The Bells of San Luis Rey
Disclaimers: You know, if you play fast and loose with the rules this kind of falls under the category of fair use, but we know CC and company don't want us to think that. Me, make money off this? Ha, ha. Good one.
pairing: D/O, M/D
Rating: R, for non-graphic sex and adult topics. Warning: Major character deaths. Angst. Post-Colonization. Did I mention angst? Maybe I'd better mention again that this is a depressing story. Summary: how do the survivors survive? "How have you survived everything else?" Val asked, punctuating the sentence with a tight embrace. "When the time comes, you let them go and you go on. That's all you can do."
In the end, it is the little things that bind us to this life, body and soul, when it seems that there is little enough otherwise to tie us here. The body refuses to stop breathing, so the soul tags along and eventually finds its own reasons for continued existence, of which reason, by necessity, knows nothing. The little and the meaningless take on their own weight and gravity. A mere cup of coffee becomes not the means, but the end to which one wakes in the morning.
Strike that, John thought to himself. You're getting maudlin in your old age. Still, it was a good cup of coffee, hot, strong, and black. The one luxury he allowed himself before facing the true reason he came here. And it was a luxury. Commerce was still disrupted enough that the only place you found coffee was in countries where they grew it. And even then it wasn't likely that you'd find it this far from the source. But the monks here at San Luis Rey, they had ways and means that John could only marvel at. He knew they sent little caravans from one hamlet to another, trains of the small, sturdy burros that had served man for centuries. He could picture them now, the little brown animals mounted by the men in habits hardly discernable from their animals, heading out heavily loaded for their missions of mercy. They never returned with empty packs. In this part of the world at least, it had been the Church that hadn't shattered when it had happened.
John pushed these thoughts away again and concentrated on the coffee, enjoying the slight bitterness of it, its smooth, hot acidity. The monks brewed their coffee strong and more than a two or three cups of it would send his heart pounding in his rib cage and his hands shaking. But it would be worth it, every tachycardic flutter. As the bells pealed the seventh hour, he stood up from the refectory bench. The bench was smooth from generations of sitting, ass after ass polishing that piece of wood. The Church, and its attached monastery had been fading, men no longer wanting to become monks, the halls of the monastery echoing with its emptiness when it happened. But, in the end, after the scorching fires had burned themselves out, this church was all that had remained standing. Many had taken that as a sign. The survivors had clustered around the church, rebuilding in its shadow.
Hearing the bench scrape, Val looked up from where he sat, gossiping with a handful of the younger monks who lingered over their breakfast longer than they should. He nodded at John, but remained seated for now. Then one of the monks shared some joke. Val's perfect bow shaped lips turned up in a wry smile. Then his eyes were down cast for just a minute, their pure green hidden, the smoky, thick dark lashes that surrounded them revealed. Even all these years since they first met, Val was still a beautiful man, almost too pretty. In a few minutes, one of the older monks would come around flapping like an old black crow and break up the little conclave. Val would head off to the clinic and the monks off to their work. John retraced his steps to the kitchen, where he'd gotten his cup. His cup, he knew, was special. A factory-made white one, like you'd find in any restaurant once, dug out of the ruins now, not one of the brown pottery ones they made in the village. He crossed to the sinks, where a few of the monks were finishing up the morning's dishes.
Brother Inigo, wiping his hands on his apron, intercepted John before he reached the sink. He took the coffee cup out of John's hand, his big hands lingering a moment more than necessary. It was nothing more than a friendly gesture, not out of place here in a culture more physically demonstrative than the one John had grown up in. If anything, the catastrophe had reinforced this habit among these people, drawing them closer, people seeking warmth and comfort from each other in the face of disaster. Often John would be greeted by an embrace, a kiss on the cheek, a lingering pat on the back. He made sure always to return their affection with more of the same though such gestures didn't come naturally to him.
"Fox's tray is nearly ready, John," Brother Inigo said, finally releasing John's hands. Over time, John had gotten used to the way his adopted people said his name, almost more like Juan than John. He didn't mind. He was almost one of them now, just like he spoke the rapid Spanglish, Spanish peppered heavily with English, that they used, without even thinking of it anymore. It was hard anymore to speak only pure English at the rare times when one of the infrequent travellers to the area came to their community.
"Gracias," John said, like he said every morning, even though by now this was a long standing routine. While Inigo finished bustling around adding a few more things to Fox's tray, John looked out the open window at the monastery's kitchen garden. The peppers had been put out, some of them nearly knee tall. For the moment, there were greens- lettuce, spinach, corn mache, but soon the days would be too scorching for their delicate leaves. Off in the distance, the bluebonnets were in bloom, softly hazing the fields in blue that was more outrageous considering how razed they had been not so long ago. Again, he thought of how it was the small things that made life bearable. Once a year, the bluebonnets came and went, and he couldn't stand the thought that he'd miss a single spring. A single blackbird flapped into a graceless landing on the fence, then put up its head to call out a raucous song.
Soon, Inigo put the tray with its rice cereal and refritos, the soft refried pinto beans that were so familiar these days, into John's hands. Today, there was a little something extra- some soft goat cheese stirred into the refritos. In the summer when the tomatillos and peppers were in season, Inigo might put a bit of finely cut pico de gallo into the rice cereal. But it was spring and the goats had kids, so there was milk, and therefore, cheese.
After he'd thanked Inigo again, John walked through the cool, sheltered hallways of the big, low adobe building that was the monastery. The clinic was on the other side of the building and by the time he got to Fox's room, the food on the tray had cooled to about the right temperature. He passed monks on their way to their tasks, for all that it was a busy, lively place, one of the busiest, it was also one of the quietest he'd ever been. Once the morning's socializing was over, the monks worked silently and diligently at their tasks, whether weeding in the garden or tending the goats or the sick and dying. And there was plenty of the latter to be done. The threat was gone, but pockets of poison remained, tainting the land. Their community had the only thing resembling medical care for miles and miles around. And the monks, they did what they had always done for centuries. They opened their doors and took in as many as they could.
Fox's room was the smallest in the clinic, hardly big enough for the single bed and the little side table that John set the tray on. That was fine. At least no one suggested what John often thought himself- that the clinic's resources would be better spent on one who had a chance of recovery.
Fox was lying on his side. They took good care of him here, moving him all the time so that he never got bedsores, exercising his limbs so they wouldn't seize up. They did the best they could considering how little they had. It was just a good thing that Fox had retained the ability to swallow. A feeding tube would have been beyond their resources. Fox would have died a long time ago.
If anyone thought it strange that John should take the morning feeding like this, and as much else of Fox's care as he could spare the time for, no one said anything. It was the way of this brave new world. The survivors cared for each other as best they could. The strong carried the weak. Those who could, did. John sat down on the bed and rolled Fox onto his back. Today, his skin, once so fine and velvety, seemed papery and dry. John told himself to see that Fox got more water today, to counteract the dehydration. John propped Fox up a bit with some pillows. In the first years, he'd spoken only English to Fox, to keep himself in practice, he'd told himself, but over time, he'd slipped into talking to Fox in Spanglish, just like everyone else.
"Hey, handsome," he said, liking how the words rolled off his tongue. Hola, hermoso. "Brother Inigo made up something special for you."
He spooned some beans into Fox's unresisting lips and then massaged Fox's throat lightly, just like Val had shown him, to stimulate the swallow response. It was an old familiar routine and he could do it without thinking about it now, leaving him plenty of attention for remembering, thinking, the only time in his busy day where he could.
He remembered the first time they'd come across the village of San Luis Rey, towards the end of the war. It had been just a cruddy huddled together group of shacks, no more than a farming village really, clustered around a big mission style church. But they'd approached it at sunrise, after walking around in the dry, desolate wilderness for weeks. The sun glowed warm and golden off the metal rooftops and the whitewashed walls of the church. It'd been spring then, too and the surrounding hillsides were flushed with green and spots of other colors.
Fox had been the first to spot the village. "Up ahead," he had said. "Do we take a chance they have supplies to spare or do we divert?"
They'd been just barely on the south side of the Rio Grande, near the Gulf Coast, technically Mexico, not the United States, but there hadn't really been either a Mexico or a United States to speak of left by that point. And even in the days of strong political demarcation, both sides had been much like the other, only the river and a political fiction separating them.
They had had four weeks of hard marching through desert and mountain, with only Fox guiding them, and him being guided only by some force the others could neither see nor could he explain it.
"It'll be over soon," he kept promising them, urging them to keep on taking just that next step, and the next one. Their small party had been Fox and Scully, Monica and Doggett. Skinner was long dead by this point, grieved but not forgotten, his death a hero's death.
The ships had come months ago, to rain their death from the sky, the plagues of bees spreading their viruses, come and gone. They'd survived all that. So had a surprising number of their fellow humans, the resistance to the virus, sought for so hard, supposedly culminating only in Mulder's hybrid genes, had turned out to be inborn in many, especially here in the south of the continent. They survived. Others survived because of the hurried, fevered efforts to distribute a vaccine that Mulder had seemed to produce out of nowhere.
"We're running awfully short," Doggett had said. Despite anything his mind was saying about the rational possibilities of danger, should they go to the village, everything else in him was thinking that the village looked like a little bit of paradise. Civilization. "We can probably find water not too far away, but food's going to be a different matter."
Monica had peered into the distance. At first they'd depended on her almost entirely to be their translator, but as their sojourn in Mexico continued, each of them had picked up bits of the language. "From the looks of it, they never had much to lose in the first place. They may be suspicious and mistrustful. Or they may be generous and willing to share what little they have. We probably won't know until we approach them."
"We should go to them," Fox had said, and in the end, that had decided it, Fox's silent guides leading him, more than any rational consideration.
And so they'd taken the road to the village, deciding to give the villagers plenty of chance to make it known if they wanted company or not. No one had shot at them, though before they reached the village, they were stopped by a farmer, armed only with a metal pitchfork. "We come to trade," Monica had said, and she explained the magnetite and medicines and the skill of Scully that they would gladly trade for food, water. The Spanish flew between them, fluid and easy sounding. Doggett caught few words he recognized, but soon Monica had been saying, "He's going to take us to the monks. The monastery will take us in."
Doggett always saved the small pottery cup for last. It was some kind of herbal concoction that Brother Jose had put together. Supposedly a curative tonic, full of valuable vitamins, minerals. Val had pronounced that it probably wouldn't hurt but probably wouldn't help. All Doggett knew was that it smelled terrible and tasted worse.
That, in the end, had been what convinced Doggett that Fox wasn't going to be waking up, not ever. The way that he could pour this foul witches' brew down Fox's throat and the man didn't so much as twitch. There was no spark there, no remnant of what had been Fox.
"Okay, guy, just your after dinner drink and we're all done," he said. He tipped the small cup to Fox's pliant, still lips. As always, there was no twitch of revulsion. It might have been coffee, or the refritos or the rice cereal for any signs that Fox gave that he was tasting it. Doggett massaged Fox's throat to get him to swallow, then followed the tonic with a few more sips of water.
"How about a stroll about the premises?" Doggett asked Fox, hauling him fully upright, taking the opportunity to rub his back gently, tenderly. He propped Fox against the wall while he went to go get the chair.
The chair was sort of a mishmash, cobbled together from broken bits dug out of the ruins, with bicycle wheels, parts of a lawn chair. Doggett had always liked working with his hands and when necessity made it a survival skill, he'd found he was good at it. This wasn't the only wheelchair that he'd built for the patients of the monks of San Luis Rey, just the first.
His back protested, despite being used to hard work, when he lifted Fox from the bed into the chair. "I'm getting old," he said to Fox. "Someday, I'm not going to be able to do this."
Doggett heard the bells, calling the people to Mass. He'd been caught up in memory and it was later than he thought. "You wanna go?" he asked Fox. "I should go. I missed yesterday."
Funny, who would ever have thought of him, born into the Baptist Church, then later all but a raging atheist, worried about getting to Mass every day. He didn't go because he believed, and at times he even felt like a hypocrite, stepping into the dark, quiet place that was the Church of the Holy Virgin of San Luis Rey. He didn't go because people, now his adopted people, expected him to go. He still mistrusted any kind of reassuring sedative, whether drugs or faith, and he still held fast to his staunch individualism. He went, at first, because Val went and asked him to go. And he kept going back because it was the same damn thing, every time, every day. Routine. It had become part of his day. It was another half hour of quiet where his thoughts could calm and soothe him.
"Okay, we're ready to go," he said as he finished arranging Fox's limbs so they didn't stick out and wouldn't catch on things.
Through the long, quiet hallways, the monks were heading to the church, helping those patients mobile enough to get to church.
They walked out of the clinic into the bright daylight. Doggett squinted against the harsh brilliance, but Fox remained just as impassive as he had been, neither opening to the light, nor flinching from it. The trip from the clinic to the monastery proper and the church was short, a minute across a dusty courtyard. Soon, he was inside the deep silence of the church. It was almost cool inside the thick walls. The church had been built with greater glory in mind than its parish had ever been able to sustain. Even with all of the monks and much of the community, it was less than half-filled. Today, for weekday mass, with only the monks, the patients of the monastery and a handful of villagers there, it seemed cavernous, empty, for all that it was not a large church.
Val was there, having taken time out of his busy day to come. He'd found a seat near the front and Doggett rolled Fox up the side aisle. He slipped into the pew. Val looked up and slid down the pew until they were side by side, the three of them in a row.
The first time Doggett had known he was in love with Fox had been when they were burying some bodies. That had been when there was still fuel to be scavenged, when they were still driving around in a truck they'd found abandoned, and were able to carry things like shovels around with them. Back, then, they'd taken the time to bury any bodies they'd come across. And there were plenty of them.
They'd just finished tamping down the earth on the grave. It had had to be a mass grave. They'd found ten bodies on the small farm they'd stopped at, hoping to gather supplies from.
Mulder stood there, leaning on the shovel, looking down at what they had just done. A few tears suddenly escaped from his eyes and he'd brushed them away impatiently.
Doggett, for his part, had been impatient, wanting to get this finished, so he could get on with forgetting it. "Let's get back to the farmhouse," he'd said. "Monica and Scully are going to be wondering where we are."
Monica and Scully had been left in charge of searching the farm and the farmhouse, looking for anything that might be useful, particularly they were hoping for tanks of diesel fuel, so they wouldn't have to abandon the truck. Doggett himself was hoping they might find a few bottles of booze.
"We can take a few minutes, John," Fox had said, looking infinitely lost and weary. "This is going to be the only funeral these people are going to get. You and I know nothing about them, other than we found them as corpses. There are none of them left to mourn the others. When their bodies are decomposed, they'll just be gone to this world. No one will remember them. I think we owe them a few minutes."
That had shamed away all thoughts of the oblivion by bottle that John had been hoping for. He didn't want to be thinking about this dire reality that he'd been plunged into, this reality where the best treatment a family could hope for on their death would be that two kind strangers would find them and bury them in a mass grave. He could imagine all the other farms in the area, probably with their own families lying dead on them, that they wouldn't have time to visit, and the bodies lying there, to rot forever with no one to give them any kind of last rites.
"Then what good is it? Why even bother?" he'd demanded of Fox, desperate for some kind of answer. "What the fuck are we bothering for, because its all gone to hell in a handbasket and if this is the best we can do for them, I can't much see the point."
He'd been on the verge of fury, his voice rising with each syllable. Anger was easier than the void. Fox had gently laid down his shovel at the edge of the grave and come close to Doggett. He'd touched Doggett softly on the chin at first, then when Doggett didn't back away or brush him off, he took that as a kind of permission to fold Doggett into his arms. He held tightly onto Doggett as he explained, "Because I don't want to become the person for who it doesn't matter any more. Because as long I can care that they're laid to rest in peace, then I know I'll be okay. And because I have to do everything I can. Tell me that matters to you too."
Because the words somehow seemed tangled up in his throat, sharp bits of barbwire wrapped around his vocal cords, Doggett could only nod and clutch Fox closer.
Because it mattered, God did it matter.
The solemn, regular words of the church service continued around them like the rhythms of the tide. Doggett moved with the congregation, kneeling, standing, speaking as they did. He was in the midst of them, but never a part of them. They broke around him like waves broke around a pier. When it came time for communion, the faithful all left their pews and lined up at the altar. Val joined in as well, but Doggett remained seated.
He looked again at Fox, and right into the man's beautiful, unseeing eyes. They were open for the moment. At first it had given him hope, then spooked him how they would open and close on their own. Now it was just another part of the package.
He thought about what Fox had said, could hear it clearly in memory, that crystal moment etched onto his mind forever. "As long as I can care...then I know I'll be okay."
When it was over, Doggett rolled Fox back to the little room in the clinic. He struggled again to get Fox back into his bed, even thought about getting one of the monks or Val to help, but in the end, he was able to lay Fox back on his side, the side he hadn't been laying on this morning. Doggett covered him up again with the light blanket. Then he brushed Fox's hair out of his eyes.
"Have to think about getting you a haircut," he said, softly. He touched the silvery gray hair again. It was always surprising, how wiry it was. It should be soft, Doggett always thought, like it once was, before it turned gray. Right at this moment, it seemed as if Fox was just sleeping, that he might get up at any minute. He brushed Fox's cheek was alarmed at how papery the skin seemed. Val warned him, especially when he demanded nothing less than the truth, that eventually Fox's body might start shutting itself down. But not yet. Just not yet.
Reluctant to leave Fox's company, Doggett turned to the pitcher of water on the Fox's tray. He poured another glass. Doggett crawled into bed with Fox, rolled him onto his back and sitting behind him, propped him upright. Doggett pressed the glass to Fox's lips and poured small sip after sip into his mouth.
When he looked up again, Val was standing in the doorway of the small room. He leaned against the casing, watching Doggett closely. His lips were pressed lightly together. It wasn't from any jealousy of Fox. That never would have occurred to Val. No, it was concern for Doggett. He always got this way when he thought Doggett was pressing himself too hard, that he was too close, too involved with Fox.
"How long you been watching us?" Doggett asked.
"Not long," Val said. His pretty green eyes were shuttered for the moment, his expression not entirely readable. Then he walked into the room. He took the glass of water from Doggett and said, "Let me do that. Or one of the brothers. You do so much."
They'd had this discussion before. It wasn't necessary to rehash it again. Val diverted it, saying the same thing it always ended with. "He knows, John," he said, his John too, sounding like Juan. "He understands. He's watching you from someplace better and he wouldn't want to be a burden to you."
"He's not a burden," Doggett said, but he let Val take the glass without further argument. "I think he's getting dehydrated. He's not taking in fluids easily like he used to."
Val seemed inclined to start in again with the "he's probably starting to let go" speech, but he must have seen the dark and wounded something that Doggett could feel gathering in his eyes. "We'll see what we can do, the brothers and me, about getting some fluids into him," he said.
"Okay," Doggett said. He slid out from under Fox and stood up. "I'll take his tray back to the kitchen."
"Don't worry about it," Val said. He put his hands on top of Doggett's as he reached for the tray. He touched his lips lightly to Doggett's cheek. "You should get going. It's planting time and they're probably waiting for you."
Val had been a miracle, a revelation and had, in all probability, saved his life. Doggett remembered the first time he'd met Val.
They'd been taken into the monastery. Then it had been a smaller place. The clinic had been a few rooms tucked in with the rest. Doggett's and Val's efforts since then were primarily responsible for the separate building that now housed the clinic.
They'd been led through the little village, where even the biggest house was hardly more than a shack, to the church, which stood proudly among them. They had been brought around the back of the big white sanctuary, to the long, low buildings out back, and eventually to the courtyard they were arranged around. Surrounding the buildings on the courtyard was what Doggett later learned was a cloister, a roof supported on peeled pine beams and posts, sheltering a packed dirt floor. The cloister was the first bit of shade that Doggett had felt in months it seemed. He'd been hot, sweaty, dust clinging to that sweat. Without being invited to, he found a wooden bench and had sat down. More words were exchanged between Monica and the farmer.
"He says to wait here. He's going to get the priest," Monica explained as the man disappeared into the dark, open doorway. A few minutes later, another man walked out of the door, a familiar face. Though Doggett had only seen him a few times, those times, that man had been the center and cause of such chaos that Doggett had hardly been able to help himself as he leaped off the bench he'd taken. Mulder, surprisingly had held Doggett back with an arm.
Still, Doggett had hissed out, "Alex Krycek! Skinner shot you. I helped him bury the body. You're dead."
There had been such a troubled, wise and sorrowful look exchanged by the man wearing Alex Krycek's face and Mulder that Doggett's ire had melted, disappeared as surely as snow in this arid land would.
"Yes, Alex Krycek is dead," Mulder had affirmed. "This isn't Alex."
"My name is Val," the man had said. He held up the tray he carried. A ceramic pitcher and several cups were on it. "I heard there were travelers. I thought you might need some water."
Val had set the tray down on the bench where Doggett had been sitting. He poured water from the pitcher and offered it first to Doggett. A shiver had gone down Doggett's spine when Val had passed the cup and their hands touched, a frisson. What had it been? Not quite attraction. Connection? A recognition of some premonition of a future they might have together? Either way, Doggett ignored it. He'd been in love with Fox. Still loved him even now. They had been fucking each other since the night after the farmhouse where they'd buried those people, sleeping together since that difficult time just after they'd lost the truck.
"Just Val?" Doggett had demanded before he took a sip of the offered water. Val was already pouring out for Monica, Scully and Fox. They weren't waiting. Monica had taken hers with big gulps, Scully with cautious sips, even though Doggett had known she was just as thirsty, even though she'd never complained. She never complained about anything, stoically accepting her fate with calm grace, even when the man she must have, at some point, regarded as a lover, turned to another man for love and the comforts of the body.
"Just Val," he had said as he poured out another cup of water for Monica. "I never had to live out in the world like others of my...sibling group."
"Sibling group?" Doggett had asked. Back then, he'd still been asking a lot of questions, not willing to accept this strange, new world as it was.
"He brought us here," Mulder had said to Val, not giving Val a chance to answer Doggett's question.
"Then he must have a reason," Val had said. "I'll do what I can to help you. We were the last two."
It was then that the priest had arrived and there was no more time to be asking question, but only answering them. Later that night, fed well for the first time in months, and sleeping on an actual bed, admittedly a crowded one, with Mulder in it as well, Doggett had asked, "Why is Val wearing Alex Krycek's face? And what did he mean by sibling group?"
Scully, it had turned out, was not as much of a necessity here as they'd thought she'd be. The community of monks had had Val for their doctor since the day he'd wandered in from the wilderness, months ago. Val's training was extensive, though from no university, but the conspiracy labs. Even so, they'd all been welcomed, and Scully especially so. Another doctor was always useful.
"I suppose it might be a more accurate question to ask whose face both of them had," Fox had said. "Alex, Val and their brothers were a Consortium experiment. Clones. A good bit more complex than those serial ovatypes we found in Minnesota. Capable of speech. And free will. Human, in other words."
"Clones?" Doggett had asked, thinking of the silent worker drones at the farm in Minnesota. They too had died, along with the bees and the transgenic shrubs when Mulder, Doggett, Scully and Monica had spread the vaccine. Or at least that's what Mulder had called it, a vaccine. Doggett had been able to tell that it still troubled Fox that those clones had died, from the uneasiness of his sleep.
"Cloned people," Fox had said firmly. "Go to sleep, John. I think tomorrow will be a big day."
Doggett had shifted on the bed, little more than a foam pad on metal springs and twin sized at that. The sheets and blankets were rough. But Fox shifted to match him, arms pulling him into place, and he could sleep. That small guest room had been a retreat of peace and quiet the few nights he'd shared it with Fox. A treasured memory he brought out to cherish at the bad times. Funny how the memory of another man's breath on the back of one's neck and ear, the scratch of rough beard that circumstances hadn't allowed either of them to shave off on his neck, the warmth of body to body, were enough to sustain one despite everything.
Doggett walked out to the fields and took his place among the hard working men already there. He was, as much as this small village had one, the mayor, but that meant only that he worked harder for them. First he had been the self appointed director of relief efforts, simply because he'd been the one able to do it, keep it together, keep order to the place, but now he was the elected Mayor. Once, about four years back, the people had elected another man. That man had felt it meant he didn't need to labor in the fields with the rest of then, and he'd used his position for his own advantage. In a few short months, he'd managed to rack up a stunning amount of acrimony. One night, no one in the village would admit to knowing who made the killing blow, but he'd gotten in a fight with a group of men, and somehow a knife had gotten involved. Those had been difficult weeks, much fighting, tears and threats of breaking off and founding another community. In the end, because none of the families in the village wanted to leave, it had been hushed, purposefully forgotten and Doggett found himself Mayor again. He sometimes had the uncharitable thought that he was mayor only because he hadn't been born to this village, his family embroiled in conflicts that went back generations. He could maintain objectivity but yet he was willing to work just as hard as any of them.
Today, they were planting corn, dropping the kernels into the furrows by hand. These lands were "owned" by the Church, for the good of the community, though most of the families also kept smaller fields they tended for their own. At the time of the alien attack, these fields had been worked on by people from the community but actually owned by big agribusiness, managed from a large corporation across the river in Texas. The corporations were gone, and land went to those who claimed it and could keep it. The church fed not just its own monks and their patients, but any in the village who put in time in the fields. They did the best they could. They supported each other. They'd been lucky and had good crops every year so far even with no more fertilizer than the manure from the goats, the burros and other small assorted livestock they kept.
That night, it was dark already when Doggett returned to the monastery to reclaim Val, who was still hard at work in the clinic. When the man's skills as a doctor weren't needed, he turned his hands to anything that needed to be done, whether changing sheets or bedpans or simply sitting with and comforting the dying. He found Val in the children's ward, not doing much, just walking from bed to bed, lightly touching the forehead of each small, still child. Starlight and moonlight spilling in through the windows was the only light on the dark ward. Many of those children were brought here from far away to die, riddled with cancers brought about by environmental poisons, or by other, more mysterious diseases, their inheritance from the alien invasion. It almost broke his heart just to be here at times. As it was, he waited in the doorway of the ward until Val was done with his rounds, each child checked and tended to, with such pure gentleness that Doggett felt almost like he had to leave, that he couldn't stand it.
Finally, Val was done, and he walked over to Doggett. His face, so youthful when they'd first met him here at the monastery, was finally beginning to show signs that he too lived a hard life in a sunny climate, the crows feet beginning to gather around his green eyes. His hair, once dark as a blackbird's wing, showed a few streaks of gray now. But he still looked younger than his years. "Should we go home?" he asked.
"Yeah," Doggett said. He wanted to go home, to the little house not far from the monastery he shared with Val. He wanted, despite his aching back, to take Val to bed, to remind them both that they were still alive, then fall asleep for a few hours of sweet oblivion in a soft bed. To eat a little dinner with this strange, not quite yet utterly human man who had become his lover. Though there was one last thing he wanted to do before he could fully settle in for the night. "Let me just check on Fox first."
"He's fine," Val said. "I checked on him just before I went into the children's ward. I moved him, gave him a massage. He doesn't need anything and if he does, Brother Jaime and Brother Diego are here. You do so much. It's already past eleven and you'll be up before dawn again."
"You're hardly one to be talking about doing so much," Doggett said.
Val touched him, briefly on the jaw line, as if measuring stress there or something, then said, "Yes, but you do too much."
Some soft need in Val's voice, barely a whisper, was a question, asking him for just now, just this night, to forget about Fox for a moment, to focus on the living man. He could do that, he decided. He reached for Val. They didn't often touch each other here in the monastery, other than brief brushes. The monks seemed to understand the nature of their relationship and though no one seemed to disapprove, they thought it better not to be blatant about it either. Same for out in the community. As long as the people who needed to pretend that they weren't seeing what they were really seeing could do that, everything was fine.
They didn't kiss, but he hugged Val briefly, resting his chin on Val's shoulder. "Fine," he said. "Doctor's orders. We go right home. Oh, hey, did the monks who got home today bring any mail or anything?"
While he'd been out in the fields, one of the caravans of monks had returned from the north. They brought not just supplies, but sometimes mail, news always. Scully and Monica had, after the war, settled in the north. They would have been welcome to stay in San Luis Rey, but they'd decided to move on when they heard of a large community in former Texas that didn't have a doctor. It seemed selfish, they'd said, to have two here in the face of that. Doggett thought it was more than that, that Scully couldn't bear to face the physical form of Fox, mockingly still living even when his spirit and mind had fled. They were safe, doing well. He heard from them every time the caravans went.
"No, no letter. They didn't get up that far north this time. They followed the Gulf Coast. They brought back some dried fish," Val said. "Let's go. I'm sure you'll hear all the news in the morning."
Walking together in the dark, Val slipped his arm around Doggett, knowing that it was unlikely that they'd run into anyone. The night had cooled, and a little breeze played with their hair as they walked. It was almost sweeter than Doggett could bear, walking with his man in the spring night, smelling the fresh verdancy of growing things as they walked past the kitchen garden of the monastery.
Their house was only about a hundred feet beyond the monastery walls. It wasn't much of a house, but it had been built by Doggett's own hands, with some help from people in the village. Only three rooms, but when it came down to it, was any more really needed? There was the main room, with the stove and some chairs and a table, there was the small room where he slept with Val and the even smaller room where Graziella, the old woman who cooked and kept house and a small garden for them slept.
It seemed, at one point, extravagant to have a servant. Where and when Doggett grew up, that was something that rich people did. But Val patiently explained to him that it was not so much for their benefit, but Graziella's. They gave her a home where she wouldn't have had one, gave her purpose and sustenance. It was, Val said, sharing what they had with one who had nothing, in a way that allowed her to keep her dignity.
Inside, Graziella was nodding off, sitting in one of the hard, ladderback chairs that Doggett had made. She'd been knitting something or another out of the coarse yarn they spun out of goat hair, but the needles and yarn had slipped out of her hands onto the floorboards. She'd banked the fire in the stove and on top, in a pot made of the local pottery, was what must be their dinner. Probably just beans and corn tortillas. She startled awake when she realized someone was in the room with her.
"Oh, Mr. Val, Mr. John," she said, patting down her hair, as if smoothing the long white braid, which was perfect, without a hair out of place. "I just drifted to sleep. Let me get you your suppers. You're so late again. You shouldn't let those monks work you so hard, Mr. Val. Like screeching black crows they are, flying around."
She respected Doggett, but she had an outrageous fondness for Senor Val, that Doggett could only be jealous of. Whenever possible, she slipped Val little treats, baked him sweets if there was anything extra. Struggled to produce sweet fruits and vegetables from the garden for him. If she gave any clue that she knew the real nature of their relationship, it was only that every now and then, she would make up a batch of what she called "massage oil" and she would slip it to Doggett and say, "For our Senor Val. You treat him right, eh? Make him feel good." He was embarrassed by this, but that didn't stop him from taking the oil and stashing it near the bed.
"No, you go on to bed, Graziella. We can get ourselves supper," Val tried to say, but before they knew it, she had dished up beans for each of them, and she'd even found some cheese, the fresh soft goat cheese, and flavored it all with dried peppers.
Doggett ate gratefully, not realizing until then how hungry he had been. There'd been food at about noon, but he'd worked through until he'd retrieved Val. The beans and tortillas had become, over the years, familiar comfort food to him.
"Consuela says that she will give me a chicken for you if I help her with her planting tomorrow," Graziella said, sounding almost proud.
Consuela was the widow next door. She kept chickens in addition to her extensive gardens. Running free in the day, eating little but the bugs in her garden, they were stringy, tough birds when cooked up, but still John's mouth almost watered at the thought of one the special dishes Graziella might cook up with it. Arroz con pollo maybe, though probably it would be the stewed chicken with peppers that Val preferred. Still, he couldn't let her do that. "You don't need to be doing that, Graziella," he said. "You don't need to work all day in the fields for us like that."
"Consuelo needs the help," Graziella said. "And what else am I to do all day? You two are never here for me to take care of you like I should."
Val offered no commentary, though he watched the discussion with wide open green eyes, taking it all in. He'd probably find some way to let Graziella know how much he appreciated her efforts, and perhaps that was the more appropriate response than Doggett's stubbornness. And she was right, Consuelo needed the help. And so it was eventually settled. After they were finished eating, at her protests, they helped clean up.
"You know, Graziella," Val said as he put their few dishes away in the cupboard that John had built. "If you do bring home one of Consuelo's delicious chickens tomorrow, I'd like it if you could cook your Arroz Con Pollo. I can get the rice for you from the monastery."
Rice was still a fairly scarce supply. Here they were too far away from the gulf to grow it, but the monks, with the burro trains, did manage to bring some from the gulf coast. And Val was clever. In one short sentence, he'd managed to compliment not one, but three people, Consuela, who would undoubtedly hear about it tomorrow, Graziella and John, by picking the dish.
When they were done, Graziella said to them, "You sleep now. You work so hard, the both of you."
"We'll only be up a little while longer," Doggett assured her. She disappeared into her room, shutting the door behind her. Doggett extinguished the oil lamp they'd been seeing by, but the moonlight still streamed into the house by the windows, allowing him to see Val clearly. He said, indicating their own room with a motion of the head, "Let's go to bed."
"But not to sleep?" Val asked, slight smile playing on his lips.
"Not just yet," Doggett said, and then broke their usual rule about never kissing Val on the lips, not hot and heavy like he was, anywhere else but their bedroom.
They broke apart after a few short seconds and without having to say anything to the other, they walked into the bedroom, already starting to undress. Doggett carefully hung his jeans from their hook. They and the other two pair he owned had been scavenged from ruins and who knew if there would be any more once they wore out. Then Doggett looked over at his lover. Val's erection was already at half-mast, his body pale and beautiful, even if time worn like everyone alive still. The moonlight cast dark shadows and pale light, perhaps kinder to the two men than the bright light of day would have been. They laid next to each other. Doggett reached for his lover, first peppering Val's lips with delicate kisses, exploring them thoroughly, working his cautious and slow way up to more intense embraces.
Val broke away for a minute, but then pressed himself against Doggett, burying his face in Doggett's chest. "Make me forget for a little while," he whispered, breathily. And Doggett remembered that he wasn't the only one who had nightmares that reared their ugly heads not just in the middle of the night but in waking life as well, not the only one beset at times by fears and melancholy. Doggett put the oil to use and did his best to make Val forget anything but the joy of their bodies moving together, the bright moment of orgasm, the reminder of how much each of them was the shelter of each other.
The time afterwards, that was what he cherished the most. It was the time where he could say nearly anything, be soft and vulnerable. Val and he held each other tightly. Val hid his face in the crook where Doggett's neck met his shoulder and Doggett laid on his back and stared out the open window at the moon, a brilliant yellow against the midnight sky.
"What if you're right?" he asked, the words coming unbidden and only because he felt sheltered here in the small bed and the austere room. "What if Fox is fading finally? How am I going to handle that?"
Val, as always, was curiously free of any kind of jealousy. What other kind of man would have stayed with Doggett so long, when Fox was almost like a third presence here in their bed, and certainly in their relationship, a constant shadow on them, yet one that Doggett couldn't see being without.
"How have you survived everything else?" Val asked, punctuating the sentence with a tight embrace. "When the time comes, you let them go and you go on. That's all you can do."
A spike right through his chest to hear that. Not that he didn't really think it would be anything different. That was the only thing you could do, just get on with the dirty business of living. But that didn't mean he wanted to think about it. Cold, jagged reality was something easier to face when his soul was sheltered like it was now.
"I've let so many of them go," he said, voice an angry whisper. His son had only been the first, and Mulder, he knew, would not be the last. "And I keep on, and keep on, and sometimes I wonder if I'm just not going to be able to do it someday. It feels sometimes like just one more and I'm going to break."
Val didn't answer, not verbally, but he shifted so that his arms were wrapped around Doggett and it was he that was holding Doggett. Val was very real, very solid underneath him. He smelled of herbs, of sweat, the slightly unwashed smell that all of them had. Doggett had to put a hand on Val's chest to push down the sparse scattering of Val's chest hair that tickled his nose.
And Doggett knew the answer anyway. You had no choice. You kept on keeping on until your life was over. Nature, your body, life itself offered you no other option. The drive to life and survival was the highest imperative. Spring rolled around again, and the blue bells bloomed, and you kept on living.
After a while, Val slept, but Doggett laid awake, watching the moon slowly process across the sky, moving first from one side, then the other of the open window, then finally out of sight altogether. He was busy in memory, thinking about how he'd really lost Fox, the real Fox, his bright and fiery lover, not the husk that had been left behind.
Those had been bad days. The swarms of bees came again, the oil welled up from the ground, like a sickening, perverse mockery of a natural spring. It was only a few days after they'd arrived at the monastery and there had been talk among the people in the village and among some of the monks that it was the newcomers that had brought the plagues again. Though the bees and oil had been through before, leaving only the immune, still people died, and all suffered. The bees swarmed and stung and even if one was immune to their viral load, their venom was strong, a swarm enough to kill a grown man.
"At least this time the Federales aren't here trying to round people up into their so-called refugee camps," Val had said. They were all working against time in the little clinic. Without epinephirin and other medications, there was so little that could be done to save those who went into anaphylactic shock. At the time, Val had been performing a tracheotomy on one such victim, hoping to keep him breathing long enough for the reaction to subside on its own. Doggett had been drafted into being an inexperienced but willing assistant.
"Where the hell is Mulder?" Doggett had said, sometime later. The man they'd been working on had lived, was actually alive to the present day, resting on a cot in the refectory, along with dozens of others, rows of the hurt and sick, the rough tables pushed back to the walls.
Val had looked up from the patient he was tending, his hand still on the patient's wrist, checking his pulse. "He's been talking to Alex," he had said. Then the patient, a little girl, had started crying as he'd gone to turn to the next patient.
Val had spoken rapidly in Spanish to the girl. The only word Doggett caught was his own name towards the end. Val had turned to him and said, "I told her to be brave, that it was all nearly over. That I couldn't stay, but that you would sit with her until she falls asleep. She's in pain, John. Her parents died in the last attacks and she's afraid she's going to die now."
And then Val had left, standing up just as one of the monks had come rushing into the room to tell him that another patient had arrived at the clinic. Doggett was given no chance to interrogate Val, asking him what he meant about Mulder talking to a man who was, by all accounts, dead. Doggett had had little choice but to sit by the girl's cot and comfort her as best he could. She'd been small, no more than three and she had hardly understood what was happening to her, much less to her whole world. He stroked her soft black hair, touched her on the forehead. When she started to cry again, he sang her lullabies in English, and for all that she couldn't have understood the words, she had seemed to calm.
He had sat with her all day, until the night had come and finally, not sleep, but that final sleep had come for her. She'd been one of the unfortunate to suffer radiation sickness from the oil, and apparently was not that strong before. He had known it was coming, seen that most of her body had been covered in bandages, but he had still been filled with fury when she drifted further and further away, then drew in one last gasp before stopping to breathe. At that point, he had called one of the monks over to do what was needful and he'd stood up, hoping to find Mulder, or Val or anyone really.
Mulder had been some distance away from the village, standing in the middle of a bean field. Doggett had watched, amazed by his ability to still be stunned. A massive spacecraft was hovering, hanging weightless in that impossible way of theirs, just over the field. The bright lights on the spacecraft's underside had flickered against the impossible darkness. A beam of intense white light shot out from the middle of the craft, illuminating Mulder and casting a glare over everything.
"Mulder!" Doggett had been able to call out only after the craft was gone, rising with sudden speed, faster than the eye had been able to track.
He would have run out to the field, to the place where Mulder had disappeared from, but there had suddenly been arms around him. Val had held him tightly, even though he fought against it as hard as he could. At one point, Val had tackled him to the ground and held him there by all the weight of his body, taking all the abuse Doggett could manage to spew out, verbally, and with the limited range of his fists.
That night, he had cursed God, the world, Mulder and Val again and again, and anything and everything he could think of.
"You knew," he had said, weakly when most of the fight had gone out of him. "You knew that little girl was going to die on my watch. And you knew that Mulder was going to put himself in the path of that spacecraft."
"Yes," Val had said. "And would telling you have made any of it any better? Would you have been able to stop Mulder? Would you rather she die alone, in pain and with no one taking the time for her, because we've got so many others who might live if we can care for them?"
"Will he be back? What was he doing? Do you know?"
"He doesn't plan to be. I don't know exactly how, but he's sacrificing himself to save us all," Val had said. "That's what Alex said."
That had been the night he'd first made love to Val. After a while of lying quiet, drained and exhausted out there in the bean field, in near perfect darkness, because it had been a new moon that night, Val had kissed him. And somehow, in the dark, it had seemed not a betrayal but the right thing to do, to take the comfort that Val was offering, to kiss him back. It had been something that no logic could explain, nor could any consideration of the heart figure into it. Only the body knew what it needed. That and the overwhelming sense that Mulder not only didn't mind, but wanted this for him.
After their overheated, desperate lovemaking, the both of them unable to do more than jerk each other off, Doggett had thought back to what Mulder had said this morning, the last time he'd seen him.
"These are good people, John. This is a good place," Mulder had said, sounding almost like he was pleading. "And they need Val. Anything could happen."
"What are you trying to say," he had demanded.
"Just that anything could happen and that we all need to take care of each other. I want you to take care of Val."
In the middle of the night, Val woke. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes and said, "Have you slept at all?"
"No," Doggett admitted, knowing it would be useless to lie, even if he had been inclined to do so. "I've just been thinking."
Val had no need to ask about what. There were no secrets, nothing hidden between them.
"It's okay," Val said, laying back down. "Go to him. You need him."
And so, in the darkest hours of the night, John had gotten out of his warm bed, in the night air which had cooled quickly. He dressed in the clothes he'd worn the day before, and he turned to say something to Val, who was already asleep again. He'd probably sleep better without Doggett in the bed, tossing restlessly.
Doggett retraced his earlier steps back to the monastery, through the kitchen garden and into the clinic. He passed Brother Jaime, a tall, lean man who almost disappeared into the darkness of the corridor, between his dark habit and the dark color of his skin.
They nodded at each other, but did not speak. Doggett stopped at the doorway to Fox's room.
Brother Diego was in the room, sitting in the little chair, praying the rosary. The string of beads Diego was an old man, old when the aliens had come to tear his world into pieces beyond recognition, and he had taken it all with serenity and grace. No matter the crisis, he was always the calmest, happiest person Doggett knew. He was half-blind and nearly crippled with arthritis, yet he never complained.
"God stays awake, with those of us work and watch or weep or suffer pain," Brother Diego said when he had finished with a prayer. Then he stood. "I'll leave you to watch over him."
"Thank you," Doggett said. After he was left alone, the monk shuffling off down the hall to pray over the next patient, Doggett crawled into bed with Fox. First turning Fox into a slightly different position, Doggett wrapped himself around Fox. Fox's limbs were limp, they flopped wherever Doggett positioned them. It was grim, sometimes, this need he gave into, to hold the body of a man no longer here to hold him back. There was not even so much as the animal instinct to snuggle back into the warmth of some other body. Doggett, as always, when he touched Fox, was worried about how light and fragile Fox seemed, more so all the time, muscle fleeting, mass and substance going with time.
"Fox," he said, whispering right into the back of Fox's neck. "I wish I knew how to reach you. There's so much I wish I could tell you."
Val claimed that Doggett could, if he was only willing to listen in the right way, see the departed. "They walk among us," he'd said. "We bury the dead alive. Only their bodies."
"I wish I could tell you how much I still love you. I wish I knew for sure that you understand I've forgiven you," Doggett said, even though logic and good sense told him that Fox couldn't be hearing any of this.
He touched Fox's silver hair, and kissed the back of his head. And he thought.
The next morning was when the firestorm had started. He'd woken up in the bean field in the early dawn, still in Val's arms, the sun beginning to scorch across the sky. It wasn't the sun that had woken him, but the explosions, the fireball spreading out over the upper atmosphere. It wasn't just the one big ship in the sky this time, but dozens of ships, some of them starting to fall from the sky. Nothing had come down near the village yet, but the hills beyond were ablaze.
Doggett was awake instantly, some portion of himself able to act in full catastrophe mode. He sprang up from the dirt to his feet before he even realized he was moving. He pulled himself together and started running, Val behind him.
"The church," Doggett had said. "We need to get people to the church."
And somehow, with Doggett shouting orders at people in a language they didn't understand, every villager had been ushered into the big white building. He could only hope that the thick brick walls and metal room could keep out the flames, that none of the ships would fall too close to here. Getting people to the church there had been screams and cursing, voices rising in anger and fear, but once inside, the people had huddled together in the pews and there was quiet.
Doggett had gone out to the front portico of the church at one point during that long day and looked out at the burning. There, in the middle of it, miraculously not harmed, seemingly, was Fox, laying in a crumpled heap.
Sunrise woke Doggett from his sleep, but he gave in to the luxury of lying in bed with Fox until the bells rang the time. Six, deep, sonorous tolls. Doggett found that over the years, he grew to love the sound of the bells more and more. Unlike the various electronic beeps and buzzes that had governed his life before the invasion, the alarm clocks and cell phones, the church bells had a dignity to them, gravitas. And they spoke to everyone in the village, not just to his own life, like his beeps and buzzes had.
He crawled out of the cramped bed over Fox. The monks seemed to know perhaps by little, silent glances through the doorway, when he was sleeping with Fox. They never bothered him during the night when he did. Doggett stretched a bit first, twisting his back, reaching for the ceiling. Fox's bed, truth be told, made for an uncomfortable rest when it was the two of them crammed in it.
Then he took the time to move Fox around, repositioning him on his other side, so that if Fox were there, if his open eyes were seeing anything, Fox could look out the window and see the bluebell covered hills.
Doggett paused to brush Fox's hair out of his open, unseeing eyes again. Doggett heard a blackbird's call in the nearby distance, then caught sight of the black wings taking flight.
"Is it true? Like Val says, that you're someplace better? He says he talks to you and that you're in a good place," Doggett said, not that he expected an answer. Val claimed that anyone sufficiently determined could speak with the dead. But Doggett hadn't believed in any of that crap, not in his whole life, not now.
Part of him had to believe that there was some portion of Fox left, somewhere. Once he would have said that when you die, there's nothing left, nothing but a body that rots and eventually is gone. Now, he wasn't so sure.
"Are you waiting for me?" he asked Fox. Something Val had said last night had wedged its way into his consciousness, like a cactus thorn, irritating. An almost painful realization had come to him over the night.
"You need him," Val had said.
Was Val right? Was whatever spark of life left in Fox remaining because of his need to care for, to continue to live with and for Fox?
"Is heaven, or whatever, waiting until I don't need you anymore?"
He left Fox behind, walked in the halls of the clinic until he found one of the monks. "I hate to bother you, Brother Antonio, but could one of the brothers see that Fox gets taken care of this morning? I'm going to be too busy with other work."
The monk nodded, seemingly without surprise even though it had been hardly a morning in years that Doggett hadn't found time to see to Fox's needs. That taken care of, Doggett walked out of the monastery, past the garden's and the monastery's fields, not to the little house he shared with Val and Graziella, but out to the hills beyond the town.
Most of the morning, he spent walking, trying very hard not to think. He wasn't walking away from the village permanently like a few men had, just taking off and never coming back. He just needed some time.
After a while, he found the river, one of the tributaries to the Rio Grande. If he followed it for half a day, he would reach the river and the border into Texas. He didn't do that. He just found a copse of trees near its banks and sat down in the shade. In the high summer, this river, as wide as it was now, would disappear until it was only damp mud and rocks with a little trickle down the middle. Even now, it was shallow, shallow enough for Doggett to ford across on foot.
If he'd been thinking, he decided, he'd have brought some kind of fishing equipment. You could, occasionally net a fish or something. He hadn't been thinking though. He found a patch of ground between the roots of some stunted looking, gnarly trees. The irregularity of their water source hadn't been kind to them, but they were survivors, just like him, he thought. Despite everything, they looked like they might well be older than Doggett by decades. He sat down gingerly on the ground and leaned back against the trunk of one of the trees. And he watched the river flow.
Without thinking of his own safety, nor of anyone else's, Doggett had run towards Fox's limp, still body and gathered it into his arms.
Fox had been breathing. Despite the screaming explosions in the distance, and the roaring of the flames, he could hear that. The flames seemed to keep a distance from them, as being held back by some invisible agency.
Doggett shook Fox. He seemed unharmed even though he was unnaturally still. Nothing woke him. Slowly, as he knelt beside Fox, the explosions had stopped. The fires still burned on, but even they, too, had slowed, and as they consumed everything there was to consume, they died down.
Doggett had remained like this for what seemed hours. When the dawn, brilliant pink through the clouds of smoke came, Doggett looked up to see Val approaching.
"I wasn't sure what had happened to you," he'd said. He'd knelt down beside Fox and checked him. "Let's get him inside to the clinic. Everyone in the church seems to be okay."
They'd carried Fox between the two of them, arms under Fox's neck and knees. Every bit of Val's expansive knowledge and limited supplies and equipment had failed to raise Fox to consciousness.
On the third night after the firestorms, Doggett had been sitting beside Fox's cot in the makeshift infirmary and Fox had stopped breathing.
Doggett had called for Val immediately, but even before Val arrived, he was down on his knees beside the cot, performing CPR on Fox, knowing it probably wouldn't do any good. Even as he compressed Fox's chest, pausing to breathe into Fox's mouth, he had been muttering, "You're not dying. You're not. You can't."
Scully had happened to pass by, probably on her way to another emergency, but she dropped everything when she saw what was going on. She dropped to her knees by the cot, near Fox's chest and took over the compressions. They worked together in frantic silence.
And impossibly, just as Doggett had been about to give up, Fox had taken a breath on his own, then another, his pulse weak, but steady and growing stronger as Doggett checked it, touching the warm skin of Fox's neck. Scully had cried then, weeping over Fox's chest with deep, wrenching sobs. She shook off any comfort that Doggett had attempted to give her, even the slightest touch of a hand on her shoulder. She must have known just what she'd done, saved Fox's life when his spirit had fled. He was again in the land of the living, yet he'd failed to wake up from his coma. You can never known the true depths of another's pain, but Doggett always thought that it must have been a breaking point for Scully, a dark night for her soul. It must have been when Scully had done her grieving for Fox's passing. Eventually, Scully did allow Monica to lead her away and put her to bed.
Afterwards, when Val had come and carefully checked Fox over again, Val had taken Doggett aside, into one of the little side chapels of the church. It had been the chapel to St. Joseph, the holy father, Doggett remembered clearly. The statue of St. Joseph was patient looking, long suffering and looked heaven's ward. It was the first time that Doggett had been away from Fox's bedside except to tend to the few, physical needs he had that wouldn't wait.
"John," Val had begun, very gently, after he'd had Doggett sit down in one of the pews. Doggett had known it was bad news coming. It always was when they handled you this delicately, as if by padding the edges, they could stop the blade from being so sharp.
"I think you need to know, that in my best, medical opinion, Mulder isn't going to be waking up again. I can't tell for sure without my MRIs and my EEGs, the rest of my technology, but I think what we're seeing is brain death, at least of the higher functions. The body lives on, but he is truly dead. I'm sorry, John. Very sorry."
"I don't believe you," Doggett had said, an angry whisper. But time had proved Val right, and there were times where Doggett regretted to the core of his soul that he hadn't allowed Mulder to die that day. And there were other times where he would have done it again in a second.
Doggett had stood up from his pew in the St. Joseph chapel and walked right back to Fox's bedside. But as he did, he couldn't help noticing all the people around him. Fox was far from the only one being cared for. He'd remembered the scorched landscape seen all too clearly in the light of early morning. These people had had so little and now that was gone. Something had to be done.
"I'm sorry, Fox," he said, standing at the foot of Fox's cot, not daring to allow himself to collapse into grief and sit by the still beautiful man. "But you understand. You'd want me to help these people. You'd be screaming mad if I sat here weeping when I should be helping these people survive. Val and the monks will take good care of you."
He had hoped they would, and in any case, they hadn't disappointed him. Doggett had squared his shoulders and got on with the business of living, of pulling, seemingly by magic, enough food out of the wreckage to feed people. And Fox had slept onwards, like sleeping beauty. Whatever he'd done, whatever his sacrifice had bought, the UFOs, the bees, the oil, none of it came back ever again. Their only problems were that of simple, grinding poverty and scarcity, the problems of making a living and a life in a broken land.
At first, for months, almost a year, he had kept away from Val, avoided even speaking to him more than was necessary, hard as that was to do in such a small, grieving community. Perhaps it was out of anger that the man couldn't, or he thought in his darker minutes, wouldn't do anything to help Fox. Perhaps it was also from shame at what they had done the night that Fox had disappeared, gone into the UFO. It hadn't felt like betrayal then, but seen in the clean, clear light of day, it had that taint to it.
One night, after a long, hard day, Doggett had been sitting in the refectory, now returned to its original purpose, drowsing over his dinner. He'd been by himself, the monk's evening meal long passed. Actually, they'd all been at the evening service. Doggett tried to remember which one it had been. Compline maybe. In any case, he'd looked up from his food, which he'd been picking at, not used yet, to next to nothing but beans. There'd been some vegetables that night. A new moon that night meant he had been using some of the scarce oil to fuel a little lamp at his elbow. The refectory, a huge, echoing room, had been cast into dark, deep shadow.
It was Val settling himself onto the bench across from Doggett.
Doggett had gotten up to leave, appetite forgotten.
"No, don't leave," Val had said. His green eyes had flashed with brief anger. His face, so pretty and young looking back then, had been set in a serious expression. "I have something to say to you. I've been talking to Alex. I think I know what happened to Fox and why he won't be waking again."
Doggett had swallowed hard when he heard that, because he had recently come to that conclusion, that Val had been right. At that point, months had passed and still Fox slept.
"So talk," he'd said, gruffly. "But don't try and feed me any cock and bull story about you talking to a dead man."
Val had nodded. A variety of emotions had crossed his face, the signs of heavy decision making, but at last, Val had composed himself and started. "You may have heard about a brain disease that Fox was diagnosed with prior to his first abduction by the EBEs. It landed him in the hospital with levels of abnormally high brain activity, then seemingly went into remission for a while."
"But it'd returned," Doggett said. "And when he came back from his abduction, there was no sign of it."
"Again, it was just waiting in the wings, so to speak. I'm sorry, John, I can't deny that I speak with my deceased clone sibling. I know you well enough to know how much a value you place on the truth and that is the truth.
"Alex claims that Fox was able to use what we were calling a malady to open some kind of mental nexus, like an electrical circuit with the EBEs. Patched in like he was, Alex says he was able to send a kind of self-destruct signal to them. But it burned his brain out. It operated at too high a level for too long."
"That's..." John had started, about to deny it, deny everything.
"The only explanation we have," Val interrupted. He reached out to touch Doggett, just on his hand. It had been a touch like no other. A touch that was electric and sent shivers up his arm, right to his spine. "Alex said that you needed some explanation, some satisfaction. That it's eating you up on the inside. It pains me to see you like this.
"I love you, John, I have since the moment we first met. I think you felt something when we first met too. But I know you love Fox, and you're ashamed of what we did in the field that night," Val said.
"Damn straight I am," Doggett had snapped, feeling guilt like bile rising in his throat.
"And it won't do me any good to tell you that you have nothing to be guilty over," Val had said. "I think because you don't believe in God, you need moral certainty more. But it's cold comfort, isn't it?"
And it had been. Especially once Doggett had heard Val say that he loved him. He had thought about the small, hard bed he was going to sleep in in a couple of hours, in one of the monks' cells. The night would be cold and he would have only a few short hours of sleep before he would get up at dawn, spend some time with Fox, then go back to work.
His breath caught as he looked up again at Val and saw the soft, neediness in those green eyes, the only thing he saw clearly in the dim lamplight. And he remembered Fox telling him, the last thing Fox had said to him, really, "Take care of Val."
If he believed what Val said, then Fox had to know this was going to happen to him. Fox hadn't said, "Take care of my broken body." Fox had said to take care of the other man.
"John, Fox asked me to take care of you when he was gone," Val said, softly. "And I said yes. At least let me talk to you sometimes. Let me keep my promise to him. I watch you. You're working yourself to death. You're not eating nearly enough for all the hard work you're doing. Look at yourself."
At the time, he'd been angry at Val for even bringing it up. He had thought that Val couldn't see that all he'd been left with was work, but Val hadn't let that stop him from reaching out. He didn't touch Doggett, didn't try to get overly familiar with him this time. Instead, he had said, "I know for a fact that Brother Inigo just made some cheese. Let's get some for you."
It hadn't been the night of their midnight pantry raid that he'd first slept with Val, nor even any night for more than another year. Nearly two full years they danced closer to each other before Doggett had given in and allowed Val to even kiss him again.
It had been spring, the first time he'd finally given in to loneliness and the internal yearnings of his heart. It was a hard considered decision he made, to allow Val into the strict confines of his personal space, something he'd allowed to very few persons.
Monica had still been at San Luis Rey back then, though she seemed to be getting restless already.
They were talking, late at night, under a bright moon. They hardly saw each other, with all the hard work that occupied so much of his day and at night he'd been staying with the monks, helping at the clinic in any of his spare time. She'd caught him just as he'd been going in for his evening meal.
She had found a family that had lost a daughter about her age, and somehow, it had seemed natural for her to move in with them, take the daughter's place.
"Hey," he said, able to smile a little at the sight of a familiar face.
"Can you sit down a little while, John?" she asked. He led her to the cloister and they both sat down side by side on the same bench that he'd first sat on once coming to the monastery. Its hard planes had finally become more comfortable with familiarity. She sat kind of hunched over, hands resting on the edge of the bench, her back bent. She was tired, like they all were, but she'd once been practically busting out with energy, indomitable, fearless.
"I'm thinking about going north, back to what once was America. I'm not quite sure how I'll manage it, but the monks are saying they think there are survivors in New Orleans, that they've heard from monasteries that have heard that. And there are definitely survivors in Texas," she said. "I want you to come with me."
"Monica, we can't travel with Fox being the way he is," he said.
"John, Fox is dead," Monica said. Her tone was soft and soothing, trying for comfort where there was none to offer. But her body language told another story. Arms wrapped around her chest, she couldn't look him in the eye. "I know it's hard for you to accept, but you need to move on."
"People say that so easily, like, I can just make up my mind to forget him," John said. She wasn't the first person to say that to him. By this point, it had been nearly two years since Fox had been returned to them, and there had been, as time passed, small hints on the subject from Monica, from widows in the village, many of them sweet, pretty women, who thought he might make a good replacement for their deceased husbands, from the monks, even. He'd even had dreams where Fox had told him he needed to let go.
"No one is saying it's going to be easy, but..."
"But nothing," he interrupted her. He stood up, then leaned over her and kissed her cheek. "I'm sorry. My home is wherever Fox is, and I'm staying here."
He left her sitting on the bench. That had been the last talk of any length he'd had with her. She had left, soon after.
Doggett walked back into the clinic, the small room where Fox had been kept back then. Val was in the room, working late, taking care of Fox. He'd been giving Fox a massage, working on Fox's arms, using long, smooth pulling motions. Val's eyes were closed, and he worked silently, almost meditatively.
Val opened his eyes when Doggett stepped into the room and kept on working, slowly down Fox's arm to the fingers, stretching each out. "Sorry," he said. "My only time in the day where I can just zone out and relax. I'll be done with him soon."
"It's okay, don't hurry on my account," Doggett had said. He certainly wouldn't deprive Fox of any of Val's care It was a small comfort to know that Fox was getting the best possible care, considering the reduced circumstances of all of their lives.
"Monica wants to leave Mexico," Doggett had said, after a while. He hadn't been lovers with Val yet, but they had been starting to be something like friends or at the very least, people who could talk to each other without feeling the dregs of bitterness in their mouths. "She wanted me to come with."
Val snorted, lightly. "I'll bet that went over real well with you," he'd said.
"I don't see why everyone is so set on seeing that I forget about Fox," Doggett had said, moving to the foot of Fox's small bed and sitting down. He picked up one of Fox's feet and rubbed it lightly. It'd been a cool night, and Fox's foot had been cold. He pulled the blankets up over Fox again. He had never been much given to philosophizing about things, but he had said then, "I think maybe, there are some people you're not meant to get over. I just think Fox might be one of those people. Not just me, but for everyone he's ever run into."
"In the short time I knew him, he was an extraordinary man," Val had said. "I understand why you love him. But there's a difference between forgetting him and choosing not to live your life like you're in a coma yourself."
With that, Val finished up with Fox, then asked, "Do you want me to move him so you can sleep with him tonight?"
Back then, Doggett hadn't had done so much of Fox's care taking. He'd just started and he wasn't as familiar as he was now with all the subtleties of positioning Fox, the sort of things he could do without thinking about now.
He'd had to think about it, Val's quiet words, as always, had an unobvious strength behind them and could strike him to his core. "No, not tonight," Doggett had said.
He hadn't gone to Val's bed then, but his own. He had lain awake for long hours before falling to sleep, thinking about what Val had said. Doggett was, more than anything, a realist and he could say the words to himself, say that Fox was never going to come back from where he was. It hurt like knives drawn across the tender skin of his belly, but he had been able to say it to himself from nearly the very first.
Doggett gotten up in the pre-dawn hours, having gotten a mere handful of hours of sleep, those stolen from the long and barren hours of the night. It had seemed impossible back then that as exhausted as he always was, that sleep should be so difficult to claim, something so hard won. He sought Val out, slipping silently through the long halls of the monastery, back then only beginning to fill up. Val's room was near the clinic, another one of the small monk's cells, its rough walls less than ten feet apart.
Doggett had knocked at the door, not expecting a response, not even sure if he'd wanted one, but he'd been so restless when he'd woken, like his skin was itchy, that he'd had to do something.
Val opened the door immediately. Perhaps he hadn't been sleeping at all. Doggett never knew. He stepped aside to allow Doggett entrance and once Doggett was inside and the door shut behind them, Val indicated the single hard ladderbacked chair with a wave of his hand.
"Let's negotiate," Doggett had said, as he took the offered chair. "I'm going to be blunt, but just listen. I love Fox. I don't think I could ever stop loving him, but he's not coming back from wherever it is he is. You love me, you claim, and I think I believe you. Honestly, I haven't stopped to think about how I feel about you, other than I'd be lying if I said the thought of that night in the field didn't make me hard. Seems like we can get along okay, work together. My parents were married for their whole adult lives with less in common than that. I know this is hardly the blazing declaration of love you were probably waiting for, but I think we could work something out."
Val had nodded. He had never, not then, not now, given any sign that he was disappointed to be second choice, the consolation prize.
After a long, awkward silence between them, Val had said, "What kind of arrangement exactly did you have in mind."
That had caused Doggett pause. He'd come on impulse, with only a vague, half-formed idea of what he'd been going to say. He suddenly found his throat as dry as the land at the height of summer. Words had deserted him like small rivers dried up without rain.
"How about we think of it as a kind of arranged marriage," Val had said finally. "We could join resources, be a support to each other. Share sex. Watch out for each other. Maybe share a little house. I've been thinking about moving out of the monastery as soon as I could. I love it here, but I'm not called to be a monk, nor, I think, are you. I wouldn't ask you to stop loving Fox. All I ask is you give me a chance, not to make you forget him, but to make you happy despite your loss."
"People will talk if we live together," Doggett had said, thinking of the monks and the conservative villagers. Sharing a house was far more than he'd had in mind. They might be lynched, no matter what kind of position in the community he'd worked his way into.
"No, John, people love you. It will be fine, so long as we don't make a bother and force them to see what they don't want to see. Come to bed. You look exhausted. We'll talk more in the morning."
And so, he had crawled into Val's bed, and somehow on the narrow mattress which had been stuffed with dried grass from the hills, he'd made himself comfortable. With the grass rustling underneath them and Val's arms around him, he had been able to sleep better than he had since Fox was gone.
Even though they had done nothing more than sleep in each other's arms by that point, a few days later, the word had seemed to get around that they were lovers, though Doggett could tell only because of all the strange, sidelong glances Val and he were getting. Only Monica said anything directly to him.
"I think you're doing the right thing, John," she said, approaching him one afternoon. He'd been on his way in from the fields to grab his belated noon-time meal. "You need to move on. Of course, it's not the way I'd hoped you move on, but it's progress. I'm glad to see you're finally starting to get over Fox."
He looked at her and suddenly saw a stranger. They'd been so close once, but she didn't know him any more, he saw. The vital truths of his life were something that she couldn't seem to see, much less see clearly.
"Anyway," Monica continued, blind to the chasm between them. "Scully and I are going to be leaving with the monks when they head north to Texas next week. We've been in contact with a community up there and they're as large as this village, but without any kind of doctor. I'd been hoping you'd come, but I guess you're more settled here than ever."
That much she had right. For good or for ill, by then, this place had become his home. "Good luck up north," he'd told her. "And be careful."
She took her leave then, letting him get on with his day. Then, a week had seemed to pass so quickly, and suddenly he was helping her up onto one of the sturdy burros, and she and Scully were gone. He'd expected that he would catch Scully at least saying goodbye to Fox, but he never had. She'd never once come to Fox's room in the clinic, nor had been by him at all, once she had helped Doggett save his life. For her, it seemed, that Mulder had died then, that night. She had grieved for him, there had been terrible weeks where she couldn't even function. Then one morning she had come out of her room, looking pale and drawn, but she got to work immediately. From that point, it was as if Fox didn't exist any longer for her.
Perhaps Doggett had been the only one for whom he still did.
Doggett had to move to another position as the sun moved in the sky, turning his shade into warm brilliance.
If the original terms of his arrangement with Val had seemed bloodless, the life that they had shared since then was not. It had its own share of consolations. It was not the sharp, brilliant passion that Fox had inspired in him, the kind of love that could shake you to your boots. The kind that could change worlds and hearts.
No, his love for Val, though born of a decision, one that he'd had to stick with stubbornly at first, had slowly infused him, strengthening over time, reinforcing itself with every gesture and with every day, growing from companionship and respect. And Val had never asked anything of Doggett that he'd been unwilling to give, never expressed any jealousy for the silent, third partner in their relationship. No, Val had only showed tender regard for Fox.
Doggett stared out at the sluggish, lazy river, and his eyes slowly lowered, so gradually that he hardly knew he was falling asleep.
He didn't even know he was dreaming. He was still sitting at the base of the tree by the river. There was no breeze though, no birdsong or any buzz from the insects, just a silence so profound it hardly seemed real.
Then, Fox walked into view and sat down next to him. It didn't seem impossible to him, just unlikely, because this was a young Fox, not gray and emaciated from years as one of the living dead. This was a dream of some kind, or perhaps what Fox might have called a vision. It seemed more real than a dream, perhaps more real than reality itself.
"I'm sorry, you know," Fox said, putting his hand on Doggett's shoulder, then wrapping his arm around Doggett. "I was so selfish. I can see that from where I am. I knew what I would have to do before we became lovers. I should have seen that it would bind you to me, that you would grieve for me with every waking moment."
"No, Fox," Doggett said, wanting to do far more than just sit here with Fox holding him, but afraid to move, for fear of breaking some kind of spell. He wanted to bury his face in Fox's chest, smell that body odor that had changed once there was no mind to inhabit it.
"It's not like that," Doggett said after a while. "You didn't do anything. I walked into my life with both eyes wide open and I've never been afraid to take the consequences."
Once Doggett would have said that he wasn't afraid of anything. Now, much older, though not necessarily wiser, he wouldn't say that. There were things more frightening in this world than he could have imagined once, like watching a child die slowly of leukemia that could have been cured only twelve, thirteen years ago. The frightened look on the parents face, especially when they too might have once lived in the States and taken part in the medical miracle system, now collapsed, that could have given them their cure.
But you could never let yourself be afraid of the repercussions of your own actions. He'd made choices, knowing about the fragility of life in these times, and he would stand by them. Hell, it had been standing over a mass grave, a whole family dead, that he had discovered that he loved Fox. He could have not taken Fox as lover. He could have stood by and let Fox slip away. He could have opted to end his own life rather than face this life without the great love of his life. He took the good with the bad and he would never let anyone else claim responsibility for his actions.
"You tried to die and I wouldn't let you," Doggett said. "You could say that I'm binding you to me. That you're waiting for heaven or whatever because of me."
"No, heaven isn't waiting for me," Fox said. "I'm waiting because I love you. As my beloved dead once watched for me, I watch for you. When the time comes to pass, we will walk this earth again together. The same players, different faces will cross a different stage.
"John, I'm not there, in that body. If you allow it to die, it is only yourself that you free," Fox said.
"I know," Doggett said, his voice harsh, a mere whisper. And he did know. An odd peace descended on him, an acceptance that was both sadness and a bittersweet reminder of the love he had for this man and his selfless passions.
"Stay with me here a while longer," Doggett said. "Let me have you for just one last afternoon. One last minute even."
Fox didn't say anything more, but Doggett could feel his nod, and a squeeze of an arm around him. They sat together as the afternoon softened from the harsh light of midday to the golden balm of late afternoon, in a silence so profound that Doggett thought it was exactly the kind of holy that the monks sought in their masses. They watched the slow, lazy river pass, with hardly a shimmer on its mirror like surface that reflected the pure blue sky above. As the hours passed, the golden light paled, the river reflection turned dark, then was suddenly lit with the salmon pink of sunset. Afternoon passed to twilight and then to the start of night.
They didn't talk. There was no need. Just the two of them and time that seemed to pass like eternity.
Finally, Fox was the one who broke the silence. "I'm always here, John. Any time you need me," he said.
Then Doggett felt himself slipping back to sleep. Or perhaps he was just awakening from some other kind of awareness, but the next thing he remembered was Val's voice and waking cramped and stiff by the side of the river. It was full dark and not far away, Doggett could see the glow of a candle lantern.
"John?" Val asked from the darkness, then suddenly, he was close enough that he seemed to grow out of the velvet night, face illuminated by his lantern.
"It's me, Val," Doggett affirmed.
Val sat down next to Doggett, first feeling his way cautiously among the roots. When he was seated, he said, "I'm sorry. I wouldn't have normally come looking for you when you're out like this, but I thought you should know this right away."
What Val said next, Doggett heard with a sense of inevitability that only slightly blunted the knife twisting his guts truth of it.
"Fox passed away sometime during the early evening," Val said.
"I know," Doggett said, surprising himself. The dream, talking with Fox. He had his chance to say goodbye, and now Fox was gone. "It's okay. It was long past time. We should go back to the village. Have they started digging the grave yet?"
Without the embalming and refrigerated facilities of modern life, they had to bury the dead almost immediately, Doggett knew from too much experience. He, and the villagers, had buried far, far too many people in recent years in the little graveyard just outside of town. Sometimes, it seemed as if the dead of the village outnumbered the living. Fox's funeral would be tomorrow morning most likely. The hard, rocky dirt always took such an effort to dig deep enough for the grave. They would have started already, a kind of informal wake, usually with some amount of drinking, depending on how loved the deceased had been. Doggett had seen funerals where half the mourners had come, sleepless, still half drunk, half crazy with grief. Fox's funeral would be quieter. He'd been there such a short time before his tragedy.
"They were going to wait for you," Val said.
"We'd better get going then," Doggett said, thinking of a long night ahead of them, digging by torchlight. He stood up and stretched, then started walking.
"Are you all right?" Val asked cautiously, following at Doggett's elbow. Thankfully, the path back to the village was broad, and well-known to Doggett. The candle lantern Val carried cast more shadow than light, creating a small circle of light that hardly illuminated a seemingly endless darkness. That was like their lives and their loves, Doggett thought, a candle held up in defiance to the darkness. And though it seemed like it was hardly enough, it enabled them to stumble onward. It would have to be enough. Nothing else was in their power at the moment, nothing else but clinging to each other, lighting the way for each other. Being the arm around the other's back, like Val's free arm slipped around his naturally.
"Yeah," Doggett said, again surprising himself. Yes, he felt bereft, but the grief seemed familiar somehow, and yet, somehow, to a purpose. It was as if a waiting was over and his grief could now be worked through.
"Do we have enough surplus to trade the brothers for some of their tequila?" Doggett asked, thinking that he'd want to provide it to those who were going to give their night to help them bury Fox. It was one of the items that the brothers brought back in trade from their missions.
"I've already arranged it," Val said. "And a bit of Luis Maldonaldo's corn liquor in case we need more."
"Thank you," Doggett said, profoundly grateful.
"John," Val began. "Don't drink too much tonight. The service is at early mass tomorrow."
"I won't," Doggett said. Not that he'd been planning to get plastered, but alcohol was one of the few mind numbers left to them in this crazy new world of theirs. At least he wasn't planning to get drunk before the funeral, but he figured afterwards was fair game. Everyone would understand it.
They walked together back through the trees. Doggett was glad he knew the path well and that it was wide and clear, because the night was intensely dark, with only starlight and the little candle lantern Val was carrying to guide them. But it was enough. They were able to see the next step and the next step and the next. It was easier to travel once they left the small woods and were heading down the grassy hills to the village. There were a few, dim lights visible, people up late working by oil lamp, a few that must be the monastery.
They skirted the village and headed to the burial plot they'd established south of the village. No fence or markers set it apart. Just the spreading of headstones, though most of the graves were marked with a simple wooden cross. Sometimes it seemed to Doggett that the dead of this world outnumbered the living, even though he'd never counted the rows of crosses and compared them to the number of villagers- two hundred and thirteen, not including the monks. And growing slowly.
A larger group of men had gathered than he thought would come- some twelve men, enough to spread out the onerous labor over the night. The men were mostly ones he worked with closely in the fields. They stood around in the warm glow of lanterns and torches. A couple of them passed a small pottery jug back and forth between themselves.
Others just leaned on the crude, hand forged shovels that were all they had, made from scraps of the old life. Sometimes Doggett wondered how any of them had survived, if not the invasion, then this harsh new world that came after. Only a few of them had farmed on their own, not as migrant work for some large agricorp. The village was larger now than it had been before the attack, swollen with those who'd come back to their ancestral home after the first attacks. They'd been working in the states, or at the maquiladores, the factories along the border. Their life had been just as modern as his, but together they'd somehow learned to farm, to make tools, to do what was needful. Like bury their dead without funeral homes, backhoes to dig the grave, embalming to preserve the body.
There were a few preliminary touches, some embraces, some claps on his back, then he was handed a shovel. No one said much as he was the one to drive the first shovel into the rocky dirt.
The hardened iron cut through the ground with a final, unpleasant crunch, but he still drove it as deep as he could, then levered the shovel load out of the ground, tossed it to the side and dug in again. And again, with near compulsion. Knowing with each movement, each ache, each sound why they were digging this hole, the finality of what it meant. He would have kept digging, until they'd reached the six feet deep, but gentle hands, not Val's, but Romero's were on his hands, taking the shovel out of his hands. The message was clear- they all shared this duty, burying their dead. They would take their turns. He'd done it before too, taken the shovel from the hands of a grieving father, for fear that he would wear even their work callused hands to blisters.
He climbed out of the hole, already knee deep with their efforts. A ceramic jug was pushed into his hands and he lifted it to his lips. The liquor was harsh, burned on the way down his throat but he took a second swig, then a third before looking for another person to hand the jug around.
Val was in the hole at the moment, digging. Doggett hunkered down on the ground, watching his lover move dirt around surprisingly effectively for someone who hardly worked in the fields. Someone joined him, sitting by his side, pushing a jug at him again. He shook his head. He was feeling just the right level of blunted at the moment, able to cope, able to see this thing rationally. Perhaps more of the liquor would drive him over the edge to melancholy.
The bearer of the jug was Luis Maldonaldo, the man who'd figured out how to rig a makeshift still from the leftover bits of civilization. Doggett took a sip. It wasn't the tequila, but the potent, almost poisonous tasting corn liquor that Maldonaldo distilled. After a single sip, he passed the jug back to Maldonaldo. Too much of that and he'd be blind drunk before he knew it and without meaning to be.
"I never knew him when he was not..." Luis paused, as if considering how to put it gently. "Sleeping."
Maldonaldo had been a latecomer to the village, second generation citizen of the United States, fled to his ancestral home when the worst that they'd never expected had come to pass. He wasn't an old man, but he always seemed so bitter that the impression he gave was of being old, shrivelled. Desiccated. Doggett was surprised to hear him speaking so kindly now.
"It's hard to lose the last tie to your old life. Especially your boyfriend," Maldonaldo said, after offering Doggett another swig of a jug. Doggett was shocked. It had been so long since anyone in this village had called a spade a spade. "Go on, John. None of us are blind. Except willfully. It's all right. I don't care and no one else does either. Each other is all we really have."
Doggett sighed and then took the jug, offered in such apparent goodwill. "Especially in these times."
"No," Maldonaldo said. "I was a rich man, John. Not to brag, but I ran one of the biggest landscaping companies in Austin. Over fifty crews in that last year. I had a big house. A pool. A Hummer. I had everything that a man was supposed to want. And it meant shit. We are all we ever really have. You know, of those years, I don't miss the house, or the pool or any of it. I think instead of what a fool I was. When it happened, I was on the verge of divorcing my wife so I could fuck a woman young enough to be my daughter. I don't know if my wife made it out of Austin alive. A fool. I was a fool."
Doggett hadn't known that. Maldonaldo had never mentioned it before, but then, mostly people didn't talk about what life before was like any more. It was easier to forget. And Maldonaldo had obviously wanted to do a lot of forgetting. The fact that he made a good profit on his still was only icing on the cake to him. Doggett wasn't sure how much of the man's product went straight down his throat, but it was enough to keep him at a certain maintenance level of drunk pretty much constantly.
"We all have regrets, John," Maldonaldo continued. "Not one of us will be able to look the Lord in the eye on Judgement Day and say, 'I loved enough and I gave enough and I was good enough.' No, not one."
Then Maldonaldo got up, offered his jug to some other man and went over to the hole to do his share of the digging.
He remembered another time, another funeral, when they buried his son. Then, it had hardly seemed real, as if it were happening to some other man, some other child. A bad melodrama that he was watching on the television, not his life becoming unravelled. This, though, was all too real.
So real that he found himself wondering if his dream of talking to Fox might have been more real than just a dream. Had he really said goodbye? Not just given in to some wishful thinking?
He looked up.
Fox was there, standing a few feet away.
"I'm always with you, John," he said, so warmly, with such care, that John wanted to believe his eyes, wanted to think that this wasn't just some kind of wishful thinking. Doggett blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, Fox was gone. Too much of Luis Maldonaldo's booze, he thought. But there was no denying the feeling of warmth and love that spread through him like the warmth of a hot summer day.
He got up and headed back to the grave, to add his back to the labor. This was the last thing any of them could do for each other. The world, he thought, thinking about what Fox had once said, would be fine, so long as they could care enough to keep doing this for each other. Perhaps Luis Maldonaldo was just another bitter, drunk, wounded by the circumstances of his world.. Perhaps he was right and that all people ever had was each other.
He climbed down into the hole, by now nearly hip deep. He was handed a shovel and another man climbed out. Down past the surface level, the soil was even harder, more full of rocks. Dry.
It was right to do this, he decided as his shovel bit into the hard packed dirt. Right to let Fox go. Right to be the one to bury him. He looked up as he made ready to toss his shovel load out of the grave. Val caught his eye and they shared a momentary glance. Val nodded, then they both started digging, together.
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