Natasha walked with purpose down the street. She marvelled at the different feel the city had. People didn't cower in the shadows; they didn't avoid looking at each other. So innocent, so naive. It will be a pleasure bringing this Cleveland under my heel. She passed a group of teenagers around her age. However, there are some charms here as well. Natasha let her gaze linger on the passing young men. There must be someplace where I can meet them. She turned to watch them as they kept going down the road. And it wouldn't hurt Tori to get laid.
Pulling her gaze away from the scenery, Natasha returned to her original mission. The buildings around would have been suitable back on her side; but, on this side of the barrier, all of them had too many people who didn't know their proper place. Natasha revised her requirements. Comfort dropped in importance; being hidden had to be the priority. Out of habit, she checked around for witnesses before disappearing into an alley. The darkness of the side street made Natasha feel like she returned back through the dimensional gateway. The building walls loomed menacingly, forbidding anyone from going further.
Natasha found a door covered with old graffiti at the end of the alley. She crept up to the decrepit door and listened. A sharp laugh inside broke away to giggles that faded away. Figures. Probably high, which only helps me. Natasha tapped her watch and brought it up to her mouth. "Omega, location found. Some vermin need to be removed."
"Coordinates confirmed," Omega answered. "I'll bring your assistant. ETA is five minutes."
"I'll be waiting." Natasha cut the connection. She looked around the end of the alley for a place where she could wait without getting too dirty. Settling on leaning on a wall, Natasha faced the doorway, keeping an eye on whether anyone came or left.
Omega arrived on the tick of the fifth minute, Tori clinging on to the back of the power armour. Backwash from the boot jets kicked up dirt, flinging the jetsam into the air. Natasha covered her mouth to avoid breathing in any of the airborne debris. Coughing, she said, "Perfect timing, as usual, Omega."
Tori climbed down. "I hate flying," she groused. She stepped away from the armour clad figure. "I am not a sack of potatoes!"
"Tori, enough," Natasha commanded. She pointed at the door. "In there. We need the door in one piece. I like not having a breeze at night." She looked from Omega to Tori and back. "Well?"
Tori stomped to the door. She tried the handle; the door opened easily. "How about that?"
"Good. Stay out here and keep watch. Omega, you're with me." Natasha strode through the now-open door, Omega on her heels.
The room inside should have been condemned. A single bare light bulb lit the room. The interior walls had most of the plaster ripped away revealing the wooden framework and cement support beams. The air smelled of stale smoke of various origins. Four people, three young men and a girl in her late teens, inside sat on dingy old mattresses that had little padding left to them. A fifth person just laid curled in a corner, unaware of his surroundings.
Natasha resisted the desire to hold her nose. Breathing through her mouth let her ignore most of the room's odour, but enough of the stench got to her to make her want to gag. "Hello. You have five seconds to vacate. If you are not gone in that time, you will be forced out. You do not want that. Five."
One of the guys on the mattresses stood up. "Fuck that. We outnumber you and your bot." He stepped toward Natasha, his hands balling into fists.
Natasha's right hand erupted with purple energy. She thrust her arm out at the young man threatening her. A shaft of energy shot out from the redhead's hand, striking her target in the chest. The young man flew back several feet, landing on a wooden table that collapsed under his weight. "Four."
The teen aged girl rolled to her feet. "We don't want any trouble!"
"Three" Natasha pointed her still glowing hand at the girl.
The other two young men picked up their downed friend and began dragging him to the door. The girl dashed to the corner to kneel beside her oblivious friend. "Come on, we gotta go."
"We're going, sheesh!" The girl got her friend up and stumbling out.
As the last straggler left, Natasha said, "One."
Omega turned an always impassive faceplate to the young woman. "Effective and efficient. I approve."
"Thank you, Omega." Natasha turned to the still open doorway. "Tori, you can come in now. We have work to be done."
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, early afternoon
Vicki finished filling in her name in perfect print on her con badge. Satisfied with how it looked, she pinned it to her pale blue t-shirt. Finally away from her father, she was determined to make the most of the weekend, starting with getting a look around at all the costumes walking around. Vicki patted her pocket, making sure her digital camera was still in there. The bulge reassured her that it was.
A group dressed as the Global Vanguard took up a corner of the lobby as others took photos of them. Instead of the three young men Vicki had seen earlier in similar costumes, this version of the internationally renown heroes had the full team and in close to authentic apparel. Vicki got her camera out to join the other photographers. After taking a few photos, she stepped back to let a young girl get a better look. She felt herself bump into someone behind her. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said as she turned around. "You!"
Peregrine opened up the space between her and Vicki. "Er, hello."
Vicki put her hand on her hip. "Don't give me that. I can't believe that you don't remember me."
A young man, maybe a year older than Vicki, joined Peregrine. "Do you know her?"
"We've met," Peregrine said in a cool tone. "What are you doing here?" She looked over at her friend, then back to Vicki. "Are the rest of your little group here, too?"
"Just me. Do you have any plans for dinner? Maybe we--"
"Yes." Peregrine walked away leaving Vicki in mid-sentence.
The young man watched the guest heroine leave. "Um, she's just overwhelmed. This is her first time at a convention and she's got all sorts of things on her mind."
Vicki turned a sympathetic expression to Peregrine's somewhat cute friend. "And some of it is just her being her." She patted the young man. "You don't have to make excuses for her. Just tell her I'm in room 825 if she decides she wants to be civil." She began to walk away. "Oh, or, just call me yourself if you want to talk or something." As Vicki turned away, she saw the young man's cheeks turn crimson. He's cute. I have to give Peregrine credit for having him along. He doesn't seem to be her type. I picture her having some sort of biker as a boyfriend.
A mental shrug later, Vicki continued deeper into the hotel's convention area. Still, he could be right. She's not an outgoing person. Perfect for a sidekick in the shadow of a hero, not so good when the hero isn't around. It's not a reason to be rude, even for a New Yorker.
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, early afternoon
Nasty held her breath for a slow count of ten before releasing it. Get a grip, Natasha! Panic later, when you're not in uniform. She let her breath out slowly. Some of the tension she felt dissipated with it. Okay, better. She's just here for the convention and isn't stalking you.
From her communicator came Micki's voice. "Peregrine, what the hell was that about?"
Fuck. Nasty forced herself to be cheerful. "Nothing, Micki."
"Brushing off a fan is not 'nothing'. Remember your cover, Peregrine."
"I will, Micki. I'm not stupid. Just got surprised, that's all."
"Be thankful you get to wear something that covers your ass, at least."
Nasty laughed at the comment. "Small miracles."
"I'm looking at your schedule. You still have some time before the opening ceremonies. Take your boy to the hotel restaurant and get a soft drink or something. And relax. At this rate, you're going to have a heart attack before you graduate college. Micki out."
Nasty heard the click of the connection being broken. Eric caught up to her, joining her. "Everything okay? I saw you talking."
"Yeah, everything's peachy. Want a Coke or something? My treat."
Nasty led the way to the hotel's restaurant. As she stood at the waiting area for the host to return to seat her and Eric, two men waved at her. She was able to ignore them until one called out, "Hey, Peregrine. Come on over!" Resigned, Nasty waved back and took up the offer and brought Eric with her.
The two men sat across from each other at a table set for four people. Nasty sat beside the younger of the two, a dark-haired man in his early to mid twenties. He had a pint of beer in front of him with half the amber liquid already gone. The man Eric sat beside appeared to be in his early thirties, his blond hair already thinning but his mustache and beard both full and trimmed. The younger man made the introductions. "Hi. I'm Alec and this is Pierce."
Eric's eyes widened. "No way!"
Pierce raised an eyebrow. "You've heard of us?"
"I have most of the books you two put out."
Alec looked over at Nasty. "What about you?"
Nasty's mask hid her puzzled look. "Sorry."
Pierce waved off her embarrassment with one hand. "Ah, don't worry about it. Not every hero is a comic book fan. Some even hate the idea of them."
"It's not that. I just don't read them."
"She doesn't, really," Eric affirmed.
"Takes all kind in the world." Pierce laughed. "What are you two having? Beer?"
"Coke. Sort of on duty."
"Root beer, please," Eric answered.
Alec shot a look to his friend and co-creator. "Teetotallers, too."
"No, sir," Eric corrected. "Just underaged."
"Fair enough." Alec signalled the waitress. "And don't call us 'sir'." He laughed. "You know who we are. Who the heck are you?"
"Oh, sorry. I'm Eric."
"And Peregrine we already know," Pierce said. "I saw your interview. That must have taken some courage to unmask yourself like that. Doesn't happen often."
Nasty shrugged. "It felt like the right thing to do."
"I don't know if I could do it," Alec said.
The waitress stopped at the table to take the orders; Nasty's cola, Eric's root beer, Pierce's Long Island iced tea in honour of Nasty and Eric flying in from New York City, and Alec's order of stuffed potato skins. As the server left, Pierce said, "I do have an ulterior motive in asking you to join us." He pulled out his schedule. "Alec and I have a panel tomorrow morning about costumes worn by super heroes. We were going to ask the Eagle to join us, but he pulled out and you were a last minute announcement."
"I don't know." Nasty looked over to Eric. "I don't have my schedule with me. It's up in my room." She laughed nervously.
Eric retrieved his copy of the schedule from his back pocket. He read over the events. "Your Q&A is in the afternoon, followed by the autograph booth. The morning is clear." Eric put the sheet of paper to the side. "Could be interesting." He shrugged.
Trust him, Natasha. That's why you asked him along. He knows this shit better than you. Nasty nodded. "Sure. I have no idea what I'm doing, though."
"Don't worry," Pierce said. "I've done this panel at several conventions. You'll catch on."
"We're just talking about costumes," Alec added. "We might get you to show off yours as part of our demo, but nothing is coming off."
The men laughed. Eric joined in a moment later, trying to fit in. Nasty felt herself blush. Why couldn't Doll-girl have been invited as a guest. She's more into this sort of thing than I am. The waitress returned with the drink order in time to save Nasty further embarrassment. She took her Coke and took a long swallow as she worked to regain her composure.
Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, mid-afternoon
Meredith squeezed her way past the crush of convention goers in the lobby. She glanced back at Keith, making sure that she didn't lose him in the crowd. Despite the number of bags of clothes he carried, he checked the time on his watch. "Meredith, the con's about to start," he called over the din of the crowd.
Meredith stopped beside a deep maroon couch, giving Keith a chance to catch up. "Give me the bags. You go on to the opening ceremonies. I'll put them bags away."
Keith handed over the shopping bags. "Thanks. What time did you want to meet for dinner?"
"The meet and greet is at seven, right? How about meet up in the room for five and decide what we want to eat then."
"Sounds good. See you then!" Keith disappeared into the crowd.
Meredith continued her trek through the lobby, holding her bags tight. The further she got from the main ballroom, the thinner the crowd became. Realizing that she was thirsty, Meredith stopped at the hotel's restaurant. The hostess, although looking like she had been run ragged, sat the brunette within a few minutes of her arrival. Once seated, Meredith looked around. Most of the tables still had dishes waiting to be cleared. Many of the customers were leaving, half of them in costume. There were a few people dressed in more normal clothes; Meredith assumed they were business travellers or tourists in for the Hall of Fame nearby. A table near her with people still remaining had one person, a costumed teen-aged girl a year or so younger than Keith with three guys, one her age, the other two older. Meredith leaned over. "The opening ceremonies are starting soon."
One of the older men brought out a cell phone to check the time. "Shit. Thanks."
Meredith put one of her bags on the table, ignoring the small commotion beside her. She rummaged through it and brought out a blank notepad and a pencil. With the lone server busy, Meredith began doodling, working out designs to improve the appearance of the Powered BIKINI. The main one she wanted was to turn it into a one piece outfit, one that didn't show how much she wasn't working out. Supers should look the part. Which reminds me . . .. She pulled her copy of the con's schedule out of her pocket. The costume discussion, where did I – there! Tomorrow morning. Definitely going to that and dragging Keith with me. That should help him out.
The waitress finally arrived after taking the payment from the table beside Meredith's. "What do you have on tap?" the Canadian asked.
"Miller, Miller Lite, and Guinness. I'll need to see ID, though."
"Sure." Meredith dug into her pocket and brought out her driver's license. "Here."
"How old are you?" the waitress asked.
The waitress handed the license back. "What soft drink can I get you?"
"Soft drink? I'd like a Guinness on tap, please."
"You're under age. Sorry, but that's the law."
"I'm over nineteen."
"The drinking age is twenty-one. Sorry. I can't change it just because you're Canadian."
Crestfallen, Meredith said, "Oh." She thought over her choices for a moment. "Tea, then, please. Orange pekoe if you have it."
"Sure thing." The waitress wrote down the order and left.
Blasted laws. It's legal back home. Meredith sighed, then returned to her notepad. She made minor modifications to one of her designs, working out the stresses, strains, and torsions it could be subject to. Keith really needs to take a class in fashion design if he plans on continuing making armour. There is nothing wrong with a bit of style in a piece of equipment.
The waitress returned with Meredith's tea. "Hey, did you know who you were sitting beside?"
Looking up from the drawing-filled papers, Meredith answered, "No. Should I have?"
"You didn't recognize Peregrine?"
"Peregrine? The hero guest of honour? That was her?"
"Yep. Not at all what you'd expect from the TV reports."
"I thought she was older." Meredith tried to picture the girl with the three men. "I thought that she was just someone else at the con."
"Nope. That was the real Peregrine. A little of a step down from Eagle, but what can you do?"
Meredith added milk and sugar to her tea. "Feel any safer with her here?"
"Honey, if she's here, it means whatever the problem is, the Eagle is dealing with it. I feel much safer."
Tori grumbled under her breath. Sure, send me out. Lazy bitch doesn't want to do the dirty work. Get cleaning supplies and some food. Don't use my ATM card. Don't get seen. Christ, wench, how am I supposed to do get what we need. She walked into a convenience store. The lone clerk kept an eye on the handful of people inside. And they could have given me some cash for this. Shoplifting, what a way to start ruling a city. I've robbed armour cars. I've broken open safes. This? Beneath me.
With her blonde hair trailing loosely behind her, Tori swept through the store, up and down the aisles as she made mental note of where the cleaners, the rags, and the frozen food were. This is stupid. What if I get arrested. It's not like the cops back home where they've been bought by someone. Tori stopped near the display of Lays Potato Chips. She's making me do this so I get arrested. That fucking bitch. Alright, screw her demands. I'm doing this my way so I can kick her scrawny ass later when she isn't expecting it.
Tori made the rounds of the aisles a second time, gathering everything needed. At the checkout, she paid with her ATM card, waiting to see if it would go through. After a tense moment, the hand held PIN pad displayed APPROVED on its LCD. Tori smiled. Just ditch the receipts once I'm out of here and super-bitch won't realize what happened.
Peregrine stared at her boots. Her male friend stood two feet behind her. "Look, about earlier," Peregrine started. "I didn't mean to be like that. Nerves."
Vicki left the main ballroom, slipping through the crowd. Finding an alcove, she dove into it, grateful for the privacy it afforded. She pulled out Peregrine's note.