The snow still lays thick in Appaloosa Plains, but the wind has lost its bite and icicles are starting to melt. The wild geese are back, flying in their distinctive V-formation, bringing a promise of spring.
‘I think we’ll head out next weekend, if the snow continues to melt. What do you think, Johnny?’
Johnny nods. ‘Yeah. We’ll take the truck, Derek can drive, and we’ll camp over at Dead Horse Canyon.’
‘Do I really have to come?’ Jupiter whines. ‘I don’t want to sleep out in the wilderness with bears and… and no hot water!’
‘We’ll need everyone to help out.’ Chuck breaks in with an admonishing stare at Jupiter. Derek glances at Taïga. He’s surprised she doesn’t say anything, knowing full well how much she’s looking forward to capturing the wild mustangs.
Taïga can feel Derek looking at her, and she squirms under his inquiring gaze. She knows she has to talk to him sooner or later. Rather later…
‘Can I sit here?’ Lil looks around. ‘Where’s Elspeth? I haven’t seen her around since school.’
‘Probably napping.’ Chase murmurs. ‘She’s sleeping a lot lately… with the baby growing and such.’
Taïga closes her notebook with an irritated gesture and puts away her pen. She glances at her watch. ‘Almost 5. I’m off to make dinner.’
‘You should talk to him, you know.’
Taïga just closes her eyes and leans against the counter. ‘I don’t know if I’m ready yet.’
‘Just hear him out? He hasn’t changed… He’s still the Derek you’ve always known…’
And loved… She silently ends his sentence. Teddy is right. I owe him that.
Teddy adds. ‘He’s in the barn…’
Taïga nods, but she isn’t ready to confront Derek yet… Not tonight… Maybe tomorrow…
But Teddy doesn’t let her off the hook… She finally promises him she will talk to Derek… Tomorrow…
Taïga takes her time showering before getting ready for bed… Standing under the hot shower with the water drizzling down her body, her thoughts run through all her options and she decides to go through with it. I can’t avoid Derek forever… Tomorrow after school… I won’t mention Mrs. Darnell, no way. I mean, he can do what he wants with his life… But the image of Derek and Mrs. Darnell is still fresh in her memory. She closes her eyes and lets the water wash away her tears.
But back in her room, she finds Elspeth naked in front of the mirror, turning this way and that showing off her baby bump.
‘OhMyGod! I can hardly see my feet! I need to come clean and tell my mother, but I know she’ll be mad at me… And what about my dad?’ And Michael? She frowns. What will Michael say?
‘OhmyGod!’ Elspeth suddenly hugs her belly with both hands and leans slightly forward, a surprised expression on her face.
‘OhmyGod!’ Taïga mirrors her expression. ‘Is it the baby? Is the baby coming!?!’
Elspeth just smiles slyly and strokes her swollen abdomen. ‘Nooo… It’s just the baby kicking.’
‘It’s a real football player in there.’ Elspeth throws an evil glance at Taïga and adds: ‘Like his dad…’
That’s enough for Taïga, who decides there and then she doesn’t want to spend the evening listening to Elspeth. Or looking at her. Teddy is right. I need to hear Derek out, I need to confront him about that… that… Evil Bitch… She quickly pulls on a tracksuit. ‘If you’re sure you won’t go into labor, I’ll just check on the horses…’ Elspeth’s laugh follows her out of the room.
Taïga walks briskly through the mushy snow to the barn, playing what she will say over and over in her head. “Derek. I need to know about you and Elspeth. If you’re the baby’s father I think you should…” No. “Derek, why don’t you act more like a father to…” No. “Why did you sleep with Mrs. Darnell when you knew Elspeth was pregnant?” Oh my God! Nononono! “Derek, tell me about you and Elspeth.” Yeah, that’s it! Short, direct… She pushes the door to the barn, and quickly closes it behind her to keep the cold out. It’s dark in there, the only light coming from a torchlight over at Freebird’s box, dimly outlining Derek. All thoughts vanish from her head, replaced by a gnawing feeling in her stomach. Fear? Excitement? She clears her throat to get his attention.
‘Teddy told me I could find you here.’
‘Hey!’ Derek hurriedly puts down his cell. ‘What do you want?’
Distractedly Taïga pets Thunderbird. ‘Well… I just wanted to…’ Say I’m sorry… ‘Well… Talk.’ She doesn’t dare look at him.
‘Talk? About what?’
‘Us.’ God! That came out wrong! ‘I mean, you and me.’
She puts a hand in front of her mouth. Stop blabbering Taïga! Derek props himself up on one elbow, chewing on a straw.
‘You? And me?’
‘NO! It’s not what I meant at all!’
‘Then what did you mean?’ Taïga can see he’s trying to stay serious.
‘Forget it! It was a bad idea to come here! I knew you wouldn’t listen!’
She turns around to flee but he’s right behind her, grabbing her arm before she’s had the time to take two steps, spinning her around to face him.
‘You can’t always run, Taïga.’ His voice is low, barely a whisper. They stare at each other, the air suddenly filled with tension.
He’s so close she can feel his warm breath on her face, his eyes darting from her eyes to her mouth.
Oh my God. He’s going to kiss me! She closes her eyes, abandoning herself against her better judgment to the feeling of herself going utterly weak, butterflies wreaking havoc in her stomach. She sighs. This is it…
Abruptly Derek breaks the magic by taking a step back, letting go of her arm and almost making her fall forward.
‘I thought you’d be here!’ Teddy walks in. ‘Have you asked him?’ He looks from Taïga to Derek and back to Taïga again. ‘Oh… I get it. Maybe I should leave?’
‘No!’ Taiga panics. ‘Please stay, Teddy.’
‘Ask me what?’ Derek breaks in.
‘About Elspeth…’ Teddy looks encouragingly at her.
Taïga swallows but Derek stares at her so arrogantly she has trouble meeting his gaze. ‘I wanted to know if… I got the feeling that…’ She bites her lip and looks up at him. ‘You know?’
‘No, I don’t.’ He answers icily.
‘C’mon, Der. Tell her!’ Teddy looks from Derek to Taïga and adds. ‘He’s not the one made her prego, some guy back in Bridgeport did!’
Taïga stares at Derek, the rush of relief flooding through her is almost making her giddy. Thank God! ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘You didn’t ask.’
‘But you didn’t do anything to make me think otherwise.’ Taïga feels ashamed of all the bad things she’s thought of him.
‘How could I know you thought it was me? I thought you knew me better than that!’
Taïga blushes. ‘Stop that! Aren’t you the judgmental one? I got the feeling you’re judging me when you don’t even know why I’m here.’ She stops to catch her breath.
‘I looked you up.’
Taïga stares wide eyed at him. ‘You did what!?!’
He looks sheepishly at her. ‘You’ve got a rather impressive record…’
‘So you looked me up and then jumped to conclusions? Is that it?’ Derek shrugs. ‘You know that’s illegal, don’t you? God, you’re a real pain!’
‘You are too!’
‘Oh yes, you are!’ Derek chuckles.
‘You are so… so… so full of yourself you must weigh a ton!’
And then Derek smiles. A rare, boyish, dazzling Derek smile that makes her forget why she was angry and liquefy with fluttering feelings in her stomach. She quickly looks away. Maybe it’s better when he smirks and glares… Kind of safer…
‘Stop bickering both of you!’ Teddy grins. ‘Why don’t you finally tell us your story?’
‘Huh? Yeah, why not.’ Self-consciously Taïga sits down and starts telling them how come she’s here at Appaloosa Plains Youth Ranch. As the story unveils, Derek feels a little shamefaced, having thought she was guilty of all the charges against her.
‘But why didn’t you tell Granny? She could have talked to the Mayor.’ Teddy asks. ‘His daughter kind of set you up after all.’
‘I don’t know why I didn’t. There was so much going on, with my mom disappearing and everything…’ She stops and takes a deep breath. ‘And something else happened.’
Derek and Teddy looks at her, encouraging her to continue.
‘I guess coming here saved me… At least for the moment.’
‘What do you mean? “Saved you”?’ Derek looks questioningly at her but Taïga can’t hold his gaze.
‘I don’t know how to break the news, but I’m promised…’
‘… to someone…’
Derek stares at her. ‘What? You’re supposed to marry that redhead moron?’
‘Derek!’ Taïga stares angrily back at him.
‘What?’ He stares back.
‘I don’t know who! I’ve never met him! I don’t even know his name! This is something that was decided even before I was born!’ She looks sheepishly at a fuming Derek.
‘They can’t do this to you! You’re supposed to fall in love with… with…’ He smacks his fist into a hay bale, scattering hay around him. ‘God!’ He looks at her, his ice blue eyes dark with emotion. ‘With someone you know!’ He points a finger towards her. ‘And I’m not talking about Mr. Ginger-Perfect from Fairview.’ He passes his hand in his unruly hair and mutters, ‘He’ll bore you to death!’
Derek tries to regain his composure. ‘When is this pseudo marriage going to take place?’
Taïga is surprised to see Derek so frustrated. He’s usually so cool and aloft. ‘I don’t really know, just that being here postpones everything.’
‘Thank God for small favors…’ Derek resumes his pacing. ‘There must be something you can do… WE can do… Gosh, I’ll kill him!’
‘First we must find out who she’s marrying.’ Teddy says.
‘Yeah.’ Derek smiles evilly. ‘And then I’ll kill him.’
Taïga looks up at him. ‘I like the idea, but you can’t go around killing people, Derek.’ She teases.
‘Why not? I’ll consider him a criminal, it makes it easier.’
Taïga stares. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’
Derek doesn’t answer. He just leans against the giant hay bale, frowning. ‘Or you could marry someone else before…’ He looks at her. ‘Me for example.’
Taïga throws a handful of straw at him. ‘Why can’t you be serious? You said it yourself, I’m supposed to marry someone I love, and that goes for you too! We’re not talking charity here!’
Derek doesn’t say anything, he just looks at her with an inscrutable expression on his face.
Teddy breaks in: ‘I know! We’ll kidnap you! And hide you!’
Taïga doesn’t know if she should laugh or cry. ‘You’re hopeless… Both of you!’
But the ice is broken, and the three of them walk back inside together.
Taïga has taken up her habit of spending a couple of hours with Teddy and Derek again before going to bed.
‘You can’t be serious?’ Teddy stares at Derek who doesn’t answer right away, thoughtfully contemplating Taïga reading. ‘But how?’
‘I haven’t really thought about it yet.’ Derek answers without looking at his brother. ‘But there must be a way to get access to their database…’
They are discussing Mr. Vargas. Teddy has found out that their dad’s been transferred to an army facility and is worried about the tests they might be running.
‘Dad must have talked by now, so they’ve probably found out about Alia…’ Teddy thinks out loud.
‘Alia?’ Taïga gasps and puts down the book she’s been leafing through. ‘Oh. My. God. So your story was true?’ She searches Derek’s eyes, but he just stares back at her. ‘About you sister? Alia?* It was true? Oh. My. God!’ Taïga lances a bewildered glance at Teddy. ‘And Teddy? Don’t tell me the time machine exists!?!’**
‘You told her!?!’ Teddy stares accusingly at Derek whose lips curl at the corners as he tries not to laugh. ‘Asshole!’
But another thought has hit Taïga head-on. She looks at Derek and starts to shrink away. Derek just looks at her defiantly.
‘It was you? The boy? It was you, huh?’*** Suddenly he seems to grow darker somehow, and his eyes glint as he follows her movements. ‘So that’s why you… you…’ She puts a hand in front of her mouth and bites on her knuckles hard to keep her from screaming before scrambling off the bed and fleeing out of the room…
‘What are you waiting for?’ Ted looks accusingly at his brother. ‘You can’t just let her run off like that!’
Derek hesitates in front of the closed door. He walks back a few paces before stopping short, swearing softly. He returns and lets his hand hover over the doorknob before passing it through his unruly hair instead. He exhales softly… and knocks.
‘Go away!’ Taïga’s voice is muffled but very close.
‘Let me explain, Taïga… Please don’t be afraid of me?’ His voice is hoarse with emotion and the way he pronounces her name, Ta-ee-guh, makes her knees weak. ‘I… I would never hurt you.’
But she’s not ready to face him just yet, she needs to think this over, come to terms with this information before letting him in. Her heart beats so fast it almost hurts. Fear? Maybe…
‘I need to be alone right now… Just… leave. Please…’
She can hear his footsteps fading in the corridor, and she feels a stab of disappointment. She closes her eyes, feeling them burn from holding back her tears… Derek… Thoughts are hurtling in her head. Derek… Who is he? What is he? A werewolf? Her mind screams “NO” because she doesn’t want him to be a… a “monster”!
Sobbing, with her back against the door, she slowly lets herself glide down to the floor, her eyes overflowing with tears and her shoulders shaking.
The sound of laughter and hushed voices make her get a grip on herself, and she hurries to bed, drawing the blankets high over her head, creating a safe haven. Elspeth and Chase comes into the room, discussing the last episode of Supernatural. She listens to them getting ready for bed, talking about Sam and Dean and someone called Castiel.
Angels, Demons… do they also exist? If all Derek told me when we were kids was true… She can handle his dad getting abducted and impregnated by… aliens! She remembers a summer long ago, in Monte Vista.* How come I’ve forgotten all about it? I took photos… I have to ask Derek if he still has got them… And a time machine!?! I can see why the government is keeping Mr. Vargas locked up! I can just imagine what would happen if the military get their hands on it… Taïga shudders. And darling Teddy. If all this is true he’s from the future! I wonder if he remembers anything. Her thoughts are ricocheting around her head, always coming back to Derek. His distraught face when he found out she was a witch and how his rejection hurt her.** She can’t do the same thing to him now… And he’s never injured anyone… Or has he? She shudders at the unwelcome images of slaughter that comes to mind. He’s never hurt me, so there’s no reason he will now… He said so… She has to hang on to that. And maybe there’s a cure! But his mom would surely have found it by now… Maybe Granny can help him…
When she at last falls asleep that night, she’s haunted by nightmares.
Aliens… Monsters… Time machines… Pyramids… Werewolves… Derek…
She’s not the only one who can’t fall asleep. Derek just lies and stares at the bulk bed above him with unblinking eyes.
‘Don’t worry, bro.’ Teddy’s reassuring voice comes from the darkness above. ‘She’ll come around…’
Derek doesn’t answer, just sighs. What if she doesn’t? What if she considers me a monster… a freak…
But he finally falls asleep, dreaming of Taïga, holding her slim body close, kissing those full inviting lips…
But he doesn’t get much sleep. Before the sun gets up he’s already out in the woods. Teddy comes looking for him around dinner time, and finds him in the barn, letting off steam working the punching bag. Teddy sits on a hay bale for a while, watching his brother circling, kicking and striking. Derek slams his feet into the heavy sand sack, making the whole contraption sway. A series of flowing but violent punches are rapidly following. The only sound in the barn is the loud crack of the blows and Derek’s ragged breathing.
‘You have to eat.’
‘Really?’ Crack. ‘I already have.’ Crack. Crack. Crack.
He stops moving around and goes in for the kill, each punch harder than the one before. Teddy stands up and holds the sand sack with all his force, while Derek tries to maul it with powerful punches. Derek takes a step back and dries the sweat on his brow with a bandaged hand.
‘Just go, Ted. I’ve got it under control.’
Teddy hesitates, watching his brother’s menacing stance. ‘Yeah, I guess I’ve got some homework to do.’
The sound of Derek’s violent punches follows him out of the barn…
‘This is impossible… I don’t even know who this Rilke guy is!’ Taïga crosses out what she’s written and frowns.
‘A German poet.’ Ted volunteers.
Taïga looks at him irritatingly. ‘I know that, thank you. But that’s about all I know… How could I analyze his texts without any background information?’
Chase bites on her pen. ‘You could Bing him. If you had your cell – or access to the computer aka if Thomas and VJ are done playing videogames!’
‘Haha… Doesn’t help me much… Darn Mr. Blackburn for giving us this over the weekend!’
Ted doesn’t even look up from the book he’s reading. ‘Get my MacBook.’
‘Really? Are you sure?’ Taïga knows Teddy never lends his precious laptop, so she doesn’t wait for an answer, but hurries off towards his room.
‘OhmyGod!’ Taïga stops in her tracks and stares at a naked Derek who just emerges from the bathroom.
Derek is unfazed. He just makes a big gesture with his hands and asks her: ‘Like what you see, Taïga?’
Yes! Yes! Yes! She tears her eyes away and swivels round, her cheeks burning.
Derek chuckles and wraps a towel around his waist.
‘Ted sent me to… to get his… ahem… MacBook.’ She stutters, too conscious of Derek behind her. He doesn’t say anything but she can imagine the smirk on his face. She catches sight of the laptop on the desk. ‘I’ll just take it and leave.’
But Derek’s faster, and efficiently blocks the access. ‘Oh no, you’re not!’
Taïga backs away and crosses her arms. ‘Give it to me.’
‘Not before you promise me something… in return.’
Taïga tries to keep eye contact but her eyes seem to have a mind of their own and keep wandering over his ripped stomach towards the towel hanging low on his hips…
She snaps out of her daydreaming. ‘Huh?’
Derek raises an eyebrow and a smile plays in the corner of his mouth.
‘Why can’t I just have it?’ She asks petulantly.
‘Why don’t you just come and get it?’ Taïga knows he’s not talking about the laptop and blushes furiously.
She’s saved by Teddy, who looks smug. ‘Didn’t you find it? It’s on the desk.’
‘I’ll get dressed.’ Derek mumbles and with I quick glance at Taïga picks up a T-shirt and jeans from a chair.
Taïga musters a smile to Teddy. ‘You did this on purpose, didn’t you?’
He avoids to look her in the eye. ‘Shall we get back to the others or stay here?’
She hesitates. ‘I guess we can stay here.’ Derek’s probably on his way out anyway.
‘What was all that about?’ Teddy nods towards the closed bathroom door.
‘Nothing.’ Taïga blushes and bites her lip. ‘I guess Derek wasn’t sure about my intentions. I mean you never let anyone touch your new laptop!’
‘Macbook.’ Teddy blinks at her and opens his MacBook.
They settle down at Teddy’s desk and start their research on Rilke. Taïga is acutely aware of Derek coming back and lying down on his bed with a sports book. They’re interrupted by a knock on the door and Thomas saunters in, laden with CD’s and cables.
‘Hi guys! I brought along my stuff, or what’s left of it anyway.’
‘Great!’ Derek nods his head towards Teddy. ‘I’ll let you two do the set up.’
Teddy’s jaw drops. ‘What!?!’
Ignoring Teddy, Derek throws his book on the floor and flops down next to Taïga on the couch. ‘So who’s Rilke?’
Taïga realizes she’s held her breath and expires loudly. ‘Well, he was a German poet who…’
Thomas takes out a huge screwdriver, making Teddy almost jump out of his skin. ‘Hey! Wait!’
‘No worries.’ Thomas answers calmly. ‘I have to open the laptop to connect directly inside – make us untraceable, you know.’
‘Yeah. To hack into the Dementé Insanatorium database? Derek didn’t tell you?’
‘Eh… No. I mean yes. Yes, of course he did. The sanatorium, huh?’ He looks over at Derek who shrugs and mouths “duh”.
Thomas knows what he’s doing, but Teddy’s worried none the less. ‘Are you sure you have to…?’
‘Yep. We need to connect TCP blabla, IP, overide winsock, blablabla Linsux, root access, vi, blablabla…’ Thomas doesn’t even glance at Teddy who regrets his question.
‘OK. Just… do your thing…’
It feels safe to talk to Derek with Thomas and Teddy in the same room. They avoid talking about what happened last night, but discuss the upcoming outing to catch wild horses, his scholarship and other normal, safe topics. His knee rubs accidentally against hers but he doesn’t move it away, making her heart beat faster.
The clicking of Thomas fingers rapidly typing has a hypnotic effect on her but she fights sleep. Derek talks about football, so boring, but she’s perfectly happy to listen to his low voice – full and a little hoarse. She yawns and sinks a little lower, resting her head against the back of the couch. She doesn’t want to doze off, if only she could sit here all night, with the warmth of Derek’s knee against hers and his voice surrounding her like a blanket… She yawns again… Derek stops talking. He watches her face, so peaceful. The dark lashes fanning out over her pale cheeks, lightly dusted with freckles. Her lips are full and inviting and he has to restrain himself from bending over and kiss her. Instead he installs Taïga as comfortably he can on the small couch.
‘So how’s it going?’
Thomas is having a hard time trying to break through the Asylum’s firewalls. ‘Getting there… Boy, what a bagbiter! Chomp, chomp! …Gotta reboot those b0x0rz.’
Teddy and Derek look at each other over Thomas head…
He tries again and again, fingers flying, softly murmuring to himself. ‘The system’s been behaving pretty randomly… corrupt the execution stack… aliasing bug… overrun screw… fandango on core…
‘I’m in! k-rad! Now let’s see what’s hidden in their database…’
‘Look at this. Do you guys want me to copy it on the hard drive? It could take a while, there’s some heavy stuff in here!’
Derek jumps on the couch and nudges Taïga with his foot. ‘Hey sleepyhead! It’s time to wake up!’
She stirs and rubs her eyes. ‘Did I fall asleep?’
‘Yep. You went out like a light, snoring and drooling all over the place.’ Derek says smugly.
She sticks her tongue out at him and looks around her. ‘Where’s Thomas?’
‘He just left.’ Taïga looks inquiringly at Teddy who seems really self-satisfied about something. ‘But he hacked into the Dementé Insanatorium database before he left…’
‘That’s wonderful!’ Taïga jumps off the couch to have a look. She bends over a happy Teddy and kisses him on the front.
‘OK, we know where our dad is. But how to get him out of there?’ Derek is annoyed at Taïga and Teddy, but he does a double take when he sees what’s on the screen. What the… ???
Teddy’s on cloud nine, but Derek’s worried. His fingers move swiftly to scroll down while his eyes rapidly scan the text. Then he pushes the delete button before Teddy or Taïga notices…
Part II – End of Chapter 10