Sanctuary

by bardsmaid

Chapter 17

 

Friday

 

To: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
I know this is sudden but I haven't been able to sleep for thinking.  Theoretically we've got time, maybe as much as another week, but if there's a sure way to get her out of here, I can't afford to tell myself she'll be safe with me a little while longer if we just play our cards right. Could you meet me today or tomorrow? It would have to be somewhere within an hour or so of D.C., someplace I know I can make the drive back from on my own.

Name a location and I'll be in touch.
   
                                                                                              -A

 

 

"You have any idea what time it is, Mother J?"

Rita was sitting next to the living room window in the dark, hands folded in her lap as if she were in church. Will came up behind her and set a hand on her shoulder.

"Couldn't sleep, Will," she said quietly. "When I can't sleep I sometimes get up and look at the stars. It helps to put things in perspective. And sometimes things comes to me, maybe a thought I need to know, or think about."

"Any inspiration this time?"

She let out a sigh. "I'm flying blind now, Will. Wondering if I'm doing the right thing. Nervous, too." She looked up at him. "Maggie's the one who should be nervous... though it's probably a blessing she doesn't know anything yet. Sometimes things are easier on you when they just happen--no forethought, no time for you to worry about the possibilities, I guess, or see them looming on the horizon."

"Sink or swim."

She nodded, sighed and looked out to the darkness beyond the glass. "Let's hope there are some life preservers floating out there in that sea of tomorrow. We all need to be able to swim through this, Will."

 

 

 

"Mulder, what are you doing?"

Mulder glanced toward the bed in the shadowed corner of the room. Scully was up on one elbow, squinting toward where he sat at the table, illumined by the light of an emergency candle.

"Woke up hungry," he said, shrugging. "Decided to have a little more of that potato salad you made." He paused and finished chewing. "Didn't mean to wake you."

"No, you... you didn't. I mean I just... woke up. I rolled over and you weren't here."

He grinned. "I can fix that." Taking a final bite, he stood, took his bowl to the sink and returned to the bed. She held the covers back. "We sacked out so early," he said, getting in and pulling up the sheet.

"You mean you sacked out so early."

"What, you didn't?"

"You fell asleep after a few minutes on the glider, Mulder."

"And you?"

"I just sat there for a while, thinking."

"Worrying?" He rolled toward her and smoothed a hand through her hair.

"It seems to be my default mental process these days, doesn't it? No, actually I..."

"What?"

"I was thinking about three weeks ago, about that night I"--she swallowed--"when I fell apart in the car, at the airport."

He smoothed a thumb along her shoulder.

"And how... lost I felt, how utterly... cut loose from everything around me I was, as if I were tumbling, freefalling. That night at your mother's I went out into the alley--Mulder, I don't even know now what drove me to do it." She scooted up higher on the pillow and eased him into her arms. Her chin settled against the top of his head. "But I was also thinking about how much my life has changed since that night, how much stronger I feel now--grounded--in spite of everything that's going on--the tension, my mother's safety..."

Her fingers trailed through his hair. Mulder closed his eyes.

"Guess one of us has to feel grounded." He rolled free of her, onto his back. "Scully, I--" He let out a heavy breath and stared up at the shadows on the ceiling. "I keep trying to figure out why, or how far she'd go, or what her motivation is, working with Smoky. She's incredibly determined in a... non-passionate sort of way. She just keeps on going until she finds what she's looking for. She--"

He stopped abruptly and frowned. Like she wanted to hear this.  It was the same territory that had set them at odds a dozen times before. Not to mention the reason she'd ended up on the couch the other night when Dale had brought her over.

"Go on, Mulder."

He sighed. "Didn't bring you out here to get into this again. Remind me never to apply for a job as a recreation director, Scully."

Silence, then the quiet hum of the refrigerator and a lone frog outside, calling into the dark.

"Mulder, I've made decisions, too... in the past.  Decisions about trusting people, about taking them into my life that... It's so easy to get carried away with the...needs of the moment or... or your own hopes for what a relationship will be, a fulfillment of something, or a sanctuary, or... And maybe the facts are right there in front of you. I don't think they were for you, Mulder. But you go ahead anyway, trying to fulfill that... that need or attraction you're feeling, even though..."

"Though what?"

"Though you sometimes know you shouldn't. When the reasons weighing against what you're doing should be more compelling than the ones leading you into it." Her voice was distant. It wasn't any theoretical she was speaking in.  "I guess I've always... craved security, and there was a time in my life when I was attracted to people--figures--I thought could give me that."

"Men."

"Men. Father-figures. Men who I thought had the answers.  Or the answer sheets.  Who could tell me if I was on the right track."

"Sorry. No security here, Scully." He gave her a sheepish smile. "But I guess you've noticed after all this time."

"No, I don't think there is any real security, not in the kind of life we lead. But that's just it, Mulder. You don't look at me like a... a pupil. You expect me to make my own contribution, to have thought about it, analyzed it."  She paused.  "But when we look back at decisions we made in the past, we think, 'I should have seen this'--the logic of it, and the factors, the way we do now. But at the time the things we saw were different things."

"I hope that letter of Rita's does the trick, Scully. Because otherwise Diana's going to keep digging. She may not have any personal investment in this assignment, but if she needs the information she'll stick with it." If he needed the information: Smoky.  Scully could be pointing that out but thankfully she wasn't.

"I keep thinking about it," he went on, "that if we were to end up face to face over this, on opposite ends of things, weapons drawn... What would I do, you know? Would I shoot her? Could I shoot her? Hell, I couldn't even shoot Smoky when I had the chance. Or would I do it out of spite, or... Or would she shoot me? I just... I don't know."

He rolled onto his side, wrapped an arm around her and buried his head against her shoulder. "This theoretical guy you were talking about, Scully." He looked up at her. "He doesn't work for Smoky, does he?"

She paused a moment, smiled suddenly and shook her head. "No, Mulder, I guess that's one thing we don't have to worry about." She sighed and pulled him closer.

"It's good, you know," he said, not wanting to drop the ball. "To know there's at least one thing we don't have to worry about."

"Yes. Yes, it is."

Her fingers played in his hair. A smile lit her voice.

 

 

 

A fast food bag sat tantalizingly close inside the dumpster, though try as she might she couldn't quite reach it. But she was hungry, so very hungry. And cold. Strange day, that it should be warm and bright, and yet she was shivering. She reached down over the edge of the dumpster and tried again, fingers straining. Suddenly her legs were out from under her and she was tumbling, falling. A jolt of adrenaline and her eyes opened abruptly to darkness.

Home.

Night.

She was in her own bed. She hugged herself against the cold.

Alex. She was here with Alex. She was...

She and Alex.

The imprint of her body began to fill her consciousness, not just its coldness but the length and shape of it: the smoothness of her skin, the length of her legs, the curves and hollows and places where their bodies had met.  She swallowed against the sudden heat of the memory.  But he wasn't here, he was... not downstairs; he was up here, sitting... against the empty left wall. She rolled and sat up, pulling the blankets close around her shoulders. A wash of low moonlight revealed him sitting on the floor halfway down the length of the room, his back against the wall.

"Alex?"

As if he were carved from stone. She got up and went closer. He acknowledged her in his head--a nod, a touch and then nothing.

She knelt beside him. His head rested against the wall. A pale silver trail ran down one cheek.

"Alex?"  She swallowed. Suddenly her lungs were tight, as if all the air in the room had evaporated.  "Oh Alex, no."

 

 

 

"I meant to say," Scully said, struggling with the words as the thickness of sleep took her, "that I'm grateful, Mulder. That you stood by me all that time when I was so... so swept away."

"Scully, it was--"

On the far side of the room the refrigerator stopped its low humming. A lock of hair was lifted carefully from her face.

"Scully, what else could I do?"

 

 

 

"You're shivering," Alex whispered, dry-voiced, against her hair.  But he was shaking, too.

"I know. I'm so cold." She pulled back and sat up straighter. "I know it's not that cold, but--"

He rubbed her arm to warm her.

"You're cold, too, Alex. What are you doing here?"

He shrugged. "Figured I'd probably wake you up.  Didn't want to."  A pause.  "Tracy, if there were"--he looked up at the darkened ceiling and sniffed--"some other way, any other way--"

"I know. I'm not complaining."

"I wrote to her. About half an hour ago."

She nodded. One side of him was in shadow, almost invisible; the other was lit by the pale glow of the moon. His fingers lingered near her elbow.

"Alex, don't worry about your thoughts keeping me awake. It can't be helping you to sit here like this. Come back to bed. Let's just be together--"  

While we can.

She pressed her lips tight and refused to say the words. After a moment she stood and offered him a hand. He let her pull him up and lead him back to the bed in the darkened corner where they'd pushed it a few hours earlier.

"Do you mind if I move it back under the window?" she said, turning to him. "So I can watch the clouds?"  The thunder and lightning were past now.

Silently, he helped her move the bed to where it had been before. The window with its dreamy scene beckoned her, drawing her to the ledge. White-edged clouds drifted slowly in the darkness outside the glass. Below, the orchard lay frozen in mute silver light, a waking dream in black and white. How often she'd wakened in the middle of the night to look out over this same scene, tracing the shapes of the shadows the trees made. Sometimes on warm nights she'd gone outside and run between them in the slow, cool light.

So little time--a day at most, or possibly just hours--and she'd leave here for the last time. Strangely, it was no surprise. The thought had been there for a while now, maybe a week, the way she'd sensed yesterday that she wouldn't return to her little room on the floor above Alex's.

Leaving.  In the past few weeks his room and the man who inhabited it had come to be the world she lived in, breathed in. Found purpose and shelter in. Her fingers pressed hard against the window ledge.

"Nena--"

She swallowed and turned to find him already under the blankets, wedged into the corner where he could see out over the room. He was waiting. She glanced out again: the overgrown vegetable garden, the orchard with its frozen shadows like dancers out of time, the broad expanse of empty field to the right and the swathe of silver-tipped trees that circled the edge of the silent valley.  Finally she turned to the bed.  Slipping her blanket off, she spread it quickly on top of the others and climbed in. Alex's arm came out and gathered her against him. Her throat ached, stretched tight and hard. She wrapped an arm around him, shivering, and let him warm one of her legs between his.

"Better?" His hand smoothed across her back, cool at first and then warming, comforting.

"Mm." She held him harder.  Her spirit ached, as if some essential part of herself was being torn away.

A stubbled cheek pressed against hers. "Could you--?"

Sing.

Just something. For a little while.

Anything would do.

She started to hum but the lump in her throat squeezed the sound dry. Her eyes stung; she squeezed them shut and burrowed her face against the side of his neck. 

Dyshi, krasavitsa.  Breathe.

Careful lips settled against her cheekbone and his hand smoothed down her back. Gradually she felt herself relax into the comfort of his body, and the care that circled her like a shawl.  Breath and quiet: a tiny world within a world, steady and soothing.  Eventually she smiled. What better than to do something positive now, to offer him something rather than dwelling on the pain to come?

"Thank you, Alex."

"For?" he said, puzzled.

She only smiled, settled closer against him and sought out his fingers. "What does it mean, Alex?  Nena?"

"It means 'little girl'." A kiss against her forehead. "It means lover. It means... whatever you want it to mean. Somebody you care about." His lips against her temple, and then his nose, nudging her softly. Sing.

She smiled and let a clear note slip into the quiet.

 

 

 

Teena rested her fingers on the edge of the keyboard and reread her response to Alex's latest mail.

Whatever would make it easier for him. Though apparently whatever accommodation she was able to offer would not be enough to make this process completely painless for her newfound son. It was almost too much to ask, or perhaps a matter of reading her own hope into his message, that this still vaguely-known child would turn out to have at least a measure of heart and conscience his father would never know, that somehow Leland had been unable to inject his venom completely. Unless this entire scenario was a cleverly constructed trap, Alex was giving up something he very much valued, as well as practical help he needed, for the sake of this girl's safety. What kind of person would find herself inside this man's defenses and circle of protection?

In only hours she would find out.

Teena clicked 'send', waited to see her message gone and drifted to the window, her pulse ticking away the tightening seconds. First light tinted the sky. Everything was packed and ready. The motion that was about to begin--that would surely begin and take them all on some unanticipated journey--sat poised and waiting. The three of them against Leland.  Or so it appeared.

If she'd seen the situation clearly. If Alex was who and what he seemed.

If Fox would cooperate and put aside the hurt Alex had so obviously done him.

So many ifs.

 

 

 

The bed sagged slightly. The covers were pulled back and then quickly brought up again. A cold hand settled against Scully's hip.

She rolled instinctively.

"Mulder, what--?" She opened her eyes and blinked at the early morning light. "What time is it?"

"Six-forty," he said quietly.

"You've been up again. You're cold."

"I know."

"Doing?"

"Thinking. Maybe thinking too much."

"About?"

"This. Smoky. My sister."

"Mulder, it sounds like we've switched places here.  Sometimes it's all too easy to forget that the world turns, that... that life goes on without our consciously willing it to happen."

"While we sink ourselves in the quicksand of the theoretical?"

"Mmm. I plead guilty."

"Yeah, well I think I've had it with playing that game. For now, anyway. You never win, you're always down by"--the pillow beside her was lifted and then set down--"at least two-to-one"--now the blankets were moved--"and that's at the outset. The more you play"--he rolled away slightly and looked behind him--"the farther and farther behind you get."

Scully pushed up on one elbow, puzzled. "Mulder, are you looking for something?"

"Yeah, I"--he turned back to her--"I think I left a lover in here somewhere." He raised an eyebrow. There was a familiar gleam in his eye, and then a smile. His hand slipped up her side. He leaned in closer, mouth capturing hers. "Hey, I think"--a kiss, lingering, against her neck, then another, lower, making her shiver--"I've found her. Is that her, Scully?"

She smiled, lay back against the pillow and gave him a mock-critical look. "I don't know, Mulder. Maybe you'll have to--" A knee insinuated itself between hers. "...investigate that possibility a little further."

"You mean"--his body came closer, sending tantalizing heat through her--"a thorough investigation?"

"Thorough is"--she slipped her arms around his neck and pulled him down against her--"the only acceptable way."

"By the book."

"Yes. By the book."

"By my book."

"How is that different?"

"Let me offer you a little... demonstration, Dr. Scully."

"As a professional courtesy?"

"As a very private... professional... courtesy."

 

 

 

"Four hours and counting, gentlemen." Byers paused in the doorway, waiting for a response.

Frohike was busy at the stove. The top of Langly's yellow mane showed from behind the morning paper on the far side of the table.

"I assume you two have done your part," Byers went on.

"Rani's gotten me into security as a replacement," Langly's voice came from behind the newspaper. "If the Smoking Man's cronies are in there, they're bound to say something that will give them away. If not, if they've got some kind of remote access--"

He let the newspaper fall and stopped abruptly, his mouth half open. Frohike turned around at the sudden lull in the conversation.

"Don't say anything," Byers warned, waving a finger in warning. He colored in spite of himself.

"Well," Frohike shrugged. "The beard'll grow back. And it's for a good cause."

"Nice touch with the hair." Langly nodded. "Anybody trying to remember you is going to think redhead. Kristen loan you that?"

Byers nodded.

"Crazy Kristen." Frohike said, smiling. "Gotta love that chick."

"You're ready for parking lot duty?" Byers asked.

"Binocs and video camera ready," Frohike said, his focus returning to the eggs he was pushing around inside a frying pan. "If they catch on early and try to follow, they're gonna be on candid camera."

"And you'll tail our target all the way?"

"Until Maggie's signed, sealed and delivered."

"Good." Byers reached to rub the beard that was no longer there. His hand hesitated and dropped to his side.

"What about you?" Langly said, nodding toward Byers.

Byers frowned and cleared his throat. "Ready as I'll ever be," he said. "Hopefully I won't have to use too much of that instruction Rani's wife was giving me. Besides, she'll be there, too. She's around the hospital enough that she won't seem suspicious to anyone." His brow wrinkled. "I do hope this plays out well for Mulder's and Scully's sakes. They certainly deserve not to have to worry about this on top of everything else." He stared past them at the far wall.

"With any luck," Frohike said, "we'll catch 'em on video and be able to track 'em down. Let's see how the sons of bitches like it when somebody starts trailing them."

"Remember, it will be to our advantage, gentlemen, not to become overconfident about this. This man's ploys are the reason Mulder was dismissed in the first place. He and Scully could easily be dead by now if not for some extraordinary effort and a good dose of luck. Maggie almost was." He paused and looked at nothing in particular. "Certainly enough other people have died because of him."

Byers turned and left the room. Langly and Frohike exchanged glances.

Frohike shrugged. "Eggs?" he said.

"Sure. Eat, drink and be merry."

"Shut up, Goldilocks."

 

 

 

Tracy pulled the plug and watched the shadowed water drain from the bathroom sink. Alex was upstairs, still asleep; he hadn't noticed when she'd slipped away and out of bed. She'd wrapped herself in a blanket, gone downstairs and checked their clothes in her mother's room--dry finally--and then ventured outside barefoot in the mud, circling the vegetable garden, the orchard, the pond: places that had once formed the boundaries of her life.

The sweet pea vines again.  The desperate urge to take them down was gone now. There was a second flower on the other side of the trellis from where Alex had discovered one yesterday; now it sat tucked above her ear. It wasn't until she'd reached the poplars that she'd realized what she would look like, wandering the orchard wrapped in a blanket, if anyone were to see.

If Nathan were to come across from the other side of the ridge...

Tracy stiffened.  She didn't want to begin to think about what Nathan might say, or do. Especially if he found her here with someone else.  With a man.

She'd turned then and headed quickly back toward the house, emotions swelling and beginning to sag like a balloon being slowly filled with water. Her feet were filthy and her stomach was a small, hard thing that clutched greedily at the thought of the jar of applesauce waiting on the kitchen counter. There was a dull soreness from last night, an ache mixed with the distilled sweetness of their union--need and joy and giving made flesh. So many things had come, in the last few weeks, to load her life with meaning, but now they were poised, every one of them, to be whisked away as if they'd never been. She could feel them waiting, tensed and ready. Now was the time to call on her inner strength. It was there, somewhere under the layers of mixed-up circumstance and emotion. He'd made her see that.

In the bathroom she'd run water in the sink and washed all her essential parts and then her muddy feet, slowly, as if time were a movie passing a single frame at a time.

A low gurgle sounded in the pipes, shaking her from her thoughts, the last of the water escaping down the drain. She was cold, shivering.  Quickly she reached for the towel and rubbed her skin dry. The yellow dress was ready in the other room. She picked the blanket off the edge of the tub, adjusted it around her and looked at her reflection in the mirror by the dull glow of the candle. Refugees looked like this.

To the right of her reflection, deeper within the mirror's view, the bathtub sat in deep shadow. In her mind she could see herself splashing there as a child.  She'd been a daughter in this house, a companion and confidante. A provider and a strong arm. A lover, now. You're a woman, Alex would think to her in a back corner of his head where his thoughts lay only half-disguised; it's okay to feel like one. And what would she be tomorrow? An orphan? A widow? An unsupported support?

But he was still here; they were both still here. Her memory of her mother was much more at peace than it had been before she came. It was Alex who had helped her through it. Led her. Stayed patiently beside her while she sorted out the tangled threads of memory and emotion.

Her stomach hard and achy, Tracy blew out the candle on the sink's edge and went out into the kitchen. Alex would tell her to eat rather than wait for him, to get something inside her because her body needed nourishment considering the state it was in. He'd been feeling especially ambivalent about the baby since the focus had shifted to getting her away safely. How could the child she carried prove anything but a hindrance, making her own survival more difficult? A handicap not unlike the arm he was missing. Or the unexpected complication he'd presented to his mother's life, a minefield he'd just begun to recognize.

Her stomach growled.  Tracy reached for the jar of applesauce at the back of the counter and took last night's clean dishes from the drainer. The sound of muffled footsteps passed by overhead. She turned to see Alex standing at the top of the stairs. He started down toward her. Quickly she turned to open a drawer and began to search through the utensils for the jar opener while something hummed, tightening inside her.

"Hey," he said, coming up behind her, his hand settling against her waist, tentative.

How was she doing?

She shut the drawer and looked up. "I went outside and got all muddy like a little kid running around--" She tried for a smile but it caught, unexpectedly sharp and painful, in her throat. The seconds seemed to stretch and finally to pause completely. She looked down until a finger lifted her chin.

Tracy.

"Alex, I--"

A sudden wash of something she couldn't hold back. She closed her eyes and leaned against him, sobbing now--a child's crying, undisguised and painful in the room's quiet. A hand smoothed back through her hair and then his arm went around her and pulled her close.

"Nena." The word was quiet against her temple. He rocked her slightly; she let herself be held, soothed by the movement. He was still here. But he was worried now.  Maybe they'd taken things too far, nice though it had been--no, amazing in some quiet, understated way he couldn't quite pinpoint.  Still, it had been all too easy.  Maybe he should have kept his head, reined them both in for her sake.

"Alex, it's not that; it's... everything, I guess. Leaving. Being here. So many things at once." She looked up.  "Not last night."  Especially not that.

He studied her a moment, solemn. Finally his expression softened and he wiped a lingering tear from the corner of her eye with his thumb. 

Another day's growth of stubble; she liked the way it looked on him.  She smiled, the tightness inside her finally gone, and reached to kiss his chin. Her lips brushed prickly skin and drifted until his mouth came close and paused. He wore the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth; he was waiting for her not to be able to resist. He knew a little was all it took; a little taste and she'd reach. She leaned closer, lips barely touching his. Then the closeness and current and the slippery, beckoning wetness were working their magic, neither one able to resist, neither wanting to.

"Get something to eat," he said finally, breaking away, shaking his head with a grin. 

He made himself step back beyond arms' reach. He had to check his mail. Had to stay alert.

Alertness was what kept you alive.

 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
Quite unexpected to receive your request so soon. Apparently you weren't the only one kept up late--or waking early--over speculation about this matter. Yes, I can accommodate today. Would Baltimore work? Or is another area better? Does that suit your travel requirements for afterward? There is a place available to me in Baltimore that will not require leaving identification that could be traced.

Let me know of anything that will make this easier for you. Awaiting your prompt reply as travel time is involved.
   
                                                                                     -M
 

 

 

Tracy scooped the last spoonful of the applesauce from her dish, savoring the rich sweetness it spread inside her mouth.  In her mind she could see her mother, her face unlined and smiling, coming through the doorway with a box of apples and setting it on the table. The ghost-woman ran a hand back through her hair, leaving it behind her ear. There was something about her, as if she were a different person, a much younger woman than the mother she'd known. A wife once, a lover, carrier of a child: not so very different from herself. How hard it would have been to come from Pasadena, from her father, to this.

But then how had she hid the regret, the empty ache and longing she must have felt? It had never lain there in her mind the way it did in other people's, exposed and obvious.

Warmth close behind her--Alex--and a hand against the side of her waist.

"We've got about three hours 'til we need to go," he said quietly when she turned. He paused and let out a reluctant breath.  "She's going to meet us in Baltimore."

 

 

 

To: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Location sounds good. Send specifics. Will 1:30 work? This is going to be tricky, so I appreciate the help.
   
                                           -A

Most likely he was referring to the logistics and the fact that he'd have to pass the test of Leland's skepticism with whatever story he chose to give out about the girl's disappearance.

Or perhaps he was becoming more transparent.

Teena sighed and placed her fingers on the keyboard. Fox had said he'd have some friends find a way for her to access her funds without their being traceable, but in the meantime Trudy's Baltimore condo would provide a safe meeting place. Trudy must have known something even then, years ago, when she'd offered her the key and said to use the place if there was ever a need.

Next week Trudy would be in Baltimore but the condo was vacant for the time being. It was the perfect place to leave a note letting Trudy know... 

But what exactly could she say that wouldn't thoroughly alarm her sister? Though she had to leave some sort of message before she disappeared. She'd told the neighbor boy, Paul, the one who'd helped her navigate the new laptop, that she'd be gone to Maine for the next three weeks. He was to bring in the mail and water the houseplants and do the mowing. But if she was still gone then?

What if she never returned? She'd taken nothing she believed Leland would note as a significant absence: no pictures of the children, no keepsakes, none of Bill's old papers. Only enough clothing to be appropriate for a three-week vacation. How else could she prepare? Surely Fox would give her further advice when she talked to him. If he'd talk to her. What would he say, and how could she work around the reaction he'd surely display at her having agreed to receive the girl from his closest of enemies?

Teena shivered. There was a tightness in her chest, a tremble that ran through her arms and down to the tips of her fingers. This had the feeling of a dangerous liaison, the way slipping away with Leland had been dangerous. And the risk of alienating someone with her actions loomed just as large as at that time years ago... except that this time it would be Fox she risked offending.

 

 

 

The red car came to a dusty stop in the front yard. Sandy glanced from the bathroom window back to the mirror and quickly flushed her mouth with more of the water pouring from the sink, letting it carry away the awful, bitter taste. She grabbed for a washcloth, held it under the water, squeezed it out and wiped the sweat from her forehead. Hopefully she wouldn't look as pale--or as bad--as she felt. She glanced out the window again.  Her mother was already out of view.

Almost immediately the doorbell rang. Sandy closed her eyes momentarily, then turned and went down the hall to answer it. Her heart pounded.

"Hi." Raylene looked down slightly and hesitated, then held out a white bag. "I brought you a couple of doughnuts. Guess I got up kinda early."

Obviously, it was a peace offering of some kind. Sandy's stomach turned at the thought of the sweet doughnuts but she swallowed the feeling and opened the door wider.  "Thanks."

She took the bag from her mother's outstretched hand and went to the kitchen counter, her mother trailing behind her. Raylene pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. She looked at her fingernails.

"Something happen, Mom?"

Raylene sighed. "Yeah, I guess it did." A twitch at the corner of her mouth. "I had this little revelation yesterday."

Sandy gave her a quizzical look.

"Long story short," Raylene said after a long pause, "I told Joe to have himself and his stuff out of the house by Sunday."

Sandy came around to the table, pulled out a chair across from her mother and sat down. "You two have a fight?"

"No, I... This didn't have anything to do with Joe." She sighed. "Maybe it never has. I think it's all been in my head.  The whole time.  Everything."

Sandy traced the grain lines on the tabletop and finally looked up. "He don't love you, Mom. I don't think he's ever loved anybody but his own self in his life."

The corners of Raylene's mouth wavered. She pasted a smile on. "Yeah, I think I finally figured that out."

The kitchen clock ticked loudly. Sandy glanced up at it. 8:40. She needed to start for Adrie's. Her toes poked against the chair leg, tapping a silent beat against it.  Raylene continued to stare at the tabletop.

"I'm going to have to be going," Sandy said quietly. She let her teeth press into her lower lip. "I've got a job to get to."  Brace yourself for the big flood of questions, girl.

Raylene got up from the table quietly and pushed the chair in. Her fingers smoothed over the curved chair back.

"I thought of something else," she said. "I didn't mean to be an 'I told you so'. I guess it sounds pretty bad when you're on the receiving end. I just--" She looked up, out the window, and swallowed. "I guess I just was so scared that it could've been you and not just Roddy in that car that night." Raylene's lips pressed into a flat line.

Sandy stood motionless, as if someone had called 'freeze' in a game of statue.

 

 

 

Krycek frowned. "I blow it?"

Tracy shook her head against him: No. He took his hand from her back and lifted a few stray hairs from her forehead, out of beads of sweat, and smoothed them back past her ear. He searched her face for clues but there was no reading it.

"What then?" he whispered against her temple.

"I just--"

They were still glued together, her arms were still tight around him. She'd seemed obvious enough a minute earlier. It had seemed good for her--way past good. And he'd done his best to be careful. Obviously he'd overstepped somewhere along the line.

Her eyes opened and she looked at him. Smiled.  She was beautiful, all flushed like this.

"It was--" Overwhelming, she whispered close to his ear.  "In a good way," she added, keying off his lingering puzzlement. "But it's almost scary, Alex--to feel yourself want something so much that everything else falls away, everything else you should be thinking about."

"Some things aren't meant to be analyzed."  He kissed the bridge of her nose and rested his cheek against her head. 

Like the last twenty-four hours.  Strategically, coming here seemed like the last thing in the world he should have been doing.  But there were times when some wild chance you took ended up keeping you alive on the inside.  This was going to carry him for a long time.

"Would you take it back?" he said, staring toward the far end of the room.  "Just now?  Hell, any of this?"

"Not for anything."

He grinned and let his fingers wander through her hair, sensing like blind men's fingers. "Me, either."

"What will you do now, Alex?"

He shook his head and looked up into the swirls of wood grain on the ceiling. The room seemed to chill around him. There'd never been any question.  A clean break had been the only thing that made sense, the only way to guarantee safety for either of them. Security was paramount.

He closed his eyes and let out a slow breath.  There was a dull ache in his side under the mask of the pain medication, and he was shrinking, about to slip out of her.  He started to ease himself away but her hand against his hip stopped him. 

"Not yet, Alex."

They never lasted, windows of opportunity. Blink and they were gone.

A couple of hours left.  He stretched carefully and brushed a kiss against her shoulder. Her leg was heavy over his.  He memorized the shape and weight of it, a hedge against the bleakness that lay ahead.

 

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: Redwall@zipmail.com
Thought you should be apprised of the current plans. The operation is scheduled for 11:30 this morning, to coincide with the activity of the lunch hour. Her doctor has talked at length with the caregiver at the new facility, the location of which was heron3's brainchild and should afford more security than the usual options. Every precaution we can think of has been taken. More details to follow as the plan unfolds. I understand that it will not be easy to sit on the other end just waiting to hear, but be assured we will make every necessary effort on her behalf and yours.
   
                                                                                    -JB

Scully sighed and closed her eyes. Two and a half hours and then however long it would take them to pull off their plan and carry her mother to safety. If only there were something she could do to help. But what had she told Mulder not three hours ago about the world turning--life unfolding--without having to make it happen? She looked up, as if inspiration might be hovering above her.

Light footfalls sounded outside and a knock came on the metal paneling beside the door.

"Sandy?" Scully pushed the chair back and turned. Sandy stood outside, a plastic grocery bag in her hand. She seemed edgy. Scully got up from her chair and held the screen door open.

Sandy came up the stairs and inside. She gave a small, ambiguous smile that promptly faded.

"Feeling nauseated again?" Scully said, motioning her to the bed.

Sandy sat down on the edge and set her bag on the floor. She nodded. Scully sat down beside her and leaned forward, elbows on her knees.

"It could be a good sign," she said.

Sandy wiped beads of sweat from her forehead. Her mouth opened but nothing came out. "My mom came by," she said finally, her voice dry.

Scully waited, but nothing more seemed forthcoming. "How did it go?"

"It was... It wasn't bad. She's lost, I think. She's throwing Joe out." She held a breath, paused and finally let it out. "She gave me these doughnuts." She pointed to a white paper bag inside the shopping sack and smiled briefly. "I don't think I could keep one down but maybe later. You're welcome to one if you like."

Obviously there was more.

"She said"--Sandy shook her head at the memory--"that she'd been so afraid that... you know--what if it'd been me in the car that night, with Cy and Roddy--" Her mouth curled at the corners. Her shoulders heaved and she leaned into Scully's embrace. "Annie, I've been so busy hurting that"--she gulped--"I'd never even thought, never even stopped to consider--"

Scully smoothed a hand across her shoulder. "That you could have been there, too?"

Sandy nodded against her. "I guess it's pretty creepy, but when something like that misses you--you know, even just by a fraction of a hair--you just pass it off and don't think about it no more. You look at it in your mind like that: that nothing happened, nothing woulda." She sniffed.

"You know what else it means," Scully said after a moment. "It means your mother loves you.  She's concerned about what happens to you. I'm sure she misses Roddy, too. Sometimes when we hurt, we only see our own pain. Other people around us may be hurting, too, but we don't realize it; we don't see that far."

Scully looked down, at the shopping bag on the floor.

The girl straightened and wiped her eyes with the back of a hand. "I picked up one of those tests," she said, the corners of her mouth quivering. "I couldn't bring myself to do it at home all alone."

"You know you're supposed to do them first thing in the morning."

"I know. I waited. I'm about to burst."

Scully smiled. "Then go," she said quietly. She reached into the plastic bag for the test kit and handed it to Sandy. "Go on."

Sandy took it and stood. She went around the bed and into the bathroom. The door clicked closed.

Scully closed her eyes. Whatever would happen would happen. As in her mother's case, there was nothing she could do to affect the outcome. Sandy deserved this second chance, but what was deserved seemed to happen so infrequently. Mulder deserved to find his sister alive and well, with a faithful brother clear in her memory. Melissa deserved to be alive. They deserved to have their careers back. Even Alex Krycek deserved to have had a better start than the one he'd had; maybe then his actions would have been different.

The muffled sound of the toilet flushing came from beyond the wall. Scully opened her eyes. The door opened slowly and Sandy's face appeared. It showed nothing.

"Well?"

The girl shook her head. "I couldn't look. Sometimes I'm the biggest chicken."

"And sometimes you're very, very brave." Scully paused. "Do you want me to check it?"

Sandy nodded and sat down on the edge of the bed. Scully went into the bathroom, her breath faint, as if she weren't pulling in enough air. She made herself look at the little plastic test unit on the counter. The corners of her mouth pulled up.

"It's good news," she said, returning to the bedroom. "Very good."

"Oh, my." Sandy's shoulders heaved again. She looked up and smiled through red eyes. "Ohmigod. Oh--" She looked away. "I wish Cy were here. I wish--" The girl's eyes closed.

Scully went closer and smoothed a hand through her hair. "He is, in a way. A little bit of him, anyway."

Sandy nodded against her.

"Why don't you lie down, Sandy? For a little while, until your stomach settles. I'll watch Adrie until you're ready."

"Thank you, Annie. Oh--"

"Rest."

"Adrie's building a little house or something on the barn floor."

Sandy lay back and curled onto her side. She closed her eyes. Scully watched her a moment--long, wavy brown hair, tan muscular legs, the scabs from her run-in with the bushes in the Savers Mart parking lot gradually healing--and slipped quietly out of the trailer to look for Adrie.

 

 

 

Grimacing in anticipation, Mulder dropped the pieces of shattered bottle carefully down the side of the plastic trash bag. It was crazy. Scully would go ballistic if she knew, but what other way was there? Something was going on with the Connors kids; the feeling was too strong to ignore. Even Scully'd admitted that not a single instance of shock among three diabetic kids was a red flag. And nobody was going to be leaving patient records lying around in lockers or bathrooms where you could just pick them up like discarded paper towels.

He looked at the jagged points of tightly-stretched plastic on the side of the bag, set his jaw, closed his hand over the place and squeezed.

 

 

 

After a cursory glance around the room, Langly set his binder down on the desktop and made himself comfortable in the chair. It swiveled, a definite plus. The bank of monitors in front of him showed hallways, rooms with sleeping patients, a recreation room. Not much of anything that could be called action. He glanced over at the man in front of the intensive care monitors, then behind him at the third worker, a curly-haired twenty-something who was slipping a deck of cards from a shirt pocket. Curly gave him a nod.

"Bradley got bronchitis again?"

Langly shrugged. "They don't tell us anything. They just yell for help when they're short."

Curly grunted, laid four cards out in front of him and looked up at his monitors. Langly glanced to the right. The corner guy had a headset on. It could go to a Walkman, or it could be something else. He turned back to his own monitors, eased his chair back and looked up at the clock.

One hour and counting.

 

 

 

Mulder bit his lip against the pain. His eyes had teared over but as far as he could tell he'd done it right--nothing too deep or dangerous, it just hurt like hell. He'd washed the bottle before he'd broken it, and the rag he'd grabbed when the blood started to come was clean as far as he knew. Hopefully there were no cleaning solvents on it, though any added stinging would have been hard to notice. As it was, the arm throbbed all the way past his elbow.

"Hold still, Mr. Wallace."

He made his arm stop moving and focused on the two computer monitors on the far side of a low bank of cabinets. It was better than looking at his palm, and closing his eyes only made the pain focus like a laser. His hand throbbed a steady beat, as if it had a heart of its own.

The tweezers closed in on his palm. He set his jaw.

"And how did this happen again, Mr. Wallace? A trash can? Emptying a trash can?"

Mulder nodded stiffly. "Yeah," he added as an afterthought, spitting the word out.

"From a bathroom?"

"No... basement. The basement."

"Good. That eliminates some potentially nasty bacteria."

The doctor talked with a smooth delivery, calming like Karen Kosseff though not as saccharine. What would the Bureau shrink think of Scully now? Would she wonder what had become of her or would she be too busy with her own caseload to give his partner a second thought?

Tweezers bit into his ragged palm. Mulder swore.

A firm hand held his wrist. "Sorry. You'll have to keep it still. Better to get it all now than have to go back in later."

Mulder bit his lip and nodded. He focused on the doctor--her hair, cut nearly like Scully's but light brown, thin and slightly longer--and the way her glasses slipped slightly down her nose. She was probably in her mid-forties, smooth-skinned, pleasant if somewhat detached. Vanek, her name tag said.

"I believe that's everything," she said, looking up. "You're fortunate the glass didn't penetrate anything vital. You just barely avoided stitches, too. This area here is messy"--she pointed--"but there's nothing stitches are going to do for it." She gave him a look. "I'll bandage it up. You'll need antibiotics and something for the pain. You should stay here for a while--lie down and just ease up a little."

"Joe's going to be docking my pay."

"We have priority here. We'll interface with Joe."

"Kind of like a note from the school nurse?" He managed a weak grin.

She nodded as she worked. "Essentially."

She wrapped gauze around the pad on his palm. "I'd say to come back tomorrow, but it will be Saturday. If you have trouble over the weekend, check in with Casson Urgent Care; we contract to them. And drop by Monday morning. I want to make sure this is progressing properly."

Mulder nodded and tried to focus on the room, the two computer terminals and the general layout. There seemed to be just Dr. Vanek and one other doctor or technician, a balding man in his fifties who'd left with a freshly filled coffee mug just as Mulder had come in, hand clutched in the maintenance rag, escorted by Danny Contreras who he'd happened to pass in the courtyard. Tough break, Danny had said, wincing in sympathy. The hand had hurt too damn much to do anything but let Danny lead him over here.

"There," Dr. Vanek said, reaching for the pen hooked to her clipboard, jotting down something he didn't try to follow. She had a habit of focusing on the wound rather than the patient. "Beds are over there, behind the curtain." She pointed. "Luckily you've got the place to yourself right now so take your pick. Just lie down and I'll bring your medication."

Mulder headed slowly for the green-curtained area. No other patients; it was a good thing. He reached for the top of a curtain and slid it back. Vanek was at a glass-front cabinet on the far side of the room, working a key in the lock. He sat on the bed--cot--eased himself down onto his side and tucked a small pillow under his head. Hopefully whatever she was going to give him would work quickly.

He closed his eyes. His palm burned, the pain echoing through his wrist and arm.

"Mr. Wallace--" She stood above him, tablets in a little plastic cup in one hand and a paper cup with water in the other. He pushed up on one elbow, gulped down the contents of the cup, then the water and lay back down. The curtain was closed around him. He looked up and started to count the curtain hooks around the top of the track, listening to the doctor's retreating footsteps.

Quiet.

She must be sitting down. She'd been reading something when he came in. Mulder eased himself onto his back and studied the ceiling. Scully would be in her little trailer, sitting at the laptop wanting to check her mail, rationalizing why there wouldn't be any yet, going through possible steps the Gunmen might take in rescuing her mother. If her mind wandered, she might consider Diana's possible strategies for locating the author of the e-mail to Beeson--if Rita's fake mail didn't satisfy Beeson and take the heat off. Or she might think about this morning. He smiled in spite of the pain. At least they'd been back on the same page in the end.

Mulder closed his eyes, paused... and opened them again. He flexed his bandaged hand. The pain had faded; he must have dozed off for a few minutes. Made sense; the sleep he'd gotten last night had been off-and-on at best.

A door closed beyond the curtain, then nothing--no sound. Maybe she'd stepped out. Perfect opportunity.

Mulder paused a moment, then sat up and slipped his feet to the floor.

 

 

 

Tracy watched the pulse in Alex's neck, the steady rhythm it kept, the curves of his ear and the growing stubble that covered his cheek and upper lip. Things she hadn't allowed herself to focus on before, though she hadn't realized it at the time.

Before: when he'd been nothing more than a post-surgical acquaintance of the terrible old man, a wary schemer who slept with his back to the wall and endured pain soundlessly, and she'd been a runaway teetering on the knife-edge of simple survival.  She'd gained so much since then.

Dust specks drifted, slowly settling through the light above them. She lay back and let her hand slip up his side to where a scar ran diagonally across his ribs. Sunlight burned lazily through the window. He had that smell--of sunlight on skin, the kind you got from working outdoors. She buried her face against the side of his neck, breathed in, closed her eyes and tried to imprint the scene in her mind. 

But it was time.

"Alex."

He reached instinctively for her hand and opened his eyes. A drowsy smile and then clearing, cold consciousness.

"We've got about an hour, Alex. We should probably straighten things up, get ready."

A pause and he nodded. His eyes closed momentarily. "I fell asleep."

"I know. You needed it."

"You sleep?"

She shook her head. "I was just lying here. Watching you."

He leaned back against her, his fingers tightening between hers. "Felt you back there." He turned to look at her.  His eyes were dark now, wide open. He cleared his throat. "It's going to be obvious that somebody's been here. But it'll be easy enough to make it look like it was just an intruder, some vagrant--"

"We're vagrants," she offered in spite of his gravity.  Despite her own.

He rolled onto his back, shook his head and pulled her against him. A few seconds later he nudged her with his nose. Up. Work to do.

"You don't want it to look like it was you who was here. If anybody should try to trace you"--he shook his head--"don't give yourself away. Don't give them anything they can work with."

She sat up. He pulled himself up beside her.

"You okay?" Her body, he meant.

"A little sore. I'll be okay. Come on, there's a lot to do."

A hand smoothed through her hair and settled against the back of her neck. Their foreheads came together and they paused, a moment of silence, of union.

"Go," he said quietly.

She crawled toward the end of the bed.

"Toss me my pants?"

She went to the chair. He didn't watch; watching would only make him want to pull her back under the covers and forget the reality that hung over them, and it was critical now to stay on course.

"I remembered something," she said. "While you were sleeping."  She tossed his pants onto the corner of the bed.

"Yeah?"

"I was thinking about Pasadena, Alex. Maybe I did have a brother."

 

 

 

Byers pulled into the staff section of the hospital parking lot and slipped into a space between two minivans. Turning off the motor, he found himself motionless, staring straight ahead.

"John, you look as dubious as I feel," Rita said into the quiet.

"I guess raw courage has never been my forte," he admitted, half-glancing at her.

"I don't think there are many of us ready for what we have to go through at times." She sighed. "I suspect it's more often a case of being pushed off the side of the pool than diving in."

"You're probably right."

"We match," she said after a pause, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "The hair, I mean."

"It does seem odd, doesn't it? But it will get us out as different people than we'll appear to be going in."

Rita pulled down the visor and looked at her curly wig, gray tinged with that slightly blue highlight older women sometimes favored. She shook her head.

"I imagine we'd better go on in," she said.

Byers nodded and opened his door. "You know Langly will be watching the monitors. All you have to do is lie there. If he notices that someone's caught on to the ruse, or if he sees anyone coming to your room, you'll be alerted and I'll be on my way. After Maggie's gone you'll be my one and only concern. We need to hold to this presentation as long as we can, but once it's discovered I'll retrieve you and we'll be out of here. I know it won't be easy, but longer is better. If they don't realize what's happened until Maggie's safely delivered, then"--he paused and let out his breath slowly--"we should have a pretty good chance. And so should Mulder and Scully."

"I imagine I should go first so we aren't seen together," Rita said. She forced a smile. "I'll see you in there, John Byers. I'll be counting on you just as Maggie will be counting on me."

Rita pulled on her door handle and got out. An adjustment of her skirt, a push to close the door, a deep breath and she was on her way, eyes straight ahead, footfalls automatic, slightly distant, as if she were walking above the ground. In her mind she pictured the sleeping man she'd found slumped against the column of her porch several Sundays earlier, his earnest eyes and his tale of conspiracy that had sounded so implausible at the time.

 

 

 

Mulder clicked on the sidebar and scrolled awkwardly down the list of names. In his focus on creating the accident, he'd reached for the bag automatically, grabbing it with his right hand. Now, working the mouse with his left, the cursor insisted on skittering away from the scroll bar on the right side of the page. He swore quietly, clicked on the screen and hit 'page down'. The display in front of him went momentarily out of focus. Mulder blinked hard. Whatever it was she'd given him...

His pulse thumped a frenetic backbeat as he hit 'page down' yet again.

Approaching footfalls in the hallway stopped abruptly at the door. The handle turned. Adrenaline surged and Mulder clicked desperately to close the screen. Stubbornly, the mouse insisted on veering away from the little X in the corner of the page. Another jerky push of the unaccustomed hand and the screen closed to reveal the blue logo of Beeson-Lymon. Dr. Vanek was standing in the doorway, watching him. His heart pounded.

Swallowing, he gripped the edge of the table. She didn't look happy.

"Mr. Wallace, you're supposed to be lying down." Her arms were crossed in front of her like a displeased kindergarten teacher.

"I know. I--" He stopped and blinked again. "I was feeling kind of... I don't know... fuzzy, dizzy... lying down so I decided to get up and try to walk it off. These colors on the monitor--the green and blue. They're not supposed to be strobing, are they?"

She came closer and frowned. "They appear to be strobing? That's what you're seeing?"

He nodded--slightly. It made him lightheaded.

"What was that you gave me?"

"It was just acetaminophen, Mr. Wallace. And the antibiotics, of course. You've never had any sort of reaction like this before?"

"No."

The monitor began to float in front of him. Mulder gripped the table edge harder.

"Look, you'd better lie down again. We can elevate your head; it should help. But you shouldn't be running around the office when you're feeling like this."

"Yeah."

There was a hand on his upper arm, guiding him to an adjustable bed behind another curtain. He eased himself onto it and lay back. Dr. Vanek reached for the controls and brought the head of the bed up. "Better?"

"Yeah, I think... I think so." He closed his eyes. It was like floating in a swimming pool.

"Open your eyes a moment."

He did as he was told. The doctor's face came closer. She looked into his eyes, then shined a penlight into them.

"What is it?"

Her mouth pressed into an irregular, unreadable shape. "I'm not certain. It's not at all typical. It could be anything, even a quirk in the manufacturer's batch of the drug. It's been known to happen, though it's rare. Usually the mischief's found out and taken care of long before the product reaches the market." Her lips relaxed momentarily; one hand went into the pocket of her lab coat. "Or it could be something completely unrelated. Rest a while, Mr. Wallace; I'll be right here. If you notice any change at all in your symptoms, let me know right away."

"Yeah, okay."

She pulled up the bed's railing until it clicked into place. "You might find yourself more comfortable on your side," she said, turning to go. "Oh, and in the future I'd recommend leather work gloves. I'll see that Joe gives you a pair."

Mulder watched as she walked away. A moment later he curled onto his side and reached for the bed rail with his left hand. His fingers slipped around the bar and held on. There was only a dull ache in the bandaged hand.

A hard knot formed in his stomach. Not since the 'treatment' room in the Tunguska prison camp had he felt this kind of... something. Foreboding. Not the expectant terror that had permeated that room, that had been palpable even before the screaming started, but uncertainty--the shadow of an ominous unknown, not knowing where it would lead, this strange reaction to the drug.

Second opinion. He wanted a second opinion from someone he could trust--his own doctor. She was sitting in a trailer now, probably trying her damndest to be rational, to wait out the time until notice came that her mother was safely hidden away.

Had Vanek seen her files open or not? He'd been trying too desperately to get the damned screen to close to know for sure. The look she'd given him--it was a definite look. She could have seen. Or it could just be a doctor's frustration at seeing a patient up and wandering. Scully might have had the same reaction. The medication had made it hard to tell. The door had been... open; it was open before he managed to click out. But she'd said nothing about it, hadn't questioned him or seemed curious.

Mulder closed his eyes. The floating feeling came and then settled slightly. His fingers gripped the cold, smooth bar that bordered the bed. In his mind she was standing in the doorway, frowning as he shoved the mouse, slow-motion and jerky, toward the little X in the corner of the page.

 

 

 

From the landing Krycek scanned the upstairs room one final time.  He'd wiped off the front of the armoire, the desk chair, the window ledge, the window latch--anything they'd touched.  His DNA was on the sheets, but nobody was likely to check them.  Well, Mulder might.  He had no reason to come here, but if he did, he'd do that kind of thing. 

And if he were to test them?

And if he were to test them, what?  He'd find what he'd find.  It didn't matter what Mulder thought.

Krycek placed his rag over the end of the landing's banister and rubbed, then started down the stairs.  The humming in his gut--the old familiar tension of alertness--was reassuring on the one hand, but with it came a certain distance, a closing off--closing in--that was liable to shut her out, too.  It wasn't what he wanted, but he had no idea how to temper it.  Until now, he'd never had any need to, and anyway, it was too tightly woven into his survival instinct.

Three stairs from the bottom, he paused and watched.  Tracy was wiping around the sink and cabinet area, apparently unaware of his presence, which meant that her head was full of her own worries.  When he cleared his throat, she turned.

"You about ready?"

She nodded. "I wiped all the doorknobs like you said. I hope the blankets upstairs look right--you know, the way you want them. I hid one bowl and spoon so there's only one set in the sink."

"Good thinking. Arms of the rocker?"

"I got those, too. And the edges of my mom's bed where I pushed it."

Earlier, he'd gotten the doorways, the front of the linen closet, the bathroom.

"Guess that's it." He nodded toward her backpack and she picked it up. She was fighting to keep it inside but something was eating at her, some loose end. It was obvious in the set of her mouth. 

"What is it, Tracy?"

She looked toward the window. "Leaving, I guess. I'm not sure, really." She turned to face him. "Maybe knowing I'll never be coming back here."

He shrugged.  "You don't know that for a fact. Maybe a few years down the--"

But that wasn't what she was talking about. There was something, maybe one of those things she was sensing somehow; she had senses he couldn't even comprehend. Whatever it was, it made him want to move past the subject quickly, like crossing an unlit alley.  He came closer and rested his hand on her shoulder.

"C'mon," he said quietly, urging her toward the door.

They went out, secured the front door and started across the wet ground, Tracy slightly ahead, their path taking them toward the garden again. Reluctantly, he let her lead. Through the gate, up to the sweet pea vines. No big surprise.

Stopping in front of the trellis, she reached out tentatively to touch the dried leaves, circling the edges lightly with her fingertips.

"Look, I--" He let out a slow breath and reminded himself to be patient. "If they weren't such a red flag, I'd help you take them down myself." A pause. "I would. You know I would."

She nodded and continued to stare at the vines.

"Anybody who knows this place and sees them down--they're going to know right away that someone's been here. When you're on the run you can't afford to leave your mark, you can't... commemorate, you can't... You've got to slip in and slip out like you were never there. Whatever you want to take, you've got to find a way to carry it inside you."

Slowly she nodded and looked up at him.

"C'mon," he said gently.  He held out his hand and she took it, her fingers working their way between his and gripping tightly. They left the garden and started up through the orchard toward the car, feet skimming wet green weeds, grasses and yellow mustard flowers, one foot and then the other, settling into an easy pace, their strides even and measured.

"I've been thinking, Alex," she said after they'd passed a dozen trees, "what it would have been like for my mother to come here after my dad died. How much that must have hurt. How could it not have, being separated from someone you love? But I never saw anything in her--nothing like that. She never talked about it. I went looking in the cabinets and closets this morning, Alex, and there aren't any pictures. Not a single one from the time before we came here. And the more I think about it, the more I can almost picture that little boy. I can see myself holding the back of his bicycle. He's trying to learn to balance and I'm holding the back of his seat. We're running along the sidewalk and we pass that window, the arched living room window."

"And now you're wondering why she didn't tell you the whole story?"

"We were like... like two people who were one, Alex. We shared everything."  She glanced up at him, eyes shiny.  "At least, I thought we did."

He looked away, up to the horizon and cleared his throat. "Don't doubt her, Tracy. You knew who she was. If she was a fake, you wouldn't be the person you are. If she knew things she couldn't tell you, she must have had a reason, or--" 

Something tightened inside him. She hardly needed to be told about women who'd been taken and experimented on. 

"I thought maybe I'd see her again. You know--her ghost, or whatever it was."  She paused. "She saw you, too, Alex. What do you think it means?"

He shrugged and opened his mouth but no words came. What did he know about ghosts?

They were in among the apple trees now. A few late, pink-tinged blossoms showed between pale green leaves.  He'd check out her story, though, about her dad and the place he'd worked.  That, combined with her mother's lack of memory, seemed to fit an all-too-familiar pattern.  To say nothing of the gaps in her own memory.  Implant or no implant, the implications made something in his gut go cold.

He made himself look up.  Broad poplar leaves shimmered in the breeze just ahead of them. He paused. "You need a minute here?"

"How are you doing, Alex?"

"So far, so good."

This was the prime part of his cycle with the pain pills.  He'd taken one after he'd eaten, then had spent an hour lying upstairs with her until the groggy period had passed.  Then they'd made love and eventually he'd fallen asleep, a good rest to set him up for the journey ahead. He was going to need the strength.

"Then let's go," she said. "We should go."

They started in again along the path they'd taken the day before, rising slightly toward the woods. He looked ahead, searching the shadowed trees for signs of the car.

 

 

 

Maggie's bed rail was lowered with a clank. She opened her eyes to see a smiling face leaning toward her.

"It's your bath day, Mrs. Scully. We'll be able to wash your hair this time, too."

Maggie pulled up slightly, squinting. The fluorescent lights: they were always the same, never any indication of day or night, of how long it had been since she'd last been awake or how many days she'd been here. She had been here for days. Maybe even weeks, she had no way of telling. Life was a repeating sequence of bright lights, drifting off, coughing herself awake. Hell must be like this. Hopefully that wasn't what this was.

"Now you can just relax, Mrs. Scully. Rob and I are going to lift you onto the gurney here and we'll take a little trip down to the shower room."

Maggie lay back against the pillows. A tickle in her lungs and the coughing came, hard and racking. She curled onto her side and closed her eyes. Streaks of red and yellow flashed behind her eyelids. Her ribs ached.

"Mrs. Scully?" A pleasant voice. Different voice.

The nurse held out a glass of water and tipped the straw toward her. She drank. Beads of sweat covered her forehead.

"A bath's going to feel very nice," the pleasant voice said.

The sheet was pulled back and her gown was smoothed out. Strong hands went under her shoulders and lifted; another pair of hands lifted her legs. Then she was on the cold gurney and being covered again. A second face looked down on her now, a man with auburn hair tied back in a ponytail. He smiled briefly at her.

"It won't take long," he said. "You'll feel much better."

She nodded weakly. She supposed she would. How long had it been? The man's voice was soothing, oddly familiar.

"On our way," the voice said, and the gurney began to move.

Maggie gripped the edges and blinked. The top of a doorframe passed by overhead, then the air was cooler, with a different scent breezing past her as doors and windows and hallways slipped by. Ceiling tiles and then a doorframe, a turn--she gripped the edge harder--and different tiles, the bright white of recessed light fixtures, a nurses' station on the left and then a set of doors that pushed open on either side of her head. Tile walls. The gurney came to a stop.

"Maggie?"

She looked up to see the familiar-sounding man's face.

"Maggie, do you know where you are?"

"The hospital. St... St. Anne's."

"Do you remember how you got sick?"

"It was..." She puzzled. Her mind was thick, out of practice. "It was... I felt like I had the flu. Will Wilkins was--"

The face above her smiled relief. "You remember Will?"

"Yes." It was beginning to make sense now. "Where is Will? How is he?"

"He's improving. You'll be able to see him soon. Maggie, do you remember what Will told you about how you got sick?"

She tried to think. There was the wallpaper, and... And John Byers had come to the house. It was about Dana--Fox and Dana. The man in the overcoat, the one who'd come to the door to tell her Dana was missing.

"John?"

Relief washed Byers' face. He took her hand. His expression became serious.

"Maggie, this is very important. We have to move you from the hospital for your own safety and for your daughter's. We're going to do that right now. It's important that no one see you leave, so a sheet will be put over you and you must lie very still. Your gurney will be set in a hallway for just a few minutes. I'll be watching you while you're there. Two men will come to pick you up. When they do, the sheet will still be over you. You'll be put into the back of a car and when they're away from the hospital, you'll be able to see where you're going. We're taking you to a facility where you'll be more secure."

"Is Dana--?"

"She's safe. She and Mulder are both safe. But their continued security may depend upon moving you now. The important thing is to lie very quietly without moving. We'll do the rest." The hand squeezed against hers. "Do you have any questions?"

She paused and shook her head. It was confusing--too much too fast. But Dana's safety depended on it.

"Are you ready?"

She nodded. She was lifted again--strong hands under shoulders and legs--onto another gurney. She shook, cold or nervous, she couldn't tell which. A warm blanket was brought down over her and tucked close around her. Gradually her body eased.

"Maggie?" John Byers held a sheet above her and nodded at her, questioning.

She paused. Her fingers curled into her palms and tightened. She returned his nod and the sheet came down over her head.

 

 

 

Langly tucked a piece of gum between his teeth and cheek, then pulled it back out and began to chew again. He rocked the chair slightly, back and forth and back again. The man in the corner with the headset--the one who had Maggie's room on his screens, had seemed unmoved by her exit from the room. So far, so good, except that he'd strained something in the back of his neck turning around so often to watch. He pressed his fingers against the place and rubbed.

He glanced across his row of monitors again. Just his luck that they hadn't given him either floor Maggie would be on. His fingers left his neck to trace the wire inside his shirt.

"Nada so far on this end," came a slightly muffled voice in his left ear. "But they should be in view any minute. Let's hope there were no traffic jams or flat tires." Frohike cleared his throat. "Any action on your end? One tap for yes, two for no."

Langly tapped the mike twice.

"Good. I'll..." A pause. He could hear the static of Frohike shifting position. "Damn, I thought it was them, but no. Well, I'll yell when I see 'em. 'Til then, keep your eyes peeled."

Langly pushed his chair back casually. Curly had the ground floor monitors where Maggie would be stored and shipped. He stood up and approached the card player. Curly glanced up at him and then quickly at the row of monitors, then back at his cards.

"The food here any good?" Langly said. "Or do I need to plan on going out somewhere for lunch?" His eyes went methodically from one monitor to the next. No sheet-covered gurneys.

"Strange to say, the cafeteria's pretty good here," Curly said, making another visual round of Langly, the monitors, his cards. "I've got a friend who comes here like it was a restaurant. Cheap, too, if you stick to the employees' cafeteria." A card was turned over. "Oh, and if you happen to like tapioca pudding, their stuff's killer. Don't miss it."

Another round: Langly, the monitors, the cards.

"Yeah, tapioca's cool," Langly said.

He turned to go. Out of the corner of his eye he caught movement, a gurney being wheeled past a monitor pushed by a man with a ponytail. He waited until it passed the camera, turned away and tapped once against the mike.

 

 

 

"I feel like a kid being sent home sick from school," Mulder said, giving Angie a sheepish look. He lifted his head slightly from the headrest to look at the passing streets. "I really appreciate you taking the time."

"No problem." Angie glanced at her passenger. "I'm just sorry the seats don't recline for you."

"No, it's... it's okay. I just... Weird reaction. Never had that happen before. Not like this, anyway."

"On top of grabbing a handful of glass."

"Yeah, on top of that." He managed a brief smile and glanced out the side window. "Your kids have Dr. Vanek?"

She nodded. "She's very good. Certainly liberal with the appointments."

"She seems to be a good... technician."

Angie gave him a questioning look.

"You know, really focused on her work."

"A little dry, you mean? Not the first one to volunteer for the potato sack races at the company picnic?" Angie grinned. "Medicine's her life. She's been good for the kids."

"How long has she been here?"

She shrugged. "Five, maybe six years. Came from somewhere else. I mean, when she came she had just a tiny bit of an accent. It's just something I tend to notice, but it's gone now. Some people live in this country fifty years and never get rid of their accents. My father-in-law was like that. Greek."

Angie slowed and pulled into Dale's driveway. Mulder reached across with his left hand to work the door handle. "Kind of inconvenient..."

"The kind of thing you don't usually think about," Angie said. She watched him exit the car. "Well, enjoy your few hours off. Hope this doesn't bite into your weekend."

"No, I'm feeling better... pretty much. I'm just not a lot of use with a mop at the moment." He shut the door. "Thanks again."

Mulder watched the station wagon pull out onto the street and drive away. Carefully he turned and went inside. It was still there--the floating feeling. But nothing more serious had happened and Vanek had checked him several times without seeming alarmed in any way. Still, he wasn't in any shape to be pushing a broom or cleaning toilets and she knew that, so home he'd gone. Evidently not even Joe dared to argue with her.

Mulder sat down at the desk and turned on the computer. He reached for the keyboard and paused abruptly. Now there was an idea straight from the edge: Test Krycek's sincerity by asking him if he knew anything about Vanek. But it was crazy. After all, if she was on Smoky's payroll, just asking the question would pinpoint their location and there was no percentage in trusting Krycek with that no matter how helpful he'd wanted to make himself appear lately. And what about the girl--the Stair Sprite? What kind of snow job had Krycek done on her to have her running his errands the way Skinner said she was, or writing to them on his behalf? It seemed all wrong, her mixed up with Krycek. What was wrong with this picture?

He pulled out the keyboard shelf and logged onto the Net. Maybe there was some information to be found about Dr. Maria Vanek. But first a little note. He turned to look behind him and immediately clutched at the edge of the shelf, bracing against the sudden dizziness. He turned back to the keyboard and wrote, tapping awkwardly with the stiffened index finger of his right hand.

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Need to see you ASAP. I'm at home and carless. (11:41 a.m.)

 

 

 

Krycek glanced over at Tracy in the driver's seat. She was sitting fairly comfortably, but there was something in her face, the kind of determination that said she was going to make it through this nightmare no matter what, and that's what it was: a nightmare.

Not that he could blame her.  Beyond having to wrap her mind around leaving so suddenly, she'd been blindsided by the doubts starting to surface about her mother. And the memory of the boy who might be her brother. Then there'd been his own speculation about her father and what might have happened to her mom, if she'd picked up on it. It was only one short step from there to including herself in the nightmare equation. No easy thing, realizing you'd been manipulated that way. As if she didn't have enough to deal with already.

It was the only thing that had ever made sense: survival of the fittest, sink or swim. The people who couldn't cut it washed out and it was all for the better in the end. The old man would stand there with that smug little smile of his and warn him that his time with her had blinded him, that he wasn't seeing things clearly.  Probably he was right.  But that didn't solve her problem, didn't make her safe or catch her when she stumbled.

Krycek eased his left leg up against the dashboard, slouched farther down into the seat and stared at the pattern in the headliner until it went out of focus.

 

 

 

Byers glanced across the hallway at two covered gurneys and then out through the glass door at the hallway's end. Nothing yet. Maggie was doing a good job so far, keeping her breathing shallow, staying still. But Frank Lazare should have been here by now and he'd heard nothing from...

"We're in business," Frohike's welcome voice came into his ear. "Just coming into the parking lot." A pause. "Now circling toward your entrance."

The sudden, ragged sound of coughing erupted from beneath the covering of the parked gurney.

Byers froze, his blood pumping madly.

 

 

 

"Say, you got change for a dollar?"

Curly looked up.

Langly shrugged. "Soda machine won't take my dollar bill. Those things never work."

Curly dug around in his pocket.

On one monitor, two gurneys showed clearly along with a pony-tailed orderly leaning against the far wall. No movement, then a sudden spasming on one of the gurneys. Langly gulped. He glanced at the figure against the wall, its body language speaking panic. Curly was caught momentarily in his card strategy. The monitors had no sound, but it was obvious what was going on. Byers was a wizard behind the scenes, but he was anything but quick on the draw in situations like this. Rambo he definitely wasn't.

"Your change..."

Langly forced his eyes from the monitor. Curly was holding out a handful of quarters, waiting. Langly reached out and took them absently.

"What? Something happening?" Curly spun to look at the bank of monitors. None showed activity but one, where an orderly was apparently caught in a fit of coughing, half bent over. Curly reached for his phone.

"Thanks," Langly said, and hurried from the room.

 

 

 

Maggie felt the quick motion, wheels being collapsed under her and the gurney being slid into a dark, enclosed area. She tried not to move, or shake, though her arms were far from cooperative. In her mind she pictured the man who had shown up on her doorstep, the same one who had peered into her hospital room window, his face calm as he pronounced the alarming news about her daughter that didn't seem to move him. Was this where she was supposed to be?  The right place, right people?  But John Byers had described this very scenario. Still, it felt ominous, everything distorted and dreamlike.

Beyond her feet, the vehicle's rear door closed with a deep latching sound. Then nothing: no movement, no sound, no one evident in the front seat. The closeness of the sheet made her breath sweaty against her face. She'd been unable to hold back the coughing in spite of her efforts. If someone were watching... Had someone been in the hallway besides John Byers? Was it really John's people who had her now?

Maggie's hands curled tight, her pulse throbbing through her fingers. A click. A door swung open, the car dipped slightly to one side--driver's side--and then closed again.

"Hey," a voice said softly.

It seemed as if whoever it was--a man--had turned around to face the space where she lay. Her body stiffened and refused to move or allow her to speak. Survival must feel like this: foxholes or hiding on a darkened field of battle. Had her husband known this kind of fear?

The engine was started, revved slightly and they were moving, slowly at first, making a turn, stopping and then going again almost immediately. The car's suspension was soft and she rolled slightly from side to side in the turns. The sound of jazz came from a radio speaker beyond her head, the driver humming along. It was hard to tell if his voice seemed edgy or relaxed. Inside, her heart beat a syncopated rhythm against the music.

"Got our first green light."

The voice came from close beside her. Maggie jumped, adrenaline washing her. Her heart pumped harder. Gripping a wad of blanket beside her, she squeezed hard.

"Cool." It was the driver's voice.

Sudden fresh air and light confronted her as the sheet was pulled back. Maggie looked up at the somber, quilted ceiling above her and then at a brown hand offering a bottle of water. She stared hard at the face that went with it and let out a little gasp.

The face broke into a smile.

It was Will.

 

 

 

Tracy lay in the car's back seat and tried to focus on nothing, to slow down the too-rapid passage of time.  To clear her head and rest.  An hour of driving time left: a single, fleeting hour until she'd be on her own, not left watching as Alex faded into the distance but headed for a new chapter herself, a chapter of hiding and caution, of being a small morsel of prey who dared not expose herself to the view of a lanky, stalking cat.  She pictured herself alone in a strange, empty world.

A slow movement slid across her middle and then faded.  Instinctively she started to reach for the place but stopped, her hand returning to her side. She'd been able to ignore the larger reality of the baby until she'd met Alex.  The morning nausea had been like a vague, undetermined illness, but now the tiny life had begun to assert itself, stretching and turning. More than that, it was the concern in Alex's mind that fed her with a constant uneasiness now.  How likely was she to be able to provide what a baby would need?

A tap against the car door and she looked up to see unkempt graying hair and a mustache under a rumpled hat.  But there was a familiar sharpness in the man's eyes.  She reached up and pulled up the lock button and Alex got into the seat in front of her. 

"How are you doing?" he said, settling himself.  "I got a couple of apples, some sandwiches and a carton of milk.  You want anything?"

"In a minute," she said, and closed her eyes.  Already he seemed almost a memory, half-transparent.

She'd wanted to walk, to get out and wander through the green, fragrant trees at the side of the road, but the sight of their car stopped along the roadside could bring attention neither of them could afford.  In the end they'd pulled over behind a gas station at the edge of Chambersburg and Alex had retrieved the hair and hat disguise he kept in the trunk.  It aged him a good dozen years and made him look disheveled enough that if anyone noticed the prosthesis, it would seem a natural enough part of the man that he wouldn't be as likely to stand out in someone's memory.  She'd lain down in the back seat to relax while he went looking for food.

Now warm fingers came awkwardly searching along the seat edge beside her shoulder.  She opened her eyes to see his arm reaching between the seat back and the door, and took his hand.  He was facing forward, in case anyone was looking, thinking about the gnawing in his gut and the sandwich in the paper bag on his lap.

"You okay?" he asked, his thumb smoothing along the side of her hand.

She tried for a smile--one he couldn't see, or feel the way she could--and squeezed back against his fingers.

"What would your mom tell you?" his voice came after a moment's silence.

She knew what he was doing, trying to guide her back to the trust that had always fit her like a second skin. "She'd say to look up at the sky and see what's really there. To let yourself rise until you can look down on your problems and see how small they actually are."

"She knew what she was talking about." He paused and breathed out. "She gave it to you straight, Tracy. Nothing's worth more than that."

He was watching two men beside a truck who had turned and seen their car.  He was thinking about having his stomach full instead of empty, so it would quit taking his focus.  He was trying, for the sake of alertness and both their safety, to disentangle himself from what they'd become. 

His thumb continued its path, slow and soothing.

 

 

 

Knocking came at the back door. Mulder eased himself carefully from the couch and padded across the floor to answer it. His eyes followed the pattern in the carpet runner, hand throbbing a quiet backbeat. When he looked up, he blinked. Reaching for the handle, he stopped himself and grabbed it with the other hand, waiting for the swirl of dizziness to settle. Sandy stood outside.

"That was quick," he said,  swinging the door wide. "I didn't expect--"

"What happened?" she said, nodding toward his bandaged hand.

"This?" He shook his head--not a smart move--and quickly grabbed to steady himself against the door frame.

Sandy gave him a concerned look.

"Just another one of those half-assed, impulsive things Annie's going to have to save me from, I think." He glanced carefully over his shoulder into the living room and then back at Sandy. "Look, can you take me up there? You didn't sprint all the way down here just now like the bionic woman, did you? You drove here, I hope?"

Sandy rolled her eyes. "I've got Heather's car. David lets me use it if I need to."

"Good."

He stepped outside, locked the door and they got into the car. Sandy started the engine and backed out into the street.

"Think I'll recline this," he said, working to grasp the lever with uncooperative fingers. His hand banged against the door, making him wince. "No point in offering ourselves to the local gossip network." The seat back went down abruptly.

Sandy glanced over at him. "What happened?"

"Grabbed a trash bag with a broken bottle in it," he said.

A pause. "That ain't the whole story, is it?"

He paused a moment and grimaced. "Not much slips by you. You really ought to consider the Bureau someday, you know?"

"Yeah, right." She gave him a look. A pause, a blush and she recovered. Her brow furrowed. "This has something to do with your investigating, don't it?"

"I hope so," he said. "I hope I didn't do this for nothing."

 

 

 

Langly paused for breath at the bottom of the stairs and opened the door cautiously. The hallway was empty. If Curly had called in, Byers could have been hauled off already--at least by someone thinking he'd had a medical emergency. What would the poor guy do, confronted by people wondering what had come over him? Maybe the sheer volume of sweat would help him pass himself off as sick.

Stay down here long enough, somebody's going to miss you.  You'll send up a red flag of your own.

The click of a door handle sounded close by. Byers' head appeared from an entry marked 'Electrical'.

"Psst."  Langly opened the stairwell door just a little.

Byers glanced toward him.  Relief lit his face. He glanced overhead, checking for camera positioning, then slipped into the hallway and approached. Langly eased himself back into the stairwell and let his friend pass.

"Whew." Langly sagged against the wall. "Thought you were history there for a minute."

Byers looked up at him, red-faced. "You weren't the only one under that impression."

"But you pulled it out. Hey, it looked great on the monitor. I don't think Curly even noticed the gurney."

"I have no idea what came over me. I froze when she started coughing; I couldn't think of anything and then there I was, just doing it, pretending it was me. I didn't even think until afterward that you wouldn't have audio, that only the motion would show." He shrugged. "Survival instinct, I guess."

"I guess. Anybody come down here looking for you?"

"Not that I can tell. I eased off after a minute and took a drink at the water fountain"--he pointed toward it--"so I guess they figured I'd come out of it."

Langly glanced up the stairwell. "I should fly. They're gonna miss me upstairs."

"And I've got to position myself for Rita."

"Let's hope we get some lead time here to work with."

Byers only nodded. He leaned forehead first against the wall.

"Hey, you okay?" Langly stopped five stairs up.

"Yeah, I... Yeah."

Langly continued up to the landing and glanced down. Byers was still in the same position.

"Good work," he called down.

Byers looked up and nodded.

 

 

 

The Baltimore skyline streamed past the car's back window at a crazy tilt.  Krycek watched it from where he lay on the seat below.  Given the fact that the old man was hunting for Mulder and Scully, there could be someone tailing his mother, so caution was imperative. And however this went down, there'd be at least an hour's drive home afterward.  His strength should hold--hopefully the pain meds along with it--but there was the stress factor, and however Mulder's hospital escape plan might intersect his drive.  And you could never discount the possibility of heavy traffic.  He'd never driven in this kind of shape before to have any solid idea of how it might go.

Welcome back to the real world, Aleksei.  There's always at least one more ball to juggle than you can handle, but hey, isn't that the way it's always been?  Still not up to speed?  Only half-recovered?  Ah, can't be helped, you poor bastard. 

Tracy must be absorbed in her own worries.  If she weren't, she'd have been listening in on the mess inside his head, but she seemed not to have noticed.  It made sense, though.  This little hand-off was going to take all the readiness they could muster, every bit of their focus.  Later--an hour afterward, a day or a week, or in those half-coherent moments just before sleep took you--who knew how it would hit?  He'd gotten so used to falling asleep with her sitting on the edge of the bed.  To say nothing of being able to wake up with her warm beside him.

"How much farther?" he said, rising up slightly to catch her eye from between the seats.

"It should be just a few blocks."

Nearly show time.  Something inside him tightened.

 

 

 

Two sets of hand lifted Rita from the gurney onto the bed.  A moment later warm blankets came down around her and were tucked in.

"See," the face above her was saying--Rani's wife's face. "I told you you'd feel much better, dear."

There was a squeeze against her hand. She nodded, but not too energetically. All she had to do was look sick, and she'd spent enough time watching Will go through this disease. Maybe all her observation would turn out to have been good for something.

Carefully Rita glanced toward the door. The orderly was pushing the gurney outside into the hall. Rani's wife came back to the bed.

"Your hair's still a little damp but it will dry soon, Mrs. Scully," she said.

The blankets were pulled back. The IV was hooked up, the sensors for the monitoring equipment, the oxygen tube fitted in place. A knowing look--supportive look--came from the face above her and the blankets were brought up again, light and comfortable.

"Warm enough?"

Rita nodded, though she was shaking slightly. A firm hand smoothed down her arm, comforting her, and then was gone. Rita turned to watch the uniformed figure leave, pulling the door halfway shut behind her.

She wanted to close her eyes but she couldn't. Somewhere, someone was watching.

 

 

 

"See you inside," he said, touching her fingers briefly.

"There doesn't seem to be anyone with her, Alex.  She's wondering if we're some kind of trap."

He nodded.  Half-swallowed.  "You okay?"

Yes.  Just go.

Then he was gone, threading his way between parked cars and along the sidewalk.  Tracy took her foot off the brake and pulled ahead, passing him and finally turning into the parking lot that faced a row of modern brownstones.  If anyone were watching his mother, she should be able to hear them when Alex went up to the door.  She'd listened carefully as they'd sat in this parking lot earlier and had noticed nothing, but it was important to be sure. 

Now she watched him come into view walking toward the group of brownstones, his pace casual but his body slightly taut.  Until just a few minutes ago it hadn't actually hit her: He could be in his own bed right now, nominally safe within the confined world of the old man's group. Instead he was risking his own recovery, out on the street and willingly exchanging his own security to purchase her escape.

He'd told her to stay with him, inside his head, so he could let her know when it was safe to come in.  They would draw less notice if each of them approached the home separately, though it meant he would be aware of her constant presence in his mind, a witness to his every fear and uncertainty. 

He hadn't said goodbye, or even thought anything personal, but it wasn't the time or place.  Hopefully when they were inside, there would be a moment or two.  The last eighteen hours had been a swollen stream, life and sensations and feelings carrying her far from where she'd stepped in.  And now, it seemed, she was about to wash up on a barren, unfamiliar shore.

It was time.  Alex had paused in front of the stairs to the house, looking up. This was the way he'd felt going into Buzz's interrogation. Or standing on his mother's porch in Greenwich.

He made himself step up. Knuckles against the door, he counted the seconds. At three, he heard footsteps inside.  Then a curtain in a window was pulled slightly aside.

His legs were like water.

 

 

 

Taking a deep breath, Teena opened the door.

The air outside was bright and she squinted into it. The man on the doorstep had neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, but his face was that of her enigmatic son.  He wore jeans and a long-sleeved blue T-shirt and at least a day's growth of beard. He seemed as nervous as she was, waiting, each of them, for the other to make the first move.

She opened the door farther and stood back.

He nodded slightly.

"Come in. Your friend?"

"She'll be along," he said as he passed her and went inside.

Teena hesitated and finally closed the door behind him.

He glanced quickly around the room: at the entrances to various rooms, the sliding glass door leading to the back patio, up the stairs to the second floor landing.

"Sorry, I've got to check this."

She stood uncomprehending a moment, then stepped aside. Of course.  He'd expect someone hiding, spying or worse.

"Certainly. Go... go ahead."

He turned immediately and looked into the dining room, the guest closet, the kitchen. She took a few steps into the living room and sat down on the edge of a love seat. He worked methodically, opening every door, exploring every opening.

After a few moments he appeared through the kitchen door, passed her and started up the stairs, his pace slowing noticeably as he went. He'd been injured, after all. That was what the girl had been there for--to aid him while he was recovering. She pictured him going through the upstairs bedrooms, the study, the bathrooms. Then the sound of his footfalls on the uncarpeted stairs that led to Trudy's roof patio.

Teena got up from her seat and went into the kitchen. It had suddenly occurred to her when she was nearly here that they might not have eaten, that certainly she and the girl would need food for the evening. She'd stopped at Trudy's favorite market and then had picked up a bouquet of purple and white stock as an afterthought. Their spicy fragrance had seemed a welcome distraction from the tension inside her. When he'd knocked, she'd left them lying on the counter.

Now she picked up the kitchen shears and snipped off the ends of the stems, slitting them lengthwise at the base. On the window sill over the sink was a cobalt blue vase. She filled it with water and arranged the stock in it. When the trimmings were cleared away, she took the vase into the living room. He was just coming down the stairs, moving slowly, tired from the effort, or the strain of tension, his mouth straight, giving nothing away.

"Is there anything else you need to check?"

He shook his head, came closer, stopped and sniffed. "What are they?"

"Stock. I thought the fragrance would be nice since the house is closed up so much."

He nodded toward the vase. "She likes stuff like that.  Flowers."

He paused and the moment turned awkward. Obviously the thread of this conversation had unexpectedly reached its end. Finally he glanced away, through the sliding glass door that overlooked the small enclosed garden. Teena made herself continue to the coffee table, set the vase on it and turned around to find him facing her. She nearly jumped.

Carefully she straightened up and smoothed a non-existent wrinkle from the front of her blouse. "Come sit down," she said. "Tell me whatever it is I'll need to know."

He nodded and waited for her to move first. Teena retreated to the sofa and sat carefully. After a moment he came around the coffee table and sat down on the love seat opposite. His eyes were sharp, his expression wary.

"She was a runaway," he began. "He picked her because he figured she'd be an easy throwaway when the job was finished, when I didn't need the help anymore." He cleared his throat. "Chances are he'll look for her, but I can't say how long or how hard.  She needs to be somewhere he can't find her."  A pause.  "And you probably have a pretty good idea of how far his arm reaches."

Teena stiffened and nodded.

"I'm not trying to dump her on Mulder; I know he's got more than enough to deal with already. But he's the only one I know who can keep her safe, keep her where the old man won't be able to find her."

"May I ask how old she is?" Her voice sounded strange, distant. "You said--"

"Eighteen."  Almost.  "She's"--he shrugged--"kind of an old soul. Hard to explain. And the baby... the more she says, the more it sounds like she was... like somebody got to her--maybe not the Project but somebody else out there. Tell Mulder that. There are too many parts of her life she's got no memory of at all. Sounds classic. Textbook."

"I can't guarantee," she started, "that Fox will agree to take her. I can't--"

"If he doesn't, let me know. I'll figure out something. The point wasn't to put you on the spot, I just--" A pause, almost a swallow; his voice lowered. "Appreciate you giving it a try."

"Alex, how are you?"

He shrugged and seemed to loosen a little. "Doctor says I'm doing pretty well, considering."

"Are you going to be alright without her help?"

For a fleeting second his mouth, which had begun to open, froze abruptly.  An expression she couldn't read passed over his face and was gone.  The corner of his mouth twitched.  "Not much choice now."

"Alex, I'm sorry this is so awkward, for both of us. I know that"--she took in a quick breath--"if I'd made a different decision years ago, it wouldn't be this way." Exhaled. "But let me help you now. What do I need to know to help your friend?"

A measured breath and he seemed to loosen. "When she came to D.C. she ran into Mulder on the Mall; that's where he knows her from. Then, I don't know how, he found her. Saw her somewhere, a park or something, and figured he could use her--the perfect disposable caretaker."  His jaw set, a sign that the proffered explanation was at an end.

Silence enveloped them.  Teena looked down at her fingers, then up at the painting on the opposite wall. There was too much air in the room with its high, high ceiling.

"Alex, surely she must be wondering what's taking you."

The expression he gave her was curious: half smile, half smirk. Finally he shook his head. "Guess that's something else you should probably know.  She can read people. She's kind of... psychic. It throws you at first, but try not to let it get to you. It's not anything she can control."

Teena opened her mouth, puzzled.

Her son's expression turned suddenly intense. "If he finds out what she can do, he'll squeeze her dry.  That's another reason she's got to get out of here."

Teena managed to close her mouth.  "Then you should... you should tell her to come in, Alex. If you're ready."

He cocked his head slightly, as if hearing a distant conversation, then nodded. "She's on her way."

It was only when he stood up and started moving toward the front window that she began to realize what had happened.  A shiver passed through her. 

"Do you mean--?" she said, getting up and following him.

He turned back. "Like I said, it takes some getting used to. Just... give her a chance. She deserves it."

"I'll do my very best--"

The doorbell rang.  On Alex's cue, she stepped past him and pulled on the handle. In the brightness beyond the door stood a tall, thin blonde girl in a long yellow dress.

 

 

 

"Aunt Jane?"

Rita swallowed and moved her head slightly to the right, toward the wall. Was she supposed to be able to speak, and if so, how well? Someone listening might notice the difference in her voice and was the room bugged, or were they only watching from a silent monitor?

The voice--a woman's voice--hovered above her now. She looked up. A short red-headed woman in a green blouse and khaki slacks stood near the bed.

"Aunt Jane--" The visitor stopped abruptly and reddened. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I can see I have the wrong room. This is"--she glanced back at the half-open door--"412. I was looking for 421." She set her hand on the bed railing. "Oh, I hope I didn't wake you."

Rita shook her head carefully.

"Well, I hope you'll be feeling better soon. So sorry for the interruption."

The woman smiled an apologetic smile and turned to leave. Rita stared at the ceiling, flushed with a fine coat of sudden perspiration. The woman hadn't seemed alarmed, though, or reacted as if something--the patient, especially--was out of place. Though she herself had received quite a jolt at the beginning because at first glance, her mistaken visitor had looked quite like Agent Scully.

 

 

 

Dr. Vanek set aside her coffee mug, reached for the ruler lying on the desk and set it against the line on the page where she'd stopped reading. Staring out the window onto the parking lot below, the cars blurred and became an image of Wallace and his exaggerated reaction to the medication. The sodium oxybate was something she gave out as a matter of course. In most cases it was more effective than acetaminophen and satisfied patients generally weren't ones to ask questions. And the drug was easy enough to obtain with Spender's help. The FDA's reservations were of a political nature for the most part. That was usually the case, and what was the point in pandering to yet another bureaucracy while patients were in discomfort?

But the janitor's reaction had been eerily familiar. She'd had to stop using the drug herself once she'd been given the Tunguska vaccine, and for precisely the same reasons: the fuzzy feeling Wallace had described, the floating and the persistent, aggressive dizziness. What had he been doing at the monitor in the first place? Was he searching her records or had he merely grabbed at a convenient surface to steady himself? At home... At home there would have been immediate cause for suspicion--spies of one sort or another, one group always playing off the other's advantage. But in this country things were much less sophisticated, less dangerous. Quieter. It was the whole point of being installed in this facility. It was unobtrusive, just a factory in the country's heartland, nothing associated with high-technology research, with genetics. Or topics beyond human genetics.

Assumptions of innocence could be dangerous, however. If only her parents had been a little more wary, a little less drawn in by the uncharted possibilities of their work, she might still have parents. She would not be here, in this terribly provincial little town.

It was time to look more closely into Mr. Wallace and his background. Every step documented. Every possibility eliminated.

 

 

 

"Mulder, can you walk?"

Scully leaned in toward him through the open car window, concern etching her expression. Apparently he'd scared her on top of the tension she was already feeling from worrying about her mother.

"Yeah, Scully, I'm not dying. It's been wearing off, but--" He lifted his head from the head rest and opened the door. After a pause he stood up carefully. "See?"

"Let me see what she's done with your hand."

He offered his palm for her inspection. She peeled away the tape and carefully lifted the pad covering the wound. Her mouth shrank to a small, tight sign of displeasure. She looked up at him and swallowed.

"Mulder, do you know how close you came to--?" She looked away. He thought he saw her blink.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to scare ya." A finger, careful, under her chin. She frowned at him. "I just... I needed an excuse to get in there. Something's happening with those Connors kids, Scully, and it's not just diabetes."  He paused at her frown.  "What?"

Scully glanced toward Sandy, who was standing beside the driver's door.

The girl cleared her throat. "Maybe I just oughta leave you two alone for a while."

Memory jolted him. It wasn't just him, though; both of them had just spoken each other's names. He gave Sandy a self-conscious smile.  "It's okay. Hey, you had to figure we'd be using aliases, right?  No sense giving ourselves away."

"Yeah, makes sense, I guess. I mean, nothin' that's happened around here in the last month has made much sense, but yeah, under the circumstances--assassins and spies and bad guys... I don't mean to say you two are spies."

Mulder grinned and shrugged. "Yeah, but we are."

Sandy glanced at the door frame in front of her.

Scully cleared her throat; she'd put back her most professional, collected face. "We need to find out what you've been given. It could be just a fluke, but considering the circumstances I'd rather be safe than sorry." She turned to the girl. "Sandy, could you take him over to Dr. Wykoff's? I can call ahead and let him know you're coming."

"Sure."

"Go, Mulder."  She urged him back into the car and attempted a smile. It seemed to be hiding mixed emotions--joy and sadness, worry and contentment.

"What?"

She shook her head. "I'll talk to you later. Just tell Dr. Wykoff exactly what you remember and let's see what he can find out."

Mulder fastened his seat belt and leaned back against the head rest. "You going to be okay?"

She nodded and didn't quite bite her lip. "I just want you back in one piece."

He reached his hand--injured hand--up through the open window. She caught his fingers carefully and then let go. Sandy started the car and backed up to turn around.

"You know what's going on with her?" he said as they started down the driveway.

"I think I might have an idea." She paused and glanced over at him. "I think you'd better ask her, though."

He shrugged. Obviously some kind of girl thing. "Okay."

"It's nothing you did. I think it's got something to do with me."

He looked forward again and reached carefully for the lever that reclined the seat.

 

 

 

Both of them watched as Teena disappear into the kitchen.

"You tired, Tracy?"

A thumb traced the inside of her wrist. He was leaning back against the white sofa cushions.  She sat close, leaning forward, staring out the window that led to the back garden. Watching the patterns in the sky: surely they must have a message for her if only she could manage to focus on what it might be.

"A little." She worked her fingers between his and let the contact strengthen her. "You should stretch out for a few minutes like she said, Alex. Before you've got to do all that driving."

"You know I'm not going to be able to relax here."

"I know. But sometimes just spending a few minutes stretched out helps your body even if it doesn't rest your mind. Try to eat something. Just a little. It will make her feel better, Alex. She's trying really hard."

He nodded. He'd defer to her not because she was a woman, or because she was his lover, but because he was completely out of his depth in this kind of diplomacy. She'd know better than he would what he should do to to get past the awkwardness that held him and this woman who was his mother.

"Maybe there's a razor here somewhere so you can shave," she said. "So you won't go back looking like you've been away somewhere, out in the woods."

"Good idea."

"I'll go ask if you want."

He offered a silent thank-you and let go of her hand. Tracy stood and went into the kitchen where Alex's mother was busy setting out food she'd picked up at the deli, hoping her son would find something he'd like, wondering whether sitting across a table from her might make him uncomfortable. In her less conscious mind she'd drifted back to her own kitchen, setting a sandwich on a glass plate, cutting through it diagonally, giving the plate a critical eye and adding a piece of pickle. A small offering to a son so thoughtlessly given away.

Everything he'd need was in an upstairs bathroom, she said, relieved to be of some use. First door on the left. Tracy thanked her and returned to the living room.

As he started up the stairs, Alex turned back. "You coming?"

"I thought you might need some space."

"I'll have plenty of that soon enough." He held out his hand.  She went to take it and followed him up.

"What?" he said, looking into the mirror at her as she sat balanced on the edge of the tub a few minutes later. His face was soaped with shaving cream.

"Just watching. I liked it, the way it was this morning." She pictured him momentarily grinning, hair rumpled, lying in a stripe of sunlight on her bed. "Don't mind me.  You need to look the way you always do at home."

Home, he was thinking: what a concept.  It had always been his place, his apartment.  But home?  Home was...

No. Better not to even think about it.

"I know about the money, Alex. Thanks. A lot. I--"

He frowned into the mirror at her reflection. He'd wanted it to be something she'd find out later.

"Sorry. The other day I figured maybe I should try the ATM card, to make sure it worked. The balance was on the receipt."

Smart move, he was thinking. Planning ahead--it was a good sign. 'You'll need it' was all he said.

She studied him from where she sat: the shape of his shoulders, the way his shirt hung. The contour of the hem caught against the back of his pants, the length of his legs. The way he tilted his chin as he shaved it.

"Alex, I know--"

He turned to look at her. She looked down and studied her shoes. After a moment he turned back, wet a washcloth under the running water and used it to wipe away the last of the shaving cream. He looked at himself in the mirror, stretching his neck to one side and then the other. This was stupid, he was thinking. It felt wrong, out of sync for the two of them. Finally he sat down beside her on the edge of the tub.

"We can't afford to leave any kind of trail--anything that connects us. One wrong move... you know that's all he's waiting for." He leaned forward, ran his hand back through his hair, then let his forehead rest against it.

He sat up again and stared at the ceiling. They should just make the break, not hang around killing themselves over the possibilities, losing their edge by being bleeding hearts and making themselves vulnerable in the process.

"I understand, Alex. Just--" She stood up. "Hold me. Please. Just for a minute."

He stood and gathered her in against him, and she closed her eyes. They swayed slightly, the reassuring movement of bodies breathing against each other. Slowly she slipped a hand up under his shirt, to where he was warm and smooth and uncovered.

"When the kid comes," he said finally, "when it's time--"

"I think I can reach you, Alex. I don't think it will matter where I am."

A sharp breath beside her ear. A pause, then a shake of his head and his voice, barely a whisper. "Can't wait that long."

"I know. Me, either."

Her arms tightened around him.  She closed her eyes and focused on the imprint of his body against hers, the feel and smell of him, the memory of the night before, crawling across the bed, his blanket opening to let her in and then closing around her like a tent. The sensation of being pulled in against the smooth, welcome heat of his skin.

"Alex?"

"Mm?"

"If you could just keep one moment, one memory... what would it be?"

His breath came in soft bursts against her temple. "You first."

"It's hard to pick. But... this morning, I guess. Lying behind you, watching you sleep. It was so warm and quiet and peaceful, for just a little while there." She looked up. "What about you?"

He looked past her. "All of them."

"Alex, that's not...You're not playing fair."

"That's who I am, Tracy. I don't play fair. I don't"--his mouth finding hers, warm and desperate--"play." He paused, his lips settling beside her ear. His arm was hard around her. 

 

 

 

Rita raced barefoot the last few yards to the stairwell, heart pounding, one wrist caught in John Byers' now-iron grip, the other arm dangling behind, grasping for what must be the too-open back of a patterned hospital gown, wrist aching from where the IV had been hastily pulled out. She felt the flatness of her feet hitting the hard, smooth floor, the chill of the air passing her, the sheer terror of hasty flight. John's wide-eyed expression had been sufficient to instill the fear she felt now. The short, Scully-like visitor would be enough to send the Smoking Man's henchmen in to investigate and unless she wanted to end up a hostage facing the questioning of the horrible man himself, it was time to flee in the most ungraceful but effective way possible. Though even Andy would shake his head in wonder at this.

Abruptly she was yanked into a stairwell and hurried, feet flying, to a landing halfway between floors. She and Byers collapsed panting against the wall, neither venturing to look at the other, her heart pounding like a jackhammer.

"I apologize," Byers panted, red-faced, "for the suddenness..." More panting. "Couldn't take the chance on them... coming in... If they'd seen you, they... would have taken you for... for sure... for whatever information they could get." He looked up, toward the ceiling several floors above them.

"Well"--a gulp for air--"I do appreciate your not leaving me there... to be the sacrificial lamb... though truth be told... I don't plan on getting myself into another predicament like this... anytime soon." She leaned forward slightly and attempted in vain to swallow away the dryness in her throat.

"At least your clothes...are there..." Byers pointed toward a brown paper grocery bag that she hadn't yet noticed, set into the shadow of the corner.

"Thank you, John."

His eyes were closed. They opened now, wide, as if the wideness might help him take in more of his surroundings. "I'll..." he started, "go down... to the landing and wait. When you're changed, signal me. I'll go down another floor and out; you... take your bag upstairs, put it in a trash container in the lounge, and go out through the main entrance. I'll be in the car waiting."

She nodded. "Yes," she added, since he was affording her the blessing of privacy.

Cautiously Byers started down the stairs. She watched until he reached the landing and stood peering through the little window in the door there. All clear, his waving hand signaled behind him. She took the two steps to the bag and opened it, fumbling quickly for her volunteer's outfit with shaking arms. There'd be an end to this undercover crusading nonsense as soon as she got home. Will would grow strong again and she'd return to Owensburg and Bethy and play out the role she was meant to have.

She snagged a stocking with a fingernail and paused a moment to consider the result. Skirt and blouse... and hair--it certainly was a sight but it would tuck under the wig, and the wig could be adjusted in the reflection of the little window on the landing above. She straightened up and pulled at her waistband--some underlayer was twisted--and slipped her feet into her shoes.

When she was finished, she peered over the railing to where John Byers stood watch by the downstairs door.

"Psst," she called down.

Byers hesitated a second, looked up at her, nodded and started down the stairs to the floor below.

 

 

 

"You look about as patient as I feel," Mulder said, nodding toward the magazine Sandy had flipped quickly through and tossed onto the cardboard box beside her.

"Yeah, well I guess I just like being able to do something, you know, rather than sitting around waiting and waiting."

"Yeah, I do know." He pushed up on one elbow and waited for the slight dizziness to dissipate. One eyebrow went up. "Thanks for coming along to play babysitter, by the way."

"No problem." Sandy pulled one leg up under her. "How are you doing? You had any more of that dizziness or anything? I'm supposed to be monitoring you, you know."

"No, just... just that little bit when we got here, and then if I move suddenly." He lay back down on the cot and stared at the bank of filing cabinets that lined one wall of Dr. Wykoff's back room. "You ever find out anything about our good plant doctor from your blind friends?"

"Not really. But maybe that says something right there," she said.

"How so?"

"When people hang around Owensburg, Ray and Debbie know about 'em. Usually quite a bit. You know, people think that just because blind people don't see that they don't have things figured out and it just ain't so. Those two--" She sighed. "Anyway, nobody seems to know much about her.  Dr. Vanek, I mean. She's got a house over on Spring Street--she owns it, doesn't rent--but she seems to spend most of her time at the plant. And I guess she goes into Lexington or somewhere on the weekends sometimes. Doesn't seem to have anybody she hangs out with here in town."

"Single?"

"Yeah, as far as anyone can tell."

"Angie said she had an accent when she came here."

"I don't know. I've never met her that I know of." Sandy paused. "What?"

Mulder sucked in his lower lip and shook his head carefully. "Nothing."

"Didn't look like nothin' to me. You got an idea?"

"I shouldn't. Annie'd kill me." He paused. "I'd probably kill me."

"What?"

"Just... thinking of sending someone around--maybe someone she doesn't know--to... I don't know, just an excuse to take a look around. They could say they were"--a shrug--"selling magazine subscriptions or something." He gave her a look. "But not you. You've got your battle scars. Anyway, this doesn't have anything to do with your interest in this case."

"You don't know that for a fact."

A momentary smile crossed his lips. He wagged a finger at her. "I started out like you--hotheaded, impatient..."

"I just want some kind of justice for Cy and Roddy. If I can. I want to find out--"

"I know." Mulder eased himself onto his back, then glanced at her. "Believe me, I do."

A pause.

"Annie told me. You know, that you've been looking for your sister."

"What did she say?"

"Just that she'd disappeared and nobody'd ever been able to find her, that there was no ransom note or evidence or nothin'. I know it's gotta be hard." She looked down at her hands, fingers laced together, then back up at him. A tentative look, careful. "Rita said... you know, when she first got ahold of me after all this... after Andy and Cy and Roddy... that someone at the FBI had a theory about who'd done it--you know, who'd killed them. That they knew. Or thought they knew. That was you, wasn't it?"

Mulder's eyes closed. A breath came out slowly and his eyes opened again. "Yeah. I guess you could say I've got a... history with this guy." He half-laughed and stared at the ceiling. "We've butted heads for a long time. Years."

"And they can't catch him?"

"He's slippery, a rat who just disappears back into the woodpile. Anyway, he works for the guy who's behind this whole thing." He shifted slightly. "When it gets him somewhere, anyway. People like that have ways. They have their ways of staying out of jail."

"But how can anybody be like that, go around killing innocent people? Don't it get to them after a while?"

Mulder shrugged. "There are any number of abnormal psychologies. Maybe as many as there are criminal minds." He glanced over at her. "You know, reasons why people do what they do: serial killers, rapists, people who become terrorists. Mostly they learn to block it out after a while, rationalize it. Desensitize themselves."

"And this guy? You got him figured out?"

Mulder shook his head, stopped and winced. His fingers went to his temples and pressed against them.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, just... Yeah. Guess I should know by now not to do that."

"So this guy...?"

Mulder shrugged. "I used to think I had him pegged. He's always dealing--whatever will get him somewhere, buy him something, buy him time, whatever." His mouth tightened.

"But..."

He focused on her.

"You said you used to think you had him figured out."

He shrugged again. "Lately he's done some things that don't fit the profile."

"Like?"

Mulder's lips twisted. "Like he warned us about something his boss had planned." His eyes roamed the fronts of the file cabinets. "Information that probably helped save Annie's mother."

"Why would he do that?"

"Beats me." He glanced over at her. "He never gives you anything unless he wants something in return. There's always something he's negotiating for. Guess I haven't figured out what it is he's trying to buy from me this time. And if you don't, he'll take you for a ride, guaranteed." He pushed an imaginary sunflower seed against his jaw. "Big ride."

"He needs to know what he's doing to people's lives," she said, her eyes suddenly hard. "He needs to know that for himself. What it feels like, what he's doing to people."

 

 

 

"About your mom," he said, clearing his throat and pulling back enough to see her face.  "You stick to what you know. Nobody could be a fake and raise a kid like you. It's not possible." He came closer again, his cheek brushing hers. "You get out there, things change.  It throws you.  Wants to, anyway.  But you can't let it.  So stick to what you know. No matter what comes at you."

Tracy nodded against him.

A kiss against her temple and he moved back. His hand trailed down the side of her cheek, ending in two fingers at the tip of her chin.  Dark eyes studied her, memorizing her face, gauging her strength. "C'mon. She's going to be wondering."

She let go of him, followed him into the hallway and they started down the stairs. Half a dozen steps down, his cell phone rang in his back pocket.  Tracy flinched. Quickly he pulled the phone from his pocket and flipped it open.

"Yeah."

She stood back and let him go first.

"You got tapes? What do you have?"

His mother appeared in the kitchen doorway, curious.

"Check your video. Back to when she left the room. You got cameras on the exits?  Shit." He glanced up at her, then at his mother who turned to go back into the kitchen so she wouldn't seem intrusive. "Check agencies for nurses. Check oxygen suppliers. Get back to me. Yeah.  Question the doctor.  We'll find her... Yeah, we'd better."

He took the phone from his ear, let out a sharp breath and pressed 'off'. "Sure hope Mulder's covered his bases."

He glanced toward the kitchen and went toward it. His mother turned around as he approached.

"They're moving. They've taken Scully's mother. Can I use your laptop to send a mail?"

Teena hesitated, caught by the possibility of his using it against Fox and his partner.

"Look, I just want to let Mulder know they're onto him."

Relief washed her face, followed by self-consciousness. She flushed. "Certainly. It's here, in the dining room."

She led him to where it sat on the table. Quickly he turned toward the living room and caught Tracy's eye. She slipped in, squeezed the latches and flipped up the screen. His mother stood back, a puzzled expression on her face. Alex sat down in front of the computer, pressed the power button and waited for the desktop to load. Inside, he was wound tight, buzzing.

"Look, I'm going to have to get out of here. Don't want anybody tracing a call, finding out I'm out of town."

His mother nodded. "Alex?"

He glanced up.

"Would you like me to pack some of this for you to take along?"

He frowned and started to shake his head but caught himself, remembering Tracy's words. "Yeah, sure. Thanks."

"Tracy, perhaps you can help me?" To pick out something he'd like. She knew, his mother did. She suspected, at least.

She followed Alex's mother into the kitchen. Her hands moved quickly, packing food into small containers, setting them in a cardboard box, adding napkins and a plastic fork. He'd have to set the box beside him on the seat and work from it at stoplights; he couldn't eat and drive.  The prosthetic hand could hold the steering wheel steady for short periods but he made it a practice not to depend on it. Though his mother had no way of knowing. Alex had been deliberately careful not to draw attention to the arm.  The last thing he'd wanted was for her to notice it and pity him.

Tracy smiled when she needed to, answered what was asked of her. It was dream-world, thick and strange, the way it had seemed the night before when she'd woken to find Alex sitting against the wall. Only this was worse: it was really happening, only minutes until he'd be gone. In the dining room, Alex was waiting for the Internet connection to go through, wondering what Mulder's reaction would be to his warning, whether his usual cynicism would reign or whether he'd stop and think more deeply this time. But why should he believe?

Tracy reached for the bottle of lemonade in the corner of the box, twisted off the cap and replaced it barely tightened. His mother was watching, her curiosity growing.

"I think if we put it in a plastic grocery bag," she was saying. Teena opened a lower cabinet and produced a bag. Tracy slipped it under the box and pulled the handles up. Her arms felt weak, distant. Her head was filled with a low fizz of static and the chatter of too many minds.

The dining room.

Alex was finishing his message, his hand moving smoothly back and forth across the keyboard. He never thought about it anymore, the way he typed; he wouldn't notice his mother's growing curiosity. Now he looked up and turned around, searching for her. What did she think? She came up behind him and read over his shoulder.

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
2:03 p.m. Hunt's on. Make sure your people know.

She nodded. He hit 'send'.

In his mind he was on the road already, halfway back to Washington.

"Oh. The food, Alex." She turned and swirled into the kitchen. The air seemed thick, as if she were swimming through it. She took the bag from the kitchen counter and brought it back to where he stood talking to his mother, quiet.

"... yeah, thanks. I owe you."

His mother only nodded in return, unsure of what to say. Her spirit was full, overflowing, but there was no way to fit words to what she felt and there was no time. Not now. He needed to go.

"Let me know how it goes," he said. "You know how to erase the mail off your hard drive?"

"I--" She shook her head.

"Tracy will show you. Don't leave anything on there."

His mother nodded again, solemn. She wanted to touch him, to reassure him or herself, to make him real, but she was afraid of how he might react.

Alex turned from his mother and looked at her now, wordless, beyond thought. The moment seemed frozen and then his mother retreated a step. He came toward her, led her to the front door and then turned around, his back to it. His arm wrapped around her shoulders--comfort--his cheek smooth and warm beside hers, the soft pressure of his body a living pattern against her. She slipped a hand around his waist; the other held the dangling plastic bag. She seemed to have no breath. "Be strong," he whispered against her ear. His lips grazed her forehead and he was moving back, taking the bag, working the door handle, stopping to nod once more at his mother. Then he was gone, the door standing ajar.

The air in the room sang in loud silence. Breathe, nena, she could hear him in her head. Be strong.

She took a step forward, closed the door and let her forehead rest against it. He was crossing the parking lot, stopping and setting the bag of food on the roof of the car while he dug in his pocket for the key.

He needed to focus.

She needed to let him go.

Tracy turned and looked at the room spread in front of her--white carpet, white sofa and loveseat, perfect flowers in a blue vase on the polished glass coffee table. Nothing was quite real, the essence of the scene in front of her squeezed away.

"Tracy?"

She looked up.

"Could you show me...?" How to erase the e-mail.

She started toward the dining room, walking slowly through vacant air.

 

 

 

Scully let the cursor hover above 'get mail' and finally clicked. It was only natural that there would be a delay. The Gunmen would not only have to move her mother but watch afterward for signs that they'd been discovered, or if they were posing in some undercover position, stay long enough not to arouse suspicion. She glanced behind her at the old starburst clock beside the door. 2:12. Sandy and Mulder had left for Dr. Wykoff's over an hour ago.

There were no messages.

Her lips pressed together. She got up, went to the kitchen window and looked out,  fingers smoothing absently along the counter's edge. He'd given her that little boy look out by the car. He hadn't deliberately set out to scare her; it was just the accumulation of everything, this morning especially. His injury was one thing, but the reaction he'd displayed to the medication...

It seemed unlikely there could be anything deliberate about it. Any physician confronted with a job-consistent injury would naturally focus on treating the wound and on pain control. Mulder had his suspicions, of course--one of his hunches, that something was going on involving the Connors children--but nothing had been proven yet, and in any case his suspicions would hardly affect the way a physician would approach an injured worker, especially one she had no way of knowing. Maybe, as Mulder said, there was something to be found on the Internet about Dr. Maria Vanek.

Scully poured herself a glass of water and drank half of it. Her fondest hopes used to be for achievement, for mysteries solved, for solid medical detective work that made a difference; her worries, that Mulder would overstep, that their work might be curtailed, either by bureaucrats or darker forces working within the Bureau. Now her hopes were much more basic: a chance to live without being pursued, to be able to go out in a car without lying in the back, hidden. And her fears: that something might happen to the only companion she had in this surreal-seeming world.

She swallowed and felt her face tense, the skin taut. Scully closed her eyes and forced her muscles to relax. After a moment she returned to the computer and sat down, hand taking the mouse, finger lingering over it. It wouldn't hurt to check Mulder's mail in case the Gunmen wrote to him first. She clicked to switch accounts, entered his password and waited. Mulder's reaction could have been an anomaly, or perhaps...

Whatever the cause, they needed to understand what had happened to him. Dr. Wykoff would be their best avenue of information.

One new message. She clicked quickly, the realization of the sender's identity hitting her just as the message was displayed. Short and terse, the way Krycek's delivery had always been. She forced herself to exhale and take a fresh breath. Her mother was gone and the Smoking Man's forces had been alerted. She glanced at the clock again. Krycek's message had been written only minutes earlier. She clicked on the 'write' screen and quickly typed a message to the Gunmen, then waited for it to send.

Krycek had done it again, but why? What was it he stood to gain from helping them?

 

 

 

Teena climbed the last few steps to the roof patio and paused at the top. Above the clear glass enclosure the branches of four young willows dipped and swayed in the breeze. To the east the harbor was visible below a sky of palest blue. She ventured forward a few steps. Her guest was asleep in the rope hammock under the potted willows, a tall, thin slip of a girl in a yellow dress, pale hair fallen across her face. Undoubtedly if Alex were here he would come close and carefully lift the hair away.

The tone of their relationship had been obvious from the beginning, Alex pulling her quickly inside the door and then struggling to let go of her hand. They'd stayed close to each other the entire time. Certainly, their feelings for each other were clear in their parting, Alex gathering her against him in a way she was obviously used to, the two of them close, tender, saying nothing, as if everything between them was already understood. And here she was, the girl, asleep with a throw pillow in front of her, arms tightly around it as if she could keep Alex with her even as he sped toward Washington.

It was almost impossible not to make assumptions.  By Alex's own admission they had known each other only a few weeks and the girl was, quite obviously, little more than half his age.  But he'd seemed anything but manipulative or controlling around her.  And the girl, while she would certainly be impressionable, didn't seem the type who had focused her world around the goal of obtaining a man.  Unless something substantial had bound them, Alex would surely not have put himself in jeopardy to buy her safety.  Crises, Bill used to say, forge strange bonds.  Perhaps that dynamic had been at work here. In any event it had surely taken a leap of faith for Alex to bring this intimate secret of his to her of all people.

Teena looked toward the harbor, at the small, thin clouds, then at the cheerful pots of bright geraniums that dotted the patio, and finally at the girl. Alex would want the transfer made as soon as possible, to make sure the girl's safety was assured.  But what could she say?  How could she even introduce the subject to Fox without appearing to have sold out to a bitter enemy? She had, after all, already accepted the girl. She'd trusted Alex that far and there was no way to make it appear otherwise.

 

 

 

"Will--" Maggie stretched a pale hand toward the figure in the recliner next to her bed. "If I hadn't seen you there, in the car beside me, I don't know what I would have done." Her eyes watered; she looked up at the pale yellow ceiling. It had been a hearse, not a car. The whole trip was still impossible to believe, like something from a jumbled dream.

"That's why I decided to go along." He raised an eyebrow. "I figured it would be strange enough, you being moved like that. Confusing to say the least."

"And we weren't followed?"

"Not as far as they've figured out." He wagged a finger at her. "But you know they're going to be looking. The old guy, he's not one to give up, but I think we've got you as safe as anything we can find, right here."

"Does Dana know?"

"The Gunmen will be telling her the whole story."

"I coughed. I couldn't make myself stop."

Will turned his head to see Keneesha Taylor enter the room, a tall, dark woman with close-cropped hair and a face that bespoke patience. A four-year-old trailed close behind her. Keneesha approached Maggie's bed.

"How are we doing here?" She had a slight drawl, a soothing voice.

Maggie looked up at her. "I..."

"Don't strain yourself." A careful hand passed her forehead, followed by a smile. "According to these readouts you're doing pretty well, considering." She turned to Will. "Good thing your buddies had access to this equipment."

A tickle inside. Maggie flinched against the sudden coughing that tore at her lungs. Torment was followed by lingering pain and sweat, then a hand, soothing against her shoulder.

"You hang in there, Mrs. S. You're going to do alright. We'll get you through this. A little time and you'll be just fine, ready to see that daughter of yours." She poured a glass of water from a pitcher on the bedside table and held it while Maggie drank, then turned to Will. "She really needs to rest now. You're welcome to wait on the sun porch. Grandmama's out there."

"Old Rose," a small voice interjected. "I'm Rose, too."

Her mother gave her a look. "Anyway, Old Rose will be happy to talk your ear off if you let her." She smiled and gave him a knowing nod.

Will raised his chair back and stood slowly.

"Take care of yourself, Will," Maggie said.

"Rita's taken good care of me. You'll have to meet her."

"I'll have to thank her. For all she's done."

"I promise you'll get the chance."

Will turned and walked toward the door. Maggie shifted slightly in the bed. Keneesha was pulling down shades in the tall windows, leaving the room bathed in hazy parchment light.

"Now you get some rest. And anything you need, you just let me know," she said, turning. She gestured to the little girl playing hide-and-seek at the foot of the bed. "Come on, New."

The little girl ran to follow her mother out of the room. The door closed behind them.

It had been like a movie--like being in a movie--tension and rushing, fear and the overwhelming relief of escape. There must be a way to get a message to Dana. How would she be, Dana, worrying about her all this time, hidden, pursued? But Fox was there. At least she had him to depend on. She closed her eyes and ran a hand across the softness of a blanket. An old clock ticked away the seconds high up on the wall as Maggie drifted toward sleep.

 

 

 

Krycek maneuvered the car into an on-street parking space and cut the engine. Sighing, he let his head fall back against the headrest and glanced at the clock. 3:17. Not bad. The old man's lookouts had called once, not with any actual progress but so he'd know they were making an effort; they knew well enough how the old man dealt with slackers. He glanced around the car: front seat, back, floors. There was nothing to show she'd been here. It was the way it always was, the way it had to be: a clean slate, no signs, no traces, nothing left behind.

Finally he leaned forward, pulled the door handle and got out. His legs needed stretching but more than that he needed to lie down. The wound ached, a growing murmur in his side. Probably hadn't helped that they'd done it twice, engaging muscles he was supposed to be resting. As if he'd have chosen to take a pass, even knowing the consequences. The memory brought a smile to his lips that lingered, then gradually faded to grimness. Hopefully she was hanging in there. She would be. When the chips were down, she'd rise to the need and be strong.

He locked the car, checked the trunk a final time and started down the street to his building, the laptop heavy under his arm. Times like this would be a bitch without Ché's help. Colorful, Tracy had called him. He'd ribbed her about it and she'd come up with that thing about a brother. No brother, but then later she wasn't so sure.

There could be another group, somebody operating out of Southern California.  A group that had somehow slipped under the consortium's radar. It bore looking into. Players were like weeds and weeds were always springing up, a natural thing. Maybe Mulder had heard of something. If he could get through to Mulder. If he'd listen. Maybe when he had Tracy, he would. Maybe she'd get him out of Mulder's doghouse, make Mulder see whose side he was actually on.

Krycek shouldered open the entry door to his building and stopped in front of the elevator. One floor down to the laundry. Only yesterday he'd gone out the window there, across the old lady's yard to the back street where Tracy'd picked him up, but it seemed like years. Two or three months from now the old woman would have flowers blooming in her yard and she'd never have a clue where they came from.

But he'd know. And how would it hit him when he saw them?

A ding and the elevator door opened. He got in, hit '2' and leaned against the wall. The old man would have to be told about Scully's mother, but it would wait. Give it a little time; the delay could be chalked up to the search. Hey, I was hoping to have this thing cleaned up, no need to bother you. If he played his cards just right the old man would buy it. If he seemed eager but not over-the-top. Committed to the old fucker's projects and their rightness.

Krycek's stomach sank slightly and the elevator door slid open. He put his key in the lock and let himself in. Nothing different but it felt that way, a big, ringing emptiness.

He couldn't afford to think of her now.

He set the laptop on the bed, clipped the phone cord into the back and pushed the power button. Then he eased himself onto the mattress and lay back against the pillows to watch the computer power up. Diagnostics, wallpaper, program icons. His eyes closed. The trip from Baltimore ran through his head again: changes of lanes, off-ramps, intersections. The low clicking of the hard drive stopped.  He eased himself onto his side and tapped on his Internet connection.

To: che774@telcom.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Left the car half a block west. Need it re-parked ASAP and cleaned of any signs of recent use. Also verify return flight information. Prompt payment and some prime data in return.

He hit 'send' and fought the urge to lie back down. His body was starting to shake--nothing bad, just a little trembling in the arm and legs. He ought to take the meds first. Ought to check her room, too--make sure there was nothing lying around, anything telltale.  But it could wait. Unless the old man had moved things up, he had a day's cushion; old man wouldn't be back until tomorrow. Ché would verify the scheduling, whatever it was.

Krycek eased himself up and stood, slightly stiff now, and made his way into the bathroom. Yellow plastic cup, toothbrush, orange container with the new pain meds. He took out two, gulped them down, chased them with a cup of water and returned to the bed.

Maxed out again, legs weak, a bass thrum where the wound was. He slipped his shoes off, pushed the laptop to the side and eased himself in between the sheets. The familiar pattern of cracks spread above him on the ceiling. He pulled the covers up higher. It was cold in here--maybe just cold alone--but sleep would come soon enough and take away the pain of consciousness.

 

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: Redwall@zipmail.com
Target has been delivered, apparently none the worse for wear (I hear she asked about you, a good sign.) No overt hitches, though no doubt the evidence will be sifted carefully so we're continuing to watch our backs and analyze our moves. Evidently JB put on a great performance in a corridor, but I'll leave the telling to him. Got your mail.  I've been watching since the beginning for signs of any activity against us, but so far
nada. More as it happens. Peace.

 

 

 

The thin, waving willow branches overhead gradually replaced the poplars from her dream--home's poplars.

They were gone.

Alex was gone.

Around her the air was cool, the shade too deep. Tracy sat up. She set aside the throw pillow and felt her wrists and stomach cold against the moving air. Her head was thick, as if she'd only begun to fill the need for rest. She could bury herself in sleep, burrow into it and hide from the emptiness around her. But that would be no help to Alex. If nothing else, she could help set his plan in motion and at least ease his mind about her safety.

The feeling wasn't the same as when her mother died, the wrenching ache that came from the certainty that she was gone beyond all recall. Alex's absence echoed, hollow inside. Together, she and Alex had formed a strength only beginning to be exercised, and he was still out there, somewhere, even though in the end he might prove just as inaccessible as her mother. But lingering in the pain of her own loss would do nothing for him. If they meant anything to each other, now, even more than when they'd been together, was the time to do something to help him.

Tracy stood and walked to the edge of the glass enclosure. In the distance to the east she could see water and the masts of boats. Rooftops, some with patios, dotted the landscape. Alex's mother would have some delicate negotiating to do trying to convince her other son to take this girl she'd just received, an unknown quantity to her. She'd sensed his mother's fear: fear of losing both her sons because of this.

One hand on the polished, honey-colored railing, Tracy started down the stairs. She could see down into the living room, but it was empty. Teena was--she let her mind reach out--in the enclosed garden behind the living room. She continued down the stairs to the landing and paused. Something about her backpack, which Teena had suggested she put in the guest bedroom, first door on the right. She went to the room. The backpack lay on the bed, tilted slightly, its faded red color a contrast to the rich brown spread. Carefully she sat down beside it. It seemed fuller than she'd remembered. She took hold of it and pulled the drawstrings.

Inside at the top was a brown paper grocery bag, something inside it packed neatly into a thick rectangle. She took out the bag and unfolded it. Red showed from inside. Carefully she reached inside and pulled it out. The red dress she'd told him she liked so much. She swallowed and ran her fingers lightly over its soft surface. Slowly she stood and held the dress in front of her, letting it unfold. Something dropped out of it onto the floor.  A book.  She picked it up.

On the front was a drawing of a red-headed girl with pigtails sticking straight out on both sides. The girl stood on a beach with palm trees around her. Inside, on the first blank page, was Alex's handwriting in black. Like you, she can do anything, it said.

She held the dress and book against her and drifted to the window, filled to overflowing with a fierce ache. She closed her eyes and leaned against the window frame. Hot trails ran down her cheeks. Breathe, he'd remind her. There'd be a hand on her shoulder and the warmth of his body close against her left side.

Sun spilled across her face. She breathed in and out, in and out, trying to even out the rhythm, waiting for the ache to subside. Finally she opened her eyes, brushed the back of a hand across her cheeks and returned to the bed, spreading the dress out on it, smoothing the ridges where it had been folded. Opening the book, she read his inscription again. In her mind she could picture him writing the note she'd taken to Raul, working carefully, the paper wanting to skitter away.

But there was something more.

Her hand dug into the pack again, taking out the long johns, taking out her mother's sweater, reaching. Toothpaste, brush, soap... a piece of paper. She took it out. Plain peach-colored stationary, heavyweight, a single sheet folded once. It was her mother's paper. Inside was Alex's handwriting. She sat down on the edge of the bed and read, then closed her eyes and leaned forward, tangled in fine, thin pain.

 

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: heron3@zipmail.com
Glad to report that I've seen her and that the operation seems successful on this end, though we know vigilance remains necessary. Transportation was generously provided by a friend with a hearse.  I thought she might find her surroundings a little disconcerting so I arranged to ride along. You would have appreciated the look on her face when she realized she was indeed in the right place and among friends.

She is settled now, appears to have weathered the trip reasonably well and has asked about you. I believe the three musketeers may be able to provide her with a laptop in the near future. Meremaid played decoy to help fill out the ruse and while all went well, suffice it to say we've all filled our adrenaline quotas for one day. Hoping you and Ben are seeing progress in your work.
                                                                                          -Will
 

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
I don't really know how to start this; there seems to be no way to do it without someone getting hurt. As you can tell from this mail, I am with your mother. Alex has put himself at risk to help me get away before the old man decides I'm no longer useful to him, since the plan was to dispose of me once Alex was strong enough not to need my help. Alex was hoping I could stay with you. I know you are in hiding and I don't want to put you in further danger, but the old man is very determined in his pursuit and you are the only one Alex trusts to be able to keep me safe from him.

I know the things you have gone through in the past with Alex and that you will likely suspect this is some kind of trap or trick. You might think that I'll let Alex know where you are, but he doesn't want the old man to find you anyway. Besides, I already know where you are. I had a vision yesterday of the girl, the mother of the little dead boy who is pregnant again, and you were in her thoughts. I didn't tell Alex. Actually, he asked me not to tell him anything the old man might be able to draw out of him.

Please don't fault your mother for agreeing to take me. She only wants to help and Alex thought it would be easier for you this way than meeting with him face to face. I don't want to put your mother in danger, either, so please let me know as soon as possible if you are willing to have me. If not, I understand your need to protect yourselves and I'll leave so your mother is free to go on her way safely.

I might be of some help to you, but of course the decision is yours. Please let us know as soon as you can.
   
                                                                              -The Stair Sprite

 

 

 

"I'm afraid Fox will think I'm hiding behind you, not writing to him myself," Teena said ruefully as Tracy closed the cover on the laptop.

"He has reason to be suspicious.  Alex has caused him a lot of pain. It's been the old man behind it, but still."  She paused. "He--Leland--thinks your husband betrayed him and their work with his views, with his refusal to go along.  In return he tries to break your sons.  Both of them, just in different ways."

"If only there were a way for them to learn to work together."

"There has to be some way to make them understand each other. They both have hearts. They both have strength."

In the kitchen, a phone rang. Alex's mother hurried to listen for a message, hoping it wouldn't be the old man having somehow found her. She feared him as much as Alex did.

Tracy looked around the spacious, quiet living room with it's high, high ceiling and pulled the peach-colored piece of stationery from her pocket. The edges were slightly curled now, as if the paper had spent hours or days or even weeks in her pocket, though it had only been minutes. He must have written the note last night. She hesitated, her fingers tentative on the edge of the paper, and finally opened it.

Nena--
I know I'm not much with words and I don't usually need them with you; you can just pull them out of my head and save me the trouble. But by the time you get this that's probably not one of the possibilities.  Wish it were.

Can't even begin to tell you what you've done for me, and I just wanted to make sure you know that you've kept me going in more ways than one. For the last year my life's been on the skids, and then this gunshot happened and who would have figured something incredible would come out of it.  But it's the way you've got to face life--take what it throws at you, pull whatever you can from it and let it make you stronger. Take good care of the kid. I hope some day he realizes how lucky he is to have you. Keep following that little voice but look ahead, too; sometimes it's the only way. Most of all, always be what you are inside. There's nothing better.

Burn this as soon as you've read it, no excuses. If you want to keep it, keep it where I know you keep me, inside, and know I hold you there, too. You can lean on that if you feel yourself starting to slip. 'I love you' doesn't begin to cover it.
                                                     -Alex

The paper trembled slightly in her hand. She folded it in half, then in half again and curled it into her palm. It felt warm, as if it had a heart and life of its own. On the coffee table was a clean marble ashtray with a box of matches in it.  Hesitantly Tracy reached for the little box.

Outside in the garden patio she unfolded the paper carefully and knelt down close to the bricks. She held the letter a moment, feeling the warmth of the paper, picturing Alex the way she'd found him in the middle of the night, sitting against her bedroom wall, stiff in his grief, then reaching out to pull her close. Taking the match by the stem, she ran the head across a brick. A small sizzle and a flame ignited, large and pale yellow. Touching it to the edge of the paper, she watched as it caught and flared, beginning to spread and eat its way across the sheet of stationery. The edges darkened and curled, forcing the burning paper into a ball. Moments later there was only fragile ash.

Tracy stood and watched the air current begin to pull at the thin, black fragments.

 

 

 

"Well, at least we know they got your mom away and that she's safe," Mulder said, rereading Krycek's mail.

"I was hoping to find something from the Gunmen when I checked your mail and this came in. What do you think it means, Mulder? All this information Krycek's been feeding us?"

"I don't--" He turned carefully and glanced at her. "I don't know. Sandy and I were talking about that. About Krycek, I mean."

"Sandy?"  She frowned.  "Mulder, what did you tell her?"

"She asked, Scully. Rita told her someone from the Bureau knew who killed her husband. She figured out it was me." He turned to glance out the window above the bed. "Wonder how long she's been carrying that question around."

"And what did you tell her?"

"About Krycek? I told her... I said I had a history with the guy. How's that for understatement? I told her that he's always after something, always dealing." He caught his lip between his teeth momentarily. "I just can't figure out what the hell he wants this time. What about you, Scully? Got any theories?"

"No, I..." She shook her head. "No. I have no idea. But I did spend some time searching the Internet for information on your Dr. Vanek."

"And?"

"All I found was that she's listed as having received a degree from American University--1988--though there's no specific information about her in their medical school database--no residency, no specialization."

"1988--that's awfully late. She must be 45, Scully."

"Well, I'd say maybe she was just a late bloomer, but that explanation seems a little less likely after this other information I found." She reached past him, took the mouse and clicked on a minimized file at the bottom of the screen. Mulder leaned forward.

"These must be her parents, Scully--Jan and Ludmila Vanek."

"Czech nationals."

"The ages seem right."

Scully moistened her lips. "Both of them geneticists. Both killed in what is described only as a 'laboratory accident' in a little town outside"--she paused briefly--"Krasnoyarsk, Russia. June 23, 1983."

"Krasnoyarsk?"

"Deja vu, Mulder? It looks like you were right. For whatever reason, if this is what we suspect it is, Dr. Vanek may be here in sleepy little heart-of-the-country Owensburg at the behest of the Smoking Man."

"Yeah, but not at the behest of his group, I'll bet."

She frowned. "What do you mean?  If she's a defector, someone with valuable knowledge of the Russian program--"

"...the Consortium would have jumped at the chance to have her," he said.  "Exactly.  And she'd be working at some sizeable facility somewhere, not hiding out in a beryllium plant. Which is why I'm guessing Smoky's doing something a little more private here."

"Like?"

"A while back my mother mailed me with something she remembered my dad saying--that Smoky's downfall would be his greed, his inability to let go of anything he'd gained, or achieved. My dad described Smoky as a monkey with his fist caught in a jar." He turned to face her. "I think he's got his own little program going, something personal. My mother said that if he were drowning in a shipwreck, he wouldn't hesitate to fight everyone else for the only available life preserver. Scully, he was too jumpy back in D.C. when Wilkins and his partner were here investigating. The Consortium may be pulling beryllium out of here but there's more going on than that. Smoky's action against Skinner, his threat to you... all that was overcompensation if beryllium was the only thing at stake." He raised an eyebrow. "I think he's got a little secret here he doesn't want anyone else to know about."

A chime sounded on the laptop.

"I didn't know you were still online, Scully."

"I... I signed on to your account to check your mail and then I went looking for the information on Dr. Vanek. Then you and Sandy came. It's your mail, Mulder. Look."

Mulder clicked on the mail flag at the bottom of the screen and waited.

"Probably the Gunmen." Scully pursed her lips. "I hope they haven't been followed."

She turned away and went to the kitchen window. Hazy sunlight filtered through the trees. When she turned around again she could see Mulder's lower lip sucked in.

"What?" She came up behind him. "What is it?"

He pointed at the screen. "When it rains, it pours, Scully. What do you make of this?"

She leaned over his shoulder and read.

The strange girl again.
 

 

 

To: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Just thought I'd let you know I'm back here and still in one piece. Thanks again for being part of this. Contact me as soon as you hear anything about the arrangements. Hope she's doing okay.  Appreciate it if you'd let me know.
 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
She took it upon herself to send the request, believing she'd have a better chance of being convincing if you and I were left out of the equation. She seems to be a brave, unblinking young woman, a trait I know you must certainly admire that in her. She found the things you left for her and is bearing up, but I understand now why you said this would be difficult. We are awaiting a response and will let you know as soon as one is received.
   
                                                                                -M
 

 

 

"This could be the connection, Mulder." She glanced from the laptop to the bed where he was propped against the pillows. "She says Cancer Man hired her to take care of Krycek. That would explain why she was running messages for him, like Skinner said."

"Yeah, but why would he put himself at risk to help her escape? What's in it for him?" He sat up and paused abruptly, frowning.

"Dizzy again?"

"Just... a little, yeah." He blinked.

Scully frowned. "I understand this isn't the kind of town where you can get a tox screen analyzed in a hurry, but Dr. Wykoff did promise me he'd go to the lab in Lexington himself. I'm hoping he'll be able to get back to us this evening. Whatever she gave you isn't wearing off in any normal way."

"Just my luck. Frying pan to the fire." He eased himself to the edge of the bed and stood, then came up behind her and looked at the screen again. "What's in it for him, Scully, doing this? There's got to be some kind of payoff. And my mother. Unless Krycek dropped her off on Mom's doorstep--"

"But then he'd have to get back to Washington, Mulder, and he's not recovered yet. I don't think he could make it that far on his own."

"Which means Mom must have agreed to meet him and take the girl." His mouth tightened.

"What do you know about her, Mulder? This girl?"

He shrugged. "Like I said, she seemed like a nice kid.  Friendly.  Maybe a little too open for a place like D.C. But we only spoke a couple of times."

Scully sighed and shook her head. "She seems very... straightforward in this mail. Either that or this is a story designed to reel us in, the perfect bait, the perfect--" She paused. "But it doesn't track. There's no pressure, no threat. No consequence if we decide against it."

"Other than that she's with my mother, making Mom a target for Smoky." He pointed at the screen. "What's this, Scully--this 'vision of the girl'?"

Scully leaned in and read. "I didn't... My god, Mulder. She's talking about Sandy."

"Yeah, but it says 'pregnant'."

She looked up. "Sandy is pregnant. She's suspected it for a few days, but she didn't find out for sure until this morning. Mulder, I... I don't see how... Who else would have known that? Skinner did seem to be under the impression that she has some psychic ability, but--"

"Then she could function like a wire for Krycek, let him know everything that goes on here, whatever we do, everything we're thinking."

"Do you think she'd be likely to do that--from what you knew of her?"

"I don't... Scully, I don't... No." His mouth was small.

"Mulder, I hesitate to even suggest this. I don't trust Krycek any more than you do. But that night in your apartment, when he called me and told me to come, to... take care of you..." She paused and looked up. "There was... there seemed to be... something there, in him. Something... I don't know. Not the way he'd been before."

"Yeah, then a week later he held a knife to your throat, Scully."

"I know." She sighed. "I know. I can't explain it, either." A pause. "Why don't you ask, Mulder? Why don't you ask your mother, or the girl. Or Krycek? Would you like me to write to your mother?"

Mulder bit his lip. "You ran interference for me last time, Scully. I think I'm going to have to do this myself."

 

 

 

To: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Important that I know what you know about this deal and what made you decide to agree to a meeting. Awaiting your reply.

 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Looking for some straight talk about this deal of yours. What are you looking for here? I'm sure I'm not seeing all the pieces.

 

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
What you see is what you get. There's only one piece here and she's it. She's gone through a hell of a lot to take care of me while I've been laid up and she doesn't deserve to end up as seagull food in some landfill.

 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
You shoot two-year-olds. Why the sudden change of heart? Make me see why this isn't a trap.

 

 

 

"Maria?" The man in the lab coat looked up from his notes and smiled. "Didn't expect to see you until tomorrow."

"It's Friday. Maybe I've finally been infected with the 'weekend' phenomenon."

"I don't see why. You've probably never spent a non-working weekend in your life." He offered a small grin that she acknowledged with a raised eyebrow.

"When research is your life..." She came closer. He put an arm around her and kissed her cheek lightly. "...then it's not work. Anyway, I have a favor to ask."

"Shoot."

She reached into the bag she was carrying and produced a sealed plastic bag, a blood-stained piece of gauze visible inside it.

"Could you run me a simple DNA fingerprinting on this?"

"New project?"

"A little investigation."

"Ooh, the researcher turns detective."

"Medical detective, yes." She paused. "How long will it take you, Brian?"

"In a hurry?"

"Yes, actually. You know I'm an impatient person."

"Impatient but always fascinating."

She blushed.

"Maybe tomorrow," he said. "If I sit up late and don't get a bunch of rush work in here in the next two hours. And if I'm not... distracted. You staying?"

She shook her head. "Not tonight. Somebody in Owensburg might notice and start rumors. No, it's more definite than that; they would. They feed on speculation. It's like a sport to them." She smiled briefly. "I prefer to keep my life private." She turned to go.

"Can't understand why." He gave her a wink. "Until tomorrow, then."

"Until tomorrow."
 

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
I was contacted yesterday regarding this matter with the understanding that help would be needed within a week or so, then again, unexpectedly, very early this morning. I have nothing that you might call 'hard evidence' on which to base my judgment of his sincerity, only his words and tone over the phone. I realize that with the experience you've had with him, these things must seem laughable to you as indicators, but having the girl here, both beginning to become acquainted with her and seeing the effect she appears to have had on him, I can only say that she seems well-deserving of our efforts to keep her hidden from L. I realize, however, that she could prove a distinct burden to you logistically. If you feel it's not wise to accept her in your situation, I would be willing to keep her with me.

I know this situation will seem like a point of division between us. I heartily wish it were otherwise. You must do what you think is best. Let me know of your decision. Should you have further questions, I'll do my best to answer them.
   
                                                                                -M

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
No argument I come up with is going to convince you; you need to admit that to yourself. But think--if it weren't some abstract, if it were your sister or your partner, wouldn't you put yourself on the line to keep them out of his reach? Even if it meant going to someone who'd laugh you into the next state? If I had any other way, I wouldn't be bothering you but I don't and she's worth the price of your disbelief. I don't think I need to spell it out any further than that.


 

 

"What do you think, Scully?"

Her hands went up in the air. "I'm stumped, Mulder. I don't know what to say."

He leaned forward, elbows on knees. "There's got to be something here we aren't seeing."

"Well..." She cleared her throat. "We seem to have three possible courses of action. Take the girl, which presents logistical problems... and of course we're not sure what Krycek's stake--or agenda--is in this. Or leave the girl with your mother--"

"We can't do that, Scully. It's going to put Mom in danger. If Smoky's searching for the girl, if she knows something--she probably does know something incriminating--what would he do if he found Mom hiding her?"

Silence. He looked up at her.

"The third course is to do nothing. She's offered to leave your mother."

He shook his head. "She's not going to have the street smarts for that. She was like... like a bird that would fly right into your hand."

"If in fact it's all some elaborate plan of the Smoking Man's, she wouldn't be in any real danger, though." She pursed her lips.

"What?"

"I can't see Krycek helping to set up your mother in this. If it were the Smoking Man's setup, the girl could have written directly to us and"--she shrugged--"and said she was running away from Krycek. That would be a story we'd be more inclined to believe than this, what Krycek and your mother are telling us."

Mulder shifted on the edge of the bed. She watched his lower lip push forward.

"I don't..." He looked up, at the panels in the ceiling. "So if we assume that she's actually on the run, in danger... then I can't see sending her off to fend for herself, or leaving her with my mother--for both their sakes. Krycek's got no love for Smoky. I mean, he stole the DAT tape; he set that recorder in my apartment--the tape that caught Smoky. So she's on the run, she needs shelter. But it still begs the question. Why is Krycek sticking his neck out to help her get away? Because if Smoky finds out--"

"Krycek's a dead man."

"So why's he doing it?"

Scully sighed. "Why don't you ask the girl? If she's as open as she seems, maybe she'll tell us something that will make more sense of this."

 

 

 

Krycek pushed the third floor button and watched the elevator doors close. He sagged slightly against the wall. Too little rest, but he was awake again, the pain gone for a few hours but his head thick, stomach edgy. The old man's team was poring over the surveillance tapes, though he'd nixed the idea of having them file a police report. Better to force the doctor's hand by making him do it. He was likely to be in league with Mulder's people, but he'd have to file. At least to keep up appearances. Hopefully he'd have his act together and be able to come up with a plausible story that wouldn't reflect back on him or give anything away.

With a low groan the elevator settled and the door slid open. His mother said Tracy was 'bearing up'. So probably she knew. She was smart enough to put the pieces together, but beyond that she was a woman; they had their radar dialed in to that kind of thing. 'Brave young woman' she'd said. She hadn't called her a girl. She wasn't saying what the hell are you doing messing around with a girl? Sounded more like I understand what you see in her.

He stopped in front of Tracy's door and pulled the key from his pocket, his pulse a distinct beat in the background. Turning the key in the lock, he opened the door to sunlight and shadow. The T-shirt she wore to sleep in lay folded on the unmade bed. The dresser held her big metal bread bowl, a comb and a hair tie beside it. In the bathroom there was the end of a tube of toothpaste, no toothbrush--have to pick one up--a tiny bar of soap beside the sink, clear yellow, and on the edge of the tub a bottle of something. He picked it up. Shower gel. He flipped up the cap and sniffed. Something honeyish--honey and something else.  Maybe almond. It smelled like her, the way she'd smelled under the blankets, just a hint, something that drew you in and made you want more. His eyes closed involuntarily but he forced them open again and set the bottle back where she'd left it.

Returning to the bedroom, he went through the closet--white dress hanging, wire hangers, plastic bags stuffed in a larger one, her old worn shoes on the floor. And the dresser: bag of flour, measuring cups, yeast, salt. A pair of underwear with blue butterflies on them. His gray thermal shirt, folded carefully. He picked it up, held it to his nose. It would be a dead giveaway. She probably wished now that she'd taken it with her, but that was the way things happened: before you knew it, circumstances exploding in front of you and all you could do was duck and cover, or run, or whatever you could manage that would keep you alive and going forward.

He looked up and scanned the room. It reminded him of Afghan villages he'd been through: abandoned houses as place markers for abandoned lives. People on the run in order to survive, the props of their existence left behind in silence to tell the story of a moment. That was what he could say: that she'd just disappeared. He'd sent her out for... something--takeout or pills or groceries--and she'd never come back. Foul play. It wasn't the greatest neighborhood. It was plausible. A lot more so than that she'd simply taken off. The old man wouldn't buy that in a million years.

Krycek went to the window and looked out. He'd sat here--she'd sat here--the night they'd let him back out of the hospital, an awkward, invisible wall between them. This was where she'd stood, days later, when she'd said that there were things you remembered, things that would stay with you over the long haul.

The corner of his mouth pulled. Like Victor lying in a Marseilles alley, his life trickling away red between the cobblestones, or the sight of the old man's pants and shoes appearing in front of him unexpectedly in the foggy cabbage field.

Or the mountaintop.  Or her, the way her breath caught when he touched her, as if no two people had ever touched, or kissed, or made love before.

He pushed out a heavy breath and leaned against the wall.

There was the chance that she'd come sometime, the way she had when he was in the hospital. She hadn't suggested it and neither had he, but if she'd done it once, it might happen again. Not yet, though. For now they both needed to focus: take stock, test the wind, stay alert. Right about now Mulder would be sitting somewhere with Scully, tied in knots trying to figure out what the hell he was up to, whether to take Tracy and then, when he'd decided, how to justify it to himself. If Scully balked he wouldn't cross her but in the end she'd come around; she was a defender, too. The two of them had that in common.

Krycek crossed the room, set the thermal shirt on his shoulder to free his hand, pushed the lock button and drew the door nearly closed behind him. There should be some remnant of her here, some image, but there was nothing. He pulled the door closed and started down the stairs, step and pause, step and pause. His hand pulled up involuntarily, as if there were something to grasp.
 

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
I can't really explain the way my life goes, but I think from your own experience you may be able to understand a little. Maybe it's like a series of hunches--when you know something the evidence doesn't back you up with... yet. I felt like I was drawn to Washington. I didn't know why at the time but I think now that it was to be there when the old man went out looking for someone to take care of Alex. I found Alex frightening at first. He's led such a dark, dark life. But when I got there he was in a situation that was a nightmare for him, too. He was forced to trust my help, to depend on me, to let me watch him eat or stumble or go crazy from the pain. If you think about it, that's a lot for a very private man to face. I didn't betray that trust, in the same way you didn't betray the possibilities of the weary blonde woman Lucy when no one else was willing to look beyond the mistakes in her past.

I believe what he's gone through during this recovery has made Alex look at some things in his life in ways he hasn't before. I know he values the fact that I didn't betray the trust he had no choice but to put in me. But beyond that, it's worked both ways; there were things in my life I'd been too afraid to look at, much less deal with, and Alex stepped up to support me so I could begin to sort them out. Do you remember how you felt when you discovered in your partner someone you could confide in without fear of being betrayed as a person? It's a very powerful feeling. Though it's a concept your mind may want to fight, the situation is pretty simple: Alex is grateful. He just wants to know I'm safe and going on with my life. The problem is that I'm a liability to the old man. At least, he believes I am.

I realize you have your partner's safety to worry about, so all I'm asking is that you consider the request. If it doesn't work out for you, I've been on my own before and I'll understand. But for Alex's peace of mind, I'm asking. He trusts your knowledge of the old man, and your dedication.
   
                                                                                  -Tracy

 

 

"What are you doing, Mulder?"

"Trying something."

"What?"

"Seeing if Krycek's willing to give me a little information. Everything lately has been his offering, but I wonder what'll happen if I ask for something."

"Such as?"

"Information on Maria Vanek."

"But Mulder, if he's in with the Smoking Man that's going to give him our location."

"It could." He bit his lip. "But my guess is Smoky doesn't trust Krycek enough to tell him any more than he absolutely needs to. And besides, if my guess is right, Smoky hasn't let anyone in on this little secret. If Krycek doesn't know Vanek is here, it doesn't tell him anything. Besides"--he shrugged--"we've got Diana snooping around and maybe Vanek herself suspicious of me. We may have to move out of here pretty quickly anyway."

Scully frowned.  She rubbed absently at a spot on her shorts. Eventually she sighed and nodded. "Being somewhere I could actually walk out in the sun without fear of being seen doesn't sound like such a bad thing, as far as that goes."

"Besides, Krycek seemed to be pretty chummy with the people running the vaccine program in Tunguska. I think it's more than just a stab in the dark that he could know something about her."

Mulder pulled the laptop toward him and typed.

To: topaz@rift.net
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Looking for some information. Came across a name I'd like to know more about--Dr. Maria Vanek. What can you tell me about her?

He hit 'send' and looked over his shoulder. "Let's see what kind of response we get. What?"

"I just--" She got up off the edge of the bed. "It just struck me today that everything I have here--my life, such as it is--will fit into that one green bag. Though if we do have to do, I'll be leaving so much behind: Sandy, the people we've met here who have helped us." She came up behind his chair. "Have you ever stopped to think how over the years we've devolved into this... insular existence, both of us: investigations, research, more investigations. What kind of true community have we been attached to? But here we've had Sandy, Rita, Dale... Adrie and Bethy. Even David for all his nervous desperation, and Heather."

Mulder reached for her hand. "It's been a good thing, Scully--a good thing for you. It's been good for both of us."
 

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Haven't heard that name in quite a while. Actually she used to go by her husband's name--Ivanov (that would be Ivanova for her.) The name you have is her parents' name. I heard that her split with her husband was the reason she left the research over there, though that could just be a cover-up they floated. Her parents got too close to a gestating specimen; that was what pushed her from genetics to vaccine research. Single-minded (or committed, obsessed, like an alligator--take your pick) but maybe given her stake in things it makes sense. Word was she turned tail and disappeared into the woodwork of conventional science, but if you've heard the name I'm guessing she's still out there pushing her cause. Makes more sense than having her suddenly give it up over her ex.

Question for a question: Do you know of any hybrid/vaccine interest group operating out of the Los Angeles area? T exhibits some big gaps in her memory--whole portions of her life as if they'd been completely erased. She hardly remembers a move she made when she was eight, or anything before that (ditto for how she ended up pregnant.) Said her dad died just before that move, that he worked as a researcher at Cal Tech. No telltale implant, but some of the things she says track way too close to shit both of us have seen before. A lot for a kid to have to carry with her. Let me know.
 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: che774@telcom.com
The deed is done, car's reparked. A little dusting of particulates for good measure--the professional icing on the cake. The vulture lands at 2:47 p.m. tomorrow--brace yourself, my friend--but will reconfirm after the flight has left Paris-Orly. You're getting generous in your old age, comrade--what's up? But scratch that if it will make you reconsider.
 

 

 

"What do you think, Scully?"

"I--" She shook her head. "I don't see that she's lying. I think... She seems genuine, Mulder. At least from her own perception of her situation." She cleared her throat and paused. "Do you think something was actually implanted in her?" She moistened her lips. "Or that she might somehow be... like Emily?"

"I don't know. I... We've only seen them using older women as surrogates. But it could be like Krycek said, some group none of us has heard of. Like he said, it would be a lot for her to have to deal with."

"I think it's safe to say she's more than just 'a kid' to him, Mulder."

He frowned at her, quizzical.

"His heart's on his sleeve in these mails, Mulder. In his own way. Look at what she says. I admit it's hard to imagine Krycek having compassion for anyone, but--"

"Strange alliances are made under the stress of circumstances, eh?" He breathed into cupped hands, then sat up slowly. "What about you, Scully? How are you doing?"

She gave him a questioning look.

He patted the space on the bed beside him. "I mean"--he put an arm around her as she sat down--"all this talk about babies. Tracy--funny to finally have a name for her--and Sandy."

She leaned her head against his shoulder. "I'm very, very happy for Sandy, Mulder. It's such a reprieve from having lost her whole family. An unimaginable gift. She was afraid to find out for sure. Afraid it might not be true."

"Pregnant twice by nineteen."

"I know. I think about that sometimes--how many teenage girls end up pregnant when they don't want to, how easy it seems for them when--" She looked away.

"Hey." A thumb smoothed a drop of moisture from below her eye. Mulder moved farther back on the bed and settled against the pillows. "Come here, Scully."

She curled down beside him. A warm hand smoothed past the side of her face. "There's got to be a way for you, Scully. Somehow."

"Mulder, we live lives that no one should bring a child into."

"I mean someday. When the timing, the circumstances are right."

Soft lips touched her hair and his arms tightened around her. She closed her eyes and abandoned herself to the gentle in-and-out of his chest against her. In her mind she could see the scene outside the kitchen window--the descending hillside and the far ridgeline in the hazy pastels of late afternoon.

"Do we take her, Mulder? We need to write back to your mother."

"I don't know how safe we are here. If Vanek suspects me, if she's going to start asking around about her new patient. But I've got to get to the bottom of this, Scully.  I'm sure whatever she's doing is our ticket, the key to finally tripping Smoky up." He shifted slightly. "Diana--we have no idea whether Beeson's still on her to find the source of the e-mail or whether he bought Rita's letter."

"I talked to David this afternoon; he called while I was up at the house with Adrie. It's made him very nervous, this whole thing. He checked again with his parents. So far no one's contacted them. Unless Diana makes that connection, she has no way to know to look further. To look here."

A pause.

"I guess"--his chin rested against her shoulder--"I want to make sure Krycek's not pulling the wool over our eyes again. Or maybe I just don't want to believe he's capable of what it looks like he's doing here--just helping someone who helped him."

"No, caution makes sense, Mulder. We could meet them somewhere, just one of us make the contact, and evaluate what we find."

"Where? We don't even know where they are."

"If you figure Krycek had to be able to make it home from the meeting point on his own, they couldn't be very far from Washington."

"They could fly. We could meet them in Cincinnati. It's not that far and we wouldn't be giving away our location if it becomes an issue."

"You should let her know, Mulder. She'll need to make arrangements."

"Mmm. In a minute." He pulled her closer. "I'm just taking a minute. We don't take enough of them, Scully."

 

 

 

"Yeah." Krycek tucked the phone against his shoulder.

"We've gone through the surveillance tapes. She was taken out of the room at 11:30 for a bath. Or so they said."

"Who took her?"

"Two orderlies--woman and a man."

"And then she disappeared?"

"No. Well, not that we realized at the time. By 11:54 she's back in, nothing remarkable until just before we called you--two o'clock. A woman walks in--short, redhead. We thought it was our target at first but it turned out to be somebody else. Had the wrong room. Then about two minutes later the same guy who took her out before comes in fast, undoes everything--IV, the whole business--and the two of them high-tail it out of there. We lost 'em between a couple of monitors."

"Fuck. So it was someone else. A plant."

"Either that or the broad's just been lying there all week on an extended vacation. No, she took off fast. Too fast for a sick woman."

"And then?"

"We caught him again--the guy--on a downstairs monitor. Looks like they took her out as dead. But there are no cameras on the entrance the mortuaries use."

"So find out which funeral homes pick up there. Check them all." The phone started to slip. Krycek grabbed it and shifted slightly. "What about this guy. What did he look like?"

"Medium build--small side of medium. Auburn hair tied back in a pony tail. Nothing standout."

"Get a still. Have it enlarged." He looked out the narrow window. "You check with oxygen suppliers yet?"

"We're doing that now."

"What about the doctor? Did you talk to him?"

"Yeah. Well, I didn't; Bishop did. Seemed really upset. He'd already contacted the police and reported her missing."

"Good. Maybe they'll do some of our work for us."

"That's it, I guess. When's he coming back?"

"Tomorrow afternoon. We've still got time to pull this thing out if we hustle. Oh, get a still of the woman, too, and enlarge it." He paused. "You couldn't tell it was somebody else?"

"Hey, it was a sick old lady. You know--messy hair, wrinkles. Sick faces lying in a bunch of bedcovers all look pretty much the same."

"Yeah, I hear you. But you know he isn't going to  buy it so easily. Especially not with his prize gone. Keep working on it. And stay in touch."

"Will do."

The phone clicked and went off. Krycek pulled up, put it back on the charger and pushed out a breath. How familiar was this? Push hard enough to make it look good to the organization, hopefully not hard enough to expose the pieces to Mulder's plan. Play both sides and hope not to get caught, like a pedestrian between two cars.

And the stakes were higher now than they'd ever been. From here on in, Mulder and Scully's safety would be Tracy's safety, too.

He turned and glanced at the clock. 5:48. No word yet from his mother.

Four hours but it felt more like four days.

He eased himself back down against the pillows. Sunlight came through the narrow window, splashes of brightness penetrating the spaces between the leaves on the tree outside. One patch settled near his shoulder, another on his hip. He'd been drifting this morning, two states and a lifetime away, on his way out but still conscious enough to notice her hand carefully peeling the blanket back until he lay naked in the warmth of the sun coming through her window. How many nights as a kid had he fallen asleep curled tight, aching with cold? And there he'd been: stretched out, safe, loose inside a kind of lazy, penetrating warmth, touched only by the light and the reassurance of her body behind him. Absolute quiet.

Rare moment.

Rich moment, she'd say.  She made him feel that way.

 

 

 

To: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
How soon could you meet me in Cincinnati? Check your options and let me know. We talked before about ID that will allow you to move more securely. If you're in the area I think you are, I may be able to arrange for what you need to be delivered to you now. Let me know ASAP.

 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
No knowledge of any group in the area you mention. Is she missing current blocks of time or just a space in childhood.  Anything easily attributed to repressed memories, etc.?

 

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Stranger than that--she barely remembers her father or how he died, thought at first she had no siblings but said this morning she might have had a brother. Has occasional 'visions' where she taps into people at long distance. The first time it happened she was sitting near me and looked pale, like she was going to be sick. Yesterday it happened again and I found her collapsed outside in the rain. Seemed to come right out of it, acted like it was no big deal, but still. Keep an eye on her.

Have some personal information for you when this current thing has blown over. They're watching hospital security tapes now, talking to people but so far haven't hit on anything vital. Make sure your bases are covered.
 

 

Sandy pushed in the drawer of baby clothes, stood up and ran to answer the ringing doorbell.

"Figured you might like some pizza," Raylene said, a familiar flat box in her hand. "Anyway, Joe's banging around, packing. I'd just as soon not be there while he does it." She smiled--an offering. An opening.

Sandy opened the door wider and let her mother in. She went to the kitchen and found napkins and cups and got soda from the fridge.

"I guess I haven't been thinking about food much," she said, sitting down across from her mother. "But yeah, it sounds kinda good. It's been a long time."

"How are you doing, Sandy?" Raylene opened the box and held it out.

"I'm..." She shrugged. "I'm not used to this. Lord knows I don't want to be used to it, don't want to have to be, but..."

She turned away and swallowed a jerky breath that was halfway out. When she looked back her mother was staring out the window onto the hillside, absently picking at a green pepper strip on her pizza slice.

"I don't think he ever really loved me, you know? I think I was just... in love with the idea--of having a man, of being part of a couple, I guess. Not me all by my lonesome." She took a bite from the narrow tip of the slice. "What about you? Do you think Cy...?"

Sandy looked down, at the table grain, and nodded. "Yeah, I know he did. In his own way. Sometimes when they do, even then they don't really know how to show it. But yeah, he did."

Raylene shook her head and traced the ridged interior of the pizza box with a finger. She smiled slightly.

"What?"

"I saw something the other day.  Somebody who knows how to show it."

 

 

 

"I like the pink best," the little girl said with a vigorous nod of her head.

Maggie looked out at the sunset colors beyond the window. "I like them all, pink and yellow. The peach is very nice. In the hospital there were no windows, only electric lights. It makes all the colors seem more beautiful when you haven't been able to see them."

"The slaves came in ships," the girl said, big-eyed. "They had to lay down. There was no light, either. Old Rose said."

"Is that why your mother calls you New? For New Rose?"

The small head nodded, serious. "The stars will come out when the sky's dark. Do you know the drinking gourd story?"

Maggie shook her head. "I don't think so. Will you tell it to me?"

Another serious nod. Small pigtails bobbed with colorful barrettes. New set a small, dark hand on the sheets. "You have to close your eyes," she said. "So you can see the sky. It's very, very dark. Are you peeking?"

"No. My eyes are closed."

"It's nighttime and the drinking gourd is in the sky. It's stars. It looks like a cup with a long, long, long handle." A pause. "You see it up there?"

"I think so."
 

 

 

"There's a second set here," Frohike said, pulling a small envelope from his pocket and taking out several more ID cards. "Different. If you think they've caught on to you, you can switch." He spread the cards out before her like a salesman. "Right down to the library card. They should do what you need. Just keep 'em in separate places."

Teena picked up the cards and looked at the driver's license. Tracy moved a step closer and peered over her shoulder. It was important to let Frohike see her. Not to hang back. Mulder had sent the small man to deliver the fake IDs to his mother, but he was a scout, too, meant to take a good look around, to let Mulder know if the situation was what they claimed it was. It wasn't, after all, just his own safety, but Scully's at stake.

"If you need to switch," Frohike said, "send us an SOS so we can coordinate. Otherwise you should be okay."

Teena rose and offered her hand across the table. "I very much appreciate this."

"Lucky you were in the neighborhood. No sense letting the bad guys get a jump on you." He shook the hand she offered. "Give 'em both our best when you see 'em."

"I'm sure they're very grateful for your help."

Teena led the short man to the door. Tracy hung back a few steps. Frohike was trying to figure her out. He knew Alex had put himself on the line for her.  He'd guessed at his motives, but it was an ordinary guess, the default guess any man might make. He was dedicated to Mulder and Scully, though. Even though his visions of Scully were ones he'd rather have on posters he wouldn't want Mulder to find him with.

Tracy went to the dining room window and watched Frohike go down the stairs and cross the street to an old VW bus. Teena turned the door lock and glanced at her.

"I think we passed the test," Tracy said. "Mulder asked him to bring the ID but he was looking for a second opinion, too. He wants to make sure that this is safe."

"It must be difficult for you, being able to see inside people and having to reconcile that with what they present themselves to be.  I can't imagine how you'd deal with people, already knowing the things they'd never admit to."

"People's minds are full of contradictory things, the best and the worst you can imagine," Tracy said, tracing a circle on the window glass. "But it's the heart that counts. If you can find their heart, then you know who they really are. I think it was that way with Alex when I first met him. His mind was so dark, so"--she shook her head--"full of calculation, of the things he'd done and the things that have been done to him.

"You can fool your own mind," she went on.  "Convince it your motives are other than what they really are, that things mean something besides what they really mean. But your heart--it stays separate from that somehow.  It is what it is. There was something there, inside him--a spark, a little flame." She turned to look at her hostess. "I went in wanting to feed it, but I found out all it needed was a little air, a chance to grow on its own. I don't know how to explain it, even to myself sometimes, the things Alex has done and then the way he's treated me. He's given me so much."

A hand settled on her shoulder. "Apparently you've done quite a lot for him. He's told me that."

"If you have the opportunity, Mrs. Mulder, don't miss the chance to get to know him."

 

 

 

Scully pulled into the parking space and switched off the lights and the motor. Beyond the windshield a 747 sank slowly behind a terminal building, landing. Lights of distant planes winked red and green in the darkened sky. Scully leaned back against the headrest and stretched.

"What time is it, Mulder?"

He glanced at the truck's clock. "9:22. We've got at least half an hour.  If they're on time. If they're not, we've got more." He pulled his seat back up straighter and squinted out across the parking lot. "Are we doing the right thing, Scully?"

"I think we've analyzed ever angle." She sighed. "In the end all we're left with is instinct. All the indicators we've seen are positive: the mails, Krycek's apparent--though admittedly puzzling--lack of self-serving strategy. Frohike's impression. We aren't committed, though. We can walk away if it doesn't look right."

"And leave my mother hanging."

"She wouldn't willingly play the Smoking Man's pawn, Mulder. She's probably got a bit of strategy of her own up her sleeve. Still, we'll be careful. You should stay out of sight--a restaurant or some place out of the main traffic area--until I've checked it out." She leaned toward him. "How are you feeling?"

He sat up. "About the same. A little better." He turned his head quickly and winced. "Not as bad but it's still there."

Her lips pressed together. "Dr. Wykoff said he'd pressed a colleague at the lab for a favor." She smoothed one hand along the edge of the steering wheel. "At least your symptoms haven't gotten any worse. He'll leave the message with Sandy when he finds anything out. If they're able to get results tonight."

"Coffee?" he asked, offering her a styrofoam cup.

"No. I'm okay for now." Her head went back against the headrest.

They settled into silence, the only sounds the occasional click of the engine cooling and the periodic roar of aircraft landing or taking off.

Everything was coming together too fast: a solid lead after weeks of nothing but mopping and toilet cleaning, and then on the heels of it having to maneuver around Diana's search. Then the mysterious Dr. Vanek. Maybe she hadn't seen him at the computer. But then again, maybe she had. And if she was the ex-gulag scientist Krycek was describing, more likely than not she'd have her radar up for potentially suspicious intrusions into her work. He let the scene replay again: the sound of the door opening, his clumsy efforts to close the data window, the look on her face when she approached him. If only he hadn't been so messed up by the medication.

Then, like the final domino falling, the girl trying to get away from D.C. And still, amid all the fireworks, the pressing need to get to the bottom of Smoky's little project, whatever it was.

"I've got to make this connection, Scully. Whatever it is Smoky's up to with Dr. Vanek. It's got to be what we've been looking for. He's got something to hide here, something he doesn't want even his syndicate cronies to know about. He obviously hasn't told Krycek."

"Would you tell Krycek if you were Smoky?"

"No. Though you've gotta figure: if Krycek's playing this straight, he's got a lot to lose by putting himself on the line for the girl. He'll even have a vested interest in keeping Smoky from finding us if she's with us. Unless he's just throwing her at us to slow us down, to hamper us."

"Why would he do that?"

"Who knows? Who knows why Krycek does anything?" He stared out into the black of night. His hand ached, a dull pain unless he was careless and hit it against something. A plane rose suddenly from behind the terminal. He watched it lumber slowly into the sky. When it was gone he turned to glance at Scully. Her head was against the driver's side window.

"Tired?"

"Thinking," she said.

"About?"

"Airports. How far I've... both--we've both--come. How much things have changed since the last one we sat in."

"You scared the hell out of me that night, Scully.  In one sense. But it showed me you were alive, too, not Ms. Bionic Investigator who never breaks down." His lips came together, pressed forward and relaxed. "Maybe you needed that as much as I did."

She nodded at him in the dark, smiled and held out a hand. He took it and pressed it briefly against his cheek.

"And then it gets personal," he went on. "You start to wonder how far you'd go--how much you'd cut back your investigating--just to keep what you've got, not to endanger that. Would you put yourself out on a limb to save some poor guy or help bring about justice or further some cause, maybe even some favorite personal cause"--he glanced at her--"if it might meaning leaving that person you're attached to--that person you need--to go on alone? How much do you compromise your goals or cut back your reach in order to preserve the personal? Or how do you tell the difference between altruism and self-interest? Is it more altruistic to put yourself on the line for that bigger goal, that larger vision? Or were you only looking for the personal payoff, maybe looking to feel righteous? Is it selfish to put family, friends, partners above that bigger goal so they'll be there for you? Or are you doing it so you'll be there for them?" He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a sunflower seed and slipped it into his mouth.

"I think"--she cleared her throat--"that people have been grappling with those questions since the beginning of time. Soldiers, certainly."

"Navy captains?"

She nodded. "Any kind of law enforcement. Revolutionaries. Look at the founding fathers."

He slipped a second seed into his mouth and bit down.

"Even terrorists, Mulder. Even... Krycek had to be doing some of that, deciding that this girl who's taken care of him, that her life's worth more than the assurance of his security."

"Mmm." He opened his door and spit a seed onto the pavement. "What time is it, Scully?"

"9:34. We should go in and take our places. I'll wait by the gate. When I'm sure it's okay, I'll bring them to you. It's probably better if we're not seen together anyway, but I don't want you pushing yourself, Mulder. Not when you've been feeling like this."

He nodded and swung the door open.

"Mulder--"

He looked back.

"You going to be okay?"

After a pause he nodded. He reached into his pocket for another seed and stepped out into a bright pool of overhead light and the pervasive scent of jet fuel.

 

 

 

Teena stood and waited for the other passengers to clear the aisle. After a moment Tracy stood up beside her. The girl had never been on a plane before. She'd found it fascinating in the way a third-world inhabitant might, everything about the flight and the plane itself completely novel. She seemed more than ready to be on the ground now, though. A strained expression crossed her face.

"What is it, Tracy?"

"Too many voices--thoughts--like so much static." She wore a tired look.

Teena gripped the back of the seat in front of her. In her mind she could hear the harsh raspiness of Fox's voice, the bitterness. Who is my father? he'd demanded. It was an accusation, not a question. His face had matched his voice. He could have pinned her to the wall with those eyes: Bill's eyes, with all Bill's anger filling them. And then she'd deflected the question, the way she'd deflected so many others. What sort of reaction could she expect? How could she expect anything different now, knowing how harsh his experience with Alex had been? He could only see her as a traitor once again.

A hand touched her arm. "You're doing the right thing, Mrs. Mulder."

If only Fox would see it that way.
 

 

 

Mulder looked up from his menu and cup of coffee to see the girl coming through the restaurant door, not pausing to search the customers but knowing immediately where he was. She wore a yellow dress--not the one she'd worn on the stairs, though that, too, had had yellow in it, and as he recalled there'd been a yellow sweater as well. She carried the same faded backpack, though. She smiled when she saw him. He made himself smile back.

"It's been a while," he said as she approached the table.

He started to stand--a slight wash of dizziness--and offered his hand, which she shook. It was apparent now how little they'd actually talked before, how little they knew each other. He motioned for her to sit down. The backpack came off and was set on the chair between them. Mulder glanced toward the door.

"Your mom and Scully are talking," Tracy said. "I thought I'd give them some space, and a chance to catch up. I--" She looked down and traced the fork handle in front of her with a finger, then glanced up. "I want to apologize--for putting you all through this. I just... I don't think I had much time left back in Washington."

There was obviously more, but she didn't seem ready to open up.

"No, it's... You're right to worry," he said. "Respect for human life isn't one of Smoky's strong suits."

He could see it again, the impression of a thousand things passing through her mind that she couldn't or wouldn't bring herself to say.

"It's not a trap," she said finally, "though I know you'll need to see that for yourself. Alex has no stake in having the old man find you."

Her hands curled together, a gesture he'd seen her make once before on the stairs when he'd turned around, surprised to see her watching, after Diana had left. Suddenly she gripped the table and went wide-eyed.

"You okay?" He reached toward her.

She closed her eyes a moment and nodded. "I think it's just--"

"Krycek said you'd been having problems."

"It's not that. I think it's just... I'm really tired. It's been a very long, really trying day and I think I take other people's emotional burdens on myself: Alex's concern, your mother's worry about alienating or hurting you, or--" She looked down at her hands. "I talk too much. I always have. I should learn."

A waitress passed by, two oval dinner plates on one arm.

"Guess it could get awkward sometimes.  You know--knowing what other people are thinking." He remembered watching Gibson Praise. They'd never had a chance to really explore the cause of his abilities.

"You tend to take the responsibility on yourself, for saving them or making things turn out right. Do you--?" She glanced up, into him. "You do understand, don't you?"

He bit his lip and nodded.

"I don't want to be a burden," she said. "Maybe there's some way I can help you."

 

 

 

"You going to be okay, Mom?"

Mulder set his mother's bag on a chair in the row beside them and rested a hand on her shoulder.

"I believe so. I've got the identification your friend delivered. I have the laptop." She sighed. "You can't be around Leland without learning something about hiding. What about you, Fox? It seems every time I see you lately you're injured in some way." She glanced again at his bandaged hand.

"I--" He shrugged and looked toward the ticket counter. Five minutes until boarding.

"Sit," his mother said. "We have a few minutes."

She took the chair beside her bag. He sat in the one next to her.

"I think I'm onto something, finally." He leaned forward and spoke quietly. "After weeks and weeks of nothing. Garbage--literally garbage--and then something clicked that you said in a mail, about what Dad said about his greed." He bit his lip. "And I think I'm onto something, just on the verge. The pieces are almost..." He breathed into cupped hands. "If our luck holds, if I get just a little more time before everything... implodes around us. It's a small place." He turned to her. "You know the way small towns are. Nothing stays secret for very long. We're working against the clock and Scully... She's been my lifeline. I don't know how I would have made it this far on my own."

"She seems much stronger now, Fox. More grounded. I'm sure you're part of that foundation."

He nodded absently. "We've had help, too. We've had a lot of help along the way."

"I think you'll find Tracy will help you, too. She's certainly willing. And it must have taken a great deal of courage, knowing what she knows, to take on the assignment of caring for--"

Mulder's mouth tightened.  He looked away.

"I don't want to compromise your safety, Fox--yours and Dana's. But there was something in the way he asked." She sighed. "I realize I've only got a mother's intuition to guide me and mine is admittedly very, very rusty--"

"I can't figure out why the hell he'd put himself on the line like this."

"I think he's been touched deeply by her help." She paused. "Perhaps he's discovered something in himself he didn't know was there before."

Mulder's left hand--good hand--curled into a fist. He forced a bitter smile. "Great. Rogue gets religion." He stood abruptly.  "It doesn't cancel out the things he's done. His slate doesn't wipe clean."

"Nor does mine, Fox. I don't expect you to forgive me the things I've done. They are what they are and they can't be changed. But sometimes people change. They wake up to something they haven't seen or known before. I feel that's what's happened to me lately." Her hand settled on his arm. "You shouldn't forgive his actions that are wrong. But perhaps you can give him the opportunity to show what else is in him."

Mulder stared ahead.  After a moment he shrugged.

"You must follow your heart, Fox. You've given me a chance, and I know that's been difficult for you."

The PA system came on, announcing boarding for Teena's flight. She stood.

"I've felt like a child, taking baby steps. But it's meant more than I can say to have this opportunity."

Mulder nodded. His mother's arms went around him. He put an arm around her and kissed her forehead. "Be careful, Mom. Stay in touch."

"I will." She paused. "Be safe, Fox--the three of you. If there's anything at all I can do, I will. Don't hesitate to ask."

She squeezed his hand and turned to go. He watched her disappear through the boarding doors, went to the window and stared out. The scene outside was out of focus, an impressionist canvas of red, green and white lights on black. When the plane taxied away from the terminal he turned to go. Glancing carefully around him, he strode toward the exit to short term parking.

His stomach growled and the injured hand throbbed quietly. After the reaction he'd had, he hadn't wanted to take anything else for the pain--not until they knew what he'd been given. He'd survive until then. His feet moved automatically, left and right and then left again, through the cool terminal air, then through the warm, damp, fuel-scented darkness outside. He counted the rows to where the truck was. Scully was already in the driver's seat, her head against the side window. She sat up and smiled softly when she saw him approach. He'd rarely been so glad to see her.

"How did it go?" she whispered when he'd opened the door and climbed in. She put a finger to her lips and pointed through the back window to the camper shell beyond.

Mulder turned and looked. Tracy was asleep in the back, wrapped in Dale's utility blanket.

"It was okay," he said, nodding. "Pretty good." He paused.

"Still not convinced?"

"I don't know. What do you do, Scully, when your head and your gut tell you opposing stories."

 

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
Your parcel has been safely delivered. Hopefully this knowledge will be of some comfort to you. I am on my way, but please keep in touch. If you need help again I will do whatever I can. You remain in my thoughts.
                                                                                          
-M

Krycek read the mail a second time and hit 'delete'. Finger on the power button, he pushed and waited for the laptop to go to standby. Seconds later the room went dark. Easing himself back against the pillows, he looked out the narrow window.

In the Madrid apartment, lying on the couch in the dark at two in the morning, he'd been able to hear Paco and his wife whispering quietly to each other on the other side of the thin apartment wall, off in their own little world, one that didn't include the rest of humanity or anything beyond the two of them lying in that narrow bed together. It had been a mystery then: how you found someone like that, someone you'd actually want to open up to, somebody you'd be that comfortable with. Mi costilla, he'd called her: my rib, a reference to the Adam and Eve story. Now it was beginning to make sense. 

Even if he'd never live the kind of life that would make it work. 

Krycek closed his eyes and pulled the pillow closer under his head.  When the old man arrived--another 16 hours--that would be the time to tell him. He'd buy the fact that they'd been hustling, working hard to find Scully's mother and get her back, all in service of his 'greater plan'. The old man seemed to buy his own importance far too easily. Sure, he had the connections, and he probably knew more than all the stuffed shirts in the board room put together. But what was he, after all, arrayed against the Oil?

He hadn't even been able to make himself go up to the roof in spite of the fact that it would be good exercise, or a logical escape from the closed-in walls of this damned room. She'd probably be outside somewhere herself, if she could, looking up into the sky. It was like her. Stars, or the wind, or rain on her face. She squeezed meaning from such insignificant stuff.

He pulled up, slipped his feet into his shoes and stood. Fishing the key from his pocket, he locked the door behind him and started up the stairs.

 

 

 

"Dale's ready, Mulder."

"Mmm. I know." He refused to open his eyes. Even dizziness wasn't so bad this way, his arms wrapped around her, hers tight around him, every curve of her body imprinted against his.  All they needed now was to be lying down instead of standing here, but it was Dale's house and some propriety was required.

"Mulder, you're not making this easy."

"Uh-uh."  He grinned.

"Mulder, I have to go. If I could stay, if it were safe--" She stretched up; warm lips touched his chin. "You know I would. But Dale's right. There are too many eyes in this town, and now of all times we need to be careful."

He opened his eyes and looked at her.

"Besides," she went on, "Sandy may have some information for us. We need to find out what you were given."

"You're right." Reluctantly, he took his arms from around her and stepped back slightly, cupping her face with both hands, mouth finding her mouth, then her cheek, then the side of her neck. "Guess I'll have to subsist on this morning." A smile crossed his face, one she returned.

"There will be another night, Mulder."

"I know." His lips brushed her forehead. He turned her around, hand against the small of her back, and led her out into the living room and through to the back door. Dale appeared behind them.

Ready? his expression said. He gestured toward the car.

Scully nodded assent. She pressed Mulder's good hand with her own and followed Dale out to the truck.

Mulder closed the door carefully behind them and watched through the small window in the door as Dale pulled out into the silent street, Scully lying on the seat so she'd be hidden from the eyes of Owensburg's hardcore curious. It had become the immediate, vital goal of his work now, the carrot dangling in front of him: to expose Smoky and bring him down so she could walk in the sun again, drive a car or go into a restaurant or a grocery store without fear for her life.

A moment later, the street was empty. Mulder turned from the darkened door and went toward his room. He glanced at the couch but the girl wasn't there.  She'd been here a minute ago when they'd come through; he'd thought she was asleep. Curious, he made his way to to the sliding glass door and looked out into the yard. Tracy was sitting on the low wall at the edge of the patio overhang, looking up at the darkness overhead. Carefully he opened the door and stepped outside.

"Couldn't sleep?" he said, coming up behind her.

She shook her head. "You can see so many more stars here," she said. "In Washington, even up on the roof at night, you can hardly--"  She turned away and hugged herself, though the air was warm.

Mulder sat down beside her. He moistened his lips and leaned forward, elbows on knees.

"I was thinking about the stairs by the lake," she said. "The woman who came, Diana. When she left and you looked at me, I turned away. I know you wondered why.  She was so full of mixed emotions, but it would have hurt you if I'd told you the truth about her then. The time wasn't right."

He cocked his head, curious.

"She's always known about this future Alex sees. She grew up with it. He told her when she was just a girl."

"Who told her?"

"The old man. He's her father."

Mulder's eyes closed. He shook his head.

"She grew up that way, preparing. You were supposed to be part of that preparation. But when she met you--actually knew you--you gave her something she'd never known before: hope. You made her... grateful and confused. It's not that she wanted to betray you. But the shadow of the future hangs so heavily over her." She turned toward him. "She doesn't know any other way to fight it."

Mulder pursed his lips.

"I wonder now," she said after a moment, "if I've done the same to Alex, given him false hope, something that will only confuse him."

"My mom doesn't seem to think so." He cleared his throat. "In the end you've got to stay with what your gut knows to be true. Sometimes all the reasoning can just spin you around until you don't know which way you're headed. Then you've got to go back to what your gut knows, and stay with that."

Suddenly her eyes were full, brimming.

"What?"

She shook her head, smiling through the tears. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"Just... thank you."

She leaned forward and rocked slightly. He could see her shaking in the pale light of the moon.

 

 

 

"Sandy's light's on," Dale said, nodding toward the darkness beyond the truck's window.

Scully sat up from her position on the seat and looked out through the windshield. A warm glow came from Sandy's living room window.

"Want to just stop now and see if she's got your information since we're already here?" Dale said. "By the time you get up home and to the phone she could be in bed."

"Very possible. Okay. It should only take a minute."

Scully ran her fingers through her hair and straightened the shoulders of her blouse. Dale slowed and pulled off into the driveway. He eased the truck up close to the house and waited for Scully to get out. After a moment the old black lab came drowsily up to greet her. Scully offered her hand, then patted the dog's head and continued to the darkened stairs and up. She pushed the doorbell and waited. Seconds later muffled footsteps approached and the porch light came on.

The door opened to reveal Sandy's mother. A startled look of recognition spread across her face.

 

(End Chapter 17)

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