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Date: Wed, 04 Dec 1996 15:59:59 -0600
To: x-files-fanfic@chaos.taylored.com
From: "Colleen C. Bailey" <ccbailey@facstaff.wisc.edu> Subject:NEW: Starfish (1/3) NC-17
Sender: owner-x-files-fanfic@chaos.taylored.com Precedence: bulk

Summary: Krycek Angst. Krycek suffers a loss, and seeks answers before realizinghe needs to evaluate the questions. 4th season/Terma Spoilers.

Big-time fourth season "Tunguska/Terma" spoilers. If you haven'tseen that two-parter and don't know what happened, DON'T read this story.If you did see the show and came away as sickened as I was by what happened,this story might help you get over it. It has been very therapeutic to write.

This stands alone, but is a sequel of sorts to The Kindness of Strangers.It fits with my Year of the Rat series, but Kindness is the only one youmight want to read to understand this.

Archive classification: S A

Rating: NC-17 for mature content. Usual disclaimers apply.

I LOVE NITPICKS, COMMENTS AND CRITIQUES!!! That said - ENJOY! ccbailey@facstaff.wisc.edu


Starfish part 1/3
by Colleen C. Bailey


*********
Outside White Bear, Minnesota
March 20
3:34 p.m.

The drive had been long and tedious, the rental car occasionally slippingon the mounds of slush piled alongside the country highway. He concentratedon the horizon, trying not to analyze his choice of destinations. It wasa gut feeling, and he didn't understand it, but he trusted it. Wanted totrust it.

The battered clutch of buildings and scrawny trees appeared in the distance,and he sat up straight. Here it was, it hadn't been a dream after all. Drawingcloser, he saw the battered mail box, and hoped that the name was stillthe same. He hadn't taken any time to investigate, to find out if she werestill alive and living here, but the name Braedenhurst flashed by as heturned into the driveway.

The stack of cordwood alongside the house had diminished significantly sinceNovember. The cold sunshine hadn't completely melted the snow away, buta thaw was imminent, and icicles hung from every corner of the old farmhouse.

He parked on the concrete apron at the end of the driveway, stationed snuglybeside an old VW bus. He struggled with the car door before stepping outcautiously onto the ice-slicked ground, searching for the source of a faintsound of wind-chimes.

Things hadn't changed much; a well-worn path through the snow extended fromthe house to the smaller of the two barns, paralleled by a taut clotheslineat eye-level. The stoop was still neatly swept and salted. He stepped upto the door.

*********
Roswell heard it first, barking once to alert the others in the house. Thecar in the driveway was unexpected, and Phil frowned as he peered out thewindow. Who would be visiting at this hour, on a weekday? He hoped it wasn'tanother damned salesman.

"Phil?" The voice floated down the hall, and he padded acrossto her room to reassure her, pulling a cardigan on over his turtleneck.

"Yeah, honey, I'll see who it is." Rose nodded absently, intenton the voice emanating from the speakers on her PC. The ashtray beside herheld a smoldering joint, and her eyes were hooded from the effect of thedrug that was the only pain-killer her system could tolerate anymore. Hesmiled softly at her gaunt frame, cuddled in leggings and her favorite T-shirt,then headed for the kitchen. Twisting his body awkwardly to ease the arthritisin his left hip, he navigated the stairs slowly. Wool socks can be slipperyon old wood.

He heard the loud knock over the faint, omnipresent drip-drip of early springas he stepped into the narrow coat room at the back of the kitchen. Swingingthe door open, the stiff spring breeze blew his gray hair into his eyes,and he blinked at the figure standing before him.

Hiking boots, jeans, long-sleeved green henley; a brown leather jacket wasslung loosely about his shoulders. His hair had grown out considerably,and the beard was gone. A tiny gold ring graced his left ear. He'd lostweight.

After staring at each other a moment, the stranger smiled awkwardly, framedby melting icicles, and gestured with the piece of firewood he carried inhis right hand. "May I come in?"

Phil stepped back to allow the man he knew only as Alex to enter the house.

*********
3:43 p.m.

The potbellied stove was still going strong on the wood he had fed it thismorning. He cleared the table a bit, stacking cookbooks onto a shelf andplacing a few dirty dishes in the sink, as Alex struggled with his bootsin the coat room. He emerged into the kitchen with the jacket still clingingto his shoulders.

The log that he brought in was placed on the pile behind the stove. "Tea?"Alex nodded, and Phil puttered around the kitchen for a few moments, desperatelytrying to think of something to say. "Sugar? Cream?" He shookhis head, so Phil dunked three tea bags into the pot and waited for thekettle to boil.

Alex had snagged a chair out from the table and was sitting by the stove,hunched over and looking uncomfortable, throwing the occasional guilty lookat him. Phil remembered back to the night when Alex had first entered hislife. Nothing too unusual about his entrance; he had been stranded by astalled car and a snowstorm, chancing upon a party of strangers who tookhim in, warmed him, fed him, and asked nothing in return.

But his exit was spectacular. In the middle of the night, "Alex"took Rose's shotgun, threatened Phil's life, and stole a guest's car. Theyfound it two days later at the airport in Minneapolis; the shotgun was underthe front seat. Rose insisted that no harm had been done, so the authoritiesdropped the matter, but Phil had his doubts. He had seen some of the dangeroussecrets the man had been carrying, and was still faintly surprised thathe had been allowed to live, knowing what he knew.

But that had been months ago, and they had heard nothing else. He finallysettled on the explanation that the whole thing had been a bizarre fluke,and went about his business.

And now six months later, Alex was back. Phil couldn't think of a damn thingto say to him. What did he want? Was he here to kill them for what theyknew? Why now?

His thoughts were interrupted by the click of Roswell's claws as he lumbereddown the stairs. The big Labrador retriever barked once at the sight ofthe stranger in the kitchen, then came closer, sniffing at his stockingedfeet. Whuffling loudly, he laid his graying muzzle on the young man's thigh,bringing a faint smile to his melancholy face. "Hey, Roswell."He scratched the dog behind the ears, glancing over at Phil as if askingpermission.

"Yeah, that dog's a good judge of character, all right." The wordssounded bitter, and Alex winced, looking down at the floor. He appearedrestless, as if his body didn't quite fit him, and Phil felt sympatheticin spite of himself. "Just relax, Alex. I know..." He clearedhis throat. Deep breath, through the nose. There is no fear but what wemake. "I know what happened in November was pretty weird. Right now,let's just pretend we're old friends having a cuppa tea together, and tryto forget anything else, OK?"

Alex's head bobbed slightly, and the lines of tension in his face eased."OK."

The kettle was starting to whistle, and Phil poured the tea. He decidedto start supper as well; Rose would spend all day on that damned computerand forget to eat, so it was up to him to make sure she got fed. Besides,it would give them something neutral to talk about until Alex loosened upa little. He pulled the fridge door open and stared, then began grabbingat Tupperware. "You staying for dinner?"

Alex looked up in surprise. "I don't want to impose..." His eyesdarted towards the ceiling. There was obviously something else on his mind.Phil waited. "Is she here?"

The older man smiled. "She's upstairs. She'll come down for food."He switched the oven on, placing a foil-wrapped loaf of bread on the middlerack. "Can you grab those plates for me?"

*********
4:02 p.m.

Light footsteps on the stairs alerted them to her presence. Alex almostdropped the basket of fruit he was shifting from the table to the sideboard.He stepped towards the living room and stopped, uncertain. He felt miserablewhenever he thought of her, but beyond the misery was the memory of thecomfort and warmth he had felt here months ago, for the first (and last)time in years. His right hand clenched and unclenched as he waited.

Rose walked slowly into the kitchen, one hand smoothly sliding along thewall. She had pulled on moccasins and a battered Red Sox cap. Her pipe-stemarms looked fragile, exposed. "Phil?" She stopped and waited,head cocked slightly to one side.

Alex stood stock-still, waiting glumly for her reaction. The sight of heropen, honest face only reminded him of his own ruined life. What a stupididea this had been. No one was going to sympathize with him. No one couldforgive him. Now she was going to throw him out, and he would truly be outof options.

A moment went by, then another. Alex waited for the ax to fall. Phil seta pan down on the stove. Rose turned her head towards him. "Is thatdinner?"

He smiled sadly, flicking his gaze to meet Alex's curious look. "Yeah.Hey, remember that guy Alex?"

Her brows lifted in surprise. "Yeah, sure..." She stopped, mouthslightly open, looking around the kitchen. "Alex?"

Oh no. He stepped towards her, floorboards creaking. She turned to facehim, lifting a hand before her as she took a careful step in his direction."Rose..." He waved a hand reluctantly across her field of vision.

She did not respond, but moved closer, smiling. "Alex, I didn't thinkwe'd ever see you again!" Both her arms were outstretched, fingersquesting vaguely in the empty air.

He entered her embrace hesitantly, gliding his right hand gently along herback. She hugged him around the waist, rubbing her chin delightedly overhis jacket lapel. Her cap knocked into his cheek and flipped off her head,revealing her hairless skull. "It's so good to see you! How have youbeen? What have you been up to?" She backed up, holding him at arms'length, smiling sweetly up at him. "I can't believe you're really here."She turned to Phil. "Why didn't you come get me?"

Phil crossed the kitchen to place a steaming cup of tea in her hand. "Ifigured I'd put dinner on the table first, give you a reason to come downstairs."

She mock-frowned at him, laugh-wrinkles drawing up at the corners of hereyes and mouth. "Oh, Phil, stop treating me like a child. This is stillmy house, you know." She cautiously moved towards the table, feelingfor a chair with the back of her leg before sitting down.

Phil grinned back. This was obviously an old routine. "Ready for somesoup?"

*********
The food was as excellent as Alex remembered, if less spicy than the chilihe'd had so many months ago. He peeled another slice off the warm loaf andplaced it on his plate, smearing it unsteadily with butter. "This isreally good."

Phil nodded. "There's nothing so good as home-made bread." Therewas something not quite right about Alex, but he couldn't put his fingeron it. Why was he wearing his jacket at the table?

Rose grinned. "Yeah, Phil moved in about three months ago and tookover all the cooking. I think I've even put on a few pounds since you werehere last." She patted her flat belly contentedly.

Alex looked her over carefully. If she had gained weight, he didn't seewhere. She was still starvation-thin, with hollowed cheeks and joints thatseemed too large for her body. Her pale gray eyes focused on some unseenpoint in the distance as she carefully spooned soup to her lips. He glancedquestioningly across at Phil, who shrugged apologetically and sipped athis tea. "Rose..."

She tilted her chin at him, setting her spoon down carefully. "Hmm?"

He couldn't ask. Not yet. "Want another piece of bread?"

*********
5:10 p.m.

They left Phil to clean up and retired to the living room. Rose stoppedby the stereo, her slender fingers drifting along the buttons to start aCD. Alex recognized Loreena McKennitt as he decanted a dark homebrew intoa tall glass for each of them. He walked the glass out to Rose, who wasalready tucked into the corner of the couch, the dog curled up on the floorbelow her feet. Placing the drink on the coffee table before her, he wentback into the kitchen for the other. When he came back she was gliding herhand along the rough wood, feeling for the base of the glass. Roswell'stail thumped on the ground as he approached the couch.

He sat on her right, setting his beer down and reaching to hand hers toher. She started when it touched her hand, and a little of the beer spilledbefore they caught the glass together and righted it. She laughed, embarrassed,and sipped at the remainder.

He bent his leg up onto the couch and sat facing her. He knew from experiencethat there was no easy way to ask, so he just blurted it out. "Rose,how did you lose your sight?"

She paused, then sipped again. "About three months ago," she swallowed,then smiled artificially. "I'd been having these headaches for a while.You know, about..."

She hesitated, and he nodded. Then, realizing, he muttered, "Yeah,Phil told me when I was here before."

She nodded, her lips quirked up into what might be a smile. "Well,I started having seizures, about a month after you visited. CAT scan showeda tumor, right about," she pointed between her eyebrows, "here,two inches back. It started pressing on my optic nerves, right where theycome together into the brain."

She was reciting this easily; it sounded rehearsed, like she'd told it ahundred times already. She probably had. "So, I had me a good old-fashionedtrans-orbital lobotomy. You know, with the ice-pick in the eye-socket? Onlythis was a hollow ice-pick, and they managed to scoop out most of the tumor."She drank a healthy swallow of beer, grimacing slightly and licking thefoam off her upper lip. "Gross, huh."

He could only stare, fascinated and disturbed by the emptiness in her cooleyes.

"No more seizures, but the tumor had already compromised the opticnerves. I can sense light and dark, but that's about it." She reachedto set down the glass; he shadowed her movement, feeling protective, butshe placed it securely on the table. "So, Phil moved in and took overa lot of the housework, and I spend most of my time on the computer."She shifted her seat, shaking the tension off her face like melting snow."Your turn. What brings you back here, after all this time?"

He coughed, and took a pull at his own beer. "I don't..."

She chuckled and pulled her feet up beneath her. "You can." Suddenlyserious, she leaned over and placed her left hand on his knee. "It'sOK, Alex. Something really big is bothering you, I can tell. If you wantto talk about it, I'm here to listen. You trusted me," her head turnedtowards the kitchen, "us, before. Nothing's changed."

He tried. "I had a...." His throat closed up, and he cleared itroughly. "It was less than a month after I left here. I...." Again,his body betrayed him.

She waited patiently, unable to see the panic in his eyes, the flush inhis cheeks, the way his teeth tugged at his lower lip. Through her hand,however, she must have sensed the tenseness of his body, the nervous jerksof his foot tapping. She squeezed his knee sympathetically. "This isreally difficult for you."

He nodded, then remembered again that she couldn't see that. He put hisbeer down and covered her hand with his. This was what he wanted; someoneto talk to, someone to whom he might confess. He'd been carrying this aroundfor months, protecting and hiding and denying. He couldn't go back to LA,couldn't face his "partner" Dylan. She probably thought he wasdead, now, anyway. And a man in his profession had no friends. Hell, hewas endangering Rose and Phil just by being here.

That thought galvanized him. Shaking off her hand, he stood abruptly. "Rose,I'm sorry, this was a stupid idea." He backed around the coffee table,away from her reaching hands, and headed for the door.

She scooted off the couch after him, banging her shin against the table."Shit! Alex, wait..."

Phil appeared in the framed archway between the kitchen and the living room,wiping his hands on a dishrag. "Rose, is everything..." He stoppedas Alex tried to brush past him. They rebounded off each other, Alex lookingangry and Phil spreading his hands wide, startled. "Hey, what's therush?"

Rose paced towards them, one hand out at her side, the other in front ofher. Phil leaned over, took her wrist and guided her closer. "Alex,it's OK, whatever it is, it's OK." She stroked his right arm from shoulderto elbow, trying to reassure him.

He wanted to believe her. Truly, he did. But this pain, this loss, was sobig and foreboding, he was scared that if he ever let it out it would eatthem all alive. It loomed over him every day, and he couldn't risk it gettingloose. "Thanks for lunch." He turned towards the door.

She gripped his arm tightly, pulling him back towards her, surprisinglystrong. "You won't hurt me, Alex." Her eyes seemed to stare rightthrough him.

A sudden rush of anger flooded up his spine, spiking out from the top ofhis head. "Don't you get it yet? That's all I *can* do! Hurt people!Kill people! Betray them! I don't want to do that to you!" He shookher away roughly and she staggered, off-balance, as he reached for the door.He barely heard her cry out as she hit the floor; the roaring in his earswas too loud.

"Hey!" Phil, unaccustomed to violence, reacted sharply, reachingfor Alex and grabbing him by the collar. Tugging hard, he pulled him backinto the room. The jacket slid off suddenly, and they both froze. It hungbetween them, held up by Phil's hand and Alex's right arm still in the sleeve.

"Oh, my god." Phil's hand opened nervelessly, and the jacket fellto the floor.

Rose pulled herself into a crouch on the kitchen floor, favoring her wrist."What?" she asked breathlessly, gingerly rising to stand straight.

Phil ran his fingers through his hair. Oh, shit, what do I say now? he wondered.

Alex's left arm was gone. The empty shirt sleeve was neatly knotted belowthe stump, well above where the elbow should be.

He stood between them, feet spread wide, head down, breathing hard. He jerkedhis right hand out of the inverted cuff and kicked the heap of leather asideangrily, turning to hide his face beneath a sprawl of dark hair.

"What is it?" Rose stepped carefully towards the sound of Alex'sbreathing. She jumped slightly when her hands touched his chest, and sheran them restlessly over him, up his chest and onto his neck, down his shouldersto....

She gasped when she reached the knotted sleeve, and he flinched.

They would never know how long they stood that way, loosely triangulatedin the kitchen. Rose sniffed, then hiccuped. She tilted her face towardshis, eyes dark with pooling tears. "Alex..." He shifted uneasilyin her embrace, and she held him tighter, moving her hand to his ear andpulling his head down to hers. Pressing her forehead against his cheek,she squeezed her eyes shut, ignoring the trickle of tears down her face.

Rose and Alex stood like statues. Phil could almost hear them humming withenergy. Alex's face was contorted and dark, as if in terrible pain. Philfigured that was exactly what he was feeling. Rose pressed her fingers againsthis neck, his shoulders, his back and chest, as if by accupressure she couldrelease this terrible monster lurking beneath his skin, open him up andallow the demon to fly away, leaving only the man behind.

Slowly, subtly, the scene changed. No one moved, but the dynamic shifted,and the tension in the air cleared like fog on a sunlit day. Alex's fistunclenched, Rose's hands slowed, and Phil became uncomfortably aware ofthe pain in his hip. Still, no one moved.

He would never remember how long they stood that way. Roswell finally brokethe silence, shuffling through their tableau, scratching at the door tobe let out. Phil rubbed his hands on his forgotten dishtowel, and movedto open the door for him. He returned to the kitchen to find Rose wipingat her face with the back of her hand, and Alex holding his jacket by thecollar, wide-eyed and skittish as a cornered rabbit. Wordlessly, he tappedher arm with the box of Kleenex from the sideboard.

She turned to him and took it with a smile of thanks. She sniffed again,then blew her nose noisily. Alex jumped at the noise, then cast a sheepishglance at Phil. Rose sighed, then coughed. "I really need to sit down."He went to pull a chair out for her, but she shook her head and turned."On the couch. My back is killing me."

She held her left hand out to Alex, waiting for him to take it. He stareddown at it for a moment, then crooked his right elbow and folded her arminto it. Walking slowly, they headed into the living room.

*********
9:47 p.m.

Phil was exhausted. This was more excitement than he'd had in a while, andhis heart just wasn't up to it. He rolled, dragging the covers with himand sliding them comfortingly between his legs. Burrowing into his pillows,he tried to blot out his memories of the day and think restful thoughts,but his mind's eye kept focusing on the scene in the kitchen earlier.

How had this happened? Alex was still not talking, even though he had decidedto stay. And Rose was adamant about avoiding the subject. "If he wantsto talk, he'll talk. We can't force it, Phil," she murmured to himwhen Alex was upstairs for a moment. She sighed, fingers tight on the jointshe was rolling. "Even if I do want to knock him down and beat it outof him."

The rest of the evening went quietly. They spoke softly of neutral things:sports, entertainment, the weather. They smoked a few bowls together. Philwas surprised that Alex joined them in this activity; he didn't think anyonewound that tight could tolerate a loss of control, a blurring of focus.It mellowed him a little, but not enough for comfort. They listened to music.And they waited, without really knowing what might happen.

Phil still couldn't figure out why Alex had come back here. While he andRose had had many late-night discussions about him, over beers and a bowl,she had never revealed anything about the late-night discussion they shared,claiming client confidentiality. Hell, he didn't even know if she realizedthe true implications of the tiny scar she carried at the base of her neck.

Phil had seen the documents Alex carried that fateful night, long ago. Heknew of, and was sickened by, the experiments carried out on the population.A population far too willing to relinquish its power and knowledge to agovernment that was so intent on the big picture, it no longer saw the smallerdetails of humanity. Like an Impressionist painting, these men of powersaw the grand design, but when the focus narrowed, it was all smudges ofanonymous color.

All these thoughts and more flitted through Phil's mind as he tried to slowhis breathing, relax into the bed, and ignore the soft voices that drifteddown the hall from Rose's room.

*********
10:02 p.m.

Alex let his head fall back into the headboard, ignoring the heavy thumpit made. Rose sat beside him, fingers twined with his. She had changed intoa pair of men's flannel pajamas, and he was painfully reminded of concentrationcamp victims, haggard and lean in their thin prison clothes. Her unfocusedeyes glittered in the light of the candles she had insisted on lightingfor him. Their sweet scent drifted through the room, warm and strangelycomforting.

"So after all that, you made it to St. Petersburg to arrange your owntransportation back to the States." She sighed heavily, rubbing hereyes with her free hand. "Alex, if you were anyone else, I'd probablydiagnose you as a paranoid schizophrenic."

He glanced sharply at her. "You don't believe me."

"Oh, I believe you, all right. It just sounds like some sort of badTV movie. All that's missing is the kidnapped heiress, lost in the woodswhile her heart medication runs out." She grinned to take the stingout of her words.

He stared at the ceiling again. "Only I can't change channels."

She sobered immediately. "Alex, this is not my field of expertise.I worked with families in crisis, not rehab psychology. I'm afraid..."She paused. "I don't know what to say for you." She gestured withher hands. "I don't have the slightest clue what you're going through.I want to help you, Alex, really I do, but as a professional, I'm completelyout of my depth. And as a friend," she bit her lip. "As a friend,I'm scared that anything I say will just hurt you more, and I don't wantto hurt you." She took his hand and pressed it to her cheek. Her skinwas very warm. "You've been hurt so much."

He gaped at her for a moment before his expression hardened and he pulledhis hand away. "That doesn't make it OK for me to hurt others."

She paused, sliding her lips together nervously before replying. "Alex,you have gone your whole life doing bad things. And having bad things happento you. There are enough people out to punish you, I don't need to too."She snaked her other hand out, found hisright knee and squeezed it. "Ithink you punish yourself more than anything."

He pulled his knee away from her, propping it up and gripping it with hishand. It formed a barrier between them. "Maybe I deserve it."

She twisted away, frustrated, and sat below him on the bed. "Come on,Alex, you think I haven't done bad things in my life? You think you're theonly sinner beyond redemption? Everyone fucks up. Everyone deserves a secondchance. And a third, and a fourth, until they get it right!"

He ground his teeth and counted to ten before answering, "You can stoptrying to save me because you can't. No one can."

"What, I'm not strong enough? Is that because I'm a girl, or becauseI'm blind? Or because I'm dying?" She punctuated her questions witha fist pounded on his propped-up leg.

He stared at her in shock. "No! No, it's_" He stopped. Here wasthis amazing woman, who had three times faced cancer, had lost her husband,her sight, who knew that each day might be her last, who was trying to help*him* feel better. And he had just accused her of being weak. Gritting histeeth he slammed his head backwards into the headboard again. Shit, can'tI get anything right?

She sighed, suddenly drained of color. Weaving slightly, she pulled herselfup beside him and leaned against his left side. He tensed, afraid to move.Didn't she realize_

"Alex, I'm sorry. I know how overwhelming this must be for you. I haven'tgone through it, and I shouldn't presume to push you like that." Herhead rolled towards him and her chin rested on his collarbone. Her smoothskull was soft beneath his cheek. "Believe it or not, I care aboutwhat happens to you. I want to see you at peace before_"

He could hear what she couldn't say. Before she dies.

Words failed them both, and they sat in silence. After a while he shiftedhis legs to a more relaxed position. She draped her right leg over his leftand leaned more closely into him. They rested that way, breathing evenly,until their thoughts faded into the background and their bodies relaxed.

Long minutes passed. She sat up, exploring his face with her hands, smoothinghis hair back from his eyes. He glanced up, almost cross-eyed, to followthe motion. "I guess I've been letting it grow out."

She smirked kindly. "You mean you've been too lazy to get it cut."She laughed at his wordless protest. "It's OK, I like long hair. Youcan really," and she curled her fingers in the air, "get dug inthat way." She clawed his hair back again, scratching her nails lightlyon his scalp, against the back of his neck and down onto his shoulder. Herother hand reached up to trace a circle on his chest.

He was getting aroused, and alarmed, all at once. "Rose, what are youdoing?"

She pushed herself up onto her knees and swung over to straddle his legs,her arms braced on either side of his head. "Oh, I think you'll getthe general gist of it."

He placed his hand on her upper arm and tried to push her off his lap, wrigglinghis legs to shift her off. It didn't work; she clung like a kitten. "Thisis a *bad* idea."

"Why?"

The answer simmered below the surface, unspoken. Because I'm damaged goods.Because I'm not a man anymore. Because I'm not whole.

She moved then, and words receded. She slid her cheek along her arm andgently bumped into his chin, then drifted left until her lips touched hischeek. His grip on her tightened, but he stopped pushing as he felt herbreath on his skin. He turned his face away, and she kissed his right ear,bumping her nose slightly and giggling. He ducked his head, trying to avoidher lips, but she had already changed position; this time she kissed hisleft eye, and he exclaimed meekly, protesting. She laughed again. "Holdstill, willya?"

He wanted to push her away; he wanted her to continue; he wanted to encourageher. He wanted this to happen, but he couldn't imagine how it might proceed.

Through trial and error, their lips eventually met and he froze, caughtin the paralysis of analysis. Could this work? He wouldn't be able to -she'd have to be on top - wouldn't the thought of it disgust her? He blinked,and realized that she was waiting for him, lips parted and barely touchinghis. Her breath was warm in his mouth, and he pulled back for a moment,taking in her face, the ethereal beauty of her vacant eyes, the warm bloomof her flushed cheeks.

She smiled slightly, expectantly. Licked her lips.

His chest heaved with an aching breath, and swiftly he slid his hand tothe back of her neck and drew her mouth to his. Time stopped as sensationsof heat and moisture flooded through him, clutching at his stomach, tighteninghis muscles, speeding his heartbeat.

A guilty thought pierced his consciousness and he broke away from the kiss,suddenly suspicious. "Is this a pity fuck?" he asked hoarsely,searching her expression for the lie.

She smiled widely, wantonly. "Why, do you pity me?"

Her mouth was soft and slick, and he pressed in upon it, wanting to penetrateher, possess her. He felt a giddy pain as she trapped his lower lip betweenher teeth, and the touch of her hands on his chest shot a bullet of desiredown through his spine. He could imagine nothing else but her body heldagainst him, her lips on his.

Without thinking, he reached for the small of her back with his left hand.

Sparks of sensation shot through his shoulder and he cried out and abruptlycurled his body around to protect his side. Rose was jostled off to theedge of the bed, and she flailed her arms a moment before clutching thecovers and steadying herself.

They stayed there for a heartbeat, then two, panting. His vision slowlycleared, but he was ashamed to look at her. She felt for him on the bed,running her hands up his legs to his waist. "Are you OK?" Hertone was carefully neutral, questioning him.

His voice caught for a moment. "Yeah. I..." How to explain this?"Just a sec." She nodded and sat back on her folded legs, waiting.Damn, she was good at waiting.

He reviewed the motion. It hadn't really hurt. He knew about phantom limbs,how the body forgot what was gone and a lost foot would itch, or a missinghand would try to grab something. He'd been focused on what he had lostfor a long time now. Forgetting about that loss was so novel that he wasmore surprised than hurt when his arm wasn't where he thought it was.

He braced himself, then flexed his left shoulder. It didn't hurt. Oh, sure,it felt really weird, and he had to shift his weight not to tip off-balance.But it didn't hurt.

And he realized that he never moved his left shoulder anymore. It was stilla part of his body. There was still muscle there, and bone and connectivetissue and flesh. His body was a system, not a random scattering of bodyparts. By shutting down his left side, he had excluded a whole range ofmotions and activities that he was still capable of, just because they remindedhim of his loss. He had stopped working out. He no longer ran. He hadn'tshot a weapon since he'd been with the militia. He didn't swing his armswhen he walked. He hadn't just lost an arm, he had lost his body.

He flexed again, then rolled both shoulders in wide circles forward andback, feeling the change in his balance. His joints cracked loudly, andhe sighed, feeling some of the tension in them subside. The system stillworked, it just had a different boundary now.

He looked at Rose, still waiting patiently near the foot of the bed. Andreached for her. With both hands.

She felt the mattress shift beneath them as he turned, and tilted her headwarily, listening for his movement. He stared at her for a long moment,wondering how he could be so changed by a woman he barely knew. His handtouched her knee and she twitched, lips parted and sightless eyes huntingfor clues. "Alex?" Still cautious, she covered his hand with hers,sliding her palm up onto his arm, stroking gently, reassuringly.

He twisted his wrist and caught her hand in mid-air; she inhaled sharplyand jerked it back instinctively, but he did not release her. Pulling hercloser, he caught her chin firmly between his finger and thumb and tiltedher face to his.

It was a chaste kiss, a mere touching of the lips. He felt her smile beforehe opened his eyes. Then her arms encircled his body and lured him closer,and his vision blurred.

He wanted to be solicitous, to be cautious with her fragile body, but needflooded his system and he lifted her insignificant weight with one arm aroundher waist, twisting on his knees and pushing her up against the headboard.She cried out as her back hit the wood, and his eyes flew wide. "I'msorry..."

She answered him with a growl and pulled him closer, using his shirt forleverage. Half-sitting on his thighs, half-kneeling on the bed, she kissedhim deeply, reaching for his waist. Fingers flying, she flipped his beltopen, unfastened him, and shoved his jeans down around his hips.

He gasped as his hard-on was suddenly released from its tight confines,and she sighed victoriously into his mouth. Scraping her nails against histhighs, she drew her hands forward and down between them, pushing asideelastic and cotton to grasp his cock two-handed. He let her go and leanedforward to brace himself against the wall, groaning into the sweet spotwhere her neck met her collarbone as she rolled him between her hands.

He felt her chuckle against his chest as she bore down on him, strokingtightly. Her right hand let go, dropped below her fist to lift his balls,rolling them and squeezing gently, pushing them to either side and followingthe ridge of his erection with her fingers until it disappeared into hisbody.

Pushing off from the wall and balancing on his knees, he cupped her assbeneath the flannel, gripping and pulling her closer. She clung to his neck,tugging at his earring with her teeth as he moved his hand up her waistand onto the skin of her back. She moaned against his ear, and he graspedthe edge of her shirt and pulled upwards.

Her arm came down then, and blocked his movement. He paused as she leanedaway from him to rest against the headboard again, drawing a shaky breath."Alex," she started, then stopped, turning her face away.

He wavered. Was this it? Would she stop now? But he had learned from her.He waited.

"Alex, I have..." She started to laugh nervously, then hesitated."There are scars..."

He understood then. He touched her cheek, wishing that she could look athim and see herself, reflected in his eyes. "You are so very beautiful,"he murmured. He pulled at her hem again, and this time she did not resisthim.

Working the shirt carefully up over her head and arms, he dropped it offthe side of the bed and drank in the sight of her body. She rested her elbowson the edge of the headboard, exposing herself completely to him.

Her breasts were flat against her body, with long mastectomy scars thatradiated out from her nipples. He laid a string of light kisses along everywhite line, starting from the edge and working towards the center, pausingto clutch each nipple in his lips, suckling tenderly. She arched back againstthe oil-stained wood, moaning, and he sighed, entranced to hear her respondso fervently.

Her ribs were contoured ridges beneath her skin, and he traced each onedelicately with a finger in the grooves between them. She twitched and hiccupedand bared her teeth wordlessly, and he smiled as goose bumps rose on herarms and chest and her hands clutched at the carved wood of the bed.

Further down on her stomach there was more scar tissue; two long, slantedlines angling in from her hip bones, various white pock marks, a skin graftrectangle cut from her side. Their texture was rough beneath his fingertips,snagging them as he ran his hand along her soft skin. He felt her musclesclench as he continued to tickle her with his fingernails, slowly, sensually,until she was gasping in time with his motions, flushed and tense and needy.

He kissed her again, passionately, relishing the feel of her mouth beneathhis tongue, and started to work the elastic of her pants down and away.She quickly came to his aid, moving his hand up to her breast and wrigglingout of the last of her clothes, all the while enticing his lips and tonguewith hers.

Naked at last, she paused, breathing deeply, and ran her hands along hischest to his waist, toying with the edge of his henley. He looked down briefly,then realized what came next. He caught his breath. His lips brushed herbrow, her cheek, her ear, and he whispered, "Do it."

She nodded, and slid her hands around his waist, under the fabric. Roamingonto his back, they pushed the soft cotton material up and over his head.He tugged his right hand out of its sleeve, and held his breath as she gentlylowered the shirt on his other side.

The stump extended about five inches from the point of his shoulder. Thescar tissue at the end was still red and puckered, and he could feel itthrobbing faintly in time with his racing heartbeat. Though still wearinghis jeans, he felt incredibly exposed, more naked than he ever remembered.

She did not touch it, but she did not flinch away. He exhaled softly, andshe looked up towards his face with quiet eyes, placing a slender hand oneither cheek. "Are you OK with this?" He realized that she feltthe tension he was carrying more keenly than even he did.

Nodding, he echoed her words. "Are *you* OK with this?"

She pondered that. "Alex, I wanted this back in November, but was toochicken to carry through. It was - risky." She smiled ruefully. "Iguess I have nothing to lose anymore."

He had no response to that.

Palms flat on his chest, she pushed gently and he allowed himself to fallbackwards, rolling awkwardly to lie flat, staring up at the ceiling fixture,flickering in the reflected light of the one remaining candle. She tuggedimpatiently at his jeans and he rolled his hips, trying to help her. Quicklyshe worked them off, then stroked her fingers up his legs, tickling hisankles and knees, slowing as she reached his thighs.

He didn't realize what she wanted until he felt her hot breath stirringhis pubic hair, and he glanced down in time to see and feel her lips touchthe very tip of his cock. Exclaiming, he rolled away from her, once againsending her tumbling, off-balance. This time she landed on the floor ina tangle of quilts as she pulled the bedclothes off with her.

He sat up, horrified, as she sat motionless, her mouth an "o"of surprise. "You don't need to..." he started, then stopped,puzzled by the expression on her face.

Alarmed, he watched her face redden and contort. A sharp bark escaped her,and then he realized that she was laughing, rocking back and forth and shakingher head. "Alex, do you really think I'm going to do anything I don'twant to, just because you *do*?"

She sprang back onto the bed, tumbling him over, pinning him down with herhands on his chest and her knees trapping his legs. "I hope,"she informed him breathlessly, "that this isn't going to become a habit,throwing me around like this."

"Stop startling me, and it won't," he replied, half-serious.

She shifted her weight back onto her legs. "What's the matter, didn'tyou like that?" she inquired sweetly, smiling wickedly. His erectionslid into the junction between thigh and body, and he strained to move itfurther, eager for the touch of her flesh. She evaded him easily, and leaneddown to kiss him. His head lifted from the bed as he strained to deepenthe kiss, and she pulled back again, returning to whisper into his ear,"I really want to suck your cock, Alex."

He groaned involuntarily and arched his back into the mattress, toes andfingers curling tightly. He never thought that words could be so arousing,and hunger swelled up within him, craving release. She chuckled at his reactionand slid further down his body, resting her elbows near his hips. "Nowhold still, this won't hurt a bit," she warned playfully, and loweredher head.

Frictionless heat enclosed him, and he moaned, digging his heels into thetousled sheets. He lifted one foot to brace himself against the wall, andshe shifted her stance between his thighs, one hand reaching to handle hisballs while the other tickled the hairs below his navel.

Cool air was quickly replaced with warm pressure as she took him in herfist, lifting his heavy erection and running her tongue along the sensitiveflesh beneath. She stroked him oh-so-slowly as she took one of his ballsinto her mouth, sucking gently and squeezing it lightly between her lips.Releasing it, she mouthed the other in a similar fashion.

He shut his eyes tightly, concentrating on self-control. It took great effortto hold still; he wanted to push his hips up against her, encourage herfurther, but he let her set her own pace.

She blew smoothly, and he squeaked as the warmth in his crotch was replacedby cold. He heard her quiet laughter and smiled, then gulped as she tookhim in her mouth again. This time, the heat and pressure of her mouth descendedat a glacial pace down the length of his cock, and he squirmed, panting,feeling her teeth barely scraping his sensitive flesh.

Finally, she had him completely enclosed, and her hands moved to rest onthe tops of his thighs, fingertips just below the crease where leg joinedbody. She pressed her fingernails into his flesh and gently scratched hisskin, down almost to his knees; at the same time, she pulled her head upand applied strong suction, drawing his cock tightly through her closedlips. He moaned and seized at the sheets, his body lifting off the mattressas he strained at the intense sensations he was experiencing.

She relaxed suddenly, and his cock slid back into her mouth, bumping againstthe tight muscles of her throat. He flopped back against the bed, feelinglimp all over. "Oh god," he started, and couldn't think of anythingto say. She swallowed and he gasped, feeling the constriction in her throatas it glided along his glans. The skin on his scrotum tightened, and heslapped the bed three times in a mock wrestling signal. "Enough, Rose,you're going to kill me."

She got up, resting on her knees, and pulled him up into her embrace. "Wasthat good?" she asked breathlessly, running her tongue over her reddenedlips.

He kissed her hard in reply, smelling his own body scent on her cheeks.The feel of skin on skin was intoxicating, and he rubbed his torso againsthers roughly, enjoying the feel of her hard nipples skimming along his chest.She leaned into him and bit gently into his right earlobe, scraping herfingernails up the cheeks of his ass and he almost shouted out loud, shovinghis erection against her belly.

Twisting with her body, he drove her into the headboard again, clingingto the small of her back and pushing her thighs apart with his knees. Tiltinghis hips, he pressed his cock against the smooth folds of her body, slidingback and forth, teasing her clit, feeling her wetness coating and warminghim as her soft cries excited him further. He bit his lip as she moanedinto his hair, wanting to abandon all restraint and plunge wildly into herbody. Still he held back somehow, tempering his passion with the knowledgeof her need.

Her legs were wrapped around him, and she clenched them against the smallof his back, wordlessly trying to pull him within her. He withdrew slightly,and she whimpered, tossing her head back and shaking him lightly with herhands tight on his shoulders. Moving up and resting his forearm along thetop of the headboard, he massaged the base of her neck gently. He waitedfor her to subside, then angled forward again, allowing the tip of his cockto find her tight opening. He pushed.

Her eyes squeezed shut and she sucked in air through clenched teeth. "Oh,oh *god*," she grated out, and her nails dug into his flesh yet again,trailing down his back with a pain that only fed his desire. Drawing backwas an effort, but he managed it, and she arched her back, thrusting herhips against his. "Don't, please," she panted, clutching at himwith fierce strength. "Please, Alex, now," and he flung himselfforward, covering her cries with his mouth, rooting himself deeply intoher waiting flesh.

He thrust once, twice, and again as she peaked beneath him. He felt theforce of her climax in her thighs, her lips, her head where it snapped backagainst his cushioning hand, and then he came himself, shouting his joyand release over her shoulder. She held his hips with both hands, pullinghim closer, within her, rocking their bodies in synch as he surged againand again, pouring his tension out into her tight embrace.

Gradually the roaring in his ears subsided, and he sobbed for breath, stillclinging to her tightly. Her returning squeeze was reassuring, and theykissed softly, buoyantly, repetitive touches of lips against skin. Then,as if on cue, they relaxed and shifted their knees out from under themselves.

Alex sighed as he stretched his legs out to their full length, and Rosegrabbed the covers from off the floor to spread them over their coolingbodies. He turned, curled onto his side, and she cradled his head on herbreast, enclosing him in her arms. Stroking his hair with weary fingers,she held him until his breathing slowed and his heart rate returned to normal.

*********
The candles had burned out long ago, leaving a lingering odor of perfumeand bitter smoke. They must have drifted into sleep, hands clasped and legsentwined. Movement in the darkness woke him, and he rolled sleepily, wincingslightly as he snagged himself on the twisted sheet. "Rose?"

She sat down next to him, fabric rustling as she sought his head with herhands, running fingers through his hair. "It's still early, hon, goback to sleep."

He stretched, wiping sleep from his eyes. "Where you going?" Hereached for her to pull her back down to him, but she slid away off theside of the bed and stood.

"I'm just going for a walk, I'll be back in about half an hour."

He sat up at that, wobbling a little. "A walk? By yourself?" Hiseyes started picking up details in the room, light reflecting off angledsurfaces. The clock said 5:27 a.m. The sky outside was a shimmering bluevelvet, paling toward the east. "Can I come with?"

She chuckled, and he could hear rustling as she searched for clothes towear. The faint light teased him with glimpses of her body as she pulledon jeans and a thick sweater. His own clothes had ended up in a heap, andhe shook them out and struggled into them, awkwardly fumbling with the zipper.

"Here." Her voice in his ear surprised him, and he stood stillas she leaned her weight against his back. Reaching around from behind,she tugged together the front edges of his jeans and buttoned them. He fidgetedas she slowly pulled the zipper up and turned the tab down securely, pressingit firmly against the soft flesh below his navel. She straightened his beltand pulled it through the buckle, finding the correct hole by the feel ofthe worn leather. Slipping the tab end through the belt-loop, she movedher hands around his waist, tucking the loose ends of his shirt in securely.Her hands flowed around to his front again and she squeezed him solidly,then patted his stomach affectionately and took his arm. "Let's go."

*********
Phil vaguely felt Roswell's tail thumping hopefully against his leg, andheard Rose begin her daily pilgrimage. Nestling deeper under the covers,he couldn't help but notice two sets of footsteps on the creaky stairs.Sighing, he tried to get back to sleep.

*********
They stopped in the kitchen, where the automatic coffee maker had just finishedproducing a pot of aromatic coffee. Rose inhaled deeply. "Bless you,Phil." She felt for a chair and sat down, sighing. "There's aThermos in that top cupboard," and she pointed. "Would you fillit, please?" The pot exactly filled the bottle.

Alex yawned hugely, screwing the lid on and snapping the cap in place, gladthat there was caffeine in the near future. "Do you do this often?"

She yawned herself. "Most mornings. I don't sleep too well these days."He moved to run his hand across her shoulders, kneading her neck gently,and she leaned her head against his stomach, hooking an arm around his hipsand clinging wearily to him.

He nudged her gently. "I'll be right back." Padding over to thestove, he wrenched the door handle down and pulled it open. The dull redglow of coals greeted him, and he spent a few minutes adding kindling andwood, stoking the fire into life. She hummed her thanks, and he led herinto the coat room.

In the still darkness, she slipped on a pair of Wellingtons while he struggledwith his hiking boots, trying not to lose his balance in the tiny room.She chuckled, realizing his trouble. "Here." She crouched downat his feet and he winced as he heard her joints crack. Quickly, she slippedthe Velcro tabs through and fastened them tightly. He marveled at how easyit was, once he let her help him. She stood, pulled on a heavy woolen hatand a short coat, and grabbed a stadium blanket from a high shelf. Snatchinghis leather jacket from its hook, he followed her out the door and ontothe steps.

The cold crept through his thin shirt, and he quickly slipped his coat on.Rose reached up and touched the clothesline he had seen when he came in.Tracing it with her fingers, she walked confidently towards the small barn.Impressed by that simple solution, he jammed his chilly fingers into hispocket. The Beretta he carried was freezing, and he jerked his hand outagain, not wanting the reminder. Stepping across the icy mud carefully,he followed her across the driveway, wishing his eyes would adjust fasterto the dim pre-dawn light.

He rounded the corner to see her leaning against a ladder nailed to thebarn wall. The back of the small building was half-open construction, anda hayloft was exposed to the cool morning air, high above him. Her breathsteamed in the silvery light. She waited until he stood beside her, thentook a deep breath and began to climb.

He grasped a wooden crosspiece and peered worriedly up at her rapidly recedinglegs. "I don't think..." He stopped the thought and concentratedon a solution, rather than a retreat. Stepping up onto a rung, he discoveredthat it was relatively easy for him to keep his balance for the split secondit took to reach higher with his hand. Gradually, he ascended into the loft.

She had spread the blanket in a hollow among the hay bales, and was carefullypouring coffee, one finger in the cup to keep it from overflowing. Steamrose from the mouth of the Thermos, mingling with her frosty breath as sheblew on the hot liquid, tentatively sipping at it as Alex joined her. "Here."She held the cup out for him as he sat down.

He leaned back against the fragrant hay, stretching his legs out beforehim with a muffled yawn. His ears popped. The air was cold and smelled ofcut grass and damp earth and coffee. He sucked in a hot mouthful, and realizedthat he felt better than he had in a long time. Inexplicably, he had a strongflash-back to his first FBI stakeout; the Thermos, the crisp air, the quietcompanionship. He found himself wishing for a pair of binoculars.

He took another taste from the warm cup in his hand. "So what's ourobjective?" he asked off-handedly, and she skewed her body around towardshim, eyebrows wrinkled in amusement. He stammered, "I mean, I'm sorry,I mean what are we looking for."

"Wishing you had a high-powered rifle?" She grinned and pulledherself across his lap. Tucking his legs up and crossing them beneath her,he raised his arm carefully, trying not to spill the coffee onto her asshe shifted around. Snuggling her shoulder blades against his chest, sherelieved him of the cup and answered his question. "Sunrise."

There was an eerie silence, The blanket of snow covering the fields glowedpearly blue in the growing light, and the stars above were fading into theether as the eastern sky began to glow with a rosy tint. A crow called inthe distance, was answered in kind.

Rose half-sat, half-lay back against his chest, his arm hugged tightly inhers. Even with her eyes closed, she looked awake and aware. In the dimlight he could see the contours of her face, dark with shadows. For thefirst time since he had arrived, he remembered that she was older than hewas, in her mid-thirties: the growing light highlighted every line and wrinklein her pinched face.

A needle of pain tickled his back, and he leaned forward, frowning. Maybesome hay had snuck in there... Then he remembered, and grinned. "Youknow, you really did a number on my back last night."

Her answering expression was mischievous. "Oh, and you're complaining?"He kissed her, merely brushing her lips with hers.

She shivered, and he gathered her closer, concerned. "Cold?"

"Hmm." She reached out and tugged a corner of the blanket acrossher legs. "My joints ache, some." He breathed slowly on her earand she giggled, then sighed. "Mmm, warm me right up."

He yawned again, arching his shoulders back, then forward, liking the feelof her body against his chest. His eyes drooped, and he remembered how littlesleep they had had the night before. Sinking into a pleasant lethargy, heburrowed himself into his scratchy-soft backrest, breathing deeply. He sighed.

The first rays of light were glancing off the icicles along the eaves, anda drop of water glittered in slow motion as it fell. Silence felt so rightwith Rose. He didn't feel compelled to fill the spaces with meaninglesschatter; the gaps were as important as the words.

"Why do you come out here?"

She sighed and her head drooped against his shoulder. The answer was a fewmoments coming as she pondered. "About eight months ago, I woke upand couldn't get back to sleep. I had insomnia pretty regularly; I was reallyscared, then, I and spent a lot of time thinking about..." she paused,and he squeezed her arm. "Thinking about dying. Thinking about whatlife is, what I've done, how I've gotten to where I am. What I could havedone differently. What I have left to finish."

She shivered and he bent his head to her shoulder, pressing his stubblycheek against her neck. She returned the pressure briefly. "I suddenlyrealized, this could be my last day on Earth. And I just sat there, paralyzed.I might no longer BE. And nothing will change. Oh, ashes are scattered,some people move in different patterns. But the whole, grand scheme of things,the sky, the rivers, the weather, it all goes on. Wouldn't it be a shameif I missed any part of it?"

Her hands crept over his thighs and tucked themselves into the crooks ofhis knees, hiding from the cold. He glanced down to see her smile, but herface was serious. "So I came out here. And I felt so - " she paused."I don't know. Isolated. Lonely. Anxious. Afraid." She rubbedher right shoulder as if it pained her.

"You know, I've lived in this house for 11 years, Alex." She soundedsurprised. She reached up for the coffee cup, and he poured her a warm-upbefore she continued. "That day was a turning point for me. My husbandwas gone. I had no..." she stopped and pressed her lips together tightly.A slight flush rose on her cheeks. "I have no children, Alex. And Ireally, really wanted children."

Her head shook, and she smiled harshly. "I'm sorry, I keep going onabout myself."

He nuzzled up against her ear. "Hey, I've monopolized your time twicenow, I can listen to you for once."

She smiled, then frowned. "Some days I just want it to end." Herested his cheek against her neck, understanding. She sighed and shiftedher legs, wrapping blue-veined hands around her knee. "Why am I doingthis to myself. Why? It's just pain." She shrugged, gazing out blindlyat the snowy fields. "So I come out to watch the sun rise. And I think,'It's a good day to die.' And life becomes...a gift."

She smiled then, and his concern disappeared in the glow of her eyes. Herhand sought his, and he lifted it to his lips, pressing them intensely againsther cold bony knuckles. He breathed warmly against her skin, and turnedher palm upwards to kiss, delicately, the lines etched there in her flesh.

He glanced down into her radiant expression, and felt the unfamiliar thrillof complete acceptance, an unconditional regard that slid easily beneathhis skin, a hot flare of deep recognition in his spine. She knew his story.She knew about the things he had done. And she still accepted who he was.She forgave him.

The longer they sat, the lighter it became. It was going to be a beautifulday.

She pulled a joint and a lighter from an inner pocket and lit up with tremblinghands. He watched the smoke curl up into the dark upper recesses of thebarn. "I thought open flame in a hayloft was a bad idea."

She released her breath noiselessly, blowing smoke out at the paling sky."I'm careful. Besides, we can jump from here." She offered itup to him, and he declined. She sat motionless for a moment, then drew itto her lips again. Exhaling, she let her hand rest casually on his knee."So when do you need to leave?"

He had been expecting that question since he arrived yesterday, but wassurprised at her timing. He blinked out at the robin's-egg-blue horizon."I don't know." She made a questioning sound, deep in her throat,and he hurried on. "I don't have anywhere to be. I... It's been a weirdyear for me. I've been dead for a long time." Memories of oil and darknesssent a shiver rippling down his spine.

"I mean," he thought of Dylan in LA and gestured vaguely. "I'vebeen gone so long, I expect most of my contacts think I'm dead." Anotherkind of smoke swirled briefly in his field of vision. "And my, ah,ex-boss, he's given up on me, I think." Staring past her shoulder intothe blue-tinted air, he remembered dark hair and harsh blows. "No placeto go, really. No home. Just keep moving and hope no-one notices."

She set the coffee down carefully, and rose from his embrace, turning andsitting cross-legged, facing him. Her fingers twined together nervously;she licked her lips, then shrugged, murmuring, "You could stay. Here."

It rocked him, that simple statement. She knew how dangerous that couldbe. She knew the power of the forces rallied against him. He rememberedwhat she had said last night: 'I guess I have nothing to lose anymore.'And realized just how deeply she meant that. It scared him. Had he everbeen so close to death that he felt no fear?

The break in the conversation elongated, became a silence. The longer theysat, the lighter it became. It was going to be a beautiful day.

"Some days I just want it to end." He turned his head sharplytowards her, disbelieving. She sighed and sat back against the hay uncomfortably,wrapping blue-veined hands around her knee. "Why am I doing this tomyself. Why? It's just pain." She shifted uneasily, gazing out blindlyat the snowy fields. "My friends are afraid to visit anymore. We'vesaid our goodbyes, and they're uneasy around me. They put me in the groundmonths ago."

He blinked, and squeezed her knee as she continued. "I'm glad I waited.I'm glad you're here."

She smiled then, and his concern disappeared in the glow of her eyes. Herhand sought his, and he lifted it to his lips, pressing them intensely againsther cold bony knuckles. He breathed warmly against her skin, and turnedher palm upwards to kiss, delicately, the lines etched there in her flesh.

He glanced down into her radiant expression, and felt the thrill of completeacceptance, an unconditional regard that slid easily beneath his skin, ahot flare of soul-to-soul recognition that prickled his spine. She knewhis story. She knew what he had done. And she still accepted who he was.

A glint of reflected light on the horizon caught his eye, and he idly wonderedwho would be out hunting so late in the winter. Then his eyes widened andhe sprang.

He felt her gasp within his coarse embrace as the sharp crack of a riflecarried weakly across the field. Twisting his torso to land beside, ratherthan across, her slight body, he rolled and bounced up, gun in hand, pinchedinto the slight cover the building frame provided. He sucked a breath inonce, twice, pushing his back into the heavy wooden beam, then dropped intoa crouch and spun around, aiming repeatedly at open air and praying he sawa target before they did.

Nothing. It was quiet and cold, and the yellow arc of the sun, peeping overthe horizon, revealed no trace of a disturbance, no hostile movement. Heturned back, breathless, and flung himself across the hay to Rose's side.

Superficially, there was no sign of anything wrong. Her lips were stillcurved, her eyes held the same lack of focus. He sat down heavily, gun forgottenby her shoulder, not caring if they struck again. A small voice he hadn'theard in a long time assured him they would not. He recognized the methodology.They weren't trying to kill him. If they were, he'd be dead.

The target had been Rose.

His searching fingers found the narrow tear in her coat, and the identicalrip in the sweater beneath. Pulling roughly at the neck of the thick material,wishing he had another arm for leverage, he stared at the sluggish red trickleabove her left breast as if he'd never seen blood before.

A shallow breath rattled from deep within her, and he exclaimed and snatchedhis hand away. Glancing around quickly, he tried to imagine how to get herdown from the hayloft. No rope. The blanket... not one-handed. Phil, hecould get Phil....

Her hand twitched out towards his, and he knelt beside her. Limply, sheplucked at his fingers. He lifted it to his chest, unconsciously pressingher palm into his flesh as if to staunch a similar wound in him.

She smiled at that. Then her lips moved soundlessly, and he bent down tohear.

"Here." Her finger tapped twice on his breast, so weakly thathe thought perhaps he had imagined it. And then she was gone.

*********
He didn't want to put down the gun, even though his instincts told him theshooter was long gone. But how else would he climb down? Finally he clickedthe safety on and thrust the cold weapon into the front of his jeans. Italways looked like a stupid move on TV, but right now he was in a hurry,and it was more accessible that way than in his jacket pocket. Moving quickly,he clambered down the ladder, jumping the last five feet and rolling toa crouch at the corner of the barn. Scanning the back of the house rapidly,he scurried to the bumper of the VW bus.

Running his eyes carefully over his car, he decided that it had not beentouched. There was no need, he reminded himself. They didn't want him dead.Then what did they want?

*********
The farmhouse was quiet. Roswell lay at the bottom of the stairs, salivaand blood mingling in a puddle beneath his lolling tongue. He stepped overthe body and padded noiselessly to the second floor, avoiding the creakysteps intuitively.

Phil had never made it out of bed. His craggy face showed surprise, butno fear. He must have just been waking up when they struck. He felt hisneck, not expecting to find a pulse. He was not disappointed. He dabbeda finger in the pool of blood beneath the bed; it congealed stickily, buthad not yet clotted. Less than 20 minutes.

Rose's room had not been touched; the bedclothes were still scattered randomly,the wooden chest at the foot of the bed was still neatly draped in a colorfulquilt. Even the PC had not been tampered with; the CPU was cold, and therewas no static charge on the monitor.

In the bathroom, he splashed cold water on his face, gasping at the shock.Running his hand over his stubbly chin, he stared at the open medicine cabinet,sifting through the multi-colored bottles of homeopathic medicine. God,he wanted an aspirin. Not finding any, he gave up. He reached and closedthe door.

The mirror swung into view, swinging light onto his face, and his heartskipped a beat.

The words "TEMPUS FUGIT" marred his reflection, blackening hischeeks and obscuring his right eye. They had been smeared thickly on theglass, in what looked like tar or oil.

He remembered to breathe. Some part of him had been expecting this. Somepart of him had been dreading this. And some part of him eagerly embracedthis message from the dark forces with whom he was so intimately connected.It was time.

*********
He trotted down the back steps towards his car. The wind ruffled his hairas he paused for one more look around the farm.

The icicles clinging to the eaves of the house were picking up the brightsunlight, throwing prisms in all directions as they transformed back intowater, dripping onto the dark earth below. Crocuses were springing up inthe bare patches where the snow cover had disappeared, and birds could beheard in the dark evergreens that half-hid the buildings from the road.Life was returning to the world.

Krycek drove onto the country highway, turning towards the rising sun. Hedid not look back.

END Starfish part 3/3
Colleen C. Bailey ccbailey@facstaff.wisc.edu "When we remember we areall mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained." - MarkTwain