"If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two
Thy soule fixt foot, makes no show
to move, but doth, if th'other doe.
And though it in the center sit
Yet when the other far doth rome
It leanes and hearkens after it
And growes erect, as that comes home
Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
Like th'other foot obliquely runne;
Thy firmnes makes my circle just
And makes me end where I begunne"
-- John Donne==
STC: SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
"How are you holding up, Mrs Ramsey?"
It was an innocent question and a justified one, since Doug Ramsey and Kitty Pryde Wisdom had been missing for forty-eight hours. It was also a very stupid question to ask, for someone interested in personal survival. Caroline winced inside as her mother's head snapped around and the icy sapphire glare locked on the computer technician. In this mood, Ma was as likely to wipe your mind as look at you and you never knew which she had done until afterwards.
"We. Are. Completely. Exposed. Securitywise", Ma snarled. "Both our main System operatives have been taken. Our satellite link has been cut off. We are currently preparing to evacuate the entire Muir Island. But you'd rather evaluate my emotional state than stick to your job. Thank God _you're_ not in charge of anything."
The tech recoiled, mumbled something and started typing like crazy. Caroline almost felt grateful for the interruption when Pete Wisdom entered, and that was surely a first. He acknowledged her presence with a barely civil nod and started talking to Ma.
"I got contact with Section."
"Good. I won't ask you how."
"She offered us one of their Systems men to help out with our security and with the retrieval mission."
At that, the comconsole lit up. Pete pushed a couple of switches and a woman with auburn hair and became visible on the vid screen. She was very beautiful, but the large brown eyes were guarded, expressionless.
"You may have Hillinger," she said.
Pete glanced at Ma, who shook her head.
"Birkoff," she mouthed.
"Oh, come on, Madeline! That little twit Hillinger, I wouldn't trust him with me garbage. We want Birkoff."
The slightest of nods.
"Very well. Birkoff and his escort will arrive in three hours. I assume this pays for Prague, mr Wisdom?"
"For Prague, but there is still St Petersburg."
"Ah, yes. I had not forgotten. If you run into Scicluna, tell her...."
"Tell her what?"
The corner of Madeline's mouth quirked upwards, a motion equivalent to an emotional outburst in another.
"Maybe hello would be enough. Yes, tell her I said hello."==
While the only explicit orders Caroline had gotten had been " Don't make me trouble, brat", she knew what her Da would have wanted her to do. She could almost hear his voice tell her to stay close to her mother. She needs you to be her eyes, he had told her before. So Caroline tried. The thing was, Ma didn't need any eyes. She didn't need anything at all. She was completely in her element in the communications room, pacing seven steps across the floor and seven steps back, barking orders into one small microphone or another. Caroline had brought her hot tea and food, which she had wolfed down, but she hadn't expressed any interest in the aspirins or the swordstick or anything else Caroline could think of, or in Caroline herself. Oh, there were the distracted thanks for bringing this and that, and the verbal pats on the head for being so nice and holding up so well, and don't worry, dearest, he'll be fine, I'll get him out, but that was all.
"Are you tired, Ma?"
Caroline was probably the only one who could ask her that and get a half-way honest answer. Ma rubbed at her eyes before answering.
"Huh? Yes, somewhat. Are you? You could go get some rest if you like, you know."
"I'd rather stay here."
With you, she didn't say. There were a lot of things she didn't say.
Ma turned back to her work. The lines around her mouth seemed to have deepened. Maybe it was just the light. Maybe not. Something broke inside her.
And kept on breaking, all the way through. It hurt. It hurt to see Ma so old, so tired. Oh Ma, you can pretend to be Superwoman all you like, I know better. Most of the time, I know better.
"What is it? Oh, my darling."
Don't, Caroline wanted to say, through furious sobs. Just don't. It's the look on your face that breaks me, the care and the worry, the vulnerability. All those things no one else sees, ever.
"I'm fine," she said, pulling away a little. "I can handle it."
I'm your eyes, Ma. I won't disappoint you. I won't let you down.--==
The first of Birkoff's escorts proved to be the tedious kind, who found it absolutely necessary to secure the communications room before letting his precious charge in. He presented himself as Michael, in the same inflectionless tone Madeline had used, but didn't offer any other information. He wore a psi-dampener openly on his collar. Caroline stared at him as long as she dared, to give Ma a chance of reviewing him. He had long dark hair, like Harvey, but there the similarities ended. Harvey was an easy read. All that he felt or thought showed up in his face. This man gave away nothing. The body language indicated a killer, though, and when she met his green eyes, she was sure of it. She had seen that mixture of coldness and searing pain before. She shuddered and looked away.
"Come in," Michael ordered, and Birkoff and the other escort entered the room.
Caroline sat up a little straighter in her chair. Whatever she had expected, it wasn't this. Birkoff hardly seemed to be out of his teens. Once he came a little closer, she corrected for the orange-tinted glasses and the oversized sweater and calculated his age to twenty. Maybe. He made straight for the comconsole. Heh. Someone had even worse manners than she did. The other escort, a tall blonde woman hovered over him protectively.
"Hello, Seymour", Ma said, ignoring the bodyguards. "I trust you were briefed on the flight over."
"Yeah. I can do it."
He had a surprisingly soft tenor. He ducked his head and kept typing, apparently embarrassed by Ma's brief, but intense attention. Or by the use of his...unusual name.
"I'm Nikita," the blonde woman said. "We apologize for the dampeners. We are aware it makes your job more difficult. We cannot compromise our main Systems man."
Ma pursed her lips.
"I see. The dampeners don't interfere much with general communications, except, of course that I cannot communicate with any of you. Will you allow yourself to be equipped with alternative com gear?"
"We brought our own." The man again.
Caroline caught the wariness in Ma's voice. This could get ugly. But if the little computer nerd had his own body guards, she was more than capable of defending herself and Ma. She got up and walked around to Ma's side, keeping Birkoff between her and Michael at all times.
"You're in my light", Birkoff complained. He rubbed the side of his head as if something itched and the hand came away streaked with blood.
"You're hurt," Caroline said.
Ma glared accusingly at Nikita and Michael. They glared back.
"Why didn't you say?" she demanded.
"You wanted Birkoff, didn't you?" Nikita countered.
There was more anger in her voice than Caroline would have expected. Good. Threatening Birkoff would make Nikita hold her fire.
"Is he up to this?" Ma hissed.
"You were none too concerned about that before", Nikita snapped. "But yes, he is."
"Did you have stitches?" Caroline asked Birkoff quietly.
"Seventeen. With a stapler."
"Ah. I know the feeling. Gun butt, right?"
It was Michael the Killer and Birkoff cringed. Caroline almost did, too. For a short person, he was very good at towering. They should sic Pete on him, she thought ruefully. On some perverse impulse, she grabbed the aspirin bottle Ma had left on her desk and held it out to Birkoff, just to see what Michael would do.
The bottle went flying. Michael's hand clamped down on her wrist. She could have jerked it free, could possibly brought up her knee and perhaps even put her extra finger into his trachea, but that would have meant giving away too much. Even a failed try would give away too much. She held still.
"Let go of my daughter," Ma said tightly.
"We cannot allow any tampering with our Systems man", Michael said.
"Quite so." Ma's smile showed lots of teeth. "Let go."
Michael did. Caroline rubbed her wrist. Our Systems man, was it? It rhymed perfectly with "my daughter". She tried an imitation of Ma's smile.==
Four hours later, the data base was secure and dinner was served. Birkoff had offered a technical explanation, which no one was interested in hearing. The Section people had refused food and drink, although at least Nikita had looked longingly at the hot tea as it was brought in. They had brought their own water and some sandwiches. From Nikita's lack of enthusiasm as she munched on one, Caroline estimated that they were days old. It could also be that Nikita didn't like Pete's retrieval plan much.
As soon as Birkoff had a confirmed location, it had been decided that Bishop, Gambit, Uncle Logan and Pete were to go in there. Birkoff, Nikita, Michael, Ma and Caroline herself were to supervise the extraction. Amanda was to provide transport, if anything went wrong, otherwise they'd just drive out. The operation relied on secrecy and speed, rather than power and numbers.
"You're rather level-headed for someone your age", Nikita commented in a low voice, as uncle Logan made his objections to the plan clear for the third time.
"I mean, with your father out there..."
Caroline didn't want to think about that. It would have been so much easier if Da had stayed low-profile, translated books, worked for the UN, written the occasional software. He wasn't a fighter the way Pete and Kitty was, or even the way Ma was. Da was just...Da.
"According to the last report, he's still alive," she bit off.
Caroline looked at Nikita's chagrined face and felt a little sorry for her.
"We're all upset", she said. "But we need to stay functional. Ma is good at that, Pete too. They focus and get the job done, that's all."
Functional or not, both Ma and Pete were worried sick. The abductors were not the regular demons/supervillains/other-dimensional beings, but a terrorist group called Red Cell, known to consist of professional, ruthless people with thoroughly twisted minds. They'd better get Da back quickly, or what they got back wouldn't be him. She had to bite back panic.
"I do okay."
It was true. Even Pete seemed to appreciate it, sort of. He hadn't called her "twit" more than three times since dawn and she had refrained from talking back one of those times. Yes, she was doing her job, and more.
"You're so young."
"How old is Birkoff?"
"Twenty, I think. Why?"
"Do you see him running around in circles screaming?"
A smile tugged at Nikita's lips and an actual expression, of irritation, passed over Michaels face.
"Oh yes," Nikita breathed, the blue eyes luminous with laughter. "I've seen him do that. But the circumstances were rather different."==
Five people in the van were two too many. Maybe three. Birkoff didn't seem to mind. Just like Da, when he gets caught up in a problem, Caroline thought as she leaned over his shoulder. Ma sat at the other end of the van, her face tense with concentration as she communicated Birkoff's information to the team. Nikita leaned over Birkoff's other shoulder and Michael hunched down beside them.
"We got unfriendlies", Birkoff suddenly said. "They seem to head straight for us."
"Damn!" Ma said. Her eyes flew open, revealing empty eye-sockets. "How many?"
"I don't suppose it would be any idea to ask you and Nikita to get out there and take care of them?"
"No", Michael answered. "Our job is to protect Birkoff."
"Should've known", Ma muttered.
Caroline knew better than to offer to go. Without her, Ma would be blind and alone with three none-too friendly Section operatives.
"Okay", Ma said. "Switch off your psi-dampeners. I'll have to convince these guys to go somewhere else."
There was a short pause.
"No", Michael said.
"I said, switch off your psi-dampeners!"
Her face was dark with rage as she got up and advanced on him.
"Ma, don't! Please don't!" Caroline cried.
"We can't do that. You know it." Nikita tried to reason, but Ma was beyond reason. She threw Nikita out of the way and grabbed Michael by the collar. The air crackled with energy. Nikita drew her gun.
She's losing it, Caroline thought, panicked. After all these years she has spent calming other people down, she's the one to lose it and I don't know what to do. They're going to shoot her or the guys outside is going to shoot us all, and if com goes down everyone inside the power plant is going to die too, and I've got to make them listen to her, but first I must stop her from killing them!
Birkoff tried to get up. Caroline pushed him back into the chair and held him there with one hamd. With the other, she brought out her Glock and put it to his head.
"Everybody shut up and listen!" she yelled.
They froze. It was really amazing to see what a muzzle jammed into someones scalp could do. She gave them Uncle Logan's grin, the one that said: Don't try my sanity.
"Drop your gun", she said. "Ma, step away from them. You heard me! Do it!"
Edging into hysteria there, for extra effect. They did as they were told.
"I have", she said carefully, "as someone recently pointed out to me, my father out there. I have my mother here. I am, naturally, here myself. If anyone fucks up this mission, it's going to be _me_, not some moron without facial expressions. Now, let's use our collective minds here, for a moment. I'm told you're a genius, Birkoff. Help me out here."
He shivered and shook his head. Or tried to.
"If he dies, you'll die", Nikita said.
"Yeah, like I care."
"Oh, Caroline. Don't."
She ached to tell Ma that she wouldn't do it, but it was not good strategy to admit it.
"If we wanted what's inside your minds to get at Section, we wouldn't bother doing this. I mean, does it make sense at all? My mother can wipe your mind, service a squad with maps and positions on separate channels, and chew gum at the same time, without breaking a sweat. Given enough time, she could burn out your pathetic little dampeners and send you all home with faked memories of a mission. Which is exactly what we'd have done if your intel was what we wanted. Right, Ma?"
"Right," Ma echoed, open-mouthed.
Caroline almost smiled. Where are your manners, Ma? Didn't you think I could do this? You were the one who insisted I go to boot camp, after all.
"Switch off the dampeners."
Nikita raised her hand to the collar. Hesitantly, she turned the device over and touched it in a certain place. It stopped glowing.
He followed Nikita's example, only clumsier, and as Caroline looked down, she saw that he was bleeding again.
"Sorry," she whispered.
Michael moved then, as she had thought he might, a flying tackle, which slammed her, face first, into the wall. He wrenched the gun out of her hand. She turned her head to see who he was going to point it at. Birkoff. Ah. He pulled the trigger. It clicked. He pulled it again.
"It isn't loaded," she told him, giggling and choking with quite genuine hysteria, and when his eyes clouded with disbelief, her hand snaked up to his collar and ripped the dampener off. He grabbed her, but she had already dropped it on the floor to squash it like a cockroach. He made the mistake of trying to locate it, taking his eyes off her for a fraction of a second. It was all she needed. She twisted in his grip putting some space between them, and hit him hard below the belt. When he doubled up, she kicked him in the face. He fell over and her foot found the little device and crushed it with a satisfying crunch.
"Take them, Ma!" she yelled. Then her head connected with either the wall or the floor and everything went black.--
Eyes squeezed shut again. Bright sunlight. What did people think curtains were for? Unless she had been captured and this was torture. Nah.
Gravelly voice. Canadian accent. A familiar scent of smoke and forest.
"Oh. It's you."
"Not really." Memories flooded back. She sat up. "Is Ma okay? And Da?"
"They're fine. They're sleeping a few rooms down the hall. Bets was exhausted, mostly. Doug had been drugged, but he's okay, just needs to sleep it off. Kitty, too."
Uncle Logan looked as he'd been sitting there for a while. Possibly he had even slept there. His shirt was all scrunched up. She wrinkled her nose at him.
"They're all fine. Even the Section people. The little guy was walking around with a concussion, so we made sure he got some rest. The big guy, well, darlin', ya _gave_ him a concussion."
Only Uncle Logan would refer to Michael as a big guy.
"Why am I here?"
She could guess, kind of. Her mouth felt tender and swollen and her head pounded.
"Ya hit your head and passed out. Ya got yourself some bruises and ya'll eat through a straw for a while, but ya gonna be okay. Go back to sleep now, kiddo."
"Just a moment. Can I see my...parents?"
"I don't see why not. Yeah, come with me."
They padded down the hall.
She peeked in. There were two beds, but one of them was untouched. Ma and Da lay on the other, in a tangle of arms, legs and blankets, just like they had always done on the weekend mornings, when she was little. They didn't wake up when she entered. Suddenly she felt like crying. One of these days they would both be gone and the bed would be empty. They would move into the land of myths for a while, until everyone who had known them or known about them was gone too. And then it would be as if they had never existed, as if they had never loved each other, as if nothing of their sacrifices or hardships or triumphs had mattered.
When she met Uncle Logan's eyes she knew that he saw it, too. That, and maybe more.
"Go on in", he said in an unusually gruff voice.
She did, shutting the door behind her. She crept down into the other bed and sat for a while looking at her parents. Ma's hair was almost all gray now. You didn't notice until there was some weird light, but once you had noticed, you saw it all the time. Asleep, she looked older than she's ever had, but so did Da. There was gray in his hair, also. He had grown thinner, as old men did, bone and muscles more pronounced, and there were lines in his face she had never seen before. It hurt to see them both leave her, one grey hair at a time, one wrinkle.
"Hey, you guys," she said softly. "I just want you to know something."
She paused, considering what she really wanted to say.
"I'm not perfect. You already knew that, didn't you? I'm not going to be, either. I stopped trying years ago. But I'm going to be okay."
Deep breath. It was frightening to think of these things.
"When you guys wake up, we'll probably have one of those memorable fights. That's okay. I'm still yours, you're still mine. Nothing has changed, except that you don't have to worry about me anymore. I mean it. I've got my balance. I'm not going to be a loser or a screw-up. Trust me."
It was Ma's voice, a little slurred, a little worried. Checking on her baby.
"I'm okay, Ma.", she said. "Everything's fine. Go back to sleep. I'll be right here."
You took care of me. Now it's my turn. I'll take care of you.--
There was a familiar smell in the kitchen. Caroline, muzzy with sleep, associated first to rotting raisins, but of course, it was Moira re-heating her coffee. Good. Coffee was a priority in a liquid breakfast. But the person at the table wasn't Moira. It was Birkoff and he was drinking...what?
"Don't drink that!" she yelled.
"Or you'll shoot me with an unloaded gun? I'll take my chances." He shot her an angry look.
Without his glasses, his eyes seemed larger. Darker, too.
"I'm sorry about that", Caroline offered. "But this is...this is Moira's coffee."
The stickers on the perculator said "Poison", "Infectious Substances" and "Radioactive Waste", but apparently that didn't faze a true caffeine addict.
"You drink it, don't you?" he challenged her.
"Yes, but everyone agrees that she scrambled my genes to get a lifeform that could survive it...is that your second cup?"
"Sure." He frowned. "Moira is that auburn-haired Scottish lady, isn't she? Laid-back, but nice?"
"You're half-right, I think."
Laid-back? Nice? He was cute, but cute didn't work on Moira.
"How's your head?" she asked brightly.
"Better than I deserve, I guess. Which isn't saying a lot. What are you looking at?"
He flushed deeply.
"Um. Your finger."
Honesty was refreshing, in a way.
"Yeah. Both Mum and Dad are mutants. You've already seen what Mum does, at least the parts where she doesn't deep-fry your mind, and what Dad does is somewhat similar to what you do, except he does it with the languages we speak, too, and the languages we don't know exist. The rest of the people around rule nature, turn into wolves, walk through walls...I got an extra finger. But, yeah, I'm a mutant, if that's your question. Are you?"
"You could be. Dad says you're smart. Maybe mutant genes are where you get it."
He seriously considered that.
"I don't think so", he said at last.
He seemed so dejected by it that Caroline decided to tease him a little.
"Where are your keepers?"
He refused to take the bait.
"Michael is in sickbay, after what you did to him, and Nikita is watching over him. I just popped in here to get my coffee."
"I didn't realise he and Nikita were close. He seemed to..."
"What? They are crazy about each other. They just don't know it yet. 'Sides, they are not my keepers. They are my friends."
"Sorry. But he turned a gun on you, you know."
"Sure. He had to. I've done worse when I had to."
He put his cup down and rubbed his temples.
"You have a headache."
"Yeah. I lost my glasses last night. I guess the sunlight bothers me. I'm not used to it."
"Oh. You can borrow some of mine later. I'm sensitive to light, too."
"From the mutation?"
"I don't know. Maybe I've got a touch of albinism. Do you want ice or heat?"
"For your headache, silly. Living around a telepath teaches you everything there is to know about headaches. The freezer is loaded with icepacks and five minutes in the microwave makes it a heatpack. I'm getting a cold one for my lip. Your friend pulls quite a punch."
"Yeah." He smiled. "I haven't seen Michael taken down like that for years. Cold one, I think."
He drinks Moira's coffee, he wears tinted glasses, he's smart, he's cute, he's straightforward and funny... and he's the Section's Systems man and their major computer whiz kid. Don't even think about it, girl.
"There's aspirin", she went on. "Or Tylenol if you prefer. Even Demerol, but we're supposed to ask Moira before we use it. Imitrex for classical migraines. Maybe vitamin B would help. Or orange juice to boost your blood sugar."
"Um", he said. "What?"
She stopped, embarrassed.
"I don't know. I was babbling, I guess."
Or throwing myself at your feet. Her cheeks felt hot.
He watched her, with a serious look on his face.
"I bet, " he said carefully, "that I could make that split lip better."
"Yes," she said, feeling her mouth curve into a big idiotic smile. "I bet you could."