DISCLAIMER: "John Woo's Once a Thief" is, obviously, John Woo's, and "The X-Files" belongs, as always, to Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen Productions. No infringement intended. If anyone should detect a small influence of a third, popular series, no infringement intended there either.

COMMENT: This story was written 1999-11-26 through 2000-01-16, so it was started in one millennium and finished in another. However, it is set somewhere in the 6th season of "The X-Files" (which is all we've seen so far, out here in the backwash of the planet), probably before "SR 819", though timing in Season 6 is fairly vague.

RATING: General X-Files rating, whatever that is. PG-13? Shades of violence disqualify it for a straight PG, I think.

SUMMARY: Who said that Gibson Praise was the only telepath in the world? Someone else has drawn the interest of two universes, but who controls the game?

FEEDBACK eagerly awaited at the address given on my main page http://home.swipnet.se/evas_fanfic



Chess and Roses

by

Eva A Enblom




[Somewhere on neutral ground]


The flame from the cigarette lighter illuminated a wrinkled face. "You've come?" It should have been an observation, yet it ended like a question, as if the speaker were secretly surprised at this turn of events.

"Wasn't that our agreement?" the woman asked, rhetorically. She swept off her wide-brimmed hat to reveal shoulder length hair that was not as red on top where the hat had concealed it, as it was further down. "You could at least ask me to sit, John", she added in a voice that carried overtones of the archetypal school mistress.

"My name isn't John", he pointed out, exhaling smoke.

"I know that", she said patiently. "But it's what I've decided to call you. It must be the most common man's name in the West. A name borne by saints and crooks, and madmen of both persuasions. Absolutely noncommittal - it suits you. Or do you prefer - Will?"

"Why not Niccoló?" The elderly man found an ashtray and stubbed out his Morley cigarette half smoked. "The name of an interesting man. Italian Renaissance. Perhaps you've read his work? Yes, I thought you might have. A good name, were I to choose one. But what about you? What shall I call you?"

"What's in a name?" she asked lightly. "Just call me Director."


*  *  *  *


[Under St Gillen's Freeway, October 13th]


Some areas are no man's land, because no man ever thinks of them. The windswept acres underneath St Gillen's Freeway were kept free for maintenance of the pylons supporting the seven-mile bridge with its constant load of traffic. A place where only rats, smugglers, and street gangs ever met. And if the very air should shimmer with inconsistency in such a place, who but the rats, the smugglers or the street gangs would notice?

*  *  *  *


[A chess game on neutral ground]

The elderly man who would have liked to be called Niccoló, pulled out a chair for his guest. Gesturing at the chair, and at the small table where the board was already set up, he asked, "Shall we begin?"

She sat down at the white end. "I shall play White tonight", she announced. "I must say I feel quite aggressive." Boldly, she moved her queen's pawn forward.

"Ah, one of the standard openings, yet not the most common one", the old man remarked. He paused for a moment to light another cigarette, then he added, "Regrettably, it often leads to considerable slaughter."

The Director smiled. "I have great confidence in my queen."


*  *  *  *


[Under St Gillen's Freeway, October 13th]


Indigent Willard Fuchs turned over on his bed of old news and glossy scandals. It was freezing cold tonight. Odd that, he didn't remember it being so cold when he turned in. The traffic soothed him, as it droned on and on above his head. In Paris, the clochards slept under bridges over the river. They had learnt to cope with the dampness. Willard for his part slept under St Gillen's Freeway, and he had learnt to cope with the noise. There had been a time when he used to phantasize about where all the cars and trucks were going, just before he fell asleep at night. Nowadays, he did not think they were going anywhere. Always on the road, never reaching their destination. Or if they did, they were most certainly not where they wanted to be.

Willard turned over again, not cursing the cold, because Willard never cursed. It was one of his many little advantages over the 'burghers'. The burghers always cursed. They did not know any better. They had not been taught right, like Willard Fuchs. Willard had taught himself mostly, and he had done it quite well, if he might say so.

A shot rang out, disrupting the music of steady traffic. It reverberated for a moment among the pylons, before being drowned out by the noise from above. An angry voice from another direction, then two more on the side from where the shot had come. Willard drew cautiously back into the comforting shadows of the freeway. So, the street fighters were at it again? Well, it didn't concern him, as long as he could stay out of sight. Pretty soon, they would all have killed each other or chased each other off the grounds, and it would be just Willard and the traffic again. Things would be back to normal. Sooner or later, they always got back to normal.


*  *  *  *

"Hey, Melanie, catch!"

One of the youngsters made as if to throw his gun to a short-cropped redhead in a black leather outfit. She shook her head. "Keep it. You need it better than I do."

The air shimmered again, and this time snow was beginning to fall from inside the rippling effect. Small, cold flakes that did not stay on the ground for long. More young antagonists seemed to be pouring in with the snow.

The girl called Melanie did her best to chase them off, and she was a good fighter. She did not even pack a knife, but her infighting techniques were outstanding, and many of her opponents fled rather than being caught between her flying kicks and the guns of her allies.

Willard lay watching the fight, furtively. Best keep an eye on those youngsters, lest anyone see him and think him fair game. They couldn't hope to think he had any money, but they might want some fun, and he had come to really hate the sense of humour of young people like these.

The air kept shimmering like an all but invisible drapery. Willard assumed his eyes must be at fault, the cold was bringing tears to them. It wasn't just the rippling air, wavering as if with heat although the snow kept falling. Once, he thought he saw the Melanie girl defeat her current assailant by just looking hard at him. The boy clutched his head and screamed, then he fell, and Melanie started running.

But someone was trying to stop her. One of the youngsters ran after her, firing his gun twice without taking aim - perhaps he was just trying to get her attention, perhaps not.

Willard Fuchs had made it one of his principles never to partake in a fight - or any other event for that matter. Willard knew that a vagrant lived longer as a mere observer - and occasional informant to those who needed one - than by diving head first into the surfs of life. He also knew with absolute certainty that if he were ever found unconscious in the street, he'd be taken to a hospital where someone would rip all his organs out and store them in huge organ banks until they could be used for transplants. Willard had decided two things for himself: never get sick, and stay out of trouble.

But this young girl seemed so plucky, he wanted her to make it, to get away. It was almost as if he could hear her calling for help, calling to anyone who might listen, and yet he was fairly certain she had not uttered a word since refusing the gun she was offered.

He needed her to get away. Without reflecting any further, he leapt up from his hiding place and ran towards the pursuing youth. The boy must have seen him coming but obviously could not believe his eyes, for Willard managed to take him by surprise and knock him out. Shocked by his own actions, the vagrant immediately fell to his knees beside his victim, awkwardly feeling for a pulse.

"Leave him", said a voice behind him. Willard looked up; the Melanie girl had stopped running and come up to him. "And stop shaking", she added, "never been in a street fight before?"

Willard shook his head mutely.

"Well, I think this one was on my side", she casually informed him. "Or that's what I thought anyway. No matter, let's go." She pulled the tattered man to his feet. "You can't stay here. If they think you're involved, they'll be after you too."

"Who?", Willard asked shakily. "The organ mongers?"

The girl looked hard at him for a moment. Then she said, "I hadn't heard about that. But I wouldn't put it past them. They have quite a few sidelines." She tugged on his frayed coat sleeve. "Come, the sooner we're out of here, the better." She pushed him ahead of her, and so he did not see her reach inside her jacket for something which she then flung on the body of the unconscious youth. A flower. Thrown carelessly, as an afterthought, a thanks for good service in her little band.


*  *  *  *

[A chess game on neutral ground]


"You struck me en passant!" the smoking man said. "Good! A good move, I admit I hadn't expected that.."

"Of course you expected it", the woman replied, matter-of-factly. "Don't patronize me. You must have known it was the only way to get close to your pawn. Question is, what are you going to do about it?"

The man flicked off some ash and nudged his pawn slightly forward, out of immediate danger. His elegant opponent stared at him. "That's all?"

"Your move", the man confirmed. "I must say I rather look forward to it."

The woman glared at him and pushed her queen forward along an open avenue, as far as the piece would go before encountering one of the other side.

"So soon?" the other player commented in his lightest tone of voice. "You play a reckless game, Director. But I think I can counter your move.." With that, he picked up his black knight - the one positioned on a black square - and put it within menacing distance of the white queen.


*  *  *  *


[Under St Gillen's Freeway, October 13th]


Krycek got out of the black sedan and slammed the door shut behind him. The car was not his; he had requisitioned it from the Syndicate's car pool that morning, one of many such non-descript vehicles. He took one look around, frowning slightly. Nothing moved, but there were bodies. Did that mean he was too late? He went to have a closer look. All young people but none of them female. That meant his ultimate quarry was not among them. As for the reason he had made this detour.. Mentally, he cursed his employer for not giving him any specifics. This had to be the foggiest mission he had ever been sent on. All he had been told was to meet someone under St Gillen's, and to intercept that person.

"You mean, kill?" he had asked bluntly.

His employer had tried to blow a smoke ring, and failed. "I said intercept."

Not kill then. Or kill if he had to? Wanted to? Use his own discretion? Krycek had not asked. If his orders were not specific, at least they gave him some freedom to act in his own interest. Whatever that might mean right now.. With a sigh, he crouched to examine another of the bodies.

Up ahead, under the freeway bridge, the air started to shimmer oddly. Krycek stood instantly, prepared for anything.

In the field directly under the freeway, a young woman fell through the shimmering 'curtain' of air to land in a crouch, catlike. Dressed all in black like a thief in the night. Her hair was black too, and her features Asian, as far as Krycek could make out from where he was standing. This had to be it. She certainly looked like someone he would need to intercept. There was an aura of competence and danger about her. He could tell, he had grown sensitive to those things over the past five years of running and fighting.

Quickly, Li Ann took in her surroundings. They were not what she expected, but she could deal with that later. The area looked as if it had just been fought in. A few bodies were still lying about, whether alive or dead she could not determine unless she approached them. But there was also someone standing. Someone familiar in this unknown place. She rose and walked over to him.

A young woman, Krycek mused. Younger than he was, at any rate. Still, he'd do well not to underestimate her. What tactics to use.. charm her into telling him what was going on? So he could decide whether it was in his best interest to kill her or not. There was a catch with that strategy though..

During his stint as an FBI agent, he had learnt that he could deceive as well as the next man, but charms? He really didn't know if he had them, nor did he particularly care. The kind of power he was after would not be handed him for his long lashes. Nor even out of fear, he had lately come to suspect. Anyone feared by the Syndicate would sooner or later be eliminated. As usual, trickery was the best policy.

That's when she flustered him completely.

"Vic?"

No, not Vic, she thought as he turned his face fully towards her with a surprised glare. Much thinner than she had ever seen Vic. This face was almost haggard, the eyes haunted. The same flashing green eyes though - or perhaps merely hazel, but Vic himself always insisted they were green, and she - and perhaps even Mac - had humoured him out of affection. Whatever, the same intense eyes. A brother perhaps, that Vic had never told her about? Or a brother he himself did not even know?

She had to find out.

"I'm sorry", she said. "You reminded me of someone, that's all."

He stared at her, searchingly. Almost hungrily, she thought with a chill. A look she had never seen in Vic's eyes, yet one she could well believe him capable of, had the circumstances been different.. Very different. Like now. This had to be a bleak place. Well, she had sensed as much when she fell in. Sensed it acutely.

"You know, that's odd", he said, and even his voice reminded her of Vic's full tones, yet with a very slight accent she could not place. "It's as if you remind me of someone too. But I can't think of whom."

"Li Ann Tsei". She extended her hand, and somewhat to her surprise, he took it. And held it. Firmly, rather than courteously.

"Liane?"

She shook her head vehemently. "No no. Li Ann. Two words."

He nodded. "Alex Krycek."

*  *  *  *


[A cloak room in the vicinity of an FBI officescape, October 13th]


"Are you saying there's another telepath on the loose, Mulder? As strong as Gibson?"

"Her name is Melanie Alexander." Mulder shook his head doubtfully. "I don't think she's as strong, Scully, she's believed to be a late bloomer. If she had been a prodigy like Gibson, we'd have heard of her before this."

Scully looked around her out of habit, a habit born already after a couple of months in an officescape. It was hard to get used to having people around her all the time, after sharing an office with just Mulder for years. Every time they wanted to talk, one of them had to drag the other out into a corridor or cloak room or whatever. She wondered briefly what impression their co-workers got from this behaviour. Like high school kids sneaking off into some broom closet together, she thought. Would she have enjoyed being a schoolmate of Mulder's, or would she have considered him stuck up and unapproachable? She had to admit she wouldn't mind sharing a broom closet with him now..

"Scully, are you listening to me?"

She blinked. "Sorry, I was just wondering if we could speak freely. Who gave you this information?" She held up the two unofficial pages she had just skimmed through.

"Skinner as usual. He said someone asked him to look into it, and he prefers us to handle it cloak-and-dagger fashion rather than giving it to Spender. Says he has reason to believe someone wants to kill the kid, and he suspects Spender would simply sit back and let them. Skinner has a safehouse on standby - not through the official channels, so no one within the Bureau ought to know. But, he has to find her before he can protect her."

Scully raised an eyebrow. "Maybe he should let her protect herself. She seems to have done a good job of it so far." She turned the scant pages over but did not find the specific she was looking for. "How old did you say she was?"

"Fourteen, according to Skinner's information. Presumably, her talent didn't surface until puberty, whereas Gibson must have been telepathic as a baby. She ran off from school about two years ago and took to the streets. She's been in various street gangs since, she's belonged to four different ones so far."

"Who decided she was a telepath? More to the point, why?"

"She cheated at tests in school - that is, everyone was convinced she did, though she couldn't have. Then, when her streetfighting techniques were observed, someone must have put two and two together, and arrived at a far-fetched conclusion that still was the only one that fit all the facts."

Scully looked up at him, questioning. "What's so special about her fighting techniques?"

Mulder gave his partner a searching look. Scully had had to accept the existence of telepaths after meeting Gibson, but would she buy this? "Well, she won't use a gun or a knife or any other conventional weapon. She has some martial arts, but that's all. Instead, she - fries her antagonist's mind."

Scully raised both eyebrows and, pulling her chin in, made an amused, incredulous face.

Mulder couldn't help grinning. He always found it endearing whenever her cool, professional façade broke into something entirely different. "Eye-witness' account, Scully", he chuckled. "In the words of four petty thieves apprehended on three different occasions, she drove the guy crazy in about five seconds, and left him drooling on the ground. And before you ask, I doubt this has anything to do with teenage sex drive." He sobered. "Apparently, she doesn't kill them, but none of her presumed victims has recovered as yet. Nobody knows if they will."

"I'm beginning to see why she hasn't been caught", Scully mused. "Are you sure she should be?"

"She's a deadly weapon, Scully. Useful to some - or at least that's what they think - and a threat to others. Also, she's an amoral kid at her most destructive age, one with access to everybody else's thoughts."

"Which is probably the reason she's amoral in the first place", Scully muttered. "What makes you think she can be socialized - or should I say tamed?"

Mulder looked at her, fully serious now. "I don't know that she can be, Scully. But we have to try. The only alternative is to kill her, and we can't do that. This isn't her fault."

"Oka-a-y", Scully nodded, not quite convinced but for some reason always willing to go along with his mad crusades. "Anything else I should know about her?"

He smiled a little. "She has a predilection for black roses."


*  *  *  *


[A chess game on neutral ground]


The Director scrutinized the board, taking great care to observe the long strike lines from pieces not yet involved in the action.

"I hate it when I'm not sure what game you're playing, John", she remarked, vaguely hoping that her name calling would annoy him.

It didn't. He seemed all too pleased with himself, pulling contendedly on his cigarette.

"Good!" was all he said.

*  *  *  *



[Under St Gillen's Freeway, October 13th]


Krycek eyed the Asian woman without letting go of her hand. Deadly, he thought, honed sharp, like a fine blade. He would have to watch himself with her. All the same - could there be a chance of getting close? Close enough not to be booted out by a flying kick? He did not think of himself as a gentleman, but he usually preferred blondes. And a bit - shapelier, more in accordance with the Russian traditional ideal, though that was hard to come by in a culture obsessed with the emaciated, driven look. Well, beggars can't be choosers, he thought, as so often before. The theme of his life. Most likely, this tall fighter would kill him before he could prove his intentions were not necessarily hostile. Still, she had not tried to withdraw her hand.. if anything, she seemed faintly amused by his holding on to it.

"What are you?" he asked, "A neo-ninja or something? You don't look Japanese though."

Her dark eyes widened. "I believe you're the first Westerner to notice. What would you say I am, then?"

He shrugged. "Probably American. As for your genes.. I think I would've figured you for a Chinese or possibly Korean. No thorough-bred though, or else you had too much meat in your diet as a kid. Sorry - you did ask."

She threw her head back and laughed - not overdoing either gesture. More like a calculated social practice than a spontaneous reaction.

"You mean I'm too tall? I've heard that before. But actually, I am Chinese. Born and bred, not twice removed or anything. How did you spot it? That old wives' tale about which way my eyes are pointed?"

He shrugged again, shamefacedly. "Well, it worked, didn't it?"

She squeezed his hand lightly, before resolutely withdrawing her own. "Don't worry about it. At least you've taken an interest. Not many of your kind would bother to tell us apart."

He actually flashed her a grin - startling her, because it was every bit as toothy and slightly incongruous as Vic's.

"And just what is 'my kind'?"

Damn. She had thought she was above this, but somehow the old feeling of superiority always crept into confrontations like this.

"Well, you know.. Caucasian?" she tried.

His grin grew wider - something she had not thought possible.

"I was born reasonably close to the Caucasus range, yes", he admitted helpfully, teasing her just like Vic might. "Closer than you, anyway."

She rolled her eyes. "All right, all right, it was a racist remark, and not all non-Asians are American", she said. "Got that. Touchée. Now, could you please tell me what you're doing here?"

They had got off on too good a start to blow it now, Krycek thought. He decided to tell her - something anyway.

"Looking for someone. My employer sent me to meet a certain person."

Li Ann nodded. "Would that by any chance be a teenage, redheaded girl, possibly a member of a street gang?"

He gave her a suspicious look - exactly like Vic would have. He even frowned in the same way, a few odd, almost horizontal crinkles just over the bridge of his nose. She had never seen that in anyone but Vic. She had always found it endearing because it was so specifically him.

"What's it to you?"

"Because that's why I am here. My employer gave me the exact same mission. Only, she wouldn't tell me where this place was, only that I would get there, not to worry, nor would she tell me who the girl was. I was to find the girl and protect her, that's all I was told."

"That's my mission", he said - a little too quickly, Li Ann thought. "Think maybe our employers are working together?"

"Unless they are the same one", Li Ann suggested.

He shook his head. "No, that can't be. Mine is a man. In his sixties, smokes a lot. You said she."

"That's right. An artificial redhead, if you ask me. Henna, I think. Probably quite insane, but well - I like her. Sometimes."

Krycek looked around him. "We seem to be late for the street fight. The girl must be long gone. What do you say we go looking for her together?"

Li Ann debated with herself briefly. She knew better than to trust him; there was something clearly evasive about him. On the other hand, she needed all the help she could get in this place. If things fell apart, she could always improvise. Besides, he was so like Vic, it was eerie..

"Fine with me", she decided, "considering that I haven't the slightest idea where to start. I'll be counting on you." She moved to take his left arm - and paused, trying to hide her dismay and embarrassment. "Sorry", she said. "I didn't realize. How did you come to lose it?"

"Accident in the line of duty", he said easily. He put his prosthesis around her shoulders, giving her a very light and somewhat stiff squeeze. "It's all right. I don't mind any more. The replacement is quite useful. I can't carry weights with it, but other than that.."

But she had flinched as he touched her, and try as he might to ignore that, it still hurt, viciously.

You're a fool, Li Ann, the Chinese woman berated herself. Why, he must think his disability upsets you, when that isn't it at all. In fact, it was the thought that he was so like Vic. If Vic had lived in this place - would he have had that same, haunted look in his eyes? Would he have lost an arm too? Somehow, she did not think it would be diplomatic to ask those questions aloud, even if they could have been understood. Her sudden flinch would have to remain unexplained. She could only hope for a chance to make up for it later.

She busied herself looking at the bodies, one by one. There were five, all dead. Two of them had no identification. At some distance from them, she found something incongruous. A black rose. She picked it up and turned it over, examining it. It didn't tell her anything. She stood for a moment, staring thoughtfully towards the place where she had entered this forlorn world.

"It becomes you", he said, and she realized with a start that she had been holding the rose against her chin. She looked down at her combat outfit.

"I suppose you think it's my colour", she said drily.


*  *  *  *


[A chess game on neutral ground]


"Your queen is intercepted", the elderly man said, putting his cigarette out.

"But not taken", the Director pointed out. "You can't do away with her without sacrificing your black knight."

"True enough", the man admitted, "Fortunately, I have other pieces on the board.." He pushed his queen forward, diagonally.

The Director gave him a condescending smile. "So, are we to swap queens now?"

"That is entirely up to you", he said, lighting another of his Morleys.

She glared at him but did not comment. Did he have to smoke throughout the game? He had to be doing it to make her uncomfortable, throw her off balance. Well, that cheap trick was not going to work, she was made of sterner stuff. Besides, she could always wash her hair and clothes afterwards..

"I think not at this point", she said. "I've grown rather attached to my queen.."


*  *  *  *


[Under St Gillen's Freeway, October 14th]


"Mulder, what are we doing here?"

"Meeting someone", Mulder said. He knew he was being evasive, but he did not feel like saying too much as yet, in case this did not pan out. "There he is", he added with some relief, as a ragged figure came ambling towards them.

Willard Fuchs stopped within a few yards of the two FBI agents. He had not counted on Mulder bringing his partner. Willard had met her before, but he was always shy in her company.

As if she had understood, she closed the distance between them in a few brisk steps and extended her hand, smiling. "Nice to see you again, Willard", she told him. "How have you been?"

He wiped his hand on his coat before taking hers, for all that she was wearing gloves on this windy day. "Safe enough, Agent Scully", he muttered in a low voice. "All in one piece. At least they haven't got me yet.."

Scully nodded, remembering the man's particular obsession about organ hunters. Mulder had warned her early on, never to tell Willard Fuchs that she was a doctor. She had often wondered what the poor vagrant would think of her medical expertise, if he knew. Would he consider it better or worse that she worked only on dead bodies? There was no way of knowing how his convoluted mind worked.

Mulder came up to them. "Hello, Willard", he said easily. "What have you got for us this time?"

In reply, the vagrant reached inside his coat. The two agents fought a conditioned reflex to whip out their guns - Willard was never armed. Sure enough, the thing he brought out had nothing more deadly than a few thorns. Scully took the half wilted flower and held it up to the light.

"Just curious", she said, feeling Mulder's eyes on her. "I never believed there really were black roses. If you look closely, you can see that it's actually a very deep purple."

"And purple roses are common, would you say?" Mulder teased her lightly. In his own experience, only the brightest roses had any colour to speak of. He was slightly suspicious of the yellow ones though. When others saw things the way he did, there was usually something wrong.

Scully glared at him, silently reminding herself never to discuss flowers with a colour blind man. She lowered the rose. "Where did you get this?" she asked their informant.

"She gave it to me", Willard said, sounding almost frightened. "It's black, like her name", he lectured them, as they did not seem any too sure of what colour the rose was. "That's why she likes them. They're her signature."

Mulder gave a low whistle. "Melanie! Of course, that kind of drama would appeal to her. Asserting herself in a poetic manner."

Willard gave him a suspicious look from under bushy, still blond eyebrows. "You know her?"

"Only her profile", Mulder admitted.

Willard nodded in satisfaction. "You haven't met her. I have. She's dangerous, you know, Agent Mulder. Very dangerous. And hard, like she's seen it all and didn't like any of it. She was the only one standing after the fight here, and she told me I couldn't stay or they would come and get me. Of course I knew that, and so we ran. Hid out at Kesnich's overnight - I sometimes sleep there", he informed them as if expecting them to challenge his choice of accommodation.

Mulder nodded. "The packaging plant, I know where it is. She still there?"

Willard shook his head. "She was gone this morning, as I woke up - and I wake up early, Agent Mulder, I do. She must've left afore dawn." He looked sadly at the flower in Scully's hand. "That's all she left behind.."

Scully spontaneously held it out to him, but he shook his head. "No, Agent Scully, you keep it. It - it becomes you. You've got red hair too.." Suddenly, as if embarrassed by his own boldness, he spun around and almost ran away from them. Mulder called him back.

"Willard! Don't you want your payment?"

The vagrant stopped abruptly and turned back to them. "I forgot something", he said, as if that had been the reason he had changed his mind and not anything Mulder had said. "I saw her fry one of the boys she was fighting here. I thought something had got into my eyes and I couldn't see straight, but she told me later that was what she did. Fried him, she said. He should be in hospital now, because she never kills them if she can help it, she said. Prefers to do worse, she said. She's hard, Melanie." He shook his head sadly. "But she's my friend", he added, brightening, "because I helped her."

"Do you know which hospital the boy was taken to?" Scully asked.

Willard shook his head again. "No, sorry, Agent - that's all I've got for now." He glanced furtively at Mulder who brought out his wallet and gave the homeless man his usual fee. Willard shoved the money inside his bedraggled trenchcoat without counting it. Mulder nodded in silent acknowledgment of the courtesy. With Willard, manners were important.


*  *  *  *


[A chessgame on neutral ground]


The smoking man nudged another pawn forward, one he had not previously touched. The Director frowned.

Now where did that one come from? she thought, taking care not to let him suspect her momentary lack of concentration. Her attack was going badly; all she had was a queen in a vulnerable position, far inside enemy territory. She would have to bring in enforcements soon. But first she wanted a glimpse of her opponent's true strategy. So far, he was just sitting there, smiling and smoking, nudging a pawn now and then..


*  *  *  *



[Maple Grounds Private School for the Precocious, October 14th]


Melanie looked in disgust at the brat clutching the fence of the school in his eagerness to speak with her. She hated stuck-up kids. She hated not being unique. <So what do you want?> she sent.

Gibson Praise regarded her seriously. <I know you don't like me>, he sent back, <but we've got to stick together. You're like me. They'll hunt you down too, and experiment on you. And then they'll kill us both. If there are any more like us, they'll do the same to them.>

<Then we should have nothing to do with each other at all>, Melanie shot back. <We'll all last that much longer.>

<You don't understand>, he sent, looking desperately over his shoulder. His fifteen-minute break was almost up. If he did not show up in time for class, Ms Wight would come for him. He could see her on the walk right now, just outside the main building. A tall, middle-aged woman, kind but strict. She was thinking of him. Worrying a bit. <We haven't got a chance alone. They'll hunt us down. Together, we could be strong - a force to reckon with.> He liked the phrase. He had picked up many good phrases lately.

Melanie caught some of his urgency, but she could not agree with it. <That's assuming there really are more than the two of us>, she sent.

They had both been blocking their associative thought processes ferociously, only letting that through which they consciously sent. But now she caught something - just a glimpse, as if past a door, closing.

He nodded in affirmation. <I'm pretty sure there are others>, he sent. <I think I sense them sometimes, but the distance is great. I don't think they know about me. No one has contacted me yet.>

Melanie shrugged. <Call me again when they do.>

She turned to go, at the same time as the school bell started ringing.

<WAIT!> he mindshouted, and she turned around, her eyes black with rage.

<Don't ever do that again, or I'll let those old men of yours know where you are!>

<They already know>, he sent, sadly.

She eyed him suspiciously. <That's not how it looks.>

<Some of them know. Not all. They're cheating each other. That's what you caught from me.> He glanced over his shoulder again. Ms Wight was approaching. <I can talk with the aliens! They'll protect us!>

Melanie's lip quirked. "They don't seem to have done a very good job of it with you", she said aloud, not wanting to give him the privilege of mindtalk any longer. "But you're not the only one can talk with them", she added importantly. "This is alien. Doesn't keep very well after it's been exposed to open air, but.." Quickly, she pressed something into his hand and left before she could see a clear picture of herself in the mind of the approaching teacher.

Gibson stared morosely at the black rose in his hand. The thorns had stung him.


*  *  *  *


[Maple Grounds Private School for the Precocious, October 14th]


The day was still windy, but the afternoon sun was now warming the school and its countryside surroundings. Afternoon sun rays were also falling pleasantly through the tall windows of Ms Wight's office. She was seated at her antique desk at the moment, looking over her visitors through blue-rimmed glasses, and trying not to show her disapproval. She had seen many ominous people in connection with the Praise boy, but none quite so blatantly prepared for the worst as these two. The man looked like a hired thug - which she had no doubt he was - and the woman.. was that a bullet proof vest? Ms Wight had no experience of such things, but the garment looked somehow designed for combat, she thought. She did not doubt that the Russian mafia was interested in the Praise boy - possibly because of his reputation as a chess prodigy - and now this woman.. could the Triads be after him too? It certainly looked no better.

Li Ann sighed, seeing suspicion all over the school mistress' face. The poor woman probably thought she was doing a good job of hiding her reaction. "We understand your concern, Ms Wight", Li Ann said sweetly, "but all we want is to have a talk with Gibson Praise. To see how he's doing."

"I can tell you that", Ms Wight said with some emphasis. "He's doing fine."

Li Ann smiled politely, while inwardly cursing the stubborn bitch. "I'm sure he is. But you must realize we can't just take your word for it - even if I'm absolutely certain you're right", she added quickly. "The - Foundation will want to know what Gibson himself has to say about it. The Chairman will ask me specifically if I talked with the child in person."

Ms Wight stiffened. "What foundation? He was placed here by an organization working for Save the Children, after all the trouble surrounding the death of the Russian chess player, and some subsequent events that only the Principal has all the details on. I gather they were quite traumatic for the poor boy."

"Of course", Li Ann covered, "But Save the Children couldn't have afforded your fee alone.. that is, they could not have motivated the expense on behalf of just one child, had not the Foundation stepped in and offered to pay for his care and schooling."

Ms Wight was looking more and more dubious. "And what is the name of this foundation? I'm sure the Principal has it, but I must say I've never heard of it."

"The Foundation for Protection of Elite Children", Li Ann improvised.

Krycek decided this had gone on long enough. He could hear the faint traces of desperation in Li Ann's voice, even if he was pretty sure Ms Wight could not. He took a step forward, into the light. "Look, all we want is talk with the kid", he said.

Ms Wight stared at him. Taking in the scars on his face which she thought handsome in a brutal fashion. Very light scars, invisible except in direct lighting. One running from the corner of his eye, along his nose, the other a light slash obliquely across his lips. She was sure they must be the marks of a knife fight. Actually, the implement in question had been a telephone handset wielded by a murderously upset FBI agent, but Ms Wight had no way of knowing that. "Very well then", she said, "but I'll come with you."

Resolutely, as if expecting to be challenged, she stood and stepped around her desk, pushing her way between her two visitors as if to show them she was not easily intimidated. She got her coat in good order, putting it on and buttoning it carefully before she finally deigned to lead the way.


*  *  *  *


Gibson was sitting listlessly in the school playground. He had seen them coming, known what they were about, and he was resigned as always. What was the point in dealing with liars? They all thought they could fool him, even when they had every reason to believe it impossible. He sighed. Even that nice lady, Dana, had tried to hide her thoughts from him although she didn't know the first thing about blocking. He had had some fun though, playing her and the other one, Diana, against each other. He knew that whatever he said about grown-up relations was dynamite. He was good with thought patterns. He only wished he could get emotions too, that way he might actually wield some power over the adults. But he was no empath. He didn't understand how his dynamite worked, he could only calculate from the pathways of people's thoughts when it would. He did not know what their situation was like, he could only use it.

The Asian lady did not crouch down to his level, he was grateful for that. Instead, she stood towering over him as if he had been an adult. To his surprise, she introduced herself by thinking her name at him. But she was no telepath. She was just trying to show him a courtesy.

"I'm Gibson", he said aloud in reply, letting her understand that he had got her message and that he also understood that she was not like him.

"Alex Krycek", the man said, holding out his hand. Gibson did not take it. The woman seemed friendlier, he decided to address her. He wished Ms Wight were not listening though, but he knew that she thought she was protecting him. Ms Wight was friendly too, even if she usually overdid it.

"You want to ask about a redheaded girl who is like me", he told Li Ann.

She nodded. "Have you seen her?"

Gibson realized that he himself was - for once - in a position where he could lie. But he despised lying. That was for the others, not for such as he. Melanie would be all right. She preferred fending for herself. Besides, she had not wanted to join up with him.

He nodded earnestly. "I called her. She came. We talked some, and then she left. She didn't want to stay."

"You mean she was here?" Krycek asked.

The boy looked up at him with clear, disillusioned eyes. "You want to kill her", he said calmly.

Damn. Krycek could feel Li Ann's eyes on him, along with the sharp daggers glared at him by Ms Wight. He knew better than to try and hide anything from a telepath, but for some reason he had not expected the kid to be such a blabbermouth.

"I think you had both better leave", Ms Wight said sharply. "Before I call the authorities." She had been about to say the police but decided to leave that vague, as she strongly suspected that people like these owned a great portion of the force.

Li Ann nodded. "We will", she said contritely. "Thank you for your time, Ms Wight."

Gibson was still staring at Krycek. "You want to kill me too", he announced helpfully.

Krycek glared back at him. "Yeah, we can't always have what we want."


*  *  *  *


[Kesnich's Packaging Plant, October 14th]


"Do you think he touched her?"

Mulder shook his head. "Not Willard, Scully. He was just being chivalrous. Besides, from what we know of her, do you think it likely she could be touched by anyone unless she consented?"

"No, I guess not. I just thought, she might have consented. She's rather too street wise for her age, but she's still a minor. She's dangerous, but she really shouldn't be running around like this."

"I think you can trust Willard, Scully. He only wanted to help her hide from her enemies. And from officious, over-protective people like us.."

Scully nodded thoughtfully. "He's quite a character. Where did he get his obsession about organ mongers?"

Mulder gave her a long, sad look. "They got his cousin", he said.

"Seriously?"

Mulder nodded. "One Lothar Fuchs. German citizen - West German in those days. 1978. Apparently he came over to visit Willard who had a steady job back then. They never met though. The cousin was an artist, quite the bohemian type, I gather. When he was found comatose after a mugging, the hospital assumed he was homeless. His identity papers were gone along with his wallet, they had no way of knowing he was foreign. They did a perfunctory search but only nationally. Then they decided he wouldn't wake up."

"Mulder, even the homeless have rights!"

Mulder looked steadily into her eyes. "Do they?"

Scully sighed. Sometimes her partner was every bit as paranoid as their excentric informant. "Where did you get this information?"

"Gunmen", he shrugged. "I needed to find out who my informant was." He turned away as if unwilling to pursue the matter. Scully decided to let it go for the time being. It was after all irrelevant to their present case.

Mulder walked around a wall of crates, neatly piled on the concrete area inside the dilapidated gates. It was nearly dark now, though not yet enough to warrant a flashlight, at least not outdoors. The plant was quiet, almost otherworldly, as the grounds were abandoned for the night, with not even a guard in sight. Apparently, Kesnich's was one of those companies which settled for the cheaper alternative of having patrolling guards check in at regular intervals, rather than employing a nightwatch of their own.

"Well", he said, "Doesn't look like we'll find anything here. What did the hospital say?"

"I haven't been there yet", Scully said.

"I thought you found out which one the boy was taken to."

"Yes, the Presbyterian Sanatorium, but it was way after visiting hours when I found out, and I didn't want to charge in there, flashing a badge. After all, we're not on an official case. The girl hasn't been accused of anything."

Mulder nodded in agreement. "I'm sure Skinner would appreciate all the discretion he can get on this."

Scully brought out the half wilted flower she was still carrying. "I wonder why Willard didn't want this back. He really seemed to care for the girl."

Mulder briefly considered telling her how good she looked holding a black rose, but at the last minute he decided against it. "I think he felt it was bad luck, Scully", he said instead.

She arched an eyebrow. "So he gave it to me? Some gentleman, our Willard."

Mulder smiled. "Maybe he thought you'd be better equipped to handle some bad luck, Scully. After all, you're coping with me.."

He was rewarded with exactly the kind of look he had been fishing for.


*  *  *  *


[In the woods around Maple Grounds Private School for the Precocious, October 15th]


Krycek awoke at dawn, his leather jacket not quite sufficient to keep out the morning chill presently insinuating itself into his bones. He had a crick in the neck and his legs felt cramped. The back seat of a sedan wasn't the best place to sleep, particularly in October, but it could have been worse. In fact, it quite often had been worse..

Li Ann had the front seat and was showing no signs of discomfort, although her legs were long enough that she ought to have had the same problem as he. Maybe she was good at yoga. Tantric convolutions.. he hastily decided not to go there. At the moment, she was calmly rummaging through the bags of somewhat stale sandwiches that they had barely remembered to bring and later forgotten, as they went searching the woodlands on foot. It wasn't a big area; it ought to have been possible for two people to locate a third. Except that the third was a telepath, who presumably did not want to be found.

"You lied to me", Li Ann said, matter-of-factly.

She has stopped rummaging and was calmly eating her makeshift breakfast as if she had just dropped a remark about the weather. She looked wonderfully composed, sleek as a well-brushed cat.

Krycek opened the door behind him with an awkwardly backhanded grip, and wriggled out of the back seat.

"Took you long enough to complain", he said, uncertain of whether that was really what she was doing. He got out and closed the door behind him. She was a hard one to figure.

He made his way into the woods to take a leak. Afterwards he decided he might as well go all the way down to the river for a wash - give her some time to leave. She would probably thwart him at every step now, but he really did not want to have to kill her. He'd have to think up some excuse for mislaying the car though..

But she was still there as he got back, and he remarked on it. "I thought you'd be long gone by now."

"Likewise", she said, packing up what was left of her breakfast.

He found what sandwiches she had left, and started in on them. "You don't want to know?" he asked.

"Oh, I don't think the kid would lie", she said. "I got the impression he has great contempt for those who do. I think you would, though. So what's the point in asking? Besides, he only confirmed my suspicions. You weren't very convincing when you said you were out to protect the girl, same as me."

"So why are you still here? And why didn't you say anything yesterday?"

"I wanted time to think."

"About whether to steal the car at once or shoot me in my sleep first?"

Li Ann shook her head slowly, pretending to consider her options. "I don't think I could do that."

It was evidently not the answer he had expected. "Why not?"

"I told you, you remind me of someone I - used to know." Used to. Had she really given up hope already? Had she come to believe herself trapped here for all her remaining days?

"Obviously someone who means something to you", he said. "Should I feel flattered?"

She doubted it, but saw no need to tell him. "I think he's had better luck than you", she said honestly. "There but for fortune, he could be you."

He made a face, exactly as Vic would have. "Thanks. I didn't know I was doing that badly."

She did not answer that, but she stared pointedly at his arm. He got her message; she could see the hurt in his eyes. Maybe they really were green, after all.

"So what did you need to think about?" he asked.

"Whether or not it matters", she said with sublime practicality. "We both want to find the girl, and we both know she was last seen at the school. Why not keep looking together, she's a hard quarry to catch. When we find her, all I have to do is keep you from killing her."

He grinned. "Pragmatic Chinese. I think I'd like working with you. Especially as you've already admitted you can't kill me."

"Don't be too sure", she said. "You might find me too pragmatic. Things might change. My mind for instance."

He gave her one of Vic's earnest looks, and her heart flipped over, though she'd be damned if she'd let it show.

"I'll risk it", he said.


*  *  *  *


[A chess game on neutral ground]


"Are you just going to sit there, pushing your pawns about?" The Director knew she sounded impatient, but after all, this was chess, not poker.

Her opponent lit another Morley and squinted at the board, as if really considering her words. Then he moved his black knight again, keeping a steady tail on her queen. "It's all about control, you know", he informed her, almost apologetically. His smug face belied his tone.

"You're right, John", she said decisively. "I shall have to do something about that.." She reached for her own knights.


*  *  *  *


[Corner of Alameda and Edmond, October 15th]


Victor Mansfield was flung out of the car as it crashed into the lamp post. Quickly determining that he was still alive, he got to his feet and looked around for Mac. The air was shimmering badly in the direction from which he had come, he could barely see the car. "Should never have let him drive in the first place", he muttered, as he stepped up to the driver's side - oddly, it seemed to take longer to reach it than it should have. He pulled the door open and hauled out an unconscious Mac Ramsey. Quickly, Vic dragged his friend and rival as far away from the wreck as possible. A minute later, he felt the heat of the explosion and saw the flames, but the shimmering air appeared to absorb the worst, to act as a protective screen. An energy field of some sort? The kind of thing all those sf shows were always full of? The Director had to know an awful lot about new technology, she could at least have warned them. On second thoughts, being the Director, she wouldn't.

At his feet, Mac groaned, then sat up holding his head. "What happened? Have I got another concussion?"

Vic bit back an acid remark about the relative thickness of some skulls, and merely pointed to the hazy fire too close to them to be felt so little.

Mac got gingerly to his feet and stood staring at the fire. "Damn brakes didn't work", he said after a while. "You pull me out?"

Vic nodded, wordlessly.

"Thanks", Mac said. He got no acknowledgment. Vic ignored him.

"Thanks, man", Mac belaboured the point, this time squeezing the shoulder of his brother-at-arms.

As usual, Vic reacted badly to being touched. "Don't overdo it, ok?"

Mac sighed and let his hand drop. But for once, Vic did not do the same with the subject.

"You know what she's done to us, don't you?"

"Who?" Mac asked in genuine bewilderment.

"The Director, who else. She wanted a truly eternal triangle, and she got it. She's fixed us into a pattern, as sure as if she had used a photographic fixative. The more you and I get used to each other, the more times we help each other out, we get to where we see each other almost as brothers. If Li Ann were to choose either one of us now, we would not be able to go on. We'd both accept her choice, but we couldn't live with it and go on as before."

Mac stared at him. "What are you trying to say?"

Vic plopped down on the kerb as if his strings had been cut. Elbows supported on knees, hands and head hanging deep, he said, "Nothing, I guess." Normally, he would have left it there, but now.. He fought to keep ignoring the fact that Li Ann was missing - and he lost. Just as Mac was about to breathe a soft sigh of relief, Vic added quietly, "She's my life, Mac.."

Mac swallowed, then tried a small laugh. It did nothing to hide his panic. "Come off it, man - your life?"

Vic looked up and for the barest moment there was fear in his eyes. Fear of something Mac felt sure that he himself had never known - and did not particularly care to know. "Yeah. My life."

Abruptly, Vic got up off the kerb. An odd little backwards snort and a casual movement of his head as if to signal - or perhaps plead - that all be back to normal. Unless it was a well concealed sob.

And for all his studied flippancy, Mac let it go. After all, he loved her too. But, he had loved again, after Li Ann broke with them both. He had even been prepared to give her up. Vic, on the other hand, had grasped at his efforts at new relationships like a drowning man for the proverbial straw. Nothing seemed to have come of it. Damn but the man's heart's blood was in those roses he gave her, Mac thought, inwardly wincing at his own bad sense of poetry, and I never even knew it. He shook his head, thinking of the white roses he himself had favoured. Playfulness, cool elegance - style, is that all I have to offer her? Apparently so. I'm not the passionate type, never have been. Easy going, laid back, suave - that's me. Still, isn't that what she prefers? She's Chinese, she knows to appreciate style. I don't think Vic's actually helping his case here.. why should everything be difficult? Why not go with the flow? Welcome luck when it comes your way - don't chase it when it moves on.. But deep down, his own Chinese upbringing was not quite enough to convince him that exotic Western ways might not prove seductive to a woman who had never known them until she was fully grown. Perhaps his own Western genes were deceiving him with some ethnocentric hubris he did not even know he had, but such passion had to be flattering. Even to the coolest Eastern girl. Perhaps especially to her..


*  *  *  *


[In the woods around Maple Grounds Private School for the Precocious, October 15th]


"You never told me why you want to kill her."

They were walking through the woodlands now, still keeping in the vicinity of the school, hoping against hope that Melanie Alexander was hiding out in the area.

Krycek debated with himself how much to tell Li Ann. Seeing no immediate reason to lie, he said, "The people who put Gibson in school here - I'm their assassin. They want the girl dead, because they realize they can't control her. She's too old, they haven't been able to influence her since infancy." He shrugged. "It's a job, that's all."

"You're a cleaner?" Li Ann tried to hide her mirth and failed miserably.

"Among other things. What's so funny about that?"

"Nothing. It's just - you're not at all like the ones I've met."

"Oh, so you have met a few then?"

"I know two quite well. British crackpots both. I'm quite fond of them actually - they're completely nuts."

"Like your employer", he remembered. "Does everyone have to be a raving lunatic to impress you?"

"Only Westerners", she shot back.

He was about to protest the label but thought better of it. He was not about to enter into a pointless ethnic bickering match, however friendly - or flirtatious.. Yeah sure. If she were flirting with him it was only because he reminded her of someone. Better let it go.

"Could anything change your mind?" she asked.

"Um - what?" He was desperately back-pedalling to remember what they had been discussing, initially.

"Could anything make you go against your employers?"

"Of course. I've done that more than once. They don't own me."

She gave him a surprised look. "Mine does", she informed him. "Own me, I mean. But - then you don't have to kill the girl, do you?"

"No."

"But you will?"

He walked beside her for a while, in silence. Thinking about it. "I think so", he said finally. "She's a menace. She has no respect for human life."

Li Ann giggled. "Neither have you."

"True, but I know the rules. She doesn't. She's a wildcard, chaos personified. I think she ought to go."

"And Gibson?"

"He's obnoxious, but I don't have a contract on him. More's the pity. I'd love to, but they want to keep him for their experiments."

"Sounds really horrible, doesn't it?" Li Ann said cheerfully.

Krycek glanced at her. "You don't like him either, do you?" He couldn't quite keep the amusement out of his voice. Her carefree attitude was highly seductive.

"Awful brat", she said lightly. "Way too full of himself." She sobered. "Though I guess it's self defence. Can't be easy to handle dense adults from where he is." She frowned. "From where he is now, that is." She turned to Krycek, actually putting her hands on his shoulders. "Promise me you'll kill him before he grows up. I'd do it myself but I may not be around."

Krycek stared at her. "Let me get this straight. You want Gibson killed, but you want to protect the girl?"

She shrugged. "It's a job, that's all", she mimicked. "I'm under orders to protect her."

"But she's deadly. Gibson isn't."

"Not yet, but he's already learnt quite well how to manipulate people. He's a perfect little monster already, and in time he'll be a perfect big monster. Unless someone does something about it."

"What, you think he'll learn mind control?"

"He already has, I'm sure of it." Seeing his disbelief, she added, "I don't mean he can put thoughts in our heads. Thankfully, we non-telepaths seem to be quite deaf to him. But he's a born blackmailer. That cold stare while he's figuring out how best to use the information he's stealing from our minds.." She broke off, squeezing his shoulders lightly. "Will you promise me?"

Krycek looked into her dark eyes, amazingly on a level with his own. Tall girl. "I promise", he said.

To his surprise, she kissed him. Very lightly, just a brief touch of her lips on his, it was over before he had a chance to respond. As if she considered him her own private henchman, and he had just promised to be a good boy. Tyshya chertyey, she couldn't treat him like this! He reached out for her, catching her by the neck, pulling her to him, but he had to do it single-handedly, and she slipped out of his grip easily, as if she had had a lot of practice. Given her looks, she probably had.

He never saw the kick coming, until it landed squarely on his jaw.


*  *  *  *


[A chess game on neutral ground]


The Director sighed and moved her queen out of harm's way. This was getting her nowhere. She'd have to stall for a while until her knights could catch up..

She didn't like the look on her opponent's face. Through ever-present smoke, he was staring intently at the board. She had no doubt he was planning something.

*  *  *  *


[Presbyterian Sanatorium, October 15th]


Scully contemplated the vacant-eyed youth lying in the bed closest to the window. His bedclothes were clean, and he was neatly tucked in, but he was clearly not in any position to appreciate the consideration shown him. His face was turned towards the light, but he did not really seem to be looking out. A narrow trickle of drool was making its way from the corner of his mouth down to his chin.

"I assume you have run an EEG?" Scully asked.

"Several", said the nurse beside her. She sounded as if she thought that was a damfool question to ask. Perhaps it was, Scully thought, but one had to make sure.

"Could I have copies of the printouts?"

The nurse nodded. "I'll talk with the doctor. I'm sure she'll agree."

Scully began to test the boy's reflexes. The usual response in the knee. Well, she hadn't really expected any motoric damage. The foot reflex was there too but seemed reversed, baby fashion. Had he simply regressed to infancy? He did flinch a little, as she clapped her hands together close behind him, out of his line of sight. Had the girl wiped his mind, left it as blank as in a new-born? Could that even be done? To the extent that it would affect his nervous system?

"Does he keep dry?" she asked.

"Strangely, yes", the nurse said. "That's one of the things that gives us hope. We can almost - sense that he's in there somewhere, but he seems to have gone into hiding."

Scully gave her a surprised look. That was definitely a theory. "You think something scared him so badly, he just - withdrew?"

"Well, I'm no psychologist", the nurse said, "but it's the impression I get, whenever I'm in here. We all try to talk to him of course - don't we, Brad?" she addressed the bedridden package. Probably because she felt bad talking about him as if he weren't there. Even if, in the strictest meaning, he wasn't really.

Scully nodded. "Too bad my partner couldn't come. He's got a degree in psychology. I'll have to confer with him about this." She stood for a moment in silence, watching the patient. Then she moved around the bed, to stand in his line of sight. "Goodbye, Brad", she said, gently pushing a strand of hair from his brow. As she moved her hand to where its shadow fell across his eyes, he blinked. She shook her head sadly. "If you're in there, Brad, I hope you'll soon decide it's safe to come back out. I'd like to meet you."

She nodded to the nurse, indicating that she was ready to leave. As the door fell shut behind the two women, Brad turned his head as if to watch them go.


*  *  *  *


[In the woods around Maple Grounds Private School for the Precocious, October 15th]


Krycek awoke groaning. His head felt as if someone was grinding a chainsaw inside it. A moment later, he noticed a cool touch on his aching jaw - by all indications a handkerchief, soaked in cold river water.

"I'm sorry", Li Ann said, sounding as if she meant it. "Didn't mean to give you a concussion. Guess I panicked." She looked closely into his eyes. "Both pupils still the same size, you'll live. I was worried for a while there, since you passed out."

"If you were so worried, why kick me at all?" he muttered. It felt good lying down with the cool piece of cloth on his injury, having her minister to him. He decided not to sit up just yet.

"You didn't seem like the kind of guy who'd take no for an answer", she told him matter-of-factly.

"Yeah? How would you know? Bad experiences with the one I remind you of?"

She smiled ruefully. "He's not that desperate."

"And you think I am?"

"It kind of looked that way, didn't it?"

He could have said that she started it, but he hadn't been brought up to blame the dame. And he honestly didn't know if perhaps her kick had not been the best policy after all. Maybe he really was desperate. About most things in life. On the other hand, he was used to being desperate. Still, better drop the subject.

"Who is he, anyway?" he asked, mainly because he really wanted to know. "I mean - why aren't you together?"

She sighed. Should she tell him? Well, he had asked, hadn't he? It wasn't as if she'd be spilling any secrets.

"There are two of them", she began. "The one you remind me of, and another. The other one, I grew up with."

"You mean, in China?"

"Of course in China. He isn't Chinese though. We grew up and fell in love, but my - family didn't approve. Oh, not because of his race, they wouldn't bother about irrelevant matters, they're practical people, but they had found a better match for me, they thought. Anyway, there was some - confusion, and I thought Mac - my lover - had died in the resulting mess. Well, I escaped and went west. Wound up in Canada. There I met Vic - that's the one you remind me of. We were going to be married, when Mac turned up again. He had survived the - bad times - and fled west like me."

Krycek gave a low whistle. "I take it they didn't kill each other?"

"No, I cooled them down. My employer took us all in as a team. They were always fighting though. Eventually, I realized that the only way I could keep them both was to give them both up. So I did. They're still fighting, off and on, but not as often. At least they can be in the same room now, even working together, without having to fight all the time."

"And you're happy with your choice?" Krycek asked in a low voice. Part of him sensed a deep tragedy here, but he knew it had to be his Russian background acting up again. This girl would be happy with whatever worked best.

But contrarily to his expectations, she seemed to hesitate. For only the briefest moment, but he was almost sure of it.

"It's out of my hands now", she said. "I must say I hadn't quite counted on our employer. She sees to it that I stick with my decision, because that's the only way she can be sure of keeping the three of us on her team." She looked at him seriously. "I told you she owns me. Us."

"And you accept that?"

She nodded. "It's my luck. It's not bad, as luck goes. Could be a lot worse."

He reached for her hand, and she let him take it.

"Your family - Triad?"

"Something like that", she confessed. "How did you know?"

He smiled a little. "All you omitted. I've become good at listening between the lines."

She smiled too, shaking her head at her memories. "Poor Mac. He thinks I took up with Vic only because I thought he was dead. Mac, that is", she added somewhat unnecessarily.

"And did you?"

"Don't ask me that", she said quietly. "I must not go there. It's better that I don't know."

"I don't agree."

She stared at him, dark eyes narrowing. "Excuse me - you don't agree?"

He found it hard not to smile at her polite outrage. Perhaps it was a Western trait to start giving unsolicited advice to anyone telling you things in confidence.

"No, I don't agree. I think you have to know what your choice would be, even if you never tell anyone. If you don't know yourself, your feelings will betray you, when you least expect it. You can't trust yourself if you don't know who you are."

She bit her lip. Was that what had happened, that time she had chosen to save Vic rather than Mac? She had come up with a perfectly rational explanation; Mac was a cat burglar, he could climb a sheer wall by himself. Vic might, but it was far from certain. Still, that was not what she had said, at first, when her choice was challenged. She had said, I was closer to Vic. It was out before she realized how it could be interpreted - and of course that was the way they had heard it.

"I made a mistake once", she admitted. "But our employer put me straight. She taught me that there is always a third choice."

It was too good to pass up. He squeezed her hand lightly. "There is", he said. "Maybe you should go with that. Speaking of which, where's the rest of your - team?"

She withdrew her hand and stood. At least she had got his message, even if he would have preferred a less adverse reaction.

"I was sent in alone", she said. "Sometimes, she splits us up. Her reasons are her own."

"Sent in where?"

"I don't know, I'm not sure. But I don't think I'm - quite where I was. There was a sort of shimmering field that I just fell through, and then I was - well, everything looked bleak. Less colour perhaps, I'm not sure. People fighting, but nobody being cheerful about it. My employer warned me about the shimmering field - or she told me to expect it, anyway. But I have no idea how to get back." She shook herself. "I'll worry about that later. First, I must complete my mission. I must find the telepathic girl and see that she is kept safe." Her lip quirked a little. "Though I suppose as long as we don't find her, she'll be safe enough. Still, I must do my job. Or I can be pretty sure my employer won't let me go back at all."

"She's too hard on you", Krycek said, getting to his feet. "You should be working for yourself."

"Too late", Li Ann said cheerfully. "Once she has someone, she never lets go."

"Like your family."

Li Ann pondered that for a moment. "Come to think of it, she is rather like family.."


*  *  *  *


[A busy FBI officescape, October 15th]


"Fine. Thanks Frohike, I owe you." Mulder put away his cell phone and looked briefly around him before leaning furtively across his desk toward Scully's. She was on the stationary phone, asking a Mrs Pereira about her husband's sleep-walking habits. Scully refused to acknowledge her partner's efforts to get her attention in the middle of a background interview. This time she would not let herself be dragged into anything.

With a sigh, Mulder got up from his desk and headed for the toilets. As soon as he was around the corner and out of sight, he slipped into a temporarily empty office and dialled Scully's cell phone number from his own cell phone. He heard her answer, then briefly thank and dismiss Mrs Pereira on the stationary phone, before she returned to him.

"Scully."

"Scully, it's me. Sorry about the sneaky method to get your attention, but I've got to talk with you."

At her desk, Scully rolled her eyes. "You've got three seconds."

He noted that she had been careful not to speak his name. No need to let everybody suspect they were conducting clandestine business by phone.

"I know where Gibson Praise is", he said, mindful of his time limit.

She breathed slowly into the phone. "Where?"

"I'd rather not be precise over the phone, but it's an idyllic countryside school, woodlands all around it. I think we should go there, Scully. He might know something."

"Mul.." Damn. She looked hastily around her, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention to her. "We can't just.."

"Garage, level two. Meet you in five minutes."


*  *  *  *


[In the woods around Maple Grounds Private School for the Precocious, October 15th]


The two black-clad wanderers were ambling somewhat aimlessly through the woods, talking companionably, paying no particular attention to where they were going until they more or less inadvertently came upon their car. Unconsciously, they must have had the same idea about where they were headed.

Krycek sighed. "What now? I don't think she's around here any more. I wouldn't have been, if I were her. She probably got out on the road as fast as she safely could and got herself a lift into town. We've been wasting our time."

"There is such a thing as time well wasted", Li Ann pointed out. "We needed it to sort out whether to cooperate or not. Besides, for all we knew, she could have counted on any pursuers to assume she wouldn't stay long in one place. Or, she might have failed to get a lift. Traffic isn't exactly lively out here."

"The truth is, we haven't a clue as to where she's gone", Krycek said. "And she's a telepath. She probably knows our every move."

Li Ann shook her head. "Not necessarily. Do you know anything about her range?"

"Zip. My employer and his - associates haven't been able to determine that. In fact, they know very little about her."

Li Ann looked thoughtfully around her. "We're almost back at the school. What do you say we go and have another talk with Gibson? Maybe he knows where she went?"

"He won't talk to us. Also, it's doubtful she'd let him know where she was going."

"Isn't he supposed to be the stronger telepath? Maybe he can override her or something."

"He still won't talk to us."

Li Ann gave him a light push. "Don't be such a pessimist, it can't hurt to try. Unless you have a better idea?"

Krycek shot her a green glare and went with her.

They spotted Gibson at once, as soon as they approached the school. He was leaning on the fence, talking with a well dressed couple who seemed to be asking him a lot of questions. He made no sign of having noticed the presence of Krycek and Li Ann, but they both knew they had better assume that he had.

Li Ann was about to walk up and join the threesome at the fence, but Krycek caught her by the arm. "Better not."

"Why? You know those two?"

"They're FBI agents. That man will kill me with his bare hands, if he ever gets hold of me."

Li Ann glanced briefly at her companion but could detect no sign that he was joking. "Really? He doesn't look violent. Whatever did you do to him?"

"You don't want to know. Let's just sneak close enough to hear what they're talking about, ok?"

"You think we can, without being spotted?"

Krycek nodded. "It looks like there's shrubbery growing almost all the way up to the fence on this side, we should be all right. Just watch it so you don't step on anything noisy."

She looked blackly at him. "I won't make a sound. Just see that you don't."


*  *  *  *


[A chess game on neutral ground]


The Director did not like the look of this. Her cigarette-puffing opponent was pulling in his pieces tightly, despite the kind of opening she had chosen to start out with.

"I thought you said this could lead to slaughter", she probed.

He smiled through smoke. "Oh, it still can", he said lightly. "If that's what you want."

She had had enough of his Morleys. Just to spite him, she lit one of her own sturdy Havana's - a bribe from a hopeful client. He did not seem impressed so much as amused.

She frowned at the board again. She still wasn't sure of his strategy, but she was getting tired of his cat and mouse game. She decided to call him out.


*  *  *  *


[North Side Railway Station - train yard, October 15th]


"Vic, we haven't the slightest idea where she is. Admit it."

In answer, Vic handed his old rival a piece of paper with a sloppily drawn street map on it. Mac took it. It seemed to depict the way they had been walking for the past three hours. At the end of the route were a few rectangular boxes, the legend 'N S Rwy Stn: backside' and a fat 'X'.

"Where did you get this?" Mac wanted to know.

"I found it in the glove compartment of our car, while you were busy looking for a telephone pole to hit."

"It was a lamp post", Mac muttered. "And I wasn't looking for it. You mean, we've been following this pathetic scrawl for three hours? Why didn't you tell me?"

Vic glared at him. "I didn't want an argument."

Mac stopped in his tracks. "Why would I argue?"

"You're always arguing. Especially when you know you have three hours' hike through an unknown city ahead of you, motivated by no more than a hand-scribbled map. As it is, I had to listen to three hours of your whining about being lost with nowhere to go, but at least you came."

"Look, if you don't want my company.."

"I thought I just said I did."

Mac sighed. Far too many of his days were spent trading insults with Vic. No point keeping it up now that they were here. According to the map, they had reached their destination. He looked around him listlessly. Nothing but an old freight yard. Windowless railway cars standing about on dead-end tracks. If there were any living creatures besides themselves around, he couldn't see them, but he could have sworn there'd be rats in a place like this.

"You honestly think that map is a clue?"

Vic looked at him. "I found it on the other side. Before we went through that field thing, whatever it was. There's no North Side Railway Station back home."

"So where do you think we are?"

"In a place that has a North Side Railway Station. And I think the Director knew we were coming here."

"You think she drew that map? It isn't her style at all. Even if she were in a hurry, she'd have done it better, with all the right proportions and distances - she'd most likely have pencilled in a little ruler stating what scale it was in."

Vic turned the map in his hands. "Looks like Nathan's job", he admitted. "But the Director could have ordered it."

Mac groaned. "If you ask me, we've been chasing one of Nathan's wild geese all along."

"I'm not asking you. The place exists, right? And there's nothing like it on our side of things."

"Wherever that is. How did we get here in the first place?"

Vic shrugged. "I don't know. Some kind of teleportation screen?"

With an effort, Mac refrained from saying what he thought of that idea. Obviously, Vic had been watching too much sf again. Mac stared glumly at the nearest boxcar. "You really think Li Ann will turn up here?"

Vic gave him a mournful, sea-green look. "It's our only hope so far. I had to act on it."


*  *  *  *


[Maple Grounds Private School for the Precocious, October 15th]


Gibson looked solemnly up at the two FBI agents. "You want to know about the girl. Melanie Alexander."

I wish he wouldn't do that, Scully thought, blushing as she met Gibson's disillusioned eyes. "Sorry", they both said at once. Mulder gave them an odd look but did not ask.

"Have you seen her?" he prompted Gibson.

"Why should I?" Gibson evaded. "You think that just because we're both telepaths, she would seek me out?"

"Yes", Mulder admitted. "That's what I thought. As you well know. Well? Has she been here?"

Gibson sucked in his lips, pondering how much to tell them. He still did not like lying. Besides, he trusted these two. The other two though.. Maybe if he told, the FBI people could protect Melanie from the others.

"Yes", he decided finally. "I called her, and she came."

"I take it you don't mean on the phone", Mulder assumed.

Gibson gave him a disdainful look. "I knew about her. I sensed her when she moved into the state. So I called to her. It was a long time before she understood it was me. My range is better than hers. She has to see people to read them. I don't. I could send to her, but she could not send back when she couldn't see me. Didn't matter because I could read her anyway, as long as she wasn't blocking. She's not very good at blocks."

Scully crouched down by the fence, to be face to face with Gibson. "But she came here, to talk with you?" she asked.

"Yes, after a while. I told her we should stick together, so we wouldn't get experimented on, but she didn't want to." He fished into his pocket and pulled out a bedraggled black rose. "She stung me with this, and then she left."

Scully exchanged a look with Mulder. Melanie had left her signature. Not that they would have doubted Gibson anyway.

"Do you know where she went?" Mulder asked.

Gibson nodded. "She didn't want me to know, but I picked it anyway because I was mad at her. She was going to hitch a ride to the railroad station - North Side - and then hide in a boxcar that could take her far away. She hadn't decided on any special place."

"Can you still sense her?"

Gibson nodded. "Yes, but she's getting better at blocking. Now that she knows about me, I can't read her thoughts over long distances, the way I could before. I know she's there though."

Scully frowned. "At the railroad station?"

"I'm not sure, but the distance feels about right. Maybe she's hiding out there, waiting for a train to leave."

Scully straightened to avoid cramps. Looking towards the main school building, she saw Ms Wight heading their way. "We'll have to say goodbye for now, Gibson. Your teacher is coming for you."

Gibson glanced over his shoulder, judging the distance to Ms Wight. "Don't let Melanie fry you", he said.

An image of Brad's vacant face came unbidden to Scully's mind. She shuddered involuntarily.

Gibson caught the image as well as Scully's discomfort. "Don't worry", he said. "She has to touch somebody to fry them. Don't let her touch you, you'll be ok."

"We'll bear that in mind", Mulder assured him.

Ms Wight was nearly upon them as Gibson said, "There are two more after her. A man and a woman in black. The man wants to kill her. And me. The woman doesn't, but she knows that the man does. You must get to Melanie before they do. They know where she is, but they haven't found her yet."


*  *  *  *


In the bushes by the fence, Li Ann cursed in Cantonese. "The little brat knew we were here all along. Well, no surprise there. Wonder why he didn't blow the whistle on us though."

"He's hedging his bets", Krycek said. "Playing us against them. I don't know why, but he obviously doesn't want us caught - as yet, anyway. You noticed he didn't mention us until his teacher was about to interrupt them? He doesn't want them to ask about us. He knows they know who I am, but he didn't give them my name. I suppose I should be grateful?"

"As I said, a born blackmailer", Li Ann reminded him. "Either that, or he secretly wants you to kill the girl."

"Almost enough to make me change my mind", Krycek muttered.


*  *  *  *

[A chess game on neutral ground]


The Director stared disgustedly at the board. "I can't believe you castled!" Puffing on her cigar, she sat back in her chair and reconsidered. "Actually, I do believe it, it was always an option. Sneaky of you though."

The cigarette smoker gave her a wide-eyed, innocent stare. "Sneaky? It was simply the logical choice, wouldn't you say?" He put out his latest cigarette, leaving enough glow to send up wisps of smoke from the ashtray.

The Director studied the board again. "Your white knight seems awfully supportive of your queen."

The elderly man smiled contentedly. "And the other way around, I might add. Hadn't you noticed?"

She considered his new position. He was all but invincible now, damn him. Still, if she played her pieces right..


*  *  *  *


[North Side Railway Station - train yard, October 15th]


The stillness of the dead train yard was shattered in a moment. Two cars pulled up, each in a dove-tailing swerve, spattering gravel on each other. One a silver Ford Taurus, the other a black sedan. At the same time, the slide door of an old white boxcar was pushed aside enough to let a slim teenage girl out. She glanced briefly in the direction of Mac and Vic, though they both felt she could not possibly have known they were there; they hadn't been that loud, and they weren't anywhere close to her freight car.

Car doors flew open on both sides of the two newly arrived vehicles, and a couple spilled out of each one, just as the girl was running between them. Mac and Vic had both caught the glint of guns. As if by agreement, they drew their own weapons and took cover behind the nearest train car, a battered old thing in flaky red paint.

It took them only a moment to recognize one of the couples. "Li Ann!" Mac hissed. "And isn't that - you?"

Vic gave him a disgusted look. "Can't very well be, since I'm here. Unless we have doubles in this place.." his voice trailed off. "You sure that's really Li Ann?"

"Believe me, I'd know her anywhere", Mac said confidently, earning himself a murderous glance from Vic.

Out in the yard, the girl had run straight into the arms of the man who looked like Vic. He caught her and held her, but awkwardly, using only his right arm while still holding his gun in his right hand. Not even when he had a firm grip on the girl did he shift either girl or gun to his left.

The couple from the other car had whipped out their guns too. "Freeze!" shouted the woman, a cute little redhead. "Federal agent!"

"Krycek!" the man bellowed, taking a deadly, two-handed aim at Vic's double. There was so much barely controlled fury in his stance, it could only be a matter of seconds before the shot would ring out. Vic closed his eyes briefly. He had a feeling he would react badly to watching his own death - even if it wasn't, exactly.

"Mulder!" the redheaded woman roared, looking for all the world as if she were ready to bite her partner. "Don't, you'll hit the girl!"

The tall man at her side - seeming inordinately tall mainly because she was not - calmed down enough to shout, "Let the girl go, Krycek! You're dead if you don't!"

"Wrong", Vic's double shouted back - and damn if his voice wasn't also closer to Vic's than ought to be humanly possible. "I'm dead if I do. I know you, Mulder."

Li Ann raised her gun, pointing it steadily at the other couple. Her intent was clear. She was protecting the man beside her, who for some reason seemed unable to use his own gun while holding the girl.

"Fry him, Melanie!" the man named Mulder shouted. "You can do it, you're touching him. Blank his mind, or whatever it is you do!"


*  *  *  *


Li Ann looked stricken for a moment, but nothing unusual seemed to happen. The girl turned her head to look up at Krycek, then she just settled into his grasp. "I don't take orders from you!" she shouted back.

"Melanie, he wants to kill you!" Mulder tried to convince her. Damn obstinate teenager.

"So do most people!" the girl shouted back, almost triumphantly, as if that fact somehow added to her personal value. "I won't! I'm not your puppet - mundane!"

Scully felt a chill. So it begins, she thought. She had noticed the same kind of contempt in Gibson, though better concealed. I hope there aren't too many of them. She instantly berated herself for her thought, but she knew that her gut reaction was not unique. If ever there were a significant number of telepaths on Earth, that could only mean war.

"We only want to protect her!" Li Ann stretched the truth. Well, it was fifty percent true anyway.

"That's our job!" Scully shouted back.


*  *  *  *


"Looks like a stand off", Vic said. "Shall we?"

Mac nodded. "I think we'd better."

They both fired their guns a couple of times before emerging from their cover, initializing chaos to break the deadlock in front of them. As they had planned, everybody else started shooting too - unfortunately most of the shots were in their direction.

"Li Ann, don't shoot!" Vic yelled, and to his surprise, she stopped.

"Vic? Mac?" she wondered incredulously. An FBI bullet whizzed past her ear, and she spun around to return fire, only to find that nobody was aiming at her so much as at Krycek. The girl was free, running at full tilt across the yard, and Krycek finally had the full use of his gun hand. He was partly in cover of their car now, returning Mulder's fire.

"Mulder!" Scully shouted. "She's getting away!"

Mulder threw off one final shot in the direction of the black sedan and started running after the girl. Scully got into the Taurus, shifted the driver's seat forward and snapped on her seat belt, but left the rear mirrors for now. No time. Drawing up alongside Mulder, she opened the passenger door. "You'll never catch her like that. Get in."


*  *  *  *


Vic and Mac had quit shooting. There did not seem to be much point now.

Li Ann walked half around the sedan to where Krycek was standing, looking at something in his hand. Something light enough to be held in his artificial left. A black rose.

"Why did you let her go?" she asked.

He looked up. "Why did you?"

Li Ann shrugged. "I felt like I was being over-protective. She can take care of herself. And if she can't, well, FBI protection should be good enough. You?"

"She has more control than I thought. She isn't really a loose cannon. And if she is, I think I know which way to point her."

"If you ever find her again", Li Ann remarked drily. "So it wasn't because of that?" She nodded towards the flower in his hand.

Krycek turned it over, looking at it. "She said she liked me", he told her wonderingly. "Said we were two of a kind.." He exhaled on a small laugh and shook his head, dismissing the idea. "Here." He held out the rose to her. "It suits you better."

She rolled her eyes. One gives me white roses, the other red, she thought. And now this one - black? Maybe roses were her curse. Her own special one. Then she remembered her manners. "Thank you", she said sweetly, taking the flower and putting her arms around his neck. This time she kissed him properly. Long and deeply. Maybe to make up for kicking him earlier, maybe for no reason at all, but she felt that somehow he had deserved it. Besides, she liked it.

"Guess we both picked the wrong colour", Mac mused aloud.

Vic wasn't listening. "He's a dead ringer for me", he said. "Do you suppose that means I've still got a chance?"

Before Mac could refute that idea, the shimmering field was on them again.


*  *  *  *


[A chess game on neutral ground]


"I do believe it's a draw", the Director said contentedly, putting out what was left of her cigar.

Her opponent lit another Morley and scrutinized the board through the smoke, as if the haze would give him a better perspective on things.

"You're right", he said finally. "Congratulations."

"And to you", she retorted. Did he have to be so condescending about it? Just because he had almost had her, as he castled.. She stood, making a show of putting her hat back on. "We must do it again some time."

He stood too, putting out his cigarette half smoked. "I'll be looking forward to it."

With a slight nod of goodbye, she saw herself out. She thought she could feel his smile at her back.


*  *  *  *


[Downtown, October 15th]


"I'm sorry, Mulder. We seem to have lost her."

"Don't be. It seemed reasonable that we'd catch up with her faster in the car. If it hadn't been for those stairs.."

Scully sighed. "She's probably in hiding somewhere, watching us. Reading our minds. Do you still think she needs Skinner's protection?"

Mulder looked out into the twilit city. No street lights were on as yet. Unknown people were heading home from work. He could almost swear that they were all - mundanes.

"I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt", he said.

"What do we tell Skinner?"

He glanced at her, surprised that she should ask. "The truth?"


*  *  *  *


[Corner of Alameda and Charlene, October 15th]


"What was all that about? Who is that guy?"

Li Ann rolled her eyes at Vic's demanding tone. He could be really annoying at times. "His name is Alex. And before you ask, I don't think you're related. I think he's Russian or something. Czech, maybe."

"I had no idea you liked black roses, Li Ann", Mac said. "I thought you said you were allergic. Or was that just to keep us from fighting?"

No use denying it now. "I was being diplomatic", she confessed. "Had to end the War of the Roses somehow."

"So he is what - your third choice?" Vic wanted to know.

Really, the boys could be so trying at times. Luckily, she was being saved the trouble of finding an answer.

"Bickering amongst yourselves again?"

The Director stood only a few paces away, wearing a print dress that was really a little too thin for the season, and an elegant, wide-brimmed hat.

"We have no time for your little squabbles", she said airily. "You are all to come with me at once. And I do believe Mac has something to settle with Dobrinsky. A little matter about one of the Agency's cars.."

"How did she know I was driving?" Mac hissed in Vic's ear.

"I know everything", the Director reminded him as she put her arm around Li Ann's shoulders and started to walk. "How many times do I have to tell you that?"


*  *  *  *


[North Side Railway Station - train yard, October 15th]


In the shadow of an old freight car, the elderly man lit a cigarette. Then he kept still, watching the lone figure standing in the middle of the yard. He had never liked Krycek, never since the first time the man double-crossed him to save his own life. If things had gone right back then, much would have been simpler. Still, the man was a good chauffeur, for all that he only had one arm. If only he weren't so damned ambitious..

Krycek ignored the tiny flare of a lighter among the old train cars. He knew he would be called in to report on his failure. But as long as the old man was not making his presence known, Krycek was not about to acknowledge him. Instead, he stared into the deepening dusk to where the shimmering field had disappeared. All seemed quiet now. No trace of her, except.. He looked down at the flower in his hand. Either she had not wanted it after all, or she had dropped it as the field descended. He preferred to think the latter. Perhaps for some reason it could not pass the field, because it did not belong in the place she had come from - wherever that was.

He tucked the rose inside his jacket and turned to go. It would not last, but so what? Nothing did.

Gradually, it began to rain.



*** The End ***


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