Sanctuary

by bardsmaid

Chapter 13

Monday

 

Maggie Scully felt the warmth of a hand against her wrist. She opened her eyes and squinted into the perennial brightness of the hospital room. Dr. Bandrapalli was standing over her. Gradually the conscious aches of sickness seeped in and filled her. Her mouth was thick and dry.

"Doctor, I saw him."

He was at the end of the bed now, looking at her chart.

She strained to force her voice above a whisper. "Doctor Bandrapalli?"

"Yes?" He looked up.

"The man who came to my door... to tell me about my daughter. I saw him at that window." She pointed with one shaky finger.

"Mrs. Scully, you may have seen many things. This fever has played games with your mind, with your brain's ability to function. It's inevitable that--"

"No." She struggled to pull herself up. "I saw him. I know it." She set her jaw and felt a momentary surge of strength, of normalcy.

He came around to the side of the bed. "You're convinced of this?"

"Yes."

"Do you know when this was? Long ago? Hours?"

"I--" She looked at the ceiling. It was always the same here--no night, no day, no windows. Only the interminable harshness of fluorescent light. She sighed. "I don't know. But there was another doctor--the one with the red hair? He was there, too."

The doctor poured her a glass of water from the pitcher on the bedside table, put a straw in it and held it so she could drink. "I will inquire among my colleagues," he said.

"Do you think it could have been just a hallucination? It seemed... different from the things that I've been dreaming. Seeing." She sighed and let her head fall back against the pillows.

"I will ask. I learned long ago not to leave any stones unturned."

She smiled a weak smile. "John Byers told me about your family, about the ones you lost in the accident."

"Bhopal," he said, "was not quite an accident." He pressed his lips together and stared at the far wall. "An accident waiting to happen in a place where the value of a poor life is considered cheap, yes. I lost 31 members of my family, including many children." He raised an eyebrow and looked past her. "And I suppose every patient I have had since then has benefited from that loss. In a way"--he glanced briefly at her--"I work to save those I could not save."

"Then you must have many grateful patients."

"I do my best." He sighed, studied the bed rail a moment and looked up. "Oh, I do have news of a sort. I have a hunch. I'm having John Byers and his friends check it out this morning, but something came to me. I may have an idea what this illness is. I've put you on erythromycin."

"The antibiotic?"

"Yes. If I'm right it will give us a head start. And if this sickness is what you think, you and your friends, then this mysterious man will find himself disappointed. At least, if I have any say in the matter."

"Has anyone heard from my daughter?"

"We have reports that she is well."

"Does she know about this?"

"I don't believe so."

Maggie's lips pressed hard together. "Don't tell her."

He looked askance at her.

"I never understood before," she said. "My daughter, once... she had a... a health crisis, a very serious crisis, and didn't tell me. I was very angry when I found out. I was angry with her right there in her hospital room. But I understand now why she didn't say anything, what she was trying to save me from." She looked up at him. "Don't tell her. Not yet, anyway."

 

 

Mulder shifted into first and pulled into Sandy's yard at a crawl. If she was still asleep, he didn't want to wake her. He didn't want to wake Scully, either. In order to protect her... well, he'd go to any length. But she deserved to know this. She needed to be able to count on him to tell her. It was a matter of trust. She was a dogged investigator; maybe there was something she could do, or figure out, that would help her mother.

He circled the trailer to the left and managed to slip the truck behind it where it was out of view of the road. Turning off the motor, he let his head come to rest against the steering wheel. His eyes closed. Three hours--maybe three hours of sleep at the most once Bethy had gone back to bed. Neither of them had said a word the entire time; they'd just sat there close together, two people with their respective burdens looking at the pale, moon-flooded still-life outside the picture window. Two people joined in their solitude. Eventually Bethy had started to drift and he'd herded her back to her room and tucked her in.

Mulder's head slipped to one side and he sat up abruptly, arms weak, head thick, eyes that didn't want to open again. Eight hours of latrine-and-locker duty to face.

And this.

He forced his eyes to stay open and made himself look toward the trailer. The living room window reflected first light off the hillside beside him. Dimly behind it he could see Scully's face looking down, curious at first, then concerned. He swallowed. She pointed toward the back door. Mulder got out of the truck, closed the door quietly and walked toward the wooden stairs that led to the back door, watching dirt and gravel pass his shoes. The door squeaked open. He looked up.

"What is it?" she said. She wore that look, the one that said she'd just wakened and hadn't quite gotten her bearings. He smiled momentarily; miraculously enough, he knew that look from experience now.

"A mail from Byers," he said quietly. "It came in last night."

She hesitated, glanced behind her and motioned him inside.

What's wrong, Mulder? What's happened? He could read the questions in her face, in her eyes, though her finger was against her lips. She led him quietly past Sandy's room to the living room beyond.

"What?" she whispered.

He looked at the ceiling and down again. "Your mother's in the hospital, Scully."

Shock, then widening eyes, then a swallow. "What is it, Mulder? How is she? Was she in an accident?"

"That might have been preferable." He glanced down, pursed his lips and finally looked up at her. "Sit down," he said softly.

"Mulder..."

He sat on the edge of a couch cushion. Reluctantly she settled beside him.

"It's no accident, Scully. We're pretty sure it was Smoky."

Her eyes widened. Darkened, it seemed. "What does she have, Mulder? What's wrong with her?"

"They aren't sure. They said it looks like pneumonia... with non-characteristic delirium. But they're not convinced--"

"Of what?"

"That it's not something else, something that was"--his jaw set--"deliberately given to her. To her and Isaiah Wilkins." His hand curled around the edge of the cushion beside him and squeezed.  "And I don't have to tell you how familiar that sounds."

She stared, wide-eyed, and swallowed. "When did this... when did it happen? And Wilkins, too?"

"Apparently"--he glanced down the hallway toward Sandy's bedroom--"we've got Wilkins to thank that things aren't worse. He'd been speculating about what Smoky might try to do to flush us out and he figured--"

"That he might do something to my mother, to draw me into the open, away from you." She stared through him, distant.

"Divide and conquer."

"Mulder, that man!" Her eyes were hard, the corner of her mouth wavered. Her near hand was curling tight. He took it and smoothed it between his own.

"Anyway, that's one of the reasons Wilkins was hanging out with your mom, because he figured something might happen, but he had no way to be certain."

"How long has this been going on, Mul...? No, wait. My mother sent me a mail on Thursday. She said she was coming down with something."

"Yeah, well, luckily Wilkins contacted the Gunmen as soon as he started to show symptoms. They've got an M.D. friend of theirs, some guy they're evidently pretty impressed with, keeping an eye on both of them. Byers took your mother to St. Anne's in Silver Spring yesterday." He paused. "They've been trying to carry the ball for us, Scully. I guess they were hoping if they could put out the fire they wouldn't have to tell us at all." He looked across to the far window, where bright, colorless light filled the glass.

"Mulder, I..." She sighed, leaned in against him and let herself be held.

 

 

Tracy tied her hair back with a rubber band and inspected her reflection in the mirror above the low, broad dresser: oversize T-shirt that hung to mid-thigh, the baby beginning to add his shape now, breasts unfamiliarly full. Or maybe just no longer negligible.

A woman. She'd never thought of herself as anything other than... herself. Not child or teen, certainly not a woman. It seemed so strange, a thought to be handled with gloved hands, like a curious, foreign object.

But Alex was right. And the baby?  What would it be like, two of them everywhere? Obviously it was her child; it would come to take on reality and personality and feel like hers when the time came. 

The looks she got from other people would be even worse then, more penetrating. A child with a child, wandering, or at least without anything that could be called a real home. And still not a single thought or fleeting image or memory of how, or when, or why.

She looked up, to the reflection of bright light beginning to flood the window, and reached for the plastic thrift store bag in front of her. She took out the broad, dented metal bowl, and the pans, and the old wooden spoon. Late morning, Marisela had said. The timing would be just right.

Opening the left-hand drawer, she took out the bag of flour she'd bought the day before, the small container of salt and the small packets. It would feel good to have her hands in the dough, working it, doing... what? There'd been something inside her, pulling. Maybe this was symbolic, an attempt by her subconscious to touch the past, the familiar and comforting. To return to a world she'd never be able to go back to.

But the point had been to do this for Alex. It was simple enough. She made herself smile and tear open the paper flap on the flour bag. There was no reason giving should be hard, or sad.

 

 

To: Redwall@zipmail.com
From: Bhopal31@mednet.net
Our patient claims to have seen the Mastermind observing her from beyond the window of her room. I am checking with my colleagues in an attempt to verify, but perhaps we should come to some agreements regarding security? Please respond.

 

 

"Don't even think of blaming yourself, Scully." Mulder's voice was quiet. "You know it was Smoky who did this."

She shook her head against him and looked up. "I'm not."

"Dale said something to me last week that made a lot of sense: that it isn't whether you get tricked that's important, but what you do to get out of it. We lose ourselves in--"  He shrugged and then loosened, letting out a sigh. "Maybe that's just me. Guess I sat up for hours, thinking what I'd like to do to Old Smoky. What I could have done years ago."

"No, we've got to keep clear heads, Mulder." Her face was strong, resolved. "If I went... Of course I want to see her, be with her, but it would give him exactly what he wants. That wouldn't help my mother."

"The Gunmen have been monitoring everything, keeping track of your mom, Wilkins..." He sat up straighter. "I think I know where Rita might be. I think she might have gone to take care of Wilkins."

Scully smiled a fleeting smile. "They can get a message to my mother." The corners of her mouth wavered suddenly. She fought them into straightness. "I... I can search the Internet. There are lots of medical databases."

"I think we probably don't know the half of the support we've got back in D. C. The important thing is to stay in touch and to keep a few steps ahead of Smoky. We keep putting out the fires but we've got to get ahead of him somehow."

"We'll find a way, Mulder. We have to." She squeezed his hand and paused. "What?"

"You." He smiled. "You're amazing."

"You put too much faith in me, Mulder."

"No, I... I don't think so."

 

 

Sandy put on her robe and looked down at her legs, stretched tight with forming scabs. They looked awful but they'd heal. It was probably a good thing Annie'd come. And what would have happened if she hadn't run into Ben on the road? She hadn't even stopped to think what he'd been doing there in the first place, just walking down the road like that. She'd been on automatic.

She ran a brush through her hair, set it back down on the dresser and picked up Roddy's teddy bear. It had been getting raggedy but he hadn't wanted to give it up. There was supposed to be a new one for his next birthday; she'd put it on layaway and hadn't had whatever it took to go back to the store and cancel. Probably they wouldn't even ask why, but she wasn't ready to face the possibility of having to explain herself: Sandy the poor, confused, high school dropout widow with the bad sense to marry a guy who'd kill his own little boy.

She held the bear close to her cheek. It was losing its smell, the way it smelled of dirt and Roddy and being played with, its realness just slipping away like... She swallowed and fought the sudden, swelling ache inside her. Get going, girl. World's still turning--though heaven only knows why--and you're still in it. Annie would be awake by now. The carpet passed by her in shaggy greens as she went down the hallway.

At the end she looked up, stopped abruptly and reddened. Ben and Annie were sitting on the couch, wrapped around each other. His cheek was tucked against her head.

"Sorry, I guess I was just barreling on through." Just keep on talking, girl.

Both looked up. Both seemed somber.

"Something wrong?"

"It's Annie's mother," Ben said quietly. "The man who wanted your husband dead has infected her with a disease in order to flush us out into the open. He's hoping Annie will panic and show up at the hospital."

Sandy watched the line of Ben's jaw set, his mouth a thin line. "My god. I swear, this is all like... like something out of a movie." She pulled a chair from its place at the table and sat down. "Do you know what's the matter with her?"

"It appears to be pneumonia," Annie said, sitting forward now, clearing her throat. "But it's probably something easily misdiagnosed as pneumonia. There are Internet medical databases. I can search them from the laptop." She paused.  The corner of her mouth pulled.

Ben pulled himself to the edge of the cushion. "Gotta go," he said quietly, close to Annie's hair. "Gotta paint them lockers and clean them toilets."

"I hope Joe lets up on you," Sandy said. She got up, made as graceful an exit as possible into the kitchen and opened the door to an upper cabinet. Ben stood up and Annie followed. He talked quietly, close to her, and brushed a kiss against her forehead. Annie's hand was on his arm; her eyes closed when he touched her. Sandy took out the oatmeal and clattered around looking for measuring cups.

"Sandy?"

She turned around. Ben came toward her. "Give her a hand today, will you?"

"You bet," she said, and nodded.

She watched him turn and go down the hallway. Annie went to the window and looked down. Eventually the sound of the truck's engine passed the corner of the house and faded in the direction of the road. Annie turned and smoothed her hands back through her hair, a slight tint of embarrassment in her face.

"I'll have breakfast ready in five," Sandy said.

Annie forced a smile. "Thank you. There's"--she took a deep breath--"a lot of work to be done. I guess we'd better get started."

 

 

Tracy watched as Alex went slowly up the stairs, pausing only slightly between steps, keeping a steady rhythm based in growing strength. There was no wheelchair now. He'd walked the flight of stairs to her room, stood there while she'd finished washing the flour from her hands and arms--luckily he hadn't seen, or asked questions--and then had begun his ascent to the roof. She stood on the landing below to give him space, and to be ready in case he needed help.

He'd been volleying her departure around in his head again, debating whether to try to contact his mother beforehand in order to know for sure whether she'd help, or whether to wait for the last possible moment, depend on the element of surprise and his hope that she'd come to his aid. Her aid; she was the one he was doing this for. Or whether to strong-arm Skinner into giving him an e-mail address that would circumvent his mother entirely and give him direct access to Mulder. Though quite possibly that would be a direct line to Mulder's direct and unqualified rejection. That was what really worried him: he expected Mulder to slam the door in his face. And Mulder had good reason to.

"Tracy--" He was at the top now, looking down at her, flushed with exertion but visibly pleased with his effort. Aware, too, of how she might take it. She hurried up the stairs.

"It was good, Alex," she said. "You're making progress."

He looked at her--took a moment to look into her--and shook his head. "You're a trooper," he said.

"Just keep telling me that."

He stopped short and gave her a look. "You are."

He was full of a momentary buoyancy. She smiled without thinking and they continued to the wall.

"Thanks for the castle earlier," she said when they'd come to the edge and settled into their familiar places.

"No problem." He was looking out into the distance, at the haze of morning.

"It was beautiful. But you stopped when the phone rang." She paused. "What was it, Alex, about that spiral staircase in the tower? It was strange the way the stairs were worn down in the middle. I can't imagine how many people it would take to wear down stone that way. But there was something up there--"

"Dungeons," he said. He didn't look at her. "Open to the air, just"--a shrug--"iron bars, and plenty of snow on the mountains."

He'd been held somewhere like that--not up in a tower, but he knew the shivering cold where there was no warmth at all, only aching numbness or gnawing pain.

"Tracy, don't."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to." It was hard not to look at what was laid out right in front of you.

He looked at the grains of grit scattered along the top of the wall, running a finger absently through them. Methodically, he pressed the memory into some dark little compartment, sealing it away out of reach.

Tracy looked out at the hazy scene before her. She should know by now. She should be alert enough to stay out of where she hadn't been invited, especially with Alex.

But now it began to materialize again: the narrow spiral staircase leading up and up.  She looked over at him.

"View's nice from the top," he said, still staring ahead.

She bit her lip and slowly closed her eyes.  Higher and higher the granite stairs went, around and around in circles until they came out onto a stone roof patio. She hesitated a moment, then went to the edge and looked out. Before her lay miles and miles of empty, rolling plain, soft in dormant shades of blue and tan.

It was so vast and empty, though hauntingly beautiful in its own way. For a moment she felt as if she were at the prow of a huge stone ship gliding across endless seas.

"It's like on your mountain, Alex--that feeling that you could spread your arms, fly off and soar over the land like a bird."

 

 

To: Redwall@zipmail.com
From: thelark@zipmail.com
Thank you for your ongoing efforts on my mother's behalf. I can't possibly express how much it helps to know we are not fighting this larger battle alone. Please send whatever details you have on my mother's condition. Do you have an e-mail address for her doctor? Awaiting your reply.

 

 

To: Redwall@zipmail.com
From: Bhopal31@mednet.net
Have verification from a colleague that the man in question was indeed at the patient's window at approximately 7 p.m. last night. He claimed to be her brother and asked about her condition. He was given my name but has yet to contact me. Will keep you posted as things develop.

"Well, gentlemen." Byers sighed and looked across the darkened room.

"Rani's going to have to look like he's with the program or he's going to be in danger here, too, if the Cancer Man's watching," Frohike said, looking absently at his fingerless gloves, flexing them.

"You're going to have to stop going, Byers. You know he's going to check surveillance. Or set up his own." Langley's face seemed to float in the shadows, the bright reflection off his glasses set off by long, uncombed hair.

"The old bastard can just look at her chart and see we've found the key, if Rani's right about this water contamination thing," Frohike said, getting up from the stool he'd been sitting on. "Speaking of which, Langley, you and I have work to do. Grab yourself a set of coveralls."

"Colson's Plumbing?"

"The one and only."

"I'll see what I can do about the hospital situation," Byers said.

Frohike scowled. "Imagine that bastard posing as her brother." He pounded a fist on the table. "It's time to bring the son of a bitch down."

 

 

"Hey!" came an approaching voice.

Mulder steeled himself and turned around.

"You're moving up in the world," Joe said, coming closer.  He wore one of his plastic smiles. "I'm sending you to the Big House today." He paused and raised his eyebrows. "Bathrooms over there get dirty, too."

Mulder shrugged. "Yeah, I guess they do everywhere."

"Come on," Joe said. He turned and headed toward his office. "I'll get you a site map."

Mulder glanced back toward the lockers. Finally, a ticket to the other building. Hopefully something would come of it since their boxed evidence had disappeared. He'd checked the end locker first thing and as he'd figured, it was empty. They still had the airport end of that trail to investigate, though. Dale knew some private pilots who flew out of Lexington. He'd promised to drive to the airport after work and see what he could find out.

Mulder made himself follow Joe. There had to be some kind of evidence in the other building--something they could use. For Scully's sake there had to be.

When he reached the office doorway, Joe was rummaging in a file drawer. He pushed through folders and pulled out a yellow sheet of paper. "Here."

Mulder reached out and took it.

"Nice catch," Joe said.

Mulder frowned, puzzled. "Excuse me?"

"The girl. Sandy. I heard you were out at her place yesterday. She's a... well, she's a little like an untamed mustang."

"She's just a kid. Anyway, I was out running yesterday. Came across her on the road. She'd fallen and scraped herself up, so I walked her home, that's all. If I need a woman I'll find one who's grown up."

"Whatever."

Mulder fought to keep his expression cool. There were a few things he'd like to do with the smirk on Joe's face.

Joe sat down at his desk and reached for a handful of papers.

Apparently his audience with the Great One was over. Mulder turned and left the office, frowning. Nailed again. No matter how careful you were or what precautions you took, half a dozen people in Owensburg knew every move you made. The road had been deserted. Nobody had passed him or driven by; he was sure of it. But then it could have been anything, even a neighbor with a telescope. A telescope would be a big boon to the gossip industry in a place like this.

Slowly Mulder loaded his cleaning cart. He could feel his pulse pounding through his fingers where he gripped the handle of the cart. Hopefully Scully was still buoyed by the resolve she'd showed this morning. But hope--or even strength--could be a fickle thing, and it would be hours before he'd be able to check on her. He pictured Joe's office again, metal filing cabinets lining the wall. Gradually they morphed into the file cabinets of his old basement office: drawers full of evidence he'd gathered so painstakingly, years of painstaking work and personal investment gone up in smoke. Then the office and the assignment taken away until, armed only with mops and toilet brushes and bottles of glass cleaner, he was reduced to the flimsy hope of finding some critical piece of evidence that might turn their fate around in the trash can of a factory in the country's heartland.

 

 

"'This is the only day I'm driving up," Sandy said as the old station wagon bounced up the road. "I love the walk. Or the running. I really do." She glanced over at Annie, who was looking out the window. "Annie, if there's anything I can do, any old thing..." She sighed. "You know, I know exactly how empty that sounds, believe me I do. But really. You've been such a help to me."

Annie turned and made herself smile.

"I'm glad you've got Ben here. I didn't realize you two were--"

"More than partners?" Annie seemed to surprise herself by speaking. She colored. "I didn't either until a couple of weeks ago." She looked away, out the window. "I always thought I was looking for something else--someone else. Someone more conventional, I guess, more... stable." She stared at passing trees. "When you know someone so well, so thoroughly, with all their little quirks and--"

"Warts and all?"

Annie smiled and nodded. "It's not what you think of as romance. Then something happens to make you see how deeply woven into your life they are."

"I wish I'd realized that more. At the time." Sandy sighed. "It's so easy to get wrapped up in the little things where you clash, all that petty stuff. You know, where you end up counting whether you're getting enough back for what you put out, like it's some kind of scorecard." She shook her head.

"I think maybe," Annie said, "we're always out there looking for what we think life is supposed to be."

 

 

They took the stairs together, down and then pause, down and then pause, a rhythm that had become second-nature, fingers locked into a firm, familiar grip. Though the railings were on the wrong side for him on the descent, and Alex was tiring.

Sometimes he would smile in between stairs, small smiles he probably didn't realize he was making. They were something his face had little practice at. Other times he counted the stairs in his head. Down, pause. Down and pause.

Her hand squirmed suddenly. He looked at her, questioning. On the next stair she pulled away and swallowed.

"He's coming, Alex."

He braced himself and looked down. Five more. "Where is he?"

"In the elevator. It's stopping. Can you make it?"

He nodded for her to stand there, slightly away, close enough to look attentive, far enough away not to raise the old man's suspicions.

The sound of the elevator door sliding open, and footsteps. The old man appeared, cigarette in hand, and headed toward the door of Alex's room. When he noticed them, he stopped.

Alex shrugged. "Getting a little exercise. Made it up a flight and back. Nearly." He took another step down, paused and took another, more slowly than he had before. "Still feel like an old man. Going to need a nap like one, too."

The old man nodded, pleased, and took a drag on his cigarette. "News, of a sort," he said casually, obviously pleased. He let the smoke out.

Alex reached the landing. The old man let them pass and watched Alex as he went to the door.

"I have things to get. At the store," Tracy said quietly, nodding toward the street.

Alex knew her look. She didn't want to be here, didn't want to be anywhere near the old man.

"Do you need anything from the drugstore?" she asked.

"That one prescription's almost out. You can have it filled again." It wasn't, but he wanted her to pocket the bottle. It would look good to the old man.

"Okay," she said. She did have something to do. And she already knew the old man's news as surely as she knew what Alex's reaction to it would be.

Tracy went into the bathroom and got the bottle from the shelf. In his mind he touched her as she passed, a hand on her arm for reassurance. The old man was watching, seeing nothing, his mind full of Scully's mother and where his plan would lead. Tracy made herself look at him as she went out, a slight nod to acknowledge him. He fed on acknowledgement.

Outside the door she paused and settled herself. Alex still held her in his mind, as if to shelter her from the awful man who was his father. She looked up the flight of stairs they'd come down and started to climb. The metal bowl was sitting on the desk chair in front of the window, covered with a towel. It should be ready now, rounded like her own middle. Time to take advantage of Marisela's offer to use the restaurant's oven.

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: twykoff@mednet.net
Did your Masson's staining myself this morning as I have an interest in this. Results on your specimens were exactly as you expected. Contact me for details.

 

 

Scully clicked on her second e-mail.

"He's awaiting specific test results," she said, reading from the monitor. "Agent Wilkins may be our saving grace here--the fact that he anticipated this, that we haven't been misdirected by the obvious." She sat back and swallowed. The air around her was quiet for a moment.

"But there's something you can do, right?" Sandy said, breaking the silence. "You said you could look things up."

Scully nodded. She stared at the screen and finally pushed her chair back from the desk. "Go ahead, Sandy. You can write to your dad if you want."

"I can wait. This is more important than a little old letter."

"No, I'm... I'm thinking about something. Something that happened a long time ago that may tie in here."

Scully moved to the bed--the half-made bed she hadn't been in since she and Mulder had drifted here in the warmth of midday yesterday. In her mind she pictured base housing, grid-perfect neighborhoods and stamped-out houses, each one the same pale green, palm trees dotting endless stretches of otherwise vacant lawn.

Sandy sat down carefully at the desk and placed her fingers gingerly over the keys. "I haven't done this in a long time," she was saying. "A long time."

Scully could picture her mother's face, the disbelief and shock as she passed along the sad news that not one but two neighbors, elderly veterans who had been attending a convention on the East Coast, were dead in an epidemic of some sort. She'd followed the investigation, her budding interest in medicine urging her on. It had had something to do with the air conditioning in the end--commercial air conditioning. But that wasn't a factor here.

The keyboard keys sounded in intermittent clunks.

It had appeared to be pneumonia at first, though. A medical mystery, it had caught her imagination and she'd followed it--

San Diego. She remembered Missy, by then more interested in boys than in the games they'd played as younger girls, the way she'd wanted to go to the beach and Mom had refused to let her go alone, or to designate Dana as chaperone. She's even younger than you are, Mom had said in exasperation. Beach tans were better than backyard tans, Missy had insisted, but to no avail.

Scully smoothed the patch of sheets beside her hand. San Diego. There was the Children's Center just last year--how could she ever have imagined?--the court appointment and Mulder's hand at her back in the hallway in his typical it'll-all-work-out-Scully confidence. The way he'd picked Emily up immediately in the middle of the night while the worker had gone to call 911--Mulder the immediate responder, the personal touch, the intimate connection, the fingers tracing the silhouette of a missing child in a mantel photograph or the flannel cut-out hearts of small victims long buried, as if the act of tracing would summon their essence so he could feel it, weave himself into it, understand it. Mulder, half-asleep, his fingers absently tracing her back, eyes closed, stubble framing a drowsy smile.

She could feel him, shadow-arms around her, the simple comfort of warm skin on skin, warm breath at the back of her neck.

But there was work to be done.

Air conditioning. How did it figure in?

Dispersal of bacteria in a spray of warm water.

Scully looked up. Sandy was sitting back from the computer, staring at her, puzzled.

"I may have come up with something," Scully said.

 

 

"Scully's mother has been taken to a hospital in Silver Spring," the old man said, allowing the pleasure in his voice to go undisguised. "They think it's pneumonia, of course." He took a drag on the Morley, opened his mouth and let the smoke out in soft clouds.

"And you figure Scully'll be coming?" Alex said from where he lay on the bed.

The boy's coloring was better these days, not nearly so pale. He was a strong one anyway, but the girl must be responsible in part. She seemed to have taken to her work, to be keeping up with what Alex needed to strengthen himself.

"Scully arrived too late to see her sister when she died. I think that would have an effect on her. She's seemed... attached to her family in that way, an attachment that should prove useful in the present circumstances." He looked around for the ashtray without finding it.

"Desk drawer," Alex said, nodding toward the drawer on the right.

He pulled out the ashtray--washed, not merely wiped out--set it on the desktop and tapped off a growing length of ash. Putting the Morley back between his lips briefly, he turned toward the bed.

"It may take her a few days. Longer may be better, actually. More time will mean she's done more arguing with Mulder over which course to pursue. He'll tell her not to come, of course, if he suspects anything. He'll feel guilty, as if the cause of this is my desire to get to him, the way he tormented himself over Scully's illness a year ago." He smiled briefly and looked toward the narrow window beside the bed. "But I believe she'll come around." A pause. "It's possible we may even get Mulder if he torments himself sufficiently, decides to... sacrifice himself nobly for his partner's mental well-being." He looked up. Alex was watching him, dark eyes, every move and nuance, the same way he watched Alex. It was reassuring and unnerving at the same time.

"In any event, I have a trip to make at the end of the week." He turned to tap off the ash again. "London and... Tunisia."

Alex's eyes registered quiet surprise.

"I leave Wednesday evening," he said. "May not be back until Saturday. At any rate, I may miss the excitement here. I have my people in place, of course, at the hospital. But I'll leave you to coordinate. When she shows up--"

"If she shows up."

He paused and then nodded. "Yes, of course."

Devil's advocate or challenge? No matter, the question was valid.

"We'll need a place to keep her until I return. I'll leave that to your discretion. You don't have to go out, of course; just monitor what's happening. These are the contacts."

It was an offer of trust.  He set the paper on the lamp table next to the bed.

"And if she doesn't show? If her mom starts to get better?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Then we may need to up the stakes a bit."

"No problem. I'll be here."

"You're doing well, Alex," he said, nodding. "Scully might be surprised to see how well you're doing."

 

 

Tracy got up from her chair and walked across the broad expanse of restaurant kitchen. The floor was made of butterscotch-colored tiles that sloped slightly to a drain in the center of the room. Above the floor spread counters and ovens of gleaming chrome. She looked up to where bright light filtered through a high window. The room was silent and orderly, almost a place of meditation, and it would be hours before the restaurant opened for dinner. She glanced back at the chair she'd been sitting on, a simple leather-seated chair brought from Marisela's homeland: deep brown wood frame, reddish-brown seat held in place with broad, decorative brass nails. It seemed to fit the tiles it sat on and the clean vacancy of the kitchen.

Bread smells filled the room now. She went to the oven door, opened it slightly, and closed it again.

It had been too long. Much too long. In her mind she could see the garden beyond home's kitchen window, her mother in between the green beans and the cucumbers, weeding. And then last spring, the poles where the sweet peas had bloomed, the bushes dried in place, crisp and tan, neglected.

Tracy turned away and pushed open the swinging doors that led into the dining room. Dim overhead lights cast a dull glow over the tables. Marisela was cleaning tabletops and chairs.

"Alex has been to your castle," she said, approaching.  She picked up a cleaning rag and dipped it into Marisela's bucket. Pulling back a chair, she got down on her knees and began to wipe the smooth ribs of the chair back. "The castle in Segovia, too. He showed me pictures."

Marisela nodded. "Very big. Very, very beautiful. It was Queen Isabel's castle--the one who sent Colón... how do you say it here?"

"You mean Columbus?"

Marisela nodded and paused, rag in hand. "Your Alex, he is doing better?"

"Better." She nodded. Marisela always said 'your Alex'.

"He's the quiet one. He looks, he watches. While he waits for the food to be ready he notices everything around him."

"You must notice," Tracy said. "If you notice what he sees."

The girl 's hand stopped working. She flushed. "Perhaps. I didn' think about it."

Marisela went back to cleaning her chair seat. Tracy smoothed her rag over the rungs and seat, working the rag into the small depressions where seat met ribs, where little bits of dirt or food collected, then returned to the arch of the chair back, a smooth, graceful motion. Up and curve over, up and curve, like the stairs going up to the castle tower. How many places held the dread of memory for Alex the way that stairway did? And yet he'd returned, once he'd managed to seal the memory away. To bind and gag it. He'd made a second attempt in order to give her a view he knew she'd want to see. She moved to a second chair and dipped her rag into the warm water again.

Marisela nodded toward the kitchen. "We should keep an eye on your bread. The oven is different than a small one in a house."

Tracy squeezed out the rag, laid it on the table and stood. She passed the picture of the castle on the wall, and the rocky peaks behind the village, and the picture of Hemingway. Marisela was thinking again that she was like the girl Maria in the story, a young girl with an older man.  Maria had been given to the man in the story, Alex had said when she'd asked him about the reference.  "A gift," he'd said, shrugging.  "Like a bottle of wine."

Tracy went through the swinging door into the kitchen. Bread smells filled the room and brought her back to the present, making her smile. There was something more, though, lurking beyond the fragrance of yeast and flour: a thin essence of her mother and of a home she'd never see again. It ached.

Time to be strong, Alex would say.

And he'd be right. It was one of those times.

 

 

"Knock, knock."

Scully turned around and looked toward the screen door. Sandy stood outside, one hand holding something beyond where she could see it. "Come in," she said, pushing the screen door open.

"I don't mean to disturb you if you're busy," the girl began, shrugging. "I guess I just hoped you'd made some progress. And I wanted to give you these. Adrie and I picked 'em."

Adrie appeared beside Sandy wearing a broad smile.

Sandy stepped up. "Want to come, Adrie?"

Adrie only smiled and shook his head.

"He seems happy today," Scully said. "He's usually so absorbed in his play. Not unhappy but... serious. It's good to see him smile... Ooh, very pretty." She took the flowers Sandy held out, pale lavenders and yellows and whites interspersed with ferns and other greens, all in a peanut butter jar.

"Some of 'em won't last more than a day," Sandy said. "But they'll be nice for now. They cheer a room up, you know?"

"Yes, they do." Scully set them on the small counter beside the desk. "Thank you."

"Have you found anything?" Sandy sat down on the edge of the bed.

"I think I may have. I've spent the last two hours searching the Internet, but actually the idea just came to me, something I remembered from when I was twelve or thirteen. Sandy, have you ever taken down wallpaper?"

"Ugh." She made a face. "Yeah. More than I'd like to. Well, it was only one room in my mom's house, but it's an old place and the stuff was stuck to the walls. I mean stuck."

"How did you get it off?"

"We scraped for a while. Well, okay, I scraped while my mom spent a lot of time on the phone with Joe, whining about it." She paused and looked down. "Okay, I guess I probably wasn't too much fun to work with, either. But it was hard stuff. We tried putting wet towels over it but then you've gotta hold them there and it takes forever. And then Joe told my mom about this little machine you can rent. It kinda steams the paper off. You just hold it there and when it gets enough steam it just comes rolling off, pretty much."

"Exactly," Scully said.

"So what's that got to do with anything?"

"A lot, maybe. My mother and Agent Wilkins were taking down some wallpaper at the beginning of last week.

"This guy must be a good friend of yours."

Scully paused. "Actually, I've only known him a short time, but... yes, I guess you can say he is." She pursed her lips. "Anyway, this disease I remember hearing about when I was young--it appeared to be pneumonia. There was a big outbreak of it at a convention in Philadelphia and a number of people died. At the time they had no idea what it was, but they named it Legionnaire's disease after the convention. Eventually they determined that the outbreak had been caused by contaminated warm water in the building's air conditioning system that had come through the duct work as an aerosol--"

"Like a spray?"

"Yes."

"What do you mean, contaminated? Like some terrorist thing?"

"No. Just a bacteria that's sometimes found in water. The air conditioning system vaporized some of the water and spread it through the building, contaminating the people at the conference."

"And you think that's what happened to your mom?"

"She and Wilkins both developed symptoms after they'd worked on the wallpaper. A home air conditioning system doesn't work the same way. It wouldn't have that effect. But a steamer for taking down wallpaper would. And contaminating the water supply would be easy enough to do."

"But how would somebody know she'd be taking down wallpaper? They couldn't exactly count on something like that."

"They wouldn't have to. Just taking a shower would have the same effect: warm water vaporized."

"I get it." Sandy sighed. "But my god, Annie, I don't... I just don't understand. I mean, I know I've lived my whole life in this little town, and it ain't Lexington, or probably a lot of other places out there with sharp, slick people, but... What makes people like that? Like this guy who thinks he can just step on people like little plastic army men in the dirt and it don't mean anything?"

"He doesn't have any scruples, any moral--"

"He's got no heart."

Scully smiled a pained smile. "I think that says it all."

Sandy's lips pressed together. She looked down and studied the carpet, nudging at the surface with a toe. "Well, my Cy and Roddy may be gone, but your mom's still alive and we've got to do whatever it takes." She looked up. "Have you sent what you found to her doctor?"

Scully nodded. "About ten minutes ago. He could have it already."

"Thank goodness for e-mail." Sandy stood. "Well, I really gotta go. I gotta see what Roddy's--"

One hand found its way to her mouth.

Scully stood. "You okay? Sandy?"

Sandy gulped but said nothing at first.  "Guess I'm getting used to this," she said finally, quiet. "Maybe more than I want to. Well, I'd better go. You be strong, Annie."

She must have looked doubtful, Scully thought, because a second later the girl's arms were around her. "I will," she said, leaning into the strength of the embrace. "I will."

 

 

Krycek made his way up the stairs for the second time. Five minutes, she'd said when she'd popped her head in on her way back from the grocery store, her face with its glow of excitement and mystery only half-hidden. She had no idea how transparent she was. Well, he'd waited the five.

He paused at the landing, let his breathing even out and stepped up again. Ten to go, nine, eight.

He reached the third-floor landing and paused again to catch his breath. She'd be watching him in her head; he might as well be on camera. Not that she probably had much of a choice. He looked ahead, to her door, covered the last small distance to it and knocked.

"Come in."

He could picture her face, the way she'd look when she said it, cheeks flushed, mouth pressed tight to keep the overflow inside. He turned the knob and pushed the door open.

"Hey."

It smelled incredible.

"Come on in, Alex. Sit," she added, smiling. "It's just going to get cold."  She pointed to a small, towel-covered mound on the bed.

"How'd you manage?" He came around the foot of the bed and eased himself onto the desk chair.  There was something--a shift in the dynamics when it was her place, her directing.

"I asked Marisela if I could use the oven at the restaurant."

"Good thinking." 

"Just tear off a piece," she said, slipping the loaf out of the towel. "I don't have a knife."

"Hold it for me?"

"Sorry." She colored, came closer and held the loaf while he pulled off a warm chunk, then sat on the edge of the bed. "I should know by now."

"No problem." He took a bite and nodded, then took another, chewed and swallowed. "In Europe they make it mostly in little bakeries, not in homes. It always smells good when it's fresh, but... it's not quite like this. It's a little sweeter here. Different. Really good," he added.

"I've got butter if you want it. Marisela gave me some of those little wrapped-up pats."

He shook his head. "No, it's good like this, just the way it is."

She held the loaf out, waited while he pulled off another piece, then sat back and pulled one leg up under her.

"I used to make it at home," she said. "My mom taught me when I was pretty little and eventually I just took over. It was one of my... things, I guess. She was more at home in the garden and I did the household stuff." She looked up and shrugged. "What a homebody, right?"

"It's a skill. Every skill has a place." It had definitely been a blending of art and honed skill the way she'd swept in that first night, on a mission to ease him past the circuit-shorting pain.

She colored and looked away, out the window, then at the bedspread's patterned surface.

"I haven't made bread in so long, but it's been working away at me lately, the need to do it again, to get my hands back into the dough. Maybe it's the rhythm of the kneading." She turned back to him. "I got the bowl and pans at the thrift store. They had a two-for-one sale."

He nodded.

"But it's been a long time since I've made any. Not since I was home, not since--" Her lips came together and wavered. She attempted a smile.

"Since?"

She took a breath. "Since she didn't have the strength to chew it." She sighed.  One hand smoothed over a wrinkle in her dress.

His jaw stopped moving.

"I don't mean to--" she started, and let out a sigh. "I guess I've just had this... thing... in the back of my head for a while now, the bread and... I don't know what it is. You know, whyWhy I wanted to." She studied her hands. "Maybe I'm just trying to get back there somehow." She looked up. "But I did want to make it for you. Really."

"Thanks."

"I've been thinking." She traced a fold in the blanket. "Maybe I do need to go back there. Not to stay. I don't think I'm ever going to live there again; the place feels like it's drifting away from me. But maybe I need to go there and face it first, the way you always face everything."  She looked for his reaction.

"You sure you could handle it?"

"Maybe when I leave here. Maybe then." She shrugged. "Guess I'll find out."

Just leaving here would be rough enough on her. Having to be on her own. And he'd seen what the memories of her mother did to her.

She looked up suddenly at his worry.

His jaw set. Caught again.

Tracy turned away.

Nice gesture, but there it was: Regardless of what she might mean or not mean, it was like being strip-searched, always naked under bright lights. It hadn't always been as noticeable before. No telling why it seemed so obvious today.

She was at the window now, one hand gripping the frame, staring into the street.

He swallowed. Of course, she'd have heard this, too.  Or felt it.  Or whatever it was she did.

And this would be how everybody treated her eventually, the way they all reacted.

"Tracy..."

"Alex--"

He stood. "Look, I just... I've got some stuff rattling around my head and I need space. I can't operate this way all the time, with an audience."

She was looking out the window.  "I know."

It didn't take any psychic ability to see that she was hurt, lost. He came up behind her, close enough to feel the warmth her body gave off. She stared through the glass pane in front of her.

"Give me a couple of hours, okay?"

"I'll go for a walk, Alex." Her voice was small.

"Bread's going to dry out," he said quietly.

She slipped past him, went to the bed and covered the partial loaf with a towel. He watched the way her hair spilled over her shoulders, smooth and sleek.

"I just... need time to think." He pushed out a heavy breath.

She turned to face him, more composed now.

"Help me down the stairs?" he said.

She took the hand he offered, fingers working into their familiar places.

"Couple of hours," he said.

"I'll go for a walk," she repeated.

He paused. "Come back."

"I will."

 

 

"He hasn't contacted you yet?"

Rani shook his head. "Nothing. Do you think he will? Or was he just coming to see for himself that his plan was in place?"

Byers rubbed a thumb against the steering wheel. "Actually, I have no clear idea. But evidently he does know that you suspect something--medically, at least. Undoubtedly he's going to have his own surveillance in place, either video or personnel, and that's going to include you."

"I'll know if I see someone different. I'm quite familiar with all the staff."

"It could be easy enough to buy the temporary loyalty of someone already here... especially someone on the lower end of the pay scale."

Rani stared out across the broad expanse of parked cars. "I would protest"--he let out a sigh--"we have a fine staff here. But, yes, sadly, I've seen the power of money."

"We'll have to be very careful when she begins to recover."

"Even if we have found the root of the mystery, John, and it seems we may have, the extent of the infection in her lungs... Things are not quite as easy as simply changing the medication. I believe she's been infected longer than Wilkins. True, her symptoms didn't begin to show themselves until, coincidently, Wilkins' did, too. But I believe that was only a matter of coincidence. If the bacteria were there earlier, in the water system--"

"Just a daily shower would have done it."

"Precisely. Oh, did I mention? I heard from her daughter not an hour ago. She'd suggested the same thing I'd already thought of."

"Legionnaire's?"

Rani nodded. "Not a common diagnosis."

"Scully's not a common investigator."

 

 

Mulder picked up the yellow sign from the entrance to the women's bathroom and put it back on his cart. Three women were waiting to get in: two young ones chewing gum, looking bored but probably glad for the excuse to be away from their stations a few minutes longer, the third a woman of about forty with her hair drawn up into a pony tail. She jotted something in a little notebook as she waited. Mulder pushed the cart to the side and dipped his mop in the bucket. The two gum-chewers exchanged glances and half-hidden smiles and went inside; the older woman continued to write. Mulder pressed the mop in the wringer, took it out and began to swab it across the tiles.

There was a big plastic bag of trash he could go through later, but discovering anything useful in it was an outside chance at best--a scrap of hope that was too damn close to self-delusion.

It had been different when he was the only one. Being booted out of the Bureau was bad but it had been bearable. Then it had been both of them and together that had been bearable, too... Okay, sometimes a whole lot better than bearable, a little bit of heaven in the middle of purgatory. But now the clock was ticking. Someone in Owensburg would find them out sooner or later--probably sooner--and they were no closer now to pinning anything on Old Smoky than they'd been weeks ago. Or years ago, for that matter. What they had was maybe five jigsaw puzzle pieces out of five hundred: a body autopsied, a little more information about the plant, a possibility of evidence at the airport if Dale was able to locate Beeson's pilot.

A lot of ifs. Nothing concrete.

And Scully's mother hanging in the balance.

Smoky wouldn't wait forever if Scully didn't show. She was bound to realize that, too, once she'd gotten past her need to do research for her mother. She might solve the medical mystery; if anyone could, it would be Scully. But if she didn't show up at the hospital, Smoky would try something else, something more drastic, and how much could they take in the end?

Scully was feeling strong now, but it was the strength that came from knowing you can't afford not to be, the kind tightrope walkers must feel halfway across, nowhere to go but to the other side or down, and down's not an option. But what about later? What would happen when Maggie didn't get worse and Scully didn't show? Smoky wouldn't just shrug and walk away. He'd tighten the screws.

Eventually she was going to realize that.

Mulder dipped his mop in the bucket again and wrung it out. He started on the floor again, long, even strokes, automatic now. He was approaching the woman's feet. She was still busy in the notebook.

"Excuse me," he said. "Bathroom's open now."

She looked up, startled, then half-smiled. "Thanks. Grocery lists should be so all-absorbing, right?"

She tucked the pad into the pocket of her lab coat and passed him, headed into the restroom. Mulder's mop stopped. It was quiet suddenly--quieter than before. He could picture Debbie in the park, her expression intense, her arm twined around Ray's, rocking slightly as if it were the movement that kept her running.

She wheezes, she'd said matter-of-factly.

 

 

She'd almost been able to forget about her 'gift'. They called it a gift but what good was it if it only separated you from people, made them draw away from you as if you had some awful disease, one you'd never be able to get rid of?

Almost normal for a while there, she and Alex falling into a comfortable kind of rhythm, her anticipating, him seeming to understand. But he was right: he hadn't had any choice in her intrusions. The pain and his injury had taken away his options to be on his own or to choose his own companionship.

Maybe, as he thought, he simply hadn't noticed how much of him she could see while the pain had been in the forefront of his mind. He was doing better now and that was a good thing; he needed to be strong, to be able to go on with his life. But it was becoming more and more frustrating for him, realizing how much she saw, that often she knew what was inside him almost before he did. Alex of all people, whose gut instinct was never to open up to anyone.

Tracy leaned back against the tree trunk and looked up at the canopy of leaves overhead. She sat with her back to the square and the people on the benches and tried to focus on the overhanging greenery instead of the murmur of minds behind her. It was so natural to hear them.

But for them, not knowing, not seeing into those around them... what would it be like? A kind of blindness, maybe, but one they'd accept for not knowing anything else. What a shock, then, if they were to see it revealed. Her own experience had been the opposite: unknowing, assuming for so long that people could see into her. Maybe it was why Alex found her so transparent. Maybe it was why she couldn't lie, never having suspected that people couldn't see what was inside her.

A squirrel darted along a tree branch and stopped suddenly, peering down to look at and then chide her noisily. She smiled up at the small, intense face.

Come back, Alex had said. He'd repeated it in his mind for good measure. Who else had ever said that, once they'd known about her?

She glanced around the park perimeter, at the cars passing and the storefronts beyond the flow of traffic. Across the street was a hardware store with red sale signs in the window. The thrift store had had a sign in the window, too. 'All housewares 75% off--today only' it had said when she'd passed by this morning on her way to Marisela's.

She stood up and brushed off the back of her dress. There was something she wanted to get.

 

 

His fourth grade teacher was standing at the front of the room, and Will was small again. He looked around, surprised to see his classmates all there, too.

"This citizenship award goes to Isaiah Wilkins, " the teacher said, nodding solemnly toward his seat at the back of the room.

Several white faces turned around to stare, noses wrinkling, though most deigned not to gratify him with so much as that. He didn't remember doing anything to deserve an award.

The teacher was smiling. She was shorter than he remembered. Kindly. She repeated his name and waited for him to stand up. More heads turned. Will squirmed uncomfortably in his chair, his face warming.

"Isaiah?"

He could feel his brow wrinkle. "What was it I did again?" he asked quietly.

There was a low eruption of laughter.

"Yeah, what did he do?" a freckle-face kid demanded.

"Why, he pulled that dog away from where the bus was coming, Randy. He probably saved the dog's life. It was a noble thing."

"It was a stupid thing," a voice behind him rasped. Two fingers poked him in the back. "You coulda got yourself run over, stupid. Where wouldya of been then?" The fingers jabbed again.

"Will?"

The teacher was beckoning again, waiting, one hand held out and a paper in the other, fancy scrolling around the edges. His mind puzzled. He wanted to hunker down in his seat and wait for her to go on to someone else's name except that the fingers behind him kept poking through the slats in the chair. Now there was a shoe wedged against the small of his back. He stood.

He walked slowly forward, eyes on the gray linoleum tiles and finally, when he had to, up on her. She offered her hand for him to shake--one hand open, the other with the paper in it. He reached out, feeling the eyes behind him boring into his back as if they were hot pokers.

"Will," she said again. Unlike the others, she meant the smile she was smiling.

He put his hand forward and let her take it. Her hand was cool and small.

"Will--"

He opened his eyes.

"Stay with me, Will."

He was in his bedroom. His mouth was hot and thick. His head ached.

His chest felt like it had cement blocks on it.

"The doctor says they think they've found out what you and Maggie have got." Rita squeezed gently against his hand. "They know how to treat it now, they think."

He blinked.

"It's because of you, Will. If you hadn't stuck with this thing, nobody would have known."

His eyes closed. He could see the classroom again, the pale faces watching, some blank, some staring, a few with something unpleasant simmering behind the eyes.

"Stay with me, Will," the teacher was saying.

She came close and smoothed a cool hand across his forehead.

Will was tired. He let his eyes close.

 

 

Tracy hadn't asked. And she wouldn't; she'd just hold it inside.

But the need was there all the same; he could see it as clearly as if he could read her the way she read him. Something was drawing her home, the need to make sense of her past, to come to final peace with it.  But in the woods, a single memory had torn her apart.

It was crazy even thinking about it. She'd be gone soon enough, end of story.  How many people had passed by the window of his life like crowds through a bus station, gone by and melted into the graveyard of the past almost before they were out of sight?  It was the way life was.

Except that those people had saved his life, or stuck around to take care of him when he was strung out on pain meds, just a stinking, broken body in a bed. 

Krycek pulled up, slid his legs over the side of the mattress and leaned forward, resting his head in his hand. He was on his feet more these days; he needed to start wearing the arm again, if only for balance.  No use taking a chance on messing up the alignment of his spine. 

The joys of being a fucking amputee.

The old man would be leaving town. Which would mean a couple of days without pressure, no one looking over his shoulder. He'd been tasked with coordinating the old man's surveillance of Scully's mother, but location wasn't critical to the assignment; his cell phone would be the gathering spot.  Nobody was going to be knocking on his door.

So what would this be if he went through with it?  His stab at a good deed?  An attempt to balance out his karma?

Or just the insanity his instinct was warning him it was?

Pushing out a breath, Krycek stood and made his way to the window by the desk.

Being out of the loop for a couple of weeks was guaranteed to warp your sense of perspective. The time he'd spent in rehab after Tunguska, as they fine-tooled the arm, had taught him that.  It could make you soft, take away your edge.  Make the world look pretty much upside down. 

 

 

To: meremaid@zipmail.com
From: ottercreek@zipmail.com
I'm sending this on the chance you're checking your mail. Ben thinks he may know where you've gone off to, and if he's right I want you to know I'm rooting for you and wishing you the strength you'll be needing on the front lines like that. I don't envy you being somewhere big and noisy, but I'm doing my best here to keep Annie cheered up. If you're where we think you are, you know what's going on with her, too.

I'm getting along better with Adrie and my job now and I thought you'd be pleased to know that at least. I've been swimming up by the falls. They're beautiful like you said. I've done some fool things lately but I'm hanging in there overall and, like I said, I'm trying to help keep Annie's spirits up. I guess that helps me keep my mind off my own troubles and I figure that's a good thing. Thanks for reaching out to me when everyone else was just standing around with their mouths gaping. When I think about it, it's like a miracle considering what you lost in all this craziness, too.

God bless, and please write back so I know you got this. Annie let me use her computer to write this mail.
   
                                                                                  -S

 

 

Krycek made his way from the narrow window by the bed to the one across the room. If he kept this up, he was going to wear a rut between the two spots.

If the old man figured his trap was going to spring within the next few days, then Mulder and Scully must have heard the news by now.  They'd have some kind of network, somebody looking out for them.  Skinner, probably, at the least, though Skinner would have to be careful; he'd know the old man would be watching his every move.

Mulder'd know it was a trap.  He had to figure.

Krycek turned and started back toward the narrow window.

Scully'd want to go to her mother; the old man was right about that. She'd have that fire in her eyes, that holy indignation she wore so well.

Along with her trademark refusal to believe it could be what it was, the way she refused to believe in Mulder's evidence.

But Mulder'd find a way, if he kept his head, to keep her from walking into it. The question was whether he'd keep his head. And whether she'd listen. It would depend on what she had to gain by going: the value of easing her conscience where her mother was concerned versus what she had to lose by leaving Mulder. And only Scully knew what that might be.

Krycek stared through the leaves on the tree outside the window.  A delivery truck had pulled up across the street.

Scully'd been spooked enough at the end there.  He'd noticed it even through his shock, lying there bleeding onto her carpet. He'd watched them through the open bathroom door, Scully sitting on the counter like a shaking child, wide-eyed, immobilized, Mulder dabbing the blood off her, washing her neck and cheek, making a bandage, handling her as if she were made of porcelain. Trying to clean the blood off her shirt, then giving up finally, bringing her another and then having to put it on her.

If she'd been in any kind of shape she would have decked him; it was Scully, after all. Unless they'd already crossed that line. But it hadn't seemed like it from the way Mulder was handling her, too careful and tentative.

Who knew what would have happened between them after two weeks on the run, though. Pressure--extremity--did strange things to you, could shoot you right through into the twilight zone. He should know.

He did now, anyway.

Kryced pushed out a breath, turned and headed across the room.  Reaching the desk, he gripped the chair back and let it take his weight.  His arm shook. Time to lie down. 

He closed his eyes.

Mulder'd know it was a trap.  Given their situation, it was too obvious not to be.

 

 

"Knock, knock."

Scully glanced up from the book on the bed beside her. Mulder was visible through the screen, Bethy by his side. She smiled and got up.

"Looks like Grand Central here," she said, opening the door. "Hi, Bethy."

Bethy smiled and looked past her to where Sandy sat in the desk chair. Her cheeks were rosy against her pale skin.

"Go on," Scully said, nodding toward Sandy.

Bethy smiled and stepped up into the trailer. Scully slipped out and down the stairs. She was aware of the color rising in her face. "Didn't expect to see you here."

He shrugged. "Yeah, well, I just spent eight hours worrying about how you were doing. Figured I'd stop speculating."

"Did you walk?"

"Didn't have much choice. Didn't want to take a chance on someone spotting me driving up here." He paused and frowned. "Apparently somebody saw me coming out of Sandy's yesterday."

She gave him a quizzical look.

"Joe greeted me this morning with a little comment about my"--he lowered his voice--"'nice catch'."

Scully frowned and glanced behind her, to where Sandy and Bethy were already deep in conversation.

"Dale's supposed to be heading for Lexington to see what he can find out at the airport, so I picked Bethy up, parked at Rita's and we took the trail behind the house from there. I figure anyone watching me would assume we're inside."

"And Rita's car?"

"In the driveway so it looks like she's home." One eyebrow went up. "Any news with you?"

She let out a careful breath and nodded. "We think we may have it figured out--Mom's doctor and I. We've been in contact several times today. Now we're just waiting for confirming lab results. We'd both come to the same conclusion. Suspicions, anyway: Legionnaire's disease."

"But... isn't that contagious? Aren't there huge outbreaks?"

"It's bacterial, not viral. And no, usually there aren't, contrary to popular impression. But we've certainly got Wilkins to thank that we knew to look deeper in the first place."

"How's he's doing?"

"He's not in the hospital. His symptoms certainly aren't anything to envy, but he's doing a little better than--" She stopped, let out the buildup of air. The sticks at her feet were arranged in a pattern. Adrie's handiwork, undoubtedly.

Mulder's hand settled against her back. "Why don't we take a walk?" he said softly.

She looked up, managed a small smile and turned around to where Sandy was half-watching, trying not to intrude.

"Sandy, we're going to--"

"Why don't you two go for a walk?" she said, waving a hand at them. "I've got Sweet Pea here and we're going to go check out what Adrie's doing."

Scully nodded and smiled. "Thanks." She turned to Mulder and they started off on the trail that led downhill and to the left.

"Smooth," he said, raising an eyebrow. "You two have that choreographed?"

"Practiced for hours," she said, letting herself smile.

"On a scale of one to ten, I give it a 9.5." His arm went around her waist.

"Come on, Mulder," she said. "Let's walk."

 

 

Tracy took the hot bread gingerly from the toaster and spread it with jam.

"See?" she said, turning to where he sat on the edge of the bed. "It's almost better this way."

He nodded, mouth full. Crumbs stuck to his lips.

She sat down on the desk chair, put her feet up on the rungs and took a bite of her toast. Alex crumpled his paper towel and sent it flying cleanly into the waste basket beside the microwave, then lay back against the pillows. He was watching her, thinking, half-guarding what was in his head. She was conscious of the movement of her jaws, the loudness of her own chewing in her ears. Maybe this was what he felt like--the watched feeling--whenever she was around. She swallowed self-consciously.

"How far is it?" he asked.

She looked up at him, questioning.

"To where you lived?"

"About three hours."

"He's left me to coordinate his little plan," he said, tilting his head back farther and looking out the narrow window behind him. "He's flying to Europe for a few days at the end of the week." She watched the small peak his Adam's apple made.

"He isn't going to make you...?"

"Do anything to her? Nah. He thinks he's got the whole thing figured out." He thought of all the trips he'd taken to the pistol range in Rockville at the old man's request a couple of months earlier, hours spent mastering using his Beretta one-handed, building up the necesary strength.  It wasn't like in the movies.

But it wasn't for this; the old man had other plans for Scully's mom.

He paused and frowned. "He's been too concerned about how I'm doing. I don't like it." He pulled up slightly and pushed a pillow farther under his head. "He was happy enough to set me on top of a car bomb a few years back."  Then there'd been the hell of the silo. "It doesn't track--the show of... hell, whatever it is. Keeps me awake sometimes, thinking about it, wondering what his angle is, what..." He shrugged and stared at the ceiling.

"Do you want to know?" She pressed her lips together and looked at her hands in her lap.

"What?"

"His concern. Alex, I can't help what I see. I just... don't know any way to... to block it out, not to--"

"Hey, I"--he shook his head--"wasn't trying to rag on you. You know, before. It just... it builds up. I'm not used to living like this."

She put one arm over the chair back beside her and leaned against it. "I've seen it more than once in him, Alex. And the strength of the memory always surprises him, just like when it first happened."

"What?"

"When you were in the hospital, after you were shot, in surgery." She paused. "hey almost lost you... for a little while there. There was a point and... Something went wrong, people were yelling all of a sudden--I can't tell what they're saying--and everyone's hurrying around you and... He's shocked. He knows he shouldn't be. He likes to think he's ready for anything, but he's not. And he has to leave the room. That bothers him because he never leaves; he can watch anything, but he can't watch you lying there like that." She refocused on the room. "I don't know, Alex. He has no idea how to... love, how to actually value people, but it's like some little vulnerability he isn't expecting that hits him every once in a while." She shrugged. "I don't understand it, either."

He was staring at the corner of the ceiling. He'd nearly died, he was thinking. Not that it was the first time. No big deal; he was still here. But it shook him all the same. She watched his jaw, the way it set. The old man had never mentioned it to him.

"I was thinking this morning, " she started. She ran a finger along the smooth edge of the chair back. "I have been thinking..."

"About?" He was still half-caught in her revelation.

"When the baby comes, I'll come across as more of a freak than I do already. It won't just be what they think of me already, but that added to it, and..." She sighed.

"Any more than they do already?" His voice was quiet. He nodded toward her middle. "You're not exactly a secret now, you know."

"It's not that." She shook her head. "I guess what bothers me the most is that I've only been thinking about myself when I should be thinking about this baby. I can't imagine being a child and having any kind of mother who would--" A corner of her mouth pulled. "I'm not ready for this; I know I'm not. To do it right, I mean." She let her head rest against her arm and closed her eyes momentarily.

"Kid'll be lucky to have you," he said, pinning her momentarily with a dark-eyed intensity that surprised her.  After a moment he shrugged. "Anyway, whatever you have to do, you find a way.  You get thrown in the water, you swim."

"Doesn't mean you'll do it well."

"You will."

"I guess. I guess I just have to figure out a way to get past what people think. It's never going to hit them any differently, what I do."

"Turn sideways. It helps." He rolled to face her. "Close your eyes." A pause. "Go on, close them."

She gave him a skeptical look but let her eyes fall shut. They were near the ocean, looking down from cliffs. The sky was gunmetal blue with thin, bright slashes of yellowish light. Out in the water were lots of... something, bobbing along. Small black things.

"What are they, Alex? Seals?"

"Surfers," he said.

She could make them out now, the heads of men and boys in wetsuits.

"They're waiting for good waves. They'll stay out there for hours. They walk out..."

She could see one now, walking slowly into the water, seeing a wave coming, holding his board above his head, turning sideways and letting it pass by, walking on farther and doing it again, over and over. No wave carried him away or moved him from where he was; the waves simply slipped past him on their way to the shore.

"You focus on where you're headed, not on the wave. Then present the smallest possible front, let it pass you by. Wait it out."

She opened her eyes. He was studying her, the picture still in his head, blue-gray sky and row after row of waves coming, passing.

And something else now. Woods. Trees. A road. And turmoil, something he was holding close, something important to him, but unresolved.  Something he wouildn't want her to see. 

Reluctantly she withdrew from his mind.  Deliberate now, she focused on the light coming through the window, the brown leather loafers beside Alex's bed, the red book on the shelf that held the emergency money.

 

 

"I followed him to Rita Johnston's house," Raylene said. She picked up a wooden spoon and stirred the crumbled hamburger in the pot in front of her, then shook some salt and pepper into it. "He had Rita's granddaughter with him."

"Makes sense," Joe said from the far side of the table. He was hidden behind the sports section.

"Makes sense why?"

"He's her nephew. It's not like he's a stranger or something."

"Still." She dabbed at the contents of the pot. "He's still there. I waited a good long while and he never came out." She listened to the meat sizzle, smelled the steam coming up from the pan. "Joe?"

"Huh?"

She turned around. "Did you hear to anything I was saying?"

"Huh? Yeah, I heard it. I just didn't figure it was very important."

"Joe Charters!"

The paper came down. "I just don't see what the big deal is, Raylene. You two fight like cats and dogs anyway. She's an adult. I guess I don't get what your interest is here."

"That's because you don't have kids." The corners of her mouth tightened. "Not any you ever had to raise, anyway."

The newspaper went back up again. "Reds beat the Cardinals in extra innings," he said after a moment.

Raylene turned back to her hamburger. She watched bubbles sizzle up between bits of meat, the red color fading gradually to gray. She opened a can of tomatoes and poured it into the pot. There was a sizzle of protest, like water on a campfire, and then near-silence.

"Anyway, if you'd quit breathing down her neck, Raylene, maybe she'd stop running. It'd make anybody crazy."

"Joe, I do not--"

She half-turned, gripped the spoon more tightly and stared back into the pot. Her eyes felt as if she'd been slicing onions.

It was all she knew, all she'd ever known. It wasn't so easy, trying and trying and always getting it wrong.

 

 

Scully let the waterfall in front of her go momentarily out of focus. The quiet roar of passing water deepened. Mist drifted against her face and she closed her eyes. The rock ledge was hard and cool beneath her. Sunlight heated a patch on her leg. She leaned back against the warmth of Mulder close behind her, his arms around her waist. Together they moved slightly, the expansion and contraction of breathing. A chirp overhead, then a warble. She opened her eyes. Above them, an orange-beaked finch skipped from leaf to leaf and stopped on a young, thin branch, fluttering slightly, waiting for the seesaw movement to stop. This was the way Mulder had held her at Teena's in the middle of the night, the way he'd been holding his sister in the picture at the end of his mother's hallway: young Fox, attentive protector of the contented, vulnerable Samantha.

He said nothing now, made no movement.

"Mulder?"

No reply other than the slight nudge of his cheek against her ear.

An image grew gradually in her mind: a hospital bed, monitoring equipment. White walls. A privacy curtain in institutional green. Her mother's face, pale--

No.

Scully moistened her lips, wrapped her hands around Mulder's wrists and leaned back to look at him. His jaw was set; he stared toward the water.

"He's already changed her medication," she said. "We aren't sure how long she's actually been infected, but we should start to see some improvement by the end of the week."

He nodded slightly. The waterfall reflected in his eyes.

"Hard day cleaning?" She smoothed a thumb across his wrist.

"Emptied trash. Cleaned toilets. Mopped." He sucked in his lower lip. "Came up pretty dry in the end." He blinked. "I think I found this one woman the blind girl was talking about. I was hoping I could catch her after work but she disappeared right away. She was halfway out of the parking lot by the time I made it to the front door." His jaw tightened.

Scully turned forward again, toward the waterfall. "There has to be another way for you to approach her. This is Owensburg, Mulder. Anyone's bound to know where she lives." She smiled grimly. "And almost anything else about her, for that matter. She shouldn't be hard to find."

No reply.

When she turned to look again, his eyes were closed. She scooted forward, eased his arms from around her, stood and turned to face him. She smoothed her hands past his cheeks and into his hair; his head came forward to rest against her.

"Scully, what are we doing here? I mean, I go in every day, I go through the trash looking for evidence. It's like digging through dumpsters hoping to come up with a winning lottery ticket." A sigh. "In the meantime Smoky's doing... unspeakable things to your mother, trying to flush us out..."

She let her lips rest against the top of his head.

"Guess I ran dry today," he went on.  "For the whole eight hours I was trying to think of something to get us past this instead of always being three steps behind Smoky, trying to play catch-up, jumping though one of his damn hoops."

"Mulder, don't. Don't let him get to you. It's just another one of his tricks, his strategies, to make you blame yourself, to immobilize you."

She cupped his face, kissed the bridge of his nose. His head came forward again and rested against her shoulder. Soft hair brushed her cheek. A kiss touched her collarbone and then he was pulling back, sitting up, looking at her. He shook his head.

"I don't know how you're holding up through this, Scully."

She felt her eyebrows rise. "I don't either. I guess... I have to. I don't have a choice."

"I think I... I know what it feels like, now... when you're out of hope, when..." He sucked in his lower lip and looked past her. "When you look ahead and nothing's out there--nothing different on the horizon. All day, looking for some countermove..." He looked down at his jeans and shrugged. "I don't like being dead weight, Scully."

"Mulder, do you know--?" She tipped his chin up. His eyes closed. "Do you think I've never felt that way, that 'partner' wasn't at all an operational term, that you were carrying that load and me along with it? Mulder, I need you, not just your ideas. Not just your... hope, when you have it. If you have it." She took his hands. "Do you remember what you told me once? That the truth would save me? I have to believe that it will, Mulder. And if I can't see my way ahead to where it saves us from this situation, this dilemma, to how it saves my mother... at least I know I've got you--we've got each other--and that's a start. It's a place to rise up and stand, to see out over this storm."

She kissed the stubble along his jaw, rested her cheek against his and let her eyes close. The steady sound of water poured past. His grip on her hands was firm and steady.

"Whenever I bottom out," his voice came finally, quiet up against her, "Scully, you're always here."

 

 

From the shade of the tree line, Sandy could see the grave clearly.  This was as close as she was going to get to the Miller family plot. Cy's gram didn't know what to say to her anymore; neither did his brothers. They were lost, still in shock. They still thought Cy'd shot Roddy, and what could they say to her after that? Someday, if this whole mess got resolved, they'd know the truth: that at least Cy hadn't killed his own son, that he was drugged into running down Rita Johnston's boy and then was shot in cold blood, just a pawn in some heartless, evil man's game, and what was his point, this man who called himself a human being, who sent other people to do his dirty work for him? Why hadn't he come and shot Cy and Roddy himself? Could he have pulled the trigger? What was he getting in exchange for all the lives he took?

She leaned back against the tree behind her. Cy's grave was on this end of the plot. Already, pale little grasses were starting to sprout from the loose dirt. The soil had been smoothed out good, but it still showed, the fact that it had been dug up recently. Another month and nobody'd know. Not the casual passerby, anyway. For all they'd know, the grave could've been here forever. A whole life sealed into a box and faded away, nobody talking about it anymore, as if the man she'd married had never been.

Life went on, they said, only it was in black-and-white now with just a few flecks of color here and there: Adrie when he was excited about something he'd built, the pain of falling in the sticker bush in the parking lot, Rita Johnston and soft little Sweet Pea, the way she'd sit up against you.  Bethy knew; she knew what a person was going through. Annie when she'd taken the thorns out of her knees, or Annie with Ben when he'd come to the trailer this afternoon. What it would be like to feel that again, what she could see happening between the two of them when they got near each other. They were so lucky.

For as bad as things were, she was lucky to have them here. Maybe some day it would all be resolved, whatever could be fixed of it, and she'd be able to go into the supermarket or into Daily's or Wal-Mart without ten people turning to each other behind her back and saying, "There goes that Sandy Miller. Her husband shot her little boy and then killed himself. Can you imagine?"

Sandy reached down and drew a trail in the dirt with her finger. She wanted him back. She wanted him warts and all with his tickly beard and the big arms that came around her from behind, his baseball caps and even the dirty clothes on the floor. She'd be glad to see him go off with the guys if only she knew he'd be coming home afterward.

It was no use, though. Nothing was more impossible in this whole world.

The ache in her chest swelled, a huge pressure, as if the emptiness in her heart were trying to push out through her ribs and envelop her.  Her arms longed to circle around something she couldn't reach.

She just wanted him.

But the only thing around her was cold, empty air.

 

 

"Hey--"

Krycek leaned over the pale figure in the recliner.  They'd been talking about nothing in particular when she'd stopped abruptly and seemed to sag back into the chair.  Her eyes had gone unfocused...

Tracy shook herself and stared at him suddenly, wide-eyed. "What?"

"You were... You okay? For a second there--" She looked sick. He swallowed.

She blinked, then shifted and brought up the chair back gradually.  Krycek backed up a few steps.  Tracy leaned forward and rested her head in her hands.

"Hey," he repeated softly when she didn't look up. She still seemed pale, unsteady.

"It was--"  Her head came up now.  She looked like she was about to cry. "I saw something, Alex.  Someone.  It was so sad." 

"Saw someone how? One of those dreams?"

She nodded. 

"Like with Skinner? Or the way you came to me?"

She shook her head.  "I just saw her; I wasn't... there. I was just watching.  It was different."

He frowned.

Her lips pressed together. "There was this girl.  Not much older than me, I think.  She was sitting in the shade of a grove of trees, looking at someone's grave.  She missed him so much."  Her hand curled tight against the chair arm.

The color was starting to come back into her face now.  He let out a long breath of relief. 

"They were--she and the person who had died--"  After a pause, she shook her head.  "I'm not sure."

"This happen to you before?"

"No.  I'm not sure what brought it on."  One hand seemed to press against her middle. She got up from the recliner.  "I think I want to lie down a while, Alex, if that's okay," she said, not looking at him. "My stomach hurts."

"No problem.  Take care of yourself."  He watched, frowning, as she went to the door and opened it.  "You going to be okay on the way up?"

"I think so."

"I can go up with you."

"No.  I can make it."

The door closed behind her and she was gone.  Krycek went to the bed, sat down and then lay back against the pillows.  Why would she just have tapped into someone at random?  The only ones he'd known her to zero in on were himself and Skinner--people she had some connection to. 

When she'd come to him in her head, it had been deliberately. Skinner... She said she hadn't known Skinner the first time it happened, but the fact remained that Skinner was someone he knew, someone who'd been on his mind.

He started to roll but stopped abruptly.  A girl at a gravesite.

Something cold settled in his gut. 

If it wasn't random...

Fuck.

Krycek's jaw set. He let his head drop back onto the pillow, hand groping for the familiar handful of the beanbag.  Finding it, he threw it hard against the wall to the left of the recliner.  It landed with a sharp smack and dropped onto the floor.

She needed to be away from here.  Far away from things that only set her up for pain and danger. Away from him. 

She deserved better.

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: vet24@zipmail.com
Checked out the airport and found the flier in question: seat-of-the-pants kind of guy, somebody I may have crossed paths with without knowing it in SE Asia. About to default on his mortgage and will take on just about any job. Said he was originally approached by a guy in a business suit--forties--about flying small cargo to Baltimore on Sundays--two weeks on, one week off--and has been doing it for the past six months. I tried not to be too specific but this looks like our ticket. He said the guy specified 'no questions asked' and he probably wouldn't have been inclined to talk if it hadn't been for our common experience. It's a go for this Sunday and I hinted I had a friend who might like to go up in a plane. Left him my number in case he decides he's up for a ride-along. Financial constraints indicate he might be.

Expect you went to the usual place and took B with you. I'll check with DB on that. Have a few bales of alfalfa to take up there. Figuring on an early morning delivery so I'll plan on picking you up then.

"Did I get any mail?" Mulder asked, coming up behind the desk chair and slipping his arms around Scully. She was cooling now, but still sweaty; they both were. Her hair had been tied back hastily. He leaned over and kissed at a stray curl on the side of her neck.

"Look at this, Mulder. Dale did make some headway."

He read over her shoulder, still wrapped around her. "Baltimore's close without being D.C."

"He's going again this Sunday."

Close to where her mother was. Don't go there, Scully. "Wonder who he's got meeting him on the other end?" he said.

"Probably not Smoky himself. He has lackeys; he'll insulate himself."

"Unless this is that important to him." He let his hands slide to her shoulders and rubbed them carefully with his thumbs. Hopefully she wasn't thinking... Maybe he could make the trip himself. But who knew what or who might be waiting on the other end? He looked away from the monitor. Reality check, the momentary oasis they'd just created fading fast.

But it was good news. It was needed headway.

"You can stay," she said, looking up at him.

He returned her smile. "You sure you don't want the shower first? I can wait."

"No, go ahead. I want to see if I've got any mail from Mom's doctor. I need to write to Wilkins, too. It's... amazing, really. I only worked with him twice and yet he's helped us so much, Mulder."

His lips grazed the top of her head. Straightening, he turned to go, stopping to pick his clothes off the floor. He'd rather just leave them off and make love to her straight through until tomorrow morning. Or be made love to--it had been like that this time, different than before, as if she could make him whole again with the strength of her giving. He picked up his jeans and looked back at her, fingers resting lightly on the keyboard in anticipation, waiting for her mail to load. He pictured her the way she'd been in Oregon, on that very first case: young, full of brash eagerness, ready to dig into the challenge of the mystery. Not worn, or diminished by the constant weight of burden and loss.

"What?" She turned to look at him.

"Nothing." He shook his head and smiled. "Just you." He picked up his jeans and took them into the bathroom.

 

 

To: TinMan@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Need an e-mail address for your dismissed operative. I have urgent information for him.

Krycek hit 'send', lay back against the pillows and closed his eyes. Nothing like exposing yourself and your allegiances, but unless Skinner was a lot denser than he thought, he'd already figured out that he didn't want to see Mulder captured. Not that Skinner would trust him. But he had leverage now. He should be able to make Skinner jump.

Resist or serve. Step up, or stand back and let things take their course. How close to the line was he? Was this an impulse without logic to back it up, a fool's errand? Or instinct putting together pieces he hadn't yet recognized? 

Glancing to one side, he groped for the beanbag but remembered it was on the other side of the room.  His hand made a fist, then dropped onto the mattress. He closed his eyes and worked to clear his head. 

He could see the old Spanish soldiers again.  They'd been six altogether, sitting at an outdoor cafe table in a little village near El Escorial, he and Victor trying to see through the wrinkles and the gray hair to the younger men the wrinkled faces had once been, to find some kind of connecting place. Two of the men had bragged, their revolutionary exploits tinted with machismo and distance; probably they'd been nothing more than wait staff for some general, or spent their time in the rear guard. The third man had been nearly silent, seeing backward with the hollow look that said he'd been there, seen and done far too much, that in the end it was all the same, both sides an accumulation of rage: spilled guts, fear, corpses lying in piles or sprawled in the dirt, muddy and bloating.

The fourth man spoke quietly of terrorism--of the potential for influence of a single man, a single act. He'd been an anarchist in his younger days, he explained, and had set off a bomb in a crowded Madrid intersection at rush hour. The strategic effect had been far beyond his expectations. The authorities had searched desperately for some powerful mastermind group that never existed, all their efforts and attention for naught.

But he wouldn't have done it again, the old guy had added at the end.

Why? he'd asked at the time, not understanding how the man could shrug off a strategy that had paid off so well.  The old man had leaned toward him across the table, but then had only shrugged, giving him a raised eyebrow and a nod. Only time would explain that, he'd said after a pause.  Experience: when you had it, then you'd understand.

 

 

Rita inspected herself in the restroom mirror: pink uniform with small white buttons down the front and a white cardigan sweater. She looked like all the other volunteers and that was the point. Nobody would think to look twice at a gray-haired volunteer entering a hospital room--not in person or on videotape. Little old ladies were harmless, after all. She smiled a grim smile at her reflection and adjusted the curly wig she wore. If only Bob could see her now.

She'd managed to elicit a broad if tired smile from Will. Any smile was a good sign.

Out in the hallway, she counted the doors to the elevator, got in and pushed the button for the third floor. Maggie might not know her--the delirium came and went, Rani had said--but the visit should provide the poor woman with comfort nonetheless. A hand held and knowing someone cared about your predicament were always a help, whether they came from a stranger or from someone you'd known all your life. Besides, she wanted to do this, as one mother of a lost child to another.

The doors slid open. Two weary-looking parents and a worried teenaged girl got on. They rode in silence, huddled close together. A slowing, a dip she could feel in her stomach, and the door slid open again. Rita pictured the floor map in her head. She walked past the nurses' station and on to Room 310. He'd appeared here himself so they said, the man who was responsible for everything: Andy, Sandy's men, Will. Ben and Annie's flight. Will had described him; she wondered if she'd recognize him if he chanced to pass the window again. What would she think or say? Would she speak or just find herself shrunken in fear like everyone else?

Beyond the glass, a woman lay small and pale in the bed. Rita slipped inside the half-open door and approached her.

"Mrs. Scully?"

Maggie Scully's eyes fluttered open. She stared and gradually attempted to focus.

"Is it time to go?" she asked, trying to pull herself up. She reddened at the strain and collapsed back onto the pillows in a fit of coughing. Rita winced; the sound was all too familiar. When the coughing had finally passed, Rita held out a glass of water with a straw in it. Maggie sipped thankfully.

"I... I don't know where I left my clothes," Maggie said finally, puzzled. She glanced to the left, past Rita. "That was so silly of me."

Rita pulled a chair up beside the bed and sat down. She leaned close and took the woman's dry, limp hand.

"I just wanted to see how you're doing, dear," she said. "We've all been worried about you. We wanted you to know we're all pulling for you."

Maggie nodded absently.

"Will sends his best."

Slowly, Maggie's eyes grew wider. "You know Will?"

"Yes, dear."

"And is he...? How is he?"

"He's doing okay. He's getting his rest."

"Oh, good. I thought... I heard his ship was late. It was due into port last week and hadn't come in."

"Your daughter sends her best," Rita went on, speaking quietly, close to her ear.

"Melissa? Oh, it's been so long. Thank you." There was a squeeze against her hand. Maggie's eyes were wet. "Tell her hello for me. Is she coming?"

She started to pull up again. Rita tried to coax her back down but it was too late. She reddened and coughed again, paroxisms that wracked her whole body. Rita waited, knotted inside, and offered Maggie more water when she'd quieted. For a moment, glancing back from bedside table to bed, she thought she saw Bob's face, worn but making an effort for her sake. "Give us a smile, Rita," he'd say. Sometimes he'd fall asleep as soon as he said it. Sometimes, when he'd just taken the medication, he wouldn't make it that far.

Rita looked through the glass into the hallway beyond. Except for a man in green pushing a linen cart, it was empty. A clasp of dry fingers came against her wrist. She turned back to the bed. Maggie's eyes were clear and dark.

"Do you know how Dana is?" she asked. "Do you know Dana?"

"Yes, dear," she whispered, covering Maggie's hand with her own. "Dana's safe. She's found sanctuary."

 

 

Tracy cupped her hands against the glass and looked into the display window. Slowly her eyes traced the streets painted on the stretched-leather map of old Washington. She tried to picture it as a small town with cherry trees blooming in the spring, with white picket fences and dogs barking and muddy streets when it rained.

She'd slept for a while after she'd gone upstairs. By the time she'd wakened, the stomach ache and the odd, sad vision that had occasioned it were just dull remnants, but the turmoil in Alex's mind continued to rumble like storm clouds inside her head. Clearly, he still needed space, and she'd remembered her mother's words and gone out walking, aimlessly at first, then drawn toward Farragut Square as surely as if someone had spoken the words and told her to go there. She waited now, for whatever would happen.

The sun had already slipped behind the buildings, leaving a hazy, pinkish glow in its wake. She turned away from the shop window, crossed the street at the light and walked toward the opposite side of the square, passing the phone booth Skinner had used.

Alex had been more secure when he'd met her: tightly controlled; taut; sure of himself, even if weak and mentally worn down. But now his reasoning had started to turn on him. He'd stretched for her in ways that were completely unfamiliar to him.  It was a new skill, one that might be useful for anyone else.  But who knew whether it would serve Alex in the life he lived or whether it would only prove a liability, a heavy chain around his neck in a world where cruelty and deception seemed the only path to survival.

She sat down on a bench.

If she were to go now, would it make things easier for Alex in the end?

"Tracy?"  The voice echoed disbelief.

She spun around. It was Walter, the soldier. This time the look on his face was different: relief.

"I was, uh..." The corner of his mouth twitched.  He cleared his throat. "Maybe I just hoped you might be here." He came around the end of the bench and sat down carefully, glancing to the left and right.

"What is it?" she said.

"Are you... Are you alright? Is there anything you need, anything I can help you with?"

"I'm okay." She nodded. "I'm... doing okay." She was. The last two weeks had nearly wiped away the emptiness of the time before.

"Are you still--?"

"Helping Alex?" She nodded. "Yes, I am."

"There's something--" He paused, gauging her. "There's something I need to know. He's asked me for someone's e-mail and frankly, I don't know that I can trust him, whether it might not put this other person in danger."

"It's Mulder, isn't it?"

Skinner's eyes widened involuntarily. "I get the impression he doesn't want Mulder to be found, but it can be dangerous to make assumptions. Especially with someone like Krycek." He set his jaw and scanned the square again.

"He won't let his--" She caught herself and swallowed. "The old man, Spender--Alex won't let him find out. He's not like him. If he has a way to keep the old man from finding Mulder, I know he'll use it." She paused. "Alex deletes his mail as soon as he reads it," she went on, starting on his unasked questions. "He cleans out the temporary files----all that stuff--every time he shuts down his computer. He doesn't leave anything that could be found."

Skinner leaned back against the bench. His instincts--all his experience--were telling him not to trust Alex.

"He can help Mulder," she said. She paused and shrugged. "Not that Mulder will believe him any more than you do."

He pulled forward and scowled. "You know Mulder?"

"A little. He might remember me, I don't know."

Skinner sighed and studied the nearby clumps of bushes.

The light had paled to a thin yellow. She needed to be back. Alex would worry if she were out after dark, a pregnant girl alone and the things that could happen to her.

"You're sure?" Skinner said. "You're certain he won't compromise Mulder?" He was wondering why he should trust her at all, why he was sitting here, except that he needed assurance and there was no one else to give it to him.

"I know he won't." She shook her head. "He wouldn't." She watched him gaze at the far buildings, unseeing. His nose twitched slightly.

"What about you?" he said, turning to her. "Isn't there anything I can do to help you?"

He could see that she was doing better than before. It puzzled him.

"I thought," she said, looking down at her shoes, "that I was here to help him." She looked up. "But he's gone out of his way for me. I've got everything I need."

He didn't understand.

"It's getting dark," he said finally, nodding toward the setting sun.

"If you can just wait with me at the bus stop up the block." She pointed. "It's just past the Metro stop."

He nodded and stood.

"Thank you."

She got up and they crossed the square together, Walter matching his longer strides to hers. For a moment his thoughts turned to Sharon, to the comfort of waking up next to her, and all the things he'd never been able to say.

 

 

Scully hurried to pull a sweater over her head and finger-combed her wet hair, then went to answer the knocking on the door. She closed her eyes briefly, trying to pull herself back into a world that didn't take her senses on a roller coaster ride of pleasure and finally make them melt, begging and helpless. She reached for the latch. Mulder was still in the bathroom. Hopefully he'd have the good sense to stay there.

David Barker stood outside, the glare from the porch light reflecting off his glasses. Bethy stood beside him.

"I was wondering if you'd found anything," he said. "I didn't know how long it would take for your tests. But I figured there's no harm in asking."

"I heard from Dr. Wykoff this morning," she said. "I meant to leave you a note and then something urgent came up. The results showed"--she glanced at Bethy--"exactly what we'd suspected. The evidence was all there."

He nodded, sober, and paused to let the significance sink in. "I, uh..." Finally he forced a smile. "Thanks. Thanks for your efforts." He turned to acknowledge Bethy. "She stayed for dinner with us. Haven't seen her in quite a while; she and Adrie had a great time together. She's growing up fast." He paused. "Anyway, I'm on my way to Dale's to take her home. He's been a major help to us since I took the job in Lexington. Don't know what we would've done without people pitching in."

"I know the feeling," she said quietly.

"Well, thanks for all your efforts."

"You're quite welcome. I wish the news could have been better somehow."

"A little late for that, I guess." He shrugged. "I still mean to get a look at those records when I can."

"Every little bit helps."

Bethy yawned. David turned to her. "Looks like we'd better make tracks," he said.

He nodded at Scully, turned and led Bethy up the trail. She watched them until they disappeared around the corner of the barn. A yawn overtook her. She closed the door and flipped the lock switch. The bathroom door opened.

"Coast clear?" Mulder said, sticking his head out. He grinned when he saw her.

She nodded and yawned again and shook her head.

"I hadn't realized how tired I"--another yawn--"was until Bethy yawned out there," she said, sitting down at the desk, beginning to ready the computer for shutdown. "I didn't get much sleep last night at Sandy's." She glanced over. He was already between the sheets. "Sleep, Mulder," she repeated, trying to hold back a smile.

"I'm ready."

She waited until the screen went black and reached for the bedside lamp, switching it off. She stood and took off the sweatpants and the sweater, folded them carefully and laid them over the chair back. He held the blankets back for her and she slipped in beside him.

"What kept you awake?" he asked, curling around her from behind.

"She gave me Roddy's room," she said, closing her eyes and threading her fingers between the ones wrapped around her waist. "I think it was too much, the association. It just filled my head with questions."

His breath was warm against her neck. "About Emily?"

"Uh-huh."

"I was thinking, while you were in there cleaning Sandy up." His cheek rubbed her shoulder.

"What?"

No answer. She turned back to him.

"Samantha'd gotten to be a pretty feisty kid. I wonder if... whether she resisted at all, if she gave them a hard time in any way, and whatever she's been through, what that would make her like now." His breath caught. Scully held hers, waiting. Finally it came out of him, a small rush of heat against her shoulder.

"I used to think"--she smoothed a hand over his--"that if I knew her past--Emily's past--who she was, what she liked, what made her sad or happy--then that would be enough for me, that I could... live with that... live with that much. That it would be enough. But last night--" She looked up, out the window into indigo sky. The leaves were faint black silhouettes against it.

"What?" He nudged her softly with his nose.

"Sandy was... She cried. She hurts so much, Mulder. And I stood there trying to comfort her--holding her--and I could only think of what Emily might have become, who she might have been. When she might have come to me, needed me..."

"I need you."

"I know."

Soft lips kissed her shoulder blade.

The corner of her mouth twitched. Scully swallowed back the pressure. "And then I realized that you're probably the only other person who would understand that--that need to know. And where I'd be, how I'd cope, if I had to carry that alone." She turned and rolled to face him, let warm limbs surround her.

"Get some sleep, Scully."

She kissed his chest and closed her eyes. A warm hand drifted across her back.

"I don't even know"--his voice was quiet, faraway--"if I'd know her, Scully. Would I know her?"

 

 

Skinner read the e-mail for the third time, settled the cursor over the 'send' button, paused and got up from the couch. Approaching the picture window, he looked out into the abstract pattern of lights dotting the night. Mulder would know; he'd know full well who'd given Krycek his e-mail address. It might dawn on Mulder that he'd had no choice, but still, if Krycek tried to use the address to track them down--

Could he do that?

Someone in electronic surveillance would know, the Bureau's 'official' hackers, men who came to work in business suits and could walk the walk, but underneath they weren't that different than Mulder's three contacts.

Tomorrow.

But tomorrow could be too late. 'Urgent', Krycek had said, but when had Krycek ever played it straight with anybody? Still, there was the girl. She didn't seem like the type to lie, and yet... It could be Stockholm syndrome, where captives developed sympathy for their captors. Not that she was a physical captive. Still, she was young, potentially impressionable, and she defended Krycek in a way that made no sense. Maybe she saw something in him, but what it might be was impossible to tell. He pictured her again, the first time he'd seen her, in the dream: broad straw hat, oak branches spreading overhead.  And telling her things he could never have said to Sharon. She'd seemed to understand, though there was no way to explain how she could.

Skinner went to the kitchen, took a glass from an upper cabinet and added ice from the dispenser on the refrigerator door. Setting it on the counter, he took a bottle from the door below and poured the glass half full.

Go with your gut, Lanier would have said. Well, he'd gone with his gut when he took off after Bronco. Or had he? Had he done it from a sense of duty, or the need to prove himself?  Maybe to show he wasn't as paralyzed with fear as he'd felt? Lanier had paid the price, though he didn't carry the burden. Hey, I'm still here, he'd say, and shrug as if the incident hadn't completely changed his life.

But this was Mulder. More than that, it was both Mulder and Scully. The decision needed to be weighed, all angles considered. Two worthy lives, two valuable agents, and where had he gone for counsel? To a waif carrying a child, a vision from a dream he could neither explain nor deny.

He took a sip from the glass and set it on the counter. Had she known he was coming tonight? What had made her show up at the square? For that matter, what impulse had taken him there? Skinner picked up the glass again, put it to his lips and nearly choked. It was the kind of irony only Mulder could fully appreciate: that he'd come to a decision based on the advice of a pregnant psychic runaway who claimed to know him.

Skinner swirled the glass gently. There was no way of knowing what Krycek would do if he refused the request, but did that mean he was giving him the number just to save his own ass, or to prove something? Was it the ambush in the Delta all over again?

Sighing, he set the glass on the counter and felt the corner of his mouth draw up. He pictured the girl again, at the bus stop. She had looked different from the time he'd met her by the map store. She was more sure of herself. She was better dressed. There was the obvious explanation: that she was Krycek's lover, that the child she was carrying was his. But who, sympathetic or not, could say they had what they needed because of Krycek? And why would Krycek saddle himself with personal baggage? It wasn't his style. There was more to it somehow.

Skinner sighed, reached for the glass, stopped and pushed it away. Walking back to the coffee table, he leaned over the laptop's keyboard. The cursor hovered above the 'send' button.

He pressed 'enter' and watched his mail upload.

 

 

Krycek stared hard at the city lights that accented the deepening blue beyond the wall.

Maybe she wasn't coming back.

Maybe she'd gone.  Not just taken off, but left because she'd gotten whatever signal she was waiting for that it was time to leave.  Which was probably the best thing she could do for herself. No more waiting for the old vulture to make his move on her. No more having to work around the quirks and pitfalls of a laid-up assassin. 

No more visions like the one she'd had this afternoon, if it was anything like what he suspected.  That alone would have been a clear enough signal to her. 

Well, it was over and done with; there was no way to go back to Owensburg and take back the bullets he'd put into Miller and the kid. You could analyze your actions and store what you learned away for the future, but that was all; no amount of rerunning the past in your head was ever going to change the outcome. No matter how much it came back to haunt you, like Andrei dangling from the ceiling in that Tunguska cell.

Still, she didn't deserve to have to deal with that kind of thing.  It was his load to carry. His mistake.

Krycek glanced at his watch and then down into the alley below.  She knew better than to stay out after dark by herself. Hopefully she'd finally gotten that message.

After a moment he dropped his head into his hand. This was the way it was going to be: a whimper, not a bang. 

More like a void, the kind of emptiness you expected After, when the hellfire had rained down and the planet was burned out and beaten, a skeleton of itself, missing what made it live.

He pushed back from the wall. He should go downstairs. Coming up here was getting to be like rubbing a genie's lamp in the hope that she'd appear. Downstairs there was e-mail to check; Skinner could have replied by now. He could pass his intel on to Mulder, maybe come up with some other little piece of strategy to help the guy keep his head above water. 

Or maybe he'd just go to bed.

He glanced toward the shadow of the overhanging tree.  No Tracy stumbling out from under the curtain of leaves this time.  Coming out from under that tree...

He swallowed. He knew better than to go there.

A footstep sounded at the bottom of the stairway, then another. He should tense up, be ready for anything, but he knew these footsteps, the weight and pacing, like his own heartbeat. Krycek gripped the gritty rim of the ledge. She was hurrying now.

"Alex?"

He swallowed, fighting the urge to turn around.

"Alex--"

"Yeah." His best husky, unaffected voice. He turned as casually as he could.

She emerged from the stairwell, flushed, and hurried toward him.

"I was--" She stopped to catch her breath and continued to the wall. "I took the bus. I didn't want you to worry. I--" She hesitated, still breathing hard.

He watched her fingers flex and curl, wanting to reach out.

He shrugged. "Wasn't sure if... you know, if you--"

If he were a magnet he wouldn't feel any more pull than he did right now.

The next thing he knew, his cheek was against her hair.  They were wrapped together, Tracy's arms around him, his lone arm against her back.  He could feel her heartbeat under his hand.

There was no telling who'd made the first move.

 

 

A single small lamp cast a deep yellowy glow onto the living room carpet. Rita was curled up on the love seat, a book in her hand, asleep. Will halted in weary mid-step, let out a sigh and blinked against the heat behind his eyelids.

He could feel the weakness in his legs already. He started toward the couch again. A tickle in his chest and he grabbed at the wall, leaning against it. It was like getting pulled under a wave, all noise and battering. Finally the coughing was past, his chest aching, legs weak, body covered with a thin sheen of cooling sweat. Rita was watching him with that mother-look, the one that said she'd been going through it with him so he wouldn't have to do it alone.

 Will raised an eyebrow and shook a finger at her weakly.

"You shouldn't do that, Mother J. Bad enough it's happening to me." He collapsed onto the opposite end of the couch and let his head down onto the middle cushion. The tartan was spread over him. "Thanks. I was just so damn tired of lying there in one place."

"You just got to hang in there now, Will. It's going to get better. It'll take a few days, but you'll see."

"I know." He nodded against the cushion. "I keep telling myself that. Too bad time seems to be standing still."

"It'll pass, Will. In the end, when you look back at it, it won't seem like any time at all."

"Yeah, I've been"--he stared at the abstract of shadow and light on the ceiling--"looking back already. It seems bearable when you know the outcome. When you know you're going to make it through." He paused and tried to moisten his mouth. "But in the process, when you don't know how it'll play out... I'm not sure I was ready to make that sacrifice, Mother J, you know what I'm saying? I went scrambling up that ladder to the high dive and I think I just fell off up there. Or got pushed off; I'm not sure." A pause. "Sometimes I think about Mama, what she would have thought."

"If she would've been proud of you?"

"I guess. And I'm not sure, if I'd had to make the decision to jump, being up there and seeing it, looking down..."

"I imagine your mother knew, Will. She'd have known."

"Known what?" He turned his head to look at her.

"That being heroic is a lot more complicated than it looks."

 

 

"Alex?"

"Mm."

"If I..."

Quiet. Only her breathing against his shoulder.

"If I knew something... about this--all of this... something that wouldn't make much difference if you knew it or not, but something that might hurt somebody if... if he could pull it out of you, if he--"

He pulled back slightly and tipped her chin up to face him. "Then don't tell me. Promise me. Don't say anything."

She nodded, solemn. Her hair shone in the moonlight, silver and smooth. He made himself look past it, out onto the horizon beyond the wall, forcing himself to picture them coming, hundreds of alien ships hovering in the early dawn, already in place with the rising light, waiting.

"Tell me about it, Alex--the future, what you see."

"Uh-uh." He shook his head. "You don't need that hanging over you."

She shifted, her head leaving his shoulder and then resettling, warm breath against his neck this time. He caught his shiver, pressed it down. Tried to push it away.

"You can take the car," he said. "If you need to go home. Go when he's not here, so there's no way--" He took a breath. "If you want to. If you're ready." His eyes closed. "If you need to take off from there, then go. Just leave the car anywhere. Don't come back for my sake. Don't put yourself in danger for--"

"And know that I'd left you when you still needed help? Alex, I cou--"

"Tracy, don't."

He focused on the knot inside him, forced it to loosen. Her breath was warm and steady against his shirt. Neither of them was moving, going anywhere.

What he'd give for two arms.

 

 

Mulder rolled onto his side only to find the space beside him empty. He opened one eye and squinted at the rectangle of bright light above the desk. Scully was in the chair, her face illumined by the laptop's screen.

"What's up?" He pushed up on one elbow and pulled himself to the near side of the bed.

She nodded. "I just... woke up. I thought I'd check my mail."

He watched her, index finger hovering near the touch pad, mouth and chin firmly set. She was motionless a moment. The screen color changed. Her eyes closed, lips pulled in.

"Nothing?"

"Nothing." She pressed the standby button and sat waiting for the screen to go black. A moment later the room was dark again. She remained in the chair.

"Anything I can do?" He pulled up and sat cross-legged.

The chair moved. She came and settled in front of him, took his arms, wrapped them around her and leaned back against him. He pulled her closer and felt her fingers knit their way between his. Outside the window a single upturned leaf held a pool of silver light. He watched it bob gently in the night air.

(end Chapter 13)

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