Chemical Agents IV: Metamorphosis

by Ratadder and Queen Mab

CHEMICAL AGENTS PART FOUR - METAMORPHOSIS

Metamorphosis: a change of physical form, structure, or substance, especially by supernatural means

5:20 a.m.

"Feels like I've gone ten rounds with a sumo wrestler," Skinner groaned as he eased back under the blankets, leaning against the stacked pillows. He started in surprise but didn't object when Scully sat on the bed next to him, leaning against the back of the sofabed, curling her legs up under her. Her hand brushed over his forehead, trailing along his smooth scalp to his shoulder, where it rested, soft and warm.

She smiled down at him as she said, "I can't quite picture Krycek as a sumo wrestler."

Her dimples were adorable. Moments passed in happy contemplation of her, until he realized she was looking right back at him intently. "Agent Scully, why are you staring at me?" Walter felt his stomach clench, wondering if those hideous veins were blooming on his face again. He didn't feel any of the devastating pain. Yet.

"Am I?" she flushed slightly, the smile taking on that maddening feminine smugness that made men wonder what was the Mona Lisa thinking about? "Sorry. And if I'm going to call you Walter, why don't you call me Dana."

::Have I totally lost my mind, am I just far too overtired, or... is she actually flirting with me?:: Skinner couldn't help smiling back. "Alright."

"If it's any consolation, I think Krycek feels a lot worse than you do right now."

"Actually, that is something of a consolation. One day I will get even with him," he sighed.

"He doesn't have enough lives for that," Mulder said as he came out of the bedroom. Getting a good look at them as he walked toward the sofa bed, he blinked at the intimacy of their positions. Scully and Old Stone Face looked awfully cozy. But he managed a smile as he sprawled across the foot of the bed. "This a private slumber party?"

Scully coolly folded her hands in her lap. "And how is he? Still asleep?"

"Yeah. Sleeping the sleep of the unjust." Mulder suddenly seemed intensely interested in the weave of the blanket under him.

Skinner gave a half-laugh, half-snort. "Well, I'd call us even if he actually helps us pound the nails in Spender's coffin," he murmured.

Mulder went very still. "Really? You'd work with him? Trust him, overlook everything he's done-"

"That isn't what I said, Agent Mulder." Skinner settled more comfortably against the pillows, his hands folded over his stomach. "As representatives of the Bureau, it would be difficult for any of us to overlook his confession that he murdered your father."

"And yet," Scully frowned, "in an odd way, the fact that he confessed to that so openly just makes me more sure that I'm right, that he's serious about cooperating with us. He's given us another weapon to use against him. Not typical Krycek behavior."

"He has been pretty candid about his past crimes," Skinner observed. "Surprising, given our official status and considering he has no reason at all to trust us."

"What do you mean?" Mulder protested. "We're the good guys."

"More or less," Skinner responded wryly. "I think we've both stepped pretty close to the 'good guy' line, Agent Mulder, particularly in this case?" He met and held Mulder's gaze meaningfully, assuming correctly that neither man wanted to elaborate more fully in front of Scully. He continued in a weary voice. "All I'm saying is that I'm not a stranger to making deals when need be, and that I wouldn't refuse his assistance if it means taking down Spender. While I was... indisposed, Agent Scully was good enough to try to distract me by telling me the information is coming through loud and clear. If he can make good on what we think he can, I can be practical. Given what we've seen so far - including the fact that I'm still alive - I'm inclined to agree with Agent Scully. That we're in the position of power for once and he's reacting accordingly. That he not only can make good on taking out his former cohorts, but will, if we see him safely through this." 'If he survives this' hung in the air, but no one verbalized it.

Mulder stared at Skinner blankly for a long moment, then turned to Scully. "And you? He's admitted to my father. What about your sister? Cardinal claimed Krycek was the one you wanted."

Scully hesitated, unsure how much she should reveal, how much she wanted to reveal. "Krycek and I did discuss Melissa's shooting, actually. He confirmed what we already believed. That it was Luis Cardinal who shot my sister, that he was actually there to shoot me, under Spender's orders." She paused again. "Given the circumstances of the conversation, I believe that Krycek was telling me the truth," she finally finished. She let the firm note in her voice tell the men she had no intention of elaborating.

She knew she should tell them the rest, that Krycek had been present, that he had been prepared to murder her. But it would only infuriate the two men, destroying the growing chance that they would work with him. The longer she thought about it, the more she believed that it would be crucial for the four of them to cooperate in the future, not just to bring down Spender, but to stop all the various projects, and the... aliens. The word still stuck in her throat, but she was willing to start forcing herself to use the term. But for any of it to happen, she had a strong, sinking feeling that they needed to hang onto Alex Krycek and keep him on their side, with whatever means necessary.

Somewhere during her time with him, Scully realized she'd already signed on to the idea of helping Alex in exchange for working with him. Skinner sounded like he was coming around, if not already all the way around. But with Mulder still firmly strapped in on the Krycek roller coaster, if he knew that his nemesis had been sent to assassinate his partner, it would become a crime against him, part of the Great Cosmic Plot Against Fox Mulder. It would be all about Mulder again, and no longer about her, and it would blow the potential they were looking at straight to hell. It was bad enough Melissa had died in her place, practically a nameless sacrifice to this damned shadow war. She had to live every day with that knowledge. She wasn't going to allow Melissa's death to be just another line in the litany of sins against Mulder and his precious Truth. In some weird way, this was personal, between her and Krycek. It sounded illogical, and she wasn't entirely sure she understood it herself, but this was hers.

And she easily admitted to herself that however selfish, she wanted to be the one who discovered the ramifications of what had been done to Krycek in that lab, to have proof in her hands. And to see if the healing powers he'd developed could be put to use, expanded, used for the benefit of humanity. She couldn't do that if Krycek was in prison, which meant a certain death sooner rather than later, or if he was on the run again. She needed them all cooperating, and by God, she'd get it if she had to chain them all together.

"You really believe his word?" Mulder watched her carefully. "You sound so certain."

"Yes, I believe him."

"Woman's intuition?"

She gave him a dark look then relaxed into a grin. "Intuitive leaps of faith are your area of expertise, not mine. I'm just saying that given the circumstances, yes, I believe him."

Skinner and Scully watched as Mulder flopped onto his back, gazing up at the ceiling.

"Alex did tell me that he regretted Melissa's death," Scully continued slowly, still unsure how much she wanted to discuss this. "He said he would have stopped Cardinal from shooting her if he'd had the opportunity. He didn't ask for my forgiveness, he just seemed to want me to know he was sorry about it. I don't know that I can explain but... it wasn't like he was just saying it to get on my good side. I think he's well aware the time for that is long past." She sighed deeply and shook her head. "I don't know if you've noticed, but he isn't making excuses for what he did. He's told us some of his reasons, but he isn't trying to avoid responsibility for his actions."

"It sounds like you two are on his side," Mulder muttered as he resolutely stared at the roof.

Skinner snorted. "Sometimes you have to compromise, Agent Mulder," he stated flatly. "I'm hardly on his side. I certainly understand the inclination to disregard anything that comes out of that... mouth. I think we all do. At the same time, I'm able to judge a situation based on the current circumstances, and his current circumstances are damned different than they've ever been." He shrugged. "Sometimes you have to let go of the past in order to move forward. It's called pragmatism. It's very useful for getting ON with life."

Scully felt her chest tighten at the lost little boy look on her partner's face. Torn between the urge to hug him and tell him everything would be okay, and smacking some sense into him, she did neither, just watched him work to absorb their comments. Hearing Walter's comments confirmed for her that the two of them were on the same page about Krycek, but she knew that didn't make it any easier for Mulder to hear. Knowing him as well as she did, she could guess the urge to reject it all and accuse them of going easy on the Devil himself hovered on the tip of his tongue. Betrayal was his way of life; he'd known little else. Pragmatism had never been his strong suit, and idealists weren't known for their compromise skills.

Finally Mulder sighed heavily, rolled into a sitting position, and, in his customary drawling monotone, started telling them about the two medical reports he had read. At first Scully thought he was just trying to flat out change the subject, until she realized that in his own way, he was agreeing with them.

"It was worse than what you heard, Scully, and it had gone on for weeks before you got there," he concluded in a dull voice. Rubbing his eyes with one hand, he shook his head. His words were strained when he continued. "Reading those reports... Krycek didn't deserve to be treated like that, like he was nothing, not even human." He lifted his head and met Scully's eyes.

Feeling a catch in her throat at his haunted expression, she managed a smile, and nodded. "I know, Mulder," she murmured softly, flashing on the screams from the lab, Alex's offhand comments about what had been done to him. Mulder was feeling it too, she could see it in his face - the same unwelcome and uncomfortable compassion she had been grappling with. He didn't want to admit it, wouldn't say it in so many words, but it was there on that expressive face as plain as a masking tape X on a window. Given how odd thinking of Alex as a sympathetic human made her feel, she wasn't certain what to say or do to ease it for Mulder. Maybe it was enough that he knew he wasn't the only one experiencing it.

The three sat in a heavy silence for a long moment. The magnitude of their unstated decision settled over all of them, doubts and second thoughts weaving through three minds in troublesome niggles. The silence broke with a sudden exclamation from Skinner that had both Mulder and Scully jumping.

"FUCK!" The AD gripped his stomach, then looked horrified at his outburst. "Sorry," he gasped in Scully's direction, heaving himself out of the bed as both agents leapt to their feet. "But this is just getting insane," he growled, swaying for a moment then steadying and making for the bathroom.


Mulder stepped out of the way as Scully trotted after Skinner's retreating back. Convincing himself the bathroom was far too small for three people - and what would he do to help anyway? - was easier than he expected, and he dropped back onto the end of the bed. He felt a vague sense of guilt at leaving Scully with the dirty work, but she was the doctor in the house after all.

Predawn and he'd been up for hours, on very little sleep the previous night. And he wasn't even drowsy. The surge resulting from the accessibility of the cartridges had him humming with energy. Reminded of the hard evidence sending out its siren call from the basement, he itched to dive back into the pile of paper. Who knew how long Skinner was going to be sick, and would he really feel like talking afterward? Sounded like Skinner hadn't had much rest either.

And did he actually feel like continuing this conversation with Scully and Skinner anyway?

One resounding "no" later, he started for the stairs only to be stopped by a muffled noise as he passed Krycek's door. Sticking his head in, he observed Krycek still asleep, but restless again. Resolved to just grab his stack of papers and come straight back up, he ducked into the closet, jogged down the stairs and burst onto the blue-lit scene of his hackers arguing over Langly's screen.

"Problem, guys?"

"Not if these no-talent wannabes would get out of my face," Langly snorted. "I'll get 'em sorted out in another few minutes."

Byers straightened and gave Mulder his usual unflappable look. "We've run into a minor glitch. It's nothing to be concerned about. Everything is fully backed up."

Mulder nodded. "Byers, I'm more concerned about the fact that you're still wearing a tie. Do you realize it's five of six in the morning and you've been up all night?"

Byers paused, as if pondering the question. "I do." His expression told Mulder he didn't follow the progression.

Mulder nodded again, bit back a smile and walked past them toward his precious piles. "Just checking. Where's the new stuff?"

"Here." Frohike pointed to a stack of paper without looking up from the page he was reading. "This is hot stuff, Mulder. Can we use some of this on the front page next month?"

"No. Not yet." Mulder grabbed the new stack and the subject case files he had left off with, juggling his glasses. As he walked by Frohike, he snapped the loose pages out of a black-gloved hand, shaking his head as the bared fingers chased the retreating paper. "You guys need to promise me nothing leaks until we figure out the best approach and how we're going to do it. You know the drill... move too fast and we alert Them, They do damage control and we're out of luck."

Two faces swiveled toward him, and Langly spun from his screen to complete the set. All bloodshot, tired eyes focused on him and the group smiled as one. A slow-blooming smile that breathed... confidence. "Not this time, my friend," Frohike said firmly. "Not this time. This time, They're out of luck."

Mulder couldn't help but return the smile, knowing all three were reading what they could as they went. "Still," he managed in a mostly-normal voice, "promise?"

"You're the man in charge," Langly spoke up as the others nodded. "This is your ballgame, dude. We'll watch your signals."

Heading for the door, he paused one last time and looked back. "Uh, guys, anything yet on-" He didn't need to finish. Once more as one, three heads turned, tilted, then shook a quiet negative. Nodding, he shifted his glorious burden. "Okay... well, then... thanks."

Langly cleared his throat. Frohike elbowed him sharply. Langly coughed again, harder. Byers rolled his eyes and sent a glare at the other two. Redirecting himself to Mulder, he spoke quietly. "What they, in their incredibly unsubtle way, are scuffling about is... well, we have found a block of files we can't access yet. They seem to be files that required more security access than the doctors who were working on the system when Krycek did the copying."

Langly jumped in excitedly. "They're more patient files, dude. If the filing system is anything to go by, and I'm telling you it is, from what we've seen so far of the way these Nazi-boys work, then they are definitely more patient files. And the wildest thing is they look like they're special families, if you get my drift, and-"

"And we really won't know if any of that is the case until after we get into them, if we do," Byers cut in again, more sharply than usual. Frohike rolled his eyes and muttered something unintelligible.

"I'll get in," Langly insisted.

"But until we do, we won't know," Byers repeated firmly. Turning back to Mulder he spread his hands. "We were arguing about how much to tell you. Frohike didn't think it would be worth mentioning until we knew what we had. Langly obviously thinks he knows what we have."

Mulder choked down the swell of nervous excitement that had crested at Langly's outburst. "And you?" he asked roughly.

"I-" Byers paused and cleared his throat. "I think I wouldn't get my hopes up. But I do think it's significant these files have extra protections on them." He tugged on his beard, frown lines appearing between his eyebrows. "And they do appear to be similar in structure to the patient files, indicating-" He cut himself off suddenly and shook his head. "We just won't know until we open them. I'm sorry, Mulder."

Mulder nodded, realizing suddenly that his palms were sweating. "Understood. And... thanks." Turning slowly up the stairs, he climbed and breathed in rhythm, trying to calm himself and keep from automatically going down the path their words had opened up. Special families... patient files...

Here be demons, his mind screamed. Back off back off back off. A patient file like the one on Alex Krycek, but on his Samantha? The very thought had every muscle in his body clenching. Could he read it if it was there? He would. He had to. If she had gone through it, he could at the very least read it. His stomach rolled at the thought and he forced himself to focus on Byers' final words. We just won't know until we open them.

At least Langly seemed confident he could open them. Granted, Langly was always confident, but still. Nothing to do but wait. Wait and see.

Wait and watch Alex Krycek, he corrected as he found himself in front of the closed bedroom door. He glanced back to the lighted bathroom, where he could hear muffled voices, one soothing, one harsh. He did not want to know. Shifting his armful of paper to fumble the doorknob, he pushed open the door with his shoulder, stepped into the room and froze.

The bed stood empty, the sheets glaringly white in the small pool of light from the bedside lamp.

Pure panic undershot with guilt swept over him. ::I was only gone a few minutes!:: But a few minutes was always all it ever took with Alex Krycek. Rage blossomed under the panic as his eyes raked the small room, already tensing and pressing his back to the wall, stupidly hugging his burden tighter rather than dropping it and reaching for his gun. ::Never should have given him those sweatpants!:: How did the bastard always do this to him? Just when-

A strangled whimper hit his ear in the same instant an awkward movement caught his eye. In the depths of a shadowed corner on the far side of the bed, tucked up between the dresser and the wall, he finally caught sight of Alex, curled up smaller than a six-foot man should reasonably be able to curl.

Immediately a wash of relief tempered by a good dose of foolishness flattened the fear and anger. "Krycek? What the hell are you doing?"

The balled up figure didn't respond, but continued to move restlessly. Almost completely hidden by the dresser as he was, Mulder couldn't see what he was doing, but the whimper grew in pitch and volume, letting him know that whatever it was, Krycek wasn't enjoying it. Crossing the room quickly, Mulder dumped his stacks on the dresser. "Krycek? Alex!" Dropping to one knee next to the oblivious man, Mulder reached out and laid a careful hand on the left shoulder, above the strange new growth that jerked reflexively with each move Alex made. "Alex, what's wrong? What are you doing on the floor?"

The shaking form gave no response, dark head bent and face pressed against the wall, away from Mulder. Alex's good hand dug madly at the wall he leaned against, his left arm moving in time even though there was no hand to dig with. Fingers scraped down the wall repeatedly, then balled into a fist and slammed the wall weakly. The keening dropped off, resolving into breathless gasps of "let me out, let me out". The pleading cadence caught Mulder full in the chest, and his hand tightened, shaking Alex harder than he'd intended. "Alex! Snap out of it!"

Whether it was the sharper voice or the shake, he finally got a response, as Alex's head whipped around and his entire body jerked back, scrabbling further into his corner. Even in the dim corner Mulder could see his face blank with terror, eyes rolling madly, sweat streaming down his temples.

"No... no, please, please let me out... please... I can't... please please... don't leave me..."

The broken, sobbing cry scared Mulder almost more than that face so completely devoid of sense. The voice was so... not Krycek. Before the last couple days, he'd heard the man growl, wheedle, whine, threaten, and sulk. He'd heard him cool, angry, passionate, scared... even desperate. But he'd never heard this tone. Releasing the terrified man completely, Mulder sat back, unsure what to do. Scully. Scully had been dealing with a delirious Alex... she would-

Be helping Skinner. Mulder groaned. The doctor already had a patient, and dammit, he could deal with this. Whacked out people were one of his specialties. He knew it was just that it was Alex Krycek that was throwing him. Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward again, only to feel a wave of disorienting dizziness sweep over him. "Shit!" Not now! Impatient and irritated, he pushed back at the now familiar sensation without even thinking. Krycek's mind was bound to be even more distracting than usual at the moment, and Mulder knew he needed to get control of this situation, not go on another magical mystery tour. To his surprise, his sixth sense responded to the mental shove, and subsided immediately. ::I really can control it? What I really need to do is sit down and spend some time working with it, figure out how and what...

::Not now!::

With another calming breath, he refocused and began speaking in a soothing voice. "Alex, Alex it's okay. You're all right. You're safe... You need to wake up, come on..." Reaching out carefully he again tried for Alex's left shoulder, attempting to avoid the new growth, not wanting to throw Alex into any old terrors surrounding that. But curled in on his right arm as Alex was, his right shoulder jammed into the corner, the left was all Mulder could reach.

His hand had barely connected, resting lightly on the healing bullet graze, when Alex redoubled his efforts to shrink away, his voice reaching new heights of strident panic. "NO! Don't! NO, nononono..." He twisted madly but there was nowhere to go in the corner he'd flattened himself in, the bureau boxing his large body in, Mulder blocking the only open spot, and the light. Hitting solid walls on either side drove his frenzy that much higher, and suddenly the long legs were striking out of their crumpled position, bony shin slamming Mulder's forearm.

"SON of a bitch!" Mulder exploded, rolling backwards with the pain, biting his lip. He guessed he should just count himself lucky Alex couldn't aim right now... the kick could have broken his elbow if it had connected the way it likely was meant to. He didn't feel particularly grateful as he rubbed his aching arm and pushed back up to his knees.

As soon as he focused on Alex's cowering form, clawing madly at the wall, his anger dissolved. Alex didn't need to wake up; he was awake. Fully awake and aware, just in a completely different reality.

"Don't leave me... let me out... please, please let me out..." His hand left the wall to scratch suddenly over his face. "No no... get it off..."

The whimpers came interspersed with hitching gasps, giving Mulder concern Alex would hyperventilate. Some calm part of Mulder's brain wondered clinically if he was dealing with a panic attack, a night terror, or alien-DNA-induced delirium. He supposed it didn't really matter, given his approach would be the same for any of them.

"Alex." This time he spoke louder, his voice firm, commanding rather than asking. "I need you to listen to me, concentrate on my voice. It's Mulder, and I'm right here beside you. Wherever you are, it's not real. I'm real and I'm right beside you. You're safe. It's not happening. You're safe. That's what's real. Can you hear me? You're safe, Alex. Listen to my voice. Concentrate on me. Come on back to me." He eased closer, trying to stay out of line of those legs, and twisted his body to allow the weak light from the small lamp to continue to fall on Alex. Avoiding the left side of Alex completely, he leaned against the wall and reached in, settling his hand gently over Alex's, stopping the frantic motions with slowly increasing pressure. "Come back. Come back to me. I'm right here. Right beside you. You're safe. Safe, Alex. Safe here with me. Scully's right next door. We're all here, you're okay, you're safe..." Keeping up the running litany, no matter how foolish he sounded, Mulder wrapped his fingers firmly around Alex's and tugged on the hand.

Alex's breathing stayed ragged, but his pleas dropped to a low murmur and his body stopped jerking. He stayed tense, his hand tugging back against Mulder's, but he didn't strike out again. Keeping his voice even and the cadence the same, Mulder repeated himself over and over, letting his other hand slowly come to join the first in cradling Alex's, chafing his fingers gently. He didn't want to grip the arm too tightly, especially after the way Alex had responded to the restraints earlier, but he also didn't want Alex taking a swing at him. He watched as the shaking man struggled to focus on him, the blank eyes all pupil. He took the chance of easing closer, his throat tightening at the sheer terror still evident on the pale, stricken face. The hand in his trembled, the fingers ice-cold, then suddenly spasmed tighter around his.

"Don't leave me, please don't leave me here..."

"I won't leave you, Alex. I won't. I promise. I'm right here and I'm not going anywhere. In fact come with me and I'll get you out. Stay with me, now." Mulder chanced tugging a little harder on Alex's arm, trying to draw him out of his wedged position, but the confused man struggled, his body tensing. Mulder firmed his voice and let one of his hands slide up Alex's arm to rub at his shoulder. "Come on, Alex. Follow my voice and I'll get you out of wherever you are. I promise I won't leave you, but you have to come to me."

"Muh... Mulder?" The shaky voice suddenly sounded more puzzled than scared. "You? Where..."

"That's right, it's Mulder. Come on now. Just follow my voice. You're just fine." Speaking matter-of-factly, Mulder used his grip on Alex's hand and shoulder to draw him forward, out of the corner, letting his arm slip around to Alex's back. Rubbing slow circles, he pulled the resisting body closer. "It's me, Alex. Let it go. You can let it all go. I've got you. Come back to me."

All at once, between one breath and the next, the stiff form stopped retreating and collapsed against him, squirming closer, wracked muscles relaxing as Alex sank into him, shuddering. Surprised at the suddenness of the capitulation, Mulder let go of the cold hand and reflexively circled his other arm around the man seemingly intent on burrowing into him. "Shhh, shh, it's okay. You're safe now. I won't leave you."

"Don't... don't leave me, please, I'm so sorry, just don't leave me, I can't... the dark... can't breathe..."

"Yes, yes you can, Alex. You can breathe. Breathe slow, Alex. You're with me. Stay with me." Keeping up the soothing rhythm on Alex's back, Mulder ignored the oddness of holding Alex Krycek in his arms. He felt the icy body press closer, Krycek's arm wrapping around his back, hand clutching his shoulder. The man was freezing, from the face tucked into his shoulder to the feet against his shins. "Christ, you're an icicle. We've got to get you off this floor." But any movement on Mulder's part sent more shudders racing through Alex, and made the hand on his shoulder dig in tighter.

"D-don't... please stay... stay..."

The broken voice rasped next to Mulder's ear desperately and he relaxed again, leaning against the wall. "Shhh... I'm not going anywhere, I just have to get you off the floor." Massaging the tense back, he tried again. "I won't let you go, I'll stay with you. We just need to move. I can't get you warm down here."

"Muh-move?"

"Move. Come on, let's try this again." Tightening his arms resolutely, he pressed his back against the wall and pushed off with his legs, dragging Alex up off the floor with him by pure force. The muscles in his back told him he'd regret that in a few hours, but he couldn't see another option. Alex swayed and clung, dizzy and obviously still disoriented. Locking his arms, Mulder took Alex's full weight and started for the bed. Stumbling and shaking, Krycek's movements were more hindrance than help, but at least they didn't have far to go.

Lowering his burden onto the bed caused another panicked flurry of hoarse protest and Mulder found himself climbing right onto the bed in instant reaction. "Right here, right beside you," he soothed as he slumped onto the mattress. "I'm not going anywhere. You're not alone." Settling himself against the head of the bed, he pushed and pulled Alex into some semblance of a comfortable position, snagging the ever-present quilt and tossing it over him. At least the big body was malleable for the moment, Mulder reflected, his bruised arm throbbing a protest as he wrapped both arms loosely around the shivering man. Krycek let himself be rearranged without complaint as long as Mulder didn't pull away too far.

It occurred to Mulder to wonder how Alex could take comfort from someone who had never been particularly comforting toward him, to put it mildly. He assumed it either arose from whatever severe disconnect with reality the man had going at the moment, or the fact that his dreams/delirium were bad enough that any port in a storm was better than being left alone with them.

Scary place to be, when the man who regularly smacked you around was a symbol of safety.

The thought came too close on the heels of his recent Krycek-introspections. He winced away from remembering the suffering he himself had inflicted on the man in his arms, then ground his teeth and forced himself to stop pushing it away. He had to stop. Stop depersonalizing, stop falling into the easy thought patterns, the same old assumptions, the mental games he played with himself. Taking a slow, deep breath, he released it and looked down at the dark head tucked against his chest.

A wry smile pulled at his lips. Snuggling. There was no other word for it. Alex Krycek snuggled up against him like a... pet. He still made soft, almost inaudible sounds of distress with every other raspy breath, but the shivers subsided slowly as the warmth of the quilt-plus-body-heat sank in. Dark lashes fluttered madly one moment, rested against pale cheeks in the next. Even as Mulder watched, the shadowed eyes jerked open again. Alex's breath stuttered, then steadied as his hand, caught under Mulder's shoulder, crumpled the shirt it gripped, reassuring himself of the second presence.

The feel of softness under his fingertips brought Mulder out of his study with a jerk. Staring at his own hand petting through Alex's hair, he blinked in surprise. He'd made no conscious decision to stroke the assassin, but now that his fingers whispered through the rumpled spikes, he found he couldn't stop. It felt... good. Too good. Alex seemed to like it, too. His face burrowed closer into Mulder's shirtfront with a soft murmur and his eye fluttered closed again. Mulder wondered exactly how aware Alex truly was. Somehow he doubted the man would ordinarily give such a telling response, and assumed accordingly that Alex must be still half out of it.

Hmmm. Half out of it...

His curiosity percolated. His fingers continued to sift the sweat damp hair as his mind sped up. Now that the situation was more or less under control, his brain ticked over the possibilities. A bit of an experiment, and a way to get a grip on what exactly was freaking Alex out, so he could calm him better.

He knew himself well enough to know this was nothing more than a convenient distraction from the pleasure he felt at holding Alex in his arms. He nodded an acknowledgement to the thought, and let his brain file it away. On with the experiment.

Relaxing his body and mind, he remembered the feel of the tilt his mind took when his consciousness opened up. Reaching for the feeling...

Nothing. He stared at the ceiling in vexation. This couldn't be that difficult. He thought carefully about the instances of occurrence. It hadn't happened since he'd gotten out of that... hospital or wherever they'd had him, when he'd been having those fevered dreams. Whatever they'd done to him there had apparently dampened it down but good. It hadn't reappeared until... Krycek.

He stared down at the pliant body huddled against his. His nose twitched. The panic reaction had certainly been activated by whatever dream Krycek had been lost in. He stunk of sweat. Now that the rush of adrenaline was past, Mulder wondered how he hadn't noticed before this. Without conscious thought he found himself deepening his breathing, letting the sharp acrid scent wash over and through him. The initial kneejerk distaste slid almost seamlessly into a desire for more... his head turned and dipped, his nose brushing Alex's hair as he rooted for another dose of the heady aroma. Suddenly very aware of the heavy warm weight of Alex's leg thrown over both of his under the quilt... thigh crooked across his own, crotch pressed against his hip...

The tingling in his groin told him he needed to rein in this line of thinking fast, but the scent of sweaty maleness - sweaty Alex - flooding through him overrode practicality. Alex. Scientifically he was perfectly aware of the connection of sense of smell to arousal. Likely, his stronger-than-usual reactions to Alex had always been somewhat based in how the man smelled. Romantics hated to boil attraction down to chemical reactions, but there you had it... the animal instinct was still so alive in the human consciousness. Nuzzling the spiky hair, he let his fingertips trace the edge of a slightly pointed ear, stroking down to the soft, rounded lobe. Something so sensual about earlobes, the plump fleshy feel, the sensitivity... to suck one in and roll it gently on the tongue, nibble then suck again...

Alex made a soft sound of contentment, arching his neck and moaning, his leg moving restlessly on top of Mulder's. Mulder jumped at the throaty sound, suddenly aware that his other hand had gone from resting reassuringly on Alex's back, to resting dangerously on his hip. Oh shit. Wincing, he stiffened and pulled back. This was most definitely not a good thing. Putting both hands flat on the bed, he tried to lever himself carefully out from under the sleeping form.

Immediately the body curled around him jerked. The leg wrapped around his, the arm tightened and tugged. A garbled protest reached Mulder's ears, but given the interest his dick was taking in the proceedings, full retreat seemed the only logical course of action. He tried to disentangle Alex's hand from his shirt, his other hand pressing back against Alex's chest. Between one instant and the next, Alex's face darkened back into the pained, scared expression. "No... please... don't leave me here... don't... alone..." His breathing quickened, his legs starting to thrash.

Unbidden, the memory of the first time he'd walked into Alex's dreams leapt into Mulder's mind. He remembered how his own face had loomed, shifting from lover to attacker in the blink of an eye. He knew firsthand how scrambled Alex's head was, how quickly the scene shifted and panic rose to envelop, how-

With a sickening wrench, the expansion of consciousness he'd been reaching for just moments ago thrust itself on him. The dizziness hit so fast and furious, he had just a moment to be thankful he was already horizontal. He knew without doubt this one would have knocked him on his ass. Then he was in the middle of the double-awareness, his own sense of being on the bed trying to move away from Alex, and the submerged sense of the surreal landscape that made up Alex Krycek's delirious or half-asleep mind, whichever the case might be this time around.

Fear

Dreaming, definitely... nightmares. Sheer terror pounded in his chest. The voice in Alex's head was a hollow, echoing cry, over and over. The cry bounced off walls that seemed to rise forever... thick black closed in from all sides, weak light falling in a tiny square patch on a dirt floor. Concrete, hard and rough on the hands, scraping, bleeding... and still they dug, slammed over and over into the walls, the door... his entire body flung itself against the walls, the pain of impact nothing compared to the screeching horror that insisted he get out of this room now...

"nonononononono"

Again, again, again... the pain, the jolts of impact, the fear made Mulder's - Alex's? - stomach churn with nausea, his muscles trembled and gave in to the creeping weakness. He slid down a wall, the concrete scraping his cheek raw... he licked at the blood flowing over his lips, tasting a greasy nastiness that made him wretch... tears mixing and dripping. Hysteria clawed in his throat, sobs ripping through his chest... "no... don't, can't... don't leave me here, please, I can't take it, can't breathe... please please..." The hoarse sobbing voice couldn't stop, even when he couldn't stand the sound himself anymore. He slammed his head against the wall in frustration and still the sobs came. "No... come back, come back... I don't want to die I don't want to die... not here... please... I don't want to die alone in the dark... don't leave me here with It..."

Mulder felt his head turn in the cold dark hollow place, the thought of It enough to draw his unwilling eyes back to a looming shape barely visible just feet away from him. The images flashed and warped... dual sensations of huddling against the wall, of crouching on the shape... ship... ship... the ship... oil, thick, cloying, crawling out of him by force, spewing and dripping and filling his throat, his eyes, releasing him. Hurting, raw and shaking and the taste, the thick hideous taste no way to get it off get it out of his mouth, off his body...

Struggling, fighting, back to his feet... pound on the wall, anything but think of the damp, oily feel of his clothes, his hair, the smell, the taste, the slickness of his skin, the sting in his eyes... beat at the concrete, breathe goddamn it try to breathe... ignore It. It hasn't come back out. It won't. Just ignore It. It doesn't want you anymore. "Let me out let me out let me out..."

Too intense, too much. Mulder gasped for breath, fighting the pull of Krycek's panic. It wasn't just a voice, it was full imagery, sensation. Only the knowledge that he'd never been in a silo with a ship kept Mulder from losing himself completely in the reality in Alex's head. The oil was familiar, the choking sensation. He had his own nightmares, he didn't need to live other people's. The knowledge that he could shut this down, that he'd done it before, drove him on and he forcefully flung himself back into the bedroom. His throat still felt tight and gritty, his eyes stung, his hands hurt... no... he was fine. On the bed.

Holding Alex.

Instinctively he wrapped his arms tighter around the weakly thrashing body, giving up all efforts to move away and falling right back into the nonsense cadence of soothing whispers. "You're safe, you're not alone, you're not there, you're here with me..." Stroking shoulders and back, cradling Alex carefully, he spoke directly into the ear he'd just been touching moments ago. "Let it go, Alex. It's over. You're not there. Let go of it."

Scully was right again, Mulder realized as Alex relaxed against him. The physical contact seemed to soothe him out of whatever hell his mind had dropped him into. As Alex calmed, Mulder found it easier to identify his own thoughts and feelings, and disentangle himself from Alex's mind. Those damn lashes fluttered and half-lifted, Alex's hazy gaze falling on Mulder without really focusing on him. Mulder sighed. "Are you with me here, Alex? Or still somewhere else?"

"Don't leave me here. Stay with me. Don't let It..." The slurred voice held a hint of the quaver from the sobs. Mulder peered into Alex's eyes in concern, wondering if he should call Scully after all. But Krycek curled back up against him and his breathing slowed. He supposed there was nothing that wrong with holding the man if it helped him get some rest. As long as he didn't need to get up to use the bathroom and bring about another panic-abandonment fit. And as long as he didn't let his hands wander away with his common sense and start copping a feel on the delirious criminal.

He groaned and flushed. His attraction to Alex was damned embarrassing. And now that he was thinking about it again, there it was... bright and solid and pulsing. Omnipresent, no matter how much he wanted to ignore it, deny it existed. Now he even smelled like Alex, given the way the assassin was half-sprawled over him, and the amount of tussling they'd been doing.

Would it never go away? It always slunk about, just below the surface, bursting out of control at the least provocation. Waiting and taunting. 'You want him.' Riding the very air whenever Krycek was near.

You want him.

Not 'you wanted him.' Not even the grace to be past tense. No amount of dirt could tarnish the man enough to destroy the wanting. The more smudged he became, the more dangerous and disastrous, the sharper the want got... the more it knifed in under the ribs and twisted, twisted.

Think about something else. Anything else, rather than... how warm... his body is.

His father. The usual way to quash uncomfortable Krycek moments. Grabbing the image with a feeling of purely personal panic, Mulder caught and held it like a shield to stave off the confusion roiling through him. Purposely calling up pain to fight pain, he flashed through his feelings on his father's death. Holding him in that bathroom, watching all chance of hearing explanations from his father's lips... acceptance, forgiveness from his father... die with him. The grief and the anger swelling, eclipsing everything.

His psychology training told him how common the anger was for this sort of situation. Told him the death could be even more traumatic in light of his troubled, conflicted relationship with his father. If anyone else had lost an estranged parent, he would have been able to delineate the stages and responses for them without even referring to a textbook. Unfortunately, the awkward feelings were a little too close to home to get that kind of perspective on them, in himself. Sadness at the loss, but mostly at the loss of what could have been. Guilt over the estrangement, the long bitter silences, the disappointments, the unspoken blame. The cutting glares and the cold words. Anger... at his father, himself, his mother, at the lack of resolution, at the loss of any hope for resolution... at the lies. The lies and the lies and the lies. The culpability, never acknowledged. Worst of all, the numbness. Inappropriate numbness wrapping him in layers of distance he didn't want. Guilt that he didn't feel more, guilt over the perceived lack in himself. He couldn't feel what he thought he ought to feel. His grief was twisted and ugly, and he didn't like what it said about him.

All of it channeled right back into anger again. Rage. Rage at the catalyst, the damned catalyst who took away any hope of ever bridging the distance, ever getting back any kind of real relationship with his father. The catalyst who so clearly represented the organization that took his sister from him, took his father from him the first time. All the anger at his father, shifted neatly over to his killer.

Anger was easier than empty. It was his father, for fuck's sake. How could he feel so... empty?

The hand stroking Alex's head felt wet, and he looked down, startled. Tears dripped unheeded down his face and fell into the soft dark hair. Stroking his father's killer, crying for his own lack of feeling. He closed his eyes and swallowed against the knot in his throat. Dear old dad. Not the right diversionary tactic for the moment, obviously. It was too much too soon. Too soon after his mental wrangling with Alex's humanity. Too soon after hearing Alex accuse his father of knowing what Mulder feared he may have known.

::It couldn't be true. He wouldn't have done that. Wouldn't have left her... there. Wherever. Wouldn't have blamed me for it...:: The questions of paternity that never got settled completely to his satisfaction rose to jab at him anew. Was it easier to sell out a child you suspected wasn't your own? When you suspected who her father might be...? Lies. Spender could have told Alex anything, it didn't mean it was true. Hell, he tried to convince himself, the fact that it came out of Krycek's mouth alone made it almost guaranteed to be three kinds of misleading if not outright false.

And yet. Folders with the wrong name... the neatly typed label peeling back to show original intent. What sort of last-minute shuffle had been made? What sort of decision making process had these people been involved with, and... how could they? How the hell could they? Tears ran harder and faster and Mulder felt his hand tighten in Alex's hair, gripping not to hurt but to give himself something to hold onto. He couldn't draw air through his clogged throat. Snuffling, he tilted his face into Alex's hair, squeezing his eyes shut. His arms clutched tighter, as if Alex's sleeping form could somehow give comfort back.

::Agent Mulder, you are one fucked-up sorry sonofabitch. Cuddling with your father's assassin because you don't know how to grieve the man... don't know what to feel... not to mention fondling said assassin's ear while he's out to lunch because you've got a hard-on for him that just won't quit.::

On the other hand, this sort of experience could almost be called par for the course in his life. Mulder choked back a hysterical laugh and let himself cry silently into Alex's hair. The restless body stirred at his least sound of distress, and pressed closer.


Scully rubbed at her eyes and tiptoed out of the living room. Sleep felt like a distant memory that belonged in a different life. What came next? Her tired mind struggled to figure out what she was supposed to do next. She'd taken care of the patient, Walter was finally resting comfortably. But wait, there was another patient...

Oh damn. Realizing she'd left Krycek alone much longer than she'd intended... again... she walked straight for his room, opening the door and jerking to a stop at the sight greeting her eyes.

Mulder rested against the headboard, staring up at her dully, eyes red and swollen, face splotchy. The confused, lost look on his face made her heart ache. "Mulder?"

"Shhh..." He lifted a finger to his lips and then pointed at the man huddled next to him. "He's finally sleeping," he whispered. "Really sleeping. At least I think he is. Either that or he finally passed out."

"Passed out?" Scully pitched her voice as low as his, coming closer to peer at Alex's lax face. He looked fully asleep and peaceful for the first time. Something wary and hostile tugged at Scully's chest as she stared at the way he had wrapped himself around Mulder.

"He had some sort of attack," Mulder was explaining, oblivious to her reaction. "I came in, and he was... was... clawing the wall. He was having some kind of flashback. I wasn't sure if he was dreaming or what, but he was totally out of it. It had to be a spell of that delirium you were talking about. He seemed like he woke up a couple times, but he still didn't seem to know where he was, or what was going on." ::And he wouldn't let go of me.:: Mulder chose not to let the last thought out of his mouth.

Scully reached out and touched Alex's forehead and his cheeks. "He feels better. Temperature is good. The body heat must be helping." She let her eyes skim over the way Alex lay draped half on top of Mulder.

He flushed. "I was trying to calm him down... he kicked me," he sputtered.

Scully blinked. "Are you okay?"

"Yes. Well, he got me a good one but it's not bad. He was too far gone to be too accurate. Scully, if you had to deal with him like this for all that time you were together... Christ, it must have been worse than I thought."

She fought a yawn and rubbed her neck. "He was in and out. When he was mentally present, he functioned perfectly well, like nothing was wrong. Problem was I never knew when he was going to slip." Her brows creased and she stared at him thoughtfully. "I don't like it. I don't like the way it just slips up on him, drags him down. It says something about what's going on with him at a cellular level. This... whatever-it-is they injected him with, it's obviously still causing these effects and he's off the regimen. I was hoping the delirium would subside the longer he went without the injections."

Mulder nodded absently. "Nothing about this is going to be predictable, I bet."

"Good bet," Scully sighed. She reached out and touched Mulder's shoulder. "Are you... okay?"

He gave her a half smile. "Yeah, I'll be fine. I was just... I got thinking about... things." He snuffed and stared at the opposite wall. "My... my dad. Everything." He looked down at Krycek and then up at Scully. "This is weird."

Relief flowed over her and she smiled. "It looks a little weird. You want to get up?"

Flushing again, he shrugged. "I didn't know what else to do. He was going nuts. He didn't want to be left alone." A pained look flashed over his face. "Scully, he's got more horror stories locked up in that head than I do. And that's saying something."

She nodded slowly. His analysis confirmed her own. "He hasn't led a boring life. That's for sure."

"It just seems weird to... to feel for him."

Sitting down on the edge of the bed, she nodded again. "I know. If it helps, I'm feeling the exact same way."

Mulder swallowed hard. He sincerely hoped she didn't feel the exact same way he did.

"But I think it's only human, Mulder. We're seeing more of him than we ever have before. We're... well, we're being open-minded." She gave him a small smile, once again relieved when his lips curled up in response.

"That's it. Open-minded. I can live with that," he whispered. Glancing down at Krycek and then back at Scully, he wiggled his fingers. "But my arm is falling asleep. Scratch that. It's been asleep for I don't know how long."

Shaking her head in exasperation, she stood and helped Mulder ease Krycek over and away. The slightest movement had him reaching for Mulder, fingers grasping and mouth opening on a protest, forehead wrinkling. But the deeper sleep held, and Mulder managed to roll off the bed without creating a panic attack. Krycek made a small noise and buried his face in the pillow Mulder had leaned against. The snuffling way his face moved against the pillowcase reminded Mulder uncomfortably of his own earlier impulse to root for the scent of Krycek. Feeling heat rise in his cheeks, Mulder turned away to pick up his research from the bureau. Dealing with Krycek, thinking about his father, breaking down... it had all sapped the energy he'd been feeling, and now all he wanted was to curl up and shut down. Turning back to Scully he noticed her examining Krycek's hand, now hugging the pillow as tightly as he had hugged Mulder.

"It's better already," he murmured, looking at the bruised and bloodied knuckles. The scrapes and splits in the skin had already scabbed over; the bruising was clear but lighter than he would have expected.

Scully gave him a sharp look. "What the hell was he doing?" she whispered back, moving his fingers carefully.

Mulder shrugged. "Trying to claw through a concrete wall. The bedroom wall wasn't as hard on the skin as the concrete, but he managed to do quite a number on it." He pointed to the dark smears of dried blood on the wall where Alex had crouched. "He was trying to get out of the silo. Remember, in North Dakota? They left him there, Scully. Left him there to die. Locked him in there in the dark with the alien and its ship." Uneasy memories of being in Alex's mind coursed through him, the terror and the hopelessness clenching at his stomach.

"Good God," Scully breathed, gently laying the hand back against the pillow.

"How's Skinner feeling?"

"Better," she answered, turning and walking for the door. "He's sleeping quietly finally. I stayed and made sure this time. I think he may be over the worst of it. Or should I say I don't see how his body could have any poison left to get rid of. I need some sleep, Mulder, and you look like you're ready to drop. But I can't wake him up now that he's finally comfortable. How are the guys?"

Mulder smiled briefly. "I'll go down and see, but last I talked to them, they were doing fine. We've been 'on' a bit longer than they have, you know? What with the cumulative stress and all."

She followed him to the door. "Let's go enlist them, then. I'm not going to be any good to anybody if I fall over on my face." She let Mulder round them up from downstairs while she splashed water on her face and brushed her teeth in the bathroom. Entering the kitchen, she saw the weak light of dawn finally starting to break outside the window.

Frohike downed the last of yet another coffee, and extended a hand to Scully when she came to rest against the table, yawning. "Hot Pocket?"

"Excuse me?" she turned to him with a wide-eyed, affronted look.

"You look like you could use some energy. Want a Hot Pocket? Ham and cheese."

Scully stared at the steaming mess wrapped in a napkin, swallowed hard, and shook her head. "No. No, I... don't think so."

"You sure? They only take a second in the microwave." He waved at Langly, across the room punching buttons on the microwave, the bright yellow box still in hand.

The smell alone was making her slightly ill. Pink chunks of ham stuck up out of what looked like heated Cheez Whiz. "No, just sleep. That's what I need."

"We have the matter in hand, Agent Scully," Byers spoke up from where he sat at the table, sipping his coffee. "Mulder explained. They're both asleep, and we should watch them both. Wake you or Mulder if they stir. We're on it."

"Okay then. Good night. Er... good morning. Whatever." She turned on heel and left the room, going immediately to her bedroom. She didn't know where Mulder was going to settle down, and she didn't care. Let him go back to curling up with Krycek, she thought as she crawled under the covers.

No, wait, scratch that. Dangerous thought.

She groaned and settled against the pillows, her mind taking three steps to the left and finding... Walter there. A small smile curved her mouth as she thought of his resistance to her active participation in helping him when he was so ill. Granted, his body's reaction to the nano-war being waged inside of it did have the embarrassing cast of a bad case of the stomach flu. But still... as if she, who sliced up rotting corpses and got up close and personal with all manner of disgusting phenomena, would be put off by it. She laughed softly, and was still smiling as she drifted off.


"So you got it? You call one of us, immediately. I don't care if we are asleep. Call me before Scully. She needs the sleep more."

"Are you sure? You look about ready to drop, man."

"I'm fine."

Langly gave him a dubious look, but dropped the subject and turned back to his food. Frohike nodded and waved Mulder off. "Go sleep. We know what to do. Skinner will be fine."

Mulder sighed and glanced around at the three of them. He couldn't very well say he was just as concerned about Alex as he was about Skinner. He could barely say it to himself, he sure as hell couldn't say it to them. But what if... what if he fell into another of those dreams? Got lost in the horror again...

They'd call him. They said they would, and they would.

Forcing himself to walk out of the kitchen worked, but he couldn't quite get himself past Alex's room. He poked his head in, and noticed with a sinking sensation in his chest that Alex was restless again. Glancing back at the kitchen door, he slipped into the room and over to the bed. Leaning over the twisting figure, he pressed his hand to Alex's forehead as he had watched Scully do.

"Shhh, shh Alex, it's alright. I'm right here." He kept his voice soft, but the eyes fluttered and the head jerked under his hand. Lashes lifted to halfmast, giving the impression the lids just couldn't handle lifting their luxurious weight any further.

"Mmm... Mulder?" The voice came quizzical and muzzy. "Wha-"

"Yeah, it's me, Alex. Just relax." He fell into the same cadence, crooning gently, fingers soothing. "You're safe. I won't leave you alone. You're here with us and we won't leave you." He stroked the high forehead and shivered at the remembered images of the silo. "You're not there. You won't die alone in the dark. You're not alone."

Alex blinked up at him sleepily and a soft smile twitched at his lips. Mulder felt a frisson of unease. Something... something was off, different... what...

"Okay," Alex sighed happily, pressing into Mulder's touch. "Thanks, Mulder," he mumbled, eyes falling closed, burrowing back down into the pillow. Immediately his breathing had deepened and he was asleep again.

Mulder stepped back from the bed, wondering what was tugging at his brain. Something... he blinked as he realized Alex's eyes had focused on him. Really focused. The delirium had slid away, Alex had actually woken up this time.

And Mulder had just as much as told him he knew exactly what he'd been dreaming. He winced, suddenly feeling flustered. He'd hoped to keep his 'condition' to himself a while longer, and he certainly hadn't intended to give it away to Krycek that he had an in into the man's thoughts and feelings.

Biting his lip, he walked out of the room, careful to leave the door partway open. He made his way to the smaller room off the other side of the living room. Stocked with stereo equipment and a smaller TV, he'd immediately taken a liking to it. It had a couch and the potential for white noise, more than enough to keep him happy. Flopping onto his back, he contemplated the chances that Krycek would remember this interaction later, and if he did, if he'd put two and two together to get five.

Hoping he'd write it off to a remnant of his dreams or forget it altogether, or at least completely miss the significance, Mulder turned on the TV and closed his eyes.


Somewhere in the wilds of North Carolina January 28th
1:12 p.m.

Something was wrong with his arm and it was really loud. Skinner tried to move it, to get it to shut up, but it didn't respond. He exerted a superhuman effort and rolled over and...

Woke up. Blinking owlishly, he stared around the bright room and came into full consciousness. His arm was asleep. As was Frohike, in a reclining armchair that had seen better days, snoring loudly. Skinner rearranged his limbs sluggishly, sat up, and shook out his numb arm, waiting for the tingle. The angle of the sun... it had to be afternoon. He rubbed at his eyes and leaned over to find his glasses, the previous night flooding back all at once.

Well. It would be afternoon, wouldn't it? Over the course of the night, he estimated he'd had maybe a total of two hours of sleep, all in little snips and snatches. He got his glasses on and glanced at his prickling arm. His heart gave a leap at the slightly swollen look to the veins of his forearm. He turned his hand over, spreading the other one out beside it. Used to the prominence of his veins from his weight work, he stared at them carefully, trying to gauge if they were indeed swollen, or if he was imagining things. He ran his fingers over his throat; pushed back the blanket and studied his chest, his thighs.

No darkening. No discoloration at all. Just... puffy. A little puffy. He drew in a slow breath, letting his adrenaline rush slow down and trying to get a sense of how he felt...

Blinking in the bright sun, he realized he felt... not bad.

Well, not bad, considering. He had a bitch of a headache, his stomach muscles ached, his throat felt raw, he felt sickeningly empty, but... no pain of the sort he had felt so many times before. No shortness of breath, no dizziness, no stabbing pain, no pounding in his arteries, no collapsing sense of weakness.

So far so good. He swung his legs out of bed and stood carefully. Everything seemed to be working quite well, actually. If he didn't feel like he'd just gotten over a stomach bug, he'd feel damn good. Maybe it was psychological, he reasoned, given he was hopeful that he really had been spewing out the poison all night, and that the little machines had degraded inside him, secreting from his body like so much unneeded waste. Whether it was psychological or physiological, as he took a deep breath and felt his lungs work, he decided he liked it.

Moving quietly past Frohike, he noticed that the man had been reading. He was covered with an unraveling pile of computer print out. He listened past Frohike's snoring for other sounds of alertness anywhere in the house. Scully's door was closed. Krycek's was half-open, but no sound issued forth. From across the living room, the muted sound of a television could be heard from the little room. A quiet clinking in the kitchen. That was all.

Unable to still the lawman inside, he stepped to the gaping door and stuck his head in, checking on their ostensible prisoner. The quilts on the bed looked as if sleep had been anything but restful, but Krycek was present and accounted for, sleeping in the tangle of bedding, still looking as worn out as he had when Skinner shook him awake yesterday evening. Skinner wondered absently if it was a sign of how much was going on in Krycek's body that no matter how much he slept, he didn't seem rested. A flash of sympathy ran through him, followed by a lingering echo of a cramp in his gut, reminiscent of his night from hell.

Sighing, he pulled back from the small room and moved on to the bathroom, working through his morning routine... just a few hours off. Shaving with the razor from his travel pack, he realized that along with clothes, they'd also neglected to bring anything for Krycek. He didn't seem to be suffering the lack of a razor at the moment, but eventually he'd probably need one. He supposed he could loan one to the cause, or perhaps Mulder's friends could do a little shopping on their next outing.

Leaning in to study his reflection in the mirror, he reckoned his veins were indeed a little puffy. He wasn't imagining it. But he continued to feel alert and pain-free, and even touching the more prominent veins didn't bring about any discomfort. He wondered at the make up of whatever-it-was spreading through his bloodstream now, supposedly ridding him of the threat. Would it leave something else behind in its wake?

He sighed and straightened. Only time would tell, he supposed. He'd committed to this course of action, and could only take one step at a time. The fact that he'd experienced no attack like that brought on by the nanocytes was encouraging, and he would concentrate on that.

Finishing in the bathroom, he followed the smell of fresh coffee into the kitchen. Langly turned as he entered, lifting a hand in greeting, then pointing to the coffeepot. Skinner nodded with a smile, glancing at Byers, asleep on the kitchen table, head laying flat on a ream of computer printout much like Frohike's.

"Some help they are," Langly muttered as Skinner settled at the table across from him. "I figured they needed the sleep so I left 'em when they dozed off."

Skinner nodded again, wondering if Langly had really been awake the entire time, or if he was just covering for his own lapse into sleep. His blonde hair looked thoroughly mussed, but that didn't give any indication one way or the other. His eyes were red-rimmed and squinty, but that too could go either way. He supposed that given Krycek hadn't made a break for it yet, they didn't have to be overly concerned. Still, he didn't like this slapdash approach to keeping an eye on the man.

Langly squinted at him. "How you feeling?" he asked dubiously.

"Not bad, actually. Better than I was, for sure." Skinner lifted one hand self-consciously to his face and throat. "I'm experiencing no pain."

"Good. You know, you sure you should be drinking coffee, dude?" Langly didn't move his chin from its propped position on his hand and Skinner revised his opinion, guessing that the hacker had indeed stayed awake straight through.

He looked down at the mug in his hand and reconsidered. Likely not the best thing to put down on his stomach. "Good point." He leaned down and let himself enjoy the rich smell before pushing the mug away and getting up again, tracking down the bread for toast, and one of the sport drinks Scully had originally purchased for Krycek.

Langly picked up the untouched mug and moved it directly in front of Byers' nose. While he waited for his toast to pop up, Skinner amused himself watching the bearded man's nose twitch, his face scrunching against the crumpled paper under his cheek. When he sat down again, he let his plate hit the table a little harder than necessary, and Byers sat bolt upright.

"Morning," Skinner said cheerfully as Byers blinked and stammered. "Or rather... afternoon."

"Pitiful, dude," Langly drawled, giving Byers a superior look. "You're pitiful. And Mel's out there totally sacked. Good thing one of us has some stamina."

Byers gave him a dirty look and reached automatically to straighten his tie, rebutton his shirt collar. "Assistant Director," he nodded at Skinner formally, ignorant of the tufts of brown hair sticking straight up on the left side of his head. "You look... well, considering. Are you better?"

"Byers," Skinner returned the nod. "I'm feeling better, yes. Coffee?" He pointed to his abandoned mug, then took a rueful sip of the bright yellow beverage in his plastic bottle. ::Oh joy. Nothing like the smell of Gatorade in the morning.:: To take his mind off it, he returned his attention to his breakfast mates. "So tell me, gentlemen. This place of yours. Incredible. Such an isolated spot... there must be some good place to go fishing near here, yes?"

Two heads swiveled to face him blankly, staring at him as if he'd just offered a breakfast blessing in Swahili. Langly's face took on a shade of horror. "F-f-fish?" he finally managed to spit out.

"There's a small lake a few miles that way," came a rough voice as the door swung open. Frohike dragged in, rubbing his face with one hand, the other outstretched and pointing off into the distance over the sink. "And there's a fishing pole around here... somewhere... if you want to use it. Feel free to dig it out." Byers and Langly transferred their stare from Skinner to Frohike. "What?" he snapped, slouching to the coffeepot. "It's a perfectly respectable hobby. Just because no circuitry is involved."

"Do you at least use some form of... of... electronic echolocation device to assist in ascertaining prospective spots from which to... fish?" Byers asked, in the tone of one expecting the worst.

Frohike stared at him over a coffee mug for a moment then leaned forward and said distinctly, "No. That would take all the fun out of it."

Skinner choked into his Gatorade while Byers and Langly traded identical looks of shocked concern. Rising from the table with a murmur about fresh air, Skinner beat a hasty retreat and headed for the porch, chuckling. Three voices raised in chorus behind him, reminding him to disarm the door before going outside. He paused just long enough to key the code into the security system, then walked outside into the crisp, chilly air.

Breathing deeply and looking around at the miles of silent woods, he smiled. Things could definitely be worse. Not even the taste of the Gatorade could ruin his mood. Sipping, watching a bird watching him from the closest tree, he found himself wondering if Dana Scully had ever done any fishing.


1:38 p.m.

Scully rolled over and discovered that while her bedroom window would be no trouble if she stayed on her normal schedule, sleeping until after one p.m. would require closing the blinds. Which she hadn't done. She blinked and squinted in the full afternoon sun streaming in the west-facing window. Made the bed nice and toasty, though. Sighing, she cuddled under the covers for another few minutes before noticing the smell that had undoubtedly dragged her up through the layers of unconsciousness...

Coffee.

Reckoning the Gunmen were better faced dressed, she put off the heaven of that first sip. Rolling out of bed, she dragged out jeans and sweatshirt from her bag, and headed for the bathroom, noting as she went that the sofa bed was empty. She hoped that was a good sign, particularly since the bathroom was vacant as well.

The shower was almost as good as coffee, and she spent the extra time to resoap her hair, luxuriating in the smell of spicy pumpkin. Her mother searched out and bought her the most unusual little shampoos and toiletries, all in miniature, perfect for packing into the travel kit Mulder had brought along with her suitcase. She had an entire drawer full of fancy, travel-sized items to choose from. It was an endearing habit Maggie had gotten into that she truly appreciated, since she was forced to travel so frequently. The current find was a three-in-one shampoo/conditioner and bodywash named Pumpkin Pie of all things. And it smelled delicious.

Her hunger peaked, she finished up, dressed, and headed straight for the kitchen. And almost made it. The doctor in her reasserted control before she got there, and she swung back around and poked her head into Alex's room. Blankets hung half off the bed in a tangled mess, but he appeared to be sleeping. Soundly. She walked far enough into the room to get a good look at the regular rise and fall of his chest, the laxness of his face and muscles. Nodding in satisfaction, she gave herself permission to caffeinate, closing his door behind her.

The kitchen welcomed her with smells of toast and... grilled cheese? Grilled cheese. She walked into a fight between Langly and Frohike over the addition of tomato. Frohike for, Langly against anything that might possibly shade a grilled cheese even a hairs-breadth closer to healthy.

"It's a tomato, ferchrissake."

"Geeze Melv, first fish, now vegetables in the grilled cheese... I just don't know who you are anymore."

Scully paused in pouring her coffee. "Tell me you weren't debating putting fish in grilled cheese?"

"A tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable."

"It's a vegetable."

"Fruit."

"VEGETABLE."

Byers cut in. "Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit. It has fleshy pulp surrounding seeds. Horticulturally speaking, however, the tomato plant is a vegetable plant. It's an annual, and nonwoody. From a horticulture perspective, most fruits grow on woody plants. Well, except strawberries."

Langly and Frohike both stared at him. Scully joined them. Finally she spoke up, unable to resist. "Which means the verdict is?"

Byers sighed and ran a smoothing hand over his beard, an odd gesture considering the state of his hair. "Well, in 1893, the United States Supreme Court ruled the tomato was a vegetable, and therefore subject to import taxes. The suit was brought by a consortium of growers who wanted it declared a vegetable to protect US crop development and prices. Fruits, at that time, weren't subject to import taxes and foreign countries could flood the market with lower priced produce. At least, that's the official story the US courts would have us believe. On the contrary, however-"

Scully lifted a hand quickly, unable to stomach tomato-conspiracy first thing in the morning. Afternoon. Whatever. "Where's Wa-Skinner?"

"I think he went out for some air," Langly offered. "Either that or he went fishing," he added, the final word delivered with a sneer at Frohike. Scully nodded and headed out, coffee in hand. "Don't forget to check the alarm," three voices chorused as the door swung behind her.

Walking up to the touchpad, she ascertained it was already deactivated and pushed out the front door. Skinner - Walter - turned as the door opened, and the smile that broke across his face sent a pulse of warmth through her chest. "Morning," she murmured, with a return smile she hoped conveyed equal measures warmth and invitation. "I'm going to take this as a good sign?"

Sucking in a deep breath, he nodded. "I feel... good. No pain, no dizziness. Look at this, though." He held out his arm and pulled back his shirtsleeve.

Stepping over and setting her coffee on the porch railing, she caught his arm and inspected his inner forearm carefully. Feeling over the slightly raised veins, she checked his pulse at his wrist, then raised her attention to his throat, still holding his arm with one hand while she caught his chin with the other. Turning his face one way, then the other, her medical gaze missed nothing. "Slightly distended," she murmured as she ran cool fingers over his carotid artery, feeling the steady pulse of his blood. "But no discoloration."

"I know, that's the first thing I thought, too. Before... it's always looked like almost instant bruising when it was the nano attacks."

"Mmm." She felt his vocal chords thrumming against her fingers, the warmth of his skin even in the cool air. From one instant to the next, her awareness melted from doctor to woman, and suddenly she was conscious of how close they stood, the intimacy of her touch on his throat, the way she still cradled his arm. The smell of soap and shaving cream filled her nose. Touching him was one thing when he lay in his sick bed in the half dark, or staggered to the white light of the bathroom. Here, like this, was different. The afternoon sun, the crisp air... him, steady and solid before her in jeans and a buttery yellow shirt...

Her fingers at his throat relaxed and curled, her palm pressing fully against his skin, soaking in the warmth. Her head tilted back, up, until she could look him full in the face. So near, so silent... he was barely breathing, and she knew the shift in awareness filled him as well. Her hand on his forearm slid down to his hand, her fingers spreading and shifting, linking with his and the meld seemed so right, so natural. One shaky indrawn breath and he was tilting his head down toward her, she was rising on her toes, lips reaching and brushing and eyes sliding closed.

The dulled clatter of a pan in the kitchen broke them apart, and she stepped back, releasing him completely, wide-eyed and startled. A bird let loose a hoarse cry and flew from a nearby tree across the lawn as they stared at each other.

"Agent Scully," he started, only to catch himself. "Ah... Dana... I, I didn't mean-"

"No." She lifted her hand and smiled, anxious to let him know it was all right. "Please. Don't apologize."

His smile reappeared, wider. "I wasn't going to. I'm not... sorry."

She flushed at his words, and the warmth in her chest expanded even as her nipples tightened, gentle excitement and the chill air drawing them into hard buds under her sweatshirt and bra, making her uncomfortably aware of her body. "Oh," she paused, at a momentary loss.

"I only meant to say... I don't want to push you, or presume. I didn't expect... that was rather sudden. And... well. We haven't talked or..." he trailed off.

His uncertain response pleased her somehow, and she found herself returning to the role of reassurance easily. "I understand." She smiled slowly, and reaching out, caught his fingers in hers. "And I'm glad you're not sorry."

Squeezing her fingers, he ducked his head a bit. "So, perhaps we should... talk?"

"I-I'd... love to," she stammered, then glanced at the house. "Preferably not within hearing distance of any of that crew."

His laugh startled her, and she had to take a moment to wonder when she'd last heard him laugh. "Agreed," he stated firmly. "Perhaps later, a walk?"

She nodded. "I'd like that. I think we could both use a bit of air. And I'm so glad you're feeling so much better."

"Me too," he muttered fervently. "What do you make of the swelling? Of the veins," he added hurriedly, his face flushing.

Ignoring any other possible interpretation, and stamping down even the slightest urge to smile for fear of embarrassing him further, she forced herself back to doctor-mode. "I'm not sure, but the lack of discoloration has to be a good sign. And the fact that you're feeling no other ill effects. You said no pain... nothing else?"

"Nothing aside from the usual repercussions of throwing up all night."

"Excellent. And according to Alex, your reactions to the neutralizer are in keeping with clinical expectations. All in all I'd say this is an excellent start."

"When will we know for sure... how will we know for sure?"

"Blood test," she reassured him simply. "I know what I'm looking for, and I'll also be able to look for any anomalies caused by the new compound. We should take a few more samples to return with the Gunmen with Krycek's samples. I can take a look here, but I want full lab analysis. I don't want to miss anything."

Another clatter from the kitchen had their hands jerking apart as each took a simultaneous jump back. Exchanging an embarrassed glance, Skinner returned to his Gatorade and Scully picked up her cooling coffee. "We should probably-" he started.

"Go on in," she finished, staring out over the yard studiously. "Get that sample taken. Get the guys out of here. I want results as soon as possible."

"Alright then," he straightened and turned for the door. "Shall we?" He gestured with one arm that she should precede him.

With a final shared smile, she moved back through the door, appreciating the warmth that washed over her as the door shut behind them. She glanced back at the sound of muted beeping, to see Skinner resetting the alarm.

"I know you don't think he has any plans to skip out," he said as he turned and caught her watching him, "but we haven't been anywhere near as careful as we should be. I want to at least keep this thing activated."

She nodded as she headed back to the kitchen to drop off her mug. "No argument here," she tossed back over her shoulder. "I don't believe he's going anywhere, but... no gambling when it comes to Alex Krycek."

Frohike stood in the kitchen, rinsing the dishes they had used for lunch. Byers and Langly were nowhere in sight. "Down in the basement," Frohike reported. "Back on the data."

"Are we going to be able to tear you three away from it to send you back into DC with the lab samples?" she asked.

"Oh yeah," he answered readily. "We can take some of it with us, and besides, we need to get some equipment back to its proper place. We're on a bit of a schedule, if you get my drift?"

"Of course. And I so don't want details," she said as she retrieved the cooler from the refrigerator and the tray of Krycek's samples from the freezer. "I'm going to get a couple of vials of Skinner's blood to go with these, then I'm set."

Drying his hands on a dishtowel, he left the remaining dishes. "Might as well follow you down, make sure everything's packed up to go. We can get started as soon as we're loaded up. They're just dragging this out because Langly hasn't cracked one block of files he's after and his pride can't leave it alone."

Back through the closet and down the stairs, Scully led Skinner to the chair she'd had Alex in the previous day, and plucked out a new set of rubber gloves. Frohike gave the other two their marching orders, and the three started picking up what they would be bringing back with them. All three paused to watch as the hollow needle slipped into a vein, and the glass vials filled. Skinner gave them a hard look, and they returned to shuffling papers, copying files, and shutting off computers. Scully carefully labeled the new vials, and packed all but one up with Krycek's samples in the small cooler.

"You guys know how to contact Chuck?" she asked as she wrote out directions to the lab she wanted them to use, and then wrote a separate letter of instructions to be delivered with the vials to her contact there.

"Got it covered," Frohike answered, even as Byers and Langly both chimed in with automatic affirmatives. Scully wondered if all of Mulder's 'circle' knew each other anyway, then decided she really didn't want to know. Visions of them all drinking eggnog, surrounding a pine tree decorated with old floppy disks and arguing conspiracy theories at the annual Paranoia Holiday Gathering played out in the back of her mind.

"Then you're ready. And go wake up Mulder to help you lug that thing upstairs. I told him it was his turn."

"I'll help," offered Skinner, already getting into position to help jockey the portable xray machine back up the stairs.

"Careful, you just had blood drawn," Scully protested, but the machine was already on its way, and she rolled her eyes, muttering "men." She followed them up the stairs, ordering Skinner to leave the machine in the living room and make Mulder help take it out to the van. He complied with a small smile in her direction that brought an unaccountable heat to her cheeks.

The thumps and bangs brought a rumpled, half-awake Mulder stumbling out of the small tv room before any of them had a chance to roust him. After the expected yawning, good-natured protests, he got his sneakers on and clumsily helped haul the xray machine out to the van. Seeing the guys packed up and onto the road with appropriate cautionary insistences lasted until Langly started dozing in the passenger seat and Frohike tapped his watch impatiently.

"We know how to do careful, Mulder," he grumbled, and Scully took her cue to drag Mulder back up onto the porch by the back of his collar, telling him he was going to get sick standing around outside in January in just a shirt.

"You were wandering around out in the January woods all night in not much more and you're not sick," he offered reasonably with just a touch of a 'so there' whine as she waved off the van and forced him back inside.

"Which is a damn good thing or you'd have had three people to take care of last night," she answered, shutting the door firmly behind them. "And speaking of, I need to get back downstairs and see how your blood looks," she said to Skinner, who was once again resetting the alarm. With a reassuring smile she disappeared back into the closet.

Mulder stood, raking his hands back and forth through his hair, still looking vaguely foggy. He peered at Skinner and raised an eyebrow. "You look better."

"Feel better," Skinner agreed shortly, tired of this conversation already. A private person at the best of times, he was already heartily sick of the attention his condition garnered. He'd have much preferred dealing with the neutralizer all on his own, feeling lousy in the solitude of his own home. Which, on the other hand, would have meant missing out on Scully's... Dana's... care. He realized Mulder was still staring at him and answered before the question forming could be verbalized. "We don't know what's up with the puffiness. But I feel okay."

"Good, good," Mulder mumbled, scratching up under his shirt now that he'd succeeded in standing his hair up on end. "I guess I'll go shower." He wandered off to the bathroom without waiting for a reply.

Left to his own devices again, Skinner checked on Krycek once more, and found him still sound asleep. With nothing else to distract himself, he gave up and went to the kitchen to finish off the lingering dishes.


2:45 p.m.

Mulder shuffled into the bathroom, managed to walk straight into the counter, and bounced back off it with a curse. Coming back into the warmth of the house had made him sleepy all over again, made him want to crawl back into bed, or at the very least back onto the couch in the tv room.

Or possibly into the bed in the small room. The one already occupied with a warm, snuggly body...

Oh no. He turned off the thought with the same force he turned on the shower, and stripped out of his clothes. Stepping under the spray he braced his arms on the wall and leaned into the pressure, letting the water sluice over his head and down his back.

Snuggly? Jesus Christ.

But unfortunately, stupid as it sounded, "snuggly" had been irrevocably added to the list of adjectives dancing around Alex's name in his sensory memories. The way Alex had curled up against him the previous night, clung to him, nuzzled into his chest... snuggled. The gentle, heated thrum of blood moving south told Mulder how pointless an exercise it would be to attempt to block it out of his head. He'd liked the feel. His erotic senses had gotten off on it. As if there weren't enough erotic pathways already burned into his brain with Alex Krycek's name on them. Worse, his emotional senses had responded. Eyes closed, body warming under the pulse of hot water, the pure sensation of holding Alex in his arms rushed back. Every shifting response and half-coherent murmur, the way a touch from Mulder had calmed the tremors, the panic. The way it had felt to soothe...

It had felt damn good. On all levels.

Tilting his head back and taking the spray full in the face, he held his breath. The needles of water pounded into his face and still couldn't compete with the strength of the tactile imagery flooding him. Stepping back and gulping in steamy air, he pushed his hair out of his face and blinked water out of his eyes. He'd slept, but still felt tired and the shower wasn't reviving. He recognized it as mental exhaustion and knew from experience that if he wasn't careful, depression was next. Hovering just on the edges of his mind, always waiting for just the right moment to slide back in and cloak his thoughts and emotions. Despite the thrill of having answers in hand, the conundrum that was Alex Krycek still managed to take the shine off and leave him reeling.

::Too much too soon. That's all. These last couple days have been crazy.:: But he couldn't even convince himself. It was pointless to try. Yes, the last two days had been nuts. Yes, anyone would be reeling. But there was no way in hell he could convince himself that given a little more time, a little more sleep, a little more space, that he would go back to feeling the way he had less than 72 hours ago. He'd looked at Alex differently, seen something different, something real, and he couldn't just press a delete key and erase it.

He didn't think he even wanted to.

Things had changed.

Yes, it was confusing and upsetting. But on another level... something stirred in his gut as the steam billowed around him. He reached for the soap and absently ran it over his wet skin. On another level, old feelings, first feelings, were being reaffirmed. Maybe he hadn't been so terribly wrong, once upon a time. He didn't know for sure. He did know enough to be sure that it was also pointless to think he could go back to that way of thinking, of hoping... to go back as if the intervening years hadn't happened. As if the betrayals and the pain hadn't been real.

Not possible.

But a connection... tenuous and tentative, but a connection nonetheless... a connection stretched back through the aches to touch something old and deep inside him. So he couldn't go back to the simple, uncomplicated days of hating Alex. Not that hating Alex had ever really been that uncomplicated. And he couldn't go back to the simple, uncomplicated days of wanting Alex. And maybe he just had to admit that there would never be anything uncomplicated about Alex Krycek.

Maybe that was okay.

Complicated people evoked complicated emotions. What he needed to do, he supposed, was to stop trying to shut the emotions down, box them away, make them fit one exclusive model or the other. Stop punishing himself for feeling whatever he felt. Punishing himself for feeling lust when Alex betrayed him, punishing himself for wanting to see Alex suffer, punishing himself for feeling anger when Alex was so ill. Always feeling the wrong thing at the wrong time, and going straight for self-flagellation because of it. But there was just no one right way to feel about Alex. He had to accept what he felt - accept the guilt, the lust, the anger, the vengefulness, the passion, the empathy. The hard emotions and the softer ones. He'd managed to reach an epiphany about Alex's humanity, he should be able to accept his own emotional response to that humanity. And give himself a break for it.

After all, it made him a good person, right?

::And if you're being played all over again?:: the little voice whispered.

In the instant he thought it, he found he didn't have the energy to get fired up about the possibility. In his mind's eye, the scene of Alex's breakdown in the bedroom played out again. ::You're not being played and you know it. That's what scares the hell out of you.:: All that naked vulnerability, all that new insight into Alex's head, and himself still so fucked up, so full of quarreling emotions. Alex could get to him right now... get to him in a way he hadn't let the man in all the years since that first disastrous betrayal. Dangerous ground. The little cabin was full of landmines.

He sighed and turned his back to the water. The dull ache in his lower back gave him pause as he moved, and he shifted to let the water hit those muscles directly. Dragging Alex up off the floor, said the physical memory. He groaned. Another reminder of the Alex he'd held. The Alex he'd wanted to comfort. Had comforted.

Scully'd given him tacit permission to feel this way. Confirmed she was confused too. But his feelings were so much more loaded than hers. Not just sympathy, empathy, comfort. Not to mention comfort wasn't all Alex wanted from him, if his trips into Alex's head could be believed. And if you couldn't believe a man's mind, what could you believe. All that emotional energy directed at him. How could he help but be attracted...

As if the thought dictated the action, he turned back to face the pulsing water, his right hand sliding over his slick chest, down his stomach to his groin, fingers tracing through wet hair. His half-hard dick nuzzled into his slippery palm comfortably, and his eyes drifted closed on the image of Alex twisting against him, pained, needy. Trying to get closer. The sounds he'd made, the scent of him.

His eyes jerked open and he released himself with a frustrated noise. For fuck's sake. Not only could he not shake the man out of his head for even two minutes, he couldn't even control his own thoughts enough to keep from jerking off over him. This was getting ridiculous. Frustrated and annoyed with himself, he rubbed vigorously at his chest and arms instead, sloughing the soapsuds from his body. Concluding that standing under the shower wasn't getting him anything but wetter, and presenting too damn much temptation besides, he turned off the water with sharp, irritated jerks. He dried himself off with enough force to make his skin sting, and wrapped the towel around his waist tightly. Stalking out into the main room, he shivered at the shift in temperature from the sauna he'd made of the bathroom, and headed for his claimed territory of the tv room.

Alex's closed door made him pause along the way, but the twitch of his still-interested dick beneath the towel was enough to convince him he'd better be fully clothed before looking in on the man again. He shut himself away long enough to pull on fresh clothes and towel off his hair, then hung the towel over the television to dry out. He knew he could go right back to reading through the files the Gunmen had printed out for him, but the siren lure of checking on Alex after the hellish night was too strong. After wasting a few minutes leafing through pages without really seeing them, he gave it up and returned to the living room and the silent, closed door.

Easing it open, he peered around it, remembering too well the lurch his stomach had taken when he'd done the same in the middle of the night only to see an empty bed. An immediate sigh of relief went through his whole body as he took in the scene that met his eyes instead. Curled up on his left side, right arm wrapped around his pillow, Alex slept soundly, not even twitching in his sleep as he had repeatedly while Mulder held him. The one glance was technically enough to reassure him that Alex was not only still there, but was also resting comfortably and not in need of assistance. Despite that, Mulder found himself checking over his shoulder and slipping the rest of the way into the room anyway, trying to kick off the gentle wave of guilt that washed over him. ::What's to be guilty about? Wanting to check on him... caring about whether he's comfortable? Not wanting the others to know I'm checking on him?:: He rolled his eyes as he made his way to the bedside. ::You just told yourself to stop doing this. So. Stop. It.:: He wanted to check on Alex more thoroughly, so be it. No whipping himself about it. Just... feel what he felt and acknowledge it, acknowledge the confusion it might create, and... let it sit.

::Whatever.::

Stopping at the bedside he leaned over and laid his hand gently against Alex's face. His temperature felt fine, and his color was better too. The waxy paleness of the previous night was gone, replaced by a flush of color. Gently brushing the hair off Alex's forehead, Mulder couldn't help but notice he really needed a shower. All the sweating and struggling from the previous night had left its mark. On the heels of the thought, a full blown image of himself giving Alex a sponge bath in this very bed roared through Mulder's mind with the force of a train. Sudsy, warm water, a squishy loofa... his thoughts from his own shower resurged and the remembered feel of soap-slick skin tingled at his fingertips. He sucked in a breath as his cock hardened again, still obviously annoyed with him for not giving it free reign in the shower. ::Tough. You don't make the decisions around here. At least not yet.::

He stared down at his own hand, watching it almost abstractly as it ghosted down over Alex's cheek and throat to his shoulder. Seeing his own fingers spread out against Alex's upper arm made him wonder about the other arm... what the night had brought and what the next few days might bring. He wondered also about Alex's position, noting that in sleep, he seemed to gravitate to settling with his wounded arm down, pinned underneath him. The opposite of what Mulder would have expected. Most people wanted to keep weight off an injury. But this made a number of times Alex had settled on his left side, curled up tight around his vulnerability, keeping it hidden.

Mulder wondered if it hurt to sleep on it. Wondered what sleeping on the new growth felt like, as opposed to the old stump.

Wondered what the hell he was going to say if Skinner or Scully walked in on him, standing here gawking over Alex like a teenager. At least he wasn't carrying on his conversation with his dick out loud.

With a snort, he straightened and pushed his hands back through his wet hair, shoving it out of his eyes. He turned to go, then stopped, turned back. Unable to resist, he tugged on the quilt caught under Alex's elbow and carefully eased it out, then drew it up over the exposed shoulder and arm, tucking it in. Satisfied, he backed away from the bed and finally managed to get himself out of the room.

Aiming himself at the kitchen, he entered to find Scully and Skinner talking quietly as they put away the last of the clean dishes. "All done your tests?"

Scully spun, her cheeks flushing. "Yes!"

Mulder raised an eyebrow at her emphatic answer. "O-ookay," he drawled, glancing between her and his boss, who was staring out the window over the sink intently. "And you found-?"

"Ah. Good news." Scully nodded rapidly, then cleared her throat. "I can't find any sign of the nanocytes in the samples I've studied, and I also can't identify anything else that the neutralizer may have left behind. That, coupled with the fact that he feels better, no more adverse reactions, makes me pretty hopeful. I can't say for sure until the full analysis gets back from the lab, but... good signs."

Mulder nodded, mind already tracking onto other thoughts as he plucked the plate out of Scully's hands and took it to the counter. "Good. That's great news. Real indication that he knows he needs to be straight with us, work with us."

"And not bad news for me, either," Skinner put in dryly, turning back to face the kitchen.

"Oh! Of course, I mean, sure, that's the main point," Mulder hurriedly backtracked. "I just meant this was a good sign for what else we might be able to get out of him, you know?"

"Mmm," Skinner murmured noncommittally.

"Say, Mulder," Scully started, not quite meeting his eyes, "I was thinking it would be a good thing for Wa- for Skinner to get some fresh air, and some easy exercise. I could use some air too, and I don't want him wandering alone, since we don't know for sure if he's completely fine..."

"Uh hunh," Mulder gave her a confused look as he dug into the cupboard for his Pop Tarts, 'and why are you telling me?' practically painted on his forehead.

"We thought... maybe, a short walk. You can keep an eye on Alex, yes?"

"Oh sure." Mystery solved, Mulder went back to his late breakfast. "Go ahead. No problem."

"Alright then," Scully and Skinner exchanged a look, and headed out of the kitchen.

"Have a nice walk," Mulder called after them. He heard a muffled response but couldn't make out the actual words. Shrugging it off, he tore open the thin foil and dropped his Pop Tarts into the toaster. Something rang vaguely funny about Scully's manner, but his distracted brain couldn't place it. He wrote it up to the oddness of the situation, and flopped down at the kitchen table. The niggling press of arousal that wouldn't quite go away had him shifting back and forth, then standing again restlessly. Telling his crotch exactly where it could get off - for which it had a very snappy comeback - he poured himself some coffee and stared out the window over the sink, trying to guess what Skinner had been so interested in out there. The little games he played to distract his mind. If I were Walter Skinner what would I find intriguing...

Seeing nothing but trees, he shrugged again. Maybe Skinner had a secret life as a bird watcher. He saw a flash of color, and watched as Scully and Skinner walked off into the trees. Walking in the woods held no real appeal to him. Too many forest forays looking for an X File or an explanation. Too many run-ins with subterranean mothmen who faded into tree trunks, beast women, man-eating mushrooms. Give him a nice urban street with clouds of exhaust and speeding cabs any day.

The twanging pop of the toaster came simultaneously with the sound of a door opening, followed by another door opening and shutting. "He lives," Mulder muttered under his breath as he turned to the toaster. Getting the hot pastries out of the toaster and onto the plate with only three burned fingers, he stared at the plate as he heard the bathroom door open again. He sighed, and went to the cupboard, taking down a second plate as he listened to the shuffling sounds getting closer. The kitchen door swung back and Krycek wandered in, looking sleepy and rumpled. ::And adorable.:: Mulder winced. ::Stop that.:: He winced again. ::No, just... accept the thoughts and feelings. Just let them exist and... whatever.::

"Wherz ever'body?" Krycek looked blankly around the kitchen as if expecting Scully or Skinner to pop out from behind the refrigerator.

Mulder yanked his attention away from the left arm sleeve, hanging loose around the elbow-length growth. "Um... Gunmen are on their way back. To DC. They're making the lab run. Skinner and Scully took a walk."

"A... walk?" Krycek stared at Mulder like he'd grown a second head.

"Getting some fresh air. Sit down." Mulder jerked his head at the table, then turned away and transferred one of the Pop Tarts to the second plate. "You want coffee?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Uh... yeah." Krycek's hand rose to rub at his eyes. "Think I slept too long," he mumbled around a yawn.

"Ya think?" Mulder asked dryly as he carried the two plates to the table, coffee mugs balanced on them. Setting them down and transferring the cups to the table, he pushed one plate in front of Alex.

Krycek stared at the plate, then back to Mulder, then back to the plate. Then back to Mulder. Suspicion sharpened the bleary face, and his next look at the plate had the cast of someone suspecting rat poison instead of blueberry fruit filling. He tilted his head sideways, giving the Pop Tart a wary glare. Mulder rolled his eyes, annoyance flooding him at the reaction. For Chrissakes, it was a fucking Pop Tart. He was trying here. Couldn't Krycek even-

::Stop.:: Sucking in a sharp breath, he cut his thought process short. That's what he had to start doing, right? Stop the kneejerk reacting. Which was almost always anger. As he released the breath, the absurdity of the situation suddenly hit him and he almost choked on a laugh. Dark brows winged up over green eyes as the suspicious scowl moved from the Pop Tart to the man. Reaching out, Mulder broke off a corner of Alex's and popped it in his mouth, holding both hands palms out. "Perfectly safe. No poison, no exploding frosting. 'Kay?"

Krycek's lips quirked and he dropped his gaze, picking at the Pop Tart. "What'd... you find out they were stale?"

"Nah, I ordered more from the caterers."

Krycek broke it into small bits and ate them slowly, pausing for sips of coffee. After a long pause he glanced up at the sun streaming through the window. "What time is it?"

Mulder glanced at his watch. "About twenty after three."

"Fuck! No wonder I feel... like this."

"Figured you needed it. You didn't get much sleep last night. Not real sleep, anyway."

"I didn't?" The dark brows furrowed again. "Feel like I've been asleep forever."

Mulder studied the man across the table, and rather than poking, like the last time they'd had this conversation, instead he asked seriously, "Do you... remember anything?"

Immediately alert, Krycek stiffened. "Remember what?"

"You had quite an episode last night. You went off pretty quick, we thought you just fell asleep, but turned out you were really out of it. I think it was like that delirium Scully said you kept sliding into."

"I did... I mean, I was?" The naturally husky voice emerged in a rough croak.

Mulder flexed his arm and pulled up his sleeve, displaying the spreading bruise on his forearm. "Landed me a good one."

"Shit..." Krycek stared at the bruise, lips parting in surprise. "I did that? What'd I do?"

"Kicked me. And I don't have your Amazing Disappearing Bruising, either," he offered with a half-smile. "Speaking of, how's your hand?"

"Hand?"

Mulder gestured, and Alex spread his hand out in automatic reaction. They both looked down at the scabbed scrapes on all his knuckles, and Alex's start told Mulder it was the first time he'd noticed. "Take it that doesn't hurt?"

Alex flexed his fingers, staring at the reddened flesh. "No," he murmured. "Little stiff but..." he swallowed hard. "I didn't... I didn't realize..."

"You were scraping at the wall, hitting it. Pounding on it." Mulder pitched his voice soft, trying to project calm. The images of the silo had been horrific enough experiencing them second hand, and Mulder wasn't sure what bringing up the trauma in the cold light of day might do. "We'd left the room for a minute. I was downstairs. Scully was with Skinner. We didn't realize, or we would have stopped you. By the time I found you, you'd done a number on it. It looks... a lot better than it did at the time."

Alex's lips moved but no sound came out. Finally he just nodded. Wrapping his hand around his coffee mug he sipped again. "Sorry I... kicked you," he mumbled into the mug.

"It's okay. You didn't know it was me," Mulder offered casually. "Anyway, you were definitely not getting a lot of rest."

"I don't... remember." The strained look on Alex's face, the tightness around his mouth, told Mulder that even not remembering what had happened, Alex had a pretty good idea what he'd been doing, where he'd been mentally, what had caused his attack on the wall. His continued silence indicated he didn't want to talk about it, though.

Mulder itched to ask about the tantalizing glimpses he'd had of the other occupant of the silo. Alex had been so close. Had actually carried a full alien entity inside him. Scully's voice in his head came like a whip-crack. ::Don't push, Mulder!:: And truthfully, to his own surprise, he realized his curiosity wasn't enough to make him want to browbeat Alex into revisiting the horrors locked up in his head. Not after what he'd witnessed last night. ::You're getting soft,:: his mental voice jeered. Watching the shadowed man across the table, Mulder couldn't say that he minded softening. He finished his breakfast in quiet contemplation, trying not to stare outright. Not that it mattered; Alex ate in silent oblivion.

"Thanks."

Mulder jerked. Alex still sounded half-asleep, and the rusty voice brushed over Mulder's twitchy cock like a touch. He gave Alex what he hoped was a blank look, his mind occupied with ordering his dick into submission.

Alex tapped his empty plate to clarify. "Thanks," he repeated.

"Oh. Sure." Mulder nodded and looked around the kitchen restlessly.

"A walk, hunh?"

"Hmm?" He didn't have to fake the questioning look this time.

"They went for a walk?"

"It's not that odd. People take walks a lot."

Alex gave an exasperated 'hmph'. "I take it he's feeling better."

"Scully said he could use some 'easy exercise'."

The pause lengthened until, eyes carefully locked on the table, Alex asked, "So, how is he doing?"

Mulder studied Alex openly now, wondering at the impetus for asking. There certainly wasn't any love lost between Krycek and Skinner, so he doubted concern topped the list. He assumed Alex's curiosity stemmed from the knowledge that his continued safety and well-being rested with the three of them and their continued positive disposition toward him. Mulder nodded finally. "He's better. A lot better. He was pretty sick all night, but finally got to sleep early this morning. Now he's up and about. There is some... puffiness."

"Puffiness?" Alex looked up, a frown creasing his forehead.

"His veins are kind of puffy. You know how they stand out when the nanocytes are activated?" Alex gave him a look. Mulder rolled his eyes. "Right. Of course you do." He cleared his throat and reined back the surge of anger that rolled through him. "Anyway, they look a little like that. They're all sort of standing out."

In an instant Alex looked more alert, making the effort to concentrate. "Any bruising?"

"No. Not at all."

"Pain?"

"Apparently not. Nothing else. Do you remember anything about the neutralizer causing puffiness?"

Alex thought for a long moment, then shook his head. "No, but I wasn't that involved with the whole nanocyte project. At least not officially. I didn't see the trials in action, and I've never given anybody the neutralizer before. I worked mostly from the research and notes I got into on my own. Never talked to any of the scientists about it; didn't want to raise any extra suspicions. I don't remember reading anything about lingering swelling, but it sounds pretty mild if he's feeling okay otherwise, so maybe it just didn't make the research as important."

Mulder nodded. "Well, if the worst of it is a night throwing up, I'd say that cure was pretty cheaply bought."

"Mmm," Alex mumbled noncommittally.

"What?" Mulder asked, somewhat sharper than intended, wondering what Krycek was holding back on them now.

Alex just shook his head, his lips twitching in a humorless smile, eyes shuttered. "Nothing, I was just thinking of something else."

In a flash of insight, Mulder remembered the dream images of crouching on the ship, vomiting black oil out of every orifice and pore. He supposed a night throwing up might not sound quite so nonthreatening to Alex. ::What was it like, having it in you?:: The words wanted to spill out, and this time only the memory of the abhorrent feel of oil slithering across his own face held them back. Krycek had promised them answers in exchange for medical care and refuge, but somehow this morning just didn't seem like the time to ask.

"The cartridges?" Alex asked abruptly, once again communing deeply with his coffee cup.

Mulder jerked again, the sudden change of subject surprising him. Now certain that Krycek was checking on his standing with his protectors, Mulder allowed himself a lazy smile and a bit of a prod. "They've got some interesting stuff on them. Relax... you don't have to worry. We're not about to toss you out into the January woods to fend for yourself."

Alex's eyes cut across to him and an uncertain look flashed on his face before he shut it down and schooled his expression. "I didn't doubt. You'd just stick me in regular custody before you'd let me out of your sight at this point."

Mulder's smile widened. No matter how sorry the man's condition, he couldn't help getting some satisfaction from finally having Krycek over a barrel. Especially after the number of times the man had jerked him around. Unfortunately, the mental image coming along with the thought 'having Krycek over a barrel' did nothing to calm his errant libido. He dragged his mind back to Alex's conjecture. "True. But no... the guys are pulling plenty of goods off the cartridges. Score two big ones in your favor. The ledger is looking pretty good. Of course, it'll look even better when you lend us your interpretation of some of what's coming off that little electronic gold mine of information."

Alex's eyes narrowed. "And it'll look even more balanced if Scully gets something off there that'll actually help her with my condition," he responded curtly.

Mulder nodded. "Relax," he repeated. "We prioritized getting anything on you and your experimentation off the cartridges. We're getting it all together for Scully and as soon as she's done with Skinner and rested up some I'm sure she'll-" Mulder paused as the green eyes widened as quickly as they'd narrowed, and Alex's face paled. "What?"

"Exactly how much is on there about me?"

Meeting his gaze head on, Mulder let all traces of teasing drop from his voice. "A lot," he admitted softly.

"I see." Alex looked away, stared out the window, fingers suddenly drumming an agitated tattoo on the table. "I'd like to see it."

"Absolutely," Mulder lied calmly, having no intention of handing Alex the file on himself anytime soon. He was going through enough right now without rereading his own torture. Talk about retraumatizing. Given his own reactions to the files, he'd make damn sure he vetted what Alex did and didn't get to see anytime soon.

Obviously surprised at the easy acquiescence, Alex swung his head back around, a puzzled look on his face. "Oh... okay." The frown returned, his nose crinkling. "Uh... thanks," he finally offered.

Something... something about the diffidence, or maybe just the pathetic vulnerability rolling off the man, or maybe even that nose-crinkle... rang too many old bells. Old "eager Agent Krycek" bells. Given the turmoil of his emotions and the persistent, low-grade arousal bedeviling him all afternoon, Mulder supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. Still, he had a bare split second warning before an uncontrollable impulse ran away with his logic and took over his tongue. He didn't even realize he was going to speak until his mouth opened and the words tripped out.

"Back in the beginning, was any of it real, Alex? Was any of... you real?"

Then he sat, blinking in surprise, partly at his own question, and partly at the fact that his voice hadn't even sounded angry. Just honestly curious. Stacking up what he'd believed all these years - about betrayal and manipulation and faked romantic interest - against his travels into Alex's head, Alex's dreams. Where the interest felt anything but fake. His familiar anger was still there. He could sense it churning, he could almost touch it. But it remained distant, manageable. He watched Alex closely, profiling instincts turned on full. He studied each flicker of emotion as the man blinked in shock at the blunt shift of subject, then tried to lock his expression down.

Silence hung a little too long, until Alex wrenched his eyes away from Mulder's with obvious effort, pushing back his chair and standing suddenly. His coffee mug impacted his plate with a clunk, and he carried both to the sink. Mulder rose too, not about to let him just walk away from the question, but Alex's voice stopped him. Back to Mulder, he spoke flatly. "Real. What's 'real'? Some of it was real. For me. Really me. But it didn't matter who I was or what I wanted."

Mulder's eyes narrowed. Despite the emotionless tone, he could hear the ring of truth. In some way, Alex truly believed that. Believed what he wanted didn't factor into the equation at all. He'd made a similar statement when they'd confronted each other over Bill Mulder's death - that his choices had been limited, that he'd been operating in narrow confines. He didn't seem to be offering it as an excuse for himself... he didn't whine that he'd had "no choice" but to do what he'd done. Hadn't claimed he was therefore not at fault for his actions. He simply stated it as fact, as someone who'd always looked at the world through a skewed perspective, through tightly curtailed options.

Approaching from behind, Mulder walked up to the rigid back, hand extending. "Alex," he started, hand dropping to the right shoulder only to have Alex jerk away, dishes clattering into the sink. Spinning around, Alex backed up a step involuntarily but the sink boxed him in. Mulder's sudden proximity obviously discomfited him, and realizing he had nowhere to back to, he straightened away from the sink and pushed past Mulder roughly. Once again the earthy scent of unwashed Alex assaulted Mulder full on as the man brushed by, and he felt his unruly body respond in the predictable manner, as it had been doing since he woke up. "Wait," he snapped, the pulse in his groin lending an extra edge to his voice.

Alex paused at the door, head dipping to one side but not turning to actually look over his shoulder. "I need a shower," he snapped back. "Bad."

Not about to argue that point, although he did have the devilish urge to say he didn't exactly mind, Mulder huffed out an irritated breath. "Fine. Run away," he muttered. What else did he expect, honestly.

The heavy thunk of Alex's right hand impacting the doorjamb surprised him. Alex's voice was a low snarl as he spat, "Thanks, I think I will." Pushing the door open he started through, only to pause halfway. His head tilted back and he exhaled. The heat was gone and the flat edge back in his intonation when he finally spoke again, still not turning. "Mulder... I'm sure you're familiar with the saying, the best lie is the one that has the most truth in it." His right shoulder lifted in that odd half shrug. "None of it mattered. It didn't change anything in the long run. And here we are."

Mulder stared at the door as it swung gently back and forth in Krycek's wake. The warm kitchen with the smell of singed sugar suddenly felt claustrophobic and itchy. The whole damn cabin felt too small, too filled with Alexness in all its frustrating, irritating, contrary... Mulder gave up. Leaving his dirty dishes on the table he stalked back into the living room, stuffed his feet into his sneakers, yanked on his jacket and pushed open the front door.

And just about gave himself a heart attack.

The screech of the alarm going off set his teeth on edge and brought his shoulders up around his ears. Feeling like an idiot, he stepped back inside long enough to disable the alarm, ignoring the sound of the bathroom door opening. He didn't even bother to call out what had happened. Krycek was a smart boy. He could figure it out. He didn't need the bastard chortling in his face right now. Slamming back out onto the porch again, he sucked in a long breath of clean air, regaining enough presence of mind to reset the alarm from the outside keypad.

Staring moodily around at the trees, he leaned up against the porch railing and tried to just let his thoughts swirl away. *...the best lie is the one that has the most truth in it... some of it was real... it didn't matter who I was...* That was an odd way to phrase it. Who I was. Mulder turned the words slowly in his head, feeling the same tiredness that had overcome him in the shower well up again. The cabin at his back felt like it was leaking Alex from every crack in every board. The man's sheer presence swelled and pressed at Mulder until it felt like a physical weight pushing him forward. Knowing there was something way too Freudian about the analogies his thoughts formed, he groaned and took the stairs down off the porch.

Krycek was hardly going to leave the cabin. He could keep an eye on the place as easy from outside as long as he didn't go very far. In fact... he circled the right corner of the cabin and smiled at the small rise of the land to the side of the building. Be easy enough to keep the place in sight from that vantage point, and he'd get a little breathing room. Enough space to calm down and remind himself that he was going to keep a rein on his reactions around Krycek. And it was in the opposite direction from the one Scully and Skinner had taken. He didn't feel like dealing with either of them at the moment either.

Striding up the gentle hill, he had to laugh at his own actions after having just thought that walking in the woods held no appeal. ::Well, technically I'm not exactly walking in the woods,:: he reassured himself, dropping down onto a large, flat, sun-warmed rock. The afternoon air did feel better than the cabin, and the distance helped, if only mentally. He stared down at the dark wood cabin and couldn't help picturing it as a little Pandora's box. Okay, actually a rather large, house-shaped Pandora's box. But still. Everything in there... the information, the man... so tantalizing, so fascinating, so irresistible. So potentially dangerous.

He got an absurd mental image of himself prying the roof up, and releasing everything inside.

::Great. Two days, and I've got cabin fever already.:: He shifted restlessly on the rock, and glanced toward the woods Scully and Skinner had walked into. No sign of them. His eyes slid inexorably back to the cabin. And somewhere in there right at this moment Alex Krycek was taking a shower. Surrounded in steam, standing under pulsing water, probably arching his back as it ran all over him, soap sliding slick over wet skin, rivulets of water running down his back, all the way down-

He groaned at the reawakened thrum of warmth behind his zipper. Not that it had ever really gone away. Fingers shifting to coast over the growing erection under worn denim, he finally admitted defeat. Maybe that was why he was so out of sorts... maybe he just needed to jerk off and get it over with. All the confusion, all the close quarters. He spread out his hand and kneaded his crotch gently. Made sense. Sort of.

::Right, like jerking off is going to solve the problem.::

Once again he pointedly ignored the sarcastic little voice as his fingers sought out the zipper tab and tugged it down.


Setting an easy pace, Scully found herself enjoying the calm quiet of the woods, listening to the calls of the birds, surprised at how clearly they carried without the background hum of an urban environment. The steady presence of the man at her side sent the occasional tingle of excitement through her. Ostensibly having taken the walk to talk, neither seemed eager to leap into the topic.

Instead, she found herself just getting used to the sense of Walter at her side, in light of her new outlook. She noted absently how he slowed the pace his longer legs set, so she didn't have to quicken her own stride to keep up. Mulder, in all his constant hurry and preoccupation, seldom thought about it. When they had strayed far enough to no longer be visible from the cabin, a rough warmth brushed her hand, and his fingers linked with hers. She let her hand settle in his and felt a swell of happiness expand in her chest. How odd. Stranded in the woods after yet another brush with experimentation and death at the hands of the Consortium, and embarking on... a romance.

For the first time in far too long. Life had certainly been interesting the past few years, but lonely.

"So."

Scully smiled at the hesitation in the one word. Looking up at him, she raised an eyebrow. "So?"

"You're okay with this?"

"This?" She smiled wider.

He glanced away, then back. "With us? With... my interest. I know it's complicated."

"It doesn't have to be."

"Work-"

"We're both highly intelligent, sensible, discreet adults who take our professionalism very seriously. We're both naturally cautious people. While dating your supervisor isn't the ideal or recommended situation, I'd have to say we're not exactly the typical office romance." She let the silence linger for a moment, then tugged on his hand. "That was a yes, by the way."

"What?"

"A yes. Yes, I'm okay with this. Us. Your interest. My interest." The smile that graced his face warmed his eyes and made Scully wonder how she'd ever thought of him as emotionless and severe.

"Glad to hear it."

"I admit I was a little surprised," she added. "I had no idea."

"Well, I haven't exactly been obvious. For... obvious reasons."

"How long?" she couldn't resist asking.

"Long enough. Too long."

"Oh really?"

"There's been a lot to admire," he stated simply. "Let's just say you made a big impression early on, and it only got better from there. You really had no idea?"

"None. You're not exactly an easy man to read."

"And you've certainly had reasons to wonder about me over the years. Doubt me."

Scully shook her head. "Not anymore. Not for a long while now." She tightened her hand around his. "But that doesn't mean I suspected... this."

"It always seemed too big a risk. To say or do anything. Act on it. What with the rules against it, and the generally bad idea of seeing someone you work with, not to mention the direct supervisor issue with the power imbalance and potential for sexual harassment misunderstanding..."

"None of that's changed," she offered softly. "Well, except I can assure you I'm not going to sue for sexual harassment. So what did change?"

He paused, his hand on hers pulling her to a stop as well, and faced her. He lifted his free hand and lightly touched her cheek, his fingers skimming to her chin. "I'm tired of waiting. Waiting to live. Trying to be careful. Trying to walk that careful middle line. Tired of living my job instead of my life. It's a good job, an important one. But I've given up way too much to it already. A while ago, you held my hand in the hospital when we didn't know what the hell was wrong with me, and I thought I was dying. I was dying. And I didn't say it. I talked to you about my regret at playing it safe, and how I could have been... should have been there for you and Mulder, should have chosen a clearer side in this damn shadow war. I said all the words, laid all the groundwork to take it to the next level, but I didn't come clean on what I'd been playing the safest on - my feelings for you.

"Then two days ago I didn't know where you were, Dana. Again. You'd disappeared, and all I knew for sure was that you were back in serious danger from some of the worst kind of people, the people who were responsible for all you've gone through, all you've lost. And last night, I sat in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, letting you inject me with an experimental substance that Alex Krycek provided us with, not knowing if it was going to kill me or cure me. Trusting my life to Krycek's word." He shook his head, then shrugged. "Maybe it's been cumulative, but I guess it all just finally drove the point home. Forcefully. There are only so many chances we're going to get, I'm going to get, and I'm betting I've used up a fair amount of them already. I haven't always made the choices I should have made. Time to start. Damn the consequences. I've thought it before, I've made moves in that direction, but never the most important one."

Scully stared up into his determined face, her breath catching at the raw emotion in his voice, the adoration plain in his expression. As his head bent to hers, she rose up on her toes, lips parting to meet his. The lingering brush of warmth made her smile against his mouth. Ever the gentleman. She settled back onto her feet. "I'm very glad you made this choice," she murmured. "Because honestly, who knows how long it would have taken me to figure it out." She flashed him an impish grin and he laughed. "Well, as close to the vest as you were playing it," she tapped him lightly on the chest, "and as preoccupied as I'm given to be..."

"Our lives don't leave much room for romantic considerations," he agreed, as they resumed walking. "Speaking of preoccupied," he paused, looking slightly embarrassed. She raised an eyebrow in question. "Ah... you and... Mulder?"

Now it was her turn to laugh. "Oh no. No no no no no. Did you really think-?"

"Well, I wasn't sure," he hastened to backtrack. "I didn't think so, but you're so... close. You know, the whole finish each other's sentences and the way you just look at each other and know what the other is thinking, and how he just... disintegrates when you disappear."

"You've been in law enforcement a long time, Walter. Partnerships are like that, you know how it is. You trust your life to this person. And Mulder and I... we've had some extreme circumstances that have really cemented the bond. Even with the occasional ups and downs, we've been through more than the average partnership." She laughed again suddenly. "But no. Definitely not. Work partners. That's all. I'd say I was too smart to get involved with someone I work with," she sent a sly sideways glance up at him, "but that's not exactly true. Although I usually do have more common sense than that. No, in the case of Mulder, it's more like... well, it's more like we passed the point where that might have been possible, if that makes sense. As well as the partnership works, we're not well suited for each other, personally. It'd be a disaster."

"I've always thought so," he offered mildly.

"Oh you have, have you?" She gestured to a fallen tree trunk. "Let's sit for a minute. The air and exercise may be good for you but you have to be feeling some effects from last night. I don't want you overdoing it. Sit and tell me all about why you think Mulder and I would be a disaster."

He let her guide him over and settled on the log, pulling her down beside him. "Because he's too self-involved," he answered immediately. "Don't get me wrong, I have a great deal of respect for Mulder. He's brilliant, he does amazing work, and I don't even begin to try to understand how he puts together some of his theories. He works on a completely different level than I do... a different level from most of us mere mortals. He may be a pain in the ass, but he has a number of great qualities, including his loyalty and passion, his capacity to care. His willingness to go out on a limb, to do what he believes, no matter the cost and no matter what people say. But he's myopic. For someone so taken with extreme possibilities, he's got a serious case of tunnel vision. Nothing gets in the way of his mission, and by extension, nothing gets in the way of his needs. That same willingness to go out on a limb and be ostracized means he's willing to sacrifice a lot along the way. I don't necessarily always agree with that. And so much of himself goes into that mission, his quest. I don't know that he has much left over for people. Because of that, I just don't think he could give you everything you deserve," he finished quietly. "For you, I would want someone who would put your needs first, always."

"That's very sweet," she murmured, face flushed.

He shrugged. "Just the way I see it. Sometimes, it's like... he hasn't really grown up. There's an arrested development quality to him that worries me at times."

Scully blinked, startled at the insight in the troubled words. "I've had similar thoughts," she admitted. "I think the amount of trauma in his life has affected him in some fundamental ways, specifically in the way he relates to others. I think it comes out in the way he sacrifices his personal life to his work."

Skinner nodded. "Exactly. I'm glad to hear you see him so clearly."

"You weren't sure," she said dryly, elbowing him in the ribs. "You really thought we might be involved, didn't you?"

"I didn't know," he hedged, not wanting to admit he'd been sure of it at times. "I... uh... considered the possibility but I didn't think it was my business to pry."

"Were you jealous?" she teased.

"Oh absolutely," he answered readily.

"Really?!"

"Please, who wouldn't be? You two really do come across as the quintessential team. You've been very devoted to him. And he has a very proprietary manner around you."

"Proprietary?"

"He does! I know, it's probably just that 'partners' dynamic, but that doesn't make meeting with the two of you any easier when you've gone into 'united front - us against the FBI' mode." He shook his head.

She had to laugh. "Oh dear. I'm sorry... I'm not laughing at you. It's just... it sounds funny, seeing Mulder and I from the outside, from someone else's perspective." She watched as an uneasy expression crossed his face, then poked him in the side. "What? What else is going on in there?"

He startled, as if he hadn't realized his expression was giving him away. "Nothing."

"Right." She gave him an 'oh please' look. "Come on, out with it. What else were you thinking about me and Mulder?"

He looked decidedly embarrassed, and kept cutting his eyes over to her and then away. "Er... not Mulder," he hedged again.

She blinked in surprise. Who else could he possibly think she'd be involved with? "What in the world?"

"Don't take this the wrong way," he mumbled hurriedly, "Please."

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, smirking at his discomfort. "Out with it, Walter."

"Well, it sounds silly, but... ah... you... I mean... Krycek..."

"KRYCEK?!"

"Now don't... I didn't, I mean, it was just the two of-"

"KRYCEK?!!"

"-you were so... you were so different around him and calling him Alex and he was calling you Dana, and-"

She burst out laughing, laughing so hard she wrapped her arms around her sides. "Good God, Walter. Alex Krycek?! Me and ALEX KRYCEK?" The thought set her off again, and she almost fell off the log. "I can't believe it!" She wiped her eyes, gasping.

"I'm sorry," he offered quickly. "I didn't mean it as an insult to you or anything of the kind, the two of you were just so odd when we got here, Mulder and I, and I know how 'foxhole friendships' are, and what can happen-"

"Do you?" she asked with interest. "Had a few of your own, have you?"

He blushed darker. "No! Not... not like that. I just... I mean I know strange things can happen when you're in fear for your life. And Krycek did save your life. And he's been acting really funny around you too. Looking at you with... an expression."

She grinned. "An expression?"

He huffed out an exasperated breath. "He doesn't look at anybody else the way he looks at you," he clarified.

She paused for a moment, trying to think what Skinner could possibly be seeing that she wasn't. Given her own surety that Alex's amorous attention was most definitely not directed at her, it made her wonder how Alex did look at her. She shook her head. "Maybe so, but I assure you, nothing could be further from either of our minds."

"Are you sure about that?" he asked, brows drawing in. Seeing the look on her face he hastened to correct himself. "I mean obviously you're sure about yourself. I just mean are you sure he hasn't developed some sort of fixation? On you?"

Her lips twisted enigmatically. "Definitely no fixation on me. If he's looking at me differently, it's just because... I don't know. Because I've been nice to him, probably. I've given him a chance, and he probably didn't expect that from me." She grinned again. "However, I think it's more likely that he's not looking at me at all, and that you're imagining it."

"I am not!"

"Bet you are." She poked him again. "Were you jealous of him too?"

Immediately the blush came back, and he glanced away quickly. "Maybe... a little," he mumbled.

She shook her head, laughing softly. "I cannot believe you thought me and Alex Krycek..."

"Mulder thought so too," he interrupted defensively.

"Oh did he, now?" Scully crossed her arms over her chest and raised her eyebrows. Looked like she and her erstwhile partner just might be having a little chat, themselves. Talking to Skinner behind her back about her and Krycek. Honestly! The two of them were like little old women. She shook her head, clucking her tongue. "He should talk," she muttered.

"Hunh?" Skinner gave her a puzzled look, but she brushed him off with a wave of her hand.

"Nothing, nothing. I just can't believe you two were talking about me like that." She gave him a hard look. A sudden mischievous thought nibbled at the back of her mind, and before she knew it, she was speaking again. "Although, I can understand the concern, I guess. Alex is a very attractive man." She felt Skinner stiffen beside her, and almost laughed again. Concentrating on holding it back, she continued absently, "He certainly has a passionate air about him, too. And we were in extreme circumstances." She let a thoughtful look descend on her face, one finger tapping her chin. "Who knows... in a different time, different circumstances, I suppose I could have been interested in the man I got to know a bit on our trip here." ::Different circumstances alright... like if he wasn't obsessed with my male partner, for one.:: The thought was enough to shift her into a more serious frame of mind, and she relented on teasing Walter. "But circumstances would have to be very different, given the past and the present and just... everything," she concluded. Smiling at the way he relaxed almost imperceptibly, she laid her hand on his thigh. "I will admit that my feelings have been changing about him," she added thoughtfully, "and it does have to do with this experience. I definitely think I've seen a different side to him." She paused and ducked her head, feeling a bit uncomfortable herself. She thought of her conversation with Mulder, before they'd both turned in. She'd told him the truth, she owed Walter no less. "It's odd, you know? Feeling like... I'd actually like to let myself like him, despite everything that's happened." She sighed deeply. "He's a human being. A flawed, fallible human being who's done some truly awful things. And so many of those things have affected me, and you, and other people I care deeply about. It feels like a betrayal. To be seeing more of him, to be seeing some kind of... of humanity in him. Something to like." She felt a gentle hand in her hair and looked up, meeting the warm brown eyes that held none of the censure she'd feared.

"It's who you are," he murmured softly, his deep voice rumbling in a way that touched something deep inside her. "It's what I l-... look at, and what I see when I look at you. When I watch you in the world. It doesn't surprise me, Dana. The depth of compassion and feeling you have in you... and the common sense as well. The common sense and practicality that doesn't just get run over by the compassion, or by emotion. You think things through, and you're logical and careful, and..." he hesitated, and ground his teeth, then finally continued. "And you wouldn't be feeling this way if you didn't see a real reason to. You've seen something worth liking. Something worth giving a chance. A careful chance, but a chance. It's what convinced me. Convinced me to even try this, to give his 'cure' a shot. And I'll keep listening to you, because I trust your sight, and your judgement." He cleared his throat, and stroked her hair again, his voice dropping even deeper. "He saved your life. And from what you've said, he didn't need to. Could have gotten away cleaner, perhaps, if he hadn't. Whatever I think of him, I'll go to my grave thanking him for that."

Tears prickled at the back of her eyes. She couldn't remember when something had touched her so deeply. How could she not have seen what this man was feeling for her? She blinked rapidly and smiled. "Thank you," she whispered, voice husky with emotion.

He returned the smile, settling his arm around her shoulders. "Hey, I may still want to strangle the bastard every time I look at him, but I'm given to understand it's a common reaction. He's got a way about him that inspires irritation. But even I have to admit there's something there to admire. The will to struggle, to survive. To keep going. To stay sane." He shook his head. "To keep fighting against Them, if that's what he's really been doing. And I'm inclined to think it is, given I think he's got a good handle on how to hold a grudge. There's a lot of strength there, and intelligence. If we could actually ever be sure we could trust him, which I personally have my doubts about... but... well, anyway, he'd make a damn good ally."

She leaned into his embrace and nodded. "I know." Her mind whirled with her suspicions, suspicions that they did have a way to be sure of Alex, the perfect tool for it in fact, and that it was right under their noses. But a tool she'd never ever be willing to use, given the complications. She sighed. After a moment, she tipped her head back and smiled up at him. "I'm sorry you were jealous. Though I'm complimented," she added, snuggling closer and stroking slowly with the hand on his thigh.

"Well, that's okay then," he returned her smile, and for the moment the two of them sat, grinning at each other in silence.

Scully waited but he didn't seem inclined to lean in for the kiss she expected. Remembering his earlier hesitancy, she decided taking matters into her own hands might be advisable. Lifting her hand to his face, she guided him down, catching his vague look of surprise before her mouth fastened to his and her own eyes drifted closed.

With a sufficient nudge in the right direction, he took the hint admirably.


I shut the bathroom door with a feeling of intense relief, like I just escaped... something. Leaning back against it I close my eyes and try to figure out what I feel. Confused about covers it. What the hell was that? Sharing his food, talking like a real person... being nice. Who the hell is he and what's he done with my Mulder?

Of course, arguing for it being my Mulder, the lovely segue from talking about my medical files to asking me about back then. And what the fuck was that, anyway...

Was it real. Was I real.

Christ, what does he want from me? He doesn't have enough of a leg-up at this point that he wants more ammunition? Wants me to admit... what? That I have feelings for him? Fuck you, Mulder. Why? So you can sneer and tell me how far beneath you I am?

I slide down the door and sit on the floor. I seriously stink. Whatever I was doing in my sleep, I might as well have been working out. Or hanging out in a sweat lodge. I really do need that shower. C'mon Alex, up and in the tub. You can do it. You've apparently slept for hours. No excuses today.

I stay on the floor, staring at the shower curtain. It's dotted with water. Obviously, the rest of the crew has been here before me. Mulder's wet hair comes to mind. Recently here. And with the thought I notice the pile of discarded clothes. Reaching over, I lift the shirt to my face, inhaling nice and deep. Ah yes. Mulder indeed.

The sharp shriek of an alarm stops me from rooting for his boxers, bringing my head up and back with enough force to really hurt when it impacts the bathroom door. Swearing under my breath I scramble to my feet and open the door, leaning out before realizing I still have Mulder's shirt in hand. I toss it behind me and try to figure out what the hell is going on.

Mulder stands by the open front door, looking frantically at a keypad then tapping out a code. Without even fully processing what I'm doing, my brain watches the pattern of keys he hits and files the information away. Ah, the force of habit is a wonderful thing. The electronic shriek finally stops, and in the overwhelming silence the pieces fall together for me. So, the geek-boys have a nice little security system that can be set to keep people in as well as keep people out, and Mulder set it off. I almost laugh. Mulder slams outside without a word of apology for almost giving me a heart attack. Rude bastard.

Pulling back into the bathroom I close the door and breathe deeply, trying to slow my heart rate after the adrenaline surge. Nice to know the adrenaline kick still works. I catch sight of Mulder's shirt on the floor again, and kick it out of my way. I really don't need to descend any further on the pathetic scale.

And yet... pathetic is as pathetic does. Irresistibly my eyes are drawn to the crumpled cotton again, and before I can stop myself I'm bending down to snag it off the floor. Only a touch of dizziness as I stand back up. Must be improving. Lifting the bunched shirt I nuzzle into the worn fabric, breathing in with relish. Ah bliss... smells like he slept in his clothes too. The shirt is cool against my face, slightly damp from being shut up with all the shower steam. I luxuriate in the closeness, the perversity, the pure eroticism, rubbing my face into the softness.

::Stop!:: the little self-preservation voice in my head shouts. I don't want to let myself do these things, but I'm helpless to resist. He's so close for the first time in so long, how can I be expected to? The smell is so familiar, and I realize I woke up with it this morning, faintly clinging to my pillows. I push my mind to separate reality from delusion, but last night is such a blur. I have no recollection of kicking him. And doing the number I obviously did on my hand. But I do remember this shirt... and this smell... Muldersmell.... and my face rubbing into it just like I'm doing now. I concentrate harder, but all I get for my trouble is a renewed headache. Everything is just too foggy, too nebulous. Sighing in defeat I drop his shirt, strip off my own and the sweats, and start to get in the tub.

And get caught by the mirror.

Turning slowly, I stare at myself. Okay, sure, I look like shit, big surprise. It's the... arm that draws the eye. Swallowing hard, I make myself move closer to the mirror, studying my torso and the new growth. I literally have an upper arm. A perfect, pure white, bloodless upper arm. That just... ends. Right where the elbow would be. Steeling myself, I move my shoulder. The odd growth - my arm - extends in front of me. The end of the stump is no longer rough and raw, scarred and lumpy. It's smooth, white and dead-looking, like the rest of the biceps. Forcing my right hand into action, I run my fingers over the very end. Nothing. No sensation at all. It looks for all the world like frostbite. I walk my fingers up the arm, up to the shoulder, moving my hand up and down over the invisible line that marks out what I can feel from what I can't feel.

I'm used to that. Parts of the stump were always numb. Other parts were tingly. I knew it was the truncated nerves, sending back fucked-up messages. I hated touching the stump. I used to massage it, when phantom pain started up. Hated every minute of it.

Now the line of numbness is more even. Right where the old scar tissue used to start. The color just fades out to white and... no feeling. Not even the crawling sensation from before. I wonder if that's good or bad. If I had sensation, even if the growth stopped here, I could get a new prosthetic. A better one. If the nerves regenerate.

For the first time the horror recedes just enough, and I fully grasp that this whole fucking mess could have a positive side for me. If I live.

I feel like I'm going to live. Today. I don't want to get overexcited, considering the success record of whatever is inside me. Considering how much we don't know. But my head is clearer today. And Mulder said they got information on me already. And Scully is good. And I actually feel okay. Not like I want to go run the Boston Marathon, sure, but not like all I want to do is curl up and die either. Maybe the sleep helped. Or maybe the stuff in me is backing off. I've been two days with no new injections.

Careful, Alex. Hope is dangerous. Optimism is nothing but an invitation to get fucked over. But... wow. What if. My arm. I could almost forgive the old bastard everything else if he actually got me my arm back.

Then again, let's not take this feeling better thing too far.

After all, if the injection effects are backing off, what does that mean for my new "arm". If I don't get new doses, does the arm stop growing? Is that why I can't feel anything in it? Why I don't have that crawling sensation? Pleasant thought. I'm not about to go offer myself back up to the good doctor for a few more injections just to get the full arm. Good reminder... rein it in, be realistic. Just because I wake up not feeling like I want to dig a hole and crawl into it, doesn't necessarily mean anything.

With a last brush over the strange growth, I tear myself away from the mirror and my circular thoughts. Shower. Clean is good. I'll feel even better when I can't smell myself with every move. As I start the water it finally occurs to me I'm alone in the house. The thought is enough to stop me. Skinner and Scully out walking. Mulder's boys on the road. Mulder himself out sulking over me not ripping out my heart and tossing it on the floor for him to dance on. Really ruined his day, I'm sure.

So, just little old me. I go back to testing the water temperature with a small smile. After all the leg irons and guard rotations and all the shit Skinner's been giving me, that's something of a surprise. I'd like to think it's a sign they've decided to trust me but... the three of them just aren't stupid. It would take a serious dive in IQ for any of them to trust me. No, I'd lay odds it's just Mulder being Mulder. They must have left him here watching me, but as usual, he does exactly what he damn well pleases.

Lucky for them I'm right where I want to be. For the moment, anyway. If I actually wanted to get away from them, this is all I'd need. Although it would be kind of funny to disappear, and watch Mulder have to explain it to Skinner. And Scully. Maybe I should hide and have a little fun... but no. That'll just get them all alert and on guard and make it harder for when I do need to slip away. Better to keep convincing them how harmless I am. Big stretch at the moment, I snort as I climb under the shower. But what the hell, I'll take advantage of it if it gets them to lower their guard. Let them be just as sloppy as they want and keep pretending I don't even notice. It'll only help in the long run.

The water feels wonderful. I just stand under the heavy spray, eyes closed, and let my mind coast over my lackadaisical watchers. Scully and Skinner out walking. Hunh. So he feels better. That's good. Good for me. I was pretty sure that neutralizer should work, but you never know with Consortium products. Feels good to know Old Smokey's palm pilot is useless now. I don't like the idea of Skinner under any control but mine.

What a loss. Seriously depressing, that. Having an AD in my pocket felt damn good. Especially this AD. I twist my neck back and forth on my shoulders, waiting for the crack. Still, as usual, we make do with whatever circumstances throw at us. And fate is apparently tossing me another opportunity to try to work with these three. If they'll actually go for it.

Would be nice. Working with them to take him down. To take the whole fucking project down. An easy smile spreads across my face as my vertebrae finally give a satisfying snick. If I could just convince them we're better off working together with me on the loose, than locked up somewhere.

Dipping my head forward, letting the water pound down on the back of my head and neck, I let myself think what it could be like, being on their side. Officially. They're good people. I like them. Oh sure, they drive me as crazy as the rest of the human race, but I respect them. Scully's pretty damn amazing. I might have noticed it sooner if I hadn't been so jealous of her. And Mulder... I sigh. Let's just not even go there, Alex. Respect is the least of what I feel for him. Even old Walt. So maybe he's not the paragon of virtue he pretends to be, and maybe his hypocrisy makes my skin crawl, but they trust him. They must trust him for a reason. They don't trust easy, those two. Mulder never did and Scully's learned from the best, and from experience. And Skinner has gotten under Smokey's fingernails often enough. That's a point in his favor.

So, theorizing that I live through this, that Scully can get me through the medical side of things, help me understand what I'm dealing with... I roll my head from one shoulder to the other, considering possible scenarios. Option one, I live, I give them a run-around long enough to get out from under them, and disappear. Two, I live, I give them what I know, and throw in with them. Another assumption - assuming they trust that I actually am working with them. We work together to bring down the big boys and the oil. Conversely, number three, I live, give them what I know, and they keep me under lock and key so tight I can't get away, and basically ship me off to solitary.

I lift my head and let the spray hit me full in the face. Number three is definitely most likely. They haven't agreed to any kind of amnesty. They may have a vested interest in keeping me alive while I'm an alien science project and while I still have information they want, but I seriously doubt that concern will extend to my continued well-being when they've got what they need from me.

Which brings us back to 'depressing'. Understandable, expected even, but depressing.

After all, why would they trust me to work with them, if they just turned me loose. I have to laugh at the thought. I wouldn't trust me. Not with my history. I've always been out for myself, and I'm rather proud of that fact. Why would anyone believe I've decided to dedicate myself to saving the world from alien invaders just for the good of my soul? I laugh out loud, leaning forward against the shower wall. It sounds ridiculous, even to me. And if I just up and escape on them, there's another strike against giving them any reason to trust me.

Oh hell. This is stupid. Like I need their trust. Talk about pathetic. Pushing away from the wall, I straighten and reach for the familiar feel of self-reliance, and drag it around myself. I am all I can count on, and I've always known that. I am all I need. Get through this piece by piece. First, survive. Figure out what's in me, what it's likely to do, keep them on enough of a string to keep me protected until I have my full strength back, then deal with the rest. They don't matter. What they think, what they believe about me... none of it matters. I'll take the bastards down with or without the Three Musketeers. Wrapping myself up tight in self-interest, I can almost ignore the loneliness winding around my spine, through my chest, all through me.

It's not new. I can deal.

I tilt my face back under the spray again, and let it sluice through my hair, wiping the thoughts out of my mind. Shampoo... I need shampoo. I scan the shower shelf and see a little bottle full of a golden orange liquid, with the unlikely name Pumpkin Pie on it. Curious, I put the bottle between my teeth and twist off the cap. Wow. It really smells like pumpkin pie. Slightly spicy. It's great. I inhale again, letting the last of my thoughts drift away on the steam filling the bathroom. I take a closer look at the bottle and read it in bemusement. Shampoo, conditioner and body wash, all in one, plus an actual recipe for pumpkin pie. Weird, but works for me... sticking it back in my teeth I dump half the bottle in my hand and rub it all over.

Feeling better, Alex. Just go with it.


Jan. 28, 3:50 p.m.

Letting his hand curl comfortably around his cock, Mulder eased himself out of his jeans and began to stroke. Fully primed, his body responded eagerly to finally getting its way. Staring down at the cabin, he played his fingers over his swelling erection and wished he could see straight through to the shower. He didn't even try kidding himself that anything other than Alex was getting the starring role in this fantasy.

The minute the gate dropped, images of Alex from the past two days slammed through his mind like a frenetic slideshow. Alex's face twisted in pain, the repeated flashes of Alex's body. He started on a typical Alex scenario, the latest images of suffering blending with old memories - Alex slammed up against the bank of phones in a foreign airport, struggling, arched backwards, feet off the floor. The urge he'd resisted, of following Alex into the bathroom, jamming the door behind them, bending him over the sink counter and yanking the black jeans down off the round ass they clung to.

Pain looked good on the man. Always had. Pain and blood and bruising and suffering and that haunted look he'd been wearing since his latest ordeal. Mulder's breathing increased and he slowed his pumping, one finger teasing the head of his cock, over and over and around and then just there... on the underside. He gave a breathy moan and bucked into his hand. He'd be able to see Krycek's face, in the mirror over the sink. He'd yank back on the man's collar, force his head up and back, whisper low and hot in his ear that he was to look directly into the mirror, meet Mulder's eyes at all times, watch what Mulder was doing to him. Or else. He'd punctuate it with a sharp slap on the now bared ass, but Krycek would just moan and arch back into him, spreading his legs further. Slut. Pain-slut. He wanted it. Wanted to give himself to Mulder to take, and he'd do it, he'd watch the mirror with round, wide eyes. He'd suck on his swelling lower lip and watch as Mulder lined up his cock and thrust in, ramming him into the counter hard. He'd moan and arch his hips and take it all and ask for more, harder. "Fuck me, Mulder, please, fuck me hard." And he would... he would, Mulder would give him everything he begged for and then some, he'd fuck him hard and savage and over and over, staring into that pretty face, that pretty bloodied face, hold those lying green eyes with his own. And he'd see the truth in them, finally, he'd see Krycek's want, his need, for Mulder, for-

Without warning, a wave of vertigo flooded Mulder, and the fantasy shattered. His body teetered on the edge, his mind reaching for the lost images, so familiar from other jerk-off sessions. He had enough 'punish Alex' fantasies to make his own porn movie and a damn hot one it would be. But the face in the Hong Kong bathroom mirror kept morphing, shifting to the scared, wild eyes from the depths of the previous night. Mulder hissed in frustration... there was nothing arousing about that scene, but he couldn't block it, couldn't separate a suffering-Alex-face from the tortured expressions he'd been treated to the last two days. The convoluted emotions percolating just below the surface wouldn't let his brain shut down, and suddenly 'suffering Alex' just wasn't simple anymore.

::Great. Even jerking off is complicated now.:: Releasing a frustrated breath, Mulder shook out his shoulders and blanked his mind. He worked his hand gently over himself and let his eyes drift closed. He should have known tapping into his usual bank of Krycek-erotica wouldn't work quite the same, given the circumstances. Just go with the feeling and let the images rise... and between one blink and the next his mind flooded again, Alex curled next to him, Alex pressing closer, clinging to him, the smell of Alex in his nostrils. The dreams... the dreams... the dreams of the two of them, kissing, tasting, Alex dreaming of him, him hitting... pain... lip splitting... the need and the want bound up with the pain and the hurt and suddenly he was over the edge, his fingers hitting just the right trigger, coming in his hand, gasping at the rush of sensation... then gone.

Panting, his eyes opened and he blinked until they focused. He stared down at his hand, at his softening cock, trying to slow his breath. The tension drained out of his muscles, and he slumped on the rock, the warmth of the sun beating down on him. Bending forward he wiped his hand on the grass, then on his jeans. Tucking himself back in, he zipped and buttoned up, but continued to sit, staring down his small hill.

The emptiness in his chest ached.


Jan. 28, 4:10 p.m.

I haven't felt this good in I can't even remember how long. Rested, feeling clean, feeling safe, not hurting for the moment. As far as I'm concerned, the absence of pain makes a damn good paradise right about now.

Surrounded with the pumpkin smell, I rub it in everywhere. I work my hair into a lather and let it run down my face, slick my body with it. As my hand glides over my stomach to my crotch, the slickness of the bodywash sends a sensual rush through me, my fingers sliding over my dick, down to massage my balls. The slippery sensation keeps my hand lingering longer than necessitated by pure cleanliness, and I'm surprised to feel a pulse of interest swelling my dick. Hel-lo. I guess my libido is well and truly back. Nice... very nice.

I can't resist wallowing in it. What the hell, I'm alone in the house, nobody to bitch at me about taking too long in the shower. And how long has it been... way too long. Between being locked up, being tortured, feeling lousy, I can't even remember the last time I had a nice leisurely jerk off session. And right on time now, considering I'm interacting with a certain someone again. Being around Mulder always does kick start my engines. Thinking of that shirt of his out there on the floor, the smell of Mulder as I brought it to my face, sends a charge straight to my balls. Tilting my head back I work my hand smoothly from cock to balls and back again, teasing myself erect. Nice to know the equipment is still fully functional. In fact, the response is almost dizzying, the flood of pleasure overpowering as I let my mind play with Mulder and my hand starts a rhythmic... whoa...

...wait a minute...

...no almost about it... definitely dizzying...

The steamy air is suddenly too thick, too close, the shower stall wavering in and out of focus. Heat washes over me, and not the nice erotic kind of flush, but the full-on 'is it hot in here or is it me' variety. Yellow lights flash in front of my eyes and my knees feel like they want to join the water flowing down the drain... shaking my head sharply to clear it...

...ooooh...

...is such a mistake...


End of Chemical Agents Part Four


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