by bardsmaid

Chapter 15



The moon had made its way to the west window, flooding the yard beyond the glass with mute, silvery light.  Scully opened her eyes to find Mulder sitting on the floor in front of her, his back against the couch. 


He turned when she spoke. "I wake you up?"

"No, I don't think so."  She rolled toward him.  "You okay?"

"Yeah, I... I think I'm getting there.  In the theoretical, at least.  It's hard, you know.  You talk yourself into this position where everything makes sense, and then your subconscious--your gut reaction, whatever doesn't buy your logic--comes slamming into you from behind and knocks you flat again."

She reached out a hand and smoothed it across his bare shoulder.  He leaned toward her touch.

"I almost get to the point where I can see what I keep telling you about your mom; you know, that it's not you that's creating this situation, it's Smoky.  That I may have been a fool for letting myself believe... but that it was Diana's choice to do what she's done, to go that route for whatever reason she thinks she has."  His head went back against the couch cushion.  He glanced up at her.  "Dale was talking about that the other day; I think I told you.  That it's not whether you've been suckered that counts but what you do to get out of it, work around it."  He paused.  "Guess it's just hard to let yourself off the hook, stop kicking yourself in the ass for being so gullible."


She propped herself up on one elbow. 

"I was thinking about this on Saturday night, Scully, after you were talking about... the circumstances that bring us together and... and whether what we do is our own conscious planning or just the pull of the forces acting around us.  And whether after that dynamic is gone, we return to where we were before, proving that it was just something outside ourselves, beyond our own conscious motivations, or--" 

He sat up.  "Albert Hosteen, the first time I went to his house--when he took me to see the train car in the quarry.  As we pulled up to his house he said to me, 'You are willing to sacrifice yourself to the truth, aren't you?'  And I thought sure, hasn't that been my whole life?"  He shrugged.  "I started thinking about that not too long ago.  And I realized he hadn't asked if I was willing to have the truth justify me, that he was talking about giving yourself to the truth even if it wasn't what you wanted to hear, even if it was hard truth, that glaring spotlight you don't always want to see yourself in.  It's not always easy to take, what you see there... that everything you tell yourself you're doing for your sister, or you're doing to fight what the Project has created, you're really doing for yourself, to tell yourself you're not guilty, that you're doing everything you can to find your sister or some little murdered girls with cloth hearts cut out of their pajamas.  Or you think you're trying to help some emotionally-scarred woman from a halfway house when all the time you may just be trying to soothe yourself, to make your own pain go away."

"Mulder--"  She pulled herself closer.  "You were trying to help those people.  And you did.  You... you reached out to Lucy Householder when nobody else believed her.  Believed in her.  If it hadn't been for you drawing Lucy out, Amy Jacobs would be dead right now."

"Yeah, but don't you see, Scully?  It was for the wrong reasons.  It was me trying to stop my own pain.  And then tonight  here I was again, drowning in--"  He looked out into the yard.  "I guess I take it for granted: that I've got you, and I know I can trust you.  I'm not just your toy or your agent, your lab rat carrying your messages through the maze or whatever it is they've set me up to do.  And you've got a full load, too.  More than a full load."  Another pause.  His head dropped forward.  "Guess I just need to know I'm not going to blow it."  He turned to her.  "This.  You."

He let his head fall back against the seat cushion again and closed his eyes.

"Mulder, maybe--"  Her fingers reached out and trailed through his hair.  "We all have our own ways of... maybe not so functional ways of... dealing with stress.  You snap, or you try to compensate by working harder, and I"--she sighed--"I close ranks and tell myself it's not happening.  But in either case we've just locked ourselves up with ourselves.  We're our own worst company--worst enemy--and it doesn't actually solve the problem."  A sigh.  "Maybe that's the secret of someone like Rita, Mulder--that she's found a focus outside herself, that she reaches out to other people and it frees her from that trap--of being caught up in yourself, your own self-interest, in self-absorption."  She shrugged.

A hand reached up and took hers.  He turned toward her in the dim light. "How you doing, Scully?"

She half-smiled.  "I... I'm trying to keep this in perspective.  It's not easy knowing that someone is out there toying with people as if they were... as if he had complete immunity from human decency, from what's right, or just."  A crack in her voice.  "But we do have help--"  Sudden pressure.  She closed her eyes.  "Damn."

Only a second off-guard.  A swelling ache rose to fill her throat.  Her eyes stung.

His hand slipped away.  He was turning now, up on his knees.  Warm arms wrapped around her.   She wedged her head against his shoulder.  She let out the breath that had caught inside her and stared into the silent, silver-lit yard.



It was the worst thing about waking up in the morning: the silence, the fact that each new morning screamed alone, alone, alone, as if Cy and Roddy had been freshly snatched away every single day, like the constant replay of a horror movie she'd been dragged to against her will.

Sandy rolled onto her back and slowly opened one eye.  Annie'd gone to Dale's.  Something was up with the investigation they were doing.  Hopefully it was a break instead of more bad news; Annie had enough to deal with already, knowing her mother had been poisoned by Mr. ThinksHe'sGod who toyed with people's lives as if they were little plastic army men to be kicked around in the dirt, playing out his little plan and pulling innocent people into it.

She sat up slowly, a sick feeling that had been lying dormant in her stomach now waking and rising toward her throat.  It had been like this yesterday, too, and there was Adrie to go tend to.  And Annie needed someone to be there, to let her know she wasn't going through the strangeness of life all alone.

Better find a focus, girl, something that'll get you going. 

Maybe that picture her father had sent yesterday.  It had really been something.  What would it be like to be able to actually see the desert, to feel what it felt like at dusk in that place the picture was taken?  To know what the air was like, the way it felt and smelled?  Maybe he'd send another picture today.  Now there was something to look forward to, even if it was just one small thing.

Sandy crawled to the head of the bed and looked out the small window.  Clouds streaked the sky.  Queenie the black lab was sitting in the dirt, head down.  She'd been Cy's old hunting dog.  Now that she thought about it, Queenie had been moping for the last few weeks.  She probably missed Cy and Roddy something fierce. 

It was a new thought, and how had she missed it before, that losing the two of them couldn't be just her own private hurt?  Maybe her mother, for all her 'advice', was aching for Roddy, too.  Maybe that was part of her problem. 



From where he lay, Krycek watched as Tracy stretched to clean the window over the small desk.  She'd been cleaning when he woke up: quietly dusting window sills, wiping away random cobwebs from the high corners of the ceiling.  An obvious continuation of the night before, showing that the topic of leaving had taken over her mind.  Without her head full, she would have realized he'd been awake and watching her for the last five minutes.

The old man had shown up three times in the last two days, which was at least two too many times for comfort.  Today he'd be focusing on his trip preparations, but once he returned, the trip behind him...

If she took off from home, without coming back here, how would he explain the missing car?  Tracy and the car disappearing at the same time would point straight to their collaboration. Rental cars could be traced.  Or--long shot--he could start Ché now looking for another one like it as a replacement.  There were dozens, probably hundreds, of the same model in the area.  It was why he'd chosen it in the first place. 

Or she could come back here before she took off for good and the car wouldn't be an issue.  What could he tell the old man in the end, though?  That she'd gotten spooked, or just taken off with the money?  He'd never buy that.  He'd already seen too much of who she was.

"Alex?"  She seemed startled not to have noticed him.  She was on her hands and knees but sat down now on the floor, cross-legged.

"Keep that up, you know I'm going to have the cleanest place in five states."

She gave him a shrug and a half-smile.  "Just getting the place so it will stay clean for you."

"You sleep okay last night?  Noticed you tossing around there for a while."

She paused, seemed to color slightly and finally nodded.  "I don't remember dreaming or anything."

"Well, just don't overdo it." 

It came out a little harsher than he'd planned, his voice dropping into that gravelly range that tended to make people take a step back.  But it was starting to get on his nerves, having to watch her wrestle with what was coming on top of what he was having to deal with himself.

Almost immediately Tracy set the wood polish on the desk and hung the rag over the chair.  A moment later she was out the door, closing it carefully behind her.  She hadn't looked at him, hadn't said a word.  Krycek let out a sigh and stared up at the ceiling. 

Rolling toward the wall, he pulled the laptop toward him and flipped up the screen.  Not likely Mulder would have replied, but it wouldn't hurt to check.  Hopefully he'd have the sense to take Tracy's information seriously. The old man played hardball but Mulder knew that.  The question was whether he'd accept what she'd said in the letter.  It could make or break the way things went for her later on. 

Gradually the screen lit up and program icons appeared.  He should check on her afterward, straighten things out.  He hadn't meant to bark at her.  She was just nervous, unsure about what was ahead. 

Territory he knew blindfolded.



"Mission accomplished?" Frohike asked, turning from his cooking and looking toward the place Langley now occupied at the table.

"I tell you, we were cookin', me and Lonewolf."  Langley smiled his satisfaction.  "We were hot--untouchable.  You should've seen those monitors go ballistic.  Three rooms in a row, all at the same time--pow!  They just figured it was some kind of electrical fritz, and we had the new machines all lined up and ready to roll in."

"So it came off okay?" Frohike said.  He stirred the eggs in the frying pan and shook chili powder over them from a large shaker on the stove.

"Like clockwork.  Mrs. Scully's vitals are going downhill as we speak."

"Not drastically, I hope."

"Just enough to suggest a pattern.  It should be enough to keep the old guy happy."

"Not that he deserves any satisfaction."

"What about the big evacuation plans?" Langley said.

Frohike grunted and divided the scrambled eggs between two plates.  "Byers and Rani are working on that.  We've got to make sure Ma Scully's not jeopardized in the process.  Rani's concerned about the amount of infection in her lungs.  And you know they'll be watching Rani after she's gone.  A lot of little details and it's got to be a smooth job."

"The plot thickens."

Frohike brought the plates to the table and sat down.  "I wonder how Scully's holding up."

Langley shrugged.  "She's got Mulder.  What's to worry about?"

Frohike poked a fork into his eggs.  "Mulder may be an ace investigator but sometimes he's about as helpful as a grenade with the pin already pulled," he said.  "Tension makes people edgy, and Mulder can be less than diplomatic when he's all wound up."

He put the fork into his mouth.  Langley's face had disappeared between the pages of the morning paper.



"Hey, Scully..."

The words were quiet, spoken close to her face.  She was warm, not ready to open her eyes to the chill of consciousness.  She rolled to one side.

"Hey."  The voice--Mulder's voice--came again, closer this time, followed by lips against her cheek.  She turned toward them, two mouths meeting, followed by warmth and current that spread through her, drawing her quickly into alertness.  She reached for him but felt him pulling away and opened her eyes, puzzled. 

The living room couch. 

Morning light filled the room.

"Mul--"  She squinted, shading her eyes against the brightness coming through the sliding glass door.

"Time to get up," he said quietly, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.  "Thought I'd give you a little extra time.  Figured if you'd had enough sleep, you'd have been awake already."  He nodded toward the other end of the house.  "Dale will be ready to go in about ten minutes."

She pushed up, blinked and slipped her legs out of the covers and down to the floor.  The yard beyond the window was uncomfortably bright.  She ran her fingers back through her hair, closed her eyes and waited for necessary moisture to gather behind them.  "You should have told me, Mulder."

"Hey, it's okay to sleep a little.  No sense both of us not getting enough."

She looked up and touched his arm.   "How are you doing?"

"Okay.  I'm okay."  He shrugged.  "For the time being, anyway.  It comes and goes.  Besides, I've got work to do.  I need to find out something more about Angie Connors."

He offered her a hand. She took it and allowed herself to be pulled up.  A pause, neither one quite facing the other, then his arms slipped around her.

"Hang in there, Scully," he said close to her ear.  A warm hand smoothed the hair back from her face.  She looked up. 

"Good news to start the day," he said.  "Langley and a friend did a number on your mom's monitoring equipment.  The readouts say she's slowly deteriorating.  Should be just what we need to keep Smoky satisfied."

She paused and nodded.  "We've got to get her out of there, Mulder.  We've got to do something about protecting your mother, too."

"Byers and her doctor are working on a plan for your mom--"

Footsteps sounded in the kitchen.  "You two about ready?"

Mulder took a step back.  Scully smoothed a hand back through her hair. 

"In a minute," she said.  "I'll just be a minute."



Tracy stared out her window into the street below.  He was coming; Alex was on his way up.  She closed her eyes tightly and waited, low tension buzzing inside her.  He hesitated outside the door, then opened it without knocking and made his way quietly around the bed.

"Sorry," he said, stopping behind her.

"It's okay.  It's just--"  She opened her eyes and looked out at the bright scene beyond the window.    "It's scary, you know--leaving a place you've gotten used to and walking out into something new.  I guess this time it feels like being blindfolded and stepping off a cliff.  Not that I haven't done it before.  I'll make it.  I mean, I got this far, didn't I?"  She sounded anything but convincing. 

In the street below, an elderly woman tugged at the leash of a small dog who was sniffing at a passerby.  The woman was using a walker with little rolling wheels on the bottom.  A net grocery bag hung from the walker's handle.

"You plan it out, you can live a regular life," he started, his voice slightly dry.  "A place to stay, a chance to make plans and follow through.  Some kind of stability." 

"I guess I just"--she placed one finger against the glass and let it slide slowly down--"my gut reaction is to take it as it comes.  I'm not saying I won't try my best to plan.  I will.  I know I should.  But I don't seem to be set up for 'regular'--at least, not from the life I've lived so far."  She paused.  "Anyway, if we both led normal lives, Alex, we probably never would have met."

There was no reply. 

She stared hard into the street below.  The old woman with the walker was gone now, the sidewalk momentarily empty.  She could feel his hand wanting to reach out, her own wanting to take it.  But it was no time to complicate things, to fall apart or play the weak little girl. 

Finally he cleared his throat. "You've got bread to start, don't you?  You going to have enough time?"

Relieved, she turned to him and nodded.  She slipped past him and went to the dresser.

"I get to watch?" he said, his voice more relaxed now.  He settled back against the window ledge.

"Watch? You're wondering how much strength you've gained back?"  She raised an eyebrow.  "You can test your muscles against this dough when it gets thick and hard to stir."  With a smile she opened the drawer and reached for the sack of flour.



Dale suggested you might appreciate getting a line from me.  I see from Sandy's mail that my whereabouts are no mystery.  Things on this front continue pretty much the same.  It's very difficult to watch people in pain as I'm sure you must know well yourself.  The bright spot is, of course, that the mischief's been found out and things should be on the upswing soon.  Funny how we can go on almost indefinitely when we know help is on the way and can fade so quickly without it, even when resolution is right around the corner.

I do want you to know, though, that I was able to visit your mother the other night for a few minutes.  She seems to drift in and out of confusion with the awful delirium this affliction brings, but she perked up when she heard your name, and when she realized that I was speaking of you she had a moment of real clarity.  I am convinced she knew exactly what I was saying when I told her you were safe, and I believe she will cling to that fact until all this is past.

My prayers are with you and Ben and dear Sandy. 



"I had no trouble getting  to cooperate," Diana said coolly.  "Unfortunately their information hasn't given us anything concrete.  The message was sent from a cybercafé in Cincinnati."

The Smoking Man put a cigarette to his lips.  "Did you contact them?  The cybercafé?"

"Yes.  The message was sent at 5:12 a.m."

"Odd hour, wouldn't you say?"  He took a drag.  Smoke leaked from between his lips and drifted upward.  "Except for someone who, say, had to be at work fairly early in the morning."

"I talked to the attendant on duty.  He said he might have seen a businessman.  He was very vague; apparently he was online while he was supposed to be working and his attention was distracted."  She paused.  "Shall I look into this further?"

He ground the Morley into an ashtray half full of butts.  "It may very well turn out to be just one disgruntled relative.  But one can never be too careful.  Whole regimes have toppled over inattention to some... apparently insignificant detail."  He picked up the Morley package from the table, found it empty and crumpled it.  He reached into his coat pocket.  "Continue while I'm gone.  Do what you have to.  We must be assured that this won't lead to exposure."  He stood to leave.  "The work is too important for that."



Tracy poured the final cup of flour into the bowl and watched the wooden spoon move around the edge of the bowl, coaxing the dry flour into the mixture.  It hadn't taken him long to figure out what was needed.  He had the bowl braced between his knees for stability.  The dough inside was forming a lump, pulling away from the edges as he stirred.

"Don't you work this stuff with your hands?" 

"As soon as the last of the flour's mixed in."

She watched him finish the mixing, concentration written on his face, an occasional small pull at the corner of his mouth.

"Enough?"  He looked up.

She nodded.  "It looks good."  She took the bowl to the desk and coaxed the dough out onto a floured plastic mat.  "Now for the real work," she said, turning back.

He frowned. "What was that I just did?"

"That was the easy part."  She only half-suppressed a smile.  She pulled one edge of the soft mass to the middle and pressed into it with the heels of her hands. 

Alex pulled his chair closer.  "How long?"

"Ten or fifteen minutes," she said.  "It gives the bread its structure.  You know, so it doesn't crumble like cake.  But it gives you time to think, too.  Or a chance not to, if that's what you need.  It's good rhythm if your head's too full. You can just get lost in the movement.  It's nice."

"Sounds like a hassle."

"Depends whether having fresh bread is worth it to you."  She smiled momentarily.  "Anyway, you just have to set yourself up for it, know it's going to take a while and then it's fine, you just let go and do it.  Pace yourself, I guess.  The dough's warm, too.  It's got a nice feel to it.  It's tender this time.  You did a good job."

She continued to knead, her eyes on the dough.  Beside her, Alex was watching--her more than the bread--wondering what he'd find if he could read her the way she read him.

"I hope this is one of the things I'll remember," she said, glancing over at him.

He gave her a puzzled look.

"You know how your life goes along and the things you do all the time--the routine things--just sort of drop away?  But certain things stand out, and when you think back later, they're the ones you remember.  A lot of times they turn out to be little things for me, like helping my mom put up the strings for the sweet pea vines.  I don't know why I remember that but I think about it a lot.  There was just something nice about it, something comfortable about working together.  There was this Christmas tree she made me one year.  It was just after we moved to the farm and we didn't have money for a tree so she made one out of a branch--a pine bough. It was really nice.  Or maybe it was just the thought, the effort she made.  Maybe that's what makes things stick out to you, so when you look back those are the things you see.  Good or bad, I guess," she added, aware of the kinds of memories that clung to him.

He was watching her hands, the way she turned the dough, how far, and the way she pressed it.

"You can try it," she said, looking up from her work.  She stepped back.

He shook his head. "Nah."

"It's just a little piece of dough, Alex.  Come on."

He shrugged and looked away toward the window, wiped a hand past his nose.  But when he realized she wasn't going to let him out of it that easily, he turned back.  Sighed.  A small rise of one eyebrow.  Finally, an even slighter nod of his head.  She took another step back to make sure he had enough room.

After a pause he stood up and faced the bread, careful to avoid her gaze.  Taking hold of the far side of the warm mass, he folded it gingerly in.  A press with the heel of his hand, and a pause.  He turned it the way she had, a quarter turn, and did it again.  Another pause. 

This is crazy, he was thinking.

This was the way it started, he was thinking.  Just a small dose of something soft and non-threatening, pliant and tender, and then it had you: the perfect snare.  Something that took you because somewhere inside, you wanted to be taken.



It's been too long since I last wrote to you.  Our progress here has been slow, though we continue to be safe and to enjoy the support of dedicated friends.  Ben is working on a lead he believes may prove our target's motivations to promote his own self-interest above that of his colleagues. Hopefully it will provide us with evidence to use as leverage against him.  This has involved a good deal of time in a menial cover position, which I know has tested his patience.  I, too, have had some success in gathering evidence, though the necessity for secrecy has necessarily slowed our pace.

Currently we are concerned that you may soon be targeted in an effort to draw us out of hiding.  Less than a week ago my own mother was deliberately infected with a disease designed to send me running to her bedside.  Only the forethought of a dedicated colleague has saved us all from the worst.  Now, as my mother is close to showing improvement, she must be moved from the hospital to a safe location, and when she is out of his range, we are concerned that he may turn to you as a way to get to us.  Please give some thought to where you might be able to stay undetected. 

I have no wish to alarm you, but your safety is of paramount importance to us both.  Ben also received an e-mail from Alex voicing these same concerns.  As you know, our history with him has been extremely unreliable, but we are unable at this point to determine any self-serving motivations he might have for suggesting this.  Ben will undoubtedly be writing to you in more detail soon, but I thought you might appreciate some advance time to consider your options. 

Thank you again for your patience and kindness at a time when my life seemed overwhelmed by instability.  Looking back at that time not so long ago, I feel that much progress has been made.  I've even found myself in a position to help a younger woman in much the way you reached out to me.  Actually, we've had the chance to help strengthen each other.

Hoping this finds you well



Teena Mulder pushed the button on the garage door opener and waited for the darkness to close around her.  She continued to grip the steering wheel tightly.  How unspeakably vile that he'd pulled Dana's mother into this, his ever-continuing climb over other lives in order to come out on top.  And on top of what?  Though he was calm and collected on the surface, sometimes it was no more than a front.  He was an angry, empty man underneath the smooth exterior and he would have no qualms, show no hesitation about using Dana's mother if it would get him something he wanted. 

Or herself: if taking her would lead him to Fox, he would do it without hesitation.  And if he were to discover that she'd sheltered Fox and Dana?  Or that Alex had come to her?  He professed concern for her, but it could be gone in a heartbeat, replaced with something terrible. 

So Alex had contacted Fox.  She pictured him again, the stranger at her front door: quietly urgent, and then standing in the kitchen, tight and nervous, holding out the faded, accusatory photograph and demanding to know why. 

After a moment she reached for her purse and pulled on the door handle.  The stacks of boxes against the wall looked as they always did, newspapers to the right, the boxes and the foldaway bed up against the wall.  Still, her eye was drawn to it as it had been nearly every time she'd passed through here since that day.

Was he making an attempt to protect her, and if so, why?

She pushed the car door wider, stood and turned to retrieve a small bag of groceries from behind the seat.  Closing the door, she went almost without thinking toward the stack of boxes.  He'd shot a toddler, a little boy, Fox had said.  How very like his father, whose apparent concern typically concealed cold strategy.  Leland planned ahead, noting every eventuality; it was the way his mind worked.  Surely he would have taught Alex to do the same.  Though Alex had seemed much less tightly-controlled than his father, leaning against her kitchen sink, visibly filled with emotions that threatened to drown him.  The outward control had been there: the stance, the steely gaze.  But his voice had given him away. 

And he would protect her now?  He'd warned her, after all, not to trust him, and he'd seemed insistent.  She could still feel her alarm at the intensity of his gaze, eyes dark and very serious.  Then he'd left a scrawled note of thanks on the sandwich plate.

There'd been no rational reason to let him in, and yet it was the urgency in his eyes that had made her swing the door wider and let him pass.  Leland at his youngest, at his most convincing, telling her she deserved--more than that, was entitled to--something more than Bill's stony silence had never seemed so raggedly real and alive as that. 

Maybe there was something Alex needed her for.  A oddly compelling thought... 

Or perhaps nothing more than a dangerously romantic notion, the hope that this son who'd come to her nearly speechless, an accusation in his hand, might have somehow forgiven her.

Reluctantly, Teena took her hand from the dusty box and started toward the door to the back yard.  There was planning to be done.  Wherever she chose to go, it must be a place she'd never been before, somewhere she'd never thought or hoped to go, or mentioned to anyone, even in passing.



A quick knock and Tracy appeared in the doorway, bread bowl wedged against her side the way women carried babies on their hips.

"I'm going now, Alex."

"Good news," he said, glancing up from the laptop's screen.  "A little progress, anyway.  I just checked with my hospital contact.  Scully's mother's vitals are falling off.  Check it out."

She crossed the room and leaned past him toward the laptop screen, pale hair spilling to one side.  He leaned away and made himself focus on the words on the screen.  A series of rooms had experienced an electrical overload in the early hours, the message said, but the equipment had been quickly replaced.

"That's you," he said.  "That was no accident.  Mulder got somebody to switch those monitors."  He glanced up, a look of approval on his face.  "How did you do it?  What did you tell him?"

"I just told him the truth, Alex." 

As if it were the most obvious strategy in the world.  Well, somehow it worked for her

He made himself look away from the cascade of soft hair framing her face and refocused, tracing the wrinkles in the section of sheet beside him. Finally he cleared his throat.  "Don't you have to be there pretty soon?"

She nodded.  "I'm going to do a little shopping while it's baking.  Is there anything you need?"  She seemed to take a deep breath.  "You know, for the next day or two?"

He stared at the shelves above the microwave and shrugged.  "Whatever you think.  Not exactly in a food frame of mind at the moment."

"Do you know what time he's leaving?"

"He'll probably head for the airport about two."  The laptop screen went black and he tapped the touchpad.

"Do you have any way to know for sure if he's gone, Alex?"

"I've got somebody who can get me flight manifests.  Yeah, I can find out."

"Will you?"

He nodded. 

Nothing more.  Silence grew around them, a little too loud, a little too long.  He ran his thumb along the space bar on the laptop.

"I guess I've gotten used to this neighborhood more than I thought," she said, smoothing a crease in the front of her dress.  "The little grocery and the restaurant and Marisela's friend's store."  She resettled the bread bowl against her hip.  "Well..."

"Clock's ticking."

 "It is.  I'd better get a move on."  She started toward the door, paused and turned back.  "That's strange."


"What I just said: Get a move on.  I haven't said it in years.  I think it might be something my father used to say."  She repositioned the towel over the bowl beside her and went to the door.  "I'll be back in a while."

The door closed carefully behind her.

He stared at the narrow window beyond the foot of the bed until it went out of focus.  She wouldn't take off straight from her home, not unless something unforeseen happened to her while she was there.  She'd come back.  Which would be better.  And worse. 

Then she'd be gone for good.  But she'd have a better chance with Mulder than she would on her own.  Definitely better than her prospects here with him.  She deserved that chance.  When she got back there'd be a few more days: a couple, maybe five if they were lucky.  They'd have to keep their heads, and how easy was that likely to be the way things had been headed lately? 

Krycek pulled up, eased himself to the edge of the bed and went to stand at the narrow window.  Mulder might not want to believe him, but he wouldn't take chances with Scully's mother; he'd get her out while the old man was away.  But assuming Mrs. Scully would be disappearing within the next couple of days, what if the old man wanted him to coordinate the inevitable search for her? 

And what would he do if he found her?  Sacrifice her to save his own mother?  Save his own butt on the off-chance that some way would fall into his lap to influence the future?  When was the last time that had happened?

It's what the old man had convinced himself of: that he was working, sacrificing, to save the planet.  That alone had to make him the most deluded son of a bitch of all.



"Need a hand with that?"  Mulder sprinted ahead a few yards.        

The pony-tailed Angie Connors was coaxing a dolly between parked cars, a tall bookcase strapped to it.  She stopped behind an old station wagon, checking her pocket for keys. 

"Saw you hauling this out here," he said, coming up behind her.  He nodded toward the bookcase.  "Looks a little awkward."

She turned to face him.  Her concentration turned to a momentary smile.  "Thanks.  It's an old one.  They were finished with it and I could use a bookcase at home, so I asked Joe--"

"Joe let you have this?  Joe Charters?  You must lead a charmed life." 

"Not me.  No, Joe's... He's a lot of thunder, but not as much lightning as it looks like.  You just have to realize he's not growling at you."

"That he just treats everyone that way?"

A smile of recognition.  "That, too.  But he gets over it eventually.  You've just got to wait for the storm cloud to blow past."  She worked a key in the driver's door, opened it and reached back to pull up the lock button on the door behind.  "Actually, if you're offering, I'd appreciate the hand.  It's one of those composite things, sawdust and glue"--she disappeared inside the car and stretched across to pull the lock button on the opposite door--"and it weighs a ton.  But I figure that won't matter much once I get it settled in my living room."

She backed out, then opened the rear passenger door.  Mulder went to the door on the other side and together they folded down the rear seat.  Almost immediately she went to the back of the car and began to loosen the strap that held the bookcase.

Mulder glanced at his watch. "You trying to get this home now, on your lunch hour?"

She nodded and pulled at the release lever on the dolly strap.  "Need the seats for the kids after work."

"Then you're not likely to have any help getting this out on the other end?"

"Depends on whether my next door neighbor's home or not."

"I can give you a hand," he said.  "Besides, a few minutes away from Old Stormy and his chore list sounds like a good thing."

She paused.  "Okay.  Thanks."

She had the moves of someone who'd been doing it all herself for a long time: running a household, playing both parents.  She dug into the business at hand without waiting for anyone else to make the first move.

"Maybe if we just back it up here a bit and tilt it forward"--Mulder took the dolly and moved it back carefully--"it should go right in."  He waited for her to let down the rear door, then took one side of the bookcase and tilted it.  Angie took the other and together they eased it down onto the cargo door.

"Looks like it's just going to make it between the wheel wells," he said.

They slid the bookcase forward until it hit the front seats.  The concern on Angie's face smoothed into relief. "I must have done something right today," she said, smiling now.  "Seems like too often life complicates even the easy stuff."  She secured the rear door and motioned him toward the front.  "They say you've come from Hollywood," she said, opening the driver's door and getting in.

"Must be true," he said, getting in and giving her a grin, "because I've heard it from so many people."

"I hear you," she said.  "Around here people tend to know more about you than you do yourself.  Leastwise, they think they do."  She started the car and slipped it into gear.

"Name's Ben Wallace," Mulder said, offering a hand.  "In case they haven't told you that, too."

"Angie Connors," she said.  "Good to meet you."



Rush job.  Need the car ready by mid-afternoon.  Check everything for an out-of-town trip: gas, oil, belts, hoses, tires etc.   Will pay extra, just make it a priority.  Leave the bank account materials in the glove box.




Sandy broke the water's surface and reached for the ledge above her with a wet, cold hand.  Water streamed down her face.  "Why don't you come in, Annie?" she said, looking up.  "It's nice.  Besides, they say it may rain tomorrow.  Anyway, you look like you're just stuck there.  In your head, I mean."

Annie picked up a small pebble beside her, looked at it briefly and set it aside.  Her mouth formed a thin, straight line.

"Come on, Annie," she urged.  "Haven't you ever seen those ads on TV?"

This time Annie looked up. 

"Those ones that say, 'When your mind won't move, move your body?'  They're for some cell phone company, I think.  And then they talk about how the guy who invented their phone surfs every morning.  It's a good idea.  The water takes me away from my troubles.  For a while, anyway, and sometimes that helps a lot."

"I--"  Annie started.  "I guess the need for plans--workable plans--seems overwhelming at the moment.  We have no idea where he may strike next: Ben's mother, someone else in my family.  When my mother disappears he's going to be looking for her as well as for us.  And this new source that's turned up--we don't know how reliable she is."  She pursed her lips.

"That's exactly why you need a break," Sandy said.  "Come on.  Just a few minutes."  She tried to look firm and then frowned.  "Now I sound like some little kid's mom trying to coax them into eating their vegetables."

A sudden smile broke through the worry on Annie's face.  "Okay," she agreed.  "Just for a few minutes."

She pulled off the T-shirt that covered her swimsuit.  It was the basic royal blue suit from Wal-Mart but it looked really good on Annie--lots better than it had on the hanger.  Not that that was any surprise.  Annie inched forward on the rock, letting one leg down over the edge until her foot nearly touched the water.

"It's kinda cold at first.  You a diver or a wader?"

Annie gave her a puzzled look.

"Do you jump in and let it hit you all at once or do you get in gradually?"

"Today," Annie said, readying herself, "I think I'm a diver."  She pushed herself off the ledge and dropped below the surface with a splash.  A trail of bubbles rose in her wake and then her head popped up.  Her eyes were big.  She gasped and blinked.  "Kind of cold?  It's freezing!"

"But it woke you up, didn't it?"  Sandy grinned.

"Yes."  Annie dipped her head into the water and then tossed her hair backwards, out of her way.  "It certainly did."  She reached for the lower ledge and shook herself.

"There's the 'bathtub' over there if you like it warmer," Sandy said, gesturing to a shallow pool on the far side of the stream.  The sun warms the rock and it's pretty nice for relaxing.  Me, I like to keep moving.  There's some pretty neat rocks and things down in this pool if you want to swim down and take a look.  I think that's what I like about the water.  It's almost like being able to fly."  She paused.  "Come on, Annie, you're gonna want to see this pool from below."

 Annie shivered, took a deep breath and followed Sandy down.



"So I've always got to be on the lookout--monitoring them, you know?" Angie said.  "I mean, kids don't give a darn about this stuff.  They think they'll live forever."  She sighed and began to set an armful of books on the new bookshelf.

"Isn't that uncommon, for all three kids to be affected?"

"If there's an opposite to winning the lottery," Angie said, "I guess we did it."  She gathered another handful of books from the sofa and shelved them one at a time.

She was a plain woman.  Or rather, she kept herself plainly--a woman with more focus on her responsibilities than on fashion.  She wore no makeup other than a quiet shade of lipstick that was almost undetectable, and her deep golden brown hair was drawn back into a no-frills pony tail.  She always wore the same thing--colored T-shirts and jeans--and if the weather was cool, a flannel shirt in greens and whites.  Always the same one as far as he could tell.  She probably wasn't much older than he was, though she seemed it from the way life had worn her.

"This box, too?" Mulder asked, pointing to several stacked beside the sofa.

She turned back and nodded.  "Yeah, thanks."  Her smile was sincere.

He picked up the box and brought it closer.  "I guess you"--he nodded toward the box--"know where you want these."  He held the box while she picked out the books and placed them on the various shelves. 

"Do you ever think of doing something else?" he said finally.  "Something other than working the clean room?  Eleven years is a lot of time in one job like that, one position."

"Oh, I could do without the clean room alright.  You bet.  At least, I can in my dreams.  Unfortunately, dreams don't pay the mortgage, or buy shoes or braces or winter coats.  You've got to survive, keep going."  She slid the books into place with few pauses, the empty spaces gradually disappearing.

"So we bear the ills we have," Mulder said absently, watching the books disappear methodically from the box.


He shook his head.  "Just something Hamlet said.  That we keep doing the things we do, even when they're painful, because we're afraid of what the unknown might be, of what might happen if we stopped."



Car will be ready by three, barring any unforeseens.  Docs are in the glove box as we speak.  As for the funds, thanks--the hounds were clawing at the door.  At least now I can eat while I hack.  Later--

"Who's Ché?" Tracy asked, pulling another chunk from the warm loaf of bread.

"This Czech guy I know.  Hacker.  Jack-of-all-trades. The kind of guy who can put something together with wire and paper clips and make it work.  Makes a mean bowl of stew. Crazy guy." He shrugged.

"I got that part," she said. Gradually a smile spread across her face.  She hid it behind her hand.


She shook her head and put the piece of bread in her mouth.  "Nothing."

He frowned. 

She turned away, the smirk still on her face.

Obviously she could feel his reaction, because a moment later she turned back to him.

"He just..."  She paused, attempting to erase the smile from the corners of her mouth.  "He just seems kind of... too colorful for someone you'd know."

"What?  And I'm monotone?"

"You're just... you're all utility, Alex.  Focused and equipped to get things done.  Ché seems kind of... interesting."

He waggled his eyebrows.  "I could fix you up with him.  Old guy.  Gray hair--wild.  Doesn't shower too often.  But real interesting."   

It took her a few seconds to catch on.  Finally she smiled and her cheeks colored.

"What, no brothers to tease you when you were growing up?"

She shook her head.  "No brothers."   Suddenly she paused, apparently deep in thought.


 "Just... something.  Something I almost remembered.  You know how you just about touch something in your mind and then it slips away?"

She stared unseeing at the shelves. 



Apologies and hopes

Hope is on my mind today when everything seems so precarious: the need to move and protect you, the probability that others will be targeted once you are out of reach, the question of how long we can go on trying--working--to solve this mystery, to amass evidence against this certain treachery when it seems the odds are very much stacked against us.  A friend remarked today in an e-mail that we can hold out indefinitely if there is hope, but where we see none we falter and weaken, though resolution may be near at hand.

I know that my decision to join the Bureau has affected all of you. In spite of the harsh consequences you have had to endure, perhaps no one understands this better than I do.  However, I have also come to understand that the involvement which has led to so much tragedy, that has led to the circumstances in which we both find ourselves now, came to me rather than being something I sought out or brought upon myself.  There are men in untouchable positions of power misusing their influence behind the scenes for selfish and ultimately dangerous ends.  They will go to any length to protect themselves and their agenda.  They reached out and took me, experimented on me, left me sterile and produced a child with no hope of surviving more than a few years of their experimentation.  I can't begin to tell you what a question mark Emily has become in my mind--the possibilities of who she was and who she might have become if only she'd had a chance to grow and reach her potential.

When these men tried to kill me for the little I did know about their activities, Melissa was the one who opened the door.  I cannot bring her back or replace her, but neither can I close my eyes and try to pretend that the chain of events that led to her death never happened, or that these men's wide-reaching effect on many other innocent lives has ceased to be.  I used to want what I thought was a model life and career enough that I denied what was going on around me, as if I could wish the evil surrounding me away, but I can no longer do this.  To give up, to turn my back or throw up my hands in impotence would be to give Melissa up without a fight.  She and the many others who have been affected deserve better.  You deserve better.  I cannot bring myself to walk away without a struggle, or resign myself to living out the rest of my life in secrecy, on the run, or seeing more innocent victims die if there is something that can be done about it, and until the final determination is made that there isn't, my life must be devoted to this cause.  The sobering reality, of course, is that historically we see great evil being defeated only at great cost--the defeat of Hitler, for example, through the loss of many lives.  Still, there are examples of victory coming through the efforts of small, common people, or those few in number.  I hold on to the hope that this is the case with us.  



Tracy reached into the glove box and took out the manila envelope inside it.  There was a brochure about bank services--a tongue-in-cheek addition of Ché's, apparently, since he'd hacked into the bank's computers to establish the account in the first place--a check register for keeping track of her balance, and an ATM card.  She turned the card over and looked at both sides.  'Tracy A. Hanson' it said on the front in gold-embossed letters.  It was a last name Ché had picked out himself.  It would keep her from being traced if anyone were looking for her.  Not that Uncle Nathan was likely to have her face put on milk cartons or anything.  She was more than he could comprehend, just as her mother had been. 

Tracy slipped the card and information back into the envelope, looked around the shabby parking area and locked the glove box and passenger door. 

She took a step away from the car and paused.  It was the perfect car for Alex: a common white coupe neither new nor old enough to draw attention, the seats and dashboard slightly worn, a sheepskin cover on the driver's seat and a little clutter behind--a jacket, some newspapers, a couple of water bottles and a roll of paper towels.  Nothing that could logically be pegged as identifying the owner.  Tomorrow it would be her car, driving away from here back to roads she'd traveled not so long ago but that seemed somehow out-of-focus now, as if they'd only been part of a dream.  There would be traffic to negotiate, but at least Alex wouldn't be tying himself in knots in the next seat trying to hide his tension.  Her car, her trip.  By herself. 

She was strong.  

Well, Alex thought so, anyway.

It had been a whole year since Nathan had come with the coroner that morning.  He'd left her outside in the truck, and only after the coroner had taken away her mother's body had he allowed her to go inside, and then only long enough to get her clothes and a few basic things.  He'd even stayed in the kitchen so she couldn't try to slip into her mother's room.  It would only make things worse, he'd said with that you-know-I'm-right tone of voice he used.  Then he'd locked the house and they'd gone. 

What's past is past, he'd say whenever she asked about going back.  You've got to look ahead now.  Eventually she stopped asking, though she had gone back once, hiked the ridge on a Saturday and gone over behind and come to the house.  The sweet pea vines had been dry like parchment paper and the windows had been nailed shut.  Nathan must have expected her. 

Tracy shivered and looked up.  Above her, hazy swathes of clouds spread across a pale blue background like thin frosting.  It had been cooler lately--strangely cool--though it hadn't been cool enough today to justify wearing Alex's thermal shirt no matter how comfortable it was.  Today she wore the white dress; the yellow one had been washed and was hanging in her closet ready for tomorrow.

Her closet. It almost seemed as if it were truly hers.  No, it did seem like that.  Her room, her closet, her neighborhood.  Alex. 

She tucked the envelope into the turquoise string bag she'd bought from Marisela's friend and started toward the street.  Two blocks back to the apartment and there was a bank machine on the way.  It would be smart to stop and try the card.

Nathan had left a new key in the pump house; the fact had been lying unguarded in his thoughts before she'd left.  But if it wasn't there now, she'd break a window or do whatever else it took.  Getting in would be the easy part.  Facing what was inside could be a different story.



Need confirmation of the old man's outgoing flight from Dulles to Orly, Paris.  TWA 3:40 p.m.  Departure and verification on passenger manifest ASAP.   Thanks.



Just wanted  you to know that I wrote to your mother this morning.  I know you intend to write to her, too, but I also know you've got a lot on your mind and I thought a little forewarning would give her a chance to begin preparations.  The number of fires to put out right now seems overwhelming but S has managed to distract me from fixating on the things I can do nothing about.  Plunging into an icy pool can distract you from just about anything else, but it was a good experience in the end.  She's so at home in the water.  It's amazing to watch.

I hope you've been able to make some headway in your new line of investigation.  Let me know if you need help... or even if you just need an ear or a sounding board in general.  I know I'm probably not your first choice of confidante in this case but I'll do my very best.  I know how easy it is to retreat into yourself at a time like this, but retreat in and of itself never really leads to resolution.  Been there, etc., as you know better than anyone.

My mother's vitals continue to decline very slowly.  I can only assume that this is a matter of the programming and not the actual case.  I had a note from Byers assuring me that everything was going according to plan and I suppose I should take him at his word.  I'd say I'll feel more relaxed when she's safely away, but the question then is who will be the next to be targeted. 

Sorry not to be more upbeat.  I think I'm in need of a hope transfusion, though every once in a while I seem to rise above the gloom long enough to recognize the utter absurdity of so many people running around in terror because of a single man.  He's not a god, after all, though he seems to project this superhuman aura, as if defeating him were an impossibility.

Let me know how your day has gone.  



I think I've finally gotten a break here.  Met up with AC in the parking lot at lunch and helped her with a bookcase she was taking home, which gave us a few minutes to talk.  She's worked in the clean room for 11 years and hasn't considered leaving because of the health benefits.  Wilkins had it slightly skewed.  There's no general company benefit that includes an employee's family; this is something that was offered to her specifically at a time when she was considering an employment offer from another company.  Her kids are diabetic so the benefits were something she really couldn't afford to refuse.  I'll try to get more info later, but as it was I just let her talk.  Wanted to let her say as much as possible and didn't want to seem like I was prying.

Checked those downstairs lockers for shipping boxes but nothing yet.  My guess: if there's a flight on Sunday, there'll be boxes in there Friday afternoon.

Know what you mean about getting your mind off all this.  I'm on my way out to shoot some hoops.  Probably a positive to put in some time around town and anyway, it should keep my mind from doing that little rerun thing.  At least for a while.  Wish I could be more help to you now.  Hang in there, lark.  Wish I knew why she did it--whether she was in with him from the beginning or whether she sold out at some point along the way, and why.  But then a lie is a lie.  Think I'd better go.

Thanks for never lying to me.




A whirring sound came from the interior of the bank machine.  A moment later it spat out a receipt, and a twenty-dollar bill appeared in the lower slot.  Tracy took it, folded the bill in half and slipped it inside the bank envelope in her string bag.  The machine beeped.  She looked up, startled: her card.  Gratefully she took it, wrapped the receipt around it and paused.  Unfolding the paper, she looked at the details printed on it.  It contained part of her card number, a partial account number, the amount she'd taken out--the twenty dollars--and the time and date. 

And at the bottom, the account balance:  $2,140. 

She gasped.

It was nearly twice what the old man had given her.  There had to be some mistake. 

Though probably that wasn't likely with bank computers. 

Unless Ché had managed a little electronic robbery, the money must have come from Alex.  He'd do something like that and not say anything so she wouldn't protest.  He'd be thinking about how much money she'd need when she had another mouth to feed, and diapers and food to buy, and other things she hadn't even thought of yet.

But it wasn't just that.  There was the password for the ATM card, too: 'topaz'.  It was the same as the name on his new e-mail account.  It could be just a random word... but Alex did nothing lightly, without thought or intention.  He was so very serious. 

After a moment she folded the receipt, slipped it into the bank envelope in her string bag and started toward the apartment, more slowly this time.



Will handed the phone back to Rita, closed his eyes and grimaced.

"Telemarketer?" Rita asked.

He looked up and managed a hint of a smile. "No, somebody from the Bureau.  She wanted some background on the Kentucky case.  Evidently some of the paperwork got lost in the great bureaucratic black hole."  He looked up from where he lay on the couch and winced slightly.  "Talk to me, Mother J.  I'm going to go crazy if I have to keep myself in this body much longer."

Rita sat down on the empty cushion at the far end, the one that had become her personal corner.  "Sometimes you fall asleep here, Will, and I... watch you sleep.  I think it's a built-in thing, a mother thing that's programmed into you."  She colored slightly.  "This is going to sound silly."

"Lay it on me.  Coming from you, I can take just about anything."

"Sometimes," she began, "I just look and think about how people are different--look different--like the nice coloring you've got and how we must seem strange to you by comparison, white folks, like we missed something along the assembly line there, where they were supposed to put the color in.  Things I've never really had the occasion to think about before, but when you're just sitting the mind wanders to things you'd never considered.  Sometimes I wonder what your parents might have looked like--who you favor more, your mother or your father. 

"Or I think of Andy, all those things he did when he was a kid and whether I did the right thing--led him the right way--or whether his orneriness was just part of his makeup, the spirit that made him want to jump off of every roof and break his arm.  Or run off and fool around and end up with a daughter when he was fourteen."  She shook her head.  "It was such a fool thing to do.  Fourteen, Will.  Her name was Arlene Butterfield and she hadn't any more sense than he had.  And then I look at Bethy and think, whatever the circumstances, what would I have done without this child?  She's my constant companion and she's such a joy, though her life certainly hasn't been easy.  But then you don't get your druthers about what a life's going to be like, or how long.  Though you always seem to have this picture in your head: of certainty, of someone growing up and going through all the usual stages, passing all the familiar checkpoints, I guess.  And then we get surprised."  Her voice trailed off.

Will wagged a finger at her.  "You're waxing philosophical, Mother J." 

"Guess it's just what's in me at the moment, Will."

"I know what you mean about the surprises," he said after a moment.  "I was out playing with this kid Kareem the day Mama was shot.  I always told her where I was going--always asked first--but for some reason it completely slipped my mind that day."  He sighed.  "We were hunting for grasshoppers.  Kareem, he'd seen these giant grasshoppers in an empty field, and that's big game when you're a little kid.  Had nothing more on my mind that day than grasshoppers and supper.  I guess at that age you don't look any further than the next few hours.  The future is bedtime."  He let out a slow breath. 

"And then I come home and it was all over.  She was gone, no evidence left of her, just... disappeared, as if she'd been swallowed up somehow and the future was changed.  Somehow everything had changed and you didn't get a vote, or a say; you were just left with it, like half an old squashed peanut butter sandwich some kid dropped into your hand before he took off and ran.  A bad joke.  Really bad joke."

He closed his eyes.  His forehead throbbed in time to his heartbeat.  His eyes weren't getting any less dry for being closed, so after a moment he opened them again and pulled himself up to a sitting position.  When the banging in his head had settled, he stood slowly. 

"I want you to know, Mother J," he said, turning awkwardly, "that I truly appreciate you hanging out with me like this because misery loves company, and at the present time I'm about as miserable as anybody I know." 

He gave her a half-smile and started for the hallway.  He'd made it nearly to the bathroom when the coughing overtook him.  After a moment he managed to get inside the door and close it so she wouldn't have to hear it so loudly.  She was a mother after all.



You may know that Annie has already written to me today and told me of the need to make preparations.  I know you'll want to help me find a place, but it occurred to me that perhaps it might be best if you didn't know where I'll be.  We can continue to stay in touch as we do now, but it would eliminate some knowledge one of us had of the other that L might possibly discover and use against us.  Let me know your thoughts on this.

Annie said you've been working hard at gathering evidence.  If your father's words have been a help to you then I'm so glad I remembered them.  Looking back, it seems so characteristic that L would set himself above the rest.  He has indeed protected the project, but in the end he is far from an altruistic man.  If a single life preserver were tossed into a churning sea, I have no doubt he would fight off anyone else to save himself.

My thoughts are with you both.  I hope you are finding strength in each other, and strengthening each other in return.  All my love.



Tracy paused at the door, gathered her shopping bags into one hand and slipped the key into the lock.  "Just me, Alex."

He looked up when she came in.

"My treat tonight," she said, heading for the small desk and setting her package on it.  "I figure it's about time."  She turned to face him.  "Did you find out if you're father's gone?"

"Flight and passenger manifest checked out.  He's got a connecting flight once he hits Paris.  I'll check that out later, when he's gotten in."  A pause.  "I checked Scully's mom again.  Everything's going according to schedule.  So far."  He paused and nodded toward her.  "What's in the bag?"

"You hungry?"


When she said no more he leaned forward, curious.

"I got some of that Chinese you had me get the first night you were here."  She blushed.

"You mean when I could hardly sit up long enough to eat it?  Don't remind me."  He shook his head.  "I could barely think, much less--"

"I know."  She came to the edge of the bed, hesitated a moment and sat down.  "You were afraid I was some trick of his, a spy."

He shrugged. "Didn't know you then."

"It seems like so long ago, like..." 

She smoothed a hand across the section of blanket in front of her.  As if she'd been here forever, but at the same time as if it had only been a minute.  As if she blinked, the place would be gone, barely a memory.  She stared at the baseboards near the corner of the bathroom door and pressed her lips together.  In the hallway outside footsteps and voices approached--the little gray-haired woman who had the room next door to hers, and a friend--and then continued up the stairs.

"Hey."  He nudged her hand with the back of a finger.  "How about we eat it before it gets cold?"

She looked up and nodded.  "I got that chicken stuff you like so well.  And some rice and vegetables.  Shrimp.  I think I went a little crazy.  You'll probably have leftovers for days."

She made herself smile and got up.  He followed, bringing bowls and spoons to the desk.  Their dishes full,  he pulled out the desk chair and sat.  She took the recliner and curled up sideways, her legs tucked under her.

"You never mentioned your father before," he said after a few bites.  "Until this morning."

"I hardly ever think about him.  I don't remember him very well.  There are parts of my life, when I was little..."  She shook her head.  It had always been a blur, a fog.  "I just don't remember them.  I know we lived in California.  Pasadena, I think.  And then my father died, and after that my mom and I went to Uncle Nathan's.  He's very focused on what he's doing, Nathan is, trying to keep his little farm running without having it go under.  So he just put us out in the back valley, in this little house.  It was supposed to be a barn originally, so it's got that shape.  But it was only partly finished when we came so he just finished off the inside like a house.  I was eight, I think."  She looked into her bowl and took another bite.

"So what happened to him?  Your dad?"

"That's one of the things I don't remember.  It was sudden, I think.  He was... He worked at a university--Cal something-or-other.  An engineering school, my mom said.  But I hardly remember anything.  He was tall, and he was older than my mom, but..."  She shrugged and shook her head.

"So you don't know what he did?"

"Uh-uh.  I remember the front of a house, it was stucco and the living room window was arch-shaped.  I remember looking up at the window, lying on the lawn and looking up past the window to the blue sky."  She paused.  "He wore a tan sweater a lot of times.  And a bow tie."  Her fork sat poised above her bowl.

"So then you went to the farm..."

She nodded.  "Uncle Nathan doesn't know how to deal with emotional things.  He just doesn't.  And he had this barn half-built, but I think he put us out there, too, so he wouldn't have to deal with us himself.  Things like that make him squirmy.  He just wants to get away."  She fished a shrimp from her bowl.  "But I loved it there, being able to be outside, have all that space, nature all around you.  It was so quiet."

"Not a lot of minds to listen to?"

She nodded.  "That, too."

He reached for a carton and scooped more rice into his bowl.

"Then after my mom died, Nathan just kind of... swooped me up and took me away to his place. His and Aunt Jean's.  They never had any kids and it was just too much, being away from my mom, and then all those kids at school.  They tried to put me in counseling but the counselors made me nervous.  And then people started to find out about me; I started to slip, and... Finally I couldn't stay anymore.  I just had to leave."

Krycek reached into the bag, took his hand out again and looked inside.  He tipped out soy sauce and hot mustard packets.  A single wrapped fortune cookie fell into his hand.

"Only one," he said, raising an eyebrow.  "Toss you for it."



Glad you heard from Annie.  So many times she's played my ambassador to the organized world while I run around in circles watching for the sky to fall.  If you feel better doing this one solo, I trust your judgment, but get yourself a laptop so you've got that mail capability close at hand.  You're not going to want to be seen going to libraries to check your messages and I need to know you're okay.

According to our sources, L will be returning from out of the country on Saturday, so Friday's the big day for Annie's mom and you'll need to be gone by then.  Be sure you have some cash on hand so he can't trace you through credit cards.  I'll check with some friends and see what can be done electronically about making your bank funds accessible without them being traced.

Had it confirmed more bluntly than I would have liked yesterday that Diana's working for L.  I don't know what the attraction can possibly be, how an intelligent person who seemed to have a commitment to investigation and truth can feel validated doing his dirty work.  I do think, though, that I may finally have stumbled onto something here.  I've got a hunch about this stronger than anything I've felt in a long time.  Trying to stick with it, to look at the evidence with an objective eye and not miss the forest for the trees.

Stay in touch and we'll do the same.  Good to know you're out there.



Krycek studied Tracy's profile in the silence, her darker outline contrasted against the day's final brightness beyond the window.  He'd had enough of sitting up and she'd settled on the edge of the bed beside him, but she was miles away and both of them seemed to have run out of things to say.

"You think we should let Mulder know the old man's away for sure?" 

She looked up, seeming relieved to have something to talk about.  "I don't know.  I'll think about it."

She moved slightly and their hands moved.  Until tonight they'd stuck religiously to the unwritten rule: only after he'd taken the painkillers.  Then there was an excuse to reach for her hand.  A reason for her to take his.  Now, though....  It had just happened, no forethought.  Habit.

Maybe a lifeline.

"It might be too much," she said.  "Telling him.  It might make him suspicious, like why are you offering him so much?  He's wary anyway; he flares up about people manipulating him."  A pause.  "Why do they do it, Alex?  Use him like that?"

"He's the canary in the coal mine.  He's got a knack for digging things up, and when he does, they know they're too close for comfort--too close to being exposed.  Then they pull the rug out from under him and he goes right back and does the same thing all over again."  He raised his eyebrows.  "He never learns, never figures out they're using him as a pawn.  Makes him look like a fool, but--"  He paused and sniffed in a breath.  "He's got guts, you know?  He doesn't care.  It never stops him, the fact that he looks like an ass to everybody else.  It takes something to keep going like that. You could figure he's just crazy... except that he's on the right trail."

"And his sister who they keep dangling in front of him?"  Her hand stopped moving.  "She's your sister, too."

"I guess.  Yeah, she is--was--but she was never anything to me. A name. She's his--Mulder's.  She's the light that keeps him going--the one you keep thinking you see at the end of the tunnel."  He shrugged.  "But you've got to figure the two of them had something--you know, Mulder and Samantha--for him to spend that kind of time looking for her.  Some kind of connection.  Has to be more to it than just Crazy Mulder off on his blind little crusade."

"What happened to her, Alex?"

He shrugged.  "Supposedly she's dead.  The old man has no proof, though.  He sent me out once, years ago, checking for child Jane Does in a dozen little two-bit towns near where he'd kept her.  She was thirteen or fourteen, something like that.  She ran away, so he says.  They all figured she couldn't have survived in the shape she was in.  Then later he switched his story, said he knew where she was, that she was alive.  I don't know what he thought he was going to gain by telling me that." 

He stared at the ceiling.  "They took her, all right--the aliens.  But he had some kind of deal with them, got her back somehow.  Kept her on this air force base in California."  He rolled toward her.  "Told my mother he knew where she was but Samantha'd never be safe if she ever breathed a word to anyone."  He pushed out a breath. 

"Then he used her as a lab rat.  Never came right out and said as much but I know the drill, the terminology; I've been around these bastards long enough.  Probably used her up, used her until..."  His voice trailed off and he shrugged.  "If she was stubborn like Mulder it would've made sense that she'd do that: make a run for it, figure some way to get the hell out of there."

"If she was like you she would, too, Alex."

Her thumb moved against his fingers.  He looked away. 

"Yeah, I guess."

It was getting dark.  Shadow filled the space around the bed, accented only by a small circle of light on the ceiling that came from the bedside lamp.  He could feel the blood pumping through his fingers between hers.  He held his hand still, unmoving.

"Thanks for everything you've done for me," she said finally into the quiet. 

He grunted in reply. Sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. "You should get to bed early, make sure you get enough sleep."

She nodded and started to move but he reached up, caught her shoulder and coaxed her head down against his chest.  She lay there quietly, her head below his chin.  After a moment he brushed the hair back from her face, leaving his hand against her neck. "Be careful out there." 

She nodded against him.  Her one arm was pressed too hard against the tenderness on his side but he'd live.  He watched her head rise and fall with his breathing.  "Go on," he said finally, giving her a nudge, "sleepyhead.  Get some rest.  You'll need it."

She sat up. "Good night, Alex." She caught his hand one last time, then stood and smoothed the wrinkles from her dress.

"Check in before you go," he said.

"I will."

He watched her leave, watched the door close behind her. 

As if it were any other day, any other night.

The room settled into silence.  Eventually he reached for the phone.   Number 3, the speed dial for the hospital monitor.  Three rings and a recording came on with the latest readouts.  Right on track, with a little variation here and there to make it look realistic.  He glanced at his watch.  Three hours at least--no, more like three and a half--before Ché would be able to verify the old man's connecting flight, and that was assuming no flight delays.  The old man could have faked it on the first flight--if he had reason to throw him off.  But with the second confirmation they could relax.  A little, at least.

It was the one fundamental, the one assumption that no one ever seemed to question, like that line of crap about killing off Mulder and turning one man's religion into a crusade: that none of this would work without the old man as the lynch pin.  That without him, everything would fall apart.

He looked down to where his hand rode his stomach.  Something cold passed through him, like snowy air.



Dear Lark--
Had a mail from my mother just now.  She suggested she might be better off doing her own thing without us knowing where she is so that if somehow Smoky finds one of us, he won't be able to pull out so much information about the others.  Thought I'd run it by you and get your input.

Was just realizing how many times you've run interference for me when it must seem to everyone else like I'm just off chasing my own ass.  It means a lot to me, though it's something I've probably never taken the time to mention.  As to the ear, thanks for the offer.  I don't think I'm ready yet to talk this out with anyone, myself included.  Don't know if I ever will be.  I'm stuck at that point where my mind keeps asking why, knowing it needs to figure her out--profile her--so I can let it go.  Except that I'm not ready to open that door yet and face whatever's inside.  Hopefully I can put it on hold for a while without having it eat away at me, because it looks like we may be in for a rough ride here for a while.

My mother (the matchmaker, it seems) keeps adding in these little lines of advice in her mails and I guess they're things I've needed to hear.  I know I get wrapped up in my own agenda, but thanks for being there for me.  Don't know how I would have made it through the last few years if I'd been going it alone.  Every time the bottom was about to drop out--or did drop out--you were there, the one constant in my life.  Small thanks a little late, I know, but it's sincere.  If fate brought us together, then it's doing something right.

The heart's there with you even if the body isn't... though that would be nice, too.  Hopefully we can meet at some surreptitious location soon.  Ah, the charmed life of the pursued.

                                                                          -Yours through bad and worse,
                                                                                          the nightingale



Dear Nightingale--
Good to hear your (virtual) voice for the second time this evening.  The balcony did seem a little empty tonight.  Okay, understatement.

Though I'd be concerned about your mom's plan, there may be some value to what she says.  If we're all too closely connected we risk falling over like dominoes.  Can she get a laptop of her own?  It would certainly help to be assured of having secure contact with her in the days ahead. 

S came up with an idea this afternoon that I've been thinking about.  She was talking about the old children's story of the three little pigs and how the smart pig, once he'd caught on to the wolf's intentions, kept going to the appointed locations (the apple tree, the turnip patch, the fair) an hour before he knew the wolf would arrive.  She asked if we couldn't somehow make it appear as if we were somewhere else.  What if our three friends could hack their way into motel and rental car records and make it appear as if we're working our way across another part of the country?  If he's watching that kind of information--and I can't believe he's not--then it could buy us some time and hopefully, with his focus on the 'real' targets, he might leave our families alone.  It might help for a while, anyway.  Let me know what you think.

I believe both of us needed space last night, and I probably still wouldn't be very pleasant company with my tendency to get up and check my mail every half-hour or so.  That said, however, I wish you were here.  I've been trying to write a diary to my mother, something to give her when we can finally get together, and when I look at the things I've said and how fantastical they must sound to someone who hasn't seen what we've seen... I know I came into the world of your ongoing investigations, but if it had been me who had experienced these strange things first, who but you would ever have believed me?

Wishing you a peaceful evening.
                                                                               -lark for a nightingale



If Samantha was like him she would have run.

Now there was a twist.  But she was Mulder's, not his--by common-law connection if not full genetics. 

In the end, the old man had used her even more than he'd used either him or Mulder.  She hadn't grown up in the harsh glory of the great Russian social experiment, a throwaway to be shaped into a convenient tool if she managed to survive.  Instead, he'd taken a young girl, one somebody obviously cared about, and torn her down piece by piece for cloning, for hybrid experiments... the exact end use didn't matter. 

His own flesh and blood.  He'd tried not to think of her that way; what would be the point? He hadn't thought about her at all until the old man sent him out scouting for a death certificate, and even then she'd been nothing more than a name, another one of the old man's victims.  The clone girl had been his shadow-contact with her.  Even now, four years on, the memory of the clone would slip into his brain at the oddest times, something in her eyes begging for release from the body that was her prison.

Krycek glanced at the clock. Hopefully Tracy was asleep up there, getting some rest.  She'd need it.  She was putting on a brave front, he had to give her credit for that: psyching herself up like a soldier before a battle, forcing away the images of what might actually happen.  But once she got there, when she was standing inside her own house again...

When it got to her the way it had gotten to her in the woods, then what?

Rolling, he pulled the laptop toward him, pushed the power button and waited.  11:38.  She'd be asleep.  Or if she wasn't, if the prospect of tomorrow was eating at her, she wasn't likely to come down and seek him out.  She'd stay up there and try to figure out how to deal with it. Which made all the logical sense in the world.

He clicked on the mail program.  The modem dialed, warbled its greeting to the server and hooked up.  He waited, watching the lazy movement of a cobweb floating in the corner of the ceiling out of one eye.  A single message. 

The buzzard has landed... and taken off again.  Congrats. You're home free for a while.  Later, dude.

Ché and his love affair with Americanisms. 

Krycek closed his eyes and lay back against the pillows.  A few days of safety.  A couple of days until all hell broke loose with Scully's mother. Knowing when the old man was coming back, they'd move her by Friday to be sure.  There'd be the search effort to coordinate but it would only be the initial stages, the throw-your-hands-up-and-check-all-the-usual-avenues shit, and then the old man would return and take over.  Hopefully Mulder's people would have thought their moves through and wouldn't leave a trail, or botch it at the hospital.  But it was their game.  It was up to them to make sure it worked.

Krycek shut down the laptop and pushed it against the wall.  If she was asleep, fine, but if not maybe he could at least help ease her mind enough so that she could get some rest. 

He pulled up, slipped his feet into his shoes and stood.  The wound was just a big sore area now, tender if he touched it, or stretched, or had to use the muscles too much.  But the worst was past.  It had been hell, though, for a while.

He checked his pocket for keys and went out into the hallway, locking the door behind him.  The stairs this time.  After burning out yesterday, most of his day had been spent in bed, but now it was time to move.  He started up, one foot and then the other coming up to meet it, smooth, not pushing it, but  not too much hesitation.  At the top he paused and looked into the shadows at the end of the hall.  There was no number above her door. 

Most likely she was asleep.  Why wouldn't she be?  He went closer and raised his hand, unsure whether to knock.


He sighed.  Should've known.



Someone recruit that girl.  I really think she's got a lot of potential (as well as a lot of guts.  Or maybe it's just the kind of foolhardiness I can identify with.)  Seriously, though, S may be onto something.  I've mailed the LGM and am waiting for a reply.  If we can have an electronic trail in place by the time your mom disappears, it should buy us some valuable time.   Give the kid a gold star and remind her not to go falling into any more thorn bushes.



"Come in."

Krycek opened the door. The room was dark.  She was sitting on the bed--far side, at the foot end--silhouetted faintly by dull street light from the window.  She faced the center of the bed, sitting cross-legged.

"Thought you might be awake."  He made his way around to the window side and sat down on the edge next to her.  "Can't sleep?"

"Just thinking, Alex.  Praying, sort of, I guess."

Footsteps in the hallway, then a door opening and closing.

"You believe in God?"

"I believe in something, Alex.  It's guided me too many times for me to think there's nothing there."  Wisps of hair hung in front of her cheek.  She was wearing his shirt, the gray thermal.  Her hands rested on her knees.  "I was just thinking about... everything that's happened here, all the good things.  I'm just trying to appreciate them, not miss them or take them for granted.  It's like not having them at all if you don't recognize them.  Like being blind." 

He studied her in the dull light: the set of her chin, the way the corner of her mouth would pull suddenly and then relax. 

"What things?"

"This room.  It's been so nice having my own spot, my own space.  As if I were my own person and not somebody's burden."

"Your uncle's?"

She nodded.

"Tracy, you're not--"   

Her hand came out.  He took it.

"I like the window, and the roof patio," she said. "It's been such a good place."  Her fingers worked their way between his.  "And the restaurant, and Marisela, and her friend's store, and the little grocery where you can get everything in bulk, and all the places you've taken me in your mind, Alex--the castles and the places I'll never go."

"You could.  You'd be surprised what you can do if you put your mind to it."

"Alex, you, most of all." 

Her hand slipped away and then his face was being cupped--warm, careful hands on his cheeks, as if he were some object of great value.  "I've learned so many things from you, and you were here when I was lost--"  Her lips brushed his forehead, and then her arms were around him.

"Alex, I--"  A sigh he could feel.  "I'm sorry I can see everything inside you, that you don't have any private spaces left.  I don't know how to not see into you.  And I know what you've gone through to make me comfortable, that it hasn't been easy for you. I wish I could pay you back for that, that I could be what you want--"  She shook her head.  "I'm not ready for that.  There are things inside me, things I've seen in men's minds for too long--"

"Hey, you don't owe me anything."  He straightened and sat back.  "You can want a lot of things, but needs... needs are things you're going to die without.  I'm not dying."  A pause.  He glanced toward the window and back again.  "Anyway, you've"--he cleared his throat--"given me what nobody does.  You gave me your trust.  And you gave me who you really are, no games, no demands.  No bullshit."

The corner of her mouth quivered.  She tried to smile it away.

"Hey." He reached out and gathered her in against him.  She curled down against his shoulder and held on hard.  For a while there was only quiet and the come-again, go-again warm spot of her breath against his shoulder.

"Alex, I'm not ready.  I do think I'm supposed to make this trip.  I think I'm supposed to do it now, but I don't have that feeling, like I'm ready for what may come." 

She let her breath out slowly.  He rested his cheek against her head.  She was shaking slightly.  His thumb traced an arc over her shoulder. 

Let it go, nena.

He took a careful breath.  Maybe he didn't feel it either, that ready feeling.  Maybe that made two of them.  The room was suddenly silent, apart from the pounding of his heart.  It was now or never.

"You want me to come?"

"But, Alex, you--"

"Don't make excuses for me."  Lips against her hair.

The subtle sag-and-expand of breathing, quiet pressure where an arm wrapped around his side. 

"If you can."

"That a yes?"

She nodded against him.

"Then I'll come."

He let himself loosen and breathe, cheek against that smooth hair, everything about her close and warm and alive, so different from the way things would be in a few more days.  Out in the hallway, a door closed.  Footsteps faded toward the stairwell and disappeared, going down.

"Come on," he said, nudging her with his nose.  "It's late.  How about we go upstairs for a couple of minutes, clear our heads and then you get back in here and get some sleep?"

"You're sure you can get away?"

He stared at a streak of light on the window sill and swallowed.  In his mind the old man leered at him, daring him to do something so foolish.  He let his breath out slowly. 

"We'll make it somehow."  



Just hanging out here in the darkened orchard in case you happen to appear on the balcony.  Think Juliet checked her e-mail in the middle of the night?  Hope whatever news you get is good news.  If wishes were wings, you know I'd be there.
                                                                                  -the nightingale



"Ready?"  He nudged her with his nose. 

No response.  He waited.

"I'm just... really comfortable."

Or something else masquerading as comfort. 

Don't hide from yourself, Tracy.

Abruptly her head came up.  She sat back and pushed the hair away from her face.  "Sorry.  I shouldn't have."  Her knees came up and she stretched her legs out in front of her.

Maybe you need to face this

He tipped her chin up lightly with a finger, paused a moment, then got up off the bed and moved back a step.

Tracy slipped her legs over the edge and stood, her eyes wandering first to the shadowed carpet and then to the wall behind him.  The corners of her mouth pulled and then were consciously straightened again. Her fingers curled and then opened, as if wanting something they couldn't have, or were afraid to touch. Or ask for.

"I'm not even dressed," she said finally She glanced down at her shirt--his shirt.  Down at the thermal pants below it.

He shrugged.  "Who's going to see?"

She glanced away, toward the closet.  After a moment he held out his hand.  She took it, careful, as if it were one she'd never touched before.

It's okay, Tracy.  It's okay to want something.  It's not selfish.  Or bad. 

Or wrong.  He shook his head.  Not you.

Don't hide.

She blushed and looked up at him.  He could feel the corners of his mouth pull, just a hint of a smile starting, then she was a step closer, nervous, fingers reaching, her hands on his sides, careful and tentative as if she'd never had them there before, then slipping warm around his waist, bodies meeting--a sudden surge of heat and current. Then cheeks. Then lips: a touch, a pause and contact again. 

See, it's not such a big thing.  World's still turning.

A quiet smile spread across her face.

"Come on," he said, his voice dry.  He nodded toward the roof.

She took his hand and they went around the bed, to the door, out into the hallway.  She stopped and squinted against the sudden brightness and they started up, Tracy by the railing this time, neither one ready to let go in order to switch positions. 

Keep your head, Aleksei. 

The landing.  They paused a moment and then moved ahead, past the light that spread like a yellow mat across the doorway, and settled against the wall, their old familiar spot.  But it was a straight shot from here to the door.  Anybody who came up could see them. 


He tugged slightly at her hand and they drifted to the right, into the safety of deep shadow.  He turned and leaned back into the corner of the wall.  It was instinct, the safe position where you could always see what was coming at you.  No enemy this time, though. 

But the rhythm was gone.  Awkward, he stood stranded in a flow of slowly drifting seconds.  A squeeze against his hand--she seemed just as stuck as he was--and he gathered her in.  Hands on his sides again, as if she'd touched bare skin, bodies pulling to each other and cheeks again, and corners of mouths, her breath... Contact: careful, like everything else she did.  Then a little reaching, a little wetness, current spreading, her body drawing to him, no disguising it now.  Her head, finally, pressed against his shoulder, her breathing quick and shallow, arms hard around him. 

He brushed his lips against her hair and stared out at the skyline, loathe to force away the sudden heat.

Finally she stirred.

You okay?   

He glanced down to find her smiling.  She nodded. 

But what timing.

He let the view beyond the wall go out of focus and closed his eyes momentarily.  They should go.  Now, before either or both of them lost the will. There were a dozen details to coordinate, a trip to make and they needed to keep focused because how often were careless and dead the same thing? 

Count of three: one, two--bodies, like magnets, resisting the separation--three.  They stepped back, just a little, as if they'd practiced the move before.  Teamwork. 

"Come on," he said.

Passing through the glare of the stairway bulbs, they started down: one step, two steps, familiar, measured.  At her door, she stopped.              

Tomorrow, he said without bothering to speak it.

She nodded and squeezed against his fingers, then opened the door and went inside.  The door closed behind her.  When he heard the lock button pop, he started for the stairs. 

She'd sleep in his shirt, the fabric against her as if it were him.  Which would be like her: something careful, safe.  Him in absentia. 

He could still taste her.  That beautiful mouth.


(end Chapter 15)

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