Welcome To The Harem
Ashes To Dust by M Sebasky
Summary: It's a Consortium love story.
ASHES TO DUST
Feedback is welcome and danced at when received: firstname.lastname@example.org
Archive permissions: Gossamer, Ephemeral, Spookys, Xemplary, big houses, yes. All
others, drop me a line. I'm a softy, I'll probably say yes, but I like to know where
I land at the end of the day.
Rating: R, for safety's sake.
Category: It's a Consortium love story.
Disclaimer: I don't own 'em, I don't claim 'em, I don't make any money off of them and I fully respect the people that do.
Thanks: Galia, for telling me what she wanted to see and for, as usual, bringing up amazing ideas and points. Sarah Ellen Parsons for beta and endless unconditional support. Livia for beta and fact finding extrodinaire. YesVirginia for being there and pushing me to be better. And a nod to Adam Duritz and Counting Crows for writing the wonderfully mopey "August and Everything After". This ain't no song fic, but "Anna Begins", "Perfect Blue Buildings" and "Time and Time Again" did set the mood.
And, this is for Galia. Thanks.
Notes: Everyone is young once.
"Everyone deserves the truth."
Her words bit through the haze of smoke as they came full circle to face one another across her kitchen again.
He exhaled and ground the cigarette out in her too-clean ashtray.
"You should have considered that a long time ago."
It was the last thing he ever said to her. Like a fool, he watched her face crumple, turned on his heel and left, leaving her with only the tick of a clock for company.
She'd called to tell him she was dying and wanted to see him. As always, he'd rushed to her side. He offered to help. She refused. She informed him she intended to tell her son the truth about everything. He said her son had as much truth in his life as he could handle.
Driving away, he thought he would give her some time to come to her senses. She was a reasonable woman. She would think things through.
It turned out she didn't want any more time. She had other plans.
Well. It's of no consequence now. He wouldn't have done anything differently and neither would she. He is certain of it.
He holds the picture in one gloved hand, shielding it from the light snow that threatens to blur its surface. It is old and bent at the corners from changes in wallets throughout the years. There she is, frozen forever in gray tones, third woman from the right, dangling a shapely leg off a dock. She is smiling, a tentative warm curve of lip that still lives in his heart's abandoned ghost town, playing cards in the ruins with the ever fading memory of her laugh.
It's how he likes to remember her. The first time he saw her, she was laughing. There was a picnic for the Lab Rats out at the Vineyard and he had gone, reluctantly, hating even then to be pulled away from the work. Although he was comfortable with his old army buddy, the others sometimes caused him to feel unfocused with their horseplay and practical jokes. They were a brilliant bunch, but rough around the edges then; their enthusiasm for the new job making them occasionally careless with each other.
That first time, the Brit they nick-named "Cary" had to practically beg him to go. "It's a party, you'll have a good time. Have a pint, loosen up a bleedin' bit," he'd said, his lower class roots shooting up through his new upper crust accent. "Girls'll be there, friends of wives. Maybe you'll find yourself one."
He normally liked to stay alone after the others left, fleshing out ideas, looking endlessly for loopholes the others had missed. But it was a beautiful evening in late May. He stood up from his desk, shot his co-worker a humorless smile and allowed himself to be coerced.
As he and the others went around the back of his army friend's cottage, Fate whispered, "Look why I brought you here."
She was reclining on the bench at the picnic table, her full skirt casually tucked around her legs. She was barefoot, beautiful and alive against the backdrop of blue Atlantic and dreamland sunset sky. Her head was thrown back and her laughter at someone's bad joke flew up towards the heavens. The soft whiteness of her throat beckoned him to come and kiss it.
He knew then he would never leave her. Even if she wasn't his.
Still holding the picture, staring out over snow covered monuments, he reflects Winter is only remembered for its bad times. Summers are different. They stay jewels in memory, seasonal diamonds that bookmark the forgetful haze of age.
The time frozen in his hand was the best summer ever, one of those that comes once in a lifetime to the lucky. That summer, youth and drive meshed seamlessly with heat and surf. The warm evenings wrapped leaf-green fingers around their hearts, filling them with fire, back when the stars were still their friends.
The Endless Party was only interrupted by the sheer joy in their daily work. All the Lab Rats loved what they did then, before secrecy and power corrupted all of them to the core. Before ambition and ego drove them to devour each other like a pack of starving dogs, they were friends, working together for the most important advancement of all time.
A cold wind blows the end of his cashmere scarf from around his neck, and he absently replaces it. Out of that shining group of people, he and one other are left. He doesn't count the Nazi, out in the desert somewhere. He never liked the Nazi. Besides, he came later. The Kraut wasn't a part of this capsulated time he now cradles in his hands.
In the summer of 1960, at the end of every working day, they would grab their beach towels and head over to another one's home for the evening's festivities. Dinner was always an event. There would be steaks, marbled with fat one night or lobsters fresh from the traps the next, but always ice cold gin and tonics in sweating, colored metal cups before, during and after the meal. On weekends, the Rats maintained their insularity by making the Party an all day affair. There was water skiing and volleyball during the day; charcoal grills and lit mosquito candles when evening came under coastal trees. Soft slurring voices talked until the wee hours of the morning about things only they could understand. Bodies laid on fresh cut grass and dreamed of being rulers of a brave new world.
Another cold wind whips by him. This time the scarf stays put. He shakes his head and fights the impulse to reach for the Morley. It wouldn't be right. She never approved of his smoking.
She noticed him, over that first hot month of June. He pushed himself physically in the long weekends of water skiing, fueled by his desire to impress her. His natural ability for the sport turned him quickly into a successful daredevil, earning him the rousing cheers of friends. She watched his antics from the safety of her wedding band, rewarding him once after a particularly daring stunt with a gentle admonition to "be careful". The knowledge that she even cared, even a little, made him dizzy with happiness. He went home and wrote poems to her until the wee hours of the morning.
Her pleasure became almost as important as the work to him. He loved the sound of her laugh, the way she crooked her leg under her when she sat down, a million little things that all together made her different from every other person on the planet. Alone at night, he categorized her graces, replaying each expression, re-hearing in his subconscious every word he heard her say that day.
Even after all that came later, the sound of her voice in his mind lulled him to sleep for years.
There is more snow than wind now. Since he was told of her suicide, he has not been able to stop thinking about the night that summer when, on his way home, he found he had left his wallet at the Vineyard cottage. He returned late, unannounced, only to find her crying alone at the kitchen table. Her tears alarmed him but she only grew red from embarrassment. She reluctantly told him she had been unable to rouse her husband from where he lay in a drunken stupor on the lawn. He'd offered to help and had carried his inebriated friend to bed.
Although she didn't look at him, she touched his hand gently as he left.
It is snowing harder. She always chose to bear pain alone, he thinks. His eyes are suddenly wet. He shuts them tight against the sight of stone crucifixes and shoves away the overwhelming need for a cigarette.
The year-old marriage was already unhappy. His friend was one of the brightest stars in the entire lot, but that summer, before the children, he was a drinker. He wasn't a violent drunk, but the introspective kind, the type that drinks to shut off an overactive mind. Almost every night during the endless communion, his army pal would end up staring into coals in a campfire on the beach or laying back in a lawn chair, oblivious to everything but his own spiraling thoughts and the constant stream of gin from the metal cup. The next morning, his friend would be alert as always, appearing at work on time, unfortunately unencumbered by hangover. As the day's clock moved forward, his friend's mind would immerse completely in the work until evening came and the liquor appeared to take him away again.
She kissed him on a warm July night, long after her husband passed out from gin and over-exertion. She leaned into his rock-hard body and her lips tasted of melted butter and sea air. His hands had tangled in her windblown hair and thinking of his friend sleeping on the beach, he briefly thought, "We mustn't do this." He almost succeeded in saying it but she pulled her head back and looked at him, her eyes shining with moonlight, face streaked with tears.
"Do you love me?" Her voice was hoarse.
All power of speech had gone with her kiss. He nodded in reply. She laid her forehead against his neck and shuddered, from joy or grief, he could not tell.
After a long moment, she raised her head and looked into his eyes, voice firm now.
"Then show me. Here. Now."
All higher ideal was forgotten. He bent to take of her mouth again.
He steels himself against the wind and begins to make his way off the concrete path, his Italian shoes walking on uneven sod. The grass is brown and dead in an unintentional parody of what lies under it. He makes his way towards the back of the lot and finds what he's come to see. The recently disturbed ground has re-frozen, thawing only long enough to allow entry of her body into the bosom of earth.
He holds the picture gently and avoids looking at the carved block of rose granite in front of him. In the picture, she is still alive and warm. Here, there is nothing but dirt and stone to mark where a life once was. He looks up for the first time and sees the stone has already been carved. Her name, underscored by dates, freezes him deeper than the wind.
He decides he prefers the picture.
They met as often as they could. She was a miracle to him. He felt completed, totally at peace with the world for the first time since his mother's death. Lying next to her on the beach, the soft curve of her body curled up against his, her dark hair spilling onto his chest, he tried to think of ways to freeze time so they could stay like that forever, a snapshot of encapsulated warmth and touch.
He had thrown himself headfirst into the affair, deliriously happy, yet unable to show it or tell anyone. Every morning, before entering the workplace, he had to remind himself it was business at usual. It was important to both the work and to her the affair stay a secret. Yet sometimes, as he sat looking for holes in theories, when he thought no one was looking, he would allow a smile to creep up around his ears.
The only downside for him lay in the fact she would never allow him to set their next meeting. Every time he tried to ask a "where" or "when", she stifled him with a soft kiss and told him she would come to him again when she could. He agreed to leave it completely up to her. To his delight, within a day or two, she always returned.
At least, that summer.
The Party rolled into August. Appearances continued to be maintained. He found it hard to watch her next to her husband during the shared social hours. His former warm feelings for his army buddy mutated like a virus. He had nothing but contempt for his friend now that he knew intimately who was being drunk away. He took secret pride that he knew better than the man she married how she looked, tasted and felt.
As the summer waned, he begged her to come away with him, to leave her marriage and start all over. In return, he would leave the work, he would hang the moon, anything for her, if only she would agree to come away. She grew quiet at such talk, except when he mentioned abandoning the project. At that, she shook her head and laughed. When he questioned her reticence, she told him she was afraid of the scandal. She feared the shame of divorce and all the problems it would heap on the people she loved, including him.
He knew the truth, although to her credit, she never said it to him. She still loved her husband. The marriage was still too young for her to throw away all the ideals she had vowed to uphold. It was the gin that was her enemy, driving her from the man she had sworn to love and obey. It was the gin's fault she loved another man who was not her husband.
There was no question she loved him. She just loved her honor more.
He takes a step closer, careful to avoid the clods of dirt loosened by careless gravediggers. The casket flowers, left after the funeral, are piled on top of the grave. Mirroring their surroundings, they have died as well. Keeping the picture safe, he reaches down and begins to pull the frozen, stiffened stems from the pile of dirt. They make a ripping sound as they let go of where she lays. The sound is akin to the feeling in his heart.
He puts the dead foliage in a nearby trashcan and approaches the plot again. He is randomly pleased she is near a giant pine. She must have picked this spot for its proximity to the tree, he realizes. Although "Mulder" is chiseled in the granite, her ex-husband does not share this spot with her. He is buried near Boston. Her wishes were explicit. She wanted to be here, near the Vineyard.
The thought of it makes his eyes sting again. He closes them and holds the picture closer.
As 1960's warm weather faded, the Endless Party slowed to a stop. The Lab Rats met only on weekends now, and rarely as a group. The work was growing more intense, the stakes growing higher daily. Their prior kinship showed the beginning of stress fractures as each one of them peered over the brink of alien discovery. As they understood the implications of what they were heralding in, they grew more and more isolated from each other. As the weather turned colder, they stayed at home when evenings came, letting fireplaces warm their guilty bones instead of each other's company.
His love for her didn't change as the landscape turned from green to gold. When falling leaves turned to falling snow, he still woke up, longing to have her next to him. They still continued to meet whenever possible, but like the autumn trees, her colors had started to fade and change as well.
November arrived and she called less frequently. He nervously chalked it up to the advent of the holiday season. Still, he waited by the phone in his off-hours, willing it to ring. He longed for her constantly. He lost weight and grew pale. He wrote abortively bad verse to her, then ripped it into a million pieces for not being worthy enough to express what he felt.
He tried to see her. Twice he had feigned illness to stay home midweek and surprise her with an afternoon rendezvous. The first time, she seemed flattered. The second time she begged him not to do it again. She still thought it best that she set the times they could be together. He told her that was all well and good, but she hadn't called in quite a while and he couldn't wait anymore. Didn't she see it was torture for him to be without her?
She told him she hadn't called recently because she was afraid her husband had caught on. No, he hadn't said anything to her; it was just a feeling she had.
Then, his heart sank when her face grew brighter as she told him the drinking had stopped. His stomach fell ten stories when she said things weren't as bad as the summer. He bit his lip to keep from screaming when she told him they could still meet, but not as often as before. He felt like he was dying as he reluctantly agreed.
In December, she didn't call at all.
The grave looks bare without its garlands of dead flowers. He hasn't brought any bouquet to replace them. He wanted to give her the world, once. What good would flowers do now?
She wouldn't have wanted it from him, anyway. Not anymore.
1961 arrived in a gust of snow and cold. They had an unofficial office party to celebrate New Years, but the group bonhomie chose to stay snuggled with the outgoing year. Their former ease with each other had disappeared with winter winds and internal pressures.
"Cary" offered to host what turned out to be the last party the group ever had. It was a pretentious evening, designed to show off the Brit's desire to be more cultured than his birthright allowed him. He hosted a lavish fete, complete with a high-class girl to go with his now fully integrated high-class accent. It was a disaster. The Brit spent the evening showing off his collection of newly acquired antiques and berating the caterer. His former army friend avoided everyone and shot baleful glares at coworkers over his club soda. The love of his life stayed in the kitchen with the other wives and girlfriends, coming only out at the stroke of midnight to press her lips against her husband's.
He was desperate to see her alone. When her husband had announced their departure, she went to the bedroom to get their coats. He followed her and tried to kiss her, but she pushed him firmly away, telling him not to be a fool, it was entirely too risky. She grabbed her coat and before he could even say goodbye, she was gone.
He woke up the next morning on the floor of his living room, with no memory of how he got there. His head pounded from too much liquor while his heart skipped beats as he thought of her gentle hands pushing him away.
As he stands on the frozen earth, eyes shut against the unwanted view, he wonders if the dead can still suffer. He wonders if she is as alone now as when he left her standing in the kitchen a month ago.
The urge for a cigarette is almost unbearable.
He drank heavily for the first time in his life throughout the month of January. He came in to work, stinking of liquor and loneliness, wanting to unburden his heart but unable to talk about anything but the work. For the most part, his fellow employees ignored his state. As long as his part of it got done, his fair-weather friends now seemed oblivious to his apparent pain. His old army buddy looked at him with disdain now. It burned like acid on his barely sober brain.
In the third week of January, she called. Her husband had been suddenly called out of town. Could they meet?
Per her request, he drove to a hotel twenty miles away. He told the desk clerk his name was Spender and he was meeting his wife there. He arrived two hours early, but she was already checked in, waiting. When she opened the door, they fell into each other's arms.
After, as he held her close, she told him this was their last time. She wouldn't be calling again.
Although her husband wasn't one hundred percent sure of the identity of her partner, his suspicions were strong enough that he had confronted her about the affair. After much fighting and crying, they both realized they still loved each other. With that in mind, they were going to try to save the marriage. She had agreed to give it another year with the understanding that he would stay sober. In return, she would call off whatever was going on and they would try to start a family.
The details of her decision drove all feeling from his body. He no longer felt the bed beneath him or the sheets slung around his waist. The soft texture of her skin under his fingertips faded away as if he had claws instead of hands. He watched as the ceiling got higher and higher above him as his brain turned down the volume on her voice.
The next thing he knew, he was sitting on the side of the bed. It was dark out now. She was curled at his feet, her head on his knees, asking him not to be angry, she hadn't meant to hurt him, she didn't expect this to happen. She really did care about him. She wasn't even completely sure she didn't love him more than her husband. She thought maybe she did. But surely he understood she felt she needed to give her marriage a chance? He could see that, couldn't he?
He got up, gently unlocking her arms from his legs He dressed in silence and left. He could hear her crying as he shut the door of the hotel room. It was the sound of a stranger's grief. He drove home and went straight to bed. He got up the next morning and went to work.
Day followed day and the pattern repeated. Work. Home. Bed. Work. Home. Bed. He remained calm and frozen for fourteen weeks.
Then he found out she was pregnant.
Standing in the loneliness of gravestones, he remembers leaving work early and driving a million miles an hour to her house. "Cary" had dropped the news by accident over a rare lunch together. "Yes, Bill and the missus are expecting. I'm surprised he didn't tell you. She's three months along. He was handing out cigars earlier today. Maybe you were," the Brit's eyebrows had delicately raised, "out of the loop?"
He managed to give a chuckle and keep a neutral face. If the Brit had any clue what he just told him, he wouldn't give him the pleasure of a rise. He got through the rest of lunch with no further surprises. By the time they arrived back at the lab, he claimed a slight fever. By that time, it wasn't a lie.
The picture trembles with his hand. If he is going to say something, he should do it and go. Once again, like that summer so long ago, his tongue is frozen. Like the ground, like her body, like his heart since he heard she took her own life, he is frozen, staring at her picture like it could save him.
She was peeling potatoes when he came through the back door of the cabin that day. He didn't knock.
"Is it mine?"
She stiffened at the sound of his voice. She didn't turn around.
He raised his voice. "I asked you a question."
"My husband and I are having a child together."
He reached out to grab her, then stopped. He stood looking at her back and asked again.
"Is it mine?"
She turned around. Her face was flushed with health. It made him angry pregnancy agreed with her.
"You should leave."
He looked straight into her eyes for the first time in months. Whatever she saw there made her crack and break. His voice was strong. "We've played this your way up until now. This is different." He took a step closer. "I deserve the truth."
She dropped her head against his onslaught. After a long moment a tear dropped from her cheek and fell on the kitchen floor.
He asked again. "Is it mine?"
Another tear splashed on the linoleum. As he watched her stand there, silently crying, he finally heard what she wouldn't say.
She didn't know.
He stumbled backwards until the back of his legs hit the kitchen table. They stood there in silence. Finally, she looked up. There were new lines on her face, but she wasn't crying anymore.
"My husband will be the father. That is my decision."
He nodded, helpless to do anything else.
"You will agree to that."
He nodded again.
"You should go."
Funny, he thinks, looking up at the sky. It was the first of their confrontations. It could have set the tone for the last.
The temperature has dropped considerably. If it gets any colder, it won't be able to snow. He wishes it was warmer. He wishes he could have a cigarette.
The work kept the participants involved with each other too long after good will had gone. Relationships twisted and soured like trees planted in toxic soil. His forced proximity let him watch her life from a distance. He kept away when her son was born. He kept away when years later, another child came, a girl his buddy doted on.
Still he watched and wondered. He took secret delight that the son was clearly her favored child. He was elated when she proved it by giving the girl away.
He looked for signs she might still feel for him, even as he met and married another woman. He observed her boy as he grew to manhood, comparing his son-for-certain with disfavor. He still loved her, but the years had tempered his feelings with resentment for staying with her husband, for giving him the gift of such a bright and beautiful child. He supposed he tried to get even by what he engineered for her daughter. That really had been all his doing.
It caused the final break between them. She never forgave him for making her choose. Why should she, he thinks. He never told her, but even as he reveled in it, he never forgave himself for causing her such pain.
Suddenly, he wants to take it all back. When his lesser son was a child, he used to call it a "do-over". Everyone deserves one do-over, he thinks. Everyone should get one reversal of their most colossal mistake.
Standing by his former love's grave, he promises all and every god, if they will grant him this opportunity, this time, he will get it right. He will tell her all the things he withheld. He will respect her decisions. He will let her have her children and those children will have happy, normal lives. He will not leave her alone in the kitchen. He will do the right thing. He is a powerful man. He will see to it.
The wind unexpectedly gusts around him and he loses the grip on the photograph. He stands stunned as it dances across the graveyard, letting the wind coax it further and further away. He comes to his senses and charges after it, tripping over vases and uneven terrain, but the wind has a good head start. Another gust comes and blows the little paper further towards the drive. He moves faster, trying to catch up until his ankle twists as it catches in a gopher's hole. Waves of pain shoot up his leg and his swelling brain throbs from unaccustomed exertion. He swears and stands back up on his injured ankle, looking in the direction he last saw the photograph. It's long gone.
The gods have apparently answered.
Slowly, he makes his way back across the cemetery to the stone by the pine. He kneels down on the cold earth. Sadness floods in and has its way. He resents mourning her twice when he wasn't sure he could live with losing her at all.
He sits for a long time in the realm of the dead, head bowed, hand resting gently on dirt, warming a little patch of grave. Finally, he stands up, knees popping painfully.
"See you soon," he murmurs.
He limps back to the car, fighting against the waves of physical and emotional pain that threaten to drown him. Just as he pulls the door shut, he sees a flutter of white in a juniper bush nearby. He reopens the door and steps gingerly out, carefully picking his way across the gravel.
It is the picture. It has a small water stain in the corner, but it is intact.
A small smile creeps across his weathered features as he puts the picture carefully back in his wallet. And he walks back towards the car, he understands now better than he did when he arrived exactly what has been returned to him.
It's a small thing, but it's a second chance of sorts. As close to a "do-over" that he'll ever get.
He'll take it.