Topaz

by bardsmaid

Chapter 6

Monday, 31 May 1999
Longmont, Colorado
7:53 a.m.

Krycek woke to the sound of Carrie's voice in one of the other rooms. Phone; he'd heard the phone ring. Vaguely. He blinked and forced his eyes open. The dull ache on his right side--the most recent wound--filtered in, along with the nagging mild nausea that wasn't likely to go away until he'd finally finished the course of antibiotics Carrie had him on. Though she was right; the strength of the sick feeling had begun to fade with time.

"It's about Ty, Ron, not about you or me."

Her voice seemed steady, though a little louder than usual.

He pulled up, eased himself out of bed and headed for the bathroom. She seemed to be holding her own. The trouble with guys like him was that they'd head you off on a side track, away from where you had the advantage, or at least a level playing field, to someplace they could trump you.

"But this is important, too--"

He closed the bathroom door quietly so as not to disturb her, used the toilet, considered himself in the mirror as he rubbed a wet washcloth over his face. It wasn't an ideal substitute for a cup of coffee, but it was better than nothing.

He needed a functional arm. And a shave. And Mulder'd said something about Tracy's diary. He'd noticed it, the day they spent at her place, but he hadn't looked inside. Who'd have thought, at the time, that a week later it would be a memento of her, maybe a place to catch a glimpse of parts of her he'd never know in the here-and-now.

Carrie's voice was audible through the door now. He reached for the handle and turned it quietly.

"Relationships? Do I ask you about relationships?... After five years, it's not really any of your business, but as far as that goes, the answer is no."

Krycek winced. He'd never known Carrie to be anything but calm and collected--and upbeat--but her voice was loud now. She could probably use some sort of backup, but showing up in her doorway could be awkward for both of them, and in any event it would give away his presence here to the creep on the other end of the line.

There was a sharp, abrupt sound, probably the phone being set down hard on a desk or dresser. He retreated to his room and stood at the window looking down over the patio and garden beds. If she came down the hallway, she'd be able to see him, know he was awake and realize he'd likely heard what had gone on.

Beside him, on the desk, sat his new laptop. He opened it, pushed the power button and waited for it to boot up.

Soft footfalls sounded in the hallway and stopped near his door.

"Alex, I'm going for a run." Her voice was nearly back to its usual calm. "I'll be back in twenty minutes or so."

He half-turned. "See you then."

When he heard the front door closing, he went to the living room and watched as she disappeared down the street to the left. Ron could probably use a little friendly pressure right about now, say the low warning voice that always seemed to make people shiver and take a step back. Or something more emphatic. He'd shoved Tolya's face into a bedpost once after the jerk had sent him on a wild goose chase involving a crazy woman named Irina. It hadn't taken Tolya long to get the point.

But he had to play the ghost now. He'd have to find a more subtle way to help her.

*~*~*~*~*

Anacostia, Washington DC
7:58 a.m.

A latch snapped on the outside of the sliding metal door. The woman at the window tensed and turned to see a gray-haired man enter, obviously in a hurry. A flush of adrenaline washed through her at the sight of him. He looked more ragged around the edges than usual, his hair a bit longer, his sweater somewhat wrinkled. It had been nearly two months since she'd seen him.

"How did you get here?" she asked, frowning, reaching for the smoothness of the wheels on either side of her and rolling toward him.

"They have me working under duress. I've been here, in this building, for nearly as long as you." He glanced around. "I have little time. They'll be here in a few minutes."

She paused, then rolled closer and looked up at him. "Al desdichado hace consuelo tener compañia..."

The man's mouth opened. His eyes showed no comprehension.

Her hands clenched the black rubber. He was in every physical detail the man she knew, and yet...

"You're not him." She backed up several inches.

The man's shoulders sagged momentarily. He took in a long, slow breath and straightened. His voice changed. "No, I'm not. But the fact that I'm not should be good news for you. I am"--he shrugged--"taking his place. In a manner of speaking. I've sent him back to the import-export building in Brooklyn, so his work can continue."

"But then who--?"

"There's no time now." He pulled a piece of paper and a pen from his pocket. "It's imperative that I get a message to the mother of Fox Mulder. Do you know how to reach her?"

The woman felt her pulse quicken. A prickly feeling sat just under the surface of her fingertips. "Why? I need to know why."

"There was an incident a week ago. Spender captured and used her to catch Fox Mulder. His intention was to kill them all."

Her brow furrowed. "All of whom?"

"Agent Scully, Mrs. Mulder and the two sons."

"Two sons?"

"Yes. But the one was able to kill Spender. Now the group believes the brothers may have formed an alliance to oppose the Project. Another vaccine is being dev--"

"Agent Mulder killed Spender?"

"No, the other one--Krycek. The two are in danger, which is why I must contact Mrs. Mulder."

"Alex Kr--?" Her eyes went big. The word seemed to stick in her throat. She reached toward her neck.

"Yes." The man held out the pen and paper. "Please. They're outside now; I can tell. Will you help me? I can help you."

The sound of footfalls echoed in the distance, at the bottom of the stairs on the floor below. A swirling sensation took hold of her and she reached to steady herself. She looked up at him.

"Her name is Teena, spelled with two 'e's. I believe she lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. That's as much as I know."

"Thank you."

He turned, went quickly to the door and let himself out. The door slid closed and the latch snapped into place with its characteristic sharp clank.

The woman rolled back to the window, her pulse thudding now inside her. Miguel's vaccine. If it was true, then they had help. There might once again be a ray of hope.

Spender dead.

And Alex Krycek... She swallowed.

If it was true what the man had said, this second Miguel. If it weren't somehow a trap to determine her loyalties.

Glancing up, she looked out through the cloudy glass. To the left, the edge of another industrial building was visible. Straight ahead, beyond a row of low trees, she could see the soft blue-gray of the river, and on the far side, the buildings of Alexandria.

*~*~*~*~*

Mulder's rented room, Georgetown
9:51 a.m.

To: topaz@rift.net
From: spooky@quick.net
You should have received Vanek's printouts and Tracy's data by now. Let me know if you haven't, also if whoever's looking it over at your end finds anything significant. I've been going through Tracy's diary. Mostly the entries are about things they planted or harvested, or seasonal changes or animals she'd seen come near their home. She was quite the observer of nature. There's mention of her mother's illness, though she wrote less and less about that as things got grimmer--understandable. It ends before her mother dies, but I guess if Nathan took her away then, that makes sense because the diary was left where she had no access to it. Too bad she didn't have the diary around the time she got pregnant; we might have learned something valuable from that.

Speaking of which, Nathan told a story about finding Tracy wandering the ridge between his house and hers right around the time we're assuming she got pregnant. He said he'd forbidden her to go over the hill to her house, but when he caught up with her and laid into her about heading over there, she seemed to have no idea what he was talking about. A few days later they were called to pick her up from school, sick, and the next morning she had no recall of leaving school, or of the previous weekend, or the schoolwork they'd been doing during that period. My guess? She was replaced temporarily by a clone or shapeshifter while they took her away to do what they were going to do with her.

Her mother's letters to Nathan were just everyday newsy things with the occasional mention of her husband being busy at work. The last letter mentioned them getting ready to attend the concert Tracy was telling me about when she collapsed. From the date on the letter, the concert should have taken place on December 9, 1989, which could coincidenally be the day her father died. Should help with research. Another letter Nathan showed me mentioned that she'd had several surgeries while she was in California, though she didn't give any details. It seemed that by that point she may not have remembered much about them. By the way, their full names were Keith William Acres, Shirley Catherine Meyer Acres and Tracy Ellen Acres.

Mulder pushed back from the keyboard and ran a hand back through his hair. He glanced up at low, green ceiling and let out a long sigh. This little family snuffed out, all three of them because of a mystery group's agenda, not a thing left behind to show for the lives they'd lived, no progeny or reminder that they'd existed. Certainly Nathan Meyer and his wife weren't going to set up any memorials to them, or look into the mystery behind their niece's disappearance. Hell, Nathan didn't seem to have made a single bit of effort to look for Tracy after she left. If no one had ever brought him word, he probably would have just written her off.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Mulder shook his head, stood and looked out the high window above the desk, jaw set. Mrs. Santoli, his landlady, had planted geraniums in the tiny bed in front of the window and several red flower heads were visible above the lower edge of the glass.

It was so close to the show his parents had put on when Samantha was taken... the difference being that in Samatha's case it was all a lie; they knew exactly what had happened.

Though they would have had no way to know the details. It was something he hadn't thought of before. Would his mother have wondered? Would she have sat at the window at night gazing up into the sky, wondering if her daughter were near this flickering star, or that bright planet, and what was happening to her?

According to Alex, the old man had gotten her back somehow. Probably some sort of back room deal he'd been able to pull, some leverage he'd managed to finagle against a momentarily unwary adversary. And then he'd used her as a mere thing. A test strip. A throwaway.

Squeezing the back of the desk chair, he went to the door, opened it, and climbed the stairs into the yard. The air was on its way to the kind of muggy heat DC had produced the past couple of days. Mulder squinted into the haze above him and glanced around the small area--at the faded adirondack chair, the ragged patch of lawn and the tree above it, its leaves already hanging limp. In spite of the city's bustle and roar, he felt sealed away from the reality around him, caught up in a bubble of questions only time--or possibly Alex Krycek--could answer.

So many questions, so many blanks that needed filling--

Mulder stopped abruptly, suddenly aware that he'd been pacing the small yard space hands-on-hips. He glanced up once more at the hazy sky overhead and started back toward the little stone steps leading down to his room.

Not to focus away from the matter at hand, but if you know of any details about Samantha's situation/location beyond what you mentioned in Reston, I'd appreciate knowing anything that may be actionable. Wouldn't hurt to start whatever research I can from here, and I'm in limbo at the moment, waiting to find out what Scully's schedule will be beyond today.

I realize you're not going to want to give away your location, but some of the bits and pieces of evidence/information we're coming up with might be better sorted out on the phone at some point, if that becomes possible. If you want, I can send Tracy's diary on to you--again, if you come up with a way to receive it that suits you. Not looking to flush you out; there are just a lot of question marks here, and putting our heads together seems like the best way to do that.

                                                                                          -M

~*~*~*~*~

Longmont, Colorado
10:13 a.m.

"Unfortunately this doesn't tell us anything we can work with," Carrie said, flipping once more through the Vanek printouts. "Aside from the fact that the toxin she's introducing is being killed more and more quickly over time." She glanced over at Alex beside her on the couch. "Which we're assuming would be your black substance. But these results don't tell us anything about the makeup of the toxin, or of her vaccine. Or what sort of side effects it may be producing, which can be hugely important."

Krycek grunted. "That's what Scully said, too. My brother's partner," he added. "What about the doctor's report on Tracy?"

Carrie picked up a second set of papers. "This is extremely puzzling because it all happened so quickly. From the reported first indication, when she collapsed, to time of death was only 42 hours. She was pregnant?"

He nodded.

"And they aborted the fetus in the hopes it would lessen the strain on her system. Unfortunately, it didn't make enough difference to save her. But"--her finger moved down the page, searching--"we have no fetus to examine. And, of course, no mother." She looked up. "You know, all of this sounds like something from a movie, the kind of thriller that when it ends, you're relieved to walk outside and see daylight and normal life again."

He shrugged. What could he say? Normal only existed for people who didn't know what was coming, a scenario he wasn't about to saddle her with.

"Is there anything else there?" he asked, pointing at the papers.

"Hmm... Possibly." She read for a moment and frowned. "There are hormones associated with pregnancy that should be showing up, but they're not all here. Some are. But others are present only in trace amounts and there apparently wasn't any sign of hCG in her system, which should be"--she glanced up at him--"impossible."

"HCG?"

"It's the hormone that keeps the embryo attached to the wall of the uterus. Without it you have no pregnancy. Maybe something was going wrong with the pregnancy already. It could even have contributed to what happened to her. Evidently she was spotting when she was brought to the hospital. Maybe the pregnancy was on the verge of ending--spontaneous abortion."

"Because of insufficient hormone levels?"

"It's a possibility. Although without further information we don't have access to--without the bodies--we can't know for sure. Another possibility is that the seizure she suffered somehow compromised the pregnancy."

"Doesn't account for the missing hormones, though."

"No, you're right." She looked up at him and paused. "I'll look these over some more tonight. Maybe if I let the data percolate a little, I'll get a flash of inspiration." She let out a sigh. "Though I have to admit to being a little distracted today."

"Heard your call earlier. It was him, wasn't it?"

She nodded. "I did better than usual at sticking to my guns, but he always manages to turn things in another direction. And frankly, I just hope he's not taking it out on Tyler now for admitting he wanted to come home."

"All the more reason not to let go. Write yourself a script beforehand and stick to it. How much time do you have before he calls back? Or are you supposed to call him?"

"He's calling me. Maybe tonight; he didn't say." She set the papers aside. "In the meantime, I could definitely use a change of focus. Maybe I'll make that trip to the nursery. Should be more pleasant than thinking about sparring with Ron."

*~*~*~*~*

Greenwich, Connecticut
11:27 a.m.

Teena Mulder hurried toward the sound of knocking on her front door. Peering through the peep hole, she saw a gray-haired gentleman standing on the porch. His collarless tweed jacket stood out for its unusual style. He wasn't anyone she'd ever seen before.

Tentatively she placed one hand on the door knob. "Who is it?"

"My name is..." He hesitated. "Actually, it's probably advisable that I don't tell you." He looked toward the small glass window in the door. "I realize this isn't likely to inspire your confidence, but my message is important. I have information about your sons." He glanced toward the street and back again. "Information for your sons."

Teena swallowed. It could be another one of the group's maneuvers, though Leland's associates tended to prefer a more theatrical approach: an implied air of power, their black limousines. This man seemed very different. Carefully she turned the lock and opened the door.

"Yes?"

"May I come in, please?" He glanced toward the street once more and then back at her. "Yes, I realize this, too, is bad form. But it's imperative that I not be seen. I have a message."

Teena could feel her heart thudding softly inside her, a prickly apprehension beginning to flood her, but she opened the door wide enough to let the man pass. She led him to the living room where he sat down on a chair facing her.

"Thank you for seeing me," he began. "In this case I'm merely the most convenient messenger, and certainly no professional in these sorts of things. But the warning comes from someone who is in a position to have discovered that your sons are in danger. He asked me to convey to you that the directorate of the group that employs me believes that your sons may have formed an alliance to challenge their agenda, based upon a vaccine being developed by a woman named Vanek." He gave her a sympathetic look. "Unfortunately, the group does not countenance these types of incursions. They'll want to eliminate the threat. Or perceived threat, whether or not it's actually the case."

 "I--"  Teena's mouth froze, half-open.

"I'm very sorry to be the bearer of bad news," he said. "And possibly confusing news; this group may be a complete mystery to--"

"No," she said, pushing forward now. "Unfortunately, it's not." Her fingers figeted with the protective covers on the arms of her chair. "Our family has had a long history with the Project." She paused. "How can I tell my sons who brought this message?"

"I'm acquainted with Alex," her visitor said. "Tell him that I'm back at the import-export house, that i've been... replaced... at my usual duties so that my research might continue."

"I will." She hesitated. "Let me make sure I have this straight. They believe my sons have formed an alliance to oppose them, and this involves a vaccine being developed by a woman named..."

"Vanek."

"Vanek, yes. And that you know Alex, and that you've returned to your research at the import-export business. And that someone is filling in for you at your regular duties."

"I believe 'replaced' is the most accurate word. Please use that."

"Replaced." She nodded.

*~*~*~*~*

To: spooky@quick.net
From: topaz@rift.net
Just thought of something. When the old man came and picked me up on the way to Reston, I left my arm behind; long story and I'll spare you the details. Anyway, I really need one at this point but I figure either the old guys took it so I wouldn't have it or they've left it where it was and bugged my place so they can see who comes after it. Haven't sent Ché over to check it out because I can't afford to have him exposed. Can you send over whoever went through the old man's place last week? Just don't risk exposure by going there yourself.

Let me know.

                                                               -K

To: topaz@rift.net
From: spooky@quick.net
I can send my guys over. What should they look for? And look out for? Tell me we're not talking booby-trapped, because I can't afford to lose these guys, either.

By the way, did you just get a mail from Mom?

                                                              -M

*~*~*~*~*

Mulder's rented room
Georgetown, Washington DC
11:48 a.m.

"Yeah."

"Mulder, it's me. I was just informed that they have no further use for me here, and that I need to return to my position at Quantico as of tomorrow."

"Who told you this?"

"Skinner. But I could tell from the way he said it that the decision was being made somewhere else. Then when I was leaving for lunch just now, he followed me to the parking garage..."

"And?"

"He confirmed that it wasn't his decision, and that he wasn't being allowed any leverage or say in the matter." A pause. "Mulder, I think Spender's collaborators within the Bureau are doing this. Granted, the rationale for having me here this past week has been arguable, but--"

"I think you're right, Scully. About the group. I just got an e-mail from Mom. She said someone came to visit her this morning, claiming that the group's higher-ups think Krycek and I have formed some sort of alliance to oppose them. They think we're going to be marketing a competing salvation based on Vanek's vaccine."

"Mulder, that's crazy."

"Yeah. I know it is. But the problem here is perception. They think we're doing it, which means we're going to be in their crosshairs."

"Have you discussed this with Krycek?"

"Not yet. I just got Mom's mail." A pause. "I may have to go underground, Scully."

"And I have some decisions of my own to make."

"Do you want me to meet you somewhere?"

"Not yet, Mulder. I need to think. We both should. Anyway, they could be watching me. If you're in danger, I hardly need to be giving you away. Where are you now?"

"My place."

"I'll call you later. Be thinking of someplace we can meet."

*~*~*~*~*

To: spooky@quick.net
From: topaz@rift.net
Suppose by now you've heard the latest. Messenger appears to be a guy I know who's been working for the group for years, but who's definitely not sitting in their cheering section. He's been developing his own version of a vaccine, but the thing is, they caught him a couple of months back and would have locked him up somewhere. The word he used--"replaced"--makes it look like we may have another shapeshifter on our hands, one who's refused the alien kool-aid, who's place-holding for this guy while he continues his research.

The old men obviously aren't fucking around at this point, so you should get yourself out of sight ASAP. But if you could check my place for the arm, I'd appreciate it. If I'm going to be fighting the old men, having to do it single-handed would suck. If the arm is gone, there's a second one with a hook instead of a hand in the back of the towel drawer in the bathroom. Hope they haven't found it, too. Under my bed, there's a cardboard box with extra supplies I'll need with it--lotion, socket liners, etc.

                                                    -K

P.S. If my main arm is still on the bed where I left it, handle it carefully. Could be bugged, at the least. You can get my address from Ché.

*~*~*~*~*

To: redwall@zipmail.com
From: spooky@quick.net
Your funky poaching expertise is required again--ASAP. This one may be wired for video, possibly more. Fight the bad guys, save the world.

Get back to me.

*~*~*~*~*

Lexington, Kentucky
12:43 p.m.

Four walked up the puddled gravel driveway, an envelope in his hand. It was merely overcast now--and quite muggy--but from the look of the dark clouds building to the south, more rain would be coming. Much more.

He had determined not to open the letter until he was back inside the little house, a small strategy designed not to expose him any longer than necessary outdoors where he could be seen.

Reaching the tiny porch, he pulled the screen door open and went into the kitchen.

"Eighteen?"

There was no reply, or any noise that would indicate her moving around in another room. A thin thread of alarm started through him.

"Eighteen?"

Silence.

He went to the living room, where the final loads of laundry were laid out over the drying racks.

There had always been the chance of her leaving. Although she was the last of her kind and inherently unsuited for life alone out among the native population, her kind was, at the core, laced with the tendency to break off from the larger group and seek their own path. It had been that way for countless generations.

Four turned, left the room and started down the hallway. At the doorway to the small room he stopped. Inside, the female was sitting on the edge of the bed, Eighteen in front of her. Holding both the girl's hands, she lifted the girl carefully to a standing position, maintained it a few seconds, then set her gently down again. She turned when she saw him.

"We were practicing," she said. "She'll need to be able to use the rest room along the way. The more practiced she becomes, the less we'll stand out." She pointed to the envelope in his hand. "Have you read it?"

"Not yet." He worked a finger under the flap, tore the paper across the top and reached inside. A single piece of lined note paper appeared. He opened it.

"They can no longer sense her. And they've recovered the remnants we left." He looked up. "They've not yet declared her officially dead, but we're free to go. We should leave in the morning."

He went to the window, let out a half-held breath and glanced at the gray beyond the lace curtains. The clouds overhead were moving quickly, jostling. Thickening.

*~*~*~*~*

Che's apartment
Washington DC
1:18 p.m.

Mulder closed the door to the street behind him and paused a moment in the sudden quiet. In front of him rose a set of steep stairs that led to a landing and then veered upward again to the right. The tall, narrow space smelled of being shut up, of heat and dust.

He was here for Krycek's address, but what he really wanted was for there to be a prize at the bottom of this particular box of Crackerjacks: a bit of additional clarity. Who would have fronted for Krycek all these years while he made his way around the world wreaking his own particular brand of havoc?

In the end, though, the real question was how to reconcile the smirking smart-ass who'd killed his father and lured him away on the Siberian version of the vacation from hell with the seemingly dedicated, serious guy he'd been corresponding for the past ten days, who seemed to want exactly the same things he wanted, who apparently had been gathering background intel toward that end for years. A guy who'd taken the time to accompany a strange, free-spirited girl to her personal ground zero so she wouldn't have to deal with the fallout alone. And who--last but definitely not least--was the reason he, along with his mother and Scully, weren't lying side by side in matching caskets right now.

Maybe there was something he was missing. Correction: There was something he was missing. The question was which side of the balance sheet the missing puzzle piece would come down on.

Mulder closed his eyes momentarily, opened them again and started up the stairs. He paused at the "Take your chances!" sign handwritten above the buzzer. He was already taking chances; he'd been doing it all his life. This was just one more.

He pushed the button.

A few beats later he heard the door unlock--no multiple layers of security like the Gunmen had--and a headful of bouncy, pale brown curls filled the open six inches or so. "Special Agent Fox Mulder, I presume?"

"Not exactly, and I take it you're not Livingstone, either." Mulder shrugged. "No title these days. Didn't he tell you?"

"Mm, yes, I heard." The door opened wider. "Come."

Ché closed the door behind them and led the way to the window overlooking the street.

"From here," he said, "go left. At the second corner turn right. It's the sixth building on the left. Second floor. Apartment 2C. Here, I'll write it down, but shred or burn it as soon as you've memorized the information." He went to the desk and tore a scrap of paper from a larger sheet there.

Mulder smiled to himself at Ché's distinct accent; probably he and Krycek spoke Russian when they got together. He glanced around at the piles of books, the lace curtains in the large window, the gold-rimmed teacup sitting among the papers beside the computer.  Ché himself was thin with a slight build, a narrow nose and skin that obviously didn't cross paths often with the light of day. He wore wire-rimmed glasses.

Setting his pencil down, he approached Mulder with the scrap of paper.

"Thanks." Mulder hesitated, mouth half-open, and bit his lip. Scully was right. The guy definitely didn't seem like Krycek's type.

"Is there something more I can do for you? You look a bit lost, if I may say so."

"Maybe I am," Mulder said, looking past his host. "In a manner of speaking."

"I've heard you'll be needing to go underground. My condolences."

"It's not just going underground that concerns me," Mulder said, refocusing on the man in front of him. "It's who I'm doing it with. And whether in the end I can actually trust him."

"Aleksei?"

"Yeah, if that's the way you know him. The man I've known, up until a few weeks ago..." His lips pressed into a hard line. "How did you get mixed up with a man like Krycek, anyway?"

Ché retreated to his computer chair. He gestured to an ottoman that Mulder could sit on.

"I'm afraid I was already mixed up in something when Aleksei and I met. He saved me from what could easily have been a lifetime of imprisonment in my country. Or worse."

"What did you do?"

"I was"--he colored self-consciously--"a hacker-in-training, you might say, a teenager only trying to see what he could accomplish, when I managed to hack into sensitive military files. Aleksei helped me get away, to come here to America."

"So I've heard. But he had a use for you."

"Yes, granted, I've been of much use to him. At least, I'd like to believe I have. But"--he waved a finger--"Aleksei has never once demanded the proverbial pound of flesh from me for what he did. That is noteworthy, believe me. And he's helped me as well when there's been nothing at all in it for him."

"See, my experience has been just the opposite. Lies, murder, misdirection. And a big helping of smart-ass smugness to go with it."

Ché frowned, then paused. The same index finger started to rise again, as if he could catch something with it.

"What?"

"Perhaps," he said, "the difference--part of the difference--is that I am not his brother. The old vulture was like a poison, you know? And extremely deliberate. When Aleksei was young, on each visit he would tell him about you and your various accomplishments. A petri dish of jealousy, in my opinion, that he probably exulted in cultivating." He shrugged. "Perhaps in the hopes that you would never be able to tolerate each other."

*~*~*~*~*

To: topaz@rift.net
From: spooky@quick.net
Your place is being surveilled in preparation. What type of person would be least likely to be noticed inside your building? If there's an on-site manager or maintenance person, having a legitimate contact could be useful. Also send a list of likely spots they may have placed cameras, both in public areas and inside your place. No use giving these guys any of what they're looking for.

                                                                    -M

To: spooky@quick.net
From: topaz@rift.net
I can tell I'm losing it; must be everything that's been going on lately and the general state I'm in. You're going to need to lay some kind of false trail or we may expose our source for the latest intel. Make sure your mom stays put for now, too. If you both suddenly slip off the radar, they're going to know we were alerted.

Manager's name is Ralph; he's in 1A. Give me a few minutes to think about camera locations.

                                                                  -K

*~*~*~*~*

The Gunmen's lair
Washington, DC
2:25 p.m.

"You know if we take out their cameras, amusing as it might be, we'll be announcing that we were there," Frohike said. "So, any ideas with more subtlety? Gentlemen?"

"Something to do with the manager," Byers said. "If he goes in, there'll be no red flags raised at all."

"How can we get him to do it?" Langly asked. "Apart from straight-up bribing him?"

Frohike frowned. "What's wrong with a good old-fashioned bribe?"

"Somebody's got to pay it," Mulder said, obviously not amused, "and in case you've forgotten, I don't have a job at the moment."

"Er, yeah. Sorry."

Byers stroked his beard, thinking. "Is Krycek likely to actually go back there? Realistically, if the group has him in their sights, it wouldn't seem like a smart move. What if we got the manager to move him out completely--gather up his things and set them aside, at which point we could go through them and recover anything Krycek might want?"

"Why don't we just convince the manager you've come for the arm and supplies?" Mulder said, running a hand back through his hair. He still had to figure out where to meet Scully later, and how to lay the false trail Krycek had suggested. And there was a laundry list of other decisions to make when he'd finished with those two.

"If you can think of a plausible scenario the manager would be likely to buy," Byers said. "The question is how we'd validate the fact that Krycek had sent us, and even if we did, the man would probably want us to go up and retrieve the items ourselves, which would put us on camera. Assuming the place is indeed set up with electronic eyes."

Mulder glanced up at the Gunmen's shadowy ceiling and squinted. He could feel the faint beginnings of a headache, something he definitely didn't need at this point. Sighing, he brought his focus back to his friends.

"Maybe Byers is right. Moving him out makes the most sense. Assuming he goes for it. I should clear it with him first, though."

*~*~*~*~*

J. Edgar Hoover Building
Washington, DC
2:43 p.m.

"Hey, good to see you guys slaving away at the paperwork. All this resting up's been wearing me out."

Scully turned to see Will Wilkins standing behind her, mischief in his eyes.

"How are you feeling?" she said, a smile spreading across her face. "Have they cleared you to come back?"

Manny raised an eyebrow. "He's probably been bribing them under the table to keep him off the duty roster."

"Hey, I don't have that kind of money, man. Be nice if I did."

"So what's the scoop, bro?"

"I'm cleared for desk duty. As of tomorrow.  You've got a day to get used to the idea of putting up with me again." The beginning of a grin pulled at the corner of Will's mouth. "Clock's ticking, you s.o.b."

Manny pushed back his chair and stood. "Watch yourself, Will," he said, mock-serious. He picked up a folder and started off between the rows of desks, then turned back and pointed a finger at his partner. "Better be ready, sucker, because I'm not planning on cutting you any slack." With a sudden grin, he turned and headed down the aisle.

Will chuckled quietly and watched him go. When Manny was out of sight, he turned to Scully. His expression changed.

"What is it?" Scully said, offering him a chair.

Will sat and pulled the chair closer. "I've been improving--a lot. But I didn't volunteer. They called me in."

"Skinner told me this morning that they're ordering me back to Quantico," she said, her voice low.

Will frowned. "Yeah, I figured there might be some mischief afoot, and this could be part of it. What's Mulder's status?"

"He just got word that Spender's group believes he and Krycek have formed some sort of alliance to compete with them, and--"

"What?"

"I know; it's crazy. But as Mulder pointed out, the fact is, they believe it. They think he and Krycek will be trying to spearhead some sort of resistance to their plans based on Vanek's vaccine--"

"But nobody knows where she is anyway, right?"

"Not as far as we know." Scully paused and let out a sigh. "I need to decide what I'm going to do, whether to go back to Quantico and be Mulder's contact for the resources the Bureau, and its legitimacy, can provide while he tries to learn more about this Pasadena group, or..." She pursed her lips.

"Or whether to jump ship, hit the road and deal with the bucketful of uncertainties that go with it, right?"

"Yes. Mulder and I are supposed to meet tonight and talk over our options, but we haven't come up with a location yet. We've been spending part of the time at my place, but that seems less than advisable at this point."

Will's brow creased. "I think you're right."

"We don't believe anyone knows where he's staying--yet--but if I go there, there's the chance it could expose him."

"What about the Gunmen's?"

She forced a smile. "I'd really prefer a one-on-one discussion to a group barnstorming session."

"Yeah, I get you." He paused. "Look, you can use my place. "If you want input, I'm available, but if you need space, I can keep myself in the bedroom. God knows I've spent enough time in there lately."  He shook his head. "Could be legit, you know--you coming over to catch me up to speed with what you and Manny have been up to. Mulder can come in the back way; I'll give you the code for the door back there, and nobody'll be the wiser."

*~*~*~*~*

Longmont, Colorado
3:37 p.m.

Krycek paced the floor between his bed and the window and finally paused beside the glass. Below, just beyond the patio, Carrie was tucking wiry little green bean starts into the part of the raised bed shadowed by the oak tree. At the other end, six-inch tall corn seedlings stood in neat, pale green rows.

He moved again, went to the bed, sat down on the edge, leaned forward and rested his head in his hand. Clearing the place out. They wanted to move his stuff. It made sense. There was no point in going back there, given that the old men would have their eyes on it. He never got attached to the places he lived, and there wasn't all that much there that was his; the furniture went with the room.

Except for the blue recliner Tracy'd dragged in for him to use.

He stood again, went down the hall and to the kitchen, and stared at the bright flatness toward the east.

At first he'd figured he'd end up having to push her memory away, the way he'd always done with whatever was painful or inconvenient, because the alternative could knock you off your game. Which could prove deadly.

But it didn't seem to be turning out that way. At least, not so far. For some reason the residue of her wasn't feeling like a bleeding wound, or a weight. More like the flame of a candle sitting in the back of his mind, quiet.

But his room. She'd been alive there. They'd lived out their shared time there: the initial awkwardness, the times she'd showed up to rescue him. That soft hair sliding to one side as she'd sit sideways on the desk chair. The talks they had, so many of them through unexpected territory. The first time she'd traced his sides with her hands, facing him as something more than his caretaker.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs, Carrie coming up from the garden. He swallowed back the pressure in his throat. Maybe she'd head off to wash up and he could slip back to his room.

The footsteps came closer and stopped.

"Alex?"

No such luck.

He grunted a reply. Turned, finally, when she said nothing more.

"Everything okay?"

"Just... thinking." He paused. "They're going to move everything out of my place... Mulder and his friends. My other arm may still be in there. If the old man's group didn't take it."

She waited until she could see that he was finished. She was good at that--picking up the signs.

"Well, I hope they find it, "she said. "Both for the practicality of it and for helping to keep your spine straight, it would be a huge help." She looked down at her dirty hands, then back up at him and smiled. "I managed to get half the veggies planted," she said. "I'll do the other half once the shade reaches the other bed."

"Saw you working down there."

"By the way"--she took a step toward him and held out a small packet--"here are your seeds. I didn't want you to think I'd forgotten them."

He took the packet, thanked her and after an awkward pause, started back to his room. Beyond the window, the scene went out of focus. He pressed the packet between his thumb and fingers, feeling the tiny grains inside. Brought it up, tapped it against his upper lip and finally set it aside.

At the desk, he opened the laptop and waited for his mail program to load.

To: spooky@quick.net
From: topaz@rift.net
Go ahead, clear it out. Ché can store my stuff. I'll call Ralph, let him know I'm leaving. Ché can reroute the call so it won't give away my location. Will tell Ralph the guy coming for my things has a heart condition and can't lift anything; that should get everything delivered to the street for you. I'll give him something extra to box the stuff up.

Will let you know when I've contacted him.

                                                                      -K

*~*~*~*~*

Oxon Hill, Maryland
5:26 p.m.

Scully glanced at her ringing phone and picked it up: Mulder. She pressed the 'talk' button.

"Are you here?" she asked.

"Yeah, just got here. I hope I'm okay in the unmarked space in the 'C' lot. It was the only one without an apartment number on it."

"I'll ask Will." She covered the speaker and went toward the kitchen. "Will, he's in a space that has no number marked on it. 'C' lot."

"He'll be good there."

Scully turned back to the phone. "It's fine." She paused. "Mulder I hope you're not bringing pizza."

"Why?"

"Because I picked one up on my way over here and, as it turns out, so did Will."

"Well, I guess we'll just have to put up with three of them. Be up in a minute."

Scully rolled her eyes and hit the 'off' button. She stretched her neck to one side and then the other, picturing herself barefoot on her own carpet, sipping a glass of cold water in blessed silence. It wasn't likely she'd be there anytime soon.

A minute later the doorbell rang and she went to answer it. Mulder held out a large paper bag.

"Surprise," he said, waggling his eyebrows. "Thai."

"Well," she said, her expression brightening, "thank goodness it's not another serving of bread and cheese."

She led him to the kitchen where they laid out the food and filled their plates.

"You want me to disappear for a while?" Will asked as they headed for the living room.

"No," Scully said. "You've put in more than your time there the last few weeks."

"Memorized every cobweb and pattern in the ceiling," he said ruefully.

"Anyway," Mulder said, "we can probably use all the brain cells we can gather here." He set his plate down on the coffee table. "Actually, I think some of mine have melted down already. It's been a long day."

"Care to update us?" Scully said, reaching for a chicken skewer.

"Mom had a visitor about 11:30 this morning warning her that Smoky's buddies have decided Krycek and I are trying to mount some sort of joint effort to resist their plan, that we plan to use Vanek's vaccine as the basis of our defense--"

"Wait, wait." Will gestured, mouth half-full. "You talking about their plan to hand us over to these space guys?"

Mulder nodded. "Krycek said the guy Mom described was someone he knows, one of the group's researchers who doesn't buy into their agenda. Someone we should be able to trust."

"So," Will said, "they're going to want to eliminate the competition, right?"

Mulder gave a pained smile. "Whatever I decide to do, I'm going to have to stay out of their crosshairs."

"Though making them think you're not a problem to them would be even better."

Mulder nodded toward Will. "See, there's a reason you're a part of this huddle."

"But how would we do that?" Scully said. "Make them think you're no threat to them?"

"And--just as critical--how can we do it without shifting all their focus to Krycek?" Mulder said. "Because we need his input in this. He's got more information about the things we need to investigate than anyone else. Like it or not, he's our holy grail."

*~*~*~*~*

Longmont, Colorado
7:03 p.m.

Carrie stood at the window next to the piano, looking through the blinds. Below and off to the side, her houseguest sat on the edge of one of the raised beds. He'd been quiet today--not that it wasn't his natural tendency. But there'd been something more subdued than usual about him--not exactly a walling off, but a reticence to open up to the extent he usually did.

He was starting to gain a little strength. His wound was beginning to clear and heal, though she knew he was weighted down mentally. There was the friend he'd lost recently, a relationship he'd admitted had become personal, and with the kind of father he'd described, it was a wonder he'd survived to adulthood at all.

Though there were obviously dark areas in his life that she probably didn't want to know anything about. She liked him, and he seemed very protective of her, and concerned about Ty; his actions had never given her any reason to doubt his sincerity. And yet the clipboard-toting analyst in her head had been keeping up an annoying whisper of inconvenient facts and where they pointed: two gunshot wounds, people searching for him. The fact that he'd been on the run for days before he'd reached her, rather than going to a hospital to have his wound taken care of properly. Her intuition told her he was trustworthy, but intuition could be faulty. After all, she'd married Ron, and she hadn't realized until long after he was gone just how much he'd shaped their life together to his own advantage.

If she succeeded in convincing Ron to let Ty come home, though, there would be a chance to see just how consistent Alex might be. If, as he claimed, he didn't want to put them in danger, he'd suggest that he should leave before Tyler arrived. Truth to tell, she'd thought of it already, and today, before visiting the nursery, she'd talked to Nelson about the possibility of having Alex stay with him.

But she wasn't going to mention the possibility to Alex yet. If the need did arise, would he insist on going, even if he didn't know where he'd be able to stay? Or would he say nothing and stay on, a decision he'd admitted could have negative consequences for her and her son? She needed to know the answer. Most importantly, she needed to know she could rely on her own judgment.

Carrie refocused on the scene outside the window. Alex's hand trailed through the dirt beside him. He seemed to be miles away. Finally he looked up and pulled something from his pocket--the little packet of seeds she'd bought at his request. For as often as she reminded herself to give Alex the space he seemed to need, her curiosity had been piqued by his request for flower seeds. What was the story there? It was a toss-up whether he'd open up about them, though it might do him good. After all, she knew well enough where digging a mental hole and insisting on climbing down into it could take you.

TTurning from the window, Carrie headed for the stairs. She'd gone down just three of the wooden steps when the phone rang.

*~*~*~*~*

J Edgar Hoover Building
Washington DC
7:05 p.m.

"Agent Spender?"

Jeffrey Spender looked up from the boxes he was packing to see AD Skinner standing in the doorway to the basement office.

"Yes, sir?"

Skinner leaned against the door frame. "How's it coming, Agent?"

"I've got just about everything." He looked at the paper in Skinner's hand. "Is that about my reassignment?"

"No." He cleared his throat. "It's a directive for disposal of your father's remains. It just came to me from another agency. Actually, I'm not sure where it originated."

"What does it say?"

Skinner's mouth twitched. "Frankly, it's very strange. His wishes were for his ashes to be scattered near the graves of six German spies."

Jeffrey frowned. "What?"

Skinner shrugged and held out the paper. "That's what it says. I did some background checking. The six men were WWII spies, executed in 1942. Evidently they're buried in the Blue Plains potter's field across the river in Anacostia." He shrugged. "I can't tell you any more than that."

"Wha--?" Jeffrey's brow furrowed. Finally he sighed and took the paper Skinner held out. "I knew practically nothing about my father. He left my mother and I when I was six years old, and I didn't hear from him again until he showed up last year, right about the time this office burned."

"I'm afraid I don't know much more than you, Agent Spender. He held a position of influence in one of the security agencies but he always seemed to operate behind the scenes. I was hoping you might understand the significance of this, but it seems he left you as much in the dark as he did the rest of us."

"What about this, sir?" He held up the paper. "Am I to be left to take care of this?"

"From what I understand, the cremation is taking place tomorrow. When the ashes come in, I'd be glad to go over to the site with you. It does make me curious. Blue Plains hasn't been used since just after World War II. From what I've been told, these days it's just an overgrown, weedy hillside behind a chain link fence."

*~*~*~*~*

Longmont, Colorado
7:21 p.m.

Krycek looked up to see Carrie bounding down the stairs, taking them two at a time like a teenager. When she opened the sliding door he could see the broad grin on her face.

"Must be good news," he said, the corners of his own mouth beginning to draw up in response.

"Ron said he could come!" She was half-breathless. Coming closer, she sat down on the adjacent raised bed. "Actually, I'm not sure I can take any credit for convincing him; he just blurted it out right away." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "To tell you the truth, it was more like Ron pouting. You know, like 'here, you can have the crummy old thing you want; I don't care about it anyway.' "

He shrugged. "The reason doesn't really matter. You won. You and Tyler both."

"Ron's putting him on a plane Sunday morning. He'll be here by afternoon."

Her face was flushed with color. It was the liveliest he'd ever seen her. Having the boy home was going to recharge her as much as it would Tyler, and she deserved that.

But it also meant a change in his plans.

He cleared his throat. "You know, I'm going to have to be gone before he gets here."

"You know," she replied, "you're not anywhere near healed yet." She gave him a look. "And you do want to make it back to full strength this time. You've seen where the alternative leaves you. The next time you get into a pickle I'm not likely to be within driving distance to come pick you up."

"Yeah, I know." He paused. "But I can't be dragging you into the stuff I'm involved in. Wouldn't be very good payback for your help." He shrugged. "Anyway, I've got five days to come up with another plan. Worse comes to worst, there must be some little hole-in-the-wall motel I can stay in until you figure I'm back up to speed."

She glanced past him at the deepening sunset colors and back again. "You know, I was thinking about that this morning--that if this actually worked, if I could actually get Ty for the summer, that you'd be needing another place to stay. I talked with Nelson this morning. He's got twenty-eight acres along a road that follows the foothills north of Boulder and eventually connects here to Longmont. It's another route I could take to school. Adds maybe an extra twenty minutes, but I could stop by and check on you on my way to or from."

"Yeah, but--"

"He's got a guesthouse." A smile pulled at one corner of her mouth. "Okay, Nelson likes to think of himself as a rancher, so he calls it "the bunkhouse", but it would be a space of your own. You know, nobody breathing down your neck. And a good portion of his land is wooded; there'd be plenty of room for you to walk without anyone noticing you."

"Thanks." He drew in a long breath, held it momentarily and let it out slowly. Something inside him loosened. "I owe you. Again."

"You helped me get Ty back for the summer. To me, that's a pretty good trade." She pushed the gravel around with a sandal. "But there is one other thing. If you don't mind, that is."

"What?"

She smiled. "I'm curious about your poppy seeds."

He paused a moment. Finally he let out a sigh.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."

"No, it's... maybe it's a good thing." He drew in a breath. "Tracy was down in the laundry room in my building one time, and there was this old woman outside the window, pulling weeds, frustrated that she couldn't plant things the way she used to. So Tracy bought some seeds like this"--he gestured at the packet--"and she climbed out the window and scattered them in the old woman's garden, so she'd have flowers later." It was the day she'd been sick. They'd stood together looking at the window, talking, and she'd shivered from the chills she was having.

"She asked me to water them later, if it got dry." He could feel pressure starting to swell in his throat. "But now I'm not going back there again. And I figured, you know, might be nice to put some where they'll get taken care of."

He studied the grayed wood grain along the edge of the bed, half-holding a breath. When he'd put a hand on Tracy's shoulder, reminding her to ask when she needed help, she'd taken it, natural as if it were something she did every day, and wrapped it around her waist.

"Well, they'll definitely be appreciated," she said. "Look, I didn't mean to pry... but it's a beautiful story, Alex. She sounds like a very special person."

He nodded. It was before they'd done anything. Before she'd kissed him. Before the night they'd spent in the little barn house, wrapped around each other, skin on skin, sheltered inside a little bubble of peace that held the insane world at bay.

When he looked up, Carrie was slipping through the patio door, sliding it closed. He took the packet, shook the seeds down to the bottom, put the envelope between his teeth and tore off the top.

IInside, the seeds were tiny, black and brown, almost specks. He tapped them to one side, took the packet between his teeth again and tilted his head to pour the little grains into his hand. Letting the packet drop, he held his hand above the bed and let the seeds tumble off into the soil.

*~*~*~*~*

Mulder's rented room
Georgetown, Washington DC
9:48 p.m.

A random spot of light glowed on the grooved ceiling above the bed. Scully stared up at it. Until now there had been no time to contemplate what direction their lives would take next. There'd been their hurried flight from Cancer Man a month earlier, three weeks spent in hiding in Owensburg, trying to adapt to a new reality with no foreseeable end in sight. Then, without warning, Teena's capture and the assault on Spender's Reston house that had ended in his death, followed by a week of tying together the loose ends of that incident, of Tracy's death and Dr. Vanek's disappearance.

We assume we're on a more or less straight path, Mulder had said once, headed toward a concrete goal when in reality, every moment of our lives we're at a crossroads, liable to turn in any one of a thousand different directions depending on some small decision we make, some outside factor that comes into play.

He certainly appeared to be right, because now it was happening again. With Smoky's old group after Mulder, their paths would be separating, with no way of knowing for how long, or what consequences this rift would bring... personal or professional.

She rolled carefully toward Mulder, asleep on his stomach beside her on the narrow bed, and smoothed a hand down his back. Men falling asleep after sex might be a cliché, but it certainly fit the men she'd known. She could have gone home to her apartment, but there was no telling how long it would be before they'd have the chance to be together again.

Mulder was right. He'd need to meet with Krycek face-to-face soon, to verify for himself whether the collaboration between them that seemed to be unfolding through their e-mails would hold up once they were actually in the same room together. And whether or not Krycek's newfound desire to be straightforward was more than just a function of his being at a disadvantage due to his injuries. Certainly the man she'd seen on the road to Owensburg had been distinctly different from the slick trickster she'd known up to that point. But was the change real, or was it simply another one of Krycek's angles, the best he could do at a given point to get what he wanted?

Once Krycek's belongings had been retrieved from his apartment manager and Mulder had the prosthesis Krycek was looking for, he'd have a solid reason to press for Krycek's location and go see him. If indications were good, the two could hammer out the details of the plan they'd sketched up with Will tonight, where they'd plant a trail of evidence leading to the discovery of body parts they'd claim to be Samantha's, along with some involvement by Krycek in her death, sending Mulder into a disabling depression and giving him no reason to be working with Krycek... at least in the eyes of their audience, Spender's collaborators. Then, hopefully with sinister eyes off them, their investigations into the happenings in Pasadena and San Diego could begin.

As for herself, even Mulder had been able to think of no circumstance under which it made sense for her to leave the Bureau and join him in this search. Her apparent separation from Mulder's activities would keep her from appearing suspicious to Spender's old associates... and becoming a target. Beyond that, Mulder would need her access to Bureau resources, and she'd need an income, possibly to keep both of them going. And if the situation turned out to be not as Krycek had described, or not as urgent--if life went on as usual--well, then there would be bills to pay, a career to build up, a hedge against the future and eventual retirement...

She swallowed, remembering the solemnness in Krycek's eyes as he described a nightmare future she had no desire to contemplate. There was no telling what would actually happen, and as Mulder had pointed out, there were a million different possible outcomes.

Beside her, Mulder stirred, opened one eye and, after a moment, rolled onto his side, gathering her in against him. A large, warm hand brushed over her face, smoothing back stray hairs. She rested her head between his neck and shoulder, felt a leg settle over hers and closed her eyes.

(End Chapter 6)

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