The process of getting his makeshift transceiver up and running in concert with his laptop had been much more of a trial than Byers had expected. The snowfall kept burying the fake boulder, and he'd had to mess with things far too often for his taste before he could get even a patchy net connect.
Susanne hadn't let him work more than five minutes at a time barehanded outside the house; not after the morning's near-frostbite incident. Truthfully, he hadn't been keen on the idea of gangrene or losing any fingers himself, and so he had not argued with her about it. Besides, he still felt the exhaustion of too little sleep and too much stress over the previous days. Between the limited time he could spend working out in the snow without gloves, and the effort of having to keep shoveling snow each time he went outside because of drifting and continued accumulation, he was frustrated and ached badly. He thought he might be developing some blisters, as well.
By four that afternoon, he was too tired to stand any longer. He had given in to his body's demands and curled himself up on Susanne's couch in front of the woodstove, wrapped in the blanket she'd tucked around him. He slept fitfully in her arms for nearly two hours before she woke him and made dinner.
Over the chicken and dumplings, she'd sat nearly silent, glancing up at him occasionally, but fearful of meeting his eyes.
"What's wrong?" he'd asked.
She gazed at him with a worried look. "It's... I..." She sighed. "You were so restless. You would mutter in your sleep, both last night and this afternoon, and I understood some of it. Sometimes you cried. It was awful. I tried to wake you, but you would flail around and I was afraid that you'd hurt yourself. How long have you been having these nightmares, John?"
She left unspoken her fear that he might also accidentally hurt her in his sleeping terrors, and the fact that she had held him close and tried to ease his panic and his tears during the worst of it.
He'd looked down into his bowl, unseeing. "Ten years," he whispered, "almost eleven. Ever since..."
"Ever since I met you," she finished quietly. He nodded. "I'm so sorry, John. I'm so sorry for all of it. For bringing you into this and putting your life at risk. For forcing you into hiding from those men. Sorry for causing you so much pain, for so long. I'm..."
He had cut her off with gentle fingers over her lips and looked into her eyes, an anguished expression on his face. "No. Don't be sorry, Susanne. Never be sorry. Meeting you changed my life, and not all of those changes were bad. You opened my eyes and I realized things I would never have believed possible.
"The guys and I, we're not hapless pawns anymore. We have a fighting chance to save ourselves and other people from the things these men do. You gave me a purpose in life, and... and someone to love. I never had that before I met you."
A tear slipped down her cheek and she reached out to caress his face. "You are so brave, John. I only wish..." her voice faded, hopeless. She took his hand gently, and ran a thumb over the ring she'd given him the previous year.
"Me too." He stood and carefully pulled her from her seat to stand with him, taking her into his arms. They'd held each other with equal measures of tenderness and despair, both of them silently weeping over what they knew they could never have.
"I'm not brave," he said, his voice wavering. "I never have been. You're the brave one. Me, I'm terrified. All the time. I look over my shoulder every time I leave the office. Hell, I *live* in my office so that I don't have to leave it much, I'm so damned scared. And I've hidden you here, so far away from me that I can never even talk to you, just to try and keep you safe from the dangers in my life." He drew a shaky breath. "I'm a coward, Susanne, and a hopeless one at that. If I really was a brave man, I'd marry you and live with you and take care of you like you deserve. I would protect you no matter what dangers we faced, and make a life with you somewhere -- anywhere -- and screw this whole goddamn conspiracy..."
His resolve had crumbled completely at that point, along with his voice, and he sobbed quietly into her shoulder, holding Susanne tightly and rocking her back and forth, their bodies swaying together in his trembling dance of sorrow. She had held him fiercely then, whispering comforting words to him and kissing him softly, over and over, letting him cry, unwilling to show this kind and gentle man she loved her own terrifying weakness and fear. "Your fear doesn't make you a coward, John. It's what you do despite your fear that makes you a brave man."
A few minutes later, she'd led him back to her bedroom, where they made love with a desperation known only to the dying.
Byers had taken to his work after that with renewed determination. The snow finally stopped falling at about eight that evening, and about twenty minutes ago he had finally gotten his makeshift rig to function properly, at least for tests. The break in the snow had cleared most of the satellite link problems, and the twin twelve volt power source was working like a charm.
Much of his previous frustration and annoyance cleared, and despite the fact that he was still wiped out, he felt elated. He knew that his friends were probably half-crazy with worry by now, and was intent on finally letting them know that he and Susanne were safe and well.
Susanne walked up her driveway and out to the road. Returning, she said "It looks like Frank got the road cleared a few hours ago. Your rental's a four-wheel, isn't it?"
Byers nodded as he booted his email program.
"That means that if we can get out of the driveway, we can get out of here. It shouldn't be too hard."
He looked up at her, faint but noticeable dark owl crescents under his eyes. "It would be a good idea to clear out as soon as possible, true, but I have no idea how to drive in these conditions, and I'm not going to last a whole lot longer tonight."
"John, why do you think I can't drive?"
He blinked. He hadn't considered the implication in his statement. "What do we need to do to get the car to the road?"
"A little shoveling, a big bag of clay cat litter, and reinstalling the battery. Tire chains, if you have them."
He nodded. He was not at all enthusiastic about yet another bout with snow shovels at ten paces, but if they could leave here and get back on something even vaguely resembling the planned schedule, he would feel much better. Besides, if Susanne was driving, he could sleep. "Ok. As soon as I get my check-in done, we'll pack and blow this pop stand."
She smiled. "I'll dig out the clay litter. There's some in the trunk of my car." She kissed him, rebuttoned her coat and put her gloves back on, then went out to begin the initial excavations. Byers sighed and turned his attention to the essential work at hand.
Freya clear. Mobile apx 2400. Next phase. ETA? Clear. :Fenris:
He coded and sent the message and read those waiting for him. Langly and Frohike were both safe and snug in their hidey-holes as of the last check-in. He got an immediate message back from Frohike as he examined the brief notes.
You never write. Confirm. :Baldur:
Byers laughed. Half the time Frohike sounded like their den mother at the office -- 'eat! eat! you look starving!' -- and this just added to his stack of smotherly symptoms. Byers' relief at knowing that Landau was apparently not yet seeking Susanne was balanced by the uneasiness he felt, recognizing that he and his friends were the primary targets. The fact that Timmy had dropped out of sight after Langly's first check-in was worrisome.
As long as Susanne was safe, though, he could cope with the situation. He was considerably more concerned with the idea that by taking her from this place, he would be bringing her closer to peril. Then again, if Landau found him, Frohike or Langly, he would certainly attempt to get her location from them before he killed them. John was prepared to die before he betrayed her, but wasn't so certain of his comrades. Better that she was with him now, where he would know for certain if she was safe. If worse came to worst, he could always send her out a door or a window while he stalled Timmy. He'd also legitimately be able to deny that he knew where she was, so there would be no chance that the information could be drugged or tortured out of him. He shut down the laptop and went to help Susanne prepare the area for their departure.
JANUARY 10, 2000
SOMEWHERE IN VIRGINIA
"It's about time you showed up!" Frohike's frustration and anxiety was plain on his face and in his voice as Byers and Susanne entered the ramshackle cabin that was their meeting place.
Byers looked around. "Where's Langly? He should already be here."
"No shit. He missed the morning check-in, and since I couldn't get in touch with you two while you were traveling, I've had to sit here on my ass unable to look for him!" Frohike picked up an empty beer can -- one of a rather significant pile -- and threw it into the wall with a snarl. It made a satisfying metallic clatter as it hit the wall and bounced onto the floor.
"Have you checked with Mulder? Any of our other contacts?" Byers asked. The tension in his voice was unmistakable, but he wanted to cling to logic until action or panic were the only available options. Frohike glared at him.
"Ok, bad question. Of course you have."
"Mulder found Langly's glasses mangled on the floor and blood splattered around at the safehouse," Frohike said quietly.
Byers and Susanne stiffened, and joined hands nervously. "Is he..." Byers started.
"Not enough blood to think he'd been shot, and the patterns don't match a gunshot wound either, thank god. Mulder says it looks like Timmy roughed him up pretty badly though. Most likely, the little creep intends to use him as bait to suck us in."
"Well, that's something, I suppose. I just hope it means Landau won't kill him right away." Byers shook his head. "We need to start looking for him. Did Mulder get any idea of a vehicle? Was there any evidence suggesting where Landau might have taken him?"
Frohike sighed. "Before we can do anything, we need to make some plans, so you might as well put your stuff down, take your coats off and have some coffee." Byers nodded and relieved Susanne of her things, putting everything on or next to the tattered brown couch.
Susanne sat down at the small dining table while Frohike poured for them all, and Byers joined them quickly.
"They could be anywhere by now," Byers began solemnly.
"Maybe, but I don't think they're too far from where Langly was, to be honest." Frohike said.
"Why do you think that?" asked Susanne.
"If he wants us to find him," Byers said to her, "and I believe he does, then Frohike's conjecture is probably accurate. I'm sure he wants us to work for it, but it won't be too difficult to find if we look with the right mindset."
Frohike nodded. "That's what I'm thinking." He set a disk on the table.
"This is what I've been able to get from our contacts. It's a few files with information about places Timmy's been sighted in the last few years, places where he might have a safehouse or some kind of resources."
Byers looked hopeful. "Have you looked at it yet?"
Frohike shook his head. "Didn't have time before you got here. Spent most of it on the phone and the net."
"That's easy enough," Byers said, getting his laptop and opening it on the table. Frohike handed him the disk and they all watched as Byers opened the files. "Best thing to do is to limit the search parameters to places within 100 miles of Langly's safehouse. If that doesn't yield any results, we widen it by another 100 and go from there." Frohike and Susanne nodded.
"Here's the printer jack," Frohike said, offering the wire to Byers. It was plugged in, and several dozen pages printed in short order.
The stacks were divided, Langly's safehouse location given to Susanne, and maps called up for the region. They all read silently for some time, sipping coffee, checking maps and flipping pages.
Byers and Susanne occasionally exchanged brief but caring glances as they sat close together on the couch, legs touching. Frohike observed them from his perch at the table, silently considering the two of them together. Every time she'd ever been around them, admittedly only twice in the past ten years, they'd been dragged into the midst of some sort of horror and nearly killed. He didn't really think of it as her fault, particularly.
Byers had been right, that night they'd spent in lockup. They really had been helping her, not just to aid a lady in distress, but to find the truth for themselves. Though Byers' heart had been a casualty of war only hours later, he didn't seem to regret it, nor did he seem unwilling to allow himself to be wounded again if things turned for the worst.
Despite Frohike's characterization of Susanne Modeski as Mata Hari, he couldn't quite bring himself to believe that she deliberately wanted to harm Byers. Not with the way she looked at him when he wasn't watching. Her face was sad, but filled with a certain tenderness, a caress of the eyes. He wished briefly that someone would look at him with eyes like that.
Maybe Langly's unfortunate "collateral damage" comment had struck too close to home for all of them. He hoped that this situation would not turn out to be yet another in their string of agonies, that Byers would finally be able to come through intact for once, that Langly would be safe and not beyond recovery when they found him. Although Byers and Susanne had parted willingly in Vegas, he knew how hard it had been on the younger man, how difficult it continued to be as they kept watch over Susanne, unable to contact her.
Despite Byers' usual silence on the subject, Frohike knew that the longer the situation continued, the worse things got for him. Something was going to have to break this time, one way or another.
He actually found himself hoping that the two would come to their senses and simply agree to stay together, where each knew the other was safe, and where he and Langly could keep an eye out for both of them. It would demand a considerable change in their lifestyles, certainly, but he thought it could only help their collective sanity. Yes, it would make things more dangerous for all of them, but ultimately, it seemed that life in general would be much more controllable. It might not be Byers' ideal of the suburban picket fence, but at least they would finally have each other.
Besides, he grumbled to himself, we all die eventually.
Frohike paled a bit at his own morbidity and turned his musings to Langly as he once again began reading his stack of pages. If there is a god anywhere, let Langly still be alive, he prayed.
About twenty minutes later, Susanne spoke. "I think I've got something here." Byers leaned over to look. Frohike joined them. She pointed at the map. "Langly's safehouse was in Melrose, Maryland. Landau's been repeatedly sighted in York, Pennsylvania over the last five years."
Byers nodded. "That's a lot closer than the hundred miles we started with."
"Closer than anything I've found," Frohike added.
"Likewise," Byers concurred.
"Let's start checking out likely buildings in the vicinity," Frohike said, a certain enthusiasm in his voice. At last, he could do something other than read and fret.
Byers nodded eagerly. "Susanne, that was an excellent call." The two shared a warm, but not overly showy hug. Byers had never been big on public displays of affection, Frohike knew. The man was too guarded for it, even around his best friends. He knew that Byers rarely discussed his inner life with Langly, and usually only spoke to Frohike about it when they were alone, unless it concerned their common nightmares. And, Frohike had to admit, his own tendency to voyeurism was well known, which would undoubtedly make his friend even less likely to give in to display.
"All I did was find it on a list, John." She turned a tiny smiled at him. "I'm hungry. Is there anything here I can use to make us some dinner?"
Frohike pointed to the tiny kitchen. "There's a little stuff in there. Not much, but maybe it'll be useful."
"It isn't all beer, is it?" Byers asked.
"Nope. Drank that already."
Byers eyed the pile of beer cans. "It figures you wouldn't leave one for me."
Susanne left them to their banter, knowing that they'd soon be hard at work looking for likely sites. It chilled her, knowing that they were going to be walking directly into the hands of the man who wanted to kill them all, but she knew it had to be done, and that it would take all of them to accomplish the feat if they wanted to emerge alive. Langly had to be brought home safe, and Landau had to be stopped, permanently.
She worried as she went through the cabinets and the refrigerator. She thought there were enough basic ingredients to pull together a tuna casserole, but for the most part all that existed here was bachelor chow. Bags of ramen noodles, a dollar a dozen, boxes of almost as cheap macaroni and cheese. Canned vegetables and soups. A bread loaf biology project. Chips that looked like they'd been opened sometime during pre-dynastic Egypt. An equally dead, half-empty jar of rancid peanut butter. She gingerly deposited them in a trash bag. If the peanut butter had only been fresh, she could have whipped up something closely akin to Thai peanut sauce and poured it over unseasoned ramen noodles. With a couple of eggs scrambled in, and some tuna, it would have been at least passable. Unfortunately, tuna casserole, and a bland one at that, was seeming more and more likely as the early evening's repast.
This was all her fault, she thought, collecting likely ingredients. If she hadn't latched onto John in Baltimore all those years ago, none of this would have been possible. None of these men would have ended up risking their lives on a daily basis to expose the truth under all the layers of lies and conspiracy. Ringo wouldn't have been kidnapped or hurt; was he even still alive? And she would not have had to contend with John's pain and the knowledge that she could have prevented it. Yet he had aided her twice now, going as far as saving her life from Landau and her entirely false fiancee, at great risk to his own, and all without thought for himself. She knew beyond question that if something went wrong here, he would willingly die for her. She'd seen it in his eyes when he'd charged Landau in that Vegas hotel room. She knew too, though, that she could not let him, no matter what happened.
He had been loyal to her beyond any bounds of sanity. She didn't believe for an instant that she could ever repay him for what he'd risked for her. When she first saw him, she knew only that he looked like a man who wouldn't be able to resist a good sob story. The look of bewildered innocence, and the touch of puppydog adoration when he hesitantly offered her a button only confirmed that she would be able to play him without difficulty.
Working for the FCC, he very likely had the skills she needed to acquire the information. And he could be conveniently abandoned when her work was done. But something about him had drawn her to him emotionally as he'd done his best to help her out.
Maybe it had been that look on his face when he'd finally given over his principles and said "wait..." His expressive blue eyes perhaps, or the deep concern he'd obviously had for her, although she was a complete stranger, and a liar at that. He had been far too innocent, too eager, too ready to play the knight in shining armor, and all because he had no concept of the danger he was placing himself in. Perhaps if he had, it still would not have mattered to him. He'd kept looking for something in her to believe in, even as her lies were revealed to him, one by one, in his crowded hotel room. She was sure the gun that had fallen from her purse had terrified him, but even then, he kept looking, wanting to believe her.
By the time they were all standing in the warehouse and John had stepped in front of her to shield her from Mulder, she had unexpectedly lost her own heart, and she was afraid for him. His words the next day, on the sidewalk outside the Guardian -- "we still want to help" -- simply confirmed what she already knew; someday, somehow, they would meet again. And that she had fallen in love with a man she knew nothing about.
Her hands moved as she worked, but she was only minimally conscious of her actions. The task of cooking was too simple to occupy her mind and keep her from her anxieties. She envied John and Melvin, now silently attached to their computers, aiding each other in the complex dance of information gathering and decryption. At least, she thought, they were too deep in concentration to be mired in fear and regret, as she was.
John was no longer an innocent, she knew. He was still a white knight, if somewhat tarnished and battered, and had displayed it fully at Def-Con. But this had been different in a way she could not quite put her finger on. It might just have been that he'd spent too many years of living with pain and uncertainty, of existing in that shadow realm of the hacker's underground. He had learned to see clearly in the ten years they'd been apart, and to look into the malevolent eyes of dragons without backing down. It had not broken him, as she feared it might when he faced her at the door of her hotel room, wild eyed and spouting about mind control. To find that he had, in a way, been correct all along was painful but freeing for her. She had been gravely serious when she asked him to come away with her the night of her alleged death. In fact, she wished right now that he had done exactly that. At least they would have had a few months together before Landau had come looking for them. The knot in her stomach tightened as she slid the casserole into the oven to bake.
She set the timer and returned to the main room.
Byers and Frohike looked up as she entered.
"Tuna casserole," she said, unenthusiastically. "There wasn't much to work with. It'll be about 45 minutes."
"Lots better than ramen," Frohike offered.
"I'm sure it will be fine," Byers said, taking her hand.
"Better than nothing," she replied. She sat in a chair next to Byers.
"Anything yet?" she asked him.
"Too soon to tell, really. We have some leads though. I think we'll be able to move before mid-day tomorrow."
"Yeah," Frohike added, "I think one or more of these places has some kind of CIA or other intelligence connection. Gotta get with Mulder to see what he can dig up in his Fibbie stuff."
"Are you sure that will be worth anything?" Susanne asked.
"Maybe," Byers said. "We could do it ourselves, but it'll be one less thing we have to worry about while we check other possible sources. It'll conserve some time." Frohike nodded as Byers continued. "And if Mulder has somewhere to begin looking, he can be very good at finding things."
"Right," Frohike said. "He found Scully in Antarctica, for god's sake."
Susanne tilted her head. "That's a story I haven't heard."
"I'll tell you about it later," Byers promised. "Mulder has an uncanny ability to find himself in the most... unusual places."
"Your boyfriend here is a master of understatement, in case you hadn't noticed," Frohike offered with a grin.
Byers blushed. "Why don't you um.. contact Mulder or something?" he suggested, hoping to distract Frohike.
"You should loosen up a little, John," Susanne suggested. "There's certainly no reason for you to blush about that comment." She put her hands on his shoulders and started working at the knots in them. "After all, it's true. Antarctica is more than just 'unusual.' More in the category of 'ends of the earth.'"
"I don't suppose you'd do mine next?" Frohike asked with a hopeful expression. He could feel the knots and bunches in his own shoulders as her delicate hands moved over Byers' upper back.
"Maybe," Susanne said, "if you refrain from teasing John when I'm in the room, and you get in touch with Mulder, like he asked."
Byers blushed brighter, but said nothing.
"I think I can do that," Frohike said, turning back to his computer to email Mulder with their information and request.
AN ABANDONED FOUNDRY IN YORK, PENNSYLVANIA
Langly came around with a moan. He wasn't sure where he was, and he had been blindfolded as soon as they'd arrived. It wasn't like he could have seen much even if he hadn't been, he knew, what with his glasses missing. It was just Landau playing with his head some more. And speaking of his head, it ached, pounding unremittingly to a bossa nova tempo. He attempted to move, but realized that he'd been strapped down to some flat surface.
"Ah, danger boy's awake." The words came from above Langly's head and to the left.
Langly gave an involuntary shudder at Timmy's voice. "Better than I expected," he said quietly.
"I told you I wasn't going to kill you until I was ready." Landau patted Langly's stomach. "I'm guessing that will be in a couple of days, when your incompetent wuss pals figure out where we are."
"So where are we?"
"Oh, now that wouldn't be any fun whatsoever, telling you. It's not like I haven't read that list of advice for evil overlords and their minions, you know." He chuckled. "Never tell the enemy your plans, never leave your foe in an allegedly 'inescapable' death trap, you know the one."
Timmy paced the length of the gurney Langly was bound to near one wall of a large open area. Above were catwalks and equipment, suspended from chains. There were piles of rusting metal here and there, and crates partially filled with debris everywhere.
"So what are you going to do with the guys when they find me, assuming they do, mister smarty pants?" He decided he could really use some water, right now.
Landau smiled and gazed off into the distance, imagining his success. "I have some lovely things planned for them. I'm really going to make Byers suffer. He's such a prick, and I want to make him watch all of y... wait a minute."
He pulled a little notepad from his back pocket, flipped a few pages in, and examined it closely for a few seconds. "I knew you were going to ask that!" he shouted. "And I'm not going to tell you shit, you stupid fucking geek!"
It almost worked, too, Langly thought. It made him feel good enough to chuckle for a moment, but his ribs reminded him that he'd been pretty badly abused recently. He wondered how long it had been since he'd been snagged from his safehouse, and whether the guys and Susanne had made their Virginia rendezvous.
Landau landed a solid blow to his solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him and bringing the rib pain from a dull ache to a sharp, solid roar that nearly matched the pounding in his head. He leaned in close to Langly's ear and hissed "you may think this is funny now, blondie, but you won't soon enough."
The man stalked off, leaving Langly alone with his pain. He hoped the guys would get there soon.
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