Welcome To The Harem
Not My Lover - Enigma by Deslea R. Judd Part 10 WIP
Summary: This is a WORK IN PROGRESS. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2. Prequel to Not My Lover, but stands alone.
THIS CONTINUES CHAPTER 5.
I never did find out the Dark Man's name. To this day, Mare refuses to tell me what it is (although she has said more than once that I'd recognise it if she did). But I did find out something else about him that night, and that was that he was vulnerable too.
Mare and I were fooling around in bed - just tickling and teasing. Desire was growing at a leisurely pace, and we would have gotten down to business sooner or later if not for a knock at the door.
I lifted my head from the small of her back. "It's one in the morning," I said in disgust. "What the-"
"I'll get rid of them," Mare said, rising up onto her elbows. She added over her shoulder, "You can keep licking there, if you like." Grinning, I took the hint, and she called, "Go away. It can wait 'til morning."
"Marita, let me in," came a familiar voice, muffled through the door. "I'm getting blood on your carpet."
"Blood?" she said, rising abruptly, bumping me in the process.
"Ow," I said, rising too. I pulled my robe around myself and then handed her hers, rubbing the bridge of my nose with my free hand.
"Sorry," she said. She kissed it with a rueful grin. She donned the robe I'd given her, hurried to the door, and opened it. "What's happened?"
"Just let me in." The Dark Man pushed his way in as soon as the door was open far enough. He half-staggered, and he caught Mare's arm to steady himself. I caught hold of his other side, but he shrugged us off as soon as his vertigo passed. As he straightened, I got a better look at him. Blood was oozing from a half-congealed head wound. Someone had worked him over big time.
Mare led him onto the dais, and I pulled up one of the stools. He sat, and she pried his car keys from his hand. She handed them to me. I put them on the vanity, saying, "You didn't drive like this, did you?"
"From D.C.," he said. "Sorry to get you out of bed."
Mare shook her head, dismissing this. "We weren't asleep."
I reflected with some amusement that that sounded worse, and clearly the Dark Man caught the inference, because he shot me an apologetic look. I shrugged it off, saying, "Come on, let's get you cleaned up."
He sat there and let Mare fuss over him for a while. I doubted anyone else could have gotten away with it, but he allowed it from her. It occurred to me that she must have been a very endearing child to have that lingering effect on him.
"So who was it?" she asked at last, dabbing his forehead with antiseptic.
"Your old boss," he said, nodding to me. "AD Skinner."
I stared at him in utter disbelief. "Skinner," I echoed. "Why?"
"He wanted to know where Mulder went."
I thought on this. "You didn't kill the old bastard, did you? I rather liked him."
The Dark Man shook his head. "He's alive. Just a little the worse for wear. I gave as good as I got."
Mare favoured him with an indulgent smile. "I'll bet you did. So come on, spill the beans."
He met her gaze. "What makes you think I have any beans to spill?"
His tone was ingenious, which was hilarious, considering the source. I said as much. "As lovely as Mare's Florence Nightingale impersonation may be," I said grimly, "I'm betting you would've just slapped on a sticking plaster if you didn't have something to tell us."
He offered a rare grin. "True enough."
"That's going to need stitches," Mare said, casting a critical gaze over the cut on his head. "So what have you got for us?" She turned and got a needle and what looked like a spool of thread in a sealed packet from the cabinet, and wiped the needle with rubbing alcohol.
I watched her in disbelief. "You're not going to stitch it yourself, are you?"
"Of course I am," she said. Her tone was matter-of-fact. Totally oblivious to the Dr Kildare factor. "I do it all the time."
"Hardly all the time," the Dark Man protested.
"I pulled a bullet out of his shoulder once," she said proudly. "He doesn't get into trouble much, but when he does, he does it good."
"And I was only kidding about Florence Nightingale," I marvelled. Mare approached the Dark Man with the needle, and I turned away. "So talk."
"Well, Mulder found out that Carolyn - *fuck*, Marita, have you got salt on that thing?"
"Whinge, whinge, whinge."
"It feels like a fucking upholstery needle!"
"Fine. See if I patch you up next time you get into a punch-up."
I turned to look at them again, and winced. She wasn't finished. "Priorities, people?"
The Dark Man made an exasperated sound. "Fine. Mulder found out, or worked out that Carolyn wasn't really Samantha. He went chasing after the Bounty Hunter to find out what happened to the real Samantha. That's why he hasn't been at work."
I frowned. "Where are they now?"
"Battling it out in Alaska." The Dark Man's voice was neutral even as Mare sewed him up. The only hint of any pain he might be feeling was in his whitened knuckles. I marvelled at his self-control. It was pretty damn impressive - if a little frightening.
"Alaska?" There was worry in Mare's voice. "He could be after Elena or the Samantha clones."
"I don't think so," the Dark Man said. "They're in Deadhorse, right up in the Arctic. The Bounty Hunter is trying to salvage his ship by the look of it." He conceded, "He did take out an abortion clinic in Rockville before he left - one with some clones in it - but my impression is that he was just trying to stop Mulder's investigation."
Mare nodded, visibly relieved. "So why did Skinner want the location?"
"Well, it seems Mulder ditched Scully, and-"
"I know just how she feels," I said fervently.
"-she wants go after him. Skinner played heavy on her behalf."
I went to the bar and poured the Dark Man a brandy. "Touching," I said with more than a trace of sarcasm. I handed it to him, but Mare took it deftly from his hand.
"Alcohol or painkillers?" she said. "You can't have both." He scowled at her and held out his hand, and she handed it back with a sigh.
"Thank you." He took a sip and sat back a little. "So assuming Mulder makes it out alive - and for what it's worth, I think he will, because I don't think the Bounty Hunter will want Spender offside - he should be back in the next week or so and we can go through his report."
"Can't we get anything off Scully's?" Mare wondered. "The longer we wait, the colder the trail gets."
The Dark Man shook his head. "They seem to be comparing reports before they lodge them now. I don't think she'll lodge hers until he comes back."
I nodded. I'd expected that. I pointed out, "Things will be hot for Elena now."
"They would be, if she were silly enough to go back to work, but she won't. Now that Spender knows about the unsanctioned Samantha clones, he must have guessed that she's running something on the side. He won't give her the luxury of explaining herself. And I don't think he'd really want her to explain herself. I don't think he wants to hear that Samantha betrayed him."
"Makes sense," Mare said. "Does he know that Samantha and Elena were working together?"
"Knows, or guessed. He hasn't said much, but from what I can piece together, both he and Larissa knew there was a relationship between Samantha and Elena, so when these clones popped up it didn't take much of a leap to work out that Elena was part of it."
Mare was instantly on the alert. "He's spoken to my mother?"
The Dark Man nodded. "One of my men tracked him to Staten Island just after all this blew up. I don't know what was said - he couldn't get that close without being detected."
"Maybe he was trying to find out if she knew where Elena was," Mare suggested.
"Most likely," I said. But privately, I thought it was at least possible that Larissa and Spender were colluding to flush Elena out. There was a ruthlessness about Larissa that I didn't like. If she would orchestrate what amounted to the sexual exploitation of her daughter in order to protect her secret, who knew what else she would do? But of course, I could say nothing of this.
I thought on this again later, after the Dark Man had retired to his suite, after Mare had dropped off to sleep in my arms. It wasn't the first time I'd lain awake well into the night - lately it was a common occurrence.
Not for the first time, I tried to see it from Larissa's point of view. It wasn't so much goodwill on my part as a need to work out where she was coming from - and what she might do next. I supposed that to Larissa, delivering Marita into the hands (and bed) of her best friend, her trusted friend and protector, was the least of all possible evils. Certainly Michael had been kind to Marita. The logic was impeccable. In a warped kind of way, it made perfect sense - maybe the same kind of sense as Spender concealing Samantha's death from the Mulders.
And yet...and yet.
It made sense, but it was all wrong - that was what it really came down to. And by choosing to share in that path, wasn't I wrong too?
No. My mind recoiled from the parallel. I was withholding information from Mare, yes. But I hadn't manipulated her. I hadn't used her body against her. I wasn't like them.
My loyalty was with her. Not Larissa. Not Elena. Not the Project or the Russians or the Eves. Her. And that meant I was nothing like them.
Nothing like them at all.
"It never rains, but it pours."
The onslaught, in this case, was not of water but of paperwork. Samantha's bed was a mess of files. I looked up from the one on my lap to the Dark Man. "Tell me about it. When did you say you wanted this report by?"
"Next Thursday, wasn't it?" Marita said, propping herself up on her elbows beside me.
"Sunday fortnight," I said, "I heard that distinctly."
"Now that you mention it, I'm sure I heard a month from Wednesday."
"All right, knock it off," he said, draping his coat on the table. Marita just laughed. He came into the alcove and sat in the chair beside the bed. "So what do you have? Anything coherent?"
I shook my head. "Not really, but there are lots of fragments that might lead somewhere." I held up a page, covered in highlighting and my notes cramped into the margins. "There's a lot to cover, and it will take a bit of work to pull it all together into something we can use."
Mare nodded. "There's a lot of cross-referencing between his work and ours. Mulder wasn't looking for the same things we're looking for."
The Dark Man looked unsatisfied, but he recognised, as we did, that it was the only way. There were no short cuts in the work we did. Short cuts meant that things got missed. "Well, take as long as you need to do it properly," he said. "I've got a few hours tomorrow - I'll come and wade through it with you."
"I'll save Syracuse and Tileston for you," I offered with a smirk. They were the thickest files of the lot.
"You're all heart, Alex," he said with a withering look. "I'll be around today - I have a meeting with Diana down in the restaurant. Do you want me to bring you up some lunch?"
Mare shook her head. "We'll be fine, but thank you."
"What's the meeting with Diana?" I wondered. I hadn't forgotten the incident in the bar. She'd been away ever since.
"Not sure. She didn't say." He looked at his watch. "I have to head down there. Do you need anything from me before I go?"
"No, we've got enough to keep us going for a week," I said. "We might head over to Germantown later - it's the only lab we know of that wasn't torched. If we're lucky there might still be some papers lying around. You never know."
"All right. Do you need backup?"
Mare shook her head. "No. The Bounty Hunter got what he wanted. He got the Gregors. He and his ship are long gone."
"All right, then," the Dark Man said. "I'll see you both later."
We watched him go, and then I put my file on the floor and gently lifted hers from her hand. "Alexi," she protested, "I need to-"
"No, you don't," I said. "Not right now. You know what they say about all work and no play."
"Alex, I have UN submissions to work on as well. We can't stop."
"Yes, we can. We've been working all morning. We can stop for a few minutes." I leaned across the bed to kiss her. She gave a reproachful sigh, but she returned the kiss, and soon she was working my shirt buttons free.
When we were done, she sat up, sweeping back a mass of blonde hair away from her face. "What a mess."
I looked at the scattered files around us and was forced to concur. "Next time, we go to our own bed."
"Next time, I tell you to get back to work," she retorted. "A few minutes, indeed." She held up her watch for my inspection.
I gave a self-satisfied grin. "When you're good, you're good."
"You're a legend in your own mind," she laughed, kissing me. I pouted. She amended, "And mine," and I shot her a good-natured grin. She rose, pulling on her now-crumpled clothes. "Can I leave this to you? I want to shower and change before we go to Germantown."
"Oh, sure. Leave me the dirty work."
Her look was conciliatory. "Tell you what - you do that and I'll do Germantown on my own. How's that?"
"I can't see any reason why not."
She bent and kissed me, still fastening her buttons. "Okay. I'll see you later."
"Later," I agreed, and then she was gone.
I watched her leave, and then I rose from the bed. I stooped to pick up my clothes - first my shirt, then my trousers. I grabbed onto the bedpost to pull myself back up, and that was when my fingertips closed on something odd.
I straightened, frowning. I ran my fingers over the area. It was soft and pliant - some kind of putty or woodfiller. It filled a perfectly round area beneath my fingertip - too regular to be a natural knot in the wood. My chest suddenly felt very tight, fear closing like a hand around my heart. I didn't even need to look inside to know to near certainty that the hole contained a listening device.
I groaned in dismay. I dropped my clothes on the bed and ran to the ensuite. Heart pounding, I rummaged in Samantha's vanity, found a pair of eyebrow tweezers there, and went back to the alcove. I used them to pick out the putty plugging the hole, and as I'd expected, I found a bug anchored inside. I tugged it free and rested it on my palm.
How long had it been there, I wondered? And who had put it there? No-one knew we were using this suite - no-one but Mare, the Dark Man, and me. And, if she had indeed come back here, just possibly Elena.
Elena. Of course. She had a vested interest in our work, after all. Some of my worry eased. It was bad that the suite had been breached, but Elena, at least, was unlikely to kill us. Looking over the device, I saw that it wasn't one of the standard issue ones used among Spender's people - that was a good sign.
I got dressed as quickly as I could. Marita would want to know about this. I leaned down to pull on my shoes, and my gaze fell on one of the scattered case reports - Mulder's report of Carolyn's death. Two words in particular caught my eye: 'retractable spike'. Frowning, I picked it up.
'Suspect held victim, Jane Doe 95-2517 (previously wrongly identified as Samantha Mulder), and held a weapon to her throat. Weapon is a metallic cylinder with a retractable spike. Victim had previously stated that this weapon could be used to kill the suspect by stabbing him in the base of the neck with it. Indicated that suspect is unusually resilient and that this was the only effective method of killing him. Victim also indicated that suspect's blood was toxic (cf autopsy report, SAC Weiss; cf forensic report, SAC Scully (shoes); cf coroner's report, Jane Doe 95-2517).' I looked up from the report in recognition. That was what the weapons were for - the ones Mare and I had found. They were to kill the Bounty Hunter.
I read on. 'Victim attempted to overpower suspect with an ice pick, but was unsuccessful. Suspect then threatened victim with the words, "Where is she?" Must consider the possibility that victim had a female partner or partners in her activities. Certainly this is borne out by my findings at the abortion clinic in Rockville, MD.'
I felt a chill. We'd thought the Bounty Hunter was after the Gregors - but it sounded as though he might be after someone else - one of the Samantha clones, maybe. Frowning, I looked around, searching for Mulder's report on Rockville. I found it behind me, half under the pillow. A fragment leaped out at me like a neon sign amid the sea of black print: '"She is the one you must protect. The one from whom we all came."' The original prototype was Samantha - but Samantha was dead. That left Elena - the scientist who made them.
We'd had it all wrong. The Bounty Hunter was after Elena.
Where was Elena now? I wondered desperately. Where would she go? With the Gregors dead and her clones scattered, she would be in hiding, trying to salvage the work. And that meant she would go to the only laboratory not destroyed by fire - Germantown. The one she knew was intact, because we'd said so in this very room. And where Elena went, the Bounty Hunter would follow.
And Marita was there.
Our suite was empty.
The shower stall was still heavy with condensation, and the clothes she'd been wearing lay crumpled in the laundry hamper. She'd been and gone.
"Dammit!" I hissed. I pulled my cellphone from my jacket and hit speed dial for Mare. I waited, fumbling through the desk drawer for the remaining stilettos. I had one in my jacket already, but I slipped another into the knife holster strapped to my shin for good measure.
"The customer handset you are calling is switched off, or not in a mobile service area."
"Shit!" I rang off in disgust. Turning, I raced out of our suite, into the hall. My initial urgency was rapidly being replaced by full-fledged panic. My blood was pumping; my head was pounding. I rounded the corner, barreled down the stairs, and ran straight into Diana and the Dark Man.
"Alex! Thank God we caught you in time," Diana said. Relief was etched into her features.
I shook my head, pushing past them at a run. "No, you didn't," I said over my shoulder. "She's already gone out there."
Diana breathed out in a rush. "She could be walking straight into a firestorm," she said, running to catch up, the Dark Man at her side. "Have you tried her cellphone?"
I nodded. "No service. That end of Germantown is pretty industrial - that might be blocking the signal."
"She might not even be there yet," the Dark Man said. "How long ago did she leave?"
"I don't know - ten, fifteen minutes. Not long."
He nodded. "We'll take my car. I could run faster than yours." I was in no mood to banter, so I merely nodded, taking the keys he offered as we went out the door, and I ran ahead. I had his car unlocked and the engine running by the time they caught up.
I drove in silence for a few moments, but at the first set of lights, I turned and pinned Diana down with my stare. "Truth time, Diana. How did you know?"
She kicked off her heels. It struck me as a strange thing to do, in the circumstances. "I thought Carolyn was working on her own. Last I heard, Elena was in Tunisia. I haven't spoken to her in months."
"But you knew Elena and Samantha were together," I said. "You knew they were cloning her."
"Yes. But I didn't know exactly what for. And I didn't know they were helping the Gregors. When you told me Elena was in town, though..."
"You realised she and Carolyn were in it together."
"Yeah." She opened her purse and withdrew a hair elastic. She pulled her hair back into a severe ponytail. Another strange thing to do, but now I recognised it for what it was. She was gearing up for a fight. "I started trying my contacts," she said. "Finally I found one of the clones - a survivor from the Maryland clinic. She told me."
"Told you what?"
"The reason the Bounty Hunter wants her. She betrayed him."
"Elena?" I demanded, distracted momentarily from my fears for Mare. "How?"
The Dark Man took up the tale from the back seat. "It seems the Bounty Hunter found out Elena was shielding the Gregors - a long time ago now. Nearly two years. He made a deal with her - she would facilitate the elimination of the Gregors and in exchange he wouldn't betray her to the group. So she did."
"With Michael's help," I hazarded.
"Yes," he said. "How did you know?" I told them of Mare's speculations about the Fallen Angel case.
"I see," he said when I was done. "Yes - Michael and Elena and Carolyn were in it together. They double-crossed the Gregors."
"But then they double-crossed the Bounty Hunter," I said. "How?"
"They gained his trust. Finally he gave them information about the biochemistry of his race - their vulnerabilities. They were supposed to use it to sabotage the work on the hybrids."
"But they used it to work on a bioweapon, like Elena and Samantha agreed when they were kids," I guessed.
Diana nodded. "That's right. He found out when he took Anchorage. Elena never told him about Anchorage - he found that on his own. They were working on it there."
"So he torched it and came after Elena and Carolyn," I said. "And Carolyn used Mulder to try to stop him before he could get to them."
"Got it in one."
We fell silent. At last, Diana said, "What's she wearing?"
I stared at her. "What?"
"For identification. There's Marita, there's Elena, and there's a shapeshifter. We need to know which one's which."
"I don't - I don't know what she's wearing."
"What are you, blind?"
"She had a shower," I said, flushing. I omitted the detail of why she'd needed one. "I didn't see her before she left." I felt real fury - mostly self-directed. What in God's name had possessed me to let her go there alone? I blurted, "Dammit, hasn't anyone gotten through to her yet?"
"Still trying," the Dark Man said. "I'm still not getting a signal."
Diana was checking her gun. "Are we all familiar with this guy's strengths and weaknesses?"
I gripped the steering wheel, striving for calm. "Base of the neck. His blood is toxic."
"To be precise, it's the brainstem. About the size of a dime. Get it right, and his blood is toxic for a matter of a minute or two - until he dies. Once he dies, the toxicity eases. Get it wrong, though..."
"Get it wrong, and you can end up like Agent Weiss." Weiss was a Syracuse field agent who'd been killed during Mulder's investigation.
Diana nodded. "For that reason, you don't want to shoot unless you can get in a mortal wound. That's where your hand-to-hand combat training comes into play, Alex. If you need to fight him, you're aiming to bruise - not cut. You can't kill him that way, but a good kick in the solar plexus will buy you a few seconds to take a shot. Got it?"
"You've fought these things before."
"Fought, but never won. It's very hard to hit an area that small on a moving target." My heart sank. Diana was a first-class shot.
"It's ringing," the Dark Man said abruptly from the seat. He handed the phone over to Diana, who gave it to me. I wedged it between my shoulder and my ear so I could drive.
"Marita Covarrubias," her voice came through the phone. I damn near swerved off the road in relief.
"Mare, it's me. Where are you?"
"Germantown. I'm just pulling up at the warehouse."
"You can't go in there, Mare," I said, weaving in and out of traffic. "We've got new information. The Bounty Hunter might be in there."
"Here?" she demanded. "Why?"
"I'll explain when we get there, but he's switched targets. He's after Elena. He might think you're her." I didn't tell her Elena might be in there. That information could send her racing headlong inside.
"Why would he think that? Why would he even be here? If he's been tracking her, he'd know she's long gone."
"Mare, will you just wait for us to reach you? Stay in the car, keep it locked? Please?"
There was a long pause. She said, very quietly, "Alex, is my sister in there?"
I was silent, swallowing hard. I felt very cold.
"She is, isn't she?"
"Mare, I love you," I said, lowering my voice. I don't know if Diana heard or not, but either way, she discreetly looked away. "Please, don't go in there. Please."
"Oh, Alex." Her breath came in a shuddering sigh. From nowhere, she said, "Did I ever tell you I worked out why my mother chose her? You know - instead of me?"
"No," I said, puzzled by the nonsequiter. "You didn't."
"It's because she was the weaker one. Mother prizes strength, you know." There were tears in her voice. "I have to go in there. I can't leave her to fight him by herself."
There was warmth rising in my face - sadness, fear, pity. "No, you don't," I insisted. "You don't have anything to atone for, Mare. She isn't weak anymore. She's strong, and she's been running from him for a long time. Let her deal with it." I said desperately, "Just wait. We'll all go in together."
"I can't. I'm sorry."
"Mare," I argued. "Mare!"
It was too late. She'd hung up.
I stared out at the road, putting the phone down onto the seat. "She - she's gone in there," I said. "She-" I couldn't go on.
"We should hurry," Diana said. Her voice was kind.
The Dark Man spoke. "You've been in there, Alex. What's it like?"
"Dark," I said, finding my voice. "The power's been cut. Large windows give a lot of light on the perimeter, but not further in." I cleared my throat, swallowing hard, and forced myself to focus. "It's three storeys. Standard grid layout - center corridor with rooms on either side and a staircase at each end."
"All right," Diana said. "We take a floor each - you can take the ground floor," she said over her shoulder to the Dark Man, "I'll take the second, and Alex can take the third. When one of us finds him, we call out to the others. Then those two take a stairwell each and we cut him off. Whoever finds Elena or Marita, bring them."
"Calling out?" I said. "Won't that draw attention to ourselves?"
"There's no point being subtle with this guy. He won't be. And if it distracts him from the twins, so much the better." It was a few seconds before I realised she meant Elena and Marita.
"This is it," I said, bringing the car to a skidding halt in front of the warehouse. "Luck, everyone."
I didn't wait for a reply.
It was bad in here.
It was dark, and the sound of my footfalls echoed in my ears. I clattered up the stairwell, following it around corners at each floor. The higher I climbed, the more my panic seemed to escalate as well. By the time the door to the third floor came into view, with its peeling paint and a rusted metal sign that declared THREE in faded letters, the blood roared in my ears.
Just as I reached the door and shoved it open, I heard a cry of fear - a woman's cry, high and keening. It was a little way off on the same level, but too far away for me to be sure whether it was Mare. I flinched, breath hitching with unimaginable fear, and then there was a long, low wail of pain.
I pushed past the door and forced my way into the corridor, but my movements felt sluggish...impotent. I might have called her name. I'm not sure. The Bounty Hunter emerged from a doorway about halfway down. Sunlight streamed through the opening, and I could see a stiletto in his hand. The spike was exposed and stained with red. He saw me, turned, and ran in the other direction. I watched him, rooted to the spot, as he disappeared down the other stairwell.
The woman's cry came again, and suddenly I could move again. I raced down there in a frenzy of panic, breaths coming in rapid bursts. I rounded the corner through the door, and then I saw her, slumped on the floor by the window.
My heart stopped. For one endless moment, I stared at her, transfixed. It was a life-changing moment - a moment where all I had and all I'd done and all I knew came together in a single instant. I suspect that death will be a little like that moment.
She watched me. Blood was seeping out along her belly, and she was terribly pale. She met my gaze, and recognition flooded her features. "Alex."
The spell broke. Suddenly, I could breathe again - breathe, and grieve. I clasped my hand over my mouth. "Mare," said hoarsely, running to her side. I dropped down beside her. "Oh, God, Mare, don't leave me, don't-" I pulled her against me, my face red and warm, tears very close. "Oh, God."
She was pushing at me, pushing me back so I could see her. "Not Marita."
A little part of me will always hate myself for the rush of relief I felt in that moment.
Her jaw was tense, and her hands were clenched against the pain, but she managed a wan smile. "I thought when you loved someone you could tell the difference."
I smoothed back her hair. God, the resemblance. It was uncanny. "I think that only happens in the movies."
Laughter bubbled up out of her mouth. A thin trail of blood trickled from the corner of her lips. "You should go and help her," she said. Her breaths were coming in erratic wheezes. "You must want to."
I shook my head. "Marita wouldn't want you to be alone." I couldn't leave her. The very idea made me feel ill, deep down in my stomach. It would be like leaving Mare. "Diana and the Dark Man love her. I trust them to find her."
"I told her to go," she said. "I told her to get away. I want her to live."
"She will," I said. "So will you."
Elena shook her head. "The end's been coming," she said, labourious and slow. "It's been coming for a while. Poor Carolyn was all I had left, you know. Since Samantha died - and then Michael - I've been - I've been so alone." I wiped the blood from her mouth, and she managed a smile in reply. "Spender blamed me for Samantha. Blamed our...our lifestyle." Her lip curled a little. "Mother didn't approve either. Michael was the only one left to protect me, and he was estranged from the group himself, that last year. And then - then they killed him." Tears slipped down her cheeks. "So many people gone. I'm the last one left." Her face crumpled a little, and she wept, "You and Marita are just at the beginning. You don't know how high the cost is yet."
"We're learning that pretty fast," I said sadly. "Damn it, Elena, this isn't fair."
She shook her head. "I want to be with Samantha. I loved her so goddamn much. These last couple of years without her..." Incredibly, she smiled. "You know, I always wanted to be...to be the one to save the world. Not just to do my little bit and die and never know if it helped. I wanted to be the one who finished the work - saw it succeed. You know?" I nodded. Understanding perfectly. "Now...I don't want that burden, Alex. I don't want to fight anymore." The blood trickling from her mouth was faster and thicker and darker now. "Marita is the strong one. Who knows? One day when all this is over, maybe she'll still be standing."
"Maybe. I hope so."
"Me too." Her face contorted with sudden, wracking pain. "You have to kill this guy," she blurted. "He knows what we are. If he gets that information out-"
"She'll never be safe again." She nodded. "Elena," I said urgently, "what happens if she stops the pills?"
"I don't...I don't know. I never dared. Sally told me not to." She groped for my arm. "Alex, you have to tell her there are more of us."
More? Oh, God. "No. No, I can't do that."
Her eyelids were drooping. She blinked them. Fighting for consciousness. "You have to."
"It would destroy her." There were tears rising in my throat. I knew it wasn't Mare there in my arms, I *knew* it, and yet-
"It would set her free." She gripped my hand. "Promise me."
It was a lie - I knew it was a lie before I said it - but I didn't have the heart to say no. "I'll tell her," I said. "I'll tell her, Elena." My tears were coming thick and fast; the lines between Elena and Marita were becoming blurred in my mind. I cradled her against me. "I'm sorry. God, Mare, I'm sorry."
I stayed there, weeping over her in the streaming light.
I was relieved when she died.
I hated myself for it, but as soon as it was over, I let her down as gently as I could, and I ran. I left her there, abandoned her like a faithless lover, and I fled out the doorway, down the hall.
"Alex!" I heard Diana cry out. "I've got him on Two! Cut him off from the north!"
I ran down the stairs, still wiping my eyes with my hands, and forced my way in the door the next floor down. About halfway down the corridor, Diana was pinned to the floor, the Bounty Hunter thrashing over her, his hands tight around her throat. She gouged at his face with her hands, and he drew back, just for an instant. It was enough. She got in one swift knee to his stomach and managed to roll free.
I pulled my stiletto from my jacket and advanced on them, my gaze trained on his. Agony was fast making way for anger. I wanted this guy. I wanted him bad.
He turned away, heading for the south stairwell. But then the Dark Man appeared in the doorway, and he turned back again, slipping into one of the storerooms to the side.
"No!" Diana cried. "Rita's in there!"
That was all the impetus I needed. I ran to the doorway, Diana and the Dark Man close on my heels, and then I faltered. The others came to a sudden halt behind me, staring with me at what we saw there in the light.
"Mare," I said breathlessly. I looked at their clothes, searching for some way to tell them apart. Both wore black. I couldn't see any telltale clues. Had I seen her wear those jeans, I wondered? Had I seen her wear those shoes? I cursed my lack of attention.
I stepped forward, my stiletto in my hand. I pointed it downwards, walking towards them, very slowly. They stood a few feet apart, holding my gaze as I approached them. As I walked, my footfalls reverberating in my ears, I hated them both. Him for making me choose. Her for making me love so much. Hurt so much. Hurt over hurt over hurt. Just for a second, it seemed like more hurt than any one person could bear.
"Alex," said the one on my right. There was fear in her voice - but fear of me, or of the other one? If I tried to second-guess this, I'd get it wrong. I had to work on instinct.
"Alex," said the one on my left. "Thank God you're here."
"Alex, she wants to kill me. She hurt my sister."
"She's lying, Alex. It was her!"
"Alex, Alex, you know me, please-"
"I love you, Alex, please don't do this." That was the one on my left.
That decided me. I stalked forward to the Marita on my right, raising the stiletto, and grabbed her by the shoulder with my hand. She flinched, and I shoved her. "Down!" I yelled, whirling over her body to stab the other in the back of the neck.
She looked at me with supreme surprise, eyes wide, and my eyes stung as she began to bleed. I thrust myself down over Marita, pulling my jacket over our heads, holding her against the floor. She was shaking.
We stayed there for long, long moments. I could feel her, slumped there beneath me against the wooden floorboards, limbs limp and fluid. "Oh, God," she moaned in a wounded, hurting voice. She turned her face to mine, groping blindly for me, and I found flesh there in the dark. I kissed it. It tasted of tears. "Oh, God."
At last, I heard Diana's voice, muffled through leather. "Alex? Rita? It's safe, I think."
Cautiously, I pulled back my jacket. There was some residual acid in the air - my eyes watered a little - but I nodded. "It seems okay." I sat up, and Marita did the same.
I looked over to where the other Marita had been. She (he, I corrected, he) was just a lump of green tissue. Blonde strands of hair emerged from the mess. Staring at it, I felt sick.
"Oh, my God," Mare whispered.
I pulled her close. "It's okay, it's okay," I said. "I'm sorry I frightened you."
She slumped against me, her face deep in my chest, arms wrapped around my waist. "I thought - I thought you were going to-"
"I know. I'm so sorry. I'd never hurt you, Mare."
"Elena?" she whispered, tilting her head up to face me.
I stroked back her hair. "She's gone, Mare." Her face crumpled, and I said, "I was with her. She died in my arms. She said she loved you, and she said she wanted to be with Samantha - she said -" and then my eyes were wet. "I held her - it was like she was you-"
"Oh, Alex." Tears streamed down her cheeks. She sank against me, weeping piteously, and I held her tight.
We stayed there, clinging to each other for a long time; but finally, her hitching sobs began to die away, trailing off into sniffles and hiccups. The Dark Man cleared his throat. We looked up at him, and he said, "I know this is difficult for you both, but we need to get out of here." His voice was surprisingly gentle.
I looked at Mare. Her face was upturned, facing me in the fading sunlight, wet and etched with grief. She nodded, and reluctantly, she broke away. She took the hand Diana offered her and got to her feet, a little unsteadily. Diana drew her into the crook of her arm.
I rose as well, and started off in the direction of the stairwell, but Mare's voice stopped me. "Alex?"
I turned, holding her gaze.
"How did you know, Alex? How did you know which one was me?"
I looked at her, stricken, and all at once I felt the chaos of anger and grief and fear rise in my chest. I burst out, "You would never have said what she said, Marita!" She was suddenly very white. "Not even if it were true."
The animation fell out of her face in an instant. Like she'd donned a mask. "You're wrong, Alex," she said. "But I won't say it to someone who'd use it to stab me in the back."
"What do you think that was like for me, Marita?" I demanded. "To have to make that choice? What do you think it was like for me to take a spike and shove it into your neck?" She stared at me in dawning horror, and suddenly the despair broke through my voice. "It doesn't matter that it wasn't really you. I had to live it and - and feel it! I lost you twice, and the fact that by the grace of God you're still standing here doesn't change that!" Her eyes were suddenly red and wet again, and I felt like a jerk for laying that on her now. The discomforted look that passed between Diana and the Dark Man seemed to confirm it.
"Look," I said awkwardly, "we don't have time for this. We've got to get Elena out of here."
"Fine," she said. She seemed to have retreated into Diana's embrace.
More gently, I said, "I know someone at a crematorium - someone who'll look the other way. It's not ideal, but it's better than-" dumping her in a furnace or a river somewhere, I thought, but I didn't say it.
"Thank you," she said colourlessly.
"I'll take care of it," I said. "You and Diana go home."
She shook her head, shrugging free of Diana's arm, coming to meet me. "She's my sister. We'll do it together."
"All right." She turned towards the stairwell, but I caught her wrist. "Mare, I'm sorry."
She took my hand in hers, but the warmth I felt there didn't reach her eyes. "Me, too."
We went upstairs, and we saw to Elena together.
When I finish, the house is in darkness.
I'm not sure when the lights went off. Mare doesn't like to disturb me when I'm writing, but it's not like her to go to bed without saying goodnight. Perhaps she fell asleep with the baby.
I hear a door open and small feet padding down the hall. I'm aware of it, but surreptitious sounds don't make me jump for my gun the way they used to. The look on Gibson's face when I pulled a weapon on him was enough to cure me of that. I still carry one, of course - some habits never change - but my vigilance is tempered now.
Elizabeth emerges and slips into the kitchen. She probably doesn't realise that she's been seen - half an hour earlier I would have noted and dismissed the sounds without a conscious thought. I hear the refrigerator door open and close, and then she passes back into the lounge once more.
"You okay, Bethie?"
She looks up, visibly startled, then relaxes. Coffee-coloured hair trails down her back, and for just a moment I have a clear memory of her mother. A short, sharp stab of grief passes through me, then evaporates in an instant. I swallow hard as she ambles over, drink in hand.
"Don't call me Bethie," she says. "Just getting some water." She peers over my shoulder at the laptop, and I half-close it so she can't see. "What are you writing about?"
"Right now? The time that Mare's sister died."
"Oh." Elizabeth considers. "Was Mummy there?"
"Yeah, your mom was there. She was pretty brave." I say in a conspiratorial whisper, "This guy was giving us trouble, and she kicked his ass."
She giggles. "Where was I?"
"You were safe at home with your papa. You were only a baby."
"I wish I had been there."
The naivete of it makes me smile. "She wouldn't have wanted you there, Beth."
"Why not?" she demands, all eight years of her drawn up into one indignant reply.
"Because when you're in danger, sometimes you have to do ugly things, and she wouldn't have wanted you to see that."
She frowns. "Like killing bad people?" Not for the first time, I wonder how much she knows - and how much Gibson has told her.
I don't like telling her this, but I opened the subject, so I have only myself to blame. I say reluctantly, "If they're trying to kill you or someone you love, yeah."
"Did Mummy ever kill anyone?"
"No, she didn't." As far as I know, that's the truth.
"Oh." I'm not sure whether she's relieved or disappointed. It's hard to tell with kids sometimes - especially this one. She takes a drink from her glass. After a minute or two, she asks, "Why do you write it all down?"
"Well, it started like a letter to someone. Someone we know in America - you know Walter? The one who sent us those things that belonged to your mom." Either of the boys would be on my lap by now, but Elizabeth wouldn't like that. She's thawed considerably, but she'll never see me as her father.
"Her FBI badge. I remember." Diana's badge - God, she even sleeps with that thing sometimes.
"Yeah. We wrote to him and told him a lot of things - things he needed to know, and things about why we did some of the things we did. I guess we found that it was good to write. It was good to remember your mom, and it was good to look back on things and work out why they happened they way they did."
"Oh," she says. "Can I read it?"
I think on this for a moment. "One day, when you're older." I make a mental note to edit out the sex.
"I don't know. Gibson's age, maybe."
"Okay." She drains her glass, turns away, and takes it back into the kitchen. Pad, pad, pad. One of the cats meows and trots out after her.
When she returns, she heads back towards the hall. On impulse, I say, "You look like her, Elizabeth."
She turns to face me, a pretty smile spreading across her face. "I do?"
She comes over and kisses my cheek. "Goodnight, Alex."
COMING IN CHAPTER 6: DISINTEGRATION (MARITA) (ESTIMATED FOR MARCH 2002)
DEDICATION: This chapter is for my HaremXF wives, and also Bella Donna, all of whom give me such warm feedback and forgive my tardy replies.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I think it's necessary, in the interests of good communication with my friends in the BDSM fic community, to clarify something about this story. I think it's pretty clear in the text anyway, but I want to say it for the record. Although domination/submission issues are touched on, this is not a story about D&S. It's a story (in part) about sexual dysfunction compounded by a sexually dysfunctional environment. D&S is not to blame for Marita's issues - in fact, had she been in a true D&S environment with its strong boundaries and self-awareness, those issues might have been resolved. The faux-D&S she practiced at the Den compounded her problems precisely because of the lack of those boundaries and a lack of adherence to D&S principles by its participants. As Mare herself put it in Chapter 4, they weren't really D&S participants - they were dirty old men who wanted to believe they were walking on the wild side, and therein lay much of the problem. The Den was ultimately a sexually exploitative environment for all concerned. That said, the faux-D&S angle was probably the least destructive way she could have functioned in the Den (and the Dark Man seemed to have an insight into that himself in Ch 2). I think in its own obscure way that it helped her by conceptually teasing out the difference between being controlled and choosing to give of one's self as an expression of trust, as we saw in Ch 4. (True D&S, of course, is very much the latter). Certainly that was my intention and my implication, but I wasn't able to spell that out explicitly within the fic without intruding into Alex and Marita's story. So I felt it was important to clarify that here. Thanks for bearing with me. -- Deslea