Marita closed her eyes briefly, succumbing to hot, dry darkness, and waited for the traffic light to change. Without looking she could feel it--that set her mouth fell into when she wasn't consciously making it do something else. *Dour*, her father used to say when she'd meet him for dinner during her first year with the Consortium. Then he'd chalk it up to working hard at her new career and say something light in an attempt to raise her spirits. All she could do was play along. There was no explaining the things she knew.
Even Alex had called her on it occasionally. You look grim, he'd say, seemingly out of the blue. But how else was she supposed to look, knowing what the future held?
Three more blocks. She could make it that far.
Marita opened her eyes and glanced into the rear view mirror. She'd watched the entire way and as far as she could tell, she hadn't been followed--a small but welcome mercy. Traffic began to move through the narrow streets of the worn neighborhood and Marita accelerated with it. Once this area had been a prosperous downtown, but how easily change did its work: the needs of a city shifted, alliances switched, up became down. *Take your cards, play your hand. But don't cry over the result.* She could almost hear Alex speak the words. She smiled grimly and braked, allowing a car at the curb to merge into traffic. Quickly she maneuvered into the just-vacated spot. Across the street, the late afternoon sun splashed liquid gold on a window--her window--above a hardware store. She switched off the engine and fought the impulse to glance into the rear view mirror one last time. Those who mattered would have no need to follow her: they'd implanted a chip in her during her time at Fort Marlene. It was efficient, like house arrest with an electronic leg band but more discreet. Eventually her leash had been handed to the current powers- that-be. If they wanted her for something, they knew where she was. Otherwise they were content to let her live out her life in this obscure little walk-up.
Marita reached for her purse on the seat beside her and hesitated. She wasn't necessarily safe. Someone who wanted to help Mulder had obviously managed to find out where she lived. She studied her surroundings more carefully this time, looking for loiterers, men in dark suits, unmarked vans. But there was nothing suspicious. A stray lock of blonde hair slipped forward into her face; she smoothed it back behind her ear and grimaced as she peeled herself away from the heat of the seat back. Her eyes burned. Her skin felt smothered. Even her bones ached, as if they had somehow absorbed the entire burden of the last four years and held it now, silent and unable to displace their load. She squinted at the upstairs window again. She only wanted to lie down, but she'd run before. It would be no loss to leave--not this place or any other.
It was the way it was destined to be: a series of locations, each only until she was discovered--intentionally or inadvertently--by someone naive enough to think they could use or help her, until finally the inevitable arrived. She'd played her hand. Now she had to live with the results.
The words came to her almost as if they'd been whispered. Curious, she turned to look behind her but the back seat contained only the things she'd been carrying around for weeks: a blue towel, a half- empty water bottle, a pair of cheap sandals she'd worn at the beach, searching for... solace, inspiration, something without a name. There had been only the lapping of weak gray waves and a hint of humid breeze, like the faded remembrance of a lover's breath.
Marita's shoulders eased and she reached for her purse. If someone were waiting for her... Somehow she didn't think so; perhaps she was just beyond caring. She reached for the door handle.
At the top of the stairs she let herself quickly into the apartment and locked the door behind her. It was a working-class flat: basic, worn, uninspired, the kind of place where struggling receptionists lived, or weary graying women who tended to whisker-chinned men nursing beers on threadbare sofas. Spender would smirk if he could see her now, condemned to this small, insignificant life. Alex would laugh.
If he were alive.
No, Alex would probably only shrug the shrug that said *your responsibility: you make your move, you have to roll with the ripples it creates.* He'd been philosophical that way--when he wasn't being cheated. And they'd ended on fairly even footing.
This was where her move had brought her. This was her ripple to ride out.
Marita made herself move from the entry. She hung her purse in the closet and slipped off her shoes. The portable ironing board sat on the kitchen table where she'd left it after pressing her blouse this morning for Mulder's inquest. Now she folded it, then took the iron from the counter beside the sink and began to wrap the cord around it absently. It was Mulder who had told her of Alex's death, speaking in low tones, uncharacteristically subdued; he'd thought she might want to know. "I'm sorry," he'd added as he turned to walk away, but she couldn't tell whether he was sorry to be the bearer of bad news or sorry about what had happened.
Uncharacteristic of him, knowing what he'd thought of Alex. As was this, today. What quirk of fate had made him change his mind at the last second and let her go? He could well have been her executioner.
Iron and ironing board secured in the cupboard, Marita drifted to the refrigerator. On the front, held up with a magnet advertising a local pizzeria, was a crayon drawing, a gift from the little Puerto Rican girl in the apartment across the landing. In it, flowers sprouted vigorously from a window box in bright colors: salmon pink and turquoise and yellow. Behind them, in the window, was a brown- haired girl with a smile that looped quite literally from ear to ear. Marita let one finger trail lightly across the paper. But she'd played her hand. And the world now was no place to raise a child.
She shrugged her shoulders, stretching, and leaned her neck to one side and then the other. Her stomach held an insistent emptiness, though possibly of the variety food would fail to fill. Sleep, on the other hand, would dull the overarching ache that surrounded her. Temporarily, at least. And she was exhausted. She turned and started down the hallway to the bedroom, unfastening her blouse as she went.
She'd gained five pounds since coming here, a small victory after her time at Fort Marlene. But the reason was obvious enough: there was nothing to do to worry away the pounds now. They'd 'relieved' her of any obligation to concern herself with what would be coming. None of her former contacts, no participation or passing of information of any kind. These days she grasped at small, fragile pleasures: the music of a little girl's voice, a new leaf on her potted vine, a good cup of tea taken by the window in the warmth of morning's early light.
In the mirror she looked deceptively healthy, strong. Her face was tan; her cheeks were fuller now. Marita reached behind her head, worked the clasp there and let her hair fall loose around her face. Alex had actually worried about her thinness once. She'd wakened in the dark and was easing herself to the edge of the bed--it was the morning after one of his flights in from Russia--when she was surprised by warm fingers tracing her ribs.
*You're too skinny, Mare,* his voice had come quietly after a moment. *You should eat more.*
*Foil the invasion and I'll have more appetite,* she'd been ready to reply, though when she'd turned to face him, she was stopped short by the look on his face, a softness filling it she'd never seen there before. He'd flushed, cleared his throat and lay back down again in the shadows. On her way to the bathroom she'd told herself that it only made sense to ensure the strength of someone you were working with.
They'd both been so careful to remind themselves that their alliance was strictly strategic--never meant to last, not destined for tenderness. Still, she'd found herself wanting to conjure him up as she fell asleep at Fort Marlene--strong arms around her, sheltering her from what they did to her during the day in the labs. She always failed, though, realizing what she must have left him to when she'd stolen away with the boy Dmitri, and how he must hate her now.
She'd feared for their reunion as well. On the flight to Tunisia sleep had eluded her, her mind unable to untangle itself from images of her betrayal aboard the freighter. But he hadn't mentioned it. He'd barely spoken, overwhelmed by his ordeal and the abrupt end it had come to. When they reached the Mediterranean coast, they'd rented a suite of rooms in the best hotel in Zarzis. After pacing from room to room and from balcony to window, Alex had excused himself to take a second shower, then had gone immediately to bed in the smaller room, leaving her to eat dinner with a Frenchwoman they'd met in the lobby. When she'd returned and looked in on him, he'd waved her away. Nightmares, he'd mumbled; he might hurt her. But past three in the morning, with moonlight reaching in soft fingers into her room, she'd heard him cry out and when she approached his bed, he'd let her in without protest or speaking. They'd spent the rest of the night clinging to each other like orphaned children, Alex returned quickly to sleep, she awake, listening to the panic in his breathing gradually fade, soaking in the rich, reassuring scent of him--hair and warm skin and the soap he'd used--her mind easily forming the images it had refused to allow her at Fort Marlene.
When she'd woken to sunlight washing the room, he was already half- dressed. After that they'd taken care of their business: returned to the U.S. and visited the hideous old man, then met with Mulder and Skinner and convinced them to return to Oregon to seek the cloaked ship. Surely Mulder's forward charge would send the ship fleeing and the old man would have no chance to make another self-serving 'deal' with the colonists.
Except, of course, that things had turned. In the end Mulder had been taken, leaving Alex tight-lipped and moody. *I won't be able to contact you again, Marita,* he'd said. It was deliberate, the use of her full name--a distance meant to make it easier for both of them to do what they had to. She was, for all intents and purposes, wired; his work required secrecy. And they couldn't punish her for what she didn't know. She hadn't seen him again, had known nothing until the day Mulder met her in a Baltimore park with the news that Alex was dead. Somehow she'd always believed she'd see him again--one last time, at least. The shock of knowing he was gone had been hauntingly disconcerting, like a novel with the final page torn out.
Marita stared at her image in the mirror, gilded at the edges by the dying light of approaching evening. Ironic that the sight should make her think of the haloed frescoes of Byzantine saints; she'd been far from anything like that. Circumstances had pulled her life into that path that... But she'd known the risks in what she did. Her responsibility. And in the end, her sentence.
She shrugged the blouse off her shoulders and hung it in the closet. Slowly she removed her bra and laid it on the dresser. She reached for a thin cotton nightgown on the hook in the closet and slipped it over her head. In the bathroom she brushed her teeth and splashed her face with water. Fatigue had nestled itself into lavender half- moons below her eyes.
She turned away from the sight and went to the doorway leading into the bedroom. It was such a small room--an anonymous room. Even leafing through her neighbor's old copies of home decorating magazines hadn't given her the heart to do anything to make it more her own. It had a motel room's air of transience; tonight the feeling was stronger than usual. Maybe it was the sight of Mulder and remembering a time when she still held cards that could be played.
Marita drew the curtains and lay down in the unmade bed, pulling the sheet and faded thermal blanket up around her. Curling onto her side, she closed her eyes and gradually felt the hot dryness behind them go liquid and warm. If she had one card left to play--one small, insignificant card--say, if she were able to see Alex one final time... what would she say?
She listened to her own breathing in the quiet, in and out, and the muffled rhythm of her pulse against the pillow. Pipes groaned somewhere inside the wall and the sound of the upstairs shower could be heard. Swallowing against a sudden pressure in her throat, she reached for the extra pillow and pulled it close against her. Their encounter at Fort Marlene had been completely unexpected. Certainly he hadn't helped her escape; she wouldn't have expected him to. But there had been a look on his face beyond disbelief at what had happened to her: not repulsion or anger but regret. For an unguarded moment those green eyes had revealed how deeply she'd been stamped into his life, no matter their relative betrayals or how the cards had fallen. If, in her own imagination, she were to see him again, she would thank him for that look.
It was something to cling to tonight, that memory. She let out a shuddered breath and loosened, letting the stuffy quiet of the room settle over her. Gradually the image in her mind began to reshape itself. He was bending over her now, as one might lean over a sleeping child. She could almost feel the warmth of the hand that moved across her forehead, smoothing the hair from her face. Warm wetness crept across her eyelids, sealing them.
*Just rest, Mare.*
grace: unmerited divine assistance; an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.