Mulder knelt down beside the chaise lounge and swallowed against the knot in his stomach.
"Scully?" There was no light, only the small warmth that came from her in the velvet blackness. The cement floor was cold against his knee. "Scully."
"Scully, it's six. We need to go. I figured you might want time to get a shower. "
The chaise springs creaked. "Wha--?" She sat up quickly.
"I thought you might want to shower first."
A hand brushed past him.
"I--" She rolled. "Sorry. I'm waking up. I am. Just give me a minute." The springs creaked again. She yawned and leaned closer. "What about you, Mulder? How are you doing?"
"Better. My stomach's... I think I just need to get something to eat."
The blankets were pushed back and her legs came over the edge. "I don't remember being here, coming back"--there was a long pause--"here."
"You needed to stretch out." He put a hand on the edge of the chaise. "After we finish here, if we connect with your mom, we'll get away from the Corridor, away from all of this. It should give us a little breathing space."
"Did you sleep, Mulder?"
"Some. I think I've been lying there too long to sleep much. Mom came down last night--late. We talked."
"And it went... well?"
"Yeah." He could feel himself smile. "It was good."
A warm hand settled on his shoulder.
"Scully, this may sound crazy, but there's something I need you to help me with."
"Goodbye. Thank you for everything," Dana said, leaning down to speak through the car's passenger window.
Teena reached for the hand Dana held out and squeezed it gently. "Have a safe trip." It could be her own daughter. "Keep in touch."
Dana smiled, a smile laced with the gravity of the business at hand. "I will." Then the hand was withdrawn, and she turned and crossed the parking lot to the rental agency. Jeans, sweatshirt, hair pulled back: nothing to draw attention, to make her stand out or show her beauty so someone would notice her. Samantha had liked soft sweaters, pink angora with little pearl buttons down the front. Would she even remember that now? If. Would she have cut her hair? Would the obstinate streak she'd developed--Teena's own trait mirrored back at her--have softened?
If Samantha had survived.
It had been years--decades--since she'd dared to even touch the fragile possibility. Certainly she'd never handled or nurtured it the way Fox had. She'd always kept Samantha behind heavily locked doors. Teena's eyes burned and she blinked.
"Mom?" The voice came softly from the back seat. "You okay?"
"I'm fine, Fox."
"Is she inside, Mom?"
"Yes," she said, half-turning to look at her son lying on the seat. A thin hollowness had haunted her all morning, as if he were already gone. As if the body in the back seat were only a figment of her need for him to be there.
"Let me know if he comes looking for us."
She nodded and turned to face forward again. She was conscious of her body, the transit of air going in and out, the grip of her fingers against the cool smoothness of the steering wheel and the strange emptiness inside her. The scene around her might as well have been in black-and-white. She made her hand move to her purse on the seat beside her. Taking out an envelope, she handed it back between the seats.
"Take this, Fox. It will help you on your way."
He reached for the envelope, then her hand, without a word. It was a strong hand, at once firm and sheltering. She let him hold on, a lifeline nourishing her through the dream world that pressed at her from beyond the window.
"Fox, I... Thank you. Thank you for everything."
"It's okay, Mom."
She closed her eyes and concentrated on the warmth of his hand.
Sandy pressed the accelerator and glanced at the clock beside the car radio. She was going to be late--only by a minute or two, but it had been so long. Too long--she didn't know how long; she couldn't remember. But Roddy'd be there waiting, on the swing by the entrance to Gramma and Grampa's place.
The road forked, though there'd never been a fork before. Sandy braked. Left or right? She held her breath, paused, and swung right. The road went up an incline, around a bend. There was a rock on the left hand side, a huge, broad rock she'd never seen before. Her stomach tightened. She put on the brakes, turned to look behind her and quickly backed up. She put her foot on the gas again. The car jumped forward and she headed back the way she'd come.
At the fork she turned left. Trees and the green of fields streamed past her. She could see the gate now, could just make out the big old oak and...
Someone shook her shoulder. She glanced behind her but the back seat was empty.
She glanced at the clock. Somehow twenty minutes had passed, but it had only been seconds, she could swear it. She was going to be late. She was going to miss--
Sandy's eyes flew open. Her mother's face hung over her like a dark cloud. She'd missed him. She'd been so close, so close. She could almost feel him.
"You got a phone call from the library. They say you've got a book overdue."
The face backed away. Sandy struggled up and watched her mother disappear through the bedroom doorway. She'd seen the oak tree. The swing hung from below it and she'd almost made out someone in its shadow. Inside her an ache swelled, fierce and hard and empty.
But she had to focus on the here and now. The phone call would have been from Rita; it was Rita Johnston's code. She must have something, a job possibility or information.
Sandy reached beside her and pulled Cy's pillow around in front of her. Her eyes were too dry, like cotton. She closed them, clutched the pillow to her middle and rocked slightly. The adrenaline was still there, the awful tension of racing, reaching, hoping. She'd nearly reached Roddy.
The hollow ache inside her echoed, rocking her in her own private blackness.
All that rushing, and she'd missed him.
The favor Mulder had asked me of me was simple: to re-braid his sister's hair. He wanted to give half the braid he'd discovered in the Quonochotaug garage to his mother, a token touched with the deeper symbolism of Mulder's world of absolutes, a tangible sign of the newly-forged bond between mother and son. Perhaps, too, he was finally ready to share the burden of his sister with another living being.
Samantha had always been an abstraction to me, a construct in Mulder's head, a motivator like pride or honor or duty. But in actually taking up the hair--thick, strong, dark hair--and working it with my own hands, the reality of a little girl, a life so close to him that to lose it meant the partial loss of his own, became clear to me. Mulder held the end of the hair while I worked. He watched with the same concern he'd shown for Emily in the hospital, as if every move were crucial, as if delicate surgery were being performed.
Braiding was an activity woven through the fabric of my childhood. My mother had braided our hair when we were small. Later, Missy and I had braided each other's. As I worked, I couldn't help but think of her--Missy and I playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, sitting in the base movie house waiting excitedly for the start of a Saturday matinee, or the two of us lying on our beds and talking about our futures. Though it had been none of my doing, she'd died for me as surely as if I'd shot her myself, and what would I tell my mother now, in the few minutes I'd have with her?
Even as we rolled down the interstate, I had no idea what to say. What could I say to this woman whose daughters I'd taken away?
"Hey, Langley, it's me."
Mulder pressed his hand to his ear to block out the noise beyond the pay phone. Scully stood beside the car, leaning against it and then pushing away, nervous. She hadn't wanted to make this call herself--not this one nor the one that would come in response to it.
"Look, will you call Annie's mom and have her go to a pay phone and call this number? Yeah." He read the numbers off the phone in front of him. "908-555-4336. Yeah, right away. Yeah. Yeah, thanks."
He hung up and nodded to Scully, then pushed open the door to the phone booth. Scully came a few steps closer.
"Message out," he said, raising an eyebrow, trying to look upbeat.
She bit her lip and looked up at him. She was jelly inside; it was obvious.
She nodded toward the restaurant behind him. "You want a cup of coffee or something, Mulder?"
"Yeah, I guess. This could take a few minutes."
"I'll bring you one." She turned to go.
She looked back; he gestured for her to come. She took a few steps toward him and hesitated. "I'll only be a minute, Mulder."
He squinted into the morning light, sighed and watched her disappear into the restaurant.
Reaching for the bedside table, Krycek managed to grab a corner and pull the small unit closer. On the far end was a shopping bag with new clothes the old man had brought the night before, things to wear when he left later today. Six hours. Six more hours and they'd spring him from this place with the white and the sterile and the hard corners that were the best money could buy, that were all too close to the gray and cold of the orphanage where he'd grown up. All that was missing were the rows of rounded steel bed frames fitted with thin white bedspreads, covers for the empty kids who dreamed empty dreams inside them.
Carefully he reached for the shopping bag. His old clothes were gone, blood-soaked and ruined. Even his jacket--his second skin--had been beyond salvation. He pulled out a navy T-shirt and a pair of jeans. The old man had outdone himself; the brands were far from cheap. Just so long as they worked. That was the important thing: pants with a zipper that wouldn't hang up mid-track and a workable snap at the top, the kind that could be managed with one hand. He ran his fingers across the surface of the shirt. It was soft, fine material. The old man could be setting him up with these gifts, just waiting until he got out of here to land on him about the recorder. He'd like that added touch--to have thrown him off with the nice clothes and the visits.
There was something more in the bag. He reached in cautiously and pulled it out. A baseball-type jacket, navy fabric. Nothing flashy; all the better. He let his head collapse against the pillow and let out a tensed breath. So far, so good. Leather would have been a bad sign. The minute he was home he'd send a message to Skinner. He'd send the old man's hired help to make the contact, make the guy earn his keep. Hopefully Skinner would bite; freedom was a powerful incentive. Skinner stood to lose little, if anything, by admitting to the recorder, and in return... It was a win-win situation, possibly one with an even bigger payoff somewhere down the road.
The week was up for the waif he'd rescued on the Mall. This was the last night his money had bought her. Hopefully she'd already left D.C., though he had no idea whether she had what it took to recognize an opening when it came to her and take action. Sitting on those stairs just to watch the rippling of the water: It's what she'd told him when he'd asked what she was doing there. Maybe he should have just passed her by. No telling what had moved him to try to save her from herself.
Mulder'd been on those stairs, too. If he was smart, by now he would've hidden himself and Scully someplace the old man would never find them.
He wondered where that might be.
Wilkins awoke to a sniffing wet nose against his face, then the warm, enthusiastic wetness of Ralph's tongue.
"Hey, no doggie kisses, man!" He grimaced and rolled away, toward the back of the couch. Ralph's tongue lapped at his ear. "Oh, man--"
"Damn!" Wilkins pulled up abruptly. "I am in deep shit, Ralphy. Deep, sticky--" He glanced at his watch. Only five minutes. It had only been five minutes after all. He let out the breath he'd held and buried his face in his hands.
Just five minutes. He could still meet Manny without arousing suspicion.
"He knows something's up with me, Ralph." He reached out and rubbed the dog's coat vigorously and tried to clear his head. "Manny's not an investigator for nothing. But I think this little side show's best kept to itself."
Wilkins glanced toward the laptop on the coffee table. He'd only sat down to check his mail; this burning the candle at both ends was getting to be risky. He looked at the screen. There was one message. He clicked on it and smiled. Skinner. Maybe the man was beginning to come around. One small step.
He leaned forward to key in a reply.
"We've got mail to send, Scully."
She glanced over at the reclined passenger seat. "Where are we going to do it?"
"Stop at some seedy little motel, I guess. Anything cheap with a phone line in the room. We pay for one night, or a few hours"--he waggled an eyebrow weakly--"plug in, send our mail and get out."
"Can we afford to do that?"
"You mean money-wise?" He looked over at her. "Yeah, we can." He was silent a moment. "My mom gave us some money when you went in to get the car. Eight hundred dollars. Cash."
"She said she has more." He glanced out the window at the blur of passing scenery. "I think she wants to keep us supplied, keep us going." He closed his eyes. He could see his mother back in the car at the rental agency, the ghost of loss that precedes actual loss written on her face.
"She's strong, Mulder. I think she'll do okay. You know--if he comes back to her, if he calls her again."
Mulder glanced at her, then closed his eyes and leaned back into the seat. "We've got to tell Wilkins what to do about Krycek, Scully. What the hell do we tell him? How's he going to understand? It's too dangerous to pull him in. Besides, if we did he could turn around and name you as the shooter." He ran one hand back through his hair and left it to rest behind his head. "I need to let Rita know we're coming."
There was no reply. He opened his eyes again and studied his partner: tense, looking straight ahead, seemingly mesmerized. She was mesmerized. He leaned toward her.
"Scully, all she wants is you. To see you, to know you're okay. Leave all that other stuff you're carrying and let her have her daughter. We can deal with the rest of it later."
She attempted a smile. "Just let me know where you want to pull off, Mulder."
"In a few miles," he said. "I've been around this area before. I think there's a place a few miles from here that'll suit us."
Rita looked at her visitor curled into the corner of the sofa, Bethy up against her like an eager puppy. Bethy was worried; she knew hurt when she saw it and she saw it in Sandy Miller.
"Have you ever had a dream like that about your son? That you saw him again?" Sandy's voice came from the sofa cushions.
"No, I haven't, missy." She glanced at Bethy, her head against Sandy's arm. "Truth to tell, Andy was one real experience. He always was, from the day he could walk. He tested me in every possible way. I'm not sure what a dream about him would do to me." She took a long breath and pursed her lips. "I used to wonder if I'd survive his growing up, and now I've survived him altogether. It's not so amusing, the thought of it." She looked out the window. "In a way it's like he's testing me, to this day, with this."
Sandy's head came up.
"Don't get me wrong, missy, I loved him dearly. I used to think I'd done something horribly wrong in raising him. But now I figure there are some people who are just plain adverse to growing up and Andy was one of those, bless his ornery little heart."
"I was mad at Cy." Sandy's head lay against the arm of the sofa. "All that week. He'd go off with his buddies after dinner and leave me and Roddy at home after we'd waited all day for him to come."
"Everybody's human, missy. Some of us make our mistakes at more opportune times than others, but in the end we've got to look at the sum total of who someone is. Or what we did ourselves. Did we love them? Did we make a good effort? In the end I don't reckon they're going to remember the day of their death any more than the day they were born."
Sandy sat up and swiped below her eyes with the back of a hand. Bethy looked up at her with bloodhound eyes and Sandy slipped an arm around the girl. "I didn't mean to come apart like that."
"No apologies necessary." Rita smiled. "I think I've got something for you. You know how I asked you about children before?"
Sandy hesitated but made herself nod.
"Do you know the Barkers? Up Sugar Creek?"
"Just by stories."
"David's had to take work off their place to make ends meet, and his wife's... Well, she seems to have lost her senses. It's nothing dramatic; apparently she just sort of floats around the place in a little world of her own, kind of like Ophelia sitting by the brook." She glanced at Sandy's uncomprehending look. "It's from a famous play," she said. "Anyway, they have a little boy--four and a half--and David was thinking he needs to have someone around who can look after the boy and keep an eye on Heather in the process."
Sandy stared across the room unseeing. She leaned forward slightly, her clasped hands coming to rest between her knees. Her mouth twitched to one side and then the other. "I guess I could try," she said, her voice small. She looked up at Rita.
"The boy needs someone," Rita said softly. "Think of it that way."
Sandy nodded slowly.
"They're two miles up the creek," Rita went on. "If you love the creeks and woods as much as you say, you could take that trail right up there. It's a nice walk."
"I could run partway," Sandy said. "Sometimes running feels good right now. You get going and it's almost like you could outrun your troubles. For a little while, anyway."
"They'd like you to start as soon as possible. As a matter of fact, sometimes David has to be gone real early in the morning. They've got a trailer up there they've offered if you want to stay in it."
Sandy shook her head. "I can't. I couldn't--not now. It'd be like leaving everything behind, like leaving Cy and Roddy behind, just... wiping them out of my life." She swallowed. "Out of my memory."
"Either way. They were just offering." Rita got up. "We should go ahead and give them a call. Come on out to the kitchen."
Bethy sat up, her eyes suddenly brightening. "Is something calling out there, Grammy?"
Rita looked at her quizzically. After a moment she winked and cupped her hand to her ear. "I can't quite tell."
"I hear it, Grammy." The girl began to smile.
Rita leaned toward the kitchen. "Hmm, I believe I might be hearing something."
"I hear it. I do."
Sandy looked at Bethy, curious.
"It's ice cream," the little girl said almost in a whisper, her eyes big. "Come on."
She stood and tugged Sandy to her feet. Sandy let herself be led away to the kitchen.
"Well, it's seedy alright," Scully said, looking around the interior of the small motel room.
"Yeah, but the price was right and we'll only be here a few minutes."
Mulder pulled the laptop from its case and set it up on a small, scratched desk. Unhooking the line going into the phone, he slipped it into the slot at the back of the computer. Scully was right; the place was shabby as hell. She stood at the window, the curtains parted a hand's width, looking out into a half-paved parking lot where a scruffy German shepherd circled a puddle. Mulder turned on the computer and waited for it to power up.
They were an hour's drive from the mall where Scully would meet her mother, with an hour's cushion to spare. They could stop and eat, but his stomach was still shrunken from the days he'd spent at his mother's. He wouldn't be able to eat more than half a meal and Scully was probably too edgy to want food. She looked like she was waiting for her execution.
He glanced back at the computer screen. Windows had opened. He brushed a finger across the touchpad and tapped on the mail program. The bathroom door closed behind him.
Read mail. Old mail. Send mail. Mulder clicked again and set his fingers at the keyboard. His lips pressed together and he paused.
Mulder leaned back and breathed into cupped hands. It was almost impossible to trace the twisted trail anymore, at least as it would appear to a newer agent like Wilkins--how a calculating assassin like Krycek could kill again and again and not be brought in, how the son of a bitch who pulled his strings could continue to gloat in broad daylight, seemingly untouchable. How Mulder himself could make a decision like this, one he never would have believed himself capable of when he'd been young and green and his idealism had blinded him to hard, inconvenient realities. Or had he just gone soft, sold out--given up and become like everyone else, too willing to step into the quicksand of expediency?
The toilet flushed. A moment later the bathroom door creaked open. Scully'd pulled the band from her hair, which now fell softly around her shoulders. It shone reddish-gold in the light from the bathroom window. She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked down at her shoes.
It was the fact he didn't want to look at, at least not now, but it was true: they'd need to be separated, living in different places so as not to arouse the curiosity of a close-knit local community. A relative come to stay here or a friend of a son's friend there would hopefully slip by relatively unnoticed, but two strangers coming together... It was a small town, and people would talk about whatever was news, no matter how insignificant.
"Mulder, I'm going to take a walk."
"It's no five-star neighborhood, Scully," he said, sending the message he'd written to his outbox and clicking on a fresh writing screen. "Besides, I'll be finished here in a few minutes. If you need to walk, we'll go someplace where it's safe."
When he glanced up, she was nearly to the door. She had that air about her, as if something were pressing on her, suffocating her. "Scully--"
"Don't crowd me, Mulder."
"I'm not crowding. I'm just trying to make sure you're safe."
"I can take care of myself." She took the last few steps and reached for the door handle.
"What?" He pushed back his chair. "Like this, going out into an unsafe neighborhood to prove you're on top of this? Who are you trying to convince?"
"Shut up, Mulder."
He got up from his chair but she was gone, a loud slam echoing harshly behind her. He went to the door, stopped abruptly and leaned his head against the scratched paint. Closed his eyes. Blood surged through him, racing. It was happening already. He was crowding her. Worried about her, yes; her emotional state had been precarious lately. But he was messing with the delicate dynamics that had made them work all these years. Or with the ones that had started to develop in the last 24 hours. He breathed in, breathed out. An ache circled him like an aura, a remnant of the pain that had held him for the last three days. He closed his eyes tighter and willed it away.
Kentucky. Roads over the Appalachians: he could see them, ribbons stretched out for miles, smooth, clear sailing. He was alone in the car, going who knew where for who-knew-what-the-hell reason.
He thought about his mother, how well she'd ended up working with Scully during the handful of days they'd spent together. He, on the other hand, who'd been through hell and high water with Scully, who'd been her partner for six years and who finally seemed to have gotten to first base with her on some more personal level, had just fucked up royally.
The silence around him sang, and then door knob moved in his hand. Mulder's breath hitched. A beat and he moved his hand, allowing the door to open. Scully stood in front of him shiny-eyed, looking up, straight at him. Chin trembling. It must be killing her.
Opening the door wider, he let her through and pulled her close against him. Her arms went around his waist. He closed his eyes and breathed into her hair, letting the scent of it fill him. Suddenly he was tired, wobbly. No, it was Scully nudging him; they were moving backward, to the edge of the bed. The mattress bumped against the back of his knees and suddenly they were sitting, then lying back. Scully lay against him--beside him--her head on his chest, the two of them breathing together like one person.
He just held her. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a cobweb stretched across the corner of the ceiling above the drapes. Hopefully there weren't any cockroaches crawling in the corners, or in the beds. What kind of people spent their time in places like these, dodging dust balls and insects, falling asleep too tired or ragged to care?
She was looking up at him now; he'd felt her head move. He opened his mouth but a finger went against his lips, then she was reaching and her mouth settled over his, sending him to someplace beyond the stars.
"Five minutes, buddy," Manny said, an 'I shouldn't let you do this' frown on his face.
"Five," Wilkins agreed.
He shut the passenger door and hurried with long, easy strides toward the chain link fence of the impound yard. There was a chance it wouldn't prove anything, whatever he found. But there was always that other chance, the gold nugget lying unnoticed by whoever chose not to stir the stream bed. He pulled out his badge and flashed it for the officer at the gate.
"I'm looking for a Mercedes, black, 500 series, coupe--"
The officer raised his eyebrows. "Dealer's car?"
"Oh, yeah. Big dealer."
"Figures. I drive a ten-year-old Toyota while these crooks--" The officer was looking at his computer screen. One hand went up in the air. "Go figure. As a matter of fact, just go have a look for yourself. This terminal's been acting up for over an hour now." He looked up at Wilkins. "Go ahead. I hope you find something that'll put the guy away for life. Maybe I can buy his car at auction."
Wilkins smiled and passed through the gate. It was a stroke of luck, the messed-up terminal. He pulled the notepad from his pocket and flipped through looking for Skinner's license plate number. It was a white Lexus he was searching for. He looked out over the rows of cars and began walking, glancing at his watch. Three minutes. Manny was a stickler and there were plenty of white cars here.
He walked up three or four aisles, checking one side and then the other. Sleek cars, ordinary cars, the dinged and dented, rusty cars of the poor. Each one held a story. Wilkins stopped, shading his eyes against the early afternoon brightness, and scanned the lot again.
Right ahead. His fairy godmother must be on duty.
Quickly he slipped in between Skinner's car and the one next to it and went around to the back. Broken driver's side tail light... Only Skinner hadn't said broken tail light; he'd said tail light out. This particular light was broken, a crunch across the middle of it as if it had been hit with something--maybe even a nightstick or a patrolman's flashlight. Possibly after the fact. If Skinner had simply backed into something, or if someone had hit him, the whole tail light would most likely have been smashed.
Wilkins lips curved into a tight smile. He glanced at his watch again and started jogging in the direction of the gate.
Maggie Scully looked at the clutter spread across the dining room table: pictures, keepsakes, mementos. She swallowed and began to put them slowly away. It was too much like organizing someone's belongings after they died. How could you pick out just one thing, or a handful of things, for someone to hold on to, to represent a family and a lifetime? Dana wasn't dead, though there wasn't much practical difference; her daughter was out of reach and might never live a secure life again. She might be moving from place to place, looking over her shoulder, for as long as she lived.
Maggie's hand paused over the box top in front of her.
However long that life might be. Bill had gone, no warning really to let her know he would be leaving so abruptly. Missy was gone, also a chance accident. Dana had been taken with no warning, just a chillingly empty apartment left in her wake, blood stains on the phone table and window sill and a distraught partner who refused to give up and let her go. It might have been Mulder's crusade that had caught her daughter up in this surreal web of intrigue, but he would be her strength now, her protection, if she let him. He cared passionately about her in his own quiet, intense way. No one would give more for her.
She hoped what he had to give would be enough to keep Dana safe.
Maggie picked up the photo box and carried it to the closet, then returned to the table for another box, and another. She glanced at her watch. It was nearly time to go and she needed to be on time. Dana might be late, but she would wait for her daughter's arrival, however long it took.
Passing through the dining room one last time, she noticed something on the floor beside the table. She stooped down and picked it up: a bookmark of Melissa's, a scene with mountain tops on which Missy had written carefully with a gold pen. Maggie tucked it into her purse and and continued on her way to the front door.
Scully eased the car into the parking space and turned off the engine. She paused a moment, one hand still on the steering wheel.
"Some things are easy, Scully," Mulder said softly, looking up from the half-reclined passenger seat. "You just have to stop analyzing them. Just love her. Let her love you."
His hand reached toward her. One finger traced a careful line down her hand and wrist.
"You'll be out there, Mulder?"
"We need to know if anyone's following either of you. I'll be around."
The dressing room bench was thickly upholstered with buttoned indentations. Scully leaned forward and let the tip of a finger run from dip to dip. In the next booth two small girls giggled while their mother tried to decide on a dress. One of the girls sat on the floor; Scully could see her legs under the partition. She had small toys with her, packed into a clear vinyl purse. It made her think of the little ragged Cassandra from the homeless shelter, her blonde hair uncombed, the dirty plastic figures she'd carried and the way she'd walked up to a perfect stranger and engaged her immediately.
Scully looked down at the shoes she'd left by the door, an old pair of burgundy penny loafers with red socks tucked inside them. They should be a more distinguishable signal under the doorway than her running shoes. A knot sat in her stomach, a jumble of hunger and anticipation: her mother and Mulder. She needed to focus; she couldn't afford to think about him now.
Shoes with feet and legs in them passed by in the corridor outside: flats, running shoes, the occasional orthopedic shoe of an old woman. Sandals, heels--it was a weekday, after all--she'd nearly lost track--foam platforms carrying red-painted toenails. A pair of shoes hesitated outside the door. Her heart skipped. But they were wrong--young girl's boots. They paused and moved away.
Hiding, like Anne Frank. A lightless basement or the small cubicle of an upscale dressing room, but a prison of sorts just the same. Though it could be worse. Kentucky would be a complete unknown, though Rita would be there--Rita like a beacon light, full of determination and the courage she so often felt wavering in herself.
Another pair of shoes stopped in front of the door--familiar shoes this time--followed by a tentative voice.
A bubble of air filled her throat. Adrenaline surged. Her fingers tightened against the bench, then she was up and turning the handle, attempting composure for the sake of passersby. "Mom--"
Almost instantly she was in her mother's arms, the door closed, bodies tight against each other, breathing each other, absorbing. Air: she'd been holding her breath. She let it go and breathed in deeply.
They started to separate only to hesitate and come together again. Scully leaned in and closed her eyes.
Sandy opened the screen door tentatively and looked around. "Mom?"
There was no answer, no movement. Cautiously she stepped inside. Maybe having Harry here had offended her mother enough to make her finally go home. Though she'd been here this morning. Sandy shook her head. Her mother was a mystery.
She went to the sink, turned on the water and swabbed a sponge around inside the cereal bowls sitting there. She'd be leaving here. Not forever, but she'd be gone during the day now, someplace else, doing new things. Other things, with someone else's child. A new life--different life. She hadn't asked for either. Didn't want them. They said you had to move on, but it was too soon, and anyway, why? Why would you want to let go? How could you?
She turned off the water, wiped her hands on the refrigerator towel and wandered to the window above the bookshelf. Roddy's truck. She'd never brought it in.
Swallowing, she went to the door and down the dusty stairs into the yard below. The fire truck was lying on its side, dirt-spattered. Gingerly she squatted down and picked it up. Her fingers traced its smooth surface, places where Roddy's hands had been dozens--no, hundreds--of times. She could feel his hands: small, grasping hands, soft and moist, tugging at her pants leg or coming to rest up against her cheeks, squeezing, his body bouncing in her lap, toes digging into her thighs.
The old Labrador came up behind her, sniffing, and kissed the side of Sandy's face with her nose. Her backside turned several circles and plopped down in the dust beside Sandy. Sandy leaned against the dog and sobbed.
"Is this... Is it safe, Dana, to be here?"
They were sitting on the dressing room bench, shoulders and legs touching.
"It was Mulder's idea. He insisted, actually. He wanted me to be able to see you." She gave her best attempt at a smile.
"But if someone is watching me, won't they...?"
"Mulder's out there, Mom. He'll be watching when you leave, to make sure nobody follows you."
Maggie nodded. The lines in her mother's face were ones she didn't remember seeing before.
"Be sure to thank him, Dana."
Scully nodded and reached for her bag. "I brought you something, Mom. It's silly, really--just a bag of those caramels you always used to like." She placed a small sack in her mother's hand.
"I haven't had these in years." Maggie smiled. "Dana--" She paused. "I was trying--" Her voice went wispy and she paused a moment. "--to find something at home, something to bring you, and I couldn't decide. And then I came across this bookmark of Melissa's." She held it out. "I thought you might like it."
Scully took it and looked at the picture. Pressure swelled to fill her throat.
"What? What is it?"
Scully smiled through filled eyes. "I have this--these words. John Byers gave them to me on a slip of paper when we left Washington. They're from a song, he said. I never knew... Missy must have"--she swallowed--"obviously they meant something to her, too."
She pressed her lips together and forced a weak smile. Her mother's eyes were shiny, full. She put an arm around her mother's shoulder and felt the weight of Maggie's burden come to rest against her. She dipped her head toward her mother's.
"It's okay, Mom."
Mulder was right. It wasn't so hard after all.
Krycek stared out the window at the D.C. skyline. Only minutes now. Just the last of the paperwork to process. He shifted in the wheelchair. His side ached from sitting, a dull ache he could live with for now. It wouldn't be long. His place, such as it was, would be waiting.
Something in his cheek twitched. It was the same scenario he'd faced so many times before, everything in his life turned upside down in the space of seconds: one-armed men waking him beside a campfire; glancing up in a Hong Kong airport john to see a leggy brunette smiling at him; the door of an Upper West Side apartment opening to reveal not some graying bureaucrat with a secretly guilty conscience as Mulder's source, but a woman with a gleam in her eye and a plan for making enough vaccine to save thousands--maybe millions. Maybe enough for the race to actually survive.
Well, it had been a good plan--damn brilliant plan--until she'd taken off with the kid. They'd worked their asses off, he and the Brit, trying to salvage Marita's production network. All for nothing, as it turned out. The secret vaccine program was dead. Any logical hope for saving the human race had died with it.
Maybe he was as crazy as Mulder to keep on trying. Maybe Mulder'd had the right idea a few weeks back. Maybe he should have joined him that night a couple of weeks back instead of trying to stop him.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway, coming closer. Krycek's fingers tightened around the wheelchair's armrest. The footsteps came up to the open doorway and stopped.
Krycek looked up, expressionless. "Yeah."
He moved the prosthetic arm so it sat more naturally on the arm rest and let the old man take the handles of the chair. It was barely three weeks ago that he'd finally learned what had happened to Marita after she'd ditched him on the freighter. She'd had a series of seizures during her recovery, Dr. Ansbach had said. She'd ended up in a wheelchair.
How crazy was that?
Mulder watched as Scully made her way across the parking lot, passing from row to row of cars, copper hair shining in the sun. Her step was easy--definitely lighter than when she'd gone in. It was over now, however it had gone, though he hoped it had gone well; she deserved for it to be good. He studied her face, head slightly down to watch where she stepped, cheeks flushed, mouth relaxed. She looked up, saw him and smiled slightly, a bittersweet expression.
Mulder scanned the sea of cars, looking for activity, for watchers. The driver's door opened and Scully slipped into the seat. Her head went back against the head rest. Mulder continued to watch the parking lot. No one had come out of the building near her except a middle-aged woman with two kids in tow.
Reaching over, Scully rested a hand against his arm. She half-smiled and shook her head, then leaned forward and grasped the steering wheel. He made his hand stay where it was. Finally she turned toward him.
"It was... It was okay, Mulder. It was good, like you said. Hard, but--" Her mouth went small. "You were right. She only wanted me." A pause. "There wasn't much to say, much need for words. We just sat there together. I think it's what we needed."
"Sometimes it's all two people need--being together." He breathed out and bit his lip. "Want me to drive for a while?"
"Do you want to? Are you up to it?"
"Yeah, Scully. I'm okay."
He got out and went around the car while she slid across the seat.
"I think I'm wired, Mulder," she said when he'd gotten back in. "You know how it felt after finals were over? I feel like that."
She was beautiful, even more so because she was loosening. He gave her a quick smile and then made himself look away.
"Then let's get out of here." He reached for the ignition and turned it. "Let's just get the hell out of here and leave all this behind."
The knock came on the door as the girl had known it would. She went to answer it.
"He's here," the suited man said. "You should come down and meet him."
The older man was darker--much darker even--than Alex. Amid the vast blackness of his soul was no redeeming patch of light, no pinprick she could see. She waited until he turned away to swallow her apprehension. Then she followed him down the hallway and downstairs to Alex's room.
There was something about the relationship between the two men. It was going to jolt Alex to see her come in with him, as if she'd been corrupted by the old man's touch. She would have to be careful. Her hand traveled the worn wooden handrail and then they were at the bottom of the flight of stairs, Alex's door looming in front of them. The dark man paused, lit a cigarette, took a drag and turned the door handle. She held a short breath and went in behind him.
It was a plain room but spacious, with a small desk under a window to the right, a larger desk without a chair against the back wall, and to the left a bed along the wall with a narrow window near the bed's foot that reached from floor to ceiling. Alex was in bed, propped up with pillows--more pillows than she would have thought comfortable. He looked very pale.
"Alex, this is Tracy--"
Alex's head turned toward them. She saw shock, which he quickly turned into a cough. Inside he was a sudden maelstrom, panic and anger swirling with questions of strategy in his mind.
"Hi," he half-grunted. Inside, he was spinning, falling.
"I've provided her a room upstairs for the time being," the dark man was saying. "I've given her a pager. She can be here whenever you need anything." He turned to Tracy. "Don't let him exert himself too much." He paused and took a drag on the cigarette. "He's stubborn. He's strong, but he needs to rest and recuperate."
She nodded. Alex was staring at her, blood pumping, wondering if the old man had her in his pocket, whether she'd been a plant on the Mall that day.
"Everything you should need is here: food, medications, bandages."
"I can make do, if it comes to that," she said.
The man handed her an envelope. "Here's something extra so you don't run out," he said. He was gauging the possibility that she'd take the money and run.
"I'll keep all the receipts."
The man seemed to relax at that. He turned toward the door. "I'll check back tomorrow, Alex. Let me know right away if there's anything you need."
Tracy glanced at her patient, who was looking at her, then at the old man, who went out, closing the door behind him. Thick silence engulfed the room. She looked at the tree branches outside the tall window, then at the man in the bed and took a few steps toward him.
"He doesn't know," she said. "He met me in a park. He watched me there for days."
He looked at her--into her--with eyes that were used to watching. Hard, wary eyes. "Maybe." She could be some kind of trick. "Why are you doing still hanging around here? Why didn't you leave Washington when you had the chance?"
She shrugged. "I had... things to do here. I--"
"I didn't know. I never know, exactly. They... come to me. I think--" She took a deep breath and went on. "I think I was supposed to do this. Help you," she said in an even quieter voice, because of course it would make no sense to him.
She looked around the room. The force of his skepticism was like a physical pain.
"Excuse me." She reached for the back of the desk chair and sat down.
"What's the matter?"
"Just a little dizziness. It'll pass." She looked up. "Is there anything you need?"
He nodded toward the bed. "There's a computer down here. I need it hooked up to the phone line."
She came closer, kneeled down and pulled a laptop from under the bed.
"Here, just put it here."
She set it on the bed beside him.
"There's a cord in a box down there. Phone cord. Now just put it in here, at the back."
He rolled slightly toward her, grimaced, and pointed to the place with his right hand. "Yeah. Now plug the other end into the wall jack. Over there."
She did as he asked. He flipped up the screen and turned the computer on. Tracy retreated to the desk and sat down on the hard chair. He used the computer one-handed. She watched him type, pecking out the letters. His other hand lay motionless on the bed. He typed briefly and then there was the sound of the phone dialing, connecting to the Internet.
"I'm going to need you to run an errand," he said, looking up. He let his head fall back against the pillows. His voice was softer now, some of the tension gone. "To deliver a message. You can pick up something to eat when you're out."
"Who was he?" she said, nodding toward the door.
Alex tilted his head back farther, toward the narrow window where gently moving green leaves filled the pane. "Head of the gene pool."
It sounded like a statement of defeat. His mouth was tight. He kept his eyes on the sway of the leaves beyond the glass.
Teena Mulder stirred and opened her eyes. The center of the room lay in shadow. It was nearly six. She'd fallen asleep in the wing chair for the second time in as many weeks. Still groggy, she rose and headed for the kitchen, conscious of the empty ticking of the clock on the mantel. The scene around her seemed oddly hollow, as if it had shape but no substance. It had been hard having them here--difficult and wonderful--though she'd wakened more than one night from the thought that Leland might come, that she might open the door to find him, unnervingly poised, standing on her doorstep with his smile and his faux concern. He still might come, and she would do what she had to--whatever it took--to protect her son and his partner.
Fox and Dana were being driven together by circumstances, by the outside pressures that assailed them both. It wasn't always enough, that pressure, to make a match, to forge a lasting link. When the pressure changed, or came from a different direction... But they had something--a respect, a mutual concern. A depth she and Bill had never touched.
Teena opened a cabinet, closed it and looked into another. She went to the refrigerator and stood with the door open, her mind far from dinner. She had no appetite: They were gone. She sighed, shut the door, filled a glass with water from the sink and drank it slowly, looking out into the back yard, her eye drawn to the garage door. She would never look at that door again without picturing Alex there, asleep under the dusty packing blanket, weathered, used to anything, to survival. A man Dana'd had to shoot because he'd come out of a closet to accost her. He'd been holding a knife to her throat.
She recalled the trip to the hospital late at night, Bill anxious for it all to be over, to have the graphic reminder of her infidelity wiped from his daily life while she attempted to ride out the contractions, ready to have the painful ordeal past. If she'd known... What could she have done to shelter this son, to keep him from becoming what he was? The woman had tried to warn her--Leland's wife--showing up unexpectedly at her door one afternoon, a frantic woman seemingly with a vendetta. She hadn't taken her seriously at the time, set as she was in her own shame. Later she realized that the woman hadn't come to confront but to warn her, to let her know what Leland was capable of. She'd left her name and address on a piece of paper, and though Teena hadn't known quite why at the time, she'd kept the paper and hid it.
Setting the glass in the sink, she went into the bedroom. She reached for Samantha's picture on the dresser, the one in the rose frame, and carefully worked the back off. Underneath the cardboard was a yellowed slip of paper with writing on it in green fountain pen. Cassandra Spender, it said. There was an address below the name, and a telephone number, undoubtedly out of date after all these years. She set the paper on the bedspread and sat down beside it. Turning the frame over, she traced her daughter's features with a finger in the weakening light.
"You hungry, Mulder?"
"Are you? We can stop."
"I asked you first."
"Yeah, I guess. Maybe I'm just tired of driving. Or sitting. Maybe I need to take a walk. I think my ass has been permanently flattened in the last few days."
"There was a sign back there. There's a restaurant about three miles ahead. They're becoming few and far between on this road."
"Okay, we'll check it out."
Scully turned to look at a passing billboard, then settled back into her seat. "A walk would be nice. I can't remember the last time I went walking in the woods." She leaned her head back against the head rest. Her hair fell away from her face and neck.
"Well, you've got your wish. Thousands of acres of forest in every direction. Take your pick."
She was looking out the window, and he could tell that the bigger picture hadn't quite sunk in. She was still in that post-finals stage, relieved at having made it through the meeting with her mother, happy to be away from the Corridor where Smoky was more likely to be watching. But it was okay. A few hours without worry could only do her good. He'd spent the last few speculating about Kentucky, planning ahead... or maybe just trying to keep his mind off Scully and what she might have meant by that last kiss, if if it had meant anything at all beyond the sheer release of the moment's tension. They'd need places to stay, ways to avoid attention. Something meaningful to do. Maybe it would just be a pit stop, a place to regroup and make a real plan. There had to be worse things than living your life out in a little town, working an ordinary job and hoping you'd end up with enough retirement to survive on when you were old and arthritic, but at the moment he couldn't think of any.
"Here it is, Mulder."
She pointed to the right. He signaled and pulled off into a broad parking lot. At the back of the lot sat a restaurant and a modest motel surrounded by forest. To the left was an old, restored pioneer cabin, a monument of some sort.
"What do you think, Scully? Done enough traveling for one day?"
"We're not likely to do any better by going on. Yeah, I think I'm ready to stop."
"If we're lucky they'll have adjoining rooms. From the look of things they're not full. You want to eat first?"
"No. Actually"--she looked off toward the little cabin--"actually a walk sounds good. Eating... involves sitting down."
"Go ahead. Stretch your legs. I'll go get us a couple of rooms."
"I think I'm going to go over there." She pointed toward the cabin. "Looks like the view might be nice."
"I'll meet you there when I'm done."
She got out of the car and stretched. He watched as she headed toward the cabin, toward the west where the sun was dipping toward the horizon. Another hour of light and it would set behind half a dozen gentle ridgelines fading from green to pale blue. He got out of the car and locked the door. It was quiet. There was a penetrating peace about the place. Which was a good thing. Maybe the best thing they could have.
Tracy stood under the awning of the map store, watching the reflection of the square behind her in the glare of the window, waiting. Behind the glass all sorts of maps were displayed: new maps, antique maps on yellowing paper, even one on what appeared to be thinly stretched cowhide. One was local, a map of downtown Washington from the early 1800's showing the square where she stood. It was a small town then, nothing like bustling place behind her. If she pressed her face against the glass she could read the clock inside on the wall. Nearly six. Whoever she was supposed to meet, to give Alex's paper to, should be here soon. He was her opposite, Alex was. He was a planner, a strategizer, always looking ahead to count the cost and the gain.
Footsteps approached and a man appeared at the window on the far side of the shop door. He stopped and seemed to study a sign posted on the glass. Tracy's heart stopped and then started again. He glanced toward her without recognition and then looked back through the window, his eyes roaming over the displays, but she recognized him--tall, bald-headed, with a strong jaw: the man from her dream, the old soldier. This was the one Alex was looking for, though the hardness inside him, what there was of it, wasn't anything like the kind that held Alex.
The man glanced over again, and this time Tracy saw recognition hit him. His mouth pressed into a thin line.
"I have a message," she ventured, fingering the paper in her pocket.
He scowled. "Do I... know you?"
The tall man blinked once and stared. He took several steps toward her--close--close enough to make her uncomfortable. He took the paper she held out and read it. One corner of his mouth pulled up and twitched. He looked back at her.
"Who are you?" He seemed to tower over her, though his voice was quiet, nearly a whisper.
She swallowed. "Tracy. My name is Tracy."
He breathed out slowly. "Do you know me? Have you ever seen me before today?"
His hand was on her shoulder now.
She shrugged. "Yes. No. Not... around here."
"Where then? When?"
"I can't... I don't know." She moved away from his touch.
The corner of his mouth pulled. "What do you remember?"
"Only... you talking about the man you were trying to rescue. And then I woke up. I was in my room."
She watched his eyes. He knew what had happened--he'd seen the same scenario she had--but he hadn't wanted to believe it. It fell outside his ordered universe.
"What are you doing"--he leaned in toward her--"working for Krycek? He's a very, very dangerous man."
"I'm not. I'm just... It's just an errand. He needed help."
"The kind of help Krycek needs, you can't give him. Look, I can't emphasize enough how dangerous this man is." He paused, looking at her clothes. "If you need anything, a way to get to somewhere, money..."
She shook her head. "I have to do this."
"He needs it."
"What about what you need? Krycek is using you. You don't know who he is, what he's capable of."
She just looked at him. He could see it reflected in her eyes: She did know. She knew all too well. What he couldn't grasp is why she would stay with him, knowing.
"He needs someone," she said, her lips unsteady. "You did."
He swallowed and took a step backward, his mouth struggling to straighten itself. She watched as he turned and strode across the street toward the square and the pay phone the note had instructed him to use.
There had been no tails. She'd watched the road behind them as Mulder drove and had seen nothing suspicious. They'd turned in the first rental car outside Baltimore, switched agencies and rented another. They should be completely untraceable...for a day or two anyway.
And after that? But it was enough, this reprieve. She should take it and use it. Like Mulder had said, some things were simple. She'd spent a lifetime complicating them.
Scully let her hand drift along the worn gray wood of the cabin's window frame and looked out across ridge after ridge of soft, hazy mountains. The air was still warm, a soft breeze coming in through the open window, lifting her hair slightly from her face. She closed her eyes and let the air current play.
Footsteps came up the stairs.
"Jackpot," Mulder said, coming in and walking up to the next window. "Adjoining rooms. They're downstairs. They had two upstairs, separated. It might be quieter but I figured adjoining was better."
"You mean so if you find a really exciting TV special on Bigfoot you can come and tell me?" she asked, the smile in her voice inescapable.
He flushed. "Yeah. Something like that."
She was silent a moment. "It's so beautiful, Mulder--miles and miles, woods as far as you can see." She turned to look at him. "But why would anyone build a house way up here, a hundred miles away from anything?"
"Maybe because it is so beautiful." He shrugged and half-smiled. "Hell, maybe the guy was watching for alien craft and everyone he knew laughed at him. Maybe he just wanted to get away."
She let her fingers travel the window ledge again. "Does it make you wonder who lived here? Who they were and what their story was? A man tending a farm, growing crops and animals the best he could, a woman making butter and clothes--" Her throat tightened.
"Drought, crop failures," he said, not missing a beat, knowing exactly what she'd be thinking--what she'd left out. "Normal life?" he said softly, joining her at her window. He slipped an arm around her waist.
"Normal life." She let herself lean against his warmth.
"Want to walk, Scully? They wouldn't have built a house without a water source nearby. I bet there's a creek."
"Okay." She straightened. "It's so quiet here. I think that's what I like the best about it."
"Good to get your call," the voice on the other end said mockingly.
"What do you want, Krycek?" Skinner snarled.
"To keep you out of prison blues for the next ten to fifteen years."
"Why?" Skinner looked across the square, to where Tracy lingered near the window of the map shop.
"Oh, I don't know. Seems like the right thing to do."
"I take it this is part of your own personal agenda, Krycek, since the man you work for is the one who set me up."
"Got to look out for yourself. He taught me that."
"No? What, rather stay on your high moral ground? What's it going to get you, Skinner? A lot of years in a small cell. What can you do there?"
"I won't be your puppet, Krycek."
"Ten to fifteen. Think about it. You know what it's like to have your whole life programmed from the outside--when to eat, when to sleep, when to shit and shower? How old will you be when you get out?"
Skinner swallowed. "So what do you want from me and how are you going to keep me out?"
"There are a million ways to fight a conviction. Loss of evidence, a judge in your pocket..."
"Then what do you want from me? What's in this for you?" He looked across the square to the map shop. The girl was gone.
"There was a video recorder found in Mulder's old apartment. I want you to be the one who planted it."
Skinner's mouth tightened. "And why would I have done that?"
"Because you were concerned about Mulder's mental state? Maybe because you were worried about whether he'd be stepping out of line outside office hours? You figure it out. A little creativity could be worth years of freedom."
Skinner breathed out. "It's a lopsided deal. What else are you looking for?"
"For the time being, nothing."
"I'll come up with something."
"It's a devil's deal."
"It's your life. You figure out what it's worth. You've got an hour. I'll call back then."
The phone went dead. Skinner held the receiver in his hand a moment and looked across the square into deepening shadows.
"It is beautiful. Did you ever play in the woods, Mulder, when you were a kid?" Scully stepped carefully between rocks near the stream.
"I guess you couldn't exactly call what we had woods. I visited Sherwood Forest once, though."
"Yeah, it was kind of a side trip. Some Oxford friends and I went to this town called Whitby, a little village on the northeast coast of England. The guy in Dracula--you know, the one who goes to the castle and discovers things are pretty squirrelly--was supposed to have come from there."
She gave him a look.
"And Sherwood Forest wasn't that far away; how could we resist? What?"
Scully suppressed a smile. "I want to cross the stream."
"You're just changing the subject."
"No, I want to. I want to see what's over there. Are you coming?"
"Yeah, if there's a decent place to cross. This is the only pair of shoes I've got."
"There are plenty of rocks. You've just got to walk carefully, test them first. Look, they're just like stepping stones."
"Scully the Indian guide."
She started carefully into the shallow water, going from one broad stone to another.
"Your feet are smaller than mine, Scully. You can find more rocks to stand on."
"There are plenty, Mulder. Look here."
He followed her, stepping carefully, gauging his course from one to another. Clear, unpolluted water ran six inches deep between scattered rocks in a broad, shallow stream bed. Trees lined both banks, their canopies a clear, young green. Scully had reached the far bank. A small patch of grass spread near the edge and disappeared six or eight feet back into tangled vines. He watched his feet, gauging his moves like the moves of a chess piece, until finally he was close enough to step onto the security of the bank. A sudden flush of heat and fine sweat covered him.
"You okay, Mulder?"
"Yeah, I just... You know how you feel for a while after a fever, the way you get this hot flush every once in a while?"
"Why don't you sit for a minute?"
He eased himself down onto the grass. She put a hand against his forehead and then sat down beside him. From this angle the sun was beginning to sink below the treetops.
"Would you rather watch the sun go down from up above where you can see the ridge lines, Scully?"
She shook her head. He looked at her questioningly.
"It's--" She looked down. "When I was taken... where Duane Barry took me... It was--" She breathed out. "It was nearly sunset, in a place like this. It was part of this same range, actually."
"Hey." He tipped her chin up softly with the side of a finger.
She smiled briefly and looked into the flowing water. He let his eyes fall closed. All around them was the spilling noise of the stream.
"You know, Mulder, I want to thank you. For making me do that, for making me go see my mother today. I think I would have chickened out, just thinking about what my decisions have done to her, how they've changed her life."
"I didn't make you, Scully. I try not to crowd you."
She raised her eyebrows and then slowly shook her head. "I didn't mean that--what I said back there in the motel. I--"
"I know. I think you already told me."
She looked at him. The beginning of a smile was on his face. She blushed and turned away.
"But thank you, Mulder. I'm glad I have that memory to carry with me--seeing her." She reached out, picked up a pebble and rubbed the surface carefully with her thumb. She turned it over and over and then tossed it lightly into the stream. It sank with a 'plunk'. Water droplets rose from the place and fell again.
"Penny for your thoughts," he said.
"No, I--" She shook her head. "I'm just enjoying this." She gestured. "The trees, the water. No armed men jumping out of my closet, no going to your apartment and finding--" She stopped and traced a line in the sand between large pebbles.
"Let it go, Scully." He set a hand on her shoulder. "Just take this"--he gestured around them--"all this, while you can. Come here."
He shifted and motioned for her to sit in front of him. She hesitated, then moved over his near leg and settled herself. He locked his arms around her waist and she let herself be pulled back against him. It was like the other night in his room, only without the anguish. He smiled.
"Close your eyes, Scully."
Skinner got up from the bench and paced the square again. He felt the weight of eyes on him, though there were none. Not Krycek's, anyway. The girl could be watching. But she'd gone, as far as he could tell. Somehow he doubted she was any part of this. At least, not knowingly. She was strange, though; she seemed to know too much. Or maybe just too deeply.
She was nothing more than a ragged kid, a child.
Skinner shivered involuntarily and looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes. A quarter of an hour to decide his future and what options did he have? Give himself over to Krycek and hope for the best? He'd been under a thumb before; the Smoking Man had nearly undone him. Like the mob, these people would bleed you forever, slowly but surely, until you were drained. But the alternative? It left him nothing. Locked away. Out of the way, no chance to make a mark, to atone...
Mulder and Scully were still out there somewhere. The Cancer Man wanted them, too, and where would it all end if no one stepped out into the line of fire and made a stand?
The phone in the phone booth rang. Skinner frowned and glanced at his watch. 6:50. How like Krycek to tighten the noose by calling early. He grimaced and sprinted for the booth.
"You make up your mind, Skinner?"
"How do I know you'll actually be able to do anything for me?"
There was a pause on the other end. "Guess you'll just have to trust me."
Skinner squinted toward the west, where the sun was sinking, molten and fiery, between two buildings. He took a breath and grimaced. "Okay."
"Good choice. I'll be in touch."
A click and the phone went dead. Skinner remained where he was, lips pressed tight, phone held absently in one loosening hand.
Maybe there was some way he could help the girl.
Then again, he'd tried to help Bronco. He could still feel the jolt of the bullets ripping into the kid's body.
Scully closed her eyes and let herself loosen. The stream poured its muted music in front of her. A cool dampness tinged the air now, settling a chill on her arms. Below them, under Mulder's arms, her middle was warm. The sweet scent of green growth filled the air.
She settled again, let her thoughts dissolve. Leaves rustled in the breeze. Air wafted past her face, through her hair, near her ear. No, it was him.
She turned toward him. Mouths met, joined, lingered. Reached again. No warning bells, no jangling alarms this time. No need to pull back, only the need to go closer--don't hold back, Scully, he was saying without words. Come closer. And she did, eyes closed, her body softening, loosening. Come out and play, Scully. Wanting, breathless, warm, aching.
Her head spun. She needed to breathe, but his lips were a magnet, drawing her. Fingers filled with current traveled skin thirsty for touch, lazy, loosening, dangerous, welcome. Smiles bloomed. A thread of hunger swelled and grew.
Breathe. She reached for air, breathed him in.
Hands traced slow fire. She was a flower with petals falling open--soft, damp, tender. Trembling. Trust me, Scully. Wanting, aching.
He was lifting her, they were going, over the stones in the fading light, dreamlike, hazy, hurried, slow, hands clasped: a lifeline. Up the stream bed, over rocks, upward on the small trail, panting, needy, stopping, pressed against a tree, smiles and wetness, hands and hunger: urgency. His hand, pulling her up the trail again--breathe--wanting, wanting to breathe him, have this. Have him.
Parking lot. Asphalt, feet moving, unfeeling, skimming distance, cold--cold air, arms cold--cars, parking lot lights, clarity. Doors: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11--hers.
They stopped. He nodded, questioning, silent, flushed. Eyes begging.
They moved again. Stopped. A key slipped into the lock. The air was cold, they were panting; the door stood open. The dark interior enveloped them with its warmth. Time slowed. Her heart raced. She felt her skin prickle and walked to the window.
Sudden clarity, her fingers cold against the glass, the door behind her closing.
Somewhere in the background, keys settled on a desktop. She could hear him--feel him--coming closer. A shiver ran through her. It was a cliff's edge. Or a diving board.
"Mulder, this is hard..."
Arms slipped around her waist, under her shirt, warm, steady; heat against her bare skin.
"No, it's not, Scully." Warm breath against her ear, making her body melt. "It's easy."
Tracy paused in front of Alex's door, then knocked and slowly turned the handle. Her charge was sitting on the edge of the bed, a cane in one hand, breathing back pain. He forced it away when he saw her.
"You get the food?" he said, his words tight and clipped.
She nodded and held out two cartons.
"Good. I have to take a couple of painkillers but I need to eat something first." He nodded toward the alcove at the end of the bed. "Bowls are over there."
She went to the shelves and got a bowl and a spoon.
"Some of each," he said, easing himself back onto the bed while she was turned around. She opened the cartons on the desk and put some of the contents of each carton into the bowl. It was Chinese. It smelled wonderful.
When the bowl was filled, she took it to where he lay against the pillows, but her eyes fell on something curious on his left side. There was only a stump of his left arm, ending midway between shoulder and elbow. She tried to look away but their eyes met. He shrugged and took the bowl.
"Get yourself some," he said in the flat, matter of fact tone he did so well. "There's plenty. You probably haven't been eating too well out of those dumpsters, and you've got more than just yourself to think about."
She lowered her eyes, went to the alcove and retrieved a second bowl and a plastic spoon. Moving to the desk, she spooned out some food and sat down. Delicious fragrances drifted up to meet her. She took a bite, and then another, and then one more; she was much hungrier than she'd thought. When she looked up she found him watching her. Her eyes, like a homing beacon, went right to the stump. She tried to look away.
The room was stuffy, close. It had probably been closed up the whole time he'd been in the hospital. She returned her focus to the bowl of food, took several more bites and stopped to search through the bag for a napkin. He was staring straight ahead but she could feel his focus on her.
"There are Cokes in the fridge," he said, breaking the silence. "You should pick up some milk tomorrow."
She nodded, returned her gaze to the bowl and filled her spoon again.
She looked up, startled.
"This is stupid. One question each. You tell me about the kid and I'll tell you about the arm. Get it out of the way."
She swallowed and nodded. "What happened?" she said.
"A group of guys in a forest in Russia cut it off. They were trying to save me from being used in medical experiments."
He watched her reaction. Strange as his story sounded, she could tell it was the truth.
"What about the kid?" he said, nodding toward her.
"I.-- She set the bowl down. "I don't know. I don't... remember anything. Nothing." She stared at the rice grains in the bottom of the bowl and felt her face start to redden. They always gave her 'the look' when she said it--the smirk, the 'wake up, clueless girl' look. Alex wasn't sneering, though; he was alarmed. She glanced up at him.
She hesitated. He said it again.
Reluctantly she stood, crossed the room to the bed and sat down warily where he patted the space beside him. Her fingers curled tightly into her palms.
"No, turn." He gestured.
She swallowed and turned away. She could feel him pulling up behind her, coming closer, then a hand touched the back of her neck. She tried not to flinch. Fingers brushed away her hair, careful, traveled the back of her neck lightly and then were gone. Relief she could feel flushed through him.
"What?" she said, half-turning.
"Nothing," he said, lying back against the pillows. He shook his head. "Don't worry about it."
Mulder shifted slightly and resettled his cheek against Scully's head. She was asleep, tucked against him; she'd been asleep for over an hour. He opened his eyes, lifted the blankets slightly and looked at the smooth, shadowed body of his partner. The bed smelled of sex, of her--of both of them mingled. He grinned and lay there listening to her breathing, feeling her warm and soft and smooth and alive against him.
It was a 'pinch me' moment, but if it was a dream he didn't want to know. Anyway, no dream could have brought him this stranger-but-better-than-fiction scenario, Scully finally walls-down, wanting him. Scully who trusted no one--opened up to no one--trusting herself to him.
Skinner stepped off the elevator and headed unseeing toward his door. Bypassing a janitor polishing the floor, he stopped in front of his apartment door and fished in a pocket for his keys.
"Krycek's gone, sir."
The voice came quietly from behind him. He turned to see the janitor and reddened.
"Uh, do you think you could polish my entry with that thing?" he said, clearing his throat, projecting slightly.
"I think so, sir. I'll give it a try." Wilkins gathered his machine and the cord together and went through the door Skinner held open.
"I hate having to admit this but your philosophy of disguise is... disturbingly on target, Agent Wilkins," Skinner said, closing the door. "My apologies for not noticing you."
Wilkins shrugged. "A good disguise is one that works." He paused. "I checked the hospital again tonight, sir. Krycek's gone. He was discharged this afternoon. I guess we've lost him."
Skinner sighed and shook his head. "It's not quite that simple."
Scully picked up a pebble from beside Mulder's door and rolled it absently between her fingers. The sky was littered with stars. It had been years since she'd seen so many, galaxies and galaxies flung like dust across the face of matte-black heavens. In the west, clouds were building, rising higher and higher into the sky, blotting out stars with their gray-white as they went. The step was cold underneath her. She shivered and pulled Mulder's shirt around her more tightly.
Her stomach growled. She should shower. She should have showered when she woke up, Mulder lost in dreamy sleep. Somehow she didn't want to. She wasn't ready.
Behind her the door creaked and opened a few inches. She turned around.
"What are you doing?" Mulder said, stepping outside. He had just his jeans on. His hair was wild.
"Just sitting, looking at the stars." She looked up. He sat down beside her. "There aren't many places you can see this many."
He said nothing.
"Are you hungry, Mulder? I'm starving."
"A little. I guess I can wait till morning. There's a light on over there, in the restaurant, though." He pointed. "I bet they'd give you something if you asked."
"You mean if I went over and begged shamelessly, pleading raging hormones as a reason for not coming to dinner when they were open?" She shook her head and smiled, set a hand on his knee and looked toward the restaurant. "As a matter of fact, I think I will."
"Plead raging hormones?"
"No, try to get them to give me something." She stood. "Want to come?"
"No, I... It's probably better... you know, if we aren't seen together."
She nodded, stood and started toward the restaurant.
His voice was soft. He was standing in the doorway now. "Scully, when you're done... come back and sleep with me."
(End Chapter 5)
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