Featuring Subject 13, Prototype Alpha, and Pixie of Youth Brigade
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, late night
Nasty entered the hotel room she shared with Eric. He followed inside after her. "Tash, are you sure you want to come back here?"
"Yeah. I'm tired. It's," Nasty checked the time on the room's alarm clock, "past midnight. You can stay at the dance longer if you want."
"I'm fine. It wouldn't be as fun there without you, you know?"
Nasty dropped on to the couch and kicked off her shoes. She wriggled her toes, working out the kinks. "It didn't go as bad as I thought."
"No one was there looking to start a fight with you." Eric looked at Nasty's sock feet. "That trick from Die Hard works, you know."
Eric slipped his shoes off and sat down on the bed. "Go completely bare foot and then knead your toes in the rug. I've done it on trips with my folks to the West Coast and to England. Try it."
Can't hurt. Nasty rolled her socks off, dropping them still balled up on the floor beside her. She winced at the odour. "Sorry." Nasty placed one foot on the floor and gripped the carpet with her toes. After a few squeezes, the pain she hadn't realized she had eased. "Oh, you're right. Thanks, Eric."
"No problem, Tash."
Nasty switched direction on the couch to work out the soreness in her other foot. "I could go for a snack right now. Like, I'm hungry, but not supper hungry?"
"Yeah." Eric slipped off the bed. "I might have something in my bags. I thought I packed a bag of hickory sticks or something like that."
Nasty scrambled to a sitting position. "I'd go for anything right now."
"Let me look." Eric dug through his bags for a moment. "Ah, close." He held up a bag of barbecue chips. "Not even squished. First time that's ever happened on a flight."
"That's Eagle for you. Nothing of yours squished."
Eric joined Nasty on the couch. "I don't know about that, Tash. I saw some of the news from Rochester about you as Peregrine. Some of those people you fought tried to squish you hard."
Nasty shrugged. "I was trying to squish back."
"It still looked like you were getting hit hard." Eric opened the large bag of chips. He held the bag out to Nasty.
"Thanks." Nasty reached in to pull a few potato chips out. "And don't worry about what happened to me. Peregrine's costume had a lot of padding. I've been hit harder and still bounced back."
Eric grabbed a handful out of the bag. "You didn't bounce so well at the last dance."
"She knew how to fight. Kind of opened my eyes, too. It's not like I want to fight. Well, no. It's not like I always want to fight. Just happened. I got picked on, and I fought back. The first few times I got the shit beaten out of me, and that's when I learned that I hated hurting much more than I hated being picked on. So, I learned to win the fights. I still got hurt, but so did the other guy." Nasty munched on a chip. "So, once they learned that I can hit harder than them and didn't care how much I hurt as long as I made them hurt, they stopped picking on me, mostly. There was always some idiot who thought he could put me in my place." Seeing Eric's concern, she said, "Sorry, Eric. I didn't mean to unload on you."
"It's okay, Tash. I knew there was always something more to you than the tough you projected."
"Maybe. I'm not sure."
Eric set down the bag of potato chips. "I am." He wrapped his arm around Nasty's shoulders. "Forget the football team. They've always been jerks. Even Tia has changed her mind about you, sort of, now that she knows you."
"What about the cheerleaders?" Nasty countered. "Or the Drama Club? Or even some of the teachers? I think some of them are more afraid of me after the fight at the dance."
"The cheerleaders take their cues from the football team. The Drama Club lives up to its name. If you were useful to them, they'd be falling all over themselves trying to get you to help them."
Nasty leaned in on Eric. "Except I could be useful. I worked the lights for a bit in Rochester."
"But they don't know that." Eric gave a gentle pull on Nasty's shoulder, bringing her in closer. "My friends like you."
Nasty twisted to face Eric. "They do? I thought they were just interested in my chest."
"Do you know how many girls will actually talk to them directly without an air of superiority?"
"So, you're saying they're treated as badly as I am?"
"You're always welcome to join us on a movie night."
"Movie night, huh?" Nasty snuggled closer. "That sounds like fun."
Eric tousled the redhead's hair. "Any time you want."
"I like that." Nasty smiled up at Eric. She craned her neck up, her lips reaching for his. Eric, eyes closed, brought his down, meeting hers. Nasty shut her eyes, blocking out all senses except for the scent of his body, the sound of his heartbeat, and the taste of his lips on hers. She reached around him, holding him, bringing him tighter to her chest. Her body tingled. Oh, God, this feels good. Nasty ran her hands on Eric's back and felt his hands doing the same on hers. She managed to bring one hand out from behind Eric and started working at his buttons.
What the fuck am I doing? Horror crept through her. Nasty pulled back, giving Eric a last longing kiss. "Eric, wait."
Eric opened his eyes. He jumped back to the other end of the couch. "Tash?" His breath came in pants.
Nasty's breathing was just as ragged. "I don't . . . I don't think this is a good idea. I mean, I don't know about you but—"
"Yeah. Not good. Definitely not good." He waved his hands. "I mean, it was, kissing you. But, you know."
Nasty leaped off the sofa. "I'm going to get us some ice." She snatched the bucket from the table. A flyer and a plastic bag from the con both fell to the floor. "I'll be right back. With ice."
"I'll go grab a shower," Eric said. "It's been a long day and you were-- it was hot."
Nasty fled the hotel room. Halfway to the ice machine, she stopped and leaned against the wall. What the fuck were you doing, Natasha? You just pushed yourself on him. You tried to take his fucking shirt off! She tried to catch her breath. And then you just ran away from him! He's going think you hate him! Standing up straight again, she pushed away from the hall and continued her trek to get ice. He's not going to hate me. He's not.
She stopped in front of the ice machine. Okay, Natasha. Just calm down. Try to cool off. Nasty adjusted her t-shirt's collar. Hormones. That's all. Raging hormones on top of a long day. You didn't mean to. She shook her head. Fuck that. I did mean to. I did mean to curl up with him. I did mean to kiss him. I did mean to take off his shirt. The urge to throw the ice bucket on floor grew. I have to talk to Mom. To somebody.
Nasty filled the bucket with ice. She took a cube that spilled over into the grill and ran it over the back of her neck. Calm. Deep breaths. Try to at least pretend that you're okay. She started the long walk back to the room. One step at a time. Don't panic. Don't run away. Don't fucking stop. Nasty willed herself to keep moving.
Eric emerged from the bathroom as Nasty re-entered. She stopped dead in her tracks, the door closing automatically behind her. "Hi." She shoved the bucket at Eric. "Ice. See?"
"Hi. Bathroom's free." Eric took the bucket.
Oh, God, he hates me. Nasty watched her roommate take the ice to the table. He's in his pyjamas, too. She worked her mouth, trying to figure out what to say. "I'm going to wash up," she finally said. "In the bathroom." She grabbed her backpack. Just get in there and then break down. Nasty rummaged through her pack, grabbing the sweat shirt and track pants she used for sleeping. The pants got snagged on something inside. Shit! Nasty yanked at the pants. The box of condoms her mother gave her fell to the floor.
Eric turned at the soft thud the box made. "Tash?"
"I can explain!" Nasty ran her hands through her hair. She stared at the offending box, not wanting to touch it. "I can explain, honest! It wasn't my idea! Mom made me!" No longer able to hold back the tears, she grabbed her backpack and dashed into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. Fuck! God damn it to hell! Why didn't I just toss them when no one was looking? What the fuck was Mom thinking? Nasty caught herself before her laughter became hysterical. She was thinking that something like tonight would happen. The laughter turned into tears. Nasty hugged her arms around her.
Hold it together, Natasha. Skeet won't mind me calling Mom for this. Mom can explain it to him. Nasty dug through the side pocket of her pack to retrieve the phone. Her hands shook as she dialled home. The other end rang once, twice. Come on, Mom, answer!
Near the end of the third ring, Maria answered with a sleepy, "Hello?"
"Mom, it's me."
"Natasha?" The sleep disappeared from Maria's voice. "Natasha, do you know what time it is? Are you alright?"
"Oh, God, Mom." Nasty couldn't keep the tears at bay anymore.
"Baby, what's wrong? What happened?"
"It's me and Eric, Mom."
"Tasha, it'll be okay. What happened to you? You didn't break up with him."
"No. Yes. No. Mom, I . . . I . . .." Nasty sobbed.
"Tasha, it's okay. Did you two . . .?" Maria left the question hanging.
Nasty heard Maria's end getting muffled. She tried to get control of her crying without success. Maria returned to the line. "Tasha, how far did you get?"
"We were on the couch and then we were sharing chips and we got closer and then we kissed and then I tried to take off his shirt." Tears flowed down Nasty's cheeks. "I wasn't even thinking! I'm such an idiot!"
"Tasha, stop beating yourself up like that. Take a deep breath for me." Maria waited until she heard Nasty inhaled. "Hold it. Don't talk. Okay, release." Nasty let the air out of her lungs. "Feel any better?"
Nasty sat on the edge of the tub. "No."
"You sound a little calmer. Tasha, it's going to be okay. You didn't scar Eric. He's a teenage boy. I'm sure he was just as willing as you were."
"Natasha, you didn't do anything wrong. You just went with your hormones."
"But what will Eric think of me?"
"That you like him and care for him and think of him as more than just a friend. Tasha, it's late. You've had a long day and an interesting night. Get cleaned up and get some sleep. Things will look better in the morning, really."
"Are you sure?"
"Tasha, this is something I've gone through myself, many times. Trust me, okay?"
"I love you, Sweetie."
"I love you, too, Mom. Night." Nasty ended the call. She pocketed the cell phone. Hormones, Mom said. Just hormones. Nasty grabbed a wad of toilet paper to blow her nose in. It was nice in his arms. Standing up again, she checked her face in the mirror. Her eyes were red from crying; her face flushed. I look horrible. She sighed. Clean up and sleep. Can't hurt.
Nasty started running the water for a quick shower. She gave a brief thought toward a hot shower, but decided a lukewarm one at best would be better. After five minutes in the tub, she emerged, chattering slightly. She wrapped herself in one of the hotel's bath towels and dried off, then quickly dressed in her night clothes.
When she came out of the bathroom, Eric was already in under the covers of the bed, reading a book. He smiled at the redhead when he looked up. "Are you okay?"
Nasty returned a slight nod. "Yeah. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry, too. I don't want you upset like that."
"It's okay, Eric." Nasty dropped on the sofa. Great. One bed. After what just happened? She forced a smile. "I'll sleep here tonight. On the couch."
Eric set his book aside. "You can have the bed if you want. I can sleep on the couch."
"You're already comfortable. I'm okay, really. I just need a blanket."
"Sure." Eric removed the topmost layer from the bed, rolling it into a bunch. He got up and brought the blanket to Nasty. "Here."
"Thanks, Eric." Nasty stretched out on the couch as Eric returned to bed. She unfolded the blanket over her, then curled up against the back of the sofa. "Good night."
Natasha traced a trimmed and polished fingernail on Cole's bare chest. "Mmm, baby, you really know how to show a girl a good time." She allowed herself to giggle. "Ready for another ride?"
Cole's breath caught. "I have to get going. You know how parents get."
"So soon?" Natasha kissed him hard on the lips. "The night's still young."
"You don't know my folks. And I promised a few people rides."
Natasha sat up on the thin mat that had been their makeshift bed. "Pity." She stood up. The moonlight coming through the cracks in the building's frame shone off her pale skin. She stretched to give Cole a last look at what he was giving up. "Still, if you have to go."
Cole sighed heavily, the desire to give in to his baser urges fighting against parental loyalty. "As much as I want to stay here . . .." His voice trailed to a mumble as Natasha bent down to gather her clothes.
"No, no, if you have to go, go. I'll call you." She began getting dressed, starting with her panties. Every move of her arms and legs were calculated to torment Cole.
"You will?" Cole stumbled as he put his khaki shorts back on.
Natasha blew a kiss at her conquest. "Of course." She stepped into her halter and pulled it up. As she rolled the top over her hips, she exaggerated the wiggling needed. "I'm new here, remember? I'll need someone like you to show me around to the exciting spots." Natasha winked. "If you know what I mean."
Cole's blush extended down his neck. He pulled his t-shirt over his head to try to hide his discomfort. "I'd love to."
"You better go. It'd be awful if your parents wouldn't let you see me again because you were late." She pouted her dark red lips.
Almost tripping over the mat, Cole dashed out of the equipment shed. "Call me!"
Natasha shut the door. All pretence of friendliness disappeared from her expression. "Gullible half-wit. Might be useful, even if only as a toy." She continued dressing, pulling on her skirt and shoes. "However, he was just an amusing distraction. The real fun starts soon. I better get back and make sure that imbecile and the Canuck haven't messed up my plans."
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, early morning
Nasty woke up with the sun trying to get through the hotel room's heavy curtain. She twisted on the couch, making sure she didn't fall out. Across the room, the clock read twenty past eight. She stifled a groan and slid out from under her blanket. "Eric, are you up?" Getting no answer, Nasty looked over at the bed. "Eric?" All she saw was a pile of blankets. Great. He's gone. Probably left me because of last night.
The telephone rang, the loudness echoing off the walls. Nasty grabbed it before it could ring again. "Hello?"
"Good morning, sunshine," Micki said. "Did I disturb you two?"
"Eric's not here. What is it?"
"There was another energy surge overnight, around four in the morning. Different location, same duration."
"That's just fucking wonderful." Nasty sighed. "What am I supposed to do, stay awake for the next week?"
"Take it easy, Natasha. I was fast asleep when it happened. We'll figure something out. Just get your boy and meet me down in the restaurant in twenty minutes."
"It's just going to be me there."
Nasty shrugged with her free arm. "I don't know. He's not here now."
Micki groaned at the other end of the line. "Natasha, now isn't the time for a romantic complication. I need your mind on the mission today. Understand?"
"Good. See you in twenty minutes, with or without Eric."
"What?" Meredith spun around to face her roommate. "I am so not jealous. Keith, you were out all freaking night! I got worried!"
"Back to my first point, well, Peregrine. Everyone here should recognize her. The second point, well, right now, I can tell you that Peregrine is about five foot nine, has red hair, no idea about eye colour, and is, what, a D cup?"
Vicki glanced over at Peregrine. The heroine sat sideways in her chair, her back to her fellow panelists.