Topaz

by bardsmaid

Chapter 7

Tuesday, 1 June 1999
Mulder's rented room
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
6:48 a.m.

"I've got to talk to Krycek, Scully."

Mulder sat head-in-hands on the side of the bed. He looked up when Scully appeared in the bathroom doorway, hair brush in hand.

"About what?"

"No, I mean I need to meet with him. In the flesh."

Her brush stopped mid-stroke. She frowned. "Why?"

"Because all this stuff we're looking into, everything I'm going to have to depend on going forward--it's all tied up with Krycek. I need to be sure I can actually trust him."

"But Mulder, what about the plan? What about Sacramento? You've already got your ticket, and it's non-refundable. Besides, to see Krycek you'd have to convince him to let you know where he is."

"Yeah, and if he won't, it just proves my point. If we're going to work this thing together--and like it or not, it seems to be the only way to go, because nobody else has the background or the information he does--then I need to know I can count on him. I need to know these leads are on the level and not just something he's made up--"

"Like the militia group? I've been thinking about that lately. I think he may have set them up simply as a way of getting your attention."

He nodded to himself and looked up at her.

"And it worked, too," she said.

"Exactly why I need to see him."

*~*~*~*~*

The fact was, it was going to be harder than Scully'd pointed out to get to see Krycek. Besides the fact that I was going to have to convince him to let me know where he was, the consortium was after both of us. Chances were they had no idea where Krycek was now, but they could easily find him by trailing me. In order to connect with him without compromising either of us, I was going to need a fake ID, passenger manifests with my name on them for flights I wouldn't be taking, records signing me into hotels in cities I wouldn't be visiting. In short, it was time for a trip to see the Gunmen.

*~*~*~*~*

The Gunmen's lair
Washington, D.C.
8:34 a.m.

Frohike opened the last of the locks to find Mulder standing outside the door.

"Change of plans, boys," he said, glancing around, obviously eager to get inside.

Frohike's brow wrinkled. "Were you followed?"

Mulder shook his head. "I don't think so, but if I was, you're helping make sure they find me." He pushed the door open and slipped past Frohike. "Don't forget to lock up."

Frohike frowned, glanced both ways and, noticing nothing amiss, locked the locks one at a time.

"What's up, Mulder?" Langly's voice came from down the hallway.

"A little bit of fine-tuning," their guest said. "First of all, we're changing the cover story. If we claim to have found the remains of my sister as an adult, we're going to have to come up with a life for her. She would have had to live somewhere. She'd have a driver's license, credit cards, library card, job. There'd have to be people who knew her."

"So instead you're proposing?" Byers asked, tucking a tie under his collar, crossing the ends and starting to make a loop.

"Can you send a box to Scully at Quantico and make it look like it came from California? Tracking and everything?"

"Sure." Langly shrugged. "What's the story that goes with it?" He paused and gestured at Byers. "No telling how he can do that without even looking in a mirror."

"And it comes out perfect every time," Frohike said.

Byers colored. "Your new narrative, Mulder?"

"The box will be sent anonymously. It'll have bone fragments of a young teenager and hair in it--strands of Samantha's hair. Point of origin for the package will be in the Sacramento area, where Krycek said she was probably kept."

"And Scully will do a DNA analysis on the hair and pronounce it Samantha's," Byers said. "After which, what?"

"I'll go to Sacramento, look around for information, find nothing--you know, be seen if they're watching me--then eventually fly to New York to break the news to my mother, and we'll stage a funeral." He paused, bit his lip and went on. "I'll be taking the whole thing pretty hard, and then I'll have some sort of falling out with Krycek--"

"So you won't have any reason to be working with him," Langly said.

"Right. And then there'll be another mysterious communication saying Samantha spent some time in the San Diego area, and I'll run off to find out what I can about that." Mulder paused. "But the group has no facilities on the west coast--at least, not according to Krycek. So they should be off my back at that point, figuring I'm a lost cause, and I should be able to start digging into whatever I can find about the hybrid kids that were being produced there when Scully found Emily."

"Just one thing," Frohike said. "We already posted the back-dated messages from the fake adult Samantha that you wanted placed on those online message boards."

Mulder shrugged. "How's that a problem? So they sit there with all the other messages from last year. If we don't point Smoky's buddies in that direction, nobody's going to find them. Besides, the message was cryptic enough that only a handful of people beyond Samantha and me would even recognize it."

*~*~*~*~*

By the time I'd finished at the Gunmen's, we'd gotten word that Krycek's belongings were ready to be picked up. Byers took his pale blue sedan and changed the plates in case anyone ended up watching or recording him, donned coveralls and a baseball cap and went to Krycek's place for the pickup. Everything appeared to go off without a hitch.

Afterward I borrowed Byers' car, switched out the plates, put on a janitor's uniform and a hat I borrowed from Langly and took what he'd collected over to Ché's. All of Krycek's things fit into three boxes: a large one with bedding, towels, the arm with the hook that he was hoping to find, and the supplies that went with it; a medium-sized one with clothes and his leather jacket; and a final one with a microwave oven, some canned food, utensils, half a dozen books, a couple of magazines, toiletries and a jar of change.

After we'd gone through it, Ché looked at the boxes and shrugged. Not much for a man to have, eh? he said. I was thinking the same thing. It reminded me of the bag still sitting behind my wing chair, Krycek's and Tracy's few things, among them a hand-stitched bean bag and a plastic bag containing ash and the corner of a piece of paper. Strange the things we invest with meaning when life turns tough. When she was abducted, Scully's cross became that thing for me, I carried it in my pocket for weeks just to keep it warm; eventually I ended up wearing it. It was all I had of her and I wasn't about to let that last little bit of connection go.

I asked Ché what he thought my chances were of having Krycek tell me where he was. He said he didn't know; he could never be sure how Krycek's decisions would go. He seemed to get my need to know... as well as Krycek's need to protect himself.

"But let me tell you one thing," he said, and that index finger of his went up the way it tends to. "This is a man who grew up with a burden most children will, thank goodness, never know. He realized the old vulture was using him, that he could not count on him in the way a young boy should be able to count on his father. But he knew that somewhere out there--even though it was on the other side of the world--there existed an older brother." He shrugged. "Think about where that would take the imagination and hope of a child."

In the end we agreed Ché would hold onto the arm temporarily. If I could convince Krycek to see me, I'd come back for it and take it to him. Maybe it would help the two of us get off on the right foot. Still, no matter how much I tried to balance the past with the information he'd been giving me lately, and what he'd done for us in Reston, in the end what stuck with me was that smirk, the look that told me he could easily be winding me around his little finger and I was a fool for not seeing it.

*~*~*~*~*

To: topaz@rift.net
From:
che74@telcom.com
Comrade, a word to the watchful: Your brother is struggling to reconcile two of you--the one he's been collaborating with recently, and apparently a very different one (from his impression) who has left behind a residue which overwhelms current fact. I do not think this is mere stubbornness, but rather a need to know that his current footing with you is secure. He intends to propose delivering the arm in person (the principal one was gone, as you expected, but the other was still there, thank goodness, along with all peripheral supplies.) As I assume you may not find this the optimal situation, I thought a heads-up would give you some time to ponder your options.

Ralph packed up your things, and your brother delivered them--in disguise, as he recognized your desire not to have someone follow him and discover me. Everything is in three boxes, which I will keep until you are able to come by or, at your preference, I can send you a list of the contents of each and you can let me know which items to save and which you may want to dispose of.

One additional thought in this tale of two brothers: Though in years you are the younger of the two, in experience I suspect you are very much the elder, a fact that might be worth keeping in mind when dealing with his concerns.

*~*~*~*~*

Longmont, Colorado
3:22 p.m.

Krycek closed his laptop with a sharp snap. Standing, he glanced out the window at the patio below--Carrie was checking her transplants in the raised beds--and walked to the kitchen. He paused at the window a moment, but the scene beyond it quickly went out of focus. Bouncing the side of his fist against the sill, he pushed back, wandered to the living room and stood staring out the window beyond the couch.

So Mulder wanted to come see him. He'd thought things between them were going smoothly, showing small but steady gains, so Ché's mail had been like a boot shoved through the spokes of a rolling bicycle wheel, bringing his little delusion of happiness and cooperation to an abrupt halt. Though if he was operating in some fantasyland regarding Mulder'd mindset toward him, facing gritty reality might be messy, but it would also be absolutely critical.

How long was Mulder going to need to hold on to the past? Would they end up somewhere down the road, things down to the wire, only to have Mulder start ragging on him about having worked for the old man a few years back, or for taking out the homeless woman who, if she'd talked, could have led to an early invasion that would have incinerated the planet by now? Their little encounter in Jerry Kallenchuk's Hong Kong office flashed into his mind. Mulder'd made a transcontinental trek to chase down the Oil that had been host-hopping, but the first thing out of his mouth had been "You killed my father." As if he'd stolen the script from that guy in The Princess Bride.

Was he going to end up listening to spiels about his failed moral dipstick? Would he have to stay on his toes, wary of the inevitable punch because it was okay for squeaky clean people to deck you, or greet you with a rifle butt to the gut?

"Fuck you, Mulder," he mumbled.

Carrie's footsteps sounded on the stairs, coming up. Krycek took a deep breath, let it out and worked to push Mulder from the forefront of his mind.

"How's it going up here?" she asked, her head appearing in the doorway.

Krycek shrugged and offered a non-commital grunt.

"Say, do you think you could help me a minute?" There was a smile on her face, but then it had been there ever since she got up this morning. She hadn't said much about it, but it was obvious she was counting down the hours like a kid waiting for Christmas, waiting for Sunday afternoon to come.

"Sure. What do you need?"

"I want to flip Ty's mattress. If you can just hold it, keep it from slipping on the one side so I can push it up..."

"No problem." He followed her to Tyler's room.

"I'm trying to work through the initial excitement and get it out of my system before he gets here." She gave him a knowing look. "Nothing turns a kid off faster than a parent being too enthusiastic."

"Here?" He braced the mattress with his hand.

"Yes. Got it?"

"Yeah."

Carrie pushed the mattress up on its side.

"Go ahead, keep it coming," he said. He leaned slightly, letting the high edge tip toward him and then slide down his shoulder.

Carrie pulled the mattress back toward her. "Well, that was quick. Thanks for the help." She went to a cabinet and pulled out a set of sheets. "You know, these smell like they've been sitting in here too long. I think I'm going to wash them." She headed for the door.

"This place of Nelson's," Krycek said. Surprisingly, it had helped just to come in here and do something, however small, to get his mind off Mulder.

"Yes?"

He followed her down the hall to the laundry. "When you're not busy, could you take me over there? You know, so I could see the place." He let out a sigh. "Actually, I could use a walk. Figured it might be a decent place to do it."

*~*~*~*~*

William G. Benson Funeral Home
Washington, D.C.
3:38 p.m.

Brittle white fragments were brushed from the hot floor of the narrow chamber and into the catch tray. A moment later, dust landed on top of them, swept in by a gloved hand wielding a whisk broom. The attendant hummed tunelessly as he worked. Several of the jagged pieces glowed yellow and then orange, like coals, cooling, and finally went out. The humming stopped. After a beat, the tray was lifted and set on the floor to cool.

The apronned attendant wiped his brow with the back of a thick glove and nudged a sleeve up to check his watch. Too late to send this one out today, by the time it cooled. But only an hour and twenty left on the clock; then he'd be out of this heat, the afternoon's wind on his face, and on his way to the grandbaby's birthday party.

Reaching for his magnet, the attendant coaxed the metal ID tag from the corner of the catch tray and checked the number: 65114. Dropping it back into the tray, he moved to a nearby desk to compare it to his paperwork. Running his finger down the list, he reached the number and corresponding name: C.G.B. Spender.

*~*~*~*~*

To: topaz@rift.net
From: spooky@quick.net
Latest on the plan: We'll be floating evidence that someone has anonymously sent us a package of Samantha's remains, which I'll then look into and get absorbed in, trying to figure out what happened to her. If they think I've shifted my focus so completely to this, combined with some sort of falling out with you that we need to figure out, then I shouldn't be any kind of threat to them, and I'm hoping this will let Scully off their hook, too. This plan will involve a funeral for Samantha to make it look realistic. There will also be a lead about Samantha having been held in the San Diego area at one point, which will give me an excuse to go there afterward. When I do, I'll see what I can track down about Prangen and the kids they were gestating there a year and a half ago. If you see any holes in the above, let me know ASAP. I have a braid of Samantha's hair, so the DNA analysis of the hair will be legit, which I'm hoping will be enough to convince Smoky's buddies.

The package of remains will come from the Sacramento area. I plan to go there at the beginning of next week--as soon as the DNA analysis shows it's Samantha. Partly the trip will be for show, but if you have any any concrete details I can check out while I'm in the area, let me know. I want to make these trips as dual-purpose as possible.

One more thing.

Mulder pushed back from the keyboard, glanced up at the ceiling and closed his eyes. How did he say this in a way that wasn't going to set Krycek off? He pictured Krycek on the floor in the Reston house, blood oozing from between his fingers but his focus on Tracy and her condition. Then in the bedroom, half an hour later, subdued, offering to help him find Samantha. Followed by the trickster of "I can get them for you, too" fame. Whatever he wanted to hear. And Mr. Innocent, the one who'd supposedly never seen anything like the piece of Tunguska rock in the diplomatic pouch.

Usually even in complex situations a gut feeling would tell him which way to go, which option to choose. But his gut was as confused as his head on this one.

Mulder tilted the chair slightly, coaxing it onto its back legs.

Samantha had always been the biggest psychological lure in Smoky's toolbox, and Krycek would have picked up on that. Maybe he should just wait to broach the face-to-face meeting and see whether or how Krycek replied to this current mail with any information about his sister. Especially anything too good to be true.

One step at a time. Based on Krycek's response, he could move ahead and press for the meeting... or rethink the whole concept of working with the guy and start looking at a whole different way to map out his life.

Opening his eyes, Mulder settled in front of the keyboard again, backspaced over his final sentence, signed the mail and hit 'send'.

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
4:46 p.m.

Krycek stepped out of the Volvo, stretched and glanced around.

"Nice." He looked up, into the thin canopy of pines overhead. Patches of blue winked between the tree tops.

Carrie got out and walked toward the garage. "This is the bunk house," she said, motioning toward it. "There's a downstairs room beside the garage bays. Then it goes up a set of stairs to the second floor." She glanced back at him. "Nelson won't be here for about half an hour, but you can peek in the window for now."

He shrugged and joined her at a side window. Inside was a knotty-pine paneled room with bookshelves, a dark red love seat, a rocking chair with a plaid, fringed throw over it and a small stone fireplace.

"Looks comfortable," he said. A phone sat on a sidetable. He'd be able to tap into the wall outlet for computer access.

They'd driven several hundred yards from the road down a slightly sloping, curved driveway to get here to the house and garage, all of it through a pine grove. Beyond the driveway, toward the rear of the property, the ground rose gently through the trees and eventually, according to Carrie, angled down again into a trough bordered at the back by a rise into slight peaks again, the initial foothills of the Front Range. Between the peaks would be views of the flat land to the east.

"Go ahead, walk and explore," Carrie said. "Just don't get lost."

"What are you going to do?" It was bad enough having to ask for rides, but now she'd be sitting here like a chauffeur with time on her hands.

"Oh, I can walk around here, or read the latest copy of Biometrics."

'Suit yourself. But if you decide you want to come along, it's okay with me."

"You go ahead and get started, get some time to yourself," she said. "I'll see how it goes. I can always catch up later."

*~*~*~*~*

Interstate 64, Illinois
4:53 p.m.

Rain drops sprinkled the glass beside her, gradually smearing the scene beyond the window. The terrain had been mostly flat, a series of open fields interspersed with groves of trees whose tops swayed in the breeze below a textured gray sky. And now drops of water.

The hum of the car's motor muted the occasional voices of the man and the woman in the front seats. She had no idea how long they'd been inside this vehicle, moving; it seemed like most of the day, though it was hard to keep track. There were long periods spent in this reclined seat, until her legs started to ache. Then the car would pull over at a place where cars and vans and big trucks parked, and the woman with the brown hair would open the door, settle a hat on her head, take her hand and lead her into the bathroom. Once, washing her hands afterward, she'd looked up into the glass above the sink to see a stranger's face staring at her, a thin, pale girl with pale skin, a red hat with bits of blonde fuzz sticking out around the edges. The girl had looked so intent, questioning. Even now, hours later, she could feel the depth of her puzzlement.

Occasionally they passed farms with barns and silos. Sometimes there were signs beside the road, though the symbols on them made no sense.

A spike of lightning lit up the sky, forking like the roots of a tree. A moment later deep rumbles sounded above them and rain pelted the window beside her, streaming down the glass, the droplets bouncing like acrobats on the hood of the car beside them.

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
5:03 p.m.

Trying not to think had worked... at first. He'd taken the gently rising path from the driveway, following a trail that led east toward the back of the property. The temperature had cooled to just above 70 degrees and a breeze had picked up, sending a low murmur through the treetops. It was, he knew, the kind of thing she would have loved.

But the thought of her had led to images of the walk he'd taken outside Grafton, West Virginia, knowing there was no longer any hope for her, hoping she could somehow feel or see the images he was sending.

It sounded crazy now, having made the effort to do that. Though if he hadn't actually lived it, he'd have labeled practically everything he'd experienced with her as crazy or impossible. Usually it was a relief to know the memory of someone he'd left behind was fading; it meant freeing up his focus, shedding the drag that holding onto something out of reach inevitably became.

But somehow this was different.

He crested the rise and stopped, panting softly. He'd paced himself, taken it slowly, but any incline at 6,000 feet was going to be a strain. He looked ahead to where the thinning trees revealed the trail's shallow descent into a gentle depression. A few feet away, part of a fallen log had been carved into a bench. He made his way through the shallow spring undergrowth and fallen needles to it and sat down.

It was time to look ahead.

Mulder coming here: It wasn't what he would have chosen. But if Mulder had doubts, it would have to happen... as long as he could do it without the old men picking up on him. If it were anyone but Mulder or Ché, his first thought would be that the old men were behind it, looking for a way to locate him. But for as much as Mulder'd hated him at some points, he'd never cooperate with the old men. Not knowingly, anyway. Mulder might get tunnel vision, or be blinded by impractical ideals, but he'd never agree to cooperate with the men coaxing the planet down the road to Armageddon.

A face-to-face meeting with Mulder, though... There were fifty ways for a setup like that to go to hell. Realistically, they might never get to the point of being able to work side by side. Maybe cooperation at a distance was the best he could hope for.

Footsteps sounded on the path behind him and Krycek turned. Carrie was making her way toward him, keeping an easy jogging pace. She paused at the crest and bent over, hands on knees, to take a few deep breaths.

"Over here," he said when she straightened up again.

"Hey, nice," she said, swallowing her surprise. "I didn't know there was a bench up here." She paused. "I left Nelson a note on the windshield so he'll know where we are."

"You been on this trail before?"

"No," she said, "but it's probably a good thing. Putting out the effort, I mean. It's helping me unwind a little from thinking about Sunday. I really don't want to be the over-wrought mother who gushes all over the kid and makes him cringe."

"Bet he'll be glad enough to see you that he won't notice."

"Maybe. I hope so."

He cleared his throat. "I can see how you'd worry, though."

"Oh?" Carrie's eyebrows rose. "You were pretty quiet on the way over. More bad news in your e-mail?"

"I guess just not what I was expecting." He paused, then pushed forward. "My brother wants to come see me."

Carrie waited. "And that's a problem?"

He shrugged and glanced up toward the pine canopy overhead. "For the past few weeks we've been doing pretty well... mainly at a distance. Before that"--he let out a breath and shook his head--"there's years of bad blood to get past."

"So you didn't just meet him recently, like your mother?"

"No, but until a few weeks ago he didn't have any idea we were related." He ran his hand back through his hair. "Hell, I'm the last person he wanted to share genes with. But we've got this thing to fight, and..." He stared out at the trail sloping downward.

"And how long have you known he was your brother?"

"My whole life." He paused and nudged at the pine needles at his feet with the toe of one shoe. Finally he let out a half-held breath. "When I was a little kid, shivering in that bed, trying to get to sleep at night, he was what I'd focus on--what I'd think about. Crazy, huh?"

"No." She shook her head slowly and turned to face him. "Not crazy at all."

*~*~*~*~*

Mulder's rented room
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
8:38 p.m.

A soft knock came on the door. Mulder leaned back from the computer and glanced toward it. Scully's red hair showed through one of the small, diamond-shaped panes.

A smile crossed his face. "It's open."

She opened the door, slipped inside, closed it behind her and glanced out through the small windows again.

"Anyone out there?"

"No. Not that I can tell. I came through the alleys, but I still tried to take every precaution." She turned to him.

"How was Quantico?" he asked.

"Fine. I mean, it's a transition, and I'll make it." She glanced down briefly and moistened her lips. "I'll feel better when we're not worried about the consortium spying on me... or going after you." She refocused on him. "We've got the bones. I didn't want to chance asking for any from people I know, but it turns out Frohike knows someone--"

Mulder's eyebrows rose. "And we probably don't want to know much about the details, right?"

"Well, in this case, the man is a cultural anthropologist. At least, that's what Frohike told me. I told him to make sure they weren't from any type of crime victim, just a young white female if at all possible." She paused. "We don't need that many bones, and with any luck, the definitive identification of the hair will be enough to satisfy anyone who comes looking."

"And hopefully they won't." He paused and bit his lip. "I have to say this whole thing feels creepy, Scully. I mean, this could be what actually happened to her, but we just don't know. Not yet, anyway."

"Well, maybe Krycek will help you like he said he would." She paused. "Have you proposed having the two of you meet?" 

"Not yet. I'm waiting to see what kind of reply I get to my last mail."

She sat down on the end of the bed, beside his chair. "What about your mother, Mulder? Have you told her about this, so she has time to process the idea of this funeral you'll have to put on?"

He nodded. "Haven't heard back from her yet. I hope it's not doing a number on her."

"It's certainly not something any mother would choose under normal circumstances. But if it will help keep you safe, I'm certain she'll commit to it."

She set a hand on his shoulder. He turned toward her. After a beat his head came to rest against hers.

"I keep thinking about it, Scully. What if we're playing out what actually happened to her?"

"I think you're going to find out, Mulder. I think you've got more resources now than you did before. It may just take patience." She ran her fingers through his hair, smoothing it.

"Patience. Another year or two. Or ten." A moment later he straightened up and stood. "I have to get in character for this role, this... part. I have to act like it's really her. I'm not sure how much it's going to mess with my head."

He went around to the far side of the bed, lay down and motioned for her to join him. She toed off her shoes and settled beside him, her head pillowed against his shoulder.

"Maybe it's like flghter pilots, Mulder. When they train in narrow canyons, they tell them to keep their eyes on the far end of the canyon, that if you focus on how close your wings are to the canyon walls, you'll crash. The only way through is to keep your eye on your end goal."

Mulder closed his eyes, reached over wrapped an arm around her. The fact was, he did get caught up in the bit about the wings. It was what he'd always done. It was what Krycek said had frustrated Jeremiah Smith: that in spite of the bigger picture Smith had been prepared to reveal, he'd found himself unable to see beyond the living, breathing girl standing right in front of him.

*~*~*~*~*

Longmont, Colorado
9:28 p.m.

Krycek read over Mulder's mail and let his head fall back against the head rest of the recliner. Interesting that Mulder'd decided to sell the old men on what he did best--sinking his jaws into something and not letting go. And he'd picked the most believable focus of all. Whether it would actually be enough to make the old men reclassify Mulder and Scully as harmless and not worth their time to pursue--or eliminate--remained to be seen; they'd shot Diana Fowley, after all. Letting your guard down on assumptions, until you'd seen them being proved true, could be fatal. And he needed Mulder's help. But it seemed like a good plan--as good a place to start as any.

What remained to be seen was how long it would take Mulder to actually broach the subject of getting together. One thing was for sure, though. Mulder was going to have to manage to make the trip without the old men catching on. There was nothing the old men would like more than being able to trail one of their supposed "problems" to another and kill both of them off at once. Besides, the last thing he wanted was to bring the group's stench anywhere near Carrie, or the friend she'd talked into housing him after Saturday.

But all that was still in the speculative. He'd had Mulder's message since this morning and the guy would be checking his mail, looking for a reply. Krycek pulled the laptop from the table beside him, opened it and hit the power button.

To: spooky@quick.net
From: topaz@rift.net
Plan looks solid to me. It touches all your needed bases. Whether they'll buy it or not--you can never be sure with them, but it seems like a solid shot. Good thing you've got that hair. By the way, if you're putting any kind of note in with the remains, you might want to make it look like the old man's involved, like maybe giving them up was his last attempt to mess with you. Would be a good reason for the remains to show up now, give your story a little extra credibility.

As for Samantha, I told you pretty much what I know when we were in Reston. He sent me to scout the area in December of 1990. Wanted me to look into any Jane Doe deaths of young teens in 1978-79 within a 60-mile area. He didn't say anything about the air force base, but it was basically in the center of the search grid. Went around to all the little towns, spent a couple of weeks but didn't come up with anything that fit. But I wasn't bluffing about helping you look. I meant what I said, but it's going to have to take a back seat to the stuff that's more pressing, like tracking down these bastards in Pasadena, whoever they are. Aliens aren't going to stop using humans in their sick experiments or postpone the invasion while we look around for a girl who's been gone for decades.

Keep me posted on how the plan's running once you get started. How soon do the remains show up? Just remember to keep your guard up until you've got some indication the old men aren't after you. Same goes for Scully.

                                                                  -K

Krycek looked up and around the room. It was past ten now. No light was coming from the hallway, which meant Carrie'd likely gone to bed. She was excited and nervous at the same time about Tyler coming home, maybe a little like he'd felt that day he was first assigned to Mulder, waking up with a buzzing in his gut that wouldn't go away, the pressure building and building, and then standing--finally--in front of Mulder's desk, a moment 27 years in coming.

He leaned back farther in the chair. Mulder'd be anxious to look for information about his sister; this story they were floating would get under his skin and make the itch even stronger. But it would have to wait. Mulder couldn't continue to act the way Smith said he had in Alberta if they were going to find any information that would make a difference in the end.

Or maybe hoping Mulder could break out of his obsessive tendency was asking the impossible.

Krycek closed his eyes briefly, paused and then opened them again. He shut down the computer and stood. Setting the laptop aside, he pushed the lamp switch and let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Then he started for his room. It had been a couple of hours since the image had last come to him; maybe he'd luck out and it wouldn't work itself into his dreams. Still, he wondered what the hell it meant. The first and strongest time it had hit him had been early in the afternoon; he'd been standing, talking to Carrie, and when it came it nearly made him lose his footing. He'd covered with some vague excuse, but there was always the chance Carrie hadn't been fooled. Not much got past her.

Maybe Mulder'd have a theory about what it meant that he'd seen this vivid image of a very pale Tracy, just a portrait view, unsteady-looking, a red hat on her head and hardly any hair showing below it. It had come several times after that, not as forcefully, but each time it was the exact same image.

Maybe it was a sign that he was in worse mental shape than he thought. But how could he tell?

Maybe Mulder would have some input on that, too.

*~*~*~*~*

---the next day---
Wednesday, 2 June 1999
Greenwich, Connecticut
7:13 a.m.

Teena Mulder climbed carefully up the step ladder and reached for the box on the top shelf. It wasn't very large--about the size a nice department store might put a lightweight robe in--but it was all she had left of her daughter's things since the Quonochontaug house had burned.

In truth, she should have a big box, a packing box at the very least. But foolishly she'd followed Bill's lead and numbed herself once Samantha was gone. She'd done a thorough enough job of it that she'd taken no conscious note at the time of how deeply the family loss was affecting her son, a child unable to turn off his deep emotions at the flick of a safety switch. The fact that twenty-six years later he was offering his continued attachment to his sister as a plausible bit of misdirection to the group of men Bill and Leland had worked with showed just how much she had, in fact, neglected her son's needs in order to maintain her own sanity.

Cautiously Teena tipped the box toward her, slipped an arm around it and made her way gingerly back down the steps of the ladder. Laying it on the bed, she took a cloth, wiped the accumulated dust from the top and took off the lid. The items inside were ones she'd collected almost thoughtlessly in her numbness: a locket received for Samantha's last Christmas; two embroidered handkerchiefs of her own mother's that Samantha had requested and which she'd kept in a special drawer; hair ribbons she'd especially liked those last few months and a barette with a green-and-yellow turtle on it that had been a favorite since her hair had been long enough to fall into her eyes. In a corner, under a copy of Kipling's Just So Stories, which Fox had often read to her, was a piece of a rabbit pelt she'd prized for its softness, and in another corner lay Squeaky, a small toy mouse which had long ago lost its stuffing, though not its owner's attention. The flat little mouse's nose had been pushed to one side by the thing lying on top of it; she wore a flowered dress and bonnet.  Beside these things, the box contained a navy, orange and burgundy winter scarf in fine wool that had been destined for the following month's Christmas, and a set of cotton eyelet summer pajamas.

Teena picked up the limp little toy mouse and sat down beside the box. It was such a mishmash of things, not the ones she would have chosen if she'd been given time to think about it, if she'd known more than a handful of days in advance that her daughter would be taken. It was nothing like the box she'd saved of Fox's things, gathered carefully over a period of months before the anticipated date, before Bill had somehow managed to convince them to take Samantha instead. The last few things of Fox's she'd taken when he was sleeping, or out playing in the neighborhood. On several occasions he'd come to her looking for something she'd tucked into his box, desperate to find it, and all she could do was tell him she hadn't seen it, shake her head and turn away, wondering what sort of mother would know the approaching date of her child's abduction and do nothing more than save a box of things to remember him by.

She'd never opened Fox's box. She never would. Even now, with their reconciliation, she couldn't bear the shame.

*~*~*~*~*

Mulder's rented room
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
8:05 a.m.

Mulder stood at the door looking out through the small glass panes. He'd been checking periodically ever since he and Scully returned from Owensburg, and he had yet to notice anyone watching this place.

Looking down, he flexed his right hand. Scully had finally given the okay to take off the bandage he'd been wearing for the past twelve days, ever since he'd grabbed a broken bottle to have a good reason for accessing Dr. Vanek's office. There were pale scar lines deep in his palm, but at least he could use the hand again; so many simple actions had been awkward or just plain frustrating without it.

He jogged in place for a few beats and stopped. If this were his apartment, he'd be bouncing his basketball now. Or going out for a run. But the ball was at Scully's, and this room was small enough that there wasn't even room to pace, which was what he'd be doing at this point if it were. Running, of course, was out of the question if he didn't want to expose himself. And who knew what Smoky's buddies would do if they found him.

Sighing, he turned, pushed the wing chair closer to the wall and lay down in the narrow space between it and the end of the bed, slipped his hands behind his head and began to do sit-ups.

One, two three...

The box of remains would show up at Quantico tomorrow. Scully would have to sell her end of this charade, and he'd have to work overtime to sell his, make it seem final, look as stricken and then as resolved as he would actually feel if the remains were, in fact, his sister's. Logically, the group shouldn't have any investment in checking the DNA of the bones; Samantha meant nothing to them aside from her tie to him.

Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen...

There was the matter of timing, because too many days where he wasn't visible upped the chances of the group going after Scully to get to him. But the two of them had their timeframe laid out. Tomorrow afternoon the mystery box would arrive at Scully's office and she'd start her investigation that evening. By sometime during the weekend the DNA results would come in, verifying the remains as Samantha's, and the following Monday he'd be on a plane to Sacramento, ostensibly as a grief-stricken brother looking around for whatever shred of evidence he could find about who sent the remains. A day or two later he'd leave, having learned nothing, and head to New York and his mother's, to spend a couple of days with her and work on planning the funeral.

Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six...

If Krycek agreed, and depending on where Krycek was staying, he'd squeeze in a time to stop by and talk with the guy. If Krycek was west of Owensburg, which seemed likely given that he'd been focused on tracking down the Pasadena connection, he could fly from Sacramento to see Krycek and have the Gunmen enter him onto the manifest of a New York flight for the group's snoops to track. His mother would have to hold up the charade at her end, acting as if he'd arrived earlier than he actually would.

Forty-nine, fifty.

Mulder collapsed against the carpet and closed his eyes, breathing in deeply and waiting for his heart rate to settle.

He was going to need a disguise ASAP--something quick and easy to use here in D.C., another one a lot more elaborate for detouring to see Krycek, something that came with a valid credit card he could use to purchase his plane ticket, photo ID and all the trimmings. The last thing Krycek would agree to was a meeting that would bring Smoky's buddies trailing right along behind him.

And all this hinged on getting Krycek to agree to the idea of a meeting. But things were looking up in that area--at least from his own end. Krycek's last mail had been as positive an indicator as anything he could have asked for. Krycek hadn't, in fact, revealed much more than he had in Reston; he certainly hadn't offered him any juicy too-good-to-be-true tidbits. He hadn't promised that he could find Samantha, either; he only reiterated his willingness to help look... but not until the more pressing investigating had been done, another indication that Krycek was playing it as straight as anything he could remember, rather than telling him what he'd want to hear, or sugar-coating his message.

Which meant it was time to make another stab at that mail suggesting a meeting.

Mulder pulled up, stood, shook out his shoulders and checked the scene outside the window once more. No one there. He moved to the computer and sat down, tapped the touch pad and clicked on his mail program. Catching his lower lip with his teeth, he set his hands tentatively on the keyboard.

To: topaz@rift.net
From: spooky@quick.net
Good idea--including a note with the remains. That should help.

Appreciate all the help you've given us recently, but I've been thinking more and more, looking ahead, that it's going to be critical that we're both firmly on the same page, and while this back and forth has been working pretty well at a distance, you've got to admit there's a lot of underlying baggage built up over the years that could trip us up at some point when we can least afford it. I feel strongly that we need to meet in person, get all our cards on the table, strategize and figure out exactly how to move ahead from here. Which should be a lot easier if we're both in the same room. Granted, it may not be the easiest thing to do, but I can't see that there's anything to be gained by keeping our heads in the sand.

I realize this means giving up your location, and I'm prepared to come up with a disguise and a data trail showing that I'm somewhere else in order to make this happen. I can also bring you the arm and related supplies, if that works for you. Let me know ASAP, because if we do this I'll need some time to lay a false trail to hide my tracks.

                                                                -M

*~*~*~*~*

J Edgar Hoover Building
Washington, D.C.
3:16 p.m.

Jeffrey Spender gave a sideways glance that allowed him to take in the box sitting on the file cabinet beside his desk. It was about the size of a shoebox, standard corrugated kraft cardboard with a label on the top and a small, round metal tag taped to the top. It had been sitting there for the past two hours, and even now he couldn't bring himself to approach it. It had been enough to take it from the mailroom guy, set it where it was now and manage to find a paper bag to slip it into so the agents around him wouldn't notice it and start asking questions.

He had no idea what his father had in mind by leaving this task to him. He barely remembered the man from when he'd lived with the family, before he left unexpectedly when Jeffrey was six. The rest of what he knew had come through the filter of his mother, who'd lived a hard life because of the man's selfish decision to leave.

Had he ever wondered, back in those first days when he and his mother were on their own, where his dad was, or when he'd be coming home? If he had, he didn't remember any such questioning now. Maybe his dad hadn't been around much even before he left them.

Even when his father had begun to make himself known again, when he sent the red-enveloped letter more than a year ago, there was no feeling of family or relatedness to it, no explanation, and definitely no apology for all the missing years. At the time, he'd thought the letter might be some kind of joke, or a mistake at best, and he'd sent it back to where it came from. Eventually the man had showed himself, had somehow gotten him the assignment on the X-files. But still there had been no real connection between them, no cameraderie. Only a couple of of brief meetings. And now he'd left him with this one final, puzzling assignment, and absolutely no understanding of what it meant.

Jeffrey frowned, sighed reluctantly, and after a moment got up from his chair. Approaching the file cabinet, he glanced around--no one was looking--and peered into the brown paper bag. The bag had served to hide the stamp on the side indicating the box's contents. In the narrow space between the top of the box and the bag above it, he could see the small, embossed metal tag taped securely to the lid. C.G.B. Spender, it said. Date of death: May 24, 1999. Below that, the name of the funeral home and an identifying number, 2896.

Inside his pocket, Jeffrey's hand curled and squeezed tight. For years he'd had no father, he reminded himself. This was no different.

*~*~*~*~*

To: spooky@quick.net
From: topaz@rift.net
Got your message. If we're going to meet, we should go ahead and do it. If you can bring the arm and supplies, all the better; it's been a real pain not having it. If you're heading for California on Monday, your best bet would be to catch me on the way back. When your timetable is firm, let me know so we can nail down the details and figure out how to get you from the airport to where I am.

Your disguise is going to be critical--for your safety and mine. Send me a picture of what you've got in mind. Better yet, before you do that, try it out on Ché and see what kind of a reaction you get. Then I want to see plans detailing how you're going to keep yourself off the old men's radar. Won't do either of us any good if they spot you and end up getting both of us; too much is riding on this. When the details look good, I'll let you know which airport to fly into.

Good luck with your cover story. Just stay on your toes; it takes a lot to keep one like this going over time.

Krycek looked up from his laptop and glanced at the living room clock. 5:14. Carrie was out grocery shopping, picking up a few things she needed for dinner. He closed the laptop's lid and rubbed his thumb absently over the smooth surface. Red. The only one they had of the model Ché'd recomended and it was red. Not what he would have picked, but there you go.

So now the countdown to a meeting with Mulder had started. Unless Mulder couldn't come up with a decent disguise or a solid plan for making the trip under the radar, he'd be showing up sometime next week. Which meant figuring out how to get him from the Denver airport to Nelson's place. Taxis this far would likely cost a fortune, and a taxi driver could easily be bribed or pressured into giving up the address where he dropped somebody. There were probably buses or shuttles that would go between the airport and Boulder--a safer option--and a driver for one of them would be much less likely to remember an individual rider. Plus they wouldn't know his end destination.

There could easily be buses or shuttles from the airpport to the university, which would be even better. It would leave Mulder only a few miles from his destination, though the last thing he wanted was to pull Carrie into this. She knew more than might be good for her already; she didn't need the old men's gaze focusing on her. Besides, he could picture a Mulder-and-Carrie conversation en route. He'd give Mulder about three minutes before "He killed my father" spilled out of his mouth.

A few comments from Mulder could do a world of damage: his time as a mole in the Bureau, his work for the old man, the fact that he'd hauled Mulder halfway around the world and left him in a prison camp. The homeless woman he'd had to take out a couple of months back. There'd be no way to save himself in Carrie's eyes if Mulder brought up the Miller kid. Saying he hadn't meant it--that nothing could have brought him to consciously make that decision--wasn't going to wash. There was no excuse for what had happened there.

It was amazing, now that he thought about it, that Tracy hadn't just up and run away, gotten herself as far from him as she could. And there was no telling how anyone without her ability would ever be able to understand why he'd done some of the things he had.

*~*~*~*~*

---the next day---
Thursday, 3 June 1999
Interstate 70, Missouri
9:49 a.m.

The steel ribs of a bridge flickered past the car window. The girl stirred and pulled up to see that they were crossing a broad, muddy river. On the far side the land spread flat and endless before them; on the side they were leaving, down some distance, chalky white cliffs showed between the greenery covering gentle hillsides. There had been clouds when they started out earlier, she didn't know how long ago. As they drove, the clouds had lightened and thinned until now there were only a few wisps left, gradually melting into the surrounding blue.

On the shore ahead, trees reached out from the bank as if wanting to wade out deeper into the water's flow. And there was something here... She reached out with her thick mind, searching, but no clarity came, only a veil of sadness that deepened until the scene in front of her started to streak and run. It made no sense to want to reach toward such a feeling, but she felt drawn. She wanted to dive into it, submerge herself in it, let it fill every pore until...

Eighteen was climbing between the seats, approaching her with worried curiosity. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt hot, wet trails run down her cheeks, then the soft dabbing of a tissue, Eighteen trying to wipe the water from her face.

"I saw a sign for a rest area," she said, turning to address Four in the driver's seat. "Maybe we should stop and let her walk a bit." Eighteen eased her to one side and then the other, looking for anything that might be causing her discomfort. "I don't know what's bothering her."

Several miles down the road, they pulled into a broad parking lot with many spaces marked off. Two large semi-trucks were stopped there, and a dusty green sedan. Four slowed and pulled in, stopping near a small brick building with white trim. Beside it, tree leaves murmured gently in a slow breeze.

A moment later the door beside her slid open and cool air washed over her. The seatbelt around her middle was taken away, and the soft red hat was placed on her head. Eighteen got out and reached back toward her. Offering both her hands, she let Eighteen pull her up. When her feet were steady, they started forward.

"No. Walk," she managed, and Eighteen moved from the path and headed toward the trees beside the building.

Something brushed the girl's cheek and drifted past her eye. She looked up. Above her, little tufts of cottony fluff drifted slowly on the moist air. She paused and squinted into the brightness overhead. There was some meaning, some memory...

But no recognition came.

Eighteen's hands tugged gently, but she stood where she was, watching the tiny puffs dance overhead. Once more, her eyes clouded with tears.

*~*~*~*~*

Quantico, Virginia
3:51 p.m.

A knock came on the slightly-open office door.

"Come in," Scully said, looking up over a pair of reading glasses. A small surge of adrenaline spread through her. Truth be told, she'd been nervous all afternoon, waiting for this moment.

"Package for you," said the young man who entered. "Can you sign, please?"

"Yes." Scully reached for the pen on her desk and hurriedly scratched her signature on the form. She looked up at the man and forced a smile. "Thank you, Eric."

The man turned and went out. Scully pursed her lips and swallowed. Pulling open a drawer, she took out a pair of scissors to cut the tape. The label was a standard shipping label, with her name and office address in the middle. The sending address purported to be a shipping store in a town called Lincoln, California. She hoped the Gunmen had managed to slip all the necessary details into the shipper's database.

Clipping through the tape, she opened the box. Inside she was met with packing peanuts with a folded piece of paper on top of them. She reached for it, paused and went to a cabinet for a lab glove. Paused again. Using a glove would give away the fact that she was expecting the contents of this package to be something unusual.

Returning to the box on her desk, she reached for the paper and opened it. The typewritten note inside said: "Now that he's gone, I guess Mulder can have these. Give him some peace of mind." She frowned. It certainly sounded like the kind of game Smoky would play with Mulder through some shadowy intermediary... or perhaps someone not so fond of Smoky, who was stretching his independence now that Smoky wasn't around to retaliate. She set the note aside, brushed away the packing peanuts and pulled out a smaller, flattish box. Lifting the lid, she found a femur, part of a pelvis and a handful of smaller bones.

There could be surveillance on her office Knowing the Consortium and their desire to track Mulder, she'd be wise to assume she was being watched. She went to a bookshelf, took out a thick volume and paged through it. Then she measured the femur--a plausible length for a girl between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. So far, so good.

Scully moistened her lips and brushed an errant lock of hair behind her ear. The piece of pelvis, too, seemed adequately sized for the story they were trying to shape. Peering more closely into the box, she caught sight of a number of strands of hair. Picking up several of them, she examined them closely, then put them in an evidence bag. Closing the box of remains, she set it on the counter and headed out to the lab, evidence bag in hand.

The click of her heels echoed off the walls as she made her way down the hall. Were there cameras watching her here? Would the hair disappear once she'd turned it in for analysis, the way Krycek's hair had disappeared when she submitted several pieces of it six weeks earlier? But there was no reason to assume the group would be looking into this evidence. Yet.

Swallowing, she looked ahead. It seemed to be the right sequence. If the box had actually been a surprise, she'd have orderd the analysis and had the results in hand before she approached Mulder; it would make no sense to disturb him if the remains were not what she'd assumed they'd be.

She thought back to a moment in the basement office two years earlier. John Lee Roche had been put back where he belonged and several young murder victims had been identified after being listed among the missing for over two decades. But in spite of the success of the case, she'd found Mulder at his desk, puzzling over the single remaining cloth heart, wondering who its owner was. Wondering whether it might be Samantha's.

This was different, a planned-out, strategic scenario. But Mulder's tendency to speculate wasn't something that could be turned on and off at will. And the persona he would be playing now would have to be maintained over a long period of time, perhaps indefinitely. He was going to be affected by this, and deeply.

*~*~*~*~*

Washington, D.C.
4:52 p.m.

Jeffrey Spender glanced out over the water and the approaching shoreline of Anacostia, the southeastern part of the federal district.

Skinner glanced briefly at his passenger and then back at the road. Jeffrey was squinting, but whether from the bright haze or from what they were about to do, he couldn't tell. What he did suspect was that without his offer of help, the boy might not have made this trip at all, and Spender's ashes might have ended up in a closet somewhere indefinitely. But the wily old son of a bitch who'd prompted this trip had done nothing without a reason. With any luck, this little jaunt to the old potter's field would reveal something--possibly some kind of information that Mulder could use.

Past the bridge Skinner steered right, following the curving road. A minute later they turned off onto smaller streets and made their way past the abandoned buildings of the former Home for the Aged and Infirm. Evidently the conditions in there had been a nightmare.

"How long has this place been closed?" Jeffrey asked, turning from the boarded-up windows to face him. His creased forehead and expression of mild distaste seemed to be almost permanent features.

"Three years, from what I understand. This is the District's land of the lost, Agent Spender. The potter's field hasn't been in service since the forties. I've been told we'll be looking at nothing more than an overgrown field with the occasional homeless encampment. I've brought along a GPS unit so we can find the spot you're looking for. A colleague who came here once said we'd never find it without one."

Skinner pulled to the curb and parked. He pointed east, to a foot trail beside a chain link fence. "That's where we're headed."

The creases in Jeffrey's forehead deepened. "Are you sure it's legal to put these"--he gestured to the box on the floor between his feet--"in a place like that?"

The corner of Skinner's mouth pulled. "At this point, probably not. But details like that never stopped your father. He basically did whatever he wanted." He paused and pursed his lips. "My apologies if my memories of him aren't fond. He was a mysterious man with a lot of influence; I'm not sure where it all came from. But he often used that influence in ways that"--he shook his head--"were anything but legal or ethical."

"I barely knew him," Jeffrey said, still focused on the weedy trail. After a beat he looked back at Skinner, undid his seat belt and, picking up the box, got out and closed the door behind him. Skinner followd suit, glanced around for signs of potential vandals and, seeing none, closed the driver's door and squeezed the 'lock' button on his remote. Taking a bearing from his GPS unit, he pulled in a long, slow breath and led the way down the trail.

After ten minutes of walking through taller and taller grass, dodging beer bottles and assorted trash and slipping through holes cut long ago in several stands of chain link fencing, the GPS unit indicated that they'd nearly reached the spot. Around them, grasses and stubby, drooping trees enclosed the area, forming a sort of shelter. The weeds on the ground were sparse; brown, green and clear glass bottles lay abandoned among them.

Skinner gestured to a torn section of chain link fencing a few feet ahead of them.

"According to my reading, this fence is the one marking the cemetery's border. The Nazi spies were buried just outside the perimeter, so"--he gestured--"apparently right through there."

Reluctantly, Jeffrey moved forward, holding one hand in front of him to fend off the occasional spider web. Skinner followed him through the breach in the fence.

"According to what I've read, the graves were in two rows, one here"--he consulted the GPS unit--and the other roughly here." He picked up a stick and drew the approximate outlines of where the graves should be, then glanced up into his young agent's distressed face.

"I wonder how long it's been since he was here last," Jeffrey said, turning around, puzzled. "It couldn't have looked like this."

Skinner let out a sigh. "I wish I had answers for you, Agent. Unfortunately, I don't." He took a step toward the fence they'd just come through. "I'll give you a little privacy here," he said, and slipped through the opening, half turning away.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Jeffrey, looking as lost as the little boy whose father had long ago disappeared from his life, standing in the cramped clearing. Finally Jeffrey set the box on the ground, opened it and lifted out a plastic bag. Tipping the contents, he moved around the area until the bag had been emptied. With a sigh, he folded the empty bag back down and tucked it into the box.

"I'm ready, sir," he said, glancing around once and then slipping through the opening in the chain link.

The two men made their way back to the car in silence. As they emerged from the tall grass and approached the roadway, Skinner scanned the area, looking for kids or homeless men, vandals or other more experienced but less desirable eyes that might be watching them. The one place he didn't think to look was at a nearby industrial building, where on the second floor, the face of a pale-haired blonde woman could be seen in the lower part of a window, her mouth open in surprise.

*~*~*~*~*

Mulder's rented room
Georgetown
5:34 p.m.

Mulder brushed the mousepad with short strokes of the mouse. Tomorrow he was supposed to meet with Crazy Kristen, a friend of the Gunmen's who did theatrical makeup. She'd agreed to help him develop the disguise he needed, though he had to admit he wasn't inspired to confidence by the nickname the boys had given her. She'd offered some preliminary suggestions over the phone, so he had a general idea of what he was likely to be dealing with tomorrow. Or maybe what he had was the time to let the inevitability of this need sink in. In the meantime, Frohike had scanned several pictures of him and e-mailed them to him, and now he was tinkering in a graphics program, trying out different possibilities. Given his skill level, it wasn't much better than taking a pen to a newspaper photo and sketching on a beard.

He wouldn't be seeing Scully tonight; she'd be staying late at Quantico, supposedly working to identify the bones she'd received, and she'd mentioned something about going to see her mother tomorrow night, since Maggie had finally recovered sufficiently from her bout with Legionnaire's to be released from the nursing facility in Temple Hills. She'd be going home tomorrow.

Mulder pushed the mouse aside and stood. He could play the part of the grieving brother; hell, he'd done it for years. No, it hadn't bled into everything he did; sometimes he'd had to tell Scully to back off when she thought it had. But there were other times, like the second time he'd investigated the handiwork of John Lee Roche...

It had been all to easy to get sucked into Roche's story, to stand over a set of newly-discovered bones in an autopsy bay and not see Samantha there, his imagination filling in her skin and countours, the thick brown braids, the nose that would rise slightly and let him know that no, she wasn't going to cave to his wishes; she was going to fight for what she wanted.

Who knew how long she'd been able to do that--fight for herself. Realistically, she probably wouldn't have lasted long. From what Krycek said, Smoky certainly expected her to be dead.

But on the outside chance she'd been able to escape and live, how would that experience have shaped her? Who would she have become?

*~*~*~*~*

Longmont, Colorado
10:57 p.m.

"Alex, are you okay?"

Krycek glanced toward the door to the darkened living room and let out a sigh. Now he'd disturbed her. She'd gone to bed half an hour ago, but he'd been here in the living room in the dark, alternately sitting and wandering from window to window, restless.

"Just thinking."

He closed his eyes momentarily, opened them again and glanced toward the doorway; Carrie'd gone. He stood and went to the window. The last ten days--not to mention the three weeks before that, ever since he'd woken up in the hospital after Scully shot him--had been like falling down the rabbit hole--alternate universe. They'd worn away his edge, made him dull. And when he managed to crawl up out of this hole and into the light of day again... Life was a shark tank, and he wasn't anywhere near the shape he'd need to be in to be able to dodge the jaws that could come rushing at him.

Somehow Carrie could end up mixed up in this visit of Mulder's. She could drop by when Mulder was there or... there was no telling. It had been good so far; she didn't push in spite of the fact his circumstances would have set someone else on edge. The last thing she needed was to find out the kinds of things about him guaranteed to send her running. Losing her as an ally would be bad. Losing her respect would cut just as deep.

Anyway, she'd been good to him--better than he had a right to deserve. The last thing she needed was that kind of rude awakening.

Beyond the window, shadowy movement broke the stillness. A momentary spike of adrenaline and Krycek slipped to the side, where he couldn't be seen from outdoors. Pulse racing, he peered into the darkness outside and finally made out the distinctive shape and gait of a raccoon.

Breathing a sigh of relief, he paused, waited for his body to loosen. Then he turned and went to his room. It was late; he had no business being up now.

Working off his shirt, he went to the window overlooking the patio and looked down. He watched the raccoon come into view, sniff at the edges of the raised beds and then move off into the shadows to the left. Beside the corner of the house, the curved edge of the moon was visible, just starting to rise. Krycek opened the window a few inches wider, worked off his pants--it was going to be damn nice to have an arm on the other side again--and probed the new wound carefully with two fingers. It was healing up well; Carrie was pleased with his progress.

Getting into bed, he pushed back the spread and pulled the sheet and blanket up to his chest. He closed his eyes and reminded himself to let the mess in his head go; it would wait until morning. Letting out a slow breath, he focused on the house's silence.

Breath in.

Breath out.

A creak overhead somewhere, and then silence again. He could feel the fog of sleep forming in the distance, starting to inch closer.

Gradually an image formed in his mind: the wide, muddy Missouri, and cottonwood fluff floating on the breeze.

(End Chapter 7)

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