Just Because Everything is Different, Doesn't Mean Anything has Changed
Lois Lane investigated. It was her job. It was her calling. It paid for a riverside suburban lifestyle she'd never imagined for herself even as a little girl because as a little girl, she took apart and reassembled hand guns. Ignoring the request for a meeting with a rumoured member of the mutant anti-registration underground never occurred to her. She just had to break it to her family who, for some odd reason, still weren't used to her more colourful adventures in reporting.
Something herbal and chicken-y wafted from the kitchen. Jason's airplane noises wafted in from the other direction. She kicked off her shoes with a relieved sigh.
"Jason, you have to write down your work," said Richard. He must have been checking homework.
"But those are the right answers."
"I know they are, but the teacher wants you to write down every step."
Jason groaned. "It's so slow and bo-oring."
"I know, I know, your life is torture. Now get back here and let's get through this so we can eat dinner in time."
Jason groaned again but neither one of his fathers was having any of it. What a time to make an entrance. "Mo-om! Dad's making me do long division the long way!"
"That's why it's called long division, kiddo." Lois ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead. At home, he only rolled his eyes. Nine year-olds! She and Richard shared their customary hello kiss. Jason awarded that with a grimace. Clark waved from the island, chopping up fruits, so Lois had to walk around to give him a kiss as well. Jason hid his face in shame.
"I just... why can't I do it my way?" Jason continued to whine.
"Because public school education sucks," said Richard, pointedly looking at Clark.
Clark crossed his arms. "Public schools work well enough as long as we become involved with the system."
Lois held her hands up in front of both men. "No arguing when we're hungry. I'm liable to eat both of you out of sheer frustration."
They ate better ever since Clark moved in. Chicken with tarragon, lemon potatoes, sautéd kale, iced green tea for Jason, white wine for the adults and fruit salad for dessert. Jason talked non-stop about school, his legs swinging. Lois enjoyed his energy. He was such a sickly baby, she'd been afraid to hold him sometimes. Now that he ran pell-mell through life, she couldn't find it in herself to be angry. Most days.
"So, what's the news that you're so desperately trying to frame in a positive and-or non-offensive light?" Richard asked mid-way through dessert.
She should've known hiding it was pointless. "A source from the mutant underground contacted me today," she said.
"Be careful, Lois. Don't put yourself in danger, Lois. Lois, your pants are on fire."
Clark unsuccessfully hid his grin behind a forkful of pie. "I'll do a fly-by at your meeting place. He contacted you out of nowhere?"
"She," Lois corrected. "And yes. I doubt mutant terrorists are planning an all-out assault on a Bakerline diner; I'm more worried of any anti-mutant action."
"This is Metropolis, not New York," said Clark. "It's the one place the Friends of Humanity hasn't infiltrated."
"Never underestimate the power of stupid people in big groups. And you, young man," Lois tousled Jason's hair, "can stop pretending not to listen in. You're not going with your pa on the fly-by so don't even ask. Shower. Now."
"Thirty more minutes!" Jason countered.
"No dice, kiddo."
"Pa said I could!"
Lois glared at Clark. "If Pa lets you stay up late, he's the one who has to wake you up in the morning and get you ready for school."
"Fine," said Clark. "It's just another half hour. I didn't need to sleep that long as a child."
"You're a freakish morning person like Richard."
"And yet, you live with both of us."
"I know. I should have my head examined." Throwing her arms up in surrender, she said, "Okay, thirty minutes and then I'd better hear water running or else."
She waited in a back booth in the diner, one of those bright yellow franchises anonymous throughout the country. The coffee stopped perking at lunchtime; chances were slim they'd put a new pot on until the dinner crowd. Lois added more cream and sugar to hide the staleness.
Her informant revealed herself quickly, waving in Lois' direction right at the entrance and slipping into the booth like an old girl friend. "I'll have what she's having," she told the server.
"You're going to regret it." Lois sloshed more sugar in hers.
"I've drunk coffee that doubled as engine grease. I think I can take this."
"At least engine grease has flavour; I think I'm drinking coloured water. What do you have for me?" she said the last sentence in a whisper.
Her informant fidgeted with her knit cap. Her gaze continuously scanned the diner and the street outside. She was spooked but hid it well. "I pissed off my own people by talking to you, Ms. Lane. I'm not sure I can show you anything until I feel this whole thing out."
"I don't reveal my sources, Ms--"
She ignored the probe. "I can take care of myself. It's more the sensitivity of the information. I..." She fidgeted some more, this time with her gloves. "Your articles hit hard and true. We especially liked your series on the Mutant Registration Act."
Lois snorted. "Too bad no one else did."
"But they did. The registration didn't go through as first proposed."
"But it still went through. Voluntary, schmoluntary; we're a perceived disaster away from internment camps."
Her informant sighed. "Yeah. And that's part of the reason why I wanted to contact you. Until your article, no one wanted to touch mutant rights. You're Lois Lane, Superman's press agent. You write that the moon is made of green cheese and half the nation'll agree."
Lois knew when she was being buttered up. That didn't mean she couldn't appreciate it. "How do I know what you're giving me is legit?"
The other woman slid a business card across the table. "I'm staying at this hotel for the next couple days. Meet me there and I'll tell you my story. That one's free; you can tell it by itself or you can use it as a springboard for the big story."
"And what, exactly, is the big story?"
Her informant almost smirked; it was more like a bitter twist of her lips. "You get that after my sob story."
Lois drove home, parked the car, picked up the mail.
"I'm home!" she called out. Aside from the usual greetings, the house was silent. Jason was in bed, Richard in his office and Clark in the living room. She by-passed her own office to pop her head into Richard's. "Tell me I'm not nuts."
"You're not nuts," he said. "What's up?"
As she recounted her meeting with the informant, Clark wandered in. He perched on Richard's desk as he listened.
"So I'm thinking, should I follow this or should I keep working on those missing persons?" Lois ended. "I'm almost done the latter but if this woman's legit, if she's really part of the mutant underground, this could be the next big investigative piece."
"I didn't see anything suspicious during my fly-by but a hotel room may be different," said Clark.
"She's okay, I think, but there might be someone after her. She was so twitchy. And she wouldn't relax; she kept her hat, coat, and gloves on the whole time in the diner like she had to be ready to run at any moment."
"With the current atmosphere about mutants, I wouldn't be surprised," Richard said.
"The League has tried to make contact with the mutant community several times," said Clark. "They're awfully reticent."
"They've gone to ground."
"Surely, they can trust us."
"This is one fight the League can't tackle," said Lois. "You can't punch your way through the Senate and forcibly burn down any bills you deem inappropriate."
"Sadly," added Richard.
Clark sighed. "Remember that little boy in Vancouver, Sammy Paré?"
Lois' face darkened. "The one who was beaten to death because he looked like a fish? God! When I found out how much they shushed the story up, I wanted to... to..."
"Punch your way through the Senate?" Clark smiled sadly. "That's why you're going to do this story, isn't it? Because of Sammy?"
"And Jason." At her partners' matching expressions, she said, "Jason could be defined as a mutant-- half human, half kryptonian. That's not even supposed to work. Might as well mate a peony with a chimp."
Richard tapped Clark's leg. "Hear that, babe? You're a peony."
"I like sunflowers better."
The next meeting occurred on the weekend above another nondescript diner, this one on the edges of Downtown Metropolis. Two more blocks and she'd be in Hobb's Bay, the neighbourhood aptly named Suicide Slum even years after the Prohibition and Al Capone. How classically noir.
Patting her purse to ensure her taser's location, Lois rode the elevator to the designated floor. If the mould didn't signify the motel's age, the creaky elevator did. She knocked on the scarred door. Her informer-- she really needed a name-- opened it wearing the same outerwear as their first meeting: gloves, a knit cap and a full-length coat despite the unusually humid fall weather.
"Glad you found the place."
"Despite the taxi's protests, yes. This isn't the kind of place that promotes trust," said Lois as she entered.
"How do you usually do this?" she asked
"I prefer to use a voice recorder but if you want, I can also use shorthand."
"Why one over the other?"
"I like remembering the inflections and pauses in the conversation. It adds to the story. Sometimes, there's something in the tone that's more telling than the actual words." Lois laid her instruments out on the three-legged side-table, spread out like a peace offering.
Her informant chewed on her lower lip, finally removing her cap off. Brown hair curled in at her jaw line. White bangs feathered across her forehead. "Go ahead with the recorder then. I want this to be as transparent as possible. Do you-- I brought stuff to drink."
"No, thank you," Lois said.
"Afraid they're tampered?"
"It's happened before," she replied truthfully. "But also, it increases the chance that I'll need to go to the bathroom. Breaks the flow of the conversation."
Her informant laughed and Lois realised how young she really was. She couldn't have been more than twenty-five, probably closer to twenty if the apples in her cheeks could be believed. She waved to the bed. "Sit here, please. The chairs are really uncomfortable."
"I can handle it."
"Suit yourself." She sat on the edge of the bed, closer to the recorder. For the first time since she opened the door, she looked Lois in the eye. "You can call me Rogue. I'm an X-Man." At Lois' sudden stiffening, she hurried to add, "We aren't terrorists, damn it. We didn't even start off wanting to fight; it just sort of-- happened. Things happened and suddenly, it wasn't enough that we learned to control our powers. We had to learn how to use them offensively to keep from being hurt."
"Hurt by who?"
"The government. Other mutants. The people next door. It was all because of Black Tuesday."
Of course. On Black Tuesday six years ago, billions of people suddenly, simultaneously wrenched in agony. Lois could still remember the pain. It first struck two kids and a jogger in the middle of the park where she and Richard watched Jason playing. Screeching tires sounded from a few blocks away. Richard had rushed to the playground to help the kids but then a second attack occurred, a burning, stabbing and a heart attack all at once. This time, almost the entire park had been flattened.
The next day, she wrote the outline for "Why the world doesn't need Superman."
The next month, Congress read the second draft of the Mutant Registration Act.
"So it really was a mutant attack," said Lois.
"No!" Rogue spat out. "Not really. He was forced."
"You knew the guy who did that?"
Rogue nodded. "He was forced. There's a sector of the government called the Cadmus Project that specialises in making supersoldiers. It's been around for years. They've done things to base-line humans, to mutants, to aliens. One of the leaders of Cadmus, Colonel Stryker, kidnapped a man who had immense telepathic powers. He used another mutant's powers to control the telepath into attacking all mutants."
"If this Stryker guy wanted to experiment on mutants, why kill them all?"
Rogue picked on the thinning sheets. "He'd gone nuts or something. He wanted his son to be cured of being a mutant and when he found out that he couldn't, he just wanted to destroy us all."
"But I'm not a mutant," said Lois. "Am I?"
She shook her head. "No you're not. The second telepathic assault happened to baseline humans, the ones that don't have powers. See, the X-Men went in and poked holes in Stryker's plan but we needed Magneto to help us get in--"
Lois started. Magneto was anything but ambiguous about his feelings on humans.
"I know." Rogue laughed self-deprecatingly. Her words lengthened into the faintest of Southern drawls. "We were desperate. We knew he'd try something but kind of, naively, hoped he wouldn't. That his friendship with... certain members of our team would be stronger than his complex. Of course, that didn't happen and he got a hold of the telepath while he was still in a suggestive state. He told the telepath to destroy all the humans. We stopped him."
Lois' heart thumped slow and hard. "How?" She feared the answer.
"We knocked him out."
She let out the breath she'd been holding. Rogue's lips curled up a little bit. "X-Men don't kill." Then she frowned. "At least, we try not to. Sometimes, unintentionally--" A light left her lips, making her look young all over again. "I met up with the people who started the X-Men when I was seventeen. I was a runaway. My parents kicked me out when my powers catalysed."
"What is it that you do?" Lois asked.
Rogue held one of her covered hand out. "I absorb the life energies of anyone I touch skin to skin. Powers if you have them; memories if not. You're knocked out meantime. The scientific term is tactile empathic emulation."
"You didn't take the cure?"
"Of course I did," said Rogue, her bitterness apparent. "I was seventeen and the first boy I ever kissed went into a coma for a week. I almost killed one of my best friends when I tried to wake him up from a nightmare. I felt diseased, trapped, and the cure was... God, it was hope. In hindsight, I barely had time to learn control over my powers but patience had never been one of my virtues. Still isn't. Which is probably why I'm here against orders divulging my secrets."
Lois grinned. "I hear ya, sister. So what happened with you when the cure backfired?"
"Typical effects. My powers went haywire. Usually, when I absorb someone it has a one-to-two staying power; for every minute that I'm hanging on, I have your powers for two. Since the cure backfired, it just all... stays in here." She pressed her hands just under her breasts where her diaphragm would be. "I've gotten better at calling them up but sometimes, without warning, it'll just... let go. I'm even more fucked up than when I started. God, don't you sometimes wish you could travel back in time and give your younger self a good whack in the teeth?"
"Too many times to count."
They shared stilted chuckles.
"Anyway, things seemed to get better for everyone after Alcatraz. I mean, Hank McCoy became our UN Ambassador. Our connections about underground mutants shot though the roof and with them, the number of mutants whose powers were out of control. That's when we first realised that the cure was backfiring. It wasn't stable. When Hank looked into it, he found out that they rushed it to market. It never even passed minimum safety regulations."
"Do you have documentation for this?" Lois felt her interest growing.
"Oh yeah." Rogue leaned over the other side of the bed and pulled up a messenger bag from which she drew out an interdepartmental envelope. "These are all photocopies. This stack is the info we got on Stryker's base in Canada--"
She shrugged. "Don't they have to do what we say? It's all NATO, right?"
"Not exactly." Richard would throw a fit over that simplistic misinformation. "But go on."
"This stuff is from Hank about the cure. We have info from an insider at Worthington Labs, too. You know how they got the cure?"
Lois shook her head.
"It was out of the blood serum from a then-twelve-year-old boy." Rogue laid out another sheet of paper, a large photograph of a boy shaved bald. Black stripes covered his eyes for anonymity. "They isolated the serum and created synthesized versions but they still had to take blood from him monthly to ensure the full potency. He still has panic attacks when he sees needles."
Lois's hand hovered over the picture. This was Clark's nightmare. This boy could be Jason. "You know the boy?"
"We liberated him from the lab and are keeping him in a secure location," Rogue said cautiously. "He's not handling the whole idea about being the source of the cure very well. He needs protection from people who want to make him a guinea pig again and mutants who want revenge for the backfires."
"But it wasn't his fault!" Lois said, indignant on the boy's behalf. "He was just a kid. Where are his parents?"
"Who knows? He's not telling and we can't find any records." Rogue pulled at her sleeves. "Some of my more paranoid colleagues think he's part of Cadmus."
"Tell me more about Cadmus."
But Rogue shook her head. "Listen to my story first. If you think you can write a good enough article out of that, I'll see if I can introduce you to the people I know. But after that I want you to swear you'll take my information about Cadmus straight to your contacts in the Justice League. They need to know this. They need to help us stop it."
Her voice recorder had two gigs of memory left and an electrical adaptor. Lois plugged it in. "Start at the beginning, in chronological order, and I'll ask questions between."
Lois did her best thinking when chewing. Viciously, she chewed five pieces of gum in her mouth as she listened to the recording through her earbuds. Lunch came and went as did her joint deadline with Clark on the misallocation of social care funds. A pencil sacrificed its glossy shell to a particularly wormy fight between her journalistic conscience and maternal self-preservation.
Rogue's story mixed personal tragedy with a social one, spiced with adventure and the underdog's fight. She could spin it well. But would the story of an admitted mutant vigilante sway the opinions of a nation determined to fear?
She popped another piece of gum.
"It's almost midnight," said Clark. His body shadowed the entire door frame. "Are you okay?"
She leaned back, massaging her temples. "Do you think our government is performing experiments on humans?"
Clark's carefully thought-out answer did nothing for her confidence. "I think there are a misguided few who misremember that they represent all the people of this nation, not just the few who have the means to be heard."
"Why didn't the League stop the Mutant Registration Act from passing?"
"Lois, our job is to aid, not rule. Diana made a wonderful case in the UN about the responsibilities of a world with metas but ultimately, we have to sit back and allow each country to make its own decision."
"So it's like band-aid," said Lois, sharp, needed to argue. "You can fix the symptoms but not the underlying illness."
"If we forced our agenda on the world, what would that make us?" said Clark, still calm, still soft-spoken.
"Big damn band-aids!" Lois threw her arms up. She hated this argument. She hated that she couldn't take a position on it. "I just... this woman's story is so fucking outrageous, I want to... hit something! How can people do that to other humans? To a school full of kids?"
Clark slid behind her chair. He gripped his shoulders in his huge, paw-like hands and kneaded the knots out of them. "You'll make them listen, Lois."
She met Rogue again at Newark Airport. Rogue took one look at her outfit-- jeans, a t-shirt and a cardigan to ward off the early autumn chill-- nodded and led the way out to the parking lot. Their mode of transportation from the airport to District X was a hatchback, several years old with a long, shallow dent on the passenger side.
Rogue pulled a tote bag from the backseat and put it on Lois' lap. "Put this under your shirt."
She pulled the contents out. "Kevlar?"
"Just in case. Flack jackets're more protection but it looks threatening. This'll cover vital organs at least."
"Except for my head."
"Heads are small targets."
"Where are we going exactly?"
"Manhattan. You've heard of District X." At Lois' nod, she continued. "Since '08, District X has had the highest unemployment rate in the USA, the highest rate of illiteracy and the most severe overcrowding outside of Los Angeles. Fights break out pretty often. People are... depressed. Angry."
"At the government?"
"Government, police, baselines, metas, boyfriends, girlfriends, anyone, anything." Rogue sighed. "It's not all bad, of course, but it's better to be prepared. Especially if they find out you're baseline."
"Baseline," Lois repeated. "That means not mutant, right?"
She scribbled in her notebook. "What exactly are we doing there?"
Rogue thumbed the back seat. Lois turned and saw four taped cardboard boxes. "We've got some school supplies to deliver."
Once upon a time, District X was called Kleindeutschland for the German immigrants who occupied it in the 1800s. When they moved out in the early twentieth century, Eastern Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants took over. In the mid-1900s, it became Loisaida, home of Puerto Ricans and a rising number of African Americans. In the eighties and nineties, it was referred to as Alphabet City due to Avenues A, B, C and D. Indie poets, writers and musicians absorbed "realness" of marginalisation and produced edgy new work. Now, people called it Mutantown in half-whispers, as though naming it would conjure boogie monsters.
Lois photographed half-finished attempts at gentrification beside b-boy tags. A group of teenage boys played basketball in an empty lot beside a diner with faded awnings. Some jumped, some stretched their limbs, some shocked their opponents and were called out to foul. A woman tended a community garden. She looked human enough until she pulled her hat off; dozens of black and brown tentacles writhed around her face. The pierced and dyed walked arm-in-arm with the scaled and polka-dotted. A girl, far too young to be so burdened, lugged groceries with one hand and held her pregnant belly with the other.
Rogue pulled up beside the girl. "Hi, Celeste. Need a lift?"
Celeste smiled wearily and accepted. Seeing Lois, her smile dimmed. "Who's this?"
"This is Lois. She's helping out with the delivery today."
"Hi." Lois held her hand out for a shake. Celeste returned it, limp and rapidly.
"She's a flatscan." At Rogue's frown, Celeste amended, "Baseline."
"She's my friend," Rogue said. "And she's got a lot of meta friends."
"But no mutant ones."
"Except Rogue," Lois quickly corrected.
Celeste didn't look convinced.
She tried another tack. "When are you due?"
"Last trimester sucks. I peed every five minutes and I swear I still have bruises on my kidney from his roundhouse kicks."
Celeste looked out the window. Her ash blonde hair curtained her expression.
"Do you know if you're having a girl or a boy?"
Still no reply.
"Tough crowd," Lois muttered.
They turned down Avenue B, passing Tompkins Square Park where a small crowd gathered around a band. Their tunes sounded roughly heavy metal with synthesizers and smoky pictographs pulsing along to guitar riffs. As long-time fan of metal and other heavy rock, Lois approved. "They're good."
"That's Sentinel Bait," said Rogue. "I like dropping in to listen to them as much as possible. You can copy some of their tracks from my player if you'd like."
"It's not like a legitimate record company would sign them," Celeste said.
"True. But their homepage gets a hundred thousand hits and hundreds of downloads a day."
Rogue parked in front of a building faced with chipped brownstone and exited. Celeste clumsily scooted out of the back seat seat. Lois blocked her way, asking, "Are you this hostile with everyone or just baselines?"
"My boyfriend was baseline," said Celeste. She shoved her door open and waddled to the school, forgetting her groceries.
Scrambling out her seat, Lois gathered the grocery bags. "What happened?" she called out after the girl.
Celeste stopped and turned around. Lois held out the bags. The girl stomped back down the sidewalk and took them. Her hands shook.
"Do you care if your baby is baseline or mutant?"
"Of course I care!" Celeste spat out. "God, you'd have to be an idiot not to care. Living in here means you have to be a mutant. Living out there means you have to be human. I can't afford anything more on my salary and I sure as hell am not crawling back to my sisters who'd probably--" She pursed her lips, suddenly aware of how much she had revealed. One of the plastic bags slipped.
Lois picked it up and the battered box of microwaveable ravioli. "My son is a meta. I love him so much it freaks the holy hell out of me."
Celeste turned on her heel and marched to the school entrance. Rogue came up behind Lois, balancing all four boxes with ease.
"Your interviews always go that smooth?"
Lois grinned. "Kent does smooth. Me, I batter them down until they cry Uncle."
Laughing, Rogue said, "I like you just fine, Ms. Lane."
Teresa Rourke Cassidy had shockingly red hair. It had to have come from a bottle. Lois said so. The other woman laughed. "Sadly all real. I blame my da entirely for the hair and a fatal obsession for angst-filled folk songs," she said.
"Where do you want this stuff?" Rogue asked.
Teresa clapped her hands together. "What've you brought?"
"Printer cartridges, paper and juice mostly."
"Lock up the juice in kitchen and leave the rest here." Teresa ducked her head which only made her look even younger than eighteen. "The school likes to make sure the kids get something nutritious once in a while hence real fruit juice instead of coloured sugar. But desperate assholes like to break in and take whatever's not nailed down. Fuckin' pricks."
Lois' maternal side reared back in shock. "You teach kids with that mouth?"
"I'm not a full time teacher," said Teresa. "I help out some with reading and writing twice a week. The rest of the time, I work for a private investigation firm. And once in a blue moon, I help Rogue's people out. That's how it is around here; everyone has to be a jack of all trades."
"You boss allows mutants in his firm."
"He should. He is one. All of us are." She pulled her hair up into a ponytail as she talked. "Celeste, sweetheart, have the rest of my lunch."
From down the hall came Celeste's reply. "I don't need it, thank you."
"Bullshit. Come on and eat for the wee one if nothing else. Celeste is the real teacher," Teresa said. "She finished high school two years early and was going to start college until the baby came around."
"Don't talk about me behind my back." Celeste waddled to the box of print cartridges.
"You're a telepath. There is no behind your back."
The young woman shrugged. "Another window is broken."
"We'll fix it up."
"They'll just break it again."
"Again with the happy, cheery teaching environment," said Lois.
Grinning, Teresa said, "It's not sarcasm, really. It's more gallows humour. We must laugh about it or we'd cry all day."
"And become dehydrated," added Celeste. "Clean water is expensive."
Lois shook her head. "It's Third World conditions right in the middle of the most expensive real estate on Earth. What the fuck?" Furiously, she took notes.
The printer cartridges went in a locked room too but the paper didn't. Apparently, one of the buildings housed a make-shift paper recycling plant thanks to a mutant who ate and vomited paper pulp and another who generated low level heat. The school's plastics and glass went to recycling depots around Manhattan to help with school funds. Part of the playing field behind the school became another small garden. Two varieties of squash, an apple tree, tomatoes, lettuce and herbs thrived under the students' care. As an added bonus, they got to eat what they grew. Graffiti tagged the outside walls facing the school yard, all the way to the roof, but no one bothered to remove them.
"They're like badges," said Rogue. "Kind of pretty, really."
"Certainly colourful." Lois stood back, studying the words. "Let me see if I get the slang: flatties and sapes are baseline humans; wonks are metas, muties and genejokes are mutants."
Rogue's cheeks flamed. "Yeah. You planning to make a dictionary entry?"
"On a scale of one to ten, how offensive was I?"
"That's what I thought." She scribbled more in her notebook. "A lot of my co-workers say muties very nonchalantly. When they talk about mutants at all."
"A lot of people here say flatties very nonchalantly." Rogue pulled at a weed growing out of a crack in the asphalt. "Growing up, I thought nothing could be more hurtful than the word 'mutie.' Then I realised people would rather ignore us than even insult us. We read papers obsessively to keep on top of things. There's very little press about mutants unless it's negative."
"Welcome to the media at large."
"It's not just that! The firm Teresa works for helps the police out all the time but they're paid under the table and kept off the record. The doctor here, Cecilia, was one of the best trauma surgeons in Manhattan until someone opened fire in the ER and her powers activated automatically. Then they asked for her resignation after seventeen years of service because her presence 'causes disruption.' They just don't..." She tugged on a lock of white hair. "There's some violence, sure, but there's also a strong sense of community. You have to when it feels like everyone else is against you. No one touches the kids; there's been no violence against children around here for two years. People share, barter. And the art-- I have got to show you the art."
"Like Sentinel Bait," said Lois.
"And Jumbo Carnation. He's a fashion designer. He sends his stuff to Donna Karen by fax. There's Jay Guthrie who's one of the most brilliant singer-songwriters ever. When he sings, everyone in the audience sobs. My buddy, Pete, comes here once in a while and teaches art to anyone who'll stop drop into his studio. It's alive here, Lois. We are alive, not some dirty secret you file in Washington and brush under a rug. Somehow you have to remind people of that."
She dropped the weed. Puffy white seeds hovered at her knees for a moment before a gust of wind scattered them out to the street.
Lois saw the art, met the musicians and talked shop with the tentacle-haired lady who studied journalism for a year and still maintained a blog. She ate a corned beef on rye and downed lager with a former Wall Street accountant and a former paramedic; the servings seemed extra large to her but Rogue explained that most mutants needed to consume more energy due to their powers. She won two hands of poker and lost one, cheerfully slinging insults across the table. She asked questions. She listened to depressingly similar stories.
"I was an accountant until my boss found my MRA."
"I was supposed to get a baseball scholarship to Stanford but my powers backfired."
"My wife left me when our baby was born with fins."
"My parents kicked me out when my mutation catalysed."
Lois' pen ran out from writing so much. Jay Guthrie gave her his. "I got all my songs in my head anyway. I'll find another one."
"I'll mail you a whole box."
He ducked his head shyly. "No need, ma'am. We make do here."
"But you shouldn't have to just make do. We're in fucking America! Pens should be the least of your problems. You sing like the bastard child of Jeff Buckley and Janis Joplin and you look like, pardon the pun, an angel. Why aren't you on MTV making stupid music videos?"
Jay shrugged, his carmine wings flapped a breeze to cool his blush. Then he cracked a secretive little smile. "My girlfriend's Sunni Muslim. I'm going to convert so we can get married."
Lois blinked at the non sequitur. "Congratulations."
"Ten years ago, some folks would've frowned on us for doing that on account of the Iraq War. Got another set of friends getting married around Christmas. Same-sex couple, both ladies. No one's said a thing to either of us except congratulations. Seems to me there's some progress, right?"
At night, neon lights and broken streetlamps threw District X in sharp angles and shadows. Rogue walked beside Lois, speaking little, her eyes darting around the corners. Lois clamped her bag to her side. The chain-linked basketball court they'd passed in the morning now played court to half a dozen youths around a barrel fire. Shouts sounded from upstairs apartments. A child cried. Something slithered. Lois wished she could see well enough to write.
"Just around this block," Rogue whispered.
Her words became a jinx. Eight individuals slithered from the shadows. Two held weapons. The rest didn't need them.
"Heard you brought a flatty," said the apparent leader, a very thin, very blond woman with spidery arms that ended in claws. "We don't let her kind stain our streets. Or gene-traitors either."
Rogue sighed. "I'm with the X-Men."
"Fuckers!" shouted another from the back.
"Monkey lickers!" came from the leader's right-hand man.
Rogue held her hands up. "We've had a real nice visit so far. Don't make my day end badly."
The gang rushed them. Rogue jumped to one side, Lois to the other, dipping a hand in her purse, Her taser slapped against her palm. She pulled it out as she came out of the roll and pointed it at the nearest target. Her attacker convulsed and fell. His buddy roared and took his place. Lois waited, crouched. As came within striking distance, she surged up and rammed the heel of her hand up his jaw. His teeth clacked; blood spurted from his mouth. Lois pressed the taser to his side and pulsed him. He went down flailing.
"Heads up!" Rogue yelled. Lois turned in time to see a body flying towards her. She hopped away. The gang leader slammed into the wall and fell ungracefully into a stick-like heap. Rogue was still busy with three of the gangsters. The remaining two turned their attention to Lois.
She rattled her taser. The indicator flashed on empty. Her first two assailants took a lot of energy to put down. "Well, fuck."
From behind, came a voice, almost hollow sounding. "Stop. Now."
To Lois' surprise, the gang members froze in place. Rogue relaxed her fighting stance. "Thanks for the save, Celeste."
The young girl melted out of the shadows. Her index and middle fingers pressed against either temple. "What do you want me to do with them?"
"Send them to the precinct then knock them out for the rest of the night," said Rogue. "Except for the bitchy one. She tore up my favourite jacket. Can you make her do the Macarena all the way there?"
Celeste might have smiled but it was too dark to be sure. "You were very foolish to walk unescorted at night," she said when the gang members turned the corner.
"We were having a good day," Lois said.
"All the more reason to take care. Things have a way of balancing--" She stopped on a gasp, clutching her stomach.
Lois was at her side in an instant. "What hurts?"
"I... I'm not sure. It just... ow!" Celeste's hands clawed under her belly.
Rogue threw Lois the keys then picked Celeste up like she weighed as much as a new born puppy. "You remember where Cecilia's clinic is?"
"Drive. Fast as you can and to hell with the traffic lights."
The hatchback screeched to a stop at a brownstone building with a line of red and orange maples. Lois ran up the stairs and kept her finger on the doorbell while Rogue carried a suddenly meek Celeste.
"This better be good. I actually got to cook my dinner tonight." The front door opened. The doctor, a woman in her forties with beaded cornrows, took one look at Celeste and immediately pulled them in. Rogue shared what had happened as they sped-walked to the back of the building where Cecilia Reyes kept her practice.
The clinic was faded but neat with gleaming mismatched furniture and a pristine gaggle of instruments in various baskets and boxes. Celeste lay on the examination table, knees up, feet in stirrups with a thin blanket covering her from the waist down. She worried the fitted sheet underneath. Rogue stood on her right. Lois took position to her left. A mental imp made her search under the blanket for the girl's hand. She squeezed it. Celeste didn't let go.
"My sisters told me I shouldn't've gotten with Jake," said the girl. "Sometimes I think I went out with him because they hated him so much."
"Your sisters miss you," said Rogue.
Celeste snorted. "The Three-in-One don't miss anyone."
"Sure they do. You just gotta know how to read them."
"I'm going to do an internal exam," said Cecilia. "Would you like the others to leave the room?"
Celeste shook her head. "I don't care either way." But she gripped Lois' hand tighter. Cecilia traded a glance with her. Lois lifted her chin. The doctor nodded.
"Okay, I'm going to put on gloves and some lubricant on my hands but you might still feel a little pinch. I'm not going to insult you by telling you to relax but I want you to breathe nice and easy through the whole thing, okay?"
Celeste nodded. Then suddenly, she burst into tears. "They'll hate me if my baby's baseline."
Rogue pulled a chair in so she could lean into the bed. "No, they won't, honey."
"They'll hate the baby." Rogue didn't answer, making Celeste sob harder. "I wish Jake was alive. I wish he'd been a mutant too. Or even a meta. I can't do this, Rogue! I'm only eighteen and I have no viable skills in... whatever happens, we'll be rejected."
"My grandma's Korean," Lois said. "My gramps met her when he was serving in the Korean War. She told me stories about how people reacted when they found out Gramps married a gook. It wasn't pretty. But it did get better. My mom and aunt barely warranted a second look. With my sister and I, it's a non-issue. I promise you, Celeste, your child isn't going to grow up regretting his heritage."
Celeste's nails bit into Lois' hand. "Really?"
Lois solemnly crossed her heart.
"I'm done." Cecilia whipped her gloves off. "Good news: I didn't find anything. I'm going to listen to your belly too, okay? You can put your legs down now."
As the doctor continued her inspection, Celeste spoke up again. "Jake was Korean, too."
Lois grinned. "Yeah? We're practically cousins then."
"He always took me to a Korean restaurant across from his precinct. He'd order bibimbap and I'd eat from his bowl even though I promised myself I wouldn't. It's so fattening."
"But so worth it. My grandma made the best bibimbap in a hot stone bowl and at the last minute, she'd crack a raw egg against it so the heat from the bowl fried the egg."
"That sounds glorious," Celeste moaned.
"Dang, you're making me hungry, too," said Rogue. "I want in on this feast. I've always liked kimchi."
"It's a date," Lois said. "I know a great little place in Midtown that's been around for years. Whenever my partners and I are in town, we always go there."
Cecilia pulled away from the examination table. "Everything sounds good. I have a feeling you had false labour pains. They usually don't happen until well into the third trimester but you've been under a lot of stress and are probably malnourished, too. Do everything you can to be healthy until this baby is born and this shouldn't happen again."
Celeste mumbled her thanks as she awkwardly pulled her pants back on. As Rogue helped her out, Lois hovered by the bed, suddenly discomfited after that heart to heart.
The nice thing about telepathy is that no one else can hear you being an idiot. Celeste's voice resonated strong in Lois' head.
That is weird, she replied.
Telepathic giggles sounded yellow with streaks of pale green.
"You took me there to get the human angle," Lois accused as they drove to their motel.
Rogue smiled. "Guilty as charged." But she didn't look at all remorseful. "Did it work?"
"Clark would be all over it. I wish I could've brought him. He's better at those types of things."
"You weren't half bad for someone who squeezes people until they cry for mercy."
"If you tell anyone, I may have to kill you," Lois said seriously.
"Who'd believe me?"
Lois took a lunchtime flight back down to Metropolis. She'd slept like the dead in her hotel room and needed the entire pot of coffee to function. Fortunately, packing her overnight bag had become a reflex after years of travel or she'd've missed her flight. She took another pitifully small cup of coffee from the beverage cart on the flight, barely looking up as she transcribed her notes into her laptop.
The taxi dropped her off at the same time Richard pulled into the driveway with Jason in the back seat. Her son waved at her but rushed into the house without saying hello. The instrumental jingle from his video game console turned on soon afterward.
Richard kissed her as if she'd been gone for months. Lois reciprocated.
"How was it?" he wanted to know.
Lois tilted her head to one side as she thought of the business card in her bag. By now, she knew the Xavier Institute's phone number by heart. "It was different. But... not really."
"Tell me about it?"
"Have you got all night?"
He whistled. "That good, huh? Maybe we should wait until Clark comes home."
"It's worth telling twice."
They entered their safe little home, miles away from Mutantown. Dinner-- made of organic vegetables and local mahi-mahi-- stuck in her throat.
Lois didn't sleep that night; the article flew from her head to the keyboard in a maelstrom. She skipped work the next day after explaining the situation to Perry. He ranted and pounded his fists then, after Lois sent him a draft and outline with half a dozen pictures, ordered her to drop everything else on her plate to finish the story. Clark took Rogue's information to the Justice League.
The article, when it printed, spread across an eight-page pull-out section. A month later, she received a terse letter announcing the birth of Jacob Louis Stepford. Just after Christmas, Perry informed her that her article was likely on the finalist list for the Pulitzer despite pressure to have it removed from the running altogether.
Lois framed Celeste's letter.
She didn't win the award that year of course. But she was in the crowd ten years later, clapping wildly when Celeste did.