Sanctuary

by bardsmaid

Chapter 14

Tuesday
 


Krycek jabbed the 'delete' button, closed his eyes and let his head drop back against the pillows. He arched his neck and grimaced. It wasn't working. Nothing he could say was going to make Mulder believe. Maybe if he hadn't killed Mulder's dad, or destroyed his credibility with the man in a dozen other ways. He smiled bitterly. Bridge burned and awfully damned far now from one cliff edge to the other.

There had to be some way. Lie here worrying, though, and Tracy would wake up from the mental static. Then she'd come down to see if there was something she could do to help.

Best to stay away from that one given the way things had gone on the roof.

A few hours of shut-eye, a clearer head...

Mulder wouldn't be up for hours anyway. Wherever he was.

Krycek opened his eyes, hit the 'standby' button and pushed the laptop against the wall. 2:18 a.m. When his eyes closed, he saw the clock numbers stamped behind his lids. That familiar warning feeling was pulsing through him like his own blood: the approach of a target date he had no way to pinpoint with precision.  Realistically, they couldn't count on more than a few days, maybe a week at most, of relative security. It was time to move, to have a plan primed and ready to get her out of here.

Pulling the blanket higher, he stared at the ceiling cracks, spidered patterns with little peeling edges revealing an old yellow-gold paint layer underneath. Gradually they morphed into the mountain, standing at the top and looking out, then reaching. As if you could fly off into the bright blue above the soft ridge lines. As if the possibilities were endless.

But that was her posture, her hope, still fresh and unbattered by life.

Whenever the day came, it would be too soon.

 

 

David Barker slipped his arm away from his wife's unconscious grasp and squinted at the clock. 2:37.

Leave by three and he could be there by four-thirty, which would put him back in Lexington by six.  A little early for work, but he wouldn't show up early at the office or do anything stupid that would attract attention.  There was no reason it shouldn't work.

Breakfast downtown for a change and a little extra time with the morning paper; it would make sense to anyone who saw him. Heather was a late sleeper. She wouldn't wake up, and if she did--if she became disturbed--who'd believe her, or understand? Sometimes she knew it was him; other times he was Ron or someone she'd known years ago. Which could be more than a little disconcerting between the sheets. Adrie was the constant, the quiet little soldier, though even he was more than aware that the woman they lived with now was only a shell of his mother, right in front of him and yet as far away as if she'd gone off to Tibet, vowing never to return.

David rolled to the edge of the bed and slipped out carefully. He took the hanger with the gray suit from the hook on the back of the closet door and made his way into the bathroom. Annie would be around if anything came up, and Sandy would be here by eight. What would make this different from any other day?

He shook the shaving cream can, squirted a puff onto his fingertips and spread it absently. Ron's body--what was left of it--had been visible from the doorway where he stood talking with Dale. Not that he'd planned on looking; it was just there. The idea behind all this investigation was to have something concrete, some certainty. After all this time they deserved something they could hang onto. Heather deserved it if the answer was anything that would get through to her.

Maybe it was too much to hope for: that somehow the facts might get through to her dormant mind and wake her from the living dream she was trapped in. But any hope was better than none at all. You took what you could get.

He swiped carefully across one cheek, methodically overlapping the strokes, working toward his jaw. The razor shook slightly in his hand, seeming to move on its own. There would be little to no traffic at this hour. On the return trip, most of the traffic--what there'd be of it--would be headed to Cincinnati.

Bright pain bit into his jaw. The razor slipped and clattered into the sink.

David grabbed a washcloth and held it to the place. It was just a nick, nothing to worry about.

He'd seen the motions, Annie slicing at what must have been a lung, her elbow moving back and forth just slightly, just enough to tell.

Turning on the faucet, he rinsed out the washcloth and held it back against the cut. With the other hand he fished in the slowly filling sink. Another sudden bite as his fingers found the blade end of the razor. He shook his hand, pulled the sink plug and watched the water drain. A thin line of blood materialized along his index finger. He waited for the sink to empty, swabbed at the shaving cream residue with the washcloth and held his finger under the running water. Bandages. There were some in the drawer below the sink.

He glanced at his watch.

Beeson had to be involved. How could the contamination go on and on unless he knew, unless he was protecting it? He probably hadn't ever thought about the families that were affected.  After all, his own son didn't work in the clean room. The kid, John, was a screw-up, a high-school dropout being nursed along by his rich parents. Maybe old Beeson had never stopped to think, and if nobody ever turned that around by bringing it to his attention...

Someone had to.

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
You already know the illness is a lure. Beware of recovery. He won't stop working for what he wants. If he doesn't get results, he may try closer to home.
                                                                                         -K

 

 

To: gbeeson@beeson-lymon.net
From: solovoice@quick.net
If you've never thought of this before, take a moment to consider the lives that have been lost and the tragedies within families that have unfolded because of what goes on inside your plant's walls. You can deny it all you want, but denial doesn't stop the illness and the death, or comfort the survivors who are left to go on without their loved ones. Whatever you get from it--and you must get something--how can it possibly be worth the lives that have been lost and the guilt you'll someday feel? Maybe if it was your child or wife or relative, you'd understand. Too many people have been touched.

You don't do your filthy work undetected. We know.

 

 

Barely five a.m.

Krycek paused on the third floor landing, his eyes going immediately to the brown door closest to the stairs. Better she should be asleep, getting some rest. He refocused, glanced up the narrow stairway, and let out a slow breath. Putting his hand on the smooth, rounded railing, he began his climb to the roof.

One step at a time; it was the only way. Give Mulder a little something he could trust, then a little more. Establish a point of stability, a base for when the time came.

The old man could be watching his recovery the way a lion watches a gazelle, carefully waiting, calculating the moment when he was strong enough not to need her. Or he could suddenly decide it was enough, his 'take it slow and easy, Alex' replaced by some other expedient, the decision made that she was of no more use than one of the beer bottles he dropped the butts of his Morleys into. Then he'd send one of his goons to cart her off.

Krycek shivered involuntarily and made himself refocus on the landing above him. Five stairs to go, now four and three and two.

He paused on the landing, leaning against the open door that led to the patio. Dull light spread above the horizon, the sky streaked with dull blues and soft shades of gray. It was misting, the moisture drifting to one side on a steady flow of air. He stepped out into it and went to the wall. Moisture prickled at his cheek. He leaned forward against the wall, letting it take his weight.

He could picture the look, Mulder's 'invertebrate scumsucker' look. He got such a self-righteous high from having somebody to look down on.  What were the chances he'd even listen to Tracy's story, knowing who'd sent her?

Mulder aside, there'd be Scully-the-skeptic to get past. It wasn't going to help that he'd been lurking in her closet. And she'd know he would have fired in a heartbeat four years earlier if he'd been sure it was her and not her sister opening her apartment door. Hopefully she'd seen something different, though, when he'd alerted her to come take care of Mulder in his apartment that night last month.  Granted, it didn't mean she'd believe what she'd seen. It went against her grain to believe. She and Mulder were yin and yang that way.

And his mother? There was no telling what she'd do. She was a wild card. Plus it was a good five hours from here to Greenwich at the best of times, and why would she chance making the trip? She might figure it for a trap, thinking he was luring her in for the old man.

Worse, she might run the idea past Mulder first.

Krycek looked up at the brightening sky and pushed out a heavy breath. Let the speculation go; stay loose. Tie yourself up in knots and you'd never see opportunity when it showed itself. Most of the time it was like a hummingbird, a momentary thing, here and then gone in the blink of an eye.

A prickle ran down the back of his neck. Someone was watching.

Krycek straightened, fighting down the momentary spike of adrenaline. It was bound to happen. How many times had she been wakened by the chaos in his head?  He paused mid-breath and listened, but there was no greeting,  no sound of footsteps.  Turning, he glanced behind him.  Nobody, just mist and shadow and the gray geometry of the building in the still-dull light.

No, there was someone. He squinted. A pale figure stood in the shadow of the overhanging tree. Or was it just his eyes after so many hours awake?

His heart pounded.  He glanced toward the doorway, then back to the place and blinked. She was vague, a heavyset woman with reddish-blonde curls wearing a yellow sweater, and she was looking straight at him. Not staring, not judging. Just looking. When he blinked again she melted away.

Krycek's hand clutched at the edge of the wall.  He swallowed and tried to will himself back to rationality. It was the time and the stress; he'd been up too long. It had to be a trick of the mind.

But no mental trick made you jump like this.

Quickly he crossed the patio and started down the stairs. The steady mist had done its work, soaking his cheeks, beading in his hair. His shirt was damp. He paused outside Tracy's door and tried the handle. It didn't turn.  He tried once more, using a little more pressure.  There was a click he could feel; the knob broke loose and turned.  Must be broken; they'd have to see that it got fixed.

He eased the door open.

Inside, the room was stuffy. She was lying there, quiet, just a shadow in the bed. He made his way around to the window side, where dull light fell close to her face, and leaned over her. Strands of thin hair crossed her cheek; carefully he reached out and smoothed them away. She felt surprisingly warm. Her eyes opened and gradually widened.

"Alex?"

He shook his head. "Just on my way downstairs. You okay?"  He sat down on the edge of the bed. She was thick with sleep.

"I think so." She blinked twice.  Gradually her eyelids closed. Her hand reached out.  "You're wet."

"It's misting up there."  He watched her expression slacken. She was starting to drift. She hadn't seemed to notice, to pick up on anything out of the ordinary inside him, like a vision of her mother standing under the tree up on the roof. The T-shirt she wore was old and stretched; the neckline had shifted to one side, exposing a smooth shoulder.

He straightened and watched her a moment.  "Sleep, nena," he whispered. 

He went to the door and let himself out.

 

 

"Anything else I can get you?"

David Barker looked up at the waitress. She had that look--the one that went along with the impatient tapping of her foot.

"Uh, no. This is fine. Everything's fine."

She scrawled 'thank you' on the back of the bill and set it down on the edge of the table. David turned back to the newspaper's business section but the words held no meaning.

As if he were even trying to read them.

As if.

It had been incredible.  Terrifying.  Like being in a video game or a spy movie. The cybercafé had gone in months earlier, just three doors away from Meecham's Cincinnati office, but he'd never had a reason to go inside before. Maybe it had been a lack of courage: cruising in among all those net-savvy kids, just a guy in a business suit with a hairline announcing its firm intention to recede. The place had given him just what he needed today, though: anonymity, a way to know his message couldn't be traced. At least, not back to him. He'd even worn gloves, setting himself strategically at a computer that was more or less blocked from the view of the only other customers at such a weird hour, two guys and a girl completely involved in some online game. Anyway, they'd been too glued to their screens to notice him. Probably friends of the clerk's who were getting free time.

He'd left no fingerprints, no files, nothing incriminating, and who would ever know he'd been to Cincinnati before dawn, or to what purpose? It was an e-mail account he'd just opened and would never use again. Beeson wouldn't reply anyway, but that wasn't the point. The point was direct access to the person who made the decisions, like sneaking into the Oval Office and getting a chance to let the president know what you thought.

David reached for the other half of his biscuit and took a bite. The gloves had been tossed into the trash at a gas station halfway home. He'd paid cash, so there wouldn't be any records--no tell-tale time-date stamps or credit card numbers to trace.

There was no trail at all. Absolutely nothing to worry about.

 

 

"Dr. Bandrapalli?"

The voice was pleasant, engaging. The man it belonged to was tall, at least six foot four. He wore a poplin raincoat against the drizzle.

"Yes? Can I help you?" Rani took out his briefcase and closed the trunk of his car.

"I understand you're my sister's doctor. I came the other night from Nebraska to see her--Margaret Scully? I spoke to a Dr. Carney. I was called away on a family emergency yesterday, and tomorrow I'm scheduled to fly to Europe on business, but I'm very concerned about my sister."

"Pneumonia takes time to defeat," Rani replied as his pulse rate increased noticeably. This appeared to be the man he'd been told about, a man who would deliberately infect an innocent woman and mother. "The infection, even once it's been defeated, takes time to clear from the lungs."

"Then it is pneumonia? Dr. Carney mentioned that you thought it might be something else."

Rani shrugged and looked up at the man.  "I do several tests routinely. There were no unusual indicators. It's a matter of waiting now to see how the treatment will go. Sometimes the body responds well, but it depends entirely upon the individual. I'm sorry I can't be more definite than that." He paused. "Would you like to see your sister now?"

"I wasn't--" The man stopped to take a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. He placed one between his lips and smiled diffidently. "Wasn't sure I'd have any luck convincing the powers that be to let me in outside visiting hours. I certainly wouldn't want to disturb her."

"Family visits can be a very helpful thing. Even if the patient is in a coma it's been known to affect the outcome for the better." He paused. "I can take you upstairs. I have that discretion."

The man shook his head. "She'll need her rest more than she needs to see me. We... haven't always been on the best of terms, quite frankly. But I am concerned. I want the best for her."

"As you wish."

"I assume the children have been notified? Bill and Charlie and"--he flicked a lighter and held it to the tip of the cigarette--"Dana. Have they come yet?"

Rani's hand squeezed the handle of the briefcase. "I spend less time here than I'd like to; I have some research ongoing and... I really don't keep up with all the personal details of every patient. I can certainly check for you."

"Yes, would you? I'm afraid I may miss them because of my schedule, but if at all possible--"

"I understand."

The tall man took the cigarette from his mouth and forced out a stream of smoke, then pulled a business card from his pocket. "You can leave a message at this number," he said, indicating a penciled number on the back of the card.

"Very well." A pause. "You're sure you won't come up?"

"I'm already late for a meeting," he said, taking another drag on the cigarette. "I just wanted to check on her first. Family is so important, isn't it, doctor?"

"Certainly it is."

Rani watched as the man turned and strode away across the parking lot, the edges of his raincoat billowing behind him. He rubbed a thumb across the business card in his hand.

There was a call to be made to John Byers.

 

 

"Hey, Scully--" Mulder said softly.

She stirred as he eased his arm from under her head. Her eyes went from hazy to focused to a subtle jolt of recognition that she quickly suppressed. She moistened her lips and gave him a quizzical look. He pushed up on one elbow.

"Thought I'd get started a little early, see if I can find out a few things before work."

"What kind of things?"

"Something more about this woman I saw yesterday. Figured I'd stop off at Sandy's and see if she knows anything, or if her friends do--the blind couple. They seem to know a lot about the people in this town."

"But isn't Dale coming to pick you up?"

Mulder shook his head. "Not for another hour. I figure I can jog down to Sandy's, ask a few questions, get myself a head start. That is, if you'll go up to the house and call Dale for me, let him know he doesn't need to come up."  He raised his eyebrows and waited for a sign.

A pause and she nodded. Her lips pressed together.  "I think I'll check my mail," she said. She rolled away from him, toward the desk, and sat up.

Lying back against the pillows, Mulder watched.

It was beginning to eat at her already. It showed in her body language, select postures from the catalogue of Scully-gestures he'd compiled so carefully over the past six years. There was the way she sat very straight in the chair and stared at the computer screen, the conscious focus that said she wasn't going to let herself be shaken or allow her fears out to run unleashed. Her lips were pressed together; when she was relaxed her mouth would sit slightly open, a tantalizing non-invitation. For a long time it had been an excruciating paradox--her body saying yes while her conscious mind nixed whatever she might have naturally allowed. It wasn't going to be one of those times, like last night, when she'd let herself lean. It was morning: harsh reality under the klieg lights of day and too many hours to get through until it was past. Maybe at the end she'd let down, but never at the beginning.

After a while he sat up and started to pull his pants on. Maybe Joe would show some mercy today and take him off employee and staff bathroom duty. Maybe even let him clean Beeson's private domain. Or he could end up getting shipped back to the maintenance building with a bucket of gray paint, or end up on some other assignment that would come out of Joe's warped, walnut-sized brain. Maybe Angie Connors would turn out to be their ticket after all, though the logistics made it a long shot; anything they got from her was going to take time to prove and the clock was ticking, counting down. 

Mulder reached for his socks and pulled them on. He turned and glanced at Scully, still sitting motionless, waiting.

Painful as it was to admit, it was a house of cards, this whole thing between the two of them. An amazing, feel-good house of cards to be sure, but the risks were there all the same. The trailer was like the motels had been: no man's land, no previous rules, no prior claims. It made things seem easier than they really were. So they needed each other to get through this. But what if they finally succeeded, if they made it back to D.C.? Would it be too presumptuous to leave a change of clothes at her place? Would it violate her private space? Would she need that spot the way she had before, a moat around her to keep everyone else out? There was the danger: that it was all just an amazing dream and once they were back in D.C., he'd wake up to discover that it had never happened, find the fates laughing at him for being so gullible as to believe it was possible.

Scully's mail chime sounded. Mulder laced his shoes and stood up. The corners of her mouth were steady. Her throat held no suppressed swallows. Not so far, anyway.

"You get something?" he said, picking his shirt off the floor.

She seemed almost startled, but caught herself and let the corners of her mouth rise slightly.  "Langley's found a way to tap into the hospital computers. I've got readouts. Just about anything I'd want to know."

He came around the end of the bed and stood behind her chair.  "How's she doing?"

She took a breath and looked up at him--faced him squarely. One corner of her mouth crinkled. "About the same. No worse. No better yet; it's too early." She glanced away.  "Mulder, I..."

He smoothed his thumbs across her shoulders. She wanted to be there.  "Scully, if I could think of a way, any way it would actually be safe for you--"

 "I know." She reached for his fingers and glanced up at him. "Thank you."

"For what? For wishing?"

"For being here."

A sigh escaped her. He slipped his arms around her neck and let his lips rest against the top of her head. In the middle of hell--in the worst of everything--they always clicked.

 

 

Still too early for a reply, and anyway it was stupid to be wasting energy speculating about it. Either Mulder'd respond or he'd react: two possible choices. No point in giving himself an ulcer over it.

Krycek tapped the touch pad and heard the dial tone, then the modem dialing his ISP. He closed his eyes. Maybe it had just been the chill in his own fingers, but she'd seemed too hot up there, almost feverish. If she didn't show up in another hour...

If she didn't, he should probably go back and check on her.

The hard drive gurgled, pulling in data, and the connection closed. He opened his eyes and pulled forward to look. Nothing. He let his head fall back against the pillows and stared at the ceiling.

It was a word he hadn't heard in years until it had come out of his mouth up in her room a few hours ago. It was what Paco, his host on the trip to meet the Spanish civil war veterans, had called his daughter, the little two-year-old who ran barefoot around the Madrid apartment, dark hair and even darker eyes, a little kid who'd come lean against your knee, stare into you unafraid and then run off giggling. Nena, Paco would say, coming out into the living room, arms out, waiting for her to run to him. Little girl. He'd called his wife that, too, late at night. When he'd been sacked out, eyes closed, on the couch late at night--when they thought he was asleep--he could hear them through the thin apartment walls.

It was a nice fantasy. Nice concept. Normality: a place that was secure, somebody you'd want to hang around long enough to grow old together. Under the right circumstances, maybe a kid.

Nice, but light years from reality. About as secure, in the end, as one of those bodies the black oil was gestating in, all of a sudden bursting at the seams to have this nightmare thing scream out at you, like the one they said had gotten Maria Ivanova's parents. Reality was a bitch.

Especially these days when he had no real influence.  Maybe that was it: being a bystander sucked. Being condemned to sit on the sidelines and watch as the planet slid on its downward course toward an alien hell was a hell unto itself.

Tracy seemed determined no to be that kind of bystander, though. It wasn't that she had any particular influence or power, but she lived in the details. Or made them live. Raindrops, wind on her face: simple things you'd pass by without noticing. A small life, the old man would say. Insignificant.

He was wrong.

 

 

"Thoughts, gentlemen?"  Byers stared across the darkened room. The bench and its test equipment were out of focus.

"I've got an address coming up on the phone number," Langley said, glancing away from his computer screen.

"A lot of good it'll probably do us," came a voice from the far doorway. Frohike stood silhouetted in a dull glow coming from the hallway behind him. "It's probably just a room with a phone and an answering machine. He'll be retrieving the messages remotely. He's no fool. He may have all the charm of Jeffrey Dahmer, but a fool he's not."

"Which is why he's still around," Byers said. He held the card under a lamp again. It said 'Charles A. Scully' and gave a business address in Omaha. Import/export. It appeared to be the product of a commercial print shop, not something processed through the printer on a home computer.

"Still, we should check it out," Frohike said. He nodded at Byers. "Goldilocks and I already did our thing at Ma Scully's place, though. The Smoking Man's minions are going to suspect something if they notice a short guy and a Woodstock wannabe too many times."

"I'm afraid I've been making myself fairly visible lately, too. I've been to the hospital. We have to assume they may have me on tape. Maybe we can have Skinner check this out. Langley, can you send him a message?"

"Will do."

"But what about family information?" Byers went on. "The visiting information the Smoking Man was looking for? He's expecting to hear from Rani."

"Maybe Skinner can check on Scully's brothers," Langley said. The wild perimeter of his hair was silhouetted in fine blue lines. "They're both in the Navy, aren't they? If we're lucky they'll both be out at sea."

"If not we could be in deep enchilada sauce," Frohike said, walking up to the work bench. He pulled out a stool and sat on it. "All we'd need is Bill Scully charging in like Custer to save the day." He shook his head and paused. "Smoky may be only looking for Scully herself, but we should cover all our bases."

"So what should Rani tell them about Scully if they discover that Maggie's in the hospital?" Byers said. "It's an outside chance but we've got to have some kind of story ready."

"Give them the party line," Langley said. "Tell him she's supposed to be on a retreat and nobody's sure where she is."

"He might say the hospital staff is trying to contact her," Byers said. "But remember, the Smoking Man has set this whole thing up to lure her in. I think we've got to seriously consider the possible consequences of not at least appearing to give him what he wants. He has to believe Scully's going to show up.  If not, I don't see how we can protect Mrs. Scully from further harm. If Scully doesn't bite at what appears to be pneumonia, he's bound to try something more drastic. There are any number of people in and out of that room during a day's time. It would be awfully easy to, say, inject something into her IV."

"But if we give him a time, tell him she's on her way and she'll be here in three days, four days," Frohike said, "what then? What happens when the time comes... and goes again?"

Byers let out a sigh. Langley's mouth pressed into a straight line.

"Rock and a hard place, anyone?" Frohike said.

 

 

"You make any headway?" Dale asked, glancing from his bowl of oatmeal to a half-dressed Mulder beyond the kitchen table.

Mulder rubbed a towel through his hair and let it slip down to hang around his neck.  "I was going to ask Sandy but there was a car in her driveway. I figured I'd better play it safe and stay out of sight." He glanced at his watch and sat down at the computer.

"What kind of car?" Dale said.

"Red something. Celica, I think. Older."

"That'd be her mother."

"The woman who picked Joe."  Mulder made a face and clicked on his mail program. Scully was putting on a brave front but she was distancing herself, just a subtle thing, a defensive reaction to having things go on and on when there was nothing you could do about them. Familiar territory: he'd had a mother lying helpless in a hospital bed once. But 'don't hold it all inside' wasn't what she needed to hear right now. She just needed to know she wasn't alone. Hopefully she wouldn't freeze up completely.

He clicked on the 'write' screen.

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Dear Lark,
Do we know if our previous agents interviewed any other clean room employees affected by beryllium?  I'm going to drop a note to W
and check it out.  No use repeating field work that's already been done.  We may have more here than we realize.  Since I missed S (someone's car was in her driveway, so I decided to pass) will you check with her this morning and see what she knows about Angie?  Send any info you get. I'll be back to you after work.   

He reread the mail, clicked 'send' and tipped the chair back, waiting.  After a moment he stretched.

"The pilot, Fletcher," Dale said, passing the computer, "he seemed like he might be amenable to taking someone along on his next trip to Baltimore.  Don't know what you're likely to meet on the other end, but you can think about it.  Or I could go for you if you think it will do any good."  He stopped briefly but receiving no response, moved on.  "Anyway, you think about it."

Mulder nodded.  "Where's Bethy?"

"Dropped her over at Karen's early.  She and Sarah have some big to-do going on.  It's the last week of school, you know."

Mulder bit his lip and looked back at the screen.  One out, two in.  He clicked on 'read' and went to the second mail, obviously from the Gunmen.

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Redwall@zipmail.com
Our doctor has been contacted by the Mastermind, posing as our victim's brother.  He seems to be fishing for information about Annie's arrival and left a contact number which we're checking out, though I have little hope he's actually left any significant clues.  We're at an impasse over what to tell him, to get his hopes up... and then what?  Surely he'll make some other move if and when he realizes he won't get what he wants out of the present situation.  Awaiting your input.
                                                                                                      -JB

Mulder leaned back and closed his eyes.  There was the kicker: they were going to have to make some move, commit themselves in some way.  But they couldn't go to the hospital.  Either of them going was out of the question.  And yet what did they offer Smoky in order to keep Scully's mother alive?  Scully might be strong now, but if her mother were to die because of this...

He leaned forward and breathed into cupped hands.  She'd been wild-eyed and shaking at his mother's house, rescued from the darkened alley like a frightened homeless woman, the six-year load she'd shouldered topped with everything that had happened over the last four weeks: changing assignments, the autopsies, Quantico. 

Him.

She'd sat there with him that whole night while he slept it off.  She would have been speculating while she was sitting there. What if Krycek hadn't stopped him?  What if he'd managed to pull the trigger?  Where it would have left her? Would she have been mad on top of it, knowing that he'd been enough of a thoughtless shit to leave his brains splattered on the furniture for her to find?

Mulder straightened and clicked on the other mail, from a sender he didn't recognize.  He frowned. Who the hell had gotten his addy, or given it out?

He read, paused and pushed the chair back abruptly.

 

 

"Alex, what time is it?"  Tracy pushed up abruptly on one elbow and squinted at the window. The gray brightness hurt her eyes.

"Eight-thirty," he said.  "Take it easy."

She curled back down onto the mattress, her head beside his leg.  He'd taken to wearing jeans now that he was doing better.  A hand smoothed across her forehead and brushed the hair from her face.

"You were up here earlier, Alex."

"Yeah."

"Were you awake all night?"

"A lot of it, I guess.  Thinking.  Trying to figure out what to say to Mulder."

She rolled onto her back.  "I didn't even notice.  I guess I didn't feel too well."  She paused.  "But it's better now, pretty much." 

"You sure?"

"I think so."  She sat up slowly, cross-legged, and ran her hands back through her hair, conscious of the fact that he was watching her.  She tugged at the neckline of her shirt to center it. 

"Take your time.  There's nothing pressing."

Nothing pressing for her.  His head, though, was full, and not just with Mulder, or Scully's mother.  The matter of her going home kept bobbing to the forefront of his mind no matter how he tried to push it away.

"I think I should, Alex," she said, slipping off the far side of the bed and crossing the short distance to the window.  She raised it and looked out.  "Go there now, I mean.  Before your father--" She turned and looked at him.  "You know."

He looked away slightly and sniffed in the particular way he did when he was uncomfortable.  "I'll make sure the car's ready." 

She leaned against the sill. "I'd meant to make bread again," she said when he didn't speak, "but it's too late to start now. I have to use the oven early."

"There's tomorrow."

One short day. She nodded.  "Tomorrow." 

And then?

"Thursday you should go.  He'll be out of the country.  It's good timing.  If you're ready, that is."

"I think so.  It feels... right.  Like the right thing."

It was misting, a steady curtain of slow, fine moisture drifting down past the buildings and into slickened streets.  The air coming through the window was cool.  It felt good but made her shiver at the same time.  The daylight was dull, making her want to close her eyes, to lean.  To feel held and comforted.

"Alex--"

But it was pure self-indulgence, the kind of thing he couldn't even think of himself without her knowing.

He was looking at her now. 

Slowly her fingers curled into her palm and tightened.  "Nothing. I think I'll take a shower first.  Then I'll come do your laundry."

"Don't push yourself.  Whenever you're ready."  He stood up and started for the door.  "No hurry," he said when he reached it.

She watched him go out.  Watched the door close again behind him.  Hugging her arms against her body, she rubbed for warmth.  When she was ready.

Tomorrow she'd make the bread.   

 

 

"Yes.  Yes, I do.  Right here in front of me."  A pause.  "We'll take care of it, Mr. Beeson... Yes.  It could easily be--"  He frowned and ground a half-smoked Morley into the ashtray in front of him.  A thin stream of white smoke rose from the place.  "... just a single person feeling helpless, powerless. But I assure you we'll look into it.  The security of the operation is paramount. Yes."

Setting down the receiver, he pulled the half-empty pack of Morleys from his pocket and lit another, then sank back into the chair.  It could be the Johnston woman again, but it wasn't likely; she'd already seen what there was to be lost by making waves.  Perhaps a worker, or a disgruntled family member who'd lost a worker; the wording of the message would lead to that assumption.  It seemed like a gesture, though, the shaking of an impotent fist more than any genuine threat of action. 

But complacency was a deadly bedfellow, especially in this case when the exposure of his private research was a possibility. His colleagues in the board room on East 46th Street would surely be more accurate in their efforts at retaliation than they'd been the last time if they were to find out.

He took a second drag on the Morley, let the smoke out and watched it drift upward.  The prudent thing would be to go to Owensburg, but there was no time now.  He could send someone.  In order to be absolutely sure.  To calm Beeson; Beeson was a worrier but he served his purpose. 

He stared at the message on the computer screen again.  A second opinion would be advisable.

Quickly he picked up the phone and dialed. 

One ring, two...

"Diana?  I'm forwarding you an e-mail.  Look it over, will you, and tell me what you think."  He tapped a teetering section of ash into the ashtray.  "I think a personal visit may be in order.  Can you get away this afternoon?... Yes, I'll make the arrangements."

 

 

"How can you not feel when something important like that happens?  Do you ever get premonitions, Annie--you know, feelings about something?" Sandy asked.

"I don't think there's a way you could sense things you'd had no prior knowledge of," Scully replied. "Though of course we often worry about situations we're already aware of, even subliminally.  I suppose some people may consider that a premonition."

"Like when Ryan was unloading those boxes at the airport?  I was scribbling away, sure I wouldn't get that map drawn before he got back in the car and how was I gonna explain what I was doing if he saw it?"  She nudged at the carpeting with one toe.  "I guess I mean the feeling that something's gonna happen."  She shook her head.  "I didn't feel nothing when Cy and Roddy--"  Her mouth closed abruptly.  After a moment she continued, her voice quieter, almost plaintive.  "He just took off with Roddy, kinda bothered-like, like he realized he hadn't been paying enough attention to him lately. Or like he had something on his mind.  Roddy was so--" She teared up.  "He was excited," she said, her voice breaking. "He wanted to go."

Scully turned more fully toward the bed and rested an arm on the back of the chair.

"It was so fast.  Somehow I didn't... Heck, I didn't even hear about... you know, about Andy Johnston... until afterward.  Cy just took off and it must of been an hour later when they came, the sheriff.  Somebody'd heard the shots.  I don't know what made 'em go and look.  People shoot off guns all the time around here, kids chasing rabbits at dusk.  I wonder if he had a premonition--the old man who found 'em.  But me, I was... floored, I was--"  She sighed.  "I know it don't make any logical sense, but sometimes you feel like you should know, like how could anything that drastic happen to someone you love without you feeling something?  Even this morning"--she shrugged--"you'd think if there was anyone I'd have a radar for, it would be my mom.  But I was sitting there eating my bowl of oatmeal and out of the blue there's this knocking on the door.  I just jumped, I didn't... I guess I'm never really ready for her."

"How did it go?" Scully said.

"It was... I think she really wanted to talk this time.  Actually talk. I mean with me, not at me.  Something was eating at her.  Joe, maybe.  He's such a pig.  He only wants her there 'cause she's a live, available body, but she doesn't see it; she thinks he really loves her. Or cares about her, or something.  It's sad, in a way."

"Maybe she's lonely."

"She had Papa.  He wasn't enough for her, though.  She thought he... She was embarrassed--you know, because he's half Cree."  She looked down.  "She asked me how it was going.  She didn't even wave it in my face about Cy, what everybody thinks he did. But I couldn't tell her about this--being up here, working.  It would be all over town in two hours, and somebody might find out about you, or Ben.  Otherwise I might of; I might of told her."  Her toe smoothed the carpet again.  "I don't know."

"Sometimes," Scully said, leaning a cheek against her arm on the chair back, "it takes time before you get to that... that comfortable place with a parent.  Eventually they see that you're not the same little child they took care of.  Or perhaps they realize you've grown up. Or maybe they finally want to know you--know who you really are.  I stopped to see my mother before we came here.  I didn't want her to worry and yet... I knew she would, that what I'd done--that my whole career--has made her worry, and by the time I got there... It was Ben's idea. He wanted me to go.  I guess I wanted to, too, but I couldn't quite bring myself... I was afraid. For myself, I guess.  Of being condemned, of being lectured, of feeling her anger.  Or her disappointment."

"So what happened?"

"I got there and we had to meet in a department store dressing room.  We were concerned that they might be following her."

"Were they?"

"Ben was watching.  He didn't see anyone.  At any rate, she came. I was waiting in the dressing room.  And when she got there..." She swallowed carefully.  Outside, the sun broke from between two clouds and shined sudden warmth on the trailer. "There was nothing that really needed to be said.  We sat there with our arms around each other.  It was the first time I've ever felt that she needed me, that she needed my support to get through something."  She looked away, toward the door, and back again.  "I guess that's one of the things that makes this so difficult now. I know--I feel--that she needs that support from me.  I want to believe that she knows that my thoughts--my prayers--are with  her, that she can feel... the strength of my beliefs."  She paused, suddenly caught up in memory.

When she spoke again, the corners of her mouth crept upward into the barest semblance of a smile. "Maybe your mother needs you, too, Sandy.  Just not in a way she's able to tell you."


 

(Mulder)
For years my history with Alex Krycek had been a growing tally of lies and loss.  He was the leering symbol of everything that had been done to me, of the way I'd been manipulated for the glory of some 'greater purpose' I'd never been able to fully uncover the nature of.  Smoky may have given the orders, but Krycek carried them out.  He'd pretended to be my partner.  He'd killed my father, and not at some random moment: he'd done it just as I was finally about to connect with the man, to discover after so many years of silence a secret he seemed finally ready to reveal.  Krycek stole that from me, and unlike with my sister, there was no hope for later, a time when we might finally sit down and learn something essential about each other.  He took away the evidence I had in Duane Barry, kept me sidetracked while Scully was being abducted, stole the DAT tape containing the government's secret files on UFOs, and if it had been her instead of her sister who'd opened her apartment door on that fateful night four years ago, he would have taken Scully irretrievably from me, too.

Krycek had fed me crumbs of information from time to time but they'd turned out to be lies as well, or a way to get me to do things that would further his own purpose.  Recently it had become clear that he had an agenda separate from that of the Smoking Man, but there was nothing to prove it was any more righteous than that of his morally bankrupt superior.  Krycek was a free agent: spy vs. spy vs. spy.  He'd do anything, say anything, appear to be anything that would further his purpose and somehow he considered me useful to him.  It was the only reason I could come up with for why he'd given me the information about the alien rebel being held at Wiekamp Air Force Base.  It was why he'd stopped me from putting a gun to my head three weeks ago.  And then had come the final blow, the one that was the hardest of all to take: he'd insinuated himself into my family.  He was my mother's son.

Now he was offering me crumbs again, the way he had with the information about the alien rebel or his warning to me to get Scully out of D.C.  He'd nearly killed her first; it was typical of his 'generosity' and there was no reason to expect he was being any more magnanimous now.  Maybe it was just a threat he was passing along for Smoky, but in any event it wasn't anything that hadn't already occurred to me: that if Scully didn't take the bait and show up at her mother's bedside, Smoky would raise the stakes in order to lure one or both of us out into the open.  Krycek was implying that my mother would be the next target.  I'd thought of that, too.   

The question was why he was offering the information.  Did he think he could make me trust him?  Was he setting me up for something else farther down the line, the way he'd lured me into the militia bust and then led me off to Russia?  And what about the immediate question of our safety now that he had my e-mail address?  It wouldn't be hard for someone like Krycek to bribe or trick someone at Zipmail into giving up the phone number I was connecting from.  Would he give it to Smoky?  Probably not; he didn't seem to have any love for the old son of a bitch.  He had to have gotten my address from Skinner, and Krycek had Skinner over a barrel, too, another part of whatever his 'plan' was. 

So did we run now or did we stay and hope, and trust this man who'd turned so much in my life to ashes?  And what about Skinner?  I couldn't see him handing over the information without a fight, or a good reason, and I'd heard nothing from him. 

Beyond that, what did I tell my partner now, a woman with the weight of the world already on her shoulders?

 

 

Three stairs to go, then two, then one.  Krycek paused at the bottom to let his breathing settle, then approached the basement laundry room.  The door stood half-open and one of the dryers was running.  A neat pile of folded shirts sat on the table.  Tracy stood at the open window, looking out.  She seemed not to notice him.

"Hey," he said softly.

She looked toward his voice, eyes widening in obvious surprise.

"Didn't know that thing even opened."  He nodded toward the window and came closer.

"It was stuck but I got it eventually."

 "Why?"

"The old woman.  You know, the one who was out there the other day, who thought she couldn't plant anything anymore?

"What about her?"

"I got a packet of seeds at the hardware store.  Poppies.  They pretty much raise themselves.  In a few months she'll have flowers."

"I guess that would explain the mud," he said, nodding toward her dirty feet.

She smiled self-consciously and nodded.  "You should have seen me trying to get back in the window."

He gave her a look of mock-disapproval and paused.  "I've got another doctor's appointment this afternoon.  I almost forgot."

"He called you?"

"Yeah."

She looked away, toward the dryer.  After a  moment it stopped but she seemed unaware. 

"Head full?" he said, moving a step closer.  "Usually you know when I'm here."

"Seems that way." 

"Home?"

She nodded.  "Partly." 

"You feeling okay?" 

She still looked a little flushed.

"Just... a little cold."  She rubbed her arms. " I don't have anything long-sleeved.  Just--"  She turned back to look at him.  "You know how sometimes you feel better when you get up and do something than when you lie around in bed?"  She looked toward the window again, stepped up to the dusty sill and ran her finger along the edge.

"Look, you can"--he cleared his voice--"borrow one of my thermal shirts," he said, coming up behind her.  "They're pretty small.  You know, they stretch.  At least you won't get lost in it."

"Thanks."  She rubbed her arms again.  "It's just chills, I think.  I'm still a little bit--"

He set his hand on her shoulder.  "Ask when you need something."  He stared past her out the window into the weedy little yard shadowed by walls of surrounding buildings.  A weathered picket fence leaned precariously to one side.  Clumps of weeds had been pulled from a rectangular bed beside the fence. 

Flower seeds. 

She shivered.  He smoothed his hand carefully down her arm. It was definitely too warm.  "When you need something--"

She took his hand, hesitated a moment and then slipped it around her middle.  He swallowed.  Warm fingers slipped between his and tightened, and she let herself lean back against him.  In the distance footsteps echoed on the stairs, going from the lobby to the second floor, getting fainter.  He shouldn't be standing here, doing this.

"Alex?"

"Mm?"

"Will you do something for me?"

"What?"

"Toss some water out there on them. Later. After I go. If there's a dry spell."

The old woman meant nothing to him.  But it wasn't the old woman who was asking.

"Yeah." 

He smoothed his thumb across her fingers and made himself focus on the patch of green outside the window.  Just like in the fields where he'd grown up all those years ago, weeds were the same everywhere: tenacious, always thriving.  There was something about her hair, warm and smooth against his cheek, as if it had a life of its own. 

And when she was gone?

"You'll go on," she said, unaware that he hadn't spoken the words.

After a moment he cleared his throat. "What about you?"

"I'm going to remember you, Alex.  I will."  Her fingers tightened between his.  "I always will."

 

 

Mulder set his sandwich back absently on the corner of the plate.  Finger poised above the mouse, he stared at the screen and waited for his incoming mail to process, then clicked on the 'read' screen.

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: TinMan@zipmail.com
I owe you an explanation for the leak you've undoubtedly discovered by now.  K approached me for the information, and while I had reservations, I had little room to maneuver.  There was one other factor, however.  There's a girl who's been running messages for K: young, possibly pregnant.  She claims to know you. She said something about the pond in Constitution Park.  At any rate she seems to have an ability to 'see' things beyond the ordinary.  Ridiculous though it sounds, my gut instinct is to trust her.  She seems to feel very strongly that he won't give you away. Do you know her?

Mulder pushed back from the desk. His jaw set. She'd been a plant. Krycek had put her there.  Of all the occasions when he'd gone to the pond, she'd been there nearly every time. 

Though she'd been awfully open--awfully obvious--for a spy.  She'd watched him without any attempt at disguising it.  And what could she have told Krycek from sitting there on the stairs, anyway?  That Diana had come by once? 

It didn't quite track. She'd seemed naive, out of her depth in a place like D.C., a girl with the telltale look of a kid on the run.  Maybe Krycek had seen her there and bought her cooperation for food or shelter.  Maybe he'd bought more than simply her cooperation. 

He grimaced.

Mulder tipped the chair back on two legs.  Why was she still there?  Maybe Krycek had her over a barrel so she couldn't leave.  Was he intending to use her as a courier for as long as he was laid up?  And what had Skinner meant by 'seeing things'?  Was he implying that she had some kind of paranormal ability?

Quickly he eased the chair back down onto all four legs and pulled out the keyboard shelf.

To: TinMan@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
I remember the girl, though 'know' may be too strong a word.  She appeared to be a kid on the run and very straightforward, naive.  What exactly is it that she 'sees'?  Awaiting your reply.

To: heron3@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Did your field work include interviews with potential beryllium victims? Please forward any names and details.  We both owe you for your efforts on Annie's behalf.  Thanks are inadequate but... thanks.  Hope to be able to pay you back some day.

Already there was a lot he was going to need to discuss with Scully, things to run by her, but it was getting to be too much of a pattern, going up to David Barker's all the time. Somebody with eager eyes was going to catch on sooner or later, and knowing Owensburg, it was likely to be sooner.  He could send her mails, though mails were easy to edit for words and emotions.  How would he know how she was doing, whether she needed support or needed to be left alone? 

Mulder glanced at his watch and bit his lip.  He was going to be late back from lunch.  Joe would be after him for sure.

Grabbing a sheet of paper from the printer tray, he began to write rapidly.

 

 

It was going to be another death.  A slow, beautiful death but a death nonetheless. 

Tracy pulled the thermal shirt over her head and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror.  It was a soft gray, bigger than she needed, but it would do, and the cuffs were snug and warm.  She reached for the yellow dress and slipped it back over her head.  No fashion statement but it wasn't important.  Alex was right: a little downtime would probably do her good.  She ran her hands back through her hair and opened the door.  He was standing beside the window, looking out. 

"Clouds are breaking up," he said, turning around.  A streak of blue showed from between two billowed mounds of gray. 

"What time is your doctor's appointment?" she asked, pushing back the covers and crawling onto the bed.  She settled in the middle on her side, reached for the blankets and pulled a pillow close under her head.

"He's sending a car by at 1:30.  Hopefully it won't take forever."

Hopefully he wouldn't spend an hour in a waiting room, he was thinking. But the old man would make sure he got right in, that he didn't have to sit around and make himself too visible.  Hopefully the results would play out in their favor: a verdict of more rest, more caution.  A little more time bought.

Tracy closed her eyes and slipped the shirt cuffs over her hands.  She'd seen her mother's death coming, but that hadn't made it any easier when it happened.  It was just too hard to watch.  It must have been a relief for her mother in the end, but she was the one left with the emptiness echoing around her.  The end of this, with Alex, had been a given from the very start.  Four or five weeks, the old man had said in the beginning.  She'd known.  She should have been ready. 

She'd thought she would be.  But things had changed and now it would be all too much like it had been with her mother.  Endings were endings; it was so easy for them to steal away what had gone before, not like a good meal where you got up from the table and carried that fullness with you.  It should be that way when two lives parted--a bounty or an overflow, not an emptiness.

The edge of the bed sagged slightly, Alex sitting down beside her.  The covers were drawn up close around her neck, first one side and the the other.  She smiled involuntarily.  She waited for him to get up but he made no move to go. 

One corner of her mouth twitched.  "I know what it's like now, Alex."

"What?"

"To have something inside you you're not ready to share because it's still all mixed up, you haven't figured it out yet."  A pause.  "I wish I could give you that privacy."

He grunted, a kind of thank-you. His hand settled on her shoulder.  She curled closer against him.

She could feel his smile, his hope, his worry that she might never learn to ask for what she needed, or be wary enough to defend herself.  Slowly, her body was beginning to warm.  Gradually the achy feeling gathered, drifting up and off her.  Alex's hand was warm against her shoulder: a cap, a shield.

He was thinking about the times she'd stayed with him until the painkillers kicked in, falling asleep relaxed for the first time in longer than he could remember.  Then he was in his mother's garage, his back to the wall, drifting off under a dusty blanket, worn and shaking with fatigue, watched by the one-eyed boy.

 

 

Dear Mom,

I have a young friend here who has recently helped me to see some things in my life more clearly.  I know I've heard you say often enough that you don't fully appreciate childhood until you see it as a parent.  It was only today that I realized that the truth of that statement applies to the process of growing into adulthood as well.  Something I said to my friend today made me stop and think.  Adolescents are often jealously protective of their privacy; they fear being condemned or having their choices changed for them.  At a certain point, however, they assert their independence by making the choices that will shape their lives as adults.  They do not always recognize, however, when that potential point of conflict has passed, continuing, instead, to guard themselves from the people in their lives. 

I realized today that in many ways I've guarded myself from you.  I'd like nothing better than to be able to be by your side right now, but since doing so would only benefit the one responsible for so much tragedy and injustice, I offer you these small pieces of myself.  For each day I am away from your bedside, I will make an entry in this diary so that when you are out of danger you can read them and know that I was with you in spirit.  I hope that through this writing you will know of my support, and come also to know me better.

                                           With much love,
                                                  
Dana

 

 

"You know you're eight minutes late," Joe said as Mulder reached for his time card.  "We're going to have to dock you to the nearest quarter hour.  Beeson won't pay you for time you're not here."

"We had a power outage," Mulder said, shrugging.  "I had to go home for something.  My alarm clock's light was flashing when I got there.  Guess I must have gone by that instead of my watch."

"Whatever," Joe said.  "It all translates to the same thing.  Around here you get paid for when you work, not for when you don't."

Mulder took a careful breath.  It was no use even starting.

"Oh, and Barney went home sick this morning," Joe went on.  "Not that you've had to sweat it."  His hands rode his hips.  "It's been one of those days when you just wish you could rerun it back to the beginning and start over."

Mulder nodded noncommittally.

"First it was a flood in the women's second floor bathroom and then the floor polisher broke down and we can't get parts until Thursday and then, like I said, Barney went home sick in the middle of the morning and he does Mr. Beeson's suite, and now Beeson's got somebody coming in from out of town, so he wants it cleaned now--like immediately.  So you're elected, Hollywood.  You're all I got left, so break a leg.  There's a list posted in the service closet in his bathroom.  Follow it to the letter and start with the office, then the reception area and then the bathroom last. That's the way he likes it and there's no percentage in pissing him off.  Got it?"

"Yeah, I think so.  And his office is...?"

"Second floor left."

"Second floor left."  Mulder bit his lip.  "Okay.  Cart's in second floor janitorial?" 

"You got it."

Mulder started down the hallway.

"It's marked," Joe's voice floated after him.  "He likes the lemon air freshener so make sure you get the right cart.  Everything's on it.  Don't blow this thing, Wallace, or I'll have your ass."

Mulder half-turned in acknowledgement.  "Whatever turns you on," he muttered.

 

 

Krycek stared through the window of the limo as the streets blurred past outside.  It was over now but his pulse was still thumping.  At least he'd managed to hold it down while he was there, while the doctor examined him and the old man watched from the corner of the room as if he were some kind of specimen. 

Why had he showed up?  To keep him off-balance?  Just to verify for himself the state of things before he flew off to Europe?  Maybe he'd caught something--some inconsistency, something that had made him suspicious.  In the end, the doctor had advised more rest, that he should continue to take it easy; his recovery was coming along perfectly if he'd just continued to take things slowly. 

It was the best possible outcome.  It would buy them a few extra days, maybe a week if they were lucky.  No trying to stretch it, though; her life depended on cutting things off while they were still secure, before the old man would suspect or make a move of his own.

Krycek let his head rest against the seat back.  She was a good doctor, careful and thorough.  She didn't treat you like a piece of meat when she examined you.  So what the hell was she doing in the old man's pocket? 

Maybe she wasn't.  Maybe, like a lot of other minority doctors, she was just hard up for funding for the rest of her patients.  There had been enough of them waiting: people in tired clothes, people used to hearing 'no' instead of the 'yes' she gave them.  Maybe the old man had put on his altruistic front and offered her funding; he could sound righteous enough when he wanted to. 

And what kind of doctor would Tracy end up seeing when the time came for her baby to be born?  She had the old man's money in the bank and he'd nearly matched it with funds of his own, though he hadn't told her. She'd just protest that it was too much, that she hadn't done anything to deserve it.  But the reality was she'd need everything she could get.  He'd track the account, put in more when he could.  For the intangibles he'd have to count on Mulder, hope he'd take her without assuming she was a Trojan horse. 

Krycek closed his eyes.  His stomach housed a dull ache.  It was just the tension.

"Make sure you continue to take it easy, Alex," the old man's voice came from the front seat.  The car pulled over to the curb.  "Remember that it's crucial--"

"Not to strain myself now, to let it finish healing.  Yeah, I heard."

"The girl's done a good job with you.  She seems to have"--the clink of a lighter lid flipping open--"kept you on track very nicely."

The driver got out, came around and opened the door for him. 

For a full ten minutes before the car had come, he'd tossed around the pros and cons of whether to be ready in the chair or to walk down.  The chair could say that he was still weaker than he was, that he needed more time.  Or it could tell the old man he was dragging his feet... if he suspected anything, and if the doctor's report turned out to be strongly positive.  Walking would show he was stronger, but it could make him look eager, too--eager to get back into things, making the old man more anxious to slow him down a little.  In the end he'd walked.  As far as he could tell, it seemed to have been the right choice.

He eased himself out of the seat, stood slowly and stepped up onto the sidewalk.  The car door slammed behind him, the thickly-padded sound of an expensive door. 

Krycek scowled. How many poor people went without for every person who could afford to buy this kind of luxury without a second thought?  The old comrades' dogma about equality may have been nothing but doublespeak, but at least they hadn't tried to bury their callousness toward the poor under the banner of free enterprise. 

The old man's car was gone now, pulled away from the curb.  Krycek watched until it turned the corner.  Then he went into his building and walked to the elevator without looking back.  He pushed the button and waited.  Maybe it had been for the best that the old man was at the doctor's office.  It meant he wouldn't have come around here only to find Tracy sick.  Hopefully she was right and it was wearing off, whatever it was.  Hopefully she was doing better.

The door in front of him slid open.  He stepped in, pushed '2' and leaned back against the wall.  So now she knew what it was like to have a head full of unsorted, unresolved stuff.  Unless he missed his mark there was more in there than she was ready to acknowledge, or deal with. 

It was bad timing.

 

 

Mulder's vacuum tugged against its fully-stretched cord.  Glancing back, he shut the machine off, returned to the inner office and pulled the plug.  Beeson was staring at his computer screen.  Judging from his expression, it held bad news. The man seemed oblivious to his surroundings. 

Mulder took the cord into the reception area,  plugged it in and switched the vacuum on again.  Slowly he guided it across the carpet, trying to keep the pattern straight, working from the entry and traffic area gradually toward the side where cushioned chairs sat in front of bookshelves.  It was easier to maneuver here; the receptionist was still out on a late lunch break.  And it sure beat doing Beeson's inner office while the old man watched.  He'd been every bit as picky as Joe had said. 

Mulder worked his way around the desk, moved the chair, cleaned the area and rolled the chair back into place.  The hem of a skirt, the lower part of a leg and a high heel passed the corner of his vision on their way into the inner office.  Reaching for the power switch, he quickly shut off the vacuum.  Beeson had some hearing loss and he'd been very specific in his request to shut off the noise if anyone came in.  Unplugging the cord, Mulder wrapped it around the hooks on the machine and rolled the unit up against the wall.  There was a back door to the bathroom.  He might as well go ahead with that part of the job; bathrooms were quiet work, all in all.  He started toward the doorway.

"We want to reassure you, Mr. Beeson," the visitor's voice--unsettlingly familiar voice--came drifting out into the reception area.  "Your contribution is essential and we'll do whatever it takes to assure your security."

Mulder stopped in mid-stride. A sudden pounding started inside him. 

Not possible. 

"Yes, well, he's always come himself before."  Beeson's slightly Southern twang.  The man was fidgeting already.  Even the change of cleaning personnel had thrown him off.

Still, how could it be--?

"He's preparing for an overseas business trip," the visitor said smoothly.  It was a slick delivery, given with the easy authority she'd always projected so well.  Mulder's eyes closed momentarily.  A knot tightened in his stomach.   

"I can go over the message with you, Mr. Beeson.  You'll see why we believe there's really nothing to be concerned about.  But the message will be traced.  Be assured, we'll find out where it came from."

Fighting a sudden flare of anger, Mulder slipped out into the hallway and headed for the back bathroom door.

 

 

Foundations

I remember, or perhaps more accurately I see now, looking back, all the effort you went to when we were young to make each new base a home, a secure place where the family life we brought with us could continue uninterrupted.  It helped that all the families around us were in the same situation. We were discontinuous together and it gave us common ground.

One of the things I remember most vividly, that I think shaped me in the end, was watching maneuvers requiring teamwork, the sight of men exerting themselves together to raise a temporary wall or unload a convoy.  It was the Navy way--it was our way--and I liked the idea, maybe the security, of being a contributing part of a larger whole, helping to move everyone toward a greater goal. Perhaps this is what led me to the FBI in the end. 

Try as I might, even as a child I couldn't help but notice life's insecurities: the wives who worried about their husbands out at sea, the children whose fathers were taken by a war we were too young to fully understand, even old Sargents Danners and Wilcox in San Diego who died in that infamous outbreak of Legionnaire's disease in Philadelphia.  I believe my budding interest in science and medicine was sparked by the resolution of that mystery.  I think I saw in it the possibility of creating security amid the insecure, of applying the unfailing rules of science to a specific situation to evoke a better outcome.  Waves might threaten ships and bullets take children's fathers in faraway lands, but if the mechanics of a disease could be discovered, the laws of science could provide dependable ways of fighting back. 

In a sense I've been engaged in a struggle to tame life, to make the uncontrolled controllable through science, and to contribute to a larger security through the solution of crimes at the FBI.  I have learned, however, over the past few years especially, that life is not nearly as predictable as the vision I held in my young mind: that accidents happen, that science does not give us all the answers. Indeed, that it may provide only an explanation but not a solution.  These are hard truths to absorb, as is the reality of the human capacity for callousness and crime.  Many times I have found myself confronted with the ghastliness of human possibility, convinced of the necessity for facing and disarming it, yet also gripped with a fear of my inability to do so.  It is natural, I suppose, to always want to do more, to be able to accomplish more.  But in the depth of my inability I've learned an invaluable lesson: that I am not alone, that sometimes we are saved when all logical hope is lost, that beauty comes to punctuate even the most dire of circumstances.  These are the realizations that keep me moving forward now.

I think back often to the minutes we shared in a department store dressing room when we last met.  They were filled with an essence I've come to understand: love pure and simple with no qualifiers, no frills.  None were needed.  In my heart I send you this same embrace and pray that it will help to keep you strong.

 

 

The voices in the adjoining room drifted into silence for the second time. 

Mulder leaned against the tiled wall with eyes closed.  If he focused--if he was perfectly still--he could hear the muted exchanges through the transom.  It wasn't possible that Diana had recognized him.  That had been his first thought, but had she recognized him, she never would have gone ahead and spoken freely to Beeson.  If she had recognized him--

He swallowed.  It could have been the end of everything: their cover, this town.  They could have been on the run again, off to some other area, maybe a lot farther west to someplace they could disappear into a large metropolis and try to piece together a fresh start.  Smoky would have wreaked his revenge on the people who'd helped them here, and probably on Scully's mother as well.  He wouldn't be above killing her if he thought it would demoralize them in a way nothing else could, like people forced to watch their relatives being gunned down by Nazis in the camps.

"Here it is again," Diana's voice began again, professional and controlled.  "'Maybe if it was your child or wife or relative.'  All the references in this message revolve around family connections, which is why we believe it was written by a single family member of someone who died under circumstances they saw as doubtful."

"Well, we've got our clearance from the EPA," Beeson said defensively. "We've got the paperwork and it's all in order."

"Yes, I know you do, Mr. Beeson."

"Then what about this at the end--'You don't do your... work undetected.  We know'?  What do they know?  And who are they gonna tell?"

"Mr. Beeson, if the writer had actual information--evidence of some sort against you--they would have taken action instead of writing this message.  The FBI had investigators here for over a week and they weren't able to come up with anything conclusive.  I've gone over the reports myself."  A pause.  "In fact, those reports are being erased as we speak."

Mulder grimaced.  All those years fired up by the pursuit of evidence, of truth.  Or so she'd wanted him to believe.  Unlocking the secrets; that's the way she'd put it.  There had seemed to be genuine fire in her eyes.  Maybe it was the fire in his own that had blinded him.

"...been in contact with quick.net.  We should have the origin of the e-mail account by tomorrow morning at the latest."

There was a grunt of acknowledgement from Beeson and a few moments later, the sound of chairs being pushed back.  The voices faded toward the reception area.  Mulder picked up a bottle of window cleaner from beside him and pulled a rag from his back pocket.  Spraying the mirror in front of him, he watched the mist turn gradually into thin blue trails and begin to run.  Setting his jaw, he took the rag to them, working in a circular pattern, watching the smeared, abstract surface gradually clear to streaks, then to the bright, too-sharp outline of his own reflection.

 

 

To: Redwall@zipmail.com
From: TinMan@zipmail.com
The phone you inquired about was located on a desk in an otherwise empty warehouse.  Both brothers are out on sea assignments, which should be a benefit to you.  Ask if you require further information.

 

 

There was no new mail, and she'd received no word from Mulder all day.  Scully glanced at the clock. Nearly five.  He should be at Dale's by now.  Speculating had been the hallmark of her day, as if her attention to her inbox could speed up time and encourage replies.  She knew it couldn't.

There must be something more productive to do.  Scully pushed back from the desk, got up and went into the kitchen.  Staring into the refrigerator, she finally reached for some celery and laid it on the counter to cut into sticks.  A knock came on the screen door.

"Annie?"

"Come in."

The door opened and Sandy's head appeared. 

"Do you think I could check and see if I got any mail from my dad?"

Scully smiled.  "Go ahead."  She watched as the girl went to the computer and sat down.  She'd been so hesitant the first few times, but there was a growing confidence about her movements now.

"Celery?" Scully offered.

"In a minute."

Sandy waved a hand in her direction but didn't look; she was intent on the screen.  Scully smiled and turned back to her work.

"Ooh, I think I got something."

Scully finished slicing the celery, put it on a plate and wiped off the counter with a cloth.

"Oh, my."

"What?"

"Ooh, Annie, look at this."

Scully came and stood behind the desk chair.  A picture of a desert scene filled the screen, full of deep blues and tans.  Dramatic rays of sunlight sliced through lowering clouds.  "Your dad sent you this?"

"He took it.  He said someone loaned him a digital camera and he just happened to catch this."  She looked up, grinning.  "And he's got himself his own computer.  He said he's been thinking about this for a while now, taking pictures of the places he goes--the land, before it all gets built up and disappears.  And now we can write anytime.  Oh, Annie, this is so cool."

"It appears your father has a talent for photography."  Scully smiled.  She looked at the plate in her hand and held it out.  "Celery?"

"Yeah, I'll take anything.  I felt kinda queasy this morning so I didn't eat hardly anything before I left.  But I'm sure ready now."

She reached for a celery stick.  A firm knock came on the trailer wall and Sandy took the plate Scully offered.

Dale Lanier stood at the bottom of the stairs. "Your partner sent me up," he said by way of greeting. "Left me a note saying to bring you down to the house if you're amenable.  He figured you could use a change of scenery by now and he says you two have got some planning to do. That is, you're welcome if you don't mind riding in the back, under the camper shell. Don't want to take a chance on anybody catching sight of you."  He paused.  "I can bring you back in the morning."

Scully suppressed a blush and glanced toward Sandy. 

"Go for it, Annie," the girl urged.

Scully paused and nodded.  "What exactly did he say about planning?"

"I think 'strategizing' was the word he used.  You game?"

She nodded.  "Yes.  Just give me a minute to gather up a few things."

 

 

It had been a good time to come, nearly dark out and with enough people on the street and in the restaurant that any one person would be less than memorable.  It was only a block away, though Tracy'd made a face when he suggested going, worried about whether he was strong enough.  But he could call if he was too tired to make the trip back. If they had to, they'd figure something out.  He'd have to take this step sometime.   

Once she was gone there'd be no accepting any more of the old man's helpers.  He'd lucked out this once. He wouldn't chance it a second time.

Krycek shifted on the restaurant's hard bench.  The lighting was dim but it was nice, relaxing.

"Just a few more minutes," Marisela said, appearing suddenly through the swinging door that led to the kitchen.  "Not long, I promise."

He nodded.  "Thanks."

"Good to see you coming here again," she said.  "It's been a long time, no?  Your Tracy, she said you were doing better."

Krycek cleared his throat.  "I think she wants to use your oven again tomorrow."

"That's fine.  Just remind her: before noon."

He nodded.  "You get the other things?"

"Yes, I have them.  I'll put them in the bag."

"Thanks."

Marisela turned and disappeared into the kitchen.

Tracy was back in his room cleaning furniture, using wood polish on the desks and chairs, not that it would make much difference.  To him, anyway.  It seemed to be her way of preparing to leave: making a mark, trying to leave something useful behind, like the flower seeds she'd scattered in the garden bed outside the laundry room window.  She hadn't really talked about going, but it was plain to see that it was sitting in the forefront of her mind.  She'd been slower to smile today, a lot more serious. 

Or maybe he was imagining things.  Maybe it was just that she'd been sick.  She seemed better now, though she was still wearing the thermal shirt under her dress.  It's soft, she'd said when he pointed it out, and he'd told her she could keep it. After all, he had more.  She hadn't protested much.  Hell, she'd hardly hesitated at all,  just smiled and thanked him.  Anyway, she looked good in it. 

It was just a shirt.

And he was a bigger fool than Mulder if he believed that.  It wasn't just about the shirt, and both of them knew it.  They were dancing around the obvious.  He'd need to be careful: without a little vigilance it would be all too easy to slip, and then what would she do?  Or she might slip; it was looking that way more and more.  And where would that leave them?  

He shifted on the bench, looked up and tried to clear his mind.  His eyes followed the shadows and dark wood in a counterclockwise trip around the restaurant interior, passing the pictures on the walls, all little dots like expanded pictures from a newspaper: the sharp mountain peaks behind the town of Manzanares, the castle, the picture of Hemingway with the fuzzy beard.  There'd been no reply from Mulder, but he wasn't expecting one.  Either he'd use the information or he'd hit 'delete' and tie himself in knots rehearsing the past.  Scully's apartment: that would be the big hump for Mulder to get over.  He could feel Scully again, in the closet, small and tense in front of him, easy to bring to her feet.  It had been a stupid move--too much confidence, too little forethought.  Mulder wasn't likely to forget it anytime soon, and now it would be Tracy paying the price.

"Señor Alex?"

Marisela held out a white plastic bag.  He stood.

"Now your other things are here, on the top, so the food can't spill on them."

He took the bag she held out.  "Thanks.  Thanks for doing the legwork."  Casually he handed her a couple of folded bills. 

"De nada.  Come again." 

Turning, he went to the door and pushed it open.  The sky was blue-black; streetlights were on.  He glanced at the bag, full with its brown-wrapped package on top and the food in a styrofoam box underneath, and looked ahead, past the stoplights at the corner to his building beyond.  He felt like an old man, slow and with no particular energy.  But not as unsteady as before.  It was something.  Incremental progress. 

She'd be there waiting when he arrived, a smile lighting her face.

 

 

Six minutes.  Now seven.  Scully stared at the aluminum ribs of the camper shell above her.

Dale had asked her to wait, a precaution against prying eyes, but it was almost completely dark now and any neighbors who had found themselves interested in Dale pulling into his driveway would no doubt have turned their focus to other things.  Checking the rear window and then both small side windows, she climbed cautiously out of the back of the truck and slipped between the truck and the garage.  The question was what kind of news Mulder had, whether the planning he had in mind was preemptive or whether it was damage control they'd be talking out.  The Gunmen had sent more medical readouts shortly before she'd left the trailer.  Her mother was about the same, though the longer the illness continued, the more complications could present themselves.

A car passed by slowly on the street.  When it was gone she moved casually to the back gate, slipped inside and let out the breath she'd been holding.  A large yard spread in front of her, silent in the shadows, but no Mulder was there to greet her.  Somehow she'd expected him to be waiting here behind the fence, the way she'd wakened that one morning to find him already in her bed, wrapped around her.  There was a path at her feet; she followed it along the back of the house to a sliding glass door.  Mulder sat inside on the couch, head in hands.  He looked up and then stood when he saw her.

"Hey," he said, slipping outside, nodding toward the shadow of the garden and away from the inside lights.  He slipped an arm around her and led her out onto the lawn.  "How's your mom doing?"

"About the same.  Langley sent me readouts twice so I can keep up."  She looked away momentarily, then up to where the rising moon lit the side of his face.  "So what's this all about, Mulder?"

He shrugged.  "I figured you could use a change of scenery after all this time and there's something we've got to figure out."  He looked down and seemed to pause too long.  "Smoky paid your mom's doctor a little visit this morning and inquired about when the rest of the family would be coming.  He was posing as your 'uncle' again."

"Mulder--"  Her hands curled involuntarily.  She squeezed hard.  "Mulder, that man.  I can't begin to tell you--" 

"...anything I haven't wished I could do to him myself a dozen times."  He sighed.  "Yeah, I know."

Her throat ached.  She swallowed against the pressure.  "So that's it?  We set up a timetable for him and then what?  What happens when I don't come?  He kills my mother or poisons her or... or infects her with something else on top of what she's fighting already?"  

She turned away.  She'd spoken too loudly and they were supposed to be keeping a low profile.  A quick glance toward the house revealed Dale standing at the kitchen stove, intent on a pot he was stirring.  At least he hadn't heard her.  She looked back at Mulder.  He looked lost, almost apologetic, but said nothing.

"So that's it?  We need to figure out a cover story and then some way to keep my mother from--?"

"Unfortunately, that's not everything.  I got an e-mail I wasn't expecting this morning.  From Krycek."

"What?"

"He pressed Skinner for my addy.  Skinner said he couldn't figure out a way not to comply."

"Mulder, then he can find us.  He can get to Zipmail.  He'll find a way, Mulder; you know he will.  He could know where we are already, and what's to stop him from--"  She frowned momentarily and let out a sigh.  "Why didn't you let me know earlier?"

He looked at her and maneuvered a sunflower seed between his teeth.  It was the first time in weeks she'd seen him with seeds.

"Skinner doesn't think he'll give us away."

She frowned.  Her lips pressed together.  "Because?"

"There was this girl, back in D.C.  When I used to sit by the pond in Constitution Park, letting Smoky watch me, she was there--just sitting there--too."

"And?"

"Somehow she's ended up playing errand girl for Krycek.  Skinner seems to think she's got some sort of"--he hesitated--"psychic powers."

"Skinner thinks this?"

"That's what he said.  He said she can see things 'beyond the ordinary'.  I... I don't know what he meant by it, but he talked to her and he said she seemed insistent that Krycek wouldn't give us away."

"Mulder, I... And you believe this?  You believe this... this girl?"

"Scully, I don't know.  I don't know what Skinner meant.  She was just a girl.  Seventeen, maybe eighteen.  She wore old clothes, thrift store clothes.  My impression at the time was that she was probably on the run, a runaway."

"Mulder, has it occurred to you that if she was on the stairs there and she's working for Krycek that maybe he planted her there?"

"Of course I thought of that.  Scully, I'm not stupid.  I've been thinking about it all day but it just doesn't seem like there would have been any percentage in it.  There was nothing for her to learn there.  We traded a few words but she didn't press me to open up or anything."

"Skinner said she was psychic.  Maybe she didn't need to ask you anything.  Maybe she just needed to be there."

"That's your theory?"

"I--"  She turned away.  "I don't know what to believe.  But I certainly won't sleep any better knowing that Krycek can find us.  If he hasn't located us already."  She looked toward the black-silhouetted fence.  "What did he say?  Krycek?"

"He warned us to beware of your mother starting to get better, that Smoky's likely to try something else if he doesn't get what he wants.  He seems to think that Smoky might target my mother next."

She swallowed.  The moon was rising, covered by a thin film of gray clouds. "It isn't anything you couldn't have figured out yourself," she said.

"I know.  I thought of that already.  And I've been trying to figure out what Kyrcek's game is, why he'd bother writing to me at all.  I mean, if he just wanted my addy to be able to track us, why write?  It would make more sense to just trace it and show up here.  Put a bullet in my head if that's what he wants."

"But he's not in any shape to travel, Mulder.  It would take him four to six weeks at the very minimum to recover from a wound like that."

"Exactly.  So what's his motive?"  His lips pressed together into the small, defiant mouth she knew all too well.  Or perhaps not defiant--on edge.  He was near the edge of some precipice.

"I... I don't know, Mulder.  I don't trust Krycek any more than you do.  We know he's got his own agenda, that he's been doing things he doesn't want the Smoking Man to find out about.  But everything he does is calculated.  Everything has a purpose."

"Yeah.  And what's his angle with the girl?"  A pause.  "I wrote back to Skinner.  I haven't heard anything yet."

"Maybe he's concerned about"--she cleared her throat and formed the words carefully--"about your mother, Mulder.  He did go to see her, you know."

"He went to confront her, Scully."  The words were snarled.  "He went to wave a picture in her face."  After a beat his mouth shrunk to its small, defiant incarnation.

"I..."  She shook her head.  "I don't know any more than you do."

The popping sound of a latch broke the building tension and the patio door slid open.  Dale stepped out into the darkness and approached them. 

"You two need a time-out?  There's food in there.  I make a pretty mean bowl of chili and the cornbread's passable, too.  So Rita claims, anyway."  He paused.  "No use strategizing on an empty stomach."

Scully made herself speak.  "That would be nice.  Thank you, Dale."  She watched him turn and go back into the house.  She looked at Mulder.  He was still caught up in the turmoil inside him, close to the edge--to snapping, to lashing out the way he tended to do when he was hurt. 

"You coming?" she said.  

He made no answer.  After a moment she turned and walked toward the house. 

 

 

Krycek stepped out of the elevator and and looked to the left.  There was a utility closet beyond the stairwell; it would do for now.  He went to it, opened the door and casually set the brown-wrapped package on an upper shelf.  His legs were beginning to feel rubbery, as if he were sinking below the surface of the floor.  He closed the closet door and headed for his room.  The smell of the tortilla was strong now, making his mouth water.

Pulling the key from his pocket, he worked it in the lock and opened the door to unexpected darkness.  A second later a small orange glow erupted in the blackness and the sharp whiff of a Morley drifted toward him.  Krycek steeled himself and flipped the light switch.

"I was in the neighborhood," the old man said, smiling, gesturing casually with the cigarette.  "I thought I'd drop by with the contacts you'll need.  I was...  surprised, Alex, not to find you here."

"Felt like having some takeout," Krycek said, shrugging.  "Figured it was a good sign.  It's only a couple of doors down.  Thought I should be able to make it that far."

"Still."  The old man gave him a cautionary glance and took another drag on the Morley.  "I notice your little... assistant... isn't around, either."

"She's... She was watching me, backing me up.  From a distance.  Just in case."  He nodded toward the door.  "You know, if she hears you, she's not likely to come in."

"I get the feeling I make her uncomfortable."  He smiled slightly.

Krycek set the food box on the bedside table and eased himself down onto the mattress.  He slipped his shoes off and lay back against the pillows. Good thing he'd stashed the other package in the closet.

"Tired?"

"Guess it took pretty much what I had in me, yeah."  He watched the old man take another drag and let the smoke out.  "So.  The information?"

The old man balanced the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and leaned forward slightly.  "We've tapped into the hospital's surveillance system.  It's being continuously monitored.  I spoke to her doctor this morning.  He's concluded, conveniently enough, that she has pneumonia.  She hasn't deteriorated over the last 36 hours, though she is receiving oxygen.

"And Scully?"

"Her doctor is going to check with the family and get back to me."  He picked up the Morley.

"What if her brothers show up?"

The old man shrugged.  "It would be unfortunate if she disappeared while they were visiting."  He brought the Morley to his lips.  "But I checked.  They're both out at sea.  It's just as well.  Saves any... complications."  He ground the smoking butt into the ashtray.

"You figure she'll come soon?"

"It's been three days.  It depends on how far away she is.  And how afraid for her mother's life.  She's going to have contacts somewhere.  Someone will let her know of the danger her mother is in.  It's the kind of... alarming news that people make a priority."  He took another Morley from the package in his coat pocket and lit it.  "Assistant Director Skinner may know where she is.  He's always been a supporter of hers."

"It would be a little obvious, Skinner keeping in contact with Mulder and Scully."

"Who else does she have?"  Hand and cigarette made an arc in the air.  "She's always focused on her work, her...investigations with Mulder, and whatever research absorbs her free time."  He paused and put the cigarette to his lips.  "She has no personal life to speak of, no... steady circle of friends she socializes with.  She's changed a lot in that regard over the years."  A tap against the ashtray.  "She used to go out to concerts, get together with friends on occasion.  But her work seems to take up all her focus now."  He looked at Krycek.  "In spite of the fact that she finds it so difficult to believe."

A tenseness knotted Krycek's stomach.  The old man had been watching Scully awfully closely for someone who'd always dismissed her as no particular threat.  He'd always seemed to pass her over as immaterial except as a tool to work Mulder.  Still, he hadn't let that keep him from cataloging her life and activities. 

For his own part it was Scully's she-wolf posture that had told him she'd be a force to reckon with, the one she took on whenever she thought Mulder was in danger: fangs bared, ready to pounce.  She might think he was crazy, might not have the guts to believe what she'd seen evidence of, but she wasn't about to let Mulder be sacrificed. 

"In any event," the old man was saying, "I'm monitoring Skinner's phone lines, both at the Bureau and at home."

Krycek nodded.  Hopefully Skinner wasn't stupid enough to e-mail from his apartment, though web mail would be hard enough to trace.  He glanced at the food box on the dresser.  The tortilla would be nearly cold but it didn't matter.  His appetite was gone.  "So you think Scully's going to try to sneak in?  She's not likely to walk right in through the front door, is she?"

"I imagine she'll try to disguise herself, perhaps as a member of the staff.  In any event, the cameras will be rolling.  I have someone always at the ready to make the pickup.  There's the house in Fairfax County.  You can have her taken there.  It's close enough. You can go and... question her, wear down that initial... bite of hers."

"She won't tell you, you know--where Mulder is."

The Morley stopped halfway to the old man's mouth.  "Everyone has a price, Alex."  He paused.  "Everyone.  Besides, once we have her, whether or not she talks will be immaterial.  When he knows she's been taken, Mulder will come running."

The old man stood and crossed the room to the bed.  He held out a piece of note paper. "These are the numbers: surveillance, pickup, my international number.  My men have been instructed to do as you ask.  Keep me updated when things begin to move."

Krycek took the paper and slipped it into his pocket.  And if she didn't show?  It was on the tip of his tongue.  Broach it or not?

"The girl," the old man said, looking around.  "She's worked out quite acceptably.  She's been very dedicated to this job.  To you."

A warning surge of adrenaline flooded through him.  He made himself shrug.  "She's just a kid.  It's worth it to her to be off the streets."

"Yes, but surely I could have picked ten girls just like her off the streets and not come up with one as... conscientious as she's seemed to be."

"I guess."  His tongue was thick, awkward around the words.

 "Perhaps you underestimate her, Alex."

 The old man was watching, waiting for a reaction. 

"Maybe."

There was a pause, he didn't know for how long.  Finally the old man turned and walked toward the door.  He watched it open, and the old man leave.  The door closed again and the handle settled.  Krycek held himself taut until the count of ten, of fifteen.  The old man would be in the elevator now, going down. 

Getting out of the elevator. 

Gone.

He let his body loosen and looked toward the bedside table.  The styrofoam container sat in the yellow glow of the lamp, its contents cold. 

What if he hadn't stopped off at the closet?  What if he'd brought it in here with him and the old man had gotten nosy and looked?  A chill ran through him, like the familiar icy breath of a Russian winter.

 

 

"He's been like that ever since he got home this afternoon," Dale said, nodding toward the window and the darkness outside it.  "Something's been eating at him.  But I guess both of you have your plates piled pretty high right about now."

He took another bite of his chili.  Scully watched him maneuver, the way the bowl wedged conveniently against the V-shaped holder on the table's surface.  She poked a fork into her salad.

"Funny how... No, it's not funny, actually," she began, studying the wood grain of the cabinets beyond her host.  "How tension makes you snap at each other instead of working on the problem at hand."  She speared a piece of lettuce and a tomato chunk and brought them to her mouth.

"Seen plenty of it myself," Dale said.  "In the everyday.  But over there especially.  Half of it's bullets and mortars and booby traps--things beyond your control.  But the other half's in your head: how well you can stay loose, respond to what's going on instead of freezing up.  How well you respond rather than react."

"I hadn't realized," Scully said, coloring, "just how much this had gotten to me--my concern about my mother, and having to stay in one place.  As we were riding in, it struck me how amazing it was just to be on a road, actually going somewhere, and to be able to see the sky moving above me."  She wiped her mouth with a napkin.  "I don't mean to sound ungrateful for the Barkers' hospitality."

Dale smiled sympathetically.  "I understand."

Scully dipped into the bowl in front of her.  "Thank you for the dinner, Dale.  It really is good.  I'm afraid I wouldn't have been much in the mood to fix anything tonight if it were up to me."

"You're most welcome."  He folded his napkin in half and then in half again, fingers working expertly.  "Over there... I don't know how much you know about the war; you had to have been just a kid then."

"Yes, I was."

"There was this area--Cu Chi--where the VC had a huge maze of underground tunnels.  They were keeping their campaign going from underground, and when we found these tunnels, we had to send guys in to check 'em out.  Only the smallest men would fit, and there were a lot of guys who just couldn't do it--go in there.  They'd get claustrophobic or just seize up.  You had to crawl in on your belly in the dark in a space no wider than your shoulders and you never knew if the tunnel was empty or if you'd meet Charlie around the next bend."  He shrugged.  "And of course, if you did, you were dead; there was no way out, no space to turn around.  But there were some guys who... it was just something they could do, and we'd all stand above waiting, holding our breath, or praying, or whatever we did to make it through, knowing that these guys--our buddies--were going it alone in there, that there was nobody they could count on if the tide turned.  Some of 'em were lucky; their tunnels were empty.  And others... well, they just never came back out.  But I often think about that when things get rough--that most of us aren't going it alone like those tunnel rats.  That we've got support and we need to recognize it.  Value it, I guess."

Scully smiled and looked down at her bowl.  "Thank you," she said.

 

 

It was the second time today the old man had mentioned Tracy, which was two times too many.  And realistically, the longer things went on, the harder it was going to be not to trip up.  Like having gone to the restaurant. His very first time out on his own and the old man had caught him. 

Krycek pulled up and eased himself to the edge of the bed.  Carefully he stood and reached for the box on the bedside table.  His legs were still shaky, weak.  Hopefully the old man hadn't gone looking for her when he'd found the room empty. 

Or taken her while he had a convenient chance. 

Something inside him went cold. 

But it was too early for that.  The old man was still ragging on him to take everything slow. Though it was odd that she hadn't been here waiting when he'd returned from the restaurant.

He slipped his shoes on and went to the door. 

The smell of the old man's Morleys lingered faintly in the hallway air.  Krycek pushed the elevator's 'up' button and glanced at the box in his hand.  He wasn't hungry now but maybe she would be.  He had to keep reminding her to eat for more than just herself, though the kid was only going to weigh her down, make her path harder.  How would she handle it? 

What had his mother done day after day, knowing she was carrying a child she didn't want and wouldn't raise?

The elevator door slid open and he got in.  He stared at the walls of the car as it went up, old brown wood paneling with scratches here and there, a small set of initials carved in one corner below the brass hand rail. 

The car settled and the door opened.  Krycek looked toward Tracy's room. No light showed below the door.  A mild flush of tension spread through him.

The door was locked.  At least the maintenance man had fixed it. He knocked and waited. 

"Tracy?"

Every day she stayed meant more risk, more chances taken.

"Tracy--"

He knocked a second time, knuckles against the dark-painted wood.  His pulse was humming now.  Nothing.  Not a good sign.

Maybe the roof.  He started up the stairs.  His legs felt like lead.  He had to pause halfway and wait to catch his breath.

Was there something he'd played wrong, or given away without noticing?  Some contradiction the old man had picked up on?

At the landing he stopped again, gripped the door frame and waited for his breathing to settle.  If he were to end up on his own now...

He was in no shape to be doing this. Up to now it had seemed like he'd made a lot of progress, but obviously that was only if you measured it against being flat on your back.  

He let go of the door frame and stepped out onto the patio, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness.  No sound, no sense of another human presence.  If she were here, she would have said something by now, would have seen him coming.  One way or the other. 

"Tracy."  He walked to the wall. 

Zip. 

The far corner, the air conditioner, near corner.

The tree.

He swallowed.  He made his way toward the place.  There was no sound, but she'd been here once before.  A hitch in his breathing and he parted the leaves.  Just the two old metal patio chairs sitting across from each other from the last time they'd been here. 

What were the chances the old man would end it this way?  Take her and then mention her the way he had, as if he were fishing for a reaction?  Maybe it had just been too tempting, keeping her here, being comfortable, having somebody to wake up for, something more feel-real than the impossible odds of beating Purity at its own game.  Fighting Purity was like the dream where you were mired down, struggling to move, and couldn't, no matter how hard you tried. 

Except that dreams ended.  You woke up to find the sky blue and bills in the mailbox. Purity would be a whole different ballgame. 

Tracy'd sense the old man coming.  She'd know to hide, know where the old man was likely to look for her.

Unless her mind was filled with her own worries, the way it had been this morning when he'd walked in on her in the laundry room and she hadn't even picked up on him.

Krycek swallowed. He headed for the stairs and started down, no pauses between steps, a glance under her doorway--no light--a knock--nothing--then down another flight, to his room--dark--and out again, to the stairwell and down, his legs even weaker than before, his breathing hard.

Halfway between the first and second floors he stopped, clutching the railing as a sudden wave of dizziness hit. Waiting for it to pass, he let out a grunt of frustration so loud it echoed up and down the stairwell. He might as well be a goddamn old man stranded without a cane. Swallowing, he worked to pull himself together. The sound of his panting surrounded him, loud, like a dog that had been out chasing rabbits. 

Footsteps sounded below. He pulled himself up straighter, pushed out a breath, tried to take a step.  Wasn't going to happen. The footsteps below him were louder now.

Familiar now. A sigh of relief escaped him.  He waited, swallowing against the dryness in his mouth.  A moment later she came around the corner into view, the hem of her dress gathered up in one hand, eyes upward. Her jaw was set--worry? determination?--as she approached. 

"I was in the laundry room," she said as she reached him. She came close. "Lean, Alex."

He let himself lean into her. Her hand settled against his back.

"Take a minute," she said. 

He let her take his weight. Her hair pressed against his cheek. Gradually he began to loosen.

"I heard him coming up in the elevator," she said. "He was going to my room so I went downstairs." 

He let his eyes close momentarily.  He could still hear his breathing, but it was slower now, quieter.  The growing silence was soothing. 

"Ready?" she asked finally.

"... Give it a try, yeah."   

She moved to the side and he took a tentative step, turning.  Her arm slipped around his waist, strong. A finger hooked into his belt loop. 

"Okay?"

"Either going to make it--" He pushed out a breath. A glint of a smile came. "Or you're going to end up having to pick me off the floor and it'll be harder than we went through back in that grove." 

A step up and then another, familiar pressure against his hip.   

"He's going to check Scully's mother tomorrow," she said now.  "He's expecting her to be worse, but if she's not--"

He stopped short, making them jostle against each other.

"He might do something to 'help her along'. That's what he was thinking. He doesn't want to lose this opportunity, Alex. He might postpone his trip if--"

"Then she damn well better be worse," he said. 

His jaw set.  He gripped the rail harder and paused. She didn't miss his cue.  They took a slow step up.  Five more to go.

 

 

"Mulder?"

He was sitting inside the small structure in the dark.  Scully pulled carefully on the handle of the screened door.  It had been a birdhouse originally, Dale said, and quite an elaborate one at that.  Bethy had taken it over as a playhouse several years ago and a glider swing had been put inside.  It was a convenient place to sit outdoors without being attacked by mosquitoes. 

She could see Mulder now by the light of the moon, head in hands on the swing.

"Mulder."  She closed the door behind her.  He looked up.  "There's food in the house.  Dale's chili reputation is well-deserved."

He shrugged.

She leaned against the door frame and crossed her arms.  "There's a lot of planning to do here and I can't make those decisions by myself," she said, her voice measured.  "I know we're both personally affected by this outcome.  But I can't do it alone, Mulder, and there's no point in my being here if I'm just going to stand around and do nothing."

"Yeah."  The fingers of one hand threaded back through his hair. 

She took a step toward the glider.  "What's bothering you, Mulder?"

He looked up at her, quizzical.

"I mean"--she smiled grimly--"what specifically?  Dale said you've been like this since you got home this afternoon."

"Just... asking myself some of those unanswerable questions, I guess."  He squinted past her into the yard.  "The kind where you're never going to get an answer, and if you did it probably wouldn't make a hell of a lot of difference anyway because it's all water under the bridge; it's in the past and you can't change it."  He sighed and looked up at her. "You can't change the past."

"Are you asking questions or beating yourself up?"

He shrugged.  "What's the difference?"

She turned to go.

"Scully--"  He sat back and patted the seat beside him. 

She leaned against the door frame again. "What is it, Mulder?"

"I never got to the third thing I had to tell you."

"Which is?"

"That while I was cleaning Beeson's office this afternoon, he had a little visit from one of Smoky's ambassadors."

She leaned forward.

"Diana."  Pain filled his expression.  "It was Diana, Scully."

Diana.

"Did she...?"  Diana.  "Did she see you, Mulder?"

He shook his head.  "No, I had my head down.  I was turned around, vacuuming the reception area. In my coveralls, how likely would she be to recognize me?  It's not like she'd expect to find me there."  His voice was dry.  He glanced to the side.

Scully let out a suppressed breath, went to the glider and carefully sat down. "Did you hear what she said?  What they were talking about?"

"Yeah, I went around into the bathroom and listened in.  Someone sent Beeson a threatening e-mail, or at least a frustrated e-mail, about the beryllium victims, and it's got him panicked.  I guess Smoky sent her here to put out the fire.  Evidently he's preparing to go out of the country.  Beeson was tied in knots that Smoky didn't show up himself.  Apparently he's never seen Diana before." 

He leaned forward and breathed into cupped hands.

"Do you know what the message said?"

He pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to her.

She held it toward the moonlight and read.  Her lips pressed together.  "Mulder, this sounds like--"

"They're going to trace the message, Scully.  It came from quick.net."

She swallowed.  "Remember last night while you were still in the bathroom?  David Barker came around and I told him--"

"About the lab results.  You think he'd...?"

"Remember how he hovered around the barn, Mulder, when I was doing the autopsy?  He's well-meaning, and he's certainly had a lot to deal with because of his wife; I won't discount that.  But he does seem to blame Heather's condition on her brother's death. And, yes"--she looked at him--"I think he very well might have done something like this.  I've had this uncomfortable feeling about him all along."

"Then you may not even be safe up there anymore.  I wonder how careful he was about sending the message."

"Maybe it's time to ask Dale to pay a little call on David Barker for us, Mulder." 

 

 

"Lie down, Alex.  You're worn out."

Her voice was careful, quiet.  He wanted to protest, but he didn't have the strength. 

"I just... Fuck."  He stared hard at the ceiling and slammed the mattress with the side of a fist. Things to do, but not a damn bit of energy to do them with.  He turned away and stared at the back wall. In the clutch, he was still nothing but an invalid.

The edge of the bed sagged slightly, Tracy sitting down. 

"They're going to have to do something," he said, turning to face her.  "You know, to make it look like she's getting worse."  He half-laughed.  "But why would they believe me?  Why would they believe anything I'd tell them?"  He sniffed in a breath.  "If they don't, it's going to go to hell real fast."

"Maybe..."  She looked across the room at the blackness beyond the window.

"What?"

"Maybe they'd believe me, Alex."

He scowled.  "They'd just figure you were some trick I was pulling."

"No.  I think I can. Somehow. Somehow I can get through to Mulder.  I do know him a little bit."

"He's going to think I set you up there, you know.  On the stairs."

"You said he wouldn't believe you, Alex.  If he won't, then give me a chance.  Scully's mother doesn't deserve to be put through this.  Your mother wouldn't."  It was the kind of 'I know what I'm talking about' frown she'd given him in those first days when he'd overextended himself.

"We can't send anything from here.  If the old man--"

"I'll go to the restaurant.  I think Marisela will let me use the phone line there if I asked her."

"Tracy, it's night out there.  This isn't Elleryville.  I don't want you--"

"What's the alternative?  You should know, Alex. You do know, more than most people--about the bigger plan, how much is at stake."

He looked up at the ceiling.  His pulse echoed loudly, one more irritating reminder of his too-worn body.  "Maybe I..." He let out a sigh. "Guess I'm just used to being able to do it myself, whatever I need done.  This... lying here, having to depend..."  He closed his eyes. 

"It's called teamwork, Alex. That's not necessarily a bad thing.  If I can do this, if I can help Scully's mom and that helps everybody..."

It sounded so logical when she said it.

He opened his eyes and looked at her. Into her. "You have to be careful." 

"I will."

She was so solemn, so obvious and straightforward.  As if sincerity were strength.

"Can't afford to lose you, you know." 

"I know." She smoothed a wrinkle in her dress. "Alex, show me.  Show me how to send mail."

He paused, then nodded and reached for the laptop. 

What was he getting her into? 

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: TinMan@zipmail.com
Re the girl:  Before I ever met her, I had a dream where I was talking with her.  Two days later K called me to a meeting in Farragut Square, and she was there to meet me.  She seemed surprised to see me but she knew exactly who I was.  It was like resuming a half-finished conversation--very surreal.  I saw her in another dream several days later and then nothing until yesterday when K asked me for your addy.  I had this very strong urge to go to Farragut Square just before dusk.  When I arrived, there she was on a bench, hoping I'd show up.  She said she didn't know why she'd come, that she'd been 'drawn' there.  She seems convinced K won't give you away.  The most obvious explanation would be that she's suffering from Stockholm syndrome, but something tells me that's not the case here.  I have no logical explanation for any of this.  Apologies.

"I don't..."  Mulder shook his head.  "I don't remember anything that would have suggested she had paranormal abilities.  But then we hardly saw each other.  It was a few words here and there.  She was... outspoken in a naive sort of way, like she didn't know better than to talk to strangers.  She seemed like a runaway, Scully, just a girl on the run."  He looked up to where she stood behind his chair.

"But why would Krycek not give us away?"

"I don't know.  Like you said, he's got his own agenda, whatever it is.  Maybe he's working with those alien rebels.  Maybe that's why he tipped me off to that rebel they were holding at Wiekamp.  Whatever his plan is, we must figure into it some way.   He must think we can help him."

"Well, he certainly can't count on the Smoking Man backing him up if he finds out."  Scully stared at the computer screen.  "You know, whatever his plan may be, one thing he said is true.  If Mom begins to recover, the Smoking Man isn't likely to let it pass if he believes she's his access to me.  And if she's on the right medication now, she's bound to improve.  By the end of the week the signs are going to be inescapable."

"We're going to have to get her out of there, Scully.  We're going to have to move her somehow, hide her someplace.  Either because she improves or because you don't show up, she's going to be in danger."  He sucked in his lower lip.

"Would he threaten your mother, Mulder?  Would he use her against us?"

"He may think he has some kind of sentimental attachment to my mother, but only if she doesn't cross him or have some greater strategic value to him.  If he were to find out she hid us..."  His brow furrowed.

"Then what do we do?  Do we hide her, too?  And how long can we--"  She sighed, turned abruptly and walked to the window.  She stopped in front of the glass, arms crossed, staring out into the night.  Mulder watched her, finally stood and came up behind her. 

"How long can we hide everyone, Mulder?  Who does he target next?  My brothers?  My sister-in-law?  My little nephew Matthew?

He rested a hand lightly on her shoulder, waited--no stiffening--then added the other and smoothed gently with his thumbs.  Finally she relaxed against him.

"Dale was right," she said.

"About?"

"That half of it's psychological, your ability--or inability--to stay focused on the problem at hand, and not freeze up, not get distracted or--"

"Or take it out on someone you care about?  Guilty as charged."  He kissed lightly above her ear.  "Sorry, Scully." 

She was warm against him.

"Where can we hide her, Mulder?" she said finally.

"The Gunmen will help," he said.  "They'll knock themselves out.  You know they will."

 

 

"Tracy?"

She looked up. 

She was sitting on the desk chair across the room, lacing her shoes.  It was strange to see her in something besides a dress.  She'd always worn dresses--long ones that gave her an air of fragility.  She seemed anything but fragile now.  Strong somehow.  Resolved.  She wore a pair of his old jeans belted in at the waist and the gray thermal shirt.  The kid barely showed unless you knew he was there.  If any of the old man's spies were looking, they'd be less likely to notice her this way; the old man had never seen her in pants.

"I know," she said.  "I'll be careful."  She stood and readjusted the waist of the jeans, then approached the bed and sat on the edge. "I can see what it's like now, Alex."

"What?"

"Having a mission, something you need to do that has big consequences at the end.  It's a powerful feeling."

"It makes you keep going.  But, hey"--he reached for her hand--"don't get carried away.  It's no game.  Life's not a game."

"I know, Alex.  Just try to get some rest."

He frowned.  Not with her out on the street at night, and trapped, as he was, in a body without the strength to go to her aid if things went bad. 

"Call me when you get there," he said.  "Give me a wrong number call.  Ask if it's Angelo's Pizza; then I'll know it's you."

She nodded.  "I will be careful, Alex.  It won't take me long."

He was looking straight at her but somehow she was out of focus.  Easy enough to say: Be careful.  He felt a squeeze against his hand and she was up, taking the laptop, headed for the door.  He watched it open and then close behind her. 

He rolled onto his side, facing the door, picturing her descent in his head: elevator, lobby, out to the street.  In the end he'd told her to write the mail herself, just go with her gut. There was nothing he was going to be able to say that would make Mulder a believer, but maybe she could swing it.  Maybe that sincerity of hers would come through.  Maybe that was what it would take.

And if the old man had one of his goons watching the front door, or the street?  Realistically, she should be fine.  It would all have to coincide: one of the old man's spies, the timing, someone who'd recognize her the way she was dressed. Though he'd sent her to Raul, to the bearing factory, and it had nearly cost her her life.  Or would have if Buzz hadn't suddenly given out during the interrogation; that had been some luck. 

Nothing was certain.

She'd be gone for good soon, out there someplace, and he'd never know what had become of her. 

He rolled again, attempting to shake the image that kept pushing for admittance: Lena lying in the frozen weeds along the roadside, her body bruised and vacant, skirt flapping in the icy morning wind. She'd been a number of the orphanage boys' first, including his.  She'd even kissed him when word was that she kissed nobody.  He'd thought he was special.  Thought he was in love.  But he'd been younger than she was and what could he possibly have known?  She'd been fourteen.  Then somebody took her, snuffed her out and threw her away like garbage along the roadside.

There was no rhyme or reason.


 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Redwall@zipmail.com
We've also come to the conclusion that Annie's mother will need to be moved, probably within the next few days--in any event before she's obviously on the mend.  We're working on the arrangements; just sit tight and leave the moving to us.  The big question, of course, is how to remove her from the hospital without them finding out.  We're working on this, too, but any suggestions are more than welcome.  Ben, you'd be well advised to think about where he may strike next once he's decided it's not worth his while to look for her.
                                                                                                        -JB

"It's a start," Mulder said quietly.  He pulled a kitchen chair up beside Scully and sat down.

"I know.  But it's going to make him target someone else, your mother or... or Skinner for that matter; he could try to force our hand by threatening Skinner in some way, Mulder.  Or my family."  She turned to face him.  "What do I do?  Do I say nothing and let them be put in danger, or--"  She shook her head.  "I can't tell Bill.  Mulder, he'd go through the ceiling.  He'd never believe it, but he'd give me plenty of grief about Mom, about what I've done to her by my choices." 

Scully pressed her lips together.  One corner of her mouth wavered.  She turned and stared at the computer screen.

"Especially when he found out I was involved," he said, the hint of a smile in his voice.  "He'd probably make us walk the plank together."

"What about your mother, Mulder?  She's as logical a target as anyone here."

"I'll have to figure out something, someplace he'd never think to look for her."

"And what do you tell someone?  Go hide, maybe someday you'll get to go back home?"  She leaned back against the chair and closed her eyes.

"We'll make it home, Scully," he said softly.  "We just have to get something on Smoky.  My dad thought it was his greed that would bring Smoky down in the end.  Maybe these shipments, whatever they are, are the key to that--something he's doing on the side to pad his own position, something he's hiding from the rest of the Consortium.  Did you read Wilkins' mail?"

"You mean Rita's?"  She smiled briefly.  "Yes, I did.  He said the only two possible victims they were able to contact were the ones you've already found out about, that Alan Harder was uncooperative and Angie Connors was loathe to do anything that might jeopardize her family's health coverage.  Apparently Beeson-Lymon has its own in-house plan."

"I think I missed that part."

"She said something about her kids receiving regular care from the plant doctors."

"Isn't that a little out of the ordinary?"  He stood and ran a hand back through his hair.  "Wait a minute, what if... What if family health coverage is like the company cremation benefit?"

"Designed to hide evidence?  But evidence of what?  Beryllium disease isn't contagious, Mulder."

"I know, I know.  I just... I think I'll check it out anyway."  He turned, walked to the window and stared out into the moon-frosted yard.  "What time did Dale leave?"  

She looked at her watch.  "About an hour ago.  Hopefully he'll be back before too long.  Maybe I'm jumping the gun.  Maybe it was someone else who wrote that message and not David."

"I think maybe I'll take a shower while I'm waiting," he said. 

Mulder crossed the room and paused in the bedroom doorway.  She was going through the new mail again.  He went into the darkened room and switched on the lamp beside the bed.  Low light settled over the room.  He stared absently at the bedspread.  Who knew if she'd even want to sleep here now.  Maybe she needed space this time. 

Or maybe he did.  He reached for the hem of his T-shirt and peeled it off.

"Mulder?"

"Yeah."

"Mulder, come here.  You've got mail."

"From who?"  He came through the doorway and stopped behind her chair.

"Topaz?" she said.

"It's Krycek."

"I don't think so, Mulder.  Look at this."

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
I've decided to write this because Alex is convinced you won't believe him.  The old man is going to Europe, leaving tomorrow afternoon and coming back on Saturday.  Or at least those are his current plans.  He's going to check on your partner's mother before he leaves tomorrow and if she's not deteriorating he's thinking about doing something to help her along.  I thought you should know.
  Alex says you should move her out of there to somewhere the old man won't be able to find her.

 I met you on the stairs beside the pond in Constitution Park--that was me behind you with the red backpack. You told me you'd lost your job. 

Nobody would be happier than I would to see you and your families escape from the old man's plans.  I've seen the way he watches Alex and it's terrible.  Please do what you can to  protect Mrs. S before it's too late.
                                                                             -The Stair Sprite

"Stair Sprite?"  She looked up at him.

"I didn't know her name.  It's just"--he shrugged--"what I called her.  You know, to myself.  I never--"  He stopped short.  "I never called her that, Scully.  I never actually said it."

"Then what do you make of this?"

He stared at the screen and slowly shook his head.

 

 

"Alex?" 

Tracy closed the door behind her.  Only the small bedside lamp was on, leaving most of the room in shadow.  No movement came from the bed. 

She went closer.  He was asleep.  Kneeling down, she slid the laptop under the bed and stood again.  He could sleep on his side now. He'd turned end-for-end, his head toward the narrow window, his back to the wall.  She understood now why he slept that way.

It was no wonder he was asleep already after all he'd been through today.  She sat down carefully on the edge of the bed.  She'd called when she got to the restaurant, then had sent her mail and waited long enough to make a graceful exit.  She hadn't been gone more than twenty-five minutes. 

Reaching out carefully, she smoothed a hand across his forehead and back into his hair.  He wouldn't mind this time; they were past that.  It was good to see him peaceful, unburdened, even if it was fatigue that had brought him to it.

"Alex?"

"Mm."

"Alex, I'm back.  I just wanted you to know.  It went okay.  I sent the mail."

He opened his eyes, squinted into the brightness and closed them again.  A finger reached out and curled around one of hers.  Slowly his eyelids relaxed into the thinness of sleep.  She sat unmoving, watching him.  Patches of deep yellow light and shadow fell across the blanket, his face, his arm.  Three weeks ago, she could never have imagined this. 

Light spilled in front of his ear, highlighting the curve of his hairline and the clean, sharp line dividing stubble from smooth cheek.  It suited him, the sharp definition. 

She was there again, the dead girl, hovering in the shadows where his conscious mind couldn't see to push her away.  Whatever else she'd done or intended, she'd treated him like something more than a worthless orphan boy.  It's what he'd carried away: a sense of worth, and the sharp pain of her loss.

Tracy turned to look at the clock.  It was time to sleep. She should go upstairs. 

City lights blinked in the far window.  Slowly she began to count them.  Her eyes wanted to close.  Tomorrow she'd make bread and the next day she'd be going home, something she wanted and dreaded at the same time.  It exerted a constant tug now, home, but it was impossible to tell why, or what it meant.

"Alex?"

"Mm."

"Alex, would you mind if I slept in the recliner for a while?"

His eyes opened and he strained to focus.  "Hmm?"

"I don't want to--"  She sighed.  "I was walking up the stairs this afternoon, between here and my room, and I... saw her, Alex, just for a second."

"Saw who?"

"My mom.  A... ghost, or... I don't know."

He pulled up slightly, leaning against his stump.

"My mom, Alex.  I don't know what it was.  I've never seen her before like that.  I just... She was there, above me on the stairs. And then she was gone."

His mouth opened.  He worked to clear the thickness from his head and lay back against the pillows.  "Then it wasn't just me.  Early this morning, about five, I was up on the roof; it was still dark.  Saw her standing under the tree, where it hangs over.  I figured it was her, anyway.  She had the yellow sweater on."

"Did she say anything?  What did she do?"

"She was just... looking at me.  Then I blinked"--he shrugged--"she wasn't there.  I figured it was just, you know, something in my head.  And then I went down, to make sure you were okay.  I figured if it was real, you would have seen it inside me."

"I wonder what it means."

"No idea."  He blinked again, an attempt to clear away the jumble of fatigue in his head.

Tracy yawned. Her eyes closed.  When she opened them again, Alex was looking at her, concern in his expression, wondering how this vision would add to her burden.

Another yawn overtook her. He pulled up and reached for the blanket that was pushed back against the wall.   

"Here."  His voice was soft.  "Get some sleep.  You could use it." 

Something warm and soft brushed her temple and the blanket was piled against her.  A second later he was lying down again, on his side, eyes falling closed.  Maybe she'd imagined it.

"Good night, Alex," she whispered after a moment.

She stood, turned off the bedside light and went to the window next to the recliner.  The tip of the Washington monument glowed white above the surrounding rooftops. Approaching planes winked gradual dotted lines across the sky.  Turning away, she went to the corner, wrapped the blanket around herself and sat down in the chair.  She leaned back.  She could still feel it, the lightness of breath and touch against her temple, almost but not quite real. 

Open-eyed, she traced the shadow-patterns of leaves on the ceiling.

 

 

"Well," Dale said, coming through the doorway from the garage, "the bad news is that darn kid did write your e-mail."

Scully got up from where she'd been sitting on the couch.

"Oh, I gave him what for.  He won't go doing a fool thing like that again." He paused. "Where's Ben, by the way?"

"He was in the shower a minute ago."

Mulder's head appeared in the doorway.

"David did do it," she said.

"But"--Dale wagged a finger--"there's a caveat to this one, luckily, which is that he didn't send it from home.  He went up to Cincinnati, sent it off from some cybercafé using an e-mail account he'd just opened that of course he has no intention of using again."

"So when they try to trace it--" Scully said.

"It'll just give the phone number at the cybercafé."  Mulder's eyes closed.  "At least he had that much sense."

"Well," Dale said.  "I figure he finally had more than he could take with Ron and Heather and all that, and then to find out it was something the plant had known about all along..."  He sighed.  "I've been there.  I know the feeling.  And I think when he thought up this message thing he got a little carried away, swept into a kind of James Bond frame of mind."

"At least they won't be able to trace it to Owensburg."  Scully looked at Mulder in the doorway and then at Dale.  "Thank you for checking it out."

"My pleasure."  Dale glanced at the living room clock.  "Well, I figure I'm going to be needing some shuteye here before I go to work in the morning, so unless you two need anything else, I'm going to shuffle off to bed."

"We'll be fine," Scully said.  She watched as Dale went through the kitchen and off toward the other end of the house.

"Did you send a mail to the Gunmen yet?" Mulder asked.  A towel hung from around his neck.

"Yes.  Hopefully they'll be able to find a way to tamper with the monitors in my mother's room."

"Smoky's not likely to go in and actually check on her.  He'll just go with what the readouts tell him."

"I hope so, Mulder.  For Mom's sake, I hope you're right."  She leaned back against the corner of the couch and ran a hand along the beige fabric.  A cuckoo clock slurred a chainy rhythm in the kitchen.

"I think we could use some sleep, too, Scully."

She pressed her lips together and paused a moment before she looked up.  His eyes were on the computer screen.

"I think you're right.  I--"  She let out a slow breath.

"I can take the couch," he said.  "If you need some space."  He looked up, though not quite at her.

"I... I think I do.  There are things I need to sort out."

"Yeah, well I guess I've got a little sorting to do myself."

She nodded and paused.  "Mulder, you know you're not going to fit on the couch.  I'll take it."

He shrugged.  "Suit yourself.  Just thought I'd offer."

"I could use a blanket, though."

"Blanket and a pillow coming right up."

He disappeared into the bedroom.  She went to the couch and sat down.  A moment later he returned with bedding and a pillow.

"Is there anything we forgot to do?" she said, standing.

"We wrote to the Gunmen about messing with the monitors.  We decided on Sunday as the day you're supposed to show up at the hospital."

"Do you think it's waiting too long, Mulder?"

"I think we need that interim time to get your mother out.  Whenever we do it, it's got to happen before you're supposed to get there."

She nodded and stared at the beige fabric under her hand.

"Tomorrow I try to find out something more about Angie Connors," he said, filling in the silence.  "Did Sandy say anything about her?"

 "She didn't know much but she said she'd ask her friends, the blind couple."  She stood and picked up a sheet and began to spread it across the couch cushions.  "Mom's in the hands of the Gunmen."

"I'm still trying to figure out the girl--why she seems to be Krycek's little cheerleader."

"Hopefully she's right about the Smoking Man's schedule at least."  She tucked the sheet in and spread the blanket on top of it.

He nodded.  "I hope so, too."

She looked up.  His mouth had closed into the small, tight expression she knew so well.  His mind was somewhere else, and she was pretty sure she knew exactly where it was.  She turned off the lamp and slipped off her shoes.  He stood at the window now, looking out.  She sat down on the couch.

"Goodnight, Mulder."

He nodded.  She paused, got up again and went to the window.

"Mulder, I'm sorry... for what's happened to you.  I can't imagine what it would be like, to realize that someone you trusted--who you'd been intimate with--had misled you about their intentions, their motives."

He nodded again.

She rested a hand on his arm.  "I know it can't be easy."

His jaw moved slightly, positioning a sunflower seed.  She returned to the couch, pulled back the blanket and sheet and got in.  With the pillow close around her neck, she turned toward the back of the couch and closed her eyes.  A moment later she heard him padding back to his room.

(end Chapter 14)

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