Chemical Agents III: Volatility

by Ratadder and Queen Mab

CHEMICAL AGENTS PART THREE - VOLATILITY

Volatility: easily aroused, tending to erupt into violence


Voices surround me...

"Oh my God-"

"What in hell-"

"Mulder! Let go of him!"

"I can't!"

The words and reactions roll over me, just more confusion. I force my eyes open and stare up at the trio of stunned faces and refuse to let out the scream fighting its way up my burning throat. I already screamed in front of Mulder. No more.

His hands are surprisingly gentle... not hurting, not choking, just holding. Firmly. Keeping me still. Holding me down. Which would be fine except I can't stand being held down. But he's keeping me from touching that... growth. Just the thought of it has my stomach spasming and my throat tightening and panic rising. I whimper helplessly and try to clamp my lips on the sound. The feel of that thing... I close my eyes and my head thrashes against the pillow. I try to swallow back the bile churning in my throat. I can't breathe. Everything is still too close - the nightmares, the flashbacks, the pain, the choking fear. I can't feel the arm itself, I haven't even seen it, but my hand... my hand touched it... I felt it...

Am I even awake? Is this just round 32 in the never-ending dream cycle?

"Krycek! Come on, snap out of it! You're alright!"

"Mulder, let him go now! He's-"

"Agent Mulder, I think-"

"He was tearing at it! Gouging at himself!" I was? "I'm only trying to keep him still!" I can vouch for that. Mulder's handled me much more roughly in the past. If he were trying to hurt me, he would be. I must be awake. Mulder is never just trying to hold me still in my dreams or my nightmares.

A hand slaps my cheek lightly and I open my eyes again, ready to scream at Mulder, and instead see those blueblue eyes. Scully. She's come up on the other side of the bed. At the same instant I realize Mulder's hands are still clenched on me, so he couldn't have slapped me. Calm, cool and in control, Scully puts one hand on either side of my head and holds me still, staring straight at me. "Alex. Calm down. Please. Breathe for me."

I breathe obediently, without even wondering why her voice has such a calming effect on me. I'll worry about it later. Right now I can use some of that calm, even if it is borrowed.

"That's it. Breathe, slowly." Her cool fingers stroke my temples as I stop thrashing. Heaven on earth. "Are you all right now? Can Mulder let you up?"

"Yeah..." I can't believe my voice. I sound like a scared kid. Shit. I've gotta pull it together.

"Scully-"

"I see it, Mulder. Alex, can you relax your hand? Your right arm? Take a deep breath and relax it." Her hand moves from my face and I almost whimper again but then she's rubbing my right arm and I look to the right, towards Mulder, and realize that I'm still reaching. Independent of my brain, my hand is still flexing, grasping, trying to get to...

Oh fuck. I start to turn my head to look the other way but Scully is right there again, releasing my arm and catching my face, blocking me. "Not yet, Alex. I want you to relax your muscles first. We'll both look in a minute, okay? But you need to calm down a little. I can sedate you if I have to, but I don't want to."

Fuck no! I press my head back into the pillow, sucking in a deep breath and forcing my right arm to unclench. I let it drop to the bed at my side, and feel Mulder's hands slowly pull back and release me. Damn. In spite of the claustrophobia, that was sort of... nice. Fully awake now and processing everything that's happened since I came to, I force my entire body to release the tension coiling through me. I look up at Scully and try to project sanity. "I'm okay now," I manage, and wince at how shaky my voice sounds.

"Mulder, get him some water." She doesn't even look up from me, and I hear his footsteps as he immediately complies. I'm glad I'm not the only one her voice has that effect on. "I'm going to take a look at this now, okay, Alex?" Her voice is still too-careful, and I know she expects me to wig again. I nod and put all my strength into keeping my face completely neutral as Mulder comes up on the bedside. I take the glass from him and manage to get water all over myself as I try to drink without sitting up. At least some of it soothes my parched throat and takes the sour taste from my mouth, and I ignore the rest of it seeping into the pillow and the sheet around me. Scully is sitting on the bed next to me, and slowly, so slowly, her hands are reaching to touch-

I can't feel a thing. Surprised, I turn and look without thinking. I almost throw up the water. Jesus! What the fuck? Hands are holding me again, one across my chest and one catching my right wrist, and instinctively I know it's Mulder. I feel him drop onto the bed next to me, keeping me still by leaning his weight against me, and I can't even enjoy it. I'm dumbstruck just staring at the hideousness of my... my arm.

If it looked like hell before, it looks even worse now. At least before it was... understandable. It was an amputated arm. Scar tissue and ugliness and then nothing. Now though... it's like some kind of mutant freak show. The shoulder is smooth and the scars have literally disappeared. I flash on the disappearing scar on my leg but... shit. That was nothing compared to this. Below the entirely-too-healthy-looking shoulder, the flesh continues to extend, where it just shouldn't. Dead white, like frostbit toes or fingers. The tip of bone extending from the meat is particularly gruesome. That's what I touched. Looking hard at the flesh, there almost appears to be movement under the surface. As if tiny bugs move just under the skin. I think I'm really going to be sick. I've seen worse, a lot worse, but this is me.

And I slept through this?

"Unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable," Scully murmurs over and over as her hands cradle the stumpy growth. Insane is more like it. I can't tear my eyes away, even when Mulder's voice sounds right next to my ear.

"Breathe, Krycek. You're about to turn blue."

Scully looks up at me quickly. "Alex, this is no more than we were expecting. We talked about this happening."

"You did?"

Mulder sounds positively incensed, and I have to fight off a hysterical giggle. I don't do a very good job of it and they both look at me sharply when I make a sick little snorgling sound.

"We wondered about the bullet wound, reinjuring the shoulder," Scully addresses Mulder directly. "Looks like it took. Or maybe he's just so steeped in whatever they're giving him now that the arm is starting to regenerate anyway." Her eyes go back to the arm and she leans over, inspecting it all over again. "My God, this is so incredible!" She looks back up at Mulder, smiling in awe. "I'm watching it happen and I don't believe it!"

Mulder raises one eyebrow and settles back away from me again. I must have stopped looking like I was about to jump out of the bed and go running, screaming. Note to self: next time you want him to keep holding you, just keep struggling. He leans over me to peer at the arm, his own eyes taking on that fanatical gleam, a slight smile curling his lips. "We are going to be the hit of the next AMA convention."

"Hell, forget that," I snap sarcastically, glaring at him and trying to jerk back. "Let's just do the Jerry Springer Show and sell the story for a movie of the week." I look back to that poking bone and shudder.

Mulder gives me an odd look. "Krycek, you're getting your arm back." He sounds like he thought up the idea all on his own. "What's wrong with you? Why aren't you more excited about this?"

Because it's not me! something inside me shrieks. Because we don't know what the hell it is or what it's doing or what it might do tomorrow. Because I never asked to be a guinea pig. Because I know something about the beings they got this stuff from, and it's more than I want to know. Because I got tied down and they injected me with it and you of all people should remember how helpless that makes you feel. Because I don't want you to look at me like that. I don't want anyone to look at me like that, but most of all not you. Because it's not natural, it's not right, amputated limbs don't just grow back.

I can feel the panic and the revulsion rising and I chase it with anger. "Because I have no way of knowing what the result is going to be! Shit, you've seen some of the Consortium's cloning experiments. I could end up with tentacles or flippers or something before this is over."

Scully shakes her head from her bent, rapt position. "So far the growth looks perfectly normal," she offers, her fingers pressing very carefully up and down the arm. It's too weird, watching her fingers touch me, not feeling anything. Not even pain.

"It doesn't hurt. I can't feel it."

"None of it?"

"It doesn't hurt anymore. It hurt like hell all night and now it doesn't." I look at her helplessly. "I didn't feel it... happening. I was asleep. Well, sort of. I was dreaming but-" I glance sideways as Mulder suddenly rockets off the bed as if I burned him. He looks... strange. I'd swear he was embarrassed, his face flushing and his eyes darting everywhere but where I am. I waste a minute trying to figure out what he's about this time, then chalk it up to typical Mulderism and look back to Scully.

"You slept through this?" she asks, and I want to tell her I'm as stunned as she is.

"I was having really vivid dreams and I was in a lot of pain. But that's not unusual. I mean it hurts sometimes, and if I'm dreaming about... when it happened, it sometimes hurts like hell when I wake up. I had a really bad night, I remember hurting, but I must have been pretty out of it to not... not realize that was happening."

"You were."

The low, choked voice has both Scully and me turning, and Mulder seems to almost shrink under our attention. "I was-?"

"You were out of it," he mutters, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "You sure as hell weren't comfortable, and I thought you were waking up a couple times, but you didn't seem any too coherent."

I suddenly really don't like the realization that Fox Mulder sat there and watched me sleep all night. It's enough to make my skin crawl.

"You didn't notice either?" Scully asks him, her eyebrows reaching her hairline.

"He was all bundled up!" Mulder practically shouts, and I wonder again about his jumpiness. "He had that quilt practically tied around him and I couldn't see the arm."

Scully nods and shoots him one last odd look before returning her attention to me. "Well, I guess it's a good thing it doesn't hurt now."

"Is it?" I can't keep the dire note out of my voice as I stare at the truly creepy dead whiteness of my flesh. "What if it just stops here?"

Scully shakes her head, murmuring absently, "No, I don't think so. There's still activity. It's amazing... truly amazing." Suddenly she sits up straight and eyes me like a kid let loose in Godiva. "We need to do some tests. Get those tissue samples. As soon as possible." I shiver involuntarily.

"Pictures!! I didn't get pictures of the 'before'!" Losing his weird skittishness, Mulder is suddenly slapping his forehead, face pained. "Damn, this is happening faster than I expected. I can't believe I forgot to ask the guys about a camera last night. Maybe they have one around here somewhere. Maybe I can start documenting now." He's staring at my arm mournfully, and suddenly it's just too damn much for me.

"So sorry, Mulder," I bark, flinging myself backward and yanking the quilt back up around myself. "I'll just try and tell it to slow down until you have a chance to fucking document it."

He has the grace to look a little sheepish, before he draws himself up and scrambles for the high ground again. "Well, you promised us proof," he sputters.

"Can you all just get out," I grate. "We can play show and tell later." I keep the quilt cinched tight up to my throat, not giving a damn how it looks.

Scully makes an aborted reach, as if she's about to touch me, then her hand drops to the bedspread. "You're... alright now, Alex?"

"I'm fine." I lift my chin and dare any one of them to question it.

She shoots me a look that could almost be sympathetic as she gets off the bed and heads for the door, making a shooing gesture at Mulder as she moves. "I'm going to hold you to that promise of 'later'," she tosses over her shoulder, and though she's got a perfectly friendly look on her face, the even tone of her voice and the steady eyes tell me my hours are numbered. This will undoubtedly be the last time I'll be able to hold her off before she starts in on the doctor routine, no holds barred. Lovely thought.

Skinner stares at me wordlessly, then turns and helps Scully practically drag Mulder out of the room. As he pulls the door shut behind them, I stare at the ceiling and slowly, slowly, release my vice grip on the quilt. As I push it down again I count down from twenty, breathing in and out evenly. When I reach one, I steel myself and start over. Extending my hand, I let my fingers run over the strange, lumpy end of the stump, shivering as my fingertips brush bone. How in hell is it doing that? How can the bone be growing out beyond? I swallow hard and turn my head, forcing myself to examine this... mutation clinically. Calling on every reserve of strength, I touch and stare and choke back on my gag reflex until I've at least somewhat accustomed myself to the sight, the feel. The revulsion doesn't fade, but I can push it down, pack it away. I can deal.

I can deal.

I close my eyes and try to will myself to relax, knowing I need to calm a bit before getting up, before going out there and dealing with Skinner and Scully and Mulder again. Mulder. Shit. That look in his eyes, that excitement on his face...

I'm not one of your damn X-Files. I'm not. I won't let myself be.

I only wish I could believe anything I say where he's concerned.


"-and if we can get a Polaroid too, because that way we don't have to rely on someone developing the film." Emerging from the bathroom, Mulder lowered his voice, no longer having to talk through the walls, and kept right on babbling. "Although actually the guys can certainly do that too I just don't know how portable everything is and I don't want to have to-"

"Mulder," Skinner held up one hand and rubbed his forehead with the other. "Enough. We'll figure out the camera thing."

"But did you see it?! Wasn't it amazing?! It's actually regenerating."

"It's unbelievable," Scully muttered for the countless time, playing absently with the buttons on the front of her pajama top. "Pure science fiction, and yet I'm standing here seeing it with my own eyes. Proof, Mulder! Proof." Her voice took on the hushed quality usually reserved for the devoutly religious referring to deities. "Scientific proof we can hold in our hands."

"Yes and since we all know what's happened every time we've said those words, let's not count our fluffy little flightless avians before they hatch, shall we?" Skinner muttered, shoving past them and back into the kitchen.

"Come on, sir, you have to admit this is better than we've ever had before," Mulder wheedled as he followed, holding the door for Scully.

Skinner sighed and nodded, leaning against the counter. "Yes, I know. It's just..."

"Just what?" Mulder prodded.

"It's... well, it's Krycek." Skinner spread his hands as if that explained everything. Which, in a way, it did. "I can't say I'm comfortable with anything involving him. I don't like making deals with him, I don't like relying on his word on anything, and I don't like the thought of 'proof' having anything to do with him."

"And you're not that comfortable putting your life in his hands," Mulder added softly.

The pause hung for a long moment, then Skinner shrugged. "That too," he agreed tonelessly. His agents stepped up, one to either side of him, and simply stood, a wordless show of support that warmed him. With an effort he shook off the mood and glanced at the clock on the wall. "Speaking of which, shouldn't your friends be getting here at some point?"

Mulder nodded. "Anytime now, I'm sure."

"Which means I really have to go get dressed," Scully said, rolling her eyes at the thought of Frohike's response if she answered the door in her pajamas.

"Shit!"

"Mulder?"

"I just remembered... dressed. We need to get him dressed." ::We definitely need to get him dressed.:: He bit his lip. "You're sure we can't just put him into whatever he had on when you guys got here?"

"No," Scully shook her head. "Not only do I think he'd rather stay naked, but they're also pretty much in tatters. And bloody."

"Well, we've got to get him into something!"

"Well, then why didn't you bring him something?" Scully said, exasperated.

"I was a little preoccupied worrying about you," Mulder snapped. "Outfitting Krycek wasn't really top on my list of things to remember in a crisis." The contrite look that crossed her face made him feel doubly guilty, knowing as he did that the only reason he was snapping was the weird thoughts of Krycek that had been preoccupying him, despite his best efforts. No, outfitting him wasn't one of them, but now that you mentioned it...

"I'm sorry, Mulder. I know this has been rough on all of us and-"

Mulder quickly raised a hand to stave her off, guilt forcing him to stop her apology. "Don't. I was worried sick, but you definitely had the roughest time here." He smiled suddenly. "If you'd been the one stuck at the FBI worrying, you would have not only managed to get me out of the Consortium's little lab single-handed, you would have remembered to bring Krycek clothes, underwear and a toothbrush."

Scully laughed. "I'm not invincible. I just pretend to be."

Skinner snorted. "He's right. You would have."

Scully shot him an exasperated look and shook her head, but her cheeks colored a bit and Mulder could see she was pleased. She turned and busied herself with picking up her abandoned coffee cup from the table and refilling it. "Stop it, both of you. And besides, I'd definitely say Krycek has had the roughest time here, not me. I was just kidnapped. He got me out before they could do to me what they did to him."

Mulder shot Skinner a meaningful look, and intercepted a meaningful look coming right back at him from his boss. They both raised their eyebrows, and then quickly tried to school their expressions as Scully turned back around.

"All of which gets us no closer to getting him dressed," she sighed into her coffee cup. "We've all noticed the way he drags that blanket around. I think it goes without saying that as much as we'd like him covered, he'd like to be covered."

Mulder paused and stared unfocused at the ceiling for a moment. "That could be one good reason to leave him uncovered," he murmured.

"Excuse me?" The two voices blended perfectly and he almost laughed at the looks on their faces. Then he realized how his comment must have sounded.

"No, wait, hear me out. Yes, we give him clothes. I want him to have clothes." ::Believe me, I want him to have clothes.:: Mulder bit his tongue and continued on a safer angle. "But we've agreed that he's off balance and we should use that. I'd say his vulnerability in this situation is definitely playing into that unbalance. And I say we use every tool at our disposal. Give him clothes, but keep him in something that won't make him feel a whole lot more secure. Like... I don't know. A t-shirt and shorts. And it helps address the restraint issue. We can't keep him locked up? Okay, so we make sure he's in no condition to even think about leaving. This may be the south but it is January out there and we're in the middle of nowhere. He's not going to be going anywhere in a pair of shorts."

Skinner and Scully glanced at each other and nodded thoughtfully. "Works for me," Skinner shrugged.

"So you've got something he can wear?" asked Mulder.

"Me? Why me?" Skinner asked, surprised to hear the plaintive note in his own voice. But dressing the bastard? Somehow it didn't seem fair.

"Well, I suppose we can see if Scully's got anything," Mulder drawled with a perfectly straight face, "but I think her stuff might be a little tight." Two faces swung toward him, and he grinned when both broke into snickers simultaneously.

Behind them the door swung open and Krycek limped into the kitchen, his quilt shushing unevenly against the floor as he moved. All three government officials jerked guiltily and went conspicuously silent, eyes moving to Alex and then hastily away as a bit of foot shuffling commenced.

Krycek stopped and stared suspiciously at the three of them. "What the hell's up with you?" he finally rasped.

"Nothing," Mulder said quickly. "Just... ah... talking about getting you something to wear."

Krycek continued to stare around at the trio, then finally shook his head and made his way over to the kitchen counter. "And they say I can't be trusted," he muttered. "If you three want to make fun of me, you can do it to my face. There isn't much I haven't heard."

Scully's head lifted. "No, it wasn't..." She stopped, and Mulder saw her wince, almost as if catching herself for worrying about Alex's feelings. "How are you doing?" she rephrased.

"Hungry," Krycek said shortly from the counter, trying to open a cupboard and keep the quilt on at the same time.

"Hey, that's a good sign." Scully stepped over and opened the cupboard. "What sounds good... let's see..."

"Hey! Pop Tarts!" Alex's voice lit up and his hand reached for the box.

"NO!" Mulder reached easily over Scully's head and grabbed them before Alex's fingers could close. Krycek gave him an incredulous look. "Those are mine," Mulder said lamely. "There aren't that many in a box. We don't know how long we're going to be here."

Scully tilted her head and gave Mulder a look. Then turned to Alex. "Sorry Alex, but I really don't think sugar and fat and fake fruit filling are exactly what you need right now. How about some toast?"

Still looking blankly at Mulder, Krycek seemed to shake himself and refocus on her. "Yeah, okay. Whatever." He limped to the kitchen table and sat heavily.

"I'll get it, Scully. You go get dressed." Mulder plucked the bread out of her hands sheepishly. She mouthed 'be nice' at him sternly and left the room.

Skinner spent a moment glancing between an expressionless Krycek, sitting at the table staring off into space, and Mulder fumbling at the toaster. He noticed, almost against his will, that a night's sleep hadn't done much for the younger man. Of course, given what that night of sleep had produced, maybe it wasn't all that surprising. His eyes strayed toward the lump under the left side of the quilt. Unsettling, to say the least.

He wondered how Krycek felt, with something alien spreading through his body. A sharp twist of vengeful satisfaction went through him, and his mouth curled in an unpleasant smile. Raising his eyes, he unexpectedly met a haunted green gaze. Struck by the difference between Krycek's eyes now and the last time he'd interacted with him, the smile melted away. Comparing the amused, controlled ice of before with these wounded black holes, Skinner blinked and was surprised to note that the rest of the face held the same tight indifference it had always pulled off so well. ::Nice try, boy, but you're cracking and we all know it.:: Whether Krycek read the thought on his face, or just didn't like the look in Skinner's eyes, the heavy lashes abruptly lowered like a veil and Skinner pushed away from the counter. "I'll go dig up something for him to wear."

"Okay," Mulder tossed over his shoulder as he dropped toast on a plate and brought it to Krycek at the table. "Juice?"

"Yes."

"Kind?"

"I don't care."

Mulder shrugged and served him the same orange juice he was getting for himself. "Coffee?"

"Yes."

"Sugar?"

"Black."

Dropping into the chair across from Krycek, he watched the one hand snake out of the quilt carefully and move between the toast and drinks. Sipping at his own coffee, he tried to think how best to phrase the question. Finally he remembered that, being Fox Mulder, no one expected him to be subtle or polite. "Do you remember your dreams?"

"Why?" The dark brows pulled down suspiciously, and all movement froze.

"Just curious," Mulder offered innocently. "You mentioned you were having vivid dreams. And you definitely seemed to be."

Krycek's eyes narrowed. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Blinking, Mulder pasted on his best butter-wouldn't-melt look. "You know. You seemed pretty... restless. Talking in your sleep." He almost smirked openly at the way Krycek's mouth tightened. His adversary was definitely in no condition to be playing bluffing games.

The pause lengthened and stretched, before Krycek finally broke. "Did I... say something in particular?"

Mulder waited a few beats, pretending to think, before letting the other shoe drop. "Not really. You weren't very coherent. I was just wondering if you usually remember your dreams well."

"Parts of them," Krycek spoke cautiously, eyes searching Mulder's face for what he was really after. "Some of them are... hard to forget."

Mulder nodded absently and drank his coffee. "I can imagine."


"You've got to be kidding." I stare at the pile of cloth Skinner drops on the table. The very small pile.

"Talk to him about it." Skinner jerks a thumb at Mulder.

Mulder just gives me that innocent look he's been flashing all morning. The one that's really getting on my last nerve. "We figured you'd want something to wear, Krycek."

"I do. I want clothes. Not...," I poke the pile... a t-shirt and a battered pair of blue gym shorts. "Not underwear."

"Well, as it happens, we forgot to bring clothes for you. So that's what you get. And it's not underwear."

I give him a look that's had killers quaking in their boots. He grins at me. New experience for me - I've never actually wanted to simultaneously put someone's face through a table and kiss him breathless. I'd really like to know why in hell the powers that be decided he should be so fucking cute with that grin on his face. And I am in such bad shape if I'm even letting myself think that. I force my attention back to the issue at hand in an effort to ignore the melting feeling in my gut. "I assume you remembered clothes for yourselves. Why can't you give me something else. Something that actually qualifies as clothing."

"Be thankful, Krycek," Skinner doesn't bother to turn around from drawing water in the sink. "This is a compromise. We agreed not to lock you up, but that doesn't mean we want to outfit you for the great outdoors. It's either this, or the leg irons and a lock on the bedroom door."

I groan and roll my head back. "How many times do I have to tell you I'm not going anywhere? I want to be here, remember? I'm the one that asked for protection for fuck's sake."

"Yes, well. You are, after all, you," Skinner tosses off casually, still paying more attention to his breakfast dishes. I glare at his back while Mulder snickers.

I pick up the shorts and stare at them in distaste. So okay, something is better than nothing, but this is ridiculous. Prodding the thin t-shirt underneath them, I notice with a wave of relief it's long-sleeved. It's a courtesy I wouldn't have expected of the old bastard, and I almost want to thank him. But this is Skinner we're talking about, and I do have an image, sandblasted though it may be at the moment. I stand up, gripping the table as the room sways just a tad, and pick up the clothes. "Can I at least have socks," I crack sarcastically as I leave.

"Sure thing," Mulder calls cheerfully. Just as the door swings shut behind me I hear Skinner's voice rumbling "you can give him your socks". Muttering under my breath I limp my way back to the bedroom and drop the quilt, tossing the clothes on the bed. Scrubbing my hand through my hair I debate hitting the shower before getting 'dressed', but then recall seeing the door to the bathroom closed. Scully. Oh well, maybe later.

I wouldn't mind a hot bath, actually. Maybe that would ease the aches in the legs a little. It's such a relief not having the arm hurting... until I remember why it's not hurting. Glancing at it briefly I reach for the t-shirt and struggle into that first. Get the damn thing out of sight. The shirt is big on me, but it's something. It's nice, really. Soft and warm and clean and best of all, not clinic-issue. It's beige, a warmer color than the starkness of the white clinic uniforms. Reaching for the shorts I realize I've knocked them off the bed with my hasty grab for the shirt. Considering how dizzy I've been, bending over could easily send me right down on my head. With a tired groan I catch hold of the side of the bed and ease myself down onto my knees, then lean forward to grab them.

Which of course is when Mulder walks in.

"Hey Kry-whoa!"

Why me? I immediately sit up, dropping my ass down onto my heels, and glare at him over my shoulder. My legs protest the weight and I work myself around until I'm sitting facing him. Let him think what he wants, I'm not standing up. What is it about this situation that is bound and determined to get me naked in front of Mulder and Scully?

"What do you want now?" I grit out, unable to prevent myself from dropping the shorts into my lap.

"Sorry." Mulder looks more amused than apologetic as he shakes a pair of socks at me. "Didn't you want socks?"

"Thank you. Get out."

He tosses me the socks and leans against the doorjamb. "Hey, Krycek, you need a-" Simultaneously the sounds of a vehicle and Skinner's voice calling interrupt whatever smartass remark he was working up to. "Whoops, love to stay and chat, but that sounds like the guys."

At least he closes the door on his way out.


Mulder bounced back out into the living room, grinning. A rattled Krycek made such a fun toy. The fact that the image of his round, bare ass lingered disturbingly on Mulder's retinas could be ignored. Mostly. Sort of. "Is that the guys?"

"I'd say so," Skinner returned in a dubious voice, peering through the curtains. "Mulder, are you sure about-"

"Trust me," he tossed off, heading straight for the door, turning off the alarm and flinging the door wide. "Alright, get your asses in here!"

Behind him, Skinner shook his head, a concerned frown wrinkling his forehead. He caught sight of Scully moving into the room, smiling in a way that told him she'd heard their exchange. He raised an eyebrow at her silently, and caught his breath at the way her smile widened into one of those genuine grins that seemed to light her face from the inside out.

Beautiful.

He got himself back on track with a touch of panic as she moved up close to him and dropped her voice. "Sir, they've been involved many times before. You know they take the risks in stride, and in this case, I really do think we're limited as to whom we can trust. You know I wouldn't take unnecessary risks with civilian lives, or involve people in this that I didn't believe needed to be involved. They are our best option."

Releasing a frustrated sigh, he nodded. "I trust your judgement, Agent Scully," he finally muttered, the emphasis making it clear that no matter how brilliant they all knew Mulder was, he had reason to doubt Mulder's take on any given situation. "I don't have to particularly like it."

"No," she mused, watching the Gunmen pile through the door, surrounding Mulder like puppies battling for his attention. "I can't say I particularly like anything about this situation."

He made a quiet sound of agreement and watched wordlessly as she walked over and touched Byers' arm, greeting the three with honest pleasure.

"You guys are set," Langly crowed, nodding to Scully. "You are now officially 'in Califonia on a case'." He stretched out his arms. "Hold the applause, just throw money..."

"Ahem, what exactly are we paying for?" Scully asked wryly.

"Check this out," Frohike cut in, eagerly sidling up to Scully and opening a manila folder. He handed off a stapled set of papers to Scully, then one to Mulder. "You two have been assigned to investigate a series of disappearances around Los Angeles. Friends and coworkers state that right before each individual disappeared, they exhibited a sudden, intense interest in cattle mutilations and crop circles. It's the only link between the victims that has been established."

"Really?" Mulder's gaze sharpened with interest as he perused the papers. "No other connection? What form did this sudden interest take?"

Four pairs of eyes shifted and stared at him. Skinner rubbed his face and sighed. "Mulder. I believe they created the case."

"Oh. Right." Mulder flushed and shrugged. "I guess it wouldn't make sense to assign us to a real case if we weren't actually going to be showing up..."

"And that's the best part!" Langly jumped in again. "You already 'showed up', as of today January 27, just as the itinerary shows, and you'll be filing regular reports. We've got it all laid out... false reports will go in to his secretary," he pointed at Skinner, "and periodic charges from LA will appear on your Amex, Mulder. It's the perfect set up."

"Very inspired, guys," Mulder grinned around at them.

"I'll say," Scully murmured, looking up from the pages. "This is incredible. I think this will do exactly what we need it to do."

"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute." Skinner shook his head. "Spender knows you two aren't in LA. What's the point? And Kim is getting the reports? I didn't tell her to expect that."

"Spender may know we aren't in LA, but what's he going to do about it?" Scully asked, turning to Skinner. "He doesn't know where we are. My 'disappearance' has been closed. You're officially on medical leave. Mulder and I getting sent on a sudden assignment in California covers us for the Bureau, and you of all people know how Spender functions, sir. He won't be making all sorts of noise at the Bureau that we aren't where we're supposed to be, because then it just draws more attention to what his big interest is in suddenly finding us. Right about now I'd assume he'll be wanting it kept pretty quiet that he doesn't know where we are, or that he might be wanting to find us. I'm still wondering how many of his cronies knew he had me in that facility, and if they knew he was planning to get Mulder there next. And if they did know, if they now know he doesn't know where we are."

"And actually, Assistant Director, sir," Byers started hesitantly, "you, ah, did tell Miss Cook to expect those reports. You... ahem... sent her an email. She replied in the affirmative and said she hoped you were feeling better." He offered a weak smile at Skinner's outraged expression.

"You're telling me you... you've been in the FBI computer system... you've got these two assigned to the LA office? You've been in my EMAIL?!"

"Hey, chill, it was for an important cause, right?" Langly shrugged. "Mulder said he and Scully needed to legitimately disappear for awhile. So we rigged it."

"But- how-" Skinner finally stopped sputtering and sucked in a breath, wondering if his face was as purple as it felt. Releasing the breath and counting to ten silently, he started over, speaking slowly and precisely. "Do you gentlemen even want to know how many laws you've broken in just what you've described in the last-" he consulted his watch "-three minutes and 45 seconds?"

"Not really," Frohike answered, still staring only at Scully. "It's a good job, eh?"

"Excellent," she nodded. "I'm duly impressed. I'll start throwing money any moment now."

He smiled and ducked his head. "No, no, the applause really is more than enough. We just wanted to do our best to keep you guys safe." He reached out and brushed her arm hesitantly. "We were real glad to hear you were okay."

Skinner groaned and pushed his glasses farther up on the bridge of his nose. "So can you guys at least tell me that hacking into the federal government's computers was a little challenging?" he snapped sarcastically.

Langly snorted and opened his mouth, only to exhale with an 'ooof' as Byers elbowed him in the stomach, giving him a sharp look. "Uh yes. Sir." Byers spoke rapidly, nodding, though he wouldn't quite make eye contact.

"Sure," Langly muttered. "So hey guys, if you want to come downstairs, I can set you up and show you how to send those reports to the lovely Ms. Kim yourself if you felt like it. You don't have to worry about them being traceable. We'll be bouncing you off LA anyway."

"Downstairs?" Mulder and Scully chorused together. They glanced at each other then back to the Gunmen. "There's a downstairs?" Mulder clarified.

"Of course," Langly looked between the two of them. "Well duh people, do you see any computer equipment up here?"

Mulder blinked. "A very good point that I should have thought of myself. So you keep it all downstairs."

"I thought..." Scully trailed off, pointing to the small room that led off the far side of the living room.

"Oh please," Byers laughed. "That's the entertainment room. The computer in there is hardly what you'd call a computer. It's just a fun machine. That's just for if one of us wants to play a game while watching the television, or use the DVD capabilities to watch a movie, listen to a CD, that sort of thing."

"Ahh," Scully nodded.

"The real stuff is downstairs. Right this way." Strutting across the room, Langly stopped in front of a small closet door set in between the kitchen and the second bedroom. Swinging it open with a flourish, he grinned at Mulder and Scully's dubious expressions as they stared at two mops, an ancient vacuum cleaner and assorted junk. Kicking the vacuum cleaner out of the way, Langly reached in and moved aside a wooden panel that looked like the back of the closet. A locked door stood behind it. He carefully opened it, ducked into the closet and through the opening. A light came on, illumination spilling back out into the tiny closet.

"I do not believe this," Scully murmured under her breath in a low monotone. Mulder shot her an amused look and followed Byers as he ducked after Langly. Scully turned to Skinner who stood silently, still shaking his head. "Sir?"

"I don't think I even want to know, Agent Scully. I'll stay up here and... keep an eye on things." He waved vaguely in the direction of the small bedroom.

"Alright then," she gave him a look that said she'd just as soon stay and keep him company, then followed Frohike into the closet. Immediately through the door a set of stairs led down and to the right, curling back around to dump them out into an underground basement space that opened out into one large room running the length and width of the entire upstairs. Mulder and Langly were already bent over a computer. She let Frohike walk her the length of the basement, stepping around the structure supports at various intervals, listening with half an ear as he identified the equipment they kept underground. With the rest of her attention she racked up a loose estimate of the amount of money sitting in this place. She touched one of the computers and shook her head. "This cannot be cheap. To just leave this stuff here, unused?"

"It's a necessary safety net," came a voice behind her, and she jumped, not having realized Byers had walked up behind them. "And really, it's equipment that we've updated back at the headquarters. As we update we rotate the stuff out here. If we ever needed to... deploy this base, we'd bring along the basics with us that we'd need to get everything up to the standard we're used to."

Scully stared at the soft-spoken, normal-looking young man blinking seriously back at her and knew he wholeheartedly believed that they might need to "deploy" this "base" at any given time. A sudden thought flashed through her mind that if these three were stockpiling guns and canned food, rather than computers, she'd be very unlikely to be standing in their basement unless she was wearing a flak jacket and doing a raid for the FBI. Then she considered all they'd seen and learned about the conspiracy, and she sighed. Couldn't really fault them, when it came right down to it. Still... "Well, you guys seem to have thought of everything, and actually this space will be great to use for my purposes. That is if you managed to get me some equipment?"

"At your service," Frohike assured with a devil's grin. "Let's go back upstairs and get it unloaded."

Heading back for the stairs, Scully lagged enough to catch Mulder's attention and raise an eyebrow at him. He leaned closer and whispered, "Just think of it like their version of an IRA, Scully. It'll be easier on your brain that way."


Grumbling, I stuff my feet into Mulder's socks and yank on Skinner's shorts, then start the arduous process of getting to my knees, then my feet. After tugging up the shorts, which are too damn big and hang on me, I have to sit down on the bed again. I spend way too long trying to figure out if I want to tie up the loose sleeve, tuck it in the waistband of the shorts, or just let it hang. Finally I just let it hang and start shuffling... slowly... for the door. By the time I make it out to the main room, I walk into a clamoring madhouse.

"-trying to tell him we didn't have room but like he'd listen-"

"-weren't followed, I can assure you of that-"

"-telling me you actually got a portable xray machine into that van? You guys are nuts. Do I want to know-"

"-tell us what's going on? I mean I know it's hush-hush but we might be able to-"

"-definitely need your help on a few other-"

I stare at the motley crew babbling away at each other. Apparently all parties understand what's being said all around, which is more than I can say for me. Skinner stands in amongst them looking dire as Mulder rattles on about needing help with something. The honorable AD must still be worried about involving "civilians". Seeing the pile of equipment sitting inside the front door, I'm inclined to agree with Mulder's assessment, that these guys shouldn't necessarily be considered civilians.

Scully converses excitedly with a pseudo bank-teller, whose name I seem to recall sounds like some brand of ice cream, as she roots through a box with him. I start sizing each of them up. Who to use. Bank-Teller-Boy looks nicely intimidatable. Looks like he's got a brain in his head too. Of course the blonde would fit right in where I've got to send them, and logic says they all have brains in their heads. I bite my lip and hope to hell Mulder is sure about these guys.

As I contemplate my options, I suddenly become aware that one by one voices are falling silent, until the whole room is quiet. The three Mulder-teers are staring at me with identical looks of shock and... dare I say? horror. I almost laugh, but hold it in and scowl menacingly.

There we go, Alex. Think intimidating thoughts.

"HIM?" The black fingerless gloves make the hand pointing at me particularly funny. Eyes behind thick glasses bulge as short legs stride toward me. "HIM? You brought him to our top secret lair? Skinner... okay. I'm not thrilled about the FBI being here, but I understand difficult circumstances and you said Agent Scully's life was in danger. But him? ALEX KRYCEK? You brought ALEX KRYCEK to our top secret hideout?" He spins around and fixes a shocked glare on Mulder, and I get to watch his ponytail bounce.

"Now I told you guys up front that this was dangerous business and you said-"

"Do you have any idea how much we have invested in this place? And now what??! We'll never be able to use it now that he knows where it is! Now the shadow government will know! What the hell good is a top secret lair if the shadow government knows where it is??!"

"Relax," I drawl before Mulder can speak up. "I don't work for the shadow government anymore. I'm shadowless these days."

Scully steps forward and interrupts me. "He's turning evidence, and besides, he was totally out of it yesterday. I drove us here. I'm the one who knows where we are. We haven't even told him what state we're in."

That seems to do the trick. Frohike turns and looks at me again, eyes flashing. I smile and waggle my eyebrows at him. His teeth clench and he steps closer to me again. I can't resist. "Gonna bite me on the ankle?" I ask softly. A red flush sweeps over his face and his hands ball into fists. "You'd like that, wouldn't you," he sneers. I grin. I do believe I've made my decision. "You'll do," I murmur, looking him up and down.

He blinks at me in confusion and I chill my expression to perfect ice. "We need you all to run a little errand for us, and one of you needs to run a little further than the rest. I think you're the boy for the job."

He turns and looks to Mulder, who gives him an encouraging nod and outlines the situation with Skinner's health, and the part we need them to play.

"A cure?" Bank-Teller-Boy says breathlessly.

"A neutralizer," I respond shortly. Standing up unassisted this long, without even a wall to lean on, is starting to get to me. I don't want to start weaving in front of them, so I turn and head back for my room. "Frohike. In here. With me. Alone." I can hear them immediately start in behind me, hissing whispers and low murmurs, but I'd really like to sit down about now, so I ignore it all and make my way back to the bed. Sitting on the edge, I close my eyes and try to breathe slow and steady. The numbness that is my left arm feels odd... like when the dentist shoots you up with novocaine before drilling.

What a pleasant thought.

A scuffling at the door brings my head around, and Frohike eases through, looking somewhat less blustery than he did in the main room. I rise slowly to my feet, trying unsuccessfully to forestall the wave of dizziness. When my head clears Mulder is standing at his left shoulder, giving me a baleful look.

"Out, Mulder. You know the rules. I talk to one person, alone."

"I'm just here to tell you not to try any cheap tricks, and to not threaten him in any way."

I smile sweetly. "Got it. Get out."

"Geeze, Krycek, the way you keep throwing me out of your bedroom it's like you don't want me around or something."

"Fancy that," I drawl, then wait for him to leave before turning my attention on Frohike. "Now then. We have business." He lifts his chin and gives me a steady look, but I've seen and smelled enough fear in my life to know he's shaking. I let a very slow smile curl my lips and stare down at him coldly. "You can bring your little friends to a certain point, then you go alone. Got paper?" He produces a small pad and a pen from somewhere. I rattle off the address of a parking garage within walking distance of the neutralizer. "Your friends can drive you, and sit in the garage. Now take this down and follow it exactly. It's a route that'll give you plenty of time to tell if someone's following you." Running him carefully through a round-about walk to my best-kept stash, I can't help a skin-crawling feeling at the very thought of telling anyone this information. I shake it off, knowing I don't have a choice but still not liking it. His jaw drops when he realizes where I'm walking him.

"That's a library!" he exclaims, scandalized, as if the thought of using a public library for my nefarious purposes has somehow forever besmirched that fine institution. I roll my eyes.

"I'm not asking you to deface the stone lions. It's actually quite safe, it's a temperature controlled environment, and ensures easy access," I toss off, then go on to describe which floor, which room, and the way to find and open the hollow shelf. "A vial, and a key. You're now halfway done."

He gawks at me. I smile innocently.

"Crosstown there's a bus-station with lockers," I give him the full run-down, locker number and easiest time to get in unnoticed, then step closer to tower over him. Fun time. As he cranes his neck back to look up at me, I let the full steel of my very best "don't even think of fucking with me" look rise to the fore, and drop my voice to a growl. "After you have the first vial, and the key, give it to the bank-teller out there, and make sure he and Blondie don't take their eyes off it while you're getting to the locker. Once you have both vials, don't even think of opening them, mixing them, dropping them, or even breathing heavy on them. Got it? Keep them cool, keep them intact, and get them here as fast as you safely can." I let my hand fall heavily on his shoulder, and lower my voice to a soft, even whisper. "And Frohike, let's be very clear about a couple things. You do not touch anything in either stash, except the vials and the key. You don't read, you don't take, you don't touch, you don't photograph, you don't memorize, you don't even look too hard." I let my fingers tighten. "Or bad things might happen."

He holds my stare, then slowly lets his eyes drop over me, taking in my ragged appearance, the slight sway in my stance, the missing arm, my state of dress. His eyes linger on the sagging gym shorts, and a half smile twitches his lips. "Bad things?"

I want to smack him one, but I can't really afford to piss off Mulder by beating up on his pets. Yet. And besides, the way my balance is right now, if I hit him, I'd probably be the one that ended up on my ass. Has to be threats. I settle for shifting my hand to his throat and letting my thumb press in. Hard. "Yeah. Bad things. Trust me, little man, you do not want to cross me." And if we don't end this fast, I'm going to throw up on your shoes, which will really impress you with my dangerousness. I release him and step back, trying to lower myself onto the bed casually. He lifts one hand to rub at his throat, eyeing me suspiciously.

"And how do I know you're not setting me up?"

"Because neutralizing Skinner is suddenly in my best interest," I quote sarcastically. "So the sooner the better. Why don't you boys get on the road." I stand up to usher him back out to the main room, and am gratified by the way he takes a hurried step backward. So, I haven't completely lost my touch. I follow him out as he scuttles back to his friends who are sipping coffee and munching on... Pop Tarts.

That bastard.

I thunk down into a chair and glare at Bank-Teller-Boy and the crumbs in his beard. He gets nervous enough to shove down the last of what should have been my breakfast, and gets to his feet. "We should be going then?" he asks Mulder. "You did say time is of the essence."

"Yeah guys, as quickly as you can without arousing suspicion, okay?"

Shit. I almost forgot. I look up at him and lift one hand. "And don't go skulking around," I order flatly. "Act like you know what you're doing, where you're going, and you'll be fine. Nobody should be watching these places, but the quickest way to attract attention is to look like you're doing something you shouldn't be. If anybody says anything to you, play dumb. If it looks like anyone is following you, just abort. The kind of people who might know anything about what you're doing are the kind of people you really don't want to run into." I release him with my eyes, and settle my head on the back of my chair, watching through my lashes as the three of them stare at me.

"Right then," Bank-Teller-Boy says hurriedly, reaching for his coat and heading for the door. "Agent Scully, Assistant Director. Good to see you both. We'll... be back." The blonde trots after him with a silent look in my direction and a "later dude" to Mulder. Frohike follows more slowly, and pauses by my chair. Then he glances over at Mulder and speaks. "You can count on us."

I hope so.

They troop to the door and fiddle with the alarm keypad, then go out. As the door closes, Mulder whirls on me. "You're not going to get my friends killed are you?"

I shrug nonchalantly. "You're the one who wanted the neutralizer," I toss off casually. "It's not my fault I can't go get it myself right now. You recommended them."

He stalks to me and leans over my chair. I can feel his breath on my face. "What are the chances they're going to be in danger?" he growls. I feel a frisson of arousal shoot through me. I love it when he gets like this, all dark and dangerous and tough-guy. I always bring out the best in him.

If only I had the energy to deal with it today.

I give him a half-shrug and answer as honestly as I can. "To my knowledge, they should be perfectly fine. I've had no information that either of the places they're going are being watched, or are even known about. And they'll certainly draw less attention going to them than I would. But I don't know everything, Mulder. You just think I do."

He opens his mouth to respond, eyes snapping, when suddenly Scully is tugging on his arm. "Mulder, why don't you go see them off." He straightens reluctantly, but goes without another word. She glances down at me. "Okay, Alex. As soon as I get the equipment organized, we'll get to work."

Why did I know she was going to say that.


Mulder watched the car vanish over the horizon, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. Things were finally beginning to happen, action was being taken, even if he had to stay behind and wait patiently. He didn't do waiting patiently at all well. He needed something to keep his mind busy.

Skinner leaned against the rail at the other end of the porch, staring intently off into the trees. While the subject of Krycek playing Big Bad Thug in shorts and a security blanket would have made fun conversation, his boss obviously wanted to be alone with his thoughts. Mulder wandered back inside to the kitchen and poured himself some coffee. He seemed to recall something to the effect that it was his turn to do the dishes, so he hurried out before Scully could catch him. Then he remembered that she was down in the secret lab, setting up her equipment. He supposed he could go help, maybe break a few test tubes and get thrown out.

He was about to start looking for the tv remote when he noticed Krycek at the living room window, one knee on the window seat, gazing out past the porch to the front drive. His eyes skimmed over the exposed long legs - muscles flexing beneath the pale skin, skin unmarked by bruises that had already disappeared. Legs that Scully claimed had been repeatedly broken and mangled by mad scientists while Krycek screamed his fury and pain.

Mulder shook his head, veering away from thoughts of Krycek in helpless agony. That just brought too many conflicting feelings boiling to the surface of his mind. It was safer to primly observe that Krycek shouldn't be standing right where anyone could see him. Not that there was anyone around for miles but...

His eyes narrowed as he realized he'd just found something to do.

"Hey, Krycek, grown any scales or feathers or tentacles yet?"

He got an icy sneer, emerald eyes gazing down the adorable nose... ridiculous nose. Yeah, ridiculous, that was it. No grown man should have a nose that cute and kissable. Crushing that line of thought, Mulder slumped on the far end of the seat, trying to see what the frustratingly silent son of a bitch was looking at.

Trees. Lots of trees. A few birds poked about on the bare ground, looking for munchies. Mulder supposed it was pretty in a Hallmark sort of way. He didn't figure Krycek for a nature lover, though. Then again, he'd never been able to figure the guy at all. He had a mental profile for every one of Alex Krycek's personas, and none of them gave him that emotional click that meant he'd nailed his target. He could create an intimate analysis of a serial killer he'd never met, but this man, who so affected his life, he just could not understand. Of course, he suddenly had a new advantage...

Suddenly Krycek turned from the window, hefted himself out of the seat, and started pacing across the room, back and forth, movements slow and unsteady. Just as he had the previous night in his bedroom. Mulder watched him for a few minutes, and for no particular reason reflected on how small the average prison cell measured. Krycek would go nuts locked up.

Watching Krycek move over and over the same patch of floor would have been hypnotic if it didn't have the side effect of making him wince. Mulder had to wonder why he kept moving when he didn't look any too comfortable with it. Again, shades of the previous night. He really looked like he ought to sit back down. Fast.

Shifting against the window seat, he sighed silently. In the antsy mood crawling through him, even watching Krycek brood got boring quickly. Just as he thought he was going to have to go find the tv remote after all, Scully appeared out of the closet with a stethoscope hung around her neck, her hair slicked back into a severe tail. Mulder grinned at her fondly. He'd never told her how very turned on he got at the sight of her looking so sterile and efficient.

"Alex, give me about ten minutes and I'll be ready for you," she told him. "And Mulder, don't forget it's your turn to do the dishes." She added quietly, "Can I trust you to behave yourself?"

"I'll play nice, I promise."

Scully gave him a small, encouraging smile. Heading back to the kitchen, she paused to grab two bottles of distilled water, then disappeared back into the closet and down the stairs.

As the door closed on her, he shifted his attention back to his quarry. Krycek ignored him. Mulder watched in silence for another little while, reminded of a panther in a cage at a zoo - all pent-up energy and subdued resentful snarls, the constant tense movement broadcasting the potential for violence.

Then on his next turn back toward the window, Krycek finally met his eyes. The dark head stayed partially lowered, just a soft glimmer of green visible through thick lashes. Another glimmer of green - and purple - colored his cheekbone, compliments of Mulder's fist. That bruise wasn't quite gone yet, unlike the ones on his legs. Without the imminent distraction of Krycek's naked ass staring him in the face, he could now recall some bruising running down the man's side as well. Skinner's handiwork. In the back of his mind Mulder could hear Scully's even, neutral tones, "And you wonder why he's not more cooperative."

"You really look like shit," he commented conversationally. He watched Krycek patiently, wondering what was coming. The man looked intensely tired - another unwanted reminder of the night before - but his almost constant movement spoke of an inability to settle. He'd assumed Krycek would slink off back to bed after the guys left, but so much for that idea. He wasn't providing much entertainment so far, but maybe that was about to change.

When he responded, Mulder felt the assassin's voice like 18-year-old single malt whiskey doing a slow burn through his body.

"Look, Mulder, normally I'd enjoy a good verbal skirmish with you, but I'm not up to it, okay?" Krycek's sullen glare had the unfortunate side effect of making his lower lip look even more attractive than usual. "I'm tired, I hurt, and I have no clue what's going on with my body. So instead of hanging there like a vulture ready to pick away, why don't you just go somewhere else and relax and bask in the knowledge that I'm down about as far as I can go right now. Hmmm? Doesn't that sound like fun?" He stretched out his arm, emphasizing his condition.

"Aww, you take all the fun out of being a bully. Can't I just insult you a little, call you a few choice names?"

Krycek sighed, arm dropping, eyes closing wearily. "Okay, sure, I wouldn't want to stifle your creative invective."

"Ooh, fancy words for a murdering low-life bottom feeder."

"You can do better than that," snorted Krycek. Turning, he paced back to the other side of the room. "Want me to teach you some insults in Russian? Might come in handy if we ever go on another little field trip together. Maybe you can arrange for someone to carve off a leg this time."

That shut Mulder up for several seconds. Feeling like a bucket of ice water had been poured down his back, he bounced to his feet and began pacing himself, away from Krycek so he couldn't see the smirk, then whirling around and striding back toward him. A grim satisfaction bloomed at Krycek's look of alarm. Krycek straightened, back braced against the wall, and lifted his chin to meet Mulder's eyes.

Mulder knew he was expecting to get a matching bruise on the other cheek. He stopped a few feet away, punching his hands into his pockets. Krycek relaxed slightly.

"You're walking an awful lot for someone who supposedly had both legs broken the day before yesterday. Is that true? Did they really do that to you?"

"Yeah. Too bad you missed it."

Mulder flinched before he could stop himself. "Hey, I might break your nose, knock loose a few teeth, but come on." ::Might have joked about exactly that to Scully, but it's not like I really meant it.::

Silence.

Mulder planted himself in the center of the room, arms crossed over his chest, and watched Krycek pace. Far too often, Krycek would stumble to a pause with a choked noise, clutch his left shoulder convulsively, and half-swallow a soft whimper that made Mulder queasy.

"I guess it's kind of like when you stub your toe or smash your finger, you jump up and down or shake your hand like that somehow makes it hurt less."

Silence.

Finally he couldn't stand it anymore. Moving slowly, he stopped Krycek's next stalk toward the window by catching Krycek's good arm with a gentle hand. "Come on, sit down, you need to rest-"

Krycek jerked away, glaring at him. "Don't touch me!"

"Look, I'm trying to be nice, okay?"

"Oh right," Krycek growled, spinning and moving as far away from Mulder as he could. "Like you care."

"Maybe I'm fucking grateful, all right?" Mulder snapped. "You saved Scully's life. Why did you bother, anyway? What do you care what happens to her?"

"I don't."

"Then why?"

Silence. Krycek huddled against the far wall, his face turned away. Even from a distance Mulder could see him shaking. Crossing the room swiftly, he grabbed Krycek's good shoulder and whirled him around. "Answer me. Why?" As he focused his attention wholly on Krycek and pressed out with his awareness, he felt the room start to tilt. Frustrated, he pushed back at the disorientation. He wanted to talk, not take another acid-ride in Krycek's mind. Forcing himself to take a deep breath and relax, he sighed as the room righted again, the dizziness receding a touch.

A muscle jumped in Krycek's jaw, his face strained with some internal effort. "Leave. Me. Alone."

"Tell me why."

"Is this where you start demanding The Truth, and then call me a liar every time I give you an answer that doesn't match what you've already decided is The Truth?" The sarcastic tone matched the sneer twisting the whitening lips.

Mulder started to snap out "cut the bullshit" when he realized that was indeed exactly what he always did when Krycek said something. He stood, breathing roughly, trying to keep the disorientation at bay, and mentally replayed past conversations, remembered verbatim. And damn it, Krycek was right.

"Okay," Mulder flexed his neck, trying to loosen the tight muscles. He stepped back, away, offering Krycek some space, noticing how the man had plastered himself against the wall. He backed up and dropped into an armchair as a precaution against the lingering dizzy sensation. "Okay, I don't trust you. I have no reason to believe you'd tell me anything resembling the truth. But I admit that if I don't know what the truth is, I also have no way of knowing if what you tell me is true."

Krycek rubbed his forehead. "You're giving me a headache."

"Well, they say what goes around comes around. So go on, try me, Krycek. See if you can make me believe you."

"But you don't want to believe," he answered softly. Then, slightly louder, "Life in the shadow wars is just so much easier with an all-purpose scapegoat. Much more neatly defined if I'm your Big Bad Boogie Man, some subhuman scum you can pound on and take your frustration out on."

Oh God. Mulder's gut roiled. So much like his own thoughts in the bleak night before. Did this mind-reading thing work both ways? Now that was a scary thought. His stomach felt like it was dropping to his feet. But before he could much more than entertain the thought, suddenly Krycek was meeting his eyes. He stared at him with an intensity that seemed to ask something of Mulder, but he didn't know what. When Krycek started talking, the words almost tripped over each other in their tumble out of his mouth.

"Okay, Mulder, you want capital 'T' truth? How's this for a start? You are the biological son of William Mulder, but for over thirty years he believed that you weren't. Spender had an affair with your mother around the time you were conceived. Your father thought you were Spender's son, and Spender let him believe it. Who knows, maybe he believed it himself... maybe he still does. Your mother didn't realize there was quite so much obvious doubt about your paternity. I'm not sure who she believes you belong to. DNA tests were manipulated and results switched around enough to keep the confusion going all those years. It wasn't until just before he died that your father knew for certain that you were his."

For once, Mulder believed Krycek was telling the truth. Or at the very least the truth as he understood it. Krycek's sheer intensity compelled, but he'd seen Krycek this intense when the man was apparently lying through his teeth. No, it was something else... something about the combination of sheer exhaustion and end-of-the-line desperation on that face.

Or more accurately, maybe it was simply the resurgent wave of dizziness sweeping Mulder again, dizziness that wasn't just relief at having his questionable paternity cleared up. His strange double-sense of Krycek was kicking over again whether he wanted it or not, and he felt like the man was thrusting the words into his head, or laying his own head open for examination. With the thrumming wave of certainty slamming into him direct from Krycek's mind, he couldn't doubt that Krycek was definitely thinking, feeling and saying the exact same thing, and that he believed what he was saying to be true.

And it made sense. Sick sense, but it explained so much. How long had Krycek known all of this? How long had he kept this secret to himself, laughing at Mulder's ignorance? The familiar rage that always simmered just beneath the surface whenever he came in contact with Krycek buoyed him up out of his chair, filling him with that comfortable self-righteousness that whispered "No punishment is dire enough for this man."

Krycek went on, his voice a husky monotone. "Your father was dying, Mulder. The guilt over everything he'd done was eating him up inside. His liver was shot, his stomach was one huge ulcer, he had a cancerous mass in his abdomen. And he decided that he had to make his confession. He was going to dump the burden of his crimes on you. Let you be weighed down with his guilt. He was going to tell you everything."

"And you stopped him. You murdered him."

Krycek swayed slightly, as Mulder stalked up to him. He met Mulder's eyes. "Yes. Spender and company decided you weren't ready to become a player, likely for their own reasons, so they ordered William Mulder's death. I got the job. I killed him."

From some distant, peaceful place, Mulder calmly watched his hands reach and pull Krycek toward him, then shove him hard against the wall. One fist backhanded him across the cheek that wasn't bruised yet, the other drove into his gut. He could hear his own voice shouting, "I knew it, you fucking bastard!"

From that still center deep inside himself, Mulder watched as his body assaulted the other man, screaming abuse. Releasing all that pent up rage felt wonderful, like a perverted orgasm. He knew, in that deep, still part of his mind, that he would regret this later. But now, with Zen-like clarity, he knew this was right and a new balance would be achieved.

Until a seed of doubt began to sprout... why wasn't Krycek fighting back?

Slowly other observations began to intrude on his peaceful mental place. Krycek wasn't defending himself at all. He was taking the punishment almost as if... as if it was a relief. Mulder felt strong arms grabbing his, restraining him. That felt right too. The inexorable force holding him back realigned his balance; as he was dragged back into the solid body behind him, another wave of calm washed over him, this time with the comforting thought that Skinner and Scully would keep him from falling... falling? Falling into what? Madness? Murder? Whatever. They would keep him from the edge.

"That's enough, Agent Mulder!" Skinner's voice thundered in his ear, as arms wound tight and comforting around him.

Mulder collapsed back into Skinner's support, letting the rage drain. He really did feel like he'd just had an explosive sexual climax, so much tension released...

"Krycek... Alex, can you look at me?" Scully's voice.

Mulder opened his eyes. She knelt at Krycek's side, trying to pry him up out of a tightly knotted position. Krycek stayed silent, except for rasping gasps punctuated with almost inaudible whimpers. Large drops of blood spattered slowly to the floor.

As Mulder relaxed, he felt Skinner release his hold, though the hands stayed on his shoulders. As his breathing slowed, he became aware of his pounding heart, of the dampness of sweat sprung up all over his body. Already that sweet calm was gone, replaced by the familiar feelings of guilt, stupidity, failure- ::I fucked up again.::

But Scully was here. She would help him, she would make things right. He was so sure of her.

"Agent Mulder?" Skinner's hand was warm on his shoulder, giving him an anchor. "Mulder!"

"Yeah... yes. I'm okay." He looked up at Skinner, took a breath and spat, "That son of a bitch just confessed to murdering my father!"

Skinner's face hardened as they both turned to look at Krycek. Mulder blinked, caught by the expression on Scully's face as she crouched next to Krycek. Her arms supported Krycek's shaking efforts to straighten his legs as she tried to help him stand, but her eyes focused on Mulder with astonished dismay and shock. The look hit him like a physical blow. She'd seen him brutalize a sick man, who hadn't been defending himself. But surely, she had to understand-

Krycek pushed away from Scully, stumbling back until he braced himself against the wall. Blood ran down his chin from his nose and from the new split in his lower lip. His eyes flickered like a cornered animal from Mulder and Skinner, menacing and angry, to Scully, who still had one hand resting lightly on his arm - the regenerating arm. As she looked up at the battered face, Krycek met her glance and smiled crookedly, teeth flashing pinkly in a mouth full of blood, before turning to face his accusers.

"Yes, I murdered William Mulder," his breath came ragged but his voice was low and steady. "He was as deep into the Project as Spender or any of those other old bastards. He was as much of a monster as any of them. Why the hell should I commit suicide by refusing the termination order?"

Mulder shook off Skinner's hand, stepping forward before jerking to a stop. "Cut the bullshit, Krycek, you're not some innocent victim."

Scully watched her partner closely, moving to step between him and Alex before he stopped himself. Even knowing his pent up anger and his capacity for rage, the ferocity of his attack on Krycek stunned her, and she was further shaken by Krycek's odd passivity. He'd barely raised his arm to block the blows. She'd heard each man say that their past relationship had been violent. She'd seen Mulder and Skinner attack Alex when they thought he was harming her. But seeing the form and intensity of this new violence - Mulder's violence - sickened her, especially given Krycek's condition. She opened her mouth to intervene, but Krycek's sudden explosion stopped her cold.

"Jesus, Mulder, you're supposed to be such a fucking genius! Think! What do you suppose would have happened if I had said 'No, I'm not going to kill the man?' Use that famous brain for five seconds, why don't you! Spender orders the hit. I say 'No, I don't think I want to.' So he says, what? 'Gosh, Alex, you're right, bad idea! Let's call out for a pizza, knock back a few brews.' Is that how you honestly think it would have gone down?"

Mulder still stood in front of Krycek, teeth grinding, hands clenching and flexing as he tried to get past his rage and actually listen to Krycek's words. He had to show them all, show Scully, he could be rational, could deal with Krycek without going over the edge. Krycek's voice was so hoarse it was losing volume rapidly, and Mulder had to strain to hear him as he continued.

"If I had said no, Spender would have sent Cardinal. Luis would have killed your father and probably you, just to keep things tidy. And for the fun of it. Your protection where they're concerned isn't inviolate. Then he would have spent a day or two killing me. Spender would have wanted me to be an example to anyone else who was getting ideas about bucking orders."

Mulder turned away, slamming his hands against the wall. "You could have come to us! If you honestly didn't want to do it, you could have contacted me, or Skinner, or Scully!"

Krycek shook his head, and snorted. "Right." Lifting his hand and counting off each point on his fingers, he spat, "Like you'd have listened to me, showing up out of the blue after the fucking Duane Barry debacle. Like that would have kept Bill Mulder alive. Like that would have kept me alive. Start living in reality for a change, Mulder. You may exist in a protected bubble where the Consortium is concerned, but the rest of us don't, and I sure as hell never did. You may not like what I did, but I did the only thing I believed I could do, under the circumstances."

Krycek slumped suddenly, his back hitting the wall, sliding slowly down until he sprawled on the floor. Tipping his head back, he took a slow breath and licked some of the blood off his lips. Meeting Mulder's eyes, he paced his words carefully, each one falling into the dead silence in the room. "I regret a lot of the shit I've done, starting with ever listening to that cancerous bastard in the first place. But I'm sorry, Mulder, killing William Mulder isn't one of those regrets. He deserved what he got."

Red swept over Mulder's vision at the statement, but washed away as quickly. "So now you're judge, jury and-"

Krycek's flat voice cut him off. "He knew all along where your sister was, and what was being done to her."

The words hit Mulder's stomach with the force of every punch Krycek refused to throw. ::He's a lying bastard-:: But the thought died before he could make it last, before he could make it buoy him up yet again over the roiling mass of doubts and suspicions about his own father. He knew... he knew all too well that it was all too possible. He didn't want it to be, he hated it, but he knew the possibility was there. And in a sudden painfully sharp moment of clarity he knew... knew that he tunneled and focused all his rage, all his disappointment, all his suspicions about his father, and turned them on Alex, when his father had died before any of it had been settled.

Suddenly exhausted, Mulder leaned his shoulder against the wall, and looked down at Krycek. He blinked hard against the sudden sting of tears at his eyes. ::Why you, Alex?:: his mind screamed. ::Why the fuck did it have to be you pulling that trigger.:: "Why did you have to..." he caught himself before he could go on, his voice rusty.

"I'm sorry, Mulder. I wish-" Krycek glanced at Skinner and Scully, then closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. His voice firmed. "Whatever. Hey, I'm a lying bastard and you can't believe a word I say anyway."

The numbness spreading through Mulder felt as if someone had given him a shot of emotional novocaine. His brain slowed but his mouth kept working. "I wish..." He rubbed at the wetness blurring his eyes, and cleared his throat. "Shit. I just wish it hadn't been you. Why did it have to be you?" he muttered.

He knew they were all staring at him. He dropped onto the window seat and pretended to look out the window. The silence lengthened uncomfortably.

Scully walked to him and gave his shoulder a squeeze. "You okay?" she asked softly, her voice and face full of naked worry.

Her concern almost had him crying again. She didn't despise him. She might be looking at him like 'what the hell was that all about', but she was still his friend. "Yeah, I'm fine," he lied.

She smoothed back his hair and gave him a reassuring smile. Her eyes stayed concerned though, and she looked like she wanted to say something else. Then, as if coming to a decision, she turned briskly to her patient. "Alex, I have the lab equipment set up. I'd like to examine you now, and start getting some samples. Do you feel up to it?"

From his vantage point in the window seat, Mulder could swear Krycek looked at her in relief for breaking the moment, before her actual words sunk in. Then his face fell. He sighed and began the struggle to stand up again, leaning heavily on the wall. "No, but you're not really giving me a choice, are you?"

"No, not really," she said, slipping effortlessly into the cool professional demeanor that earned her the nickname Ice Queen. "Do you want Skinner to help you down the stairs?"

Both Krycek and Skinner looked startled at that suggestion, which Krycek refused immediately. "I can make it."

"Do you need my help, Agent Scully?" Skinner asked.

"No, if Alex doesn't need you, then we'll manage." Scully slipped into the closet leading down to her make-shift lab. Krycek hesitated for a moment. Then, with a defiant glare at Mulder, he followed. He seemed to be wading through thick waves of dread as he crossed the room and ducked into the yawning closet door, pulling it shut behind him.

"Agent Mulder?" Skinner asked.

"I'm okay," he mumbled. "I just..." He trailed off, not knowing what he'd been about to say.

"You liked Agent Krycek, didn't you?" The big man's voice was surprisingly gentle. "You didn't expect to, but you did."

"Yeah. Something like that." Mulder pulled himself together, wanting to stay well and clear off this topic. "I guess I should observe Scully's tests, do some documenting..."

"Get in her way," Skinner deadpanned.

"That's what I do best," Mulder deadpanned back.

Skinner started back out onto the porch, then paused halfway there. Without turning around, he tilted his head to speak over his shoulder softly. "Mulder, he was very good at his job. You weren't the only one who bought it. You didn't do anything wrong. All you did was believe in someone... someone who really seemed worth believing in. You can stop punishing yourself."

Mulder stared at the wall, listening to the door close behind him and trying not to wince at Skinner's well-meaning but off-target words. If he only knew. He knuckled his eyes, noticing absently that his fingers were scraped and raw where they'd made impact against Krycek's face and body.

Why hadn't Krycek defended himself? Now that Mulder was no longer hot with anger or cool in that distant calm, his mind played back some of the feelings he'd picked up from Krycek. Pain, of course, physical and mental. And... relief? Mulder slugging him was something Krycek understood. Mulder's contempt and fury were familiar. But it was like a blade of ice piercing Krycek's soul. He craved something else from Mulder, but he'd take what he could get, what he deserved...

Infuriating bastard. What was it about the man that brought out the worst in him? Mulder was not, by nature, a bully, but just being around Krycek made him lash out with taunts and insults. With fists.

Sometimes Krycek responded as an equal, fencing with words as biting and challenging as Mulder's, fighting back, giving as good as he got. More often, he responded by trying to bargain his way out. But eventually, inevitably, Krycek submitted, baring his throat for the killing bite. Which Mulder could never bring himself to deliver.

Which did he really want from Krycek, the challenge, or the submission? And what did Krycek really want from him? That was the question.

Mulder ran his hands through his hair, tugging at it as if that would ease the throb in his temples. He had the headache Krycek had claimed. His brain felt stretched. He didn't feel like thinking, didn't want to be alone with the confusion about Krycek, confusion about his father, crowding his head. Skinner was just out on the porch, but he seemed to want to keep to himself. Mulder guessed he could understand that. Pausing to wonder if he was making a mistake putting himself anywhere in Krycek's vicinity, he shook off the hesitation and walked swiftly to the closet, wrenching it open and ducking inside.

Pushing through the closet's back panel, Mulder started down the stairs. Krycek was almost to the bottom, stepping carefully down a step, bringing his other foot to meet the first, pausing to center his weight, then down another step. Mulder caught up with him easily, and said softly, "Use a hand?"

He got a raised eyebrow and a cold look. "No thanks, I seem to be growing a new one of my own."

Mulder fell back a step without another word. ::So, we're back to the old playground banter, are we?:: Seemed he wasn't the only one who needed to retreat to safe mental space.

As they reached the basement he could see Scully efficiently spreading various bits of medical equipment out on a table, some of which looked like bondage gear, with lots of nice sharp pointy things. Mulder sighed; normally he would be looking forward to some fun. But now...

Krycek stopped on the last step, visibly reluctant to move any closer to the instruments. But Scully's stern Doctor look compelled him to come forward and drop into the chair she positioned near the table.

"Take off your shirt, please," she said crisply.

As Krycek stripped off the long sleeved t-shirt one handed, Scully finally glanced at Mulder. He avoided meeting her eyes, pretending a vague interest in the medical instruments. Guilt thrummed through him, even without a word from her. He knew without seeing her expression that she was concerned, but it was hardest to accept her care when he felt he'd failed her. Not for the first time, he wondered exactly when he'd elected her the guardian of his conscience, and if she really wanted the job.

The shirt finally dropped to the floor, and Krycek sat rigidly in his chair, staring sullenly at the far wall. Scully used an antiseptic-soaked cotton pad to wipe the blood from his face, carefully not looking at Mulder or commenting on how it got there. She was totally professional, gentle, reassuring, but cool. Was Scully distancing herself from Krycek for some reason? Was it because he'd admitted to killing William Mulder? No... Mulder blinked as that weird sixth sense kicked in again. It seemed strongest when Krycek got agitated. And what he was getting now was an undercurrent of dread at being touched, that physical contact with anyone would be more than Krycek could stand. Mulder wondered if her doctor training allowed her to pick up on it and respect it, or if she was just better at reading people than he was.

Or maybe just better at reading Krycek than he was. But no, that wasn't true anymore, was it?

Once Krycek's face was cleansed, Scully very slowly, very gently touched his left shoulder with both hands, moving them smoothly along the upper arm, lifting the stump up and forward. Mulder moved closer, glanced up to finally meet Scully's eyes, then they both looked down at that arm.

Mulder sucked in a breath. Before he could stop himself, he breathed out a soft, "Wow!" The regrowth had advanced in an hour - an almost complete humerus, and crawling down it muscle and tendons, veins and arteries still apparently empty of blood, dead nerves. Smooth, unscarred skin progressed at a slower rate, incrementally crawling to cover the strangely clean-looking limb. And still, that odd appearance of movement at the very end, as the process continued before their very eyes.

Father-angst and Alex-confusion falling away in the light of the sheer alienness of what sat in front of him, Mulder felt the familiar fire of knowing the unknown pour through him, burning away his edginess, his unease, leaving the single-minded flame of knowledge. Completely oblivious to the fanatical gleam coming into his own eyes, and the way Krycek shrank back in his chair when he caught sight of it, Mulder grabbed Scully's arm. "Wait! Don't do anything yet." He turned to the room at large, scanning it quickly for the closet Byers had identified as holding at least four cameras. Seeing it on the right of the room, he raced for it, grabbed a Polaroid and a 35mm, and came back at a jog, juggling the cameras awkwardly.

Selecting the Polaroid first, he snapped off pictures from each angle of the stump, and scribbled the date and time on each. Two of the gunshot wound, and he put the Polaroid up. Still oblivious to the frozen expression on Alex's face, he switched to the 35mm, confirmed the correct date would imprint on each shot, and started all over again, noting the time of each frame number in one of Scully's notebooks. He stepped back as Scully started strapping a pressure cuff on Krycek, and then, as an afterthought, snapped several of Krycek's face, catching the split lip in close up.

"Your blood pressure is 180 over 110," Scully frowned. "Not surprising, I suppose, but also not good at all. Pulse is way too fast." She stuck a thermometer in Krycek's mouth, and started positioning her stethoscope in various places around his chest, then his back. "Lungs sound clear, breathing is good."

Krycek stared at the wall, his face a pale mask of indifference. But Mulder noticed the way Scully touched him only briefly, and how Krycek had to fight to keep from cringing away from her. Unwilling sympathy made his stomach clench. The man had just admitted to killing his father, and not regretting it. And maybe Bill Mulder wasn't worthy of regret. Mulder shoved his thoughts as far back into his mental closet as he could, and tried to focus on what Scully was saying.

"You're running a slight fever. Also understandable." She turned to her table, then back to him, showing him the instruments she held. "I'm going to get some tissue samples now, Alex. This may sting a bit," she spoke gently as she used fine, hollow needles to draw skin cells from several places on the stump.

"No scales yet, huh?" Mulder asked sweetly. Krycek glared at him, but Mulder thought he also detected a familiar challenge in those smoldering green eyes.

Scully efficiently tied a rubber band around Krycek's right upper arm. "Blood next." She had a difficult time finding a vein, and it took several tries to get the needle into place. Especially when Krycek shuddered every time she slid it into his skin. "Guess you've done this way too many times lately," She murmured reassuringly.

"Yeah, there are bits of me in labs all over the world by now," he said shortly, his husky voice betraying the cool expression on his face. Sweat beaded his upper lip.

"Hey, at least your blood is still red," Mulder observed as he watched over Scully's shoulder. This time he was sure he saw a gleam of relieved amusement in Krycek's eyes at the familiar rudeness. Scully's heavy sigh told him she wasn't amused. Mulder resisted the urge to say 'it's a guy thing, Scully, you wouldn't understand.'

"So, how are you feeling in general, Alex? Are you still in pain?"

"Okay, I guess," he mumbled. "Legs are a little stiff, but other than that... It's mostly just the shoulder that still hurts."

Mulder wondered at Krycek's reticence. He would have expected the man to play for sympathy. Maybe he figured he'd get farther with Scully if he was stoic and underplayed his suffering? Because Mulder knew he was suffering. Badly.

"What kind of pain is it?" Scully began poking and prodding the shoulder in question.

"Aching, mostly. Like I strained it really badly. It shoots along my shoulder blade, up my neck, and then occasionally down into the upper arm. It's sharper when it shoots into the arm."

"Mulder. Make yourself useful." She gestured to the portable xray machine and Mulder moved to help her manhandle it into place. The wheeled stand helped, but it was still a pain in the ass. Better than he had expected though, considering the machines he'd been under in his various visits to the emergency room. He ran a hand lightly over the obviously state-of-the-art machine.

"Do we know where they got this?" he asked curiously.

"No," Scully responded shortly, "and we aren't asking. At least not in front of Skinner, please. And by the way, it's leaving with them when they come back. It's on a 'time limit'." She raised an eyebrow at Mulder and he grinned. "Oh, and I helped them get it down the stairs, so you're helping them get it back up," she added as she gestured Alex up onto a second, cleared table.

Distracted by their patient, Mulder swallowed his kneejerk smart remark about her being better equipped to help the Gunmen get it up. He watched Krycek start to shake his head at Scully's summons, then visibly steel his jaw and rise. Without a word he walked to the table, leaned against it with his good arm, and rolled his hip and then the rest of himself up onto the surface. Clutching the loose shorts as he settled onto his back pulled the material taut. Mulder's eyes strayed to the bagging leg holes and the soft swell of flesh under the thin cloth, before he caught himself and looked away. Within seconds, his gaze was back, raking helplessly over the laid-out body. This time though, the sheer rigidity of the form caught him and he glanced at Krycek's face. Krycek stared blankly up at the ceiling, jaw clenched, white around the lips, right hand pulled into a fist, looking like it was taking all his concentration to stay still and on his back.

On the other side of the table, Scully positioned and set the machine with a buzzing whir that made Krycek wince. She took xrays of the shoulder, the stump, and the miraculously unbroken legs while Krycek tried to keep from flinching. Mulder could see she moved as quickly as she could, given the bulky machine and the less than ideal circumstances.

"Any sensation in the new growth yet?" she asked casually as she positioned his legs.

"No, nothing." The indifference sounded strained, but held out. "Well, not exactly nothing. Just a feeling like...," he paused, then finally offered, "Sort of like there're little bugs crawling under the skin."

"Eeewwwww," Mulder offered helpfully. He got another look from Scully as she pushed the xray machine back and stepped up to slide her hand under Krycek's upper back, helping him sit up.

"Well, let me know if the sensations get unbearable, or if the pain is too much. Without knowing what they shot into you, I hesitate to give you any drugs at all. We don't know how they might react. But if it just gets too bad and you agree to the risk... we could try something."

He nodded as he eased himself back off the table, pausing to steady himself against it for a moment before walking to his shirt and pulling it back on. "I got through having the arm cut off without painkillers, I guess I can get through this." Standing up and redressed, indifference was back full force.

"Okay, we're almost finished. I do want a urine sample." She handed Krycek a plastic cup. He looked at it and smiled a genuine, if sardonic, smile.

"Well, at least you asked nicely and didn't just take it."

Mulder frowned. "Just take- oh."

Krycek raised an eyebrow and asked mildly, "You ever had a catheter shoved up your dick, Mulder?"

Mulder cringed. "Yeah, I have. I'd take the cup too, given the choice."

"Yeah, well, I wasn't given the choice." Staring at the stairs, he sighed and glanced at Scully. "This may take a while."

"Shy, Krycek? I mean, Scully has seen it before," Mulder said. Even as he tossed off the crack, he realized that given the man's state, he'd likely be completely unable to pee with anyone in the same room, even if he would be willing to attempt it in front of them.

As Krycek slowly climbed the stairs, Mulder heard a muttered, "Mulder, sometimes you can be such an asshole."


Scully bit her lip to keep from laughing at Krycek's parting shot. It wasn't that funny... it was just so true. Tugging off a rubber glove, she ran a hand over her hair, tucking a loose strand back into the smooth ponytail. She watched Mulder, who had suddenly remembered his conversation with Byers about extra film for the cameras, and dropped to his knees to root around in one of the voluminous cupboards along one wall.

The internal debate raged over whether or not to bring up the thoughts pressing on her mind. Much as she didn't feel like a serious discussion right now, conscience and worry nudged her on. The knowledge that they didn't have long before Krycek got back downstairs chased the words out of her mouth before she'd even decided on a best way to broach the subject.

"Mulder, we need to talk about Krycek for a minute. You and Krycek."

Mulder's head hit the top of the cupboard with a heavy thunk. "Ow! What?!"

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. What about me and Krycek?" He backed out of the cupboard enough to stare at her warily, two spots of color high on his cheeks.

"The way you two are going to have to work together here. And the way you need to get control of yourself and your anger toward him," she stated flatly.

"Oh. That." She wondered at the look of almost-relief flashing across Mulder's expressive face before he went back into his cupboard. "I think I've got reason to be pissed off, Scully," his voice echoed hollowly. "I know I was out of line earlier, I shouldn't have hit him, but don't tell me you don't think he deserves it."

The righteous tone gave Scully a shiver. Judge and jury. Whispers in Krycek's voice spun through her mind - his slurred words after she'd pulled Mulder and Skinner off of him, muttered comments in a dim hotel room, even half-coherent drugged ramblings on their trek through the woods. Images of old interactions played out behind her eyes. She'd seen Mulder with Krycek often enough. Even without the scene she'd walked in on a mere hour ago, she knew firsthand the violence bubbling under all their interactions. And she was personally quite familiar with the way Krycek made you want to tear into him. But just now upstairs what she'd seen had driven it home all over again. Graphically.

And she remembered a gun in her own hand, Pfaster in her living room, the trigger tightening under her finger...

She shook her head sharply. "You had a classical education at Oxford, yes? You've read Titus Andronicus?" She peeled off the other glove and flipped both into the trash.

Mulder's nose wrinkled as he continued to paw through loose computer equipment and various junk. "Yeah. Can't say it's my favorite Shakespeare. I'm more of a Hamlet sort of guy."

"How surprising," Scully intoned dryly. "Anyway, I recently saw the Taymor film of Titus, and it brought home the-"

Typically Mulder, once started on a line of thought, he continued as if he hadn't heard her. "I mean unlike most Shakespearean characters in tragedy, Titus doesn't come off like a tragic hero at all. He just comes off like a total idiot." He produced a small bag of film canisters with a satisfied smile. "Here it is."

Scully itched to comment on what she saw as a natural overlap between tragic heroes and idiocy, but bit her tongue. Mulder could be alarmingly sensitive at the weirdest times and she needed to get through this. She sighed instead and leaned forward as he stood, snapping her fingers in front of his eyes. "Focus. Stay with me here. I'm making a point and I think you know it. Titus Andronicus isn't about Titus as a hero, or even him as a sympathetic character. It's about the idiocy of revenge." She paused just long enough to let that sink in, then went on before he could speak. "I kill your son, you maim and rape my daughter, chop off my hand, I kill your other sons and serve them to you in a pie, etc. etc. The point, my point, is that there's no winning in a situation like this. The only possible way to even come close to winning is to step off the merry-go-round completely."

"Merry-go-round? Revenge as a merry-go-round. Isn't that mixing your metaphors a little too broadly, Scully?" Mulder grinned then looked at his bag of film. "I wonder how old this stuff is. You think they ever think of things like that? Expiration dates?"

"I'll admit to mixing metaphors too broadly if you admit to trying to change the subject too obviously." She slanted an eyebrow at him and felt satisfied, if a little guilty, as the grin faded to a more subdued expression. But this was important. She caught his hand. "Where does it end, Mulder? And is the journey there ever worth the outcome. And how much continued tragedy can be prevented by the quality of mercy."

He twitched restlessly and avoided her eyes, though he didn't pull his hand back. "You're just thinking of Titus because of the... ah... obvious connection. Severed limbs and all," he muttered.

Scully sighed again and squeezed his fingers. "Severed limbs, revenge, betrayal, violence." She mustered her courage and added, "Blind fathers, willfully blind fathers, who don't protect their sons and daughters. Who won't, or can't." He jerked but this time she tightened her grip and kept on relentlessly. "You're right, Mulder. I am thinking of Titus because of the obvious connections. But that doesn't change the message. Where does it end."

"So I'm supposed to just... just... deal with the fact that the man betrayed me, sold you out, helped them take you, killed my father, killed Skinner... should I go on or is that enough?" Mulder snapped bitterly. "I'm supposed to just get over it in the name of mercy? Forgive and forget? Is that it?"

Scully felt his fingers biting into hers, and relaxed her own grip, giving him the freedom to pull back now if he needed to. She forced her voice to an even calm, praying she could at least get him to hear the words. "I'm not saying you need to ignore what he's done, or become his best friend. I don't think you should do either. And I'm certainly not the best person to be having this conversation with you, because there's no love lost between he and I. I'm hardly unbiased and I have complex feelings about all this, myself. I almost didn't even say anything to you.

"But really, all I'm saying is... remember that revenge takes a very harsh toll. Don't let it devour you, Mulder. I care about you, you're the one I worry about. You're the person I'm talking about here, not Alex. I watch you struggle with this, I watch you seethe and simmer, I watch you explode like you did upstairs... and I worry. And I want to tell you... I don't know what. I guess I want to tell you that it's okay to let go of some of that hate. It's okay to turn off the burner and let the simmer die down. You don't have to stay at a rolling boil with Alex, and I'm worried about what's going to happen if you do. It's okay, and healthier, to get off the damned merry-go-round.

"I'm definitely not saying ignore what he's done. You can't do that anymore than I can. I know what you've lost, and I'm not trying to make light of it. And you know what I've lost, Mulder, better than anyone." She bit her lip and swallowed back the wave of pain and sadness that flowed through her. This was too good of an opportunity to get sidetracked; he was looking at her as if he was actually paying attention for once. "You know I wouldn't just blithely talk about 'forgiveness' with him. But I also won't stand around and watch you work yourself into a crazed frenzy over and over, watch you become something that scares me, and not say anything. And not say that I'm worried about you. That I'm worried about what you might do, in the heat of the moment, that you won't be able to undo. You know I've always believed we can't take the law into our own hands. That it makes us... into Them when we do that. You know my own struggles around that very issue. Judgement is a funny thing, Mulder. While we're busy patting ourselves on the back because he deserves whatever we're doing, we lose sight of what we're letting ourselves become by deciding we're going to mete out the punishment."

Finally she shook her head, and offered a small, ironic smile. "We all have to find some middle line, some form of balance... you, me, Skinner. If we're going to work with him, and I believe we should, we have to turn off that burner or things are going to get very bad very quickly. We're under each other's feet and up each other's noses in this place. Small space, too many people dealing with too much history, too much pain, tension is high, tempers are going to fly, and we don't even know how long we're going to have to be here. Can you say 'less than ideal circumstances'? None of us can just forget. But I can stand here, with everything that's happened to all three of us, and say look at all he's done, alright? He did get me out of there, and he did save my life. He didn't have to. I'm not talking one-to-one ratios here... canceling out the bad with a good deed now and again. But I am talking about trying to get a more balanced perspective. I'm talking about the fact that he's a complex person none of us understand, and maybe we should try to understand a little more." She swallowed hard and grudgingly gave in to the words. "After the time I've spent with him, I'm getting the idea there's more working in his motivations than personally making our lives as miserable as possible."

"What a shame," Mulder croaked. "'Cause he was sure as hell succeeding at that goal."

Scully nodded. "I know. I know, Mulder." She squeezed his hand and reached up to lay her other hand against his face. "Are you okay? Really? Your father..." She trailed off.

Mulder shook his head, avoiding eye contact. "It's nothing new, Scully. I've always believed he shot him."

She cleared her throat. "I know, Mulder. I meant... what he said about your father-"

"I don't want to go there right now," he broke in, and the croak sounded tired. "I just... don't."

Nodding, she tugged him forward and they leaned against each other silently for a few moments. His arms slowly encircled her, and she rested against his chest. Finally, she looked up at him. "At least think about what I said?"

He nodded, tugging gently on her ponytail. "As if I couldn't."

She snorted, but was pleased to see in his face that he honestly seemed to have listened, and heard. "I don't know about that. You seem to ignore me just fine all the time."

"Ignore you?" He gave her a look of mock horror. "Never!" She dug her fingers into his stomach and he laughed, jerking back from her tickling. Catching her hands, he met her eyes and smiled down at her. "I do hear you, Scully. Really. And... thanks. I know you're just worried about me." ::I'm worried about me too,:: a little voice in the back of his head whispered, but he refused to let it out. He also refused to verbalize what he really thanked her for - for not reading him the riot act about smacking around a seriously ill and injured man. For understanding how on edge he was around Krycek even if she didn't know all the reasons. For offering her concern about him in the face of his violence, instead of expressing the disgust he knew she'd felt.

She nodded and smiled up at him, when a steady thumping brought her head around.

"He's baaa-aaack," Mulder singsonged softly, in a perfect Poltergeist imitation.

Scully smacked him in the stomach and he laughed again. They turned as one to watch Krycek limp down the very bottom stairs. Scully registered the look on Alex's face at almost the same moment she registered that she and Mulder still stood very close, and Mulder's hand still rested on her shoulder. That tired face showed a flash of surprise, chased immediately by a flare of something - something intense - before everything chilled down to a brittle "fuck you both and the horse you rode in on".

Something in her responded, and almost wanted to encourage the misconception, let Alex believe she and Mulder were more than friends. Her growing certainty about his... preoccupation... with Mulder brought the hair up on the back of her neck and made her stomach clench uneasily. The impulse to shield Mulder bodily and trace a circle of protection around him was immediate and intense. The thought made her smile. Mulder would love that... his scientific Scully putting a circle of protection around him.

Logic reasserted itself in seconds, though. If Krycek really did have some sort of crush on Mulder, he'd apparently been dealing with it for a while now. Mulder didn't need any more protection than his own disdain and temper. In these close quarters, she really did not need an unbalanced Alex Krycek thinking she was moving in on the object of his infatuation. She'd have to start keeping all sharp objects locked up. Besides, she didn't want to encourage Mulder, even subconsciously.

Practicality winning out over emotional impulses as usual, Scully couldn't believe how difficult it was to force her body to go along with her mind's decision. But practice makes perfect, and keeping eye contact with Alex, she stepped away from Mulder.


I watch her move carefully away from Mulder and wonder what was just on my face. I know my control is shot but I'm just not used to facial expressions getting out of my control. Getting up and down the stairs tired me out a little too much to care, but I'm still vaguely uncomfortable as I make my way over to her and leave the "specimen" on the table. I don't like the thought that the burn of jealousy behind my breastbone might have found its way into my eyes.

"Is that everything?" I ask woodenly.

"Almost." She's already snapping on a new set of gloves, and then she's got me back in her chair and she's poking and prodding again, examining every bruise and scratch on me. I do my best to send my consciousness somewhere else completely, and I do an all right job of disengaging and distancing myself. Before I know it she's patting my shoulder and saying, "Thanks for cooperating, Alex. I know this wasn't fun."

I just nod. Wasn't fun. A half-smile lifts the corner of my swollen lips. She has a gift for understatement. Still and all, she did the best she could and she really tried. I could tell, even as focused as I was on keeping myself from bolting.

And it hasn't escaped my notice that I'm still "Alex". I wonder if it has escaped hers.

"Can I go now?" Shit. Did I honestly just say that? What the hell is wrong with me? Maybe they'll write it off to sarcasm. A boy can hope.

Scully's eyes dart to me and she's giving me that look again... the one that could almost be concern. I'm beginning to wonder if it might actually be concern. Boggles the brain.

"Yes, we're through, why don't you go rest?"

Rest. Right. Funny joke, Doc. I turn around and head back for the stairs, steeling myself for the return trip. Behind me I hear, "Okay then, I'll leave you to your work, Scully."

Oh god, no. Come on! Can't I get a fucking break? My hand clenches on the banister but my feet keep inching up the stairs. I want to pound my head against the wall. I'd sort of assumed he'd want to stay down here and watch Scully dissect my tissue. Especially as cozy as they were looking. I can't deal with any more emotional meltdowns now.

"Mulder."

The one word carries a wealth of something in it, but I don't know the private Mulder-Scully language well enough to translate. Sounds like she's warning him of something, but who knows what. Probably "don't kill him, Mulder, or I'll be forced to arrest you."

"I know. Come get me if you find anything really neat, okay?"

He sounds positively bouncy. Not at all like a man who just got confirmation that I am his father's murderer. Having a new X-File is such a way to brighten his day. The way his face changed when he saw my arm... I feel a shudder go through me. I hear his tread on the stairs behind me and of course it takes him no time at all to catch up. He doesn't offer to help me this time. Too bad... three trips back and forth have got me about ready to abandon pride and take the help. But he just shadows me up. If I stopped short he'd run into me. If I let go of the banister and leaned backward, he'd have to catch me or we'd both fall down the stairs.

I do neither, and finally I'm ducking back into the closet and out into the cabin proper. I left the doors open on my way down and it's easier to see to get out this time. Standing still for a moment, I feel Mulder right behind me. I head for my bedroom without a word. Not for the first time I curse how slow I am at the moment, as he's right behind me before I can get the door shut.

"Mulder, do you mind? I'm going to take a nap," I lie.

He shrugs. "Go ahead." He walks in and flops down in the chair he was in the night before.

I close my eyes. Why is he doing this. Is watching me suffer really that fun?

Well duh, Alex.

I slump down on the bed. The whole doctor routine took more out of me than I want to show, but I don't really have enough energy left to put up a front. I hate the idea of sleeping, of dreaming, but my body feels like it wants to go into shut down again.

"Do you need anything? A drink of water? Something to eat?"

He sounds sincere. Shit. I look at him for a moment, waiting for the punch line. Or the punch. But he just sits there, looking... so beautiful. He's got this look on his face, like he's the one scrambling for some kind of control of his life.

I shake my head, and ease myself under the blankets, turn onto my side with my back to him. I can hear his soft breathing, the shift of his body in the chair. Maybe if I pretend hard enough that he's not there, he won't follow me into my nightmares. Maybe if I savor his presence, he'll follow me into my dreams. Maybe the dreams will be sweet, for a change.


7:00 p.m.

As her fingers hit the wrong keys yet again, Scully admitted to herself that she was too tired to continue. She saved her notes, shut down the laptop and turned off the microscope. Krycek's tissue samples were fascinating, but she needed the more sophisticated lab analysis. When the Gunmen returned with Krycek's promised cure, they could take her prepared slides and the additional samples to a private lab they knew and trusted, and a second set to Mulder's little expert, Chuck Burke. Until she got the results, and some comparative information, there was little she could do except monitor the progress of the regeneration.

And monitor Krycek. He wasn't doing well. The continuous stress on body and mind was wearing him down quickly. His blood pressure remained alarmingly high. Her stubborn partner wasn't helping matters. She had no idea of Krycek's physical condition before being subjected to the experiments, but she suspected stress came with the job description. Then again, maybe whatever was causing this weird accelerated healing and regrowth was taking care of his cardiovascular system as well.

She stretched, then groaned as all the cramped muscles protested. The stairs seemed endless as she made her way to the top, vaguely dreading what she'd find. Things had been quiet since her last foray upstairs, but she suspected the basement was lined with something that muffled noise.

Krycek was finally asleep, curled into a knot, cocooned in his quilt. The light in his room was still on, and the door half-open. Mulder sprawled bonelessly on the couch in the tv room, remote in hand, channel surfing with the mute on. A glance out the window revealed Skinner still out on the porch. She blinked in surprise, wondering if he'd really stayed out there all day long. She made two cups of tea, then ventured out to join him, setting his mug on the rail near his hand.

The sky was so clear here, away from the lights and smog of the city. Scully could see layer upon layer of stars winking across the heavens. A nearly full moon and the faint glow of lamps through the curtains gave the only illumination. She couldn't see Skinner's face, other than the strong profile and an occasional gleam of light reflected on his glasses, but she could feel the tension in his body.

He sipped the tea, warming his hands on the mug. "Thank you, Agent Scully."

"You're welcome, sir."

They stood in silence for a long while, watching cloud wisps of darkened black lazily drift across the vast midnight blue horizon. Scully shivered, too late thinking she should have put on a jacket. Wordlessly, Skinner slipped off the heavy flannel shirt he wore over his sweatshirt, and settled it around her shoulders. She snuggled into the warmth from his body and sighed.

"Thank you. It's nippy out here, but I don't really want to go back inside just yet."

"Cabin fever already?" She could hear the smile in his voice.

"Something like that." She smiled back. "Between Krycek's pacing and Mulder's tantrums, I'm about to lose all patience."

"That's not good news for me," he said lightly. "Even if this cure Krycek's promised us works, I'm apparently going to be sick as a dog for a while. I can't quite picture Mulder nursing me through that."

Scully laughed, "No, I can't see that either. And the thought of Alex Krycek's bedside manner... well!" She suddenly had an absurd mental image of Krycek in a crisp white dress and nurse's cap, carrying a bedpan.

Skinner listened to her laugh and felt some of the weight in his chest lift. Scully was okay. She was here, as safe as he could keep her. For the moment. The terror of losing her receded, although he had to admit to himself that Scully, being Scully, would always face danger courageously, like the warrior she was. She fought with science instead of a sword, logic instead of bullets when possible, but she could - and would - fight to the death if the need arose.

"Sir, I'd just like to thank you. For going really far out on a limb. For being there when we needed you, even though it was outside the bounds."

"Where was I when those bastards took you?"

"Sir-"

"I know, I know, but..." He just couldn't say what he needed so badly to. He shook his head, grappling for words. "You know, so many times the real reason I get so exasperated with Mulder is that he just takes you for granted. I'd give anything to have someone as brave and loyal and smart as you at my back."

He felt Scully tense up, and cursed himself. ::Wrong choice, Walt. You idiot. Why can't you just keep your mouth shut if you don't know what to say.:: He hoped it was too dark for her to see him blushing. He felt like he was glowing in the dark. He opened his mouth to try to retract it, muddle his way out of it, when he felt her hand settle on his arm. She didn't speak, but she leaned closer. He stared down at her hand, breath catching.

"Sir," she started again, this time in an oddly subdued voice. She paused as gravel crunched, and lights suddenly bounced across the porch. They both jerked apart, wincing in the glare.

"The Gunmen," he intoned, staring at the van rolling to a stop in front of the porch.

"The Gunmen," she agreed in a flat voice. "Well, let's see about this cure then," she offered briskly, as the three poured out of the van and came bounding up the steps, one brandishing a small cooler and the other two arguing about who got the bathroom first.

The front door slammed back and Mulder appeared on the porch with them. "Guys? You get it? Any problems?"

"Like clockwork, Mulder," Frohike crowed.

Scully intercepted the cooler as Byers started to hand it off to Mulder. "I'll take that." Turning on heel and disappearing inside, she left Mulder comparing notes on Krycek's stash-techniques with the three, all of whom apparently rated bragging to Mulder well above their placement on the restroom roster in importance. Setting the cooler on the low table in front of the couch, she broke it open and stared at the vials. When a shadow fell over her, she looked up at Skinner and jerked her head toward the bedroom. "Want to wake up sleeping beauty? I think we're going to need his input."

Skinner nodded and stalked into the bedroom, coming back with a bleary-eyed and confused looking Krycek in tow, now wearing a pair of sweatpants instead of the baggy shorts but still dragging the ubiquitous quilt. Collapsing on the couch with a yawn, Krycek pawed through the cooler and removed the vials, looking them over carefully and nodding. Handing them back to Scully, he bit back another yawn. "Get him ready for the shot. Mix the two when you're ready to immediately do the injection, not before. Inject 1cc directly into a vein. Voila. Wait and see." He shrugged, curled his quilt around himself, and settled into the corner of the couch.

"That's it?" Scully kept eyeing the vials as though they were about to explode.

"Keep 'em relatively cool until you're ready to use them."

Scully met Skinner's gaze and stood. "Are you ready?"

"I'm ready."

"Then let's do it."

Mulder and the Gunmen had made it in off the porch, and clustered around while Scully tracked down another pair of gloves. "Anything else we need to know before we do this?" Mulder asked, giving Krycek a hard look.

Krycek shook his head, still blinking and wide-eyed. The dazed, all-pupil look receded some as he transferred his gaze to Frohike. "Problems?"

"None."

Nodding, Krycek's heavy lashes fell to half-mast. Mulder glanced from him to Scully laying out alcohol and syringe, to Skinner, sitting stiffly in an armchair, rolling up his sleeve. Swallowing hard against a fit of nerves, he looked away from his boss, back to the man responsible for this situation. "Can you guarantee this will work, Krycek? That this is safe?"

"No." At Mulder's jerk of reaction, Krycek lifted the hand. "Take it down a notch, Mulder, I'm just being honest here. I know how much you prize your honesty. I'm just telling you what I know... all this shit is experimental. I know what to do with it and I know how it's supposed to work. I can't promise you anything more than that. I can't swear it's a hundred percent safe and you wouldn't believe me even if I did, so what does it matter? I can tell you what definitely isn't safe, though." Krycek shifted his eyes to Skinner. "Sitting around with nanotechnology in your body that Spender has the controls for."

Skinner shuddered on cue.

"The choice is all his. He can take his chances with Spender and the little black box, or he can take a chance with my cure. Knowing that it's in my best interest to get him out of this alive and well and de-nano-ized." He paused, then added archly, "And you all know how seriously I take my best interest. Do you really think I don't have a damn good idea of how long my life expectancy is if he dies from this?"

Mulder faced Skinner, but didn't even get his mouth open before Skinner lifted a forestalling hand, just as Krycek had done. "Agent Mulder, I appreciate your concern. I've been thinking of nothing but this all day. I've done my soul searching." He looked to Scully, smooth latex hands cradling the amber-filled shot. "This is it. I'm doing this." Taking a slow breath, he released it and nodded to Scully, relaxing in the chair as she prepped his arm. He watched everything without blinking, face perfectly blank.

The room drew a collective breath as the needle pierced the skin of his inner elbow. Nothing moved as the plunger descended agonizingly slowly, and the antidote forced its way into the bloodstream. Multiple lungs refilled as Scully placed a cotton ball over the injection, and removed the needle smoothly.


Washington DC
January 27th
Evening

In an elegant office on the top floor of a nondescript building in the heart of D.C., cigarette smoke insinuated itself into the weave of expensive drapes, drawn against the evening dark.

On a heavy wooden desk, copies of an FBI report signed by Special Agent Dana Scully sat in a circle of white light, the only illumination in the large room. The report detailed, with typical Scully thoroughness, the summons to Los Angeles, California, and the preliminary trappings of the case the California office needed special X-File assistance with. Long fingers rifled the report one more time, rereading the flat lies that looked so convincing.

A slow lungful of smoke calmed the building irritation in the man behind the desk, but only for a moment. Rolling the cigarette between finger and thumb, he moved his hand from the lying pages to touch the mute, black Palm Pilot sitting beside the false report. Releasing his inhalation soundlessly, he picked up the phone and pressed one button.

"Morton and O'Dell are on their way to California? Good, good. I know, but we can't be too careful. There are other... considerations. No, that won't be possible. I understand, but that will not be possible. Our resources are restricted in this matter." He lifted the cigarette and caught it between his lips with the care of a lover. Sucking gently, he listened to the voice in his ear telling him Alex Krycek would be easier found with the full resources of the Consortium in play. Waited until the man ran down uncertainly. "No." The finality went unquestioned this time. "I do however have another avenue I wish pursued." Fingers stroked over the report, and a sprinkling of gray ash fell to cover the words. "There is a certain address on file belonging to the 'Lone Gunmen' publication. Surveillance 'round the clock until further notice." He sighed at the squawk of concern about spreading limited staff too thin, and hung up before the complaint was completed.

Sometimes he really missed the good old days.


Somewhere in the wilds of North Carolina January 27th
7:27 p.m.

They all hold their breath, waiting for Skinner to turn purple, or explode, or for tentacles to burst from his ears, or... something. But, of course, nothing happens immediately. Even without knowing for sure if this is going to work, I could have told them that. After a few moments, I can see them start feeling stupid, just standing there. Oh yeah, now they remember to breathe.

I fight not to laugh, knowing my humor won't be appreciated. I wonder if I can slip away now that my part is done. I'm tired and my head hurts and I don't know if this is going to work or get me maimed at the hands of a vengeful Mulder and an out-of-patience Scully. I want to go back to bed. I was actually getting some real rest before Skinner woke me up. I pluck restlessly at the sweatpants that were lying across the end of my bed when Skinner woke me up for the big injection. I don't know for sure where they came from, because I was asleep when they appeared. But I can guess from the tightness across my hips who they belong to, and I very much doubt it's the big man sitting here glaring at me. I wonder again, as I did when I put them on, if the suspected owner left them for me himself.

Skinner stares at the spot where the needle went in like it's one of his misbehaving agents that he can glare into submission. Suddenly, he looks up and our eyes meet. I give him a shrug. And now everyone stares at me. So much for slipping away. I roll my eyes.

"Don't ask me. I told you, all I know is this reportedly worked during lab testing, deactivating the nano-machines and causing the body to reject them."

"Well, naturally we can't expect instant results," Scully says calmly.

Yes indeed, I'm really starting to appreciate the good Doctor Scully. She has more than a passing acquaintance with reason and common sense. Unlike her psycho partner.

Said psycho partner looks increasingly out of his depth here. He doesn't know how to deal with the wait or the uncertainty, or for that matter with Skinner, who is still just sitting there, staring at me. So Mulder stares at me, too. Skinner's look is asking 'Have I made a fatal mistake trusting you with my life?' Mulder's look says, 'I don't know what to do, but smacking you around would feel good.'

Lucky for me, Scully seems to pick up on Mulder's state of mind too. I know she's just trying to get him out of the room when she casually says, "Mulder, as long as the guys are here, why don't you get them started on that data Alex got from the lab?"

The geekboys start salivating at the thought of getting their virtual paws on Evil Shadow Government Data, and Mulder grins at Scully, grabbing the excuse to run away and play. I watch them disappear into the Batcave and wonder how long I can count on the three of them keeping him out of my hair.

When I turn back, Skinner is rubbing his arm, and taking slow, deep breaths. He's waiting for the pain to start. I know the feeling. Scully walks over to stand behind him and I can't help noticing her hands look almost child-like on those massive shoulders.

"For what it's worth, I really do think this will work," I offer quietly. He glances up, all narrowed eyes and knotted brows. I sigh. Being reassuring isn't my best look. I've worked much harder on menacing. "I just mean, the nanocytes worked exactly as predicted in the reports. I'm betting the deactivation will as well." No response. I try again. "The scientists were the same. I trust their work to... ah... operate like they say it will."

Well, that sounded lame.

When he just continues to look at me like I'm the antichrist come to spoil his day, I can't still the frustration coiling through me. Undoubtedly he's thinking he wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for me, but dammit... I'm doing my best. I finally growl, "Give it a rest already. Hate me all you want for infecting you, but this is an honest effort to undo them."

His eyes bore into me. His lip curls. "Am I supposed to thank you?"

I snort, "Yeah, right. Be a cold day in hell, I'm sure." Just stop sitting there silently despising me. I'm getting sensitive in my old age. I almost laugh at the thought, except it's not funny. I'd really like to go back to bed now. "I did what I did with the nanos and I'd do it again. Gotta admit, nice way to make sure if you were still jumping for Old Smoky, I could countermand any given order I didn't agree with."

Scully stands behind him, her small hands white-knuckled on his shoulders, and I can see she doesn't like me very much at the moment. Sorry lady, this is who I am. Take it or leave it. I didn't ask for your judgement. "Are you suggesting that you've been working against the Consortium all this time?" she asks coldly.

"No. Just since they so kindly tried to kill me. After the second or third time, it got sort of annoying, you know?"

"And that's the only reason?" she persists.

An uncontrollable grin stretches my lips again. "You wouldn't believe me if I said I thought bringing the bastards down would benefit mankind, so I won't."

No sooner are the words out of my mouth than I feel a shiver race through me. I shouldn't be cold... I've got sweatpants now and I'm still dragging my quilt around. More out of habit than anything else. Thirty-four is a bit old for a security blanket, but hey, I need all the reassurance I can get right now. I pull the quilt tighter around my shoulders and chest. So damned awkward with only one arm. Although the left... arm... is much longer now. I almost have an elbow. Shit. It just... hangs there. Still no feeling in the newest growth. I wish I could say the same for the shoulder, but the burning and crawling sensation are back in full force there.

And then I notice that I've been sitting here, mouth partly open, staring off into space, for who knows how long. Skinner is lying on the foldout bed now, his hands resting calmly across his stomach, trying to breathe slowly and evenly. Christ, how long did I zone out? Scully is looking at me curiously.

"I'm fine," I insist. Her eyebrows rise. Oh. She hadn't asked yet. "I'm going back to bed. I-" I glance at the big body trying to relax on the short bed. I can't make myself try again with him but... "I hope it's not too bad for him," I mutter, not meeting her eyes.

She says nothing, just watches me ease myself up and shuffle to my room.

My room. Right. My closet. My cell. My fucking coffin. I've spent just over 24 hours in this place and I hate this room. But I can't stay in the living room, not if I'm going to start zoning. Besides, I hate to admit it, but I just don't want to sit out there, with them, feeling their contempt.

I resist a brief urge to holler "I've been hated by worse than you" through the almost-closed door. It's true, too. Doesn't make much difference though. Maybe it's actually the problem. Most of the people who hate me are... more like me.

Usually I have a hide a rhino would envy. Now, I feel like there's a revolving door on my soul, with a big sign saying 'Limited time only! Get a piece of Alex Krycek! And if you act now, you get not one, not two, but THREE free chances to kick him while he's down!'

And I'm getting just a little bit sick of it.

Of course by now I've been awake just long enough to lose the feeling that I could go right back to sleep. Pacing around the room, I touch each corner, measuring the boundaries, reassuring myself that the walls are not closing in on me. Walls do not move, Alex. Honest. I turn the bedside lamp up to the next brightness notch. This room is a lot nicer prison than the missile silo in North Dakota. And at least the company here is human, even if they despise me. The alien that hijacked my body despised me too, but that wasn't personal. It despises humans in general. Of course, even if it didn't, it probably would have despised me.

Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I'm gonna go eat worms...

I start to smile at the silly tune playing through my head, but then get a vivid memory flash of oily black worms crawling over people's faces, slithering into their nostrils, between their lips, into the corners of their eyes, oozing down through soft tissues into their nervous systems...

Mulder's face... Mulder's nose...

...I'm gagging before I even realize what's wrong. There's nothing in my stomach to come up, so the retching is damned uncomfortable. I bend over, arm wrapping around my middle, trying to keep my balance and not end up on my ass again. When the spasms finally stop my throat is sore once more and I feel dizzy. I make it to the bed and crawl on, curling up and pulling my security quilt around me. Might as well get flat if I'm going delirious. I'm cold, I hurt, I hate everyone.

Nobody likes me...

I'm so damn cold all of a sudden. My stomach settles to a dull ache, but I keep shuddering and I can't get warm. My teeth are practically chattering. I duck my chin and drag the quilt up to my nose. I hate this. Hate hate hate this.

I hear abrupt movement in the other room, all the louder because I can't make myself close the stupid door. The thump of running feet beating a path to the bathroom. Someone being loudly sick. Ah. Skinner. Guess the cure is starting to have some effect.

Good. It better work. Much as I hate giving up control over him, I need him right now. I need to curry some favor, and fast. I need Mulder and Scully, and I even need their stupid friends. And this is the only way.

I hate needing people. Hate is too light a word for my reaction to even the thought of needing people. And I sure as hell hate needing people who don't like me, who can barely stand the sight of me.

Everybody hates me...

Damn, it's cold. Why is it so cold? My quilt isn't enough. I've never been this cold, even in Russia. I burrow down under the bedding, keeping my quilt and pulling the bedspread up over it, then curling into a ball again. I can hear the low murmur of Scully's voice, soothing and competent. She has a good bedside manner. Toilet-side manner. Whatever. She's good to have around when you feel like dying.

I'm gonna go eat worms...

Oily black worms... I wonder how it feels to have them crawling into you, little by little. I could ask Mulder. That would be one way to commit suicide. The Black Oil was nasty, thick and cold, cutting off breath, cutting off my mind from my body, but it rolled over me like I was nothing... all at once. I remember gagging and trying to puke and it flowing into me, no matter how much I fought, just pushing me aside and taking. I shudder helplessly, recalling the obscene invasion of my body.

Bad as that was, its leaving was worse. I ached for days after that, talk about puking. And then the realization, and the dark... vast, endless, towering darkness, cold, hard concrete and steel, all sound muffled and hollow and...

Oh shit. I'm going to have those dreams again. Panic blooms in my chest. I'm hitting the delirium and I'm thinking about the silo. I'm going to dream of the silo. No, don't want to go there. Can't go there. Gotta stay awake. How can I keep myself awake... long division. Do long division in my head.

Right.

Sounds like Skinner is getting back into bed. Scully is talking softly to him. How does he like heaving up alien nasties? No one talked to me afterwards, rubbing my back, holding my hand in the dark... the dark...

No. Stop. Don't think it.

At least I paid Skinner back for that night on the balcony. Yeah, I've seen worse than anything he did, but damn it, I went to Mulder in good faith, handed him that terrorist bust, would have handed him Spender's head if he'd asked for it. So I had some ulterior motives. Our agendas could have meshed... would have meshed. I'd have made sure of it. Did make sure of it, as much as I could. Got him vaccinated. Of course it meant exposing him to the black worms. Worms. Crawling on his face-

Stop. Don't.

Where was I? Back up. Think other things. Concentrate. Skinner's balcony. Good faith. Right. Righteous indignation. That'll keep me awake. The bastards. Go to them, hand over the militia losers, save lives. And what? Get beat up by two men who are supposed to be the fucking good guys. It wasn't until that sucker punch that I moved Skinner from my list of Reluctant Victims of Spender to my list of Bastards Like All the Others. Well no, I even gave him the punch. After the hospital stairwell, I could almost understand, even if he was supposed to be better than that. Better than me. I guess it was the balcony that really got him jumping lists.

Funny how Mulder never made that second list, no matter how hard he tried.

It's hard to breathe. When did I stop shaking? I'm not cold. I wriggle and the blankets feel heavy. The air feels heavy... heavy as diesel oil, lying on me, weighing me down... Oh shit, not good. This is Not Good. I fight my arm free of the quilt and blankets, pushing them down off my face. I roll onto my back, telling myself I can breathe fine. It almost works. I try to breathe slow, still my mind. Hell cannot be any worse than this. I might as well just go there now.

I know it's the craziness sneaking up on me again, whatever this stuff is inside me marinating my brain and sending me out to lunch. If I stay awake, I'll be babbling who knows what to the ghosts of the people I've offed. If I go to sleep, I'll be back in the silo again with my gooey friend and his barnacle-encrusted ship.

I yawn, kicking off most of the blankets. Lassitude steals through me... my legs feel heavy, my arm feels heavy, even my half-arm that I can't feel feels heavy. The ceiling is blurry. I should get up, try walking around. Wake myself up again. Maybe I can at least keep the nightmares away if I stay awake...

...Why does he have to be such a selfish pig? Goddamn poptart-hoarding bastard. Could have let me have one. Frosted blueberry's always been my favorite...

...The air is so heavy, stale, like thick black oil pouring over me, I can't move, I can't breathe... my whole body heaves as the slimy gunk comes pouring out of my mouth, my nose, my ears...


3:30 a.m.

Scully tucked the blankets around Skinner's shoulders, running her hand over his forehead. His skin felt clammy, but his color looked better, even in the low light. His eyes flickered open and he managed a weak smile. "Thank you, Agent Scully. I appreciate you taking such good care of me."

"You're welcome, sir. How are you feeling?"

He winced. "Right about now, like I never want to leave this bed. But I think I'll live," he rasped.

She settled on the side of the bed, straightening the blankets over his chest. The warm darkness, the quietness of the rest of the house, the moonlight spilling through the side window, all combined to wrap her in a surreal feeling. Speaking softly so as not to jar the mood, she smiled down at him. "So far so good on what Krycek told us. It looks as though your body is reacting as predicted. I won't know the full results for certain until the Gunmen take your blood samples to the lab, but I think it's a good sign you're reacting as he expected, given he's the one that's seen the closest thing we have to clinical trials."

Stretching, Skinner grimaced at his aching sides, the muscles sore from vomiting. Matching his tone to hers, he murmured, "After due thought, I doubted he was lying outright about the neutralizer. He'd have to be extremely stupid to willfully endanger my life under these circumstances. And we know that whatever else Alex Krycek is-"

"He isn't stupid," Scully agreed. "Of course, he never claimed he was certain it would work."

"No, he covered his-" Skinner paused, looking at Scully. "Options."

Scully grinned. "Do you think you can get some sleep, sir? Maybe if you could sleep through some of the worst of it..."

In the dim light Skinner's eyes focused on her, so much softer without the traditional barrier of glass and wire. He paused, as if wrestling internally, then spoke in a voice husky from the soreness of his throat. "You know," he began hesitantly, "it seems ridiculously formal for you to call me 'sir' when you've been helping me kneel over a toilet, seeing me at my very worst." Shifting restlessly, he tried to find a comfortable position, starting to dodge her gaze but then firming his chin and meeting her eyes. "At least while we're here, would you call me Walter?"

Surprised by his request, and the pleasure that warmed her, Scully's grin faded briefly, then bloomed again in a gentle smile. "Well, I... ah..." Swallowing hard, she stopped, pushed her hair back behind her ear and murmured, "Or course... Walter." Straightening from the bed, Scully gave him a warm look, then waved uncertainly over her shoulder in the direction of the bathroom. "I'm going to just... uh... clean up in there a bit. I'll leave the door open, and I can hear you easily. Call me if you need anything."

"Thank you. Dana." Spoken so softly, she didn't know if she was supposed to hear the words or not, as she slipped out of the room.

Hope. Walter Skinner allowed himself the luxury of the alien emotion for the first time in... he wasn't even sure how long. He had a real possibility of being free of the threat of a hideous death by a nanocyte-induced "vascular event". The devious rat was running in their maze, for now. And that meant that they actually had a real chance of getting somewhere in their endless struggle with Spender. If only they could take down that son of a bitch, he'd consider Krycek's debt paid in full.

And... judging by the gentle care she'd shown him these past hours, and by the expression on her face and the look in her eyes just now, he was of some value to Dana Scully, as more than just a supportive supervisor. She cared about him. Maybe not in the way he thought of her, but at least she didn't hold his past failures against him, and... there was something more. Something in her touch, in her eyes. A regard, a respect. Something, possibly, he could build on, if he had the nerve to try. If he ignored the rules and regulations. If...

If he lived.

He took a slow breath. He was possibly getting his life back, and he was worrying about rules and regulations and getting up the nerve? ::That time's long past, Walt. If there's a chance there, you go for it. No hesitation.:: Staring at the reflected moonlight on the bottom of the pull out bed, he felt a smile pull at his lips. Things were changing, that much was certain. Time to start taking some control of the changes. Sore and nauseated as he was, he fell asleep with unfamiliar hope making him feel lighter than he had in years.


On her hands and knees, running a towel soaked in hot water over the floor around the toilet, Scully observed resentfully that Mulder wasn't the one wiping splashes of vomit off of the floor. A real X-File if there ever was one... why invariably the woman always ends up cleaning up the puke.

For a few moments she amused herself with fantasies of going down to the basement and asking Frohike to clean up the bathroom. Finally satisfied that the room no longer smelled foul, and was as sanitary as it was going to get, she wrung out the towel and hung it up to dry. As she washed her hands thoroughly, she realized that come to think of it, she couldn't really imagine Alex Krycek cleaning a toilet, either.

Which reminded her that their prisoner had been left alone for several hours. Time to go take that temperature, she supposed.

She left the bathroom and checked on Skinner, pleased to see he seemed to have actually drifted off. As she moved quietly to Krycek's room, she noticed the light was still on, spilling around the almost-closed door. Pushing the door open soundlessly, she leaned in to see him huddled around a pillow, shivering. He'd kicked away the blankets, and looked... vulnerable.

She spent a moment leaning against the door, wondering how he managed it. How someone so corrupt could look so different just by closing his eyes. Had to be that baby-face, she decided tiredly.

However innocent he looked, it certainly wasn't the sleep of the just, she noted. It was not a restful sleep at all. His body jerked oddly, his breathing uneven and harsh. The odd shape of his left arm, clearly visible through the loose, long-sleeved t-shirt he still wore, flailed occasionally, though she couldn't tell if it was simple muscle reflex or something to do with the dreams that disturbed him. His eyelids twitched and his muscles tensed and bunched. Slipping into the room, Scully closed the door fully behind her. Walking closer, she debated waking him. As she reached the bed, he subsided, and she carefully pressed her fingers against his throat, checking his pulse. Fast, and not as steady as she'd like. But he didn't appear to be feverish... his skin felt cool to the touch, almost too cool. Frowning, she pulled the covers up, concerned at the drop in body temperature, noticing as she did so that the weight of the blankets seemed disturbing to him. His breath caught, his hand pushing something intangible away before gripping the pillow again.

She bit her lip, debating shaking him out of his sleep versus letting him get what rest he could. Brushing her hand over his forehead, as she had done with Skinner, seemed to quiet him. She stroked his hair back and unconsciously started making a soft shushing sound. She froze when she realized what she was doing, and glanced over her shoulder in guilty reflex. Flushing and stepping back, she noted that at least it worked. He settled, and his muscles relaxed.

Dropping down into the armchair by the bed, she realized all at once how tired she was. Running her hands through her hair, she massaged her scalp and took deep breaths.

What she really wanted was a long soak in a hot bath. Not possible now, not as long as Skinner - Walter - might need her, or access to the bathroom, suddenly. And certainly not as long as Frohike and his cohorts were anywhere nearby. She wouldn't be surprised if they had video cameras wired up in the bathroom walls or ceiling.

A hot bath, and some real food. And her own bed, in her own apartment. With the door securely locked against reckless, thoughtless, beloved partners; sarcastic, baby-faced assassins; and overgrown adolescent, misfit hackers.

Strong, silent ADs on the other hand...

She pushed the thought away and tucked her hands under her arms, trying to warm her fingers. She hadn't noticed before how cold the room was... perhaps that was the only reason Alex felt so cool. Sitting in the room, the rest of the house quiet and still, she realized it did have a bit of a closed in feeling, small and tight. No wonder Krycek hated being confined in here.

He turned over, pushing the pillow away, mumbling softly.

What was it Mulder had once said about life throwing curve balls? Her two patients were bitter enemies. But Skinner seemed able to look beyond his personal hatred for Krycek and see the larger picture. Unlike Mulder. Everything was personal with him.

She smiled. Despite her unquestioned love for Mulder, she liked to think her strong instinct for self-preservation had saved her from falling in love with him. She would fight at his side, fight for him, fight with him. Sacrifice for him. But somewhere along the way, the best-friend-instinct had crossed that line that precluded romance. Beyond the natural sexual evaluation at first meeting, and the occasional curiosity fantasy, she'd never seriously considered Fox Mulder as a bed partner or romantic prospect.

Truth to tell, she had a hard time picturing Fox Mulder considering himself as a romantic prospect... for anyone. She hated to say the man had no life, but... the man had no life. And she knew, with a depressing certainty, that she was falling into the same pattern, no matter how often she recognized the signs and tried to stave them off.

But Skinner, now. Walter. What about his potential? Scully settled back in the armchair, and hugged her knees up to her chest, trying to get warm. Her first few meetings with A.D. Skinner had not been such that she had, for one moment, though of him as a potential bed partner. There was the natural deterrent of being her supervisor, of course. Beyond that, the X-Files never failed to get a less-that-welcoming reaction from him, his patience always tried by the two different reports that followed each case, something that had soon become a pattern. She and Mulder had always referred to him - behind his back, of course - as Old Stone Face.

God, she was tired. She should call Mulder up to watch her patients, and get some sleep. She should, but she wouldn't, since she'd really prefer to take Mulder off Krycek-watch-rotation altogether. She stared at Krycek, who was twitching again. Mulder just wouldn't leave the man alone and she knew him well enough not to stress his questionable self-control more than needed.

And Skinner. Walter, she reminded herself. That would take a little getting used to. It did seem odd to call him 'sir' in this setting, these circumstances. But as for calling Mulder to keep an eye on Walter... she found herself reluctant to let anyone else look after him. He was so embarrassed at showing his weakness, yet he did take comfort from her presence. Her mind played over the way he turned to her now as his system rid itself of the poison. Much as he had turned to her in the hospital, when they still didn't know what the nanocytes were or what they did, when all they knew was that he was dying and they couldn't stop it. Her mind slid further back, remembering another hospital room, another injury, and Walter Skinner staring up at her with complete trust, gripping her hand as she insisted on riding in the ambulance with him after his shooting by Luis Cardinale.

She hated to see him vulnerable, in danger. Mulder she was used to rescuing, used to visiting in the hospital. Sometimes it seemed like he spent his life stripping himself bare and making himself as vulnerable - emotionally and physically - as possible. But Walter. It hurt to see him unable to be what he so obviously longed to be... the protector, the knight in shining armor. From the early ambiguity when she wasn't sure which side he fell on, to the slow, arduous process of his growing relationship with his agents, his true self had risen to the fore again and again. He'd managed to extricate himself tentacle by tentacle from the clinging grip of the Consortium, only to have Krycek suck him back in with the threat of pain and death, bend him again to that compromised hell he seemed destined to struggle with.

She stared at the restless body before her with a flash of the old, uncomplicated antipathy. She winced as the very thought underlined how complex her feelings about Alex Krycek had now become, and pushed the entire matter out of her head to deal with when she wasn't so tired. Instead, she let her mind circle back lazily until it rested, again, on... Walter.

She blinked, surprised. Granted, she'd just spent hours trying to make him comfortable, but there seemed to be something more to her preoccupation. She let her mind drift again, and found it winding repeatedly around the last moments before she had gotten up from the bed, when he'd asked her to call him by his given name. Something... something familiar hung about the exchange, something that tickled her tired mind and-

Her eyes widened as she made the connection. The moments on the porch, just before the Gunmen drove up. The look in his eyes, the hesitant manner... the feel had been the same as their soft, shadowy discussion on his sickbed. And why had that gotten her thinking of those past instances. It was as if... as if she was seeing something, in flashes. Something more of him, something he only displayed occasionally, but for some reason was revealing more here at this cabin, here alone with her.

An analytical brain trained in observation tried to dissect the nebulousness of the scattered impressions, and just the way investigations sometimes turned on a dime, she suddenly felt the puzzle pieces reorder, and click together.

::My God.::

He... he cared. She swallowed, staring unseeing at the stark shadows Krycek's lamp created on the far wall. He cared... about her. Her brain moved sluggishly, pushing past years of self-imposed isolation, through her dismal dating history. Wading through her strange and all-absorbing relationship with Mulder, her total immersion in the work and their fight for justice, her withdrawal from human connection even with Mulder during her illness, her loss of interest in so much as the thought of relationships following the news of her sterility. Tears welled but didn't fall as she combed through the years, watching herself repeatedly put her life on hold, watching Walter Skinner stand by, silent and yet so present.

He cared about her. As more than... an agent. More than a subordinate. More than a warrior against the darkness that enmeshed all their lives. It seemed so clear, now, so suddenly. He cared about her... as herself, as a woman.

She let the thought slide gently through her mind, waiting to see just how she felt about that.

She should have seen long ago what was so obvious in his eyes, in his gestures, in his guarded words. But she was so out of practice, so embroiled in the immediacy of all that had happened. And he was so very careful.

As the concept sifted through her, she discovered it felt... pleasant. Scully let the idea float around her tired brain and felt her lips twitching upward as she blinked away the moisture in her eyes. Very pleasant. She knew she could trust Walter at her back, the way she trusted Mulder. But unlike Mulder, she also knew that Walter would actually be there at her back, and not rabbiting off to follow a mysterious lead without telling her. Something about him, the very solidity of him. That core of integrity, despite his compromises and his guilty conscience.

Not to mention... tall... and strong... and virile. Ordinarily her size was just something to overcome and ignore, but next to him, she felt even smaller, more feminine...

::Oh honestly.:: Scully choked on a disgusted laugh, not entirely able to believe she'd just entertained that thought. ::I am so tired. That's the only excuse.:: Still and all, would it be so terrible? So terrible to want someone who would shoulder some of the burden, who could take her in his arms and hold the rest of the world at bay, make everything else disappear for awhile.

His arms. What would it be like to be in Walter's arms? To kiss him, hold him...

Scully closed her eyes and slowly allowed herself to follow a thought procession that would have seemed inconceivable only a short time ago. Her boss, a little voice warned. Against all the rules, it hissed. And was it possible she was misreading him? She certainly was out of practice and-

His big hand, resting on hers on the porch railing. That look in his eyes, and then again in his bed.

::I'm not that out of practice.::

Her lips curving in a delighted smile, she clasped her arms around her legs and let her thoughts wander as far as they wanted.


4:50 a.m.

Taking the stairs two at a time, Mulder could hardly keep from whistling. Bursting out of the closet, the silence and darkness of the main room surprised him. He started to call out to Scully, when a sudden urge made him look at his watch. Blinking in shock at the hour, he spent a moment trying to calculate how long he and the Gunmen had been working with the cartridges before realizing it made no difference to anyone. Eyes adjusting to the dark, he scanned the room and noted the empty sofa-bed. He poked his head into Scully's bedroom, but no one was there either. As he turned back to check Krycek's room, a soft thump from the bathroom made him stop and push open the partially closed door.

Skinner knelt, leaned up against the tub, rubbing his forehead. His face was pale in the harsh bathroom light, and Mulder stepped inside quickly. "Sir?"

Skinner started to turn, then his face contorted and he slumped back over the toilet, choking and gagging. Mulder took an involuntary step backward and grimaced. "I'll get Scully-"

A hand lifted and Skinner shook his head. After a moment, he lifted his head and wiped his mouth with a washcloth. "No," he choked out in a gravelly voice. "I'm alright. Don't bother her, she's been up with me all night." He stayed on his knees a moment longer, then slowly forced himself to rise, swaying.

Mulder stepped closer and caught his arm, steadying him and helping him out the door and back to his bed. Settling with a groan, Skinner waved Mulder away with an inaudible mutter, and Mulder backed away thankfully. With another quick glance back at the sound of his boss' shallow breathing, he stepped to Krycek's room and eased open the door. Peering around it, he caught sight of Scully curled up in the chair he'd slept in the night before. An odd smile softened her face and her eyes had a faraway look. Slipping through the door, he grinned as she jerked and gave him a startled look.

"Sleeping with your eyes open?"

"Ah... no. No. Just thinking."

The flush rising in her cheeks showed clearly in the light from the bedside lamp, and he paused, raising his eyebrows. "You okay, Scully?"

"Fine. You've been down there an age. I assume you guys got something off those cartridges? Or have they just been telling you how they got hold of that xray machine?"

Reminded of his excitement, he crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed, facing her chair. "It's totally accessible. You won't believe the shit we've been pulling off that thing! I almost can't believe it. It-" He stopped at the low groan from behind him and glanced over his shoulder.

Krycek's head rolled on the pillow, eyes closed, mouth opening to suck in a gulp of air. "...wuuhrms..." he groaned, hand lifting, fingers brushing at the air. Scully pushed out of her chair immediately and leaned down to him, stroking a hand over his sweaty forehead repeatedly, coaxing her fingers through his damp hair, whispering "shhh, you're okay" over and over. His lips trembled for a moment, then he subsided. His breathing calmed and his mouth went slack, his hand falling limply to the bed. She sat back down, rubbing her hands against the legs of her jeans.

Mulder looked at her with a lifted eyebrow. She sighed and shrugged. "He's been asleep since I came in to check on him. He's restless, but he needs what sleep he can get. His body has got to need the down time, with all that's going on in there. And it's not that hard to settle him down."

Mulder nodded, and decided not to comment any further. Picking up where he left off, he lowered his voice. "It's all there, Scully. All the research. He was downloading directly from their main frame on this project. It's amazing. The details! We've got files on all these different avenues they were taking with this particular vein of research, and it looks like we've got the files of every single subject they were using. We can't be sure yet, of course, but it looks that way. The guys have been working on sorting the data files, making backups, and just getting past the passwords and protections. But they've been sending the stuff to print as they've got through to individual files, and I've just been spending the whole time reading this stuff. I've got some files marked that I want you to concentrate on first." He realized he was practically bouncing on the bed, and paused to take a deep breath and try to still himself. But Scully's eyes were already lighting up in a mirror of how he felt, and his excitement bubbled again.

"Tell me more," she demanded.

"Okay... this healing thing." He paused again to try to order the thoughts whirling through his brain. So much. So much detail. And so much of what the documents referred to so casually was alien. Exactly what he was looking for... references to the oil, to the aliens themselves, to hybridization. "It looks like they managed this 'healing' ability by accident."

"By accident?"

"I know. Can you believe it? They weren't specifically looking for it; they were still focusing on hybridization experiments. They had pulled in a couple of test subjects that we had some direct dealings with... you remember the French diver, Gauthier. The oil alien that came up with the Piper Maru had invaded both him and his wife. The alien left them both of its own free will, and they survived the leaving. That was more than enough to bring both of them to the Consortium attention and they were both picked up for testing starting a couple years back. I've got the dates downstairs. But here's the kicker... over time, both of their DNA patterns started showing mutations, mutations that the scientists couldn't trace to anything else they were doing. It was a slow process, and the scientists are convinced now that the time factor is a big piece."

Scully's eyes narrowed. "So what exactly is this DNA mutation that it seems to cause?"

"Well, that's the interesting part." Mulder grinned. "The scientists didn't have a clue. Their notes on the Gauthier pair are very clear about that. They could find the mutated strings, they could track the changes, but they weren't entirely certain what the mutations did. So they kept testing. Of course. And this is when this healing ability came to the fore. And it goes back to the Weikamp Airforce Base trip and the downed rebel ship."

"Right. The one Krycek tipped you off to." Scully shot Mulder a hard look. Mulder fidgeted, and looked away from her. She blew out an exasperated breath and waved him on. "Keep going. I know, I know... we'll discuss that later."

Her expression told him he wouldn't be able to keep putting her off on the subject forever, but for the time being he grabbed the chance. Swallowing hard, he picked up where he'd left off. "Um, okay... the rebel. The Consortium got to it. I don't know exactly what happened to it, these notes don't indicate. But I can't imagine anything too good, because that's where they got themselves a fair supply of rebel alien DNA and tissue samples. The rebel alien is a different, but somewhat similar, species."

Scully nodded thoughtfully, her eyes returning to Alex. "Which all confirms what he told me," she murmured softly.

"So he can tell the truth on occasion. The deal is they were going to try some hybridization of cells from the rebel with human cells, and see what they could come up with from that. Then some bright-eyed little Consortium doctor thought, 'hey, why not try these rebel cells with some of this mutated DNA from these odd test subjects over here.' Combine three species. And that's when somebody went 'eureka'."

"The self-healing ability?"

"Bingo."

"The rebel-cell hybridization must work more smoothly with a body that's been host to an oil infection."

Mulder nodded. "The introduction of the rebel alien cell compound actually somehow activates this mutated DNA strand in otherwise human subjects."

"Great. So, my DNA is mutating as we speak, yours is mutating if not already mutated..."

"Hell, I've always been a mutant. We knew that." The joke fell flat and he sighed at the look on her face. "Scully, we always knew the potential was there. Look, if it's any consolation, it looks as if this mutation needs to be activated for it to do anything. And so far it looks as though that activation needs to be an external event... like the injections they were giving Krycek."

Scully shifted her eyes back to Alex. His puffy, split lip where Mulder had hit him looked almost normal again. His arm... She turned back to Mulder. "So you and I could be... what he is. With the activation, we could develop this same healing ability."

"Theoretically. If we wanted to get shot up with rebel-alien DNA, that is. And take the chance. So far, Alex is their only success."

"Everyone else died."

"Well, yes. But apparently they died from the trials. These scientists... they're crazy men. Like we didn't already know that. Their notes indicate they're under a lot of pressure to produce results. A healing ability has apparently been one of their big, unattainable grails as far as all their research goes. They've always known certain aliens could heal humans. They've had an entire line of research focused on isolating how they could potentially transfer that ability to humans. But never with any kind of luck until now, and this isn't exactly what they were after. I mean none of the subjects have shown any indication they can heal others. This ability seemed like a step in the right direction, though, and maybe even something better."

Scully rubbed the bridge of her nose, then moved to massaging her temples. "We've actually got hard evidence of this downstairs?"

"Everything I've said, and more."

Scully nodded slowly, shifting her hands from her temples to rifle through her hair. "So we were right. He's their best success."

"Yes, and they're not entirely sure why. They're not sure if it's because he was infected by the full entity as opposed to the worms, or because he's... him, or a number of other variables. They've got a lot of hypotheses. But they just don't know what the one thing is that might have made the difference. They're not even entirely sure if he ever vaccinated himself with the Russian vaccine, and the research notes indicate he wouldn't give them a straight answer." Mulder's lips twisted in a half smile. "Typical, eh? And of course, none of this research has the benefit of any long-term effects analysis. They don't know if he'll keep the self-healing ability, or if it will last only as long as he continues to get injections, or-"

"Or if it will kill him, like it killed the rest."

Mulder stopped short, letting her words sink in. Suddenly, the intense excitement generated by the reams of research downstairs left him in a rush, and he felt like he'd run head-first into a brick wall. He turned his head to stare again at the infuriating conundrum of a man, now curled on his side, chin tucked to chest. She was so right. The research was clear that they had taken pains to keep him alive longer than their previous test subjects, but Scully had hit the nail on the head. Alex Krycek could easily die from this. Could be dying even now. Turned away from the light, Alex's face was shadowed, but Mulder could still see the tilt of that nose, the black smudge of thick lashes against dark purple circles under his eyes. His lips were parted, but Mulder could barely see any indication of breath. He seemed so still, his back and chest hardly rising.

Dead. Such a solid, final word.

"-lder? Are you alright? Mulder?"

He jerked and turned back to Scully, shaking off the uncontrollable urge to jostle Alex awake, just to see those eyes open. "Fine," he answered automatically. "I'm fine. I just... yes. You're right. They didn't know. If he would die, just like the rest. They didn't know when or how the research might kill him, although they were taking steps to make sure they didn't make the same mistakes with him they made with the others."

Scully nodded slowly, watching Mulder with a sharp gaze. "I want to see all of this research. Read it over carefully. But not until I can actually absorb it, be awake for it."

Still half-caught in a sticky web of thoughts of Alex dying, Mulder answered her on autopilot. "Absolutely. You look beat, Scully. Why don't you go get some rest. I'll get some more of the reading, bring it up here and I'll watch-" He broke off as they both turned at the sound of heavy feet hitting the floor in the outer room, and rushing past the half-open door. "Uh oh. He's at it again."

"Again?" Scully stood. "I thought he was finally resting quietly."

"He was heaving when I got upstairs. I told him I'd get you, but he didn't want me to. Said you'd been up with him all night."

Scully huffed out an exasperated breath. "So he's just going to suffer in silence like a big strong idiot, and then fall over flat on his face because someone's not there to hold him up? Yes, that's so much better than asking for help. Honestly. Men." She stomped for the door and Mulder watched her go with a half-smile and a sense of relief.

He'd hoped she'd go for Skinner and leave him on Krycek-duty. Unfair, sure. But at least Krycek wasn't actively puking. Besides, it also got Scully away from the man. Watching her stroke Krycek's forehead had just been such a disturbing image. Mulder shifted himself off the bed and over into the chair, carefully ignoring the niggling voice in the back of his head that insisted on asking why it was so disturbing for him... because Scully was touching Krycek with apparently honest concern? Or because Scully was the one touching Krycek?

Which one are you jealous of? came the malicious little whispers. And following directly on the heels of that... and why are you really so relieved she went for Skinner, leaving you here to be the one to stroke Alex back to sleep?

Research, he told himself. Think about the research. He tried not to stare at the sheet-covered lump as he worked to refocus his brain and silence his internal voices. Against his will, his eyes wandered back to the huddled body, his thoughts wandering in the same direction, to the information he hadn't had a chance to detail to Scully, the other file he needed her to look over with her medical eye. Alex Krycek's file.

One of the first files he'd had the Gunmen zero in on - the file detailing all experimentation done on Subject 38. The master reference list in the project summary matched names with subject designations, and Subject 38 was one Alexander Dvorak Krycek, "entered" into the testing regimen on January 5. Mulder now had exact detail on everything that had been done to Subject 38. Every dose, every test, every reaction. He knew what had been done to Subject 38 while conscious, while unconscious, and how they'd brought him back to consciousness when the subject hit what the researchers referred to as "over stimulation".

Mulder swallowed hard against a wave of nausea, and rocked his head against the chair back. He closed his eyes and drew in a slow breath through his nose, releasing it through his mouth. He'd made himself read it all, and every word of it burned in his brain. He knew now that Scully's suspicions were correct, that Krycek had given an accurate account of what had gone on in that lab. If anything, he'd underplayed it.

What they'd done to him...

Almost worse than the details of the experiments, worse than the clinical recitation of "responses" to each new torture, was the consistent detached reference to the man as "Subject 38". Beyond the master list of the actual names of all subjects, Alex's name appeared only on the very first page of the very first entry of his project file, in the "Biographical Data on Subject 38" section. His name and vital statistics; mention of parents, father deceased significantly earlier than mother; all linked to a separate historical file, containing his full medical history.

While he kept reading about Subject 38's twenty-day trial, Mulder had asked the Gunmen to do a search and find for the linked historical file. At least the medical history referred to Alex Krycek as Alex Krycek. Unfortunately, that just underlined the fact that Subject 38 was a man, a man with a background, previous injuries and illnesses, a man with... a life. A life, before he had been reduced to Subject 38, who only had "clinical reactions" and "physiological responses".

Mulder sat forward in his chair, elbows on knees, chin on linked hands. He now knew how bad the physical experience must have been for Krycek. No one could read the clinical notes and not know how much agony and humiliation had gone into them. But the dehumanization read even worse, the thoroughness of the transition from Alex Krycek to Subject 38 in the literature of the experiments had to have carried over into the scientists' daily dealings with him.

He wondered if turning the people they experimented on into numbered subjects gave the scientists the ability to do what they did, or if they even needed the assistance of phraseology to appease their consciences.

Scully's voice echoed in his head, "he's offering himself to us as a lab rat, on the theory we'll be kinder to the rat." No joke. He'd been perfectly serious with that observation, obviously. He'd been nothing but an actual lab rat at the Consortium facility. Other. Inhuman. Subhuman.

Sort of like the way you like to think of him, whispered the annoying little voice again. He buried his face in his hands and groaned. The thought had reverberated in his head the more he read. The separation of Alex Krycek and Subject 38 was painfully familiar, so like the separation he himself had completed so successfully... the separation of "Alex" and "Krycek". Alex, the unwanted partner who fit a little too easily. Alex, the puppy-agent with the big adoring eyes and the open mind. Worst of all... Alex, the potential lover. And then in the blink of an eye - Krycek. Krycek, the ratbastard who helped them take Scully. Krycek, the betrayer who worked for his enemies. Krycek, the murderer.

One was a person... albeit a person who may have been a complete fiction. He still didn't know. But he'd perceived the man as a human being, with faults and good points, just like anyone else. The second though... the second bore a closer resemblance to Subject 38 than Mulder cared to think. Through his own anger, his rage - his hurt - he'd allowed Krycek to become something outside of, something below, humanity. Something that didn't deserve anything but disgust... pain... punishment. Revenge.

Alex Krycek was a person who had done some terrible, unspeakable things. Some unexplainable things. And... Mulder swallowed hard and pressed his fingers against his closed eyelids... some decent things. Good things. A person with all the complex motivations and feelings that were uniquely human, who didn't exist on Earth for the sole purpose of making Fox Mulder's life miserable, no matter how much it seemed that way at times. And just as it was unfair to use Alex as the human symbol for the faceless evil of the Consortium, it was even worse to fall into the Consortium's own behaviors and suppress that very humanity to ease his own conscience over his desire for revenge.

He lifted his face from his hands and stared at the man who was causing him far too many brain-cramps in far too few days. Alex was a person who had suffered. So much. Suffered to an extent that was truly frightening. And in that suffering was a man who raised Mulder's own compassion, compassion he couldn't let himself feel for a subhuman murdering traitor. Compassion he didn't want to feel for this lying betrayer.

Compassion he could feel for a man. Compassion he couldn't afford to let himself not feel, at the risk of becoming just like... his father.

Footsteps and muffled voices jerked him out of his thoughts, and he let the painful tangle go with an intense sense of relief. Skinner's rough bass and Scully's stern tone of response drew him up out of the chair and across the floor before he realized he was moving. Checking on Skinner, he told himself. He was concerned about the man, after all. It really wasn't that he didn't want to be alone with his thoughts, that their two voices filled up that empty place in his chest and drowned out that damn little voice.

Hand on the door, he paused and looked back at the bed. The truth rolled through him like a rifle butt to the gut of an unarmed man in the surrender position. Avoidance. Talk to Scully and Skinner and avoid thinking about Krycek as a man who had suffered, who deserved more. The circle of light from the lamp fell across the curled body.

Pushing through the door into the living room, he let the avoidance sweep the entire mess back into its locked box in the basement of his mind. ::Recognizing it is half the battle. I've just... battled enough for one day.::

End of Chemical Agents Part Three


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