Nora didn't remember the first time she'd ever spoken to Aaron Arnold - she avoided people she had to look up at. They made her feel small, smaller than she was despite her physical disadvantage. Consequentially, it made it hard to place him in a crowd. She missed his face most of the time, mistaking the back of his head for someone else's. Henry's even.
So, naturally, it felt odd talking to someone when you only have one thing in common: a mysterious tattoo that makes you vomit. It wasn't exactly what every girl dreams of talking to a gorgeous guy about. And Aaron was pretty pleasing to the eye. Nora liked his wavy hair most - it was light, a mixture of brown and blonde flickers, and short, but long enough to have it styled so the front waves fell slightly over his forehead. He had green eyes, a subtle green that Nora had taken years to distinguish from blue, and long, dark lashes. Naturally, when he looked at her, she swooned.
'When did it hit you?' Aaron had a deeper voice than Nora's dad, the kind that was tinged with rasp but still rumbled through her body.
She swallowed and looked down at her feet, keeping her sleeve over her wrist. 'I was out about a minute before you.'
The four of them had been dragged to the sick room and the stench of cleanliness was making her dizzy. The lady'd given them all half a glass of lemonade to drink, but Nora could still taste the bile in her mouth.
She looked around the room. The bed was sunken and the sheets were like sandpaper - what she'd imagine were served up at the hospital. Oriana had her head on Henry's shoulder, her mouth uncharacteristically drooping as she fell in and out of sleep. They were hunched in the corner of the second bed, Henry clearly keeping one eye open as if it would help his hearing of Nora and Aaron's conversation.
Aaron was positioned on the bottom edge of Nora's bed, his hands folded on his knees and his back hunched. He twisted his neck to look at her.
'You think the two are related?' He paused. 'The vomiting and the... tattoos?'
'I don't think any of this makes sense.'
He sighed. It was long and heavy, like he was disappointed in her answer. She drew her knees down and crossed her legs, keeping her hands hidden in her lap.
'How did this happen?' she tried.
'I have no idea. I also never wanted a tattoo.'
The second thing they had in common.
'I don't know what I'm going to tell my parents,' he said, looking at his hands. His thumb was circling the tiny A on his hand. 'They're going to kill me.'
Third thing in common. 'Did the nurse say she was calling them?'
'Yeah, like half an hour ago. I'm not surprised they haven't arrived. My parents are too in love with their jobs to care about picking me up.'
'If they're so consumed with work, maybe they won't notice your wrist,' Nora said, surprised at her bluntness.
Aaron looked up at her again, this time smirking. She sucked in a breath, quickly looking away.
'Believe me,' he said, 'if it worked like that, I'd do drugs.'
The flush in her cheeks vanished. He would do drugs? Maybe he did, just not when his parents were around.
'Stop complaining,' Henry added in a croaky voice, slick with "popular" attitude. 'It's just a tattoo.'
Just a tattoo! Huh. Nora wanted to laugh. Her mum told her off for drawing flowers on her hand with pen, let alone getting a permanent letter etched into her skin by some drugged-up thug working in some dirty alleyway with a sign flickering, "TATTOOS HERE".
'A tattoo you can explain, right, Henry?' Aaron asked, hoisting himself up onto the bed and resting his head against the pearl-coloured wall.
'So maybe someone drugged us. No biggie. You can get it removed in a couple of years.'
Nora watched Aaron's eyes shoot in her direction and then back to Henry, his head lolling to the side. 'Out of all the people I could be stuck in here with, I get Henry Blake.'
'And we get you two losers. The loner and the rich boy with no friends.'
'Actually,' a female voice interrupted, 'you get a lot more than them.'
Nora's head shot up, taking in the tall woman. Who was she? She certainly didn't work at this school, not wearing that. Her dress was white, tight, and a red belt wrapped around her hips so tight she was a walking hourglass. With sleek hair pulled back in a tight, black ponytail, she eyed the four of them with narrowing blue eyes. Her eyes settled on Aaron. The woman's mouth gave a brief smile, so fast that when Nora blinked, it was gone.
'Who are you?' Henry said, shoving Oriana off him. She gave a soft moan, rubbing her jaw. 'The tattoo police?'
'I admire your confidence, Henry Blake, but I do not recommend you voice it so distinctly. It would be unwise to create more enemies than you already have.'
He snorted. 'And I suppose you expect me to take your advice?'
'Again, Mr Blake,' she said, 'it would be unwise to create more enemies.'
The woman cleared her throat and turned her attention back to Aaron. Nora couldn't deny it. She was, in a harsh way, attractive. Her eyes sliced you in two, but Aaron seemed to hold his own. He even sat up a little straighter. Nora felt something sink, and it wasn't the mattress - she could already feel the wooden ridges of the bed frame.
He gave a smile, but it was heartless. Nora switched her eyes between them.
The woman suddenly turned on Nora. 'Nora Hunt. Pleased to meet you.'
'Don't be,' Henry snapped.
The woman held her eyes on Nora. 'Oh, Mr Blake, already I can see you've ignored my instructions.'
'I thought it was advice.'
'For a normal person, yes.' She smiled at Nora, her attention still on Henry. 'For you, that's an order.'
'And I suppose-'
She threw up a hand in his direction. 'I will not bicker with you, Mr Blake. Your behaviour will not be tolerated given the circumstances, and I doubt your friends will appreciate it in any other circumstances. Now.'
Aaron slid off the bed, shooting a glance at Nora. She convinced herself he was looking at her for reassurance, which was comforting. She followed and placed her body above her feet, her wrists pinned behind her back.
'Who are you?' Aaron asked, his voice formal and polite. His casual rasp was gone, Nora noticed, but his frame was strong, tall. He wasn't overly muscly, although he was clearly fit. It was odd to see him match the woman's height.
'My name is Yasmin. It's nice to meet you all.'
'Wish I could say the-'
'That is enough, Mr Blake. NOAH would not appreciate all your carrying on.'
'"NOAH"?' Nora decided to ask. Her voice sounded weak, frail, like she was wounded. Well, in truth, she was. Her wrists were wounded.
'Yes. Surely you can spell it, Nora. You're a bright girl.'
'What's "NOAH"?' Aaron asked, a little louder.
Something strange followed. Although Aaron and the woman were the same height, she suddenly seemed to look down on him. Nora was given the immediate impression that they should all shut up and listen to her. The thought terrified her. Was this woman connected to the tattoos? Was she the one that had drugged them? Where were her parents?
She had never wanted to go home that much. Not even as much as the last day of the school year.
'NOAH stands for the National Association of Alliance and Hostility.' No one spoke, so she continued. 'N for Nora, O for Oriana, A for Aaron and H for-'
'Henry,' Aaron said quietly.
'That is correct, Mr Arnold. And here I thought Nora was supposed to be the smart one.'
'You're saying that, we-' Henry drew a small circle with his finger '-are "NOAH"?'
She laughed. 'NOAH is not composed of four teenagers, Mr Blake. You are simply a new subdivision within the association.'
'Never heard of it,' Henry added, still slumped in his corner. Oriana was still, eyeing the woman with wide eyes, awfully pale. 'Why should we trust you?'
'I can explain your tattoos,' she said simply.
'Why us?' Aaron injected. His words were getting quicker, more agitated, as if he wanted to suck the explanations out of her.
Her mouth twitched. 'Answers will come, Mr Arnold. For now, I suggest you return home and get some rest.'
'You're kidding, right?' Oriana snapped. 'I've got a tattoo that I didn't ask for. I don't care about your stupid association.'
'I think you'll take that back in a number of days, Miss Matthews.'
'What do you mean by subdivision?' Aaron tried again.
'NOAH is made up of teams of four, each of a different subdivision. Society is made up of many faults, Mr Arnold, as I'm sure you may have noticed. Murders, rapes, suicide, terrorism. NOAH goes beyond the surface, beyond the police. We are a government organisation.'
'Made up of teenage recruits?' Henry snorted. 'Sounds reliable.'
'Mr Blake, your remarks are extremely irritating. Your position can be taken from you, I hope you're aware.'
'Wouldn't bother me. I'm outta here-'
'Not so fast. NOAH prides itself on discrepancy. We can't have you strolling the streets.'
He scowled. 'Well, I'm certainly not going anywhere with you.'
'How pleasing that is to my ears, dear.' Yasmin's hands lifted as she intertwined her fingers, almost shielding her stomach. 'Unfortunately, for now, you will have to do as I say. As will you all.'
Nora wasn't sure if she should say anything. She wasn't about to catch a taxi with Yasmin and take off into the sunset. Stranger-danger. But Aaron seemed interested, and she couldn't deny: the origin of her mysterious tattoo was pestering the back of her mind. Actually, not just the back. Her head was spinning with theories. NOAH was a lot to grasp, let alone the tattoo.
'What will happen to us?' Aaron asked, stepping sideways, as if to block Henry.
Yasmin took a step toward him, looking down as she moved. Her eyes flicked back quickly to his face. 'Exactly as I tell you.'