She was in her own room, in her own apartment. In her own bed. An angular stream of warm morning light filtered through the window. Scully pulled up to check the time but the clock was gone from its accustomed spot and what day was it? It must be a weekend or she'd never be lying here this late. She lay back down again, eyes wide open, puzzling. The bed seemed oddly empty, though it had never felt that way before.
What day was it? And what had she been doing yesterday?
She'd picked Mulder up at the airport, that was it. Midnight, and... It had been strange, strange and unutterably sad, though she didn't feel the sadness now in the same way; it sat at a distance, like looming fog. He'd stayed over; he was out there on the couch. Scully sat up, ran her hands through her hair, went to the closet for her robe and put it on, tying the belt on the way to the living room. But the room was empty, the couch undisturbed, every cushion in place. She glanced around. There was no sign that anyone at all had been there.
Her only answer was silence.
Something about this was very odd.
From the window she could see her car parked across the street. He'd come on foot; he'd been running. He'd had to move out of his apartment; she'd gone there and found it empty. It had shaken her, finding him gone that way, never having realized his circumstances were so critical.
Something tickled the side of her face next to her ear. She twitched.
There was a voice, muffled. A pause and then it came again, clearer this time.
She turned around. The room was empty but she could sense him somehow. She'd seen her father, too, after he'd died, and what did it mean?
Warm breathing against her neck made her shiver.
Her breath caught, a soft jolt of adrenaline went through her and her eyes came open. The trailer ceiling spread above her with its brown wood grain panels and thin ribs of molding. Tree branches glowed quietly outside the window, lit by early morning light. Mulder's face was suspended above her; he was lying beside her. A smile started slowly across his face.
"Hey, Scully," he said softly.
She struggled to focus on him. He was propped up on one elbow, half-tangled around her, or was it the other way around? His skin was warm.
"Welcome to the balcony, Scully."
"Mulder, how--?" She paused. "Why didn't you--?"
"Let you know I was coming? Because I figured then you'd probably be like me and not get any sleep at all." He grinned.
She pulled a hand from under the covers and traced his face: softness, strong contours, stubble, smooth skin. He was really here, no illusion. The corners of her mouth pulled up into a smile. Her hand came to rest against his neck. Under her fingertips his pulse beat a quiet, steady rhythm.
"Mulder, how much time...?"
"Couple of hours," he said. Long enough. Never long enough but for now, long enough.
His smile came closer, mouth capturing hers in warm, damp greeting. Surrender, it said. She went willingly.
Will woke to the wetness of Ralph's nose. He reached out to pet the dog's head, but the cold air against his arm made him shiver.
"Hey, Ralph Man."
His voice was dry and strained. Hopefully whatever he had wasn't communicable to dogs.
Beneath his skull sat a headache the size of Detroit. So far it didn't seem any better than yesterday but it wasn't any worse, either. He sat up slowly, pulled the tartan from the end of the bed and wrapped it around himself. He needed to take his temperature and call Byers. Last night Byers had given him a number to be used in emergencies. E-mails every four hours, phone if necessary. If they didn't hear from him within a six-hour period, somebody would come around to check up. Byers had come by last night and taken a throat culture, but his symptoms had been--still were--too general to suggest anything beyond the flu.
It could still be just the flu.
Will sighed. Anyone else would have been shocked by his claims, but the Gunmen were already on the lookout for signs like this, predisposed to believe in conspiracies, and certainly they were loyal to Mulder and Scully. Byers had taken him seriously enough, though they'd agreed not to say anything to Mulder yet. Certainly not to Scully. Not until they were certain and telling her was unavoidable. Later in the morning Byers would drop by Maggie's and check on her, hopefully without arousing any suspicion.
Will crawled carefully off the bed, went into the bathroom to take his temperature and then out to the kitchen to put food in Ralph's dish. At least one of them had an appetite. He opened the refrigerator door and stared in, but it only made his stomach turn. He checked the freezer and discovered a single can of frozen orange juice. He took it out and set it on the counter to thaw. Ralph looked up from his breakfast and gave Will a wary eye. He always knew when something was up, Ralph did.
Will made his way to the living room and his laptop on the coffee table. He sat down and pulled the blanket closer around his shoulders, moved the mouse and waited for the screen to brighten.
He hit 'send' and ran his hands back into his hair. As he was about to lie down on the couch a knock came on the door. It had to be Manny. Manny always knocked even when there was a doorbell.
"Will, you in there?"
"Yeah, hold on." He grimaced and got up from the couch, the effort echoing loudly through his head. He made his way carefully to the door and worked the lock. The handle turned and Manny's face appeared.
"You don't look so good, old man."
"What, not only do I feel crappy but I've aged, too?" Will attempted a smile and rested his head against the door frame. "I'd let you in but I don't want to infect you and have you take it home to Cynthia and the champ-to-be."
"You call in sick?"
"Not yet. I was about to."
Manny nodded at him. "Get yourself some rest, buddy. I'll keep you posted." He brightened. "Got another interview to do, that guy Tyrone that Old Squeally gave us yesterday. I think we're starting to line our ducks up. Not gonna be long now."
"Go for it, man."
"You know I will. You get yourself back in bed now and get over this thing. I need you out here in the ring."
Will watched Manny turn and hurry down the stairs. He closed the door and leaned against it. Maybe he was crazy. When had he ever felt like this and thought it was a conspiracy before? But there was no denying what had happened in Kentucky. No denying what had happened to Mulder and Scully, and he'd seen Krycek and the old guy--the Smoking Man.
It was like a dream-world, a nightmare crazy thing. Waking up would be nice. But it wasn't likely to happen. Like it or not, this was as awake as he was likely to get and he'd just have to see his way through it.
Mulder closed his eyes and felt a thin seal of wetness where his lids came together. He smoothed a hand through Scully's hair. "You okay?"
Her cheek moved away from its place against his chest; he could feel her looking at him now. "Perfect." She sucked in a ragged breath and burrowed back against his neck. "It was..." There was moisture where the corner of her eye touched him.
He bit his lip and pulled her closer. A kind of padded quiet filled the trailer. Outside, leaves murmured slightly as they moved overhead. He focused on the pattern of her breathing against him, in-and-out, soft pressure and release.
His mouth opened but no words came. There were no words. He let his lips rest against her forehead. She was here, her arms hard around him. Who knew what had brought it on? There'd just been this suspension, a moment out of time and suddenly the overwhelming need to be one in every sense of the word. It had left them both in tears. Not just the earth had moved, but sky and stars.
Mulder smiled. The bed was warm. They were warm in it together and that was all that mattered; it was everything. Gradually he felt himself slacken, muscles beginning to loosen, thin whiteness rising at the edges of his mind. He let it come.
"Mulder, you're starting to drift." She was moving back now, out of his grasp, past him, higher on the pillows. Cool air flooded the space between them and then he was being drawn into the welcome of her arms. "Get some sleep. I'll wake you."
Soft lips went against his forehead. "Get some sleep."
He let his cheek rest against her breast, her body all curve and softness against him. It was coming, unconsciousness, and he was warm and sated and she was here. How could he have asked for more?
As we know, this man does not play a small-stakes game, so I have contemplated the worst. I wish I could say I knew for sure I've done the right thing, or that the sacrifice I may be called on to make is the right one and that I'm ready to make it; the theoretical can be so indistinct in comparison to the stark clarity of now-you-have-done-it, a little like that first inch of the downhill plunge on a roller coaster. I'm not asking for sympathy here, but as you and I have traveled some distance together, any perspective you may have would be appreciated, and I offer myself as a cautionary example. Please be careful. People depend upon you.
Thanking you for your past support--
"Trash cans have been pretty slim pickings," Mulder said with a frown as he zipped his jeans. He bent to reach for his T-shirt beside the bed. "But I did determine that we've got two camps in this place: the people who see hazards and the ones who figure if you took the job, you should cowboy up and shoulder the risk." He glanced at his watch and sighed. "Well, Scully, Napoleon calls."
"Will you be okay?" She pushed back the desk chair and turned to face him.
"I'll think of you while I mop and scrub." He raised one eyebrow. "Hey, did I tell you I've got my own toilet brush?"
She gave him a dubious look.
"Anyway," he said more softly. "When Rita gets your equipment, you're going to need a hand digging up that grave. I'll be back."
He came around the bed and put an arm around her. She tried to smile.
"It's a start, Scully. I'm on the inside now and you've got a body for us to examine."
"David Barker may come up with something," she said, trying to be hopeful. "He's going to check through the company financial records if he can access them." She sighed and looked down, then let her cheek rest against his chest. "Mulder, I've been making a conscious effort to stop saying I'm okay when I'm not, but--" She looked up. "If I'm not strong, if I'm not on top of things, then what do I add to this investigation? Or to you?" Her lips pressed together. One corner of her mouth twitched.
He shook his head. "Scully, everybody's got their doubts, has times when... when they can't figure out what the truth is, or they lose their faith, their direction. But it passes. It's something you go through, it's not you." He cupped her face. "You know I wouldn't be anywhere--anywhere--right now if it weren't for you. You will add something valuable to this investigation. And if at any time you think we shouldn't be here, that we should get away, or... or go somewhere else, do something else... anything... Just say the word and we're out of here."
He brushed a kiss against her lips and turned to go. "Write to me, Scully. I'll be there. I won't go staying out late like the other night."
"Nothing. I love you." She slipped her arms around him again and burrowed her head against his chest.
"Then I'm the luckiest son of a bitch who was ever thrown out of the Bureau."
She hugged him hard, then stepped back and grinned. "Go, Mulder. Go do what you have to do."
She opened the door, let him out and then closed it again. Eyes shut, she leaned against the wall. It was still with her, that fragile moment of transcendence they'd shared. Beauty in the midst of all this. It had to be a sign, a promise.
After a moment she opened her eyes and looked around. The light had grown stark, brighter; it was after eight and she hadn't showered, the bed was unmade, her hair needed washing...
A knock sounded on the door.
"Annie?" It was Sandy's voice.
Scully ran her hands back through her hair and reached for the pair of jeans laid over the back of the desk chair. "Just a minute." Quickly she pulled them up, zipped and snapped them, pulled up the bed covers and opened the door. Sandy and her father stood outside.
"Sorry to come by this early," Sandy said. She wore a glow Scully hadn't seen on her before. "My dad's got to leave but I wondered if you could show us about that e-mail thing? So we can keep in touch?"
Scully paused, then smiled. "Sure. Come in."
She opened the screen door and Sandy and her father stepped up into the trailer. It wasn't a class at Quantico, but it was someone who needed her help, and that was a start.
"Make sure you get what you need this time," Krycek said, adding a mild frown for emphasis.
Tracy looked back at him from the half-open door, pursed her lips and nodded solemnly. "Okay."
She went out and locked the door behind her. Her footsteps echoed on the stairs and then faded away. Krycek reached for the handle on the recliner and let the back down. The dynamics of their little dance were changing. He was getting stronger. The pain wasn't as bad and he could do more for himself. And Tracy...
She'd gotten quiet. Maybe it was just the thought of the end coming, of having to move on, her next step still a big question mark. But better to face reality head-on. Otherwise it jumped you and you had no chance against it at all. Still, there was something about her quietness he couldn't quite put his finger on.
He reached for the bean bag on the desk. She'd stitched it from a square of fabric she'd gotten from the Central American store and filled it with rice she'd bought in bulk for a dime at the little foreign grocery down the block. He shook his head. The money the old man had given her would go far.
Absently, he squeezed the bag, letting the rice grains inside slip past his fingers. A toy. She'd made him a toy. To help him get his strength back, she'd said, even knowing the kinds of things he used his strength for. So they'd played catch, her in the recliner, him on the bed, the bag rifling back and forth through the air. She wasn't bad, didn't throw like a girl. She threw straight and put some power behind it. Said she'd played second base once. She had that look on her face when she said it, lively like the time she'd come back with the yellow dress, as if some string that bound her had been unloosed. Then eventually the smiles and the laughter had quieted and it had come over her again.
Whatever it was, something had her cornered.
Maybe a change of scenery and routine might do them both good.
Will took the thermometer from his mouth and leaned against the bathroom wall. He closed his eyes. Tired of looking in the mirror, tired of watching the symptoms... Just plain tired.
Maybe he'd acted like a fool. Maybe he was nothing more than a coward in the end, trapped in something he'd had no real grasp of until it had overtaken him. Had to send a report to the Gunmen if he could make it to the living room but how smart was it, staying here alone? No telling how fast this thing would progress. It was like being a crash test dummy, the wall coming at you but not at any speed you could determine.
The degree of courage those folks had shown, Dr. King and so many others, walking out there into every protest, every march, knowing exactly what could happen, and still they hadn't flinched or faltered.
Will made himself stand and go to the door, then to the living room. Carefully he eased himself down onto the couch, covered himself with the tartan and moved the mouse. The computer screen brightened. He typed. His fever was up another degree; that told just about the whole story. He hit send and waited, shivering. Message out, one in. He coughed. It was Byers, who'd stopped in to see Maggie. She was about the same as he was; when she'd asked about him, Byers had had his cover story ready, that Will had been called out of town on assignment and had sent Byers in his stead.
Lying to her... the mere thought of lying to her... He could picture his mother looking down at him, shaking a finger. But telling Maggie the truth held even less appeal, trying to explain that she'd been drawn as a pawn into this shadow-life her daughter led, a throwaway decoy to lure her child from safety into the dangerous spotlight of the Cancer Man's plan.
Go back to bed, Will Wilkins.
Sighing, Will eased himself down onto the cushions and pulled the blanket closer around him. It'd been a good six months since he'd seen his sister Leticia. Busy--it was the usual excuse--him with work, her with a five and a six-year-old. Common excuse but not a very good one. Not any better than that he'd been out in that empty field with Kareem Patterson hunting for giant grasshoppers while his mother was back home, bleeding her life away on the front porch. Hadn't remembered to tell her where he was going; it had skipped his mind entirely. How many times had he gone back in his head, trying to change that one little detail?
Will coughed again. He could see Rita frowning at him. He thought of Maggie lying in bed at home with no awareness at all of what was happening to her.
"Well, gentlemen, what do we have?"
Byers looked from Frohike to Langley and back to Frohike again.
"Rani was here about an hour ago," Langley said. "He said there was nothing he could tell from the specimen you got, that we'll have to wait for something more telltale to develop."
"By then it may be too late." Frohike slammed a fist on the desktop. "That bastard. Scully's more than paid her dues with this son of a bitch. Somebody should put a bullet through his twisted head."
"Easier said than done," Byers said, his tone even. "If there's one thing Mulder and Scully have learned, it's that there are consequences to dealing with this man." He paused. "But where does that leave us? Is he likely to infect them with something flamboyant?"
"Like the Ebola virus?"
Byers frowned at Langley's suggestion. "Does he intend to kill her? Or, for that matter, did he intend to infect both Scully's mother and Wilkins? If we can figure out his rationale, we might give ourselves--or Wilkins and Mrs. Scully--a head start."
"Exotics would draw attention," Frohike said, and shrugged. "Is he likely to want attention?"
"If it looks like something the media would grab, it would end up all over the place," Langley said. "The CDC would have to get involved. They'd have to make an appearance at least, to make it look like they're on top of things."
"In which case he'd be better off with something more low key," Byers said quietly. "Something that might be...misdiagnosed, perhaps."
"Something non-contagious?" Frohike said. "An epidemic would draw a lot of attention."
"Not wildly contagious, anyway, I'd imagine."
"That'll help whoever's got to take care of them," Langley said. "If Wilkins is right about this thing, it's probably going to get a lot worse."
"Which brings us back to the question of whether he intends to kill her or just make her sick enough to draw Scully out into the open."
Byers looked at Frohike, who was leaning against the lab table. Langley's glasses reflected blue light from the computer screen.
"Anything that progresses too quickly isn't likely to be worth it to him," Frohike said finally. "I mean, if Scully doesn't bite right away and her mother dies, all this is for nothing."
"Do you think that would stop him?" It was Langley.
Frohike shook his head. "Probably not."
"He certainly doesn't seem to put much value on individual human life," Byers said. "But he will want his plan to be effective. I say we're probably looking at something that can be controlled, or that doesn't develop so rapidly that it will prove useless to him in the end."
"What about whether he intended to infect Wilkins?" Langley said.
"Wilkins is pretty sure he's not been watched. As far as he knows, he hasn't been seen in any way that would connect him to her."
"But he's gone to her house," Langley said.
"So most likely," Frohike said, "that's where they were infected."
"Apparently," Byers said, "she invited him for dinner and he offered to help her take down some old wallpaper. He said he was there until ten or eleven."
"Wallpaper?" Frohike looked horrified. "That goes way beyond the call of duty. Miles beyond throwing your cloak across a mud puddle for a beautiful damsel in distress. Of course, if it won me gold stars with Agent Scully--"
"I'm so sure." Langley rolled his eyes. "She'd just as soon kiss a frog as you."
Frohike shrugged. "It happens in fairy tales."
"Gentlemen, I think--"
A phone on the workbench rang. Byers looked at Langley, who picked it up.
"Yeah." He listened a moment, then put his hand over the receiver and held it out to Byers.
"It's Walter Skinner," he said.
Mulder slipped the mop into the wringer and pressed the water out. Lockers today--cleaning old personnel lockers and repainting them. Everything Joe'd had him do was away from other people, away from the action. And most likely away from the evidence he needed to find. Maybe Joe knew something or had something to hide... though Joe was the type who wasn't likely to have the ability to hide much of anything. He'd either boast, holding whatever he had over you, or he'd be stupid enough to trip up. Definitely no rocket scientist.
Mulder ran his mop along the base of the row of lockers, wicking up the drips that had puddled in front of them. It was still drifting inside his head: the morning, he and Scully, the way she'd smiled when she'd opened her eyes and first seen him, and the way they'd been afterward, wrapped around each other, not sad but overwhelmed by something amazing and fragile and impossible to define. There were things he'd needed to tell her, ideas to run by her, but neither of them had been able or willing to break the silence, or spell, and she'd been right: He'd been dead tired and it had been worth it just to be able to fall asleep with her. He'd be able to e-mail her tonight. And with Rita lobbying for equipment for Scully's autopsy, it wasn't likely to be long before there'd be another opportunity to go see her.
The mop splashed into the water, waking him from his reverie. He wrung it, slapped it onto the floor and began to work his way across the worn tiles in front of him, His mother's most recent e-mail drifted into the front of his mind.
Of course Smoky was greedy. He wanted it all, he wanted to control the board. At least, from behind the scenes, like the Wizard of Oz. But if his dad had thought he'd been onto something significant, then he probably had been.
Greedy enough to get caught with his hand in a jar.
But which jar?
"What do you think?" Tracy said, turning around once. She looked toward Krycek, who was settled in the recliner.
It was a white dress, pretty much like the yellow one with multicolored embroidery at the top.
"It's a good thing for the hot weather, you know? Light colors and all." She pursed her lips. "They had this really beautiful red one--deep, deep red, almost the color of velvet. But I might as well be wearing a neon sign if I went out wearing that. And I knew you'd think something that doesn't stick out in people's minds would be better. Safer. It was really pretty, though." She paused. "But I do like this."
She glanced out the window and then at the bag of groceries on the table. "You hungry, Alex?"
He shrugged. Tracy took the bag to the refrigerator and paused in front of it.
"You want to get out of here?"
She turned around, almost startled.
"I mean go somewhere. Outside D.C. If you're up for playing a little chauffeur, that is."
"Just figured a change of scenery might be nice. Some place with trees instead of buildings. Somewhere quiet without an audience. A chance to walk."
"You have a car to use?"
"Yeah. If you don't mind doing a little driving, that is. It's an automatic."
"I don't have any insurance."
"Car's insured. Anyone who drives it's covered. Besides, I'm guessing you're a careful driver?"
She nodded and looked down. She stayed that way for a while, looking at the floor or at nothing. Who knew what she was thinking.
"Will you be okay?" she said, looking up finally.
"Seats recline. It should be okay. We can bring the chair." He nodded toward it. It should make her feel better about going.
"Okay. You want me to bring something to eat?"
"Nah. We can pick up something on the way."
She opened the refrigerator, set the food inside, closed it and turned around again. "What will you tell your father if he comes by and you aren't here?"
His mouth tightened. "I'll think of something. He knows I hate lying around. It'll make him feel like I'm making progress."
Not too much progress, though. Just enough. Not enough to rush things, to make the old man think she was dispensable now. It wasn't time for that.
Rita's head appeared in the office doorway. "What's up, sis?"
"Brought you some lunch," she said, coming in. There was a brown bag in her hand.
He glanced over his reading glasses at her, impassive. "Feels like a setup," he said. He waved her to a seat, finished jotting down some calculations and set the glasses aside. He gave her a look. "What's up, Rita?"
She held her breath for a moment. "Dale, I need to go somewhere," she said quietly. "There's something I need to do. Can you keep Bethy in the evenings for a few days?"
He leaned forward across the desk. "What're you up to, Rita?"
"I can't say, Dale. You're just going to have to trust me."
He pursed his lips. There wasn't much stopping her once she'd made up her mind to something.
"I'll need you to pinch-hit for me," she said. "I asked Jim Wykoff about that equipment Annie's going to be needing. He said he'd get something together, maybe tomorrow. Can you fill in for me?"
Dale got up, went to the door and shut it quietly. "They're going to be needing someone to help dig up that grave, I suppose," he said, coming back around the desk. "Bet they've never seen a one-armed man dig." He grinned momentarily and sat down again. "I imagine Ben'll want to be going up there, too."
"You see that he does."
"Rita..." He shook a finger at her in warning. "You've got that look in your eye."
"I don't think I'm imagining things, Dale. You'll see for yourself." She paused. "Bethy'll be at Jen's after school. Will you do it for me?"
Dale shook his head. "I don't know what it is but you're up to something, Rita May. You just watch out. You're the only sister I've got."
"I will. You know I will."
"I know you intend to. But sometimes reality's a different thing altogether."
"I know that, Dale."
He looked at her a long time. "Then godspeed. But you be careful."
She nodded and got up. He watched her go to the door, open it and let herself out. Dale eased himself back farther into the chair. Sometimes there were things she simply had to do. He had no idea what they were all about, what it was that drove her. Of course, he'd done the same from time to time. Twenty-some-odd years ago--no, it was thirty now--he'd had to rush out into the middle of a crossfire to retrieve a kid sprawled across a dead man.
Sandy surfaced suddenly and swam to the ledge overhanging the pool.
"I see why your father calls you Otter," Scully said, shading her eyes from the midday brightness.
"I like the water," she said simply. "Always have. I have a spot near my house where I swim, but I like this, too. Hey, Adrie!"
Scully turned. Adrie was in the shadow of the trees, building something with sticks and bark.
"Don't you want to come in the water? Come on."
Adrie shook his head. "It's too deep there."
"The pool's deep. But if we come down the other side next time there's a nice shallow place... over there." Sandy pointed. "Like a bathtub, Adrie. Will you try it then?"
He looked at the rocks on the far bank. "Okay," he said.
"What about you, Annie?"
"A swimsuit's not anything I thought to bring."
"I can find you something. I don't usually wear one myself--not when I've got a private spot to swim, anyway. Water feels too good slipping past your skin to put clothes in the way of it." She held onto the broad rock in front of her and pulled herself out of the water. "I'm going to Wal-Mart tonight anyway," she said. "I'll see if they have something that'll fit you."
She took a towel and rubbed at her hair with it. "Was that Ben we passed this morning on the trail? I noticed the truck parked up by the road."
Scully worked to suppress a smile.
"What's he doing while you're up here?"
"Looking for leads, like I am. He got a job at the plant the other day." She smiled ruefully. "Maintenance. It's not exactly his area of expertise but--"
"You mean maintenance maintenance?"
"I think so. Why?"
"I feel sorry for him, then." Sandy shook her head. "Real sorry."
"Cleaning not your thing?"
"It's not that. It's Joe Charters. Oh, this is so weird." She looked across the water and back at Scully. "He's Ben's supervisor then, ain't he?"
"Mul--" Scully cleared her throat. "Ben did mention something about Joe."
"He's such a--" She shook her head and made a face. "I'm know I'm running off at the mouth here and I probably shouldn't. But Joe's such a pig. I should know, I guess." She shrugged. "He's my mom's boyfriend."
Mulder sat on the shady end of the picnic table, feet on the seat, head in hands. Painting was for... painters. It was one of those jobs that should come with a warning label. The last couple of hours had gone by, though, and with them his 2:30 break. No real percentage in leaving brushes and rollers to dry out while you took ten minutes, though, and Joe could easily have said 'miss your time, lose your break'. But by some stroke of fortune he hadn't said it. Maybe he was finally starting to crack.
There had to be something to it. It had stuck with his mother all these years, one of those subconscious things, only to be brought back now, summoned by... She'd been thinking about him. She wanted to help and that in itself continued to amaze him. He shook his head and looked up. Smoky never rushed, but he'd rushed this time: to get Skinner out of the way, to pull Scully from doing the analysis. To get everybody away from the plant. The syndicate could easily be siphoning off a quantity of the beryllium produced here for experimental craft or whatever other pies they had their fingers in--defense...
Offense, more likely. How many uses could there be for a material lighter than aluminum and six times as strong as steel? It was a number limited only by the imagination.
But Smoky would have stayed on top of the Consortium's little operation here. That part would have been organized, smooth, managed like the business it undoubtedly was. If it were his personal beryllium operation that was in danger of being exposed by the investigation, it never would have gotten to first base. The investigation would've been quashed before it ever started. The haste... It had to be something else. Something more.
Mulder straightened, looked at his watch, pulled his legs up onto the tabletop and lay back. Sun glinted through the layered green canopy of the massive oak overhead. It had to be something more private, possibly with a more personal stake in it for Smoky himself.
"Hey, Hollywood. Got a match?"
Mulder pulled up slightly and squinted. A tow-headed man stood by the next table, a pack of cigarettes in his hand.
Mulder shrugged. "Sorry."
The man set the pack on the table top and dug into each pocket in turn, taking out money, folded papers, change. The pocket of his shirt held an inhaler. "Shit." He started to put the pocket contents away. "Can't believe I lost another lighter."
"Maybe a smoke's not what you need," Mulder said, nodding toward the inhaler.
"Hey, it's my life, California. Never know it, though, for all the advice I get. Judgment-free space around here's already been taken, apparently."
Mulder sat up. "You work in the other building?"
The man nodded. "Five years."
"And they hassle you over there so you come here to smoke?"
The man's eyebrows rose and he nodded. "You can add 'em up, alright, Hollywood." He stuffed the last of the money into his back pocket. "Say, who'd you piss off to get assigned to maintenance?"
"Just needed the money," Mulder said. "It's all they've got right now." He shrugged. "Gotta pay the rent somehow. Gotta live."
"Pay's better over there. Tow-Head nodded toward the assembly building. "Though some say you take your raise, you take your chances."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"There's stories--about the clean room. I don't put any stock in 'em. People got an excuse for everything these days. Always lookin' for someone to pin their miseries on." He shrugged. "Lawyers like it. Even had the FBI in here a couple of weeks ago."
"No kidding? What were they looking for?"
"Violations. Safety violations. So they say."
A sharp whistle came from the direction of the building. Both men turned to look. Joe stood in an open doorway. He pointed at Mulder and indicated a spot beside him with an exaggerated, sweeping gesture and then repeated it.
Mulder sighed. "Guess I gotta go learn how to heel." He eased himself off the table. "See you around."
Mulder started toward the building. Two minutes over his break time. Joe'd probably see to it that they docked his pay.
"It's a lot dif--" Tracy frowned and pressed her lips together. "Sorry. I know I already said that. My mom's truck was pretty big, I guess. I'm not used to sitting down this low."
She'd been nervous inside D.C., not used to the car and the amount of traffic. But even after fifteen minutes along the Parkway she was still sitting forward in the driver's seat like she was trying to see down over something. Krycek set his jaw and looked out the window, watching treetops whiz by. They were all that was visible with the seat reclined.
Maybe this wasn't such a great idea after all. Maybe it was the whole dynamic, just something in the one setting, in his room--his building--that made it work, while out here they were like Cinderella and a pumpkin on the roadside after midnight. He closed his eyes but he could feel her tension, probably a little like what she felt when she read him: awkwardness, conflict and whatever else it was that'd had its claws in her since the night before.
"You should have told me if you didn't want to come." He looked over at her.
"I thought you wanted to do this."
"I figured it would be a chance to walk, yeah, without an audience. I thought you'd like the trees, the chance to get out of town."
Her lower lip wavered.
"Look, Tracy, if you didn't want to, you should've said something. I'm not psychic. I can't just reach in there and pull it out of you."
"I'm supposed to be helping you, Alex. I thought you wanted to." She blinked, then blinked again.
"Not if you didn't want to do it. Look, you've got to learn to speak up for yourself. You can be so damned accommodating."
"Well, it's the way I am. I can't help it. Can you help being the way you are?"
Nice move, stupid.
Tears were streaming down her face now and her knuckles were white where she gripped the steering wheel. He turned toward the window and raised the seat back several notches.
"Tracy, pull over. This is crazy. Just find a spot and pull over before--"
It was all going to hell. There was that familiar feeling, the realization you got when you were out of your depth, when you'd picked the wrong target or scaled the wrong wall--a loud internal beeping like the alarm on a breached security fence.
Tracy signaled briefly and turned off into a grove. The car came to a stop and the driver's door opened. She got out and ran. Krycek sank back against the seat and closed his eyes.
He wasn't made for this.
Mulder rolled his cleaning cart to the final set of lockers. They were dusty. Hell, they were tucked into a corner that probably hadn't been used in years by anything but spiders. Maybe it was just another exercise; maybe the company had no intention of using them. He could just be cleaning them for the punishment value. Though Joe hadn't specifically said to go ahead with them today. But there were fifteen minutes left before freedom hit. Maybe showing some initiative would get you moved up the chore list sooner. Like over into the other building where there was bound to be more information to be found than here in the catacombs of the maintenance building.
He went along the row, lifting the latches on the lockers, upper then lower, upper and lower. An old baseball glove sat in one, stiff from what had to be at least a decade of non-use. He took it out. It was a small glove, made for a kid's hand, or a girl's.
Samantha'd had a glove. His mother had wondered, in that way mothers do when they let their opinions be known with their eyebrows, whether it was really what she wanted--a mother's way of saying you can't really want that; it's not a girl thing. But Samantha had stuck to her guns. They'd played some catch back then; it was before they'd started to find themselves on opposite sides of the fence so often, something about the passage of time or development that sent you off in opposite, conflicting directions. Their split had hurt him more than it hurt her. She was just stretching herself, after all, trying to define herself, while he remembered the things she probably never would or could: the way he'd sheltered her when she was small, little Fox Junior Parent wrapping a symbolic blanket around her to protect her when the atmosphere at home got too icy.
Mulder took off the glove, tossed it into the trash bag on his cart and opened the next door. Spider webs. One of those little cardboard trays from inside a candy wrapper. He took the tray and dabbed it into the web, twisting the reluctant strands onto it like gray cotton candy.
The door to the final lower locker was stuck. He took a firmer stance and lifted until the latch and lock holes aligned. Inside were four cardboard boxes sealed with packing tape. New boxes. Mulder put his hand in his pocket and fingered his pocket knife. There was no way to cut into them without someone noticing, and the packing tape would rip the top layer of the cardboard if he tried to replace it. He took his hand from his pocket, reached inside the locker and picked up the top box. Neither very heavy nor very light. Lighter than a box filled with aluminum? He shook the box carefully. There was slight movement, contents thudding softly against the sides, everything inside it moving together. Or maybe it was just one item.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Mulder set the box inside quickly and moved back to the cleaning cart. Bottle of spray cleaner out, a squirt of light blue liquid on the first locker. Joe walked up behind him.
"No real point in you starting that now," he said. "You got four minutes. You can go get the trash from my office and dump it."
Mulder nodded. "No point starting a project," he echoed, keeping his voice even. He set the spray cleaner back in the tray on top of the cart and started toward the stairs.
"Make sure you wash the can out good after you dump it," Joe's voice came after him. "I like it clean."
Mulder pressed his lips together hard and let a mental picture of Scully block out Joe's chatter.
Krycek walked slowly along a trail paved in a cushiony layer of brown, last year's leaves compacted and decaying. Everything overhead was green, but for some reason he saw fall in his mind, the trees hung in bright colors, the forest floor beneath them carpeted with layers of yellows and reds.
The car keys were in his pocket. Three weeks ago he might have just set himself behind the wheel and driven away. No, he would have, without a second thought. But it wasn't two weeks ago and things were different. Granted, making him take off after her didn't line up very well with her job description and she should realize that. But she was a kid, for fuck's sake, and she got overwhelmed like a kid.
Krycek leaned against a tree to rest and scanned the area: lush greens and quiet--just not the kind he'd been hoping for. A crest in the trail was only a gentle rise away. She'd want that view--to be able to look out over the ridgelines. Slowly, he straightened and started off again, pacing himself. There was no point in calling out. It might just make her run farther, or faster.
IT was only a few dozen more steps to the place where the trail leveled out, but what energy he'd had was fading fast, the combined result of the wound and two weeks of lying around doing nothing. Probably he could have gotten Mulder to give him the tape without jumping Scully from the closet. It was just the terror value of the act; it had become so second-nature that he never questioned it, but it had turned on him this time.
He paused, winded, then started out again. At the top of the trail he stopped to pant against another tree, its bark rough against his cheek and temple. Three ridge lines spread across the horizon in pale shades of green and blue. His legs were beginning to shake. He closed his eyes, gripped the tree harder, then opened them again and glanced around. There, off to the left. She was sitting in a small clearing, cross-legged, her back to him. But she'd know he was here.
Letting out a sigh, he pushed himself away from the tree and started forward again. He shouldn't have gone after her like this. It was using up what energy he'd gained back. He could have waited for her in the car. She'd have had to come back eventually.
Everything he'd said had come out wrong.
Another deep breath and he continued forward, coming up behind her. Her head was down. Her shoulders were shaking.
She made no move to turn or acknowledge him.
"Tracy, look." For a second his anger spiked. Then a flash of memory: her in the dark that first night, haloed by the hall light, sweeping in like his guardian angel to rescue him when he was stranded at the window. "Look, I--"
There was nothing close to lean on, but his legs weren't going to hold out much longer. He set his jaw and eased himself down to his knees. She was close enough that he could almost feel the warmth of her body.
"Back there." He took a deep breath. "Sorry."
She sat up straighter and let out a ragged breath. "I ran, Alex." She choked on a sob. "She was dying and I couldn't take it. I ran as far and as fast"--she gulped air--"as I could, and I... left her... all alone." She curled forward and shook.
He breathed out slowly. "Your mom?"
"Tracy... Hey." Reaching out, he set his hand on her shoulder. "Look, she wouldn't have wanted you to go through that, not the way you are. It scared the hell out of me, when I had that reaction, thinking you'd... that you'd feel it, that you might get sucked into it, have it affect you. All I could think was... besides I might die and what a stupid, pointless way to go... was to try to keep you away. Away from that."
"I know." She breathed out, a long, jerky breath. "I heard you, Alex."
"She wouldn't want that for you. Nobody'd want that for you."
He sighed and pulled gently on her shoulder until she leaned back against him. He put his good arm around her, looked up at the treetops and let her cry.
I've determined the location of our potential specimen. The spot is not far from the house, so care will have to be exercised to keep mother and son from noticing lights and activity if this is undertaken at night. I've heard nothing further yet regarding necessary equipment. Let me know if anyone has mentioned anything to you.
Thank you beyond words for your gift of yourself this morning. I've carried
it with me all day. Quite an amazing balcony, this.
Another puzzle, potentially something: discovered four brand new sealed cardboard boxes, unlabeled, in an old locker in the far corner of the basement--a set of lockers that seems not to have been used in years. Didn't have a chance to check out the contents before you-know-who happened along. Banish that man to St. Helena, or the Sahara, or maybe Mongolia. Let him spend the rest of his life sitting in a yurt.
I'll try to break this to you as gently as I can, Lark, but a new woman has come into my life. Fairy Godmother has flown off for a few days and left B with Uncle D and me. She's so unlike anything Samantha ever was, quiet and soft-spoken and likes to curl up against you and read. I think I understand some of what she feels, but it's nothing you can put into words and she seems to derive whatever it is she needs by just sitting there tucked up against you. I let her read me a whole chapter of Little House on the Prairie tonight. Amazing what people lived through in those days, and we think we've got it tough.
Growing more jealous of those pillows of yours every day. Did I mention Uncle D said tomorrow's the night? Though I suppose we'll have to act like a couple of professionals. (Guess you can't have everything, but you can knock yourself out trying just on the outside chance.)
Stuck here on a Friday night singing out for you (however
Skinner parked his car and turned off the ignition.
"You know, I can't advise that you do this," he said, looking sternly toward the occupant in the passenger seat. "We don't know what this illness--this disease--is yet, whether it's contagious, what it may develop into." The corner of his mouth twitched.
"But your best guess--all your huddling with those other fellows--is that it most likely isn't contagious."
"It's only a guess at this point, but we've got nothing--no medical evidence--to back that up." His lips pressed together; he paused. "Yes, it's our best guess, but nothing's certain yet, except that this man, the Cancer Man, is always three steps ahead of us. We can't assume we've got him cornered this time. Rita, I'd hate to see--"
"You're not going to convince me, Walter. You know that."
Skinner let out a sigh. "Yes, I know that."
"Well, then, let me know which one is his apartment, because the boy's bound to need some help and there's no reason he should be going through this alone."
"It's my duty to--"
"Stop it, Walter. I know when I'm taking a chance." She paused. "Now you've got a kid up there--a good kid and probably a scared kid--who could use some assistance."
Skinner stared out at the darkened street and tapped his thumbs against the steering wheel. "All right," he said. He opened the door and got out. "But I'm doing this against my better judgment."
She opened her door and followed suit. "Better judgment isn't everything."
He scowled at her over the top of the car at her. "What did you say?"
"Nothing. Just talking to myself."
Rita picked up her overnight bag and followed Skinner along the darkened sidewalk, inside and up to #202 at the top of the stairs. Skinner rang the bell.
"He could be asleep," Skinner said. "He might not even notice the bell." He took a step back, then reached forward and rang the buzzer again. He glanced up, at the hall light.
"Who is it?" came a muffled voice from inside.
The latch turned and Will's head appeared in the doorway. His eyes were bloodshot and he was shivering. A blanket was pulled tight around his shoulders.
"How are you doing, Agent?"
Will grimaced. His hair was messy, puffier than usual. "I think I'm holding on, sir."
"I, uh... was railroaded into this." Skinner nodded toward Rita, who stepped up the last few stairs into the light. "She insisted that I bring her over here."
Will closed his eyes and leaned his head against the edge of the door. "Mother J--"
"Nonsense, Will. This is no laughing matter. I may be as reckless as you, but you need help right now and I'm here. I can't just sit home and be satisfied thinking warm thoughts about you." She paused. "You're probably not very comfortable standing there. Why don't you go back to bed."
Wilkins looked at Skinner.
"She drives a tough bargain," Skinner said.
"Guess I'm not in much of a position to argue at the moment," Will said. He looked at Rita. "Okay." He opened the door wider and let her in.
Rita turned to face Skinner. "No sense both of us taking chances here. I'll let you know how he's doing."
"Send me an e-mail," he said. "And be careful. Be as careful as you possibly can."
"I have every intention of it. Will"--she turned to him--"go make yourself comfortable. I'll take care of this."
Will nodded slightly and turned to go down the hall.
"I'll keep you posted, Walter. This has got to stop somewhere. It's gone far enough." Rita paused. "I need to go see what I can do for him now."
Skinner nodded, turned and started down the stairs. Rita locked the door, leaned against it, paused and then went to the doorway she'd seen Will go through. He was lying in bed, shaking slightly. He looked up when he saw her.
"I'm not sure--" he began.
"About anything, Mother J." He looked up at the ceiling.
"How bad is the fever?" she said quietly.
"104 last time I checked." He turned toward her. "Guess I'm scared."
She came closer. "I am, too, Will. But there's two of us here now and we'll fight it together."
Tracy stuck her head into the darkened room. "Alex?"
"I just noticed you were still awake."
"What, you can't sleep, either?" He paused. "Come on."
She went inside and shut the door. Picking up the desk chair, she carried it to the bed and sat down on it sideways.
"So what's keeping you awake?" he said, looking up at her through the shadows.
"Lots of things, I guess. About what you said... I guess I just wanted to be there for her, to be everything she needed, and it's hard, you know, realizing that you fall short." She shifted on the chair.
"There's no way you can know everything going into a situation for the first time. You fumble through. You make mistakes." A pause. "But you learn." He glanced down at his stomach and shook his head. "Like this. I probably could have skipped this whole damn thing--this bullet--if I'd just understood."
"That Scully'd take a chance like that. That she'd do anything to save him. Hell, why anybody'd go that far."
Tracy leaned against the chair back beside her and stared at the leaves in the narrow window. Eventually she shifted on her chair. "I didn't mean to wear you out this afternoon, Alex," she said finally. "Or make you overdo it. I want to apologize for that."
He offered a non-committal grunt. "I'll live. I just feel like I scaled Mt. Everest instead of a little two-bit trail."
"Though it was actually a little funny at the end there."
"When I couldn't get back on my feet?" He tried for gruffness but a hint of amusement warmed his voice. "Did I mention these have been two of the most awkward weeks I've ever spent on this planet?" He shook his head and looked over at her. "And you out there playing Pippi Longstocking, trying to stand me up."
"Pippi Longstocking. You know--from the kids' stories."
"Guess I never read them."
"No? I thought everybody did. There was this one old woman, where I grew up. She used to come sometimes and read us those books"--he looked up at the ceiling--"about a girl who lives in a house all by herself. Does whatever she wants. She's got this pet monkey and a horse, and pigtails--braids--like the ones you were wearing the other day at the hospital, only they stick straight out to the sides. She's strong enough to lift up her horse with one hand." He paused, his voice fading into quiet.
Tracy rested her head on her arm.
She sighed. "I have something to ask you. Something I don't have any right to ask you, really. I mean, I came here to help you, but I've been on the receiving end more often than not." She took a deep breath. He'd told her she had to speak up for herself; that her child would need that example from her. "You know how... how I have a hard time dealing with pain?"
"Nobody gets to choose their pain threshold."
"I guess. But--" She put her feet up on the chair rungs. "I'm afraid... when the baby comes... you know, how I'll make it through that."
He sat waiting in the dark.
"If I can come to you... in my head, like in the hospital the other night..." She paused, waiting for any reaction, but the room was silent. Blood buzzed in her ears. "Will you stay with me? So I'm not alone?"
Water sounded in the pipes above the bathroom, someone running a shower upstairs, trickling sounds followed by the music of a strong flow.
It was a crazy thing to ask a man; she realized that as soon as the words left her mouth. This was the kind of obligation even devoted men wanted to run from. But it was too late now.
In the shadows on the bed, Alex cleared his throat.
"Yeah." His voice was quiet. "You let me know when."
"It's a mail from Skinner," Langley said, his eyes on the computer screen. "He's been to see Wilkins. Condition hasn't changed as far as he can tell, but Wilkins has someone staying with him now, so we're assured of regular updates."
"Who?" Frohike said. "Can they be trusted?"
"Someone Wilkins and Skinner both know. A granny."
"A 'granny'?" Frohike looked at him, one eyebrow raised. "Was that Skinner's term or yours?"
"You know--some old lady. Apparently she knows what's going on here. She was involved in that beryllium case somehow."
"So she can be trusted."
"Guess so. Skinner was the one who took her there."
Frohike let out a sigh. "So where does that leave us? Have we heard from Mulder or Scully lately?"
"Nothing in the last couple of days."
"Well, at least we haven't had to start lying to them outright yet. Mulder'll bust our asses when he finds out." Frohike paused. "Mrs. Scully's still the big question mark. Byers can't go check on her again without telling her something, and which of us wants to be the one to let her in on the sorry truth?" He forced his voice lower. "Mrs. Scully, I'm afraid you've been infected with a deadly disease for the express purpose of luring your daughter into the hands of the world's biggest scumbag." He paused and looked at his companion. "Volunteers?" A pause. "Didn't think so."
"What if we could get Skinner to go visit Mrs. Scully?" Langley said. "We could get a report that way and it would look completely legit."
"The Cancer Man's already watching him. And what's he going to say about how he knew she was sick in the first place?"
"All useless speculation, I'm afraid," a voice came from the doorway. Byers walked in. "I just talked to Rani. He pointed out, and rightly so, that if Mrs. Scully's house was the origin of the infection, then leaving her there is only going to make her case worse. And she's at greater risk, with her age, than Wilkins to begin with. We're going to have to get her out of there somehow."
"Yeah, and what are we going to tell her?" Langley said.
"More to the point, physical appearances being what they are," Frohike said, indicating himself and Langley, then focusing on Byers, "What are you going to tell her?"
It was a postage stamp of a park, but it had a drinking fountain and at the moment that was the important thing. Mulder leaned over and let cold water flood his mouth and throat. He stood up again and stretched. He'd gotten out of the habit of running. The recreational kind, anyway. He went to a nearby picnic bench, put one foot up on the seat and eased slowly forward, letting his muscles stretch. Once, twice, three times, ten times. He switched to the other leg and repeated the process, then stood and leaned back against the edge of the table. Somebody else was drinking at the fountain now. Long brown hair held back in one hand, muscled legs. Bare feet. The girl's head came up suddenly; the brown mane swung around behind her. She wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of a hand and looked around.
He smiled to himself in sudden recognition. It was Scully's little widow.
She focused on him and took a step in his direction.
"You're Ben, aren't you?"
Mulder nodded. "You always run like that, without shoes?"
"Mostly," she said. "Until it gets too cold and my feet freeze."
"And it doesn't hurt? You don't get cut or anything?"
She shook her head. "You gotta know your route. You keep away from the main roads where drunks throw their bottles, you know? Mostly I take the trails from my house. There's one that comes out behind Rita Johnston's."
She pointed in the direction of Rita's house, then paused. "Annie said--" She looked up and squinted into the light behind him. "She said you were the one who figured out Cy didn't..." Her lips twisted. "Thanks. It's"--she shook her head--"it's all awful, but it's less, you know, knowing he didn't do it. He wouldn't do anything like that." She swallowed and looked away. "Anyway, thanks."
"No problem. Just doing my job. Or what was my job."
"I heard you got stuck working for Joe. I feel for you, believe me."
Mulder shrugged. "It's a start. Got to start somewhere. Which reminds me, there's a guy I ran across yesterday at work. About my height, pale blond hair. Late twenties. Smoker. Uses an inhaler. You know anything about him?"
"That'd be Alan Harder. Yeah, I know him. He was a hunting buddy of Cy's."
"You know which part of the plant he works in?"
"You think he might have that disease, like Andy Johnston?"
"I don't know. It's a place to start. If the connections are there."
"I don't know. I never paid much attention. Annie asked me that, too." She shook her head, focused on something in the distance and smiled suddenly. "But, you know, here comes somebody who might know. Two somebodies, in fact."
She nodded toward two figures approaching arm-in-arm. Both carried white canes. The man's body shape and facial features showed all the signs of Down's syndrome. The woman was possibly a victim of Down's, too. With complications.
"They call 'em the Velcro Twins around here. Ray and Debbie. Some people make fun of 'em, but they're nice. They know a lot more than they let on to people who don't stop and get to know them." She paused and looked toward them. "Hey, Debbie. Hey, Ray."
The couple adjusted their course and headed toward Sandy's voice. Both appeared to be in their twenties.
"Hey, Sandy," Ray said thickly. A gap-toothed smile appeared momentarily, then was swallowed up in concentration.
"Maybe you guys can help me out here with something," Sandy said when the two had reached the table. "Oh, this is Ben. He's new in town."
"Ben from Hollywood?" Debbie asked, looking in Mulder's general direction.
Mulder groaned inwardly. "Yeah. Nice to meet you."
"Have you met any movie stars?"
"Look, Debbie, do you guys know where Alan Harder works at the plant? What part of the plant?"
"Clean room," Ray said. "Big pay."
"He wheezes," Debbie added. She nodded her head as if keeping time to music.
"Two years now," Ray went on. "Him and Mo-Mo-Mo..." He paused and scowled. "Momo Durosiak." He smiled now. "They started at the same time there. Clean room."
"Angie Connors wheezes," Debbie said, still nodding.
"Does she work there?" Mulder said. "In the clean room?"
Debbie nodded. "Eight years, six months. She's tired, tired of working there but her ex don't pay," she went on rhythmically. "Kids to raise, groceries to buy."
"Rent to pay," Ray chimed in.
There was a pause. Debbie continued to nod; Ray looked as if he were sniffing at something in the air. He had his arm wrapped around Debbie's like a twist tie. They hadn't let go of each other the entire time.
"You guys headed somewhere?" Sandy said.
"Uh-huh." Ray smiled crookedly. "Birthday."
"Misty Wilson. She's three today," Debbie said. "Come on, Ray. Time to go."
She reached out with her cane and led Ray toward the path. Mulder and Sandy watched them make their way across the park.
"That help you at all?" she said, looking up at Mulder.
"Hope so. It's a place to start. Knowing who to ask is half the game." He raised his eyebrows. "Ever think of working for the FBI?"
Sandy gave him a look. "You're kidding, right?"
Annie and I keep coming up with little puzzle pieces that may be part of a larger whole, but who knows if they're even part of the one we need to solve. There's always this sense of impending... I don't know, the need to do something--accomplish something--before everything has a chance to blow up in our faces. I guess I worry about Annie mostly. In one respect she's been getting stronger and stronger; she even smiles easily now. But how long that will last if we don't make some progress on the larger front is anyone's guess.
Be extra careful of your own security, Mom. A colleague has speculated that if he can't find us, L may try to move against Annie's mom in order to flush her out and separate us. I know he talked concern for you when you had the stroke, but I don't think it would hold for long if you looked like the only way to get to me. Sorry to drag you into this on my coattails and thanks for your continued support. It's a big help to know you're out there.
"How are you doing, Alex?"
The old man's faux-cheery voice drifted through the phone. Krycek tensed.
"Okay. I'm doing okay." He pushed a pillow out of the way.
"I thought you'd want to know that we finally caught up with our mole from the first district."
A thin streak of panic stabbed him, like a knife in the gut.
"He hasn't told us anything yet," the old man continued casually, "but I thought you might like to come down and add your questions to the information-gathering process."
"I--" His heart raced, though everything around him had gone cold and slow, as if the world had suddenly frozen. He swallowed. "Yeah, whatever. Sure."
"Good. I'll send someone by to pick you up. Say twenty minutes?"
The phone shook slightly in his hand and he could feel the sudden bloom of sweat on his forehead. "Yeah. Twenty."
The line went dead. Krycek squeezed his eyes shut
momentarily and opened them to the cracked ceiling overhead, heart pounding, his pulse
drumming loudly in his ears.
She was beside the bed, standing over him. The phone lay beeping in his hand. Krycek pushed the 'off' button and let it drop onto the mattress.
This could be it--the end. Likely Buzz would spill everything and the old man would be right there to witness it, smug and gloating at having caught him red-handed. Probably the way he'd been when he'd handed Cardenal and his goon buddy the keys to the car with the bomb wired to it. Or the way he'd smiled when he'd peered into the locked silo bay; he could swear he'd seen the old fucker's face there, pressed up briefly against the glass.
"Alex, does he know?" Her eyes were wide with alarm.
He shook his head. "No way to tell for sure." But it was just the kind of set-up the old man loved best: Corner your enemy and watch him squirm while you trotted out the evidence against him.
"Alex, then don't stay here. Go. Get away from him."
"I'd never be able to get away from him in this shape."
There was Ché. The Czech would put everything he had in to hiding him, but the old man would find him eventually and then they'd both be dead.
Nineteen minutes now.
Krycek pulled himself up and let his legs down over the side of the bed. Tracy was standing at the window now, looking out. Nineteen. Enough time to take a piss, put on the harness and the arm, find his shoes...
What a fucking stupid way to go out.
He leaned forward and rested his head in his hand. Blood beat a steady, heavy rhythm through his temple. He'd been about to eat but there was no way he'd be able to keep anything down now.
There was no time.
There'd be the old man, Buzz, and what? Two of his goons? Probably. Not good odds.
He glanced up. Tracy was standing by the small desk, her fingers stroking the yellow sweater like a cat kneading.
"Hey," he said softly.
He wouldn't be the only one to lose if this meeting went bad.
She turned toward him, reading his mental invitation, and came to sit down on the floor beside him, her back against the bed. She drew her legs up in front of her and wrapped her arms around them. "You don't know," she said, staring toward the window. "Things never work out exactly the way you picture them happening. It could be okay."
But it was logic speaking--blind hope--and not her intuition.
"Sometimes you've just got to be strong; you don't get a choice." His hand settled on her shoulder. "You can do it. Don't let anybody tell you you can't."
She nodded, an attempt at strength, but a second later her head came to rest against his knee.
Breathe, Aleksei; clear your head. Take your own advice.
Gradually he forced the nervous rhythm inside him to quiet. Time began to slow. He felt his blood flow, his heart pump, the sensation of his skin where it touched anything, alive and breathing and yearning to stay that way.
He had to keep a clear head.
If he'd ever needed one, now was the time.
Margaret Scully looked up at the visitor standing at the foot of her bed.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Scully," Byers said quietly. "I know all this must sound like some kind of fantasy to you--a fiction. But I assure you the signs are all there. You and Wilkins both fell ill at the same time, with identical symptoms."
"But it could be anything." She sighed. "It could be"--her hands went up--"coincidence."
"If one of you had infected the other, there would have been an incubation period for the second person. Besides, Mrs. Scully, we're talking about a man who does things for calculated effect, a man who came here, to your own front door, to tell you your daughter was missing precisely for the impact it would have on you, to terrorize you and to get you to act in a way that would benefit him--to start a police investigation that might uncover your daughter."
Maggie coughed and closed her eyes. "I want to talk to Dana."
"None of us knows where she and Mulder are right now. It's for their own protection. Now, I could send them an e-mail and have them call me at a pay phone, but at the moment we're trying to protect her. The man's objective is to use your illness to draw her out of hiding. He knows that her natural tendency will be to want to come to you. You're bait to him, Mrs. Scully, psychological as well as physical. If you talk to your daughter, even if she were to realize this was a trap and resist the temptation to show herself, she'd still experience terrible anxiety, not to mention a good deal of guilt. You can't want that for her."
Maggie started to shake her head and winced. "No," she said, her voice dry. "Of course not." She opened her eyes. They stung. She could feel the weight of the moisture pooling in them. "How did it come to this? How did Dana get mixed up in all of this?"
"Sometimes circumstances snare us," Byers said. "Things that have nothing to do with any conscious choice we've made." He paused. "And the heroic among us are the ones who take up the challenge of those circumstances and make something positive of them. Your daughter's certainly done that. This man--the Cancer Man--has taken it upon himself to use other people as pawns to further his own selfish purposes. We're trying to see that he succeeds as little as possible."
"How is Will?" Maggie asked, easing her head to one side.
"About the same as you. He has someone staying with him now, to take care of him and keep us apprised of his condition. But we're concerned about you, Mrs. Scully, for the two reasons I already stated: because you're here alone and because if something in this house is indeed the source of infection as we suspect, then you're exposing yourself to further danger by remaining here."
She shook her head, bewildered. "But this is my home. Where would I go?"
"I don't like to suggest this, but we have to assume this illness you have will progress to some further stage, so it would be advisable for you to be somewhere proper care can be given. We have a friend, an extremely capable physician--Harvard grad--who could take care of you privately. Or he's also on the staff at St. Anne's in Silver Spring. The advantages and disadvantages as we see them are that in a private setting we could be sure you aren't being watched or possibly manipulated by this man's associates. However, if you were to essentially disappear, he'd surely be suspicious, which might lead him to try something even more drastic to flush Mulder and your daughter out of the woodwork. The hospital, on the other hand, is more public. But it's also where he'd expect you to go, so he's not likely to suspect that anyone is aware of your actual situation and working to help you."
Maggie sighed again and closed her eyes.
"I have to emphasize that because we already know there's something more here than meets the eye, we have a much better chance of finding out what it is that's affecting the two of you." He paused and looked down briefly. "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Mrs. Scully, but your daughter's safety and your own require that some decisions be made, and made soon."
Maggie moistened her lips and looked up at the ceiling, then at Byers.
"Give me five minutes," she said. "I need to think about this. Will you wait in the other room, please?"
Byers nodded at her and went quietly out.
"Alex, they're here."
He was standing at the window, staring out but seeing nothing. She felt him close his eyes.
After a pause she came up beside him. Instinctively his hand came out; just as instinctively, she took it. She could feel everything pumping through him: blood, adrenaline, tension. His life, his past.
"You have her number?" His voice was sand.
"I memorized it, Alex."
"If I don't come back in a few hours, don't stay. He'll come looking for you. Go, just... get the hell away from here. Take the money in the book. And be careful."
She pressed against his fingers. "I will."
There was more he wanted to say, but he needed to stay focused.
The men were in the stairwell, climbing the first flight of stairs. Now they'd reached the landing. Now they were starting up the second flight.
"They're coming, Alex."
He looked at her a moment, lost for words. "Go," he said finally.
She slipped into the bathroom, closed the door and leaned against it in the dark.
From her hiding place, she heard the door open. The men were inside, opening the wheelchair, settling Alex in it, their minds empty; they had no agenda other than to deliver. Alex was quaking inside, stomach tight. She could feel the knot hard in his throat, the heavy pounding of his blood.
Outwardly, he showed nothing.
Sandy pushed the toy car back and forth absently along the edge of the display shelf. What on earth had made her think it would be safe to come here today, a day when kids were off school and there was no way to avoid the sight of parents with little boys and girls, infants in strollers and toddlers walking along tugging on a parent's hand? All those kids with their parents going through the store, smiling or whining or whatever, but every one of them alive. She swallowed and made the car go back and forth again, her ache for Roddy swelling to unbearable proportions. She should have come here last night, not on a Saturday when the store would be full.
Her eyelids pressed tightly together. She could see Roddy again, running across the yard, taking those big, exaggerated steps to scale the front stairs, curls bouncing, face dirty and beaming. Hey, Mom, he'd say. Annie hadn't said where he'd been shot, except that it had been quick and efficient. She didn't want to know--didn't ever want to picture him that way. But it didn't make her stop wondering, either.
Gradually the urgency of her yearning passed. Sandy sucked in a breath and made herself open her eyes. There was that swimsuit she'd promised to look for. If they even had anything that small. Annie was so tiny and perfectly shaped, but beyond that put together and calm and she knew so much; she didn't go flying off the handle at every little thing. Sandy swallowed and made herself turn and move off into the aisle that led toward the swimsuits.
Keeping her focus on the smiley faces hanging from overhead in order not to see the people with kids, she counted down the aisles to go to the swimsuits: four, three, two. A display of backpacks caught her eye and she stopped. It'd be a good idea, something to wear when she went up to Adrie's, to put things in that she might want to carry up there. There were always things to share, things Adrie would like to see, pretty stones from the creek, or leaves, or other things she found along the way. It would leave her hands free.
She turned to find Ryan Norton towering over her. He just looked like a regular person today, no uniform, no snazzy suit.
He gave her a funny smile. Something was coming, that was for sure.
"I got to make a trip into Lexington tomorrow, to deliver some stuff. You ever ridden in a limo, Sandy? You're welcome to come along. It's a cool car."
She made herself smile. He was standing inside her space, just a little too close. Probably a calculated little too close. He could be a pig, but maybe this was one of those extra deliveries he got paid for. Maybe the information was something Ben and Annie could use. Maybe they could catch the butcher who'd shot Cy and Roddy without any thought for what it would do to anyone else, the effect it would have.
"Yeah, maybe. No, I've never ridden in one before. How long you gonna be gone?"
"Just there and back mostly. Maybe an hour and a half."
An hour and a half would be manageable. It could be worth the effort. "Yeah, sure, I'll come. What time?"
"I'll pick you up around eleven. Your place?"
"You know, I really like to go running in the morning. Why don't I just meet you at Daily's? Then you won't have to get your car all dusty going up my road." Home was too close. There was no way she was inviting this guy anywhere near her front door.
Ryan raised his eyebrows and gave her a quick smile. "Daily's, then. Eleven."
He turned to go. She watched him walk away down the aisle. Something was humming inside her now, ticking in the pit of her stomach.
Buzz squinted into the bright glare in front of him. The light reflected off his receding hairline and made him sweat. But he would have been sweating anyway. Krycek looked away, into the surrounding darkness. The old man's smoke was making his stomach queasy. Or maybe it had nothing at all to do with the Morleys.
"We're just trying to get the facts straight here, Mr. McCarthy," the old man said. "You say you'd been planning to take these days off?"
"Yeah." He fidgeted. "Well, I hadn't exactly posted my itinerary on the bulletin board or anything." He looked straight toward where the old man should be, though the light in his face kept him from seeing his interrogator. "But I didn't figure I had any reason to, you know?"
The old man paused to take a drag. He waited for the smoke to come out and drift upward into the light. "And then you simply... had a change of heart? Decided to stay home?"
"Well, I did go to my sister's in Baltimore. But she was all depressed, you know? She had this dog--they'd had it for sixteen years--and it had just died. She was all torn up, and it wasn't turning out to be much of a visit, so--" He shrugged, paused and came up short. He looked at the table in front of him and ran two fingers along the edge.
"Who asked you to get rid of the evidence, Mr. McCarthy?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not 007 or nothing. I just do maintenance. You know, main-te-nance?"
"Maintenance for who?" The huskiness of his own voice surprised him. Krycek gripped the armrest on the wheelchair.
"Look, you guys are barking up the wrong tree. I don't--"
"Your fingerprints were on the evidence box above the one with the missing contents," the old man cut in.
"That don't mean anything. You go along cleaning, you bend down to pick something off the floor--something that's fallen out of a box, or a gum wrapper or something--and you touch stuff. It's just the way it happens." He shrugged, a 'come on, just let me go' gesture. Obviously, he didn't know the old man.
"Mr. McCarthy, what if I were to tell you I had something more, say--" He reached down and pulled a flattish rectangular object from a briefcase and lifted it onto the table. Krycek froze. "Say this, Mr. McCarthy."
Buzz squinted toward the spot, then looked away, to where there were no prying eyes that he could see.
"What?" Krycek said. He willed his voice into evenness. His heart was loud, thudding. "Not yours? Somebody planted it?"
Buzz opened his mouth and then shut it again. He was starting to lose it. Krycek's pulse pounded harder.
"As a matter of fact, Mr. McCarthy"--the old man was powering up the computer now; icons began to line up on the screen--"I notice you have a habit of saving your sent mail. Not a prudent practice in the line of work you appear to want to dabble in."
Krycek closed his eyes. Sweat bloomed on his forehead and chest and under his collar. For a moment he wanted to think of her, the way drowning sailors pray to the Virgin Mary, but she wouldn't want to be thought of that way. And she'd never sanction what he'd done to get himself into this mess. There was a tingling in his head. He reminded himself to breathe.
The old man was in the mail program now.
"Who is 03224, Mr. McCarthy?"
"I--" His face twisted, then composed itself again. "Look, I don't know. I've never met the guy."
He hadn't sent the request in a mail; he'd sent it on the napkin in the lunch bag with Tracy. The e-mails had come afterward--
But Raul had seen Tracy. And then said something about her to Buzz. It was in Buzz's reply, that first one he'd sent.
Krycek's heart stopped. For agonizing seconds it didn't move. He stared helplessly at the scene in front of him, watching it begin to melt around the edges. Then the rhythm started again and surged, thud-thud-thud. He gasped.
The old man went wide-eyed.
"Are you alright, Alex?"
He breathed out, leaned forward slightly. "Yeah. I think." He tightened himself and nodded.
The old man cleared his throat. He regarded Krycek a moment and then turned back to Buzz.
"Explain this, Mr. McCarthy. And I quote: "The stuff's gone--what a waste. You owe me now. What's with the chick?"
Buzz looked constipated. More than constipated.
"There was this chick. I don't know, just some--"
"'Stuff', McCarthy? 'You owe me.' It's not you?" Krycek buzzed inside, short of breath. "You expect us to buy that?" He was at the edge of his chair.
There was a moment of silence. Buzz wiped at his forehead. He was starting to turn red.
"What about this... 'chick'... Mr. McCarthy?" the old man's sing-song voice chimed in.
The old man lit another cigarette and took a leisurely drag.
In his wheelchair, Krycek closed his eyes, his fingers tightening around the bar below the armrest.
Tracy pulled her few belongings from the dresser and set them on the bed. She took the old man's money from the place where it had been stashed behind a piece of bracing on the back of the desk and tucked it into the bottom of her backpack. Next her old, tired shoes, then her underwear. The things she wore to bed--thermals and T-shirt. She paused and held up the yellow dress Alex had bought her, then folded it carefully and added it to the pack. The white one would stand out less; she'd wear that. The old man hadn't seen it that she knew of.
She went into the bathroom and gathered up toothpaste and soap and shampoo. Rubber bands for her hair, ones she'd taken off abandoned newspapers yellowed on the curb. A brush she'd bought at the thrift store, its old wooden handle dark with the oils from someone else's hand. The plastic bag she'd used to gather throwaway fruit behind the little grocery. It had been a week and a half now since she'd had to scrounge for food. How easily the memory became distant, as if it had happened in some other lifetime. She put the things in the plastic bag and took them to the backpack on the bed.
There was no clock in the room but it had been more than a couple of hours. It had been nearly noon when the men had come for Alex and it was likely close to four now. Her stomach was a hard thing and she couldn't go to him--not that way. He wouldn't want her to and besides, she wasn't supposed to; somehow she knew that. She sat down on the edge of the bed. She should leave, like Alex had told her.
Her hand trailed across the bedspread. There was gentle nudging inside her belly. She put her hand over the place and watched it ride the movement. She thought of sitting on the stairs on the Mall, waiting for she didn't know what, watching the green water lap languidly at the concrete rim of the lake. She'd been wondering where the jobless man Mulder was and what had happened to him. Then Alex had appeared above her on the stairs, looking--searching--and his eye had fallen on her, and his mind, a mind full of turmoil. He'd looked away; he'd actually left. But then he came back. Hey, he'd said, wondering as the words came out why she'd pay attention to anyone trying to strike up a conversation that way, knowing what their motives might be, a man talking to a girl like that.
Tracy made herself stand. The roof was safe enough. It was a place to wait, at least until it got dark. Take the bed pillows and she could spend the night under the tree there. It was sheltered. But Alex had said to go, and she should.
Just a little while. A little while up on the roof, to rest and prepare herself. She shouldered the pack and took an apple that sat in the window sill, and the two pillows, and went out. Slowly she climbed the stairs to the roof patio. She could feel him against her, leaning when he needed to, waiting for her to lift.
Sometimes you just have to be strong, he'd said.
He was right.
A scattering of grit came down over her, the byproduct of a shovelful of dirt arcing onto the growing pile beside her. Scully stood and moved to one side. From the hole in front of her came the chit-chit-chit of shovels working. She'd offered to dig with Mulder but she hadn't pushed it. Dale had his pride and, surprisingly, a good deal of skill to go along with it. He'd spade up an area to loosen the soil and then bucket it out. When he tired of that, he'd dig in with the shovel, pause, slide his hand down the neck of the tool and balance the load so he could toss it up and out of the way. David Barker himself had offered to dig but it was crucial that he stay in the house, assuring that Heather or Adrie didn't venture outside. He should have understood that.
Scully turned around and glanced toward the house. Only the blue strobe of the TV screen was visible through the windows. She stood up and cautiously walked the thirty feet to the living room window and peered inside. The three of them were sitting together, leaning against each other, Heather in the middle. She appeared to be dozing already. Scully turned and walked quietly back toward the light in the deepening hole. Mulder and Dale were talking quietly.
"How's it going?" she said, coming into the light. Her stomach growled. She hadn't eaten any dinner. She hadn't been able to, thinking about this. There were so many ways it could go wrong.
Mulder looked up and smiled at her, a dirty streak across the front of his white T-shirt. "So far, so good," he said.
She squatted down by the edge of the dig and watched--Mulder working with smooth, easy strokes, the product of a strong back and muscled arms, Dale plugging away in his own fashion, work and then pause, work and then pause, tilting slightly to one side to balance himself. Krycek had leaned to one side, holding her. He'd urged them to get out of Washington, the same way he'd stopped Mulder from taking his own life three weeks ago in his apartment. There was no telling why he'd done it. It could be strictly strategic.
Or was there something more? He'd visited Teena, after all. What would it have taken, what would have had to build up in him to send him to the woman who had given him away after so many years? Perhaps even Krycek wasn't completely impervious to some attenuated kind of human emotion, though the mere thought of it seemed strange to contemplate.
Scully shook her head and looked up at the stars twinkling fiercely overhead. She stood up. Mulder looked up at her, instantly alert.
"You see something?"
"No." She shook her head. "Nothing. I'm going to go check the house again."
He nodded at her and went back to his digging. Scully made her way toward the darkened house, the shovels making their rhythmic noise behind her.
8:26, the clock said. Will swallowed and started to cough. The coughing echoed inside his ribs, shook his shivering body, did awful things to his aching head. He grimaced and rolled onto his side.
"Will?" Rita was standing in the doorway, the light silhouetting her from behind. "Anything I can do to help?" She came closer. "Would you like some of that orange juice?"
He blinked and nodded, out of breath. "Yeah, I guess. A little."
He watched her turn and leave. Four hours' sleep but that was probably a good thing. At least it had been time away from this. The coughing was concussion-strength, it seemed. He could picture his brain inside there, rattling against his skull.
Rita came back with a glass. Thankfully she left the light off. He propped himself up and took the juice she offered. It was cold sliding down his hot throat, cold and almost unbearably sweet when it spread across his tongue. He drank only about a quarter of it in small sips and handed it back.
"Anything else I can do?"
He closed his eyes. "Tell me why I did this." He paused. "Mother J, do you ever get to a point where you find yourself looking around at strange scenery wondering how on earth you got there?"
"Are you talking literally or figuratively, Will?"
"Figuratively. No, I haven't been hallucinating. I hope that's not part of this rollercoaster I'm on."
Rita pulled up a desk chair and sat down. She nodded. "Right after I heard Andy'd died. I wondered what on earth had gotten into me to go off crusading like that when the deck is so stacked against me." She folded one hand over the other. "Who did I think I was and that whole song-and-dance number, and yet"--she tilted her head slightly--"maybe some of us are just bigger fools than others, Will. I'm here now. Does that say I didn't learn anything from what already happened?"
"This fool appreciates it."
"Thank you." A smile lit her face and then gradually faded. "I don't mind telling you, after Andy--after what I saw him go through and then him going and all--it's more than a little scary to sit here and watch another young man sick. But I'm not letting you go through this alone."
Will looked toward the window. A lone star winked outside in the blue-black sky.
"I once heard"--he grimaced--"courage described as the intense desire to live reflected in a willingness to face death. Kind of an oxymoron type of situation, you know? But lying here now I wonder how willing I really am. You know, whether I've done the right thing here or squandered myself, my... purpose, whatever it is I'm supposed to accomplish on this planet." He looked up at her, questioning. "How's Maggie? Has anybody checked on her?"
"John Byers called about an hour ago. They've gotten her out of the house. She's at St. Anne's Hospital in Silver Spring. They'll be giving her their best care."
Will moistened his mouth, tasting the lingering sweet residue of the orange juice.
"Do you think, Mother J, that people like Joan of Arc or Gandhi or Dr. King--that they knew what they were getting into? Did they really know, make a conscious decision to lay it all on the line, or were they just people who couldn't help themselves, kind of like..."
Scully jumped and turned around.
Adrie stood behind her, dressed in his pajamas.
"Adrie, I'm"--she swallowed the sudden spike of adrenaline--"sitting here, thinking." She got up and started to guide him toward the porch. "Aren't you supposed to be in bed? Where are your mom and dad?"
"Asleep," he said, taking her hand now. "On the couch."
"What's the light for back there?"
"We''re just working on something, Adrie. Something that should help some people around here."
They stepped up onto the porch. Adrie tugged her toward the swing.
"Come on, Annie. It's nice. I used to like to look at the stars with Mom here."
Scully managed a smile and sat down. Adrie climbed up and leaned against her. She put an arm around his shoulder. "Do you know any constellations, Adrie? The groups of stars?"
"The Big Dipper," he said. "Orion's Belt. And the Seven Sisters."
Scully leaned forward to see between the tree leaves.
Adrie leaned his head back against her. "I want my old mom back," he said.
"She doesn't know any stars now," he said simply.
Scully swallowed and pulled him closer. "You know, Adrie, sometimes bad things happen to us, like what's happened to your mom." Leaves murmured overhead in the trees. Scully felt the breeze against her face. "But sometimes those bad things lead us to someplace good we wouldn't have gotten to otherwise. A bad thing happened to me once; it was very scary. And yet, if that hadn't happened, I might have changed the work I did, the people I work with. And I might never have been here tonight, to sit on this swing with you. Maybe when you grow up, maybe you'll become the doctor who finds the cure for what's taken your 'old mom'. Maybe you'll help a lot of people to find the people they've lost."
Scully pushed with her foot; the swing started to arc gently.
"Annie, can we go in now?"
"Sure, sweetie." She stood up, guiding Adrie toward the front door. "Would you like me to tuck you in?"
Krycek twisted her door handle and knocked a second time. It was locked. No light showed from under it, but she should be gone, anyway. She would have left, and she hadn't said anything about where she might go. But it was better that way; this way nobody could pull her location out of him. Hopefully she had the sense to get far away, someplace outside the city. She had enough money for the bus or whatever she wanted to take. She'd take a bus because it would be cheaper.
He waited a moment, then breathed out and turned the wheelchair around. Even in his exhaustion, the residual tension of the hearing still filled him. It had been like getting sucked into a tornado, whirled until you'd lost your bearings and then spit out into some alternate reality. The world had nearly ended and then it hadn't. Now the need was to move: to walk, to do anything to wring out the tension. Given the strength, he'd go somewhere, get away from here. Anything to move.
Not in the cards, though. Not in this body.
But his room was just four walls, especially the way the place felt now, hollow, like something was missing.
He closed his eyes briefly, listened to the ringing silence and opened them again. There was always the roof. He rolled the chair to the bottom of the stairs and looked up, considering. The climb would help to tire him out, make it easier to get to sleep. Carefully he stood, gripped the railing and started up.
One foot up and then the other, hand on the railing, arm pulling. A pause halfway up; he listened to his own panting in the silence. At the top he turned to look down. He could almost see her there, next to the wheelchair that impressed her so much. Probably cost more than anything she could have dreamed of getting for her mother. She'd had a stable start, someone who cared about her, and a strength that had grown out of it. It was a good thing. It would serve her well.
Turning, he walked slowly out onto the patio and looked up at the blackness overhead. Same sky, same stars as last night.
But not the same. Nothing alike.
He made his way carefully to the wall and eased himself against it for support. Stored warmth from the day radiated out against his body. In the streets below, strings of diamond headlights inched their way along the grid that was the city. She'd be out there. Somewhere.
He should go downstairs.
Funny, he'd never been up here before she came. After that it was her space. Now it felt like a neighborhood he'd stepped into by accident.
His fingers slipped into his pocket and found the bean bag. He rubbed his thumb against the top of it. Rice grains shifted between his fingers. Hopefully she'd had the sense to get a motel room and lock the door.
The voice behind him was thick, unsteady.
He turned quickly to see a figure standing in the dimness in front of the place where the tree overhung the roof, hair messy, dress wrinkled, looking for all the world like a confused kid wakened in the middle of the night.
She came closer and blinked, obviously half asleep.
She'd looked for all the world like a ghost there in the shadows.
She bit her lip. "Is it"--her mouth twisted, trembled--"you, really?"
She reached up and pushed the hair awkwardly away from her face. She came closer, looked up tentatively, then quickly down, trying to blink back the wetness in her eyes. "I hope this isn't one of those dreams I have."
"Don't think so."
He swallowed, reached out and brushed away the stray hairs that clung to one cheek. She took a step forward and her head went against his shoulder. A finger hooked through his belt loop. He could feel her shudder, then dampness seeping against his shoulder, but no sound. Her breathing was warm and jerky, letting the tension bleed away. He slipped his arm around her and let it settle carefully against her back. Fatigue washed over him, weight and weakness settling him against the wall as if he'd run for miles.
"Tracy, you were supposed to--"
He could see Buzz again, getting progressively redder, fidgeting, looking suddenly desperate, as if he'd been struck by something invisible, then tottering to one side and finally slipping off the chair, limp and boneless. Even the old man had been taken aback. By the time they'd gotten around the table to him he was nearly gone, eyes wide, the look of panic still on his face. Probably a burst aneurysm, the old man had noted calmly, as if he'd been looking at a pile of rags. He'd seen it before, the telltale sign in the eyes.
Just on the brink, he'd been saved. She'd been saved, from whatever Buzz might have given up about her, whatever Raul had been stupid enough to pass along. It could have been nothing of any consequence, or it could have sealed her fate.
Whatever. It didn't matter now.
"Why didn't you go?"
"I... I fell asleep, Alex. I was just going to rest here for a little while, and try to figure out where to go. I didn't mean to--" Her chin, then her cheek against his shoulder.
He breathed into the soft hair beside his face. She'd know his story. She would now, anyway; she could just wick it out of him, no need for words. He stood unmoving, Tracy against his good side, staring out into the unfocused night.
Something moved against his side where her belly rested against him.
Mulder stood just outside the circle of light the work lamp cast and watched Scully's autopsy proceed. She had a shower cap on, gloves and utility goggles, a borrowed lab coat. The fan was running but it wasn't enough to overpower the smell. Her lips were pressed together in concentration but she seemed tired. It was the tension as much as the hour, though they'd managed without incident so far.
"Don't you just need lung tissue?" he said, breaking the silence.
She looked up. "If it's actually beryllium disease. But if it's something else, I need to do at least a basic examination." She glanced toward the door, where Dale stood guard. She smiled briefly and he smiled in return. Then she pulled the mask up over her mouth and nose and went back to the body.
How many times had he watched her do this? The abhorrent had become commonplace, though not the way it was second-nature to her. How had it been at the start, those first few bodies she'd had to open up? What had motivated her, drawn her to pathology? What was it she'd needed to know, to find out from cold flesh and bone?
Scully lifted a lung from the chest cavity--such as it was--and set it out on the plastic-covered workbench beside her.
"Anything you need me to do?" He grimaced involuntarily.
"You can be my lab assistant," she said, carefully slicing a tissue sample for examination. "We've got those reagents over there. If you can read labels--"
"I can read labels."
She looked up now and smiled. "Good. We can get started. The H&E will only take about 30 minutes, but I'm not sure, considering the degradation of the tissue, whether it will really tell us much. The Masson's staining is the one we really need, but it will take another two hours. And I'm going to want to send samples to Dr. Wykoff and have him do a second set of stainings just to be sure."
Voices. Mulder moved back a step, out of the light, and glanced toward the door. He could see Dale nodding; David Barker's head appeared in the doorway. Their conversation was brief, Dale obviously shooing him back to the house. Dale watched the path for a long moment, then turned, caught Mulder's eye and shook his head. Mulder nodded. Barker was wound tighter than a spring set to go off. Hopefully not before their work here was done, though.
He looked back at Scully, who was head-down at her work. She must have missed the whole thing, but that was probably for the better--one less thing to worry her. She glanced up now. Her eyes squeezed closed briefly in a yawn and then opened again.
"Going to make it?" he said, resting a hand against her shoulder blade.
She settled back into his touch and nodded. "I'll make it. I'm okay."
Rita sat next to the living room window in the dark, looking up into the midnight sky. All the lights and commotion of the city made stars hard to find here. She might search the entire broad pane of glass and never see a single one.
Gradually the memory of the afternoon's Greyhound took her over: diesel mixed with stale, smoky air, the chatter of passengers and the lurch and vibration she could still feel as she sat here in this chair in this darkened, silent living room two states away from where her day had begun. Down the hallway a bedroom was calling out to her to surrender--to lie down, stretch out, to drift away from the fatigue and the worry and the occasional sharp bout of coughing coming from the back room. Somehow they were with her, Will and Andy, hovering presences both, needing support, needing something. She'd stay here until she found a star.
The water in the shower went off. Scully stirred, rolling until her cheek touched the pillow.
She opened her eyes and blinked. She'd dozed off already, but it could only have been for a few minutes. She watched the strip of light under the bathroom door and waited.
It was mission accomplished, as far as they could tell. Dale had taken the tissue samples for Dr. Wykoff, and their own stainings and examination seemed to confirm their suspicions of beryllium disease. The body had been returned to the casket, reburied and Mulder had taken pains to make sure the gravesite appeared as undisturbed as possible.
The bathroom door opened, projecting a brief shaft of yellow into the room, and then the light went off. The covers were pulled back beside her.
"Better tell those pillows to move over," Mulder whispered, a smile in his voice.
He settled himself, the covers came back up and warm arms slipped around her. She rolled onto her side and settled back against him.
"Are we that obvious, Mulder? Is that why Dale suggested that you stay?"
He shook his head against hers. "No, I think it's just them--Dale and Rita. He probably got it from her. Maybe it's the family radar." He moved closer and settled again. "What's your professional opinion, Scully? Did the suggestion come from the Ann Landers side or the Dalai Lama side of the gene pool?"
"It came from the Dark Side, Mulder," she said, mock-serious. "And you gave into the temptation to stay the night."
"What, you didn't want me to?"
"You'll have to walk all the way home tomorrow."
"I can take it." His breath was warm against her ear.
She closed her eyes. "Did Dale say where Rita went?"
A pause. "Uh-uh. Says she does that sometimes--goes off and won't tell him where."
"Sounds like someone I know." She waited for a comeback but there was none. His breathing was beginning to even. "I wonder where she went."
She turned carefully onto her back. Moonlight reflecting off the trim strip around the window made a streak across the ceiling.
"Mulder, I was just thinking, earlier this evening. Something Adrie made me think of."
"About the... ricochet path of circumstances that... bring us together, bring us into certain situations in our lives, like... like the way Skinner crossing paths with Dale Lanier in Vietnam resulted in my being called in on this case, and how that resulted in my being here now. Or how our being here, on the run like this, has led to something we never would have done in D.C., and--"
"You never would have done."
"Okay, that I never would have done." She breathed out. "And whether when the factors are gone, that... that mold you into a particular circumstance... in that particular way... What then? Do you stay the same or do you go back to the way you were? Are you doing what you do because of who you are, or is it the circumstances that are shaping you, shaping your actions, your reactions?"
"I mean, what would you do if your sister was found, Mulder? How much has that--?"
He pushed up one one elbow. "Scully, are you trying to tell me something?"
She shook her head. "No, I--" She put a hand over the arm lying across her middle. "I was just thinking out loud, that's all."
His head went back down to the bed but he was looking at her now, dark eyes fully open. She rolled toward him and slipped an arm around his waist.
"Get some sleep, Mulder."
She rested her head against his chest and listened to the steady rhythm inside it.
"I think it's just me," she said finally. "Maybe I'm afraid of this ending."
(End Chapter 11)
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