By Anna Otto
Rating: PG-13 (violence warning)
Classification: XRA, set post-colonization Now, here is the hard part - how do I explain the R? There are all kinds of romances inside, including the implied m/m. Just take your chances.
Spoilers: Clean as a whistle
Archive: By permission
Author's Notes at the end.
Disclaimer: Everyone you recognize, guess what, is not mine. But that's all right, I can live without them.
Summary: I came of age in the city with enforced curfews and nightly shows of searchlights, in one of the worst times for the human race. I've been humiliated and lied to, I've seen treachery and cruelty, I've been loved and betrayed. And, if given a choice, I would go through it all over again.
"Sometimes when this place gets kind of empty, Sound of their breath fades with the light. I think about the loveless fascination, Under the Milky Way tonight." ~The Church, "Under the Milky Way"~
Through the Mask
My father often told me that he forgot what coffee tasted like. His eyes adopted a faraway look, and his fingers twitched in longing to embrace a non-existent cup of hot, dark liquid. Then, he would usually ask me what did I miss most of all from the life before, and the flood of memories would assault me savagely with the images of my mother still alive, my high school before it was burned to the ground, my friends whom I could still call up on the phone.
But most of all I missed the cigarettes.
I never said that to my father. Back when the cigarettes were still available at any local store, I was seventeen and not supposed to smoke. So I lied and told him that I missed chocolate, a safe enough refuge, and he seemed to believe me. Three years and a lifetime later, when I held a small box of Amaretto truffles in my hands, I wished desperately to have admitted the truth. Perhaps then, I would have been a proud owner of a pack of Marlboros. Or, at the very worst, Lucky's Menthol Lights. I would have savored them for a month. I would have treasured the package they came in and smelled it after the cigarettes were gone.
I would have held in my hands a piece of the past that could never return. I would be myself again.
I poured a cup of freshly brewed coffee for my father and watched as he inhaled the rich smell before drinking. Then I opened the box of truffles and dutifully sunk my teeth into one of them, offering him another piece. After all, I did like the chocolate, and I did forget what it tasted like. I closed my eyes, relishing the dark flavor, and it was a few minutes before I finally remembered to ask my father how he came by this contraband.
"Dad, where did you find the money to pay for all this?" My voice sounded small and anxious, and I busied myself by closing the box with chocolate, packing up the coffee, and hiding it all in one of the kitchen cabinets, full of dry soup and canned yams.
"I didn't." His face adopted a smug, self-satisfied expression.
I closed the cabinet door with more force than was necessary and whirled on him. "Dad, our entire house costs less than these truffles! Please, tell me you wouldn't..."
"Sell the house?" He rolled his wheelchair across the room, immediately contrite. "Honey, I didn't mean to worry you. It's perfectly legal, I promise."
"Legal?" I questioned doubtfully.
"Our guest from the attic," my father pointed in the direction of the ceiling. "We're getting more than we bargained for."
I swallowed nervously and curved my lips in an imitation of a smile. "Oh."
He returned to the table to finish his coffee in silence, and I picked up the musty old paperback I was reading then. We found a box of them while searching the basement for any non-perishable and somewhat bearable food items. Books were a good find, but ultimately non-profitable, and therefore one of the few things that we didn't barter or sell in the months to come.
My father watched me shrewdly, as I kept looking back at the cover to remind myself what the title of this book was.
"He is a good man, Tanya," he said softly. "It would be perfectly all right if you..." he paused a little, probably unsure how to continue. "If you thanked him."
I shivered, horrified at this turn of conversation and yet somehow unsurprised. Even in times of war and famine, young female bodies were valuable commodities. Soldiers and civilians alike have paid some of the surviving girls from my high school handsomely for theirs, and why should I be different? As much as I wanted to scream at my father for even suggesting such a possibility, I couldn't blame him. Colonizations, revolutions, and ever-changing governments tended to redefine the father-daughter relationships. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
"If...if you want me to..." I stumbled.
It was his turn to grow paler. "Tanya, that's not what I'm proposing, and you know that." I didn't answer and he asked, forcefully, "How can you doubt me?"
"Dad, it's not so terrible."
Suddenly, I was caught in his tight embrace, and I could barely breathe. "I would never sell my daughter," he mouthed into my hair, planting a kiss on my cheek. "But Tanya," he held me at an arm's length, "I've seen the way you look at him. You're young - these aren't the best times for young people - but if a right man comes along..."
"I understand," I smiled, absolving him of the blame. "I do."
"Why don't you just walk upstairs and tell him how grateful you are for these chocolates?" my father suggested easily.
"And for the coffee," I added.
"Oh, I thanked him for the coffee," he laughed. "I can be very eloquent when it comes to my addictions."
It was another few minutes before I collected myself enough to step on the stairs, and before the twilight outside erupted into the nightly light show.
The man who occupied the attic appeared at our doorstep unannounced, and my father greeted him with a gun that didn't work in one hand and a withered candle in the other. I stood behind him, trying to appear strong and unafraid. The picture we projected together must have been a pitiful one, because the visitor grinned and threw up his hands in a mocking imitation of surrender.
Then, he offered us money, enough money to buy more dry soup than we would need for a year. All he asked for in return was a room. I would have cleared out my bedroom, but he was entranced with the musty old attic, a place where I spent a sizable part of my childhood, discovering treasures in the tin boxes and cobwebs in the corners.
He wore a mask over the upper part of his face, and it gave him an aura of mysteriousness. He never told us his name, and his left hand was made of plastic. He treated me with respect appropriate for a daughter of the landlord, but he didn't seem to notice my existence on the grander scale.
I wasn't sure if I fell in love with him at the first sight or the second.
I knocked on his door and entered after he shouted at me to come in. Though electricity was unavailable to mere mortals such as us, the attic was lit bright as day. The searchlights, a device invented by the powers that be, were probing the city from every angle. Our tenant perched on the old chair situated close to the large window, watching the light show.
"I didn't realize it was curfew time already," he muttered. "The rules in this country seem to change more often than the rulers."
If my tongue were still functional, I would have loved to throw back an intelligent and witty reply. As it was, I stood mute in the doorway, wondering if I'd completely forgotten how to talk to men. Three years of being largely secluded from the society could do it, I supposed.
"Your name is Tanya, isn't it?" he tore his gaze away from the city for a minute. "Did you like the chocolates?"
"Yes," I regained the gift of speech, and not a moment too soon. "I wanted to tell you how grateful I am for such a gift. I think truffles were a bit of an overshot though. Kit-Kat would have done the trick for me. Actually, cigarettes would have done even more."
"I promise to do better next time," he replied gravely and pulled up a chair for me beside his. "Please, sit down."
We watched the empty streets in silence. The only men who dared to step out at this time of night were guards - military police, comprised mostly of boys my age. Maybe some of them used to be my classmates. I wouldn't recognize them anyway.
"I miss it," I said longingly. "The nightlife, the lights of stores and cafes, the crowds of people. Sometimes, I can't believe that things will never be the same."
"I never had the time to enjoy it properly," he answered thoughtfully. "And now it's too late."
I leaned over to kiss him on the mouth. He tasted of whiskey and bitter almonds, two more things I haven't seen in years, and he didn't kiss me back. I forced the hammering in my head to a manageable rhythm and stood up, trying to gain distance between us. "I'm sorry," I mumbled. "I didn't mean to presume..."
He gripped the back of the chair with enough force to shatter it. "Tanya, you don't have to do this."
"I wanted to," I explained, defiantly. "But it was a mistake."
I caught a glimpse of myself in the narrow, dusty mirror. Years of malnutrition and constant worry aged me, and I looked older than twenty, deathly pale, and world-weary. I haven't considered whether I would be attractive to him, and now I bowed my head in shame.
After a moment of indecision, he untied the mask and let it fall to the floor beside him. I must have screamed because he was suddenly inches away from me, plastic fingers over my mouth.
"The police, they will hear!" he whispered urgently.
I nodded frantically, trying to regain control, and he released me. "What happened to your face?" I asked, shaken to the core. The skin around his green eyes appeared to have been surgically excised, and the resulting look made him more repulsive than a disintegrating corpse.
"A casualty of war," he explained, adding caustically, "Have you been cured now?" Briskly, he walked over to what passed for a closet and began throwing his things into a small suitcase.
"Are you leaving?" I asked unsteadily.
He stopped. "Don't you want me to?"
I shook my head, desperate. "Please, don't leave. My father - we - we don't have any other source of income..." I stopped, embarrassed. "He's an invalid, and I didn't even have a chance to get my high school diploma before the colonization started. Neither of us will find a decent job today."
He abandoned packing and picked up his mask. He worked the clasp awkwardly with one hand, covering his injury again, and motioned for me to sit down. Relieved, I took my place beside him again.
"You're dying to know, aren't you? When the rebel aliens were in power, I infiltrated their ranks as a spy for the resistance movement," he spoke dryly. "Someone betrayed me, someone who was in the resistance as well. They threw me in jail - and their methods of dealing with prisoners are a bit unorthodox. I escaped, but this mask," he touched the black silk around his eyes without affect, "is a prize for my foolishness."
His calmness shamed the wet tracks on my cheeks. "Do you know who it was? Have you punished him?"
"Yes and no. I can understand why he did this to me. I have betrayed him many times in the past." His gaze followed the searchlights with a touch of desperation.
"What would you do if you saw him again?"
His eyes scathed me. "Every day, I go to great lengths to ensure that such a...chance meeting...won't happen."
I finally knew the reason why he was so entranced by the brightly-lit city streets. "You would never see anyone before the light show was over."
He smiled sadly, without even looking up at me. "But I can always hope."
I cried openly now, and I wasn't certain if it was from sadness for him or for me, or perhaps for all of us who had to live through these three years under the searchlights. His hand touched my shoulder, but was withdrawn quickly as if burnt, and I missed it.
"Tell your father you're worth more than a package of coffee," he whispered kindly. "Even coffee with truffles."
I didn't fall in love with him from the first or second sight, after all.
I fell in love with him that day.
The next evening, I went upstairs to invite him to dinner. It wasn't entirely my idea, I've already guessed that his tastes didn't include soup and canned vegetables, but he accepted graciously and devoured his portion with remarkable appetite. I wasn't surprised: after cooking the same meal hundreds of times, I've perfected it down to a T.
My father beamed at me with unrestrained pride and tried to support conversation with our guest. I wondered if he knew how out of step in time he sounded, how irrelevant most of his questions were. I was never more embarrassed by him, and even the tenderness in his eyes whenever he turned to look at me wasn't enough to make up for his awkwardness.
"So, what do you do?" my father asked innocently.
"Nothing, really," the masked man shrugged. "Sometimes, I run errands for some people. It pays well."
Before the colonization, he would have been condemned and never invited back into our house as a man who didn't make his money honestly. Today, I watched in amazement as he was slapped on the back in a show of approval and camaraderie.
"We all survive somehow," the man I used to know smiled and maneuvered his wheelchair around the table to get a water pitcher. "It's the only thing we can do."
I served the coffee and the remaining truffles for all of us. Funny, I never realized before that even expensive chocolate could taste like rubber. "May I be excused?" I asked finally.
My father nodded, concerned. I turned my back to him and ran to my bedroom, falling down into the heap of pillows on my bed. Shortly, I heard a knock on the door. "Dad, not now."
"It's me," a different voice answered. "I brought you another gift."
"Don't tell me," I sat up, trying to arrange my hair into some semblance of shape. "Kit-Kat."
He didn't laugh at my joke as he took a package wrapped in cellophane from his pocket. "Something a lot more valuable. You can go out at night, and no one will stop you."
"Is this a fake ID? Can I get into bars now?" I asked flippantly, but my hands shook as I investigated the documents contained in the package. "Where did you get this?"
"It's not important."
His eyes were haunted, nearly black in the twilight, and I wanted to erase the suffering from them. And I wished that he would accept the only thing with which I could repay him. "I have nothing to give you in return."
"Hey, you know my deepest, darkest secrets. I'm just trying to buy you off."
I hid the precious papers in my pocket and took a deep breath. "I want to join the resistance."
He didn't answer for a long time. Finally, he sat on the edge of my bed. "You chose the wrong person to tell that to. I won't stop you."
I laughed nervously. "Good."
He brushed his fingers against the mask, just barely, as if it was repulsive to him. "This is nothing in comparison to the fate I've seen others suffer."
"I thought you weren't going to stop me." I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, in the place where his white skin bordered with the black silk.
He stiffened. "Tanya, I appreciate this, but..."
I withdrew my lips, resigned. "But you don't want it."
"Neither do you," he whispered haltingly and stood up abruptly. "What about your father?"
Again, he proved to me just how young and inexperienced I still was, but it only spurred me on instead of deterring me. I loved my father. But if I continued to live in the shelter that he provided and wait for the others to finish this war, I would never grow up.
"I will take care of him," I said, making a moment's choice. "But I have to leave here."
"You think I can help you find the leaders," he stated.
"I know you can."
He took a pen and paper from my table and wrote down some names and an address. "One of these will get you in," he extended me the instructions. His lips thinned, turning faintly cruel. "You know what I will ask of you, don't you?"
"I never saw you, you never gave me the info, I know the drill," I smiled, though I suddenly felt truly afraid. "After all, I don't even know your name."
He played with the pen, apparently contemplating whether he trusted me enough. "It's Alex," he said finally.
"Thank you, Alex."
We both shielded our eyes as the bright lights crushed through the glass of my window. He made a small impatient move, and I stepped back, giving him space. "You're afraid to miss your nightly entertainment."
"You know me too well." His grin lacked humor. "Take care, Tanya."
He practically ran away from my room, and I went to close the curtains. Watching the light show today felt like an intrusion, and I lit the candle for illumination instead. Packing my bag would be easy. Writing a letter to my father would be formidable.
Leaving Alex behind would be unimaginable.
Enter the Stage
Some street names have changed, and others were missing. I haven't walked more than a block away from my house until today, too afraid of the consequences, of running into police or of being killed in one of the shoot-outs, an almost daily occurrence. But today I remembered that this was the city where I grew up, the city that somehow withstood the demolition and explosions and was rebuilt by men and women who survived the devastation and inhuman laws. The simple act of walking along its streets was rejuvenating.
I wanted to detour from my chosen course and visit the places where I used to spend my school nights. Every minute, I kept expecting to meet one of my old friends who would start up an easy chat with me, but the desertion and silence surrounding me were a harsh reminder that things have changed. Resolutely, I directed myself towards the address I held in my hand.
Backstage used to be a nightclub, popular with the younger crowd because of its accessibility. Fifteen- and sixteen-year olds were easily admitted into the pack, the music was always fresh and danceable, and the drinks were cheap. Fashionably hidden in the half-basement of an ancient building, it was a place known only to those who took the time to look for it. Undoubtedly, it was the best reason why it now housed some of the group at the head of the resistance movement.
The door was opened by a sleepy young man with brown hair sticking out in different directions and blurry gray eyes that couldn't seem to focus on me. "You got the wrong address," he stated indifferently.
"No, I haven't," I tried to delay the door closing in my face. "I'm looking for one of these people." I thrust a piece of paper at him, and he stared at it, blinking rapidly.
"What's your business with them?" he asked suspiciously. "Cause if they aren't your long-lost brothers and sisters, they ain't got nothing to give you."
I was about to open my mouth when an older man appeared beside my interrogator, taking the list of names from him. "What's going on here, Xavier?"
The young man, now fully awake, glared at me mistrustfully. "She wants something. Money, I think."
I was getting quickly tired of his odiousness and directed my reply to the newcomer. "I came here to speak with one of these people."
"Rick Sherman," he read the second name off the list. His hazel eyes studied me curiously. "Do you know him?"
I shook my head. My gaze fell on his shoes, obviously expensive and cared for. His entire outfit was tasteful, and though it was an early hour of the morning, he was impeccably groomed. I wondered whether he just came back from an all-nighter somewhere, or if he was an extremely early riser.
"Come in," he said suddenly. "Xavier, I will take care of this."
I couldn't recognize the inside of Backstage. The bar was converted into something that resembled a long conference table. The furniture was scarce, and the rays of sun couldn't penetrate through the heavy blinds. The man who invited me in sat in an armchair that had seen better times and pointed me to take a seat in another one. Xavier brought a candle to the low table in front of us and disappeared into the bowels of the building.
He didn't wait to shock me. "Rick Sherman was killed three months ago. Now, tell me who gave you his name, and perhaps we will get off on the right foot."
"Oh my god," I whispered, shocked. "I... I didn't know. I'm so sorry."
His face turned harsh and somehow old, every wrinkle now visible. "The name."
I could swear that his gaze had mesmerizing qualities, like cobra's. "Tanya Sharpe."
"The name of the person who told you to come here and ask questions."
Alex's warning was enough of a deterrent to stop my tongue from spilling out the goods. "I can't tell you that."
"You had to expect that you would be questioned." He leaned forward menacingly. "You should have at least made up a cover story. And I would so like to hear it."
I gritted my teeth, trying not to be intimidated by him. "And I would like to speak with Dana Scully or Fox Mulder," I recited the other names on the list.
"You are," another voice spoke from behind me kindly. "Let me introduce myself: Dana Scully." A petite woman with long red hair collected in a thick braid extended me a hand, which I shook gratefully. "And this is Fox Mulder."
I was surprised to see his face softening under her gentle scrutiny. "Why did you come here?" he asked me in a more civil tone.
"I wanted to - do - something," I stumbled. "Maybe... are you..."
"You want to join the resistance movement," Scully summed up with a faint smile. "The leader of the revolution," she squeezed Mulder's shoulder, "feels obliged to grill you on the details. Forgive him."
"Scully, she knows our names, and she was able to find this place, shouldn't we be concerned?"
"Mulder," her voice turned grim and serious. "We can certainly use more people. And this girl can't possibly be a spy."
Feeling as if I was interrupting a private conversation, I stared into the fire of the candle as it melted the wax. I should have expected suspicion, even hostility, when I came here. In my naivete, I thought that it was going to be easier. I could guess that even the reason why Scully wasn't worried about me wasn't flattering: she considered me a child.
After a brief discussion, Mulder approached me and took my hand in a gesture of apology. "Tanya, doubt everyone. First rule of the group. Scully will show you around."
With that, he walked out of the room, abruptly indifferent to us both. I listened to the sound of his footsteps, puzzled by his rapid mood swings, by the contradiction of his very being. "How did Rick Sherman die?" I asked, still queasy over the revelation.
Her eyes dropped to the floor, and she took her time before granting me no reply and changing the topic. "Have you run away from home, Tanya?"
"No, I..." I wasn't sure how to answer her blunt question. "In a way," I said vaguely. "My father would never let me work with you, and I -"
"And you hoped that you could stay with us," Scully concluded for me, her eyes settling on my small suitcase. "I urge you to consider the consequences."
The candle projected grotesque shadows on the wall, and I wondered if one of them could possibly be my silhouette. The direction of my life at this moment seemed uncertain, and I was as frightened of being with these people as I was of going back to my house and continuing on obeying the quasi-alien laws.
"I need to do this," I said unhesitatingly.
Alex would be disappointed in me if I turned away from this choice.
I sat on the edge of the narrow bed, contemplating my new cramped quarters. Several bunk beds were pushed close to each other, yet more mattresses were thrown on the floor. General chaos pointed to the probable dominance of the male population in this hastily organized shelter.
"It's not much," Scully said apologetically. "We use this mostly for temporary refuge, in case anyone is delayed past curfew. Xavier and I are more or less permanent residents, though."
"What about Mulder?" I asked. "Where does he sleep?"
"Here, when he does," she answered ambiguously. "By the way, rookies get kitchen duty."
I followed her to the small room without windows where Xavier was already busy peeling potatoes. He watched her reach into one of the cupboards and extract a gleaming switchblade, which she fitted snugly under the sleeve of her shirt.
"Be careful," he told her. "I don't like you going there without backup."
"Xavier, it's but one man," Scully checked her weapon, obviously unconcerned. "A man without power. I'll be back in time for the meeting. Brought you some help," she patted me on the shoulder before leaving.
He threw me a potato without so much as glancing at me. "Hope you remember what to do with those."
Silently, I picked up a knife and started peeling off its skin. Cooking these nearly exotic vegetables could be almost exciting, and I was definitely looking forward to french fries or even mashed potatoes. "These would be great with Ketchup," I muttered.
Xavier snorted as his fingers worked over another potato efficiently. "Maybe you'd also like butter and sour cream?"
"After dry soup, I'm ready for new and thrilling ways to improve my cooking skills," I smiled self-consciously. "And if you have tomato paste, I might be able to create something resembling Ketchup."
His hands swept over the drawers. "Feel free to do your magic. Just take what you need."
I started searching for the necessary ingredients, pulling out species and canned tomatoes. "Do you always get straddled with cooking?"
"My turn," he answered laconically.
"I see." I measured everything the best I could, pouring the mixture into a small aluminum bowl.
"I'm sorry for turning you away this morning," he said shortly. He put the knife down and ruffled his hair absent-mindedly. "It's my job, and you showing up here, asking questions about Rick... we're still not over his death."
"I understand," I replied, trying to avoid his eyes. "I still don't know who he was and what happened to him, though."
"Like I said," he turned back to his job resolutely, "We're not over his death."
I fell silent, realizing that he would not tell me more. My thoughts turned instead to my father, who was probably going out of his mind with worry over me. I hoped that he could forgive me. He would do fine without my presence - he had lived in a wheelchair for six years, and he rarely needed my help with the household chores. And I was sure that as long as Alex remained his tenant, he would have the money to buy the necessities.
I tried the result of my culinary experiment. It didn't resemble Ketchup as much as I hoped it would, but it was the next best thing. Xavier was there already with a spoon, reaching for a taste, and looking at me with newfound respect. "You're my kind of a revolutionary," he broke into a huge grin. "After we're done here, would you like to help me out with a newspaper?"
"You have a newspaper?"
"Underground, of course," he shrugged. "Limited edition - but we do our best."
I found it hard to breathe, suddenly. Finally, I was doing something worthwhile, something that was more than staring out the window as seasons changed. "Sure," I tried to appear nonchalant, but my voice broke, ruining the effect.
Xavier looked over at me and smiled faintly, in mute understanding.
By the time people started arriving for a meeting, we've already finished the layout and Xavier was pouring ink into the homemade printer.
"God, I miss copiers," he muttered wistfully. "I would pay for one, if I only didn't have to use this crap."
Mulder walked by us, glancing at his watch. "What time did she leave?" he asked Xavier brusquely.
"About nine," he replied. "Said she would be in time for the meeting."
Mulder paced nervously. "It shouldn't take her that long."
Xavier's hand reached out to steady him. "I wouldn't worry. She will be fine."
The older man stopped reluctantly. "Of course. She is never late."
But she wasn't there when the meeting has commenced. I was one of the only two women currently sitting at the long table, and though Mulder has introduced me briefly, I felt inconsequential, and very much out of place. Xavier grinned at me encouragingly, trying to put me at ease, but he spent most of his time glancing at the door, apparently waiting for Scully's reappearance just as everyone else.
Someone stood up, getting ready to brief the gathering on the specifics of tomorrow's activities. It was then that we heard a key turning in the lock and Scully walked in, an elderly gentleman in tow. Without offering greetings, she cuffed his hands behind him. "I was just dying to do that," she commented passionately.
At Mulder's command, the conversation abruptly ceased. "Scully, you know that we don't take prisoners."
"He is not a prisoner," Scully replied firmly. "But you need to hear what he has to say. Now."
The leader glanced at the current speaker. "Excuse me." For a few seconds, he watched the gray-haired man who was trying to effectively erase himself from the face of the planet. "We've met before, haven't we," he enunciated softly.
The man sitting beside me shivered, and I could understand his sentiment only too well. This soft voice emanated danger, and I was happy not to be on its receiving end any longer.
"Troy," Mulder addressed one of the men at the table. "Why don't you continue discussing the current assignments. We will be back shortly."
The lively discussion resumed after the cuffed gentleman was whisked away. I started when Xavier touched my hand briefly, motioning me with his eyes to follow him. He led me through the halls to the darkened room on the other side of the building, and put his ear to the wall, inviting me to do the same.
"Untie me," a hoarse voice whined at the other side. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Tell him what you told me just now," Scully said harshly. "Then we will see."
Strangely, there was a smile in the replying voice. "How does it feel to be proven right, Agent Mulder? Didn't it just make your day when the colonization started?"
I flinched when I heard a resounding slap over his face. Xavier looked just as uncomfortable as I felt, probably regretting the idea of listening in on the interrogation.
"How does it feel to work against your own kind?" Mulder's voice was full of venom. "But I forget, you've done it all your life, haven't you? First for the aliens, then for the rebels - whoever comes along, you jump on the train."
"Easy, Mulder!" Scully's voice interfered. "Let's concentrate on the more important matters."
Xavier appeared disheartened. To my numb question, he whispered: "I think he worked with the previous governments. Nothing new to gain here."
"Why are they questioning him then?" I asked.
"I don't know," he replied abruptly. "Come on," he tugged at my sleeve and I straightened up diffidently.
"Do you often do this?" I asked.
"Listen in?" Xavier shook his head. "I wish I didn't have to," he led the way back through the maze to the rest of the group. "But Mulder is..." he paused, searching for a word. "He is a secretive man, and I can't help but wonder sometimes...nevermind." He stopped the explanation, taking my hand in his. "I'm not proud of this."
"But desperate times call for desperate measures," I helped him with the explanation.
"Right." His angular face projected unhappiness. "Bet you anything that when they come back from their extracurricular gig, they will mention nothing about it."
I followed him back to the table where an argument raged over how many men were required to carry out a particular mission. The voices settled down only when Mulder and Scully came back, quietly taking their places.
Mulder's face was set into a mask of deliberate calmness, yet it was impossible not to notice that it was only an eye of the hurricane. "Go on," he motioned to the current speaker. "We still have a lot of ground to cover."
I glanced over at Scully who watched him with a terrified expression in her eyes.
Just as Xavier has predicted, they said not a word about what happened in the back room.
Xavier was snoring peacefully on the floor, alongside a few other men who decided to stay overnight. As exhausted as I was, I couldn't fall asleep, and every trick in the book, including counting the sheep, proved to be useless. Searchlights, still visible through the cracks in the blinds, danced on my bed, and I followed their irregular rhythm, almost regretful that the rebels were no longer in power. The darkness of earthly nights didn't seem to bother them quite as much.
The door opened, and Scully crept in softly. She threw her jacket on the bed and took off her boots, but instead of sliding under a blanket, she walked over to the window and sat on one of the bare mattresses there. She hugged her knees and became even smaller, if it was possible. After some hesitation, I climbed out of my bed and went to sit across from her.
"Can't sleep?" she asked without changing her position.
"Maybe it's the new place," I answered. "I will get used to it, eventually."
Scully nodded. "How old are you?"
"I hope you're not regretting your decision yet."
"In one day, I've accomplished more than I have in three years. I could never go back," I answered fervently.
She opened one of the blinds briefly, her face momentarily awash in a sea of light. "My father was in the Navy. When he was scheduled to come home, even if the storm raged, even if the night was dark, I always knew that a guiding light would bring him back. That the ships could never be lost at sea, as long as the lighthouse stood at the guard. But imagine what would happen if there were two guiding lights pointing in different directions. Or three."
"Or a thousand," I whispered.
"It makes you wonder what kind of men put this law in place, doesn't it?"
I had no answer to the longing in her words. One of the searchlights hit me straight in the eyes and I blinked furiously.
"Sorry." Guiltily, she let the blinds dangle close.
"Thank you for rescuing me this morning," I spoke quickly before I lost my nerve. "Mulder didn't seem too enamored of me."
"He doesn't trust people easily," Scully answered softly. "And Rick Sherman is a sore spot for all of us. We found his body just a block away from here, a knife wound in the back. The policemen always go for the guns, and Rick could protect himself against a simple criminal." Her eyes glistened with gathering tears. "He seemed invincible to me."
"Was he one of the leaders?"
"Not in name, perhaps, but in spirit," her voice trailed off. "Settled all the arguments, always with a smile. Rick used to own this nightclub - did you know that? Back when we had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, hunted by the police, he came to us and offered this place. He was a friend of someone we used to know...someone else who was killed." Scully wiped wet tracks on her cheeks with the back of her hand and whispered, almost surprised, "I didn't think I had anymore tears."
I thought of Alex watching the city from the old attic, no tears but only extreme weariness in his eyes. "We've all lost those we loved in this war," I said thoughtfully. "Some more than others."
"There was a time when Mulder and I were certain that we were the only ones who were trying to do something to prevent the upcoming disaster. We've been proven wrong, again and again," Scully smiled, as if remembering happier days. "But I almost wish now that we had no more friends to lose."
"What happened today with the man you brought here?" I asked, hoping that she would be as forthcoming about him as she'd been about Rick.
However, Scully's straightforwardness had its limits. She stood up and tugged at the band holding her hair in place, shaking the braid loose.
"It's late, Tanya," her smile melted away. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight," I whispered. She lay down, facing away from me, and was quickly lost to sleep.
I stayed up a while longer, watching my new friends' faces, some troubled, some peaceful. By the time Xavier shook me awake, the room was lit by the pale morning sun.
No Words of Wisdom
When Mulder appeared at the breakfast table, everyone was almost finished and getting ready to leave to their respective tasks and destinations. "I apologize for the interruption," he spoke, not even bothering to sit down and take his portion of the meal. "I've just received some useful information and thought we could discuss it."
Satisfied that he had everyone's attention, he continued. "As you well know, the governments have switched, yet again, about three months ago. The nature of the new ruling class remains unclear, even now. However, some excellent spy work and intelligent guesses brought us to conclusion that we're dealing with nothing more dangerous than a military- industrial complex who had weapons for annihilation of the alien race long before the colonization."
Mulder's voice had a hypnotic quality, a certain cadence that attracted and lulled the audience. In spite of my lingering scruples about him, I found myself taken in by his intensity, by the power simmering beneath his calm exterior.
"The secrecy that surrounds the new government has been an obstacle to us for a long time. We don't know their names, we don't know where their headquarters are located, we don't know who turns on the searchlights switch at night. Hopefully, that is about to change. Troy," he nodded to the black-haired, thin man in his forties who presided over yesterday's meeting in Mulder's absence. "Why don't you outline your findings."
Troy stood up and presented us with a diagram on the sheet of paper. "In the past month, my team was prowling on the outskirts of town, probing the area. Our efforts were rewarded when we've discovered what we believe to be an underground prison." He outlined the city area, circling the probable location. "If we pull the forces together, we should be able to ambush them when they least expect it. And god only knows what we will find inside."
One of the men sitting at the table nodded thoughtfully. "If not the prisoners, then valuable documents."
"Exactly," Troy gave up the diagram to be passed around. "This is a kind of moment we've been waiting for. We don't think that they're guarding the prison with a special zeal, and we can strike them at their weakest. Preferably during the day."
Mulder, who watched the proceedings from the side until now, addressed a burly man sitting next to me. "John, I'd like you to be in charge of this particular operation. Pull the army together, investigate the area some more, do what you must."
John nodded, though he was unmistakably surprised to be entrusted with this task. Troy looked over at the leader uncertainly, probably puzzled why he was being passed over in favor of someone else. Mulder, who didn't seem to miss the confusion reigning in the room, met Troy's eyes squarely.
"And Troy, I have a special assignment for you. The information I received today is the name and address of the man who is overseeing the prison. With your background, it shouldn't be difficult to break in sometime during the day and see if you can find any papers that describe the layout of the prison, and anything else that might be useful."
The sudden silence in the room was so heavy it could be sliced with a knife. Xavier's hand curled into a fist as he dragged his disbelieving gaze from Mulder to Troy, then back to Mulder. I felt as if to speak, to even breathe now, would be a sin. Somehow, I understood that Mulder violated a certain protocol, a rule that was sacred to men gathered here. Yet, no one dared to voice his doubts.
The standoff between Mulder and Troy continued until the latter dropped his eyes and stepped backward, strangely submissive. "I will need backup," he said weakly.
"Break-in and entry used to be your specialty. The more people involved, the more suspicious you will appear. Do it tomorrow," Mulder dismissed him unequivocally and faced the rest of the group. "This meeting is over."
The men dispersed one after another, leaving only Xavier and myself in the kitchen. "God dammit!" his fist slammed into the wooden table, spilling water from his glass. "This is a suicide mission, and everyone knows it."
"Troy's assignment?" I asked apprehensively.
"He will not come back alive," Xavier breathed heavily, and it was frightening to see anger transform his normally benign appearance. "Mulder is overstepping his boundaries."
He stalked out of the room, and I gathered the dirty plates automatically. My mind was spinning wildly, and not for the first time I felt as if I needed a map to maneuver around the hidden mines and unspoken half-truths that were present everywhere I turned.
Backstage, a nightclub in which one could always count on encountering a few secrets and less than revealing lighting, still maintained its reputation.
"Where are you going, Tanya?" Xavier's voice stopped me just as I was ready to open the door.
Flustered, I took awhile to come up with an explanation. "I've forgotten something - at home. I need to go find it."
He didn't seem to accept this at face value but nodded cautiously. "Can I come with you, then?"
"No," I said quietly. "I have to do this alone."
"Is it because you're lying?"
I had no answer to his soft question. Instead of reprimanding me, Xavier motioned for me to follow him into the kitchen. There, he reached into one of the cupboards and took out a small revolver that could fit easily in my pocket.
"Do you know how to use this?" he held it back.
"A little," I admitted. "I am not a good shot, but I know how to operate."
Reluctantly, he put it in my hands and stood back. "Come back in one piece."
"I will," I promised seriously.
I felt his eyes on my back as I left the Backstage, set to retrace my steps of the morning before. I wasn't sure whether my actions were justified, but I desperately needed advice, and there was only one man who could give it to me. Despite all that troubled me now, my pulse beat faster at the thought of seeing Alex again. I had to stop for a moment and take a deep breath before I could continue on my way when I remembered that he had no reason to be happy to see me.
I circumvented the front door, reaching for the stairs in the backyard that led up to the window of the attic. I knew that I was a coward for being unwilling to face my father today, that it would have to happen sooner or later, but I preferred it to be later. I mounted a dozen steps and knocked on the glass gently when I realized that Alex was inside, reading a book.
"Tanya!" he exclaimed, stunned, then immediately reduced his voice to a whisper. "I didn't think I'd see you so soon."
"I'm sorry to barge in." I accepted his helping hand and climbed inside. "But I need to talk to you."
"Don't worry," Alex led me to a chair. "Did everything go well? Have you successfully infiltrated the ranks of the most impenetrable army in the world?" his mouth quirked a little.
I smiled in return. "They're a little paranoid."
"They have reason to be. How is Rick?"
"A topic of much conversation," I mumbled, binding my time. When I glanced at his anxious face, I knew that I couldn't protect him from this. "He died. Killed three months ago."
Alex shook his head, as if denying what he heard. "Not Rick Sherman," he whispered. "Not him... god, how did this happen?"
"They don't know who killed him."
He sat down, dropping his head in his hands. "No wonder he didn't answer my messages... that's in the past though," he interrupted the lament, as if putting his grief on hold. "What is it you wanted to talk about?"
"Their leader...Mulder," I replied. "Did you know him?"
Alex gasped softly, as if in pain, but immediately collected himself. I could almost swear that I have imagined it, but the still present tremor in his hands betrayed his cool exterior.
"Is something wrong?" I asked, feeling as if I've committed an unforgivable faux pas - the second one in the space of one hour.
He ignored my question. "There was a time when I felt that I knew him. But I haven't seen him in a while. People change."
"He has done something... that seems wrong. He is sending someone to his sure death, and yet no one calls him on it, everyone is too afraid to speak against it. I'm... I'm just not sure what to do," I finished uncertainly.
Alex's fingers tapped on the surface of the table in a jittery rhythm. "Mulder does what he feels is right. I'm sure he conceives his actions to be just," he finally pronounced.
"But perhaps there is some other way to procure the information they need," I retorted.
"Tanya," he smiled at me condescendingly. "This is a war. In a war, risks are involved. People will always have to be sacrificed."
"Not this way," I shook my head decisively. "I just wish there was something I could do."
"Well, why didn't you?" Alex asked. "Why didn't you speak against Mulder's proposition?"
I hung my head, shamed by his questions. "Good point."
"Tanya, this is none of my business, but I don't want to see you get hurt. Please, be careful."
"Are you warning me against Mulder?" I asked bluntly.
"I suppose I am." He reached for my hand, almost unconsciously.
I looked at our entwined fingers and carefully withdrew mine, biting my lip to sustain a groan of disappointment.
"I'm sorry," he moved away, creating distance between us.
I wasn't sure if I could be around him any longer. "I... I have to go. My father - is he all right?" I asked before stepping back on the ladder.
"Of course not," Alex smiled gently. "But -I think he understands your actions. He is a good man."
I nodded abruptly. "Take care." With that, I descended to the ground and quickly ran towards the exit. On the other side of the street and feeling safer from my own emotions, I chanced a look back at the attic window.
I couldn't contain a sigh of defeat when I didn't see Alex's silhouette.
The newspaper consisted of two coarse brown sheets, covered in small fonts. The names under articles were mostly pseudonyms, others were simply signed 'Anonymous.' I read it over, then again, unable to shake off a sudden epiphany.
Xavier was busy correcting something within a printer, with which he appeared to have a love-hate relationship, and looked up at me distractedly as I approached.
"What is the name of the person overseeing the prison?" I asked him.
"I have a plan," I announced. "I know how to get the documents Mulder spoke of without putting Troy in danger."
"Really," he scratched his forehead absent-mindedly. "Will you break inside Nelson's house and steal the documents instead of him?"
"No," I answered triumphantly. "I will walk in there and take them."
He looked at me as if I was crazy. "Tanya, please tell me you're joking. Otherwise, I will call the funeral home now and we will make arrangements for your burial. Granted there is something to bury."
"I've thought it through," I pointed to the newspaper. "Tonight, I will talk to the guards in front of his house and show them the newspaper. I will ask them to let me in because I will want to talk to Mr. Nelson and inform him of the treachery happening under his very nose. I hope there will be some time for me to look around his house and find any documentation on the prison. Granted that it all works out, I will sneak out and head back."
Xavier's face was aghast. "It's a beautiful plan. Only it goes wrong when the guards ask you for the documents and a permission to walk around the city after curfew, then throw you in the very jail we're trying to investigate. Unless they shoot you first, of course."
Calmly, I showed him the papers that Alex gave me. "The plan works, Xavier. I *can* make it work."
Emotionlessly, he turned back to his job. "I won't let you do this."
"Would you rather Troy died?" I asked. "Do you prefer to sit back and wait until he arrives home in a body bag?"
"It's a little harsh, Tanya," he snapped. "Look, I know you're trying to do what's best, but for an operation such as this, you need backup, you need careful preparation, you need..."
"An agreement of the leader," I advised him helpfully. "Which I will never have."
Xavier leaned against the counter, watching me oddly. "You don't like me asking questions, I know that. But some of the things about you... how did you know where to find us? Who gave you our names? How much did you pay for these papers and how could you afford to pay this sum? Why won't you meet my eyes?"
The man who was hurt so much that he couldn't even bear to confront the world with an open face gave them to me, I answered silently. Aloud, I said, "Xavier... this is not my secret to tell."
"I will go with you," he folded the papers and returned them to me. "As a backup."
Immeasurably relieved, I touched his hand gratefully. "I know you don't feel this is right. I feel bad involving you."
"I'm already involved," Xavier answered softly. "Too involved for my own good."
Scully's arrival discharged the tense silence between us. "No company tonight," she called to us, in a fairly good mood. "Anyone for a game of cards?"
"Sure," he called back. "Be right there."
I embraced him briefly, giving him no chance to resist it. "Thank you, Xavier."
Tonight, I would know if I made the right choice.
We were prepared to leave the Backstage long before it was dark. After a quick hand of poker, where we couldn't wage anything more valuable than a privilege to be freed from the kitchen duty, Scully excused herself and went to discuss something with Mulder. Left to our own devices, we collected all the necessities, and, each of us armed with a switchblade and a revolver, stepped outside.
An early autumn chill embraced my shoulders, and I hurried on, anxious to get warm. Xavier kept up the pace easily, almost having to subdue the formidable length of his stride. We kept our eyes down, just as the few occasional passersby, unwilling to face any potential distractions or dangers. Everyone in this city had the same look: frightened, subjugated, and mostly concerned with getting through the day. It was hard to believe I used to be one of them only days ago.
We passed by the market, closing for the day, and I couldn't help noticing the longing with which Xavier watched the small crowd and the meager produce laid out on the tables. It was not an attractive, bustling shopping center, the likes of which my mother and I used to investigate for hours, and I could not fathom the reason for his enchantment.
"My brother used to like coming here," he explained, observing my confusion. "He was only six, so this," he gestured at the market with faint amusement, "was exciting for him."
He didn't continue, and I bit my lip, already guessing that his little brother no longer liked the market, no longer pestered him. No longer loved him. "What happened to him?" I asked, guessing that he wanted to talk about this.
"The fires," Xavier closed his eyes at the memory. "You must remember the time when the rebels were coming into power and the current government was burning everything in the way of its downfall. Well, our house got in the way. I was lucky - spending a night at my friend's place - but my parents and my brother were trapped. I only hope that they were unconscious long before the fire got to them."
Throughout his tale, he didn't slow down the step once. Now, I was the one who stumbled over an accidental stone, unable to see it past the tears brimming in my eyes. Xavier caught me in time and watched me as I wiped them away.
"It has been two years since then," he squeezed my shoulder. "I'm used to being an orphan."
"Your brother...what was his name?" I asked.
"Peter," Xavier said, not surprised by my question. "You would have liked him."
"Resistance can never replace family," I whispered. "Can it?"
He frowned, considering the question. "Once upon a time, it had. Today..." he shoved his hands deeper inside his coat pockets and turned his face away. "Today there is little love to share."
We didn't speak again until we came to an enclosed area on the eastern side of the city, a place that used to house the upper middle class in the days past. From where we stood, we could see several guards at the front gate and a black limousine parked outside.
"Sons of bitches, where do they even get gasoline?" Xavier swore and looked at his watch. "Three minutes before the curfew."
We watched the thin arrow measure the seconds, coming full circle time after time. On the third count, it returned to start the cycle again, and the night around us exploded into blinding lights, obscuring the early stars and the full moon.
"Showtime," he whispered. "Good luck."
"What will you do?" I asked, suddenly nervous. "Where will I find you afterward?"
"I'll see if I need to distract their attention," Xavier took out a beret and pulled it low to obscure his eyes. "If you don't see me after you come out, just run and don't look back."
"I will," I nodded and walked away, for once not hiding from the penetrating rays coming from the sky.
Lies never came this easily to me. I knew, with the grim certainty, that I would always look back.
The barrels of four M-16s were directed at my head as an anonymous hand crept over my clothes, unceremoniously searching for weapons. I bit my lip and endured, using the time to study the guards' brown uniforms and to remember my father's face, old and lost as we held each other after mom's death. The switchblade and the revolver made a quick exit, and I made a mental note to kick myself after this ordeal was over.
It would be over soon.
One of the guards scrutinized the papers that he extracted out of my coat pocket, motioned to the others to lower their guns. "State your business with Mr. Nelson, please."
"I brought him the evidence he's been looking for," I told him firmly. "Evidence of the underground resistance activities."
He made a move for the newspaper, but I held up my hand in protest. "As you said, this is my business."
Cold eyes raked over my body, undressing and despising me simultaneously. I swallowed painfully, trying to ignore the persistent trickles of sweat down my back, the thin voice of fear screaming somewhere in the hind part of my conscience. This man was a killer. But today he was in a position of authority over me, and I could do nothing but succumb to his hostile examination.
"I will inform Mr. Nelson of your arrival," he announced finally. "You will receive your weapons on the way back."
I let the suggestive smile play on my lips. "I will be looking forward to it."
The gates swung open and I was finally inside. My relief at having passed through the first round of the game quickly turned into apprehension when I noticed one of the other guards following me, matching each of my steps. Turning around slightly, I gave him a nod of acknowledgement, then sped up my gait.
"Turn left at the end of the hall," the guard directed me, opening the door to a small but tastefully furnished room. "Mr. Nelson will be in to see you shortly."
My eyes swept the room after he left me alone, zeroing in on the cabinet. It opened easily - too easily. A quick examination of its bowels revealed nothing of use to me, and I swung the door shut, grinding my teeth in frustration. Knowing that I had no time to waste, I checked the hall outside for any activity. Finding it deserted, I tried a couple of doors on my right, finding one of them open. Book shelves and two file cabinets immediately attracted my attention, and I would have sampled their insides right then and there had I not heard the heavy steps coming in the direction of the room where I was supposed to wait for my appointment.
Stealthily, I backed out of the office. Somehow, I would have to get to these documents later. Now, I had to face Eric Nelson.
I lowered my eyes humbly as a balding plump man in his fifties stepped inside the small room. He studied me intently for a few minutes, then plopped onto a loveseat propped against the wall.
"Sir," I began, "I hope that my services may be of value to you. Recently, I've seen some things... heard some rumors..." I let my voice trail suggestively. "Found the newspaper that these men created."
Wordlessly, he took my offering and looked over it. His short pink fingers barely touched the pages as if for fear that it might be contaminated. "This," he pronounced so softly that I had to lean forward to hear him. "You bring me this...this filth - when we both know that I will find none of the people who wrote such heresy. Not without some inside information."
"But it's a start, sir," I appealed to him. "At least, it's an indication of their existence."
Nelson sighed, tired as the world itself. "I know of their existence. Now I need to know *where* they exist so that I can inform my superiors and we can crush," he ground the newspaper in his fist, "their bodies into fine sand."
He reached for the bell on the table next to him. "You look undernourished. Young girls nowadays don't look after their bodies." Before I could protest, the guard entered the room and stood at attention. "Bring us some coffee and biscuits, please," he requested. "And make sure no one disturbs us. We have some things to talk about."
I smiled at him nervously as the guard exited. "We do?"
"Well, you want to help or don't you?" he asked, slightly exasperated. "I want you to continue listening to these rumors. I want you to be my eyes and ears. I will pay you handsomely for any valuable information."
"That's very generous of you, sir," I mumbled, slightly taken aback. "Of course... I will be happy to serve you in any way I can."
Nelson grimaced in distaste. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm tired of this country being overrun by other species, young lady," he hissed. "I want to prevent it from being overrun by these disorganized crime elements."
The coffee and biscuits made their appearance, and I gripped the elegant cup in my hands, hoping that my inner turmoil would not betray itself. I needed to distract him. I needed him to leave the room and let me be alone for a few minutes, so that I could run into the office and steal the papers. Or, perhaps, I could leave the room myself. "Mr. Nelson," I asked in a moment of inspiration. "Could you excuse me? I need to use the restroom."
He eyed me sadly, as if mourning the indecency of young ladies nowadays, who never used the proper terms for embarrassing subjects. "Third door down the hall," he muttered. "Try to come back before your coffee gets cold."
I smiled daintily and backed out of the room. But before I could take even a step, the still air around me was transformed into a scream itself, as the deafening alarms activated all around me. Somewhere in the background I could hear the sound of window crashing, dogs barking, and soon several people rushed past me, whisking Nelson out of the room in which we were chatting. It was an unexpected but timely distraction, and, grateful for being forgotten in the ensuing panic, I quickly sneaked into the office, reaching for the nearest file cabinet.
My fingers paged through the papers, discarding one after another, until I came upon what looked like a diagram, a floor plan, though of what I could not understand. I folded it and stuck it under my shirt, then grabbed for the next drawer. If someone told me that I spent only five minutes in this office while the searchlights danced in the windows, while the running guards screamed in the hallways, I would have never believed it.
Hurried as I was, I took the time to rearrange the disturbance that I caused and stepped into the hall. A few dozen feet later, I was at the front gate and ready to run as fast as my paralyzed legs would carry me.
"Hey!" the guard called me as I walked past him. "Don't forget these," he handed me the switchblade and the revolver and I took them distractedly.
"Thank you," I said, grateful that he suspected me of nothing more serious than forgetfulness. "What is all this noise about?"
"Caught a burglar," he smirked, disgusted. "Some degenerate - broke the window, woke up the dogs. We got him though, don't worry."
"Pretty stupid of him to break into the house this well-guarded," I smiled. "Good night."
I released a breath I didn't know I've been holding and started to walk away, not too quickly so as not to raise any doubts on account of my good will. Still disbelieving that my plan had actually worked, I touched the folded papers, making sure of their reality. Xavier would never believe that I've been offered a job as a spy. I laughed a little, incredulous at my good fortune and hastened my step, anxious to get back to him.
I would never know what made me turn around. But when I had, the laugh on my lips disintegrated into a hoarse moan that nearly pulled the heart out of my body. Somehow, I made a wish and it came true. And then, I had to pay for it with blood.
The guards were shoving a tall, stick-like figure inside the black limousine I spied earlier. The burglar's cuffed hands reached for his head, taking off a beret. Apparently unhappy about the delay this caused, one of the guards hit the man in the stomach, and he staggered in sudden agony.
This wasn't Xavier. This couldn't be Xavier. He was waiting for me, safe and sound. He would not do exactly what he'd been warning me against, not just to save the skin of the willful girl who wanted to get her way so badly.
I ran towards the place where I left him, cold air constricting painfully within my lungs. And finding an empty street, I dropped down on my knees, unable to tolerate the pain in my chest, unable to remain standing under the assault of the crushing panic.
I made another wish. And I would do anything to make it come true.
The man and woman who listened to my recounting of events didn't interrupt me once. Like two unmoving judges, they waited to have all the facts before passing the verdict. I, on the other hand, couldn't bear to wait for it. The soldier who disobeyed the officer and put another soldier in danger was the worst kind of traitor. It was through her that the enemy gained the upper hand, it was through her that the man essential to the resistance movement was now incarcerated.
The tears of wax slid down the yellow candle, and I envied its freedom to cry. I had no such right.
"I should throw you out of this house," Mulder spoke slowly, each of his words aimed to hit like a bullet. "And if I trusted you to keep away from here, I would have."
I hung my head silently, no less frightened of him than I was the day before.
"Did you think that you were better than all these men and women who had worked here months, years longer than you? Did you think you could make better decisions than I?"
"No, sir, but my plan..."
"Has failed," Mulder concluded. "Why should I care about these diagrams you brought back? You gained a measly piece of information, and you've lost a friend, a man for whom I have only the highest regard. Not only that, now your face is familiar to our enemies, and you're a potential risk whichever way you turn. And what would have happened if they caught your bluff? We would have lost you, too."
"Mulder," Scully's voice sounded a warning.
"I will not tolerate the pranks of headstrong children, who place us all in danger," he interrupted. "We can't afford it."
I hugged my shoulders, cold to the core. "I would leave," I whispered. "But I can't, not if I can be of some use to Xavier."
"Mulder, she is young," Scully spoke calmly. Her hand obscured her eyes and effectively sealed off her emotions. "And Xavier should have known better."
"It's not his fault," I denied. "I shouldn't have involved him."
"No," she stopped my flood of explanations. "He acted rashly and irresponsibly. He left us all in a ditch. For future reference, if you don't plan to inform us of your expeditions," she laughed bitterly, "you should at least coordinate your movements. Inform your partner of your actions. As far as I understand, Xavier failed to do that."
"That is irrelevant now, Scully," Mulder stood up, impatient. "She is irrelevant. We need to figure out how to get Xavier back."
His anger was a glacial snake coiling around my chest, and I couldn't breathe - couldn't bear this pain he unleashed on me, even if I deserved it. "The papers I've brought back may be valuable," I said coldly. "After all, they are related to the prison where Xavier may have been taken."
"May have," he sighed, picking up the folded pages I surrendered earlier. "May have."
"Yesterday, you were ready to send another man to his death, if only you could get your hands on them," I reminded him.
Mulder crumbled as suddenly as if I had physically injured him. Shoulders hunched, he looked through the papers on the table, and I could have sworn he hadn't seen a word. His gaze was unfocused, his breathing shallow, as if he was watching something we weren't privy to.
"Mulder, we will get him back." In a rustle of clothes, Scully's hands embraced him. "And Xavier knows how to take care of himself."
"Yes," he smiled crookedly. "Xavier... will be fine, I'm sure."
Glancing briefly into his eyes, I was stunned by his apparent agony, the sources of which seemed too deep for my understanding. He laid his fingers briefly on Scully's hands, gently taking them off, and in another moment he was gone, leaving us alone.
Scully's drawn face was all skin and bones in the hollow light, deep eyes too big for it. She sat down next to me, and I was grateful for her physical proximity - it was the best indication that she still considered me a human being.
"Tanya," she began softly. "I will not repeat anything that Mulder said to you. Whether I agree with him or not is unimportant - you are young, you've made a mistake, as all of us had and as all of us will again, and I'm sure you've learned from it."
I nodded, sinking further into my chair, feeling as if my body was boneless. "I just want Xavier back," I whispered. "I just want this nightmare to be over."
"Maybe, it will be," Scully promised carefully. "And, perhaps, what caused all of this in the first place, will be his ultimate saving grace. After all, you did extremely well in Nelson's house."
"I could have done more." I hugged my shoulders, suddenly unable to stop shaking. "Instead of chatting with him about the other species...if I had only been quicker."
"Go to sleep," she stood up. "We cannot do anything until morning." Before exiting the room, she turned around, leaning heavily on the doorway. "One last piece of advice."
"What is it?" I asked.
"Let Mulder do what he needs to do."
Alone in the shadowed room, I lay on the bed and tried to subdue the panic that threatened to flare within me again. I could hear Mulder crying softly on the other side of the wall, Scully's soothing whisper enveloping him like a protective blanket. His reaction was still a puzzle to me, and for the first time I wondered if it had anything to do with Xavier at all. Still, I was mortified to have caused them so much grief.
For the first time, I wanted desperately to forget my decision and to return home, to fall down on my knees in front of my father and beg him for forgiveness. I could always rely on his love and understanding, I never doubted that he would forget my transgressions, but what would this easy solution gain me? The sharp wound of guilt would become only more painful with time.
Wrapping the blanket around me, I wondered over to the carton box in which Xavier kept his personal things. Aged letters, an old camera, and a custom-made knife lay off to the side, and the rest was all photo-albums. I didn't consider the possibility that I was prying when I opened up the first one. Seeing the fragments of his life forever recorded on these pages was not unlike talking to him, and it made me feel comforted and less lonely.
He would have made a great photographer in the days past, when the rolls of film were still made and sold to the public. The images he chose were deceptively simple, but each one caught something unidentifiable and froze it in perfect focus. Here was a small boy, huge white smile on a dirty face. Peter. Here was an older couple, caught in an unguarded moment of shy affection. His parents? Always there were more portraits than landscapes, more people than buildings, as if he had found the architecture of human faces more fascinating than that of inanimate objects.
The second album dated two years ago, and I opened it fearfully, unsure of what I would find, wondering how his art had changed after the death of his family. My breath caught in my throat when the first photograph I saw was one of Mulder and Scully leaning over some papers on the table, their normally serious expressions animated. Next came the image of Scully and a slightly older man with light hair, his arms around her waist, unabashed smiles on both their faces. There were pictures of other resistance members I've recognized, most of them taken in casual moments, at least a third of them with the same older man featured prominently. "Rick Sherman," I whispered. "Pleased to meet you."
Somewhere in the middle of the album, I stopped to study the image arranged in the center. At first I wasn't sure what made it stand out - there were other group portraits - but as I scrutinized the attractive man on the left, I gasped in recognition. It was Alex, his face open and undamaged, his black hair cropped too short, sitting unceremoniously on the conference table. Next to him stood Mulder, an amused smile on his lips, arms crossed against his chest in mock defensiveness. Behind them, Scully and Rick Sherman were peeking in, their hands intertwined.
It was even more surreal to see Mulder's genuine smile than it was to see Alex's beautiful face still in one piece. I touched it delicately, remembering the all too grotesque "after" image. Hunching over in sudden ache, I shut the album close and put it back with Xavier's belongings.
Which one of these men was responsible for Alex's transformation? Who was in position to know of his status and whose tongue ultimately became the weapon that mutilated him? The suspicion that grew inside of me was too terrible to name.
If the answers were hidden in this photo album, then I didn't want to find them, not yet. If Xavier came back, I could refocus on this mystery and perhaps solve it once and for all.
When Xavier came back, I corrected myself firmly.
The morning brought late October rain and gloomy visitors, who didn't bother taking off their coats before sitting at the conference table. News spread fast among the resistance members, and they didn't feel the need to engage in idle talk as they looked over the stolen documents and discussed the plans for raiding the prison.
"This makes no sense," John rubbed his temples, frustrated. "If it's a floor plan, it's not of the prison."
Mulder leaned over his shoulder, pondering the puzzle. "Wait a minute," his face cleared in sudden realization. "Compare this to the layout of the city." He rolled out a map and laid it alongside the puzzling diagram. "See anything you recognize?"
"By God, you're right," John contemplated the solution in wonder. "This is their floor plan of the city. All the underground centers, all the troop stations. This is damn useful. Damn useful," he patted me on the back absentmindedly, apparently forgetting for a moment that I was the troublemaker.
"That's the good news," Mulder agreed. "And I wish I didn't have to mention this, but their largest unit is stationed only half a mile away from the prison. They will be on us in five minutes after we attack."
John's face crumbled a little. "Would a couple hundred people fend them off?"
"Is that all we have?" Scully asked, her voice more fragile than I've ever heard it.
If any of the men present had doubts regarding the plausibility of this operation, they didn't speak of it. And I understood, suddenly, that this was about more than Xavier's freedom - it was about the possibility of finally striking against the enemy, of shaking off the chains that bound them.
"Halloween is the day after tomorrow," Scully announced non sequitur.
All heads turned to her in confusion, and one of the men snickered. "I could use the candy," someone added, eliciting a few laughs.
"It's tricks for you boys. Halloween dinner will consist of yams and four-year old cranberry souse," Mulder quipped. "Whoever said we weren't a gourmet establishment?"
"Nothing ever changes, men will always worry only about food," Scully took no offense. "What I'm speaking of is the annual carnival, the costumes, the glowing lights, the ghosts. The time when the entire city went crazy for just one night."
I listened transfixed, suddenly understanding her train of thought. "We will make the troops come into town."
She glanced at me in grateful surprise. "Exactly. To the police and the government, the only thing more threatening than disorganized masses is the organized masses. And all we have to do is restore an ageless tradition."
"Where will we find the men and women?" John asked. "Most of us will be participating in the raid."
"And the rest of the city will be participating in the carnival," Mulder concluded. "Spread the word among our fine citizens. Because two days from now we attack."
"Where is Troy?" Scully asked, concerned, just as everyone was filing out the door. "Was he told of this meeting?"
"Maybe he is just late," John shrugged. "I will fill him in."
Hold Me Farther Away
My father opened the door for me, and I didn't give him a chance to say anything before I buried my face in his chest and wept, somehow hoping that my distress would grant me instant absolution. He held me awkwardly, his hands repeating the same "there, there" patting gesture. He pushed me away from himself gently and I couldn't look at him, fearful of his sorrow.
"Have you come back home?"
The hopefulness of his question nearly broke me, and it took me minutes before I could shake my head negatively. "I'm sorry, Dad. I'm so sorry."
"Are you all right? Do you have good friends?" he continued. "Where are you staying?"
"I can't say," I clenched my fist painfully. "But I'm fine... almost fine."
"Did something happen?" my father gripped me anxiously.
"Not to me," I whispered. "One of my friends is in trouble, because of me. I've really wanted to do something useful, Dad. And all I did was make a mess."
"Honey, you're just a child. You're allowed."
His indulgence was cold water against my feverish tears. I extricated myself from his embrace, trying to remember the reason why I've come back to this house.
"What is it, Tanya?"
"I need to find the costume," I said, detached. "Think they're in the basement?"
Before he could reply, I was running down the stairs, grabbing a candle and matches on the way. Back in the days when we still celebrated the Halloween and every other holiday known and imagined, my mother and I used to make beautiful outfits. Today, the impatience of finding them made me trip over several boxes and crates. My discovery, however, was worth it all.
I chose a stunning magician costume, glittering black gown and a flowing cape, and a mask to match. It was seasoned, I remembered wearing it when I was fifteen, but I knew it would still fit.
"Are you going to a masked ball?" Alex's voice made me spin around. "Because I thought we lived in the other fairy tale."
I laughed nervously, hiding my treasures in the old cellophane packet. "The one where the prince doesn't sweep Cinderella off her feet?" Suddenly not quite so amused, I sat down tiredly on one of the crates. "This is for the Halloween carnival."
"I've heard," he leaned against the wall. "The big event that everyone in the city is supposed to attend. Help divert the police's attention from something else, I imagine."
"Want to join the fun?" I asked, trying to sound enthusiastic and not to dwell upon the fact that I would not be allowed to participate in the raid, punished like a disobeying teenager.
Alex watched me peculiarly, as if my suggestion was the height of insensitivity. "Of course not."
I was taken aback. "But... it would help us."
"I'm no longer doing my little part for the resistance, in case you haven't noticed," he countered. "This is not my fight anymore."
"Maybe you won't have to fight," I tried to mollify him. "How about trick-or-treating?"
"And it would be so convenient," he agreed sarcastically. "I wouldn't even have to find a scary costume. Just take off that mask."
At a loss for words, I could only watch as he turned around and ran up the stairs, leaving me alone with the specters of the past. And I wished that I had the time to give him one more reason to join us in this madness: that I and I alone wanted and needed him to be there, beside me.
As if this reason made any difference in the world to him.
My father waited for me as I came back into the kitchen. He watched as I inspected the dining table and the stove, realizing that no kind of cooking or eating had been done here in the last two days. Silently, I prepared him dinner and served it, then put on my jacket, ready to leave.
"Tanya," he called as I opened the door. "You're always welcome to come back here."
"I know, Dad," I produced a forced smile. "And I will."
Mulder unlocked the door for me and stepped aside soundlessly, allowing me through. I went straight to the kitchen, anxious to start the dinner preparation, and he followed me there, settling on the chair in the nook. From the corner of my eye, I could see him fidgeting restlessly as if he wanted to say something and couldn't find the words.
"Tanya, no one is coming over tonight," he said finally. "Scully and I won't be eating, so just grab something for yourself."
"Aren't you hungry?" I asked.
"No," Mulder shrugged distractedly. "Things we eat these days don't exactly make my mouth water."
"I'm sorry," I stopped my preparations. "I have limited options."
"Oh," he realized that I took his comment personally. "You're a great cook, Tanya, a lot better than Xavier. But even a good cook needs proper ingredients."
My knees went suddenly weak, and I used the counter to support me. "Xavier is still alive. Isn't he?"
"Without a doubt."
Slightly reassured by the absolute belief in his voice, I found the strength necessary to keep moving, quickly putting away the plates and cans. "That bastard had biscuits in his house," I muttered angrily. "A whole plate of delicious biscuits, made with fresh eggs and flour. Maybe I should have snatched a couple before I ran away."
His eyes narrowed in confusion.
"Nelson," I explained guiltily.
"He gave you biscuits," Mulder shook his head, incredulous. "I may have been unfair to you, Tanya. I'm not thrilled that you consider me someone whose decisions require circumvention and revision, but I understand that you tried to do what's best."
I met his troubled gaze head-on. "Would Troy have been killed if he broke into Nelson's place?"
"Troy is a specialist," Mulder explained, suddenly dispassionate. "He might have gotten out alive."
I felt more than knew that he was lying - Troy was not supposed to come back, and Mulder never expected to have gotten his hands on the documents that I stole from Nelson's house. It was an excuse to create a dangerous mission, which was never meant to be successful. Scully's and Alex's words of caution haunted me, and I wondered what each of them was warning me against.
And if Mulder refused to explain his actions, how could I not doubt him?
He caught my hand as I was walking out of the kitchen. "Tanya, I don't insist on this," he held me with his magnetic eyes. "But if it was a friend who gave you our names and our location, can't you tell me his name?"
I almost wanted to tell him, feeling the need to explain at least part of my strange behavior. But if Alex's request was not enough to prevent me from betraying him, his obvious distaste towards being involved with the resistance movement sealed my lips. "The truth is...I'm not sure he is a friend."
"All the more reason to tell me," Mulder implored. "A known enemy is already less dangerous."
I shook my head stubbornly. "I guess we all have our secrets."
At an impasse, two people with secrets that couldn't be shared, we eyed each other warily.
He stepped back unexpectedly, deciding to give up the questioning for the time being. "Tanya, no one else could have fooled Nelson the way you did," he grinned, an unforced gesture that transformed his solemn face. "You will make a fine spy one day."
Unsure what to make of his unforeseen praise, I remained numb, glued to the spot.
On his way out, he threw over his shoulder, "Maybe five years from now when I trust you enough to let you out of the kitchen."
Violin cried a strange, seductive melody, and a guitar accompanied it softly as its owner's fingers tried to find the right chords. The little boy dressed as a pirate wondered over to the musicians and started beating on the drums consisting of metal trashcans. The improvised ensemble accepted the first round of applause shyly and then launched into a new, festive melody, more appropriate for the occasion.
When the searchlights hit the city at curfew time, they were met by whistling and screams of the crowd instead of by the frightened silence. I'd longed to remember the nightlife of the time before, and now that my wish was fulfilled, at least partially, I couldn't get enough of simply listening to the hubbub around me, of watching the brightly dressed people walking the streets.
And I prayed to God that I've long stopped believing in, hoping that this night would never end - and that the police would never come to break this celebration apart.
Someone bumped into me, nearly knocking me off my feet. "Pardon me, mademoiselle," he steadied me gallantly and took off his decorated hat. "Why are you so gloomy? Besides the obvious?"
I smiled, feeling for a moment that everything was right with the world and that tonight we would succeed in everything we took upon us. "I have no one to dance with."
"Well, allow me," without the slightest hesitation, he grabbed my hand and spun me to the rhythm of the street band. The world's largest disco floor unfurled for us, and soon I saw more and more couples joining us in the madness of the dance that might have been their first one in years, and their last one for years to come.
My partner didn't relinquish me when the next tune started, and we kept whirling under the searchlights, until someone's hand tapped him on the shoulder.
"May I cut in?" a stranger asked with strained politeness.
"Alex," I couldn't hide my pleasure at seeing him. "I thought you weren't going to come."
The young man I was dancing with disappeared discreetly, and Alex embraced my waist, resuming the dance. I felt his plastic hand's touch upon my shoulder and tried to adjust to its unfamiliar weight, prompting him to jerk it away abruptly. Anxious to put him back at ease, I wrapped my arms around his neck, bringing him closer to me, if only for these few minutes.
"Where are they, Tanya?" he whispered in my ear. "Where did Mulder and others go?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know or you won't tell me?" he insisted. "Why do you think there are no guards in the city enforcing the curfew and putting all good citizens to bed?"
Instantly nauseous, from spinning or from fear, I rushed to deny the terrible truth in his words. "They haven't gotten here yet."
"Are you that naive?"
Alex's voice was a dual razor in my mind, at once powerfully seductive and callously cruel. It would have been easier to hold fire at this moment rather than remain locked in his grasp, dancing as if my world wasn't crumbling around me. "Xavier was captured," I whispered. "They are raiding the prison tonight."
"How fortunate for him," he seemed to smile, and I wished that I could see his face more clearly. "I bet he will be very grateful to be out of there. He won't have to endure the beatings or live in complete darkness for months. He won't have to wonder if he still has eyesight. He won't have to live with the knowledge that his friends had forgotten him and that he was betrayed by the one man from whom he expected..." he stopped, as if unsure how to continue, then shrugged. "Forgiveness."
Scared now, I tried to free myself from his hands that held me in a death grip. "Alex, please..."
"When I was found out by the rebels, a human that worked in their ranks came to me," he kept on talking, barely paying attention to me now. "And I almost wished that he didn't tell me who betrayed me."
I wanted to scream then, to raise the level of noise around me so that I wouldn't have to hear the name.
The dangerous voice and steely eyes of the man I knew contrasted sharply with the boyish smile I've spied in the old photographs. And something in me refused to reconcile the two images.
"That's impossible," I made another attempt to disengage from him. "I don't believe you."
"I hope it hurts to hear the truth," Alex laughed in my ear, whirling me faster to the rhythm of music. "Maybe..."
I slapped him on the cheek and he gasped in pain and surprise. He watched me as if he wasn't sure who I was or what he was doing in such close proximity to me.
"Alex, go home." I turned around, ready to leave him behind, but his suddenly rational voice appealed to me, stopping me in my tracks.
"Tanya, tonight's raid will be their last. I don't know how, but the police learned their plans. They will be stopped," he finished tonelessly. "We need to warn them."
Powerless to tune him out, I wanted to weep with frustration. "Why are you doing this to me? It's too late to stop them, anyway."
"Maybe, maybe not."
I nodded in affirmation, agreeing to follow, allowing his vice-like fingers to tear into me. "If you believe what you believe," I asked, "why do you even care?"
The anguish that distorted his face was too much for me to see, and I averted my eyes.
"Why do you love me?" he demanded to know suddenly. "Maybe you can explain to me why you care so much about someone who doesn't care for you."
If he wanted to cause me pain, he didn't have to try that hard. Straightening my shoulders after absorbing the blow, I recovered enough to give him a reply, "Because that, which doesn't kill us, makes us stronger."
I've never considered what kind of a man Alex was until he plunged the knife into the guard who happened to be on our way to the prison. It was just a flick of a wrist, a movement as elegant and well practiced as glancing at the watch for other people, and I knew that he didn't care for the life he just terminated. I would have hesitated longer before stepping on an ant.
I loved a man who could kill without reservations.
And I couldn't stop.
"Have you ever contemplated the treachery of mankind?"
I thought the question rhetoric at best, but these were the first words out of his mouth since we left the carnival behind, and it seemed prudent to support the conversation. "Actually, I am doing that as we speak."
Alex glanced at me sharply. "I didn't mean what I said to you, Tanya."
"Yes, you did."
He halted and spun me around to face him. "Will you listen if I try to apologize?"
If he thought it would make everything better, he was mistaken. Strangely enough, I knew that he did care for me, in an offhand, friendly way, the same way he'd care about a forgotten kitten or anyone else who just happened to inhabit the nearest physical space. But hearing this truth from his lips, or listening to whatever misleading explanations he came up with would probably bring me to my knees and render me completely useless.
"Alex." I rubbed my forehead, trying to quell the rising dull ache inside it. "We will be late."
"We already are," he pointed to the area encircled by the militia. "The human treachery I mentioned? They're using the prison built by the rebels. No need to build a new one, right?"
I watched in surprise as he stepped back a little, suddenly hesitant. And when I understood the reasons for his reluctance, I instinctively reached out to grasp his trembling hand. "Is this the prison from which you escaped?"
"Yes," his lips barely moved to form the word. Minutes passed before he appeared more in control, and the hunted animal look in his eyes became less apparent. "So everyone's already inside, and the troops are waiting to ambush them when they come out. It's easier to do out in the open rather than underground."
"Too claustrophobic. The cells are small, and the halls are narrow - and there is no electricity, unless they took the time to make improvements," he explained. "It would be as much a trap for the militia as it is for the resistance members."
"Do you know another way to get inside?" I asked hopefully. "If we could only circumvent the guards..."
Alex's hoarse laugh lacked humor - or any emotion. "I promised myself that I'd sooner die than go back inside. How ironic, really."
Before I could manage a reply, he was sprinting off in the direction of the nearby patch of woods. I ran after him, desperately hoping that our shadows wouldn't be noticed - somehow guessing that Alex was past caring about such mundane precautions.
"There is a tunnel," he explained feverishly as he searched the ground for something. "It's narrow, but single file, we will fit in." He stumbled upon the door with his foot and knelt down, looking for a latch. "Help me out here."
We grasped the rusty handle together and peeled it open. The first few feet were a straight drop down, not unlike the rabbit hole through which Alice fell to find a distorted world. For the first time I realized just what a feat of strength it must have been for him to climb these feet to the ground, or what courage it must have taken for him to come back here and be willing to retrace his way back into hell.
I sat on the edge, prepared to jump in, and he pulled me away gently but insistently. "This time, ladies go second," he grinned. "No offense."
"Alex," I latched on to his sleeve, suddenly incapable of letting him go. "This time, it will be different."
He pressed me close to him - an unexpected, awkward gesture. "Oh, to be as young as you are, Tanya. I wish I could believe that."
In my optimism, I couldn't appreciate his fatalism. Only one hour from now would I remember his words and mourn the passing of my innocence.
Only then would I come to understand the vicious circle in which we've all been locked, without hope for release.
The Lack of Mistrust
If hell existed, surely we stood upon its first circle. 'Stood' was perhaps too loud a word for it, we had to crouch and, at one point, get down on hands and knees to crawl through the especially narrow spaces. The darkness was absolute. I haven't realized just how accustomed I've become to being constantly surrounded by the bright light - sun during the day, searchlights during the night. I couldn't see Alex's form, and had to reassure myself of his presence by the sound of his steps and regular breathing.
"You all right?" he whispered.
"Fine," I lied. "It's the most exciting Halloween activity I've done in all my life. It puts visiting graveyards at midnight to shame."
Alex snickered and groped for my hand. "Something useful I've learned during my days underground: no matter what you do, if you have no sources of light, you will not see in the darkness. The best thing is to just close your eyes and feel with your other senses - amplify them, be dependent on them. The touch," he squeezed my fingers. "The hearing," he breathed in my ear. "And most importantly, the smell. And this particular sense tells me that," he sniffed, "a stray cat died here." Carefully, he led me around the disintegrating small corpse.
"I get your point." I shivered, extremely anxious to be out of here. "Let's just walk really fast."
"Your wish is my command."
After a few dozen feet, we came to a brick wall that closed off our access to the halls of the prison.
"This must be recent," Alex mused. "Luckily, if I know anything about humans, it's also not very well-made. And," he took out a gun and aimed it at the center, "we will just have to make our presence known a little sooner than planned."
The resulting gunshot crack gave way under our combined weight, and we fell through to the hard floor.
"Let's split," I suggested. "You go right, I go left, we meet back here."
"Good idea," Alex groaned, getting up with effort. "Only it won't work."
"Hands up," someone demanded. "Turn around slowly and take off your mask."
I did as the man behind me asked, realizing that I had no time to reach for a weapon. In retrospect, I was glad that I didn't, because in the uneven light of the torch, I was able to recognize John. His implacable face was more than a reassurance to me that we still had time enough.
"Tanya, what the..." he breathed a sigh of relief and lowered the gun. "Who is that?" he glared at Alex.
I realized that even if they had known each other before, odds were John wouldn't guess the identity of the masked stranger. "A friend," I said quickly. "We need to find the others and warn them - there is a veritable army waiting for you outside."
"And you knew this because...nevermind," John shrugged. "I will go warn Scully's team - you go there," he pointed towards the other end of the hall. "Meet us here in fifteen."
"Make it five," Alex ordered uncompromisingly and walked away.
"John, wait," I ran after the retreating figure. "Did you at least find Xavier?"
"Yes," he replied too abruptly and shooed me away. "Now go."
Momentarily elated, I caught up with Alex as he rounded a corner. But I didn't have a chance to cover the distance between us before I saw him take out a gun and aim it unwaveringly at the man he'd just come to rescue.
"Old habits are hard to shake," he said calmly. "Wouldn't you agree, Mulder?"
The gun reflected the orange flames from the torch that Mulder carried. Perhaps he was just as mesmerized by the sight as I was, because he slowly walked towards the deadly weapon, as if inviting the danger. Transfixed, I could only watch as his fingers reached out blindly, first to touch the mask on Alex's face, then to strip it away.
I felt prepared for any reaction from Mulder when he saw the crooked scars and deformities, the ugliness that transformed a formerly handsome man into a monster. Any reaction but a smile. It lit up his features, instantly erasing the years and wrinkles, otherwise plainly visible. I wasn't sure if he noticed that the offending gun had cluttered to the floor - or if he had even seen it to begin with.
"Damn you," Alex breathed resignedly and knelt to pick up both the mask and the discarded weapon. With his shield against the world securely back in place, he straightened up to face Mulder. "Let's skip the 'welcome back' speeches, all right? This is a trap, and we're all meat if we walk out the front door."
"Alex, wait," Mulder beseeched. "We thought we'd lost you - can't you just explain..."
"How you sold me out or how I survived in spite of it?" Alex sneered. "Maybe later."
If I had ever had doubts about Mulder's honesty, they were effectively eradicated when I saw his expression of genuine horror. "What?" he asked softly.
"Did I mention that we have no time?" I spoke up, reluctant to act as an intervention, but hoping that one of them would remember the precariousness of our position.
Never did I expect that I would hear an answer to my question from behind me - or that it would be accompanied by a touch of cold metal upon my temple.
"Come to think of it, you did, Tanya," John's voice lacked his earlier friendliness. "But Mulder never listens." With a practiced maneuver, he cuffed my hands behind me.
"Let her go!" Alex demanded, and I wondered if it was truly pathetic that, at this ghastly moment, I could be pleased at hearing genuine concern in his voice.
His order went unheeded as we were surrounded by the guards, as our guns were taken away, as yet another man we trusted faced us contemptuously.
"It's such a sweet scene, Krycek," Troy addressed Alex. "I would have almost loved to finish watching it from the shadows - you are convinced that Mulder betrayed you, and yet you come to warn him and his friends of the imminent danger - it's something worthy of a Greek tragedy."
"And you," he turned to Mulder. "Don't you wish you had just killed me when you found out about my mistake instead of concocting this elaborate scheme that only landed all of you in trouble?" the lament in his words was almost sincere. "I do still wonder how you learned that I traded Krycek's life for my own - thought I took care of all the loose ends, but I guess I was wrong."
Hazel eyes scorched him with disdain. "Too many people to kill? I gave you a chance to die as a hero, Troy. Now you will die a traitor."
"But, Mulder," Troy smiled as the guards gripped his enemy's hands, effectively immobilizing him. "You're the one who dies."
I should have been expecting the blow that came from Troy's heavy boot. It was a beautiful strikeout that seemed to require no effort on his part, and yet was devastating to its recipient. Mulder sagged, his breath coming out in short gasps from a wounded chest. He made almost no sound, but two screams compensated for his silence - one that erupted from my throat and the other that came from Alex.
Troy listened, apparently satisfied with the level of grief he caused. "As I said, it's rather sweet."
"Where are the others?" John asked impatiently. His tone was faintly irritated, as if he had no taste for this display of violence.
"Just joining the party," Troy nodded towards the back.
John turned around, swerving me with him. There, the guards held the handcuffed Scully and two other men who participated in the raid, Tim and Russ. I realized that the decision had been made to use as few people as possible, and in the light of current events, I appreciated Mulder's foresight: the fewer men caught in the trap, the better. I scanned the newly arrived group for Xavier, and almost wished that I hadn't, because his appearance, more than anything tonight, made my blood freeze in my veins. He was practically carried by the two guards, his leg turned at a strange angle. His pallid face testified to the pain he must have been in, but his eyes were alert and they alone acknowledged my presence.
I prayed that he would pass out. I prayed that my own consciousness would somehow desert me for just a few minutes, so that I could wake up later when everything was finally all right - a wish of the child who stumbled upon a particularly nasty bedtime monster.
Scully evaluated the situation in front of her, her sharp blue eyes focusing incredulously first on Alex, then on her still incapacitated partner, then on Troy. But it was John to whom she addressed her question, "How long have you planned this for?"
"Oh, Dana," he seemed to enjoy her first name rolling over his tongue. "I can't take the credit. Troy did the planning and graciously let me participate."
"Why, John?" her tone was impeccably civil. "Why now, when we finally had the chance for a victory?"
"Dana, the war is over," John replied with conviction. "The aliens have left, the humans are back in power - why do we fight our own kind? Why not combine our forces and bring this country back to its original state?"
"How about because this government is worse than totalitarian in nature? We're not even speaking of democracy here," she laughed. "My god, John, these people are only in power by virtue of having more guns. They didn't even inform the population that aliens were gone."
"Scully, Scully, this is really beside the point," Troy waved her away as an annoying distraction. "Let's concentrate on business at hand. Put them in the available cells," he directed the guards. "We would have loved to kill you all right here and now, but the governor wants to have the general population witness the example of what happens to the criminal elements."
"Public executions," Alex translated for our benefit. "How not surprising."
"You're the one who said it, Krycek," Troy replied. "Until then, have a pleasant stay."
"Let them go," Mulder's whisper still carried an unmistakable edge of power. "You've got me, you don't need the others."
"Sorry," Troy apologized. "Wait: no, I'm not."
"It's me you want, not them. Please, reconsider."
John's grip on me was suddenly a bit loose. Before I could use it to my advantage, he pushed me forward, towards Scully and the other captives. "We really don't need them, Troy. Let them go."
"They will try to break in again," Troy objected. "They still have more men."
"Men who will never obey the command of a woman," John winked at Scully. "With Mulder, you, and myself out of the picture, most leaders are gone and the troops will scatter into the wilderness."
Troy appeared to hesitate, then shrugged in the gesture of unexpected benevolence. "Yeah, why the hell not. But," he pointed his finger sharply at Alex, "he stays. "
Scully opened her mouth to interject, but one of the other resistance members silenced her, and she accepted the condition for the time being. Alex barely paid attention to their exchange, his eyes focused only on the weakened man beside him. Now, when his life hung on a bare thread and he was about to be incarcerated in the very place that he feared the most, there was an expression of near-contentment in his features. Gone were the nervous restlessness and the nearly visible cloak of darkness that surrounded him, as if finally, he was where he wanted to be.
Or rather, I understood in chagrin, he was with the one person who really mattered to him.
"I don't think he would object to staying," John smiled, this truth not escaping him either. "It's settled."
Without another word, we were ushered out of the hall, towards the winding staircase that led above. Scully's feet, even more than Xavier's, refused to cooperate - and I could understand her feelings only too well. The image of Mulder being cruelly shoved away was enough to make me ill.
But it was the thought of leaving Alex here, in the prison where he had been tortured, that truly undid me. Back above the ground, the handcuffs off my hands, the foe army safely behind us, I turned my eyes upward, to the ailing white sky redefined by searchlights as if it could provide me with some reassurance, some answer as to why my promise to him, the promise of a happier ending, should have been broken.
But the inanimate lights kept on sweeping over the city in silence.
After being carried on the shoulders of Tim and Russ for half-an-hour and realizing that the two men must have been exhausted, Xavier demanded to be allowed to walk on his own. It was Scully who intervened, in the uncommonly ungracious way, by telling him to mind his own business. She and I took over the duty instead and, stubbornly, we kept on walking back towards the city, each of us digesting the events of this night in silence.
Two more changes of hands and one hour later, we stood at the door of Backstage. The carnival was long over - either destroyed by the police or dispersed on its own, and the streets were deserted around us. Scully's fingers fumbled with a lock, dropping the keys in the process and prompting an angry exclamation to fall off her lips. I realized that the show of strength she'd been projecting was only for our benefit, and in truth she was devastated, her only remaining source of support extinguished.
Still, Scully held on somehow while she found the box of medical supplies and fit a makeshift cast over Xavier's leg. He jerked under her fingers, moaning and finally screaming from the pain, and she instructed me to hold him securely while she worked. Tim and Russ watched from the side, cringing in sympathy, probably waiting for any words of wisdom that she had to offer.
Her task completed, she left a barely conscious Xavier lying on the conference table and faced the two men wearily. "We have a scheduled meeting tomorrow, and it will commence as usual," she declared. "I want everyone present."
"Everyone?" Russ asked, surprised. "Is it really necessary?"
"Yes," Scully cut him off. "We cannot rely on the team leaders any longer."
Tim opened his mouth, as if to voice an objection, then changed his mind. "We'll get him back, Scully."
"Them," she corrected him. "Mulder *and* Krycek."
"Wasn't he presumed dead?" Russ asked. "Or at least missing in action?"
"Sometimes I think the man is a cat of nine lives," Scully quipped dryly. "And so alive he will stay."
She retreated to another room while Tim and Russ helped carry Xavier to bed. They left shortly after, and I sank down onto bed next to him, barely able to stand on my feet. The sudden chill that shook my body was impossible to ward off, and I recognized it as one of the symptoms of belated shock. Still, the only thing that I could do was sit huddled under a stray blanket and wait while the silent tears rolled down my cheeks.
Xavier's hand encircled my shoulders tentatively, pulling me closer, and I settled my weight against his chest, grateful to be so close to this source of warmth. He winced at my touch, and I shifted away quickly.
"Is it your leg? Are you not comfortable?" I questioned him, concerned.
He shook his head abruptly, too busy gnashing his teeth to talk. Instinct alone led me to unbutton his shirt, and I stared in stupefaction at the multitude of bloody bruises that covered his chest.
"They treated me as a good floor rug," he tried to crack a joke.
"And were they going to throw you away when they were done?" I asked, stifling the urge to cry. "I will go get the bandages."
"Hold on a second," Xavier pushed me back down. "It will wait...I think by now the numbness is kicking in and I don't feel my own body," he grinned weakly. "Tanya, I'm sorry to have caused you and everyone else such pain. I was an idiot. But when I saw you being harassed by the guards, and you were taking so long inside the house... I had to do something."
"I wish you hadn't. I was going out of my mind, Xavier. I thought we'd lost you for good."
"And yet," he mused, "that night I felt as if I had no choice. No choice at all."
Wordlessly, I took his hand and stroked his fingers, willing him to find some rest. His eyelids drifted shut, and his breathing evened out eventually. Just before he fell asleep, he mumbled something and I leaned closer to him to hear the words.
"Nice costume," he whispered.
I laughed despite myself - I had forgotten that I was still dressed for Halloween. My laughter quickly froze on my lips when I remembered the real monsters and ghouls I encountered tonight. And seeing what happened to Xavier provided my imagination with ample room to exhaust myself worrying about Alex and Mulder.
We had a day, only one day, to somehow prevent the deaths of the man who meant everything in the world to me and of the other man whom I'd come to respect as an older brother. For the first time in my twenty-year-long life, I mastered the principles of insomnia and partook in its ageless ritual.
By morning, the resistance members were streaming in through the open doors of Backstage, and I had to leave Xavier to attend the meeting. I kissed his forehead before walking out, careful not to wake him. He was back, and alive, and why couldn't it bring me some relief?
Nothing was right with the world, and life went on as usual.
Viva La Resistance!
"We must surrender."
The words may have been spoken as a chorus - and no one rose to challenge them. Even Scully remained silent, as if she could not find a single argument to refute them. The men and women crammed into the Backstage were frightened - but even more than that, they were apathetic, as if the greatest war of their lives had already been fought and lost, behind their backs.
"We have no choice," Tim spoke up shyly. "And maybe if we give in, they will let Mulder and Krycek go."
"They would never let Mulder go," Scully objected acerbically. "Of us all, he presents them with the most danger."
"Scully," Tim whispered brokenly. "Don't you realize that they no longer consider us a danger?"
It was hard to swallow the bitterness of the sentiment, hard to acknowledge its truth. The police knew our location, they could easily come in any time and gun us down. The fact that they didn't signified not the quality of their mercy, but rather the fact that they considered us unworthy of attention.
"Our chances of winning this round are extremely low," someone spoke up from the back. "The executions are scheduled for tomorrow, and they will be guarding Mulder and Krycek with a special zeal. Raiding the prison was never going to work, as we know now."
"We only lose more people each time we go in," Russ agreed. "And let's admit it: we're greatly outnumbered."
Scully's eyes were focused on the scratched table surface as if she could divine some answers from it. "We've always been outnumbered and that didn't stop us before."
"Perhaps it's time." A woman lay a hand on her shoulder considerately, and Scully didn't seem to have enough strength to remove the offending object.
I couldn't maintain my silence any longer. "Are you suggesting that we forget about Mulder and Alex?" I posed a question, articulating what no one else was willing to. "That we simply abandon them?"
It was Russ who answered, his grave eyes settling with pity first on me, then on Scully. "Will you even listen to yourselves? You're proposing sacrificing all these lives," he gestured widely at the audience, "to save just two men. Krycek was one of the main reasons why we failed to overthrow the rebels. And Mulder didn't even consider it necessary to inform us that Troy may have been dirty; he preferred to keep it a secret and deal with it as if it had been a personal vendetta. And, Scully, I have not the slightest doubt that you knew about it as well. Weigh it carefully, friends," he addressed everyone, "two lives against two hundred."
My throat moved convulsively, wanting to unleash all of my anger right then and there, to prove him wrong. But seeing the agreeable nods from everyone in the room, I understood that it was no use.
"Mulder was always good at making enemies out of friends," Scully whispered, not heeding who heard her. Visibly steeling herself, she asked, "Am I to understand that this is mutiny?"
"I think," Russ scanned the embarrassed faces, "that this is simply an admission of defeat."
"Everyone, if you feel that you're no longer able to be a part of this organization, I thank you for your time," Scully stood up. "If your weapon is borrowed, please surrender it at the exit."
One by one, I watched men and women walk out of the room. With each revolver laid at the table, with each pair of eyes shamefully averted from us, I knew that we were losing one more chance at getting Mulder and Alex back alive. I cringed when the door swung the last time, and my breath stopped for a moment when I saw the small handful of people remaining.
Scully seemed surprised when she saw Tim among them. "That door is still open," she reminded the man who argued just a few minutes ago about the hopelessness of our cause.
He rubbed his hands together nervously. "I don't believe we can win, Scully," he said skeptically. "But if I didn't try to help Mulder - and you - I'd consider myself the lowest scum that ever crawled this Earth."
"No, that was aliens," I quipped, surprised and relieved to hear laughter that immediately followed my remark.
"Fifteen," Scully counted the heads and chuckled sadly. "At least I know that we're all committed to the same goal."
I turned around at the sound of Xavier's voice, appalled to discover him out of bed, hanging on to the door. Scully appeared just as unhappy to see him standing as I was, but instead of reprimanding him, she repeated softly and gratefully, "Sixteen."
"Well, I suppose we all agree that charging in like a cavalry is out of the question," Tim summarized. "Any other suggestions?" he looked around the group. "Scully?"
She blinked, visibly returning from a dream into reality. Wherever she'd been, it wasn't a better place, judging by her gray face and pained eyes. "I'm sorry," she apologized softly. "I was just thinking..." she stopped herself forcibly. "I agree that we can't use brute force. But what about making a trade? Something valuable enough to the government that they'd be willing to exchange for the prisoners?"
"Or someone," Xavier added, nodding approvingly. "A life for a life."
Tim shook his head, disheartened. "The only person valuable enough to forego the entertainment of public executions? The governor himself, without whom, let's admit, it just won't be the same."
"Well, then the governor it will have to be," Scully shrugged.
I wasn't sure if she was joking. "Do you realize that we don't even know his name?"
"Much less where he lives?" Xavier questioned.
"I can't believe that no one in this entire city knows how to find him," Scully clenched her fist painfully. "And unless anyone has better solutions, I suggest we start looking right now." She picked up her weapon and a jacket. "Tap all your sources, see what you can find out, and let's meet back here in three hours."
"Where are you going?" Tim asked, concerned.
She smiled grimly. "To speak with my source. Tanya," she turned to me unexpectedly. "Would you accompany me, please?"
I was slightly taken aback by the invitation, but immediately stood up and went to join her.
"See you in three," Tim shouted at us as we left the building.
Scully walked briskly, glancing at me furtively from time to time, as if she wanted to ask something and wasn't sure how to begin. "You know Alex," she stated finally, and the name sounded wrong on her lips.
"A little," I mumbled and thought that I didn't really, not even after what I'd witnessed last night. "He rented a room from my father."
"That explains how you found us," she commented, her eyes downcast. "How long has he been staying with you?"
"About four months, maybe less. I don't think he meant to ignore everyone," I felt as if I had to make excuses for him. "You have to understand that he thought - well, you know what he thought. He said that he tried to find Rick."
Scully stopped so abruptly that I had to walk a few steps back to the place where she stood, rooted to the ground. "Do you know if he actually met with Rick?"
"I don't believe so, no."
"The day Rick died, he said he'd received some information from a source he couldn't disclose. Information about what happened to Krycek," she closed her eyes, concentrating on the memory. "Everyone was in the room...Mulder, John, the others...Troy. He left and never came back."
"Scully..." I reached out to support her when she swayed, her hands covering her eyes. I looked around for a place to sit down but could find nothing except ruined buildings.
"I'm all right," she steadied herself. "For three months, I spoke and worked every day with a man who murdered someone I loved, but we all make mistakes, I suppose. The worst thing was that I trusted Troy, I respected him," she added in wonder. "I refused to believe that he betrayed Krycek."
"How did it happen?"
"Apparently, he was captured by the rebels about a year ago. In order to save his own skin, he told them he'd make a trade and give them some information they would appreciate..." Scully shuddered. "Troy did great work for the resistance. How did he end up on the other side? Where did we go wrong?"
"You didn't," I objected. What would I have done in his place? How loud would my scream be upon the sight of the unlit, claustrophobic cell in which I was to be incarcerated? My voice strained when I declared, "Troy is a coward."
"How could he have killed Rick?" she asked me longingly as if begging for some explanation.
Because he was simply another life caught in the avalanche that started as a simple mistake. "One of Troy's loose ends."
"I will tie up the rest for him," Scully's words were below temperature. "We're going to visit one of them right now."
I had to run to catch up with her determined stride. If it was possible, I was more worried about her now than I was about the men about to be executed tomorrow. There wasn't a trace left of the broken woman who stood in front of me a minute ago, there was only a soldier determined to destroy her greatest enemy.
"Prepare," Scully knocked on the brown door of the dilapidated old house. "You're about to meet one of the men who sold out the planet."
After such a dramatic introduction, I was anticipating to see anyone but the not as well dressed elderly gentleman that Scully brought in for questioning a few days ago. Seeing her, he ducked back into the shadows, unmistakably wary.
"Agent Scully," he greeted her resignedly with a 'what is it now' look. "How can I help you today?"
"You can help by inviting us in," she replied unceremoniously. "We have a long conversation ahead."
"I've already told you all that I knew," he objected hurriedly. "There is only so much...but come in," he changed his mind when she took out her gun. He led the way inside the poorly furnished room and pointed us to the chairs around the table, then shuffled over to the windows and opened the draperies, letting the daylight in. "What can I do for you?"
"Who is the governor and where does he live?" Scully asked bluntly.
The old man's laugh was mirthless. "Why do you come to me? I'm not friendly with the current government."
After some hesitation, she put her gun away and showed him her empty hands. "I didn't come to fight," she announced politely. "As much as I hate to admit it, you're the only hope we have left. Mulder and Krycek will die tomorrow if you don't help us."
There was compassion in his voice. "I'm very sorry, Agent. But I don't know who the governor is. Even if I did, I don't think he'd listen to your plea." Her eyes flashed angrily and he hastened to pacify her before she had a chance to speak. "Of course, you wouldn't beg... what did you have in mind, threats?"
Neither of us answered, and he averted his gaze, as if embarrassed to have spied the weakness of his interrogators. "I am but an old, useless man from an organization that outlived its usefulness, probably the only surviving member of the Consortium. Even the smoker was killed when the rebels came into power," he paused to ponder. "The new ruling class is a younger and crueler lot. All they care about is demonstrating their might. Your friends will die, and there is nothing any of us can do."
"A human that worked in their ranks came to me..." I repeated, the pieces of the puzzle finally falling into their places. "You worked with Alex for the rebels. Didn't you?" When he didn't reply, I shouted, "Didn't you?"
"Alex was a spy for them," he nodded at Scully, who watched me concerned. "What is this all about?"
"You lied to him!" I screamed at him. "You told Alex that it was Mulder who betrayed him. You deliberately deceived him!"
He glanced at Scully as if seeking protection. "I...I'm not sure I understand."
"Admit it," I demanded. "And then you came to his friends and told them without any shame that Alex was dead."
"Tanya," Scully implored, grabbing my hand. "Tanya, please, sit down - let's sort this out rationally."
I shook her off, feeling far from rational. "He is the man responsible for what happened to Alex!"
"Well, not quite," he reasoned. "I wasn't the one who betrayed him and I wasn't the one who threw him in prison. But, my dear young lady, you have to understand that Alex Krycek is not an angel you're apparently convinced he is. We had a lot of...let's call them disagreements in the past...and yes, I was glad to have a chance to pay him back the only way I knew how."
By adding salt in his bleeding wounds, I wanted to shout. I couldn't erase the image from my mind, the image I knew would haunt me for too long a time to come: Alex, crouched on the floor of the too-small cell, and this man, his face lit by the red flame of the torch, telling him lies and taking pleasure in his pain. There was so much hatred in my heart at that moment I thought myself quite capable of killing this reptile, and if Scully didn't step between us, I just might have.
"I was convinced that Krycek was dead, otherwise I wouldn't have told Mulder and Scully about that," the old man explained as if it absolved him of all crimes. "I've seen few men who survived that prison." He shuddered visibly and looked at me speculatively. "Anyway - who are you and why all this concern about Krycek? I'd say you were in love with him if I weren't..."
I wasn't sure what expression my face held at that moment but he aborted the speech and scratched his forehead. "I see," he finished softly, and Scully's expression changed to one of understanding - and, something I couldn't bear to recognize, pity.
Unable to be with either one of them any longer, I practically ran to the door with Scully following closely on my heels.
"Young lady!" the old man's voice stopped me. "One second of your time."
I grabbed the doorknob and turned it.
"I have something you will be interested in," he was out of breath, showing us a piece of paper. "Perhaps they wanted to laugh at my expense or maybe it was a mistake, but I've been invited to a party tonight in governor's honor. You will notice it doesn't mention his name. I didn't want to go, but you," he waggled his eyebrows at me, "you just might want to give it a shot."
I took the card wordlessly.
"Thank you," Scully told him gratefully and stood back as he closed the door. She touched my shoulder tentatively, as if she thought I might shatter. "Are you all right?"
I shook my head numbly, convinced that I'd never be able to walk or speak again.
"I'm not sure how to say this..." she began and fell silent at my beseeching look. This wasn't the time to present me with any new revelations but one: Alex was not going to die.
"Please tell me you have a plan," I whispered, and the words scratched my throat.
Scully turned up the collar of her coat, shielding herself from the cold wind. "*We* have a plan."
An hour later, I tried on a simple black dress borrowed from Tim's wife. We were the same height, but where she had soft curves, I had sharp angles, and the silky material hung on me unflatteringly. Cinderella I wasn't, especially in the shoes that could have been used as torture devices by the Inquisition.
"We need to do something with your hair." Scully studied me critically. "Sometimes I feel hopelessly inadequate - where we need the skills of a hairdresser, I fail miserably."
I shook my dark hair free and let it fall around my face, then reached for the scissors to make a few precise cuts, corrected a few imperfections in my make-up.
"I don't want to let you go alone," Scully spoke fiercely.
"I won't be alone," I hurried to reassure her. "Tim will be watching."
"Remember, we will be waiting at the northwest corner of the building," she reminded me unnecessarily. "Try to get him outside and walking in our direction, and we will take care of the rest. And if it doesn't work out, don't panic. The main thing is that we don't lose yet more people."
I bit my lip. If it didn't work out, if I weren't able to somehow sweep the governor off his feet and into our trap, then we would be witnesses to the slaughter of our friends in less than twenty-four hours. I knew that Scully wished she could go instead of me, if only to have something to do rather than wait, but we agreed that she might be recognized. None of us spoke of the possibility of Troy and John being at the party as well - we all knew it would preordain our failure.
I evaluated my appearance yet again, trying to reach beneath the layers of desperation and anxiety and find the girl who was always only too excited to be asked on a date or invited to a party. But even if some of that carefree spirit remained, I appeared too intense, my eyes were too unsettled, and my complexion was too pale. Moreover, I realized in shock, I looked almost old.
"Smile," Scully said with a strain, as if she'd read my thoughts. "You've already wrapped Eric Nelson around your finger, and this will be even easier."
"Of course," I flashed a fake smile at the mirror. The picture didn't improve.
"You look beautiful, Tanya." Xavier stood in the doorway and while his eyes swept over me approvingly, apparently satisfied with the image I projected, it was Scully on whom he finally focused his warm and concerned gaze. "How are you holding up?"
If he hoped that Scully would admit to feeling anything but fine, he was out of luck. I'd already learned not to rely on her words - but the imperceptible shift in her body language, the slight quiver of her lips told me more than I needed to know. "Just fine," she said brusquely and left the room.
Xavier watched me in silence for a few seconds, then limped away. And as much as I wanted to find the words to stop him, I couldn't. With only my reflection for company, I felt alone and somehow detached from reality. At the sight of Tim dressed in the evening clothes and fully prepared for the charade we were about to play, I was desperately relieved to have at least one friend by my side.
"My lady," he bowed before me and grinned with unforced cheerfulness. "Ready to rock and roll?"
I curtsied mockingly in reply and thought that I might crumble into a million pieces before we even set out of the house. But for the sake of everyone who relied on me, I gave him an answer that he wanted to hear.
"Ready, willing, and able."
The Art of Light
Where I expected to see a beautiful mansion, was only a functional glass-and-chrome building that seemed alive under the dancing searchlights. Four guards stood at the entrance and I had an unpleasant flashback to the search I endured before stepping into Nelson's house. Tim's casual flash of an invitation card, gold engraving on its cover, was enough today to let us proceed without impediments.
At the doorway leading to the brightly-lit ballroom, Tim separated from me discreetly and disappeared up the stairs. I allowed the crowd to sweep me inside, to make me a part of them. Most of the men attending the party were young, in their twenties and thirties, most of them accompanied by even younger women dressed to dazzle. The music filled the high- ceilinged space, seemingly coming from everywhere and adding to the surrealism of the proceedings.
When someone asked me to dance, I agreed. My reflexes took over and while my body obeyed the rhythm of the song, my eyes desperately searched the room for my one true goal. The dance over, I nodded politely to my accidental partner and turned around only to find myself face to face with Eric Nelson.
"This is a surprise," his thick pink nostrils flared happily. "A very nice surprise," he emphasized. "Care to dance?"
Before I could squeak out my assent, he was clutching me in his hands and performing a poor imitation of the waltz movements. "Our last meeting was so cruelly interrupted," Nelson murmured somewhere below my ear. "I wondered what happened to you."
"I didn't want to be in anyone's way, sir," I replied as he gripped me tighter. We must have looked comical to the casual observer, so poorly suited were we as dance partners. He was at least one head shorter than I was, and his thick neck loomed like a constant temptation in my field of vision. But, as I had been taught, I unleashed my most seductive smile and whispered, "You're a great dancer, Mr. Nelson."
"You're flattering me, young lady," he scolded me coyly. "But flattery will get you anywhere. Well, have you got any more news for me?"
"After you captured the leader of the resistance movement, what news could I possibly give you?" I asked in admiration. "Their organization must be dead and of no concern to you."
"I suppose." He stopped dancing when the music swelled down, and I was immeasurably relieved. "The governor will be glad to see these men finally terminated - and since we caught them in my prison, I can count on some sort of a promotion," he beamed at me. "Now, my lady, the question is - would you like to come and work for me?"
"I already said yes, sir," I nodded.
"Come," he tugged my hand possessively. "I will introduce you to the man of the evening." Stifling any undue happiness at the proposal, I rushed after him, oddly grateful for his unwitting assistance.
"Sir," Nelson bowed before the composed, powerfully built man in his forties with an obvious military bearing. "Allow me to introduce a woman who assisted in conquering the resistance movement."
"Tanya Sharpe," I stated softly, terrified at this overture. If I only hadn't interfered with Mulder's plans, if I only didn't put Xavier in danger, if I only could foresee yesterday's events. "And I can't take the credit."
The governor smiled at both of us condescendingly, prepared to dismiss us.
"I'm pleased to finally meet a man responsible for our victory," I spoke quickly. "I've been waiting for this moment a long time."
The governor was apparently susceptible to praise as well. "Now, what is a man like you doing with a woman like this?" he addressed Nelson who seemed to shrink into his glistening coat of skin. "If you don't mind, I will abduct her from you for an evening."
Not waiting for an answer, the governor grasped my hand and led me back to the dance floor. This new development should have gladdened me, but instead I had the distinct sense of something going awry already - if only because he was more pleased at having taken something away from Nelson rather than at the prospect of having me by his side.
His frosty gray eyes didn't once focus on me while we whirled under the changing lights. The distinct sense of unreality that trailed after me all evening was back and this time I could trace its source to an empty stomach and lack of sleep. The floor seemed to tilt under me, disappearing beneath my feet, and at one strange moment, my dancing partner had to catch me before I fell. Dizzily, I leaned my head against him, trying to remind myself that falling apart now would be a really bad idea.
He looked at me curiously, as if for the first time realizing that he was in the presence of another human being and pushed me away, just enough to prevent unnecessary contact between us. "You all right?" he checked and I remembered Alex's voice speaking the same words in the same tone - just barely concerned, more perfunctory than caring. The sensation was sobering.
"Better now," I replied and tried to switch the topic. "I don't believe I caught your name."
"No one knows my name but some people closest to me," the governor cut me off coldly. "You cannot underestimate the security that anonymity provides."
"That is wise," I admitted.
"I use this house only on special occasions," he explained. "Few people know where I really live."
I slid my hands down his arms, cozying up to him and only felt him stiffen in response. "What is the special occasion today?"
"The birth of my son."
This wasn't something I anticipated. "You must be very proud."
"My wife and I are fortunate," he nodded. "I love her more today than I've ever believed possible."
I gritted my teeth and flashed him a brilliant smile. At this moment, I hated his wife, son, and him more than I've ever believed possible. While he celebrated a birth, I would be mourning two deaths, and I knew that this excursion was already a failure.
"Why did you stop?" he asked me laughingly.
"No reason," I replied, resuming our dance and trying to think of something empty to say. "It's a beautiful ballroom, by the way."
"The best place in the city to watch searchlights," the governor agreed.
I probed his face, startled by his answer. Did he stand at the highest floor of this building on the clear nights just as many other citizens, watching the city? Did he look for something - or someone? "Was it your invention?" I whispered in realization.
For the first time this evening, his eyes softened and he held me closer as we whirled under the silver illumination. "Yes."
The dance over, we walked to the table piled high with refreshments. Nelson scurried away upon seeing us, bearing a full plate and a glass of champagne, and the governor's lips turned downward in distaste.
"You don't like him," I hazarded a guess.
I had a distinct impression that any positive answer would put hundreds of miles between us, placing me further behind than I was at the beginning of this evening. I settled on a safe lie. "He is my future employer."
The news visibly unsettled him. "Come to work for me instead."
"Is this offer due to any extraordinary qualities of mine? Or simply because of your aversion to Mr. Nelson?"
He studied me appraisingly. "You're a capable young woman, and I'm sure I could find some use for your skills."
The champagne tasted bitter in my mouth. "How could I say no?"
"Nelson is one of the remaining relics that I've worked so hard to destroy," the governor explained, disgusted. "I wish I could find some legitimate reason to get rid of him. In fact," he suggested easily, "seeing how taken he is with you, it would be your first assignment."
I couldn't help but smile at the offer. "Something tells me that I will greatly enjoy this job."
Pleased with my attitude, he clinked my glass of champagne with his own. "Here is to our new partnership."
I drank to the bottom, my eyes locked with his, and when his hand fell possessively on my shoulder, it felt almost natural for me to be here, with the man who owned the city, with my life suddenly full of new possibilities.
"Tell me about the searchlights," I asked.
"I will do something better," the governor promised, leading me out of the ballroom and up the staircase. "I will show you the keys to the city."
Casually, he took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, prompting a near-panicked sigh from my chest. It was a reflex I couldn't control, but he took seemingly no notice of my trembling hands when they accepted the cigarette, or of my ecstatic sigh when I inhaled the smoke. A forgotten sensation, it rasped through me like a wave of the ocean as it rolled towards its destination. Coming home would not have been half as sweet.
"Been a long time?" he questioned curiously.
"Longer than you could imagine."
He opened the door to a small room, presenting me with rows upon rows of controls. "Every night, a guard turns on the illumination," his fingers ran lovingly over the red switch, "and forever abolishes darkness." And there was a strange light in his face, origins of which I couldn't fathom. "Are you afraid of the dark, Tanya?"
He was taking up all the air in the room, and I had to remind myself to breathe. "No."
"It was dark when they took me from my parents," he whispered, his apparent fear incongruous with his chiseled face and assured posture. "And they tried to make me forget them, but I couldn't. Are your parents still alive?"
"My father is." I swallowed painfully, trying to push down the surging emotion. "My mother died during the first invasion."
His face reflected sympathy. "I've never seen my family since I was ten years old. I assume they must have been killed by those men who separated us in the first place."
"Why have they done this?"
"I wasn't the only one... they prepared us rigorously, to serve this country, this planet when the colonization began. Military training, education in engineering and sciences, even," he chuckled, "arts. All so that we could help destroy the aliens when they came. One of just many many projects," he added, "that they put in place to hold off the disaster."
"Then it worked," I said. "Haven't you won?"
"I've waited for my turn very patiently." He clenched his jaw. "I knew that we couldn't fight the first invasion - no weapon of ours was effective enough. Those old men who worked with the aliens - how pathetic had they been! We could have utilized our resources to do something then, I suppose," he mused. "But it was only when the rebels came to power that we decided to move forward, and now we're ripping the seeds of our victory."
In other words, I understood, he wanted to see the men responsible pay for his own broken childhood and that of his friends. By betraying their confidence, and by withholding the resources he was in charge of at the crucial moment, he defeated them - and effectively defeated humanity in the process.
"I know that some people - these people you see on the streets - are unhappy with the new order, but it's only a matter of time before they accept it. The city is ours, Tanya," he spread his hands, as if giving me a gift. "And now it's yours, as well."
I leaned forward to place a chaste kiss on his cheek. "Thank you."
He took my gesture in stride and offered me a hand. "For the last part of my tour, I will show you the electric station we started building."
Quickly, he ran down the stairs, and I could hardly keep after him in my high heels. Perhaps, in the perfect tradition of all Cinderellas in the world, I should have left a crystal slipper on the step. When this night was over, the prince would stumble across it and search all over the city for his princess. And she would have all her wishes satisfied, and as many cigarettes as she ever wanted. And she would make him much happier than his wife and son ever could.
Outside, the governor shook off the guards who tried to come with us and motioned me excitedly to follow him. "It's only a short walk."
When we were about a couple hundred feet from the house, the dancing lights flickered, and he halted.
"What is this?" I asked, my heart beating too quickly.
The darkness that enveloped us was too abrupt and I blinked furiously, hoping that my eyes would start working again. For a moment, there was nothing around me, not even moon and stars, not even the solid presence of the older man whose ragged breathing alerted me to his mounting panic. Was it as dark now in the prison where Alex and Mulder awaited their deaths?
I felt something inside me shatter.
I haven't taken too long yet. Tim was probably walking out of the house right now after disengaging the main illumination switch. Scully and the others were still waiting at the northwest corner of the building. I closed my eyes and relied upon my senses, remembering my lessons. I could take this man, this precious prize, in the direction of my friends.
"Sir," I grasped the governor's hand, clammy with sweat. "Let me lead you back to the house."
"It's dark again," he whispered. "What happened?"
"Nothing to worry about, I'm sure," I replied decisively. "Follow me."
We didn't have to walk far to escape the screams coming from the main house. I didn't feel the pain from my too tight shoes, and my bare shoulders didn't shiver in the cold air. Without making one extra step, I brought the governor to the agreed upon place and watched as Tim stunned him with a well- placed blow. Someone pulled a dark hood over his head, someone else tied his hands securely behind him.
Scully knelt down next to him and felt his pulse. Reassured that he was alive and entirely within our power, I could breathe easier for the first time since leaving Mulder and Alex behind.
"Where are we taking him?" Tim asked.
I realized that the plans hadn't been made yet towards that end, simply because no one believed in the success of this operation. It wouldn't be safe to bring him to Backstage. "My house," I suggested. "It's not that far, and no one will be looking for him there."
"Tanya," Scully approached me. "Thank you," she said simply. Her face, initially so peaceful in the calm moonlight, changed swiftly when she took my hand. As if she'd glimpsed in me something that she wasn't prepared to see, she stepped away cautiously.
"What is it?" I asked. The sensation of unbearable loneliness, as if I'd been in solitary confinement for too long a time, was creeping back inside me and I couldn't fight it.
Scully flicked a few stray pieces of cigarette ash from my black dress. "Nothing, Tanya," she whispered. "Nothing at all."
My father didn't seem surprised to see his house invaded by numerous visitors. Stoically, he endured the noise and the chaos that we brought with us, while I searched for extra pillows and blankets. And I thought that I was unfair to him by running away, that he would have let me go if I'd only asked.
Tim prepared a light supper for everyone, and I was relieved to finally relinquish my kitchen duty. Our hostage moaned, and I watched him a few moments to make sure that he was still unconscious. I hoped he wouldn't wake until the morning, wouldn't notice the artificial darkness enveloping him. I wondered how soon his absence would be noticed, and whether Backstage would be ransacked soon after.
Once everyone settled down for the night, and even Scully appeared to be lost to an uneasy slumber, I kissed my father wordlessly and went upstairs to the attic. The searchlights danced over the city once again, the brief interruption of their flow long forgotten. I pulled Alex's favorite and only chair closer to the large window and curled up in a ball. And as I watched, I began to hate every one of these silver rays. I thought that maybe after all this was over, after we have finally won, I would become afraid of the light. Maybe when the streetlights were lit on the rebuilt streets, I would hurry home and close the blinds, and restore the darkness.
I didn't hear the footsteps behind me and started when someone's hand fell upon my shoulder.
"I didn't mean to scare you," Xavier whispered. "You should get some sleep." Expressively, he nodded at the narrow bed, the only place in the house that I didn't offer to my guests.
I wanted to tell him to leave. This room still bore the presence of Alex, and I felt as if no one else would ever belong here. "So should you," I said instead. "Lie down here."
He shook his head stubbornly. "I just wanted to talk to you."
Xavier sat on the edge of the bed. I noticed that his brown hair was more disheveled than usual. "Assuming that no one dies tomorrow," he started awkwardly. "And fully realizing the fact of no interesting places to go to in this city...and assuming that you are even listening to me right now -"
I swiveled around in the chair to face him. "I was listening," I assured him gravely.
"I like you, Tanya," he faced me openly. "And I wanted to say that before things got more complicated, though this is probably the worst time to ask anyone out...or expect you to agree."
I wondered if maybe the attic was cursed somehow, its walls forever destined to hear painful admissions and stilted rejections. Just to reverse the trend, I decided not to answer at all. My head hung low, I watched miserably as he collected his crutches and stood up.
"Where did you get these?" I whispered.
"Your father found them," he explained evenly. "Please tell him thank you for me again."
Xavier left the attic as soundlessly as he came and, exhausted beyond measure, I lay down on the bed and smelled Alex's unique scent, already fading away.
I fell asleep thinking that tomorrow morning no one would die.
Lessons Not Learned
Scully's voice remained perfectly even, her posture non- threatening as she put a barrel of a gun to the governor's still shrouded head. "We won't cause you any harm," she reiterated. "We only want to perform an exchange. A life for a life."
"Who do you wish to exchange me for?" He sounded stilted, muted by the thick cloth and unfavorable situation.
"The men about to be executed today."
"That can be done," he agreed hastily.
She nodded in satisfaction, though visible tension still coiled her small body. "This is a simple trade," she emphasized. "Be cooperative and you will live."
Tim checked the security of the bonds that still bound the governor's hands, then pulled him to the upright position.
"Please," he asked, subdued, "take the hood off me."
My hands ached to help him - I could feel the anxiety radiating off him, seeping into my bones, overpowering me. Doing so would not compromise us more than we'd already been. He knew my face. Soon, he'd know the faces of others. Moreover, we couldn't possibly hope to walk through the streets unnoticed with a hooded man.
With Scully's mute agreement, I reached out to remove the offending cloth. His eyes blinked, disoriented in the morning light, and settled on me. There was no surprise, only cold calculation, as he recognized the traitor who lulled him into the trap. And though I knew how dangerous it was to sympathize with our enemy, I couldn't help the pang of guilt I felt.
My father stopped me before we walked out. "I wish you good luck, Tanya," he said. "Even if I don't know what it is you're a part of."
I hugged him quickly. "Only a simple trade," I explained. "I will be back soon, I am sure."
Shielding the governor from the gazes of pedestrians, our small company walked towards our final destination. The realization that this was the last day for the resistance movement did not escape me. This gamble would put an end to our effectiveness, rendering the remaining members useless. When Mulder and Alex were back, we would have to live as the rest of the population did: in fear and submission, under the rule of the men who sold us out, under the constant glare of searchlights.
I slowed down my step and waited up for Xavier who, while already handy with the crutches, was still falling behind.
"Tanya," he acknowledged my presence, and I thought that if it were possible, he appeared even paler than he was before.
"Xavier," I began and wasn't sure what I wanted to say. I'm sorry? I'm not worth such affection? I'm in love with a man who considers me a child and could win hands down in the competition for the least emotionally available?
He freed me from picking out an appropriately poor explanation. "It's a suitable day for the medieval age execution, don't you think?" he asked, changing the non- existent topic of the conversation. "Overcast skies, the menace of the storm...I remember the illustration from one of Alexander Dumas' novels. Although he did like describing the guillotines a lot more."
I diverted my eyes away from the gallows that I could see in the distance. "We will talk after this is over," I promised.
"Let's just get through the morning, okay?" Xavier suggested coolly.
"Let's," I agreed in chagrin, understanding that he wished for no such dialogue to occur. Unsettled, I slowed down my step even as he sped up. I pretended not to get the message.
The gallows were crudely built as if the men who labored on this task didn't know how it was supposed to be done. But though unrefined, the apparatus was functional and just as terrifying. The drifting white mist embraced the two empty nooses that hung limply in the windless cold air.
While I was mesmerized by the vision, Scully put a hand to her forehead, averting her gaze immediately, her lips quickly mouthing what could have been a prayer or a curse. And I wondered what Mulder meant to her, and tried to imagine what they had gone through together if she was willing to sacrifice everything she worked for and potentially all of our lives, only to see him survive. Then again, Alex's life was just as precious to me - what difference was there between us?
I stared at the nooses unblinkingly until Tim forcefully turned me away and pointed me instead in the direction of the prime row seats being filled by the government officials. Among them I recognized a few men from the last night's ball, Eric Nelson who appeared to take up two seats, and John who had the audacity to smile at us.
At exactly eight o'clock, Troy stepped on the podium and surveyed the crowd. His expression at once triumphant and serious, he waited for absolute silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he began unimaginatively. "Tomorrow, we face the new challenges - rebuilding this city and our country. Tomorrow, we celebrate the new order of life. But today, we put to death the men who have opposed us, who have prevented us from restoring law in our society. Today, we bring an end to their disruptive organization."
Scully jerked next to me. "I can't take it anymore," she squeezed through her teeth. Someone put a calming hand on her arm, begging her to wait silently for an appropriate moment to strike.
"I present to you," Troy extended his hand in a mocking grand introduction, "the leaders of the resistance movement."
The first thing that caught my eye and made me clench my fists was the absence of a mask on Alex's face. I had no doubt that he had no choice in the matter - that he still preferred to cover his deformities rather than flaunt them. But even in this humiliation, he faced the crowd with a faint expression of contempt, carrying his scars like medals.
This look of disdain changed drastically to one of grave concern as he glanced over at his companion, and I needn't have wondered why. Mulder had to lean against the more stable frame of Alex just to remain standing. His head hung low, not from shame, but from the apparent dizziness, and in one moment when he turned to the side, I saw the tracks of fresh blood staining the pale skin on his temple. Their hands were bound behind their backs as they were pushed forward. In the deadly quiet, I could clearly distinguish Mulder's irregular, shallow breathing as well as hear the whisper of Alex directed to him, "Stay with me."
"The governor could not be here today to witness this act of justice," Troy explained, and I could detect a slight nervousness in him. I realized that they were worried about their leader but preferred to keep the news of his disappearance secret. "But I'm sure that he will have approved of our actions."
"The governor is here," Scully said harshly, setting the events of the day in motion. Unceremoniously, she pushed our captive onto the stage. "And he doesn't approve of your actions."
With Troy and about a dozen guards pointing their guns at her, Scully clicked the safety off the revolver she held to the governor's temple. "One step," she warned them away, "and the man responsible for the new order will be blown to pieces."
Troy clenched his jaw and motioned the guards away, warily putting his own gun hand down. "Conditions of release," he barked.
"Guess," she snarled.
"I can only guess that I shouldn't have let you go," Troy replied with exaggerated calmness.
Scully's fingers gripped the gun harder, and I could tell that she was unnerved by his not too anxious attitude. Her position was precarious: if she was forced to pull the trigger, she would become a target herself, and we would lose her as well as the two men she was trying to save. "I'm warning you," she repeated. "Even with a bullet in me, I can still squeeze at least one shot."
It was the governor who ended the standoff. "Make the trade," he ordered Troy uncompromisingly. "I've promised her a deal."
Troy's lips twitched in disappointment. "Of course," he bowed imperceptibly and, for some reason, his eyes faced neither Scully nor the man who gave the order. "Let's do it."
Perhaps, I wasn't the only one who sensed the peculiarity of his behavior. But before I could understand what was happening, I heard the whistle of a bullet and Mulder's cry to Scully to get down. Acting on pure instinct, she threw herself on the floor, releasing the hostage in the process, and now I could see the group of guards standing just to the side of the gallows, the group that until now was concealed from everyone but the prisoners and Troy himself.
The rest of the events felt like images in the particularly horrifying movie that I couldn't stop, couldn't rewind, couldn't refuse to watch. One of the men brought a violent strike to Mulder's head with a butt of his gun while Scully watched with eyes wide open, unable to do more than flinch, as she found herself lying on the floor, without any leverage and with a few guns pointing at her. Mulder's lanky body crumpled ungracefully, but even though he lay still, obviously unconscious, he received a few more blows. Alex, who automatically dropped on his knees, was hauled to the upright position by the guards and dragged a few feet away.
"Stop!" the governor's booming voice interrupted the proceedings momentarily. "We had a deal," he said. "I intend to uphold it."
"Sir," Troy objected quickly, "you have no obligations towards these criminals who abducted you."
The governor smiled benevolently, a born leader facing his followers. In spite of the humiliating beginning, this was becoming his day, and he was visibly becoming a ruler of the people who watched him rule. "A life for a life," he postulated. "It's only fair."
Abruptly, Scully was released. Her first action, as I knew it would be, was to run a few feet over to where Mulder lay and cradle him in her arms, trying to awaken him.
"One life for another," Troy repeated ominously as he stepped in front of her. "And I believe you've just made your choice."
Scully didn't look up at the face of the man who betrayed us all, as if not wishing to waste her energy and time on the representative of human subspecies. Instead, her gaze, at once pleading and apologetic, settled on Alex. No words passed between them, but the question was asked and the answer was given, without hesitation.
She stood up, pulling Mulder's unresponsive body along with her. "You win," she said to Troy resignedly. "You win because you know us so well."
His head crooked to the side, he appraised her with a faint smile, as if he was surprised that she was still looking for reasons, still trying to elicit some reaction from him. "No, Scully," he replied, apparently trying to correct her mistake. "I win because I'm on the right side."
Scully and Mulder were helped from the stage while Alex remained behind. Studying and memorizing his face through the darkening lenses of the world around me, I saw no inherent bitterness and no unreleased cry for justice. And I hated him for accepting this fate so easily.
Troy, now fully recovered from all the upheaval we've caused, faced the crowd once again. "Unfortunately, this is one of the lessons that will be taught," he sneered. "From now on, this is how we deal with criminals." Abruptly, he gestured at the guards who held Alex and they led him closer to the noose. "Example must be set."
I could feel Xavier's hand holding me back after I made the first step. He didn't speak, probably understanding the futility of any words he could say, but even his ironclad grip couldn't restrain me from making yet one more mistake. Mistake that, in my eyes, was the only acceptable course of action.
I opened up my hands, displaying the absence of any weapon or other treachery that they might have expected. I faced Troy and, for once, I didn't allow emotion to cloud my judgment. This was a simple business deal. If he needed a body to kill, any body that would set the example to the citizens, then I could provide him with one.
"Take me instead," I demanded sharply. "I'm as much a criminal as that man is."
Troy watched me in stupefaction as if seeing the evidence of my insanity for the first time. Really, after I performed my stunt with stealing documents from Nelson's house, he should have known better. "Tanya, please leave," he asked, unaccountably polite.
"No," I said and took a step towards Alex who watched me in alarm and the men who were about to fit him with a noose. "Do you really care who you kill today?" I asked Troy. "What is the difference between him and me?"
He shrugged indifferently. "On second thought," he replied coldly, "none at all."
Troy motioned to the group of the guards waiting to the side and I felt my hands being forced behind me. I tried not to resist, and for the first time I felt my instinct of self- preservation fight a war with my resolve to die, an ultimately losing battle.
"Wait a minute," the governor waved off the guards and stepped closer to me. His face was inches away from mine, as if he were about to kiss me. Instead, he placed his hands on my shoulders in the imitation of the dance pose and leaned closer to my ear. "Do you remember what it's like being in the dark, Tanya?" he whispered.
I swallowed back my fear, suddenly realizing that I was less terrified of the device of execution waiting for me than of this strange man who now fully inhabited my physical space. "I remember," I replied just as softly.
"Are you still unafraid?" the governor posed another question, and there was something cold pressing into my ribcage, then traveling down, settling against my stomach.
I wanted to tell him that I was afraid, that I lied, that I simply wanted to wake up tomorrow with the knowledge that Alex was still alive. And if I didn't wake up, then it might still be worth it. "No," I answered instead and wished that he didn't obscure my field of vision, that I could see the people I worked with and friends I loved. "I'm not afraid."
The gunshot made barely a sound at such a close range and for a few seconds I could still stand straight, half-supported by the man who killed me. "Why this way?" I asked and understood even before he gave me the answer.
"Personal enemy," he explained warmly. "Personal death."
He released me then and mercifully stepped away, finally allowing my eyes to see everyone whom I was leaving behind. I singled out Xavier who stumbled backwards, horrified, then Scully who knelt beside the still-unconscious Mulder, tears streaming down her cheeks. The people surrounding them were no longer dormant, and I could feel the first tremble of unrest surging through them. And most of all I wished that I could see Alex, but I guessed that he was still being held by the guards behind me.
I saw more than heard the third gunshot of the day when Tim pulled the trigger and killed some guard who was trying to protect the governor. The next bullet released lodged itself in Tim's forehead, and I couldn't tell who was responsible. He fell down heavily, and I was dismayed that I remained conscious long enough to see his death.
But the ascending level of noise that came from all around me was somehow pleasant to hear, akin to a distant rumble of thunder and promise of the storm to end all storms. If I tried hard enough, I could distinguish the separate exclamations and gunshots, even though I could not understand the reason behind them.
Suddenly, it was Alex's face looming over me, and he repeated to me the words he said previously to Mulder, over and over again, as if he thought I didn't hear him. "Stay with me, Tanya," he reiterated insistently. "Stay."
And then he was brushed away by a stranger who pressed his hands onto my stomach, upping the agony another notch even while effectively slowing down the flow of blood. I tried to tell him to leave, that I didn't wish for his presence here, but realized that I could no longer speak.
Listening to the growing reverberation of voices and feeling the first drops of rain on my face, I closed my eyes and reached out my hand for Alex, not finding him.
It was night when I woke up the first time. I lay quietly for what could have been hours, trying to understand what was wrong with this picture, vaguely puzzled by the yellow moonlight streaming in through the open window. Perhaps my biggest surprise lay in the fact that the sky was exactly the same as it was before the colonization. There were no new stars. None of them appeared more menacing than the others, none of them told the story of where the first invaders came from.
I wanted to come closer to the window, but my ill-fated attempt to stand up only brought me pain and the too-bright memory of being shot. My fingers brushed over the bandages that covered my stomach, then explored the bed I lay on. Finally recognizing one of the rear rooms of the Backstage and marveling that it should have remained undamaged, I drifted off.
In the morning, I was awakened by the sound of laughter, and it was strange to my ears, more even so when I realized that it was Alex laughing. He opened the door and looked in at me, and his grin widened when he saw that I was awake.
"You slept through the revolution," he came in and sat on my bed. "How do you feel?"
"Not bad," I considered, then backtracked. "What did you say?"
Alex lay a comforting hand on my shoulder, pushing me slightly down when I tried to sit up. "It only confirms my hypothesis," he shared with me thoughtfully. "I'd always known that the underground resistance movements, revolutionary ideals, leaders who invite us to follow them are just so much useless nonsense. Every true revolution starts with a single act of courage, by the person who usually doesn't have any kind of insurrection in mind."
I narrowed my eyes, still not comprehending.
"Still, Tanya," he instructed me pedantically, "you did a stupid thing. I just wanted to be the first one to tell you that. I'm sure everyone else is dying to do the same, so brace yourself."
"Hey," I objected, "you could at least thank me for starting the revolution."
Alex leaned in to place a long kiss on my cheek. "Every day," he promised seriously. "Every day."
"What about Troy...John?" I named the men whose faces were fated to haunt me for some time to come.
"Killed," he said curtly, without affect. "And I do believe," he added with what could only have been subtle pride, "that Scully was responsible for Troy's death."
"Couldn't find him," Alex said grimly. "This war isn't over yet, but..."
"It has begun," I finished for him. And I was content to simply have him alive and present, but this idyll was shortly interrupted by Scully who stepped into the room.
"Tanya, you need rest," she admonished and turned her disapproving gaze at Alex who sprung up from my bed guiltily and flashed me another grin before disappearing.
With professional efficiency, Scully checked the appearance of my wound and took my temperature, then carefully pulled the blanket around me. "You're lucky to have survived," she told me, her expression grim and somehow guilty.
I caught her nervous hand before she could walk away. "Thank you," I said. "For helping me."
"I didn't," she replied, clenching my fingers too tightly. "One of the people who came to watch the executions was a surgeon. The true old-fashioned doctor," she chuckled. "He carried his medical bag everywhere with him, scalpels, even painkillers. He is the one who saved you. I was..."
"Making sure that Mulder survived," I nodded, understanding. "How is he?"
"Almost there," Scully said wistfully. "Anxious to see you, but I think you both need to take it easy for a few days."
"Are they happy?" I searched her eyes, trying to divine the truth from them even if she didn't wish to share it with me.
"Yes," she smiled gently. "I know they are."
Strange that her words didn't cause me pain. I wasn't sure whether it was from the presence of anesthetics or from the absence of regrets. "Is Xavier around?" I asked. Scully's eyes cautioned me, but I insisted. "I promised him that we'd talk."
"Five minutes," she said sternly. "And all the time in the world after you get better."
Xavier limped into my room shortly after and sat cautiously at the edge of my bed. "Hey," he greeted me awkwardly, and I threaded my fingers through his, marveling at this sensation of coming home that evaded me until now.
"Assuming that no new revolutions happen tomorrow," I began, "and fully realizing the fact of no interesting places to go to in this city - yet - can I hope to..." I lost my nerve suddenly and frowned, waiting for the right words to come to my mind.
Thankfully, I was freed from finishing this particular speech as well when Xavier rolled his eyes. "You have to rehearse this kind of things," he explained ruefully.
I laughed, and the effort cost me more dull pain from my stomach. "I bet."
"And the answer is - of course," Xavier reached out to correct a lock of my hair. "Get some rest, Tanya."
I closed my eyes as he settled into a more comfortable position. "No more searchlights?" I checked before succumbing to the warm darkness of sleep.
"No more searchlights," he promised.
Author's Notes: Thanks are in order, of course, first of all to Leigh for beta-reading and encouragement, and for simply being there. Second, to Ashlea, for another beautiful cover, for telling me that this was a long story, not a vignette (blame her if you wish), and for writing The Fire Eaters with me (to anyone interested, it will be finished soon, and Searchlights took no time away from that other WIP). Third, to Rachel, who praised and criticized, not necessarily in that order, and made this story better.
This was an unusual story for me - perhaps my only venture into the land of romantics (of course... darn it... only one kiss on the lips in the whole damn thing! Sometimes I'm more frustrated with myself than all the readers must be...). It is also the only story of mine told from the point of view of someone who was genuinely unfamiliar with all the nuances and issues of the X-Files characters. I know I wouldn't want to be in her place, although Tanya would probably disagree. I think she was happy at the end, which is yet another idiosyncrasy on my part: most of my stories do not end in such rainbow-y places. Hopefully, there still was enough darkness, death, and blood to keep everyone occupied until the epilogue.
For all the readers who feel that there are certain things from which this story could benefit, there is a missing scene, "Hidden Passages," which will be posted along with Searchlights and you can already find it on my homepage. It has its own warnings that I will not repeat here.
And, as usual - I would love to know what you thought. Feedback box is open and it's asking for some substance!