Not My Lover: Enigma *NC17* 1/?
Chapters 1 thru 3
Formerly Love Will Keep Me Alive
Deslea R. Judd
DISCLAIMER: Situations not mine. Interpretation mine. Deal.
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name and headers.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Season 1-2; mytharc spoilers to Closure. This instalment is Alex's version of the events of Erlenmeyer Flask to Ascension.
CATEGORY: angst, mytharc, romance - Krycek/Marita (explicit), Marita/Other (historical), Mulder/Krycek (a little).
RATING: NC17 for sexual situations and language.
SUMMARY: Prequel to Not My Lover. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2.
NOTE: This story can be read without reading Not My Lover, but if you haven't done so, it will be helpful for you to know that the dark man is X, Maxwell Donovan is the Well Manicured Man, and Diana Donovan is Diana Fowley.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com/
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. email@example.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Finalist, 2001 Spooky Awards (Outstanding Unfinished Work, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation, Outstanding Marita Characterisation, Outstanding Krycek/Marita Romance).
She was afraid of touch.
Afraid to touch, afraid to be touched - it was the same thing. So desperately craving that which she feared. And so alone.
So painfully alone.
It is difficult to think of Marita as she was back then. Even now, when she is beautiful and strong, it hurts to think of her as she was, manipulated and deceived by people who believed in control as a form of love - people who intended her safety, yet held her captive, body and soul. She was an enigma, a child-woman thrust into adulthood before she was ready, yet kept childlike and dependent by those who sought to guide her.
Larissa, Michael, the dark man - all of them had a hand in her paralysing fear of touch. They saw her unguarded beauty, her passionate love for others; and they sought, misguidedly, to suppress it. Rather than teaching her to fear that which was dangerous in others, they taught her to fear the humanity in herself. They were right, in a way; but they were also terribly, terribly wrong.
I can't quite bring myself to hate them, though.
After all, they loved her too.
No story has a single beginning. Mine began in 1967, when Larissa Covarrubias stumbled across a Soviet operation to defeat the Black Cancer. It began in 1971, when she offered her information to the Americans in exchange for power and asylum; when she crawled over the Soviet-Turkish border, Marita on her back. It began in 1984, when my father went into local politics, kick-starting the chain of events that would lead me to the FBI. It began in 1993, when my mother's medical insurance ran dry, and I accepted a standing offer I had long refused. It began even earlier, with Roswell, or Tunguska; and later, with Mulder.
But I will begin with none of those beginnings. I will begin where it all began for me - the moment my life became entwined with hers. That was my beginning.
She was my beginning.
And, God willing, she will be there at my end.
I spoke casually, conversationally, knowing perfectly well that she was. That was why I was here, after all: to find those who might have been sympathetic to the cause of the one who had died; to shed light on the affair which had led to my newest assignment. She was family; but distant enough that she might not be stricken with grief, might not resent my intrusion.
The woman looked up, brushing aside a curtain of brown hair. "Yes," she said mildly, rising awkwardly, one hand clutching the side of her chair, the other at her swollen belly. "He was my husband's uncle."
"I'm sorry." I spoke the words in their conventional tones - mildly somber, yet perfunctory - but I genuinely meant them. Michael Harrington, from all accounts, was a decent man, at least as Consortium men go; and he died protecting another. Not a bad epitaph.
"Thank you, but I didn't really know him. We live overseas." She held out a hand. "Diana Donovan."
It struck me that it was faintly ridiculous to shake hands at a wake. I took it and gave it a slight squeeze, which seemed marginally less idiotic. "Alex Krycek."
Diana nodded by way of belated greeting, letting go. I nodded to the seat, that she should sit again, and she did so with a grateful look. "Did you know Michael, Alex?" she asked, settling back, her hand resting back on her stomach. I guessed she was due any time.
"No," I admitted, a little apologetically. "I'm playing driver to Spender."
Her head jolted up, and her expression darkened. Her eyes flashing, she said in a low voice, "That man has no business being here. He did this. It's insulting."
Privately, I agreed; but I made a noncommittal sound. "Michael stole the EBE. He offered it for ransom for Mulder. I'm sure he had his reasons," I added with a sympathetic undertone - one that was deliberate, but genuine enough - "but the fact remains, he betrayed the group."
Diana watched me coolly, thoughtfulness etched into the lines of her face. I'd expected that - I'd revealed myself as someone who could be persuaded to her point of view. She was pondering whether I could be used, or whether I was worth using. "He betrayed a faction of the group," she corrected, at last. "That's not the same thing."
"You're loyal for someone who didn't know him," I challenged; but my voice was mild. The connection had been made. We were going through the motions now. Anything else would be a bonus, nothing more.
"I was married to the man he saved," she said evenly.
"You were married to Mulder?" I demanded, instantly on the alert. I knew Mulder had been married, but not that his ex-wife had remarried into the group. That changed things, but I wasn't sure how.
"I've just been assigned to partner him at the FBI," I revealed. I wasn't sure if Spender wanted that to be general knowledge, but now that my intention to network was out in the open, my position needed clarifying.
"Does the FBI know that?" she said, dryly.
I grinned a little. "They will by this time tomorrow."
She was nodding. "Fox got too close this time. They want you to keep him under control." She said mirthlessly, "You must have impressed someone in Spender's camp."
"Or really pissed someone off," I retorted grimly.
She laughed at that. "So which camp are you, Alex Krycek?"
I shrugged a little. "I haven't decided. Which camp are you?"
"My own," she said, smiling a deliciously intriguing smile. She was a beautiful woman, though not really to my taste - I liked them softer than that - and I liked that she preferred an air of mystery to outright deception. Mysterious people, when they do consent to speak, usually speak the truth.
"Don't be cryptic," I reproved mildly.
She watched me, frowning a little with indecision. Finally, she said conversationally, "Michael was the one who led Fox to the X Files to begin with. Do some digging - find out why. Make up your own mind." She half-turned from me, looking into the distance, signaling the end of her willingness to discuss the matter.
"All right." I nodded my thanks, something she saw from the corner of her eye but chose not to acknowledge. I turned a little to follow her gaze. She was looking at a huddled group of mourners - not people going through the motions, but the genuinely bereaved.
There were five of them. Behind the chaise like a sentry stood a man in his thirties, tall and black. I recognised him as Spender's newly-employed right hand man - the one they called the dark man - and it suddenly occurred to me that he must have been Michael's right hand before that. Perched precariously on the arm of the chaise was a woman in her forties or fifties, her silvery-blonde hair pulled back in a severe knot. Could that one have been Michael's wife, I wondered? She fit the picture, but somehow I didn't think so. She was drawn and haggard, obviously grieving; but something was missing - something I had seen in my mother after my father's death. Some shock, some bewilderment about just how she might go on. Her grief was not that of a spouse, I was sure of it. But who she was and how she might fit into the picture, I couldn't have said.
On the chaise itself sat two men, clearly father and son, both fair, one old and one young. The younger one, I thought, was probably Diana's husband, Michael's nephew. That made the elder Michael's brother, although I guessed he was a good fifteen years older than Michael had been. They flanked a shell-shocked teenager, attentive to her, yet reserved and dignified. They had to be British, I decided.
My attention was drawn to the girl. She was clearly the center of the group - the one closest to Michael. She had the position usually assigned to the wife, but that was surely impossible. She was dressed in black from head to toe. Even her jewellery was black - onyx, I guessed, or maybe polished iron ore. The only thing disturbing her picture-perfect portrait of bereavement was a mass of blonde hair, almost to the waist. It drifted in waves over her shoulders, marring her stark attire.
"Is that the family?" I said conversationally.
"Yeah. Michael's half-brother, Maxwell Donovan - my father-in-law. He's a voting member of the group." Different surnames - they shared a mother, then. That sort of detail probably didn't matter, but mentally filing the information came as naturally as breathing. "The younger one is my husband, Edward."
"Who's the girl? Michael's daughter?"
"Marita Covarrubias." Her tone was affectionate. "His fiancee."
I stared at her in disbelief. "His fiancee? She's what, seventeen?"
"Twenty-three. Her mother is Larissa Covarrubias."
"The Soviet defector?" I queried. That must be the older woman with the silver-blonde hair. I could see the resemblance.
I thought on this. "Arranged marriage?"
Diana shrugged. "I guess so. We were at college together, and they got engaged pretty much as soon as she came home." She said reflectively, "I think he was good to her, though. She's pretty lost."
"Poor kid," I said pityingly.
A voice intruded - a voice I already despised. It was Spender, his voice smooth and autocratic; and yet, as always, with a smug undertone. "Alex."
I turned. "Yes, Sir."
"I'm ready to leave now."
"Certainly," I said briskly. "My condolences again, Mrs Donovan," I said to Diana with bland insincerity.
"Thank you, Mr Krycek," she said indifferently, taking my cue. "Spender," she said coldly.
"Diana," he nodded. "Come, Alex." My gaze drifted to the blonde fiancee once more.
The packet arrived five days later.
It was three years before Diana finally admitted to sending it, but I was certain of its origins the moment it arrived. I was not so naive as to think that she trusted me at this stage, but clearly my visit to the funeral had paid off: she had thrown a little information my way in hopes of bringing me over to her side - whatever that was.
The packet contained an unlabelled pass card and a slip of paper printed with a Maryland address. Frowning, I slipped them into my pocket. I skipped out of the Hoover a couple of hours early and drove to Westminster, finding the address easily on a private road. I parked my car among many others, suddenly conscious of its shabbiness, and got out. I followed the pathway, sandstone pebbles crunching agreeably under my feet, immaculately green lawn at either side of me. I came around a neatly manicured hedge, and a house came into view. I came to a sudden halt, staring up at it in disbelief.
Here's an X File, Mulder. How did I get deposited into the middle of the English countryside?
The house - and I use the term loosely - was an old sandstone mansion. Its architecture reminded me vaguely of pictures I'd seen of seventeenth-century English churches. The grounds were immaculately kept; the drapes were heavy burgundy velvet. Feeling slightly surreal, I walked up the steps, crossed the expansive courtyard, and came to a heavy oak door adorned with a gold plaque, marked with the legend, 'Members' Entrance/Guests Use Next Door'. The door had a card swipe, and I took a punt, using the card I'd been sent to gain access.
I drew my weapon and went inside cautiously, uncertain of what I'd find or who would challenge me; but no-one did. People came and went easily, paying me no heed. I walked from room to room, absorbed each room's atmosphere, and I felt my anxiety lessen. This was not a secure facility - it was a social club.
A Consortium social club.
Although most of the guests were older and apparently wealthy, there were also men and women like me - younger sidekicks and errandboys, some with their employers, and some alone. I passed through sitting rooms, lounges and bars with varying dress codes, from casual to formal; and at last, I stopped in one and sat at the bar for a drink. There was no charge, but the waitress asked to swipe my card. A little nervously, I allowed it, and after a few minutes had passed without the ambush of security personnel, my wariness eased.
"You're new, aren't you?" the waitress said conversationally. I looked at her, raising an eyebrow, and she laughed. "You've got that awe-struck look about you. It is very beautiful here."
"It certainly is," I said, draining my drink down in a single gulp. "Who owns this place?" I wondered whether she would be suspicious of the question. I doubted it. This wasn't a Consortium chick. She was just an ordinary waitress who would probably finish her shift and go to a PTA meeting.
She looked at me, a little askance. "Do you know, I'm not really sure. It was Michael Harrington, but he died a couple of weeks ago. Sad thing really - driveby shooting, you know. His executor says everything will continue as normal. Someone in his family will get it, I expect."
I nodded, frowning. Either Maxwell Donovan or Marita Covarrubias, I guessed. I thought of the girl I'd seen at the funeral, and the almost regal way in which she held herself, even in the extremity of grief. I could see her here. She was probably a member already. "Ancestral home?" I asked, mostly because the waitress was clearly waiting for me to say something.
"I think so. It's been The Den for over thirty years, I believe." A man with an empty glass looked at her expectantly, and she excused herself. I nodded absently as she went.
I turned from the bar and watched the room, drinking, taking in the big picture. I let the atmosphere wash over me, let the comings and goings and the scents and sounds settle into a pattern, waiting for impressions to present themselves, as they usually do.
And in time, one did.
What I noticed was that, while some were content to drink alone like me, in general people were pairing up and leaving. The pairings were mostly straight, but by no means all. I didn't see any lesbian pairings - perhaps because there weren't enough women to go around. Or maybe lesbians are too sensible to get involved with the Consortium to start with, I speculated with a grin. Some of the younger partners were prostitutes, I thought, but mostly guests were leaving with one another - and clearly, there was somewhere to go.
I went to the door at the far end of the room, where the couples had gone, and passed through it. I came into a room remarkably similar to a hotel lobby, with a grand staircase winding down the center. I was stopped by a woman asking for my pass card, and I handed it over, this time with less apprehension than before.
"Mr Krycek," she said, swiping it over a barcode reader, looking at the screen. I looked at her, startled, expecting that it would be in someone else's name, but nodded. "You're entitled to the use of a room if one is available. I don't have any fantasy suites free, but I have something on the third floor. Is that all right?"
"Fine," I said absently. "Thank you."
Feeling slightly dazed, I took the key she offered and made my way up the incredible staircase, marvelling at the delicately carved banister. Incredible workmanship. I lingered, touching the wood admiringly. It was not the darkwood I would have expected of its era, but a caramel-coloured palewood. I reached my level, but I looked further up the stairs, running my hand over it, savouring it, puzzling over its origins. And then another of my senses was caught by something equally exquisite.
She was on the fourth floor landing with the dark man. She wore a long white dress - something I might not have noticed particularly, but for the sharp contrast with her mane of cornsilk hair, flowing gloriously down her back. They had clearly just come out of a suite, but I didn't believe for one minute that they'd slept together. There was something else going on between them, and I couldn't put my finger on what it was. Her gaze moved over the open area automatically, passed over me without registering my presence, and moved on.
Unsettled, I turned away, and I went to my room. I found without surprise that it was an opulent bedroom, decadently furnished in deep navy and magenta. The pillows were huge and edged with heavy gold tassels. There was a tiled platform in the corner with an elegant cylindrical shower recess. There was a handcarved wooden box on the dresser, which I guessed contained condoms and the like. I opened it and found I was right.
There was a small leather folio in the bedside drawer, which was of interest, but not particularly enlightening. It outlined the exact privileges accorded to each level of membership - mine, based on the colour of my card, gave me complimentary access to most privileges but did not entitle me to bring guests; a lower level of membership required payment for use of suites and sexual services. There were more conventional recreational services, too - a gym, aquatic center, ice rink, and shooting range. There was no casino, and that didn't surprise me: group players gambled with their lives, not with their money. The Den operated twenty-four hours a day and was euphemistically termed a recreational facility.
More useful was a map of the mansion. I noted a private wing, which I presumed had been Michael Harrington's home, and details of the dress codes of the various wings. I had been in the smart casual zone; there were formal and casual zones, and also a zone discreetly named 'minimalist'. I presumed, from its proximity to spas, saunas, and the fantasy suites, that this area was nudist or close to it. There were assurances about daily sweeps for cameras and listening devices. There were rules about smoking and drinking, about the appropriate treatment of staff including courtesans, about which recreational drugs were tolerated and where. There were ground rules for an array of sexual situations, from BDSM to group sex, each marked with the statement, 'These rules are in force unless explicitly agreed otherwise by all parties, INCLUDING TOP TIER MEMBERS AND COURTESANS'. Top tier members were exempt from all rules except this one.
I lay back on the bed, mulling over what I'd read. From a social point of view, it was an amazing place. It was an anthropomorphic wonder - a manufactured haven from the minefield of navigating relationships in the Consortium. Here, the group and their subordinates could not only network, but indulge in almost any recreational or sexual taste - with courtesans or each other - without risk of information leaks or blackmail. Counting back the years, I realised that The Den had sprung up in the 1960s, presumably in response to a string of scandals and breaches arising out of the sexual revolution. The whole thing offended me on a number of levels; but it pleased me, too, with its neatness and its practicality.
I wondered why I had been given membership. Clearly, Diana - or whoever - had thought I might benefit from the access this place would provide; and her interest was probably not in my sex life. She expected me to dig, find out what I wanted to know about the group and its aims, and choose a faction. That was all right: that was my agenda, too. Whether my choice would be her faction or not, I couldn't say; but I was willing to follow her trail of breadcrumbs for a while and see where it led.
At last, I put the folio back in its place and went to the door. And then I stopped short.
There was an envelope stuck to the back of the door with my name on it. I withdrew a note, read it, and smiled broadly.
'Have a good time - but keep your eye on the ball.'
Laughing, I switched off the light, and left.
My FBI assignment was tedious.
I was already treated with some contempt in the Bureau, but that sentiment was magnified by my apparent choice to work with Spooky Mulder. Once a homage to his ability to solve impossible cases, that nickname had taken on less complimentary overtones over the last year; and I was tarnished by association.
Not that my reputation had far to fall, though: I was seen as a glorified errandboy, though my credentials left my contemporaries' for dead. Not even a Harvard education could save me from looking like a schoolboy dressed up as a man. The clean-cut dress code of the Bureau didn't work for me - it never had - and it conspired against me, reducing me to a parody. I didn't care anymore, though: I could see that my days there were necessarily numbered. Once that would have bothered me; but not now.
There was a time when the Bureau had dominated my ambition. No - not just dominated it; defined it. I'd left college with an offer of a position in the British government, and another from Harvard itself lecturing in political philosophy. I turned them both down when I got into Quantico. I had stumbled across criminology and social order during my studies; and, with youthful idealism, I wanted to Make A Difference. My father had shaken his head, no doubt thinking of all the night shifts I'd taken to supplement my scholarship, only to take an entry-level job on entry-level pay; but he only smiled and said, "That's great, son," the way he always did. I'm glad of that, because he was dead within the year.
I hadn't expected much of the Bureau. I was the only agent in my class from a top university, but there were others with something more prized - law enforcement experience. I was no more special than anyone else, and I'd recognised that. But I had hoped that my choice, and my sacrifices in making that choice, might be acknowledged. I had hoped that my background might be taken into account, that I might be placed in some area of the Bureau where my strengths might be used. I didn't mind working up from the bottom, but you've got to be placed there to work your way up. You can't do it from the professional and existential limbo of wiretapping.
But if it had been as simple as that, I would have simply walked. The jobs I had turned down were gone, but there were others. My disenchantment was not the problem. The problem was my mother, stricken with leukaemia within a year of my father's death. And that problem led me, after repeated refusals, to at last accept the approaches of Section Chief Blevins and a mysterious figure named Spender.
The specifics of the work were vague, but I understood that illegality was involved. Spender represented some arm of the US government, and his department, for want of a better term, was affiliated with the CIA and the military. Loose phrases about national security and classified information were used. I was of interest because of my academic background, they said; and while I had no doubt that was true, I was not deceived. Spender's work might well be dedicated to defense, but that didn't necessarily make it in the national interest - any political theorist will tell you that.
So I said no; and I kept on saying no until the money ran dry. And then it was too late to get a more lucrative job: it was almost Christmas, and no-one was willing to hire until New Year, and the Soviet regime had fallen, and my mother was sinking fast, and she wanted to go home to Latvia to die. So I called Spender, and I told him I would work for him after all. My mother died in Daugavpils, and I came home to life as a hired gun, and I hoped that, wherever she was, she was not too disappointed in me.
Monitoring Fox Mulder was a welcome lull in the storm. As companions went, he outclassed thugs like Luis Cardinale by miles; better yet, I was not required to undertake work outside the Bureau during this time, lest Mulder should become aware of it. I had not yet been asked to kill, but I'd injured a few people in the course of my work - something I did not relish. As for killing - that request would come, and then I would have to make a decision. I wouldn't know the answer to that dilemma until I reached it, but right now, I thought I would refuse, and flee. I had a little house in Daugavpils - not much more than a cabin - and that would do for a new beginning. I thought my mother would approve. In the meantime, I sought information - both significant and minute. The most minute of details could be crucial to solving the enigma that was the work.
I learned a great deal at The Den. I learned, through trial and error, the best times to go, and the best people to listen to. I learned a lot about Marita Covarrubias, who was indeed the owner of The Den. She worked as an aide to one of the Special Representatives to the Secretary General of the United Nations, a position apparently normally allocated to people ten years her senior. This meteoric rise was attributed, not to sleeping her way up, but to a gift for analysis that was considered almost eerie. Marita Covarrubias was the Fox Mulder of the United Nations.
I managed to stay out of Senator Matheson's bed, but I led him on for long enough to learn that the leads that resulted in Mulder's discovery of the X Files had been orchestrated by Michael Harrington. Michael and his faction - which I guessed included the Donovan family, Bill Mulder, and possibly Larissa Covarrubias - had wanted someone on the outside, putting pressure on the activities of their opposing faction, which included Spender.
Poor old Mulder was a Consortium operative, and he didn't even know it.
But I was still unclear on the agenda of the Donovan faction: they obviously wanted to prevent the hybridisation of the alien and human races, and I hadn't the ghost of an idea why. The hybrid project, after all, would ensure their survival and that of their loved ones, surrendered to the alien race as hostages in 1973.
While I pondered this problem, I continued to monitor Mulder; and it was then that I made my first kill - not in malice, but in defense of another. I killed Augustus Cole without hesitation, because it was clearly him or Mulder; but the killing - both its finality and the ease with which I did it - the killing disturbed me. I sat in a bar that night, drinking shot after shot of Benedictine, my hands shaking. Mulder found me and took me home, and then he took me to bed.
I loved Mulder. It was not the love I would find with Marita, but it was the greatest love I'd had to date. Our relationship was companionable and, I think, genuinely caring - certainly, I cared for him. For him, I think now, it was more complicated; and it pains me to know that he perceives what I did as a betrayal.
Hell, it was a betrayal. But what I knew left me with little choice.
If I had done nothing, I'd have been worse than them.
"I shouldn't have married her."
I looked up from my mail. "What was that?" I asked, bracing myself. Mulder got introspective after sex. God knew, I didn't begrudge him it; but sometimes I wished he'd just roll over and go to sleep like a normal man.
"Diana," he mused, turning and leaning up on his elbow, watching me. "I shouldn't have married her. I knew I was gay." He picked at his godawful sunflower seeds indifferently. The bowl was perched precariously on the coverlet, and I just knew they were going to wind up littered through my bed.
I set aside a bill and put it on a growing pile on the nightstand. "But did you really, Mulder?" I wondered, looking at him. I ripped open an quarto envelope emblazoned with the Harvard logo. Alumni magazine, I guessed, eyeing it critically. "I mean, it is possible to feel passion for both sexes, and you obviously felt it for her."
"I suppose. But when I was with Matheson, it was different - and that was while we were engaged. I knew better - or I should have. It felt right in a way it didn't with Diana. Do you know what I mean?"
"Not really," I said truthfully. I was flipping through the magazine when a familiar name caught my eye. Marita Covarrubias.
"You still think about women?" he asked with interest.
"I adore women," I said fervently. "They're exquisite."
"And men?" he demanded.
"They're exquisite, too. Humanity is a glorious thing, Mulder, no matter what the sex." I looked back down at the flyer. Our condolences to science alumni Marita Covarrubias (1985-1987). The New York Times reported the death of Michael Harrington on May 7. Marita and Michael were to be married next month...
Marita Covarrubias went to Harvard in 1985? What was she, fourteen?
"So what happens when you meet the woman of your dreams?" he mocked, intruding on my thoughts. "Whatcha gonna do, settle down and be straight?" There was a slight sneer in his voice.
"I'll always be bisexual, Mulder," I said with a withering look, setting the magazine aside. Sexual politics were among his current list of dead horses to flog. I, on the other hand, was indifferent to the whole thing: if I was letting the gay side down by loving women, or vice versa, I didn't give a shit. "Forsaking all others is something we've all got to do sooner or later, whether we like men, women or both. It's always a sacrifice - a discipline - because no one person will ever be everything we want or need."
"You sound like a fucking preacher."
"You asked what I was going to do if I met the woman *or* man of my dreams, and that's what I'm going to do," I countered. "I'm going to forsake all others. If you don't like it, too bad. My sex is not accountable to your politics." I shook my head disgustedly. "You're an arrogant prick sometimes."
"Aw, do you really mean that?" he asked solemnly. "Or are you just saying it?"
I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it. "No, I really mean it." I turned back to the nightstand, picked up my cup, and took a mouthful of coffee.
I swallowed the mouthful hurriedly to make my comeback. "Prick."
"My prick, your asshole. Not a bad idea." Such fucking wit.
"Don't be vulgar."
He looked at me critically. "You're a prissy little thing, aren't you? First monogamy, and now I have to refer to your molten tunnel of love?"
I choked. "Jesus, Mulder, don't do that when I'm drinking." The bastard was laughing at me. Thinking of his earlier comment, I said, "Where did you meet this wife of yours, anyway?"
"Ex-wife," he corrected. "We were at college together. I'd just come out of a bad relationship with a vamp masquerading as an English rose, and we just sort of fell in together."
"Diana went to Oxford?" I said slowly. Diana had gone to college with Marita Covarrubias, by her own statement; and the magazine at my side said Marita went to Harvard. I wondered who was lying, and why.
"Yeah. She was a year behind me. She followed me home when she graduated."
I put my cup back on the nightstand, frowning a little. "It's funny how you bond with people at college, isn't it?" I observed casually, hoping I didn't sound too idiotic. "There was one guy at school with me - one of those child prodigies," I said deliberately, "you know, the ones who graduate high school at twelve. Fucking brilliant."
He fell for it. He mightn't have normally, but sex made Mulder mellow. "Yeah, we had one of those. Marita Ekaterinberg, her name was." I blinked a little, not quite believing my luck that he remembered her name. I don't think I knew about his eidetic memory at that stage. "I never met her, but Diana took her under her wing a bit. She was totally out of her depth," he added. "See, what people don't understand is that you can be ready academically without being ready emotionally, or socially," he said fiercely. I'd hit his psychology nerve, and he was off and away.
I tuned him out. Marita Covarrubias had attended both Harvard and Oxford at the same time - an impossible feat. One of them was a smokescreen, but which one? And more importantly, why?
"I mean, just think of the psychosexual implications. A child going through puberty, surrounded by bonking teenagers, with no adult role models..."
She probably went to Oxford under the false name. Mulder remembered her name, and Diana reported knowing her personally. That made sense. She had befriended Diana and presumably introduced her to Edward Donovan at some point, whom Diana would eventually marry. Maybe Marita spent her holiday breaks with the Donovans, arranged by either her mother or by Michael. Maybe she had invited Diana along.
But if Marita went to Oxford, who went to Harvard?
"...then there's the relational context. How does a teenager learn to relate as an adult if she is deprived of nurturing adult contact..."
If Marita had applied to Oxford, she'd probably applied to Harvard and Yale, too. She had accepted the offer at Oxford, but someone else accepted her Harvard offer and went in her place, with or without her knowledge - but almost certainly with the blessing of Larissa Covarrubias.
"...not appropriate, when they're that young, to leave them without role modelling..."
A false history at Harvard gave Marita an alibi - a reason for being away, as well as a diversion from her real location. But why would a fourteen-year-old prodigy need to go into hiding? Could she have done something, and been at risk of retaliation?
"Sorry - I was just thinking," I said hurriedly. "What do you think are the long-term developmental implications of something like that?"
"You know, I've been thinking about that, and I keep coming back to Freudian principles..."
I was an idiot. Marita hadn't done anything. Larissa had done something, and she had smuggled her daughter off to England, with the help of Michael Harrington and the Donovan family. That combination alone suggested that whatever she had done was factional - and just might shed some light on the Donovan agenda. She had falsified the Harvard academic record to suggest that Marita was still in America at the time.
But would a non-existent student - a mere name - rate a mention in an alumni magazine?
Mulder had stopped speaking. He was watching me expectantly. "I never thought of it like that," I said ingeniously.
Who went to Harvard in Marita's stead? And did it matter? It might not...but it might. My blood was pumping, alive with purpose. If I could find out what Larissa Covarrubias had done, I might know enough to do something useful. I might find whatever Diana Donovan hoped to lead me to - whatever it was that had led her to abandon her work with Mulder. And if I could do that, maybe I could make a difference after all.
"Mulder," I said wide-eyed, "you took the words right out of my mouth."
I'd pushed the false sincerity too far, and he knew I was humouring him; but then I was touching him, and he didn't care anymore. And when we were done and he was asleep, I crept out of my bed, and I left him there.
I went to Mulder's.
I put a cross on his window in masking tape as I had seen him do, and I left a note on the floor. I waited there in the shadows, drowsing, my watch alarm set for five a.m. I had to be home before Mulder woke.
His informant arrived in the early hours of the morning, knocking, then nervously opening the door. In the dim light from the corridor, I recognised him as the dark man - Spender's right hand. That made sense, I reflected - he'd been Michael's man before that. His weapon drawn, he opened the door fully to the wall, and positioned himself with his back to it. He bent carefully and picked up the note, then rose, reading it. He looked anxiously around the apartment, and fled.
The note was an e-mail address and password - not one of mine, but one for him. It was a way for me to contact him that didn't involve the window or face-to-face contact - something Mulder would have arranged himself if he hadn't been so in love with the idea of being a shadowy crime fighter meeting with mysterious informants. As far as the dark man was concerned, his correspondent was Mulder - a deception that would not last long, but might last long enough for me to find out about Larissa Covarrubias.
I waited a while to be sure he was gone, and then I went home to Mulder. I let myself into the apartment and undressed as quietly as I could. Mulder was sprawled out over the bed, the sheets twisted around him; and, yes, the sunflower seeds were scattered everywhere. Smiling wistfully, I swept what I could onto the floor, and lay down beside him, curling my body against his; but my good humour faded. I felt the lines of my face settle into something hard and hurtful.
Never before had I used him for my own purposes.
And that made this the beginning of the end.
Whatever my future held - whether the Consortium or Daugavpils or death or some other alternative not yet known - Mulder, necessarily, would not be part of it. Not like this. I'd never really thought Mulder and I would be forever, but that didn't dull my pain at the fact.
I forced myself into a fitful sleep, but I was troubled in mind.
"I didn't know where else to go."
I stared at Mulder for a long, long moment, not sure what I could say that wasn't trite. At last, I reached out to him, took his hand, and drew him to me. I hugged him, not so much as a lover as a friend.
"It was on the radio," I said at last. "Duane Barry, known psychopath, takes hostage. They didn't give her name, but I recognised her description."
His voice was muffled against me. "Fucking son-of-a-bitch. I should have killed him when I had the chance."
Wordlessly, I nodded, kicking the door closed with my foot. "I know," I whispered. I held him tighter.
"I can't lose her," he rasped, his voice harsh with pain.
"You're not gonna lose her," I said in a low voice, right next to his ear. "Scully's coming home to you. I don't know how, but I know." I knew because I'd bring her home myself if I had to. To see him like this was more than I could bear.
"Yeah?" he said, pulling back to look at me, his face hopeful. His hands gripped my shoulders painfully, but I couldn't bring myself to pull away.
He kissed me then, hard, his hands searching clumsily for me. "Mulder," I protested. He ignored me, groping blindly under my jacket, drawing my shirt out of my jeans and snaking up my back. A little stunned, I let him for a moment; but then I pushed him away. "Mulder!" I said, not unkindly, "This isn't about me."
He stared at me in childlike bewilderment for a long moment, but then he nodded. "No," he admitted. "I suppose it isn't." Then, hesitantly, "Do you mind?"
Frowning, I watched him for a long moment; but at last, I shook my head. "No, I don't," I relented. I could give him that much, I supposed; and it would probably be the last time I could give him anything.
And then his mouth was on mine, devouring, taking from me, and I allowed it because I loved him. He whispered the words that turned him on and turned me off, and for once I didn't mind. He fucked me hard, and I hated it hard, but I allowed that too. And I came in spite of it all, in spite of his fumbling, grieving clumsiness, in spite of my aching ass, in spite of my guilt and my sorrow. Because I loved him.
When it was over, and he was sleeping fitfully, I rose. I felt dirty and I wasn't quite sure why. Puzzling over it was stupid, I decided, when I could just fix it; so I ran a shower. I stepped in when steam began to form, the water coursing over me in a rush, and I gave myself up to the heady warmth of it gratefully.
Standing there, not bothering with soap, just relishing the cleansing heat, I was struck by random thoughts, none of them really connected. I remembered my first time with a man, and how it tortured me, how I thought I was losing the joy of loving women, and how long it was before I understood that it was possible to love both. I remembered a college friend - a woman - complaining about her boyfriend's penchant for rear-entry sex. It made her feel like he wanted to be with someone else. I'd made comforting noises, but I hadn't really understood. But I thought I understood now. Because Mulder hadn't wanted me back there.
He'd wanted Dana Scully.
I didn't think he was in love with her - I didn't think he was capable of that kind of love for a woman, even her - but I knew he loved her above all else, in a way that transcended his sexual boundaries, if anything ever could. She dominated his passions, and in his grief over her loss, she dominated even the desire he normally reserved for me. I wasn't jealous, or resentful, or even hurt - not in the circumstances.
But I still felt dirty.
So I stood there in the steaming hot water until my skin was red, and then I wrapped myself in my robe and went out onto the balcony. It was a puny balcony, for a puny apartment, and I rarely went out there - not since my mother died - but I went out there now.
We'd sat out here a lot, she and I. I'd sold the house after her medical insurance ran dry, and she'd spent the last year of her life living here with me. We got on each other's nerves in such cramped quarters - and I in particular had been on a hair-trigger, without even a bedroom of my own - but sitting on the balcony had alleviated that strain. Every time I thought I'd go nuts if I had to sleep one more night on that damn couch, she would invite me out here with a steaming cup of tea, and we would talk until it was close to dawn. And the irritation of raw nerves abrading against one another would dissipate.
I wondered what she would think of me now. She'd known about the men, I think, but we'd never discussed it. Tatiana Krycek didn't discuss sex - not directly - and I think that conservatism had a lot to do with my own. But she'd have had a lot to say about me working for Spender. It was that which I wished I could hear now. Home truths, perhaps uncomfortable ones, but truths that would guide me. The dilemma I had been anticipating was upon me, and I still had no idea of how to proceed.
I wasn't privy to precisely where Dana Scully had been taken, or where she would be taken when the exchange was made, but I had been instructed to prevent Mulder from catching up with Duane Barry. I was to leave no witnesses to my handiwork; and I was to kill Duane before he could be interrogated. I didn't think Scully would be killed, but I had heard sufficient rumours about the hybrid experiments to know that the fate that awaited her was a bad one. I was prepared to kill Duane Barry if I had to - the guy was a walking timebomb and a danger to everyone he came in contact with - but I still didn't know if I was willing to be a part of what was to happen to Dana Scully.
But if I chose Mulder and his work - if I ran, and if first I told him what I knew - I still didn't know enough for him to prevent it. And if I did as I had been told to do, I might get enough information to get her back.
But I wasn't sure that was reason enough. I didn't have enough information to do the things I wanted to do in the group, and possibly I never would. That made the price of a man's life - even Duane Barry's, and especially so soon after taking down Augustus Cole - it made that price hard to reconcile.
Either way, though, my time here was coming to a close. Soon, I would run, one way or another - either fleeing the group, or fleeing the law. If the former, I would return to Latvia; if the latter, I would go to my suite at The Den until I could work something out. I had a ticket booked for Riga, just in case. Right now I thought I would use it.
Sighing, I rose, and went to the sliding door. I paused there, looking wistfully at my mother's empty armchair, weathered and threadbare. It would be in storage the following evening, like everything else. I wondered if I would ever see it again. And I would, years later in Tangier; but right now I doubted it.
I closed the door.
There is something cliche about the last-minute intervention.
It is a sign of a poor writer, it is said, to contrive a direction-altering coincidence at the crucial moment. If so, God is a poor author indeed, because they happen in real life all the time. And that's what happened to me.
What happened was that I received a packet I'd ordered from Harvard. It was among the mail I retrieved from my maildrop at lunchtime, in anticipation of leaving for Latvia. I opened it hurriedly, and withdrew an academic transcript issued in the name of Marita Covarrubias. I scanned it, frowning. Lots of biotechnology and genetic subjects. Even the arts subjects had a definite slant, one I didn't like: 'WWII, Hitler, and Eugenics: A Historio-Ethical Analysis'. 'Medical Ethics For The Twenty First Century'. 'The Use And Abuse Of Genetics'.
There were yearbooks in the package, too - something I had not been able to afford in my own time there. I put the transcript to the bottom of the pile and opened the yearbook, flipping pages hurriedly. I passed over the formal portraits, which might have been faked, and skipped to the Science Club pages. There, in a group photo, I found a picture of the girl who had posed as Marita Covarrubias. I put my hand to my mouth in disbelief; and, belatedly, stifled a sound of shock. And in that moment, my choice was made.
I chose Marita.
That sounds melodramatic, when you consider that at this point I had not met her; but looking back on that time in my life, I believe now that I was in a holding pattern while I put all the pieces together - pieces that would lead me to her. I was, not loving her, but waiting to love her. Perhaps I'd been waiting for that all my life. Perhaps we were souls together. I am not a religious man, nor a particularly sentimental one, but I know no other way to explain why it happened the way it did.
Whatever the case - God, fate, or blind luck - I was presented with a choice. Choose Mulder and his search for Scully, save Duane Barry, and lose my access; or choose the work, with a chance now of blowing it wide open, and lose Mulder. I chose the work.
I chose Marita.
That night, as I took refuge in my suite at The Den, the blood of two men on my hands, I thought again of that yearbook. I thought of the girl who went to Harvard as Marita Covarrubias, while the girl at the funeral was at Oxford as Marita Ekaterinberg. That Marita was the Marita Diana knew, the one who had studied a melting pot of anthropology, philosophy, and politics, and who used it in her work at the United Nations. The other, the elusive scientist, of whom I was more and more sure Marita knew nothing - she haunted me. It was impossible, but there was proof.
It was another Marita.
And Marita was the only one who could lead me to her.
Love will keep me alive.
There's a reason that philosophies like this one are not to be found in religious texts, or in the apocrypha of the ages. They're created by the modern mind as a panacea for the self-absorption of the modern age. Conventional sentiment, devoid of meaning.
In other words, they're self-deluding crap.
But I keep coming back to the words. They have become my mantra, my survival anthem. I hate them, and I despise the song from which they came, but they will not leave me. I puzzle over them contemplatively, as though a tenet of my oh-so-meagre faith. And that is in spite of the fact that their fabled love is just that - a fable. I have never loved - not like that - and sometimes I believe I never will. I feel out of time and place, a twenty- three year old woman with childish dreams and the exhaustion of a crone. For me, there can only be protection - a pathetic kind of love, perhaps, but perhaps that's all there is.
Yet for all my dreams; for all my intuitive, blind grasping for something better, my grief for Michael remains. He had protected me, and I had loved him; and when I cradled his body in the car that night, that dreadful song assaulted my senses, etching itself indelibly into my memory. The Dark Man kept the radio volume high - though just whose sobs he was trying to muffle, I couldn't have said. And after the funeral, when I endured the meaningless gestures of people who had had a hand in his death, I kept telling myself:
Love will keep me alive.
Keep saying it, Marita, and one day it might come true.
The sound should have surprised me, coming as it did in an empty apartment; but it didn't. I looked around from the window, and saw the Dark Man behind me. "Hello," I said absently, and turned back to the window, tracing the course of a drop of rain with my fingertip.
"You should be more careful," he said reproachfully. "The door was off its chain. I used my key and walked straight in." I saw him remove his coat, dimly reflected in the glass, and lay it over the couch.
"You shouldn't have a key," I said dully. Was that strange, colourless voice really mine?
"I'm Michael's executor," he pointed out, coming around me to sit on the windowsill. We were five storeys up - the visual of him leaning casually against a thin layer of glass was surreal. But then, most things were surreal in that first awful month after Michael died, starting with watching him being shot to death a hundred feet away. "I'm supposed to have a key until the estate is wound up. You're not even supposed to be here yet."
"Are you going to enforce that?" I demanded in a low voice.
He shot me a withering look. "Of course not. But you should be more careful. If you can't protect yourself then you should go home to Larissa."
Suddenly, abruptly, I felt physically ill. With Michael gone, without his gentleness to cushion my anger, I felt as I had felt early on in our relationship: as though I had been sold. "Mother is the last person I want right now," I said bitterly.
The Dark Man's brow flickered, but he didn't comment; and at last, I asked incuriously, "Do you really think they'll come after me?"
He shook his head, relenting. "Unlikely. They've taken their revenge. I doubt they even know we were there that night."
I frowned, still tracing raindrops on the window, teasing delicate trails through the condensation. "Wouldn't it have been in Dana Scully's report?"
He shook his head. "She ends her report with her account of his shooting and her retrieval of Mulder."
"I wasn't kind to her that night," I said sadly. "When I told her to take Mulder and go, she looked like she'd been slapped." I hung my head. "Michael would have expected better of me."
"Marita, you were barely coherent. I doubt she blames you, and anyway, it doesn't matter. What matters is your safety. It doesn't pay to be careless."
"I suppose not." I met his gaze properly for the first time. "Was Michael careless? Is that why he died?"
The Dark Man regarded me intently, frowning; then shook his head. "Michael made a deal, knowing that he would probably die for it. He stole something - something they needed - and gave it back in exchange for Mulder's release."
"The thing he got from Scully that night," I said. "He told me that much. What did he steal?"
He held my gaze for a long, long moment - and the Dark Man was not one to use body language for emphasis. At last, he said in a low voice, "The alien genome."
My eyes widened in absolute stupefaction. I stared at him in disbelief. "Oh, my God," I said in slow horror. "No wonder they killed him."
"He died for a greater cause." His voice was kind.
"Mulder's life? What kind of a greater cause is that?" I demanded angrily.
A look of chagrin passed over his features. He said dryly, "Kill Mulder, and you risk-"
"-turning one man's quest into a crusade," I finished irritably. "I know the company line, and I know it's crap. Tell me why he's so important." The Dark Man looked nervous, and I persisted, "Michael and I were to be married. I have a right to know."
He watched me steadily, as though in indecision; at last, he asked grimly, "How much do you know about colonisation? I mean really?"
"Enough to get me killed, I would think," I hazarded. He shot me an interested look, and I shrugged helplessly. "Diana graduated a year before I did. I was lonely...spent all my time online. That was when I started hacking. First it was just stupid stuff - putting caricatures in place of photos on the faculty website, that sort of thing." His mouth twitched, and he struggled manfully to keep his solemn demeanour in place. I reminded myself to ask him one day whether it hurt to be so perpetually, intentionally dour. "But when it occurred to me to try to find out exactly what my mother had done that meant I had to go into hiding, I knew the right names and places to look."
He looked at me with new respect. "You hacked into the CIA?" I shook my head. "DOD?" I gave a mock-modest shrug at the latter, and he shook his head. "You were lucky you weren't caught."
"Not lucky," I corrected. "Smart. I did it at Maxwell Donovan's mansion while I was on holidays there. As far as Defense was concerned, I was him. I got into Project Enigma and found this database called Majestic Twelve-"
The Dark Man went visibly pale - well, as pale as he got, anyway. "You got into the MJ-12 files?"
I nodded. "Is that bad?"
"More like a fucking miracle," he said, and it occurred to me fleetingly that I'd never heard him swear before. "Go on."
I watched him curiously, wondering what he was thinking, but I complied. "I imagine it's encrypted, but since I was logged in as Max, it let me view it. It was all copy-protected, of course - to save it, I had to do screen captures, page by page. Very laborious."
"You couldn't have done the whole database that way."
"Hell, no. And Max didn't have a tape drive. I only managed to fill five floppies before he got home." I looked out the window once more, my mind drifting, as it so often did these days. The brief spark of interest he had aroused in me was flickering, dying; my hold on the present was growing gossamer- thin. I said absently, "But since I'd searched for my mother's name and Michael's, they were filled with the right kind of data." It had stopped raining, I noted thoughtfully. Michael had loved the rain.
"So what did you find out?" he demanded. I just shook my head dully, teasing fingerprints in the condensation on the glass, not really hearing him. I pressed the side of my fist to the glass and saw that it looked rather like a baby's footprint. I filled in the toes with my fingertips, pleased with myself. And by the way, was I losing my mind? And did it matter?
"Marita!" he said insistently, intruding on what passed for my thoughts.
"What?" I sighed, my tone petulant, like a child.
"Stay with me. You're stronger than this."
I was seized by a sudden, perverse impulse to start humming and rocking just to piss him off; but that in itself was a return of spirit, and I channeled it. I thought hard, struggling to remember what he'd asked me. What I'd found out, that was it. "Well, nothing about whatever my mother did that put me in danger, anyway," I conceded. "You were Michael's right hand - do you know about it?"
He shook his head. "I was in Tunisia checking up on Strughold in 1983. I know something went down, but Michael never told me about it." He went on, "If it wasn't in MJ-12, then it must have been factional."
"I agree, but I didn't know about the factional split at that stage," I explained. "All I knew was that there was a certain group which had the power to vote on and enact certain issues, and that that group included Max, Michael, Mother, Bill Mulder, and that asshole Spender. I knew that we had a deal to create an alien-human hybrid, to ensure human survival. I didn't know about the planned colonisation then."
"What on earth did you think hybridisation was for, then?" he demanded incredulously.
I gave wry shrug. "It was the eighties. Everyone was afraid of nuclear war, and MJ-12 documented the radioactive qualities of the alien race. I thought they were a benign force, giving us information so that we could survive a nuclear holocaust."
"Oh, I see. Yes, that makes sense."
"Mother let me keep on believing that when I came home and confronted her. It wasn't until Diana started making connections between Mulder's work and odd comments from Edward that I started to wonder. She made contact with me after she quit the X Files and started asking questions. Pretty soon I was asking them, too."
"Asking who?" he asked curiously.
"Well, Michael, mostly," I said, and he nodded pensively. "He fobbed me off, of course; but he came home upset on Christmas Eve in ninety-one. He'd had to kill an EBE under Security Council Resolution 1013." I frowned, remembering that awful night. Michael had never killed before, to my knowledge; and he'd had nightmares for months after.
The Dark Man's voice intruded on my thoughts. "That was when you realised they weren't such a benign force after all?"
I shook my head; said easily, "Oh, I'd suspected that for a while. I don't trust Mother," I admitted, and that was a painful thing to say, even now, "and the hybridisation program was accelerating even though the nuclear threat was easing. That explanation didn't make sense anymore." Michael's cat leaped up on the windowsill between us, and I lifted her onto my lap, still talking. "The existence of that resolution pretty much confirmed my suspicions. I knew then that hybridisation had to represent a compromise, and the invasion threat was the logical conclusion to that train of thought." The cat licked my hand affectionately. That struck me as odd - I'd always thought only dogs did that. "Michael pretty much confirmed it, and he told me about the factions - how one side, our side, wanted to delay hybridisation for as long as possible." The Dark Man was nodding. "So where does Mulder fit into all this?"
The Dark Man reached out and scratched behind the cat's ears with some affection. He was rather like a cat himself, come to think of it. It shouldn't have surprised me that he had an affinity with them. "For some time, Michael has been placing people, both within Strughold and Spender's hybrid operation and in positions of power elsewhere, in the hope of exerting pressure on the project and delaying its success. You're one of those, of course."
"Of course," I echoed.
"Mulder is another. But Mulder got a lot more important two years ago. That was when Michael decided - against all good sense, I might add - that it was worth the risk to make himself known to Mulder as an informant."
"That was when Samantha Mulder died," I said reflectively.
"That's right. We thought at that time that Spender would recruit him as his successor in Miss Mulder's place, but that didn't eventuate. He felt Mulder was too much of a loose canon." The cat stretched, shrugging off my hand, and walked elegantly onto the windowsill without a backward glance. With some amusement, I watched her position herself regally at the Dark Man's side, like a consort. "He started looking outside the operation instead - started recruiting people out of the FBI and CIA, hoping to groom someone. We believe that Alexei Krycek, who I pointed out to you at the funeral, is one of them." I made a sound of comprehension. "In some ways that outcome is better, because Mulder can put more pressure on the operation from outside. We believe Spender would kill Mulder if he had to - he's not above infanticide - but he'll protect him for as long as he can."
I nodded slowly, thoughtfully. At last, I queried softly, "Was it worth Michael's life?"
He held my gaze steadily. "He thought so."
We sat there in silence for a long moment; me staring out the window once more, him petting the cat absently. It was a companionable silence, because I genuinely liked the Dark Man, and I believe he liked me, as much as he could be said to like anyone. With the Dark Man, I always knew where I stood. That was a rare gift in my world.
He was watching me curiously. "Are you all right, Marita?"
I shot him a look, but then I slumped a little, sighing heavily. "I feel like a fraud," I said bitterly. "I wasn't in love with him."
"He knew that."
"But I did love him."
"He knew that, too." He reached out, cautiously, as one who is unused to reaching out, and squeezed my shoulder gently. I shot him a wan little smile, and he withdrew. "Michael wasn't a fool, Marita. He knew that an eighteen-year-old girl doesn't accept a proposal of marriage from a fifty- five-year-old man for romance. She does it for money, or if she has money, then she does it to be safe. And if you're really lucky, she loves you for protecting her from whatever she's running from." I wondered whether he was speaking from experience.
"My mother thought he would keep me safe," I mused. Then, morosely, "What I thought didn't come into it."
He said sharply, "Did you resent Michael, Marita?"
I stared at him. "No," I said, thunderstruck. "He took care of me."
"Then stop acting like a fucking penitent," he said impatiently. "You were a kid railroaded into an adult relationship, and you made him happy anyway."
I held his gaze for a long moment, but then I sighed, nodding, accepting this. I said wearily, "What do I do now?"
"You've got two choices, Marita. Go back to playing fetch for the Consortium, or pursue Michael's cause. See if you want to make it your own. If you want to do something for him, make it something a little more constructive than sitting in his apartment staring out a window."
"How?" I demanded. "I don't have access."
"I can get you access. Your placement in the United Nations is intended as a mere pressure point - leverage if ever the need arises. But you don't have to stay at that level. With the right mentor and the right patron, you could become a player. Make a difference."
"Who?" I said sharply, turning to face him fully.
"Me as mentor, Spender as patron. You could switch allegiances later if you wished - Donovan is one to keep in mind - but start with Spender."
"Why Spender?" I queried. "He is an odious man."
"They're all odious men, Marita. Some just wear better cologne." I laughed at that - a weak laugh, but a laugh just the same. He unbent a little, smiling at me indulgently. "He controls our placed operatives in the FBI. That means he has leverage over Mulder."
"Not to mention putting me only two rungs down from the voting circle."
The Dark Man nodded approvingly. "That's right." He shifted uncomfortably. "There's something else I need to tell you - something that may make a difference to how you proceed."
"Go on," I said apprehensively.
"Have you ever heard of The Den?"
I shrugged. "Sure. It's a Consortium social club down Westminster way. If the rumours are to believed, it does double duty as a sex club."
"That's correct." He said conversationally, "It belonged to Michael, you know."
I stared at him, thunderstruck. "What?" He said nothing; only held my gaze steadily. I sat back in utter disbelief. I said in a low, fierce voice, "Michael was not that kind of a man."
"No, he wasn't," he said mildly.
"But - why would he do such a thing?" I demanded incredulously.
He shifted again. "I'm telling this second hand - I didn't join the group until 1978 - but I presume you're aware of the Teena Mulder scandal in 1960?"
I nodded. "Teena and Spender wanted to marry. Bill Mulder was distraught - he was ready to expose the work in revenge. Everyone was taking sides. Somehow that got resolved - I'm not sure how -"
"Strughold uncovered abuses of the pathogen by a certain dictator in the Gaza Strip," he supplied. "The group realised that personal agendas were not luxuries they could afford. Bill Mulder agreed to turn a blind eye to the affair. Spender agreed not to seek to marry Teena. The men eventually became friends again, and Bill raised their children as his, as you know."
I nodded reflectively. "Story as old as time. What's that got to do with Michael?"
"The sexual revolution was dawning. Michael was worried about leaks...blackmail. The Teena Mulder affair consolidated his fears. He built The Den as a response to that problem. He viewed it as the lesser of two evils - and to be fair, he appears to have been right. There has never been a sexual scandal with that magnitude of danger since." I nodded, understanding. He said more gently, "It's yours now, Marita. You inherit that along with everything else."
I stared at him, aghast. "No...no, I don't want it."
He leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest. He didn't seem surprised by my reaction. "Why not?"
I thought hard, trying to put the mess of thoughts running through my head into some sort of order. In the end, it all came down to one thing. "I find it offensive."
He nodded thoughtfully. "All right. Let's try this for offensive. The Den employs seventy-one courtesans. Most of them are runaways whom Michael was putting through university and trying to get out of the sex industry. Thousands, over the years. People who might have died otherwise; people who went on to have productive lives. Cassandra Malloy was one of those."
"Spender's wife?" I said in astonishment.
He nodded. "Of the seventy-one there now, fifty-four are female, and thirty-two have children. If you abdicate responsibility for those people because it offends your sensibilities, who's going to take care of them? Are you going to hire a social worker to run your brothel for you?" His voice was lightly mocking.
"Can't I pay them off? Shut it down? Money is hardly a problem."
He shook his head. "You own The Den only in name, Marita. It's viewed as a Consortium asset. You are expected to keep it open. The implications of refusal are grave."
"Then why can't they run it?" I demanded angrily.
He shrugged. "They can. That's what will happen if you wash your hands of it. But are you going to leave those people in Strughold's hands? Spender's?" I shuddered. "I thought not."
"You seem to have it all figured out," I said coldly.
"Don't do that, Marita. I'm not trying to manipulate you into anything. I'm just telling it as I see it. If you tell me to, I will find someone to run it, and I will do my best for those people. But I think you'd be letting yourself down - and Michael." At my reproachful look, he conceded, "All right, perhaps I am trying to manipulate you. But can you look at me and tell me I'm wrong?" I was silent, ashamed.
He watched me for a long moment, then reached into his pocket. He handed me an anonymous pass card and a business card. "That's the address and your access card. You should see Connie Francis as soon as you can - she's the business manager. She'll make sure you know everything you need to know."
I took them reluctantly. "All right," I said in a low voice.
We were silent for a long moment. At last, the Dark Man said thoughtfully, "You know, Marita, I think you're underestimating the value of The Den. It puts you in a unique position to obtain the information you seek."
"If you're implying what I think you're implying, I don't think you should say any more," I said warningly.
"What do you think I'm implying?"
"You're implying that I should sleep my way to the truth," I said angrily.
"On the contrary. You don't have to have sex to use it to your advantage, Marita. Sometimes the greatest power lies in being unavailable."
"You're talking about teasing," I said, but I wasn't sure that was it at all. I was out of my depth on a lot of levels. I had only ever been with Michael; and for me, sex was something very simple and companionable. The complexity, the layers of interaction and manipulation the Dark Man alluded to were foreign to me.
He shook his head. "No. When you tease, the other person owns a little piece of you - even if it's only in their own mind. I'm talking about absolute control. I'm talking about owning yourself. I'm talking about being desired precisely because you belong to no-one but yourself."
My brow creased. "Are you talking about B&D?"
"Nearly. D&S - domination and submission." I thought on this. "I don't know if I can do that," I said hesitantly. "I don't know if I'm even - equipped to do it." I said haltingly, "Michael and I were - well, pretty vanilla." I flushed a little. I hadn't been brought up to speak of such things. I struggled on, "I liked it that way. There was honesty in it. I don't have a seductress in me just waiting to break out. I don't know how to do the things you're talking about."
"It's a skill, nothing more. It can be learned like any other. I can teach you, Marita - if you'll trust me."
"I do," I said unhesitatingly. "But - this? I just don't know."
He nodded slowly in acceptance of this. "Just think about it, Marita. You know where to find me."
I nodded pensively. "All right."
He rose and walked to the armchair. In the reflection I could see him putting on his coat. I turned in my chair to look at him. "Why are you doing this?" I demanded.
He looked at me with some indecision, but finally, he said, "Fifteen years ago, Michael entrusted me with a traumatised young girl. I hid her in a disused wing of The Den. She was fourteen," he said grimly. "Whatever guidance she needed to put what had happened to her to use without destroying herself, she didn't get it. She was a courtesan by sixteen, a double agent by eighteen, and dead by her own hand at twenty-seven."
"Samantha Mulder," I said softly.
He inclined his head. "I never taught her how to protect herself. Never even understood the need until it was too late." He shrugged. "I'd like to do better by you."
He turned from me then, and went to the door. I called him by name, and he turned.
I shot him a smile. "You already have."
He nodded thoughtfully, and then he left me.
"I think he's wrong."
I stroked the cheek of the infant in my arms, and looked up. Diana was watching us pensively. "Go on," I prompted.
"I think he was wrong to suggest it," she elaborated. She shifted on the bed, sitting up, leaning over to the remains of lunch on the room service trolley. She chewed on a celery stick thoughtfully. "Marita, you're very young."
"You were married at my age," I pointed out; but my voice was mild, because part of me agreed with her. At the sound of my voice, Elizabeth opened her eyes and stared at me unblinkingly. I smiled down at her warmly. She was going to be beautiful.
"I'm not talking about years. You've been with one man - and an undemanding one at that." I flushed. "It's not my wish to make you uncomfortable, Marita, but let's be frank - you're inexperienced. You don't know how to handle yourself with the kind of men you'll meet at The Den - and really, I hope you never do. I think of you like a sister, you know?" I shot her a faint smile, and she returned it. "And I wouldn't want my sister in that place."
"Well, it appears that I have no choice - at least on the admin side of things," I said wryly. "As for the rest, I just don't know." I carefully extricated a lock of my hair from the baby's curled fingers.
Diana frowned, picking at the salad bowl absently. She conceded, "It might be worth it, *maybe*, if you had something firm - some concrete goal, and that was the fastest way to achieve it." She sat back on the bed. She looked tired, and not for the first time, I wondered about the wisdom of discharging her so soon. "But just to get more of a foot in the door - no. There are better ways in, and you should wait for them to present themselves."
I nodded slowly. "It might all be a moot point, anyway. I don't think I'm even cut out for it. He says it's a skill that can be learned - that he can teach me to protect myself - but I just don't know."
Diana shrugged. "Oh, if it came down to that, he's right. He taught Edward and I," she revealed. At my look of surprise, she said, a little sheepishly, "Yeah. Max doesn't know - he'd hit the roof. But we had a concrete goal, and Michael and the Dark Man helped us." Her good humour faded, and she said softly, "It's not an easy thing to do, Marita. I haven't killed anyone, but Edward has, and he says it's a little bit the same. It's something you do because you have to do it, and it isn't the devastating thing that people think it is - but it does take something of yourself. Something you never get back."
I nodded, frowning. At last, I said softly, "Is it worth it?" I didn't just mean The Den.
Diana drew her knees up to her chest morosely. "I don't know, Marita. If we can find a way out of this mess, a way to make a real future for her -" she nodded to the baby "- and for Shane, then yeah. But more and more I think that's just a pipedream." She was suddenly very pale. "I don't know if these children are going to grow up, Rita, and that scares the hell out of me."
"They will," I said - and however stupidly glib the words seemed, I meant them. My hold on Elizabeth tightened instinctively. "I swear, Diana, they will, even if I have to make a goddamn vaccine myself." She reacted visibly, and I said, "What?"
"Nothing. It's just - you reminded me of someone. Someone I used to know." I watched her, perplexed, and at last, she said, "Samantha Mulder."
"You still think about her?" I said softly. I knew she did, but this was the first time in over a year that she'd alluded to it directly.
She said with difficulty, "I was with her in Tunis that day when she found out how close Strughold was to a successful hybrid." She shook her head, her lips drawn tight together. "I should have seen how upset she was."
I regarded her with genuine warmth. "You couldn't have stopped it, Diana," I said, not really sure whether that was true; but it probably was. "It's not like she jumped off the nearest building. She went home, put her affairs in order, and threw herself into the Grand Canyon. It was planned - probably long before Tunis. That was just the last straw."
Diana sighed, brushing her hair back from her face. "Maybe."
We stayed there in silence for a long moment, but then Elizabeth began to fuss, and Diana held out her arms. "I'll take her," she said in a more normal voice. "Shh," she hummed as I handed her over.
"I should go," I said reluctantly. "I have to go down to The Den and attend to whatever Connie Francis lays on me. And you should rest."
"Could you do me a favour?"
"Shoot." Discreetly, she began to nurse, still talking. "Get her to make out a new membership and courier me the card. Silver level. Alex Krycek." The infant moulded herself to her with a contented sigh.
"That's the second time I've heard that name today," I said mildly.
"I've got a feeling you'll hear it a lot more," she said, settling back. "He's one of Spender's boys, but he's not your usual Consortium thug. Academic background. Nice respectable young man."
"What's he doing with us, then?" I demanded.
"Paying his mom's medical bills," she smirked.
"You're joking, right?"
"Nope." She shot me a look. "He's been putting the feelers out. I get the feeling that his loyalty to Spender is, shall we say, on a trial basis."
"Really? That's very interesting," I said. "According to the Dark Man, Krycek's on the short list for possible successors to Spender - assuming he lives that long and doesn't piss anyone off." Diana laughed. I rose, stretching a little. I put my chair back by the window, where I'd found it, gazing out fleetingly at the city, thirty floors below. Damn Edward; couldn't he spring for a room with a balcony? She must be going crazy in here. Men just didn't think. "I'll get the card for you. And think again about staying with me, okay? You don't have to be stuck in a hotel room by yourself."
Diana laughed. "Will do. Thanks," she added.
"No problem. And Diana?" She looked at me expectantly. I said:
"Thanks for hearing me out."
She shot me a smile, then went back to cooing over Elizabeth.
I shut the door.
"How are you holding up?"
I looked at the woman in genuine surprise. Simple concern was an alien thing to me, it sometimes seemed. Though I was loved by many, that love was a complicated tangle of protectiveness and paternalism. There were few who just wanted to know where I was - how I was - and I felt my eyes sting with sudden tears at the woman's genuine warmth. I blinked them back in irritation. I was tired of weeping, and more tired of weeping in front of others.
"I'm - getting there," I said at last. "Thanks."
"We were all very sad to hear about Michael. He was very devoted to you. And I have to say, the circumstances distressed us all. Drive-bys are pretty much par for the course here in New York, but Maryland - you don't expect it there. Such a Catholic heartland, too."
"Even Catholic families have black sheep," I said grimly. Black sheep like Spender, I amended mentally.
"Very painful for you to have witnessed it. Have you been referred for trauma counselling? Father Donnelly isn't here at the moment, but I know he was wondering if we could help."
I shook my head. "No, Sister, but thank you. I don't think it would help. Some things just have to be endured."
"Try to be gentle with yourself for the next year or two, Marita. Others will expect you to recover before you really do. They can be very unrealistic sometimes - especially your mother," the older woman added tentatively.
"That's my mom. Champion of the stiff upper lip." I shook my head irritably. "Thank you - I'll keep it in mind."
"What can we do for you today, anyway, Marita?"
"I just wanted to see if you needed anything from me about cancelling the wedding. I was too shocked last week to even think about it."
Sister shook her head. "It's all taken care of. We've cancelled the booking, and the prenuptial enquiries with your baptismal parishes were already done. We spoke to your mother the other day, and she's handled the flowers and the reception. You don't need to worry."
"Typical," I said irritably. She looked at me sharply, and I said, "I'm sorry. That sounded ungracious. It's just - she does this, you know? Takes things out of my hands. Those things were my responsibility, and I think they might have been good for me."
She was nodding. "For closure. I understand, and I thought the same thing. But it wasn't my place to say so."
"Of course not." I sighed. "Is there anything else?"
"Only the application for dispensation from impediment to marriage - I was going to call the archdiocese today and put a halt on that."
"What's that about?" I asked curiously.
She looked at me blankly, and then her expression cleared. "That's right, you couldn't be there that day," she said in apparent recollection. I felt my eyes widen just a fraction, and I braced myself, knowing perfectly well that I had attended every parish appointment about which I had been told. I held myself very still, preparing myself not to react to whatever bombshell was about to drop. "As you know, your immigration documents identify Michael as your father." I nodded noncommittally, though I knew no such thing. I knew without doubt that Michael was not my father - he would not have committed incest - and so I concentrated on keeping my expression blandly curious as I waited for it all to fall into place. Eventually it would, I was sure of it.
"He and your mother were quite upfront about it all," Sister continued. "They explained about lying to the authorities to get you and your mother into the country, and they produced documentation showing that Michael was in Hanoi when you were conceived. We knew from our dealings with your family that he had never had any kind of adoptive relationship with you, so from our perspective, there was no problem of consanguinity or affinity. But because those documents exist, we had to get a ruling from the archbishop for you to marry, and say that we were satisfied that those documents didn't reflect a genuine issue of blood or adoptive relationship."
"I see," I said mildly. "That makes sense." I smiled winningly, my mind racing. The story held together, but I couldn't imagine why my mother and Michael had kept this from me. Thinking quickly, I said with as much shy reluctance as I could muster, "Sister, would you mind cancelling that while I'm here? That way, I know it's all done and over with. I think it would help, somehow." I hoped I didn't sound too bucolic. What I hoped was that she would have to get out the file in order to do it. Surely she would have to quote a reference number of some kind.
"Sure. I can do that." Her voice was kind. She rose and went to the filing cabinet. She withdrew a thick folder and came back to the desk. She sat down and, picking up the telephone receiver, hit a speed dial key. I tilted my head sideways to read the legend, *Covarrubias/Harrington*, and drew it towards me with a questioning look at the older woman. I worked to keep my expression mildly curious. She hesitated a moment, her brow furrowing; and I backed off, shrugging carelessly, even though my heart was pounding.
She shrugged too, then, waving a hand. I could almost hear the unspoken, 'Ah, what the hell.' I smiled again, pulling it towards me, breathing out shakily. "Thanks," I said softly.
"It's your own file, Marita. There's no harm in- Alicia!" She turned her attention back to the phone. "It's Sister Deirdre at Staten Island...oh, I'm great now that Easter's over. Father's away 'til Pentecost, so I have the run of the parish..."
I tuned her out, the dulcet tones of small- parish gossip washing over me. That would buy me a little time, but not much. I flipped through the pages quickly, passing over affidavits by my mother and Michael. Nothing written now would shed any light on what had gone before - they were too smart for that. It was original documents that were the key - documents they had gone to some lengths to conceal from me. Immigration papers...my mother's statement of defection...travel records from the CIA and United Nations for Michael from 1969 to 1971...more sworn statements (one from Maxwell Donovan, I noted idly)...a photocopy of the baptismal register from - I read the header - St Mary Magdalene parish in New York...Marks, Jeffries, Panethos, Covarrubias, Covarrubias-
I doubled back. Covarrubias, Marita Elena. Covarrubias, Elena Ekaterina. Both born April 19, 1971 in Ateni, Georgia; both baptised June 21. That meant-
I flipped back to the immigration papers. There was a photocopy of handwritten case notes from the US Consulate in Istanbul. They were in Arabic; but there was a certified translation stapled to it.
--April 23, 1971. Covarrubias, Larissa Krisztyna, and Girl 1, and Girl 2 escorted to embassy by Conrad Strughold. Mrs Covarrubias travelled over the Soviet-Turkish border on foot on April 22 w/newborn infants. Mrs Covarrubias states she is KGB operative, had previously contacted Michael Harrington (UN/CIA) re: defection, and that Harrington is en route to Istanbul, ETA 0830 Apr 24. Awaiting Pentagon confirmation. Strughold known to Consul as a mining entrepreneur based in Tunisia. Some mining interests in Virginia, USA. His involvement with Covarrubias and/or KGB is uncertain, but bears watching. Covarrubias case tentatively classified top security clearance. Entry ends.
--April 24, 1971. Asylum granted. Michael Harrington confirmed Covarrubias story. States he has been in contact with Covarrubias since a tour of duty with the United Nations in Zhezqazghan in 1968. Covarrubias formerly based in a top-secret KGB installation in Norylsk (Siberia). (Undecipherable sentence). No further questioning permitted. Covarrubias and daughters to be escorted to Washington, DC (depart Consul Friday 0630). Medical exam shows Mrs Covarrubias in poor health. Dr. speculates Mrs C. gave birth unaided; some postpartum hemorrhaging, no complications. Girl 1, Marita Elena, within normal limits. Girl 2, Elena Ekaterina, small for gestational age, seriously ill (upper respiratory tract infection). Mrs C. requests Catholic priest for baptism. Negated by CIA on security grounds. Mrs C. identifies twins' father as Michael Harrington; Harrington confirms. Inconsistent with Harrington's movements: left Zhezqazghan January 1970, has been in Hanoi ever since. Mrs C. may be attempting to portray herself as a fleeing adulteress to protect husband from KGB interrogation. Pentagon instructs our investigation be dropped. Entry ends.
I stared up at her, a little disoriented. "I'm - I'm sorry, Sister. What was that?"
She was watching me curiously. "I said, you're shaking."
I closed the file. "Someone walked over my grave, I guess. It's done?" Don't react, Marita. Don't even think. Just get the hell out of there.
"Yes, it's done. Are you okay?"
I could feel my control slipping. The rigid lines of my face were hurting. They burned, like too- cold ice cracking in sudden heat. "Yeah," I managed. "I appreciate this, Sister."
She rested a hand on my shoulder. "Be kind to yourself, Marita. I'll pray for you."
I reached up and patted it absently. "Thanks," I forced out. I went on with foreboding:
"I think I'm going to need it."
I threw my handbag down on the polished table, and it slid across and hit the fruit bowl with a clatter. My car keys followed, landing ungraciously at its side. I fumbled helplessly in my pocket for the brand-new pack of smokes and the cheap plastic Bic I'd bought at a truckstop. I ripped open the cigarettes and, pulling one out, threw the pack down, too. I flicked at the lighter uselessly, trying to light up. I yelled in frustration, "Mother! Where the hell are you, god damn you!"
My hands were shaking.
I finally got the cigarette lit, and drew on it gratefully. I pulled out a chair from the table with a clatter, and sank down into it. I sat there with my head in my hands, smoking. My head was pounding.
I heard a door close in the lower floor, and then the rapid, rhythmic beat of footsteps on the stairs. I looked up wearily.
"Marita! I thought I heard a car drive up."
"Mother," I said hoarsely. It was a whisper.
"Maxwell is outside having tea. Do join us."
I breathed out shakily, tendrils of smoke drifting up towards the ceiling fan, twirling merrily overhead. "Mother."
"Oh, dear, you're smoking again," she said reproachfully. "Have a peppermint before you come out. I think there's some in the kitchen."
Sudden fury gathered in me, starting in my stomach and rising to my chest like bile. There was something surreal about it all. My mother had hidden the existence of a twin from me, and she was bitching about smoker's breath? I had the feeling that the natural order of the world had been blown to pieces, free floating in weird prismic formations I'd never seen before.
I tried again. It wasn't just my hands shaking anymore - it was my whole body. "Mother."
She kept prattling. Not for the first time in my life, I wondered if she ever really saw me at all. "I have to get back to Maxwell. We'll see you when you've finished your cigarette then?"
I slumped in my chair, my head bowed in exhausted disbelief. I waved my hand at her helplessly without looking at her; and she obviously took that as acquiescence, because her footsteps receded. I stubbed out the cigarette on the underside of her beautiful table in what I knew was a maliciously infantile gesture, and buried my head in my folded arms. I don't know if I was laughing or crying. I think it might have been both.
At last, I rose, and composed myself. I went to the bathroom and washed my face and straightened my hair. I powdered my cheeks and touched up my lipstick. And all the while, I tried to convince myself to think kindly of her - at least while Maxwell was here. Elena had been small...sick. Maybe she had died very young. Maybe she never really recovered from being smuggled over the border, or from whatever my mother went through as she fled her home on foot in advanced pregnancy. In those days, didn't they sometimes hide the death of a child? Didn't they sometimes seek to protect the subsequent children? Maybe Mother genuinely thought she'd done the right thing. It helped to think so.
Yet when had my mother ever protected me from the harsher realities of life? Not for her, the "Scruffy has gone to live in a beautiful garden." Not for her, the "Uncle Anthony died in his sleep." No, Scruffy was run over by a car. Anthony was shot to death in front of his children. The kind-hearted lies and myths of childhood were alien to my mother. She was a harsh woman, and in an odd way she believed her harshness helped me to grow strong. And maybe that was true.
No, my mother would not have lied to comfort me. She only ever lied to conceal the truth. But what truth was she concealing now? What truth was so important that she and Michael had conspired to continue in its concealment more than twenty years on?
Sighing, I finished in the bathroom and went downstairs. Breathing deeply, I stepped out the door into the courtyard. "Hello, Maxwell," I said airily; and if that seemed a little forced, he would simply put it down to bereavement. Maxwell himself had aged visibly in the last couple of weeks. He and Michael had been close.
"Oh, hello, Marita," he said kindly, rising as I took my seat. "How are you?"
"Holding up," I said grimly. "Mother," I added with a nod of greeting. If she was aware of the coldness in my voice, she didn't show it; but only nodded in return and poured my tea, setting it down in front of me.
"Well," my mother said after a long moment, "I have things to do, so if you'll excuse me, I'll leave you two alone." She rose, sending us a wide, manufactured smile, and left us.
I stared after her. "That was weird," I mused, my expression doubtful. I turned to Maxwell, and then I pulled back visibly. He was furious.
His face was very pink, his mouth pulled into a tight little grimace. I thought he was on the verge of apoplexy. It was actually pretty funny, and I smothered waves of hysterical laughter that suddenly threatened. He burst out indignantly, "Dear God! Michael's body's not even cold!"
My humour faded in an instant. I stared at him in stunned bewilderment. "She *wasn't* trying to-"
"I'm forty six years older than you!" I shot him a sudden, wry grin. "You don't look it."
We both broke out into horrified laughter - thank goodness! After so much stress, it was a relief to be able to do so. I laughed 'til I ached, and by then, Maxwell was leaned back in his chair, smoking his pipe, watching me amiably.
At last, I got control of myself. "I'm so sorry, Maxwell," I said ruefully. "My mother has the sensitivity of-"
"A bull in a china shop," he finished sympathetically.
The expression aroused an unexpected pang of nostalgia. "I miss England," I said suddenly. He said nothing, only waited. I elaborated finally, "Life was simpler then."
He watched me, his brow puckered with concern; and at last, he shook his head. "You only thought it was, Marita," he said mildly. "You've been part of this since the day your mother crawled into Turkey with you on her back."
"And my sister," I said quietly.
That shocked him. He shot me a look; one of surprise, melding quickly into worried nervousness. "Don't pursue that. You'll only put yourself in danger - and her." I nodded noncommittally - I had expected a warning. He leaned forward, his expression grave. "Especially if your mother finds out you know." At that, I opened my eyes very wide; because clearly, the other woman I would endanger was not my mother. And that only left-
"Elena's alive?" I demanded breathlessly, my cheeks hot with excitement.
Maxwell grimaced. Clearly, he'd thought I knew more than I really did - which made me wonder just how much more there was. He said in a low, warning tone, "Leave it alone, Marita."
I persisted. "Is my sister alive?"
Perhaps seeing that I wouldn't let him go without giving me something - but more likely believing I had a right to know - he conceded quietly, "Yes." He glanced at my mother, watching us from the kitchen window, and he went on in an undertone:
"But if you want her to stay that way, you'll leave it alone."
The Dark Man stood aside, silent permission to enter. I entered his suite and slammed the door behind me. I was shaking.
"Marita, what's the matter?"
I stared at him stupidly for a moment, then turned and went to the basin on the elevated dais. I splashed water over my face, then looked up at my reflection. There were pink spots high on my cheeks, and the lines of my face seemed suddenly haggard. I breathed out shakily.
The Dark Man was watching.
I leaned over the basin, breathing deeply, waiting for some semblance of composure to form. He was still looking at me with that worried expression, but he went to the bar, and busied himself pouring drinks. And when I came down the steps at last, he handed me mine without editorial comment. I took it, and sat on the elaborate bed, drinking gratefully.
He left me there for a few minutes, turning off his laptop and tidying a sheaf of papers on the dresser. "What's wrong?" he asked at last, sitting at my side. Briefly, I told him what had occurred.
"Did you know?" I asked finally.
The Dark Man shook his head. "I didn't come aboard until you were seven. You remember," he added with a sudden grin.
I laughed at that - a little weakly, but a laugh just the same. "I said that you were the first black man I'd ever met. Mother was mortified."
He laughed a little. "I was furious - not with you," he added hurriedly, "with her. I was pretty political back then." His smile faded. "That was 1978, so whatever happened to Elena, it must have happened before that."
"Earlier. Before I could remember anything myself," I chimed in. "Say before 1974." I felt better now - more controlled. It felt good to be proactive.
"Maybe she was surrendered to the colonists as a hostage," he hazarded. "The timeframe works. I always assumed your mother gave up your father, but I admit that was only a guess. I never thought to check one way or another." A new thought occurred to him, and he asked, "Who did you think she surrendered, anyway?"
"I didn't think she surrendered anyone," I said, bewildered.
"But they all gave up someone," he protested, his brow creasing.
"Michael didn't," I pointed out. "Neither did Max or Bill Mulder. And Spender surrendered two. I assumed it was done by ballot."
The Dark Man shook his head. "Max gave up his wife. She went willingly - she was terminally ill. She died a month later in colonist custody. That's why she's never spoken of as missing." I nodded, comprehending. "Samantha was Bill's hostage, not Spender's. If the colonists had learned Bill wasn't the children's father, they'd have demanded Teena - that was why Spender went along with it." A flicker of compassion went through me - something I'd never thought I'd feel for Spender. "Michael was the only one who truly gave up no-one, because he had no-one to give up. His only living relative was Maxwell."
"Maybe he did, though," I said thoughtfully. "If Spender and Bill Mulder lied, why not Michael and my mother? They'd already lied that he was our father once before. Maybe she said Elena was his to settle his debt along with hers."
The Dark Man frowned; nodded slowly. "That makes sense," he conceded. "And it would account for his protectiveness of you growing up."
I crossed my arms, my brow furrowed, thinking hard. "Max said she was alive," I said slowly. "He said that investigating could put both of us in danger. He implied that the danger was from within - not from the colonists." I said curiously, "Could she be here?"
He shrugged uneasily. "I don't see how. I know Cassandra and Samantha were recovered, but Spender and Teena bartered for them. They handed over a group of rebels for them. As far as I know, no-one else ever came back."
"Could my mother have bartered for Elena?"
"I don't see what she could have bartered with. And she certainly couldn't have done it without my knowledge."
"Unless she did it in 1983, when you were in Tunisia," I pointed out. "And she sent me away right after that."
"Possible," he conceded. "But this is pure conjecture, Marita. We don't even know if she's here."
We fell silent, dwelling on this; but at last, I said with awe, "I have a sister." He said nothing, but only looked at me. His expression was kind. "How could I not know that? I mean in myself?"
"Maybe you did," he mused, almost to himself. "Maybe that's what's been holding you back the last few years."
"Holding me back?" I echoed stupidly.
He shrugged a little, warming to his theme. "You've been relying on these people to keep you safe - your mother, Diana, Michael - instead of working to do whatever it is you have to do. Maybe you needed to find out about Elena before you could break free of them."
"You think I'm weak," I realised - and in an unwelcome flash of insight, I realised that it was true.
"You have been weak," he said kindly, "but you're very young. Now it's time to get strong."
"You think badly of me," I said bitterly. It wasn't a question.
"On the contrary," he asserted with real warmth. "I think very highly of you, Marita. But you're still becoming the person you were born to be."
Tears stung my eyes. "I don't -" I faltered; went on finally, "I don't know what to do."
"What do you want to do?" he said quietly.
I glanced at him, wondering what the answer really was; but in the end, there was only one thing I knew for sure just then. "I want to find my sister."
"You might regret it."
"I know that," I said mildly.
"Max is a sound man," he warned. "If he says it's unwise, he's probably right."
I turned to face him fully. "Does that mean you won't help me?"
He smiled faintly; shook his head. "No. I'll help you, Marita."
I touched his hand; gave it a companionable squeeze before withdrawing. "Thank you, my friend."
We were silent for a long moment, but then a cellphone rang. We each checked our pockets; the culprit was his. He answered it, with an apologetic look at me. He rang off.
"That was Connie Francis. I have to go talk to her."
I nodded my understanding, and rose. "I have to see her, too. I'll walk with you." I scanned the opulent room appraisingly. It was lovely, I had to admit. I still had mixed feelings about The Den, but I understood its appeal. The Dark Man reached for the door, but I stayed his hand.
"What we talked about before - about this place. I'll do it."
He shot me a look. "Are you sure?"
"No," I admitted. I bowed my head. "But you were right. I've been too safe for too long. I know too much to let it stay that way." I met his gaze once more. "I have to make a stand, and rise or fall by it."
"Can you handle it?" he said piercingly. He opened the door, and motioned for me to go ahead of him.
"I guess I'll have to."
He turned back to the door and locked it. "Don't look now, but there's Alex Krycek. Nine o'clock," he added.
I turned to the void over the huge circular staircase, passing my eyes idly over the room without meeting Krycek's gaze. He was on the stairs the next level down, looking up at me. So he knew who I was - I thought he might. I said noncommittally, "So he is."
He turned and began to walk, me at his side. On the next floor down, Krycek frowned and went in the direction of the suites. "Wonder what he's doing here. Spender didn't give him membership."
"No," I agreed. "Diana did."
The Dark Man nodded approvingly. "Good. He's worth getting on side. He's low in the chain of command, but Spender's plans for him make him an asset."
"Assuming he plays along with Spender," I said mildly.
"You don't think he will?" His expression was curious.
I shook my head. "No." I thought back to Diana's words. "He's not an ignorant thug like Cardinale. That's why Spender wants him. And that's why he'll never own him."
He nodded approvingly. "You're probably right."
"What's his profile?" I asked with interest.
"He's an interesting one. Bisexual, but otherwise very conservative. Very motivated by family and community. Patriotically American, vehemently anti-Soviet-"
"He'd get along with my mother," I said grimly.
"- but very loyal to the post-Soviet Russian states. He's written in the academic political journals about Latvia and Estonia and Chechnya and all that."
"Anything about Georgia?" I queried, interested.
"Not a lot," he shrugged. "The north-western states are more his line. He's Latvian, hence the interest." I nodded, understanding. "Mind you, I'm sure your Russian heritage could be a common denominator."
"That's true," I said casually, though in truth my interest had little to do with his possible cultivation as an ally. He interested me. He was good-looking, but then, good-looking men were not uncommon in my world. But there was something else...something I couldn't identify. He reminded me of someone, or something. I wondered what it was. And then I realised.
He was somehow different from the others in our world.
"Anyway," the Dark Man said, "enough of that. I need to show you something before we go downstairs." He used his keys to open a door marked, 'Private Wing/No Admittance'.
"Michael's rooms," I said dully.
He shook his head in negation of this. "Not at all. He never lived here after it became The Den. I don't think he liked it here after that. No, these rooms were Samantha's."
"Samantha lived here?" I said in surprise. "I mean, later?" He knew what I meant - after she'd been a prostitute here. Courtesan, I mentally corrected. The euphemism didn't come easily, but I was their employer now. If I couldn't show some respect in my own mind, it would show in my dealings with them.
He nodded, motioning for me to enter. I complied. "She lived wherever was most expedient, but she kept rooms here all her life. Michael allowed it. He felt quite kindly towards her."
I smiled faintly, and realised wistfully that Michael already seemed like something very distant - someone I'd known a lifetime ago. I said at last, "That sounds like Michael."
"She has diaries," he was saying. "She was here in 1983. If you can find them - and there's no guarantee that you will - they might shed some light on things."
"You haven't looked for them?" I queried.
"I couldn't," he said evenly. His voice was very mild. Too mild. I wondered then if he'd been in love with her, but I didn't ask. Instead, I nodded, looking over the sitting room before me. Lovely prints on the wall; masses of cushions in all kinds of textured fabrics. It was a very feminine room. It made me sad - I'd never known Samantha, but by all accounts, she'd been a decent woman. And ultimately, of course, a martyr to the resistance. Shaking my head a little to clear it of these musings, I said at last:
"If they're here, I'll find them."
The next couple of months passed without incident. I lived at The Den, mostly for convenience. Companionship, too, I suppose; for Diana stayed in Maxwell's suite - all the voting members had suites reserved for their exclusive use, and I convinced Edward that The Den was a nicer environment than their hotel. I might not have done that if Elizabeth had been older; but I thought - hoped - than an infant wouldn't pick up on the strange dynamics of the place.
I gradually searched Samantha Mulder's suite, but so far I'd come up empty. I saw to the administrative needs of the facility. I found reasons not to see my mother. I took care of the courtesans, put them through school, and was always glad when one left for a better life. I didn't employ any more.
The Dark Man trained me, and he connected me with a handful of undemanding submissives. There was Senator Matheson, who liked to masturbate while I demanded details of his escapades with his toyboys. That was a tough one for me; I felt fiercely protective of Diana, and Matheson had had a hand in her divorce from Mulder. There was an assassin named Fordham, who would answer any question as long as he was allowed to play with my hair; and Senator McKay, who had a foot fetish. An up-and-coming FBI executive named Kersh. And Edward Donovan, who played my favourite in public, and played Scrabble with me behind closed doors. He was the only one allowed to touch me, kiss me - invade my space in any way. That was all right, because I trusted him. More than that, I trusted his unwavering devotion to Diana and their children.
So I was chaste...untouched.
But after a while, it hardly mattered.
As much as the idea of being groped by those men repulses me, there is something about their very presence that affects me almost as badly. They don't touch me, but they still get under my skin. And so does the awful, tantalising, breathless wantonness of the place. I want to be - oh, God, it's hard to write this - I want to be pushed against a wall and fucked. I want to be taken and used and I want it over and over again, hot and hard and fast, and I don't care who by. The words offend me as I write them, affront me, confront me; and yet even now, some dark part of myself throws back her head and moans. I am surrounded by flesh, by sex stripped of meaning, and the incredible power of that arouses all my darkest instincts. It infects me like a drug.
And it would be so easy to give in to it - to embrace the emptiness.
But that would be giving up on everything I believe and everything I dream of. To reduce lovemaking to sex - no, I can't do that. I can't surrender my dreams of something more.
Because right now, dreams are all I have.
He touches me.
Just a single touch, and I feel my body respond. His hands on my shoulders, his breath on my neck as he pushes aside my hair. I gasp, half pressing myself to him, half pulling away, right on the knife-edge of indecision. "Marita," he breathes, his lips brushing my ear, "beautiful Marita."
At the endearment I feel my resistance melt away. With a gasp of aching longing, I whirl around, pressing myself against him with a low sigh of need. "Oh - oh, God-" I blurt incoherently.
"Marita," he rasps again, his breath hot on me. His hands are on me, moulded to me, seeking me, knowing me. He holds me close, possessively, and I give myself up to it willingly, crying out his name.
I kiss him, hard; press my mouth to his and devour his taste and his scent ravenously. The only man I've ever wanted. The only one who brings those faint embers of instinctive need and sets them alight. How could I have ever thought those embers were desire? They are nothing to this. His hands cradle my face, his lips adore me, cherish me, take me and make me his. My legs buckle, and he pushes me to the wall, pressing me there, sinking to his knees, sliding warm, firm palms under my skirt, over my thighs, drawing my panties down, leaving my stockings and garter intact; and now I know I'm dreaming, because I've never worn a garter in my life; but, God, I don't care, do it, please - please -
His mouth, so moist, so warm, kissing me, loving me, taking my most secret places, laying them open, treating them as something precious. I cradle his head with my hands, leaning over, curling my body to reach him, to kiss him tenderly. He takes one of my hands and lays it against his cheek, and he says my name and makes it sound like love. And I'm shaking, shuddering against him, his mouth still moving over me, still giving, still loving, and then I sink to my knees before him and kiss him once more. I want his mouth between my thighs, I want his warmth inside me; but more than anything I want to kiss him, want to hold him close and make him mine. With the miracle of dreams, he's naked, we both are, and he's so warm against me, his torso so effortlessly cradled to mine, fitting to me perfectly. I lay on my back, my legs twined around him, his body held close to mine, his arms holding me close; he seeks not to enter or to plunder, but to caress and embrace; and he slides into me almost as an afterthought, his eyes never leaving mine. His presence within me is nothing, it's insignificant, it means nothing in the face of what's within that shared gaze; and yet it's everything, binding us, joining us, making us one, making us whole. And as he moves, it seems to me as though he's been there all my life, waiting. At last, I hold him tight against me with my legs, pressing him into me as far as he can go, holding him tight within me, cleaving to him with my whole being. And then I'm shuddering, the blood in my veins ice-cold and white- hot all at once, and I can feel him spilling within me, emptying himself into me, giving me as much of himself as one person can to another. His seed is warm; it finds its way within me, seeking to join, seeking to grow, seeking to become more than it is now, to become something new, a new creation. And then I realise that the miracle of life is not conception, but unity; and whatever else becomes of that seed, it has made me his. And as we fall against one another, as we come to rest, still shuddering, still gasping, still clutching one another, I cry out his name.
I woke up.
I stared at the ceiling, very still, unsure of where fantasy ended and reality began. My hands were fists, clutching bright handfuls of blue velvet cushion, and I was stretched out over crumpled sheets of satin. Tentatively, I reached down to touch myself, and then I drew back with a hiss: I was excruciatingly aroused, acutely painful to the touch. I was warm and slick there, but unnaturally cold everywhere else. And I was shaking.
"Jesus," I whispered.
I threw aside the covers and rose; ran to the basin on the elevated dais and splashed my face with water. I stared at my reflection, breathing heavily, disturbed by the harsh spots of colour on my face. I'd never seen myself like this. I'd never *been* like this. I hung my head in my hands, leaning there against the basin, breathing shakily. "Oh, God."
There was a knock at the door.
"Whatever it is, Connie, it can wait," I called absently.
"It's not Connie. It's Diana."
I was nearly weeping. "God, Diana, please, can it wait?"
She sounded concerned. "Let me in, Marita."
Pulling on a robe, I stalked to the door and wrenched it open. "What?" I demanded harshly.
A look of worry flitted over her features. "Rita? Are you all right?"
I tried to fake it, but the smile just wouldn't form. Finally, I said, "No, I don't think I am." I opened the door and let her enter. She did so, and I shut it gratefully.
She took her time, putting her cellphone on the dresser and dropping down into the overstuffed armchair by the bed. I started to pour myself a scotch, then reconsidered, remembering that Diana was nursing. I poured us both an orange juice. Probably a better idea for that time of the morning, dreams or not.
I handed Diana her drink, and sat on the bed; my composure slowly making a comeback. She said quietly, "Now, are you going to tell me what's wrong?"
"Diana, I can't," I said miserably. The very thought of finding the words I'd have to use chilled me.
"It will help," she said kindly. "Really, Marita. It will all seem a lot smaller once you get it off your chest."
I stared at her. "You know," I said with vague uncertainty.
"I have a fair idea," she said gently. "I've been where you are, Marita. I've seen what this place does to people."
I nodded slowly, accepting the truth of this. I wasn't the first to be screwed up by this place - male or female. I thought Diana was probably thinking of Samantha.
"I've been having dreams," I said hesitantly, at last. "Intimate dreams." I frowned. "They - they bother me. They - frighten me."
Diana sat back, shrugging a little. "Sex is a powerful instinct," she said easily. "And you're surrounded by it. All the aches and the loneliness of being suddenly single are magnified. It's really not surprising that it's getting to you. Marita, you wouldn't be normal if it didn't affect you."
"It's insidious," I blurted. "The more I stay here, the more warped my grip on what I need is getting. I - I feel like I'm splintering." I buried my face in my hands for a long moment. "Oh, God."
"You were at the right psychological moment for this, Marita. That's all. If you can ride it out without doing anything you'll hate yourself for, you'll be fine."
"I know." I sighed wearily. "The Dark Man said that if I was unavailable, I'd be safe - but he was wrong. It's no better than the alternative, and sometimes I think it might be worse."
Diana's expression was kind - and troubled. She rose and came over to me, and drew me close. She was warm and soft against me, and it was comforting. I leant my face against her shoulder. "Not everyone wants something from you, Rita," she said gently. "Some of us just love you." She stroked my hair tenderly, and I thought fleetingly that she must be a very good mother. "And there will be others."
She held me that way for a while; but at last, I pulled away. I stared down at my hands, opening and closing them compulsively. I said morosely, "You knew this would happen, didn't you?"
"I had a pretty good idea," she said softly. "It isn't worth it, Marita. Whatever you're trying to find, whatever ideology is driving you, it's okay to walk away. There are other soldiers. You've lost so much-"
"I had a sister," I burst out.
Diana looked at me, sitting very still. "What did you say?" Her face was suddenly ashen, confirming something I had already suspected: that she had already known.
I watched her steadily, but didn't repeat it.
"How the hell did you find out about that?" she demanded at last.
"So you did know," I said coolly. "I wondered."
She had the good grace to look shamefaced; but she remained resolute. "Let it alone, Marita."
"Oh, that's rich," I said in a low voice. "This, from a woman who kept the fact that I had a sister from me. A friend," I added scathingly.
She flushed, but she didn't back down. "Did you ever stop to wonder why?" she demanded in frustration. "Why your mother and Michael and I and the others kept it from you? Marita, I know how much you think you need to know, but I promise you, some things are best left alone. Some things can turn your world upside down, with no net gain."
"I think your view is coloured by what happened in your marriage," I said pointedly. She winced, but she didn't look angry, as I would have. In a way, that angered me even more. "I'm not Fox. And I have a sister I never even knew, whose very existence was systematically hidden from me."
Diana bowed her head. She said in a low voice, "Don't do this, Marita. Please."
I held her gaze, resolute. "I have to. Don't you see that?"
"I see it - that doesn't I think you're right."
"So does that mean you're against me?" I demanded.
She hung her head in her hands for a long moment. Looking up at me with a sigh, she said with genuine warmth, "I will always be on your side, Marita. But I will not help you do this."
I looked away. I said bitterly, "I think you should leave."
From the corner of my eye, I saw her nod. She rose; said finally, "Marita, please don't hate me."
I turned to face her, and I felt my features soften a little. "I don't," I admitted, reaching out to take her hand. And I didn't. We'd been through too much together. "But right now I need you to go."
She nodded reluctantly, and then she did as I said.
"How did the meeting go?"
The Dark Man stirred his coffee thoughtfully. "Pretty much as expected. Edward got Michael's place in the voting circle." He looked tired.
"So we still have a majority?" I speculated hopefully.
He shook his head morosely. "No. A lot of our votes were in exchange for CIA favours from Michael. We got some of them back with favours from you, as you know; but our faction is a minority now, I'm afraid."
I made a sound of disgust. "Dammit!"
"There's more bad news - not catastrophic, but inconvenient," he added at my look of alarm. "Edward has to go back to Tunisia in a couple of weeks. I believe Diana and the baby are staying for a little longer, but we have to find you a new squeeze." I made a sound of annoyance.
"All right," I said wearily. A passing courtesan waved in greeting, and I shot her a quick nod and smile. "Who did you have in mind?" I asked, putting my teacup to my lips.
"I'm not really sure," he said quietly, taking a long drink from his cup. "I'm thinking about Krycek, though."
I sputtered. "What? He's not even on the inside!" Not to mention the fact that I'd never met the man, never even heard his voice; and yet I'd heard him say my name in my dreams a thousand times over.
"He's further in than you think," the Dark Man said. Then, in an undertone, "He knows something about Larissa."
I was instantly on the alert, dreams forgotten. "How so?" I demanded eagerly.
"He's been asking questions about her whereabouts in 1971 and 1983."
I watched him, my brow furrowing thoughtfully. "I didn't realise you and he were on those terms."
"We're not," the Dark Man said dryly. "We're communicating by email. He thinks I think he's Mulder."
I looked at him with some admiration. "How do you know that?"
"He left me a note at Mulder's apartment one night. I already knew from my surveillance that Mulder was at Krycek's," he added. "Young Alex's car was a couple of blocks away. It wasn't a tough call."
I snorted. "You Consortium types obviously aren't training him too well, now," I teased.
"Subterfuge of that kind is not required of him at this stage," he said evenly.
"Just as well," I snickered, ignoring his reproving look. No sense of humour. "So what are you doing about it?"
"Feeding him scraps. He's worth having on side."
"What do you think he knows?" I wondered.
The Dark Man sat back, spreading his hands expansively. "I'm not sure. But I think you could find out."
I frowned. Diana was right, I supposed; he'd just happened to enter my landscape at the right psychological moment. The dreams didn't mean anything. They could be handled. Just because dream-Alex left me breathless, didn't mean it would translate into real life. He was probably a total jerk.
I asked finally, "Do you think he can be trusted?"
The Dark Man laughed mirthlessly. "Trust no- one, as Michael used to say. But I think he's willing to use and be used."
I nodded slowly at this. "I'll think about it."
"There's something else," he said quietly. I signalled a passing waiter for another pot of tea.
I looked at him curiously. "Go on."
He watched me for a long moment. "Your name was mooted as Michael's successor last night."
I looked at him in genuine disbelief. "Me?"
He shook his head in a clear, you're-missing-the-point gesture. "Oh - it wouldn't have eventuated. You're too young, too new. The nomination was a gesture of respect to Michael, that's all." I nodded in understanding, and waited. "Your being voted down was no surprise. What was a surprise was the vehemence of your most vocal opponent."
"Who was it?" I demanded quietly.
"Your mother." He watched me closely. "Marita, I'm beginning to think that you're right about Elena. I think that maybe she's the key to something bigger. She could be the key to everything."
The waiter came then, with my tea, and we broke apart from our huddled stance. I nodded, frowning, as the waiter moved on to the table behind me. "Would you like a refill, Mr Krycek?"
My eyes widened, and I worked not to turn around. Now that I really looked, I could see him dimly reflected in the glass partition at the end of the room. "He's here a lot lately," I said in a low voice.
"He's staying here for the moment," the Dark Man said calmly.
"Krycek is living here?" I demanded.
"He was involved in the Dana Scully abduction. He had to go on the run. I gather he doesn't have anywhere much to go."
"So he's a bit lost?" I asked, instantly on the alert.
He looked at me strangely. "I wouldn't put it quite like that."
I waved a hand in negation. "No, I mean - he's short on allies. He's ripe to commit to us - to take a role in our work. No conflicting loyalties."
The Dark Man shrugged. "Well, he's still on Spender's payroll, but Spender is only using him as a hired gun. There can't be a lot of job satisfaction there. I don't think Krycek would feel particularly bound to him. And after all, he knows I'm Mulder's informant and has never turned me in."
"That's a point." I met the Dark Man's gaze with a sudden sense of purpose. "All right - introduce me." I caught Krycek's reflection in the glass once more.
"It's time we reeled him in."
"Where are you up to?"
I look away from the laptop, up at Mare; and as always, her smile invites one of my own. "Just finished transcribing the blue journal." Then, more hesitantly, "The one just after Michael died."
Her smile falters a little. "Oh," she says in a husky voice. I hold out my hand, and she takes it, squeezing tightly. "Thank you for doing that - especially with your hands," she adds, looking not at my hand, but at the hand that is not. "I couldn't have done it. Not yet." I only nod and draw her down across my lap. We sit there for long, pensive moments, her eyes scanning the monitor. Part of me wants to close it, but I won't do that to her. Not when so many people have treated her like a child already.
At last, I say lightly, "So...just the right psychological moment, huh?"
She laughs a little, and it eases my mind to hear it. "Oh, Alexi," she sighs, "I got so many things wrong back then. And I nearly drove you away," she adds remorsefully.
"You didn't," I say quietly. "You won't."
She kisses me then, just once, and I hold her tightly. There's something clinical about writing in retrospect - everything becomes small and manageable. But reading her account as she lived it makes me love her, who she was and who she has become, so much more. I never thought it was possible to love one person more than I loved her, but apparently it is.
Because I love her more every day.
"You know," she says, pulling away with a knowing smile, "Gibson and the children are in Ksar el Kabir for the day."
"I knew that," I say mildly, teasing my hand over her leg, sliding it up under her skirt - just a little. God knows, I love making love to her; but in some ways, this languid, companionable touching is just as good.
"We could fool around a little," she tells me, stroking my cheek idly; then amends thoughtfully, "or a lot."
I begin weakly, "I should-" and then my resistance dies as her lips meet mine. When she presses herself against me, I slide my hand up her back, holding her there. We have lost too many precious moments over the years to let any slip away now.
I can write tomorrow.
No love story is complete without the first meeting.
That's what Mare says, anyway; and it has been a source of good-natured bickering for several days now. For myself, I remember our first meeting as a mildly amusing charade, in which we each gave a reasonable performance of knowing little about the other. There was curiosity, maybe a little attraction; but there were no longing gazes, and no precognitive flashes that, not too far down the track, she would be my world.
It was Gibson who finally broke the deadlock, suggesting that if Mare felt so strongly about it, perhaps we should transcribe her account of it from her journal. Well, she got it out and read it; then, a little shamefacedly, she admitted I was right. Score a small victory for the retrospective reporter. To ease the sting, I ask her where she thinks I should begin instead.
"That day in the spa," she says at once. And because I know exactly which day she means, I agree.
"What day was that?" Gibson asks with fascinated apprehension. He's afraid, in a way he wouldn't have been before the painful advent of adolescence, that the answer is something sexual. There's a perverse part of me that wants to jerk his chain a bit, and I would have done it once; but because he's my son now, I say instead:
"It was the day I called her Mare."
"It's a nonsequiter."
"What?" Diana said absently, taking aim. Her concentration was unwavering.
"It's a nonsequiter. Out of place." She squeezed the trigger, and in the same instant, a hole appeared in the cardboard target.
In the crotch.
She shot me a mischievous look, and I laughed, albeit with a slight grimace. I took the Sig from her and took aim.
"I know what a nonsequiter is," Diana said with a withering look. She nodded to the target. "What are you going for?"
"Groin. I'm gonna go straight through that hole you already made."
"Fucking showoff. What exactly is a nonsequiter?"
"It's something that's-"
"-out of place," she finished, stealing my line. "Stop being cryptic and tell me what you're blathering about." There was a residual British undertone to her voice that I found very appealing.
I fired. "The ice arena," I said, nodding to the building a little way off to the left of the shooting field. "It's out of place."
"Has it moved since we've been on the range?" she queried ingeniously.
"Don't be idiotic." I removed the empty clip from the Sig and put in a new one. "Try for a lethal spot this time."
"There are arteries in the groin, Alex. They're what make it possible for you to-"
"-rise to the occasion," I supplied. Diana had only a small number of punchlines, and by now I was acquainted with them all. "What's the feminine equivalent of misogynist?"
"No idea," she mused. "You think I'm one?"
"Fucked if I know. All I know is, you're having a grand old time shooting out the family jewels here."
"Fox had some Freudian theory about that."
"He would." I watched her curiously. "You're trying to distract me."
"From what? The ice arena? Look, if you want to play Ice Castles, go ahead." She took aim. "I'll go for the heart - happy?"
"I'd be happier if you stopped the ducking and fucking and answered the question."
"You didn't ask a question," she said, firing pensively.
"Implied question," I amended.
"Just because you imply, doesn't mean I necessarily infer." She handed over the Sig, her expression neutral. I didn't use it.
"Look, what do you mean, it's out of place?" she demanded in exasperation. "We run physical readiness courses for the Group. There's a pool, there's a gym, there's a track, there's indoor and outdoor firing ranges. Tell me why one more sports facility is out of place."
"It's not cost-effective," I pointed out. "What benefits are there, really, besides cardiovascular and muscular? Those are benefits you already get from the pool and the gym, without spending the gross national product of a small country every day in refrigeration."
"It's solar powered."
"Okay." The idea of a solar-powered ice rink struck me as pretty funny, but I didn't say so. I had bigger fish to fry. "But why bother?"
Diana sighed. She turned to face me, irritation evident in the lines of her face. "Look, if you must know, Michael built it for Samantha. When the Dark Man brought her here, she was miserable. No other kids and a lifetime of awful memories. So he built her an ice rink."
"Maybe he should have brought her her mother," I said in disgust. Had he really been as naive as all that?
"Maybe so." She nodded to the firearm. "You gonna use that thing?" I shook my head and handed it back to her. She turned back to the range.
"Diana?" I said after a while.
"What is it?"
"Why the hell are you living here? I'm sure you didn't envisage rearing your daughter in a glorified brothel."
She shrugged. "She's just a baby. She doesn't know."
"But it's not what you'd call ideal."
There was a pause then. At last, she said tightly, "It's convenient."
"No more convenient than your hotel in Baltimore. And you can't tell me money's an issue - that's my excuse."
"Marita asked us to stay. That's all."
"And what she wants, you do?"
"You knew we were friends."
"I know there's tension, too. If she just wanted a gossip partner, you wouldn't be here."
She made a sound of frustration. She turned to face me once more, one hand on her hip, the other by her side, Sig pointed at the ground. "Alex, you think too much. The woman's recently been widowed. She wants her friends around her. There's no mystery here."
"Yes, she's recently widowed. So what's she doing living here? Surely there were better ways she could live out his memory than holing up in his brothel."
"Recreational facility," she corrected, but the smile that flitted across her features was weak. "She says-" her brow furrowed.
"She *says* it's convenient," she said at last.
"But you don't believe her?" I queried, frowning.
She spoke slowly, as though choosing her words with care. "I believe that she believes it."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It's a seductive place."
"Now, that's a nonsequiter."
I shot her a withering look, crossing my arms over my chest. "It's a weird place, Di."
"Don't call me Di."
"Diana. It's a weird place. It's too much of a resort to be a brothel, and too much of a brothel to be a resort. What the fuck is it?"
A sardonic grin flitted across her features. "It's Michael's ambivalence incarnate."
"Now who's being cryptic?"
She pursed her lips in irritation, raised her shooting arm, and emptied the clip into the tattered target's crotch without so much as a glance in the target's direction. Perfect shot. She was just fucking with my head now, and I didn't take the bait. I watched her steadily, and I waited. "Look," she said with a sigh. "Michael wasn't into this sort of thing, okay? He and Max came from very proper stock. It started out purely as a sex club, and then he started adding things. Things that made it more respectable. The sports facilities. The restaurant."
"Trying to redeem it."
"I guess." She held out the Sig. "Want to do any more?"
I shook my head, holding out my arm so she could see my watch. "Marita and Edward are expecting us."
She nodded, her expression weary, and we left the range together.
We were almost back at the main house when I aired the question that had been nagging at me.
"Level with me, Diana. What am I being drawn into?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"It's been nine days since the Dark Man introduced Marita and I, and my social life has taken a decided upswing."
"She's a social kind of girl."
"Bullshit. She's strictly a put-in-an-appearance type. Now suddenly she's doing dinner and evenings in the spa and friendly contests on the range. Peripheral figures come and go, but you and Ed and the Dark Man are always there. And Marita. Marita in the middle, even when she isn't there."
Diana snorted. "Marita in the middle? You better not start blathering about constellations, Alex. I'm still armed, you know."
I grinned at her amiably. "Can I have an eclipse?"
"No, you bloody well can't. Why are men so sentimental?"
We laughed a little, but then I said in a low voice, "I'm not a fool, Diana."
Her pace slowed, and she turned to look at me. "No, I very much doubt that you are."
I met her gaze. "I'm either being played or groomed. Which is it?"
"That's not for me to say."
"Did you suggest me to them?"
She hesitated; said at last, "No. The Dark Man asked my opinion of you."
"And what is your opinion?" I wondered with interest.
"That you're a sound man. That you're in it for the right reasons."
"You don't know my reasons," I retorted, but my voice was mild. In truth, I was flattered.
She shrugged. "True enough. Shall we say, then, I know you aren't in it for the wrong reasons."
"Okay." We began to walk once more. "Well, since the rules of the game are unknown, I've been working on getting to know my fellow players."
"I hadn't noticed," she said with more than a trace of sarcasm.
"Am I that transparent?"
"No - for a newcomer, you're rather good. I simply asked myself what I would do if I were in your place."
I laughed. "You and Ed are known quantities, at least as far as I need you to be for the time being," I mused, more to myself than to her. She didn't seem offended by the observation - I would have been surprised if she had. There was genuine fondness between us, but ultimately it was a friendship of utility, and she wasn't under any illusions about that fact. "But Marita is a mystery."
"Yes, she is," Diana agreed.
"You don't agree?" I challenged. I didn't really doubt her sincerity, but I hoped to draw her out.
We rounded the corner of the main house. "No, I mean it. She is - even to me. I don't think even Marita herself knows what drives her."
There didn't seem to be much to be gained from pursuing that line of discussion, so I made a noncommittal sound, and I let it go. I swiped my card and opened the door for her. "Walk with me to the spa?"
She shook her head. "Elizabeth's due to nurse. I'll meet you there shortly."
"All right," I said. "Tell me something, Diana."
"Are you keeping her with you because you're nursing, or are you nursing her so you can keep her with you?" It occurred to me just a second too late that that might be an intrusive question.
If she was affronted by me asking, she didn't show it. She looked at me, a little perplexed. "A bit of both, I suppose. Why do you ask?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. I just wondered."
She nodded. "I just - I miss Shane, you know? If I'd known when he was born how little I'd get to see him - if I'd known how far the work would take me from him - I just think I'd have - I don't know." She shook her head, frowning.
"Given more?" I said gently.
Diffidently, I asked, "Do you regret having them? I mean, knowing what you know?"
"No. But sometimes I wonder if they'll regret me." She shrugged. "Still, that's one of those things you can't afford to think about if you want to stay sane. What's any of this for, if not for the children?"
I stopped, took her hand, turned her to face me, and kissed her cheek. She drew back, her expression a blend of pleasure and confusion. "Whatever was that for?"
"For being in it for the right reasons."
I laughed at her expression, released her, and I left her there.
A wrinkle of distaste rippled through me, but I suppressed it before it reached my face. I zipped my pants. "Hello, Luis."
Cardinale strode up to me purposefully. If he slapped my arm I thought I might have to kill him, but he didn't. "What you doing here?"
I shot him a withering look. "Same as you, asshole." I turned away from the urinal and washed my hands.
He called over his shoulder, "I thought this place would be a bit too heterosexual for your liking."
I looked him up and down in the mirror. "Well, there's not much male talent today, so I figured I'd walk on the wild side." I shook the water off my hands and headed for the door.
He zipped up and followed me out, catching the door behind me. He nodded to a couple in a corner and whistled. "That, my friend, is a walk on the wild side."
Dutifully, I followed his line of vision to a man in his thirties and a woman in her twenties. They were sitting together in one of the hot tubs, the man holding the woman across his lap. They were only kissing, but I saw what he meant. There are some people, I thought, who exuded steam.
For once, Cardinale had had an insight.
This was rare enough an occurrence to warrant a thawing in relations. "Not bad," I agreed. Who knew? If I were agreeable enough, maybe he'd go away. Miraculously, he did, mumbling something about the sauna. I waved him off absently, making a mental note not to go in there for a while. The thought of Cardinale naked was just too horrible to contemplate.
I turned and scanned the room. It was sparsely populated, though it would fill up as the afternoon wore on. A handful of people were congregated around the bar, about half of them house girls. In a corner sat Marita Covarrubias, her languid form stretched out over a luxuriously overstuffed armchair. She was in trademark black leather, blonde tresses tumbling in waves over her shoulders. Just for a moment I thought of the restrained young woman I'd seen all in white three months earlier. The contrast between then and now was marked.
I moved towards her, and as I did so, I saw that she was watching the same couple Luis had pointed out to me. Watching her in profile, I noted the way her lips were parted; saw the fast, shallow rise and fall of her breasts in time with her breathing. Her eyes were wide and bright. Watching the couple was erotic, in an oddly detached sort of way; but watching her watching them was hypnotic. I was transfixed.
I was just about to go over to her when Richard Matheson came around the bar and made a beeline in her direction. I wasn't in any mood to deal with him, so I retreated, my back to the wall. That wasn't a bad policy when Matheson was around in any case. Besides, I figured Marita would be pretty eager to drag him to her room herself in her current state. Mentally, I turned over polite ways of explaining her absence when Diana and Edward arrived.
That didn't turn out to be necessary. When Matheson touched her arm, Marita flinched, pulling away, crossing her arms over herself in an unconscious gesture of protection. Her whole body was stiff, and while I couldn't hear her, it was clear from her body language that his attention was unwelcome.
I watched the moment unfold with growing bewilderment. She had responded to him far differently to how I had expected her to. She was hot as hell - she ached to be touched. Her whole bearing had said so. Yet the moment Matheson had done so, she'd just shut down. I was willing to accept that her connection with him was based less in sex play and more in the exchange of information; nonetheless, with a certain sexual comfort zone between them, I had - without any prejudice whatsoever - expected that she would draw on that in her current state. There was something profoundly wrong with the whole picture.
I was debating whether to break the moment when she spotted me. Her features flooded with transparent relief. "Alex, dear!" she said in a high, clear voice. I didn't think she'd called me 'dear' before - or anyone else, either - but I took it for what it probably was, a gesture of favouritism to me, exclusion to him. I came over to the other side of the chair and sat on the arm, leaning over, intending to kiss her cheek. I found her lips on mine instead, and she lingered there a little longer than necessary.
I pulled away and nodded to Matheson. "Richard," I said by way of greeting. "Are you joining us?"
"Richard was just leaving," she said crisply before he could reply.
"Another time, perhaps," I said, not very enthusiastically.
"Indeed," she said with a winning smile at him, shifting close to me.
"I'll see you later, Marita," he said with a deferential nod. "Alex."
We watched him leave, and when the men's locker room door banged shut behind him, she relaxed visibly. She shifted away again with an apologetic look at me. I just laughed, and she laughed a little too.
"That guy gives me the creeps," I said before I stopped to think about it, then cursed my tactlessness. I waited for her to defend him - creep or not, he was still her submissive, and she was his protector.
She didn't defend him. "Me, too," she admitted. She turned to look up at me. "But how are you, Alex? Edward and I missed you this morning."
"I was out shooting with Diana. She'll be along shortly."
Marita nodded. "How'd it go?"
"On the range? I've discovered a deep-seated fear of castration."
She laughed. "Diana was in fine form, then?"
"Did I hear my name taken in vain?" The voice of the woman in question resounded behind us.
"Diana!" Marita's voice was suffused with warmth. "How's Elizabeth?"
"Sound asleep," she said, coming around to stand before us, arms folded across her body. "It's so nice to know that the nanny will be able to spend the afternoon watching the soaps."
I snorted. "I'm sure she's filled with sympathy for your plight, what with all that time in the hot tub and all."
"Pure torture, Alex, dear. Speaking of which-" she waved a hand in the direction of the spas.
Taking the hint, I nodded to them both and headed towards the locker rooms to change. I half-turned at the men's door, expecting to see the women at the door to my left, but they were still where I'd left them, engrossed in conversation. I wondered what they were talking about.
I wondered if it was about me.
Shaking off a ripple of apprehension, I left them there.
"Have you given any more thought to my suggestion?"
"The physical readiness training?" I wondered. The water bubbled delightfully against my naked skin. The waiter had just topped up our wineglasses, and I was agreeably mellow.
"Well, I know you have your FBI training, but there are certain deficiencies in what you've been taught - hand-to-hand combat, for one." Diana drained her glass and set it on the side of the tub. I studied her with open interest. She still had some of the pregnancy curves, but she seemed unselfconscious about the fact. I liked that. It showed confidence.
"That's probably true," I agreed. "All right - I'll do it. Just tell me where and when." Before us, the women's locker room opened, and Marita stalked out, swathed in a bizarre tight black lycra-lace-and-latex number. She strode over to the bar, seemingly oblivious to the attention she had aroused.
"I'll see to it," Diana said. "I'll pair you with Karen. She's the best trainer we've got."
I nodded, not really paying attention. "Unbelievable," I murmured.
"What, Alex?" Edward enquired with interest.
I nodded in Marita's direction. "Look at those guys watching her with their tongues hanging out," I said with a wave of my hand. "They're so busy drooling over the catwoman getup, they've totally missed the fact that she's showing less flesh than you'd have seen on the beach fifty years ago." She turned away from the bar, drink in hand, and started walking in our direction. "She's the only woman here who won't strip off, and not one of them realises it." Diana watched me with a look of admiration. It didn't occur to me at the time, but I think now that I'd just passed a test in her eyes.
"Are you saying she's not erotic?" Edward was saying.
"I'm saying she's clever."
"Who's clever?" Marita said, perching herself on the side of the spa. She slid in, heels and all, and sidled up to Edward, draping herself theatrically over him on his free side.
"Only you, darling," Diana said tartly. I recognised her tone - it was the one I'd dubbed Gushing Socialite, reserved solely for such contrived situations as this one. With some irritation, I wondered when my role would become clear. This house bullshit was fast becoming tiresome. I didn't mind putting in the hours and the work, but the politics pissed me off. I decided to put a good face on it for the duration, but damn it, I was going to pin down Diana tomorrow or the day after at the latest. I wanted answers. I wanted things to start moving.
I settled my attention on Marita. The display she had put on earlier for the benefit of our onlookers was forgotten. She was listening to Ed, sipping delicately at her wine. While the others (and I) were well on the way to being pleasantly quiffed, she was stone cold sober. Sitting there, smiling faintly while Diana and Ed roared laughter, she epitomised restraint. She should have seemed out of place in such an unrestrained setting, but she didn't. In any environment, I thought, Marita would be its master. It was fascinating.
"...what do you think, Alex?"
I came to myself. "Sorry, Ed - I tuned out for a second. What was that?"
"Oh, it doesn't matter. Marita and I were disagreeing, and Diana was playing mother wolf. I was looking to you for some solidarity, but I guess I'll have to stand on my own." He gave a mock look of martyrdom, and I laughed.
A look of irritation flitted over Marita's features. "Diana's a mother wolf? So what does that make me? A cub?"
"A mare," I said after a moment's thought.
"I remind you of a breeding horse?" she said coldly, but the corners of her eyes were creased with merriment.
I gave her a withering look. "Wild and untamed."
"Wild *and* untamed? Isn't that redundant?"
"Where's your sense of romance?" I flicked water at her with my hands.
"She ate it for breakfast," Diana snorted.
"I'll have you know I have the heart of a poet," Marita retorted coolly. Diana looked contrite, and Marita, perhaps sensing the tension, added mischievously, "Or I did, until I ate that for breakfast too." I laughed uproariously then, less because of her words and more because for just a moment, I thought I had caught a glimpse of the woman beneath the facade, and I liked her very much.
"Okay, Marita's a mare," Edward said. "Diana's a she-wolf. What about Alex?" I sat back, interested.
"A rat," Diana suggested with a grin.
"There's nothing wrong with rats," Marita mused. "I had a pet one growing up."
"I'll bet Larissa loved that," Edward laughed.
"She didn't know."
"So was your rat like me?" I quizzed.
"Some. He had this scruffy hair on top." She yelped laughter when I splashed her.
"Not like your mane, *Mare*."
"Don't call me that."
"I'm sorry. I won't do it again. Mare."
She splashed me back, and Edward made a show of ducking. "All right, time out." We splashed him, instead.
There was a sound, a clearing of throat, and we turned. The Dark Man was standing in the doorway.
"Darling," Marita said, holding out a hand. Fleetingly, I wondered what she called him in private. He had to have a name, after all, even if it was just a working alias.
He nodded by way of greeting. "I won't stay, Marita. Connie asked me to let you to know that Maintenance have finished with your suite."
"Not another renovation, Rita?" Edward said reproachfully.
She ignored him. "Thank you for letting me know. Come and join us."
The Dark Man smiled - or at least, he did whatever it was that passed for a smile in his case. "Just for a moment." He took two glasses of wine from a passing waiter and brought them over. He handed one to Marita and sat on a chair next to the tub at her side. He looked comically overdressed. So did she, but she could pull it off.
"Thank you, darling," she said, sipping at her glass delicately. She sat back a little, shoulders back, body pushed forward. "I was just quizzing poor Alex here."
I felt my chest tighten, just a little. The sudden change in stance, the dropping of her innately reserved carriage was pronounced. There was something pretentious about her tone, and Marita wasn't a pretentious woman. I had the feeling that I had suddenly been dragged into a performance. Whatever I had been groomed (or played) for, it was going to happen now. I had been waiting for it, but I felt apprehension, too.
"Is that so?" the Dark Man enquired with interest.
"I don't know that I'd say that," I said in a mild tone. I'd play along with whatever charade they had planned, but I was going to make them work for it, too.
"What do you want, Alex?" Marita queried, ignoring my previous words completely. Unless I actively contradicted the script she had planned, she would probably continue to do so. The only way I could regain control of the situation, I thought, was to get up and walk away. Did I want to do that? I decided I didn't.
"I don't understand," I said with absolute honesty.
"You don't come here for the sex," she said calmly. "In fact, we five might be the only ones here who don't." The other three exchanged looks. "What do you want?"
If it had been just she and Diana, I might have told the truth; but I wasn't prepared to put myself at the mercy of the Dark Man or our spectators in that way; so I said mildly, crossing my arms, "You."
And at once I knew it was true.
The others watched with frank interest, and Marita nodded calmly, her gaze holding mine. "Hmm," she mused, nodding, as though thinking it over. She rose in a fluid movement, water falling from her form in a rush. She held out a hand and pulled me up. The water level was to my waist - a small mercy, because I was hard as hell. She walked around me, stopped behind me, and laid her mouth on my shoulder blade, sucking my flesh there for a long moment. She said in an autocratic voice, "Come with me."
I forced out a laugh. "I'm not one of your submissive-" I stopped short as understanding dawned. She came around me to face me again, watching me steadily. If it was an act - and I suspected even then that it was - then it was a damn good one.
"You can't have me, Alex," she said coolly. "But I can have you."
"What makes you so sure?" I demanded, horribly aware of the scrutiny of the others.
"Because you just told me." My brow creased as I recognised the truth of her words. "You can say no, of course," she pointed out. "Every submissive can do that."
"And if I say no?" I demanded.
"Then it all ends." She shook her head a little, tossing her damp hair aside. She was hypnotic. It was a fascination that went beyond the erotic - it was bigger than that, and I couldn't begin to make sense of it.
"It never began," I pointed out. I was vaguely aware of the others, watching, waiting to see which of us would win the showdown, but they were insignificant. My mind was filled with her, as though she surrounded me in a fog.
"It's your choice, Alex." She drew my name out in a hiss - the only crack in her veneer - and I breathed out, shakily. "Take it or leave it."
She had me, and she knew it. They all knew it.
But it was still my choice, damn it, and I was going to hold onto that. In any domination/submission relationship, the submissive has the power - I'm sure I read that somewhere. And I was going to do my best to hold onto mine.
I gave a single nod, and she turned her back to me; but not before I saw her look of satisfaction. "I accept," I said evenly, close to her ear, and I felt her flinch as my lips brushed her there.
That was when I knew I had the power, after all.
When we reached her room, the charade ended.
Marita opened the door, and I went in. She entered after me, closed the door, and turned the lock. Then a very strange thing happened. Her whole bearing underwent a radical transformation.
The cool Mona Lisa smile faded from her face, leaving solemnity. The unflappable ease with which she carried herself was replaced with irritation. She yanked her strappy stilettos off her feet, strode up the stairs of the dais and threw them in the bath. They made a wet slapping sound against the ceramic. She nodded towards the bed, where I saw clothes laid out. She said tersely, "Put something on."
I looked down at the jeans and shirt. "These are mine."
"The Dark Man got them from your room. Don't worry, nothing else was touched." She went into the ensuite and closed the door.
Frowning, I removed my towel from around my waist and, after a moment's deliberation, threw that in the bath, too. There was no underwear, so I pulled on my jeans. They chafed uncomfortably against my still-damp skin. I heard more wet slapping sounds from the ensuite. Presumably, Marita was stripping off the catwoman gear.
When she emerged, she was pleasingly rumpled - face nude of makeup, hair pulled back and caught in a band at the base of her neck, feet bare, body clad in track pants and a cotton shirt. Of all the Maritas I'd seen to date, I thought this one was probably the closest one to the real thing. She didn't have the clinical eroticism she'd had a few minutes earlier, but I liked her better now.
"Drink?" she said, moving to the bar, and I nodded. She poured me a Benedictine without being prompted, and I mentally raised an eyebrow. If she knew my tastes, that meant I had been studied and chosen. Definitely groomed, rather than played, then.
I kept my expression neutral when she handed it to me, and when she nodded to the overstuffed armchair at her bedside, I dropped into it without protest. She sat on the bed, not perched delicately on the side, but cross-legged like a child, leaned against the bedhead. There was a casual ease about her that I liked very much.
She watched me with open scrutiny for a few moments; said at last, "This room has been swept for listening devices just a few minutes ago. We can speak freely."
"That whole thing downstairs was a smokescreen?"
"Of course it was," she said briskly. "You don't really think I'd recruit a sub so publicly?" She drained her drink.
"Why?" I wondered. Now we were getting somewhere.
"We have a lot to talk about, you and I. We need time and space. Posing as lovers has intimate overtones that we need to avoid, but a dom and a sub? The kind of equity that conspirators require is anathema in that relationship. Spender would never suspect that."
"Okay, wait. Since when are we conspirators?" I demanded; but my voice was mild. We'd become conspirators the moment I'd walked in the room.
She didn't bother to dignify that with an answer. "Being my sub will do wonders for your working conditions, Alex. That homophobic shit Cardinale will think you're God's gift."
"You've had me investigated."
"I didn't need to. The Dark Man already knows everything there is to know."
"He doesn't know as much as you might think," I said grimly.
"On the contrary. He knows much more than firstname.lastname@example.org bargained for." Fuck. He knew about the emails. "What does that stand for, by the way?"
I broke into a sudden grin. "Spender is a second-rate asshole."
She laughed then, genuine sounds of hilarity, and I laughed too. I felt some of the tightly-wound apprehension of the last half-hour dissipate. It was a relief.
Finally, we grew quiet. "You know," I said, "I know enough to make his life very difficult." There was no threat in my voice - it was a statement of fact.
"Alex," she sighed, "do you know what the Dark Man did before he joined the group? He was a troubleshooter for an extremist anti-apartheid pressure group. He could kill you with one finger using fewer calories than it took you to breathe in my ear - and that was a nice touch, by the way," she added with a deferential nod. She went on, "You don't want to make an enemy of the Dark Man."
"No," I relented, "you're right. I don't."
"So what do you want? Why have you been asking about my mother?"
I settled into the chair, half-turning to see her better. "I want to know how one woman can attend two universities at the same time."
"That's quite a conundrum," she said coolly.
"You managed it quite successfully. Bet it was hard explaining concurrent degrees from different continents on your resume."
Her brow creased, forming a little arc over her nose. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I think you were Marita Ekaterinberg," I said pensively. "You and Diana have tension between you, but definitely friendship of long standing." I was showing my hand to some degree, but at this point, that seemed to come under the heading of acceptable risk. "That means someone else was the Harvard Marita."
She sat back and breathed out in a rush. She was silent for a long moment, expression solemn. She seemed to reach a decision; said, "No games, Alex. Tell me what you know." Her brow flickered. "It's important."
"To you personally? Or the group?"
"I don't know. Maybe both."
For a moment, I considered playing does-she-know-what-I-know, then decided against it. I didn't know enough to play it well, and if I played badly I'd play myself right out of the game. So I told her what I knew, pretty much straight down the line. I told her that another Marita had attended my alma mater. That this woman had studied eugenics. That I suspected it had been done with the blessing of Larissa and Michael - her mother and her fiance.
She was silent for a while, but then she said quietly, "The woman is my twin. Elena Ekaterina Covarrubias - at least, that was the name she was given at birth. I don't know if she's known by that name now."
"Your middle name and your alias."
"My mother isn't very imaginative." She passed a weary hand over her forehead. "Alex, I only learned of my sister's existence a couple of months ago."
"I don't understand."
"I believe she was surrendered to the alien race in 1973. I was two at the time. I was never told I had a twin growing up. I found out from some papers after Michael died." Her throat contracted visibly - whether from grief or the sting of betrayal, I wasn't sure.
"If she was surrendered, what's she doing here?"
Marita frowned. "I'm not sure, but it's not without precedent. Other hostages have come back. Spender and Teena bartered for Samantha Mulder, for instance."
"Diana told me. She said she lived here - and that she died a couple of years ago." I thought of Mulder, and I felt a fleeting pang of sympathy.
"That's right. She was a resistance double - working the hybrids for Spender and Strughold, and reporting back to us. Strughold has been holding out on us - they're a lot closer to a hybrid than he'd had us believe. Samantha and Diana found out. I guess it pushed her over the edge. She committed suicide."
"Damn shame. I hear she was quite an asset."
"She was. Decent woman, too, according to Diana." She shrugged. "Anyway, if Samantha came back, there's no reason to think the same couldn't be true of Elena - particularly in light of your information. The Dark Man thinks - and I'm inclined to agree with this - that she's working on something for the resistance faction. My mother, Maxwell, and Diana all know about it, but they aren't talking."
"And you want to find her."
She suddenly looked very vulnerable. "She's my sister."
I didn't really know what to say to that, so I said, not unkindly, "There's someone I should let you meet sometime."
"Fox Mulder?" Her earlier, brisk manner returned as quickly as it had gone. "I gather you and he are not on the best of terms these days."
"Touche." I stretched out in my chair. "So why should I help you?"
"Because whatever my sister is doing, you can probably use it to get further in. That's what you want, isn't it?" Her eyes glittered with genuine curiosity - she was playing ball, but she also seemed to truly want to know.
I spread my hands expansively. "I'm just your run of the mill assassin, trying to stay alive."
"Bullshit. If that were true, you'd have turned the Dark Man in to Spender long ago."
There's something very appealing about someone who won't let you get away with anything. I grinned at her with real amusement. "All right," I said with a nod of concession. "Say I want in. Say I dig my way into whatever Elena's doing. How do I know I'm not going to get myself killed? There's knowing enough, and knowing too much. If they're keeping it even from you-" I didn't finish.
She sighed, weariness apparent in the slight droop of her shoulders. "Don't be fooled by my position, Alex. I'm, shall we say, the crown princess. Privileged, but sheltered. I'm not much further in the loop than you are," she admitted, "but I don't mean to stay that way." Her gaze held mine, her expression solemn. "I think we could help each other."
I thought about it. Whichever way I looked at it, she was right. If I said no, I would stay where I was now. That was tantamount to accepting the status quo - and that was something I wasn't prepared to do. If I did that, I may as well have gone home to Daugavpils months ago, with far less blood on my hands. "All right," I said at last. "So what's the game plan?"
"The only person we can think of who might know anything - besides the people involved - is Samantha Mulder. She kept journals all her life. She lived here in 1983, when I was bundled off to Oxford and you say Elena went to Harvard. If we can find those diaries-"
I nodded in understanding. "I presume you've checked her suite?"
"I've stripped the rooms pretty thoroughly. I don't think they're there, but I'll check again."
"I'll help with that. Do we have any other leads?"
"I didn't before tonight. Now, though, it seems to me that Elena's time at Harvard might be another angle. Might be worth a trip to Boston - see if we can track her movements from there."
"Good thinking. Can you act?"
Sudden flash of a smile. "Did you see me downstairs?"
I laughed. "Good point."
"You're thinking I could play her?" I nodded. "I don't know how she speaks, her mannerisms - I don't know." She shrugged. "Maybe."
"Then Harvard might be your department. I'll do some orientation with you before you go. I suspect it's quite different to Oxford."
"Okay," she said, rising. She took my glass from me, and her fingers brushed mine. It felt good, and it occurred to me that I hadn't been touched for a long time. Too long. "Any other questions?"
"Yeah," I said, dismissing these thoughts. "Codes of conduct. Limits. You're the top here. I'm going to be following your cues."
She looked at me blankly for a moment, but then her expression cleared. "You mean for downstairs?"
She poured us both another drink, and I got to my feet and followed her to the bar. "Well, in the general areas, we just act normally. You should be a little deferential - open doors, let me walk ahead of you, that sort of thing - but no extremes. You will be just a shade over-attentive, and I'll be just a shade detached." She held out my drink.
I took it, leaning against the bar. "What about the minimalist zones?"
"In the minimalist zones, I own you. If I tell you to come, you come. If I tell you to rub my feet, you rub my feet. If I tell you to get on your knees-" she let the words hang in the air.
"I get the idea."
She favoured me with a smile. "I like you, Alex," she said, without a shred of artifice, and I smiled too. "We get along fine, and I imagine we'll continue to do so, the more time we spend together. For that very reason, it's important that our roles be exaggerated. There will be times when I will be detached to the point of boredom. Don't take it personally. For this to work, it has to be pure play for you, pure power for me. Any hint of genuine familiarity and our cover is gone."
"That's not how you behave with Edward," I pointed out. I had doubted the truth of her apparent affair with Diana's husband for a while.
"I've known Edward since I was a child. That sort of dynamic would have seemed contrived. Besides, I wasn't covering up a connection with him - I was just shoring up my position. He's a prop, nothing more."
"As is your tension with Diana."
Marita looked away. "No, that's real," she admitted, "but it stems from her refusal to tell me about my sister. We're friends, as you know, but we argue about that. A lot." She gave a short, sharp laugh. "Like most people in my life, she believes she's protecting me."
I thought on this. "Does she know that's what you want me for? To help find your sister?"
"No. She believes I'm merely putting together an informant base, under the guidance of the Dark Man."
"So we're hiding in plain sight. On all fronts." I wondered whether I minded deceiving Diana, then decided I did not. Not for this.
"Basically." She drained her drink. "As for limits - I won't be asking you to do anything overtly sexual. The sexuality of our roles will be implied rather than explicit. That's fairly usual in D&S, anyway."
"So I've heard."
She came around the bar to face me. "How's your workload with Spender at the moment? Do you have much freedom of movement?"
"I'm on call. As long as I stay within a couple of hours of DC, I can do what I like."
"Good. I'm fairly flexible myself at the moment - the man I'm an aide to at the UN is on a tour of duty in Chechnya. I'm up for a promotion in a few months' time, but for now..." she trailed off. "Can I trouble you to help me search Samantha's rooms over the next week or so?"
I nodded. "Sure. Anything else?"
"Not right now. You want to call it a night?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm at saturation point."
"Okay." She walked towards the door, and I followed. "Oh, what you called me downstairs - Mare - don't call me that. I can be informal with you, but you should be formal with me."
She turned the lock on the door. "I was thinking of calling you Alexi. Diminutives for men can be a power trip, you know? It might be effective-" she turned back to face me, and then she stopped short. "Alex?" she said. "What is it?"
"Nothing," I said, working to keep my expression neutral. She stared at me, clearly unbelieving, and after a long moment, I said reluctantly, "No-one's called me that since my mother died."
The clinical demeanour vanished. Her face flooded with empathy. She took my arm. "Alex, I'm sorry. I had no idea. I don't need to call you that."
I shook my head, but I didn't brush her hand away. "No, it's okay, Marita. You just threw me for a moment. Really, you can call me that if you think it helps."
"I only meant - well, pet names are like ownership, aren't they? But it isn't important." She let go of my arm. Ridiculously, I wished she hadn't.
"Marita, I said you can do it if it helps. It's up to you." I opened the door. "Night."
She gave a little smile. "Night."
I was still grinning like an idiot when she shut the door behind me.
I wiped my forehead. "All I know now that I didn't know before you left is that Samantha had unusually large feet."
Marita laughed. "Take a breather. I got takeout."
"Thanks." I took the brown paper sack she offered, and sat down on the lounge. She shrugged out of her jacket and slung it onto the table, then took her place at my side.
"So why isn't the Dark Man helping us with this?" I asked between mouthfuls of gyoza.
"He and Samantha were close. It's difficult for him." She set down her sack and chopsticks on the coffee table and stretched out a little, black lace stretching over her curves in a way that was agreeable to the eye.
I gave a wry laugh. "Ah, sex. Every man's downfall," I said, thinking of Mulder - not so much with pain as mild regret. That ache was easing.
"I don't think they were lovers, but I know what you mean."
I backpedalled. "Oh, I didn't really mean that quite the way it sounded."
She turned to look at me, openly amused. "Alex, I'd hardly expect you to be opposed to sex."
"I didn't mean that, either. It's just got to be the right person."
"You're a closet romantic," she accused. There was laughter in her voice.
"No, just realistic. It's the way we're made. We people weren't meant to be alone, Marita." I paused to eat. "Don't you feel that? I mean, six months ago you were ready to get married."
She shrugged. "Michael and I weren't really like that. What you're talking about. It was simpler than that. He was...benign."
I stared at her in disbelief. "Benign?" I echoed. "You were prepared to marry benign?"
"I was very young," she said mildly. "And it really isn't any of your business."
"You're right, it isn't. I'm sorry."
She shrugged. "S'okay."
I gathered up her trash and mine, and took it to the bin behind the mini-bar. I changed the subject. "You know, Marita, we don't know what we're getting into here. Maybe you should look into learning how to protect yourself. Can you shoot?"
She nodded. "The Dark Man taught me."
"Know how to bug sweep?"
"The tech side of things won't be a problem. It's the hands-on stuff I need help with." I held up a bottle of juice and a glass in silent query, and she nodded. She leaned back on the lounge and closed her eyes.
I told her about the hand-to-hand training Diana had suggested. "It's private," I said. "You could do it with me."
She shrugged. "Why not?"
I came around the bar and walked back towards her. Her lace top had ridden up a little, baring just a sliver of flesh along her waistline, and I felt a heady wave of heat wash over me. I breathed out in a rush, set her glass on the coffee table, and sat away from her. My life was complicated enough as it was. No point in making it more so for the sake of a quick thrill.
Fortunately, she was oblivious to my discomfort. "Thank you," she said, opening her eyes and sitting forward. Flesh covered again. I gave a sigh of relief. I drank from my glass gratefully, looking straight ahead, determined not to look at her until the worst of my arousal had subsided.
When, finally, it had, I turned to look at her, and saw that she was watching me with a thoughtful expression on her face. "What is it?" I wondered.
"Nothing," she said, blinking. "Just thinking."
"Oh," I said. "Okay."
She rose, still looking at me with that watchful expression. "Let's get back to work." She held out a hand, and I took it, letting her pull me up.
The door opened. "Marita?"
We both turned, and I pulled my hand guiltily away from hers, as though our visitor, seeing it, might glean my rather-less-than-pure thoughts. It was, of course, the Dark Man, rather than a janitor or a security guard - proof positive that God is just as much a fan of B-grade drama as the rest of us.
"What is it?" Marita wondered, stepping between my body and the coffee table to get to him. She pressed against me in the process. Jesus, it just got better and better.
He glanced at me, then addressed her. "Edward's been recalled to Tunisia."
"He was recalled nearly a fortnight ago," she said. "I thought he was leaving Thursday."
The Dark Man shook his head. "No - he's been recalled now. Right now. They sent a charter for him."
Marita and I exchanged looks. "What's going on?" I demanded.
"I don't know, but I intend to find out. Can you two handle things here for a week or two?"
She nodded. "We'll be fine. Good luck."
The Dark Man nodded, turned, and opened the door. He paused. "Marita?"
He glanced from her to me, then back again. "Be careful while I'm gone."
Her shoulders straightened, just a fraction. She said ingeniously, "Absolutely."
The door snicked shut behind him, and I said, my voice tinged with affront, "He *didn't* mean-"
She turned and pressed two fingers to my lips. "Of course he did." She was smiling.
We burst out laughing.
The voice came thin and high, distorted through the mist. I skidded to a stop and turned, peering through the thick white fog. I made out first a slender shadow, then black clothes and blonde hair. Marita.
I glided over. "What are you doing here?"
"Diana said I might find you here. I didn't know you skated."
"I wouldn't be much of a Russian if I didn't, would I?" I stepped off the ice, treading over the rubber matting to the stands, and sat. I started to unlace my boots. "What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to let you know Karen can fit us in week mornings at eight, if that suits you."
I eased my boots off my feet, first one, then the other, and flexed my ankles a little. "Sure."
"It's not too early for you?"
"I'll cope. Pass my shoes?"
She complied. "Okay. I'll let her know."
"Have you heard from the Dark Man?"
Marita shook her head. "Not yet. Diana hasn't heard much, either - she says there's talk of an unidentified UFO, but nothing else."
"What do you mean, an unidentified UFO?" I wiped my skates free of ice and packed them into my bag.
"I mean one we don't recognise. One that isn't authorised by us, or apparently by the Colonists either."
I looked up at her in query. "I don't understand."
"Neither do I." She shivered. I suddenly realised she was wearing only a thin top and trousers.
"Jesus, Marita," I said, standing, shrugging off my jacket. I reached around her and put it over her, and she slid her arms into it without protest, smiling up at me with real warmth. I ran my palm under her hair, over the back of her neck, and gently tugged her hair free of the collar. I straightened the collar at her neck and ran my hands down the lapels. My gaze lit on hers.
We stayed that way for a long moment, gazes held on one another. Her smile faded, and she suddenly looked very unsure. She slipped a hand up between us, resting her fingertips on my jaw. The only sound was that of long, deep breaths. Bursts of white air floated up between us, gathering and scattering in the space of moments.
Her features softened, and for a moment I thought she was going to kiss me; but instead, she whispered, "Alexi, I should go." She touched my lip with her fingers, dragging them over my flesh there, and somewhere within myself, I felt something primal stir. I was hard, of course, but it was more than that. Some part of me called to her, and I felt a stunning sense of loss when she pulled away.
I stood there, shell-shocked for a long moment, watching as she hurried off. Her shoulders were hunched, and she hugged herself, pulling my jacket around her, leaning her cheek into the lapel. I was still watching when she reached the door and turned to look at me, but when she saw me looking at her, she looked away.
Unsettled, I turned and picked up my bag. I went to my locker and opened it. I bundled the bag into the locker and tried to fight off the real grief that rose in my chest. You're an idiot, Alex, I told myself; she just left the goddamn rink, it's not like she died or anything. And then I heard her call me Alexi again, and the loss washed over me all over again, and I leaned my head against the cold metal door in frustration at my own stupidity. I stayed there for long minutes, my consciousness a maelstrom of Marita and Elena and Mulder and Samantha and my mother and...well, everything. I felt very tired.
The idea hit me all at once, so hard and fast through my consciousness that my stupid angst evaporated, forgotten. My eyes flew open, and I pushed back from the locker with a start. I turned and headed for the door in a run.
I had to see Marita.
She must have run off.
She was at the house before I caught up with her. "Marita," I called, running up the staircase behind her. She turned to look at me, still holding my jacket around her despite the temperate conditions; but her usual calm was restored.
"What is it?" she said, one hand resting delicately on the hand-carved banister.
I caught up with her, stopping at her side to catch my breath. "Back there, at the rink-"
She cut me off. "I don't want to talk about it." She started off towards her suite.
We rounded the corner. "No, it isn't that. I had an idea-"
"You fucking whore!"
The shouted epithet made us both pause. A stream of obscenities followed, punctuated by sobs. Female sobs.
We both turned in the direction of the suite on our left. I shot a look at Marita. She was already fumbling with her keys - looking for a master, I supposed. She rapped on the door. "Who's in there?"
The door opened after a long moment - just a fraction. A middle-aged man appeared, his robe loosely belted at the waist. A heavy gold chain lay nestled in the rather scraggy-looking thatch of graying hair on his chest. He peered out at us. "Sorry. We'll keep it down." His words were conciliatory; his expression was anything but.
"Sorry doesn't cut it, I'm afraid, Senator," Marita said calmly. "Who do you have with you?" She attempted to peer over his shoulder, but he pulled the door to bar her visibility.
"Nobody. Nobody!" I opened my mouth to speak, then decided against it. This was Marita's fight.
"You have a lady with you, Senator," she said severely. "That's hardly nobody. Who's there?" she called, raising her voice a little.
"It's - it's me, Miss Covarrubias. Chanel."
"Come out, please, Chanel. I need you downstairs."
"I haven't finished with her," the man said angrily.
"As a matter of fact, you have," Marita said. "You've finished here altogether. You're barred. Indefinitely."
Now he really did look conciliatory. "Now, surely we can negotiate," he said with a winning smile. But looking at Marita, I thought it was too little, too late.
"There's nothing to negotiate, Senator," she replied, smiling too. "Nobody calls my ladies whores."
"Oh, come on, Marita," he smiled, still sure he could win her over. "It won't happen again."
"No, it won't," she smiled back. "Come along, Chanel."
The girl came past the man, a little nervously. She was holding her ripped negligee together with her hand, arm crossed over her body. He made no move to let her pass, but Marita glared at him, and he moved just a little. The girl had to brush up against him to get through, and she flinched. Marita opened her phone. "Connie? Send security to room 13 on the fourth floor, please. Senator Wells is to be escorted from the building."
Satisfied that the man would be no more trouble, I started to manoeuver the bedraggled Chanel towards the stairs, then stopped, turning to look at Marita for a long moment. We couldn't bring the girl through the public stairway like that. "My room," she said, folding the flip.
"Come on, Chanel," I said, turning and motioning for her to do the same.
"Lynette," she corrected miserably. "It's really Lynette." I nodded and guided her down the hall. Marita went ahead of us and opened the door. She motioned for us to enter, came in herself, then closed the door behind us.
The girl sat down on the bed and cried steadily for quarter of an hour.
While we waited for her to cry herself out, we busied ourselves. I poured us all some brandy. Marita went to her wardrobe and got out a floral dress with a Laura Ashley tag on it. Maybe four hundred dollars' worth, I thought; but she didn't seem to give that much thought. A set of underwear from a shopping bag, still with the price tags, clearly just purchased for herself. French lace, I supposed. Another two hundred. She laid them out on the bed near the girl and settled back on the armchair. Since the only remaining chairs were a pair of iron stools on the dais, I settled for sitting on the arm of the chair at Marita's side. I handed her her drink, and she took it, looking up at me, resting a hand on my thigh. "Thank you," she whispered.
It was another five minutes before the girl was calm, and in that time, I was very aware of the two women. The impersonal appeal of the girl, pretty and vulnerable and oh, so sweet; and side-by-side with that, the other, the woman silhouetted in the warm light of the room. The adolescent attraction of weakness and the adult attraction of strength. And as I looked down at Marita, her cheek softly illuminated, I couldn't help wondering what it would be like to touch her.
With a slowing progression of sniffles, the girl grew still. I nodded to her drink on the bedside table, and she drank from it gratefully. "Thanks."
"You okay, Lynette?" Marita said gently.
"Yeah," she sniffled. "He'd just had too much to drink."
"Why did you go in with him if he was drunk?" she asked, not unkindly.
"Oh, he wasn't drunk. I mean he wasn't aggressive. He'd just had enough to drink that, you know." She took a long sip of her drink.
Clearly, that was the end of the sentence, and Marita looked bewildered. "He couldn't sustain an erection," I supplied clinically. Marita's expression cleared, and I wondered why she didn't know that. Lynette nodded, and I hazarded, "And he blamed you."
"Most of them do," she said morosely. I nodded in sympathy. I'd seen it happen.
"You do know that you have the right to refuse to see any man, don't you?" Marita said. She spoke softly, as though to an injured child.
Lynette shrugged. "I know about the policy, but it doesn't work like that. We lose shifts if we refuse men."
"Is that right," Marita said grimly. I couldn't help wishing I could be a fly on the wall at her next meeting with Connie Francis.
Lynette nodded. "Lisa - that's the one they call Bardot - she refused a guy last week. He stank like hell. Miss Francis said she'd have her little girl's place at onsite daycare revoked if she didn't get in there."
I breathed out heavily. "Jesus, that's low."
"It certainly is," Marita said in a tight little voice. I shot her a look. Part of me was angry at the goddamn privilege of her - how could she not know that these women were weak, and that that weakness was held over them? - but a bigger part felt pity. She had inherited this awful place with very little idea of what she was getting into, and she was doing the best she could. She could have sent for the girl's clothes, but she had given her six hundred dollars worth of her own, instead. I knew women with far more who would have given far less.
We sat there in silence for a while, but finally, I rose, taking all our glasses back to the bar. "Lynette," I said, "there's a bathroom through that door there that you can use."
"Thank you - both of you," she sniffled, picking up the clothes. She padded across the room like a bedraggled kitten, went in, and shut the door behind her.
Marita was watching me with a strange expression, as though she'd learned something new about me - something she liked. I held her gaze for a long moment, wondering what was on her mind, but then I drew myself up and sighed. "I should go," I said with regret. "She's probably had enough men in her personal space for one day."
"Okay." She got up and crossed the room to meet me. She caught my hand. "Will you be around today?"
I nodded. "I could meet you in the restaurant when you finish up here."
She gave a wan smile. "I'd like that." She drew me close and kissed my cheek. "Thank you," she said, lingering there, warm breaths drifting across my skin.
"For what?" I asked, pleasantly surprised.
She shrugged. "For letting me handle that guy. For being kind to that girl. I don't know. Just...thank you."
I squeezed her hand, still entwined with mine. "Okay."
"See you downstairs."
I made my way down to the restaurant and ordered a coffee. I sat there reflectively for a while, trying to get my thoughts into some kind of order. And again and again, they coalesced around Marita.
If this were a dimestore novel, I suppose I would have struggled with my growing attraction to her at this point; but it wasn't really like that. I didn't feel stricken or apprehensive. I felt peaceful - almost complacent. I wanted her; I had wanted her all along. The fascination that teased the outer fringes of my consciousness seemed like the most natural thing in the world. In that moment, if someone had predicted that she would become my wife, I would have nodded with serene agreement: "Of course. Of course she will." No doubt in my mind whatsoever.
That would come later.
I looked up at her. "Hey," I said by way of greeting. "Take a seat." I rose, then sat again as she joined me. She sat, not opposite me, but at right angles to me, at the closest chair. She looked troubled.
"Lynette okay?" I asked, at last. It seemed as good an opening as any.
She shrugged. "She'll be okay. I'll be glad when she goes, though."
"Goes?" I echoed.
"She's only got a few months left 'til she finishes med school. Just as well - she's not cut out for this, Alex. Some women turn hard and some women get out, and she needs to get out."
I nodded slowly. Then, suspicions growing, I said with feigned casualness, "I suppose you're going to fire Connie Francis?"
"My authority doesn't extend that far, I'm afraid," she said grimly. "But she's been cautioned."
"I thought you owned the place," I said mildly.
"Legally. But there are, shall we say, other stakeholders."
She shot me a look. "That's right." The lines of her jaw were set hard with distaste.
"You hate it as much as I do," I said in wonder.
She gave a tight little smile. "Probably more."
I reached for her, my hand finding hers on the table impulsively. "Mare," I said gently; and then I realised what I was doing, and I pulled away abruptly. "I mean, Marita - I'm sorry -"
She shook her head. "No, Alexi, it's-" she broke off. She seemed to recognise what she was doing then, that she was accepting an overture; and her expression turned thoughtful. She watched me, a slight furrow in her brow, before she went on hesitantly, "You can call me that. If you want."
"I'd like that," I said mildly; but I had to smile. Just had to. Looking at her and seeing that slight softening around her eyes, that softness that was for me, I couldn't do anything else. And the corners of her lips turned up, too - just a little. It was a very comfortable moment.
"Mare?" I said at last. I liked how the name sounded; how it felt, passing between my lips. It was equal parts address and caress.
"Why didn't you know what she meant? About the drinking?"
She shrugged. "Well, you know, Michael wasn't much of a drinker. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not much of a madam, either. The pragmatics are Connie's department - a situation I mean to remedy."
She was preoccupied with her anger at Connie - so much so that she seemed oblivious to what she revealed. I stared at her. "Michael's the only man you've been with," I said, feeling shock and recognition in equal measure.
A look of affront flitted across her features, and for a moment I thought I'd made a mistake in saying so. But then, suddenly, her expression cleared. Her jaw firm, her voice tinged with an undertone of pride, she said with heartbreaking simplicity, "Yes."
I felt a flush of affection. Quite aside from any fascination, any desire I felt for her, in that moment I discovered that I genuinely liked her. It wasn't just her unexpected inexperience or any lingering innocence I might have imagined she possessed as a consequence. In that moment, without a trace of artifice, she revealed herself as someone who had nothing to prove. There are so many moments down the years that I have fallen in love with her, again and again; but if pressed to identify the first, that would be the one. Right then, I loved her, and had the waiter not interrupted us to clear the table, I might very well have done something stupid like telling her so.
"So what did you come after me for, anyway?" she asked as the waiter moved on. "You said you had an idea."
I stared at her, aghast at the extent of my own distraction. "God, I forgot all about it with the Lynette thing." She watched me, her brow furrowed in query. "What if we've been on the wrong track all along? What if Samantha's diaries aren't in the house?"
"You mean in storage? A safe somewhere?" she queried.
"In a manner of speaking," I said, mentally riffling through fragments of information in my mind. "Michael built the ice arena for Samantha. Marita, they have lockers at the ice arena."
Her eyes widened, and she rose, taking me by the hand.
"Lorena? I need the locker master keys."
A middle-aged woman peered down at us over the top of a pair of ample breasts. "Sure," she said agreeably, coming down the steps and leading us into the office. She went to the desk and rummaged in a drawer. "I see you found your friend okay," she said, nodding to me.
"Yes," Mare said absently, taking the keys the older woman held out. "We - oh, the club room lockers, not the day hires."
"Oh, okay," Lorena replied, rummaging again. "Is everything okay?"
"There's been a product recall on the lock mechanism. Only some serial numbers were affected. We have to check each one."
"We've had them eight years. They seem fine."
"Yeah, I know," she said, feigning weariness. "But if we don't comply with the recall and we have a theft, our insurance won't cover it. A locker with two pairs of custom skates could cost thousands."
"I suppose. Do you want me to do it?"
Mare waved a hand. "No, I'm going in there anyway." She held out her hand expectantly, and the woman handed the keys over without protest.
"That was easy," I commented after we had left her. We walked side-by-side along the boards.
"House employees are just regular people. The only ones with any idea what they're dealing with, besides security and the defense trainers, are the courtesans."
"What the hell do they think this is?" I wondered.
"Country club for the elite and influential. We make a big show of warning them about privacy and the paparazzi. The fact that we have a few politicians around helps our cause considerably."
"Fair enough." We slipped past the Zamboni. "Have you ever skated?"
"I did a bit of ice racing at Oxford - Magdalen College had these recreational group outings. Strictly amateur, stand on the pond and hope the ice doesn't give way. Diana couldn't bear to watch. Said she had visions of fishing me out."
I laughed. "That sounds like Diana." We reached the clubroom, and I stopped, waiting. She opened the door and nodded for me to enter ahead of her. I did so, and she followed, locking the door behind us.
I looked around, taking in the noticeboards and the test application forms and the abandoned skate guards and all the usual paraphernalia. I inhaled the faint scent of mildew and feet. It was mildly unpleasant, but also familiar; and I felt sudden nostalgia. It was a strains-of-childhood moment.
Mare was leaned against the wall, her arms crossed, watching me with open amusement.
"What?" I asked mildly.
She shook her head, smiling. "Nothing. I can just see you here - or somewhere like here. Struggling with compulsory figures or something. What were you, twelve?"
"Fourteen. And I like figures. They still the mind. Good discipline."
"Rubbish. No-one likes figures."
"What would you know?" I demanded disdainfully. "You were an ice racer. Where's the skill in that?" I fought the turning up at the corners of my mouth, but it happened anyway.
"Bastard," she said with high humour. "Come on, let's check these lockers."
I watched as she used the master keys to unlock the first bank of lockers. I experienced a moment of doubt. "Even if she had a locker, Marita - what's to say it's still here? Samantha's been dead more than two years."
She shrugged uneasily, but she shook her head. "Michael and the Dark Man kept her rooms like a shrine. I'm betting they didn't send a memo down here to empty her locker."
"That's true," I conceded with reluctant hope. What had made perfect sense earlier in the day now seemed like a long shot, but it was the best idea either of us had come up with to date. I opened the top left locker, while Mare attended to the top right. "Brad Pitt."
Marita peered at the poster pinned to the inside of the door of hers. "Wilson Phillips. Who the hell's that?"
I closed my locker. "I've heard the name on the radio. She's pretty recent."
"After Samantha's time, then," she mused, moving on, and at the next locker, a skin mag tumbled out, landing neatly at her feet. She picked it up with apparent amusement. "I'm betting this one's a guy."
I shrugged. "Women read porn too. Especially women with psychosexual dysfunction," I added, remembering that Samantha had been a prostitute.
"True," she conceded, flipping through. She held it up, open at a centerfold of two men. "Probably more up your alley than hers, though." She grinned and returned it to its place.
I took it with good grace, saying wryly, "I prefer the real thing, myself," and passed on to the next locker. "Anything?"
"Random urine drug report on a twenty year old male. Must be competing."
"You gotta wonder with the quad jumps now," I mused, moving on. "When I was skating they said it couldn't be done."
"Well, some scientist proved the four-minute mile was a mathematical impossibility once, too. People grow." She opened another locker. "Nice custom boots," she mused. "Wilson New Gold Seal. More money than sense."
I frowned. "Let me see that." I went over to her, looking in as she stepped aside. I pulled out one of the skates for a closer look. "They stopped making these blades in the mid-eighties. I remember because I was really pissed about it. Look at the position of the toe pick-" I broke off at her blank expression. "Forget it, it doesn't matter. What matters is, these are old blades. They could belong to someone who started skating in 1979."
"These lockers have only been here since-" she counted back on her fingers "- 1986."
"There'd have been other lockers before that, or she might have kept them in her room. The point is, the dates fit." I handed her the skate and got out its mate. I reached further back into the locker and felt a large, bulky object with irregular edges. I drew it out impatiently. Marita took it from me before I could identify it. I brushed the dust from my hands and looked down at the thing in her hands.
"Diaries," she said with awe. She was picking at rubber bands that bound a dozen or so notebooks of varying size. "Is anything else in there? We still don't really know it's her."
"I imagine the diaries would clarify that question," I said thoughtfully, still groping around in the locker. The metal door fell in a way that blocked the glow of the electric light; I was working blind. "Sharpening stone," I guessed by feel, "skate hook...what's this?" I ran my fingers over the towel lining the bottom of the locker. There was a slight irregularity at the back, and I lifted the towel and drew out a small pile of photographs. I flipped through them. "It's her," I said at last.
"Let me see," Mare said anxiously, putting the diaries down on the bench. I handed the snapshots over in silence. I waited.
"It's Samantha," she said, after long, long moments. "And me."
"And Elena," I corrected.
"Yes," she whispered, blinking back sudden tears. "And Elena." Then, with compassion, "They were lovers."
"You don't know that," I countered; but my voice was mild, because I knew she was right.
"Look at the way they're holding each other. That's not best girlfriends. It's...intimate."
"Yes - I suppose it is."
"They look happy." I thought I heard a trace of envy in her voice.
"Yes, they do."
"That means she's a Consortium widow too. They do say twins' lives mirror each other." She sounded bitter.
She looked up at me suddenly, breaking into a smile. "You know what? I'm missing the point. She's here. She's alive, and she's here." She hugged me impulsively, drew back, and kissed me lightly on the mouth.
She drew back, but we both stopped just an inch or two apart; and I could feel her warm breath on me. She suddenly looked frightened. She said in a low, imploring voice, "Oh, Alex, please don't."
I didn't, but almost in the same breath, she did; leaning in diffidently and gently taking my lips between hers. I kissed her in turn, sliding my hands up to her neck, holding her face gently between them, suddenly filled with reverence. And then I felt her hands on my arms, not pushing them away, but holding me to her.
Encouraged, I teased her lips, going slow with her until she opened for me, drawing me in, claiming me. Her eyes were gleaming, tinged dark with longing; and they were open, fixed on mine. I liked that. I didn't want her lost in blind sensation. I wanted her lost in me. For long, vibrant moments, it seemed that she was; but at last, she pulled away, and broke free of my arms. She moved a little way away, her expression nervous...hunted.
Frowning a little, I went to her, stood at her side; but did not attempt to touch. Gently, I said, "Mare, did you...did you not want me to do that? Because I thought you did." Never mind that I knew perfectly well she did, never mind that I could feel her wanting coming off her in waves, because I could also sense her fear. There was something very fragile about her just then, and I didn't want to scare her off.
"No, I did," she admitted at last. She looked at me; that was a good sign. She said hesitantly, "I just...I'm afraid."
"Of me?" I said quietly, unbelievingly.
That seemed to derail her. "No," she said vaguely. Then, with more resolve, "No, not of you."
She said with utter lack of guile, "I don't know."
We stood there watching each other for a long moment; but at last, I nodded. "Okay," I sighed. "However you want it, that's how we'll play it, Mare."
She laughed sourly at that. "Nothing in my life is how I want it," she said with bitterness.
"This is," I insisted, taking her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes. I repeated for emphasis, "This is."
She watched me, and at last, nodding, she came to me; and she let me hold her in my arms.
We stood there holding one another for a long time.
"'I miss the Dark Man.
"'I wish he was here, and I wish I could talk to him about Elena. Michael was very clear about the need for secrecy, but I wish he'd let me tell the Dark Man. I feel very unsure of my ground without his guidance. Michael means well, but his attachment to Larissa Covarrubias clouds his judgement sometimes.' That was in May 1984." I turned to Marita, who lay at my side. "I wonder why he didn't want the Dark Man to know about Elena?"
"I've given up wondering why Michael did anything," she said morosely, still staring at the ceiling. She kicked off her shoes, moving a little on the bed to do so. It was the first time she'd moved since we'd returned to her suite with our bounty. She'd sat on the bed and then sank back, still wrapped in my too-big jacket like a child. But her peaceful stance belied her cloudy gaze. Mare was troubled.
"That's understandable," I said thoughtfully. Actually, I had wondered why she hadn't shown any bitterness towards Michael sooner. The man had loved her and sheltered her, that's true; but he had also deceived her profoundly. Still, I supposed, death was the great redeemer.
Mare said abruptly, "Go back to where she and Elena met." She rolled onto her side and took her drink from the nightstand where I had set it down an hour earlier. She looked at me over the top of her glass, and I saw that the cloudiness was gone from her eyes, replaced with a purposeful gleam. Whatever shocked paralysis had gripped her, it was gone now, and she was ready to get down to business. I was relieved.
"Okay." I started flipping pages. "That's the red notebook." I set the one I was holding down and took the one she offered. "Here it is. 'Michael came to see me tonight. Thank God he called ahead, or he'd have found me with Matheson.'"
"Jeez, that scum gets around," Mare said irritably. "How old is Samantha here?"
"Nineteen, I think."
"Thank God for small mercies. Go on."
"'Matheson had some interesting information about the cloning project, by the way, but I daren't write it here. It's been recorded safely and given to the Dark Man in the usual manner. He asked where I got it, and I said he didn't want to know. He looked upset. I have a horrid feeling he knows what I do here. I never wanted him, of all people, to know that.'" Mare's cheek twitched a little. She swallowed hard. Frowning, I continued, "'Michael had a girl with him. Twelve or thirteen - she wasn't precisely sure herself. Apparently he found her at a UFO crash site. She wouldn't tell me her name, but Michael says it's Elena.'"
"She stowed away," Mare mused. "Or they were taking her somewhere. Michael gets the call, and because she looks like me, he knows who she must be. That all hangs together. He either told the group she died, or never said there was a survivor at all."
I checked the dates. "This could be Groom Lake," I said thoughtfully. She looked at me, askance. I elaborated, "We studied it in political ethics. The Air Force seized close to 100,000 acres of land without due process. There was a congressional enquiry into the matter in 1984. The Air Force guy said, basically, that no, they didn't have any legal right to do it, but the decision had been made at a much higher level. He demanded, and got, a closed session before he would explain further. No-one outside that hearing knows what the justification was for the seizure, or why it was ordered at such a high level."
"Sounds like a UFO crash," Mare agreed. "So Michael tells Mother that he's found her other daughter. She wants to get to know her, and she doesn't want anyone to find out. Or maybe she's worried I'll be mistaken for Elena - by the Colonists, or by Spender or someone. Maybe all of the above."
I turned onto my side to look at her. "So she pushes you to accept the Oxford offer and says she'll take care of the paperwork refusing your Harvard offer. Then she sends Elena to Harvard as you."
"In a science program," Mare said grimly. "She was grooming her to go into the work - which she probably did. But where?"
"Spender's camp - as a resistance double, probably. That was what Samantha was doing, after all. She studied cloning and eugenics - she was preparing to go into hybrid research, but Michael and your mother had her reporting back."
She stared at me, brow furrowed, rising up on one elbow. "But that would mean half the Consortium knew she was recovered. Why would they keep it from me?"
I shrugged. "Maybe your mom thought you'd be angry about the lies. Maybe she thought it was best left alone."
Mare thought on this for a moment, her expression dubious, but then she shook her head. "No. My mother and I aren't on those terms. There must be something else." She knelt up and leaned over me to get to her drink, her hand on my hip, seemingly oblivious to my proximity. "Maybe the Colonists don't know she was recovered - maybe that's the reason for the secrecy, rather than anything to do with me."
"What were you told when you were shipped off to England?"
She pulled away and settled back down into the bed, drink in hand. "That my mother had done something that put her in danger. That it was important for me to stay hidden - hence the alias. But don't ask me why she didn't keep me as me and give Elena the alias - surely that would make more sense."
I shrugged. "Maybe she thought that the Colonists would suspect the switch. Maybe she thought sending you away was safer than keeping you there." She held out her empty glass, and I took it from her and put it on the floor beside the bed.
"That would mean she was prepared to put Elena in the firing line to shield me." She swallowed hard. "It's not a nice thought."
"But understandable. She'd raised you. She hadn't seen Elena in eleven years."
Remorse washed over her features. Her head drooped suddenly. "God."
I set the diaries aside and slung my arm over her side, teasing my hand over her shoulder blade. "Mare, you haven't done anything wrong. It isn't your fault."
She shook her head. "God, Alexi," she sighed, "what a mess."
"We're going to fix it, Marita," I said. "Whatever the hell they did, we're going to make it right."
She pulled away, a weak smile playing around her mouth. "Do you know, no-one's ever said that to me before?"
"What?" I asked, uncomprehending.
"That we're going to fix it. They say, 'I'll fix it, Marita. Don't you worry about a thing.'" She laughed, a wounded sound of irony. "I like it, Alex. It feels good to be a grownup."
"I never saw you as anything else."
She gave a wry grin. "You're in the minority."
"Marita, you are smart and funny and clever and capable and strong and - and beautiful. You don't need them, or your sister, or me to be okay. I'll help you with this, but this is your fight, and I know that, and I know that you're going to win."
She looked unaccountably close to tears. "Thank you, Alexi."
I reached out to stroke back her hair, but she stiffened. "Don't," she said in an undertone. I drew back, and I tried not to look hurt; but I mustn't have succeeded, because she reached out for my hand. "No, Alex, I don't mean it like that," she said, tugging me close to her again.
"Then how did you mean it?"
She started to speak, then stopped a couple of times. Finally, she said, "Alex, I don't always know what I want."
"Don't you?" I demanded. "Or is it that you've never been allowed to have what you want?"
She was very pale. "I don't know. Maybe."
We were silent for long moments. "Is it about what I do, who I work for?" I asked finally. "Because Marita, if you want some nice ordinary man who'll give you three kids and life in the suburbs, I can understand that. I'll back off, if you want me to."
"No," she said sharply. "No, don't do that. It isn't that." Then, hesitantly, "Could you just give me time?"
She leaned in and kissed me, slow and tender, and I held her close, cradling her shoulder with my palm. It was a gentle kiss, soft and reverent, giving and taking with almost chaste adoration. It was long and deep and wet, and, easing her back, I thought I could kiss her that way forever.
Our bodies, however, had other ideas.
The ache for her hit me thick and fast, and I felt warm threads of desire spiraling out through me like a drug. The gentle kiss turned fierce and hungry. She shook with need; her breaths came quick and shallow, and her hips pressed against mine, searching for me with an instinct as old as time. It was the irresistible pull of body to body, flesh to flesh, and it washed over both of us with stunning force. Our legs were entwined, and our hands searched blindly, grasping for whatever fabric or flesh they could. With an agonised gasp of longing, she pushed me away, and she said with a ragged sigh, "Please go, Alex. Please."
Mutely, I nodded, unable to speak, and I rose, moving a little unsteadily on my feet. As I reached the door, she took my hand in hers and squeezed it - such a harmless gesture - and then we were in one another's arms all over again. My mouth was on her neck, finding warm flesh there and taking it between my lips. She made high, keening sounds of need, cradling my head there with her hand. "I want you," I sighed against her. The feel of her was so bright it hurt; and the idea of ever being without her was cold.
"God! Alex," she sighed, almost on the point of weeping. "I want- I want-" and then the words were lost in her cries of need. She thrust her fingers through my hair, urging me on against her throat. She cried out, "Oh, God, please go, please go now-" and then there were tears streaming down her cheeks.
I tasted salt. I pulled back at once, shocked and bewildered. "Mare?" I said breathlessly, and I smoothed away her tears with my fingertips. "I'm so sorry," I said, and I had no idea what I'd done wrong, but I was. It hurt to see her like that.
She smiled weakly through her tears. "It's not you - I swear it's not you. Just leave me, please."
Perplexed, I kissed her forehead, and I left her there.
I didn't sleep well that night. My body ached with need, and my heart ached for Mare. I was able to attend to one ache with my hand, but that left just the other, and that was somehow worse. Every time I closed my eyes, I relived her pulling me to her and pushing me away, weeping that she wanted me and weeping that I should go. I drank and I smoked and I tossed and I turned, and I woke feeling no more refreshed than when I lay down.
I rose at dawn and headed down to the rink. I skated off the worst of my tension, but my disquiet remained. Stroking around the rink in laps, I ticked over the events of the last twenty-four hours. They were suggestive, but what they suggested was painful to contemplate. I felt physically hurt, physically ill at the possibilities presented in my mind.
I wasn't sure whether she would be at training, but she was there, looking tired and pale, her hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. She wore my jacket, but she didn't offer to give it back. I was glad.
We warmed up in silence for a while, but at last, she spoke.
"They made a pact."
I looked at her questioningly.
"Samantha and Elena. They made a pact when Elena first got there that they would both try to infiltrate the hybrid project and bring it down. That they would work on a weapon against the alien invasion."
"You stayed up reading the journals?"
She shot me an agonised glance. "I couldn't sleep."
I admitted, "Neither could I."
Bright pink spots rose in her cheeks, and her eyes grew moist. Her voice tinged with humiliation, she began, "Alex-"
"It's okay," I said. "Don't." I stroked her cheek with the back of my hand, and she leaned into it, eyes closed. She gave a long, shuddering sigh, then nodded.
We heard footsteps, and she pulled away, wiping her eyes. She managed a wan smile. Karen rounded the corner, her booming voice several steps ahead of her. "Come on, people. We all warmed up?"
"No-one should be that happy this time of the morning," Mare muttered, getting to her feet, and I laughed. A little cautiously, she laughed too. She held out a hand and drew me up.
"Do it, Alex!"
I stared down at Marita, thrashing beneath me.
"Do it!" she shouted again, pushing against me. I held her down, her arms stretched out over her head; but her legs were working me hard. She was strong - damn strong.
"Work her, Alex," came the firm voice of our trainer. "You're not doing her any favours by going easy."
I turned my head and hissed, "I'm not, damn it!"
Marita used the opportunity. Her knee pounded into my crotch, and it exploded in white-hot agony. She threw me over onto my back and held me down. I'd been aroused earlier on, but now that adrenaline was driven into more basic instincts. I pushed back, pushed her hard, slammed her hard into the mat and held her fast. She pushed back, wrists thrusting my hands upwards, and I fought to hold her. "Do it," she said again. "I need-" she was labouring for breath.
"What do you need?" I panted.
"I need to know," she whispered. "How far I have to go."
With all the strength I had left, I forced her wrists back down. "Not far," I gasped out. I collapsed against her, breathing heavily, relief radiating through my body. I half expected her to make a last stand, but she didn't.
"And that's a wrap. Good work, team. See you tomorrow." I waved half-heartedly at Karen, and I felt Mare do the same. I bowed my head to her shoulder. The door snicked shut, and then we were alone.
At last, after long, long moments, I lifted myself up onto my elbows. I met her gaze. We held each other that way, her eyes sea-green, clear like cut glass, staring up at me unblinkingly. She didn't smile, or frown, or speak with her eyes or her lips. She just *was*, ageless and perennial.
And how I wanted her.
I'm only a man, after all; and my body was alive with her. She'd been held against me, her presence engulfing me, her energy pulsing all around me. For long, long moments, we had been one together, feeding on one another's adrenaline, caught in parallel rays of trust and power in a way that was oddly like mating. And now, looking at her, it was like being inside her.
We stayed there, gazes held for a long, long moment; and then I closed my eyes, my breathing harsh with need. I could imagine her leaning up to me, and taking my face between her hands. I could imagine moving her body with mine; sliding hands over her body and plunging them into her hair. I could imagine her rolling me, raising herself up over me, kissing me hard, taking control. I could imagine sliding into her. And when I looked down at her once more, her eyes were shining.
"I should get off you," I said. My voice sounded ragged.
"Yeah," she breathed. She blew at a stray tendril of hair that had caught in her mouth. It didn't move, and I brushed it back, my fingers brushing her cheeks. She shot me a gorgeous smile, and that undid me.
I touched her cheeks once more with my fingertips, searching the oh, so smooth lines of her face, as if to reassure myself that she was real. I traced from the edge of her eyebrow down to her jaw, leaning in a little. She turned her face to mine, her lips parted a little, classic position to kiss and be kissed; but neither of us did so, only staying there, exploring one another in the heat of a shared breath. Last night, there had been fiery passion; but right now, I wanted only to cherish - to revere, rather than to plunder. Her hand was rising from the floor, tentatively finding my side; and when she touched me, when she breathed my name, I was glad.
"Mare," I said in wonder. "Oh, Mare."
She moved, just a fraction, soft garnet lips seeking mine.
And then I heard footsteps.
I sank my head back against her shoulder with a groan of frustration, and I heard her curse softly as the door opened. I rolled off her with a sigh. We lay there, side by side, flushed and resigned as Diana rounded the corner.
"Oh, Marita, good. Karen said I'd find you here. Heavy training session?"
I suppressed a smirk.
"Just finishing up. What is it?"
"I just wanted to talk about Elizabeth's baptism. If this is a bad time-"
Marita shook her head with a sigh. "It's fine. Just give me a few minutes to shower and change, okay?" She rose, and I took the opportunity to sit up, cross-legged like a schoolchild, my crotch concealed by my loose track pants. I wasn't hard, but I wasn't really soft, either, and there was something a bit disconcerting about having an obvious hard-on in the presence of your beloved's best friend who was also your ex-lover's ex-wife.
Mare just read this over my shoulder. She thinks it's the funniest thing I've said in ages.
"I'm beat," I said, because it was a moment where it seemed something should be said. "She gave me a run for my money."
Diana was frowning. "I'm surprised she's doing this, actually. Marita can be funny sometimes."
"I don't know...about being safe, I suppose."
I thought about it. I remembered the locker room at the ice arena, and what had happened last night, and I thought that made sense. "Well, she hasn't got much to worry about," I said dryly. "She's strong...strong as a man. Maybe stronger."
The animation suddenly left Diana's face. "Don't tell her that," she said sharply. She looked ashen.
"Why not?" I demanded, confused.
"Because -" she hesitated, her expression softening. "Because Rita should learn not to be so safe. She needs to learn to take risks sometimes."
I watched her dubiously. I didn't doubt the basic truthfulness of her words, but Diana Donovan wasn't the sort to casually discuss anyone's psyche with a third party. She was more discreet, more circumspect than that. I had the uncomfortable certainty that I'd missed something important. It couldn't have been clearer if she'd had the words "THAT WAS CLOSE" tattooed into her forehead.
She seemed discomforted by my scrutiny, because she looked down at her hands and started fiddling, twisting her wedding ring compulsively. I felt momentary pity, and I saw no value in pursuing the matter for the moment; so I said, "I think that's probably true."
Diana looked back up at me nervously. She nodded, slowly regaining her normal composure. "Listen, I'm sorry about coming in when I did."
So she had sensed it after all.
"Forget it," I said with resignation. "It's probably just as well."
"What do you mean?"
"It would be a mistake. She's too young."
"I was married at her age. And you're only a couple of years older."
I held her gaze. "I'm not talking about years, and you know it."
Diana's features were softer than usual, compassionate and warm. "She has a woman's heart, Alex. If she has a child's fears, it's because she's been encouraged to do so by people who wanted her to be helpless for reasons of their own."
I looked up at her, my brow furrowed; and at last, I made a decision. "She wants this," I said with certainty. "But she's scared to death." I sighed; then, with great reluctance, I gave voice to my growing fears. "Diana, was she raped?"
Diana bowed her head, her shoulders slumped sadly; and for an instant, I believed I was right. Exquisite pain crashed over me in waves, lodging deep in my belly and radiating out; but then she shook her head. "I understand why you ask, Alex, but no. Not to my knowledge, and I think she would have told me if she was."
The pain lessened, just a little. "What, then?"
"Well, Marita didn't have the healthiest of experiences."
I nodded, thinking it over. "So what do you think I should do?"
Her shoulders drooped. She suddenly looked very old. "Do I look like an expert to you? My first husband was gay and my second husband is Consortium, for Chrissake."
"Sorry," I mumbled. I was suddenly quite sure she knew about my affair with Mulder. They were divorced, but it still had to bite.
She sighed. "No, I'm sorry. I'm in a foul mood and it hasn't got anything to do with you." I shrugged in acceptance of this backhanded apology. "Look, I don't know what you should do. What I do know is that you can't decide on the basis of what you *think* is best for her. Do you really think she needs yet another protector?"
"And what about you?" I flared. "Aren't you protecting her? Whatever it is that you're not telling, do you really think she's that weak?"
She laughed at that, a little sadly. "Marita?" she scoffed. "No. But I am."
"You're one of the strongest people I know."
"You don't understand," she burst out. "You damn men don't understand anything." At another time, that might have offended me; but I had the sense that the comment wasn't really about me. "My parents are dead. Fox-" she broke off, shrugging helplessly. "Rita is the only one left who - who-"
"Who knew you before?"
She nodded, pain etched into her expression in harsh lines. "I don't know if I can hurt her the way I'd have to hurt her to tell her what I know."
"She needs to know, Diana." Then, deliberately, I challenged, "Do you really think she needs yet another protector?"
I expected anger, but instead, she gave a crooked little smile. "She could do worse than you, you know, Alex," she said amiably. I smiled back - the genuine companionship in her expression was infectious. But then her smile faded, and she said grimly, "But do as I say - not as I do."
She turned then, and left me to consider.
"What happened to you?"
Mare looked at me blankly for a moment, closing the door behind me, but then her expression cleared. "Attack of the balding assassin."
She sat on a stool in front of the dresser and began to brush her hair. "Have you come across a guy named Fordham?"
"Once or twice. He's quite mild-mannered, as assassins go."
"Well, he also has a hair fetish." I shifted uncomfortably. It was the first time she had spoken of what she did here in this room with her - submissives? Bottoms? Clients? What the hell did she call them, anyway? "But he didn't have the skill to be a hairdresser, so he figured he'd go kill people for a living instead."
"He did quite a number on yours," I noted. "Give me that." I took the brush from her and began to tease out the odd-looking braid.
"Thanks," she said, settling back. I pulled up another stool and sat down behind her.
"What do you do in here with them, anyway?" I asked hesitantly.
"As little as possible," she said with a twisted little grin that I could see reflected in the mirror. It was odd, seeing her reflected that way, her features swapped around the opposite way. It was like looking at a different person. Odder still to think that she saw herself that way all the time. "I stalk around in leather with a riding crop with Matheson. He sits on that wooden chair on the dais and jerks off, while I threaten to whip his hide if he doesn't tell his latest homoerotic fantasy with sufficient enthusiasm."
"He'd love that," I grinned.
"Yeah," she said, with just a trace of disgust. Her mouth curled into something hard and hurtful. "So are you going to ask me to do that for you, now, Alex?"
I kept my expression neutral, but I felt anger - and hurt. Was that what she thought of me? How fucked up was that? But I watched her in the mirror, saw the rigid way she held herself, the fear in her eyes, and then I understood, at least a little. What she'd asked wasn't really about me. It was about how she was accustomed to being treated. One way or another, Mare had been used her whole life.
I shook my head, not looking at her, deliberately keeping my attention on her hair. "I wouldn't do that to you, Mare. Not when it's not what you want." I felt her shoulders go slack and the lines of her body soften. With feigned carelessness, I wondered, "What *do* you want?"
"I want to be a woman," she said fiercely. "I don't want to play these bullshit games in this ridiculous room. Look at it, for God's sake. There's a tiled platform for a bathroom. If you use it, you're visible from every vantagepoint in the room. It's a fucking altar for prostitutes, made by men who see women as things. It's disgusting."
I agreed with her, but I didn't say so, only nodding as I worked on her hair. At last, she said in a much mellower voice, "You know, I get the creeps when that guy touches my hair."
I let go of her hair abruptly, mumbling an apology; but she turned in her seat. "No, Alexi. It's different when you do it. You don't want anything from me."
I smoothed back the hair from her forehead. "That's not entirely true, Mare. I do want you."
"But that's not why you're brushing my hair."
I shook my head. "No."
"That's the difference. It's a gift." She picked up the brush and handed it back to me. "Would you? Please?"
I love to listen to her speak.
Back then, as now, it was not something she did often. Mare has an economy with words, and in those days she revealed little. When she did speak, what she had to say was always important, always honest. I understood why she spoke so little: she had little capacity for deceit. Her silence was her only protection.
But she spoke to me.
She spoke of her upbringing, of being sheltered and loved; but also of being used and controlled. She spoke in facts, not in feelings; and yet her eyes flashed emerald when she was happy, and - far more often - aventurine when she was not. There was a simplicity about her account that was deeply moving.
It wasn't often that she spoke in this way. But somewhere along the line, brushing her hair - something that began as a mere gesture and became a ritual - somehow that became a time of rest...a safe space in which she would talk. Brushing her hair was mating without mating, intimacy without the terrors that intimacy held for her. Sometimes we would sit there, her resting back in my arms for hours, talking not to each other but to each other reflected. It might not have been the fodder of romance novels, but it was adoration and reverence, and in those moments, I felt peace.
I made no attempt to draw her out, but let her tell me whatever she chose. Her bewilderment on being exiled to England. Her loneliness, her fear and distrust of the older men there, her very private homesickness to which only Diana had been privy. She spoke bitterly of the arranged engagement into which Larissa had coerced her. She spoke resignedly of Michael's ongoing deceit about the work, and wistfully of his almost fatherly kindness. Hesitantly, she spoke of his gentleness in those early days of their relationship; of him taking her virginity when she was eighteen, and how she had feared that she would not be able to live with their relationship anymore after that. I developed an unwilling respect for Michael as she spoke; a sense that he had brought her through the fire of confusion and youth as well as anyone could have in the circumstances she lived with. Side-by-side with that was a lazily growing hatred for him, for Larissa, for the Dark Man. Little wonder fear and compromise and sex had gotten twisted up together in her mind.
"You know, I don't want pity," she said one day. I never knew what sparked that comment; but she must have seen compassion in my expression reflected before her more than once. "I'm a wealthy woman with a loving family. If I've had crosses to bear, that makes me no different to anyone else."
I wondered if she really understood how radically she had been used; how radically compromised her experience of normal relationship or sexuality or companionship had been. I don't think she fully understood that until we had children of our own. Lacking that foreknowledge, though, I only nodded noncommittally; said, "I don't pity you, Mare."
"Then what do you-" she stopped.
"Feel?" I challenged lightly, laying a hand on her shoulder. She looked at me in the mirror and gave an oh, so cautious nod. "Affinity," I said after some thought.
She put her hand over mine and turned her head a little, leaning her cheek against it. She didn't speak, and she didn't move for a long, long time.
I wondered if anyone had had affinity with her in her life.
Language is the mirror of the soul.
That particular pearl of wisdom came from my rhetoric professor, a man well-versed in the eloquence of his craft. He was a Jesuit priest, equal parts icon and heretic, and he had captured my imagination in a way no other philosopher had. He'd been on loan from Harvard Divinity School, and the faculty was in no hurry to give him back.
But if language was the mirror of the soul, I was in trouble. Because in my own mind, never before had I had a term for the sexual act. I had euphemisms by the truckload 'wanted him', 'had her', 'needed it' but never a term that fitted my perception. 'Fuck' was crass. 'Intercourse' was clinical, bordering on silly. 'Make sex' - a term coined by a Jordanian friend in high school - appealed to my sense of humour; but that didn't fit either. My reserve was, undoubtedly, a hangover from my mother's reticence on the subject; but that knowledge didn't bother me. There were worse parental legacies, most of which I'd been spared.
What bothered me was the thought, unbidden, that I wanted to make love to Mare. A troubling thought, because never before had I had used that phrase in the silence of my heart. But 'making love' were the only words that fitted what I wanted with her, though I had only a vague idea of what that might really mean. Wanting Mare was not a bad thing, though it complicated things more than I cared to admit. Even loving her, if it came to that, was not a bad thing: she was a woman of strength and character, and while I could do worse, I doubted I would do better. But the idea that she changed me actively changed my perceptions that was troubling. It was an intrusion, much like the intrusion of being penetrated not unwelcome, but always exposing. No-one had ever touched me that way before not even Mulder. Part of me relished it, like a breath of fresh air through my soul; but I was still troubled.
Watching her now, talking to Diana at the bar, it occurred to me that maybe I could heal her. It was a conceited thought, of course, and part of me recognised that even at the time; but still, the idea wouldn't leave me. Soft-focus images arose in my mind of laying her out in cushions on her bed, of going slow with her and pleasing her until her fears evaporated.
I shook my head a little, amused by my own naivete. Mare was right. I was a closet romantic - and an adolescent one at that. Pity about that whole hired killer thing on the side.
Cardinale intruded on my thoughts, slapping me hard on the back. Asshole.
"Hello, Luis," I said. I suddenly felt very weary - not an unusual response to the appearance of my so-called partner.
"You here to see the Mistress Marita?" he said, nodding to the bar.
"Something like that."
"Pretty piece of ass you got there, Alex. Pity you got to share it with Fordham," he said with a cackle, hands at his hips, giving a little thrust.
To this day, I don't know why it bothered me the way it did. Maybe it was the contrast of his vulgarity with the beauty I'd imagined just seconds before. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of similar incidents. Maybe in that moment, I saw in him what she lived with and why she had the demons she did. Whatever the reason, I saw red, and I hauled off and punched him across the jaw. "You're not fit to eat the dirt she walks on," I spat, grabbing him by the lapels and pushing him to the wall. He pushed back, and next thing I knew, we were on the floor.
"Boys, boys, boys." Shit. Marita.
We looked up at her. She stood there over us, legs apart, hands on her hips. She lifted a shapely leg and nudged us apart with her toe. I lay there on my back, Cardinale at my side, suddenly conscious of the onlookers. So much for staying emotionally detached from her in the public sphere. I hoped Marita could get us out of it, because I had no fucking idea.
Marita rested her foot on Cardinale's throat, her heel nudging his adam's apple. It moved frenetically, bobbing up and down in time with his breathing. She bent down to face him, as though to chastise a naughty child. "Now, Senor Cardinale, let's get one thing straight. The only person allowed to discipline Alexi here is me. If I catch you on my turf again, I'll rip your fucking throat out. Do I make myself clear?"
He nodded. "Yes," he gasped, "I got it."
She took her foot away and straightened in a fluid movement. She turned to me, her expression stern. "As for you, Alexi, someone hasn't been playing nicely with others."
I stared up at her. "No, Marita."
"I can't have you boys having your petty squabbles in my house. You understand that, don't you?"
"Yes, Marita." I felt humiliation well up in me, less from Marita's scolding and more because Diana, behind her, was clearly fighting an attack of the giggles. Fuck. What a fucking mess.
"I'm going to have to punish you, Alexi. Get on your feet." I complied.
Marita nodded to the door, and, my cheeks bright with embarrassment, I followed her.
When we got to her room, Marita broke.
She leaned against the door and laughed, both hands over her mouth, tears streaming down her cheeks. She sank to the floor, head buried somewhere between her knees. I watched her, perplexed.
"I can't believe you got into a fight over my honour," she sputtered, lifting her head to look at me at last.
I felt my cheeks flush with mortification. "It was a stupid thing to do."
She wiped her eyes with her hands. "The Dark Man will have some choice words, I'm sure."
"I'm surprised you don't think it was macho and presumptuous." I felt like an idiot. Of all the stupid-
"No-one's ever defended me before, Alex. I liked it."
Okay, maybe not so stupid. Anything that could make her smile like that couldn't be all bad. I managed a smile of my own; even managed a chagrined laugh when she started sputtering again.
At last, she got ahold of herself, and by then, I was sitting on the floor at her side. She sighed. "Are you okay?"
I said ruefully, "I hurt my hand."
She laughed. "Poor Alex," she said, and she got up on her knees and straddled me. She took my hand in hers, raised it to her mouth, and kissed my knuckles, taking each one between tender lips and releasing it, then moving on.
"I want better for you than this place," I said, stroking my free hand down her arm. "I don't want people looking at you like that. You're so much better than that."
She put my hand down; asked diffidently, "Are you asking me to stop doing what I do here?"
I shook my head. "No. But sometimes I wish there was another way." Her head was bowed, and I used my fingers to lift her chin so that she faced me. "We both know this isn't how you want things to be."
"I don't know how I want things to be," she said in a low voice.
I squeezed her fingers between mine. "I think you do."
She watched me for a long, long moment, her eyes thoughtful; and at last, she nodded. Hesitantly, she leaned forward and touched my face with her free hand, her brow creasing with a thousand hopes and fears, her breath hot on me. I opened my mouth whether to speak or kiss her, I wasn't sure but I stopped myself. Too many people had made decisions for Marita, overridden her when they should have given her freedom, and I wasn't going to be one of them. It had to be her decision.
So we stayed there, poised excruciatingly on the edge of something bigger than either of us, breathing in rhythm, gazes locked on one another. Entranced, I touched her, tracing a thumb over her eyebrow, then down her cheek, over her jaw to her chin. "Oh, Mare," I whispered, my voice thick with longing.
Her breath caught in her chest, hitching; and then she breathed out shakily. She was trembling, just a little; but it was not with fear not this time. This time, it was desire, barely contained, overtaking her with its intensity. "Alexi," she breathed, and the sound of it was like a caress against my skin. And at last, she bridged the wafer-thin gulf between us, closing her mouth on mine, tentative, questing, yet oh, so purposeful and deliberate. Her lips were soft and warm between mine, and yet they seared against me, burning me, marking me, blazing a trail of exquisite fire across my need.
I kissed her in return, first tenderly, then ravenously; and she met me with need of her own, taking my head in her hands, pressing herself closer against me, swamping me. It was delicious. I reached up to her, my palm in the middle of her back, and I pulled her closer still, bringing her down, pressing her body against mine. I was hard, and she brushed me as she settled against me, and she gasped, pulling away for only a split second before pressing herself down against me once more.
She lowered her face to mine, ravishing my mouth with hers. I slid my hands up beneath her shirt, dragging my palms over her flesh possessively, and she shuddered, moaning into my mouth, something I felt rather than heard. I slid my fingertips over her skin near the swell of her breasts, deliberately avoiding them, and she moved impatiently, pressing herself into my hands, shifting agonisingly in my lap. Still we kissed, drowning in one another's need. Her hands were on me, sliding over my chest and my arms, gently, inquisitively. They were just palms, just warm flesh, no different to that of the handful of others who had touched me this way; and yet it was like being touched for the first time.
She rocked against my lap, her hips moving with mine, mouth sliding over my flesh. I wanted her naked, but I didn't want to let her go, so we stayed there, bodies moving together, clutching at one another, sighing one another's names. Somehow I got her shirt open, and she gave a long low moan as the air hit her there, and she pressed herself against my chest. Her mouth found my ear, my jaw, and I choked out her name. She had my shirt open and my jeans unzipped, and, God, she was touching me there for the very first time.
I slid a hand under her skirt, ripping her stockings with my fingers. I ran them over the thin satin that cradled her sex, then slid a finger under the elastic, pushing the damp fabric aside. With a cry of need, she pressed herself down into my lap; and then we were two bodies on the edge of becoming one, just a teasing stroke away from it. We were nestled together, cradling one another's faces, cherishing one another, her body opening up for me, ready to draw me in.
At last, she broke away, her face flushed with desire, and I looked at her, my eyes bright; but then my exhilaration faded. Her expression was grave...haunted. I knew what was coming next, even before she stammered, "I-I can't." Damn it, she was shuddering for me, she was slick and ready against me, her pupils were dilated with uncompromising need; but she could sit there, her warmth still pressed against my aching, questing need and say that she couldn't. I understood, but against all my better instincts, I felt real fury. It would take just a single movement to make her mine anyway, and I thought that she would probably allow it if I pressed her; but if I did that, I would lose her. I would be one more person taking from her, and I couldn't do that.
She watched me, watched me wrestle with my own darkness, and she must have seen me come back to the light, because she relaxed against me. "I'm sorry," she said at last, grief etched into her features; and looking down between us, I saw her open shirt and the way my jeans were wet with her and I felt like screaming with frustration.
I knew I should say something comforting and reassuring, but I couldn't. I didn't have that much generosity in me in that moment. I nodded, lifting her off me as gently as I could, fighting for neutrality. I went to the bathroom and stripped off my damp jeans and pants; and I stayed there, bringing myself to a miserable, unsatisfying release, until I had some semblance of self-control once more.
When I was done, I rummaged around the laundry hamper. I'd changed in her room after combat training more than once; there was bound to be something. At last, I found an old pair of track pants. I pulled them on and opened the door quietly, hoping against hope that she would be gone. I really didn't think I could deal with her just then. But she was there, lying on the bed, her eyes closed, rumpled skirt and panties lying discarded on the floor, just her shirt pulled around her, covering her to her thighs. One hand was held hard between closed legs, moving almost imperceptibly; the other she held across her body, sliding it lightly over her shoulder, hugging herself with the tenderness of a lover. She was otherwise almost totally still, her every response taut and restrained, and it occurred to me that she must be so tired of living like that. She was close, I could see it in the lines of her; but still she betrayed nothing. Her moans were almost inaudible, yet their pitch was keening, almost like grief; and then I realised she was weeping.
"Alexi," she sighed miserably, "oh, Alexi."
In that moment, all my anger melted away; because however I grieved for her, she grieved for me, and herself, much more. I finally understood just how deep her fear and her conflict ran, and I think a lot of my hope died in that moment.
She came, my name on her lips, and that should have excited me. Instead, I felt aching sadness. There was something deeply troubling about her fruitless attempts to console herself, to be her own source of comfort. What I felt was beyond pity, beyond compassion, and how I wished she would let me in. She lay there, very still, pulling her shirt around her, her eyes still closed; and I went to her, settling on the bed at her side.
"Hey," I whispered, touching her hand.
"Hey." She didn't open her eyes, but she turned onto her side, facing me. When she finally looked at me, her expression was regretful, yet resolute. I was grateful for that I couldn't have stood it if she'd offered an apology, like she'd run her trolley into mine at the market. It was as it was, and I wasn't sorry it had happened. I only wished-
"Are you angry?" she asked diffidently.
"No." I stroked her hair back from her face. At her disbelieving look, I admitted, "I was. It's passed." She nodded pensively, and I ran a thumb over her lips. She kissed it, her expression thoughtful.
"It's never been just me before," she said at last, so quietly that I had to strain to hear. "It was my mother, and at school it was Diana, and then there was Michael. I've always had a protector. To be cut adrift like this-" she broke off.
"It's frightening," I supplied.
"Yes, it is," she agreed. "But it's also...compelling."
I nodded slowly. "I don't want to take any of that away from you, Mare." I ran my hand down her arm, slid my fingers between hers. She held them tightly. "I just want to be with you." There it was, naked truth, and it was more than a little frightening; but after all I'd seen, it was not in me to play pointless games with her, scoring points, engaging in strategy. I wanted her, ached for her, and to tell her so cost me nothing. And it could give so much.
She frowned a little, but didn't respond; and nor had I expected that she would. Instead, she turned away, and I waited sadly for her to rise and leave me; but she didn't do that, either. Instead, she pressed her body against mine, moulding herself to me, letting me spoon myself around her. And when I put my arm around her, she slid her hands over my own. "I want that too," she whispered at last.
But I no longer believed that was something she could do.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Needless to say, you won't reach either Alex or X at email@example.com. I took the user ID myself just to be safe, but I won't be checking it. Sorry *g*. I can't remember whether hotmail was in operation in 1994 - I know it was by 1996 - so please forgive me if I've made a continuity error there. I'm pretty sure I still have better continuity than Chris Carter.
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