The story was written for Celievamp in the context of the 'Sanctuary challenge-a-thon' 2010. It tries to answer Celievamp's.prompt # 5. I apologise if the story does not fulfil your expectations.
BTW: English is not my first language; so, please be lenient.
"But, Mum, you promised," Ashley whined.
"Don't you think that you're a bit old for a bedtime story, Ashley? I remember distinctly that you told me only two weeks ago that you're too old to be treated like a child."
"You promised, Mum!" Ashley protested and completely missed the teasing undertone in her mother's voice.
"And never may it be said that a Magnus does not keep her word." Helen slipped out of her shoes, snuggled next to her daughter and pulled her in her arms. "So, what kind of story would you like to hear, Ashley? How Sally came to live at the Sanctuary? Or would you like to hear about the big guy?"
"No, Mum. I've heard those a thousand times, and besides, Sally tells her story better than you do. No, I'd like to hear a new story. Do you remember that storage room you had Henry and me clean out a couple of months ago? We found a photo album showing you with a lot of people. We did some research and could identify most of them but there still are a few pictures we could not put a name on."
Ashley pulled the album out of the topmost drawer of her nightstand, "Here, tell me about her."
She opened the leather bound volume and pointed to a picture that showed her mother with short dark hair, a blouse with floral prints and painted on blue jeans. She was grinning wildly and had her arm draped over the slim shoulders of a young girl who was looking up to her with an expression of utter adoration on her face. The 8x10 next to it showed the same girl, at least ten years older with her arm in a sling and sadness in her eyes. There was no name or date and her mother didn't say anything but Ashley had learned to accept her mother's occasional need for silence.
Finally Helen said, "Hers is not exactly a bedtime story, Ashley. Choose someone else."
"Please, Mum, there is just something about her that speaks to me. Please, tell me."
Helen studied Ashley's face. Her eyes were pleading, just the puppy dog expression she had perfected to get something her mother was reluctant to let her have. This time, however, there was more to it, and so Helen relented.
"I called her Nina and she was about ten when we met. That first photo was taken in New York City in 1969, a couple of weeks after she had stolen my wallet. The first time I saw her she was in an alley scavenging for food. I must have looked like an easy mark to her. Before I knew it she had darted past me and had grabbed my wallet. Her reflexes were extremely fast and she moved with such agility and grace. It was astonishing."
"Then how did you catch her?" Ashley asked and decided to show off her own reflexes by trying to touch her mother's nose. Helen grabbed her wrist in mid-motion.
"Much faster than that, Ashley. And I didn't catch her. Nina came to me. The wallet contained a twenty dollar bill for emergencies, a Sanctuary calling card and some rudimentary sketches of the tunnels and caves under the city."
"Where Vincent and his people live?" Ashley asked.
"Yes. The New York Sanctuary had only just found out about them and when I arrived they didn't even know that most of Jacob's people were not abnormals, but that is another story.
"Three days later Nina began to follow me through town. She always kept her distance but she was there, every day, like a shadow. After four days I had enough. I waited just around a corner and confronted her. She handed me the wallet, without a word. There was an Italian restaurant close by and I invited her to lunch. She didn't say a word but she ate for three girls her age. The next day we met again, and the next and the one after that. It took almost ten days before she did more than just eat."
"Why did you bother, Mum? You had the wallet with the tunnel sketches back."
"The easiest answer is to say that there was something in her eyes that fascinated me, and when she returned the wallet not only the sketches were there but also the twenty dollar bill."
"When did you decide to take her home with you, Mum?"
"You're too smart for your own good, Ashley." Helen said and kissed her daughter's temple. "I got the idea the day she began to follow me, but I knew that I could not leave her behind when she began to trust me, when she began to talk. She told me about growing up in foster care and that living on the streets was much better, at least during the summer. She said that she didn't know anything about her parents or how old she really was. The only thing she never told me was her name."
"Then why did you call her Nina?"
"That came about when she came to live here, in Henry's room to be exact. She had nightmares and nothing I did could keep them at bay, nothing but the music of Nina Simone. She said she liked the name.
"I sent her to school and studied her abilities. Not only her reflexes were extraordinary, she also was extraordinarily flexible and had an extremely high metabolism. After she graduated from high school she decided that she wanted to travel, to see the country and the people with her own eyes, not with mine. She wanted to learn more about the world of normal people after growing up surrounded by abnormals. I thought that it was a good idea."
Helen fell silent, and this time Ashley urged her to keep on talking, "What happened, Mum?"
"Nina disappeared. Six months into her trip through the United States her regular letters and phone calls suddenly stopped. I tried to retrace her steps but all I could find out was that she last had been seen in San Francisco. For months my contacts couldn't find anything, and then by pure chance she was seen in Washington, D.C. months later.
"It took me weeks to find her there, and when I did, it was under the most dramatic circumstances. I was meeting an old friend in one of the countless upscale restaurants of the capital when I saw her. She was wearing a red wig and an evening gown, but I recognised her immediately. She was accompanied by a man who gave her a wooden box. The man got up and left her alone. A couple of minutes later Nina also rose. She walked over to the other side of the room, raised a weapon with a silencer and shot a man sitting there with a few others right between the eyes. Apparently the other men were bodyguards of a sort. They scrambled after her even before the body of their employer had hit the ground. I could hear the sound of more shots being fired even over the din of the other patrons of the restaurant expressing their shock.
"There were only two alternative exits to the restaurant, the garbage shoot and the back door that also served as a service entrance."
"You did reconnaissance for a dinner with a friend, Mum?" Ashley asked.
"I might have exaggerated the friendliness of the meeting. He was more an old informant than a friend. I thought it would be a good idea to exerce some prudence. But let's get back to the story at hand. I excused myself and was just in time to pick Nina up when she climbed out of the garbage can at the end of the shoot. When we drove off I saw two of the body guards storming out the back door."
"You mean that innocent little girl in the photo became a killer and you protected her?" Ashley sat up abruptly and stared wide-eyed at her mother.
"I protected a girl I raised for almost eight year, a girl I trusted, a girl who would never harm anyone else. Would you expect me to do anything else if it had been you?"
"Put like that... No, I know you would do anything to protect me." Ashley answered and snuggled back in her mother's arms. "So, what happened next?"
"I brought her to a safe house, so to speak. Nina was a bloody mess. I made her take a bath to calm down and then we talked. She told me an incredible story. Nina said that while at the West Coast she met an old friend, Maggie. Maggie was the one who had taught her how to survive on the streets when she had run away from foster care almost three years before we met. Maggie was about five years older and she took her under her wing. She also had been the one who played Nina Simone for her.
"Nina told me a really extraordinary story. It seems that when Maggie left New York City she fell in with a rough crowd. They financed their drug habit by robbing pharmacies. One night things went awfully wrong. The owner was killed, a police officer died as well. Maggie was arrested and sentenced to death. They put the needle in her arm but instead of dying she woke up in a stark white room. A man came in, the man I had seen with Nina earlier that night. He told her that officially she was dead but that the government had given her another chance. He called himself Bob and told her that she would be taught how to fight, how to speak, how to move, how to kill; all in the service of her country."
"You're kidding me, right? That's so Section 31."
"You, my dear, spend too much time in front of the TV screen."
"Oh come, Mum, don't tell me that Kira Nerys is not hot," Ashley said with a grin and a side glance at her mother.
"Personally, what I have seen of your favourite show, I prefer Jadzia Dax, but that's neither here nor there. Maggie accepted their offer and they trained her to be an assassin for the government. Their organisation called themselves 'The Division', but Maggie was not cut out for that kind of work. She met a young photographer and fell in love, and when Bob ordered her to kill someone with J.P., her lover, in the next room, having just proposed to her, all she wanted to do was to end her association with the Division.
"Maggie never got the chance. Bob had promised her that he would do his best to allow her to retire if she did a last job for them. She met Nina the night before that job was about to take place and the day after that she was dead. Her body had been found in a car wreck on the coastal highway. Nina snuck into the morgue to see her friend for the last time and met her fiancÚ who had pieced together his own version of Maggie's story."
"So, Nina decided to make the Division pay, right?" Ashley couldn't hold back her curiosity any longer.
"Initially she wanted to get in to find information and then expose them as the murderers they were. She used her abilities to attract there attention, but continued to play the reluctant recruit. She wanted to know how far they would go which led her to the situation in which I found her. Nina was not supposed to get out of that situation alive."
Helen let her words sink in.
"What did they do when she did? They did eventually find out, right?" Ashley asked.
"Yes, they did, the next morning. I did not want her to go back to the Division. The Big Guy would say that I had a bad feeling about it. Nina insisted. She said that she needed to go back there to get the copies of the evidence she had found and to give a few of the other recruits with whom she had been trained a chance to get out as well."
Ashley was an astute girl. So, she asked, "What went wrong?"
"Nina returned to the Division, but they didn't trust her. For a few days they only observed her, looking for anything that would give them a clue what she had done the night she had been missing. Then observing no longer was enough. They started to put pressure on her, to torture her, but that's something I only learned later."
"So, you went in with guns blazing and got her out, right?"
"Nothing as heroic and illogical as that, I'm afraid. You should not put me on a pedestal, Ashley. I may be older than most, but I'm still human."
"I know, Mum, but then what happened?"
"I had arranged a meeting with Nina and when she didn't show I began to use the information she had given me to do some research of my own. When I asked the right questions it was easy to find out what I wanted to know without arousing too much suspicion. My research led me to a woman named Amanda. She was the one who taught the recruits table manners, manners in general, she taught them poise and style and pride.
"According to Nina, Maggie had had a lot of respect for Amanda. She had thought her to be the only human influence in the whole organisation. Nina concurred with her. She told me that she had had a hard time not to let her know what she had already learned at the Sanctuary. She said that it was hard to feign that she didn't know any French or German or proper English or that she didn't know which spoon or knife to use or how to walk in high heels.
"Nina told me that she considered Amanda the weak link of the organisation, but I had a feeling that it would not be that easy. It was, however, easy to find out where she lived, and also that almost every move she made was supervised by cameras, including her apartment. It made it more difficult to meet with her, but I took the gamble.
"It turned out that she had known about the cameras in her hallway and parking lot but not about the ones in her bedroom, living room and bathroom. I got her to talk about Maggie and Nina. She had been impressed by both of them, for different reasons. She even admitted that she had known that Nina had held back in her training and that she had prior knowledge of a lot of the things she had pretended to learn at the Division headquarters.
"It took more than one meeting but when they started to torture Nina she agreed to assist me. She gave me the access codes for the front doors and the access for an emergency door about which not many people knew. Without Amanda's help my plan never would have worked."
"You went in there alone?"
"No, Ashley, I'm not that reckless. I never was. I called James who sent two of his best men and I called the Big Guy. In case anyone got caught I didn't want them to be able to trace us back to the Sanctuary.
"We deliberately used the front door to come in. Fortunately they were not as vigilant as I had feared. There were guards at the door but they went down before they even had a chance to aim their weapons. Thanks to Amanda I knew that the command level was protected by bullet-proof glass and had the chance to do something about it. It still took two shots to penetrate the glass and a third to take their leader out of the picture.
"Finding Nina was much more difficult. By then they had stashed her in the lower levels of the Division, not that not all of it had been underground anyway. Amanda went as far as to fast talk the guards stationed right in front of the torture chamber. Nina was in bad shape. We could not afford to carry her but she needed to be supported to be able to walk. They really had damaged her pretty badly.
"Short end to a long story: the Division building was destroyed, their computer core was destroyed, Nina and Amanda got out, both injured, twenty-three of the Division, operatives and trainees, died. I don't know if they ever rebuild, but if they did they must have been more careful than before since I never got even a glimpse on the radar of an organisation like that.
"And now, Ashley, it's time for you to sleep if you want to even have a chance to get out of bed tomorrow."
"Wait a minute, Mum. We both know that there are too many unanswered questions to just let you get away with that. What happened to Nina and Amanda and that Bob fellow? And J.P.?" Ashley asked.
"J.P. mourned Maggie and then went on to become the foremost war photographer of his time," Helen answered.
"Amanda is Aunt Di," Ashley stated.
"Yes, she is. When the Division building blew up behind us, right before we stepped into the get-away car, so to speak, Amanda was hit by a bullet at the base of her spine. She was propelled inside of the vehicle. I managed to save her life but not her ability to walk, and Amanda has been a valuable consultant ever since.
"Concerning Nina... I'm afraid that there's no happy ending here. Yes, she got out of the Division. Yes, her injuries were comparatively minimal. But ultimately that was what got her killed in the end.
"Even without trying her reaction times were faster than that of the average human. It was what had attracted their attention in the first place. For months she had hidden her abilities from the Division. Nina had held back. When we attacked their base she showed what she was really able to do. I never saw anyone move as fast as she did that day. She not only ducked bullets, she also pushed others out of the way."
"So, how comes that I know Aun... Amanda but not Nina?" Ashley asked. "Is that the part that makes it into a not-bedtime-story?"
Helen wordlessly kissed her daughter's temple. It was enough to convey to Ashley that her question had hit the spot.
"Even while she lived at the Sanctuary I kept a very close eye on Nina's abilities. I didn't want them to get out of hand. I tried to teach her how to control them," Helen finally said. "I allowed her to go full out during training sessions. At least that's what I thought.
"My backup and I, we would have died that day if not for her. She was more than just fast. She was deadly and lethal. She was graceful and smoothly fluid. Only moments after we had piled into our get-away car the underground compound where the Division had been stationed blew up. It rocked the car but the driver was able to stay in control. Nina would have been hyper. I could see it in her body language but she was too worried about Amanda. In the end Nina had only a scratch at her arm..."
"But she still was sad and disillusioned," Ashley said.
"Yes, she was, but that was not the main problem. Do you really want to know, Ashley? I told you that it is not a bedtime story,"
"When Nina used her powers at the Division compound it triggered something for which I had not accounted," Helen answered and then fell silent.
This time Ashley respected her mother's reticence to answer verbally; what she didn't miss was the slight tightening of Helen's embrace.
"Nina's metabolism was about two and a half times as fast as that of a human. What I had not counted on was what that would mean in the long run."
"Could you be any less concrete, Mum?" Ashley asked.
"Of course I could," Helen deadpanned.
"It took us, it took me some time to get my head around it and even more to allow my heart to believe what the readings told me."
Helen once again fell silent. Did she really want to tell her teenaged daughter about Nina's fate? About an abnormal who had almost the same abilities as her daughter?
"I know this is not a joke. Please, I can take the truth."
Helen once again studied her daughter's face, and beyond the curiosity she found guilt. The fact that Ashley didn't ask a question was half of the answer she needed.
"The truth is that Nina had not used her abilities ever before, at least not to their full extent. I did not know what it would do to her.
"For a while Nina rejoiced in her more or less new-found abilities. What we did not account for were the side effects.
"Nina began to age at an accelerated range. During the first few months it only were about five years per normal year, but the older Nina got the faster she aged. She died a long time ago, and I still blame myself for not having found a way to cure her before she had been forced to use her gift. If she had not been forced to use her abilities she still could be alive."
Ashley once again extricated herself out of her mother's embrace. She studied the expression on Helen's face, a mixture of arrogance, confidence, and worry, and regret.
"When did she die?" Ashley asked.
"Statistically speaking she was twenty-nine. You were a toddler at the time. And it was more than just a minor miracle that she held out this long. Her body was one hundred and eight years old when she died. Every time she used her gift her life expectancy decreased."
"You were lovers?" Ashley asked.
"That is not an appropriate question to ask of your mother, Ashley."
"I'm not eight any longer."
"No, you are not." Helen once again fell silent. "But you're also not yet twenty-one."
Ashley respected her mother's silence but she had turned her head enough to keep her in her line of sight.
"She was not your lover, but you loved her. You still do."
"She's dead, but I still love her. By human standards for a long time she was my daughter. I will always love her; that's something I will not deny. And no, Nina never was my lover. That's not how I feel about her."
Ashley once again studied her mother's expression. She saw a mixture of sadness and regret and sorrow and compassion and resignation. More than she ever would have expected to see.
"Thank you for telling me about her, Mum."
"You're welcome, Ashley."
The E N D