Of Bitter Sweet Memory
Notes: I hope it's not cheating. I used a bit of a story I had started to write and then couldn't find the thread I wanted. These lyrics worked for the dark episode. Lyrics from Ilya.
Thanks to Karen for beta and various members of AlexHC&D for advice and inspiration.
Runaway Train by Soul Asylum
Call you up in the middle of the night
Like a firefly without a light
You were there like a slow torch burning
I was a key that could use a little turning
So tired that I couldn't even sleep
So many secrets I couldn't keep
Promised myself I wouldn't weep
One more promise I couldn't keep
It seems no one can help me now
I'm in too deep
There's no way out
This time I have really led myself astray
Runaway train never going back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I'm neither here nor there
Can you help me remember how to smile
Make it somehow all seem worthwhile
How on earth did I get so jaded
Life's mystery seems so faded
I can go where no one else can go
I know what no one else knows
Here I am just drownin' in the rain
With a ticket for a runaway train
Everything is cut and dry
Day and night, earth and sky
Somehow I just don't believe it
Bought a ticket for a runaway train
Like a madman laughin' at the rain
Little out of touch, little insane
Just easier than dealing with the pain
Runaway train never comin' back
Runaway train tearin' up the track
Runaway train burnin' in my veins
Runaway but it always seems the same
Warnings: Angst Slash
Time Frame: Just before Piper Maru
The money ran out days ago. I couldn't even remember how much time had passed since I could afford a bowl of soup at one of the roadside stands. My clothes smelled of old sweat. My hair was shiny with oil. My chin itched with three-day-old beard.
Hunger wasn't anything new. It was an old acquaintance. I could remember my mother's look when I was small. Her face had been pale, pinched with privation. Dark circles surrounded her green eyes. I had been very young, but I had tried not to cry. I remember sitting in a small, dark room, wrapped in all of the clothes I owned, my mother's arms were around me as we huddled beneath a thin blanket. I remembered my mother's sudden resolve. She had risen and left me, bidding me to stay in bed. There was no question that I would obey. I was too hungry to want to play. Eventually, mother had come back with food and money.
After that, every other day or so, mother would leave me and go out. She always threw up when she came back and she cried when she thought I could not hear. Once a strange man followed her home. I hit him with a stick when he tried to push his way inside. The man looked at me and laughed. He threw some money on the floor before he left, saying, "So you don't have to go out and leave the kid alone."
Later, when I was training, they kept me hungry at intervals too. They didn't really have to teach me to eat anything to stay alive. I had learned most of that lesson when I was a small boy. Those were the rules however. They dropped me in the woods to live on what I could catch. They locked me in a cage to see how long I could go without food and water. I endured, storing away the pain and discomfort for later, telling myself I would wait and see. I promised myself someday, I would have the power and they would be the ones suffering.
But not now. Not today. I was hunted today, even in this remote city, far from Spender's reach. My hand touched the key in my pocket. That was a promise of power, of money, but my talisman couldn't buy me a bowl of rice right now.
Wandering toward the market, I felt a wave of dizziness. I felt as if I had a fever, as well as being weak with starvation. Fear kept me from snatching food. I hoped that there might be someone willing to trade food for work, but I knew it was a vain hope. Close-knit families ran most of the stalls in the green market. They would not hire a stranger, much less a foreign one.
The smell of shrimp soup enticed me. As I stood in the street, a querulous voice said, "Move, big man."
The tiny figure looked too small to drag the heavy cart. Her face was pulled tight with age, wrinkles bunching at the eyes, thickening the folds of her eyes, and hunching her already tiny frame. She sighed wearily as I moved out of her way. The wheel hit a rut and her wiry body could not move it.
I wasn't even thinking about my plan when I helped her. Even weak, I was big enough to move the cart to the open place that the old woman indicated.
The dark eyes stared at me for a moment then the woman said, "Lift the baskets down."
My first impression was that the contents had gone bad. I wrinkled my nose though and set the largest basket down on a clean grass mat. I followed it with two smaller ones.
The tiny woman said, "My name is Wenxian Cao."
"Alex...William," I lied, stealing Mulder's middle name.
"You know how to work? Not a lazy American?" Wenxian asked.
"Yeah," I said.
"Then you work with me," Wenxian said.
Pulling a spiny fruit out of the basket, Wenxian took out a sharp knife and deftly opened it. The air filled with the smell of a dumpster behind a produce store.
"Eat this. It will fill you up," Wenxin instructed, holding out a glob of white stuff.
Automatically, I popped the foul smelling morsel in my mouth. My first impression was that it was not fruit after all. The texture was creamy, even more smooth and oil-laden than a ripe avocado.
The rest of the fruit was accepted quickly and eagerly consumed, despite the reek.
The strange onion like aftertaste faded and I felt my stomach purr around the quickly digested fruit. "What is it, grandmother?" I asked.
"Durian," Wenxian said.
The smaller basket held rambutans, another bizarre looking fruit. It was red, covered with fiber, somewhat like a coconut with a bad hair day.
I worked with the old woman all day. After the noon rush and the lunch sales eased off, she gave me a few coins and I fetched two bowls of noodle soup. Rice balls produced from another basket helped to soothe my hunger.
Automatically obeying the sharp commands, I repacked the almost empty baskets. When the cart was ready for travel, I looked at it wistfully. I felt better now that I had eaten, but I didn't look forward to another night sleeping in an alley.
The old woman asked, "Do you have a place to sleep?"
Shaking my head, I felt my eyelashes flutter. That had always worked on my mother. I could have laughed at myself, resorting to childish tricks to try to get my way.
"Well, come along then," Wenxian said, sounding exasperated.
Her apartment, as she called, it was tiny, the size of a small bedroom in an American home. She shared a bathroom with ten other apartments. I looked around for the facilities, but saw none in the pigeonhole of an apartment. When I asked, Wenxian led me outside to a small building. The toilet was little more than two porcelain holes, but it was clean.
When I returned to the apartment, Wenxian showed mw a tiny area, a spigot and a bucket set on a square of tile. Her instructions to bathe were clearly an order. I felt oddly embarrassed although I thought modesty had been trained out of me. The screen had not been planned for a tall American man and I was deathly afraid that I would knock it down. Still, I managed to get clean and felt much better. My skin crawled at the thought of putting back on my filthy clothing. Apparently, my feelings were matched; Wenxian refused to let me put them on. She said she would wash my clothes and that I should sleep.
Wrapped in a robe that was almost too small for any modesty and with a blanket around that, I fell asleep on a folded pad and was as content as I might have been in feather bed and silk sheets.
Our day started before dawn. We went to the train station to buy the wholesale fruit that we would sell during the day. Wenxian was a tiger at bargaining. She would haggle until the wholesalers threw up their hands and cursed the heavens, swearing that she would see them starve.
The trains were old. They belched black smoke and lurched along like dying dragons. The rails were deep rust in color. Like dried blood. I hated the way the train yard smelled and the rats that ran freely beneath the loading docks.
As I listened to Wenxian trade, following the rapid Hong Kong flavored Chinese was almost impossible. I had been taught Mandarin, which bore as much relationship to the dialect spoken here as Oxford English did to Cockney. I caught a remark or two about the big dumb foreigner and heard Wenxian boldly claim that I was her grandson. I laughed about that later, but it warmed me inside.
Wenxian had one luxury other than keeping me. She had an orchid that she moved slavishly to follow the sun. She labored over the tiny pot of soil, brushed each leaf with tiny puffs of water from a spray to make sure there were no aphids to eat her darling. Her daughter had given her the flower, she said. I saw young beautiful woman's picture set in a shrine and draped with white ribbons of mourning. Her husband's picture also shared the small shelf. He had died last year and she had no near relatives to help her. When Wenxian could afford it, a stick of incense burned at the shrine. I wished I had a shrine for my mother...I didn't even know where she was buried.
It did not seem possible that Wenxian's tough old body could be losing a slow battle with cancer, but the medications she spilled one day were familiar to me. I didn't say anything; I helped her gather up the pills and the little case with the needles. She put them in her silk purse with the embroidered dragons. She thanked me politely, her heavy lidded eyes shutting out any questions I might ask.
After that, I made doubly sure that I did the heavy lifting. I didn't let her help pull the heavy cart either. Meanwhile, I looked around for more ways to earn money or to trade work for food. I was always hungry, the thin soup and rice that Wenxian ate didn't satisfy me.
The chunks of Durian fruit became an obsession with me. Each day, Wenxian sold chunks of the reeking fruit. Each day, two chunks of the fruit were pronounced not fit to sell. The old woman and I ate these 'bad' segments not to waste the fruit. My initial distaste for the fruit passed. My body recognized badly needed fat and nutrients. The ceremonious opening of the foul smelling fruit each morning made me hold my breath not against the odor, but against the fear that the entire fruit would be pronounced fit for sale. Fortunately, that had never happened so far.
One of the old people paid me some vegetables to write a letter to a grandson in New York. She had never seen the boy and he did not read Chinese or French. I could tell that she thought her grandson only semi-literate, but that didn't stop her from wanting him to know her. I wrote the long letter in my careful script and was paid a bag of groceries to add to the soup that Wenxian would cook as our main meal.
One day, I was able to trade unloading a truck, when two of a stall's workers were ill, for a large bag of noodles with a tiny rip. The same day, I repaired a mobile phone in trade for dried shrimp. Wenxian and I ate well that day.
The people in the market gradually became used to Wenxian's suddenly acquired grandson. Initial mistrust faded to acceptance. I felt safe for the first time since Spender had tried to blow me up in that car. Only a few tourists came to this old market and most of the customers were old folks who politely did not ask me any questions.
The second week after I met Wenxian, I managed to raise enough money to call Jerry Kallenchuk; she told me that she had brokered the disc. She would meet me soon. When I asked her for an advance, Jerry managed to lose the connection... the bitch.
My pockets lighter, I looked around for more work. I didn't want Wenxian to starve trying to feed me. As I walked past one of the five noodle seller stalls that Jack Wong owned, Jack hissed at me. Thinking that the stall owner had work for me, I hastened to the big man. I didn't like him very much. He sublet the stalls and strutted around all day like the gamecocks that men kept for gambling. Wenxian said he had crime connections and I should be careful of him, but I felt guilty for spending my money on the phone call instead of on food. Well, before I left, after I had the money from Jerry, I would make sure that Wenxian had everything she needed. Right now, however, I would work for the devil himself. It wouldn't be the first time.
"You looking for more work?" Jack asked.
"Always," I said.
"I have a friend who would pay you fifty HKD to be his pillow boy for a night," Jack said. "He likes big American men."
"I'm not a whore," I said angrily. Whatever Spender made me do, I had consoled myself that at least I had never been demeaned to the status of rent boy. I understood my mother's choice, but I never wanted to be what she had become. Never.
"It's your choice," Jack said, "Fifty HKD is a lot of money. Could buy more medicine for Wenxian. I saw her today and she was hurting. It's hard for an old woman to feed herself and a hungry young man."
"I pull my weight," I said. "I work."
"You think the little work you find around here feeds you? Ha, Wenxian is feeding you out of the money for her medicine. That's why she has to rest so much."
"It's not true," I said, walking away. Yet doubts assailed me. I wanted to believe that my relationship with Wenxian was nothing like everything that I had experienced in my adult life. The way I was taught, every person I met was either a target or someone who was sizing you up, looking for your weaknesses. I told myself that was the way it was even if it hurt to do what I had done to Mulder and to Walter Skinner. I told myself I never had a chance. There were even times I believed the lies my bosses told me. Here, down and out, at least for the moment, I thought that I was free; that I could be the person my mother would have wanted me to be. Wenxian had become my grail, my salvation, my proof that I was not a worthless human being. I didn't want to think she was suffering because of me.
However, when I went back to Wenxian, she asked me to take over. Fortunately, two pretty American girls wandered through the traditional market. They were pleased to find me and stayed at the stall, flirting. They bought almost everything that Wenxian had left and then paid me to take them around and translate for them. By the end of the day, I was pleased to give Wenxian enough money to pay the rent for the stall for a week. There would be money for more food and medicine for a few days.
The next day it rained very hard. Only the old people still came to the market when it rained as heavily as this. The younger people preferred the clean indoor supermarkets anyway. Any tourists were snug in cabs, perhaps exploring the nightclubs or touring Marine Land to enjoy the sight of denizens of the deep without getting wet.
Looking at the pitiful amount of money in her hand, Wenxian said, "It's good that you made so much yesterday. Don't look so serious. We quit early and we have an entire Durian to eat."
As the apartment house didn't permit the eating of Durian, Wenxian and I ate the fruit in the partial shelter of the stall. Pieces were exchanged for tea, for noodle soup, and for shrimp balls. It was the first time that I had enough to eat since Wenxian claimed me as her grandson.
The next day it rained very hard as well. By the fourth day, Wenxian claimed she was too ill to eat her soup. I refused to eat mine until she caved in and finished the thin broth with the sparse noodles and sprinkling of vegetables that was all we could afford.
That night, I could hear Wenxian groan in her sleep. Every time her breath hitched, I held mine until I heard the wheezing intake and the moaning exhaust.
In the morning, I said, "Are you out of medicine?"
"It does me no good," Wenxian said. "I've lived a long time, grandson. Don't worry about me."
Kneeling on the edge of Wenxian's mat, I lifted the fragile seeming hand, parchment yellow with liver spots marking it. I kissed it and held it to my cheek. "I'll take care of you," I promised. "I'll find a way."
The sun came out the next day, but the loss of four days of sales meant that we would struggle to pay the rent on the stall and on the apartment. There would be no money for medicine and little for food.
I walked toward Jack Wong three times that morning. Once I saw a young girl that I knew talking to Wong. I pivoted and walked away, ashamed. The other two aborted responses were my reluctance to give up this final part of me.
The last time I had been with someone, it had been Mulder. Whatever Spender's intentions, I had not used what I had with Mulder and with...Walter. I knew they hated me now. Hell, my rage at myself for falling in love with them nearly made me hate them back. If I hadn't cared about them, I wouldn't have screwed up. I wouldn't be here.
Even pissed at the world the way I was, I still didn't want to replace the fire of Mulder's touch with the lewd pawing of a stranger. I kept seeing my mother's eyes. She did it for me. I owed her... owed someone for my mother's sacrifice even if I wasn't all that happy with the life for which she had saved me. Wenxian needed the medicine. There was nothing I could do to save her life, but at least she should have the medicine.
I closed my eyes, feeling my body tremble from head to foot. When I opened my eyes, I was the man Spender had meant me to be. I walked to Jack Wong and asked him to make arrangements for me to meet his cousin. Wong said, "Good choice, Alex." He couldn't pronounce my name correctly for all he bragged about having attended college in the US.
Wong told me to be ready after the market day. I told Wenxian that I had personal business and went to the deserted market place to meet Wong's cousin. I didn't even know his name just that he drove a red Jaguar.
I stood waiting, my eyes fixed on the worn pavement beneath my feet. He pulled up, his crooked teeth gleaming in the streetlight.
"You want a ride, American?" the man said.
"Sure," I muttered, moving in beside the man, my jeans sliding across the leather seat.
His hand insinuated between my legs, feeling my crotch. I didn't flinch away. I had learned control from a master...my master, Spender, that cold-hearted bastard.
"Money," I said.
Wong's cousin put an envelope into my hand. I counted it, fingering each note. It was all there. I could buy Wenxian's medicine.
His house was big, American style. I forgot what it was like to have so much space around you. He gave me some rice wine. I drank some. Not enough to get drunk despite the temptation. I couldn't lose my edge like that. It was too easy to get cheated.
Jack's cousin undressed me roughly. I stood there, feeling huge and awkward. His eyes lit, glittered, as if what he saw was more than the son of a whore following in the family profession. He surprised me by getting down on his knees, swallowing my cock.
I knew what he wanted. I turned my mind to Mulder, his bright flame, his long lean glory projected in the place of this unattractive man with one drooping eye and a flattened nose. There are people who don't like my Mulder. People who can't see him as I do. He's a slow torch burning in my heart, consuming more and more of me. He scares the hell out of me, not for what he can do to me, but for what he has already done.
I thought he was the key to me. All he had to do was turn me. Oh, God, Mulder, please turn me.
I could see his eyes glittering up at me. They are hazel as emeralds are green. His eyes have muted hues in them, the rich swirl of topaz when he's happy, the color of the ocean on a winter day when he's angry.
He licks his lips before he takes me in. My cock slips in to plunder his mouth. His lower lips drags along the sensitive underside. He takes me deep, makes me slick with himself. My legs shake as I respond. As he lets me go entirely, he turns his head to kiss my inner thigh. I'm all his. I burn for him. My heart rushes through my veins, thundering like a distant train. He takes me again and then as I nearly collapse with pleasure, his hand guides me to the bed and he arranges me for his pleasure.
His fingers feel wrong when he opens me up. I open my eyes as he breaks a popper under my nose. There is a momentary shock as my fantasy breaks as easily as that mesh-covered ampoule. Jack's cousin grins. His teeth are as white and as jagged as a dragon's. He pushes inside me as my muscles relax and my head spins.
I try to slip back into my Mulder fantasy, but I can't get it back. It seems like hours while Jack's cousin ruts inside me. It probably wasn't that long. That was just the distortion of the poppers.
Shortly afterwards, Jack's cousin drops me on the street. He leaned out of the red Jag and said, "I'm having a party tomorrow. You want to work? There are plenty of guys there who like American men."
I wanted to refuse, but I knew the medicine was expensive. "Pick me up here?" I replied.
"Yes, eight o'clock," Jack's cousin said. He laughed as he drove off.
I knew where to buy the medicine, at least the painkiller. I ran there and purchased it. Wenxian looked terrible when I arrived. Her face was pulled tight over the bone. She was gray instead of her usual delicate parchment. I knelt and rolled up her sleeve to expose her delicate arm.
"You're going to be so much better," I promised. "Tomorrow, you go to the real doctor and we'll get you something that will really make you well."
Her fingers caressed my cheek. Wenxian asked, "Where did you get this money, Alex?"
"Writing letters," I said, "and doing other jobs. Jack found me some work."
"Jack?" Wenxian asked, her voice sounding very disappointed. "I know what kind of work he arranges."
"It's not like that," I said, knowing my lashes were blinking rapidly and that tension in my neck was making me swallow hard, as if my lies were more even than I could ingest.
Wenxian didn't argue with me. She got up and cooked the food I brought. She ate too, her manners as exquisite as an empress. I knew little of her past, but I knew she hadn't always been poor and I knew that she had been so beautiful. I could see it in her bones, in the shape of her eyes and how she carried her self. She did not reproach me.
The next day I thought Wenxian had gone to the doctor. I believed she would go and he would have a cure for her cancer. She and I shared a Durian fruit, sitting on the curb. She had slept well last night with the medicine and she was more like her old self today.
As she stood to leave, Wenxian said, "You should take your money and go home. Go find that lover whose name you utter in your sleep. Go back to America, Alex. This is not where you belong."
"I belong with you," I said, "I'll stay with you. I'll never leave you."
Her kiss was cool and dry, a blessing on me. Wenxian's fingers stroked along my cheekbones and she said, "I think there might be some good Hong Kong blood in your family tree. You're a good boy, Alex, a very good boy."
She was the only one besides Skinner who could call me 'boy' without making me feel dirty. I watched her leave and then turned back to her sales.
I expected to eat dinner with Wenxian before I went to Jack's party. I stopped to use the facility and then ran up the steps to our little apartment. I opened the door and there were candles flickering all over. Wenxian was in her bridal robes. She lay on her pallet, her face already gone to wax.
"Wenxian?" I said, but I knew she was gone. I knelt, feeling for the pulse. My hands knew how to tell the living from the dead, mostly to change the former to the latter when needed. She was cold. A mirror held to her mouth betrayed no fog of breath.
I had known she was dying, but I thought I could stave it off. I thought perhaps she had killed herself with the drugs I had purchased to ease her pain, but most of the morphine was still in the case. She had been ready and she gone to death fearlessly. I hated the peaceful expression on her face. I knew that would never be for me.
I cried then. I cried all the tears I could have shed for myself. Her husband and daughter's picture were in her hands. I left them where they were. Her orchid I smashed on the ground and ground beneath my heel. How dare it outlive her?
I washed before I called the neighbors to attend her. I would not bury her. I could not bury her. My tears had dried. I went to the market and went with Wong's cousin. I don't know how many men I had sex with that night. Too many, not enough to fill the emptiness inside me.
I had enough money in my pocket to call Geraldine Kallenchuk and to sleep the rest of the night at a hotel. Her voice sounded scornful as she answered me. "Yeah, I can move it. You better not be bullshitting me, Alex. You better have the item."
"I have it," I said. "Send me some money or I'll find someone else to sell it."
"I'm surprised you held out this long," Geraldine said smugly. "How you been living, Alex?"
She knew, the bitch.
I said, "I have my resources. I've been staying with a friend."
"You don't have friends, Alex," Geraldine said. "You know better than that."
Nice to know she thought so.
"Wire me the money; send it to Alex William. I'll have the ID," I said.
Jack had ordered it for me with the bulk of the party money. He promised me more work and I took it. High on the remainder of Wenxian's medicine, the drugs burning warmly down the tracks on my arm; I was a perfect party boy. I laughed, I danced, I was fucked, feeling nothing, like I wasn't there, wasn't anywhere. When I went outside, I looked up into the rain, laughing again. Anything was better than dealing with the pain.
I didn't come out of it for a few days, but I sobered up to meet with Jerry Kallenchuk. You don't want to show any weakness in front of her. She would home in on it like a wolf sniffing out the sick doe from the herd.
When I walked into the airport and Mulder caught me, I would have laughed again if Mulder's fists hadn't hurt so much. It was perfect. His fists thudded into me like a runaway train running over me. His hands were bruised from hitting me. I bled on his skin. I wanted to rub it into him, make him carry that much of me with him wherever he went.
I know he washed it away, but I guess maybe my magic worked. We were never free of each other. Something always brought me back.
I thought it was all forgotten. There was nothing I wanted to remember of Hong Kong except Wenxian. I carried her in my heart. Today when I went into the little Asian import grocery, all I wanted was some lemon grass to make lemon chicken. I passed a deep basket and it hit me. I took a deep breath and followed my nose.
There it was, spiked, ugly, a green lump of a fruit. I touched it as I wished I could touch Wenxian's cheek once more.
"Alex? Alex? Are you all right?" the masculine voice asked.
It didn't fully register at once. My hands rested on the Durian fruit, still lost in memory.
"What the hell is that?" Walter asked.
As I returned to the present, my current surroundings slowly replaced the outdoor market of my reverie. The closely packed stalls and carts became the clean sterile setting of the modern Asian market near our home. However, the Durian fruit remained quite solid beneath my hand. There was only one left. I hefted it, my old expertise coming back. It was ripe and full. My mouth watered.
"Jesus Christ, that reeks!" Walter said, "Did it go bad?"
Mulder loped over with an assortment of tea filling his hands. He stopped at the sight of the spiked ball in my hand. "They're back!" he deadpanned. "Damn, not only did they invade, but they have the worst BO I ever smelled. What the hell is that, Alex?"
"It's a Durian fruit," I explained.
"What's wrong with it?" Mulder asked, wrinkling his nose.
"Nothing!" I snapped. "It's good."
Putting it in the cart, I glared at both of my lovers. "I'm buying it."
"Oh, God," Mulder drawled, rolling his eyes at Walter. "If it's this bad before it's opened, what's it going to be like cut?" He reached into the cart and put it back.
"Fuck you, I'm buying it," I said, snatching it out of the basket. I cradled the fruit in my arm and stalked away. Over my shoulder, I said, "I'll walk home with it if I have to."
Mulder's stunned expression was my first clue that I had over reacted.
Walter said, "Alex, Mulder was only joking. Settle down."
"Yeah," Mulder added, "if that god awful thing makes you one whit happier, I want you to have it. Is there another? I'll buy you two."
I blinked and I felt Wenxian settle where she belonged, in my heart. The memory didn't hurt anymore. She loved me, one of the few people in my life to love me not for my looks and not like my mother because she was supposed to love me.
"I want to buy an orchid," I said. "Will you take me to buy one?"
"Of course, we will," said Walter. His hand cupped my cheek and he stroked me with his thumb.
Yeah, well, they didn't just love me when I was beautiful either.
Mulder's hand gripped mine and he kissed my knuckles.
"Someday, I have to tell you about a woman I met in Hong Kong," I said.
Mulder said, "Was she beautiful?"
I smiled and said, "The most beautiful woman in the world."
Walter and Mulder exchanged glances. I laughed and I said, "But she was nearly eighty years old."
"Sounds like quite a story," Walter said.
And we drove away with my Durian fruit to buy a perfect orchid.
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