Not My Lover: Enigma *NC17* 2/?
Chapters 4 thru 5
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Finalist, 2001 Spooky Awards (Outstanding Unfinished Work, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation, Outstanding Marita Characterisation, Outstanding Krycek/Marita Romance).
I woke in his arms.
I was conscious first of substance, of his comforting weight behind me and over me and around me. My shirt had fallen open in the night, and his flesh was warm against mine, and my unreasoning terror the night before seemed so stupid in the light of day.
With excruciating shame, I remembered. I remembered straddling him, and I remembered his hands on my back, pressing my body to his. I remembered sinking down against him, riding the hard ridge in his jeans, searching his mouth with mine. My cheeks went hot with humiliation when I thought of how far we'd gone, how close we'd been, and how the inexplicable fright had risen in my chest at the very last second. I hated myself for doing that to him, and I hated myself because I wanted him inside me. I wanted him inside me more than just about anything.
Still, the dull, heavy ache for him that had settled in my belly weeks before had eased. It wasn't gone, but it was...better. Alex was with me, despite it all, and he had never once offered a word of reproach. That counted for something - it counted for a lot. Michael had been decent, but he would never have given so much in exchange for so little.
I'd said that to Alex once, not so long before, and I remember vividly the look he'd given me, bewilderment intermingling with disbelief. "Exchange?" he'd echoed. "Jesus, Marita, since when is a relationship an exchange?" I hadn't had an answer for that, and I still didn't; but now, feeling his body cradled around mine, I was beginning to understand that there could be another way.
There was a knock at the door.
"Coming," I called, extricating myself from Alex's arms with more than a touch of regret. He mumbled a little, groping the empty space with his hand, then drifted off again. Smiling down at his sleeping form, I shrugged off my crumpled shirt and pulled on a robe, tying it off around my waist.
I stopped at the dresser to look at my watch. "Six-thirty," I murmured, annoyed. "For God's sake." I reached for the door and opened it, saying, "This had better be good."
It was the Dark Man. "I need to talk to you."
I felt sudden apprehension - and, strangely, antagonism. That was new...something I'd never felt for my mentor before. I didn't question where it came from just then, but I would wonder about it later. "If this is about what happened yesterday, it can wait until a civilised hour."
He held my gaze, his expression cool. "Fine, thanks, Marita," he said deadpan. "I had a smooth flight - thank you for asking."
I flushed. "I'm sorry. It's early."
"Can I come in?" His weight was already bearing on the door, not aggressively, but with casual ease. It occurred to me for the first time how strange that was, that he would assume entry into the room of a half-dressed woman at the crack of dawn. Had Michael been invasive like that? I honestly couldn't remember.
I held the door fast. "I'm sorry, you can't. It's not convenient."
He stared at me as though I'd lost my mind. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's not convenient. Can I meet you downstairs in a little while?"
He looked at me, brow furrowed, and then he asked in a very different tone, "Marita, do you have someone with you?"
I felt horribly, horribly self-conscious; but damn if I was going to let him see it. "Yes, I do."
"Alex?" I sighed, and he persisted, "It is, isn't it?"
"I'm not prepared to discuss this with you. I'll see you downstairs."
He was still frowning when I gently closed the door.
"You need a manicure."
I stared at him with an affront that wasn't feigned. I gaped at him for a full ten seconds before demanding in a shocked tone, "I *beg* your pardon?"
"Your fingernails, Marita," he said patiently. "They're too long."
I looked down at them. They *were* too long - almost to the tips of my fingers. Long enough to tear delicate internal membranes. Shit. How could I have missed that? "Look, this isn't real BDSM," I said, striving to keep the welling defense from my voice. "They're amateurs - dirty old men who want to think they're walking on the wild side. If I ever tried fisting Matheson, he'd probably have a stroke." That thought was mildly amusing, and I suppressed a grin. I had a feeling the Dark Man wouldn't approve of the levity. I was conscious of the weight of his reproof already.
"Matheson? Please," he grimaced, "I'm eating." He pushed aside his plate. He counselled, "Play the part properly, Marita, or don't play it at all."
Of the two options, I preferred the latter, but I didn't say so; instead, I remained silent, sipping my tea. After a long pause, I said, "How was Tunisia?"
He peered at me over his coffee. Steam gathered together and drifted off as he breathed. "Less eventful than here, clearly."
My tone was conciliatory. "Look, if this is about Cardinale, he knows it was a stupid thing to do. It won't happen again. Can we leave it at that?"
The Dark Man stared at me, brow creased with disbelief. "Listen to yourself! 'Can we leave it at that', like he got into a fight in the schoolyard. He punched out his partner because of you! You think Spender's not going to hear about that?"
I set down my tea with an exasperated clatter. "So he comes across as a besotted sub. So what? Fordham would have done exactly the same thing." I didn't think that was really true, but it was plausible. More or less.
"Fordham," he said heavily, "has two wives and five mistresses. He has other loyalties. Krycek, however, has just two: Spender and you. And yesterday he showed everyone exactly which one comes first."
That made me pause. I looked away for a long moment. "Yes," I admitted, more to myself than to him. "He did."
The Dark Man set down his mug. Leaning forward on his elbows, he hissed, "You think this is romantic, Marita? Let's see how romantic it all looks when we're scraping his body off the road. Cardinale is a terrorist, for God's sake! How much do you think he'd like to get his hands on Alex right now? You, too, for humiliating him, for that matter. He'd probably rape you afterwards just for the fun of it." I gasped, sitting back as though I'd been slapped. His expression softened. "Look, I'll handle it, Marita. I've already done some damage control with Spender. But don't underestimate the significance of this."
I shook my head, still perturbed. "I - I don't. I won't."
He nodded, clearly unhappy, but resigned. "All right. I'll talk to Krycek later today."
"No, you won't. I'll talk to him." He started to protest, but I held up a hand, forestalling him. "I understand that there are implications for our work, but fundamentally it's a private matter, and it's going to stay that way." The fact that we were discussing it at all struck me as grossly invasive.
The Dark Man watched me, frowning. His unblinking scrutiny made me uncomfortable. "How deep does this go, Marita?" he demanded. "I mean, are you in love with him?"
I flushed with anger. "That's - that's a very personal question." One I wasn't equipped to answer, even if I'd been willing to do so.
"It isn't just prurient curiosity on my part. This changes things."
My anger flared. "I don't care. There are some things that you have no right to ask me. Under any circumstances." I could feel the tightness in my chest - the same tightness I'd felt the night before. The same intrusion. The Dark Man looked concerned, and I willed myself to get control. I said more calmly, "Look, there are few things in my life which are just mine - just for me and no-one else. This is one of them."
"You know, if I'd known this was going to happen, I would never have partnered him with you." His voice was tight with frustration.
"Of all the arrogant-" I stopped short. "Do you honestly think you did this? You're not pulling all the strings here, you know."
He sat back, crossing his arms across his chest. "No, you've made that abundantly clear."
There was an undertone of defeat in his voice, and that shamed me in a way that his anger had not. I gave him the only reassurance I could. "Look, you don't have to worry about me. He is a decent man."
"Yes, I think he is." He sighed heavily. "I don't disapprove of the match, Marita - I disapprove of your behaviour."
"It's not for you to disapprove of any of it." I leaned forward, holding his gaze. "Hear this: Alex is off-limits to you. You get a say in everything else, but not that. I don't belong to you."
"But you belong to him." It wasn't a question.
I sat back, a sound of frustration escaping me in a rush. "You don't get it, do you? Sixteen years, since I was just a little girl, and you still don't get it. I belong to myself. If I ever belong to him - if I even can - it will be my choice. Mine! Not because that's just the way it is."
That affected him. His shoulders slumped a little; he bowed his head for a long moment before meeting my gaze once more. "Marita, I know you've had to fight to get free of some people to get to where you are now. If I've been one of those people, I am truly sorry." I watched him, stunned into silence. I didn't think he'd ever apologised before. To anyone. He went on in a different, milder voice, "Look, do you remember when Michael got that cat?"
"She was a stray. How is she?"
"She's fine. My upholstery is demanding concessions." I laughed a little, and that broke the mood. He went on, "Michael was one of those people who collected strays - wounded things he could protect and take care of. The courtesans. Lost people like Samantha. And you." I nodded in recognition. "I've only ever wanted to guide you away from that."
"I know that," I said quietly. The antagonism I'd felt was gone; I felt the same fondness now that I'd felt for him since childhood. "But maybe that's something I need to work out for myself."
"With his help."
"No. With him at my side. There's a difference."
He frowned. "Look, you obviously need something I can't give you. I know this therapist-"
"I don't need a fucking therapist! I need to be allowed to grow up! I need to be allowed to make mistakes!"
"You don't have the luxury of mistakes!" He waved a hand at a passing waitress. "If she makes a mistake, she winds up in rehab or on welfare. If you make a mistake, you wind up like Samantha Mulder."
"That's your loss talking," I hissed, and instantly regretted it.
"That may be, but it's also true."
There was nothing I could say to that, so we sat there in silence, drinking. I had a fleeting memory of Alex in bed where I'd left him, and wished I were still there. I wished all of this would go away, if only for a day. Was I seeing it through Alex's eyes - the eyes of someone who came in from outside? Or through my own, merely stripped bare of the conventional veneer perpetuated by the people around me? Either way, I hated it. I hated it all.
At last, the Dark Man spoke. He said conversationally, "What you said before - about me butting out."
"I didn't put it quite like that."
"But it's what you meant." I shrugged by way of concession. "You couldn't have said that to me three months ago, Marita."
I recognised the truth of this. "No, I couldn't have."
"You know, if he makes you happy, Marita, I'm glad about that. Really." I gave him a small smile, and he went on:
"But I don't ever want to hear or see it in public again."
When I got to the gym, Alex was already there.
I watched him warming up in Karen's deserted studio, and I leaned against the mirror, smiling. Watching him, I couldn't help it. He was so damn beautiful. I've never paid much attention to people's bodies, but every part of his had a memory for me. I could almost feel his shoulders beneath my hands; I could almost taste his neck beneath my lips. Is this why teenagers, and grown women, too, get giddy and silly when they're in love? I'd never understood it before, but I thought I did now. Watching him, loving him, I felt rather giddy myself.
I went over and dropped to my knees at his side. I rifled my fingers through his hair. "Hey."
He turned and kissed me, just once, slow and tender. "Hey," he said. "I got your note. The Dark Man's back."
He went back to his stretches, and I did the same, settling on the rubber mat, legs out before me. "He was gone a lot longer than we expected - nearly two months. Did he say why?"
"Eventually," I said sourly. "He chewed me out first."
He winced. "About Cardinale?"
"Yeah." Briefly, I told him what had occurred.
"I'm sorry, Mare. You shouldn't have to wear the heat for that. If anything, you salvaged the situation. 'If I catch you on my turf again, I'll rip your fucking throat out' - that was brilliant."
"It was kind of fun," I admitted with a grin. "Don't worry about it." He nodded, accepting this, and we warmed up in silence for a while. After a few minutes had passed, I said, "You know, the Dark Man suggested I see a therapist." My voice was more hesitant than I'd intended. In truth, I wondered what he thought of the idea.
He turned to look at me, askance. "Jesus, Marita. Is there anyone in your life who *isn't* trying to fix you?"
I thought about the night before. "Maybe I need fixing, Alex."
He shook his head. "That's bullshit, Mare. It's just growing pains."
"Don't patronise me."
"I'm not," he said, and he sounded genuinely surprised that I would think so. "I really believe that. If your development has been a little more protracted, a little more acute than most...well, that's not so surprising." He met my gaze. "There's nothing wrong with you, Marita. You're just still finding your way."
I looked at him, nonplussed. "Does anything faze you?"
"I could ask the same of you." He pulled his sweater over his head and tossed it over to his bag.
"What do you mean?"
He looked down at his ankles, devoting more focus to his stretches than was really necessary. "Mare, I know we have some really nice times - really special times-"
"Yeah, we do."
"But when I get a call and I say I have to go to work, I go out and I hurt people. Are you gonna tell me you never think about that?"
"No, I don't," I said truthfully.
"Maybe you should." He was still staring at his feet, stretches forgotten.
I sighed. "Alex, there are people who are killers - people who are dark right down inside themselves. People who kill just because they like it. People like Luis Cardinale. And then there's people like you and Edward and Max - people who do what they have to do, and sometimes that takes them to dark places." It occurred to me that I didn't know where the Dark Man fell in that equation.
"That doesn't make it okay."
"No, it doesn't. But it doesn't change who you are."
He laughed. It was a scornful, sardonic sound. I'd never heard him like that before. "I don't know who I am. I'm so far removed from the person I thought I was going to be-"
I cut him off. "I know you, Alex," I said, moving closer to him. I put my arm around his shoulders, and he touched his hand morosely to mine. "I know who you are. Maybe you're not the person you planned, but there's a lot of good in the person you are. And I don't think I'd be half the person I am now if your path hadn't crossed with mine." I looked away. "Maybe it's selfish, but even though I know it's cost you, I can't find it in myself to regret that."
He brought his hand to my chin and turned me to face him once more. "I don't regret you, Mare. Everything else, maybe, but not that."
I leaned forward, touching my lips to his. He cradled my jaw with his palm, holding me closer. "Alexi," I sighed. Reluctantly, I broke away. "Do you know, I used to dream about you? Before we met?"
"Yeah?" He broke into a smile.
I smiled too. "Yeah."
I shrugged. "I don't know. I was just - drawn. Maybe because you were different - because you knew my world, but you were from outside it. Because you weren't like them. Maybe I was calling out for someone - the right someone - and you answered." I flushed. "That probably sounds very girly and silly."
He shook his head. "No, it doesn't." He shrugged. "I'm not particularly sentimental, Mare, but I believe in the things you're talking about. I saw them in my family, growing up. My parents had a good marriage. I might not talk about that sort of connection much, but I accept that it's there."
"Do we have what your parents had?"
He smoothed back my hair, smiling a little. "It's infinitely more complicated, but yeah...yeah, we do."
I thought about it. "I wish I'd had that. I think if my mother had ever remarried, if I'd seen her with someone, I might be more...equipped now."
He shook his head. "No offense, Mare, but from what you've told me, I don't think she'd have modelled relationships any better than she modelled anything else."
"Maybe," I shrugged, but I thought he was probably right.
He let it go. "So tell me about Tunisia."
"There's not much to tell - not really," I said. I pulled away a little and went on with my warmup. "No-one recognises the - what is it, radio signature? The thing that identifies the craft?"
"Do I look like an interplanetary air control expert to you?"
"Be serious." He shot me a broad grin, and I went on, "Whatever it is, no-one recognises it. It's not one of ours and it's not from the Colonists. That means there's a rogue EBE out there somewhere."
"Presumably. It seems to be your standard UFO. The Dark Man couldn't find out much more than that, but he doesn't think anyone's holding out on him. People seem genuinely mystified. Edward's working around the clock."
He frowned. "Maybe they should be looking closer to home."
I stared at him. "Our faction? Do you really think so?"
"I don't know. Just thinking out loud. Makes more sense than an EBE on a joyride, though."
We heard footsteps. "There's Karen. We'll finish this later. Work out of Samantha's suite with me today?"
He got to his feet, held out a hand, and pulled me up.
"It's a date."
"What's all this?"
Alex's hands drifted across my shoulders, and I sank back with a sigh, smiling up at him. "Mmm...that's nice." He smiled too. "It's a prototype for a new operating system that's coming out next year. Windows 95. If it goes into widespread usage - and I think it will - it will make my job a lot easier. There are security holes you could drive a truck through."
He looked impressed. "Excellent."
"That's not what I wanted to talk to you about, though. I wanted to show you something else." I closed out the program and went into DOS. "Watch this."
He pulled up a chair and sat at my side. My fingers danced across the keyboard. "Initialising telnet," he read aloud. "What the hell is this?"
I suppressed a grin. "Just watch."
A smile spread over his features, and he gave a low whistle. He looked at me with admiration. "Tell me you didn't hack into the FBI POP server."
"All right. I didn't hack into the FBI POP server." He laughed. More seriously, I went on, "I've got a log file attached to Mulder's email."
"So we can read everything that goes through his account?"
"That's right. I have one on his home computer, as well."
"Any particular reason?"
"No, it just pays to keep an eye on these things."
He nodded, rising. "Well done. Want a coffee?"
"Hate the stuff. I'll have some tea, though." I kept paging down through the log.
"Okay," he said, walking through to the kitchenette. "Tell me, why did Samantha rate a kitchen when Michael didn't?"
"Oh, my suite is just a standard voting-circle one - room, mini-bar, ensuite. Michael never lived here, so I guess he didn't see any point in modifying it. Samantha lived here on and off all her life."
"Fair enough," he said. Industrious clattering sounds drifted in the background as he located spoons and cups. "Milk?"
"Yes please." I sat back from the laptop, my hand to my mouth. "Oh, my."
"What is it?"
"Just one of Mulder's reports to Skinner," I said, clucking with sympathy. "That poor man."
I shook my head. "Skinner. I wouldn't supervise Mulder for double the pay. Talk about a one-way career track to hell."
"Tell me about it." I heard a cupboard bang. "There's no tea, Mare."
"Damn. I thought I bought some. Don't worry about it, then."
He came out of the kitchenette and grabbed his keys off the table. "I'll go downstairs and get some if you like."
I turned to look at him. "Oh, would you?" I said, a smile spreading over my face. "Wait - you know, I saw this tin in the cupboard above the sink the other day - that could be tea."
He did an about-face, walking back to the basin. "Won't it be, uh, stale?"
I shrugged, though in honesty I hadn't the slightest idea. "If it survived the trip from India, I'm sure it can survive a couple of years in Samantha's kitchen." I reset the log on Mulder's email and closed the connection.
I logged back into the Windows beta. "Mmm-hmm?"
"Mare, this isn't tea."
I looked up, and what I saw made me stare stupidly with incomprehension.
Alex was holding a long, silver cylindrical object. He looked it over, and then a long, thin spike came out the top with a whispering sound. He drew back with a whistle.
I got to my feet and went to him. "It looks like some kind of weapon. What's it made of?"
"I don't know," he said with a frown. "Titanium, maybe. There are more in here - half a dozen of them." The spike retracted, and he handed it to me. "There's a button there you can press. Be careful."
I turned it over in my hands. "I wonder what it's for? There must be something specific - otherwise you'd just use a gun or something."
"I don't know about that - it's pretty efficient. I'd use it." For just a moment I imagined him using it, then shook my head to clear it. I didn't want to see him that way. He'd proven himself better than that - at least to me.
"Maybe there's something about them in the diaries," I hazarded. "Come and we'll look."
"Good idea." He came with me back to the table, bringing the tin with him. He closed it and put it down next to the journals, hesitated, then opened it once more. He withdrew two of the weapons, handing one to me. "You know, if Samantha thought she should have them, maybe we should have them too."
I took it. "You're worried, aren't you?"
He looked uncomfortable, but finally, he nodded. "Look, this combat training business is weird. It isn't SOP, no matter what Diana says. She's preparing us for something. If she's worried, that makes me worried."
His eyes were dark. I held them with my own. "Me, too." I put the weapon in my pocket without further comment.
He picked up two of the journals and held them up. "Pink or blue?"
"I'm feeling pink today." He handed me the pink notebook and kept the blue one for himself. Taking his hand in mine, I led him to the lounge and we settled there together to read.
We were still there an hour later when he spoke. "Here's something."
"About the weapon?" I wondered, shifting in his arms to look at him.
"No - about the hybrids. Listen to this." He cleared his throat.
"'We've done it.
"'We made our first surviving hybrid clone today. I can't explain how wonderful I felt, looking at her. It made no sense, to feel so protective of something that came out of a tank rather than myself, but looking at her, I thought I would die for her if I had to. Is this how parents feel when they hold their children for the first time?'" Alex looked up from the diary. "Okay, I'm lost. Are these the hybrid experiments she was making for Strughold?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so. She wouldn't have been so happy about it if it were for Strughold. I think this is where she was cloning herself with - yes, there it is. Look further down."
He complied. "'Elena says Carolyn - that's what she named her - will need some pretty significant orientation if she's to pass as human, and an adult. I blush to confess that I hadn't even considered that, but of course, she has the mentality of a child. Once we have a few done, however, they can take over the education of their own kind.'"
"They were making an army," I said. "An army of Samanthas."
"Looks like it," he said, frowning. "Why didn't Strughold suspect anything? I mean, it's not the sort of thing you can do in secret very easily."
"I saw something about that when I was flipping through the other night. Can I have a look?" He complied, handing the book over and taking mine. "Here it is. 'Elena and I staged a huge fight today. We got to screaming at each other about embryonic nuclei.'" Alex looked at me quizzically, and I shrugged. "Don't look at me; it's over my head." I read on, "'We each went separately to Strughold to discredit the other. They tried to send us to mediation, but we wouldn't go. Damn funny. We tried to make love in my lab after everyone was gone, but we were laughing too much. Settled for a kiss and a squeeze.'" The image made me smile. They reminded me of Alex and I. "'Strughold and his people are scrambling through nine hundred pages of conflicting reports - none of which even mention the possibility of manipulating the thymine nucleotide base.'"
"Misdirection," Alex said thoughtfully. "They were playing cat-and-mouse, making him think they were at scientific loggerheads, and pointing him in the wrong direction entirely."
I leaned up to kiss him. "A bit like us, really."
He smiled against my lips. "Yeah." He nodded to the journal. "So who knows what right now?"
"Well, Strughold and Spender both know about Elena and Samantha, but not that they're working together. They think they're on their side. Michael knows what they're really up to. The Dark Man knows about Samantha but not Elena. My mother and Max know about Elena, but they might not know about Samantha."
Alex groaned. "My head hurts."
"We've still got to draft a report for the Dark Man yet."
"Don't remind me." He sighed. "What about the others? Say Bill Mulder?"
I shrugged. "Not sure. He's pretty much out of things by now - retirement on ill health - but he might know about Samantha. Teena would know, too, I suppose."
"Now, just situate me again. Are the Gregors in the equation yet?" He nudged me forward, gently, and got up. He went to the bar. "We need to make a timeline. I'm getting lost here."
"No, I don't think so. Hold on." I flipped through pages. "No, that's later. Thanks," I added, taking the drink he offered. He settled down behind me and drew me back against him once more. "Look."
"'Elena returned from the States today. About time, too - I missed her. The clones are in place, working with foetal tissue in abortion clinics as planned. What we didn't anticipate was new information, and a new alliance. For the first time in a long time, I think there may be hope.'" I looked up at him. "It's weird, reading that, knowing she was depressed. Knowing that all these ups and downs were a prelude to her death."
"It's sad," he agreed. "Poor Samantha. Poor Elena, too, for that matter." His hold on me tightened.
I felt grief, fast and fleeting, and I bowed my head. "Yeah." He stroked my cheek, and I kissed his palm, leaning into it with a sigh. I read on: "'There's a rebel faction on the other planet, opposed to hybridisation. They're purists - they oppose the dilution of their race.'" Suddenly, I stared up at him in dawning recognition. "Oh, my God."
His eyes glittered with understanding. "The UFO - the one Strughold's worrying about. It's a rebel craft."
I drained my drink. "My God."
He took my glass and set it down on the floor beside his. "This is-" he faltered, at a loss.
"I know," I breathed. "It's almost too big to-" and then I had to stop, too. I looked back to the journal. "'We know this from a group of clones known collectively as the Gregors - the ones on whom the work on our own clones was based. Some kind of deal has been made allowing the Gregors' execution. The Gregors are aware of our resistance sympathies (a fact which nearly gave Elena a heart attack), but are prepared to trade information for protection. Elena has placed them in the clinics with our own clones, and I have a decade's worth of new data. Better yet -'" the words were underlined "'- the news of the existence of a rebel faction gives me hope that the hybrid project can be stopped.'"
Alex made a sound of admiration. "They were players - both of them. Much bigger fish than either of us. It's pretty damn impressive."
"That's my sister," I said with a flush of pride. Sudden, wistful affection came over me in waves, and I looked up at him, facing him head-on. "Alex, do you really think we'll ever find her?"
He leaned in and kissed me. "I'm certain of it."
Resting there in his arms, I could almost believe that were true.
He held me every night after that.
It wasn't something we really discussed. That night after dinner, when he was about to leave me, I took his hand in mine, led him away from the door to the bed, and turned down the covers. He watched me, perplexed. I didn't look at him - I didn't dare - but I stripped off my skirt and pantyhose, slipped into bed, and lay down on the far side with my back to him. I stayed there, rigid, my shoulder blades poking stiffly against the soft cotton of my blouse. I waited, hoping to God that he wouldn't refuse me. It was hard enough to ask, and I couldn't have done it if I'd believed - really believed in my heart of hearts - that he would say no.
There was a long pause, and then I heard him unzip his jeans and shrug them off onto the floor. The mattress dipped as he slid into bed behind me and pulled the covers up over us. He put his arm around me, and I leaned back in to him, pressing him closer, twining my fingers with his. He kissed my hair.
"You want me to stay with you like this?"
I nodded. I couldn't speak.
I swallowed hard; said in a low voice, "Every night."
"Okay." He kissed my shoulder. "Goodnight, Mare."
It was settled as simply as that. Some nights he just held me, others he touched me; but he stayed away from my most intimate places. Sometimes I felt like taking his hand and putting him where I wanted him, but I didn't. He knew I wasn't ready - perhaps better than I knew myself.
I made some unsettling discoveries about myself in this time. I found that I liked to be covered...cornered. I liked it when he kissed me, hard against the wall. I liked it when he held me from behind in the bed we shared, and when we moved, his warmth spread over me, until his body almost covered mine. I liked it when he stretched me out at the gym, holding me down, and I fought him because that's what we were there to do, but my nipples were hard and my thighs were loose and, God, I wanted him. There was something I craved which was almost like domination, and that scared the hell out of me.
"It's sick," I said to him abruptly one day.
Alex looked up at me from his seat at the dresser. "Why do you say that?"
"It's like those women who grow up in abusive homes then seek out abusive men." That was a truly horrible analogy, and I didn't realise it until a second too late.
His expression darkened. "I hope you're not saying that I-"
"No, of course not," I said hastily, setting down Samantha's journal on the bedside table. "But I mean, I've spent so long trying to get free of being controlled, and now-" it was hard to say it, but I struggled on, "now I'm excited by it. It's sick."
His brow furrowed. Expression thoughtful, he closed the laptop, rose, and came over to the bed. I shifted over a little to give him room, eyelids flickering as I watched his course. He settled down at my side. "I think you're mixing up control with trust."
I turned onto my side to face him, leaning up on my elbow. "What do you mean?"
"There's nothing wrong with giving yourself over - with allowing yourself to belong to someone, Mare," he said earnestly. "It's why we were given our freedom in the first place - to give it to another."
I stared at him in bewilderment. That whole last statement - it could have been said in another language for all the sense it made. I asked at last, "But isn't that abdicating yourself?"
He shrugged. "It is if you do it once and let them do whatever they want with it. But if it's a choice you make and re-make every day - that's commitment, Mare. It's a good thing."
"So you're saying that I want to belong to you, but in a good way?" I looked at him dubiously.
"More or less. But Mare, it goes both ways."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I belong to you, too, you know."
I stared at him in amazement. "How can you say that so casually - like you're asking me to pass you the salt shaker?" He laughed a little. "No, seriously, Alex, doesn't that - isn't that hard for you?"
"No," he said. "No, Mare, it isn't. In my family, commitment was - it was just how you lived, you know? If you really care, I mean. If the person matters."
I thought about it. Alex thrived on commitment. His whole life was steeped in it. Little wonder he was so good at it - God knew, he'd had a lot of practice. Was that the difference between him and me? That people had always been so busy taking my freedom that I'd never had a chance to use it to give?
I was hopelessly ill-equipped to form a decent answer to any of this, so I leaned up and kissed him instead.
He kissed me in return, cupping my shoulder, drawing me closer, and I felt my mouth open beneath his. He leaned in to me, and I pulled back, pulling him down over me. "Alexi," I whispered, cradling his neck in my hands.
He touched my face, lightly, letting his fingertips travel along my jaw. His breath was hot, skittering along my flesh in currents as he sighed my name. He made a path through my hair with his fingers, tracing delicate circles over my scalp. For a long moment his eyes were closed, his forehead resting against mine as he hummed needy sounds into my mouth. He was smiling, and God, I loved it when he smiled for me.
His palm grazed down over the slope of my neck, tracing the lines of my body to my breast. He squeezed me there, just a little, just enough to send bright trails of need racing along my nerves. "You know, I saw how you were at training," he whispered, cradling me there, making my flesh swell and my veins pulse strong and hard. "I had you pinned down at your wrists, and you fought me so damn hard, but your eyes were so bright-"
"I wanted you," I breathed. "I always want you."
He slid his palms up over mine, linking his fingers with mine, and leaned across to kiss the back of one of my hands. He braced them on the bed at either side of my head, firm but not harsh, his gaze holding mine, searching me for a response. I drew in my breath in a rush, arching my body beneath his, and he must have taken that for agreement, because his restraint died, and he kissed me hard. It was sudden and shocking, and I thrust back my head into the pillows, and my jaw fell open to take him completely. I fed on him, moaning as he plundered my mouth. He was more insistent than I'd ever seen him before, but I was undaunted, because his hands were firm enough to hold me but light enough for me to pull away. It was still my game, but he was in control - and that thought alone was enough to make me feverish with need.
"Do you like this?" he asked. His voice was hypnotic - low and harsh and heavy with desire.
"Yes," I whispered. "Yes."
He slid his mouth beneath my jaw, sucking me in that soft, pulsing hollow of flesh on my neck, and I couldn't touch him, but I pressed myself up against him, letting my legs fall open, letting him settle in between them, my skirt hiked up around my waist. I could feel his warmth radiating through his shirt and mine. He lowered his mouth to my collarbone, then lower still, nuzzling the swell of flesh there through the fabric, still bracing my hands at my side. He teased me, coaxing my breast with the wet heat of his tongue until I was deep in his mouth, arching my back, driving up into him.
"This, Mare," he said, lifting his head, eyes dark and demanding. "Do you like this?"
"Yes," I gasped, straining back up towards him, my hands clinging to his. "Yes."
"And this," he said, sliding back up my body to face me. He pressed himself hard between my legs, his jeans chafing over the wet silk of my panties. I made a long, low sound of need, opening wider beneath him. He seemed to lose the thought then, distracted, sinking his head to my shoulder with a sigh. With a hitching sound, he looked up at me; kissed me, just once, fleeting and chaste. "Do you like this?"
"Yes," I whispered. "Oh, yes."
He began to move, teasing me, pressing his hardness into the soft flesh between my thighs and sliding over me. He made a space there, parting me, stroking me where I wanted it the most, silk and denim taking our friction and making it warm. I felt the sudden release, the slick dampness spreading over me as he moved me back and forth, hips in rhythm, mouths meeting in breaths and sighs. I gripped his hands with mine as he rode me, stretching my body to meet his. "-like this?" he managed, barely coherent between deep, hungry kisses.
"Mm-hmm," I sighed, high and keening. "Alexi."
"Which is it, Mare?" he demanded, his forehead pressed to mine, breath hot on my cheeks. The feel of him hard against me was incredible; hot and exquisite.
I arched up to him, gasping with need, barely registering his words. "What? Which is what?"
"Giving up?" he said, his hands kneading mine. "Or giving over?"
"I don't kn- oh, God, Alex!" I blurted, my body opening for him. I wound my legs around his body, pressing him down into me. I'd have taken him through the fabric if I could.
"Is it -" he faltered, leaning his head against my shoulder, nipping at my neck with his teeth "- is it giving in? Giving in to me?"
I shook my head desperately. "No," I gasped, so high it was just a whimper. "I want - I want this."
"Do you choose it?" he murmured against my neck, thrusting hard against me.
"Yes," I choked out, thrusting back, the first waves of my orgasm building. "Yes."
"Mare, oh, God, Mare."
He rocked with me, pressed deep into my flesh, body rigid and taut as I shook and cried out his name. He released my hands, and I leaned up to kiss him, long and deep and wet. "Oh! Alex," I gasped out, cradling his neck, taking him hungrily. It was the first time he'd made me come.
We lay there, sighing out one another's names, his weight comforting over mine as the shuddering ripples in my body ebbed away. He took one of my hands in his and brought it to his lips. My palms were red where we'd braced onto each other. He took the pads of flesh into his mouth and sucked them, so tenderly, so reverently. It made me want him all over again. "It isn't wanting to be controlled, Mare," he said, voice ragged and worn. "It's just wanting to be warm."
I cradled his head there against my shoulder, kissing his temple. I lingered there; whispered, "You make me warm."
He lifted his head, his eyes searching mine. "Mare," he said, his voice husky, "so beautiful, Mare." He ran tender fingertips over my face, and I leaned up to him, eyes closed. I felt adored.
We stayed there for a long time, just holding each other, but finally, he said, "That was okay - wasn't it?"
I teased my fingers through his hair. "It was more than okay." I felt heat through my veins; I felt welling hope. Maybe I was ready to-
"It was the clothes," he murmured against my neck.
"It was the clothes. It felt safe because of the clothes. Because we could only go so far, and no further."
"Maybe," I conceded, but I felt my hope dim. He was right. Tears sprang to my eyes, and I fought them down. "I want you inside me, Alex," I said before I could stop myself. "I want to feel - full - and warm - with you-" and I couldn't say any more than that - I didn't have either the capacity or the vocabulary, and I was mortified by the exposure of saying it at all.
He lifted his head, and I was struck by the compassion in his features. "I want that too, Mare. It'll happen. I believe that."
"But - every time we try, I feel tight in my chest - it's like I can't breathe-" I broke off, and the tears did flow then - just a little.
He slid off of me, onto his side, and gathered me up against him. He held me for long moments, murmuring sounds of comfort into my hair, cradling me. At last, he said, "You can't force it, Mare. Your mind and your heart are working all this out, every day. We just have to wait."
I pulled back to look at him. "I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of being this fragile doll that everyone has to accommodate. I want to be strong." I hated the petulant way that sounded.
He stared at me, surprised. "You are strong, Mare."
"No, I'm *not*! Look at my life!"
He slid his hands into my hair, cradling me there, making me face him head-on. "You are. Being wounded is not the same as being weak, Marita."
"Then what about us?" I demanded, and the tears were rising again. "You give everything - I give nothing."
"You give more than you know," he said, and he sounded upset. He dipped his head to mine and kissed me, soft and slow. He whispered against my lips, "Do you know what it does to me to watch you fighting for us? To know that it's the hardest thing in the world for you, and yet you do it anyway? No-one's ever fought for me the way you do." He smoothed back my hair, tucking it behind my ear. From anyone else, the paternalism of the gesture would have bothered me, but he did it with such reverence that I basked in it instead. "That night that you asked me to hold you, you were so stiff and scared - but you did it. You did it anyway."
I couldn't speak; but I drew him close, and we held each other.
I thanked God that for him, for now, that was enough.
"Good morning, ladies."
Diana looked up. "Morning, Alex. Join us?"
"Thank you, Diana," he said, slipping into the seat next to me. He took my hand in his for a long moment. He wouldn't normally have done that, but the restaurant was empty. This early, it was officially closed, with only a skeleton staff to attend to the needs of the top-tier members. Diana, of course, was privy to our relationship; it had been the subject of several girl-talks by now. I squeezed his hand before letting go.
"You're up and about early," I said. When I'd left him he'd still been asleep.
"Thought I'd skate before training. Helps me warm up."
"So that's the secret of your success," Diana laughed.
Alex gave a wry laugh. "No, the secret of my success is that I don't want Karen to shout at me. When God made Karen, he forgot the volume control."
Diana sipped her coffee. "Well, you're going to be seeing more of her. There are other courses I want you to take - both of you. Espionage 101 - lock-picking, safe-cracking, forgery, customs evasion, that sort of thing. Guess who's going to be your coach?"
I raised an eyebrow. "She's a regular jill-of-all-trades."
"She'd want to be. She was a black-ops girl for Castro. She makes Cardinale look like an amateur."
Alex frowned. "What's she doing here, then?"
"Castro owes me a couple of favours," she said, grinning broadly. I wasn't sure whether she was joking or not - with Diana, it could have gone either way. "I called one in."
"For us?" I demanded, setting down my cup with a clatter.
She shrugged. "I want you to learn from the best."
Alex and I exchanged glances. "Is there something you're not telling us, Diana?" he demanded, leaning towards her over the table.
It was standard interrogation-by-intimidation, and she didn't fall for it. "Look, you're both pretty young and pretty new and you're in pretty deep. I just thought a crash-course might be in order - one from someone who knows what they're doing. Karen's the best there is."
I was about to comment when I spotted the Dark Man in the doorway. Diana saw him at the same moment, and she held out a beckoning hand. "Darling! Come join us."
I whispered, "This discussion isn't over." She sat back with a smug little smile as the Dark Man came and sat down.
"Morning, ladies; morning Krycek," he said. "I can't stay. I have to drive down to DC. Mulder's running around like a kamikaze. I've got to do some damage control."
Diana snorted. "Fox is being reckless? Gee, that's unusual."
"His behaviour is extreme, even for him. Dana Scully's critical - I don't think he even knows what he's doing half the time." I glanced at Alex, and I could see the way his cheek flickered. I groped for his hand under the table and found it. He closed his fingers around mine and held on tight.
"What's her prognosis?" he asked, voice unnaturally controlled.
"She's not going to make it," Diana supplied. "They're switching off life support today." She made a sound of annoyance. "Whoever handled her tests ought to be shot. She's engorged, for God's sake. If her doctors notice that, it's only a short step to realising her fertility was tampered with. What kind of an idiot returns an abductee before her milk's dried up?"
"It's been a shambles from start to finish," the Dark Man agreed. "She didn't need to die. Goddamn incompetent scientists."
Abruptly, Alex rose, withdrawing his hand from mine. "I have to go," he said, voice neutral. "Excuse me." He turned and stalked off.
I stared at the other two in utter disbelief. I turned on them, hissing, "Damn you both!"
They looked at each other, uncomprehending. Diana said in bewilderment, "What did we do?"
"Alex was part of Scully's abduction," I said, the anger rising in my throat. "He didn't need to hear any of that."
Diana looked contrite, but the Dark Man argued, "Marita, Krycek knew what was going to happen to her. If he can't handle it, he shouldn't be in the game."
"Yes, he did. And he can. But you didn't have to rub it in his face." I got to my feet, my cheeks flaming. "It was cruel - and I've never known either of you to be cruel."
Diana sighed. "Marita, where are you going?"
"To find him." I turned away and hurried off, heels clattering on the floor.
I was conscious of their scrutiny, but I realised that I no longer cared.
I found him where I thought I would find him - on the ice.
The cool air washed over me as I opened the door to the deserted rink. It was used by few since Samantha's death - mostly children of the staff, rather than members - and not even the manager was in yet. I let myself into the office and grabbed a jacket. I pulled it around me, shivering a little, then went out to the main arena.
He was skating around in laps, taking short sharp strokes. He went faster and faster, bent low, his figure cutting through the mist like a knife. I stood at the boards, watching him, hoping he'd see me and come over. He didn't, but about the fifth lap, he raised his head a little, and the grief I saw etched into his expression made me gasp. And there were tears, too, streaming down the sides of his face from reddened eyes. I'd never seen him shed tears before.
I glanced back to the office - I couldn't see any snow boots, and I didn't know where they were kept. Skates would take too long. I couldn't leave him like that. So I went out there, stepping on the ice unsteadily on my heels, the cold rising through my feet in a rush. I stopped in his path. He looked up and saw me. I waited.
He skidded to a stop in front of me. "Damn it, Marita, I could have knocked you down," he yelled, but I put my arms around him before he could finish, and then he was shaking, burying his head against my shoulder, clutching at my hair with his hands, twisting it between his fingers.
"Alex," I whispered. "Oh, Alex, it's okay."
He clung to me, even tighter, arms sliding desperately over my back. "I hate what I've become."
"I don't," I murmured into his cheek. I couldn't feel my legs anymore. I didn't care.
"Why? Why don't you hate me?" he demanded, pulling back to look at me, nose to nose.
He looked so wretchedly bewildered, like a child. I tasted salt in my mouth, not tears yet but the beginnings of them, and there was a driving ache deep in my belly. It hurt me to see him that way. "I only know what you are to me, Alexi," I said, cradling his neck with my hands. "If I have to take the bad with the good, if I have to take the things you do and live with them, then that's what I'll do."
His features contorted with pain. "It doesn't work like that, Mare! None of us can just stand by when someone does the things I do! If you assent to them, then they're your sins too. I can't ask you to do that! I can't ask you to take that on!"
I stared at him with dawning understanding - not only of him, but of my life. He was right. I'd grown up with killers - Michael, Edward, the Dark Man. I'd never questioned any of it. I'd been their silent accomplice. Was I willing to keep doing that? Was I? If I wasn't, then I would have to walk away from him, and that was something I could never, ever do.
"You're not asking," I said at last. "I'm offering. We're in this together." He opened his mouth to protest, and I put my hand to his lips. "Your sins are my sins."
At almost any other time, I think he would have argued; but he only closed his eyes, pain and relief intermingled in his expression. He tried to speak, faltered, then leaned in and kissed me hungrily. He clutched at me, drawing me in with desperate need. He tasted of salt, his own warm tears on his lips, and I drank them in, taking them and making them mine. He pulled back, just a fraction, his face still grazing against mine, and he sighed, "I don't deserve you, Mare."
"And I don't deserve you," I said, and neither of us could argue with that anymore, because we were both killers, we were both takers, and the cold flooding through my veins seemed to prove it. "I guess we got lucky."
"Yeah, I guess we did."
I cradled his head against my neck, and we stayed there holding one another, bound by love and by need and by guilt, and I realised I no longer knew one from the other. We were so far gone that if it took blood to keep us together, then so be it. I would damn my pathetic excuse for a soul before I'd let him face it alone. It hardly mattered, anyway.
I was beginning to see that we were already damned.
"I bet he'd fuck you hard."
Inwardly, I cringed, but I strove for neutrality. "That may be. But I thought we were talking about your fantasies, Richard." Matheson's hands drifted over my shoulders, squeezing them in a mediocre attempt at a massage. His palms were clammy and sticky. I could feel his stale, cloying breath on my neck as he peered over my shoulder, down to the gap between my bikini and the flesh between my breasts. I could feel him groping me with his gaze, and I hated him.
"Oh, but this is, Marita," he said, shifting closer to me. The wiry hairs on his chest itched at my back, and not even the bubbling water could quite disguise the way I arched away from him. "This is a personal favourite, watching you and Alex. Maybe with Diana thrown in for good measure. What do you say, Diana?"
Diana peered at him sidelong over her drink, her features wrinkled with distaste. "Screwing Marita and Alex, I can handle. It's the audience I have a problem with."
Matheson's voice dripped mock reproach. "Be nice, Diana. Fox is ancient history for both of us."
Diana turned to face him in a single, sharp movement. Water flicked off the ends of her hair. "You screwed my husband - in every possible way. Don't tell me to be nice." She muttered into her drink, "Asshole."
I intervened. "Richard, back off. Diana's off-limits."
I felt him shrug. "Then I guess that just leaves you and Alex."
That hurt - God, that hurt. I hadn't even been able to make love to Alex, and I had to listen to scum like Matheson talk about it. Talk about it like *that*. "Richard, it will be a cold day in hell before you get to see me fuck anyone."
"Then I'll have to settle for fantasy, won't I?" he said, squeezing my shoulders. He leaned in, his breath hot and humid in my ear. "Do you want to hear it?"
"Not particularly." Oh, please, no. No. I closed my eyes.
"I think he'd push you down over the side of the spa there," he said, squeezing harder. "I think he'd strip down those leather pants you wear and leave them around your ankles so you couldn't move. I think he'd put his hands on your ass and spread that pretty pink cunt-"
I tuned out. It took every ounce of will that I had, but I managed to reduce his voice to a buzzing hum in my mind. Now and then, fragments would register, progressively more ugly and coarse as time wore on. I felt my face grow hot with humiliation. I didn't want him to think of us that way. I didn't want anyone to think of us that way. I felt soiled.
Diana was watching me; obviously, acutely uncomfortable. Whatever disagreements had passed between us, I was so grateful that she stayed. Her hand closed over mine beneath the water, and I held it tightly. It wasn't until I tasted salt that I realised that there were tears slipping down my cheeks.
Finally, I pushed his hands off my shoulders and pulled away. "You're boring me, Richard. Go away."
"But we have an appointment-"
I cut him off. "I don't care. Go away."
"If I'm boring you, perhaps I should be punished-"
I turned to face him and hissed, "I said, go away."
I don't know what he saw in my face, but whatever it was, it brought him up short, made his arrogance falter. He stared at me, compelled to silence for perhaps the first time in all the time I'd known him. He held my gaze for a long moment, and then he did as he was told, pulling out of the water in a rush. I sank back, shivering uncontrollably as he stormed off to the men's locker room.
"Rita," Diana began.
I looked straight ahead, breathing deeply, willing my body to stop shaking. "Diana, I'm fine."
"No, you're not."
I opened my mouth to argue; but she shifted closer to me, leaning in, propping her head up with her hand like a schoolgirl about to whisper some girlish confidence. She said in a low voice, "Marita, do you know what Alex asked me a few months ago?" I shook my head. "He asked me if you were raped."
It hit me like a fist to my belly. "Oh, my God," I whispered, my hand pressed to my mouth. I sat there, shock coming over me in waves. "What did he tell you?"
"Nothing. He was very discreet," she said. "But I can read between the lines." Her look was kind. "You've got to get out of this, Rita."
I shook my head wretchedly. "I can't."
"Why not? Just walk away, Marita. Move back into Michael's apartment. Leave the house to Connie - I'll watch her, make sure she looks after the girls. We'll put around that this whole dominatrix kick was a bizarre grief response. We can say there were drugs involved."
"And what about Alex?"
"What about him?"
"We can be together here. We can do the work we need to do here. It's a controlled environment. We can't do that outside." At least, not without turning rogue, but that was too frightening to contemplate. "We're from opposing factions. If Spender gets wind that there's something between us - something important - he'll kill him."
"Maybe we could barter for him," Diana suggested. "Edward could use him. We could spare one of our scientists."
"No. In other circumstances, maybe, but Spender was grooming Alex as a potential successor. He'd take it as a personal slight."
"Maybe if you were careful-"
"You know better than that. We find listening devices nearly every day."
She nodded, her face grim and resigned. I was right, and she knew it. "Look, Marita," she said, "I have three men in DC that I can trust, and I can probably scrounge another two from Max. Do you want me to bring them in? They can be your submissives - purely for show. You wouldn't have to take any of this crap from them."
I grasped at her hand. "Would you?"
She nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I would."
I breathed out, a shaky sigh of relief. "Thank you, Diana." She sat there, waiting, while I grew calm. At last, I released her hand, and I shook my head. "Do you know, I'm only just starting to realise how surreal it all is?"
She looked at me, brow furrowed with confusion. "How do you mean?"
"Diana, we're sitting here talking about bartering for the man I-" I faltered, meeting her gaze and finding sympathy. I started again. "It's like he's a trinket in a shop. And I used to take that for granted - all the assumptions about people's worth and people's freedom and the value of life and all that - I bought into it all." I shook my head incredulously. "I believe in the work, Diana, but there's all this other baggage that goes with it, and I used to buy all of it. Completely." I looked away, ashamed. "That probably sounds very naive to someone who came in from outside."
"It does, but it's understandable. You were raised in it."
I looked at her once more. "And you came in. I had a part in that. I'm sorry about that, Diana."
She bowed her head, regret lighting over her features, but then she looked up again with a bittersweet smile. "I'm not. The work is hard, but it's worthwhile. And I found Edward - he's a good man. He's worth it."
"Alex is a good man, too, Rita. Please don't let this place take him away from you." I shook my head.
"I don't intend to."
I made my way to my suite, my mind whirling.
Alex had asked if I was raped.
Of course he did, Marita. What the hell was he supposed to think? Did you really think he just blindly accepted all this? Did you think he didn't wonder why you are the way you are?
Did you think it didn't hurt?
In truth, I hadn't thought much about it. I worried, of course - I worried that he thought badly of me; I worried that he would tire of me with my stupid, stupid limitations. When he held me so chastely in the bed we shared, I wondered whether he resented me for what I couldn't give him, but it had never occurred to me that he might grieve for me. I had totally underestimated the depth of his compassion.
I had underestimated his worth.
An ugly realisation, but I owed him the recognition of its truth. I couldn't give my body - not yet - but I could give him that. I could give knowing what he was. I watched him with new eyes that night, thought about all the little ways that he accommodated me; and I wondered how all that looked through his eyes.
When we were getting ready for bed, I sat at the dresser and began to brush my hair. He came and sat behind me, taking the brush from me without a word. We didn't do this so much anymore - sharing a bed had gradually supplanted this as intimacy - but just once in a while, he would see me sitting there, and he would come and be with me.
What was he thinking, I wondered, as he brushed my hair? It wasn't a masculine gesture, but a feminine one - one he did very much for me rather than him. Did he make love to me in his heart when he touched me that way? Did he do it because that was the only way he could? The thought pleased me and saddened me in turns. He looked peaceful, sitting there - perhaps, then, this was the time to draw him out.
"You asked Diana if I was raped."
He looked up, meeting my gaze in the mirror. His eyelids flickered. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I did."
I watched him, and I thought that he looked sad. "I don't blame you for wondering why I am the way I am."
"It hurts you," I said. "I never realised that before."
He looked back to my hair, evading me. "Mare, we don't need to have this discussion. This is something that's happening to you, and I don't want to take away from that."
"I think we should. We should because it's happening to both of us." It shamed me to think we had been together this long without me realising that. I insisted, "This hurts you. Doesn't it?"
He frowned, staring at my hair. He didn't brush it, though; just stayed there, very still. At last, he said, "I hurt because you hurt. And because you don't know how good it could be for us. I don't just mean the sex - I mean that part of you that just can't let me in - that part that shuts down and shuts me out."
I said nothing, but only waited, watching him in the mirror. At last, he looked back at me, meeting my gaze in our reflection. "You don't know how I could touch you." His voice was tinged with sadness. I turned to look, not at his reflection, but at him. "I would touch you the way a woman should be touched. I would revere you," he said, putting the brush aside. He smoothed my hair with his hands, and, sighing, I put my head back, turning it a little, longing for his touch. I felt some deep hunger in me break free of its bounds, growing lazily as he leaned over my shoulder. I turned my face to him, and his warm breath hit my cheek as he said hypnotically, "I would worship you."
He slid his hands down over my arms, his palms catching on the fabric, dragging it torturously across my aching flesh. His fingers reached my wrists, tracing tiny, lazy, gossamer-soft circles there, sliding languidly over the backs of my hands to cover them, teasing back and forth over the clefts between my fingers. He entwined his fingers with mine, holding me from behind, clasping my hands with gentle relentlessness, and I found myself holding him, responding to his pressure with pressure of my own. "I would let you touch me - really touch me," he breathed into my ear, laying his head on my shoulder from behind, "and maybe I could touch you. If only you'd let me in." I could taste salt - salt from tears I hadn't realised I'd shed, because how I wanted that; and I hated myself for my weakness. We stayed there for a long, long moment, holding one another; but then there was a hitching sound, a sudden catch in his breathing. He said thickly, painfully, "But you never will."
His arms broke free of me in a rush, and I flinched as he left me. I felt naked and cold - and alone. He kissed me, just above my ear. "I need to skate, Mare," he murmured into my hair. "I'll be back." God, he was going to weep for me. He was going to take his pain and release it alone. To spare me. Oh, dear God.
He rose abruptly, stalking to the door in long strides; and I felt some dam within me break. I wanted everything he'd said, and I wanted it with him; and at last, my wanting outstripped my fear. I got to my feet, and I cried out, "Touch me, Alex."
He turned, his hand on the doorknob, his expression shocked. I spoke nakedly, without artifice, my voice low and raw with pain and need. "Please touch me."
He watched me for a long, long moment, throat twitching, face working, lips slightly parted as though to speak. And then he came to me, his hand outstretched, raising it to my cheek but stopping just shy of me. I closed the gap, pushing my cheek into his palm, taking his skin there between my lips, cherishing it because it was his. He made a sound of need, low and raw and keening, his breaths shaky through parted lips. "Oh, Mare," he whispered, lifting his other hand, cradling my jaw with it, leaning in to lay his mouth on mine.
He paused just as our lips met, his breath hot, his eyes wide and shining and fixed on mine. He was trembling, and his chest rose and fell in rhythm with mine. "Alexi," I whispered into his mouth, and I kissed him, slow and adoring, my mouth opening beneath his. His lips were soft and caressing, his mouth warm and engulfing. I drank him in, sliding my fingers over his neck, teasing them through his sweet, soft hair. He touched my face reverently, as though I were something precious, and I felt adored.
I tasted my own salty tears, and so did he; and he pulled back a fraction. "Okay?" he asked gently.
I nodded. "I never knew it could be like this," I whispered, my lips brushing his.
"It should always be like this," he said wistfully. He smoothed back a tendril of my hair. "Like-"
"Worship," I breathed, and he nodded.
"Worship," he agreed, his mouth on mine once more. He took the lead this time, searching my mouth, tasting me, his arms sliding down to press my body against his, one hand warm and firm at my waist, the other between my shoulder blades. This kiss was masterful, possessive; and I gave myself up to it, and found that I liked it. I wanted to be his. I was his. I am his. And that realisation was not the hateful one I'd expected, because I knew that he was mine.
I slid my hands up over his shoulders, pushing back his jacket, and he released me long enough to let it fall to the floor. Holding his gaze, transfixed, I traced the contours of his arms with questing fingertips - first through his sleeve, then, lower down, skin to skin. He was warm and silky and substantial under my palms, and he made a raw sound of pure longing, the sound escaping him in a rush of breath. My senses were alive, and everything entranced me - the texture of his skin under my fingers; his oh, so long eyelashes framing eyes of mahogany, flashing as they watched me watching him; the exaggerated shape of his lips, slightly parted and inviting.
He raised his hands to my shirt, unfastening the buttons there, and I caught his hand, tracing patterns on his wrist with my fingertips as he did so. We gazed at each other, spellbound, and suddenly, we were pressed hard against one another, kissing once more, undressing forgotten, mouths tender and insistent, a lovemaking of its own. "Mare," he gasped out between kisses, "oh, God, Mare."
"Alexi," I said, huskily, my voice heavy with need. "My Alexi." He nodded agreeably, but anything he might have said was lost as our mouths met all over again. I unfastened the buttons he'd missed on my shirt, wanting to be naked to him; but then he was guiding me to the bed, kneeling on the floor before me, and I sat, sliding my fingertips over his face - forehead, cheeks, eyes, nose, jaw - memorising every contour. His eyes were unnaturally bright, and I wondered how long it had been since anyone had loved him this way - really loved him - or if anyone ever had. Could it be that he'd been as alone as I? The thought of it moved me, and I kissed his eyelids, first left, then right, lingering at each, cherishing the feel of paper-thin flesh and feathery eyelashes. He gave a low moan, thick with need. "You touch me somehow, Alex. You always have."
"You touch me," he whispered, eyes still closed, as though in concession. "I've been yours all along." Our lips met, this time hesitantly, tenderly, and he said against me, echoing my words, "Touch me, Mare."
I touched him.
I pulled his shirt over his head, and I drew him to me, pressing his body to mine, flesh against flesh. We sank back on the bed, fumbling with waistbands, casting clothes and weapons aside. Rolling him onto his back, I explored him in awed fascination, tracing the lines of him with my hands and my lips. I loved the way my palm caught on his ribs as I ran it up his torso. I loved the way the light caught the fine hairs on his arms. I loved the salty taste of his skin in the little crevice at his throat. I was enthralled.
His arm tightened around me, and I let him draw me up beside him to face him once more. His hand drifted lightly over my body, languid and teasing. I thought he would devote his attention to my breasts or between my thighs, and part of me craved that; but he didn't. Instead, he found other places - the crook of my elbow; the place where my belly was slightly curved. He held my hand with his and traced the lines of my palm with his thumb, as though fascinated by this minute detail that was uniquely mine. He looked at me, mahogany eyes gleaming with wonder, and leaned in to kiss me once more, his hand still holding mine. This kiss was slow and searching, tinged with awe, growing more and more insistent until my wanting consumed me.
He eased me onto my back, covering me with his bulk. I arched my body beneath his, sighing, relishing the way he filled my vision, the way his warmth spread over me. His intensity was contagious, and suddenly I was kissing him, hard, my mouth questing, aggressive. The heat was building within me, filling my body, radiating through my limbs and my head. It was the heat of sex and lust, but it was more - it was *him*. He filled my senses, enveloping me, body and soul; and I needed him to make that possession complete. I wound my legs around him, sliding them up his body, pressing his hips to mine. He was hard against me, and I made a low sound, long and raw. "Alex, I can't wait - please -" I broke off with a sigh of exquisite need.
"You're sure?" he breathed, and the tightness was there in my chest, just a little, but I nodded.
"I want this," I said. "I choose it."
"Oh, Mare," he breathed, and then he slid into me, melding with me, bodies becoming one; and I gasped at the precious joy of it. He moved with me, one arm curled around my shoulders, his torso pressed to mine, flesh meeting flesh, hearts beating side-by-side. He cradled my cheek with profound gentleness, with awe. "Oh, Mare."
I kissed him, so tenderly, so reverently. "My Alexi," I whispered, meeting his body stroke for stroke. With every stroke I felt freer and lighter, less afraid, less alone. The warmth gathered in my belly and radiated out, flooding my body, and then I was shaking, crying out his name, holding him deep within myself as he filled me. He sighed out my name when he came - not Marita, but Mare - and afterwards he rested his head against my neck, breathing it over and over in an erratic melody.
We didn't speak, but he gathered me up in his arms, and we stayed there, cherishing one another in the silence. There were no endearments, but he kissed my hair and stroked my face and he made me feel loved. I felt great peace, great joy.
He owned me now, and we both knew it, and that seemed like the most dangerous thing in the world to me. But a small fire within me burned, one that cared nothing for the danger, and that fire blazed in celebration.
Because, God help me, I loved him.
And I know now that I will love him until the day I die.
We spent our first Christmas together in Boston.
Ostensibly, it was a business trip: we went to Harvard, and I met with some of Elena's old professors under the guise of a holiday. The only one who remembered her on any personal basis was a Dr Charne-Sayrre, but even that, ultimately, turned out to be a pointless exchange of social niceties. I filed away the fact that Charne-Sayrre was a variola expert, but that was about the extent of my knowledge gain for the day. Simply too much time had passed: Marita Covarrubias, the scientist, was remembered as a brilliant mind, but no one knew or cared what had become of her. I supposed I would have had the same experience had I returned to Oxford as Marita Ekaterinberg; still, it struck me as sad.
I didn't allow myself to be too discouraged. Harvard was no longer a major lead - not in comparison to the diaries. Alex and I made the best of it: we made love by day and walked hand-in-hand through the city by night. Those were good times. Boston was the first real holiday I ever had, and it felt so good to be normal, to do normal things without looking over my shoulder all the time. It felt good to be with him - to feel his hand in mine as we walked along the Charles, or to lean against him on the steps of Sander's Theatre, or to feel him inside me, whispering that I was beautiful, that he was mine. Boston was his world before he'd joined mine, and I loved being there with him, hearing him reminisce, his eyes far away, back in a time when he was free. We stayed there for three weeks - much too long, long enough to exhaust my vacation time, long enough to be missed by the group - but it was good.
"Was it like this with Mulder?" I asked him one day. It was an idle thought spoken aloud - an ill-considered one - and when he looked at me, surprise apparent in his expression, I said hastily, "I'm sorry - I don't mean to put you on the spot-"
He squeezed my hand, shrugging off my apology. "No. It wasn't like this with Mulder. It wasn't like this with anyone."
He shook his head. "Mulder had too much baggage."
More baggage than me? Dear God. "I have baggage."
"So do I. But we deal with it together. Mulder was hell-bent on being just him against the world."
"Whereas we're together against the world?" I said, arching an eyebrow.
I expected him to laugh, but he stopped, releasing my hand, and turned to face me. He stroked back my hair and tucked it behind my ear. "Yeah."
I smiled, slipping up my hands between us to rest on his shoulders. "I like that."
He leaned in and kissed me. "Me too." He took my hand, and we walked once more.
We were silent as day melded into dusk, but finally, he said with more than a trace of regret, "You know, we're going to have to go back to Westminster sooner or later."
"Yeah, I know," I said. "I hate that place."
His voice was heavy with venom. "One of these days, you and I are going to torch it."
"I like the sound of that."
We heard clattering footsteps behind us, and we both turned. Alex's hand went into his jacket, to his shoulder holster, but I grabbed onto his arm and tugged it down again. I said in an undertone, "It's Bonita Charne-Sayrre."
"Marita?" she called out. "I thought it was you."
We waited for her to catch up. "Dr Charne-Sayrre, hello," I said. I turned to Alex. "This is Bonita Charne-Sayrre. She was one of my professors in college. This is-" I broke off.
Neatly, he filled the gap. "Nicolai Arntzen. Good to meet you, Dr Charne-Sayrre."
"Please - Bonita."
I wasn't quite sure what to say. I was caught unprepared. "Would you like to walk with us, Bonita?"
"Oh, just for a moment. I'm meeting someone at the clock," she said, nodding to the Cambridge bank a little way off. "I'm glad I saw you, though. After you left the other day, I pulled out some of your old papers. I wondered whether you did any follow-up work into variola and thymine nucleotides - you had some interesting theories there."
Elena's research. Shit. "A little," I said cautiously. "I got some promising data, but I'm under contract to a pharmaceutical company. I can't discuss it."
"Oh, I understand. It's a sad day when knowledge is a commodity, don't you think? Still, it's the world we live in. Interesting work - I'll look forward to seeing it published."
"Thank you." I glanced sidelong at Alex, a little unnerved.
"Do you still see any of the other alumni, Marita? I remember during your last semester you spent a lot of time with that professor-in-residence - what was her name? The one visiting from Yale? Sally Kendrick?"
"I remember," I fibbed, "but no. We lost touch."
She shrugged, smiling. "I suppose it's inevitable these days. Oh - there's my friend. Be sure to stop in next time you're in Boston, won't you, Marita?"
"Oh, of course," I said. "Good to see you again."
"You too. Mr Arntzen," she added with a nod.
He nodded, smiling ingeniously. "Bonita."
We waved her off, and I breathed out in a rush. "Thank God that's over. I need to prepare for things like that." Alex shot me a sympathetic grin, his fingers tightening over mine. I mused, "Sally Kendrick from Yale. Might be worth following up."
"I don't think Elena would have maintained any of her old contacts when she went off to work for Strughold. We'd be better looking into that thymine nucleotide business - didn't Samantha mention it in her diary?"
I considered. "You're probably right. Thymine's got something to do with DNA, I think - it's like one of the building blocks. That would fit with the cloning and the hybrids."
"It would. I'll spend some time online when we get back - see what I can find out." Alex nodded to the retreating figure behind us. "That Charne-Sayrre woman knows her stuff. She might be useful down the track."
I snorted. "Yeah, as long as I can continue to pass myself off as a scientist."
"That pharmaceutical contract guff was good."
"I think fast on my feet."
"And such beautiful feet they are," he said, turning to face me, linking his free hand with mine. "You know, if we went back to our hotel I could rub them for you."
"You want to rub my feet?"
He gave a mischievous grin. "For starters."
I turned and led him back the way we came. "Let's go."
"So," I said, dropping onto the bed in exhaustion a couple of hours later. "Nicolai Arntzen?"
Alex sidled up beside me, running a hand over my thigh, teasing it up over my belly. "My middle name and my grandmother's name." He lowered his mouth to my shoulder and kissed it, sucking on my flesh there, and I felt myself wanting him all over again.
I ran my hand idly through his hair. "Nicolai isn't patronymic, though, is it?"
He looked up, resting his chin on my arm. "No. It was for my sister. She died before I was born. Her name was patronymic, but when they had me it was more important to them to honour her. My father was Czech, so it wasn't really his tradition anyway." He leaned forward to kiss me.
I drew back. "Her name was patronymic?"
"Yeah. Nicola Petyrovna."
"I never knew girls got patronymic names, too." My brow furrowed. "I don't have one."
He shrugged easily. "Your mother defected when you were three days old. She probably wanted you to have an American name."
I sat up, crossing my arms over myself. "No, that doesn't make sense. What about Elena's name? Ekaterina isn't American."
Alex sat up, too. "No, but it can pass for German. It's not in-your-face Russian like a patronymic. Remember, people weren't kind to Russians here in the seventies." I wasn't convinced, and he went on, "Look, maybe she was missing your father. Maybe it hurt too much to give you his name."
"You'd think that would make her want to honour him more. She adored Papa - she still carries his picture in her wallet, even now. And my mother isn't given to sentimental gestures."
"You'd think so - but grieving people do strange things. Anyway, maybe he didn't care for the tradition either - Covarrubias isn't a Russian name."
"No," I conceded. "It's Mediterranean. A few generations back, though."
"Well, there you go."
I searched his face for signs of doubt, and found none. "Do you really think that's all it is?"
"Absolutely," he said. "What else could it be?" I shrugged, and he leaned forward, cradling my shoulder with his palm, drawing me close. "Besides. I love your name."
"You love my name?" I said dubiously.
He eased his hand down my body, and I arched my back a little, getting closer. "It rolls off the tongue."
"You know, you shouldn't smooth talk. You don't do it very well."
He grinned. "Made you smile, though."
I grinned back. "Yeah, you did."
He lowered his head to my throat and kissed me there, and I sighed, sliding my leg between his. His thigh was up high, pressed hard against me, and I shifted, relishing the feeling. He murmured, "So are we heading back, or are we just going to elope and be done with it?"
All my arousal, all my good feeling fell away in an instant. The tightness in my chest was suddenly back at full force. My smile faltered a little, but I forced myself to stay neutral. "We should go back. Want me to ring for a flight?"
"Sure." He looked a little disappointed, but he didn't protest when I extricated myself from his arms.
Suddenly, him touching me was the last thing that I wanted.
I hated Westminster.
In fact, between Michael's murder and The Den, I was willing to extend that feeling to the whole of Maryland. That wasn't exactly a newsflash, but after nearly a month in Boston the feeling was acute. Gazing out over the rolling hills and the trees to the distant walls that fenced the compound, I felt imprisoned. For the first time in my life I had tasted freedom, and it wasn't enough. I wanted more. More time, more space, more Alex. Especially more Alex.
Diana's voice came from behind me. "They're just like little old women."
I turned away from my stance at the window. "What?"
She nodded towards Edward and Alex. "Look at them. They're like little old ladies with her."
I looked, and I couldn't resist a smile despite my disquiet. Alex was holding Elizabeth, grinning broadly. Edward was pointing at her cheek and laughing. "What the hell are they doing?"
"I don't know. Pointing out dimples or something. I left when the words got down to two syllables." We laughed, softly, in that indulgent way that women do about their men. She sighed, her gaze lighting on Edward. "It's good to have him home."
"I'll bet. When does he fly back to Tunis?"
We were silent for a few moments, watching them. I said hesitantly, "Diana, this wasn't just a courtesy to me, was it? Having Alex as godfather?"
Diana stared at me, surprise apparent in her face. "Not at all, Marita. I know we haven't known him that long, but he's decent. Edward and I don't know many decent people."
I supposed that was true enough. "It means a lot to me. To him, too, I know." Presently, I said, "It's a big commitment."
"Being a godparent?" she said quizzically. "You know, it's not the whole guardianship thing people think it is. You talked to the priest - it's a formative responsibility, that's all."
"No, I know - I don't mean that." The idea of me having a formative influence on a child was laughable in its own right, but I had bigger fish to fry. "But going into it together - I mean-" I broke off, my brow furrowed.
Diana's voice dropped a level. "Rita? What is it?"
I glanced up at Alex, then away again. "He - he mentioned marriage."
"Alex proposed?" She didn't sound particularly surprised at the idea, and that sent my fears soaring.
"No...no. It was just, you know, a throwaway line. But men don't joke about marriage - do they? Not unless they're thinking about it."
Diana looked uncomfortable. "Look, Marita, normally I'd agree with you; but Alex isn't your typical man. I don't think you can apply conventional women's-column wisdom to him. It might not mean anything."
"Maybe," I conceded. A shiver rippled through my body, and I shifted my shoulders, crossing my arms over my body.
Diana watched me, her brow furrowed, concerned. "Marita, this has really got you spooked, hasn't it? I mean, look - even if he is thinking about it, you must have known he was serious about you. He waited, what, four months?" I nodded. "Men don't wait like that unless it matters to them. It's a little fast, maybe, but we're all on a reduced lifespan here." I passed my hand over my brow and back over my hair. It was a nervous, clumsy gesture. "Don't you want him to be serious? I mean, am I totally misreading this? I thought you loved him."
"No - I - it isn't -" I fanned my hand over my face, feeling it grow red and warm. I tasted tears in my throat, and I could feel the tightness rising in my chest. "It's just all too much - I can't-" I broke off, my hand clasped to my mouth.
Diana's arm was around my shoulder. "I've upset you. I'm sorry." She turned me away from the men and pulled a tissue from her jacket pocket. "Come on, quickly. Before they see."
My breath caught in my throat, a pathetic, hitching sound. "I'm so afraid." I pressed the tissue hard to my eyes, stemming tears before they fell. "God, Diana. Why is this happening to me? Why can't it just be - be easy? Like for everyone else?" She passed me her wine, and I downed it in a single gulp. "I just want-" I stopped, unable to finish.
I heard Edward's voice behind me. "Hey, Alex, let's see what Diana and Marita-" and then I saw Diana look over her shoulder, shaking her head. "-bought for the baby. Come over here." Hurriedly, I dried my eyes and glanced to the mirror on Diana's dresser for reassurance. There was no sign of the recent storm.
"Come on, Rita. Don't do this to him. He doesn't deserve it." The words were harsh, but her voice was kind.
"I know," I said, breathing deeply. "I know that, Diana."
"You ready to go over to them?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Come on."
The men looked up at our approach. Alex was still holding Elizabeth. She was playing with the zipper on his jacket, steel inching along leather. He looked up from child to mother with real fondness. "She's lovely, Diana."
Diana laughed. "You're biased." She looked pleased anyway.
"I deny that. I've been saying it for months."
I still felt shaky, but I forced myself to join in the banter. "So you're merely endowed with good taste, then," I said. He held out his free hand, and after a moment's pause, I went to him and settled into the crook of his arm, letting him sling it companionably around my shoulders.
"Yeah," he said, squeezing my shoulder a little. "I am."
He went back to fussing over Elizabeth, and I watched him in profile. I could feel myself smiling. Just for a moment, what Diana had with Edward - what I had with him in that fragment of a moment - seemed so right. So warm. I could sense the peace and the companionship that life could bring me, and when he looked at me once more, I kissed him, impulsively tender. In that moment, the unreasoning terror ebbed away, cold countered by warmth, and all I knew was that I longed to be warm like that all the time.
But that night in his arms, when I thought back on it, the old, familiar fear rose in my chest and tightened around my heart once more.
I wondered whether I would ever be warm again.
"The Den saved me."
I look up at her, closing her journal and setting it aside. She's been reading over my shoulder - for how long exactly, I'm not sure. No-one else could do that - not even the children - but she's so much a part of me that she doesn't even trip my sensors anymore. I can't distinguish her scent from mine, except when I really breathe in and decide to do so. All the senses that kept me alive for all those years go by the boards with her.
Now, I turn away from the laptop, and she slips down onto my lap. I curl my arm around her waist. "How so?" I say, leaning in to kiss her cheek.
"I'd have just found another protector, Alex. If I hadn't been put somewhere that took all my fears and all my needs and stirred them up the way that place did, I would have just continued along the path, and I'd have died inside."
I agree with her, but I'm surprised that she recognises it. It's something I've never said to her - indeed, there are a lot of things about this time that we've never talked about. I wonder, sometimes, whether she resents me for dredging it all up. She's never asked me not to, but she's fidgeting a lot lately. If she weren't nursing, if we weren't trying for another baby, I think she'd be smoking again.
"Do you mind me doing this?" I ask her.
"Sometimes it's hard," she admits, "but no. I think you need to do it."
"And I think you need to read it."
That makes her pause. Slowly, she says, "Maybe that's true. Maybe I need to face up to who we were and who we've become as much as you do."
I don't know what to say. I'm competent on a laptop, but now, when she really needs me to say the right thing, the words all dry up. I tell her lamely, "You don't have anything to face up to," but I know that isn't really true.
She bows her head. "I'm not proud of the person I was then. When you met me - I was a prostitute, Alex. It doesn't matter that it was for information rather than money; it doesn't matter that they didn't really touch me. I was a whore. I was so much a whore that when someone came along that really mattered, I almost couldn't - couldn't-"
I'm floored, listening to her. Eight years together, and I've never heard her speak like this. I'm starting to think we should have talked about these years much sooner. "Mare, you were beautiful then. I worshipped you - every bit as much as I do now." If there was any question in my mind about going on with it, that question is settled now. I will finish it so that she can see what I see. So that she can embrace the woman I love, the woman that is herself.
Her voice is heavy with pain; the words come thick and fast. "No, but you don't understand, Alex; you think it was all done to me, but I made choices! I chose all of that!"
It makes me angry, hearing her bear their guilt like that. "No, don't you do that. Don't you take their manipulations and their rationalisations and say they're more truth than our truth. Their truth is dead! It died with them. And ours lives on. It lives in our marriage and our children and the life we have here. Ours endures, Mare. That counts for something."
I don't know if she's convinced, but her eyes are bright, and the beginnings of a smile flit across her features. She puts her arms around me, fiercely tender. "I love you, Alexi."
"I love you too, Mare." Suddenly one arm doesn't seem to hold her close enough.
She draws back to look at me, her forehead touching mine. "Some of the things you write about us...they're beautiful, Alex. It's like reading a love letter."
"You don't mind me doing it, then? Even though it hurts?"
She shakes her head. "No." She leans in and kisses me, warm and slow. "But will you leave it for tonight? Will you come to bed? Please?"
I stroke back her hair. "Okay. Do you want to-"
She pre-empts me. "Not tonight. Will you just hold me? Like you did back then?"
The words, 'come walk with me outside for a while' die in my throat. She thinks I was about to ask to make love to her, and that disturbs me somehow. I nod, not trusting myself to speak. She rises and holds out a hand, pulling me up, leading me to our room. I hold her as I said I would hold her, but lying there with her in the dark, I'm afraid.
Please don't pull away from me over this, Mare. Please.
Thank God she wrote it down.
I've relived that first time with Marita a thousand times, but I could never have written it down. What I felt that night is not something that comes easily to me in words. Reading her journal, I can feel the love infused in the things she wrote about us; and that brings me to my knees in a way that six years in hell could not. It brings me an odd kind of grief - grief for something so fragile and exquisite that it must necessarily be no more. That is, until I look at her, and realise I still have it, deeper and stronger than ever before.
Melding with her softness that night was glorious. Part of the exhilaration was just her - her breath melding with mine as she whispered my name, her face warm and serene beneath my fingertips, her eyes bright with longing as I threaded my hands through her hair. We men fill the void in a woman's body, but let me let you in on a little secret: it is we who are incomplete, not them. That's why we madden women the world over with our silence in the aftermath; that's why we sleep. It's because at last we're whole.
So that was part of it - the jubilation that every man feels, whether he will admit to it or not, at joining with the woman he loves. But part of it, I have to admit, was the stupidly, criminally naive belief that it was all behind us now. That the barriers between us were no more.
I should have known.
Twenty-three years of damage are not undone by a stolen moment in the night. Making love to her was a step - but it was only a step. I should have known that the fight had only just begun.
But I didn't. I was oblivious to her disquiet when we returned from Boston. Worse, I concealed disquiet of my own. I was falling into exactly the same trap as everyone else around her - and I couldn't see it. Somewhere, beneath layers of consciousness, I knew the truth about her, and glimmers of that knowledge were making themselves known to me, and like so many well-meaning people before me, I didn't tell her. I didn't tell her until I'd all but lost her.
I don't know exactly when my knowledge began. There was no one clue that made it all make sense. There was her extraordinary intelligence, her physical strength; there was her mother's distance and the question marks over her name. All I know is that it took a single name, a familiar name to bring forth a host of fears, fully-formed to the forefront of my consciousness. That name was Sally Kendrick, and it was a name that opened the way to a legacy of truths buried deep in the X Files - truths about Michael, about Larissa, about Marita. Truths I feared would destroy her.
But it was fear, not truth, that nearly ripped us apart.
And in the end, it was truth that saved us both.
When I woke, it was dawn.
She was sitting at the dresser, laptop open, peering intently into the screen. Faint streams of light came in the window, illuminating her hair here and there. She had it tied back in a loose knot, and threads of it trailed out at her neck and behind her ears, gleaming in the morning light, framing the slope of her neck. She was dressed already, all in black, and her slender hands moved purposefully over the keys. I was half-awake and drunk on her, and she was beautiful.
"You're up early," I said, rising and turning to hunt for my track pants. I found them, stretched, then sat down on the side of the bed to put them on. "Couldn't sleep?"
"Something like that."
I stretched my legs out before me, rubbing my eyes. She went to the minibar and poured us both glasses of juice. She brought mine over, setting it down beside me on the bedside table. "Have some vitamin C," she said. "You look like death warmed up."
"Thanks." I took it and followed her back to the dresser. "What are you doing?" I wondered, looking over her shoulder. "Backtracking over Elena?"
Her eyes gleamed in the light of the screen. "Just going over old ground."
I rested my hand on her shoulder and, leaning forward, I kissed her hair. "We'll find her, Mare."
She turned to look up at me, her expression warm, and nodded. "Yeah, we will." She nodded to the glass in my hand. "Have your drink." She lifted her own from the dresser and sipped it, holding me with watchful eyes.
I did as she said, then I took both our glasses back to the bar and returned to her side. I ran my hand lightly over the back of her neck. "I haven't seen your hair like this before. I like it."
She smiled faintly. "Thanks."
"Hey," I said, watching her, familiar warmth streaming through my body. She turned to look at me more fully, and I felt something in myself go loose and free. "I love you, Mare."
The smile grew wider, more real, less automatic. "I love you, too."
I leaned down to her, turning her on her swivel chair until she faced me. I kissed her lips, just once, and she took my hands in hers. Rising, she said, "I can't, honey. I have to go. I've got that appointment in D.C. this morning. Didn't I tell you?"
"Yeah - Michael's estate." I stroked back her hair. "You sure? Probably wouldn't take long, the way I'm feeling," I teased, raising my eyebrows at her with an amiable grin.
"That's not necessarily a mark in your favour," she laughed. "I have to go. I'm sorry."
I shrugged. "Okay," I said easily. "See you tonight?"
She leaned up and kissed my cheek. "Wouldn't miss." She pulled her hands away and headed for the door. Turning back, she blew me a kiss and left.
I watched her go, and then I lay back on the bed, a huge grin spreading over my face. Who knew it would be that easy?
She loved me. She really did.
I opened my eyes. My eyelids felt unnaturally heavy; their sockets felt dry. I turned, blinking, fighting off disorientation.
"Mare," I said at last. "I thought you were in Washington."
"I was. Have you been asleep all day?" she wondered, her voice tinged with mirth.
I frowned, looking past her hovering form to the window. The sun was low in the sky - mid-afternoon, I guessed. I struggled to sit up. "Apparently."
"You must have needed it. Benedictine?"
"Not two minutes after waking up, but thanks anyway." She nodded, going to the bar and pouring herself a glass of wine. I got up and pulled on a sweater, stretching a little, and pushed my feet into my trainers. I yawned. "I feel like I'm hung over."
"Maybe you're coming down with something," Marita suggested. She picked up the two glasses from that morning and looked at them, her brow puckered.
"God, I hope not. I hate being sick." I followed her to the bar and slid my arms around her waist from behind. I nuzzled at her neck contentedly.
"Mmm, that's nice," she whispered, arching her neck, giving me access. She put the glasses down, leaning back in to me.
"I missed you this morning," I murmured. I tugged her blouse out from where it was tucked into her trousers, soft and white between my fingers. "You changed your clothes."
"Hmm?" she said as my hand slid over the soft flesh of her belly, but then she sighed. "Oh, that's good." She turned to face me, a smile lighting over her features, and slid her hands up over my shoulders. Her fingers stroked at my neck. She turned her face up to me and touched her lips to mine.
I returned the kiss, pulling her closer, cupping my palms over her shoulder blades and down her back. "So beautiful, Mare," I whispered. I felt her body go loose against me, felt her lean in to me. "So beautiful."
"Alexi," she breathed, pulling back a little, teasing her fingers up through my hair. Her eyes were shining.
I tucked her hair back behind her ear; said with contented ease, "Love you." I leaned forward to kiss her once more.
I felt her go tense in my arms. She drew back, watching me with sudden caution. She smiled uneasily, then pulled away a little, and turned back to the bar. She picked up the glasses again, the lines of her body taut and harsh.
I watched her with growing bewilderment. Something was wrong. I moved closer, and I touched her shoulder. She bowed her head with a sigh. "Please don't, Alex."
I felt my face grow warm and flush, and my stomach go tight and hard. Just beneath the surface was fear - fear that, whatever she'd said that morning, she wasn't ready for what I had to give her. It was the same fear that had kept those words unsaid for months now - fear that would have left them unspoken if not for a moment of sleep-befuddled weakness. Now, I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake.
I watched her fussing over the glasses for a moment, and then I spoke. "Marita, have I done something wrong?"
She turned to look at me. She suddenly looked very vulnerable. Cornered. "How could you just drop that on me, Alex?"
I sighed. "Look, I know it was sudden, but you know, you were sitting there working, and the sun was on your hair and I was half-asleep and, damn it, I just loved you, all right?" Her brow creased, and then her gaze darted from me to the bar, then back again. "If you felt this way about it, why didn't you say so this morning, Mare?"
"This - this morning?"
"I know you had to go, but surely it could have waited a few minutes. You didn't have to sit on this all day."
The lines of her face smoothed out in a rush, and she looked at me, expressionless for a long moment. A look of recognition passed over her features. She looked down at the two glasses in her hands once more, then lifted them both and held them against the light. "Alex," she said gently, turning back to the bar and setting one down, "I had a meeting in D.C. at seven-thirty this morning." She poured the dregs of the drink in her hand into the one on the bar. "I drove down. You were still asleep when I left." She turned back to me, and handed me the glass she'd emptied. There was a grainy sludge in the bottom. "You must have surprised her. She drugged you so she could get away."
I stared down into the glass, then looked back up at her, uncomprehending. "What? What are you talking about?"
Marita pushed past me and went to the laptop. She opened it and booted it. "She must have been looking for something," she said urgently, settling into her seat.
"She?" I demanded. I looked back into the glass, and it all started to fall into place. "Elena?"
She swivelled around to face me once more. "Just how many twins do you think I have?"
"Hey, this is not my fault. I'm not the one who decided to subdivide when I was a blastocyst." It was a stupid response, one guaranteed to provoke an argument, but I felt used...manipulated. And just underneath that was worry. Our suite had been breached. Our sanctuary. If Elena had done it, who else had done it as well?
Perhaps Mare considered that too, because her response was rude - and Mare isn't given to rudeness. "Fuck you, Alex," she snapped. She turned back to the computer.
I walked towards her, my voice sharp with rising anger. "Marita, have I done something wrong? I mean, you seem pretty pissed."
She swivelled back to face me again. She looked up at me, her jaw set firm, then rose in an instant, forcing her way into my space. The effect was intimidating. "No, Alex, everything's just fine. My sister was here with my..." she faltered for a moment "- with whatever the hell you are, and not only did you not realise it, you told her you loved her." She demanded in disgust, "Did you screw her, too?"
I stared at her, disbelief melding into fury. "No," I said coldly. "She said she had to go. Which makes a lot more sense now, by the way, since she bats for the other team."
"But you wanted to screw her."
Jesus, she was jealous. Unbelievable.
I took hold of her arm. "I wanted to make love," I said with emphasis, "to you." Some of my anger receded, and my grip loosened. More gently, I said, "It doesn't matter who I said the words to, Marita. I meant them for you."
Her features softened. The lines of anger were gone, replaced with wariness. She said in a low voice, "Well, I don't know what to say to that."
"And that's what you're really pissed about."
She had the good grace to look chastened. "Maybe." She turned away and went back to the bar, and started fiddling with the glasses again. I felt like stalking over and throwing them against the wall, one after the other.
At last, I spoke. "Did it occur to you that you don't have to say anything at all, Marita? That you could accept it for what it is?"
"You'd take that to mean that - that -" she stopped.
She was very pale. "That I didn't love you."
"Are you telling me that you don't?" My head was pounding.
She made a sound of exasperation. "I'm not telling you that!" she said, upset. "I'm telling you I don't know what to say and that you're going to put your own interpretation on it anyway!"
"No, just go away, Alex! You had no business putting that on me now-" she broke off with a hiss, and she looked down at the bar. My gaze followed hers. The glass was shattered in her bloodied hand.
"Jesus, you're hurt," I said, the fight forgotten. I came over and took her hand in mine, picking the shards free.
She allowed it, her brow puckered. "I don't know my own strength," she said uneasily. She let me look over her hand for a moment, but then she pulled away. "Don't fuss, Alex. They're only shallow." She pushed past me and went to the basin on the dais, leaving me to stare down at the pieces of glass.
"She was in our room," I said at last.
"I know that," she said tersely. She rinsed her hand. The water ran streaky pink with blood.
"She was in our room, Marita! What if she's not the only one? What if they know?"
"I don't know!" she snapped, turning to face me. "My sister was here, Alex! Why are you making this about you?"
"It is about me! I know too much - and not enough. I'm a gamble with no payoff. If Spender finds out that we're together, really together, they *will* kill me." She stared up at me, stricken. "It's worth it, Marita. You're worth it - but only if this means something to you. I can wait for the rest, but I need to know that much right now."
She hung her head in her hands. "Goddammit! Just go, Alex!"
I made a sound of disgust. "That's what I thought."
I banged the door when I left her.
Why the hell did I bother?
I walked across the grounds in long strides, my hands clenched into fists at my side. My nails dug into the soft flesh there; I felt dampness there in my palms. Probably just sweat, but I wondered whether I'd drawn blood. I was certainly angry enough.
Goddamn complicated bitch. She fought and she fought and she fought. Everything was such a fucking battle. Why did I bother?
I felt angry, and more than that, I felt embarrassed. My face flushed, red and warm when I thought of how she'd pulled herself away from me. She'd acted like I'd done something wrong. I felt a nagging sense of shame, and in that moment, I hated her for that.
I pushed my way into the rink. It was deserted as usual. I could hear the murmurs of the little television from the manager's office. I waved a hand at her as I passed the glass partition; she waved back and turned back to her serial, hunkering down with her chin on her hands. You like drama, Lorena? Let me tell you 'bout my life sometime.
Bypassing the stands, I went into the club room and dropped down onto the bench. I stared down at my palms. They were red where I'd pressed my fingers into them, but the dampness was just sweat after all. Sighing, I wiped my hands on my pants and I put on my skates, but I didn't go out on the ice. Not right away. I just sat there, breathing heavily, fighting down waves of nausea and sadness.
I didn't normally come in this part of the rink. The last time had been with Marita, and that was months ago. We'd stood here, turning over Samantha's skates in our hands. Working together. Her brilliant mind, my knowledge. We achieved so much - more than either of us could have done alone. And then I'd kissed her for the first time.
How could she let that slip away? She was killing what we had - suffocating it with her silence and her distance. She was the strongest person I knew - how could she be so fucking weak? I'd thought all this was behind us now, that we could move forward - but now she seemed further away from me than ever.
I got to my feet and went out into the arena.
Stepping onto the ice, it occurred to me that I was getting a little old to be doing this. Racing around an ice rink suddenly seemed like a childish thing to do. I was in the big leagues now. Playing for keeps. And sacrificing the normal, the mundane, the comforts of routine - sacrificing those things was part of that. I'd known that for a long time now, and I'd fought it - wasn't that why I still came here every day? But I didn't know what else to do, so I skated anyway. It might not help, but if nothing else, it would clear my head.
I heard the glass door open. Air escaped the seal with a hiss, echoing through the arena. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her, pushing her way into the rink. There was a cloth dressing on her hand, and she was wearing my jacket. I felt like going over to her and stripping it from her. She wasn't mine. She didn't want to be mine. She had no right to wear that.
She came over to the boards. "Alexi."
I found my voice. "Don't call me that."
A stricken look passed over her features, but she complied. "Alex, please come and talk to me."
"There's nothing to talk about," I called. She walked around the rink, following my course. I picked up speed.
I skidded to a stop and faced her. "No!" I snapped. "No, Marita! I can't do this any more! I can't watch you pull away from me and say, 'That's okay, Mare, I know this is hard for you.'" I stroked over to the boards to meet her, and I leaned over the barrier, pushing into her space. "Sooner or later you are going to have to find it within yourself to meet me halfway."
She stared at me, her face flushed with fury, eyes dark. Closed to me. God, I wanted to kiss her or slap her or fuck her hard right there against the boards. Anything to make her see me and feel me and feel for me again. In that moment, I think I would even have welcomed her hatred.
Her voice was deathly quiet. "What do you want from me?"
"I want you to feel! I want you to care, like you used to!"
That touched her. She blinked a couple of times, and the flush of anger faded a little. "I do, Alex. How could you think that I don't?"
"Because back there, you treated me like an intruder. You treated me like some guy who was forcing some attention on you that you didn't want. You treated me like one of your submissives."
She flinched. I'd wounded her.
She stood there, trembling a little, and she opened her mouth to speak a couple of times. She faltered, and then she turned on her heel and strode away.
I watched as she stormed into the clubroom, banging the door behind her with surprising force. That pissed me off, too. Damn it all, why did she have to go in there to cry or think or whatever the fuck she was doing? She'd have to pass me again to leave. Why couldn't she have gone back to our room, and left me alone?
I took off around the rink in a perfect fever of fury, but that didn't last for long. One lap, two, a slower third. I came to a halt in the middle of the ice, and I stood there, my arms crossed over myself, my head bowed low. The adrenaline of the argument was easing off, and the magnitude of what had happened was beginning to creep over me. It settled over me like lead weight through my limbs.
I'd lost her.
Could it be fixed? I had no idea. But I had to try. I lifted my head and turned towards the stands. And then I stopped.
She was wearing skates - Samantha's skates, by the look of them - and she stepped onto the ice and glided over, a little cautiously. She was pale, and she had an uncertainty about her that I'd never seen from her before.
She came to a stop in front of me. My eyes held hers.
"You mean everything to me," she whispered. "That's all I can give you right now."
The tension fell away. I felt it dissipate, relief rushing through my body. I searched her face for a long moment. "Yeah?"
She nodded. Her eyes were bright. She took my hands. "I'm sorry I've been pushing you away, Alexi. I never meant to do that. I never want to do that." She leaned up diffidently to kiss my cheek, but I turned my face and met her with my lips. This kiss was light, tentative, with the caution of new lovers who haven't yet worked out all the rules.
We stood there, silent and still together, watching each other. At last, she pulled away, letting go of one of my hands, still holding the other. Tugging a little, she led me off the ice, past the boards, up into the stands. She dropped down, and I did the same. We sat there, side by side, leaned forward, elbows resting on knees like painfully shy children. Her thigh was comforting and warm against mine.
We were silent for a while, but at last, I turned to look at her. "Why is this so hard for you?" I said without rancour. "Was it this hard with Michael?"
She pressed her lips together, thinking it over. She shook her head. "No. But Michael didn't matter the way you do. Michael...Michael was something I did because it was expected of me. But you - you make demands of me, Alex." I opened my mouth to speak, but she turned her head to meet my gaze. "I don't mean like that. I don't mean you pressure me. You've been -" she suddenly looked very young. She slid her hand around mine, holding it tightly. "You've been wonderful, Alexi. I don't always act like I know that, but I do. But you make claims on my heart. You make demands on me just because of who we are together. And I don't always know what to do with that."
She looked so lost, and I felt vague, nagging shame for making her look that way. "I'm sorry this happened the way it did," I said. "I'm sorry about Elena and I'm sorry I upset you and I'm sorry I pushed."
She shook her head, putting her free hand on my arm. "You didn't do anything wrong, Alex. I was ungracious and I was unkind, and I never want to be those things with you. I'm sorry." She looked bereft. "Just don't give up on me, all right?"
Relief washed over me. "I'm not going anywhere, Mare."
"Because you love me," she said. Her voice was tentative, but not threatened like before.
I nodded. "Because I love you."
"Oh, Alex," she sighed, and she didn't return the sentiment, but her hand tightened on my arm. She leaned in, and she kissed me tenderly, and suddenly everything was all right again. Suddenly it didn't matter that the words were more confronting than she could accommodate. I meant everything to her, she'd said so; the rest could be worked out.
We stayed there, holding one another silently for a while. It was a good silence - a healing one. I was still unsettled, and I thought she was too, but the gulf had been breached. I was glad.
We were still sitting there when her cellphone shrilled. Reluctantly, I pulled away from her so she could answer it. "Marita Covarrubias," she said, opening it. There was a pause. "Yes, all right. Half an hour." She closed the flip.
"You have to go?" I said.
"We have to go," she corrected. "That was the Dark Man. He wants us to meet him in Samantha's suite. He said to get some dinner and bring it - it's going to be a late night." She shifted away from me and untied her boots.
I frowned. "Did he say why?"
"No. He just said something had come up." She eased her boots off her feet.
I picked one of them up. "Samantha's?" I said in query.
She gave a sheepish look. "I was in the club room when I decided to come and talk to you. Her locker was there. It was just easier than passing you to get to the hires."
"God, we're a pair of idiots," I said, laughing ruefully. She laughed too. I said, "Do you want me to put those back for you? You can pick up some dinner and meet me at the suite."
She rustled in her pocket and handed me the master keys. "You don't mind?"
I shook my head. "Your feet okay? No blisters?"
"No. You'd think I was born with them." She stood in her bare feet. "I'll see you up there?"
I nodded. "Sure."
I watched as she treaded cautiously along the stands. She stopped a little way along, slipped into her shoes, and continued on out of the rink. She wasn't hobbling, so the skates had been a good fit. That was something.
Frowning, I bent to untie my laces. I felt uneasy and I wasn't sure why. I pulled off one skate, then the other, and rested them beside Samantha's. And then I stopped short and picked one of them up.
-- All I know now that I didn't know when you left is that Samantha had unusually large feet.
-- Nice custom boots.
-- You'd think I was born with them.
"They're not Samantha's," I said in wonder. "They're Elena's. That's how-"
That was how she knew someone was onto her. Because she came to her locker - hers, not Samantha's - and found that the diaries weren't there. I breathed out in a rush, getting to my feet, both pairs of skates in my hands. I had to tell Marita and the Dark Man.
I started down the stands, my mind racing. Elena was onto us. Somehow she'd figured out that it was Marita, and that was why she had searched our room. That meant that she-
That meant that Samantha might still have a locker. One we hadn't found.
I made an about-face and ducked around the Zamboni into the club room. I put Elena's boots back into her locker, stopping to wipe the condensation from the blades. Old habits die hard. Then I went through the other lockers - the ones we hadn't searched the first time, believing we'd found what we were looking for.
I identified Samantha's locker, a few bays along, almost at once. It had a faded Polaroid of Elena stuck to the back of the door. Inside, there were skates - large ones, I noted, with dance blades - and a thin manila folder. I drew the folder out, closed the locker, and sat down on the bench.
The folder was old and tattered, spots of mildew and rust along its length where it had rested alongside the blades. Emblazoned on the front in red marker was the legend - ELENA.
I opened it.
It contained loose-leaf paper covered in Samantha's sprawling handwriting - random pieces of varying size and quality. There were crisp quarto printing sheets, and foolscap sheets brown with age. There were little notepad pages and restaurant napkins and, wonder of wonders, even a couple of McDonald's trayliners, spotted with oil and covered with a grid of creases. An image rose in my mind: Samantha, writing down her observations and speculations, maybe while Elena was in the ladies' room; and folding them up, tucking them into her pocket out of sight. That must have been an early one, then, before they were lovers. She wouldn't have risked Elena finding them in her clothes when they made love.
I pulled a very old piece from the back of the file. The edges were tattered, and they felt cool and brittle with encroaching moisture. The handwriting was less fluid than on most of the sheets - it was big and straggling, almost adolescent. This was early, I thought...maybe her earliest thoughts on meeting Elena.
'E. interests me a great deal. She is incredibly smart, both in the native sense and in the sense of factual knowledge, and she has strong scientific leanings. As far as I can make out from her confused account of her captivity with the alien race, she received no formal education. She is very strong for her age (13) and seems unaware of how unusual her physical strength really is. It makes me wonder about what happened to those who remained in alien custody after my release. What were we exposed to? At any rate, she will need guidance if she is to function in normal society. For God's sake - the girl can't even use a knife and fork.'
A leisurely wave of discomfort rolled over me. Samantha seemed to attribute Elena's strengths to the alien race - but Mare had never been in alien custody, and she shared at least the intellectual ones. Everyone seemed to take her prodigious leanings for granted, but they were there - and wasn't everyone's lack of comment on that a little odd, when you really thought about it? And as for physical strength...well, she was no superwoman, but she could take me down, which was more than any woman had at the FBI. If she really worked at it - if she did weights and track - well, who knew what she could do?
I flipped through other pages. Random fragments caught my eye. 'E. threw a cup at a plate glass window. Broke the cup - and the window. Not sure how much more I can take.' For a moment, I thought of Mare's hand, covered in blood and glass, and I shivered. 'Michael says puberty a factor. Says it will get better. I hope so.' Then, further down the same page, 'Michael says Marita shows no sign of E.'s strength. Odd. I never asked if she had. Is he hiding something?' A few pages on, Mare's name caught my eye once again. 'Larissa put E. on the contraceptive Pill. Told her it would settle her skin. Michael says modulating her hormones will help with these outbursts and the strength that goes with them. But I saw another box with Marita's name, too...is that how they know what to do? Because they've been through it with Marita already?' And, most damning of all, much further on, 'Michael and Marita are together. They look all wrong. Not like lovers. Like brother and sister. God forgive me for wondering...but is he sleeping with her so she'll stay on the Pill?'
What had that report from the embassy in Istanbul said? Something about Larissa lying about the children's paternity to protect her husband? What if she and Michael had been hiding something more sinister? Was that the terrible secret that Diana was so desperate to keep from Mare?
Eugenics, I wondered desperately. Cloning. What is a twin, after all, but a naturally-occurring clone? But Larissa had shown signs of giving birth. What if she'd made a switch? What if she'd been a KGB surrogate? What if she wasn't Marita's mother at all? There had been cases in the X Files, after all...the Adams and the Eves. Hadn't Sally Kendrick been unusually strong?
I closed the folder abruptly. It made a slapping noise between my palms. I put it down on the bench beside me and rose. I paced the room. My mind was racing.
It had been there in front of me all the time. Sally Kendrick was Eve Seven - and she knew Elena. She had probably sought Elena out in her own quest for answers. And the Eve project, our response to the Russian eugenics project, had been connected with Michael Harrington - who exchanged intelligence with Larissa Covarrubias during the Soviet rule.
It all fit.
In that moment, I felt absolute affinity with Samantha Mulder. She had faced this dilemma before me. She had known what I knew now: that the women we loved were Russian Eves. She had never told Elena - I was certain of that. If she had, Elena would have this file too. This was a secret Samantha had carried to her grave, probably never knowing that Elena had found out from Sally Kendrick anyway.
But if Marita wasn't Larissa's...if Marita was somehow different...did I really want her to know that? I tried to think about it strategically, but I just couldn't. All I could think of was the effect such a revelation might have on her. She was so afraid, so fragile. One more shock and she might slip away from me forever. And I couldn't lose her. If I hadn't known that before today, I knew it now.
I decided not to share my speculations with Mare.
I arrived at Samantha's suite with an uneasy mind.
Mare was in the kitchen, fussing with takeout when I let myself in and shut the door behind me. She looked up at me, shot me a smile, then went back to what she was doing. I watched her for a moment. I felt sick, watching her, knowing what had been done to her, and what I had to do to keep it from her. Not an hour ago I'd begged her to let me in - and now I had to shut her out. At least from this.
I went to her and slid my arms around her from behind, holding her around her shoulders. She didn't pull away, but she protested, "Alex, the Dark Man will be here any-"
"I don't care," I said. "I need to hold you."
She sank back against me with a sigh. She crossed her hands over mine, holding onto me with unexpected force. I didn't want to think about it - I wanted to just revel in her, take comfort in her - but I couldn't help wondering how strong she really was. The strength Elena had demonstrated could have been merely a manifestation of puberty as Michael apparently believed...but maybe there was more. Much more. It was a frightening thought, especially when I considered the horrible legacy of the American Eves. Madness, homicidality, suicidality...my hold on her tightened.
"I don't want to lose you," I murmured. I wasn't even sure if she'd heard. I half hoped she hadn't.
"You haven't," she whispered, turning to face me. She slipped her arms around me. "You won't." She smiled at me with such fondness that the weight lifted from me - just a little.
The door opened just then, and we looked up in unison. It was the Dark Man. I had the uncomfortable sense of being sprung by a protective father, but he didn't comment. He just nodded to us in greeting and shut the door behind him. We broke apart, but Mare kept her hands loosely at my waist. In an odd way, that made things better - even more than our discussion at the rink had. It was as public an acknowledgement as our lives would allow.
She spoke. "What's happened?"
He set his briefcase down by the door. "We've had a security breach. You and I left for D.C. at five-fifty this morning. Your security codes were used at six-forty-seven."
Mare and I exchanged glances. We said at the same moment, "Elena."
He watched us, frowning. "Say again?"
"You're behind the times," I said grimly.
"She was in our room," Mare explained, extricating herself from me, and his eyelids flickered when she said 'our'. "Alex found her on my laptop. He thought she was me." Just for a moment, I remembered kissing Elena's hair, and I felt vaguely guilty. "We only put together that it was her when he mentioned it this afternoon."
"I was an idiot," I said abruptly. "She called me honey - she mustn't have known my name. God, I even said myself that I'd never seen you with your hair like that. Even half-asleep, I should have known better."
"What did she say?" he asked, coming over to the kitchen bench. He picked up the takeout and took it to the table. Mare and I followed.
"I doubt she expected me to be there, if that's what you mean. She knew about your meeting," I added over my shoulder to Mare. "She said she had to leave to drive down there. I probably scared the shit out of her."
"Did she seem surprised?" he asked, setting down our food.
"I don't know - I was getting dressed. I had my back to her. If she did, she had it under control by the time I looked at her. I'm lucky she didn't shoot me." Marita gave a wan smile, but she didn't seem amused.
"She was on the laptop?" he said. "What was she looking at?"
"She was looking at our report to you - our summary of information to date. I don't know what she saw before I woke up, of course." I held out a chair for Mare, then sat myself.
"Was anything tampered with?"
Mare shook her head. "Everything seems intact. She only looked."
The Dark Man nodded, his expression thoughtful. "So she knows that we know."
"Apparently." Mare's voice was tight; the lines of her body were tense.
"So why doesn't she make herself known?" I wondered.
The Dark Man shrugged. "Maybe she's trying to work out whether we're friends or foes."
Mare said with an air of affront, "I'm her sister."
"A sister she hasn't seen since infancy," I pointed out. "You can't blame her for being cautious."
We ate in silence for a while. At last, the Dark Man said, "I have another development I need to speak to you about, as well. The two may be related."
"What's that?" I said, taking our trash back to the kitchen.
"There has been a series of arson attacks on abortion clinics," he said as I sat down again. "One in Anchorage, plus ones in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Among the missing are six doctors - one from each clinic. Each of them is one of the Dr Gregors-" Mare and I exchanged glances, and the Dark Man nodded. "Yes. The ones who worked with Samantha and Elena." He slid a sheaf of grayscale photographs over the tabletop. "The surveillance footage at the Anchorage clinic survived the fire. We got an image of the arsonist."
Mare picked them up and flipped through the pile. She held out a clear image so I could see it. "I've seen this guy. He was on the news the other day. He was picked up by a freighter on the Beaufort Sea. They said it was a miracle he survived."
The Dark Man nodded. "Very good. What you don't know is that he was not rescued from a shipwreck, but from a crashed UFO - the one Edward has been tracking. The UFO engaged with an air force fighter plane, and they both went down."
"I'm guessing this guy was the sole survivor," I said.
Mare spoke. "If he came from the rebel craft, does that mean he's an alien?" She spoke the words a little sheepishly, and I understood why. We knew they existed; we'd seen documents and been privy to some of the work...but there was a sense of the ridiculous about it that was too culturally ingrained.
The Dark Man nodded. "It seems that way. The form he's taken is identical to that taken by other EBEs in the past."
I blinked. "What do you mean, the form he's taken? Are you saying he can modify his appearance?"
"Within limits. They can't radically alter their body mass - they could not, for instance, take the form of a small child. But when there's no need to modify their appearance, this is the form most of them seem to take."
Mare looked from me to him, frowning. "Do we know why?"
"I must confess that I don't. It may be that they are clones - much more advanced ones than the Gregors. Or maybe they have another form again, but this is the human blueprint they're exposed to in their training - in whatever orientation they receive prior to coming to this planet. I have no idea." Just for a moment, I saw a crack in the Dark Man's all-seeing, all-knowing facade, and I caught a glimpse of how big this whole thing really was. Even our own intrigue was probably just a minor cog in a huge machine. "Whatever the case, our information suggests that they have exceptional strength."
I glanced nervously at Mare. I didn't really think she was some kind of shape-shifting alien, but the similarities sent my already-jangling alarm bells onto high alert. I changed the subject. "If he's torching the abortion clinics," I said hurriedly, "maybe he's the one carrying out the hits on the Gregors. The deal Samantha alluded to in her journals."
The Dark Man nodded. "My thoughts precisely."
Mare's eyes widened with alarm. "That means Elena could be in danger."
"Yes," the Dark Man agreed, "Elena, or the first clone. Samantha's second-in-command. What was her name?"
"Carolyn," Mare supplied.
"Yeah," I said. "They're hiding the Gregors, after all. They could get caught in the crossfire."
The Dark Man nodded. "Actually, I think one or both of them might be acting on this information in their own way. That's something that could lead us to them."
"What do you mean?" Eagerly, Mare sat forward.
"I took a look at the log you put on Mulder's email, Marita. Someone sent him the obituaries for four of the Gregors. He's been in Syracuse investigating the most recent death. I don't know who sent them, but I think it's at least possible that it was Elena."
"Trying to get some protection for the Gregors," she suggested.
"More than that. Trying to get him to take this guy down." I turned to the Dark Man. "What else do you know about this guy?"
"Not a lot," he admitted. "I can find out, but I'm in biointelligence. Colonist counterintelligence has never been my field. I'll have to be careful who I ask - what I ask - especially now."
"Why especially now?" Mare wondered.
The Dark Man leaned forward in his seat. "Samantha's journals suggested that the execution of the Gregor clones was part of a deal. If that's the case, then it's being done with the consent of both the Colonists and the voting circle. I can't be seen to undermine that."
I nodded in understanding. "How long will it take?"
"I don't know. I might have to fly to Tunisia again. It could take time."
"What can we do in the meantime?" I asked.
"I'd like you to drive up to Syracuse, Alex. See what you can find out about the victim there. You might be able to tap into his associates. I'd also like one of you to plant some listening devices in Mulder's telephone and his apartment. If Elena or Carolyn are hoping to solicit his help, we might get something that way."
"I'll handle that," Mare offered.
"Mare," I began, but she shot me a withering look.
"You can't go there, Alex," she said. "Not with your history with him. He'll kill you. If he catches me, I can play the mystery informant card." I didn't like it, but she was right; so I shrugged and held my peace.
The Dark Man nodded, a look of grim satisfaction flitting across his features. "All right. Marita, you might as well sleep. You won't be able to do anything at Mulder's until he leaves for work tomorrow."
She nodded. "I'll leave first thing. It'll only take me a couple of hours to get there."
"And me?" I said.
"You leave tonight. You might be able to get something from Dr Gregor's house. Here's the address," he said, handing me a card. He frowned, seemed to hesitate, then handed me another card as well. It contained just a telephone number. "If you're caught-"
"I know," I said. "I'm on my own."
"Not necessarily." He shot a glance at Mare. "I can't make any promises, but if you call this number, I'll do what I can." I was suddenly quite sure that this was something she'd asked of him.
"Thank you," I said, pocketing them both. "I'll go straight away." I started to rise.
Mare stayed me with her hand. "Be careful out there, Alex."
I squeezed it. "I will." Then, conscious of the Dark Man, I said lightly, "Hey. Careful's my middle name." I raised my eyebrows at her.
She laughed, and even the Dark Man raised a small smile; but they were sharing a worried look when I left them.
As it happened, I didn't leave straight away after all.
Walking to the parking lot, it occurred to me that that neither Mare nor I would be there for combat training the following day. Karen would probably have left her studio for the day, but I could always leave her a note.
I made an about-face and detoured to the gym. I pushed through the double doors into the weights area, and trod up the stairs to Karen's studio. Rounding the corner, I heard voices. Raised voices.
"He is an athlete!" I heard Karen say. "He's skated every day since he was fourteen years old." For a fleeting moment, I wondered who she was talking about, but of course, she was talking about me. I was practically the only skater in the place. "She does aerobics once a month," she was saying. "She should not be able to beat him. She shouldn't even come close."
I drew closer, and risked pushing the door ajar. In the mirror, I saw Diana and Karen at the far end of the studio in workout gear, and I suddenly realised how Diana had known what Mare and I were doing in here all those months ago. She hadn't sensed it - she'd seen it before we broke apart. I made a mental note to be more careful in here in future.
"She wouldn't be if you hadn't let her train with him! I never said you could do that!" Diana was wiping sweat from her face, still talking. "The whole idea of training him was so he could protect her! So she'd never have to protect herself!"
Karen stared at her. "Do you know how screwed-up that sounds? Leaving her helpless with the work she does?"
My thoughts precisely, but Diana's reply was enlightening. "She isn't helpless - that's the problem! If she ever had to call on it - if she ever had to use it-" she broke off.
Karen said quietly, "What is she, Diana?"
Diana looked away. "It's better if you don't know."
"Better for you, you mean."
"No - for you." Then, with foreboding, "You know, there aren't many of us left. Who know about it, I mean."
There was a long pause; the lines of Karen's body were tense. At last, she said, "She doesn't know, does she?"
Diana shook her head.
"What about him?"
"I wonder, Karen. Sometimes, I think he knows something, or senses it. It worries me."
"Are you going to have him terminated?" I held my breath - that possibility hadn't even occurred to me.
"I probably should, but no. He's Elizabeth's godfather. And I couldn't do that to Rita - she loves him." Even as I slotted the fragments into the puzzle alongside the information I already held, I felt a little rush of warmth at Diana's assertion of Mare's feelings - along with a flare of irritation that Mare couldn't tell me that herself.
"Yeah." Karen leaned back against the wall with a sigh. "What do you want me to do about the training?"
"I don't know. How's he doing?"
"He can hold his own. I think he'll be fine. Do you want me to cut them loose?"
Diana thought on this for a moment. "For physical training, yeah. Keep them going on the covert skills. Time is short."
"Why?" Karen demanded. "What do you have planned for them?"
"It's more a matter of what they might have planned for themselves."
"You think they're going to turn rogue?"
Diana shrugged uneasily. "I don't know. I would, if I were them." She looked away. "Sometimes I think that might be for the best."
With that, Diana pushed away from the wall and walked off in the direction of the locker room, and I left them.
"How'd it go?"
Mare's voice was sleepy. "We've got a direct line in to Mulder's. That guy is the most domestically challenged man I've ever met."
I settled back, bringing the phone up onto the bed with me. "You've never met him."
"Okay, he's the most domestically challenged man I've never met, then." I laughed a little at that. Her voice grew gentle. "I miss you, Alex."
"Miss you too, Mare." Miss her - God, that was an understatement. After all that had happened the last few days, being away from her was the last thing I wanted.
She smiled - I could hear it in her voice. "When will you be back?"
"Tomorrow or the day after. I just have one more person to talk to, and then I'm done here."
There was a rustling noise. She was pulling the covers around her. "Did you find anything?"
I shook my head. "Not really. I didn't really expect to."
"No, me either," Mare admitted. We fell silent for a moment, then she said, "You in bed?"
"Yeah." Then, more quietly, "I hadn't realised how much I was used to having you here. I keep-" she broke off.
"It's silly. I keep - you know, holding myself. Like it's you." She laughed a little. "I feel silly telling you."
"I've been looking for you, too, Mare," I confessed. "My arms feel empty."
"I hate this place, Alexi. When you're here with me, all I see is the safety and the warmth we have in this room. But today, I was walking around the zones and I realised how horrible it really is. I felt like I was drowning in the deceit and the manipulation that people do here. I hate it."
I nodded in recognition. "I feel it too, Mare." I went on with slow emphasis, "The warmth is us - what we have together. It doesn't matter where we are, you know."
She was silent for a long moment.
"Alex, are you asking me to turn rogue with you?"
Was I? Even now, I'm not really sure. "I don't know. But we can't keep this up indefinitely. We're going to get caught." The discussion between Diana and Karen was fresh in my mind.
"What if I say no?" she wondered. She sounded fearful. "What if I won't? What if I can't?"
"I'm not going to leave you, if that's what you mean. I'm not giving you an ultimatum. But sooner or later, either they're going to kill me or I'm going to have to run." She breathed out into the phone - a shattered, wounded sound. "When that happens, you need to know in yourself whether you're willing to run with me."
"Alex," she whispered. "I don't - I don't know..."
I regretted raising it, hearing her quiet and fearful like that, and so soon after the fight. "Hey," I said. "Hey, we don't need to work that out now. Just think on it, okay?"
I heard a rustling that might have been a nod against her pillow. "Okay."
That was heavier ground than I'd meant to get into over the phone. I changed the subject. "Look, why don't you get away until I get back? It would do you good to be out of that place for a while."
"Where would I go, Alex?" she asked. She sounded genuinely curious.
"I - I don't know," I faltered. "There's Michael's apartment upstate. Save you the commute to work."
"I'm not at work much for the next month or so," she said. "I'm working on a submission for a congressional inquiry. I've arranged to do most of it from home." Clearly, she felt that was a good thing, but I wasn't so sure. I felt more and more that the Den wasn't a good environment for her.
"You could take a couple of days off, then," I suggested. "Go away with Diana and the baby, if she's free. Isn't there someplace you go? You know - just to be quiet and have space?"
"Well, yeah," she admitted. "There's Wolfe Pond Beach, up on the Island. I used to go there to think all the time."
"Well, there you go then," I said. "You could stay at your mom's."
"My mother's? I thought you wanted me to go somewhere that would do me *good*." Her voice was tinged with reproach.
I frowned. "Are you two fighting? I thought you just weren't talking much." A new thought occurred to me. "Is she pissed about you living at the Den?"
There was more rustling, and the creaking of mattress springs. I imagined her propping herself up on her elbow. "No, she's been curiously silent about that, actually."
"She hasn't said anything at all?" I said in disbelief. Larissa was both too conservative and too controlling to let that pass.
Mare gave a wry laugh. "All she said was that I should be careful. Be safe. Stay on the Pill."
I felt the blood drain from my face. "She said that?"
"Pretty much. I was surprised. I was braced for a lecture."
"Maybe she's finally realised you've grown up," I said, but the assertion sounded hollow.
She snorted. "That'll be the day."
I gave a thin, forced laugh. "I've got an early start, Mare. Can I call you tomorrow?"
"Sure," she said easily. "Sleep well, Alexi."
"You too, Mare. Goodnight."
I put the phone back on the bedside table and rolled onto my back. I stared at the ceiling. In the dim light of the moon I could just make out the peeling paintwork. There was a gnawing sensation deep in my belly, inching out through my body in a leisurely, aching crawl.
Samantha was right. About Michael, about Larissa, about Mare. Michael and Marita's whole relationship had been stage-managed with the specific intention of keeping her on the Pill. Jesus Christ, no wonder she was so fucked up. Every aspect of her life had been strategised and orchestrated, right down to her sex life and the taking of her virginity when she was eighteen. Probably would have been sooner if not for New York's statutory rape laws. Larissa must have been so fucking grateful when Marita moved into the Den after Michael's death. God forbid she retreat into grief-induced celibacy and quit her pills.
I wondered how they'd gotten Elena to stay on hers. Maybe they never knew of her preference for women - it made sense that Elena might have concealed it, as part of her concealment of her relationship with Samantha. Maybe she quit them, and learned to control her strength and her emotions in other ways. It comforted me to think so. If that were so, that meant Mare could do the same - and that she needn't share in the tragic outcomes of the American Eves.
I hoped so. But there was no way to be sure, and laying there in the dark of the night, I was afraid.
"How was Syracuse?" Mare wondered as I closed the door behind me.
"A wash-out," I said. I didn't want to talk about Syracuse. All I wanted to do was hold her.
"I missed you," she said, rising from her seat at the dining table. Samantha's diaries, the laptop, and a reel-to-reel audio player were lined up neatly before her.
"I missed you," I echoed, drawing her into my arms, lingering for a long moment. "Anything interesting your end?"
She shook her head. "No. Mulder's been out of his apartment for a couple of days. I called the Hoover and Skinner's secretary said he'd been called away on a family emergency. No idea what that's about." She kissed me, then pulled away and went back to her seat.
"But you're still monitoring?"
She nodded. "We might get something off the incoming calls. You never know. I was just about to check his email."
I sat down beside her. "Want me to keep scanning the tapes?"
"No problem." I took the headphones put them on my head.
They didn't stay there for long. After a few moments she spoke. "Here's something."
"What is it?" I wondered, setting the headphones down again.
"A report from Dana Scully to Walter Skinner. There's been another Gregor death. In Germantown, Maryland. A Dr Dickens. It's him, though - she attached an image." She paused, eyes darting back and forth as she read down the computer screen. "They have some CIA guy helping them. Ambrose Chapel. Scully expresses some doubt over his bona fides." She shut the program down and opened another. "Let me run him through the Federal Employee Database - see what I can come up with."
"Good thinking," I said. I pulled my chair closer and peered over her shoulder.
A standard profile appeared on the screen, and I scanned it. Abruptly, Mare sighed. "Why am I not surprised?"
"What is it?" I wondered, bewildered.
She pointed, her fingertip hovering over the screen. "This Chapel guy used to report to Michael."
"Michael? As in your Michael?"
She nodded. "His last assignment was escorting some kind of sensitive equipment to Mattawa, Washington last spring. He's been on leave ever since."
"The Fallen Angel team," I said. "It was in Mulder's files. It was supposedly an EBE, retrieved from the wreckage of a downed UFO. Michael actively sabotaged Mulder's investigation. Mulder believed the EBE had been executed when he reached Mattawa under some kind of international agreement."
"Security Council Resolution 1013," she supplied. "Maybe this Chapel guy is helping our EBE. Hell, maybe he is the EBE. Maybe Chapel died on the Fallen Angel detail and this guy's been posing as him. The Dark Man did say he could take any form."
I stared at her. "What are you saying - that the Fallen Angel wreckage was our guy as well?"
She shrugged. "Makes more sense than there being two different rogue UFOs in the space of months. I mean, they don't exactly grow on trees. And he seems to have a tendency to crash," she added with a grin.
"Maybe," I said. She had a point.
"It doesn't matter much one way or the other, really," she said. "What matters is, our guy is running around killing Gregors, and he's zeroing in on this part of the country - and we know Elena is here as well, or was a few days ago."
"We have to find the rest of the Gregors," I said. "We have to warn her."
"But how?" she asked. "Mulder's away."
"Scully," I mused. "Have you got a wiretap on Scully?"
She nodded. "The Dark Man arranged it before he left."
"Left?" I echoed. "Where did he go - Tunisia?"
She shook her head. "Not sure, but I think it was local. He took his car. He got a call, went all enigmatic, and took off. You know what he's like."
"Tell me about it," I said fervently. "So who's watching Scully - you, or his men?"
"His men - shadow ops that not even Spender knows about. They'll make contact if we get anything. They're covering Mulder, too, now." Sure enough, looking at the pile of reels at my side, I saw that the dates ended the day before. Clearly, the Dark Man had decided that we needed backup. I was glad.
"Good," I said. "Is there anything else I can do?"
Mare shook her head. "I don't think so. There's not much we can do until there's activity with Mulder or Scully." The phone rang just then. "That might be them - I haven't given anyone else this number."
I was closer, so I answered it. "Yes?"
The voice that came through the receiver was punctuated with traffic noise. Surveillance van, I thought. "Sir? It's Unit 3, at Alexandria. Is this a secure line?"
"Yes, go ahead," I said, nodding at Mare, whose eyebrows were raised in query. I held up three fingers, and she nodded in recognition.
"I've just had a call come through on Fox Mulder's line. It sounds important. Would you like me to patch the recording through?"
"Yes, please," I said, flicking the speaker button. "Go ahead, Unit 3."
Scully's voice filtered through the speaker. "Mulder, it's me. I just left my apartment and I don't think I've been followed. I'm going to be staying at the Vacation Village Motor Lodge off the I-90 in Germantown. Now, by the time you reach me, I should have some very important information for you regarding this case."
Mare and I exchanged glances. "Germantown," I said. "She's going back to look into the Dickens case."
"Say again," the operative's voice echoed through the speaker. "I didn't copy."
"It doesn't matter, Unit 3. Thank you." I rang off.
Mare was already back at the laptop, tapping keys, brow furrowed. I came and stood at her side. "I've got an address here - from her report to Skinner," she said. "3243 Edmonton."
"Was that where this Dickens guy died?"
She shook her head. "No - it was on his briefcase. Where he worked, maybe."
"That's an industrial district, I think," I said. "I don't think there'd be an abortion clinic out there."
"It's the only Germantown lead we have."
I sighed. "Okay. Let's go."
"What a mess."
Mare stepped gingerly around a green puddle on the concrete floor. It looked like antifreeze. You had to clean that up after you put it in your car, I remembered - it tasted sweet, so animals liked it, but they died horribly afterwards. But why would there be antifreeze inside an abandoned warehouse?
Mare was a step ahead of me, physically and otherwise. "Look out for those green pools," she called over her shoulder. "They're acid."
"How do you know?" I wondered, side-stepping a bench with a centrifuge on it. The centrifuge was broken. So was the bench.
"Scully mentioned it in her report. It ate through one of her shoes."
"Okay. Mental note not to step in acid, then." I moved cautiously around some black steel barrels. "Someone's turned this place over already."
"Apparently," she said. "But the real question is, did they find what they were looking for?"
I snorted. "I'll let you know when I work out what *we're* looking for."
"We'll know it when we see it," she said mildly, but I didn't think she was as certain as she sounded.
"I hope so."
Ahead of me, Mare stopped short with a sound of disgust. "My God."
I stopped too. "What is it?"
She stooped, then rose, holding up a sealed plastic bag for my perusal. It had a tube coming out of the top. There was a mess of blood and green tissue inside, and something that looked horribly like a foetus in shape. It was twitching. Just for an instant, I felt overwhelming sadness and pity, so deep that I rocked on my feet.
We both stared at it for a long moment, and at last, she spoke. "Please tell me that isn't what I think it is."
"It can't be human. Nothing human could live in that."
"You call that living?" she demanded. "Poor thing."
"Maybe we should kill it," I suggested. "I doubt it's got much to look forward to."
"I don't think I can," she said.
"I don't think I can, either," I admitted. Killing an adult was one thing. Killing something that tiny and helpless was quite another. "Maybe it's already dead. It's detached from whatever that tube was connected to, after all. Maybe it's in rigor mortis." It helped to think so.
She put it down where she'd found it. "Maybe." There was a sound outside the warehouse, and she grabbed for my hand. I caught it, and drew her back into the shadows behind the barrels. She whispered, "What was that?"
"Not sure," I said. I drew my weapon.
The door opened, and a figure slipped in. Light flitted over a familiar face before the door snicked shut behind her. Beside me, Mare relaxed a little. "It's Dana Scully."
I felt a momentary pang. It was the first time I'd seen Scully since her ordeal, in which I'd had a substantial role. I felt fleeting satisfaction that she'd survived it. Her hair was longer and thicker than before, and although she was thinner than I remembered, she wasn't gaunt or pale. That pleased me.
We watched as she picked her way through the mess. She inspected the same bag Mare had dropped. She stared at it, and she jolted visibly when she saw the twitching thing inside it.
Just then, there was a sound - a movement behind one of the barrels on the other side of the room. Instinctively, Mare and I inched further back, but Scully took off after the sound. "Wait!" she called. Then, more dimly, "Stop! Federal Agent! Put your hands against the wall!"
"You won't shoot me," we heard a man say.
I braved a look through the gap in the door as he turned around. After a moment, I drew back. "It's him," I whispered. "One of the Gregors."
"We are the last remaining," we heard him tell Scully. "Unless you protect us, we're already dead."
Mare and I looked at one another in the dim light. "Go," I whispered. "We're not going to be able to get to them with her around." She nodded. We slipped out the door without a sound.
"What now?" Mare asked, looking over her shoulder as we drove away. We passed the federal marshalls coming the other way.
"Mulder," I suggested. "We might get something from his phone taps, or the email. Scully's going to have to explain herself to Skinner pretty quick - protective custody doesn't come cheap."
"More hack work then," she said with a sigh.
"That's about the size of it," I said ruefully. "It's going to be a long night."
But as it happened, we got answers sooner than either of us could have anticipated.
We stopped for dinner in Silver Spring, so it was late by the time we got back to Westminster. Mare had only just checked Mulder's email, and reported that the Gregors were in safe custody in Tileston, when the phone rang. She was closer that time, so she answered, and she listened for several moments before looking up at me, her hand covering the mouthpiece.
"What's happened?" I wondered, crossing the room to stand beside her.
"The executioner guy," she said. "The one who's after the Gregors. He's got Scully. Mulder's frantic."
"He's back, then?"
She nodded. "Yeah. He's got a woman with him. He seems to think she's Samantha. I assume that's the family crisis."
I raised my eyebrows. "Carolyn?"
"Most likely." She let go of the mouthpiece and said into it, "Okay. Patch the recording through, please." She flipped the switch to speaker, and a woman's voice filled the room.
-- "I know this is hard for you, Fox."
-- "No, it's not hard. It's unbelievable."
"That stinks," I said in a low voice - low enough to follow what was happening on the recording. "Thinking he's got her back when she's long dead. That poor bastard."
Mare nodded. "Yeah, it's tough." Her tone was kind. I supposed she of all people knew what it was to search for a sister.
-- "No, no, you've explained only what you had to! I know next to nothing about these people you call your parents or about the man who wants to kill them."
"The Gregors?" I whispered. Marita shrugged.
-- "The men you've been seeking are the progeny of two original visitors, clones who have been attempting to establish a colony here since the late 1940's." Mulder's voice came, muffled, and then she continued, "The community, by necessity, is dispersed. There are clones identical to my parents living in virtually every part of the country. Through hybridization, they've been working to erase that aspect which has forced the community to scatter...their identical natures."
"That explains a lot," Mare said, frowning.
-- "And this man...why has he been sent to kill them?"
-- "The experiments weren't sanctioned. It was considered a dilution of their species, a pollution of their race. So a bounty hunter was dispatched to destroy them and terminate the colony."
"We know all this," Mare said abruptly. She spoke into the phone. "All right, that's fine, Unit 3. Keep us posted on the Scully situation." She rang off.
"Well, we had it mostly right, then," I said. "This executioner - what did she call him? A bounty hunter? He's after the Gregors for their unsanctioned work. Carolyn went to Mulder to try and flush the Bounty Hunter out, but now the Bounty Hunter knows about her instead."
"So he took Scully to try and barter for Carolyn," Mare supplied. "And meanwhile Elena is still as far away as ever."
"She's probably in hiding," I said. "I don't think we'll find her until all this dies down. And that may be just as well, for her safety - and yours."
She sighed, a sound of defeat. "It's just so frustrating, Alexi." Pulling away, she passed through the living area into the alcove that served as Samantha's bedroom. She sat down on the bed, her shoulders slumped. The lines of her face were tired and drawn.
I followed her and sat down beside her. "Mare, you can't give up. We're closer than ever. She was in this very room, for God's sake." I put my arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against me, sighing again.
"Why did she take so long?" she said at last.
"I don't understand."
"We've had those diaries for nearly six months now, Alex. Why hasn't she sought me out before?"
I shrugged. "She probably only just found out they were gone. I doubt she checks the locker every day. She's probably been away somewhere - maybe working with Strughold in Tunisia. She probably only came back because of this business with the Bounty Hunter."
Mare nodded, pulling away a little. "Maybe," she conceded. "Do you think she could be hiding out on the grounds somewhere?"
I shook my head. "No. Maybe before she searched our room, but she'd have left right after that. She must have known we'd put together that it was her."
"But how? I mean, she can't have foreseen-" she broke off, faltered, then went on awkwardly, "well, the way we argued about it."
"No," I agreed. "I'm sure she didn't realise that it - that - that it was a first," I stumbled. "But there was the different clothes, different hair - she must have known there was a risk. I doubt she would have stayed to assess the fallout."
"True," she murmured, and then she fell silent. It was the first time we'd alluded to what had happened between us that day.
"It's frightening," I said at last. "Knowing someone was in our room."
"Yeah," she said. "Mind you, she probably feels the same about us."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we're working out of Samantha's suite. I'm sure Samantha's suite was just as intimate to them as ours is to us." She patted the bed with her hand. "They probably made love on this very bed."
"I suppose. I never thought about it that way." I thought on this. "Do you think she visited here?"
"Probably," Mare said, "but if she did, she covered her tracks. I've bug swept since then and haven't found anything." She seemed fairly complacent about it all. Clearly, she'd already considered this possibility and dismissed it as irrelevant.
"Where would she go, then? Where is she now?"
"I don't know. Maybe trying to get the Gregors-" she stopped, looking at me in recognition. "They're at the Federal stockade."
I got to my feet and held out my hand. She took it, and I pulled her up.
Mare's voice intruded on my thoughts. I looked up from the road atlas and saw that the car had slowed to a crawl. Beside me, she was peering out over the steering wheel, and I followed her gaze. I saw the faint glow of flashing red and blue lights emanating from the distant figure of the Federal stockade.
"Crime scene," I said. "Looks like she's been and gone."
"Either that, or the Bounty Hunter got the Gregors," she said grimly.
I squinted, trying to make out more detail. "There's an ambulance and a coroner's van," I said as we drew closer. "I'm plumping for the Bounty Hunter." Or else Elena had been killed trying to spring the Gregors, but I didn't say so.
"Looks like it," she agreed. "Turn on the scanner. We might get something off the radio coming out of Tileston PD." She turned the car around and drove back the way we'd come.
I did as she said, still looking over maps. "I wonder if there's been any developments about Scully," I said.
She picked up her phone. "I'll call the Dark Man's boys and see." She hit a speed dial number and waited.
I watched her. "Who do they think we are, anyway?"
"They don't," she said with a sardonic grin. "They're paid not to think. Oh! - Unit 3, this is Unit 1. Can I get an update on the Samantha Mulder situation?"
She was silent for a few moments, but then, quite suddenly, she slumped in her seat. It was as though she were a marionette whose strings had been abruptly severed. She nodded with vague sounds of comprehension for a few moments, and then she rang off. She pulled over to the side of the road and switched off the ignition, resting her head in her hands. "Damn it," she said, her voice muffled through her hands. "Damn, damn, damn."
I watched her for a few moments. "What's happened?"
"It's over," she said in defeat.
I said it again. "What's happened?"
She lifted her head from her hands to look at me. Her face was red, and her eyes were bright with tears. When she spoke, her voice was tinged with fatigue and frustration. "They did a trade - Carolyn for Scully. They're dragging around Memorial Bridge in Bethesda now - it looks like Carolyn's gone."
"The Bounty Hunter killed her?" I demanded. "Why?"
She wiped her eyes. "He might not have intended to. There was a struggle. But let's face it - if he got to the last of the Gregors already, he wouldn't need Carolyn anymore."
"No, I suppose not," I said reluctantly. "So he did get the Gregors, then?"
She nodded. "Yeah. They're gone. Just puddles of green acid in each cell." She sniffled a little.
I pulled her into the crook of my arm. "Oh, Mare."
She gave a long, shuddering sigh. "We're never going to find her, Alex." Then, her voice so low I had to strain to hear it, "Maybe we should just drop the whole thing."
I pulled away to look at her in surprise. "What's brought this on?"
She shook her head miserably. "I don't know. We just seem to be so near and yet so far. It's like it isn't meant to be."
I smoothed back the hair from her forehead, frowning. It wasn't like Mare to be this dispirited. "Let's just wait for Mulder's report to come through the system," I said. "We can pick up the trail from there. He could have found something in Scranton or Syracuse that we don't know about."
She sighed. "Maybe. I just feel like-"
"Like she's part of...you know. Where I've been. Not where I'm going."
I held her gaze. Wondering what she was trying to say. "Where are you going, Mare?"
She shook her head again, looking away from me. She leaned her head against the car window. "I don't know, Alexi. I just don't know."
We sat there for a long time. At last, I said, "Is it with me?"
She turned to face me again, and she still looked wretched and worn, but there was a shadow of a smile there, too. She nodded. "Yeah. It's with you."
"That's worth something, then, isn't it?" Pitifully little, perhaps, compared to all she'd lost...but something.
"It's worth everything." She reached over and squeezed my hand. "Would you take me home, Alex?"
Down the years, I have been credited, rightly or wrongly, with being a superb liar. For myself, I doubt that's the case. Certainly, I have never been able to lie to Mare. That night, when finally I held her, all the love and fear and worry I'd been holding in since the fight came rushing to the fore. It left me in an outpouring of desire and desperation and need.
"What?" she whispered at last, pulling away from my ravenous kisses. "Alexi, what is it?" She held me back, just a little, her palm on my chest until, reluctantly, I pulled away.
"I don't - I -" I slumped, head bowed, at a loss. She watched me for a long moment, and then she drew my head down to her shoulder, holding me there against her warmth. I circled my arm around her waist. "I just - I need to hold you, Mare."
She kissed my brow, lines of worry etched in her expression. "Is it about the fight?"
"In a way." That wasn't completely true, but it wasn't a lie, either.
"Do we need to talk about it?"
I shook my head. "There's nothing to say." I traced my hand over the swell of her breast and cradled her there. My breath hitched. I felt rising pressure - in my throat, in my heart - and I didn't really know why. "I just need to show you - show you -" and I broke off then, because it was an incomplete thought, a fragment, and I honestly had no idea what I was trying to say.
"What you can't say," she said. "What you think I don't want you to say."
I stared up at her in comprehension. She'd got it - she'd understood the thing that stuck in my throat and fuelled my desire even before I did. The thing that left me wound tight with frustrated urgency and need.
"You can say it, Alex," she whispered. "When we're like this, you can say it."
I felt a pang. In that moment I felt utterly transparent - as though she could see straight into my heart. "I love you, Marita," I said, voice low and raw. "God, I love you."
"I know." Her eyes were bright. Her lips closed over mine, and she whispered against my mouth, "Show me, Alex." She tugged a little, drawing me down to her. "Show me."
I moved with her, fitting my body to hers. I slid my hand down between us, testing her. I gave a little hiss of surprise when I found her ready. I'd hardly touched her. "You're so damn-" wet, I thought, but I didn't say it.
"I want it, Alex," she sighed. Utterly high on desire, utterly vulnerable. "I want it so much. All - all of it." she broke off, and I understood that she didn't mean just the sex. "I just get scared."
I rested my forehead against hers. "There's nothing to be afraid of. What we have is good, Mare. Maybe the only good thing there is in the world for people like us."
"I know," she said. "I know that, Alexi." Then I found her warmth, and Jesus! It felt good to be there - to be part of her. To be whole.
For the first time in a long time, I felt free.
I looked up from my drink. "Hello, Diana."
I felt a short, sharp stab of resentment at the sight of her. I hadn't forgotten her easy discussion of the possibility of my execution. I knew it wasn't personal, and I'd probably have done the same. And unlike Diana, I probably would have erred on the side of caution and gone through with it. Still, it didn't fill me with goodwill.
"I haven't seen you for a few days," she said, dropping down on the stool beside me. She caught the bartender's eye. "Cointreau, straight, please. He'll have another."
"Thanks," I said, letting him top up my drink without protest. "I've been away."
"Yeah, Marita said." She took her drink, inspected the little pink straw, and dropped it on the bar with a look of disgust. "Who the hell serves liqueur with a straw?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?" I wondered. Diana snorted, but didn't make a comeback. Unusual for her. "How are you holding up? Mare said you'd been up at the Vineyard."
"Yeah. I'm okay - drained. Bill and Teena are both pretty cut up about it all."
"I'll bet." I drank a little. "Did you see Mulder?"
Diana shook her head. "I made sure we didn't cross paths. I didn't want to have to lie to him, to say I was sorry and all that when I knew perfectly well she'd been dead for ages. It would have been too horrible."
"I can understand that. Did you take Elizabeth?"
"Yeah. I think it helped, having the baby there. They fussed over her - it was better than everyone sitting around being sad."
"Sad?" I said, surprised. "But surely they knew the woman wasn't really Samantha." I was careful not to call Carolyn by name. I didn't want Diana to know how much I knew.
Diana pressed her lips into a thin, disapproving line. "Apparently not. It seems that our cigarette smoking friend thought he was being kind by withholding the fact that she killed herself. They thought she was still in deep cover."
I stared at her. "How did he manage that?"
"Well, we've lost touch a bit the last few years, since I remarried," she explained. "And they've both stayed pretty removed from the Group since Bill retired. So they never found out. It didn't unravel until Bill phoned Spender to tell him his daughter had turned up - that was when Spender told them the truth. And by then, of course, the woman had taken off with Fox and gotten herself killed anyway."
"That's disgusting," I said, but I felt like a hypocrite. After all, I was keeping some pretty important secrets from the woman I loved myself.
"Yes, it is. Teena's furious. Says she never wants to see him again."
"She's said that before."
"I think she means it this time."
"Don't blame her." I finished my drink. "Poor old Mulder. He thinks the woman was Samantha, I suppose?"
Diana nodded. "Yes. They couldn't really have told him anything else, and I think they feel it's best if he uses this episode to come to terms with her death. Maybe he can find some peace and move on."
"I hope so," I said. "Is he still on bereavement leave?"
"Yes," she said. That explained why his report hadn't come through yet, then. "No-one seems to know where he is, but I think the time to himself will do him good." I nodded, and her mood brightened. "Enough about Fox. What about you? What have you been up to?"
"Just ordinary stuff," I said, and for the most part - since Carolyn's death - that was the truth. "Mare and I have both had a lull on the work front, so we're just hanging out...reading...watching TV. Quiet times."
"You're rebuilding," she supplied. I looked at her in query. "Alex, you must realise that women talk."
I shot her a rueful grin. "What did she tell you?"
"Not a lot. I know you had a fight. I know it was a big one."
"I said something she wasn't ready to hear."
"I see." I thought she did.
"Anyway...we're getting through it. Rebuilding, like you said."
"I'm glad." She said, deliberately casual, "Has she said anything about this business with Fox?"
I watched her out of the corner of my eye. She was trying to find out what we knew. Whether we had made the connection between Carolyn's death, the Gregors, and Elena. Just for an instant, I wondered whether she knew where Elena was, but I dismissed the idea at once. If Elena had any sense she'd be working totally alone at this point. Besides - if Diana were in touch with Elena, then Elena would have told her that we had the diaries. She would already know that those connections had been made.
"What do you mean?" I said finally.
"Well, you know," she said, fumbling. "He's part of your past."
"You're not suggesting that she's jealous." I didn't think she was suggesting anything of the sort, but I thought saying so might unsettle her and make her let something slip.
"No," she said hastily. "Actually, I think Fox is far less important than you think he is."
"Say again?" I said, momentarily sidetracked.
"Well, I think you hold onto the memory of Fox because of what he symbolises - the life you left behind. Not because of who he was to you." I didn't entirely understand what she meant back then, but I do now. She was right. And she understood it so completely because she did it herself - with Mulder, and maybe with Mare, as well.
"Maybe that's true," I said. Then, deliberately on the offensive, I said, "Or maybe you spend too much time trying to second-guess people."
She stared at me. "Where did that come from?"
I drained my drink. "Well, you seem to spend a lot of time predicting the future and trying to mould it to your specifications."
She turned to face me fully, frowning. "Alex, is this about Rita's sister?"
I ignored her, changing tack before she could rally. "Did you know Marita is smoking again, Diana?"
"Wha- no, I didn't know that." There were pink spots on her cheeks. She was confused - exasperated.
"There's a link between smoking, the Pill, and pulmonary embolism," I said. "You haven't had to worry about birth control since you got married, so you might not know that - but it's true." She drew back in her seat a little. The lines of her face fell away, leaving a blank slate. She was shutting down - working not to betray anything. Firmly on the defensive. Perfect.
"I don't - I don't understand where you're going with this. You're talking in riddles."
I moved in for the kill. "Her doctor's gonna take her off them, Diana. It's only a matter of time. If you don't want to deal with the consequences of that, then you better have a backup plan for me when that happens."
She was very pale. "What do you know?"
"I know enough." Telling her I knew about the Eves might sign my death warrant, but the threat I'd pointed out to her was real enough. And what if we ever wanted children?
"Then you know it's best this way. You know it would hurt her to know. More than not knowing." She leaned in, voice persuasively low. She was getting back in control. I'd have to push her again, before she regained her composure. "Are you really going to tell her what they did to her to make yourself feel better, Alex? Are you really that selfish?"
"I might not have a choice! Elena was in this house!" I was showing my hand, but at this point, that was a chance I was willing to take. If it pushed her over the edge, if it made her tell me what she knew-
"Elena was here?" she hissed. "When?"
"A couple of weeks ago. Before I went away. She's long gone now."
Diana was beyond pale now - she looked physically ill. "Does the Dark Man know?"
I frowned a little, puzzled by her reaction. "Yeah - we told him before he left. Haven't seen him for a while. I think he's running his own inquiry."
"That's pretty normal for the Dark Man," she said uneasily. She rummaged in her purse and put a twenty on the bar. Her hands were steady, but the fact that she paid revealed how unsettled she really was. The drinks went on her swipe card. She didn't have to pay.
Her manner worried me. I wanted information - I didn't want to scare her to death. I tried to diffuse the situation. "Does that guy have a name?" I wondered, striving for levity.
"I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill you." The banter was forced.
"That's not funny." A month ago, maybe, but not now.
"It isn't meant to be. I have to go."
She turned and hurried away, leaving me bewildered.
I never did find out the Dark Man's name. To this day, Mare refuses to tell me what it is (although she has said more than once that I'd recognise it if she did). But I did find out something else about him that night, and that was that he was vulnerable too.
Mare and I were fooling around in bed - just tickling and teasing. Desire was growing at a leisurely pace, and we would have gotten down to business sooner or later if not for a knock at the door.
I lifted my head from the small of her back. "It's one in the morning," I said in disgust. "What the-"
"I'll get rid of them," Mare said, rising up onto her elbows. She added over her shoulder, "You can keep licking there, if you like." Grinning, I took the hint, and she called, "Go away. It can wait 'til morning."
"Marita, let me in," came a familiar voice, muffled through the door. "I'm getting blood on your carpet."
"Blood?" she said, rising abruptly, bumping me in the process.
"Ow," I said, rising too. I pulled my robe around myself and then handed her hers, rubbing the bridge of my nose with my free hand.
"Sorry," she said. She kissed it with a rueful grin. She donned the robe I'd given her, hurried to the door, and opened it. "What's happened?"
"Just let me in." The Dark Man pushed his way in as soon as the door was open far enough. He half-staggered, and he caught Mare's arm to steady himself. I caught hold of his other side, but he shrugged us off as soon as his vertigo passed. As he straightened, I got a better look at him. Blood was oozing from a half-congealed head wound. Someone had worked him over big time.
Mare led him onto the dais, and I pulled up one of the stools. He sat, and she pried his car keys from his hand. She handed them to me. I put them on the vanity, saying, "You didn't drive like this, did you?"
"From D.C.," he said. "Sorry to get you out of bed."
Mare shook her head, dismissing this. "We weren't asleep."
I reflected with some amusement that that sounded worse, and clearly the Dark Man caught the inference, because he shot me an apologetic look. I shrugged it off, saying, "Come on, let's get you cleaned up."
He sat there and let Mare fuss over him for a while. I doubted anyone else could have gotten away with it, but he allowed it from her. It occurred to me that she must have been a very endearing child to have that lingering effect on him.
"So who was it?" she asked at last, dabbing his forehead with antiseptic.
"Your old boss," he said, nodding to me. "AD Skinner."
I stared at him in utter disbelief. "Skinner," I echoed. "Why?"
"He wanted to know where Mulder went."
I thought on this. "You didn't kill the old bastard, did you? I rather liked him."
The Dark Man shook his head. "He's alive. Just a little the worse for wear. I gave as good as I got."
Mare favoured him with an indulgent smile. "I'll bet you did. So come on, spill the beans."
He met her gaze. "What makes you think I have any beans to spill?"
His tone was ingenious, which was hilarious, considering the source. I said as much. "As lovely as Mare's Florence Nightingale impersonation may be," I said grimly, "I'm betting you would've just slapped on a sticking plaster if you didn't have something to tell us."
He offered a rare grin. "True enough."
"That's going to need stitches," Mare said, casting a critical gaze over the cut on his head. "So what have you got for us?" She turned and got a needle and what looked like a spool of thread in a sealed packet from the cabinet, and wiped the needle with rubbing alcohol.
I watched her in disbelief. "You're not going to stitch it yourself, are you?"
"Of course I am," she said. Her tone was matter-of-fact. Totally oblivious to the Dr Kildare factor. "I do it all the time."
"Hardly all the time," the Dark Man protested.
"I pulled a bullet out of his shoulder once," she said proudly. "He doesn't get into trouble much, but when he does, he does it good."
"And I was only kidding about Florence Nightingale," I marvelled. Mare approached the Dark Man with the needle, and I turned away. "So talk."
"Well, Mulder found out that Carolyn - *fuck*, Marita, have you got salt on that thing?"
"Whinge, whinge, whinge."
"It feels like a fucking upholstery needle!"
"Fine. See if I patch you up next time you get into a punch-up."
I turned to look at them again, and winced. She wasn't finished. "Priorities, people?"
The Dark Man made an exasperated sound. "Fine. Mulder found out, or worked out that Carolyn wasn't really Samantha. He went chasing after the Bounty Hunter to find out what happened to the real Samantha. That's why he hasn't been at work."
I frowned. "Where are they now?"
"Battling it out in Alaska." The Dark Man's voice was neutral even as Mare sewed him up. The only hint of any pain he might be feeling was in his whitened knuckles. I marvelled at his self-control. It was pretty damn impressive - if a little frightening.
"Alaska?" There was worry in Mare's voice. "He could be after Elena or the Samantha clones."
"I don't think so," the Dark Man said. "They're in Deadhorse, right up in the Arctic. The Bounty Hunter is trying to salvage his ship by the look of it." He conceded, "He did take out an abortion clinic in Rockville before he left - one with some clones in it - but my impression is that he was just trying to stop Mulder's investigation."
Mare nodded, visibly relieved. "So why did Skinner want the location?"
"Well, it seems Mulder ditched Scully, and-"
"I know just how she feels," I said fervently.
"-she wants go after him. Skinner played heavy on her behalf."
I went to the bar and poured the Dark Man a brandy. "Touching," I said with more than a trace of sarcasm. I handed it to him, but Mare took it deftly from his hand.
"Alcohol or painkillers?" she said. "You can't have both." He scowled at her and held out his hand, and she handed it back with a sigh.
"Thank you." He took a sip and sat back a little. "So assuming Mulder makes it out alive - and for what it's worth, I think he will, because I don't think the Bounty Hunter will want Spender offside - he should be back in the next week or so and we can go through his report."
"Can't we get anything off Scully's?" Mare wondered. "The longer we wait, the colder the trail gets."
The Dark Man shook his head. "They seem to be comparing reports before they lodge them now. I don't think she'll lodge hers until he comes back."
I nodded. I'd expected that. I pointed out, "Things will be hot for Elena now."
"They would be, if she were silly enough to go back to work, but she won't. Now that Spender knows about the unsanctioned Samantha clones, he must have guessed that she's running something on the side. He won't give her the luxury of explaining herself. And I don't think he'd really want her to explain herself. I don't think he wants to hear that Samantha betrayed him."
"Makes sense," Mare said. "Does he know that Samantha and Elena were working together?"
"Knows, or guessed. He hasn't said much, but from what I can piece together, both he and Larissa knew there was a relationship between Samantha and Elena, so when these clones popped up it didn't take much of a leap to work out that Elena was part of it."
Mare was instantly on the alert. "He's spoken to my mother?"
The Dark Man nodded. "One of my men tracked him to Staten Island just after all this blew up. I don't know what was said - he couldn't get that close without being detected."
"Maybe he was trying to find out if she knew where Elena was," Mare suggested.
"Most likely," I said. But privately, I thought it was at least possible that Larissa and Spender were colluding to flush Elena out. There was a ruthlessness about Larissa that I didn't like. If she would orchestrate what amounted to the sexual exploitation of her daughter in order to protect her secret, who knew what else she would do? But of course, I could say nothing of this.
I thought on this again later, after the Dark Man had retired to his suite, after Mare had dropped off to sleep in my arms. It wasn't the first time I'd lain awake well into the night - lately it was a common occurrence.
Not for the first time, I tried to see it from Larissa's point of view. It wasn't so much goodwill on my part as a need to work out where she was coming from - and what she might do next. I supposed that to Larissa, delivering Marita into the hands (and bed) of her best friend, her trusted friend and protector, was the least of all possible evils. Certainly Michael had been kind to Marita. The logic was impeccable. In a warped kind of way, it made perfect sense - maybe the same kind of sense as Spender concealing Samantha's death from the Mulders.
And yet...and yet.
It made sense, but it was all wrong - that was what it really came down to. And by choosing to share in that path, wasn't I wrong too?
No. My mind recoiled from the parallel. I was withholding information from Mare, yes. But I hadn't manipulated her. I hadn't used her body against her. I wasn't like them.
My loyalty was with her. Not Larissa. Not Elena. Not the Project or the Russians or the Eves. Her. And that meant I was nothing like them.
Nothing like them at all.
"It never rains, but it pours."
The onslaught, in this case, was not of water but of paperwork. Samantha's bed was a mess of files. I looked up from the one on my lap to the Dark Man. "Tell me about it. When did you say you wanted this report by?"
"Next Thursday, wasn't it?" Marita said, propping herself up on her elbows beside me.
"Sunday fortnight," I said, "I heard that distinctly."
"Now that you mention it, I'm sure I heard a month from Wednesday."
"All right, knock it off," he said, draping his coat on the table. Marita just laughed. He came into the alcove and sat in the chair beside the bed. "So what do you have? Anything coherent?"
I shook my head. "Not really, but there are lots of fragments that might lead somewhere." I held up a page, covered in highlighting and my notes cramped into the margins. "There's a lot to cover, and it will take a bit of work to pull it all together into something we can use."
Mare nodded. "There's a lot of cross-referencing between his work and ours. Mulder wasn't looking for the same things we're looking for."
The Dark Man looked unsatisfied, but he recognised, as we did, that it was the only way. There were no short cuts in the work we did. Short cuts meant that things got missed. "Well, take as long as you need to do it properly," he said. "I've got a few hours tomorrow - I'll come and wade through it with you."
"I'll save Syracuse and Tileston for you," I offered with a smirk. They were the thickest files of the lot.
"You're all heart, Alex," he said with a withering look. "I'll be around today - I have a meeting with Diana down in the restaurant. Do you want me to bring you up some lunch?"
Mare shook her head. "We'll be fine, but thank you."
"What's the meeting with Diana?" I wondered. I hadn't forgotten the incident in the bar. She'd been away ever since.
"Not sure. She didn't say." He looked at his watch. "I have to head down there. Do you need anything from me before I go?"
"No, we've got enough to keep us going for a week," I said. "We might head over to Germantown later - it's the only lab we know of that wasn't torched. If we're lucky there might still be some papers lying around. You never know."
"All right. Do you need backup?"
Mare shook her head. "No. The Bounty Hunter got what he wanted. He got the Gregors. He and his ship are long gone."
"All right, then," the Dark Man said. "I'll see you both later."
We watched him go, and then I put my file on the floor and gently lifted hers from her hand. "Alexi," she protested, "I need to-"
"No, you don't," I said. "Not right now. You know what they say about all work and no play."
"Alex, I have UN submissions to work on as well. We can't stop."
"Yes, we can. We've been working all morning. We can stop for a few minutes." I leaned across the bed to kiss her. She gave a reproachful sigh, but she returned the kiss, and soon she was working my shirt buttons free.
When we were done, she sat up, sweeping back a mass of blonde hair away from her face. "What a mess."
I looked at the scattered files around us and was forced to concur. "Next time, we go to our own bed."
"Next time, I tell you to get back to work," she retorted. "A few minutes, indeed." She held up her watch for my inspection.
I gave a self-satisfied grin. "When you're good, you're good."
"You're a legend in your own mind," she laughed, kissing me. I pouted. She amended, "And mine," and I shot her a good-natured grin. She rose, pulling on her now-crumpled clothes. "Can I leave this to you? I want to shower and change before we go to Germantown."
"Oh, sure. Leave me the dirty work."
Her look was conciliatory. "Tell you what - you do that and I'll do Germantown on my own. How's that?"
"I can't see any reason why not."
She bent and kissed me, still fastening her buttons. "Okay. I'll see you later."
"Later," I agreed, and then she was gone.
I watched her leave, and then I rose from the bed. I stooped to pick up my clothes - first my shirt, then my trousers. I grabbed onto the bedpost to pull myself back up, and that was when my fingertips closed on something odd.
I straightened, frowning. I ran my fingers over the area. It was soft and pliant - some kind of putty or woodfiller. It filled a perfectly round area beneath my fingertip - too regular to be a natural knot in the wood. My chest suddenly felt very tight, fear closing like a hand around my heart. I didn't even need to look inside to know to near certainty that the hole contained a listening device.
I groaned in dismay. I dropped my clothes on the bed and ran to the ensuite. Heart pounding, I rummaged in Samantha's vanity, found a pair of eyebrow tweezers there, and went back to the alcove. I used them to pick out the putty plugging the hole, and as I'd expected, I found a bug anchored inside. I tugged it free and rested it on my palm.
How long had it been there, I wondered? And who had put it there? No-one knew we were using this suite - no-one but Mare, the Dark Man, and me. And, if she had indeed come back here, just possibly Elena.
Elena. Of course. She had a vested interest in our work, after all. Some of my worry eased. It was bad that the suite had been breached, but Elena, at least, was unlikely to kill us. Looking over the device, I saw that it wasn't one of the standard issue ones used among Spender's people - that was a good sign.
I got dressed as quickly as I could. Marita would want to know about this. I leaned down to pull on my shoes, and my gaze fell on one of the scattered case reports - Mulder's report of Carolyn's death. Two words in particular caught my eye: 'retractable spike'. Frowning, I picked it up.
'Suspect held victim, Jane Doe 95-2517 (previously wrongly identified as Samantha Mulder), and held a weapon to her throat. Weapon is a metallic cylinder with a retractable spike. Victim had previously stated that this weapon could be used to kill the suspect by stabbing him in the base of the neck with it. Indicated that suspect is unusually resilient and that this was the only effective method of killing him. Victim also indicated that suspect's blood was toxic (cf autopsy report, SAC Weiss; cf forensic report, SAC Scully (shoes); cf coroner's report, Jane Doe 95-2517).' I looked up from the report in recognition. That was what the weapons were for - the ones Mare and I had found. They were to kill the Bounty Hunter.
I read on. 'Victim attempted to overpower suspect with an ice pick, but was unsuccessful. Suspect then threatened victim with the words, "Where is she?" Must consider the possibility that victim had a female partner or partners in her activities. Certainly this is borne out by my findings at the abortion clinic in Rockville, MD.'
I felt a chill. We'd thought the Bounty Hunter was after the Gregors - but it sounded as though he might be after someone else - one of the Samantha clones, maybe. Frowning, I looked around, searching for Mulder's report on Rockville. I found it behind me, half under the pillow. A fragment leaped out at me like a neon sign amid the sea of black print: '"She is the one you must protect. The one from whom we all came."' The original prototype was Samantha - but Samantha was dead. That left Elena - the scientist who made them.
We'd had it all wrong. The Bounty Hunter was after Elena.
Where was Elena now? I wondered desperately. Where would she go? With the Gregors dead and her clones scattered, she would be in hiding, trying to salvage the work. And that meant she would go to the only laboratory not destroyed by fire - Germantown. The one she knew was intact, because we'd said so in this very room. And where Elena went, the Bounty Hunter would follow.
And Marita was there.
Our suite was empty.
The shower stall was still heavy with condensation, and the clothes she'd been wearing lay crumpled in the laundry hamper. She'd been and gone.
"Dammit!" I hissed. I pulled my cellphone from my jacket and hit speed dial for Mare. I waited, fumbling through the desk drawer for the remaining stilettos. I had one in my jacket already, but I slipped another into the knife holster strapped to my shin for good measure.
"The customer handset you are calling is switched off, or not in a mobile service area."
"Shit!" I rang off in disgust. Turning, I raced out of our suite, into the hall. My initial urgency was rapidly being replaced by full-fledged panic. My blood was pumping; my head was pounding. I rounded the corner, barreled down the stairs, and ran straight into Diana and the Dark Man.
"Alex! Thank God we caught you in time," Diana said. Relief was etched into her features.
I shook my head, pushing past them at a run. "No, you didn't," I said over my shoulder. "She's already gone out there."
Diana breathed out in a rush. "She could be walking straight into a firestorm," she said, running to catch up, the Dark Man at her side. "Have you tried her cellphone?"
I nodded. "No service. That end of Germantown is pretty industrial - that might be blocking the signal."
"She might not even be there yet," the Dark Man said. "How long ago did she leave?"
"I don't know - ten, fifteen minutes. Not long."
He nodded. "We'll take my car. I could run faster than yours." I was in no mood to banter, so I merely nodded, taking the keys he offered as we went out the door, and I ran ahead. I had his car unlocked and the engine running by the time they caught up.
I drove in silence for a few moments, but at the first set of lights, I turned and pinned Diana down with my stare. "Truth time, Diana. How did you know?"
She kicked off her heels. It struck me as a strange thing to do, in the circumstances. "I thought Carolyn was working on her own. Last I heard, Elena was in Tunisia. I haven't spoken to her in months."
"But you knew Elena and Samantha were together," I said. "You knew they were cloning her."
"Yes. But I didn't know exactly what for. And I didn't know they were helping the Gregors. When you told me Elena was in town, though..."
"You realised she and Carolyn were in it together."
"Yeah." She opened her purse and withdrew a hair elastic. She pulled her hair back into a severe ponytail. Another strange thing to do, but now I recognised it for what it was. She was gearing up for a fight. "I started trying my contacts," she said. "Finally I found one of the clones - a survivor from the Maryland clinic. She told me."
"Told you what?"
"The reason the Bounty Hunter wants her. She betrayed him."
"Elena?" I demanded, distracted momentarily from my fears for Mare. "How?"
The Dark Man took up the tale from the back seat. "It seems the Bounty Hunter found out Elena was shielding the Gregors - a long time ago now. Nearly two years. He made a deal with her - she would facilitate the elimination of the Gregors and in exchange he wouldn't betray her to the group. So she did."
"With Michael's help," I hazarded.
"Yes," he said. "How did you know?" I told them of Mare's speculations about the Fallen Angel case.
"I see," he said when I was done. "Yes - Michael and Elena and Carolyn were in it together. They double-crossed the Gregors."
"But then they double-crossed the Bounty Hunter," I said. "How?"
"They gained his trust. Finally he gave them information about the biochemistry of his race - their vulnerabilities. They were supposed to use it to sabotage the work on the hybrids."
"But they used it to work on a bioweapon, like Elena and Samantha agreed when they were kids," I guessed.
Diana nodded. "That's right. He found out when he took Anchorage. Elena never told him about Anchorage - he found that on his own. They were working on it there."
"So he torched it and came after Elena and Carolyn," I said. "And Carolyn used Mulder to try to stop him before he could get to them."
"Got it in one."
We fell silent. At last, Diana said, "What's she wearing?"
I stared at her. "What?"
"For identification. There's Marita, there's Elena, and there's a shapeshifter. We need to know which one's which."
"I don't - I don't know what she's wearing."
"What are you, blind?"
"She had a shower," I said, flushing. I omitted the detail of why she'd needed one. "I didn't see her before she left." I felt real fury - mostly self-directed. What in God's name had possessed me to let her go there alone? I blurted, "Dammit, hasn't anyone gotten through to her yet?"
"Still trying," the Dark Man said. "I'm still not getting a signal."
Diana was checking her gun. "Are we all familiar with this guy's strengths and weaknesses?"
I gripped the steering wheel, striving for calm. "Base of the neck. His blood is toxic."
"To be precise, it's the brainstem. About the size of a dime. Get it right, and his blood is toxic for a matter of a minute or two - until he dies. Once he dies, the toxicity eases. Get it wrong, though..."
"Get it wrong, and you can end up like Agent Weiss." Weiss was a Syracuse field agent who'd been killed during Mulder's investigation.
Diana nodded. "For that reason, you don't want to shoot unless you can get in a mortal wound. That's where your hand-to-hand combat training comes into play, Alex. If you need to fight him, you're aiming to bruise - not cut. You can't kill him that way, but a good kick in the solar plexus will buy you a few seconds to take a shot. Got it?"
"You've fought these things before."
"Fought, but never won. It's very hard to hit an area that small on a moving target." My heart sank. Diana was a first-class shot.
"It's ringing," the Dark Man said abruptly from the seat. He handed the phone over to Diana, who gave it to me. I wedged it between my shoulder and my ear so I could drive.
"Marita Covarrubias," her voice came through the phone. I damn near swerved off the road in relief.
"Mare, it's me. Where are you?"
"Germantown. I'm just pulling up at the warehouse."
"You can't go in there, Mare," I said, weaving in and out of traffic. "We've got new information. The Bounty Hunter might be in there."
"Here?" she demanded. "Why?"
"I'll explain when we get there, but he's switched targets. He's after Elena. He might think you're her." I didn't tell her Elena might be in there. That information could send her racing headlong inside.
"Why would he think that? Why would he even be here? If he's been tracking her, he'd know she's long gone."
"Mare, will you just wait for us to reach you? Stay in the car, keep it locked? Please?"
There was a long pause. She said, very quietly, "Alex, is my sister in there?"
I was silent, swallowing hard. I felt very cold.
"She is, isn't she?"
"Mare, I love you," I said, lowering my voice. I don't know if Diana heard or not, but either way, she discreetly looked away. "Please, don't go in there. Please."
"Oh, Alex." Her breath came in a shuddering sigh. From nowhere, she said, "Did I ever tell you I worked out why my mother chose her? You know - instead of me?"
"No," I said, puzzled by the nonsequiter. "You didn't."
"It's because she was the weaker one. Mother prizes strength, you know." There were tears in her voice. "I have to go in there. I can't leave her to fight him by herself."
There was warmth rising in my face - sadness, fear, pity. "No, you don't," I insisted. "You don't have anything to atone for, Mare. She isn't weak anymore. She's strong, and she's been running from him for a long time. Let her deal with it." I said desperately, "Just wait. We'll all go in together."
"I can't. I'm sorry."
"Mare," I argued. "Mare!"
It was too late. She'd hung up.
I stared out at the road, putting the phone down onto the seat. "She - she's gone in there," I said. "She-" I couldn't go on.
"We should hurry," Diana said. Her voice was kind.
The Dark Man spoke. "You've been in there, Alex. What's it like?"
"Dark," I said, finding my voice. "The power's been cut. Large windows give a lot of light on the perimeter, but not further in." I cleared my throat, swallowing hard, and forced myself to focus. "It's three storeys. Standard grid layout - center corridor with rooms on either side and a staircase at each end."
"All right," Diana said. "We take a floor each - you can take the ground floor," she said over her shoulder to the Dark Man, "I'll take the second, and Alex can take the third. When one of us finds him, we call out to the others. Then those two take a stairwell each and we cut him off. Whoever finds Elena or Marita, bring them."
"Calling out?" I said. "Won't that draw attention to ourselves?"
"There's no point being subtle with this guy. He won't be. And if it distracts him from the twins, so much the better." It was a few seconds before I realised she meant Elena and Marita.
"This is it," I said, bringing the car to a skidding halt in front of the warehouse. "Luck, everyone."
I didn't wait for a reply.
It was bad in here.
It was dark, and the sound of my footfalls echoed in my ears. I clattered up the stairwell, following it around corners at each floor. The higher I climbed, the more my panic seemed to escalate as well. By the time the door to the third floor came into view, with its peeling paint and a rusted metal sign that declared THREE in faded letters, the blood roared in my ears.
Just as I reached the door and shoved it open, I heard a cry of fear - a woman's cry, high and keening. It was a little way off on the same level, but too far away for me to be sure whether it was Mare. I flinched, breath hitching with unimaginable fear, and then there was a long, low wail of pain.
I pushed past the door and forced my way into the corridor, but my movements felt sluggish...impotent. I might have called her name. I'm not sure. The Bounty Hunter emerged from a doorway about halfway down. Sunlight streamed through the opening, and I could see a stiletto in his hand. The spike was exposed and stained with red. He saw me, turned, and ran in the other direction. I watched him, rooted to the spot, as he disappeared down the other stairwell.
The woman's cry came again, and suddenly I could move again. I raced down there in a frenzy of panic, breaths coming in rapid bursts. I rounded the corner through the door, and then I saw her, slumped on the floor by the window.
My heart stopped. For one endless moment, I stared at her, transfixed. It was a life-changing moment - a moment where all I had and all I'd done and all I knew came together in a single instant. I suspect that death will be a little like that moment.
She watched me. Blood was seeping out along her belly, and she was terribly pale. She met my gaze, and recognition flooded her features. "Alex."
The spell broke. Suddenly, I could breathe again - breathe, and grieve. I clasped my hand over my mouth. "Mare," said hoarsely, running to her side. I dropped down beside her. "Oh, God, Mare, don't leave me, don't-" I pulled her against me, my face red and warm, tears very close. "Oh, God."
She was pushing at me, pushing me back so I could see her. "Not Marita."
A little part of me will always hate myself for the rush of relief I felt in that moment.
Her jaw was tense, and her hands were clenched against the pain, but she managed a wan smile. "I thought when you loved someone you could tell the difference."
I smoothed back her hair. God, the resemblance. It was uncanny. "I think that only happens in the movies."
Laughter bubbled up out of her mouth. A thin trail of blood trickled from the corner of her lips. "You should go and help her," she said. Her breaths were coming in erratic wheezes. "You must want to."
I shook my head. "Marita wouldn't want you to be alone." I couldn't leave her. The very idea made me feel ill, deep down in my stomach. It would be like leaving Mare. "Diana and the Dark Man love her. I trust them to find her."
"I told her to go," she said. "I told her to get away. I want her to live."
"She will," I said. "So will you."
Elena shook her head. "The end's been coming," she said, labourious and slow. "It's been coming for a while. Poor Carolyn was all I had left, you know. Since Samantha died - and then Michael - I've been - I've been so alone." I wiped the blood from her mouth, and she managed a smile in reply. "Spender blamed me for Samantha. Blamed our...our lifestyle." Her lip curled a little. "Mother didn't approve either. Michael was the only one left to protect me, and he was estranged from the group himself, that last year. And then - then they killed him." Tears slipped down her cheeks. "So many people gone. I'm the last one left." Her face crumpled a little, and she wept, "You and Marita are just at the beginning. You don't know how high the cost is yet."
"We're learning that pretty fast," I said sadly. "Damn it, Elena, this isn't fair."
She shook her head. "I want to be with Samantha. I loved her so goddamn much. These last couple of years without her..." Incredibly, she smiled. "You know, I always wanted to be...to be the one to save the world. Not just to do my little bit and die and never know if it helped. I wanted to be the one who finished the work - saw it succeed. You know?" I nodded. Understanding perfectly. "Now...I don't want that burden, Alex. I don't want to fight anymore." The blood trickling from her mouth was faster and thicker and darker now. "Marita is the strong one. Who knows? One day when all this is over, maybe she'll still be standing."
"Maybe. I hope so."
"Me too." Her face contorted with sudden, wracking pain. "You have to kill this guy," she blurted. "He knows what we are. If he gets that information out-"
"She'll never be safe again." She nodded. "Elena," I said urgently, "what happens if she stops the pills?"
"I don't...I don't know. I never dared. Sally told me not to." She groped for my arm. "Alex, you have to tell her there are more of us."
More? Oh, God. "No. No, I can't do that."
Her eyelids were drooping. She blinked them. Fighting for consciousness. "You have to."
"It would destroy her." There were tears rising in my throat. I knew it wasn't Mare there in my arms, I *knew* it, and yet-
"It would set her free." She gripped my hand. "Promise me."
It was a lie - I knew it was a lie before I said it - but I didn't have the heart to say no. "I'll tell her," I said. "I'll tell her, Elena." My tears were coming thick and fast; the lines between Elena and Marita were becoming blurred in my mind. I cradled her against me. "I'm sorry. God, Mare, I'm sorry."
I stayed there, weeping over her in the streaming light.
I was relieved when she died.
I hated myself for it, but as soon as it was over, I let her down as gently as I could, and I ran. I left her there, abandoned her like a faithless lover, and I fled out the doorway, down the hall.
"Alex!" I heard Diana cry out. "I've got him on Two! Cut him off from the north!"
I ran down the stairs, still wiping my eyes with my hands, and forced my way in the door the next floor down. About halfway down the corridor, Diana was pinned to the floor, the Bounty Hunter thrashing over her, his hands tight around her throat. She gouged at his face with her hands, and he drew back, just for an instant. It was enough. She got in one swift knee to his stomach and managed to roll free.
I pulled my stiletto from my jacket and advanced on them, my gaze trained on his. Agony was fast making way for anger. I wanted this guy. I wanted him bad.
He turned away, heading for the south stairwell. But then the Dark Man appeared in the doorway, and he turned back again, slipping into one of the storerooms to the side.
"No!" Diana cried. "Rita's in there!"
That was all the impetus I needed. I ran to the doorway, Diana and the Dark Man close on my heels, and then I faltered. The others came to a sudden halt behind me, staring with me at what we saw there in the light.
"Mare," I said breathlessly. I looked at their clothes, searching for some way to tell them apart. Both wore black. I couldn't see any telltale clues. Had I seen her wear those jeans, I wondered? Had I seen her wear those shoes? I cursed my lack of attention.
I stepped forward, my stiletto in my hand. I pointed it downwards, walking towards them, very slowly. They stood a few feet apart, holding my gaze as I approached them. As I walked, my footfalls reverberating in my ears, I hated them both. Him for making me choose. Her for making me love so much. Hurt so much. Hurt over hurt over hurt. Just for a second, it seemed like more hurt than any one person could bear.
"Alex," said the one on my right. There was fear in her voice - but fear of me, or of the other one? If I tried to second-guess this, I'd get it wrong. I had to work on instinct.
"Alex," said the one on my left. "Thank God you're here."
"Alex, she wants to kill me. She hurt my sister."
"She's lying, Alex. It was her!"
"Alex, Alex, you know me, please-"
"I love you, Alex, please don't do this." That was the one on my left.
That decided me. I stalked forward to the Marita on my right, raising the stiletto, and grabbed her by the shoulder with my hand. She flinched, and I shoved her. "Down!" I yelled, whirling over her body to stab the other in the back of the neck.
She looked at me with supreme surprise, eyes wide, and my eyes stung as she began to bleed. I thrust myself down over Marita, pulling my jacket over our heads, holding her against the floor. She was shaking.
We stayed there for long, long moments. I could feel her, slumped there beneath me against the wooden floorboards, limbs limp and fluid. "Oh, God," she moaned in a wounded, hurting voice. She turned her face to mine, groping blindly for me, and I found flesh there in the dark. I kissed it. It tasted of tears. "Oh, God."
At last, I heard Diana's voice, muffled through leather. "Alex? Rita? It's safe, I think."
Cautiously, I pulled back my jacket. There was some residual acid in the air - my eyes watered a little - but I nodded. "It seems okay." I sat up, and Marita did the same.
I looked over to where the other Marita had been. She (he, I corrected, he) was just a lump of green tissue. Blonde strands of hair emerged from the mess. Staring at it, I felt sick.
"Oh, my God," Mare whispered.
I pulled her close. "It's okay, it's okay," I said. "I'm sorry I frightened you."
She slumped against me, her face deep in my chest, arms wrapped around my waist. "I thought - I thought you were going to-"
"I know. I'm so sorry. I'd never hurt you, Mare."
"Elena?" she whispered, tilting her head up to face me.
I stroked back her hair. "She's gone, Mare." Her face crumpled, and I said, "I was with her. She died in my arms. She said she loved you, and she said she wanted to be with Samantha - she said -" and then my eyes were wet. "I held her - it was like she was you-"
"Oh, Alex." Tears streamed down her cheeks. She sank against me, weeping piteously, and I held her tight.
We stayed there, clinging to each other for a long time; but finally, her hitching sobs began to die away, trailing off into sniffles and hiccups. The Dark Man cleared his throat. We looked up at him, and he said, "I know this is difficult for you both, but we need to get out of here." His voice was surprisingly gentle.
I looked at Mare. Her face was upturned, facing me in the fading sunlight, wet and etched with grief. She nodded, and reluctantly, she broke away. She took the hand Diana offered her and got to her feet, a little unsteadily. Diana drew her into the crook of her arm.
I rose as well, and started off in the direction of the stairwell, but Mare's voice stopped me. "Alex?"
I turned, holding her gaze.
"How did you know, Alex? How did you know which one was me?"
I looked at her, stricken, and all at once I felt the chaos of anger and grief and fear rise in my chest. I burst out, "You would never have said what she said, Marita!" She was suddenly very white. "Not even if it were true."
The animation fell out of her face in an instant. Like she'd donned a mask. "You're wrong, Alex," she said. "But I won't say it to someone who'd use it to stab me in the back."
"What do you think that was like for me, Marita?" I demanded. "To have to make that choice? What do you think it was like for me to take a spike and shove it into your neck?" She stared at me in dawning horror, and suddenly the despair broke through my voice. "It doesn't matter that it wasn't really you. I had to live it and - and feel it! I lost you twice, and the fact that by the grace of God you're still standing here doesn't change that!" Her eyes were suddenly red and wet again, and I felt like a jerk for laying that on her now. The discomforted look that passed between Diana and the Dark Man seemed to confirm it.
"Look," I said awkwardly, "we don't have time for this. We've got to get Elena out of here."
"Fine," she said. She seemed to have retreated into Diana's embrace.
More gently, I said, "I know someone at a crematorium - someone who'll look the other way. It's not ideal, but it's better than-" dumping her in a furnace or a river somewhere, I thought, but I didn't say it.
"Thank you," she said colourlessly.
"I'll take care of it," I said. "You and Diana go home."
She shook her head, shrugging free of Diana's arm, coming to meet me. "She's my sister. We'll do it together."
"All right." She turned towards the stairwell, but I caught her wrist. "Mare, I'm sorry."
She took my hand in hers, but the warmth I felt there didn't reach her eyes. "Me, too."
We went upstairs, and we saw to Elena together.
When I finish, the house is in darkness.
I'm not sure when the lights went off. Mare doesn't like to disturb me when I'm writing, but it's not like her to go to bed without saying goodnight. Perhaps she fell asleep with the baby.
I hear a door open and small feet padding down the hall. I'm aware of it, but surreptitious sounds don't make me jump for my gun the way they used to. The look on Gibson's face when I pulled a weapon on him was enough to cure me of that. I still carry one, of course - some habits never change - but my vigilance is tempered now.
Elizabeth emerges and slips into the kitchen. She probably doesn't realise that she's been seen - half an hour earlier I would have noted and dismissed the sounds without a conscious thought. I hear the refrigerator door open and close, and then she passes back into the lounge once more.
"You okay, Bethie?"
She looks up, visibly startled, then relaxes. Coffee-coloured hair trails down her back, and for just a moment I have a clear memory of her mother. A short, sharp stab of grief passes through me, then evaporates in an instant. I swallow hard as she ambles over, drink in hand.
"Don't call me Bethie," she says. "Just getting some water." She peers over my shoulder at the laptop, and I half-close it so she can't see. "What are you writing about?"
"Right now? The time that Mare's sister died."
"Oh." Elizabeth considers. "Was Mummy there?"
"Yeah, your mom was there. She was pretty brave." I say in a conspiratorial whisper, "This guy was giving us trouble, and she kicked his ass."
She giggles. "Where was I?"
"You were safe at home with your papa. You were only a baby."
"I wish I had been there."
The naivete of it makes me smile. "She wouldn't have wanted you there, Beth."
"Why not?" she demands, all eight years of her drawn up into one indignant reply.
"Because when you're in danger, sometimes you have to do ugly things, and she wouldn't have wanted you to see that."
She frowns. "Like killing bad people?" Not for the first time, I wonder how much she knows - and how much Gibson has told her.
I don't like telling her this, but I opened the subject, so I have only myself to blame. I say reluctantly, "If they're trying to kill you or someone you love, yeah."
"Did Mummy ever kill anyone?"
"No, she didn't." As far as I know, that's the truth.
"Oh." I'm not sure whether she's relieved or disappointed. It's hard to tell with kids sometimes - especially this one. She takes a drink from her glass. After a minute or two, she asks, "Why do you write it all down?"
"Well, it started like a letter to someone. Someone we know in America - you know Walter? The one who sent us those things that belonged to your mom." Either of the boys would be on my lap by now, but Elizabeth wouldn't like that. She's thawed considerably, but she'll never see me as her father.
"Her FBI badge. I remember." Diana's badge - God, she even sleeps with that thing sometimes.
"Yeah. We wrote to him and told him a lot of things - things he needed to know, and things about why we did some of the things we did. I guess we found that it was good to write. It was good to remember your mom, and it was good to look back on things and work out why they happened they way they did."
"Oh," she says. "Can I read it?"
I think on this for a moment. "One day, when you're older." I make a mental note to edit out the sex.
"I don't know. Gibson's age, maybe."
"Okay." She drains her glass, turns away, and takes it back into the kitchen. Pad, pad, pad. One of the cats meows and trots out after her.
When she returns, she heads back towards the hall. On impulse, I say, "You look like her, Elizabeth."
She turns to face me, a pretty smile spreading across her face. "I do?"
She comes over and kisses my cheek. "Goodnight, Alex."
COMING IN CHAPTER 6: DISINTEGRATION (MARITA) (ESTIMATED FOR MARCH 2002)
DEDICATION: This chapter is for my HaremXF wives, and also Bella Donna, all of whom give me such warm feedback and forgive my tardy replies.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I think it's necessary, in the interests of good communication with my friends in the BDSM fic community, to clarify something about this story. I think it's pretty clear in the text anyway, but I want to say it for the record. Although domination/submission issues are touched on, this is not a story about D&S. It's a story (in part) about sexual dysfunction compounded by a sexually dysfunctional environment. D&S is not to blame for Marita's issues - in fact, had she been in a true D&S environment with its strong boundaries and self-awareness, those issues might have been resolved. The faux-D&S she practiced at the Den compounded her problems precisely because of the lack of those boundaries and a lack of adherence to D&S principles by its participants. As Mare herself put it in Chapter 4, they weren't really D&S participants - they were dirty old men who wanted to believe they were walking on the wild side, and therein lay much of the problem. The Den was ultimately a sexually exploitative environment for all concerned. That said, the faux-D&S angle was probably the least destructive way she could have functioned in the Den (and the Dark Man seemed to have an insight into that himself in Ch 2). I think in its own obscure way that it helped her by conceptually teasing out the difference between being controlled and choosing to give of one's self as an expression of trust, as we saw in Ch 4. (True D&S, of course, is very much the latter). Certainly that was my intention and my implication, but I wasn't able to spell that out explicitly within the fic without intruding into Alex and Marita's story. So I felt it was important to clarify that here. Thanks for bearing with me. -- Deslea
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