Searing Snow *PG* 1/1 (REVISED)
Deslea R. Judd
Copyright 2000, 2001
DISCLAIMER: Situations not mine. Interpretation mine. Deal.
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name and headers.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: This fic is set the Christmas after Requiem.
CATEGORY: Story, Romance (Krycek/Marita), Angst, sorta Mytharc, Christmas cabinfic.
RATING: PG. This one's harmless.
SUMMARY: What Alex and Marita want for Christmas is the thing they fear most. Each other.
NOTES: I'm situating Requiem in May 2000 (by air date). This is a revised version of last year's Christmas story - minor changes throughout and two new scenes.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com/
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. email@example.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: An earlier version of this fic was a nominee in the 2001 Spooky awards. This fic recommended by the Enigmatic Dr's Fanfiction Favorites (January 2002).
For seven months now, he'd searched for her, tracking her from continent to continent and hideout to hideout. Seven months of walking and driving and flying and riding. Seven months of sleepless nights and endless days. Seven months of searching.
It was more than the woman, he supposed. Those months had been a time of purging, of healing, now that it was all over. There was no project left, no people left to perpetuate the evil. No-one to run from. No-one that needed to be killed for his own survival.
Just the uncertainty of the enemy.
That was a hard reality, but perhaps a better one than the one from which he'd come. The shadow of the colonists was bearable, because at least for a time, it wasn't all up to him. For a time, he could just live. And if that time were to be cut short by the spectre of invasion, that was an acceptable trade-off. Sometimes, he reflected now, looking at the fallen tree in his path, the devil you didn't know was better than the one you did.
Not that he'd devoted much time to just living.
There were moments, of course. They came more and more frequently, the more time and distance he got from the nightmare of the last six years. There were moments of smelling the airborne scents of the grass of the fields he passed along the way; of listening to waves as he travelled over sea; of feeling the wind in his face as he rode down endless highways. But always, there was a goal, a destination.
Always, there was the woman.
He didn't think of her by name. He couldn't. It hurt too much, and Alex Krycek was a man accustomed to avoiding hurt. He avoided it by action, by word, by thought or lack of it. It hurt enough to remember the conversation with Skinner - the one that had started it all.
"Why don't you just leave her alone?" he'd demanded. "You got what you wanted. Spender's dead. The Consortium is gone. God knows, you took enough casualties to make it happen - and even then most of it was the rebels' doing anyway."
He shook his head to clear it, pushing away from the 4WD with a sigh. Skinner pissed him off at the best of times, and like a number of things, the older man's disembodied voice drifting in his brain was enough to make him tense and jittery. He wondered whether that qualified as post-traumatic stress. He supposed it might, but it hardly mattered. Therapy was the one luxury he couldn't afford.
He looked from the tree back to the 4WD. His hand was bloody where he'd tried to move it with pulleys and ropes. The 4WD was useless for the task - the tyres couldn't grip well enough to reverse - and though the mechanical hand of his prosthesis could grip, there wasn't any pulling force behind it, so he'd been working effectively one-handed. If he wanted to keep going, he would have to abandon the 4WD; and if he abandoned it, he might need a plough to get it out if he came back empty-handed. It was already covered in drifts of snow.
Damn the woman, why didn't she hide in her apartment with comfort food like a normal person? A cabin fifty miles from the nearest town was only the latest of a series of remote locations. Clearly, she didn't want to be found, but her hermitage was reaching ridiculous proportions.
But he was close this time - closer than he'd been for a long time - and he decided to continue through the snow on foot. He would worry about the 4WD later.
He fastened his boots, rose, and began to walk.
The problem with walking, Krycek reflected, was that it had the tendency to let the memories in. It took only the mildest, stupidest of triggers. The sky was bright - gray-white and glaring - and he'd thought idly that that was how it had looked as Skinner stood, staring out the window of his office that day. It was a stupid thing to have thought anyway - what was he, some kind of post-modern poet? "Your sky is that of recent foes." Stupid, Alex, stupid.
He'd taken a position next to Skinner at the window. They leaned against it, talking easily - almost amiably. Skinner was still sufficiently stunned by his about-face to be civil.
More or less.
"Look, I didn't come here to get into a fight. I just wanted to tell you what happened to Mulder, and to Scully. To tell you that it's over. You can start a new life - you and her both." And for once, that had been true. There was no agenda. He was just settling his accounts before he started fresh - which had a lot to do with why he wanted to see the woman, one last time.
Skinner crossed his arms over his chest. He clearly wasn't buying this new, improved Krycek. "And to find out where Marita went," he countered with visible irritation.
Krycek had the good grace to look uncomfortable. "That too." He nodded to the palm pilot on Skinner's desk, the one he'd just surrendered as a gesture of good faith. "Come on, Skinner. You owe me. I know you and she were in contact after the smallpox experiment, and I know she contacted you when she got out of wherever the hell Spender kept her. You must have some idea where I can find her."
Abruptly, Skinner broke away from his stance at the window. He paced, his shoulders stiff, anger etched into the lines of his body. "Why, Krycek?" he demanded, turning to face him. "You think you can use her some more?"
Krycek realised - with some surprise - that Skinner's anger was on Marita's behalf, not his own.
Skinner was still talking. Yelling, actually, not to put too fine a point on it. Krycek wondered what the hell Marita had told him. "What, you think she'll run off and do your dirty work for you? You think she'll pick up the pieces when you get yourself into hot water - yet again? Do you think she'd die for you, Krycek? Is that what you think?"
The bitterness hit him, hard and sweet and all at once, and he snapped, "No. She wouldn't." He had no illusions on that score. She'd sold him out once, and he had no doubt she'd do it again. But he had to see her, one last time - if only to find out why.
Skinner looked up abruptly. He watched him, features furrowed, intent, and the scrutiny made him uncomfortable.
"What?" he demanded. "What is it?"
"You're wrong, Alex," Skinner said finally, in a very different voice. "For you, she would."
"How the hell would you know?" he snarled. Skinner was still watching him with that strange look on his face.
"Because she already did."
Foot ahead of foot.
He'd started walking that day and never really stopped. Even in his broken sleep, he sought her in his dreams. Another man might have given up, but that wasn't him. He knew what had to be done, and he did it, whatever the cost. It was how he lived. It was why he was still alive.
And right now, that was how he wanted it.
Because to give up was to lose the one thing that made any sense in this strange new life of his - this life where he lived day to day, where strategy was something he chose when it suited him rather than something he wore like a harness. This life where he could sleep in the open without fear, where he didn't have to keep looking over his shoulder.
Well, not so much, anyway.
Skinner had been almost kind, once he realised Krycek genuinely had no idea what he was talking about. He pulled a bottle of scotch out of his desk drawer and poured them one each. Krycek accepted his, wondering idly when Skinner had started drinking in the day. He wondered whether it was a recent development. Like maybe since the nanocytes. Anyway, he hadn't expected to drink it; but by the time Skinner had told his story - Marita's story - it had all been gone.
"You really thought she stole the boy from you?" There was a kindness about Skinner that Krycek found oddly uncomfortable. He had glossed over their stolen tryst before the theft, but he had a feeling that the other man either knew or guessed the bigger picture.
"I - he was gone, Skinner! She was the only one who knew where he was. The Englishman said so. And Mulder's account of her phone call confirmed it. You were the one who gave his report to me - you know what was in it!" Talking about it, he felt welling blood, the probing of a deep wound, and that made him angry - with Marita and with Skinner.
"The Englishman lied. He was the one who stole the boy. He'd guessed the two of you were working together, and he followed her to the boat. When Marita got back there from seeing you, she found them bundling the boy into a car. She should have walked away right then, but she didn't. She took him back at gunpoint."
That was about the time Krycek had taken the first gulp of his drink, because Skinner's account made sense - more sense than her betrayal. He didn't bother asking where Skinner got his information; it was undoubtedly from Marita herself.
Skinner was still talking. "The Englishman went back onto the boat - to wait for you, I suppose-"
"Waiting to play divide and conquer," Krycek supplied grimly.
"Yeah. His bodyguard chased Marita. When she finally lost him, she pulled over and tried to call you, and when there was no answer, she tried Mulder."
Krycek choked on his drink. He remembered his phone ringing uselessly in his pocket after the Englishman had left him cuffed there. He hadn't been able to reach it with his hand, and his prosthesis had not had the dexterity to manoeuvre it out.
"You said she died," he said at last. He was very pale.
"Twice, in fact - both times on the way to Fort Marlene after she was infected. The Englishman resuscitated her himself. Marita didn't remember that, of course, but they told her later." The rest of the drink had gone then, in a long, shuddering gulp.
Skinner hadn't said much about what happened to her in the tests. He didn't need to. Krycek knew what they did to the subjects, and ultimately, of course, he saw what it did to her first-hand. Skinner was clearly aware of his abandonment of her, and he held Krycek in considerable contempt for it, even now. Krycek understood that; he had wronged her then, no matter what he thought she'd done, but that understanding had come too late. When he'd seen her, broken, it had hurt; but a greater part of him had felt bitterly that what she'd suffered wasn't enough. He'd trusted her - he, who had never really trusted anyone - and she'd betrayed him, so no punishment could ever be enough.
Except now he knew she hadn't betrayed him at all.
Just how she got out of the tests after he'd abandoned her there was a point Skinner hadn't clarified - Marita herself had been noncommittal on the subject the one time he'd broached it. But the other man had, with a great show of reluctance, unbent enough to give him an address. By the time he reached it, she was gone; but it was all the start he needed. He tracked her, sometimes weeks behind, sometimes mere hours; and once it had been forty minutes. That time, the air in the bathroom was still heavy and humid with steam; the bed still warm, a few strands of her hair on the pillow. He should have gone after her right away; but he sat on the bed, hugging the pillow to his chest like a sentimental adolescent. He was so tired...and yet to give up on her was to die. And he had died too many deaths already.
The trail had gone cold six weeks before. He'd tracked her to yet another of her estates, this one in Vermont. This one was just a house, and it differed from her other hideouts; it was in a proper town, with shops and schools and a hospital. When he got there, he felt a surge of hope. Her car was there; there were signs of habitation. But when he broke into the house, he found a trail of blood streaked across the floor. He felt real terror, but he quelled it; there wasn't enough blood for a mortal wound.
For three panicky days, he staked out the place. By the end of that time, he wondered whether she'd given him the slip...or whether something more sinister had occurred. But then she returned, driving away as he drowsed in the 4WD. Looking around him in a panic of disorientation, he caught sight of her. And since then, he'd never been far behind her.
And now, he was close. So close.
And this time he would not fail.
When he arrived, she was waiting for him.
He felt a smile spread over his face as she came into view. He trudged through the crusted snow in lumbering rhythmic steps, but the pull of the ice on his boots suddenly didn't seem like such a burden. The throbbing in his ruined hand was still there, but he didn't notice it anymore. Seeing her, he felt six years of panic and chaos and frenetic, feverish activity melt away. He felt something within himself fall into place. He was still wounded, but the wound was finally closed.
He was coming home.
She was sitting on the front porch, wrapped in a crocheted afghan, hair silver in the reflected light of the snow. As he drew closer he saw a stiletto in her lap, but she held it without conviction. She rose at his approach, the afghan falling away; and she was smiling. And when she spoke, it was like hearing a melody.
He stopped at the foot of the steps. "You're sociable for someone who's been running for seven months," he said mildly. He hadn't given a lot of thought to how he would handle this stage of things, and he felt some measure of apprehension; but mostly he was just genuinely pleased to see her.
Her smile faded. "I wasn't running from you."
"But you knew I was coming."
"You tripped the alarm a mile back."
The significance of the stiletto was not lost on him. She had to be running from the bounty hunter. "How do you know I'm not the one you're running from?"
"Visual proof." She nodded to his hand. "You're bleeding."
He looked down at his ruined fingers. They were crusted with red-brown, and a few drops of fresh blood stained the snow at his feet, seeping out in delicate crimson trails. "So I am."
"You should come in, Alex. It's cold." She stood to one side, and he walked up the steps. He was smiling.
She watched him, smiling too, but her welcome was not absolute. He thought he saw hostility, or at least caution in the way she carried herself. Not that he could blame her. He stood there before her, studying her, seeing her truthfully, without the false lens of the betrayal he'd carried with him for so long.
She'd stopped dyeing her hair, he noticed. The yellow tones were gone, leaving only pale silver. Too pale, really - that's why she used to dye it - but he thought it was glorious. Like looking at the ice princess from the storybook his mother read to him as a child. She looked softer: her hair was longer, and she'd gained weight - just a little. Her face was less angular; her breasts a little fuller. He liked it. And he saw the clarity in her eyes, the lack of artifice, and wondered how he could have ever lost faith in what he saw there.
"What are you doing here, Alex?" she said at last. Her tone was indulgent, but he thought he detected an undertone of tiredness, too.
"I needed to see you." She said nothing, only looked at him with that weary expression. "Why does he want you?"
Her voice became purposeful...focused. It was one of resolve. "I have something he wants."
"What? What does he want?"
She turned from him, not answering, gathering up the afghan. He reached out to her, and hesitantly, he put his hand on her shoulder. She looked at him, her expression fiercely protective; and he perceived in a flash that something had happened to her these last few months, something that had changed her. Something irrevocable.
"What, Marita?" he insisted, voice low and hypnotic. Demanding. It was a voice he used a lot with her, but there was no calculation, no strategy about it. He didn't know it, but it was a voice of utter sincerity - almost nakedness - one reserved only for her.
They stayed that way for a long moment, a battle waged between locked eyes, but it was a battle neither would win. It was a battle for power, and the thirst for power had been burned out of them both, so they were at a loss as to how to proceed.
It was Marita who broke the stalemate; Marita who abandoned the old games and opened the path to a new beginning with the truth. She said at last:
"It's a hybrid."
He held out his hand for the child on an instinct he couldn't name. She looked surprised, but she made no comment, and she put the infant into the crook of his arm. He had a flash of how things might have been if they'd been different people, living different lives - how she might have done that with a child of their own - and he found that the image appealed to him. He wondered if she'd had the same thought.
"She's so small," he said out loud, echoing his thought, if only to fill the silence. He leaned back, half-sitting on the windowsill; but Marita looked nervous. He thought it might be because of his exposed position, so he went to the lounge and sat down. She relaxed visibly.
There was an awkward pause. "She's six weeks old," she said finally. She came around him to sit on the arm of the lounge at his side. "She was a little early, but she's doing fine."
"Where did she come from?" he wondered, looking up at her.
"She's mine," she said; and that didn't surprise him. Even if he hadn't put together the pieces - the physical changes in her, the blood in the house in Vermont, her obvious maternity - the child had her eyes. They were such a delicately pale green - almost translucent.
Just the same, he looked at her, his expression a question mark; and she elaborated. "She's the Smoking Man's. She inherited the hybrid genes from him."
That floored him. "What- how-"
She spoke quickly. Matter-of-factly. "He was dying, and he wanted an heir. Mulder was on a fast track to hell. There's Scully's son, but he didn't want to put all his genome in one basket." Alex nodded, frowning. "I'd been in the tests more than two years. I wanted out. That was the price."
"That you have his child," he said, staring up at her.
He didn't want to ask, but he couldn't seem to help himself. "How?"
She watched him coolly for a long moment, her expression suddenly, inexplicably hostile; but then the expression passed so quickly that he wondered if he'd imagined it. She leaned down and took the child, changing the subject. "I have to feed Krisinda."
He frowned, but she didn't give him a chance to respond. She was out the door before he could react.
She took the baby upstairs, and he followed; something she must have been aware of, but gave no indication of noticing. She settled on the bed and began to nurse, still ignoring him, singing to the child, a little off-key.
He watched them doubtfully for a long moment, and at last, he slumped down into an armchair in the corner of the room. He felt a little bewildered. He took in the room - cradle in the corner, big queen bed with a single pillow, pile of books with a single lamp on one side. Slight bunching of the mattress on its base, as though there was something hidden there. A stiletto, probably. It was a good room for a mother, and a baby. Probably not a good room for an assassin.
He hadn't really had an image of how things would be when he found her; but if he had, a hybrid child would not have been part of it. Marita as a mother would not have been part of it - indeed, the juxtaposition of Marita and motherhood had never entered his mind. That made him feel vague embarrassment at his own lack of perception, because it was so clearly something that was good for her, and her for it. Watching them, it felt right; but it also felt surreal. He felt out of his depth, and he was not a man accustomed to feeling that way. It unsettled him.
Finally, he rose, and he sat down on the bed beside them. Marita looked up at him, acknowledging him at last, and before he could stop himself, he stroked a stray tendril of hair off her face. "It's good to see you," he said, and she conceded a small smile. Then, hesitantly, "Will you let me stay?"
Her smile faded. He was suddenly sure she was going to say no, but she just watched him, her brow puckered with worry.
"If nothing else, two is better than one," he pointed out when he could stand the silence no more. "You know. If there's trouble."
She watched him, still frowning, but at last, she nodded.
"Yes, Alex," she said softly. "You can stay."
"There's only one bed?"
Marita drew the cover over Krisinda's sleeping form. She looked up at him, her expression dark with warning. "Alex, if you think this is going to turn into a bad soap opera, where we give in to our yearning passion, and then in the morning we each lie that it didn't mean anything and we spend the next year despairing about it, you have another think coming."
He laughed - chortled, really. He couldn't help it. It was the first time he'd really laughed in years, and he loved her for that alone. "You seem to know a lot about the ways of bad soap operas."
"I chaired the Santa Barbara fan club at boarding school."
He wasn't sure whether she was for real, or just screwing with his head. He settled for a noncommittal grin in reply. "I'll take the armchair." She shot him a look of - he couldn't decipher it, but it wasn't a good one. "Or the lounge downstairs, if you prefer," he amended hurriedly.
She watched him steadily, visibly thinking it over. "No - up here is fine," she said finally. "Like you said - two's better than one if there's trouble." She sat back down on the bed at his side. "Do you have a stiletto?"
"Yes, I do." He looked at her. "Marita?"
His voice was incredibly gentle. Gentler than he could ever remember making it. "Why didn't you come to me for help?"
"The last time I needed help, you walked away," she said, her eyes fixed on him; and it angered him that her tone was not accusing. Accusation, he was prepared for. He had defences for that. He didn't know...he thought she'd betrayed him. But the way she sat there, calmly, quietly offering the irrefutable fact of what he'd done...there was no defence he could offer to that. She *had* needed help and he *had* walked away. It angered him, that she could make him feel that way, that there was no way what he had done could be redeemed.
"I tried to get you out," he said finally. Morosely.
She looked away; shook her head. "It doesn't matter anymore, Alex."
He insisted, "I regretted leaving you there almost as soon as I did it. But the Smoking Man had moved you, and he wouldn't tell me where."
She still didn't look at him, but she nodded. Thinking it over. At last, she offered, "Jeffrey and I were arrested trying to get out. He and Walter tried to get me out through official channels, but Spender moved me before that could eventuate."
"And killed Jeff."
She met his gaze. "Yeah."
He bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Marita." It grated, that he had to say it; but he'd known for seven months now that it would have to be said, one way or another. If he could dangle from a seventeenth-story balcony he supposed he could bear to muster an apology.
"I really don't care anymore." She sounded tired. He looked at her, frankly disbelieving. She went on, "You might find this hard to believe, Alex, but my life is not dominated by the men in it. I have other priorities now." She nodded towards the cradle, and rose.
He snaked his hand out to grab her wrist. "How, Marita?" She tugged on it fruitlessly, and he rose too, pulling her close. "How?"
"Go to hell, Alex," she said through gritted teeth.
He pushed her the couple of feet to the wall, cornering her there, hand to her left, prosthetic to her right. "How?"
She pushed them down, and he told himself that he allowed it; but the truth was she'd been working out. She hissed, "I am so *sick* of violent men."
That hurt. "We've always been aggressive, Marita; but I never touched you anywhere, any way you didn't want me to."
She had the good grace to look ashamed. "That's true," she admitted. "That wasn't fair."
"How?" he repeated, taking hold of her wrist again, more gently this time. "Insemination, like Scully?"
"No!" she howled at him in a sudden fury. "I slept with him. Is that what you wanted to hear?" She tried to pull away, but he held her fast, staring at her in dismay. "What was I supposed to do?" she demanded, her eyes bright with anger. "You left me there, Alex!" A tear streaked down her cheek, but she didn't give way. That wasn't her style. "You left me there, and I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!" She punctuated each 'hate' with a shove at his chest with her free hand.
Her anger shocked him - more than her revelation, actually. The idea that she'd slept with the Smoking Man was one he'd been uneasily pushing aside ever since he learned of Krisinda's paternity. But her anger, her grieving fury, the utter rawness and immediacy of it - that held him rooted to the spot, staring at her, unable to speak. For the first time he was face to face with the way that he'd hurt her, and he felt something inside him crumble under the weight of sorrow.
The baby began to fuss, and she pulled her arm away. "You've woken Krisinda," she accused, storming back to the cradle to attend to the child. He was too shocked to point out that she was the one who'd been making all the noise.
He went to her side, but she ignored him, patting the baby back to sleep, staring down at the child's blonde head. He wondered what she saw when she looked at the child - whether she felt love or distress or some fraught combination of the two.
He didn't touch her, but only looked at her, watching her in profile. A couple of stray tears slipped down her cheeks onto the coverlet, and she tried neither to disguise them nor to draw attention to them; instead, she ignored them altogether. They stayed there, beaded on the flannel blanket for a few seconds before seeping into the fabric. He didn't comment on them, or try to wipe them away - he knew well enough that such a gesture would only anger her - but he couldn't help but reach out, stroking the hair off her face. Her lips trembled when he did it, but she didn't pull away.
It felt odd to be this tender towards her. Not that he didn't feel it, he did; but he had only ever really touched her that way in bed. Not like this, not without intent; not just to take comfort, or give it. He wondered now why that was. Had he really been that cut off from simple humanity for that long? He'd been aware of it in himself for a couple of years now, but - how long had he been with her? Six years? Seven?
The baby was asleep again, but still she patted, letting him touch her hair. At last, she looked up at him, eyes bright with tears. "Why did you do it, Alex? What did I do that made you leave me for dead?" He flinched at his own words turned on him.
"Nothing," he said simply. "I know that now." She looked at him, frowning. He elaborated, "The Englishman lied to me. He said you'd stolen the boy from me."
"And you believed that?" she said dully.
"What was I supposed to believe?"
She held his gaze. "You were supposed to believe in me."
She began to turn away, but he caught her arm. "I do, Marita. It just took me a while to work that out." She suddenly looked a lot less sure of herself, and he sighed, "Look, I didn't come this far to clear the air then leave." God, it was hard to say, but a lot of the old barriers in him were gone, and he could do it now in a way he could not have seven months ago. "I don't want it to be over - I don't want us to be over - just because everything else is over."
"But that's the thing, Alex," she said. "It isn't over. Not for me. And it never will be. Not when Krisinda's ten, or twenty, or forty, or sixty. And if you stay here, then it won't be over for you, either."
"That's why you didn't ask me for help," he realised. That made him ashamed all over again.
She flushed, but she nodded. "I wanted you to rest," she said softly. "I wanted you to heal. I didn't want to drag you back into this - I wouldn't have wanted that even if I'd known you wanted to be here."
"Marita, this-" he broke off. He said helplessly, "You shouldn't be alone."
"I'm not alone. I have my daughter."
"But you could also have the man who loves you," he said. It sounded awkward and forced to his own ears. He felt like a teenager, but he went on with it. "I do, you know."
That shocked her. She drew back, looking at him curiously. "You've never said that before," she said in wonder.
"I've written it," he pointed out.
"But never said it."
"No, I suppose I haven't," he said in a low voice. It shamed him to admit it.
She watched him with such intent scrutiny that he felt uncomfortable; and at last, she said, "You should stay, Alex. What will be, will be."
He nodded, his eyes never leaving hers. "All right."
She turned and went to the door; but then she stopped. She turned, and said, "I love you too, you know."
She left, closing the door behind her, leaving him to consider.
He slept in her bed that night after all.
She unbent a little that evening. The caution was still there, but there were moments - shining moments when her smile was unforced and her laugh was unfettered. When the time came to go to bed, she said awkwardly, "You shouldn't sleep there, Alex. It will be hell on your back."
"What are you saying, Marita?" he wondered.
"I'm saying you shouldn't sleep there because it will be hell on your back," she said irritably, throwing a pillow at him.
That broke the tension, and he slipped into the bed beside her with a laugh. But the uneasiness betweem them rose again at full force as they lay there, poised stiffly side-by-side, careful inches between their stupidly overdressed bodies. He wasn't sure which was sillier - him in his jeans or her in her flannel. No argument about which of the two was less comfortable, though - the jeans won, hands down.
"This is ridiculous," he burst out at last.
"Nothing," he said in irritation. "Forget it."
"What?" she insisted. "For God's sake, Alex, tell me what's on your mind so we can all get some sleep."
There were so many things, but in the end it all came down to one. He muttered, "I want - I want to hold you."
She turned her head to look at him. "Do you mean you want to hold me, or do you mean you want to-"
"I mean I want to hold you." He turned too, watching the faint gleam of her eyes in the dark. "I want it all, Marita, but that's what I've missed. More than anything."
"Me, too," she admitted. Tentatively, she rolled onto her side, her body just barely touching his. "Would you hold me, Alex?" Her voice suddenly sounded very shy. He couldn't remember her ever being shy like that.
He didn't answer her, but he put his arm around her, and when she sank in to him, he sighed out his relief and his love and his need. She held him tight, and entwined there with her, he felt lighter than he'd felt in years.
"Merry Christmas, Marita," he whispered into her hair.
"What did you say?" she said, lifting her head from his chest.
He looked at her blankly. "You didn't know?"
She shook her head. "I lost track of the days when we got here." She demanded, "Is it really Christmas?"
"As of a couple of hours ago, yeah." Suddenly serious, he cradled her head, teasing her hair through his fingers. In the dark, he couldn't really see the look on her face too well, and he was glad of that. "I love you, Marita," he said nakedly. "I don't know if that's a gift you still want, but it's all I have."
"I do want it, Alex," she whispered. He felt a great weight lift from him.
He learned in to her; kissed her tentatively, experimentally. She was very still for a moment; but just as he started to pull away, her hands flew up to his face, pulling him back to her. It was a slow kiss, long and languid and lingering, three years of longing expressed in the merest touch, the merest caress. When at last he pulled away, he ran fingertips over her cheek, down to the line of her jaw, smiling a little.
She watched him, and he could hear the gentleness in her voice. "Where do we go from here?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. I only know we have to find a better way than how we used to be. Than how I used to be. For all three of us." She stroked his hair. "I've made too many compromises over the last few years. I won't live that way anymore. I can't."
"Neither can I," she said quietly.
"I know we still have to protect Krisinda, but I don't ever want the work to drive us apart again. We have this whole new beginning, Marita - in every way. I don't want to screw that up."
"You won't," she whispered. "We won't. I believe in you. In us."
It humbled him, her belief. "I don't - I don't deserve you-"
"It's not about deserving. It's a gift. Yours to me and mine to you. What we have is a gift."
"Yeah, it is."
"What about Krisinda?" she said, and her voice was quiet. Tentative. "Can you accept her, Alex? She's your worst enemy's child."
"She's your child," he corrected, but he experienced a moment of doubt. Could he really do this? Could he?
Marita didn't answer, and he wondered if she doubted it too.
Krisinda woke at dawn.
Alex heard her fussing before Marita did, conditioned to alertness by years on the run. He wondered whether he should wake Marita to nurse her, or try to get her back to sleep. Looking at Marita, slumbering peacefully at his side, he decided on the latter.
Picking Krisinda up with one arm was a challenge; finding a comfortable position in which to hold her was more so. Eventually, he settled on holding her against his shoulder, securing her with his forearm, rubbing gently between her shoulderblades with his palm until she settled once more. He had no idea whether he was doing it right. His experience with small children was, well, very small.
He didn't know how long he stood there with her, soothing her, humming to her in the dim light, but when she was asleep again, he laid her back down and covered her. He turned back to the bed, and then he stopped.
Marita was watching. Her eyes were shining.
"Merry Christmas," she said. She held out her hand to him.
He took it and squeezed it. "Merry Christmas."
She said apologetically, "I don't have a gift for you, Alex."
He just shrugged, smiling at her. He didn't care.
She glanced over at the cradle, then back at him. She whispered, "It really is going to be okay, isn't it?"
He nodded. His doubts were gone. "Yeah. It is."
She kissed him when he slipped back into bed beside her, and she surprised him with her fervour. "I love you, Alex," she whispered against his lips. "I love you."
And in the end, he thought, that was the only gift that mattered.
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