The blonde walks in the street in defiance of the cold. She observes the happy people around her, but they bring her no comfort, for she spends Christmas alone.
You know you've hit rock bottom, Marita reflected, when you think of yourself in the third person and glorify your predicament accordingly. It was a pathetic thought, laden with cheap sentimentality. Alex would have expected better of her. A decade ago this whole country had not been able to celebrate Christmas at all. What made her so special? People suffered the world over. That was what made the world go 'round.
(Love makes the world go 'round.)
Shut up, Alex.
The disembodied voice in her mind had come to resemble him less and less over the last six months. That was how she knew he was really gone. Alex was never one for platitudes - but platitudes were all she had left, and so he uttered them relentlessly in her mind. He wasn't a kind person, but he wasn't really cruel, either, and right now the phantom-Alex in her mind seemed much crueller. He was pale and weak, and she hated him. She would have shot him in the head herself if she could.
She felt a tug on her coat. "Eesvehneteh?"
She turned, expecting to see a tourist with a map, perhaps, or someone wanting to know the time. But her gaze was drawn downwards. It was just a child. A girl with blonde Slavic ringlets and a little pink coat. She had once been a child like that, she supposed, but her coat had been worn and shabby. So what? No one worried about keeping up with the Joneses under the Soviet regime. She had money now, but she knew all too well that privilege was a fleeting thing, to be given or taken on the whims of those with power. She knew it as a child here in St Petersburg, and she learned it again in the tests. Enjoy it while you have it, malen'kyah.
She bent a little to meet the girl's eye. "Da?"
"Hristos razdayetsya," the child said, smiling shyly. To Marita she looked rather like a puppy seeking approval from its master. To her horror, she felt tears prick sharply at her eyes. No one had wished her a merry Christmas this year. She felt the years melt away, and suddenly she was a child again, exchanging hushed Christmas greetings with her baby sister, away from the prying eyes of their Communist father. Or, to look at it another way, like the hushed greeting she had exchanged with a janitor her first year in the tests. She had never seen him again.
"Hristos razdayetsya," she replied at last, and her voice seemed raw, rusted with disuse. Then, with a smile, "Spassibo, malen'kyah."
Approval thus gained, the child smiled once more, this time a beaming smile that Marita thought would make boys fall in love with her a few years down the track. She'd been a girl like that, too, before the oil took it from her. She was beautiful again now, and men wanted her as they had wanted her before it, but even if she could have stood to let them touch her, they would soon have found the fragile woman inside and walked away. She was beautiful, and that was a truthful thought, not a vain one; but she was no longer vivacious, and that was a truthful thought as well.
She watched as the child skipped off, merrily stopping to talk to strangers along the way. So trusting, so naive. It made her ache to watch it. In America, they would tell you not to talk to strangers, malen'kyah, and they'd be right. Stay with your mama and be safe. Safe like I could have been if I'd stayed here with mine.
It occurred to her that she was safe again now, that she was perhaps the only person in the whole sorry mess to live to tell the tale, but that thought held none of the vindication or the comfort she had once thought it would. With Alex dead, her last link to the project severed, she was safe; but without him, she had nothing to live for. They had stripped her of everything in the tests - her health, the child she'd carried when she was infected, and eventually even language and understanding. Those things she'd fought to regain when finally they set her free, but much was still lost to her and probably always would be. The only thing she'd had besides herself was her love for him, but it was fractured by what he'd believed she'd done to him, and she knew she would never have hurt him but she couldn't remember why she'd really done it. And by the time she did remember, he was dead and it didn't matter anymore.
So she had nothing - nothing but herself. Once that would have been enough. She had been a strong woman once, and she supposed that she must be still, to survive what she had suffered. But she was fast learning that it was easier to suffer than to endure the emptiness after the suffering was over. She could survive without Alex, and she could survive without the child they'd stolen from her, but survival was no longer enough.
So that left her with two options: find a better way or die. Death was an option, but it wasn't one she seriously considered. There was enough of that little girl left, that little girl with the Christian mother who had always taught her that she had a purpose and a reason to live, that death would never be an option. Not as long as there was breath in her body and marrow in her bones. Her mother had drummed it into her the way all desperately poor women drum strength into their children, with the knowledge that poverty can grind you down and only hope can pull you back up. Olga Doytevsky never dreamed that her little Marita would outlive the Soviet regime but find herself in the grip of something darker still; never dreamed that poverty was not the worst thing that could befall her. There was poverty...but then there was oil. Marita had survived them both, because her mama said there was always something to live for; but now, she had no idea what that something might be.
If death was not an option, that left finding a better way. Marita puzzled over this the way a child puzzles over a piece of a jigsaw, turning it over and over in her mind. She had to find her purpose. She no longer believed she served any purpose in the resistance, and she was glad of that. She had given all she had, and it had burned her bad, but by the grace of God, she had survived it. There were other freedom fighters now, people like Doggett and Reyes. She'd done what she could, and she believed she'd made a small difference, and whatever Fox Mulder thought, no one person would ever make all the difference. The war would be won in small steps through the trails of blood of the people who fell by the side of the battlefield. People like her, like Alex, like Diana Fowley and Jeffrey Spender and even Spender's father, whose good intentions had gotten twisted by an excess of power and megalomania along the way. She'd sold her soul for the resistance, and she knew she'd gotten a good price for it - she knew that even though she couldn't see exactly where or how it had borne fruit, and probably never would.
So purpose was not an alien thing to her. She'd had one once, and fulfilled it, and since she had been allowed to live, there must now be another. She didn't know what it was, but it would become clear in time. For now, then, her purpose was to endure until her purpose became clear. That sounded a little contrived even to her own ears (which had heard quite a few contrivances in her time), but it was enough. For now, for today and tomorrow and the day after that, it was enough. And the day after that? Well, she'd deal with that when it came.
She turned in to Nevsky Prospekt. It was louder here; the bustle of traffic assaulted her ears. Last-minute shoppers streamed in and out of Gostiny Dvoy like ants to an anthill. Christmas shopping in St Petersburg was not the same as in America, but enough affluence had returned to the city to remind her of her life in New York. She hadn't seen it since Alex had died, and she supposed it was different there now with the terrible things that had happened in the months since then, but there was still a pang. New York was a hard city, but for a long time it had been her city, and it was a city she had shared with him.
She'd shared St Petersburg with him as well. She had nursed him here after he lost his arm, and for long months she'd been sure she was going to lose him - that he would retreat so far into himself that he could never come out again. He hadn't come back to her all at once, but it had happened. They had started to make love again, and it was awkward and uncomfortable at first, but they learned the quirks of one another's bodies all over again, and finally there had come a time when it was okay. And then, back in New York, there came a time when it was glorious, when the things that had shattered in them both in that time finally started to reform, beaten and weathered but stronger than ever before. And so it had been, an interlude until he'd left her to return to Norylsk. A season of quiet before the storm. They'd made plans, schemed to be together once more, but then it had all gone to hell.
She closed her eyes against the rabble and pushed past the activists and their soapboxes, ignoring the pamphlets thrust at her. It wasn't really so cold, maybe minus ten, but she pulled her coat around her, a defensive gesture, and hurried along the street. There was no real need for hurry - Alex had once joked that the difference between American and Russian church services was that for the latter you needed to bring a packed lunch - but it was better than the flurry of activity on the street. Since the oil, she couldn't stand the noise. Alex had known that - he hadn't even needed to be told. After all, he'd had the oil too. In Tunis, in Washington, even as they bickered and sniped, he'd kept his voice low for her, and that had been the start of her falling in love with him all over again. What had grown between them after that was cautious, awkward, streaked with the pain of betrayal, but it was love all the same.
She arrived in the Resurrection Of Christ Church and sank into her pew with a sigh. Much of the service washed over her with its unfamiliarity. Her mother had been devoutly orthodox, but she had never dared to smuggle her daughters to any of the underground Christmas services, never dared defy their father in that way. As an adult, Marita went to Christmas services in America or Saudi or sometimes missed them altogether, but the only religious service she'd attended in Russia was her mother's funeral. It was one of the very last underground Christian services, in 1991, after Marita's defection but just before the fall of the Soviet regime. Her father had disapproved of both the service and of her furtive appearance, but he had come nonetheless, and it was the only time she ever saw him cry. He had died just a year later, wasting away under what the doctors called old age and everyone else called a broken heart. Whether his grief was for Olga or for the fall of the Soviet Union, Marita was never completely sure.
By then, Marita had married Eduardo Covarrubias; she was widowed in the space of a year. She was glad. The older man who had represented benevolence and security turned out instead to be a drug trafficker who married her for her diplomatic passport. She sometimes wondered if Eduardo was really dead at all, or whether he had somehow known of her plans to have him extradited; but she didn't care as long as he stayed gone.
So she had carried on, and the year her husband died, she met a rookie FBI agent named Krycek when he wrote a submission for a United Nations inquiry into - of all things - the treatment of Hispanics in legal custody. She invited him to testify in person, and then she fell in love with him. She had been hopelessly ill equipped to help him when he stumbled across the conspiracy to end allconspiracies, but she'd stood with him anyway, from then until he died. She didn't know exactly what difference he'd made in the scheme of things, any more than she knew hers; but she knew he made one. That wasn't much comfort now, as she sat here alone amid a sea of people, her gaze falling uncomprehendingly on mosaic after mosaic, but it was better than nothing.
She followed the congregation out of the church and around it, grasping her candle, staring out over the water. Why had she done this? Why had she come here, indulging in customs for a faith she only rarely observed and was unsure she still possessed? What had faith to say to her now? What had faith to say to the tests, to the oil, to the colonisation threat that hung over them all even now? "There is no God, Marita," Spender's words echoed in her ears like a taunt - but what did Spender know of God? Had she only come here to prove a dead man wrong?
She didn't follow the congregation back to the church after the Krestny Khod procession was done. She felt like an impostor. Perhaps, after a year or two, after some recovery time, she could come here and it might mean something...but for now it felt too much like grasping at straws. She didn't want to feel that way, and she didn't want to dishonour her God that way. Her faith might be in question, but she was still Olga Doytevsky's daughter, and to dishonour her God was to dishonour Olga, and that was one thing that she could never do.
She left the church, the carols ringing in her ears. Nevsky was quieter now, and she took her time. She could stand to be here now that the people had dispersed. She passed Gostiny Dvor again, and the neon lights above the shops and the gaudy yellow lights overhead shone down on the street in a multicoloured haze. It looked like the wet road had been coated with a thin film of oil. Not that oil was really coloured - that was a trick of the light, refracted through the oil's deceptive lens. She and Alex knew it was really black, through and through. They knew it in their blood, the way a wolf knows fear in its prey.
She decided not to think about the oil.
She arrived at her home a short time later. It was a fashionable home, the sort of home owned only by businessmen and prostitutes. And, of course, by Westerners. It had been their first safe house, the one they bought when Alex made his first intelligence sale to the French. That was when they still thought they could play the game, get a little money, and get out. That was before they knew the world was on the line. Letting herself in, it occurred to her that Olga would be proud, if she could see her now. Olga would not understand the things Marita had endured to reach this point, but she would understand one thing: Marita had survived. She would understand it because Marita was alive, and because she had this place. Olga was not a materialistic woman, but she understood the importance of having as only those who have not can.
But Olga had had a family, and Marita envied her that. Even knowing how difficult her father had been, even knowing how poor they had been. Marita had had nothing, and she knew what it was to love a difficult man, and she would give up her home and everything in it to have him here with her once more.
She took off her coat and went to the kitchen. The smell of wheat was strong. She hadn't had kutya since she was a child, and she'd never really liked it, but the smell reminded her of Christmas with her mother, so she'd decided to cook it just the same. She took the lid off the simmering pot. The mix was fluid and creamy. She took the pot off the stove and set it aside to cool, and turned off the low heat. It was warm in here - not as warm as her mother's kitchen had been, because her mother had warmed the wheat over a fire instead of a hotplate, but warmer than the rest of the house.
She collected the ingredients with dull passivity. Like an old man undertaking a burdensome duty by rote. She could hear her mother telling her and her sister what each one meant. She and Tatiana hadn't really been so enraptured by the retelling, to be truthful, but they loved the sound of her voice, so they had listened anyway, year after year. Sugar and honey for happiness. Poppy seeds for untroubled rest. Wheat for immortality. That last one's for you, Alex, she thought, but then it occurred to her that that might not be such a good wish after all. Someone who'd seen all that Alex had seen...no, immortality might be a curse, rather than a blessing. Maybe poppy seeds for Alex, then. Untroubled rest. He deserved that much.
She felt idiotic, looking at it once it was made. The smell had been a good exercise in nostalgia, but what the hell was she going to do with it? She knew she wouldn't eat it. But if she didn't eat it, she would spend the rest of the evening staring at the walls, and that struck her as even worse. So she ate it after all, curled up on the lounge in the living room, and tried to convince herself that it was just another quiet night at home.
Against her will, her thoughts drifted to the previous Christmas. They had spent it here, and it hadn't exactly been domestic bliss. She and Alex had navigated their way to reconciliation, but it was a precarious one, haunted less by the wrongs they had inflicted on one another and more by their own very private ordeals - his in Tunisia, hers in the tests. Post-traumatic stress, she supposed. It was to be expected, but recognising it for what it was hadn't really helped. Still, it had been a step forward, a step towards recovery. For each of them, it had been their first proper Christmas in years. And like the last one they'd had together, he'd had to leave her all too soon.
But this time he hadn't come back.
Oh, they'd had contingency plans. They always did. Five meeting points, five dates, in case things fell apart. Marita had gone through the motions, but when he missed the third one, she was sure. None of their bank accounts had been touched; none of their safe houses had been breached. The last time he'd been seen was in the company of Walter Skinner, and if anyone had reason to kill him, Skinner did. Eventually, she'd confronted him and made him tell, but she had fled once she knew Alex was dead. She hadn't wanted to hear how he'd dumped him in a furnace, or weighted him down and dumped him in a lake, or cut him up and put him in vats of acid. She contemplated killing Skinner, but in the end she decided against it. Far better that he spend his life looking over his shoulder, wondering if she was there, thinking that she was even when she wasn't. More importantly, she understood in some obscure way that to kill him was to buy back in to the same old crap that had nearly broken her once before. The same crap that had taken Alex, maimed him, and finally destroyed him.
But one thing haunted her: the last thing Alex had said to her. "Look, I don't know what's going to happen when I get back to the States. But no matter what happens, I'll be home for Christmas, okay?" Marita had said okay, in the flippant way that people who always expect each other to be there say okay, and she knew dead men don't keep promises, but it nagged at her anyway. And if he didn't show up? Well, that meant he really was dead. Not that there was really any doubt, but that meant she would have to start dealing with it, and that was a whole other ballgame.
She set the bowl down on the coffee table and leaned back into the cushions. She drowsed. Somehow dozing off on the lounge seemed better than going to sleep in her empty bed. She didn't touch herself anymore - she couldn't. It seemed vaguely indecent to do it while thinking of a dead man, and she couldn't bring herself to think of anyone else. She hadn't been with anyone else in nearly a decade, and it had been her pathetic excuse for a husband before that. So not only was her bed empty, it was cold and lifeless. She went there only when she was driven to it by the extremity of exhaustion. When Alex was alive, they had sometimes stayed in bed for days at a time, eating and drinking and talking and smoking and screwing, rising only to shower or to get supplies. Bed was their haven. It was where no one could touch them. But now it was where no one could touch her.
The clock struck midnight. She doubted it really was midnight - it was an old grandfather clock, indifferently maintained, and was sometimes out by as much as three hours - but it didn't really matter one way or the other.
"January 7, Alexei," she murmured into the cushion. "Last chance."
Western Christmas had passed without incident here, as she had expected. He had never really clarified which Christmas he meant, but she presumed he meant Russian Christmas, the same time they'd celebrated it last year. So she had expected him today. Well, she would have expected him today, except that dead men don't keep promises. Alex had evaded death many times, but even he couldn't outwit it when it finally caught up with him. He was larger than life in her mind, but when you got right down to it, he was still just a man.
("I'll be home for Christmas.")
Yeah. And love makes the world go 'round. Right.
She went to sleep pressed deep into the cushions, and told herself that the warmth was him.
When she woke, he wasn't there.
No great surprise there. She rose, and she stretched a little, and she took the empty bowl to the kitchen and rinsed it. There were bits of dried-out kutya in the bottom. She filled it with water and left it to soak. Next she showered, and after that, she filed her nails. She watered the plants. She plucked her eyebrows. She got the old receipts out of her purse and either filed or trashed them. She began to sort her bookcases, filing the contents by subject, and within the subjects alphabetically by author.
She made it as far as history - a biography of Lady Jane Grey, to be precise - when the tears began to fall. Lady Jane landed abruptly on the other side of the room, and Marita sank to the floor, her face in her hands, her knees drawn up and her head bowed down.
"I want him back," she cried out to the empty room. Sobbing, she dragged herself up to the lounge and clasped one of the cushions to her body, clinging to it as though it were he. "Oh, God, I just want him back."
Was it really so much to ask?
She wasn't aware of falling asleep, but she was aware of waking up, so at some point the darkness of pain and the darkness of sleep had melded and become one. Awareness came to her, first dimly, and then in sharper relief, and what she was aware of was Alex.
He was stroking her hair, and his breath was warm on her face. She smiled a little. "Oh, Alex," she murmured. "Oh, Alex."
It was a dream, of course. She knew that. She had summoned it herself, out of her own anguish, her own need to see him and hold him, just one more time. It didn't matter. She turned her face to him, her eyes closed, willing herself not to wake from her drowsing slumber until she had taken whatever comfort he had to offer her. She stayed there, in the twilight between sleeping and waking, drifting, colours swirling beneath her eyelids as he kissed her hair, touching his fingertips lightly over her cheek and burrowing them into her hair.
Her limbs were growing lighter. She was waking up. The dream would leave her soon. "Kiss me, Alex," she murmured. "It's been - it's been so long -"
He did kiss her, and it felt good. So good. She sought him with her hands, found his neck and held him, taking him sweetly into her mouth; and his urgency made her ache. "Oh," she whispered, eyelids fluttering, "oh, God, Alex," and then she opened her eyes, and her gaze locked onto his.
She came up out of her sleep with a gasp, like rising out of ice-cold water. She drew away from him with a sound of terror, pushing hard at his chest with her hands. "No," she whispered. Her heart was beating very fast. She loved him - God, she loved him - but the dead don't come back. The dead stay dead, and the fact that he was kneeling there before her made her belly go small and hard and cold with fear.
He watched her, his mouth pressed into a small, sad smile as her fear died down. It was still there, but it lost a little of its bite - enough for her to stop pushing at his chest. She raised a trembling hand to touch his cheek, and he turned his head to kiss her palm, holding the pads of flesh there between warm, tender lips.
"It's you," she whispered, struggling to sit up, to get closer. "It's really you."
He nodded. "Yeah, it's me." He smoothed back the hair from her face. "I'm sorry I haven't been here." She felt the sting of tears against her eyes, and she swallowed hard. "You're thin, Marita. Too thin."
She broke into tears, laughing and crying in the same wretched instant. It was such a normal thing for him to say. She ran her hands over his shoulders, touching him relentlessly, reassuring herself that he was really there. "You're alive."
"Of course, I'm alive," Alex said. He had that slight smile he used to express disbelief, but his brow was furrowed with confusion. "I knew you'd be worried when I couldn't make contact, but why on earth would you think-"
"Skinner," she whispered. "I made him tell me what he did to you."
Alex went very pale. He stared at her for a full five seconds, his expression turning from shock to realisation to remorse. She tracked the progression with clinical precision.
At last, he spoke. His voice was quiet...shaken. "He thought you were working for them. That's why he didn't tell you it was a setup." He stared at her intently, as though finding and recognising the signs of grief in her features for the first time. "God, Marita, I'm sorry." He drew her close, holding her hard against him with his arm. She pressed her face against his neck, inhaling the almost suffocating warmth she found there. She breathed it in hungrily, clinging to him, fistfuls of his cotton shirt in her hands, and there were tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she choked out at last. Her voice was muffled against his flesh.
"There was no time," he murmured into her hair. "I can explain-" but then she raised her head, and her mouth was on his.
"Later," she whispered breathlessly. "Later."
Their coupling was urgent and hasty and primal, not so much lovemaking as reclaiming. Unsatisfactory, really - their desire rising fast, then peaking and dissipating just as quickly - but it didn't matter. He was with her - God, she could feel him, warm and vibrant beneath her palms - and when it was over, he held her and called her his tsarevna, his princess, and the intensity in his eyes when he held her was a little frightening. She had the sense that he needed her as much as she needed him, but that was ridiculous, because for her he'd been dead, while for him they'd just been apart. She found herself wondering what he'd been doing all this time, and that was when she noticed the scars.
She traced them with her fingertips, a furrow forming along her brow. Some were old, of course, but some of them - a lot of them - were new. Most of those were on the way to turning silver, but a couple were pink, barely healed over at all. Running her hands over his chest and his shoulders, she found three bullet wounds, and a dozen that might have been shrapnel. There were a few more that she couldn't identify at all. "Alex," she said, drawing back a little, "where the hell have you been?"
"Everywhere," he said. The teasing hand on her back grew still. "I got those in Mazar e-Sharif."
She stared up at him in dismay, looking at him as though for the first time. He met her gaze, but his expression was wary - maybe even evasive. She hadn't noticed it - she'd been so glad to have him back, to have him in her arms - but she saw now that he was battered...worn. His skin was duskier than it used to be, and his eyes were so tired. Her mind impressed on her that she was not the only one who had suffered in his absence, and she felt a belated wave of shock wash over her.
She put her hand to her mouth. "You were in-"
"Yeah. We were on the run, and we got stuck there when the war broke out."
He shifted, easing her off him, and sat up. Frowning, Marita did the same, and they faced each other, sitting there cross-legged like children. "I have to tell you something. I'll explain properly, but..." he trailed off, at a loss, and she wasn't even sure he'd realised he'd stopped speaking. To Marita he looked a lot like the fugue-state refugees she'd sometimes encountered in her work at the UN.
"What, Alexei?" she prompted gently. "What is it?"
His voice was a whisper. "I got her back."
"Her?" She stared at him, confused, uncomprehending. He didn't answer, just watched her with a look of compassion, and let her work it out for herself. At last, she said with dawning realisation, "The - the baby?"
"She's not a baby anymore, but yeah."
Her face felt very warm, and she could taste bitter tears in her mouth, could feel them stinging behind her nose and her eyes. "It was a girl?"
He nodded. "Yeah. It was a girl."
Resentment washed over her, just for a moment, searing and exquisite, strong enough to make her rock a little. They'd never let her hold her baby, never let her see her, and Alex - Alex had seen her. Alex had held her. Just for a moment, Marita hated him for that - hated him with white-hot fury. But then the anger passed, and her gaze fell on those scars again, and then she loved him more than ever. What on earth had he endured to get her out?
"What's she like?" she said at last. It was a whisper.
A wistful look passed over his features. "She's beautiful, Marita. She's like you."
Now the tears did fall - just a couple, slipping down her cheeks like dew on glass. "What's her name?"
His expression darkened. "There was only an ID number in the files. If she had a name, she didn't know it. I don't think anyone called her by name. You know, in the tests."
"That's - that's horrible." She reached out for him convulsively, and he took her hand, twining his fingers with hers. She held on tight.
Hesitantly, he said, "I called her Olga. For your mother. Is that all right, Marita?"
She sniffled a little. The air seemed heavy and bitter in her nostrils, but she was smiling, too. "It's perfect." Her smile faded. "Where is she, Alex?"
He bowed his head. "I can't tell you that."
She repeated the words to herself a couple of times before their meaning sank in. She felt waves of panic, and she said in shocked disbelief, "I'm her mother! What do you mean, you can't-"
"You wouldn't be able to stay away! Would you?" he demanded. "Would you?"
Her breaths came fast and laboured. "What do you mean, stay away?"
"Marita, we can't go to her," he said urgently, "you know we can't. If we do, they'll track her to the ends of the earth. The Scully baby is Adam. Ours is Eve. Two children of two people who've had the oil." He looked at her with pity, and she felt the power of her maternal imperative crumble under the knowledge that he was right. "She's safe, and she's away from the tests. Knowing that is going to have to be enough - at least for now. Can't it be enough, Marita?"
She broke then. She couldn't help it. The truth was, it wasn't enough, even though she had more now than she'd believed she would ever have again, even though he was here and he was alive and her child (her *daughter*) was safe as well. She hung her head in her hands, and she wept, choking out the pain of losing him, the pain of having her child ripped from her even before the cord that bound them was severed. It left her in sharp, painful sobs, each one searing her as it left her, as though it had been pulled by force.
Alex was upset.
"Oh, God. Come here," he said, and he held her. "I'm sorry, Marita. I wanted to bring her back to you so much," and that made her weep even harder.
At last, she grew calm, her sobs dying away in shuddering hiccups, and his hold on her loosened. His eyes were dry, but when she kissed him, she tasted salt in his mouth. No, she wasn't the only one who had suffered. Not at all.
"Tell me," she said at last.
"I got a lead," he said. "When I was trying to find out about Scully's baby, I stumbled across some files about Olga. She was going to be moved - I only had a two-hour window. I had to hijack an air force helicopter to get her. If they thought I was dead, then it would be longer before they worked out it was me, and that would give us more running time."
"Skinner helped you," she said. "Because of what you had over him."
He nodded. "The last six months have been crazy, Marita. It all went wrong - he was supposed to fake it in front of Knowle Rohrer, but Mulder and Crane got in the way, and Skinner got waylaid by Doggett. So I didn't get my lead and they came after us straight away. I kept flying 'til we ran out of fuel, and I made an emergency landing in South America. We just ran and ran, and sometimes they were so close I felt like I could smell them, you know?" She nodded, leaning closer to him, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. His eyes were haunted, and she wished she knew how to make that look go away. "We made it to Rio, and then I bribed the captain of a freighter to let us go with them to Marrakesh. We kept on moving across North Africa until we hit Afghanistan, and by then we had enough lead time that I could start to make plans, start thinking about finding a way to get in touch with you-"
"And then the war broke out."
"Yeah," he said. "I didn't even know about the World Trade Center, can you believe that? We'd spent the last two months driving across the desert. I would never have taken her through there if I'd known." She winced. He blamed himself. "And when the war broke out, everything went crazy - phones didn't work, roads were torn up, the whole thing. And I had a three-year-old in tow. Some of the things we saw - some of the things she saw-" he stopped short, swallowing convulsively.
"Don't," she whispered. She gripped his hand with both of hers. "Don't."
"We got into Uzbekistan at last," he said. "Then Kazakhstan. By then there was money and phones again, but I didn't dare call you. I knew they'd be watching you for that. And she got sick in Turkiston."
"Sick?" Marita echoed, a cold hand closing around her heart.
"She's fine," he said hastily, "but I used the opportunity. They think she was shot in Mazar e-Sharif - that the wound got infected while we were on the run. They think she died in Turkiston." His expression darkened, and Marita wondered about those bullet wounds again. She wondered if he got them shielding their daughter - and whether the bullets came from the war, or from people with an agenda that was maybe a little more personal. She didn't ask - she didn't think she wanted to know, and she didn't think he would tell her even if she did. "I didn't dare call you - live contact was the only way I could be sure it was safe."
She held his gaze, but she couldn't speak. She just looked at him through a haze of tears, and he seemed to think she was waiting for him to go on. He said, "That's all - that's all I have-"
"Shh," she said, and she drew him close. "Thank God you're safe." He bowed his head to her shoulder, his body slack against hers.
She held him that way for a while, let him lean on her and take from her, but at last, he seemed to regain whatever it was that he'd surrendered. Then he was holding her in return, petting her, touching her hair, giving comfort as well as taking it. She pulled away from him, just a little, and looked at him. He was smiling - a pale smile, but a smile just the same.
"We're parents, Alex," she said in wonder.
Oh, they'd been parents for years - they'd made a child together - but there hadn't been a photo or a memory or a name or even a gender to go with it. And what she had now wasn't enough, but it was a start, and he'd given her that.
"Yeah," he said, and the smile broadened. "We are."
Just for a moment, she felt fear. What did either of them know about raising a child? A traumatised child who for three years had not even had the most basic dignity of a name? A child who had seen war? Even the best of people might not be equipped for that, and she and Alex were far from the best of people.
Not today, she told herself. Worry about it tomorrow. But not today.
"We'll be with her soon, won't we, Alex?" It was a plea.
"Not right away," he said with regret. "We have to let the trail go cold, on all three of us." She felt the heavy, hollow ache of need settle in her belly like a weight, but she nodded. "We have to do it right - for Olga's sake. Can you hold on?"
"Yes," she said sadly. "Yes, I can hold on, Alex. If I know we're all going to be together, I can hold on for that."
He kissed her forehead. "You know, it's never going to be a fairytale ending for us, Marita."
"I know that, Alex," she said. "But it's enough. You're enough. We're enough."
They weren't just words. She knew the truth. Happy endings weren't for people like them. Not even at Christmas; not even with him home when she'd thought she would never have him here again. Not after all they'd endured, all they'd seen, all they'd done. It wasn't only that they didn't deserve it, though that was probably true. The life they'd lived just didn't dovetail with happiness anymore.
But there could be survival, and she knew now that there could be something more. Her purpose wasn't a quest or a thing to be done or a goal to be reached. It was more basic than that. It was something she'd had all along, something Olga - the first Olga - had managed to drum into her but never quite put into words. It was hope. Hope for richness, for substance. Those things were not exactly happiness, but they were good just the same. And they were enough to go on with.
"What are you thinking?" he asked her at last.
She considered telling him, but looking at him, still battered, still worn, she thought that maybe it was too soon for him to think about moving forward, about new beginnings. That maybe he was still recovering from all that had come before. So instead she said, "I was thinking I still have some kutya in the kitchen."
"Kutya?" he said. "I haven't had that in years."
Tenderly, she kissed his cheek, and rose. She went to the kitchen, pulling her robe around her, and uncovered the pot of leftovers she'd left there the night before. She took an experimental taste. It was edible. She spooned it into a bowl and returned to the bedroom.
"Where's mine?" he demanded with mock affront.
She sat on the bed, fitting herself into the crook of his arm. "The family eats it from a single bowl. It symbolises unity." She teased, "Didn't your mama teach you anything?"
"She wasn't a symbolic kind of person. I suppose each ingredient has a meaning, too, huh?"
Marita rolled her eyes. "I'll tell you about it sometime. Here - eat." She handed him the spoon.
He ate a little, and then he dipped the spoon and offered her some. She didn't want it, but some of the darkness had left his eyes, and she didn't have the heart to say no. So she ate it, and suddenly she didn't mind the taste so much after all.
"Unity," he mused.
"Yeah," she said. "Hristos razdayetsya, Alexei."
"Happy Christmas, Marita."
Maybe it wasn't exactly happy. But they were together, and there was hope, and that was enough.