Pairing: M/K (PG-13)
Spoilers: If you haven't watched 'Sleepless' the story probably won't make sense. On the other hand, I can't imagine anyone who reads M/K hasn't seen 'Sleepless'. Besides which, there's no guarantee the story makes sense anyway <g>
Warnings: SkippyRat alert.
Disclaimers: the usual... yada yada yada.
"I'll demonstrate it to you tonight. At precisely midnight, we'll save the world together," Hodges announced and, even through the wild mane of white hair, Mulder could see a decidedly manic glint of fervent self-belief in the old man's myopic blue eyes.
Mulder closed his eyes briefly and silently counted to ten before replying. He was torn between compassion and the urge to wring the old lunatic's neck for wasting his time, let alone risking his life for this.this insanity. He'd driven halfway across the country, dodging countless security patrols, because Hodges' cryptic emails had promised him the ultimate weapon to defeat the occupying forces. Instead he'd turned up at the ramshackle farmhouse and had discovered a man who was either an escapee from an asylum or was actively rehearsing to be a poster-child for the proverbial mad scientist.
Twice, en route, he'd been forced to double-back on himself to avoid roadblocks and he'd arrived at Hodges' place less than an hour before sundown. So, even though he'd decided within minutes of meeting the old man that he'd made his journey in vain, he'd been forced to accept Hodges' hospitality for the night. It would have been impossible to return to the nearest town and book into a motel before curfew and he was on too many most-wanted lists to risk being picked up on a routine police sweep.
He was too tired to attempt any pretence of belief, but he saw no reason to take his frustration out on the old man. He understood, only too well, that in the wake of the occupation any hope of salvation made an uneasy bedfellow with sanity. And, he reminded himself, it wasn't the first time he'd risked his life in pursuit of fool's gold. The truth was he'd spent the three years since the colonization in a constant almost comedic pursuit of similar red herrings and dead ends.
Besides, it had been months since he'd tasted real tea. Years since he'd drunk it out of a real china cup in a dining room with lace on the table. He felt like he'd fallen into a time-warp and if the cost of a brief memory of `normality' was making nice to a Mad Hatter he was willing to pay the price.
So he breathed deeply, drew on the fragile kernel of compassion that still resided in what had once passed for his heart, and met the Professor's excited gaze with a carefully bland expression.
"I appreciate your invitation to witness this invention of yours in action," he said carefully, "but it's been a long, difficult journey getting here and I'm exhausted. Why don't you wait until tomorrow, and you can demonstrate it to me after I've caught up on some sleep."
"But I've been waiting for weeks, just to let you have the opportunity of witnessing my achievement," the old man protested.
"Then another day won't hurt, will it?" Mulder pointed out reasonably. "I can't see how time could ever be an issue to a man with a `time machine'."
He was quite proud of himself for managing to say it with a straight face.
Hodges didn't seem to appreciate Mulder's self-control. He stiffened with obvious offence. "It's not a time machine," he snarled. "It's a time manipulator."
"What's the difference?" Mulder asked disinterestedly.
"What's the difference? WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?" Hodges screeched.
Mulder just shrugged, offered Hodges a bland expression and helped himself to another slice of cake.
"A time machine, young man, is a device out of poorly crafted science-fiction novels," Hodges declared, waving his hands wildly in emphasis.
Mulder snorted internally at the description `young man'. His hair was little darker these days than Hodges' own white mane and his body had been greeting rainy days with arthritic twinges for years.
"That's what people used to say about the existence of extraterrestrial life," he pointed out, just for the hell of it.
Hodges dismissed his comment with an impatient gesture. "A time machine is an impossible, juvenile fantasy. The very idea of a man being able to travel through time is not only fantastical twaddle but a defiance of every rule of science. A time machine is fiction. My time manipulator is fact."
"Wasn't it Einstein who proposed the idea of time travel as a possibility?" Mulder argued. He had no doubt that the Professor's `invention' was no more than a useless pile of junk - something that would be proven the moment Hodges flicked the on-switch - but he was still intrigued by the `theory' behind it. He'd always enjoyed discussing way-out theories and, besides, he figured that an esoteric argument was as good a way as any to pass the evening in Hodges' house. The idea of temporarily setting aside reality and losing himself in the old man's fantasy world was surprisingly attractive.
"What Einstein said was that since time begins to slow down with higher speeds, it can be shown that at the speed of light it stops totally and beyond that begins to run backwards," Hodges corrected impatiently. "Hence my time `manipulator'. I haven't invented a way to travel through time. I've discovered a way to reverse time itself."
"Like playing a video in reverse?" Mulder enquired sweetly. "Won't everyone get dizzy with all that running backwards?"
Hodges glowered at him but answered regardless, as though he was too thrilled by having a captive audience for his theories to pay too much attention to Mulder's heckling. "The effect will be virtually instantaneous. Full-stop, then a rewind back to one specific, carefully chosen point in time. After which, time will begin to move forward once more."
"Only one point in time?"
"Naturally. The time manipulator can only be used once. After that, it will cease to exist. It will be left here and `here' will then only exist as a cloud of possibility. Imagine the universe as a giant computer. What the time manipulator does is overwrites the current reality with an earlier back-up. All data, by which I mean all events that have happened, since that earlier date will be completely eradicated. We will, effectively, have turned back the clock. So if we choose a date of, say, ten years ago, you and I - and everyone else - will find ourselves ten years younger, in the place we were ten years ago, with no memory of what has happened between then and now because it won't have happened. The aliens will return to being no more than a threat of possible invasion. The choices we all made, that brought us to the place we are today, can be remade. We'll have a chance to do things differently. We can fight this present because it will once again become a future that may fail to come to pass."
Mulder had hoped to be temporarily mesmerized by the old man's words, drawn inexorably into his fantastically woven verbal web like a hungry fly lured by a cunning spider. And, yes, there was meat for his starving soul in the Professor's crazy ramblings, huge gnawable chunks of extreme possibilities expelled in generous mouthfuls for his eager consumption.
Yet he found himself distracted, listening with scant attention to Hodges' diatribe, consumed instead by the clink of china, the faint fog billowing from a tiny tea spout, the swirl of chintz over the couch he was sitting on, the lace cloth on the table, the pattern of the faded wallpaper, the faded photographs on the mantle, all the multudinous evidence of normality in a world that had long since shivered its way into a dark comfortless winter.
"My mother used to have this tea service," he blurted.
Hodges paused and blinked owlishly in his direction, his fingers stilling momentarily from their task of stirring a sugar cube into his teacup. He blushed slightly, and his tone was defensive as he replied to Mulder's non sequitur. "You don't believe a word I've been saying, do you?"
It was Mulder's turn to blink at the old man's unexpected aggression. He tore his eyes away from the fascinating glaze on his delicate saucer and turned his full attention on Hodges, his mind slipping effortlessly into profiling mode.
"You believe my comment was a subtle form of scorn?" he asked.
Hodges nodded shortly, his rheumy eyes sparkling with anger.
Mulder laughed without humor. "Subtlety has never been considered one of my personality traits but I suppose I was subconsciously implying incredulity. Everything in this room, in this whole house, speaks of a man for whom the past means everything. In my opinion, the fact you're so clearly obsessed by the past, Professor Hodges, hardly lends credence to you spending years inventing a device designed purely to erase a past that's clearly so important to you."
Hodges harrumphed rudely, his eyes hardening gimlet-like behind his cracked varifocal lenses, and his mouth pursed into a moue of displeasure.
"You understand nothing," he spat. "This past," and he gestured around the room, "represents the present I'm trying to create."
"But what's the point?" Mulder demanded.
"What's the damned point of returning to an earlier time just so we can relive the same mistakes all over again?" Mulder challenged. "No matter what point you restore the `back-up', everything is going to start again with the same people, acting with the same motivations. Why would anyone make any different choices than those they took the first time around?"
Hodges smiled smugly. "Because, at some level, people will remember the cost of making the wrong choices."
Mulder's temper flared at the impossibility of the old man's assertion and he forgot his decision to remain blandly impartial. "Remember? How could anyone have memories of things that will no longer have happened?"
"They won't. Not consciously. But I believe that people will remember subconsciously. How do Elephants have memories of places only their ancestors visited? How do migrating birds know what direction to fly in? There's an inexplicable consciousness that flows through the DNA of every living creature, Mr. Mulder. Racial memory."
"Historical racial memory, perhaps, but I don't believe people can remember a future that hasn't even happened."
"And yet you believe so many other improbable things, Mr. Mulder. Is it really so impossible to believe in this? But, no matter. The point is that this experiment can't fail. The very worst case scenario is that we end up here again, having this exact same discussion for an eternity of looping time. But if I'm right, if even one person takes a step left rather than right, or chooses to step forward, rather than back, perhaps everything will be different. Perhaps, in this new future, you and I will never meet. Perhaps this Time Manipulator will never be built. Perhaps the aliens will never colonize this planet."
"Just one butterfly," Mulder murmured.
"I read a story once. The day after an important political election, a man went back in time to the prehistoric age and, while he was there, he accidentally killed a butterfly. When he returned to his own time, he discovered that the other political party had won the election. One tiny, seemingly inconsequential, action on his part in the distant past had changed the whole world in his present, " Mulder mused.
"Then you understand the theory," Hodges said, with a nod of satisfaction. "Good. I knew you were the right man to witness the culmination of my life's work."
"Two reasons," Hodges replied. "Although the moment we turn the time manipulator on it will cease to exist, and we'll never have even met, I wanted to share my moment of triumph with the only man still alive who might actually understand the enormity of my achievement. Secondly, because I've come to believe you're the only man who ever had a chance of making a true difference and preventing the future that's come to pass. It's something in your life that needs to change. Some event in your past where you chose the wrong path."
Mulder's eyes widened in shock and outrage. "You're saying this present," and he gestured widely to encompass the whole planet, "is my fault?"
"I'm not saying the invasion was your fault. I'm saying I believe the key to preventing it was once in your hands, but you failed to recognize it. You used to believe one man could make a difference, Mr. Mulder. Perhaps you no longer believe it, but I still do. It may not have been a great thing. It may not have seemed significant at the time. But something you once did or failed to do was the accidental crushing of the butterfly that sparked a chain reaction which resulted in Humanity losing this war."
"Maybe," Mulder agreed. He still didn't believe Hodges had the ability to rewind time, but he was too honest not to explore whether there was merit to the old man's theory. "Hell, I can think of a hundred things I wish I'd done differently but at the time they seemed the right choice, the only choice. If you erase the last ten years and send me back to that past, I'll still be the same man. I'll probably still make the same mistakes. We could end up back here again, having this same conversation."
"Possibly," Hodges agreed.
"And what if I don't? What if I make different choices, create a different future, and you still don't like it? What's to prevent you inventing this `time manipulator' again and erasing that future? You already admitted that this is your `life's work'. You didn't just invent this machine because of the aliens. You've always been intending to reverse time, haven't you?"
Hodges looked intensely uncomfortable, his eyes dipping shiftily from Mulder's suspicious glare. The old man's obvious guilt sent a jolt of sudden comprehension into Mulder's brain and he sprang to his feet and strode over to the mantle. His eyes flickered over the assorted photographs and rested with surety over one faded. picture of a much younger Hodges embracing a willowy brunette.
"When did she die, Professor?"
"1960," the old man muttered.
"How did it happen?"
"A car accident. A stupid, senseless car accident. Want to know the most ironic part about it? We lived within walking distance of a railway station. We both took the train to work every day. Except on that day. That one single day. "
Mulder nodded grimly. "So this has nothing to do with me at all, does it? Your attempt to reverse time has always been about bringing your wife back to life. The specific moment of time you want to return to is the day of her accident so you can prevent her getting in that car, am I right?"
Hodges shifted nervously on his seat. "Yes," he admitted. "But that doesn't negate the chance I'll be giving you to get things right this time. You'll still get the opportunity to live your life all over again. Think of the people you've lost, Mr. Mulder. They too will get a second chance at life."
Mulder winced as a vision of red hair and sparkling blue eyes flashed into his memory. To see Scully again, alive and well, not sprawled on a lonely highway with her body riddled with bullets. The gunmen. Melissa. Skinner. His parents. Samantha. A whole slow-motion picture show of images assaulted him. He'd loved and lost so many people. And, if Hodges was right, perhaps they would all live again. Perhaps he could keep them alive this time. Perhaps he could even save. no. not him.never him. That was one fantasy too far.
Mulder released the photo and returned to the couch. He sank down, his knees suddenly weak, his mind flooded with the sudden comprehension of what it would mean if Hodges invention actually worked. What if the time manipulator wasn't just the fantasy of a madman? What if the device in Hodges basement truly could reverse time? What if Hodges successfully managed to restore the `back-up' to 1960 and prevent that car accident?
One single change of events. One woman living instead of dying.
What ripples would spread from that single casting of a stone?
His contemplations were interrupted by Hodge's voice.
"I know what you're thinking."
"Do you?" he challenged.
"You think I'm a selfish, self-centered old man who doesn't give a damn about the rest of the world as long as I save my wife. But you're wrong. I think I'm giving the whole world an opportunity to save itself at the same time."
"That's not what I'm thinking," Mulder confessed. "I'm thinking about racial memory. I'm not the only one who'll have the opportunity to avoid my biggest mistakes. Spender will have another chance at life too, and his biggest mistake was in fathering me. Turn the clock back to 1960 and the chances are that this time I won't even be born."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not," Hodges countered. "It's a chance I'm prepared to take."
"That's my point. You're going to turn back time too far. You'll be introducing too many variables, Hodges. You're choosing the perfect time for you, not the perfect time for the world. You said it yourself. The one crucial time, the one `perfect' time to prevent the colonization is something that happened in my lifetime. Go back further than that time and things could change to prevent that opportunity ever presenting itself. If you use the time manipulator to save your wife, you are being selfish because the price of her life will be the sacrifice of that opportunity to save the rest of the world."
Hodges shrugged. "Since even you don't know what mistake you made, or when, it makes no difference does it? But this argument is pointless. At midnight tonight, I will reverse time to 31st October, 1960 and then the cards will play as they fall."
Mulder shook his head sadly, reached into his jacket and withdrew a pistol which he brandished in the old man's direction. "I don't think so," he said softly.
"But.but you don't.don't even believe it works," Hodges reminded him frantically.
"I can't take the chance, Professor. I'm sorry about this. Truly sorry. But I came here because you offered me a weapon against the invaders, and I'm going to at least attempt to use it. If it doesn't work, I've lost nothing except your goodwill. If it does work, I'd be criminally negligent in allowing you to throw away humanity's last chance in pursuit of your own selfish agenda."
He ignored Hodges screams and curses of outrage, using the weapon and his own superior strength to subdue the furious professor as he stripped the table of its lace cloth and used the material to tie the old man to his chair.
"I'll either be back in ten minutes with the unfortunate news that your invention's a hunk of junk, or we'll be back in July 1994 and we'll never have met each other. I'm sorry about your wife."
"Why July 1994?"
"Because I think, I hope, I've figured out where to find my `butterfly'."
"You think you've won? Think again. You can't win. Whatever you do, I'll still be alive, Mr. Mulder, and I'll still be inventing the time manipulator. At some time in your new future I'm going to reverse time back to 1960 and undo any changes you make."
"Perhaps," Mulder agreed. "Perhaps not. That's the chance I'm prepared to take."
He left the old man spitting curses and struggling against his bonds, and descended to the basement.
At second glance the `time manipulator' was no more impressive than it had been on first appearance. It still looked more like a prop from a low-budget science fiction movie than a serious scientific invention. Mulder's mouth twitched into a wry smile as he imagined what Scully would have said if faced by the contraption.
"Yeah, I know, Scully," he muttered out loud. "The only thing it's likely to do is give me an electric shock, but I'd rather make a fool of myself like this than take the risk of Hodges reversing time to 1960."
`And what if it does work?' her voice whispered inside his head. `Why July 1994, Mulder? What possible evidence do you have that that could have changed everything?
"No evidence," he admitted. "Just a feeling. It's the only thing I've ever truly regretted. The only thing that's haunted me. The only `what if' I've ever needed to know the answer to."
`You called Hodges selfish?' Scully's voice mocked. `Are you truly willing to risk the fate of the entire world based on nothing more than a feeling?"
"What can I say, Scully?" Mulder asked the deserted basement. "I want to believe."
And he entered the specific date and time into the control panel and turned the machine on.
"Are you comin' over or what? You said you was comin' over two hours ago and I'm waitin' here like some stupid bimbo who ain't got nothin' better to do with her time.
"Huh?" Mulder jerked in his seat and blinked rapidly. He'd zoned out for a moment there. One minute he'd been listening to the tape - bored out of his mind, admittedly - and the next it had become white-noise and he'd had the weirdest sensation of a momentary LSD flashback.
Which was crazy, since the only time he'd ever experimented with drugs was sharing the odd spliff at Oxford.
He hoped he hadn't missed too much of the surveillance tape. It was boring enough listening to the meaningless crap once, without repeating the joy. With a tired sigh, he rewound the tape a little and replayed the part he'd missed.
". . .waitin' here like some stupid bimbo who ain't got nothin' better to do with her time than to sit around here waitin' for you."
Well, that had been pretty scintillating. Not.
He sighed with irritation, turned the recorder off again, looked up, did a barely noticeable double take and hurriedly reminded himself that was another thing he'd given up when he'd left Oxford.
But damn, the kid was cute with a capital C. His gel-slicked hair, cheap suit and baby face all screamed shiny brand new model fresh off the Quantico production line and a long dormant part of Mulder's anatomy was rearing up with interest at the idea of taking the young Agent for a test drive.
"Yeah?" he drawled, with a deliberate air of disinterest.
The cutey smiled, revealing two rows of perfect white teeth, and handed him a form.
"It's your 302," the baby-faced agent informed him helpfully, presumably in case someone of his advanced years couldn't read without glasses. "Assistant Director Skinner just approved it."
Mulder scanned the form and frowned. "There's a mistake here. There's been another agent assigned to the case."
Doll-boy managed to stretch his smile an impossible extra inch and thrust his hand out in Mulder's direction.
"That would be me. Krycek, Alex Krycek."
He ignored the outstretched hand, largely out of a devilish urge to see a humiliated blush flood Krycek's pretty cheeks. Yet something twisted in Mulder's stomach, or possibly a little lower, as soon as Krycek's face began to fall, some gut-deep instinct that he was making a terrible error of judgment, so he found himself rising to his feet and offering his own hand. Krycek's grip was a little too firm and his palm a little too damp. Evidence that he was a lot more nervous than he appeared.
Mulder filed that away for future reference. "Skinner didn't say anything about taking on a new partner," he said.
Krycek blushed again and dipped his eyes. "It wasn't Skinner. Actually, I opened the file two hours before your request. So, technically, it's my case."
Mulder suppressed his immediate feeling of intense irritation, reminding himself that Krycek was just a kid - a sexy kid - who would learn soon enough that trying to snatch a case off a more experienced agent was futile.
"And you already talked to the police?" he asked.
"Yeah, just hung up on the officer in charge a few minutes ago. A detective named Wharton. Turns out Grissom called 911 to report a fire."
"I heard the tape," Mulder interrupted impatiently.
Krycek looked momentarily crushed, but soon rebounded with an excited, "Did you hear that forensics found a spent fire extinguisher on the floor? Grissom's prints were all over it. The walls and floor in his living room were covered with ammonium phosphate."
The kid's enthusiasm was surprisingly refreshing, Mulder decided.
"But no trace of a fire?"
"Not even a burnt match," Krycek confirmed.
Mulder nodded. "That all you know?"
"So far. What do you think it means?"
"Listen, I appreciate the show and tell, and I don't want you to take this personally, but I work alone. I'll straighten things out with Skinner," Mulder said firmly. It wasn't that he had anything against the kid but the last thing he wanted was some green rookie agent hanging around his neck while he investigated the case.
He was expecting the look of angry defiance on Krycek's face, but was caught by surprise by the pang of guilt that consequently struck him in the guts. He had a sudden, completely inexplicable feeling that he was making a seriously bad error in alienating the kid. He told himself it was his dick talking and schooled his features into a repressive frown.
Which just seemed to increase Krycek's determination. "It's my case, Agent Mulder. Look, I may be green, but I had the case first and I'm not going to give it away so quickly.
"Mulder had a weird sense of d,j. vu. Krycek's words and offended expression seemed oddly familiar. Then he snickered internally as he realized it was just that the young agent reminded him of a puppy snarling protectively over a juicy bone in the face of a bigger, meaner dog.
Hell, Krycek was one hell of a pretty little pup. He was tempted to say, `Here boy. I've got a much tastier bone you can chew on.'
Damn. He was going to have to ditch Krycek quickly before he ended up in front of the OPC.
"All right, I'll tell you what, I got a little work to finish up around here. Why don't you go down to the motor pool and requisition us a car and I'll meet you down there."
The look of shock on Krycek's face was delightful.
"That's all? I mean you don't have a problem with us working together?"
"It's your party."
"Well, um, I'll get the car."
As he watched Krycek turn and walk towards the door, Mulder had another jolt of gut-wrenching conscience.
How the hell could he kick an eager puppy like that in the face? Would it really hurt him to take the kid under his wing for a day or two?
"Krycek?" he yelled, just as the young Agent's perky little ass began to sway out of sight.
Krycek swiveled to face him, all gleaming teeth and bright eager eyes. Mulder could almost visualize a bushy tail waving ecstatically from the kid's pants at this further attention.
"Wait up," he said, grabbing his jacket. "I'll walk down with you."
"Do you really think it's possible to alter someone's dreams like she said?" Krycek asked, as they left Grissom's sleep disorder clinic. "I mean, you really seemed to buy into what she was saying."
Mulder stiffened defensively. "If you're uncomfortable with the way the case is developing, you're more than welcome to step away, Krycek. I'd hate to ruffle your nice comfortable world view."
"Where do you get off copping this attitude? You don't even know the first thing about me," Krycek retorted.
"Exactly," Mulder smirked.
"You know, back at the academy, some of the guys used to make fun of you."
"Oh stop it, or you'll hurt my feelings," Mulder drawled, half-amused to see the puppy finally showing his fangs.
"But there were some of us who followed your work," Krycek continued. "Believed what you were doing because we knew that there was more out there than they were telling us."
Mulder blinked with surprise but, before he could answer, Scully rang him on his cell phone with the preliminary results of her autopsy on Grissom. "I can make it in two hours," he told her, and hung up.
"Where are we going?" Krycek asked, all bright eyes and wagging tail again.
His immediate instinct was to refuse to tell Krycek their destination and let the kid pout all the way to Quantico. But, as Krycek's face fell at his own stony expression, the kid did that 'thing' with his eyes.
Did he really want to spend two hours in a car with Krycek's sulky lashes fluttering like trapped butterflies against those perfect cheekbones, as the kid shot shy, hurt glances in his direction?
"That was Scully," he said. "She's doing an autopsy on Grissom."
Krycek's pout was immediately obscured by a wide, happy smile and he bounced - goddamned bounced - over to the passenger-door of their car and eagerly clambered in.
"So," Mulder said, as he climbed into the driver's seat. "Since, as you said, I don't know anything about you, why don't you enlighten me, Krycek."
The kid blushed, wriggled happily on his seat, and spent the next two hours giving him the life and times of Alex Krycek. By the time they'd reached Quantico, Mulder knew his new partner was the child of cold-war immigrants, spoke five languages fluently, had spent two years as a beat-cop in New York before he'd been accepted at the FBI academy, had graduated top of his class and had a mile-wide streak of burning ambition. Which, naturally, begged the question of why the kid was willing to blot his copy-book by being associated with `Spooky' Mulder. But there was a more burning question in Mulder's mind.
"So, you got a girlfriend?"
"Huh?" Krycek squeaked, turning a delightful shade of pink.
"You know, a girl? A significant other of the female persuasion?" Mulder teased. "Stupid question. I guess a good looking guy like you is beating them off in droves."
Krycek did that `thing' with his eyelashes again, shuffled nervously on his seat and mumbled something incoherent into his lap.
"You think I'm good-looking?" Krycek muttered, his cheeks flushing so darkly that he looked in imminent danger of having a heart-attack.
Mulder struggled with a brief urge to pull the car off the road and demonstrate exactly how good-looking he considered Krycek to be. `OPC.OPC.OPC/,' he chanted to himself silently, until he was under control again, and then he offered his young partner a sly grin. "Well, not as good-looking as me."
Krycek's only reply was a deep, panting sigh of breath and carefully averted eyes.
Gotcha, Mulder crowed to himself. Oh yeah. The puppy was definitely interested in chewing a bone.
As he pulled into the station parking lot, with X's file under his seat, Mulder felt his conscience pricking him. He'd only known Krycek for a couple of days, but the kid had been an unexpected asset during the investigation. Admittedly, it didn't hurt that the kid was walking eye candy with a husky voice and bedroom eyes, but it wasn't just Mulder's dick that appreciated Krycek. It had made a really nice change to be partnered with someone who didn't greet his every theory with skepticism.
He decided an acknowledgement of that fact was well overdue.
"You're not what I expected," he said gruffly. "I think. well, I think this partner thing might work out between us, after all."
"You're nothing like I expected either," Krycek said, then blushed, dipped his head from Mulder's gaze, and sneaked a glance sideways from under his sinfully long lashes.
Mulder swallowed heavily and shifted in his seat. "How so?" he demanded, his tone short to cover the sudden spike of arousal in his groin.
"I..well..I was told you were arrogant, bull-headed, spooky and impossible to like. But.but you're not and I.well, I like you fine," Krycek blurted. "More than fine."
"Who told you about me?" Mulder asked. It wasn't that he was particularly interested in the answer - there were countless candidates who would have delighted in telling Krycek he'd been partnered with the FBI's most-unwanted - but Krycek's already husky voice took on an even sexier tone when it was breathless and guilty and there was an unmistakable promise in that `more than fine' comment.
"Blevins and .well I don't know his name but he smokes a lot."
Mulder startled, his arousal abruptly quenched in the face of Krycek's hesitant confession.
"The smoker? What the fuck does the smoker have to do with you?"
Krycek visibly flinched at the sudden anger in Mulder's voice. "I knew I shouldn't have told you," he muttered defensively.
Mulder's first impulse was to slap his young partner across the face and then shake the truth out of him. Thankfully, just as he raised his hand into a fist, that familiar clenching tension rippled through his gut, forcing him to take a sudden deep breath, and, in that moment of hesitation, Krycek chose to speak again.
"I guess.. well, I guess you could say I'm working for him in a way. I don't know much about him, but I know he's the reason I was given this case. It was the easiest way to get you to accept me as your new partner. I was supposed to.."
"Let me guess," Mulder interrupted dryly. "Gain my trust and betray me?"
Krycek blushed deeply and nodded. "I guess you could put it that way. I was told you were a liability to the FBI. A maverick. I never agreed to do anything wrong, Mulder. I was just supposed to let you break the rules, collect evidence of that rule breaking, then be a witness against you when they brought charges."
"So you've been spying on me and reporting all my misdeeds to your masters?"
"It's not like that," Krycek protested. "I really believed them when they said you were dirty, Mulder. Why wouldn't I? I'd never met you and it was a huge opportunity for me. Most new Agents spend their rookie years doing phone-taps. I was being offered a chance to go straight out into the field and make a name for myself. The only thing I'm guilty of is ambition."
"And gullibility," Mulder pointed out.
"I had no reason to doubt him, Mulder. I had confirmation this was a legitimate assignment from Section Chief Blevins himself."
Mulder sighed deeply, accepting Krycek's argument. "I should have known they'd try again."
"Scully was originally sent in to debunk my work too. So at least you're in good company. I take it, from this little confessional, that you've decided I'm not a dirty-cop, after all?"
"I know you're not dirty," Krycek said. "But you are a maverick. They didn't lie about that. So I don't know where that leaves us, Mulder. I don't want to hurt you, but I don't want to ruin my career before it's even started. I don't know what to do. All I know is that I trust you more than I trust Blevins and the smoker."
"You have to make your own choices, Alex. I can't make them for you," Mulder replied, but his tone was gentle and the look he gave Krycek was devoid of censure. He understood Krycek's position, just as he'd understood Scully's, and in view of Krycek's confession he had every reason to believe that his new partner had already decided where his loyalties lay. It was ironic, really. The woman he loved like a sister and the man he was beginning to hope might become his lover had both been sent to destroy him. And now it looked like both of them were going to become his staunchest allies.
"Let's go find Cole, partner," he said.
A look of relief blossomed over Krycek's face and he offered Mulder a tremulous, but genuine smile.
"Maybe, well, I mean, um, would you like to go for a drink later? After work, I mean? Um, I mean, well.." Krycek mumbled.
"Yeah," Mulder agreed, allowing his own features to relax into a warm smile. "I'd like that, Alex."
He knew he might have misread the reason for Krycek's nervous invitation, but as he stepped out of the car and followed his partner into the station he decided there was definitely no way he was misreading the luscious deliberate swaying of Krycek's ass in his face.
Can we talk for a second?" Krycek asked.
"What's the problem?" Mulder responded, as though he didn't know exactly what Krycek's problem was. He'd asked the younger man to trust him and then he'd acted exactly like the maverick Blevins had instructed Krycek to spy on. He knew what Krycek would have `seen'. Himself running around a train platform filled with innocent bystanders and discharging his weapon in pursuit of a man who hadn't even been there, according to the security cameras.
He'd entered the station with Krycek's verbal offer of loyalty and the non-verbal promise of Krycek's swaying ass. Now, four gunshots later, Krycek was more likely to be the star-witness at an OPC hearing.
And yet there was no look of betrayal on Krycek's face. Just a desperate plea to understand.
"I told you, I want to believe. But I need a place to start," Krycek begged.
Mulder met his eyes, gauged the sincerity in them, and sighed heavily.
"I think that Cole possesses the psychic ability to manipulate sounds and images to generate illusions that are so convincing they can kill. How's that for a theory?"
He waited for the scorn, the skepticism, the closing of Krycek's expression against him. Instead, the younger man nodded his acceptance.
"Puts a whole new spin on virtual reality but at least it begins to explain some things."
Before Mulder could answer, he was interrupted by one of the Security guards.
"Agent Mulder, see this car in the upper right corner? It wasn't there five minutes ago."
The building was derelict, half-destroyed, as though a wrecking crew had gotten half-way through the process of demolishing it. Mulder found Cole in a room with only three walls. Where the fourth wall should have been there was nothing except an empty space and a sheer drop of over sixty feet. And Cole was no more than a foot from the edge.
"Step away from the edge. Corporal Cole. I'm a federal agent, now please, step back," he said.
"Go ahead, shoot me," Cole challenged.
Mulder looked down at the weapon in his hand, as though surprised to see it.
"That's not why I'm here. I'm putting down my gun. I just want to talk to you for a few minutes. After that, you're free to do whatever you want."
Cole shook his head and brandished his bible in Mulder's face like a weapon. "They cut out a part of my brain. They made me into somebody else. I can never get back what they took away from me, and I'm gonna stop them from taking anything more."
Mulder nodded his head in understanding and took a half-step towards him. He was sure, despite Cole's threatening posture, that the man wanted help rather than death. If he could just reach him, just get through to him, convince him he was genuinely there to help.
He saw a slight wavering in Cole's expression, then groaned with frustration as Krycek burst into the room with his weapon drawn.
"Krycek put down the gun and get out of here. Krycek, I said put down the gun and get out of here! "
"He's got a gun," Krycek protested. "He's gonna shoot you, Mulder."
Mulder blinked in disbelief. It was clearly a bible in Cole's hand, rather than a weapon. Then, belatedly, he remembered Cole's ability to distort an onlooker's perception of reality. Cole wanted Krycek to believe he was holding a gun. He turned his attention fully to his partner, silently begging Krycek to take one final leap of faith.
"Trust me, Alex. Get out of here," he said softly.
For a moment, Krycek's eyes blazed with doubt, but then he swallowed heavily, gave Mulder a reluctant nod, lowered his gun and backed out of the room.
Mulder wanted to punch the air in triumph but he barely had a second to savor his self-satisfaction before Cole gave him a half-smile and dove off the edge.
"NOOO!" Mulder screamed.
Krycek immediately raced back into the room. "Mulder? What happened? Where's Cole?"
Mulder motioned at the open window, his expression sickened. "He jumped."
"Fuck. I might as well have shot him."
"You did the right thing, Alex," Mulder soothed, patting Krycek's shoulder.
"I did?" Krycek asked doubtfully.
"Put it this way, at least there'll be less paperwork to fill in."
Krycek met his attempt at a joke with a weak but grateful smile. "Yeah. I guess so."
Though, when they descended from the building and reached Cole's body, Krycek's right eyebrow raised in ironic query. "You sure about that paperwork, Mulder?"
"Jesus," Mulder exclaimed. "What are the odds of that, huh?"
Krycek glanced around the otherwise deserted yard. "Million to one? Billion to one? What the hell was the poor bastard doing here anyway?"
"I guess he was trying to take a shortcut to the railway station. Weird though."
"Yeah. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Check him for ID, while I call it in," Mulder said, reaching for his cell phone.
Krycek rolled Cole's body enough to reach into the jacket of the passer-by killed by Cole's fall, retrieved a wallet and flipped it open.
"Says his name's Professor Jonathon Hodges."
Mulder gave a slight start of recognition.
"You know him?" Krycek queried.
Mulder frowned in thought, but then shook his head. "Nah. The name just sounded familiar for a moment but I can't imagine why. So, Alex, I guess you made your choice, huh?"
Krycek blushed and dipped his head.
"Yeah," he breathed. "I guess I've made my choice, Mulder."
Mulder reached over and flicked an errant bang out of Krycek's eyes. "I'm glad, Alex. Really glad."
Krycek laughed suddenly, the bright happy sound anomalous in the presence of the two bodies.
"What?" Mulder asked.
"Look," Krycek said, extending his hand carefully.
Mulder blinked in disbelief at the tiny, brightly-hued butterfly resting on the tips of Krycek's fingers. As he watched, it opened its wings and then rose into the air and fluttered away into the evening breeze.
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Mort