Welcome To The Harem

Not My Lover by Deslea R. Judd Part 4 of 9
Summary: In a world of changing allegiances, only Alex and Marita will have the strength and permanence with which to lead the Russian project. But will they have strength to survive the American agenda? Tells S3-7 from Alex and Marita's perspective. There is a prequel, Not My Lover: Enigma (in progress) but the stories can be read independently.

Not My Lover *NC17* 4/7

Deslea R. Judd
Copyright 2000

ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name on it.
DISCLAIMER: Characters not mine. Interpretation mine.
RATING: NC17 for sex and language.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Mytharc Ascension to Requiem.
CATEGORY/KEYWORDS: romance, angst, mytharc, Krycek/Covarrubias.
SUMMARY: In a world of changing allegiances, only Alex and Marita will have the strength and permanence with which to lead the Russian project. But will they have strength to survive the American agenda? Tells the mytharc from Alex and Marita's perspective.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. deslea@deslea.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Top 3 Finalist, Spooky Awards 2000, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation and Outstanding Other Series Character Romance. Commended in the B.I.T.T. Awards 2001. Cover Art was a finalist in the 2000 F.O.X. Awards (Outstanding Krycek Story Cover Art)

Story so far: After stealing the digital tape (Paper Clip), Alex and Marita are working on a vaccine for the alien pathogen, the so-called Black Cancer. Their 1996 marriage (after Apocrypha) has protected them from Spender's wrath so far; but their clandestine operation in Tunguska has cost the lives of her mother, Larissa, the dark man, X (Herrenvolk), and their accomplice, Benita Charne-Sayrre (Terma). They made Mulder immune with their new vaccine, believing that he would be pivotal to the resistance (Tunguska); but he reacted differently to the other subjects. Now, Alex is smuggling weapons to support the costs of the Russian operation, while Marita monitors the efforts of the Englishman, Donovan, to find a vaccine of his own. Spender and Donovan are separately protecting them from the rest of the Consortium in the hope of stealing their vaccine later.


How much will we suffer?

I must ask the question, because our sacrifice never seems to end. This vaccine, this resistance which will save the world has come at a cost which sometimes seems too great for any two people to bear.

I feel the money, of course. Last month I lived on four hundred and twelve dollars. Although I no longer had to pay Benita, the new vaccine had to be synthesised, and Alexi was out of commission because of his arm, so there was no gun money. There was my flight to Tunguska and his prosthesis. I know there are people who live this way all the time, but I don't know how to do it. Money was never a problem for me before all this happened.

But the money isn't the point. The money is the most pressing sacrifice, the one I live with in every corner of my life; but it is the one I feel the least. Walking home from work because I can't afford a taxi and a bus would raise questions is inconvenient...vexatious. But it doesn't tear at my soul.

The thought of my husband, maimed, living in a filthy little bunker in the bowels of a gulag half a world away does that.

So I have to ask...how much will we suffer?

I haven't even begun to make sense of my mother or the dark man. They haunt my dreams, images indelibly imprinted on the backs of my eyelids, dancing before me whenever I close my eyes.

Hell, sometimes even when they're open.

I can turn from that image if I really want to, though. Benita Charne-Sayrre is waiting just behind it for a turn of her own. Patient woman, Benita was. Useful trait in a scientist. More useful in a ghost, maybe. I have an awful feeling that by the time this thing is over there will be a long line of the dead queuing at my psychic door.

I called a counselling hotline one night, if you can believe that. I didn't get into the alien vaccine business - I wanted counselling, not forcible psychiatric care - but I did explain that my mother and my two closest friends had been murdered in a short period. The woman was very kind, and she let me ramble incoherently for a while before referring me to a couple of grief counsellors. I didn't use them. It wasn't the grief that undid me.

It was the realisation that there was no one left that I could call at three in the morning.

The corollary of that is that I have no one I can call upon now. No-one, but a man I met for but an hour, a man who skirts the edges of my dark world, a man who should not be pulled into the abyss. But I have no other choice. Just lately, that could be said of most things.

I am beginning to believe that choice is a lie.

"I think it's some kind of experiment."

I'm not sure how convincing my control looked, but it felt lousy. The sounds of weeping mothers assaulted my ears, and I felt a dull ache in my stomach. In the face of dying children, the mental gymnastics of dealing with the Consortium seemed like so much bullshit that I thought I would scream.

"An experiment?" I forced out at last.

Skinner spoke reluctantly. "Using bees as carriers."

"That's what was in those packages?" I said sharply, stifling a sound of horror. Spender had said nothing about a test - I had been asked to travel to Payson solely to monitor Skinner. I knew the bees would be the mode of delivery of the alien pathogen, but I had believed testing was still two years away, and colonisation another three after that. If they were testing with variola now-

"Have you told Agent Mulder this?" I asked harshly.

Skinner hesitated. "Not yet," he said reluctantly.

"Why not?" I demanded, though I knew perfectly well why not. Mulder didn't know of Skinner's deal with Spender for Scully's life. Skinner was supposed to be covering this up, not spilling the beans.

"I can't," Skinner said softly, and I felt a moment of pity.

"Are you involved in this, Mr Skinner?" My tone was interrogative - though not for the reasons he probably thought.

"I didn't-" he stopped; then, "No, I'm not involved."

"If you know who is behind this, you have to come forward, Mr Skinner," I counselled urgently. "No-one else can."

He looked at me; then, as though by common agreement, we turned to look at the children. There weren't many left now, mercifully; most were covered with sheets, their mothers choking out their grief, clutching at lifeless hands. I felt the bile rising in my chest; felt the suffocating heat of shame. Beneath it all lay terrible, mortal sadness.

"They'll never know what it is to grow up," Skinner said thickly.

"They'll never know what it is to be compromised," I countered in a low voice. Skinner turned back to me, his expression one of fury. If not for the children, I would have laughed - I spoke not of him, but of myself. I met his gaze; insisted, "Talk to Agent Mulder."

Skinner shot me a look I knew all too well. It was a trapped look - one I met in the mirror more and more of late. "I can't." I challenged him, my eyes flashing:

"You have to."

I returned to New York with a heavy heart.

I worked through the night, stopping only to e-mail Alex with the latest developments. Increasingly, I was being asked by the wider group to monitor Spender, and I called him in the early hours of the morning for an update, another operative at my side. I almost laughed when Spender reported Skinner's threat to kill him, and had to restrain myself from cheering the latter aloud. It was four in the morning before I finally returned home, cursing myself: my body was no longer equipped for this kind of abuse.

I got out of my car with a caution that had become as natural as breathing; and I turned quickly, scanning for the unfamiliar, or for that which was too mobile or too still.

It was the unfamiliar which caught my eye - a government fleet sedan with Washington plates. I felt for my firearm; but then I recognised the slumped figure behind the wheel. Breathing out in a hiss, I stalked over and tapped on the window. Skinner woke, grabbing for his weapon; but then his hand fell back into sight. He opened the window.

"What are you doing here, Mr Skinner?" I demanded in a low voice. "It's four in the morning. And how do you know where I live?"

"I'm sorry," he said, genuinely contrite, stifling a yawn. "I was driving through the night - I wanted to clear my head after today," he added, and I nodded, understanding more than he thought. "By the time I realised where I was, I was in New York. I wanted to see you about this business in Payson anyway. I was going to wait until a decent hour and then come up and knock."

"You came to New York to sleep in your car and see me. Don't you have a life?" I demanded irritably.

"Yeah, but I'm hoping for an exchange."

"That might be funny to someone who's slept in forty hours," I conceded. "You may as well come upstairs, but I'm not promising talk until I've slept. On the upside, my apartment is warmer than your car."


We walked up the stairs in silence, but at the door, Skinner suddenly said piercingly, "Will this compromise you?"

I shot him a look. He had discerned more than I'd thought that day. "No. Will it compromise you?"

"I don't know."

I opened the door and motioned for him to enter. "Make yourself comfortable," I said, throwing my keys on the table with a clatter. "Tea?"

"Only if you're having one."

I wasn't going to, but I made one anyway. When I returned to the lounge, I'd stripped off my makeup and clothes and put on my pyjamas - the chaste navy flannel number I used when Alex was out of town, not the sultry silk. My jewellery was gone, my wedding ring moved from my chain to my hand as usual. I might not have done that if I'd really thought about it; but when it was done, I decided, looking at it, that there was no real harm. It wasn't as though Skinner would discuss me with anyone, save possibly for Mulder. Shrugging, I put on my dressing gown. Not exactly elegant, but dammit, a guy comes to your place at 4am, you're not going to dress up.

Well, maybe if it had been Alex.

Nah. Straight to bed, don't stop for trifles.

Skinner was sitting on the lounge, his coat neatly hung up, his tie loosened. He looked a little closer to the land of the living, as though he'd taken a bit of my discarded facade and made it his. "Thanks," he said as I set down his tea. He drank from it gratefully. Then, "Are we alone?"

"I hope so," I retorted, annoyed. Why did the idiot come here if he thought it wasn't secure?

"No," he said hastily, motioning to my hand. "I mean, I thought your husband might be here."

"Oh," I nodded. "No. He's overseas." I was mildly amused that he'd done the wedding ring spot-check. He was an attractive man. I was flattered.

"Ah. Well, I wanted to talk to you about Payson. I was wondering if your enquiries turned up anything about who sent those packages." He stopped a moment, then went on hesitantly, "I'm almost sure it would have been a government agency."

"No-one else would have access to smallpox stocks," I conceded. His head jerked up, looking at me. "One of the doctors told me you were asking about that. The first round of autopsies are through, and you were right," I explained. He sat there, frowning. I went on, "When you said you thought it was an experiment - testing what?"

"A method of delivery," he said in a low voice.

"Delivery of what?" I queried, wondering how much he knew, how much he had put together, and how much he had tied in with Mulder. He was not a stupid man; I suspected he had a reasonable picture.

"A pathogen."

"Smallpox?" I said cautiously.

"No. Something else. It would have to be something biochemically similar." He asked interrogatively, "Are you familiar with a congressional enquiry held by Senator Sorenson earlier this year?"

"Yes. Mulder believes that there is a pathogen transmitted in a black oil-like substance. Scully determined that it originated in fossilised rock from Mars." I met his gaze, wondering whether he had pursued that line of thought to its natural conclusion, and realised from his expression that he had. "If they're testing it - that would mean they plan to use it."

We looked at one another for a long moment in the dim light.

"Mulder thinks that the compound in Tunguska that you directed him to is working on a vaccine. Is that true?" he queried, at last.

"I'm afraid I can't tell you anything about that," I said, and that was technically correct. "I only gave Mulder the port of entry for the diplomatic pouch. He found Tunguska on his own."

"We need that vaccine," he said urgently.

"What for?" I demanded. "So the men who did this can control it? Is that what you want?" At his frustrated look, I went on, "I want what you want, Skinner. But blowing this wide open the way you and Mulder and Scully would like isn't the way to do it. Even if there is a vaccine, if it goes through those channels there will be FDA approvals and pharmaceutical patents and a thousand other ways that the formula could become known to those who have the pathogen. They'll spread it before we have a chance to vaccinate."

Skinner was nodding thoughtfully. He said tentatively, "Mulder thinks - alien colonists."

"What do *you* think?"

He hedged. "I think it doesn't matter whether they're alien or human. It has to be stopped."

I shook my head firmly. "You can't stop it unless you know and understand and believe. Know thy enemy, Mr Skinner."

"And who is my enemy?" he asked, exasperated.

"That's the wrong question."

"All right. Who *isn't* my enemy?"

It was a fair question, and I thought a moment. "There is an Englishman. Maxwell Donovan. Scully and Mulder have both met him, though I don't believe either of them knows his name. He works with the group and is aligned with Senator Sorenson. You mustn't trust him, but equally you would do well to shield him if ever the need arises."

He nodded slowly. "All right. Who else?"

"Alex Krycek," I said with the inimitable bias of a wife. "Whatever you think of his methods, you and he are on the same side."

He frowned a little at that one, but didn't comment. "Anyone else?"

"No. Your allies are few, Mr Skinner, and your enemies are many. And even allies can be compromised. Be careful."

"All right."

"I know I haven't given you what you wanted-"

He cut me off. "Actually, you've given me a lot. I came here looking for pieces. You gave me the skeleton of a big picture."

"I'm glad."

"Can I make contact again?"

"If you need to, but use caution. Like I said - even allies can be compromised," I said emphatically.

"Point taken." He rose. "I should let you get some sleep."

"Thank you." I sat there thoughtfully; watching him put on his coat, I hesitated. At last, I said quietly, "She's going to live, Mr Skinner."

He whirled around, his expression startled - and anguished. "What do you know about that?" he demanded urgently.

"Not enough to help," I said with genuine regret. "But I know they want Scully alive almost as much as you do."


I explained, "The same things that make Mulder and Scully a problem now - their knowledge, their experiences, their relentlessness - those things will make them vital to the resistance." At his look, I went on, "There will come a time, in the final stages before it begins, when there are no immunes or abductees left. I think Mulder and Scully will survive that time."

He jumped on that statement. "Is Mulder immune? Is that what they did to him in Tunguska?"

"I honestly don't know if he's immune. That's an unknown, and for now it's best if it stays that way." Rising, I warned, "If he is immune, and the group were to find out-"

"I understand."

I moved past him, reaching for the door. "Drive safely, Mr Skinner."

I opened it, but then stepped back with a hiss. There were four soldiers in the doorway, one with a hand raised to knock. Skinner and I both reached instinctively for weapons; my hand fell away again when I realised I'd taken mine off. Skinner's hand changed course, and he pulled out his ID.

"Marita Covarrubias?" the knocking soldier said.

"Yes?" I said, shooting a look at Skinner.

"Ms Covarrubias, you are being detained. You will be escorted to Fort Marlene, Maryland for the purposes of infection control. I do this under the authority of the United States Department of Defence and the Federal Emergency Management Agency."

Skinner and I stared at one another. "What?" I demanded harshly. "But I'm smallpox immune, just like all the other adults that were in Payson today."

"Ms Covarrubias, we've received information that you're expecting a child. Is that correct?" My eyes widened.

*No-one was supposed to know that.*

My hand tightened on the doorknob, my mind running over the implications of this development at lightning speed. Skinner was watching me closely. I held on to my control, but I could feel the blood drain from my face. I felt my free hand twitch, moving instinctively towards my abdomen, but I stayed it.

"No," I said coldly. "I had a termination."

The soldier wrote something on her clipboard, exchanging a look with one of her colleagues. "Can you prove that?"

I shook my head. "No. I went to an anonymous clinic. I paid cash. I didn't want anyone to know," I added pointedly.

"I see. And you would be willing to submit to a sonogram examination to verify that?"

I was beaten, and we all knew it. Skinner was looking at me compassionately; the soldiers in mild irritation. My mouth was dry, my breathing shallow.

"What do you want with my baby?" I whispered.

She didn't answer - I knew she wouldn't. "You may pack toiletries, books, magazines, medications, and a change of clothes for your release. Any item you take into quarantine which is not able to be sterilised will be destroyed when you leave."

"What do you want with us?" I demanded, this time in a fury of fear and despair. "I'm not coming until you tell me!"

Four hands moved to four military-issue weapons. "You don't have a choice."

Skinner stepped in, flashing his badge. "She's not going until you answer her question."

The soldier was singularly unimpressed. "You have no jurisdiction here, Mr - Skinner?" she finished, reading his credentials.

"I've got enough jurisdiction to blow what happened in Payson wide open," he warned. It was an idle threat, and I think they knew that, but they exchanged worried looks. "This woman is a respected emissary to the United Nations - not a criminal. How about a bit of decency?"

More looks, but at last, they nodded to each other, and the woman turned back to me. "This particular strain of the pathogen is known to cross the placenta, even in immune mothers. You need to be quarantined until it's over."

"Until what's over?" I asked, a cold hand of dread closing around my heart.

"The bleeding." At my bewildered look, she said quietly, "Ms Covarrubias, the foetal death rate is 100%."

"No," I said faintly, shaking my head. I turned away shakily and sat, my head in my hands.

Dimly, I heard Skinner arguing with the woman. She said implacably, "If she haemorrhages in a medical facility, she could infect medical personnel or other patients. She must be cared for in a secure quarantine facility." I stared up at her, hating her.

"How long will she be there?"

The woman shrugged. "She probably won't start to bleed for a few days, then it will be five to ten days, then a D&C and a few days recovery. I'd say between two and three weeks."

"I want a few minutes with her." Skinner spoke peremptorily. "Back off."

The soldier looked annoyed, but she capitulated. "You've got five minutes."

Skinner came and sat at my side. "You okay?" he said softly. Wordlessly, I shook my head. My hands were wet with tears I hadn't realised I'd shed. "Is there someone who can be here for you? Family?"

I shook my head miserably. "I don't have any family." I hated the pathetic way that sounded.

He was nodding, and I realised Skinner was in a not dissimilar predicament. "Can your husband get back here to be with you?"

I hesitated. "It's not as simple as that," I said at last. "He would find a way, but I can't contact him. Any calls I make from Fort Marlene will be monitored - mostly to make sure I don't call a journalist at the New York Times - you know how it works," I added. He nodded. "There are people who would like to know where he is."

"Can I contact him for you?"

I looked up at him. "You don't know what you're offering," I said at last. "It would involve turning a blind eye to someone and something you might not feel you should."

"I've been doing a bit of that lately," he said grimly. "Why don't you try me?"

I hesitated. I was uncomfortable with this on a host of levels, beginning with the enmity between Skinner and Alex and ending with the fairness or lack thereof of involving him; but when I got right down to it, I knew I couldn't endure these three weeks without him. There was a more practical consideration, too: If Alex couldn't contact me for that long, he might endanger himself trying to find me.

Skinner was watching me. His look was kind, but neutral. If I said no, he would not press me; but I reluctantly realised that I didn't have that option.

"All right," I said at last. Then, in a low voice, "My husband is Alex Krycek."

He sat back a little, breathing out audibly. "I wasn't expecting that," he said quietly.

"If you don't feel you can-"

He cut me off. "Where is he?"


"Does he need any help getting into the country?"

I shook my head. "He has diplomatic papers. He'll need help getting in and out of Fort Marlene, though. I'll be in minimum-security quarantine, I expect - the danger only seems to be direct blood contact, from what they're saying."

"I can handle that."

I shot him a reproachful look. "Do me a favour and don't punch him this time. He gets enough of that from Mulder."

"All right," he said grudgingly. "How do I contact him?"

I pulled out my diary and tore out a page. I wrote quickly. "This is the number you need to call and the Russian phrase you'll need to use to talk to an English speaker. Ask for Nicolai Arntzen. You'll be asked for your name and who gave you the number. You'll say Dmitria Arntzen. You'll also need to say that it's Condition Bright Orange - that's an urgency rating. It means of the highest urgency but not involving a danger to life." I gave him the paper. "Repeat it back."

"Nicolai Arntzen. Dmitria Arntzen. Condition Bright Orange." He said, "Am I getting myself into anything I should know about?"

I shook my head. "I don't think so. The Smoking Man will eventually find out you helped us, but he won't care - not for something like this." He nodded, seeming to accept this. I said curiously, "Why are you doing this?"

He glanced at me sideways. "Call it an act of contrition. My wife - ex-wife went through this a few years ago. I wasn't there," he admitted. "Just one in a long line of sins of omission." He shrugged. "Besides - even Krycek can't be all bad if the Smoking Man wants him."

I shot him a wry smile. "Thank you." I slid my hand around his.

He squeezed it, rose, and left me.

We arrived at Fort Marlene two hours later.

I stood at the desk, shivering; the cold of the floor seeping through my paper slippers. My gown was like an oversized coffee filter, and provided about as much warmth. I looked longingly at my pyjamas on the counter, waiting to be put in safe custody with my other personal effects.

"Name?" the soldier demanded briskly. It was the same soldier from my apartment. If I'd hated her then, I loathed her now.

"Marita Elena Covarrubias," I said dully.

"Date of birth?"

"April 19, 1971."

"Place of birth?"

"Ateni, Georgia, former Soviet Union." That one always puzzled me. Was I supposed to say Soviet Union, as it had been when I was born, or Republic of Georgia, as it was now?


"Naturalised American. Don't you have all this on file?" I said irritably.

"We have to be sure of our information, Ms Covarrubias. Residential address?"

"You should know; you apprehended me there," I snapped angrily.

The woman shot me an annoyed look, but filled in the information herself. I turned away, wanting to collect myself.

That was when I saw it.

Another computer screen, recently in use, a file on screen, a familiar name catching my eye. As I noted the dates, I understood what I was reading, and I felt a glimmer of excitement, even through my worry and my distress. I scanned it as quickly as I could, memorising the information. Dana Scully...Emily Sim...Marshall and Roberta...Dr Ernest Calderon...Pharngen Pharmaceuticals.

"Ms Covarrubias!"

I turned back. "What?" I growled furiously, baring my teeth at her.

"I said, have you been bleeding?"

"No," I said in the same tone, "but you might be if you don't get me to a room and leave me the fuck alone."

"There's no need to be unpleasant about it, Ms Covarrubias."

"There is on my side of the counter," I snapped.

At last, they led me away, and I was given a room and a bed, and for the next twenty hours, I only wept and slept.


Alexi had stared at me for a long moment, then let out a whoop and swept me up by the waist. He'd even turned with me, like a jock with his high-school sweetheart. It was the sweetest, silliest thing. "Pregnant?" he laughed; and I laughed too, gazing down at him, letting go of my fear for a precious moment. "How? When?"

"I think it was St Petersburg. I missed my pills while I was looking for you in Tunguska," I explained, sliding my arms around his neck, and I found myself smiling at his joy. I wished - how I wished - I wished it wouldn't fade.

"Who cares?" he burst out. "We're having a baby!" He twirled me a bit more, holding me close against him; but then he suddenly stopped, letting me down. "Wait - we're having a baby?" he said in a sombre voice.

I nodded, my lips drawn tightly together, not trusting myself to speak.

"We - we can't have a baby," he said in a low, shocked voice. "I'm - I'm running guns...you work for the most dangerous men on the planet." Then, slowly, "We can't even keep ourselves safe."

"I know," I said thickly.

"Look at the Donovans," he said softly. "Diana sees those children twice a year. They're raised by old Donovan's nannies while she mixes it up in Tunisia. I don't want that for our child."

"I don't either."

He stroked back my hair tenderly. "Oh, Mare." He rested his forehead against mine. He sighed, said in a low voice, "What the hell are we going to do?"

"There's abortion," I said reluctantly; but there really wasn't, because it just wasn't something I could do.

He dismissed this at once. "No, there isn't. You don't want an abortion, and neither do I." I breathed a sound of relief. He pulled back to look at me piercingly. "You've got to get away from the group," he said suddenly. "There's no other way."

I stared at him. "We need their information. We need their money, Alex! If I stop working for them and the UN, that's twenty thousand dollars a month we have to find someplace else. We've cut back to Tunguska and Kazakhstan - there's nowhere left to cut!" I longed to do as he said, I really did; but I just couldn't see it.

"We don't need their information," he said eagerly. "We know more than they do. We can find money some other way. I've got some intelligence on a World War II bunker full of army seizures in Belgium." He was smiling again, glimmer of his earlier joy. "We'll find a way, Mare."

I was smiling too. His optimism was infectious. "They're watching, Alexi," I warned. "If they get wind of me liquidating assets, they'll know I'm going to run. And Spender knows exactly where I'll run to."

"No, he doesn't. He knows about Tunguska, but he doesn't know about Kazakhstan. We'll move it all down there - shut Tunguska down." He shot me a beatific smile. "We could live together like a normal family, Mare. This could be a blessing. This *is* a blessing."

"I know," I said, smiling tearfully. "But I don't know if they'll let me go." His smile faded.

"We won't give them a choice."

I wonder if they knew.

I wonder, now, if Spender's surveillance turned up the fact of my pregnancy and my cautious moves towards cleaning up my affairs. I don't think I did anything obvious. I didn't see a doctor. I purchased prenatal vitamins in cash. I was oh, so careful not to make conspicuous visits to the bathroom at work. I sold some shares and bullion, but I left my mother's estate alone. But who knows what level of surveillance is in place? It is something I dare not contemplate, because the constant speculation and paranoia would drive me mad.

But they apprehended me on the information that I was pregnant; they must have known. And Spender, that bastard Spender, knowing of my plans and my reasons, sent me into the smallpox test zone, knowing that I would lose my child, knowing that without the child, I would stay and continue to be used. Because whatever Alexi said, we needed the money and the information they could give.

I have never hated anyone so much as I hated him then.


His voice was a mere whisper, harsh, anguished. I stared at him, transfixed.


He stalked over to me and sat on the bed beside me, pulling me to him with a choked sound. I sank into him gratefully, my incoherent weeping muffled by his sweater. He buried his face in my hair, his fingers twisting their way into it, as though to bind him to me. He rocked me, and I realised that in that silent way he had, he was weeping, too. Dimly, I registered Skinner's tact withdrawal.

"I hate them," I said tearfully. "I hate them so much."

"So do I," he whispered.

I pulled away. I said urgently, in a low voice, "The date is set, Alex. It's closer than we thought. If we can't refine that vaccine we're never going to have another chance for a child. No one will. No more babies, no more children, no more people. Just - drones." Then, miserably, through fresh tears, "Maybe this child was spared."

He shook his head. "Don't you talk like that. Our child was murdered, and people are going to pay for that." His voice was raw...hurting. "We're going to make that vaccine work. We're going to survive the holocaust, if only so we can make them pay. We're not giving up and we're not turning back."

I made a sound of pain. I whispered helplessly, "Alexi, it's so awful to feel this life inside me dying, and to know there's nothing I can do to stop it. Every time they examine me, the heartbeat is a little bit slower and a little bit fainter." I was weeping again now. "It's not fair. None of it's fair." My hands moved protectively to my stomach, and then I realised his hand was already there.

He bowed his head against mine for a long moment, then lowered it to my abdomen, kissing me there with a tenderness I had never known from him. "Goodnight, baby," he whispered thickly, and I shook with wracking pain, sure that no-one could hurt this much and live.

I took his hand in mine. "Goodnight," I wept in turn. And then he was there, cradling my cheek, his agony mirroring my own, and his embrace was chaste, selflessly adoring, seeking not to take pleasure or comfort, but only to bring shelter and solace.

And for a little while, it did.

"Do you think there will ever be justice?"

I was toying with the infant, tracing my fingers over the sweet-looking curves, the delicate features, the soft curls. I ran my fingertip down the nose sadly.

When there was no reply, I looked up. Alexi was standing by the tree, ornament in hand, watching me, his expression wistful. I realised what I was doing, and hastily returned the porcelain figure to the nativity. Still, he didn't speak; but the lines of his face were etched with grief and compassion. His scrutiny bothered me - mainly because I suspected he had a greater insight into my state of mind than I did.

Uneasily, I said, "You hear of all these war crimes tribunals. Men who did terrible things fifty years ago finally being brought to justice. It makes me wonder if the Consortium will ever be called to account for what they did...for the Dana Scullys and the Emily Sims of this world." And for the unborn, I added mentally, but I didn't say it.

He was still watching with that wistful expression, but he shook his head. "I think they'll be long dead by then. History will hold them accountable, but they won't see trial." He went on hesitantly, "We might, though. You ought to be prepared for that."

My jaw dropped. I hadn't considered that.

"Our test subjects are convict volunteers, that's true; but they consented to the tests with only execution as the alternative - albeit legal execution after due process. There's a human rights abuse right there. At a stretch they could even be classed as prisoners of war. And the tests themselves may be judged down the track as a form of torture. That's your crimes against humanity. Yeah, I can see it." He said gently, "You should keep your journals safe, Mare. They might exonerate you."

"We set up those compounds together, Alex. Just because I never whipped a convict doesn't mean I'm innocent."

He returned his attention to the tree, putting the ornament in place. "In the eyes of the law, it might," he countered, picking up another. "Those are my crimes, not yours."

I shook my head. "No, Alex. You do these things so that I don't have to. You take my guilt and make it yours. And I love you for it," I added, smiling faintly; and he shot me a bittersweet look. "But you can't take my culpability - that's as great as yours." I watched him for a long moment, then quoted softly, "Your sins are my sins."

Sighing, he put down the box of baubles. He came over and dropped to a crouch in front of me. "Mare, whatever judgement history has for us, we know that we have done as we've done because it was the only way. Maybe not the right way, but the only way." His gaze locked on mine. "If we had done nothing we would be worse than them."

I smoothed back his hair tenderly. "If anyone knew how you worked and how you suffered for what we do, they would get down on their knees to you."

He smiled at that, but shook his head. "You're crediting the wrong person. I don't care about the world, Mare. What has the world ever given me? I care about you. I want the world to live so that I can grow old with you. It's as simple as that."

"I love you, Alexi. So much."

"I love you." He leaned into me, gently drawing me to him, his lips meeting mine. He lingered there for a long moment. "How long have we got until Skinner gets here?" he asked, breaking away.

"A couple of hours. Long enough."

"Not nearly long enough," he retorted, "but it will do." He pulled away, his look chagrined. "Tell me again why we're doing this."

I sighed. "Because we need friends, Alex. People who can put aside ideology now and then and just be people with us." My voice was earnest...almost pleading.

"Skinner might be your friend, but he isn't mine," he retorted. "I offered to shake with him after he helped me see you that time - I thought he was going to shoot me."

"But he did shake, didn't he?" I argued. "He might tell what he knew if he believed it was right, but he wouldn't do it for the highest bidder. He wouldn't do it just to sell out. If that's not a friend I don't know what is." At his doubtful look, I said, "We need connections. We don't have a home, or a family besides each other. Neither of us has friends - that's just part and parcel of what we do. We need to set some roots down - I mean in ourselves. Don't you feel that? Don't you feel it in your bunk at Norylsk when you go to sleep at night after yet another day of talking to no-one but Mikhail?"

"Of course I do," he said in a low voice. "But why Skinner?"

"Because he was there, and because he understands how we live even if he doesn't know exactly what we do, and because he's even more disconnected than we are. That's why."

He sighed. "And you're still hell-bent on playing Yenta to him and Scully?" His look was mildly reproving.

I laughed. "I didn't say that. All I said was, they'd be good together. God knows he loves her. Did you see his face when he talked about her remission?" I shook my head. "No, I'm not going to intervene. They'll find one another on their own."

Alexi looked concerned. "I worry about Mulder. I don't want him to self-destruct - we need him. The resistance needs him."

I made a negating sound. "Mulder's not going to self-destruct over Scully and Skinner. He sleeps with women if they happen to be there, but they aren't his passion - not even Scully. You know that, of all people." He flushed. "She keeps him stable, granted; but I also think he's more grounded in himself than you give him credit for."

"Maybe." He looked at me interrogatively. "Are you still going to give her Emily's location?"

"You don't think I should." It wasn't a question.

"I think it's the *right* thing to do," he said slowly, "but I don't think it's the *safe* thing."

"For us, or for them?"


I watched him for a long moment, nodding. He was right, I knew that; but he was also wrong. "I can't carry this knowledge and not tell, Alexi. You of all people should know that."

His look was kind. "Mare, the digital tape said that they got over a thousand ova from Scully. Probably two hundred viable embryos in the end. Are you going to track them all down and give them to her? Then will you move on to all the other women?" He sounded worried. I understood why, too: it was something that could become a fixation in the light of our loss.

"Of course not. But this one, Alex - I know where this one is. And if she were mine, no matter how she was made, no matter that she was going to die, I would want to know." More gently, "Wouldn't you?"

He looked at me; then, at last, he gave a grudging nod of agreement. "How are you going to do it?"

"I've got a recorded message queued. I'm going to re-route it through the exchange so that it traces from the Sim residence. I should re-do it, actually - the program went crazy when I was making it, and it sounds more like a woman than a computer-generated voice. Very strange."

"Do you think it could expose us?"

"I don't see how it could. It doesn't sound like anyone I know. Maybe the filters got mixed up. I can hack into the CIA, but do you think I can conquer Windows?" I shot him a chagrined look.

"Forget about it, then," he suggested. Then, mischievously, "We have other things to do before Skinner gets here."

"Like what?" I asked, leaning forward, licking my lips teasingly.

He pretended to give this some thought. "I was considering making love to my wife."

"Is that right?" I enquired curiously.

"Yeah," he said, rising, pulling me up with him. "I was going to hold her like this," he explained, manoeuvring me to the wall. "And then I thought I'd touch her hair and push it back, a bit like this," he added, suiting the action to the word. I shot him a smile. "And then I thought I'd lean into her-" his voice dropped to a whisper "- and she'd be so warm, and I'd be able to smell her, and if I moved just a little bit more I could taste her, too."

"Why don't you demonstrate?" I suggested helpfully.

He brought his mouth to mine, his lips brushing me as he spoke. "I would kiss her," he breathed. "I would worship her." He kissed me, first chastely, then slowly building in fervour, until he was teasing me insistently with his lips. I felt myself opening beneath him, felt my mouth welcoming him, drawing him in. His taste was exquisite; it was wine, it was honey. We were breathing deeply, slowly, in rhythmic unison; and I felt as though our hearts were as one. How can that sound so damn fluffy, yet be so utterly, profoundly true? He started to pull away, perhaps to speak, but I chased him with my mouth, capturing him with my lips, drawing him back. His kiss was delicate, yet devouring; but my wanting had nothing to do with technique. I wanted him because it was his smell and his taste and his touch that did this to me, no one else's. "You see," he said at last, pulling back a little; "my wife is very beautiful. A goddess. But I don't think she knows," he whispered, his fingertips dancing exquisitely on my neck, "because whenever I try to tell her, I find that I can't breathe."

"Maybe you should-" I caught my breath with difficulty "- show her." He hadn't even really touched me...but, oh, his voice, his lips... "Because, you see, I know something about your wife."

"Yeah?" he managed.

"I know that she likes you to be close...so close that there's nothing else in the world for her but you." I pressed myself further back against the wall. "No escape, no space, just you-" I broke off with a low sound as he moved in on me "...relentless..." and then he was moving with me, running his hand over me through my dress "...because she doesn't want to be free. She wants to be yours." I pushed open his shirt, pushed it back off his shoulders. "She is yours."

"I'm hers," he said thickly. "Oh, God, Mare."


That was the last time we made love before it all went to hell.

It was the smell that really got to me.

The visual was nothing. The bodies were charred beyond recognition. They could have been lumps of roughly-sculpted wood, or papier-mache, or fibreglass intended to roughly resemble the human form.

Or, of course, they could have been incinerated bodies.

But I had rinsed pathogenic oil from my husband's eyes and nose, had tended the remains of his arm. I had watched a man I loved die in a pool of his own blood. I had engaged in the mercy killing of two horrifically burnt soldiers. Visual gore was nothing to me.

But the smell...the smell was enough to drive a woman mad.

"This is a mission of mercy," I said at last. There was none of the tantalising thrill that might otherwise have arisen from such play- acting, especially after four months apart. Our conflict was contrived; its gravity was not.

"This is a mission of fear," Alex snapped. "Yours, and the men you work for."

My blood ran cold. Beneath the little parody we were acting out, I could see his fear. I could smell it, even through the acrid smoke and the carrion smell of the dead. This man was my husband, after all; I knew the things that made him wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night; the things that made his mahogany eyes flash ebony.

And what had happened here took all those fears and blew them away as nothing.

"I don't know what you're talking about," I said, truthfully.

"You go back and you tell them what you've seen here, what you've found." My eyes widened. He wanted me to play it reasonably straight with the group. That meant that what happened here transcended political boundaries: it constituted a threat to the entire resistance.

"My name is Marita Covarrubias," I flared, mostly as a warning to his soldiers - my soldiers - that I was in character. "I am a Special Representative to the Secretary General of the United Nations."

"I know who you are and I know who you work for," Alex said coldly.

Is this how they see you, Alexi? Is this why they hate you?

"Now you go back and tell them-"

"Tell them what?" I demanded urgently. "What happened here?"

His face flickered with worry. "Tell them it's all going to hell." He half-turned and ordered our men to take the boy away; but his eyes were watching me the whole time.

"Does the boy know?" I asked urgently.

He only looked at me, then turned away.

"Did he see?" I cried. He turned back to me, his expression furious. He spat to the left of my feet contemptuously. He spat:

"You can tell them to kiss my American ass."

It was nightfall when I reached Norylsk.

I raced down the corridors with a pallet truck, going from lab to lab, butchering computers in a bid to extract hard drives. I worked feverishly, trembling with the adrenaline that surged through my veins. Stalking into pathology, I pulled out all the vials of vaccine and other vital samples. I went to my office, rarely used, and removed diplomatic papers. I included our policy book on the treatment of prisoners, too - I hadn't forgotten Alexi's caution about being held accountable for our actions later.

I was prising open yet another computer tower when the lights flooded on, the low hum of the generator assaulting my ears. I retreated into the shadows. There was no hiding my presence - not with a pallet truck full of evidence - but perhaps I could get in a clear shot first.

A familiar voice spoke sharply in Russian - not official Russian, but the local dialect. "Come out with your hands where I can see them and identify yourself." I breathed a sigh of relief.

"It's just someone who wants to kiss your American ass, Alex," I said dryly, stepping into the light, dangling my weapon from my finger.

Breathing out with a hiss, he lowered his own and came to me. He held me for a fleeting moment. "I was worried. My courier didn't come back to the compound. I was afraid you didn't get my message."

I shot him a filthy look. "He's dead, and I'm really pissed with you about it. He killed one of my men, and another opened fire in self- defence." My voice was reproachful.

"That's probably my fault," he conceded. "I told him to get the note to you at any cost."

"I'll tell that to my peacekeeper's mother," I snapped.

He pursed his lips in a grim line. "Marita, it's been a fucking hard day, and I've lost a hell of a lot more men than you have. Good men - scientists. The ultimate brain drain."

I took his hand for a moment, chastened. "*We've* lost men." I sighed. "Desperate times and desperate measures, I guess. I'm sorry I was harsh."

He nodded, smoothing back my hair. "Yeah, I know. Sorry," he added endearingly. He released me and sat on the edge of a desk. I sat on the desk opposite him, cross-legged like a child as I finished extracting the drive. I waited.

At last, he said, "The firestorm was the work of aliens. I don't think they were after the vaccine, though. Their eyes and mouths were stitched shut - I think to prevent infection with the black oil. That means they're afraid of their own kind."

"Rebels," I guessed, tugging on a recalcitrant IDE cable.

"Got it in one," he said. "The MJ-12 documents mention a conflict among the alien race - a certain group which considers the hybridising to be a dilution of the race. That group has killed hybridising scientists before - the Gregors, for instance. I think that's what was happening here."

"They thought we were hybridising here," I realised. Then, with foreboding, "That means they'll go after all the test facilities."

Alexi nodded. "Probably abductees, too. Those damn implants will lead the rebels straight to them."

"What about *our* work?" I demanded, detaching the drive from its frame. I discarded one screwdriver for another disgustedly.

"Well, I'd closed Tunguska down, of course; but they still razed it, yesterday. They managed to obliterate the pathogen from the mine - I'd love to know how they managed that."

"Neat trick," I agreed, pulling the drive free. I handed it to Alex.

"Kazakhstan fell last night. Georgia fell at lunchtime, Azerbaijan an hour ago. I'd say Norylsk is next on the list. We have to get what we can and get out of here - which I see you've been working on." He motioned to the pallet truck. "I have a truck outside. I'll escort the cargo to New York."

"All right. Anything else I need to know?"

"Two things," he said, rising. He climbed onto the pallet truck, and I followed. "Firstly, you have to get the hell out of Russia tonight. Tell your peacekeepers that you have intelligence that there's a kidnapping plot." At my questioning look, he explained, "My second-in- command - remember Mikhail? He's gone power- hungry and has convinced some of our comrades that *I* am responsible for the firestorm."

"What?" I sputtered, swerving the pallet truck a little. "That's absurd!"

"Easy," he reproved, straightening the wheel. "Some of them are buying it. They think that I did this so that I could shut them down and smuggle the intelligence back to America. I figured I shouldn't disappoint them," he added ruefully. "I confiscated the vaccine vials that weren't destroyed in the firestorm." He gave a mirthless grin. "We could become the first people wanted for treason simultaneously on two different continents."

I stared at him in disbelief. "That means we have no base, no protection, no test subjects, no scientists, no useable passports, and almost no pathogen or vaccine. God, Alexi, what a mess," I said, horrified.

"That brings me to the second thing," he said as we pulled up in the loading bay. I pulled the brake and manoeuvred the lever, setting the pallet in place on the back of the waiting truck. "To establish ourselves somewhere else to refine the vaccine, we're going to need to get clear of the Consortium. You know what that means?"

I nodded, thinking of my more or less stable life in New York, the United Nations job that I truly loved; but in an instant, I surrendered those things in my heart. "It means we have to run," I said softly.

"Yeah." His look was kind. "I'm sorry, Mare." He took my hand.

"It had to come someday," I said philosophically. I squeezed it a second before letting go.

His voice became resolute. "Before we do, I want everything they've got. It's our last chance to get it."

"How?" I demanded. "Short of surrendering the vaccine, you don't have anything to deal..." I trailed off. I looked at him expectantly. He nodded. He looked rather proud of himself, albeit in a grim kind of way. "Oh, very nice. You've got the boy, haven't you?"

"Yeah. I infected him with the last stocks of the pathogen," he admitted, shamefaced. "I didn't know how else to transport it on such short notice - Mikhail was only a half hour behind me, and I didn't have any biohazard containers. If they give us what we want, they get the boy's testimony and the pathogen to work with. We get our freedom, and maybe the chance to end this once and for all."

I thought on this - thought hard. "I really don't think they'll play ball," I said at last, "but all right." I jumped down from the pallet truck, and he followed suit. "Alex - you do realise that the alien race might decide to proceed with colonisation now, don't you?"

He nodded. "Sure, if they decide that hybridisation isn't important enough to restart the work for. It depends on whether the rebels manage to take Fort Marlene."

"Have you taken any precautions?" I demanded.

"I did, but my personal stockpile was lost when Kazakhstan fell. We do have an earlier, less effective formula of the vaccine in New York; but that's all."

"That's all right; I have precautions for both of us." I put my hand in my pocket and withdrew a long, silver barrel with a small cross on the top. I handed it to him.

"What's this?" he asked, perplexed.

"It's called an oil stock. Priests in the Roman rite use them to carry consecrated oils. I'm not sure if your lot does it," I added, referring to his Russian Orthodox heritage, but he just shrugged.

"I'm not sure. We weren't very observant."

"We were *very* observant. No pretence of faith about it - my mother just liked the outward practice of religion," I said dryly. "She thought it gave a person structure and self- discipline. I think she was quite puzzled by people who were genuinely pious." I shrugged. "That's Mother for you. Anyway, you'll notice it's in three sections, and each section screws into the next, watertight." At his nod, I went on, "They're labelled CAT, CHR and INF. INF as in infirm - it's the oil they use to anoint the sick. There's a pathogen sample in there - you'll remember because of its association with illness." He nodded again. "CAT is for the oil of catechumens, which we use in baptism. That has the vaccine against the black oil. You'll remember because baptism saves us from slavery to sin, and the vaccine saves us from slavery as drones. Got it?"

"Yeah, I got it. INF is the pathogen that makes us sick, CAT is the vaccine that saves us." He was looking at the oil stock intently.

I went on, "CHR is the oil of chrism, used in confirmation. That has the antibodies to the retrovirus we synthesised from Mulder's blood...the first stage of a retrovirus vaccine."

He looked at me questioningly. "How will I remember that?"

"Because it's the only one left," I said, amused.


"Officials tend to respect religious items unless they're obviously suspect," I explained. "If you were stopped, you would say they're consecrated oils that you've taken from somewhere important for your home church. If you were coming from the near or middle East, you'd say Jerusalem. If you were coming from Europe, Vatican City. Get the idea?"

"Yeah. I assume you have one of these?"

"Yes, and a third will be in safekeeping with Skinner. He's expecting it, but he doesn't know what it is." At his look, I said, "I couldn't think of anyone else who wouldn't sell us out."

"Fair enough," he said grudgingly.

I hesitated a moment, but at last, I said, "If the rebels get all the facilities, these could be the only supplies left. We only use them to save ourselves from infection, or to barter for our lives, agreed?" He gave a slight nod, and I went on, "Not for money, not for information. I didn't go through all this to become a martyr to the cause. If it comes down to a choice between the work and ourselves, we choose ourselves. If push comes to shove, it only takes two immunes to keep the race from extinction."

"Agreed," he said. He reached into his jacket. "I have another insurance policy."

"What is it?" I demanded.

"These," he said, handing over eight CD- ROMs - two bundled sets of four. "All the essential data so far. It's not complete - that's ninety-seven CDs - but it's the data needed to continue the work. There's a set for you and a set for me. I have a spare - you may as well leave that with Skinner, too. If he's going to have us by the balls we may as well let him do it properly," he added ruefully. Nodding, I took my copy and Skinner's and put them into my pockets.

I thought about the CDs. "You don't think we're going to be able to get this stuff out, do you?" I asked, motioning to the truck.

"With the Russians *and* the rebels after us? Not a chance."

"Then why are we here?" He bolted the truck closed.

"We have to try."

"What about my UN vehicle?"

"Leave it," Alex said, reversing the truck. "We have to get this stuff out of here - not to mention him," he added, motioning to the boy beside me. I looked at the boy properly for the first time, noted the stitched up eyes and mouth in the dim light. I remembered what he had said about the mutilations on the alien rebels. Instead of keeping the pathogen out, Alex was keeping it in. Staring at him, I felt sick, that we had come to this.

I swallowed painfully, looking at Alexi, wondering how the gentle man I knew could have done this. I had always respected his capacity to do whatever was needed, but I didn't always understand how he *could* do it.

My expression must have conveyed something of my feelings, because he said softly, "I know how he looks, Mare, but we were careful. His optic nerves are fine, and we didn't damage the soft tissues of his mouth very much. If he survives the pathogen and the group, he'll be okay."

"That's a big if," I said, but my voice was mild. I recognised, as he did, that there had been no other choice.

"It's a big if for all of us at the moment," he countered, starting the truck forward.

"Alex!" I shouted suddenly. "Ahead!"

"Wh-" he began, and then he saw the movement, the faint glow of headlights. "Dammit! Mikhail!" He looked in the rear-view mirror. "Behind us as well! We're trapped!"

"I'll get the boy," I said, opening the door. I yanked the boy by the hand, and he came, willingly. He was docile from shock - too docile. He couldn't be incited to run. I ran as best that I could, the boy ambling comically after me. Then Alex was there, dragging him with me. We ran, and I didn't dare look behind me; but I felt the heat and the wind when the firestorm began. I heard the screams of our former comrades as the rebels blew up the vehicles, and I waited for them to take us too; but they were more worried about the compound.

We did have two pursuers, rebels who followed us, closely but seemingly without direction. When we finally lost them more than an hour later, we three collapsed on the ground, exhausted. My legs cramped excruciatingly. I moaned in agony, and Alex rubbed them, kneading the muscles in my calves with his hand, though his legs surely hurt just as much as mine. The boy was crying, and I held him, his head in my lap; and he sobbed blindly until he was unconscious. "God damn it, how did they track us so far when they can't see?" I demanded between heaving breaths. "Neither of us are abductees!"

Alex jerked up his head, his expression afraid. "They didn't do anything to you at Fort Marlene, did they?"

"No," I gasped out, feeling the back of my neck. "I don't remember anything. There's nothing there."

"Let me check," he said, coming around me. He smoothed my hair aside and waved his mag light over it. "No, nothing," he agreed after a long moment. I breathed a sigh of relief.

"And they didn't get you?" I said piercingly.

"Never," he said at once.

"Then how-" I stopped. "Give me that." I grabbed the mag and flashed it down on the boy, saw the telltale red mark. "Fuck! He's a fucking abductee!"

"Oh, shit," he said in frustration. "Of course he is. That's why he was at the camp in Kazakhstan. He was drawn there like the other victims." He sighed. "Well, he won't be for much longer." He hunted in his pockets. "Got a lighter?"

"I'm not smoking. Sorry."

He pulled out his pocketknife. "Any other time I'd be glad to hear it. Ah, here's one." He flicked the lighter and ran the flame over the blade, and I suddenly knew what he intended to do.

"Alexi, no!"

His voice was firm. "Mare, he'll lead the rebels to us!"

"No, he won't!" I protested. "It's not like radar - they can sense an implant if they're close enough, and they can use it to draw an abductee to them, but they can't use it to find one that isn't close by."

"It's still a risk," he retorted.

I shook my head. "Not a great one. He'll die if you take it out, Alex. Two years at the most!"

He was angry; I could see that. "Damn it, that's a better life expectancy than he has now! He'll be killed if we don't!"

"We don't know that," I argued. "And maybe we can prevent that. But there's no saving him if you take that chip out." Then, in a low voice, I said deliberately, "Are you really going to hold him down and take a knife and cut out such an important part of him, to save him from a threat that might never be?"

His face was working in the dark, his eyes unnaturally bright. His hand went automatically to his maimed shoulder; and he said thickly, "That's so low, Marita."

I reached for him then, my palms cradling his face. "I know," I said gently, blinking back tears. "And I'm so sorry. But he's just a kid, Alex. We can't."

He leaned into me for a long moment, sighing; but finally, he nodded, reluctantly. "All right. All right!" He looked unhappy about the whole thing - which I guess made two of us. He went on with grudging fondness, "But if this kid beats me up trying to get to the rebels, you're really gonna kiss my American ass."

"Oh, bite me," I teased.

"Can I?"

"As long as I can kiss your American ass."