Little Mice


young-eileen_icon.gif young-nick2_icon.gif b_nick_icon.gif sophia_icon.gif

Scene Title Little Mice
Synopsis Nick finds it an easy task, to do what he never could as a child — change his stars.
Date December 10, 1995

"We'll get out of here, Lee. Wherever you wanna go. Where do you wanna go?"

London is not the Scottish highlands, the Norwegian plains or the Mongolian mountains. When it's winter in London, it's not so easy to tell — a biting wind, a damp sky. A white Christmas is a special occasion and a rarity. However, Nick will know better, probably be able to tell the season very well, even without Samuel pronouncing the date, the month and the year with a showman's swoop of his arm to indicate the skinny city street. It's cold and it's home. And at least, it's not raining.

Nick's been abandoned since, but recognisable faces of buildings open up around him with each glance. A closed bistro and neighbouring thrift store, a deli, a pedestrian crossing with worn out, gum-spotted zebra stripes in tatty white strips across the darkly wet asphalt road.

"If we were grown ups and could go wherever we wanted, where'd you wanna live? Anywhere in the world."

The antique store, with its rooms above crowning it, is a dimunitive presence, eyecatching when you know to look for it. It's not quite a yellow brick road of indication, but—

This is Nick's life. He knows what to change, and what to fix.

"Anything you wanna do. I'll get us there."

England, London

December 10th, 1995

The leather jacket that was warm enough for New York's autumn is not enough to keep out the biting chill of London's winter. Nick's blue eyes sweep the familiar street warily — would anyone look at him twice, see something in the man before them of the little boy who had roamed these streets, making do with little but his imagination to invent games and stories for himself and his little sister? But the only eyes that fall on him look away immediately — he's just another lost soul here in the East End, another local kid gone wrong.

A touch to the gun in his waistband, a model not made yet in this year, steels his resolve. If he can't get the kids to come with him, there are other options. He swallows hard, then heads toward the door that will lead him up to the apartments, boots scuffing and smudging a chalk drawing on the damp sidewalk without noticing — something the Nick who lives in this time had worked on just that morning with Eileen. A psychologist could probably point out the hallmarks of a dysfunctional home, but for the adult man striding up the stairs, this time was close to as good as it gets. Their father was gone, and they missed him; their mother was drunk and erratic. But life in 1995 was livable, not the hell it would be later.

Nick is here to keep that hell from ever existing, if he can.

The familiar door that memory guides him to, however, is occupied. A woman stands in front of it, fumbling for keys with a grocery bag tucked between her ankles, sneakers still waterlogged from a previous rainy day, legs clad in sweatpants of grey cotton, and a deeply emerald sweater with a ropey woolen weave and fashionably bulky and floppy collar, though the garment is too old to be much more than house wear. It's late in the day, but Sophia Ruskin is just now returning with a shopping haul — small, bare essentials like white bread on special, a tin of instant coffee, condensed milk, two juice boxes, a couple of packs of fags. A bottle of liquor.

The trip has worn her patience, a half-finished cigarette already clamped between her teeth and a tremor to her fingers as she pokes the key into its lock. Her black hair is bound loosely in a tail, her face free of makeup and a little red around the nose, as if suffering a cold. She doesn't pay Nick heed whatsoever, grabbing the crinkly plastic handles of the bag and shouldering her way inside, the door lazy to shut after her.

The sight of his mother — he hasn't seen her since he was 17 years old — makes his breath catch in his throat, but there is no feeling of nostalgia, no feeling of pity, that wells up inside of him.

Fear roils through him, making him feel like he's just eight years old again, like the little boy he knows must be behind that door. He can't remember this particular day — there's nothing special about it in his memory, the calendar page nothing etched in his mind. He and Lee are probably watching the tiny tellie, or maybe reading a book or coloring.

Anger follows. The bottle of alcohol that costs so much more than the scant amount of food in the bottle could have paid for something with nutritious value, but instead he knows that their lunch will consist of little more than bread and juice and maybe a box of sultanas — while Sophia drinks.

Nick's long legs make quick work of the last few steps, catching the door before it comes to a complete close, and slipping inside as silently as he can, knowing she'll be busy heading to the kitchen to unload, the rattle of plastic bag hopefully covering his pursuit.

His fingers wrap around the gun and pull it from his waistband, trying to keep it hidden, even as his eyes sweep the tiny apartment for the children.

One of the two tiny figures that Nick's pale eyes are peeled for is neither watching the tellie nor reading a book or colouring, but rather asleep on the sofa and bundled in several layers of mismatching quilts and blankets so heavy that his baby sister looks like a hermit crab curled up in a shell much too large for it. It's winter in London and the heating inside the Ruskin family flat has always been about as functional as the Ruskin family itself.

Bone white fingers the size of a doll's curl around the edge of the blanket as Eileen stirs instinctively in her sleep, her ears registering the creak of the front door and the sound of her mother's footsteps — the stranger's, too, though she'd have trouble differentiating these from those belonging to a man roughly the same size and build as Nick, which is why her gray eyes twitch open and she raises her head a fraction of an inch off the sofa cushion. Parts a pink mouth into a hushed, raspy, "Da?"

There's relative silence, from the kitchen, even at that near-whispered exclamation coming from the living area. Sophia can and will ignore louder things than that. There's the bang and open and close of cupboards, the fridge, the fall of shifting footsteps, the continual crinkle of plastic bag as things are taken out of it in lazy haste to set things out the kids might need for the night and thus leave her alone.

Blue eyes so very like another pair yet to be seen flash on that figure at the sofa, and Nick raises a finger to his lips to indicate she should be quiet, and he glances toward the kitchen before moving further into the room, coming closer to the sofa and kneeling beside it.

"Uncle Nick," he lies. "Bet your mum didn't tell you about me, drobny ptak," he tells her, mixing his English accent with Polish words, as is not so uncommon in this household. Little bird seems a fitting epithet for the tiny Eileen of the past. "Get your brother. We're leaving for a trip. Would you like that? But it's a secret. You must be very quiet. Can you do that, Lee?"

Padded footsteps approach from the hallway and a smaller Nicholas Ruskin stands staring at the figure by his sister. His feet have no shoes but are thick with multiple pairs of socks, not all matching; jeans that are too long they must be cuffed and yet have holes in the knees to show they are some other child's hand me downs are juxtaposed with a sweater that's too small, frail wrists jutting out beneath the red wool. "Who are you?" demands Nick, dropping his the H-sound, his small whisper fierce as he glares at the man from the back, not so optimistic as his sister; he doesn't assume it's their father, nor anyone who might give a damn about them.

"He's our uncle," Eileen whispers back, her voice still thick with sleep. She peels out of the blankets, pulling herself up into a sitting position with one hand braced on the cushion, the other reaching out to splay finger's across Nick's cheek. The older one. That he's an older incarnation of her brother and not her uncle would never occur to her, but there's familiarity in his eyes, and what's familiar is safe. As long as it isn't their mother.

And speaking of Sophia— Eileen darts a glance in the direction of the kitchen, dark lashes low over her eyes, and takes her lower lip between pearly baby teeth that have never bit down on the filter of a cigarette and will not have to if Nick succeeds in his mission. "I'm very quiet," she assures him. "More quiet even than mouses."

It would be difficult, to be more quiet than mouses. Unfortunately, being quiet isn't the problem. It's beung unable to dart into nooks and crannies and disappear into the walls, that's the problem.

It's as simple as Sophia appearing in the doorway. She's left liquor in the kitchen for now, coming out instead with the pair of juice boxes— radioactivity grape, if the violet is meant to indicate their flavour— that get neglected in the claw of her hand, as with her cigarette in the other. She fixes Nick with a hard and mutely alarmed gaze at the sight of some strange man in her home, sending a quizzical glance to the door as if expecting to see it— broken, or something.

"Who're you?" she demands, in unknown echo of her son, but harsher still, louder. She snaps a glance down at Eileen. "Leen! Get back!"

The man is turning to glance at the tiny version of himself — if Eileen still has most of her baby teeth, young Nicholas is a veritable Jack O'lantern, missing front and bottom teeth as his mouth flashes into a grin at the news it's their uncle. But his little face turns to a scowl when Sophia appears behind the man's back, and the man glances back at the woman that's only a few years older than he is now, and so much smaller. Funny how she seemed to loom large and monstrous in his child's mind — but when one weighs 50 pounds, 100 seems giant.

Nick is immediately on his feet to face Sophia, wincing just slightly as his injured knee protests; he instinctively steps in front of Eileen, protecting her first, widening his arms as if to keep her hidden from view. The boy is less his concern. Glancing over his shoulder at them, he gives a jerk of his head toward the door. "Nicholas, get Lee out of the apartment. Go … go to where you lost your first tooth," he says on the fly, knowing that the child will remember, losing a tooth in an alleyway a couple of blocks away, having lost it in the bite of a stolen candy bar eaten while crouching in the shadows behind the store, adrenaline and guilt making his stomach ill. He never did eat another Violet Crumble.

Turning back toward Sophia, his eyes flash with anger. "You're not a fit mother and I'm bringing them to child services, lady," Nick says fiercely. He'll start with lies, and resort to violence or truth if he must.

Eileen is torn between listening to her Uncle Nick and siding with the woman she calls her mother. Fortunately, she's just old enough to understand the meaning of the word compromise and instead chooses a happy medium, moving away from the man on her mother's orders and toward her older brother on his. She puts herself behind him, wraps skinny arms around his waist and presses her face against his back between his lean shoulder blades so she doesn't have to watch the argument about to unfold in front of them.

She did the same thing when Gregory was still around, and the warmth of her breath curling close to the nape of Little Nicholas' neck is as familiar as the damp sensation that usually accompanies it, though not this time. Not yet, anyway. Their voices haven't gotten loud enough.

Sophia's jaw drops, and it's not necessarily denial that rises up in her throat. Having been a fit mother once before, maybe, she knows very well, without knowing at all. The flash of fear that crops up in her own eyes might be alien, to Nick. She's the bully, after all. Not him. But it's controlled fear, one that gets closed off behind a clamped jaw and a narrowing of her stare, indignance rising in the next moment as she strides further into the room.

"Nick. Take your sister into the bedroom and close the door." A battle of wills, here. There's some small threat in the way she bounces a glance to the younger version of her son, while ignorant to the truth of the older one standing in front of her. "'s just someone from the Department checking in for a chat. Go."

She expects order to be heeded, and doesn't wait for the kids to leave before she resumes adult talk. "Who the fuck do you think you are?" is savage in its own strange way, a wandering quality in the syllables strung together, but scissored out between teeth that flash bare on the consonants.

The little boy stands in front of Eileen, the older man in front of the boy; there is a similarity in the tension of their posture, and when Sophia makes demands of her son, both raise their chins in the same motion of defiance. Both sets of black-lashed blue eyes narrow in indignation. Only the man's jaw bears the scar from the accident; the child is still relatively unscathed by anything so close to death.

For now.

Glancing back, Nick's eyes find those of his younger self. "Go where I told you, and she can't hurt you," he whispers. "I promise."

He too turns back to focus on Sophia; the sound of feed padding away is enough for Nick to believe his words have been heeded. "You don't love them." The words are a growl. "You won't protect them from the things they need protected from. Including yourself. Let me take them and you can go back to doing what you do best."

Behind him, Nick is moving toward the front door, grabbing coats and boots before finally grasping that doorknob, turning it, and pushing Eileen out toward the hall. "Do what he says, Lee, and if she's mad, I'll take the blame. You just were listenin' to me. Be a little mouse," he whispers, casting one glance backward over at his mother and the stranger with wide eyes before glancing back to see if Eileen will follow his directions.

Little mice do not look back over their shoulders, and not because they can't twist their necks far enough. Eileen disappears out into the hall, though her short legs will not carry her very far, only to the top of the stairs that leads down to the street, and it is here that she will wait for her brother, silent and dutiful with a solemn expression on a face gone chalk pale with worry.

Loss of control, or the realisation of it, comes too late — the scurry of feet have her children already carried out of her realm, and Sophia's anger fluctuates, dwindles, wells up again as she tosses juice boxes into the seat of an armchair so as better to— what? Attack? Her children are already out of grabbing range. Her hand works as if she still could, eyeing the barrel chest of the stranger in her home before dragging her gaze up to his face, her mouth going white when she pinches it into a line. The decision not to physically pursue a sign of some self-preservation.

"I do," she wavers out, defensive. "I do! What do you— " She stalls out, at a loss of what to do. It's not supposed to go this way. "I'll call the police. I'll call 'em right now." She steps two steps to the left and picks up the phone with a shaking hand, but doesn't dial, just simply holds it in threat.

"Miss Ruskin," Nick begins, trying to sound official. "I work with the cops. How else would I know? How many complaints you think we've had? We log 'em all, and it's obvious this ain't a fit home. You'll get a chance to defend yourself. Someone'll be by, tell you what rights you've got, do a study of your home and your mental health and whatnot. If you clean up your act, maybe you can get 'em back," Nick says, struggling to keep his voice neutral and polite — this can work. She's not attacking him. She's wavering — perhaps she knows it's what's right. Perhaps, some small part of her knows that this is the best chance her children have for a happy life — that this stranger is here to make for them what she couldn't.

What he couldn't.

Nick takes a step backward and bumps into the smaller version of himself who has crept in to listen, blue eyes wide in his pale and dirt-smudged face. The little boy is torn between protecting himself and his sister — the threat of violence is growing, a taut and palpable tension in the air, with every argument, every fight between himself and his mother. He's been slapped and spanked. Shaken. Pulled. But each time it has escalated. Each time it has scared him more and more, and yet he pushes her too, in his own ways, almost as if inviting it.

"C'mon," the man says, grabbing the child by the arm and tugging him toward the door. Five feet. Three. One, and then it's opening, swinging out to find the tiny bird sitting at the top of the stairs.

The door is allowed to close behind Nick. Afterwards, there's the cracking sound of something thrown after it — probably the phone, if Nick were to make an educated guess. The sound of soft, despairing, deep-chested crying is muffled within the closed off apartment. The lack of pursuit is telling enough, possibly a relief.

Possibly sickening.

As that door shuts, the grown man's face contorts with a mix of anger and resolution, perhaps even a touch of triumph. That she gave them up that easily makes this easier. It makes it easier to hate without guilt and easier to take Sophia's children from her. The sobbing pulls at that need to protect, even to protect someone who hurt him, who hurt children, who hurt Eileen, but Eileen is the priority. She needs his protection. She needs her brother to protect her from both her mother and from himself, and only the Nick of 2010 can do that. The Nick of 1995 is also looking back at that door, eyes wide as he realizes Sophia is not coming after them.

The boy's hand takes Eileen's and tugs her to her feet. The man puts a light hand on each shoulder, guiding them down the steps.

"Where are you takin' us?" little Nick asks.

"Away from here. Where you'll be safe from anyone who'd hurt you," Nick tells them, his eyes moving to Eileen's when he says the latter.

What he won't tell them is that he'll be separating them — a sleeping pill slipped into their sodas should do the trick, allowing him to bring one little urchin child to the police while the other sleeps, to be dropped off in another town far from here.

At the bottom of the stairwell, a little boy's hand turns a doorknob, opening the door to the gray London winter outside. The man who follows the two children out takes a deep and shaky breath of the chilly air, the taste of home for once sweet in his mouth. For once, Nick Ruskin feels like the future might be worth living in.

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