Chapter 17

"No!"

"Hear me out--"

"No! It's suicide! Don't be ridiculous, Elspeth! You're not going to do
anything like that! I'm not going to let you."

"You don't have veto power, Richter. And," she butt in quickly before he
could say anything, "there's no one else who can do this. Everyone else who might be able to,
is injured. Like yourself."

Frown lines creased along his forehead as he turned away from the rest of
the group. "There's got to be another plan, some other option . . . ."

"Richter . . . ."

A long, dead silence passed before Invictus mercifully broke in. "What we
need is a distraction big enough to get as many of those troops out of there at the
same time, and one big enough to give us the time we need to get in at least, and maybe
get out without having them return. As for short-term solutions-which is the only option
we really have-this is probably the best bet. Easy, right?" Nervous shuffling followed
his explanation. Richter walked away, and there was more shuffling.

Mulder and Scully did not even have to look at each other. The sense of
awkwardness was mutual, mirrored reflections in their eyes. Scully touched his hand,
and he took it in his larger one, warm and once again familiar.

***

"This whole thing feels like a situation straight out of a sci-fi
B-movie," he said, leaning down and muttering with that dry, growling voice of his.

"Funny," she commented with equal indifference in her voice, "I thought the
only movies you watched were the X-rated kind."

He shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips despite their current situation
which was like an ominous bolt of lightning in the sky. "You've got me there." Then he
leaned down and pressed his face against her cheek. "You sassy minx."

Scully smiled despite herself, and reached an arm around his waist. "Hey."

"Hey yourself." Mulder's expression changed. He looked at her
questioningly.

"Be careful, and I mean careful. Not Mulder-careful, that doesn't cut it,
not this time. You need to come out this in once piece, if not for your own sake, for
mine." She grew quiet, unaccustomed to her own frankness. She refused to look him in the
eye.

"The same for you," he said softly, squeezing her hand even tighter.

"Alright!" Invictus barked. "Time for the group huddle."

Mulder and Scully broke apart and moved to join the circle in which
Invictus and Elspeth stood in the middle. Scully reached for her gun, pulling it out of its
holster. She unlocked the safety, then looked up at Mulder who did the same, grim determination
obvious on his face.

"Ok, a quick rehash of the plans to make sure that we're all on the same
page. Elspeth here, will be off first while John, Cass, Mulder and I, will be over there," he
said, quickly motioning to a pile of rubble adjacent to a doorway, "waiting until all is clear.
Scully, you, Richter, and Mr. Frohike will be bunkered behind that fallen bit of ceiling
over there to cover us when we go in." A wry smile crossed his face. "Easy peasy,
don't you think?"

"Very," Mulder remarked without a hint of sarcasm, though the look on his
face said otherwise.

"Time's a-wasting."

"That it is," Elspeth half-snarled, throwing a black hood over her dark
hair. "Time to go and save the world, boys and girls." She quickly shot a
look at Richter, who stared her dully. Disregarding his blindingly-obvious
attempts at ignoring her, she would go over to him later after the group
had broken up to try and mend things over, however fragile and tenuous this
temporary peace of theirs might be.

As they stole a last few moments together, Scully and Mulder did the same,
huddled together, nose to nose. No words were exchanged, but they knew
each other well enough to know what the other was probably thinking. They
broke apart and moved to their respective positions where immediately, they
became aware of the cloud of absence that stood between them, something
that they both hoped to evaporate upon the other's return.

***

"I'm not liking this so much."

Scully waited for Invictus' signal and Elspeth's acknowledgment from her
position on an upper tier before she responded. She shifted her position,
her ankle aching. "I don't like this much either, Frohike, but what else
can we do?" Her gun found a sweet spot behind the cracked concrete shield
and she aimed it accordingly.

"I know," he grumbled. "I wish there was more I could do. Guns really
aren't my style." He raised his awkwardly to illustrate.

Scully stopped paying attention to his ramblings. She was looking towards
the marble balcony. Above them, Elspeth nodded slightly and motioned that
she was ready. By force of effort it seemed to Scully, Elspeth did not look
back. She did not look down to see Richter, for this one time only, his heart
full in his blue eyes, dark and sad. However, she thought of him, and of
basically everything her life had consisted of these last few months. Heavy sighs
were her only company now, and she took another as she poised her gun and fired.

"Hey!" she screamed. "I have a question for you about a helicopter!"

***

She had been planning this for a while, but she hadn't been certain whether
or not she would go through it until now. Nor had she known this would somehow involve her
stealing a helicopter, but that was how it was going to happen. But it was a strange
world now, even stranger than it had been before. This was probably an event that would
not even register in those terms.

Elspeth Parr suddenly felt very young. Growing up, she had always felt
older than her age, and stranger, in many ways, to everyone else, though she hadn't know
for a long time. Her father had been almost suffocating in his protectiveness
towards her, but he was gone now. Soon, she though wryly, she would be joining him.
They were badly in need of a conversation, and she had more than enough questions
ready forhim.

But she kept on going, because at the moment this was the most important
thing for her; in her life. Not the most brilliant or practical idea, but the fastest one
they could think of,and Elspeth had quickly agreed, so here she was, arms pumping, legs racing
in a blur of black against the snow that twinkled gently underneath floodlights. It
occurred to her then that she had not once blinked since she started her sprint, and she didn't
until she found herself taking down the single guard that stood over the Hawkeye.

The helicopter rose with a jerk, lifting into a half-spiral as its black
blades whirled in mechanical delight. The roar was loud, a groan in her ears as she
maneuvered it around the white, marble dome. She stared and noted how peaceful it looked. The
world suddenly looked so peaceful, and it broke her heart. Quiet buildings stood
drenched in snowflakes in front of her, and beyond them were the lakes,
sleeping and oblivious to the chaos that surrounded them. She shivered, breaking her
from her daze in time to avoid clipping the golden statue of Lady Forward that stood
silently on top of the dome.

"Right." She gritted her teeth. It was time. There was no longer any
point in waiting. Turning the helicopter away from the capitol, Elspeth turned it towards
those sleepy buildings, saying a silent apology to them in her head as she accelerated
ahead blindly.

***

The explosion sent them reeling, not to mention head-first into the
concrete before them. Scully's first reaction was to turn and reach out to Richter
whose eyes were wide in unabashed horror. She held onto his wrist long enough to
see his pupils dilate, but not long enough to tell him "no," to tell him not to go.

He was up and gone without another second's hesitation. The rubble seemed
to hardly deter him as he hurdled and dodged his way out of the building.

Scully winced as she aggravated her ankle injury. She slumped against the
wall and looked at Frohike who could only shake his head. "Fuck," she cursed, drawing the
word out long and hard. "Fuck."

***

"Aw, fuck."

She heard her own gasp, but her vision was blurred still, and there was a
tightness in her chest. There was an intense pressure that seemed to burn all
over her body. She hoped it was because she was in hell, because she was
supposed to be dead. She had to be. It was the only natural outcome, unless
things had gone awry.

"Elspeth!" It was Richter.

Blindly, she groped for him, for his arms which quickly accepted her into
their fold. She held back the groan of pain that hung on the tip of her tongue. "This ended
wrong," she explained lamely, her voice hoarse. A pause, then she turned her sightless eyes to
where she could feel his warm breath. "But you know that, don't you?" She sighed. It hurt to
do that, and it hurt more to talk, but she had to explain now that the situation presented
itself. "Richter, I . . ."

"Shh," he soothed, moving them closer to a spot near the building where
snow and shadows hid them from eyes out in the dark. "I knew. I've had
suspicions for a while, but it doesn't matter. It stopped mattering a while
ago, Elspeth."

She was quiet, then struggled to cover coughs that racked through her
injured body. She rested her head on her arm.

Richter turned and touched her hand, giving it a squeeze. Words hung at his
lips but nothing was said. Then he touched her face, stroked her cold
cheek. She blinked, her eyelids suddenly growing tired and heavy.

"I . . ." she swallowed hard. "I don't know what happened. I was supposed
to go down . . . . "

He turned his head away from her and surveyed the area around them. The he
looked up, his eyes drawn up to the sky as he saw the searchlights blink
out, and the night fill with darkness. "Come on, now. You're safe. You're
alive, that's what's important," he said stubbornly.

Her smile was thin. "Hardly. This is the worst case scenario. A
perfectly good helicopter destroyed in the name of what?" A deep, wrenching cough
rocked through her, and she fell sideways, out of his arms and into the snow. "I
was supposed to die in that crash. You know that. Two birds with one stone." Her
voice softened and faltered at what she said next. "Although I suppose that's just
a technicality."

He tried to ignore that.

"Richter?" It was becoming harder to breathe. "Promise me something?" She
leaned up, her hand on his chest.

"Yes?"

She was struck by clarity, as clear as the night sky. "When I die, you
have to burn my body as soon as possible." A finger touched his lips, however
awkwardly. "Promise me. You know why this has to be done. They can't get their
hands on my DNA..." she grimaced in anguish and self-hate as the words rolled from
her tongue.

"Don't let them get a chance to win, Richter. Promise me you'll burn my
body when I die."

"If you die."

"When," she snapped, then reneged. "Sorry."

"If, then," he said calmly, "yes. If you wanted me to--"

A sigh. "Don't say anything more, love, don't say anything more," she
whispered, reaching out to touch his face.

Richter smiled to himself as he forgot where he was for a moment, but he
bit his lip in consternation a second later, remembering their situation.
Recalling that Elspeth lay inches away from him, her life bleeding away,
red stains on a white, crystal carpet.

He let a note of child-like hope crawl into his voice, a feeling that he
had buried deep away for what seemed like an age ago. "Do you think this vaccine
really works, though? This miracle cure for mankind?"

Elspeth made no response.

"Elspeth, do you think the vaccine is for real?" he repeated, fear shaking
his voice. But he only heard silence.

Minutes he sat, still as death. Fear crept into his heart until it almost
burst and he could bear it no longer. Finally, Richter turned to her.

Her chest was still and no breath escaped from her lips, no puff of
cold white air indicating that life still lived in her body. Her dark
brown eyes were wide open, directed heaven-ward, and her expression calm.
The hard lines of bitterness and despair suddenly erased as she looked up
towards the stars in wonder, unaware of the horrors that had
rained from the skies and dismantled their lives. Elspeth Parr now only saw
the beauty of the stars as they glittered faintly in the winter sky above
her.

Richter moved slowly to her side, his whole body weighted down by agony.
He shrugged off his sling and as he gathered her body in his arms, cradling
her gently as though she would break, he let the first tears touch his eyes since
forever. Tears that had eluded him when his wife and child had been murdered; tears
that had finally been moved beyond the brink and now came crashing down
past all the barriers he had worked all his life to build up. He pressed her
body closer to his, stroking her face; brushing away the hair on her
forehead.

His heart breaking on each word, he whispered to her in death what he had
never told her in life. "I never told you . . ." he choked, his face buried
in her hair. "I do. I still do, you know." His voice broke and he could say no more.
Then he held her until the warmth had left her body, and then--for a little while
longer.

END CHAPTER

Chapter Eighteen