Sanctuary

by bardsmaid

Chapter 12

Sunday

 

When I rolled over the sun was bright, the air inside the trailer was cold, the bed was warm, but it was also empty of its most important element, and for as much as my head was thick and my body wanted to sleep, I couldn't. She wasn't there.

It was the thing that had kept me awake so long after I'd come to bed: what Scully'd said and the question it led to in my mind. Maybe I wasn't what she needed. She was what I needed; she'd been what I'd needed for longer than I could remember, since long before she ever walked into my office with her rookie brashness and her willingness to tell me my theories were full of shit.

But maybe, for as amazing as the last ten days had been, they'd been the product of circumstances, of her need for an anchor, a port in the storm that had risen around her and threatened to pull her under. Maybe when all this was resolved and we were back in D.C.--if we made it back to D.C.--she'd need her old life back more than she needed what we'd created here, and how willing was I to let go if that was what was best for her?

Right back to Albert Hosteen's question: Was I willing to sacrifice myself to the truth?

Or was I only hoping it would get me what I wanted?

 

 

"You know, Joe, I still don't even know what she's doing--where she's working."

Joe rolled to the far side of the bed, taking the sheets with him. "Maybe she's not working. Maybe she just said that to get you off her back. She's a kid. They're ornery."

"Exactly. She's just a kid." Raylene reached behind her and tugged at the covers. "Still, you'd think I woulda heard something around this town by now. I mean, what can the big secret be?"

"Go ask her."

"Like she'd tell me any more than she did the last time. She doesn't talk to me, Joe." She rolled to look at him.

Joe just shrugged. "It's her life."

"Well, she certainly don't know how to run it."

"Ooh, ask the expert."

Raylene stared a moment, took hold of his pillow and gave it a swift yank. Joe's head landed on the mattress. He turned and gave her a look. "Now what the hell was that about?"

"You figure it out, Joe. It has something to do with being a parent. We have a responsibility to help these kids figure out their lives. She's up to something, I can feel it. I'm going to find out what it is, too."

She gave another tug on the covers. "Mark my words."

 

 

Tracy leaned against the wall of the roof patio. There was blue sky. Truly blue sky, a final reprieve, probably, before the haze of summer heat would set in for good. She looked out to where the tip of the Washington Monument jutted into the sky above the roof lines in the distance.

The Mall was the first place she'd gone when she came here, wandering past all the new-familiar places, then breaking away from the clusters of tourists on their way to the Lincoln Memorial and settling on the stairs leading to a broad, quiet pond, seeking out the peace it offered in contrast to the constructed clutter of buildings and buses and traffic-laden streets. Maybe that's what had drawn Alex's brother, too. He'd been so completely transparent there on the stairs, his wounds undisguised, searching inside for answers in a way she found so familiar, waiting for a connection to come to him, a hint or a sign, as if life were a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces on the table if only you knew where to look for the ones you needed.

Awake two hours and she had yet to go downstairs.

Tracy ran a finger along the dusty ledge. What did you say to a man when you knew what he'd been thinking?  In his mind he always referred to her as 'the kid'. It was safe; it reminded him to stay in line. But for as rumpled, as kid-like as she must have looked coming out from under the shadow of that tree, a child wasn't what he'd seen last night. He'd seen a woman. He'd even wanted that woman, though his mind was able to muscle the desire away for the most part, keep it bound and locked up because it wasn't a complication either of them needed.

And he'd realized, this morning that she would have seen it inside him, as if he were no more than a television screen, helpless to keep her from his private self.

So what should she say?

Should she bring it up and embarrass them both?  Or ignore it and let it fester, the way things had festered when they'd driven out of town, both of them painfully uncomfortable?  Because left alone, it would fester, breeding distance and distrust.

He'd seen enough brutality to know the signs: the look of women with wild eyes, or dead eyes. It hadn't escaped him the way she'd flinched that first night when he'd searched for signs of a scar at the base of her neck, or the fact that someone had made her pregnant. Hunger roamed free in men's minds, sometimes hidden, more often open and obvious in their thoughts and actions. Occasionally it was violent and terrifying. He knew she'd seen those things. It was another reason he kept his feelings so tightly bound.

Maybe it had just been the easier path to avoid those corners of his mind, to believe he hadn't been affected by her. But ignoring it didn't change the fact that she was a temptation to him, like a piece of cheese or a bit of walnut set in a mousetrap. Hardly the way she wanted to repay him after all he'd done for her.

Tracy put her head down on her arms and closed her eyes. Her stomach growled. There was the little grocery down the street; she could go there and find something to eat. But it would only put off the inevitable, and what could she possibly say to smooth this over?

She sighed into the small space between her arm and the ledge, then tensed. Alex was on his way up the stairs.

She looked up, around, glanced toward the shelter of the overhanging tree in the corner but forced herself to stay where she was. Alex was ready to face this head-on; running would only snub his efforts. It was what she always did when trouble struck: take off and leave it behind, unresolved.

He was at the top of the stairs now, catching his breath. Hesitating.

"Alex, I'm sorry," she said, closing her eyes. Her fingers tightened against the gritty ledge.

"For what?" He was crossing the patio.

Now he was behind her.

"For seeing inside you, for making you--" Her throat ached, suddenly tight and full. "For everything."

"Tracy..." He stood close beside her. "You are"--he breathed out and paused--"an amazing person. Don't apologize for who you are, or what you can't help doing."

"But--"

"Shh."

 A hand settled on her shoulder. She felt the warmth penetrate.

"Hey, breathe," he said quietly.

She let the breath go.

"Look, you know I wouldn't... I'd never do anything to hurt you."

She nodded. "I know."

"I just... want to  make sure you're safe." She deserved to escape the old man.  And maybe to have something he'd never had: security, someone she could count on.

She sucked in her lower lip and let out a sigh. "I always run, Alex. I run from everything."

"You didn't run now."

"I wanted to."

" 'Wanted to' doesn't count." He paused. "You didn't."

She opened her eyes. "You always stay and face things. I've been thinking about that. I'm trying to learn." Two birds landed on a nearby wire. She watched them flutter until the wire settled. "Sometimes it's hard, you know? Being strong."

"Understatement of the year."

The pattern of traffic in the street below went out of focus and then sharpened again. She turned and looked toward the landing. "You didn't bring your chair, did you?"

He shrugged. "Got to start making it up here under my own power sometime."

He was getting stronger. It was a good thing.

The end of a good thing.

But this was the way it was supposed to be.  She'd known what she was getting into when she took the job. 

Alex's hand was on her upper arm, turning her around, gathering her in. "Hey," he said softly.

She sighed into his shoulder and leaned against him. "I can't even be strong here. How will I ever manage to do it when I leave?"

"When you have to, you will be. When the time comes, you'll find a way. It's something you learn: if you want to live, you find a way."

She bit her lip and started to pull back. "Sorry, Alex. I'm doing it again."

"It's okay. Hold on all you need." A pause. "We don't act on everything we think about, you know. I'll live."

She closed her eyes and held on.

 

 

To: topaz@rift.net
From: TinMan@zipmail.com
A move may have been made against Watson's mother. She has taken ill, though the nature of the illness has not yet been determined. An agent of mine who has spent some time with her has also been affected. I'm assuming this is a strategy meant to draw Watson out of hiding.

 

 

Byers looked through the glass at the figure on the bed and turned to the dark-skinned man beside him.

"How is she?" he said.

"Her fever is higher than before. She's been delirious for several hours now."

"What does it mean?"

"I'm not sure yet." Rani looked through the glass. "Sometimes just bringing the patient to the hospital causes symptoms to increase. You can point to the physiological, but I believe fear is a great factor, too--the negative power of the human mind. As for the delirium, I find it puzzling. Her symptoms all point to pneumonia, but the extent of the delirium is very non-characteristic." He turned back to Byers. "We're running tests, of course. If this is as you say, it won't be what it appears, so I'm trying to cover all my bases, in a manner of speaking."

"Is she in any imminent danger?"

"Of dying? No, not at this point, though it depends on the severity of the illness and how many body systems become compromised. There could be permanent residuals. We just don't know yet. But as I say, we're running a number of tests. We'll let you know as soon as we've determined what it is." He paused. "And your other case?"

Byers sighed. "About the same as yesterday. We have someone with him now. We'll keep you posted."

"His youth and relative strength should be a help to him."

Byers nodded. Rani glanced at his clipboard and moved to go.

"I have patients to check on. I'll be in touch."

Byers took the hand he offered and shook it. Turning back to the window, he stared through the glass at the pale figure in the bed. Scully would surely want to come.

 

 

Scully rounded the corner of the trailer and stepped up to the door. Her nose and cheeks were chilled from walking and she'd tucked her hands into the pockets of her jacket for warmth. She took one out now, reached for the door handle and opened it. Mulder was sitting on the edge of the bed, head in hands. He looked up when he saw her.

"Good morning," she said, stepping inside and closing the door. "You were sleeping so soundly I didn't want to wake you; I figured on a day when you don't have to face Joe, you deserve a little extra sleep. I walked up to the falls and came back by the house. You did a good job of putting everything back. Dale should have those tissue samples to Dr. Wykoff this morning. We could have done the Masson's staining ourselves, but I'm not sure I could have lasted another two hours. Anyway, I'll feel better knowing it was done in the lab." She paused. "Mulder, are you okay?"

He raised his eyebrows and breathed into cupped hands. "Yeah, just--" He sucked in his lower lip and tried for a smile. "Just thinking, I guess."

"So was I," she said, taking off her jacket and hanging it over the chair back. She sat down and unlaced her shoes.

"About?"

"This. Us." She took off her shoes and socks and set them aside. "Ooh, it's cold in here." She glanced up at him. He blinked once. "I was thinking about what I said last night, wondering how if I were back home--if my life were normal"--she smiled ruefully--"such as it gets, and this were Sunday, what I'd be doing. What would launch me out of bed, what I'd want to do, or get to: catch up on some research, go to a concert, or..." She pursed her lips.

"And?" He was waiting, head tilted with the look birds gave you, seeing you from only one side.

"I realized that... for as much as I love the things I do--and I do...though some of them are fillers, they... pad the empty places, the busyness, the constantly filled schedule..."

She moistened her lips. He rubbed his arms for warmth.

"Anyway, I realized that, given the choice--" She stood and came up to him. His head went against her middle; her hands slipped into his hair. "I wouldn't want it as an 'instead'--instead of being with you, just...one or the other. I need those things. I need purpose and accomplishment, but--" Her arms went around his head and cradled it. She sighed. "I think I'm doing it again, Mulder."

"What?"

"Making things complicated when they should be simple. I don't... I don't seize the day, I analyze it."

He looked up at her. She smoothed a hand back through his hair.

"Sometimes you've got to stop and think," he said.

She paused mid-move and considered him. "Did we just switch roles here, Mulder? Because if we did, that leaves me in charge of being the impulsive one and I'm not sure I--"

He half-smiled. "Need some help?"

"Yes, I think-- She shivered. "It's awfully cold this morning."

"It's warm in there," he said quietly, nodding behind him.

"Was that an invitation?"

"It's your bed."

"Yes, it is." She cleared her throat. "Mulder, would you join me? I'd be... honored... happy--not lonely--whatever... if you'd join me." She paused and flushed. "Come to bed with me, Mulder. I need you there."

He grinned. An eyebrow rose. "You've got a way with words, Scully. Juliet had nothing on you."

She half-suppressed a smile and turned away. She took off her clothes and laid them over the chair back. When she turned around he was between the sheets, holding them open for her. She climbed in and was enveloped in the warmth of blankets. Long arms and legs wrapped around her.

"Now I know what a fly feels like when it's caught by a spider," she said, wriggling into a more comfortable position.

"What, you don't want to be caught?"

"Yes. Yes, I do." She smiled, buried her head against his chest and felt her breath fill the small, warm space in front of her. "I've got to stop doing this, Mulder, worrying about losing this instead of enjoying it, appreciating it."

There was no reply. She looked up at him.

He shrugged. "Still, sometimes you have to stop and think."

She pushed up on one elbow. "Is it--? Do you think it's you? That you're not... enough somehow, that you don't deserve this?"

He glanced up, out the window over the bed. "It's a... a random thought that's occurred to me, yeah, over a series of less than picture-perfect relationships." He sighed and looked down at her. "No, it's not that, Scully. I'm not lying here basking in self-pity. It's just... Do you know what it's like to see yourself--really clearly sometimes--in the blinding light of truth, of reality, and what you see makes you want to turn away?"

"Yes, I think so."

He pulled her close and settled his chin against the top of her head. "Thanks for putting up with me, Scully."

"Thanks for putting up with me."

He half-laughed. "You know, a shrink would have a field day with us."

"As our Sunday trickles slowly away." She slipped an arm around his middle. "You know, this isn't like you, Mulder. I'm supposed to be the solemn one. You're supposed to be, well... exuberant." She pushed back and cupped his face with both hands, mock-serious. "Mulder, you aren't actually one of those shape-shifting aliens in disguise, are you? Because I refuse to make love to anyone who's not from this planet."

"A lot of Reticulans out there are going to be really disappointed, Scully." A hint of a smile lit his face. Mischief twinkled in his eyes.

"Well, they'll just have to find someone else. Unless you're sharing."

"Not me."

She was enveloped, held close.

"Not sharing. No way."

 

 

Sandy stood in front of the mirror. She'd told Ryan she was going running first because it gave her a good excuse not to be wearing a dress, or a skirt. No point in giving him any ideas. Ryan didn't need the encouragement, though hopefully he'd have the decency to give a widow a little space. She'd been married to his friend and had a kid, for godsake.

Glancing to the left, her eye landed on Roddy's ragged teddy bear sitting on the corner of the dresser. She swallowed and blinked back the sudden burning in her eyes. He was the reason she was doing this in the first place. It was the only reason she was doing it.

Sandy tilted her head to one side and brushed through her long hair. It was funny now, that remark Ben had made yesterday about working for the FBI. Not that she'd ever in a million years qualify for anything like that. But it's what she was doing in a way, going out looking for information. Somebody had to do it; nobody else was going to. This must be how Rita felt.

Finally finished, Sandy set the brush aside. She went to the phone in the living room and dialed Rita's number. It had been days and anything she found out was bound to help Rita, too. As much as anyone could help the mother of a dead son. She tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder and waited. On the other end, it rang and rang.

 

 

Will coughed himself awake and opened his stinging eyes. His mouth and throat were parched and hot. He reached for the bottle of water on the night stand and took a few swallows. Thin wetness covered his tongue. Mouth tasted terrible. He lay back against the pillow and looked out. Day--morning. The sky was blue, perfect weather for being outside, for jogging or taking Ralph for a walk if only he had the energy. He shivered and hugged his arms to himself. His stomach was weak and empty, a function of the food he hadn't been able to keep down.

He glanced across the room. His mother had fallen asleep in the chair. He must have been sleeping when she came; he didn't remember talking to her--

Wait a minute. What day was it? It'd been a long time since... She must have taken the bus here, that was it. She never did like those long trips, the monotony of the ride from state to state with that back-of-the-bus stale air that made her stomach weak and jittery.

"Hey, Mama."

She slept on.

"Mom?" Nothing. "Mama."

He pushed up on one elbow, then pulled himself carefully up to a sitting position. No movement in the chair. A tickle in his lungs and he was at it again, coughing and coughing, ribs aching, head echoing the pain.

"Will?"

He brought his head up carefully to see Rita standing over him.

"Mother J--" He looked past her into the shadowed corner. The chair was empty. "Hey, where'd she go?"

"Who, Will?"

"Mama. She was just there, sleeping." He looked at the place again, chair empty in the shadows. "She was just--"

Rita was drilling him with one of those x-ray looks.

He looked back at her and swallowed.

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Redwall@zipmail.com
I regret having to be the bearer of bad news, but after serious consideration I don't feel I have the right to keep this from you any longer. I believe heron3 informed you of his suspicions regarding possible tactics to dislodge you from where you are. Thursday both Annie's mother and heron3 fell ill with what appeared to be flu-like symptoms. Four days later they have progressed to what appears to be pneumonia with high fever and uncharacteristic delirium. Thanks to heron3's anticipation of this, we were alerted from the beginning and have had assistance from a trusted acquaintance who is an extremely capable M.D. Heron3 remains at home with assistance while I took Annie's mother yesterday to a hospital in Silver Spring where she can be given the care she needs. She is not in mortal danger at this time, but the actual nature of the illness has yet to be determined. Investigation is ongoing.

Assuming heron3 is correct in his assumption that this was instigated as a way to draw Annie out into the open (and/or away from you), your appearance here would seem to be strongly contraindicated, though I realize you are left with the difficult choice of deciding when and how much to tell Annie about what is happening. We will continue to do whatever we can to take care of things on this end in order to make your own path smoother, but I felt you should know the status of this matter.

As always, anything we can do to help, we will gladly.
                                                                                                -JFB

 

 

Slowly Krycek opened his eyes. A shaft of sunlight lay across the corner of the bed. Midday. He glanced over at the recliner. Tracy was asleep on her side, head burrowed into the cushioned chair back. The walk up and down the stairs had been a good thing. It was the next step in regaining his strength; he'd told himself that as he confronted each stair.

Though his strength had been gone by the time they'd come down, legs getting shaky; he'd just needed to sit, to lie down. She'd slipped into the recliner while he'd checked his mail and had fallen asleep. Maybe she'd been awake half the night, or it could be the pregnancy taking its toll, or the fact that she was emotionally wrung-out, struggling to find what she'd need to keep her going when she left here; that day was coming and she was obviously well aware of it.

Odd thought, playing parent: the work of training a child, preparing them, then worrying about whether they'd make it, make the right moves, avoid the pitfalls. She was intuitive and that would help her, but she was just a kid, pliant and unhardened, like the tender green seedlings transplanted out into the muddy vegetable fields where he'd grown up. Some made it, some didn't. It was a percentage thing.

The best he could do would be to get her out of here in one piece... when the time came, and yesterday's little fiasco with Buzz had been a wake-up call, like getting pushed off a wall. What would she have done if things had gone differently, if Buzz hadn't given out? It had been a stroke of crazy luck, a reprieve just as the axe was about to come down.

And would his mother help? She was the unknown factor. Probably better to wait until the last minute, depend on the element of surprise and hope for the best. No telling how she'd react if he tried to contact her in advance; she'd have too much time to think it over. He'd told her, leaning there against her kitchen sink, not to trust him. But then she'd left him the sandwich. It was a safe move, though, not so much risk. She could stay behind her locked door and watch him from the safety of her comfortable life.

Krycek picked up the bean bag from beside him, squeezed it and let his hand drop onto the mattress.

"Alex?"

She was awake now, coming toward the bed. She ran her fingers back through her hair to smooth it and sat carefully on the edge.  "You don't really know her, do you?"

He shook his head. "I was in her house once. She wasn't there. I looked around, looked at pictures--you know, whatever was around. To get a feel for the place." His lips pressed together. "Then I went back that once, after--" But she knew. "Guess I was pretty jittery."

Tracy glanced down but thankfully made no comment.

"Hadn't slept for over a day, hadn't eaten. She let me sleep in the garage." He turned and looked out the window. "I got up and she'd left me a sandwich, all wrapped up nice--"

"You left her a note."

"Mm." Large leaves swayed outside the window. He pictured it again: the garage and the greenery in the yard. The smell of something sweet blooming.

"Daphne," Tracy said.

"What?"

"The flowers you smelled. I can see the plant by the garage path. It can be a hard one to grow, Alex. She must have been careful with it."

He shrugged. What did it tell them? Did it tell them anything? And there was Skinner's mail; obviously the old man was hard at work.

"What will you do, Alex? Will you do anything?"

"About?"

"Scully's mother. He wants to find her. He knows it would make Mulder crazy."

"Yeah, it would." Krycek closed his eyes.

But Scully's mother wasn't any of his business.  And look what a big help Scully'd been to him lately. 

 

 

Mulder watched Scully stir and then wake. Rolling toward him, she settled with her head on his chest in a patch of sunlight. Her eyes closed against the stark brightness.

" 'Morning again," he said, smoothing the hair from her face, toying with a strand of it.

"Mmm."

The air was warm now. A soft quiet filled the trailer. Mulder glanced at the wall clock, a relic from another era, gold metal in a sunray design. 12:33.

"I should get moving," he said into her hair.

"I'll walk you down the trail to Sandy's," she said. "You can catch the road from there."

Silence. She didn't move.

"When?"

"In a few minutes, Mulder. I just--"

Nothing more.

"What?"

"It's too comfortable to get up. The warmth, finally. The quiet. You."

He smoothed a thumb across her shoulder and looked toward the front of the trailer. Desk with the laptop, the picture of her family, the one of Emily tucked into a corner of the frame. Her copy of Moby Dick. Coffee mugs in the drainer beside the sink in the kitchen. It was her spot now, her place. Temporarily, anyway.

"What would you be doing today, Scully? If you could do anything--you know, be anywhere."

A hand traveled down his side and came to rest against his waist.

"I'm doing it, Mulder." A smile started at the corner of her mouth.

"Right now? Here?"

"Right now. Right here."

 

 

Rita clipped the leash to Ralph's collar and opened the front door. The dog went out eagerly and sat wagging his tail in the hallway. He was happy to be out, wiggly, and beyond the window the day was beautiful, the sky a bright blue. Rita locked the door and put the key in her pocket.

Will was asleep now after a little over an hour of being awake; it was the best possible time to get away, if there was a best time. Most likely she'd just carry him with her, though, the way she'd carried her husband those last four months, never knowing how things might change before she returned, not knowing if she'd come back to find him still alive. Just the memory of it had made watching Andy a torture, though his symptoms hadn't had a chance to progress to what his father had experienced. And then he was just gone, a phone call from the sheriff and it was all over so unexpectedly. No telling whether it was better or worse than enduring all those months of stress and pain.

Now it was Will, and there was no knowing yet what he'd been afflicted with, whether he'd recover in the end--if Rani was the medical detective John Byers hoped he was, and could get to the bottom of this--or whether the illness would take him slowly. Or take him in a way they could never foresee.

Rita looked up, startled to find herself in the building's entry; she had no memory of coming down the stairs. She opened the front door and let Ralph lead. The trees were bright in their late spring greens, everything about the plantings and about Ralph himself proclaiming vivid, breathing life, though somehow she felt sealed away from it all. Despair: It was the bane of the sick, and certainly the bane of their caretakers.

Wrapping Ralph's leash around her hand, Rita made herself focus on the dog and his steady trot along the sidewalk toward a small park. Flowers bloomed on bushes and in garden beds and birds drifted casually from tree to tree. At the park there were children's toys but the playground was empty. Andy'd been a mother's terror when he was young, climbing onto the spring horses and standing in the saddle, rocking wildly, defying gravity. Most of the time he'd succeeded. He'd also succeeded in breaking both arms by the time he was twelve.

She swallowed and pulled a tissue from her pocket.

At the edge of the playground an old yellow tennis ball lay half-buried in the sand. Fighting her lack of inspiration, Rita made herself go closer and pick it up.

"Want to play, Ralph boy?"

She tossed the ball and watched the dog take off running.

Who would choose this after Bob and Andy, to go back through it all again, a glutton for punishment? Had the pain dulled so much already that she could charge in again, blissfully unaware of what awaited her?

But this boy's life was at stake and how could she just leave in order to protect herself, knowing he'd be struggling through it alone?

 

 

To: TinMan@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net

I have no specifics. Whatever it is won't be obvious.

 

 

Sandy ran up the dirt road unseeing. She glanced behind her, legs pounding all the while, feet putting distance between her and the parking lot by the closed-down Saver's Mart where she'd bailed from Ryan Norton's limo. The shoes pinched her toes--her feet had spread, just like her mother had warned her, running barefoot all the time--and there was a stinging in her calves and pressure in her throat, but she didn't stop. She wouldn't. She went on and on, one leg in front of the other, one arm and then the other, as if she could pull herself through the air, lungs aching, mind ready to burst.

There was someone up ahead, walking. She moved to the far side of the road, put her head down and kept on. Last thing she needed was gossip all over town about how she'd been running down the road crying like a baby, Sandy the young widow--too-young mother--who'd dropped out of school to have the baby she was carrying, a baby later killed by his very own father.

And on and on and on.

"Sandy?"

She focused far ahead, on the ditch that ran alongside the road, refusing to look toward the voice. Lungs aching, heart beating--bam, bam, bam--fists tight, as if she could run right through that pig Ryan Norton and leave a silhouetted hole through the middle of him, the way it happened in cartoons.

The voice came again, closer. Sandy turned her head sharply away and ran on, legs flying, heart aching, feet throbbing--

Caught.

Strong arms tightened around her and her forward motion came to an jarring halt.  Sandy started to thrash. "Leave me be! Just get the hell away from--"

"Sandy."

She wriggled against the arms around her. No use. She stared into the ground, breathing hard. Breathing fire.

"Hey--"

One arm retreated and there was a touch against her chin, fingers lifting. She tried to turn away but she'd seen him now.

Lord, what a fool.

Immediately she went slack and let her eyes close. She sagged against him momentarily, then stood up. He let her go.

She headed for the ditch at the edge of the road.

"Geez." She gulped air. "I mean--" She glanced over her shoulder. "Damn!" She sucked in her lower lip and bit it. 

"Oh, man."

She walked a small circle and finally looked up into Ben's worried face.

"What happened to you?" he said quietly, earnest.

He had that calming look vets used with scared animals.

"You don't wanna know."

"I think I do." He nodded at her legs. "Did you know you're bleeding? What happened?"

She looked down at her scratched legs. Little trails of blood came from small wounds on the sides.

"It was those damn bushes."

"What bushes?"

She breathed out heavily and swallowed. She could feel her mouth quiver. "The bushes in the parking lot. Over by the Saver's Mart."

"They just... jump out and attack you?" His voice was quiet; he wasn't making it into a joke, or a way to show her for a fool.

Sandy shook her head and blinked hard.

"Was somebody chasing you? Looked like you were in a pretty big hurry."

"I don't know. I wasn't sticking around to find out."

"How about if I walk you home? You need to get cleaned up."

She nodded and didn't look at him. Her feet ached. Her legs stung, worse now than ever. She started to walk--steady, even steps, just one foot in front of the other. Ben kept pace, leaving her space, turning every once in a while to look behind them.

"Sorry," she said. One foot, two, tightened muscles crying out.

"For what?"

"For the way I acted. I didn't know it was you. I--" She wiped below one eye with the back of a hand and went on.

He didn't press her to talk.

 

 

"Yeah, Scully." Mulder kept his voice low and glanced down the trailer hallway. "She said she ran through some bushes but whatever made her do it... She's not opening up. I get the feeling you might get a lot further with her than I can. Anyway, you could take a look at her legs." He leaned against the dining table. "I don't know. Some kind of bushes with thorns on them. Pretty good size ones, too, from the look of it. They got her pretty good.. Can you... Can you borrow a truck from David? Yeah. Let me know right away if you can't."

Mulder hung up, paused, glanced down the hallway and set the phone back on the coffee table. There was no sound at the far end of the trailer, where Sandy was holed up, nursing her wounds. Hopefully Scully'd be on her way soon.

Mulder turned and looked around the room. A bookshelf on the opposite wall held family pictures and a red fire truck. He went closer. Roddy as a baby, sitting in a baby seat, proud parents behind him, Sandy beaming, Cy--a big, bearded guy--with his arm around her. Cy with a deer he'd obviously shot, holding onto the rack of antlers, Roddy in diapers on the other side, mirroring his dad. Roddy in the yard, a casual shot, face smeared with dirt but beaming, pointing to his fire truck.

Mulder set the picture back and reached for the red truck on the shelf below. It had been carefully washed and polished. He ran his fingers lightly over the shiny surface, looked up and closed his eyes.

 

 

Switching off the engine, Skinner leaned back against the headrest. He looked out toward the second-story window and pressed his lips hard together. Krycek's message was confirmation, as much as any they were likely to get, that Scully's mother and Wilkins had been deliberately infected. And Wilkins deserved the truth, no matter how unpleasant it would be to convey it. Wilkins had stuck by Mulder and Scully--and stuck by him--far beyond the call of duty, when he had no personal stake in it, nothing to gain. Coming here was the least--and the worst, seemingly--that he could do now.

Perhaps the hardest part wasn't going to be making that announcement, but squarely facing where he'd gotten the information, and how. A leash was a leash, no matter how long and slack it might seem at the moment.

With a sigh, Skinner got out of the car, locked it and strode toward the apartment building's entry. He hadn't even called since he'd dropped Rita here the other night. Anything could have happened in that amount of time. The corner of his mouth twisted. He took the stairs, when he came to them, two at a time. At the top he stopped in front of Wilkins' door and pushed the buzzer.

He waited, looking down the long, vacant hallway, listening for footsteps inside. Nothing. He rang again and pursed his lips, counting the seconds without thinking. Reluctantly taking a step back, he turned to go. But at that moment the door handle creaked and turned, and Wilkins' weary face appeared in the crack where the door had opened.

"Chief?"

"How are you doing, Agent?"

Wilkins shook his head gingerly and winced.

"I'm still here, though sometimes I feel like it's got me on the mat and I'm just waiting for the count." He opened the door wider and gestured for Skinner to come in. "Sorry, sir. Standing around's not my forte these days."

Will turned and made his way carefully to the couch, eased himself down and lay back against the cushions. He shivered and started to cough, limbs drawing up slightly as if to shelter him from the inner battering.

"Where's Rita?" Skinner said when Wilkins had finally stopped.

"I--" His head tilted slightly toward the door. "I don't know, sir. She was here the last time I was awake." His eyes roved left and right slowly, seeking clues. "Don't know."

"I, uh..." Skinner's lips pressed into a thin line. "I sent a message to Krycek this morning, telling him about this. I figured he might know something, that he might offer us some kind of information if having the Smoking Man find Mulder and Scully doesn't mesh with his own agenda."

Wilkins said nothing. He waited, eyes asking, his breathing shallow.

"I received a reply an hour ago. It's as much verification as we're going to get. He said he had no specifics but whatever your condition is, it wouldn't be obvious."

After a moment Wilkins gave a weak smile. "So now I know for sure I've bitten the poisoned apple. Cool." He grimaced.

"Maybe it will help your doctor find out what's been done to you."

Wilkins sighed. "I hope so." He squinted toward the window and the brightness outside. "I surely do, 'cause this is getting old. You know what I'd give to be able to walk out there today, sir?  Maybe a lot more than you realize." He paused and tried for a smile. "Hey, but thanks for the tip. I don't... I don't mean to make light of it. After all, I did get myself into this."

"No, I think your concern for a fellow agent got you into this. The Cancer Man--he got you into this."

Wilkins shrugged.

At the sound of a key entering the door lock, both men sat up straighter. The door opened and Ralph came bounding in, followed by Rita.

"Walter?" She looked relieved.

"Just checking in." He stood and looked back at Wilkins. "Be sure to pass on the information. Though I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention where you got it."

"Will do, sir."

Skinner turned to Rita. "You keeping this guy out of trouble?"

"The best I can."

"Good. Any word on Maggie Scully?"

"She's in the hospital, Walter. They figured she'd be safer where they could watch her."

"How's she doing?"

Rita sighed. "She's holding on. She's doing her best."

Skinner frowned.

"Hey, Chief..."

Skinner turned toward the couch.

"You know what I'm still wondering?"

"What?"

"What Kyrcek's interest is here. Why he doesn't want them found. Mulder and Scully, I mean." He moved slightly, easing his head against the cushion. "I think... if we crack that one, we could be onto something."

 

 

Sandy leaned against the tub enclosure, feeling the smooth vinyl press against her cheek. Ben and Annie were out in the living room talking quietly. They'd be coming in and here she was just sitting on the edge of the bathtub like a statue.

Footsteps sounded in the hallway.

Hold it together, girl.

"Sandy?"

It was Annie's voice, soft and soothing. She turned and looked, trying for a smile.

"Got myself in a pile of trouble, looks like."

"What kind of trouble?" Annie came in and sat on the edge of the tub beside her.

"The Ryan Norton kind." She stared at the pattern on the wall. Her legs stung. Roddy's bath toys were still stacked on the little built-in shelves.

"Did he... Did he try to hurt you?"

"If you mean did he have anything in mind, the answer is sure he did. I shoulda figured. But I wanted to find out--" She looked down, at the trails of blood.

"Find out what?"

"Find out whatever he was doing. You know, with those deliveries he makes into Lexington. I figured it might be something that would help you and Ben, that maybe we'd--" She pressed her lips tight against the quivering at the edges of her mouth. "You know, that it might lead to something that--" She gulped. "About Cy and Roddy."

"So, did he... ask you to go with him?  When he went to Lexington?"

"Uh-huh. He saw me at Wal-Mart yesterday and he asked me if I wanted to try a ride in his limo, he was going to make one of his 'deliveries' today. And I figured what the heck, it'd just be an hour and a half or so and I might find something out. I figured what could happen?"

"What did happen?"

"Well, we just drove there mostly. We went to the airport and dropped off his boxes at a little private plane hangar and turned around and come back. But he kept trying to get me to sit closer to him and there was no way, just no way in hell I was gonna--" Her hands curled against the tub edge. "I mean, you know where that's going. The script's always the same, you know? I don't know why they don't figure that out--guys. They all think they're the first ones to ever give you a line." She looked up. "Know what I mean?"

Annie nodded slowly. "Did he try to... make you sit closer?"

"Nope. He just kept talking it up, you know? And by the time we got back into town I guess he was pretty boiled at me, and--" She ached inside, sudden fierce pressure.

"Then what happened?"

"He said he'd take me home, and I didn't want him anywhere near here, so I said just let me off by the old Saver's Mart, and he turned into the parking lot and the second he stopped I hot-footed it out of there in a big old hurry."

"And?"

She shrugged again. "I think he just thought it was some kind of a joke, some fun he was havin' with me, like poking at a bug, but he started to come after me... with the car... chasing me..." Her jaw trembled. She made it stop.

"And that's when you ran through the bushes?"

"Uh-huh. To get away. I wasn't taking no chances, believe me. I've seen enough freaky stuff lately. And I guess I just panicked and I fell. It was stupid. I was just bein' clumsy. I got up right away and I took off, but I could hear him laughing. And I just ran, you know? I just ran and ran."

She set her jaw and stared at the out-of-focus reds and blues of Roddy's little toys.

"Sandy, you should let me look at your legs now. I can help you get cleaned up. Is that okay?"

She nodded.

But her eyes were filling now, her jaw starting to tremble. She clenched her teeth together more tightly. Then careful, sure arms were around her, holding her, and her head was against Annie's shoulder. She closed her eyes against the stinging there and gulped in air. She wasn't going to cry. She would not. Would not.

Would not.

 

 

In the living room, Mulder stared out the window into the dirt yard. What would his mother think if she could see what he was witnessing now: the unconscionable pain of a nineteen-year-old widow caused by this secret son of hers? And Krycek; What the hell had he been thinking? Did he get some special joy out of killing the defenseless, like the homeless woman Scully'd been trying to find. How could you live with yourself?

Though it was possible, an upstart part of his mind argued, that it had been pure reaction, the same reaction they'd been taught at the Academy. Krycek could have fired instinctively. He, on the other hand, as a green member of the VCU, had once hesitated to fire and in consequence had killed a little boy's life--a boy's future--by failing to take the shot that could have saved his father.

He tapped a finger absently against the glass. The scene in the yard slipped gradually out of focus.

Three times.

Three times in the last month.

Not that it was saving, exactly. Nothing Krycek did was 'saving'. How did it qualify to set a fire and then let the victim escape? Krycek hadn't cut his father any slack, right there in his own bathroom. He hadn't cut the tram operator any slack. Maybe he expected a gold star now.

Mulder looked up at the ceiling and closed his eyes. Voices came from the hallway: Scully's, calm and soothing, and Sandy's now-easier conversation mixed with pain and the occasional tear-choked laugh.

She was strong and bull-headed the way Samantha had become bull-headed. No, not so much the same. Samantha was just a little kid, trying herself out, stretching her limits; she hadn't had this kind of tragedy to face. But what would she have become? How would her experiences, whatever they'd been, have shaped her, hardened or steeled her? Would she have fought her captors? Would he even recognize her if they were put in the same room together?

If she was still alive, how much would be left of the little girl he'd known?

 

 

A key turned in the lock. Krycek rolled to his side and watched the door. Tracy's face appeared in the opening.

"I've got to go out somewhere," she said. She wore a smile that was only partially concealed. "Do you need anything, Alex?"

He looked around the room and shook his head. "Not that I can think of."

"I'll be back in a while."

"What's the big deal?"

"Big deal?"

"Just--" He shrugged. "Nothing. Just the way you look."

"It's a surprise, Alex," she said with a mix of confidence and mild reproach. "Don't make me give it away."

He turned back to his computer. The door closed and he glanced back toward it and raised an eyebrow.

A surprise.

 

 

"What do you think about it, Mother J?"

Rita watched as Will took another sip of the orange juice, a very small sip. He set the glass down on the cushion beside him. It was as far as he had the strength to reach.

"About what, Will?"

"There's something about what this Krycek is doing that's sticking in my mind. He puts a video recorder in Mulder's apartment but he's scared to death of letting his boss find out he's done it. He's not in any hurry to have the old guy find Mulder and Scully." He paused. "But Mulder's got no love for the guy; he killed Mulder's father. So what's the missing piece here? Does he need them for something? You know they aren't going to do anything to help him. Not of their own accord. Not knowingly. There's something we're missing here, some piece of the puzzle." He lay his head against the cushion to the side and let his eyes fall shut. "Mother J, I'm so tired."

"I know, Will. Just don't give up. You keep that mind working. You may have saved Mulder and Scully already, just by alerting them to this thing."

"If they're still safe out there somewhere."

"They're safe, Will."

A pause and he opened one eye and focused on her. "Say, you aren't the type to spill the beans, are you, Mother J? I didn't just hear you say something revealing, did I?"

She shook her head. "Not me, Will. You know I wouldn't." Her lips pressed together but the corners of her mouth squirmed.

"That's good to hear," he said. He closed his eyes and smiled. "Real good."

Rita watched his face, the dimple in his left cheek, the broad expanse of his smile, then watched it fade slowly, like sky colors at sunset. After a moment his face began to slacken. Already he was beginning to drift.

Rita got up quietly from her chair.

"Mother J--"

She turned back. "Yes?"

Will's eyes remained closed.

"Will you send a mail to the Gunmen for me? Tell them we've got confirmation that Maggie and I were deliberately infected."

 

 

"Mission accomplished," Scully said quietly, coming up behind him. She rested a hand on his arm.

Mulder turned around.

"Mostly she had cuts and scratches, but I pulled three thorns out of her knees." She held up a baggie.

Mulder winced. "They're like darts."

"Short darts, thankfully. We should have Dr. Wykoff send them to the lab to make sure they aren't anything that could affect her. There are many poisonous plants, including some of the most common."

"They wouldn't use them in parking lots, would they? I mean, crooks climb security fences and try to sue for damages from razor wire."

"Probably not. But I'd rather be on the safe side. I'd like to keep an eye on her, too." She paused. "I think I'll stay here tonight. She's taken something for the pain and I'd like to make sure she stays quiet. And doesn't have to worry about a return visit from Mr. Wonderful."

"What happened?"

"Beeson's driver invited her for a ride in his limo--to make one of his on-the-side deliveries--and evidently he had more in mind than she did." She looked out the window. "He didn't actually try anything, but when she got out in town he chased her across the parking lot with the car." She looked up intently. "Mulder, she did it because she wanted to get the information for us, because she hopes--" She sighed.

"That something she finds will lead to justice for her family," he said quietly. He sucked in his lower lip.

"Yes." She paused. "Mulder, I understand what she feels. I know that... anger, that frustration. And I don't want to see her get hurt"--she smiled ruefully--"anymore than she is already. But she did get some information that might be useful. Just try to convince her not to--"

"Go taking the kind of chances I would?" He raised an eyebrow and smiled. "No problem, Scully."

"I think she's ready to tell you. She just feels a little--"

Sandy emerged from the hallway in her bathrobe, looking down slightly. She made her way to the couch and lay down on the cushions.

"You doing okay?" Scully asked.

"Yeah, I'm okay. I'll make it." She looked up at Mulder. "I know where he goes now. If it does you any good."

Mulder sat down in an old, overstuffed chair and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You know, when I made that remark yesterday about working for the FBI, I didn't mean you should go out and put your life on the line," he said quietly. A smile crossed his face. "That's my department--doing something half-assed and crazy. Then usually she's got to come pull me out of it." He nodded toward Scully, who blushed. He looked back at Sandy and paused. "So what kind of deliveries was he making?"

"Boxes. He had 'em in the trunk. Maybe five or six. Didn't seem like much to me."

"What kind of boxes?"

"Just regular old cardboard boxes." She thought. "They were new ones, though, real clean. New boxes with no writing on 'em."

"Nothing at all?"

She shook her head.

He pursed his lips. "I came across some unmarked boxes in a basement locker I was cleaning out on Friday. How big were they?"

"Like... this size." She shaped an invisible box with her hands.

Mulder glanced toward Scully. "Sounds like the ones I found. My guess is they won't be there when I get back tomorrow."

"I wonder what's in them," Scully said.

"Ryan didn't say nothing. He was just all proud of the fact that he made extra just for delivering them to the airport. You know, just getting to drive the limo, no real work or nothing."

"Do you know exactly where you went? Could you show someone?"

"Ben." Scully shot him a look.

"I made a map," Sandy said. "I drew it while Ryan was out unloading the boxes so I wouldn't forget."

She pulled a piece of paper from the pocket of her robe.

 

 

"Joe?"

"That you, Raylene?"

"Of course it's me. Who did you think it was gonna be?" 

There was only a grunt on the other end of the line.

Raylene cupped her hand around the receiver. "You're not gonna believe what I saw, Joe."

"Where are you, Raylene?"

"At the pay phone outside Daily's."

"What the hell are you doing at a pay phone?"

"Trying to tell you something, if you'd just listen."

"Okay, what?"

"I was driving up toward Sandy's--"

"You mean you were spying on the girl?"

"Not spying. I'm her mother, for godsake." She paused. "Anyway, I was coming up the road--you know, right around that bend before the mailbox, when I see this guy coming down her front stairs--no car--and he starts walking into town."

"Yeah?"

"So I drive on by, not to look like I'm watching him."

"Which you were."

"Well, of course I was. So like I say, I drove on by, and I go up the road a little ways and turn around and wait, and then I come back down slowly and I keep behind him--you know, far enough that he doesn't hear me in the car."

"That could be pretty far back."

"Shut up, Joe. You know what I mean."

A chuckle came from the the phone.

"Anyway, I park along the side of the street, every time until I just about lose him in the distance and then I go further... Joe? What are you doing? Are you even listening to me?"

"Yeah. Yeah, Raylene, I'm listening. I'm just watching this movie."

"Well, maybe this'll make you sit up and take notice. I followed this guy all the way in, no problem and he never saw me, never turned around. Not so's he could see me, anyway. And you know where he went, Joe?"

"Where?"

"Dale Lanier's."

"What'd he look like?"

"About six feet, I think. Brown hair. Maybe mid-thirties. Baseball cap, flannel shirt. Jeans. Cute."

"Cute?"

"Joe, shut up. Why you asking?"

"Because my latest broom-pusher is Lanier's nephew."

"You're kidding. Your new guy?"

"Didn't I just say that?"

"Well, what in the heavens was he doing at Sandy's house? How would he even know that girl? She's up to something, Joe, I tell you."

"Or maybe he is. Maybe he's just quick on the draw."

"Joe, you're a pig." She breathed heavily into the phone. "But I'm going to get to the bottom of this. You know I will... Joe? Joe!"

Raylene sighed and dropped the phone onto the receiver.

 

 

The old man could easily be tossing Buzz's interrogation around in his head: the way he'd choked up, the way he'd redirected just when Buzz was about to start in on 'the chick'. Krycek swallowed against a sudden tightening in his gut.

The old man could still figure it out, no matter how distracted he was likely to be now by the momentary thrill of his latest game, baiting a trap for Scully with her mother. There'd been too many little failures recentlly that all revolved around him. The old man didn't forget.  And he never gave up.

Krycek reached for the bean bag and gave it a hard squeeze. He rolled carefully toward his left side--something he could do now without setting off waves of pain--and looked at the clock. Nearly six and she hadn't come back yet. Hadn't stopped in, anyway. If he were like her he could know if she'd just walked past in the hallway, or passed his floor in the elevator.

He reached for the glass of water on the bedside table. He didn't need her as much now--not to play nursemaid, anyway--and she knew that. She knew a lot of things.

Krycek took a sip of the water and set it back in its place.  The picture that drifted into his mind was of Marseille, he and his companion, Victor, slipping into pricey private theater boxes disguised as ushers, picking the billfolds and purses of the unsuspecting rich for cash and the occasional ring or other valuable trinket. Enough to buy them a week's room and board in the city and another two when they left, when their work there was done. Not well-disguised ushers, either, but enough to fool the unwary, and there were plenty of those.

Krycek sat up, stretched and eased himself carefully off the bed. He made his way across the room to the far window, leaned against the desk chair and looked out. The light was still strong and bright; summer was coming and the days were getting longer. No shadows yet, no weakening of the light.

He pictured the Marseille theater in the frosty glow of seven o'clock, across the square from where he'd sat with Victor, cafe au laits in front of them in clear glasses. It had been an excuse to watch the theater; they didn't frequent outdoor cafes. They'd patronized cheap, dimly lit restaurants, places with weathered wood-framed entries where construction workers stopped in dirty from their trades, ordering bowls of bean soup because it was cheap and filling. It was a place where men chewed their bread slowly and hoped for free seconds, and fifteen-year-old boys with slicked-back hair waited tables to keep their mothers and sisters from being ogled by the customers.

A key turned in the lock and the door opened. He glanced toward it. She seemed surprised to see him standing there, though she smiled. She carried nothing with her. Whatever she'd bought, she'd put it away upstairs.

"Where is it, Alex?" she said, joining him at the window.

He opened his mouth and paused. "France," he said. "Marseille, on the coast." She didn't seem to have noticed that she'd done it again.

"The building?" She closed her eyes.

"A theater."

"It's... beautiful. So fancy. But you know what I like best?"

"What?"

"The light. The sun's so low. It's almost like the light's made of gold. Look at the way it shines off the the cobblestones in the square. They're like fat little pillows and the shadows divide them. Do you see it?"

It wasn't anything he'd ever noticed. He turned to look at her: the closed eyes, the glow in her expression.

"Yeah," he said.

 

 

Mulder set his jaw and pushed back from the computer, forcing his fingers to release their grip on the edge of the keyboard. If it were his own he probably would have thrown it. If only he'd pulled the trigger when he'd had a gun to Smoky's head. What had stopped him?

Though that, too, would have had consequences. You could never see them all in the theoretical.

Standing, he strode to the picture window and stared out, seeing nothing, feeling only the pounding of his blood, the need to move or do something to stop what was happening. He looked around and ran his hands back through his hair. The house was a still life. Dale had taken Bethy out for dinner, the Burger Barn or someplace. It was better that way.

It had been a good day until now, Sandy's predicament excluded. Quiet day. A perfect, quiet Sunday with a warm bed and a warmer lover, a walk through the woods and no one breathing down their necks.

And now Old Smoky's reality check of the day.

He looked up at the ceiling and closed his eyes. Behind him, Byers' mail glowed quietly on the monitor.

 

 

"They're very good," Scully said, reaching to catch a crumb that had fallen from her mouth.

"You did it. See, I told you they're not that hard."

"Not with some expert guidance." She smiled at Sandy.

"You've just gotta get a feeling for the dough. Just the right amount of buttermilk and definitely don't mix it to death." Sandy reached for a second biscuit and paused. "Cy'd eat 'em dunked in syrup." She looked out the window, to where the sun was sinking toward the hills, and stared. "Does that ever happen to you, Annie, where you think maybe you're doing okay and then something happens, just some little, tiny thing, and it's like you've fallen through the floor and you just keep falling and falling?"

"Sometimes," Scully said. "Eventually you... I'm not sure exactly. Maybe it's a combination of things, and you find yourself back on solid ground. Or maybe you just learn where the holes are and you avoid them. You'll get there."

Sandy bit her lip and tried to smile. "It sure don't feel like it." She glanced down at her plate and then up at Scully. "Here I am being all cheery. Doesn't exactly make for great table talk." She pushed the few remaining bites of food around her plate with a fork and looked up. "What'd Ben mean about you having to get him out of trouble?"

Scully pursed her lips and felt a smile begin in spite of her efforts. "Ben's very... spontaneous. He's a very good investigator, an excellent investigator. He's very intuitive." She paused. "But a lot of times he leads with his heart, not his head."

"And it's not what they're looking for, right? Biology class was like that for me. They wanted you to draw pictures of these things in the water, these little amoebas and all the little tiny wiggly things around the outside--"

"Cilia."

"Yeah, those." Sandy sighed. "I guess you know all that stuff. But it just wasn't me, you know? I mean, how was that gonna help me? I can tell you which animals come to the stream at what time of day, and what's going on in there, and how the turtles live. But they didn't care about that. Just draw this little thing and get a good mark." She reached for her glass and took a sip. "But then I guess if Ben gets in trouble then that puts you on the spot."

"Sometimes. Sometimes he saves me, too... from looking at things too narrowly, from... becoming sealed off in my little... We've saved each other, over the years, many different times. Different ways."

"It's so nice, you know, so... rich... knowing someone's there for you, to back you up or stand with you." Her mouth twisted. "And then before you know it--before you realize what you had--it's gone and you--" Sandy covered her face with her hands. "Sorry."

Scully rose from her chair and went to the other side of the table. The girl's head dipped against her middle. Scully smoothed a hand through the long, brown hair in front of her.

"Sometimes," she began, "even after the hardest things, the most... difficult, terrible things... something beautiful comes along. It comes to you and you wonder why, what you did to deserve it. But it's there, it's a gift, whether you think you deserve it, or... or whether your past has told you there's no more good, no more beautiful things left in the world. But it's there--right there in front of you. And you'll have it. And you will smile again. You will find joy."

 

 

"How's she doing, Dr... Carney," he said, glancing up from the man's name tag. He stared through the glass at the bed on the other side, at the woman in it.

"She's stable for now. Are you a relative?"

"I'm her brother. I've just arrived from Nebraska. It's given us all quite a jolt, so sudden, her condition. I scheduled a flight as soon as I heard." He paused, reached into his coat pocket, stopped, removed the hand again and settled it against the glass. "And it's pneumonia, you say?"

"As far as we can tell, though I know one of my colleagues has his doubts."

"Oh?"

"He's concerned about the extent of the delirium."

"And that colleague would be...?"

"Dr. Bandrapalli."

"May I speak with him?"

"He's not on duty now. I believe he comes in at seven tomorrow. I'd be happy to check for you."

"Yes, I'd appreciate that. I'd appreciate it very much."

He continued to look through the window at the figure in the bed. Behind him the red-headed doctor's footsteps retreated down the hallway. Before him the slightest smile reflected palely off the glass.

 

 

Dearest Mulder,
If I had the laptop with me I would no doubt be writing this to you in a mail... or at least, I imagine that I would. Sandy has gone to sleep but I find it impossible to do the same. She gave me her son's room to sleep in and I think the tie-ins are just too great, remembering the boy's face, making the connection to who he actually was in life, and of course the parallel questions that suggest themselves about Emily. Who was she really? What did she like? What made her smile? I had so few days of her and what did I really understand of who she was? I can't make myself stop asking these unanswerable questions and I refuse, finally, to be ashamed of the fact that they remain with me. A counselor would undoubtedly worry, but you, above all others, surely understand that urge, that need to know, even if it will forever be beyond fulfillment.

I'd thought until recently that her past would be enough for me, if only I knew what it was, but my interaction with Sandy has shown me otherwise. Attempting to comfort this strong woman/child I find myself asking what Emily would have become as a young woman, when she might have turned to me for advice, or comfort. Perhaps I only grieve for myself, that I will never know that opportunity, but I find consolation in the knowledge that I do have someone I can share these feelings with, a place of understanding and comfort. That in itself means more than I can express.

                                                        -Your Lark

 

 

Mulder opened his eyes, shoved back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed.

There was no way. No way to tell her this, but no way to hold it back, either. He'd kept the information about her ova from her all that time. It was to protect her and it probably had. If Emily hadn't come along, she'd never have known she was sterile. Or not, at least, until she might have ended up with someone, contemplating marriage and a child. But even then the matter might never have passed 'unable to conceive'. She might never have had to know the extent to which they'd violated her. He'd keep the information from her again if it would keep her from being hurt.

But this was different, not the same at all. He couldn't just hide from her what was happening to her mother, no matter what her reaction. If Maggie were to die and he hadn't told her...

He knew how he'd feel, if it were his own mother.

Reaching down in the dark for his T-shirt, he slipped it over his head and stood. Bang around a little, Dale always said. He should, too, though Bethy was sleeping here now and it made no sense to wake her. He pulled on his jeans, zipped them and went out into the living room. Moonlight, bright and strong, flooded the yard and filled the picture window. He sank down on the end couch cushion and buried his head in his hands.

 

 

"Alex?" her voice came from inside as soon as he'd touched the door handle.

Krycek sighed, opened the door to her room a little wider and peered into the darkness. What had made him think he'd be able to make it here unnoticed? Tracy was in bed, a shadowed hillscape against the flatness of the mattress.

"You left your door unlocked again," he said, and paused. "Look, I didn't come up to rag on you. Just needed a walk, I guess. Wanted to make sure I wasn't keeping you awake."

She rolled toward the door and waved him in.

He shook his head. "Didn't come up to disturb you."

"Come in, Alex. Sit." There was a drowsy thickness to her voice. She waved him to the desk chair. He went around the bed and stood by the window.

"I was drifting off," she said.

"Then I should go." He cleared his throat.

She shook her head. "You were down there worrying."

"Can't help it." He shrugged.

"I was picturing your French plaza again with all that yellow, misty light." She rolled onto her side. "I don't think I ever understood before--about worry. The kind people have about you. I guess maybe Uncle Nathan and Aunt Jean were concerned about me.  That it wasn't just that they didn't know what to do with me, because dealing with me was like finding a species of animal you'd never seen before in your laundry hamper or something."

She stopped. Her lips pressed together.

"What?" he said.

"It's nothing."

He frowned toward where she lay in the shadows.

"That first night I came to Washington, I slept in a box."

His hand curled and tightened.

"I knew it was the wrong thing to do. In the middle of the night the little voice inside me kept telling me no more, never again. And I didn't. But I thought about that later... about what my mother would think if she knew. If something had happened to me."

He could see her swallow.

"I'll be more careful," she said. "The door. I will, Alex."

He turned away. She had no idea of the dangers out there, what it would take to keep her safe, and if she didn't do her part, if she got sloppy or--

"I'll remember. When I'm gone. I won't do anything stupid."

Then you need to start practicing now.

He stared hard at city lights beyond the window, tried to push away his frustration. Granted, she didn't have the kind of experience...  

"The play," he said.  "At that theater.  There was this girl in it, maybe around your age, maybe a little younger.  She'd met this guy and wanted to go out with him, but the man who'd been her guardian wouldn't let her out of his sight.  When I saw it... hell, I was nineteen. At the time, the older guy, Valjean, seemed like such a selfish bastard, just throwing his weight around."  He sniffed in a breath.

Tracy propped herself up on one elbow. "But?"

"I guess a dozen years change your perspective.  The guy had spent years on the run, disguised.  He'd had his whole life taken away from him, and the girl was... he'd taken her on years earlier, when her mother died.  After all he'd been through, everything he'd seen... he just wanted to make sure she was safe."

He pushed out a breath.

The room fell silent.  After a moment, Tracy patted a place beside her.  He came and sat down on the edge of the mattress.  

"I won't waste the lessons you've taught me, Alex.  I promise." 

A hand settled beside the leg of his pants.  He looked down, covered it with his own, then let his fingers slip between hers. She squeezed hard, as if to accentuate her words, then loosened as if to let go, but he held on.

No more. He'd been in no position to help the clone girls, and he'd known nothing about the fate of the one they'd been patterned from until it was far too late to do anything about it. Not this time.

He let out a sigh--tension, pressure--and brushed his thumb along the side of the hand under his. 

Below the window a car door slammed. Muffled voices drifted up, then melted into the distance.

"I should go," he said, standing.  He turned to look at her. "Get some sleep."

He went to the door, set the lock button on the back, and went out.  The brightness of the hallway made him squint. 

She meant to be careful.

He started down the stairs.

What had happened to "the strong survive, and the ones who fall through the cracks aren't worth worrying about"?
 

 

 

Mulder's eyes flew open and he jumped. Bethy stood at arm's length from him, noiseless, blanket in hand in the darkened living room. Blinking, he sat up straighter and ran a hand back through his hair. She was looking at him, curious or maybe knowing. Maybe she had that sense, the way her grandmother did.

He opened his mouth.

Those sad-dog eyes. It had her again, whatever took her from time to time--her father or maybe Rita's absence. Any one of a number of things. She had a lot on her plate.

Scooting to one side, he patted the cushion beside him. A smile pulled at the corner of her mouth and she crawled onto the couch, settling herself against him and spreading her blanket across them both. They sat unspeaking in the dark.

(end Chapter 12)

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