She is seven the first time she does magic. Her mother slaps her across the face and everything is ringing and still in the silence that follows. Even her mother’s voice is swallowed up by that huge quiet, but her lips are clear when they tell Elena to go to her room and so she goes. She doesn’t realise that she has skipped the distance between the darkened kitchen and her bedroom until later, when the men discuss her case file. This is the last time she will see her mother. This is also the last time she will do magic, at least for another ten years.
At the Institution, they try everything to get Elena to perform magic again. When bribes of Hershey bars and visits with her mother don’t work, they move onto threats, and then to acting on those threats. When even electrical shocks fail to produce a result, she is moved to a separate wing with the other potentials. Potentials are what they call the kids who have magical ability but no way to access or control it. Rumor has it that potentials who fail to level up by the time they hit puberty are taken out into the garden and shot.
Every morning before breakfast they meditate, because studies have shown similarities in brainwave activity between meditation and magic usage. After breakfast, they have regular classes, and then after lunch they have tactical classes and training. Before Elena learns to read, she knows how to calculate ballistics trajectories and disarm opponents twice her size. Try as she might, she cannot remember anything about that night except for the feeling of perfect stillness. Her instructors have tried everything from noise-cancelling headphones to immobilization, but she has never been able to find that feeling again. Sometimes she wonders whether the whole thing even happened, but she is smart enough not to voice this out loud.
The potentials and the talents take most of their classes together, under the assumption that exposure will provide motivation for the potentials to level up. In fact, it creates a brutal hierarchy with the talents at the top and the potentials little more than human whetstones against which the talents hone their developing powers. Two girls in Elena’s year, including her roommate, end up in a coma from psychic attacks, and one boy actually dies when one of the talents calls down lightning on his head. The head of the Institute seems to view this as confirmation that the boy lacked magical abilities, and the smirking talent is never even reprimanded.
Elena is quiet and mostly ignored, until Ruby arrives at the Institution. Seventeen and already in control of her powers, she walks in the door like a conquering queen. No one knows what to make of her, with the cigarette burns ringing her throat like a necklace and hair that has been shaved to remove any handholds. Ruby keeps to herself the first week, not using her power much but not hiding it, either. It’s not until the second week that she makes her first move to solidify power.