Quinine Solution

by zara hemla :: x-files :: r :: story 8 in the "mercy" series. spender cleans house.

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Don't want 'em. Well, I *could* do with some Krycek and vanilla ice cream . . . but I shall resign myself.

Extremely grateful thanks to NancyFF for the once-over. And to JET for dabbling in my macabre fairy tale, saving my career, playing in Krycek's neighborhood. He's saving his best smile for you.


"So," said Estella, "I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me."
--Charles Dickens

"He's a bad bad man who would kill you and then kick your dead body for getting blood on his leather pants." --Jennifer Stoy



One

Yet again, at the beginning of the story, I am awakened by something falling in the other room. Like a fairy tale princess, I startle upwards, struggling into black blankets. Smothering.

"Where are you when your glorious conqueror returns?"

The crashing continues, the voice of the evil stepmother rises. Alex Krycek has reappeared in a puff of smoke. I quit struggling against the blankets and lie perfectly still.

"Damn it all to . . . Jeffrey, get out here right now!"

Perfectly still. Stay still.

"Jeff-REY!"

I realise this isn't going to work as the door cracks open and I see him in the doorway, spikey hair backlit in silhouette.

"Jeffffff-reeeeeeyyyy, did you hear what I said to you?" He sounds faux-cheerful, the kind of cheerful that precedes the sentence 'this is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you.'

I sigh. "I heard you."

"Then get out here before I break your head." His dangerous voice washes me fully awake. I shove back the covers and move toward him. He lets me precede him to the living room. And then his solid chest smacks me in the back, for I have stopped still. I usually think that nothing else in this blasted world could surprise me. This time I'm wrong.

The apartment is tornado-swept, hurricane-ridden. Nothing is in its place. Alex has taken apart the place, and I slept through this mayhem? A cold wind spikes my skin, for he has broken the glass in the windows. He has broken everything.

I slowly turn my head into his spectral grin. His eyelashes look singed, sooty. Something dark smudges his cheekbones and his neck. He's covered in tiny splatters of blood. Has he cut himself? My eyes move to his hands, which are covered in dirty blood and what looks like soot. Back up to his grin, which hasn't wavered a bit. Back up to his maniac eyes.

"I'm feeling very high right now," he says matter-of- factly. "I gotta turn on the news." He moves past me and I track him toward the TV. It's lying face down on the floor. The little TV table underneath it has been smashed into splinters. Alex props the TV up and miraculously, only one crack runs through it in the center. He flips it on and wonder of wonders, it works.

" . . . again, I am here live covering a mysterious fire that is raging out of control here on Canal Street." The skinny woman stands with one hand over her ear in classic reporter stance, the wind whipping her hair and firemen rushing by. She yells again into the mic. "Apparently, the firemen haven't reached everyone yet, as this fire came up so suddenly that they haven't had time. Right now, they are just trying to get everyone rescued, and trying to keep the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings. We'll have more news on this at eleven. Lily Tobler, WJLA news, Washington DC."

The camera pans out again just for a second, and I get a glimpse of flushed flames before I'm spun around by Alex, who dances me clumsily across the room. I stub my toes on broken furniture and half-smashed electronics. He's leading; it's the only thing keeping me up. His forearm smashes my waist and his breath smells like Lifesavers. I think I must be dreaming -- delusional -- dead. Something like that.

"I made that!" he exclaims, fever-eyed. "I set that fire and no one's gonna catch me, no one's gonna find me, I have it back Jeffrey, I have it back. I feel like a new man."

"I didn't know you were a pyro," I say sarcastically, trying frantically to figure out why he's here and not in Afghanistan or something. I thought he'd left the country. I thought he'd left me. His hands seem safe for a moment, as if he hadn't just burned down a building.

"I, sir, am a Jack of all trade. And I need to get laid," he laughs, letting me go. I stand in the midst of broken dishes, my feet miraculously uncut.

"Trades," I mutter sourly to myself. Trust Alex to sacrifice for the sake of the rhyme. I almost reach up to rub a smudge from his cheekbone, but I manage to keep my arm from moving.

"I'd ask you to come with me, Cinderella, but hell, you have to clean this place up first," he beams, flinging his arms out. "Otherwise you can't go to the ball."

I squat down, knees popping, and begin to pick up broken stoneware. "Casual sex isn't my thing."

"That's not what you said to that girl in the bar. Only thing you said to her was 'Faster!'."

"Fuck you."

Jasper eyes blister me, but he smiles, smiles, smiles. "Likewise."

Now is not the time to ask why the sudden pyro tendencies, but I am eaten up with a need to know. "Alex?"

He spins toward me, past me, around on his heel. "What, Jeffrey? What on earth is your question? Who wants to be a millionaire?"

"Why did you set that fire?"

His grin grows wider, splintered like the coffee table, the chairs, the doorframe. Smashed. "Because Scully prayed. Because the fuckin smoking man got a fuckin brain transplant. Because I had a lighter in my hand."

And he spins around again, crunches floppy disks under his heel as he goes to the door. Then he pivots, fixes me with a black look. "Oh, and because Kritschgau had some evidence on his fuckin powerbook. I wanted it, I got it." He points to a battered laptop which is laid on top of a pile of magazines. "Scully thought she deleted those files, boy was she wrong. Stupid bitch doesn't know jerk- all about undelete."

Before I know it, I've thrown most of a plate at him. It misses and shatters a little bit to his left. A small piece of glass slices across his left cheek and dents his smudgy grin. Frankly, he looks slightly shocked. Like when a good-tempered pet suddenly bites.

"Don't call her a bitch, I told you that already," I say icily. Cock my hand back for another throw.

"Okay, okay," he laughs, throwing his hands up like he's immortal. "Don't get your panties in a bunch, Jeffrey. Bitch no, but stupid, yes." He ducks around the door and slams it as another piece of plate smacks into the wall.

"Fuck you!" I yell again at the closed door. Alex is the stupid bitch. He's jealous because Mulder obviously loves Scully. They lift one another up, and Mulder won't give Alex the time of day without trying to punch him. Some might say that's misguided love, but no. Mulder hates Alex and wants to kill him, just like any man hates an enemy who threatens his existence. Mulder's pistol is loaded around Alex, and I do mean his real, actual gun. Alex just lives in denial, hoping that one day his half-kisses will become the whole thing. Fat chance. Alex honey, if you were the last man on earth, he'd spit in your face and then kill you. I grin.

Hellfire, this place is a mess. I stand still in carnage. Chairs lie overturned on top of books; a whole table is smashed into kindling. Good thing the place was a rathole to begin with. Alex has punched holes in the wall and broken two light fixtures. And the captive princess must get to work cleaning the ashes out of the hearth.

I remember asking Alex if he liked to kill. He'd said no at the time. I think he lied. I think he lies about everything. Liar. Stupid liar.

I look at the clock. It's seven p.m. Time for me to get up anyway. I run my hand through my hair, look down at my grimy slept-in shirt, my threadbare boxer shorts. I have a drool stain on my sleeve and two days' worth of beard. Ah ha. Time for a shower.

Once under the water, I notice dispassionately that I have some glass in my foot. A thin trickle of blood mixes with the shower water after I pull it out. Blood lightly outlines my foot: the long thin toes, the arch that hasn't fallen yet. Pink water stains my heel momentarily. People's footprints are like fingerprints; everyone walks differently. Some plod, some race. Some dance.

I punch off the water, rub my sleek skin with a towel. Pull on clean underwear, slide into jeans and a loose T- shirt. I squint at my face in the mirror, trying to decide if it's worth it to shave. It itches like hell and I finally break out the razor. I don't cut myself at all.

I'm hungry. But Alex will be angry if I don't clean up the house by the time he gets home. A shower was a legitimate use of my time; eating is not. Yet. When part of this gets picked up, I will call for something to eat.

Well, Hurricane Alex has made a thorough job of it. China piles in a heap on the floor; I will have to sweep and vacuum. He has broken everything, down to the cups and the little delicate saucers that he said were his mother's. I assume he lied about that too. The porcelain had small roses painted on it. Its eggshell-thin surface has broken into wafer-thin pieces. What a hardship this is. I can't pick it all up by hand.

And oh! The rest of the apartment. He knows I can't stand to leave it like this. He knows that within a month of my death experience, I had the place looking pretty damn clean, if not spotless. Is he trying to distract me? It's working. Like a vampire, I am incapable of moving farther without counting the shards of porcelain.

I stand up again, off to find the cleaning utensils. The broom is a community-use one and it stays out in the hall unless someone is using it. It's nasty but it's all I have.

I open the door cautiously, scout for my neighbors, and then venture forth when no sound comes from them. It's possible that they just thought Alex was having wild sex in the living room. And he may have been for all I know. I get a flash of the back of his neck where the hairs are shortest. A flash of his mouth, vulnerable and open, exposing his teeth. But no. The apartment smells just as depressing as usual -- bachelors and fried electronics.

I head down the hallway and the broom is lying in the glow of a street-lamp from outside. I put one hand on the broom and one hand on the sill and through the window, like an apocalyptic Horseman, I see a flicker of trenchcoat and the slide of broad shoulders through a street light.

Who is it? Plague? War? Death? Fastidious to a fault, I snatch up the broom and scurry toward the apartment door. Downstairs, the front door opens and heavy shoes bang on the landing. I begin invoking deity in a rush, diving for the back of the overturned couch and rummaging through an upside down drawer in a sideways table. Oh where oh where is it, and then I feel the warm grip of it and have just enough time to brace my wrists against the sofa edge, brace my wrists and put up the top of my head and cock the damn thing as the door comes crashing open like the end of the world.

- - Two - -

"Fr-- " I manage, wishing I had Mulder's cool dry wit. The man in the doorway gives me one narrow-eyed glance and then he takes one step and I swear he is halfway across the room.

"Jeffrey Spender," he says.

"--eeze." I think my voice trembles, but my wrists are rock-steady. The Smith & Wesson stays lined up right between his eyes. My hands can shoot him sure's hell, but I don't know about my mind. Please don't take another half-room step. Please stand still. I don't know if I can control my hands. "P--lease. Just stand still."

"This is a new development." Skinner twists his mouth around the words as if I were quinine, something bitter he must swallow. His glasses glint opaquely, hiding his eyes. His head swivels very slowly.

"Who did the decor? Lizzie Borden?"

Silence from my end. I'm completely at a loss for words. We stare at each other. He shifts his weight and glass crunches under his feet. Lizzie Borden, ha ha, that's really funny. Get out, Skinner, get out.

Instead, he hunkers down toward the floor, his attention fixed on the piles of rubbish I've assembled. He holds a piece of china up to the light, seemingly unaware of the gun still trained on him. The skin-thin china decants harsh fluorescent light into angelfire.

"Where's Krycek?" he asks politely, like we're at some kind of fuckin ice cream social. Still staring at the sliver of china between his blunt fingers.

"D-do you think I'd tell you if I did know?" Inside, I seethe. Who's holding the gun here? He seems far away, untouchable. The china tinkles to the floor.

"I think it would be best if you told me." Stilted, formal language. Perhaps he is frightened after all. "He requires me to do something."

My fear slips blackly away. This isn't happening, it's ridiculous. "He requires *you*?"

He swivels his head like an automaton, blank lenses, blank eyes. A flicker of desperation lights him for a moment. Interesting.

"I have to know where he is."

Bluntly, I make a decision. This isn't AD Skinner standing in the middle of Alex's bleak apartment. This is a fellow fish, hooked through the throat.

"I don't know. He's out getting laid somewhere." Skinner's mouth drops slightly at that, and no wonder. I'm sure he isn't used to waiting around while someone screws their brains out. He hesitates slightly, squinting at me.

"Do you have to keep pointing that gun at me?"

This man isn't going to hurt me. I flip the safety back on and stand up from my uncomfortable crouch behind the sofa. He stands too, uncomfortably slouching in the eye of the hurricane. I head back for the broom, tossing the gun back into the topsy-turvy nightstand.

"He going to come back anytime soon?"

I shrug, plying the broom like the good serving girl. "Dunno."

"Would-- " and then silence, broken by crunching glass -- he's shifting his weight again.

Before I'm aware of it, I've turned my head slowly. He's polishing his glasses on his shirt. His eyes look uncertain. Dodgy. Carefully, he places the lenses back on his nose.

"Could I help you clean up?"

Well, who am I to blow against the wind? Wordlessly, I hand him the broom and begin picking up splintered pieces of furniture. He sweeps efficiently, Mr. Marine, not giving that glass anywhere to go. From time to time, he takes hurried glances at the door. It doesn't open.

Alex hasn't done as much damage to the kitchen as I'd thought. In his idiot savant way, he's broken only the dishes and left the coffeemaker intact. So eventually, between cleaning the left and right sides of the living room, I make coffee. I have to serve it in two plastic cups that didn't break; they are uncomfortably hot. Skinner takes the plastic cup without flinching and sucks down the black brew. A true Marine probably would not flinch while drinking boiled dirt.

I fantasize for a moment that I'm a Marine, that I'm cleaning up the bodies of wounded dead. I heft a chair leg like it's a limb, pick up magazines like the boots of lost souls. I wonder what it's like to drink boiled dirt and then go out and cap your fellow man. Or woman. Or child. Or some combination of the three. I can feel my hair prickle all over my scalp. The question pops out before I can stop it.

"Sir," (can't break that habit--) "what is keeping you here?" Holding a chair leg like a baby's arm.

He doesn't look up from where he's tacking a plastic garbage bag over a broken window. "I couldn't possibly help you understand that, Jeffrey."

"Is-- "

He glances flatly at me but I continue on, swallowing bitter coffee remnants.

"Is he holding something you love?"

I expect anger or maybe frustration but to my surprise, he grins widely, then snorts an abbreviated laugh. "What's he holding on you?" he asks. Which catches me rather flat- footed.

"Well, he saved my life," I answer lamely. Dumb, dumb, dumb. He saved me and killed me. He eats my entrails every night like Prometheus's vulture.

Skinner slants another flat glance at me. He grunts noncommittally and moves past me, to a small rug that has been stained by ink. I stop him with a hand on his arm.

"Don't bother. That stain has been there forever."

"He saved your life, huh?" His low voice echoes, bouncing the inches between my face and his.

"I guess," I say. "I blacked out over his boots and woke up at his place."

"What does he want from you?" he breathes. He stares at me. His arm muscles tense and flex under my hand. I'm reminded that he must have lain in jungle grass, sucking in hot air and mold spores and Agent Orange. I have a sudden sharp longing for my gun.

"I'm his wife," I answer readily, trying to control my churning gut. "I pick up after him when he's gone. I take his beatings. I lie in bed and listen to him having sex with other men." It's a good enough answer. Just as he can't explain himself to me, I can't reciprocate.

If I could explain it to him, I would. I'd tell him how my stomach curdles at the thought of leaving all the power and chance that Alex represents. He gave me a chance once; he gave me a gun and I pulled the trigger.

I'm not good enough to be on my own. I'm not smart enough or fast enough. I just keep thinking that maybe if I stay around, I'll learn to be fast, I'll learn to be smart. If I just . . . take . . . everything he gives me, maybe I can learn to dodge. I've learned so much already. I've learned to ask questions on his good days, learned to watch his eyes light up with love for his games. I've learned to watch his fingers as they wind through his hair.

I want to learn everything. I want him to teach me, even if he has to kill me. And I want my father dead. One way or the other, Alex's way or the highway, the long dark road that I am afraid to take alone.

By now, Skinner's staring at me like I've got the plague. I smile widely, guilelessly. "But I don't kill for him," I add sweetly. "No, I don't do that." Why admit guilt when you can lie? I used to tell the truth and look where it got me. Dumb, stupid liar me.

"You-- " and he stops, tears his arm away from my hand, and spins in a half-circle like he is suffocating. His powerful fingers flex over nothing. "You. . . . look. Come home with me."

"What?"

"I mean, come stay with me for awhile, and I'll find you another place to live. You don't have to stay with him. You don't -- you don't -- his *wife*?!??!" It's three- quarters comical, the way his mouth flaps in horror.

"Revolting, isn't it," I say cheerfully, not knowing why I find this so amusing. Then I notice the way he's backing away from me. I think he's misinterpreting the situation. Not like I can explain it any better.

"Not that we're sleeping together or anything. We aren't." He sits, suddenly, on the couch, still staring at me and folding his arms in a classic keep-away pose. "And don't worry, I won't come on to you. Um," and I almost lose my nerve, "Scully's more my type." He ought to understand that.

He stares at me for a long time, makes a noncommittal noise, drops his hands to his sides and cocks his head. "Still, you can come home with me. No matter who your type is. Come home and stay. You don't have to let him beat you. You don't even have any information to give him."

He doesn't know how many times I've lain in bed, full of that knowledge. He doesn't know how many times I've wanted to run away. Run away? Hell, I'd crawl. If I could. The long black road looms ahead of me, the one that begins with one step away from Alex's candle burning at both ends.

"Can't. He'd be angry." Understatement of the year. He doesn't like anyone getting out from under his thumb. To illustrate, I pull up my shirt and show him my back. It doesn't hurt if I don't lay on it or try to reach high shelves, but I know from the mirror that it looks glorious. I hear Skinner's breath sob out as he looks at the bruises. He feels sorry for me. It's a halfway pleasant feeling.

"Angry. Is that what he does when he's angry?"

"No. Hungry," I reply. Behind me, I hear him stand and I suppose he can't help himself, for he brushes his thumb very lightly across my side. I wince, and he asks very quietly what it was that Alex used to cause bruises like those. And I open my mouth to answer but I am silenced once again as Alex himself says, from behind us, "A pistol."

 --- Three  ---

Instantly I whirl, stuffing my shirt back into my jeans. Skinner has spun around too and we both face him like guilty conspirators.

He looks the worse for wear. His white face glides slightly above the turned-up collar of his jacket. Someone has cut two very thin lines across his cheekbones, and they are just knitting back up. But his teeth show evenly and his eyes shine pseudo-alertly as he aims a feral grin at Skinner.

"A fuckin pistol, are you happy now, Skinner? Did you just thrill to your bones at getting that information?"

"Why?" whispers Skinner, and beside me I sense him trembling, ready to fly.

"You heard the boy. I was hungry." He lounges against the front door, all satisfaction and peace, but his hand is flexed and flat at his side. "Jeffrey."

"Are you hungry now?" I ask. I don't answer the implicit question. Sometimes you can talk back to Alex and sometimes you can't. Today is one of the can days.

"No," he smiles. "I had a four course meal. Jeffrey, the house looks well. You cleaned it up wonderfully. Now I want you to go to your room." And I go, without a second look at AD Skinner, who stood statue-still the whole time Alex was speaking. I shut the door with a bang, so Alex knows I shut it, and then I press my ear up against the air vent that connects my room to the short hallway into the living room.

"You beat that boy," says Skinner. "You beat him up, Krycek. Has it come to this?" I wonder fleetingly why I'm suddenly relegated to child status. I hear Alex's boots as he walks deliberately across the room. I hear his very pleasant voice and imagine the flex of his thighs as he cocks back his foot.

"Skinner, why don't you just shut up before I kick your head up your ass?"

Silence from Skinner's end. I smile.

"Now. Did you come here to interfere in my domestic disputes?"

A long silence, then he replies: "No."

Archly, Alex repeats it back to him. "No?"

Silence. It stretches into minutes and then I hear Skinner -- Skinner! -- reply, "No sir" in what amounts to a brittle rasp.

"That's right, Skinner. Don't forget who had to kiss your ass for months on end. So consider this payback."

"Yes sir."

Alex makes a satisfied noise. "And I'm so sorry to keep you waiting. Did Jeffrey tell you where I'd gone?"

"Yes sir."

"Would you like to hear the details?"

Skinner's shocked "No!" is barely followed by a terse "sir."

"No? Do you mean you want to leave my establishment without so much as a drink or civil conversation?"

I can tell by his diction that Alex is very slightly high. When he's stoned, he talks like a fuckin Harvard professor. He never gets really stoned, just enough to reveal that he's endured quite a bit of higher education. I make plans to stay very quiet in my room.

"Jeffrey gave me some coffee, thanks," replies Skinner. "And as for civil conversation, why don't you just tell me what it is you want?"

"All in good time," replies my entrail-tearing vulture. "First, I have to tell that dear idiot Jeffrey that he shouldn't be listening at grates." That's a hint, and when he opens the door and sticks his head through, I'm on the bed, leafing through a copy of "Men's Health" magazine. I raise my eyebrows enquiringly as he glares at me narrowly.

"I have ears like a bat," he hisses, advancing on me in quicktime. I resist the urge to scrabble back against the wall. "Don't think you can put one foot on that floor without my hearing it." His pupils up close look dreamy and fine.

He will sleep well tonight, dreaming of someone who cuts his cheekbone in fine, swift slashes.

I nod and he shuts the door and then I know I've just been tossed out of the loop. Poor little kiddie Jeffrey always gets shut out of everything. I study "Men's Health." There's a picture of a woman in a push-up bra. She looks slightly like my favorite Agent. In my daydream, she rises from the paper, black and white, and she looks at me and puts her hands on her hips.

"This thing is damned uncomfortable," she says. "And I don't appreciate you staring."

Out there, the front door slams and I know Skinner is gone. In the morning, I will notice that Kritschgau's laptop left with him. Someone who cleans a whole house knows what's missing. In the morning, I will make watery coffee and sit in the windowsill, waiting for Alex to wake up. Waiting to see if it's a good or a bad day. Waiting. Bruised princess in the window. Let the day be fine.

--the end--

support Indie Ficwriters Local 151! shutupmulder@yahoo.com

Notes:

THANK YOU JENNA for giving me more time. If I could give you Johnny Depp's cheekbones, I would.

El Dickens is, of course, Great Expectations. Don't sue me, Charles, because I know you're still alive and living in Hollywood and writing stuff like "There's Something About Mary." You auld bastard, you.

Thanks also to Mel Gibson for being in "Payback," even though that movie *sucked.*

"Who am I to blow against the wind" is Paul Simon.

Accompanying music: the very pained "Lifes Rich Pageant" from R.E.M. "You don't really love that guy you make it with, now do you?/I know you don't love that guy cause I can see right through you."

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