Retrospect

O0O0O

She waited one day before she left.

She should have waited at least a week, she knew, just to be on the safe side; surely it would take that long to remove her face and name from all of the "Wanted" lists. But she'd never been fond of Hong Kong, and she wanted to get out and get on with her life; what was left of it. So she calculated the risk, decided it was one worth taking, and chartered a plane to take her away.

As she boarded the sleek little Gulfstream waiting on the tarmac, she reflected that maybe it hadn't been the smartest move to even come to Hong Kong in the first place; not when "she" was also supposed to die there. But she'd wanted to watch it happen; she blamed it on the train wreck complex, though really she knew it was sheer morbid curiosity at how long it would take her daughter to kill the woman she'd given her face.

It had taken longer than she'd thought.

She'd tried not to feel let down by Sydney's slowness; after all, her daughter was a new mother and under a certain degree of added stress, so surely any inability on her part could be explained away. Still, Irina had let herself admit to some slight degree of . . . disappointment. Surely, she had thought as she watched, surely her own daughter could do better than that. It had taken her some time before she had realised, with a jolt, that Sydney hadn't wanted to do better than that; she hadn't wanted to kill the woman she believed was her mother.

Irina had felt a little better after that. She had almost considered helping out; a well-placed shard of glass, perhaps, thrown from her place of concealment? But in the end Sydney hadn't made it necessary; the foolish woman had ended up on the glass skylight, and had fallen through.

Irina hadn't planned it like that, but now, reclining in the soft, buttery leather of the plane seat, she let herself believe she had. It had worked out too perfectly for her not to take a little credit. The woman was dead, Sydney believed she had all the answers, and she, Irina, was free to . . . do what?

So maybe she hadn't planned it all out yet. But she had what remained of her life ahead of her, and that, coupled with the near-certainty that Sloane had been finally thwarted, was enough to give her the degree of relaxation necessary for sleep.

"How many names have you picked out so far?"

The appalling frequency of that question was beginning to alarm Jack and Laura Bristow. It made them feel like inadequate parents, and the baby wasn't even born yet.

"Nothing yet," Jack had mumbled, and they were treated to that blank look of incomprehension that was becoming so familiar.

At least she didn't offer them suggestions; the only thing worse than being asked if they'd chosen a name was having to field the suggestion that they name their son Hubert.

"And God help us if it's a girl," Jack had groaned once they'd returned home from the gathering. "Pete and Sara think we should call her Mildred."

"Mildred's better than Pearl."

"Who said we should call her Pearl?" Jack gaped at his wife, who had beached herself on the side of the bed to rub her swollen ankles.

"The woman at the supermarket checkout. But Pearl was only suggested after I had refused Diamond, Emerald and Amethyst. How can people name their own children Billy, Bobby and Betty and turn around and say we should call ours Mercedes?"

"Somebody actually said we should-"

"No, Jack! It was an analogy. Example. Something. Ugh, my feet feel like water balloons. Why did we have to go tonight?"

"We didn't. I'm sorry." He settled onto the end of the bed, gathering the aforementioned feet into his lap and massaging them carefully. "I just thought you might like to get out for a bit."

Laura nodded, her eyes already half-closed as she settled back against the bolster and pillows.

"I did enjoy that part . . . mmm, that feels good."

He had smiled at her over her feet; a suddenly boyish, mischievous grin that had put her on instant alert.

"What?"

"I just thought of something. Let's pick out a name. Not to actually call the baby, but one to tell other people; something so ridiculous, so idiotic, that they won't even bother making suggestions once we tell them that's what we'll name it."

A tiny smile stretched its way across Laura's lips.

"Really?"

"Really."

"Well, like what?"

Jack thought of the venue of his most recent "business" trip and cracked another grin.

"How about Sydney?"

Laura hooted in laughter.

"Jack, you're terrible!" Her eyes gleamed. "It's perfect. But what if it's a girl?"

He didn't even hesitate.

"That's the beauty of it. Still, Sydney."

Laura caught her breath at the evil genius of the plan.

"Oh, yes," she sighed, finally letting the threads of tension flow out of her shoulders, into the deep softness of the pillow. "Oh, yes, Jack, absolutely."

She woke somewhere over Kazakhstan; wondered if they would be making a fuel stop, but had no desire to stir from her seat and ask the pilot. One of the mercies of chartered planes was that one wasn't bothered if one didn't wish to be.

Instead, she cleared the cobwebs from her head with a quick swig from one of the water bottles in the ice bucket beside her, and let her mind wander. She thought about where they were going; wondered if she would stay there, or if she would move on. Disconcerting, really, to find oneself suddenly without a cause; perhaps Sydney, too, felt a little adrift, though somehow Irina doubted it. There was surely something to be said for having a clear, instinctive morality coupled with a doting husband and a new baby; they would keep Sydney far too busy to feel at odds for sometime yet.

It was dangerously tempting, really, to look them up and explain everything; she could just imagine the look on her daughter's face when she admitted the woman who had been killed had been merely an idealistic young follower too stupid to wonder why Irina would want to "die" when all she'd have to do to escape her daughter for good would be to sample that appalling little elixir Sark had fetched back like the nice little boy he was.

It was the stupid ones who made the easiest martyrs.

There had been just enough time for one of those convenient doubling procedures that everyone and his grandmother seemed to know how to do nowadays. Then the girl (what had her name been again? Linda? Wanda? Not that it mattered now anyway) had been given only the briefest coaching on what to say and how it should be said.

In hindsight, Irina thought they might have spent a bit more time on the coaching. The whole scenario had proved disastrous, really; the girl had come across like the villain from a Victorian melodrama, clutching the orb and ranting about power being the best currency there was. She hadn't even reminded Irina remotely of herself, but Sydney, at least, had been fooled (again, Irina charitably put it down to the recent birth of the little girl) and now Linda/Wanda/Miranda/whoever-she'd-been was out of the way and Sydney was convinced it was all over.

And it was, of course; it was just a shame that she would never understand her mother's true endgame. Nor was she likely to believe that everything Irina had done had been to eradicate Sloane and give her child what shambles of a life there was left to offer. Not that Irina really needed it to be known; there was just a remote part of her that wished it could be.

Closing her mind on that troubling thought, Irina let her head settle back, and once again she slept.

"When we get to Vancouver," Jack passed her a perfectly acceptable wedding band set without ceremony "we will be the Viscontis."

Irina blinked.

"The biscottis?"

He enunciated more clearly the second time around. She pursed her lips.

"And somebody led you to believe that Italians are a plausible ethnic group in Vancouver?"

"More plausible than us being the Yoshikawas," Jack had returned, not missing a beat, so Mrs. Visconti had put on her wedding band, crammed her engagement ring in place on top of it, and waited to speak again until their daughter had waddled away on her third trip to the bathrooms since they'd boarded half an hour before.

"She have any names picked out yet?"

For one second, she'd thought Jack wouldn't answer at all; then the faintest hint of relaxation crept across his jaw as he confessed,

"I believe she's been telling everybody who asks that she will name him Rupert. Something a woman she met in Yorkshire said put her onto it. It's done wonders for her, I understand; especially when she insists that Rupert is the latest craze in gender-neutral baby names."

A soft snort of laughter escaped her lips.

"Let's hope she doesn't make the same mistake we did . . . I'd hate to think she was so used to answering 'Rupert' to the name question that when the nurses asked for one to put on the birth certificate for her daughter, that's what she told them."

Then she focused on something else.

"She was in Yorkshire? How recently?"

"A month ago? Two months? I really can't be certain. Why?"

"I don't like her flying in her third trimester. It could cause problems."

Jack set his jaw again.

"Do you really believe I would have let her go if there was a serious risk to the baby?"

Irina didn't blink. Instead she simply inclined her head, and offered a quiet apology. Then she smiled to herself as she saw how violently taken aback he was at hearing it.

"Of course you wouldn't have," she murmured, and gave his hand a warm, friendly squeeze.

The look of consternation on his face was priceless. What was it her mother had told her? "Always keep them on their toes."

It was a lesson she had taken to heart.

She didn't awake again until they touched down. They had reached their destination; a deserted landing strip some distance outside of Edinburgh. The bumping of the plane across the rutted, ancient tarmac jolted her into consciousness, and she had just enough time to clear her head before the plane had taxied to a halt and a reassuringly discreet voice murmured over the loudspeaker that they had arrived, and she was able to disembark.

She did, but slowly; it was strange how comfortable and welcoming that seat had become in such a short amount of time. She left the imprint of herself upon it with greatest reluctance, straightened her blazer with a brisk little tug, and stepped down the stairs into a warm, grey Scottish morning.

Amazing, really, how a quiet landscape could invigorate a person. One breath of air was all it took to spark her right back to life. Without a backward glance at the plane, she started across to where a dour man in an-ill fitting chauffeur's uniform waited beside a Rolls that had to be at least ten years older than she herself was.

"Does it even run?" she surveyed the vehicle with something very like amusement, and the would-be driver bestirred himself enough to mumble that she did indeed, and would do so gladly, if the lady would condescend to get in.

More amused than ever, Irina offered her apologies before getting in and settling onto tough, well-patched seats. With three springs poking her in sensitive places, the car seat made a remarkable difference from the plane seat, and she knew there would be no sleep on this ride. Instead, she contented herself with staring out the window as the car journeyed along the A70 to the city centre.

The landscape hadn't changed that much since she'd been there last, nearly forty years ago. On a pre-recruitment test of sorts, she had been all of seventeen and dangerously overconfident. Khasinau had warned her against her arrogance, but what seventeen-year old listens to such warnings? If she had been sent elsewhere things might have turned out very differently, but she had been sent to Scotland, and thence to Britain, and the experience she'd had there had shaped who she became in the years that followed. It had been an eye-opening trip, and it had been the memory of it that had prompted her to return here for this, her retirement.

"Don't take me there directly," she heard herself suddenly addressing the driver. "You can let me out in Princes Street; I want to do a little shopping before I go to the house."

The driver was not in a mood to question, and merely grunted his assent. Even more entertained, Irina sat back and recalled the look on Jack's face when she had asked him if he thought Sydney would let her teach the baby to shoot.

"Not while it's still a baby, of course," she had continued, her face implacable, "but perhaps at about five or six . . ."

"Absolutely not!"

"Well, how old was Sydney when you first let her hold a gun?"

Oh, she'd had him there. He'd squirmed, and tried to hide it, and she'd been maliciously entertained the rest of the way to Vancouver.

Now, recalling his expression, she remained entertained for the rest of their trip into the West End.

Aching body notwithstanding, Irina was in a decent mood when she emerged from the car onto the sidewalk of Princes Street. What had begun as a grey morning was turning into something almost sunny; rays of watery golden light were filtering through the cloud cover, and she gave the driver an almost exorbitant gratuity before falling in amongst the throngs of morning shoppers.

Never given to aimless wandering, she didn't linger long in front of any one window; it had been more a desire to chart a path to her new home than a real longing to buy something that had brought her here. She was already examining the territory, ignoring the people in favour of landmarks that would not change, and planning her route home, when she happened to pause in front of Hector Russell.

It wasn't the largest store on the street, nor even the busiest at this time of year, but the gleaming weapon displayed in the window gave her a sudden impulse she couldn't ignore. Without stopping to consider, she walked directly into the store and accosted the first clerk she found with her request.

"A dirk, Madam? Certainly. And did Madam have any particular one in mind?"

Madam wanted the one in the window. Did they engrave such things?

It had been done, certainly, and for a nominal fee Madam, too, could-

Madam would.

As she gave them the particulars of her order and selected the prettiest, daintiest specimen the shop had to offer, one part of her mind was telling her what a foolish and unnecessary risk she was taking, while the other part was laughing silently as she imagined the look on Jack's face when Sydney showed it to him. She decided she would arrange with the shop to say it had been ordered beforehand, and that precaution would almost completely eliminate the risk of the truth being found out.

Now, as she inscribed the little white card she would affix to the gift, she had to smile.

In honour of grand tradition, to the newest lady of a legendary clan, Isabelle. Love always, your Grandmama.

Even as she signed the card with a flourish and arranged for the shipping of the dirk; even as she passed across a healthy sum and contrived to have the date of order altered, she couldn't help but feel a slight pang of regret.

Her granddaughter would likely not get to see it; not any time soon, at least. But if she knew Sydney at all, it wouldn't be thrown out, either. So maybe someday Isabelle would come across it, and wonder what sort of tradition would inspire a grandmother to give her grandchild a knife.

Just to be sure, though, she had her answer ready. When the shop clerk asked what engraving she wanted on the knife, Irina answered without hesitation.

"Always keep them on their toes."

After all, there were worse mottoes for a girl to live by.

O0O0O

O0O0O

This has been posted at my LJ for over a year now and it finally occurred to me to put it up here, too! It was written in response to a challenge, so I was vaguely surprised to find I was actually pretty satisfied with it when it was done (that doesn't happen to me much).

Alias and all those attached to it by name, deed, or freak genetic experiment can lay a far better claim to it than I.