Laura comes to the Academy for Gifted Youngsters on a day in fall, before the weather has properly turned but after it’s taken on a chill.
She comes to the Academy with nothing but what can fit in her bag and the clothes on her back, and she doesn’t quite see the problem with that, but everyone else does, even if it takes her a little bit to catch on.
Sooraya chews on her lip, deciding whether or not to speak. It’s breakfast, but even so, Laura isn’t in the cafeteria. She hadn’t been in their room when she’d woken up, either.
The conversation hits a lull, talk of school and old gossip exhausted, and Santo turns to her.
“You’re rooming with her, right?” he asks. “Laura. What’s she like?”
“I do not think that she owns anything,” she says, honestly.
Cessilly cocks her head. “What do you mean?”
Sooraya worries at her lip some more. “She only has three outfits,” she explains, “and her backpack and shoes. She also has the notebooks and pencils that Ms. Frost gave her, but…”
Brian nods in understanding. “Those don’t count,” he says.
Technically, the girl is on their squad, because Kevin had left the school, and they needed six people.
Julian slams his fork down. “That’s such fucking bullshit,” he declares. “I’m gonna go into town later, who’s coming?”
The unspoken implication: Whoever came would end up getting something for Laura.
Sofia, a few tables over and listening in, tells her squad that it would be nice if they got welcoming gifts for the new girl, wouldn’t it?
And that’s how it starts.
The five of them go into town later that day, after classes, and procure the following:
A bottle of black nail polish, and a three-pack of plastic stretch-chokers, from Cessily.
A Salem Center baseball cap and a pack of hair ties, from Brian.
A pack of wool socks and a pair of fingerless gloves, from Sooraya.
Sticky notes and novelty pens, from Santo.
A book that’s supposed to help with anxiety, silently brought forth by Julian and accepted equally wordlessly by his teammates.
Laura is in their room almost all evening, so Sooraya sets the tote bag containing their gifts down on her bed the next day during lunch, before joining their squad in the cafeteria.
Laura still does not eat with them.
A text Sooraya receives that day, from Noriko:
hey check new girls shoe + clothing size
Sooraya waits until Laura is in the shower, and then, heart in her throat, checks her shoe size and takes a picture of the tag on one of her shirts, sending it to Noriko. She responds with a simple thumbs up emoji.
Sooraya very carefully does not look up as Laura enters their room, instead keeping her eyes on the history textbook she had been taking notes from.
She hears the rustle of fabric, and the noise of fingers on stock paper as Laura opens the card that they had made her, using some borrowed school art supplies, messages scrawled on it from every member of the Hellions, welcoming her to the team.
More rustling noises as Laura slowly pulls out each gift — the nail polish, the hair ties, the socks and the gloves, the baseball cap, the chokers, the stickies and pens, the self help book. There was no indication as to who had given which gift, unless Laura could smell it, which Sooraya supposes is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
Footsteps, and the sound of paper on wood. Sooraya finally allows herself to look up.
Laura is staring at her, having set the book down on the school issued mini bookshelf slash nightstand, mimicking the small stack of detective novels that Sooraya has on hers.
She had halfway been planning on saying something cheesy, like “Welcome to the Hellions, this is your last chance to escape,” but the spirit leaves her once she sees Laura’s expression. It isn’t one of pleasant surprise, or gratitude, or even blankness like it seems to be more often than not, but confusion. Pure, simple confusion, like she had no idea what a gift even was, let alone why she may be receiving one.
“Welcome to Xavier’s,” Sooraya manages weakly.
Laura is on her way to class when she is stopped by another student with dark hair and eyes (Jessica “Jessie” Vale, codename: Preview, mild precognition).
“Here,” she says, holding out a hand. Laura looks at it. She is holding a black and silver tube.
“What is it,” Laura asks flatly.
“It’s lipstick,” Jessica says, “take it. I got it the other day but didn’t realize I already have some in this shade, and when you got here I think you were wearing lipstick, but you haven’t worn any since, so,” she huffed, “I’m offering you some.”
“Why do you not simply save it until you run out of what you already have?” Laura asks, curiously.
Jessice looks at her in surprise. “Because I thought I could offer it to you?” she says, making it sound like a question.
“Oh,” Laura says. “Okay.” She takes the tube. “Thank you,” she says, in the way that her handlers had told her was expected in polite company.
Jessica shrugs. “No problem.”
There were more gifts after that.
Sarah Vale, codename Network, younger sister of Jessica Vale, popped her head into Laura’s room and offered her a plain jewelry box, wood covered in fabric on the outside, and showed her how to remove the false bottom to keep anything she thought particularly valuable.
Someone — Josh Foley, codename Elixir, she thinks, as he reeks of antiseptics and trails the smell on whatever he touches — leaves her a box of push-pins that she at first has no use for, having nothing to pin on the corkboard above her desk, unlike the other students who regularly receive postcards and letters from their families.
She notices, but ignores, when Julian Keller, codename Hellion, and Noriko Ashida, codename Surge, start taking pictures, assuming it’s something that they’ve always done. After a week, both of them approach her separately and hand her small envelopes of the photographs, which she takes with some confusion.
The first time she eats with the Hellions, there is a loud shutter of a camera, and she blinks in surprise, turning her head towards Victor Borkowski, codename Anole, who is holding a Poloroid camera. He says nothing, at first, waiting for it to spit out the photograph, all six of them at a lunch table, and then hands it to her.
“Here,” he says, like this is normal. Maybe it is, for all Laura knows. She has never gone to school before, and does not know the typical socialization rules for educational facilities.
“We’re going to have movie night with the New Mutants squad later this week,” Julian tells her, later, in private. Laura likes Julian, she thinks. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to, but if you do, you can pick the movie, because this is your first time.”
“I have never seen many movies before,” she tells him, “So I do not think you should let me pick.” She would sometimes sneak into movie theatres and sit in the very back, trying to rest her body, if not her mind, or at least distract herself for a few hours. It usually had not worked.
“Oh man,” Julian says. His face twitches, a little, but that is the only thing that he lets show. This is one of the reasons she thinks that she likes him: he tries not to act as shocked as actually he is when she talks about how the Facility has affected her. “Have you ever seen Disney before?” he asks.
“I saw a movie about a white woman who wore a blue dress, and then a yellow dress, who fell in love with a monster, but the monster turns into a man. At the beginning of the movie, there was a castle of illogical design, and at the bottom of the screen it said Disney,” she tells him.
At this, Julian pulls a face. “Ew. The Beauty and the Beast live action remake?”
Laura blinks measuredly. “That may have been what it was called.”
He shakes his head. “Do you want to see the original? It’s way better, I promise.”
Laura shakes her head. “I did not like it,” she says. “I did not like the story. “
Julian nods. “It’s not for everyone,” he concedes. “What about… hm, what about the Little Mermaid?”
“I have not seen it.”
“Do you want to?” Julian asks.
“I am indifferent on the matter,” Laura informs him. “But I will be there, because I can tell that this is something that it is important to you that I experience.”
Movie night, as Julian called it, was on Saturday after dinner, and involved copious amounts of unhealthy foods, such as popcorn and soda.
Sofia Mantega, codename Wind Dancer, cleared her throat and gestured to a side-table littered with various seemingly random items.
“Laura,” she says, smiling, “we also have some presents for you!”
Laura takes the few steps over to the table, reaching out to the item nearest to her — a small succulent in a clay jar.
“That’s from Callie Betto,” Cessily tells her. “She says she wrote down how to water it?”
Stuck in the soil: part of a notecard, saying to keep it in sunlight and water it once a month.
She looks at the rest of the items on the table, not quite registering what they are. She can’t talk, so she just picks up each of them in turn and waits for someone to tell her who it's from.
A charm bracelet and a daily planner, from Pixie, who is the only student to go solely by her codename.
A poetry book, from Maxwell Jordan, codename Quill.
A book detailing the history of major world religions, from David Alleyne, codename Prodigy.
An iPod with the greatest hits of the past five decades, from both Jay Guthrie and Mark Sheppard.
A leather jacket, from Nicholas Gleason, codename Wolf Cub.
A pocket knife from Victor, confusingly enough. Santo had laughingly explained that because he was friends with Pixie, he probably just figured that all girls liked knives.
A bundle of multi-colored hanging LED lights and wall hooks, from Alani Ryan, codename Loa.
A phone case from Ben Hammil, codename Match.
Mason jars filled with colored rocks and crystals, from both Pixie and Callie Betto. Noriko said that they correspond to different energies, but she couldn’t remember what they were.
Laura’s eyes were burning, by the end, and she couldn’t stop picking things up and putting them down and picking them up and putting them down, over and over and over.
Footsteps, coming closer. Someone standing beside her, just within her peripheral vision. Tall, relatively pale, dark hair. Julian.
“Hey,” he says, quietly enough to give the illusion of privacy even though she knows everyone else can hear him. “Is this okay?” he asks.
She nods, throat closed up. She doesn’t try to talk, knows she won’t be able to.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay. Do you want to watch the movie now, or do you just want to sit for a little bit, or…”
Laura doesn’t know how to respond to that, doesn’t have paper or know how to tell him that she can’t talk right now, so she just points at the television.
“You want to watch the movie?” he asks. She nods, walks over to the couch, sits on the floor, hugging one knee to her chest. She is wearing the jacket that Nicholas Gleason gave her.
Julian sits on the arm of the sofa, almost directly above and behind her, leaning sideways onto the back. The movie starts.
When Sooraya and Laura come back to their room that night, at almost eleven pm, Laura’s bed and desk chair are covered in neatly folded clothes in muted colors. Most of the shirts have some kind of design or logo on them.
Ms. Frost had taken Laura shopping on her fourth day at the school, but her clothes were still mostly plain and practical, while these new clothes were mostly in the style of the few outfits she already had, which Cessily had informed her was “mall goth”.
Three weeks later, Laurie Collins, codename Wallflower, knocks on the door of Laura’s dorm room, arms overflowing with fabric.
“Sooraya is not here right now,” Laura informs her. “I think she is playing basketball.”
“I know,” Laurie says, “I came here for you.”
Laura backs up, sits on her bed, properly bookmarking the ASL workbook that Ms. Frost had suggested she take a look at, trying to think of any reason Laurie might have to speak to her.
“Here,” the other girl says, thrusting the pile at her. It is, Laura realizes, a quilt. “My mom made it. I told her a bit about you — I hope you don’t mind? — and she sews, and she lives right in town so, I thought, I dunno, do you like it?”
Laura stares at the quilt in her lap, lost for words. Ms. Frost had told her that it was called “going nonverbal”, in the same meeting that she had given her the ASL book.
She brings her right hand up to her chin, flat hand shape, and touches just her fingertips to her chin before bringing it forward.
“That means thank you, right?” Laurie asks. The Hellions and New Mutants were also learning some rudimentary sign language, but not a one of them could be called good at it yet, not even Laura.
She nods. Laurie bites her lip, having said her piece. “I hope you like it,” she says. “I have to go now, but I’ll see you at movie night, yeah?”
Laura nods again, and waves a little. Laurie smiles awkwardly and waves back, closing the door behind her as she leaves.
Laura wraps herself in her new quilt, a riot of color, by far the most colorful thing she owned now, and reached over to her nightstand, where the self-help book had lain untouched for a month and a half.
She opens it up, and begins to read.