You jolt awake when the white-haired woman calls you, and suddenly your mind's scrambling to figure out where the hell you are. Car, passenger seat. Night. You blink, hoping to buy a little more clarity. Your knee aches. Slowly you ease it down from where it's been jammed against the dashboard. A glance around reveals a parking lot, the bluish glare of overhead lights, scattered cars.
Then memory hits you like a sucker punch, the last eighteen hours pouring in: the fire alarm that offered you a chance to run; waiting it out on the outskirts of Owensburg; the hospital room. The way her head fell back when they finally took her from you. Something cold and sick pools in your stomach and you lean forward, head in your one sorry hand.
"Don't let us bother you none," the woman says, her voice soft, calming.
You make yourself look up. The dull light sends shadows deep into the wrinkles on her face.
"I just wanted you to know where we'll be." She points through the windshield to the right. You follow her finger and notice a neon IHOP sign beyond the second row of cars. It may as well exist in some other universe.
No, that would be you.
"You're welcome to come, you know--if you want."
On the dashboard, green clock hands point to just past four. You shake your head. You'll be lucky if you can even stand right now.
The woman and her grandson, though, they've crossed three states with only a bag of peanut butter sandwiches to keep them going, and she's been promising Bobby they'd stop for pancakes. You watch them make their way across the darkened parking lot, the old woman with ten-year-old Bobby in tow, the boy walking stiff-legged, still half asleep. Twice he turns to peer back at you with an owl's look, wondering who the hell this stranger is that Grandma picked up while he was sacked out in the back seat, dreaming his way across Kentucky.
You shift, then stretch your legs and feel carefully at the bandages covering the wound on your side--fresh wound, right side. Your head falls back against the seat. Your fingers are shaking and you tell yourself it's the stress: two wounds, too many hours without rest, not enough food. The adrenaline drain of hiding for hours, then working your way out of yet another town under the noses of yet another set of faceless cops. You're supposed to be able to convince yourself. You used to be able to do that.
Outside the window, thin clouds drift slowly across a slice of moon. If you close your eyes, you might catch the end of that dream you were snatched out of--see her again, alive as anything...
You know you can't afford it.
And there it is, the knife-to-the-gut you should have known would come: that past-tense she's not your friend, or your helper, or your lover, but just another red flag, the crumbling edge of a precipice that could take you down with it if you get too close. You know how to back off--god, you're so practiced it's pathetic. But there's this other thing inside you, too, raw and primal like a wolf's howl, and all it wants is to make it to the edge of that cliff and jump. Pretty soon your eyes go closed and the images from this morning start to creep in, offering a glimpse of her. You try to pick your angles, avoid the bad parts, but...
Your eyes come open. You swallow, stare at the glove compartment.
You'd better go inside.
When you open the car door, the air's stagnant and the sweat on the back of your shirt, when you stand, quickly turns clammy. You put one foot in front of the other, mechanical, but halfway to the restaurant you remember you haven't locked the car, so you turn back, thread you way through the handful of vehicles and hit the lock button. Everything's gray, like a dream, except for the throbbing of something that's been ripped away--something you can't touch. Something you'll never touch again.
So maybe this is what Mulder feels. Maybe Samantha being snatched away has stayed raw inside him all this time and he can't help following the trail. It's his way of pushing back against the pain, the way you screamed when they hacked your arm off. Funny you should finally get it.
For a moment you almost feel her--a breath beside your ear, her hand on your arm--and your breath hitches. You look up at the stars, desperate for some kind of sign--any sign--but the darkness stares back like a blind man. Finally you look down, put one foot forward, start moving.
Inside, the restaurant's too cold. The lights make you squint, your stomach's queasy and the last thing you want is food, but you spot the woman and kid and make your way to their booth. The woman looks up and smiles. She figured you might end up hungry. Even if it is 4:30 in the morning, it's better to fill up while you have the chance. You glance at the menu; it's about a million miles from anything you care about but you manage to give the waitress an order. There's this little skirmish running inside your head, one part of you wanting to reach back a week, to touch the residue of her before she completely disappears, while another part, distant and cynical as hell, shakes its head at what a soft fuck you've become. You knew her for all of three weeks, Aleksei, it taunts. Three weeks is nothing.
"Your breakfast," the old woman says, and you refocus to see Bobby eyeing you again. You look down at the plate--scrambled eggs beside a little pool of catsup you can't remember pouring--and reach for your fork.
The taste is too strong. All around you the magnified clank of dishes makes you want to flinch. You keep your head down and make yourself chew what's in your mouth, then take another bite, and another. Body needs fuel to keep going, and you will. Somehow. In spite of everything, you always do. Maybe you're as stupid as Mulder. Maybe the universe is laughing.
Well, fuck the universe.
Bobby scratches the side of his nose and then trails a spoon through what's left on his plate, picking up bits of hash browns. He's got freckles and his skin is smooth--hasn't been roughed up by life. Looks like grandma cuts his hair.
You settle back against the curve of the booth and start to eat again, but after a few bites the taste fades. At the counter a couple of truckers are talking, and another family's just straggled in from a car--five kids--and are settling themselves, passing out menus, guiding two sets of baby feet into the right places on high chairs. Was it just the pain of the wound these last three weeks? Is that why you didn't see where this thing with Tracy could lead? Or were you just doing what the old woman said, filling up while you had the chance? How often do you get a chance?
Not that it matters now.
Your mind starts to drift. The people and booths and carpets blend into a geometric blur and you blink once, then do it again. Things settle back to normal. But a moment later you set your fork down, reach into your pocket and find your fingers curling around a pistol. Which is crazy because you know damn well it's been two days since you've had access to a gun. Before you know what's happening, you're slipping out of the booth, standing. The gun comes out of your pocket. You clear your throat--no, more like somebody's doing it for you--and all of a sudden the feeling hits you, that everything's about to go to hell.
"This is a holdup!"
A jolt of adrenaline and your heart pounds.
"A dollar from each of you," you go on, the words spilling out of your mouth now like water. "Every one. That includes the kids."
People stare. You sweep the room with the gun... or better put, the gun sweeps an arc, taking your arm with it. A waitress stumbles backward and lands in the lap of one of her customers and people suddenly switch gears, look down, start digging in their pockets.
All you want is to be the hell out of here--away from this restaurant, from this state, from a world where somebody comes into your life, finds a niche inside you and then gets torn away, leaving an ache that won't quit.
But evidently your body has other ideas. You pick a basket off the next table, dump out the muffins and start to circle the room, going from table to table, waiting for people to cough up their dollar bills as this surreal little dance unfolds.
"Please don't kill us," a stringy brown-haired woman whispers, all pleading and bloodhound eyes. "What do you want?"
You shut her up with a look--how the hell should you know what you want?--but the question seems to hang in the air now, echoed by a roomful of invisible voices. You move from one table to the next. Dollar bills drop or get pushed into your basket. Not a mouth opens, not a set of eyes drills you with a look that might set the madman off, but you can hear the question repeat, building like a drumbeat in your blood until you can barely breathe.
"Somebody to love." Shit. "Just--"
Not even Ilya Gurov, a Moscow thug with a nasty skill with a pair of pliers, could have gotten you to say that. Your words fall into a pin-drop silent room. You've flipped out for sure.
If they weren't staring before, they are now. You feel yourself redden and clear your throat. "You heard me." Your gun hand rises.
No way this can be real. You struggle to wake yourself from this private little insanity but your body continues to work its way around the room, outstretched basket in one hand, gun in the other. You stop beside the high chair of the family that's just arrived. The kid has a headful of brown curls. You swallow and go cold. If there's a hell, you've reached it now for sure.
You look up. No one in the room moves. Then a head starts to turn toward you in the far corner booth, pale blonde hair, smooth as water, and any defenses you have left just melt away. You see her in the yellow dress, and then you're upstairs at her place, twenty miles from anywhere, rain splatting in slow, fat drops outside the window, nothing between the two of you but the sweat that holds your bodies together. You let your lips drift past her ear and into that pale, soft hair. She burrows against your shoulder and you lie there in the padded silence, wrapped around each other, rising and falling on each other's breathing. For a few hours the two of you had been a whole little universe, hidden miles from anywhere and anyone. The temptation to stay there had been unbelievable.
When she starts to stir there's a hand against your shoulder, jostling you. Then a pause and the shaking comes again.
Your eyes fly open to the bright glare of the restaurant and the half-eaten plate of eggs in front of you. Pain filters back into your side where Silver's bullet clipped you.
"We're about ready to go," the white-haired woman says. "I'm going to take Bobby for a pit stop first. Meet you at the car?"
It takes everything you've got just to nod. When you can stand again, you get up and make your way outside. Away from the bright lights that ring the restaurant, stars wink dully in the murkiness overhead. They're every bit as far away as she is, and looking at them, the empty place inside you begins to beat with a heart of its own. For some reason you picture her in the laundry room barefoot, wearing your thermal shirt. God knows why she put out for you the way she did, why she stuck with you when she realized the danger. The old man would've found somebody else to tend to you while the wound healed. She had to know that.
You look down, swallow and start for the car.
She promised you.
Your hand balls into a fist and when you notice, you stare down at it, willing it to go slack. Not her fault. Anyway, it wasn't a pledge you could expect to hold another human being to--not within the framework of time and space and matter. It was an expression--solidarity, a heart-to-heart thing. The memory floods in: the conviction in her voice, the way it lit her face. For a moment, it's almost as if she's there.
A car door slams and darkness fills in around you. You shiver in the sudden cold.
If she could be here, she would. It's barbed, hollow comfort but you hug it to you anyway.
Around you, in the still-life of the parking lot, overhead standards spill dull pools of light on the asphalt. You put that first foot forward, heading for the car.
To Topaz Chapter 1
NOTE #1: This scene was inspired by a RATales (Krycek-fic list) challenge
based on a news item in which a man entered an International House of
Pancakes restaurant, pulled a gun and demanded a dollar from each
customer... and someone to love. The quirky challenge elements wouldn't
leave my mind, and eventually I began to see how they could work into this
scenario just a few hours after the end of Sanctuary.
NOTE #2: Though some readers may find it unusual, I employed a second-person format partly because this is the way the story came to me. But in addition, second-person seems to be a convenient way for a character to distance himself emotionally from highly-charged subject matter, allowing him to open up and talk about things he might balk at mentioning if the narrative were presented in first-person.