if you know algebra.”

Randall stroked the back of his neck. “Dear, you're not making any sense.”

“I just told you it only makes sense if you know algebra!” She dunked another lucky shot to punctuate her irritation. Before Randall could say anything else, Noa's attention was grabbed by something else. “Oh! The dance game is free!” She immediately rushed to the dance mat, leaving behind a half-finished basketball game. As soon as she tried to man the controls, she pouted. How could she see the arrows moving up the screen? Disinterested, she jumped on the next attraction of the moment, the table football.

“Is she always like that?” Randall asked Nathan, not quite believing his eyes.

Nathan shrugged, moving up to join Noa at the football table. “She's got energy to spare. Just roll with it.”

For the next few matches, Randall looked at his two kids having a blast flipping the bars and making the little men kick the ball around. They had a competitive spirit and a friendliness toward each other that only close siblings could share. Their laughter felt normal, like before, like home. A smile appeared on his lips as he forgot for a moment Noa's differences. Right this moment, he was enjoying a good time with his kids, and nothing else mattered.

As the two finished up another match where Nathan completely dominated, Randall spoke up. “Want to try to air hockey next?”

Noa beamed at him. “Sure! I won't go easy on you though.”

“Just try to keep up with a pro,” he teased, relishing the feeling of family once more.


After his fiasco at the cinema, Randall settled for something more mundane to spend the rest of the afternoon. He drove them to his apartment so he could grab a few baseball gloves, baseball balls, soccer balls, and Frisbees, and then they were off for an afternoon in the park, the simple pleasure of exchanging passes and throws keeping them running for many enjoyable hours.

Eventually running out of breath, Randall suggested they take a break, and under the afternoon sky, they lay down in the grass, watching the clouds pass with complete peace of mind.

“Thanks for today dad,” said Nathan, breaking the comfortable silence of the last few minutes. “It was a real blast.”

“No problem Nat.” He had made peace with the fact that going to see a movie had been a bad idea. He knew he would not get everything right from the start, but he was willing to stumble through more awkward moments and bad ideas if it meant spending more days like this one.

Noa rolled over closer to him, meekly grabbing the edge of his shirt as if that would prevent him from disappearing again. “Say, will we be able to go out like this again?”

He reached around with his arm to pull her closer, doing the same with the other arm to hug Nathan the same way. “I promise I won't go away anymore.”

“But you and mom...” Noa trailed of, biting her lip as she remembered bits of yesterday’s discussion she eavesdropped on.

“Yeah.” He pulled the two tighter against him. “You might not see me every day, but I'll be there if you ever need me. For both of you. Mags might require more attention right now with the MCO and all of that, but Nat, if you ever need a place to stay, or someone to talk to, or you have some drug problems—”

“Dad,” Nathan laughed. “I never did drugs.”

“Never know.” Randall chuckled. “Just to let you know my door's open, and I won't ask any questions.”

Noa wrapped an arm above her dad, gripping his shirt a bit further, a bit tighter. “Come back home with us. With mom.”

Randall looked up to the clouds blankly. “You're not a kid anymore Mags.” He fought back the rising tears, wishing he was stronger to deal with an emptiness he might never be able to fill completely again. “I love both of you deeply, and I still love your mom just as much. But what you're asking takes time. Lots and lots of time, if it can even be fixed at all. I—” He choked on the words, unable to keep his emotions in check. He took a long breath to calm the tremble in his voice and blinked a few times too many to rid his eyes from excess humidity. “I can't promise much right now, but I'll be there for you. I can give you that much.”

Noa's hand slowly lost its grip, limping back to her crestfallen side before it got grabbed by Nathan's, held firm in the middle of the three of them. “One day at a time Mags,” he said, looking straight at her. “Let's do our best one day at a time.”

Noa turned her head his way as she considered the words, her forced smile sad and nostalgic. “Let's do our best.”


Saturday afternoon, June 4th
Magnolia's house

The two kids crossed the threshold of their home, a large grin plastered on their face, saying goodbye one last time to their dad standing outside by his car. Overflowing with enthusiasm, Noa tried to describe her marvelous day spent with daddy even as Judith prompted her inside.

The two kids now gone, Judith turned toward Randall, gratitude showing through her posture and relaxed smile. Having thought about it over the day, the kids' smiles only confirmed her decision that she should make an effort as well. “Are you free tomorrow?” Randall nodded, hopeful. She was not sure how to say her next thought without sounding more inviting that she felt comfortable with. “We could go over what you missed if you want.”

“I'd love to,” quickly replied Randall.

“Don't get your hopes up. It hasn't been all perfect and happy. Things the kids don't want to talk about...” she trailed off, knowing he would understand. There was a long awkward pause between them, neither wanting to add anything yet remaining there standing politely. “Thanks for taking them out.” Quickly vanishing back inside, Judith closed the door, leaving Randall to his loneliness.

He waited a moment longer before finally stepping back inside his car, lengthening every action from turning the key to grabbing the wheel, hoping to garner one more glance of the three people inside the house.


24: Taking the Plunge

Saturday evening, June 4th
North Bay, Healbot's lab

The moment Healbot stepped into his dark lab, he knew something was wrong. The automatic lights did not pick up the movement as he crossed the door frame like they were supposed to, leaving his usually bright space gloomed in shadow. Frowning, he activated a function on both of his futuristic arms, sending four shards each to a corner of the room before they lit up with enough power to put floodlights to shame.

The spectacle before him was one of devastation. Every single one of the twenty or so projects he had been working on was either thrashed or missing. Anything that did not pass the door had been melted into barely recognizable heaps, while some of his more delicate work lay broken on the ground. A quick scan let him know that his alarm system had been hacked, and that communication had been cut off from the entire building. Walking around the broken desks, chairs and computers, he made his way to a second section of his lab, where he kept the more precious stuff hidden and locked underground. The hidden gate, the best work of one of his gadgeteer friends, had been melted apart and ripped out of its hinges. Passing a wandering hand over the cooled metal, he noticed many instances of marks in which his fingers could fit. The mutant who did this was strong enough to bend steel with their bare hands. He made a mental note about collecting fingerprints from these marks as he confirmed the state of his bunker. After what he saw above, there was no surprise when the same sight repeated here.

Fuming, he started making calls this way and that. The police, superhero groups, some friends that either owed him or would not mind helping him out of a bind, and many, many more calls to clients to let them know of the setback. In the commotion that ensued, the fact that a little vial of transparent flesh and a shard of mithril bone went missing was forgotten in favor of much more pressing matters.


Saturday evening, June 4th
On the road between North Bay and Sudbury

Astrex was holding the precious bag as if her life depended on it, never leaving it out of her sight, never allowing one of the other four in the car with her to touch it unless she too held it for them. It was precious, so precious that it practically appealed to her, as if it had always meant to be hers to start with.

“Are you not going to locate the girl now that you have the sample?” asked Snatch, who was sitting in the middle seat at the back of the small car.

“Are you stupid?!” erupted Astrex, edgy at the fact that her attention was required elsewhere for even the shortest moment. “I need to prepare for that. She could be anything. Anything! What's to say that she's not an astral entity, or that she couldn't feel my presence and counterattack while I'm weak?” The comment got a grumble out of Haeten, the designated driver for the ride back. It was a touchy subject with her, but distracted as she was, Astrex could not care less about avoiding the other woman’s triggers. “Even mages can have hexes and charms in place, and they could riposte. I'm not taking any chance with this. My place, my protective circles, and a few hours of chants, nothing less.”

“Tomorrow, at the latest,” conceded Haeten, her eyes straight on the road. “I don't want this to drag on.”

“Believe me, I'd get this done yesterday if that was possible.” The power, the presence, the authority. She could barely wait. A small thought was given to her thesis and missing class, but she pushed it out of the way to make place for what truly mattered. Mumbling to herself, she went through the list of protections she would implement for this blind projection to feel remotely safe. “Anti-magic circle, disconnected protection against body damage, mental wards, psychic clone with a dead man trigger in case I don't make it, protections against spiritual entities, astral intimacy, presence veiled on all fronts, circles against demons, protection of the four elements...”

“There she goes again,” commented Ichor from the passenger seat at the front. The young man reclined his chair back and plugged music into his ears, no longer paying attention to the raving girl behind.


Sunday afternoon, June 5th
Magnolia's house

Hitting the doorbell, Randall waited impatiently for the door to open, inviting him into a home that was no longer his. Judith waited for him to get his shoes off before silently guiding him to the study.

“The kids aren't here?” asked Randall to break the uncomfortable silence.

“Nathan works today.” She opened the door of the office, letting him take the first step inside. Following after him, Judith pulled another comfy chair to the desk for her to sit in. “Noa is in Nathan's room, studying with some books her friends lent her.”

Randall waited for Judith to sit down before he did the same. “Why would she study in Nat's room?”

“Her own room is getting too clean for her, so she cycles around cleaning each room in turn.”

The comment made him frown. “You asked her to do all the cleaning in the house?” Somehow something did not sound right about all this.

“They didn't tell you anything did they,” she said in mild disbelief. She took her time to explain about Noa's cleaning aura and her new needs, along with an overview of her time at the hospital, getting Randall caught up in a version of the tale that was distinctly different from the MCO's.

Once he felt adequately up to date, he addressed a point he thought he might have some leverage on. “You talked about lack of money.” He looked straight at her, a hand supporting his chin in consideration. “How much?”

Having expected this question, Judith stood to reach a file drawer. Skimming through the papers quickly, she pulled a few sheets stapled together and handed them out to Randall. His brow creased further and further as he saw the numbers listed at the end of each page.

Despite himself, the exclamation escaped him. “Jesus.”

“And that's just one week at the hospital for Noa,” Judith said, reaching for more papers in the drawer. “You want to know what you missed? Here's the medical bills for Nathan for the last four months. This is the receipt for Noa's lawyer after the incident at school, and there you have the price listed for a special school that got recommended to me for her by her doctor.” Randall's face paled as he took in each number, under Judith's patient watch. “If you think money can fix things, there's the rest of Nathan's hospital bills for the last four years that I can add to that. Let's not even talk about food and clothing.”

“How do you even stay afloat with all that?” He realized the answer as he noticed Judith's crossed arm posture and silence. “You're not?”

“I got a loan from the bank, and I'm consolidating my mortgage,” she said, disappointed that she had to rely on such methods to make it. “It's a hard pass, but it'll get better eventually. I have a steady job, and I've always been careful with money. Now I just need to be extra careful, that's all.”

“I'm sure you could cut somewhere.” Randall looked through the papers quickly, searching for anything nonessential he could use. “That Whateley school is simply way too expensive. You can drop that and get Mags to a public school.”

“I haven't even submitted an application for that school,” admitted Judith. Biting the bullet, she confessed the rest. “It's a school for mutants. With the bullying happening at her school, Whateley would be a better environment for her. I know it's a big chunk of money... but it'd be best.”

“She could go to a public high school not too far from here. She could learn to pass for baseline. She could hide it, make new friends, avoid the bullies.” He shook the papers he was holding to emphasize his point. “Avoid the expenses.”

“You want her to hide?” she said, clearly getting upset. “You think she even can hide? Everyone knows about her! She's already too public here. It's almost a benefit since we keep receiving support letters from different agencies and some conditional money. To hide her, we'd have to drop all that and move to another city, and even then all it'd take would be a single slip for the situation and the discrimination to come back exactly where it is right now.”

“You're not giving her enough credit,” defended Randall, standing from his seat to match Judith's heightened position. “She's fourteen for god's sake. She can learn if she puts her mind to it. It's even the perfect time for a change like this, with her just finishing grade school and having the summer to master blending in before high school.”

“What about her friends? Do you think she'd abandon them here?”

“It's a cost she'll have to pay eventually. If the only solution was to lose two or three friends to get rid of twenty or thirty bullies, what would she say?” He pointed a finger at her, changing the target of his argument. “For Mags's sake, what would you choose?”

Judith stared back defiantly, refusing to let herself be intimidated. “I'll have to talk to her. Personally, I don't think the advantages of moving are worth the risks.”

Knowing the argument would not progress further, Randall nodded, moving on to another point. “What about the lawyer? That was completely unnecessary. You don't have to throw money out the window like that. Especially when you have so little to spare already.”

She sniggered dryly at his complete lack of common sense. “You don't think defending yourself against false charges of assaults on two police agents when they started it is worth it? Really?”

“I talked to one of them. They were trying to help, and still are.” Seeing Judith would not budge, he pressed his point harder. “They can help Mags blend in. They can help her get her powers under control. It's what they're here for.”

“By putting a harness on her like a dog, yes.” Swatting him out of the way, she went and gathered the bills she had pulled out and pilled them in a corner of the table for later before sitting back into her chair, no less imposing. “Forcing her to wear a tracker, and being followed twenty-four seven. Really inconspicuous,” she said, sarcasm dripping from every word. “It's even more frustrating that they don't even make the effort to hide themselves.”

Looking down on Judith, Randall could not calm his temper quite enough to bring himself to sit into the remaining chair. “You're being stubborn Judith. If you truly wanted what was best for Mags, you'd take every last bit of help you could take, or you'd at least consider it.”

“Oh, because it's my fault now?” Her distorting face expressed the whole extent of his affront at offending her.

“You turned her into a FUCKING human sterilizer! Don't tell me the stress of staying with you and Nathan didn't affect this in some way.”

Her mouth slightly open in a half-formed retort, Judith froze for a moment. “I can't believe you just said that.”

With each breath, Randall let the heat and anger flow out of him, leaving only deeply rooted cynicism behind his mask. “I didn't realize how toxic it was for her here. I should have left with her when I still had the chance.”

Judith jumped right out of her seat, the words hitting her like a slap in the face. “You think you could have prevented her from becoming a mutant?! You think it would have made a difference?! You have no idea—”

She was interrupted by a door slamming shut followed by the sound of someone running through the corridor toward the front door, Noa a blur as she passed in front of their opened door. Giving a warning glance to Randall to stay put, Judith quickly poked her head out of the study. “Where are you going?”

“Running.” Noa never tied her shoes so fast, yet it was not nearly fast enough. She could not bear a single more minute, a single more second, under the same roof as her two arguing parents. Tears would not come, could not come, even though the pain she felt required it. For the first time since she awoke on that hospital bed, she cursed being a mutant and the pain it brought her. “Be back by tomorrow morning. Or maybe never.” The front door slammed shut, enveloping the rest of the house in a heavy silence.

In a movement as slow as it was threatening, Judith turned, glowering at Randall. “You're done here. Get out.”

Understanding that nothing he could say would move her anymore, he complied, letting himself be led back in silence to the entrance.

His hand tightening around the door handle, his eyes forward refusing to meet Judith’s, he still could not keep his mouth shut in the end.

“The kids—”

“Are big enough to make their own choices,” she cut in dryly, more and more impatient that he leaved. “I'm making mine. I don't need your help. Stop trying.”

The door opened and closed without further acknowledgment from either party.


Sunday evening, June 5th
Sudbury, Astrex's apartment

Astrex sat in the middle of a magic circle on the floor of her room, the furniture having been pushed to make space for the myriad of minor spells and wards she cast throughout the day. She was finally satisfied with her work, having exhausted every protection she knew of in preparation of her eventual blind dive. The first projection was the most dangerous, knowing nothing of the other party nor the environment she would end up in. The very last thing she wanted was for a mage or channeler to sic a demon on her, or failing that, that such a person somehow captured her spirit and prevented her from rejoining her body. She lost a friend to the first, and heard horror stories of the second. The community of astral walkers was already quite small, and such incidents were rarely reported unless the walker somehow survived the incident. For those stories that remained, from the small few that survived their encounter, the words spread like wildfire, everyone in the community rushing to find new ways to protect themselves when they were at their most vulnerable.

From those tips, she had not forgotten a single one. Not for today, not when orichalcum was at stake.

Wrapping her hands around the bag containing the small vial of flesh and the sliver of bone, she felt the place it linked to, and with a single mental step she manifested in what appeared to be some random street she could not yet identify. There were some pedestrians and joggers around, none of which seemed like the obvious target she was expecting.

She looked around some more, but nothing stood out, so she canceled her projection and tried again. The position this time was close but not exactly the same as before. The skyline was the same, but the neighborhood was different. A couple of hundred meters further she would guess. Fewer people around, more exposed, still a few joggers.

Odd.

She pulled back and made a third attempt, this time focusing her attention on the people closest to where she appeared. A jogging girl was running at a brisk pace in the direction Astrex's jumps seemed to imply. In her astral form, Astrex tried to run after the girl, but she was not an athlete while the girl was clearly an expert jogger, her strides covering nearly three times hers effortlessly.

She pulled back once more, thinking. It might be a bad time to try to examine her target right now, as Astrex would not be able to keep up. She would try again in an hour. Surely the girl would be done by then.


An hour later, Astrex appeared in a walking trail cutting across a park. The girl was still running away from the spot where Astrex manifested, completely oblivious to her unseen observer.

Astrex looked around for a map but found none. One of these cases where maps are only placed at the crossroads of different paths, meaning one could go for miles without seeing a single indication.

Astrex sighed. “No luck huh?”


Two hours later still, Astrex sat on a rock disgruntledly, looking as the back of her target faded in the distance.

“You've got to be shitting me!”

Was the girl running a freaking marathon or something?

Her patience tested, Astrex decided enough was enough. She had not even been able to see the girl's face, nor read any indication of where she was located. Sure, she could have taken the street names on her very first try, but how was she to know that the dumb kid would get lost in no man's land for hours on end?

Astrex decided that for today, she would settle for simply seeing the face of her target. Only that, even though it proved to be a challenge. For a few minutes, she visualized how her next apparition would unfold. She would appear about ten meters in front of the girl, turned to face her as she came running. She would have only a second to take in her appearance, and maybe a second more after the girl passed through her insubstantial form if Astrex sprinted after her with all she had.

Sounded like a plan.

What she had not expected was that after she appeared on the trail, intercepting Noa's course, she did not pass through the later at all. Instead, the two of them physically collided, sending them both tumbling down the dirt path with no hidden amount of surprise and confusion on both sides.

From the initial collision and the ensuing dizziness of tumbling heels over head in the rocks, branches and trees, Astrex lost her concentration, waking up with a startled gasp in her room. “What the hell was that?!” It took her a moment to get her bearings again, the pain felt during the tumble transmitted to her physical body as muscle soreness. She was not ready to try that again today, whatever 'that' was.

In the park, Noa tentatively reached out with her arms in front of her, trying to feel the thing she had collided with. She felt really silly doing this, since she could not feel anything around her with her aura. Then again, her aura had not detected the presence of the object she ran straight into in the first place. After a few more minutes of making a fool of herself in the middle of the road when obviously there was nothing there, Noa decided that this was as good a time to end her run as any. Turning around, she started on the way back home.


Monday early morning, June 6th
Rust's computer room

Sitting at the computer, Phobia printed a map of Toronto at a scale big enough to encompass a lot more area than what she felt she needed. She rolled a few dried bones in her hand as she waited for the printer to eject the map. Spreading the sheet over the desk, she shook the bones holding runic marks with one hand, while in the other she held the vial containing Noa's flesh.

“Where resides the person of this nature?” she asked to the wind, throwing the bones on the map exactly as she ended her sentence.

By the magic law of similarity, two objects or beings of same nature were linked through space and time, making it possible to affect one while only possessing the other. This rule here served her well as the bones stopped their movement surrounding a smaller area of the map, one she knew the hospital girl's house would be in. Phobia zoomed in on the computer before printing another map, more accurate this time, and repeating the process. Two more tries and zooms and she had the exact address she wanted. Moving on to the second part of her divination, Phobia printed the picture of a round clock. Pulling a pendulum from her pocket, she gave it a perfectly circular spin as she asked her other question.

“In the next twenty-four hours at the following address, when would be the best time to talk with the person of this nature without onlookers nor eavesdroppers?”

She stopped the rotating movement of her hand, letting the pendulum do the rest. Its round pattern shifted, becoming more and more oval and irregular until it only moved in a straight line, moving alternatively over the numbers 4 and 10 of the picture.

Lastly, she took the bones again for a simpler reading. “In conjunction with the last question, is this P.M. time?”

The bone throw revealed the final answer. 'No'.

With a frown, Phobia quickly gathered her bones and pendulum back into her pocket, throwing the rest of the papers to the garbage.

“Snowball! Cuddle!” she called, her voice echoing from the basement to the rest of the house as she left the lab hurriedly. “Get ready to leave. We need to be in Toronto before ten.” They still had some time to prepare for the jump, but knowing how inaccurate Snowball's teleport was, leaving an hour early would not be too much. Time was of the essence.


Monday morning, June 6th
MCO office

Back at work after a weekend of much needed rest, Chandler sat at his desk reading emails and preparing for another day of surveillance at Magnolia's school when Schwartz stormed into his office.

“Are you watching the news?” Schwartz asked clearly agitated.

Without another word, Chandler stood and followed his colleague to the lounge, where several older agents were gathered to listen to the 8 o'clock news on the large screen overhead. The crowd seemed a little bigger than usual, Chandler having gotten into the habit of getting his fill secondhand from those who watched the recaps daily.

His ever-present cocky smile dropped when he saw a familiar girl with black and purple hair and eyes closed being interviewed in front of her house.

“... not too bad. At first it was painful and scary, but it got better.” The scene cut to a montage of Noa walking out of her home with her backpack, or studying with three different books open in front of her and just as many papers, or playing in the park, or walking down the empty corridor of her school. Her voice kept going as the montage played on the screen, the overall emphasis put on the fact that she acted normal. Not once was she shown using her powers. “I'm lucky I have such an accepting family and so many friends. When it got really bad, half of my class came to see me at the hospital. It takes some getting used to, but with the help of everyone, I know I can handle it.”

The montage cut to show the reporter asking Noa directly his next few questions. “How do you deal with discrimination? Surely some people are not too happy about your change.”

She shrugged cutely. “Some kids dump trash on me from time to time, or they call the teachers and blame me for things I didn't do, or they call me names and insult my friends. There's the few sucker punches and after school beatings which are getting annoying, and I didn't like when they cut my hair or they ripped my gym uniform during class. But I manage. It's their problem they have anger issues, not mine. The teachers help a lot too.”

Back to the reporter, who displayed a sympathetic smile. “What are your plans from now on?”

“I want to finish school no matter what,” replied Noa without missing a beat, as if she had practiced her answers beforehand. “I want to show people that mutants are not scary, and that we're people just the same as everyone else. For my mom, I want to raise some funds and help pay my time spent at the hospital. I know I'm too young to work during the summer, but if I could get donations, this would help significantly. Half the donations will go to my school for measures against bullying and better counseling resources, not just for mutants but for every kid that might need it. It's a small step, but it's all I can do for now.”

“It might be a small step, but one that is very noble. Superheroes will have their eyes on you to join their team after your actions today.”

She giggled. “Wouldn't that be nice? But I'm too young I'm afraid.”

“In a few years,” conceded the reporter before turning back toward the camera. “This was Magnolia Flores, going on to become the third registered mutant at Westview Junior High School to publicly finish a school year, the first two being Candace Weaver two years ago and Alexander Holley five years ago. If you would like to make a donation, please call the number at the bottom of the screen. Back to you John.”

Chandler stopped listening as the news shifted to other irrelevant stuff. How difficult could that stupid girl make his job?! It was not enough that her mom got a lawyer on his back, the girl just had to draw the attention of the superhero community. Or worse, the attention of every community out there that watches the news. Humanity First!, Evolution Rocks!, every Canadian NGO for kid protection service and education aid. Everyone would be having her on their radar, following her every move, and most assuredly also every move made against her. In one fell swoop, she made a ton of allies and enemies both.

There was no winning move. If the MCO continued their current actions, they would be caught in her mess when shit started to drop bombs on the girl. If they retracted now, the girl risked getting swept by other agencies, superheroes, or even supervillains, with the risks that they would lose control of her very dangerous capacities.

Walking back to his desk, he thought of a plan. He would use this, use her mistake to reinforce the shaky position of the MCO. Picking up his phone, he composed a number.

“Ms. Campbell? It's Mitchell Chandler. Have you seen the news? Good. I want to make a counter offer on your ultimatum of last week. I want to issue a protection order for Magnolia regarding potential risks and attempts on her life after her discourse on the channel. ... No, that’s not needed. We can bypass a court order if it is believed there are risks of significant harm. ... Yes. Close monitoring. ... Yes. Of course she'll have to keep the tracker. ... It's not a ploy. Think what you will, but do think through the consequences of her not having our protection should she need it. ... Yes. Good. I will await your response.”

Ending the call, he thought back over the implications of this new development. With this, he had assured himself some leeway in terms of influence. Under the guise of 'protection', they could keep the kid for three days in a place the MCO considered safe, and do so without requiring previous papers or psychological approvals. They would have to prove the existence of a significant threat, but that could be arranged after the fact. Or, if she attracted significant attention in the next few weeks as he expected, the threat would be provided for him.

Picking up the phone once more, he got Randall Flores on the line. He took a few minutes to explain the situation, sending the father an email linking to the internet version of the latest news. “She might need to stay away from her house for a while for her own safety. That'll be one more opportunity for you to train her and teach her some measure of control. Can I count on you?”

“You don't have to tell me. I'd do it anyway. But I'd have preferred you told me upfront about all her biological issues, instead of having to discover them myself.”

“I apologize, but the shock value was so you'd see clearly what needs to be done for her to pass as baseline.”

“I got a good idea now. A little warning would still have been nice though.”

After the talk, Chandler printed away the required forms to officially request Magnolia's protection order. He called Schwartz and another agent to let them know that the later would cover for him at school today.

That kid sure was keeping him busy lately.


Monday morning, June 6th
School

Noa noticed it right away. How everyone took seats as far away as possible from her on the bus, how people would stop talking and would walk away as she got close, how students turned tail just as they entered the secretary's office once they noticed she was there, picking up her stuff.

Students were avoiding her, and they all seemed scared.

“What's with everyone today?” she asked Carol as she met her friend at her locker. It was fascinating to feel everyone take a step back for every step forward she made. Only Carol, Becky, and a handful of clueless students did not react to her presence.

Carol grimaced. “James told me some guys told everyone last week that you'd disintegrate the heart of anyone who bothered you, or that you'd melt their brain and stuff.”

Noa chuckled, laying against the lockers now that nobody was going to claim them while she was here. “That's ridiculous.” No way she would do anything like that. What were those guys thinking?

Carol frowned deeper, knowing something more. “The MCO agents confirm the rumor though. Every kid that go talk to them is told the same thing. 'Yes, she can do that.' ” She looked back over her locker door to see how Noa was taking the news. All she got back was an annoyingly curious look. “I asked them myself,” she continued, “just to make sure it was true. Sure enough, they recommended me to stay far away from you, or else that you might make me comatose like that other agent last week.”

“I'm never doing that again!” she said offended, the memory of her first encounter with the MCO still fresh in her mind. “I don't want to kill anyone.”

“It's not about what you want or what you don't want, it's about what the others think you can do,” Carol said, repeating without realizing it what the MCO agent had told her. ”And you just admitted that you could do it.” Carol closed her locker, walking leisurely with Noa toward their classes and giving some space so that the students waiting around could access their lockers.

“ ‘Could’ and ‘would’ are two very different things. I could, but I won't, and that's all.”

Carol sighed, feeling that Noa was missing the point of all this. “Look, everyone might be avoiding you, but at least you won't have to deal with bullies anymore, right? Don't fight it. It's not worth it.”


Monday morning, June 6th
Outside Magnolia's house

Sitting on the stairs leading up to the entrance, Phobia looked at her watch.

10:51

She had been waiting for the last hour, checking and double-checking that she had the right address, and at some point she had given up on the meeting. Magnolia was obviously not around.

Standing up, she caught sight of the shadow lurking between two houses down the street. Cuddle would be restless after this. Sighing, she walked back to the meeting place where she left Snowball. That was the problem with divination; it did not always work, and the more one used it in a sort time, the worse the predictions became.

Disappointed, the three of them teleported back home, planning another try later.


Monday at noon, June 6th
School's cafeteria

Between two of her classes, Astrex found the time to peek once more at her target. Now that she knew the girl could not detect her, she did not have to use so many protective spells during her projection, making it much easier to get away with a half hour of unconsciousness in a bathroom stall.

This time the dive was successful. She appeared in a school's cafeteria, and she immediately recognized the braided purple hair she had seen yesterday. The girl was sitting at a table with her single friend, their table and the ones on each side of it completely empty of other students. Looking around, Astrex noticed that the rest of the cafeteria was packed, except for this spot around the mutant.

Real subtle, girl, she thought, and eyebrow raised as she took in the features of her target and her friend. Their discussion was inconsequential to her, although she did pay attention for any mention of either girl's name. No such luck. The two were too acquainted with each other to use each other's name, unless it was to add emphasis on something. Many other names were mentioned, although none she recognized and none she could identify.

For a second, Astrex debated whether she should open the girl's backpack and dig for her student card or some piece of ID, but she quickly brushed the thought aside. It would be too noticeable, and it was not that relevant to her project.

Instead, she left the two to their lonely lunch to walk around school, taking notice of the layout and the exits. She spotted the name Westview Junior High School, and immediately faded out to note the name in a notepad back in the bathroom. She made many more jumps, always appearing next to her target before walking away, and with each jump her map grew more accurate and complete. She also noted which classes the girl attended and when, and she managed to slip in a peek as the girl received a marked assignment, on which Astrex found what she was looking for.

Magnolia Flores.

Having done enough scouting for today, she came back to in her bathroom stall, cursing herself for inadvertently skipping a class and a half.


Monday evening, June 6th
Blue Moon's forum

bandersnatch | 6:34 PM
Kay guys. I've got good news and bad news.

SideStep721 | 7:01 PM
What's the good news?

H43T4N | 7:01 PM
Snatch, why didn't you post the news along with your first post?

bandersnatch | 7:01 PM
For dramatic effect :P

H43T4N | 7:01 PM
...
Just get on with it

bandersnatch | 7:03 PM
Well, the good news is, I was able to trace back public records to the name Magnolia Flores. (She's our mutant by the way, for those who didn't know)

J.T. Astrex | 7:03 PM
Cool. What do they say :3

bandersnatch | 7:03 PM
The bad news is, she is recorded as a disintegration type mutant.

H43T4N | 7:05 PM
fuck...

SideStep721 | 7:06 PM
I'm having second thoughts about this.

H43T4N | 7:06 PM
Do they explain what it is exactly she does?

bandersnatch | 7:08 PM
In their words, 'uncontrolled wide area disintegration'.
Caution to handle with care.

J.T. Astrex | 7:08 PM
Wait, does this mean that if something sets her off she disintegrates everything around her?
Holy freaking shit!!

H43T4N | 7:08 PM
I'm staying. If anyone wants to bail, we don't need you, so scamp off.
Astrex, you're staying.

J.T. Astrex | 7:09 PM
T_T Don't even have a choice, do I?
Not like I’d leave anyway

SideStep721 | 7:09 PM
I'll think about it.

H43T4N | 7:09 PM
We still need more info about her. Astrex, since you'll be safe in your astral plane, try to trigger the girl and see what she's made of.

J.T. Astrex | 7:10 PM
Aye aye, sir!

H43T4N | 7:10 PM
Snatch, check for any other readings or reports on her.

bandersnatch | 7:10 PM
On it.


H43T4N | 8:54 PM
And by the way guys, this is not something I say often, but good luck. We'll need it.


25: Dispirited

Tuesday early morning, June 7th
Outside Magnolia's house

As Noa stepped back into her neighborhood from her nightly marathon, she stopped dead in her track. There was a presence lurking ahead, something that sent shivers down her spine and that urged her to go running into the opposite direction. It was not something she felt with her senses, but deeply rooted fear, something she recognized had no meaning to be when she considered the reach of her aura. Nothing detected. Opening her ears. Nothing heard. Only that presence advertising itself from who knows how far away.

Once again sitting on the entrance stairs, Phobia detected a shift in the movement of the pendulum she was absentmindedly holding. The pendulum started to rock in a specific direction, and this time she knew she had guessed right.

She looked at her watch to confirm. 4:06 A.M. And to say she doubted her readings!

Speaking into her earpiece, she gave a simple order. “Cuddle, back.”

Noa felt the presence recede, keeping far enough away that she felt she could walk the last few hundred meters to the safety of her home without having to come closer to it. However, when she did another surprise awaited her right in front of her door, blocking her way. It only took her a second to recognize the woman.

Phobia.

She was dressed casually, with a simple t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and she even removed the threatening piercings to boot, but Noa was not fooled. She was back. What did she want? Was she working with the beast in the shadow? This was a trap! If she did anything to her mom and Nathan...!

Phobia gestured Magnolia to come closer, having a pretty good idea of the thoughts that were crossing the kid’s mind right now. “Come. Don't stand there in the middle of the road. A car could hit you.” It was kind of strange however to see Magnolia walk out of a side path and into the streetlights only to stop dead in the street. It was not like Phobia was hiding her presence, was it? The house's entrance was well lit, and she was in plain sight. Magnolia should have been able to see her from far away, and Phobia expected her to come talk to her only when she was ready.

The girl who reluctantly came forward was all but ready.

“Why are you here?” asked Noa, having walked to the sidewalk yet keeping a good ten meters between her and the villain. She tried to stop the fear from showing through her voice, but the shaking in her hands would not stop.

“Just a little chat. Don't worry, I haven't done anything to anyone you care about.”

Noa's mind raced with possibility, interpreting the words exactly the opposite way they were intended. “What have you done to my family?!” she nearly screamed.

Phobia was taken aback by Noa's outburst. “Jeez, jumpy aren't we? I just said that I didn't do anything to your family at all, and I meant that literally. Calm down a bit. There're things you need to know for your safety.”

Noa breathed out slowly to steady herself. “What do you care. I don't want to have anything to do with you!”

“We'll see about that after you settle down and listen.” Seeing the other would not comply, Phobia sighed. “Look, I'm sitting here. Not threatening. Saying nice things, or at least trying. What would it take for you to listen to me?”

“The end of the world,” coldly reply Noa.

“Good. Because that's about what you're getting into.” Having piqued the girl's curiosity, Phobia continued. “What do you know about orichalcum?”

“Never heard of it.”

Phobia was relieved that Magnolia was no longer screaming her answers back. It was a sign she was at least partly receptive. “Really? Because I think Evans should have told you about it, since it does concern you directly. Maybe he was trying to protect you by keeping silent?”

“Will you just get on with it and leave?” Her fear was receding, letting way for intense irritation at Phobia's mere presence. She felt her telekinesis come to life, her aura just begging to be put to use. Maybe she could force her out?

The villain eyed her critically, trying to figure out the best way to say this. “You have orichalcum in your bones,” she said, deciding that being direct was best. “Orichalcum is a magical catalyst, amplifying spells cast through it and able to ignore certain rules of magic. It is incredibly valuable, so much so that many people are willing to kill to put their hands on even a few grams.” Magnolia did not react to a single word she said. With more emphasis, Phobia changed her approach. “I'm the messenger. I'm warning you. I don't want you dead, nor am I a threat, but many, many others will be.” She gestured to the house behind her to make a point. “They are willing to kill, and your family is in the line of fire. If you care about them, then the least you could do is to take my warning seriously.”

After a minute of complete silence with Noa as stiff as a statue, she eventually spoke. “I'm listening.”

About time!

Yet, Phobia did not let her impatience show. “Your bones are valuable. Not only orichalcum, but also mithril, two materials that are partly magical and that can't be created by regular means. You have enough that it will cause you problems and unwanted attention. And you already drew someone's attention beside my own.” She shifted on the stairs, appearing more at ease now that Magnolia was listening intensely. “There has been a leak about you. Evans gave me a sample of your bones to analyze, and we were careful not to have the results anywhere near an internet connection, but he probably gave samples to other people that were not as careful. One of the persons he gave a sample to found out about the composition of your bone, and soon after we received alerts on our search bot.

“When we looked, the data had already been stolen. Felix— our computer champ— immediately contacted a cyberpath friend of his to try to get back to the source of the leak and potentially identify the thief. He found an organization of villains called Blue Moon that gained the information around the same time it disappeared on the net. Are you following where I am going with this?” She waited a few seconds for a response that never came. “They are coming for you, and soon. You better be ready when they knock at your door, or knock down your door, whatever the case may be.”

Noa considered her words just as much as she considered the possibility the woman was lying. “Why are you helping me then?”

Phobia bit her lip, running her tongue by habit over the two holes in her bottom lip where piercings should have been. “I want to know you're safe.”

“Bullshit!” Noa screamed. “You're just as bad as whoever is presumably after me, if not worse! No way you don't have some malicious plans, and this is one of them!”

“I saved your life for god's sake. The least you could do would be to thank me and show some fucking respect!” Her usually monotonous voice slipped with the emotion, making her realize too late that she had stood up from her seat menacingly. Cringing at her lack of self-control, her eyes lowered down on the girl who fell backward on her but in her haste to get away from her, her cowers sending as many stabs of pain into Phobia's heart. She sat back down slowly in a way she tried, and failed, to make casual. “You don't have to be scared of me anymore. You won't die if you're not.” Her sad smile conveyed meaning more literal than the words should have carried.

Seeing that she was not in danger and that Phobia, although scary, was not going to attack her, Noa calmed herself down slightly. “What do you mean 'I won't die if I'm not'?”

She got back a look of sorrow and misery, two things she did not expect the villain to be able to feel. “It's a curse. When people look at me, if they're not scared, they get heart attacks.” The explanation was dry and short, yet heavy with the weight of memories. “I have to make myself scary to even talk to people. Reputation and so on. I had to do that too when I came to heal you, otherwise the curse would have killed you. Although, you were already terrified of me so I didn't have to do much.” Her laugh devoid of life echoed in the dark street.

Noa stood back up, allowing herself to come a few meters closer to a woman whose eyes were wet of unshed tears. She no longer felt in the presence of a terrifying supervillain, but in the presence of a broken person. Still, the words Phobia had spoken carried their dread. “And now it's safe?”

“You don't have a heart anymore, do you? No heart, no heart attack.” With that answer, Noa allowed herself to relax a little. Not that she would blindly trust the villain, however it was a start. The progress she had made to be receptive to Phobia warmed the latter’s heart. “You're fine. It's difficult enough as it is to find people who can survive my curse, I at least try to keep the few ones I do find as friends.”

“You're not doing a good job at making friends,” said Noa dubious. “What's with telling them about their doom and whatnot.”

Phobia chuckled. “Was that a joke?”

“No,” replied Noa deadpan. “You're still blocking my way home, and you still have your monster hidden behind the houses.”

“Oh Cuddle?” She pressed a finger to her earpiece, looking in the general direction she could feel his presence from. “Cuddle, come here boy. And turn down your fear aura, will you?”

The presence that had remained farther away gradually came closer and closer, and even though the order had been given to be less frightening, Noa did not get the impression her fear was fading in the least. She grew even more nervous when the source of her fear stepped into her field without disturbing the slightest particle, without the slightest air movement. It was as if a ghost was walking toward her, an immaterial presence of fright incarnate.

“Yes! That's a good boy!”

Odd thoughts traversed her mind as she felt Phobia caress the ghost in a pattern that hinted at a dog. The dog itself wasn't material, but whenever Phobia would reach to touch it, for a fraction of a second before and after the contact Noa could feel a contour hardening and taking presence.

Her senses failing her, she resorted to take a quick look at the creature a few meters from her. It was a mass of shadows, the light being absorbed into its shape in a way that oozed and swirled endlessly. The shadow had the vague resemblance with a dog, having four visible legs and a stub it turned around like a head.

For a pet, Phobia could not have chosen spookier.

“Want to pet him?” asked Phobia as both she and Cuddle turned toward Noa as one. “He's completely docile.”

“I'll pass.” She took a step back under the expectant stares she was getting, more put off by the idea than anything else.

“If you pet Cuddle, I'll show you what it really means to have mithril in your bones.”

Noa thought about refusing, but neither seemed threatening. Scary, definitely, but not actively threatening her. And they still blocked her access to her home. Thinking they would leave faster this way, Noa complied. She made a tentative step forward, and seeing that neither Phobia nor Cuddle made any sudden movement, she took another one. Slowly she crossed the distance, ready to bolt should either of them move a hint too fast or too close. Reaching with her hand, she left it hover above where she thought the ghost was, unwilling to close the few remaining inches. She did not have to however, as her hand felt the shape of a muzzle bop into it.

She jumped back a few feet from the unexpected touch, much to Phobia's amusement.

“The brave girl is scared of a cute puppy,” she teased. Then, addressing Cuddle, “Stay intangible.” As soon as the words were said, Noa felt Phobia's arm drop through the space the dog seemed to occupy before, no resistance offered to hold the arm up in the air anymore. Phobia made more gestures through Cuddle's space as she addressed Noa. “Try again, and feel the difference.”

“Can I just go home now?” whined Noa with a grimace of displeasure. Receiving no reply, she sighed and edged ever so slowly forward again.

She did not know where to expect the dog's body, so it came as a surprise when her bones hit its flank. It was a strange sensation, not the expected skin contact but more the pressure applied directly under her skin, her bones moving and compressing the flesh opposite the contact. Another touch and stroke confirmed that the sensation was real.

“How?” She was moving her hand this way and that, exposing it to more of the foreign sensation.

“Mithril and orichalcum exist in both the material world and the spirit world,” Phobia explained, amused by Noa's sudden curiosity and fascination. “Spirits can't pass through them. Because of that, mithril is sometimes used to capture and lock spirits.”

“I felt that before. I bumped into something I couldn't touch.”

Phobia nodded. “Wouldn't surprise me. There's a lot of spirits around. They usually avoid walking straight into people for fear one of them is an avatar, but some of them don't bother with that.”

Noa took two steps back, having had her fill of creepy strange touch for a while. “Now that that's done, I'll ask kindly. Leave.” She would have added 'please' but there was a limit to her composure. Although Phobia had kept a low profile throughout their discussion, the presence of the two of them simply rubbed Noa the wrong way, putting her on edge constantly. She had shown plenty of self-control in the last few minutes, but even that was about to run dry.

“What about my message?” The intensity of her flat voice was back, the subject serious. “What are you going to do?”

“I can take care of myself.”

The snicker she got back was filled with condescension. “Please. You wouldn't even be able to deal with me, and I specialize in divination, not combat. You wouldn't stand a chance in a real fight.”

“I downed an MCO agent not too long ago!”

“Then do the same to me. Make me move. If you can that is.”

Her over-confidence angered Noa, and without thinking further she sicked her telekinesis on the villain blocking her way. Yet, not a single particle was able to cross the threshold of her clothes, or eat her hair, or to seep into her open mouth. A layer of something was blocking Noa's access.

Rolling the gem of her necklace between two fingers, Phobia taunted further. “I don't feel anything. Are you even trying?”

Noa frowned. If she could not disable her from the inside, she would block her air influx from the outside. She wrapped a sheet of her telekinesis around Phobia's head, just over the layer that was supposed to protect her. That would do. Without air, she would be out cold before long.

Just to show the futility of her action, once Phobia noticed the lack of her inhales, she pushed more power into the gem, making her force field grow into a protective bubble, breaking effortlessly Noa's sheet and securing in the same go a reserve of oxygen for a while. Her superior smile rubbed her little victory in Noa's face, much to the latter’s displeasure.

“Your files are public,” explained Phobia. “A quick look and it's easy to figure out that your telekinesis is too weak to break through even the thinnest force field. They even wrote down the size of your TK particles, so anyone can figure out the correct permeability for the field to let through air yet block your particles. Admit it. You'll be completely useless against a prepared opponent.”

“I'll think of something. And it won't involve you.”

Phobia shrugged, conceding to Noa's stubbornness by standing up and walking few steps away from the stairs, Cuddle in tow. “Your call. But no matter whether you want my help or not, I'll be there. I take care of me and mine.”

“I'm not yours,” was all Noa got out before she stormed into the entrance and disappeared inside the house.

Phobia sighed, the discussion having taken its toll on her. Talking with people was hard, and she was getting out of touch. She thought back over why she was letting the girl go, why she did not kidnap her right here and then. If she only wanted the orichalcum, tonight would have been the perfect night to end it. Yet, her desires somehow went beyond that, beyond the curse and the power the girl promised.

Loneliness. The need to belong, to share, to talk, even if it was with only one more person that could survive her. Some needs were more important than power, and pursuing those needs might very well be the only sane option even if it leads to foolish actions.

She walked away lost in thought, slipping from shadow to shadow under the lingering cover of the night even as the first rays of light poked through the horizon.


Tuesday at noon, June 7th
School's cafeteria

Astrex looked around to bunch of grade-schoolers and freshmen walking around to find seats available in the somewhat not large enough cafeteria. Just like yesterday, her target was sitting alone at a long twelve-seats table, the next tables on each side again kept completely empty. There was a story there, and Astrex wanted to know what. It was one thing for some people to be afraid of mutants, but for every student in the whole school? It hinted at something dangerous, and Astrex did not want to wrestle with anything dangerous unless she could guarantee having the upper hand.

“What are you hiding,” she said, not expecting anyone to answer her back. Snatch’s disintegration warning came to mind once more, along with a hint of fear and apprehension.

Three more kids came to join the girl known as Magnolia, two girls and a bored looking boy. There was the pink haired one of yesterday, and the new girl got named Mae when Magnolia expressed her surprise at seeing her. Not that Astrex cared.

Whether the girl was dangerous or not, Astrex would not be able to tell if things remained calm like this. Hoping to provoke the mutant a little to see what she could do, Astrex started to chant a spell, picking up a length of yarn that had previously soaked and dried in goat blood.

“By three knots thus I bind
With this first, thoughts turn blind
Anger, hatred, such inclined
Discord and chaos get intertwined

This second knot makes two
Let loathing and disgust stew
Slander, strife, evil too
Bringing darkness straight to you

With this third knot, thus be lost
You mind slipping to chaos
Hex of anger, hex of hate
Be brought down, I will not wait”

The hex over, the astral red yarn with the three knots took a life of its own, lengthening and slithering like a snake of dark energy. However, it did not wrap around Magnolia like Astrex expected. Instead, the curse passed right through her, exiting the other side bigger, nastier and viler. What started as only a thread of yarn was growing out to be as thick as an arm, wrapping and constricting around the new girl sitting opposite Magnolia. When it was over, Mae was clad in an aura of deep shadow, barely visible under the weight of the darkness from Astrex's point of view. It did not take long for the girl's cheerful attitude to vanish under the emotional influence caused by the curse.

A sadistic smile stretched over Astrex's face, the meaning of such result sinking in. Positioning herself for a second try, Magnolia between her and the pink haired girl, Astrex chanted another curse, one of paranoia and fear. Once more, the hex took a life of its own, got amplified as it passed through Magnolia, and hit the girl on the other side. The effects were not as immediate, but the fog surrounding her made no doubt about this success.

“Ha! This is too good.” She came closer to Magnolia's face contemplating all that untapped potential. “Now I want you even more, you little bag of magical goodies.”

Still, as far as testing the girl's powers, the two previous curses fell flat. Considering her options, Astrex materialized a small candle flame in her hand, a widely known cantrip with not much use since it consumed essence for a task could be achieved simply by turning on the lights. “Hm, I wonder.” Bringing her hand above Magnolia's head, she tipped it over, letting the small flame drop from the astral plane into the natural plane directly on the human catalyst.

The effect was dramatic. The magic flared to life, exploding outward in a short but violent ball of flames one or two meters wide. Magnolia was at the epicenter of it, her three friends caught in the blast, and the attention of all in the room drawn to the spectacular phenomenon. Many screamed in panic, and just as many fled the cafeteria.

Realizing something was odd, Magnolia immediately stood up from her chair, bumping her head against Astrex's hand, much to the latter’s surprise.

“So it wasn't a fluke,” said the villain, taking a few steps back to avoid touching Magnolia further. “You have a presence in the astral plane.”

Amused, she looked as Noa flailed around, her friends screaming at her that she was on fire with her unable to pick up the clue. Eventually, the three of them, although wounded, came up to Noa to help extinguish the flames, even though most of the damage had already been done.

“What happened?!” From Noa's point of view, one instant everything was peaceful, and the next a gust of wind erupted outward from her violently, followed by screams and students edging further away from their table. Mae, Gene and Carol had been hurt. The fact that she was not only confused her more.

“What the hell do you think you're doing!!!” screamed Chandler as his large strides brought him in a moment to their group of four. Keeping a constant watch on her at least payed of in this instance, allowing him to react in a split second. “And what happened to your clothes?”

It was then that Noa realized that she was quite exposed, the rags she was wearing only a vestige of her clothes after catching fire, and offering barely any modesty. “I... don't know! I don't know what happened. But they're hurt!” She gestured toward her three friends who stifled a flinch, still in shock and trying to process everything. “Please help them.”

Chandler was quick. In one swift motion, he discarded his jacket and wrapped it around Noa's shoulders, a small improvement over her current rags. In the next he gently took a limping Carol in his arms as he ordered Schwartz and some teachers standing further away to bring the kids to the infirmary immediately. “Follow me, and don't do that again.”

She stepped in after him, pulling the jacket closed as her aura registered students taking pictures and videos of the scene. She would most definitely be on those pictures, but there was not much she could do about it. “I didn't do anything, I swear!”

Astrex followed the group as it filed away from the cafeteria. This was annoying. Not only had the girl not shown her powers, Astrex now knew that she was under close supervision of the MCO. It would be tricky to kidnap her. She needed more info. Keeping still, she observed the small infirmary from a corner while everyone busied themselves caring to the three injured.

Carol was laid in a bed. Having sat right next to Noa, all her left side was reddened and swollen from the quick spike in temperature. Wide area first degree burn. Mae and Gene had it a bit better, just some inflammation on their exposed arms and faces. Still highly annoying and painful, especially around the eyes.

And Noa was fine, her biggest casualty being her clothes, which were thrown to the garbage after she got changed in some lost-and-found spares. The fact that she remained the only uninjured did not help support her claim that she was not responsible for this.

“I keep telling you, I can't make a fireball!”

“We don't know,” argued Chandler. “It could be the first symptom of a burnout. It wouldn't be first time that a manifestor developed new powers or expressed their powers in new forms during a burnout.”

“But I didn't use my powers.”

Chandler sighed. “Show me your bracelet.” Good point of this incident: he could further justify the use of the monitoring bracelet. Bad point of having the bracelet: Magnolia was telling the truth. The screen had not lit up to warn that she was using her powers. “If it wasn't you then how? Another student? Do you know any other mutant in your school?”

Noa shook her head. “It was a spirit.”

Chandler raised an eyebrow. “You’re not an avatar, and your file doesn't list any esper powers to detect spirits. That's even something the rat was supposed to test directly.”

“I can touch spirits. I bumped into one in the park the other day, and I stroked a spirit dog recently. Just after the explosion, I felt a spirit touch my head. It's the spirit who did it, I'm sure of it.”

Chandler pinched his nose, giving up. This will look so bad on his report of the incident.

Having cared to the other three, the nurse came closer to their corner. “Is everything alright here?” she asked with a mix of concern and confusion.

“Magnolia's fine. We're trying to sort out what happened.”

“Really? Because your friends are all worried you know. You were in the middle of that fire.”

Noa raised her shoulders. “I’m fine. No idea why.”

“You're insulated,” supplied Chandler with a tired breath. “You files clearly state your skin is at least electrically insulated, and another part mentions your thermal insensitivity. The rat thought it was a problem with your nervous system, but with this I think it's just more of the same.” Chandler stood up from his sitting position, having decided on a plan of action. “I will list this as a potential spiritual influence along with a potential burnout case.”

“But it's not a burnout,” protested Noa. There was no doubt in her mind about what she had felt.

“I'll get more resources that way.”

“I'm sure it's just a ploy to put me under even more surveillance.” She punctuated her sentence with crossed arms and a pout.

“Three of your friends got hurt,” he said in a calm yet stern voice. “And if what you said is true, you were attacked by a ghost. Yes, you will be under more surveillance, if not for your security at least for that of those around you. I'll do another scan of the school for potentially hidden mutants, and we will get a spirit hunting team to check both you and the school. Don't say I'm not giving you the benefit of doubt.”

In her corner, Astrex cursed.


Tuesday evening, June 7th
Magnolia's house

Holding her notebook, Noa walked to the phone, purpose in her step. She opened the book up on the counter, skipping pass her memorable value list that had eventually evolved in a full-on diary, to find what she was looking for. Without hesitation, she dialed Dr. Evans's phone number.

“Doctor Long Evans speaking. How may I help you?”

“Dr. Evans, it's Magnolia.” She fiddled with the phone cord distractedly, her mind thinking back on the events of the day, creating so many simulations of tomorrow onward. What-ifs and unspoken possibilities were competing for attention in her mind, each more improbable than the other, each more urgent and dreadful. “I need your help.”

“What's the matter?” His caring and concerned tone calmed her down a little. At the very least she knew she had one ally in this.

“I think I was attacked by a spirit today. Carol, Mae and Gene got hurt. The MCO doesn’t believe me, but just to keep up appearances, they'll send some ghost-catching team tomorrow, although I don’t trust them enough to believe they’ll find anything. I'd prefer it if you were on the team with them. You can detect spirits, right?”

“Yes.” The pause he left hanging gave him some time to consider the situation. “But I don't think they'll let me. The MCO doesn't like working with me, nor am I eager to work with them.”

“Then forget about them and come to school with me. I need you there to confirm the presence of the spirit.”

“You sound pretty sure there is a spirit.”

“There is one. I'm certain of it.”

Her lack of doubt triggered more than a few flags for Evans, yet those were concerns he kept to himself. “I'll be at your door tomorrow morning. See you then.”

She sighed in relief. “Thank you doctor.”


Wednesday morning, June 8th
School

Carol twitched at the sound of the locker next to her opening. She tried to control her growing unease at the proximity of the boy that had been her locker neighbor for the past few months. Today he looked threatening, menacing, and keeping her eyes straight toward the back of her locker, Carol had to make herself violence to not run away in complete panic. Her movements stiff as if scared the slightest gesture would provoke an attack, Carol closed her locker and left, her steps more and more hurried. The bandages wrapping her bunt arm and torso only served to remind her of her current weakness in this school of psychedelic teenagers. The whispers all around resounded like thunder, each another source of fear, each another stab of hatred directed her way.

She's helping the mutie.

Completely sick. Just disappear, and take your pet mutant with you.

What, you didn't burn out? What a shame.

You know the bridge with the loose railing? An easy drop for you.

Nobody wants you here.

With an ugly face like yours, I'd never leave my room.

She blocked her ears, but the unwanted words kept coming. She had to leave this place, to escape somewhere safe were nobody could reach her, where nobody could hurt her.

“...ol. Carol!”

The hands that grabbed her flared her burn to life. “STAY AWAY!” With all her strength, she pushed against her aggressor. The other girl fell on her ass, but the wrong had been done. Everybody was staring. Everybody was judging. Unable to contain her fear any longer, Carol ran away to the nearest door leading to the outside, the girl she had pushed giving chase.

“Carol. Wait!”

Translation: 'Come back you freaking bitch so I can mess that pretty face of yours!!'

The girl was faster than her, catching up the head start Carol had. Running as hard as she could, Carol pushed a heavy emergency metal door open and quickly closed it behind her, applying all her weight on it so that her pursuer would not be able to pass. The door bumped up, pushed from behind, but she pushed back harder.

“Carol, what's the matter?”

“LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!!”

“Wha—”

“GO AWAY YOU PSYCHO. YOU WON'T GET ME!” The resistance against the door gave out, letting it close completely shut. Carol waited a few seconds before bolting again when another door a dozen meters down the wall creaked open. She was gone before Noa could feel her in her range.

“What's got into her?” asked Noa to the wind. She could not feel anyone near her. Crushed by the way Carol reacted to her presence, Noa sat down against the outside wall, the loneliness leaving a bitter taste in her mouth.

“She also reeks magic essence,” said Evans as he extracted himself from Noa's backpack. He was wearing clothes once more, a sign he was acting independently of his role as a doctor. “Definitely a curse.”

“Her too? First Mae and then Carol. Gene too probably.”

Looking out of the backpack, Evans saw Noa pulling her knees closer to her in a very defensive manner. “Are you okay?”

Why were things so complicated? Why did she have so many problems coming one after the other? “I'm fine. I...” Everything was so exhausting. She needed a break, to stop thinking and acting all the time, something her lack of sleep failed to provide. “I just need a moment.”

Her mind brought her back to that peaceful day in the park with Milton and Richard. How she had felt the first time she opened her senses to the world, how pleasant it had been to be part of a whole so much bigger than yourself. Sitting here against the school wall, she wanted to forget herself for a moment just like she did at that time, to forget her problems and make them disappear. Her aura would no longer do the trick since she got used to the sensations it provided, but that was not the case of all her senses.

Noa opened her eyes.

In the next few seconds, Evans felt everything go still. Noa's breathing stopped, her arms gradually fell limp to her side, her head hung lower and lower. When Evans noticed that her legs were gradually falling to the side, threatening to break her balance, he grew worried. “Magnolia?” He jumped right out of the backpack, the movement toppling Noa to the side without any kind of resistance. “Magnolia, what's the matter?” Noa never displayed any symptom of unconsciousness before.

Running up to her face, he noticed what was wrong immediately. Her eyes were wide open, locked in a blank stare with only the shimmering of her unusual irises betraying intense ocular activity. Without thinking twice, Evans forced her eyelids closed. Almost immediately he heard a gasp and felt her hand twitch. It took many more seconds for her to steady herself again, although she remained lying on the ground, moving only enough to make her position more comfortable.

Once he was certain she was better, Evans let his concern speak. “Why did you do that?”

“I'm so small,” said Noa thinking back on how much the universe extended within her fifteen-meter reach, and how much further it extended beyond. “My problems are insignificant.”

“Don't go all angsty on me now.”

She frowned, not exactly sure how she felt. “That's not what I meant. I... I just needed to get centered a little.”

“Even so, I don't think getting drunk on your sight is the best way to go about this.”

The bell rang, and Noa knew she was late for class. Another problem to add to the pile. “Can you do something about the curses?”

“I'll call a mage.” Remembering that he had a debt to pay, the next words escaped him. “Phobia could—”

“No,” she snapped. “Anyone but her. I don't want to have anything to do with her.”

Evans patted her on the thigh as she brought herself back up. “I'll find someone.”


Wednesday at noon, June 8th
School's cafeteria

The spirit hunters were all the hoax Noa expected them to be. Arriving only a few minutes before lunch time, they brought out many machines and gadgets whose only purpose was to flash some lights and make beeping noises. They arranged everything in a wide area surrounding the table the events had taken place. From Noa’s point of view, their monitors were completely blank, which did nothing to help her irritation at the intrusion. The other students however seemed to take them seriously, fascinated by the displays and their performance. Chandler was again in a corner, contributing by his sole presence to the fake authenticity of the ghost catchers.

What a joke.

Noa had to put her feet down when they asked to put a metallic colander on her head, said colander linked with a ridiculous amount of wires to one of their machines. Okay, screaming at them and threatening to make them swallow the thing might have been uncalled for, but she did not regret a single word she said. They were grating her nerves like no other.

The hoax was confirmed when Dr. Evans, hiding in her backpack, warned her. “A spirit is here.” Yet, none of the so-called experts noticed a thing. If one of their radars did go off, the sound had probably been drowned under the cacophony of beeps and random noises.

“Where?” She made sure to speak softly enough so that only Evans would hear. He had good hearing, and for the occasion Noa also improved hers slightly to facilitate discrete communication. It was probably one of the reasons she felt the team was being so loud.

“Between the doors leading to the hallway, close to the MCO agent.”

Nonchalantly, Noa walked toward Chandler, not feigning anger when she lashed out at him about those idiots. The goal was to give Evans enough time to get a good analysis. He did not disappoint.

“Smelling magic. Curiosity and amusement. Sentient. Maybe astral in nature. Can't get an energetic signature this far away. Enough presence to be medium sized.” The whispered 'Thanks' he got back slipped under Chandler's notice as the later ranted about those so-called experts.

“... They are the best in their field and have a long list of resolved mystery cases. We worked with them in many instances. They'll find your ghost for sure. If not, it means there’s no ghost.”

As the two were debating, Astrex was oblivious to the fact that she was monitored by a small rat. Her thoughts were preoccupied by two questions: how to separate Magnolia from the MCO, and how to get her to reveal her powers.

Thinking, thinking. Hm, no. That was risky. But those fools did not seem competent enough to track her down, and the MCO sincerely believed in the spirit hunters' abilities. And the MCO already thought the girl was starting a burnout. If she could just push a little further, she could get the two of them to escalate to each other's throat until Magnolia either used her powers or proved to be incompetent.

Risky idea, but an amusing one she still wanted to see through. Confidant in the fact that the spirit hunters were nothing more than buffoons, she slipped next to Chandler’s ear, charging her words with magic.

“She’s angry,” she whispered in his ear, letting the words flow from one dimension into the other, influencing the unsuspecting man. “She’s dangerous. She will attack. I must defend myself. Grab my gun, just in case.” A second later, Chandler smoothly moved his hand over his hip, ready to draw his gun but not being too obvious about it. Astrex smiled, adding one last bit of suggestion. “Stay alert. If she tries anything, I shoot.”

She waited a few more seconds until the discussion between Chandler and Noa was properly heated before she interrupted Noa's counter to his last argument with another spell, this time putting much more essence into the cantrip.

The explosion was twice as big as the first time, catching Chandler at point-blank range and scaring away a few students that were a little too close. Astrex sat back and enjoyed the show with a satisfied grin.

Recoiling under the impact, Chandler acted by instinct, his mind not yet registering the pain that was coursing his body and face. He pulled out his gun from his belt and shot once at Noa's knee, aiming to incapacitate her. The shot stroked true, but he could not ascertain it as his eyes released every tear they had to quench the heat. The fire reaching under his skin started to register, and with a hand that was losing sensations by the second, he dropped the gun and sloppily tried to extinguish the flames that stuck to his jacket, stumbling against the wall in the process.

Panic spread through the hallway, sending those students foolishly drawn by the sight of the flames running away at the sound of a gunshot. When Schwartz and a third agent arrived only a minute later, they found the cafeteria and the hallway practically empty but for their boss desperately working his minimal first aid kit with his unresponsive fingers, along with a girl in rags sitting next to the remains of a backpack, a bullet in the leg, cradling a dead rat in her arms, crying without tears.


Dying was not among Evans's favorite activities, although it did happen more often than he would like, having the body of a weak vermin and all that. Still, he had contingencies in place for such an event. The number of bodies he was allowed to deploy was fixed, but in the lab where his database laid, he kept many inactive spares for just such a case.

A few machines activated, moving an embryo chamber containing a fully adult rat floating in thick green liquid down into the awakening assembly line. A new active body would be ready within a couple of hours, but in the meantime, he had to cover his lost. He could reorganize his distribution to have an existing body in Toronto in a couple of days at the earliest. That would have to do.


Wednesday afternoon, June 8th
Sudbury, Astrex's university

Well that had been boring. The gunshot she had expected, but who in their right mind would bring their pet rat to school and then cry over its death? It’s a damned rat!

She did learn a few things from the experience though. She was certain the girl was immune to fire, and/or magic in general, although she made for a great power catalyst. The girl also did not bleed, and a bullet in the leg did not seem to hamper her ability to walk too much, although she did seem in pain. Regenerator? All the better! Cut an arm, scrap the orichalcum, let it regenerate, rinse and repeat.

Oh, and she was also meek as hell. Not even fighting after the gunshot, not even opposing the other two MCO agents. An easy catch by all means, if it was not for the MCO lurking around her like vultures and the tracker device at her wrist. The tracker was not so bad. Once they got her captured, either Snatch would deal with it or they'd just cut her hand and get it removed. She did not even bleed. Easy-peasy! Now, to deal with the MCO…

A message popped up on her computer.

H43T4N | 2:04 PM
I've waited long enough. Tell me everything you gathered.

Astrex contemplated the order from their 'leader' for long minutes, debating what she should say and what she should keep to herself. Forming up a plan, she typed in her answer.

J.T. Astrex | 2:27 PM
I need one or two more days. The MCO is troublesome. The girl is not a problem. Got her school, aiming to get her home tonight.

The answer took just as long to come.

H43T4N | 2:46 PM
You have one more day. If I don't hear anything from you tomorrow, I'm burning your house down. We strike this weekend.

J.T. Astrex | 2:47 PM
Roger that.


Wednesday evening, June 8th
Magnolia's house

On the way back home from the MCO office, a heavy silence enveloped the car. Judith was not sure what to say to appease Noa regarding Dr. Evans's death. Every single interaction with her resulted in outbursts of anger and irritation, lashing insults and throwing blame around. She was unsettled, agitated, pacing, unable to keep still. Grief might have been the main culprit, but it also did not help that the spirit hunters kept hammering the fact that there had been no spirit involved. The MCO's branding was final: initiated burnout and an immediate danger to anyone around her. Judith had to call her lawyer to convince them that they had no legal rights to hold her in even for the night. Willing to take the risk that Noa burst out in flame for a third time, Judith stayed firm and brought her daughter back home with her.

“You've got mail,” she started as Noa threw her shoes in the entrance before making a beeline to her room in the basement. “Lots of mail.”

“Not now.”

She could not be bothered by mail. Her thoughts kept coming back to the flames, to Evans's limp body, to the bullet that she removed with her telekinesis from her leg.

To the spirit that started it all.

Fuming, she sat on her bed, evaluating the progress of the repairs in her leg. Where before the damage was wide and deep enough to let her index finger fit in the hole, now only her pinkie could slip in. The hole had badly hurt for half an hour, but after that the sensation dissipated, her flesh settling into its new arrangement. It would not heal on its own, only settle and stop hurting. To heal, she had to manually eat the superfluous flesh of the ripped edge of the wound and fill the inside by manifesting the same stuff. It took her a few tries, eating her first manifestation attempts and comparing it to the real thing's molecular structure each time, until she got the manifestation close enough that she could bring herself to fill the hole with it.

A few more hours and the hole would be gone. She could do this and yet she could do nothing for Evans. Just the memory of it...

She needed to defend herself. That spirit was out to get her, and her specifically. Cursing her friends, attempting to injure or kill her, and who knows what else. Who knows who was at risk, or how long the spirit had been there. Did the spirit latch on to her that time she was out running? Was it Phobia's curse through Cuddle?

She was helpless. Or was she? She could touch the spirit, Phobia taught her that. Her bones. If only she could have bones reaching out of her body...

The solution clicked in her mind. Getting to work, she started to eat and recreate her bones exactly as she did for her flesh until she could no longer tell the difference between her bones and the manifested matter. She could work with that. That spirit would no longer sneak up on her anymore.

Absorbed in her bubble, Noa never noticed Astrex appear in her room. With a satisfied nod, Astrex moved up the stairs only to overhear part of an interesting discussion on the phone.

“No. I know she's too visible but... hiding her for the weekend? Do you even know where to pick her up at school?... I don't like it... I know we don't have a choice, but it doesn't mean I like the idea. I'll think about it. Let you know later.”

Coming closer, Astrex noticed the quickly scribbled note in front of Judith, noticing a name and an address. Randall. The number of his apartment. A grin stretched her face. She made sure to remember the address and number of that Randall for future references. After all, if the girl was not here this weekend, their attempt would have turned into a huge fiasco.

Whistling happily, she walked around some more, detailing the layout of the house and walking through the walls to take note of its street and address. Another one to add to the book, getting all bases covered. That done, she started laying down curses after curses, desecrating the house with negative energy. Of course, with the presence of Noa, she could lay it even thicker in the girl's room. Despair, hatred, worthlessness, time would be the girl's enemy. She would have no sanctuary, no place to return to.

Loneliness, escapement. The girl would be plucked as easily as one pluck a ripe fruit from a tree.

Soon.


Later that evening, a group of students stopped in front of Noa's house. Be it the curse or coincidence, they were drawn closer, throwing eggs at the door, rocks at the windows and painting graffiti on the walls with spray paint, reading 'Gene filth here' and 'Kill the owner'. The one time Judith tried to scare the kids away by opening the door, she received a blast of spray paint to her face and clothes. Closing it back with haste and turning all the locks, she resigned herself to call the police and wait. Washing herself over the sink, her tears mixed with the paint, not all of them caused by the hurt in her eyes.


Thursday early morning, still the middle of the night, June 9th
Somewhere on the running trail

Running did not feel pleasant anymore. Noa was jogging like she always did lately, her usual nightly four to five hours on the trails, running briskly among the trees and summer flowers.

And yet today she stopped short, letting her pace shorten gradually until she stood alone on the path, not bothered by the darkness of the night. Why was she running? Her body felt neither sore nor invigorated by the exercise. At first it had been a time to think and relax, but now her thoughts were growing unpleasant, always coming back to the same scenes. The explosions. Carol's terrorized face and screams. Noa's favourite doctor.

To be alone with her thoughts was no longer enough. The pleasure of the activity was gone, replaced with an ever-present grip, a growing emptiness that threatened to swallow her whole.

Having lost her purpose to move forward, Noa turned around, jogging back with much less energy than before. One stride at a time, a simple goal keeping her afloat: to get back home.


Thursday at noon, June 9th
School's cafeteria

The resealable plastic bag Noa held in her hand was empty, its content released and spread through the air over the entirety of her aura.

Mithril powder.

Her net set into place, she took a tray of food, waiting for the unsuspecting spirit to fall into her trap.

She did not have to wait long. It was quickly becoming a habit of Astrex to hide in the bathroom stalls of her own school at lunch to cause some mayhem around her target.

As usual, she noticed the girl sitting alone at her table, a platter of untouched food in front of her. None of her friends had come back, and people more than ever were keeping far away from the mutant who could potentially explode on a whim. Which was a shame, as it meant no more casualties. The agent from yesterday was absent, replaced with a few more agents positioned at every exit. Hm, how could she make things interesting today? Maybe she could try a different spell? How about a choking spell?

Her thoughts were interrupted when the girl stood up from her seat, every pairs of eyes in the room trailing her movements. Without turning her head to acknowledge Astrex's presence, Noa walked down the space between the two long tables, coincidentally in the witch's direction. Curious, Astrex stepped aside to avoid colliding with Noa, not expecting to instead be grabbed at the neck by the passing girl and to be thrown violently on the floor.

“W... What?” The grip around her neck was odd, bony and rough, as if held by a skeleton hand.

“I don't know who or what you are,” said Noa, the movements she felt through her mithril powder telling her she faced a woman. “But you killed Dr. Evans and you did something to my friends.”

She knows! She can see me! How?

The grip tightened, threatening to choke Astrex. She tried to fight the pressure by pulling against the bones with both of her hands, but she was physically weaker when she was insubstantial, her meager efforts brushed aside when Noa's other hand came to join the first. Her thoughts were racing. She had none of the protections of the first day, thinking that the girl was not aware. But Astrex had been right at the time. The girl had not been aware of her then. In this short time, she learned to perceive spirits. Devisor? Empath? Avatar? It did not matter, not unless she could fight the hold her aggressor had on her.

Nobody came to help in this wide cafeteria filled to the brim with students and agents. Everyone just stared at the display of Noa on the floor of the main aisle, wrestling with an invisible opponent. Most them thought the girl was completely insane, not that the show would be less entertaining because of it. Through their phones, some students were filming the scene, everyone waiting for her to either calm down or become a serious threat to something else than the floor.

When the first fireball hit, all those filming grew a smile at the girl now on display. A second and third fireball, more and more powerful and desperate, got rid of every rag that the first had not burnt away.

Astrex could not cancel her projection. Each time she tried, she would blink in place, the hold on her neck keeping her firmly in this dimension. Her attempts only served to make her dizzy. Mithril shackles. She had been warned. She could have had countermeasures in place. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Astrex tried different spells with instantaneous effects. Her repertoire did not amount to much. Her hexes were designed to bring back luck and misfortune over a long time frame, not exactly suited for battle, which left her with only weak spells to fight back. Frost and lightning cantrips got amplified to absurd levels just like the flame, yet Magnolia did not seem affected in the least. A choking spell, which might have ripped open someone's throat if Magnolia’s catalyst effect was anything to go by, only caused the latter to tilt her head curiously and smile. An amplified magical push proved to be another very bad idea, as the powerful shove that ensued threatened to break Astrex’s neck, Magnolia holding firm despite being thrown around violently. Astrex had more success with a Friendship cantrip, which usually put the target in a good predisposition toward her. It normally did not work against aggressive opponents, but in this case its power was boosted enough for Noa’s hold to weaken a little each time Astrex cast the spell. Seeing that it was marginally working the witch spammed away the spell, infusing it with more and more essence.

“You're tough aren't you.” She can still speak after the choking spell?! “I'll have to try something else. Tell me if you feel anything.”

Astrex felt a needle like sensation pierce the skin of her stomach, digging deeper and deeper with sharp accuracy until it reached the other side of her. The needle was tiny, acupuncture-like, and the pain was not much, but her confusion was total. What happened? Had she just been shot?

“I might be weak, my friend,” said Noa with dripping sarcasm, “but I don't need a lot of strength to push a pointy mithril shard this small into you.”

“B... itch” The movement of her lips was captured by the fine mithril dust Noa had spread around. Holding the particles with her TK required some concentration, especially now that the Friendship spell was starting to influence her, but being able to read her tormentor's lips was worth every effort.

“Look who's talking now.”

Panic took hold of Astrex at the realization that Noa could also hear her. No sooner had that realization sunk in that dozen and hundreds of little needles poked at her, piercing in turn every centimeter square of her body. She tolerated the pain until the needles reached her eyes, the inside of her nose, the canal of her ear, her tongue...

Her heart.

Astrex's arms fell limp, her spasms stopping despite the continued assault of the mithril particles. Realizing what she had done, and feeling guilty through the influence she was under, Noa let go of the girl's neck for but one moment. It was all it took for Astrex to cancel her projection, gasping in shock and nearly choking from the ghostly memory as she regained consciousness in her bathroom stall. The prickling was still there, her skin no longer being pierced yet still feeling as if it had been pierced.

Kicking out of the bathroom with a start, Astrex limped over to the sink, splashing her face with water to cool herself down from the adrenaline rush.

The water came back red.

Looking in the mirror, Astrex saw little red dots appear one by one over her face, neck, arms, and she guessed entire body. Little drops of blood were leaking from some of them, making for a very macabre picture. Backlash, she thought. The damage she sustained back there would become real once she reunited with her body. She knew protections against that, but she had been too stupid to think the girl could pose a threat.

Staring some more, noticing the blue bruises wrapping all around her neck like a ghoulish necklace, two things became apparent. One, she could not show her face in public with wounds like that.

Two, Haeten would kill her for being this sloppy.


26: Feeling like a fake

Thursday evening, June 9th
Magnolia's house

Judith considered the phone call she was about to make, not one she was pleased with, but one she needed to make nonetheless.

She picked up the phone and dialed the number written next to an address, a quick note written not so long ago. A sigh to steady herself, and she was ready.

“Randall, it's Judith. We'll go with your idea for Friday... Yeah, things happened. I don't think it's safe around the house anymore. You'll pick her up?... After school. Thank you... She'll probably tell you more herself, but just so you are prepared, here's what happened.”

For the next half hour, Judith shared the latest details concerning Noa and the spirit with Randall. All the while, she was fiddling with a pile of envelopes that she did not dare open. All addressed to Magnolia. Many containing hate messages and threats written on the envelope, and she guessed many more hidden inside the letters. Letters that had started trickling in since her announcement on the news, and letters she expected to see coming even more now as soon as the latest incident became public.

The house was no longer safe.


Thursday evening, June 9th
MCO's office

Schwartz turned the laptop on the table toward Noa sitting across from him in this small interrogation room. She could not see the screen on which a video was playing, but the sounds, screams and explosions were telling enough that she did not need to see.

“And there's more like this one,” said Schwartz as the video ended. The quality of it might be poor, but with the sheer quantity of them that appeared on the web in the few hours following the incident, one or two of them were bound to catch some attention. “What the heck do you think you were doing?”

“There was a spirit gir—”

“There was no spirit, and we have the necessary equipment to prove it. What happened is that you made a huge scene based on some hallucinations and lost control of your powers. The monitoring device registered spikes of activity that are extremely unusual, and we can tell since we've been monitoring your levels for the pass week.” He paused to give her a stern glare which was lost on the disinterested girl. “Don't you dare not take this seriously! People could've been hurt because of your tantrum! And don't even get me started about decency. You think parading naked after the episode is something to laugh about?! And you did laugh! How many screws lose do you have in your head?” No reaction. No nothing. It was as if he was talking to a wall. “So here's what's going to happen. A shrink is on the way. We keep you here until you have a long talk with the guy. If we find out that you are mentally unstable...” He let the rest of his threat float in the air, thickening the already dense atmosphere of the tiny room.

Another agent disturbed the two by knocking on the door, visibly hoping to draw Schwartz's attention. Giving one last glance to the mutant, he went and answered the door.

“Phone call for Chandler. Do you want to take it?”

“Yes. Keep the door.”

Over ten minutes passed before Schwartz came back, grumpier than before. Switching with the agent he had asked to stand guard, he walked up to Noa who had not moved an inch since. “A call for you.”

With the girl in tow, he walked back to a specific booth of a desk area, the booth his. On his desk, a phone was lying next to its stand, waiting to be picked up. Wanting to get this done with, Noa put the phone to her ear.

“Hello.”

“Magnolia, it's Evans. I tried to call your mom, and she told me where you were. Are you okay?”

“Dr. Evans?” The sound of his voice was unmistakable, yet pronouncing the name still brought back painful memories even with him feeling so close. “Y... You're alive.”

“I am. I have spares. Hope I didn't make you worry too much.”

Her hands were trembling but she got the swelling emotion back into control by biting down on her lips. Hard. And it took a couple of awkward seconds before she felt she could speak again. “Oh so much.” The trembling was back despite her best efforts, each word taking an effort to get out clearly without breaking into tears.

“How are you right now?”

“Okay... I guess. There was the spirit, but nobody believes me.”

“I know. I talked to Mr. Schwartz about that. I think I managed to change his mind on the subject. He can't hold you tonight. Go back home and take some rest. I got hold of a mage that will deal with your spirit.”

“A mage? Not...” She did not pronounce the forbidden name with the agent standing right behind her, but Evans did not need it to understand.

“Someone you never met,” he reassured her. “I already talked with Carol's and Mae's parents on this, and they accepted for your friends to receive intensive treatment this weekend to get rid of the curse, and maybe a few weekly sessions after that. Those curses were strong. Whatever this spirit is, it's powerful.”

“ 'Was'. I killed it.” There was no doubt in Noa's mind that this was how the events unfolded. From the moment the ghost girl went limp and disappeared, Noa had that growing certainty that it was dead. The guilt she had felt on the spot dissipated within a few hours, when she remembered that for all that it looked like a girl, it was only a malicious ghost without a soul. An 'it'. Good riddance.

Evans did not like the sound of it however. “Was. My bad. I will want to talk with you face to face to see how you are coping with all this, how about in a few days? I still need to get back to Toronto.”

“You know where to find me.”

“Take care Magnolia.”

She knew she should have felt relieved. She should have felt happy that Dr. Evans was well and alive, and glad that her friends' curses would be taken care of. But then why was she still hurting? Why did she feel nothing but void, a large hollow gap taking up all the space where her heart should be?

Why did none of it seemed to matter?


Friday early afternoon, June 10th
Randall's apartment

The doorbell of the apartment rang. A shrill noise Randall never got around to change. Stepping down the stairs, he took a glance in the frosted glass to see who was at the door. No one he recognized. Good. Otherwise he might have been in trouble.

Opening the door only enough to expose his head and shoulders, he addressed the black African man standing with a hand in his jeans. Loose t-shirt and cap, both with insignia and messaged Randall made no effort to read, the guy was tall and slender, almost lost in the volume of his oversized clothes.

“No publicity,” started Randall, not too sure what the guy was trying to sell. Or not. He did not look like a sales guy, but more like a bum who wanted a lighter for his cigarette and decided to knock at the first door to ask for one.

“Ya’re Randall Flores?” The bum took a step back, cocking his head slightly to see more of the barely exposed insides of the house. More and more sketchy.

“That's me.”

The young adult pulled out a folded sheet from one of his pocket and handed it to Randall. Warily, Randall opened the door a little more, unfolding the paper and giving it a quick read. It was a chat exchange between two people he did not recognize. The content of the chat did not make any sense to him however, since he was lacking any sort of context.

Context that the young guy gladly provided. “Ya're in danger. Them guys are after ya daughter and they figured out she'd be here this weekend.”

Randall looked up briefly only to read the content of the paper again. A lot more of it made sense now.

“I need ya to come with us.” 'Us' referring to the red Porsche stationed in one of the few parking slots. Another man was waiting in the driver’s seat inside the car.

The man remained sketchy however, doubly so now that Randall understood this was more than just a warning. “Who are you?”

“Da name's Rust,” he said before turning and pointing at the car. “There's also Lucky and Sugar. We're mutants,” Randall stiffened at the casual comment, “and we're concerned about the safety of yar girl. If ya could follow us, I'll answer all yar questions.”

“Thanks but no thanks.” Randall tried to close the door but Rust's feet blocked it. With one brush of the arm, the door opened in full, Randall unable to keep up with the mutant's casual strength. He froze when he saw Rust's other hand leave his pocket with a gun.

“I'm serious. Ya're coming with us, no fuss. We got a nice hotel prepared for ya for da weekend, and Sugar and I are great bodyguards.” He stepped aside to leave the passage open to Randall. The gun never pointed anywhere other than at the ground, but its mere presence made Randall realize that 'no' was not an answer. He stepped through the doorway, mentally preparing himself to be abducted by a bunch of mutant freaks. At least Rust had the decency of closing the door behind him.

Randall opened the back-seat door while Rust sat in the passenger seat. The driver was a Caucasian young man, the kind that you expected to remain polite and proper at all time, like a gentleman or a doctor freshly out of med school. The girl next to Randall however, Sugar as Rust named her, made him even more uncomfortable than Rust did when he pulled out the gun. She was an anthropomorphic black lizard, with a long pointed muzzle head surrounded by a neck frill and a pair of rattles in lieu of hair on each side of her head like the tail of a rattlesnake. Glassy eyes with double eyelids, claws at her tip of her fingers and toes and a long tail that she wrapped back in her lap to fit the confines of the small car completed her figure.

Why did she have to grin with her mouth so full of razor-sharp teeth, Randall had no idea. Probably to scare him shitless.

“Relax pal. I won't bite,” she said in a sultry voice that did not match the rest of her.

Rust chuckled from his front seat, confirming Randall's thoughts on the true meaning of the words spoken. “Mr. Flores, meet Sugar. If ya get attacked, run to her and she'll scare the bullies away.”

What if she's the one to attack me?

“Now, we do have a few minutes before we get there, so here's the gist of what's going on.”


Friday afternoon, June 10th
School

School. What school? Oh yeah, that school. Classes and friends and exams and lunch and...

“Hey Noa!”

Noa snapped out of her trance, noticing that she had spent the last few minutes standing still in the middle of the corridor leading to the secretary's office. She had to remind herself what she had been doing. Right. The box. Her substitute locker. Piyu. Her diary. Her school books. It was the end of the day and she was going home, picking up her stuff for the weekend.

What happened to the rest of her day? What had she done up until now?

“Hey Becky.” She forced a smile to the girl standing behind her. Becky seemed all set for the weekend, her backpack heavy with books and whatnot. She even beamed of enthusiasm, her makeup thinner than usual doing wonders for her skin.

“Say, do you have some time right now or do you absolutely have to take the bus?” Excitement. She wanted a favor of some sort, that much was obvious.

Trying to not let boredom transpire in her voice, Noa replied. “I would prefer to take the bus now if possible.”

“But you could take the city bus later, right?”

“Yeah. Why?”

Becky’s already wide smile got even wider. “I talked to people, and a friend of mine told me he had some tips regarding spirits that he wanted to share with you. Like, I know everyone thinks it's a huge fad, but I believe you that there really was a spirit, and so does he. So, could you meet with him?”

“Now?”

“Of course now.” In Becky's mind, everything was already decided, from the planning to Noa's answer. Her asking was just a polite way of getting her on board with this. She knew Noa would be down for this, no doubt. “He's bringing us to a pastry shop for the talk. I know you like sweets!”

Not really, no. But this was the wrong thing to say, Noa rationalized. Becky was being kind arranging something for her, and even though she did not feel like going, it would be insulting to refuse. “Okay, I'll come.”

“Sweet! You won't be disappointed. There'll be a few more friends interested in the talk, hope that doesn't bother you.” Of course not. Why would it?

Becky led the way out and around the school to the meeting point with the supposedly spirit expert. When Noa stopped dead in her track noticing who she was actually meeting, Becky just grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her in. “Come on. They're all here. Don't leave them waiting.”

The maggot. He was the one Becky was talking to from a distance as she pulled Noa closer. This doesn't make sense. This is wrong. But Becky was sincere, and that threw her off more than anything else. Confused, she let herself be dragged by Becky to the group of four that were waiting for them expectantly, shark-like smiles spreading on the two girls, the maggot, and a body built that she could not forget.

Her 'boyfriend'. Still didn't know his name. Not that it mattered.

“Becky! You got her here. Nice!”

“Wouldn't want to miss the pastries!” Her comment made everyone laugh for some reason.

The maggot was edging forward, hands in his pocket with, from what Noa could perceive, his brass knuckles. He was fiddling with the metallic weapon, not actually wearing it, the only reason Noa did not try to run away immediately.

She could trust Becky, right?

“Come here,” the maggot said as he grabbed her arm in a hold that was soft from an outsider's point of view, but which could turn into a vise-grip in the blink of an eye. “We have lots to talk about.”

“Don't TOUCH me!” Noa tried to break away, but the vise-grip held firm, and with a twist of his other hand, he slipped on the knuckles and threw a vicious punch, sending her recoiling straight into the three other sophomores waiting for just that.

"Don't try anything funny. If you so much as lay a finger on us, the MCO will make sure no one will ever have to see your ugly face again."

“Hey! What the heck are you doing?!” Becky looked between the maggot's tight fist and her three other friends who were circling and grabbing Noa. “That's not what you told me!”

“Really, what were you expecting?” said one of the girls, a tall blonde with hatred in her eyes. She started walking toward Becky, eliciting a step back from the latter. “She nearly burnt down the school every single day this week. Do you think we can allow that?”

“It was the spirit!”

“There was no spirit,” replied the girl, now close enough to dominate the eighth grader by a few inches. “The MCO was quite clear on that. Now, stay put while we take out the trash.”

“What?? But—” The savage slap she received in the face broke her stride and sent her tumbling down to the ground. Even then, it did not quite sink in that she had been betrayed until she saw the larger guy pull out a switchblade from his pocket, pressing it against Noa's throat. “NO!!” A kick to the guts cut short her scream. Even if she could have taken a breath in, it would have been meaningless as the older girl sat on Becky’s back, pressing with all her weight on the smaller girl’s chest. It was all Becky could do but to take short dry breaths to not suffocate, watching the rest unfold.

Noa did not know what to do. The feeling of the blade pressing against her sent her into a panic, yet she was also distracted with what was happening to Becky. She had been set up. Fuck them all! This was a trap. What could she do? She could do the same thing she did with Chandler, fry their brains with alcohol, but the simple thought of doing so sent shivers of horror down her spine. She did not want to be a murderer! Not that! What else? Quick think, think!

The sophomores all felt the sensation at the same time, as if someone was pushing their eyes deeper into their sockets, the pressure triggering pain in all those sensitive nerves all around the lobes.

“Stop that!” Unrelenting despite the pain, her 'boyfriend' kept one of his suffering eyes open, shaking Noa harder into the wall and digging the knife deeper into her skin, not noticing that it made a clean cut across her neck. “You think this is funny? That everything is a joke? Let's see how you like your eyes be squashed like that!” Moving his hold on her to focus on keeping her head still, he used the thumb of his other hand, the one holding the knife, to raise Noa's constantly closed eyelids and press into her eyes hard enough to burst a normal lobe.

Knife's edge. Close. Too close.

Terrified of what the sophomore would do with the blade, Noa released her TK on their eyes, instead opting to eat his hand and to fight his hold with hers. He was stronger however, a lot stronger, and despite trying to pull his fingers away or scratching her nails against his arm, he held firm.

“You haven't STOPPED!” His arm was hurting from the inside out, but he did not care. He punched her in the face, glad that this stunned her enough to release her action in his veins, before he started again forcing her eyes open. “You don't need these, do you?” He shifted his hold once more so the one hand gripping her forehead was also the one keeping her eye open.

Bacteria. Sebum. Pollen. Water. Mites. Snort. Blood. Acid. Dust. Scales. Worms. Hair. Fold.

With his now free other hand, he slipped the knife closer and closer to her eye. “Surely you don't. You always keep them closed.”

He took the reduced struggles to mean that his threat was effective, when from her side Noa was struggling to process all the details her single opened eye was sending her.

Ash. Mold. Virus. Grime. Grease. Soot. Dirt. Cell. Smoke. Fabric. Oil. Bugs. Crease. Filth.

Her arms grew weaker and weaker, all processing power turned away from other tasks to focus entirely on the influx that was coming in. She shut down her hearing, buying herself a few more seconds of struggle before her smell had to go. One by one, every thought she had kept coming back to the extent of the world on display in front of her, too many secrets to behold, too many details to take in that she just could not ignore, no matter how hard she tried.

Noticing that the mutant had stopped moving without him doing anything else, the sophomore looked at the one open eye, the kaleidoscopic iris twitching without focus. Seeing that moving the knife away and back close did not elicit any reaction from her, he decided to test his theory by pushing the other eyelid open with a finger.

Noa went limp like a rag doll, only held up by the strength of his hold. Turning around, he addressed his companions with a mocking, sadistic grin. “I found the off switch.”

“Give me the knife.” The maggot came around, doing the task the other was now too busy to do. One glance and he noticed something interesting. “You slit her throat already?”

“What? No, I— Oh.” The gash was on display for all to see, yet the clean cut, lack of blood and regular skin tone did make it easy to miss. Even though it was deep. The taller guy frowned. “She was still kicking around.”

“Do we even know if she is alive at all?” The maggot held the knife tightly and stabbed it straight into her chest.

“DUDE! What the hell?!” He did not let his surprise break his hold however.

No reaction from the girl though. “How’s she?”

Looking at the two eyes he kept open, the verdict was clear. “Still twitching.” He let the two eyelids fall for a second, keeping still as Noa gasped for air reflexively and moved her arms some more, the knife still planted into her chest. Having seen enough, the taller guy opened her eyes again, stopping her every movements. “Fucking creepy.”

The maggot pulled the knife out of Noa's chest, examining it for any trace of blood or fluid. He was kind of relieved to see none. “She's like plastic. Maybe she's a robot.” Putting his theory to the test, he dug out a large piece of flesh from her arm, reaching down until he scrapped the bone. The flesh fell to the ground as he exclaimed with grim satisfaction “See? What did I tell you huh?” He hit the blade of his knife against her bone, eliciting a muffled clanking noise that was distinctly recognizable to everyone around. The two girls could not keep from expressing their disgust.

“No way.”

“Gross.”

“Isn't that even worse than a mutant?”

“It's the government. They're trying to replace us, I'm positive.”

Letting the girls to their talk, the maggot exchanged a look with the bigger guy. “We need to get rid of it.”

A nod. “There must be a permanent off switch somewhere.”

Looking back at the exposed bone, the maggot continued cutting around, hoping to find somewhere on its surface the hints of a panel to access the wiring inside, not knowing that what he was looking for did not exist.

When the bone was completely free of rubbery flesh over that area, when the forearm's flesh was completely disjointed from the rest of the body, the arm twitched.


Friday afternoon, June 10th
MCO's office

An alarm went off, sending notifications to many of the relevant parties supposed to check the issue. A quick glance at the GPS location, then a phone call from a desk agent to a field agent.

“Mr. Schwartz? We have an irregularity here that you need to check immediately. The readings for the mutant Magnolia Flores just dropped to 10% of the lowest value recorded yet. Something is happening. Check the tracker.”


Friday afternoon, June 10th
On the road away from school

Schwartz turned at the next intersection, navigating around in the streets to head back toward the school where his GPS indicated the presence of the mutant. Why had she not taken the bus? Usually, Magnolia took the bus, and another agent would notify that she arrived home and they would continue the surveillance from there. She was breaking her pattern. Something was wrong, especially since her position was indicated as being outside the building and not having moved in the last couple of minutes.

In all hurry, he parked the car at an illegal spot in the street and rushed out, grabbing his gun in case the mutant was on the loose.

As soon as he crossed the edge of the building after which he expected to see Magnolia, several kids turned to glance his way before running away with everything they had. He did not get a good look at them and would have pursued them if he had not caught a glimpse of what had transpired around here.

“Oh god.” He put a hand to his mouth, barely noticing Becky standing up behind him, bawling every tear of her body.

“It... It's my fault. I... never should've... not... the knife...” She barely took a few steps before being overwhelmed by the sight, falling to her knees, her shriek of horror unable to convey anything close to what she was feeling right now.

“... Becky.” A meek voice, not one she was expecting to hear coming up from this mess.

Schwartz had to force himself to act despite his reluctance to do so. From his utility belt, he pulled out a plastic bag usually used to retrieve evidence. He pulled out a dozen more, handing half of them to Becky who looked back with a glassy stare. “Help me pick up the pieces.”

“... Becky, what happened?”

“Don't say anything Magnolia,” ordered Schwartz as he got to work, as much for her sake and for his sanity.


Friday late evening, June 10th
Parking lot next to Randall's apartment

Behind the wheel of the driver's seat, Haeten was fuming. It was past eight thirty, more than late enough, and yet, for the last five hours no one had come in or out the door of this Randall guy’s apartment.

“Astrex,” she snapped for the nth time. The other girl only sighed, knowing exactly what was coming for having had this exact same conversation again and again since she, Haeten and Snatch had stepped into the car. “You lied to me. They're not here.”

“Are you done? Blaming me won't solve this you know.”

“If only it could, I'd braise you up on the spot.” The driver's wheel creaked, the metal and plastic deforming under the strength of the mutant's grip.

“Haeten, stop that.” Snatch looked up from his computer giving the woman a frown that she caught in the rear-view mirror. “I told you already. It's confirmed. I have the MCO's recordings of their phone calls. Two bugged calls, one where this Randall suggested the idea, and the other when the girl's mother agreed to it. If the girl's not here, then something unexpected happened.”

Haeten was not pleased. “Astrex?”

“I'm not diving unless I have at least an hour to protect myself. Not after last time. Also, she can detect my presence somehow. If you want to advertise that we are monitoring her, be my guest.”

She mumbled a slur of abusive remarks. “Anything new from the MCO?” Haeten asked, this time addressing Snatch.

The younger boy sighed. The wait was making everybody go crazy. “I can check again. Give me a minute.” He did find one new report that had just now been added to the data bank. What he read on it however made him scowl. “Something did happen. Bullying apparently. They are... quite light on the details. Another student involved, recorded testimony. Sorry, physical data. Can't access that. Oh, here's something relevant to us.”

“What?” The growl in Haeten's voice did not faze Snatch. He was getting used to it by now.

“Listen to this. For her own safety, she will be held at the MCO for the weekend, or however long it takes her to recover from her injuries, whichever is longer. Upon release, full body-armored guards will escort her at all times until both she and her immediate environment have been proven safe for her and involved baselines.”

Astrex raised both her hands up defensively. “Not me. Didn't do it.”

“Not this time at least.” The cold retort made Astrex all too aware of the choker she was wearing to hide the bruises and the heavy makeup she applied to her face and arms to hide the dotted marks. Battle scars she was not proud of.

“So, what do we do?” asked Snatch. “We raid the MCO office?”

“Don't be silly, they have tech to deal with practically anything. A few powered armors, I could deal, but plasma guns? Sensorial inhibitors? Exemplar resistant handcuffs? Give me a break.” Silence fell inside the car, letting Haeten think of a plan. “We wait until they release her. Two full body armored guards should be easy enough. Snatch, I want every new development on the girl the MCO can feed us.”

“Already on it.”

“Good.” She turned on the key and pulled out of the parking lot. “No more misfires.”


Saturday, lost track of time, June 11th
MCO's office

Noa was lying on top of a simple bed in a room that was far from. Okay, it was a cell, and she was locked up, not that the lock did anything to keep her in. It was completely unnecessary. She did not have the drive to escape even if she wanted to. Which she did not. Not after the events of yesterday.

She switched her focus to another one of the badly melded scars that plastered her body. One at a time, she ate the bits that were sticking out and filled the holes that needed to be filled. So many scars to repair, so much attention to give when she had so little.

She was in one piece. That was a good thing, right? Better than being an arm disjointed of any visual or auditory input, acting only on base thoughts guided by the feeling of a short aura around it. She remembered being the arm, feeling diminished, lacking senses and yet not expecting them there. Her thoughts had been simple at the time, like a dog barking and attacking people who were a threat to its master. As the arm, she had thrashed and attacked, for what little good it had done.

She also remembered being even smaller. Bits of flesh cut away that dropped to the ground, all thoughts forgotten but for the simplest ones. Fear of an environment she could not perceive. Hunger for everything she touched. Need for connecting with more mass like herself. She had felt her many fragments come together inside the plastic bags they had used to collect her, merging and melding back regardless of where each piece was supposed to belong. Merging felt good. Being one felt good. And yet, the MCO had to cut the reformed flesh away back into bits to try to patch her up, doing a truly horrendous job of it. Noa was certain that more than a few bits were not where they were supposed to go, the muscles and reflexes moving all wrong despite the apparent smooth texture she conferred them.

The bulk of her that had remained attached to her head and eyes did not remember the incident. The only reason she remembered it was her arm, large enough to pick up and retain the movements in its field, yet distinct from the bulk so that it did not have to deal with those pesky eyes.

Maybe she should rip them out? They were troublesome.

She moved on to another scar. Lucky her, sealing up her wounds and making everything look nice was easy. Unlucky her, that did not matter. It was all wrong, everything feeling like a huge puzzle that a kid forced together even though the pieces did not match. She felt ugly, broken, worthless.

Noa curled up on her side, bringing her knees up to her shin in a fetal position. How long had it been since then, she had no idea. Neither the light of her window nor the cold of the night reached her to indicate the passage of time. It was like a fog, a jumble of unfocused thoughts as she kept fixing herself up as she was asked. Just as they wanted her to do. Why? Why did she need to fix someone else's mistakes?

She wanted to cry, to scream, to express both rage and grief. She wanted to forget and be forgotten, curling up tighter hoping this way she could disappear to the rest of the world.

Just a knot. A wrench like a constricting rope that threatened to choke the life out of her.

People kept coming to check on her. Food kept being supplied, bags of trash the agent of the hour would simply bump in a corner of the cell. She did not oppose them. Anything that required her to move from her bed, to interact with people, to do anything more than the small task she was assigned to do was too much to bear.

And after she fixed the last scar she could detect, after she realigned every jerky muscle and reoriented what could be salvaged, there was nothing else for her that to let the tears flow. Fake tears, tears she created manually for fault of not having any tear duct anymore. Fake tears to express how fake she was.

The sullied feeling seemed fitting.


Monday morning, June 13th
MCO's office

The weekend passed without incident. Outside the office, Chandler looked as the truck left the parking, two fully armed and armored agents sitting at the rear while Schwartz and Magnolia sat at the front. The girl had insisted to go to school despite everything. Today was special according to her. Something about a coin-catching event he did not quite understand. Science fair from the sound of it. He and Magnolia had argued back and forth on the issue. Sometimes he got the approval of her mom that she should not go back to school, sometimes he was at odd with the latter when he suggested some other options to deport the mutant out of this mess.

Weekend overtime was a bitch, especially when your burns were not judged severe enough to warrant staying home when all the biggest shit in town was going down.

He had seen the pictures. That's what got him out of his bed safely recovering at home to come bark orders in the office on a Sunday. They got the names of the four ruffians from the other witness, a girl named Becky. Probably traumatized, too guilty to stay coherent for long. Those four would not put a foot back in school if he could help it, and in this case he had all the proofs to be justified in his authority. That was the kind of jerk reaction to the mutant presence that he aimed to avoid as part of the MCO. Oftentimes, the mutants were dangerous, but in some cases like this one, the reactions of people around them were the real danger. Unsolicited, extreme violence, and a complete lack of guilt for the act itself. That was the worse, seeing those four kids rationalize that what they did was justified and, even better, necessary, that they were the good guys protecting themselves from a mutant or robot invasion, depending on the case. Objectifying Magnolia, and to a wider extent, mutants in general. The kids thought like that. Children! It made him sick.

Walking back to the room Magnolia had occupied for the past two days and a half, Chandler scrutinized the extent of the damage. The bed sheets had completely vanished. The bed itself was only a pale shadow of what it had been before, its metallic support eroded until holes started to appear in the tubes. It barely supported Magnolia's weight when she left, and testing it now by sitting on it, Chandler's own weight was enough to bend and distort the frail remains into something completely unusable. The mattress had deflated, some of its internal components missing entirely.

The cell's gate had its thick bars grind down so much that Chandler could break them with his bare hands if he put his heart into it. The walls, ceiling and floor did not fare any better, having a good centimeter-thick layer removed from the stone and concrete. It was most visible at the edges of the gate, where the railing failed to connect to the stone walls as it was supposed to.

The room was a complete mess, utterly unusable until they at the very least fixed the gate and closed the gaps around the window. Two and a half days holding an uncontrolled wide area disintegrator. Chandler was not sure what he had expected, but this did not disappoint.

He would have to find a better room if they even hoped to contain the girl any longer without threatening the integrity of the building. This much corrosion should not be taken lightly.

Walking back to his desk, he slumped into his chair, stifling a groan at the pressure exerted on his not yet healed burns. The bandages were holding up the worst of it though, and after taking a few seconds to find a comfortable position, he typed away at his computer. He would join the other field agents later at noon. For now, he was quite busy catching up and sending calls to lawyers and managers alike.


Monday afternoon, June 13th
School's gymnasium

The long-awaited Science Fair coin-catching competition. Hundreds of students gathered for the afternoon, hoping to display the work of many weeks of labor working wood, springs and gears to come up with the winning tactic to gather as many coins in a three meters wide square area. Six such areas had been placed around the gymnasium, each gathering their own small crowd of spectators, mostly other students of the fair waiting for their turns. Banners had been stretched, tables had been settled with food and drinks, the people manning them asking the students for their lone coupon gotten when they registered. One coupon one meal. Some other tables were set for booths and talks of upcoming technologies the students in the room might be interested in cramming into their head.

The whole thing felt a lot more pathetic than the hype that led up to it. Noa had to remind herself why she cared about all this, why she should care. It took more effort than she was ready to admit.

A new backpack rested on her shoulders, a cheaper version of the one that burnt the other day. In it was everything that she had kept in the box in the secretary office, her last few notebooks that had survived the thrashing of her locker, her diary and both of her plushies. She hopped today to be her last day at school, the rest of her end of year exams being arranged with her teachers so she could take them somewhere safe like her house, or somewhere neutral like the MCO's office.

Under the backpack, she was wearing a hoodie today, along with full length jeans, which contrasted with the skirts, shorts and other skimpy clothes she wore nonstop since she got out of the hospital. Today she did not want to be seen, she did not want to deal with the stares. To anyone who would have looked, her body seemed normal and without a trace of the damage sustained on Friday, but Noa still felt wronged. Nothing physical, she made quite sure of that, but the mental wounds were still there, aching with the absolute certainty she had that everyone knew, that everyone stared. And despite how illogical it sounded, she hoped hiding her hands and form into a large hoodie would hide her soul to the prying eyes, barely aware how noticeable such a warm hoodie was by this time of summer.

The two agents dressed in battle suits who were framing her did nothing to keep the stares away. In a meager attempt to disappear, Noa pulled her hood up and stuck to one corner of the gymnasium, out of everyone's way until it was her turn to show her project.

She could feel Carol circling around the six areas, glancing at one then the other with a mix of curiosity and worry. She was following two of her friends, both boys, as they tried and failed to cheer Carol up with lively discussion. Carol did look better, Noa admitted, although the little scared jumps whenever someone would brush against her betrayed that there was still much to do for the curse to be completely removed. It did not escape Noa either that Carol was throwing furtive glances her way when she thought Noa was not looking. And she never was. She did not need to.

Mae and Gene were there too, placing their cart in one of the now free testing areas. Just like Carol, Mae was acting a little off, more aggressive, more edgy in her every movement. Why had that spirit thing done this? What had been the goal? To pain her? To torture her by twisting her friends beyond recognition? If so, it worked. Even the thought of the spirit dead did not bring a hint of satisfaction to Noa. It was just another thing that had to be done, one that she had done too late.

If only she had not become a mutant. If only she had not been there. If only she did not exist.

All too soon it was her and Carol's turn to go. Noa walked up to the wooden square as the teachers spread worthless coins all over the area, making sure the distribution was randomly even. Carol went to fetch their cart, a pathetic piece of trash that Teddy could replace in the blink of an eye.

As the cart started forward after being cranked up, the magnets doing their job and the rollers doing half of theirs, the cart stumbled after a few predictable turns, edging off course until it hit and got stuck in a corner. The stupid thing did not even work properly when it mattered. There was no pride that their invention caught over half of the coins it passed over, no pride at the fact that they did their best and their best was worth more than some other teams. There was only shame at an appalling failure.

Noa did not think when she stepped forward into the testing area, nor did she gave a thought as her foot came crashing down repeatedly on the wooden frame, neither did she listen when the screams of her friend begged her to stop her madness.

The two MCO agents pulled her away and she did not resist. There were no words she could say, no scream she could yell that would subside her boiling feelings.

All the screams, tears and profanities Noa would have liked out were expressed by Carol, her lip and hands trembling as she held of the remnants of her work, a work she had poured every ounce of her heart into for the sake of a friend she no longer recognized. She squeezed the broken pieces of wood to her chest, holding in vain onto lingering feelings that she refused to admit were long gone. Her wails drew the attention of every teacher in the room, of every student participating to the event. Of everyone but the one person that truly mattered.

Noa could not stay locked in here. She wanted out. Away from the stares, away from the sobs, away from the MCO, away from everything. Walking as if to return to the corner, her escort trailing her, Noa bolted in an instant toward the doors, confident that her speed and her head start would allow her to lose the two agents burdened by the weight of their armors. Noa ran through the corridors, running circles between the floors and basement to lose the two guards until she found a bathroom far enough away that she could cry herself out in one of the empty stalls.

There was no respite however. Barely a minute later, her fake tears stopped as the door of the bathroom opened, letting two girls in.

“You sure she got in this one?”

“Positive.”

Noa did not dare make a sound as one of the girls pushed the doors one by one until she reached hers, the only one locked closed.

“Found her.” The two girls exchanged a glance and a chuckle before one of them pulled out a flat screwdriver from her bag. “Hey mutie, are you there?” Her voice carried in the otherwise silent bathroom, much to her friend's amusement. She put her screwdriver in place and swiftly turned the round lock open before Noa realized what the screwdriver was for.

The door banged open, exposing Noa to the two girl's sight. She had noticed them previously as they tested their cart in the gymnasium. A good performance, which was reflected in their overconfident attitude. Their coin-catcher was not with them, meaning they had had the time to go store it in the workshop after finishing their performance.

“You bloody mutie got Jasmine and Marianne suspended from school.” The closest girl grabbed Noa's by the collar and pulled her out of the stall, ripping away her backpack in the same movement.

“Give it back!” Noa tried to get back her backpack, but the second girl stood in front of her, pushing her back until she bumped into the sinks.

“Hm. What do we have here? A nice cat plushie?” She pulled out Piyu from the bag and gave it an uninterested glance before ripping its head out with both hands.

“No! Piyu! Stop that!” The other girl shut her up with a slap to the face that stung enough to daze her, just long enough that the next sound she heard was a flushing toilet. “NO!”

Noa scrambled to the toilet without the other two girls trying to stop her. No longer caring about appearances, she threw her hands into the bowl, trying to catch as much of the stuffing and tissue as she could, even as it slipped through her finger into the drain. Reaching out with her telekinesis, Noa was just in time to retrieve the bottom part of the plush, limp, wet, and empty of most of its content.

Then she heard another bathroom flush from two stalls down.

“Oops, I think that was a diary.”

Something snapped. Noa slowly stood back up, grasping the carcass of her favorite plushie tightly enough for her knuckles to turn silver from her skin stretched thin over her metal bones. She walked to the two mocking girls, already knowing the result of their last flush. There was no salvaging this one.

Noa started to count.

1... 2... 3... 4...

“What do you want?” provoked the girl, still holding the backpack. “Finally feeling sorry for what you did?”

Noa tightened her hold on the folds of the two girl's lungs, layering her telekinesis sheet thicker even though she knew it would not accelerate the process.

9... 10... 11... 12...

“Give back my backpack.”

“You haven't said you're sorry yet.” The girl passed the bag to her friend behind her, putting it further away from Noa without the later doing a single move to retrieve it. “You could beg for it if you want it that bad.”

17... 18... 19... 20...

“If you don't give it back—”

“Or what?! You're going to play the victim again and get us suspended from school like the others?” Something did not feel quite right. The girl was getting short of breath. She tried to take longer breaths and calm down, not having realized that she got excited to this point, but for some reason her shortness of breath did not abate.

25... 26... 27... 28...

Noa just stood there, feeling the two girl's panic grow as they realized what was going on. “Hard to breathe, isn't it?”

Each breach was getting painful, none offering any satisfaction, any relief. It was like holding your breath underwater, the pain slowly increasing until you could do nothing but reach up and gasp for air. Except there was no air to be had. “What are you doing?”

33... 34... 35... 36...

Noa casually walked to the girl at the back, picking up her backpack from her hand with only little resistance. The girls’ battle was fought inside, leaving them with no strength to deal with the outside. “Did you know that the lungs’ surface area is around seventy-five meters squared? Didn’t you learn that in biology?”

41... 42... 43... 44...

The two girls could no longer stand, slumping more and more with every passing seconds. One rested her back against the wall while the other was laying on the ground, trying in vain to get some air where it needed to be. None of them were paying Noa any attention anymore, more focused on fighting the inevitable blackout than listening to crazy rambling.

49... 50... 51... 52...

“Yeah, figured you were bad at bio. If all your alveoli are blocked, then it doesn't matter whether you have air in your lungs or not. Oxygen won't get into your blood.”

Releasing her hold, Noa walked out of the bathroom, leaving behind the two unconscious girls whose breathing had never stopped. The wet rag in her hand was the sole reminder of her last anchors lost down the drain.

Nothing mattered anymore.

Her steps brought her back to the gymnasium. Chandler was there, admonishing the two armored agents until he saw her walk back in. Confused, his stare followed Noa as she walked under the murmurs and stares to the middle of the gymnasium, stopping there and not moving. After several seconds without her doing anything, Chandler and the two agents walked up to her.

“Where have you been?”

“I've got a tracker. You tell me.”

“Don't try to play games with me. I'm not in the mood today.”

“Why not? Today's a big party.” Noa gestured around to everyone assembled for the Science Fair. “Isn't this all one big joke of a game?”

“You're done here,” said Chandler walking a step forward to pressure her into leaving without the recourse to force.

“I went to the bathroom if you really want to know,” said Noa, buying time for her choking hold to take effect. Already several students were starting to be short of breath, although none of them probably realized it yet. “Funny encounter I'd say.” She held and shook the wet Piyu rag up for all to see. “Two girls. I think they're still there. Girl's bathroom on the second-floor east wing. You guys might want to hurry.”

Chandler gave a glance to one of the two guards, his concern urging the man forward.

“What did you do?” The people in the room starting to feel weaker and weaker, their efforts to breathe drew the attention of those unaffected around them. “What are you doing?!” Chandler amended, noticing the various reactions and cases spread around randomly across the room.

“They say bad things about me behind my back.” She gave him a mock smile. “Now they won't.”

A few people started to sit down or drop to the ground, their legs no longer able to support them. It was all very gradual, as if they decided to sit down or lay down on the floor willingly. Chandler could stand it no more. Very deliberately, he pulled his Taser gun out of his holder.

“You stop whatever you are doing, and you come with me to the MCO office.” His stern voice left no room to argue, and yet Noa tried nonetheless.

“What, a Taser?” She chuckled dryly. “I'll have you know I'm insulated.”

He gave her the blank stare. “Read your file again.” He pressed on the trigger, letting the two needles dig into their target and discharge their electrical gift under Noa's insulating skin-layered aura. He took a step back as she fell to the floor, every limb convulsing under the discharge. Her hold released immediately, the people she had choked feeling the first satisfying breath of air in the last minute.

Waiting until Noa stopped moving, Chandler grabbed the unconscious girl in his arms and turned to the one remaining guard. “Drop the armor and get some help from your radio. Take testimonies, and note the names of those that she affected. They might need medical care, even if they don't think they need it. I don't want to take any risk.”

With that said, Chandler walked out, leaving the confused gymnasium recover from the tantrum of a dangerous mutant.

Comments   

0 # riking 2017-01-27 06:51
Well. That was depressing.

Engaging story, though. Nice to show different path through manifestation; the MCO officers felt human because of their contextual (albeit biased) responses.
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0 # wo 2017-01-30 00:40
Past depressing and into the realm of the absurd, where it's hard to take seriously anymore, if you ask me. It was a very nice story for the first two parts and the earlier half of this part, so I hope the next part picks it back up.
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