Sanctuary

by bardsmaid

Chapter 19

 

Sunday

 

Krycek sat on the edge of the bed, head in hand.  It had seemed like a dream, and at the same time it had felt as real as any time he'd ever spent with her. Like they'd had hours together and like nothing more than a moment, the way your life flashed before you when you thought you were about to die. 

He glanced at the clock: 3:17.  At least two hours had passed.  If it had been real.  But if it hadn't, why would he feel like this, as if something inside him had been gutted?

She'd been warm and happy to see him. He'd been alternately high as a kite and strangely sober, as if he were about to shatter into a million pieces.  They'd talked about nothing and everything. Stayed close.  Made promises.  Made love.  He'd fallen asleep in her arms.

She'd come because she'd sensed the day's turmoil inside him.  Which, on the one hand, had been embarrasing as hell, though it had given him the chance to apologize for not trusting her. Though she'd understood. She always understood, whether he deserved the confidence she had in him or not.  In the end--maybe that's what this heaviness was--they'd resolved not to meet that way again unless the need were dire.  They had to stay focused, each do their part.  Stay alive, and out of the old man's clutches: that in itself was a victory.  At least, it was supposed to be.

Krycek sniffed back the moisture in his nose, then got up and padded into the bathroom in the dark.  When he came out again, he drifted to the narrow window at the foot of the bed.  Pushing out a sharp breath, he rubbed his thumb across the glass.   

 

 

Mulder's hand probed the mattress beside him. The sheets were cold. The pillow was... pushed all the way up to the wall. He opened one eye.

No Scully.

Morning.

It was--he blinked--barely light, just a thin grayness rising, taking over the darker sky.

There: she was sitting on the edge of the bed, covers pulled around her waist, facing the kitchen. The contours of her back were barely visible in the dimness. Only the curves stood out, like the curves of a violin, a perfect work of craftsmanship narrowing in the middle and then spreading again, a smooth, gentle arc.

He reached out and settled a hand against the side of her waist. She turned around, startled.

"Mulder, did I wake you?"

"No. I mean... I reached over and your place was empty. So I guess, yeah, it woke me up." He paused. "Just up early?"

"Up early. Couldn't sleep any longer." She shrugged. "One and the same, I think."

"Nervous?"

A pause and she nodded.

"Want company?"

A smile crossed her face. He pulled up and scooted himself to the edge of the bed to join her.

"Thinking?" He drew the blanket up closer around them.

She nodded. She was cool up against his side.

"Mulder, Tracy said something to me yesterday... about how your whole life can change in just a moment. I got up yesterday worrying about my mother, about how she was doing and how long it's been since I've seen her, how impossibly long it could still be, and now..." She smiled slightly. "Here it is, this opportunity laid right in my lap and yet--"

"What?"

She raised her eyebrows. "I don't think I've ever felt this kind of trepidation before. In a way, you never... you go into an operation, an assignment, not really knowing what it will bring in terms of risk, or danger. This could be nothing, it could be just"--her hands went up--"a parcel delivery, if it's what it appears to be. Land, unload, make a side trip."

Nothing more. She seemed to sag slightly. The light outside was gradually becoming brighter, more colored.

"I think," she said finally, "that I haven't really realized what there was to lose until now.  Maybe there wasn't this much to lose before.  And how do you decide what's an acceptable risk? What move do I not make, what lead do I not follow, what... fork in the road do I forego exploring to assure that I'll be able to sit here like this another morning--here with you?"

"Scully, you don't need to let it all hinge on me."

"But that's just the thing, Mulder. I do want to be here. I need that. For myself. But when does your desired level of protection overtake your ability to go out there and make a difference?"

"The hypothetical greater good versus the concrete personal good?"

She nodded. "Or is it just a sign of getting olde? Pulling in, protecting yourself?"

"I think, Scully"--he rested his injured hand carefully on her shoulder--"that if you were truly just pulling in, just trying to protect yourself... then you wouldn't be sitting here now trying to deal with it. It wouldn't be an issue for you." He brushed her temple with his lips. "You up for a walk? Might be a good thing, you know--get beyond these four walls." 

She looked up at him and smiled. He stood and stretched.

"Mulder, thank you."

"For what?"

"For taking me seriously. For not giving me a predigested answer or trying to... to lay the truth on me."

He smiled slightly and offered her a hand up.


 

 

Maria dropped the rose clippings into the basket beside her and turned back to the thorny bush. It had become overgrown and now the price would have to be paid in severe pruning to keep it from becoming leggy and unattractive. The long-term was usually that way--a sacrifice now, a bit of pain accepted in the interest of a better end result. She took hold of an errant branch with a gloved hand and cut into it low, only inches from the ground.

"Maria?"

She jumped and gasped.

"Brian, I didn't hear--"

"You okay?"

There was a sharp stinging on her forearm. She looked down to see a growing bead of bright red that swelled over the spot and began to run.

"I'm... I think so. I just wasn't ready for anyone, I guess. I didn't hear you coming." She set down the shears she'd been using and pulled the glove from her hand.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to--"

"It's not your fault, Brian. I jumped."

He was turning her around by the shoulder, leading her toward the house. "What are you doing out here so early? It's not even seven o'clock."

"Well, I went to bed so early last night, I couldn't sleep any longer." She paused. He opened the door for her and they went into the kitchen. "No, that's not entirely it, either. I've been promising you I'd get your roses trimmed and I meant to do it. In the night I woke up and remembered I'd left an experiment going in my office. I was supposed to check it after 36 hours and it completely slipped my mind. I'm going to have to go back early."

He turned on the faucet and she held her arm under the running water. Streaks of red spilled off and ran down the drain, lessening as the cold water worked its effect on the wound.

"How is it?" his said. He came up behind her and set a bandage on the counter.

"It's fine.  It's alright." She patted her arm dry and applied the bandage, pressing the flaps carefully to make them stick. He remained close, watching. Concerned.

"What's been bothering you, Maria? You've seemed so preoccupied."

She turned to him, slipped a finger through the space between two buttons on his shirt and rested her head against his chest. After a moment his arms slipped around her waist.

"Okay, I don't have to know. It's okay. But you're a very, very mysterious woman, you know that?"

"I know, Brian. I'm very aware. I'm not sure it's entirely a good thing, either."

 

 

 

Spender punched in the phone number, eased himself back in his chair and brought the Morley to his lips. Inhaling, he paused and let out a stream of hazy white.

"Briggs here."

"Yes." He sat forward. "What progress do we have?"

"Phone records for the Greenwich house were all local.  No calls to the sister."

"Any to 800 numbers?"

"Negative. There was one number that's an ISP dial-up, though. She called it twice yesterday."

He raised his eyebrows. Teena had gone high tech. It seemed unlike her. "And the Baltimore location?"

"Nothing for the past eight weeks and then two days ago, half a dozen calls and after that, zip."

"Calls to..."

"Another ISP number--four of 'em. One to Eastern airlines' reservations and one to Baltimore airport information."

He frowned and jabbed the half-spent Morley into the ashtray. "Did you check for reservations?"

"None showed up under her name."

"Undoubtedly she fancies she's playing some sort of game. Check the airline's records against the time she called in."

"Will do."

"And prints?"

"Four sets, sir. Hers and then three others that didn't pull up any matches."

Undoubtedly one of the other sets belonged to her sister. And there could very easily be guests.

"And at the Greenwich house..." Briggs went on.

"I don't recall requesting prints from the Greenwich house."

"Well, you got 'em, sir. Mulder and Scully--they've both been there."

The cigarette package in his hand was drawn in tightly and crushed. The far wall throbbed, out of focus. He cleared his throat and forced his voice into calmness. "Any other identifiable prints?"

"Negative, sir."

"Well, I believe you have your work cut out for you. Find her reservations. I need to know where she is. Undoubtedly there will be a fake ID involved. And the car? You found the car?"

"No, sir. But I believe we may locate it at the airport."

"Yes. Quite possibly." A pause. He patted his breast pocket and looked down at the crumpled package on the table. "While we're on the subject of fingerprints, I have two more locations for you. No hurry. When the Baltimore work has been done."

"Hold just a moment, sir. My pen seems to have run out of ink."

The old man stood, walked to the window, lifted a blind and stared out unseeing. She'd been hiding them. He'd spoken to her on the phone and she'd been hiding them all along.

On the grass below, two crows fought over a scrap of something. He let the blind go abruptly and turned back toward the desk.

After all he'd done for her.


 

 

Krycek rubbed his wet hair with a towel, then laid it aside and took a comb from the shelf.  He ran it quickly through his hair and glanced into the mirror. Different. Big difference from a week or two ago.  He was actually starting to look human again.

Stretching his neck to one side, he ran the pad of a finger over a small red mark near his collar bone.  It was a sign: proof that he hadn't just imagined her last night.  Now if only he could look at it the way she did--an unexpected gift of time together rather than an ending, the start of a long dry spell.

Turning away, he headed out into the other room.  It promised to be a long day, and whether he stayed focused on the task at hand could make the difference between keeping her hidden and giving the old man a bead on her... along with Mulder and Scully.  Or handing himself to the old man on a silver platter.

The old man seemed to be stuck on picking up the pony-tailed guy from the hospital. He'd never brought over sketches in the middle of the night before. There had been no word from him this morning--yet.  But the old man would be back to him sometime soon--probably within a few hours--with information, or to lay out a theory and see what kind of response he'd get. If only he could read the son of a bitch the way she did.

Krycek looked down at the comb still in his hand. Setting it on the edge of the bedside table, he went to the shelf above the microwave where the coin jar sat, dropped a handful of quarters into his pocket and slipped on his shoes. Just a walk, a little exercise, slow and easy.  There would be nobody to catch him now if he overdid it and relapsed, but it had been nearly a week since the last time she'd brought in a newspaper. There could be a message sitting in the personals waiting for a reply, some unexpected information or... You never knew.

His mother would be gone now, in hiding somewhere.  She didn't even know him. She'd only seen him twice, and yet she'd compromised herself to get Tracy to safety, knowing well enough what the old man was like, what kind of danger she'd be in if he found her out. Obviously, it wasn't just Tracy she'd done it for.

He glanced up at the ceiling, closed his eyes briefly, then went to the door and let himself out.


 

 

Maria blinked at the stubborn wetness in the corner of her eye and refocused on the road. It was a ridiculous thought. Yes, there was the revolver, but she was no assassin; she couldn't even make it five minutes from Brian's without her eyes tearing up and threatening to endanger her view of the road. But something would have to be done--and quickly--about Fox Mulder.  Taking no action would mean committing to flight yet again, as if she were no more than an itinerant gypsy. Years more in some town or compound, having to trade pleasantries, put on a persona, build trust.

If she moved, it was unlikely there'd be another Brian, either. It had been comfortable to accept his affection in much the way she'd accepted her parents', the spotlight on precocious little Maria, everyone charmed. He'd been her rock more than he knew, her stability, the background against which her life was played out.

But then that was exactly the situation: He didn't know. Not from her, anyway. He thought he knew her, but it was his own conception of her he was in love with. He poured his all into the relationship while she merely added her overflow after the pitcher of her work had been filled. It was the same thing that had led to the disastrous evening in Kraznoyarsk, two parties intent only on how they could profit.

A fleeting thought tripped the rhythm inside her.  Suddenly, she smiled.

Now here was an entirely new possibility, one that would never have come to mind if she hadn't been luxuriating in her own misery. He had no more trust in Spender than she did, and he was certainly capable. This annoyance, Mulder, could be out of her way and the work could continue, Brian on the weekends, no need to move, to delay, to re-establish. If only he were still alive and she could locate him quickly enough.

Maria pressed harder on the accelerator and looked ahead, toward Owensburg.


 

 

Slowly Tracy opened her eyes to take in filtered morning light, but quickly closed them again, patching together an image of Alex from the dissolving remnant of the dream.  For a brief moment he smiled at her, his hand extended. She took it in her mind, felt the grip firm against hers and let go.

Opening her eyes, she sat up.  Morning.  And reality, even if not the one she'd choose.  She glanced around Heather's barely familiar spare room. Beyond the large window tall trees spread a kind of leafy green tranquility.  It was the perfect setting. She slipped her legs over the side of the bed and paused. An odd feeling passed through her, of something being set in motion that couldn't quite be touched, or defined. She waited a moment but nothing more came.

In any event, there was work to be done. There must be something, somehow, that she could do for Mulder. Scully was flying to Baltimore, accompanying the mysterious boxes, and he'd be worried at the very least. And Sandy, ready giver of herself... There had to be a way to offer some comfort or compensation for her pain. At the moment what it might be was a mystery, but with thought, with a little focus...

If only she could still her inner turmoil and listen, the answer would come.

She climbed off the bed and moved the pillows, beginning to smooth the sheets back into place. A light sound--maybe knocking, maybe Adrie--came from the direction of the door. Turning, she caught sight of her mother in the shadows, transparent, watching.

Be strong, she mouthed. A blink and she was gone.


 

 

The old man set his Morley on the edge of the ashtray and reached for the ringing phone.

"Yes?"

"Briggs here. We found the white Toyota in long term parking. I've got somebody dusting it as we speak." Noise came from the background, the roar of jet engines.

"And reservations? Have you found anything?"

"A dozen reservations were made within a window of her dialing time and five minutes after."

"Yes?"

"Eight were men. One of the women was in a party of four, one was in a wheelchair."

"A wheelchair would be too noticeable, too easy to remember."

"That leaves a single flight to Boston at 4:50.  And the other one was..." He spoke louder, fighting background noise. "Two women on a flight to Cincinnati in the early evening--relatives probably, same last name."

"And the name on the Boston flight?"

"Nancy Valens."

"Check it out." A pause. He reached for the Morley. "And look into the one in the wheelchair, too. Where was that one going?"

"Florida. Miami. Name was... lemme see... Templeton. Ruth."

He grunted and forced the smoke out into the space in front of him. "Check into it. And contact me as soon as you have anything on those prints."

"Will do."

Spender hung up, set the phone on the table and glanced at his watch. 8:11. It was early yet. It was a start, what they had, and Teena couldn't hide forever.
 

 

 

Pausing in front of the news rack, Krycek dug two quarters from his pocket and dropped them into the slot. A clunk and the door to the box was released. He pulled it open, steadied the door with the prosthesis, reached quickly inside and removed a paper.  Sunday papers were a pain with all their inserts, heavy enough to slip away from a single working hand and land everywhere. 

Carefully he laid the paper on top of the vending machine and worked out the classifieds. Tucking the section of newspaper between his dead arm and body, he turned to go but halted mid-stride, his eye caught by a poster stapled to a power pole near the alley. Tracy's picture was on it. He went closer. Reward for information... disappeared... beloved daughter... in need of regular medication for a chronic condition. His fist curled tight. He fought the urge to punch the pole.

In the picture, Tracy was sitting on a park bench. It must have been when he was watching her, before he'd recruited her to help out; she was wearing the old dress, the one she'd collapsed in. His jaw set. How many pictures did the old man have of her? Did he have someone watching whenever she went out to go to the pharmacy or the grocery store? She'd walked down to pick up the car twice. Would he know that, too?

Maybe the old man knew the truth. Maybe he was just stringing himself up with the story he'd fed the old man about her disappearance. He swallowed.

Well, he'd be dropping by soon enough. If he wasn't buying, there would be signs, indicators.

"You know her?" The voice was foreign, a woman's voice.

Krycek turned in the direction of the voice, which came from an alley.

"The girl on the sign. You know her?" The woman's mouth stretched carefully around the words; she pronounced 'her' like 'here'. A broom was in her hand. She had black hair and Mayan features. She'd come out of a shop's back door.

He shrugged.

"She shop here. Twice she buy dresses from me. Very nice. Nice girl." She paused. "You know her?"

"Seen her around a couple of times."

"Since this?"

She came up to the poster and pointed a brown finger at the date--Thursday, the day they'd been at her place. The one day they'd had to themselves. He tightened and shook his head no.

"If you see her..." The woman had moved to the shop's front door now and was headed inside. "Come, I show you what she wears. If you see her, you will know."

He followed the woman through the doorway. She went to a rack in a corner and pushed back several long dresses.

"Like this. She have one like this--white, and another"--she moved several more--"this yellow. I hope"--she looked down slightly--"that she returns. Ojalá."

She pushed the dresses back together and went toward the counter. Krycek turned and followed her.

"I'll let you know"--he cleared his throat--"you know, if I see her around."

The woman had slid open the back of a display case and was reaching toward a card that held a pair of earrings. No, a single earring. She brought it out and looked up.

"She like this," she said, thoughtful.  "She is a very careful shopper, but twice she looks at this a long time." Her hands came up. "I don' know what happens to the other but there is only one."

It was silver, a tiny silver stud with a braided design around the outside and a little piece of turquoise set into it.

"I should have just give it to her. The things you don' think of at the time."

Krycek set down the classifieds and picked the card off the counter. It was something she'd like, small and unobtrusive but nice.

"How much you want for it?"

The woman hesitated a moment, surprised. "But there is no mate."

"Doesn't matter."

She looked down at the earring and back up at him. "Five dollars?"

He reached into his pocket and fished around inside. "Hadn't planned on buying anything..." Back pocket--there were a couple of bills in there. Reaching in, he came up with a five. He pushed it across the counter, put the small card with the earring into his pocket and picked up his paper.

"Hope she shows up," he said, turning and starting toward the door.

"Yes. I will be praying for her."

Stepping out into the bright haze of morning, Krycek started toward home, his eyes drawn to the poster beside the alley as he passed. There was another one across the street; he could see it now in the front window of the insurance agency. A third was posted on a glass door leading to an upstairs apartment. He swallowed. The old man was dead serious about finding her. Like the nurse, the one he'd mentioned last night; they could be tailing the woman already, one of his goons lying in wait for her. Or the brake lines on her car could be clipped, or--

Nah. He needed the information. He'd want to grill her first, wring her dry before he threw her away.

Another poster, this time on a lamp post. Tracy looked out from it unsuspecting. He'd expected the old man to try and track her, but there'd been no way to tell he'd bear down this hard. He still had Mulder's crew to pin down, and he wouldn't be letting up on Mulder himself; he had to be doing something to try to find him. But still he'd taken the time to plaster the neighborhood with posters and send his goons out asking questions about a poor girl who'd only done what she could to help one of his hired hands, and now there were posters everywhere, like signs for a lost show dog.

Krycek spit on the sidewalk and moved on. If he tipped Mulder about the danger to the nurse it would be one more thing pointing at him. The old man might have gotten to her already, anyway. Though if she talked, the old man might find himself one step closer to Mulder, which meant--

He stopped short. A poster at his feet, Tracy's head bobbing free from her body where the paper had been torn through the middle of the picture.

His jaw set. What he wouldn't give for two good two hands he could use to wring the old fucker's neck. He paused, willing his anger away. A low-grade tension seeped in to take its place.  Krycek refocused on his building.

Only three doors down.

Go.


 

 

"What do you think, Mulder?"

Scully studied herself in the mirror: soft, short-sleeved blouse in oversize pale blue and white checks belted at the waist and a pair of brand new dark jeans, boots below them. She glanced behind her. Mulder was sitting on the edge of the bed, distracted. Tracy and Bethy occupied the steps just outside the screen door, talking quietly while Adrie scoured the path beyond them for sticks and other building materials.

"Mulder?"

"Huh?" He turned now.

"Sandy's wardrobe choice?"

"Yeah, I think... it's just what you need. Makes you look like a local girl going on her first flight to the big city." His eyebrows waggled momentarily but he quickly sobered.

"I asked her to find something that would fit in.  And above all something that wouldn't look 'me'."

She paused. His gaze had drifted toward the door again. He turned back now that her voice had stopped.

"Sorry, I--" He bit his lip. "Sorry. Good thing we weren't like this when we first started working together." He stood up and came toward her. "I would have been worrying about you on every assignment."

"Sandy," she said, keying off his unspoken question about where the conversation had been dropped.

"Yeah, she... She always thinks I'm just joking when I say anything about working for the Bureau but she's good. She's got good sense and she's got drive. A lot of potential there." He paused, refocusing on her. "You look good, FBI woman. A pair of shades--"

"I've got those. And the wig." She pointed to a bag on the desk. And her weapon, something that didn't need mentioning, judging from the mood he seemed to be in.

"I'll get on the Net after I get the girls back into town," he said. "See if I can dig up anything more on our friendly local plant physician." He looked down at his bandaged hand.

"I know you'd prefer to have been part of this assignment, Mulder." She pursed her lips. "But if not for this incident with your hand--and the sodium oxybate--you might never have felt the urgency to question Krycek about her. We might have known a lot less about her than we do."

He paused a moment, mouth half open, poised to speak. "I guess--I know--that you're beyond capable, Scully. I just... It's like you said this morning. It's harder now, watching you go out there."

"And"--she smiled and put a hand on his arm--"though a moment to ourselves might be nice, we"--she nodded toward the door--"seem to have inherited children. Not that that's entirely a bad thing."

"It isn't, is it? It's easy to get to where you forget that whole part of the world exists." He brushed a kiss against her forehead. "Anyway, have a good visit with your mom." A pause. "Sure hope those boxes give us something to work with. And thank the Gunmen for watching our backs."

"I will."

"Come back in one piece."

"I will, Mulder. I'll e-mail you from my mother's."

"Good." He looked up at the ceiling and closed his eyes. "Scully, have our lives always been this crazy?"

"Six years now."

He bit his lip and nodded. "That's what I thought."


 

 

It was a farfetched idea to begin with, perhaps only the product of desperation combined with wishful thinking. He could be anywhere. He could be halfway around the world, or somehow beyond reach. Or he could be dead; danger was certainly inherent in his lifestyle. He'd always seemed coiled, ready to spring, as if the world were about to collapse in pieces around him.

Perhaps it was. Spender could have found him out in some double-dealing and done away with him. His own father. The mere thought, though, of a parent so unsupportive, so blatantly manipulative... It was the one thing that had kept her from turning away from him in amused scorn at the outset.

Maria turned from her place at the computer to consider the still-life of her office.

Best to be prepared. There were notes--files--all at home; they could be easily readied and put in the trunk of the car. But if she could find him, could locate him in time, and he were amenable...

She could call in sick for a day or two if it allowed a plan to be put into effect. As long as there was nothing here, in the computer files, that the intrepid Mr. Mulder could stumble across. He'd need evidence before he could make any move against her.

And what could she offer the son of Spender that would buy his cooperation and ensure his silence?


 

 

"The fingerprints, sir, in the vehicle..."

"Yes." He pressed the receiver to his ear.

"Four sets, sir. Hers, Mulder's, Scully's and one of the other sets that was found in the condo."

He frowned. "Yes?"

Had they been traveling together? Had they been together all along? It seemed unlike Mulder to have stayed someplace as obvious as his mother's house. And on the other hand, they hadn't discovered him until just now, either. Perhaps it was his own mistake. Perhaps he'd neglected to take his own advice and had fallen victim to the blinders of personal attachment. He'd always protected Teena--long, in fact, after there had ceased to be any strategic reason for doing so. He'd been at her bedside when she'd had the stroke in spite of the territoriality of her hopelessly idealistic son, who continued to defend her, attempting to protect her even though she gave no sign of returning his affection. Indeed, the bounty hunter had had to be convinced, at no small personal expense, to pull Teena back from the brink. She would have been gone without his help, her frantic son alone in the world.

And this was her idea of repayment.

"...do you want us to do, sir?"

He refocused on the phone and jabbed the end of a cold Morley around in the pile of ash in the ashtray. "Have you finished tracing those reservations? The passengers?"

"No, sir, we just--"

He placed a fresh cigarette between his lips. Would she have been traveling with her sister? It seemed unlikely, but avenues unexplored were possibilities thrown away, like currency tossed into a bonfire.

"Do it. Check the list of male passengers, too." He paused. "And I believe it's time to add that other flight--the one with the two women--to the list, as well."


 

 

10:08.

Krycek forced himself to look away from the numbers on the clock. It was too early to be worried about why the old man hadn't showed. There'd be plenty of time. He'd drop by soon enough.

It was too early to feel this jittery, his stomach hard and knotted. He could give himself an ulcer this way, and what good would that do?

Krycek pulled up, went to the refrigerator and opened the door. Same stuff as before--no surprise. He let the door close again and reached into his pocket, feeling for the little card. The earring was warm from being next to his body. He rubbed it lightly with his thumb. They'd given each other resources, strength; that's what she'd said in the dream, staring into the abyss of their separation. It was what she'd be sticking with, that and the hope that they could somehow manage to find each other again, if and when a safe time came.

His eyes closed. Two days ago, at about this same hour, they'd been lying warm and drowsy in the thick silence of her room, hidden away, not a soul aware of where they were. Like match flame, the good things in life sparked in a moment and disappeared just as quickly.  Or maybe they just did in his life.  Paco had his wife and daughter.  Mulder had Scully.

His hand tightened and squeezed hard; he forced himself to loosen. Eyes open, head on straight. If you floundered, you lost; it was inevitable. You went down, and the people you were protecting went down with you.

The old man's focus on catching the guy from the hospital was a help, at least. A card to play: encourage his focus there, keep it off Tracy's disappearance. Or his own possible involvement. And in the meantime, scan those personals. Get Ché to put feelers out, see if he could dig up anything about this Pasadena lab. He should write to Tolya, too.  It was time to move. The planet was always spinning; loosen your grip and you were liable to get thrown off, spun away into the blackness.

Krycek's stomach growled. He opened the refrigerator door again and reached in for the leftover Chinese.

The hospital nurse: likely she was somebody with a family and a whole string of extended relatives depending on her. How far would the old man press her?


 

 

Tracy stepped up into the trailer and closed the screen door behind her. Mulder turned from the computer.

"You two ready to go?" he said.

She shook her head. "Adrie just took Bethy to see his bridge by the creek. But I can go get her if you want."

"No, I..." He looked out the window above the bed, lifted his bandaged hand as if to run it back through his hair and stopped. He shook his head. "Just trying to switch gears, I guess. This"--he looked at the hand--"doesn't help much."

"It was strange for me at first, watching Alex do things. It takes so much patience to snap a snap, or open a milk carton, or write a note one-handed. The paper keeps wanting to scoot away from you."

"So I'm finding."

Pausing, he pursed his lips. The room fell into silence. In a tree outside the window, a jay squawked repeatedly, stopped and then could be heard again, farther away.  Mulder glanced back at the computer screen.

"It's a strength, not a weakness," she said finally.

He looked up at her.

"What you have--you and Scully. When it's personal you worry about someone in a way you never have before. The old man's spent a lifetime drilling into Alex that caring for anyone is a liability, just a handle for other people to use to manipulate you."

"Does a damn good job of it, too. Smoky," he added. "Manipulating people."

She sat down on the corner of the bed. "I know. But I was thinking about that last night. Who's to say that caring about someone who's taught you a lot, who's stood up for you, who you've shared something special with... that it has to turn into a weakness when you're apart? You still have what they've given you. It doesn't just disappear when they're out of your sight."

He turned toward her and leaned forward, elbows on knees. Finally he smiled slightly. "Scully's taught me... to test my hypotheses, and not to run off after every possibility that's waved at me without thinking it through first."

"I tend to go with what comes to me," Tracy said. "Maybe a little bit like what you do. Intuition. Alex has taught me to plan ahead." She smiled briefly. "At least, he's tried. I see the importance of it now, though it's still not easy to do."

He was watching her hands, the way they squeezed together and then loosened.

"You okay?" he said. "You've seemed a little... edgy this morning."

She looked down at her lap and swallowed. "I guess it's one of those things that comes to me, only I don't always know what to trust of what I see. And--" She looked away. One hand pressed against the other.

"You saw something?" He waited. "You mean another vision?"

"I'd think it was just wishful thinking. But it happened a few days ago, too."

"What did?"

"I saw my mother--a vision of my mother. Have you ever seen your sister that way?"

"Once, but I think someone was manipulating my desire to see her. To find her." His lower lip edged forward; his jaw set and he went on. "What do you mean, that you saw her?"

"She was standing on the stairs--in the building where Alex lives. She was... kind of transparent, and she was just watching me, just for a moment. And then she was gone. It was five days ago or so. And then this morning, just after I woke up, I was making the bed and I heard a noise near the door. And I turned around and she was there again."

"And she just vanished again?"

She nodded. "I'd think that it was... you know, me, just something going on inside me, except that--"

He waited for her to go on.

"Alex saw her, too, that first time. Not when I did. But the same day. He was up on the roof; there's this patio on the roof of his building. It was early morning, and he saw her just for a moment, like I did. Before I did, in fact."

Mulder scowled and finally shrugged. It was natural for her to see things, possibly things that other people would never see, but Krycek was a less than likely candidate for visions. "I don't know. You have no idea what it means?"

"No. I feel like... like something's about to happen, but I don't know if it's something to do with you and Scully, or Alex, or..." Her hands tightened again. She looked up suddenly. "I just remembered something. The man who's going to drive Scully to her mother?"

"Yeah?"

"The old man's looking for him. He brought Alex sketches last night, different ways he might look. You know, long hair, short hair. Different colors."

"Wait, how do you know this?"

"Sometimes I can... travel into people's heads. Or I find myself someplace with them.  Not necessarily where they are physically, but somewhere both of us are, where we can communicate. That's what happened with Skinner the first time. I didn't know who he was; the old man hadn't even taken me to Alex yet, but I fell asleep one afternoon and I was there with Skinner, in a dream. He was trying to figure out what he could have done differently in the war--the time when Dale Lanier saved him and lost his arm. Then a couple of days later I went to take a message to him for Alex and he knew me right away; we both recognized each other." She paused.

"I've gone to Alex that way. I did last night." Warmth flooded her at the memory. "I just needed to know that he was okay." She looked down a moment. "Anyway, I can see it inside him--you know, what he's seen or heard, things he's still tossing around in his mind. The old man came over and woke him up wanting to know if he'd ever seen the man who helped Scully's mother escape."

"Byers. John Byers," Mulder said quietly. He paused. "What did he say?"

"Alex didn't know him. But he was thinking how determined the old man seemed to find him. To catch you, I guess. To pay you back for winning that move--the one with Scully's mother. It's like a chess game to the old man. I think maybe Scully--"

"...would be safer traveling with someone else." He sat up straighter suddenly and turned toward the computer.

"Yes. In case the old man's been able to trace him."

"Well, keep your fingers crossed, because if he finds Byers, he's found three people, not just one."

Mulder reached for the mouse to click on the mail program at the bottom of the screen. A pause, a grimace, a redirect. Mouse in the left hand, finger awkward over the button. A click and the mail screen came up. Tracy watched him slowly peck out the message with a single finger, hesitating between one side of the keyboard and the other.

Given a little time, Mulder would heal. He'd type, and open milk cartons without ever thinking twice, and never have to drop the receiver at a pay phone to put his money in the slot.

Footsteps sounded on the path beyond the trailer door. Soon Bethy's round face appeared against the screen, her cheeks rosy from exertion against the paleness of her skin. Tracy smiled in spite of herself.

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
He's on the lookout for a nurse who helped you out. Make sure she's out of reach.

 

"First flight, eh?"

Scully smiled and yelled a 'yes' over the roar of the small plane. "I never had reason to fly before, but some cousins are meeting me. We're going to go see the sights in Washington. Lucky Dale found you. I appreciate the discount."

The pilot shrugged and looked ahead. "No biggie. It can be addictive, you know? First time I went up I was hooked. Been bumming around airports ever since, anything I can do to buy fuel and stay up in the air."

Scully nodded. There was hardly a point in continuing the conversation above the drone of the engines and Keith was busy watching his gauges. She turned to look out the window. It had been years since she'd been on a plane this small. Five years, actually, since that bumpy flight to Puerto Rico to chase Mulder down at the Arecibo observatory. The memory came back now: the turbulence, the rough landing, the ascent to the top of the mountain in the heat and the way he'd spoken, wild-eyed, about what he'd discovered. The way he'd looked when she found him, sweaty and unconscious, on the floor. For a second she'd feared the worst.

And if she hadn't gone? Would he have found a way to escape the death squad they'd sent after him? She could have spent the intervening years doing autopsies and teaching. Or conducting by-the-book investigations, producing perfect, commendable reports. There could have been a condo and a relatively conventional life and a relatively conventional relationship with a man who crunched numbers or shaped corporate strategy or who played a violin. The boyish man who sat on the floor of an Oregon motel room in the dark, pouring out the self he withheld from the rest of the scoffing world, might have been forgotten--the partner who stepped eagerly forward to engage her in intellectual sparring, yet wore his heart unprotected on his sleeve.

Not likely that she would have forgotten him. He'd been a jarring, vital, brightly-colored intrusion into her otherwise ordered, solemn universe, the hand always at her back to support. And now? Surely she'd slip and say something to her mother. It was almost inevitable.

But it could wait. It would have to. It was imperative now to stay on task. The Gunmen would be in place when their plane arrived, observing from an adjoining hangar. She would gather what information she could about the hangar where the boxes were deposited, cross three hangars over to a spot where Byers would pick her up, and they'd transmit the information to Langley and Frohike by cell phone. Then she and Byers would be gone, on their way to her mother. Undoubtedly he'd bring a laptop so they could send word to Mulder when the other two determined what the boxes held. Hopefully the information, whatever it turned out to be, would prove useful. In a way, it seemed ridiculous to go after the Smoking Man, like the young shepherd David volunteering to face Goliath, something even regular troops had refused to do. And yet David had won. In spite of the aura he projected, in the end Smoky had to be as mortal as anyone else.

Scully looked out the window and down onto the increasingly rolling blues and greens far below. Her weapon was in her purse, the compartment that held it halfway unzipped, a full magazine inserted. She could feel the weight and hardness of it, the tension of holding it out, braced, pointed at any one of a dozen suspects--no, at Luis Cardenal fallen near the curb, begging her not to shoot him the way he'd shot her sister, without feeling or hesitation. The overwhelming desire to pull the trigger and the knowledge that it was wrong, and then turning, a knife blade against her throat, shoving the barrel of her weapon against Krycek's gut and firing, followed by seconds that were only a blur, time passing without focus, and finally the realization that she was on top of him, the warm wetness of his blood seeping into the back of her blouse, and her overwhelming desire to be up and away from him.

"Over the border," Keith said with obvious satisfaction. "West Virginia." He gestured toward his gauges. "All indicators are go."

She nodded, made herself smile and leaned forward to look. She was a tourist, a Kentucky girl on her first flight to the nation's capitol for a holiday with family.


 

 

Krycek found himself in front of the small desk, staring out into the unfocused brightness of late morning. Third time he'd ended up here in the last ten minutes.

Run and it would be a new game, new rules. No safety. There would be no place to hide, only the assurance that the old man, and possibly the group itself, would have their packs of dogs out sniffing the ground for him, determined to make him pay for the treason of leaving them.

It was possible, of course, that the old man actually was the lynchpin of this whole thing, that leaving him would mean leaving some kind of safety net he hadn't yet identified. But old man or no old man, the fact was that he was stretched thin now with lies that could all too easily unravel, and if he stuck around long enough for that to happen, his chance to look into this new possibility would be gone. Pasadena could turn out to be nothing... or it could be critical, something that would actually make a difference in the end.  But what were the percentages?  Committing to investigating it would mean leaving everything--including any hope of safety--behind. 

Returning to the bed, he opened the laptop and tapped on the mail program.

To: che74@telcom.com
From: topaz@rift.net
May need to take another trip. Soon. Need more plates--California, Colorado--and check everything out, make sure it's ready to go if and when. Get back to me with your timetable.

How far would this still-recovering body take him?  And his chances, all things considered?  Better, probably, than sitting here waiting to be picked off.


 

 

Scully swallowed against the tension inside her and focused on passing fuel trucks and utility vehicles as the small plane taxied toward the hanger area. Her weapon was ready if necessary, though unless someone had tapped into their e-mail, the likelihood of anyone knowing she'd be coming was almost nil. There was the outside chance that the pilot had notified Smoky, but undoubtedly adding passengers to the route would be frowned upon and Keith seemed to need every penny he could get to keep his beloved plane going. He'd done everything imaginable--including joining the Air Force in the late sixties, a strategy that hadn't worked out the way he'd intended--to satisfy his penchant for flying. He wasn't likely to risk it now.

Krycek had their e-mail addresses. He could easily have found a way to have them traced. But it wasn't at all likely he'd give them to the Smoking Man if he had. He'd endanger Tracy by doing that, and the more she talked with Tracy, the more evident it became that Krycek must value her in a way she couldn't imagine Krycek valuing anyone.

She should be okay. It was nothing more than a routine package drop and the Gunmen would be waiting. Friends and allies. She braced herself against the nagging tension that refused to subside.

"They know where to pick you up?" Keith asked now. "You didn't send them off to Baltimore International, did you?"

"No. No, they... I believe they made a dry run yesterday, just to be sure."

She squinted into the hazy brightness as if searching for her relatives' vehicle. Byers would meet her three buildings north of the place where they'd park. They were beginning to pass little prefab structures already, larger versions of aluminum backyard sheds. The plane slowed. A turn to the right, two buildings down and Keith brought the plane to a halt and shut down the engines.

"This is it."

Scully glanced at her watch. "I'd assumed it would take us a little longer. My cousins won't be here for another fifteen minutes at least."

"Well, you can sit here a few minutes if you're not tired of sitting already."

"Actually, I think I'd enjoy the chance to stand up. Do you need help with anything? I'm quite capable--"

"It's okay, I've got everything under control."

Keith opened his door and let himself out. Scully opened hers, considered the distance to the ground and jumped lightly.

"Hey, I could've given you a hand there if you'd just hollered," Keith said, coming around the back of the plane.

"No, it's okay. I'm used to this." She looked up and smiled. "Though my father always maintained that my mother and I should have come with stepladders as standard equipment."

Keith smiled and walked to the hangar door, where he worked a key in a padlock. Seconds later the door slid open. He went inside and emerged almost immediately with a hand truck. Loading three of the boxes onto it, he rolled them toward the small building.

"What do they actually keep in these places?" Scully asked, following.

"Tools, spare parts. Oil. Just like your car mechanic's garage." He went through the doorway and off-loaded the boxes beside an old wooden desk.

"Looks like the shed in my backyard, only bigger," Scully said. Nobody appeared to be inside. Indeed, the interior appeared dusty, as if it were used only as a pickup and distribution point. Cobwebs covered a small window to the side of the desk. There was no apparent security system, no alarm or motion sensors.

"Well, basically it is," Keith said, setting the hand truck upright for a moment. "Except that your garden shed's a little more sheltered in your backyard. In a gale wind I've seen these babies fly. They have to be secured, or you may come to regret it later."

"I can imagine." Her voice echoed slightly.

Scully leaned against the doorway and watched Keith return to the plane for the final box. He didn't waste time but moved economically, the cargo door closed and secured before he returned to the hangar. He set the box beside the others, took an envelope from his pocket, opened a desk drawer and placed the envelope inside.

"Some people got a love of paperwork," he said as he came around the desk and started toward the door. "Not me. Guess that's why I'm working for cash."

Scully stepped outside. Keith took the key from his pocket.

"Well, thank you again very much," Scully said. "It was exciting, seeing what everything looks like from the air."

"My pleasure." He offered his hand and she shook it. "You know where you're headed now? Right straight over there"--he gestured--"toward the parking lots."

Scully thanked him and started in the direction he'd pointed out. One building, two buildings; the heels of her boots tapped on the cement. A glance behind to check for anyone watching, sideways glances toward the spaces between hangars. No one. She took a deep breath, hoping it would flush the tension from her stomach. At the third building she turned and glanced back again. Keith was absorbed in his engine compartment. Quickly she slipped across the roadway and between two hangars. The Gunmen must be watching... from wherever they were. She passed an open door. Two men looked up from their work.

At the edge of the building she paused--all clear--and crossed to the shadow of the one beyond. A glance back toward the open door she'd passed and she saw that one man was standing in the doorway. The glare made it difficult to tell if he was looking in her direction or not. Scully slid the zipper on her purse open a little farther.

Another building. She walked quickly along the shadowed side and paused at the far end to survey the surrounding area. Clear. Now to double back two. She started again, keeping to the shaded side. No cars. A turn to glance behind her: no sign of the Gunmen's old Volkswagen bus. The rhythm of her blood was quicker now, her body taut. One more building.

"Psst. Missy--"

Scully stopped short and looked across the roadway. At the edge of the building opposite stood a short woman, a scarf over her graying hair. Adrenaline surged; Scully fought the urge to run toward her. Forcing herself to cross deliberately, she took measured steps, watching the hard pavement and the approaching corner of the building. Looking up, she nodded briefly to the woman in the shadows, who pointed behind her to a white sedan. Scully went around to the passenger door, opened it and got inside. The driver's door opened and the woman entered. Both women closed their doors.

"How--?"

"It's a bit of a story," Rita said, smiling and reaching across to give her a brief hug, as much relief as greeting. "But we'd best be on our way. You have the number for John's partners in crime?"

Scully sighed her relief, nodded and took the cell phone Rita offered.

"Smooth sailing so far?" Rita said, cranking the engine and putting the car in gear.

"Yes."

"Good. I think all this surreptitious stuff is aging me entirely too fast. I'll have to regale you with my tale of running down the hospital corridor with only one of those silly gowns on. I must admit at the time I had to wonder just what on God's earth had gotten into me."

There was a chuckle from the back seat.

"Now you pipe down, Will Wilkins. You just had to lie at home and worry."

Scully turned to see Will lying on the rear seat, half-hidden beneath a blanket.

"Will--" She reached to shake the hand he offered. "We're indebted to you, Mulder and myself. I can't begin to tell you--" Something swelled to fill her throat.

"Nothing you wouldn't have done for someone else, given the circumstances. You just hang in there," Will grinned.  "You've got a mother waiting."

"Does she know I'm coming?"

Will shook his head. "Nobody's said a word. I do believe this will be better than Christmas for her."


 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: che74@telcom.com
In medias res. Doing, shall we say, an investigation of the corporate nature, but can be on assignment in a couple of hours if that fits the bill. Oh, BTW, someone out there is searching for you, someone of the female persuasion. Or perhaps you yourself might think, of the
piranha persuasion. Do you want me to raise a flag or not? Respond, respond...


 

 

"I've researched those reservations, sir."

"Good." Spender pushed the button on the armrest beside him. The window to the driver's compartment went up. "Very good. And what did you find?"

"Nobody matching Mulder's description among the men, sir. Also, none of the men were going to the same destinations as the women, except one accompanying the wheelchair flight to Miami, but we checked that out. It's not them. Woman's eighty-five and the airline had a go-round with her about flying in the first place."

"Which leaves"--he took a Morley from the package and held it between thumb and index finger--"the flight to Boston."

"We traced the credit card; it's her home address. We sent someone out to verify. She's about forty-five, sir."

He frowned, slipped the cigarette between his lips and reached into his pocket for a lighter. "Perhaps there was some delay in making the reservation. She could have been waiting on hold. Add another five minute window to your search, Mr. Briggs." He held the flame to the tip of the cigarette, watched it catch and took a drag. "And the other flight? The two women?"

"That was a strange one, sir. One got off in Cincinnati but the other went on to Salt Lake."

He took the cigarette from his mouth and leaned forward. "Odd, wouldn't you say?"

"Could be Grandma dropping off a kid, or... I dunno."

"Yes, I suppose." Cigarette came to lips. "What other information do you have?"

"Woman's name is Sarah Barnhart. Kid was... lemme see..." The crackle of papers being shuffled. "Michele Barnhart. Sounds like they're related."

"Yes, it does indeed." One older, one younger from the sound of the names. Michele indeed; certainly not common for a contemporary of Teena's. "Track the women, Briggs. Check for credit card trails--where they've gone, what they've done. Let me know as soon as you have anything."

He switched off the phone and leaned back into his seat. Undoubtedly Fox would have had something to do with his mother's circuitous plans. But no matter. He'd have Teena soon enough and once he did, Fox would come running.

 

 


Mulder padded quietly into the kitchen and filled his glass from the tap on the refrigerator door. Second time in fifteen minutes; he had nothing to do but wait for word from Scully. The Net wasn't giving up any secrets about Dr. Jekyll, the house was quiet, Tracy had fallen asleep on the couch. Maybe she hadn't slept that well last night but then it wasn't easy, moving around from place to place, camping out in someone else's living room, no spot or space to claim as your own. She seemed to be doing fairly well, considering. He glanced at his watch. Scully should be there by now. At the airport, anyway. Hopefully she'd be able to send a message soon. The computer was online; the little chime would go off when anything came in.

He took a sip of the cold water and started back toward his room. On the couch, Tracy stirred and resettled with her head buried against the cushions. Rita should be back within a week. She'd written to Dale; evidently Wilkins was coming along and should be okay soon. Bethy would go home and Tracy could have her room, though most likely little Miss Bookworm would be offering to share it in the interim. They'd dropped her off at the library on the way home from Barkers'. She'd probably come back with a whole stack of books, and some evening when he was here and not with Scully, Bethy would curl up next to him and read aloud.

Samantha'd read, but not this way. She'd had other things to occupy her, friends and climbing trees and... She'd fit in. Bethy's life had set her apart. She had friends, but there was that part of her that nobody was going to understand. Maybe that was the part she took into the world of books.

Mulder turned to glance at the computer. No mail. Soon, though. There should be something soon, just a note to let him know she'd made it okay, that the Gunmen were going through those boxes, that all his worrying was needless. He made himself move again and returned to the bedroom. Taking another drink, he set the glass down on the bedside table. What would Sandy have thought about Tracy's reaction to the haircut? She hadn't said anything but she'd be wondering. She had a hefty dose of curiosity. He tipped the blinds closed and lay down on the bed.

Soon.

Tracy'd had to do his seatbelt for him. On the way up, Dale had driven and the passenger seat had been no problem; his good hand had been on the right side. Or left, as the case happened to be. But coming back he'd gotten into the driver's seat, pulled the belt across and fumbled with the floppy latches on Dale's old seatbelts, reaching to the opposite side. He'd been getting nowhere and all of a sudden she'd reached out, just a 'here', and she'd taken and fastened it, no real focus put on him or the fact that he couldn't do it himself.

Nice technique.

Must have driven Krycek crazy at first, having her around, having to let her do for him. Now there was a scene that would be worth witnessing: Krycek forced to allow another person to see him unable, forced to accept someone's help for the most basic of things. She made it easy, though, unobtrusive. Mulder's lips curled. Krycek, one-armed and always looking over his shoulder, playing the shifting odds like a nervous stock trader watching every up and down of the ticker, buying and selling from moment to moment, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Doing it just to be able to wake up the next morning. Pathetic excuse for a life.

Yet something had made Tracy stick with him. He had to have offered her something, unlikely as it seemed. What could Krycek possibly have to give her, of all people? And if it had gotten more personal, as Scully presumed... Tracy didn't seem like the type to just let Krycek have it because he pushed. Didn't seem like the type who'd be out looking for a hookup. She didn't talk about him that way, either. Still.

One-armed. Could be some trick. Could be damned humiliating, being with someone you'd never been with before and--

No.  No desire to trade places here.

"Mulder?"

Soft footfalls approached. A hand appeared on the door frame and Tracy's face came into view, half-asleep but with a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth now. "I think you have mail coming."

He pulled up and went out to the computer. The screen was as it had been.

"No, there's nothing."

The ding of the mail chime. He looked at Tracy, balancing on the arm of the couch, one hand going back through her hair in an attempt to reintegrate herself into the world of the wakeful. She shrugged. "Just something I can feel."

He sat down and clicked on the message. It was Frohike. Scully was safely off to her mother's with Rita and Wilkins, and he was waiting for Langley to match the lock they were about to cut off the hangar door. No use drawing Smoky's fire by letting him know somebody'd been in to check out his little operation. So far, so good, and he'd mail again as soon as they'd checked out the boxes.

"Good news," he said, turning around.

She was standing in front of the sliding glass door. She turned and smiled, an attempt at looking innocent. But she knew; she already knew what was in the mail. There was no apology, but neither was there any superiority in the look she gave him. She'd turned away to give him what privacy she could.

He wagged a finger at her. "I knew a kid once who could do what you do, but I'm still not used to this."

"Nobody ever is. But I really do appreciate the fact that you keep the feeling tamped down. Makes me not feel like such a freak. You're alike that way, you and Alex. He tried so hard for so long to--"

She stopped abruptly, went to the couch, sat down. Ran her hands back through her hair and paused. "I feel like I've lived a lifetime in the last few weeks," she said finally, looking up at him, trying to paper over whatever emotion had overcome her. "And here I am sleeping through the middle of the day when I could be doing something useful."

"I think we've"--he pushed the chair back from the computer and turned toward her--"we've both lived a lifetime in the last few weeks. Except I'd already spent a week in the twilight zone before I ended up by the stairs where you found me." He shrugged. "But I guess you've got your own story there, too."

She nodded. "It seems like so long ago. So many things have changed." She rubbed her arms absently, as if she were cold. "And here we are, different people than we were. No, not different but... polished. For as hard as this is right now, I know--know--that I'm stronger than I was before. I've learned so much."

What about Krycek?  Had he learned something from his decision to hide in Scully's closet, underestimating her ability to fight back?

"It's scary sometimes, isn't it?--to shine the light on yourself, to really look at who you are, and then do something about what you see. I know it is for me. Alex has stretched a lot recently."

"Maybe it was you who stretched to meet him."

She looked up at him, clear-eyed, serious. "You can't be something you're not. You can't... bring out something that was never there to start with. It's like your mother. She buried her heart for years. And then she realized she needed to uncover it again, to let it breathe, let it reach out. But it was always there. You saw it when you were little, before she hid it away."

Mulder's mouth opened. Inside, his pulse beat a tight rhythm. He bit his lip and nodded. "He, uh... he wrote to me this morning," he said finally. "Just a note. A heads-up that Smoky's searching for the nurse who helped us get Scully's mother out of the hospital."

She was rocking slightly now, back and forth on the edge of the sofa cushion, arms wrapped around herself, staring out into the brightness of the yard.


 

 

Of the piranha persuasion.

There could only be one.

He'd last seen her on the night he met Ché, at a big party in the Czech capital eleven years earlier where the guests were high rollers and politicians, the behind-the-scenes influential and the hangers-on who'd been swept in on their coattails. Ché had been a wet-behind-the-ears kid, serious and looking for a quiet way out of the eastern bloc. Maria Ivanova had been there trying to act like she had it all together, as if she hadn't been unnerved by the stupid couple of hours they'd spent straying from business in Krasnoyarsk six months earlier. She had fangs but she tended to keep them in unless she was backed against the wall, and she'd kept herself pretty well together until he'd come up to the circle where she was talking--research, naturally--and made a couple of snide comments that had backed her into a corner. He'd been young and stupid then, maybe with a few more drinks in him than he realized. And the fangs had come out: subtle fangs, nearly invisible, but fangs all the same. She'd shredded him very casually, a fact apparently noticed by no one but Ché, who'd been standing around holding a drink to make himself look like he fit in. It'd been a fool thing to do, baiting her that way. Showed him up for having been as rattled as she'd been.

So why was she looking for him now? Wasn't going to be for sentimental reasons. Business of some sort. Either she had something she thought he'd want--for a price--or...

Not likely. What would she know about what he wanted now?  It had been years. More likely she wanted something herself, and whatever she had to offer in return would be an indicator of how badly she wanted it. The fact that she was looking for him at all might be a fair indicator in itself.

Odd that she'd be contacting him now, just days after Mulder had come up with her name. There had to be something there.

Reaching for the computer, Krycek flipped up the screen. He worked a pillow under the stump and pulled the keyboard closer.

To: che74@telcom.com
From: topaz@rift.net
I'll bite, but not directly. Have her send to you and then forward it. Thanks.


 

 

Teena turned to look at the aisle of books behind her. 'Literature' as opposed to 'fiction': a curious delineation, if one took the time to think about it. She sighed. This wasn't the time for a frivolous bestseller, glitz and romance and murder just to pass the time. Especially when the possibility of real murder--or real chases spearheaded by frighteningly real minds--were what had brought her here. Even at the beginning, when she'd first been with Leland, the dark shadow had been there. She'd rationalized it away as just her fear of Bill catching them, but it had been more than that, the subconscious realization that crossing Leland could have very unwelcome consequences.

And it had. Over a period of years he'd managed to take all of them: first her daughter, then Bill. Then Fox, through hunting him, and Alex, who'd been whisked away only seconds after his birth, the one he'd taken most definitively. Or at least had tried his best to. Had succeeded, obviously, for many years. And then the miracle: something to drive him to her, even if he'd come full of turmoil and latent anger, followed by the ricochet result: a reassessment on her part, and the end of her self-imposed estrangement from Fox.

She should write to both of them, to Alex in the hopes of softening the transition he must surely be going through, and to Fox to reassure him that she was safe, thought there wasn't much to tell. Salt Lake City had been a spur-of-the-moment choice, one she'd realized immediately was exactly what she needed, a place she'd never been or expressed any interest in visiting. It was a clean and orderly place, and the mountains were spectacular, but it didn't echo the strange reality of her life and circumstances.

And spending time sightseeing where you could be seen, spotted...

Realization of the risks had brought her to this bookstore. A few days could be spent in reading, for the most part, keeping her away from potentially prying eyes. After that, a new plan would have to be formed. One could only read for so long, and how long would this hunt go on? Weeks? Months? Fox was determined. He was quick and perceptive and passionate. But Leland was every bit as determined and completely dispassionate, and in the end which of those traits would win out? The answer that suggested itself was unsettling, to say the least.

Teena looked down at the three volumes in her arms. They would do for now. Her interest had languished from looking at so many titles, scanning so many opening pages. She moved to the checkout line and waited while the woman in front of her paid for a children's book, a girl of five or six at her side, wispy brown hair falling into big hazel eyes.

"I can help you."

Teena looked up, set her books on the counter and reached into her purse in search of her wallet. Opening it, she found only dollar bills and remembered that she'd placed the larger bills in an envelope in the back of a drawer in the hotel dresser. Quickly she reached for her new credit card and handed it to the cashier.


 

 

2:15 and still no old man. Something was wrong. Either that or he'd found a lead and was chasing it.

Krycek crossed the room to the recliner and sat down. Letting the back down, he stared at the ceiling but pulled up again almost immediately. It was no use just sitting here waiting for something to happen, for the sky to fall. He stood again and glanced at the clock by the bed. An hour until Ché would be working on the car. He pushed out a breath and went to the window.

After all these years, Maria Ivanova. What the hell could she want?


 

 

Scully peered through the sheers on the French doors leading to her mother's room. Rita and Will had gone into the sun porch to talk with Old Rose; they meant to stay out of her way but she could feel their eyes on her.  Or maybe it was their good wishes.

It was a good time to do this.

A good idea.

She was ready.

Scully moistened her lips and gripped the clear glass knob a little too tightly. Ready. The pulse throbbing through her tightened fingers echoed her heartbeat. If she turned the knob she would surely falter and then--

Just go to her, Mulder would tell her if he were here. It's not hard, Scully. It's easy.

Twisting the knob, she pushed the door open slightly. No movement came from the bed. She opened the door wider and stepped inside. The room had high ceilings and white carved moldings high and low. At the rear of the room was another set of French doors that led to a back yard. To the left, beyond the foot of the bed, was a tall window with an old fashioned, pull-down shade. The walls were a soft yellow. Beside the bed, a child's drawings were tacked to the wall, undoubtedly the work of New Rose, who had shaken her hand solemnly and refused to take her deep brown eyes from this stranger who supposedly had a prior claim on 'Mama S'.

The figure in the bed seemed so small, nearly swallowed up in the covers. Scully made herself go closer. Her mother's hair was straighter, lacking its usual wave. More salt-and-pepper than she'd realized. There was the danger of shocking her from the surprise, the possibility of...

Go on, Scully.

She moved forward and leaned down over the edge of the bed.

"Mom?"

Her mother stirred and resettled.

"Mom..."

Maggie's eyes fluttered open.


 

 

"We're in the process of checking out the reservations from that second five-minute window, sir. Nothing yet that raises a flag."

Spender waited, watching a thin stream of smoke rise off the end of the Morley and drift with the room's air currents.

"We looked a little farther into that Salt Lake flight. Trail nearly ended there, sir, no further activity on the credit card, no hotel, no restaurants or rental cars. Then about half an hour ago we checked again. Card was used at a bookstore just minutes before. Woman bought three books."

His eyebrows went up. A smile played at one corner of his mouth. "Follow up, Mr. Briggs. Search for hotel reservations. She has to be staying somewhere. Undoubtedly she'll be using the same name she used for the flight." Unless she knew someone there she could stay with. But Salt Lake didn't seem to be Teena's kind of town.

"Will do, sir."

"Keep checking into those other records. But let me know as soon as you have anything on this one."

He hung up and raised the Morley toward his lips. A length of ash fell onto the table in front of him. He frowned at it and looked up again. It could be someone else, of course. But Teena was a reader of books, a buyer of hardcover novels. What better way to pass the time, hiding out? At least, until you were caught.


 

 

It really was her, not a night dream or the addled fantasy of her overheated brain. Maggie closed her eyes and felt the soft copper-colored hair against her cheek, her daughter's breath and the way emotion shook her body. She'd opened her eyes to see Dana leaning over her, a grown woman, a smile that started of its own accord, then had to be consciously held in place as the face came closer and the confident woman turned into the vulnerable little girl she'd known from long ago.

Maggie opened her eyes and stroked the hair beside her cheek. "Dana--"

A breath caught, a shudder. Her daughter's head came up slightly and then returned to where it had been.

"Dana..."

"Mom, I'm so sorry." Her voice wavered. "I tried to tell myself it wasn't me, that it was... the risks of the job, the price of being in law enforcement, but if not for--"

"No. Dana, it was that man in the trench coat. Not you. I've talked to people, your friends. They've all told me what a wonderful job you've done, what a contribution you've made through your work. You didn't bring this on." She kissed the forehead in front of her and lifted her daughter's face carefully with both hands. Scully made herself smile and wiped at the wet trails on her cheek with the side of a finger. "Tell me how you came. Is it safe for you to be here?"

Scully eased herself up from her kneeling position and sat carefully on the edge of the bed. She sniffed and made herself smile. "As safe as any trip." She smiled again, more easily this time. "We had some evidence to track... and it took me to the Baltimore airport." A pause. "Rita and Will brought me."

"They're here?"

She nodded. "In the sun room."

"Getting a history lesson, no doubt." Maggie smiled. "Have you met New?"

Scully nodded. "She was well-mannered. But she seemed very skeptical. Evidently she's claimed you for herself." She gestured toward the drawings on the wall.

"She's been my constant companion." She paused and looked toward the wall. "Sometimes you forget how much you can learn from a child."

Scully ran a finger through a valley in the blanket. "I know. There's a little boy where I've been staying. And I have a nineteen-year-old friend who seems like a daughter sometimes. Other times I think she's the older of us."

Maggie took her hand. "How is Fox? How are you doing?"

Scully pursed her lips. "It's been"--a pause--"difficult. But we're making some progress. Mulder feels he's got a lead now, a trail to follow. Part of it was what brought me here."

Maggie waited.

"You know how I"--Scully's lips pressed together--"how I've always tried so hard to be my own person?" She swallowed. "I got to a place where I was out of my depth, and... he showed me--Mulder helped me see--how to accept help without being... taken over." She paused and looked up. "Such a simple lesson; you wonder how it can be so difficult to learn. He's been a great support, more than I can say."

She looked away, toward the porch doors. Her hand tightened briefly against Maggie's and there seemed to be a glow to her face, just the hint of a smile.

"I'm so glad, Dana, that you've had each other to depend on."


 

 

Maria smiled.  That boy Ché had known where he was. Well, he was no longer a boy; it had been years since that meeting in Prague. Eleven years to be exact.

Interesting that he had apparently kept some contact with Spender's son.  They hadn't seemed at all temperamentally matched, though there was the matter of Krycek helping the boy to escape from his problems with the local authorities.  Who knew?  Perhaps he felt a sort of continuing obligation to the man who had made it possible for him to reach America.

So. He knew where comrade Krycek was, though Krycek had chosen not to step out of the shadows and directly into her path. He could hardly be blamed. If it had been he who had come looking for her, she might have done the same. Suspicion--no, perhaps just skepticism--would have been her first reaction. But apparently he was willing to listen. Now there was the problem of what to say and how to word it.

Maria walked to the kitchen sink and looked at a piece of chicken defrosting on a small plate. It wasn't entirely certain she'd even be here to eat it by the time it was thawed. But if there was to be any chance of staying in this little outpost town, he seemed to be her only key. She gripped the sink edge briefly, went to the table and sat down at the computer.

Coherency, Maria; you're good at this. Surely you can say something coherent.

To: che74@telcom.com
From: mv623@quick.net
Please forward this as per our previous discussion:
As you are well aware, my research is my first concern. For a time I was unable to proceed with my study, and then a way was presented to me, not the one I would have chosen but a way nevertheless, and since the work demanded to be carried forward, I took it. I have come across a security leak just now that threatens my progress. Recent experience has shown me that my sponsor may not take the situation, or its resolution, nearly as seriously as I feel is demanded. I am unaware if you have any current ties to this sponsor; let's just say he is someone neither of us has ever showed a great deal of innate confidence in. I am in need of immediate resolution of my problem, a federal agent seemingly intent on discovering exactly what it is I am up to. If you were so positioned, and were able to eliminate this annoyance for me, I would be willing to share with you (personally) the results of my currently-very-promising vaccine research.  Traveling expenses are also something I can provide. I don't need to explain to you the prudence of having a hedge against the future.

Please respond as quickly as possible, as time is very much of the essence.


 

 

A knock came on Sandy's door.

"Come on..."

The door opened and a bright shaft of sunlight flooded the floor with a glare that made her squint. Then the door was closed again. When her eyes readjusted, Raylene was standing over her, looking down at where she sat on the floor, little cardboard dresser drawers around her, little clothes in and out of them.

"I, uh, didn't mean to interrupt or nothin'. Joe's getting his stuff together. I think if I stayed there any longer his eyes would of popped out and steam would be coming out his ears. Figured it was better to get myself out of the launch path." She paused, knelt down and ran a finger along the length of a blue terry sleeper. "I remember when he wore this. Cute as a button. The blue set off his eyes."

Raylene paused abruptly. "Look, punkin, I don't mean to make it hard for you, if that's what it is. I miss him, too, you know."  She sucked in a sudden, ragged breath. "God, I miss him something fierce."

Sandy bit her lip and looked away. "I don't know what I feel right now. It's all confused inside of me. It's like... I want him back so bad, and I know I'm not gonna get him. This stuff of his is... it's all I got left, so it means more than... You know, it's kinda like some famous singer's guitar. Makes me want to hoard it away. But--"

Raylene lowered herself to the carpet and sat cross-legged. She waited, and she was never one to wait.

"It's scary as hell and I want it all the same." Sandy took a deep breath and looked at her mother. "I'm gonna have somebody to use these things again. I'm pregnant. I guess it musta happened just before... you know."

Raylene's mouth opened. Nothing came out at first, though her eyes got bigger. "Lord, sugar. This is--" She turned serious. Quietly serious. "Is it what you want?"

"I don't want this baby not to have a daddy, but yeah, I want it real bad. It's almost like Cy left me a present wrapped up and put away on a shelf when he went. Like old Mrs. Fredricks. Old Mr. Fredricks--remember how he died in March? And later when she was cleaning out his drawers she found an anniversary card he'd gotten her early and signed it and everything. All ready and waiting for her." Sandy picked up a pair of booties from the pile in front of her. "I just found out two days ago. I've been feeling sick in the mornings, but I never figured... And then Annie noticed--she's a doctor--and we did one of those tests, and--" She smiled, though she knew it was a crooked smile.

"I'll back you up," Raylene said, quiet. "Not that I'm any great expert at anything, you know--look at my life. But whatever you need, you just ask, sugar."

"Thanks."

Nothing more came; the words had all run out. Sandy let out a breath that had built up. Raylene picked up Roddy's baby cap and toyed with the bill.

"I've been thinking about"--Sandy paused and looked up carefully--"going out on the road for a while. With Papa. There's places I've heard about. You know, places I'd like to see what they look like for myself.  And I know once this little one comes I'm going to be too busy for that, or for traipsing around hauling a diaper bag along with me. So I figured, you know, sometime before I get as big as a house--"

"Or before you've got to be making pit stops every half hour."

"Yeah, that too. I guess Annie and I have been talking about faraway places and it just sort of put the traveling bug in me."

"Guess they must be on the go a lot. I mean, when their job's normal. When they're not running and hiding out for their lives."

"I guess."

"Speaking of which, there's somebody new over there, you know--at Dale's." Raylene's eyebrows went up.

"I know. She's somebody else who's hiding out from"--she shrugged--"the same guy, the one everybody's running from, Mr. Thinks-He's-God. She's nice. A little bit of a strange bird. I guess I just haven't got her figured out yet. But then if I were running for my life, I might feel pretty scrambled up, too. I sure enough know what it's like to feel that way--scrambled." She stared at the piles of baby clothes in front of her and started to put them back into the drawers.

"Whatcha gonna do, punkin?"

"Think I'll go over there, to Dale's. See if I can help her get settled in a little."


 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Redwall@zipmail.com
Near as we can tell, you've got bars of beryllium in the boxes--all four the same. We took a shaving off one for analysis and they're being repacked as we speak. No visitors to interrupt us... so far. Scully said something about an envelope the pilot put in a desk drawer. We'll check that out next.

Mulder closed his eyes momentarily, then pushed back abruptly from the desk and went to the window. He stood there, jaw set, fingers stretching and then curling tightly into fists.


 

 

Tracy glanced up at the tickle of Mulder's mental static. It was the kind of frustration Alex had gone through when he'd realized that sending her to the bearing factory could have cost her her life--would have, if a blood vessel in Buzz's brain hadn't turned things in a different direction. In exchange for Scully's exposure, Mulder had hoped they would at least come up with some new bit of information to help them, but apparently there was nothing new, and had it been the right thing to do to expose her to danger and possible capture?

Turning, she started to get up off the couch but stopped.  Much as she wanted to help, this was something he needed to sort through on his own.  Besides, there was something... strange, a sensation of being separate from what was laid out around her.  It was tied to the feeling that had been slowly building inside her since she woke up, that something was about to happen, something she couldn't imagine until it would begin to unfold.

Slowly the image filtered into her head again, the one she'd seen while Alex had slept in their dream the night before: a flat plain that spread for miles, and on one side, mountains rising abruptly out of nowhere, barren and with a reddish cast. The fields were vegetable fields and she was there with field workers and other people. It was a camp where all of them were living. She had her own tent in the shadow of a mountain, with four thick palm trees spread in front of it in a line.

The scene came closer.  Now she was inside the tent, smoothing the wrinkles from a set of crisp cotton sheets decorated with sprigs of pale blue flowers. Someone had found them in an abandoned house and brought them to her when word had arrived that Alex was coming.  She'd washed the sheets and stretched them carefully over a rope line to dry. In the wind, they'd made snapping sounds like little flags.

Looking down, she saw her belly grown large with the mass of the baby, her feet and legs hidden below it.  But there was something about the image--something wrong, or out of balance.  Was it real? The future, as Alex had suggested? Or was it simply a random scene, like a picture from a magazine or the idle scenarios your mind made up when nothing else was there to occupy it? Maybe it was just her yearning for Alex that had brought it on. The pull had grown stronger, as if he'd been gone forever. As if her bones were made of iron and he were a magnet. He'd be coming in only hours, and yet...

Something strange.

Shaking her head, Tracy brought herself back to the room.  Mulder was still standing at the window, his back to her.  A slight sickness edged her stomach, residue of the dream-scene's oddness.  She should do something. Soon. Make some sort of contribution before the opportunity was gone.

A knock came on the back door.  Tracy looked up to see Sandy's face through the little panes of glass.  Before Mulder could turn, she was up and on her way to answer it.


 

 

Krycek laughed out loud.

Though there was nothing funny about it. Instead, it was the absurdity of it, the irony. Ivanova was working for the old man, prostituting herself for the sake of her research.

He shook his head and smiled grimly.

So Mulder was the fly in her ointment. Most likely that put him... where the old man had been in such a hurry to cover everything up, the town sitting at the top of his current list of favorite places: Owensburg, Kentucky.

Abruptly his grin turned to stone. A flush of sudden anger went through him.  He reached for the bean bag, throwing it hard against the opposite wall. It hit with a loud thunk, barely missing the window, and dropped beside the recliner. Pulling up, he slipped on his shoes and went quickly to the door and out, locked it, and started up the stairs, his grip hard against the handrail, climbing steadily this time, no pauses to bring one foot up to meet the other. By the time he reached the third floor landing he was panting.

He'd put bullets in the heads of a good ol' boy and a soft-haired little kid to save the pathetic old fucker's ass. Not to protect the Project or to help secure the future, but to protect what the old man figured would be his private little salvation. How typical. How completely fucking in-character. Shrug the hit off as nothing more than strategy with collateral damage; let somebody else deal with nightmare images of the boy. What the hell, have Alex do it! He's just a peasant, another ox in your stable.

Fuck.

A door creaked.  Krycek looked up to find himself still on the landing.

Move.

Turning with the curve of the railing, he started up the stairway leading to the roof, more slowly now, one foot coming up to meet the other, hand on the railing, a ghost of an absence where a familiar arm wasn't around his waist, a finger not hooked through his belt loop on the far side.

Frying pan into the fire, and why hadn't she said anything? It meant she was in the same town now as the kid's mother, probably within radar range of the woman, maybe soaking up all her emotions, her anger and grief. It was the last thing he'd want her to put her through.

He paused at the top of the stairs to catch his breath, then made his way out into the afternoon light. At the wall, he looked down over the edge to the alley below, then slammed the side of his fist against the brick surface. As if he could change any of it now.

He flexed his hand against the pain and looked up. He was a sitting duck out here. Turning, he headed for the overhanging tree, dipped his head below the branches and eased himself into one of the old metal chairs. Just for a minute, a chance to settle and gather his strength.  Clear his head. 

He pulled in a long breath, pushed it out hard and looked up into the canopy of leaves overhead.  Almost immediately the scene started to replay itself. He was approaching the car again in the dusky grove.  The twang of a country radio station spilled from the car's interior. Then he was next to the driver's door, looking at the sweat on Cyrus Miller's reddened face.

He chuffed out a breath and squeezed his good hand tight.

For nothing.

Krycek let his head drop against the rusty back of the chair. Sparkles of sunlight filtered down between the leaves and made him squint. He squeezed his eyes shut momentarily, worked to even his breathing, looked up and made himself focus on the movement of the leaves. Couldn't move backward; there was nothing to be done about it now. No good intentions would ever be enough to bring the kid back or patch up his no doubt grieving mother. 

And what the hell kind of karma was it that saddled someone like Tracy, completely innocent, with enduring the aftermath of what he'd done?

Damn the pathetic old fucker.

The noise of footsteps drifted up the stairway, coming closer.  Several seconds later two men in suits emerging from the doorway, glanced around quickly and, seeing nothing, turned and headed back down. Krycek sat motionless, fighting the sudden spike in his heart rate. Nobody came up here.

Suits. They hadn't been any casual visitors. They'd been on assignment, their movements tight, searching for something.  Or someone. 

Five minutes.  He'd give it five and head down again, careful.

But hardly prepared. Laid up these last few weeks, he hadn't even started carrying again. The Beretta was in his room, tucked between the mattress and box springs, and did he even have a loaded backup mag in case he needed it?  The last time he'd loaded any was a month ago, before he'd headed to the range in Rockville.

Krycek swiped a hand across his forehead, carrying away sweat.

Give it five.

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Redwall@zipmail.com
Boxes have been repacked as new. Your trip may have been worth it after all. The papers in the envelope Scully pointed us to are medical readouts. I could use a brush-up, but it appears we've got a chart of proteins listed as 'purity 1', 'purity 2', etc. Which rings a bell, no? Too bad JB's not here to interpret. We're going to have to check with either him or Scully before we can tell exactly what we've got. Back to you as soon as we know more.

P.S. Looked like we were about to have company, so we took the envelope and hauled ass.

 

 

Mulder pushed back from the computer and stood. Suddenly he had more energy than he knew what to do with and there was no one to tell. He glanced at his watch. 3:58. Dale and Scully wouldn't be back from Lexington for another four hours and Sandy and Tracy had gone off on foot, intending to meet Bethy on her way home from the library. He drifted to the sliding glass door, set his hand on the handle--good hand--and finally pushed it open, letting himself into the yard.

Medical readouts. Boxes in the hangar and an envelope of medical readouts in a desk drawer. The boxes a given, shipments for the consortium, and an envelope of private research results for Smoky tucked away in a drawer, the results of Vanek's ongoing work with...

It would have to be proven. Scully would have to look over Vanek's reports. Then primary evidence would have to be gathered, permissions obtained, Vanek detained, an airtight case built. A delivery path designed for the eventual presentation; that was where they'd failed before. Even with Blevins gone, there were still Consortium men hidden in the Bureau's woodwork. No matter how convincing his case, he might not be able to get a hearing there.

They could attempt to offer what they'd found to Smoky's buddies in the consortium--hope they'd do away with him for his little detour from the party line--but they weren't any more trustworthy than Smoky himself. They'd want Vanek, and her work would go on somewhere else, with other unsuspecting subjects, himself and Scully expendable the minute they'd delivered the information and were no longer of any value. Besides, their only trustworthy contact with the group had been incinerated in a car bombing eight months earlier.

Skinner wasn't a sure path, either. He'd made a deal with Krycek, and no matter how much Krycek hated Smoky, there was no counting on his help.  Krycek would do whatever was best for him at the time.

At least the data Langly and Frohike had found was a good start.  They were on the right path now.

Mulder glanced up to find himself in the far corner of the yard. He turned back toward the house. Four hours. Scully would be relieved, having seen her mom, and there would be good news for her on the investigation front. She'd have it before she ever stepped on the plane.

After all this time, finally something substantial and an end in sight.


 

 

Krycek pressed himself into the shadows beside the door to the roof patio and held his breath. No sound of the elevator running, no more footsteps. More than one set had echoed below less than a minute before, but there was nothing now. He eased himself out of the small space and peered cautiously down the stairwell. Empty. He started down carefully.

Who were the suits and what had they wanted?

Four steps to go, three, two, one. He glanced toward Tracy's door and hesitated. Something--something in there. He glanced toward the opposite end of the hallway, then approached her room, pulled the key from his pocket and worked the lock. Slipping inside, he closed the door behind him. The place was warm and stuffy. Everything was apparently where it had been before: closet door open, bread bowl on the dresser, dust beginning to...

He went closer. His heart seemed to skip a beat.  Not dust: fingerprint powder. On the edges of the mirror, the bowl, the dresser top. The bathroom doorway, the brush lying on the counter next to the sink. Back into the bedroom: bed posts, window frame. He swallowed.

He should have known the old man would be thorough. If he thought he'd find her in an alley in pieces, better to be able to know for sure. Or if he was thinking someone had gotten to her here...

His own prints were here, too--on the window ledge, probably on the bedpost. He'd held the bread bowl, though she'd washed it since then. Wouldn't seem that far off base, him being here in her room. She could have overslept, or there could have been things to tell her. Maybe this was a sign, the old man letting him know he wouldn't let anything slip by.

Or maybe he'd found something. Maybe it was his way of saying I've got your number, don't fuck with me.

Krycek swallowed again.  His pulse was racing. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

Damn good thing she wasn't here.  She was away, two states west, with Mulder.

And Mulder'd just been made. 

If Ivanova had gone to Smoky with her problem instead coming to him, the trail would have led the old man right to Tracy.

Quickly Krycek crossed the room, opened the door and let himself out. He started down the stairs, heading for the laptop waiting on his bed.


 

 

"We've located the Salt Lake City woman, sir."

Spender stood up abruptly and smiled broadly. "Have you now?"

"The name on the credit card was used at a downtown hotel. She checked in just after midnight last night. She's paid up for the next three days."

"I see. Any further use of the card?"

"No, sir. She must be spending cash."

It made sense. "Do we have any picture ID on file?"

"Nothing."

He let out a sigh and set the cigarette briefly between his lips. "Well, then I believe we'd better look more deeply into this. I'll have a picture sent to you. Leave at once." Another drag on the Morley. "And if this is indeed our target, I'd like you to accompany her back to Washington immediately. It's imperative that I have a little talk with her."

 

 


To: che74@telcom.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Toss this to the piranha for me:
Send assignment details. I need to know I won't be crossing paths with your employer in the process. I prefer to keep my business to myself.


 

 

"I guess that's what it's like with a little sister," Sandy said as they passed the hardware store. "You go to walk 'em home and..." She moved farther under the awnings lining the sidewalk to leave Tracy room in the shade.

"Her friend Rachel's been out of town for three or four days," Tracy said. "She told me this morning. It makes sense that she'd want to go with her."

"Yeah. Say, you want to stop and get some ice cream? Duncan's makes great stuff--their own recipes--and besides, it'd be nice to just sit around in that air conditioning a few minutes. We're almost there. I'll buy."

Tracy nodded. "Sounds nice. Air conditioning and ice cream both. But I have some traveling money. Let me pay."

"Well, if you want."

They passed the final two stores. Sandy opened the door and they went inside. Duncan's was small, with little forest-green wrought iron tables, and chairs with green-and white-striped seats. They chose a window table and sat down to wait.

"It's been warm around here lately," Sandy started, "but not too bad. How's it been where--?" She hesitated. "Forget I asked." She glanced toward the counter, where the only other customer was talking to the cashier, and then leaned in toward Tracy. "I'm starting to get the hang of this secret stuff," she whispered.

Tracy pulled her lingering attention from the glass surface of the table top and made herself focus on the girl across from her. "I'm still trying to get used to looking at myself this way. But you did a good job. I meant to thank you this morning."

"It's okay." Sandy shifted on her chair. "I know how hard it is when your whole world kinda takes a crazy hairpin turn on you all of a sudden."

Tracy swallowed. Luckily, a waitress approached the table and she was soon involved in deciding between a dozen flavors of ice cream. Their selections made, the two girls watched the waitress return to the counter, the tempo of their conversation disrupted.

"Do you mind my asking," Sandy said finally, "how you ended up running from Mr. High-And-Mighty? I mean, if it's not prying too much." A pause. "You're welcome to say no. It won't bother me."

Tracy stared at the little quilted squares in her napkin. This could go terribly wrong. Or it might somehow turn out to be a blessing.

"Don't feel pressured or anything," Sandy said.

"It's just... it's hard to understand. Hard for me to explain to myself, I guess, and I don't think it would make much sense to anyone else. But," she took a deep breath. "I was in Washington, and I had no money for a place to stay. A month ago. And a man came along and offered to get me a room."

"You didn't go with him, did you? That's got to be one of the oldest lines."

"He was... There was something about him. I could tell he meant what he said; it was just a feeling I got. And I was grateful. He paid for the room and went away. I had a week and a half--he'd bought me ten days of being able to sleep at night and not lay there shaking, afraid of who might find me. And water: a shower and a bathroom. When you don't have them they can be the most amazing luxuries. I could get up for the bathroom safe in the middle of the night, or I could take three showers a day if I wanted.

"And then just as the time was ending, another man came up to me in a park one day and asked if I was interested in some work for a few weeks, taking care of somebody who'd just gotten out of the hospital. And I had no place to go, so I said yes. He gave me some money in advance, and a room for the exact night when I had to be out of the other place, and he said his friend would come home from the hospital the next day."

A dish of ice cream with strawberries cascading down the sides was set in front of her. One of chocolate ice cream with fudge sauce was set before Sandy. A little fan-shaped cookie was set into the top of Sandy's creation. Tracy took her spoon and dipped carefully into the whipped cream that topped her sundae.

"I figured I had it hard sometimes," Sandy said, scooping into her ice cream, "trying to raise Roddy and keep a household together. And having to listen to my mom's report card on all of it. But I never had to go without a place to stay. What were you eating?"

"What I could find." Tracy shrugged. "I found things."

"So what happened?"

"It turned out to be Mr. High-And-Mighty--the one who asked me to do the work." She looked up at Sandy, the spoon paused in her mouth. "And my patient was... the man who'd bought me the room. He'd been shot in the side." Tracy set her spoon down carefully on the little glass plate.

"You mean, somebody who worked for him?"

No. This was beginning to feel all wrong.


 

 

Spender's son had responded.

Maria looked out into the backyard. Relief flooded her and she leaned against the window frame, letting her body relax. If this went smoothly, the clematis would reach the second large branch by next spring. She could go ahead with the trellis she'd planned. The garage would need work, a new layer of boards and paint, but those were petty concerns now.

What would she tell him? How much for his services? Would he turn on her in the end, if it were convenient or Spender were to find him out? The option was still open, to avoid all this and leave. Possibly years of research time lost.

She returned to the table and typed.

To: che74@telcom.com
From: mv623@quick.net
Forward, please:
Your target is located in a small town, Owensburg, Kentucky, east of Lexington. He's living with a supposed relative at 412 Maple Street and has been working undercover as a janitor at the Beeson-Lymon plant in the same town for the past several weeks, from what I've been able to ascertain. There is a certain level of security at the plant's main building, though not anything to speak of in the older building where he generally works. I'd suggest you carry out your activity away from the plant, however, and away from Owensburg for that matter. Our schedules would normally have us crossing paths tomorrow. How soon would you be able to undertake this project? Please respond ASAP.

P.S. An identifying photo is attached.


 

 

Scully knocked on the door's peeling paint below the number 17. Footsteps approached from the inside and the door handle turned. She pushed it open slightly and was met by Langley's yellow mane.

"Sorry about the digs," he said, opening the door wider and letting her pass. "We just needed a place to hook up and this was the closest thing."

The door was closed behind her. Frohike looked up from a laptop on the motel room's desk.

"We're submitting an expense report," he said, frowning. "We expect Mulder to reimburse us." A moment later he broke into a grin and offered a gloved hand, which Scully shook.

She looked behind her at the smudged curtains. "Well, I'm sure it's not one of the pricier rooms in town."

"Here's a copy of the papers we lifted from the desk in the hangar," Langley said, handing her five stapled-together sheets.

She flipped through them. The first three sheets were labeled A,B and C--obviously records for different patients... or subjects, in this case. Victims, if Mulder's hunch was correct.

"If we had a scanner with us we probably could have gotten some feedback on these charts from Byers," Frohike said, looking up from his screen. "What do you make of them?"

Scully looked behind her and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. She flipped to the next page.

"See," Langley said, pointing. "Purity-1, purity-2. Is that what we think it is?"

Scully frowned and scanned the chart. Her mouth became small. "Yes, it..." She cleared her throat. "This chart shows antibody titers of the three subjects. This, right here"--she pointed--"shows that the antibody against this specific protein, purity-2, is neutralizing, which indicates--"

"...that the proteins are part of a pathogen, right?"

She glanced up at Langley and nodded. "It also shows cytotoxic cell activity gradually increasing." She leaned forward. "Which indicates that the virus is being killed." A pause. "Rather quickly, too." She looked up. "At least, from the story this particular chart tells. The question is what side-effects might be produced in the subject." She flipped back to the first three pages. "These charts are anything but complete. They're very short-term... but there's very little indication of significant negative effects."

Frohike leaned back in his chair and peered at the papers. "Crazy."


 

 

Mulder turned from the computer at the sound of the door opening. Tracy came through it and shut it quietly behind her. Her cheeks were pink.

"I was hoping you'd come along," he said, standing and then nearly colliding with her as she headed across the room. He turned to watch her, curious. "Hot out there, huh?" A pause. "Something wrong?"

She continued to the couch, curled into the far end and buried her head against a cushion, facing away.

"Hey..."

She made no move to acknowledge him.

"Look, I know it's rough, not having space of your own. You know, Bethy would probably be happy to have you bunk in there with her until--"

Her back heaved once, a gulp of air sucked in. He paused, watching her, then let his breath out slowly and took a few steps toward the couch. "You need a hand or you want me to give you some space?"

Her head came up slightly. "Have you ever done something because you were hoping it would be a help to somebody, but then it backfired and made things a whole lot worse?"

He shrugged. "I pushed so hard looking for Samantha that Scully almost died because of it." His jaw set. His voice softened. "So yeah, I guess I know the territory." He sat down on the far end of the couch. "Why? What happened?"

"I..." She paused, blinked back the glazy moisture in her eyes and finally let her head fall against the cushion again. "Sandy asked me how I came to be running from the old man. And I... I told her a little bit. Just a little. Not everything. Not about you and Alex. But it was enough for her to figure out that the man I was taking care of was the one who killed her boy and husband." She sucked in a jerky breath.

Mulder leaned forward and breathed into cupped hands.

"I don't think--now I don't---that there was a way to say anything at all without making her hurt more. I didn't want to do that; she aches so much already. I thought I could say something that might help a little, but now she's--"

Silence, and the chainy slur of the cuckoo clock in the kitchen.

"Like what? Say what?"  His fingers flexed and then curled tight.

"We were downtown... having ice cream... and she just got up... All she could think about was why Alex spared me but killed her family.  Then she got up and ran." Tracy's eyes squeezed shut; tears seeped through her eyelashes. "Now I'm just this... this awful person who found a killer's blind spot when somebody else deserved it more."

Mulder's jaw set. His lower lip pushed forward. "It's a legitimate question, you know.  In the eyes of the family of anyone he's killed." He paused, watching Tracy's grip on the pillow gradually turn her fingers white. "What was it you thought would happen by telling her about this?"

"Alex has been so haunted by the little boy--"

"Roddy. He had a name. And a mother who didn't deserve to have her life gutted because of what Krycek did." He sucked in a breath. "You know, one of the things I figured out recently is that sometimes the actions we think we're taking to help others are actually a way of fighting our own pain. You have no right to try to ease Krycek's pain, or maybe the way you see him, at Sandy's expense."

Tracy pulled up. "Is that what you think I'm trying to do?" Tears streamed down her face. "Do you think I can't see her life as clearly as I can see Alex's?"

"You've spent time with him.  You've invested in him."

"Yes. I have. He's been good to me."

Mulder's hands went up in the air. "Point made."

"But it doesn't mean I agree with everything he's done.  I don't.  And it doesn't mean I wouldn't try to do whatever I could to ease Sandy's pain. It made me physically sick the first time I saw it."  She swallowed and brushed the wetness from her cheeks with the back of a hand. "But I do know that Alex would never do that again. He didn't mean to do it in the first place.  No, it doesn't bring Roddy back.  But I guess I thought it might be a little bit of comfort to her if she knew that." 

"What about her husband? Bet Krycek's not losing sleep over him."

"No." She shook her head. "To him Sandy's husband was just necessary strategy. And no, of course I don't condone that." She wiped her hand past her eyes and let out a sigh. "You're right. She wouldn't understand. How could she?"

Mulder glanced up at the ceiling, studying the little bumps in the texture there, waiting for the silence to wick the tension from the room. Finally he turned to face her.

"There's not always something you can say, or do, to make things better.  Sometimes you just have to leave it alone."  A pause. "It's not what you want to hear when you feel like you need to heal the world. But it's the way things are." He gave a helpless shrug. "But you can see, can't you, why she'd react the way she did?  Why it would be logical to put the pieces together the way she did, from her point of view?"

Tracy sniffed in a breath. She nodded.

"You know, I'm guessing she didn't mean it personally. That was her pain talking. Sandy's got a good head on her shoulders. Give her some time to settle down."

Two hummingbirds lighted on the rim of the feeder outside the window and dipped their slender beaks into the sweet liquid inside. Tracy turned to focus on them, arms between her knees like a child.

"And no, I don't expect you to have this all sorted out.  I was a mess at your age." He paused. "And I have no way, realistically, to comprehend everything you have to deal with. Everything you must be carrying." He stood up. "I'll talk with Sandy.  When it feels right."

Tracy wiped one hand across her face again. "Thanks."

Mulder went and stood in front of the picture window.  Tracy turned, put her feet down on the floor and tried to smooth the wrinkles from her dress.

"By the way, I've got news," he said, turning back to her. "Good and bad. Scully's coming in with proof in hand of what Dr. Vanek's doing at the plant. I was all ready to map out my strategy when I got a mail from... from him. Krycek. Somehow she's identified me. Evidently she and Krycek knew each other somewhere along the line and she contacted him today, asked him if he'd get rid of me for her." He shrugged. "Shows she doesn't have much confidence in Smoky, I guess. He said he was going to hold her off for a few days, give us time to get out of here." He bit his lip. "But I've got to tie this up; I can't leave here without proof or we go somewhere else and start over again, nothing but goose eggs, everything we've done here for nothing."

"She doesn't know me," Tracy said after a moment. "Maybe you could... go somewhere not far away and I could stay here and do whatever it is you need."

"If anything happened to you, Krycek would hunt me down and--" He paused. "I don't know. We'll see what Scully says. She's the rational one."

Tracy smiled a weary smile. Eventually she stood and stretched. "I really, really need a change of focus," she said. "Are you hungry? I could fix something."

He raised an eyebrow. "If you're offering. Cans are my specialty. That and year-old orange juice. You can ask Scully."

"I'll see what Dale's got. There must be something we can make."

Tracy headed for the kitchen. Mulder drifted back to the computer and found himself rereading the message on the screen.

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
You've been made. The one you inquired about the other day got your number somehow and wants me to off you so her work there can continue. I can stall for a couple of days but you'd better be ready to fly. More when I have it.


 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: che74@telcom.com
A word of caution, comrade. I'd just finished with your tinkering and had gone back across the street when I chanced to turn around and noticed two men approach your car. Handy to have binoculars with me (never leave home without 'em.) They searched the inside and left fingerprint powder everywhere. I fear the old ghost is on the warpath and suddenly I recollected that we never turned the odometer back after your last excursion. So do you want me to do it now or not? Please advise.

P.S. I left a nice hole in one of their tires to slow them down. Made it look like a good job of local vandalism. Ah, craftsmanship!

No word yet from the piranha.

Krycek's breath came in short puffs, the way it had when the pain of the wound had overwhelmed him. He groped for the bean bag, then stopped, remembering where he'd thrown it. Finally he pulled up to a sitting position.

Like a German shepherd in a junkyard, the old man was all teeth and business now. All he'd have to do was check Tracy's prints from the room against the ones in the car. They could have gone somewhere; it could be legit, a chance to give him a change of scenery, or exercise. But not for that many miles. It would tip him off for sure if they bothered to notice. If the old man kept track of his mileage, and what was the likelihood he didn't? He had pictures of Tracy from before he'd even recruited her, like a damn pervert, so why wouldn't he check the mileage?

This was it.  It was time to clear out.

Back to the critical question, then: How far would this still-healing body take him?  It would be stupid to think he could run the way he had before, after the car bomb.  It would be weeks until he was back in the game to any viable extent, and if he pushed it too much and relapsed, he could be a sitting duck, ripe for the old man's picking.

He could go farther with her.  She was in danger anyway. It would be easy enough to go through Owensburg, pick her up and take off.  She knew how to take care of him; she was good, solid help he could count on. Then there was the value of what she could pull out of thin air--warnings or useful information.  In the dream she'd said she'd rather be with him than without him no matter the danger.

But the threat could go on for years.  It would wear her down, the tension and the running and hiding and the close calls, to say nothing of what would happen if the old man's goons caught up with them, if they decided to tear one of them slowly apart in front of the other.

Krycek stood, crossed the room to the small desk, paused a minute, hand on the chair back, then turned and went to the narrow window. Arm up on the sill, head against his arm, eyes closed. The late afternoon heat seared his calf where light came through between the leaves.

Logically he shouldn't be doing this.  But staying was hardly an option now. If there was anything to this Pasadena operation, failing to investigate it would be like noticing a burning fuse and leaving it, hoping it would die before it reached the charge.  And staying here only to let the the old man catch him made no sense.

Maybe later--weeks or months, depending--they could find a meeting place, cross paths and have a few minutes, or a few hours. But how would it go when she wanted to stay with him? And what would he do when he wanted her to?


 

 

Sandy floated on her back in the water, watching the canopy of leaves pass by overhead, her body bobbing gently as it slipped slowly, slowly toward the rock dam. All around her was a sealed silence, just the muffled sloshing of water close against her cheeks and temples. Her face felt hot in spite of the water. She'd run all the way here and jumped in, clothes and all.

The man who'd killed Cy and Roddy.

Maybe not, but she hadn't denied it. She'd apologized, and that pretty much showed it to be fact. A cold-blooded killer who'd shoot someone and make it look like the poor guy had done it himself. Gram and Gramps Miller had been so thrown off they didn't even call her anymore, as if somehow they'd raised Cy to kill his own little boy. Not to mention that the whole town thought so, people turning aside in WalMart or Daily's or the post office saying ooh, there's Sandy; didn't she know about Cy? Couldn't she tell? Bet Mr. Alex the Killer never thought about things like that.

Like it would make any difference to him if he did.

He'd cared about helping Tracy, though. But then she was a girl. Maybe he'd thought he could get somewhere. Maybe he had.

No, that was hardly fair. Tracy seemed... not the type to come on to a guy. Probably not the kind to put up with him coming on to her, either.

But she'd had to be close to him, help him get out of bed or clean his dirty clothes or feed him or whatever it took. She'd of had to touch him, get close enough to feel his breath or smell him, some late-forties guy with dark curly hair graying at the temples and a pouchy gut. Not like Cy's, but there all the same, something that hung over the waistband of his pants--a sleazy slacks waistband with the tab that went way over to one side.

How could she stand to do that?

How could anyone?

Okay, she'd been on the street, scrounging for food. She hadn't said it in so many words but the meaning was there. It wasn't like she'd known who he was; it was just a job and a place to stay and she did say Mr. Thinks-He's-God had planned to kill her when he didn't need her help anymore. Maybe he had somebody watching her and she couldn't really get away once she'd found out what was going on; it was that way in the movies. And he'd helped her once before and left her alone, Mr. Husband-and-Baby-Killer who didn't make any sense. Ten days of room paid for. Why had he done it?

Sandy pulled up abruptly and touched bottom, water streaming down her forehead and face. She wiped it away and looked around her.

Now he had a name: Alex. A man who ate and slept and got shot and felt pain. A lot of pain, but he deserved every bit of it. Who deserved it more than him? He ought to know what it felt like, what he did to people.

God, it was almost like the girl had been defending him. As if he were a normal human being, with feelings and everything. Like he deserved that kind of consideration.  Though at Duncan's she'd almost made it sound like Tracy had chosen him, or like she'd gone up and begged to buy her life at Cy and Roddy's expense, like somebody pushing their way to the head of the line and bribing their way onto the last lifeboat on the Titanic.

Not that she was eager to see the girl at this point, but maybe in a week or so, when she'd had a chance to process all this, a trip to Dale's might be a good idea. Her mouth had overshot the mark again, and that part, at least, deserved to be straightened out.


 

 

Tracy carried the lettuce and mayonnaise to the refrigerator and put them away. On the bottom shelf there was half a small watermelon; it would be a good thing for later. She reached for the jar of pickles beside it, took it to the counter and laid a pickle on the cutting board. Dale must eat them whole because slicing them would be too tricky, even with his little built-in wedges to press things against. Opening a drawer, then a second, she took out a knife and cut the pickle lengthwise into thin slices. Two on her plate, two on Mulder's.

A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. It was the kind of slice Alex had found on the plate his mother had left him outside her garage door. She paused, picturing him sitting at the desk chair after she'd cut her fingers on his drinking glass, mouth small in concentration, cleaning the wound of a skittish girl he barely even knew, getting the tape and making a bandage, forcing her to focus away, on his mountain and the trees and the thin blue sky. Forcing her to make it through, to see that she could.  She'd done it just now--made it through this painful exchange with Mulder--and she hadn't run.  Alex would be proud of her.

Taking a breath, she started to hum. Twice at her mother's Alex had asked her to sing, and it had felt good. Good to be doing it for him, but also because it made her feel as if she were finally breaking through the gray curtain that had enclosed her life since her mother died.

Tracy took the plates to the table, got glasses and napkins from the cabinet and glanced back at the table. Scully and Dale would be coming later and why shouldn't it look welcoming?

Flowers. The yard was full of them and they'd easily add a nice accent to the table. She glanced at Mulder, busy at his computer calculating possible locations, distances, plans for following up the work here if they had to leave, and slipped into the yard, circling the lawn, picking coreopsis here, a stem of cosmos there, bachelor buttons in ruffled pink and blue and deep burgundy from the corner. Back inside again, she found a vase to put them in and set them in the middle of the table.

"Ready," she said when she'd washed her hands.

Mulder glanced up from the computer and set his glasses aside.

"Well, as ready as it's going to get," she added as he came in. "It's just sandwiches. I used what came to hand and anyway, it seemed silly to make hot food on a day like this."

"No complaints here. Sandwiches are fine."

He came into the kitchen and they sat down. For a while they only ate, both of them hungry. Lunch had been early and though it hadn't been that long since Duncan's, she hadn't stayed to finish her ice cream. Once Sandy had left, she'd had no appetite.

"It's good," Mulder grunted, halfway through a mouthful.

"We can thank Dale," she said. "He's the one who remembered to stock the refrigerator."

Mulder swallowed and wiped his mouth with a napkin. "Nice to hear somebody singing. I asked Scully to sing once, but I think I just embarrassed her. Anyway, it's nice, especially when it's something you have a talent for."

"Your voice is the one instrument you can carry with you wherever you go, no hands, nothing to haul, nothing to plug in or buy. There's something amazing about the power of the human voice... you know, all by itself. I heard a concert once, by a group of a capella singers in an old church. Their voices were so incredibly clear and powerful, it felt like the walls might crack from the power of the music. It gave me shivers--the good kind. It was overwhelming; the music just surrounded you and carried you away." She took another bite of her sandwich.

"Sounds like you've had lessons."

She shook her head. "My mom sang a lot at home. Really a lot. And I just... sang along; I wanted to be able to do what she did."

"Before the two of you moved?"

"I don't know. I... No, she did sing before. She was in a madrigal group in Pasadena; I do remember that. That's where the concert was. I hadn't thought about it. It was Christmas. Almost Christmas." She set her sandwich down on the plate. "We were..." She reached for the tenuous images. "We were all dressed up to go, and... my father was supposed to go with us. I can see him standing there in the doorway; he'd come home a little early. But he seemed worried. He--" She shifted on her chair.

"What?"

"I'm just... I haven't remembered any of this in so long." Her voice drifted off. The scene was becoming clearer in her mind. "Mom had been waiting to go to the concert, and we'd been singing the songs they were going to perform--old, old Christmas carols--all around the house for weeks. And he came home and he said--" She paused. "He took her into the dining room and closed the sliding doors, but there were little louvers in them and I could hear what they were saying. He told her she needed to leave, and that she should take me. Go to Nathan's, he said. Go anywhere, just get away from here before--" She closed her eyes.

"Before what?"

Her fingers pressed against her temples. "There was something. They were going to do something to us, to my mom and me."

"Who was?"

"The... the people he worked with. They'd done things before; my mother had been in the hospital, but... He was scared; he was so scared. I can see his moustache twitching the way it did when he was nervous."

She opened her eyes and looked up. The room swam slightly and she gripped the edge of the table.

Mulder's hand reached toward her. "You okay?"

"I--" The scene around her steadied. "I think so."

Her blood was rushing now, strange and hollow in her veins. Mulder's face was a mixture of curiosity and concern. She reached for her water glass and drank slowly. A sheen of fine moisture covered her forehead.

"I just... I remember the concert; I've always remembered that. But I hadn't realized it was there--Pasadena, before we moved. And I hadn't connected my father to it. It's so strange." She wiped her forehead with her napkin and sat back. It seemed to have passed, whatever the physical effect was.

"He--my father... He said we'd been--" It was coming again. "He was afraid for our safety but my mother insisted that he go with us. She didn't want to go without him, and he told her we had to. 'Your lives depend on it,' he said, and... she was crying, just for a little while. She said... how could she go on without him? and he--" She blinked. "He was so afraid. He knew things he couldn't tell her, things she'd never understand." She could hear herself panting.

"Tracy?"

"I can see it. We went to the concert, my mother and I, and when we got home he wasn't there. There was..." She reached for breath. "There's a man running by the window on the side of the house, and--"

Pressure in her head, as if a great weight were pressing down on it. She grabbed for the table edge, missed and felt Mulder's arm grab her. Somewhere behind her a chair clattered to the floor. Dark momentum moved her, sliding, carrying her as if she were captive on a fast, invisible train. It was happening now, whatever it was she'd sensed this morning and couldn't face.

"Tracy--"

Mulder was steadying her, easing her down onto the cool floor. She could hear her breath louder and louder around her as the pressure increased. His voice was sharp and distant, spiked with alarm.

No body, only thin consciousness and the sounds of her body's struggle: her breathing loud and labored, blood throbbing and the pressure bearing down on the top of her head.

She clutched harder at the arm that held her. "Alex, please--"

Blackness rose quickly on all sides, engulfing her.


 

 

Krycek sat bolt upright on the bed, eyes wide, and choked out a breath.

It was just a dream.

No.

But what was it? He glanced at the clock. A minute, maybe two. He'd been propped up here, pecking out a message to Ivanova, and... The screen saver hadn't even had time to come on. She wasn't going to contact him like this unless...

He swallowed and wiped sudden sweat from his forehead.

A nightmare.

It had to be just the jitters from the way everything was going: the old man, the uncertainty, Ivanova's mails and then the fingerprint powder on top of everything else. He closed his eyes momentarily and opened them again, studying his surroundings, hoping to squeeze reality from the room's details: the hum of the refrigerator, the half-open bathroom door, the recliner in its shadowed corner, the light beginning to weaken and tint itself yellow where the city spread itself beyond the window. Everything quiet, as if the room were a painting hung on the wall. A bead of sweat slid past his temple. His arm was shaking.

It was no dream.

He stood, no direction in mind. She was... She'd been in some kind of pain. She kept reaching out, scared, pleading with him to hold her.  Then she'd slipped away and dissolved.

His legs felt weak.

Move. Clear your head.

Making his way across the room, he slipped out into the hallway. It smelled of people's dinners, the scents leaking out from under doors. It had been like this in Mulder's apartment that night, sitting on the floor in the shadows, watching the up-and-down of Mulder's chest while he slept it off, staring at the weapon dropped on the carpet just out reach. A minute, half a minute, ten seconds more and Mulder would have sent himself to kingdom come, leaving only a vacant body with the side of its head blown off to tell the story. The remnants always told a tale.

Only it hadn't played out that way. He'd walked in, they'd thrown a few choice words at each other, he'd decked Mulder, end of story. Then he'd sat there watching, maybe an hour, maybe two, thinking and not thinking, suspended in a strange abstract while the neighbors, like ants, went about their evening: meals, TV, arguments. The smells had drifted in the window, nothing recognizable, just strong, like the cooking from a culture in another world.

Move.

He started down the stairs, pace measured, hand on the railing. He felt half asleep still--groggy--but he hadn't been dozing, he'd been writing back to--

She'd just been there, nowhere in particular. Her in a vacuum.

First floor. He turned, hesitated in front of the stairs going down to the basement, then started down again.

It wasn't the baby, but it was something. Lying there spooned behind her in the morning light, hand under her belly, he'd felt the kid move and tried not to wonder what kind of kid it was. Not so she could pick up on it, anyway.  The future was no place to raise any kid, human or otherwise.

Then again, the present hadn't proved so great, either.

The laundry room door loomed in front of him.

Cautiously he stuck his head inside. Nobody around, just a dryer running and a green laundry basket with a pair of brown slippers and a couple of pairs of jeans in it. He went to the window with its opaque glass. Nothing to see out there anyway.

If it wasn't a dream, what could he do?  Write to Mulder and say he'd seen it all; what the hell was going on? It wasn't a dream; his gut was convinced. Logically, though, it was going to make him sound like a raving lunatic.

And you walked out the door and left a half-started message to Ivanova sitting on the open screen like a billboard. 

Quickly he went to the elevator, pushed the button and got in. It made no sense, head denying while your gut believed. It could be nothing--nerves. Or could be just what it seemed: some kind of crisis that everything would end up hanging on.

The elevator car shuddered under him. His stomach dropped and settled. A pause, the doors opened and he took the half dozen steps to his door. Key in the lock, the door opened and then closed again behind him. Oh his bed, the laptop screen glowed blue. He sat down, hit 'clear' and started over.


 

 

"Sandy? This is Ben." The instructions on the pay phone went out of focus. "Look, something's happened to Tracy. I'm at... at the hospital.... No, I just got her here a few minutes ago. They don't know what it is yet. We were eating dinner and she... she got a little wobbly on the chair and then she fell off it and collapsed, lost consciousness. Yeah..." He leaned against the wall and rubbed a thumb down the side of the phone box. "Yeah, they called Dr. Wykoff. He's on his way."

He looked up, closed his eyes and waited a moment for the dry heat behind them to melt into moisture.

"Look, Dale and Scully--Annie--" Shit. "They should be back from the airport in about an hour. Could you go over and leave a message at the house so they'll know what's going on? I left in kind of a hurry. And look, I don't want this to be a hassle, but could you get me the laptop from Scully's trailer?" He bit his lip. That was twice he'd blurted out her real name. "Great. I owe you."

A side door opened and Dr. Wykoff appeared in a button-down shirt and jeans, shook his hand in passing and gestured toward the ER. Mulder watched him disappear through a set of swinging doors while the air fluttered in his lungs as if something else--something foreign--were in there with it.

"What?" Five minutes and she'd be on her way. "Okay, thanks."

Mulder hung up and started down the corridor. He'd brought her in, didn't know her blood type, nothing about her medical history, nothing of prior conditions. He'd be able to explain it to Wykoff, but what about Krycek? If it was serious he'd end up having to say something. Krycek had sent her here for safety, and now--

He stopped at the doors to the ER and stared through the glass. One of Tracy's feet showed on the end of a gurney half-obscured behind a white curtain.

She'd just fallen off the chair and collapsed.


 

 

The mail chime sounded and Maria hurried to the computer. It was Aleksei Krycek, though he was still filtering his messages through the enigmatic Ché. She raised her eyebrows and clicked on the message.

To: mv623@quick.net
From: che74@telcom.com
Tied up at the moment. Can arrive by Tuesday afternoon. May need a little planning time once I'm there. Fit your needs?

Maria frowned and sat back. Not optimal, but if necessary she could make two days' worth of excuses: a sick day, an unexpected trip to... that industrial medical conference in Dayton; there'd been a flier on her desk for weeks. Gathering dust, staring back at her and trying to haunt her into a feeling of obligation. It would be perfect now.

A couple of days and she'd be free of Janitor FBI Fox Mulder. He seemed an intelligent one... though he certainly wasn't immune to pain; she'd had to keep reminding him to hold still. And that daughter of his: at least, Mrs. Peltier had heard from Addis Baker next door that it was his daughter. Pleasant young girl, though obviously not cautious enough if the state of her body spoke to the subject. She'd come down the street distracted and stopped in front of the blue hydrangea, delicate fingers framing the petals of the flower heads. The side gate had been open while she watered, which was how she'd noticed her there. When she did, the girl turned and saw her and they'd spoken a few minutes about how one produces blue hydrangeas instead of pink, and the joys of working with flowers. By the time she was three houses away again Mrs. Peltier had arrived with her information. Daughter to Dale's nephew, she'd said, shaking her head confidentially about the girl's obvious pregnancy, to which she didn't actually refer in words. She herself had nodded back in reply--so much could be spoken with just a gesture--and had returned to her watering.

The girl would have to do without him now, whoever she was. Not likely his actual daughter, for why would an agent on an undercover assignment come with his daughter tagging along behind? Unless... No, she was too young, and certainly not well-disposed at the moment, to be an agent herself. Whatever her connection to Mulder, she would have to learn to forge new alliances. It was what happened in life, the world sweeping your feet out from under you when you least expected it, sending all your best-laid plans crashing into ruin. It might teach her to rely on herself and not those around her.

It was the safest policy in the end. People came and went, and in the end you had only yourself to count on.

 

 

 

Sandy tucked the laptop close to her like a school binder and made her way down the hall. She found Mulder sitting in the waiting room next to a stack of Sports Illustrated, elbows on knees, staring into the carpeting. He looked up when he saw her and then stood.

"Hey, thanks, I really appreciate this." He took the laptop and set it on the magazine table.

"How is she?"

"She's..." He bit his lip. "They don't know anything yet. They've taken blood, started some tests, but Dr. Wykoff says he isn't seeing any obvious cause. They've got her on oxygen; she's having trouble breathing... What?"

"I was with her this afternoon," Sandy said, looking down. "I think we could've parted on better terms, and now I feel--"

"Yeah, well, if it's any help she was wishing she could have done something to make you feel better."

Sandy sighed. Mulder walked to the window and stared out through the glass.

"I just hope"--he paused a long while and then shrugged--"what we always hope, I guess. That it's just some fluke, that it turns out to have an easy answer." His jaw locked into sharp contour as he gazed out into the purple-tinged sky.

"You, uh... You left your computer on at Dale's. I saw your little mail flag waving when I went in there, so I wrote down the message. I didn't figure you'd want to miss anything." She held out the paper.

He took it and sat down in a chair. It said:

This may be a shot in the dark, but has something happened to her? If so, give me a number I can call and give me a time window. It may take me a while to get myself to a safe line. Don't worry about a trace; the doctor's already given away your location.

Mulder let out a long breath and smoothed his thumb over the folds in the note paper.

"Did that make sense to you?"

His head nodded. He looked up. A pause. "Yeah." He shrugged. "It's him. Krycek. He's worried about her--"

Sandy swallowed and turned away. So now Alex the Killer had a last name. Tracy had come from him, and Ben and Annie had taken her in, knowing. "You coulda told me," she said, turning back to him. Which meant they'd planned with this guy, even done him a favor. "Why, Ben?"

"I didn't think you needed to be slapped in the face with it. Look, it's a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface. Anyway, we knew nothing about her until my--" He looked away abruptly, then up at the ceiling and grimaced. "This was not planned--taking her in.  She more or less"--his hands went up--"appeared on our doorstep. He sent her to us so she'd be safe from the Smoking Man."

There he was, Alex the Killer, taking care of the girl again.

"I've gotta go, Ben." She started for the door.

"But she is in danger," he said, following her. "What's happened to her isn't her fault... probably not any more than it was your husband's fault that he got pulled into the Smoking Man's plot to kill Andy Johnston." He paused. "They were both used."

Sandy stopped. Her throat burned and an ache that she couldn't pinpoint echoed inside her.

"Look," he said. A hand settled carefully on her shoulder. "I know that this--actually, everything that's happened in the last six weeks--seems crazy. It's not what any of us would have planned. If someone had showed us this scenario, which of all of us--Rita or you or Scully or me or... Who would have believed all this could happen?"

Sighing, Sandy nodded.  After a moment she looked toward the door to the ER and back. Mulder shrugged. 

It wasn't Ben's fault. Or Tracy's, for that matter. Point taken.

"But--"

"What?"

"What's with the message, Ben? Why would he think something's happened to her?"

Ben looked at her a moment. Seemed to be looking into her. "Tracy's got a... special ability. She can read people's thoughts."

"That really happens?"

"Sometimes. I've seen some pretty amazing displays of psychic ability, yeah."

"But how does that--?"

"From what I understand, there are times when she's been able to... to go into someone's mind long distance, kind of... meet them on a psychic level. She must have gotten through to him somehow."  He stopped, mouth half open. Finally his lips came together.

There was more he wasn't saying, but it wasn't the time to press him.

"Annie should be here soon," she said, glancing at the clock. "What time was her flight supposed to get in?"

"Seven fifteen."

"It's not that long. Maybe she'll know something that'll help. Is she that kind of doctor?"

"She's had all the training, yeah." A pause. "She's pretty damn good."

"Well, I'll have my fingers crossed."

She watched Mulder return to the window and stare out into the darkening sky.


 

 

Scully was on her way. It wasn't likely to make much difference if she showed herself now; Sandy's mother already knew about her and unless the sheriff happened to wander down the hallway, nobody else in town would recognize her. She could be passed off as a relative of Tracy's, or her doctor from somewhere else, or--

Sandy appeared in the doorway. Mulder straightened up and stood.

"She's here," she said, low, glancing at an older couple seated on the other side of the room. "She's gonna talk to Dr. Wykoff and come back."

He nodded. A moment later Scully passed by in the hallway outside, hesitated by the waiting room window, glanced in his direction and went on. Hopefully she'd had a good visit with her mother. Would have been nice if she'd been able to hold onto that for a while instead of having to refocus on a medical emergency.

Would be nice if Tracy were at home now, floating around the yard picking flowers and humming in that clear voice of hers.

Mulder let out a slow breath and ventured into the hallway and down to the soda machine. Two quarters down the slot; he pushed a button. Nothing came out. After a pause he turned and walked back the way he'd come. Krycek had wanted a number to call. It wasn't the issue of a number but what to say. So far they didn't know anything, but he'd given Krycek a window--between 8:45 and 9:00. Half an hour to have something to tell him.

And he'd sent her here so she'd be safe.

Heels tapped a staccato beat on the floor, approaching. He looked up to see Scully, a white lab coat over her jeans and boots. She turned and went in through the waiting room door. He quickened his pace.

"Sandy, Mr. Wallace..." She offered her hand to them both. He shook it and let it linger only a second. "I'm Dr. Barrett. I've been Tracy's doctor in Lexington. Dr. Wykoff has begun some tests, but so far we've been unable to determine what the problem is. You say she just collapsed at dinner?"

"Yeah, we just... we were eating and talking, and she was... all of a sudden she started to remember something from when she was small, when she'd lived in California..."

Scully's eyebrows rose slightly.

"...and she...she wobbled just a little, grabbed the edge of the table and steadied herself... And then it seemed to have passed; she seemed okay. But then a few seconds later she tipped off the chair."

"Did she hit her head?"

"No, I caught her, but--" He bit his lip.

"If you think of anything else, any unusual symptoms she might have displayed earlier in the day..."

He nodded. "I'll let you know."

"You can't tell, " Sandy asked, "anything at all yet?"

Scully pursed her lips. "Frankly, we're at a loss right now. But her condition seems to be degrading. Unless we can determine something soon--what's causing this--there's the strong possibility that we'll have to take the baby. Right now it's compromising her chances."

Chances of... He saw Sandy's spike of recognition.

"I want to assure you," Scully went on. That they'd do everything they could, exhaust every avenue, but so far they had nothing to go on and in spite of Scully's act they had no medical history for Tracy at all, no clue to anything in her background. She would do everything she could; Wykoff was good and Scully would knock herself out. But how did this translate into anything he could tell Krycek?

Scully was shaking Sandy's hand now, taking his, shaking it, giving it a surreptitious squeeze, careful touch, the kind she'd used once when she'd pushed back a motel room shower curtain to find him sitting naked and dazed, shaking in the steamy tub, no idea of what he'd done for the previous two days or where he was.

If anyone could help her, Scully could.

Now she was out the door, walking past the window, hair pulled back into a clip, professional and determined.

Sandy was watching him. The couple on the other side of the room directed their eyes back to their magazines.


 

 

It had been out the laundry room window in the fading light, leaving it ajar for later, making his way across the old woman's yard, then over two blocks and to the nearest pay phone. If the old man had him under surveillance, he'd have somebody monitoring the front door. No sense giving it all away by letting them see you heading out to find a line they hadn't tapped.

Mulder had gotten right back to him with a number. Though it wasn't like Mulder had much of a choice now, or any cards to play since Ivanova had given away his location. Still, it would be nice if he'd done it because he wanted to. But it didn't matter what Mulder thought. Anyway, this wasn't about Mulder.  It was about Tracy and that's where the focus needed to stay.

The air was still hot--thick and muggy. He wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve and went up to the phone in front of a little grocery. Dropping a quarter in the slot, he dialed the number he'd memorized and waited to hear the price. Not cheap. Wedged the phone between his ear and shoulder and dug out a handful of quarters. Most of them made it in. Two rolled away. The phone slipped off his shoulder and dropped with a clang. He reached in for more coins; another one rolled down the sidewalk and into the gutter but the others went in. He grabbed the receiver and listened to it ring. Once, twice...

The knot in his stomach tightened.

Pickup. It was Mulder.

The situation was bad, probably worse than Mulder wanted to let on. They hadn't found anything obvious, and if she continued going downhill they were going to take the kid; it was compromising her chances. Chances of staying alive, though Mulder was careful not to say the words. Instead he said that Scully was there, that she'd do her best. And she would. She was feisty and determined like a bulldog with its teeth sunk into your leg. She wasn't going to let you kick her away if there was any way she could fight back.

As he knew all too well.

It was her head, he said now, hoping he wasn't going to sound crazy. Her head. She'd come to him the way she did--no, he didn't know how the hell she did it, but she'd come. Tell them she said pressure in her head, pressing down... Tell them she told you herself then, whatever the hell will make them listen.

Beyond the perimeter of the phone booth, people were passing by on the sidewalk, or going in and out of the market, picking up milk or bread or beer or something to munch in front of a late-night movie, as if any of that had any meaning. They were stick figures passing--props--everything too brightly colored in contrast to the shades of gray close around him.

Compromise her chances.

Mulder would mail him when anything happened, when they'd figured out what was wrong with her. Now he had a new time window in a few hours; he should call the same phone. Whenever there was news, Mulder would contact him.

There was a bad taste in his mouth, flat and bitter. He hadn't eaten anything in... who knew how long, it wasn't important. He'd lost track. The need to do something that would make a difference for her--that's where his real hunger was. But not for food.

She'd collapsed in the middle of eating dinner.  It was bad for surgery, a full stomach. They'd almost lost him because of it. Scully'd shot him on a half-full stomach, and the old man had panicked when he nearly coded. It had actually shaken the old bastard.  Which was fucking crazy.

Hey, this stuff you said she was remembering--about leaving, moving? She didn't have any of that before; Pasadena was pretty much a blank. She'd been on the verge of remembering again, that was the key, so much flooding back in on her when... Buzz had given out just when he was about to...

But it couldn't be one of those. Aneurysms were quick. She would have been dead in a couple of minutes.

Don't even think--

"Hey, you done with that?"

The scene around him filled in. Krycek turned: a young punk in leather and a few rings hanging from his eyebrow. Don't you know how easy those things are to pull? Kid was looking for a fight. Itching for one; he could see the signs.

Sorry, not tonight. He hung the phone on the silver hook. "Yeah, sure."

Have your goddamned phone.

His feet went one in front of the other, automatic, sidewalk and shops a blur. Mulder would mail when they knew anything. One way or the other. She'd collapsed Thursday, too, out in the rain; she'd scared the hell out of him then, but it was nothing like this. Hundreds of miles between them, no way to reach out, catch her, hold her up.  Mulder'd caught her. It was a good choice. He'd call if and when.

She'd been out for who knew how long when she got pregnant. At least it might have been then. Woke up two days later. She didn't remember feeling sick like they told her she'd been, two faces peering down at her, telling her a story she could hardly believe: We brought you home from school on Friday. Maybe like Mulder as a kid: Your sister's gone--just gone--and we don't know a damn thing. Too scared to look, scared of the old man and what he'll do. Want to lose your son, too, Bill? Just go looking for Samantha and see what happens.

Son of a bitch.

The pink and green flashing neon of a bar loomed ahead: shadows, a chance to lose himself in the dark. Or just lose this load for a few minutes.  Better than going home, crawling the walls, spending another couple of pointless hours lying flat on his back waiting for some message to come in, all the time wondering, not able to do a damn thing.

Just one drink.

Inside, music pounded, the beat throbbing like a heart doing hard labor. One drink. He sat on a stool, waited for the bartender. She had brown hair, thank goodness, not blonde. A single shot, his mouth said, pushing past the voice inside that argued for more.

An elbow jabbed his side, followed quickly by a 'sorry' from a painted chick with lips that went on for miles, and legs to match. It was too hot, the air conditioning down, TV on the wall muted--Orioles on the road somewhere; it was still afternoon on the screen. In the chick's glass, ice cubes were melting rapidly in the heat, sending crazy trails through the alcohol. Tracy'd like that--not the drink, but the way it melted and swirled. She'd notice and say something to make it seem like a new discovery. New eyes, old soul.

A shot glass was pushed toward him; he picked it up, hand shaking slightly. Bracing himself, he lifted the glass, felt the smooth surface against his thumb...

But what if she tried to come again, tried to get through, needing something, and he was too dulled to pick up on it?

The glass clattered to the counter, spilling some of its contents.  He shoved his good hand into his pocket, pushed money across to the barkeeper. Sweat broke and ran down the sides of his face. Out into the bright, humid air, down the street, one corner and another and another and a fourth. Time to get back while he still had the strength, before he ended up like a fucking old man stranded in an intersection without his cane. The way he had been on the stairs, when she was still here to rescue him.

Around a final corner, down three houses and across the street to the old lady's place. Only one light in the window, bluish, coming from the TV. In through the gate, a cat's meow making him jump, a sidestep to the garden, around the side, not enough light to tell if her seeds were coming up, just shadows, gray on darker gray. The laundry room window sat open, nobody inside. Up and in, across the tile floor. He hit the button and waited for the elevator, blood buzzing, body ragged, sweaty, taut as if something were coming, like a punch in the gut from an invisible opponent. Up two floors, out of the elevator, key in the lock. Inside, he hit the lock button, sagged against the wall. No cigarette glowing orange in the shadows.

One thing right at least. He couldn't take the old man right now.

He flipped the light switch in the bathroom, reached into the shower and turned the water on. Quickly he peeled off his clothes: shirt over the prosthesis, then over his head and the good arm; prosthesis and harness off; pants off and dropped in a heap. He stepped into the tepid spray. Shivers and water streamed down, dripping off, carrying away sweat and salt but not Mulder's words. Compromise her chances. It would be better for her, being rid of the kid; there was no telling what it was, what kind of perversion had been implanted in her. She'd feel the loss, though, and then she'd need someone.  But five hundred miles stood between them.

I'll be there for you no matter what it looks like. She'd said that in the dream. But then she'd pulled up, shaken and puzzled at her own words. Couldn't have meant--

No.

It was like the silo again, everything cold cement and echoes, walls a dozen feet thick and her somewhere on the other side, beyond reach or possibility. Or was it her in the silo, sealed away?

He set his good arm against the shower wall and leaned his head against it.  Water streamed off his nose, his chin, elbow and stump, below his arm pits. Salt stung his eyes and his will was weakening, losing the battle with the stubborn ache in his throat, which only continued to swell. All around, the sounds of water sang and clamored: dripping, spraying, trickling.

Nobody's going to hear you now.


 

 

Slowly the elevator door slid open and Teena and her companion stepped out.

"I want to thank you again for taking me along, Carol. I wanted to go the minute I saw it in the brochure, but it's not nearly as pleasant going alone."

"Maybe we can plan something again tomorrow if you have time to spare." The woman gave Teena a knowing nod. "Thomas has business at the resorts again tomorrow and I'll just end up sitting here beside the pool, working on my tan." She was quite brown already, her skin tone set off by short silver hair.

"Yes, perhaps. When I get myself organized I'll give you a call."

Carol stopped in front of her door and took the room key from her purse. "Good night."

"Good night. Sleep well."

Teena continued down the hallway. If not for having met Carol and her husband downstairs in the restaurant, she might have missed Red Butte Park entirely. But the picture in the visitors' brochure had, as it turned out, caught Carol's eye as well, and the three had made a very worthwhile trip together.

258, 259, 260. Teena stopped and slipped the room key from the pocket of her sweater. Fitting the key in the lock, she turned the handle. A short note to Fox would be a good idea, if only to reassure him that she was safe.

Going inside, she flipped the light switch and locked the door behind her. When she turned back, her heart leapt and adrenaline flooded her.  A tall man sat at the desk chair beyond the dresser and TV. She tensed inside and forced a smile.

"I'm so sorry. This is my room. I've been here since early this morning. If they've given you this room, too, it must be in error. I realize it happens from time to--"

"No mistake." The man shifted, his long legs stretched out in front of him. She stared at him, transfixed as a small animal caught in a spotlight. Grim realization spread through her. Coughing against a breath caught inside her, she reached for the door handle.

"Move away from it. Now."

His voice was sharp. Her heart pounded suddenly, a trip-hammer beating out a rhythm of fear.

"Go sit on the bed."

She did. She looked at her hands and finally at her captor.

"We're going on a little trip, you and me. Pack your things. He wants to talk to you."

"Who?" Her best rendition of scorn. "Who wants to talk to me?"

"I think you know. Just get ready."

He slouched slightly in the chair, a blend of looseness and bravado, his legs stretching out in front of him.

Teena got up slowly from the bed, her legs suddenly shaky. She went to the dresser, took her clothes out mechanically and placed them on the dresser top, hands numb and awkward as she worked. He'd make her tell everything; she'd end up giving them both away. And Tracy on top of it. She pictured Fox suddenly, the expression on his face when he walked into his father's living room four years earlier to find his sister sitting there; and Alex, his back to her sink, trying to spit out his reason for coming, the anguish clear on his face.

"Hurry up."

She closed the drawer, hesitated and opened the one below it. They came out automatically: sweater, pants, slippers. Leland would find a way to make her tear her own sons apart; he wouldn't need to do it himself. She put her things in the suitcase the man shoved in front of her and zipped the zipper. It made a terrible ripping noise in the silence.

"I"--she cleared her throat--"need a minute in the bathroom." Surely he wouldn't deny her that. She looked at him: thin face, tan tweed suit, dark tie with an olive branch printed across the middle where the tie tack held it.

"Make it quick."

She went into the bathroom, shut the door behind her and hesitated, her thumb hovering over the lock button. If he heard it lock he might push it open, or shoot. But would it be worse than handing your sons over to the consummate work of inhumanity that was Leland? She looked into her cosmetic bag, her eyes lighting on the razor. If she cut her wrists would she have time to bleed to death before he could get help? Would it scar her sons more to think of what she'd done than to live with the consequences of whatever Leland would force out of her? She picked the razor from the bag, held it up: plastic, the blades securely imbedded in it, and thin, not at all suited to the job she'd require. She clutched it tightly a moment and then let it drop back into the bag.


 

 

Scully glanced down at the pale figure in the bed and sighed. Six hours. Six hours ago she'd been in another world: the warmth of friends gathered, a welcome smile on her mother's tired face at something New had said or done, Rita's lively recounting of her escape from the hospital, Will's quiet enjoyment and lively eyes.

And now this.

She moved to the bed and smoothed a careful hand across the girl's forehead. Footsteps sounded in the hallway outside. She squeezed the bed rail momentarily and turned to see Mulder and Sandy, the one quietly cautious, the other expectant.

"How's she doing?" Sandy said. "Is it okay to come in?"

Scully paused and nodded. Sandy came close to the bed and leaned down over the railing.

"She was sad about losing her hair," she said. She looked thoughtful. "Have you figured out what's wrong with her?"

"We're still waiting for test results, but... No, not yet. I wish I could say we have."

Sandy sighed. "Is it okay if I sit here with her for a little while?"

"That's fine."

She watched as Sandy pulled a chair close to the bed. After a moment she turned to Mulder, who was standing back a few feet, waiting, his mouth small with concentration. She crossed the room to a supply closet, turned on the light switch and gestured to him. He came closer, to where they were sheltered from the view of passersby in the hallway.

"How is she?"

Pressure stretched her throat. "Unfortunately, her condition has only gotten worse. Dr. Wykoff's preparing for surgery now. We're hopeful that eliminating the burden the baby poses may give her system the ability to fight back more effectively." She looked beyond him, into the shadowy recesses of a shelf. "I can't tell you how mixed my feeling are about this, Mulder, taking this child and what it may potentially be. I indicated to Dr. Wykoff that there was a question of abnormalities. He's agreed to let me examine the fetus."

He nodded.

"Mulder, I'm afraid I may be way too close to this. I can't help thinking--" She pursed her lips.

"What?"

"You know how Cassandra and I and the others were called to the bridge? Mulder, what if... You said she was in the process of remembering information about her childhood that she hadn't been able to access. What if--?"

"If she were being controlled somehow, that whatever she wasn't suppose to remember--?"

"Krycek said she was complaining about pain in her head."

"Yeah, pressing down on her, he said." He paused. "That's what you think? That somehow her memory's being suppressed, or that some... some switch has been thrown to keep her from remembering?"

"I know it doesn't make much scientific sense, as we understand science. But I know that I was drawn to that dam against my will, without my conscious knowledge. And if someone can produce that kind of response, then it's possible they could design--"

"...the electronic dog fence. Go too far and get zapped."

She sighed. "There could be a perfectly scientific, physiological explanation for this. It has been only a few hours. But the onset has been so sudden, and so rapid, Mulder, for any of the things you might normally begin to suspect, some kind of... encephalitis, or perhaps multiple sclerosis. Frankly, she was barely responsive when you brought her in. We've put her on anti-virals as a precaution, in case it is encephalitis, until we can determine an actual cause, but--" She rested a hand on his arm. "What is it?"

"Too many things. Vanek's made me."

Her eyes went wide. "Mulder, how?"

"I don't know. But she contacted Krycek, wanting him to get rid of me in order to keep her research secure. He said he can stall her for a couple of days, but we're going to have to move out of here unless enough credible evidence against her just drops into our laps pretty quickly." He shook his head.

She paused, lips pressed tight together. "Do you trust him, Mulder? Krycek?"

"I don't... Scully, I don't know how far I can trust him. When he sent Tracy here, he forced himself into a position where he has to protect us in order to protect her. But if something were to happen to her--" A slow breath in, let slowly out. "He was scared on the phone. He was trying to cover it, but--"

"Worried about his safety?"

"No, about her."

She raised an eyebrow.

He opened his mouth again, but nothing came out.

"What, Mulder?"

"I don't think he's... Maybe he's never had anything to lose before."

She stared hard at a stack of disposable bed pads on a lower shelf. It was too contradictory, too strange: this cocky trickster, this cold-hearted assassin who'd pressed a razor-sharp blade to her neck.

The papers. She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled them out.

"These are the papers from the envelope the pilot left in the hangar desk. I think he believed the envelope contained shipping manifests but it seems to me the deliveries are a discreet way for Vanek to get her progress reports to the Smoking Man. The significance of some of the data would be open to interpretation until we're able to provide supporting evidence... But there are clear indications here of experimentation on three non-adults."

"Angie's kids."

"Probably so. When we've got the chance, she'll need to be questioned in detail about the children's medical care. I'm willing to bet the injections they've been receiving are a far cry from insulin."

"Probably out of this world." He paused, his focus returning from the speculative to her. "So how are you doing, Scully? How was your visit before you got sucked into all this?"

She smiled briefly. "It went... very well. My mother was overwhelmed to see me. Actually, I was overwhelmed to see her, too. She has a yellow room with ruffled curtains and a four-year-old to tell her stories. Rita and Will were there. For a few hours it was as if--"

"As if the world were normal?"

She closed her eyes briefly and nodded. Soft lips brushed her forehead. His hand was careful against her arm.

"Hang in there, Dr. Barrett."

She took his hand and squeezed back. "You should go home and get some sleep."

He shook his head. "Going to stay here for a while and see how it goes. Besides, Krycek's going to call again. I gave him another window at 11:30." He paused. "I'm going to have to tell him something, Scully. He sent her here to keep her safe and now she's just... slipping away."

"We'll do our very best, Mulder."

"Yeah, I know. I know you will."

"Annie?"

They looked toward the bed.

"She just moved a little. She squeezed my hand for a second. It's a good sign, isn't it?"

"We'll have to see if she does it again, Sandy." She went to the bed and set a hand on Sandy's shoulder. Tracy's face twitched slightly in discomfort and settled gradually back into smoothness. "But yes, it's a good sign."


 

 

Krycek eased himself over the window frame and into the laundry room. One last trip and everything--everything critical, at least--would be gone from his place. The old woman would go outside in the morning and wonder who'd been tromping through her garden, but it wouldn't matter. He'd be out of D.C. by then.

Leaning against the framework beside the elevator, he pushed the button and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. Only the laptop left to carry to Che's. What would the old man think when he came by and found him gone? Would he have all his resources committed, stretched too thin to start looking right away, or would he come up with yet another pack of growling dogs to sniff him out? There'd been fingerprint powder all over her room, all over the car, and the old man hadn't showed all day. Sweat broke from his hairline and trailed past his temples. An hour later, a lot of good showering had done. His stomach was knotted, his body ragged from overexertion. The stump burned where it connected to the prosthesis. Heat like this was a bitch, especially for the arm.

A drop of sweat slid into one eyebrow and spread.

The elevator doors opened and he got in. Half an hour and he'd call Mulder again. She could be better. Who was to say it couldn't turn around? Scully was there. She'd give it her all.

But Tracy hadn't come again. No cry, no touch, nothing.

He stared hard at the number buttons on the panel in front of him, black circles lined up in a row, the numbers in white worn away where thumbs or fingers had jabbed at them over the years. He'd have to change the damn shirt and put on another. He shivered suddenly and leaned back against the wall, then pulled forward again, the car settling already.

Ché would make sure there was no car bomb. The old man had tried that once before.

Slowly the door slid open. Krycek paused, sniffing at the air. Apartment air but no cigarette smoke. Nobody in the hall or on the stairs. He slipped the key from his pocket, crossed the hall and worked the lock. Opened the door and locked it again behind him. So far so good, and it was mercifully cool in here. He started toward the bed, reaching for the hem of his shirt.

"Alex?"

He froze mid-stride.

"I see you were out."

A flush of cold sweat covered him. His jaw set.

"Yeah, I--"

He tried to think against the pounding inside him.

Keep going.

"You get to where you're ready to crawl the walls after a while. A little strength and you want to do it all, only you can't. Like being a dog on a short leash. I go up to the roof and back. It's not too far, no prying eyes to watch you." He turned. The old man was a shadow in the recliner.

"It's been a full day. Productive day," the old man started, reaching forward for the ashtray already on the desk. "I believe I may have solved a rather persistent problem."

He sounded pleased with himself, not pissed or coiled tightly, ready to spring.

Keep yourself moving.

Krycek made his way to the corner between the shelves and the bed and started to work off the shirt: a stretch over the prosthesis, over his head, finally off the good arm. He let it drop onto the floor.

The sound of crumpling cellophane cut the silence, and a lighter cap was flipped. "But I believe your... special touch... is what's called for now."

Ten minutes. He'd told Ché he'd be back in ten. The guy'd been cooking like a crazy man when he left. A little celebration, he'd said, knowing this would be it--his final escape from the old man.

Wincing, he slipped out of the harness, glad for the darkness that kept the old man from seeing too much, and laid the prosthesis on the bed. But what about the prints? How could he have rationalized away the fingerprints?

He turned to look at the old man. "Right now?"

"We have a certain luxury of time. An hour or so."

Everything had been set, ready to go.

Offering a non-committal grunt, Krycek retreated to the bathroom and pushed the door nearly closed.  He turned on the water and tossed a washcloth into the sink. It was like being called to Buzz's interrogation all over again, that surreal feeling of your final minutes ticking away. Maybe the old man had caught up with the woman--the nurse. He squeezed the washcloth and ran it across his face, cool water coating his skin, his hair, dripping down onto his neck and chest.  His stomach was a steel knot. Holding the cloth under the running water again, he squeezed out the excess and dabbed carefully at the bottom of the stump. It stung like hell. It was the weather, having it stuck too long in the damn socket in all this heat. He shut the water off and hung the cloth on the hook. Turned around. No gun pointed at him.

"I've put up fliers around the neighborhood," the old man's voice came from his corner. He'd never sat in the recliner before. "About your little... housekeeper." The Morley went to his lips; he let out a nearly-invisible cloud of smoke. "Perhaps someone will know something about her."

"Saw 'em," he said, drying off, dabbing carefully at the tender end of the stump with a towel.

"Rewards tend to bring people forward."

"They bring cons, too." He came through the door now.

"Possibly." Another drag. "But all we need is one tip from some... honest citizen."

"No guarantee you'll find her alive."

"No. But at least we'll know."

Krycek looked down and paused. "She was good at what she did."

He turned and went to the shelf. One last shirt left, the only one he hadn't packed. Last one she'd folded. He picked it up, shook it until he could catch the hem, slipped it over his head, over the stump.

"You're going without--?"

Second sleeve. "Heat's messed up my arm. Last thing I need is to have it get infected again.  Takes forever to clear up."

"Yes." A pause. The old man seemed taken aback. "Very well."

He hadn't ever gone out without the prosthesis--not in public--but the stump was a mess and he wasn't in the mood to have it burning, stuffed into a sweaty plastic socket. Not in the mood to interrogate some poor woman, either, if that's what this was about.

Or maybe it would be his own interrogation.

His stomach growled, raw but hungry in spite of everything.

Finally he went to the refrigerator, opened it. Light spilled out at his feet. A little milk, a beer and a soda. One box of Chinese still in the back. A few slices of bread and half a cucumber. He stared and finally closed the door, turned and went to the narrow window. Threaten the woman, bear down on her until she finally... The old man would have checked the odometer; there was no way to get out of that one. But it didn't track, the--

He clutched suddenly at the window frame.

"Alex?"

The old man was rising from his chair.

"Nothing, just--" His heart was racing. "Think I overdid it tonight."

He made his way to the bed, sat carefully and attempted to blink away the momentary dizziness. The old man was standing close now, looking down at him.

"Give me a few minutes. I'll be okay."

It was her.

Carefully he eased himself down against the pillows, the old man still watching. There was pressure against his hand; her mind... not all there, just half-conscious emotion, fear and the need for reassurance. In the shadow beside his hip, where the old man couldn't see it, he let his hand curl.

"Are you sure you're quite alright, Alex?"

He swallowed. "I'll live."

Great choice of words.

 

(End Chapter 19)

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