The Night Before
Season 6. (No HTGSC.) It's the night before Christmas, and all through the X-Files world...
(headers at bottom of page)
O N E
Like the profiler he is, Mulder spots the plain votive candle she's left burning on her desk. Not her Christmas tree. Not the pretty decorative candle in the centerpiece on the table.
He arrived at her door with file folder in hand, a suspect hint of exuberance in his expression. Only you would bring work around on Christmas Eve, Mulder, she'd said, eyeing him skeptically, and act as if it were something exciting. But the look turned out to be mischief, not exuberance, the folder a decoy for the gift certificate tucked inside. He notices all those catalogs she marks up, then throws away without buying anything.
"It's nothing," she says, glancing toward the offending candle. Go away.
But being Mulder, he goes toward it, moth to flame. This is why she decided to spend the holidays alone. After the trauma of last Christmas, she's not ready to face the same cast of characters, the intrusive questions. Her family's judgment. She needs solitude--craves it--though the hours she's had of it so far only seem to lead to a thin emptiness.
"It's nothing," she repeats, swallowing. Lie. It's her penance, her attempt at memorializing--or somehow reaching out to--the daughter she met so briefly a year ago. She knows it's irrational; more, she senses this is a knot she dares not completely undo. Yet the compulsion is there: to to feel some kind of connection. To feel something.
"Mulder, you wouldn't underst--"
Silence swallows the end of the word as clarity hits. Heat floods her face and she looks down, counting her heartbeats like brass casings at a crime scene. When she reaches six, careful hands turn her shoulders to face him.
"Scully--" His voice is soft, earnest. "How could I not understand?" Gentle lips press a patch of warmth against her forehead and then retreat.
Once he's gone--off to take a run before the predicted snowstorm hits--she returns to the dining room table and flips open the file folder once again. Contents: one carefully faked police report detailing rooftop sightings of a plump, red-suited man--with reindeer. And one gift certificate in a holly-bordered envelope.
She smiles and lets her eyes fall closed. Even when she
thinks of Emily, she feels warmer than before.
T W O
"Can I carry it?"
The boy's deep brown eyes sparkle with eagerness. Skinner's mouth twitches, judging him. He's small, dark, wiry. Determined.
"We'll see, Marcus. You can give it a try," he says, handing the gift basket to the boy, watching him lean as he holds the basket carefully away from him so as not to crush the crimson bow on the side.
But will he be able to manage the stairs? Maybe he should step in, Skinner thinks, but how would the boy react? It goes to show how much he doesn't know about dealing with children. But the boy is two stairs up now, pausing before each rise, the basket--and its contents--still in one piece.
Skinner glances up to see Mulder coming down the stairs.
"Who's your partner in crime?" he asks, grinning and pausing to nod a greeting at the boy as he passes. "She'll be glad you stopped by," he says, and then he's gone, jogging down the sidewalk.
Skinner looks back to find Marcus standing beside the entry door. The boy sets the basket down and reaches up to reposition the Santa hat that's fallen over one eye. "You sure she'll like this?" he asks skeptically.
"I think she will," Skinner says, and pushes open the door to let the boy through. "If not, I'll owe you an ice cream cone."
Scully's expression, when she opens the door, is a mixture of welcome and surprise. The boy proudly offers up the basket and once she's taken it, heads for the Christmas tree. Skinner is about to follow when the boy glances back and puts his hands very deliberately into his back pockets.
"I won't touch," he says with a gravity well beyond his six years. "You don't have to worry."
Relieved, the A.D. looks back at Scully, whose curiosity is obvious.
"A while back I decided I needed to give back more than I do. You get tunnel vision sitting in an office all day. He's an amazing kid; he's"--he leans closer and lowers his voice--"Agent Washington's son." Washington who Scully will remember was killed during the Parker bust six months earlier. "It's kind of"--he shrugs--"an informal Big Brother thing."
Scully gives him an approving nod. "I'm sure he appreciates it, sir." She pauses. "As do I. Thank you so much."
The corner of Skinner's mouth pulls. "Well, I know your assignment has been rather... unfulfilling of late."
With an acknowledging arch of one eyebrow, Scully turns to focus her attention on the boy. "Do you see something interesting, Marcus?" she asks, approaching him.
"This blue bird," the boy says softly, pointing. "It's--" He stops, shakes his head.
"What? What is it?"
The boy looks at the carpet and knocks the heel of one shoe against the other. "My grandmama had one like it. She said it was her bluebird of happiness. But it broke."
"Well, I'd be happy to let you give her this one," Scully says. "Would you like that?"
"But it's yours."
"Well, one gift for another sounds like a fair exchange to me."
In the car, Skinner holds the fragile, tissue-wrapped ornament until Marcus gets his seatbelt fastened. "You did a good job in there," he says.
The boy looks thoughtful. "Do you think my dad would be proud?"
"Yes." Skinner nods solemnly.
"I think he'd be very proud."
T H R E E
Andrei's ghost is waiting when Krycek wakes up.
"Na zdorove," the apparition says, raising the glass in his hand.
Krycek blinks, hoping to erase the specter, but even rubbing his eyes doesn't do the trick. "You're part of the hangover," he mumbles, dismissing the figure in the corner chair, and rolls away--something he never does when the living are involved--to face the wall. He covers his face with his good arm and hopes for sleep.
But a few moments later adrenaline jabs him at the sound of a throat being cleared. He rolls back in time to see Andrei bring the glass to his lips and tip it. Liquid spills loudly on the seat of the chair and Krycek's heart rate spikes.
"Sorry," the ghost says, switching to mildly accented English.
Krycek swallows and pulls up, a hard, sick knot in his gut. He slips his feet to the floor and grips the edge of the mattress with the only hand he's got, trying to control the shaking, but his body seems to have no intention of cooperating. Behind the throbbing that's front and center in his head comes the unwelcome picture of Andrei in his white lab coat dangling from the ceiling of a holding cell in the Tunguska prison camp.
"You did it to yourself," he says finally to his uninvited visitor. He wants it to sound sharp, the kind of figurative dagger-to-the-gut he felt when he opened that cell door half a world away, but he's too worn out. Maybe numb. Life lately has been one continuous downhill slide.
Andrei shrugs. "It was the only way you would hear me, my friend."
Krycek heaves a heavy sigh, runs a hand back through his hair. "Yeah, well, I guess I'm more deaf than you figured." Look where he's ended up.
"I didn't come to accuse you," Andrei goes on in the same calm, measured tone he used in life. As if Krycek had never forced him to fill the Kazakh kid with Oil and sew him up, contradicting everything he stood for. "I came to encourage you. You still have important work to do, Aleksei. Do not give up on it."
Krycek's first reaction is to laugh, but an unexpected lump burns his throat. He sniffs in a breath, picks up a shoe and throws it at the apparition. Instantly Andrei vanishes. The shoe bounces off the wall and lands in the wet puddle on the chair's worn leather seat.
Carefully, Krycek stands. After a pause he turns and makes his way to the sink where he pours himself a glass of water and takes a long drink.
"Yzvinite," he whispers, turning to face the empty chair.
He smiles bitterly. He damn well is.
F O U R
But it's Christmas Eve, and she needs something more than a three-foot plastic Christmas tree set behind a thick, plexiglas security wall to keep her spirits up. They've taken everything imaginable away from her, though she's displayed no evidence of suicidal tendencies.
Though why she hasn't is as much a mystery to her as it is to the group and their doctors. For some time after the Oil invaded her, her father's friend Miguel kept her secret vaccine program running, carefully hiding his involvement from his Consortium employers as well as from Alex and the Brit, faithfully coordinating the distributions; 24,000 additional people have been protected against the Oil. She owes the man more than she could ever repay.
Then their contact at the pharmaceutical company was killed. Her program, her one source of hope, had died with him. It's been six months, and now she's nothing more than a lab rat facing an endless array of pills and needles.
Marita picks up the pad of paper beside the bed--they've taken away the pen, though she can only assume that they've discounted the potential threat of suicide by paper cut--tears a sheet from it and carefully creases it into thin strips which she tears and begins to fold. Soon her thin fingers are working instinctively, creasing and bending the strips of paper. How strange, she thinks, that she should be reduced to relying on a craft she learned at ten years old.
But as her movements become automatic, her mind slips from its mooring. She's a child standing in her grandmother's living room. It's late evening, beyond the children's usual bedtime, and her brother runs by laughing. A few minutes later her father directs her to the family's nativity scene, and for the first time she's allowed the honor of placing the figure of the newborn baby into the manger, signaling the beginning of the family's Christmas festivities.
Marita blinks twice and looks up, waiting for the moisture that's pooled in the corners of her eyes to slip back under her lids. Pressing her lips together, she returns deliberately to her task, working the thin strips of paper. Soon she's in Mallorca, exactly a year ago. She's just returned to the villa from a walk along the foggy beach in a futile search for solace, or peace. Her hands and nose burn with the cold, but just as she goes to hang up her coat, the doorbell rings. On the doorstep stands Alex. Hi, he says. And then nothing. As if he's flown four thousand miles just to ask how she is. But she can see it in his eyes, and in the way his Adam's apple dips and catches: the need for something nobody but the two of them can even begin to comprehend. She opens the door wider and lets him in.
Folding the final corner of the last white strip into place, Marita lifts her fragile creation and lays it in her palm. After a moment she transfers it to the bedside table, then brings bath powder from the bathroom and shakes it onto the table's surface. Carefully she moves the white substance around with an index finger.
Bone-weary, she curls onto the bed and closes her eyes. Gradually the Mallorcan villa returns. She remembers the quiet: thin winter sunshine pouring warm through thick windows; Alex wrapped around her, asleep, his stubbled jaw against her shoulder; the low, rhythmic hiss of waves against the sand. If only the ties that life forges weren't so like clouds: endlessly thinning, dissipating, reforming.
When Miguel enters the room, he finds Marita asleep, one arm tight around a pillow. On the bedside table is a dusty message--'Feliz Navidad'--and an arrow pointing to a small, intricate white paper wreath.
Carefully he lifts it into his palm.
F I V E
"Mulder," Frohike says, appearing in the doorway and stopping just inside. "He brought that"--he pauses significantly--"item I asked him to pick up."
Langly grins. "Byers will be surprised."
"It'll be worth it just to watch him sputter and turn three shades of red," Frohike says, chuckling. "Poor guy embarrasses so easily. Bad for him; good for us." He comes closer. "By the way, it's starting to snow out there."
Quickly, Langly minimizes the web page he's been looking at. "Cool," he says, the delay betraying his split focus.
"Whatcha checking out?" Frohike asks, leaning casually against the workbench. Half a dozen browser tabs line the bottom of the screen. "NORAD?"
Langly frowns and shrugs. "Among other things. Anyway--" He maximizes a message board window and begins reading.
Frohike waits, but his companion seems to have no intention of resuming the conversation. "Anyway?" he prods. "You were saying?"
Langly gives him a momentary look, but quickly switches gears. "That Christmas Eve would be the perfect time for an attack... if you were the kind of disgruntled nation into something like that. You know, everybody with their minds elsewhere."
"Has it ever actually happened? I mean, not everybody celebrates. Besides, you think they'd be on the lookout for something like that."
"It was George Washington's strategy in 1776. He crossed the Delaware on Christmas Eve to attack Trenton."
"Did it work?"
"Absolutely. Only four Americans killed, 200 British casualties. 948 taken prisoner. It was a pivotal battle in the war."
"Not bad," Frohike grunts, setting one hand casually on the bench. "Though I'm not sure it would work as well now." He pauses. "So"--he waves a hand through the air--"you're just hoping that if something should happen tonight, you'll be the first to know about it?"
Langly shoots him a look. "What's up with you?"
Frohike's hand inches closer to Langly's mouse. "Me? Nothin'."
"Then what are you doing here?" Langly sits back, obviously cranky, and glares at his intruder. "I don't look over your shoulder when you're online."
Quickly Frohike's hand shoots past him and clicks the mouse. "Aha!" he shouts, then breaks out in wild laughter.
"NORAD Santa? You're not even hacked into the real site!" Quickly he darts out of range of Langly's avenging arm. "NORAD Santa," he repeats, smirking, as he beats a hasty retreat from the room. "You're tracking Santa Claus's progress across the sky. Did you set out milk and cookies, too?"
Langly sticks his tongue out at the retreating figure.
In the hallway, Frohike's chuckles
taper off. "Wait 'til I tell Byers," he
S I X
When she's out of sight and the sidewalk is empty he leans forward, arranges the dead arm across one leg and rests his head in his hand. A snowflake has caught in his eyelashes and he blinks as it melts across his eyelid. Nearly midnight and what the hell is he doing out here like this, cold as hell and snow coming on?
Maybe it's a desire to avoid the uninvited company in his room.
Or maybe it's the ghost's message that haunts him. 'Taunts' is more like it. What he'd give to actually be able to do something about the future, but with the Brit dead and himself back under the old man's thumb, he's had no room to move. Not a single outside contact, not an ounce of influence; the old man sees to that. Hell, it probably makes his day.
Krycek pushes one foot through the half-dozen melting snowflakes at his feet and pictures the scene from above, like an establishing shot in a movie: essentially deserted city street in the dark of evening, drifting snowflakes, streetlamps, the bench with its hunched-over occupant. He should go home, clean up, maybe swap out his sheets for clean ones. Attempt to get some shut-eye. Merry Christmas, Aleksei.
Footfalls approach, but he can't dredge up the initiative to look, or care. Which is stupid, but there you go. The footfalls stop abruptly in front of the bench, their owner's breath coming in short pants. A shoe goes up onto the seat beside him. Krycek turns to give whoever it is his best glare.
He frowns and pulls up. "Mulder, what the hell are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same th--" Abruptly, Mulder stops. He remembers the last time they crossed paths, two weeks after the Ruskin Dam incident, in a surreal little encounter remarkably devoid of of their usual antagonism. If possible, he'd like to keep his unlikely little streak of luck running. He finishes retying his shoe and sits down on the bench. "It's late," he says, letting his breathing settle.
Krycek grunts in agreement and glances up at the flakes floating down through the street lamp's glow. For a long time neither one speaks.
"So," Mulder starts. "You do this often?"
"You do this often?"
Mulder ignores the provocation. "Figured I'd get a run in before the storm hits." He pauses. "You?"
Krycek shakes his head. "Nah, I, uh..." His shoulders loosen visibly and his voice softens. "Just trying to clear my head. Had a weird dream." He brushes the toe of a shoe over snowflakes that are beginning to stick to the pavement. A sudden flurry of swirling white fills the air, as if the two of them are figurines inside a snow globe. "Don't you have someplace to be?" he says eventually. "I mean, it's Christmas Eve, isn't it?"
Mulder shrugs. "Not much of a celebrator, I guess. After Sam--" Once Samantha was gone, Christmas had become a weird mockery, taunting him from between lighted tree branches and in the distorted globes of glass ornaments: Catch me if you can. But what would Krycek know--or care--about that?
"There's so damn much to do," Krycek begins, startling Mulder from his thoughts. "That needs to be done, to head this off--" He sniffs in a breath. "And my hands are tied; there's no way in hell--" He pauses and shakes his head. "Two steps forward, one step back."
"Maybe one step forward, two steps back," Mulder says. In his mind, Kersh's image grins at him, huge and distorted like something in a fun house mirror.
"For damn sure." Krycek blinks against another snowflake that's caught him square in the eye. "You know, he told me how he tried to bring you in a year ago--offer you a place in the organization. You were smart to blow him off." His mouth tightens and his good hand curls into a fist.
Around them, the air is filled with the delicate hiss of floating flakes. Both men look up at the soft, dull sky.
"I should go," Mulder says finally. "Before it gets any worse."
Krycek nods and focuses on the lamp post on the far side of the street. A moment later a hand settles on his shoulder. "Hang in there," Mulder says, and then the brief pressure is gone.
Mulder stands, brushes off his pant legs and starts down the street.
"You, too," Krycek calls after him when he's gotten past the paralysis of his surprise.
He sucks in a breath, holds it,
glances up into the white-speckled darkness. Then he rises from the bench and heads for home.
S E V E N
"Mulder," he answers, tucking the phone between jaw and shoulder. He sets the mug on the coffee table but immediately picks it up again, reluctant to let go of the warmth it provides.
"I hope it's not too late," Scully's voice comes through the earpiece.
"No. No, I just got in from my run a couple of minutes ago." He leans back against the cushions.
"I just wanted to thank you," she says, "for stopping by. I know I said I needed to spend this Christmas by myself--and I do. But... you reminded me I'm not alone, and I needed that. Sometimes I forget."
Mulder smiles. "I saw Skinner on his way to your door," he says. "I hope he didn't ruin your plans for an evening of solitude."
"No, quite the opposite, actually. They were just here a few minutes, but it was nice. That was Agent Washington's son with him. Cute little boy. I guess it reminded me that..."
"What?" he says, when nothing more is forthcoming.
"That while we commemorate the dead, we need to be helping the living. That the two aren't mutually exclusive." She pauses. "Did you have a good run?"
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I did."
"Well, it's late; I should let you go. Merry Christmas, Mulder."
"Merry Christmas, Scully."
Setting the phone back on its base,
Mulder turns off the lamp and goes to the window, the echo of his
partner's voice lingering in his head. Mug in hand, he
watches the snow sift down beyond the window.
© bardsmaid 2005 |