Dislcaimer: Marvel owns some of them, ITV own others, BBC own others. I think. No money is being made from this, and they're merely being... borrowed.

Notes: PG13-rating. Ross Tanner belongs to Second Sight, Susan Taylor to Touching Evil. (As do Di Adji, Hanson, and Mitchell... although, Mitchell didn't have a name). This story actually (my god) falls into some sort of personal universe. Same one as 'Paninaro of Angry Weasels...'--which, does NOT require reading. The only thing you need to know is that Susan and Ross were once partners (detectives).

Spoilers: Well, all of Second Sight, for one... Season two of Touching Evil. Marvel-wise... er, something like Excalibur 120?

Dedication: This one's for Luba. Happy birthday, darlin'. :)

Poppets
by Ana Lyssie Cotton

Susan Taylor could barely see when someone sat next to her. It wasn't the alcohol. Yet. It was the tears, finally released because she couldn't hold them anymore. A soft sob slid out, and she bit down on her lip. No. No more weakness. Not here.

"Buy you a drink?"

The voice was familiar, but she wasn't certain why until she turned to look at the man. "No."

He shrugged, his dark eyes neutral. "Sure?"

"Yes." She sipped the last of her rum and shoved the tears back in their drawer. "What the hell do you want, Tanner?"

"To buy you a drink."

"Bull."

He shrugged and leant on the rim of the bar. "If you say so."

Taylor didn't know whether to shoot him or walk away. Perhaps because they had never been lovers, she did neither. "What you been up to?"

"Since we last parted, I've screwed my career by going blind. You?"

Of course. Insensitive idiot. You'd forgotten that. She looked at him, irritated. "I'd known that, you twat."

"Ah, abuse. This I know." A half-smile graced his lips and he picked up a straw paper and begin fiddling with it, twirling it between his fingers.

"I'm sure you do." She tapped her glass on the bar. "I'll take that drink."

He motioned, and they were silent while her drink was refilled and the tender tipped. Around them, conversations continued, people talking about the boringness of their day, the sameness of life. Taylor wished she had that back. That innocence that all was right with the world.

"Tell me about Misha."

She jerked, spilling her drink. "Bastard."

There was no reply until she'd finished mopping up her hand and the bar. "I've had a call. Little bird who said you needed to talk. Of course, if you'd rather curse at me and spill alcohol, I can leave."

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because I can help."

She snorted.

"Blind I may be, Susan, but I still have contacts, connections."

"People who operate outside the law." She guessed, then drank the last of her vodka sour.

"Maybe."

"Kids. Albania. Probably a good forty, possibly more. There's nothing legal we can do for them." She paused to clench her jaw against the unshed tears. "Some were sent to a ring of child pornographers. Some have been adopted here in England, others, America."

"And Misha?"

Prodding open wounds must be a passtime for him, she decided. "Little girl. Cute." She bit down on her lip again.

Ross seemed to sense her need to not discuss Misha, and moved on, "Names, places?"

"Michael Di Adji. Mamara Hospital. He'd know a Reggie Hanson."

"Ah." Tanner reached out and touched her shoulder. "I'll get back to you when I know."

"Ross."

"Yes?"

A million questions ran through her mind. Why are you doing this? Can you really help? But she didn't ask them. "Thank you."

--

Ross Tanner followed the dog into his flat, hand absently brushing the wall. It was something he'd gotten used to, over the last year. He'd hated it, at first. But nearly being blind was something you dealt with or went mad.

Perhaps he'd done both.

Chance had given him Susan Taylor's location. Chance, and a friend of a friend. Mark Rivers might not really know who Tanner was, but he'd seemed to think he could help Taylor. Perhaps the lad thought they were lovers. Not that they couldn't have been, but dating a colleague was something Tanner had only done once. He doubted he'd do it again.

Absently, he wondered what Catherine Tully was doing these days, and then he put her out of his mind as he called another friend.

Outlining the situation, he could hear the skepticism and cynicism in the other man's tone, but he perservered, determined nonetheless. Ross had a son of his own, he wouldn't wish what Taylor's short words had described on ANY child.

Finally, they were arguing. "It can't be done, Tanner. Try someone else."

"You know this is something that needs doing."

Silence came from the other line, then a soft, "You bastard."

"I am, aren't I."

"Yes." A pause. "This could take months, you know that, don't you?"

"As long as it's done."

"Fine. I'll call you."

*click*

Tanner half-smiled to himself and pressed the receiver. Taylor deserved some good news.

--

"Muir Island Research station."

He'd gotten lucky, gotten her instead of any of the others. She sounded tired. "Pryde. I need to borrow some tramsport."

"Pete." So much scorn in one word. Anger, too.

He fought irritation, knowing this was half his fault. "Can I borrow--"

"Why?"

"Some kids need a pick up."

"What, planning on training the next generation of Black Air?" The sarcasm dripped from her voice, tangible.

"No." Maybe he deserved it.

"Then why?"

Maybe he didn't. "Kids. Orphans. Needs doing, Pryde."

"Are they mutants?"

"Would it make a difference?" Now he was mocking, scornful. Prejudiced little Jewish girl. Just because they're not like you doesn't mean anything.

Silence, then, "No." And she sounded rueful, maybe a bit angry at herself. "Either way--how many?"

"20-30, tops." He crossed his fingers.

"They won't fit."

"Pack and stack 'em, Pryde. We need to get them out."

She was silent again, as if considering the implications. "Fine. I'll pick you up at the Crown in four hours. Bring directions."

--

They'd been silent for the entire flight. The only talking had been for Wisdom's telling her to let him do all the talking. Since it was his plan, she was okay with that. For now. Flying the Runner low enough to evade radar was fine, as long as the stealth tech was still working.

Kitty parked them in a small clearing, then powered down. "Let's go."

"I do the talking."

Without answering, she continued past him, dogging open the hatch. The sunset-light flashed onto her dark grey pants and leather coat. "Yeah. I remember."

He hadn't said anything about her lack of uniform, either. Not that he should. She shook her head at herself. This was business. A favour. Nothing more. No rekindling of romantic fires, no heated kisses on the flight back.

Besides. There would be a large groupd of children watching them. Could put a damper on things.

Pete lit a cigarette, then began striding between the trees, heading for the large building they'd seen from the air. An abandoned hospital, according to the hastily written notes she'd used for direction. It was five storeys tall, the top being covered with gabled roofing, cuppolas, and drain-piping. Someone had let the architect have a little too much absinthe while he designed it, Kitty decided. The dark stone was about as unwelcoming as a hospital could get.

The steps were slightly worn, the stone covered in fallen leaves and dirt. Pete's shoes made slightly scratchy sounds as he walked up them.

He pressed a button, and a bell sounded deep inside the structure, and they waited. Slow footsteps finally approached the door, and Pete shot her one last look. She stuck her tongue out at him.

"Yes?" The rather thin man looking down his nose at them was in his late 30s, and had probably seen better days. And baths. His grey clothing could also have done with a wash, and the circles under his eyes said he hadn't slept well for months.

"We're here to see Michael Di Adji."

"I'm afraid--"

"Reggie Hanson sent us," Pete continued.

The man's lips firmed. "I'm sorry, you've got the wrong address."

Pete sighed. "Yer gonna be difficult, aren't you." He turned to Kitty. "He's gonna be bloody difficult. Reggie said he might. I knew he--"

Quickly hopping up the last two steps, she caught Pete's hands. "Darling, he doesn't know. It's all right." She turned to the man, who was giving them odd looks. "Reggie said you were to expect us." With a careful glance to make certain there was no one watching, she leaned towards him, "We're prepared to pay double the usual."

Swift calculations went on behind the man's eyes, avariciousness weighing over caution, and he stepped back. "I may be able to help you. I need your papers, first."

"That wasn't part of the deal." Wisdom stepped back a step, as if about to leave.

"Fine!" The door opened more, "Just--come inside. Quickly."

Kitty stepped in, and immediately the darkness of the room took her sight away. It was irritating, and she wondered if there was electricity in the place. If there wasn't, and from the state of their guide's clothes, there probably wasn't running water... She closed her eyes. Those poor kids.

A hand touched her elbow, and Pete moved them after the man. They went up at least three of the floors before finally turning off and approaching a room. By now, her eyesight was back, and she cast a look down into the stairwell, listening to the odd sound of water dripping. Perhaps there was running water, after all.

The man knocked on a door, stuck his head in, then turned to them. "Go in."

The room inside was fairly well lit, its only furniture a battered desk and chair, a spare chair in front of the desk, and the overhead lamp. The man behind the desk was balding, unshaven, and rather scruffy-looking. But as if he were trying to conceal the scruffiness, he wore a thousand-dollar white and red tracksuit made of silk. It was rather garish.

He steepled his fingers as he looked at them, "There have been no arrangements."

Pete nodded, taking the other chair and holding it for Kitty, who sat carefully. As if she were sick or winded. Without rehearsal, they'd understood the need to create weakness. Always leave them under-estimating you.

Logan had said that. Or maybe it had been Cyclops.

"I know." Pete's voice cracked slightly, as if he were upset. "But Hanson said--he said you could help us."

"Please." Kitty whispered, turning her eyes on the man, "We'll pay. Anything." A hand closed on her shoulder, and she turned to look at Pete. "You promised, darling. A new baby to--to--" She buried her face in her hands, manufacturing a soft sobbing.

The man behind the desk remained unmoved. "This isn't that simple."

"Name your price, Di Adji."

"One hundred thousand. Cash."

Pete's hand tightened, then relaxed, "We can get you fifty now. Fifty tomorrow."

"All of it."

"The banks are closed, we aren't carrying that much."

Kitty let out a soft whimper, and looked up at the man. "Is--is there a restroom?"

"No."

"But I'm--" She coughed, letting herself retch slightly. "--going to be sick."

"It's my wife, Di Adji. She's been like this ever since we lost little Aeryn." Pete's hand patted her shoulder. "Could she at least go out in the corridor, wait for us to finish?"

"As far as I'm concerned, we are finished."

"But--"

Di Adji stood, "I'd suggest you leave. Your wife can be sick on our lawn if she must."

"But--" Pete stopped in mid-sentence, eyeing the gun pointed at him. "Ah. I see." He poked Kitty. "We must leave, dear."

She slowly stood, leaning on Pete's arm. "You won't help us, sir?"

The gun remained pointing at them, suspicion flashing in the man's eyes. "I think not."

"We could report you for this!" Pete blustered, backing slowly towards the door.

"One other besides Di Adji?" Kitty whispered very softly.

Pete inclined his head as Di Adji laughed. "And what would you tell them? That you were sent to buy babies from me? Oh, yes. They'll believe you." He stepped from behind the desk. "Now get out."

They got out. In the hallway, the man who'd escorted them up looked morose. "Didn't have the money, then?"

"No."

Kitty let out a sniffle.

"Too bad."

And so they went back down the stairs, nearly to the door before Pete stopped the man. "You couldn't help us?"

"No."

"We can pay..."

"Not what he wanted, and not what it would require." The man looked at them, eyes unreadable. "I'm sorry."

Kitty followed Pete out the door and across the driveway, where she staged a very loud and obnoxious puking session. The deepening twilight hid the lack of substance from all but Pete, who was attempting not to snicker at her.

She shot him a look as they continued into the trees. "What are we waiting for?"

"Not sure." He replied shortly, stopping when they could just barely still see the front door. "Something felt off, though. Don't know what."

"Fine. Do we go in?"

"Yeah." He pulled out a cigarette, fiddled with it, then returned it to his pocket. "In a moment."

She raised an eyebrow. "My acting making you give up smoking?"

"Pryde, you're acting was so awful, you'd make Ghandi give up peace."

"Thank you, thank you. I'll have my agent give your people a call." Pointing a finger at the light approaching on the drive, she smirked, "Your hunch was right?"

He shrugged, and they watched in silence as the car stopped and two men got out. Moments later, they were let inside the building. Lights went on, floor by floor, until the place was ablaze with them. So, the place did have running electricity. Kitty still felt it was rather icky. Perhaps that was simply gut instinct.

Or maybe it had been the smell. And the fresh scent of pine was reminding her of it. Dirt, filth, human and animal. The rank stench of old gym socks and new blood. She shuddered. Those poor kids.

A moment later, gunshots rang out. Pete stiffened, then cursed. "C'mon."

"Right. Back or front?"

"You take the front. Try not to get killed."

She mock-saluted him, then ran for the steps, phasing as she reached the doors. The lights in the hall were bright after the twilight, but she didn't wait, knowing her mutant power would keep her from running into anything. There was sound from up the stairs, she followed it, taking the steps two at a time.

AS she topped the landing on the third floor, Di Adji came out of his office and saw her. His gun was firing before he could even have realised who she was. She let the bullets pass through her and slammed a fist into his face. He went down, blood spurting from his nose, and she wrenched the gun away. "Idiot." The butt made a satisfying thunk when applied to his temple, and she looked up to find the doorman watching her.

He was leaning against the wall, blood coming from between the fingers he had clenched against his side. There was something in his eyes, something that reminded her of Pete.

"Where are the other two?"

"Dead." He gave a humourless smile, and his knees buckled. He slid, a trail of blood painting the beige wall with ocher streaks. "I'm not far be'ind 'em."

"Shut up." She kicked Di Adji again, then disappeared into the office. The two men lay crumpled against the wall, their eyes open and empty. She ignored them after that cursory glance, and grabbed up the phone cord. Returning to the hall, she swiftly tied the unconscious man up, then turned to the other one. "Who are you?"

"Mitchell." He winced, and a trickle of blood ran down his chin. "Interpol."

"And if I believe you?"

"The kids. They--you've got to get them out. Di Adji said--" he coughed, doubling over with pain. "...said..."

"Said what?" She knelt next to him, fingers carefully inspecting his wound. At least two bullets, both in the side, one was higher than the other--puncturing a lung. And more blood was beginning to trickle from between his lips. "What did Di Adji say?"

"Closing down this operation. Moving. The kids--tonight. 'S why..." He slumped, breath rattling.

Kitty grabbed his chin. "Moved? Tonight? By whom?"

There was no answer, and she swore softly. Checking, she found a faint pulse. Quickly she pressed against the wound, trying to find a way to stop the bleeding. A pad of cloth appeared in her view, and she shot Wisdom a look before pressing it down, binding it with the strips he silently handed her. "That won't last for long."

"Doesn't have to."

She stood, "You heard?"

"Yeah. Tonight."

"Should I bring the Runner closer?"

"No. Let's get what papers we can find, then get the kids out."

"And Mitchell?"

A soft laugh came from the floor. "I won't live the night, child."

"Shut up." Kitty suggested softly. "Pete, why don't you talk to Di Adji while I go find the kids."

"Down--four floors. Basement level."

She glared down at the man leaning against the wall. "I told you to be quiet."

"Yes, ma'am." He moved his head with difficulty to catch Wisdom's eye. "She always like this?"

"Unfortunately. Martinet is our Kit." He eyed the scowl she was directing at him. "Go fetch the children."

"Don't make me injure you, Wisdom."

"You'd have to lug us both to the Runner."

"Who said I'd take you back?"

He winced, "Point."

"Of course, the kids could help."

"So go find them."

--

It was the water she heard, first. A steady dripping that was disturbing on some subliminal level. Next, there was the soft sound of people breathing. She paused, and ascertained that it came from behind the far door. Moving down the corridor, she eyed the single naked bulb with misgiving. If this was outside their rooms...

The door was locked, the padlock old but not rusty. She eyed it, then carefully phased it off the door. It hit the floor with a clank, and there was suddenly the sound of waiting silence from behind the door.

She opened it, blinking at the darkness beyond. "Hello?"

A soft rustling, then a child of about ten stepped into the dim light from the hallway. "Inglaise?"

"Yes."

The child nodded, "Take me?"

"I--"

Another child stepped into the light, then more, all of them suddenly sniffling and sniveling, crying for her to pick them, take them, save them. She stepped in and small hands grabbed at her legs, picked at her clothing. She phased out of reflex, and the children all froze.

"She--"

There was a rapid exchange in what she assumed was Albanian. Then the lad who'd first spoke looked at her, eyes wide. "Mutant?"

"Yes."

Another flurry of discussion, then the child looked at her. "Please save us," He said gravely.

"Yes." She pointed behind her, "If you'll all follow me?"

Moments later, she and over thirty children were trooping out of the nursery. One of them had turned on the single overhead light, and she'd nearly been sick for real. Cribs and mattresses were piled haphazardly around, blankets strewn on the floor. There was a drain in the corner, and she realised that the sickly-sweet smell coming from it was similar to Salem Center back alleys.

None of the children were well-fed, and all of them were dirty, and she wondered if they'd have to all be checked for lice and worse.

Four such stops later, her guide explaining everything in rapid Albanian (and she was beginning to get a sense for what they said), and nearly a hundred children were following her. She stopped the lad. "Do you have a name?"

"Kiran."

"Well, Kiran, I'm Kitty. Are there many more children?" She was beginning to suspect that the Runner wouldn't hold them all. She also wondered if all of the children were from Albania. Most were dark-haired and dark-eyed, but about twenty were blond with blue eyes. And those twenty hadn't understood a word Kiran had said, but they'd understood some English. Some of the others seemed to not be Albanian as well, but they'd adapted to the language, using it with confidence even as she stumbled and lead them through this underground Hell-hole.

"No, ma'am." He gestured towards the stairs. "But..."

"Di Adji was unconscious and tied up with phone cord, last I checked."

"Ah." He flashed her a smile, "Then let us away, ma'am."

They climbed the stairs, the bigger children helping the smaller. Kitty herself carried a little girl and held the hand of a little boy. Once on the ground floor, she stopped them. "Wisdom?"

"Here." He glided out from a room off to the side, "Mitchell's in the Runner."

She nodded, "We're--"

"Ma'am?"

"Yes, Kiran?"

He nodded at Wisdom. "Who is he?"

"My... my friend." A half-smile, full of wry bitterness, touched her lips. "He's going to help get us to safety."

"Ah." Kiran continued eyeing the British man.

"Let's get out of here, kids." She started for the door, "By the way, Wisdom, where's Di Adji?"

"Buried."

She stopped and turned to look at him. "In work or dirt?"

The kids stopped, too, some of them understanding, most just curious. By now they were all filling the large entryway, their occasional soft sound drifting up to the roof of the building, carried by the stairs and floors. Some were gazing up, as if they hadn't seen the ceiling so far away in years. Others were simply standing, waiting.

"Dirt."

"Wisdom, we needed him--Interpol--"

"He wouldn't have given them anything." Pete flicked his cigarette butt to the floor and ground it out. "He'd already taken a bullet to the chest, Kitty."

"But he attacked me." She frowned, "Shot at me, I don't see--"

"Reflex, most likely." With a shake of his head, he pointed out the door. "We need to leave, Pryde."

"Yes." Hoisting the little girl onto her hip, she started for the door. "Let's go, kids."

--

They barely fit. Some of the smaller children perched on the laps of the larger, while Kitty tried to make sure they were all fairly well settled before take-off. Mitchell was unconscious in the co-pilot's seat, his wound seeping slowly. Kitty cast him one worried look, then glanced back. "Everyone ready?"

Wisdom looked up from where he had three of the smallest girls in his lap, and nodded. "Get us out of 'ere, Pryde."

Deciding not to comment on the amount of amusement the scene was giving her, Kitty turned to the Runner's controls, carefully lifting upwards. The engines strained slightly, but Brian had done a hell of a job when he'd built it. Even the minor repairs he'd made after Genosha had done little more than make it more efficient. She eyed a few of the instruments, and carefully adjusted, flying under radar again.

"Where are we headed, anyway?"

"Muir?"

She shot him a look, and the Runner shifted. Hastily, she turned back, hands gripping the controls enough to whiten her knuckles for a moment.

"Why Muir?"

"Seems as good a place as any."

"Uhuh." Deciding that talking to Wisdom would merely irritate her, Kitty concentrated on flying the Runner towards Muir. Of course, in a way, he was right. It was a good staging place for the kids--and, maybe they could live there. Visions of Rahne as a girl scout troop leader made her snicker.

And then she realised that someone was singing nursery songs.

They were remarkably well-behaved children. Of course, that might just have been because of the incongruity of a man singing about dishes and spoons as they flew in a strange aircraft.

Or maybe they were really just well-behaved.

Pete moved on from nursery rhymes, singing snatches of Sesame Street, Blues Clues, the Teletubbies, and the Muppets. Surprisingly, he had a nice tenor, even if it was a bit scratchy on the high notes. Kitty raised an eyebrow at some of his selections, but was silent until they were above Muir. "All right, folks. Everyone get ready. Time to land this bucket."

Crossing her fingers, she settled the Runner back onto its decking, wincing as it bounced slightly from the over-compensation and weight. Before she could even unstrap herself, the com chimed on. "Shadowcat!"

"Frell off, Brian," she muttered, standing and stretching. "Pryde here. I'll report in a minute. Out." She cut the com off and looked at Wisdom. "Now what?"

--

"Ye're daft, Wisdom."

"Am I?" He glanced at Moira MacTaggart, considered briefly what she'd do to him if he lit a cigarette, and shrugged. He put his hands in his pockets and stalked over to the window. "Those children have nowhere to go, MacTaggart. You have to admit, with all of the cells empty, you have the room for them."

"Keep children in cells?" She sounded scandalised. "Ye're an idiot, Wisdom. A bloody idiot."

"So I've been told. But, bloody hell, MacTaggart, there's nowhere else for them. Interpol won't talk to me--Mitchell's still unconscious, and HE was their man, not me."

Crossing her arms, Moira eyed him. "Aye'm sure."

He threw up his hands. "I should never have let Kitty suggest this as a good place..." Turning away, he fished for a cigarette. "I guess I'll just have to ask her to give us all a lift back to th' mainland."

"Put that thing out, Wisdom, or Aye'll 'ave yer balls on a platter."

"Yes'm." He gave her his best cute little boy who accidentally got his hand caught in the cookie jar look. "Are you sure?"

She glared at him. "Sassenach."

"Scottish shrew."

"Aye thought ye we're tryin' tae get me help, Wisdom."

He shrugged, "Old habits die hard?"

A snort came from her. "Right."

"Make up your mind, woman. Help me or kick me arse off yer island. I haven't got all day."

She eyed him. "I need to ask Kurt."

"Herr Wagner could dilly-dally and have to ask Chuckles, next." He grumbled. But it was half-cheerful grumbling. If she was having to ask Kurt, she'd pretty much made up her mind to keep the kids. Now all he had to do was start searching for homes.

--

It took several hours to get the kids all in proper beds, with blankets of their own and night-clothes. Some of it was random lab jackets Moira had had left around. Some were merely old shirts Rory had accidentally left behind. Kitty had even donated a few of her own t-shirts to the effort. But the kids were bedded down, and checked for injuries, and fed. And all seemed to be fine.

Kitty ignored the yawn that wanted to fight its way out and wandered to the kitchen in search of a meal of her own. The coffee in the pot was nearly sludge, and she eyed it once before dumping it into the sink and beginning a fresh pot. The stash of non-bad coffee was behind the oatmeal, and she pulled it out and dumped a couple scoops into the filter. Once it was brewing, she investigated the refrigerator, pulling out lettuce, a tomato, and the block of cheddar cheese.

"Gah. Pryde, you'd eat anything, as long as it was healthy. They could tell you horse shit was good for you, and--"

"I'd make you eat it." She eyed Pete as he flopped into a chair. "Have you eaten yet?"

"Yer gonna try feeding me grains, aren't you." He eyed the lettuce with distaste. "Don't suppose you could fry me up some bacon and eggs." A spot of drool flecked his lip, "And some nice fried toast... Mmmmmm."

"Ugh. Why would you fry *toast*?"

"Makes it taste better."

"I don't know which is going to kill you first, Pete, the heart attack from clogged arteries, or the lung cancer."

"Neither. I'll take a bullet to the back of the head." For a moment, the light in his eyes was entirely serious. Then it disappeared when she threw the cheesewrapper at him. "Now, Pryde, is that any way to treat a dying man?"

"I don't know. I haven't gutted any dying men lately."

He snorted. "And yer likely to. I can tell."

"Yeah." She finished assembling a sandwich, and eyed Pete. "I'm not frying this."

"There's green stuff on it."

"Roughage. Good for you."

He grumbled, but took it. "Yer hard on a man's tastebuds, Pryde."

"Depends what you're eating, doesn't it?" She asked mildly as she cut her own sandwich into fourths. A choking sound made her turn, and she raised an eyebrow at Pete. "Yes?"

Taking a bite of his sandwich, he shook his head.

Putting away the various implements, and depleted foods, Kitty finally sat at the table across from Pete. The coffee was still brewing, the scent wafting around like an opiate, drawing the addicted to its waiting delusions. Of course, coffee rarely caused people to halucinate themselves flying.

Unless you were Rachel. And she could have been flying.

The only sound for a time was the occasional contented urp of a happy mouth, and the burbles from the coffeemaker as it trundled its way through the carafe of water. When it neared the end, Wisdom got up and fetched mugs from the cupboard over the stove. He filled them in silence, and brought them to the table, handing Kitty one.

She took it and sighed happily as the smell travelled upwards, rich with darkness and caffeine.

"I'd forgotten you could look like that."

Pete's soft comment made her jump, and she looked across the table into his eyes. Deep pools of blue, and for a moment, she thought there was something sad in them. Then his natural cynicism returned, and the moment was gone.

"It's late." She rose, clutching her mug. "I'm sure they won't care about the dishes, so, go ahead and leave them. I think Kurt made you a pallet in the living room or something."

"Kicking me out, Pryde?"

"To bed, at least. We're both exhausted." Turning, she started towards the door.

"Pryde?"

She stopped, "Yes?" she asked without turning.

"...never mind."

--

"Mr. Wisdom?" The soft voice came from somewhere in the vicinity of the floor. Pete was sure he knew where this was, but it took a moment to register it. Kiran was crouched at his side, almost hiding under the kitchen table--and since when did master spies sleep on the table when there was a patch of floor to curl up on?

Instead of a cuddly woman, too. He grumbled.

A hand touched his leg. "Sir?"

"Wha? Oh. What is it?"

"It's Misha, sir. She can't sleep."

He eyed Kiran balefully. "Go wake Pryde up."

"Misha says she won't sleep unless you're there." Kiran leaned closer, so that the little girl who stood in the doorway couldn't hear him. "She's afraid the Bad Men will come and take her again."

"Again?" Pete was suddenly alert. What was it Tanner had said? There'd been one little girl he'd wanted him to watch for especially. Something about her having been brought to England by a police detective. They'd had to send her back, of course. Can't afford national incidents after all.

"Yes. She was adopted a month ago. But the Bad Men took her away and brought her back."

Misha decided she didn't like waiting in the doorway, and toddled into the room to bump against Pete's leg. "Up." She announced.

"Uh. No."

"Up."

Pete stood, "Kiran can carry you." He moved away from the children. Or tried to. Misha followed him, then latched onto his leg, burying her face in his thigh.

"Up." Her voice was muffled by the rather filthy black fabric of his pants.

"I'd pick her up, sir."

"Stop sirring me." He snapped, then leaned over and scooped up the child. "And you, are to stop..." He paused as she turned big brown eyes to his. And sighed. "Bloody women."

"Up." She nestled into his shoulder and yawned. In the nect moment she was asleep.

Pete glared, then glanced at Kiran who appeared to be amused. "Don't wake her, sir."

"Never." He muttered as he exited the kitchen, careful not to jostle the child in his arms. "After all, *she* certainly needs more sleep than me."

He entered the living room alone, Kiran having disappeared off to his own bed. Pete found the barebones pallet Wagner had constructed for him. It was barely large enough for himself. With a sigh, he sat down, shifting Misha so he could get the blanket up and around the both of them as he eased his back against the wall. She grumbled, then subsided.

It was going to be a long night.

--

It was that moment when dawn is about to break, the stillness of the world there for reveling in. She jerked awake, heart pounding, remembering other mornings. Long ago, when she would stir and Pete would be looking at her silently, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

Kitty sighed and rolled over, staring at the wall.

It would never be the same, ever. Having him back in her life, doing something, ripped open half-healed wounds. Recrimminations at herself, at him. Things that couldn't change. Wouldn't. Stifling another sigh, she grumbled at herself. Look at her, superhero, saving the world every day. But right now, she was lazing about in bed, wishing for things that can never be.

"If wishes were fishes, we'd live in the sea," Kitty muttered, hauling the covers back and sitting up.

"Fish?"

Kitty froze, staring at the little girl who stood in the doorway. "Uh..."

"Fish." A nod, then she shuffled in and leaned against Kitty's leg.

Warily eyeing her, she stood and retrieved her robe. "Fish is not a breakfast food." She decided firmly.

The child pouted.

"Really."

Further pouting commenced, but Kitty ignored it while she found her slippers. Ruffling the dark hair, she smiled. "But I'm sure we can find pancakes."

"Fish."

Chuckling, Kitty let the way to the kitchen. No one else was up yet, which wasn't really much of a surprise. Unless she missed her guess, it was sometime before 6am. Only Moira ever got up this early, usually. Contemplating a morning walk, she discarded the idea when a glance out the window proved lots of rain was falling.

A check into the pantry and refrigerator turned up no syrup. "Someone forgot to go to the store, darn it." And no bisquick. Daunted by the prospect of from-scratch pancakes, Kitty checked the freezer. "Guess what, kid, you're in luck." She held up the Van de Camps box.

"Fish!"

"Sadly, yes." Pulling out a cookie sheet, she dumped a bunch of fish sticks out, then stuck it in the oven. Once she'd set the temperature setting, she turned to the task of making coffee.

The girl perched herself on a chair and began playing with the napkins.

Several minutes later, four or five more children had filtered in, and Kitty had emptied the box. A quick glance in the pantry had proved that it might be best to send someone to the store soon. Feeding over a hundred children was daunting even in the hypothetical.

"Wot the--" Moira stared at her, eyes wide. "What're ye feeding them for breakfast?"

"Fish sticks."

"...Aye see."

"No, really, there isn't anything else." Ignoring the large bucket of oatmeal, that is. Pointing vaguely towards the lab, Kitty continued, "You're working too hard, Moira."

Crossing her arms, the biogeneticist glared, "That has nothing to do wit' it."

"Uhuh."

The timer dinged and Kitty pulled the cookie sheet from the oven, eyeing the sizzling sticks with disfavour.

"Ye realise, Katherine, that there are several more to be fed?" Moira almost sounded amused. Almost.

"I figure we can send someone to the store."

"Mhmm. And in the meantime? How're ye going to keep them occupied?"

She blinked, and then looked at Moira. "I thought you could tell them stories?" She suggested hopefully.

"Oh, aye. And ye we're gonna ask me to, when?"

Kitty had the grace to blush. "After I'd taken the Runner to the mainland."

"Aye don't think so, Katherine." Moira bestowed an awful Look upon her. "You will be staying. *I* will be collecting provisions. With Brian. Lad needs a moment away from this madhouse. Besides, I'll need the muscles."

"Take Meg, too, then."

"Good idea." Muttering under her breath, Moira left.

Another yawning child wandered into the kitchen, following, no doubt, her nose. She looked up at Kitty, dark eyes wary. "Fish?"

Looking at the empty sheet, Kitty shook her head, "There aren't any left."

The girl sighed and then leaned across the table and swiped a fish stick from one of the others. There was an immediate squabble, the children talking rapidly in a language Kitty couldn't understand. Which was fine, the gestures and tone of voice were good enough.

"CHILDREN!"

They froze and stared at her.

"Share. There will be more, just not yet." Wondering if they even comprehended what she was saying, she pointed at the refigerator, "I will look for other food."

Pouts dotted the table, and Kitty groaned. "Please? Share?"

Grudgingly, they went back to their food, letting the girl have her fish stick. She munched it happily, then eyed the others. But they were eyeing her back, and there was no other chance for her to swipe another one.

Watching them, Kitty didn't notice that another adult had come into the kitchen until a hand touched her arm. She jumped.

"Katzchen. So jumpy in the morning. Have you been drinking Moira's coffee again?" Kurt grinned at her glare. "Where is the cantankerous doctor, anyway? I had something to ask her."

"Gone to buy groceries."

"Ah."

"There's coffee--real coffee."

"Even better." He bowed dramatically to the children, who had been watching him with something akin to awe in their eyes. "Good morning, little ones. I hope the day has found you well."

"Fish." The girl announced happily, displaying her empty plate.

One of the other children hopped off his chair and came over to Kurt, reaching out to finger his fur. "Mutant?"

"Uh... Yes."

"Good." He clapped his hands, then ran from the room. All of the other kids followed.

Kitty listened to the sound of their disappearing footsteps, then looked at Kurt. "Fuzzy, I think you've made a new friend."

"Possibly." He fingered the handle of his mug, then shrugged. "Was there not something odd in that question, Kitty?"

"I--" A frown touched her forehead. "Y'know, now that you mention it, there was something similar. Kiran asked me as I was getting them out, if I was a mutant. He seemed pleased that I was."

Sipping his coffee, Kurt nodded, "Did you ask him why?"

"I was too busy, at the time." Striding to the door, she grinned. "Guess I'll go ask now."

With Kurt following with his mug of coffee, Kitty made her way to the living room. On stepping in, she paused, completely amused at the sight which met her eyes. Pete Wisdom was asleep against the wall, sitting. One of the little girls was curled in his lap, her hand trustingly clutching one of Pete's feet. It was almost a cute sight.

Behind her, Kurt chuckled. "Not quite what I was expecting. Which child is Kiran?"

"Actually, he's not here. Hrm." Carefully picking her way through the mass of children, she bent over and gently touched his shoulder. "Pete?"

He woke at once, opening one eye and eyeing her with disfavour, "Yes?"

"Where's Kiran sleeping?"

"Den." He replied shortly, closing his eye again.

A moment later, a very fake snore issued from his mouth. Kitty restrained herself from poking him and made her way back to Kurt. His eyes were alight with amusement, but he was silent as they went to the den. Kiran was awake, watching the door warily as they stepped in.

Kitty went to him, whispering softly, "Kiran? I had a question." She poked a finger over her shoulder. "Why don't we see if there's anything to eat and I'll ask you somewhere we won't disturb the others."

With a nod, he stood and followed her back to the doorway. Once there, he gave Kurt the same look the other children had, then followed them silently to the kitchen. Leaving Kurt to find food, Kitty sat across the table from Kiran. Her curiosity got the better of her. "What I--Why is Wisdom sleeping with that little girl?"

"Misha. She was afraid the bad men would take her away."

"Ah." Shaking her head, Kitty put her mind on other matters. "I wanted to ask you about the reaction you had last night--why did knowing I was a mutant make things better?"

"Mutants are strong."

"Not always."

He shrugged. "We have seen enough TV. Mutants are strong." Noting her incomprehension, he continued. "We are children, we are weak. Mutants are strong. Therefore, you are good to know."

"Stronger than Di Adji." Kitty guessed, suddenly understanding. "You don't trust us, but you think we can give you the moon."

"Yes." He looked at Kurt. "Food?"

--

Hours had passed. Possibly years. Kitty wasn't sure. All she knew was that nearly a hundred children could be demanding--especially when they properly realised they were *free*. The sound of laughter and happiness abounded, but it was so loud. Once, she might have thought she wanted children. Now, she was seriously considering having Moira tie her tubes.

Pete had disappeared sometime before lunch. She had assumed he was running away to the mainland, but since there was no transportation for him, she wasn't sure. Kurt had finally taken pity on her and sent her in search of him, ostensibly because Wisdom would know where to go from here.

Or, maybe Mitchell did, but he was still unconscious.

Letting Lockheed lead the way, she finally stopped outside a supply closet. There was a suspicious amount of smoke coming from underneath the door, and the odor of stale cigarettes was rather strong. Sticking her head through the door, she snickered, "Wisdom, you know Moira's going to pull out *all* of your hair if she catches you smoking on the station."

He looked up from his perch on a bucket, and shrugged, "Couldn't make me worse." He eyed her, "You like bald men, Pryde?"

"I'm not in to father figures." She stepped completely into the closet, and leaned against the door.

"Ah." He considered the smoke in his fingers, then shrugged and stubbed it out on the wall. "Come to drag me back, have you."

"Yup. You're the one with the contacts. I don't think Moira will let the kids stay more than a week--if that long."

He looked troubled. "Might have to be longer. This will have to be done fairly delicately. We can't just drop a hundred brats on the nearest foster family."

"There really aren't any facilities for this sort of thing, are there." She sighed. "I couldn't have left them, Pete, but what if this just makes it worse? Kiran mentioned that the authorities have brought some of the kids back before--to Di Adji."

"Well, he's dead, but..."

"But there must be others. If Interpol was there--and Mitchell said they were planning to move the children soon." Kitty shook her head, "I wonder if Interpol will be happy we screwed them up?"

"With their agents dead, they're not going to be happy anyway." Fingering another cigarette, Wisdom stood. "C'mon, Pryde, I guess it's time to face the music."

--

"--What were you *thinking*, Wisdom?" The man in the viewscreen gave a harsh crack of laughter. "Or were you thinking at all."

"They're kids, Doyle."

A harsh crack of laughter interrupted him. "They're illegal aliens."

"You have to have somewhere they could stay--safehouses, people in need of children..."

Kitty shook her head and stepped into range of the camera, "Doyle, they have no one except us. Can you at least give us a list of people who might be willing to house them? Some forged identification would also be useful."

He chomped on his cigar, then sighed. "Honestly, Kitty, I don't think there's anyone within a thousand kilometers who might help."

"What about Russia, or Africa?"

"Doubt it." He frowned. "But... Let me make some calls. I'll get back to you. And smack Wisdom for me, please."

"Sure."

The image winked out, leaving the screen blank. Kitty turned to Pete, arm raised, "C'mere, Wisdom."

He dodged backwards, waggling a finger at her, "Now, Pryde, what if Pittman asks questions?"

"I'll tell him the truth." Her hand cupped his cheek. "Mitchell punched you when he woke up."

While he was laughing, she smacked him. "Ow."

"Now dial."

--

Mitchell did not, in fact, punch Wisdom when he awoke. He did turn into a stubborn patient, however. So, when Mitchell woke up, Moira called Kitty down to the infirmary. Sensing an emergency, she arrived through the ceiling, "What's up?"

"Yuir patient is proving most intractable." Eyeing the Interpol man, who lay on his bed, arms crossed and a mutinous look in his eyes, Moira growled, "He willnae let me take anymore blood samples."

"She's a fucking vampire." He announced, glaring.

"Why do you need more blood?"

"Not finished with my tests." Moira replied darkly.

Kitty fought down a giggle. "Well, maybe you could let him get a little better?"

"Worse than Wisdom, he is. Trying to get out of bed before the stitches are healed, and HE thinks he should be allowed one phone call."

"I'm right here." The man announced, sounding grumpy. "And I need to call my superiors so they can be informed that the operation was screwed up." He eyed Kitty, and she wasn't sure if he was irritated or not as he continued, "By some amateurs."

"Poor baby." She patted his shoulder, "Here we thought we were saving you."

"Well... Maybe. But the operation is ruined." He sighed. "We won't be able to charge anyone, not with it compromised like this."

"You would rather we had let the kids be moved?"

"Maybe."

Kitty restrained herself, and didn't hit him harder. "I should have just let you die, then."

"Yes."

"Fuck that." She grabbed the front of his hospital gown and shook it. "Don't be stupid. Those kids deserve a life outside of some chess game where they're nothing but pawns in some international contest!"

"International, indeed." He shook his head, "You don't understand. They'll go to ground. They'll *get away* now. In a few months, the operation will start all over again. And we'll have even less chance to stop them."

"Didn't you have enough now?"

Mitchell shrugged and winced, "Maybe. The problem all comes down to the kids not being where they're supposed to."

"Uhuh." She released him and stepped back, crossing her arms over her chest. "And that's why you're being so agreeable. You're about to suggest--because it'll make *so* much sense--that we put the kids back, so Interpol can clean up." Ignoring the opening of his mouth, she continued, "Well, it's not gonna happen buster, so just get rid of the idea now." Turning to Moira, she snorted, "Let him use the phone, but cut it off if he reveals where he is. Then call me and I'll bruise him a little."

--

Days after her confrontation with Mitchell, Kitty found herself amusing the children. Or attempting to keep them in some semblance of order. Currently, they were running around, yelling to each other as they disappeared into various parts of the research station. Wisdom found her chasing two of them, and watched with the occasional snicker as she carefully wrested the dangerous broom and mop from them.

When they'd gone, he remarked, "Y'know, Pryde, watching you herd the brats is like watching a happy mother play with her children."

"Bite me."

He waggled his eyebrows at her, "Show me where."

She just looked at him for a moment. Then she shrugged, "Go away, Wisdom. I'm sure one of your London cohorts is wondering why you're not there getting drunk with him."

"I'm hurt." He placed a hand over his heart and continued to leer at her. "After all, as you should remember, I bite *very* well."

A blush stained her cheeks, but she glared harder. "Don't tempt me to phase a pencil through your head, Pete."

"Which one?"

"Both." She snapped.

With a dramatic sigh, he turned to the child who'd bounced back into the room, "Isn't it sad? She wants to chop me up and feed me to the fish."

"Fish!" The child agreed.

Kitty groaned, "Wisdom, stop teaching them strange things."

"Why, who else is going to explain the importance of the Sex Pistols, and why Johnny Rotten should be drawn and quartered?"

Reaching out a hand, Kitty slapped him. "Go away, and call some more contacts, Wisdom. Moira wants the kids settled within a month. And we can't do that if you spend hours playing poker with them."

"It was rummy."

"You still got pennies from them."

He attempted to look virtuous while he rubbed the spot on his arm she'd slapped. "I gave them back later."

"Teaching them to play five-card stud would have been useful. Y'know, if we were setting them up to be gamblers." She scowled at him.

"Fish?"

Kitty sighed, "And we really need to find a way to break them of this fish thing."

"Fish."

She smacked Pete again. "Stop that."

"Ow."

The little girl looked at them, giggled, and dashed off to join some of the others in a rousing game of what appeared to be tag.

Grumbling about being abused, Wisdom left her to the kids again. Eyeing the approaching mob, Kitty wondered if maybe she should have gone with him. As one of the boys bounced up and down, trying to get her attention, she made herself a promise: no children until she was at least 40. If then.

--

It took weeks to pin down every prospective family. By then, Moira was threatening to evict Excalibur from Muir, Pete had been hit several times, Kurt and Amanda had run off to Prague, and Piotr was beginning to look distinctly irritated. Especially since two of the little boys thought he was just the Kewliest, and followed him everywhere.

Brian watched Meggan with the children, occasionally getting an entirely terrified look on his face. When pressed for the reason, he mutely would gesture. "Meg. Kids."

The usual response was a snicker, and a suggestion that he invest in *very* good birth control.

Of course, by the third time someone suggested this, Brian had had enough. Wisdom found himself folded carefully in half and stuffed somewhere uncomfortable. Kitty had to save him from Moira's wrath when she found him there, smoking calmly.

It took weeks because they all agreed that they couldn't just pass the kids to anyone. So searches were run for families wishing to adopt, then they were halved by reading the rejection reports from various adoption agencies. Calls were made. Families were interviewed. Then a smaller group was created, and they had to be checked for whether they could speak Albanian (or Greek, or some dialect that appeared half-Russian and half-French), or wouldn't mind a non-native English speaking child.

Finally, there was a short list of nearly two hundred families that barely qualified. Slowly, they began placing the children, with the proper documents (Doyle and Pittman and Mitchell had come through smashingly).

Within a week, they were down to half the kids, and Kitty was beginning to feel there might be a respite soon.

A few days later, Misha was finally placed. Kiran went with her, happy to be named her older brother. Pete took them and came back with an odd smile on his face and a spring in his step.

"Well, Pryde, it's been fun."

"Not remotely."

He grinned, "You're so cute when you're irritated."

"Well, that explains why you irritate me so often," she replied dryly.

"Alas, I must go. Stuart called. There's some assignment he's got for me. Probably dead boring." He fiddled with an unlit cigarette, then looked serious for a moment. "Don't do anything stupid, Pryde. You spandex types have this thing for pain. Avoid it."

She stared at him, then shrugged, "I can't help it. Personally, though, I hope you get run over by a lorry on your way back from the Crown one night."

A chuckle escaped him. "Probably will. But not until I'm old and gray."

"You'll never live that long. Some angry husband, or some pissed-off woman more likely, will string you up by your balls."

He paused with the cigarette halfway to his mouth. "Now there's a thought, ain't it. Women."

With a roll of her eyes, Kitty turned. "I'm going to get lunch. You can find your way back to the mainland, I'm sure. Maybe Kurt will teleport you."

After she'd gone, he sighed. "Goodbye, Pryde."

--

It was a curiously adressed envelope, no return adress and a tiny smiley face in one corner. Susan Taylor eyed it suspiciously before finally giving in to curiosity and opening it. A photograph and a note were retrieved carefully, and she worried about fingerprints before she got a look at the image.

A family grouping were smiling out at her, informally posed as if someone had just told a very good joke. She didn't recognise either of the parents, both dark-haired and dark-skinned. The older child in the picture was also unfamiliar, though there was an unfathomable look buried deep in those happy eyes.

But the little girl, her head thrown back as she giggled, was.

"Misha..."

Fighting the unexpected tears that threatened, Susan unfolded the note and read to herself, "Dear Susan, thought you'd like this. Word to the wise: Never show it to anyone. Ross." She sniffed. "You bastard."

There was no answer in her sunlit kitchen and she wiped a hand across her suddenly brimming eyes. Fingering the edge of the photograph, she stood and went to the refrigerator. It fit neatly under the daily calendar, the magnet keeping it from falling. A bit of wistfulness touched her, then she snorted. "Face it, Taylor, you never could have kept a child happy."

-finis-