GROW OLD ALONG WITH ME

MORNING:

Who would have believed, Doug Ramsey thought, that so much happiness could be crammed into one man's life? The part of his mind which was a translating machine immediately translated his thought into a dozen languages, several of them fairly exotic. His wife would not have understood any of them, but then she had a gift for understanding what words could not convey.

"My beloved. Liebchen. Alskade."

He brushed aside the thick tresses of golden hair, and kissed her lightly on the cheek, careful not to scratch her with his ten-hour stubble. Betsy moaned someting inarticulate and burrowed deeper down into the covers. She had never been an early riser.

"Mon amour."

A little French usually did the trick. He planted another kiss on her head.

"I'm awake, I'm awake," Betsy complained, yawning.

She slid out of bed, careful to turn her back to him. She was shy of letting him see her without her eyes. After all these years.

"You are going to do that commercial today, aren't you?" he asked.

She still modelled, but mostly for fun. She had not been up on the runway since she'd broken her left ankle, a bad break that had never really healed. Now she worked as a therapeut, specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder. It was the natural choice of career for a telepath as skilled as she, but she had also the kindness of heart and the common sense that was necessary for working with severely traumatized people. Doug had been working as a translator for the European Union, but he had quit when the travelling became too time-consuming. He would never have to look for a job, though, archaelogists sent scrolls and scripts, poets and authors wanted him to translate their work and he was relied on by mediators in a dozen peace processes.

"Yes, the anti-wrinkle cream," she answered, turning around.

Her eyes were blue, bordering on violet, and it was almost eerie how real they seemed. Few people knew that she was blind. One of them was Slaymaster who had blinded her. Another was Mojo who had used her blindness to further his own causes. He had given her bionic eyes and expected her to accept the gift. She had not. Instead she had quietly had them surgically removed and only Douglas had known what it had cost her. The prostethic eyes she used now were a gift from Forge, but not even the Maker could regenerate detoriated nerves. She used the visual inputs from the people surrounding her. Once she had told Douglas that of everyone she had ever met, his vision was the one she trusted most, since he would look out for her, not for himself.

"Oh, come on, you're not nearly old enough to do anti-wrinkle cream commercials," Doug protested gallantly, regretting his words as soon as they were said.

"If there's one thing I am, that would be old enough," she laughed at him with only a trace of bitterness in her voice.

For a moment the bedroom went cold. Doug found himself clenching this fists so hard that his knuckles whitened. He wished for time to stop, for the morning sun to wash away the greyish strands in her hair. She was sixteen years older than he. Sixteen years and it was beginning to show. O God, the mere thought of losing her...

"I'll make some tea," she said now, pulling on her old terry robe.

Her face was turned away from him to hide apprehension perhaps, or pain. She knew him so well, respected his privacy so much and according to her own strange code of honour, she would never bring the subject up. He was the one who would have to. And he could not bring himself to talk about it.

"Coffee for me," Doug replied automatically, trying to revive the warm and intimate atmosphere.

"We did not settle in England for the coffee," she shot back, her voice betraying nothing. "Tea it is."

Their old argument, repeated every morning. Doug heard her step down the stairs. They lived at Braddock Manor, but without any servants or any fuss. The house was kept operational in case of emergencies. The more pompous parts of the house were open to tourists six days a week. Brian and Meggan oversaw the farming and the forestry.

He dwelled for a moment on the most precious of memories, when he stood on the stairs at the Xavier Institute to deliver the valedictorian speech on behalf of all of the New Mutants. As he drew breath to speak he saw Betsy standing beside Wolverine. The sun glimmered in her hair which was purple at the time. She wore her dark glasses, but he knew that every part of her being was focused on him and only him. So the young Douglas Ramsey, skilled with words and nuances had forgotten his prepared speech and asked her the question that was the most important to him:

"Will you marry me?"

First she hadn't seemed to understand, then that wonderful smile had spread over her face and she had said yes, oh, yes and Doug had almost fainted with joy.

"Tea and toast," Betsy announced, challenging him to protest. She put the tray down on his side of the bed and walked around to her own side.

"We should hire a butler," Doug said. He put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her profoundly. Five minutes later, when they had disentangled themselves, Betsy said in a thoughtful voice:

"Maybe we should. I know a couple of absolutely fabulous man-servants looking for a job."

Doug stared at her, uncomprehending for a moment, then began to laugh. Over the years, he had gradually learnt how her mind was operating, but she could still surprise him.

==

NOON:

Betsy knew that she did not look her real age. At fifty-seven she had not achieved even one wrinkle. The greyish hairs highlighted her hair, gave a silver tone to the gold. The younger models on the set regarded her with admiration mixed with resentment, not with pity. She was still very much the star. Never a diva, though. She had a reputation for being easy to work with, no matter if the sessions dragged on, no matter if natural catastrophes as rain and earthquakes occurred during the shooting. A reputation like that must be kept up, but today she couldn't do it. Her thoughts kept returning to the expression in Doug's face, the tightness of his jaw.

"Dammit Betsy, what do you think you're doing? You're ruining the whole shot. At least pretend to concentrate!"

The director sounded more plaintitive than annoyed. Betsy had agreed to appear in one of his art projects, so he couldn't very well yell at her. Perhaps yelling would have brought her back to here and now, she thought as her dresser adjusted her clothing and her make-up artist wiped at her eyes, where mascara and eyeliner had smeared.

"I'm sorry," she told the director, though he was no longer listening.

"One more time, before lunch," he ordered.

It was so simple really. Walk. Turn. Face the cameras with a smile and say the words.

"I had no idea what Sterling products could do..." Betsy smiled again and made a small pause, "but just look at what they did for me!"

The idiotic phrases rolled effortlessly over her tongue. Betsy did use Sterling products but only because they were on Caroline's list over companies that didn't test cosmetics on animals.

"I'm not a fanatic, mother," Caroline had said two years ago. "I respect medical research and I would never steal any animal, but to let animals die only because you want to look in a certain way? Never! You should be ashamed of yourself!"

Almost all of Caroline's arguments at that time ended with that Betsy ought to be ashamed of herself. And two weeks later Betsy had felt ashamed as well as hurt when Caroline and three friends of hers had been caught breaking into a fox farm. The intentions had been good, the break-in almost successful until one of them crossed a light beam and triggered the alarms. Instead of running, Caroline had continued to open the cages until she was caught. She had broken the arm of one of the policemen who came to take her away, then kicked the owner of the farm in the groin. She was dragged kicking and howling to the police station where she had given a clerk a black eye and caused a lot of material damage. Betsy didn't know whether to be mortified or proud, as she had not ever known whether it was love or ache she felt tugging at her heart every time she looked at her daughter.

"When my friends told me about Sterling products I didn't believe them."

The camera took in three other models, who held out one bottle each.

"Number one for the night, number two for the day and number three around the eyes," they said in unison.

They were all so young, so pretty. Dinah in blue with two blonde braids, Jennie with her sullen looks and sudden smile, and Alana, so tall she had to hunch a little.They had their whole career in front of them, their whole life, the choices they were going to make. Betsy felt suddenly jealous of them, of their freshness and vitality.

"I decided to try for at least one week."

Doug had proposed to her one week after their first meeting. She had declined, saying that they needed more time to get to know each other. He had pointed out that he knew every part of her mind and that she was welcome to every part of his. Betsy had had to concede that he was right, but she didn't want him to commit himself to anything before he had finished college. So they had waited. Doug had dutifully tried dating a couple of girls his own age and Betsy had never lacked male company. But on Doug's graduation day he had proposed to her again, in front of all the other students and X-Men, and she had told him yes, yes and yes again while she laughed and cried at the same time. They had left the X-Men less than a month after their marriage and moved to England, intending to raise their children there.

/

"The results were absolutely stunning. I've never looked so young in my whole life."

Unfortunately it turned out that Betsy's Otherworld genes was almost incompatible with Doug's human genes. The problem was linked to an unusual X-chromosome. Caroline had been conceived in a test tube and grown in a tank at Muir Island. Even so, they had been lucky that she was not disabled in any way and they hadn't had the nerve to go through the procedure yet another time. Betsy found herself wondering if Doug had wanted more children, if he wanted them now. It would be very natural. She could say truthfully that she had tried to give him everything, but perhaps she had failed him in not giving him another child, and now it was too late.

"I ..."

She could not remember her next line. What did it matter anyway? Another wonder product, another wrapped lie. All over the world aging women would tear open the little package they had paid so much for, apply the cream with trembling fingers and search for signs of returning youth in the mirror. She took a step backwards to get off the ramp, to get away from them all when her ankle gave way and she fell down most ungracefully.

==

EVENING:

To an observer, Doug's manner of looking out the window for extended times might have suggested a certain voyeurism, a listlessness or some sort of affectation, and no one except perhaps his wife would have guessed that he was trying to decode the language of the trees in the alley outside. Making allowances for the trees being a limited population and articifially grown, he had still managed to gather some movements that might be phrases, or might be random. He could watch them for hours and hours. Was there a pattern to their movements? What were they trying to tell him? At another level of his mind, a book that had originally been in Urdu was convoluting into Spanish. Doug did not ordinarily translate fiction, but he believed that this book was important and brave. The phone rang, interrupted his study of the trees, but the translation ran on inside his head.

"Doug here."

"Hello darling." It was Betsy and he could hear at once that something was wrong. He stopped the translation in mid-sentence.

"Betsy?"

"I'll be late. Could you call Brian and Meggan and ask them to pick us up at eight instead?"

"What's happened?" The nasty medical lingua list replaced the translation. Aneurysms, blastomas, haemorrhages...

"I've broken my foot."

He could hear the strain in her voice as she continued.

"It might not heal this time. All those lousy calcium tablets I ate and all that exercise were in vain."

Doug couldn't help it, he really couldn't help it but what came to his mind was a picture of his mother before she died helpless and speechless in the hospital. After her mind began to wander he had stopped loving her. He was not sure how and when, only that one day when he sat at her bedside, he had realised that the thing in the bed no longer was his mother and that he no longer had any reason to love it. The insight had brought relief and guilt.

"I'm so sorry, my love," he said blankly. "Do you want me to pick you up at wherever you are?"

He had always believed himself capable of extraordinary love. The kind of love that would come through no matter what. But when they both grew old, would he still love her? If she lost her speech and personality, would his love for her dissipate? Would he visit her, as he had visited his mother to try to interpret her grunts and growls? He had even published an article on speech patterns of the demented, based on his mother's last months in the hospital, he recalled with growing shame.

"No, I'll take a cab. Please call Brian and tell Caroline we'll be late."

She was so practical, so rational. He admired that quality in her. She wasn't likely to get sappy, feeling sorry for herself.

"Caroline's already here, all dressed up."

In fact, Doug could hear his daughter pace outside the room, short irritated steps that would make small dents in the wooden floor.

"What are you doing, Dad? Do you have to make all your phone calls one minute before we're leaving? As if it isn't bad enough to have to spend a whole evening with uncle Brian..."

The door to his study swung open and Caroline came in. Doug's and Betsy's daughter had inherited heighth and elegance from them both and a hot temper from neither.

"And I don't understand why you won't let Harvey come."

Doug noted, with satisfaction, that she had taken the trouble to dress formally. She had slipped out of her old pair of jeans and running-shoes and wore now a black dress that contrasted sharply against her pale skin and red hair. Moira had promised that the baby would have no genetic defects, but both she and Doug had felt slightly miffed when Caroline was lifted out of the tank for the first time. Besides the fact that the baby's head was covered with hair red as...as dark blood, she had eleven fingers. Betsy hadn't cared, of course, she held the baby in her arms, her face aglow with a ligh that only faded when Moira asked, rather brusquely, to be alone with the baby for an examination.

"This is family only," Doug answered. "Harvey can come another time."

"Yeah, right, like Pete and Kitty are family." Caroline's face was wrinkled up with disappointment and pent-up anger. "You don't like Harvey because he's poor and..."

"You're absolutely right, I don't like Harvey." Doug paused before continuing more gently. "He's a junkie and you know it."

"That's not fair, dad! He's in treatment! Look at uncle Brian, he's drunk half the time and you never say a word against him."

Caroline's eyes swam for a moment, but she held it back and her voice was as dry as her eyes when she changed the subject abruptly.

"Where is mother? Is she going to be late, too?"

Caroline had a special way of pronouncing the word "mother." It was cavalier, yet scornful, and the corners of her mouth curved upwards in something that was not quite a smile. Overall, the impression was nasty, as if she had said an obscenity or crudely insulted someone. Doug had some theories about it, but since he didn't want to hurt Betsy's feelings,he kept them to himself.

"Betsy has hurt herself," he said, nasty in his turn, and watched her eyes widen. When he was satisfied that she actually felt something, he explained. "She fell on the set and broke up her old injury." He registered her relief and then her eyes went guarded again.

"Well. Aren't we all going to feel sorry for poor little mother?" Caroline said ironically.

Before Doug could decide whether to counter or treat her comment as a joke, the door bell rang and whatever he had had in mind slipped away. It must be Brian and Meggan, earlier than expected, and now he would be occupied with steering Brain away from any alcohol they might have carelessly left in the bar or in the fridge.

"Brian. Meggan" he greeted them after a breathless rush downstairs. Caroline had typically stayed where she was.

Brian was dressed nicely in a tailored grey jacket and matching pants. No amount of dressing up, however, could hide the bags under his eyes, the redness of his nose and the patchiness of his skin, all acquired during thirty years or more of heavy drinking. He looked handsome, but in a depraved way and Doug predicted silently that what he still had of beauty soon would disappear. Meggan, by his side, was an example of how alcohol abuse can take its toll on other persons than the abuser. Her starry-eyed innocence had turned into tired resignation, but she was as much and as unhappily in love with Brian as she had been from the start. She morphed herself young, for him, and her breasts grew larger, her waist thinner for every year.

"Hullo, Doug."

Brian shook his hand heartily, but his eyes were already wandering, looking for alcohol to consume.

Meggan kissed him timidly on the cheek. This close up Doug could see the marks from years and worry on her face. She rarely bothered to morph away her wrinkles, knowing that Brian usually looked only at her body. She smiled apologetically at him and went after Brian into the living room. Doug heard how she scolded him in a low voice.

"Pathetic, aren't they?"

Caroline had materialised by his side, with an expression of disgust clouding her fine features. Doug drew breath to reproach her sharply, then realised that she had echoed his exact thought. He sighed instead, kissed his beautiful daughter on the forehead and went to secure the whiskey before Brian could get his hands on the bottle. When he threw an automatic glance over his shoulder, he saw Caroline standing rigidly where he had left her, with her head bowed dejectedly. Her hands were balled into fists and he thought he once again could see tears in her eyes. He didn't understand.

Half an hour later Betsy limped into the living room on crutches. Doug had managed a compromise with Brian, just a glass of wine and some crackers while they waited, and another with Caroline, who had agreed to sit on the sofa with Meggan and distract her from Brian for minutes at most. By the look of Brian, who kept reaching for the bottle and by the look of Caroline, whose expression became more and more thunderous, both agreements were wearing thin. Meggan had withdrawn into her usual silence and hugged her knees to her chest, as if she wished to simply disappear.

"Sorry I'm late."

Betsy smiled, but Doug who knew her, saw how pale she was under the make-up, the tension around her mouth and he knew she was hurting more than she would ever let on in front of Brian or Caroline. He went to her, kissed her unabashedly and helped her sit down. He leaned the crutches against the armrest of her chair so she could easily reach them and poured her some wine.

"What's happened?" Meggan asked shyly.

"I slipped and fell." Betsy made a small grimace. "I was walking around in a daze, thinking of this and thinking of that..."

Doug knew from the levity of her tone that she was lying through her teeth or leaving out something very important and his worry became almost panic. He considered the option of throwing Brian, Meggan and Caroline out the door so he could find out what was bothering his wife in privacy.

"Mother. Aren't you going to change? And what about all that paint on your face?"

Caroline's voice was decidedly hostile. Doug thought that if he ever worked up the courage to do it, Caroline would be the first out the door. Had they spoiled her or was she just a pest because she felt like it? He regretted the thought almost immediately and looked at Betsy for guidance. She refused to give him any sign, though. She plucked absently at a loose thread on her sleeve.

"It is a bit much, isn't it, darling?" she said reasonably. "I'll go and wash it off in a minute."

"It makes you look old ," Caroline persisted, though she looked more afraid than triumphant. "I mean, it's so ridiculous to try and pretend you're young..."

Doug jumped to his feet, but Betsy stared him down into his chair again. Her cheeks had reddened slightly and there was a small frown between her eyebrows. Warning signs. When she had quieted him, she turned to Caroline. One eyebrow lifted. The frown remained.

"I don't know what has gotten into you lately," Betsy said. "I could be generous and blame it all on your new boyfriend, but somehow, I don't think that is what is happening here."

Great tears were running down Caroline's cheeks, ruining the make-up that enabled her to add five years to her age. She sat perfectly still.

"Why don't the rest of you run along?" Betsy suggested. "I think that Caroline and I are going to need some time alone."

Doug looked a question at her. She nodded back. She was, indeed, using her telepathy. He had suspected as much when Caroline didn't flee the room at once. Another proof was how docilely Brian and Meggan rose and went out in the hall together.

"Don't worry." Betsy grinned devilishly. "He won't drink anymore tonight and he won't insist on driving."

Doug took her hand.

"I don't like when you do that," he said.

"I know." Her smile was gone and she looked very tired. "But I think Caroline and I must discuss several things, without interruptions. She's a good person but something is eating away at her."

"You're my family," Doug said. "I'll stay and talk with her."

"Doug, I think we need to be alone..."

"Well..."

"Besides," her tone changed, became lighter but no less tender, "I know that you always look forward to seeing Kitty and Pete. You and Kitty are special together, you know. Now go."

"I love you, Betsy," he said, helplessly, because it was all he could say.

His legs were walking him out of the room and he could barely turn his head to look at her over his shoulder. Damn her telepathy that made him leave her.

"I know," she answered. "I'm sorry, my love."

==

LATE EVENING:

"You swore you'd never use your telepathy on me!"

Caroline was shaking with rage, where she sat on the sofa, so much that Betsy could sense the vibrations through the floor.

"Look, darling," she said, "you spend a lot of time avoiding me or running away from me. I'm just preventing that."

She could feel the glare Caroline gave her.

"I can't believe you just used your power on Dad. But that's what you are, isn't it? You use everyone."

"I'm sorry, darling."

Through Caroline's eyes, Betsy saw herself as at least twenty years younger and more beautiful than she had ever been. A witch. An evil step-mother. A judgmental woman, who had nothing but scorn for her daughter's failures.

"Don't call me darling! I'm not your darling and I hate it."

Hair-triggered temper. No wonder that Meggan was so nervous around Caroline. No wonder that Pete and Caroline had an old and bitter feud going on, nothing like the bantering between Pete and Moira, which had mellowed with the years, but one where Pete zapped Caroline with some of his most vicious lines and Caroline came back at him, with less finesse, but far surpassing him in viciousness.

"You don't hate me, Caroline. But you're afraid of me, are you not? Because of what you have done and what you want to do."

It was a shot fired at random, but Caroline reacted with fear and surprise before the animosity took over. Betsy reflected sadly on the fact that she compared a conversation with her daughter to a firefight, but the therapist in her saw the opening and she probed deeper.

"Tell me about it. I don't care if you don't want to."

No telepathy involved. She had promised Caroline as much, when the eleven-year old had come home from school, all bruised and dirty, and wouldn't tell her what had happened. "If I tell you," the child had said, at last, in a voice that was all too quiet, "will you promise me that you won't use your telepathy on me, ever?" Betsy had promised and Caroline had told her about the group of bullies that had attacked her on the way home, tearing at her hair and hands, screaming "dirty mutie" at her. Doug had been all for going to the headmaster and the parents. Caroline had freaked out at the thought, and Betsy had sided with her. Instead, she had made Caroline take a two-week spring-break, called Logan and had him teach Caroline every technique that was in the book and most especially those that were not. Since then, the silent understanding had been that Caroline had told her parents the truth, when she told them anything at all, and Betsy did not pry.

"We had a deal," Betsy repeated. "Have you forgotten your side of it? Tell me."

She was careful not to sound as if she was pleading. Caroline hated that, hated weakness, in others and in herself. No, this was Dr. Braddock, in full force, with full momentum and using every bit of that magnetic personality that had made Erik Lensherr cringe and swamped even Professor Xavier. And Dr. Braddock had no doubt that her advantage in years and experience would break down Caroline's resistance. Hadn't she kept Piotr in therapy for seven years, before returning him to society as a reformed person? He had not done a single act of violence since she had let him go and now lived in Paris, painting for his own pleasure and living off the generous pension Xavier had given him. After a good deal of prompting, of course.

"A deal that you have broken too many times to count," Caroline spat at her. "But since you insist, mother, I'll tell you what I did. I saw Harvey, I went all the way to the rehab center to see him, against all recommendations. And guess what I brought him?"

Her voice faltered. Betsy shook her head slowly.

"No," she said. "You didn't. Please tell me that you didn't."

"Yes, I did! I brought him the best smack I could find, and a box of sterile needles, and I promised I'd come back with more if he wanted me to. And guess what? He didn't want it. He just...looked at me and said he felt sorry for me. And that I should go with the program myself. He said...he didn't feel the same way about me anymore. That everything had fallen into place once he started with the methadone and that I didn't have any place at all in his new life. So I left."

Professional detachment was everything in therapy. She had to distance herself from the crime Caroline had committed, had to keep the outrage under control. As with Piotr. Though this was worse. This was her daughter, her own daughter, who had actually smuggled heroine into a rehab facility, trying to trap an addict, and appealing to his addiction to get him back.

"Why did you do it?" Betsy asked.

Caroline might have expected a more heated response, because she seemed a little taken aback.

"You wouldn't understand," she said at last.

"Tell me."

"You don't understand."

Caroline looked desperate. Tears were running down her cheeks, tears that would have moved Betsy to an embrace only minutes ago. But not now.

"No one can understand," Caroline went on, "how it was between us. He was so wild and handsome. We lived on the edge all the time and it was exhausting and satisfying. He pulled me into a whole other life. Everything had a deeper meaning. I've never known love like that. I know you'll say that it was just the heroin, that was not him, but it wasn't true. I took care of him. I took care of his friends when they were crashing. We'd go to sleep on the floor in his apartment, all of us, and I'd fix them something in the morning. None of the others ever touched me, they knew I was Harvey's woman, and he was the leader. He was the Man."

"It seems I underestimated Harvey," Betsy said heavily. "And I mean that in several senses."

"I took care of them," Caroline repeated defensively. "They'd come by when they were sick and I'd call a doctor. I fixed sterile needles for them, checked that what they had was pure stuff, let them use the bathroom and the washing machine. I took them to the hospital when they were in bad shape and helped them with Social Security. They really appreciated that. They loved me. Simon, Harvey's best friend, painted a portrait of me and, when someone took my handbag, they found out who'd done it and made him give it back."

A sly, unpleasant smile crossed Caroline's face at the thought, and Betsy guessed that the robber had gotten a thorough beating, or worse, for robbing the benefactor of junkies. Saint Caroline, indeed.

"I was the one that helped Harvey into detox and rehab. He didn't want to, but I made him. He had really gone downward, these last months, lost weight, become sloppy with the needle. He couldn't give himself the shots, his hands were shaking so badly..."

"So you helped him."

"So I helped him!," Caroline shouted angrily. "Have you ever seen withdrawal symptoms? Have you ever seen that kind of pain? I wouldn't let that happen to Harvey! I presume that you would have let him suffer, he was only a worthless junkie to you. But he was there for me when it mattered. I was there for him, isn't that what you always say love is about? And in the end, I got him into detox, didn't I? I harassed the hospital, yes, I did, until they took him in, and I sat by his bed for hours and hours until I knew he'd be alright."

"But in the end, it didn't matter what you had done for him. As soon he was able to think clearly, he dumped you, didn't he?"

Betsy was surprised by her own vehemence. She regarded her daughter without any mercy at all, registered the anguish and the desperation that was silent now, and she felt nothing.

"I reckon he did," Caroline said, no fight left in her.

"I have one last question," Betsy said. "The smack you brought Harvey. Where is it now?"

Unconsciously, Caroline put her hand over the spot where her pocket would have been if she still had been wearing jeans.

"I'm glad to see you didn't spread it all over the rehab unit, at least," Betsy said.

"I thought you were going to take it from me."

"No. What would be the use? You want more, I have no doubt that you can get more. I trust you to do the right thing with it."

Betsy grabbed the crutches, stood up shakily and began to hop out of the room.

"Mother..."

It was a plea. It was also the first time in years Caroline had addressed her without the slightest hintof rancor. Normally, Betsy would have been overjoyed. Now, she simply registered it.

"I said I trusted you, didn't I?" she said, without turning. "Trust may not seem much to you, but it's all I can give right now."

==

Hopping up the stairs took Betsy's breath away. Old, she thought angrily, I'm getting old and I can't deal with my fool daughter anymore. I ought to turn her over to someone impartial, someone who doesn't expect things of her. Things like common sense, decency and knowing the difference between right and wrong. But no, Caroline did know these things. It was only love that had made her go straight against all her ethics. Oh God, adolescent love.

She made her way to the bedroom and the bed. The crutches slid to the floor as she lay down upon the coverlet. She needed to take out the eyes. Tears didn't go well with prosthetics. The possibility of infection...oh, damn it all.

Dr. Braddock was well aware that she had behaved unprofessionally, walking out in the middle of a session she had initiated. Dr. Braddock also knew that she had reacted exactly the way the subject had expected; with cold and condemnation. So the good doctor felt ashamed, while the mother of Caroline Ramsey wanted to shake her daughter until her teeth rattled and yell.

"Momma?"

Caroline stood in the doorway.

"What do you want from me, Caroline? My approval? I can't give you that."

"Momma, I'm sorry!"

Caroline's voice was no more than a whisper. So she had broken her daughter. A young troubled woman already on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Congratulations, Dr. Braddock. Self-loathing rose inside Betsy.

"Come in. Sit here."

Betsy patted the other side of the bed and heard Caroline settle in beside her, on Doug's side of the bed. She heard something that might have been a sob and was even more ashamed of herself.

"I'm sorry, too," she said, in a serious tone. "I shouldn't have snapped at you. God knows there are a couple of things I wish I'd left unsaid down there."

"You were right, weren't you?" Caroline said, hugging a pillow tightly to her chest. "I shouldn't have...but that's what I hate most about you. You're always right. You taught me better. When you got me out of jail, Dad hugged me and asked if I was alright, but you said that I should know better and turned away. I had been in jail the whole night! And you were right; the raid was stupid, getting caught was downright moronic and the minks were hunted down by farmers in two weeks, but I was fifteen and I was scared!"

Caroline sounded hurt, but not defiant, not angry. Above all, she sounded very young.

"No, Caroline, that wasn't how it was! I was proud of you. I was disappointed that you had hit that secretary, though, but I was proud that you had done something for a cause you believed in."

That was true, Betsy realised. She had been upset that her daughter should have resorted to violence, perhaps so upset that she had forgotten to convey all the other feelings Caroline's deed evoked in her.

"You didn't know what the secretary did to me, you should have gotten all the facts before you gave me the I'm-disappointed-in-you look, and you never said you were proud..."

"What did the secretary do?"

Betsy went cold all over. Of course the man must have done something to Caroline. Of course, or she would never have touched him.

"It wasn't just him, the whole station wanted to do a strip and search for physical mutations. But he was the one who started doing it so I hit him and yelled and the chief came in and threw me in their isolation cell. I didn't even get my phone-call."

Oh God, you are supposed to protect children, even fool children, where were you when my baby needed you? And that a therapist specializing in trauma, would fail to notice what was wrong with her daughter...shame, shame and shame again.

"I'm sorry, Caroline. I should have trusted you. I'm proud of you, I always was, believe it."

Caroline sniffled.

"No, you're not, you're so damn perfect yourself. I could do all you wanted and you'd never be satisfied anyway. And now I really have shown you what a terrible person I am, haven't I?"

Betsy took a deep breath.

"Listen closely, daughter of mine. Matters could be worse. Harvey didn't take the smack, right? He's still in rehab, still going with the program, isn't he? If you love him and not the drugs, you must find it in your heart to let him go, if that's what he wants to do. You would not want to keep him on a leash, addicted to you and to a drug that will kill him. If you love him...

"

"I do love him, but I can't live without him. He's the only one who has ever loved me back."

"Not true. You can live without him, and you will, if that is the price for him staying clean. As for the other thing you said; Caroline, there's nothing you could ever do or say to make me stop loving you. And I know that goes for your father, too."

There was a moment of silence before Caroline said, timidly:

"Momma, I'm sorry I called you old. I was trying to hurt you."

And maybe they were achieving something here tonight, after all the tears and pain, maybe it meant something that Caroline dared to bare her heart and soul, to the one person she had always treated with disdain. Maybe things would be different from now on, if they tried.

"There's nothing to be sorry about. It's true and it's going to be more apparent from now on. I admit you hit a nerve. The whole aging business bothers me a lot, it bothers Doug even more, and I can't find a way to talk about it with him. Sometimes he looks at me with sheer terror in his eyes, and I don't even know what he's afraid of. I guess we both thought that age doesn't matter, but it does."

"He's afraid of losing you. So am I, when I think of it."

Betsy's eyes would have filled with tears if she had let them. As it was, she lay very still and tried not to blink. That Caroline would admit that she cared was more than she would ever have hoped for. But she had to keep the situation uncharged. Back to the subject.

"It's a bit more complicated than that. He's also afraid of the aging itself, the loss of mind and personality, and not only my ageing, but his own. Dementia runs in his family. Think of Doug being unable to communicate. He fears that more than anything."

"That's awful. What are we going to do?"

"I don't know," Betsy said.

They were silent for a while. Betsy sensed that Caroline was exhausted with relief and emotions and anyway, they had covered much ground this evening. They both needed to think and to rest.

"We'll talk more in the morning, Caroline," she murmured softly. "You just try to get some sleep, alright?"

"Momma? Will you tell Dad for me? Please?"

"Yes, if you want me too."

"Momma?"

More asleep than awake now. But when the eyelids fluttered open for a moment, Betsy could see that the impressive witch was gone from Caroline's vision and that a middle-aged woman who was trying to be her mother.

"I'll keep trying," Betsy whispered back.

Then she put her own quilted cover over her daughter and heard the breaths get deep and even, before she picked up her crutches and slipped out of the bed.

==

NIGHT:

Doug was sitting in his car, listening to the sounds of the night. He had switched off the engine on the gravel drive-way, switched off the lights and and let the car roll to a stop in front of the entrance of Braddock Manor. There was a light in one of the rooms on the third floor and Doug knew that Betsy was up and waiting for him. He didn't want to go in there, didn't want to face her patience and resignation. She wouldn't berate him for being so late, she never did, but the amethyst eyes would turn his way and he'd feel the pang of old guilt for not being there.

The evening had been pleasant, good food and good company. Brian hadn't drunk more than five or six glasses of wine at the restaurant and only one beer at the pub. The moderate, for Brian, that was, intake of alcohol had warmed him up a bit, giving Meggan a chance to relax and enjoy being with her friends. Kitty and Pete had expressed regrets that Betsy couldn't join them, but Pete had been quite outspoken about not missing Caroline at all. Doug had been hurt, but refrained from protesting. He could understand Pete's feelings in a way. Caroline's obstinacy in a volatile situation had almost cost Kitty her life once. Pete had never forgiven Caroline for that, Kitty being the cornerstone of his continued existence. What had originally been a muted dislike on both sides had grown to a bitter feud. Pete never missed an opportunity to deflate Caroline's ego, Caroline jumped all over him in response and either Kitty or Betsy had to pry them apart, since the rest of their friends and family didn't stand a chance.

Though Doug knew himself to be an over-protective father, he had learnt not to fight Caroline's battles for her. He had no reason to fight Pete; the man had a deep and profound love for Kitty and Doug couldn't say that he would have reacted any differently if it had been Betsy's life in jeopardy and someone else making that near-fatal error, not out of ignorance, but as a flat refusal to an order under fire.

Doug liked Kitty, very much, and although he had never thought of her as more than a friend, he might have, if he hadn't met Betsy. He and Kitty had always worked and studied together at Xavier's, being equally gifted, though in different ways. Later they had started a partnership in computer programming and Kitty's way of logicking her way through a problem had always amazed Doug, even if he was the one superior in interpreting the comp languages. Outside the computer room, they were the best of friends, Kitty gracefully making place for Betsy in the relationship.

So understandably, when Doug first met Pete, he had been suspicious of the man. Kitty had been jerked around enough by Piotr, and Pete's past didn't inspire immediate confidence. From the moment Doug saw Kitty and Pete together, though, he had known that those two was bound to each other in ways he could never understand. While Doug and Kitty seemed much alike on the surface, sharing a similar upbringing and similar talents, Doug had never been able to touch the wildness in her, the dark stream running under the soft surface, running deep and wide. Which was where she and Pete met, in the breathless adrenaline rush, the dance on the knife's edge. With the years, Doug had been able to understand and accept it. With the years, he had gradually come to trust Pete, as an ally, as a friend and as a commander whose orders he would follow blindly, when things got out of hand.

Kitty had brought the latest news from Muir Island. Moira and Banshee had recently decanted an old bottle of Scotch whisky, that Moira had saved for fifty years and kept out of Pete's hands for thirty of those years, an admirable feat. "To thirty years of surviving the Legacy Virus," Moira had crowed triumphantly over the phone, "and tell that bloody sassenach of yours that he won't get a sip of it!" Kurt had snatched the phone away at that moment, more than a little drunk himself, to tell her that he and Amanda sent their love, and when were she and Herr Wisdom going to retire and come to live at Muir?

No news from Peter. One hoped that he was painting and leading a peaceful life. One hoped, and didn't want to ask, for fear of getting another answer. There was news from the US, too, Scott asking if Betsy could take on another case, a very disturbed and violent young mutant. There had been a lot of those requests, since Professor Xavier passed away and the learning center for young mutants found itself lacking a competent psychiatrist. Emma Frost didn't really count, in Scott's opinion, and Jean refused to come anywhere near Scott again.

Doug let his mind wander to even smaller details of the evening, such as the new scar on Kitty's chin, her worn, almost haggard, features, which glowed with sudden beauty whenever she looked at Pete. The lift of the atmosphere once Meggan stopped projecting hopelessness onto them all and started to have a good time. The sadness, as they were all contemplating Professor Xavier's passing, less than a year ago.

Doug gazed up at the lit window. He should go to her. There were thousands of reasons why he should. But every instinct in him screamed to him to take the car, drive down the road and forget the life he had led, the friends he had and start over somewhere new. He couldn't bear to watch her grow old. Couldn't watch her and their daughter tear each other to pieces for another twenty years. He leaned his head against the steering wheel. It was the easy way out. He'd simply drive down to London, take a flight somewhere and settle down in another place. He would forget her and their long life together, forget about the realities of growing old.

In front of him, the trees swayed in the night breeze. He watched them, seeing them in a new light as an amplified tic-tac semaphore. He idly applied a couple of rhythms to their movements, failing to pull some meaning out of that, he tried binary, octal and hexadecimal bitmaps in different cyclical systems. The octal bitmap seemed to give some kind of recurring message. Excited, Doug pulled out his notebook and pencil, writing down the one's and zero's, eight by eight. He followed the message through three cycles, then looked down at the rows of scribbled numbers, which translated themselves into the same sentence thrice: Go to your wife.

A casual observer would surely have thought Doug insane. How else explain the hysterical laughter as he stumbled out of the car? How else explain him running over to the trees in the alley and hugging each of them in turn? But if the observer had seen the Doug's face, as the laughter turned to tears, he would have agreed that this was not the face of a madman, but the face of a man who had finally realised something he had known for a long time.

==

Doug found Betsy in the study, her hands feeling their way over a case description. She preferred Braille, oldest and most reliable. The light was for his benefit, since she would have been just as comfortable in the dark.

"Doug?," she inquired, turning her face to him with uncharacteristic hesitation.

He saw, then, that she didn't have her eyes. The sockets were gaping empty. There was nothing to disgust him, there was just emptiness where other people had eyes. He didn't answer, just crossed the distance between them in three great strides, drew her to him and embraced her tightly, burying his head in her stream of golden hair.

"I've been so afraid," he said at last, releasing her. "I've been so afraid."

Maybe it was the light, maybe his imagination, but now Doug could see the very faint lines around her eyes, that would become definite wrinkles in five or ten years. The sight didn't scare him now, not anymore.

"Not of me, have you?" Betsy's voice was gentle.

Her hands were on his shoulders, her head cocked to one side as if she was listening to more than his words. Perhaps she was.

"No, of myself. Of what I was going to do, if I was going to panic..."

Doug broke off, feeling his face go red and hot.

"You nearly did, didn't you?"

Still gentle, but with an edge.

"I was this close," Doug admitted, "to running tonight. But it wouldn't have been from you, it would have been from myself. I fear old age. I fear everything associated to it."

She nodded.

"So do I, though perhaps for different reasons. It is the ugliness and, I don't know, the....unworthiness, that gets to me."

"For me, it's the loss of speech. My mother...If you...I don't know that I could...."

He couldn't go on, for shame. Betsy nodded again, as if he was confirming something she had suspected.

"It's already affecting our lives, isn't it? We're treading all too carefully around the subject, wasting what time we have. I know I wouldn't have taken that fall this afternoon if I had been able to think clearly about growing old. So, on the way home, I decided it was time to face the problems."

"Hence the conversation with Caroline," Doug said.

Betsy's expression grew more serious at his words.

"Hence the conversation with Caroline," she answered firmly. "And these."

She pointed to her eye sockets.

"Don't think that I'm not scared," she said hastily. "I'm scared that you'll find me disgusting, I'm scared of having done Caroline more harm than good. I doubt myself and my own motives, I doubt you, too. Most of all, I'm scared that you'll wake up one morning beside an old, blind hag and not know why you're there."

"Betsy, I know."

"I'm not sure you do. What did I do to you, jumping stark naked into your arms, when you were but a child, fixating you on me, damn it? I'm scared that I've manipulated you all the time, enchanted you. When will you see me for what I am?!"

Doug held out his arms, but she flinched away from his touch, that little move hurting him more than any words could.

"Betsy, don't. Don't do this to us. I've loved you since I first saw you. And I don't mean when I saw you naked in the attic, or when I saw your astral self in Mojo's Wildways. I mean when Warlock and I first found the threads of your soul and began to unite them."

"You only think...because I..."

"Hush. Hush."

He took her into his arms. This time she didn't resist. He kissed her cheeks, the nose, her eyebrows, the trembling lips. He ran his fingers through her hair, all the way down to the small of her back, her slender waist, and he kissed her until she kissed him back.

"We'll be okay," he murmured. "We'll deal with it when the time comes. And we'll talk about it, hear? No more playing at being noble and stoic. No more of carrying the burden alone. We don't have to protect each other as we have done."

"No," she breathed against his neck.

"And we're going to make love with the light on," he said. "All the time."

==

EARLY MORNING:

Doug and Betsy sat in the hammock on the balcony, watching the stars. They had looked in on Caroline who was sleeping peacefully in their bed.

"I can't understand why she did it," Doug said bitterly.

"Me neither. Twenty years as a therapist and I can't even begin to understand."

They fell silent. Doug saw a helicopter blink in the dark sky above them, going westwards. They had talked about Caroline, about how and why, until their throats were raw and sore. They had both cried a bit and comforted each other as best they could. Now all the tears were cried out, everything was said and Doug felt at peace.

Betsy put her foot up, leaning her back against Doug's arm and shoulder. He cherished the weight and warmth of her body against his chest, hugged her to him, with his other arm. The hammock rocked slightly. He thought that, as soon as the stores opened, he'd get her a stick, a sword-stick. She would like that.

The night was warm. A nightingale that Doug recognized as the one who had sung in the park for the last two summers was singing somewhere out in the dark, calling its mate. Betsy stirred in his arms,half-asleep. The earth revolved around its axis, the stars, flammable gas giants, consumed themselves, light-years away, and faded, as their own sun would fade one day. Even the stars grew old.

==

Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
The last of life, for which the first was made
Our times are in his hand
Who saith 'a whole I planned'
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all nor be afraid

--Robert Browning

==

FIN