‘Can I come in? You’ve been in there for ages!’ Teddy is hammering on the bathroom door, wanting to get ready for bed but Derek has been in there for an unusually long lapse of time.
‘Sure… Door’s open…’
Teddy picks up the tooth paste and looks at his brother in the mirror. Derek worries him, he’s been more dark and sullen than usual since they got back from the ridge, keeping to himself…
‘Is it Taïga?’ he ventures.
‘Huh? Hell, no!’
‘OK. If it’s not Taïga, so what is it?’ Teddy gesticulates with his toothbrush towards the ceiling, ‘Hey body-snatchers! I’d like to have my grumpy bro’ back, please!’
‘You’re spitting toothpaste all over the glass…’ Derek rises from his bath and wraps a towel around his waist, before sitting down on the edge of the tub. ‘It’s not Taïga. It’s mom.’
‘Yeah. She’s on to something, but she didn’t want to tell me on the phone… And I got the answer from WSU.’
‘But that’s great news! You’ve made the team and there might be a cure. So why are you sulking? You could have told me earlier you know.’
‘She doesn’t want to come back. She’s found a job at a hospital in Al Simhara. I’m afraid she’s giving up on dad.’ He rises and walks into the bedroom, pulling on his jeans.
‘Aw shit!’ Teddy trails after him, ‘That’s not possible! She loves dad!’
Derek just looks at his brother. ‘That’s why we have to get him out. Now.’
Teddy gulps. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean going in and bring him home. Then mom will come home too. I hope…’
Teddy gapes. ‘I know we’ve been talking about it a lot, but really? You know what will happen? We’ll get the army and the secret service guys tracking us for the rest of our lives? Goodbye WSU! Goodbye normal life! I’ve been giving it some thought too, and I’m sure dad wouldn’t want us to do it.’
‘Exactly. That’s why I’m doing it alone.’
‘Alone? You can’t be serious, can you?’ Teddy slumps down on the couch.
‘Yeah. Solo. Just me.’ Derek pulls a face and dances around, boxing the air.
He stops when he sees the serious expression on Teddy’s face. ‘As soon as possible.’ He pulls out a drawer and takes his time rummaging through it so he won’t have to meet his brother’s eyes. ‘Actually tomorrow.’
‘What about school? You won’t graduate!’
‘I think dad’s more important than a dumb diploma.’
Teddy is getting desperate, he’s got a bad feeling about this mission. The more he thinks about it, the more he doubts that Derek will come safely back again. ‘Have you talked to anyone about this?’
‘Anyone? C’mon, Ted. Think.’
Teddy just looks at him, a stubborn expression on his face.
‘No. I haven’t talked to anyone and I won’t go around blabbering to Chuck or Johnny about it either. Because they’ll find a way to stop me, you know that.’
Teddy tries again, ‘When do you count on telling Taïga?’ Teddy’s voice rises a notch. ‘She’s flying in tomorrow, she’ll kill me if I let you leave like this.’
Finally Derek turns and faces his brother. ‘That’s why I kind of counted on you to be there when I told her.’
Teddy scratches his head. ‘Oh. My. God.’
As soon as Taïga’s cab stops at the curb outside of APYR, she stumbles out on her brand new high heels and hands the driver the fare.
‘Thanks for the ride. Keep the change!’
The taxi driver chuckles as he watches her awkwardly hurry to APYR’s red SUV on the parking lot to dig out her cell from under the seat.
‘Great! I thought I’d lost it! Geez, how stupid of me to forget my cell in the car the other day.’ She turns it on, but the battery is critically low. She barely has the time to see the list of unread texts before the screen definitively goes black. A message from Derek, no – two, and one from Teddy and five from Linn and Loki and… she frowns. Ty? What does he want?
She bumps into Chuck and VJ in the hall.
‘You’re the first one back, Taïga! I hope all flights aren’t delayed or we’ll be up all night waiting for the others…’ Chuck hugs her. ‘I think your mare’s been missing you, why don’t you ride her a little in the paddock this afternoon.’
‘Sure! I’ll just unpack first, these heels are killing me!’
She takes her cell back to her room and plugs it in next to her bed, then she quickly changes into her riding clothes before checking her messages.
Ten minutes later, Sweet Thing is saddled and ready to go…
Taïga turns the mare around, riding out from APYR at full gallop.
Derek and Teddy has told Taïga to meet them at the Rustler’s Den, an abandoned gold mine not very far from APYR where they can be sure no one will disturb them.
‘She won’t come.’ Derek stops pacing and leans on his motorcycle. ‘She’s more than an hour late.’
‘Of course she’ll come. Give her another ten…’
‘She hasn’t answered any of my texts…’
‘You’re right, she hasn’t answered mine neither. I admit that’s strange… But I’m sure she would have told us if she couldn’t come, so-’
Derek makes a gesture with his head towards something behind Teddy. ‘There she is…’
Taïga has pushed Sweet Thing rather hard, thoughts of disaster swirling in her head while she incessantly urged the horse on. She reins in the prancing mare to see how she will react to the gleaming motorcycle at the end of the road, but she didn’t need to worry.
Sweet Thing looks at Teddy and Derek and decides the motorcycle looks just like the one which has been coming and going the whole weekend right outside her enclosure. She lowers her head and nibbles at some of the new spring grass, but Taïga pulls her head up, making her move forward.
Derek watches them approach, nonchalantly leaning against his ride. He nods at her, smiling his lopsided grin and she can feel her stomach wreaking havoc. Sweet Thing can sense her fidgeting in the saddle and sidesteps, feigning getting scared of something invisible.
Taïga is glad, settling the horse keeps her busy.
As soon as Sweet Thing has calmed down again and starts rubbing her head against her foreleg, Teddy walks up to them with a large smile, ‘Hey! So you decided to ride up here? Is that why you’re so late?’
‘I wasn’t up to riding a bike into the hills! I guess I’m too lazy, and Sweet Thing needed to get her legs stretched anyway.’ She smiles back at him, trying to be cool, avoiding looking straight at Derek. ‘Actually, I’m late because my plane was delayed.’
‘So why did we have to meet here?’ She pats Sweet Thing’s neck before jumping off the horse and tying the reins to a branch. ‘I didn’t get your messages before I got back. I forgot my cell in the car on the way back from the ridge and your messages were so… so…’ She realizes she’s blabbering. ‘Well, I’m worried. Tell me!’
‘Do you remember what we told you about our dad?’ Teddy starts.
‘Yeah? How could I forget?’ She pulls her jeans back down over the boots. ‘Has something bad happened? OMG. He’s not…?’
‘No.’ Teddy hesitates. ‘But something has to be done soon or he’ll probably will die – or go completely insane.’
Derek breaks in. ‘I’m getting him out of that place.’
Taïga gulps. ‘When?’
‘I’m leaving tonight. That’s why I wanted you to come here.’
She can see his rucksack next to his bike. It looks unusually filled. ‘Tonight? Are you going to tell me what happened this week-end?’ She looks from Teddy to Derek.
‘Actually it’s because of our mom-’
‘OMG. Your mom? Is she OK?’
‘Well…’ Derek and Teddy start to explain about their fears and their plan. Taïga listens, asking questions and getting more and more worried. If he makes it, he will be on the government’s black list. He won’t be safe anywhere. And what if he doesn’t make it…
She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. ‘I get the picture. And I don’t like it. What about…’ Her voice trails. I can’t say “us” because there is no “us”. Has never been “us”. She feels like crying.
Suddenly Teddy’s cell starts ringing.
‘I’m sorry, guys. I have to take this.’
Taïga watches Teddy walk away, trying to get a better connection. She looks at her feet, desperately thinking of something to say. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Derek pass his hands through his hair, a sure sign he’s nervous. It makes her smile and she bites her lip, keeping her eyes on her feet, trying to regain her composure. She can sense Derek awkwardly approaching.
He reaches out and touches her elbow, making her start. Her heart beats like a sledgehammer, and she’s afraid her eyes will give her away if she looks at him.
‘I haven’t forgot about my promise, Taïga. It’s just…’
She looks at his hand on her arm, and he lets go of her.
‘I understand. Family is important,’ she whispers, missing the warmth of his hand. ‘And I think Granny won’t let anything happen before I’m eighteen anyway. And when I am, I can do as I please – and that includes refusing to marry. I mean… I can take care of myself…’ She squeezes her eyes shut to keep those darn tears at bay. ‘I’m more scared of what might happen to you.’ Her voice comes out in a strangled whisper.
He reaches out and takes her still gloved hand, succeeding in sending millions of volt of electricity through the thin leather.
‘Hey… Look at me.’ His fingers under her chin forces her to meet his eyes.
His hand trails up her arm to her shoulder, squeezing it slightly. With a sigh he leans his forehead against hers. ‘This is hard for me… I might not come back again. Ever.’
‘So, this is goodbye?’ Taïga’s voice quivers a little.
‘Yes. This is goodbye.’ He kisses her chastely on her forehead, letting his lips linger.
His thumb brushes her cheek and she leans toward his hand, overwhelmed by the force of her feelings.
Derek’s other hand nestles in her hair pulling her towards him, sending shivers down her spine and waking urges in her she didn’t even know existed.
His eyes flicker towards her mouth and she raises her head towards him, closing her eyes. He gasps, his other hand caressing her cheek in wonder.
‘I’ve always wanted…’ His voice is hoarse and hesitating.
Her whole body is drawn in towards him and she can feel his hot breath on her face making her lips part and she has never wanted anything as much in her life as to be kissed by him. Now. This instant.
‘Yaaaaaaayyyyyyy!’ Teddy spins round throwing his hands in the air…
… making Taïga and Derek part as if they’ve been scorched.
‘I’m sorry, Taïga. I… I got carried away. I shouldn’t have taken advantage of the situation.’
Taïga feels like she’s awakening from a bad dream. ‘This is not real… Not again!’
Derek turns and glares at a grinning Teddy. ‘What the fuck’s going on! This better be good!’
‘It is, bro! It is!’ Teddy looks smug. ‘It was mom calling. And she’s been preparing the same thing as we. There’s a team ready to go in and bring dad to China, where he’ll go into hiding. Their government will even get him a new ID! Isn’t that great?’
‘What? And she told you all this on the phone?’
‘Did you tell her what we’ve planned?’
‘Err… no. Not exactly.’
‘Not exactly…’ Derek closes his eyes a brief moment. ‘And you think that’s all? You seriously believe the Chinese are willing to get into diplomatic trouble with our country just for the pleasure of hosting dad indefinitely? No… They want something in return and I guess it’s the same thing our government wants… When did she say this is to be pulled off?’
‘She didn’t give a date, just said dad would be with her so they could both call me on my birthday.’
Taïga adds, ‘But that’s next month!’
Teddy scratches his head. ‘Actually she was a little strange, insisted on the fact how happy she was when I became part of the family…’
‘Do you think she meant when dad brought you home? Strange…’ Derek passes a hand through his already disheveled hair. ‘I think mom tried to say something, pass on a message… Maybe warn us by talking about the day Dad brought Ted back with him. I think she wanted to tell us they are coming in five days… Listen. If I can- When I get dad out, and over the border to Canada, the government won’t be able to do anything about him – or me.’ He looks from Teddy to Taïga. ‘But you’ll probably have to visit me over there as I won’t be able to come back home again…’
He smiles his trademark devilish grin and walks over to his motorcycle. ‘I really have to move now if I want to beat the Chinese to dad… I’ll let you off at APYR, Ted. Is that horse of yours ready to go, Taïga? I’m sorry, but we really have to leave now.’
‘Just a minute… I might be able to help you, Derek.’ She pulls out her wand. ‘It’s one of the first spells Granny taught me…’
Derek backs away, thinking of when she tried to spread hay in the stable. ‘Will it hurt?’
‘Oh, c’mon. Of course it won’t…’ She looks slyly at him, turning her wand, drawing a green sparkling figure in the air, ‘… but you might be turned into a toad if you don’t stay still…’
Derek stares alarmed at her, but when he sees how her eyes sparkle with mischief he knows she’s not serious. ‘OK. Just do it.’ He braces himself, listening to Taïga’s low voice chanting the spell…
May the rainbow light surround you
and protect you from all harm
this is my will so
MOTE it be
A blast of rainbow light burst out of the wand, throwing him off the ground and several feet up in the air, before landing on his feet again.
‘Sheesh… I don’t feel any different… Maybe it didn’t work?’ he teases.
‘Didn’t work? Even Granny has never thrown me up in the air like I just did with you. I’m sure it worked!’
Teddy has trouble holding Sweet Thing. ‘Taïga, you better take care of your horse. She’s a little nervous, and I’m afraid I can’t handle her.’
He hands Taïga the reins before joining Derek over by the motorcycle.
‘But I…’ Taïga thinks better of what she wanted to say, and mounts Sweet Thing who’s sidestepping and neighing. Taïga is not even on her back before she starts walking backwards.
‘Whoa…’ Taïga pats her neck and turns the horse around as she can’t make her stand still. Derek swings a long leg over the bike and turns the ignition. The bike comes to life with a mixture between a purr and a growl that makes Sweet Thing jump sideward and almost throw Taïga off.
‘Be careful, Derek.’ She turns the mare round again and spurs her horse into a gallop before he can see her tears.
But she can’t hear him, the beating of the hooves on the hard ground drowns out any other sound.
‘I want you to look after her, bro. As soon as dad is safely out of that place he’s been tucked away into, I’ll personally take care of her pseudo fiancé… And, for God’s sake, don’t let her get too involved with that Loki person.’ He straps his helmet on.
‘I’ll do my best, Der.’
‘I know you will.’ With a grim look on his face, he revs up the engine. ‘You better put that helmet on.’
Teddy is waiting for Taïga when she gets home. They walk Sweet Thing together to cool her off, and stay in the living room long after the others have turned in for the night; talking about Teddy’s parents, Derek and all their worries.
Chase is not yet asleep when Taïga sneaks downstairs after midnight. ‘Hey, I waited for you. You’ve got something under your bed! A gift! I just couldn’t go to bed, I’m too curious to see what it is!’
Taïga bends and withdraws a little white box. She shakes it carefully and unties the ribbon. There’s only a folded envelope in the box. Taïga turns it in her hands, feeling a little bump in one corner. She recognizes Derek’s bold handwriting, “Don’t open”.
‘Oh, c’mon! Open it!’
She ignores Chase. Why did he leave me something giftwrapped, then asked me not to open it? Suddenly it becomes very important for her to follow his instructions. ‘No.’
She starts putting the envelope back into the box when Chase grabs it. Taïga reaches out and tries to take it back, but with a ripping sound the two girls fall backwards, each with a half envelope in their hands. A small silver ring rolls onto the floor and stops at Taïga’s feet. Chase reaches for it, but Taïga is faster.
‘Look what you’ve done!’ She says, trying to hold her anger back.
‘A ring! Let me see. Who’s it from? Who’s your secret admirer?’
‘That’s not your business, Chase. The envelope said “Don’t open”!’
‘C’mon… What’s the meaning of giving you a ring and-’
‘Just be quiet. Please, Chase.’ Taïga slips the ring on her finger and pulls the blanket high over her head. I wasn’t supposed to see the ring, but Chase is right. What’s the meaning with that? And why did Derek leave me a ring? I’ll ask Teddy tomorrow…
She wakes up before the alarm goes off and hurries to Teddy’s room. Johnny’s already up feeding the horses, so Teddy’s alone. She shakes his bed until he wakes up.
‘Gosh, Taïga! What time is it?’
Taïga sits on Derek’s bed. ‘5:30. I’m sorry, but something happened last night.’
Teddy’s curiosity is awaken and he climbs down from his bed, yawning and stretching. ‘I have to take a… Well, pee.’
‘Go ahead, I’ll wait. But please hurry.’ Taïga can hear Teddy brushing his teeth. She sighs and lies down on Derek’s bed, waiting for him to finish in the bathroom. She turns the thin ring, admiring it sleek lines.
‘OK. What happened?’
‘This happened.’ She waves her hand with the ring.
‘Oh. When did he give you that?’
‘It was in a box under my bed, in an envelope with “don’t open” written on it.’
‘Well, I can see you opened it.’ Teddy chuckles.
‘I didn’t exactly open it, it was Chase who… Well, it doesn’t matter. Do you know why he left it to me?’
‘That ring is what Derek treasures most. He’s got it since he was a kid, always wore it around his neck… I guess he wanted you to keep it for him while he’s away…’
Taïga feels guilty. ‘I’ll hide the ring somewhere safe as soon as possible…’ Thinking that nobody will look inside her little voodoo doll… They continue talking about Derek until they can hear the school bus honking outside…
Part II – End of Chapter 16