Part 2: Lost in Younkers

From the Story Arc: Prekasnia in Pink

Previous Story in the Arc: Part 1: Mother Wanted a Ballerina by Nova Requiem (Saturday, November 26, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Part 3: Such a Pretty Face by Nova Requiem (Saturday, November 26, 2005)

(posted Saturday, November 26, 2005)

Nataliya carefully wrapped up the kinetic stabilization gloves inside the leotard of her outfit and stuffed it into a battered canvas duffle. She let out a small sigh in relief. As lightweight and breathable they were, getting those gloves off for a while always felt good after a long day. Not as much a relief as removing the chyortov helmet for a few hours, though. With now-practiced ease, Nataliya unlatched the helmet from the retaining ring around her neck and pulled it off. She ran a hand through her hair in a futile effort to loosen it up a little. The young mutant had once been proud of her long, luxurious blonde hair. It had been her only pride when she had been denied her true love of singing. Now it was cropped short for her helmet cum prison, matted and filthy. It hadn't seen a decent wash in almost a week. But then again, neither had the rest of her.

Nataliya turned the helmet over in her hands, and sighed once again while gazing at the faceplate. As Nova Requiem, she was something of a rising star in the G.I.F.T. office of Galaxy City. The officials were impressed with her work, giving lip service of her abilities and "potential". Tasha scoffed. Potential, she thought, what a load ofgovno. Bust one drug ring, and they praise you in the highest. The politsila here are worthless idiots.

Outside of the outfit she was merely Nataliya Novakovski, one of the countless thousands wandering the city and hoping beyond hope that the State would deign to add one more ward. But Tasha had learned the hard way that the welfare system of Paragon City was stretched beyond capacity. Of course, she had only learned this after the last of her money had run out. And that hadn't taken long at all.

One night at the Scheherezade Hotel had taken an alarming amount of her petty funds, much to her chagrin. Finding the cheapest sortir motel has only made the money last a few days more. And now she was just one more face in the queue. Tasha had always imagined that as something from her older relatives' era. But with the Rikti War and the veritable plague of evil, what once Mother Russia was mocked for was stark reality here. It was little wonder the citizens fought so hard to hold onto their belongings from the street gangs.

Nataliya scowled. Enough bad thoughts for now. She placed the helmet in the duffle and zipped it shut. Shrugging into a tattered wool overcoat, she pushed open the dilapidated wooden door that was supposed to keep the people out of the strange tunnels underneath the city and walked back out into the park.

It was yet another pleasant, star-filled night in Paragon City. A few clouds hovered lazily over the energy barriers ringing the sectors of the city, but did not threaten to do anything. Nataliya has taken a fancy to one particular field in Atlas Park, tucked away in one of the corners of the War Walls. The gangs that terrorized the city seemed to leave it pretty much alone, which rewarded the girl a place to get a night's sleep undisturbed. She had heard some tell of many vacant buildings in the Kings Row sector, that all one had to do was walk in and claim a space. Tasha grimaced at the thought. Squatting was tantamount to stealing in her mind, never mind the horrid conditions of those buildings. No, if she were to have a place, it would be provided by the State. Let the capitalists provide for masses, as they should.

Tasha sat down on a slope of ground and tucked the duffle under her knees. She lay back on the grass and wrapped the overcoat around her slender frame. The only real worry in this little corner of the world was the occasional police officer telling her to go elsewhere. And even then she always came back later. As she gazed up at the stars, thoughts of home filtered through her mind. The only thing that was missing from summers past was a warm bed to return to when stargazing grew tiresome. Nataliya sighed. This was no way to live. Why did she deserve this?
You don't, dura. Nataliya snorted. How ironic, that the taciturn seamstress' words of disdain for her temporary luxury would fit so aptly for her misery. The young mutant's eyelids grew heavy as her mind wandered, and soon Nataliya was dozing off.

An undeterminable time later, Nataliya's eyes snapped open. She wasn't sure what had awoken her, but she was sitting up and wide awake a second later. There, not two meters away from her crouched a young man. He made no move as the girl sat up. He simply knelt there, watching her without staring. Nataliya took a better look at the stranger. He seemed about her age, similarly attired in the manner befitting those without a spare change of clothing. And despite all of her fears and misgivings, he seemed friendly. The smile on his face seemed genuine, anyway. Still, Tasha was cautious. She grabbed the duffle and held it close. It was purely reflexive. If this young man made any sudden moves, she wouldn't have been able to open it fast enough for the contents to do her any good. Not that she needed them to defend herself. Sensing this timidness, the teen held up his open hands.

"Hey, not gonna hurt you," he said, scooting back a little ways. "Wasn't even gonna come near you."

Tasha continued to stare at the young man, unmoving. Her Angliski wasn't the best, but she understood well enough.

"It's just, well, I hadn't seen you around before," he continued. "And I was kinda wondering what a pretty girl like you is doing out on the streets."

Nataliya tilted her head slightly, raising an eyebrow.

The teen laughed. "Well, it's true. You are. My name's Jerod, by the way."

He held out his hand, staying where he was crouched. Nataliya shrank back out of fear. Not fear of Jerod, but of the bare flesh contact. If he was really as nice as he seemed, she didn't want to hurt him.

Jerod took this in stride, shrugging. "Hey, don't blame you. It's not the kindest world out there. You got a name, anyway?"

Nataliya thought for a moment. Since her powers manifested she had gotten quite good at the game of Charades, out of necessity. She gestured by moving her thumb up and down under her outstretched fingers while shaking her head. Jerod stared quizzically for a second, then brightened.

"I get it. Mute, huh? Bummer."

The girl looked around her and found a stick lying nearby. In a small patch of dirt, she wrote the diminutive form of her name. Jerod craned his head to look at what was written, and looked quizzically at it then her.
"Tawa? Strange name for a cute girl."

Nataliya couldn't help but blush at the compliment, but shook her head with a smile. She tapped the Cyrillic symbol with the stick. She then cupped her hand behind her ear, and then held a forefinger up to her lips. Jerod grinned, getting the meaning of it.

"Tasha!" he exclaimed, beaming. "Well, that's much prettier. So, uh, Tasha... You hungry? I know a soup kitchen that's open pretty much twenty-four-seven."

At the word 'soup', Tasha's stomach gurgled. Only having an elementary grasp of the Angliski alphabet, she hadn't much luck finding such places on her own. A full stomach would be a wonderful feeling. Nodding enthusiastically, the young mutant stood up and brushed herself off. Slinging the duffle over her shoulder, Nataliya motioned for Jerod to lead the way.

Nataliya idly moved her hand around in the stream that fed into the lake around the Galaxy City water gate, enjoying the tingling sensation building in her arm as the current slowly moved by. The small hours of the morning were still pleasantly mild.

True to his word, Jerod had led her to her first solid meal in days. Jerod proved to be an amiable fellow, and now Nataliya was quite relaxed in his company. Her guard never went down, though. Even from the bank of this quiet stream, many gangers--not to mention a few revolting zhmurik-- milled around, conspiring amongst themselves or looking for their next victim. The young mutant smiled to herself whenever the thought surfaced that, even though Jerod was putting on airs about protecting her, Tasha would be the one doing the actual rescuing if anything happened.

So the pair of homeless teens continued to enjoy each other's company. Over dinner, Jerod had persuaded Tasha to reveal her past as best as she was able. Not her real past, by any means. Jerod first made the assumption that Tasha had never been schooled, what with her poor Angliski writing skills, and she didn't see any harm in not correcting him. From there, she described as best she could something close enough to the truth to not be a complete lie; Her father had gotten upset and didn't want her around, so she ran away to Paragon City and survived the best she could. There was no way she could tell him of Nova Requiem. That was another life altogether.

Jerod's story was much simpler and more common, or so he claimed. "Just another Rikti orphan," he casually explained. Tasha understood that much. Many parts of Moscow were still recovering from that travesty. Later on that night, Jerod professed to being something of a misfit, never feeling like he belonged at any of the orphanages he'd been shuffled through.

"But out here on the streets," Jerod said, tossing pebbles into the water, "Everyone is in the same boat. So in a sense, we're all together. We "belong". And I like that feeling."

Tasha looked over at Jerod with a smile and a nod. A sense of belonging would be a welcome change from her recent history of complete separation.

The sky was noticeably lighter to the east. Had they really been out all night? It felt like mere moments. Tasha looked over at Jerod, whom she noticed had started fidgeting and blinking heavily. She caught his attention, and then placed her palms together under her tilted head with a questioning look.

Jerod grinned. "Yeah, I noticed. Time really does fly. You know, I think we'll be pretty safe here. So go lay your pretty head down over by those rocks, and I'll keep watch."

No sooner had he uttered those words, Jerod let out a jaw-cracking yawn. Tasha rolled her eyes and shook her head. If the situation had been any different, the girl would have been flattered by such bravado. But then Jerod gave her such a sheepish look that she couldn't help but giggle. Putting on her most endearing smile, Tasha leaned in and gave Jerod a firm but gentle kiss on the cheek. The quick rush of energy that transferred to the young mutant was a completely different sensation than when channeled through the KS gloves; a raw, unrestrained flow that if unchecked could cause irrecoverable damage. But this small kiss, she had no fear of such. As the energy spread throughout her body, providing a renewed vigor, Jerod put a hand to his cheek and blushed to his bones, Then, in a comical fashion, his eyes rolled back into his head and he fell over in a most ungraceful manner.

Giggling again in spite of what she had done, Tasha unzipped her duffle and took out the KS gloves. She put them on, and then picked up Jerod's unconscious body as if he weighed no more than a sack of potatoes. It wouldn't last long, so the girl made the most of her time, depositing Jerod ever so gently in a nook of the nearby rocks where he'd be out of sight. Tasha buttoned up his coat, and then stripped of the gloves and placed them back in the bag. With a final nod, the young mutant walked back towards the tram station with a smile she had once more almost forgotten. She didn't feel bad about leaving Jerod like that. He'd know where to find her.

Another day's crime fighting was done, and Nova Requiem was put to rest. In her place, a children's spelling primer now occupied Nataliya Novakovski's mind. Jerod had gifted her with the primer a few days ago, and she accepted it gratefully. Every evening since Tasha buried herself in the book, diligently practicing her letters. However, the sunset filtered through the energy fields of the War Walls was beautiful and distracting. Tasha put the book down and leaned back against the tree under which she was sitting and admired Nature and Man's joint display.
It was in this position that Jerod found the girl as he walked through the park. Tasha turned her head and flashed the young man a lazy smile. Jerod crouched down next to Tasha, and watched the sunset for a moment with her.
"Hey, got a couple things you might be interested in," Jerod said when the last part of the sun sank below the wall.
He fished around inside his coat pockets and pulled out a creased pamphlet.

"There's a learning center that's got a free class on sign language," he continued, passing the pamphlet to the Tasha. "I though maybe you and I could go together and..."

Jerod blushed and turned away. "Smooth one, dummy," he muttered to himself.

Nataliya smiled and silently chortled as Jerod drifted off. She slapped his knee with the pamphlet to get his attention, held up two fingers then motioned for Jerod to get to his second point.

"Oh yeah, this is the best part," Jerod said, grinning. "I found a place that we can live. People that'll accept us. Where we can really belong!"

Nataliya stared at Jerod, perplexed. The young man's enthusiasm was genuine. After a minute's thought, Tasha shrugged. What the ad, what did she have to lose? She placed the primer into her duffle and got to her feet. Jerod leapt to his feet and led Nataliya across the city...

...To a gated sewer access shaft. Tasha hesitated as Jerod unhooked the latch holding the gate shut. Nova Requiem had been down into similar shafts, hunting down Vahzilok's minions doing God only knows what down in those stinking tunnels. Jerod stopped and placed a reassuring hand on the girl's shoulder. Tasha didn't even think to stop him, but there were enough layers of clothing that there was no danger in this touch.

"Tasha, it's okay," Jerod explained. "I've already been down there. This section's got nothing dangerous in it. Even the smell's not that bad. Once you get used to it."

Still unsure and trembling slightly, the young mutant took a deep breath and nodded. Nataliya didn't even stop Jerod from putting his arm around her shoulders as he led her in. I have no reason to fear, she thought, Just because I'm not Nova Requiem right now doesn't mean I'm defenseless. I'm even more dangerous. But yet...why am I afraid?

It wasn't until Jerod led Tasha deep into the labyrinth tunnels that she found her answer. They came to a large chamber with a large disused control bank dominating. A couple dozen people roamed around or talked animatedly in small groups, all of them apparently transients. They all had a slightly glazed look about them, some not even noticing the newcomers. Those that did notice didn't seem to care.

But none of these were the cause of Tasha's disquiet.

Jerod walked up to the nearest man and asked, "Hey, is the Recruiter here? I was told to talk to him."
The man stared at Jerod for a second, then turned and shouted, "BOSS!"

A few more echoed the call and a large, lumbering form appeared from behind the control bank and walked to the ledge. He was the largest man Tasha had ever seen. Nova Requiem had seen a few heroes around that were larger than life, so to speak, but this one... Even from a distance his bulk was impressive and commanding, despite looking almost comical with a broken telik as a helmet.

This was the source of Nataliya's fear.

"Come closer, children," the "Recruiter" commanded with a voice that seemed to fill the cavernous chamber. "Let's get a good look at the new blood."

Nataliya's pulse was pounding in her ears, her eyes bulging in sheer terror. She wanted to get away, far away as she could from this place. It was all that she could do to back away slowly, not run like a frightened animal. She tugged at Jerod's sleeve, only to discover whatever was happening was having the opposite effect on him. Jerod was positively euphoric, as if this stinking hole was paradise and the large man was its keeper. He turned and regarded Nataliya as if he barely registered that she was there.

"Didn't I tell you, Tasha?" he asked, grinning like a maniac. "We're accepted here. We...belong!"
Nataliya's breath was fast and shallow now, panic threatening to take over. Her eyes were now riveted to the "Recruiter" looming above them.

"Come," he intoned once more, extending his arm and beckoning. It was then, in the dim light, that Nataliya saw the arm wasn't anything remotely human. It looked badly burned, and the hand only had to enlarged digits.
Shaking uncontrollably, Nataliya backed away yet again, away from this horrid vision.

"Must you go, Tasha?" Jerod asked, still grinning. "You...will come back, won't you?"

Nataliya stopped and gave Jerod an imploring look, wanting so badly to break her silence and beg him away from this madness. But Jerod was unwavering, totally captivated. She gave one stern nod, and fled out the way she had come.

The Recruiter laid his deformed hand on Jerod's shoulder.

"This is a momentous occasion, my boy," he said with what could almost be called pride. "You have taken your first step in embracing the Change. You are now one of us, and always will be. We are many, and you will always have brethren at your side."

A general murmur of approval rippled through the few onlookers that bothered to stay around for Jerod's "induction". The rest had wandered off into the sewer tunnels. The Recruiter held up his arms.
"And now, brethren, I..."

Whatever the brute was about to announce was lost in a strangled groan. The Recruiter dropped his arms, suddenly too tired to hold them up, and his head bowed under the weight of the TV upon it.

"Who dares...?” he snarled, dragging his head up.

At the chamber entrance stood a young woman, defiantly holding a fist out in front of her, radiating an aura of stolen strength... a heroine.

"Am Nova Requiem!" the heroine cried out in broken English. "Am putting stop to evil ways! For People!"
"Get her!" The recruiter screamed.

The trio that had been watching the ceremony snapped out of their shock and rushed toward Nova Requiem, snarling and brandishing makeshift weapons. Nova Requiem leaned forward, drew in a deep breath, and let loose a mighty howl amplified by the helmet and the Recruiter's robbed potential energy. The concussive force wave struck the oncoming men, stopping then dead in their tracks. In an almost choreographed manner the three slumped to their knees and face-first into the muck, blood streaming from burst eardrums.

"Idiots!" The Recruiter growled. With renewed strength, the mutated freak drew forth from his back the largest and strangest blade Nova Requiem had ever seen. As long as she was tall, the blade crackled with green energy. The Recruiter raised it above his head with his deformed arm and charged forward with a mighty roar.

Nova Requiem held out her gloved hand once again, grabbing at the power flowing towards her and yanking back with all her might. But although robbed of a portion of his strength once again, the Recruiter was barely fazed and continued his charge. Nova Requiem let out a scream, hitting the brute square in the chest with the channeled blast. But even this only disoriented the Recruiter for too brief a moment. Summoning what energy he could, the recruiter swung the blade in an upward arc.

Nova Requiem let loose a panicked shout, but the concentrated sonic bullet went wide as she leapt out of the blade's path--but not soon enough. The tip sliced across the girl's stomach, sending her flying back to land on the concrete walkway around the chamber. Clutching her stomach, she got to her feet as quick as she could and dared a quick glance at the bleeding gash. It wasn't pretty. Had the pair been even a centimeter closer, the mutant girl's guts would have been floating in the offal.

But Nova Requiem wasn't worried. There was a technique to the gloves she had picked up on almost immediately after the final testing. The gloves could sense the body's energy used in the healing process, and could channel her mutant power to cause that energy to be expelled and absorbed by others. With a quick flick of the wrist towards the Recruiter, she made it so. Almost immediately the gash closed as if it had never been. But this only infuriated the brute further, and swung the blade once more. Disoriented and drained as he was, the blade missed Nova Requiem completely and bounced off the concrete in a shower of sparks. Taking the opportunity to put some distance between them, the girl dashed off, giving her just a few seconds to desperately try to come up with something.
Nova Requiem could only do what came naturally now, and held out her hand to once more rob the Recruiter of power. But in the growing flow of energy, she sensed a different energy, like a radio station coming in faintly through the static that one might possibly bring in if the tuner was adjusted very carefully. The Recruiter felt none of this, and rushed forward once more. Behind the helmet's visor, Nova Requiem's eyes went wide. There! Got it! she thought. Just a little more build up, and... PULL!

The rush of energy was like nothing she had experienced. She felt ready to explode. As this new energy quickly swirled around her in a blue aura, Nova Requiem observed the effects on her victim and barked a surprised laugh. The Recruiter was still moving in, but in comical slow motion like some special effect in an action movie.. She could just make out the strain on his face as he fought against this loss of momentum. Nova Requiem screamed and shouted, still the brute charged slowly on. The young mutant jogged back to keep the Recruiter at a distance. To her continued surprise, she slammed into the wall, knocking the breath out of her. Nova Requiem blinked and shook herself out of the shock. She'd been a good 20 meters away, but had crossed the distance in a fraction of a second!
Chyotkij! she thought, What a rush! I could get used to this!

Nova Requiem leaned forward, taking several deep breaths. The game was on.

The girl screamed at the Recruiter again, and dashed past him. Again, she was on the other side of the chamber in no time at all. Spinning around, she let out a jubilant shout, another concussive blast for her foe. back and forth she went like this, a blur of black and hot pink. Dash, scream, dash, and shout. Finally the confused and furious Recruiter could take no more. He stood there, dazed and bleeding, all the fight gone from him. The sword dropped from his hand. Nova Requiem ran out and came back in, facing the Recruiter. With a final "Haa!" the girl used her stolen speed to slam her fist into his stomach like a bullet. The recruiter's eyes bulged, and with a groan bent forward and fell into the sewage, unconscious at the young mutant's feet.

As the stolen energies faded away, Nova Requiem heard a strangled gasp. Looking up, she saw Jerod standing on the ledge of the control bank looking at the fallen leader in shock. The girl pressed a stud on the side of her helmet, and the visor slid up so Jerod could perhaps recognize her.

"I am back, Jerod," she said, holding out her hand in friendship. "Just like I promised."

Jerod's face became a mask of rage. This girl had just taken away the one person he felt had truly accepted him. With a feral cry, Jerod leapt from the platform and charged with clenched fists upraised.

It was no use. the boy was too far gone. There would be no saving him. All Nova Requiem could do was scream.

Nataliya mopped up the last of her soup with a slice of bread and pushed the bowl away from her. With dinner out of the way, the girl turned her full attention to the books in front of her; the spelling primer now had a companion, a book on American Sign Language.

The heavyset Czech woman named Nadezda, who ran this soup kitchen, came out from the back with a tray. Noticing Nataliya studying, she set the tray down and took two of the buns on it and wrapped them tightly in cling film.
Nadezda sat down across from the girl. Nataliya looked up and grinned. She has taken a liking to the matronly woman, and vice versa. She looked at the bundle, then back at Nadezda.

For me? she signed.

Nadezda knew enough of ASL to follow along, and nodded with a smile. Nataliya retuned the smile. the buns were filled with a mixture of ground meat, onions and a "family recipe" of spices. Although they weren't Russian food, somehow they reminded Nataliya of home and she savored each one.

"Is good to see you learning, Tasha," Nadezda said in heavily accented English. "Is sad to see such young ones like you out on street, but I have feeling this will help you one day to escape this life."

Nataliya smiled. It was a good feeling, to once again have someone who cared. Thank you, she signed.
"Whatever happened to nice boy who brought you here?" Nadezda inquired. "He was ray of sunshine in here. We all miss him."

Nataliya's expression dropped into sadness, and she gazed out the window. Weeks had passed since that grievous day in the sewers. Nova Requiem had left him alive in the end, siphoning the boy's energy at the last moment and running at incredible speed away from that horrid place. Nova Requiem had taken it upon herself to rid the streets and tunnels of as many of those monstrosities like the Recruiter as she could. She had no idea if she would see Jerod again, or if she would recognize him if the crossed paths.

Nataliya swiped at a tears forming in her eye, and looked back at Nadezda.

She signed, He is Lost.