On a bright blue Friday toward the middle of November, Nikita arrived at the penultimate mark of her mission. It was time to face down Kelly, and soon it would be time to face down Helen. She had accepted the fact that she might lose them both emotionally, but that was a worst-case scenario. Both would feel that trust had been betrayed because it had been, but it had to be done, and she hoped that they would both realize that eventually.
The intervening months had demanded much of her, but they had not been unusually stressful and her health had remained excellent throughout as she gradually became more knowledgeable about and more relaxed at her job. At thirty-nine weeks she was still wearing the same loose tops and jackets that she had worn in the fall, and if her slacks and skirts had paneled fronts, no one could see them when she was fully dressed. Her body was more oval than pear-shaped, due in no small part to the strength of her abdominal muscles, developed over years of continuous exercise. From the front she looked rectangular, but her height nicely complemented her increased girth: she looked big rather than pregnant, and although she was now unable to bend at the waist, she had experienced few balance problems. On the morning her contractions began, she weighed barely fifteen pounds more than she had nine months before, and according to Kelly, between seven and nine of those pounds were Luc's.
"You're 3 centimeters dilated, but you've been that for a week." Kelly seemed pleased and confident as Nikita dressed after being examined. "Go back to work, but come see me in a couple of hours, okay?"
"How long do I have?"
"Hard to tell at this point. Could be twelve, fourteen more hours, or it could be more. Or less. Depends on how strong your contractions get and how far apart they are. Average labor for a primip is fourteen hours, but there's a lot of variation. Not planning on going anywhere, are you?" It was a rhetorical question, asked with teasing affection.
"I'm going to London this afternoon. My flight leaves in an hour and a half."
"It's not supposed to be funny," Nikita assured her calmly. "I've had the reservation since October. If I wasn't in labor yet, I was going to get Helen to induce this weekend. The Group thinks I'm not due for another month, so they'll think I went into premature labor. I've told them that the adoptive parents live in London, so it all works out."
There was a silence, and then Kelly asked in a dangerously quiet voice, "Are you out of your mind?"
"So what did you think I was going to do? Have Luc in Section and just give him up?"
"That's what you told me you were going to do, Nikita. We've even talked about what kind of post-partum counseling you'd need." Kelly's voice was now trembling a little. "You were lying to me the whole time."
"It wasn't all a lie. I won't have him with me when I come back. He'll be with Michael." The black abyss tried to open, but she resolutely averted the eyes of her mind, and when she looked back, the pit had closed once more.
"And you couldn't trust me enough to tell me what you had in mind?"
"The less you knew, Kelly, the safer you were."
"I can't believe your aunt would go along with this."
"I didn't tell her either. She doesn't expect to see me again until Christmas."
"What if she'd refused to induce you?"
"I'd have convinced her. But that's moot now, isn't it?" Nikita frowned at another cramp-like contraction, but blessedly, she was as yet in no pain. "This isn't all that bad, you know? It doesn't even hurt."
"You fool." Kelly voice had begun to rise. "You could have this baby on the plane!"
"I won't have him on the plane. I'll have him at the Helen Collingwood Clinic."
"You can't control that! Who the hell do you think you are? God?"
"No, I'm Nikita, and I am not going to give my son away."
"If we'd had this conversation before today, I'd have--"
"You'd have found some way to stop me. This way you don't have time to figure it out." Having fully dressed herself before the conversation began, she slid off the examining table. "I have to catch a plane."
"What about the Group?"
"They know I'm going. It's been a month, so they don't suspect anything. Aren't you gonna wish me luck?" She heard her own voice falter.
"Just like that? You play me like a fish on a line and then--" Nikita turned away. "Good luck." It was only a whisper.
Looking back, she saw tears in her friend's eyes. Oh, Kelly, do I ever know the feeling. "Thanks." Without another word, she left the office, and ten minutes later she was passing through Van Access, the door clanging shut behind her.
Advance to final mark....
All the way to the airport, she timed contractions and the minutes between them. By the time the plane gathered itself and took off roaring into the early winter dusk, the contractions were lasting thirty seconds and the time between was averaging less than six minutes. Still she was in no pain, but the woman sitting beside her glanced her way as one of the contractions hit, and she realized she must have winced. Smiling, she made small talk until the woman booted up her laptop.
Keep seat belts fastened, the pilot reminded them. She eased the buckle and kept her seat belt fastened as the daylight faded below and thinned around them where they flew above the clouds for almost an hour. Smooth flight. No peanuts, thank you. Light dying outside the window. As the plane touched down and its engines roared into reverse, she timed a contraction at 45 seconds; it had only been four minutes since the last one. It's okay, she told herself. Active phase, first stage. Could take up to six hours.
Somehow, she didn't think it would.
Friday evening, airport mobbed. Uniformed chauffeur holding a sign with her name on it. Black taxi waiting. Plush interior. Soft seat. Bright lights outside. Sign on a bridge over the highway: "Welcome to Britain." Sixty seconds, and only three minutes since the last one. If her water broke now, she would mess up this lovely cab. Nothing broke, but as the cab finally, finally turned into Helen's street, she had a hard, ninety-second contraction only a minute after the last one and something changed. In the light of a street lamp, she tipped the driver who tipped his hat, and then began a long, slow walk up to the doorway when all she really wanted to do was squat and push. But she was there. She was there.
When she opened the door, Chauncey came to greet her, licking her hand. Voices from the office paused, and then Helen was coming toward her with Michael close behind.
"You lied to me!"
Nikita stood leaning against the examining table with Michael holding her arm and an infuriated Helen facing them both. It took a moment to realize that her aunt was not speaking to her, but to Michael.
In spite of herself, Nikita grinned. "Why did he tell you he was here?"
"He said he wanted to talk to me about you." To Michael: "You knew she was coming. You knew what she was up to, but you told me--"
"Helen, this man...." Nikita grimaced as pain spread from her back to her belly. "...Filters in the truth and then censors it back out again. The trick is to...oh, Godddd...listen to what he says first, while he's still filtering in. Right, Michael?" She set her teeth to keep from groaning. "Say yes, Michael."
Michael said nothing, and Helen said, "Get up on the table this instant."
"Don't want to lie down. Want to squat and push."
"Young woman, you came here and put yourself in my hands against my will. Now do as I say!"
"I'd have to sit first. Can't sit. Luc is getting in the way."
Still without speaking, Michael slipped one arm around her back, the other under her knees, and lifted her onto the table. Helen removed her shoes, socks, slacks and underpants with unbelievable swiftness, took one look, and muttered, "Dear God in heaven." But she didn't sound worried. She sounded awed. Then she went to wash her hands, barking instructions at Michael over her shoulder. Sterile gloves in a drawer. Gowns and drapes in a cupboard. Michael lifted Nikita's hips and something clean and smooth was laid underneath them. Feet in the stirrups.
"I hate these things," she shouted. "It's like wrist clamps in the White Room! I need to stand up! Pleeeeze!" It turned into a scream.
Helen wheeled a stool into place. Snap, snap went her gloves. "Put those on," she told Michael. But Michael, properly gowned, did not put gloves on.
"Kita, close your eyes." When she obeyed, he leaned across her, grasped her ankles, lifted her feet out of the stirrups and stretched her legs out full length, her feet on either side of Helen's head. "You're free now. You're standing. Are you standing?"
"Yes," she gasped.
Now grasping both her feet at the instep, he moved back away from Helen toward the head of the table, pulling against Nikita's feet until her knees were bent wide apart. "Can she push now?" he demanded without raising his voice.
"If you let go," Helen said tightly, "she could kick me silly."
"Can she push now?"
"Next contraction, she'd jolly well better," said the Queen of Spades. "It's got complete coronation."
"He's got--!" Nikita shouted, and pushed against Michael's hands with all her might as he braced himself and strained. She had the sensation that Helen was peeling back a thin rubber sheath from an object too large to expel, and then it was over. She heard Helen's triumphant, "No tearing, by God!" And then Luc Michael Samuelle burst out howling, supremely annoyed at being ejected into life on a star unstable.
"I want to see him," said his mother as soon as she had breath to speak.
And Helen said, "Michael, put on the damn gloves or I'll show him to her."
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