"There's nothing more you can do for her now, Mr. Wallace, by staying."
Mulder nodded absently. Sandy had returned to Tracy's beside and reached out to touch her limp hand.
"The surgery went as well as could be expected, considering the circumstances. When we know anything"--Scully set her hand on his arm--"I'll let you know right away. You should get some rest."
"Yes. Go, take her home. Hopefully by morning"--her lips pressed together; she suppressed a swallow--"we'll see some improvement."
He looked into her. "It's not looking good, is it?"
Scully paused and shook her head. "But it could just be the temporary effect of the surgery. It's really too early to know for sure."
"Long night," he said finally. "You going to be okay here?"
"I feel like... I have to stay. I have the fetus to examine, and if there's anything I can do to help... I can't just walk away."
"I know. Know what you mean." He turned to look at Tracy. "I don't know what's up with Krycek. He never called back. Doesn't make much sense considering the way he sounded the first time." He shook his head. "It's hard to picture him dumping out on her now. Not after that last call. I mean, I would have expected that before any of this started, but--"
"Maybe the explanation's more simple than that. Maybe he just fell asleep. He's still in a state of recovery, you know."
He sucked in his lower lip. "I hope that's all it is, for her sake. Have someone keep an ear on that pay phone in case he calls, okay?"
She nodded. He lowered his voice, paused and offered his hand. "If I've never told you how much I appreciate your... extensive medical expertise, Dr. Barrett, and your dedication... I do. I really do."
Scully blushed slightly but took the hand he offered and squeezed it gently. Turning, Mulder made his way to the bed. Chrome rails, thin cotton hospital blankets, IV, oxygen tube, ID band. She had thin arms and long, delicate fingers. She'd come in singing from the backyard, carrying a handful of flowers just before they sat down to eat. It seemed wrong--worse than wrong--to see her this way.
What had Krycek experienced when she called out for him? Whatever it was, it must have scared the hell out of him, and not just because of the psychic aspect of it. Hundreds of miles away and nothing he could do but feel her anguish. If it had been Scully--
He made himself look away and set a hand on Sandy's shoulder. "Come on, kid. Time to head for home."
Quietly, Sandy turned away from the bed.
"I know what you're thinking," Mulder said as they started down the hall. "Last thing I remember doing with my sister before she disappeared was arguing over a TV show. Stuck in my head for the longest time. Years, in fact. But you know something?"
One eyebrow went up but she said nothing.
"If we found each other today, I don't think either of us would remember, or even care. The fact that you stayed here with her tonight, that would stick with her. If there's any way for her to know anything right now, she'll feel that support."
Pushing open the door to the parking lot, he let Sandy go out first. Random stars twinkled in the darkness overhead. Three spaces from the exit he spotted a red Celica. Raylene opened the door when she saw them.
"Anyone you know need a ride home?"
Sandy hesitated and finally nodded. The corners of her mouth quivered.
"I was kinda hanging out, waiting for Joe to clear out, I guess," Raylene said, quiet. "I called Darcy at the nurse's station and she said you were still here." A pause. "I'm not trying to crowd you, punkin."
Sandy nodded and turned to Mulder. "See ya."
He said goodnight to the two of them and started across the parking lot to the truck. When he glanced back, Raylene was leaning against the driver's door, her arms around her daughter. Mulder unlocked the truck and climbed in.
If it were Scully...
Much as he'd wanted to deny even the possibility at first, Krycek had put his ass on the line for this girl. He wouldn't just fall asleep and miss his calling window no matter how worn out he was.
Beyond the limousine's window, the passing scenery sped by in a blur of bright on black: strings of headlights on the left, red tail lights straight ahead. Baltimore. They were headed toward Baltimore and the old man had said nothing more, aside from 'recline your seat, Alex, you should rest while you can'. Whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. Before I kill you. Before I make you kill somebody else. Or something else that wouldn't dawn on him until just before it happened.
He'd dropped the seat back just enough to let his head fall against the headrest, but not far enough that he couldn't see where they were going.
An hour and a half since he was supposed to call Mulder. Mulder'd think... what? That he'd flaked out, written her off because she was dead weight now?
She was still there, barely a whisper in his head, needing a kind of reassurance he wasn't sure he could deliver. Or maybe it wasn't her after all, just a spark of his imagination--the desire to connect with her made palpable. Better safe than sorry, though. He'd hold onto her in his mind if there was even the smallest chance of her feeling it.
With a sudden lean, the limo took an off-ramp, turning from I-95 onto 40 East. The airport; hat had to be it. Private planes. Krycek reached for the window ledge with a sweaty hand. 'Solved a persistent problem' were the old man's words, and he'd smiled that little self-satisfied smirk of his. But no way could he have Mulder; they'd talked on the phone. Or maybe he was bringing in a replacement, some guy who'd shoot him as a show of loyalty. He should have eaten something; she would have reminded him to eat. There was an almost imperceptible shake in his hand and forearm, fatigue and something more; carefully he eased the arm against him, hoping the position would help. His little jaunt to the pay phone and back were what had put him over the top.
Finally Krycek closed his eyes. Crazy colored patterns appeared behind them. He should have called Mulder back. He should have gotten his stuff to Che's earlier. He should be at the Czech's place now, or on the road.
He was on the road.
"We'll soon be there," the old man's voice broke the silence. Everything's going just the way I planned it, his voice said.
Better get it together, Aleksei.
Pulling forward, Krycek let the seat back come up behind him. Martin State Airport: the sign loomed suddenly on the roadside and then they were past it. His pulse was doing its own thing now, banging like a drum in an empty warehouse. Another turn-off and they were cruising into the little facility, stopping to pick up a parking ticket from the ticket machine and then moving on again, threading their way through the mostly-deserted parking lot. They passed a gate and started past a row of hangars.
"We have someone to pick up," the old man said, "as you've no doubt guessed."
Two people were caught in the headlights now, one of the old man's goons and...
"We'll be going to the house in Fairfax County," he added, pulling a Morley from the pack in his coat pocket and lighting it.
She was shadowed behind the goon, but it was a woman, skirt and... Now she was past the glare, swallowed up by darkness again.
"I imagine you'll have some questions for our guest, Alex."
The car pulled to a stop. Quickly the suit and the woman crossed in front of the headlights and came around to his side. The door was opened and a firm grip on the woman's arm forced her inside and into a seat across from him.
A glance and he saw his own panic mirrored back at him. The seconds passed frame by frame, the air too thin to breathe.
"Alex," came the old man's voice, "I'd like you to meet your mother."
At first she was just a shadow behind the image of Scully in her hospital coat and jeans, as if they were transparencies superimposed one on the other. Gradually the room darkened and cleared. Bethy stood beside his bed, looking down.
Mulder blinked. "Wha--?"
"You were talking in your sleep, Ben."
He took a deep breath, blinking against the dryness in his eyes. "What was I saying?"
"Not real words." She settled herself carefully on the edge of the bed. "Did you have a nightmare?"
He sighed. "I think the nightmare's when I wake up." He rolled toward her and propped himself up on one elbow. "What about you? What were you doing awake? Or did my not-real-talking wake you up?"
"I was already awake." She set a plump hand down beside her. "Ben, is Tracy going to die like my dad?"
"Dr. Wykoff and Annie are working as hard as they can to find a way to help her."
"I know." Her hands came together in her lap. "But she was worried this morning. Do you think she knew, Ben? That something would happen?"
He sucked in his lower lip. "I don't know. Tracy senses a lot of things." He reached up and lifted her chin with a finger. "But I also know how much Dr. Wykoff and Annie want to help her. And they'll do everything they can. They won't give up."
She nodded and paused. Her lips came together tightly. "Ben, I miss Grammy. I love Uncle Dale, but I miss Grammy so much."
"Your grammy's a pretty amazing woman. She'll be coming back soon. Just a few more days. She's been helping a man who's been sick, but he's doing better now. I bet he really, really appreciates you loaning her to him."
She nodded. A smile pulled at the corner of her mouth.
Mulder sat up. "You ready to sleep now? You want me to tuck you in?"
"Okay." She stood up and turned back to him. "Ben, I'm glad you came here."
He moved to the edge of the bed. "You know something? I'm glad I came here, too."
Krycek waited until the swinging door to the hallway had closed behind him. "What the hell is this?"
The old man turned from the darkened window above the kitchen sink. He shrugged noncommittally and took another drag on his Morley. "Just what it appears to be. If we have her, we'll finally have Mulder."
"And what? She'll give him up to save herself?" He leaned against the counter.
"She's never defended him before. Though apparently she fancies herself his defender now. She was hiding them, Alex--Mulder and Scully. Since right after they left Washington. Perhaps until only days ago."
"But you don't know where they are?"
"No, but she'll give them up. She just needs a little... softening." He waved his cigarette in the air. "Or if she chooses not to, we'll find another way."
"An e-mail address can be traced. She has a laptop. Perhaps you should check it out." A length of ash was tapped off into the sink. "You might find something interesting there. Though I'd prefer it if she gave up the information voluntarily."
When the old man turned to look out the window, Krycek swallowed. "So I'm here to force her to play the guilt card, is that it? I don't have anything to say to her."
"Oh?" The old man's eyebrows went up. "I thought you would. I thought that"--cigarette in, smoke out--"over the years you would have thought of any number of questions you might want to ask her."
"I don't care what the hell she's done with her life. She's nothing to me."
"She may not be, but she could have a significant impact on the larger picture. Fox has become more than just an inconvenience. To have him truly out of the way could be of incalculable benefit at this point. And I believe you may be uniquely positioned, Alex, to"--his eyebrows rose subtly--"encourage a suitable frame of mind in her." He took a final drag and stabbed the cigarette out in the sink. "You don't have to like her. But she did give birth to you. Without that..." He shrugged. Smoke poured out his nostrils.
"So what do you expect me to do? Go out there and have a heart-to-heart with her?"
"I believe subtlety will be quite effective enough. Your presence may be all that's required... initially. Just take her laptop." He waved toward the unit on the table. "Check it out. Let her see you."
Frowning, Krycek picked up the laptop from the table and went toward the door.
He turned back.
"Nothing." The old man paused a moment. "Go ahead. Each step in time."
Raylene smoothed the sweaty hair from the face resting against her leg and reached behind the sofa to turn the lamp down a notch. She hadn't been any older when she met Harry than Sandy was when she'd gotten pregnant with Roddy.
"Punkin, you still awake?"
Sandy stirred momentarily and settled again. Raylene smoothed a hand over her daughter's shoulder. Never would she have made it through the things this child had had to face. And now there was this new girl in the hospital to add to the burden she was already carrying. She had her daddy's stick-to-it-iveness. It was a good thing, that Indian calmness Harry had.
Raylene rocked the girl's shoulder carefully. "Come on, sugar. You'll be more comfy in your own bed."
Sandy stretched and opened her eyes, bewildered. Slowly she sat up, ran her hands back through her hair and blinked toward the clock. Raylene stood and offered a hand. Sandy took it without hesitation. She stood up and paused, disoriented.
"You're asleep, punkin. Come on."
Carefully Raylene guided her daughter down the hallway and helped her settle into bed. Sandy lay still a moment, then rolled instinctively, reaching for Cy's pillow. After a moment Raylene went to the door. She paused to look back at the shadow under the covers. If she could turn back the clock and start over...
If it were a choice and not the foregone fact it had been at the time...
She smiled suddenly. She would definitely choose to have this child.
Teena shifted awkwardly on the cushion. There was no relaxing, though the couch itself was comfortable and the light low. Alex sat beyond the coffee table in an overstuffed chair, going over the contents of her laptop. His face and mouth were a study in hardness, the accumulation, probably, of every thought he'd had about her over the past three decades. He hadn't deigned to speak a single word to her, as he hadn't in the car, the two of them sitting facing each other, Alex avoiding her gaze completely except to shoot her the occasional glare when he caught her staring at the stump of his left arm, which showed below the sleeve of his T-shirt. But it was difficult to avoid, the eyes used to seeing symmetry in the human form, what was on the right side repeated on the left.
How much of what he displayed now was show and how much was real? Cornered--and he did appear to be cornered, one way or the other--would he turn again and drop his new-found alliance with her to save himself from his father? There would be little blaming him if he did.
Alex jabbed hard at a key and closed his eyes, the fingers of his single hand pinching his temples momentarily. There was nothing to be found on the computer, of course, as he knew there wouldn't be.
"What's Mulder's e-mail?" he said, looking up suddenly.
She made no reply.
"So you don't have anything on here. Just makes it more obvious that you know." A pause, a heavy breath let out. "Look, you can give it up or he can pull it out of you." He glanced up to where a tall man in a suit--her 'escort' from Salt Lake City--passed by outside the door and hesitated a moment to look in.
"I have nothing to gain by giving Fox away."
"You can save yourself."
"What, to have this hanging over me until the next time Leland decides he 'needs' me for something?"
He sat back farther into the chair. "Don't underestimate him. He'll get what he wants."
"Such as a child he could mold to his own wishes? I believe he actually wanted to create--"
"And you didn't." A dangerous gleam lit his eye. "But I happened anyway. So which of the two of you does that make the better?"
She gripped the cushion beside her, shaken. Undoubtedly the room was bugged. Leland would be sitting in some other room hearing or watching everything that was said here. It was what Leland would want: conflict between them. Alex looked physically pained.
"Look." Alex leaned forward in his chair. "His patience is pretty close to the edge. I wouldn't test it if I were you. You can give us a way to contact Mulder, or he'll do it himself and I'll guarantee you he'll find more than just Mulder, so if you--"
"Dana," she stammered. And Tracy. Her heart was pounding now. Alex gave her a fleeting look that pinned her for a brief second.
"There's no guarantee he'd find them." Her voice wavered.
Alex stood and approached the couch. He seemed to tower over her. "He found you. Once he decided he wanted to, it was only a matter of hours."
Abruptly he turned, went to a window and stared out into the darkness.
Scully looked up from her work to see Dr. Wykoff standing in the doorway.
"I've got something I'd like to show you. I don't know if I've found something or if I'm just seeing possibilities because I'm desperate for leads." He paused. "How are you coming? Finding anything?"
Scully pursed her lips. "I've taken some samples to send to the lab." A pause. "There was an absence of something I was afraid I might find."
"Oh?" His eyes revealed his curiosity.
"Actually, I'm not really at liberty to say."
"Something that ties into a longstanding investigation, yes."
Wykoff smiled briefly. "No pressure here. You know your limits better than I do." He paused. "Can you spare a minute?"
"Yes, of course."
She took a towel, covered the small mass on the table in front of her and hesitated. In her mind she saw Emily looking down from the top of a stairway, then a coffin filled with sand, and finally a teenager with earnest eyes telling her that life could change in just a moment. The corners of her mouth wavered slightly. She fought them into straightness, turned and walked toward the door and the bright lights of the hallway.
"It may just be me," Dr. Wykoff said as they made their way down the passage, "grasping at straws to help this girl, or it could be the hour; I can tell you I've been up for the past twenty-eight. But there appears to be a kind of thickening in part of the brain. Not anything you could look at and call a tumor." He glanced at her and shook his head. "Could just be these old eyeballs. Figured a second opinion would be a good thing."
"Definitely." Scully glanced at her watch. 2:12 a.m. Except for a gray-haired man sitting on a chair beside the vending machine, the hallway was deserted.
"Have you checked Tracy's--?" She stopped mid-step and turned to look at the man.
Scully frowned and hesitated. "Nothing. For a moment--" She ran a hand back through her hair and resumed her forward movement. "I believe I've been up too long myself."
There was only silence. It was hard to speak, or think.
"I knew it was you. I could feel you there." A pause. "I can't see anything."
"I'm here, Tracy."
"Where are we?"
"You're... in between."
She reached out. She couldn't feel her arms or hands, but somehow she was reaching. "Mom, I finally remembered. I remembered about--"
"The place where I went wrong. I wanted to stay with your father so badly. I let my weakness get in the way."
For a moment, nothing. There was no way to move, no light.
"Tracy, he asked me to go, and to take you. And because I didn't, they found him. They were outside the window, listening to everything."
"Did you love him?"
"Yes, I... Very much. He was a good man at heart. He did his best."
"He was afraid for us."
"Yes, he was. And I should have listened. But all I could think was that I couldn't go on by myself. Sometimes you must do that, take that first step on faith, even though it seems to be a step into empty air."
If not for her choice, they might have met again; that was what she was saying. Though her mother couldn't have known that at the time. The future held no guarantees.
A first step on faith, but surely not here. In between. A step forward into the unknowable and Alex would never be able to reach her, or she him. What good could possibly come of it? And what, then, was the purpose of their having met in the first place, or of Alex having opened himself only to be left vulnerable and alone?
There was no answer.
Silence filled the space around her.
Krycek stared hard out the window. Only the low lights along the edges of the neighboring driveway, off at some distance, illumined the blackness.
However it had happened, miscommunication or delays or some other freak of circumstance, the old man hadn't found him out yet. If he had, there would be a hardness in his manner he'd never be able to disguise, not even as part of a careful plan for revenge. If the old man thought he'd been betrayed--and he'd think of it as betrayal, as if the whole world revolved around him--
Obviously he didn't know yet. He'd find out soon enough, though, and what were the chances of getting away from here before that happened? What would they do to his mother if he took off?
Contact Mulder and...
And what? Not much chance he'd make it out of here in the first place. He'd been up too long, his legs had been tired and shaky even when the old man had first come for him. Then all these extra hours. His stomach felt like shit and beyond that, something was going on with Tracy. It was as if she were curled up against him, almost a physical sensation.
If she could, she'd be asking him to hold her, but he had no experience with this psychic stuff, this distance touching. Or whether it was even real at all and not just a trick of his subconscious, or his fatigue. But on the off-chance it was true, he had to do something. Respond somehow. When it was him in danger, she'd knocked herself out.
He set his hand against the window frame and felt it tremble. Closed his eyes and opened them again. It wasn't the first time he'd been trapped. Against all odds, he'd made it out of the silo. He'd noticed the flashing numbers before the car blew. Had made it to Tunguska and back. Not whole, but he was still here. He'd bled all over Scully's floor and still survived.
But for what?
That had been the $64,000 question of the last eighteen months. But he'd made it out somehow, met her, made it this far. And who'd be there to support her if he threw in the towel now?
Suddenly his hand slipped, skittering down the glass. He jumped and fought the sudden surge of adrenaline, willing his heart to slow. The house and grounds were wired, sensors everywhere. There was no chance of getting out undetected unless you cut the... No. Not even then. The old man had had a backup installed. Cutting the wires set off an alarm. It was maybe a month ago, just before Mulder had come up with the videotape.
Krycek shoved his trembling arm into his pocket and hit on something warm: the little card with the silver earring. Closing his eyes, he let his thumb graze the warm metal. He was going to have to tough it out here, do whatever damage control he could. Figure out a way for him and his mother to be in the same room without tearing into each other. It wasn't easy playing both sides, and at the moment she had to be seriously questioning where his loyalties really lay.
There had to be something he could do. It was no time to just give it all up, hand himself to the old man on a silver platter. The old fucker didn't deserve that.
Stroking the earring carefully one last time, Krycek swallowed and turned. He picked up the laptop from the coffee table, took the few steps toward the couch and held it out. Damn thing was heavy, wobbling in his weak grip, and she wasn't making any effort to reach out.
"Take the goddamn thing before I drop it. You waiting to see it fall?"
Her eyes widened at his delivery. Just as his arm gave out, she reached, catching the unit, but the mouse on top slipped off and clattered to the floor beside her.
"Stupid b-" He came around the coffee table, got down on one knee and reached, grasping at the carpet. A split-second delay and her hand went down, too, searching for the mouse.
The cameras were running.
It was now or never.
They nearly bumped heads and then Alex grabbed her hand--low, against the carpet--and pressed something into it. She switched it to the other hand, shaking. Picking up the mouse, she hooked it jerkily back onto the side of the computer.
He'd said 'hide it'. At least, that was what she thought she'd heard him say, his voice something between a whisper and the snarl it had been a moment earlier. This was who he was, or had been: tight, hard-edged, unnerving. And now? Suddenly she was aware of the sound of his breathing. Looking up at the figure looming above her, she saw his mouth tight. His expression gave nothing away.
"I'll do it. Just give me the address." He moved back a few steps and pulled an ottoman close to the far edge of the coffee table. Obviously he was leaving no room for objection. "Open it."
The top had fallen closed. She tucked the small object between the couch cushions and reached across to work the latches and pull up the screen. How different from three days ago in Trudy's condo, standing in the dining room watching Tracy open the computer for him. At least the girl was far away from all this.
Alex sat on the ottoman, the blue of the scandisk screen reflecting off his face in the dim light. He seemed worried, as well he might be, for no matter how he might choose to get himself out of this dilemma, exposure of Fox would almost inevitably lead to exposure of Tracy. He looked down momentarily, fingers pinching his temples as they had before. He seemed to be rocking slightly, forward and then back again, almost imperceptibly.
Easing her fingers between the cushions, Teena groped until she found the object he'd passed to her. Carefully she slipped it into her hand and rested the hand in her lap. Undoubtedly there would be surveillance of some sort. She glanced at Alex, his eyes closed now, and then down at her cupped hand. Opening it slightly, she peered at the object: a single tiny earring on a little card. Possibly something Tracy had the mate to? Had they each kept one out of a pair? Undoubtedly it was meant to be a sign, though, a signal that they were still on the same side, that they needed to cooperate. A welcome offering of trust.
Also a sign that there seemed to be no way to avoid pulling Fox into this. If there were a way around, Alex wouldn't be taking the initiative in writing the mail. Perhaps there was something he could say to warn Fox.
"DaddyW," she said. "Capital D and Capital W. All one word." She spoke quietly, remembering the eyes and ears that must be on them.
He sighed and shook his head as if she were a hopeless novice. He typed in the word, his fingers returning to his temples when he was finished.
"Alex?" Leland's head appeared in the doorway. Alex looked up, a look between surprise and alarm on his face. Leland took a drag on his cigarette. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yeah, just... tired. Still don't have any stamina."
He turned his attention to Teena. "I see"--the cigarette back between his lips--"that we've decided to cooperate."
She let her eyes speak for her, an impenetrably hard expression that came naturally after so many years of using it. Leland glanced back at her son. Their son.
"There are bedrooms, Alex. You can rest while we wait for Mulder." A pause. "You're giving him the details?"
He stepped into the room and started to approach the coffee table but Alex got up and went to him. They turned toward the door and spoke too quietly to be heard. Finally Leland nodded and turned away, disappearing into the hallway.
Alex avoided her gaze when he turned back. Perhaps he didn't dare face her. He returned to the ottoman and went back to his message, his hand tracing a smooth course back and forth across the keyboard from one letter to the next. As he wrote, his jaw tightened. Twice he glanced almost imperceptibly toward the doorway.
"Rest of the address?" He looked at her. Into her.
She cleared her throat. "Zipmail. Zipmail.com."
She swallowed and made herself appear to be reluctant. Several times she found herself looking toward the doorway as Alex had, but she made herself stop. It would only draw the suspicion of whoever was monitoring the room.
Alex reached for the phone on the table and took the cord from the back. A moment later she could hear the modem dialing to connect. Fox would feel compelled to come. Dana would be worried, and rightly so. Would this be part of Leland's delight, too, to drive a fatal wedge between the two of them?
Krycek pushed against the swinging door that led into the kitchen.
"Did you send the message, Alex?"
"Yeah. Short and sweet. I told him to make sure he's here on time."
"And the e-mail address?"
Hopefully Mulder was checking his mail regularly enough to flag the message and give himself some lead time. "DaddyW. Zipmail.com."
"Very well. I'll have someone look into it." A pause. "You should take advantage of the time, Alex. As I said, the bedrooms are available. You've given her enough to... ruminate over for a while."
"Yeah." He started to go, paused and turned back. "Maybe I'll sit in there a little longer. Don't want her to get too relaxed."
The old man raised an eyebrow and lifted a half-smoked Morley to his lips.
In the dream she was running in the woods among yellow leaves, playing hide-and-seek with Missy and Bill and Charlie. Missy was it; she had her head against a tree, counting three, four, five, six. From her hiding place behind a pile of leaves, Scullly could see to where Charlie, far beyond Missy, kept peeking out from behind a tree trunk and then retreating. When Missy turned she'd surely see Charlie first and then she could dart from her own pile of leaves to--
A hand on her arm, gently rocking her. "Dr. Barrett?"
Missy took a step back from the tree trunk and looked around.
A warm hand smoothed past her forehead and into her hair. She opened one eye and squinted into the brightness of the hospital's staff lounge.
"Mulder--" She blinked and pushed up. "Has something--? What time is it?"
"About 5:30." There was a quiet urgency about him.
"Mulder, what is it? Did you check with Dr. Wykoff? Has something happened to Tracy? I've been here since--" She glanced at the clock--"for about an hour and a half, I guess. I couldn't stay awake any longer." She ran a hand back through her hair and then rested it on his arm. "What?"
"I just got an e-mail. Two, actually."
His jaw set and he stared past her into the corner of the room. In his left hand was a piece of paper. She took it and read.
Scully's mouth opened but her lips refused to move. Mulder sat down beside her, leaned forward and hung his head. "We've got five and a half hours to do something before he expects to pick me up," he said finally.
"Do you really think the Smoking Man expects you to come, Mulder? Is it possible that Krycek's setting you up with his second mail?"
"What would be the point of doing that and endangering Tracy?" He shook his head. "I don't think so. But Smoky's got my addy now. Krycek wrote this three hours ago. I woke up fifteen minutes ago, got this and woke Dale and Bethy and sent them packing. No telling how soon somebody might come around."
"Then Tracy... But they don't know about Tracy. They don't know she's here with us."
"From the look of it, they may pretty soon, though--know where she is if not how she is." He pointed to the mention in Krycek's second message about 'valuables'.
"Then we've got to do something to assure--"
"Sandy may be willing to come keep an eye on her," he said.
"But, Mulder, we don't want Sandy exposed to--"
"I know. It's a long shot, anyway, them finding her here. Maybe Dr. Wykoff knows of somebody he can get to sit out in the hall and watch the door."
Scully frowned. "It may take several somebodies, in shifts."
Footsteps sounded in the hall, coming closer, and Dr. Wykoff's head appeared in the doorway.
"I'm afraid we're going to have to put her on a ventilator," he said after a nodded greeting and a pause to take them both in. "She's not breathing well enough on her own at this point. You up for giving me a hand?"
Scully stood immediately. "Yes, of course." She pursed her lips and followed Dr. Wykoff from the room.
Teena blinked. She must have dozed off.
Her eyes scanned the wall and ceiling beside her, then she eased her head up from where it had rested against the back of the couch. Her fingers went immediately to her now-painful neck. Morning was approaching. Faint light showed through the trees outside the window. She blinked and tried to chase the thickness from her head but her efforts were rewarded only by the sharpened consciousness of the tension inside her.
On the far side of the coffee table, Alex slept curled against the back of the leather chair. She rose carefully, listened for activity outside the room and, hearing none, went quietly to the window. The house sat in a wooded area, with homes spaced far apart on secluded lots. Even if one were to manage to get outside...
But Leland would have some kind of alarm system on the property. When he was determined... As Alex himself had pointed out, once Leland had decided to find her, it had taken him only hours.
Reaching a hand toward the glass, she noticed the alarm wire tracing the edge of the pane and thought better of it. Dana could hide, and Tracy could be hidden, but Fox would feel compelled to do something to save her, and Alex... Had he dared to say anything that would help Fox, or would Fox be left as the sacrificial lamb in these proceedings? Not that she was guaranteed to emerge alive from them herself. Carefully she swallowed and turned away from the window to glance at her sleeping son.
After Alex had sent the message, he'd appeared to be going through the procedure of deleting it from the computer, though it was impossible from where she'd sat to tell for sure. Then he'd left the room and come back a few minutes later without so much as a glance in her direction. He'd turned off the lamp behind his chair, announced 'now we wait' in a tone she hadn't been able to decipher for meaning, and had promptly fallen asleep, though most assuredly that hadn't been his intention. His arm had trembled visibly in his lap and then, as he began to drift, it had come up against his waist as if he were holding something invisible. Several times his face had twisted in a kind of pain. Once he'd smiled briefly. Perhaps he'd thought of Tracy. Fox would make sure the girl was well-hidden.
"Well, I see you're awake."
Teena turned, startled, to see Leland standing in the darkened doorway. He held a lighter to the tip of the cigarette that sat between his lips, watched it catch and took a drag. He raised an eyebrow at her but she offered no response.
"Only a matter of hours now," he said, letting the smoke out in a soft cloud. He paused. "I was quite disappointed, Teena, that you'd hide Fox and his partner that way and then lie to me. I thought we had--"
Her hands curled. "I had a good teacher. Lying became a way of life for me long ago."
Another raised eyebrow accompanied by a condescending frown. Alex stirred in his chair.
"It begs the question, doesn't it?" he said. "Of just how far you've gone. Of exactly what you know."
"I won't hand you my son."
"Oh, you don't have to. He'll sacrifice himself"--the Morley was lifted to his lips--"for his... nebulous ideals as much as any concrete evidence of your affection."
Teena felt her color rising. Her fingers curled tightly into her palms. In the chair, Alex grunted. She opened her mouth to speak.
"I believe," he said, glancing toward the chair, "that we might best continue this conversation elsewhere."
He waited for her to go into the hallway, then led the way toward another room. She shook, whether from fatigue or rage or fear she couldn't tell. His timing had been fortuitous, though, keeping her from blurting out a thoughtless remark about leaving Alex to sleep in peace. At least Leland didn't know what there was between them.
From the doorway Mulder could see Scully bent over the bed, paused at first, then reaching to smooth a hand over the girl's forehead. Her fingers lingered a moment. If Samantha hadn't actually survived, if she'd died somewhere along the line from infection or experimentation or... how many dangers were there for a human girl among an alien race?
But if she'd died, would she have been alone, woman or girl, just a Jane Doe among foreigners, or would someone have stayed with her, held her hand or sat beside her bed?
"You never know," he said, approaching the bed. "She may know you're here. They said you were just about ready to go once, but--"
She turned to face him. "I had the strength of your beliefs." She smiled briefly. "You're right. My condition turned around when there was no hope, no indication." Her lips pressed together. She glanced at the bed and then back at him, shiny-eyed. "The question is whether we can save her from what someone may have put inside her, from the minds that... if such a thing can be done, Mulder. I remembered the train car, and the faces of some of the doctors, as did many of the women at Betsy Hagopian's. Some of them remembered more, the way Penny remembered me. But what if the ones who remembered the most were the first to die? What if--? It's frightening enough to have to face the fact that you were called to... to go to a place you had no prior knowledge of, and that you actually went through with it. But to think that there might be a way--"
That you were being monitored--watched--and then controlled as if you were nothing more than a puppet. That it could happen not just to Tracy but to Scully as well. He swallowed.
One corner of Scully's mouth struggled hard to smooth itself into composure. She started deliberately toward the door and motioned for him to follow. Stopping in the doorway, she glanced back at the bed. "You can see why I'm reluctant to leave her. Maybe it's just the possibility of my own tie-in to this."
"Not you, Dr. Barrett."
She paused momentarily and went on. "But that's completely beside the point now. We need to focus on your mother. Dr. Wykoff said he shouldn't have any trouble finding people to watch the room. Apparently the smallness of this town is going to work in our favor this time. Anyone who's unfamiliar to these people is going to be immediately noticeable. He's making some calls now."
Mulder followed her down the hall to a small lab and closed the door after they were both inside.
"Scully, are you going to be okay? I don't doubt you, but... all of this is crazy. Beyond crazy."
She turned, came closer and looked up at him. "I'll be okay. It's easier, actually, when you've got something to do, someone else you need to fight for." Her eyes were shiny but she didn't avert her gaze.
He hesitated and then nodded. She turned toward a table containing something small covered with a towel. His mouth went small and tight.
"I haven't discovered anything definitive," she said, nodding toward the towel. "Not that I could with a cursory examination anyway. I have samples ready to go to the lab; they should tell us something. However, there was no"--she lowered her voice--"green fluid, or any of the associated post-mortem decomposition I've witnessed before." She let out a slow breath. "However, Dr. Wykoff noticed irregularities in Tracy's hypothalamus, something nearly unnoticeable at first when we saw the images. Not as if there were a tumor there but a kind of... distension. An irregularity, and I don't have to tell you--"
"More fuel for your theory," he said quietly.
She nodded, pressed her lips together and turned away from the table. "What can we do for your mother, Mulder?"
"I've mailed the Gunmen. They're going to scout the location for us. I've booked us a flight into Dulles; we'll only be minutes from where they're holding her. We need to be in Lexington in an hour." He paused. "We have no way of knowing whether Smoky might have somebody here looking for us already so I figured Dale had better stay out of this; I don't want Rita losing somebody else to this crusade. Anyway, I ran into an EMT near the emergency entrance who's getting off duty. If you can show him your badge so he knows I'm not conning him, he'll take us to Lexington. It'll be a way to get out of here without being seen."
She opened her mouth and paused. "Is this really happening, Mulder? Or is it all a dream?"
"If it is, then we're in it together."
She was in the waves not more than ten feet from where he sat on the sand. The hem of the red dress he'd given her was gathered up in her left hand. The water came to just below her knees.
"It's cold," she said, turning back to him. "I like the way the foam swirls after the waves have broken. It drifts and spirals. The waves and the water are always changing, like a living thing breathing." She smiled briefly. "I guess it is a living thing in a way, the sea."
"Watch it, Tracy."
Too late. A wave caught her from behind and the red dress was wet up to her hips. She gasped momentarily from the chill and then turned to face the water, watching as it rose gradually to form another low, curling wall headed for the sand. The water had drained back to her knees. The dress stuck to her but hung loose above the wet part, draping around her middle where the baby was. As the wave approached she lifted her arms and turned to the side the way he'd told her to do.
She glanced back at him, eyes wide. "It works, Alex. The wave goes right past you. It hardly moves you at all."
"Just be careful out there."
"I want to go past the first one, like surfers do."
"Watch your footing." He stood and approached the waterline.
He watched her wade out a few more feet. She paused and turned around.
"I feel something... I don't know whether it's fear or caution. About going out farther." She turned back to face the ocean but stayed where she was and let the water stream around her. Spreading her hands, she let them ride the surface of the passing swells.
A feeling--a warning. Quickly he stepped into the cold liquid and held out his hand. "Tracy, come on."
Something was jostling him.
A push against his shoulder. His eyes came open and closed again. He glanced back to where she'd been standing but there was only blue-green water. No voice, no sign of her, as if she'd never been there. Foam swirled around him.
"He wants you."
His eyes opened again.
"He's looking for you. Out in the kitchen."
Krycek's eyes were wide and dry. His heart churned suddenly. The Reston house. He glanced toward the window--daylight--and then the clock. 6:12. He blinked. Nearly four hours since he'd written Mulder. The tall guy was leaning over him, stubble visible on his chin now.
"The kitchen," the man repeated.
Krycek pulled up and stood carefully. His stomach was sour and achy.
His mother wasn't here. The couch was empty--room was empty--and what had the dream meant? Was it a dream or had it been Tracy trying to get through?
He blinked against the thickness in his head. Slim was staring. Stuffing his hand into his pocket, Krycek started toward the door. His fingers searched the small space. Empty. His mother had the earring.
"Tracy," Slim's voice came from behind him in a mocking falsetto.
Frohike grunted and continued to scan the scene around him with a small pair of binoculars. "Good thing you were able to pull this trade. VW bus wouldn't exactly have blended us into this neighborhood."
"Can you say 'obvious'? A little shabby, not to mention they would have thought we were having a serious attack of deja vu." Langly glanced up from his infrared equipment. "This is Suburban territory."
"With the odd Porsche and Lexus thrown in." Frohike grunted. "But a panel van: now this is luck."
"And ready to snoop. Bernie's going through this amateur PI stage. Personally I think he's been watching too many Magnum reruns."
"All to our advantage, though. What've you got?"
"Be nice if we didn't have walls to contend with; then we'd have 'em nailed for sure. But I've caught two people at windows. I think it's two."
Frohike glanced in the rear view mirror as a black SUV approached and passed by.
"One guy glances out every few minutes near the entrance. That must be his post," Langly said. "What do you make of the audio?"
"Voices have been pretty quiet. Nothing by the door, so that guy must be by himself. Three different people in one area; two in another. One of 'em could be an overlap."
"You got to figure that they probably all came together in the limo. Five or six people tops."
"Darth Vader himself, Darth Junior, Ma Mulder..."
"And a couple of sets of muscles is my guess. You know, that guy by the front door could be watching us. You'd better get out there and do your thing with the tire."
Frohike frowned. "Why am I always the one to do this stuff? I can run that equipment as well as you."
Langly glanced up and grinned. "Because you're closer to the ground."
"Shut up, Goldilocks."
Spender glanced away from Teena to the door as his son entered. "She won't talk to me, Alex," he said. He gave a shrug and paused. "I thought you might induce her to answer some questions."
The boy shot him a look. Undoubtedly he wasn't happy about being roused now, nor about facing his mother. Beyond that, he looked drained, weak. He'd have to be careful not to push him far enough to affect his recovery.
Alex pulled a chair out from the table as if to sit, then paused and retreated to lean against the counter. "Like what?"
He shrugged. "What she knows about Mulder and Scully."
The boy fixed his mother with one of those piercing looks that were so effective when combined with his dry, urgent delivery. "He ask you to hide them?"
Her lips moved slightly, then paused. "He was sick. They came to my house... There was something he wanted to ask me." A sigh. "Fox has always plied me with questions. And the next morning he woke with a fever. He was too sick to travel."
"And when he was better?"
"Do you think Fox would be foolish enough to tell me? He knew there was a chance something like this might happen."
"How long were they with you?"
"T... Three days."
"No idea where they went?"
Her expression hardened. "If I knew I wouldn't tell you."
"Doesn't much matter now. We've got the e-mail address. It's being traced to the phone number he connects from."
Teena's eyes revealed the alarm her hard-set mouth held back. Alex turned slightly, leaning more heavily against the counter.
Spender took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. "You took them to Baltimore?"
"No, I did not!" Her lips pressed together.
They made a good pair, he and Alex, one eliciting what the other couldn't.
"They were in your car." He shrugged and leaned forward. "You took someone to Baltimore... in your car, to your sister's condo. On a flight with you." He took a drag on the cigarette and reached for the ashtray in the middle of the table.
Teena's eyes bulged. She looked down, took a deep breath and said nothing.
"A woman. A young woman, apparently." He smiled. Now they were beginning to get somewhere. Teena face betrayed surprise, then worry, while Alex... Alex's eyes were wide, his coloring suddenly poor, as if he were about to be sick on the spot.
"Alex, do you need to leave?"
"I--" Perspiration beaded on his forehead.
"There's a recliner in the living room. Perhaps we should continue our conversation there."
He rose from his chair. Alex moved unsteadily toward the door. Teena remained where she was.
"You can come on your own or I can have someone assist you," he said calmly, turning to her. He returned to take the ashtray from the table. "Don't you feel you're being a bit childish about this? Come."
He led the way to the door and paused. Slowly Teena rose from the chair and followed him.
It was like one of those chase dreams where you could only run in slow motion. Just before they caught you, you woke up, but there wouldn't be that kind of convenient safety here.
Mulder pulled forward slightly and turned to look through the ambulance's front windshield. Rolling grasslands and neat, white-fenced horse pastures sped past them. He closed his eyes briefly and opened them again. Scully lay curled up on the gurney beside him, her head on his left leg; she'd fallen asleep before they'd even pulled out onto I-64.
She didn't deserve this kind of life. How could you even call it a life? But neither did Rita or Sandy or Angie Connors and her three kids who were serving as lab rats for Dr. Jekyll's vaccine project. As soon as his mother was safe...
And Krycek was there. What would he do, cornered?
The Gunmen should be able to find some chink in Smoky's defenses. They had the equipment and the connections and database access. So why did the odds look so bad, four people coming out of this alive? If he'd let it all go right from the start, found a way to deal with Samantha's absence, put more focus into academics and sports or... Other kids lost siblings; what did they do? What different path could he have traveled?
And what about Scully?
He reached down and traced her slightly-parted lips and then smoothed the hair back from her face. She stirred slightly and burrowed closer against him. He looked at his bandaged hand, still tender and in no shape to manage a weapon. They needed a plan but with only four hours of sleep his eyelids kept closing, and when they did, Tracy lay behind them, pale and motionless, a stand-in for his sister. What if she'd only lasted until she was eighteen? Twenty-three?
Or eight. What if she'd only survived for weeks, or days?
He swallowed and bit his lip.
"Mulder?" Scully blinked and looked up at him, disoriented.
"Sleep, Scully." He smoothed his hand along her shoulder and let it come to rest against the side of her neck. "Get some rest while you can."
He'd had everything printed: house, condo, car. Tracy's were there. Once the old man had made the connection there'd be no hiding what had gone on; there'd be no way to talk his way around it. He'd know then who Tracy'd been traveling with. And he already knew where Mulder was. But Mulder would anticipate this; he wouldn't just leave her defenseless. He'd have somebody on the lookout to keep her safe. You couldn't know her and not protect her. And Mulder would have gotten to know her. He had that inborn response, that empathy.
Krycek set his hand on the knob and leaned forward momentarily, resting his forehead against the bathroom door. He stared down at the tile below his shoes. He had no weapon. There'd been no way to hide one with the old man watching him change shirts, his eye on his every move. And he had no brute strength at this point, not that it would do a lot of good anyway against two of the old man's goons. Everything was a matter of timing, Tracy'd said. For better or worse. And how was she doing now?
But there was no time to think about her. She'd understand that. Get distracted and fuck up here... He wouldn't be any use to her dead. Or to his mother, out there floundering on her own, trying to do what stalling she could. Better not leave her alone with the old man too long.
Pull yourself together, Aleksei.
Straightening, he sniffed in a breath, opened the door and made his way to the living room. On the couch, his mother sat with arms crossed, her posture announcing that she wasn't going to give the old man anything he wanted if she could help it. The old man frowned from a leather chair; probably she'd given him that evil eye of hers. The happy family portrait: two bitter old people throwing mental daggers at each other, and their one-armed bastard son. Maybe Mulder hadn't had it so easy growing up after all.
He crossed the space between them and eased himself into the recliner. His stomach was knotted on top of the sourness; he hadn't put anything in it since sometime yesterday afternoon. It had to be part of the sick feeling. That and watching his life go to hell while Tracy slipped farther and farther away.
The old man cleared his throat. "We were discussing your... female passenger."
His mother said nothing.
His mind was muck. "Why'd you take someone to Baltimore?"
"She's a..." A pause. She moistened her lips.
Make it good.
"...a neighbor of mine. She hadn't flown before and her mother wanted to make sure she got to her destination safely. I thought since I was going... in that direction anyway..."
The old man sat back in his chair and took a leisurely drag on his Morley. "Curiously impulsive planning of you, I'd say, Teena. Not at all typical--to plan this little excursion, and take a neighbor along"--he paused--"and fail to make reservations until four in the afternoon, when you're already hours away from home."
Krycek's hand tightened against the arm of the recliner. His mother reddened.
"We had reservations on another carrier, but the flight was cancelled due to... mechanical problems. We had to reschedule. It was why we stopped at Trudy's. Because of the delay." She gave the old man one of her indignant looks for good measure.
"It might have been more convenient, would it not, to have flown out of Kennedy or La Guardia? Or Newark, or Philadelphia." He paused to grind his cigarette into the ashtray. "There are any number of airports closer than Baltimore."
"I was trying to avoid... this."
The old man shrugged. No way to tell whether he was buying any of it, though she was doing a pretty damn good job since he'd suggested that she'd brought the mystery passenger with her, not picked her up in Baltimore.
A phone rang. The old man reached into his pocket and stood. He looked up at Slim, who appeared in the doorway. The old man nodded to him as he answered the phone--he'd take the call in the kitchen--and disappeared down the hallway.
Slim entered the room and made himself comfortable in the old man's chair, a leering smile crossing his face. He leaned back as if trying the old man's power on for size.
Goon could afford to relax. He wasn't about to get stepped on.
The bed dipped and a gentle hand touched her shoulder. Sandy opened her eyes and squinted.
"I didn't mean to wake you, Punkin, but Dr. Wykoff just called." She pursed her lips.
"What is it? Did--?" She sat up and rubbed her eyes.
"He said something about keeping an eye on your friend. He wondered if you were going to be coming down today."
"He wants me to?"
"He seemed to."
"Maybe she's doing better."
"I don't know. He didn't exactly say." Raylene paused. "Look, I didn't mean to hang over you, staying here last night. You just--"
"It's okay. I'd probably still be on the couch or something. Or asleep on the floor." She sighed and ran her hands back through tangled hair.
"Sandy, about this friend of yours..."
"I don't know if she's my friend. I don't know what she is, Mom. I guess I'm trying to figure that out."
"Then why did you spend all that time with her last night? You've got enough on your plate already, sugar, and you're known her for how long? A couple of days? It just hurts to see you carrying that kind of burden around."
"Mom, I... She was nice to me and I wasn't necessarily so nice in return." She shrugged. "But she said something--something she didn't mean to--that hurt me, too. And then Ben called and said she'd collapsed."
"So now you're doing penance?"
"Mom, it's not like that."
"Sorry. I didn't mean..." Raylene moved back a step.
Sandy squirmed. "I'm not even sure I want to like her. But she's got nobody but us--me and Ben and Annie. She's running from the guy who had Cy and Roddy killed. It's all mixed up--complicated. I don't think you're ready for all of it." She glanced up. "No offense. If you can't understand why I'd be hanging out with Rita Johnston after Cy and Andy, then you sure won't be ready for this. Don't know if I am, either."
Raylene's mouth opened and then closed again. After a moment she nodded assent.
"I just keep thinking about Cy and Roddy out there all alone in that car, and I ask myself what kind of person I'd be if I let someone else go though that all by themself with nobody. That's gotta be the worst thing."
Raylene nodded, solemn, and stepped close to the bed. "There's other people in the hospital. You shouldn't feel like it's all on your shoulders. But I guess I can see what you're wrestling with." She paused. "You're some piece of work, Sandra. You're way stronger than I am."
Sandy shrugged and let herself be held. After a moment she slipped an arm around her mother's waist and closed her eyes, letting herself go slack.
Abruptly, she sat up. "Oh, damn--"
"Adrie." She glanced at the clock. "Oh, god, I'm supposed to be up there in ten minutes. How'm I going to--?" She bit her lip.
"You think David would mind if I watched him? I could take him to the park, or to my place. You could go sit with the girl--what's her name?"
"Tracy." She paused. "Yeah, I don't think David would mind. We could give him a call."
She climbed off the bed, went to the dresser and opened a drawer. "Geez, it never stops, the craziness around here." She paused and turned back. "Thanks, Mom. Thanks for the hand."
Alex had done quite a respectable job of easing the information out of his mother. Teena seemed far less reticent about answering Alex's questions than his own, though she hadn't really given away anything of value yet. Alex hadn't pressured her particularly. He was astute enough to realize that pressure would only make her dig in her heels, like a mule. In spite of his rough-edged persona, he was a fairly discerning judge of character and style.
The static on the phone was followed by a voice.
"Sorry about the wait, sir. I was on another line." A pause. "It's the fingerprints, sir--the ones you had us take from the missing girl's room and the D.C. car."
"Yes?" He tapped a length of ash into the sink.
"There's a match, sir. We just noticed it now. We hadn't cross-referenced them before."
"The Baltimore prints. The girl's prints are the fourth set in the Baltimore vehicle and they're also one of the sets in the condo. She must have been the second party on that flight."
He opened his mouth. The little housekeeper. So she'd suspected something, run to Teena, Teena had taken pity on her and--
No. Nothing of the sort.
Alex was behind this.
"Snipers?" Scully offered. "Tear gas?"
"We're going to have to get in there somehow, Scully, and you know Smoky's not going to make it easy." Mulder sucked in his lower lip. His head went back against the head rest. "Diversion," he said, glancing at her. "We need one hell of a diversion." He looked up at the luggage compartment overhead. She watched his jaw set. "Son of a bitch."
"And my mother's rescue seemed risky at the time."
"We'll have to see what the Gunmen come up with. They'll have some ideas."
"Langley's will be flamboyant." She almost smiled. "Frohike's will be... passionate; I can see him pounding his fist on the counter for emphasis."
"We will bury you." Mulder's eyebrows went up; a smile pulled briefly at the corner of his mouth.
"And Byers will come up with something very cool and logical."
Mulder said nothing. She let her breath out slowly.
"We should get what rest we can, Scully. Anything will help. We need an edge."
A moment later his eyes closed. She pursed her lips and looked out the window at passing wisps of gray and white. Your life could turn around in a moment--and in a variety of very unanticipated ways. She reached beside her and felt for his hand, careful not to put pressure on the wound in his palm. His fingers curled around hers.
"Mulder?" She continued looking out the window.
"Promise me something."
"I know this is may sound... selfish; I don't mean it that way, but..."
"Don't do anything foolish."
His thumb smoothed along the tops of her fingers. "I won't. I wouldn't do that to you."
A sudden brightness beyond the window made her squint. "You've changed."
"I think we've both changed, Scully."
She let her eyes close. Gradually his breathing lightened into sleep and she felt his head dip close, coming to rest against her shoulder.
The kitchen door opened and the guard entered. He opened the refrigerator and stared at the bottles on the shelf. Seconds passed but he made no move to select anything.
"I don't pay you to contemplate the interior of the refrigerator, Riggs. Get back to your post."
"Yes, sir." Riggs reached in, took a can of soda and quickly retreated through the swinging door.
The old man looked down at his hands, knuckles white from their grip on the sink's edge. Reaching into the pocket of his jacket, he took out a Morley, quickly lit it and took a long drag with shaking fingers. The smoke came out in a hard stream.
There was, in the end, a certain pathetic quality of logic to it. Alex had been vulnerable, full of pain and weakness, and the girl, for her part, had been very diligent in spite of her shyness. Certainly, in retrospect, she'd had a talent for handling Alex because not once had he complained about her intrusion into his life. Considering the way he valued his privacy, that fact in itself was remarkable. And in the end, weakened, he must have come to pity her, deciding that she deserved a chance to have her small life continue.
But the fact that he'd risk himself and his possibilities for an inconsequential child...
And he'd involved Teena somehow. When would that have happened? And why would she have helped him, other than out of feelings of maternal guilt and the desperate hope that this shocking son who'd reappeared so suddenly in her life might be something other than a monster at heart. It would have proved a ready avenue for placating her troubled conscience.
So he'd left it to his mother to tuck the girl away somewhere.
The risk--the gamble--of Alex had always seemed to be in the places they overlapped: two ambitious, strong-minded men, each determined to stand on the mountain peak of control in a space meant only for one. The threat of betrayal had been present ever since Alex had reached adulthood. But this--serious errors in judgment, the willingness to sacrifice himself for no gain, and to further display that weakness in front of his mother; his focus on an inconsequential life and the attendant danger of absorption in the petty, leaving the larger picture to play out at random...
It was more than just an aberrance, a blip in an otherwise predictable readout. It would have to be handled as the very grave matter it was.
The water was cold around her feet and legs. Tracy forced herself to watch the waves, but sometimes they overtook her before she saw them approaching.
In between something and nothing, or...
No, it would just be an end that way. 'At the end' wasn't what her mother had said. She was in between something and something else, a something she couldn't know until after she'd passed the portal, and the gate she'd come from had locked behind her. She shivered in the blackness. Another wave washed against her, strong, the sand streaming out dangerously from around her footing. She felt herself stumble.
A hand touched her elbow from behind, steadying her.
She turned to look but there was no one. She swallowed and looked forward again, eyes on the rising water.
Carefully she took a slight step back, testing. A warmth, almost indiscernible, settled near her shoulder. She closed her eyes and focused on the fleeting sensation.
A rustle of activity in the hallway. Slim got up quickly from the leather chair and vanished into the next room. Krycek smiled grimly. It was the old man coming. Slim knew his place, alright.
He watched as the old man approached. Pseudo-casually he walked to the window, looked out into the trees and took a drag on his cigarette. He was trying to look like he had it all together but he didn't. There was a stiffness around his mouth, a calm that was a little too plastic.
And the hand that held the Morley was shaking.
The shit had hit the fan for sure.
After a moment he came around to his chair. Crossing one leg over the other, he reached for the ashtray on the table beside him. Krycek tensed inside.
"Alex, if you... had some interest in seeing your mother, in knowing her..." His voice was calm but the hand continued to shake. "You could have said something. Something could have been arranged, to avoid"--he waved the Morley in an arc--"this. This kind of dilemma." He cleared his throat. "I'm supposing, of course, that she didn't come to you."
The old man glanced at each of them in turn. Neither spoke.
"He must have told you beautiful lies, Teena, to draw you into this plan: a poor little servant girl you could help save from her fate. A fallen son showing some promise of rectitude. He's quite good at deception."
"And you, Alex," the old man turned to him. "Going to this length to safeguard your... personal pleasures. The child didn't strike me as the type to yield to your necessities. Unless, of course, her willingness wasn't a consideration." The Morley waved in a smaller arc this time. "And see what it's gotten you? See what it's gotten your mother? But of course she was always expendable. Perhaps it was your way of getting back at her for--"
The anger boiling inside him turned unexpectedly to laughter in his throat. "That the best you can do, old man?"
More laughter followed--dangerous, satisfying laughter--until the old man, eyes bulging, gritted his teeth and the half-spent Morley dropped into his lap. He jumped up. The Morley hit the floor and he stomped at it, shaken. Half a second later an iron grip caught Krycek's neck from behind and white-hot pain shot through him, Slim forcing a pressure point until he screamed.
The old man shot him a look and nodded at Slim, whose hand retreated slightly. Krycek gasped and refocused from the shock of the short-circuiting pain. Fingers twisted themselves into the neckband of his shirt and tightened, yanking him hard against the chair back.
A hand on her shoulder pushed Teena into the room and the door was shut behind her. A second later a lock turned on the outside. A moment to compose herself and she turned to look toward her son, who was slumped in the leather chair. His eyes were closed. Just as well that he didn't see her this way, her fright and anger probably more than evident. It would serve no purpose to berate him, to lecture him on the danger he'd put himself in out in the living room in such a foolish clashing of male antlers. Possibly a danger not just to himself but to Fox as well. It would take the three of them working together to extricate themselves from Leland's clutches.
Alex grimaced and moved slightly in the chair, settling himself. What did she actually know of him beyond what he'd chosen to show her?
Teena went to the window and looked out to where blue-gray sky shone between the trees. What she knew of him for certain was... the fact that he'd brought Tracy to her to keep her safe, and the way he'd been with her, tender and careful. They were ridiculous, Leland's accusations. If Alex were as cold as that, he would have found Tracy quite as disposable as Leland had. But the girl...
She turned from the window. "Alex?"
He opened one eye.
"Are you alright?"
He raised an eyebrow and nodded toward a spot on the ceiling. "They're listening, you know."
She took the ottoman and dragged it to a spot beside the chair and sat down, her back to the place he'd pointed out. She leaned closer.
"I was afraid that man..."
"Hurts like hell but only for a few seconds." He turned slightly, using her face to block his own from the view of the camera. "It was worth it. He deserved that."
"Yes, but at what cost?"
She worked to swallow her frustration. Strangely, a smile crossed her face. "Yes, he did deserve it. When he dropped that cigarette--" She covered her mouth with her hand. "I've never seen him turn such an awful shade." She felt the smile gradually fade, replaced by the awareness of the chill of the room. The air conditioning had been running the entire time. "Alex, Fox will do his best for Tracy. He'll know to hide her. No matter what happens to the rest of us, at least she'll be safe."
Something sharp shone momentarily in his eyes. He averted his gaze and the muscles in his throat seemed to tighten. His voice, when it came, was very dry.
"Something happened to her yesterday. She's in the hospital. I talked to Mulder last night. Wasn't looking good then and--" He paused, mouth open, then closed his eyes and turned abruptly away.
Scully listened to the echo of her boot heels on the floor and focused past the curious--or amused--stares of passersby in the hallway. At least it was a tailored sweater she was wearing with her new jeans and not the blue top she'd worn on the plane, but it certainly wasn't the suit that announced 'professional' within the environs of the Bureau. Three weeks in Kentucky and it felt as if she'd been on a years-long absence from this familiar world.
The voices all expressed surprise. She'd been transferred to Quantico the last they'd heard and Mulder had been dismissed. The scene had an air of unreality to it, but she looked ahead, toward Skinner's office, and walked resolutely through the door.
"Agent Scully?" Skinner's secretary looked more surprised than the others. "We thought you were on a retreat. For a while there were rumors about your safety."
"Yes, I'm sure there have been any number of rumors circulating. But I'm back--temporarily. Frankly, my situation is urgent. I need to talk to him." She nodded toward the inner office. "Is he in?"
"It's extremely urgent that I see him now."
The secretary started to stand but Scully was already at the inner door, knocking. At the sound of Skinner's voice in response, she opened the door and slipped inside.
Skinner stood immediately. She crossed the room to greet him.
"I thought you were in hiding." He lowered his voice and looked around as if there might be someone else in the room, but it was empty except for the two of them. "I'd heard... What about your mother?"
"My mother's safe, sir. She's finally seeing progress, but when the Cancer Man couldn't get to her, he tracked down Mulder's mother. He's holding her in a house in Reston as we speak. He's expecting Mulder to show up at National in two hours to exchange himself for her."
"Sir, I know the reality is that you're under pressure here from the Cancer Man and his allies tucked away within the Bureau, but do you have anyone you know you can trust, even one or two people? We need help and it's imperative that we get it now. Mulder agrees that there'd be nothing to be gained by sacrificing himself, but we can't very well leave his mother a hostage, either. When Mulder doesn't show up in two hours, we believe his mother's life will be in serious danger. And I needn't tell you that Mulder's life and mine are at risk."
"I sympathize with your circumstances." He sighed. "I can probably come up with someone...But do you realize what you're saying here, Scully? Taking down the Smoking Man is like"--he shrugged helplessly--"attempting to vote God out of office."
"Or the devil, sir. I realize the odds appear to be against us... But sometimes things do turn around in the oddest twists of circumstances. We need to rescue Mulder's mother."
The corner of Skinner's mouth creased. "I barely got out of the Smoking Man's drug charge and he knows it. I've been skating a fine line between him and"--he grimaced--"Alex Krycek."
"We know, sir. Krycek is there, too." She paused. "But we believe he may be more hostage than captor at this point."
"It's a long story, sir. But as far as that goes, you may score some points with him by aiding us."
Skinner sighed, walked to the window and looked out toward the Mall. "What is it you need, Agent? What's your exact situation?"
"The house is in a residential area surrounded by woods. The lots all appear to be several acres in size. The house is apparently one he keeps. We have the interior layout. It's a large, ranch-style house. We believe there are five people inside: the Smoking Man, Krycek, Mrs. Mulder and two guards. We've been warned that both the house and the surrounding property are wired."
Sandy studied the unmoving form in the bed beside her. She was just a girl. She hadn't chosen the work she'd ended up with, taking care of the man who'd stolen her family away. It must have been scary, discovering what he and Mr. Thinks-He's-God were up to... and having nowhere else to go, no way to get away from it. Until...
Sighing, she withdrew the hand that had been reaching toward the girl's pale arm. Footsteps sounded in the hallway and Dr. Wykoff entered the room.
"I don't suppose she could know I'm here," Sandy said, coloring. It was shameful to blame the girl this way, for what had essentially been happenstance: her luck at coming out on Alex-the-Killer's good side. Still, why couldn't he have shown some of that compassion to Cy and Roddy?
"Hard to tell. But there's always that possibility. People have come out of comas knowing the conversations that went on around them. And maybe that made a difference--knowing somebody was staying there, not giving up on them. There's only so much you can do for a failing body, but consciousness... sometimes it's a funny thing. The desire to live or not to, what might be going on inside there undetected when we get no significant readouts on the monitors..." He shrugged. "I guess the answer to your question is that there isn't really an answer. Only possibilities." He have her an apologetic smile. "Wasn't much help, was I?"
"Yeah, you were." She reached out, stopping just short of Tracy's limp hand.
"I appreciate you coming, Sandra."
"I was gonna come anyway. In a way we've got a lot in common and--" She shrugged. "I guess I keep thinking, what if it was me? Or maybe I'm just thinking about the way Cy and Roddy went. Nobody should be alone like that." She looked up. "Have you heard anything from Ben and Annie? Guess it's too early yet."
"Not yet. When I do, I'll let you know."
"I was so intimidated when Annie first came, you know? And then I got to know her and she's a regular person. A good person."
"Most folks are." Dr. Wykoff turned to go. "Now I've got some patients to go take care of but I've got old Mr. Jennings stationed out there by the soda machine. He's got a pretty sharp eye, but if you see anyone come in here, anyone at all unfamiliar, you holler if you have to, but you get help."
Dr. Wykoff disappeared into the hallway. Sandy stood and leaned over the bed. She could see into people--into their minds, Ben said. Then she would have known, after Duncan's, everything that lay smoldering inside her, everything she hadn't put to words.
Was it worse for her, being opened up like a cell door with a jailer's key, or worse for the girl, being burned by the ugly feelings she found inside?
Sighing, Sandy reached for the brush on the bedside table and turned it over slowly, picking out two thin reddish hairs caught between the bristles. After a moment she reached slowly toward Tracy's head and began to carefully brush her hair. It was a good cut, for whatever good it was going to do now.
"You hang in there," she said softly to the motionless figure in the bed. "Don't you give up."
Rita was giving him the evil eye. The mother-authority eye.
"Your tactics aren't going to work, Mother J. I can do this."
"But Will--" Her hands went to her hips. She turned away and a moment later turned back. "I'm sorry. I'm just worried for you. I can't help it; it's built into me, I guess. I feel like I'm filling in for your mother." A sigh. "Now I know that's not what you wanted to hear." Her arms crossed in front of her. Her mouth pulled to one side.
"I know what you're doing--just looking out for me. But I also know you'd do the very same thing in my place. Look at that story you've got to tell about running through the hospital half-naked. Mrs. Rita Johnston, secret agent and grandmother-of-disguise extraordinaire." He grinned.
Rita frowned and then blushed. "I know I do these things. I think we're cut from the same cloth as far as that goes."
"It's no big strenuous thing. It's not like I volunteered to go five rounds with Manny in the ring."
"Yes, but you've spent the last week barely able to make it from the bedroom to the couch. I know what it's supposed to be, Will--easy. It's the unforeseens that have me worried."
"Like having to sprint down that hospital hallway?" He cocked an eyebrow at her.
"Who could have expected a short redhead who looked a little like Agent Scully to accidentally come into the room? If not for that, I might have just laid there very peaceful-like and made a more dignified exit in good time."
"Wouldn't have made nearly the tale later on."
She wagged a finger at him. "Did you smart off to your mother?"
He stifled a smile and sobered. "You know I just want to help out, Mother J. And I've got this disguise thing down cold. I know how to play it. Anyway, I'm the one with the trained prop, right?"
"Promise me you'll come out of this in one piece. You know I've lost enough men already, Will. I couldn't take another."
"I promise." He gave her a solemn look. "You know I wouldn't lie to you."
The word arrogant came to mind. As well as foolhardy and half a dozen much harsher adjectives. But no matter. Stewing over Alex's shameless show would be just what the boy would enjoy the most.
Spender glanced down at his pants and the small, black-rimmed hole to the right of the fly. The jacket, buttoned, would cover it until they were finished here. Very much finished, the Mulder family chapter permanently closed.
Alex had laughed: raucous, scornful, disrespectful laughter. Like a child with his tongue sticking out.
A moment for composure and he turned around. The infuriating laughter remained, an echo in the back of his head. "Yes?"
"The trace on Mulder's e-mail, sir. His connection was made from a phone in a place called... Owensburg, Kentucky. We've got the street address and resident's name, sir. It's here."
A piece of paper was held out to him. He took it, fingers still trembling slightly. "Thank you." A pause. "You may return to your duties."
He waited until the door closed to look up, then focused on the paper. Owensburg. So Mulder had returned to try to mine the secret of what was happening there, carrying on his little crusade for justice for the pitiful victims of overexposure, neglecting--as usual--the forest for the trees. And the...
Owensburg. And the girl had deplaned where? In Cincinnati, the same place where Alex had connected after his Owensburg assignment. Teena had...
He pulled a chair from the table and sat absently. Had Teena handed the girl off to Mulder and Scully? But why would she, already knowing the danger of their situation? Unless...
Why would Mulder even accept the girl from Alex, assuming Teena had been used as a go-between? It made no sense, and yet the girl had indeed gone from Alex to Teena to...
She could just as easily have remained in Cincinnati. There was no reason for her to have been sent to Mulder. The idea was ridiculous. Alex had always expressed scorn for Mulder's naiveté, his schoolboy idealism. And Mulder, for his part, was unlikely to cooperate, even in this apparent 'mission of mercy', with the man who had killed his father.
Spender got up from the chair, went to the wall beside the swinging door and pushed back a folding curtain to reveal a bank of video monitors. On the upper left monitor Teena sat on the coffee table in the study, looking at the couch where Alex lay eyes-closed, covered with a blanket. Alex was still weak from his wound and he'd had no more than a couple of hours of sleep, if that. He should present very little physical threat. His mother, for her part, seemed to be drawn toward him llike a Virgin Mary in an Italian pieta. Undoubtedly he'd made an overture to her at some time, wanting... Wanting what? Her approval, her...?
It was incomprehensible. What had Alex found lacking that he'd gone searching for in the woman who'd given him up at birth? What would bring forth in him more need than anger? On the screen, Alex shifted abruptly. Teena rose, leaned over him and smoothed a hand over his shoulder. Her lips moved; Alex settled again and Teena returned to her seat on the coffee table.
Turning from the monitors, Spender made his way to the sink, pulling the cell phone from his pocket. His thumb traced a pattern of numbers and he lifted the phone to his ear.
"Yes. I'd like you to add another element to your search. A teenage girl--a priority, actually. There's a possibility she may be there, in Owensburg somewhere, tucked away." He paused, listening to the party on the other end. "It's a small town; undoubtedly a new face would be noticed. Check on it. If she's there I want you to bring her here at once... Yes. Alert me as soon as you know anything."
He pressed the 'off' button and slipped the phone back inside his coat pocket. A beeping sounded from the alarm above the door, followed by hurried footsteps in the hallway. The door was pushed open.
"I'm on it, sir. It appears to be just a dog out in the woods behind. It's happened before."
The door closed again and the footsteps faded, followed by the sound of a deadbolt turning and a door being opened and then closed.
There was no moon. Only the pinprick light of a few stars shone on the black, fluid surface. He reached into the swell around him, groping. She'd grazed his shin before. Or something had. The swell rose suddenly, sending a cold splash of salty water into his mouth. He spit, then spit again and reached out. There: an arm. He pulled, dipped down, lifted. She was light, as if she hadn't been below the surface. Her dress was dry but she was limp. They were in the rocking chair now, in the dark, the little heater going in front of them. She was growing warmer but her eyes were unfocused. No matter what he thought to her there was no reply, as if she were a rag doll with stitched-on eyes. Then she was curling toward him--a response finally--and--
A buzzer sounded, cutting through the dream.
He blinked. His mother shook his shoulder.
"Alarm," he managed. "Probably the yard." He pointed toward the window.
He blinked again and pulled up. His head was thick and dazed. His stomach...
He put his feet on the floor and stood, leaning at first, taking a step to one side to avoid tripping. His mother was at the window now, looking out. He dodged the corner of the table, went around the ottoman and came up behind her. Set his hand firmly on her shoulder. "Go. Get on the couch," he said quietly.
She turned and did as he said without a word.
"Dog," he said, watching the scene beyond the window. "Out there between the trees. Stray or something." Or maybe not a stray. He glanced at his watch. 10:15. The timing was right. A slow, thick wave of adrenaline rolled through him. He opened himself to it and turned. The look was in her eye. She knew something was up.
Her voice was dry; her hand stretched toward him. He went to the couch, reached. She pressed something into his palm and squeezed slightly. He nodded acknowledgement and tucked the earring deep into his pocket.
Slim secured the back door behind him and strode out among the trees. A cocker spaniel moved through the layers of fallen leaves that covered the ground, stopping at one, and then another, to lift his leg.
"Hello there," a voice sang out. An animal control officer--black man--approached from the property behind. Slim glanced back quickly to where the dog was making his way around the side of the house. The uniformed man came closer, apparently in little hurry.
"Sorry about the intrusion," the man said. "This guy's had us running before. Has a rich, doting owner who's worried sick. Little guy's getting older, though. He won't get far, but he's still got a serious case of wanderlust." A pause and he pointed. "Went around to the right, didn't he?"
"Yeah. Toward the street." Slim fell in stride with the uniformed man and they rounded the corner of the house.
"Looks like rain. Hope it holds off 'til I get this guy around to my truck. I'm parked on the back street. You mind if I walk back the way I came? It'll save me a quarter mile."
Slim grunted in reply and looked ahead. The dog had skirted the ivy and the junipers and was heading toward a panel van he'd noticed earlier parked across the street, one that bore checking out, now that he thought about it.
He strode slightly ahead. The dog's paws showed beneath the far side of the van. The animal seemed to have stopped for something. A glance to the left and right--no cars--and across. Dog was still there. Maybe there was a hydrant... if he had anything left to spray on it. White Ford Econoline 250 with Delaware plates, NTW 586. And there was the little mutt, by the driver's side tire, sniffing at--
Strong hands grabbed him and yanked him backward toward the van's open sliding door. His hand went for his holster but was immediately pushed away and twisted behind him. A man appeared in front of him, a slight grin cutting through what had been grimness a fraction of a second before.
"Thanks for the loan," the man said, pulling the weapon from its holster and holding it up for inspection. "They took mine a month ago and never gave it back. Can't understand it."
Slim was turned and pushed into the van. A small, red-haired woman with lips pressed firmly together tore a length of duct tape from a roll and secured it across his mouth. Handcuffs bit into his wrists from behind.
Krycek's blood felt like jello pumping through his veins, thick and quavering. A diversion: Slim was being lured off... And secured, if they were smart. A mode of entry, a start. But they'd need to disable--
Krycek turned from the abstract of greens and grays outside the window. "You cold?"
His mother looked at him curiously and then caught the tip-off in his expression. "Y...Yes, actually. The room's been quite chilly."
"Thought it was just me. Let's close those registers." He gestured to one low on the wall beside the lamp table and his mother went toward it. "Make sure it's tight or it's not going to do much good."
He went to the couch, stood on the end cushion, wobbled, caught himself and reached up to close the overhead vent. Damn thing was stuck. A sharp stinging bit him, the adjustment lever cutting into his fingertip as he jabbed at it again. Suddenly the louvers folded and went tight. As tight as they were going to get, anyway. He stepped down, sucked the beading blood from the end of his finger and went to his mother, still bent over the lower register.
"Mulder's going to try something to disable the defenses here." He spoke quietly, close. "They could shoot, they could use some kind of gas. You hear any kind of shot, you hit the floor." She nodded. "Keep low to the ground. Or stay on the couch. If it's something that knocks you out, you won't fall. If your eyes start to sting, don't rub them. Go for the window and open it; breath slowly and don't panic."
There was muted terror in her eyes. He squeezed her shoulder and straightened.
The lock on the far side of the door clicked, the deadbolt sliding back. A moment later the door swung open and the old man came through, followed by his driver. The old man was trying to look casual but he'd sniffed something in the wind. Daryl Silver must have been sacked out in a bedroom somewhere; he looked half asleep, shirt wrinkled, fingers testing his grip on his weapon as if he wasn't quite feeling it yet.
"I believe I'll join your little... family circle for a while." The old man gazed at him--smugness mixed with a dose of uneasiness--and sat down in the leather chair. "Oh, Mr. Silver."
Silver went to the old man's chair and leaned close. They exchanged a few muted words and Silver left, closing the door behind him.
"I see you two have found the temperature a little less than inviting." He nodded toward Teena. "Would you mind getting a towel from the bathroom and wedging it in below the door. Drafts can prove very unhealthy."
Teena hesitated, then stood up.
"I'll do it," Krycek said, stepping forward.
"No, Alex. I'd like your mother to. After all, you've overextended yourself already. We wouldn't want to"--he smiled--"compromise your health." He pulled a fresh Morley from his pocket and waved it toward the couch. "Sit."
Krycek bit the inside of his lip, moved to the couch and sat down on the edge of the end cushion. He eased himself back, stomach knotted, and watched his mother emerge from the bathroom and stoop down near the door to wedge the towel underneath. She worked quickly, her fingers fumbling slightly, and returned to the couch where she seated herself at the opposite end.
"I've located your little housekeeper, Alex. Someone should be bringing her back shortly. You've been so helpful to her, I'm sure she'll be overjoyed to see you."
It was a lie, the old man just looking to shake him up. Still, the knot in his stomach twisted even tighter.
The old man cupped one hand slightly around the end of the cigarette, lit it and took a drag. He was watching the both of them, waiting, his free hand poised carefully around the arm of the chair. Where the hell had Daryl gone? If the old man suspected something, if he made any countermoves, Mulder was going to think he'd been set up. Anyway, Mulder would be coming for his mother. There was no guarantee he'd be any kind of consideration himself. Militia raid revisited: a smack in the face and thanks for the tip, you son of a bitch.
Two drops short of bone dry.
Anticipation seemed to give the silence a kind of movement, like a wall full of bugs in a horror movie. His mother sat staring at her hands in her lap, the old man took another drag on his Morley, but it was a short drag and he held the cigarette tautly. He glanced out the window once and returned his focus to the door, as if he expected someone to come bursting through. Every few seconds his mother would shift and open her mouth as if she were trying to think of something to say to make conversation. Anything to get past the throbbing silence.
An abrupt shattering of glass in the front of the house was followed by the crashing of a second pane. Krycek leaned to the stump side, reached and pulled his mother down in front of him. Whatever it was, it had to be canisters of something; there'd been too much glass breaking for bullets. A shout came from the direction of the living room, then silence. The old man gritted his teeth, leaned forward stiffly and pointed a weapon he'd pulled from inside his jacket at the two of them.
"I believe it's time we lined ourselves up," he said, gesturing with the gun barrel, "though your positions seem quite clear. Teena, I'd like you to come sit here, on the ottoman in front of me." A pause. "Come. It's no more difficult than sitting for a family portrait."
Reluctantly, his mother straightened, trembling, got slowly up and went around the coffee table. She pulled the ottoman to where he indicated and sat, one hand gripping the edge of the cushion.
"Alex, I'd like you over here." He gestured to his right. "Oh, and think very carefully about any further action. I might get jumpy and we wouldn't want any... accidents." The gun barrel lowered slightly to point at his mother.
Krycek got up and stood to the old man's right--the side where he had no arm, where he would be useless against him. His right hand man: it was the message he'd be sending as Mulder entered the room.
And if Mulder bought it?
The gravity of confronting the Smoking Man had concerned me since the moment Mulder woke me with the news of his mother's capture. It was almost like choosing to invade the stronghold of Satan himself. Even if he were captured in the process of the rescue, experience had taught us that the Cancer Man would inevitably evade justice and quickly return to his position of influence, striking down, in the process, anyone who had been known to help us. I was concerned about the logistics of our plan, the necessity of keeping it small and not drawing in others unnecessarily, about the effect our lack of sleep could have on our ability to react quickly. Above all, I was worried for Mulder, both for how he might react and for the effect this would have on him if we were unsuccessful. But despite the risks, not making the attempt to rescue Mulder's mother was out of the question.
I'd considered our logistical options during our flight to Washington. Since we couldn't approach the house without being detected, the personnel inside would have to be immobilized in some way from a distance, either by tear gas or some agent that would render them unconscious. Then our entry could be made with relatively little risk. Skinner had loaned us a sharpshooter and a communications expert, men he knew would have no possible ties to the Smoking Man. The Gunmen's period of observation had revealed that, in addition to the Smoking Man, Teena Mulder and Krycek, the house held two bodyguards. Will Wilkins had offered himself and his dog Ralph to stage a distraction that should arouse little suspicion.
Now we had the one guard, the gas canisters had been fired, our two loaned agents had approached and verified that the remaining guard was lying unconscious in the living room. I had promised Skinner that Mulder and I would make the entry ourselves in order to protect the identity of the agents he'd loaned us. Finally, our preparations made, Mulder and I, flak jackets and gas masks in place, approached the entry. An 'all clear' was radioed to us by our two agents, who were watching the perimeter of the property.
As I reached the door, a question that had been sitting in the shadows of my mind suddenly came to the forefront. If I were to come across the Smoking Man immobilized, would I leave him there to be taken away, or would I--could I--shoot him and end the threat he posed to so many innocent lives? Was I capable of pulling the trigger and dispatching an unconscious man? Or would I leave the man ultimately responsible for my sister's murder and my own abduction to be dealt with by what common consensus had determined to be justice, a justice that had been the cornerstone of my own career and beliefs, but which held little practical hope of confining him?
Was I capable of stepping outside the law? Did I want that capability? In the end, could it be justified?
And what would Mulder do?
"Hey, Scully--" Mulder gestured and watched as she approached through the haze of the hallway. "This looks like it. There's a lock on the outside of the door." His voice sounded odd to him, contained within the mask.
"Apparently he's in the habit of holding people here." Scully paused. The intensity in her eyes questioned him. "Are you ready?"
He paused, nodded and reached for the deadbolt with his bandaged hand. There was a noise--a door behind them opening--a sudden gasp from Scully, a jostling where his hand was smacked against the wall and something was shoved hard against his ribs from behind.
"Don't even breathe." The words were snarled close to his ear.
The hand throbbed but he didn't dare move to rub it. He turned around far enough to see a tall figure behind them, gas mask in place. A second gun was pointed at the back of Scully's head. Hard eyes gestured toward the door.
Scully'd mentioned the possibility of Krycek setting them up. Maybe it had just been stars in Tracy's eyes that had made her see the kind of loyalty in Krycek that she thought he was capable of.
"Weapons on the floor."
The gun was moved from his ribs. Mulder stepped back from the wall, bent down slowly, set his weapon on the floor and pushed it carefully out of range with his foot. He watched Scully do the same, her mouth a thin, tight line. She'd be scared shitless but her mind would be working overtime, looking for an opportunity; she was nothing if not determined. Just don't do anything heroic, Scully, the way you did in your apartment, shooting Krycek while he held a knife to your throat.
"Open it. Open it and move in quickly, both of you. I'd just as soon pull off your masks right here, but he wants you coherent. Go."
Mulder reached for the door handle, paused to glance at Scully, opened the door quickly and stepped inside. Scully was rushed in next to him. They were pushed forward and the gunman closed the door behind him. Smoky sat waiting in a chair facing them, a pistol aimed at his mother, who was seated wide-eyed on a leather ottoman in front of the old son of a bitch. Krycek stood to Smoky's right, looking like he was ready to bolt if only he knew which way to go.
"Thank you, Mr. Silver." Smoky turned. "Alex, would you open the windows?"
Krycek moved to one window and then a second, working latches and sliding panes of glass to the side. He wasn't wearing the prosthesis; the rounded end of his stump showed just below the sleeve of his T-shirt.
"Check these two, Alex, for any extra weapons."
Krycek stepped up to Scully, paused, patted her down. She had nothing, anyway. He turned to Mulder and repeated the process. There was something, just faintly, in his expression, but Smoky's goon was watching him.
"They're going to miss us out there in a minute," Mulder started, looking at Smoky. His mother's eyes were full of pain and emotion. "They'll call for backup."
"Not if you assure them you're alright. Alex, does he have a radio?"
"Tell them you're alright, Fox. That you'll be out presently." A pause and the gun was moved closer to his mother's head.
Mulder glared and set his jaw. Krycek held out the radio he'd taken from his belt. One eyebrow rose slightly. Mulder switched the unit on and hesitated. "Yeah, we're... we're okay in here. We found 'em. We're just checking a few things... Yeah. Let him know we're fine." His mouth remained open. The radio was taken from him and switched off.
"Cozy little gathering we have here," Smoky started, pulling a cigarette carefully from his pocket and gesturing for Alex to light it. He took a drag. "Though I must say I'm... appalled"--his eyes grew hard--"by the ingratitude of the lot of you."
"I've looked out for your safety." He nodded toward Mulder. "I kept you from being harmed by... certain elements who saw no profit in your remaining alive."
He turned to Scully. "I had you returned to your partner after your mysterious disappearance four years ago. I held your life in my hands three years later... Think of it--life or death, an incalculable responsibility. And I chose to save you with a miraculous gift of alien technology when you were at death's door."
"I was at death's door because of you."
"And this is the thanks I get." A gesture of incomprehension with his free hand, followed by a short puff on the Morley. "And Teena, after safeguarding your daughter, bargaining at great personal cost with the aliens to have her returned--"
Mulder's heart pounded.
"You don't even know what happened to her, old man. You said so yourself." It was Krycek.
"You, Alex." Smoky turned sharply, though his gun remained trained on his mother's back. "You most of all. I raised you, trained you, groomed you, and after all is said and done--"
"Whatever you did, you did for yourself."
"Like Dr. Vanek's private little research program at Beeson-Lymon, huh?" Mulder took a step forward. "Three little kids used as guinea pigs for a private vaccine program to save your sorry ass when they come." He stumbled suddenly, yanked back by the collar. "Maybe if you didn't use children like... things, or appoint yourself god to end the lives of innocent, pregnant girls--"
Smoky leaned forward. His eyes went wide, giving away what his mouth stubbornly refused to acknowledge. He hadn't known. He hadn't realized Krycek had handed Tracy off to them.
The hand on the back of Mulder's neck tightened. "You want me to take care of 'em, sir?"
Smoky worked to control himself. He looked like he'd eaten hot chili peppers on a dare and had no glass of water to quench the fire.
"No, Mr. Silver. These people have found such... fulfillment... in helping each other, I believe they might prefer it if we let them continue to do so. Alex, you seem to have become very fond of your mother, trying to... shelter her from danger, and pain. I don't believe we'll find Fox Mulder schooled enough in this line of practicality to be of the proper assistance." He nodded to the guard. "Mr. Silver, hand Alex one of your weapons."
Mulder swallowed. Beside him, Scully stood with fingers curled tightly into her palms. Without Billy-the-Kid-in-a-suit she'd be all over the old son of a bitch like a Doberman.
Silver went closer to Krycek and held out a pistol. Krycek made no move to take it.
"Take it, Alex."
Smoky frowned, his patience wearing thin. "Alex, either you do your mother this favor, use your... carefully honed talents and make it easy for her... Or I can find someone else to do the job more slowly. Mr. Silver here, for example, hasn't nearly the accuracy you have."
The gun was offered again. Krycek remained motionless. Only his lips twitched slightly.
Smoky leaned forward.
"I'll do it myself." His mother's voice was dry, trembling but indignant. "I won't have my blood on someone else's hands, certainly not one of my children's."
Smoky stopped short. After a moment he gave a shrug. "Mr. Silver..."
The weapon was held out to her. Teena reached toward it and hesitated, looking at Mulder, and at Scully beside him.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to come around, Fox."
Mulder opened his mouth but nothing came out.
"Alex." She turned to him. "I'm so glad you found me. And that you had this time with Tracy." She swallowed, set her jaw and reached for the weapon Silver held out. It was starting to hit Smoky, her implication about Krycek and Tracy.
"I'll do it." Krycek stepped forward and put out his hand. Silver glanced at Smoky, who hesitated and finally nodded.
"Stick to your task, Alex. Mr. Silver has you in his sights. Mulder, Scully, I believe you'll want to move to the side." He waved them to the left.
It was what they'd done in the camps, Mulder thought: made you watch while they shot your friends and family. Eyes open or you joined them. But what was there to be done, either then or now, here, Silver and Smoky both with weapons ready? And Krycek, always playing the most practical option, switching with every turn of the winds of circumstance.
Mulder was pushed to the left, mouth open, heartbeat maddeningly slowed. Scully bumped up against him, her fingers finding his and squeezing briefly. Samantha--what was all that about Samantha?--and the air was thin, hard to breathe, and the corners of Krycek's mouth were twitching, a barely perceptible movement, as he raised the weapon, hand shaking slightly, his finger curling around the trigger now, beginning to stretch it taut.
If this plays out badly, nena, know I didn't mean to mess up and leave you alone.
The rock was slick with wet sea moss. Alex had inched his way up more than once, but every time he thought he had a toehold and tugged on her hand to bring her up, the weight of her body pulled him down again into the rising waves.
Unless he climbed higher, he'd never survive. But she could swim. She could float right in to him when he was at the top, safe, and the tide had risen. Not so long. It would just be a little while waiting in the swirling water, buoyed, floating. But he had to be free to climb. Holding on too tightly: wasn't it the warning of her mother's story?
He needed to climb.
She took a deep breath, paused and let go of his hand.
The report from the gun filled her. Teena felt her face against the floor, a painful ringing in her ears and noise, confusion--the sounds of scuffling. Blinking hard, she forced her eyes open and found herself confronting the beige landscape of the carpet.
A shout and a groan. The banging of something against the wall. She looked up to see Fox and Dana wrestling on the floor with the man Silver, Fox struggling one-handed with one of the man's arms, Dana scrambling to put a choke hold on him from behind. Silver swore and twisted; Dana's fist connected with the man's ear. He curled in pain and Fox forced him onto his side.
"Cuffs," he gasped, leaning hard against his opponent.
Dana gulped a breath of air and scrambled to her knees, pulling a pair of handcuffs from a pocket. Together they rolled the man onto his stomach and applied the restraints.
Teena's arm ached. She was lying on her side. The sound of breathing--panting--surrounded her, but it wasn't her own breathing. Carefully she eased herself onto her stomach and pulled up to her knees. Alex lay on his back beside her, wide-eyed, his hand pressed against his side, red leaking out from between his fingers. He tilted his head back to look behind him, questioning. Leland lay face down on the floor, a pool of blood haloing his head. She watched his back a long moment. There was no movement of any kind.
"He's gone, Alex."
Fox stood above her, offering his hand, a dazed expression on his face. She took the hand stretched toward her and let him pull her up.
"Fox, are you both--?"
She looked down at Leland, motionless finally. After a moment her vision slipped out of focus, the picture in front of her transforming itself into a dark abstract shape on beige with a red circular accent. Her arm throbbed. The scene around her was oddly unreal and distant, and she found herself breathing in time with Alex's pained rhythm. Dana was kneeling over him now, asking for towels. Fox disappeared and reappeared with several from the bathroom. Probably not serious, Dana was saying a moment later. The bullet appeared to have hit his side far enough out to avoid contacting any organs. Thankfully, Mr. Silver had indeed been the poor shot Leland claimed him to be.
Teena glanced up and out the window. It was the middle of the day, a time when friends might meet for lunch, but a moment somehow torn from time, unrelated to the lives any of them lived. Raindrops pattered lightly against the glass.
Alex had turned away to face the window but his hand came up, bloody, and reached toward her. She took it and found her eyes drawn once again to Leland's motionless form.
In the formless darkness she felt herself distended, transparent, weightless. Solitary but not alone, neither warm nor cool. The sound of her breathing filled her, as if she were submerged in the all-absorbing quiet of tepid water. It would come, the current that would take her and draw her along its path as it always had. There was only the waiting.
Just the waiting.
Twice he'd asked her to sing. Her muscles contracted, straining to find her voice, and she began to hum.
My first thought as I watched Smoky's plan unfold was that we were all going to die here, Scully and I and my mother and maybe even Krycek; he wasn't pretending to buy Smoky's ego-stroking logic about how he'd been the salvation of our collective lives. I didn't see any way out--not any more than the people in the camps had had any real alternative to watching their friends and families being mowed down.
And yet, the moment past, I wondered whether it was the situation itself or my hatred of Smoky that had paralyzed me. If the gun had been in my hand, would I have shot my mother? Would I have seen no other way out than to try to make it easy on her, or on Scully? One thing I knew as I looked at Smoky making his final display on the floor, and my mother and Scully bent over an injured Krycek: I wouldn't have been able to pull off what Krycek had just done, whether from lack of the skill he'd honed on too many victims, or from scruples or whatever reason--or justification--I could come up with.
Rage: that was what filled me even more than fear just before the gun went off, rage at Smoky's smugness and his perennial manipulation. I probably would have included Krycek in that, too--told myself he'd taken the gun in a last-ditch, kiss-ass attempt to save himself.
But it hadn't played out that way, and trying to twist that fact now would only shine the light back on me. Who knew why he'd done it, knowing he had one chance in a hundred of coming out of it alive. Maybe he didn't know himself. Maybe one in a hundred looked a lot better than dead for sure. Maybe it was the need to connect with Tracy again, though he'd know there were no guarantees there; he'd been given the facts, and whatever else he was, Krycek wasn't the type to delude himself with false hopes. The fact remained, though, after the shot and the shock and the scuffle with Smoky's driver, that though Krycek had killed my father and nearly killed Scully, he'd now saved what remained of both families. Even Maggie's rescue had depended on the tips he'd given.
Smug old Smoky. He didn't seem so smug anymore, lying there in a spreading pool of his own blood. He'd always carried an air of immortality, of somehow being immune to the risks everyone else faced--the devil incarnate looking down and smirking at your vulnerability. Now he reminded me of the Wizard of Oz, the curtain unexpectedly pulled back, his god-image stripped away beyond recall. Or Hitler. He must have seemed this way dead, the observer open-mouthed that he had proved, in the end, to be no more than a work of flesh and bone.
I'd been attempting, however inadequately, to prepare myself for what seemed to be the inevitable, the outrage of an abysmally deficient man savoring the prospect of eliminating an entire family. Though I was terrified, more than concern for my own end, I felt for Mulder and what he would have to face here, however briefly, and the gross injustice of a single life, the chance marriage of genetic material and human circumstance, that could hold other lives in the way the Smoking Man did, as if he were a giant's child grasping at insects, inspecting them with curiosity and then calmly pulling off the legs.
The action, when it came, was so completely unexpected that for a moment I stood there dazed, not comprehending what had happened, though I'd seen the gun barrel turn and fire at Smoky. As if in complete silence the scenario replayed in my head: Krycek firing, then buckling as Silver's bullet hit him, and the Smoking Man dropping almost simultaneously, probably already dead, not even struggling, eyes fixed in shocked surprise. By then Mulder was moving and I was aware that Silver needed to be immobilized, and that Mulder couldn't do it alone with an injured hand. By the time Silver had been handcuffed, the reality still hadn't sunk in: that the man who had probably ordered my abduction, who had brought trauma and tragedy to the families of countless innocent women who had been taken for experimentation, was dead, never to take another victim.
I stared at the figure on the floor. There was the gurgle of air escaping the body, the final note of a life process having ceased, and the room seemed to come into focus again, motion and sound to resume. In front of me Teena Mulder knelt over Alex Krycek, not as one victim over another but as mother over son. I glanced at Mulder, who stood watching beside me. I had no idea what was running through his mind. Then I was being called. There was first aid to be administered to the man who was the sole reason any of us were still alive, and I made my way to where Krycek lay on the carpet and bent down to determine the extent of his injuries.
If I were asked to perform Smoky's autopsy, I would plead a lack of professional distance from the case. There were others qualified to perform the necessary physical examination. Under no circumstances would I touch the body of that despicable man.
His side hurt like hell--the other side this time--but at least it wouldn't be a rerun of the last three weeks. Or would that have been so bad?
"How is she, Scully?"
Scully's eyes were on her work, cleaning the wound. She was careful but thorough, her lips pressed tight as if she could hold whatever she was feeling in behind them and keep it from spilling out into the open. Strange to see her this close: the eyes, the details of her face. The old man was dead and as a reward for ridding the world of him, they'd be carting him off now, pressing charges for his past crimes. How would they live with themselves if they didn't?
"You were very lucky, Krycek." Scully wiped a few scattered beads of sweat from her forehead with the back of a bloody hand. "An inch or so to the right and there could have been serious internal damage, like--" She stopped abruptly. Like the other side, the hole she'd put there herself.
Mulder'd call in the cavalry. They'd want to haul him in, but--
"Scully, how is she?"
She'd need the support, to be held or rocked or... anything just to know she wasn't alone. She'd said that up on the roof once--that she was so tired of being alone.
Scully refocused on him. She looked as dazed as Mulder or his mother, as dazed as he felt himself, as if the world had suddenly stopped spinning and everything had gone silent.
Krycek tipped his head back and nodded toward Mulder. "He said you were there with her last night."
She paused and nodded. "Yes. Actually, I was there until we left this morning to come here."
"How's she doing?"
Her lips went together again. She looked past him and the corner of her mouth wavered before she had a chance to pull it tight.
His heart sank.
"Dr. Wykoff took the baby last night. We were hoping it would take the strain off her, so she could fight this more effectively, whatever it is. We haven't been able to determine, actually, what's attacking her. Her body just seems to be shutting down. None of our tests has shown anything recognizable that we can fight, though we do have her on anti-virals." A swallow. "She was put on a ventilator about five-thirty this morning. I wish there were something more positive to say."
His eyes closed. After a moment Scully went back to her work, bandaging the wound. His damn arm was shaking again. He wasn't even using it and the shimmy was there. Stomach was raw and aching. Eyes burned. The stump was--
A hand smoothed across his forehead and rested there a moment. He opened his eyes.
"You're running a fever, Krycek. When was the last time you ate anything, or slept?"
"Yesterday." He shrugged. "Afternoon. I ate... something, I don't know. Don't remember. Was about to call it a night when he came along." He nodded toward the old man's body. "That's why I didn't call back. Slept an hour maybe, a while ago--"
"Forty-five minutes," Teena said. She was sitting on the couch with Mulder. Mulder was probing her arm carefully with his fingertips.
"You hurt it?" Krycek asked, pulling up slightly.
Scully's hand coaxed him back down again. "Lie still." Her voice was quiet, not the pissed-and-in-a-hurry tone she'd always used with him before.
"It hurts. Dana can check it when she's finished with you. I don't believe it's broken, though."
There were things he had to do, but they were going to haul him off.
"Scully, will you find out how she's doing?"
She was tearing off lengths of tape now, securing the bandage in place. "Yes. As soon as I'm through here."
He let his eyes close again. Careful fingers smoothed the tape against his skin. A moment later his head was lifted and a cushion was placed under it.
Ventilator. It was a bad sign.
Scully's footsteps moved away. He could hear her at the bathroom door and then she was closing it. Mulder was talking quietly to his mother. Their mother. Must be a real shaker for Mulder, walking in on this: him the ever-faithful son and mom hanging onto Alex-come-lately.
Beyond the door he could hear Scully pushing phone buttons, dialing. He swallowed and felt a thin seal of wetness spread across his closed lids.
Footsteps echoed in the hallway outside and stopped in the doorway. Sandy turned to look.
"They made me talk to Dr. Tim first," Bethy said, one hand against the door frame. "He said I could come in if it was okay with you."
Sandy stood and went toward her. "I forgot they don't usually let kids in. Guess it's been longer than I realized since I was little." She gave the girl a hug and felt herself embraced in return, a hug full of strength, as if the gesture had come from a parent and not a child.
"I told him she's been staying with Uncle Dale and me," Bethy said. "I said she's kind of like my big sister, even though she hasn't been here very long." She glanced past Sandy to the bed and then back again, her eyes serious. "I wasn't lying."
"I know you weren't, punkin."
The girl's face lit up suddenly. "Grammy's coming home tomorrow. I talked to her on the phone. I was at Karen's house," she added after a pause. "Ben said we're not supposed to be at home now."
"Can I see her now, Sandy?"
"She won't be able to see or talk to you, you know."
Bethy nodded solemnly. "Dr. Tim told me."
"But Ben said sometimes they can tell you're there, anyway. He said it happened to Annie once."
Bethy nodded and started toward the bed. She paused by the railing, considering the pale figure laid out there. Tentatively she reached out to smooth a soft hand along Tracy's arm.
"I meant that about sisters," she said. "Did you ever wish you had one, Sandy?"
"Kinda. Sometimes they don't get along so well, though. Look at Myra and Mandy Werner. They're always at each other like cats fighting."
"Uh-huh. But when Tracy came... That night I woke up, and she was there on the couch, and she peeked over the edge and saw me and told me to come, and I did and we sat there and talked and talked. Like she wasn't a stranger but somebody I already knew. You know, like somebody who's come back from a long trip and you're glad to see them again."
Sandy smoothed a hand over the girl's shoulder. "There's one more thing you can help do for her, punkin, besides just being here close. Did you see where Mr. Cunningham is sitting out there next to the soda machine?"
"Well, he's watching, because the somebody who started all this mess, he might want to hurt Tracy, too, and we're not gonna let him. If Mr. Cunningham sees anyone who's not from around here poking around, or asking about her--"
"Or Mrs. Peltier? She's out in the lobby pretending to read old magazines she's already read."
"Dr. Wykoff put her there?"
"Lordy." Sandy paused. "Okay, but if somebody should get past them, and you see somebody looking in, or asking about Tracy, somebody you've never seen before..."
Scully slipped the bathroom door open several inches. Krycek was lying eyes-closed on the floor where she'd left him. He showed no sign of having heard the door open. Mulder looked up. She gestured to him, slipped back inside and turned to stare at the opaque glass in the small window. Her lips pressed together. She swallowed as he came through the door and closed it behind him. His voice was quiet.
Her mouth opened and then her lips came together again and wavered slightly. She fought them into straightness.
"Skinner's on his way," she began, turning to him. "I just talked to him."
He nodded, waiting. "But that's not what you called me in here for."
"No." She looked at the floor tiles and then at the pile of bloody towels tossed beside the sink. Up at him finally. "How are you doing, Mulder?"
He shrugged. "The world just turned inside out, we all nearly got killed and then didn't. Got saved by the world's least likely guy. And my mother's out there trying to split herself between two kids who've"--he looked toward the bright glass in the window and sucked in his lower lip--"who've never had any use for each other."
She nodded and set a hand on his arm. "It seems they know something about your sister."
"Yeah, I noticed. She hasn't offered, though, and it doesn't seem like the time to push. We just keep dancing around it." He paused. "How about you, Scully? How are you doing?"
"I--" Her hands went up. "We're alive, and I'm grateful, and the Smoking Man is never going to terrorize anyone again. And Alex Krycek seems to have demonstrated something of"--her mouth wavered--"what Tracy..."
"You called Wykoff? What'd he say, Scully?"
"That"--she made herself breath out--"she's been virtually non-responsive since we left this morning. And that she's showed no brain activity of any kind for the past half-hour." She swallowed against the pressure in her throat. "Technically it's possible for the situation to reverse--"
"But it's not common."
She let out a ragged breath. A pause and warm arms reached out to envelope her. Gradually she let herself loosen and lean into him. "Mulder, I... I'm as shocked--as overwhelmed--as you are about what happened out there. But I have to say that kneeling over Krycek with a wound in his side and blood on the carpet, it was just too close to--"
"...your apartment three weeks ago?"
"Yes." She looked up and took a step back. "And yet he's shown something... Mulder, his first words were--"
"To ask about her. I know."
"Mulder, how am I going to tell him this? That he took this incredible risk, and after all that, she's--" She took a step toward the window and squinted into the bright overcast. "Technically she's a Jane Doe. We really know nothing about any family she may have, or her exact age for that matter. And the state of Kentucky isn't going to pay for heroic measures to keep her body going."
"I don't think she'd want to live like that, Scully."
"No, I don't, either." She moistened her lips. "There's one other thing, Mulder. Tell me if I'm crazy."
"I suspect he's going to want to go there, to see her, and frankly... I think he should. Even if this only ends up being about unhooking her from life support. Perhaps then most of all. I think she'd want him to be there." She swallowed. "I guess I keep thinking about my sister, too, about missing her by those few hours, and wishing I'd been there for her. I think for Tracy's sake... I know they're going to want to hold him, and I'd be perfectly willing to be responsible, to have him released into my custody--"
The phone in her pocket rang. She reached for it and switched it on.
"Yes. Yes, thank you very much." She pressed the power button and looked up. "Skinner's here. They've cleared the rest of the rooms as safe now. I think we should put Krycek in another room before we get a team in here. He's exhausted and running a fever, and--"
"And your news isn't going to help any."
"No. No, it isn't."
"What happened here, Mulder?"
Skinner paused in the doorway and stared, unbelieving, at the body on the floor.
"The unexpected, sir." Mulder paused. "I think it was pretty unexpected for Smoky, too."
Skinner's mouth opened again but he said nothing. After a moment he shook his head and moved into the room to make way for the coroner's team. "Good to see you again, agent. Good to see you're in one piece."
He offered his hand and Mulder shook it.
"Good to be in one piece, sir."
"Seriously, Mulder, what happened?"
"Smoky wanted me. We managed to pull Scully's mother out of reach and he went after mine. He brought her here last night, sometime in the wee hours, and then told me to show up at National about"--he glanced at his watch--"about now, actually, to trade myself for her."
"We were alerted to this location."
"By who? Scully never said."
"By... As it turned out, sir, by someone intent on saving his mother from his father."
Skinner scowled, puzzled.
"It seems..." Mulder looked up at the ceiling briefly, then back at Skinner. "Ever made a bad choice in relationships, sir? I know I have." A pause. "Evidently my mother did, too, once, a long time ago."
Skinner's mouth opened slightly. After a moment an incredulous look crossed his face. "The Smoking Man?"
Mulder looked at the body on the floor, being turned now and laid on a gurney. "Alex Krycek."
The clicking of boot heels on hardwood sounded in the hallway and Scully appeared. She smoothed a stray lock of hair back from her face and attempted a smile.
"I can't believe--" Skinner started.
"That he's finally gone?" Scully came closer. "I know, sir. It's difficult to comprehend." She paused. "But this time we have a body."
In the bedroom with the shades drawn it was difficult to see him, as when he'd seemed no more than a shadow beneath a dusty packing blanket in her garage.
"Alex, if you'd rather be alone, I understand. I just wanted to make sure you're--" She sighed. "I know it's not alright. I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry."
A heavy breath came from the figure on the bed. Alex's hand came up and waved her in. She came closer. He lay curled on his side on the broad mattress facing the window, his back to her. The bedspread had been pulled from the far side of the bed to cover him.
"Did they bring you something to eat?"
"Dana says... that she'll take you to Kentucky, that someone might be looking for you--Project people--that they might trace you through airline reservations so she's going to drive you. They've arranged for a minivan. They're going to put a mattress in the back. You'll be able to rest." She sighed and looked up and around the room, a collection of muted shapes in browns and grays. "May I sit? You can say no."
After a moment his hand went behind him and patted a spot on the mattress.
She sat carefully on the edge of the bed. His hand lingered where it was. Tentatively she reached toward it, but hesitated. He'd reached out in the other room, almost instinctively it had seemed. But now the hand was motionless. The last thing she wanted to do was overstep.
"I've heard"--she started, and cleared her throat--"heard it said that some people who live very short lives nevertheless live more fully that others who live to quite an old age, that they compress a... a fullness of living into a few short years. I know it's small comfort--extremely cheap comfort--when you're the one losing someone, Alex. But I do believe Tracy is that kind of person. I believe you've found her to be. I know it doesn't ease the pain..."
She glanced up, at the closed window blinds, and back to the figure beside her. "I was trying to think, out there in the other room after Fox told me... how Tracy would look at this. She'd undoubtedly find beauty in the time you've spent, however brief it's been. I know she has. It seemed to... to radiate from her." In front of her, his body seemed to tighten. "I think she'd be... very grateful that, in the end, her being here has helped bring us together this way. Without the need to provide for her, who knows if we would have had the courage to meet again. And Fox and Dana--all of us. I think... she'd be very happy to realize that her time with you has had that result."
His back heaved. He took a shuddered breath. She waited until his breathing had eased.
"I'm glad you're going to her, Alex. It will mean the world to her to have you there. I imagine she'd want to spare you the hurt if she could, but--"
"Gotta do it."
"I know." She closed her eyes a moment. "Can I... Do you mind if I ask you something?"
He sniffed. "Shoot."
"What did you mean out there, about Samantha? Leland told me--"
"He bought your silence." He rolled toward her. "I heard a few things here and there. Supposedly he got her back after... I don't know, a few months or so. About a year after I came from Russia he had me out in California looking up death records for young Jane Does. All the places I was supposed to check were within 30 miles of a military base, so my guess--"
"Where? Where in California?"
"Sacramento area." He paused. "So if it was her he was looking for, that's probably where he'd been keeping her. Sounded like they were using her in the hybrid program. Evidently she got away--escaped--and he figured she'd died--didn't seem to know for sure what happened to her. Said she was stubborn." He half-laughed and raised an eyebrow. "You know, she wasn't grateful enough for everything he'd done for her."
"How... Do you know how old she was?"
"Teens. Maybe mid-teens it sounded like." A pause. "You should tell him--Mulder. I'll tell him. He deserves to know. He's carried her around all these years."
"Yes, he has. I told myself... that I was protecting her by not saying anything. But I think I just didn't have the courage."
"I figure... you know, you do the best you can with what you've got to work with at the time." He cleared his throat. "Maybe later you look back and decide you screwed up royally, but--"
"I know the feeling all too well."
"...at the time you worked with what you had." He paused and swallowed. "He needs you, you know. Out there. Probably feeling like... black sheep comes in, makes a big splash, runs off with mom. He's always been there, you know?"
"Yes, he has. And I haven't always had the backbone to come out and acknowledge it." She shifted slightly, preparing to stand, and set a hand gently on his shoulder. "Are you going to be--?" A sigh. "Alex, I don't mean to hover. I just want you to know my thoughts are with you. You and Tracy. I'm so glad I got the chance to meet her. To see the two of you together."
His lips came together. She watched his jaw set and then slowly, gradually loosen.
"The first week, I was on heavy pain meds. First week or two. Strong enough to knock out an elephant. Hated 'em. She used to... sit there with me, on the edge of the bed, just sit there 'til I was gone. If I broke through for a second, she was there. She was always..." He sniffed. His voice was dry. "Nobody's ever done that."
His eyes closed. Teena watched the muscles in his throat
"Vanek never showed up for work this morning."
Mulder switched off the phone and turned to where Scully stood looking out the study window. Streaks of pale blue showed through the gray between the trees. "Said she was going to some medical conference in Dayton. Evidently the conference is legit. There was a flier for it on her desk."
"Or she's using it as an excuse."
He nodded. "Yeah." A pause. "I've got to get back there, Scully, find out whether she's gone or whether we can still catch her, what data she may have left behind that we can access to help the Connors kids." He shook his head. "Going to take one hell of an explanation, Angie trying to be so diligent all this time only to find out her kids were being injected with... Who knows what it was, or is, until somebody gets there to look into it." His jaw set. He paused. "Scully, you going to be okay with this, driving Krycek all that way? You haven't had any more sleep than I have. Probably less."
"I'll stop when I get tired. I don't think Krycek's going to try anything; I'm his ticket to getting in to see Tracy. Besides, I think I need to... to come to terms with him."
"Just don't bite off more than you can chew. You don't have to play the hero here."
"No, it's--" She ventured a tentative smile but it was real, not a show of forced bravery. "I think I can do it now. It does help, actually--knowing you've got backup. Emotional backup." She smiled briefly. "Imagine me discovering that."
"Imagine that." He gave her a hint of a smile and a raised eyebrow. The old signals would have to do. There was still a team in the room.
"Call me," he said.
"I will, Mulder."
Mulder turned to see his mother in the doorway.
She looked at the forensic team and back at him, obviously uncomfortable with the number of people in the room. Going to the door, he ushered her out into the hallway and then through the swinging door into the kitchen. It smelled of Smoky's cigarettes, his trademark advance impression. But no more. Not ever again.
"There's so much going on here, Fox," she began when the door had stopped swinging. "And so much to think about, everything so... sudden. Eighteen hours ago I was in a park in Salt Lake City, enjoying trees and flowers and a beautiful creek, never suspecting--
"The people I went with must be wondering where I disappeared to." She paused. "I wanted to thank you. For always being so faithful, whether I deserved it or not, and for coming here, knowing what could happen to you. And for being faithful to your sister all these years, never giving up trying to find her when the rest of us--"
Teena walked to the sink and stared past it into the trees beyond the house. "He told me... many years ago, when you'd just gone off to college... I think he had an inkling that you'd try to find out something about her disappearance, having access to resources. He said he'd been able to negotiate her return... and that she was safe, but only so long as nothing was known about her whereabouts. I believe I used that as an excuse. It was the reason I never answered your questions. But Alex thinks--" She turned to him. "He's heard some things--things Leland mentioned over time, bits and pieces. He's willing to tell you, Fox."
Mulder opened his mouth.
"Fox, I--" She glanced down at her hands. "I know it must feel... wrong to you, my helping Alex when he's caused you so much pain, and yet"--she sighed--"someone gave him a second chance, the way you gave me a second chance not so long ago." She looked up. "And I know how that feels. I understand some of what he must be going through."
He bit his lip and nodded. She reached toward him. He gathered her in against him and closed his eyes briefly.
"I'm just glad you're okay, Mom. I'm glad we're all okay. It's... almost unbelievable, when you think about how it looked going in." Voices sounded suddenly in the hallway and faded gradually in the direction of the front entrance. "I... I couldn't have done what he did. Not with Smoky's gun pointed at you. Without that, maybe, but..." He shrugged and shook his head.
"Fox, you've done your part. You always have. Maybe it was his turn, now, to figure in. Maybe this was his task." She looked up at him and they stepped apart.
"What are you going to do now, Mom?"
Her mouth opened but she paused a moment before answering. "Go home, I suppose." A sigh. "Though I'm not sure I know what I'll do once I get there. You're going back to Kentucky?"
"Yeah, I've got to. There are some loose ends to tie up. Important loose ends." He smiled. "They'll be able to start the beryllium investigation again. I know a certain grandmother who's going to be really pleased about that."
"Keep in touch, Fox."
"I will." He took the hand she offered and squeezed it lightly.
"I think Alex is waiting for you."
Mulder took a slow breath--deep breath--nodded and turned toward the door. A man and a woman in FBI jackets came out of the study. He could feel it again: Silver's gun in his back, the shock of realizing there'd been a third guard, and the scene that had met them inside the study, Smoky smug, his mother's distress coloring her face, Krycek tense as if he'd been cornered by wild dogs. Maybe he'd been thinking through his moves even then.
Mulder turned to the left, leaving the bustle behind, and headed toward the darkened door at the end of the hallway.
Bethy turned. It wasn't Sandy coming back from the cafeteria but someone else, tall and with dark hair. The woman came closer.
"It's my sister," Bethy whispered. "She's very sick." She got up and smoothed a hand protectively over Tracy's arm.
"I can see. You're both redheads. Well, I hope she feels better soon."
The woman made herself smile the way grownups sometimes did when they were trying to seem nicer than they actually were.
"Maybe you can help me. I'm looking for my niece. I was told she might be here. She's"--she looked at Tracy in the bed--"probably about your sister's age, with very light blonde hair, about shoulder-length. She ran away from home and her parents are very, very worried. Her name is Tracy. Do you know of anyone like that here?"
Bethy wrinkled her nose and rubbed one shoe against the other. "I've been here with Sarah the whole time, but you can--"
Mrs. Peltier was at the door, her eyes eager. Sandy would say she must've smelled something, the way bird dogs do. Mrs. Peltier had a nose for news, Grammy always said. It was her polite way of explaining that Mrs. Peltier was interested in a lot of things that weren't actually any of her business.
"Mrs. Peltier, do you know of a girl named Tracy who's not from around here?"
The wrinkled woman seemed to shiver slightly. This was like the movies, only real. "I believe they might have brought somebody in yesterday. If you come with me, ma'am, we'll find right out."
"Thank you." The dark-haired woman went to the door and started down the hall with Mrs. Peltier.
Bethy lingered in the doorway, eager.
"Punkin?" Sandy appeared suddenly from around the corner. "What's up?"
Bethy pointed excitedly to the two figures going toward the office. Sandy's eyes went wide. Her hand came up to cover her mouth.
"That's her? A woman?"
Bethy nodded. "Stay with Tracy. I've got to go see--"
Quickly she started down the hall, taking giant steps, trying to make them light. Where the hallways crossed she went to the left, tiptoeing toward the office door. Mrs. Peltier and the woman were standing in front of Mrs. Carter's desk; she could see them through the half-open blinds. The voices suddenly became louder, the dark-haired woman's face breaking out of its pasted-on smile. There was something she didn't like, and then Deputy Frank's mustached face appeared just on the other side of the shades. His sudden frown made Bethy jump. The shades closed abruptly and the office door was firmly shut.
Mulder closed the door quietly behind him.
"That you, Mulder?"
The figure on the bed didn't move. Mulder hesitated a moment, then went around to a chair by the window and sat down. Krycek lay in the shadows staring at nothing in particular.
Mulder leaned forward, elbows on knees. "Mom"--he paused and moistened his lips--"she, uh, said you... knew something, about Samantha."
Krycek swallowed. "Yeah, not a lot, just... He'd say things every once in a while. Drop things." A pause. "Couple of years before they sent me to the Bureau, he had me out in California searching a 60-mile area for records of young Jane Does."
Mulder swallowed. "Where?"
"Near Sacramento. There's an air force base right smack in the middle of the search area, so I guess that's where he'd been keeping her. Anyway, it sounded like she was probably there for a few years. I think he was living out there part of the time. Then I guess she got fed up. Tried to run away, it sounded like."
Mulder leaned forward, his pulse increasing. He opened his mouth but for a moment the words refused to come out. "How old was she? When was this?"
"Not sure. She was maybe... thirteen, fourteen, fifteen--something like that. He never really said." A pause. "He went after her but he must not have found her. In the end he assumed she was dead, so maybe she was in bad shape when she took off, I don't know."
Mulder's jaw set. His hands came up; warm breath filled his cupped palms in short bursts, there and then gone. Twilight Zone the Sequel, like an hour ago, watching Smoky go down, his mother fall, Krycek spin and then drop, wide-eyed.
Krycek cleared his throat. "Damn hard luck for a kid, you know? Whatever they did to her. Guess I never thought that much about her. She was never more than a name to me, even though we came from the same gene pool." He pulled up slightly. "I'm not claiming her or anything. She's yours, Mulder. Always was." He lay back down again. "Must've had spirit, though, trying to get herself out of there. Shows spirit. It's a good thing."
"Yeah. She was stubborn and..." Mulder's good hand curled gradually into a fist. "I hope she gave 'em hell. I really hope she did." He turned and looked toward the window, jaw tight. A shadow passed by outside, probably someone on the investigating team.
"There's got to be," Krycek started, "some other group--you know, doing hybrid research. Whoever did this to Tracy. On Thursday we were... we'd gone back to her house, the place she used to live... And she'd gone outside for a minute; it was raining. And then I went out to check on her and she'd fallen, nearly passed out." He paused. "Scared the hell out of me. By the time I got her up she was saying she was okay, acted like it was no big deal.. Said she'd had a vision. By the time we left she was finding a lot of holes in her life, things she remembered that didn't make sense. She talked about her father working at... CalTech, it sounded like. Pasadena."
"Scully examined the fetus. She said there were none of the usual signs: green blood, or rapid decomposition or the kind of thing we've seen in the clones. She's taken samples to send to the lab. All we can do is wait to find out." Mulder stood and stared at the drawn blinds. He bit his lip. "Bad day. Good day, that we're all still here, alive and not dead. That's your doing."
He made himself breathe out slowly. "I had no idea what was happening to her, there at dinner. She just... wobbled, and then gripped the table... And I tried to get her attention, but she'd grabbed hold of that memory, of her father and how they'd had to leave... I think she just didn't want to let it get away from her again. If there were something, anything I could've known or done--"
He turned around.
"You did your best. Why do you think I sent her to you?"
Krycek's eyes closed. Mulder turned back to the window. He studied the coarse weave of the drapes: under and over, random nubs swelling to interrupt the grid-like straightness.
"I nearly lost Scully twice," he said. "But in the end I didn't, so I guess it's not the same." He looked up at the ceiling and closed his eyes. "You need anything?"
"Nothing anybody can get me."
Mulder hung his head and nodded. "You're lucky she found you." A pause, his heart keeping the rhythm of passing seconds. "Guess she was lucky you found her, too."
"I know you say you're FBI. I can read your ID as well as the next fellow. But my orders are to hold anyone who comes around asking for the girl."
"Special Agent Dana Scully."
"Scully isn't even officially on duty. She's taken a leave of absence."
"I'm sorry, Ms. Fowley. I know her. You, I don't know. Now I really don't care if you're Mother Teresa; my orders are to hold you for questioning. Unless, of course, you can provide me with the name of your superior and I talk to him and he tells me otherwise."
"His name is Spender. Would you like me to call him for you? I can assure you he won't be amused." She paused. "You could be facing charges of obstructing a federal investigation."
"Over a lost child? Fine. Give him a ring."
Fowley dialed and handed him the phone. It rang repeatedly without response.
It was overload and it went by in a haze: people running in and out, the wound in my side that hurt like hell even though I knew it wasn't anything like the other one. The fact that Tracy was as good as gone, but Scully was going to take me to her anyway so she wouldn't be alone at the end. Not least of all, that I wasn't dead myself: that the whole lot of us weren't, but that I'd dispatched the old man, not in any of the ways I'd played out a thousand times in my head, but instinctively, because I had someone to protect. If you'd asked me who that someone was--Tracy or my mother or Mulder and Scully, I couldn't have told you. Maybe I'll never know. I knew the old man had his gun on me and he was pissed enough to shoot. I knew Daryl had a bead on me, too. Something came over me. I can only say that I did what I had to do.
It was too much to believe. I'd always figured, given the life I live, that I'd go before she would. But I thought there'd be more time, weeks or months--years, if I was lucky--before one of us was gone. It had only been three days since I'd left her in Baltimore, only four since we'd had our time together at her place. Hardly longer than a heartbeat it seemed now, looking back at it.
One day. It'd had everything, but that single day was all we were going to get. Tracy'd be happy that we had it at all. She'd be the one to look up at this gray sky overhead, pick out that one patch of blue and be in awe at the intensity of it.
Maybe in the end that was what she'd done for me: added patches of blue to the steel-gray world I'd spent my life in. Even if they were disappearing fast, closing up like security doors being sealed, I owed her--owed her in a way I'd never owed anyone in my life. Which is why I had to do this, go with Scully and make sure she wasn't alone when the end came.
Sure, they were planning to haul me in, though if I had the strength to fight it, I'd figure out how to break free; I wasn't giving up on this new lead in Pasadena without a fight. But it would have to wait a day or two. They said the monitors showed nothing, but if anyone could reach across an impassible barrier, it would be Tracy. If she had any consciousness at all, she'd know she wasn't going through this without backup.
I knew the situation was no picnic for Mulder, either. I could see the difference after I told him what I knew about Samantha. He was more drawn in, his voice was quieter. I offered to go out to California, help him find out whatever there was to find. If I was in any position to go anywhere. We didn't get into that.
Finally they'd packed it all in, the Bureau people were leaving, Skinner was arranging a ride to the airport for Mulder and my mother, and Mulder and Scully were saying their goodbyes... well, as much as they could, given that they had an audience. Tracy'd told me about them and I wasn't surprised. They deserved to have that.
I was sitting on the tail end of the minivan, waiting for Scully, when I saw my mom come out, obviously looking to say goodbye. I could read the emotion in her eyes, and hell, I had enough of my own to deal with; I didn't need anything to send me over the edge. But I couldn't exactly turn her away. She'd done a good job in there; we'd worked together and made it out alive. And I told her so. That is, I tried to, and then it ended up kind of muddled, a handshake that turned into her arms around me, both of us with too much to say, neither of us with any idea how to say it.
Opening the glass door Krycek had indicated--the one between the two storefronts--Scully was assaulted by the smells of stale cooking. She looked up, paused a moment and then climbed the narrow stairs to the top. On the landing she paused and faced the door on the right. A small typewritten sign taped above the buzzer said 'Take your chances!" She frowned slightly and touched the button but heard nothing on the other side. As she was about to push it a second time, the door opened slightly and she was met by a face haloed in loose, light brown curls. A man's face but a young face, set off by silver wire-rimmed glasses.
"A damsel in distress?" he ventured, adding a smile at the end of his words.
"No." Scully raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Are you Ché?"
He frowned. "Who told you?"
"Alex Kyrcek. He's downstairs in my car. He's had a little... accident. He sent me up to get his things."
He gave her an interrogatory look, though hardly a cynical or suspicious one. "I'm afraid I'll have to play the doubting Thomas and see for myself. Comrade Krycek would have my throat if I accepted someone's story so easily. He is where?" He had a distinctly eastern European accent.
"The green minivan right outside the door. He's lying in the back."
"Feel free to wait here. I'll be right back."
He opened the door wide enough to slip outside, a thin figure perhaps 5'9" with pale skin and carefully carved features. He wore a tan cardigan sweater with sleeves pushed up to the elbows, faded jeans and loafers. The curls bounced as he jogged down the stairs. It wasn't quite an Einstein hairdo, but without much stretch of the imagination he could be considered to be in training. Scully watched him take the last three stairs in a leap, hands outstretched. She smiled in spite of herself; he certainly didn't seem to be Krycek's type. She turned to peer into the tiny, cluttered apartment. A few moments later the downstairs door opened and Ché reappeared, scaling the stairs two at a time.
"Exercise," he explained with a grin as he reached the top. "I sit at the computer most of the day. Come."
He ushered her inside and closed the door behind them. The couch was stacked with books and papers; an old cane rocking chair had suffered the same fate. In a corner, atop a cinderblock shelf, sat an old TV with rabbit ears. The computer, however, was quite new, with a large monitor.
"My body lives here," he said, gesturing around the room. "But my mind"--he indicated the computer--"lives in there." He went to the corner and picked up a sports bag and a cardboard box. "These things belong to Krycek. He was supposed to be here last night, you know? I even cooked--noodles from scratch, my best culinary effort. And then he doesn't show. I worried that the old vulture had finally got him."
"He nearly did."
"Yes, I suppose he will tell me. If it suits him." He shrugged. "Aleksei lives a life veiled in secrecy. But it is part and parcel of the role he plays. You are in a hurry, I think?"
"Yes, we have a good deal of driving to do."
"Very well." He picked up the box, paused and pointed to a leafy green plant in a shallow dish on the window sill below old lace curtains. "Did you know you can run a clock on the electricity from a potato?"
Scully took a few steps toward the window. There were indeed wires coming from half a potato in the dish, which in turn were hooked to a small clock. "Yes, as a matter of fact I did know that, though I'm not sure I've actually seen it done before."
"Many things are possible; that is my motto." He nodded toward the bag on the floor. "I can take this also, or would you prefer to carry it?"
"No, I can do it. Thank you."
Scully shouldered the bag and followed Ché to the door, then led the way down the stairs. At the van she unlocked the rear door, then went to the sliding door on the side to stow the bag and give Krycek and his friend some semblance of privacy. Krycek had managed to sit up. He even managed a partial smile as the two men embraced in the European fashion.
"I hear you are injured, comrade."
Krycek nodded, paused and slowly shook his head. "Still can't believe it. I took out the old man."
Ché looked incredulous.
"Long story," Krycek went on. "No time to tell it now. May be good--hell, it is good--but it could start the dominoes falling, too. If it does, we're all up Shit Creek." He let out a sigh.
"Got something I gotta do." He sniffed in a breath.
"Not something you're looking forward to, from the look of things."
Krycek swallowed. "Don't ask me now. Maybe sometime."
A pause. "Very well. You need anything?"
"Nah. Got my stuff here."
"What about your arm? Your computer? That's what you went back for when you disappeared from my dinner last night."
"May not be safe over there. Got a laptop; my mom gave me hers."
"Your mother? Your mother?"
"Yeah. Long story."
"Evidently. And the arm?"
"They could be watching my place. I can't afford to chance it. I'll have to figure something out." He paused. "Don't you go over there and get yourself caught."
"Very well." He shrugged. "So there's nothing I can do for you?"
Krycek paused. "Give my best to the piranha. Tell her the waters are getting... dangerous."
"Bad. Pretty bad."
"So. I should tell her to get out of Dodge?"
"Yeah. Just make sure she knows what the hell you're talking about."
"It's my talent to get the message across. 'Some are born great, some achieve greatness'... Shakespeare, Twelfth Night." He gave a self-deprecating smile. "In my case, by a lot of hard work and reading a mountain of English books until my eyesight is threatened." A nod. "Your wish is my command."
"Thanks. I owe you. Again."
"No problem. You look uncomfortable, my friend. I'll leave you before you're forced to lose your dignity in front of me. Write."
Ché embraced Krycek once more and looked up to where Scully was going through the contents of Krycek's box. "Adieu to you, fair damsel. Nice meeting you." He turned away and shook his head. "Imagine. The wicked witch is dead."
Scully watched until he disappeared through the glass door and became a wavering shadow climbing the stairs. She picked up a prescription bottle from the box and took it around to the rear door.
"I see you still have some of these. You'll rest a lot easier if you take one. Your body could use a chance to recuperate."
He shook his head. "I take one of those, I'll be a total zombie for the next four hours."
"It will take away the pain."
"It'll take me away from the pain, leave me--" He chuffed out a breath. "Look, I don't expect you to understand, Scully. There's another bottle in there--newer prescription, not as strong. I'll take one of those. If that's not enough..."
"We'll reevaluate in an hour?"
She watched him ease himself carefully down, then went for the other prescription bottle. She held it out to him but he made no move to take it.
Realization dawned, She felt herself redden. "Sorry."
Quickly she worked off the cap and offered him the bottle. He took it, shook out a capsule onto the mattress and handed it back. He swallowed the capsule and chased it with a swig of water from the bottle beside the mattress.
Scully cleared her throat. "Do you need anything else? Another pillow?"
He shook his head and looked away. His throat tightened. "Look, I appreciate what you're doing, Scully. We should get going. If I need anything, I'll yell."
She pursed her lips and nodded. After a moment she secured the rear doors, walked to the front of the vehicle and got in. She sat a moment, hands hard on the steering wheel. How had Tracy dealt with this initially? Had it made all the difference to be able to see into him, to know what he was thinking?
Scully turned the key and listened to the engine start. Eight hours of driving ahead. On a scant three hours of sleep. Perhaps it was only extreme fatigue that had led her to this plan, to drive to Kentucky with this ambiguous man who'd nearly killed her three weeks earlier. Mulder had offered no objections, though. He'd been thoughtful, quiet, his mind probably overloaded with what had happened, with the need to return to Owensburg and help Angie Connors' three children, and probably with questions about his sister. When they stopped--surely they'd have to stop--she'd call him.
Krycek had spoken of dominoes falling. How long would it take before one of Smoky's contacts in the Bureau found out what had happened, or someone within the Consortium? Would they try to pursue? Or was the Smoking Man the mortar holding everything together? Would their plan simply collapse without him?
Scully checked her rear view mirror, then the side mirror, and pulled into traffic.
Fifteen. Maybe only thirteen.
I couldn't get past it.
But twenty minutes out of Lexington, what I needed was an explanation that Angie Connors could grasp. Somehow 'alien virus' wasn't likely to do the trick. It wasn't going to explain anything believable about why another human being, a professional she'd trusted, had used her three children as guinea pigs in private medical experiments.
Try as I might, though, I couldn't get Samantha out of my head. Or the possibilities. What had she looked like at thirteen? Who was she at fourteen? What would she have become after six or seven years of experimentation? A girl, a teenaged version of the sister I'd known, the soft, leaning, smiling baby I'd held on my lap as a kid, or just a shell, a weary animal snarling at a brutal captor? What would they have done to her? Was there any way to know? Did they wipe her memory the way the MUFON women's had been wiped, partially, so that she'd remember only snatches of her past, or had they stolen her history the way Tracy's mind had been tampered with, her early years dissolved until the thought of singing had finally jarred that part of her memory loose, only to have her body--or something that had been put inside it--turn on her and start to shut her down? Had Samantha remembered any of us, and had she lain awake at night hoping we'd be searching for her, that one morning she might wake up to find herself freed?
Had she remembered me, and if she had, were the memories of more than fighting over Stratego or the way I'd come to tease her? Did she expect me to be the one to find her, the way it was me she ran to that awful night when Smoky showed up and everyone was yelling?
I'd been just a kid. I had no power against aliens or government projects of the kind I'd uncovered in my work on the X-files. For the first time, that fact was actually becoming clear to me. A kid, with no more chance than those people in the camps, forced to watch while their relatives were lined up in front of ditches. Scully'd told me it wasn't my fault and I'd let it roll off; I knew she'd want to make me feel better.
But I realized now I couldn't have done it--saved Samantha. The thought that I could was one of those kid fantasies, the hero kind you make up in your head and then play out with little plastic army men, or in vacant lots, or on chess boards or basketball courts. Impossible save: Mulder pulls it out for the home team as the final buzzer sounds.
And what had I been doing then all these years since? Using her memory as a torch, a reason to keep going instead of lighting one of my own?
If it were true that Sam was dead. It could be that Smoky'd got it wrong, that she was still out there somewhere. Though probably that was about as likely as Tracy's monitors starting to show signs of consciousness again. Another victim to add to the list.
Now my flight was only ten minutes out of Lexington. Angie was going to come down hard on herself for having trusted Dr. Vanek. Vanek needed to be stopped and Angie's children needed to be checked out, but first there was a girl lying in a hospital bed who I needed to check on. Whether or not she'd know I was there, I had to go. And maybe in the end I had Samantha to thank for that.
Maybe I had made her into the banner that headed my life. I might have been a fool to hold out hope all these years, but without having experienced that loss, how many other people would I not have noticed? Would I have listened so carefully to Lucy Householder? Would I have kept trying to revive Amy Jacobs? And what about John Lee Roche? If he hadn't had me and my memories to manipulate, we might never have been able to put those two final victims to rest for their families.
I might not have found my sister, but in a way I hadn't lost her, either. Part of her had always been there, shaping me, and in the end I'd been able to help any number of people because of it. Tracy had done something similar. Certainly it seemed she had where Krycek was concerned. I'd go there now for her sake, but also as a temporary place holder for the one she'd affected the most, a one-armed man who was on his way here to do something that was guaranteed to hurt a lot more than any bullet shot from Daryl Silver's gun.
There was the soft, rumpled texture of Duke's honey-colored coat, and poplars at the end of summer, yellow before the cold would turn them brilliant gold, clapping languidly in the breeze and then stirring, shimmering against the intense blue of the autumn sky. There was her mother's face in the light of a candle. We can go without electricity this time, she'd say as fall evenings came on, and she'd go light the candle on the mantel, and one on the coffee table, and set one on the kitchen counter. Then she'd start to hum, her voice warming, and soon it would become clear, like the candle's flame against deep shadow, and Tracy would find herself joining in. There was a rocking chair; she was being rocked, eyes closed. Held, the warmth of his cheek against her forehead. The air was cold, but it didn't matter.
There was the rich light of morning pouring through the window upstairs--warm, penetrating, golden light. She lay behind him, an arm around his middle, smooth skin on skin, the silence padded, private.
Don't stir and wake him.
Through the glare on the rear window, Krycek appeared to be asleep. Scully paused a moment and opened the door carefully. Krycek jerked suddenly and stared at her, eyes wide.
"Sorry." She smoothed a thumb along the edge of the door.
He closed his eyes momentarily and opened them again, looking toward the window.
"We're an hour out of D.C.," she said. "I didn't mean to disturb you. I just wanted to check the wound."
He only looked at her. Finally he nodded.
She lifted his shirt, carefully peeled the tape from the bandaging and considered what was underneath. "So far, so good." She busied herself making a new bandage. "How are you feeling?"
After a moment she looked up at him. Obviously, it had been the wrong thing to say. She colored and felt her lips press together and went back to her work, but her attention was drawn to the scars on his left side, the work of the bullet she'd put into him herself.
"We're in the mountains?"
"Give me a couple of minutes to walk. You know, when you're done."
She opened her mouth to protest but closed it again. Her finger pressed the tape at the edges of the bandage to his skin but her eyes had returned to the three-week-old scars.
She looked up, startled.
"What's past is past. You did what you had to do."
"Anyway, everything would have been different if you hadn't." He looked up, through the window. "Different world, different outcome. Never would have--" He sniffed in a breath. "None of this would've turned out the way it has."
Scully finished and pulled the hem of his shirt down. It was a clean shirt, one from his bag, long-sleeved. The left sleeve lay flat against the mattress from above the elbow.
"Have you called again?"
She looked up at him and brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. "No. But I will."
He nodded and pulled up, grimacing. "I'll just be a couple of minutes."
"Be careful. Don't overdo it."
He slipped past her and stood carefully, testing himself, then started toward the rest stop's bathroom. They were the only car in the parking lot, which was just as well. When he'd disappeared inside the bathroom she pulled the cell phone from her pocket and dialed the hospital. Dr. Wykoff had gone to his office but the information was available. The unfortunate pattern had continued: complete non-responsiveness, no brain activity. She sighed, switched off the phone and slipped it back into her pocket.
Several minutes later Krycek emerged from the bathroom, paused to lean against a post and then straightened and started slowly toward a trail that led behind into the depression between two close hills. Scully turned and reached for the bag. Pants, socks, underwear, shirts. A lightweight jacket. And the box with medications, toothbrush, razor, a second pair of shoes. A beanbag made out of nubby, plaid fabric. She reached for it and turned it over. Hand-stitched, apparently. She set it back inside the box. Another anomaly, as Ché had been. Where had such a whimsical character come from to enter Krycek's life? Apparently Krycek had been set to flee the night before and this was the material content of his life: a few clothes and a few odds and ends. Minus weapon and prosthetic arm, and his laptop, which Teena had replaced.
She closed the rear door, locked it and started to the left, to where she could see Krycek on the trail between the trees, moving slowly, pausing now to look up, going forward again and then stopping to lean against a tree trunk, letting his forehead come to rest against it. Had she looked that way to Mulder all these years, tightly contained, sealed carefully against the entry of outside help or curiosity, 'I'm fine' not actually disguising what filled her? Krycek straightened; she looked away and began to walk toward the end of the parking lot, letting her steps set a rhythm. The next time she looked up, he was headed back toward the van.
When he reached the parking lot, she opened the rear door. Krycek sat a moment at the end of the mattress and took a drink from the water bottle.
"Is that prescription working for you?"
"It'll do for now." His breathing indicated otherwise.
After a pause, he nodded. "Did you call?"
"Yes." Her lips pressed together. "There's been no change."
"Yeah, it kind of felt that way."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't"--he shook his head--"can't explain it."
"And your fever?"
"Feels"--he shrugged--"a little better, I guess. We ought to get going."
She nodded. He pulled his legs up onto the mattress and she closed the first door.
She looked up.
"You going to make it? You look like you're running on empty."
"I was at the hospital all night. I only got a couple of hours of sleep."
"Don't push yourself."
"No, we'll... we'll stop in a few hours. I didn't think we'd make it through tonight."
He was looking past her at the trees outside.
"What?" she said.
"Nothing, just... thinking about something that happened once in a place like this." He lay down on the mattress and turned away.
She secured the second door and went and climbed into the driver's seat. After a glance around the interior, she fastened her seatbelt and reached for the ignition.
She looked into the rear view mirror.
Mulder reached out a hand, smoothed it past Tracy's forehead and into her hair, and let it linger a moment. Had Samantha looked like this at the end, peacefully absent? Hopefully she'd been cared for. She'd go to someone, seek help. It had to be her desire to live that had made her run in the first place.
"She's not going to make it, is she?"
He shook his head and turned to Sandy. "Don't think so."
"I know what they said. I guess you just keep hoping."
"Yeah. You do. You just keep holding on, hoping."
"Still," Sandy said, "if it were me, I'd want somebody to keep on holding out."
He managed a brief smile.
"They've got that... that person, Ben, like I said. God, I can't even believe that, you know? That a woman would do that, come looking to steal a girl away like that. I guess that's how she slipped past Mrs. Peltier and old Mr. Cunningham in the first place. Bethy was the one who caught on."
"I'll have to remember to thank her."
"Deputy Frank took the woman down to the station, Mrs. Peltier said. You going to go check it out?"
Mulder nodded absently, then straightened. Sandy was watching him.
"Guess I should." He bit his lip and started for the door.
The house was gray wood with white trim, a wide covered porch in front and big blue-flowered hydrangea bushes on either side. Plants. Lots of color; evidently Dr. Vanek's taste ran to cultivating more than just the contents of petri dishes. Mulder knocked for the second time, listened and hearing nothing, went to peer in a window into what was obviously a living room. No movement that he could see.
He turned. A short, gray-haired woman had emerged from the house next door and was approaching.
"If you're looking for Dr. Maria, she's gone. Took off near an hour ago." She stopped at the bottom of the stairs.
"She say where she was going?"
"Oh, she never says where she's going. Well, sometimes she tells you something, but more to put you off." She took a step forward. "You're the man from the FBI, aren't you?"
Mulder sighed wearily. "Yeah."
"Well..." Her hands came together. "I did ask, and she said she was going to a conference in Dayton, a medical conference. But I don't think so."
"She put too many things in the car. She has a station wagon--Volvo wagon--and the back was full nearly. I'd just come home from all the excitement at the hospital with that dark-haired woman come to spirit away the new girl." She paused a moment. "Your daughter, is she not?"
Mulder's lips twisted. "Something like that."
"Well, Deputy Frank sent me on my way from the hospital after I'd led her to the office. I suppose you could say I captured her."
"And?" He squinted into the bright light.
"And I came here, right along the street, and she was putting a last suitcase or two into the back. She said a few days at a conference, but it didn't look like it to me." A pause. "Dr. Maria likes to keep to herself. Never tells you anything unless it's necessary. Like most weekends, she leaves Friday at five and comes back like clockwork at seven Sunday nights. We think she's got a man somewhere, maybe in Lexington, but she won't say. Like Fort Knox, she is."
"Yeah, well... And this was an hour ago, you say?"
"Near to it."
Mulder glanced at his watch and grimaced. "Thank you." He started down the steps.
"They've got that woman at the sheriff's station. I imagine you'll want to go ask her a question or two."
He took in a deep breath slowly. One hand curled and flexed. "Yeah, I guess I'll have to."
She wasn't coming back. Just before Scully'd wakened him the sensation had been there--Tracy's cheek against his. Or maybe it was just his wishing. Clinging by a fine thread, waiting, but not coming back. Both wounds throbbed, he felt weak and achy, and the curves in the road weren't helping his stomach. She wouldn't want to leave--wouldn't choose to leave--but if she had no choice...
He opened his eyes, squinted into the brightness and stared at the stream of shadows passing along the outside of the cardboard box beside him. Finally he pulled it closer, tipped it, reached inside and found the bottle of strong painkillers. Pausing, he stared, letting the writing go out of focus, and finally brought the bottle to his mouth. He worked the cap with his teeth, shook out a pill and set the bottle aside.
Maybe it won't be any worse, nena: you out, me out. Don't mean to leave you stranded.
Putting the pill in his mouth, he reached for the water bottle.
Closed his eyes, took a drink and swallowed.
Mulder's hands clenched and unclenched. Finally he stuffed them into the pockets of his jeans. The sign on the door in front of him said 'detention'. The deputy had gone inside. He could hear voices, Diana and the woman. He glanced up at the ceiling tiles and closed his eyes briefly. Jitters. Or something like them.
Footsteps, the woman returning.
"She'll see you now." Delivered to the tune of 'glad I'm out of there'.
The deputy turned and took him through the doorway to where there were three cells, all empty except for the one Diana was in.
"Who is it?" Diana's voice came again. She'd been saying it since the woman left her. "I demand to speak to my superior."
When she saw Mulder she stopped abruptly. The deputy looked up at him.
"You want to go inside?"
"No, I... I don't think that will be necessary." He watched as she turned and left. Finally he looked back at Diana.
"Fox, there's been a big misunderstanding here. I came here as part of the Beeson-Lymon investigation, to get answers to some further questions about--"
"Misunderstanding, yeah. Just not the kind you're talking about."
"I came to bring you some news, Diana." He let his breath out slowly. He looked down and then up. "Your father's dead."
"My--" Her face went through incredulity, concern, alarm. "Fox, what are you--?"
"I know, Diana. All of it. Nobody's going to save you this time. Smoky's gone."
Her mouth worked momentarily before the words came out. Her eyes echoed her disbelief. "You?"
He shook his head.
"Who then? How?"
"Just... circumstance. It was almost me and Scully and my mother. And then it wasn't, one of those... thousand random outcomes that can slip into the winning slot at any given moment. This time we got lucky."
She turned away. He sucked in his lower lip.
"There are reasons, Fox. You've seen yourself, from what you've learned on the X-files, the importance of--"
"Of sacrificing innocent young girls?" He felt his voice grow louder. "Do you know the 'crime' of the girl you were sent here to get? Or did that even factor in?"
"I was merely asked--"
"To bring her in. Would you have unhooked her from the equipment that was keeping her alive? What about whatever treatment she was on? You know what her crime was, Diana? She reached out to somebody who needed help and took care of them. That was it. No conspiracy, no vital information. Nothing that would pose a threat to Smoky's precious plans."
"Fox, there's the bigger picture. Sacrifices are inevitable given what we're facing. They have to be made to enable us to survive. Like it or not, history has always--"
"Are we talking D-Day"--he came closer--"or Gallipoli? She isn't a faceless 'sacrifice'. She was a young girl with no place to stay who reached beyond herself because she saw someone in need." He paused. "Was he going to share his private vaccine with you when the time came?"
She turned back to him. "What are you talking about?"
"The one he was having developed right here, at the plant. Or didn't you know that Dr. Vanek was working on a vaccine just for Smoky, perfecting it on three innocent children?"
Her mouth went straight and hard but her eyes gave her away. "There's a lot I haven't known, about the details--"
"Yeah, well there was a lot I didn't know, either. Guess it goes to show that some things are worth looking into more carefully." He turned to go.
He glanced back.
"I can help you. There's so much I can tell you if--"
"You already have, Diana." He started toward the door. "You've told me more than enough."
Krycek had been right: She was pushing it. The curves in the road were becoming monotonous and three times within the last minute she'd found herself in the middle of a yawn. Scully glanced into the rear view mirror, signaled and pulled off onto the shoulder. She stretched and reached for her water bottle, took a drink and turned to glance into the van's quiet interior. Apparently he was asleep.
She opened the door, eased herself down and closed it quietly behind her. Even a couple of minutes of walking, the way Krycek had done an hour before, would help. She glanced in through the rear window in passing, paused and then put her hand on the latch and eased it open.
Krycek lay on his back, his eyes half-open, glassy and wet. He barely responded when she moved a hand in front of him.
Immediately she reached for the cardboard box. The vial of painkillers was open, its contents gone--
No, they were scattered through the box. Quickly she gathered them up and started to count. A sigh of relief; he couldn't have taken more than one or two. She swallowed and looked up at him. Krycek stared at her through his haze. Recognition was in there. He knew exactly what she'd been thinking. She looked down again, red-faced, slipped the pills into the container and secured the lid. She moistened her lips. His eyes were still tracking her.
"Sorry. I'm... going to walk for a few minutes. Then we'll be going again."
There was no response aside from his dull, steady gaze. Slowly his lips came together and he shook his head. The movement made a drop of water break from the corner of one eye and trail toward his temple.
Scully swallowed and closed the door carefully. An approaching motor home passed by, blowing her hair into her face. She pushed it away and started briskly toward the trees.
Angie swallowed and leaned forward, hands together. She wasn't a crier; it wasn't her style. She shook her head.
"I know you're going to want to go back and analyze it all," Mulder said quietly. "Look for clues and wonder how you missed it, or what you could have done differently, but you've got to remember that this woman is very, very smart and very deliberate. Everything she did was designed to keep her activity hidden."
Angie's mouth opened. She dipped forward as if she were rocking and then straightened again. She stared at the coffee table in front of her. "Their father--my ex... He's never done anything for those kids. Doesn't call, doesn't remember their birthdays. I guess you get so caught up in trying to be both mother and father at the same time that you just shoulder that weight without thinking. You figure you've got to do it all--who else is going to help you?" Moisture sparkled in her eyes. After a moment she attempted a weak smile. "You know, I was going to get out of here once. It was the free medical for the kids that kept me from leaving. I was all set to go, back to Missouri where my parents were. There would have been help there, my sister and my cousins..."
"Had Dr. Vanek been here long then?"
"No, maybe... a year at most. And how could I say no?"
"You know, she... she's got a vested interest in having her work succeed, and she had a vested interest in not having attention drawn to her, which means she had to be pretty careful about what she gave them, about the results."
"The kids had... They had what she said were some allergic reactions at first, and there were periodic things where one of them would be down for a week or so... But they never came all at once."
"Nothing to make you suspicious. She probably wasn't giving them all the same dosage at the same time."
"I guess." She looked up, out the window to where patchy sunlight brightened the yard. "And you say this was what?"
"A rare lethal virus that's struck several times in Russia. Vanek's parents both died of it. I guess that's what got her started."
"Makes sense, I guess." She shook her head. "But it's no excuse."
"No. It's not."
"And she's gone?"
"I went by her place. The lady next door said it looked like she'd packed up and taken off."
"I don't know."
"Short, about five feet? Asks as many questions as she answers?"
"Yeah, that sounds like the one."
Angie smiled briefly and then sobered.
"They've put a state-wide trace on her car," Mulder went on. "Hopefully they'll catch up with her soon. She couldn't have gotten that far."
"I appreciate it." She took the tissue she'd bee clutching and wiped below her eyes. "I appreciate everything you've done for me and the kids. Can't say that I've ever met an actual FBI agent before." A pause. "I hear you've got someone of your own over in the hospital. Or maybe that was part of the cover. She's probably not your daughter, is she?"
"No, she's... no blood relation." His hands came together. "But she's come to feel a lot like family."
She stood. "Well, my prayers are with you. You know they are. I've been there." She offered her hand and Mulder shook it. "I guess I'd better be getting over to Dr. Wykoff's and pick up the kids. I don't know how I'm going to explain all this to them."
"Maybe something simple will be enough. Sometimes we complicate things with our need to be thorough."
She paused and nodded acknowledgment. "You have to qualify as a philosopher for that job of yours?"
"No, just... something I learned the hard way."
Scully's face appears out of nowhere. She's saying get up, going to stop for the night. Her hand's out.
How long since you took the pill? Not long enough to be able to pull yourself together.
You're standing now, up but shaky; her hand's on your shoulder, steadying you. Forward, one exaggerated step at a time. Feels like walking on the moon. Daylight still, your mouth's dry, you're going... across a parking lot. If you make it that far. One step and another, the ground in front of you floating and...
She's pulling on your shirt: step up. Step... Up. Yeah.
Door. She's got a key. You watch her work it in the lock. 8. Room 8, the number fat in wood on a turquoise door. Your legs are like rubber. Better not make any sudden moves. You just want to lie d--
The wall slams into the side of your face, flat and sudden, the sandpaper grit of bricks and mortar scraping your cheek. You haven't shaved, haven't...
Old man's gone, lying on the floor messing up the carpet. Carpet in his own place. Let him pay the cleaning bill.
"Krycek, come on--"
A hand on your arm leads you into the dark. Air conditioner's blowing the edges of the drapes up. A bed--ahh. Down on--
Flat on your back. Scully's lifting your legs, pushing your shirt up...
She's got that look: touching something you don't want to touch, like poison ivy or fish guts or... Maybe the guy who almost slit her throat. A patch of cold suddenly, a washcloth... she's cleaning... The tearing of tape rips the silence. She holds the roll between her teeth: bulldog, going to bite you on the leg. Good thing she's on your side this time.
Lips are moving. She's saying something, wiping a lock of hair away from her face, repeating it. Later.
She'll be back to check you later.
Blanket's pulled up around your shoulders. You close your eyes and hope for Tracy but there's nothing, just blackness and fuzz and then the distant sound of the door clicking shut. Your mouth's hanging open but closing it's too much work. Pillow's too full. You stare at a blade of light riding the ceiling from between the curtains. Looks like the hand of a clock.
Something's digging into your thigh. A little fumbling and your hand slips down. You find the pocket. Inside... your fingers are thick, searching. They close around it now, tiny and rounded: the earring from the little shop, warm like...
Like she won't be once you get there.
You sat on the bed and she sat in the recliner and you ate Chinese and talked like you'd go your separate ways.
She said she couldn't be your lover. Then she got up off the bed and kissed you.
The old man, he got what was coming to him.
You roll your head slightly. Can't see anything but the curtain. You're out in the middle of nowhere; who knows where? You wonder if she feels like this, floating in the middle of nothing.
Please excuse the hasty departure, and I apologize for any inconvenience caused by borrowing your car. It would take too much explanation even to begin, so as usual you, the ever-faithful, are left with nothing beyond speculation. I assure you it is not my intent. My work is more important than I can describe. If we ever meet again, under the right circumstances, I hope you will allow me to explain. I regret the pain I will have caused you. You were always more faithful than I. May life bring you the happiness you deserve.
Scully slipped the oversized T-shirt over her head and looked at her wet hair in the mirror. Dark circles rimmed her eyes. Reaching for the comb on the counter, she worked it through her hair, went to the bed for her cell phone and dialed Mulder's number. Then she drifted back to the bathroom, hanging the damp towel while the phone rang.
She smiled wearily. "It's me, Mulder. How are things going there?"
"Tracy's the same."
"I know. I called a couple of hours ago."
"Vanek's split. Neighbor saw her pack up a bunch of suitcases and leave." A pause. "She did know who I was, but Krycek gave me the impression he was going to string her along, let her think he was going to come take me out. Maybe she got too spooked to wait."
"Maybe. If she thought you might move before Krycek had a chance to... Wait. Mulder, when was this?"
"When was what?"
"When did Vanek leave?"
"Probably a couple of hours ago. Maybe two-thirty from what her neighbor said, and the neighbor seemed to be one of those people with a head for details. They've put out an APB out on Vanek's car."
"Mulder..." She put one knee on the edge of the bed and sat. "I think Krycek may have alerted her. We stopped at his friend's to get his things and Krycek said something to Ché about letting the piranha know the waters were getting dangerous. He did say 'her'." She frowned, grabbed a pillow and pulled it up against her. "Mulder, I don't--"
"I--" She sighed heavily. "I just don't know what to think. He saved us all, and I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt because of it. For Tracy's sake, too, because I know he couldn't have deceived her the way--" Her lips pressed together. "And then he goes right back and does something like this. Damn him."
"Wheeler-dealer. Comes naturally."
"Doesn't he understand that Vanek's 'experiments' could just have easily been conducted on someone like Tracy? We need to stop that woman, Mulder."
"Yeah, I know. I know." A pause. "He said 'piranha'?"
"Just... sounds like he doesn't trust her, either. Maybe there's... I don't know--more to it."
"I don't know. Some piece to a larger puzzle. I'm not defending him, Scully. Vanek's a dangerous woman and what she did to those kids is despicable. But 'piranha'? Maybe we should ask him."
"You mean instead of jumping the gun? I'm afraid I've done that already. I stopped for a break and found him lying there only marginally responsive beside an open prescription bottle. My first thought was that he'd taken the whole vial of painkillers, which he hadn't. But he knew, Mulder. I could see it in his eyes; I think it really offended him that I'd suggest he'd cop out at this point, take the easy way out and leave Tracy alone after everything he's gone through for her."
"Maybe we'll never figure him out, Scully. Maybe he can't change, maybe he just... added a mental place for her. You know, kind of like a room addition."
She glanced up at the ceiling. "No, it... I think there's more to it than that. There is. Shooting Smoky had nothing to do with self-preservation. It would have been safer to try to talk his way out of... He just... He doesn't make sense to me. I guess if I could predict what he'd do or how he'd act... Or react. But I'm definitely going to confront him about Vanek. He doesn't deserve to have anyone cut him any slack there."
"Yeah. And it's not like you haven't gone way out of your way for him."
"Yes. He has thanked me, actually."
A pause. "You still on the road?"
"No, that's why I called. We're in Grafton, West Virginia. Small town with a large train yard. We've got a motel at the edge of town; I thought I'd better get some sleep." She stood, pulled back the covers and slipped between the sheets. "I didn't want to chance dozing off at the wheel. I just thought I'd call you while I still had a coherent thought or two left in me."
A pause on the other end of the line. Scully turned to stuff an extra pillow behind her and pulled the blankets up.
"You know, torture's prohibited under the Geneva Convention, Scully. Telling me you're going to bed when I can't be there."
She smiled. "Tomorrow night we'll both be in the same place. I promise you won't have to sleep alone."
"At least we don't have to worry about hiding ourselves from the good citizens of Owensburg."
"No, but if they restart the investigation, Mulder, and it certainly seems like a possibility now, there's still the Bureau. We hardly need the locals recalling us to a new investigating team as 'that cute couple'." She pursed her lips and looked toward the window. "We're going to have to come up with a plausible excuse to see each other."
An audible sigh on the other end. "I know. I've been thinking about that, too." He paused. "Maybe David Barker will be ready for another bale or two of alfalfa tomorrow."
"My trailer is your trailer." She managed a smile, then stifled a yawn and pulled up briefly to look at the clock. "What else have you found, Mulder? Did you talk to Angie Connors?"
"Yeah. She... You know she wasn't pleased, but she's strong. She's pretty remarkable, actually. We herded the kids off to Dr. Wykoff's so he could check them out, and it gave Angie and me a chance to talk. It's something that's going to take a while to come to terms with, but I think she'll make it. Maybe I'll ask Rita to look in on her once in a while. She may have a little free time on her hands now that she doesn't have Wilkins to tend to. Anyway, I checked back with Wykoff afterward. Apparently the kids seem okay for now--no major alarm bells going off."
"She could have been giving them very small dosages. It could have been a very gradual thing."
"He said he wants to send them to a specialist in Lexington tomorrow, though."
"Good idea." She yawned and curled down against the pillow. "So our bases are covered?"
He said nothing more.
"Bethy helped catch Smoky's agent right at Tracy's door, evidently."
"Quiet little Bethy?" Her eyes opened again.
"Evidently she slipped past the people Wykoff had posted." A long pause. "They were expecting a man."
Dead air. Scully winced. "Diana?"
"I... I went down and saw her. They had her at the sheriff's station and I figured I'd have to face her sometime."
She swallowed and waited.
"She was... still trying to string it out. You know, before she realized we were on to her. I don't know what she would have done if nobody'd caught her. Would she have taken Tracy off the ventilator, tried to--? I don't know. Maybe I don't want to know."
"Well, they did catch her, Mulder, so it's immaterial. You should get some sleep, too, you know."
"Yeah, I dozed off in the plane but I think it just made me more tired."
"Where are you now?"
"At home. At Dale's. On the couch."
She smiled. "Should have guessed."
"Okay, yeah, I guess I gravitate to couches after all this time. But home, Scully... Closest thing to home I know of right now is a bed and a woman in a trailer behind David Barker's barn. Or a little green room in D.C. Remember that one?"
"Seems like months. Or years. Yes, I do. I like that room. I wouldn't mind spending the night there again sometime."
"Maybe sometime soon."
"Scully, you should get some rest. You've got a lot ahead of you."
"Yes, and I'll need to check on Krycek again after a while. Oh--"
"Have you seen Sandy?"
"Yeah, she's still playing sentinel at the hospital."
"Does she know I'm bringing Krycek?"
She let out her breath slowly and looked up at the light fixture overhead. "I could call her, I suppose. I think she'd be better off staying away. How do you explain--?"
"I'll do it, Scully. I'll figure something out."
"You've had enough to deal with already today."
"And you haven't? You just concentrate on getting some rest and getting yourself here."
She paused. "Okay."
"Now close your eyes."
She hesitated a moment and then did as he said.
"You tucked in? I'm tucking you in here..."
"Being tucked in."
"You here in front of me?"
"In front. Yes." She smiled, amused. "Do I get an arm to hold on to?"
"Right here. I got you."
"Good. Much better." She paused. "Maybe a little closer..."
"I'm there. You warm?"
" 'Night, Scully."
Brian reached into his back pocket for his wallet and pulled out the small plastic card. "May I ask what this is all about?"
"It's the car, sir," said the uniformed officer outside the car window. "There's an all points bulletin out for the car. Registration?"
"It belongs to a lady friend. I'm sure she's got it in here."
He reached for the glove box. In a way the note had been typically mysterious, almost like a game she might be playing, that teasing sparkle in her eye in anticipation of some kind of surprise. But to come out into the parking lot and find his car gone and her red Volvo wagon in its place... and then the note saying she was leaving, just gone... It was as if he'd exited the building into some kind of strange dream.
He reached through a few neatly folded papers, extracted the car's registration and handed it to the officer.
"This is the one. I'm going to have to ask you to exit the vehicle and come with me. They're going to want you to answer some questions."
Brian opened his mouth but words hesitated to form themselves. "Can you tell me what this is about? Has something happened to Maria? Has--?"
The door was opened from the outside. The officer stood waiting. Brian turned off the ignition and stepped out into the bright haze of late afternoon.
Streak of light on the ceiling. Or smudge of light; it was softer now, pointing toward the corner instead of straight in, the way it had before. Krycek blinked, eyes dry. She was lying in a hospital bed somewhere, unable to move, soft skin, that smooth hair, just waiting. Waiting for him to come, for them to take away the tubes and the wires and send her off, permanently out of reach. Come together to let go; hold on to watch her slip away.
She'd feel it--experience it--the way everything seemed heightened for her: rain, the taste of applesauce, leaves clapping in the wind or being touched, making--
His eyes closed. He pulled up, leaned forward gingerly and rested his head in his hand.
Somebody was shaking her shoulder. She opened her eyes. It was Ben, his voice quiet. She straightened in the chair and squinted into the brightness of the hospital interior.
"Looks like you've been here long enough. You should go home, get yourself some sleep where you can stretch out."
Her neck hurt. She rubbed it and grimaced.
"Somebody drop you here or did you drive?"
"My mom. She dropped me this morning. What time is it?"
"Come on. I'll drive you home. Or would you rather walk?"
Sandy stood and stretched. "Man, I feel like Rip Van Winkle right now."
Mulder nodded toward the door.
"Wait a minute. What about Tracy? Who's gonna... Hey, what about you and Annie? Where'd you two take off to this morning?"
Ben paused by the bed a moment and ran the back of a finger lightly over Tracy's cheek. "They're going to unhook her tomorrow morning sometime. We're just waiting for--" He paused. "Look, how about we walk? Maybe we could both use that. I'll fill you in."
He wasn't going to do her any good this way.
Krycek sat up and looked toward the night stand, searching for clock numerals. 6:10. He took a breath, eased his legs over the side of the bed, made himself stand and go to the window. He pushed the curtain aside with one finger.
Little town. Old town, up in the mountains somewhere. The kind of place where things go on the way they always have and kids grow up and move away as soon as they get the chance. There were brick and wood houses on the hillside, old, two stories most of them, surrounded by wooded rolling peaks and a gorge between. Maybe a river.
Moving to the door, he opened it and looked out. Scully's van was the only car in the parking lot. It was, what, Monday? Not that it mattered. Sky was beginning to clear a little, the gray morphing gradually toward pale blue, the light softening, a tint she'd--
He shook himself and stepped outside. The drapes were closed in the window next door; the rest of them down the row were open. Sounded like Scully'd barely slept. Evidently she'd been at the hospital until she'd left to fly to D.C. She had to have been wondering whether one or the other or both of them would come out of their rescue attempt in one piece.
At least she'd had the sense to stop when she was bushed, not like Mulder who'd fallen asleep at the wheel on the way to Skyland Mountain and had nearly driven them into a semi. She got that look in her eye every time she had to deal with the wound, the I'd-rather-be-anywhere-else look. But why wouldn't she? She was pushing herself, doing this.
She had guts, though. He had to give her that.
Krycek closed his eyes and opened them again. Limbo time, like being strung out on the drug. Damned if you do and damned if you don't: the faster he got there, the sooner she'd be gone. He needed to be there, hold her, smell her. But his wants wouldn't get him anywhere except tied up in knots.
He started toward the left, to where the building ended three doors away. Everyday life was going on all around him and what did any of it matter? Every truck that drove by, every kid on a bicycle, every woman with a grocery bag headed for home: not one of them knew, and it wouldn't change their world one damn bit if they did. She'd be gone and the crater she'd leave behind would be invisible to anybody but him.
Beyond the corner of the building was a patio table with two wrought iron chairs and an umbrella, and a little farther beyond, under a cluster of trees, a glider. Krycek sat and pushed it absently and stood again and looked up at the sky, where blue jostled with clouds for dominance.
"But why, Ben?"
"Because... because she'd want him to be there, and Scully thought... that it would be a good thing, to do that for her. That's why she had him released into her custody."
Sandy kicked at a pebble in the road. "And afterwards they're gonna take him in?"
"That's the plan."
"But how could she want somebody like that around, somebody who--?" Her hands made fists. She pictured Alex-the-killer, a mutated version of Joe with a beer gut, with his feet up on a table. Now, there was a picture: Joe laid up, wrapped and bandaged, whining and ordering you around. He would, too; he'd enjoy it in spite of whatever pain he suffered. He'd eat up the attention. "You said she could see into people, Ben. If she could do that--if she knew what he's done--then how could she possibly want him around when--?" She shook her head. "I don't get it."
For a while they walked on in silence.
"Sometimes there are more factors at work that just the ones we see on the surface," Mulder said as the road began to curve beyond the Savers Mart parking lot. "I've been trying to figure this whole thing out, too. Especially since this morning."
"Why? What happened?" Sandy scowled. "Say, where did you two disappear to, anyway?"
"Smoky was holding my mother hostage outside D.C. It was an attempt to get to me. He expected me to exchange myself for her." He paused. "It was Krycek who let us know." He glanced at her, noted her surprise and stared ahead again, as if the abstract of colors and shapes in the distance might hold answers. "We had five hours. We had to get her out of there, and we made a plan, had good support. But then--"
"We walked into a trap." He squinted into the brightness ahead.
"Was it him?"
"Krycek? No." He winced, remembering the jarring contact of a gun barrel with his ribs. "There was one more guard than we'd figured on."
"So what happened?"
"Smoky wanted me to kill my mother... And then he was going to shoot the rest of us. Including Krycek." He glanced briefly at her. "He'd figured out that Krycek helped Tracy escape."
"And then, at what seemed like the last possible second, the twist: Krycek volunteered to shoot my mother." His teeth caught hold of his lower lip and held it a moment. "And with another gun trained on him, he took this"--his hands went up--"this impossible shot. Took a bullet in the side in the process. But Smoky dropped like a rock."
"You mean he's--"
"Dead. Yeah. And I've been looking back--you know, on the flight back here--going through the last five years that I've known this guy, trying to figure out where this came from, some of the things he's done lately." He shook his head. "The other day Tracy was saying that a person can't be something he's not, that he can only act on something that's already there inside him. I still don't see the dots connecting... but I think she shook him up. She could tell what kind of guy he was, but she didn't turn around and walk away. He couldn't have been expecting that."
He shrugged. "She thinks he helped her. Somehow. One thing's for sure: he definitely put his ass on the line to get her out of there, and he had to know what that could cost him." He refocused on Sandy. "But none of this is your problem. You've done more than your part, spending so much time with her. Tomorrow just make sure you're anywhere but the hospital."
Sandy frowned and kicked at a pebble in her path. Wild sunflowers bobbed in the breeze at the side of the road.
"So he's really dead? The guy who planned all this, who used Cy for his dirty little plan and then crumpled him up and tossed him away like a piece of trash?
"Yeah." Mulder nodded. "He's gone."
"You seem... stronger."
Scully was leaning over him again, dabbing carefully at the wound, lips pressed together.
"I've got a good three hours now before the pain comes back." If it turned out to be bad enough. If he needed the stronger pills again. "Spent over a week on those things. I know the schedule." He turned to look toward the window. "Hated 'em."
"I can imagine."
Scully made a new bandage, set it over the wound and picked up the roll of tape. There was something about the set of her mouth, like part of her wanted to leave and another part wanted to ask questions. Krycek stared at the ceiling. The farm kitchen materialized in front of him, dull in the light of the candle, rain pelting the glass. His hand curled and he made himself refocus.
"Look, I know you'd rather have gone back with Mulder," he said.
"I don't think she should die alone."
There was an edge to her voice. She tore off a second piece of tape, held the end between her teeth while she set the roll aside and then took it and pressed it against the edge of the bandage.
"I'm sure she'd ask for you if she could." A corner of her mouth squirmed and was deliberately straightened. "And I know what it is to... to want to be there for someone, at the end of their life, and not--"
She'd been pissed at first, but now she was stranded. He looked away while she secured the final two pieces of tape and stepped back.
"Just spit it out, Scully, whatever's on your mind."
"Did you tell Maria Vanek to leave? Is that what you and Ché were talking about?"
"Why? Do you know she's been experimenting on three innocent children for the past five years while their single, working mother works a dangerous job trying to support children she's been led to believe are diabetic? What if it were Tracy? Would you let Vanek go if you found out she was behind the symptoms Tracy's been exhibiting?"
He pulled up. "There's more to it than that, Scully. You think I didn't grow up watching kids get used and then tossed like garbage when they weren't strong enough to make it? You think I don't feel anything?"
He opened his mouth and paused. Okay, so here it was, everything out in the open. "Okay. Maybe it's better this way."
He eased himself off the bed and made his way carefully to the window.
"Vanek followed in her parents' footsteps. They were geneticists who got pulled into the Russian vaccine project when the black oil started showing up in Tunguska. Somebody from the project found the body of a quarry worker the oil had infected."
"It was gestating?"
"Yeah. They had the body in a lab and her parents went in to observe." He paused. "It hatched before they could get out. End of story."
"They were both killed?"
"Ripped to pieces. Maria was... little Miss Wonder Student at the university, used to having people make a fuss over her, used to getting what she wanted. Anyway, she decided she was going to tackle this thing, got her degree, married this guy Yuri Ivanov, another scientist working on the project, kind of a deputy director. Eventually things got bogged down. She'd push and Ivanov, he was part of the bureaucracy. So they split in the end and he was in, so she was out. Word is she tried her hand at just being a doctor for a little while but it didn't last long. She couldn't keep herself away from the work."
"She goes wherever she can set up and keep working. She's a loner. Has her agenda and she's going to come up with working cure or antidote or whatever it is she's shooting for if it kills her. She'd sell her grandmother if it got her the right information."
"Then why did you help her get away?"
"Because she's good. She was... she was carrying the program there, Scully. The real work, the real progress at the time. I don't know what direction she's taken since then... But the one vaccine we had access to before, the one that cured you, is gone now. We lost access a year ago. We need something." He paused. "Vanek will share, if she comes up with something that works. Not out of any kind of generosity. Because it'll be her payback to Purity."
Scully's mouth worked, little tweaks at the corners. "And in the meantime? In the meantime how many children or... or unsuspecting adults, patients in need of serious care, will she use or sacrifice in the name of progress?"
"We may not have a lot of time. That's why I cut her free."
"Time for what?"
"Purity's been waiting, Scully. Just sitting on our doorstep waiting for that final signal to drop down out of the sky. The Syndicate--they think they're negotiating, that they hold the cards, but the old man... I think he had his own plan going, that he was three steps ahead of the group, and now that he's gone--" He shook his head. "I don't know where it leaves us. Don't have any idea how much time we have left. Originally we were supposed to have another fifteen years."
"I could be all wrong. Or the old man could have been the finger in the dyke."
"That's what you were talking about with Ché--invasion."
She looked down at her hands. "And you're going to... to let her run free? Or do you have a way of tracking her?"
"I've got her e-mail. I helped her escape. She'll talk to me." A pause. "It'll take her a while to set herself up again."
"And find more victims?"
He shrugged. "Those are the chances you take. Like weeds in a vegetable field. Leave in the wrong one, it seeds itself and takes over. But pull them all out and the soil washes away. Hopefully we've got time. But if we don't, if things go bad soon"--he pinned her with his gaze--"those three kids of yours may be the safest people on the planet."
She stared at him a moment, eyes wide, and sat down absently on the desk chair.
He leaned back against the window ledge. "Not what you wanted to hear right now?"
"No, it wasn't."
"Yeah, well, me either."
Her hands lifted slightly from her lap, hovered a moment without apparent destination and settled back down. For a long time she didn't move. Finally she cleared her throat and spoke quietly.
"For as much as neither of us may have much appetite at the moment, we should eat something. If you don't want to go out somewhere, I can--"
"No, I... I need to get out of here. The stuff in my head... It's not very good company right now."
She nodded, solemn, stood and led the way to the door.
"Well, it's certainly not a fast food kind of town." Scully took a sip of her water and watched the waitress slip the menus back into the holder beside the cash register.
"Not a problem." He shrugged. "There wasn't any junk food where I grew up."
She took the napkin from under her silverware and spread it in her lap. He was looking out the window. It was a relief to return to the immediate after their conversation in the motel, but he'd seemed to remain caught somewhere else in spite of his spoken desire for a new focus.
"Why did he do it?" she asked, taking a sip of her water.
After a moment he glanced back at her. "Do what?"
"Send you there? Russia?"
"It was kind of like a political marriage. He wanted an in to the Russian program, a foothold. And I guess he figured if I actually survived growing up, then I'd be something he could use." Something akin to a smile played at one corner of his mouth. "They had someone who spoke English to me every day--this old man. Bad accent, so I had this god-awful accent for the longest time." He sobered and nudged the salt shaker with the tip of a finger. "I was always americanets--'the American'--even though I grew up as Russian as the rest of them."
"Must have been hard."
"Hard is... Hell, we had it easy compared to the kids in regular orphanages. We were just social embarrassments--the inconvenient spawn of men in strategic positions." He shook his head. "The kids... Except for a few standouts, they weren't worth anything to anybody, though, and they got treated like it. You would've wanted to take them all in, take 'em away, Scully, if you'd seen."
The waitress approached, setting a salad in front of Scully and a bowl of stew in front of Krycek. Scully busied herself among leaves of lettuce and chunks of grilled chicken. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the waitress refilling sugar containers and glancing periodically at Krycek's shortened sleeve, the one they'd knotted from the inside and cut the lower part from so that the sleeve hung to just below the end of his stump. Mulder had come home from Tunguska with both arms, but just barely. He'd mentioned it in passing when they were reunited at the Senate hearing, though until now she'd never considered the actual danger he might have been in.
Krycek ate his stew mechanically, steadily, strictly a matter of refueling his body. Occasionally he pushed out a breath or paused to nudge a bit of cabbage around the bowl but then, realizing what he was doing, would take it on the spoon, eat it and go on again. The cafe was far from full even for its small size, with just two men at the counter and a couple, obviously a waitress just off her shift and a male companion, in the next booth. A kitchen worker joined the waitress at the cash register. Whispers were exchanged and glances cast in their direction. At least Krycek wasn't seated where he could see them watching.
"You never"--he looked up now--"made any headway on what's caused this, what's happened to her?"
"No." She wiped her mouth with the napkin and cleared her throat. "Nothing we've tried has made any difference, and it's all progressed so rapidly--"
"It's affected her physically before--remembering things. Just... nothing like this." His jaw tightened. "You checked for implants?"
She paused and nodded. "Nothing. Though there was an odd thickening in the hypothalamus. But that's something we won't be able to investigate until--" She stopped herself and focused on the water beads sliding down the outside of her glass.
Krycek set down his spoon, traced the pattern in the tabletop with a finger and finally looked up.
"What about the fetus?"
"I... examined the remains. There was no... no rapid decomposition, or green blood, like--"
She nodded. "I've sent samples to the lab for DNA analysis."
"It's not hers. Not the normal way, anyway."
She stopped abruptly and colored. Both of them did. He'd let out more than he'd intended and there was certainly no point in pressing the subject. Besides, back in the trailer Tracy had as much as admitted that she hadn't been with a man before she met Krycek.
He was staring out the window now, his face gradually changing, being taken over by the distance that had had him in its grasp earlier.
"I need to find these people," he said finally. "Whoever did this to her, this group her father was a part of. Could be important, an angle to the invasion plan that we know nothing about." He looked down at his empty bowl and at her nearly empty plate.
"You about ready?" she said, and slid to the end of the seat.
I could see Krycek's discomfort even before we'd left the cafe--the need to be somewhere he couldn't be, to touch what couldn't be touched. We walked toward the river in silence and watched as a freight train slowly crossed the bridge to the other side. A couple of twenty-somethings in an old convertible pulled up near where I was standing and tried to engage me in conversation in a poorly-disguised attempt to pick me up. A moment later there was a hand against my waist, Krycek pulling me against him. There were no words exchanged but the two men quickly turned and left.
It was a legitimate, non-intrusive opening. I asked him what he needed. He asked me to take him to a wooded spot so he could walk. He explained how Tracy had been able to come to him mentally and that he felt the need to take the walk for her, to be her eyes for one final glimpse of the trees she'd loved so much.
We drove to a spot not far from the town. I pulled off to the side of the road and watched Krycek walk slowly into the woods in the deepening light of early evening. He stopped, looked up for a very long time at the wisps of peach-tinted clouds overhead and then went on until he was lost from view. About ten minutes later he returned, quiet. He got into the car, leaned back against the seat and looked up. 'Sorry,' he said. For what? I asked. 'Whatever I've put you through' was his reply. He looked me in the eye and didn't waver. Did you see the forest for her? I asked him. A bittersweet smile came over him. He nodded and closed his eyes.
(End Chapter 20)
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