"Don't hang up, and don't say my name."
What the hell?
I want nothing more than to hang up. If this is about Wanda or Sister Dearest… I don't need to be getting into the middle of her family drama, but there's something in the tone of her voice that makes me pause.
"Okay, not a problem," I reply, forcing normalcy to my voice. No need to arouse any suspicions among the Hellcats . "So what can I do for you, Kelly?"
"Listen, I need you to come pick me up, and don't tell anyone else." The sound of a trash truck's incessant back-up beeping comes through loud and clear in the background. "Alice? You still there? Damn it, I hope I didn't lose you."
"No, I can definitely meet you for lunch tomorrow. Where were you thinking of going?"
"I'm at the corner of, um, Sixth and Weston. My bike's toast."
How in the hell am I supposed to get you and your bike, you idiot?
Sighing, I glance around the room and smile as I find Lewis. "Okay, I can totally do that. My schedule's free all day tomorrow. You let me know if you need to change plans. I can be ready with, say, ten minutes notice."
"Can you hurry? I'm freezing."
“Will do. Later.” Snapping my phone shut, I sashay over to the couch and lean over the back, a finger tickling at Lewis' ear. "Let me borrow your car, okay?"
"What do you need my car for?" he asks, batting my finger away.
"Beer run?" I grin when he gives me a disbelieving stare. "I'm still on antibiotics, so I can't drink it, but that means I'm still sober and can get it for all of you."
Chuckling, Lewis reaches into his pocket and hands me his keys. "Can you bring back some Taco Bell while you're at it? I'm starving."
"You got it."
What is it with these guys that crave beer and crappy, fake Mexican food? Gotta be genetic. Or maybe just football players?
I run up to my room to get my jacket, then head to Marti and Savannah's room to grab one of her hoodies. She was wearing one when she left, but if she's freezing, she'll want something more. A hoodie's easier to smuggle out of Cheer Town than a blanket. Stepping into the room, the sight of Marti's sister curled up on her bed is… Annoying is probably the best word, because I just don't care for their drama. I saw enough before Marti stormed out. I grab the nearest thing in Marti's closet, thankfully it's her Hellcats workout hoodie. Perfect.
"What're you doing?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but I’m taking back the hoodie that Marti borrowed from me. Why the hell are you still here?"
She shrugs and slumps back down to the bed. "Hoping she'll come back and let me explain."
"Yeah, I wouldn't hold my breath on that if I were you, which I'm not," I say and walk about before she can answer. I really don't give a shit about her explanations. She's not one of us.
It's easy to get out of the building without being stopped again, and I cannot be thankful enough that Sister Dearest doesn't follow me. Lewis' car starts up easily enough, and I have no qualms about blasting the heat. Despite the antibiotics, this damned bout of strep is killing me. Since we were disqualified for Nationals, the symptoms have been hitting me harder than ever. At least I'm not contagious anymore.
The drive to Sixth and Weston is thankfully uneventful. With luck, it won't take long to load Marti and her bike in the car and get the hell out of here. This is not the kind of neighbor I would feel safe in alone at night. Marti's crazy to go off biking like she did tonight. In no time at all, I can see her huddled on the curb next to what I assume is her bike. I flicker the headlights to signal my presence and watch her get up stiffly. Wait, she got hurt, too?
"Oh man, I could kiss you right now," she says when I toss the hoodie at her.
Thankfully she's too busy pulling the thing on, so she misses what I'm sure is a thoroughly confused and disappointed look on my face. Proud of my ability to think on my feet, I plaster a typically superior look on my face by the time she's tying the cord on the hood. I open the trunk and move to pick up her bike. Well, what's left of it.
"What the hell happened to you? Your bike's more than toast, it's DOA. And are you okay?"
She shrugs, not meeting my gaze at all. "Just a little bruised up, nothing serious."
She sucks in a breath as she bends over to pick up the mangled metal and fiberglass, but says nothing further. Her face is scrunched up in some weird combination of pain and stubbornness; I've seen that look during practices. Hell, I saw it in the mirror when my wrist was all fucked up. This is not adding up to anything good. Bike stuffed in haphazardly, she slams the trunk door shut with a muffled groan before wrapping her arms around her ribs.
What in the hell is wrong with you, Marti?
"Come on, New Girl," I say, grinning when she turns to glare at me in shocked confusion. "Get in the car." Once we're both in the car with seatbelts buckled, I turn to face her for a moment. There's definitely more pain flitting across her face than she's willing to admit. Stubborn bitch. "Look, I told Lewis that I was taking his car for a beer run. You do have your ID on you, right?" She nods slowly, staring straight ahead. "Good. You can help me get the beer, and then we'll get the Taco Bell on the way back to Cheer Town."
"I don't want -- Wait. Taco Bell?" she asks, finally looking at me again.
I shrug and shake my head. "Lewis' request."
"What the hell is it with guys and Taco Bell?"
"I know, right?" I ask, chuckling, and start the car. The heater kicks in almost instantaneously and I sigh happily. "I have a theory about football players, beer, and cheap pseudo-Mexican food."
"It's not just football players," she replies and snorts softly. "Dan Patch cannot edit a movie without like a million of those crappy chili cheese burritos. And then, when he's done, he gets the worst gas."
"Okay, you can stop now. I don't need that sort of visual image at this time of night. Or ever for that matter."
We head back toward Lancer in a silence more comfortable than I'd ever have imagined between us. I keep checking on her from the corner of my eye. She's still fighting the pain of whatever happened to her and I’ll bet she's going to need to be seen by the doctor for this. But I'm not her mommy, so that's not something I can enforce. Then again, Wanda probably couldn't do it either. Vanessa could as coach, and I suppose her little girlfriend, Savannah, could get her to do it. Savannah can get her to do anything.
Just before we turn into the strip mall's parking lot, she coughs and clears her throat. "Did Savannah come back yet?"
"Nope, she's still playing the doting auntie. But you have a roomie tonight anyway."
"Sister Dearest is still camped out in your room, or she was when I grabbed your hoodie and left."
"Fuck! I don't want to deal with her right now."
"So don't," I say, parking the car. We head into the 7-Eleven and grab a couple of cheap twelve-packs of beer for the party before heading over to get Lewis's Taco Bell.
"I'm going to need to sleep at some point, Alice," she finally says. "It'll be kind of hard to ignore Deirdre if she's in my room."
"So sleep in mine."
What the fuck are you doing, Alice?
"There is another bed in my room." The implied dumbass comes across loud and clear when she glares at me. I can't help smirking at her reaction. "Crash with me. I'm alone tonight anyway."
Is that some sort of hope I hear in your voice, Marti? Or just relief at not having to deal with Sister Dearest?
Finally getting the tacos from the morons working the drive-thru at Taco Bell, I turn the car toward home again. The lack of traffic is in our favor, as the smell of Lewis' food is starting to make my stomach turn. Once back at Cheer Town, we give the lie of Marti meeting up with me as I returned from the beer run. If anyone thinks that's strange, they wisely say nothing.
*One week later*
The knock at my door startles me out of my studying-induced nap. Cheer Town's been a totally different place ever since we found out Vanessa was fired. That news sparked off a team-wide bender that lasted the whole weekend. Can you blame us?
"Alice? You in there?"
Marti. A chill runs down my spine. I haven't seen much of her since that night she got hurt. I did get her to promise to see the doctors the next morning before we finally went to bed that night. Okay, before she went to bed. I sat up all night, watching her as she slept, keeping an eye on her. Especially after seeing the bruises darkening on the left side of her ribs. Idiot didn't want to see the doctor for them, but she kept the promise she'd made to me.
"Um, yeah, come on in," I call out, shifting to close the econ book I've been trying to read for the last two hours. She walks into the room hesitantly. Something is different about her now, and it's not just the bruised ribs. "So, how you feeling?"
"I've been better, but I'll fly again soon enough."
"Not before you're cleared for it, New Girl. We don't have enough flyers to cover for your clumsy ass."
She sticks her tongue out at me and comes in further to sit on the bed across from me. She picks at the hem of her hoodie for a moment before speaking. "Listen, I-- I owe you one, Alice."
"No, you don't," I say quickly, hating that my heartbeat has sped up just at seeing her again. "Any of us would have come to get you, Marti. That's what being a Hellcat means. We're family."
She shakes her head. "Yeah, but you stayed with me all night. You made sure I got checked out." She bites her lip in a way that's making me think things that I probably shouldn't. "You paid to get my bike fixed, Alice, so yeah, I do I owe you."
"It's not your fault that some asshole clipped your bike in the intersection and took off. You lost out on the insurance money. Like I said, we're Hellcats, we're family."
She nods and her gaze moves to the book I've set aside. "Econ? Yuck! How's that studying going?"
Laughing, I toss the book toward my desk. "That give you any idea?" She grins, and I can't help but match it. "I think I've been sleeping more than studying today anyway."
"Yeah, I can understand that."
She sighs gently, smile fading like a late sunset, and shifts to stretch out on the bed to face me. Her arm cradles her ribs gently as she yawns, eyes fluttering shut briefly. Unable to do anything, I just watch her for a couple of moments, remembering that night a week ago when I did the very same thing.
"Marti, when was the last time you slept?"
The only answer I get is a soft snore. Part of me wants to wake her up and get an answer out of her. But the other part of me, the part that most people don't see, just wants to watch over her as she gets the rest she clearly needs. I reach behind me to grab the afghan I was curled up under and drape it over her body, fighting the urge to smooth back her hair and kiss her forehead. I remember it always made me feel better when my mom did that when I was little and not feeling well.
Give it up, Alice. No matter what you may be feeling, she doesn't return it. She never will.
Sighing, I go over to my desk and try studying in earnest, letting Marti sleep. Anything I may or may not feel for Marti Perkins isn't going to matter if I don't pass my finals. I cannot let anything jeopardize my chances of staying with the Hellcats next year, or seeing Marti.
A couple of hours pass by as I study and Marti sleeps. The woman even mumbles a little in her sleep. She did it last week, too. I wonder if it's an all the time thing or just an exhaustion thing? I'll have to ask Savannah, since she's been rooming with her all this time. Well, if we ever see Savannah again. That nephew of hers has become the center of her world, replacing cheerleading pretty effectively.
Another knock at the door has me cringing, hoping that it doesn't wake my sleeping companion. I'm on my feet instantly to stop the noise, and find Lewis standing there.
"Hey, Alice, you free for a little bit? I wanted to--"
"Shh!" My tone is sharper than consciously intended, and he blinks in surprise, but shuts up. "I swear to God, if you wake her up, I'll kick your ass."
"Wake who up?" he asks, then moves to come into the room. His eyes go round when he sees Marti. "What the hell? When did this happen?"
"She's just taking a nap," I say quickly. "I don't think she's been sleeping all that well since the accident." I regret the words the instant they're out of my mouth. No one else found out about the events of that night.
"Accident? What accident?"
Lewis starts toward Marti, but I grip his wrist to stop him. "Don't! She needs to sleep." He glares at me, but doesn't move. "Swear to me that this goes no further, Lewis." When he doesn't say anything, I tighten my grip. "Promise me, Lewis."
"Okay, I promise," he says and turns to close the door behind him. We both move to sit on my bed, watching Marti. "So what happened?"
"Remember when I borrowed your car to go on a beer run?" When he nods, I swallow thickly and continue. "There was a hit and run. Marti's bike got totaled and she got banged up. She called me to come get her. She slept in here with me that night, and I made her go to the clinic to get looked over the next day. Couple of badly bruised ribs, a few other cuts and bruises, but nothing really serious, thankfully."
"She slept with you?" His eyebrows are more than halfway up his forehead, and I give him the dirtiest look I can manage through my shock. "Okay, not like that then? Damn."
"I know you mean well, but you're a pig sometimes," I reply. "Nothing like that's going to happen, Lewis. I don't think she's wired that way."
He rests a hand on my shoulder. "But you are." I shrug, trying to play off the fact that he's right. He's known about my fence straddling for a long time now, and called me on my harsh treatment of Marti when she started with the Hellcats for what it was. "No, don't do that; don't shrug off your feelings."
"You really think it's going to help us win Nationals next year if Marti's worried that I'm checking out her ass on a regular basis?"
"She didn't mind when I did it," he replies with a grin.
"That's different. You're a guy, Lewis, you're supposed to be checking out a girl's ass. I'm not."
"So? It's not like we haven't had gay cheerleaders before."
"This is different."
"You said that already," he says, arm going around my shoulders to pull me into a one-armed hug. "Try giving me the real reason."
"She's worried I won't return the feelings."
My open mouth snaps shut as the words I want to say, instead come out sleepily from Marti's lips. I stare in shock as she sits up, knuckles scrubbing at her eyelids, then yelps when she tries to stretch with bruised ribs. She takes a couple of deep breaths before looking up to meet my gaze. There's something there that I don't think I've ever seen from her before.
"Wait," Lewis finally says, breaking the stunned silence. "You knew about this?"
"Duh!" She doesn't even bother to look at him when she speaks. "I'd be a pretty shitty lawyer if I couldn't see the things that people try to hide."
"So… What?" I can't even formulate a fucking proper question?
Lewis squeezes my shoulders again before standing and doing the same to Marti. "I'll just leave you two alone to talk now. But I'm coming back to make sure you get some dinner in you. Wanda's bringing barbeque again tonight. If you two don't come down to eat, I'll just send her up here to get you."
"Do it and lose a testicle," Marti growls, tearing her gaze away from me for long enough to say it.
"Bye, ladies," he says and leaves the room.
Silence descends again, and I can only hear the pounding of my heart. Clearly, I've fallen asleep myself and am living out some strange fantasy nightmare. I don't know that I'm ever going to be able to look her in the eye again when I'm awake after this.
"So, Alice, how about you tell me when you started checking out my ass?" Marti asks. "And then I'll tell you when I started doing the same."