Approaching Concinnity

by Verily


TITLE: Approaching Concinnity
AUTHOR: Verily
EMAIL: verilyverily314@hotmail.com
DISTRIBUTION: Archive Freely

RATING: R
CATEGORIES: SA
KEYWORDS: M/K
SPOILERS: season seven and season eight

SUMMARY: Mulder and Krycek begin to fight the future.

Disclaimers: The X-files, Mulder, and Krycek belong to FOX and 1013 Productions. I do not own them. It's probably a good thing. I also quoted some dialogue from Pusher, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, and Closure. I also snuck one from Detour in there. Those lines don't belong to me either.

Author's Notes: This piece is a colonization fic, and it splits from the canon right after Mulder gets exhumed. So of course, Krycek isn't dead. Oh, and in my story, Scully never had that pointless kid.

Dedication: This piece is for Marcia Elena, a fantastic writer and my amazing beta reader, who put in a lot of work to fix all my mistakes. Most importantly, however, she inspired me to keep writing. I'm sure that this would never have been finished if it weren't for her. This is also my thank you to all the amazing writers out there, who have shared so much of themselves. This is my attempt to give something back.


APPROACHING CONCINNITY (Part 1)

11:21 AM
13 November 2000
Washington D.C.

Time stretched as he fell. He relaxed into the motion, registering snapshots of perception--the way gray sky and rain-glazed cement twisted crazily around him as he dived, the way the straps of his prosthetic bit into his skin, the sound of a 9mm slug whistling past his left ear. Flowing gracefully out of the roll with a soft scrape of leather on pavement, he found his gun already in his hand and extended, pointed directly at his assailant. He adjusted his aim, and fired. Once.

The other man went down without a sound. Krycek took a moment to scan the alley before walking over. No one was in sight. He noticed the man reaching convulsively for the weapon he had dropped when he'd been hit. Krycek kicked it away before putting a booted foot down on the assassin's larynx, cutting off his air.

"Who sent you?" He looked down into glassy blue eyes before letting up on the pressure.

"Don't kill me."

Krycek stepped down again, staring straight into the kid's eyes. "Tell me who you work for."

"Covarrubias." The kid gasped and coughed. Krycek watched a thin trail of blood seep from the corner of his mouth.

"Why does she want me dead?"

"I don't know."

Krycek stepped down harder, cocking his head in silent disbelief.

"You-" It was a strangled gasp. Krycek let up on the pressure.

"You picked the wrong side." The kid was turning blue. "Please-"

Krycek nodded, taking his foot off the younger man's throat. He wasn't a kid, not really. He was older than Krycek had been when Spender had made him a consortium errand boy. Kryeck pulled off his glove with his teeth and reached out to brush blonde hair back from skin that already felt cool. He said a few words in Russian--maybe an apology--before bringing his gun up to the man's temple. With a clenched jaw and a steady gaze, he pulled the trigger.

He left the body in a dumpster.

He stopped by the parking garage where he kept a car with fake plates for emergencies and shoved the kid's gun into the glove compartment. After that little detour, he spent the day waiting in various back alleys, picking up a small fortune's worth of surveillance equipment to supplement what he'd scavenged from previous jobs and from the shambles of superannuated syndicate operations.

While he was making the rounds to his various suppliers, his thoughts kept returning to Marita. With glacial eyes and a voice to match, she was the new face of colonist collaboration. Originally, it had been both of them, dutifully carrying on the consortium tradition of double-dealing and soul selling. They became the darker doppelgangers of Mulder and Scully and, ironically, they had put aside their differences and come together just in time to inadvertently destroy their morally scrupulous counterparts.

He and Marita weren't to last. When they had first met, five years ago, they had immediately formed a twisted kinship, but it was a fragile thing and warped into hatred after she walked off with the card he needed to finally back out of the consortium's game. Since that time, he'd worked with her when he had to, but his resentment ran deep.

Two weeks ago, he'd told her to fuck off, and walked away from his expensive car, his tailored wardrobe, and his gourmet coffee like it was so much trash. They meant nothing to him. She meant nothing to him. The closest thing to regard he'd felt for her came in the last ten seconds of their final conversation when he'd looked into her eyes, which somehow were full of fear, as she'd snapped that it was his own grave he was digging.

Right now she was probably still sitting in her office of glass and mahogany, trying to figure him out, trying to pin him down, trying to distill his motivations into something that would fit in a file folder. He wondered whether she had lost any sleep trying to discover if he was working an angle he hadn't told her about. That was probably why she hadn't made a real attempt to kill him. Yet.

The November sun was sinking behind the low clouds at the horizon when Krycek let himself into apartment fifty-two. He'd been in and out all day, bringing an eclectic assortment of boxes and bags in at random intervals, managing to meet none of the other tenants on the stairs. Fortunately, it wasn't a very friendly building. Alone, he used the remains of the day to assemble a collection of wires, switchboards and cables. The only sounds that broke the silence were the odd snaps and clicks as he connected leads. He'd been here two days ago to drill through the floor in three places and he already had tiny fiber optic cables in place. Yesterday he'd had video monitors delivered, ordered off the net in a cyber cafe with a credit card that wouldn't exist anymore in two weeks.

A few minutes before it became too dark to continue working, Krycek hit a button, watching the three monitors spring to life. He looked at the images critically. They were better than expected but not as good as he'd hoped, considering what he'd paid for the cables. He was afforded a black and white view of the corridor outside apartment forty-two, as well as his target's living room and anteroom. No audio yet, but he could wait a few days and bug the apartment and phone when the man was at work. He sat back, leaning against the wall.

He fixed his eyes on the window. He had missed the sunset, absorbed in his work, but he watched the twilight deepen until a thick blackness pressed against the pane. Finally, he stood, pulled down the shade, and dropped into a chair opposite the screens that perched atop a desk.

Other than the chair, desk, and nexus of hardware, the apartment was completely unfurnished. Krycek didn't mind the Spartan character of his new accommodation. He found luxury to be a distraction rather than an asset.

He surfed the net while waiting for his target to show. He cancelled two credit cards belonging to one of his obsolete identities, then spent a few minutes scanning the headlines. He was in the middle of checking his email when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked up at the monitors.

Thoughts on the implications of political insurrection in Tunisia ground to a screeching halt as he watched Mulder walk down the hall on monitor one, seeing the other man for the first time since he'd paid a visit to the hospital, fifteen days ago.

Krycek had lurked in the corridors of Georgetown Memorial until Scully finally left her former partner's bedside. He had stolen into the room, and spent a good thirty seconds standing there in stunned disbelief. Then he'd pulled himself together, completed the job he'd come to do and, to cheer himself up, spent half an hour mercilessly tormenting Skinner and Doggett. A small, cruel smile touched his lips at the memory.

He watched Mulder key into his apartment, moving from the first monitor to the second. Krycek looked at his watch. 5:48 PM, much earlier than he'd expected the agent to show. He frowned, watching monitor two, as Mulder dumped a pile of files onto the floor.

//He's still a slob. Nice to know that some things never change.//

The man walked onto monitor three, throwing himself down on the couch. Krycek leaned forward, moving closer to look at the files on the floor.

His eyes narrowed. They definitely weren't X-files. It was hard to tell from the picture quality, but Krycek thought they looked remarkably like personnel files. Five personnel files. He turned back to his laptop, tapping keys quickly with his right hand. In a matter of minutes he had Mulder's file open. He scrolled down, already suspecting what he'd find.

7:24 PM
13 November 2000
Alexandria, Virginia

Mulder picked up the files he had dumped on the floor, walked over to the desk, and slammed them down. He got a lungful of dust in exchange for his spite and retreated to the kitchen searching for a paper towel to obliterate yet another reminder of the time he'd lost. He finally found an old roll after opening several empty cupboards. He ripped a sheet away from its flat, blue compatriots and stuck it under a stream of cold water, wringing it out savagely.

Angry. He absolutely had to stay angry.

Almost frantic, he wiped down the desk, shoving books and papers out into midair where they hung for a split second before crashing to the floor. His phone followed suit with a clatter, until he was standing above a completely clear and dust-free wooden surface. He hurled the used paper towel at the trashcan, and started pulling books off the floor where they'd fallen and stacking them haphazardly in precarious piles.

Inevitably, the energy drained out of him and his movements slowed. When he had gathered the last of the loose papers into a disorganized bundle, he dropped into his chair, resting his head in his hands. He was exhausted, totally incapable of holding onto the receding wisps of his transient fury.

After a few moments, he reached down, retrieving the phone from where it had fallen. He set it carefully back on the desk, and ran his fingers over the black plastic of the handset as if he were contemplating picking it up. Brutally deracinating any thoughts of self-pity that had begun to flower in his mind, he pulled his fingers away and, curling them into a fist that made his knuckles crack, he thought sarcastically of those old phone company commercials that he used to hate.

//Reach out and touch someone. Right.//

She knew already, and there wasn't any more to say. His thoughts slid over the events of the afternoon, and his mind, treacherous as always, forced him to relive the pained conversations again and again.

It had begun in Skinner's office.

Skinner had looked down at his hands when Mulder entered the familiar room. In the distance, Mulder could hear thunder. As soon as he had seen the paper beneath the AD's hands, he knew.

Orders, passed down from on high, no doubt. His time was up.

"Sir?" It sounded respectful enough, he supposed.

"Mulder. Come in." He watched Skinner watching him. He doubted that the AD could see the fading scars in the dim light.

Mulder thought about asking why Skinner hadn't turned the lights on, but changed his mind. The dark suited both of them.

"This morning-" Skinner lost momentum as he looked directly into Mulder's eyes. Very few people seemed to be able to meet them anymore. He wondered why. The AD looked down before trying again.

"This morning I received some disturbing information regarding your career path."

"I think I can guess." His voice was quiet and measured, almost soothing. "I've been reassigned." He remembered sitting in this office, hearing those words before. He remembered the anger that had run like fire through his body, the way it had felt when it blazed in his eyes and in his voice.

There was nothing now, except the cold memory of former passion.

"You're being given a choice," Skinner clarified, still not looking at him. "You can either accept the assignment they're offering, or you can resign." There was a brief pause.

"What's the assignment?"

"They want you to head the ISU." The offer hung between them in the air for a moment. A promotion. He didn't trust it.

"What about the X-files?"

"They stay open," Skinner said, "Run by Scully and Agent Doggett." Mulder nodded slowly. "Mulder, I should tell you, the ISU is-"

"A hellhole." Mulder said dryly. "I know. Though I have been out of touch for a while." Skinner flinched slightly as Mulder continued. "I thought Michaelson would be head of it by now."

"That's the bitch of it," Skinner said. "He's supposed to be next in line. And he wants it, I think."

Mulder bit the inside of his lip.

"Do you see what's happening here?" Skinner asked him, standing up and moving to the window, looking out into the maze of marble buildings.

"It's a setup. They'll fire me for incompetence if I don't turn the ISU around." It was an elegant plan, really. He was impressed.

"If, on the off-chance, you succeed, then they'll still have won. They'll have you where they want you."

//Working myself to death, boosting solve rates and insurance premiums.//

"Who sent the orders?"

"The Director, supposedly," Skinner said darkly, watching the rain approach from the west. "But it came down through Kersh's office. He hates you, Mulder." Skinner glanced over at him with a hint of a smile on his face, suggesting that being hated by the new deputy director didn't lose him any points in Skinner's book.

"But I'm not sure-" Skinner broke off and his smile faded into nothing. "I think it might be more complicated than that."

Mulder waited for him to continue, not in a mood to be helpful by jumping to conclusions.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Skinner said, settling for vague, as usual. He looked down, and took off his glasses. Mulder cocked his head, two fingers resting lightly against his jaw, lips twitching, fighting a losing battle against the macabre smile and the hysterical laughter that rose out of the emptiness beneath his ribs.

"Well," Mulder said, not totally successful in keeping the grim amusement out of his voice, "I think, comparatively speaking, I've been in worse places than the ISU."

Skinner flinched as if he had been slapped, still not raising his eyes.

Amusement morphed into fury in the space of a heartbeat, but whether it was at himself or at Skinner he didn't know. The grave had obscured his identity, had turned his colleagues and friends into strangers and, as if death somehow hadn't been enough, Mulder had been medically resurrected only to witness the staggering scope of his own defeat, the loss of his life's work.

As quickly as it had come, his anger faded to dull acceptance. He stared at the defeated set of Skinner's shoulders, at the lines of guilt engraved into the other man's forehead.

He let his eyelids slip closed in a long blink, wanting to direct Skinner away from the road he himself had walked down too many times. He took a moment to settle on an approach, then opened his eyes and began to speak.

"I used to think that everything was just chance. That nothing happened for a reason. That all this," Mulder made a small gesture encompassing the surrounding walls with their flags and pictures, "was just the sum of millions of variables. No pattern."

"And now?" Skinner asked, looking up at him. Finally looking.

"I believe that all this is happening for a reason." With an easy, natural delivery sugarcoating his lie, his sin of omission, Mulder felt the silence grow less heavy, and saw Skinner relax under his gaze.

"You're going to take the job."

"Yes."

"I think that's best. If you can turn the ISU around," Skinner's voice was hopeful, "Then maybe there's a shot at getting you back on the X-files."

"Maybe," Mulder echoed.

"I'll do what I can," Skinner promised.

"I know you will."

The conversation then moved to particulars. He received the names and personnel files of the five agents in the ISU. He was ordered to move into his new office over the coming weekend, so the last fuck-up who'd made a mess of the unit could move his shit out in peace.

He stepped out into the hallway, where it was brighter. His face was schooled into impassivity, his stride relaxed, projecting nonchalance. It was the best defense against the stares, the whispers about coffins and torture.

He couldn't go home without telling Scully. He was tempted to just leave and call her later, but somehow that seemed like running. Mercilessly, he forced himself to walk down the familiar stairs to the basement office.

"Look Dana, I don't have anything against the guy, I'm just saying that maybe he was a little too close to the work to begin with. And considering that he- I just think maybe this is for the best." It was Doggett's buddy-buddy drawl. Mulder stepped forward, leaning casually against the doorframe. They weren't looking at him.

"This is Mulder's work." Scully's response was automatic, reassuring.

"Not entirely," Mulder said from the doorway. They both started guiltily at the sound of his voice.

"Mulder." It was strange, the way she could say so much in just one word. As Skinner's had earlier, her eyes dropped away from his face after a few seconds. He didn't blame them. The reality of what had happened to him was etched into his skin in graphic detail. He felt like a walking accusation.

"It's true though. It's not just mine." He gave her an empty smile, trying to make this as painless as possible, trying to avoid a repeat of his conversation with Skinner.

"But you live for this job." She sounded uncertain.

Something broke loose deep in his chest.

"I died for this job."

She flinched and then clenched her shoulders, drawing into herself. When she looked back up, her expression was closed, her eyes giving no more away than blue shutters.

"It's never stopped you before." Her words were dry, cutting.

"Scully," he said softly, trying to pull her back from her anger. "Scully, I can't think of anyone I'd rather have holding down the fort. I just have to play nice for a little while. Keep the ISU from going down in flames." He smiled at her, but his heart wasn't in it.

She watched him, waiting for something. He didn't know what. He wanted to give it to her, whatever it was, but he had nothing left.

"I trust you to keep things on track." It wasn't the right thing to say, because she crossed her arms, looking down. "I trust both of you."

He was almost convinced it was true.

Doggett nodded, and stuck his hand out, trying to diffuse the awkwardness. The gesture seemed helpless and desperate, as Doggett had no reason to trust that Mulder wouldn't just leave him hanging. He reached out and clasped Doggett's hand, giving him a faint smile.

"I'd better go," Mulder said quietly.

"Mulder-"

He cut her off with a shake of his head, and turned away from his old office. "Keep me posted," he said over his shoulder.

He wasn't sure if she had heard him.

Mulder dragged his mind away from his encounter with Scully, forcing his attention back to the five files in front of him. The ISU had ushered him into the Bureau back when he had come out of Quantico, never innocent, but somehow less tarnished. Now it looked like it would be ushering him out as well.

The unit had been Patterson's pet project, and Mulder doubted that his influence would ever be truly gone from the organization. After Mulder had put his former mentor away, leadership fell to Erik Morris, a devoted follower of Patterson. Mulder had never had the pleasure of working with him first hand, but if rumors could be believed, Morris had Patterson's propensity for brutal work regimens with none of Bill's finesse. Patterson had been a master manipulator, and while he'd worked under him, Mulder had resented the man. To be fair though, Bill had only lost one agent. In his first eight months, Morris had a staggering four agents leave the unit. Coming so hard upon the heels of the double loss of Patterson and Nemhauser, the unit buckled. Its solve rate plummeted, its funding was cut. Morris had held on to the job for years--maybe out of some misguided devotion to Patterson, until ten days ago, when two of his agents had been murdered in the field by a killer they were profiling.

In the firestorm that followed, Morris had been demoted and shipped to Reno, and there had been talk of reassigning all the remaining agents, restructuring the whole unit. Michaelson, the senior agent remaining, protested, but the top brass wanted to transfuse some new blood into Patterson's broken legacy. The problem was that no one really wanted the dubious honor of heading the damn thing. Whoever took the job was likely to be fired at the first minor mishap, the five agents railroaded, and the whole unit replaced with the top ten kids from Quantico.

He pressed his fingers gently against a sudden stab of pain that throbbed through his left temple, distracted by the familiar ache.

Scully had told him a few days ago that the condition he'd lived with for a year had been miraculously cured during his stay aboard the ship. She had wanted to do tests, wanted to explain what had happened to him in the multicolored transparencies of electroencephalograms and the glorious complexity of medical jargon.

//No thanks.//

He preferred not to know what sinister secrets lurked behind this latest violation. He shut his eyes, wanting to sleep, wanting to cut off the gray monologue of his own thoughts. Dreams carried their own dangers, of course--the terror of waking in the dark, certain he'd been buried alive, the times he woke screaming himself hoarse reliving the pain of torture, or any one of a dozen older nightmares that still plagued him.

The dreams were hard to bear, disturbing his sleep as frequently as they did, but he hated the nights when he didn't dream even more. They passed in forgiving oblivion, until he opened his eyes to let in the merciless dawn, and wished that Skinner had left him in the ground.

1:32 AM
14 November 2000
Alexandria, Virginia

Krycek knelt amidst a sea of loose paper, courtesy of his hack into the FBI mainframe. It had seemed at first glance that Mulder's appointment to the ISU was just a fast track to getting fired. In the past half hour, however, he had begun to suspect something a bit more sinister.

His first tip-off was the paper trail. The story he was supposed to be buying was that the orders for Mulder's transfer had come straight from the Director. It seemed, however, that Kersh, being the neurotic bastard that he was, saved copies of every memo he wrote. It turned out that the brilliant idea for Mulder's reassignment had originally come out of Kersh's office in the form of a cryptically worded request, which, unless Krycek missed his guess, was actually a veiled threat aimed straight at the Director.

After that memo, things had proceeded according to Kersh's plan, and the orders slid down the chain of command to land on Skinner's desk.

He had no doubt that there was some sort of double-dealing going on. Kersh was someone's pawn. Most likely, he was in Covarrubias' pocket. And her reasons for wanting Mulder off the X-files weren't hard to fathom. She was a collaborator and Mulder was an asset for the "resist" half of "Resist or Serve."

He turned back to the personnel files. Five names. Only two caught his attention.

Janet Stewart. An average looking brunette. Hardly the top of her class at Quanitco, but she had an excellent solve rate. Divorced, twice. No children. Currently single. Bitter, then, he supposed. Her file contained four commendations, two reprimands--both for verbal abuse of another agent. She had a temper, apparently. Stewart had done a stint in the army to pay for college. Majored in criminal justice. From what Krycek could tell, she was somewhat at odds with the rest of the unit. Several of her evaluations were in the "not a team player" vein.

Adam Michaelson. He was the only other agent with a decent solve rate. It was an excellent solve rate really, if you didn't compare him to Mulder or Frank Black. Nine commendations and eight reprimands, most for not playing nice with the local law enforcement. Psych evaluation showed one dead brother, a victim of a serial killer back in the early eighties. Michaelson was another that performance reviews deemed "not a team player," but he was next in line to head the team.

These two were the cornerstones of the unit, and from their case histories, he concluded that they were the ones who got the tough serials. If Mulder could win them over, the other three, Edwards, McKeon, and Featherstone, would follow. Ultimately, it was difficult to predict how easy a time Mulder would have trying to turn these five back into a unit. Not that Krycek was unduly concerned with the politics of the ISU. His job was to keep Mulder alive.

His thoughts were interrupted by the low buzz of his cell phone against his hip.

"Yes?" his voice was quiet.

"Mall. Southside." He recognized Jack's voice instantly.

"When?"

"I'm already there." The line went dead.

Jack, another consortium operative, had been Krycek's partner ten years ago. They had gone their separate ways after only three months, when Krycek had been assigned to Mulder and Jack was ordered to New Orleans. The three months that they had worked together hadn't been long enough for either one to betray the other, so they had stayed in touch, more out of mutual self-interest than any ties of amity.

Jack was a master at staying on top of the ever-shifting power struggles within the consortium, which meant that he'd been with them longer than any other operative. It also meant, that right now, he was working for Marita.

It never hurt to keep one's options open though, and Jack had offered to serve as Krycek's informant. That was why the other man was the only person with Krycek's cell number. He knew better than to call unless it was important. Krycek turned an unreadable gaze on the surveillance monitors, then, grabbing his keys, he walked out the door.

He felt the frosted grass crunch under his boots as he crossed the mall. Even when he could see Jack, waiting at their prearranged meeting spot, he didn't take his hand off his gun.

"Alex. Buddy. Long time no see." Jack's friendly faade had smoothed over many a past dispute, but tonight, it only irritated Krycek. Whatever face he might choose to put forward, the man was still working for Marita.

"I'm not your buddy." Krycek's words condensed into icy white streams in the night air. "I met someone this morning. Maybe you know him. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Nice kid. Tried to off me."

"Did you kill him?" There was no false goodwill in Jack's voice now.

"Yes."

"She expected you to."

"Does she know you're here?" There was a hard edge to Krycek's voice.

"No." Jack looked at him. Face open. Krycek relaxed marginally.

"Why the hell didn't you warn me she was sending someone?" He allowed a hint of anger to seep into his voice.

"I didn't know. I didn't know until this afternoon. I called as soon as I could. I didn't know if he might've-"

"Please," Krycek said, affronted.

"Sorry." Jack sounded amused.

"What do you want, Jack?" Krycek said, sitting down beside his former partner.

"I thought you would want to know. You, of all people, deserve to know." Jack looked nervously into the night, running a hand through dark hair.

"Deserve to know what?" Krycek prompted.

"Covarrubias is going to hand over the vaccine." Jack's voice was quiet. Afraid.

"How much of it?"

"I don't know, Alex. A lot."

Krycek was silent for a full minute, contemplating the magnitude of Marita's betrayal. He forced down a slow tide of panic that rose from deep in his chest. When he finally spoke, his control was perfect; his words slid into the air, smooth and cold as ice. "What about the plan to distribute it as a flu shot this winter?"

"They found out, and they asked her to hand the stockpiles over. In return, they've offered positions of power to her and her circle when they start to colonize. And a guarantee that anyone she names will be protected." Jack's voice had dropped to a hollow whisper. "She fucking sold out, Alex. And unless you're on the inside you don't have a chance in hell of surviving."

"I'd rather die than crawl back to that bitch." It was an understandable sentiment, but it was a lie. He didn't want Jack to know the real reason. Jack, of course, guessed anyway.

"What the hell are you thinking? If you believe that Spooky Mulder is the key to surviving this thing, then think again." Krycek's face remained totally impassive as Jack continued. "You realize what's going to happen if they ask for him, don't you?"

Krycek's jaw clenched involuntarily.

"And they will, Alex. They will ask for him. It's only a matter of time."

"She wouldn't turn him over. He's too important."

"Is he?"

"He's the key to her project." Krycek persisted, stubbornly.

"Not anymore, Alex. I know we all thought so, a year back, when he reacted to the artifact, but if he really were a hybrid, if he really was a success, then why would the colonists have given him back? Have you asked yourself that?"

Krycek swallowed his response. He had already given too much away.

"When is she handing the vaccine over?" Krycek asked, bringing them both back to the subject they'd come to discuss.

"December twenty-forth. Christmas Eve." Jack's voice was the barest whisper. "They're going to destroy everything on the twenty-fifth."

"So soon." Krycek breathed. It was an incredibly short timetable by colonist standards.

"Yeah." Jack sounded unsettled. "Look, I should go. If anyone suspects I'm here-"

"I know. Call if you get any more information."

They parted, moving silently into the darkness of the mall. Krycek's steps were quick, and there was a coiled urgency about his gait. He walked like a man who had somewhere to be. Traffic wasn't too heavy, and he liberally broke the speed limit on his way back to Alexandria. He made good time.

Not bothering to turn on a light, he quickly scanned the apartment out of habit, then turned to the surveillance monitors. Mulder was slumped over his desk. Krycek frowned.

Pulling out his cell phone, he punched in a series of numbers. He watched Mulder jerk awake at the first ring. Satisfied, he disconnected before the agent had a chance to pick up.

10:07 AM
16 November 2000
Washington D.C.

He was late, which of course had its disadvantages, namely that he hadn't been able to see the five enter the room, hadn't been able to monitor their interactions. On the other hand, they had probably expected him to watch them file in like suspects in a lineup. Late meant no awkward silences that people felt compelled to fill with meaningless small talk.

Ten minutes after the scheduled briefing time, he walked into the room. Michaelson and Featherstone were sitting together, talking in low tones. McKeon was sitting back, staring into space. Stewart was wearing street clothes and had her feet on the table, her arms crossed defensively over her chest. She was glaring at Michaelson. Edwards was looking down at a file. Mulder took them in at a glance, letting their hostility and curiosity sweep over him as he took his seat.

They looked like shit. Mulder knew they couldn't have had any real counseling after the deaths of their colleagues. The Bureau shrinks had sworn off the ISU, and the ISU, as it had always done, treated them with barely veiled contempt.

He looked at them, seeing guilt behind their eyes and in the demoralized lines of their bodies. They froze under his gaze. The restless angles and lines of their clenched muscles transformed the conference room into a crammed and sunless sculpture garden, full of knotted tension, which zeroed in on the spot where he was sitting. Their anger and suspicion broke on the impenetrable stone of his carefully controlled countenance.

"You must be Spooky Mulder." Michaelson's baiting drawl broke the silence and the agents in front of him rearranged, pressing imperceptibly forward, watching for an opening, for any kind of weakness.

"In the flesh." His words were wry, chosen to purposefully open the door for the subject that was on everyone's mind.

"The last we heard," Michaelson said, almost casually, "you were dead."

Mulder looked at him, raising his eyebrows. "I got better."

The comment earned him a few smiles, and an amused sounding snort from Stewart. Michaelson, however, pressed on.

"We heard," He continued leisurely, "That you actually believe you were abducted by aliens." The words hit the table, incredulous and challenging, and the room went silent, like a glove had been thrown down.

He felt their stares pressing in around him as he struggled to keep his breathing even, struggled to repress the sound of the saw slicing through bone and the way the warm mist of his own blood hit his face as he screamed for Scully-

"I don't remember anything from the time I was missing," Mulder lied, knowing Michaelson would move in on the obvious weakness. The other man looked at him, letting the silence hang over their heads for a moment.

"Apparently you have a problem with these periodic memory lapses," Michaelson continued. "Isn't that what you said about your sister? That you couldn't remember what happened the night she was taken?"

Mulder didn't trust himself to say anything.

"Do you know what they say about you?" Michaelson's voice was low now, and Mulder realized he was on the receiving end of the other man's best interrogation technique.

"They say that you're insane. That you should be locked up, just like you locked up Patterson." Michaelson leaned forward just a little farther. "They say that you're unstable. That even the Ice Queen thinks you've gone around the bend."

The situation was sliding out of his control, and he fought the impulse to let his fingers touch still healing scars. He fought to remain impassive, to give away nothing. Michaelson curled his lips into a pained semblance of a smile--certain of his victory. There was no real satisfaction in the other man's eyes, only pain buried behind remorseless aggression. Mulder recognized something of himself in those eyes, and knew that there would be no quarter asked or given in this contest of wills. Knew there was only one way to beat Michaelson at his own game.

"They say," Mulder said, his voice low and deadly, "That I killed my sister and my father, and lied about it to cover my own ass." He leaned forward. "They say that the only reason I've kept my job is because I let the top brass fuck me in exchange for every paycheck." His voice was brutal, and Michaelson leaned back slightly, too well trained to let the surprise flicker across his face.

"They say," Mulder continued ruthlessly, "That I disappeared of my own volition and kidnapped Gibson Praise out of some deluded search for the truth about aliens." He smiled bitterly. "They also say," he said softly, letting his eyes blaze at Michaelson, "That I was buried alive."

He leaned back into the shocked silence he had created, taking them all in with a sweeping glance. Then, Spooky Mulder, at the top of his game again, looked back at Michaelson.

"Yes, Michaelson. I know what they say."

No one spoke.

"Why do you think they gave me this job?" He raised his voice slightly, looking around the room. No one met his eyes. "They gave it to me because they want to fire me." He waited a moment before driving his point home. "But it's not just me they want to get rid of."

"It's all of us," Stewart said. "They want to can all of us."

"Yes." Mulder said shortly. "And we can make it easy for them, or we can make it hard. It's your choice." He got a few small smiles in return.

"I think," Stewart said, "That if there's anything we all have in common, it's a talent for making things hard." Mulder gave her a wry, satisfied smile.

"I'm inclined to agree." He had won a minor victory, and it was time for everyone to retreat to their respective corners, and start sorting through the work.

"As of this morning," Mulder said, "The ISU had nine open cases. I want to know who's been working on what." His words were clipped, self-assured, and he looked directly at Michaelson.

Crossing his arms, the other man looked at him with something that resembled guarded respect. "Three are research jobs--just confirmation that old sets of bones are from serials back in the 70s and 80s. We've got two bodies in Philly that may or may not be the work of one killer. We've got a fetishist in Sacramento that's not escalating. We've got a fetishist in Detroit that IS escalating. We've got a ritualistic killing in Tulsa. We've got a murder that might be ritualistic just outside Seattle. We've got two victims with ligature marks in Bismark. Statistically that one's probably a serial."

"Pitch the three research jobs. Send them back to the local offices. We don't need that shit."

"That's gonna piss of the regional headquarters-" Stewart began testily.

"Tell them to call me, if they have a problem." The room was silent. "I want progress reports from everyone." He waited.

"Right now," he snapped. "You can start us off, Stewart."

Mulder leaned back, listening as they briefed him on the details of the six remaining cases, watching their closed expressions, their defensive movements. When the meeting was over, he stood, taking the escalating fetishist file from Michaelson.

"I want everything on my desk before you leave tonight." It was a harsh deadline, and he knew it. He wanted them to have nothing to do tomorrow. He wanted to shake them out of their old routine. He wanted them to take a break--play some basketball--do something that would get that guilt out of their eyes.

"Tonight?" The word exploded angrily out of Stewart.

"Yes. If you can't finish just give me your notes. I want to look over everything."

"Why?" It was Michaelson. "Checking up on us?" Mulder considered lying, but knew he wouldn't be able to pull it off.

"Yes," he said, inviting another confrontation.

"And what makes you qualified to review our work? I was under the impression," Michaelson said, his words designed to cut, "that you were the only profiler who couldn't hack it under Patterson."

"It's true. Isn't irony a bitch sometimes?" He gave Michaelson the same smirk that used to turn Bill an interesting shade of red. Then he turned and walked back to Patterson's old office. He called the switchboard operator and asked her to direct all consulting calls from local offices to his phone for the day, rather than to the ISU phones. He was going to give those five a break, whether they knew they wanted one or not.

After he'd slogged through the morning's requisite paperwork, he let the file he'd taken from Michaelson absorb him. He allowed his thoughts and fingers to slide over the crime scene photographs as his eyes drifted over autopsy reports and written testimonies. The work was familiar, and the profile flowed naturally from the tableau of evidence spread before him. Two hours later, he faxed his file to the Detroit office. He returned to his office just in time to snag his ringing phone off the hook, and fielded a consult call from Nevada.

Slightly bored, waiting for his agents to show up with their work, he stared into space, wondering what Scully was working on at the moment. He could almost see her-

The noise hit him like a physical blow. Pain lashed through his temples, coming with the familiar shrill dissonance. Below the sound, he heard the unmistakable flow of her thoughts.

//Ishouldstopbyandseehowhe--no.no.// Her thoughts rushed together, half words, half pictures. She was close, very close, standing in the hallway outside. He could feel the ache in her feet from walking too far in the ridiculous four-inch heels she was wearing.

Mulder pulled back, wrenching himself out of Scully's mind. The room was silent again, the only sound his shaky breathing. He forced himself to relax, pulling his hand away from his head. Slowly, the feeling of vertigo passed. He shut his eyes against the pain that had curled into two symmetrical bands running from his temples back behind his ears, just below the temporal plates of his skull.

Maybe he should have let Scully run some of those tests after all.

10:45 AM
17 November 2000
Alexandria, Virginia

Krycek frowned as he unscrewed the receiver of Mulder's phone. This job, which had started out as a low profile surveillance gig, had recently become quite a bit more expensive. After talking to Jack, it had become obvious that he couldn't afford to take any chances.

So here he was, bugging Mulder's phone, wiring his apartment for sound, installing motion detectors in the parts of the apartment he couldn't see, and putting a GPS tracking device on his car. And that was just to keep tabs on his not-so-personal life. Krycek had a feeling that it might be a bit more difficult to set up surveillance at the Bureau.

Ideally, he wanted to bug Mulder's office phone, set up video and audio surveillance in his office, and maybe the briefing room. And while he was at it, he wouldn't mind bugging Skinner's office, the X-files office, and maybe Scully's apartment.

//Dream on.//

Even if he'd had the time to set it all up, there weren't enough hours in the day for him to keep tabs on everyone. Plus, there was the financial aspect to consider. The state of the art stuff he was using certainly didn't come cheap, and he was footing the bill for this entire operation. He did not want to risk boosting a few cars to pay off debts incurred while infiltrating the FBI. There were just too many ways for that to get ugly.

He turned his thoughts back to the task at hand and moved quickly through Mulder's apartment. Periodically he glanced at his palm pilot, making sure Mulder's car, to which he had affixed a GPS locator this morning, was still at the Bureau.

Less than fifteen minutes after he had broken into Mulder's apartment, he was back upstairs, configuring software. He plugged headphones into the audio feed, and then pulled out his phone, dialing Mulder's number.

The incredibly loud scream of the phone shot painfully into his ears, startling a short string of Russian curses out of him as he tore the headphones off. Irritated, he turned down the volume.

Satisfied with the setup, he went over to the closet and yanked out a suit. He changed quickly, wanting to arrive at the Bureau just before the lunch hour ended, when the secretaries would be back at their desks. He looked at himself critically. Shiny shoes, conservative tie. His hair had the short, gel-encrusted look he'd cultivated back when he'd actually worked at the Bureau. He'd gotten it cut yesterday morning while Mulder was doing his briefing with the ISU boys. He had his old ID badge in his pocket. It wouldn't hold up if someone really looked at it, but it was good enough from a distance. His standard issue 9mm Sig Sauer was in a holster under his left arm.

Prosthetic. Shit. In a building full of Fibbies, someone was sure to notice the hand. He pulled a glove on over the prosthetic, then used his teeth to get one over his right hand. He looked at himself again. His appearance was respectable, but something was definitely missing.

He flashed his reflection an evil grin and headed downstairs. Keying into Mulder's apartment one more time, he went over to the closet and grabbed the agent's spare trench.

//It's for my cover. It's not that I want to wear his clothes.//

Dressed like this, he could probably waltz through the front door. But that seemed like asking for trouble, so he entered via his usual route--the service doors in the basement. It used to be convenient, since the X-files office was already down there. Now, it was just a hassle, since he'd have to pass the office and go up the stairs to get to the bullpen hallway. There was a distinct danger of running into Doggett, or worse, Scully.

He approached the office cautiously, and heard the sound of fingernails clicking against keys from behind the closed door that no longer said Fox Mulder. Scully was in there, at least. He started up the stairs, relieved.

He heard feet on the steps as he turned the corner and felt a flash of panic as Doggett practically ran into him.

"Sorry," Doggett said automatically, almost dropping the two sandwiches and drinks he was carrying.

"No problem." Krycek looked up, giving Doggett a friendly smile. The other man had seen him a grand total of once, and he hoped that the ex-cop wouldn't associate Alex, the clean-cut Bureau agent, with Krycek, the one-armed, murderous rat-bastard.

Doggett smiled back. They passed each other awkwardly on the stairs.

Krycek kept walking.

"Hey, wait just a second." Doggett called from a few steps below him. Krycek turned toward him, shielding his left side from view. He let his right hand rest on the railing, deceptively still, mere inches from his gun.

"Yeah?" he asked, tone still friendly.

"You just look familiar for some reason. Do I know you?" Doggett had that look--like he was trying to put the pieces together.

Krycek shrugged. "Maybe we met at a training session somewhere. I've been in the Nebraska field office for the last seven years. Just got reassigned to DC." The lie rolled easily off his tongue, and Krycek smiled again.

"Nebraska?"

"Yeah. Very boring stuff. I'm sure you wouldn't be interested."

"Ah," Doggett said, as Krycek nodded at him shortly and turned, continuing up the stairs.

"Jerk," the other man muttered behind him. Krycek smiled faintly.

//You have no idea.//

He continued down the hall, letting the anonymous black trench obscure his identity. He walked straight to the VCU's central office, which was mostly empty. The secretaries were back, but gathered around the coffee machine. There was a young agent Krycek didn't recognize making a photocopy of a file in a corner. The women looked over when he came in. He got a coy smile from a young blonde. He returned it blandly. He didn't want to be remembered, either as particularly charming or rude.

"Can I help you?" An older brunette woman with short curly hair came forward.

"Hi." He smiled again. "I think I left my briefcase in the third floor conference room. Do you think you could let me in so I can check?"

"Just a minute, Honey. Let me find out if anyone's in there." She sat down, turning away, and reached for a black binder. Krycek glanced around and, finding no one watching, unobtrusively slid her coffee mug so that it was balanced delicately on the edge of the desk.

The secretary turned, letting the thick binder fall to the desk as she opened it. As it hit, her coffee fell into her lap.

"Oh Lord," she said, jumping to her feet.

"Are you OK?" Krycek said, schooling his features into a mask of concern.

"Yes. Yes, I'm fine. It wasn't too hot." She smiled, her cheeks slightly flushed. "Lord, but I'm a klutz. I'm just going to go wash up."

"Do you think anyone would mind if I went up and checked myself? I've got a briefing this afternoon, and I really need my notes." He did his best to look earnest and just a touch desperate.

She looked at him for a moment, then handed him the keys. "I don't think anyone should be in there. Just hurry right back with these. The SACs have their meeting in twenty minutes."

"I'll be right back." Krycek said, giving her a genuine smile, trying not to let too much triumph shine through. "Thanks."

//Damn, I'm good.//

Normally the secretary would have insisted on accompanying him. The conference rooms were always locked when they weren't in use for exactly this reason. It took him three and a half minutes to unscrew the frame around the electrical outlet, insert the device, and activate it. It was unlikely that it would be found in the event that the Bureau ever swept the conference room.

Five minutes later he was handing the keys back to the brunette.

"Did you find it?" she asked.

"No," Krycek said, pushing his eyebrows together.

"I'm sure it will turn up, Dear. I'll keep an eye out."

"Thanks." He turned away.

He was on his way out, through the front door this time, when a group of agents passed him. They were talking excitedly.

"Hey!" One of them called out to him. Krycek turned, pasting a look of bored curiosity on his face. "You've gotta get over to the gym. It's Spooky Mulder vs. Adam Michaelson."

"No way," Krycek said.

"Yes way. Come on!" Krycek considered for a moment, then followed, nerves screaming that it was probably a mistake. He had no idea what he was going to do when he got there. There was a throng of agents inside the door already. He melted into anonymity again, and edged his way forward to see what the hell the fuss was all about.

He looked across the gym floor, then ducked his head to hide a grin he couldn't suppress completely.

The whole ISU was out on the basketball court, playing a game of three on three, shirts versus skins. Mulder, Stewart, and McKeon were the shirts, Michaelson, Edwards, and Featherstone the skins. It was a risky idea for an icebreaker, as it could have easily turned ugly. But as Krycek watched them play, it became obvious that Mulder had complete control of both teams. Sometimes using physical contact, sometimes his voice, he was forestalling disputes, soothing feelings, controlling and directing the pent up aggression in the ISU.

Krycek wondered if the idiots surrounding him had any idea what they were witnessing. He was pretty sure the ISU knew exactly what was going on. He watched as Michaelson plowed Mulder over, then helped him up, pulling him to his feet without a hitch in the play. Mulder clapped him on the back as they both went their separate ways.

"Ten bucks says they kill each other before the week is out." The voice came from Krycek's left. Deciding he had stayed long enough, he started to weave his way back through the crowd. As he turned, he caught sight of Skinner, standing on the fringes of the spectators. The AD was watching the play with raised eyebrows, lips curled up at the corners.

Since it looked like the game was far from over, Krycek spent three minutes bugging Mulder's office on the way out. Back in the confines of his non-descript Ford Taurus, he allowed himself to relax for just a few seconds.

It was the smell of the damn hair gel that really got to him. He knew that smell was the most potent trigger for buried memories. He understood the biology, understood that the nerves carrying signals from his olfactory receptors went straight into his brain rather than being routed through the thalamus, so he couldn't filter out the tang of the hair gel, not like he could become habituated to sights or sounds, touches or tastes.

The mechanics of neural networks made sense to him, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with the memories that the smell uncovered, to remember how much he had liked working at the Bureau for that short time, seven years ago. He had believed in his job back then, blindly accepting assertions that were cryptically muttered in smoke filled rooms.

Because he believed in his work, he'd felt guilty for liking his target, guilty for entertaining notions of switching sides, of selling out his bosses, of becoming another convert to Mulder's crusade. Becoming another Scully.

That was why they'd picked him, because he wouldn't be susceptible to Mulder's addictive quest for the truth. He'd been chosen because he was their best operative, with the closest ties to the consortium's interest. He was the man least likely to defect, and he'd done his job.

He'd paid the price.

For the space of one slow blink he imagined what it would be like to have Mulder as a partner again. The way it would feel to slam a gun into the other man's hand, knowing it wouldn't be shoved in his face; the way it would feel to speed away from a job in a boosted car, radio cranked up-

He opened his eyes again. Mechanically, he stuck the key in the ignition, banishing regrets to the back of his mind. He had done what he had to do. Now he had a new job. Keep Mulder alive, and give the man a chance to fight the future before everything went to hell.

2:16 PM
1 December 2000
Washington D.C.

Time stretched as he fell. The fluorescent lights streaked across his field of vision as he twisted to avoid landing on Stewart. As the waxed wood of the floor raced toward him, he heard the brief but unmistakable hollow scream of his thoughts connecting with Stewart's mind. And then he wasn't moving anymore. He mentally pulled away from the noise as he and Stewart lay tangled on the floor.

"Holy shit!" he heard Michaelson yell.

His ears were ringing. Nothing looked quite right. He let his eyes fall closed.

"Whoa. Whoa! Just stay still." Featherstone was kneeling, talking to Stewart. Keeping her from moving too much.

"Quit with the doctor bullshit. I'm fine." It was Stewart. "Fuck. I think I kicked the Spook in the head though."

"Hey boss?" It was McKeon. He knew he should definitely say something.

"If you wouldn't wear those goddamn boots all the time," Michaelson said to Stewart, exasperation covering the worry in his voice.

"I think he's concussed." Edwards said.

"No. I'm OK," Mulder managed.

"You don't look OK. You look kinda pale, Spook." Mulder opened his eyes to see Michaelson kneeling next to Stewart. "That was some fall," Michaelson added.

"I didn't want to land on Stewart." His words sounded a little thick.

"We noticed," Michaelson said dryly. "You got a boot to your head for your trouble." Michaelson squeezed Stewart's shoulder slightly, and she leaned back into his grip.

Mulder smiled faintly, watching them. Unless he seriously missed his guess, he had a budding interoffice romance on his hands. When he'd first begun working with them, Michaelson and Stewart had been so obviously at odds, so inexplicably antagonistic towards one another, that Mulder had suspected that something besides anger was simmering beneath the surface of their relationship.

Some of that anger had cooled in the past two weeks. The unit was slowly becoming a more civilized place to work. Their solve rate and morale were rising, as Kersh and his cronies were becoming increasingly irritated. Mulder didn't know what else they had expected. They had thrown him into the mix with five bitter, under-appreciated agents, and been surprised when instead of destroying each other, the six of them had pulled together into a decent team.

//I've become a subversive.//

"Do you feel nauseous at all?" Featherstone asked him.

"No. I'm fine. Let me up."

"I think that's enough basketball for the day," Featherstone said, helping Mulder sit.

"Who's gonna work the phones next week then?" McKeon asked, already suspecting the answer.

"We are." Stewart said it with a groan, and Mulder nodded.

"'Bout damn time," Edwards said. "We've been working them for two weeks running now."

"You'd be working them again if we didn't have to forfeit," McKeon said, sounding slightly resentful.

"I don't know," Stewart said. "Michaelson wants it bad."

"Damn right I do," Michaelson said, clasping her hand and hauling her to her feet. Featherstone slipped a steadying hand under Mulder's elbow as he stood.

"Thanks," Mulder said as they headed back to the locker room.

Later, enshrined in the quiet of his office, he took a few moments to consider the incident on the basketball court. Since the first attack, when he had overheard Scully's thoughts, the hollow noise had returned three times. Two of those times had been unguarded moments when he accidentally found himself in someone's head. They only lasted a few seconds, and he had been able to block out the sensation almost instantly.

Six days ago, however, as he had been unlocking his car door, he'd felt a strong presence in the back of his mind. It was distant, but clear, unaccompanied by noise or pain. He had been confused at first, not sure why he didn't hear the distracting dissonance. As the seconds ticked by, however, he had come to a slow realization.

The mind he could hear, so very clearly, wasn't human.

He had sat frozen in his car for half an hour after it vanished from the reaches of his thoughts, trying to summon the nerve to move, to make the drive home.

There was a time when such an event would have excited him, a time when proof of his own psychic ability would have filled him with a sense of righteous vindication. He remembered telling Clyde Bruckman a lifetime ago that he was envious of the other man's precognitive gift. Bruckman had just smiled, pity in his eyes.

Mulder wondered if the man had seen everything; if he'd seen that Mulder would get the talent he claimed to want, if he'd seen how it was born of infection and experimentation, seen how it had nearly taken his life when it first appeared, and how it had spent a year killing him slowly, secretly. He wondered if Bruckman had seen the torture that followed from it, or the three months spent in his coffin on its account. Maybe that was why he'd smiled--because he appreciated the irony.

Mulder gave the empty air a twisted grin.

He wondered what else the psychic had seen. How many of Mulder's deaths had been written in his fate for the other man to read? Mulder wished he could ask him how many more lay waiting for him.

He felt the gnawing urge to tell someone about these recent episodes, but there was no way in hell that that was going to happen. Not unless he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the psychiatric ward of Georgetown Memorial undergoing test after test.

//Sane people don't hear voices in their heads.//

Scully had always been his sanity, his firm tether to reason. Unsurprisingly, he found that he missed her. After chewing his lip for a few moments, he pushed to his feet, resolved to pay the X-files division a brief visit. Scully and Doggett had been in California last week, but he was fairly sure he'd seen Doggett in the bullpen hallway at the end of the day yesterday. He took the stairs down to the basement, not willing to wait for the elevator.

He shivered as the colder air hit him. He could hear Scully laughing from the open doorway. He stopped.

How long had it been since he'd heard her laugh? Had he EVER heard her laugh like that? He didn't think so. He forced himself not to think of it as a betrayal. She had a right to be happy. He wanted this for her. He'd always wanted it for her.

He knocked on the doorframe.

"Mulder. Hey." They both smiled in greeting.

"Hi," he said, sounding passably chipper. "How was California?"

"Nice," Scully said, still smiling. "Warm."

"Find anything interesting?"

"You checkin' up on us?" Doggett was still smiling, but Mulder could feel the serious undertone in the question. The temperature seemed to chill a few degrees.

"John," Scully said, a subtle warning in her voice.

So they were on a first name basis now. Well, she had tried to call him Fox once.

"It's fine, Scully." There was an uncomfortable silence, in which nothing was "fine."

"How are you doing, Mulder?" Scully's voice was quiet and slightly suspicious. Mulder could feel she was a heartbeat away from asking him if anything was wrong.

"I'm fine, Scully. Everything's going smoothly," he said, "More or less." He gave her another fake smile. It never would have fooled her in the past, but she was out of practice when it came to reading him. And there were no chinks in his faade. Not today.

"So I hear," she said. "I always knew you were a great agent, Mulder."

And that was supposed to mean what, exactly? That you couldn't be a great agent and work in the basement? That she always knew that he'd fall in line at the end?

"Thanks, Scully." It was so hard to make it not sound as flat and empty as he felt.

"We should probably get back to work," Scully said, looking at her watch.

"We have a progress report at three o'clock with AD Skinner," Doggett chimed in.

"Yeah. Well, good talking to you, Scully. Doggett."

"You too, Mulder."

He waited until he'd climbed the stairs to let the friendly mask slip from his features. It was so easy to fall out of someone's life.

4:42 PM
2 December 2000
Washington D.C.

Krycek had gotten himself a nine to five job swabbing the floors of the FBI building. His boss was pretty lenient, and let him listen to the radio on his walkman. Of course, it wasn't actually a walkman. Nor was he listening to the radio.

Depending on the day and how paranoid he was feeling, he would either leave at five and beat Mulder back to his apartment, or wait for the agent to finish up, and tail him home. Lately he'd been letting Mulder make his own way back. Things seemed to be pretty quiet on Marita's side of the fence. No one had tried to kill him this week.

When five o'clock rolled around, he headed out of the building, pausing to quickly inspect Mulder's car for any tampering. Finding none, he pulled his Taurus out of its place and headed home. Today was Friday, which meant Chinese takeout and reviewing the audiotapes of the bug he'd put in the X-files office a week ago. He didn't bother to monitor Scully and Doggett real time, but he figured it was worth listening in on their conversations, just to keep himself in the loop. Because they sure as hell weren't keeping Mulder informed.

Krycek squinted into the setting sun on his way home, sure that Doggett was somehow behind the rift that seemed to have developed between Mulder and Scully.

Doggett really pissed him off.

Krycek had always respected Scully, however, for sticking by her partner, putting up with the shit that the consortium threw her way, and doing the job that needed to be done.

Sometimes, he even admitted to himself that he envied her.

Krycek parked in his usual spot, and trudged back to Mulder's building, contemplating the costs and benefits of sweet and sour chicken versus vegetable lo mein. He rode the elevator up to the fifth floor, working out a few kinks in his shoulders as the doors opened to reveal the deserted hallway.

He stood inside the elevator, reluctant for some reason to step into the corridor. As the doors began to close, his hand shot out, holding them open.

He waited.

Cautiously, he stepped forward, checking his weapon, loosening it in its holster. He walked down the hall, feet making no noise as he moved forward. He stopped in front of his door, scanning for the signs he had left this morning that would warn him of an intruder. The loose paint chip he had angled across the crack between door and frame was on the floor.

He licked his lips, debating his next course of action.

He unlocked the door with a decisive flick of his wrist then exchanged the keys for his gun. He turned the knob, readjusted his grip on his silencer, kicked the door open, and moved quickly into the room.

He found himself staring down the barrel of an FBI-issue Sig Sauer.

"Mulder."

Shock didn't begin to describe what he felt. He had checked Mulder's car not more than thirty minutes ago. He couldn't have beaten him home.

"Shut the fuck up, Krycek!" Mulder yelled, removing the safety from his weapon with an audible click.

"I--I thought you were at work," he stammered, eyebrows coming together. It was inconceivable that his surveillance target could get the jump on him.

//I can't believe this. I must really be slipping.//

"I guess you would know, wouldn't you?" Mulder was yelling at the top of his voice.

The elevated volume seemed slightly odd to Krycek. Their confrontations were usually quieter, bloodier than this.

"What the hell is going on here?" Mulder's eyes flicked to the surveillance equipment.

//This is impossible. This is NOT happening.//

"Answer me, damn you!" Mulder yelled.

Krycek stayed quiet, determined to give nothing away until he had gathered his wits, until he lost the feeling that he'd been had, that he'd been made, that he was sitting in a sweltering rental car again watching the clock on the dashboard blink the same number over and over and over again. His eyes swept nervously over the agent, taking in the dark trench, the elegant suit, the conservative tie.

He definitely didn't recognize that tie.

The truth hit him like a physical blow. This. Was. NOT. Mulder. His mouth went dry and he fought to keep his hand from shaking. He took a deep breath, then another, letting a deadly calm replace his fear.

//Two can play this game, you green-blooded piece of shit.//

"Answer me!" the thing screamed for a third time.

"Put the gun down, and we'll talk about it," Krycek snapped, desperate for an excuse to get rid of his useless weapon.

The shapeshifter glared at him, doing an eerily accurate impersonation of Mulder. Krycek didn't want to know how it had learned the agent's face and mannerisms so well.

"Fine." They both slowly holstered their weapons.

"So talk," the thing spat at him.

"What do you want to know?" He looked at it evenly.

"Don't fuck around with me, Krycek. Why do you have me under surveillance?" Krycek's thoughts blurred as he speedily came up with a plan. He needed something believable, something that gave nothing away, and, most importantly, something that would get him close enough to reach the back of its neck.

He held the thing's gaze for just a moment longer than necessary before looking away, blinking rapidly. He ran a hand through his hair.

"You really don't know, Mulder?" He looked up at the shapeshifter through veiled lashes. "After all this time-" He broke off, compressing his lips, "you haven't figured it out?"

Somehow, the act was much easier than he'd thought it would be.

The thing stepped closer. Krycek wasn't sure what its expression was supposed to be. Maybe it was trying for compassion.

"Krycek, I don't understand."

"Damn it, Mulder!" His voice broke as he turned away, quickly reaching inside a slender pocket in the depths of his leather jacket and flicking a thin metal tube up into his sleeve.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and had to suppress a shudder.

"Tell me, please." The thing turned him around almost gently. He shivered as he felt its fingers graze his cheek.

"I'll tell you, Mulder," he breathed softly, moving in, angling his head slightly. He thought his heart was going to pound its way out of his chest as he slipped his right hand through silky hair.

With a flick of his wrist, the small silver spike was in his hand. He jammed it down.

Not fast enough.

The familiar face went blank as the shapeshifter grabbed his hand in a vise-like grip. He hit the wall and dropped to the floor, landing on his left side, his prosthetic digging into his ribs.

"Why are you watching him?" The thing still wore Mulder's face, but there was nothing reminiscent of Mulder in that flat, dead voice.

"Kiss my ass, you green-blooded son of a bitch," he gasped. Krycek felt himself yanked up by his collar and slammed down into the middle of the room. He hit the floor again, and bit back a cry as he felt something dig into his spine. After a few tortured breaths, he realized what it was: a thin metal tube.

"What is he?" the shape-shifter demanded.

Krycek just stared at Mulder's profile, thoughts reeling, trying to sort through the implications of the question.

"What is he?" it demanded again.

"How the hell should I know?" As he was lifted again, he threw his hand behind him, grabbing the weapon as he left the floor. He nearly dropped it as he was slammed down again.

"Then you are worthless." Krycek felt himself detach, his muscles relaxing, preparing for the sudden burst of speed he would need. He looked into the thing's eyes one final time. It was nothing like Mulder, really.

His arm arced up in a blur. The grip on his shirt relaxed as the shapeshifter fell forward. Krycek rolled out of the way, pulling out the weapon in a smooth motion. He backed off immediately as the body began to corrode.

He didn't wait around to watch it stain his floor. Thirty seconds after stabbing the thing he was back on the road, speeding toward the J. Edgar Hoover Building. He parked his Taurus in the space next to Mulder's car and flipped on his "walkman."

Dead silence.

He wasn't about to run through the entrance the agents used, even though he wanted to. He took his time and picked the lock to the service door. Getting himself killed or arrested at this point wouldn't do Mulder a damn bit of good.

There weren't many people in the bullpen hallway at half past five on a Friday, but there were a few. Fortunately, he was still wearing his janitor's uniform, and he grabbed a trashcan from an open office, carrying it as he made his way to the ISU. Shit. At least one member of the unit was bound to still be there.

He was right. Michaelson and Stewart were talking about a file, standing just inside the door of the office that Michaelson and Featherstone shared. He walked past them and ducked into a doorway, fading into the shadows. From his vantage point, he could see into Mulder's office. The door was open, and the agent appeared to be reading over a file.

Krycek narrowed his eyes, looking for any deception. Mulder's designer suit jacket was hanging precariously off the back of his chair, and he had removed his tie, letting the fabric hang down in a ribbon of garish color. The tie was hideous, and definitely the same one he'd been wearing that morning. Krycek felt himself relax marginally.

As he came down off the adrenaline high and listened to the normal sounds of Michaelson and Stewart getting ready to leave for the night, he felt strained muscles start to shake. The left side of his rib cage burned with each breath from where he had fallen on his prosthetic.

He relaxed further as he heard the two agents in the office to his right locking the door. HE certainly wasn't planning to leave anytime soon. Mulder looked like he was going to be reading for quite some time.

Krycek needed to sit. Emptying the metal trashcan he was still carrying, he turned it over, placing it just inside the dark doorway of the room two doors down from Mulder's office. The navy blue of the janitor's uniform made him nearly invisible in the shadows. He leaned his head against the inside of the doorframe, curling into himself protectively.

//God. One microsecond slower with the weapon, and I'd be dead by now.//

It was nice to watch his target in color. He had forgotten how much those surveillance monitors leeched from a scene. Dark brown hair, pale skin with a golden undertone, changeable, gray-green eyes that always gave too much away. He looked much better than he had a month ago. Krycek could barely see the small scars on his face anymore. His hair had regained its normal healthy shine and he wasn't so deadly pale.

Mulder started making notes, longhand, with a red pen on a yellow legal pad. As he listened to the quick rhythms of the ink over the paper, he tried to sort through what the shapeshifter had wanted.

//What is he?//

The words rang in Krycek's ears. So the colonists didn't know either. And hell, they'd had three months to split the guy open and mess with his head. If THEY didn't know, Krycek certainly didn't have a clue. All he had was a feeling--an instinct, really, that Mulder was important.

Just as he was beginning to relax a bit further, Mulder stopped writing. The agent was frozen, staring fixedly at the page. Without lifting his gaze, he capped the pen carefully, placing it, with exaggerated care, on the desk. His eyes were vacant, elsewhere. Krycek felt icy fingers run down his spine.

As if responding to something Krycek couldn't hear, Mulder stood, his head whipping around to stare out into the hall.

The other man's features had a strange cast, a twisted readiness that was all too familiar to Krycek. He'd seen it on scores of faces, as he looked into the eyes of the men and women he'd killed.

Krycek pushed himself to his feet, still shrouded in darkness.

Mulder waited by his desk.

To his right, Krycek heard the even tread of someone coming down the hall. He closed his fist around the thin metal tube that rested in his pocket.

The figure walked past him and into the light spilling from the office. Krycek recognized the outline of Michaelson's brown hair and long trench. The agent stopped a few feet in front of Mulder, standing with his back to Krycek.

"Mulder. Hey. Is anything wrong?" Michaelson asked.

Mulder's eyes blazed.

"I can hear you." His words were measured, and as he said them, he drew his gun, aiming it directly at Michaelson. "Show yourself."

Krycek wasn't surprised as he watched Michaelson's hair and physique change.

"Your weapons have no effect on us." The shapeshifter stepped forward.

"I know that." Mulder's voice was quiet as he brought the gun up to his own temple. The colonist froze, raising a hand.

Krycek was up in an instant, flowing through the dark to drive the spike into the back of the shapeshifter's neck. As the second body of the night dropped at his feet, he looked up at Mulder. The agent was staring at him, lips parted, eyes slightly widened. He still held the gun to his head.

"Put that away before you hurt yourself."

Predictably, Mulder trained his weapon on Krycek, releasing the safety. Krycek fought down a disturbing wave of dj vu.

"What are you doing here, Krycek?" The agent's voice was steely.

//It's going to be a long night.//

"Saving your miserable life." Krycek stepped over the corroding green mess at his feet. "Nice office," he said, looking around, ignoring the Sig Sauer that tracked his movements.

"Shouldn't you be lurking in the basement? Bothering Doggett?"

Krycek smirked, ignoring him. He walked around Mulder's desk to sit in his chair, keeping an eye on the open doorway.

"So you can hear them?" Krycek asked tilting his head toward the bubbling green puddle across the room. "Neat trick."

Mulder still hadn't put the gun down.

"Aren't you getting tired of holding that thing?" Krycek asked him, leaning back in Mulder's chair. The agent finally lowered his weapon, dropping his arm, defeated, as if Krycek had won a game he hadn't even known he was playing.

"What do you want from me?" The words were dull, and matched the disconcerting flat gray-green of Mulder's eyes. He held that gaze, although it was hard, refusing to drop his eyes and look away. Something had been cut away from the other man. He felt as if he were staring at a horrible disfigurement, and remembered the feeling of looking at himself in a mirror shortly after his left arm had been brutally sawed off in the cold Russian woods. Only, this time, the injury was mental.

//Oh, Tovarich. I know. I see it. You need more than you would ever let me give you.//

"I don't want anything from you, Mulder." He almost winced as he said it, because it wasn't true.

"I don't believe you."

"There's a surprise." His eyes flicked to the doorway, alert for any movement.

"Go to hell, Krycek." Mulder crossed his arms.

"We need to get out of here." His words were sharp with exasperation.

"No. Get out of my chair."

"Mulder, we need to talk."

"I said no. I'm not your errand boy any more, Krycek. If you have rebels to save, ships to find, or any other missions that require my unique combination of gullibility and astronomical stupidity, save it for another time. Or better yet, find someone else to do your bidding. Like I said before, Agent Doggett is downstairs. But he's probably not stupid enough to fall for your act."

"Act? I was almost killed less than an hour ago taking down another shapeshifter in your apartment building."

Mulder didn't look impressed.

"I'm trying to help you."

He got a skeptical look in return.

"You can drive," he offered, playing his last card. The office was silent for a moment.

"All right."

Mulder holstered his gun, and they both stepped gingerly over the gently smoking stain on the floor. As they walked down silently down the nearly deserted bullpen hallway, Krycek's eyes scanned the corridor restlessly. As they waited for the elevator, Mulder glanced at him, his face unreadable.

"What the hell are you wearing, Krycek?"

He didn't answer, looking down at the blue janitor's uniform, stoically suppressing any hint of a smile. A few seconds later, the elevator opened with the soft sound of sliding doors, and they stepped through together.

7:12 PM
2 December 2000
George Washington Parkway

Mulder relaxed into the drive, watching the dark outlines of naked trees on the borders of the road, watching the endless yellow and white of the reflective lines on the asphalt, watching anything but his passenger. The whole night had a flavor of unreality about it. He couldn't seem to forget the way that Krycek had flowed out of the dark.

"Mulder." His voice was dark too. Had Krycek always been like this? Had the Junior G-man persona been nothing more than a disguise, like those cheap suits, to hide the leather and steel underneath? Or had Krycek lost as much as Mulder had? Was the darkness all that was left?

"Yeah." Mulder's voice was soft, but something burned through his chest that he couldn't explain. It was a slow fire that had been missing twenty minutes ago in his office when the aftermath of his encounter with the shapeshifter had left him numb and full of horror. The burn that built silently within him now was the same insensible anger he always felt around Krycek. It might be brutal, but it was righteous. Just.

"We need to talk." Krycek's voice had shifted slightly. It was more guarded. Mulder hated that the other man could read him so well.

"Yeah, Krycek, we do." Mulder spit out the words, involuntarily pressing down on the gas. "What were you doing at my office tonight? And what the hell were you doing at my apartment building?"

"Just passing through the neighborhood." The words were fast, acidic.

"Bullshit. I want an answer."

"What good would it do you? You never believe anything I say."

"And whose fault is THAT?" He felt like the words had been ripped from him. As soon as they were out, hanging tortured in the air between them, he wanted to take them back. He hadn't meant to give so much away. Krycek said nothing.

Mulder swallowed and slowed the car down, forcing his breathing into a controlled rhythm. The silence between them thickened and stretched into five minutes. Ten.

"Mulder." Krycek was trying again. Mulder said nothing. He was in no mood to be helpful.

"Would it make any difference if I told you that I was sorry?" Krycek asked. Mulder glanced over, to see the other man's eyes fixed on the dark, bare trees.

"It depends on what you're sorry for." He was back in control, and his voice had a hard edge.

"I've had a long time to think about it." Krycek's voice was quiet.

"And?"

"I'm sorry I didn't let you save me."

"What?" He was startled.

"Scully. Skinner. I could have been like them. I could have let you drag me out of the lies. You wanted to, I think." Mulder said nothing. There was a short silence. Then Krycek spoke again, slowly, as if he knew he was treading on dangerous ground.

"Maybe it's why you hate me so much. Because every time you look at me, you think that you failed, somehow."

"And you think that makes you special? I've failed a lot of people." Mulder refused to look too closely at Krycek's analysis.

The car was silent.

"I was trying to find you," Krycek said. "I thought you might be in danger." Mulder recognized it for the peace offering it was.

"How did you know?"

"I was attacked by a shapeshifter as well, earlier in the day."

Something sounded slightly off in Krycek's tone. Mulder didn't think he was lying, not exactly, but he was certainly holding something back. Before he had a chance to follow up on his hunch, Krycek continued.

"It was asking me questions about you."

"What kind of questions?"

There was a pause and Mulder waited impatiently for Krycek to speak.

"What kind of questions, Krycek?"

"It asked me what you are." Krycek's tone was unexpectedly gentle.

"WHAT I am? What did you tell it?"

"That I had no idea."

"Was that the truth?"

"Yes."

Mulder slammed on the breaks, pulling the car over to the shoulder of the road.

Mulder heard Krycek say something in Russian as he was thrown forward against his seatbelt at the abrupt deceleration. He ignored the other man, flipping on the overhead light.

"Do you have a knife?" He didn't do a very good job disguising the panic in his voice.

"What!?"

"Do. You. Have. A knife."

"What the hell are you going to do with it?" Krycek's voice was suspicious.

"I need to check something." Mulder watched comprehension dawn in Krycek's eyes as the other man dug the blade out of his pocket.

"Don't go overboard."

Wasting no time, Mulder flicked the switchblade open, then stopped, looking at Krycek.

"You might want to go outside for this." Mulder said, remembering the destructive effects of hybrid blood on human physiology.

Krycek met his eyes. "I'll take my chances."

Mulder said nothing, just slashed the blade across his palm. He watched as a thin line appeared, then widened. Uncertain, he looked up at Krycek.

"It's red?" he asked.

"You're colorblind." Krycek sounded like he was reminding himself, and Mulder narrowed his eyes. "Yes. It's red."

He released a shaky sigh, watching the blood start to run over his palm.

"I thought I told you not to overdo it." Krycek sounded testy. "You're going to get blood everywhere."

"What are you so worried about? It's MY car," Mulder said mildly, watching the blood drip down the side of his hand and onto his coat. He stared at the cut, unable to pull his eyes away. The blood felt hot over his cool skin, and satisfyingly normal. As the adrenaline left him, he felt the warm burn of singing nerves. His hand felt strangely heavy, and he let it fall to his lap. The relief was so intense that he felt lightheaded.

"Jesus. You're a fucking train wreck. You know that, right?" Mulder watched as Krycek got out and walked around the front of the car. He opened the driver's side door, reaching in to unbuckle Mulder's seatbelt. Even though he was dressed in the ridiculous janitor's outfit, he still smelled of blood and leather, Mulder noted absently.

//Or maybe it's just leather. Maybe I'm the one who smells like blood.//

"Here, turn this way. And give me your damn hand." Mulder felt a gentle pressure on the back of his neck, and he dropped his head, feeling the dizziness recede. He watched Krycek fold a square of white cloth.

"Is that a handkerchief?"

"They make good tourniquets in a pinch. Or bandages."

"Right. Of course." He hissed as Krycek pressed the cloth tightly against the cut.

"I think you might need stitches."

"I'm fine."

"Hold this here, then. I'm driving." Mulder nodded in acquiescence and stood, letting Krycek take his place behind the wheel. He walked around to the passenger's side and got in. Krycek reached over to help him with his seatbelt.

"Back off," he said, unreasonably irritated as he buckled the belt himself.

"Fine," Krycek snapped, pulling back onto the empty road.

They spent another few moments in silence, and Mulder let the sudden tension that had come between them bleed away before he spoke again.

"So are you on the alien 'shit list' now that you've killed two of them? Or was it three?" He had the urge to interrogate Krycek, talk him in circles until the other man had backed himself into a corner, and had no choice but to tell Mulder the truth.

But he was so tired.

"Maybe they'll blame the last one on you. You never know." Krycek neatly sidestepped his question. Mulder let it slide.

"Oh good. Too bad the bodies won't ever stick around."

"Why? Haven't you had enough 'evidence' rammed down your throat by now?"

"I was just thinking that I could start mounting their heads on the wall of my office. It would really add to the dcor." He surprised a grim smile out of Krycek.

"If I were you, I'd put them outside, as a deterrent." The words were amused, but there was a serious undertone.

"Do you think it's OK to go back?" Mulder let his eyes fall closed.

"Probably," he heard Krycek say from a distance. "Just stay alert."

"Mmm hmm."

6:46 PM
4 December 2000
Delta Flight 877

He hated flying. It hadn't used to be so bad, but with the heightened safety measures in place nowadays it was nearly impossible to get a gun through airport security unless you were cleared to carry one. And he most definitely wasn't. He'd toyed with the idea of disassembling his Sig and trying to hide it in his prosthetic, but ultimately had to reject the idea. Altering the weight of the arm would throw his balance off.

Now he was going to have to buy a gun in Missouri. This was all Mulder's fault. Two days after the ISU had been cleared to start fieldwork again, Mulder had grabbed a file, left Michaelson in charge, and booked himself a ticket to the "Show Me" State. Krycek had gotten forty minutes of warning before Mulder left for Jefferson City. He'd had to feign sickness to leave work, go back to Mulder's apartment, pack a bag, change his clothes, and finally book himself a plane ticket.

Before he dashed out the door, he spent twenty minutes hacking into the Bureau mainframe to pull the case Mulder was consulting for. He read it on the flight out.

No wonder Mulder hadn't sent any of the other agents out on this one. Even Krycek, who had been witness to countless acts of brutality and perpetrated a few of his own, felt vaguely sick looking at the photos. The UNSUB handcuffed his victims to a table and hacked them into pieces, saving the muscle and blood. The pathologist's report showed extensive bruising around the wrists and ankles of the--remains of the remains. Indicating that there had been a struggle before death. Indicating that the victims had been conscious while they were-

He closed the file, breathing deeply. He looked out the window, seeing the flat, snow-covered plains below him. Ever since that incident in North Dakota, he'd hated the Midwest. Krycek had almost decided not to come. It wasn't standard operating procedure as far as syndicate sponsored surveillance went. Even when they had gone to elaborate lengths to keep tabs on Mulder, Scott Ostelhoff had never followed him on one of his cases. Mostly because it was useless--even when Krycek had been Mulder's assigned partner, the man had shown a preternatural ability to ditch him whenever it suited his purposes.

This time he was determined to stick to him. The stakes were significantly higher, as he had learned last week. He pulled out of the Jefferson City airport in his black rental car, letting his thoughts slip back to the bizarre evening he'd spent with Mulder. Despite his plans, they hadn't really discussed anything that Krycek would call significant.

He had wanted to tell Mulder about everything: Marita's treachery, the vaccine that was going to be handed over in a few weeks, the surveillance. Most of all, he had wanted to grill him about how he had known the shapeshifter was coming.

Instead, he had apologized for six years worth of mindfucks, given the agent a knife to cut his own hand, and finally driven him home. Nothing had really changed.

He should have interrogated Mulder. He should have taken him home, made him a nice warm glass of sodium pentathol and asked him questions until the sun came up. He should have. But he didn't. He had driven around aimlessly while Mulder slept in the passenger seat. After a few hours, he had headed back to Alexandria, dropped Mulder off, driven around the block, and walked back to Hegal Place.

Krycek let the events of that night turn over in his mind, idly trying to pinpoint what it was that had stopped him from questioning Mulder. Over and over again his thoughts returned to the slash of his knife into Mulder's palm. It had been so quick; so casually brutal. And he'd seen no hesitation on Mulder's face. No caution. Something had told him to back off. That Mulder shouldn't be pushed.

It was that same something that had brought him here, to a Motel 6 in the middle of this godforsaken country. And as he sat in his black rental car, watching a light snow flurry begin to dust the motel parking lot, he started to wonder about his own motives. For the last three years, beginning on the night that he had kissed Mulder as a show of good faith, he had been working for the Resistance. It had been grinding, dangerous work. Now, it seemed, he was the last man standing. He was one of a handful of people who knew that the date was set. And instead of working to stop the colonizers, here he was, sitting in the dark, protecting a man who hated him.

He needed a fucking army. Hell, two hands would be a help. When Jack had first told him about the Christmas Eve deadline, he had toyed with the idea of trying to entice some of Marita's people away from her. He'd made some preliminary inquiries, and figured at max, he could get three or four that he'd trust not to shoot him when he turned his back. Not nearly enough.

He couldn't go to the FBI. He had no proof and they'd slap him behind bars before he could say his full name. Which left him with an intermediate option. If he could convince Mulder that he was telling the truth, then maybe the agent could talk Scully and Skinner into helping him. And maybe he could get his three paranoid friends to join the party. God, but that had the makings of a decent team. If they could steal part of the stockpiles, maybe substituting a faux vaccine for the real deal, then Scully could take a look at it.

Maybe they could still get it out before Memorial Day weekend.

He felt an ache of hope in his chest, and tried not to encourage it too much. The vaccine was his life's work. He'd killed for it. He'd betrayed and lied for it. He'd lost an arm for it. He'd traded his soul for it, with the hope that in the end, he could curl the fingers of his one remaining hand around a glass vial of amber liquid and hand it over to someone who could make a difference.

It hadn't worked out that way. Not yet.

There were a lot of big holes in this, his last-ditch, desperate plan, not least of which was convincing Mulder to help him. He knew if he could only get the agent to take him seriously, then things would fall into place.

He got out of the car and checked into a room, leaving Mulder to write his profile two doors down. He wandered around the room, went out to find Mulder's rental car and plant a spare GPS locator on it, and got himself some ice. Around three AM he stood in front of Mulder's door, listening. He heard the soft clicking of laptop keys, and Mulder's light was on. He was still working then. Krycek went back to his room.

Exhausted, he fell into a fitful sleep. Black oil slithered through his dreams, causing him to wake before the sunrise. He donned running clothes, carefully slipping already tied Nikes over his feet.

He was waiting in the cold silence of his rental as Mulder emerged for his morning run. After fifty seconds he stepped out of the car and started pacing the agent. In the early morning, there were no sounds of traffic to disguise the slap of shoes on pavement that echoed tellingly off the buildings that lined the street. With an ease that spoke of long practice, Krycek matched his stride to Mulder's. He'd never really been much of a runner before this job, but now he was starting to see the appeal. He let his concerns fade to the back of his mind, let his eyes become passive, noticing everything, looking at nothing, always tracking the figure two blocks in front of him. The satisfying feeling of cement under sneakers and Mulder's steady rhythm beat away the vestiges of his nightmares.

He spent a boring half-day, trailing Mulder as an agent with the local bureau office gave Mulder the guided tour from the first crime scene to the last. Around two PM he took a ten-minute surveillance break to buy himself a late lunch. He returned to his parking spot in front of the Bureau office, and sat. And sat. And sat.

He was beginning to think this whole idea of trailing Mulder in the field had been just a little too paranoid, when the agent stormed out of the building, followed by Henderson, the local SAC. Krycek watched with interest as they had a heated discussion. Hoping to catch some of it, he cracked his window open.

"-just RIDICULOUS," he heard Henderson shout.

"-tonight." A gust of wind whined through the gap between glass and plastic, so Krycek only caught Mulder's last word. Apparently Henderson didn't find whatever Mulder had said particularly persuasive, and Krycek watched him throw up his hands. Mulder turned on his heel and got in his rental car, wheels screeching as he sped away.

//Ti shto dalish, Tovarich? What are you doing?//

4:12 PM
5 December 2000
Jefferson City, Missouri

He regained consciousness to the sound of someone slitting his dress shirt with a knife. He felt a gentle flutter against his skin as the fabric was drawn away. He was face down, on a very cold metal table. Mulder had enough time to register that his hands were cuffed above his head before he felt the unmistakable sensation of a cold blade slicing easily into his back.

A year ago, he would have found this pain unbearable. Three months of continuous torture, however, tended to put things in perspective. Maybe, if he lived through this, he should quit his day job and open a school of alternative medicine specializing in a post-modernist approach to pain management, where everyone was expected to abstract sensation into neat, subjective categories for comparison and analysis. Just like there was no objective truth in the world, maybe there was no pain either. No absolutes at all. Just continual shades of gray, no white or black anywhere.

Was that how Krycek saw things?

It was hard to breathe.

Mulder had seen the autopsy reports. He had seen the case files. He knew just how long it took Finch's victims to die. The thought didn't frighten him. Not anymore.

//Two warriors of equal skill fight to the death.//

Modell's voice spoke perversely out of his memory.

//One is a student of Japanese Budo.//

Mulder tensed against the ropes binding his legs to the table. He folded his left thumb into his palm, bringing his hand against the cool metal of the cuff. No, dying didn't frighten him, but there were less gruesome ways to go. And he wasn't leaving Finch alive to kill again.

//Budo teaches the warrior to leave himself outside the battle.//

He didn't scream as he heard a metacarpal crack, as the skin on his thumb and on the back of his hand was torn away. It was over in a few seconds, and he heard Finch gasp.

//In other words, to disregard his own death.//

Mulder didn't wait. He levered himself up on his right elbow, using all his strength to throw Finch off balance. He knew the gift of adrenaline would last only long enough for one motion. He wouldn't be able to wrest the knife away from Finch. Instead, he grabbed the other man's wrist, and forced the killer's hand up into his own face. Whether by accident, or some subconscious skill on Mulder's part, the knife found Finch's eye.

The man died silently. It was a long knife.

Blood flowed down over his injured hand, dripped onto the remains of his dress shirt. Before all his strength left him, Mulder tried to use the momentum of his thrust to force the body onto the floor. The pain in his left hand was excruciating, and a strangled scream of pure determination tore its way into the air from between his clenched teeth as he fought against the dead weight of the corpse.

Finally successful, he collapsed back against the table, drawing unsteady gasps of air. He lay motionless for a moment, rallying himself for one last effort. Gritting his teeth, he twisted slightly, sliding his broken hand into his pocket, and pulled out his cell phone.

He looked at it for a moment, wondering whom to call. Suddenly, listening to the 911 operator talking him through staying alive didn't seem very appealing.

Mulder let his head sink back to the table's surface. He noticed vaguely that the metal was angled downward slightly. Blood was flowing away from his head. It would speed up the inevitable. Already he could feel the familiar dazed chill of shock.

There were worse ways to go.

Gently, slowly, he pushed the phone toward the edge of the table. It was better not to leave any unanswered questions. The phone made a dull crack as it landed on the cement floor.

He could feel his heart beating hard against the table. He felt each contraction slam through his body, through his chest and back. Each pound of his pulse ripped through his hand. He felt almost sorry for his heart, fighting the inevitable. Always fighting. His thoughts flashed to Sam.

//I think I had a brother.//

He was seven again, watching Bobby Kennedy on TV. Watching as the candidate was gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel. Later, sitting on the front porch in the June sun, he'd tried to explain to his sister why everyone was so sad. She was only three, and he hadn't told her everything. He didn't think she needed to know.

She had found out in the end.

The cold was intense, numbing. His breaths became shallower as he started to shiver, only the thin, sliced fabric of his shirt protecting him against the icy air. The dull grays of the room began to fade as his vision started to blur. It was then that he saw her. She was standing close. He tried to reach out to her, but his body wouldn't respond.

"Sam." No sound passed his lips. She smiled at him.

"It's all right." Her voice was more mature than he remembered it. Her lips didn't move when she spoke to him. "He's coming."

4:14 PM
5 December 2000
Jefferson City, Missouri

Krycek walked quickly through the labyrinthine building. Living in DC made you forget there were places like this, the children of a more economically productive era, left abandoned to fall into dilapidation. He wondered if Mulder had known exactly where he was going when he had stopped at this place, or if he was just following another one of those spooky hunches that had earned him that damned nickname.

When he had pulled up to the building, Krycek had vowed to give Mulder five minutes to be in and out. It wouldn't do to run into him inside for no reason and needlessly blow the extent of his surveillance. He had managed to skirt around it last time he had saved Mulder's life, but he didn't think Mulder would believe that he just happened to be passing through an abandoned grain processing plant on the outskirts of Jefferson City.

He had waited four minutes and twenty seconds before crossing the parking lot and following Mulder through the doors. And now, he was kicking himself for not going straight in. The building was massive. He'd been wandering around for fifteen minutes in the lower levels, and he was feeling turned around, and slightly claustrophobic. This place reminded him of the silo. The memory blindsided him and, for a moment, he couldn't tell whether the muted echoes of a scream were reverberating inside or outside his head.

He sped up, and came to the end of the hall he had been following, wondering if he should turn right or left. He scanned both corridors.

//If you were Mulder, what would you do?//

//The stupidest thing possible.//

//But if you were Mulder, what would you see?//

He looked right, trying to get inside the agent's head.

He looked left, and felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. There, waiting in the middle of the corridor was a little girl. Red hair. Blue eyes. She was wearing blue overalls, and the darkness didn't seem to touch her. He had seen her twice before.

The first time had been when he'd seen her corpse on a lab table, shortly after joining the Brit in his resistance campaign. She was stiff and cold, and they'd been moments away from pitching her into an incinerator, another failure of the project. Acting on some human impulse that he had thought long gone, Krycek had stolen her body, and buried it in the woods of Western Massachusetts.

The second time had been in a Tunisian prison, when he'd fallen crumpled to the packed dirt of the floor, pulling in pained gasps of dust and blood. The moonlight had streamed in through the bars of the cell, and he had dragged himself into it, away from the shadowy forms of the men who had tried and failed, for the third time, to rape him.

He had looked up and seen her, sitting cross-legged in the moonlight, watching him. He wondered if she haunted his steps because he hadn't saved her. She didn't seem vengeful though, just observant. She had the look he had seen in so many eyes; the too-shiny, too-wide gaze that spoke of volumes to express, but no means to communicate the secrets of a soul forced into silence.

Apparently, she was with him still.

The girl smiled shyly, and began to walk down the corridor. He followed her, becoming more entangled in the maze-like building as she speeded up. He was taking corners at a run as she stayed forever out of reach, always a dart of color ahead of him.

Suddenly, he skidded to a stop. She was gone. In the total silence that surrounded him, he heard a sharp crack from the room to his left. As if something small and hard had impacted with cement.

Gun raised in front of him, he pushed the door open. His eyes scanned the room in one sharp sweep.

Wasting no time, he slid forward, returning his gun to its holster.

"Mulder." His mouth moved, but sound wouldn't come. The agent's head was turned away from him, but he had a spectacular view of the mess that the fucker on the floor had made of the agent's back.

Krycek bent down quickly to check the pulse of the man on the floor. He dropped to one knee, the act causing just the barest pause in the fluidity of his motion. It was in that moment of stillness that he saw it. Mulder's phone.

He was up in an instant, and walking quickly around the table. Mulder's left hand was a mess. Krycek could see the blood stains around the pocket of his pants. He took in the smear on the metal table directly above Mulder's cracked and useless cell phone.

Jesus. Had he meant to do it?

It didn't matter. Not now. He pulled out his own cell phone, the one he kept for throwaway calls. Looking down at the unconscious agent, he punched 911.

"911 Operator, how may I direct your call?"

"This is Special Agent Fox Mulder." His voice came out breathy, just a little panicked. "My badge number is JTT047101111. I need police backup and medical assistance." Krycek inserted a ragged breath.

"What is your current location, Agent Mulder?"

"South Clerk Street. The grain processing plant. Second level." He forced his voice to get tighter.

"Agent Mulder, I need you to stay on the line." Krycek was silent. "Agent Mulder? Are you with me?"

"Yes." He let his voice fade a little more.

"Agent Mulder, we have two units closing on your location right now, with an ETA of four minutes. Any information you can give me about your current situation would be helpful."

"I was attacked by a suspect in the current murder investigation. I disabled-" Krycek trailed off.

"You disabled the suspect?"

"He's dead." He drew a shaky breath.

"Agent Mulder, what is your current condition?"

"I- I can't-" With that, he put his phone gently in Mulder's broken hand. He bent down, carefully picking up Mulder's cell off the floor and pocketing it.

He hesitated for fifteen seconds, standing above the federal agent, looking him over with a practiced eye. The bleeding had already slowed. Krycek didn't uncuff him, didn't staunch the now sluggish flow from the long cut along his back, didn't touch the man at all, knowing that any tampering with the scene could put the police on his track.

//I should go before they get here.//

He watched Mulder, still unconscious, shiver against the metal table. He had slipped into compensated shock, but he would be fine, as long as the police arrived on time.

//I REALLY should go.//

He stood unmoving, watching Mulder's breathing speed up, counting the agent's increasingly labored respirations. Then, knowing he could wait no longer, and mindful of the open phone line, he placed his lips directly next to Mulder's ear.

"Shast." He whispered. Hold on.

9:51 AM
6 December 2000
Jefferson City, Missouri

He woke up.

He shut his eyes against the rush of disappointment.

"Agent Mulder?" It was a nurse. He hoped she would go away.

"Agent Mulder, can you open your eyes for me?" He hated hospitals.

"Yeah." He looked at her, and she gave him one of those big, fake, dime-a-dozen smiles. "I know my name, it's probably the sixth of December, and I appear to be in a hospital." His voice was hoarse.

"Great!" She needed to lay off the coffee.

Over the course of the next hour, they made him get up, walk around and eat lunch. Fucking green Jello. Just the sight of the stuff made him want to throw up.

He hoped he'd get released before the day was through. No one from the Missouri office had shown up to see if he was dead or not. He suspected that they hadn't notified anyone in DC either, since he had expected to at least hear from Skinner by now. That was fine with Mulder.

He saw the doctor around three o'clock. The cut in his back hadn't been deep enough or long enough to do any significant damage to nerves. It was going to hurt like hell for a while, as was his hand, but he'd be fine. In light of that news, he'd secured a promise for release tomorrow morning, presuming his blood work came back OK. He'd had to agree to schedule a follow-up appointment in DC the day after he got back. Mulder consented blindly to everything, forced his dinner down, and let the nurses knock him out for the night.

The cab ride to the airport cost an arm and a leg, and waiting at the blasted terminal was hell. He hadn't taken the analgesic the doctor had prescribed and he felt shaky, periodic waves of pain sending shivers across his shoulders when he stretched the newly stitched flesh of his back or unconsciously moved the fingers of his left hand. But he refused to take any meds except for the antibiotic.

Ultimately, it came down to an issue of control. He was hanging onto "Spooky" Mulder with the tips of his fingers. He knew he was close to losing it--whatever that indefinable "it" was. He felt so fragile, like a creation of brittle glass, liable to shatter under the slightest stress.

"Good afternoon, and welcome to Delta flight 729 to Dulles International Airport. We are ready to begin boarding the cabin with our first class and medallion level passengers. Please proceed through the doorway marked C10. First class and Medallion only, at this time." Mulder stood slowly, accepting the wave of pain that accompanied the movement. Thank God he was a medallion level flyer and could board early--he didn't think he could deal with maneuvering for overhead bin space. It was going to be fun enough trying to get his laptop stowed with a broken hand and an injured back.

He also had a fucking window seat. The universe really did hate him.

He'd spent half an hour trying to get the damn seat assignment changed to an aisle, but the woman who'd been working the counter hadn't been able to make the change for some unknown reason. Apparently there were available seats at the time, but the system wasn't cooperating. Then he'd tried to upgrade to first class, but again, no luck. Three supervisors and half an hour later, he'd been forced to admit defeat.

He walked past the first class passengers.

//Lucky bastards.//

He found his seat, then, steeling himself, he lifted his laptop. He could tell halfway through the motion that it wasn't going to work. The pain ripped down his back in a wave.

"Bloody FUCKING Hell!" He'd meant to yell, but it came out as more of a choked whisper.

"Can I help you, sir?" It was a flight attendant, looking vaguely annoyed at his quiet outburst.

"Umm," Mulder said, intelligently, as she took his laptop and easily lifted it into an overhead bin. "Thanks."

His back was screaming at him, and he had broken out in a cold sweat. He was starting to reconsider his moratorium on medication. He leaned back into his seat, eyes closed, trying to breathe deeply, trying to think of anything other than the pain.

He heard passengers file by him, heard kids stomping down the aisle. Tuesdays in December weren't the most popular time to fly from Jefferson City to DC, and he hoped the flight wouldn't be full. Maybe no one would sit in his row. He always felt trapped sitting in the window.

No such luck. He heard someone stowing a bag in the bin above his head and settling into the aisle seat. He kept his eyes shut. Kept them shut through the welcome given by the first officer, kept them shut through the de-icing of the plane, kept them shut through the Delta Horizons safety video with the blonde woman who looked disturbingly like Marita Covarrubias, kept them shut through take-off, squeezed them shut hard against the jarring ride through turbulent winter air. Finally, the ride became smoother as they gained altitude, and Mulder opened his eyes, blinking back a thin sheen of moisture.

He found himself confronted with the sight of Alex Krycek, sitting in the aisle seat, calmly doing the crossword puzzle on page 57 of Sky Magazine. He looked over at Mulder, as if on cue.

"You left your prescription in the Men's room, you know."

It was too much. He stared at Krycek, positive now that the man was following him, positive that he had made the mysterious 911 call. He was simultaneously relieved and terrified, and he wasn't sure if Krycek was there to pin him in the narrow airline seats or to keep the world at bay.

It was too much, and he felt his sanity shredding under the pressure. He was going to have a nervous breakdown. Right here on this plane. He couldn't breathe. The seats seemed to close in on him. Color leeched from the cabin of the 737. He felt like screaming. He felt like laughing. Crying.

Krycek closed the distance between them, his real hand gripping Mulder's left shoulder. He was saying something.

//You're pathetic. Get a hold of yourself.//

After a few seconds he fought the wave of hysteria down and looked over at Krycek.

"I didn't mean to startle you like that," the other man said.

Startle. It was a nice gloss on what had nearly happened. Back in control, Mulder started to feel resentful.

"It's ok. I'm fine." He was staring fixedly at the seats in front of them. He needed the lie, and Krycek, generously, let him have it.

"Mulder, you're shaking."

"It'll pass."

"Hey. Lean forward for a minute." Krycek produced one of the small airline pillows, placing it against the seat behind Mulder's back.

"Thanks."

"You really did leave your prescription in the bathroom," Krycek said, leaning back, but not moving over to the aisle seat. He pulled a brown paper bag from the depths of a pocket in his leather jacket. Mulder didn't say anything.

"Do you want to take anything?"

//God, yes.//

"No."

"Mulder-"

"You trying to sedate me, Krycek? Afraid I'll lose it?" He could hear the panic in his own voice, and he hated himself for it.

"No. I'm not."

"I don't believe you."

"So, what else is new?"

Mulder turned his head away, staring at the clouds outside his window. He couldn't control the shudders that rippled through him. He wanted Krycek to go away.

"Why are you here?"

"I can't answer that right now."

"Don't give me that bullshit," Mulder said, whipping his head around.

"Fine. I WON'T answer that right now." Krycek looked maddeningly calm.

"Get the hell away from me," Mulder hissed.

"Where am I supposed to go? We're on a plane."

Mulder didn't really have an adequate response to that, so he returned to staring out the window.

"If you take your painkillers and go to sleep," Krycek said, "it will be like I don't exist."

"I'll never get rid of you," Mulder whispered.

"You could always kill me." Krycek's voice had a soft bleakness that Mulder had never heard from him before. He looked over at him then, as the sun illuminated the other man. It was strange, seeing him in the light. Krycek's eyes were a bright, indefinable color. Green, he supposed.

"I think that even if you were dead, you would find a way to haunt me."

That seemed to cheer Krycek up slightly, though that had not been Mulder's intention. The other man lost the brooding, faraway expression, and looked over at Mulder.

"I'll go find you some water," he said.

"What?" Mulder snapped. "Why?"

Krycek didn't answer him, just disappeared with a quiet swish of leather.

//Mysterious son of a bitch.//

Mulder tried to stay completely still, taking even, shallow breaths to minimize the tearing sensation across his shoulders. He let his eyes drift to the inflight movie playing out over screens all over the cabin. It appeared to be the latest Bond film.

//Krycek. Alex Krycek.//

"Sir, could you please lower your window shade?" It was the flight attendant again.

He didn't respond.

"It cuts down on the glare. For the movie." She was starting to look impatient. He looked uncertainly back out at the clouds, not wanting to relinquish the sunlight.

"Sir?" She was definitely annoyed now.

"Did you need something?" Krycek's voice was ice. Mulder hadn't even noticed him coming up the aisle.

"I was just trying to explain that we'd appreciate it if all passengers would lower their window shades for the duration of the inflight movie."

Krycek said nothing, giving her a cold, appraising look, stepping between her and Mulder.

"Thank you," he said, sounding dangerous. "We'll take that under advisement." She left.

"Was that really necessary?" Mulder asked as Krycek sat down again.

"No, probably not," Krycek said, shrugging. Krycek offered no further comment as he opened the small water bottle and handed it to Mulder. He then opened the brown prescription bottle with a deft combination of one-handed torque and pressure.

"Hold out your hand." Krycek's tone brooked no argument, and with his back screaming every time he attempted to take a breath, Mulder wasn't in the mood to start another fight. Yet.

He swallowed the medication and raised his eyebrows, as Krycek seemed to produce one of the blue airline blankets out of nowhere.

"I stole this off a sleeping guy," he said, helping Mulder drape it across himself.

"I don't doubt it." They both smiled a little at that. Mulder felt himself relax as the drugs began to kick in. He lay his head back against the seat.

"You do your crosswords in pen?" Krycek had started back on the Sky Magazine puzzle.

"Don't profile me, Mulder."

"Okay." Something about the way he said it made Krycek look over at him.

"Holy shit," Krycek said, smiling faintly. "Your eyes are already dilated."

"I hate taking it. That stuff."

"I know." Krycek went back to his crossword.

"Krycek, what are you doing here?"

"What's a six letter nickname for Montana?"

"Big Sky." He watched Krycek write it neatly into a row of small white boxes. "You didn't answer my question."

"You noticed that, huh?"

"Yes. I'm not THAT stoned." His tongue was being very uncooperative.

"You sound pretty stoned," Krycek said mildly, not looking up from the magazine. "Besides, I think we both might get more out of that conversation if you're not drugged when we have it."

"Probably true." He said it softly and precisely, watching Krycek neatly print the word "Philadelphia" down the page.

"Sixteen down is New Mexico," Mulder said helpfully.

"Do you want to finish this?" Krycek asked, looking over at him.

"No." He sighed softly. "Your handwriting is much nicer."

"Thank you." Krycek bit his lip, and looked like he was trying very hard not to smile. "I think maybe you should try and get some sleep."

Mulder let his eyes slip shut.

7:42 AM
8 December 2000
Alexandria, Virginia

Mulder, Krycek had learned, did not wake up pretty. Halfway though the flight into DC, when the agent had appropriated his right shoulder as a pillow, Krycek had been thinking charitable thoughts, like 'Mulder's really not so bad when he's not pointing a gun at me.' Those thoughts had gone up in smoke when Krycek had tried to wake him up upon landing. It had taken a good three minutes before he got anything coherent out of the man, and that, not-so-charmingly, had been:

"Go to hell, you fucking rat-bastard."

"Eventually, Mulder, eventually," he'd said, trying to sound more soothing than bitter.

Mulder had settled down relatively quickly and let Krycek drive him home. And so here he was, ten hours later, watching the sun slowly lift above the urbanized horizon, waiting for the agent to wake up again so that they could have their scheduled chat. As if on cue, the object of his attention stirred slightly, and Krycek got up to make tea. Call it a peace offering, though he didn't know how it would be received.

He didn't need to look through Mulder's cabinets to know where the English Breakfast tea was located. He heated the water, consciously making some noise, hoping that Mulder would remember who brought him home last night and he wouldn't get a bullet in the back of the head when the agent woke up.

He walked back into Mulder's living room and found himself staring into Mulder's open eyes.

"You made me tea." All systems were go, apparently.

"Last time I checked, it wasn't a felony."

"Why?"

"Why did I make you tea, or why isn't it a felony?"

"Do you have to answer every question with a question?"

"Look who's talking. Just drink the goddamned tea, Mulder." Krycek waited, but Mulder didn't move, and let his eyes fall shut again. "Fine. Don't drink it. I don't care. Stubborn bastard."

"Krycek." Mulder sounded tired rather than angry. "I will drink your fucking tea, but you're going to have to help me sit up."

Krycek blinked rapidly.

"Sure," he said casually, setting the tea down on the coffee table and sliding his right hand around the small of Mulder's back, then up towards his uninjured shoulder. Mulder clamped his right hand around the back of his neck. Carefully, Krycek pulled him up into a sitting position.

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

//Those could be the most civil three words we've exchanged in years.//

"So," Mulder said conversationally, "How long have you been surveilling me?"

"About a month."

"Why?" The word was sharp.

"I quit my old job."

"And that was?"

"Working with Covarrubias, carrying on the consortium's collaboration project."

"Why'd you stop? Get tired of experimenting on innocent civilians?"

"Fuck you, Mulder." He stood up, prowling across the room. "You don't know me. You never have."

"Exactly." Mulder's reply was ice.

"I don't know why I bother. You're never going to-"

"I'm never going to know if I'm being played. If you're just using me, like you've used me so many times in the past, to further your own selfish agenda!" Mulder's voice had escalated into a shout.

"I saved your life!"

"To what end? So I can be USED in the coming war by whichever side gets their hands on me?"

Krycek could feel the shock on his own face, and he watched, unsettled, as the fight seemed to drain out of Mulder.

"I'm tired of this, Krycek. So fucking tired." Mulder let his head drop into his right hand, the anger leaving him abruptly.

"I know, Mulder." He tried to keep the sympathy out of his voice, sensing that Mulder would distrust it, as it didn't fit with the leather and steel image he had cultivated so religiously for so long.

"I know," he said again, turning to face the other man. "And God knows I'm the last person you should trust to tell you the truth. But things are coming to a head, and I need your help. So I'm ASKING you to trust me, this one, last time. Because everything depends on it."

"You're serious." Mulder's voice was flat, uninflected, giving nothing away.

"Yes."

"There is a way," Mulder paused, looking away, "that you could convince me. But I don't think you're going to like it."

"What is it?" Krycek's response was guarded.

"You let me read your thoughts while I question you." Mulder's head was still turned away, his voice low.

"You can still do that?" Krycek asked, startled.

Mulder nodded.

Krycek's eyes narrowed.

"Why haven't you done it before now?"

"Not everyone shares your abysmal code of ethics, Krycek."

"Oh come off it," he snarled.

"It's not something I enjoy doing," Mulder snapped back and then looked away. "Since I-" Mulder broke off and Krycek waited, careful not to push.

"Since I came back to work," Mulder said carefully, "I can sometimes hear people. Usually I can block them out, but sometimes, when I'm not expecting it, I find myself in someone else's head."

"Have you ever tried to do it on purpose before?"

"No." Mulder was still staring fixedly at his hands.

"All right," Krycek said. "What do you want me to do?"

"You're agreeing?" Mulder sounded surprised.

"I don't see that there's much choice."

"OK. Come here, then. I think we should both be sitting, and it will be easier for me if I can touch you."

Krycek walked over, and sat on the edge of the coffee table, opposite Mulder.

"OK. This shouldn't hurt you." Krycek didn't miss the subtle emphasis on the last word, but Mulder continued, all business, before he could call him on it. "I'm going to ask you questions out loud, and you can either answer verbally, or just think in pictures, whatever works the best for you."

Krycek frowned. "So, you can't influence other people's thoughts at all? This is totally passive on your part?" He didn't bother to hide the suspicion in his voice.

"Actually, Krycek, I've never tried." It was almost a threat, and it hung in the air for a moment between them until Mulder gave in, breaking the tension. "I doubt I could. It's difficult enough just processing everything, let alone acting on it."

"Is it as bad as it was when you-"

Mulder cut him off with a shrug. "It's hard to quantify."

"Should you be doing this? Medically?" Krycek said, frowning at Mulder.

"What do you care?"

"I'm the guy who's been protecting you for a month. Obviously I have at least a passing interest in your well being." Krycek felt Mulder's fingers curl lightly into his own. They were sitting very close, and Krycek inhaled the scent of Mulder's skin, which mingled with the sanitized tang of hospital soap and antiseptics.

//He's going to read your mind. Get a hold of yourself.//

"Close your eyes."

"Why?"

"Seeing myself is very distracting."

//I suppose it would be.//

He closed his eyes.

"Why did you stop working for Marita?"

He couldn't tamp down on the flash of anger that caused.

//I was never working FOR Marita.// He saw blue eyes in the dingy hold of a ship that had just arrived from Vladivostok. //We were supposed to be working together.//

"Why did you split up?"

//He sounds strange, is he-//

"I'm fine. Why did you split up?"

//She's changed so much. Look at what she's become.// He focused on their last argument. The flash of her eyes as she'd told him that collaboration was their only option, and that Mulder was their best bargaining chip. //She doesn't care about winning the war. Not anymore.//

"Why do you need my help?" Mulder's voice was tight with strain.

//The vaccine.// His thoughts traced slowly, completely, over his conversation with Jack in the November evening. They moved on, to the plan he had formulated for stealing the vaccine, getting it to Scully, and then, getting it OUT. //We can tell people it's a flu shot, a meningitis shot, whatever. We just have to get them vaccinated.//

"What's in this for you?" The words sounded hollow.

Anger flared again. //Nothing's in it for me, Mulder. If I wanted to fucking live, I'd have stuck with Marita.// Below the angry words however, emotion gave him away.

"What's the real reason?" Mulder asked, sharply.

//Fine. Redemption. I want to be redeemed. Does that make you happy, you sanctimonious prick?// He thought forcefully at the man, trying to overwhelm him with anger, so maybe he wouldn't see, underneath everything, the vision that just wouldn't leave him alone. He tried not to focus on the sun-drenched fantasy of how good it would feel simply to slam a gun into Mulder's palm, knowing that they were on the same side once more.

"Did you kill my father?"

//Oh my God. How can he ask me that?// The horror came hard on the heels of the thought because he couldn't stop the memory from coming.

//HOW CAN YOU ASK ME THAT?// He could feel again the handle of the wheelchair beneath the skin of his right hand, and remembered how satisfying and right and fucking JUST it felt to push that smoking bastard down the stairs.

//WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF, YOU IDIOT?// And he thought of Bill Mulder too, and that look of surprise on his old, tired face right before he gunned him down. //This is going to be too much for him.//

//HE NEVER GAVE A DAMN ABOUT YOU.// Krycek thought of both of men as he said it. //I'm sorry anyway Mulder I'm sorry but for all I care they can both burn in hell for eternity for what they've done and for what they've made you into// And his thoughts flashed images in blue and black and red. They leaked out in an unstoppable hemorrhage, the things that had been done to both Mulder and himself blurred together despite his attempts to keep them safely locked in his head where they belonged. //Is this what you wanted to see, Mulder? Does this make you happy? Is this-//

Krycek's eyes snapped open as Mulder slumped forward against him in a dead faint.

"You just have to keep at it until SOMEONE bleeds, don't you?" He eased Mulder gently to the floor and elevated his feet, placing them on the couch. He folded Mulder's left arm across his chest, elevating the broken hand.

"Come on, Tovarich. Work with me here."

Mulder's eyelids fluttered. Trying to open. Not quite making it.

"Mulder?" His voice seemed to do it. The agent's eyes were the most colorful things in the apartment.

"Sorry." Mulder's voice sounded weak, and he brought a hand up to his temple.

"Sorry?" Krycek was floored.

"Yeah. Are you OK?"

"What?"

"Are you OK? You seemed upset."

"Mulder, I'm not the one on the floor."

"I'm fine."

"Right."

Krycek looked down at Mulder, surprised by the strange, open expression in the other man's eyes. The weak morning sunlight poured into the room, slanted and golden. The whole scene felt unreal.

"Krycek," Mulder began, only to be cut off by a knock at the door. Krycek was up in an instant, gun in hand.

"Stay here." He whispered to Mulder, but the agent was already climbing to his feet.

"No, YOU stay here. This is MY apartment," Mulder whispered back, looking irritated. The moment of Zen was past, it seemed.

"Take your gun," Krycek said, pointing at the coffee table where Mulder had deposited it the previous evening.

Krycek rolled his eyes as Mulder nodded, scooping up the gun gracefully and heading toward the door. He heard the agent's somewhat unsteady footsteps, and he rubbed his finger along the trigger of his silenced automatic. There were two abrupt clicks from the other side of the wall. Mulder had unlocked the door.

"Michaelson." Mulder's voice was a little louder than normal. Krycek relaxed marginally.

"Jesus, Mulder. You look like shit, buddy."

"So I've been told."

"Can I come in?"

"Uhh," Mulder said.

"Shit," Krycek whispered, holstering his gun. He couldn't do a good job of hiding in the next five seconds. So he did the next best thing. He sat down in Mulder's chair, threading his hand nonchalantly through his hair.

"You need to lie down, Spook." Krycek turned his head to see the two of them come through the doorway, Michaelson's left hand on Mulder's elbow, his right hand around Mulder's waist. The agent really did look like he'd been through the wringer. His black sweats were hanging off him, and the dark fabric made him look incredibly pale. His hair was a mess, and he was barefoot.

Krycek raised his eyebrows at Michaelson as the agent stopped cold upon seeing him. Mulder, despite his rumpled appearance, had that 'all gears in motion' look. Krycek decided to let him handle this.

"Michaelson, I want you to meet Special Agent Alexander."

//Holy shit. This is a felony you're perpetrating right now, Special Agent Mulder.//

Krycek gave Michaelson his best smile, and extended his hand. "Hi," he said, "Most people call me Vic." He smiled in Mulder's direction, rolling his eyes slightly. Michaelson relaxed almost instantly.

"So you DID call someone," Michaelson said to Mulder, concern diluting the reproach in his voice. "I heard what had happened when I got in this morning, and I thought that maybe you had just flown back without-"

"No, I let Alexander know what happened. He picked me up at the airport last night." Mulder sat down, looking up at Michaelson. "I do have friends, you know." The agent managed to sound vaguely hurt. Krycek blinked.

"I know," Michaelson said, a bit flustered, "I just, I mean, I've never seen you around before." He directed the last comment at Krycek.

"I just got transferred from Nebraska," Krycek offered.

"Nebraska? What's in Nebraska?"

"Corn," Krycek said. "Bees."

"Sounds scintillating," Michaelson said, giving him a smart-ass grin before turning back to Mulder.

"What the fuck were you thinking, going after a killer with no backup?" Michaelson asked, right back on track. "AD Skinner's going to eat your liver for brunch."

"I'm not sure that he really needs to find out about," Mulder made a vague gesture, "All that."

"You must be high on painkillers, Spook. You stabbed the guy with his own knife. The media got wind of it. Skinner's up to his ears in PR, and he's mad as hell."

"Oh GOD," Mulder let his right hand drop to cover his eyes, propping the injured left one across his chest. Michaelson looked at him sympathetically.

"Maybe I can get him to come here if he needs to talk to you. I think he'd have a very hard time chewing you out once he actually lays eyes on you."

"I don't look THAT bad."

"Yes, you do." Krycek and Michaelson spoke in tandem. Mulder just heaved a long-suffering sigh.

"So you're gonna keep an eye on him, then?" Michaelson asked Krycek, looking him up and down, as if trying to judge his fitness for the task.

"Yup. I'm even making him keep his doctor's appointment at 11:00." Krycek's voice was smug, and Mulder's eyes flew open in response. They glared at one another for a few seconds.

"Have fun with that," Michaelson said dryly. "Catch ya later, Mulder. I'll plead with Skinner for your soul."

"Thanks." Mulder smiled wanly as Michaelson turned to go.

The door clicked softly, and they were alone again. The silence between them was thick. Questions ran through Krycek's head in a continuous stream, but he kept quiet. He watched Mulder watching him.

"So." The agent spoke first. "How the hell are we going to convince Scully that we need to steal a truckload of vaccine?"

9:47 PM
10 December 2000
Bethesda, Maryland

The fluorescent bulbs hummed far above their heads, illuminating the cement ceiling of the warehouse. Darkness seemed to seep up from the floor, swallowing the diffuse rays that attempted to penetrate the depths of the room. Soft light surrounded him, gently casting the walls, the storage crates, and his companion in a sickly golden glow only to fade to black in corners.

Mulder had used this location before for contacting informants, and it was the only building that had satisfied Krycek's conditions: secure, dimly lit, two entrances--both visible from a central location. So here they were, sitting edgily on a stack of wooden crates. Waiting.

Krycek was a shadowy presence beside him; his clothes and hair seemed to pull the weak light out of the air around them and sequester it somewhere. The other man was watching the two doors, eyes restlessly flicking around the cavern-like storage space. His leather jacket was open, his hand resting close to his weapon. He looked professional. Calm. Only infrequently did Mulder catch a small tightening of his jaw that gave away the tension beneath the smooth exterior.

Krycek didn't want to be here. Mulder didn't know why he had insisted on coming.

There were a lot of things about Krycek he didn't know, despite the five minutes he had spent in the other man's head. Mulder had expected to gain some clarity from the experience. He had expected answers. And, he supposed, he had gotten them in a manner of speaking. He knew what Marita was up to, and, more importantly, he was relatively sure that Krycek's intentions were-

Good enough.

That's what it came down to, in the final analysis. How willing was Mulder to get his hands dirty on Krycek's account? To get them bloody? Because if anyone had the ability to drag him down off his moral high-horse and into the mire of practicality, it was Krycek. In some ways he almost respected the man; Krycek had sublimated everything to achieving one goal: resisting colonization.

Sure, it sounded noble when you put it like that, but did the ends justify the means? Nothing stood in the man's way. Not emotional attachment, not visceral pleasures, not fear, not loyalty. He was ruthless.

//Totally ruthless?//

Mulder had never achieved that level of heartless efficiency, not without letting guilt gnaw away at the edges of his psyche.

No, reading Krycek's mind had NOT been the epiphany he had expected.

He let his thoughts drift back to that cold morning, remembering how it had felt to share Krycek's thoughts. It had been easier, less painful than the occasional, unintentional mental hook-ups he had suffered in the past. Krycek had excellent control over his own mind. He had made an effort to direct his thoughts at Mulder, without "shouting" at him.

//Well, until I asked him about my father.//

While Mulder appreciated Krycek's mental discipline, it had also left him with a vaguely unsatisfied feeling--like there was something significant that Krycek had managed to keep from him. Mulder knew that the other man couldn't have lied to him directly, but he knew that Krycek had kept more to himself than most-

Right. The man had willingly allowed him to commit a gross invasion of personal privacy, and Mulder was upset that Krycek hadn't become magically transparent. Five minutes, it seemed, wasn't long enough to understand a person.

Not that he had an overwhelming urge to spend more than that on Alex Krycek. Definitely not. The man was a rat bastard. Krycek had killed his father. Both of them.

And yet, as much as he wished he could hold onto his righteous anger, he knew it had been shattered when he had read Krycek's reaction to his last question. It had been a multi-layered, complicated response and, to Mulder, it had felt real. More real than anything Skinner or Scully had said to him since he'd woken a few months ago in Georgetown Memorial. It allowed him to let go of some of his knee-jerk resistance to anything that came out of the other man's mouth, and to listen to what he had to say.

//You like being with him because he hasn't moved on with his life, like everyone else has. Like Scully has. He's the same as he's always been, saving the world with one hand and fucking it over with the other.//

//Shut up. He only has one hand. He can't do both anymore. And I don't LIKE being with him.//

//You've as good as forgiven him for killing your father.//

Hell. Both of his "fathers" had fucked him over repeatedly. And if he was truly honest with himself, he was as tired of reiterating the same litany of accusations as Krycek was of hearing them.

The man, in some ways, had squared his account with Mulder, and that made him feel lost. All he had left were the shards of his broken hatred. He couldn't seem to let them go, even though they cut him deeply.

Oddly, he found that he had absorbed more than he consciously recalled of their interaction. Every so often, some obscure fact about Krycek would strike him. He liked Dostoevsky, but not Tolstoy. He was making a decent living trading stock online under an assumed name. Sometimes, the man boosted red sports cars just for the hell of it.

It was enough to make him wonder if he was going crazy. Maybe he was.

"Hey, Krycek. Do you like Tolstoy?"

"What?" The whispered word cut the air like a knife.

"Do you like Tolstoy?"

Krycek muttered something in Russian, sounding disgusted.

"That's a no, then?"

"You are so fucking RANDOM sometimes." The words had a bit of an edge, but Krycek looked vaguely amused.

"Hey. I'm just making conversation." Mulder's voice was flat.

"Nice change." Krycek said wryly, eyes flicking away from the door to look at Mulder. He looked like he was about to speak, when the door to their left opened.

The Gunmen slunk warily into the room, filing in one after another, only to stop and stare at Krycek. Langly looked at the floor quickly, Byers' blue eyes widened, but it was Frohike who came to the fore, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"What the hell is HE doing here?"

Mulder stood at Frohike's outburst, extending an empty hand as a gesture of placation. But before he could speak, Krycek broke in.

"Selling girl scout cookies."

Mulder glared at him.

Byers and Langly flanked Frohike, looking uneasy. Seeing that Krycek hadn't moved, and didn't appear to be much of a threat at the moment, the three moved forward cautiously, expecting an answer from Mulder.

"Mulder, the dude could flip us." Langly sounded nervous.

"Settle down, boys." Mulder's voice was authoritative as he moved to stand between Krycek and the Gunmen. "Krycek has some important information. Stuff that you guys, in particular, might be interested in."

"If you behave, I'll give you an exclusive interview for your little newsletter," Krycek said. Mulder didn't bother to turn and glare. He didn't need to see the other man to know that he was smirking.

Frohike gave a short, unhappy nod, and that seemed to decide Byers and Langly. The silence was oppressive, but the tension in the room eased noticeably as the three perched on crates to wait with them.

The meeting time he'd given the Gunmen had been ten minutes earlier than the time he'd given Scully, Skinner and Doggett. It had been a point that he and Krycek had agreed upon. They both knew that getting the Gunmen to listen to what they had to say would be one hell of a lot easier than getting the other three on board.

"Krycek." Mulder's voice was low. "Whatever you do, don't pull your weapon."

"Do I look like I have a death wish?" Krycek whispered back.

"Try not to LOOK like you might pull your weapon."

Krycek gave Mulder an irritated glance, but before he could answer, the door opened. Skinner walked through, followed by Doggett. Scully slipped in behind them. The three caught sight of Krycek.

They moved forward in a wave, Scully's pumps beating a staccato rhythm on the cement. Mulder and Krycek stood to meet them.

Four successive clicks broke the silence as four guns came out of four holsters. Four rounds were chambered, and almost simultaneously, four weapons cocked. Krycek stood, gun in hand, facing the barrels of three Sig Sauers. His silencer was pointed directly at Skinner.

"Drop it." Scully spoke first.

"Ladies first," Krycek's said, his tone artificially saccharine. His eyes never wavered from Skinner's face.

"You were at the Bureau," Doggett said, his face tight with anger, "impersonating an FBI agent."

"At least I don't have to do it every day," Krycek said, shifting his eyes briefly to sneer at Doggett, "How does it feel-"

"Shut up, Krycek," Mulder hissed.

//Is he TRYING to get himself killed?//

Mulder moved slowly. One step. Another, until he stood directly between Krycek and Skinner. Scully was now the only one of the three who had a clear shot.

"Agent Mulder, what the hell are you doing?" Skinner's voice was concerned, almost frightened.

"Preventing something we would all regret." Mulder's voice was calm.

Scully moved first, lowering her weapon in one smooth motion. After a moment, one of her hands came up to rest gently on Doggett's arm. Slowly, her partner lowered his Sig as well. They stood back slightly, watching Skinner and Krycek. Both men had adjusted their aims, trying to angle for a clear shot.

Mulder took a small step backward, feeling the cold metal of Krycek's silencer brush against the back of his neck. Instantly, Krycek turned the gun away from Mulder, and he heard the safety click back into place, heard the gun slide back into its holster with the soft scratch of metal on leather.

"Krycek has something to give you." Mulder looked unflinchingly into the barrel of Skinner's Sig. Skinner's eyes flicked to Krycek, and he gave a barely perceptible nod. Mulder sensed rather than saw Krycek reach into his leather jacket and pull out the palm pilot that controlled the nanocytes in Skinner's blood. Krycek pressed the device into Mulder's hand.

Slowly, Mulder held it out to Skinner. After a moment's hesitation, Skinner lowered his weapon, and walked forward to take it. The tension in the air decreased marginally.

"I asked you all here," Mulder said quietly, turning to glance at the Gunmen, who had been standing to one side, out of the line of fire, "Because Krycek has some important information concerning the date of colonization."

"Colonization?" Doggett sounded skeptical.

"Yes. The colonization of our planet by an extra-terrestrial race." Mulder's voice was serious.

Doggett laughed abruptly, looking incredulous. No one else cracked a smile.

"Mulder." Scully had that oh-so-rational tone of voice that he'd learned to dread. Maybe even fear. "Explain to me why we should trust anything that Alex Krycek might say."

"You've got no choice." Krycek's voice was dark, and smooth as satin. He stood slightly behind Mulder's left shoulder.

"No," Doggett said, "I think we DO have a choice." He turned to Mulder. "I watched this guy deliberately choose NOT to give you the vaccine to cure whatever the hell it was that turned Billy Miles into one of those--supersoldiers."

"You have no clue what you're talking about." Krycek's voice was tight. "He would have been fine if YOU people hadn't buried him for-" he broke off.

It was very difficult for Mulder not to flinch.

"He would not have been 'fine.' You would NOT have been 'fine,' Mulder." Scully's voice was like flint, all stone and sparks.

//Am I fine now?//

"He's a liar and a murderer. I want to know why you think we can trust him." Doggett's voice was angry.

Mulder looked at all of them, face completely neutral.

"I read his thoughts."

There was a moment of shock, and then a split second as attitudes readjusted. He had expected skepticism, incredulity, and opposition. Instead, an ominous silence fell over them all.

//Uh oh.//

Scully looked concerned, in control. Doggett looked confident.

He could feel Krycek's presence at his side, and risked a glance at the man. He was radiating hostility, eyes burning into Agent Doggett.

"Prove it," Doggett said to Mulder.

"Fine," Mulder snapped. "Close your eyes and think of something." He stepped forward; sure they could all see through his transparent shell of confidence. He waited until Doggett closed his eyes, then brought the fingers of his right hand up to the agent's left temple. He took a deep breath, and opened his mind.

The familiar aural dissonance ripped through his head, but beneath it, oh God, beneath it--he heard Doggett's thoughts. He wanted Mulder committed. He wanted Krycek arrested. Mulder started to pull out, afraid, vulnerable, but then he saw it. Saw the image Doggett was focusing on. It seared its way into his consciousness, and it was hard, so hard, not to scream.

He ripped his hand away from Doggett's skin and stepped back, staggering into Krycek. He felt the other man's right hand close around his bicep like a vise, steadying him, directing him away from Doggett and Scully.

"What the fuck did you just do?" Krycek's voice was quiet, seething with barely contained rage. For a moment, Mulder thought Krycek was talking to him.

"Nothing!" Doggett said, looking vaguely guilty.

"Mulder, you're sick." Scully was looking at him now, all concern. "You need to be in a hospital."

He looked at her, recognizing the determined expression on her face, her certainty that she was doing the right thing. The situation had already slipped out of his control. He felt icewater tearing through his veins. She was going to commit him. They were going to fucking lock him up in a psychiatric ward and throw away the key this time. And they were going to arrest Krycek. There would be no one, no one who knew-

"You're not taking him anywhere." Krycek's voice was deadly serious, and he had released his grip on Mulder's arm, his hand inching back towards his silencer.

"He's not well." Scully's words were icy, and directed at Skinner.

Skinner looked uncertainly at both Mulder and Scully. As the ranking Bureau member present, the decision seemed to fall to him by default.

"Sir," Mulder said, trying to sound calm, trying to look rational. "If I ever needed you to believe me-" he had to break off as his voice cracked under the strain.

He sounded too desperate. This wasn't going to work.

Scully said nothing, her hair casting delicate shadows over her pale skin. Skinner spent a long moment looking through both of them, as if he were choosing between his heart and his conscience.

The choice seemed clear to Mulder. On the AD's right hand were Scully and Doggett, coolly professional in the clean lines of their suits, standing for the scientists and for men of the law. On Skinner's left, Mulder and Krycek curled into themselves, wounded and dangerous, standing for the lunatics and the traitors, the irrational and the twisted, all the Cassandras of the world that screamed the truth into uncomprehending ears. This might be their last attempt to communicate the information that had claimed their bodies and their souls before they were dragged down into the hell of chemical and physical incarceration, able to do nothing as the inevitability of their fate finally claimed them.

The silence was unbearable.

"I've been wrong," Skinner said softly, "So many times. I've made the same damn mistake over and over." He came to stand next to Mulder, facing Scully. "I won't do it again."

Scully's face tightened. "I won't put my life in the hands of Alex Krycek."

"I'm with Agent Scully." Doggett stood next to her.

No one said anything. Mulder realized they were waiting for him to make a decision. To negotiate. To persuade. To take the sterilized life of the lab and of the office and to incorporate it into the realm of the improbable and bizarre. He stepped away from Krycek and moved forward to face them.

"Then get out."

"Mulder, I don't think you can trust your own-"

"Get. Out." The words ripped out of him from behind clenched teeth.

She turned on her heel then, Doggett behind her. He didn't flinch when the door shut behind them with a hollow metallic thud. He kept his eyes on it for a few moments.

//My name is Dana Scully. I've been assigned to work with you.//

Finally, he tore his eyes away from the door to look at Skinner. The other man looked as if a piece of him had walked out of the door as well. After a moment, Skinner turned to face him, defeat etched into his face.

//I've done this. I've stripped this from him.//

"Thank you." Mulder's voice was barely more than a whisper, and sounded pathetic in his own years. Skinner just gave him a short nod, and seemed to pull himself together. The mask was back in place.

The six of them moved in, coming to stand in a loose circle.

"What have you got?" Skinner asked.

"Krycek contacted me a few days ago." Mulder's tone was flawless, revealing nothing of the fear and anger that still battled beneath his ribs. "He knows the date." He paused a moment to let his words sink in. Noted their worried expressions. Glanced pointedly at Krycek.

"It's Memorial day. 2001." Krycek fixed the four that remained with an incisive look.

"He has information," Mulder continued, "Concerning a vaccine. There IS an existing, effective vaccine, which has both prophylactic and therapeutic value. Krycek stole it from the Russians and it was mass-produced by the Roush pharmaceutical company. Covarrubias has it now."

"Unfortunately," Mulder continued, "Covarrubias is collaborating fully with the colonists, and she's been ordered to abandon her plans for mass-vaccination and turn the stockpiles over to them for destruction."

"Why would she agree to do that?" Skinner asked, brow tightening.

"If she refused," Krycek said, "Colonization would start immediately and she wouldn't be able to save any of her people. She does have a strategy; she's not just fucking over the human race for the hell of it. She's got a hybridization project going, but there are two problems with that."

"More people will die without the vaccine." Langly spoke up.

"Yes." Krycek said shortly. "And it precludes the possibility of resistance, once colonization has begun."

"No one will be around to fight." Skinner's voice was rueful.

"And the rebel alien force won't touch collaborators with a ten-foot pole. We would get no help from them."

"So what IS the plan?" Byers asked.

"We steal a shipment of vaccine on its way to be destroyed." Mulder took over again. "The original plan was to have Scully look at it, and maybe figure out how to produce more-"

"I have contacts at the National Institutes of Health." Skinner said shortly. "People that can be trusted."

"So assuming we can get our hands on the vaccine," Mulder said, "We would then have to go public with the information."

"Or at least alert the military," Krycek said. "The armed forces have to be vaccinated. At least in this country, preferably in others as well."

"Jesus," Skinner breathed. "Do you realize what you're saying?"

Krycek's face was stone. For a moment no one spoke.

"We can't save everyone," Krycek said finally. "It would be impossible. Already we're losing people."

"What are you talking about?" Frohike's voice was more anxious than hostile.

"The supersoldiers." Mulder spoke softly. "They're replacing people every day."

"Well," Langly said in his nervous tenor, "Uh, how do we know that one of US isn't uh-"

"Because," Mulder said calmly, "I would be able to tell. I can hear them."

"But," Langly said, "I mean, YOU could be one." He looked at Mulder apologetically. "How are we supposed to tell?"

"Supersoldiers are easy," Krycek said. "The first thoracic vertebra looks odd, like there's a ridge of metal projecting out of the skin."

Mulder felt a slight pressure on his shoulder, and he turned around, understanding what Krycek wanted. It was hard not to jerk away when he felt the other man grip the collar of his jacket and shirt. Krycek pulled down gently, careful not to reveal the bandages that still covered the stitches in his back.

"See?" Krycek said to Langly, "Totally normal. If he were a supersoldier, there would be a metallic projection," he paused as he rearranged his grip on the fabric to free a finger, "right here."

Mulder tried not to shiver as he felt Krycek trace a path over the base of his neck. Finally, the other man released Mulder's clothes.

"Usually they conceal that spot if they can," Krycek continued. "But you don't really need to see it to recognize one, because they'll be coming at you with a blank expression and you won't be able to stop them with any conventional weapon."

"So what are we supposed to do?" Skinner asked, his eyes darkening as he looked at Krycek.

"Magnetite bullets will work. So will magnetite knives, but I don't recommend getting that close if you can help it."

"Why magnetite?" Skinner asked, brow furrowing.

"It has to do with the combination of human and alien DNA that they carry." Krycek gave Mulder a furtive, speculative glance.

"Whatever works," Mulder said shortly, frowning.

"So what's with the mindreading?" Frohike asked him, changing the subject.

"It's difficult for me to hear human thoughts. But I can hear the colonists, and I can hear the supersoldiers almost as well." Skinner's gaze flicked down towards the floor. The Gunmen looked at each other, at the walls, anywhere but at Mulder.

"Can they hear you?" Krycek's eyes seemed clear and bright even in the diffuse light of the warehouse.

"I don't think so. I haven't seen any evidence of it. They never seemed to be able to when I was aboard the ship." Krycek's eyes never left his. "They tried, I think." He touched his fingers to his temple, as he felt a stab of remembered pain.

"Why do you think you're able to hear them?" Byers asked his question quietly.

Mulder shrugged. He didn't want to think about it.

"He probably has some active alien DNA, like Gibson Praise," Langly offered. "We could get a blood sample and-"

"No tests." Krycek's voice was icy. For a split second, Mulder felt absurdly grateful. Then Krycek continued. "It doesn't matter what he is. We should just be thankful he's still alive and we can use him."

//Ah Krycek, always looking for an angle.//

"Just what the hell are you planning on using him FOR?" Skinner's voice sounded threatening.

"Think about it. If he can tell humans from colonists just from sitting in a room with them-" Krycek trailed off, letting them draw their own conclusions.

"Look Krycek," Skinner said angrily, "If we're going to work with you-"

"There's no IF." Mulder broke in. "Krycek is absolutely right. We're going to need every advantage we can get against the colonists." His voice was totally flat. "Now let's stop wasting time, and go plan this thing." He turned to the Gunmen. "Boys, we're gonna need your kung-fu."

"We'll meet back at our place in half an hour," Frohike said. "Everyone come in separate cars, and make sure you're not followed."

"And no one park in front of the building," Langly muttered.

With that, the meeting was officially adjourned. Mulder followed Skinner to the door, feeling a dull ache behind his eyes. He stopped as Krycek put a hand on his shoulder.

"Mulder, hold up a second." Skinner glanced back at Krycek's words, glaring at the other man suspiciously. Mulder motioned vaguely to him, half-heartedly conveying the impression that everything was fine. Skinner slipped out the door.

"What is it, Krycek." Again that dull monotone. He couldn't even make his words sound like a question.

"Mulder, back there," Krycek seemed slightly flustered. "I didn't mean that we would be-"

"Using me like a hammer?" Finally, he was able to get some indignation behind his words.

"Well, yeah," Krycek said lamely.

"Don't bother, Krycek. It's fine. I don't really give a damn." He turned and walked toward the door.

"Mulder." There was something in Krycek's voice that made him stop and look back. "What did you see?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"When you read Doggett's mind. What did you see?" Krycek closed the distance between them slowly, like he was afraid Mulder might bolt.

Mulder released a shuddery breath.

"I saw myself."

Mulder watched Krycek's eyebrows push together. He didn't understand.

"Doggett was the first person to find me, at that compound, after I'd been returned."

Krycek blinked rapidly.

"I really can't blame them for burying me." Mulder felt his lips twist into a morbid parody of a smile. "I looked very dead."

"That's the image he was focusing on?" Krycek's voice had gone very quiet, but there was a sinister undertone beneath his words.

"He didn't really expect me to see it."

Krycek didn't say anything for a moment, just looked at Mulder. Then, as if he had come to a decision, he nodded.

"I suppose you don't want me to kill him for you." Krycek smiled slightly. "Do you?"

Mulder laughed dryly. "I don't think that's necessary."

"The offer still stands, if you change your mind."

As Mulder turned to walk out of the warehouse and into the night, he glanced back up at the other man. Gently, so very softly and gently, the diffuse light illuminated Krycek's face, smoothing hard lines, losing itself in long lashes, falling forgivingly on the pale skin, where no shadows lingered.

11:22 PM
23 December 2000
Route 10, Virginia

"You drive like a maniac."

"I do not."

"Oh yeah? Remember Tunguska? I was a hell of a lot safer jumping out of that truck than staying along for the ride."

"I was escaping from a gulag at the time!"

"Well, right now you're driving down a nice sedate highway in the woods of Virginia, so will you please slow down?" Krycek looked over at Mulder, trying to glare the man into submission.

"I don't get it. You have no compunction about killing, stealing, lying or murdering, but you don't want me breaking the speed limit?" Mulder looked more amused than annoyed, but it was hard to tell. He'd been extremely mercurial lately, especially where Krycek was concerned.

"You break the speed limit, we get pulled over, we're late, this whole operation gets blown because you couldn't keep your foot off the gas pedal." Mulder scowled, but let the van, which contained crates full of useless, fake vials of vaccine, creep back down to a respectable sixty miles per hour.

Krycek relaxed slightly, and watched Mulder watching the road. The past two weeks had been difficult for the agent and for Skinner, both of whom had been forced to essentially lead double lives, confronting the grind of the Bureau during the day, and planning for their clandestine operation at night. Mulder's hand and back were healing quickly, but he hadn't gone back into the field since his trip to Iowa. Two days ago he'd been forced to send Stewart to Oregon for a field investigation. Krycek could tell he wasn't happy about it.

That was one thing he had never really counted on. Mulder had turned the ISU back into the rising star of the Bureau. That meant more paper work and more attention focused on the agent, when the safest thing would have been for him to fade into the woodwork. On the plus side, the team was starting to pull together behind Mulder and display a fierce loyalty towards their far-from-conventional boss. Krycek was starting to toy with the idea of using the unit as a nucleus for some kind of elite resistance force.

He had a feeling that a small, tight group of well-informed resistance fighters was going to be necessary in the coming war. If the military could get their act together that was all well and good, but he wanted something in place, separated from government programs in case it all went to hell.

Which it probably would.

This current operation had gone well so far. Fifty percent of the success in any given mission came in the planning, and the six of them had settled into a very respectable team. Despite one hell of a violent history, they had been able to work together. And the reason for that camaraderie was sitting next to him, driving like a maniac. Again.

"Mulder." His voice was a warning. "Slow. Down."

Mulder had an amazing ability to say the right thing at the right time, when he wanted to. He could be as irritating as hell, but when it came to getting things rolling smoothly, he displayed the same skill he had used to pull the ISU together.

Krycek felt hopeful for the first time in years.

Things would go to shit. That was a given. But maybe, maybe, they wouldn't be completely wiped out. Maybe they'd be able to put up one hell of a fight. Maybe they'd even win--because Fox Mulder was a man that people would fight and die for. Krycek knew that first hand. He had seen it happen, one syndicate member after another. Mulder had always had a following, hell, Marita herself had once betrayed Krycek to give Mulder information.

The dead had believed what Krycek believed now. That Mulder could save them.

"There's a cop behind us," Krycek said, glancing in the rearview mirror on his side.

"I'll be good."

It wouldn't do to idealize the man too much. He drove like a lunatic, for one thing. Somehow, he didn't remember Mulder being this bad six years ago when they had been partners. He probably had a lot more pent up aggression now. This was the last time Krycek was letting him behind the wheel. Ever.

Plus, when he didn't have something to focus his energy on, he was arrogant, moody, and prone to fits of anger. Not to mention his terrible taste in ties.

//He's depressed. Dangerously so.// The thought intruded, sobering him.

It wasn't terribly obvious, but Krycek could see it there, almost all the time, just beneath the surface. In the way those green eyes, which should have been full of fire, were flat and gray instead.

//You've got to snap out of this, Tovarich.//

The radio in his hand crackled to life.

"Unit one, this is unit two. Do you copy? Over." It was Skinner.

"This is unit one. We copy. Are you in position? Over."

"Yes. What is your ETA? Over."

"Approximately three minutes. Over."

"See you soon. Over and out." Krycek clipped the radio to his belt, turning the sound down.

"We're late," Mulder said blandly.

"And we'll be even later if you get us pulled over. Slow down and let the cop go by us."

Mulder slowed, but the car stayed with them. Krycek frowned, watching it in the rearview mirror as it slowly crept along the side of the truck.

Suddenly, Mulder jerked, and the van swerved dangerously.

"Oh FUCK!" He sounded panicked.

"What?!" Krycek was yelling back at him.

"That's not a cop, Alex. It's a supersoldier." Mulder glanced over at Krycek, eyes wide and green and grim in the dark.

"Shit." The fear froze him for only a split second. Then he was reaching for the glove box, dumping the clip out of his gun and replacing it, trying not to think about how nice it was to hear Mulder say his first name, even if he was panicking. "Magnetite bullets," he told Mulder. "Give me your gun."

Mulder maintained a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel with his right hand, while he reached into the depths of his black leather jacket. He pulled his gun out gingerly, wincing as he jarred his still-healing left hand. Taking it quickly, Krycek loaded a new clip.

"How did it know to follow us?" Krycek wondered out loud.

"I might be able to tell, if-"

"No. Not while you're driving." Mulder nodded in response as the weigh station came into view.

"Just empty your clip at it," Krycek said as he watched the police car pull off the highway behind them. "And Mulder," he said, giving the other man a hint of a smile, "don't drop your gun."

The truck screeched to a halt, and Krycek slipped gracefully out of the passenger side door with a soft swish of leather. As he rounded the front of the vehicle, he saw Mulder begin to fire, feet squared, leather jacket open, the wind teasing his dark hair. Krycek skidded to a stop beside him, bringing his own weapon up, shooting round after round at the bloody, mangled farce of a police officer that was still, amazingly, trying to stagger toward them. Finally, it collapsed, twitching, to the ground.

Krycek walked forward, and placed his gun directly against the magic vertebra. Fired one last shot.

Skinner was running towards them.

"What the hell are you two doing? You just killed a highway patrolman!"

Krycek shook his head. "Look at it," he said sharply, pointing at the fractured remains of the vertebra.

Skinner bent down, seeing cracked metal where bones should be. "That's a supersoldier." Skinner's voice was incredulous. "Fuck."

"Yes," Krycek said, his dry tone covering his unease. "Fuck."

The radio cracked to life in Krycek's hand. "Unit three here. Target approaching. Get in position. Over."

Skinner sprinted back to the weigh station booth.

"The body." Mulder's voice hissed in his ear a split second before they were moving forward in tandem. Together, they dragged the corpse behind the police car. Krycek looked up, and saw the truck with the real vaccine pull into the station. Shit. They weren't in position, and they weren't going to get there, not without a very mad, very noticeable dash across the yard.

Well, fifty percent of a successful mission was in the improvisation.

"Mulder." His voice was the barest whisper. "They're both human, right?"

Mulder nodded.

"I'm gonna try and make the shot from here."

"Krycek, you're insane. It's at least fifteen yards, and it's dark. And you're at a bad angle."

"I know. But we can't cover the distance without them spotting us." He watched Mulder consider his words.

"OK. But switch places with me. I think I have a clearer line."

"I need you to brace my arm." It would improve his chances of hitting his target if he didn't have to worry about holding the gun arm perfectly still in midair. Mulder didn't say anything, just knelt down in front of him. Krycek positioned his wrist on the other man's shoulder and looked down the length of his weapon. Carefully, he adjusted his aim.

"Hold your breath," Krycek whispered. Mulder was rock steady under his forearm. Krycek closed everything out. His breathing stopped, his vision narrowed, his index finger tingled on the trigger. For a moment, everything was still and quiet as stone.

Gently, very gently, he pulled the trigger.

Blood spattered the passenger side window of the truck. Mulder jerked violently as the gun went off next to his left ear. Skinner hauled the driver out of the vehicle at gunpoint. Things were going according to plan. Mostly.

"Are you OK?" he asked Mulder softly.

"What?" Mulder's voice was abnormally loud.

Krycek put his mouth next to Mulder's right ear. "Are you OK? And don't talk so loud." Mulder nodded at him.

"Krycek, get over here!" It was Skinner, calling from across the lot. "This guy says he wants to talk to you." Krycek frowned, ducking out from behind the car to see Skinner holding a gun on a familiar looking man. Krycek glanced back to see Mulder removing the video surveillance system from the police car.

//There's hope for him yet.//

"Kenny," Krycek said coldly, as he approached the driver.

"Alex. Hey." He was nervous. Krycek brought his weapon up.

"Jesus. Don't kill me."

"Give me a reason not to."

"I have information about Marita's plans."

"Bullshit. You're just the driver, Kenny." Krycek's tone was conversational. Kenny started to look hopeful.

"Why would she have given me this job if she didn't trust me?"

"Maybe she's a moron." Kenny looked like he was about to die of apoplexy. "What was with the company, Kenny?" He gestured back towards the police car. "Did you suspect some trouble?" The shorter man gave Krycek a sly look.

"You were made. I can tell you who."

Krycek waited, growing impatient.

"Do I have to beat it out of you?"

"Promise me you won't kill me."

It was an effort not to laugh. "I won't kill you."

"Jack. It was Jack. He and Marita set this whole thing up. They knew you'd try and steal a shipment if Jack fed you enough information. You were supposed to get wasted by the supersoldier, while Jack took care of Agent Mulder."

"What do you mean, 'took care of Mulder'?" His words were deceptively calm.

"I think you know what I mean." Krycek felt like he was choking. It was a conscious effort to force down the rage enough to be able to think clearly. He had to think clearly. Just then, Mulder walked into sight. Kenny's eyes widened in surprise.

"You're working WITH him?" The assassin gasped.

Krycek couldn't help himself. His finger tightened on the trigger.

"Holy shit!" Skinner yelled as the bullet whizzed past his ear. "Give me some warning next time." He glared at Krycek, but there was something besides irritation behind his eyes. Skinner glanced at Mulder, then back at Krycek. Krycek looked away quickly.

"Sorry. Let's switch the cargo." His words were practically a snarl. And he turned sharply, brushing indifferently, or so he hoped, past Special Agent Fox Mulder.

Krycek forced his mind back to the job at hand. The original plan had been to simply trade plates on the trucks, Skinner and Frohike driving the faux vaccine to the pickup-point, while Mulder and Krycek made off with the real shipment. But Krycek knew how Marita liked to operate. She would have built an electronic identification device into the frame of her truck, and she would have placed devices randomly in the crates of vaccine. The plan was to scan for the electronics, remove them, and place them in the crates with the fake vaccine, which would be dropped off by Skinner and Frohike in the original truck.

They had about five minutes to do the scans and make the switch. The Gunmen had already started their sweep of Marita's truck. Frohike was scanning while the other two unloaded the crates that hadn't been tampered with. Mulder, Skinner, and Krycek made short work of unloading the fake vaccine from the other vehicle.

When everything was out, Skinner started carefully passing crates of the real vaccine into the truck for Mulder and Krycek to stack. They were forced to work as a unit since they only had two good hands between them.

Despite their efficient teamwork, Krycek knew something was wrong. Mulder wouldn't look at him. The other man was probably upset about Kenny. It made Krycek want to shake him until his teeth rattled. That, however, would have to wait until later.

They got the real vaccine loaded into the truck, and Skinner turned to help the Gunmen re-load the original truck with the useless substitute. Krycek walked to the passenger side of the vehicle and pulled the dead man out, looking critically at the upholstery.

//Not too noticeable, but the resale value will plummet.//

"Krycek, you guys need to go." Byers said, hurrying over. Behind them, Mulder slammed the doors of the van, concealing the real vaccine from sight.

"This needs to be taken care of," he said, looking at the bloodstained window. "Marita's people will know something is up."

"We'll deal with this. Just get the payload out of here."

Krycek nodded, and jogged back over to Mulder, adroitly pulling the keys out of the agent's jacket pocket.

"I'm driving," he said.

"Fine."

//He really is pissed at me.//

"Good luck," Skinner said over his shoulder.

"See you soon," Mulder said softly, maybe still overcompensating for his ringing ear, and Krycek gave the four a short nod. They had done a good job.

He climbed into the driver's seat, and in a few minutes they were back on the highway, heading towards DC. Mulder was staring out into the dark.

"I had to do it," Krycek said to him. "You know I did."

Mulder didn't reply.

"He would have told Marita what happened if I had let him live."

"Do you know that for sure?" Mulder's voice was acidic.

"No. 'But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety.' "

"Iago. How fitting."

"Is that how you really see me? As some kind of inhuman killer?"

"You ARE a killer, Krycek."

"So are you."

"Not in the same way."

"No, you're right. I assassinated scum for a living. You get decent people killed because you're so fucking relentless in your search for the truth."

Silence.

"Was." Mulder's voice was flat. "I was relentless."

Krycek glanced away from the road for a moment to look at Mulder. He was still staring into the dark.

//Argue with me, damn you.//

"Defeat doesn't suit you," Krycek snapped. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself."

Mulder smiled faintly. "I think," he said dryly, "That of the two of us, you're more upset that I'm off the X-files."

"What are you saying?" Krycek snapped at him. "You've moved on? You want to spend your life catching serial killers? I don't buy it."

"I haven't moved on," Mulder said quietly. Krycek glanced over at him. "Forget it." The other man shook his head.

"Mulder-"

"Drop it, Krycek. I'm serious."

"Fine." He didn't let the frustration color his voice.

He settled into the drive, letting the white and yellow lines on the pavement guide them home. Occasionally he glanced in the rearview mirror to make sure they weren't being followed. Occasionally he glanced over at Mulder.

Forty minutes after leaving the weigh station, Krycek pulled the van into a huge storage container that the Gunmen had rented. Before leaving, he opened the back of the truck one more time.

"What are you doing?" Mulder asked suspiciously as Krycek slid the lid off a crate. He pulled out a handful of the small glass vials and handed three to Mulder.

"Here. Just in case." He slid several into his own pocket as Mulder nodded.

"You know," the agent began, his voice distant, like the words were being dragged out of him, "once I was almost blown up by an orbital defense platform in this storage yard." Mulder looked at Krycek with a ghost of a smile.

"I never heard about that," Krycek said, raising his eyebrows.

"It wasn't conspiracy related," Mulder said. "Scully and I were investigating a murderous artificial intelligence. I actually got kidnapped and incapacitated by a computer."

Krycek gave a short laugh as he hit a button, causing a metal door to descend over the truck and lock.

"Let's get out of here." They were scheduled to meet up with Langly and Byers in forty minutes. The two Gunmen had stayed at the weigh station and impersonated employees until the next shift arrived. It was Skinner and Frohike who had the dangerous job of making the switch. They probably wouldn't hear from them for another two hours, at least.

Mulder didn't reply, but he turned to walk slightly ahead of Krycek into the main aisle of the storage facility.

Suddenly, Mulder stopped dead. Krycek nearly ran into him.

"Going somewhere?" Krycek froze, looking down the barrel of Jack's silencer.

//Damn it.//

He had expected Jack to be waiting at Mulder's apartment. If he'd had time to think about it, he would have remembered that Jack wasn't really a sit-and-wait killer, as most assassins were--as Krycek was, when it suited him.

No, Jack, out of arrogance or boredom preferred to track his victims actively, surprising them in their cars, in alleyways, in dark, poorly lit storage facilities rather than their homes.

Jack's method was riskier. He got away with it because he was good. Very good.

//He's almost as fast as I am. But he already has his gun out.//

"Jack." He stepped forward to stand beside Mulder. The assassin's eyes widened. Krycek felt some small measure of satisfaction.

//That's right, you traitorous piece of shit.//

"What are you doing here, Alex?" There was a brief pause, while no one spoke. Mulder was an edgy presence on his left. He prayed the agent wouldn't do anything colossally stupid, like try and pull his weapon.

"You're working with him." Jack's voice was calm, in control, but he couldn't hide the surprised tone completely.

"You always did do piss-poor surveillance work, Jack. Any operative worth his salt would have known that weeks ago."

Jack smiled faintly at him and Krycek was reminded briefly of happier times, of a job in New Orleans, when they had been partners, and the only thing they had to do was guard a cash shipment. No killing, just shrimp creole and humidity. That had been a long time ago. Before he had even met Mulder.

"Well, it doesn't really matter now. I'm being reassigned." Jack gave him that smooth, suave smile, but it didn't hide the threat behind his eyes. Krycek's gun seemed a lifetime away, resting uselessly in his holster.

"You don't have to do this, Jack. Ditch Marita. Work with us."

"I don't think so, buddy. Marita's got half a century of work on her side. What've you got?"

Krycek couldn't help glancing at Mulder. Jack smiled derisively.

"You never had a hell of a lot, Krycek. And now," he said, clicking the safety off his weapon, "You've got nothing."

Krycek threw himself into Mulder as he heard the shot. In the same motion he pulled his own gun and returned fire, taking aim as his surroundings froze around him in the middle of his dive.

Things sped up again as he pulled the trigger. He felt the crush of impact as his momentum carried him into Mulder. The hard plastic of his prosthetic dug into them both as he landed on top of the other man and they skidded over the cement in a dark tangle of limbs. As their awkward fall scraped to its bruised conclusion, he looked over at Jack.

The assassin wasn't moving. A pool of red was spreading across the cement floor, glittering in the light of the storage yard.

Beneath him, Mulder struggled to get up. Krycek tried to get off him, but he felt vaguely dizzy under the glare of the lights.

"Krycek! Krycek, move. Let me UP." With a jerk, the agent freed his right hand, using it to grab Krycek's left shoulder. With his added leverage, Mulder pushed Krycek away and sat up in the same motion. The lights blurred into golden streams as Mulder reversed their positions, until Krycek was looking up at his silhouette, dark against the incandescent glow behind him.

"Mulder, what are you doing?" He asked distantly as the other man pulled Krycek's knife out of his jacket pocket and flipped it open with an audible click.

Krycek flinched.

"I'm not going to cut you," Mulder said quietly, as he sliced through the fabric of Krycek's black shirt.

//That's my good switchblade. You'd better not drop it, Mulder.//

As the other man peeled back the material of his shirt, Krycek hissed, becoming suddenly aware of a burning sensation along his right side.

He'd been shot.

"It's OK," Mulder said, sounding relieved. "It's just a graze. It's pretty deep though. I think you might need stitches."

"I'll be fine. We need to get out of here." His brain finally decided to make a reappearance.

"Hang on." Mulder was looking through Krycek's pockets again.

"We need to go NOW," Krycek said, sitting up. Mulder pulled out a handkerchief, and pressed it to his side. Hot, stinging waves of pain traveled up his ribcage and spread through his back. Krycek bit his lip, letting his fingers dig into Mulder's left arm.

"Can you hold that there?" Mulder asked, pressing Krycek's hand against the makeshift bandage.

"Yeah," Krycek said. "Let's just go already."

"OK," Mulder said softly, pulling him to his feet. Too fast. It was too fast, and lights blurred around him again as the world started to spin.

"Come on, Krycek." Mulder's hand was a gentle pressure on the back of his neck. "Put your head down. It'll help." He had only ever heard Mulder use that tone with Scully.

"OK. I'm OK."

"You're sure?" Mulder's eyes were making him dizzy again. He looked away.

"Let's GO, Mulder."

They made it out of the storage yard with no further problems, and finally reached Mulder's car. Mulder guided Krycek around to the passenger's side.

"Don't you ever learn anything?" Krycek stopped, ten feet from the Taurus.

"What?"

"Check under the car. And pull your weapon. I can't believe you're still alive."

Mulder complied, putting his flashlight to use for good measure. "Satisfied?"

"Hardly. Check the back seat."

"All clear."

"Check under the hood."

"Are you serious?"

"I'm not getting in the car until you do it."

"Fine." Krycek watched Mulder pop the hood and take a look at the engine. The agent scanned the machine carefully, obviously taking Krycek's warning seriously. He even checked the level of his brake fluid.

"I think we're good to go." Mulder said, then opened the passenger side door for him. Krycek could feel Mulder's hand resting lightly against the small of his back as he levered himself into the car. He said nothing as Mulder buckled his seatbelt for him, allowing Krycek to keep pressure on the cursory bandage with his hand.

When Mulder started the car and nothing exploded, Krycek breathed a sigh of relief.

"Mulder. You do that EVERY time you get in your car. Got it?"

"And they call me paranoid."

"They call you a lot of other things, too."

They were quiet for a time. Krycek let his head rest against the window and watched the yellows and reds of streetlamps and headlights pass by in a haze of color. His side throbbed, and he could feel that the cloth under his right hand had become warm and damp under his fingers.

//So much for my resolution to never let him drive again.//

"We could go to the anonymous clinic they started up last year and get you stitched," Mulder suggested.

Krycek frowned. He had used the clinic before, and knew that sometimes consortium thugs would stop by to get patched up, or simply to gather information. "It's in a pretty shady area," Krycek said.

"You should fit right in."

"That's the problem, jackass. I don't want to be seen there. Especially not with you."

"You need stitches."

"You're not a doctor," he snapped.

"I've had lots of practical experience," Mulder snapped right back.

Krycek sighed.

"Mulder, it's really not that bad. I don't think we should risk it."

"Better to take care of it now. If it gets infected you're going to have to go to a hospital, and that will be a lot harder to deal with. Now would be a very bad time for you to get arrested."

//He's right. Damn it.//

"Any time's a bad time to get arrested."

"Have you ever actually done hard time?" It was a real question, ten percent sympathetic, ninety percent accusatory.

"Not in this country." Krycek shut his eyes, remembering searing heat and the feeling of being pressed brutally against sickeningly warm stone.

"In Russia?"

"No. I have connections back home." No one in the KGB would dare to lay a fucking finger on him. Supposedly they still told stories about him when they were training their recruits.

"Where, then?" Maybe this was Mulder's idea of polite conversation.

//So now he wants to talk. Couldn't we discuss literature? Or whether I played the clarinet? Is that so much to ask?//

"Tunisia."

"Tunisia?" Mulder sounded incredulous.

"Yeah. Nice place." Krycek's voice was flat. He could taste the blood and the dust in his mouth again.

"Why did you-" Pushing. The man would not stop pushing.

"Look, I'd really rather not talk about this right now."

"OK."

Silence. Then, inevitably, Mulder spoke again.

"Hey, Krycek."

"Yeah?" He sounded tired, even to himself. It had been one hell of a night. Living like this was hard on the nerves.

"Thank you. For risking your life back there." Mulder's voice was very serious. His eyes were fixed on the road.

Krycek felt his mouth go dry. He remembered, with a flash of sudden clarity, like a fog had lifted, how it had felt strange and wrong and wonderful, that time six years ago, when he and Mulder had crouched in the dark over the body of a Vietnam vet, who, Krycek was positive, had been pointing a gun at Mulder. He had shot the vet. Shot a man who had been holding a bible. And he remembered that Mulder had told him in that serious, compelling tone he rarely used, the way he had just spoken, that he had done the right thing.

It had made Krycek feel like shit.

But now, knowing that they both had come so far from the blind, young idiots that they had been at the time, knowing all the ways he had betrayed Mulder's trust, knowing everything that they both had lost, the fact that Mulder could still dredge that tone of voice up from somewhere inside his soul, and that it could still affect him in that way-

It made Krycek feel saved.

"You're welcome."

Mulder pulled into the lot adjacent to the clinic and steadied Krycek as he stepped out of the car. Fortunately, there was hardly anyone in the waiting room. As Krycek walked up to the desk, Mulder spoke softly into his ear.

"I'm going to phone the Gunmen while you're getting stitched up. They'll worry if we're late."

"Use a payphone," Krycek said, turning his head slightly. "And don't get shot by a drug dealer. I don't want to explain that to Skinner."

Mulder just laughed, like the idea appealed to him, and vanished back out into the night.

It unnerved Krycek when he did things like that. Things like deciding he'd rather bleed to death on a metal table than bother to place a phone call.

A short, middle-aged woman with straight brown hair and the nametag "Brenda" came out to fetch him. She gave him a dubious look. He supposed he didn't seem very trustworthy. The prosthetic didn't help.

By the time he had been disinfected, stitched, and bandaged by "Brenda," he was on his last legs. It had been a grueling few weeks for all of them, and he still had a long night ahead. There was the meeting with the Gunmen and Skinner. There was the absolute necessity of sweeping Mulder's apartment for bugs, explosives, poisoned sunflower seeds, etc. There was the less-than-absolute necessity of screening his own apartment.

But he could do it. He'd done harder things on less sleep.

He put his head in his hands as he waited for Mulder. He really hoped the man would come back soon. Otherwise, he was going to have to go look for him. The sounds around him began to fade out.

"Hey." He snapped awake at the sound of Mulder's voice, and felt the pull in his side as his newly stitched skin screamed in protest.

"Hey." His voice sounded hoarse.

"You were asleep. Did they give you something?" Mulder was frowning at him.

"No. I wouldn't let them." Krycek shook his head, trying to wake himself up. "Did you call the Gunmen?"

"Yeah. Langly and Byers got back just fine."

"Good. That's good." Mulder's mouth tightened, and the agent sat down beside him.

"You look terrible, Krycek." He looked over at Mulder's too pale skin, at eyes that were red-rimmed, and snorted.

"You're one to talk."

"Did you sleep last night?"

Krycek didn't say anything. How was he supposed to explain to Mulder that he couldn't sleep anymore because he was so afraid of what might happen if he did? He had dreams of waking up to look at those surveillance monitors and seeing-

"Krycek? You're freaking me out."

"I'm freaking YOU out?" He couldn't help it. He was going to burst into hysterical laughter any minute.

No. He. Was. Not. He was going to get a fucking grip. He took a shaky breath.

"I'm fine. Just tired." Mulder was staring at him.

"Let's go." Mulder grabbed Krycek's elbow, slowly helping him to his feet. "Did they give you a prescription?"

"Yeah." He handed the slip to Mulder rather than pronounce the name of the antibiotic.

"John Arntzen. Is that your real name?" Mulder just sounded curious as they walked out of the clinic.

"Of course not."

"Is Krycek your real name?"

"Maybe."

The drive back to the Gunmen's went by in a blur of lights. When they arrived, Byers and Langly let them in, and Krycek began prowling around their lair, trying to shake off his exhaustion.

There was a muted tension in the air. Two hours had passed, and they hadn't heard anything from Frohike and Skinner. Krycek was starting to get a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. Marita could have had another supersoldier waiting for them at the pickup point, and he hadn't thought to leave his magnetite bullets with Skinner.

//Calm down. Covarrubias isn't that thorough.//

Marita didn't expect the finesse that he had managed to put into this operation. She didn't know he was working with anyone, let alone these five. Delivering a fake vaccine was something too complicated for him to pull off alone, and for the entire time he had known her, Krycek had worked alone. She wouldn't expect anything else. She wouldn't expect their special delivery, and so, hopefully, no one would look too carefully at the two men driving the truck. Hopefully.

Mulder was pacing. He was trying to make it look natural by picking up things at random, but it wasn't working. Langly was playing Doom 2, and Byers was reorganizing some files, trying to stop Mulder from touching anything too expensive.

The phone rang.

"Lone Gunmen." Langly's voice wavered slightly.

"Turn off the tape." It was Frohike. Langly hit a button.

"It's off."

"We're clear." There was an audible sigh of relief as tension ran out of the room. Krycek folded gracefully onto the couch, rubbing his eyes with his hand.

"We're on our way," Frohike continued, "and we should be there in about half an hour. Is everyone back?"

"Yeah," Langly said, "We're all here."

"See you shortly." There was a click as Frohike cut the connection.

Mulder wandered over. "You're going to fall asleep again if you sit there for too long." The agent's eyes glittered in the dim light. Krycek looked up at him.

"Help me up, then." His words had a baiting tone. Mulder didn't smile, exactly, but he had a strange twist to his lips as he grabbed Krycek's hand and hauled him to his feet.

"Hey Krycek." It was Langly. "Wanna play Doom?"

"Sure," Krycek said as Mulder rolled his eyes.

"What? Pacing doesn't do it for me."

As he walked over to join Langly, he saw Mulder turn to Byers.

"Hey Byers," he said, quietly. "I need a favor." As if he could feel Krycek's gaze, Mulder looked over at him, glaring. "It's a big one," Mulder said, as he pulled Byers into the next room.

//Now what was THAT all about?//

Half an hour later, when Skinner and Frohike walked in the door, Krycek was only 150 points away from beating Langly's high score. The other man had stopped giving him helpful tips about twenty-five minutes ago, and was now sitting in a sulky silence, with his arms crossed. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to antagonize the locals.

"Damn," he said as he purposefully let his cyber self get killed. Langly snorted, his confidence intact.

"You're pretty good," the blonde man said. Krycek turned to stand up, stretching stiff muscles. Mulder was sitting behind him.

"You are good," the agent said. "But I'm not surprised, considering your day job." His tone was half animosity, half amusement.

They walked into the Gunmen's reception area. Or at least that's how Krycek classified the conglomeration of furniture that littered a third of the room.

Krycek dropped back onto the couch. Mulder sat edgily on a chair next to him, leaning forward, elbows on knees. Krycek wondered if his back was bothering him. Skinner sat directly across from Krycek, and the Gunmen perched on various stools and counters.

"Everything went OK?" Mulder asked Skinner.

"More or less," Skinner said, but his brows were furrowed. And he was glaring. At Krycek.

"What I want to know," he said, and Krycek could tell that he was gearing up for a tirade, "Is how the HELL a supersoldier got on your tail."

"We were betrayed," Krycek said coolly. "By my informant. Fortunately, we were also underestimated."

"If you were betrayed, then how did you know to bring the magnetite?" The accusation there was hard to miss.

"I happened to have some with me."

"Bullshit," Skinner yelled.

"Krycek didn't betray us." Mulder jumped in, his voice radiating dead certainty.

"How do you know?" Skinner said, still angry, but willing to listen to reason.

"Because he saved my life." There was a shocked silence, which Mulder plowed relentlessly through. "We were jumped by his informant in the storage yard. He was obviously surprised to see Krycek alive."

"Are you all right?" Skinner asked Mulder.

"I'M fine," Mulder said pointedly. Skinner looked over at Krycek, raising his eyebrows.

Krycek just glared at the AD, who, though he was supposed to be a trained investigator, hadn't noticed the fact that his shirt was cut open.

"He was grazed by a round when he shoved me out of the way. He had to be stitched up," Mulder said, answering for him.

Skinner gave Krycek another speculative look. Krycek stared him down.

The talk moved to the immediate future. Skinner was going to take a sample of the vaccine to his NIH contact in the morning. Mulder handed him a vial from out of his jacket pocket. As the two FBI agents began to discuss the pros and cons of going public with apocalyptic news, Krycek felt himself relax, unwillingly, against the couch.

He had to stay awake. He definitely had to stay-

He woke with a start to find Frohike placing a blanket over him.

"Whoa!" Frohike yelled, hands open, palm outwards. Krycek realized he had pulled his gun. He put it away and looked around the dimly lit room.

"Where's Mulder?"

"He left about half an hour ago."

"He LEFT?"

//That fucking idiot.//

Krycek was up and heading for the door. Reaching for his car keys. He felt them reassuringly in his pocket. Then he remembered. His car was in the parking lot at Mulder's building. He turned around.

"Krycek, what are you doing?" Frohike sounded exasperated.

"Calling a cab."

"You can't have a cab come pick you up here! Are you insane?" The shorter man followed him to the phone.

"I know, I know. Keep your pants on." He gave the guy at Diamond Cab an address that was a five-minute jog from the Gunmen's. He was gone seconds after he placed the call. Ignoring Frohike's questions, he slipped into the dark.

Seventeen minutes later, he was pounding on the door to apartment forty-two.

No answer.

He tried again.

The door opened mid-knock, to reveal a very annoyed looking Fox Mulder. He hadn't yet changed out of the non-descript black clothing he had been wearing all evening. It was dark inside his apartment, and Mulder's hair was as black as the shadows. The agent looked dangerous.

"Krycek. What do you want?" he hissed.

"Can I come in?" Krycek didn't bother to wait for a response, just pushed roughly past Mulder into the darkened apartment.

"Make yourself at home." There was a quiet, perilous quality in Mulder's voice as he shut the door, and Krycek couldn't stop the thrill of fear and excitement that tore through him in response.

//This I recognize. This sounds like him.//

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Krycek's voice was low and intense. He couldn't see Mulder clearly in the dark.

"What are you talking about?"

"Let me explain this to you in small, easily understood words in case you missed it earlier. Jack said his orders had changed. Which means Marita wants you dead. Which means the colonists want you dead. Someone or someTHING could easily have been waiting for you. Did that even OCCUR to you before you walked in?"

Mulder closed the distance between them.

"What do YOU care, Krycek?" Mulder's voice was fast, angry. The headlights of a passing car illuminated them both, briefly. Mulder's hands were clenched, his eyes glittering.

//Here we go.//

He anticipated Mulder's right hook and, tired as he was, managed to step out of the way, catching the agent's wrist in the process. He used the man's momentum to spin him around, and twisted Mulder's right arm up behind his back, pushing him forward into the wall.

"You know, for all the fights you start, one would think that you might have developed SOME skill over the years." Krycek was speaking directly into Mulder's ear. He gave Mulder's arm a deft pull, which spun the agent to face him, and slammed him back into the wall. He leaned forward, pinning the other man between the side of bookcase and his prosthetic.

He heard a swift intake of breath. Mulder's entire body tensed, and he made a distressed noise through clenched teeth. Another flash of headlights revealed Mulder's head arched back. As Krycek watched, Mulder bit down hard on his bottom lip.

He had forgotten about the forty-eight stitches holding the man's back together. Krycek took a deep breath, forcing himself to ease up on the pressure and back off slightly.

//I'm going to break him, if I'm not careful.//

"Hurts, doesn't it?" he said, as the room faded to darkness again.

He got no response other than quiet, erratic breaths.

"Do you have to make everything this painful?" He asked gently, loosening his grip on Mulder's wrist, scratching his thumbnail lightly along delicate skin. He didn't expect a reply.

"Yes." His voice was the barest whisper.

"Why?" They were so close. He could smell the copper tang of blood in Mulder's hair.

"I don't know." Mulder brought his free hand up, tangling his first two fingers in the leather of Krycek's coat. "It just happens that way." Mulder spread his hand, and through his thin shirt, Krycek felt the warm metal and tape of the half-splint that Mulder still wore.

"It just happens?" Krycek echoed, leaning forward fractionally, letting his lips graze Mulder's mouth. The other man froze.

Then Krycek's fingers were forced open as Mulder yanked his right hand out of his loose grip. Before Krycek could respond, he found himself pulled forward roughly; Mulder's newly freed fingers tangled in his hair, the brace and broken hand running underneath his leather jacket. The kiss deepened, and he felt like the room was falling away as he buried his fingers in Mulder's dark hair. He pressed his hips against Mulder, forcing the other man back to the wall.

He couldn't breathe. He didn't want to breathe if it meant he would have to give up one fraction of sensation. But there was something he had to know.

"Are you-"

It was all he got out before Mulder reclaimed his mouth, and let his splinted fingers slide down Krycek's spine. The white heat of endorphins seared across his synapses, melting and distorting his thoughts, as if his mind were Fox Mulder's personal attempt at surrealist painting.

He lacked the oxygen to moan as his thoughts started flashing in broken fragments of memory and desire, flipping back through the years in a dark slide show. He remembered the way Mulder had looked lying on the floor after Krycek had surprised him, cracking his skull against the coffee table, the first real test of his balance with one hand. He remembered even earlier, in the cell in Tunguska, how the rock had dug into his back as Mulder held him against the stone. An airport in Hong Kong, a shot of heroin in a foreign street where no one spoke Russian or English, the drip of blood and his body spread over the hood of a Ford as Mulder hovered above him, fist raised and outlined against a streetlight, the way the other man had looked too urbane for the cheap suit he was wearing as he awkwardly stuck out his hand out and, like James Bond, said-

He tried to scream then, because he knew this wasn't his mind, it wasn't his memory and he couldn't breathe, he couldn't pull away, he was just riding it out, incapacitated, trying to pull back, but paralyzed with horror that this was happening again, that somehow he had pulled Krycek into this, even as he screamed into the rushing void that he WAS Krycek, he is Krycek, always and forever.

Insensible thoughts screamed through his mind in languages he knew and languages he didn't. He understood everything and nothing, and he wanted only to get out, but needed to stay more than he'd ever needed anything in his life. He was trapped in a crescendo that was more than sex, something that had been building since before that first moment when he'd extended his hand and said-

//Krycek. Alex Krycek. I am Alex Krycek.//

He screamed, or Mulder did, as they tore themselves apart.

He staggered and fell back, hitting the floor, breath sobbing in his throat. He fought an overwhelming sense of loss as he watched the other man slide bonelessly down the wall, no more than a shadow in the dark. Had it been Krycek, or Mulder who had wanted to pull away?

He didn't know.

"What did you do?" The words vibrated in the air between them, pulled out of Krycek's tortured throat.

//He's going to break me, if I'm not careful.//

"I didn't do anything," Mulder gasped. "It was you. It must have been you."

Krycek pulled himself up to a sitting position. "How could it have been me? How?" He leaned forward, trying to see the other man through the shadows. "Explain it to me." His voice settled, and his mind kicked into gear.

"You read my thoughts," Krycek said. "And I read yours. It was like we-"

"Stop."

"It was like we were connected. The same person."

"I said stop." Mulder's voice absorbed any warmth that remained in the apartment.

"Fine," he snapped, pushing himself to his feet. The room swayed around him, and he felt drained, as if he'd had a teeth-shattering psychic orgasm. He walked over to stand above Mulder and held out his hand, desperate for some reason to touch him again, even if it was only to help him up. Mulder refused his hand.

"Are you all right?"

"Get away from me, Krycek." Only Mulder could twist his name into such a terrible sound. Only Mulder could sit there alone in the seamless dark--a crazy social outcast, and still make Krycek feel like he had been judged and condemned to hell.

"Fine," he snapped again, not trusting himself to say more. He turned on his heel, and forced himself to walk slowly, slowly to the door. Forced himself to open it without looking back. And finally, forced himself to let it slam indifferently behind him, leaving Mulder in the dark.

He took the elevator to the fifth floor, too weak to climb even a single flight of stairs, and wrenched his apartment door open. He didn't bother to turn on the lights. Didn't bother to check for signs of a break in. Out of habit, he glanced at the surveillance monitors. Mulder was showering. Figured.

So Mulder had been in his head again. Apparently he hadn't liked what he'd seen. Krycek supposed he should have known better.

//If you want to conquer the world there are two rules. Don't invade Russia in winter, and don't get involved with Fox Mulder.//

Krycek felt sick, exhausted. He didn't bother to change, just laid down on the cold wooden floor, and slept.

4:24 AM
24 December 2000
Alexandria, Virginia

He let the water pour over him, and tried to think of nothing.

Memories flowed into him, slow and heavy; they filled him like molten lead. He couldn't escape the recent burn of Krycek's hand in the dark, or the overwhelming flood of sound and emotion that had come from him, from Krycek, until he was totally lost himself, pulled down into a sea of sensation.

He thought he was drowning.

Older memories surfaced as well, the foreign pressure of Krycek's lips on his cheek and the weight of a gun dropping into his hand. The way it had felt to drive his own fists into Krycek's face, because he couldn't, he just couldn't ever-

He cut that thought off with brutal efficiency.

He tangled his fingers through shampoo-slicked hair, unable to wash away the mess inside his skull. He felt split open, violated, dirty, like his mind had been fucked through so many brick walls that now it was open to all comers and didn't belong to him anymore. It had been wiped, infected, and surgically altered multiple times. Things that weren't even human had been in it. His biological father had nearly killed him when he took a piece of it away. As if destroying his soul hadn't been enough.

Krycek's violation was just icing on the cake.

//Was it really Krycek? Or was it me?//

He bit his lip in a silent scream as he realized he didn't know. It seemed possible, in that instant, that Krycek had never done anything to him at all--that Mulder had simply dashed himself to pieces against the other man.

He pulled in a deep breath.

//Think about this like you're Scully.//

Calmly, analytically, he reviewed what had happened.

He had kissed Krycek. Understandable, really. Krycek was dangerous, competent, emotionally unattainable, and attractive. He hated the man, and that made Krycek a safe outlet for all the frustration, emotional and physical, that seemed to twine into him deeper and deeper as the years progressed.

Who had stopped him from saving Scully? Who had prevented him from finally understanding his father? Who had stolen the digital tape with the information he needed so badly? Who had made evidence disappear time and again? Who had compromised Skinner so the AD was absolutely no help to him? Krycek.

And Krycek was helping him now, which confused the hell out of Mulder. He HATED him, but he also got along with him. They could have easily been friends, if Krycek hadn't turned out to be a backstabbing double-crosser.

Combine all those things, and the kiss made sense. In fact, if he and Krycek had spent hours having mind-blowing sex, it still would have been explainable when you considered the seven years of tension between them.

//But no. It didn't go down that way.//

Krycek had pulled back. He had started to ask him something. Mulder hadn't wanted to know what that question was going to be. He'd shut Krycek up by kissing him again, which was when things had started to get-

Overwhelming. Somehow, without meaning to, he had found himself in Krycek's head. The sound of his fish tank, of Krycek's breathing, had been lost beneath the discordant scream in his mind. He had wanted to scream himself at the overwhelming mix of pain and arousal, but he hadn't been able to; he was in too deep, too lost in Krycek's memories of him and his memories of Krycek to respond to his own body.

And then, inexplicably, he had known that Krycek could hear him as well, that the connection was open at both ends and he was absolutely desperate to shut it off, to pull back before he revealed anything to the other man. There was so much that he didn't want Krycek to know.

It wasn't fair, because he had seen into Krycek's mind further than the other man knew. He had effectively been Krycek for a few seconds. And that had been enough time for a single, illuminating revelation.

Need. It was a pathetic, shallow word to explain what he had felt from Krycek. The man had somehow combined plans for using Mulder as a lynchpin in the alien resistance effort with a strange mixture of respect, personal regard, anger, and shared history. With the syndicate dead, and his ties to Marita severed, Mulder was all that remained of Krycek's world, professionally and personally. Everything had been stripped away from the other man, family, allies, contacts, lovers, beliefs, everything except Mulder.

And after they had broken apart, Mulder found himself back in his own mind, weak with relief, wondering if he felt the same way about Krycek. Wondering if this was all that was left of the men they had once been. They had dragged each other down over the last seven years, stripping one another of dignity, causing a new kind of pain with every touch.

Each time their paths crossed marked a further descent into hell.

Krycek had asked him if he was all right. The self-loathing that had hit him was so strong that he had found it difficult to breathe as he answered through the pain in his head.

He didn't deserve Krycek's concern. He didn't want Krycek to give a damn about him. That way, maybe it wouldn't hurt so much, when finally, he ended up staring down into lifeless eyes as another one of his informants died for him. And Krycek would. There was no question.

So he'd deliberately hurt the other man, making the deepest cut he could. He'd made him leave.

Mulder used the last of the shampoo on his already clean hair, feeling it sting as it ran into his eyes.

//He'll understand eventually. It's better this way.//

The knowledge didn't make it any easier to banish Krycek from his thoughts, but it did make it just a little less difficult to reach up and shut the shower off.

He grabbed a towel, fighting the relative chill of the room. He was in the middle of brushing his teeth when the phone rang. Dressed in only a towel, hair still damp and clinging to the back of his neck, he picked up the phone.

"Mulder." His voice didn't sound entirely steady.

"Agent Mulder, this is SAC Richards, from the Oregon office. Sorry if I woke you."

"No problem," He said, sounding slightly more like himself, now that he knew the caller wasn't Krycek.

"I'm afraid I have some bad news. Agent Stewart, the consultant you sent out, has disappeared."

"What the hell do you mean, disappeared?" he snapped, already feeling the truth with a sinking sensation in his chest. Mulder flipped on a light, carrying the cordless with him as he started to get dressed.

"She went to investigate a lead about twelve hours ago, and no one has heard from her since."

"She went by herself? His voice had a hard edge. "She knows better than that."

"She didn't have a partner, and our boys were stretched pretty thin-"

"Like hell!" He couldn't control the volume of his voice. "She asked you for backup and you didn't give it to her? Why did you bother to ask for a profile if you didn't have the inclination or resources to follow her advice?"

The line was silent, and as he tore through his closet, looking for a clean shirt, he cursed himself for antagonizing the locals before he even got to Oregon.

"All right. Never mind. I'll be on the next available flight out." He punched the "end" button on his phone, and immediately dialed a new number.

"Michaelson," He heard a sleepy voice answer after the third ring.

"It's Mulder," he said, threading his belt around his waist with one hand.

"What's up, Spook?" He already sounded more alert, despite the fact that it was half past four in the morning.

"Stewart went missing about twelve hours ago."

"Shit." The line was silent. Then, "I'll book a flight right now."

"Don't bother. I'm going to call the airline as soon as I get off the phone with you," Mulder said, moving to the bathroom, and throwing a razor and a toothbrush into his shaving kit.

"I'm going out there, Mulder." Michaelson's voice was determined.

"I know. I'm booking BOTH of us a flight. I'll be over to pick you up in twenty minutes."

He disconnected and called Delta, finagling his way into getting them to hold a flight until he and Michaelson arrived.

He disconnected and called Skinner, shoving everything into his carry-on.

"Skinner."

"Sir, it's me." He zipped the bag savagely and moved to his laptop, disconnecting it from the wall, disassembling wires and power strips, packing them efficiently into the case.

"Mulder. What's wrong?" Skinner hadn't been asleep.

"Agent Stewart has gone missing in Oregon. Michaelson and I are flying out in forty minutes. I need you to contact Agent Featherstone in the morning and put him in charge of the ISU while I'm gone."

"Mulder. You haven't slept."

Was it mere hours ago that they'd stolen that vaccine? It felt like a lifetime.

"It's not a problem."

Skinner sighed.

"What else do you need?" Mulder paused, power supply in hand. He wasn't used to being taken so seriously.

"Everything. I want a crack forensics team at my disposal and I want enough personnel that I don't have to start ordering the local PD around."

"Mulder." Skinner sounded suddenly suspicious. "Have you been cleared for field duty?"

"I will keep in touch," he said softly, hanging up.

Everything was packed. He slipped into his trench coat, and looked up at the ceiling uncertainly, thinking about the man in the apartment above him. But there was nothing more to say. Not now, maybe not ever.

Fate had fucked with them too much. It was too late for them to build anything. But it might not be too late for Stewart and Michaelson.

He turned out the lights, not bothering to fight his own mind. As he walked out of the apartment, he allowed the memories of the other couple to swirl just below his consciousness. The look Michaelson had given Stewart as he hauled her to her feet during a basketball game, the way the pair of them would fight, eyes too bright, muscles too tense for mere meaningless anger. They were in love.

Mulder was determined to get her back. Stewart had been shoved into the middle of an old story, one that he was destined to settle himself.

The killer he had sent her to catch was a man who Mulder had a history with. Eugene Edward Duncan, savior of troubled souls. He had truly believed he was doing his eleven victims a favor by helping them shed their bodies like so much deadweight. Mulder had been his intended twelfth, and final victim.

Duncan had believed that after he "saved" the twelve, he could end his own life, and escape the pain of existence. But it hadn't happened that way. Patterson had used Mulder's notes on the case to deduce where Duncan would take him.

Things had ended on a cliff overlooking the Pacific in Northern California. Duncan had taken a shot to the head, and ended up hospitalized for life. Or so everyone had thought. A week ago he'd gotten word that the man had broken out of the hospital where he was being held, and in conjunction with his escape, an agent at the Oregon office had gone missing. A man who looked disturbingly like Fox Mulder.

His body still hadn't been found.

He'd given Stewart the case, since the Bureau higher-ups would have had about an aneurysm apiece if he'd even suggested going himself. Plus, there had been the vaccine to steal.

The drive to the airport passed in a blur of tight conversation and barely observed speed limits. Michaelson was already reading the files, and occasionally he fired a question at Mulder. Mulder himself was profiling, testing theories, rejecting them only to entertain others.

They abandoned the car in long term parking, found a Delta supervisor, and managed to bypass the lines to make their flight, which had been waiting for them for eight minutes.

As he approached the boarding doors, there was a barely perceptible break in Mulder's stride as he remembered a half-hearted, three day old promise that he was about to obviate.

"You're NOT going to Oregon." He had been chewing on his bottom lip when Krycek's voice startled him out of his reverie. Mulder had been staring into space, brooding about the news of Duncan's release.

"I think that's pretty much a given, considering what we've got in the works." They had been at a strategy meeting, maps spread out in front of them, planning in detail for the vaccine switch.

"Do I have your word on that?" Krycek's face was frozen, giving nothing away.

"Fine," he had said, his expression equally impassive. He was more than a match for Krycek when it came to speaking without communicating. "Let's get to work."

It didn't matter now. Krycek probably didn't give a damn if he lived or died anymore.

//I can't blame him.//

It wouldn't take long before this was over, no more than a day once he got to Brookings, Oregon, a small town, right on the coast. Between his history with Duncan, his profiling experience, and the temperamental telepathy--no. It wouldn't take long at all.

"We'll find her," he said to Michaelson as they took their seats on the plane.

"You sound so sure." The man looked washed out in the yellow, mechanized cabin lighting.

"I am sure."

The direct flight went by in a haze of files, crime scene photos, and the simultaneous scribbling of two pens. By the time they landed, they had a nearly intact working profile, waiting to be refined by a visit to the home of the missing Oregon Bureau agent, and the hospital from which Duncan had escaped.

"You know," Michaelson said, as if he were realizing it for the first time, "You probably shouldn't be out here, Spook."

"I figure I have about six hours before Skinner figures that out and yanks my ass back to DC." He pulled his carryon out of the overhead bin. "So we'll have to work fast."

"The AD doesn't know about your history with Duncan." Michaelson's voice was a mixture of annoyance and amusement as he followed Mulder off the plane.

"Nope."

"And you didn't tell him?"

"Nope."

"You know, I can't believe they haven't kicked you out of the Bureau yet." Michaelson gave him a wan smile.

"That makes two of us."

They rented a car, and drove another hour to reach Brookings. After checking in with SAC Richards, Mulder and Michaelson spent most of their morning driving, visiting the missing agent's apartment, Duncan's hospital, and finally, ransacking Stewart's motel room, looking for any insight into what she was thinking before she disappeared.

The only thing they knew was that she had been headed for a Catholic church at approximately four o'clock on the west side of town, hoping to question the priest, whom Duncan had apparently gone to see a few days before the Oregon agent, Mulder's look-alike, had vanished. According to the priest, she had never arrived. The security cameras in the church parking lot seemed to corroborate the priest's statement.

After half an hour in Stewart's room, he left Michaelson, who was still looking through her notes, and took the rental car. He wanted to drive the route between the motel and the church.

As he drove along slowly, his eyes swept back and forth, looking for places that Stewart's car could have been forced off the pavement and into the greenery on either side of the road. He frowned, noticing a sign coming up on his left. It was a simple board tacked to a tree, painted with the sign of the cross, marking a partially overgrown road. His tires squealed as he ripped the wheel around to take the gravel track.

After a five-minute, teeth-shattering ride as his piece-of-junk rental tried to navigate the uneven narrow road, he stopped the car and began to walk. The pine forest was unnaturally silent, and he thought he could hear the roar of the sea away to the west.

If he hadn't been walking, he would have missed it. Something black, dark against the mud and rock of the road, caught his eye. He bent down, looking but not touching. Carefully, he pulled a plastic evidence bag out of his pocket, and scooped up the cracked remains of a government-issue cell phone.

Deliberating for only a moment, he pulled out his own phone, and called Michaelson.

"Michaelson."

"Hey, it's Mulder."

"Where are you?" Michaelson hadn't lost the pained tightness in his voice.

"I took a turnoff on the way to the church, a gravel road a few miles past Chambers Street. I think Stewart might have done the same."

"Why? What did you find?"

"I think I found her phone. It was lying in the road."

"Jesus," Michaelson breathed, voice shaky.

"I'm going to keep heading up the road," Mulder said. "You might want to show up here with some backup, if you can find any to spare."

"Are you kidding? After your little chat with SAC Richards this morning they'll be falling over themselves to get out here." There was a brief pause. Then, "Mulder. Don't do anything-"

"Spooky?" Mulder finished for him.

"That I wouldn't do," Michaelson said gracefully.

"I won't." He hit the end button on his cell phone, and pocketed the evidence bag. Then he started walking again, loosening his gun in its holster.

The sky was a dull, slate gray and, coupled with the scent of the pines around him, it reminded him, inexorably, of Russia. He didn't want to think about Krycek now. Didn't want to remember the way he'd been so angry that it had been Krycek who handed him that terrorist bust. Didn't want to remember how close he had come to trusting the man, only to be betrayed and experimented on.

Krycek had left him there. Left him to become the victim of those inhuman tests-

But was that really so different from what he himself had done a year earlier? He had known Krycek was trapped in one of those missile silos in North Dakota. He had known. Sure, he'd gone up once to look for him, but after getting forcibly removed by the Smoking Man and his armed minions, he had never gone back.

//I left him there to die. And he's never mentioned it.//

He rounded a corner on the dirt road and past remorse receded like the tide, gone for now, but certain to rise and trouble him again. In front of him was a small, abandoned church complex. His eyes were locked on the black car parked by the side of the structure. The plates matched those of Stewart's rental.

She had come this way. And for all he knew, she could still be here. He withdrew behind a fir tree, considering his options. He could go in, since Michaelson was on the way. It probably wasn't the most prudent course of action, but he couldn't just sit here, not knowing whether Stewart was in there or not.

He closed his eyes, seeing her in a flash of sound and color. She was cuffed to a radiator, blue eyes wide, short black hair tangled around her face. There was a gag between her teeth. He could hear her.

//Please don't let him come please DON'T let him come for me Adam you have to stop Mulder from coming and keep him away from this PSYCHO//

She was still alive. Not here, though.

His legs turned to water beneath him, and he sat down in a rush next to the tree.

//I can't take much more of this.//

He hadn't slept in days. Just eleven hours ago he had gunned down a supersoldier with Alex Krycek. Nine hours ago, Krycek had taken a bullet for him. Seven hours ago, he'd kissed Krycek, and it had been way too fucking surreal.

Even now, when one of his agents was missing, he couldn't get Krycek out of his mind. Damn the man.

He forced himself back to his feet as he heard the sound of cars coming down the road behind him. Michaelson practically hurled himself out of the police cruiser he'd been riding in.

"Oh my God. That's her rental." Mulder nodded at his agent, then pulled his Sig.

"Let's check inside, shall we?" They went forward together, the gravel crunching quietly beneath their impractical black wingtips. With probable cause parked ten feet behind them, they teased open the rusty screen door of the main building.

Room by room they searched the wooden structure. They split up, Michaelson heading upstairs while Mulder inspected the lower floor. The gray light lit the rooms, giving everything a dull, colorless cast. He made his way into what appeared to be a kitchenette, and stopped abruptly. There was dried blood on the floor. As he scanned the room, he found subtle signs of a struggle. A scuffmark on the floor. A fallen towel. Had Duncan disabled Stewart here?

"Mulder!" Michaelson's shout interrupted his thoughts, and he turned, racing up the stairs. He saw Michaelson standing just inside a bathroom on the second floor.

He stopped next to Michaelson, face tightening as he forced himself not to look away.

"How long do you think he's been here?" The skin around Michaelson's eyes was drawn.

Mulder made himself look critically at the body of the Oregon agent, submerged in the bathtub. "Hard to say. Probably a few days."

They withdrew then, searching the remainder of the house together. They found plenty of evidence that Duncan had indeed disabled and held Stewart there, but he had obviously moved her to a new location. Mulder and Michaelson stayed on site until the forensics team arrived, then they walked back to their rental, and headed back to HQ.

"Do you think she's still alive?" Michaelson asked, dully, from the passenger's seat.

"Yes." Mulder's voice was quiet. Certain.

"I just-" The man broke off, looking slantwise at Mulder, like he didn't want to say what was on his mind. "It seems like if our profile is right, if YOU'RE the one he really wants, well, why hasn't he called, or broached the idea of a trade?"

Mulder frowned. Up to this point they hadn't really talked much about the implications of their profile, namely that Duncan was holding Stewart to draw Mulder out to Oregon. Michaelson raised a valid point. Maybe they were wrong.

"You're worried that he's going to try and 'save' her?"

"Well, you know Stewart," Michaelson's voice was raw. "She can come off as a little rough around the edges. Troubled, maybe."

"She knows what's at stake. I'm sure she won't do anything to antagonize Duncan." Mulder tried to make his voice sound surer than he felt.

"I know she wouldn't. Aw shit. I know that. It's just-"

"You love her." Mulder said it for him. Love. It was so easy to articulate when it was happening to other people. He looked over at Michaelson, who was wearing a poleaxed expression.

"What?" The other man said.

"You love her." He said it again. "And she loves you."

"You don't know that." Michaelson's voice was thick. He stared resolutely out the window. Mulder smiled, faintly, looking at the empty road in front of him.

"Yes," he said quietly. "I do."

Silence.

"Even if it's true, even if we could be happy together," Michaelson said softly, "It doesn't mean that we will. Fate has a way of fucking things up."

"I don't believe in fate," he lied.

"Really?" Michaelson asked softly.

His cell phone rang, saving him from an uncomfortable elaboration.

"Mulder."

"Dammit, Agent Mulder! Where the hell ARE you?" It was Skinner.

"Uh, driving," he said, taken slightly aback at the volume of his boss' tone.

"Why didn't you tell me that you had a history with Duncan?" He held the phone slightly away from his ear. Michaelson snorted, apparently able to hear the AD from a few feet away.

"One of my agents has gone missing," Mulder said, his words clipped. "That supersedes any personal reservations I might have about-" Skinner cut him off.

"Personal reservations my ass. You. Are. Not. Cleared. For. Field. Duty."

"That's not a distinction you were particularly concerned about sixteen hours ago," Mulder snapped at him.

"THAT was different."

"How?" Mulder didn't bother to hide his irritation. "You tell me how it's different!"

"Mulder," Skinner said, voice quieter, "Weren't you listening to Krycek? Marita wants you dead. You're in a significant amount of danger. You shouldn't just be out in the field."

"He's over-reacting. You're both over-reacting. I'm fine. I can take care of myself."

"Right." Skinner snorted.

"Look, I'll keep you posted, all right?" He wanted to end this conversation.

"No need for that, Agent Mulder. I caught a flight out, along with five other agents. You've got your team. We're waiting for you back at HQ."

Mulder savagely stabbed the "end" button on his phone.

"What's going on?" Michaelson asked.

"The cavalry has arrived," Mulder said darkly. They pulled into headquarters and had to waste forty minutes briefing the new team. It did mean they could canvas more sites though, and as one o'clock rolled around, they prepared to head out in teams of two. They split up the list of likely sites, almost all of them to the northwest of the complex, along the Pacific coast.

Mulder and Michaelson were heading back to their rental car when Skinner called Mulder aside. The AD was staying at HQ to coordinate from there.

"Mulder. Be careful." The AD seemed to be trying to drill the words straight through his skull. "If you run into any trouble, call for backup. That goes for BOTH of you." He eyed Michaelson as well.

"Got it." Mulder's voice was tight. He turned sharply and pushed the glass doors of the police station open, letting in a swirl of bitterly cold air, and the smell of snow.

"It's Christmas Eve." Michaelson's voice sounded just slightly pained as he looked up at the bleak sky.

"Is it?" Mulder asked him absently.

"Yeah. We joked about smashing wine glasses in the bullpen hallway since we were both going to be working."

"As your direct supervisor, I can't say I condone that sort of behavior." Mulder paused, unlocking the rental. "But, there's always champagne glasses on New Year's."

Michaelson smiled weakly.

They spent two hours checking in and around abandoned buildings, quiet cabins, and various others of Mulder's highest priority sites. Finally, Mulder stopped the car, got out and told Michaelson to take the wheel.

He shut his eyes, bringing a hand to his temple, as if he could forestall the inevitable pain that was going to come with his attempt to connect with Stewart again. He didn't want to try and find Duncan. He was afraid of what he would see if he did.

"You OK, Spook?" He heard Michaelson above the dull roar inside his head. He tried to hold himself back. He didn't want to hear her, didn't want to lose himself in her thoughts. He just wanted to find her.

"Turn right," He said thickly. "We have to go north." He sensed Michaelson comply. He tried not to give any indication as a wave of pain washed over him. It was so difficult to retain the contact through his exhaustion.

"West," he said to Michaelson.

"-lder, come on. You're freaking me out." The man's voice seemed to come from the bottom of a well. It was distant, and echoed in his head.

"Just head west, Michaelson."

They kept driving, for what felt like an eternity. But finally Mulder could sense they were close. Very close. He allowed the connection with Stewart to close.

"There." His voice was tense, excited. "The marina."

"What the hell did you just do, Mulder?"

"Nothing, Michaelson. Kill the engine."

"You really think she's here?" Michaelson said skeptically as he stopped the car.

"Yeah," Mulder whispered.

"But how do you KNOW?"

"Let's just go."

"We should probably call for backup."

"Probably," Mulder said as he slipped out of the car. He heard Michaelson have a brief, whispered conversation, before the soft click of a car door let him know that the other agent was behind him.

The dock was quiet except for the rhythmic roar of the ocean and the soft creaks of wood as the waves lifted the white shells of boats, most not in use during the winter months. An icy spray blasted them, and Mulder felt his hair parted roughly by the salty wind. The sky was still a slate gray, but the sun was slipping down into the Pacific, and as they moved quietly through the boatyard, it emerged between a ragged tear in the clouds and lit everything in a gentle golden glow, which, Mulder knew, would only be fleeting.

She was close.

A sound ahead and to his right, near the point where the pier met the shore, made his head and weapon snap around in tandem. He saw Duncan and Stewart emerge from behind a wall, joined in a staggering parody of a dance that centered on the revolver Duncan held to the woman's head.

"Janet." Her name passed through Michaelson's lips in a tortured hiss.

"You came." Duncan's voice grated across the distance between them.

Mulder forced himself to meet the other man's eyes, looking at him over the barrel of his gun. The man had changed a great deal in ten years--his hair was the color of the clouds and the skin around his eyes was lined.

The revolver he held gleamed black and silver in the light from the setting sun.

"God. You don't look any different." Duncan's voice was harsh, the breath sobbed in his throat. Mulder let his eyes drop to Stewart. Her left cheekbone was bruised, and she had a long cut at her hairline. She made a small distressed sound as Duncan dragged her backwards, her boots thudding against the wood as they started backing along the pier.

"Let her go, Duncan," Mulder said softly, squinting into the light. "You didn't come for her." He and Michaelson began advancing slowly, side by side along the long pier. The waves whispered under their feet, and the sea air lifted their trench coats, blowing them back in dark ripples of fabric.

"You can't kill her, Duncan." Mulder's voice was gentle. "She's not ready to go. She can't help you."

"You don't know that." Mulder winced as Duncan jerked the gun against Stewart's temple.

"I do." Mulder's voice was steel. "It won't end if you kill her."

"Drop your fucking guns." Duncan had a manic gleam in his eyes as he cocked the revolver. Immediately, Mulder put up his weapon, laying it gently on the pier at his feet. Michaelson followed suit a few seconds later.

"Kick them off the dock." Mulder swept his weapon into the sea with a brush of his foot. To his right, he sensed Michaelson hesitate.

"Do it!" Pale flecks of saliva shot into the air at Duncan's words. "I'll shoot her!" Mulder heard a soft splash as Michaelson's weapon sank beneath the waves as well.

Behind him, Mulder registered the sound of a car speeding over gravel. Backup, maybe. He didn't turn to look.

"Duncan. You don't have much time. Let her go. Just do what you came to do." He stepped forward, his voice as low and soothing as he could make it.

"No!" Stewart yelled, blue eyes drilling into him. "Don't do this, Mulder." But Duncan shoved her brutally toward him.

As she slammed into him, he thought they were both going to go down. Overbalance and end up in the icy Pacific water. But he absorbed the shock of her impact and directed her momentum toward Michaelson as he felt Duncan's hand close on his left arm.

"FBI! Drop your weapon!" Mulder recognized Skinner's voice as he was jerked brutally back against the larger man, and felt the gun dig into his temple. He was facing the land again, and he could see the impressive array of agents on the wooden dock in front of him.

Michaelson and Stewart were backing off, melded together, Stewart still looking at him with horrified blue eyes, shaking her head. Two agents grabbed the pair, covering them, dragging them back to safety. Four agents remained on the pier. He recognized them all.

Two were from the team that the AD had brought in. Skinner was there as well, standing in front. Beside and slightly behind the AD, holding an FBI-issue Sig Sauer like it was an extension of his arm, was Krycek. The sun glinted off his mahogany hair.

He had come, after all.

"It's all right." Duncan held him tightly, whispering directly into his ear. "I'm going to help you."

"I don't need your help, Duncan." His eyes were locked on Krycek.

"But you do. You were never supposed to live so long." Mulder knew it to be the truth.

//I have unfinished business.//

Suddenly, everything seemed so clear. With all the times he had cheated death, all the miraculous recoveries, the last minute salvations before he got a bullet to the head, he had never been able to escape the feeling that he was living on borrowed time. He should have used it more effectively.

That it should come to this, after all the hours he'd spent in Krycek's company, that he had only moments left to make the man understand that he didn't hate him, and that he was so damn sorry that things had turned out the way they had.

He willed Krycek to look at him. He wanted, selfishly, to make the man see everything. He knew he could make him understand it all if he would just drop his eyes from Duncan and look.

//I fucked this up for us, Krycek.//

"I didn't do it right last time. I can't kill you with this," Duncan said, voice tight and low in his ear so that the agents didn't have a prayer of catching his words. He jammed the pistol tighter against Mulder's temple. And Mulder felt him very slowly, very carefully, snap a handcuff tightly around his left wrist. He knew what was coming.

//Now, Alex, it has to be NOW! Look at me, damn you!//

He was screaming silently at Krycek, because he knew he only had a few seconds left, and finally, finally Krycek dropped his eyes, and Mulder tried to make him see everything, in that endless moment where time stopped and the sun lit up Krycek's skin and his hair, and he stood out, bright against a darkening sky. And as he was pulled backwards off the dock he saw comprehension and pain and understanding hit Krycek like a physical blow and he knew that he hadn't done Krycek any favors by showing him the truth in these last moments.

And he took that image with him, looking as long as possible before the water closed over him.

The cold was heart-stopping, and he almost drew a breath of seawater from the shock, but he controlled himself just in time. He struggled vainly in Duncan's grip, but the other man was a stronger swimmer, heavier, not as bone-deep exhausted as Mulder was.

He felt the smooth wooden beam that supported the dock at his back. Mulder struggled harder, feeling the man jerk him down farther, forcing his broken hand down below a crossbeam of the dock supports. The water was so cold. He found it almost impossible to keep fighting as Duncan snapped the cuffs around his right wrist, threading the short metal chain under the crossbeam.

He was locked to the pier. He jerked weakly on the cuffs, feeling the pain in his left hand only dully through the cold of the water. He couldn't get enough leverage to pull out of the unforgiving metal bracelets.

Suddenly, the water around him erupted in churning foam. Someone had jumped in after them. More than one person. He tried to see what was happening, but the salt stung his eyes.

Someone grabbed his arm and pulled. Hard. The air was forced out of his lungs as he jerked roughly against the cuffs.

//Skinner.//

The AD swam closer and felt rapidly down his arms to find the handcuffs. He felt his boss grip his shoulder, and then swim back to the surface.

Mulder shut his eyes against the sting of the water, and the almost overwhelming urge to inhale. He fought it as long as he could, focusing on that last image he had of Krycek standing on the pier.

The water was going gradually still. His clothes and hair fanned around him as the rise and fall of the tide pulled them gently to and fro. The sea around him calmed into a steady rhythm, and he was alone.

He knew he was drowning.

//I am so sorry, Alex.//

He held out for one last moment, grasping at the graying wisps of memory and consciousness before he let the water pour into him, let his thoughts fade to nothing.

4:56 PM
24 December 2000
Brookings, Oregon

"Keys!" Skinner bellowed as he surfaced. "I need handcuff keys!" The dumbfucks around Krycek who had remained on the dock instead of joining the underwater fray just looked at the man uncomprehendingly.

"Handcuff keys!" Skinner shouted again, looking frantic and vulnerable without his glasses and coat. Krycek reached into the pocket of his trench, and pulled out a replica of Mulder's key ring. Deftly, he isolated the standard-issue key as he strode a few steps to the end of the pier. Skinner's eyes locked on him for a moment as the key ring passed between them. Then the older man was gone, back under the water.

Krycek looked at his watch. It had been two minutes and fifty-three seconds since Mulder had been dragged under by the psycho they were just now pulling out of the water. Duncan was yelling incoherently as the two shivering agents tried to keep him subdued.

//You want something to scream about, motherfucker? I'll GIVE you something to scream about.//

Three minutes.

He stood, motionless at the edge of the pier. Unable to do a damn thing. He should have shot Duncan. He knew that now with a calm certainty that would rip him to shreds if Mulder didn't make it. He had been worried that the man would pull the agent under with him if he put a bullet in Duncan's head. Turned out, that had been his plan all along. And now he had cuffed the agent to the pier.

Three minutes and fifteen seconds.

He remembered how hard it was to work underwater. Especially cold water. It sucked the will out of you, made it difficult to manipulate small objects. Such as a handcuff key.

Skinner was a marine. He had trained for this sort of thing. Krycek had trained for it as well during his days with the KGB. He knew he could handle the bone-chilling water. Irrationally, he wished he were down there. But a one-armed man, weighted down with a prosthetic, would be worse than useless underneath the icy waves.

Three minutes and thirty seconds.

Damn Mulder anyway. Krycek couldn't get that last look out of his head. The way Mulder had devoured him with his eyes, apology and desperation and despair and something else, maybe absolution, maybe gratitude, all mingling together, claiming him forever, as Mulder was pulled backward off the dock.

The agent had apologized with his eyes. Krycek just hoped he hadn't been saying good-bye as well.

Three minutes and forty-five seconds.

//Mulder, I swear to God, if you die, I'll never ever forgive you for that look.//

Four minutes.

He would be unconscious by now for sure. Krycek dug his nails into the palm of his right hand.

"What's your name, son?" Richards was talking to him. Krycek whipped his head around. He hadn't even known Richards was there.

"Alexander. Vic Alexander." Krycek looked away.

"That was some fast thinking, handing Skinner those keys."

Krycek didn't reply. His eyes were fixed on the blue-gray of the waves. He wanted Richards to go away. Somehow, none of this seemed like his business.

Four minutes and fifteen seconds.

The water was incredibly cold at this time of year. He'd heard of people surviving long periods of submersion in very cold water. In fact, the colder the water, the more likely it was that-

Four minutes and thirty seconds.

He hated standing here. The seconds seemed to tick by faster and faster as Mulder's time ran out.

//Tempus Fugit.//

Four minutes and forty-five seconds.

The water near his feet exploded as Skinner surfaced, gasping, dragging Mulder up by his waterlogged clothing. Krycek dropped to his knees.

"Take him," Skinner gasped, trying to push the unconscious man out of the water. Richards was beside him, and together Krycek and the SAC hauled Mulder onto the pier. The agent collapsed lifelessly to the wooden planks.

"We need help over here!" Richards was yelling toward the direction of the third ambulance that had pulled into the boatyard.

Krycek wasted no time. Carefully he tilted Mulder's head back, his fingers warm against icy skin. He waited five seconds, counting carefully. The agent's pulse was thready, barely there. There was no sign of breathing. He stuck his finger into the other man's mouth, performing a sweep for any objects that might be blocking the airway. Then he delivered two slow rescue breaths. Or tried. There was too much resistance.

He switched positions, straddling Mulder's hips, and dug his hand into Mulder's abdomen in a quick, J-shaped jab. The agent convulsed slightly, and a trickle of icy water ran out of the corner of his mouth. Krycek frowned, and tried again. This time he was slightly more successful, but Mulder was still making no effort to breathe on his own.

As he moved again, he glanced at his watch. Five minutes and ten seconds.

"Come on, Tovarich. Give me a little help here," he whispered to the unconscious man as he pinched the agent's nose shut, and sealed his mouth over Mulder's blue lips. He exhaled slowly, seeing Mulder's chest rise slightly this time.

Suddenly, the agent was coughing weakly, choking, as he tried to inhale. Krycek and Richards helped him turn on his side, as he continued to cough.

Krycek was roughly pushed aside as the EMTs descended. He got to his feet, watching them expertly insert an OPA, and begin artificial respiration. Two more EMS personnel arrived with a backboard, and Krycek stepped away, giving them room. They worked quickly in the gathering dark, and Krycek stood silently, watching as they finally loaded the agent into the waiting ambulance. Skinner rode with Mulder, wrapped in a thermal blanket, shivering with cold.

Krycek and Richards were nearly alone on the pier.

"Did you know him, son?" Richards asked, laying a hand on his shoulder.

"No," Krycek said. He paused, looking out at the dark waves. He could feel Richards' eyes, an inquisitive pressure at his back.

"I worked with him, but I don't think I ever really knew him at all."

"Sometimes things work out that way."

"Yeah," Krycek said softly. "I guess so."

He walked off the pier, leaving Richards behind to stare after him. He stopped by Mulder's car, retrieving the GPS locator he had placed there around noon. He pocketed it, and yanked open the door to Skinner's rental. He and the AD had driven out together after the older man had fielded Michaelson's call for backup.

Even alone, with no one to witness what might be written on his face in the privacy of the dark car, he gave no quarter to his emotions. He hotwired the rental since Skinner still had his keys. That, or they were at the bottom of the Pacific. He made his way to the hospital, carefully observing all speed limits.

When he arrived, he found Skinner sitting in a chair at the edge of Mulder's bed.

"I figured you'd show up here sooner or later." The AD was dressed in a pair of scrubs, and had a hideous yellow blanket wrapped around his shoulders. One hand emerged from beneath the blanket to reveal a ring of keys.

"I believe these belong to you." Krycek took them. They were warm.

"Thanks."

"Though I probably should have confiscated them. Who knows what they might be for." Skinner smiled faintly, but Krycek sensed there was a serious undertone to his words. He decided to change the subject.

"How is he?" Krycek asked, looking at Mulder. The agent had been intubated, and was lying beneath an electric blanket.

"The doctors think he's going to be OK," Skinner said, sounding relieved. "They have to watch for respiratory infection, and when he wakes up they'll have to do a neuro check-"

"Why's he on a respirator?" Krycek asked.

"He was too tired to breathe on his own." They were silent for a moment, and Krycek prowled around to the other side of the bed. While he was in the middle of examining the medical equipment for any tampering, Skinner spoke again.

"That was pretty fast thinking out there, on the dock."

"What are you talking about?" Krycek asked him. "You did all the hard work." He frowned.

"Krycek, without those keys I wouldn't have been able to do a damn thing. And if you hadn't told me about Mulder's history with Duncan, I wouldn't have been out there. And if you hadn't put that GPS locator on his rental, we wouldn't have found them in time. Need I go on?" Skinner was giving him that earnest AD look. Krycek wanted to tell him to shove it.

"I can't do this anymore," he said, his words short, cutting.

"Do what?" The other man's eyebrows lifted.

"Protect someone who wants to die." Krycek looked at Mulder as he said it. Ruthlessly forcing down the urge to touch the agent's hair.

"You've been doing a damn good job of it so far." Skinner's voice held quiet admiration, and Krycek gave him a sharp look, suspicious of the other man's sincerity. "Don't give up on him, Krycek."

"Why the hell not?" Krycek said, voice suddenly soft, venomous. "He gave up on me a long time ago."

"Is that what you really think?" Skinner's voice remained calm, and Krycek was too tired to stay angry in the absence of a good fight.

"I don't know."

"He stood beside you in that warehouse a two weeks ago. He stood between you and three FBI agents who were fully intent on shooting you. He told Scully to leave because she wouldn't work with you. What more do you want from him?" Skinner's voice was bordering on accusatory.

"That wasn't out of any regard for me. That was only about the information."

"Bullshit," Skinner said. "He trusted you. He's backed you up repeatedly." They were quiet for a moment, looking at the man on the bed. The only sound that broke the stillness was the regular hiss of the respirator.

Krycek shook his head.

"He stood between you and his partner of seven years. Do you know how many times he's done that for me?" There was something indefinable in Skinner's eyes. "Never. He's never done that for anyone else."

Krycek looked away, letting Skinner's words play over in his mind. The other man stood.

"I'm going to go check on agent Stewart, and turn in."

"I'll be here," Krycek said, gesturing vaguely at the stark walls with his hand. Skinner nodded, as if he had expected nothing else, and walked into the hallway.

Krycek looked back at Mulder.

"Bastard." He walked around the bed.

"You're a selfish, arrogant prick." He sat down in the chair Skinner had vacated.

He stood up, and returned to inspecting the electronic equipment that was keeping Mulder alive.

"I mean," Krycek said, running fingers over cables, and the backs of various monitors, "The world is coming to a fucking end in about five months. And are you helping anyone by getting yourself nearly drowned by some inconsequential psycho?"

Mulder didn't answer. Krycek dropped back into the chair.

"No, Mulder. The answer is NO. You weren't helping anyone by pulling that little stunt." He glared at the unconscious man.

"You purposefully tried to switch yourself for Stewart before the backup arrived, didn't you?"

No answer.

"Were you THAT upset about last night?" His voice was dry, and he felt the urge to cross his arms. Of course, he hadn't been able to do that for years.

"All right," He snapped. "I suppose I'm not being entirely fair. I probably could have been more tactful about the mindreading." He shut his eyes.

"But Jesus, Mulder, you have to be willing to give me a chance." He laughed shortly.

"Right. The best I'm going to get are soulful looks when you're about to kick the bucket." Krycek glared at him again. "Merry Christmas to me."

He stood up, crossed the room, and looked out into the hallway. Everything seemed in order; no shadowy presences were lurking in the corridor. He sat down again, feeling the exhaustion of the past few days in the persistent ache of his legs and back.

He needed to stay awake. He pulled a small volume out of his jacket pocket and threw it gently onto the bed.

"I brought you a present."

Silence.

"You're not even going to thank me?"

More silence.

"Peskow gave it to me. I don't think you ever met him, but he did hold Scully at gunpoint once. He was an old instructor of mine, something of a legend in the KGB."

Krycek leaned forward, picking the book up again, and opened the front cover to reveal an inscription written in Cyrillic characters, which he dutifully pointed out to Mulder.

"See? I'd translate it for you, but it's really not something one should repeat in polite company."

Krycek pulled the chair closer to the bed. "This book," he said, "Is about a kick-ass woman who sells her soul to the devil so that she can be with the man she loves. He's pretty whiny, and spends time in insane asylums. Sound familiar?"

Krycek raised an eyebrow, and gave the unconscious man a questioning look. When no response was forthcoming, he opened the book and began to read.

The Russian flowed easily, and he kept himself entertained by giving Mulder occasional commentary, for which he courteously switched to English. About an hour and a half later, he looked up to find a pair of glassy, green-gray eyes staring at him. Krycek trailed off, and Mulder blinked sleepily at him.

"Hey," he said, finding it almost impossible not to smile.

"You look totally blitzed, Tovarich." He lost the battle completely, and gave Mulder a real grin, which he mastered in the space of a few heartbeats.

"They must really have you on the good stuff," he said gently. "Otherwise you'd be trying to rip that tube out." Mulder's brow tightened slightly, as if he were trying to think through the drugs.

"Now don't go getting any ideas," Krycek said sternly. But Mulder was already giving him a distressed, confused look. In about two seconds he was going to-

"Mulder! Shit. Calm down." Krycek did his best to stop Mulder's fingers from reaching the respirator tubing. But he only had one hand to work with. "Calm down!" He made his voice just slightly more forceful.

He supposed he wasn't the most reassuring person to wake up next to.

"Nurse!" Krycek shouted as Mulder's left hand finally made it to his mouth. Mulder struggled to sit up, tried to rip the plastic breathing apparatus out of his throat. Finally giving in, Krycek gripped the tubing, and pulled steadily.

"Try and exhale for me, Mulder." Finally, when the plastic had clattered noisily to the floor, the agent gasped, shakily, leaning against him. Krycek looked up as a monitor started to shriek.

//Shit shit shit. They're going to kick me out for this.//

He was half right. The nurses descended about ten seconds too late to stop the respirator debacle, and Krycek was forced to pace the hallway for a good five minutes before he was allowed to go back in to check on Mulder. He reentered the room to find the other man's eyes still open.

"Hey," the agent rasped at him. Mulder looked worn down, drugged up, and strung out. Fantastic, in other words. But he sure as hell wasn't going to tell him that.

"You look like shit." Krycek sat down again. "Want some ice?"

Mulder shook his head, letting his eyes fall shut briefly.

"Why are you here?" Mulder swallowed painfully. Between the medication induced slur and the respirator induced hoarseness, Krycek barely caught his question.

"I'm protecting you from the aliens." His voice skirted the line between sincerity and sarcasm, and Mulder turned his head, giving him a confused look. Krycek felt his chest tighten.

"Go to sleep, Tovarich. We can talk later."

Amazingly, Mulder took his advice, though "later" inevitably arrived. It came on the cloudy mid-morning three days after Christmas, seven minutes after Mulder and Krycek stumbled into apartment forty-two, finally home after an exhausting coast-to-coast plane trip.

Krycek practically poured Mulder onto the couch, then let his knees fold underneath him. He dropped gracefully to a sitting position on the floor beside the other man, resting his right arm on the cool leather of the couch, resting his forehead on his arm.

"Tired," Mulder said breathlessly. Krycek had no idea if he was asking a question or making a statement--in fact, he had no idea whether Mulder was referring to one or both of them. Whatever the case, his answer was the same.

"Yes." It came out as more of a groan than a word.

"Hey. Krycek." The agent stopped to breathe shallowly between the words. He was still out of breath from climbing the stairs, as the stupid, piece-of-shit elevator was out of order.

"What is it, Mulder?" He'd used the last of his energy to check the apartment before he let Mulder lie down, and let his own eyes slide shut, just for a moment.

"Why did you follow me," Mulder got the words out in a rush, then pulled in another breath, "to Brookings?"

Krycek's eyes snapped open.

"I thought you might do something incredibly stupid." He was too exhausted to diplomatically phrase his reply, and the words came out harsh, with too much of an edge. He steeled himself for the knee-jerk nasty reply.

"At least," Mulder hissed venomously, "I'm concerned with more than saving my own miserable life." His eyes glittered angrily as he tried to pull in deeper breaths. "Which is more than can be said for YOU."

"Oh give it a rest." Krycek launched himself off the floor, needing some space. "Or have you forgotten that I took a bullet for you less than a week ago?" He looked back at Mulder, who was still glaring stubbornly at him. "You want to know what I think?" Krycek cocked his head, raising his eyebrows. "I think that you don't give a damn about anyone but yourself."

"How's that?" Mulder said, levering himself up on one elbow, trying to give Krycek a disgusted look. Krycek wasn't buying it.

"Dying is easier than living through the pain, isn't it?" He dropped down to the balls of his feet, bringing his own eyes level with the other man's. "Isn't it?" He asked again, the anger leaving his voice.

Mulder fell back against the couch, closing his eyes, bringing his right hand up over his face. "I know what you want, Krycek."

"I don't want anything from you, Mulder." It was a lie, of course. They both knew that.

"We can never have it. It would never work."

"We can MAKE it work, Mulder." Krycek's voice was low, intense, right next to the agent's ear. Mulder opened his eyes, looking at him with a sick smile.

"For how long? We can barely hold a civil conversation."

"And whose fault is THAT?" Krycek snapped, frustrated. Mulder just gave him a twisted smile.

"See?" His hand slipped back into place, covering his eyes.

"God, Mulder. You fight so hard to hold onto the wrong things. Can't you even give this a chance?" Mulder didn't acknowledge his words at all. Krycek leaned against the couch again, feeling the strength flow out of him. "I just thought," he said softly, "That maybe we could be happy, when this is all over."

"It will never be over," Mulder said dully.

There was a long pause.

"How can there be a happy ending to our story, Krycek?" Mulder sounded so lost. "I don't think we deserve one."

Krycek felt his throat close, disappointment gripping him like a vise.

"Maybe we don't, Mulder." He let his eyelids fall shut, just for a moment. "But we deserve peace. And we'll get that, in the end."

"Besides," Krycek said, pulling Mulder's hand away from his eyes, trying to steer them both clear of the misery on either side of their swiftly sinking ship. "I think our seven years of bad luck are up."

"That's for if you break a mirror, Krycek." Mulder's eyes shimmered in the washed out winter light, but he gave Krycek a ghost of a smile.

"I know." Krycek gave the other man his best mysterious look, and twined his fingers through Mulder's.

"You broke a mirror?" The other man asked him.

"Maybe."

"Well," the agent said, "That certainly explains a lot." It was a strange affirmation, but Krycek decided not to push his luck.

"You need to take your medication." He disentangled his fingers, then got up and retrieved an unopened water bottle.

"I only need the antibiotic." Mulder pushed himself up against the back of the couch, bringing his feet under him. He had kicked off his shoes, and sat barefoot, curled into his oversized sweats. "I don't need the sedative."

"Mulder," Krycek began, oh-so-rationally.

"I hate how they make me feel." It was an admission that Krycek hadn't expected to get.

"OK," He said softly, giving in without a battle as Mulder downed the antibiotic.

"You should get some sleep," Mulder said. "You look like shit."

"I'm not tired," Krycek lied.

"And I'm not an idiot," Mulder said, but there was no irritation in his voice. "How long has it been since you slept?"

"I slept plenty at the hospital."

"Bullshit."

"Someone has to stay awake. Numerous parties are trying to kill you." Krycek sat down beside Mulder on the couch. In the gray midmorning light, with Mulder so close, the threat seemed very far away.

"I'll stay awake." The agent's eyes were already closing.

"Sure you will," Krycek said amenably.

"Don't patronize me. I hate that." An edge came back into Mulder's voice.

"I'm not patronizing you. You're exhausted," Krycek snapped defensively.

"So are you."

Krycek grabbed Mulder's pillow and shoved it at him. "Just go to sleep, damn you." He had to smile, just the slightest bit, at the sheer ridiculousness of their argument.

"Wake me up in two hours," Mulder said stubbornly, pulling his pillow against his chest.

"OK." Krycek rolled his eyes.

"I'm serious Krycek. You better do it."

"Or else what?"

"I'll be pissed."

"And that's different from the status quo, how?"

That wrung a smile out of Mulder. The agent set his pillow on Krycek's lap and laid down, one hand gripping the fabric of his jeans.

"What are you doing, Mulder?"

"Insurance. You have to wake me up if you want to move."

Krycek gave the back of Mulder's head an incredulous stare.

"Turn the TV on, will you?" Mulder's voice was slightly muffled by the pillow.

Krycek picked up the remote and turned on the TV, channel surfing for anything interesting. He left it on Turner Classic Movies, and watched Mulder's shallow breathing even out in front of Wuthering Heights.

He pulled out his weapon, checking it carefully, running his fingers over the magnetite bullets he had loaded just a few days ago.

"He's more myself than I am," Cathy said, Merle Oberon's voice echoing across the quiet apartment. Krycek slipped his gun back into its holster.

Against his will, he felt his eyes slide shut in a long blink, and it felt so damn good. But he wasn't going to fall asleep. He WASN'T.

He woke much later, not entirely sure what had dragged him back to consciousness. He looked at his watch, surprised to see it was nearly four o'clock. The sun had faded from the apartment, and snow was falling in large flakes past the window. He frowned.

Something had changed.

There was a tension in the room that hadn't been there before. His nerves started to tingle. He turned the TV off, and the room was blanketed in complete quiet. Out of the stillness he started to become aware of background noise, the buzz of Mulder's refrigerator, and the sound of traffic outside the apartment walls.

Suddenly, silently, Mulder sat bolt upright. Krycek felt himself twitch in surprise. The agent's head whipped around, fixing him with a strange green stare that seemed to pierce straight through him, as if he were transparent and Mulder was looking at something else.

"Krycek." Mulder's voice was breathy. Very low. Very fast. "They're here. Six of them."

"Mulder, you must have been dreaming." Even as he said it, he knew it wasn't true.

"No." Mulder's voice was quiet. Sure. "Four supersoldiers. Two shapeshifters. They're coming up the stairs."

"FOUR supersoldiers?" He stood up, yanking Mulder to his feet.

"They're splitting up." Mulder's gaze was unfocused and eerily calm. "They're sending two upstairs for you, and four-"

Like flicking a switch, the agent was back with him, eyes drilling into Krycek. "Shit," he said.

Krycek snagged Mulder's antibiotics off the coffee table, and then propelled the agent over to the window. He shoved the books and papers aside and opened the latch.

"Fire escape," He said shortly. "Go. I'll be right behind you." Mulder didn't need to be told twice. Rust came off in his hand as they made the descent in a flat fifteen seconds.

Mulder dropped the last few feet to the ground, knees buckling as his bare feet hit the pavement. Krycek landed silently beside him. The snow continued to fall, the large flakes just beginning to stick to the cold asphalt.

"Mulder, get up." Krycek grabbed his sweatshirt, hauling him to his feet. The agent swayed slightly, his breathing shallow and uneven.

"The car," Krycek whispered desperately, "We just have to make it to the car." Half shoving, half dragging Mulder forward, he looked back at the fourth floor window. The snow was falling faster now, but he thought he saw a dark shape looking down on them. While he watched, it moved to perch on the ledge.

"Oh God," Mulder whispered, eyes wide, responding to something Krycek couldn't hear. As he said it, the thing on the window ledge jumped down into the alley.

He didn't have to say anything. They took off together in an adrenaline-fueled sprint. His fingers were clamped around Mulder's wrist. He knew that if either of them were to fall, it would all be over. He didn't look behind.

He let Mulder go for a split second to pull out his keys, unlocking the doors to the car with the click of a button. It was then that he felt it. A crushing force on his left shoulder, and he knew it was a supersoldier. He hurled his keys at Mulder, reaching for his gun. Too late.

"Go!" His voice tore the air as he was forced to his knees. He felt hands grip his head tightly. He recognized the position. He was about to get his neck broken.

He looked at Mulder, standing barefoot in his gray and navy sweats on the snow-damp pavement. He'd pulled his gun, slipping it amazingly quickly from the ankle holster Krycek hadn't even known he'd been wearing. The others began closing in. He felt the supernaturally powerful hands tense.

Mulder fired.

The hands jerked away from his head, and Krycek turned, to see the ruined face of an anonymous killing machine. He was up in a flash, Mulder firing round after round, covering him as he sprinted and slipped around the car and hurled himself through the driver's side door.

The remaining supersoldiers began to close in on them. Krycek floored the gas and guided the car expertly around two of them as they sped out of the parking lot.

The snow was nearly blinding, but he didn't dare slow down.

"Are they following us?" he asked Mulder.

"No, they weren't-" The agent broke off, drawing a shaky breath.

"Mulder?"

"They weren't prepared for this. They still haven't figured out that I can hear them." Krycek couldn't take his eyes off the road to look at the other man, but he could hear the unsteadiness in his voice, the pained rasp of his breathing.

"They're going after Skinner. They noticed the vaccine switch. They know he's in on it. We have to get there first." Mulder gasped raggedly around the short sentences.

Krycek didn't say anything, just swung the car around in a ridiculously dangerous left turn, heading for Crystal City.

"What about the Gunmen?" he asked suddenly.

"I don't know. I just don't know."

"We'll call after we get Skinner out."

Mulder just nodded. They reached Crystal City in moments.

"Stay here," he told Mulder as he pulled into a space in the parking garage. "Keep the car running. If I'm not back in five minutes-"

"No. I'm not letting you go up there alone."

"Yes you are."

"No I'm NOT." Mulder jerked the car door open, pulling his weapon. Krycek tried to feel annoyed as he attempted to glare Mulder into submission. He knew it wasn't working when the agent gave him a sardonic smile.

"Let's go," he said.

Mulder said he thought the building was clear, and they rode the elevator to the upper floor. Krycek pounded on the door to Skinner's apartment.

"What the hell?" Skinner said, looking at the pair of them as he ripped the door open. "Get in here."

"Your life is in danger." Krycek's voice was low. "You need to come with us right now. Bring your weapon, and load your gun with the magnetite." Skinner looked like he was on the verge of questioning Krycek, but instead he simply disappeared into his back bedroom.

Next to him, Mulder slid gracefully down the wall.

//Shit.//

"Come on," Krycek said, kneeling, running his hand through Mulder's hair. "Stay with me." The agent's skin was too cold, and his breathing was erratic. He was going to go into shock if they didn't take care of this right now.

"I'm fine, Krycek." Mulder didn't sound very convincing as he tried to push him away.

Skinner came out of the bedroom, looking ready to go.

"Jesus," he said, looking at Mulder for the first time.

"He needs a jacket," Krycek said, eyes still locked on Mulder. "And shoes. Hurry."

Twenty-five seconds later, after jamming Nikes onto Mulder's feet, and wrapping him sloppily in Skinner's trench coat, they were out the door. Krycek could feel his heart beating against his ribs as he and the AD half-dragged Mulder down the hall.

They reached the elevator, and Skinner violently jammed his thumb against the down button. Krycek looked up, a lighted display indicating the elevator was currently at the level of the lobby.

"I hope we don't run into anyone," Skinner said warningly, glancing at Krycek while trying vainly to straighten Mulder's coat into some semblance of order. "We look like we're abducting him, for Christ's sake."

Krycek smirked.

//Been there, done that.//

He watched the numbers begin to rise. Fourth floor, fifth floor, sixth floor, until suddenly, he found himself almost overbalanced as all of Mulder's weight slammed into him.

"Stairs!" The agent was practically shouting into his ear as he pushed Krycek toward the plain white door on their left. With Skinner right behind them they ducked quickly into the stairwell.

They sprinted down one flight, but Krycek pulled Mulder to a stop beneath a large, painted number sixteen. Skinner gave him an impatient, worried look.

"Mulder, stop."

"We can't, we-" The agent broke off, pulling in rapid, shallow breaths.

"We need to THINK, dammit," he said, looking at both of them. "They could be waiting for us. We have," he said, pulling his gun, "An advantage." He watched as they did the same. "Actually," he continued, "We have several advantages." He looked meaningfully at Mulder, while, still holding his gun, he pulled the weapon he used on shapeshifters out of his pocket and tossed it to Skinner.

"There are two supersoldiers and one shapeshifter on the floor above us." Mulder said shortly. His eyes were calm and unfocused. "They're just coming to Skinner's apartment. They're part of the same team that tried to take us out."

"What about the other two?" Krycek asked.

"I don't know. I think I only have a radius of about eleven or twelve floors before I can't sense them anymore." Almost every word the agent spoke was punctuated by a shallow gasp.

"Let's go," Krycek said, starting to feel an itch to keep on the move. They descended at a quick, but controlled pace, with Krycek in the lead.

They had reached the landing of the eleventh floor when Mulder said suddenly, "The other two found our car. They disabled the elevator. They're coming up." Krycek looked at him, a sinking feeling in his chest.

"And the three in Skinner's apartment?"

"Coming down." Mulder leaned against a painted railing, skin as pale as the white walls of the stairwell.

"Fuck," Skinner breathed.

"Mulder," Krycek said, stepping in, voice quiet. "What floors are they on right now?"

"First and fifteenth."

"Turn around." Krycek said, releasing the safety on his weapon. "We're going up."

"Are you kidding?" Skinner hissed. "We can't attack them, they have the high ground. They'll cut us down before we can even fire a shot."

"We're going to meet them anyway, and it had damn well better be on our own terms." Krycek's voice was low, menacing. "We'll be fucked if they come at us from both sides at the same time. Besides," he offered, "The supersoldiers don't normally carry guns."

//Though that may change soon if we keep wasting them with the magnetite.//

Skinner tightened his jaw, and crossed his arms. Krycek stepped forward, giving the AD his most dangerous look.

"You boys are gonna get us all killed if you don't play nice." Mulder's voice was soft and mocking, and sent a shiver down Krycek's spine that had nothing to do with their current situation. The agent released the safety on his Sig with a soft click, and pushed himself unsteadily away from the railing he had been leaning against. "Let's go up," he said.

"Mulder," Krycek heard Skinner whisper as he activated the blade on the weapon Krycek had tossed to him, "How am I supposed to know which one is the shapeshifter?"

"It's behind the other two. I'll let you know if that changes."

"Stop here," Krycek said softly as they reached the thirteenth landing. They fanned out, with Skinner in the middle, and Krycek on the right. Above them, on the stairs, they heard the measured pace of booted feet. Mulder and Krycek raised their weapons in tandem.

The forms came into view, dark against the white walls of the stairwell. Krycek heard Mulder fire a shot, and one of the figures staggered sideways into the railing. Skinner started to sprint up the stairs as Krycek fired a shot to the head, followed by a shot to the kneecap.

Krycek watched Skinner neatly sidestep the downed supersoldier as he heard Mulder fire a second shot at the faceless figure that was still staggering down toward them. Krycek started up the stairs, a few steps behind Skinner, ready to provide what assistance he could.

He got a good look at the shapeshifter, and felt his steps falter automatically as he stared up into familiar green eyes. The thing on the landing looked down at him, performing Mulder's deadpan expression to perfection. In front of him, he sensed Skinner's pace slacken as well. The thing grinned at them then with a flash of teeth--triumphant, unfamiliar, evil.

It stepped to the left in two long, casual strides, Mulder's black trenchcoat flowing out behind it, and pulled a gun from inside its coat. Krycek froze, knowing he and Skinner were unmissable, easy targets. Time slowed down; he felt his heart beating against his ribs as the gun came up.

By the time he realized who the thing was aiming at, it was too late to stop the shot.

He dived forward, tackling the shapeshifter before it could fire again, rage giving him the strength to pin it down as Skinner rammed the weapon down into the back of its neck. He wasn't even aware of getting up as he half-sprinted, half-skidded back down the stairs.

"Don't move," he said as he came to a stop beside Mulder, pushing the struggling agent back to the floor of the landing. Skinner was at his side almost instantly, helping him hold Mulder down.

"No," The agent said, breathlessly, trying to sit up.

"Where was he hit?" Skinner asked Krycek as he pulled back the trench coat, running his hands over Mulder's chest, looking for the entry wound.

"I WASN'T hit," Mulder said shortly. "I can read their minds, you idiots. I DUCKED."

Krycek just stared at him.

"Can I get up now?" Krycek frowned, tilting Mulder's head to the side to get a better look at his temple. A trickle of blood was running into the agent's hair. Krycek ran his fingers along the broken skin, and Mulder hissed. It wasn't very deep at all. He would be fine without stitches. Krycek was impressed.

"That was a nice dive," he said, helping Mulder to his feet.

"Thanks."

"See? We can have civil conversation."

"Go team," Mulder said, eyes bright with adrenaline and something else.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Skinner said. "Where are they?"

"Eighth floor," Mulder said. "They know something's up."

They sprinted down three more floors, then made their way through the door on the tenth floor landing, coming out next to the elevator. They held there for a moment, waiting for the things coming up the stairs to pass the landing.

"Is there a reason they choose to look like you?" Krycek whispered in Mulder's ear.

Mulder didn't respond, and Krycek stepped back, looking at him. The other man was breathing in uneven gasps after their sprint, and Krycek thought he detected a vague bluish cast to his lips.

//He can't do this. He's not going to make it out of here.//

His thoughts must have been written on his face, because Mulder straightened out of his slump against the wall.

"Let's go," the agent whispered. "We don't have much time."

They took off again, sprinting down ten flights of stairs and across the parking garage. As Krycek slowed to unlock the car, he noticed the tires had been slashed.

"Where's your car?" He asked Skinner.

"Down one level."

"They're coming," Mulder rasped.

"Fuck it." Krycek used his prosthetic to smash the driver's side window of the nearest car. The alarm screamed in the relative quiet of the garage. He reached in quickly to pull the release for the hood. He stood, intending to disable the alarm, but Mulder beat him to it, ripping out a wire with an authoritative snap before letting the hood fall back into place.

"Krycek," Skinner said warningly. Obviously he wasn't quite willing to be party to grand theft auto.

"Go help him," Krycek snapped back, jerking his head toward Mulder, who was slowly going down in a heap, leaning over the front of the car. Krycek tore open the dash, and in a few seconds, the vehicle came to life. Skinner was opening the back door for Mulder when Krycek lifted his eyes to the rearview mirror and saw the supersoldier and the shapeshifter coming across the parking garage.

"Company at six o'clock," He said to Skinner. "I need you in shotgun." He heard the rising alarm in his own voice as he watched the supersoldier head not for the car, but for the only exit to the parking garage. Skinner was around the car in a flash.

"Buckle up," Krycek said, flooring the gas pedal and ripping the car into reverse. He wrenched the vehicle around, and slammed the transmission into drive. Tires squealed as Skinner rolled down his window and pulled out his Sig Sauer, pointing it at the remaining supersoldier. Krycek tried to keep the car on an even, predictable path as Skinner began firing.

He heard the sound of breaking glass as the shapeshifter fired rounds into the back windshield.

"Go for the knees," he shouted to Skinner, trying to make himself heard over the roar of gunfire. Even injured, the supersoldier might be able to stop the car unless Skinner could bring it to the pavement. At the last second, the thing dropped, and the car rolled over it with a jolt that made Krycek's teeth jerk together with an audible click. He looked behind him to see the last remaining shapeshifter staring after them expressionlessly as they sped out into the snow.

"Where the hell are we going to go?" Skinner asked, gun still in hand. Krycek shivered slightly as the cold air swirled through the broken windows.

"The Watergate."

"The Watergate?"

"Yeah. Make sure he's still breathing, will you?" Krycek gestured toward the backseat with his head.

"Mulder?" Skinner asked, looking back, his brow contracting. "Shit."

"What?" Krycek snapped.

"Mulder, try not to move," Skinner said, ignoring Krycek's question. "You're covered with broken glass."

Krycek didn't catch the agent's reply.

"What did he say?" Krycek glanced over at Skinner, eyes leaving the icy road for just a moment.

"He said that he noticed," the other man replied, smiling slightly before turning serious again. "He needs to be in a hospital."

"And he'll be dead inside two hours if we take him to one." Krycek spat the words in Skinner's direction, and watched the other man flinch. "They're fucking SERIOUS about taking him out. A shapeshifter sacrificed itself to try and do it. I've never seen anything like that before. He scares them. Badly."

"So what the hell are we going to do, Krycek?" Skinner's jaw was clenched so hard that Krycek was surprised his teeth weren't cracking under the pressure.

"We're getting out of the city. I have a car at the Watergate with untraceable plates." That seemed to calm Skinner down somewhat.

"What about Mulder?"

"He'll be OK," Krycek said shortly.

"You're not a doctor."

"Look," Krycek said angrily, "What do you suggest we do?"

Skinner sighed, looking defeated.

Krycek hesitated a moment. "If it makes you feel any better, I have some medical experience."

"I don't think a history of torturing people in a Russian gulag is going to be of much help here."

"Fine. Nevermind." He didn't know what he had been thinking.

They remained silent until they reached the Watergate.

He parked the car, leaving Skinner to help Mulder slowly out of the backseat as he began carefully checking the new vehicle for tampering. Satisfied that nothing was going to immediately explode, he opened the trunk, pulling out two blankets, some bottled water, and a small wand, very similar to the device the Gunmen used to sweep for bugs. He went over the car carefully, trying to make sure that no one had affixed a GPS locator to it since he'd last been there.

"We're clear," He said shortly, yanking open the door to the backseat, and shoving the water and blankets inside as Skinner walked Mulder over. As soon as the agent was settled, Krycek tossed Skinner the keys.

"Where are we going?" Skinner asked.

"North." Krycek climbed in back with Mulder, sitting so that the agent's head rested on his lap. They had done their best to hook Mulder's feet over and behind the seatback so they would be above the level of his heart. Krycek wasn't sure how comfortable that was, but Mulder wasn't really in any shape to complain.

Krycek folded Mulder's left arm up over the agent's chest, measuring his radial pulse and respirations. Even through the layers of clothing and blankets, he could feel Mulder's heartbeat. Strong, but way the hell too fast. Mulder's skin felt cool against his fingers.

"Turn up the heat," Krycek said to Skinner.

"Bossy." Mulder's voice was breathy as he looked up at Krycek, shivering.

"Damn straight," Krycek said softly, running his fingers rhythmically through Mulder's hair. "Damn straight."

3:59 AM
29 December 2000
Easthampton, Vermont

He regained consciousness in pieces. Sound came first.

"This isn't going to work." The voice sounded angry, familiar.

"I know." This one was different, softer. It took him a moment to place it, but finally he did. Skinner. "What do you think we should do?"

There was an incredulous laugh. "You're asking me?"

"Yeah," Skinner said.

"I think we should seriously consider faking his death." Comprehension was leaking in along with the sound, and he recognized the second speaker. Krycek.

He made a serious effort to open his eyes, and got a flash of a room lit only by moonlight and of Krycek's silhouette, an opaque, colorless profile against the Venetian blinds that scored the star-filled sky with lines of deeper blackness. His eyes slipped shut again.

"And you think that would stop them?" Skinner's whisper rose skeptically from the air at his left.

"No. You're right. It's probably not worth it." Krycek paused and two seconds ticked by as Mulder felt, at the very edges of his tenuous consciousness, Krycek's mind flip rapidly through possibilities and problems. The flow, a seemingly haphazard sequence of still pictures and word fragments that his unintentional voyeurism could make no sense of, raced by him, much too fast to follow or process. Impossible to interpret, until Krycek himself totaled up some unseen mathematical equation and concluded, unambiguously, that it was "Definitely not worth it."

"We could put him in protective custody."

"Can you really picture him going along with that?"

"Shit. No. He's so goddamn willful sometimes."

"All the time." Krycek's voice was dry.

Mulder managed to pull his eyes open, and keep them that way. Krycek was staring out the window. Watching the road.

He tried to shift slightly into a sitting position, but muscles, tormented past the point of reason, forced to work for so long on so little, were not in the mood to cooperate. He clamped his jaw shut on a moan that tried to force its way out treacherously from behind his teeth.

"Hey. Mulder. Come on." Skinner's voice sounded very close.

Mulder opened eyes he didn't remember closing, to see Skinner kneeling beside him on the bed. He helped Mulder sit up, adjusting the pillows behind him before easing him back.

"Thanks," Mulder rasped at him, barely recognizing his own voice. His eyes flicked to Krycek as the other man closed the blinds with an audible click, momentarily plunging the room into total darkness.

"Krycek?" It was Skinner's voice, confused, suspicious.

"Yeah?" Krycek said casually as he turned on the lamp beside the bed, appearing next to them, disquietingly close, undeniably human, in the light of an eighty-watt bulb beneath a golden lampshade. Mulder felt the illumination like a lance, and pressed his right hand savagely across his eyes. He preferred the dark.

"Oh God," he whispered.

"It's not that bad." Behind Krycek's voice Mulder could hear a strange mixture of the men Krycek had been. The nave kid, the traitor, the conspirator, all men that Krycek had made him believe in. He bent his head, and for a moment he thought he could smell hair gel in an autopsy bay, and the earthy, dangerous aroma of rotting leaves in a Russian forest. He would never be able to leave those men behind him. He didn't have the luxury of starting with a blank slate.

//I don't know what to think. He confuses me.//

"You'll get used to it eventually," Krycek said evenly. Startled, Mulder jerked his head out of his hand to look up at him.

"What?"

"The light, Mulder. Just give it a minute." Mulder blinked rapidly, fighting the urge to shield his eyes with his hands again.

//You can't hear me, Krycek. Can you?//

The other man didn't give any indication of having heard Mulder's thoughts, but Mulder remained skeptical. He still had no idea what had caused the momentary connection between the two of them in his apartment the night that they had stolen the vaccine. He scanned Krycek's eyes, looking for any sign of deception.

It wasn't deception that caught his attention.

"Holy shit." Mulder reached up, his right hand tilting Krycek's face gently, running a thumb along the dark bruising that marked the side of the other man's neck. Krycek flinched, pulling away almost immediately, giving Mulder a guarded look.

"Better than a broken neck," Krycek said with a shrug, gracefully launching himself off the bed to prowl around the confines of the room. "It was lucky you were wearing your ankle holster."

The statement was almost a question, but Mulder chose to ignore it.

"Did you call the Gunmen?" He tried to relax against the pillows.

"Yeah," Skinner said from his left. "I called from a payphone just outside the city." As the AD spoke, Krycek opened a door and slipped out of the room. "They were OK," Skinner continued, "But pretty spooked. They're heading out of town, just to be on the safe side."

"Did they say where they were going?"

"They wouldn't tell me."

Mulder nodded as Krycek reentered the room, a glass of water in his right hand. He set it on the nightstand.

"You need to take these," Krycek said, pulling Mulder's antibiotics out of his coat pocket, and rattling the brown prescription bottle enticingly.

Mulder said nothing as Krycek deftly opened the bottle with one hand, and shook a pill into his compliant palm. For a few seconds he tasted the almost imperceptible bitterness of the drug before Krycek handed him the water, and he washed the taste away.

Mulder looked down, and then back at Krycek.

"I can't believe you had the presence of mind to grab those," he said softly. Krycek just shrugged. The other man's eyes were fixed on the water, which shimmered in the lamplight, revealing previously invisible tremors in Mulder's hand. Krycek reached forward, closing his fingers around Mulder's, stilling the water and taking the glass from him to set it on the nightstand with exaggerated care.

"Where are we?" Mulder asked, finally feeling his brain reengage.

"Vermont," Skinner said, rejoining the conversation from his perch on the left side of the bed.

"Vermont? Shit, what time is it?"

"A little past four AM," Skinner said, checking his watch.

"Why Vermont? And why-"

He was cut off by the ringing of Skinner's cell phone. Skinner frowned, his jaw tightening.

"Skinner."

Mulder chewed on the inside of his lip.

"What can I do for you, Agent Doggett?"

Beside him, Krycek froze, eyes narrowed.

"I'm aware of that," Skinner snapped. "What were you doing at my apartment?"

Mulder felt shock course through him. Certainly it was impossible that Doggett had anything to do with the assassination attempt.

//Isn't it?//

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Krycek shake his head, and he turned to see the other man looking at Skinner. Krycek made a cutting motion with his hand.

"What kind of information?" Skinner's tone was suspicious.

Skinner held up his hand, palm outward, looking at Krycek.

"What makes you think Agent Mulder is with me?"

Krycek shot to his feet, rounding the bed in quick, purposeful strides. Skinner stood as well. He turned to face Krycek, hand still extended. Mulder sat up straight, ready to intervene if-

"I'll think about it."

Lightning fast, Krycek ripped the phone from Skinner's hand, and savagely hit the End button before throwing it across the room. Mulder flinched as the plastic shattered against a wall. The two men stood silently, inches apart, each holding onto his control by a fingernail.

Krycek broke the silence first.

"Unacceptable."

Even in the dim light, Mulder could see a red flush spreading over the AD's skin. "Unacceptable?"

//I need to diffuse this now.//

"I think-" Mulder began, but Skinner cut him off with a wave of his hand, talking easily over Mulder's abused voice.

"I'll tell you what's unacceptable," Skinner said, voice getting quieter and more deadly as he continued. "Unacceptable is a man who betrayed his badge and his country telling me that I can't trust one of my own agents, whose integrity has never wavered to my knowledge."

"Agent Doggett is a moron."

"Agent Doggett is a decent man."

"I wouldn't put much stock in your ability to judge character, Walter. After all, I slipped right below your radar when you made me Mulder's partner seven years ago."

Skinner glared daggers at him.

"Or maybe," Krycek continued, "I didn't. Maybe you knew," Krycek said, voice low. "Maybe you knew all along who I was, and you didn't tell him." Krycek tipped his head toward Mulder, then continued ruthlessly. "But more importantly, you didn't tell HER. Not before it was too late."

//Scully.//

Mulder felt his muscles clench involuntarily at the memory of Scully's abduction. Skinner didn't seem to be able to help himself as he moved suddenly, driving his fist into Krycek's solar plexus. Krycek bent double, his arm coming around his chest, without a sound.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Mulder rasped as he stood unsteadily, looking across the width of the bed that separated him from the two combatants. As he watched, Krycek's hand disappeared into the depths of his leather jacket.

"Now you listen to me," Skinner growled menacingly, jerking Krycek up by his collar.

In a movement that was too fast to follow, the younger man whipped his gun from its holster, cocked it, and pressed it against Skinner's temple.

"Back off." Krycek's voice was low, even, giving no indication that he had been even remotely winded by the sucker punch. Skinner released his collar, and took a step back.

"Drop it, Krycek," Mulder said, his voice steely.

"That only works if you're armed, Mulder. I have both your guns. Now, sit down on your hands." Krycek's eyes flicked to Mulder for a split second before settling back on Skinner. Mulder remained standing.

"Goddamn it!" Krycek said, exasperated. "I just want to have a conversation without someone beating the shit out of me!"

Mulder sat down on the bed.

"Now I want to make one thing absolutely clear." Krycek's voice had dropped to a dangerous hiss. "This isn't the goddamn FBI, Skinner." Krycek spat. "I don't take orders. I give them. I'm not one of your agents."

"Damn straight you're not."

They glared at each other over the barrel of the Sig Sauer.

"Do you know how long it takes to triangulate on a cell phone signal?" Kryceck asked.

"Two minutes."

"With FBI standard equipment, yes. If the right technology is used," the flow of words paused for a split second, "The RIGHT technology, you understand? It takes only thirty-nine seconds and that is why I cut you off at thirty-seven. You have no idea who you are dealing with. You have no idea WHAT you are dealing with." Krycek took a breath.

"Agent Doggett is not working with them," Skinner said through gritted teeth.

"You don't know that."

"Mulder read his thoughts. He would know if Doggett-"

"That was over two weeks ago." Krycek's words were acid-drenched. "And I will not allow you to make command decisions that might endanger all of us, simply because you feel the need to take charge out of habit."

"I don't trust your judgment, Krycek," Skinner snapped.

"We have no one else," Mulder said, breaking in.

Their heads snapped around like they had forgotten he was in the room.

"Put the gun down, Krycek." He managed to frame his words as a request this time.

Krycek clicked the safety back into place, looking at Skinner. The gun disappeared inside the leather coat.

"What did Doggett want?" Mulder asked, suppressing a cough as he leaned back against the pillows.

"He wanted to meet with us tomorrow at a bar in Virginia. Apparently he and Scully have some evidence they think we should see."

"He AND Scully?" Mulder echoed, hearing the confusion in his own voice.

"Absolutely not." As Krycek spoke, Mulder watched him run a hand through hair that was, as always, way the hell too short. "It sounds like a setup."

"He seemed legit to me." Skinner folded his arms.

Mulder felt his headache return with a vengeance.

"Then by all means," Krycek said, throwing up his hand and stalking away from Skinner. "Go. Have your meeting. But HE," Krycek said, pointing at Mulder, "Stays."

"Oh like Hell!" Mulder tried to shout, but his voice, still raw from his intimate encounter with the Pacific and the exertion earlier in the day, failed him. "I'm not letting him go in there alone, not knowing if-"

"You. Stay."

Mulder looked to Skinner for support. "Actually, Mulder," the AD said, dropping his eyes, "I think you should lie low for a while."

Mulder caught a very subtle nod from Krycek, and suddenly he suspected that they had discussed this at length before he woke up.

//They want me out of the way. They want me to stay-//

He broke off, a far more insidious suspicion entering his mind.

//He took my weapons.//

Panic crept up on him, gliding slowly from a knot deep in his chest, climbing his throat, choking him. He couldn't stay here, not like this, not in forced relaxation, alone and comfortable with only his thoughts to keep him company while others stood holding lines of defense. He stood again, as abused muscles protested, needing suddenly to get away from the bed.

Imprisonment, even with padded corners, would surely kill him.

"Why did you take my guns?" His voice was even; propelled by sheer willpower, it rose above the breathlessness that gripped him.

They stared at him. Skinner's eyes were cautious, concerned. Krycek's face was a confusing mix of understanding, amusement, and something more indefinite, as if he had recognized an old friend unexpectedly on an otherwise boring Sunday afternoon.

"Mulder," Skinner began, but Mulder cut him off.

"I think I'd like them back, if you don't mind." He touched his fingers to the wall, drawing support from its solidity.

Krycek nodded, coming forward cautiously, hand outstretched. He reached around behind Mulder, and pulled both guns out from underneath the pillows Mulder had been leaning against. He set the smaller weapon, which Mulder usually wore on his ankle, gently on the nightstand. Then he handed the Sig to Mulder.

He stared at the gun in his hand, feeling like a complete idiot.

"But you said-" he trailed off, or his voice gave out. He wasn't sure which.

"I lied." Krycek shrugged, giving him a wry smile. "That surprises you?"

Mulder just stared at him.

Krycek sauntered back to the window, briefly opening the slats of the blinds to look out into the night.

"Isn't your motto 'trust no one?'" Skinner asked him, looking at the ceiling like he was asking for divine patience.

"Look," Mulder said, recovering his composure. "We need to figure out what the hell we're going to do." He dropped to the bed, pulling his feet under him to sit cross-legged. Krycek left the window and mirrored his position at the foot of the bed while Skinner sat down to Mulder's left with a sigh.

"We've got five months," Mulder said softly. "We need to figure out how to make the most of them." No one said anything. He chewed on the inside of his lip, taking a moment before he had to admit the inevitable.

"I think I'm done at the Bureau."

"I think we may both be done, Mulder." Skinner's voice was pained.

"They won't let you go easily," Krycek said. "Those who don't want you dead will want to keep you where they can see you."

"We're as good as dead if we go back there," Skinner said, shaking his head.

"We need protection," Krycek said. "We need to convince the collaborators that we're too strong to be fucked with."

"A faction?" Skinner asked skeptically. "Something to balance Marita's power base?"

Mulder sensed that Krycek actually had something more elaborate in mind. He chewed his lip.

"We don't have the resources or the personnel to oppose her," Skinner said, and there was a kind of grim finality in his voice that made Krycek's mouth tighten, and his muscles tense as he stood.

"So we steal the resources and recruit the personnel. Hell. We already have three people, five guns, and a car. We're doing pretty well."

"What about the vaccine?" Skinner asked. "Or have you forgotten about that?"

Krycek's head whipped around. "I've devoted my life to that vaccine. It's always on my mind."

"Then how do you plan to distribute it, if we can't operate through official channels?" Mulder spoke up, hoping to forestall another argument.

"Who says we can't? As I'm sure you both have suspected, the military has been involved in concealing the colonization plans since the 1950s. You can bet that there are people over at the pentagon who would be more than willing to help us. The DOD already has a base of operations that they plan to use when the colonists make their first move. Contacting them would be a good place to start."

Silence descended on the room. Mulder chewed his lip, trying to make the pieces fall into place.

"You're holding something back," he said finally, giving Krycek his most piercing stare. "This isn't just about opposing Marita, and getting the military on board. You have something else in mind."

"Of course I do." His face was closed, giving nothing away.

"I want to know what."

Krycek looked at him for a moment, and Mulder began to think he wasn't going to answer. Then, finally, he spoke.

"A resistance cell," Krycek said evenly. "Something that would be active post-colonization. Something completely separate from the military."

"And who's going to run something like that, Krycek?" Skinner asked, "You?" He shook his head. "Leave it to the boys at the DOD. They're good at what they do."

"I don't trust the military."

"And you think YOU could do a better job? No one will join you, Krycek. Not because you're not competent, but because you're not trustworthy." Skinner shook his head. "No one will ever follow you into battle, and no one will ever obey your orders without question for fear that you might stab him in the back."

Krycek's eyes blazed, and when he spoke, it was a low hiss.

"Let he who is without sin cast the first fucking stone."

He spun gracefully and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Mulder gave Skinner a pointed look.

"Mulder-"

"No." Mulder cut him off. "He's right. None of us are in a position to point fingers. He's done things." Mulder closed his eyes. "Terrible things, but we all have."

"But you-"

"We all have."

With that, Mulder stood, checked his weapon, strapped on his ankle holster, and left the room, leaving Skinner behind in the golden glow of the lamp.

He left the door open behind him, but soon the light from what he assumed was the guest bedroom faded. He edged through the dark, trying to get a feel for the layout of the house. He shivered slightly as the warmth seeped out of him and into the cold hallway.

Finally, turning a corner, he saw the outline of a closed door, lit in a bright yellow. He had lifted his hand to knock when he felt the unmistakable cold pressure of a gun pressed to the back of his neck.

"Please tell me that's you, Krycek."

"It's me." The pressure didn't let up. "But how do I know it's you?" He thought he could hear a smile in Krycek's voice, but he wasn't sure.

"Um," Mulder said, unhelpfully, wracking his brain for something he knew about Krycek that a shapeshifter would be unlikely to know.

"I really don't know that much about you."

"That's not very convincing."

"You still have a stupid-ass haircut."

"I was impersonating a Bureau agent. This is regulation-length hair, I'll have you know." As Krycek spoke, Mulder felt the cold metal of the gun leave his neck, and heard the other man replace his gun in its holster.

Mulder reached forward and opened the door, flooding them both with light. Squinting, they walked into the kitchen.

"I have cheap Vodka and frozen-" Krycek broke off, fishing around in the freezer, "frozen lemonade concentrate. And that's about it."

"Bring it on," Mulder said, setting to work at prying up the lid of the concentrate. They were quiet for a few moments, while Krycek found glasses and spoons.

"Krycek," Mulder began, eyes fixed resolutely on the resistant lid of the can, "I-"

"Save it, Mulder. Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it."

"Too bad." He pinned Krycek with his eyes, lemonade concentrate forgotten. "I think Skinner is wrong."

Krycek froze. "About what?" he asked finally.

"I think that we do need something like what you described." He paused, briefly, before going on. "And I think that people would follow you." He looked back at the can of lemonade, and traced patterns idly in the frost, letting the heat of his fingertips brush away the ice.

"I would follow you." He hadn't been planning to say it, but as soon as it came out, he knew it was true. He looked up again, as Krycek turned away, saying nothing.

"Why would you ever do something that stupid?" Krycek said, and Mulder thought his voice sounded strange. Muted, and slightly thick.

"I do stupid things all the time."

"True."

Mulder watched the other man's shoulder's rise and fall as he took a deep breath. Krycek turned back to face him. "Skinner's right. You know he is. He could never accept my authority. Nor could Scully or Doggett."

"You want them on board?" Mulder raised his eyebrows.

"Well," Krycek said, "I could live without Doggett." Mulder gave him a wan smile. They were quiet for a few seconds.

"You must have thought of this before," Mulder said softly. Krycek nodded.

"I never intended anyone to follow ME at all," Krycek said.

"I don't understand," Mulder lied.

"I think you do."

Mulder shut his eyes against the implications behind the other man's inflection.

"You want me to lead this resistance cell." His voice was flat.

"It's the only thing that makes sense. Look at what you've managed to do with the ISU. People respond to you. People respect you."

"I don't want any more blood on my hands." He shut his eyes, thinking of the agonizing ends of his informants, of Scully's sister, of more innocents than he could count because of his quest, his failings.

"You'd sacrifice lives so you can sleep easier at night? Don't be so fucking selfish."

Mulder jerked as the muscles in his shoulder and back tightened involuntarily.

"And what's your role in all of this?" Mulder went back to the can of frozen lemonade, furiously digging his nails under the rim of the lid, trying to get some leverage.

"I," Krycek said, pulling the can away from Mulder, "Watch your back. I stop you from heroically banging your head against a brick wall, when other options are available." He flipped the can over and gently teased back the red ribbon with a thumbnail before using his teeth to pull it away from the cardboard. The lid came off easily in his hand.

Mulder felt a sickly smile rise to his lips.

"We head this thing together, or no deal."

"I can live with that." Krycek shrugged, his wan smile matching Mulder's.

Carefully, Mulder poured the frozen concentrate into the glasses, and Krycek added the Vodka. Mulder shook his head as Krycek pushed a spoon toward him. Instead, he sealed his palm over the top of the glass, and shook it vigorously, while Krycek stirred his sedately with a spoon.

Experimentally, Mulder licked his palm.

"Ugh." He made a face and got up to wash the rest of it off beneath the faucet.

"That good, huh?" Krycek asked him, eyeing his own drink skeptically.

Mulder watched as Krycek took a long, slow sip. The other man's expression didn't change a hair.

"Needs more Vodka," Krycek said, twisting the top off the bottle with one hand. Mulder shook his head incredulously, leaning against the counter. The cold seemed to sink into him, settling into his bones from out of the air. He shivered slightly.

"I can't believe you're actually going to drink that." Something in his tone must have given him away.

"Are you cold?"

"Not really, no."

Krycek frowned.

"Well, maybe a little."

The other man looked as if he were about to step forward and close the distance between them. But he stayed where he was.

"You should go back to bed. We'll talk more in the morning."

"Krycek-" He found himself wanting to apologize, but lacking the words, lacking even a clear conception of what he had done wrong. In the back of his mind, like a shadow that he would always carry with him was the maddening memory of Krycek's lips in the dark.

"Get out of my kitchen, Mulder." Krycek smiled as he said it, and gave Mulder a gentle shove in the direction of the door. Mulder looked back at him, nodding, and made his way through the black of the hallway.

6:02 AM
29 December 2000
Easthampton, Vermont

Skinner left at dawn. By tacit agreement, neither of them woke Mulder, and he slept on, oblivious, as Krycek gripped the AD's hand, wishing him good luck. Skinner gave him a surprised glance, and Krycek wondered if he had slipped into Russian. But after a moment, Skinner nodded, and jogged down the steps. Krycek leaned against the doorway, watching his car vanish in the direction of Virginia.

He sat on the porch, watching the new snow glitter as the sun rose out of the east. After twenty minutes, he went inside, bolting the door behind him. He reset the perimeter alarms, and went to check on Mulder.

The agent was face down, tangled in a mass of too many pillows and more blankets than were strictly necessary. He watched the regular rise and fall of Mulder's chest for a few moments before silently withdrawing.

He went down into the cold dampness of the unfinished cement basement and stripped off his shirt, draping the green cotton folds over the back of a chair. He released the straps of his prosthetic and laid it on the ground.

He spent five minutes stretching fatigued muscles, focusing on his balance, eyes closed. Then, as if responding to some hidden signal, he dropped and began doing pushups. Setting a fast rhythm, he counted off sets of twenty in Japanese under his breath.

"Ichi, ni, san-" The breath burned in his throat as he flipped onto his back without a break to do crunches, and finally full sit-ups. He did suicide drills down the length of the basement, sprinting five steps, stopping to let his fingers graze the cement floor, then sprinting five steps back, touching the floor, sprinting six steps out, and so on until he ran out of floor space. He practiced shoulder rolls, hand techniques, and knife defenses before finally settling into the balancing exercises he ran though every day, no matter how tired he was.

He began slowly, forcing himself to hold one precarious position after another. He gradually moved faster, until finally he moved seamlessly into a full speed Okinawan kata. His graceful transitions from stance to stance were punctuated by exactly fifty-five seconds of snap-punches and kicks.

After he was finished, he strapped the prosthetic back on, and did it all again.

One shower and two cups of coffee later, he had logged on to cnn.com, and settled down to scan the headlines for anything useful. He skipped over the latest example of incompetence from the current administration, the news of perpetual unrest in the Middle East, and the threats of litigation against fast-food corporations. Finally his eyes settled on a story that had broken eight hours ago, in Tunisia.

As he read, the bright morning light that streamed through the kitchen faded, replaced by the gray tint that came with an overcast sky. The change in weather barely registered as Krycek's eyes devoured the page, the silence of the room broken only by the soft clicks of the mouse under his right index finger.

Though the real events were shrouded beneath an official lie, he recognized the names of three of his contacts among the dead. He frowned, looking at his watch, correcting for time zone differences, did some simple subtraction.

He felt a chill race up his spine and down his arm. His fingers clenched involuntarily. His contacts in Tunisia, all research scientists, had been killed at roughly the same time that the colonists had arrived at Mulder's apartment.

He hunted for more deaths with a feverish intensity. And he found them. In California, in Russia, in the Ukraine, in Japan. Seemingly isolated incidents all stamped with an official seal, and the plausible deniability he recognized so well.

He wished now that he hadn't let Skinner go. He had pulled his cell out to call Skinner, when, unexpectedly, it rang in his hand. He looked at the display, recognizing the number instantly. He looked at his watch, then pressed the green button.

"How did you get this number?" He snarled into the receiver.

"Alex." Her voice, as always, was smooth, cutting. But she didn't say anything else. Krycek wasn't willing to wait.

"What do you want, Covarrubias?"

"I called to give you a warning." He squeezed his eyes shut briefly.

"Concerning what?"

"They're about to make their move. They've infiltrated the Department of Defense, Alex."

"You're full of it, Marita." He paused briefly, reading the meaning under her words. "I'm not coming back."

"I can protect you."

"You can use me, you mean."

"You don't see what's happening." At her words, that snake of fear was back, slithering up and down his spine in ever tightening rings.

"Why don't you enlighten me then," he snapped, trying not to let his voice give anything away.

"Your actions yesterday convinced them that immediate and decisive action is necessary in order to ensure that their plans succeed." She was quiet, unwilling to provide details.

"I have to go."

"They know it was you, Alex. They know you got him out." She sounded almost desperate.

"What do you care?" His voice was a savage whisper.

"You must know that I never intended for any of those assassination attempts to succeed."

He laughed.

"You expect me to believe that? I don't make the same mistakes twice, Marita."

"Alex-"

He ended the call after thirty-eight seconds.

Wasting no time, he dialed a number from memory.

"Skinner."

"Don't show for your meeting."

"We've been over this." Skinner sounded irritated.

"Something big is going down." There was a brief pause.

"You have new information?"

"Yes." There was another pause.

"Krycek, I have to do this. There's something," Skinner paused. "Something I need to know." Pieces fell into place in the back of Krycek's mind.

"This isn't about Doggett or his information at all," Krycek said. "It's about Scully. Isn't it?"

No answer, which, of course, was answer enough.

"Be careful." Krycek said shortly. "Watch your back."

"I will." Another pause. "About last night-"

"Forget it."

"Krycek-"

"I said, forget it."

"I'll call you when I'm done with the meeting."

Krycek looked up at the green numbers on the digital clock above the microwave.

"You won't be able to reach me at this number anymore. I'll contact you in five hours."

"Understood."

Krycek ended the call.

"You'll contact who in five hours?" Mulder asked dryly from behind him. He suppressed a reflexive jump.

"It's 'whom,' not 'who,'" Krycek said, not turning around. "Didn't you go to Oxford?"

"Don't evade the question."

"I'm not." He smiled slightly before turning around.

"Well?" Mulder was standing in the doorway, left hand braced against the frame, Sig held loosely in his right. He was giving Krycek a challenging stare, green eyes full of fire.

//Remember that you asked for this when he starts to drive you insane.//

Krycek shifted in his seat, and cocked his head slightly.

"You'd look much more intimidating if your hair wasn't sticking up on one side," he said, trying to separate himself from any whisper of desire.

He watched in surprise as Mulder walked over to the table and dropped into a chair.

"I would threaten to kick your ass," Mulder said, yawning, "But I just don't think it would be as satisfying without shoes."

"Satisfying for who?" Krycek asked.

"For 'whom'." Mulder said primly. "Give it up, Krycek."

"Skinner." Krycek said, relenting.

"He left?" Mulder frowned. "You didn't wake me up?"

"Obviously not."

"Damn it, Krycek, he could be walking into a trap!" The last word was mostly lost amidst a cascade of coughing. Krycek grabbed him a glass of water, and set it on the table.

"He knows that," Krycek said when Mulder's coughing spell had subsided. "He wants to go anyway."

"Why?"

"You haven't figured it out?"

Mulder looked away quickly, toying with the cuff of his sweatshirt. Krycek watched him chew his bottom lip for a split second before turning quickly and leaving the kitchen. He made his way back to the guest bedroom to retrieve Mulder's antibiotics.

He pushed the bottle toward the agent, who dutifully twisted the lid off, and downed a pill.

"I got a call from Covarrubias this morning," Krycek told him. Mulder raised his eyebrows. "She told me that something big is going down. That I should watch my back."

"That's it?"

"She claims she never wanted me dead." Krycek shrugged.

"Do you buy it?"

"No," Krycek said, opening a cupboard and scanning the contents. After a few seconds he added, "But I can't see why she would call to tell me that."

"Do you think we're safe here?" Mulder asked.

He glanced over at the other man. The agent was delicately tracing the lines of his Sig Sauer, running his fingers over the gleaming metal.

Krycek wanted to say no. His instincts told him to hit the road, the sooner the better. But he knew what being on the run did to a person. There would be no money. No regular food. There would be a long string of boosted cars, and nights at cheap motels on stolen credit cards.

He's spent half his life that way. He didn't like it, but he didn't have any compunction about leaving society behind. He stole another glance at Mulder. He had no doubt that the agent was more than capable of meeting the ascetic standards that would come with living under cover; hell, he already lived like a monk.

Mulder was sitting in the sun, still dressed in gray and navy sweats. The other man looked straight back at him, and in the loose clothing and forgiving morning light he was almost tempted to find the other man a pair of jeans and a spare leather jacket and hit the road within the next hour.

//He looks OK. He looks good, actually.//

Then Mulder coughed, bracing himself against the edge of the table.

//And after he's spent two days without food? A night soaked to his skin in some anonymous back alley?//

Mulder raised both eyebrows, prompting Krycek for an answer.

"Safe enough," Krycek said.

Mulder nodded, satisfied. "I'm going to take a shower," he said. "Do you, have something I can borrow? To wear?"

"In the bedroom, down the hall and to the right. You should fit my stuff, I think."

By the time Mulder wandered back into the kitchen, dressed in faded jeans and a black sweater, Krycek had coaxed something edible out of the previously frozen package of Green Giant Chicken Stir Fry.

"I borrowed some shoes too," Mulder said.

Krycek just nodded as he tipped the skillet, neatly splitting the stir-fry between two plates. He slid a plate down the counter towards Mulder, who looked at it like he had never encountered chicken and vegetables before.

"Forks are in the drawer," Krycek said, setting his own plate on the table. Mulder found the utensils with a clatter of misplaced flatware, and sat down opposite Krycek.

They ate silently. Well, Krycek ate, crunching idly on surprisingly crisp vegetables while he watched Mulder push the cooling conglomeration of peas, chicken, and water chestnuts around his plate.

"You should eat," Krycek said.

"I'm not hungry."

"Doesn't matter."

Krycek's expression didn't change a hair as Mulder fixed him with an irritated look. Perhaps because Mulder didn't like what he saw in Krycek's face, or perhaps because he couldn't see anything at all except for an unreadable mask, he looked down, angrily stabbing a water chestnut with his fork.

"Why didn't you wake me up when Skinner left?" Mulder's eyes were bright, and he was obviously cruising for trouble.

"You already asked me that."

"You didn't really give me answer. Why didn't you wake me?"

"What am I, your alarm clock?" he snapped.

"I don't know. You tell me. What are you, Krycek?" Mulder asked, exasperation making his voice unnaturally loud in the confines of the kitchen.

"I don't know what you mean."

Mulder's fork hit the table with a clatter at his words, and a few drops of sauce sparkled in the sun as they flew off the metal tines.

"I don't know anything about you, Krycek."

"What the hell is your problem, Mulder? I let you read my mind! What more do you want?"

"I want to know who you are."

Mulder's voice rasped with controlled anger, but there was a desperation behind his eyes that made Krycek ache to tell him the truth. It was a familiar sensation, this tightness across the chest. He'd felt it before; in government buildings, in foreign streets, in bad suits and in expensive leather, in the sterile glow of fluorescent lights, and always, always in the dark, but never quite so strongly as he did right now in the obscene sunlight that reflected off the snow and poured into his kitchen. He didn't trust himself to speak, so the silence between them lengthened.

"Even I don't know that, Mulder. Not anymore." His voice was soft. It was the only true answer he could give.

"Hell, Krycek. I'm not asking for that much." Mulder's voice matched his but, from the words, he could tell that the other man didn't understand. The spell was broken; he felt the moment of guilt and longing pass and then he was Alex Krycek again, his voice temporarily back under his control.

"You have no idea what you're asking, Mulder," he snapped.

"You probably know everything about me right down to my fucking SAT scores." The anger was back in Mulder's voice as well. "I don't know anything about you, Krycek. Fuck. That's not even your real name, is it?"

"What is it that you're so insistent on knowing?"

"Everything. Anything. I want to know why you've done the things you've done. Why you've spent your life the way you have."

The words were sharp and the delivery flawless but he could still see the desperation that Mulder couldn't completely hide. He could still feel the unsteadiness in his own voice. He knew they stood on the thinning ice of their past anger and, as more and more cracks split the surface they shared, he wondered what it was going to feel like when they both inevitably plunged through into whatever waited beneath.

"It's complicated."

"Well no shit, Krycek."

"Look. America, Russia, Tunisia, the FBI, the KGB, the UN, the consortium--I've been all over the board, Mulder. I've spent my whole life trying to balance my personal sympathies, my personal loyalties, and my personal need for food and shelter with the job that had to be done. That still has to be done."

"Why you? Who died and made you the whipping boy of the cosmos?"

"How the fuck should I know?"

His eyes never gave anything away unless he allowed them to, but his voice, his fucking vocal chords, seemed willing to pour his pain straight into the air, or were at least willing to let Mulder reach in and rip that tone right out of him. The other man didn't say anything in response and Krycek managed to regain his control. Managed to finally offer the only insight he could give.

"There's something you have to understand. Your search for the truth protected you, in a way." He held up a hand as Mulder gave him a skeptical look. "Just hear me out. They never gave you a goddamn thing. They used you. WE," he said, affirming his own culpability, "used you. But because you never saw the whole thing spread out in front of you like some kind of bad acid trip, you never had to make the choice that I did. I never had to search for the truth. I had the truth handed to me on a fucking silver platter, and I had to decide what to do with it."

Krycek waited for the inevitable nasty remark, looking down at his half-eaten stir-fry. For some reason, he wasn't hungry either.

"And now?" Mulder asked.

Krycek glanced up quickly, surprised at the lack of venom in the other man's question. He found himself on the receiving end of an appraising green stare.

"I'm where I need to be."

He looked back to his stir-fry, using his fork to rearrange peas and carrots, chicken and broccoli.

"What does that mean, Krycek?"

They both knew what Mulder was really asking and Krycek's mind filled with remembered shadows from a nearly lightless apartment. He couldn't feel the fork between his fingers; instead it was feather-soft tangles of hair that trapped his hand and, even as he tried to clear his mind, the taste of stir-fry was obliterated by the memory of Mulder's mouth. Then, because he couldn't take it anymore, the air above the table shimmered when the light caught droplets of oil and water as his fork, too, was slammed down, the tines digging into the wood next to his plate. He left it there, picked up the remains of his lunch, and walked to the sink.

"If we're going to work together, we have to talk about this." Mulder's voice was sickeningly reasonable.

"Put it behind us, you mean." Krycek turned on the water, and started scrubbing dishes with more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary. The last few days, action-filled and breathtaking as they had been, had led inevitably to this point, when nothing was immediately trying to kill either one of them, and finally, he had to hear Mulder explain to him, in an impressive array of rationalization and psychological jargon, why it was a very bad idea for them to become involved.

"Hey," Mulder said, touching his shoulder.

Krycek jerked away. "Spare me the psych study," Krycek said, going back to his dishes. "I don't want to hear it."

"What are you talking about?"

"I get it Mulder. I do. I know what you saw in my head. I felt your reaction. You wanted out. That's fine. Just spare me the ten minutes of talking it's going to take for you to intellectualize it and move on, to sweep it under the rug of your fucking New England propriety so effectively that not only will we never have to mention it again, but it will be like it never happened at all." His voice had gotten too loud.

Only Mulder could bring him this close to losing it.

"You don't get it, Krycek."

He didn't answer.

//You won't make me deny that it happened. You won't make me surrender the one memory I have of being given something I didn't have to take.//

"I don't hate you, Krycek."

"Well that's great." He nearly choked on the thick flow of sarcasm that filled his mouth. "I only had to save your life four times and let you read my mind."

"Krycek-"

//I'm going to kill him.//

"You won't get me to agree that it's a bad idea!" he yelled, finally giving into his temper and vindictively slamming the pan he was scrubbing down into the sink.

//I've wanted you for too long, you blind son of a bitch.//

Mulder's fingers dug into his arm as he yanked Krycek around to face him.

"I don't want you to agree, you idiot!"

Mulder pushed him back and Krycek gasped as his lower back dug into the edge of the sink.

"Listen to me, OK? Just listen." Mulder gave him a slight shake for emphasis, and as he spoke, his voice was strained, close to breaking. "You make me want to fight this war. You make me feel like myself, like the person I thought I was before everything went to shit and I became some kind of glorified lab rat."

His mind was a total blank as he stared at Mulder.

"You've kept me going. You sold your soul so I didn't have to." The other man leaned in and their foreheads touched. Mulder's left hand came around the back of Krycek's neck. "You didn't forget me," he whispered. "You brought me back."

Something broke loose inside his chest, and he had to stop breathing in order to keep the silent scream inside him, where it belonged. He shut his eyes as he pulled Mulder in and felt the other man's arms wrap around his shoulders. They stood together like that for a moment, not nearly long enough, before Mulder pulled back slightly, putting his mouth next to Krycek's ear.

"Krycek," Mulder whispered. "You should keep breathing. They tell me it helps."

He felt himself smile shakily. "Helps what?"

"Everything." He glanced quickly at Mulder then, who looked as off balance as he felt.

"I'll keep that in mind." Krycek stepped back a few inches feeling his defenses slip back into place, feeling the control he'd almost lost return in all its ironclad glory. "So now what?"

But Mulder seemed determined to break him down completely because he stepped back in, saying "I'd kiss you, but I'm worried we might end up in one another's heads." Mulder leaned against him, murmured into his shoulder, "We're both pretty keyed up."

"When are we not?" Krycek asked, trying and failing to control the slight tremor in his voice.

"You raise a good point." Krycek felt the fabric of his shirt pulled aside, as Mulder delicately ran his tongue along his clavicle in a blazing line. Krycek felt the sensation all the way to his groin.

//Do you have any idea how long I've wanted to fuck you?//

"Hmm," Mulder said, working his way over to the base of Krycek's neck. "Since that time I 'ditched you like a bad date?'"

//You're in my head.//

"Yeah," Mulder said, scraping his teeth gently over Krycek's earlobe. "Not much I can do about it, so-" he broke off to look at Krycek, and then whispered, "think nice thoughts."

//This isn't hurting you?// Even as he bit off a low moan, he couldn't help thinking of the agonized expression on Mulder's face when he'd found him in that stairwell at American University.

"Nice thoughts, Krycek." Mulder said, before he kissed him tentatively on the mouth. "Nice thoughts."

//I don't want to hurt you.//

"I know. It doesn't hurt as much with you as with other people. And I'm not-" Mulder broke off to kiss him again. "All the way in your head. I'm just hearing-"

Krycek cut him off by pulling him forward and sliding his tongue between Mulder's lips.

//Too bad you can't make me be quiet by doing the same thing.//

He could feel Mulder's lips curl against his.

//I just threw down some kind of gauntlet, didn't I?//

The other man moved in slightly, lazily tracing small circles with his thumb on the back of Krycek's neck as he proceeded to use his tongue and teeth to completely demolish any rational thought that tried to get a foothold in his mind. After a few minutes, Mulder pulled back to examine his handiwork.

"Totally incoherent," Mulder said, "is a very good look on you."

"You have an unfair advantage," Krycek breathed.

//Sex with a mind reader. This could only happen to me.//

"Well, we haven't quite gotten that far, yet," Mulder said, "but-"

Mulder's response was cut off by a shrill wail that shattered the stillness like a banshee, making them both jump. Krycek's hand tightened convulsively on Mulder's bicep for a split second, trying to hold onto the smallest fragment of the moment.

Too soon, he had to let it go.

"Get your gun," he said, shoving the agent toward the table. "That's the perimeter alarm."

Silencer out, he was halfway to the living room, with Mulder right behind him when the front door burst open and a tide of men in green fatigues flowed in. Krycek could see the red light of targeting lasers catch the dust that floated in the air, crossing the room in a bloody spider web.

//Are you still hearing me?// he thought at Mulder. The agent gave no indication that he was.

The soldiers stopped just inside the doorway, weapons at the ready. Krycek waited, gun outstretched, pointed at the nearest soldier.

"He wouldn't be worth the bullet," Mulder said quietly from his left. "None of them would."

Krycek understood. The troops in front of them were human. The ranks of green parted, and three figures dressed in civilian clothes slipped through.

"Well this certainly feels familiar," Doggett drawled.

Rage tore through him, ripping all other emotions to pieces. His gun trained directly on Doggett's right eye, he asked Mulder, "And these three?"

"Nope." Mulder said softly, but his gun didn't come down.

"We need you to come with us," Skinner said.

"Over my dead body," Krycek snapped.

"That can be arranged," Doggett snapped right back.

"I don't think so." Mulder spoke, and his voice changed everything, for all of them. Suddenly, the threat of violence hung, very real, in the air above their heads. Guns, Krycek had come to learn, didn't mean much with this crowd. They were a communication tool, a signal of seriousness. Mulder, however, had just sliced the air with the steel in his voice, sending an unambiguous message.

//I know that tone.//

If Mulder's eyes were his weak point, the places where his soul, trapped in the iron walls of his body, seemed to always overflow and give him away, then his voice was his best weapon, honed by years of practice into something that could transform from deceptively mellow and harmlessly intellectual into something cutting, a blade capable of the most efficient evisceration. Krycek heard the ice beneath the honeyed faade, the effect all the more potent from the slight rasp that marked the abuse the other man's throat and lungs had taken. The three in front of them backed off slightly, and Krycek wondered what they saw in Mulder's expression. He didn't allow himself to look.

"Let me explain," Skinner said, trying to salvage the situation. "Scully and Agent Doggett were contacted by the military a few days ago while they were back out in California. They've spent the last forty-eight hours at a base in Virginia."

"Doing what, exactly?" Mulder asked.

"Coordinating, Mulder." Scully stepped forward, small hands outstretched. "We've been helping to formulate a plan for resistance when Memorial Day arrives."

"This is a rather sudden change of heart," Krycek snarled at her, his suspicion on full display. "The last time we saw you two," he glanced over at Doggett, "was when you dismissed us as a liar and a lunatic."

"Mulder, I'm sorry," Scully said, ignoring Krycek, her voice taut with suppressed emotion. "You were right. You were both right. Agent Doggett and I discovered evidence of colonist sleeper cells spread throughout the country."

"Sleeper cells?" Mulder asked.

"Shapeshifters. Supersoldiers. Units designed to be activated when colonization begins. We had to see it for ourselves," Scully said, looking at Mulder, eyes asking for forgiveness. "Mulder, I'm sorry. I just had to see it. I had to make sure--before I gave up everything."

Mulder didn't say anything.

"None of this explains why your rifle-toting friends just broke my front door down," Krycek snapped.

"This wasn't our idea," Skinner said, jumping in. "The military insisted on sending an escort. They choppered us up here to get you as quickly as possible." Skinner looked irritated as he took in the array of rifles trained on Mulder and Krycek. "We need you to come with us."

"Where?" Mulder asked, his voice guarded.

"A military base in West Virginia, the center of operations for the military's preparations for colonization." Scully stepped forward, her eyes fixed on Mulder. "They want to talk to you. To you and Krycek."

"About what?" Krycek asked.

"They want your help," she replied. "They could use your expertise."

"And if we refuse to offer that willingly?" Krycek already knew the answer to his own question.

"But this is what you wanted," Skinner said uncertainly. "It's why I agreed to give the military your location so they could bring you in."

"Not as prisoners!" Krycek said, his voice incredulous. "How could you possibly think that this would be acceptable?"

"This is just a precaution-" Scully began.

"Against what?" Krycek cut her off smoothly. "Against what, Scully? Did you ever bother to ask yourself that question? Or did you just swallow whatever prepackaged lie they handed to you because it was stamped with an official seal?"

Scully stiffened, her blue eyes like flint. She turned back to Mulder.

"Mulder, we were there. We were at the base. We saw all of it; we saw the military's plans and stockpiles. This is legitimate. It must be." She paused, looking at her former partner. "Please, Mulder. We need your help."

//He's going to cave.//

"What do you think?" Mulder's voice was quiet. No one spoke.

//Is he talking to ME?//

"Krycek?" Mulder prompted.

"It's a trap," Krycek said, eyes still fixed on the men in front of them, voice low enough to be inaudible to anyone but Mulder.

"Are you positive?" There was something hard and tormented in Mulder's voice, reminding Krycek of the way the other man had sounded when he confronted the shapeshifter in his office. The way he'd sounded as he'd put his gun to his own temple.

"No," Krycek said quickly, backing down from the hard line he wanted to take. "No, I'm not." Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Mulder look at him, just briefly. "If it is a trap," Krycek said, "They've already got our location. They'll drag us in if we don't go willingly."

Mulder gave an almost imperceptible nod.

"All right." Mulder's voice was louder again, directed at Scully. "We'll come with you, though I don't really see that you've offered us a choice." The other man sounded irritated, but at his words, the guns were slowly lowered.

Krycek's was the last to go down.

"I'm sorry, Mulder," Scully said, managing to look relieved and contrite simultaneously. "The resistance is being run primarily out of the DOD. They're the ones that wanted us to bring you in. They insisted on sending the troops."

Krycek couldn't suppress the shiver that ran through him at her words. As he and Mulder followed Scully out to the waiting car, their path lined with black automatic rifles, he remembered the way Marita's voice had sounded on the phone just a few hours ago.

//They've infiltrated the Department of Defense, Alex.//

5:17 PM
29 December 2000
Redcorps Military Base, West Virginia

Mulder fought to keep from rubbing at his temples as they finally drove through the gates of the Redcorps military base. The trip to West Virginia had been shortened significantly by a chopper ride that had brought them to the edge of the no-fly zone surrounding the base.

He couldn't seem to shake the headache that had been plaguing him since he'd used his ability to find Stewart five days ago. He shut his eyes against the sudden rush of worry that thought ushered in. The ISU was probably looking for him by now. Michaelson would have called to check up on him last night. And if he hadn't been able to reach Mulder, he would have gone to the agent's apartment. And there he would have almost certainly found signs that pointed to foul play.

"Sir, have you checked in with the Bureau recently?" Mulder said, turning to his right.

"No," The AD said. "I wasn't sure if it was safe."

"They could have a man-hunt going on," Mulder said tiredly. "The ISU wouldn't have wasted any time in opening a case-file on me. Not if they've found the signs of a break in at my apartment."

"Shit," Skinner said softly. "That could really complicate things."

"Yeah," Mulder said dully, "it could."

He fought to keep his face impassive as he felt the persistent ache intensify on both sides of his head, cruelly reminding him of the twelve months he had spent fighting the illness that his father had inflicted on him when he cut away part of his brain. The telepathy and the headaches were back, and he didn't know what that meant.

//I guess the colonists somehow reactivated whatever dear old dad tried to hack away. Or they put something else in.//

He lost the battle then, and lifted his fingers to press against his head, as if reaffirming ownership for a brief moment before pulling them away. His ability, talent, curse, whatever he wanted to call it, was getting stronger as he exercised it. More difficult to hold at bay. He hadn't been able to keep himself from hearing Krycek's thoughts in the kitchen; he wasn't sure if it was the physical closeness or the emotional closeness that had set him off. At least Krycek hadn't ended up in HIS head again. Mulder had no idea what had caused that nexus, the first time they had kissed.

//That topic is going to require a great deal of empirical research. Choose a hypothesis, test it rigorously under varying conditions-//

His thoughts were interrupted by the ominous clang of metal on metal. Beside him, Krycek jerked almost imperceptibly as heavy gates slammed shut behind the car. Mulder caught his eye.

"I don't like this." Krycek's voice was smoky, barely audible. Mulder could only see his eyes clearly. The rest of him was shrouded in shadow and, in the dim light that trickled slantwise into the truck from a gray sky, he looked intangible. Mulder leaned into him, just the slightest bit, causing their shoulders to brush, needing the touch to reassure himself that beneath the grays and blacks of denim and leather, Krycek was still present in the truck, not just a figment of Mulder's warped mind.

"Well, what would you like, Krycek?" Doggett drawled. "This is what you wanted, a chance to lay out what you know for the military, a chance to finally do the right thing."

"Doesn't this seem odd to you?" Krycek hissed at Doggett, who sat directly across from him in the back of the truck. "They're treating us like prisoners."

"I guess you would know what that feels like, huh?" Doggett raised his eyebrows.

"Enough," Mulder said, unleashing the glare he'd perfected in interrogation rooms across the country.

He glanced away from Doggett to find Scully looking at him from where she sat beside her current partner. Her face was pale, and her hair somehow longer than it should have been, but it was her, beneath that uncertain gaze. He gave her a small smile. She smiled back.

He wasn't certain what had caused the rift between them. Nothing had been the same since he'd made his Lazarus-like return from the dead. So much had changed for her, so much had happened in her life that he had missed. The concealment of his illness, the inexplicable three months that he'd spent in a coffin, the bond with her new partner that she could not deny, combined and, like a torque applied to wet wood, warped their relationship into something new, something less solid.

He had missed her.

The car came to a stop outside a massive building, a great deal of which was probably underground. Mulder stepped out of the vehicle, stretching his legs, enjoying the feel of gravel crunching beneath the boots he'd borrowed from Krycek. The west wind toyed gently with his hair, and carried with it the scent of snow.

As the other four emerged from the truck, something echoed softly in the back of his mind, coming from deep within the building. He looked ahead toward the mass of brick and concrete, hesitating.

"Mulder?" Scully questioned, already a few steps ahead of him down the gravel drive that lead to a security checkpoint. He narrowed his eyes, focusing on the interior of the building.

Nothing. He sensed absolutely nothing.

"Coming," he said. He could feel Krycek looking at him, and he glanced over to meet the other man's inquisitive gaze, shrugging in response.

Before they reached the security checkpoint, an energetic man in his late fifties strode out to meet them, accompanied by four armed officers.

"Agent Mulder," he said, grabbing Mulder's hand in a strong, warm grip. "Pleased to meet you, finally." He turned to Krycek. "Comrade Krycek."

"Who the hell are you?" Krycek asked, ignoring the proffered hand.

"General David McCaddy," The general said, not missing a beat as he moved on to shake Skinner's hand. "It's nice to have you all on board." There were reserved nods all around.

"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave your weapons with my escort here at Checkpoint One. They'll be returned to you of course, when you leave the compound." Mulder frowned, far from thrilled with the idea of giving up his gun.

"Why is that necessary?" Krycek asked, suspiciously.

"Regulations, Comrade Krycek," McCaddy said. "You understand."

Krycek certainly didn't look like he understood. In fact, Mulder thought the other man might be trying to kill the general with the sheer intensity of the glare leveled at him. McCaddy took no notice.

Mulder handed over his Sig reluctantly, hoping the guards wouldn't check for an ankle holster. To his annoyance, the men insisted on frisking all of them. One of the guards stripped Krycek of both his guns and moved on to Mulder.

"Is this really necessary?" he asked as the expressionless guard started to pat him down.

"Yessir." Impersonal hands brushed over the loose sweater he was wearing.

Mulder closed his eyes against the inevitable as hands ran professionally down his left leg. Not only was the guard definitely going to find the gun, Mulder might end up in a significant amount of trouble for trying to get it into the compound. The guard's hands moved to his right leg.

Mulder stared fixedly into space, feeling hands move closer to the concealed weapon. Suddenly, the hands were gone, and he heard a startled intake of breath, and the clatter of metal on rock. Mulder looked down to see Krycek's open switchblade lying inches from the guard's foot.

"Oops," Krycek said. "Do knives count as weapons?"

Krycek got searched again for his trouble, but Mulder continued past the checkpoint with his ankle holster strapped reassuringly to his foot.

"This is the south gate of the main complex, or building A, as it's imaginatively called," McCaddy said, giving them a running commentary as they approached the facility. As they got closer, Mulder noticed a strange reddish cast to the cement around the doorway.

"What's with the cement?" he asked, breaking into the general's monologue. He reached out to touch it, but pulled his fingers back when he felt a strange tingle run up his arm.

"Glad you asked, young man," McCaddy said, fixing sharp blue eyes on Mulder. "It's normal cement mixed with magnetite. We're fairly certain it would keep any supersoldier that tried to infiltrate the compound out of the premises."

"Fairly certain?" Krycek said incredulously.

"Of course, we've never had an opportunity to test that theory, but it seemed like a sensible idea during construction."

"Shouldn't you be more worried about shapeshifters?" Krycek asked.

Mulder looked up as McCaddy turned a sober gaze on all of them, dropping the loquacious front.

"Do you know how a supersoldier is made, son?" McCaddy asked Krycek.

Krycek nodded shortly.

"How?" McCaddy prompted.

"Transfection of human cells with alien DNA using a viral vector causes new genes to be introduced for things like increased strength, stamina, rapid healing." Mulder watched Scully raise both eyebrows at Krycek's words.

"True," McCaddy said softly, "But that doesn't change a person, Comrade Krycek. That just gives a man super strength, it doesn't make him a mindless automaton."

"There are other modifications," Krycek went on. "Changes in the biochemistry of neurons that make the mind more susceptible to control, to suggestion, to telepathic orders of alien origin."

//He's like Scully on LSD.//

"And what does that tell you?" McCaddy asked Krycek.

"Access." Mulder said, suddenly, before Krycek could answer. "The information goes both ways. If telepathic suggestion can be imposed, then information can also be passed back along the connection between the alien and human mind." He looked at Krycek, and they shared a moment of uneasy resonance, thinking about the connection that had been opened between them in the dark of Mulder's apartment.

Mulder turned back to McCaddy. "You're worried about spies."

"Precisely," the general said, then turned to continue into the building. To his right, he saw Scully hesitate, her face closed, then briefly touch Krycek's arm, looking up at him to ask a follow-up question about the biology, unable to resist the chance to finally get some answers about the hard science behind the intangible layers of conspiracy that had been pulled across her eyes for so long.

"Krycek?" Mulder heard her say.

"Yeah?"

"Do you know how the virus evades the host's immune system?"

//That's definitely the most cryptic peace offering I've ever heard in my life.//

He watched Krycek look down at Scully, and blink rapidly, an incredulous, guarded look on his face. Then Krycek nodded shortly, and the two walked on ahead of Mulder, talking about nucleases and viral defense mechanisms.

Mulder stopped at the edge of the doorway.

His mind was quiet. He couldn't hear anything. He had no indication that anything was wrong.

"Agent Mulder?" General McCaddy looked back at him impatiently.

With one last glance at the darkening sky above him, Mulder stepped across the threshold, a strange pressure building in his temples. Scully and Krycek stopped talking as General McCaddy began his litany again as the door shut behind them with a hollow thud.

He walked forward. One step became two, two stretched to five, and then, suddenly, like some kind of mystical radius had been crossed, he could hear them.

//This is not happening. This is NOT happening.//

The pressure in his head exploded into a dull roar. Color drained from his field of view as he fought down the tide of alien voices, fought to remain conscious, fought to remain standing.

//It must have been the magnetite. It stopped me from hearing them. Shielded them somehow.//

Finally his vision cleared, and he found himself still on his feet, looking at Krycek. They stood just a few steps behind the rest of the group.

"Breathe," Krycek said. "It will help."

"Alex," Mulder said, his voice breathy with horror.

"Don't say it. I already guessed."

They fell into step a few paces behind Doggett, Scully and Skinner. Krycek released his hold on Mulder's arm.

"So just to clarify," Krycek said to him in a low conversational tone, "They were wrong about the cement."

Mulder nodded.

"How wrong would you say they were, numerically speaking?"

Krycek wanted to know how the odds were stacked.

"I'd say about forty-five, though it's very difficult to be sure. Very difficult," Mulder said, feeling his composure return as he acclimated to the buzz of voices in the back of his head.

"Hey," Krycek broke in, interrupting McCaddy's comments to Doggett on the myriad of evils perpetrated by the New York Yankees. "How many people work in this place?"

"This is a state of the art DOD facility, Comrade Krycek. You have to have level five clearance just to work as a goddamn secretary."

"So not many, then?" Krycek said.

"We've got about five hundred people all told," the General said. "The cream of the crop from the pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI."

"Why is the building so big, then?" Mulder asked.

"We've got our stockpiles here," McCaddy said. "We've been manufacturing and storing magnetite weapons for use in the coming war. We've also got stores of anti-viral medications specifically tailored to fight the effects of the plague they're planning to unleash. It's not as effective as a vaccine, but it's a start."

Mulder shut his eyes, the enormity of the disaster penetrating for the first time. They had pooled all their resources--personnel, firepower, medicine, information--into one central location, in the hopes of stopping alien infiltration. They had lost that gamble. The place was crawling with supersoldiers and shapeshifters who had been gathering information, biding their time. They would destroy everything within the facility--the best chance that the country had to forestall mass deaths all over the world. Everything was going to be purged. The presence of the five people they'd managed to bring in today was just icing on the cake.

"Everything's here?" Krycek asked, sounding sick. "You have everything here?"

McCaddy didn't respond. He ushered them into a conference room where three men were waiting. Correction. One man. Two supersoldiers.

"Noel!" Doggett said, clapping one of the things on the back. It looked at him, approximating something like a smile.

"John," it said.

"Long time no see," Doggett smiled, genuine affection in his voice. He didn't know. There was no way Doggett was in on this.

//We are so fucked.//

"Let's get down to business, gentlemen," McCaddy said, "and ladies." He looked at Scully, who gave him a small, frozen smile.

"Now, we all know why we're here, and so I propose we start by laying all our cards on the table. I want to know everything you know about the coming invasion." McCaddy pulled out a leather-bound notepad from the briefcase he'd carried into the room with him.

"Let's begin with Agent Mulder." The thing masquerading as Noel eyed him coldly from across the table. "Agent Doggett tells me that you have some unusual abilities."

Next to him, he felt Krycek tense up. Mulder said nothing, eavesdropping on the thoughts of both supersoldiers. Now that he knew what to look for, he thought he could almost sense the weak remains of humanity beneath the dominant alien control. But he drove that to the back of his mind for later consideration.

The things were measuring him up. They were going to kill the other four and, depending on what they learned, they'd either kill Mulder as well, or ship him off to a lab somewhere, where they could use him.

Outside the conference room, eight more of them waited.

He had five bullets left in the gun strapped to his foot. And they never went down with only one shot.

"Could you describe these abilities for us?"

If he could keep them guessing, if he could just get out of the conference room-

"Agent Mulder?" The thing kept at him.

It had to be something good, something convincing, something everyone would buy-

"Mulder?" Krycek said, looking concerned, "Are you feeling all right?"

//Alex, you are a fucking GENIUS.//

"I'm fine," he murmured, loud enough for everyone to hear. He looked back up at the man who used to be Doggett's friend, giving the supersoldier an earnest, pained expression. It wasn't hard. He simply dropped the mask, and let the very real ache in his head mark his face with lines of pain. "I'd be happy-"

He broke off, pressing his fingertips against his temple.

"I'd be happy to explain," his voice was monotone, and vaguely hoarse from the abuse his lungs had taken over the past few days. He stopped to draw a breath just a little too often. He shut his eyes.

"Mulder." Scully's voice was questioning, concerned. He opened his eyes as she got up, and began walking quickly around the table.

//Perfect.//

"Scully, I'm fine," He said breathlessly, unsteadily forcing himself out of his chair. "I just-"

He broke off, as she approached, letting his eyes roll up into his head, and his knees buckle beneath him. He hit the floor with a very convincing dull thud.

"Oh God!" Scully sounded frightened, and he felt an intense flash of guilt for misleading her. He felt hands turning him over, heard a mix of voices above him.

"What the hell just happened?" Doggett, sounding concerned.

"Stay back." Scully, in full doctor mode. "Give him some room."

"Does this happen to him a lot?" McCaddy asked quietly.

"He nearly died less than a week ago," Skinner said. "He hasn't recovered."

"He WHAT?" Scully practically yelled in his ear, in response to Skinner's comment.

"He almost drowned in the Pacific," Skinner said.

"Jesus, Mulder." It was Scully again, but her voice was lower. "Can we get a gurney in here?"

"Right away," McCaddy said, "We have a fully operational on-site hospital facility."

Mulder's blood chilled at those words. He didn't think that strapped down to a hospital bed would be an improvement over the situation he'd just gotten himself out of.

He heard a whispered conversation at the door, and then the supersoldiers stationed outside it began to move away. They'd decided to push back their timetable until they could question him, which left him with the best opportunity he was likely to get to use his weapon.

He let his eyelids flutter open.

"Mulder?" Scully was leaning over him.

"I'm OK, Scully, just give me some space," he said softly. She moved back.

He lay on the floor for just a moment, his eyes locking on Krycek. The other man gave him a slight nod.

Every muscle in his body contracted and he curled up, bringing his hand down to his ankle and his ankle up to his hand in a blur of motion. The lines and angles around him blurred into meaningless streaks as his eyes tried to catch up with his body. He fired the first shot point blank into the nearest thing's face. Krycek was up instantly, slamming into the door and locking it, dragging a file cabinet in front of it as a barricade.

//Four bullets left.//

"What the hell?" Doggett yelled as he was showered with the thing's blood. Scully jerked back as the gun went off next to her ear. Mulder fired again as it closed in on him, hands reaching to hold him down like something out of a B horror film. Grappling with it he managed to flip it over, and fire a shot into the first thoracic vertebra.

//Two left.//

Behind him he heard a crash. His head whipped around in time to see the remaining supersoldier throw Skinner into a wall.

"Noel!" Doggett yelled, but his voice was a blend of grief and betrayal as he realized that the thing in front of him had ceased to be Noel quite some time ago. He was knocked back over the conference table and into a file cabinet. Mulder fired, putting a bullet through the thing's shoulder before the gun was kicked savagely out of his hand, sliding across the floor toward where General McCaddy and Krycek were holding the door shut against the sound of determined banging.

Mulder and Scully froze, defenseless on the floor. All the energy seemed to have been drained from Mulder as the scream of the thing's frantic thoughts reverberated in his empty mind.

Across the room, General McCaddy dived forward, hand extended toward the gun.

The supersoldier reached down toward Mulder.

A silent blur of motion, Krycek crashed into it, and the force of his impact knocked the thing over the conference table. They fell together, a tangled mass of limbs. Krycek struggled to hold it down, brutally trying to cut off its airway with his prosthetic as McCaddy angled for a clear shot. A few seconds later, Krycek hit the wall with a sickening crack and slid down the smooth white surface, the back of his head leaving a trail of crimson.

The thing pulled a syringe out of his suit jacket, turning back toward Mulder.

"Stop him!" Krycek yelled hoarsely from his left, still conscious, trying to get back on his feet.

Mulder struggled, trying to pull away as he was jerked upright and thrown down on the conference table.

"Stop him, Scully!" Krycek called again.

Mulder pulled desperately at the remorseless grip the thing had on his neck. He shot a heel directly into its kneecap, but the impact reverberated up his own leg. He couldn't breathe. He knew the thing could have easily crushed his throat, but it chose not to. It wanted him alive. It had to complete its mission.

"Scully!" Krycek screamed.

He watched in horror as the supersoldier raised the needle, and as it caught the light Mulder noted it was full of a pale brown liquid.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the stream of Scully's hair as she moved forward, smelled the unmistakable scent of her perfume as the thing brought the syringe down in a powerful arc, saw the familiar set of fragile shoulders beneath the navy blue of her jacket as she stepped straight into the path of the needle.

She didn't make a sound as the supersoldier involuntarily drove the plunger home, completing its motion. Mulder felt her fall against his right side, hair spilling over his chest and the table.

A shot rang out, a fraction of a second too late, and the thing above him jerked as the vertebra at the back of his neck shattered. It looked straight at Mulder in that instant, and as its thoughts drained from Mulder's consciousness, he felt a wisp of humanity beneath the fading alien control.

"Help us," Noel whispered desperately. "You-" the man broke off as his eyes went blank. He collapsed on top of Mulder to reveal General McCaddy standing behind him, holding Mulder's gun.

"Scully," he said, his voice breaking as he pushed Noel off him. "Scully, answer me." He stood up, heedless of the banging on the door behind general McCaddy.

Her eyes were open, and she was looking up at him. "I'm OK Mulder," she said, somewhat breathlessly, rubbing her left shoulder. "At least I think I am. Whatever that was doesn't seem to be affecting me."

"Just," he said helplessly, "stay still."

"Mulder, I'm fine." She sat up.

Mulder looked up to see Krycek push himself away from the wall somewhat unsteadily. He made it around the conference table in time to catch the other man as he overbalanced.

"Concussion," Krycek said, his speech slightly slurred. "I'll be fine." Mulder helped him sit down on the conference table next to Scully.

"Stay there," he told Krycek, and shot Scully an irritated glance as she stood to go help the other two casualties of the fight.

"You need to get out of here," McCaddy said from his position against the door. "I can't hold them forever." Mulder nodded, and turned back to the wall. Scully had already pulled Skinner to his feet, and the other man had a dazed look of disbelief as she led him over to sit on the conference table. Mulder turned to Doggett, who was pinned underneath an overturned file cabinet.

The other man was pushing the metal away from his chest, but couldn't seem to get much leverage. Mulder knelt down next to him, still feeling the breath burn in his chest. His vision was graying in and out at the edges of his field of view.

For a moment, to his right, he caught the image of Skinner and Krycek, standing on a conference table, pulling down a grate to reveal a black opening into a system of air ducts. Then they vanished into a gray mist again, leaving him a narrow tunnel of vision that encompassed only Doggett and the file cabinet.

"My ankle's pinned," Doggett said, his skin pale beneath his tan.

"I'm going to lift," Mulder said, drawing in a breath, "Try and pull it out."

He pulled up, muscles still sore from his sprint through Skinner's building twenty-four hours ago. His body screamed in protest.

"Shit!" Doggett moaned, "Stop!"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Krycek boost Skinner into the ventilation duct.

"Hang on. We'll try it again." Mulder moved to the other side of the file cabinet.

"Mulder," Doggett said, "Just get out of here. I think it's broken anyway." Mulder looked down at him.

"Get ready to pull yourself out," he said, and tried lifting again. This time Doggett wrenched himself free, and managed to creep backward out from under the cabinet.

"You have to leave me here." Doggett said. "I'll slow you down."

Mulder yanked the other man to his feet. "Let's go."

As he maneuvered Doggett onto the conference table, he saw Scully place a dainty, navy blue shoe in the bridge of Krycek's hands, one plastic and one flesh, and reach up to take Skinner's arm. In a split second, she disappeared from sight.

Doggett followed suit a few seconds later.

"McCaddy," Mulder yelled, climbing unsteadily onto the conference table. "Let's go!" The thick metal of the door warped behind the General's head.

"Nothing doing, son," McCaddy said, "I belong here."

"McCaddy!" Mulder shouted.

"I can give you a good three minutes. Now get your ass in gear!" The man grinned at him, blue eyes flashing.

"Let's go, Mulder." Krycek grabbed his arm, either to emphasize his point, or stop himself from falling over. The other man blinked as if he were trying to clear his head.

//He doesn't look good.//

"OK," he said bridging his hands. "You first."

Krycek shook his head stubbornly, then looked like he wished he hadn't.

"Krycek!" Mulder snapped. "Come on!"

Glaring at him, and muttering something in Russian, the other man placed a booted foot in Mulder's waiting hands. Mulder jumped up right behind Krycek, grabbing the edge of the vent and pulling himself into the darkness.

"This way." He heard Scully's voice echo ahead of him off the metal of the ducts.

"Do you really think that we can get out of a heavily guarded military facility through the ventilation system?" Skinner whispered skeptically.

"It's worked before," Krycek said, directly in front of him, somehow managing to match the speed Scully was setting despite being concussed and forced to crawl through a dark, disorienting maze of tunnels with only one hand.

An alarm began to sound through the building.

//That's probably a bad sign.//

There was a hollow banging noise behind them, the way they had come.

"Speed up, Scully," Mulder whispered unnecessarily.

"Here!" He heard her excited whisper ahead in the darkness. The noises behind them were getting closer, loud enough that they almost masked the impact of Scully's shoe against the grate. Finally she broke through, and Mulder felt a rush of cold air on his face, and smelled the snow again.

One after another, they slid out of the shaft, and dropped five feet to the frozen ground. As they hit the open air, and began running across the yard, Mulder felt the voices in his mind drawing intolerably close. The supersoldiers were right behind them.

"Go, go!" he yelled, nothing on his mind except putting as much distance as possible between them and their pursuers. He yanked Krycek forward, fingers sealed around the other man's wrist as they sprinted away from the building. The other man's concussion had shot his balance to hell, and Mulder was having a difficult time keeping him on his feet. Suddenly Krycek pulled away from him, nearly falling over as he reached into his pocket.

"Scully!" Krycek yelled, and as she turned back he tossed her a keyring. "Head for the trucks!"

//Where the hell did he get those?//

Asking no questions, Scully sprinted full force over the frozen ground to make it to the vehicles ahead of them.

//Thank god she's not wearing those ridiculous four inch heels.//

She pulled ahead of them, Skinner and Doggett following relatively close behind her, the latter running gamely on his injured ankle with Skinner's help. Mulder and Krycek brought up the rear.

In front of them, Scully unlocked the metal gate that enclosed a small selection of hummers and jeeps.

At his back, Mulder heard the first of the supersoldiers drop to the ground with a dull thud. He tried to push himself to go faster, but he was almost completely spent, his lungs burning as he drew in harsh, shallow gasps of air. Krycek stumbled against him, pushed past the point of reason, and Mulder could feel, at the edge of his consciousness, an echo of intense pain.

"Come on, Alex," he said, breath sobbing in his throat as he threw open the unlocked gate.

The nearest Hummer roared to life as Scully found the right key. Skinner and Doggett dived into the vehicle a few steps ahead of them.

He could hear the footsteps of the nearest supersoldier behind him. He had a split second of warning, which he used to shove Krycek in the direction of the open door, before his feet were swept from underneath him with a fast, brutal jerk.

He prepared for impact with the cement, but instead he felt himself yanked backwards into the car as five hands reached out, curling savagely into his shoulders, his arms, and his hair.

"Go!" someone screamed to Scully, and she floored the gas as Skinner slammed the door shut against the outstretched hands of Billy Miles.

They left the supersoldiers behind them as Scully drove straight through the gates that enclosed the lot.

"Where the hell are we going?" Scully yelled from the front seat.

"I don't know," Mulder said, tangled in a heap on top of Krycek. The other man was out cold on the floor of the Hummer, but his fingers were still clutching the borrowed sweater Mulder was wearing. Gently, he loosened Krycek's death-grip on the shirt, and brought his left hand around to feel the back of Krycek's head.

It came away stained with blood.

"Krycek," he said forcefully.

Nothing.

"Alex!" He tried again, yelling this time.

Doggett and Skinner watched with growing concern and he pinched Krycek's ear, hard.

//Wake up, goddamn it. You idiot. You're not supposed to jump supersoldiers with your bare hands.//

Mulder looked at the unconscious man intently, trying to get back into Krycek's head, trying to find even a glimmer of the pain he had glimpsed a few seconds ago. Searching for anything that would tell him the head injury wasn't as serious as he feared it to be.

Nothing. He found it almost impossible to breathe. The air had the consistency of molasses.

//I can't do this alone, Alex. Please wake up.//

But the man just lay motionless on the floor of the truck, spectrally pale, his breathing becoming sluggish. Mulder felt like he was staring down through dark water as his vision dimmed and the roar in his ears intensified.

He forced himself to look up, away from Krycek, into Skinner's exhausted, adrenaline-filled eyes.

"He needs a hospital," he said slowly, distinctly, trying to burn the importance of his request into the other man. "You have to get him into a hospital."

"Mulder?" Skinner's voice was soft, confused.

"Do whatever it takes." Mulder's eyes didn't leave Skinner until the other man nodded.

"Whatever it takes," Mulder said again, as he felt himself pitch forward, landing beside Krycek on the metal floor of the stolen vehicle.

10:41 AM
1 January 2001
St. Vincent Memorial Hospital, West Virginia

The first thing he noticed upon regaining consciousness was the throbbing in his head that beat in synchrony with his pulse.

//Wall. I hit a wall.//

He was lying in a bed and he could tell, even through closed eyelids that there was sunlight streaming into the room. Beside his ear, he could hear faint, mechanized beeping noises that penetrated the stillness in time with his heartbeat.

The truth hit him suddenly, and he had to exert all his self-control to keep from moving right then, to keep his breathing even and his eyes closed.

//Hospital. I'm in a hospital. This is bad.//

Experimentally, he moved his right hand and found it, surprisingly, to be free. He wasn't restrained. He sat up, opened his eyes, and reached over to expertly disable a monitor in one fluid motion before the inevitable dizziness hit him. He plowed through it, pulling the pulse-ox sensor from his finger with his teeth, and then reaching up to remove the tubing carrying oxygen. As his vision cleared, he contemplated the IV that was inserted into his right arm. It was going to be very difficult to remove the needle without ripping his arm open in the process.

He tried to think through another wave of dizziness, but he lost the battle and had to lower his head down between his knees. It was at that point he noticed he was not alone in the room.

Mulder was sitting in a chair that he'd pulled quite close to the bed. Apparently the agent had been reading him some Dostoevsky before falling asleep, slumped over the bed near Krycek's left hip. His head was buried in his arms, fingers folded between the pages of the book. He showed no signs of waking under Krycek's scrutiny.

//I need to get out of here. I can't believe I'm not already dead.//

He turned back to the IV, attempting to delicately wrap his teeth around the plastic tubing.

"Agent Alexander!" Scully's voice was a whispered hiss as she stared at him, eyes wide from the open doorway. She walked over quickly, high heels clicking on the tile floor.

//What did she just call me?//

"What are you doing?" she asked him softly, forcing him back down to lie flat on his back, hooking the oxygen tubing back where it belonged. "Just lie still," she said. "Your pressure is still low. You shouldn't be sitting up."

"Scully," he said, confused. "I can't be here. None of you should be here. They'll trace me. They'll find him." Both their eyes flicked to Mulder.

"They won't." She clipped the pulse oximeter back onto his finger before turning the monitor back on.

"There's no real Agent Alexander," he hissed at her. "Someone will find out. They'll realize it's me."

"They won't," she said again, bracing her hands on the mattress. "There is a real Agent Alexander. He has a personnel file, a list of commendations and reprimands, and most importantly, a complete medical history. There won't be any questions from the staff. You're totally legit."

"How is that possible?" he asked her, feeling the dizziness hit him full force.

"You didn't know?" She said, cocking her head at him. "Mulder asked Byers to hack into the FBI mainframe and give you an identity and a history. You've had a personnel file for several days now."

"I have?"

"It was news to us as well," Scully said. "Skinner got in touch with the Gunmen, asking them to set up a file for you on short notice, something quick and dirty we could use to check you in with. Frohike had medical records and identification for you ready to fax, though."

He felt himself begin to calm down.

"I thought you knew," Scully said. "I thought you two had set it up together to cover this sort of eventuality."

"No," Krycek said again, shaking his head. "He never told me."

"He never told any of us either," Scully said with a small smile. "That made for a pretty tense twelve minutes between the time he passed out and we called the Gunmen."

The words took a moment to process completely.

"He WHAT?" Krycek said, wincing as his voice got too loud and seemed to reverberate in painful echoes against his skull.

He looked over at Mulder, who hadn't moved, even at his outburst. He critically watched the agent's chest rise and fall. Krycek realized with a start that the blanket draped over Mulder's shoulders had hidden the scrubs that the agent was wearing.

"Is he OK?" he asked, looking up at Scully. She stared down at him with a strange expression on her face.

"Yeah. He's fine, just tired." Somehow, her eyes had become more guarded, as if she'd suddenly remembered whom she was talking to. He shut his eyes against the tightness of her mouth, her closed expression.

He let his mind slip back over the events at Redcorps military base, remembering his short grappling match with the supersoldier, the impact with the wall, then screaming something. There had been something he wanted Scully to do.

The memory hit him in a flash, as he remembered seeing Mulder struggling as the supersoldier held him down against the conference table, syringe held high in one hand, remembered screaming for Scully, the last one standing to somehow succeed in protecting Mulder where three men, all taller and stronger than she was, had failed.

And she had.

"Scully!" He tried to sit up again with the force of the memory, and got a stab of pain through the back of his skull and a small hand planted square in the middle of his chest for his trouble.

"Damn it, Krycek, just lie down!" She gave him a stern look. "I swear, you're worse than Mulder. At least he doesn't know how to turn off the heart monitor-"

"What was in that syringe?" He cut her off. "You got injected with something."

"Magnetite," she said shortly. "I got my blood-work back, and it was just a suspension of magnetite in Freund's adjuvant. There were no adverse effects," she said. Her expression darkened. "I don't know what they expected it to do to Mulder."

"They might have been trying to turn his abilities off," Krycek speculated, "but he seemed pretty sure that they couldn't hear him, so I don't know how they'd determine whether it worked or not-" He broke off as another wave of dizziness swept over him.

"Look, Krycek, you really need to get some rest. They had to surgically relieve the pressure on your brain." She stood for a moment, and he thought maybe she was struggling with herself, torn between amity and hate, between the friend he'd saved and the sister he'd killed, between forgiveness and anger.

"We weren't sure you were going to make it," she said softly, and he saw no resolution to the conflict in her eyes. She turned to go.

"Hey, Scully."

She half turned back toward him.

"Back in the conference room," he said, his voice slightly thick with exhaustion and intravenously delivered drugs, "that was damn gutsy, stepping in front of that needle."

She looked at him, quirking an eyebrow, giving him an involuntary half-smile.

"Damn gutsy."

"Thanks, Krycek." There was a fierce pride in her eyes, like maybe his compliment, for some reason, had meant something to her. And then, pride changing to wariness, her smile becoming more uncertain, she continued, like she was holding out an offering.

"He was very worried, you know." She tipped her head slightly toward Mulder. "I think he might like it if you woke him up."

"OK," he said, inaudibly, knowing that she'd just given him something that he didn't come close to deserving.

"I'll be right outside, if you need anything."

"Thanks, Scully."

He turned over, onto his left side, ignoring the complaints from his bandaged head. He took the awkward angles and lines of the agent's body. He was amazed that Mulder could sleep so deeply in such an uncomfortable position.

"Hey, Tovarich," he whispered, running a shaky hand through Mulder's hair. "Wake up."

Mulder didn't even twitch.

"Mulder," he said a little louder, giving the other man's hair a gentle tug. Finally he found himself looking into sleep-dazed eyes.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey yourself," Mulder replied, lifting his head and giving Krycek a smile that was almost shy. "How are you feeling?"

"All things considered? Pretty good." He smiled back at Mulder. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"

"Been there, done that, got bored." Mulder sat up, using both hands to shield his eyes from the sun. Krycek watched him press his thumbs into his temples.

"Headache?"

Mulder gave him a sharp look from shaded eyes. "No, not really. It's just bright in here."

"You could always close the curtains," Krycek pointed out.

"You look good in blinding white," Mulder said.

"So that's why you're in here? To admire the view?"

"Actually," Mulder said, sitting up to massage his neck, "I'm here to collect a debt."

"That figures. What kind of debt?"

"Well," Mulder continued, moving his chair slightly closer, "As you may or may not know, last night was New Year's Eve. And with you unconscious, and Agent Doggett in a bad mood, I ended up with no one to kiss when the ball dropped." The agent gave him a stern look. "I blame you for this."

"What about Scully?"

"Neither she nor Skinner were anywhere to be found," Mulder said archly.

"So how are you planning-"

Mulder cut him off, leaning over to kiss him gently before pulling back. Krycek caught the back of his neck, preventing him from pulling away, deepening the kiss. In the background, he could hear the heart monitor speed up.

"Easy," Mulder said softly. "Your pressure is still pretty low, and I really don't want to have to explain to Scully why you passed out while lying flat on your back."

"Good point," Krycek said, shutting his eyes against a wave of dizziness as he reluctantly let Mulder pull back. "You should go back to bed," he said.

"I will," Mulder said, curling his fingers through Krycek's. "Eventually."

His eyes slipped shut of their own accord but he pulled them open again, too many unanswered questions pounding through his head, keeping sleep at bay.

"Where are Skinner and Doggett?"

"Skinner's here, doing guard duty. Doggett flew back to DC this morning to try and cover our asses. OPR is pissed--he and Scully were AWOL for six days, and Skinner and I were gone for four."

"The ISU must have started looking for you," Krycek said.

"They did," Mulder said. "They opened a file three days ago."

"Shit. They could use a manhunt as an official excuse to bring us all in. It's perfect. No one would ever-"

"The case was closed yesterday." Mulder cut off the slurred slide of Krycek's words with a shake of his head. "Michaelson showed up here."

"Alone?"

"He brought Stewart." Mulder smiled absently.

"But how did they know you were here?"

"They didn't. They were looking through hospital admissions for my name, which was a waste of time, since Scully admitted me as George Hale. But during their search they came across Special Agent Victor Alexander, who had been admitted at St. Vincent's in Virginia. They came here to question you about my whereabouts."

"Michaelson remembered me?"

"He's a good agent."

"What did you tell them, when they found you?"

"Everything, Krycek. I told them everything." Mulder looked out the window, running the fingers of his left hand through his hair like he was trying to massage away an ache.

"What did they say?"

Mulder smiled weakly. "They're on board," he said, "with a few understandable reservations. Scully and Skinner talked with them as well. I think that helped convince them that I wasn't-"

"What?"

"Well, crazy."

"You're not crazy."

"That's sweet of you to say." Mulder gave him a wry smile. "Anyway, they're going back to the Bureau for now. They, along with Agent Doggett, are going to put the official stamp on a lie that's already being arranged by Skinner and the Gunmen."

Krycek raised his eyebrows inquiringly.

"I'm going on indefinite medical leave. Skinner is going to resign immediately. Doggett and Scully are going to stick it out at the Bureau for a few months, get the vaccine we stole manufactured and distributed to as much of the population as possible before they drop off the radar as well."

"And after everyone leaves the FBI? What's the plan?" Krycek asked, watching Mulder shield his eyes against the suddenly brighter glare of sunlight that filled the room.

"Nothing concrete yet," Mulder said, "We were waiting for you to wake up."

He started to sit up. "I can-"

"I know you can." Mulder stopped him with a wave of his hand. "But you don't have to. We have a few days."

"Not many," Krycek said, hearing his words blur together.

"Not many," Mulder echoed, "but enough for you to get off that stuff." He pointed to the intravenous line in Krycek's arm. "I think people will take you more seriously if you don't sound like you're drunk."

Krycek tried to come up with a smart-ass comment to fire back at the other man, but his brain wasn't up to its usual acerbic standards. So instead, he just watched Mulder flip through the pages of "Notes From the Underground" until he found his place. Krycek listened to the translation, but after a few moments the English started to split apart. First he was no longer following sentences, then the words ceased to hang together, until, finally nothing made sense anymore, and Dostoevsky ceased to exist. It was only the sound of Mulder's voice that penetrated, that stayed with him as the room faded away and he slept.

EPILOGUE

"Why are we here?" he asked me.

I wasn't sure what he meant by that. It could have been an expression of disgust that we were spending our last night of freedom in Salt Lake City, of all places, which is not exactly known for its nightlife. It could have been something a bit more philosophical, a question on the purpose or direction of humanity, which I was definitely not qualified to answer, even though I had speculated at length on that topic myself. More likely, it had to do with us.

We are an "us" now. There's no question about that. To say we're a couple puts too mundane a spin on what we have. It's edgier and darker than that--need and scars and fate combined into a tangle of emotion that I don't dare call love. Not even to myself, when I'm alone.

So many people talk about love like it's something that comes in a heart shaped box or can be wrapped in tin foil. It's not like that for us. There's almost as much anger between us as affection, despite those first few days of forgiveness that started us on this path. The scars we've given each other in the past only throb when we're waiting now, bored, in the tense moments between operations. The anger, I think, may eventually fade if we can finally master the elusive art of absolution.

Until that point, if it ever comes, we'll continue as we have for the past few months. Eating, sleeping, and working together. Frequently throwing one another over the nearest horizontal surface and fucking together. Sometimes, when we can get past the knee-jerk arguments that trap us, sometimes, we talk together. That's been happening more and more recently, and call me sentimental, but I think that's what I like the most about this arrangement.

My thoughts are wandering, and he's looking at me. I can tell, even though I can't see his face in the darkness that's fallen over the Wasatch Mountains. He's waiting for an answer, sitting next to me on the hood of the red convertible we boosted two hours ago. We stopped before we left the city to watch the sun go down behind the mountains in the west.

Just as he turns away, convinced I'm not going to answer, I catch his chin in my hand.

"Beats me," I say, and lean in to kiss him while I can, sure that this luck is not going to last.

THE END
 

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