|To See the Stars (2/?)
By Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
See disclaimers etc. in part 1
I must be dreaming.
Either that or Alex Krycek just stood a few feet from my front door, with an almost honest expression on his face, and asked for my help. Honesty is not something I have come to expect from Krycek. Under ordinary circumstances, I would naturally assume that I was dreaming, but it's too damn cold for this to be a dream. That, and I can hear the quite counterpoint of Scully's breath beside me, can still smell the delicate traces of her left on my unwashed skin from the night before when I breathe deeply enough.
"Our help?" Incredulous and demanding all at the same time. No. Not a dream. That's definitely the real life Scully standing at my side.
"That is," Krycek continued, "If you can remember how to do anything except run anymore."
Angrily, I cut in. "Quit the crap, Krycek, and just tell us what you want."
"I told you already, I need your…"
I didn't let him finish. "You need our help. Yes. I heard you. But why, and for what possible reason?"
He lifted his injured hand in a 'may I?' gesture towards the inside of his jacket. Scully gave consent with a look that could only be interpreted as 'pull anything funny and be prepared to eat lead.' The dark leather shifted slowly, and I wasn't really worried about him pulling a gun, as I assumed Scully had probably patted him down before dragging him back here. What I had not expected was the large manila envelope that he emerged with.
"Take it," he said, with hand outstretched. A glance to Scully for some sort of confirmation didn't leave me with many options, so I took the offered object. With one quirked eyebrow pointed at Krycek, a habit I think I acquired from Scully years ago, I pulled back the metal fasteners and opened the folder. Inside, a series of glossy photographs were contained. Spilling them into the palm of my hand, I'm sure the expression on my face was part curious, part confused.
"Who is she?"
Scully leaned towards me at those words, keeping her aim concentrated on Krycek. The first image was a professional type portrait. Something done as part of a cheap package deal at a place like Sears or JC Penny. A young woman, mid to late twenties, maybe, with shoulder length blond hair and dark brown eyes. Pretty, in a way, though not traditionally so, wearing a bland expression and a forced smile that didn't reach her eyes. The second picture was different. A 5x7" from someone's home camera taken with film not appropriate for the low light. The same woman, perched up in the natural cradle created by two tree branches, holding some sort of book in her lap. She stared down with deep, soulful eyes, looking at the observer with an aura of calmness and cool, no hint of a smile. The third was markedly different, taken from a distance with a wide-angle lens. It was an obvious surveillance photo, the woman standing outside the entrance to an apartment, key in hand, hair falling softly over one shoulder, face obscured.
The next three images were what got my attention. All were of the same place, it seemed. A small, windowless room. Black and white. The same moment captured from a position up high, each from a different angle, cameras probably positioned at the ceiling's corners. The same small woman, curled into a tight ball in a bed at the center of the room. Stark and brutal, bruising that ran along the surface of both arms was apparent, and she was clothed in little more than a thin white sleeveless shift.
"What's her name?" I asked.
He looked at me as if not seeing, blinked, something flickering in his eyes there and then gone again as he seemed to focus in on my face. "Mara Atkins." Quiet and unreadable.
I flipped past the three black and whites to find the last two photos. Seeing the first one, I almost dropped the entire stack. Mara again, this time up close, and in full color. Naked, lying on some sort of an examining table, that bruising previously glimpsed in the black and white pictures now a kaleidoscope of greens, purples, and blues. Track marks from countless needles could be seen running the length of her arms and legs. Unable to stare at the image of a woman so violated and used much longer, I flipped to the final picture and finally looked up in disgust.
"Who did this?"
I guess I hadn't needed the question, and from the look on Krycek's face, he didn't think so either. I handed the pictures over to Scully, so that she could get a closer look, but that last image stayed firmly within my vision, and I could see it clearly every time I blinked. Close up of Mara's face, eyes open wide and unseeing. No trace of color or life in her skin, any sign of consciousness or awareness. She was simply… blank. Gone. A shell of matted blond hair and empty eyes encased in pallid and graying skin.
I took the gun from Scully, so that she could better look at the images, and focused my attention on the leather-clad man with the bite marks on his arm. I repeated my earlier question. "Who is she?" And then, thinking again, "Is she alive?"
Krycek blinked, clenched and unclenched his hand, and then answered. "Yes. She's alive, believe it or not. Just barely, in that last picture, but as far as I know, she's still alive." He stopped, seemed to gather himself, took a breath. "She was a test subject, a concept I believe you are already familiar with." He moved his eyes over to Scully who, thankfully, was not concentrating on Krycek at the moment. "In the beginning, she was unexceptional, just another number. Taken, used, discarded. It wasn't until someone took a detailed look at her test results that they began to see something no one had ever thought possible."
Scully had obviously finished with the pictures and placed them back in the folder. She held it limply in the grasp of one hand. Her voice was as colorless as her face when she spoke. "What hadn't they thought was possible?"
"A test subject with a natural immunity."
I took a breath, considered what he was saying. Scully remained silent and unmoving beside me. "How is that possible?"
I could see something in Krycek's eyes detach as he launched into an explanation, and I began to wonder seriously what his connection to this woman was. "This enemy we're fighting, this force we have yet to find any real defense against. It's been understood for some time that the basics of their genetic structure could be found within human DNA, that we are linked by this commonality, cousins of a sort." I looked over at Scully and could see her following, reserving judgement. "Experimentation in search of a vaccine or a cure has been ongoing since the beginnings of the project. Even as they assisted with the enemy's demands, they worked in secret, buying more time with their capitulation. Other nations, not in league with the larger project, also began this search, aware of the threat as well." He paused. "No group was ever really successful."
Krycek stopped, looked down at his injured arm. "Is it possible for me to get this cleaned out and maybe sit down before I keep going?" There was a tone of stubborn annoyance to his voice that I knew would make any further headway difficult, so I nodded to Scully. Her speech was short and clipped when she spoke. "Sit down at the table and hold still."
I kept a ready eye on Krycek as he moved across the room.
"You know, a human's mouth is dirtier that a dog's," he informed Scully, as she kneeled down beside him with the alcohol and gauze. She didn't appear to hear him.
"Ow!" Krycek grimaced in Scully's direction.
Krycek's eyes lit briefly at the shared memories. "Yes. They did, of a sort. But it wasn't exactly one hundred percent effective. Actually, several nations had different versions of a vaccine, but none were effective outside of a certain initial time frame, and none were what you could remotely call a sure fire cure."
In an act so characteristic of Scully's compassionate nature, she set a glass of water down in front of Krycek, complete with cold, impenetrable stare, almost daring him not to accept. He took a sip. "Several groups had theorized the concept of a natural immunity, what with the shared genetic heritage and all, but it was mainly a fairy-tale, a holy-grail of sorts. No real research was put into it, no real thought, because no one even had a place to start looking, and it was decided by all involved that resources were best utilized by continuing down the path that had already been set upon."
He paused, stared down into the depths of the glass of water.
Scully's voice interrupted the silence. "Until Mara Atkins."
Krycek didn't look up. "Until Mara Atkins."
I took a deep breath, held it a moment, released. Krycek remained intent on his water, while Scully stood near the sink, staring at him with an inscrutable expression. I walked up beside her, laid a supportive hand on her shoulder and squeezed. "Okay." I gathered what he had told us. "So Mara Atkins was a typical test subject until they discovered she was literally the keeper of the sacred chalice. What the hell does that have to do with Scully and I?"
Tiny fingers found and encircled my own still resting upon Scully's shoulder, squeezing back.
"When they realized what she was, Mara was taken a second time. Those pictures you saw were from that time period. The first experience, it…" He seemed to search for words. "She was never the same afterwards. It was like something was missing. When I heard that they had taken her again, I knew she wouldn't survive another round of tests."
And then, somehow, I knew. "Where is she now?"
The mild surprise that flitted across Krycek's face was short lived and settled quickly back into complete inscutability. "The last that I was able to find out, she was being moved from a facility in Brazil. Somehow, she managed to escape and has eluded capture ever since."
"And our role in all of this?" Scully's voice this time; her hand still clasped with my own.
Krycek straightened in his seat, looking up directly at the both of us. "I've been involved with the resistance for some time now, as I think you may know. The men who had her, who discovered what she was…" His eyes alighted briefly on our linked hands before moving quickly away. "We can't allow them to find her again. The project has become so steeped in politics, so far immersed in the affairs of the enemy that any real advancements made in the direction of defense would be immediately eliminated."
"The resistance wants to find her first." It was the obvious conclusion.
Krycek merely nodded.
Scully's voice, low and angry, surprised me as she pulled her hand free from under mine. "So that they can subject her to the same tests and atrocities that she would have endured at the hands of the men she's already escaped from. You want to deliver her from one type of hell into another."
Krycek's eyes flashed. "No. It's not the same thing. Those men are barbarians, who care nothing about the billions of lives they profess to be attempting to save. I've always known that their methods were severe, brutal even, but it wasn't until Mara that I knew the full extent. It's not the same thing at all."
"Alex Krycek, consummate humanitarian and defender of civil rights. When the hell did you suddenly find religion?" Taking a step away from me, Scully moved towards the table, and I resisted my impulse to hold her back. "I could have described to you the exact brutality of their methods five years ago, if you had been at all interested. I know an entire group of dead women who could once have gone into explicit detail about the severity of those methods!"
I could see the tight control Scully was exerting over her actions by the tenseness of the muscles in the back of her neck. "If you think for a second that we would even consider helping you locate this woman, only to send her back into that kind of hell, then I must have done a lot more damage that I had originally thought when I hit you in the head."
The chair skidded across the linoleum as Krycek pushed it back and stood, stepping towards Scully. I brought my gun up in clear line with his head, jerking it just slightly to the side in a clear 'step back' gesture. He was still too close for comfort, but he didn't move any closer. His words were clipped and full of force. "She is quite possibly the only hope we have at this point, the closest we have *ever* come to winning the war. And make no mistake, this is a war, only the stakes are much higher than I think you've ever allowed yourself to realize. Billions of lives teeter in the balance here, Scully. The fate of an entire species could rest with the life of this one woman. Sure, we've made progress, continued to fight, but we've always been pessimists at best, just struggling to put a little more time between us and what we've always thought would be the inevitable. The project, these men you've fought against and now run from, they've taken the safe side, signing their lives away as future slaves, but that has always seemed the safest option. Finally, with this woman, there might just be another." He paused, hung his head for a moment. "And if we don't find her, they will."
I could see the rapid rise and fall of Scully's chest from behind her and moved quickly to her side. Sliding one reassuring hand down over her arm lightly, lingering just a moment at the curve of her elbow, she moved back as I touched her, walked towards the sink, and I tried another tack. "Why us, though? Why our help?"
Water was running in the sink, and Krycek was looking over my shoulder towards Scully when he spoke. "Because there isn't anybody else who's willing to help me on this, because once upon a time you two were good at this type of thing, and because I thought that maybe, just maybe, you two had finally grown tired of running for your lives and might just be ready to fight back."
"Fighting back could very well mean our lives." And I knew I was right, any movement on our part, any emergence from careful concealment could very easily spell the end. I wasn't willing to risk that, wouldn't risk Scully's life again that way, not after only so recently beginning to repair these years of damage.
An emotion that I could swear resembled disgust took hold of Krycek's eyes before he closed them briefly, remained silent a moment, and then began again. His speech started slowly, built quickly, and there was anger in it by the time he finished. "Fifteen years from now, when the end comes, what will you be doing?" He stopped for a moment as if waiting for an answer. "Will you be sitting on a beach somewhere, sipping Mai tais, looking over your shoulder still, while the sky begins to fall and *no* amount of running could ever be fast or far enough?"
I could hear Scully's voice behind me, strong and seeking. "Mulder."
One last question from Krycek. "What will fighting back be worth to you then?"
What indeed? Worth the price of what little time we've captured for ourselves, what little peace? Shouldn't we be allowed that? Haven't we yet earned the right to stop and be still for at least a little while? Why must the struggle always be fought with our lives hanging in the balance? Scully and I have borne our weight of suffering and sacrifice for this cause tenfold, and yet still we are called upon to offer up more of ourselves. It's not right. It's not fair. During these last several months of running I have found light in Scully's eyes that blinds me, wraps me up in something whole and complete and beautiful. If fifteen years from now that light is all I have to show for what I have accomplished in these years, this life, then that is more than enough for me. I have caused her enough pain. We have lived through enough sorrow. All I have ever wanted was just the time to allow those wounds to heal, time enough to know her love and presence without the constant specter of loss looming on the horizon.
The door to our room slammed shut, breaking me from my thoughts, and I realized that Scully had left me alone here with Krycek. I needed to go after her.
Krycek, for his part, looked content to remain seated at the table, offering nothing more to say, while I rummaged around in Scully's bag, located the pair of handcuffs, and quickly attached Alex's good wrist to the rusting pipe of our grungy radiator.
"Not the nicest of amenities," I commented, "but you'll live."
And then I was grabbing my boots and running out the door into the ice and cold, searching for Scully.
When Mulder and I first arrived here, it had been snowing like this. We had come up from the coast, the two of us on a rickety bus with a malfunctioning heater. Neither of us had been prepared for the weather, for the transition from balmy coastal breezes to sudden winter air. The snow had started as these perfect, tiny crystals, clinging to the windows momentarily before wasting away against the warmth of the glass. I had reached up and traced the paths of melting snow with the tip of one finger, and Mulder had kept me warm in the circle of his arms. When we arrived in town, my teeth had chattered and his hands had turned blue. We found this boarding house by pure luck, bounded up the stairs like children coming in from building snowmen. Snowflakes had been sprinkled along his eyelashes, and he had held perfectly still as I leaned up on tiptoe and gently kissed them away.
Oh, Mulder. We knew it couldn't last.
I shivered, hard, thinking of things that were inescapable, the roles we are somehow destined to play.
I had known he would come looking for me. It had only been a matter of time. I could hear his footsteps tramping through the snow behind me at a brisk pace, trying to catch up.
"Where did you leave Krycek?" I asked, when I knew he was just behind me.
What had started as a light early morning snowfall had grown in strength to become a formidable storm in a very short amount of time. Strong Atlantic winds, bitter with ice, snapped and strung at my cheeks as I walked, whipping the hair into my eyes. Snow in fat, wet clumps stuck to every available surface. It sloshed in over the edges of my shoes, soaked the hem of my pants, and ran in melting rivulets down the back of my jacket.
He fell into step beside me and I didn't look up to see him. His answer was soft and deceptively light. "Handcuffed to the radiator. He actually looked offended."
I didn't answer, just continued to study the way the snow squished out from under each of my footsteps. We walked in silence for a few more moments. I could see the toes of his boots, glad that he'd had the forethought to pull them on, wishing I had done the same.
"Scully, you have to be freezing." You could almost taste the concern in his voice.
The sky was darker than it should be at this time of day, huge gray clouds obscuring the sun.
I wanted to close my eyes and go back to this morning when the sun had still been bright and I hadn't been so cold.
He grabbed a hold of my wrist, pulling me to a gentle stop and turning me to face him. I looked up but didn't have anything to say. His fingers were the merest wisp of contact brushing damp strands of hair away from my eyes. Those fingers lingered just under the curve of my jaw, cradling with a light touch.
"Whatever you want, I'll do," he said. So simple, and I knew he would.
"I don't know what I want."
I wanted things to be simple for once, knew they never could be.
"Are we cowards for running like this, Mulder? Should we have found a way to fight back by now?" I'd thought I'd known these answers, but was suddenly finding them in question again.
He looked taken aback. "How can you even ask that? It was a question of your life."
I knew this, but it didn't seem that simple anymore. "It's been almost two years."
I looked away from his eyes, staring off past his shoulder. The streets were unusually deserted, people having tucked themselves indoors away from the ice and wind. His voice was hurt only partially masked. "Has it really been that bad?"
Snapping back to look at him, I grabbed both of his hands with my own and squeezed. "You know it hasn't. I've been more alive these past months than I have during possibly my entire life. I would never give that back."
His eyes were a question.
I sighed, frustrated and lost. "I don't know. I just don't know." I broke away from him again, moving further down the street. He was following behind me, and I knew he could hear me when I spoke. "Could I ever live with myself if we *did* help him find this woman? How could I knowing what we were leading her into?" I took a deep breath, could almost feel the scar at the base of my neck at that moment. "But we also just can't leave her alone and defenseless running from the project. We know what that's like. We've known for years. This woman, unprepared and alone, how long can she possibly last before they find her again?" I knew that I didn't have to explain my desire to help Mara Atkins. Mulder knew those reasons better than anyone. "I want to fight back, Mulder. I'm just not sure that this is how, and there are so many questions he still hasn't answered."
"We'll get the answers, Scully."
Ahead of me was a tiny church, faint light just visible inside. The wooden doors swung open a crack and a middle-aged woman, round cheeked and flushed from the sudden cold, moved outside, drawing her scarf tight around dark hair and skin. I imagined I could smell the incense where I had stopped.
"Scully, it's freezing. We need to go back."
The walk back to the room was farther than I could remember. Mulder stopped me just inside the door to the hall, in front of the stairs. There was something in his eyes I had come to need during our journey together. It had given me my life back, helped to return me to myself. I fell willingly into that place of safety and calm, and his lips were sweet and warm, melting away the cold.
The door opened and the two stepped inside, his hand an anchor in the center of her back, her hand just brushing his thigh. The other across the room was reclined with head tilted back, absorbing meager warmth from an ungenerous radiator. She shook the snow from her shoes, socks and slacks wet and cold. He reached up to brush away the damp from the shoulders of her jacket, tucked one wet strand of hair behind her ear. Their observer opened his eyes for a moment, took in the picture they made, and turned quickly away. It was quiet except for the sound of water dripping, barely audible melting snow, until the world erupted into the shattering of glass, the single, large window splintering into a thousand pieces from the effect of the gunfire. The man pushed the woman down to the ground, instinctually covering her with the shield of his body, and across the room, the other pulled helplessly at his restraints, metal clanging against metal with no way to escape.