Sanctuary

by bardsmaid

Chapter 16

Thursday

 

We'll make it somehow.

He'd actually said the words, a promise uttered a million times before by desperate men trying to reassure wives or lovers or children--men in the middle of war or poverty, refugees, the hopeful.  Or those desperately wanting to buy hope, as if it were something that could be purchased with words.

It was going to be harder from now on to be watchful, to keep their heads on straight and stay alert to whatever dangers might come. And the odds of pulling off this trip?  The odds were always changing. The factors around you were constantly changing. Life was never static.

Krycek rolled and looked at the softly glowing numbers on the alarm clock. 2:39.  He should have been asleep a good hour ago.

He closed his eyes, breathed out slowly, paused... then opened them again. The leaves in the narrow window glowed dimly, lit by the street lamp beyond.

Three hours driving, she'd said. Three hours one way, and to what? It scared her more than she could handle thinking about.  Still, she was willing.  And tenacious; she'd proved that during the time she'd been here. 

And fragile.  Kisses were cheap currency most of the time, but not from her. Somebody had hurt her; that much was obvious from her caution.  Probably whoever had gotten her pregnant. Maybe others, too; there was no telling. But she'd wanted the kiss--wanted him--enough to reach past the defenses she'd put up to protect herself. It would be all too easy now to slip, to get carried away and make some small, unthinking move that might send her running, scared and hurt. It would be no way to end this.

He closed his eyes but they opened again. He sighed, pulled up and eased himself to the edge of the bed, resigned to his insomnia.  From the small desk he could see lights dotting the darkness beyond the window. The city never slept, some lights winking off just as others went on, the way life was a continual series of crises, a new one hitting before the last had quite passed.

Friday would be the target day, and when Scully's mother disappeared there'd be no cutting Mulder and whoever might be helping him any slack. Hopefully Skinner would have the sense to keep his nose out of it; he should be able to put two and two together and anyway, he should know by now that if he got caught helping Mulder and Scully, the old man's patience would be gone. No getting off with just another trumped up drug bust if it happened again. Hopefully Mulder would keep his eye on the details, things like watching his source of oxygen--the old man had mentioned that she was on oxygen--so there wouldn't be a convenient paper trail, a new account with some supplier that could be easily traced.

Krycek stood, went to the refrigerator and opened it: three boxes of Chinese. They'd sit here, now, until the trip was over. He closed the door and returned to sit on the edge of the bed.

His mother would be leaving home. Mulder would have her tucked away someplace out of reach before they made their move at the hospital. Maybe even with him and Scully, which would be bad news. What kind of chance would there be of getting through to his mother with Mulder running interference?

Most likely she hadn't left yet, though, which meant he'd have one last clear shot at contacting her. The morning would have to be it, and he'd have to have something to say, be able to do more than just stand there beside the phone tongue-tied the way he'd been in her kitchen, freeze-framed as if it were all a dream, slow-motion and strange, watching thirty years of whatever'd been inside her leak out around the edges of her shock.

She'd been a complete stranger then, and nothing had really happened to change that.  But she was their only hope now. 

Krycek grunted and stood again, drifting to the narrow window.  Whatever he was going to say, he'd damn well better have it ready. But any more of this and Tracy would be awake and listening to his static.  And she needed the sleep.

He held his hand above the air conditioner. Warm air filtered through the open vent onto his fingers, not uncomfortable but not cool, either. Well, things would heat up soon enough. Slowly he ran a finger across the window sill. There was no telling what she thought of him. She'd have no reason to think he'd turned out as anything other than a carbon copy of the old man. Then there'd be whatever Mulder had told her. Couldn't count on any support there.

Sighing, Krycek turned and headed for the bathroom.
 

 

 

The mattress sagged beside her.

"Hey, Scully..."

His words were quiet in the silence. She opened her eyes. Mulder leaned over her, smiling, a blue-and-green Beeson-Lymon baseball cap on his head.

"Muld--" She pushed up on one elbow, squinted into the morning brightness and blinked. "Mulder, what time is it?"

"About five minutes 'til I have to leave." He glanced at his watch. "6:40. Dale's up at the house checking up on James Bond Jr. there." He nodded in the direction of the main house. "I came up with a fifty-pound bag of alfalfa pellets. Do I smell like it?"

She leaned closer and sniffed at his shirt. "As a matter of fact, you do." She smiled at the face he made. "It's okay, Mulder. I've always liked the smell of alfalfa. It smells like... feed stores."

"And how much time have you spent hanging around feed stores, Ms. Scully?"

"We had rabbits when we were kids. Rabbit feed is mostly alfalfa."

She rested her head on his leg and closed her eyes. Morning. Readouts to check. The Gunmen would be working on a plan to move her mother. She'd e-mail her mother's doctor. Mulder's mother...

A warm hand smoothed past her forehead. "How you doing?"

She reached for the hand and tucked it beside her cheek. "I got your mail in the night."

"How many times were you up?"

"Just the once, just--" She slipped her fingers between his. "I woke up several times but I only checked my mail once."

"How's your mother?"

"About the same. From what they tell me." She rolled to the side and sat up. "Mulder, I hope they're telling me the truth."

"The Gunmen wouldn't lie to you, Scully."

"Not even if they thought it would make me feel better? Not even to pad the truth if things were"--she paused and swallowed carefully--"life-threatening?"

He shook his head. "I don't think so."

"Are we doing the right thing, Mulder? Am I? Staying here?"

"Scully, you said it yourself the other day: This is Smoky's script. If you were to go, he'd be the only winner. It wouldn't help your mom."

"I know. I know that. But what if--" She looked away and swallowed.

"What if you missed her the way you missed Melissa?"

She looked at the bright gap below the bathroom door and nodded. The room was quiet.  Dust particles danced slowly in a small shaft of early morning light.

"Scully, when--" He inched closer. "When I was in the desert, in the rock quarry... When I almost...when I did. I did. I was gone and on that bridge." A finger traced the back of her hand. "You weren't there. But I still knew you cared about me. I knew it from what you'd done before, the way you put up with me, the way you never agreed with Blevins and his cronies that I was full of shit. The way you hauled me halfway across the country to see Albert Hosteen, and took care of me."

"The way I shot you." She turned back to him, the hint of a smile on her face.

He smiled. "Yeah. That, too."

"What have I given her, Mulder, aside from--?"

His finger went against her lips. "Don't go there, Scully. You came out of that shopping mall a couple of weeks ago and what did you say? All she wanted was you."

"But that's just it. I'm not there for her, Mulder."

"Scully, if it were you in that hospital bed and Smoky was waiting to catch Emily the minute she showed up at your bedside, would you want her to come? Would you think she didn't love you if she didn't?"

Her lips pressed hard together. She closed her eyes. Cold air wrapped around her, then his arm was behind her, hand on her far shoulder, easing her against him. She breathed in alfalfa and after shave and slipped her arms around his waist.

"What about your mother, Mulder?"

"Yeah, I guess I'm worried about her. But she knows how Smoky thinks. I've got to trust her, got to--" A sigh came out of him. "I think she'll do okay, and we'll be able to keep in touch, and..." A longer pause this time.  "Yeah, it's hard. I know it is. I'm not saying it isn't."

He sighed again. She rode the subtle rhythm of his breathing.

"How are you doing, Mulder?"

"I'm... I'm still here. I..." Pause. Long pause. "I do think I may be onto something at the plant, with Angie."

She looked up at him.

He glanced away, out the window, and shook his head. "I still can't go there, Scully. I mean, you think you have something private, something strictly between two people, and then to find out you're just a... a report on somebody's desk." He bit his lip.

She closed her eyes and rested her head against his shirt. "I'm sorry, Mulder. I didn't mean to pry."

"I know. I know you didn't. I just... When I get to this point I just try to think, what if I was going it alone, out there all by myself? Out there." He half-laughed. "And then I realize I'm not, and that's--" His arm tightened around her.

"Rita said something in a mail yesterday that's stayed with me," she began, "about how we can go on and on if we think there's hope, but if we don't see it we weaken and fail even though resolution may be right around the corner." She looked up at him. "Maybe we're closer than we know, Mulder."

He nodded. He was still looking out the window.

"I have this feeling," he said quietly. "About this angle with Angie and her kids."
 

 

 

Tracy slipped one section of hair under the other and carefully reached for a third held by her little finger. Looking into the mirror, she frowned. It was far from perfect. There were thin strands of stray hair at the sides but it had seemed the thing to do this morning, something different in honor of the trip home. A girl at the high school in Elleryville had taught her to French braid, though what she saw in the mirror was a far cry from the girl's picture-perfect creations. But it would do. It would be cool and practical.

She gathered the last ends together, wound a band around them and refocused on her packing.  From the door to the bathroom she could see a small cluster of items on the counter: shower gel, shampoo, toothpaste, a comb and two hair bands, the kind that didn't pull your hair out, small luxuries that had replaced the old newspaper rubber bands from the alley. Everything gathered and ready to go.  She turned and went back to the bedroom but drifted, unthinking, to the mirror over the dresser and leaned closer. She had child eyebrows, darker than her hair, a small detail that had never mattered before and shouldn't now.  They were, after all, just another part of her body and what was a body but a package, a container for the essential parts of who you were? 

Alex was right, though. It had been growing for a while now, this thing she was starting to feel. And then last night, the overwhelming need to touch and hold, to leave no distance between them.

Just a little kiss, he'd said.

But it wasn't. The first one had been. But the second had been overwhelming, a call her whole body had answered.

In the street below, a car horn honked. Tracy started. 

She turned around and picked her backpack off the bed. It was worn now, faded to a reddish pink. Life in a bag: everything essential for someone on the move. There wasn't much to take this time, though. The white dress was hanging in the closet, clean, and they'd only be gone today; tonight they'd be back again. She shouldered the pack and went to the door, then paused and turned around. There was a strange feel to the room, a hollowness, as if her spirit had already abandoned it. It was the feeling she'd gotten in the little house in the valley when Nathan had rushed her out.  She'd intended to come back later, in a few days or a week, though Nathan had had other ideas. In the end, though, people were the constant. Once they were gone your surroundings mattered very little.

And when the constant between two people changed? Her hands came together without thinking, one pressing the other. She had no answer to that, and none seemed to be hovering close by, waiting to reveal itself.  Pulling herself away from the mirror, she went to the door and opened it, pushed the little lock button on the back and pulled it closed. There was a small, definitive click. She let go quickly and started down the stairs. It was late and Alex had overslept.

When she reached his room she found him lying on his side, his back to the wall, still asleep. She set the pack down beside the door and watched him, his side rising subtly and then falling, his mouth slightly open. A stark line divided smooth cheek from morning stubble, one a finger could itch to trace. She glanced at the clock and made herself go forward.

"Alex?"  She sat carefully on the edge of the bed. He stirred, his hand coming out automatically. She took it and felt his fingers close around hers, warm and familiar, and let go the breath that had caught inside her.  "Alex, it's getting late."

His eyes opened suddenly and he pushed up on his elbow. A momentary jolt of adrenaline, a blink, and he lay back against the pillow and looked up at her. His thumb traced the side of her hand. After a moment he raised his eyebrows. "Nice hair."

She shrugged. "Not so great, but it'll do."

"No, it looks good." He gave her an approving nod, then stared up at the ceiling, blinked again and sighed. "I have to call her. Got to do it this morning, before she's gone. Mulder will have her away for sure by tomorrow sometime.  This'll be my only chance."

"You were awake in the night, weren't you?"

He frowned. "I woke you up again?"

"No. But you slept so late."

His jaw set. What would he to do in another week, on his own,  if he couldn't get up to speed?

"I'm all ready," she said.  "My things are by the door. I'll go find something to do for a few minutes."

She started to stand but his fingers tightened around hers. She flushed, then looked back at him.

"Look, there's going to be a lot going on," he started.  "No guessing, okay?  We both keep our cards on the table.  Or"--he tugged gently and brought her down spooned against him--"I guess that's you.  I'm the open book."  It was an uneven playing field and this game would never work with one player handicapped. There had to be teamwork, because it was them against life, against chance. Two against whatever might happen.

She studied the window above the small desk and nodded. "I will, Alex."

"Then"--his voice came closer, quiet, and he nuzzled her neck--"look at me. Don't hide."

Sudden heat flushed her face but she turned. His mouth came closer until their lips met, a tantalizing, brief warmth.

"See?" he said, pulling back, subtle mischief in his eye. "Even happens in the daylight and the world doesn't come crashing down."

She smiled in spite of herself. A nudge and he was lifting, easing her up.

"Give me five, okay?" he said.

"I'll be up on the roof. Let me know when you're ready."

Tracy went out and closed the door behind her. Her heart was beating fast, a strange rhythm, urgent but not unpleasant.  But there was much to do, and they needed to focus on getting it done.  She made herself step up and then up again. Nathan wouldn't have gone back, not in all this time. The house would be just as it had always been, the way it had been that day. Only hours now they'd be there.

Tracy looked up. She'd stopped on the third stair, hand squeezing the rail.  She willed it to relax and made herself continue up the stairs.
 

 

 

"Obviously we'll have to make that substitution, but as far as a mode of transportation"--Byers shook his head--"we're at a complete loss. Any kind of vehicle leaving the hospital is going to be suspect: delivery trucks, paramedic vans. They'll trace every license plate they can identify from their surveillance tapes."

"You can have them change plates after a few blocks," Will said from where he lay in the shadows. "Or switch vehicles if that's not too hard on her."

Byers' face tightened. "Rani's concerned. He knows this has to be, but her age has made this a harder battle for her than it is for you. Though he is starting to see some improvement. Still."

Will studied the ceiling, deliberately avoiding the bright splashes of incoming light that made his eyes ache. "And your final destination?"

"Still under consideration. Any conventional nursing home or care facility will be checked, which leaves something private--hiring someone, and that means either someone from a hospital, who, coincidently, might prove to be someone already on the Cancer Man's payroll."

"Outside chance," Will said.

"Very much an outside chance." Byers nodded. "But a possibility. Surely someone whose hospital hours suddenly go down would be suspect. Or anyone from an agency; agencies will undoubtedly be checked, too." He sat back--sagged back--in his chair.

The room was quiet. A robin landed on the ledge outside the window and then abruptly flew off.

"Will--"

Wilkins turned toward the light and squinted at Rita.

"You look like you've got something running through your head," she said, smiling. "Some kind of useful mischief."

"How about a little hiding in plain sight?" he said, a hint of life in his eyes.

"What do you mean?" Byers said, pulling forward in his chair.

"I mean put her in a nursing facility where they wouldn't think to look."

"But they'll look everywhere."

"They'll look everywhere they think to look." He glanced at Rita. She had that gleam in her eye; she was catching on.

"Why not tuck her away in a minority community?" he said.

Byers appeared suddenly nonplussed. "But... wouldn't she be rather obvious, the subject of probable conversation?"

"If you pick the right place--and if they were to know it was a kind of underground railroad type of thing--my guess is you'd find some pretty tight lips. Nothing motivates people like a cause."

Byers sat back and considered.

"Would you have thought of it if you were the one searching for her, John?" Rita asked. "I'm ashamed to confess I wouldn't have."

"No, nor I." Byers seemed to color slightly. "You may have something here. Do you have any contacts?"

"Give me a little phone time," Wilkins said. "I'll see what I can dig up."

 

 

 

Tracy counted the buildings from the corner, glanced into the rear view mirror--clear, thankfully--and double-parked beside a faded yellow sedan, a former taxi. Alex was waiting between two cars. It was warm but he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt--pale blue--to hide the prosthesis, the arm that felt nothing. He moved quickly to the back when she approached, unlocked the trunk and put a paper shopping bag inside, then closed it and came around to the passenger door. He was on alert, watching everything, tense in a way he hadn't been for weeks.

The door swung open. He got in, closed it and leaned back against the headrest. "Go."

She could feel the knot in his stomach.

She checked the rear view mirror and moved back into the lane. He reached for his seat belt and reached to buckle it. Left at the corner--that was what he'd told her. She signaled and prepared to turn. A mile or two and they'd pull over, find a pay phone and make the call. He was staring out the window, lost in multiple versions of his mother's possible response.

"Good thing you worked that window open in the laundry room," he said now, an eyebrow raised in approval.

"I was afraid the old woman might see you crossing her yard."

"If she did, she didn't come out and chase me off."

Something loosened inside her, a release of tension. "So far, so good," she said, and smiled.

 

 

 

Joe tucked the phone between his ear and shoulder and reached for the clipboard on the far corner of the desk.

"Where'd you take off to so early, Raylene?"

Doughnuts. She'd gotten a sudden craving for doughnuts. Go figure.

"And that explains why you never came back? Why I woke up at 7:22 alone and nearly missed my prep meeting?"

Long story, she was saying. Coming from her, it was bound to be. She'd been on her way to Daily's for the doughnuts, French if she could get there early enough--the French never lasted very long, as if he needed to know that detail--when she saw Dale Lanier's truck, and the other guy was in it, Ben, the one she'd seen coming down her daughter's front steps last Sunday. They were headed that direction, out to the hill road, and it got her curiosity up.

"Doesn't take much, does it?" He started to scrawl in the margin of the assignment sheet. The pencil lead snapped and he clicked the advance.

So of course she followed the truck. At a distance.

"Raylene, do you know what you're saying here? You have any idea how crazy you're--?"

Ooh, now her dander was rising now.

The pencil was empty. He tossed it toward the trash can and leaned away from the desk to pull the drawer out and search for another.

She'd followed them all the way up to Barker's place and when they'd pulled in she'd looped around on the road, gone a little farther and stopped to consider her 'plan'. Plan. Then she'd parked on the uphill side of the slope, where nobody from above would be able to see the car.

"You did what? You know anybody coming down that road from farther up the way--Williamses or Folgers. Raylene, they'd know your car the minute they saw it. They'd know it was you. And you were what--crawling up through the bushes like Rambo?"

A sudden squawking came from the receiver. It slipped as he reached into the back of the drawer. He eyed the phone's base sitting temptingly within reach, but tucked the phone back against his ear with a sigh.

"I was too listening--"

So she hadn't been crawling up through the bushes after all--she'd never do that, Joe--it was a trail she took, a deer trail or something and she'd gone up a little ways and was standing there beside a tree, wondering just what'd gotten into her to make her do this--after all, what if somebody saw her? What would she say?

"That's my question, Raylene. What would you have told Barker if he'd been there? That you were looking for French doughnuts and took a wrong turn somewhere after the maple bars?"

More squawking.

Then had come the payoff. The barn had been off to one side at a distance--he knew where that part of the road was, right?--and then all of a sudden here comes his janitor around the corner of the barn, casual as you please.  He goes down and stops at the old trailer behind it, peers in the front window and then goes back and opens the door carefully, like he was sneaking around, and slips inside.

"And?"

He wasn't in there more than five or six minutes when Dale comes down, knocks and goes back up the trail. And then lover boy comes out again.

"Lover boy?"

There was a woman inside, someone she hadn't seen before--short, red-haired--because she came to the door with him and when he started down the stairs he turned around all of a sudden and kissed her, like he meant it--that had to be a hint--like he really meant it, Joe--and then he goes off up the trail again and he and Dale drive back into town.

"So he's a little slicker than I figured at first," he said, chuckling to himself.

Joe. Joe.

"Who cares what the hell he's doing there, Raylene? He's got a woman, don't you get it? A woman; he's a guy. Big deal. Big frickin' deal."

She was rumbling now, Mt. Raylene about to blow; he knew the signs. One, two...

He smiled. Right on schedule the line went dead. He took the phone, dropped it onto the base and reached into the drawer, pushing papers, fingers searching for a new pencil.

 

 

 

"There." Alex pointed to a spot between a used car dealership and a fast food place--not a chain store but an old hamburger stand.

Phone booth. Tracy pulled over smoothly and came to a stop. After a moment she turned the engine off. Alex's head was back against the head rest; his eyes were closed.  He was on-the-street Alex now.  It was a part of him she realized she knew little about.

"Do you want me to take a walk around the block or something, give you some breathing room?" she offered.

He opened his eyes. "No."

He glanced away briefly. "Maybe you can help"--he cleared his throat--"with a little objectivity. Could you... could you see--tell--how she's taking it if I were talking to her? The last time... everything went by pretty much in a blur." He chuffed out a breath.  She watched his Adam's apple dip.

"I might be able to. I'll try. If you want me to."

He was looking beyond the windshield, staring. "Thanks."

He reached for the door handle. After a second he pulled it and got out. She watched him walk to the phone booth and hesitate, glancing around. Then he went inside and took the phone off the hook, letting it dangle while he fished in his pocket for change. She closed her eyes and cleared her mind, preparing to listen.

 

 

 

Teena took the rose-framed picture from her suitcase.  It fit awkwardly at best, and she could be home again in a week. 

Or she might never return.

If only Fox and Dana could find some way to destroy Leland, some evidence that would send him running. Or something personal that might inflame his colleagues and turn them against him.

Bill hadn't been able to do it. For as much as he'd come to hate Leland, it was an impotent hatred, nursed and cooled in drink. Fox was more determined, sometimes dangerously so, but his mind was clear and there was a tenacity about him that would serve him well now. Still, if she left the picture she might never see it again--a smiling Samantha in a yellow spring dress, a straw hat on her head. She had the tentative beginnings of growing up, an intangible touch of what she might become. Might have become. Teena set the picture on top of the suitcase again, fingers lingering on the frame.

Beside the bed, the phone rang.

Teena hurried to the bedside table. Something strange inside her--an air bubble or a skipped heartbeat. Fox wouldn't phone her here. Not now.

"Hello?"

No voice replied.

"Hello?" Her heartbeat raced. "Hel--"

"I need to talk to you." The voice was clipped, dry.

"Who is th--?"  But she could picture him already, leaning against the counter, taut, his eyes dark and piercing.

"Could you"--the voice came again--"go to a pay phone and call this number?" A pause. "You have something to write it down on?"

"Y-yes." She reached into the drawer, fingers fumbling awkwardly with the pen. Her blood pounded. "Go ahead."

"(202) 555-4386." A crackle of static. "Can you do it now? It's important and I don't have much time."

She felt herself swallow.  The room tipped slightly. Someone could be listening--Leland's men. "Yes, certainly. Thank you"--a flush of heat--"Raymond. I've been anxious to... to see that painting. It matches one I have in my living room."

"I... I know what I told you before."

"I'll be... very interested in seeing it. Thank you for calling.  In about ten minutes?"

"Okay. Yeah." He seemed restless.  Or nervous.

Teena hung up the phone and sank down onto the edge of the bed. Her legs trembled.

What could he possibly want? 

And if it were a trap?

 

 

 

Krycek opened the folding door to find Tracy outside the booth. He nearly fell into her arms.

"Around back," he said, nodding, and led the way to the rear of the closed-down hamburger stand. The place looked like it had been vacant for quite a while. Thirty feet: he hadn't gone much farther than that but he was winded, as if he'd been chased for a mile. He peered around the corner cautiously--all clear--and slipped into the shadows behind the building. Tracy followed close behind.

He leaned back against the peeling paint of the building's rear wall and looked at her. "Did you get anything? Was that"--he made himself breathe--"what I thought it was?"

"She was covering for you, Alex." Triumph lit her eyes. "That Raymond thing. She was afraid they might be listening."

He let out another long breath, closed his eyes and slumped slightly.

"She'll call back, Alex. I think you can count on her."

He squinted up at the sky: clouds, a few gray-white drifting masses against the hazy brightness. When he lookked down, she was squinting at him from two steps away, her face in the sunlight beyond the building's shadow, stray hairs shining gold in the bright light. He held out his hand and brought her a step closer. Then closer was the two of them wrapped around each other, his breathing still hard, swaying them both. Not a dream, or a nightmare. Both of them here and so far, so good.

So far.

He closed his eyes and felt the print of her body against him. Stillness. Then the arms around his waist retreated.

"Should I move the car, Alex?"

She stepped back slightly. He made himself let go.

"Yeah." He nodded. "Take it around the block, pull it in here. We'll change the plates. I've got more in the trunk."

"Always prepared," she said, starting to turn. She smiled suddenly.

"What?"

"Be prepared, like the Boy Scouts." She grinned. "Bet you were never one of those."

 

 

 

"Ooh, it's another one, Annie--another picture."

Sandy sat watching the little bar on the bottom of the screen, waiting for the picture to load. Now it began, at the top, a horizontal line gradually spreading downward like a window shade unrolling: blue sky, then rolling hills in fading green spread with blankets of orange and yellow flowers.

"Must be California," Annie said, looking over from where she sat on the bed. "The hills are drying out."

"He said he was there. Te-ha-chapi... however you pronounce it. It's really pretty. Have you ever been there, Annie?"

"California?"

Sandy nodded.

"Yes. Parts of it. Usually the cities, though--places near the ocean."

"I wish I could go.  You know, see different places. I love it here. I've always lived here so I guess that makes sense." She paused. "Maybe I just never saw myself anywhere else. But I'd love to at least see, you know, what some of these other places are like."  A pause.  "Hey, you there, Annie?"

Annie was staring out the window, a faraway look on her face. She turned abruptly.

"Yes, I just... Ben came up this morning, just for a few minutes--came up with Dale and a sack of feed." She smoothed a hand over the leg of her shorts. "And I just realized I never even asked how he was until right before he left. I was so wrapped up in my own worries."

"You know he loves you, Annie. He really does. It shows. He's going to understand what you're going through. That's why he came up to check on you."

Annie nodded. "I know." She looked down at the bedspread. "He even sent me an e-mail in the middle of the night." A small smile. "He knew I'd be up checking my mother's readouts." Her lips pressed together, then relaxed gradually. She looked up. "How about you, Sandy? How are you doing? Feeling any better this morning?"

"So-so. Kinda..." She turned away, to the screen first, but the picture went out of focus, and then to the kitchen window. She bit her lip. Sunlight flickered off tree leaves outside. Finally the mattress creaked softly. Annie stood and approached her chair.

"Sandy, you know what it might be, don't you?  What one of the possibilities is?"

She closed her eyes. "I know. It hit me yesterday. I just... I'm so scared, Annie. Scared to even think about it. Mostly I keep thinking, what if it's not true?"

She let out a sigh. Annie's hand smoothed over her shoulder, reassuring.

"Annie, it'd be so--" Pressure in her throat, in her chest.

"I know."

"More than I could ever ask. Something I never figured on."

A careful hand smoothed through her hair. She let her head fall against Annie's middle.

"When you're ready," Annie said, "the tests are easy enough to get. You can bring it up here to do it. If you want to. If you need the moral support."

Sandy nodded. "I just... I never in a million years thought--considered... And then when you think about it, when you realize--" A sigh shook her. "You're afraid to find out for sure, like it was something you were already holding in your hand that somebody might steal away and how can you let that happen, let somebody take everything away from you again?"

The hand against her shoulder squeezed gently. "Maybe it's not something being taken away, Sandy. Maybe it's something you're being given."

 

 

 

"Up a little. A little more."

Tracy moved the license plate--Delaware plate--up slightly.

"Yeah. Good."

She watched as he worked the screwdriver, pressing in with the heel of his hand--carefully, just enough--while his fingers turned the handle.

"Do you want me to do it, Alex? I can--"

A shake of his head. It was a focus he needed--the screwdriver tip in the slot, the pressure, the balance--while he waited for his mother to call back. Or not call.

He finished and stood, nodded toward the front of the car and picked the other plate from the open trunk. The screws on the front plate were stuck, crusted with rust. He handed her the screwdriver and watched as she undid them.

"Still don't know what the hell I'm going to say to her," his voice came from behind her and drifted into silence. He was looking away now, over the back fence to the auto repair shop behind it.

"Just tell her the truth, Alex." She paused. "Okay, I didn't mean to sound--" A sigh. "But she wants to know you're... part of her, Alex. Part of what was her once. That she's someone you can trust."

He nodded slightly and took the screwdriver she held out. He squatted down while she held the plate in place and lined up the holes. This was what her mother had gone through: not just suffering her own illness but watching her daughter deal with it, too, and then echoing what she felt. It was like that, watching Alex wait.

"Other screw."

She picked it off the bumper and started it in the small opening.

The phone rang. He stood instantly and ran to answer it.

Tracy took the screwdriver from the ground, picked it up and closed her eyes.
 

 

 

"Yeah."

"Is it... you?" A pause.

"Yeah. I didn't... didn't want the call to be traced."

"You said you needed to speak with me."

He closed his eyes, breathed out. "I need a favor. If you can. I can't make you..."

"Alex, are you in trouble?"

"No, I'm--" Breathe. "It's someone else. A friend. Someone who's been helping me. I was... You probably heard. Mul... he probably told you--"

"Are you alright now?"

"Yeah, I'm... I'm better.  Getting there, anyway. She's taken care of me--huge help--but as soon as he figures I don't need the help anymore, she's history. She needs a way out of here. I... She's just a kid. She should be with someone. We're okay for a few days, maybe a week. But I need a way to get her out of here when the time comes." He swallowed. Dry throat. "Look, it's going to put you in danger--"

"Alex, why is it me you're asking?"

A burning in his throat.

"Because I... There's nobody I can trust. I... Look, if you can just get her to Mulder, I know he can keep her safe, but he'll never take her from me. He's not going to come to any place I am." A bead of sweat broke loose from his forehead and trailed down the side of his face. It was the glass in the damn booth; the sun was shining right on it and it was hot. "I just need a way to get in touch with you. If you'll do it. So when the time comes--"

"I'll need some time.  To think."

"Mulder's going to tell you it's a trap." Another drop rolled down his face, then another. "I just need a way to keep her safe."

Empty air. Cars whizzed by silently in the street outside. The little colored pennants hanging around the perimeter of the auto dealer's lot waved limply in the slowly moving air.

"I'm"--her voice came again--"not going to be here--"

"Good."  He tightened inside at the slip. Another pause at the other end.

"Alex, do you have e-mail?"

"You have e-mail?"

"Yes. Yes, I... I do. Now."

"How often do you check it?"

"Several times a day."

"Mail me. You have something to write this down on?"

"Yes, just a moment."

He turned and glanced toward the back of the hamburger stand. She wasn't where he could see her.

"I'm ready."

"Topaz@rift.net. Memorize it as soon as you can and burn the paper.  Don't put it on any address list."

"I understand."

More silence. He glanced toward the rear of the building again.

"Alex... do you want mine?"

"It could be traced."

He could have it traced; she'd know what he meant. His stomach was hard and sour. Neither of them had eaten a thing; they'd just packed and taken off.

"Do you want it?"

His eyes closed. "Yeah."

"It's Cranesbill--it's a flower, a kind of geranium. Cranesbill@zipmail.com."

Then Mulder'd opened the account for her; he was at Zipmail, too. "Cranesbill," he repeated. "Zipmail.com."

"Do you have it?"

"Yeah, I'll remember."  His legs were weak, too long standing in the heat of this little glass box.

"Is there anything else, Alex?"

"No. Just... I just need to make sure she gets away from here."

"I'll be in touch."

A click and the line went dead. He hung up the slick, sweaty receiver and stepped out of the booth. The momentary coolness of the air came as shock. Back of the building: go. Tracy would have heard everything and more. He paused at the corner and peered around it cautiously. She was waiting in the driver's seat, ready. The Delaware plate was on the front. He went around to the passenger door, opened it and got in.

 

 

 

"So how's the paper trail coming, gentlemen?"

Langly and Frohike looked up to see Byers standing in the doorway.

"So far, so good," Langly said. "I hacked into the Holiday Inn database and planted a couple of guests back a couple of weeks."

"Under what names?"

"Mulder's mother's maiden name," Frohike said. "Something he might conceivably use. We made 'em a couple--Mr. and Mrs."

"He had a hard time with that," Langly said, smirking in Frohike's direction.

"Hey, a guy can always hope," Frohike said. "Anyway, we figured they'd sign in as a couple."

"Right, and then Scully'd make Mulder sleep on the floor," Langly said.

Byers cleared his throat. "And you left them where?"

"Allentown, Pennsylvania. We figured they were investigating all those MUFON women in the area a couple of years ago.  It seems like someplace they might go back to."

"Did you check with Mulder to make sure they're not actually near there?" Byers said.

"Sent a mail to each of them," Langly said. "Scully got back to me. She said they're not in the vecinity."

"So we have motel registrations." Byers said.

"With picture ID's on the driver's licenses," Frohike said. "He should pick it up through those."

"And a rental car that went from D.C. to Philly on the day they left town." Langly added.  "I outdid myself on that one.  Lariat will never be the same. And then some spotty usage of the same credit card account around the area: gas, food, the usual."

"And to top it off," Frohike went on, "a few video rentals. 'Battlefields of the Civil War', an 'Are Aliens Among Us?' number and a couple of triple-X titles."

"Even if the old guy doesn't buy it completely," Langly said, "you know he's going to spend some time checking it out to be sure. It should keep him busy for a few days. Then we'll lay more crumbs--take them to another area, fly them to Florida or something."

Frohike nodded at Byers. "What about you? How's your assignment going? Found a commando to blast Ma Scully out of the hospital yet?"

"Maybe David Copperfield would be more appropriate," Byers said. "No, nothing firm yet, but Wilkins has some ideas. And Rita's agreeable to her part. I'm waiting to hear."

"Time's getting short," Frohike said.

Byers glanced involuntarily at the clock and grimaced.

 

 

 

Tracy switched lanes and glanced at the passenger seat. Alex was asleep, as he had been for the past hour, his head between the seat edge and the door. In spite of his growing strength, the conversation with his mother had left him as exhausted as any trip up and down the stairs of his building.

He twitched suddenly and settled again. He'd come back to the car still caught in a replay of his mother's words, hardly daring to believe what he'd heard. He was hot and exhausted and hungry; they were both hungry. She'd convinced him to wait until they were outside D.C., away from the worst of the traffic, but afterward he'd made her stop, more out of concern for her than out of thought for himself. The restaurant where they'd stopped had served huge meals so they'd split a breakfast, but it had been more than enough for both of them, certainly for Alex, because as soon as they'd gotten back on the road, he'd fallen asleep.

It was promising, his mother's overture, almost beyond anything he could have hoped for. But there were distinct things inside her that had drawn her to her decision: a mixture of hope and regret; self-condemnation for having believed Leland's story about giving her unwanted newborn a home, a story she realized now had been too good to be true; the need to make an offer to this child she'd turned her back on, though she was fully aware of the risks of such a course. Alex had seemed taut and potentially dangerous to her; she remembered well his warning against trusting him. Still, he'd come to her after all this time; he must need something. And he was still her son.

Tracy reached for the water bottle beside her and took a drink. The driving had gone much more smoothly this time. Alex seemed more at ease, or maybe she was the one who was more relaxed; he was so much more familiar now than the tightly strung man who'd had her pull off the road in the woods. Or the one she'd met on the stairs by the lake, dark and ragged inside and shaken from having shot the boy. Still, it was a miracle that he'd reached out to her at all, a nobody. A random meeting that had led to intense time spent, something small and chance now grown strong and essential. 

Only to be gone again, all too soon. Like this trip.

The house, when they got there, could be like walking through a still-life of that nightmare day. But there should be good things, too: memories of time they'd spent together, the familiar rooms and the familiar things in them. And Alex would be there. He was patient strength, the hand that caught her when she fell.

And she was his younger self, the mother he'd never known, the sister who'd disappeared through the old man's treachery, the friend he'd never had. The lover he needed that she could never be.

She glanced at the seat beside her. His cheeks and chin were shadowed in fine stubble; he'd gotten up too late to shave. He was wearing the plastic arm, the one that wasn't really part of him but was a necessary element of the persona he had to project. His left knee was wedged against the dashboard, the right leaned against the door, his position speaking an ease that would be only memory for him all too soon. She made herself look away from the too-smooth hand where it lay, and below that, a place she had no business looking, and refocused on the road.

There was a sign up ahead, the kind listing towns and distances. She waited anxiously for it to come into focus. No more than fifty minutes, probably, if that. Her grip on the steering wheel tightened. She should prepare. Alex would.

 

 

Raylene sat on the back steps in the sun, a bottle of nail polish beside her. The yard needed mowing. She could nag Joe but probably she'd end up having to do it herself anyway. It's your yard, he'd say, as if he hadn't lived here, too, for the last couple of years. It was her name on the mortgage--hers and Harry's, though Harry wasn't the type to fight her for it. He was quiet. It was the Indian in him. He did a lot more watching than talking; maybe that was what made her so edgy about him anyway. What did you do with people who weren't loud back when you got loud? It was like sending a volleyball over the net and watching the person on the other side just stare and let it drop.

She picked up the small bottle and shook it.

Joe didn't get anything. All he could think of about her news was that Ben had himself a woman, end of story. It was so like him. Men thought alike, not a lot farther than their... Joe didn't, anyway. He'd completely missed the point: that here was a woman this Ben must have already known before he ever got to Owensburg, because where would he meet her here? She obviously wasn't from the area, and if she'd been around town half the population would've noticed within hours. After all, she wasn't exactly another nondescript 5'6" brunette who'd get lost in the Sunday crowd at Wal-Mart. She was small and pretty and red-headed. The local men's tongues would be wagging--or hanging out--after getting an eyeful.

Or maybe...

Ben was Dale's nephew after all, so the fact that they'd go up to Barkers' together was no red flag. Dale's clan had always been close to David and his wife since way before Heather had gone crazy and started wandering. Dale was always running things up there, and Rita... well, maybe if she'd been paying more attention to that boy of hers instead of baking brownies for the Barkers...

But you could never tell about men. What had gotten into her own son-in-law Cy Miller that day to make him run the Johnson kid over and then go steal his own little boy from his mother--and from her on top of it all? How many times had she tried to tell Sandy all of this long before the marriage became a necessity: that Cy was too old for her, that he only wanted her for what he could get, that he'd never amount to anything. After all, when you'd lived through it yourself, the signs got to be familiar. It had been that way a little with Harry. She'd been star-struck, men a new thing, and Sandy wasn't any less bull-headed than she'd been herself at that age.

Raylene unscrewed the cap on the nail polish and started to dip the little brush up and down in the thick mixture.

So where could the redhead have come from, anyway--the new janitor's hidden-away woman? Was she a relative of one or the other of the Barkers? Was she there to keep an eye on Heather and the boy, or was she running from something in her own life, an ex or a relationship gone bad? She wasn't looking for a new start, that was for sure.  Anybody looking for a new start would be out mingling.

Why was she tucked away up there in that little trailer in the trees? Little and picture-perfect and red-headed--it seemed to ring a bell somehow, somewhere in a fuzzy corner in the back of her mind. If the janitor hadn't met her until he got here, he was a fast mover. Then again, he was cute, a fact that wasn't likely to pass Ms. Redhead by, especially if she was in the market.

But say, for the sake of argument, that they'd known each other beforehand. Then both of them coming here wouldn't likely have been coincidence, which meant one of them was hiding something. Okay, so Ben wasn't hiding; he was working at the plant after all. But then why would he be hiding his girlfriend? What was it they didn't want people to know? Certainly it was no big scandal to have a girlfriend. There was something there. A little red flag waving.

Raylene looked at the nail polish bottle in her hand and then out at the weedy lawn. She was going to end up mowing it herself anyway; she should know by now not to confuse wishing with probability. And if she had to do the mowing, Joe surely didn't deserve to see her with freshly painted nails. She poked the little brush back into the jar and tightened the lid.

And another thing: It wouldn't have taken Ms. Redhead long to fall for somebody who treated her like that, who turned to kiss her first as if it were an afterthought and then as if staying alive depended on it.

How long had it been since she'd been kissed that way?

 

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Dear Lark--
Got a mail from the LGM wondering if we were in the Allentown area; evidently they're laying their electronic trail to keep Smoky busy. Hope it works.

Lunch hour. Just thought I'd come home, check my mail and drop you a line to see how you're doing. Keeping my eyes and ears open hoping to find an angle that'll get me more information on AC's situation. Hoping to hear from my mom again, too, but I guess you know the feeling.

Keep your calendar open for tonight; I may have a plan for something different. Will let you know later. Remember you're not alone in this.  When all else fails, that fact is always the one that keeps me going. Hope it helps you, too.
                                                                                               -nightingale

 

 

 

More trees now, higher elevation. More open land. More woods.

Krycek winced and eased his knee down from its place against the dashboard. He rubbed the ache in the side of his neck and glanced over at Tracy in the driver's seat.

"Look who's the sleepyhead now," she said with a hint of a smile when she noticed him.

"I guess." He let his head fall back against the headrest, looked up and let the head liner go slowly out of focus. After a moment he glanced to the side again. Her smile had melted.  Her grip on the wheel was firm but not too hard. Not over-tense.

"I'm okay, Alex." She gave him half a smile. "At least, I think I am."

"How much farther?"

"We're close." Her lips came together. "There's a back road. I'm sure not showing up in Elleryville itself. We'll loop around to the southeast. The road dead-ends at the back edge of the valley, in the trees. We can park the car there where it doesn't show." She looked over at him. "We'll have to walk in. It's maybe a quarter of a mile... maybe not quite. Will you be able to make it okay?"

"Should be able to make anything after all that sleep."

"You needed it."

"Yeah, but..." He shrugged and looked out the window. They were into the mountains--low mountains, but mountains nonetheless. "Yeah. If I pace myself. Maybe with a little help."  He raised an eyebrow.

There would be phone calls to make eventually, to check up on the hospital watch team. There shouldn't be anything happening yet but it wasn't smart to lean too heavily on the expected and get caught with your pants down. Somehow they'd have to get to a phone line.

"There's one at the pump house, " she said. "Nathan uses it when he's working the orchard, in case he has to call Aunt Jean or his tractor gets stuck or something. When we moved in we just ran a long line from the pump house into the house." She paused and bit her lip and then went on, her voice quieter than before. "Unless Nathan's changed a lot, it will be right where it's always been. The line into the house could still be live."

There was more; that was obvious enough. He waited but she only shook her head and looked away.

He frowned.

"Sorry." She made herself look at him. "I know: cards on the table. It's just that Nathan made me leave.  That morning, after the coroner came. Then he locked the house and nailed the windows shut.  I haven't been in there since that day."

Krycek closed his eyes and squeezed the armrest. A moment later the car turned off onto a smaller, bumpier road. So the place was going to be one giant living reminder of the day she dreaded most. What the hell had her son of a bitch uncle been thinking?

Overhead, the sky was beginning to change. What had started out as bright haze with a few gray-white clouds in D.C. had turned into larger gray masses and now wind, a steady movement of air lifting tree leaves in a single direction. The clouds passed quickly overhead, sunlight shining down in patches between them.

He glanced at Tracy again. Maybe she really was okay.

His mother has asked for time to think. Caution was smart, but who knew what would happen once she'd thought it over. Her reaction might be different than what had come out of her on the phone in the pressure of the moment. Maybe she'd tell Mulder, ask his opinion.  Why wouldn't she? If she did, his chances would be shot to hell.  He frowned. A lifetime spent playing second string to the Wonder of Oxford.

He looked out the window and up. Spring-green leaves spread above them.  The car's suspension squeaked as they made their way along the old, uneven road. Mailboxes stood in clusters by the roadside and then there were no more, only snaking roadway. Finally he could see it just ahead: a split-rail fence across the place where the asphalt ended. Tracy pulled off to the right.

"Over there," he said, pointing. Excess gravel had been spread behind several trees. If it rained they wouldn't be stuck in the mud.

She nodded and pulled around onto the gravel and cut the motor. Quiet crept in to fill the car's interior. For a moment she didn't move. Finally she closed her eyes and leaned back against the headrest.

"Tired?"

"A little."  She sighed.  "Thanks for doing this with me." The corner of her mouth wavered slightly. She opened her eyes and made herself smile. "Come on. Both of us have been sitting too long."

He eased himself out of the seat, stood and stretched carefully, then locked the door.  Tracy was around by the open trunk, taking out her backpack. She hesitated.

"I can put your laptop in my pack," she said, pulling on the cord that kept the backpack closed.

"Yeah.  Thanks."  It would mean less to carry.  And a free hand.

Tracy secured the laptop inside the pack and slung it over her shoulder.  She closed the trunk, looked out at the fruit orchard where they'd be heading, took the beginning of a step and stopped. Looked down. The corner of her mouth pulled.  "I think I need a minute, Alex. Just a minute."

"By yourself?"

"I--"  She was starting to look lost. "Maybe."  She turned away and walked toward the empty field that ran beside her uncle's property.  A dozen yards away she stopped, looking out over the field and up onto the wooded hillside to the left.  He had no point of reference for what she was facing.  Where had he left that he'd ever wanted to go back to? 

After a few moments Tracy turned back toward him.  Her face, her posture--neither gave anything away.  But she smiled when she reached him.

"Ready?"

She nodded, took his hand and led the way to the barrier and beyond it through an opening in an old wire fence. They skirted the edge of a plowed apple orchard, the soil turned up and dried into hard chunks.  It was tough going. Several rows of trees over was an unturned strip, mustard flowers still covering it like a living yellow carpet. It made a perfect path as they headed gradually downward on a gentle slope toward the middle of the small valley, silent except for their footfalls and the rhythm of their breathing. From between the trees a structure could be seen, brown and weathered, rising beyond the orchard's end, past the remains of a vegetable garden.

Suddenly Tracy's fingers tightened against his and then were gone; she was running toward something, pack jostling on her back. He looked ahead and saw trees: the poplar trees she'd told him about, tall and straight in their new green leaves, rustling the way she'd described them, sounding like rushing water. He stopped to watch. When she reached them she looked up--big smile--as if she were looking into the face of an old friend, and raised her hands into the air. The breeze caught her dress, blowing it behind her, sending loose wisps of hair flying, revealing her in silhouette: nose and chin, neck, breasts, the softly swollen place where the kid was growing, long legs covered by the yellow dress.

"Do you hear it? Do you, Alex?" she called to him, pointing up into the branches.

There was real life in her eyes, as if she'd discovered something magical or arrived at some final destination, one she'd been targeting, carrying with her no matter what the odds.

So maybe that's what coming home was.

 

 

 

With a sigh of resignation, Scully lifted her fingers from the keyboard and closed her eyes. Half an hour and nothing had come, not a single idea of where to begin. Though her mother wouldn't know, in the end, whether she'd written every day or not.

But that wasn't the point. The point was that her mother might never know.

She pushed back, stood abruptly and went to the kitchen window. The hillside fell away below her and in the distance the landscape built itself up again, one pale blue ridge beyond the next. She rubbed a finger on a dull gold spot in the flecked countertop. How close was Mulder really to finding out anything on his lead, the one he thought he had with Angie Connors? He'd need to access medical records, and how would he get them? He was no computer expert--certainly no hacker--and in any event, there was no guarantee that Beeson-Lymon kept their medical records on computer in the first place. Mulder had been wrong before about leads.

And he'd been right many times when she'd been convinced his hunches were far off base. It had happened often, his seemingly incredulous theories turning them toward what was needed to solve a case. Maybe his hunch was right this time.

But how did he do it, lean so easily on the incredulous, the unproved? Was it a developed sense, an intuition, or just the intensity--the desperation--that sometimes drove him? And what did it say about her own faith that she considered herself a believer but found it so hard to believe him? Neither of them could explain the reasons for the things they believed in, those things that always seemed to clash and trip each other's mental alarms. What did it take to say you believed implicitly in the power of a higher being whose work seemed so random, so often without clear, constructive direction? Was it actually faith, the kind saints had, or was it simply acceptance of what happened around you, a kind of committed resignation?

Footfalls sounded on the path outside, coming closer. Sandy running.

"Annie?"

Scully turned around. Sandy's shadowed face smiled through the screen at the bottom of the steps.

"Yes?"

"How's it going?"

Scully pressed her lips together.

"May I?" the girl said.

Scully nodded and Sandy opened the screen door and stepped up and inside.

"Adrie and I are going to make potato salad. You want to come help?"

"I... I've been sitting here trying to start a letter to my mother." She sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. "But quite frankly, I haven't been able to think of a thing to say."

"One of those down times?"

Scully nodded.

"I know what it's like," Sandy said, sitting on the desk chair and putting her feet up on the rungs. "You know I do. It comes and goes, you know? It's better and it's worse. But sometimes it helps to just get your hands busy and leave your mind alone for a while." She paused until Scully looked up at her. "I make a mean potato salad and Adrie's pretty good in the kitchen, too, for a little kid. Come on. Give us a hand. It'll do you good."

Scully studied the slanted patterns of sunlight on the carpet, then looked up at Sandy and nodded. "I'll be up in a minute or two."

"You better," Sandy said, her attempt at sternness ending in a grin. She stood. " 'Cause if you don't I'll be coming back for you."

"Sandy?" Adrie's voice sounded from up the trail.

"Here, punkin. I'm with Annie. I'm coming."

Scully watched her hurry down the stairs and ruffle Adrie's hair. This job was good for her. It used a talent she had, one Scully herself might have underestimated before she'd spent time here. She turned back and pushed the sleep button on the computer and watched the screen go black. Potato salad. It wouldn't help her mother but it might be a good thing for Adrie, his household alive and active again instead of somber and subtly haunted by his essentially absent mother.

And others were helping them: the Gunmen; Will Wilkins, who'd gone out of his way to protect her mother; the Barkers; Dale and Rita.  It was overwhelming to realize how many, many people had come forward to mitigate the effects of the scheming of a single heartless man.

 

 

 

"You ready?"

Alex's hand reached down to her. Tracy took it and stood, looking up one last time at the trees' fluttering, noisy leaves.  Then they started once again along the yellow path of unturned ground, his hand sure against hers, leading slightly. Tiny lavender and coral weed blossoms disappeared under their feet and she looked up to see it immediately as if it were highlighted: the sweet pea trellis. She stopped without thinking and Alex glanced back at her, questioning.

"The garden," she said simply, and started forward again. "We spent a lot of time here. She spent a lot of time here."

His broad hand tightened over hers.

Weeds had taken over the space inside the deer fence, growing tall and exuberant. From among them rose poles for the green beans, rows of wire for the berries--now unkempt and sprawling--and the large area left open for the corn that had never been planted that last year. A small pump house sat in the corner of the plot and next to it rose the pole-and-string structure that held the sweet pea vines. She let go of Alex's hand and moved toward it as if drawn.

Pale tan vines climbed from the riot of vibrant greenery, stiff and papery as parchment. Upturned leaves were speckled with dark gray mildew. She traced a stem upward with a finger, stopping to circle a leaf formed only of outline and fragile, lacy veins. The whole width of the trellis looked the same, last year's vines turned to fragile, bleached skeletons.

"She loved these," she said, her voice suddenly dry. "She loved the way they smelled in the house, a whole handful of them in a little vase. They have this sweet, sweet fragrance..."

"Like this?"

He bent down and spread the weeds along the base wire to reveal a small vine that had seeded itself from the popped pods on the structure. A single red flower rode bravely at the end of a short stem. He picked it and held it up to her. She breathed in the familiar, sweet fragrance. A moment later the flower was withdrawn and the stem was being worked between the braided sections of her hair.

"Didn't get a chance to take them down before you left?" 

She nodded. "Most of them had finished blooming. I wanted to take them down but Nathan was in a hurry. He wouldn't wait. He said it didn't make any difference and I guess it shouldn't.  Logically, I mean." Pressure filled her throat. She stared hard at the feathery leaves of a weed at her feet.  A warm thumb smoothed below the corner of her eye, carrying away a drop of wetness.

'C'mon' was all he said, and they were moving again, Alex leading her toward the weathered gray-brown of the building.

 

 

 

For the second time that morning, the telephone jingled.

"No rest for the weary," Will grunted. He reached for the cordless phone on the cushion beside him and punched the 'on' button. "Yes?"

Rita turned to look out the window. The day had grown overcast. Probably they'd see some rain before long. Ralph should be taken out for a walk before it was too late.

"No, I don't have that kind of memory for the details, exactly. I'm the kind of guy who keeps a note pad handy. Only names I remember were the woman's, and lemme see... there was a blond-haired guy. Smoker. Hanson... no that wasn't it. Harris. Harder, I think. I believe those were the only two we had."

Rita turned back; there was something about his voice.  Now he was scowling.

"Sorry, that's all I've got. What did you say happened to those files?" His brow knitted, then the corner of his mouth turned down. "And they're reopening the investigation?" A pause. "Sure."

He switched off the phone and looked up at the ceiling.  "Mother J, I do believe the ship has sprung a leak. That was one fishy phone call." He glanced at her. "I think someone's poking into your case again. Just not officially."

 

 

 

"So this is it," she said, hands spreading to encompass the room.

Krycek looked over her shoulder into the interior of the house. She seemed okay but it was going back and forth, the ghosts closing in on her and then retreating.

"I guess this is the living area," she said.

A modest-sized room opened in front of them, a kitchen area to the left with a broad window above the sink that framed a view of the orchard and the wooded hillside beyond. The rest of the room was couch, TV, bookshelves. An open stairway along the wall to the right of the front door led to a second story.

"My room's up there," she replied to his unasked question.

When he glanced back, she was staring toward the left where a short hallway led to a final room. Which had to be it: ground zero. He took a second look around. The whole place was dusty, a still-life.  A snapshot of two lives abandoned.

He cleared his throat.  "That her room?"

She nodded but made no move to go toward it.

"You want me to go in with you?"

But it made no sense to spoon-feed her.  A week from now she'd be on her own, and what would she do then? She'd have to figure out a way to keep her own head above water. 

"I should do it myself," she said, turning back to him, and paused. "You can go upstairs if you want."

"Yell if you need anything."

She nodded.

He turned and started up the stairs. When he came back down there'd be that phone line to check on. Hopefully it would still be live, like she said. Otherwise they'd have to check out the line at the pump house, or hope there was someplace else close by to hook up.

He reached the landing and turned to face the upstairs room. Shaggy carpet covered the floor in white mixed with flecked shades of gold and yellow. It was one big room with her bed under the window at the far end. At this end was an armoire with a small window beside it, then a table with some kind of craft project spread over the top, then empty space, a desk against the right-hand wall, and finally the bed set below a large window. It was exactly where she'd want to sleep: someplace she could wake up and look out at the sky. 

His side ached quietly.  The hike had tired him more than he'd realized until just now.  He glanced briefly down the stairwell, then started toward the far end of the room.

 

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: heron3@zipmail.com
It's been a long while since we last connected. This is the first day in far too long that I've felt like sitting up long enough to send something, my head with something in it besides pounding. Mind you, I'm headed back to bed when this is sent, but progress is progress. Hopefully this bodes well for your mother, too.

Received a phone call a few minutes ago that sent up a red flag--second one in two days, actually, where someone from the Bureau has asked me for information about the BL case, claiming paperwork has been lost. The first time I assumed it was just a clerical thing, but now it looks like something else altogether. I spoke to an Agent Fowley; she was looking for names of potential beryllium victims. I told her about the two who were working there now since it's fairly common knowledge but I pleaded failing memory on the rest; somehow her questions hit me the wrong way and I thought you two might do well to know somebody's poking around in all of this.

Hope you're making headway and that you're surviving the suspense of your mother's condition. I of all people can certainly sympathize. The support on this end has been great, though, if it helps you any to know it.

Let Ben know about developments here and if I can help you with any more background, I'm only a mail away. The files may be out of my hands, but I've still got those little notepads here at home.

Best wishes.
   
                                                                            -Will
 

 

 

Bed with the covers pulled back.  Several blankets in solid colors--burgundy and dark blue and pink.  Flannel sheets with little sprigs of flowers printed on them.  A pillow. All of it under a thick layer of dust. Beyond the bed a broad window ledge lined with an assortment of objects: two handmade dolls, obviously mother and daughter, the larger one with curls in soft orange yarn and wearing a yellow dress, the other smaller and thin, with pale yellow yarn hair, both of them with hand-stitched smiles; a small vase with only a cobwebbed stem in it, dried brown petals scattered on the ledge below; a child's stuffed unicorn; a pencil and a pad of paper that had faded with a year's exposure. A picture of Itzak Perlman, violin in hand, cut from a magazine and glued onto a piece of cardboard that served as a frame. A crumpled piece of paper from a notepad.

Dust everywhere. It would drive her nuts; she'd want to grab a rag and clean it all away. More so here than in his room, but that was understandable.

Krycek skirted the foot of the bed and leaned against the window ledge. The garden and then the orchard spread out below, the trees covered in a canopy of bright new leaves. Beyond that was the wooded area where they'd left the car, spreading around to the right, bordering the now-empty field that lay beside the orchard, probably someone else's property. The clouds were thicker now, darker. Yellowish light shone through them in patches, flooding a section of the garden here, half a dozen trees there, a section of woods off in the distance. The tops of the two poplars shone green-gold, constantly moving, their leaves shimmering in the bluster.

He turned and looked into the shadowed corner of the room, where a basket of stuffed animals huddled together: tigers and a dog, a pink pig, an elephant, a skunk and a tiny giraffe. Real animals, none of the cartoonish kind. The desk was old with a drop-down writing surface and slots at the back. Post cards stuck out of several openings. A diary rested on the middle of the desktop, a brown-paper-covered textbook to one side with 'math' written across it in green pen. All of it covered in dust.

Krycek eyed the desk chair, considered wiping off the seat and sitting down to rest, but the silence of the house made him antsy rather than relaxed. There was no way of telling how much time she'd need.  Hell, he had no idea what seeing all this would be doing to her, or how to patch her back together if she fell apart.  What did he know about mothers and daughters, or anyone who'd stick together they way these two obviously had? 

Then again, maybe he was underestimating her.

He looked up at the ceiling, let his eyes wander briefly through the wood pattern there, then turned and went to the landing. No sound. He took hold of the railing and started quietly down the stairs. The living room was hung in deeper shadow than before but light spilled from the open door at the end of the hall. The front door stood ajar; he passed it and went down the hallway, pausing at the entrance to her mother's room.

Empty. The floor was bare; there was a place where she'd obviously sat down because the dust was gone, revealing shiny floor. To the right was a bed against the wall--stripped, just a bare mattress with two pillows tossed on top. She'd pushed it against the wall; there were marks on the floor where the legs of the bed had moved through the accumulation of dust. To the left was a rocking chair by the window, large and high-backed with a woven seat, the kind you could fall asleep in. Beside the bed was a small table with a lamp, magazines and several books on top.

Beyond the window, Tracy was visible at the edge of the garden, her dress blowing to one side, stray hairs snaking in the wind. The flower was still in her hair, a red smudge above her ear.

Stay here or follow?

She knew to ask if she needed help, but whether she would or not... well, it could be like hoping she'd have the sense to lock her door. No point in crowding her, though.

He glanced around the room again.  A child's crayon drawing was tacked to the wall to the right of the bed, a picture of an orchard with big yellow and red apples popping out of the trees. His gaze returned to the window. She was still there, looking out toward the wooded hillside. He flexed his hand and returned to the living room. On the coffee table sat a phone. He picked it up: dial tone. He smiled grimly. They were in business.

Krycek eased himself down onto the couch and felt the weariness that had been building envelope him like a cloud.  But there was work to do.  He reached for the phone, turned it over, unclipped the line and reached for the backpack that held his laptop.

Check on her.

He paused, his good hand on the half-open pack.

Now.

Outside, the wind was fiercer than before.  Scattered drops of moisture landed on his face and shirt. From the corner of the porch he could see Tracy standing by the sweet pea vines.  More drops fell, larger drops.

"Tracy!"

The wind blew his voice in the opposite direction. He started for the garden, the wound thumping a dull ache, his remaining strength rapidly dwindling.  He should be on the couch, not pushing his limit out here.  Hell, he should be back in his apartment.  

Reaching the perimeter fence, he went through the gate and came up behind her. She didn't turn to look at him. Her hands were busy unwinding a dried vine from the trellis.

"Hey." 

No acknowledgment.

He let his hand settle on her shoulder.  "It's raining.  You should get inside."  He paused.  "You take this stuff down and your uncle's going to notice the next time he comes around. He hasn't moved a thing, so anything you do is going to stand right out."

She continued to unwind the fragile strands.

"Tracy..."

Her fingers worked faster.

"Tracy, stop." He reached out and took her by the wrist.

She pulled against his grip. "I have to do this, Alex."

He held her harder.  "Uh-uh. You've got to face it, whatever it is that's eating at you."

She struggled against his hold.

"Tracy, don't."

Suddenly she jerked free and ran, first toward the orchard, then through an opening in the wire fence and out across the open field toward the trees like a frightened deer.

He slammed the end of the trellis with a fist. There'd be no catching up with her.  Not in this body. Go ahead, kid; don't think, just run

What are you going to do when you're on your own, nena?

He let out a sigh and rubbed his stinging knuckles against his stomach. Fat drops of water landed on his face and shirt. She'd end up soaked out there, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.  Let her work it out for herself.

He kicked at a weed and turned back toward the house. At the corner of the porch he turned and looked behind him. Not a sign of her.

Going inside, he shoved the door shut behind him and sank onto the couch. Leaned forward and rested his head in his hand. He'd only grabbed her to get her attention, but she'd been oblivious, caught up in the mess in her head. He looked up, out through the kitchen window where random drops splatted loudly against the glass. She'd bolted before and she'd always come back. He shook his head and stared at the laptop on the coffee table.

After a moment he flipped up the screen, hooked in the phone line and hit the power button. The hard drive rumbled and the screen flashed blue and came on. Maybe his mother had written. Or maybe not; it was probably too soon.

Maybe he should be the one to write.

But he'd said everything already, on the phone.  What else was there to say?  Beyond a few minutes spent in her kitchen and a couple of hours asleep in her garage she was a complete unknown, an icon in his life like the ones painted on the walls of Russian village churches, a symbol without real essence.  Then again, maybe he was the same for her.

Mail program. He clicked, then waited for the computer to dial and connect. Just one message, the usual shit: the readouts, which meant nothing. Mulder and Scully wouldn't be stupid enough to wing it, or to wait until it was too late; they'd have a plan. They'd damn well better.

But if they were ahead of him? If they sprung Scully's mother today and the old man's crew ended up looking for him, wondering where he was when everything had gone to hell and they should be starting a search? And in the meantime he was off in the middle of nowhere, out of the loop while Tracy ran her emotions out across a field and he sat in this dusty tomb of a house, out of the game?

A sudden gust of air came from behind him. He turned around to see her standing in the half-open doorway, dress damp, hair dripping.

"Sorry, Alex," she said quietly. "You were right." She looked at the floor in front of her. "It's the same thing I did before." 

His fist opened, clenched and opened again.  He pushed the laptop to one side and reminded himself to watch the tone of his voice.  "Yeah, but you came back this time."  He cleared his throat.  "Come here."  He motioned her toward the couch with a nod of his head.

She came and stood before him, more tired than emotional as far as he could tell.  "Phone line's live," he said.  "I just connected.  Everything's running according to plan from what I can tell." 

Silence. He watched her fingers stretch and then curl into her palms. A drop of water slid down a clump of damp hair and fell onto her dress.  What the hell did you say to a messed-up kid? 

"You bring anything else to wear?  Anything dry?"

Nice opener, Aleksei.

He watched her eyes glaze over, full and wet, and her hands clench.  But she was standing her ground, determined not to turn away or run this time even if it killed her.

He leaned forward, grimaced against the pain in his side and stood.  "There must be a towel around here.  You could use one.  Where would a towel be?"

"Closet," she whispered.  "In the hallway, second shelf." 

He followed her directions, pulled a towel from the bottom of the stack--relatively dust-free--and returned to the living room.

"Sit."

She hesitated a moment, then sat down on the coffee table.  He draped the towel around her from behind, rubbing it over her head and along her shoulders.  God, he was no counselor.  Mulder was the one with the talent for soothing, and she was wet--not soaked but in need of fresh clothes and there was no reason for her to have brought anything extra.

The shoulders beneath the towel shook; the head went down.

He'd been right.  Coming here was more than she could handle.  But she'd probably known that better than he had, and still she'd made the effort.  Had been willing to try it alone.  And coming along was his own choice, but what was it he'd expected to do?  Why had he even offered, except for the obvious reason: that his place was going to be empty as hell without her?

A gust of rain peppered the kitchen window. Wind howled at the corners of the house.

"Maybe you're"--he cleared his throat--"still trying to fix it.  You know? Replay everything, do better and hope you'll get a different outcome this time." 

She looked up at him, questioning.

He sat down beside her.  Shook his head.  "You can't do that.  It's past.  Over. You did the best you could at the time and now you've got to let it go."

After a moment she nodded.  Gulped.  He reached out and wrapped his good arm around her, pulling her close against him.  Her body tensed, held and then the tears came, warm and silent, slipping down her cheeks and onto the side of his nose.  He held her in the gray silence of the little house, time melting away, until finally she relaxed against him, spent and still.  Fine, stray hairs brushed against his nose and cheek.

 

 

 

Mulder glanced at his watch--1:24--and into Joe's office. Empty. He slipped inside and studied the assignment list on the chalkboard.  Luckily, everybody else was working the big house this afternoon. In the doorway he paused to listen once more: nothing but the sounds of the building itself, the groaning of pipes and the flow of water. Cautiously he slipped out into the hallway and started down the ramp that led to the basement. If someone were to come by--if Joe came back early from lunch--what excuse would he give for being down there? That he'd forgotten a paint brush, or seen something--maybe a rat--and had gone to check it out? Something.

Quickening his pace, he made his way as quietly as possible to the bottom of the ramp and paused while the echoes of his footfalls faded into silence. Hearing nothing, he flipped the wall switch. Rows of tall, old lockers stood bathed in dull light, remnants of a time when Beeson-Lymon had consisted of only one building and the processing and assembly had been done upstairs instead of in the new building across the parking lot. Three banks of lockers were painted gray--the ones he'd done. The rest were still a peeling institutional green.

He started forward but quickly stopped. Footfalls, and not his own. A spike in his breathing and a short man in a blue Beeson-Lymon shirt and dark pants appeared around the end of a bank of lockers. He glanced indifferently at Mulder.

"Lights went off a minute ago," the man said, shrugging. "Damn dark down here without 'em. Must've been another one of those power glitches. Owensburg Power is always stewing over those damn generators they claim they need. Maybe they're doing it on purpose to prove their case."

"Could be," Mulder said. "Whole world's out for its cut of your money."

"Ain't it the truth."

The man moved forward into full view pushing a hand truck. Power glitch. Right. The wall switch had been in the 'off' position.

"You see a work cart down here?" Mulder said.

The man seemed anxious to leave. He shook his head.

"Left some paint brushes down here the other day. If I don't find them Joe's going to have my ass."

The man gave him a sympathetic nod and went around the corner. His footsteps echoed up the ramp.

Power glitch. The guy wasn't expecting anybody down here; it was the only thing he could come up with on the spur of the moment. And the hand truck--what would it have been carrying?  Hopefully the guy'd bought his story about the brushes.  If the guy was indeed delivering unmarked boxes, he'd be likely to remember anyone who crossed his path.

Mulder waited for the footfalls to die away and moved quickly to the last bank of lockers. He reached for the handle, stopped to pull a cleaning cloth from his back pocket and covered the latch with it. Carefully he eased the locker's handle upward and opened the door.

Jackpot.

 

 

 

"I thought you said a rocking chair would make you feel like an old man, Alex."

He shrugged.  "I am an old man."  He smiled, half-amused. "At least, I've felt like one for the last few weeks. So maybe the chair fits."

Tracy turned to look up from where she was seated on the floor in front of the rocking chair, gave him a smile in return and settled back against his legs.  In the end it seemed to have been the right gamble--bringing her in here, having her face the room, the bed, the memories. Bit by bit he'd drawn the whole story out of her, hoping she'd be able to finally see it for what it was--the past--and be able to set it aside.  She'd have enough to face going forward without hauling along the baggage of what she couldn't change.  Eventually they'd drifted into silence, but it was a good silence, the two of them close and comfortable.  The chair had been just what he needed. It leaned back far enough to be relaxing and had given him a chance to regain a little of his strength.

"Sometimes when I was little," Tracy started, "I'd come down here early in the morning and sneak into bed with her so she'd find me here when she woke up. It was nice, waking up all warm with the sun streaming in the window and... not all by myself, I guess. That was the main thing. That we were there together, that I knew I'd wake up and--"

Not be alone. He glanced out the window, to where masses of gray clouds flowed steadily past the glass.

"What about you, Alex? Were you always part of a group? Was there ever anybody looking out for you?  I mean, you specifically?"

All he could manage was an unconvincing smirk.  There was no possible reference point she or anyone else could have for where he'd grown up.  Except for the little bastards unlucky enough to have fallen into the state system along with him. 

"It's all I ever knew, the institution.  The old man used to tell me he had somebody 'watch over' me for a while--until I was two or three. Really young kids, they don't always survive in places like that.  Aren't expected to.  But the old man wanted to be sure I made it, that I had my 'chance'."  A bitter smile played across his lips.  He shrugged. "Don't remember anybody, though. We were just a big bunch of kids: eat together, sleep side by side on rows of cots, work together, play together. Fight together, get sick together."

She shifted against him, rested a cheek against his knee.  A warm hand found its way around his ankle.

"You had it good, Tracy, you know that?  Not what you had to go through at the end, but..." He nudged a toe against the floor, urging the chair into motion, and glanced toward the window and the spray of rain against it.

"Toward the end I'd come down here in the middle of the night, and early in the morning." Her voice echoed slightly in the near-empty room. "Just to see if she was still here. I was afraid she'd be gone, but at the same time--" She closed her eyes and rode the subtle movement of the chair against her back.

"Some things take care of themselves," he said, "without you doing anything to make it happen." His hand smoothed across her shoulder and settled there. "Maybe that's what was happening to your mom, Tracy. You can't breathe for someone else, or bleed for someone else. Maybe she was letting go and you let her. Maybe that's the best thing you could have done."

"Maybe she was just hanging on for me that last month; I hadn't thought of that. Alex, I wouldn't have wanted--"

"Shh." A pause and he eased himself forward and spoke quietly.  "Come here."

She turned and looked at him, puzzled, but followed his urging, got up and settled herself across his legs in the chair.  After a moment she curled down against his shoulder. 

"Get some rest," he said. He pushed slightly against the floor, setting the chair gently rocking, and closed his eyes. 

 

 

 

(Teena Mulder)
I wanted to believe Alex. Perhaps that was what I was most afraid of: that in my desperate hope that Alex was not a rubber stamp of his father, I would miss some critical sign or indicator, that I would believe for the wrong reasons, as I had so long ago when Leland had offered to 'take care of' this inconvenient child.

Alex's unexpected phone call had struck me in very much the same way as his appearance on my doorstep a month earlier. I couldn't have been more shocked if I'd opened the door to Samantha that morning. When he left I'd believed I'd never see him again, that he'd satisfied his curiosity about who I was. But now he'd called. Against his own warning to me not to trust him, he was asking for my help. Or was it the perfect trap, designed to play on a mother's guilt or vanity?

I knew nothing about this son, this stranger who had leaned against my kitchen counter and stumbled over his words, who had accused me with a yellowed photograph and slept like a hunted animal in the dust of my garage. I had one son I knew I could count on, who I owed repayment for years of neglect, and I couldn't betray his trust. Alex was asking me to give this girl, whoever she was, over to Fox and in the process to expose Fox's location. It would be a simple way to determine Fox's whereabouts and Alex had shown no sensitivity toward Fox in the past. He'd shot Bill and left Fox to watch his father die.  He'd set fire to the Quonochotaug house with all of Samantha's things stored in it, things that must surely have had meaning for Fox. Though he had let Fox go. Undoubtedly he could have made it otherwise.

I can't make you, Alex had said to me on the phone. Those words had remained in my head because they were so unlike his father's. Leland wanted you to know that you had no choice but to do what he commanded. And Alex had dangled no carrot in front of me. He had offered me nothing more than a chance to expose Fox and my own loyalties. If he were sincere, why not ask me to simply help the girl get away, to put her on a plane or give her traveling money?

A girl, he'd said. Not a woman, or a nurse. Why would a child have been mixed up in Leland's doings? I had no idea what he meant. A girl. Fifteen? Eighteen? Twenty? Younger? Three times he'd repeated that he just wanted to know she'd be safe. The fact was that his nervousness and the unattractiveness of his request gave me hope.  They had nothing of Leland's seamless calculation about them.

If Alex's situation was as he described it, he was putting his life on the line for this girl, whoever she was; surely he would understand the danger in crossing his father. A friend--he'd used that word. How easily would someone like Alex find anyone he'd truly trust? Though if he had, how valuable she must be.

There seemed no way of knowing the truth of who Alex actually was, or the girl he appeared ready to take this risk for. If indeed she were real and not created for effect.

 

 

(Scully)
I returned from the Barkers' house grateful that Sandy's potato salad project had enabled me to distance myself for a while from my worry over my mother. But when I checked my mail, it was to discover Will's note telling me that Diana Fowley had been pressing him for information regarding the Beeson-Lymon case. I don't remember ever having been so furious with someone as I was at that moment with Diana. My initial impression of her had been that there was something she was hiding behind that calm, plastic exterior.  Certainly it hadn't helped that Mulder had conveniently neglected to tell me they'd known each other previously.  He could have mentioned that they'd been partners. A little volunteered information would have gone a long way at that point and its absence had made me question myself, and Mulder, as well as my usefulness as Mulder's partner, in ways I never had before.

But beyond the repugnance of her loyalty to the Smoking Man, Diana had hurt Mulder deeply with her deception, a penetrating injury he was only now beginning to feel in its full extent. Damage done casually and without regret--that was the feeling I got from her. How like Smoky himself. No wonder they'd found allies in each other.

Now her assignment to find the mysterious e-mailer could easily mean her return to Owensburg, and while I was hidden and therefore safe, Mulder was not. We could find ourselves on the run again, all our time here gone for nothing--or worse--unless Diana was presented, and quickly, with a suitable author for the mysterious e-mail.

 

 

 

"The wind will wake me up," Tracy said, her hand clutching the front door.  "Sometimes a little sleep makes you groggier than you were to begin with."

"Just don't get carried away out there."

Krycek turned back to the laptop on the coffee table. It was a bad sign, checking his mail this soon. His mother had said she needed time to make a decision. And if she offered to help, she'd still have to figure out how to make an end run around Mulder.

He tapped unthinking against the tabletop with a pen. The uplink was still whining, taking too damn long to connect. Across the room water sprayed against the glass above the sink. The sky was darker than before, mounds of clouds in gray and darker gray. The path between here and the car would be soaked by now, soft, and it had taken enough out of him making his way down-slope to get here.  With the ground turned to mud, and having to walk uphill... Well, the house was going to be it. For a while anyway.

The connection went through.  He sat forward momentarily but soon sagged back against the couch cushions. No new messages.

But his mother's experience with the old man had given her no reason to trust. Her caution was a good sign. Showed she'd think a thing through and not just go off half-cocked.

He pushed the laptop away, stood and went to the kitchen window. Another gust of wind splattered raindrops against the glass. It was a strong storm, bigger than anything the weather service had anticipated, and... What the hell was she doing, still out there after this long?

He turned and crossed the room to the front door.

 

 

 

To: Redwall@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Need you guys to do a little bait and switch for me in Baltimore on Sunday.  Repackaging, anyway. Meeting details to follow. Bring standard kraft cardboard boxes, 16"x16"x16", no printed markings, and 2" wide kraft packing tape. No substitutions. Need contents determined and boxes repacked exactly as unopened. Get back to me.

 

 

 

The scene before her swam. Tracy clutched the wet knob to the front door and blinked.  Her legs were jelly and the side of her head hurt.

Suddenly Alex's face floated in front of her, the door to the living room standing open behind him. "What happened?" he was saying.  He seemed alarmed. 

Almost immediately she was pulled against him and whisked inside.  The door closed behind her, the storm noise replaced abruptly by the dry quiet of the house.

"It's nothing, Alex.  I just felt dizzy.  I--"  She'd gone out to clear her head after dozing off in the rocking chair.

"The hell it is," he said, standing back. 

The front of his shirt was wet where they'd pressed together.  A muddy streak ran diagonally from near his shoulder to the middle of his shirt.  She looked down to see her dress soaked and dirty.  A shiver ran through her.

"Sit," he said, leading her several steps to the foot of the stairs.  She sat, reached for the sensitive spot on the side of her head and winced.  His fingers followed, moving her hand from the place, probing the area carefully.  She looked across the room, then up into worried eyes.

"Looks like you passed out and fell," he said.  "What happened?"

"The wind was starting to clear my head and then... I don't know." She paused. "I started to see something."

"See something?"

"In my mind."  She swallowed.

"And then?"

"Then I was at the door, coming back in, and I felt dizzy."  She paused.  "But I feel better now."

He frowned, went to the couch and returned with the towel she'd used earlier.  She took it and began to wipe the water from her face and hair.  Carefully she dabbed around the bruise on the side of her head.

"You didn't happen to bring any extra clothes, did you?  You need to get out of that stuff."

She shook her head and got slowly to her feet.

"Careful." His hand came out to steady her.

"I think I'm alright now.  I feel okay."  She shivered.  "Sorry about your shirt, Alex.  I--"

He shook his head.  "Don't worry about it."  A pause. "There any clothes around here?" 

She shrugged.  "Things I grew out of years ago. Maybe--" One hand curled tight.  "There could be something in my mom's room." 

His expression showed that he hadn't missed her reticence.  "I'll check," he said, and turned and disappeared down the murky hallway.
 

 

 

To: the lark@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Hang in there, Lark. Plans are in the offing. Not exactly an evening on the balcony but... you'll see. Hope you're game.

                                                                                     Yours in the shadows,
   
                                                                                         The Nightingale
 

 

 

It was too damn much like the time she'd been sitting on the bed and had suddenly gone pale, Krycek thought as he opened the closet in her mother's room.  She'd 'seen' something then, too.  Strange reaction.  The space in front of him stood empty, stripped of whatever it had held when her mother was alive. He frowned and shut the door. 

Too damn much of her life was a mystery, tucked away in places she seemed unable to access.  The question was whether the blockage was coming from her subconscious or from some outside source.  But he'd checked her neck--had done it the first night--and there had been no implant.  He glanced out the window at the rain, let out a heavy breath and left the room.  Tracy was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the mud from her arms.

"Nothing there.  I'll check upstairs."  He paused.  "You okay?"

She nodded yes and he started up the stairs, restless.  She could do that in front of the old man sometime--collapse like that. There'd be precious little time to get her away then, and no plausible excuse to use as a cover.  There'd be no question as to who'd helped her escape, and what kind of story would the old man be likely to buy?

On the landing he paused to gather his strength, eyes scanning the dim room.  There was no electricity and it would be dark soon.  The cold wouldn't be a problem, assuming there was something for her to wear.  But they'd brought no food at all, and the fact was that they were stuck here now until the storm blew over, possibly until morning. 

Worse, if Mulder made his move tonight to take Scully's mom from the hospital, he'd be up Shit Creek with the old man, unable to coordinate the hunt to retrieve her, everyone wondering where the hell he'd disappeared to.  The old man had been pleased enough with his seeming compliance lately, but that could change in a heartbeat.

And he wasn't Jeffrey, who seemed to be permanently positioned in the old man's blind spot.  Good old Jeff.  He could drool on his desk and the old man would just pull out a rag and wipe his chin.  No car bombs or missile silos for Jeffrey.

He looked up.  The clothes. 

First he tried the armoire, making his way through the hanging clothes, but they all seemed small, things she must have saved from when she was a kid.  One of the drawers at the bottom held some kind of crocheted thing, but again, not big enough to cover her.  He made his way slowly down the length of the room, checking for closet openings along the dusky walls, but found none.  Which left the bed, and the bedding.  Well, it would keep her warm if nothing else.  

The blanket on top was gray with dust; he folded it back carefully and pulled out the one below. Hopefully Nathan hadn't crawled up here and nailed the upper windows shut, too. The guy'd been on a mission, that was for sure, but why? What would it have hurt to let her come back and face the place? She'd have been better off if she'd been able to let the reality settle in gradually.

Leaning across the broad windowsill, he pulled the latch. The window slid open and cool, damp air poured in. Taking firm hold of the blanket, he hung it out the window and shook.  Pulled it back in carefully a moment later and laid it over the back of the desk chair, then took the remaining blanket and shook it, too. At the opposite end of the valley, beyond the trees where they'd parked, clouds gusted across a roiling sky while the branches of the two poplars closer in dipped and swayed in the gusts.

Krycek pulled the second blanket inside and pushed the window halfway shut.  It was too soon for Mulder to make his move at the hospital; it was just his own nerves getting to him.  It was Scully's mom, for fuck's sake; Mulder would wait to have all his ducks in a row.  He wouldn't take any chances where Scully was concerned.

He glanced around the room once again, looking for... what?  He wasn't sure.  There were just too many loose ends here, too many variables he had no control over.  Too much that hadn't yet happened, but would soon enough. 

With a resigned sigh, he picked up the two blankets and started for the stairs.  What if Tracy had passed out on the porch and he hadn't thought to check her?  After all she'd done for him it was hard to think of her as a liability, but the fact remained that he'd run off to the farm trailing this girl the way a dog follows a bicycle, leaving behind the one assignment that made him even marginally valuable to the old man.  There'd be no placating the old son of a bitch if he discovered the truth. 

She'd be waiting down there, wondering what was taking him.

Krycek pulled up the trailing edge of the one blanket and started down the stairs.  The old man would stand there in his cloud of smug self-righteousness and give him the lecture about the danger of letting emotion cloud your judgment.  And what would he be able to say in his own defense?  It was a textbook case.

The floor of her room rose in front of him and disappeared overhead. The couch lay deep in shadow, only the laptop's screen glowing softly. From her place in front of the sink, Tracy looked up at him, confusion and hurt written in her expression. 

Shit. 

"Sorry, I--" 

She turned away.

Fuck.  After all this time, how could he forget that his thoughts were never just his own when she was around?  But it was the ugly reality of his life, like it or not, convenient or not: stay focused on your work or die. 

A sudden flash lit the house, flooding the window with purple light. Thunder cracked close overhead. Tracy was bent over the sink, her head under the faucet. She jumped backward.

"You okay?"

"I--" She nodded and gathered her hair together with her hands. Water streamed off it. "I think so." She moved cautiously back to the sink.

He set the blankets on the corner of the couch, sat down and leaned forward. Time to keep his cool, not let this escalate into something ugly... at least, not any uglier than it already was.  He breathed out slowly, paused, breathed in again.  When he heard the water turn off at the sink, he looked up.  Her hand was out, groping for the towel, which proceeded to fall onto the floor. He stood and started toward it.

"I can do it myself, Alex." A tone she'd never used with him before.

Fine.

She twisted the water from her hair, reached down quickly to retrieve the towel and shook it. Carefully she wiped the water from her face and neck and wrapped her hair in the towel, never turning to look at him.

"There's a little propane heater in the closet under the stairs," her voice came now, her tone measured, unreadable. "If we're lucky there might be a little fuel left in it. You have to be careful about fumes, but if we put it in my mom's room and open the window it should be okay--enough to dry our things." Her head came up. "If you give me your shirt I'll clean it."  She turned the faucet on again and started to run water in the sink. She still hadn't bothered to turn around and face him.

So here it was: the place where things always went bad, a clash of wills or styles or something else.  Usually he was more than happy to take his cue, crawl through the jagged hole and get out.  But fuck it, this was stupid, a passing thought that shouldn't have blown up into anything.  He breathed in slowly, tried to settle himself.  After a moment he pulled up the shirt hem, worked the sleeve off the bad arm, then pulled the shirt over his head and off the good side. He came up behind her and set the shirt on the counter beside the sink.  In the silence, raindrops pinged loudly against the window.  

"Closet under the stairs?" he said after a moment.

"On the left. Just inside the door."

He busied himself with the heater while she washed the shirt, managing to light it one-handed after several tries.  By the time she came in with the cleaned shirt the window was open and the room was beginning to warm.  Tracy took a hanger from the closet and hung his shirt from the curtain rod above the window, then drifted to the heater's warmth beside him, stared down at the flame and stretched her fingers toward it.

"Feels good, eh?" he managed when the silence grew too loud.

She nodded.  "Alex, I know what you've given up to come he--" she started quietly.

"Shh." 

After a moment he reached out and took her hand.  Almost immediately her fingers slipped between his and squeezed back.  He let a breath out carefully, almost imperceptibly, and focused on her closeness, on the heat beginning to burn his calves through his jeans, on the cold air against his bare back.

 

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: heron3@zipmail.com
Rita's out getting herself prepped for tomorrow's festivities but I'll relay your questions to her as soon as she returns. I knew that agent who called sounded fishy. Plans are firmed up; your mom should be in good hands.

 

 

 

Mulder bounced the ball as he walked, casual bounces followed by hard, controlled ones. Bam-bam. Three boxes in the end locker, three days until Sunday and no possible way to open them without it being completely obvious. Friday--bam. Saturday--bam. Sunday--bam, bam. He bounced harder, the ball shooting back to his waiting fingers each time as if it were magnetically attracted.

Three days and the Gunmen would have to do the deed, unpack and repack, examine and send word. The ball made sharp, smacking sounds on the pavement. At least it was the sidewalk, not his apartment floor where he'd be sure to get a phone call from downstairs if he bounced for long. A blast from the past, the thought of the apartment: it seemed like months, or years, since he'd been there. And the little green room, the one he'd never actually spent a whole night in. Scully had.

Mulder glanced at his watch. An hour until Dale would be home with the truck. There was time enough to shoot a few hoops, shake off some of the tension. Spend a little time settling in as a member of the community; it was good cover. Dale would be home tonight anyway, something about Bethy having a friend over for the night, so it shouldn't be a problem to borrow the truck. In the meantime sink a few, do something that was still a sure thing. Jump shot from mid-court and the crowd goes wild.

He looked ahead. The curb was lined with minivans and station wagons, kids in uniform getting out of them and racing across the sidewalk to the diamonds on the lawn. Baseball practice: this was Anytown alright, something you could pull right out of a Norman Rockwell print and watch it come to life.  Mulder stopped short in front of a straggling toddler dragging a bat across the sidewalk and looked ahead to see an older station wagon--worn, familiar station wagon. Two girls and a boy got out and started across the grass. At the back Angie Connors was gathering equipment, balancing a cooler in one hand and a grocery bag in the other, trying to pull the keys from the lock in the cargo door. Mulder jogged ahead.

"Need a third hand? Got one I can loan you cheap."

Angie looked up and then smiled at his grin. "Thanks. We meet again."

"We do. How's your bookcase?"

"Doing fine," she said. "Getting full." She handed him the cooler, pulled the keys from the lock and slipped them into her pocket. She nodded toward his basketball. "Going for a little R&R?"

Mulder shrugged and raised his eyebrows. He bounced the ball once. "You know what they say: The worst day on the court is better than the best day scrubbing bathrooms."

"I believe it." She took a box from the top of the car. "You mind carrying that? I'm scorekeeper today but I can't forget the supplies. Like I said, these kids would forget to snack if I didn't keep up with them and a little hassling now is a lot better than dealing with the consequences."

"Diabetic shock?"

She nodded. "Just got to keep them going all the time." A sigh. "Sometimes I feel like I'm responsible for making sure their hearts beat."

"Had much trouble with that?  Them going into shock?"

"Never have. Not once. I've just tried to be really diligent." She glanced ahead, at the gathering crowd around the diamond, then back at him. "I make it my priority, you know?"

"I can appreciate that."

They walked in silence to a table at one side of the backstop. Angie set her things on it and took the cooler Mulder held out.

"Well, thanks again," she said, holding out her hand.

He shook it. "No problem. See you around."

He turned and headed for the basketball court, dribbled a few times in the dirt and then stopped and carried the ball as he started across the grassy area. At the far edge of the diamond he broke into a jog. Three diabetic kids and not one instance of any of them going into shock. This was good. No, it was better than good. At least, it seemed that way. Scully would know for sure, though.

He hit the edge of the pavement running and dribbled to the far end of the empty court. Five seconds to the final buzzer, home team down by one. Mulder intercepts and jumps high: clean lay-up. Two points just in the nick of time.

 

 

 

"What will I do?"  Krycek echoed her question. He shrugged against the pillow and fell into silence.  That was the $64,000 question. 

"I've been at this for... It's been behind everything I've ever done," he said, glancing up at Tracy, who sat cross-legged beside him on the mattress.  She was watching passing clouds, a blanket around her over a pair of long johns.  "Fight the future. Sounds great, but hell, it's been so long since I've been in a position to do anything that would have a snowball's chance in hell of affecting the outcome." 

He sniffed and stared into the gloom at the far end of the room.  "Had a plan once.  Might actually have given a chunk of the population a chance at survival.  We had a vaccine the old men knew nothing about, and a secret distribution network.  We'd made a start."  He swallowed and looked up at her.  "Thirty thousand people out there have immunity to a virus they know nothing about."

"What happened?"

"The usual.  Chance.  Ambition.  The woman with the password to have the vaccine released from the lab ended up infected and in a coma, and I was captured by the old men's cronies."  He paused.  "One guy there understood the danger.  The two of us tried like hell for six months to find a way to access the vaccine, get the production running again."  He huffed out a breath.  "Then our lab contact was taken out by some drug lord's hit squad.  Completely coincidental, but bye-bye vaccine."

"And afterward?"

"The guy I was working with offered Mulder something he needed, and they killed him for it."  The corners of his mouth tightened.  The old men and their car bombs.  "Since then I've been on the old man's choke chain, playing gofer, getting rid of"--he shot her an ironic smile--"obstacles in the great path of progress.  The few contacts I've been able to make on my own"--he shook his head--"they're small fish.  They don't know anything that's going to make a damn bit of difference.  Like I've been standing waiting at a bus stop but they're not running that line anymore."

"You saved me, Alex." 

He frowned.

"I don't mean that I'm important or anything.  But I'm grateful.  I want you to know that."  She squeezed against his fingers. 

He tightened his grip on her hand and looked away.  It was the kind of thing Mulder would count, a single life among the millions.  Billions.  Come to think of it, she was a lot like Mulder.  The two of them would hit it off.  If he'd only agree to take her. 

A flash lit the room momentarily. He glanced up at the window and counted. A moment later there was a rumbling crash. He watched her in the gray light, the shape of her nose and chin and the smoothness of her fine, thin hair.

"How often has it happened?" he said. "You passing out that way, when you had some kind of vision, or whatever it was?"

"Just a few times. Why--?"  She stopped, her mouth half-open. She hadn't seen the connection before.

"Did something like that happen around the time you got pregnant? Could that have something to do with what happened to you?"

She shook her head. "I don't... Alex, there are so many things I don't remember. I remember... being sick once, at Nathan's. I don't remember getting sick; I only remember waking up in my room--the room I had there--and Aunt Jean was sitting next to the bed. It was a Monday and she said they'd brought me home from school the Friday before, but I never had any memory of that. Nathan and Jean are the type that if anything strange happens--anything they can't explain--they won't talk about it. They just act like it never happened."

"Was it about that time?"

She thought. "I guess.  It could have been. Sometimes I've tried to remember things from before, but--"

"Like your father?"

She nodded.

"Come here," he said.

She leaned down closer.

"No, turn around."  He pulled up and sat behind her.  "Lean your head forward."

Her head went down. He smoothed his hand along her neck and up into her hair, fingers searching for anything out of place: a scar, a small lump of some kind, the type of thing that would hardly be noticed. But there was nothing, just smooth, soft skin, half-wet hair and body heat coming from where the blanket covered her. He traced the path again--behind her ears, below, where the skin was tender and anything foreign planted near the surface would be obvious. She shivered under his touch.

"Nothing," he said, his fingers lingering against her neck. 

She turned. Quickly he took his hand away.  "Nothing."  He shrugged.

But it wasn't concern he saw on her face, or a warning that he'd overstepped.  It was more like last night, an asking she couldn't manage to put into words.  Reaching out, he put his arm around her, eased her back against him and swallowed.  Slender fingers wrapped around his forearm. 

"Alex, what have they done to those people? Why do they do it?"

"They're marking them, testing them. Preparing for invasion."

A fork of lightning bloomed suddenly over the far woods, clear and branching. A sharp crack of thunder followed.

"Pretty close," he said, looking up. Maybe a little too close. He lay back down on the mattress on his side, pulling her with him so that she came to rest spooned in front of him. "You're shivering, you know." He rubbed his hand over her side to warm her, then slipped his arm around her, pulled her close and tried not to think. 

"I won't be for long. You're warm, Alex."

"Your hair's starting to dry." He pushed it out of the way with his nose. "Finally."

She nodded. Gradually her shivering eased. An image of his lips against her neck drifted into his mind; he shifted and made himself focus on the edge of the window ledge. Sudden light blanched the room again and thunder rattled the window.  In front of him, Tracy tensed. Fresh waves of rain pelted the side of the building.

"Alex?"

"Mm?"

"Thank you. For coming here. I know what it could cost you."  One shoulder was out of the blanket, pale and smooth.

"Maybe it's not all risk," he said, pensive. "Maybe it's"--he shrugged--"a way of staying alive."

Her bare shoulder again, all curve and smoothness. He reached for a second blanket, pulled it across her and tucked it carefully around her neck. His hand slipped back inside the warmth and found hers.

"Better?"

She nodded against him.

The room fell quiet, a break in the wind, then sprinkles began to ping against the glass again.  They were miles from anything or anyone--safe, at least for now, hidden under cover of the storm. An unexpected little oasis of peace, and no danger.  Not from the world outside, at any rate.

Her hand tightened against his and he felt her sigh.

"Hey." He nudged her with his nose.

"Somehow I feel like... like it's already gone," she said, half-turning toward him.  "The house, this time.  As if it's a week from now and we're just ghosts looking back."

He let his cheek come to rest against her hair. "I'm here," he said, tightening his grip on her. "You're here. Don't let your mind cheat you, nena."  A kiss behind her ear.  "Don't let it."

 

 

  

Rita worked the key in the lock, took a deep breath and turned the door handle. Will was lying on the couch. He opened one eye.

"You're my first test," she said, coloring slightly and running a hand through her hair--shorter hair that hung around her now instead of being tied back. "I don't mind telling you I'm not at all comfortable with looking in the mirror. What do you think?"

"Well..." He paused, gave her a pseudo-critical eye and then allowed a smile to come. "I think it's pretty convincing. After all, Maggie's been lying in bed for nearly a week now."

"I told 'em not to wash it, but I think it went against their grain. I could see their fingers just squirming to douse me with shampoo but I held firm. After all, we're going to need all the authenticity we can get." She set her purse down inside the door and came to settle on the far couch cushion. "Will, tell me again why I'm doing this. I mean, I've done any number of fool things in my life but this feels like something I've inherited straight from Andy." She looked at him despairingly.

"You're doing it for the same reason I got myself messed up in this," he said. "Because you can't help yourself." He raised his eyebrows and offered a self-deprecating smile. "But seriously, we've got to get Maggie out of there in one piece. We've got to keep the way clear for Scully and Mulder to do their thing and find something that'll nail the old guy to the wall. Permanently."

Rita bowed her head and sighed. "Thank you for that, Will Wilkins. I needed to hear it again. Maybe it'll help me, because I've got the butterflies in my stomach already, swarming and fluttering around. I can tell you I'm not likely to get much sleep tonight." She paused and looked up at him. "You don't think they'll come after me, do you? Not that I'll change my mind and chicken out if I thought they would. Though I probably should for Bethy's sake."

"I don't think so, Mother J. When they discover the real Maggie's gone they're going to take off after her like bats out of hell. Remember, they've got the old guy to answer to. They're going to be scrambling." He paused and smiled. "Anyway, John Byers will be there waiting in the wings to whisk you away once they catch on."

"I hope you're right." She paused. "How about your friends, Will? Are we set up?"

"Eleven a.m. So the action goes down at 11:30, just when the lunches go out and there's plenty of activity."

"And you know these people. You trust 'em." She sighed. "I'm not meaning to be doubtful, Will; I'm just trying to check my harnesses, so to speak."

"The driver's an old college buddy of mine. It's a part-time thing--his uncle's business and he helps out."

"And the home where they're taking Maggie?"

"A friend of his."

"And you trust him?  Your buddy?"

He nodded at her. "Yes, ma'am, I do."

Rita squeezed her hands together. "Then I'll have to trust them, too. And so will poor Maggie, bless her. John Byers said they won't be able to tell her anything until the last minute. They're afraid she might say something when she's not herself." She looked up to the window where the sky was beginning to lose its color. "I'm still frightened, Will. I guess I know exactly what you've been feeling."

"Better two frightened fools on a sofa together than each sitting somewhere alone," he said, offering a hot hand that she shook firmly. He paused and gave a sad smile. "You know, I really wish my mother could have met you, Mother J. You two would've gotten on well; I really do believe that. Oh--"

"What?"

He pulled up slightly. "You've got mail. Seems Scully needs your assistance ASAP."

 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
I've been pondering your request and realized I need more information in order to make a decision. I think you'll understand my dilemma as well as my reasons for needing to ask. Why have you selected this particular recipient and why do you believe he might accept the responsibility you're requesting of him? As you may understand, it's not simply a matter of doing my part but of knowing that the person on the receiving end will be willing to participate. Awaiting your prompt reply.

 

 

 

Tracy made her way through the kitchen cabinets a second time, looking for any possibility of food, but it seemed Nathan had managed to take everything.  Sometimes he mystified her.  He'd left the living room and her room untouched, but had taken away every last item that belonged to her mother.  The kitchen was just as had been, right down to a cereal bowl she remembered leaving in the sink the night before that terrible morning.  But all the dry and canned goods were gone, which was probably his practical streak; he must have figured there was no sense leaving it sit unused.  It made perfect sense... unless you happened to be an unexpected visitor stranded without supplies.

She glanced toward the living room where Alex sat in front of the computer, blanket around his shoulders, head back against the couch cushions, pondering his reply to Teena's e-mail.  Ten minutes and he hadn't written a single word. Outside, the rain continued, a steady pouring through the gray of late afternoon. It was hard to tell that it wasn't evening yet.

Tracy took a damp towel from beside the sink, got down on her knees and brushed into the area under the sink with the towel, dabbing at old spider webs.  It wasn't a place they'd ever stored food, but still.

Gingerly she reached farther back into the darkness, past the steel wool pads and plastic bottles of cleaning solutions until she felt the unexpected grating rub of glass on glass.  Full glass jars, which could mean only one thing. 

Carefully she swept the towel around the area again and reached in to retrieve the mystery jars.  Closing the cabinet door, she stood and held them up to the pale light in the window.  One held a stewed cabbage and tomato mixture, the other applesauce.  The handwriting on the labels was her own, indicating that they were from the last batches she'd canned, the ones she'd had to do alone after her mother was no longer able to help. 

With any luck they'd still be good.

In the living room, Alex had closed the laptop and was lying eyes-closed on the couch, frustrated at his inability to turn the jumble of emotions inside him into a few clean, strategic sentences that would shore up his case with his mother.  Quietly Tracy rinsed the jars in the sink and pried the lid off one of them.  Hunger stabbed at her, her stomach suddenly restless at the prospect of something to fill it.  She held the jars up again to the pale light of the window, looking for evidence of spoilage, but found none.  A taste... they seemed fine.  Relief swept through her.

"Alex?"

"Yeah?"

"I found something.  You hungry?"

He pulled up to a sitting position.  "No kidding?"  The blanket fell behind him onto the couch and he stood.

"One jar of stewed cabbage, one of applesauce.  I canned them myself.  We had a bigger crop than usual the last year and not all the jars would fit in the pantry.  I must have put the last of them under the sink."

"And your uncle missed them when he cleared the place out."

She nodded as she got bowls and spoons and washed the dust from them.

"We used to work vegetable fields where I grew up," he said, coming up behind her, watching her prepare.  "Cabbage--lots of cabbage.  Carrots.  Beets. I remember freezing my fingers, freezing my knees and butt off working out there--rain and the cold.  Kids would get sick that way, working out there too long when it was cold and wet." He paused and glanced at the shadows in the sink. "We were pretty expendable."

Masses of gray moved steadily across the sky beyond the window and raindrops pelted the wall in waves. He looked up and stared out into the semi-darkness. Tracy watched his chest move in and out and the way his jaw was set, firm, holding against something invisible. His pants rode low on his hips, the effect of the last few weeks.

"Come on," she said quietly. "Have something to eat."

He turned toward her, catching her shoulder with his hand. Quickly she was gathered in against him, tucked between arm and warm chest. He said nothing more. 
 

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: meremaid@zipmail.com
Received your message re the e-mail received at the plant. There was one older gentleman about two years ago who passed away and then his wife died a few months later. They had no children but I think between the two of us Will and I can concoct a close, grieving relative who might have gone off the deep end over it. Shame on that boy D, though I do understand the stress he's been under.

I imagine any 'apology' will have to be sent from somewhere in the vicinity of Cincinnati to have the proper effect. Will says he might know someone who can help us. At any rate, we'll work on it and let you know as soon as we have something figured out.
 

 

 

"We should eat," Krycek said finally, speaking the words quietly against her hair.

His grip on her loosened and he let her go. Tracy turned to the sink and poured the contents of the jar into two bowls and offered him one. They stood at the counter, looking out toward the orchard and the woods, as they spooned up the contents of the bowls.

"It's good," he said after a few bites, his mouth half full.

"A recipe my mom got from her mom: cabbage, tomatoes, seasoned breadcrumbs, mushrooms.  A lot of people aren't big cabbage fans, but--"

"Hey, I'm Russian," he said in a momentary imitation of slick-and-charming, then cleared his throat and returned to his normal self.  "Anyway, food's got it over no food any day."

She smiled.  "I didn't mean to interrupt you."

"Nah, it's okay. I wasn't getting anywhere anyway, just using up the batteries in the laptop. Gotta watch that.  Last thing we need is to cut off our communications." He set his bowl down and looked out the window.

"Eat," she said. "It'll come to you. You know, what you should say to her."

He shrugged.  He was so completely tongue-tied where his mother was concerned, a far cry from the scenarios he'd pictured before they met.  He'd always had plenty to say to her then.

"I think what impressed her the most, Alex, was the fact that you weren't calculating. You were--"

"Scared shitless?"

"Maybe a little." She smiled. "But you didn't do what he does. You didn't offer her anything. You weren't trying to... buy her cooperation or loyalty. That stood out to her."

He pushed out a breath, took another bite of food, and then another, and set the spoon aside.  Pinpoints of water landed on the glass above the sink. He looked into the dimness beyond the window.

"Mulder'll help you out, whatever you need. He's got a radar for strays." He stopped short. "Wait, I didn't mean--"

"It's alright," she said after a moment. "I know what you mean."

"Good thing, since I've gotten pretty good at putting my foot in my mouth. No, he's... Maybe he's just trying to save his sister all over again.  You know, whenever he sees somebody who needs help. Or maybe..." A pause. "There's this picture in her house of Mulder and Samantha. He's... I don't know, five or six, and she's little, just a baby.  He's holding her and she's tilted way over to one side, practically falling out of his arms. But she looks like she thinks she's in the most secure spot in the world, happy..." Gradually the smile at the corners of his mouth faded. "Anyway, he'll be happy to help you; he thrives on that kind of thing.  So if you need anything, don't forget--"

"...to ask."

"Yeah."

When she was with Mulder.  Away from here.  Away from everything that had quickly become so familiar. She shivered and finally made herself speak. 

"When we get back I want to pull more weeds out of that garden bed behind the laundry room. To give the poppies a better chance.  They're really pretty, hardy but fragile like crepe paper, and they just bloom and bloom in pinks and reds and white. They're called Shirley poppies." Her lips pressed together. "It was my mom's name--Shirley."

He studied her a moment, serious.  "How you doing?" He tipped her chin up with a finger.

"I'm okay. I feel... better than before. I do."   She forced a smile.  "But Alex--"  She slipped her arms farther back into the folds of the blanket, then reached out and brought it around him, locking her arms around his waist. His skin was cold now; he shivered as the blanket circled him.  "Thank you again.  For coming.  For everything."

"You're"--the words against her hair--"very"--lips against her cheek, barely touching--"welcome."

Her mouth this time. Gentle contact, hesitation, smiles, then both of them reaching, a flood of sensation, his mouth on hers, soft and wet, beckoning. She reached for breath--reached for him--the contact slow, slick, necessary, like sunshine on cold ground, loosening her body, making it ache with a beautiful ache.

Cheek against cheek. She counted her heartbeats, light and rapid as they echoed against his chest.  Her body seemed fragile, as if touch might make it shatter.  As if it begged to be shattered.

"You okay?" 

She nodded, but her grip on him tightened.

"Take your time." 

His lips were soft against her neck. She could still feel it: the echo of the kiss and the deep ache that went with it. Between them the blanket had parted slightly; skin lay quietly against skin.  Their bodies swayed faintly in the silence.

"I've got to write to her," he said after a long moment, brushing his lips against her forehead. "She's waiting."

"I know."

Tracy...

She looked up.

"Don't hide." He kissed the bridge of her nose.

She smiled and made herself pull away. "Go ahead. I'll clean this up."

Alex turned, heading for the couch. Tracy looked around slowly, as if she'd suddenly wakened to find herself in an unfamiliar room. "Then I'll be upstairs. There's something I need to do."

 

 

 

"Sorry I'm late."

Mulder's voice came from beyond the open screen door. He'd obviously jogged down the hill from the house. He paused to take a breath. "I was waiting for Dale to get back so I could use the truck."

He stepped up inside the trailer and shut the door behind him. Scully turned from the laptop.

"I've been trying to write that journal to my mother again," she said. "I just--" She shook her head. "Nothing comes."

"You need a change of scenery."

"Maybe we need a change of circumstance, Mulder." She sighed. "Not that wishful thinking does any good." She ran a finger along the edge of the desk, then smiled slightly. "Sandy's been my recreation director. She keeps me going when I start to get mired down." A pause. "I think we take turns, actually--getting mired down and then holding each other up."

"Then it's a good thing you're both here." He took her hand and pulled her up from the chair and into his arms. She closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against his chest. "I'm here, Scully."

She smiled into his shirt. They were the words he'd said in the hospital, when she was still trapped in the coma after her abduction--not 'come back' or 'go on, it's okay to let go' but simply 'I'm here'. It was what she'd clung to then--the need to be there, too.

"I think I'm getting somewhere," he said after a moment, hope entering his voice. "I ran into Angie Connors taking her kids to baseball practice. Dr. Scully, what are the chances of having three diabetic kids who've never gone into shock?"

She pulled back and looked up at him. "Never?"

"That's what she told me. She said she'd been really conscientious and I believe her. This is one no-nonsense mom; she's devoted to those kids. But still, it struck me as more than just a little odd. What do you think?"

"How old did you say they were?"

"Thirteen, eleven and... seven, I think. She looks about seven, the youngest one."

"And she said they'd never gone into shock?"

"That's what she told me."

"I don't know, Mulder. It seems unlikely. I mean, you've got to figure that there are times when they're going to be away playing, away on a field trip or at somebody's house where they're beyond her supervision."

"Exactly."

"So your theory is..."

"That something else is going on here, Scully. That she was lured into staying at Beeson-Lymon, maybe because they suspected she might have beryllium disease and they were afraid if she changed jobs, another doctor might discover it. And that they used health coverage as a lure and once they had the kids--"

"Once they had the kids, what, Mulder? Diabetes isn't something that can be faked, or... or induced at will, if that's what you're saying. Besides, I don't see a motive here."

"I'm saying it might not be diabetes."

"But what then? And what would be the purpose of misleading her?"

"I haven't figured it out yet, Scully, but I feel like there's something there. Something..."  He stared out the kitchen window at the weakening light of late afternoon. The color of it played off the green in his eyes. He was determined to make this lead play out.

"You said you had something planned," she said quietly.

He looked back at her and raised an eyebrow. "No romantic vacation. I just figured both of us could use a change of scenery and since I can't take you out to a movie, or onto the local court to shoot a few hoops... It's just a working thing. Dale's got this 'retreat', an old hunting cabin about twenty minutes from here in the hills, a little place he likes to get away to. He's been talking about not having had time to clean it up this spring since all this has happened and now he's got Bethy to look after. I figured maybe you'd be willing to join me for a little scrubbing and sweeping"--his voice dropped to a confidential tone--"in exchange for a little fresh air out of the range of prying eyes.  It would get you out of here for a while.  You could use the change of scenery."  He gave her a sheepish look.  "And maybe we can make up for last time."

She looked down at the carpet.  "Mulder--"

"What?"

She looked up, hesitated and took his hand.

"Mulder, I got an e-mail early this afternoon from Agent Wilkins. He said somebody's called him twice from the Bureau about the Kentucky case--yesterday and again today--looking for the names of beryllium victims, or potential victims. They told him some of the paperwork on the case had been lost."  She sighed. "I don't need to tell you who it was."

The characteristic small, tight mouth. He said nothing, but sat heavily on the corner of the bed and rested his head in his hands. She watched the expansion and contraction of his T-shirt. No time would have been good, but this, now...

"Scully, I--"

Nothing more. He shook his head. His shoulders heaved once--a sudden intake of air--and then he was quiet again. From behind her the wall clock ticked a steady rhythm. Finally Mulder looked up at her and sucked in his lower lip.

"She's looking for the origin of the e-mail. They could find you, Scully. If she can trace it back to David Barker--"

"It's an outside chance, Mulder. She'd think first of Ron's family--his parents. The fact that he was buried here, to please Heather, and that subsequently David just happened to offer us the body to autopsy--no one but a few of us even knows those details. It's a big chain of coincidence. A possibility, yes, but--"

His eyes closed. His head tilted up, toward the ceiling, and then came back down to rest in his hands. She reached out tentatively and smoothed a hand through his hair. A pause and his arms went around her waist, pulling her close against him. His head rested against her middle.

"Scully, tell me I'm not the world's biggest fool."

"Mulder, you're not."

"Lie."

"No, it's... It was something beyond you, Mulder. Part of a bigger plan."

The Smoking Man again.
 

 

 

To: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Why did I pick him? Because trust isn't something I deal in and he's the only one I know I can trust to pull this off and not take advantage of her. Why would he do it? He'd never take her straight from me, but he does know her; he should remember her. He's a natural born defender. Maybe he'll look at this as 'saving' her from me.  That might motivate him. I realize this will put you in the middle (not my intention) but I have to get her to somewhere she'll be safe. The old man hired her to take care of me when I was laid up but she's a throwaway to him, only safe until I don't need the help, and I'm getting to where I'm doing okay now. She's gone out of her way for me.  She deserves a lot better than a bullet in the back of the head.

P.S. She's pregnant, kind of like you were once with a kid you hadn't planned on (no, not mine) so I figured maybe you'd understand that she could use the help. You're our only ticket here, so let me know.

                                                                                                     -A

P.S. Appreciate you returning the phone call and not just writing this off.

 

 

 

Krycek clicked the 'send' button and stood, letting the blanket fall away behind him.  He stepped around the coffee table and approached the window beyond.  It was gone now, his reply, nothing more he could do about it.  He stretched his head toward one shoulder and then the other, stretching in an attempt to ease the buildup of tension in his neck and shoulders, then let his head hang forward.  Wearing your heart on your sleeve was dangerous as well as just plain stupid, but he'd had to do something to convince his mother he was worthy of the favor he was asking. 

Or maybe he was worrying for nothing.  Tracy seemed confident that his chances were good, and she had a better bead on the woman than he did.  But there were never any guarantees. It could be hard to predict what any woman would do, what little thing might set her off or send her in a direction you'd never anticipate.  Look at Marita.

Almost immediately the image came: Marita in a wheelchair.  The thought still shocked him.  It had only been, what, a little over a month ago that he'd found out?  Dr. Ansbach had come to visit him, looking for funding for a new type of vaccine he'd been working on in secret to use against the Oil. 

For a week or so he'd actually felt hope again.  And then the old men had found traces of the money transfer in Anbach's bank account and everything had fallen apart.

Krycek leaned his forehead against the edge of the bookcase beside the window and set his jaw.  What he'd admitted to upstairs... hell, just voicing it had made the ugliness of his situation clearer than he'd ever managed to admit to himself.  He'd been shackled since the minute the Brit had set foot on the freighter, impotent, and for all his subsequent attempts at keeping his head above water, it had been a steady downhill slide ever since. Before the freighter he'd always managed to find a few bits of straw he could spin into gold, but he'd lost his touch now, his luck, whatever spark it was that made things catch and take hold. 

Krycek straightened and refocused on the room around him.  On the window ledge sat a small picture of a young, maybe ten-year-old Tracy.  He picked it up.  Out on the porch, shorts and a sleeveless shirt, a fragile expression on her face, half-smile and half-squint.  What had she been thinking?  Was she just shy in front of the camera? Or had she somehow caught a glimpse of her future? 

He smoothed his thumb softly across the dusty glass and looked up, through the streaming, distorted windowpanes to the colorless landscape beyond.  Crazy when the best thing you could do for somebody was to get them far away from you.  

 

 

 

"Maybe what we should be doing is spending our time getting you resettled somewhere safer, Scully."

"Mulder, I don't know if it will help, but I wrote to Rita. She must know who the beryllium victims were as well as anyone. What Diana needs is an answer, something that will make her stop looking."

"And?"

"I thought if there were someone no longer living here, someone who'd been affected, that we could create a fake relative, one who could have been anguished enough to write that mail... and that either they had second thoughts later, or someone else might discover what they'd done and write to Beeson to apologize."

"Someone Diana can't actually trace, so nobody gets hurt."

"Exactly. But hopefully convincing enough to put Beeson at ease so that it's no longer an issue with him: end of investigation. I got a response from Rita about half an hour ago. She said she thought she and Will could come up with something." She paused. "Mulder, I think... I think we should do exactly what you had planned. We both need a change of scenery and... We do. We need to get away from all this.  Just for a little while."

"What about you staying here after tonight?"

"It sounds like Rita and Will may have something ready tonight."

"And if they don't buy it?"

"Then we'll deal with it in the morning." She stood and offered him her hand. "Come on, Mulder."

"You're going to have to ride in the back, under the camper shell, you know."

"I know. It's okay. Come on, let's go before it starts to get dark."

"I picked up a few things at the grocery store."

"Well, I've got something to add, too. Sandy came down from the house this afternoon and insisted that I go up and make potato salad with her and Adrie. She's a hard taskmistress." She smiled. "A pretty good cook, too."

"Homemade potato salad, huh?" He wagged a finger at her. "Staying here is starting to affect you, Scully."

"Maybe that's not such a bad thing." She turned to glance at the desk and paused. "Does Dale have a phone line at this cabin of his?"

"Don't think so. You'll just have to trust for a night.  Trust your mom's doctor.  Trust the Gunmen."

Her lips pressed together. She looked at the carpet and then up at him. "Maybe I need to do that anyway."

 

 

 

(Teena Mulder)
T
he bluntness of Alex's reply was more than I had expected, though it fit the man who had confronted me in my kitchen. There was a raw sincerity to his response but also an admiration for Fox in spite of the tension there must be between them. Most of all, his mail told the story of a wary, solitary man deeply affected by someone who had taken care of him, and I had to wonder again who she was and how she had gotten mixed up with Leland. A girl young enough to need 'someone to be with.' And who was pregnant, like I once was. Alex's intention was clear and the words stung, though he could have said much worse. He was careful to point out that her child wasn't his, but even his denial increased my curiosity as to what had happened between them.

It was obvious that he very much appreciated what she'd done.  But such being the case, I had to confront the possibility that she might be a trap Leland had set for Alex, if not for Fox or me. Alex had seemed wary, but the end of everything was that he was likely risking his life to protect this girl.

And if I helped, and it proved to be his downfall?

But if I didn't?

The one certainty was that by stepping in, I would be placing myself between my two sons. Fox would automatically see my part in this as betrayal and I would feel his anger as I had in the past, an anger that had so often seemed Bill's, directed at me as if by proxy.

 

 

 

"Alex?" 

Tracy appeared in front of him, close, peering at him through the gloom of the upstairs room.

"C-cold," he managed.  He shrugged in an attempt to allay her obvious concern.  

He'd drifted upstairs when he heard her voice--clear, smooth notes that reminded him of voices he'd heard floating through old world cathedrals, voices that always seemed to come from someplace you could never quite pinpoint.  He didn't want to disturb her; he'd only wanted to listen, to warm some part of himself he couldn't quite define at the fire of her voice.  But he seemed stuck here now, in his position leaning against the wall, cold and... It wasn't just from standing by the downstairs window without the blanket on, or the effect of the meds he'd taken after they ate, though he could feel those, too, working. He felt a million miles away.

Warmth and softness pressed against him, Tracy pulling her blanket around him, arms around him, taking him in.  "Come on, Alex.  Come lie down and get warm."

"Didn't know you sang," he heard himself saying as she took his hand and led him to the bed. 

He stood watching while she pushed back the covers, made a spot for him, stripped the dusty case from a pillow, plumped it and set it near the end of the bed.  He'd been on his feet too long. Different routine today, the traveling, worrying about how Mulder's plan would come off.  Wondering what his mother would answer, and whether the old man would somehow find out he'd been away from his assigned post.    

Steady arms interrupted the stream of passing thoughts and guided him onto the mattress.  Settled him, spread blankets over him, brought them up around his neck.  Then a slip of cool air as the covers were lifted and she joined him, the warmth of her body coming to rest against his side, a hand finding his, her head settling against his cheek.

His nose was cold, but the rest of him... warming, nested in a space he had no desire to move from.  He closed his eyes, turned his face toward the warm smoothness of her hair.

"Sing?" he asked.

 

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: meremaid@zipmail.com
Below is a copy of the mail Will and I worked up. It's being sent from a Cincinnati public library so everything will seem to fit together. My prayers for your continued safety. I will be seeing your mother tomorrow.
                                                                                                -R

Dear Mr. Beeson,
On behalf of my brother Arnold, I would like to apologize for the message sent to you yesterday. I don't believe he really understood what he was doing. He has been going through a period of depression lately and the cause of everything seems to find its way back to the demise of our cousin Harlan Oates, who for thirty-three years was one of your employees. Arnold told me this morning what he'd done and I tried to make him see the light, but he has been so low of late that I'm not sure he hasn't found a kind of comfort and security in grounding himself in this new 'truth' of his. Arnold has been prone to wander of late; I've spoken to his doctor and we've come to the conclusion that he needs to be watched more closely, which I am dedicated to doing. Again, I hope my brother's mail did not cause you any real concern. It was just the rambling of a lonely and confused man who misses the cousin to whom he was so close.
   
                                                                           Sincerely,
                                                                                   Mary Crawford
 

 

 

Krycek drifted slowly toward consciousness.  He was... in Brussels, at the orthopedic hospital; he'd come for an adjustment of the prosthesis.  The old Frenchman he remembered from his first visit had given him a knowing nod over dinner and made an off-hand remark about how Krycek would benefit from having a woman...

And now there was a woman in his bed.  Or was it a dream? 

A hand passed over his forehead, fingers smoothing into his hair.  He blinked, opened his eyes to faint, colorless light and the sound of gentle rain.  Something soft pillowed his cheek; below his ear, Tracy's heart beat a quiet, steady rhythm.  The room beyond them had faded into deep shadow, but when he looked up, he could make out her smile.

"Did I... I fell asleep.  How long was I out?"

"About an hour.  It's okay, Alex.  You've done a lot more than you should have today.  I wasn't thinking, when you offered to come along, that the trip would be hard on you."

" 'S not a problem," he said.  "I'm okay."  He cleared his throat.  "So you've been stuck with me all this time." 

She shook her head.  "Not stuck.  It's been nice.  Peaceful.  In a way it's made up for some of the sadness that's happened here.  It gives the place a kind of balance again."   

"Where'd you learn to sing like that? 

"My mom."  She smiled briefly.  "She sang madrigals.  She loved early music and she'd sing it around the house. But it was just too beautiful to leave alone--to just listen to without being a part of it.  So I started to sing along with her."

He looked up and stared at the darkened abstract of the ceiling.  "In Europe, cathedrals are pretty good places to meet people--contacts.  You wander around, lose yourself among the tourists, waiting.  There are these... voices that drift out of nowhere, singing, and you look up at forests of stone pillars, think about how they've been standing five hundred, eight hundred, sometimes a thousand years or more... how many people they've seen come and go."  His voice faded into dryness.  He exhaled against a sudden pressure in his chest and listened to the subtle, pulsing beat of the silence.  "Thanks. For singing."

"I put you to sleep, Alex."

"Uh-uh."  He scooted up farther on the pillow, invading what personal space she had left, and brushed her cheek with his lips.  "You sell yourself short.  Don't do that. You've got a beautiful voice."  He stared into the darkened patterns on the ceiling.  "Thanks for... for walking through that door. And staying once you knew what you were up against." He brought his arm around her shoulders, rolling her toward him, and tucked his chin beside the top of her head. "Or maybe not. You wouldn't be running now, wouldn't be in this mess--" He ruffled her hair absently with his hand.

Her arm tightened against him.  "I could be in some other mess," she said after a moment.  "You know I could. And neither of us would be here now."  She looked up. "Is there someplace you'd rather be?"

"Than in a mess with you?"  Grinning suddenly, he leaned in closer, catching her lower lip carefully between his teeth.  "No."

He paused, waiting for a sign.  She pressed forward, mouth slightly open, her breathing shallow, and then his mouth was on hers, taking her: quiet, patient, deliberate siege.  Smooth hands cupped the sides of his face, slipped around his neck. Her body pulled closer, flooding him with a hard, hungry ache.

He kissed her chin, her jaw, breathed against her bare shoulder and listened to her ragged breathing settle.  Her blanket had slipped and they were tangled around each other.  So much for weeks of resolve to keep his dick out of this, to make it all about helping her.  For once, to do something that would leave no blood on his hands.

"Alex?"

His eyes closed.

"Alex, I'm fine.  What I've seen before, inside men--it makes me realize how careful you've been.  You can't know how much that means." 

He opened his eyes and glanced down at her.  Brushed his thumb lightly across her cheek, giving her a wistful smile.  Nice sentiment, but he couldn't even trust himself.

He shifted slightly, a good-faith effort to straighten out her blanket.

"It's okay, Alex."

"You're not cold?"

"Here, like this?"

"You sure?"   He smoothed his hand over her bare shoulder, hesitated, let it come to rest against her back.  A sigh slipped out of her. He could read the signs in her reaction, in her breathing.  She liked it; she wanted more, though she wasn't likely to come out and say it. But who knew how much she'd want, and where the trip-wire would be. 

Or what would happen once he'd stumbled over it. 

Carefully he let his hand travel again, up to her shoulder, down toward her waist and back again, his touch light and careful against the warm, smooth curve of her body.  Soft lips sought him out; time slowed and thickened. He rolled slightly, easing her on top of him.  The world was bounded by bodies and mouths, hands and tangled legs, a haze of slow kisses, touch and the familiar, welcome ache of need. 

Raindrops, fingertips, noses, quiet.

The wound in his side ached dully in the background, but he didn't dare move, didn't dare do anything that might make her stir, or get up, or wake him from this dream if that's what it was.  Above him, Tracy rode his breathing, head against his chest.  Slowly he traced the pattern of her body against him in his mind.  Rain spattered lightly against the glass overhead, a regular rhythm at first, then eventually just scattered pings.

"Alex?"

"Mm?"

"I think you have mail.  I think it's your mother."  She made no move to get up.

He pulled up slightly.  "You sure?"

"I think so."

His gut knotted, the angles of the scene around him coming into sharper focus.  Reluctantly she slipped off to one side and he sat up, shivered at the cold air, swung his feet over to the floor.  A few minutes of paradise and now it was over. 

He reached for her hand.  "Come down with me?"

"In a minute, Alex.  You go ahead.  I'll be down in a minute."

 

 

 

Tracy watched as Alex disappeared into the shadows. Footfalls sounded on the stairs and then were gone. She sat up and found the edges of her blanket, began to pull it higher and stopped, her skin sensitive where the fabric touched it. She was cold suddenly, chilled and missing the imprint of his body against her. She pulled the blanket high around her neck and shivered.

Outside the window, moonlight glowed dully from behind a cloud. She lifted the blanket around her and crawled across the bed to the wide ledge in front of the window. Silver-gray masses drifted slowly across the sky like moss on ponds. Slowly she leaned forward until her forehead touched the ledge; she listened to the sound of her pulse, quick and steady. Strange body--new body--as if it had come alive from some dormancy, curves and smoothness and places where the charge of touch seemed to gather, humming a low, steady need to return to him. It was different from the residue she'd seen in people's heads: risk and dare, calculation or compromise wrapped in a shock of fleeting sweetness. But she wasn't any of those people. And Alex was who he was, a flame in the darkness who sputtered and flared but refused to go out.

She turned her head and brushed against something soft--her old stuffed unicorn. Taking him from the shelf, she smoothed two fingers across his worn coat, this companion in childhood fantasies, a stalwart sentinel who'd spent a year beside this window guarding a house filled only with memory and dust. She brushed the dust from him, touched her lips to his head and set him back on the ledge.

Behind her a pool of light stained the carpet beside the desk. She backed off the bed and went toward it. Picture postcards crowded the slots at the back of the desk. How often she'd yearned to see other places before other places had become not a choice but her only reality. She pulled on a tiny drawer knob and reached inside, fingers finding her diary, its padded cover still soft, the ribbon marker silky. She set it down and ran her fingers carefully back through her hair, over her ear and down to her neck, the way Alex had done looking for the implants he dreaded. Fingers through her hair again, slowly, barely touching...

The blanket slipped. Quickly she grabbed it, pulled it low around her shoulders and turned toward the landing. He'd said to come down.

She passed the card table, still spread with the quilt pieces she'd hoped to put together in time for her mother to use, a final protest of her love. She'd lost momentum at the end. Maybe it was the realization that she wouldn't finish in time. Perhaps the quilt had been nothing more than an attempt to stave off the inevitable. She turned away and continued to the end of the room. The small window was dark, showing only the outline of the ridge leading to Nathan and Jean's. Beside it the armoire beckoned. She opened the door and reached into the darkness. The softness of a hand-knit sweater greeted her, its arms strangely short now, much smaller, in fact, than the yellow sweater tucked away in the backpack downstairs. Next to it was the comfortable, puckered fabric of a shirt she'd worn until it faded, and a fringed shawl that had been her grandmother's.

But Alex was waiting.

She closed the door carefully, followed the wall to the top of the landing and paused. A flicker of light came from the room below. She felt the coolness of the air around her, the length of her legs, the loose softness of the long johns where they touched her and the prickle of her skin, as if it were alive and reaching out.

A shiver passed through her. He'd sensed her now, standing here.

She pulled the blanket close and descended quietly to the living room where the dull, yellow light threw soft, abstract shapes against the walls. Alex was on the couch, head back against the cushions, a figure set off by the light of a single candle on the coffee table: this contradiction, this dangerous friend with his fears and his tenderness.

 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
Let me know what you need me to do to help you, and when. I've not spoken with the person at the destination end of this arrangement. You are, as you note, aware of what his reaction is likely to be. This is an offer I am making solely on my own. If your situation is as you describe, I will do my utmost to deliver your cargo to the recipient, but I need to be sure he will accept, as I am confident you will understand given the specific danger involved.

Please keep in touch.
   
                                                                                            -M
 

 

 

"Mulder, if I'd realized scrubbing walls was so therapeutic I might have taken that job at the plant myself." She gave him a playful smile and dipped her sponge into the bucket again. "I don't mean that as facetiously as it sounds. I've actually spent five minutes without thinking about tomorrow."

"They'll do okay, Scully. Whatever they have in mind."  He paused and watched as she wiped down the knotty pine panel. She squatted and continued to the baseboards. When she stood up again he was still standing there. He shrugged, embarrassed.  "Sorry. Just tired, I guess. Didn't mean to plan this and then leave it on your shoulders."

"Why don't we take a break? Even if we only get half of this done, Dale will be grateful for the help. There's a glider out there on the screen porch."

He nodded, set his sponge on the table and let her lead the way. She flipped off the light switch as she went through the doorway and went to stand beside the screen.

"Lots of stars," she said. "There are so many trees around my little trailer that I rarely see stars like this. It's like"--she reached for his hand and pulled it around her waist--"this whole situation, Mulder, where you get so focused on your own circumstances that you forget the small experience you're having isn't the whole world, that... that there are other things beyond what's happening to you. That the stars are still there, in the sky."

She leaned back against him. "Have you ever stopped to think how utterly absurd this is, that everything that's going on here--your dismissal, our being on the run, my mother--that all of this is happening because of a single man, a man who in the end is as mortal as the rest of us?"

"There's the consortium."

"Yes. But this isn't their agenda, Mulder. This obsession with your family, his toying with you and your mother--that's the Smoking Man." She paused. "Even Krycek, Mulder. Do you suppose he ever feels... used?"

"I don't waste my time thinking about what Krycek feels."

"Your mother must surely feel terrible, realizing she gave up a child to this man believing that child would have a real life somewhere, a family.  A future." She shook her head. "I wonder if he did it deliberately--what he's done with Krycek--as a way of... of getting back at your father for his disenchantment over the Project. Or getting back at your mother for some perceived... I don't know." She ran a finger down the screen in front of her. "It's strange to think about Krycek that way--that under other circumstances he could have been someone else, someone entirely different."

 

 

 

Krycek leaned forward and rested his forehead against his one remaining hand.  This was it,  the beginning of the end, yet another rerun of what had become the pattern of his existence: something hopeful coming into his life, sparking for a brief second and then dying like a bad fuse on a bundle of explosives.  After a year from hell, a kind of slow but constant freefall, Scully'd put a bullet in his gut and fate had sent him this girl, a pool of sunlight flooding the cement floor of his cell. 

Heaven knew he'd spent his life working in the dark, in the cold.  There'd been a point to it, a need for it.  But that didn't make it any easier to see the sunlight go.

Footsteps sounded on the floor above.  Krycek sat up, leaned back against the cushions and let his head fall against the back of the couch.  Footfalls sounded on the landing.  He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly.  Closed his eyes. 

The footsteps started down the stairs.  He could picture her, all pale hair and softness, wrapped in a blanket like the bud of a rose on the verge of opening.  She approached the couch and paused behind it. He glanced up, reached for her fingers.

"Good news," he said, his voice too dry and husky. "Great news. Best we could've asked for."

She sat carefully on the back edge of the couch.

"She's not telling Mulder yet. Not until she's got you."  He cleared his throat.  "It's smart. Good strategy." 

He breathed heavily into the silence, then leaned forward and clicked the laptop closed, suddenly lost.   Reached for the edge of the blanket and pulled it more snugly around his middle.  It was too damn cold down here.

"Which side, Alex?" 

He glanced up to find her standing in front of him. He shrugged. Didn't matter. Either one.

Anything.

A swirl of blankets and she was against his bad side, warm, careful not to lean against the wound, her arm across his chest.  He smoothed the stray hairs back from her face and let his hand settle against her neck.

"She said... to stay in touch."  He slouched down against the cushions, pulling her with him, and stared up at the faint circle of candlelight on the ceiling.  His thumb traced her cheekbone.

"It's a good sign, Alex."

He nodded.  "Yeah, you're right.  It's--" 

If the world would just stop turning, at least for a few revolutions.  What the hell could it hurt?  He wanted to be upstairs, tangled with her in that dusty bed, skin-on-skin, wrapped up, melted together.  If only--

"I want it, too, Alex."

Her words were quiet, almost whispered, but they fell like glass into the room's silence.  His thumb stopped moving.  Something inside him--a mix of sudden hope and ingrained caution--held mind and body momentarily suspended.  She'd do anything, offer him whatever she thought he needed, wouldn't hesitate to step outside the place where she felt strong, or capable, if she thought it would help him, or heal him.

He let his lips graze her hair, linger against her temple.  Inside, his pulse pounded an echoing drumbeat.  Finally he tipped her chin with a finger. 

Clear eyes met him, strong and full of something he couldn't have described, something she wasn't offering to just anyone.  Probably something she'd never offered to anyone but him.

He kissed her jaw lightly, her cheek, lingered at the corner of her mouth.  "You sure?"

A fractional turn of her head, her lips barely grazing his, the warm dampness of breath filling the close space between them.  "Yes."  

A smile in the dark and she moved now, turning to face him. He shifted, sinking lower against the cushions, and pulled her against him, a crush of softness and curves, hands cupping his face, welcome pressure against his groin. Her blanket had slipped, fallen a little off her shoulder.  He pressed his lips against the bare skin and looked up at her.  Foreheads met, serious expressions melting gradually into broad smiles.  It was crazy, but god, it was good crazy and when had he been given anything like this?

 

 

 

"What's this about, Raylene?"

She looked up from her magazine. Joe indicated the blankets at the other end of the couch.

"What, guilty conscience?" She bit her lip and sighed. "No, that wasn't fair." She looked up at him, farther into him than she had in a long time. "It's notice, Joe. I want you out. I'm not asking you to go tonight but tomorrow's Friday and then you've got the whole weekend." She tried hard not to swallow.

Joe opened his mouth. For a while nothing came out. "Is this some kind of a... joke? 'Cause it's not funny, Raylene. Not one little bit."

"Uh-uh, guy. This is it, the real thing."

"Now, Raylene..." His hands needed something to fiddle with; they always needed something to fiddle with. He hooked one finger through a belt loop. "Just what the hell brought you to this point?"

"I think I need to do something different, Joe."

"You mean, somebody different?"

"No, that's not what I mean at all. Why do you always--?" She slammed her hand against the magazine. "That's part of the problem, Joe. It's not about 'doing it'. It's about getting a life. I feel like I've been sitting on the sidelines for too long, waiting for a parade that's never going to start."

He gave her a look.

Obviously, he didn't get it. It figured.

Raylene looked back at her magazine page and flipped it. A lipstick ad, just a big old pair of lips covering the page. Bright red, of course. How appropriate.

"There are boxes in the garage," she said, staring at the page in front of her. "I picked them up this afternoon."

"How you gonna pay the mortgage, Raylene? It's gonna cost you twice as much if I'm not here."

"Less than twice. I'm paying two-thirds of it already."

"So what are you gonna do?"

She laid the magazine down in her lap and ran a hand back through her hair. "I can get a roommate. I can--"

Another man: that was just what she didn't need. That was the whole problem in a nutshell: all this time wasted hoping she'd wake up one morning to find Joe had turned into Prince Charming. The real world was full of toads; it wasn't like the movies and all this time she'd been sitting here on her duff watching life pass her by like a swollen spring stream, waiting for someone to pick her up and carry her off instead of getting into that stream herself and swimming.

"Life don't last forever, Joe. I figure it's about time I stuck my toe in the water."

He looked at her without saying anything else. She picked up the magazine again, stared at the big, red lips and let the pages fall shut. They were part of the problem, the magazines--what you came to expect of life by looking at them.

She got up and started across the room without purpose. She wandered through the kitchen to the garage door, went through, closed it behind her and flipped on the light. The dryer sat open. Pulling out a handful of clothes, she began to fold them. The kitchen door squeaked and came open.

"Where am I going to go, Raylene, on the spur of the moment like this?"

"You could stay with your daughter."

"Yeah, right. Her and that trucker of hers. That'd work out real well."

"Well, figure it out, Joe. It's your life. I'm not living it for you."

His head disappeared and the door slammed shut. Raylene picked up another shirt, shook it, paused and squeezed it into a little ball between her hands. Come to a decision, step out onto that scary high dive... and find yourself at the dryer like a fish returned to its birthplace to spawn. Natural as breathing.
 

 

 

"What is it, Mulder? What's been on your mind?"

Scully pushed against the floor to make the glider move and ran her fingers slowly through his hair. Mulder lay beside her, taking up all but the very end of the glider, his head propped against her leg.

He grunted. "Samantha, I guess. I was just thinking this afternoon--" He looked up at her. "Actually I've been thinking for a while now.  Weeks."

"What?"

"About the chances that she actually survived. I mean, there would have been so many factors, Scully, so many dangers for a kid like her, the age she was." His shirt stretched against an intake of air that lingered. She smoothed a hand over his back and he let the breath go. "If they took her and she grew up with them, what would she have become? Nothing more than a lab rat? She wouldn't have taken it lying down, Scully. She wasn't one to take anything lying down. She'd never meekly accept if she thought she was getting the downside of anything--a game, a chance to go somewhere... even a piece of cake. She'd go to my mother and insist that she make it fair, make it even." He sighed, a long breath gradually deflating his shirt. "And I used to laugh at her, tease her."

"Mulder, we all teased our siblings."

"Yeah, but yours didn't disappear." He rolled onto his back and looked up at her. "Hey, I didn't mean anything about your sister."

She pressed her lips together. "I think we teased Melissa most of all," she said after a moment, looking past him. "Her crazy ways, the things she believed in. She was the free spirit, the one of us who didn't fit the family mold. Or who was brave enough to admit she didn't fit it."

"I guess it's the not knowing--the speculation. If that's what she went through--I mean, we know for a fact she was cloned--what would it have done to her? Made her bitter? Made her mad enough that they would have done something to counter her 'attitude'? And then would she have fought back? Would they have sedated her, or worse? If she survived all that, what kind of person would that make her today? Would I even know her? Would she know me? Hell, Scully, she could be like Heather Barker and have no memory of anything."

He rolled onto his side again. His cheek pressed hard against her leg.

"Maybe"--she smoothed her fingers through his hair--"maybe they returned her, Mulder--decided she wasn't worth the trouble. She could be a normal person somewhere, with a family."

He turned to look up at her and smiled. "That's your theory?"

She smiled weakly.  "Just trying to be hopeful."

"How much could her body take--whatever they did to her--before she was used up? What are the odds she survived a year? Five years? Even a few months?"

Scully sighed and looked up to where stars twinkled in the matte darkness beyond the screen. "Mulder, there's a picture in your mother's hallway, of you holding Samantha when she was just a baby--"

"The one where she's trying to tip herself out of my arms?"

"Yes." She smiled. "It says a lot about how you felt about her, about the special closeness you two shared. Don't you think that in a time of danger, a time when she was frightened, that you're the one she'd think of, that you're where her comfort would come from, no matter what happened to her?"

"Yeah, but I didn't save her, Scully."

"Not everybody is saved, Mulder. But the point is that you were there with her in spirit. She would have taken you with her, and she would have held onto those memories, the way you've held onto yours. And how rare that is, that kind of bond between two people that can transcend time and circumstance."

His back heaved and then settled.  She watched his lower lip push forward.

"Mulder, you were a boy. A twelve-year-old boy."

 

 

 

Krycek let his head fall onto the pillows behind him.  Sweat clung to his neck, cold where she wasn't. She was still wrapped around him, arms and legs, warm flesh pressed against his. Their own little private universe. If only there were a way to hold onto it for a while: peace, this place, the two of them together. If there were just a way to wrap her in safety, some kind of security.

"You do, Alex." Her head came up. Her cheeks still carried a flush of color. "I can feel it around me."

"What?"

"You. What you are." Her head settled against the side of his neck, warm cheek, that smooth, smooth hair and beads of cooling moisture along her hairline.

"How you doing?" He pulled up slightly and nudged her with his nose.

"I'm fine."

"You're smiling, you know."

"That alright?"

"Uh-uh." He gave her a look, mock-solemn. "Against the rules. This is serious stuff." He brushed a kiss against her hair and pulled her closer.

The rain had stopped. There was only the occasional drip, water hanging from the eaves and finally letting go. He closed his eyes.

Stop the clock, live in the pause, away from the dangers posed by the nightmare conflict between men and alien races... or even the everyday risks of life on this planet. It was a dream scenario, impossible. But she wasn't; she was real. So amazingly real.

Though the real stuff--the good stuff--never seemed to last.  Just a blink and it was gone again.

Krycek's Adam's apple dipped.  He made himself breathe out.

"Alex, are you alright?"

He kissed her temple and rested his cheek against her head. "Yeah. You're here; I'm here. I'm okay."

 

 

 

"Dad?"

David Barker opened his eyes and looked up to see his son standing in the darkened doorway.

"Adrie, what are you doing?"

The boy shrugged. "I woke up."

David sighed and waved him forward to the rocking chair. Adrie climbed up into his lap. He was wearing his zebra pajamas.

"Whatcha doing, Dad?"

"Just sitting here, thinking."

"Did you wake up, too?"

"No, I just... haven't gone to bed yet."

"How come?"

"Just thinking, I guess. About how things surprise us sometimes.  Or we think we see our way clear to something and then we find out we didn't really have it figured out at all, and how many times do they come back at us, the mistakes we make?"

Adrie curled down against him and closed his eyes. David leaned back and started the chair rocking. He pulled the soft little body up closer against him.

"I love you, son," he said into the mussed blond hair. "I do."

 

(end Chapter 16)

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