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Not My Lover by Deslea R. Judd Part 7 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* 6/7

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) protected them from Spender's wrath for a time; but their clandestine operation in Tunguska 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. The vaccine leaves the subject seriously ill and is not suitable for distribution, but they theorise that metabolic differences between the races might be the key.

After Spender exposed Marita to smallpox (Zero Sum), she miscarried; but was befriended by Skinner while under forced quarantine. The alien rebels destroyed the Russian operation (Patient X), leaving the couple - and an unwitting Skinner - with the only stocks of the pathogen and vaccine. After Marita was infected with the pathogen, Alex handed over his supply to save her and joined forces with the Englishman, Donovan, synthesising new improved formulas of the vaccine. While Marita recuperated, the couple lived at Fort Marlene and befriended Gibson Praise (The End), but she and Gibson were taken by Spender after Donovan's death (Fight The Future). Believing them to be dead, Alex continued to work on the vaccine for Spender, but passed intelligence to the Tunisians (SR819) and conspired with Diana (Fowley) Donovan to halt hybridisation.

After the rebels destroyed the American operation and all his stocks of vaccine, Alex found Marita and Gibson, seriously ill (One Son), and nursed them, severing ties with Spender and hiding Gibson in a boarding school. When she haemorrhaged, Marita revealed that she was several months pregnant after consenting intercourse during her imprisonment. The details are unclear. Devastated, Alex fled, but returned to help her hours later. Because of the delay, she lost her child and is unable to have children due to uterine scarring. Consumed with guilt, Alex abandoned her; but the death of Diana Donovan (Amor Fati) led him to begin the work once more, in order to fulfil his promise to vaccinate her children. He exchanged the nanocyte controller for Skinner's copy of the vaccine, and attempted to sell Michael Kritschgau's data to fund the work; but Spender's men caught him and had him thrown into a Tunisian prison (Amor Fati/Requiem). Now, Marita relates her story from the time of their separation.


From the ashes of death rises a flame of life.

A truthful statement, however painful; and it characterises my life as it is now. Life after death is always searing, always bittersweet; and yet deeply, profoundly precious. I have to cling to that.

It's all I have left.

I mourn the life that had throbbed so insistently within me, though I had sought it only as a desperate means to an even more desperate end. I mourn because I had held it in my heart, had bequeathed it with hopes and dreams. I mourn because every life is precious, even when its burden is great. I mourn because I had embraced it, whatever it might cost.

But after the life was no more, I woke to my own rebirth. I woke to a heart that beat strongly beneath my breast, to blood that coursed powerfully through my veins, its slow trickle a painful memory. I got strong, and that was good; because I woke to a life alone. And if that life seemed infinitely poorer, it was still life; and I had spent too long in the grip of a living death not to cherish the kindly warmth of growing strength.

I feel my husband's absence like an ache, his abandonment like a bleeding wound in my soul; but I endure the pain, because it is of my own doing. My reasons for my actions, once so compelling, seem weak; my justifications, no longer justified. The compromises I made to survive took our unity and tore it asunder, and I knew that when I made them. I had hoped that Alexi would embrace me once more, and shelter my child as his own; but I did not expect it: that was not my right. He had helped me in my helplessness, proving once again a love that had never required it; but if he felt unable to remain by my side, I could hardly reproach him for that. I missed him, in my arms and in my bed and in my work and in my heart; but I faced the solitude, stared it down, and went on anyway.

It feels good to be able to do that. Bittersweet, certainly, but good; because after more than a year of powerlessness, my union with him - however fractured - is not that of dependence, but of choice; a choice renewed in every thought and every act. It is ironic that in the extremity of our brokenness, my commitment to my marriage is stronger than ever. I have not seen Alex since that night, but I bear his name publicly, wear his ring proudly, because our marriage is more than the functionality of a shared life: it is the union of souls that no sin can break. He is still my husband; I am still his wife.

And whatever else passes between us, we will always be one together.

"Why don't you tell him?"

I looked up from a sheaf of essays written in straggling hand. "What are you talking about?" I asked in bewilderment. Irritably, I drew myself up on the hard dormitory bed. Apparently, Alex and I paid fourteen thousand dollars a year for Gibson to sleep on a concave lump of rock.

"I'm talking about Alex," Gibson said, slurping noisily from his milkshake. "About the baby." I winced: his knowledge bothered me. My shame aside, I was the closest thing he had to a mother, and he was approaching puberty. His awareness of what I had done seemed vaguely inappropriate. My admiration for Patricia Praise was growing daily. However had she managed to rear this all-seeing, all-knowing child without leaving him irrevocably damaged?

I set the essays aside, frowning. "We've talked about this, Gibson," I counselled. "You must discipline yourself. It's very invasive to root around in people's thoughts without their permission." I said gravely, "There are responsibilities that come with your gifts."

His eyes flared in protest, the effect exaggerated by his glasses. "But-"

I held up a hand. "No buts. That's my private business - mine and Alexi's. Just because you can see my thoughts, doesn't mean you have the right or the experience to comment on them." He nodded, chastened; and I relented, leaning across his desk to touch his hand.

"He feels guilty," he said softly.

I wondered what that meant; but I resolved not to ask. "Please don't say any more, Gibson. If he wanted me to know that, he would tell me himself."

"But you both think the wrong thing about each other," he burst out, his face flushed with real distress. "You each think the other feels one thing, when you both feel something different. You've got it all wrong!"

How I wished I could ask what he meant! But I had drawn a line, and too many people had screwed with Gibson's boundaries, and I wasn't going to be one of them. "It doesn't matter," I insisted. "That's for us to work out." I rose, and came around behind his chair, bending to embrace him. I said gently, "You don't have to be the adult anymore."

He buried his head in the crook of my arm. He wasn't crying, but he was doing that shaking, crying-on-the-inside thing that boys do. In a way, that was worse. "I wish things were different." He didn't only mean Alex and I - the things that hurt Gibson just weren't that simple - but I think for him Alex and I getting back together signified a whole lot of other things about family and normalcy - things that he had been denied over the last year. And in a way, that was true of me, too.

"I do too," I said softly, swallowing hard. "But things aren't as simple for grown ups as they sometimes look." I pulled away and ruffled his hair. He was getting taller - more like a teenager than a little boy. He looked up at me, and I shot him a smile. "Let's think of happier things. Have you given any more thought to the summer?" He smiled a little at that. "I got you a passport - your name will be Jeremy Gibson. That should be easy to remember at Customs."

Gibson nodded vigorously. "I talked to Alex. He said summer was fine and that he would take me at Christmas instead." I gave a nod of agreement, but then he surprised me. "I want to go to the house in Tangier."

"Tangier?" I queried. "How do you know about Tangier?"

Gibson looked shamefaced. "Alex thinks about it when he thinks of you. I really want to see it. It's really nice." I mentally noted the fact that Alex thought of me, then chastised myself. I didn't want to turn Gibson into some kind of mutant spy.

I sighed, frowning. "I don't know, Gibson. Alexi built that house for us. I don't know if I should see it now. I don't know if he'd even want me to."

"Alex already said that it was there, and that we may as well use it," he argued. "And you said you'd take me anywhere." I felt myself weakening: I had wanted to give him a nice holiday to make up for the time I was away from him, as if anything could. Dammit, maternal guilt ruled my life - and I wasn't even his mother. "Please?"

I sighed heavily. "All right. One condition."

"What's that?"

"Not one word about Alex and I while we're there. Agreed?"

He gave a little smile that made me frown suspiciously; but said only:

"I promise not to say a word."

"I'm going to wring his neck."

"Gibson, or Alex?"

"Both," I said grimly. I swabbed at Skinner's elbow absently. "Alex for talking about it and Gibson for asking to go there. He thinks I'll go there and get all sentimental about the beautiful house Alex built for me and come home and make the man talk to me. It's not going to happen." I slid the needle home a little harder than necessary.

He looked down at his arm ruefully. "Just mind your temper, Marita. That's a big needle you're playing with."

I shot him a look. "I can have Olga do it, if you prefer," I suggested, smirking mischievously.

Skinner shook his head hurriedly. "Six foot one of brute Russian efficiency? No, thank you." He said accusingly, "I thought Kazakhstanis were delicate little things."

"Most of them are." I withdrew the needle, and he shuddered, shooting me a reproachful look. "Better, big boy?" I teased.

"Much." He nodded towards the blood sample. "Do you really think you can do something with that?"

I shrugged. "It's possible. If I had the software that controlled them, it would be a piece of cake. Without it, I'll be working in the dark - but you never know." I pressed a fresh swab into his elbow and put his opposite hand over it. "Keep that elevated, or it will bruise." Washing my hands, I returned to my earlier theme. "Apart from the fact that Alex won't talk to me, I'm really pissed with him about this nanocyte business, too."

Skinner leaned his arm on the kitchen bench, propping it up. "Far be it from me to defend Alex Krycek, but I don't think this is really his doing. He was working for Spender when he infected me."

I turned away and opened the refrigerator. I pushed aside a couple of vials of vaccine. "Do you think he's working for him now?" I said curiously, putting his blood sample in the space I'd made.

He shook his head, taking the swab off his elbow experimentally. He flexed his arm. "He's just using whatever leverage he still has - he wants to stay in the loop." I sat down on the kitchen stool beside him, topping up my tea from the pot. He said reflectively, "Work for Spender after what he did to you? Not a chance. You don't know what Alex was like when you were gone."

I half-turned to face him. Hesitantly, I asked, "How was he, Walter?"

He frowned. "Alex came to me the day after he found out - well, you know, thought he found out you were dead. He was almost incoherent." I tried to imagine how I'd have felt if I'd thought Alex was dead, and found I couldn't. It hurt to try. "Then, when he came back from Ateni, he was very quiet and distant. You could hear it in his voice. It was really low and raw - like he'd swallowed glass or something." I felt my throat tightening, imagining him like that.

"Why did he go to Ateni?" I asked softly.

"Spender gave him ashes. He scattered them," he said, and I flinched a little. "I thought you knew," he went on, and I shook my head, drawing my lips tightly together, unable to speak.

"You sound like you felt sorry for him," I said at last.

"I did," he said simply. "I don't like him - you know that. But I did." He shook his head. "After all that, Marita - and to find you alive - I just can't understand why he left you. It doesn't make any sense." His tone was protective - and perplexed.

I bowed my head. "Please don't think too badly of him, Walter - well, not on my behalf, anyway," I added ruefully, nodding at his arm. "Alexi was right to walk away. I betrayed him, in a way, to save myself. I did this - not him."

He shook his head. He said scathingly, "But to do it right after you lost the baby-" he stopped short, realisation flooding over his features. He looked at me intently. "Marita?"

Reluctantly, I met his gaze. I nodded, my face hot with shame. "I was already pregnant when I came home," I said quietly. I looked away. "I don't have any excuses - I'm not even sure I have reasons anymore. I thought I had to do anything to survive - that it was all up to me." I blinked back tears impatiently. "Maybe adultery isn't the real sin here. Maybe it's arrogance. Maybe I should have been the best person I could and had the humility to just let it unfold." I finished regretfully, "Maybe that's what I've done wrong all along." Skinner's look was kind; but he said nothing, only looked at me with great compassion. I said thickly, "Please don't see me like-" I broke off. I was going to say, 'like I see myself'.

"I don't." He took my hand in his. "I'm sorry it happened - and that he can't be open to hear your side of it."

I smiled wanly. "He will. I believe that." I squeezed it and let go. Rising, I went to the centrifuge and watched, composing myself.

"Don't touch it - Olga will raise hell." I gave a weak laugh, silently thanking him for letting the matter drop. He went on, "Where did you find her?"

"She worked for Alexi and I in Norylsk. She was in Riga seeing her family when the firestorms hit, so she lived to tell the tale."

"Did you have any trouble over there?" he queried.

I shook my head. "They dropped the charges against us some time ago. Apparently Mikhail - Alexi's second-in-command, the one who framed us - left some pretty damning diaries."

He nodded in understanding. "So who's paying for her?"

"The Secretary General is paying for Olga and the ongoing costs. Your report and Senator Sorenson's verbal testimony was enough to convince him I wasn't a lunatic, but he didn't put his money where his mouth was until he'd done a little digging on his own. He gets only a certain amount of money from the United Nations every year before he has to account for it, so the trick at the moment is staying under that threshold."

"What about the house?" he asked, looking around the room appraisingly.

"Sorenson paid for the fitout from his philanthropy budget. The house is mine - it was my mother's." I scanned the hybrid kitchen/laboratory critically. "A Kazakhstani scientist working on a Russian-made vaccine in her kitchen. She'd be rolling in her grave." The telephone rang, and I picked it up, holding up a hand to Skinner apologetically. "Marita Krycek," I said, balancing it between my cheek and my shoulder to rinse my cup.

"It's Olga Aspinadayanova. I need you downstairs - we've had some developments." I frowned, setting the cup aside.

"I'll be right there."

It was heartbreaking.

I cradled a limp baby monkey in my arms, smoothing back its fur. It snuggled into me weakly, its eyes growing dull. Olga watched dispassionately, with a touch of bewilderment; and part of me hated her for her stoicism. I didn't have the coldness of heart for this work - but I was the only one left to do it.

I looked at the wall, at cage after cage of expiring creatures, looming over me as though in accusation. Finally, I demanded, "What the hell happened?" I drew the monkey closer.

"As you know, I decided to trial adrenaline with the vaccine." I nodded - that decision had been prompted by my own inexplicable recovery from the vaccine's after-effects. The adrenaline I'd been given when I flatlined had been identified as a possible reason. "I didn't overdose," she went on. "The dose I chose would normally have returned a mildly subnormal metabolism to normal levels."

The monkey was still - whether comatose or dead, I wasn't sure. I returned it to its cage sadly. "What did they die of, then?"

"The vaccine itself," Olga said clinically. "The animals showed the same biochemical behaviour as the dying pathogen. It poisoned the pathogen, and it poisoned them, too."

I stared at her in sudden realisation. "The malaise keeps them alive," I said incredulously. "The decreased metabolism slows the uptake of the vaccine to safe levels while it kills the pathogen." I looked to her for confirmation, and she nodded. "But then the body can't come back - it can't rebuild the metabolic rate - not for a long time, anyway."

Olga handed me a sheaf of papers. "That's the raw data - some of it - but that's it in a nutshell, yes. I'll have a written report to that effect ready for you to take to the Secretary General tomorrow." I nodded, frowning. "If I may make a suggestion, there are ways around this problem once the pathogen is eliminated. Adrenaline injections, gradual warming to stimulate natural metabolic behaviour - there are possibilities."

My frown deepened. "It's a start," I conceded. "We can start vaccinating people now - the handful of people in the know, at least - but it's still not suitable for mass vaccination. We can't treat every vaccinated person that way - imagine the drain on medical resources. The World Health Organisation would never agree to it. And even if they did, people won't come forward for the vaccine once reports of the after-effects start to trickle in."

Olga said hesitantly, "They might - if they knew of the threat."

"That is one thing the UN will never agree to," I said pensively. "Their secret taskforce on interplanetary defence were unanimous that the leaking of the alien threat would result in civil breakdown."

"Do you think they're right?"

I shrugged. "Who knows?"

Olga gave a low sigh. "We have another problem, too. The animals in the other room - the ones who got the vaccine first, then the pathogen two days later - they'll all dead, too." I made dismayed sound. "The pathogen killed them."

My jaw dropped. "I don't understand - the vaccine has its problems, but killing the pathogen has never been one of them." I frowned. "Do we know how it works? I mean in the preventative sense?"

Olga sat down on a stool. "Well, it isn't, strictly speaking, a vaccine at all. It's more like a delayed-release poison that sits in the body, dormant, waiting to be triggered."

My brow creased. "How is that possible?"

"We don't know that with any certainty," she admitted. "My guess is that a small number of vaccine cells somehow graft themselves somewhere in the body, and when the pathogen is detected they reproduce at a rapid rate."

My head hurt. Science was not one of my strengths. "How do the cells detect the pathogen?" I asked wearily.

Olga shrugged her shoulders. "I'm still guessing, but I imagine that Dr Charne-Sayrre bound the cells to weak pathogen antibodies - like a magic bullet that zooms in on the pathogen and leaves everything else alone. That's why the vaccine levels drop again as soon as the pathogen is dead."

"What did you say?" It came out in a hiss.

"I said, the vaccine levels drop-"

"No, before that," I said, rising. "About Benita."

"I said she bound the cells to weak pathogen antibodies."

"No, not pathogen antibodies," I said in realisation, my heart racing as I started to put it together. "Variola antibodies. Benita was a variola expert, and variola is a mutation of the pathogen." I could feel my blood pumping as it all fell into place. "It grafts itself to the cowpox protein in the smallpox vaccination scar. That's why it works as a cure for everybody, but a preventative only for those who have the scar."

Olga nodded slowly. She looked at me with new respect. "It's possible - probable," she amended by way of concession. "I'll run more tests - this time on animals vaccinated for smallpox."

"You do that," I said jubilantly. "I'm going to call the Secretary General. We have to revive the Smallpox Eradication Program. Not just Stateside - everywhere." I watched her steadily. "By the time we're ready to get this vaccine out there, I want every man, woman and child already vaccinated for smallpox."

Olga looked at me dubiously. "Do you really think he'll do it?" I shot her a gleeful look.

"By the time I'm finished with him? Hell, yeah."

"How did it go?"

I cleared my throat, and said theatrically, "Ladies and gentlemen: we know almost nothing about this terrorist group. We do not know their aims. We do not know their sympathies."

"Because they don't exist," Skinner pointed out over the low hum of his razor.

"Shh!" I glared at him reprovingly and went on, "What we do know is that they have smallpox supplies, and that they are prepared to use them. We know that they have already used them in Payson, South Carolina. We have compelling evidence - not just evidence, people; *compelling* evidence," I added in my normal voice, and he laughed "- from the FBI that this attack was intended to be a test in preparation for a large-scale bioterrorist attack. The group we have dubbed The Syndicate-"

"Duh-duh-duh-DUH!" he chimed in forebodingly.

"- will strike again. Our only defence is the revival of the Smallpox Eradication Program, supported financially and politically by the World Health Organisation." I said in a mock whisper, "This is where it gets really tear-jerky." I cleared my throat again, and went on, "When you consider your vote, I ask that you consider how many people in your family, how many children are not currently protected against this threat." Skinner was grinning, and I said wearily, "And a whole lot more."

"Bravo." He gave a little clap. "What else did you tell them?"

I shook my head, laughing. "Not a thing. I reiterated the same points for an hour." I nodded towards his bare chest. "Would you put a shirt on? You're making me cold just looking at you."

"What do you expect, business attire? You're the one who rocked up unannounced at seven a.m.," he pointed out, but he complied. "Did they notice?"

"Who knows? Maybe they just voted yes to shut me up."

He grinned at that, buttoning his shirt. "So when does it all begin?"

I rubbed my hands together gleefully. "That's the best part. There's a press conference in Geneva in -" I checked my watch "- one hour." He passed into the kitchen, and I raised my voice to be heard through the hutch. "The smallpox vaccine is being manufactured as we speak, and the first supplies go out in the middle of next week."

"Very quick," he commented, clinking cups and spoons industriously.

"They're afraid the so-called terrorists will speed up their plans if they don't hurry. Can't think where they got that idea," I added innocently.

Skinner laughed, coming back into the lounge with two cups of coffee. I made a face when he handed me mine. "I know you don't like the stuff, but you need it," he insisted. He peered at me appraisingly. "You look tired, Marita."

"Just jet lag," I said dismissively.

"Can you get some sleep?" He sat down opposite me.

I shook my head. "I'm only passing through - well, detouring around," I amended at his dubious look, "but I wanted to let you know how it went. I'm driving to Bethesda to get Gibson, and then we're off to Spain for a couple of days, then across to Tangier. More flying," I added irritably. I eyed him critically. "You don't look so hot yourself, Walter. Big night?"

Skinner laughed. "You're not going to believe this," he said, gulping down a mouthful of coffee, "but I sat up all night drinking with your husband."

My brow creased doubtfully. "Alex?" I said in disbelief. "How did that happen?" I looked at him, perplexed. I tried to picture those two as drinking buddies, but the image just wouldn't form.

"I'll have you know, Alex and I get along very well when we aren't trying to kill one another," he retorted primly. I gave a bark of laughter at that. He explained, "I put one over on him, in a manner of speaking, and he accepted defeat like a man." He sipped at his coffee, and continued, "He drank to me, and then I drank to him, and then he drank to me, and then I-"

"I get the picture," I said, very much amused. I drank some of the awful coffee. It hit my taste buds bitterly. "I'll bite," I said, grimacing. "What did you do that was so wonderful that it warranted such mutual admiration?"

He sat back with a smug little smile. "I got the nanocyte controller."

My jaw dropped. "How did you manage that?" I demanded admiringly.

He admitted shamefacedly, "Alex wanted the oil stock. I told him I wouldn't play ball unless he gave me the controller."

I shot him a reproachful look. "I told you to *give* it to him."

Skinner's expression was innocent. "You didn't say I had to give it to him *free*." I set down my drink and sat back, annoyed. He asked tentatively, "Are you angry?"

Relenting, I shook my head, sighing. "Of course not." I could hardly blame him for wanting his life back, after all - and he had ultimately fulfilled my instructions. "Can you keep the controller safe until I get back? I want to find a way to kill these damn nanocytes once and for all."

He finished his drink. "That would be great," he agreed, rising. He took his cup to the kitchen.

"You must feel good," I called.

He shrugged a little, returning to the lounge. "I did," he said, "but I'm regretting the drinking binge. I've got a hell of a day ahead." He sat once more. At my enquiring look, he elaborated, "There's this guy called Michael Kritschgau-" he broke off when I rolled my eyes. "What?"

I shook my head, waving my hand dismissively. "Oh, he's that asshole who convinced Mulder the alien threat was a hoax a few years ago. Caused Alex and I no end of trouble. Go on."

"Oh. Anyway, he has these computer files belonging to Dana. UFO data, and according to her, a map of the entire human genome." I raised my eyebrows at that, but didn't comment. "His apartment was set on fire last night, and his laptop is missing. She's off playing ministering angel to Mulder-" his nose wrinkled in distaste at that, and I remembered he and Scully were fighting again "- so I have to find an agent to investigate. That's going to be fun - I'm down nine staff, what with maternity leave and sick leave and vanishing lobotomised mutants." I thought this last must refer to Mulder, but decided it just wasn't worth pursuing.

"What about Diana Don- Diana Fowley?" I corrected. "She's at a loose end now that she's off the X Files."

"Diana's dead," Skinner said grimly.

"What?" It came out in a hiss.

"Murdered overnight. That's my second headache."

I sat back in stupefaction. "Those poor kids," I said softly, my good humour forgotten.

He stared at me. "What are you talking about?"

"She was a widow," I said absently. "Three kids."

A flicker of compassion crossed his features. "I didn't know."

"You weren't meant to. Her husband was a Consortium man." I said, thinking aloud, "I wonder what happens to them now. That family has been dropping like flies."

It was a question that would be answered sooner than I thought.

"Just five more minutes."

I looked at Gibson in bewilderment. "Gibson, it's just an arrivals lounge. There's nothing to see here. We've already hung around here for an hour." He looked at me reproachfully. I said more gently, "I really want to get to the house. I'm hot and I'm tired. Please." He shot me a baleful look, but he came along more or less willingly.

I thought about it as we clambered into a taxi, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that something was wrong. He was at a prime age for prepubescent petulance; but somehow that didn't strike me as a likely explanation. Gibson was still too insecure after his ordeal to risk being truly defiant. I shot him a sidelong look, and he seemed preoccupied...worried. My brow creasing, I mentally willed him to talk to me; and he turned at once to face me. It seemed so nicely fortuitous that I forgot, for a moment, that he was telepathic; but then I realised that my thought had prompted his response.

"What's wrong?" I asked him at last.

His shoulder's were hunched. He wouldn't meet my gaze. "If I tell you, you promise you won't be angry?" he asked, his voice pleading.

I frowned. "I promise to try not to be angry," I said cautiously. What on earth could he have done?

"I kind of lied to you about this summer." He shifted uncomfortably.

"What do you mean?" I demanded, bewildered.

Wincing, he admitted, "Alex thinks *he's* looking after me at the house for the holidays."

"Gibson!" I hissed, mortified.

"I'm sorry! I just thought if you two were in that house he made for you, you'd talk about the - about whatever you have to talk about -" I groaned in disbelief "- and then everything would be the way it was at Fort Marlene." I hung my head in my hands in dismay. "I want him back, Marita. I want you to be happy again." He suddenly sounded very young, and I sighed and put my arms around him, though I didn't feel like it. "Are you very angry?" he asked worriedly, his voice muffled against my shoulder.

I made a sound of frustration. "I'm *furious*!" He stiffened against me, and I kissed his hair, relenting. "But it will pass." I pulled back from him. "All right, Cupid, when is he meeting us?"

He was very pale. "That's the problem. He was supposed to meet us at the airport."

I shrugged. "Maybe he was delayed. Maybe he's going to meet us at the house."

He shook his head. "He didn't know you would be here. He thought I was flying unaccompanied." I shot him a look, and understood at once his concern. Alexi would never have intentionally risked leaving Gibson unsupervised in a foreign airport; nor would he have risked the boy being handed over to the authorities as abandoned.

"What's your sense?" I demanded. He said urgently:

"He's in trouble."

"I feel very badly about this, Ma'am."

I looked up as the older woman put a cup of tea in front of me. One thing about the English, they have their priorities straight. When the shit hits the fan, crack open the Twinings.

I shook my head. "It's not your fault, Gladys. My husband clearly intended to be back in time to meet us and tell us you were at the house. Thank you," I added, motioning to the cup. I took a sip gratefully. I motioned to Gibson and the Donovan children. They were petting a very reluctant cat in the gazebo. "How are they coping?"

"I really couldn't say, Ma'am. They were quite distraught initially, but now they're just shocked. They've become accustomed to loss, especially Samuel - the youngest," she added by way of explanation.

I nodded slowly. "That's right - their father and grandfather in the last three years, as well. And now their mother." Gladys nodded. "Those poor kids."

"Your husband was very gentle with him when he told them. I think that helped - as much as anything can help." I nodded wistfully. That sounded like Alex. She went on, "I hate to worry you with this, but - what happens to us now?"

I gave a shrug. "I really don't know. I'm going to have to make some calls and find out about Diana's estate. I can't imagine who she gave guardianship to - there's no-one left," I added ruefully. I gave a weary sigh. "Are you willing to stay here for now? I'll make sure you continue to get whatever Diana was paying you." It didn't occur to me to question why I considered these latest Consortium orphans to be my responsibility; I just did.

"Yes, I'm happy to stay here," she said easily. "My children are grown, and I've never been out of England before."

"All right." I finished my tea. "Can you tell me exactly what happened?"

Gladys nodded. "I got a phone call from Mr Krycek earlier this week. He told me that Mrs Donovan was in danger and that she was going to Tunisia, and that I was to bring the children to meet her."

"Didn't you think that was a little odd?"

She shook her head. "Mrs Donovan herself had told me more than once that this could happen. She was a very brave woman, though I do think, you know, that women should leave such dangerous work to the men." I suppressed a grin. "Anyway, we arrived in Tunis, and your husband met us. He told me privately that Mrs Donovan had passed away, and that he had a house in Morocco, and that we should stay there until he could work something out. I telephoned the FBI, and an Assistant Director there confirmed her death."

"Skinner," I supplied, nodding.

"That's right. So we came here with him, and then he broke the news to the children. He gave me some money for our immediate needs and said he had to go back to Tunisia, but that he would be back in two days. He said he had to pick up his son from the airport. That's all I know."

"He called Gibson that?" I said, pleased. "His son?" Gladys nodded, and I smiled a little. I asked, "How long was he here, and where did he go while he was here?"

"A few hours. He used the bathroom and shower, went to the master bedroom for a few minutes, and the second bedroom for an hour or so. I think he was getting it ready for the boy. Other than that, he was out here with the children and I."

I nodded, rising. "Will you excuse me?"

"Of course, Ma'am."

I went to the master bedroom and opened the built-in wardrobe. Pulling back the carpet on the floor, I found the metal plate Alex had once described and lifted it, revealing the safe beneath. I tried our wedding date, my New York zip code, and his cellphone number, to no avail.

I finally got lucky with his old FBI badge number. Peering inside, I reached in and drew out the oil stock - the one Alex had gotten from Skinner. That made me frown - his decision to leave it here meant he had gone to do something at least potentially dangerous, and if it was in Tunisia, it was probably an intelligence sale. He'd been doing that for a year now - Diana had made the necessary introductions. I wondered fleetingly whether they'd been lovers, then decided it hardly mattered now.

Setting the stock aside, I drew out a laptop computer. I wondered what Alex was doing with it - and why he thought it necessary to leave it in the safe. I turned it over, saw the engraved security panel, and frowned.

*Michael Kritschgau.*

Frowning, I put the laptop back in the safe, put everything back as it had been, and went out back. "Gladys?"

"Yes, Ma'am?"

"Would you mind watching Gibson, as well as the others? I hate to impose-"

"Not at all. You're going to make some enquiries about your husband?"

I nodded. Then, thinking of Gibson, I said softly, "Tell me, are you able to use a firearm?"

"You mean like a handgun?"

"That's right."

Gladys nodded. "I do, actually - Mrs Donovan thought it was wise for me to learn. But I don't have one."

I nodded, and drew mine from my waistband. I held it out to her by the barrel, and she took it, frowning. I said meaningfully:

"Just in case."

I went to the library.

Reading through three days' worth of Moroccan and Tunisian newspapers, I identified four gangland-style hits. I eliminated two on the basis of the country of origin of the weapon, and a third on the basis of the physical description of the victim. The fourth hit was of interest: a Tunisian diplomat, killed in Tunis by an American weapon, the model of which I recognised as that issued as standard to Spender's men. It was possible that Alex could have killed his buyer with an old weapon from his days working for Spender - but that made no sense; he would have returned to Tangier in that case. The other possibility was that Spender's men had ambushed Alex and his buyer.

Frowning, I left the library and travelled south to Casablanca. No point in making myself too easy to trace: Tangier was the one place Alex and I had that wasn't compromised. I checked into a hotel and telephoned Spender.

"Ms Covarrubias," he said. There was a hiss of static on the line as he exhaled - probably smoking. "I wondered when you would get in touch."

"My name is Krycek." I flicked idly through a hotel bible. Three things were certain in life, I reflected: death, taxes, and the Gideons.

"Ah, yes. I suppose there's little point in concealing your marriage now that your enemies are dead." Make that four, I amended: Spender being a prick.

"Most of them," I said coldly. "Where's my husband?"

"Why should I tell you that?" he asked with interest.

"Because you owe me," I snapped. "You owe me for my children. You owe me for my marriage."

"Your marriage - yes, I heard Alex was displeased with the surprise you brought home." I winced, but said nothing, determined not to be goaded. "Some debts are not enforceable, Marita. But I could be persuaded to give you the information, if I were to get something in exchange."

Surprise, surprise. "What did you have in mind?"

Sound of a flicking lighter. "You may have heard that I'm down an assistant."

I laughed, genuinely amused. "And you want me to take the job? No way. Your offsiders have an alarming death rate. Diana was a comparative veteran." I put the bible back in its drawer and took out a couple of complimentary mints.

"Yes, but you have somewhat more value than most of your predecessors." He went on thoughtfully, "I hear you've had the Smallpox Eradication Program revived."

I balanced the phone between my cheek and my shoulder so I could unwrap a mint. "You're not getting within a mile of the work on the vaccine. Even if I allowed it, there are others now who wouldn't. Your glory days are over." I popped it into my mouth.

I expected him to argue, but he said reflectively, "Maybe that's true. But I still have other projects, and you have connections, and that's something that could be helpful to me."

I frowned, but decided that it might be better to cede partial defeat on this one. "All right," I said at last, swallowing my mint. "Where is he?"

"Before I tell you, a condition." More exhaling. I wondered if he didn't know it was rude to smoke into the phone, or if he just didn't care.

"What is it?" I asked wearily.

"I don't want him freed," Spender replied. He insisted, "I want Alex where I can lay my hands on him."

"And what if I free him anyway?" I demanded, feeling cautious optimism. Apparently Alex was somewhere from which escape was an option. But his response chilled me.

"I might have to tell him the truth about your child."

My reflection in the dresser mirror caught my eye. I was very pale; there were bright spots of red high on my cheeks. "You have no right-"

"I have every right. I have a vested interest, after all."

I decided not to pursue this unpromising line of argument. "Fine," I said coldly. I twisted the mint wrapper between my hands viciously. "Tell me where he is."

"He's in a prison in Tunis."

"Which one?" He laughed at that.

"The worst one."

I left him there.

I confirmed Spender's story of Alexi's imprisonment, and I bribed an official to extend him some protection; but I left him there. I left him because I knew he was safe, and I left him because he'd tolerated worse conditions in Norylsk; but mostly I left him because I was too weak to tell him the truth and too cowardly to let Spender do it for me.

I stayed in Tangier for three weeks, in the end, caring for Gibson and the Donovan children. Diana's estate left Alex their legal guardian; I had power of attorney over his affairs, just as he did for me, so that made the children mine. Although that was a legal reality rather than an absolute one, I took it seriously, and did what little I could for them. I considered taking them home to New York and rearing them myself, but they were more or less settled; so I decided to leave them there in Gladys' care. Better that they didn't get too attached to me; after all, I could die too.

Gibson regarded me watchfully during this time, and I knew he disapproved of my decisions - both concerning the other children and concerning Alexi - but he didn't broach the issue. Slowly, very slowly he was learning to accept and trust in my judgement. Instead, he threw himself into the business of getting to know his new surrogate siblings. He was very close to them, especially Shane, who was not much younger than he. Elizabeth was distant, and that worried me, but I was in no position to help. Samuel was very clingy, and that was bittersweet: he had been born after his father's death, about the time Alex and I had expected our own.

Gibson remained in Tangier as well. Spender had known of my attachment to the boy, and his renewed interest in Alex and I worried me. Working for Spender would increase the risk of Gibson being found by a factor of ten. After several heated discussions late at night, Gibson reluctantly accepted my decision; so I returned to New York alone, a childless mother yet again.

My work with Spender was mercifully limited. It seemed that Mulder had spontaneously mutated before I went to Tangier, and that Spender had stolen the hybrid genes by some kind of surgical intervention. It was that which Skinner had been referring to with his lobotomised mutant remark before I left. Instead of survival, the operation had left Spender facing his own death. He was determined to die with his boots on, pursuing the work to the bitter end; but the work, as he understood it, no longer existed. He was left with pursuing nonsense leads in the hope of building something of meaning before he died, and my work was limited to stamping on the occasional spotfires he left behind. The man disgusted me on a thousand levels, but his predicament struck me as very sad. He was like a child, grasping blindly at anything that seemed like a good idea at the time, with no comprehension of the big picture.

My real work, the work on the vaccine, continued in leaps and bounds. I took the laptop from Tangier and laboriously reassembled the human genome information, breaking down the deleted data into individual bytes and transposing the data, then reassembling it into something comprehensible. A lot of it was pointless, irritating work - I reassembled not only the data, but Michael Kritschgau's private e-mail, his internet cache, and his downloaded porn. This last left me turning my head to one side in chagrined disbelief on more than one occasion. But at last, it was done, and I had a map of the complete human genome. Once Olga had verified the information as well as she was able, I patented it in Alexi's and my name; but I made no attempt to licence its use. That would come later, when all this was over. Right now my priority was using the information to perfect the vaccine.

Christmas came - a time Alex and I had always made for one another, no matter how far apart we were - and that brought his absence into sharp relief. The sorrow, always lingering, became acute; the pain, my constant companion. The jubilation I felt at our moderate successes on the vaccine was muted: this was his work, too, and he should be here to share it. My strength lay in computers and politics, and his in science and security; this work, which at last was coming together into something that might really make a difference, could not have happened without both of us. Our marriage had united our strengths, given us clarity and permanence with which to succeed where so many others had failed; and now that our marriage was in pieces, the work, fruit of our union, brought me sorrow as well as joy. In this time - this time of strength and of profound loneliness - that was true of many things.

It was the little things that seemed to matter the most. Memories that were mere fragments of a life became focal, considered and analysed in torturous detail in the silence of the night. I thought of Alexi, and I remembered the one I'd had before him - and the one after, but I tried not to think of that - and how he had moved above me, his body pulled back from mine, supporting himself with rigid arms. Even before we had loved one another (had there ever been such a time?), it would never have occurred to Alex to do such a thing. Making love was not an athletic activity; it was a joining. He would cover me with his body and his weight, skin on skin, heart over heart, breath to breath, filling the space in my heart as well as the one in my body. He would allow me to engulf him in every way, to hold him in my arms and within myself. My body screamed to be touched after so long alone, but more than anything, I craved that joining of the soul. I wished we had made love after my return, just once; because then the other would not be my most recent memory. It would be my husband's hand I felt on my neck and on my breast and on my thigh, and not those other hands.

The other - a painful memory, one I tried not to let in; but sometimes it seeped in anyway, pervading my mind and my body like a poison. I doubt he'd even wanted me, in my sickened state; but I had offered my body as a concession in exchange for one of his own, and he was not the sort of man to give without extracting something in exchange. He accepted my offer simply because he could, unaware that I wanted something else, something that he could give me in this act: the means to live. What had been done to me wasn't the horror of rape, but it left bile in my throat and ice in my veins, even now. More than anything, it left the raging fire of shame. And in those moments when the memory caught me unawares, I would pray for forgiveness - from my God, from my husband, from myself.

But sometimes it felt as though that was beyond the power of all three.

"What do you mean, you're out of ideas?"

Olga's expression was unhappy. "What you're seeking just can't be done with any of the pharmaceuticals currently available. You want something that will do nothing for twenty hours and then just magically kick in. These things don't come with a built-in time clock, you know."

I turned the pages of the report rapidly. "What's wrong with metabolic stimulants?"

Olga shook her head. "Adding metabolic stimulants to the formula is useless - people's bodies will come back too soon, and they'll die from the vaccine." Her tone left no room for argument, and I didn't try - I knew she was right, and she was tiring of playing teacher to a layperson. We were both on a hair-trigger of nerves after weeks of twenty-hour days.

"What about delayed-release metabolic stimulants?" I asked at last, with no idea of whether such a thing existed.

She shook her head. "There's no such thing. Sustained release, maybe, but not delayed release. You're not hearing me, Marita," she accused angrily. "What you're asking for is not possible. It requires a kind of precision which is outside the realm of the pharmaceutical. It's more like - I don't know, artificial intelligence."

I stared at her in shock - stared at her for a full five seconds, thunderstruck. I started to laugh, my blood pumping, my body alive with realisation. "Olga, you're a genius." She watched me with utter bewilderment, and the last thing I heard as I bolted out of the lab was her beleaguered sigh:

"Bloody Americans."

"It works!"

I jumped, startled. "What?" I hissed. I hadn't been aware of going to sleep. I looked around, disorientated. I was at my mother's, in the downstairs lab, and the jubilant voice belonged to Olga. My laptop was open before me, networked with the nanocyte controller and Michael Kritschgau's hard drive by a mass of leads. I blinked rapidly, and it all started to come back. "How long have I been asleep?"

"Six hours. You hadn't slept in two days - I didn't like to disturb you."

I shook my head to clear it. "Did you say it worked?" I was dimly aware of the noises in the background. Animals jumping and scratching and calling to one another. It sounded strange, and after a moment I pinned down the reason why. I was used to the quiet that usually followed the tests.

Olga was nodding. "Half got the vaccine administered after the pathogen. They all eliminated the pathogen, and were ill in the ways we've seen before for twenty hours. Then the nanocytes kicked in to boost the metabolism, and they came back."

I could feel my excitement building. "What about the others? The ones who got the vaccine first?"

"Same story. When the pathogen is introduced, the antibodies reproduce at a rapid rate and attack. The metabolic rate plummets to protect the body. Then, when the pathogen is gone and the free-floating antibodies have died, the nanocytes kick in and rebuild the metabolism." She looked at me curiously. "You really did it."

I was grinning like a gleeful idiot. "We did it," I corrected. "Thank God." I gave a low sigh of exhilarated relief. "Any side effects beyond the twenty hour recovery period?"

"Yes," Olga said, and at my stricken look, she held up a calming hand. "The metabolic kick-start seems to kick-start a one-off regenerative process, as well."

I frowned. "Explain."

"Well, for one thing, the vaccination scars are healing over. The cowpox protein is still there," she added at my look of alarm, "but the soft tissues are regenerating. That may make it difficult to tell those who have been vaccinated apart from those who never got a smallpox vaccine, but that's a relatively minor issue. More significant regeneration is taking place, as well: one of the monkeys was missing about two inches of a finger where a cage door had slammed on it."

I glared at her, temporarily diverted. "I expect better care of these animals than that."

"It didn't happen here," she said hastily. "It was at the breeder's. Anyway, it's growing back. Quite fascinating, because something like that doesn't regenerate in the normal scheme of things. It grows once, in utero, and then that's it. If you lose it, it's gone forever."

"Could bigger parts of the body be restored?" I asked, thinking of Alex.

"You mean like a limb?" she queried. "I doubt it. I think we're talking about a mild, one-off regeneration of small areas. We have other monkeys with more significant injuries, and they haven't healed. If I had to guess, I'd say we're looking at tissues and organs with a diameter of perhaps a few inches at most. Tonsils, glands, that sort of thing. We might see a rush on repeat circumcisions."

I laughed. "Will it cure disease?"

"No, but it will repair some of the damage. In some cases it will buy people time."

"Nice bonus."

"Very satisfying."

I rose from my stool awkwardly. "How the hell did I *sleep* there?" I marvelled. I stretched, my joints cricking in symphony. Olga winced. I rolled my head a little. "God, that hurts. Okay, so the nanocytes work in apes. Do they work in humans - and without doing any harm?"

"I couldn't say without a human subject."

"We need-" I broke off when my cell phone rang. "Sorry, Olga; hang on." I opened the flip. "Marita Krycek."

Spender's voice echoed through the phone. "Where are you?"

I made a face. "New York," I said with long-suffering weariness. "What do you want?"

If he heard my irritation, he chose to ignore it. "Practically next door," he said brightly. "I'm at the Summervale Inn in Pennsylvania. I'd like you to meet me."

I balanced the phone between my cheek and my shoulder. "Can it wait?" I said, ignoring Olga's reproving look. She'd been pestering me about the habit for a while. The words 'strained neck' were a recurring theme; she mouthed them now.

"I'm afraid it can't." I waited for the telltale static of exhaled smoke, but it didn't come. Could it be that he wasn't smoking?

"What the hell do you want, Spender?"

He said calmly, "I've drugged Dana Scully. I would like you to change her into more comfortable clothes."

He betrayed no awareness of the strangeness of his words. It was such an innocently peculiar request. Feeling slightly surreal, I snapped, "What am I, a fucking nursemaid? Do it yourself."

"I don't think that's appropriate," he said primly.

I thought about it. "All right," I said at last, "I'll come. Give me an hour." I rang off, and turned to Olga.

"I think we just got our human subject."

"This is a mind-fuck!"

Spender wrinkled his features in distaste. "You can be terribly uncouth, Marita," he said reprovingly. "It doesn't become you."

"You bring out the worst in me," I said coldly.

"That wasn't always the case."

I stared up at him in disbelief that he genuinely believed that, but decided it just wasn't worth pursuing. Instead, I said incredulously, "You seriously believe that when this woman wakes up and finds her clothes have been tampered with, she will feel safe with you?"

"If her underwear isn't disturbed, yes, I think she will." I shook my head incredulously. It was a logic that only Spender could have come up with. Not for the first time, I wondered if the inflammation in his brain might be affecting his intellect. He was not a stupid man, even now; but the lines that connected some of the greater complexities were going down. "I will have had her vulnerable and exposed, and yet I will not have taken advantage of her," he went on. "That counts for a lot."

I said disgustedly, "It does, doesn't it?"

He shot me a look, but said nothing; and then he left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.

I watched him go, perplexed; then returned my attention to the task at hand. Dana Scully lay on the bed, dressed in a crisp business suit, two hours into a drug-induced slumber that should last for fifteen. I went dutifully to her overnight bag and withdrew her pyjamas - awful pink satin things. Painstakingly, I undressed the older woman, lifting each limb with care, until at last I had her laid out before me in her underwear. I looked at her lingerie approvingly: sensible white things befitting a woman on a mission. I noted the recording apparatus in her bra, and I decided to leave it there. I didn't know exactly what either of them were up to, but if Scully was out to outsmart Spender, I'd go along with it.

With my ear tuned to the sounds of movement behind the door, I withdrew a leather pouch from my pocket and opened it. Working quickly, I found a dark freckle on the fleshy part of Scully's thigh; drew vaccine up into a needle, and eased it into her flesh there, counting on the freckle to disguise the point of entry. I injected her with pathogen next. I opened her eyelids and took a cursory glance to be sure there was no telltale sheen of oil over her eyes; but the efficacy of the vaccine was not in question, and in any case, Scully was already immune. The question was, after her metabolism dropped in the course of killing the pathogen, would her body recover?

I packed up my pouch, looking nervously at the door, and gently swabbed away the spot of blood on Scully's leg. If all went well, I reflected, she would wake feeling ill, and she would probably accuse Spender of drugging her. She would write off the seven hours of malaise that followed to the after-effects. Of course, if things went wrong, she might stay ill; but I didn't really believe that would happen. I was pretty sure of my ground.

And at last, my faith was justified.

Scully recovered.

She and Spender went on with their odd little intrigue; and I gathered later that whatever the aim had been, Spender had won, but that the victory gave him no advantage. But that wasn't the point: the point was, Scully had the nanocytes in her body, and they did their job, and she suffered no ill-effects. I followed up with a test on myself, partly for scientific veracity, and partly in the desperate hope that my shredded uterine tissue would regenerate, allowing me to bear children once more. The four children I reared from afar had not eased my pain, but rather made it acute.

It wasn't enough testing - not by a long shot - but I was convinced enough of the vaccine's safety to take it to the Secretary General, my powerful ally. He, in turn, was convinced enough to create a top-secret taskforce within the World Health Organisation to formally test the vaccine and verify our findings.

Within a month, we had some preliminary results on the table, and a top-secret extraordinary meeting of the United Nations was called. I travelled to Geneva in my new capacity as Under-Secretary General and made a marathon thirteen-hour presentation, supported by presentations by Skinner, Senator Sorenson, Olga, and a small handful of surviving Consortium employees and abductees.

During the heated discussions that followed, several representatives admitted independent knowledge of the colonisation threat. That swayed the balance, and they voted in favour of the world vaccination program and an accompanying program of disinformation. The timetable for the release of the vaccine, subject to favourable testing outcomes, was less than twelve months. I signed over the manufacturing rights to the vaccine for an amount which was token in pharmaceutical terms, but which was enough to keep Alex and the children and I in comfort for the rest of our lives.

We'd done it.

We'd really done it.