Sanctuary

by bardsmaid

Chapter 8

 

Monday

 

"Be careful," Alex's voice drifted, almost an afterthought, from the silent shadows.

Tracy nodded, slipped out into the hallway and closed the door behind her. She'd promised him she'd take the elevator. She walked up to it and pushed the button. At the far end of the hallway, a small window framed the slick black of night--as black, anyway, as a big city could get with its lights always on.

When the metal door slid open, Tracy got in, pushed at the third floor button and leaned her head against the wall. She squeezed her eyes shut against a sudden stinging and squeezed the handrail harder.

This was supposed to be simple, but each day it was becoming more complex. The actual work was easier as she got to know Alex and could anticipate his needs and moods, but his father... It wasn't just that he planned to have her killed when Alex no longer needed her help; the knowledge that Alex lived in that kind of danger every day was enough to make her resolve to stay as long as he needed the help and the danger wasn't too close.  The catch was that learning to depend on her assistance--to be at ease with it, and with her--was going to break down the wary instincts that protected him.  And in the end it was his edge, not her, that would keep Alex alive.

Every thought he had about her, every concern for how she'd provide for her child or what her best escape strategy might be when it became too dangerous for her to stay, was a distraction from the critical business of protecting himself. He wasn't unaware of it, either.  He'd been wrestling with it in his head when she went down to give him his meds.

The elevator door sucked closed abruptly, making Tracy jump. It had been standing open at her own floor but she'd been oblivious. Quickly she pushed the 'open' button and stepped out into the hallway. The stairs to the roof were right beside the elevator, and she started up automatically, one hand on the railing. Be careful, he'd said. She thought of their climb the evening before: the way his belt loop cut into her fingers, the pressure of his hip against hers as they lifted together, the slow but ultimately coordinated rhythm that had developed as they reached the higher stairs.

On the landing she paused and opened the door to the patio. The air was thick and close. Beads of sweat sat on her forehead and upper lip. The area beyond the dim half-circle of stairway light was empty--no shadow-shapes, no stray thoughts to indicate anyone outside. She crossed to the ledge, leaned against the still-warm wall and closed her eyes. A current of languid air meandered across the patio and began to dry the dampness between her eyelashes. Behind her, the leaves on the top of the oak tree--Alex's tree--murmured gently and then were still.

If she was hurting as much as helping Alex, then what was she doing here?

Looked at from anyone else's point of view, her life made no sense, a seemingly rudderless boat adrift in the current. She did prepare in her own way; it simply wasn't one that anyone else would comprehend. But faced with the stark possibility of having to leave, it hardly seemed to measure up.  Alex had said it himself: It was one thing for her to navigate by her internal sonar; it was something else to make another life depend on it.

Four or five weeks.  Where would she go?  How would she get there?  How would she find food and shelter?  She had no starting point, no ability to plan ahead like other people, to point in a direction and simply start toward it.  And two mouths to feed, Alex would remind her.

Assuming, of course, that the old man didn't surprise them and catch her somehow. But Alex would be watching him carefully for signs. She might not be the sister he'd never known, but the old man had already taken too many of Alex's playing pieces from the board, and he was determined not to let the old man snatch this one.

Maybe she should leave now, before it came to that. Before it became a critical choice for either of them.

Tracy gripped the ledge and let her head come down to rest against it. The air was nearly motionless now and her T-shirt, almost dry, was no longer a source of cool relief. Beads of sweat formed around the place where her forehead touched the brick.

What would her mother have done, or said?  What would she think of her daughter's inability to picture or even imagine her a year later?

Tracy closed her eyes. In her mind she saw herself as if from above, one thin girl on a darkened rooftop, a tiny island in a vast, black sea of emptiness.

 

 

"I wonder what we actually know about this case."

Scully rolled toward the voice. "You still awake, Mulder?"

"Yeah. I guess I just can't sleep. Looks like you caught a few minutes, though."

"Not really. I've just been lying here, too, thinking."

"About?"

"About who at Beeson-Lymon stands to benefit from exposing their employees to something life-threatening. From a business standpoint, it doesn't make any sense." She curled onto her side facing him. "I mean, it's not efficient to take the time to train an employee and then lose that experience. And there's always the risk of getting caught. Without someone at the plant cooperating, someone high up in the company infrastructure who's getting a big payoff from all of this--"

"It wouldn't be happening at all."

"Exactly."

"And the connection's definitely been established? I mean, we know for a fact that these people were overexposed?"

"Evidently there's been anecdotal evidence for years, Mulder, but Rita's husband Bob certainly seemed to bear that out. The scar tissue I found on his lungs was textbook."

"But you're not sure about Andy?"

"I... No. Skinner was in a hurry. I took the tissue samples intending to examine them at Quantico, but I didn't actually study them. I thought I'd have time but--"

"They've probably disappeared by now.  If they ever arrived at all."

"Which means we have no way of making a broader connection other than by locating other potential victims' bodies to exhume."

"Hey, we've done that before."

"Yes, but we have no jurisdiction now." She paused, studied his face and frowned. "Mulder."

Soft lips touched her temple. "Scully, I'm not advocating doing anything stupid. I wouldn't do anything to expose us. Expose you. You know, we might not be the only ones with an interest here, though. We wouldn't have to make the first move if there were other victims' families who were wondering about the cause of their loved ones' deaths."

"Rita would have to be very careful about approaching anyone in order not to expose herself. She's the next logical target, Mulder, if the Smoking Man thought someone was looking into this again."

"I know."

"And she has her granddaughter to raise."

"I met her. Quiet little kid. Big, sad eyes."

A pause.

"You must have taken to her, Mulder."

His head came off the pillow. "That supposed to mean something?"

"Just that your radar's always tuned in to little lost girls. Lost sisters. Lost partners." She rested her head against him. "I'm certainly grateful."

"Scully, you've--" He shook his head. "You've saved me so many times. They would have thrown me in a padded cell by now if not for you."

She felt herself being enveloped, held.

"Mulder, have you ever stopped to think that if you were to find her--if you found your sister--how grateful she'd be to know there was someone who never gave up on her, even after all those years?"

 

 

To: 03224@quick.net
From: buzz38@telcom.com
Heat's on. Lots of questions being asked. I'm thinking of taking a few sick days.

 

 

To: buzz38@telcom.com
From: 03224@quick.net
No better way to shine the light on yourself than to disappear. Stay right where you are.

Krycek switched off the laptop, lay back and stared hard at a spot where the morning sun was burning a bright abstract on the wall. Buzz was losing it. Hell, if he ran he'd be suspected for sure, and if they found him... If Buzz actually did run, he was also likely to talk if he was caught and pushed. The game could be up. He was in no shape to run from the old man now. Granted, there were layers between Buzz and himself for safety. They had only mail contact; Buzz wouldn't recognize him if he saw him. Still, there were ways to trace connections and the old man would look hard to find whoever had crossed his plans to take Skinner down.

Krycek glanced at the clock. Nearly seven. Tracy should show up soon. It had been six hours again, though she'd seemed distant the last time, not the little candle in the dark she usually was.

Whatever. It was probably all for the better. Keep it professional. There was a month at best until she'd have to take off; after that, this little stint would be just a blip in both their pasts, the kind of thing you'd never think of again. What she needed was to get herself a plan together: figure out where she could go, how she could support herself. Have a safe place for herself by the time the kid came. Self-preservation: In the end, it was the one game everybody played, from kings down to the guy in the gutter. She needed to know how to compete.

And who the hell had just shot him with the rosy dart of optimism? There were thirteen years and counting--hardly time to make any kind of life, especially for a kid. Thirteen years if nothing went wrong with the plan, if the colonists didn't sniff out the real results of the cloning project, if the rebels didn't come screaming back in with their big guns, if... There were a thousand ways for things to go bad.

Krycek chuffed out a jagged breath and sunk his fist into a convenient pillow. The pain was building again, regular as clockwork. Time to eat something and face that familiar fork in the road: step off on another trip to dreamland or try to hold onto his clarity while the pain bucked him like a rodeo steer. What if the old man came and tried to get information out of him when he was too messed up to cover for himself? A clear head wasn't clear for long, though, when it was being worked by a steady drumbeat of pain.

Krycek eased himself off the bed, made his way slowly to the refrigerator and opened the door. There was leftover ensaladilla in a little yogurt container Tracy had washed out and saved. Dinner II, The Sequel, but it got the vote over a can of tuna; he had no stomach for that. He reached for the container, set it on top of the refrigerator and worked the lid off. Spoon from the box on the shelf--she always washed and reused, even though they were only plastic, a nice sign--and then to the small desk, barely steady.

Don't drop anything you can't pick up, old man.

He eased himself onto the chair.

Finally settled, he dipped in with the spoon and started to eat. It had more flavor at room temperature, the way they served it in Europe, but it was pretty good anyway, pain and sour stomach aside. It had been prepared up the traditional way--a neat mound of mild potato salad decorated all over with hard boiled egg slices and little carrot circles, something to set in a restaurant window if this had been Madrid.

Marisela, the restaurant owner's daughter, had one of those dresses--those Mexican or Guatemalan things--long and loose, cool cotton, with the embroidery at the top, the kind of thing that would suit Tracy for the hot weather. Maybe Marisela could find one. She was the only person who had both his face and his name. First name, anyway. She was the quiet type, certainly no centerfold, worked at her father's restaurant, kept her head slightly down, her eyes to herself. She knew when not to talk, when not to ask questions.

Krycek looked up. The sky was bright now. Sunlight was beginning to flood the desktop, bringing heat with it. He managed to make it halfway through the container, then stood carefully. He looked at the bathroom door, then at the refrigerator. By now the pain in his side was throbbing like a second heart. He made his way toward the bathroom, yogurt container pressed against the cane handle with two fingers.

Halfway there, it fell. He stared down at it a moment. Not worth the effort; Tracy would be here soon enough. He continued to the bathroom: pain pill from the small bottle, antibiotics from the larger one, water from the faucet. He took the pills and chased them with the glass of water, paused and looked in the mirror. Pale. He looked like some homeless guy nobody would step out of the way for. It would get better, though.  It was all a matter of riding it out, pacing himself. And hoping he hadn't been terminally left in the dust by the time he was back up to speed.

The pain bit into him harder now. He set the glass on the edge of the sink, arm shaking. A turn to move and the glass went down with a sharp clatter. He grabbed the edge of the sink, closed his eyes, steeled himself. She'd get it. Just leave it, get back to the bed before the pills started to take effect, before it was him lying on the floor.

She never slept this late.

Later, when he'd gotten past the strung-out stage, he'd call Marisela. If she found something he could send Tracy back to the restaurant to pick it up. Maybe toward evening, when the heat wouldn't be as bad.

Carefully Krycek eased himself onto the mattress, pulled his feet up and fumbled with the blanket. He'd warned the other boys about the little blond Sergei--that he was too frail, that he'd never last. He hadn't, and they'd paid the consequences of getting too close. But then who was he to talk? Who'd been in the 'quiet room' while the kid was taking his last breaths?

He tilted his head back and glanced at the clock. The numbers were beginning to blur. 7:17. Or 7:11, he couldn't quite tell. Hopefully Buzz would stay put and the old man wouldn't end up hunting him down now, while he was nothing more than a sitting duck. Lying duck.

She never waited this long to come.

 

 

Maybe it was Monday morning clarity, or possibly the side effect of having been at Skinner's the night before. Or the fact that his mind was working with pieces of the dilemma, like building blocks, already arranging and rearranging them even as he woke. But the possibility taking shape in his head wasn't pretty. Not one bit.

Will rolled onto his back--or attempted to. He stopped halfway after making contact with a warm lump behind him and reached a hand out of the covers.

"Hey, Ralph, old man. Move a little, will you?"

Ralph lifted his head, got up, turned a circle and settled down again, closer to the pillow this time.

Will sniffed. "You need a bath, RalphMan." He reached for the dog's head, stroked it, and closed his eyes again. Nine o'clock--that was when he and Manny were due to report to Palmer. Hopefully Skinner would be back now that the trumped-up case against the A.D. should have fallen apart. Palmer was more a bureaucrat than a lover of justice. Just so the reports all meshed and the boxes were all checked off. It was the only thing that really mattered to him.

It was Maggie. More and more it seemed like she might end up being the key. Or the fall guy.  Fall woman.  And 'fall woman' had a particularly nasty, familiar sound to it. Been there, done that. No more mothers going down--not if there was something he could do to stop it. Skinner had said the old guy had used Scully before to manipulate Mulder.  She was with Mulder now, which should make her safe. But even if the Cancer Man didn't know where she was, she wasn't completely untouchable, either--not if something were to happen to her mother. She could be lured out to her own detriment and once she was, she could be used to lure her partner into the open as well. It seemed to fit the old guy's style to a T.

If this were the Cancer Man's line of reasoning, Maggie Scully was in danger and if that were true, what could be done about it? Warn her?  Disturb her and have her living in constant fear? She was worried already. And if it turned out not to be true, or if he told her and she didn't believe him? Where was the clear-cut cost/benefit ratio here?

Doing nothing didn't seem like a safe option, though. A friendly visit paid, a little help with whatever needed doing--cleaning out gutters, changing the oil in her car. Surely there was something she needed done. It would be a way to get a feel for things, pick up on anything that didn't feel right. That much was do-able.

 

 

Mulder sat on the edge of the unmade bed and scanned the room. Scully was in the shower. Their bags were packed, everything ready to go. They'd made love only once, early in the evening, and then both of them had been tired, or maybe just distracted by the specter of coming separation that loomed over them. Later, they'd found themselves awake in the wee hours and had ended up strategizing, both of them eager to figure out some piece of the puzzle, throwing their focus and energy into it, doing what had come so naturally in the basement office. They'd slept a little afterward, her a little while, him a little while, off and on, close, quiet, each of them filled with the thing he'd seen in his mother when they'd left Greenwich: that tangible harbinger of loss, as if the separation had somehow already happened. As if each of them existed here, in the room, only in the mind of the other, shape without substance, body without soul.

The sound of shower water stopped abruptly in the bathroom. She'd be getting out now, drying off her hair, wrapping herself in a towel while she did whatever it was she was going to do--hair, makeup, brushing her teeth. He looked up at the ceiling and closed his eyes. Maybe he shouldn't have checked his mail a few minutes ago. No, he definitely shouldn't have checked his mail.

"Mulder?" 

He glanced up to find her standing in the doorway wrapped in the towel he'd pictured in his head. Her hair was wet.

"You ready?"  Obviously she wasn't ready. "What? You need something?" He got up, went to the bathroom door, stood there close--too close. Not close enough.

She said nothing. She looked like she'd been about to speak but whatever was on her mind had been preempted. She shrugged and forced a smile tinged with loss.

"Hey, Scully." It was that feeling, that mood. As if someone had died but you didn't know who.

She put her arms around him and let him hold her. He stood there, chin against the top of her head, arms circling her, her hair dampening his shirt.

"It's the lark, Mulder," she sighed, one cheek against his chest.

"Off to Mantua, then, I guess."

She breathed in and then paused. "Why didn't they think of that, Mulder? He could have taken her with him. They could have found someplace for her to stay."

"Probably not the kind of place she was used to. She was a rich guy's daughter, don't forget."

She looked up. "Do you really think she would have cared, Mulder?"

"No." He shook his head. "Not as long as they were there together."

 

 

"Alex, are you okay?"

He was working--straining--to focus on her. "Yeah, I'm... I took another... more pills. A little while..." He shook his head. He had no idea how long ago; his mind was nothing but fuzz.

"You dropped your food on the floor, Alex. I--"

"Slipped. Slipped... my hand." He held his hand out. It hovered a moment in the air and then dropped onto the bed.

"Do you need anything? I'm going out for a walk, before it gets too hot." She pressed her lips together.

"Fridge," he said. "Check it. Need... something--" He pulled up slightly toward her. "Pick out something." He lay back against the pillows.

"I will. I'll find something." She took a step away from the bed. "I'll be back in a while."

She went to the door, opened it and glanced back. If anyone were to find him--find this place, break in--one of his enemies, or his father, if he found him out--he'd be completely helpless. He'd barely know what had happened.

Pressure filled her throat, a by-product of the hollow ache that had haunted her all night.

"Goodbye, Alex," she said.

She bit her lip and closed the door behind her.

 

 

To: dresswhites@zipmail.com
From: heron3@zipmail.com
Any news from Annie? Don't know if you have any projects you need help with around the house. If tall or broad-shouldered will help, give a holler. I'm willing and available and you're not that far away. Let me know.
                                                                           -Will

 

 

"Rita?" Mulder made his voice sound pleasant, casual, like an old family friend or a relative. Just in case they weren't alone on this line. "This is Ben Wallace... Yeah."

A pause to listen.

"Hey, I was just going to be passing through the area--" He squinted toward the car. Scully was shadowed by the windshield. "Yeah, pretty soon, actually. Maybe an hour or so." He glanced at his watch. "Yeah, I'd like that. You going to be home?... Great, then I'll swing by. Yeah. See you then."

 

 

Tracy slipped in past the heavy wooden door and looked up. It was a small, old church with a vaulted ceiling and thick walls. Simple, quiet. No splash of expensive decoration, no mental chatter, just simple dark wood pews and off-white walls that spoke serenity. The tightness in her face dissolved a little. She went to a pew at the rear and sat down.

Thankfully, the place was empty. She closed her eyes. Behind them, images of candles she'd passed flickered quietly in her mind. Quietness was the key. It was the reason she'd come here: the need for quiet to be able to hear the inner voice that gave direction. All night it had been crowded out, overwhelmed by a riot of fears and confusion. Was she just irresponsible, afraid to look at the future and deal with it? Or was the problem a lack of faith in that inner voice, the one that always seemed to point her to where she needed to be if only she paid attention?

There should be a clear sign, something she could sense or see. The bald man, Skinner, had been worried for her. What was she doing running errands for someone like Alex?

She'd left the yellow sweater hanging on the back of Alex's desk chair. It didn't really bring her mother any closer. Maybe it was time to let that symbol go. But it was the only tie she had left, the thinnest thread left to connect her to where she'd come from, to remind her that someone, once, had loved her, had cared for her with all the caring they had in them.

She ran a finger along the smooth edge of the bench beside her. To go or stay?

If she left, the old man would find someone else to help Alex. Alex wouldn't like it, but adapting was a way of life for him. It would only be for a few weeks and then... 

Then he'd be back doing what he usually did.

Her stomach knotted.

Tracy leaned forward and rested her head on the back of the pew in front of her. The hard, polished wood made a dent in her forehead but she didn't move away.

Stay? Leave?

How would she provide for a child?

And where had the being inside her come from in the first place? Everyone knew how babies were made, but she had no real friends, certainly no boyfriends. Boys either wanted to use you, like a Mt. Everest to be scaled with bragging rights for peaks conquered, or they wanted what everyone else did from her--treasure of some sort, as if she were the psychic goose that laid golden eggs. There had been no boys or men. Or romance, or even violence. None that she could remember, anyway. Only the sickness and the little voice quietly unfolding the mystery: a baby. Why? A puzzle with movement and shape but oddly lacking in substance. For her, anyway. Maybe Alex's purpose in this was to make her see the reality of this child.

Tracy looked up and around. No one else had entered. She pillowed her head on her arms, closed her eyes again and tried to focus on her breathing. She forced herself to picture her mother's garden, a mixture of fruit, vegetables and flowers, each row neat, a blending of color and utility. What was it Walter had said the last time, in the last dream? That everything had changed in a second with the decision made by the man who'd saved him--the man who'd lost his arm--and that he'd never realized before how that decision had affected all the people he'd helped since that time. Good things he could never have foreseen had come of it.

Good had come.

It had, whether or not he'd seen it right away.

 

 

Scully got up from Rita's couch and followed Mulder to the entry. Rita had excused herself and gone into the kitchen--strategically, no doubt, to leave them alone. Her brother Dale was waiting outside to follow Mulder to Cincinnati where he'd turn in their rental car, a place close enough, yet far enough away not to give away their location to anyone who might be tracing them.

They stood the way they'd sat on the couch, near enough to feel each other's body heat, not close enough--hopefully--to give themselves away. There was no point in giving away anything they didn't have to. Not even here, to friends and allies.

Mulder paused as he reached the entry and Scully followed suit. He'd seemed distant all morning, preoccupied, but it was understandable.

"You've got the laptop," he said, turning to her. He spoke quietly, close to her ear. "Dale's got a computer. I can contact you on that for now." His lips touched her temple; she wrapped her fingers around one of his. "Hang loose, Scully. I know it's not easy but we'll make it. Just write to me, okay? Don't keep everything bottled up." The tip of his upper lip came down slightly in a V of concern. "I'll be in touch."

He squeezed her hand and let go, opened the door and went out into the hazy light. It was appropriate, the overcast. Scully made herself take the few steps to the front door, closed it, leaned against it. Mantua. This was how Juliet felt.

"Annie?"

Rita's voice came from direction of the kitchen. Scully worked to compose herself, then went toward the voice, through the living room and out into the kitchen. Yellow flowered curtains framed white, multi-paned windows. In the corner was an upholstered breakfast nook. Beyond it, through the window, lush greenery beneath tall trees dropped away to a creek.

"It's beautiful," Scully said, walking closer. "Very beautiful." The words echoed as if she were empty inside, hollow.

"Yes, it is. I've always loved this corner of the house."

Rita looked up from her work. Finally Scully realized what Rita was doing. There was dough of some kind on the table and Rita was kneading it. The room was scented with the pungency of warm yeast.

"Sandy comes to me along that creek," Rita said, nodding toward it. "She's a real nature girl, loves the out-of-doors. I think it's been a solace to her, all the beauty out there."

"Sandy?"

"Sandy Miller. Cy Miller's widow. She's working up at the Barkers' place, did I mention that?"

"Uh, no. No, you didn't."

"She's in need of an income now, and I knew David needed a hand up there. Heather's... well, nobody's ever made an official diagnosis; David's stretched pretty tight. Therapists are a luxury on a budget like his, and anyway, a diagnosis isn't going to change the facts, is it?" She pressed the dough with the heels of her hands and then turned it, precisely, automatically, and repeated the process. "Heather wanders. Sometimes she knows who you are and other times she's just off in her own little world. It's hard on David. Even harder, I imagine, on their little boy, Adrian. That's why Sandy's there. She's keeping an eye on Adrie, and on Heather while she's at it."

Rita stopped kneading and brushed the flour from her hands. "I know it's difficult for her, having to work with another child after losing her own."

I lost a child once.

"But I think in the end it will do her good. These transitions are tough, but just like exercise they strengthen you in the end."

Scully felt Rita's eyes on her and looked up.

"Have you ever made bread, Annie?"

"No, actually... No. I never have."

"I thought we could take this with us when we go. Some for you and some for David's family."

"Thank you." She made herself smile.

"Would you like to give me a hand here?"

Scully hesitated.

Rita came close and put a hand on her shoulder. "I know it's hard right now. You're feeling a little lost, but it'll pass." She smiled. "Let me show you how to do this. It helps, you know, to focus on something."

Scully made herself smile and followed Rita to the flour-dusted counter.

"You need pressure," Rita said, taking the dough and looking back at Scully. "You're pressing out the air bubbles and working the gluten, which is what makes it stick together and not crumble like cake. So you fold over a piece like this... and you press down here, with the heels of your hands. And then you give it a quarter turn and do it again. That's all there is to it--that and just keeping at it long enough to do the job. But I guess that's true of most things, isn't it? Here, you try."

Rita stepped back and Scully moved up to the counter. Her mind was elsewhere: in a rental car headed for Cincinnati; in the thick, warm shadows of a mountain motel room; in the playroom of the county children's center in San Diego.

"Here, we'd better do this first--" She motioned for Scully to hold out her hands. Rita sprinkled them with flour. So the dough wouldn't stick, she said. "Go ahead now."

Rita was calming somehow, warm and encouraging. She almost wanted to do this. Scully reached out and took hold of the dough, warm and soft between her floured fingers. She folded one corner of the mass inward.

"Now press."

She pressed down. Rita's hands were over hers, showing her the motion, down and forward.

"Good. That's it. Now turn."

Scully turned the dough and repeated the process. She turned it again. It was a little easier this time, more fluid. She did it again and turned the dough. Press, turn, press. She focused on the motion, soothing and regular, and let her mind drift.

 

 

"Alex?"

He looked toward the door and struggled to focus. She was there, and hot again; he could see it in her face, though nothing like the day before. He blinked, trying to clear his head, and leaned back against the pillows. "Time? What time is it?"

"About 10:30. I meant to get back sooner." She set a plastic grocery bag on the desk. "I was out. I sort of"--she bit her lip--"fell asleep. I guess I didn't get much rest last night."

He scowled. "Fell asleep where?"

"Just somewhere," she said. "Not anyplace dangerous."

The corner of his mouth curled in disapproval.

"Sorry," she said, looking down and studying a patch of light on the floor. "There's just a lot of stuff swirling around in my head. Like a whirlwind. Chatter. Not worth dragging out," she replied to his unspoken question. She looked at him and shook her head regretfully. "I can't, Alex."

She turned back to the grocery bag. "I did pick up a few things at the grocery store." She started to unload the bag.

His stomach ached vaguely, the effect of the medication. He was still thick, groggy, though it should start to wear off now, the worst of it. He watched her put containers in the fridge, stack a few things on the shelf above.

"I think I need a drink of water," she said when she was finished.

"Have whatever you want in there." He nodded toward the fridge.

"Water's fine." She turned and went into the bathroom. "Did you drop your glass, Alex?"

"Yeah." He eased himself carefully to the side. The sound of running water came from the sink. "This morning. Was a little too far gone for bending down and picking it up."

"It's okay, I can--"

There was a stifled cry and then nothing. He waited, listening, and finally pulled up. "Tracy?"

No reply.

"Hey--" He pulled himself to the edge of the bed.

"It's... nothing, Alex. I just--"

Krycek stood, took the cane and steadied himself and waited for the sudden dizziness to pass. He took a step, then another. Reaching the doorway, he could see her standing in front of the sink, holding her hand under the flow. The water going down the drain was bright red.

 

 

Mulder pulled right, steering toward the center of the lane on the road to Cincinnati. It was the fifth time in as many miles he'd drifted into the lane beside him. He ran a hand back through his hair, opened his eyes wider and willed himself to focus. Lanier must be wondering what the hell was going on. 

He glanced in the rear view mirror. Dale was minding his own business, watching the road. If he was anything like his sister he'd be the discreet type, not likely to mention Mulder's less-than-perfect performance behind the wheel.

Mulder looked ahead again. Hopefully Scully hadn't picked up on his mood, though it wasn't a sure thing. Fox Mulder: not exactly a candidate for World's Most Opaque Guy and even when he telegraphed to no one else, it took very little for Scully to sense something wrong.

His mother's e-mail had been short, recalling what to her would be nothing more than a minor detail from the past: a note written on a yellowing piece of paper hidden for years inside a picture frame and finally retrieved. But the implications were staggering. 

Or maybe they were just staggering for him. Smoky's wife was none other than Cassandra Spender. Which made that weasel Jeffrey Spender his son. He'd always figured Smoky had gotten Spender assigned to the X-files for his own purposes, to interfere with legitimate investigations. Though whether or not the kid understood the extent of what he'd gotten himself into was another story. 

Not that it mattered. He didn't give a shit what Spender'd gotten himself into. What mattered was that Smoky'd engineered it, that he'd installed Spender as a puppet, and what did that imply about Diana? Was she actually there, as she'd promised him, to look after the integrity of the files, to keep the work alive, or was she yet another of Smoky's soldiers in disguise, fulfilling his 'greater plan'? If she was, everything that had ever passed between them had been a lie--all of it, right from the beginning. Scully'd never trusted her. Not that it had been Scully's place to dissect his private life; he'd never dream of doing an analysis of her relationship with Jack Willis. But she'd told him bluntly enough that he was being suckered, and in the end what did it say about him if he had?

Mulder let the window down, rested his arm on the ledge and let the wind blast through his hair. He set his jaw. Eyes on the road, mind on what he was doing. It wouldn't do any good to fuck up now, to drive off the road and leave Scully all alone in this. He glanced at his watch. Half an hour to go. All he really wanted was to close his eyes and sleep.

 

 

Finally she'd taken her washcloth-wrapped hand and gone to sit in the recliner the way he'd told her to--a good thing, because he wasn't up for arguing with her. He gathered the tape from the medicine cabinet, and the gauze, and a pair of tweezers, and stuffed them into his pocket. Then he picked the cane from the door handle. His head was beginning to clear. If this had happened an hour or two ago, he would have been completely useless.

He looked up. She was in the chair, reclined, her face a mixture of pain laced with embarrassment. He made his way across the room and pulled out the desk chair, set it next to the recliner and eased himself down. The timing was good. He had a clear couple of hours now.

"Where'd it cut you?" he said, gesturing for her to let him see.

"Between my fingers."

"Rim must've chipped when I dropped it this morning." He reached for the clean towel clutched uselessly in her other hand and spread it on the arm of the chair. "So you can haul a guy up a set of stairs in a wheelchair or drag a recliner for a city block, but the sight of your own blood turns you to mush?"

She rolled her eyes.  "It's dumb, I know."

"C'mon--" He reached for the hand wrapped in the washcloth; she turned toward him and surrendered it. Her fingers were cold and thin. "Relax, I'm not going to hurt you." He began to unwrap the washcloth, stopped and glanced up at her. "Relax." She'd loosened up only marginally from the way he'd found her in the bathroom, nearly statue-like.

"Sorry," she said ruefully. "They say I have a low pain threshold."

"Yeah." He looked down at the half-wrapped hand. "Close your eyes."

She frowned.

"Look, you're going to have to trust me. Just close your eyes."

After a moment she nodded. Her eyes closed.

Carefully he unwrapped the washcloth. Squeezing a little moisture from the cloth onto the place where the fingers were stuck together, he separated them.  Between her third and fourth fingers, where they joined her hand, was a cut--deep but probably not dangerously so.. And something shiny. He pulled the tweezers from his pocket and readied them. "You holding out?"

"I think so."

But she flinched when he spread her fingers farther apart. He studied her a moment; she was wound like a spring in spite of her intentions.  Another touch and the tweezers might do more harm than good. He shook his head and glanced up at the ceiling.  She needed a sedative. Or a distraction...

The scene that filtered into his mind surprised him.  It was peaceful enough, but sharing it would be like setting out a welcome mat at the door to his mind. Which was the last thing he needed. Anyway, it was personal, one of the few memories he'd ever cared about keeping. 

He leaned forward again, but his moment of opportunity had passed; the cut had filled with blood again.

"Cleaning up--" He squeezed a few drops of water onto the injured area and dabbed at the place with a corner of the washcloth.  This time she didn't jump.  He looked up.  Her eyes were closed.

"Sorry," she said, flushing red but not opening her eyes.  "I didn't mean to... look at your mountain."

He frowned.  So much for the debate about inviting her in. 

"It's beautiful--the peak, and the forest that goes on for as far as you can see."       

He shook his head and picked up the tweezers. A reluctant pause and he pushed ahead, slowly feeding her more of the scene: the rocky outcropping near the summit; the hazy blue of the sky; the air, warm and sweet, smelling of the sun's heat on fir needles.

The tweezers moved closer to their target. "Got it."

Her eyes flew open. She looked down at her hand, then sheepishly up at him. "Sorry for being a hassle."

He dug in his pocket for the gauze. "It's not like you chose it."

"I know. But my reaction--overreaction--to pain makes me feel stupid."

"Don't." He glanced up at her. "You're not." He worked the gauze and tape from his pocket, then leaned back and pulled a pair of scissors from the drawer. "I'm going to need some help with this." He nodded toward the gauze roll.

She picked it up and held it where he indicated.

 

 

 
"C'mon, Adrie." Sandy looked back. Adrie had stopped by the side of the trail to watch a line of ants. She turned, retraced her steps and squatted down next to him. "Watcha lookin' at?"

"They're carrying little white things," he said, pointing.

"It's their eggs, Adrie. Their babies. They must be moving to someplace new. They don't want to leave their babies behind." Her voice caught. She bit her lip and fought back the sudden stinging in her eyes.

"They can carry more than us," he said. "I've seen 'em carry big things." He waved his arms to the side, as if holding some huge, awkward object. Suddenly he focused on her. "Are you hurt, Sandy?"

"What?"

He pointed to the corner of her eye where moisture was pooling.

"Yeah, I guess a little bit." She stood up. "Come on, Adrie, you've got a new neighbor. We're supposed to go say hello."

"Annie," he said without looking up. "She's going to stay in the trailer."

He stood up and started down the path ahead of her. Sandy hurried to catch up. She didn't know what to say to the lady with the kind eyes but perfect hair and perfect clothes and perfect makeup. She was like a doll on a stand, but one who could look into you and see what you were, just a kid with a dead family and a ramshackle life.

Rita had asked, though, and how could she refuse? Rita treated you like a real person, an equal, even though she knew a lot more than you did. It didn't even grate when Rita called her 'missy'. If her mother had done it, she would have gone through the roof. If her mother had said it, it would have meant she was looking down, judging from that high-and-mighty place she thought she lived in.

The trailer came into view, peeking out from behind the edge of the barn, its roof covered with dead leaves from the trees above. Young saplings had sprouted around it, showing that it hadn't been moved in years. The coach was yellow and cream colored on the outside. Adrie went up close to the door, then ran back to her. You first, his eyes seemed to say.

Sandy took his hand, forced a smile and went up to the door. It was open; just the screen door was shut. Suddenly her stomach had butterflies. She swallowed and knocked beside the door and held her breath.

No response.

"Annie?"

After a moment a face appeared, then a smile--forced, like her own--and lips pressed together. A hand opened the screen door.

"Hi," the woman said quietly. "I didn't hear you at first. I was trying to figure out where to put a few things." She smiled again, obviously trying to mean it.

"I guess you remember me." Sandy looked down. "This is Adrie here. He's a pretty smart little kid."

Adrie's hand went out toward Scully. She shook it and nodded at him. "Hi, Adrie," she said.

This wasn't the woman who'd come to her front door. This woman was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, her hair was pulled back into a pony tail and she wore no lipstick. She had running shoes on. She looked worn, as if she were preoccupied, but why wouldn't she be? She was on the run from whoever'd had Cy and Roddy killed.

"I'm sorry," Sandy said. "About what's happened to you. But you'll be safe here. I'd certainly"--she glanced at Adrie--"I'd never say anything to anybody."

"Thank you. I appreciate that."

Adrie wandered off toward a nearby tree and bent down to look at something on the ground.

"I'm very sorry," Annie said now. "About your loss. I--" She stopped and looked into the distance and then started again. "Questioning people--victims of crimes--is never easy. But it's part of what has to be done."

"I guess it would be hard. I wouldn't want to."

They both looked off at Adrie, who was building something with twigs.

"Have you been doing this long?" Annie said now, trying to fill in the awkward silence.

"Actually, it's only my second day." Sandy shrugged. "Adrie's a good kid, but it's hard--you know, watching his mom. It's like she's there but she's not there. Not really there. You know--there on the outside but not on the inside. I guess I just feel bad for him. "

"I think I understand," Annie said.

Annie's smile was bittersweet. She was lost somewhere, caught up in something lost or left behind. Maybe she was just an ordinary person after all.

 

 

Tracy stirred and opened one eye. Her room, her bed. Bright light outside the window. She turned to glance at the clock on the night stand. Past noon--nearly one o'clock. Her hand throbbed with a dull ache. Alex had given her an ibuprofen after he bandaged her fingers. She'd come up here, taken it and fallen asleep.

She made herself sit up, willing away the veil of thickness that dogged her steps as she made her way to the mirror. She ran the fingers of her good hand back through her hair. She looked like the pen-and-ink drawing of a waif she'd seen once in a book somewhere. But it was no time to be standing, staring. She blinked several times hoping for clarity and headed for the door. He was supposed to have taken his medication an hour ago.

In the hallway she paused for a second by the stairway, then remembered his directive of the night before and opted for the elevator. Still thick-headed, she spent the brief descent working to clear her mind. Alex had done a careful job of wrapping her fingers, the gauze layers snug and even. He'd been completely focused on the task of in front of him, though she'd found herself watching him in a way she never did when he could see her, studying his cheeks, the shape of his chin, the sharp line that divided stubble from smooth cheek. He was a contradiction, not just to her but even to himself these days, searching for something he hadn't yet defined.

When she reached his room, Alex was standing at the narrow window, looking out. He hadn't taken the pills yet. He turned when he saw her.

"Sorry to be so late, Alex. I fell asleep."

He shrugged and glanced back out the window. "Guess I was busy. A lot of things running through my head, things I haven't thought about in--" He stared out the window a moment before turning to face her. "How's the hand?"

"It hurts. I guess it just depends on how much I focus on it. But I'll live." She looked down at her wrapped fingers. "Thanks for the help."

"No problem."

When she glanced up again, he was making his way to the bed.

"Ready for your meds?"

"Yeah, I--" He looked around as if he were searching for something, then eased himself onto the mattress. "Yeah."

"Maybe your doctor could prescribe something that wouldn't turn you into a zombie."

"Maybe."

Tracy turned and went into the bathroom. When she returned to the bed with the pills and a cup of water, he was already lying back on the pillows.  His breathing was labored, something it hadn't been a minute before.

"Where'd you fall asleep this morning?" he asked as she held out the pills. He looked as if he intended not to take them until she answered.

"In a church." She looked down. "I told you it wasn't any place dangerous."

Why?

"I was trying to think, Alex. Or I guess I was trying not to think, to stop all the confusion in my head."

He raised an eyebrow, as if he understood the feeling, then took the pills and the water from her. His hand shook suddenly, almost spilling the contents of the cup before bringing it to his mouth.

"The pain's bad all of a sudden, isn't it?"

He nodded and closed his eyes.

She pulled the desk chair close to the bed and sat down. "I nearly left this morning," she said after a moment.

His eyes came open.

"Because I didn't want to be doing this to you--making your life more complicated than it is already." She twisted her hands together and sighed. "This is stupid. It should be simple."

"What?"

"It's like... say two people were trapped in an elevator. You'd help each other and that would be it; each of you would benefit. You'd both be thankful, but that fact wouldn't end up hurting either of you." She paused. "Think about it. Who knows how you would have managed that first night if I hadn't come down when I did? And where would I have been yesterday if not for your help? But doing the job I'm supposed to do here seems to keep having nasty little side effects, like a bad medication."

"You're like Mulder," he said. "He thinks everything should be perfect. Nice idea, maybe, but life's an ambush. Just when you think you've got part of it figured out, it hits you from some other direction."

She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. For a moment she was back on the hard, polished wood of the church pew, her thoughts buffeted by a whirlwind of chaos. In the end, though, she'd come away with a thread of hope. She looked up.

"Or maybe somebody steps in and keeps you from being hit so hard. Who says it has to be this way? That helping somebody out can put more burden on them? Where would I have been by now--right now--if you hadn't found me on the Mall and gotten me that room?"

He shrugged. "Maybe someplace... safer than here." His speech was starting to falter.

"Maybe someplace a whole lot worse." She reached out and smoothed the wrinkles from a patch of sheet in front of her. "Thanks for your mountain this morning. I know it's not the kind of thing you share."

He let out a grunt. "Russia," he said after a pause. "Near... where I grew up. Test... endurance thing. We were kids. I was..." He looked up, at the ceiling. His words were thick, almost slurred. "...first to the top, I... got there... before the others. It was..." His pause was longer this time. "...perfect place..."

"The rock where you stood?"

After a few seconds he nodded.

"You could see everything."

"Never... been up... high up like that. I'd only seen... forest"--his eyes were glazy--"below." He sighed, fighting the creeping haziness. "Forest--"

"You'd only seen the forest from below," she repeated.

He nodded. "Up there... wanted to... I knew..." His hand came up off the bed and wavered in the air.

"What?"

He shook his head, resigned, and stared blankly. The hand continued to waver, as if it were independent of the rest of him. She took it and eased it back down beside him but he resisted.

"What?"

He could only shake his head, puzzled. His fingers curled around hers.

"It's okay, Alex. It'll be all right."

She let him hold on and looked briefly into the growing murkiness inside his mind. Gradually his fingers loosened. She guided them back down to his side.

 

 

To: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Just wanted to let you know we've arrived somewhere--temporarily, at least--and are safe as far as I can tell. Thanks for the information. Know it can't be easy for you to go back through this; I guess what I mean is that I know it costs you, so thanks for being willing to make the effort. I know Cassandra Spender--met her last year at a symposium on UFOs, though I didn't know of her connection to L. She claims to be a multiple abductee. She disappeared a few days later under mysterious circumstances, at a site where a lot of other abductees/test subjects had gathered. Most were later found burned to death. Annie was there, too, and escaped with only minor injuries but I have to say it shook me up at the time, looking for her there among all those bodies. Something very strange--even for this scenario--was happening behind the scenes at that point, though we've seen nothing like it since.

In your letter you said I may have been set up to discover the X-files. What makes you think so? Something's been running through my head today about that time that doesn't quite track. Please get back to me ASAP.

As usual, your impatient son, but this thing is doing a loop in my head. At least Annie's tucked away in a safe place now. Will wait to hear from you.
                                                                               -The Kid

 

 

"What do you want?" The corner of Skinner's mouth twisted as he looked through the peep hole.

"Merely to congratulate you, Mr. Skinner." The omnipresent Morley went into the mouth on the other side of the door. A cloud of smoke came out. "I hear luck has dealt you a good hand."

Skinner grimaced and opened the door. He stepped outside and closed it behind him. "What are you talking about?"

"Surely you already know, Mr. Skinner. The evidence against you has disappeared from the First District station. The case against you is being dropped as we speak."

"I guess that puts me back at square one since the 'evidence' was a plant in the first place." He scowled, then glanced down the length of the hallway.

"Now, now, Mr. Skinner. You know it's all a game. You can hardly afford to become disturbed over the moves others may feel the need to make." He paused and took a drag on the cigarette. "You, for instance. You might have orchestrated this little incident yourself."

"How the hell would I have managed that?"

"It begs the question, doesn't it, Mr. Skinner?"

"Well, I had nothing to do with it." He glanced down the hall and back again. "Look, is there a point to this?"

"I just wanted to remind you that the tables can turn at any moment, and that your... activities..." He smiled and tapped a length of glowing ash onto the floor beside him. "Well, I'm sure you understand."

The Smoking Man turned and took a few steps toward the elevator, then paused and looked back.

"Congratulations, Mr. Skinner. I trust you'll use your newfound freedom judiciously."

Skinner set his jaw. He watched the Smoking Man disappear into the elevator and opened his apartment door. Inside, he shut it and fought the urge to dwell on what he'd like to do to the smirking face that had just taken the down elevator. Instead he strode through the apartment to the picture window, stepped onto the treadmill and started to walk--long, measured strides, his pace gradually increasing. It was a lot like the time he'd spent in the Delta, the way you felt there: out on patrol, feeling each footstep taking you forward and knowing your every move was being watched, monitored, hidden eyes and minds waiting for the perfect chance to take you out.

 

 

Scully set the picture of her family--the one Mulder had packed back in her apartment--on the corner of the kitchen counter and took a step back. It was a kitchen. Of sorts. Tiny, but it had all the essentials: stove, sink, counter, all spread across the front of the trailer, tiny cabinets above, refrigerator off to the right, next to the door. Outside the front window the hillside dropped away through the woods, a soothing landscape in greens and blues.

She turned. Obviously someone had altered the trailer's interior. The original built-ins had been torn out leaving the center of the coach bare, like a regular room. A double bed took up most of that space now, with just enough room to walk around the end of it to a bathroom at the rear. There was actually a small tub with a shower inside and a molded-in seat at the back. On the other side were a toilet and a sink fitted into the corner. Everything efficient and functional, if older.

She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked into her travel bag. The copy of Moby Dick Ahab had given her so long ago sat at the bottom. She took it out, opened the cover and reached for the picture of Emily that was tucked inside. She had no frame for it. It was only a small picture, the kind you'd get a dozen of in a portrait package.

Standing, she set the book on the corner of the small desk that sat between the bed and kitchen. Emily's picture went on top of it against the wall. There were things she needed--paper and pens, shampoo, insect repellent. A long phone cord to run between the barn and here; thank goodness there was a phone in the barn. Sandy had promised to come back later with a phone cord and help her bury it so no one would notice. Just in case. Rita had suggested she make a grocery list. There was nothing to do now but wait--wait for the others to come back and try to make this place into a home as best she could in the meantime. There was no telling how long she and Mulder would be here in Owensburg.

Scully took Melissa's bookmark from a pocket on the side of her travel bag and set it on the desktop.

"But I know for certain
Every time you fall
You will rise again
Above it all." *

were the words Missy had written across it. They were from a song, John Byers had told her, though she hadn't recognized the name of the group. But whoever had written them understood life under stress. They were words meant for times like this.

After a moment Scully returned to the bed and sat down. She'd turned a fan on to help clear out the stale air, and the windows were open; outside, birds could be heard in the trees. Only the green sweater was left to put away. She picked it up absently and held it. She'd worn it yesterday, but without thinking, the way she hadn't been thinking when she'd said those things to Mulder in the park a week earlier. He hadn't been able to forget them, though. All that time she'd kept him out--shut him out--because she'd had to, or thought she had to. And how had that made her stronger?

She smoothed a hand absently across the sweater's soft surface. She could feel him again, nuzzled up against her, wrapped around her, content. Pressure rose inside her, peaked and gradually subsided. She spread the sweater on the bed, folded it carefully and carried it to the wardrobe.

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
So reassuring to know you're somewhere safe. I'll write to Annie, but give her my love when you see her; I certainly hope you will be able to. My comments about your files came mainly from knowing L's penchant for long-term strategizing. If it served his purposes in some way, he would find it advantageous to have you 'discover' the files, though I have no idea how doing so might serve whatever agenda he has. Whatever is going on with the Project, however, or the remnants of the Project, you can be sure he is running it. He is too ambitious not to be directing it himself, no matter what he may lead others to believe. I did overhear him saying something to your father once, at a social gathering to which all three of us happened to have been invited, about continuing to 'protect' you. I don't know in what context he meant it, but it gave me a chill even then, for it indicated that you--and your work--might hold some strategic value for him. What exactly it might be, I can't say. 

 I don't know if any of this will be helpful to you. It doesn't seem like much, but if you have further questions, please write to me and I'll do my best to answer. I'll check my mail more frequently, too. All my love.

 

 

To: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
I think I do need more help on this one, Mom, but not in terms of the bigger picture. I had someone I was working with when I found the files; actually, it was more than professional and not too long after we'd settled in to work on this new assignment in earnest, she accepted an appointment in Europe and we lost contact... until about eight months ago. All of a sudden she was back at headquarters, working on a case a number of us had been assigned to (at the end of this assignment, as it turned out, my office was destroyed in an arson fire and Annie and I were reassigned off the files.) Annie disliked D immediately--she's never trusted her, or her motives--and I guess I took her reaction pretty personally. There's always been this territorial feel to the way she reacts to D, and I took it to mean she was passing judgment on my personal life when it wasn't any of her business. After what you've said about Cassandra, though, it looks like Annie may have been right. Cassandra's son (L's son) is a new agent with the Bureau and has been put in charge of the files since they were taken from us, I can only assume to stop our work from going forward and revealing something he wants to keep hidden. D was assigned to work with him. She told me she only accepted the assignment to protect the integrity of the work we'd begun together, but I know I've been too easy a sell in the past for people telling me what I want to hear. D came with me to your house once. It was eight years ago and I don't know if you remember that visit at all, but any lingering impressions you might have would help right now.

There's more if you're up for playing Dear Abby. I made a stupid move when D came back. I didn't tell Annie that D and I had been partners, much less anything else. I think the whole thing just caught me by surprise, D showing up again that way, and I froze. Just couldn't get the words out--at least, that's what I told myself at the time, thought now I'm beginning to wonder if maybe subconsciously I wanted to hold that over Annie--that she didn't care to be a part of my personal life at that point and so I'd just keep her shut out of it. Well, she found out on her own, which is probably the worst way it could have happened. Didn't give it much thought at the time, but now I feel like a complete ass, not that her remarks about D helped any. I guess when I first knew D, she was the one person who took me seriously when everyone else would just point and laugh, and that validation was worth a lot to me--maybe more than I realized at the time. But the thought that she would have set me up, or that I could have been that gullible, is pretty painful to swallow.

Seas are pretty choppy here. Glad to know you're out there throwing life preservers.

 

 

"Which one you like?" Marisela spoke with her hands, half-graceful, half-clipped gestures that filled the gaps in her English.

Tracy looked at the two folk dresses, the one a wonderful, rich red, the other a subtle maize yellow. The red one was beautiful, but it would make her already-pale skin look even paler by comparison and besides, it would draw attention to her if she were out somewhere--running one of Alex's errands, for instance.

"She likes both," said her friend Pilar, smiling from behind the old, oak-trimmed sales counter.

It was a tiny shop, the shelves crammed with a variety of Central American items ranging from small primitive Mayan sculptures to hard candy to post cards, books and herbs. From hangers overhead hung smocked dresses and colorful woven rugs.

"I do," she said. "I do like them both, but I think... I'll take the yellow one. I like yellow."

She took out the money Alex had given her and set it on the counter. Pilar took it, opened the cash register and counted out change. She folded the dress and slipped it into a shopping bag and handed it across to Tracy.

"See, I tell you," Marisela said, nodding, when they were outside again. "Good prices, no? For me, because I am her friend."

Tracy nodded. "Thank you."

"Now you know where to go." She nodded. "Is not far."

"No, it's not."

They stayed under the shade of the awnings and walked back toward the restaurant. It was nearly six--hot still, but there were shadows now, thrown by the buildings, that offered shelter from the direct heat of the sun.

"Have you been here long?" Tracy asked as they walked. "I mean here, in this country."

"Three years." Marisela looked up slightly.

"Do you like it?"

"Is different." She tilted her head slightly. "Every place is different. Sometimes I miss our home--the place I come from. My father"--her hands came up again--"he name the restaurant after our village--Manzanares el Real."

"So the pictures inside, on the walls--"

"...are from our village." Marisela nodded.

"The castle, too?"

"Yes."

"Wow."

"Come. I show you."

They were at the restaurant door already. Marisela pulled on the handle and they went into cool, soothing darkness. The interior was empty. Small dark tables were arranged on a deep red carpet.

"You're not open yet."

"Not until seven. Even so, hours--hours--too early. At home--"

"Alex told me. They eat late."

"Ten, eleven, even midnight." She pointed to the wall. "Here, look."

The wallpaper was a series of huge black-and-white pictures composed of tiny dots, like newspaper pictures. "Here is the village--our village--of Manzanares. And this is the castle." It was a small castle, but dramatic, symmetrical, set on a small hillside surrounded by rocky peaks. "The road to Madrid, to the capital..." She moved on. "And here the mountains, to the northwest, que dan a... that lead to... Segovia. Very famous city. Beautiful castle where Columbus was received by Queen Isabel."

"Who's this?"

"Hemingway, your own American writer. One of his stories takes place not far from our town."

"Thank you for showing me."

Alex only had an hour left before he had to take the painkillers again. Tracy turned to go.

"Wait." Marisela gestured toward the kitchen. "I have something for your Alex."

She disappeared through a curtained doorway. Tracy went back to the picture of the town. It was a small place, not more than a village, really. The road leading downward, into a valley, the one that was supposed to lead to the capital, was a small road, only one lane each way. Stone markers with numbers painted on them sat by the roadside.

"Here." Marisela had reappeared with a white styrofoam food box in her hand.

Tracy panicked momentarily. She had only two dollars left from the twenty Alex had given her.

"No, no.  Is a gift."

"Thank you. Alex has been... sick. I've been doing a few errands for him." It was an explanation--no, more a defense. She could see what Marisela was thinking, that Alex always seemed to be the one alone. Maybe Tracy's appearance meant he'd found a Maria, like the one in the story.

Tracy colored in spite of herself. "Thank you," she repeated. "For everything."

Gathering up her bags, Tracy went through the doorway into the brightness and heat outside.

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: Cranesbill@zipmail.com
I've been sitting here at the library reading more of a new novel than I really wanted to, waiting to see if you had more to say, so I'm glad I stayed after all. I do somewhat remember that visit, and I think what I recall most is a certain reserve about your companion, the feeling that there might be much she was holding back in spite of the pleasantries she offered, though of course that meeting was so brief, and so long ago, that I couldn't swear to the accuracy of my impressions.

I'm so very sorry if your suspicions turn out to be correct. I know too well the humiliation of discovering that you've allowed yourself to be duped, and for someone like yourself who gives yourself so unreservedly to causes you believe in, the knowledge would be all the more bitter. Regarding Annie, strange--and unfortunate--how sometimes our own motivations only become clear to us with time. I have learned this all too pointedly myself. Your deep commitment to Annie, however, shines clearly through and I believe she has seen this, though I can well understand her discomfiture at discovering something on her own that she would have expected to learn from you. I believe women become accustomed to the 'place' they occupy with any man, whether it be in a personal or professional context, and to find yourself jolted out of that position--or to suppose you have been through apparent lack of trust--can be extremely disorienting.

In the end, neither of us has been completely self-deceived, however. Leland seems to be ever at work behind the scenes in this family. Your dedication to the people you care about may have helped lead you in the direction he desired, but know that those of us who are the recipients of your affection have received a gift we would never exchange. Certainly your sister would vouch for this and I believe Annie would agree. In spite of whatever misunderstandings this issue of D may have caused between the two of you, you and Annie must be able to depend on each other now more than ever before. Guard that strength, and let your care for her be your guide. Strict self-preservation is a very unfulfilling and empty path I wish I knew much less intimately.

I wish I were closer to be able to help you more, but know that my thoughts are with you. Thank you, too, for your vote of confidence in trusting me with this dilemma. It means more than I can express.

 

 

"How was your day with Adrie?" Scully asked, looking down to where Sandy was on her knees, stapling phone line to the lower part of a post in the barn.

Sandy glanced up. "Adrie was okay. He's a good kid. He's kind of got his own agenda. He keeps himself busy--you know, building things. He likes to make stuff." She stood up. "It's his mom that takes some getting used to. I mean, I understand she's got a problem. She's always drifting in and out, you know--here for a few minutes, then gone and she don't remember you or anything. But it makes me hurt for Adrie to watch her. It's almost like she's a ghost--here but not really here, like he can see her behind a window but he can't get in to where she is." She sighed.

Scully bit her lip. "So," she said, looking around. "I guess we should run this line over along the wall and then out between the siding."

"David's got a hoe over here. We can dig a little trench between here and there, lay the line in and then stomp it down good so it doesn't show." Sandy paused. "Will anyone really come snooping around?"

"I hope not. We've tried to be very careful, but each precaution you take adds to your chances of staying hidden successfully. Our chances."

"What happened to you?"

"Evidently the man who... is apparently responsible for what's happened here--for Andy Johnston and your husband and son--believed we were getting too close to something he didn't want exposed. He left me a warning to stay away from the case because I'd been involved, because I'd done the forensics."

"Forensics?"

"I do"--Scully pursed her lips a moment--"autopsies. I examine the evidence that... Often there's a lot of evidence left behind, on a body. It can help tell us what happened, or lead us to whoever committed the crime."

The girl's expression darkened and she moved back a step. "Did you--?" She couldn't bring herself to say the words.

"No." Scully shook her head. "I didn't do your son's autopsy, or your husband's. That's the job of the county medical examiner. I did see them. I had to, in order to see if there was anything that would pertain to our investigation."

"Was there?"

"The man who shot--who we believe shot--your husband and son is a professional assassin. He's very efficient at what he does. Your husband had been drinking... and the shot was point-blank and very accurate. I don't believe he could have felt anything."

The girl looked pale, as if she was awaiting her own execution. "And Roddy?" Her voice was dry, almost a whisper.

"The wound was such that I believe the shooter didn't see him at first--didn't know he was in the car at all. Perhaps he was hiding on the floor, or behind your husband from where the shooter stood. It was that fact that made my partner, Ben, suspicious in the first place, that it was murder and not... anything your husband might have done."

Sandy nodded without speaking. Her eyes were wet, her lips tight. She turned and crossed the barn to get the hoe. Scully winced inwardly and looked up into the cavernous space above her. It was a storage building, half-abandoned now that David Barker had been forced to take an accounting job in Lexington to make ends meet. Birds chirped from unseen perches high in the rafters. She watched Sandy take the hoe from a nail on the wall, come back and start digging. The girl focused on her work--or, at least, she was trying to look like she was. Her movements were harsh and choppy, not fluid, her struggle obviously with what lay unsaid between them as much as with the dirt and stones she attacked.

"Sandy--" Scully swallowed.

The girl looked up. Her mouth twitched.

"I know this is very difficult, a very sensitive thing for you, but if--"

"Do you? How could you when you're on the other side, just looking at... at empty bodies you never knew--a man and a little boy that didn't mean nothing to you." She stopped and looked away, gulping a ragged breath. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I'm just shooting off my mouth because it's been a week and a half--twelve awful days--but it seems like forever, and it hurts like hell every single morning I wake up and know they're not here, knowing they never will be."

"Sandy," Scully took a step forward. "I do understand what it's like. I've been on the other side of this, too. I have. And I know."

Sandy wiped at her eyes with the back of a hand. She didn't turn around.

"Sandy, I don't want this to be awkward for either of us. You're going through a very difficult time and I... quite frankly, this has been a stressful day for me, too. If there's anything you want to know--that you need to know--you're welcome to ask me. Or if you'd rather not, then just say so and let's move past it. Neither of us needs this right now." She put a hand on the girl's shoulder.

"It's just," Sandy began, "Rita asked me to take this job. And I like Adrie; I do. But this thing between him and his mother, it really hits home and I don't know if I can keep going. Rita made me promise to try it for a week. I said I would, but--" She shook her head. "What happened to Roddy? I mean, I don't want to know, I really don't want to think about it, but... I guess I just need to know if, you know..."

"Whether he felt anything?"

"Yeah."

"No, he couldn't have. It was very quick, very... direct. He might have been scared, for a second, to realize something had happened to his father. But then it was over."

Scully looked away slightly and took a step back. Sandy resumed her digging. Drops of wetness fell into the dirt but she didn't bother to stop and wipe her eyes. Scully took the phone line and laid it in the trench little by little as Sandy worked, heading toward the corner of the barn.

 

 

If the old man found out what she could do, Tracy wouldn't end up dead; she'd be turned into a lab rat just as fast as Gibson Praise had been. Only by now the old man would have smartened up and tightened his security. He'd make sure she didn't have any chance of slipping away.

It would be a personal hell that could go on for years.  Thirteen years, maximum, with a big spike of horror waiting at the end of it.

Krycek's jaw set. He picked an empty prescription container off the bedside table and squeezed it hard. Tension and pain filled his fingers until finally he eased off. No point having it shatter and damage the only hand he had left. Pushing out a hard breath, he let it drop. It rolled a few inches over the white terrain of the sheets and came to rest between wrinkles. 

But trying to save little girls was risky. Look what it had done to Mulder.

Still, letting the old man take her without a fight would be like delivering her right to the door of one of the group's clinics.  Just like Gibson Praise.  Well, once was enough; it wasn't going to happen again. 

A key turned in the door lock. Krycek pulled up, startled, then eased and sank back against the pillow.

"Sorry I took so long, Alex."

She seemed to breeze in, new dress on--yellow--big surprise--and a smile on her face. She looked cooler now, or maybe freer. Setting a bag on the small desk, she pulled out the chair and sat down on it sideways. Her feet settled on the rungs.

"I would've been back sooner but Marisela was showing me the pictures on the restaurant wall, the ones of where she comes from." She paused to catch her breath. "Then I went up to my room to change." She looked down and smoothed her fingers over the dress. "It's really nice, and so cool after that other one. I've been wearing it for so long." She looked up.

Watch your thoughts, Aleksei.

"You lucked out, Alex. Marisela gave you some food. I freaked for a minute there. I thought you'd ordered something and I didn't have the money to pay for it. But she gave it to me. She didn't say what it was." She sat up straighter. "What?"

"You," he said, amused. "You seem like... like somebody threw a switch and you came alive."

"Frankenstein, huh?" She smiled.

He gave her a look. "Go on. See what it is."

Tracy pushed the bag down around the box and opened it carefully. "It's rice, Alex. Yellow rice with a lot of... things in it: shrimp and shellfish and peas and... peppers and some kind of sausage--"

"Paella," he said, and raised an eyebrow. "They usually only made it on Sundays. I must rate."

"Are you hungry?  Do you want some?"

"Sure." A pause. "Get some for yourself."

"You want some of everything?"

"Yeah."

"Well, I'm giving you all the little clam-looking things. I'm not touching anything that's in a shell."

He stifled a snicker. She turned around.

"You're laughing."

He shrugged. "It's all in what you're used to."

"Guess I haven't been many places to get used to much."

She fixed him a bowl, took it to the bed and returned to the desk. He took a spoonful and lifted it carefully to his mouth.

"Why did you go there, Alex? Spain, I mean?"

"To meet some old men. I was with a group. Russians have this great awe for revolutionaries. They were men who'd fought for the republic--Spanish Republic--in the Spanish civil war, back in the thirties. At the time some of them were Communists, or thought they were. Actually, they were just in it for what they could get for their country, trying to save it from Franco and his goons."

"Were they what you expected?"

He shrugged. "They were just men. Some of them were laying it on pretty thick in their old age--turning themselves into big heroes after the fact, you know?" He paused. "A couple figured if they had it to do over, they'd do it differently, that things looked different from a distance than they did in the heat of it, at the time--"

He looked down, studied the contents of his bowl and stabbed a piece of sausage.  "It's a load of crap, most of that war hero stuff.  War turns people into animals."

For a while they ate in silence.

"Later," he said, setting his empty bowl aside, "when I get up tonight, after I'm past the strung-out stage, maybe we can go back up on the roof.  Beats staring at the same four walls all the time."

She nodded. "I'll take you up there. It should be cooler then." She shifted on the chair, smoothed a spot of the dress fabric against her leg and looked up. "You started to tell me about your mountain before, but the medication got to you before you finished."

For a moment he pictured her in long braids, like the clone girls.

"It was"--he stared at a spot above the window--"not too far from where I lived--where all of us lived. It was supposed to be an endurance thing, to make us strong. Actually, it was a test, but they didn't tell us that. They wanted to find out who the strongest kids were. I just kept pressing on. The higher up you went, the better it looked. I wanted to see what you could see"--he glanced over at her--"you know, from the top. I wanted that view, and I got there first. I think I was a good three or four minutes ahead of the next kid. And I saw the rock. It was a good place to stand, a good view. Up there, I felt like..." He shook his head.

"Like you were somebody?"

"Like there were possibilities--ones I'd never even dreamed of. The old man had always told me that I was destined for big things, but all I'd ever known was the institution. What's around you becomes your world, you know?" He rolled toward her slightly. "Until I climbed that mountain I'd only seen the forest from down below, where it was all around me, but being up there, looking down on it--"

"You knew you were going to leave."

"Nothing was going to make me stay there--stay down, dwarfed in the forest, after that."

 

 

To: DaddyW@zipmail.com
From: thelark@zipmail.com
I don't think Mantua was quite like this. I have this little place, old but very functional. There are woods all around me. From my front window I look out and down a hillside covered with trees--very beautiful and quiet. I've been brought groceries and had help with installing a phone line. I'm attempting to focus on the bigger picture and not get lost in being temporarily out-of-place, or dwell on the thought that tonight will be nothing like last night, or the night before, or the night before that. Already I miss having you in my bed. There are two pillows here, but they're poor substitutes for you.

My mind keeps going back to the many times you've held me together lately, even when you were least able to. I can still feel the heat of your fever through the quilt your mother draped over me after she'd brought me in from the alley that night. Thank you for not giving up on me.

Just wanted to touch base and to hope that your initial settling in has gone as well as mine. Let me know.
                                                                           -Lark

 

 

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Dear Lark,
I must have been mistaken. I thought that was
my bed we were in, but no matter--any bed will do so long as we're in it together. Delivered the rental car and got a ride back. My new 'uncle' is a pretty interesting guy, willing to share but knows when to shut up, too, and I guess I needed some silence. Something my mother said--something she remembered and mailed me about--won't stop looping through my head, but I'll figure it out eventually. She's been a big help today, though. I still have to pinch myself to realize the connection I've needed from her all these years is actually alive and working.

Thanks for the vote of confidence ('held me together lately'), but you know the reality is I can be a pain in the ass sometimes. Still, flatter me all you want; I'm gullible.

Watch out that your mother doesn't try to marry you off to some slick guy named Paris while I'm away. You know if I could, I'd be there in a minute. Maybe we can make that sooner rather than later. Hang in there.
                                                               -Nightingale at heart

 

 

"Three more steps. Give yourself a minute, Alex. You'll get there." She waited until she could feel him tense again in preparation. "Okay, ready?"

"Ready, yeah."

"Up." She took the step with him. "You're stronger than last time. I can feel it."

"Yeah. Let's go."

"Up."

"Up."

"Last one. Ready?"

He nodded. He was getting winded.

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Go."

They stepped up onto the landing. She stopped in the doorway.

"I'll get the chair," she said. "Can you hold here a minute?"

"Wait. I want to"--he reached for a breath--"go over there. To the wall." He nodded toward the barrier that bordered the far edge of the building.

"Are you sure you can make it?"

"With a little help." A pause. "Look, I'm tired of lying on my butt doing nothing." He looked toward the wall.

She started to take a step forward; he moved with her, one step and then another, gradual, careful. He usually walked with the cane but they'd left it in his room. The wall came closer and closer and then they were there. He reached out and took hold of the edge.

"Got it?"

"Yeah."

She loosened her hold on his waistband and let go. The two fingers that had been hooked through his belt loop ached from the pressure; the two beyond them ached from their encounter with Alex's drinking glass. In front of them, the wall radiated the day's heat.

"I was up here last night when I couldn't sleep," she said.

He frowned. "You should be careful."

"I'd hear someone thinking if they were here."

"Hadn't thought of that. Still."

She looked out over the twinkling sea of lights and dark patches. "Do you ever get tired of being alone, Alex?"

He shot her a puzzled look and leaned forward against the wall, letting it take his weight. "It's the price you pay for not living the life everybody down there leads."

"I wish I wasn't so different, though. I'm tired of being a freak."

"You're not a freak. You may not be the same as everybody else, but you've got... talents. Skills."

"Maybe. My mom used to say that, too. But if everybody else thinks I'm a freak, what difference does it make?"

"Don't let them know."

"I slip. And anyway, it still makes me the only one--you know, who sees what I see, who--" The dull ache in her fingers filled her hand and wrist now. She wrapped the fingers of her other hand around the gauze. "I just get so tired of being alone."

"You're not alone now."

She glanced up at him. He looked away, up into the darkness overhead.

"No. But they're so short, those times when you're not."

"Better than nothing."

"Yeah. Better than nothing."

For a moment neither spoke.  Tracy let the scene beyond the wall go out of focus.

"Fingers bothering you? You're gripping them hard enough."

"No, it's... I do that sometimes, without thinking about it."  A pause. "I've been thinking about Marisela's castle," she said as she looked out at the twinkling lights on the horizon. "Can you imagine living near one?"

"I've been to that one once. It's small. Not so old, maybe five hundred years or so."

"I'd never thought of that before, going someplace like that," she said, resting her elbows on the ledge in front of her. "Someplace there are castles."

"That's what planning's for." He raised an eyebrow. "You need to do your share of that. So you're ready."

She nodded and sighed. "I know. I don't even know where to start."

"It's a skill. You can learn it."

She closed her eyes and felt the barely-moving air against her face. "Alex, can I ask you a favor?"

"What?"

"Marisela's castle. Would you... could you show it to me, like you did the mountain?  I don't mean to pry.  Just a snapshot or something would do."

She could hear him shifting his stance against the wall. He pushed out a breath. "It's been a dozen years or so. But I guess so. I'll give it a try. Castle and then we start making you some plans. Deal?"

"Okay. Deal."             

 

 

Mulder stared at the ceiling in the dark.

This was the reason they frowned on partners in personal relationships: because when it got personal and you ended up on opposite sides of the fence, then it was 'deny my position, deny me' and wherever the hell that might lead. No place you wanted to be, that was for sure. And Diana as an issue was as 'opposite sides of the fence' as it got between him and Scully. But it would have to be faced. And resolved somehow. They couldn't go on this way, on the run, with Diana like a wall between them.

How strong were they when it came right down to it? They'd both been careless, said or done things that were barbed. It hadn't been crucial before. It was part of the game, the give-and-take of the partnership, the dynamic they built on in the process of developing or tearing down evidence and theories. But now, would they both look at the facts and admit them? Or would they retreat and defend themselves? Let your care for her be your guide, his mother had said, but did he really trust her that far, trust her not to hurt him again, not to throw this back in his face? He could admit to screwing up in not telling her about Diana at the outset. It had been a shitty thing to do, petty. But what about Scully and the things she'd said?

And how the hell had it all boiled down to this?

Mulder rolled onto his side and shoved the pillow farther under his head. It was nearly midnight, he couldn't sleep and he was staying in somebody else's house; he couldn't just get up and wander around. Make yourself at home, Dale had said. If you get up just turn on the lights and bang around a bit; he was a light sleeper and nearly thirty years on he still had occasional nightmares from the war. Just don't surprise him, he'd warned. He'd nearly killed someone who woke him up once unexpectedly. 

It wasn't a joke. Survival instincts died hard.

Mulder rolled again, to the other side, facing the window. The sky was littered with stars. Scully was out there somewhere, trying her damndest to get used to a new place, somewhere she'd be hidden away, safe but dependent on other people. How would she define herself there when what she thrived on was being useful, supporting, defending? Would she be able to hold that positive thought she'd put in her mail or would she start to get jittery, the way she had in that seedy little motel room before she'd seen her mother? What would happen if she did?

He reached for the lamp on the table beside the bed and switched it on. Pulling on his jeans, he went out into the living room and booted up the computer. The colors strobed brightly. Eventually icons lined themselves up on the blue screen. He clicked on the mail program and pulled out the keyboard shelf.

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: DaddyW@zipmail.com
Just an insomniac nightingale here, squawking away in the middle of the night. Hopefully you're asleep with those pillows of yours and not awake like me. If you're up, know you're not the only one. If not, then consider this a hi to start your morning. Have a good one.
                                                             -nightingale for a lark

 

 

(End Chapter 8)

 

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* Song lyrics by the Scottish Celtic group Capercaillie
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