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How to throw a Curve Ball
Part 3: Players
by Courtney Gray


Title: How to throw a Curve Ball - Part 3: Players
Author: Courtney Gray
Author's Website: Courtney's Fanfic
Fandom: The X-Files
Pairing: Fox Mulder / Alex Krycek
Rating: PG-13 (m/m interaction)
Author's Disclaimer: They don't belong to me...
Series/Sequel: Story III in the "How to throw a Curve Ball" Series



III.



Mulder looked on as the attendant pulled a white sheet over the body. His cellphone began to beep.

"Mulder."

"Mulder, it's me. I was expecting to hear from you hours ago."

"Sorry, Scully, I've been checking something out."

"I tried calling you in the office. I thought you were working on those reports for Skinner. I messengered my case notes and the forensics data to you. They should've been delivered by 1:00 today."

"Yeah, well, I got a call from Langly this morning. A friend of his works at the City Morgue and they've had a couple of interesting clients coming into the shop this week."

"Clients, Mulder?"

"Stiffs, Scully."

"You're in the morgue."

"Natch."

A soft, familiar sigh flowed through the phone. "Okay, who are you talking about and what's so interesting about them?"

"Two indigent white males, one middle-aged wino and a junkie in his 20s. First one was brought in two days ago. Second one was brought in last night. Cause of death has been listed as alcohol and drug related. The bodies were found in two different alleyways in the less than stellar part of the downtown area."

"Mulder, get to it."

He grinned into the phone. "Their eyes were coated in a black, inky substance." He paused, waiting.

"Mulder, you're not suggesting--"

He grinned again. "We're on the same wavelength, Scully. I can feel the vibes."

"I know what you're thinking, Mulder, but not every physical irregularity is extraterrestrial in origin. Have they examined the eye fluid? Are there any other anomalies on the bodies? What kind of lab work are they running?"

"Scully, we're talking about a couple of society's throwaways here, two homeless bums with no money, and no one interested in their extreme mortality. But, yes, they already ran a lab check on the eye substance." He stopped as two gurneys topped with body bags rolled by.

"And?" prompted Scully.

"Luckily for the M.E.'s staff, it was fifty weight diesel oil. Plain old diesel oil. Sound familiar? The kicker is that the black fluid looks inert, frozen, as dead as the bodies. Bottom line, the coroner's staff don't care how funny the eyes look or how the oil got there, their workload is stacking up even as we speak. One wino and one heroin addict have been officially written up and written off."

"But you think it's an X-file, that's it's connected to--" She let the sentence hang.

"C'mon, Scully, don't you?"

"You're the one who just told me it was plain old diesel oil, Mulder. I grant you, it's peculiar, but beyond that, it doesn't seem as if there's anything more to go on. Not to mention the small detail that you shouldn't be down there in the first place."

Mulder's eyes rolled skyward. "So, how's your ankle?"

She gave him another small sigh at the change of topic, but didn't press him. "The swelling is finally going down. I have to keep it elevated for another day or so."

"Well, you know, that's what happens when you insist on running in those Wilt-the-Stilt heels--"

"Shut up, Mulder."

"So, how much longer are you going to be out?"

"I told Skinner I'd be back at work next week."

"That long, huh? Too bad. Looking down at a cold morgue slab just isn't the same without you."

He could hear the answering smile in her voice. "You really know how to flatter a person, Mulder. Actually, I'm enjoying the rest. I might finally have a chance to finish that monograph, now that the reports are out of the way."

"Well, I may have to call you for sound, scientific advice as I muddle through this one."

"There's always a first time for everything, but it seems like there's not much to muddle with anyway. And, Skinner's expecting those reports by the end of the week. He won't be happy if he finds out you're spending your afternoons in cold storage."

"I figure I'll keep better."

"You know what I mean, Mulder. The X-Files is under enough scrutiny as it is right now."

"I don't make a point of wasting my time, Scully."

"I just want you to be careful."

"Aren't I always?"

"No, as a matter of fact, you're not."

He chuckled. It was good just to hear her voice. Even though she couldn't see him, he saluted his cellphone. "Yes, ma'am, I'll be careful." He clicked off the line, his smile fading. He wished she'd been able to join him. She could've done the autopsies, checked the analyses with her characteristic brand of thoroughness. Maybe pick up on something the M.E. had overlooked.

He chewed absently at his lower lip as his mind skipped to the Ridley papers. He'd had the stuff for weeks but he still hadn't told Scully about it. The Lone Gunmen were fascinated with the material. They were already hip-deep in research, tapping their sources, legitimate and otherwise, for information, focusing on Ridley's cell grafting experiments. Mulder wanted to bring Scully into it, but he knew it would mean forcing her to compromise her professional ethics. Again. For Scully, going by the book actually meant something. Well, certainly more than it meant to him. He knew she wouldn't blithely agree to keeping that kind of information secret and she certainly wouldn't approve of possibly jeopardizing the Lone Gunmen's safety by involving them instead of the Bureau.

The worst part would be trying to explain how he came by the Ridley material in the first place. He told the Gunmen he'd received it from an informant. Well, loosely, that was true. Scully, however, would definitely expect more of an explanation than that if he expected her to go along with him. And that would mean telling her about Krycek.

"Agent Mulder, are you finished here?"

He turned and nodded at the freckle-faced attendant. "Yes. Thanks for your help. Uh, what's the procedure here with the bodies?"

The towhead shrugged his thin shoulders. "If no claims are made for the bodies within ten days, they're released for burial or cremation at City expense." The kid leaned towards him conspiratorially. "Pretty weird, the eyes, huh? Do you think they were aliens in disguise? Langly said you'd be able to tell."

Mulder shook his head. "I don't think so."

"So, what's with their eyes then? I mean, I've seen some weird stuff on a few of the bodies that come in here, you know, especially the druggies, but I've never seen anything like that."

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio."

The kid stared at him blankly for a moment, then gave him a weak giggle. "Oh, yeah. Like that. Uh, does the other guy work with you, too? I really didn't get a good look at his badge. Flashed it pretty quick."

"Other guy?"

"Yeah, the dude that showed up to see the first body. That's when I noticed the eyes. I just got on shift when he showed up. It wasn't my shift, you know. I don't like the night shift but there's always someone out sick. I figured I could use the overtime. I just came on duty and there he was, staring at the stiff. Come to think of it, I don't know how he got in here because we don't allow visitors down here unescorted, not even the cops. I asked him what he was doing here and he flashed the badge. Looked like FBI but I didn't really see it close." He looked down, a flush to his face. "I should've asked to see it again, I guess, but he, well, I didn't want to annoy him, you know."

"What did he look like?"

Freckles bunched across the attendant's forehead as he frowned. "Well, he was about as tall as you, I guess. Dark hair. Late twenties, early thirties maybe." The kid smiled. "Oh, yeah, he had a cool leather jacket on. Yeah. Black. He was wearing black. Undercover or something, I figured." His face managed to grow a shade redder. "He was good looking, I suppose. Oh, he had nice eyes, green. Kinda cold though."

Mulder felt the air disappear from his lungs. He had to draw a long breath before he could respond. "What did he say?"

"Um, he said he was checking out some information on a missing person's case. I asked him if the stiff was the guy he was looking for, but he said 'no.' Then he just left." He glanced at the white sheet. "That's when I went over to the body and saw that the eyes were open, saw that weird black stuff. I didn't call Langly until the second dead guy turned up looking the same way. Maybe I should've called right away?"

Mulder stared intently at a particle of space above the morgue drawer.

"Uh, Agent Mulder?"

Mulder blinked away a storm of thoughts and memories. He bit down on his lip as he pulled out his notepad. "I want to double-check the addresses where those bodies were found. Can we go back and look at those record sheets again?"

The attendant nodded. "Oh. Sure. Is this an official FBI case now?" he asked with an expectant grin.

"If another body turns up in the same condition, I want you to notify me right away. At the moment, though, I just want to get a few more details." "Oh." The kid looked disappointed as he led Mulder towards the elevators and the Morgue offices. Mulder barely noticed, his own thoughts elsewhere.

***

The guest list was sprinkled with corporate bigwigs, Old Money, and several of the Beltway's most influential politicians. They chatted and laughed, stopping from time to time to lift a crystal flute of Dom Perignon from a passing silver tray. They only paused to look at the artwork when there was a lull in the conversation. This was a charity event, after all, and the gallery was merely the setting. To exude benevolence and rub mutually influential shoulders was the order of the day.

Alex Krycek tugged again at the left sleeve of his Armani tux and slowly scanned the room. He was uncomfortable. Glittering Washington soirees were hardly his usual stomping grounds and tuxedos weren't exactly his preferred mode of dress. He hadn't worn one in years, and certainly not one that was perfectly tailored for him. The frequent interested glances he was getting just made him uneasy. He didn't like to be noticed. Not any more. Even so, the real source of his discomfort came from not knowing exactly why he was there in the first place.

He looked around again, spotting a couple of the Syndicate's finest. With a twinge of distaste, he saw, once again, how easily they blended in with the elite crowd, like sharks in familiar waters. He hadn't seen his elegant patron yet. Since this was the old man's party, Krycek knew he had to be around somewhere.

"Champagne, sir?" The waiter lifted his tray towards him, the young man's eyes openly raking him up and down. Krycek noticed that the waiter's eyes were an uncomfortably familiar shade of hazel. Feeling the heat rising to his face, he took a crystal flute and turned away.

He caught sight of his enigmatic host emerging from one of the anterooms, still in conversation with another man, also gray-haired and distinguished. Krycek stared, trying to place the man's face. Yes. Senator Richard Matheson. Well, well, now that was... interesting. He watched as a woman, dripping in diamonds, whisked the Senator away to join a small clique of Society's Best. His patron also looked on, a thin smile on his lips.

Krycek started to make his way slowly towards the old man. Suddenly, he felt an arm on his shoulder.

"I'm surprised to see you here. Hardly your element, is it, Alex?"

Krycek turned and raised his glass in a small salute towards the First Elder of the Syndicate. He took a leisurely sip before replying. "I'm very adaptable, a family trait, as you know. This is excellent champagne, by the way. Have you tried some?" He smiled with as much charm as he could fake.

"What are you doing here?"

Krycek nodded towards their elegant host. "Why, I was invited, of course."

The First Elder looked him up and down with a calculating stare. "You should be very careful, Alex."

He raised his glass and took another sip. "Words to live by."

"Then see that you do." The flicker of contempt in the First Elder's eyes was irritating in its familiarity. The big man turned his back and walked away as Krycek started to reply.

"Fucking arrogant asshole," muttered Krycek under his breath. One day, he thought to himself, one day.

When he finally worked his way through the crowd and approached the Well-Manicured Man, he had a fresh glass of champagne in his hand.

The old man acknowledged him with a polite nod. "Enjoying the party, Alex?"

"I'd enjoy it more if I knew why I was here."

"To learn to hide in plain sight, dear boy. To blend into the game. To make the proper contacts. My colleagues are less than enthusiastic to have you back in our midst. You need to prove yourself again. Show them that you can move in the same circles, in any circles, that you can do whatever is necessary. That you are, indeed, a player."

Krycek frowned as several distinguished types wandered up and began chatting with their host. The old man replied graciously, introducing Krycek as his "associate" and then smoothly extricating them both from the group and steering them towards a nearby alcove.

"The party is winding down, fortunately. These charity events can be tiresome, but they're important in their own way. There is a great deal of power in this room, Alex."

Krycek glanced around at the crowd. "What difference does it make? Their power won't help them. The Colonists don't care."

"Nothing's ever that simple, my boy. There are many players in the game. Any one of them can affect the outcome in ways we might not have anticipated." The somber look on the old man's face brooked no argument.

"Someone like Senator Matheson, you mean? I saw you talking with him. I didn't know he was part of the Syndicate."

"He's not."

"Yet?" finished Krycek.

The old man smiled. "Richard has been an acquaintance of mine for many years. He's an astute politician, a consummate fence sitter. We've managed to be of some assistance to one another, in our respective areas, over the years. He has remained his own man, more or less."

Krycek couldn't help but grin. "I admire your refined way of being uninformative."

The old man's smile remained. "It's a talent worth cultivating, my boy. I strongly suggest that you add it to your repertoire."

"I do all right."

"Indeed you do." He gazed at the milling guests. "Time to mingle, Alex. Come along, I'll introduce you to the Senator."

"What about that matter you wanted to discuss? I thought it was important."

"Have there been any further developments?"

"Not that I know of."

"Then it will keep until later, when the party is over."

Krycek felt the old man's arm on his elbow, steering him back into the diamond-strewn, shark infested waters.

***

Some time later, he was behind the steering wheel of a sleek black Mercedes, driving out of the District, his host sitting beside him in the passenger seat.

"Where are we going?"

"The Arlington house. I'd rather stay in Charlottesville but it's too long a drive. I'll go there tomorrow."

Krycek bit down on his lip as he eased the car into traffic.

"You aren't staying there anymore, are you, Alex? I had thought it would be rather convenient for you, and I so rarely use it." He could feel the old man's eyes on his face.

"It seemed smarter to leave after I met Mulder there."

There was a beat of silence and he still felt those sharp eyes watching him. "Agent Mulder was clearly made aware of the futility of pursuing criminal charges against you. He knows he would find no evidence. It's quite safe for you to remain in the house, Alex."

"I just don't think it's a good idea."

"It's been several weeks since your meeting with Agent Mulder."

"Yes."

"You haven't met with him since then?"

"No, of course not," replied Krycek, immediately regretting the noticeable edge in his voice.

The old man slowly turned his gaze towards the road. "I wonder if he's learned anything from the Ridley papers." He was silent for a moment. "I think you should stay at the house, Alex."

"Is that an order?"

"Consider it an emphatic request. If nothing else, I would think the house would be far more comfortable than your usual accommodations. It would certainly be easier for me to contact you. With the Group's insistence in finding and returning our former colleague to the fold as soon as possible, you'll need to be more accessible."

Krycek felt his troubling emotions seesawing from Mulder to the Smoker. For vastly different reasons, he didn't want to see either man again.

"Did you see the bodies?"

Krycek was almost glad at the old man's change of subject. "I, uh, saw one at the morgue," he replied. "You said there might be another. I only saw the one."

"And?"

"Just as you described; it died along with the body. The traces in the eyes were inert. I assume if there was another victim, the same thing happened to that poor bastard." Nightmare images of swirling black oil flickered through his mind. As always, he shut them out quickly. "It might get a little awkward if more dead bodies start popping up in back alleys. The Colonists could hardly be pleased with the situation."

"The hybridization experiments have been escalated. Too many mistakes have been made. I was informed that two of the subjects were inadvertently released from one of the new facilities. That problem has been corrected. No more bodies will be found."

"What other mistakes are we dealing with here?"

The old man sighed at his question."That is what our old colleague will need to tend to. The Colonists have expressed their preference that he manage certain of their operations. We are expanding our efforts to locate him. As soon as he is found, you will go in and bring him back."

"Why me?"

"To prove your loyalty to the Syndicate... and the Colonists. The others must be convinced of your commitment to the Project." Krycek could hear the cool amusement in the cultured voice as the old man continued. "They know how you feel about our missing associate. What better test to prove your allegiance than for you to bring him back to us, alive and unharmed."

"I don't play 'lackey' very well."

"Then you had better learn, and quickly. There is far more at stake here than your pride."

Krycek drew in a slow, calming breath. He lowered the window a little and welcomed the crisp breeze that brushed his face. The night was clear and chilly, the sky dotted with sharp winter stars. He signaled as they reached the Arlington exit. Both men were silent for the remainder of the ride.

***

Mulder threw his trenchcoat over a chair and glanced at the "I Want to Believe" poster behind his desk. It was late. He should've just gone home. He sank into his chair and stared at the assorted file folders, articles, photos, and books piled before him. A package from Aero Messenger Service lay on a corner of the desk. Scully's case material. He'd look at it later. He tugged at a couple of folders on one of the stacks. He needed them for Skinner's reports. He'd finish them at home, not that the A.D. would be too thrilled when he read them. They would just give him more questions than answers, as usual.

He picked the folders up, threw them back down, slammed his fist hard on the desk as his mind jumped to where he didn't want it to go.

Krycek. Damn. Damn him. Alex Krycek had been there, looking at that body. What was the bastard involved in now? What was he doing?

I'm here to help you. He heard the husky, whispery words in his memory, and slammed his fist again. In his mind's eye, he saw the melting reflection of rain on a ceiling, ghost white flashes of lightning and he remembered the heat and ripple of firm muscle under smooth skin, and soft warm lips opening against his hard cock. And eyes the color of absinthe.

Like a twisted joke, his irrepressible memory recalled a description of absinthe by Oscar Wilde, something he'd read one negligent summer at Oxford, years ago. "After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." Yes, that was Alex Krycek, he thought bitterly, the very essence of the man and what he did to everyone he touched.

Mulder pushed the folders away, pushed his chair back and stood up. He had to get out. He picked up the phone, punched in a number. Listened to it ring several times before it was answered. "Yeah, Frohike, it's Mulder. Why'd it take you so long to answer? Surveillance tape run out?"

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with our equipment."

A tired grin touched Mulder's face for a moment. "I'm coming over. You can show me what you've done with that little package I left you."

"We just might have something of interest to share with you on that matter. And, if you hurry, we might even have some of Langly's veggie loaf for you, too."

"I think I'll take the long, scenic route. See you when I get there."

Even so, they had half of the v-loaf waiting for him when he arrived.

"Fellas, you shouldn't have. Really."

"I thought you said you were taking the scenic route, kiddo."

"I couldn't find it." Mulder wasn't about to tell them he needed their distraction more than he feared Langly's foray into vegetarian cooking.

"Cool. Try my loaf, dude. It turned out better this time."

"Yeah, it's almost edible," added Frohike.

Mulder eyed the small greenish-brown brick. "Let it age a bit. You could have an x-file on your hands, and it doesn't look like you'll have long to wait either."

Frohike chuckled. Langly sniffed indignantly and flicked a few long blond strains behind his ear. "So, Mulder, did Dewey have anything for you?"

Mulder glanced over his shoulder as he walked towards their small bank of computers. "Two stiffs with permanent spots before their eyes."

"Of significance?" Frohike asked.

"Could be. I'm still checking it out. Langly, thanks for the tip."

"De nada. It never hurts to have friends in the land of the dead."

"How'd you meet that kid anyway?"

"Dungeons and Dragons. And, he subscribes to the Lone Gunmen, not to say he's capable of appreciating the nuances of conspiracy theory. Damn good gamer though."

Mulder shook his head amiably. Byers was staring into one of the screens, fingers tapping into the keyboard.

"You find anything new on the Ridley material?" he asked.

Byers stopped, swiveling in his chair. His expression always seemed to have a certain quizzical air about it, as if the man was in a permanent state of wonder. Mulder glanced from one member of the trio to the other. Come to think of it, they all had that look. He felt an affectionate smile tug at his lips.

"We seem to be running into one dead end after another on the cell- grafting experiments," Byers told him solemnly. "We decided to concentrate on the names of anyone Ridley mentions in his journals to see if that might open up any leads." Byers tapped into the keyboard, drawing up a screen with a short list of names.

Mulder looked at Frohike. "I thought you said you had something interesting for me."

"In a manner of speaking," replied the little man, pointing to the screen.

"It's what we haven't been able to find."

"Okay, guys, give me the punchline."

Byers answered. "There are six names mentioned somewhere in Ridley's papers. As far as we've been able to ascertain, those individuals are located all over the world. Five of them have two things in common: they have backgrounds in bioengineering or biotechnology. And, all five are missing."

"Missing?"

Langly came up behind him. "Well, not officially. Their whereabouts are unknown, as in, over the course of two years, they all left their jobs, home towns, friends and, in one case, family, to accept positions elsewhere for an undisclosed period of time. Except no one seems to know where "Elsewhere" is located. Smells like global top secret conspiracy shit to me."

Mulder pulled up a chair. "And the sixth person?"

Byers pointed to a name on the screen. "He's an medical anthropologist. He worked for a private institute in Toronto, but several years ago he quit his position and moved to Mexico. From Ridley's notes, it looks like that's where they met."

"Did Ridley indicate how he knew the other five people? Was he in contact with any of them?"

"It's not really clear, but it seems as if he was corresponding briefly with two or three of the others. He was interested in their research. He thought he could incorporate some of it in his own work. We can't tell from his notes whether he actually met any of them."

Mulder rubbed at the back of his neck, wondering at the biotech element. "Maybe the anthropologist has nothing to do with any of it. Just a coincidence that they met?"

Frohike poked his head over one of the monitors. "Ah, but that's the weird part. Ridley mentions that the anthropologist was really interested in his cell-grafting experiments, to the point of being an annoyance. Get this, in his notes, Ridley refers to the guy as a crackpot spouting drivel about extraterrestrial DNA experiments."

"Where's this anthropologist now, in Mexico?"

"No. Seems that he's now working on some research project in the Philippines."

Mulder looked from one face to the other and pointed to the computer screen. "Okay, let's see where we can go with this..."

An hour later, Mulder was in his car heading home. He had the list of names from the Gunmen in his pocket, a scowl on his face, and the beginnings of a bad headache. He lowered his window a little, letting the sharp winter breeze fill the car. As he neared the turnoff towards Alexandria, his fingers tightened around the steering wheel, his heart speeding up. Suddenly compelled, he moved into the right lane, changing direction at the last second, heading instead towards Arlington.

He was restless, his instincts prickling. He wanted to know why Krycek was looking at that body in the morgue. He wanted to talk to Scully, but he wasn't ready to tell her about the Ridley papers. And he was no where near ready to talk about Krycek.

He thought about checking out the area where the two bodies were found, check on possible witnesses. That would be productive.

He thought about all the things he could do that were more sensible, more useful, more logical as he drove the rest of the way to Arlington.

When he turned onto the tree-lined street, lovely even in the starkness of winter, he wondered why he couldn't stop himself. He slowed as he neared the house, his eyes widening in surprise. The lights were on and there was a shiny black Mercedes parked in the driveway. He parked his car across the street and sat, staring at the house.

A few days after his first... meeting with Krycek in this house in Arlington, Mulder had driven back here. He hadn't thought it was a good idea then either. The house had been dark and empty. He had told himself at the time that it was a fortunate thing.

Mulder gripped the key in the ignition, telling himself he should leave. He didn't even know who might be in the house. Krycek was probably long gone. Perhaps the Well-Manicured Man was back in residence, or maybe one of the other Syndicate elders. Mulder smiled humorlessly. He could handle that. Yeah, maybe he could get some real answers tonight after all.

He pulled the key out of the ignition and opened the car door.

***

Krycek wanted to get out of the fancy monkey suit and get some sleep, but the old man seemed to be in a talkative mood.

"I think I'll have a cognac before I retire. Join me, Alex?"

Krycek had had too much champagne already but he nodded his assent anyway. There was a question he'd been wanting to ask the old man for a while now. This seemed as good a time as any.

"I believe I have a bottle of Courvoisier here."

The antique cabinet in the corner of the spacious living room held an array of fancy bottles amounting to a small fortune in liquor from what Krycek could see of the labels. He hadn't indulged in anything more than a bottle or two of beer in his earlier stay in the house.

His host poured the cognac into two balloon snifters and handed one to Krycek before settling himself in one of the comfortable suede-covered wingchairs. Krycek went over to the sofa and seated himself in the corner.

One sip of the superb brandy and he was reminded of what it meant to lead the good life.

"It's a pity I've given up cigars. Nothing better than a fine cognac and a good cigar," the smooth British voice informed him. "I have some very warm memories of quiet evenings with friends at my old club in London. Amazing how simple the past can seem."

"Was it simple?" asked Krycek softly.

The pale, sharp eyes were gazing into the fireplace, into the glowing flames. "Nothing is ever simple. We only remember it that way."

"I want to ask you something."

The gray head turned towards him. "Yes?"

"Why me?" Krycek watched a silver-gray brow arch questioningly. He took another sip of the cognac. "Why didn't you just leave me there in that freighter, after I gave you the vaccine?"

"They would have killed you in Vladivostok, if you were fortunate."

"Probably, but what did it matter to you? Do you trust me?"

The old man smiled. "I have not been that naïve in decades. I trust no one... completely."

"Then, why me?"

The logs crackled in the fireplace, the only sound in the room. Finally, the Syndicate Elder answered. "Your father was a gifted man. He was ill-used."

Krycek felt the anger surge through him, tried to keep it down, tried not to let it seep into his voice. "He was a coward. You think you owe me something because of him?"

His host looked at him in that slow, measuring way he'd come to recognize. "Your judgment is harsh, Alex. Your father had a unique brand of strength the rest of us lacked. You are a great deal like him."

"No, you're wrong." Krycek spat the words out, his chest heaving as the anger broke free. Almost immediately, he caught himself, froze, then very deliberately, sat back, steadying his glass slowly on the sofa arm, steadying his breathing.

The old man sipped leisurely at his cognac like someone who has just won a satisfying argument. "I took you out of that freighter and brought you back here, and back into the Syndicate because you understand what must be done, as I do. We share a goal, Alex, if nothing else. As allies, we may be able to succeed in impeding the colonization plan. If we fail then it doesn't matter what other agendas you or I may have." He raised his glass towards Krycek. "In one respect, I will concede that you are unlike your father: I think you will fight to survive, no matter what."

Krycek raised his chin with a flicker of a smile, his eyes hard as stone. "I plan to be around long after all those old buddies of yours are dead. In fact, I hope to do all I can to help them on their way."

The Syndicate elder raised an elegant eyebrow, his expression almost amused. "Yes, I believe you will, Alex, but all in good time. First you will need to--"

The doorbell rang and both men exchanged glances. The bell sounded again. Krycek got up and picked up his automatic from the cherrywood table, clicking off the safety. The old man stood and followed him to the foyer.

Krycek glanced through the peephole and stepped back slowly. The bell rang again.

"Who is it?" the old man asked him.

Drawing in a breath, Krycek continued to stare at the door. "It's Mulder."

"Is it now? Well then, you had better let him in." As Krycek hesitated and the bell rang yet again, the old man's voice grew firmer. "Put the gun away and open the door, Alex."

Krycek felt his stomach knotting. Adrenaline was suddenly shooting through him. Fight or flight or...?

He dropped his gun into the drawer of the entryway table, pulled the door open and found himself staring into Fox Mulder's face, his own heart hammering in his chest. At first glance, Mulder seemed angry. Then he seemed startled, confused, and angry again. Within seconds Krycek felt like some kind of insect pinned under a slide, the hazel eyes sweeping over him again and again.

"Won't you come in, Agent Mulder?"

The old man's serene voice snapped Krycek back to himself and he stepped aside quickly, letting Mulder walk by him. The FBI agent looked from the old man to Krycek and back again.

"Looks like I missed the party." Mulder headed towards the living room, his gaze darting everywhere. It was the tuxedos, Krycek realized, glancing down at himself.

Krycek was breathing fast, acutely aware of Mulder's physical presence. He didn't trust himself to speak. He didn't even trust himself to move.

"This is rather a late hour for a visit, Agent Mulder. Is there a problem?" The calm, lightly accented voice seemed politely curious as the old man followed Mulder into the living room. The gray head turned back, prompting him. "Alex?"

Krycek managed to put one foot in front of the other, as he struggled to get himself under control.

Mulder was staring at him again, though he addressed the old man. "So, giving him lessons on how to dress? Don't you think you should've started with Basic Office Attire first? As I recall he could use some help picking out suits."

"We attended a formal charity gala in the District this evening, a pet project of mine. The affair collected over a million dollars to benefit a variety of local non-profit agencies. Quite a success. It's so important to be involved in the community, don't you agree, Agent Mulder?"

Mulder turned towards the old man, his mouth open. He looked like he was about to laugh, but the sound was more like a hiss. "You've turned hypocrisy into an art form."

"If the needy accepted help only from saints, there would be few survivors in this world. We're all hypocrites in one way or another." He gestured towards the sofa. "Would you care for a cognac, Mr Mulder?"

Mulder took in the snifters and the crackling fire, the expensive furniture, the paintings, the persian rugs. "Elegant yet cozily domestic." He threw Krycek a smirk. "Yeah, sure, I'll have a cognac."

Krycek stared back as Mulder settled himself on the sofa, unbuttoning his topcoat and throwing an arm over the back of the sofa as he accepted the snifter of brandy from the old man. He would've looked nonchalant except for the tense line of his mouth.

Krycek couldn't help staring at Mulder's mouth. He couldn't help remembering what it felt like against his skin. Against his lips, his body. He swallowed and forced himself to look away.

"Now, what can we do for you?" The Syndicate elder sat back in his wingchair and picked up his glass again, watching Mulder.

"For starters, I want to know what your pretty boy here was doing in the D.C. Morgue. Checking on his latest homework assignment?"

Krycek's gaze shot up, meeting Mulder's challenging look.

"You have an unfortunate way of asking for information, Agent Mulder," said the old man coolly. "If you have a question for my associate, why don't you ask him."

Mulder gave the Well-Manicured Man a brittle smile and turned back to Krycek. "Looks like you've been given permission to speak."

"Why don't you just go to hell, Mulder." Krycek's voice was thick and husky. He could barely keep himself from shaking. Only Mulder could push him from one emotional extreme to the other in a heartbeat. He hated Mulder for it, and hated himself for letting the man get to him so effortlessly.

"Gentlemen, you're wasting time and time is a commodity I cannot spare." The Syndicate elder pinned them both with his pale, nerveless eyes. "It's been a long day. If you want an answer, Agent Mulder, then I suggest you rephrase your question."

Mulder's mouth tightened into a hard line and he stood up slowly. Krycek waited, his hand balling into a fist at his side as Mulder took a step towards him. "What were you doing at the morgue, Krycek?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Krycek could see a faint smile growing on the old man's face. He drew in a breath. "Checking out a mistake."

"Your own?"

He wondered when he would learn to stop playing right into Mulder's smartass mouth. That fucking, smart mouth. That... mouth. "The Colonists have created secret research centers all over the world, Mulder. There's one in this area, somewhere, but not even the Syndicate knows exactly where. They're not being given information on all of the research activity. The Colonists may suspect that the group has been infiltrated by Rebel sympathizers."

"Like the two of you? Or are you playing both sides, as usual?" cut in Mulder.

Krycek met Mulder's cold gaze with one of his own.

"There may be some discord among the scientists now, disagreements on how to proceed with the hybridization research," said the Well-Manicured Man.

Krycek glanced at the old man. "We've heard that unsanctioned experiments have been conducted with the black oil. It looks like someone's trying to find a way of killing the entity while it's still in the host. It's either that or they're attempting to create some kind of sustained symbiosis."

"The latter seems unlikely," interjected the Well-Manicured Man. "In either case, they're failing."

Mulder looked from one man to the other. "The bodies in the morgue?"

Krycek nodded.

"Will there be others?"

The old man put his brandy glass aside. "I do not believe so. The Colonists are changing procedures, tightening security measures." He stood up slowly. "Have you learned anything from the Ridley material?"

Mulder was frowning. "I'm still working on it."

The Well-Manicured Man pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Do what you can. It may hold the key to some important answers." The grandfather clock in the foyer began to delicately chime the hour. "It's late. If you'll excuse me, it's time I retired for the night. I have a busy schedule tomorrow." He gestured towards Mulder's barely touched glass. "Please finish your cognac, Mr Mulder. It's a shame to waste such an excellent vintage. One should enjoy the finer things in life while one has the opportunity. You strike me as a man who rarely avails himself of such opportunities. That's a great pity, Agent Mulder. If you have any other questions, perhaps Alex can answer them for you. Goodnight, gentlemen."

Krycek threw the old man a perplexed look as he walked out of the room towards the stairs without a backward glance. Then he turned back to find Mulder making himself comfortable on the sofa, reaching for the snifter of brandy.

"I didn't expect you to be here," Mulder told him, in a tone that was strangely conversational.

Krycek moved towards the fireplace and stared through the antique brass grill into the flames. Bits of ash drifted up from the crackling logs. He could feel the warmth dancing against his face. "Always expect the unexpected," he answered softly. It was as much a reminder to himself as it was a reply.

"Oh, yeah, that seems the safest way to go with you and your old cronies." Mulder sipped at the cognac. "Not bad. Your patron was right about that. Such are the lifestyles of the rich and infamous. Looks like you've proven, once again, that crime does pay."

"You've got it wrong again, Mulder." He gestured to the elegant room around them without taking his eyes away from the flames. "I'm just passing through. None of this belongs to me."

The silence that followed seemed to stretch interminably, until he finally glanced towards the sofa to see if Mulder was still there. The hazel eyes stared back at him intently.

"Passing through from where and to what? Yeah, you're going places all right. That cagey old man knows it. He's made you his heir apparent. It's strictly the big leagues for you now." Mulder took another sip of the brandy and sighed. "Is that what you wanted? Has it been worth the price... Alex?"

Krycek felt something twist inside his chest. It was more than just hearing his name like that. It was the odd and unexpected note of regret in Mulder's voice. The little pain sharpened into the point of a blade sinking into his flesh. "Sometimes you don't realize what the price will be until after you've paid it. Then all you can do is live with it, or die."

Mulder looked away, his voice turning flat again. He put his glass down on the table. "What happened to resist or serve?"

"A dead man can't do either."

"Alex Krycek, master of survival." Mulder got up and shrugged his trenchcoat into place as he closed the distance between them. "How did they get those men, those victims in the morgue?"

"People vanish every day. Runaways, criminals, kidnap victims, the Just Plain Lost, all sorts of people. Many are never found. And those are only the ones that somebody gives a damn about. How did 'They' get those men? Lemme guess, offer a wino a drink, offer a junkie a fix, they'll follow you anywhere. And I bet no one will even miss them."

"I want to know where that Center is, Krycek."

"So do I."

The two men stood silently, with just the sound of the crumbling logs in the fireplace, flames beginning to flicker low. Another standoff, another wall. A small smile played quickly over Mulder's mouth. "Who knotted your bowtie for you?"

Krycek frowned at the question, at the strange turn in their conversation, at the runaway rollercoaster that was Mulder's brain. He looked down at his tuxedo. Sighing, he reached up behind his neck, fiddling beneath the collar of his silk shirt until he found the tab, snapped it open. He pulled the knotted bowtie off and flung it at Mulder. Then he freed the top button on his shirt, not surprised that he didn't feel any more comfortable for it. "Any other questions before you go?"

Mulder crushed the bowtie in his hand for a second, then dangled the strip of black satin from his fingers. "The wonders of haute couture." He took another step towards him. "I'm beginning to think you wear more masks than they do in a Noh play."

Before Krycek could even fathom the comment, he felt Mulder's arm around his neck, jerking him forward, their mouths crushing together. Then just as quickly, Mulder's mouth gentled, the full lips brushing, nuzzling against him, kissing him over and over again.

He wanted to pull away. He knew he should pull away, but the twisting pain inside him was melting into fire, spreading so quickly through him. He moaned, unable to stop himself. The heat of Mulder's mouth was burning through him. He felt his lips open, felt Mulder's tongue slipping over and around his own. Tasted cognac. His arm slipped around Mulder's shoulders, pressing them even closer. Even with all the layers of clothing between them, he could feel Mulder's erection against his groin. His own cock was throbbing and hard. They began moving against each other, grinding their bodies together, Mulder's arms burrowing inside his jacket, roaming up and down his back.

A log snapped in the fireplace, the sound like a muffled rifle shot.

They broke apart, Krycek stumbling back a step, dazed, half-gasping. Mulder was trembling, raising the back of his hand to his mouth, shaking his head. His skin was flushed, eyes bright with a dark excitement. He was beautiful in a way no other man had ever seemed to Krycek before.

Krycek could feel himself shaking, too. He wanted Mulder terribly, felt the hunger screaming from every cell. He was starving for him. But Mulder was already moving towards the door. Krycek fought the urge to run after him, forced himself with every last bit of strength and reason to stand still. He could hear Mulder's hurried steps, the door flinging open. He waited with the lingering taste of Mulder in his mouth and the feel of his hard body against him. He listened to the sound of a car starting, the quick screech of tires, and then the silence.

He walked slowly to the door. It was half-open, letting in the cold night air and a chilling breeze. He didn't feel it. He closed the door and set the locks. Pulled his gun from the drawer. Walked to the security panel and checked the alarms. Walked through the rooms and turned off the lights. In the end, he found himself in front of the remains of the fire, watching the dying glow of the embers as the room faded into darkness.

As he made his way upstairs, he gazed down the long hallway towards the old man's room at the far end, the bedroom that faced the garden. He wondered if the other man had heard anything. If maybe he had been spying on them. No, the Brit had too much class for that. He wasn't like the Smoker. Yet, it seemed as if the old man had deliberately left him with Mulder. Just as he had sent him to Mulder with the news of the Alien war and the captured Rebel leader, the news that had given Mulder back his faith. And, the old man had been adamant about Krycek being the one to give Mulder the Ridley material on that night of the storm. Krycek swallowed at the memory and rubbed his hand over his face, feeling the emotions welling up all over again. Why had Mulder kissed him tonight? Why did it feel so good? Damn it, he couldn't let Mulder keep affecting him this way. There was too much to be done. Too many plans already in motion. He still had to deal with the smoking bastard. He still had to work with the Syndicate scum. He couldn't afford to make any more mistakes. He couldn't afford to be distracted by Fox Mulder. He couldn't let a hopeless, pathetic dream get in his way.

He stopped in the doorway of his room. The same room where he'd spent the night with Mulder. "It doesn't matter," he whispered angrily to himself. He took a deep breath and went into the room, shutting the door and switching on one of the bedside lamps. The light threw a soft, golden glow across the elegant furnishings. His gaze swept across the antique writing desk, the polished bureau dresser, the painting of the foxhunt on the wall, the tall windows with their fine voile curtains. Finally, his eyes fell on the wide four-poster with its muted rose bedspread. He felt an ache in his chest as he took off his shoes and tuxedo jacket. He lay back on the bed, his hand absently stroking the silken coverlet. He closed his eyes and saw Mulder's face. He heard the sound of pounding rain and thunder. Saw the memory of that night unfold in a thousand tormenting images.

He slammed his fist against the bed with a groan, his erection chafing against his pants. He opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. What the hell was he going to do? How was he going to deal with this? Even as he asked himself the question, he was sitting up and reaching for the phone on the bedside table. Every rational cell in his brain began screaming at him to stop. Every sensible, self-preserving instinct was proclaiming him a fool as he cradled the phone receiver in his prosthetic hand and began to punch in the number.

***

The stars winked at Mulder like sly crystal eyes as he stared up at the sky. "C'mon, share the cosmic joke. Or am I it?"

He couldn't seem to get out of the car. He'd been parked in front of his apartment for he-didn't-know-how-long, the winter air washing over him from the open window. He was chilled and shivering, but the cold still couldn't reach the part of him that was burning.

He understood aberrant behavior. He'd seen it, studied it, profiled it. Yeah, he knew it when he saw it. He gazed into the rearview mirror. "You are truly fucked up." He rubbed his hands over his face and slumped back into his seat.

The tux had thrown him. Waiting for that front door to open, Mulder had prepared himself for any number of possibilities, but he sure as hell hadn't expected to come face to face with Alex Krycek, fucking GQ Model of the Year. The unpredictable, duplicitous bastard. And then there was the wily old Brit standing there in the background, looking even more smug and supercilious than usual. What was going on with those two? Not that he gave a fucking damn. He really didn't, he told himself adamantly.

He was more troubled about what was going on between himself and Krycek. Whatever the hell that might be. Ironically enough, for a man who had spent most of his life searching for the truth, Mulder wasn't sure he wanted to know. Maybe Krycek did want to stop the colonization, and maybe he really did want to help him. Even so, Mulder knew it would only be to further Krycek's own interests. Those interests were bound to be dark, dangerous and illegal. And, the past would always be there between them, no matter what. Unfortunately, that did nothing at all to explain why Mulder kissed him on the mouth. And kept kissing him. Didn't explain why he wanted to do far more than that. Everything was fucked up since his Sex with the Single Arm session at that house. Mulder sighed, his breath frosting in the air. It had been so much easier when he just wanted to beat the life out of the bastard. Recognizing that he had that much violence in him was tough enough, yes, but at least he could rationalize it against Krycek's many transgressions. However ugly, it made some kind of hairy, testosterone sense. But he didn't know what the hell to do about the breadth of his feelings for Krycek now. They seemed to span a wide, wide range from hatred to... the inexplicable. He shivered again and finally made himself roll up the window and get out of the car. He could be just as miserable in his apartment, after all.

He was getting into the elevator, pushing the button for his floor when he saw it. A sliver of black satin hanging from the side of his trenchcoat. His heart sped up and his cock twitched as he pulled Krycek's bowtie from his pocket. Damn, he must've shoved it in there when he'd started kissing...

The elevator doors opened with a thump, startling him, and he walked slowly out and down the hallway, black satin crushed in his fist. As he approached his door, he found himself holding the bowtie up to his face, against his mouth and nose. He could smell the faint scent of expensive cologne and Krycek's skin and he saw him in his mind's eye, standing near the fireplace in that tux with the glow of the firelight spilling over him like molten gold.

Mulder hadn't even noticed the prosthesis.

With a tired groan, he shoved the satin strip back into his pocket. He fumbled with his keys, realized his hands were trembling, and finally unlocked the door and went inside. He stood just inside, in the dark, and looked down at the precise spot on the floor where he had picked up a small square of paper a few months ago. He felt his throat tighten and he walked over to the couch, sinking down into the cool leather.

The red light on his answering machine was blinking. Scully. Probably wondering if he'd looked at the material she'd messengered to the office and if he'd finally gotten to those reports for Skinner. He managed a weak smile. Scully was always there for him. Maybe they didn't share the same kind of 'faith,' but they believed in each other. He knew she was on his side.

If only.

He shook his head and slipped his hand into his jacket pocket, pulling out the list that the Gunmen had given him. He would have to tell Scully about Ridley's papers. She wouldn't be happy about his methods, but what the Gunmen had found was important. He could feel it. If they could find the sixth man, they might find the key to uncovering the truth about the Colonists, about the abductions. And Samantha. He squeezed his eyes shut, then reached down to pull the bowtie from his other pocket. He placed the list and the rumpled black satin on the coffee table, side by side. He stared at them for a long time.

His muscles were tense when he stood up. He rubbed at the back of his neck and glanced at his watch. It was late but he thought about calling Scully anyway. He went over to the machine to check her message. The buttons clicked and the tape rewound briefly and played his greeting as he shrugged off his coat. When he heard the soft, velvet voice, his body just... froze.

"Mulder. Come back tomorrow night. Nine o'clock. I-I'll be alone." Click.

He stared, wide-eyed, at the answering machine. "Son of a bitch." Then he yelled. "You son of a bitch!" He began pacing back and forth across the living room, fists punching the air. The light from the fishtank cast a liquid, eerie glow through the shadowy room as he kept pacing. Slowly, the anger drained out of him and he stopped and just stood in the middle of the room. Inside, he was still burning.

He pulled off his tie, his jacket and dropped the rest of his clothes in a trail to the bathroom. He turned on the light and the shower, and waited until the mirror began to steam.

He shook as the water poured over him. He ducked his head under the spray and rested his forehead against the slick white tiles. The spray beat across his back and shoulders, rivulets of heat running over his buttocks and legs. It was soothing, relaxing. The water drummed hypnotically against the tiles and the floor of the shower, like rain. Like a heavy rainstorm. Suddenly the images came flooding back. With a groan he threw his head back, eyes closed, the water hitting him across the face and neck. The images teased him and he drew his hand down over his chest and over his groin and wrapped his fingers around his growing erection. His mind continued to torment him with the memory of Krycek's mouth, lips and tongue unexpectedly tentative and wholly erotic as they delicately licked and sucked his cock. Mulder moaned and began to stroke himself.

He came against the tiles, semen mingling with the pounding spray, leaving him feeling more guilty than relieved. He washed and dried himself quickly, throwing on his old blue terrycloth robe.

The lights were still off in the living room as he dug out a pillow and blankets from the closet and spread them out on the couch. He was getting tired of sleeping in the living room. One day soon, he'd have to try and clear out the bedroom, make it habitable again. Yeah, sure. His mouth stretched in a cynical line. The odds were more likely that an X-file would redecorate his bedroom before he ever got around to it. He almost wished it would.

He settled down into the couch and turned on the remote. The TV flickered to life but he didn't really watch it. An infomercial rolled silently on as he shifted restlessly this way and that, punched at the pillow and pulled at the blankets. Finally, though he struggled against it, the memory of that night with Krycek crept back into his mind again. This time it was the comfort of that big, elegant four-poster bed that taunted him. Lying in those silky, rose-colored sheets, wrapped warmly around the man who had so deeply betrayed him, a raging rainstorm thundering around them, Mulder had slept like a baby. It didn't make sense. Nothing about his interactions with Krycek ever made sense. He threw the blankets aside and staggered off the couch to the answering machine. He rewound the tape and waited. His heartbeat jumped up as Krycek's voice drifted across the room. "Mulder. Come back tomorrow night. Nine o'clock. I-I'll be alone."

Did Krycek seriously expect him to show up? To run over there with his dick poking through his pants? Or maybe he expected him to turn up on his doorstep with a bottle of wine under one arm and a single red rose clamped between his teeth? The lying little prick. What kind of fucking head games was he playing now?

Mulder threw up his hands, stopping himself. Wait. Think. He forced himself to take a long, deep breath. Slowly, he looked down at the answering machine and replayed the message again. And again. And made himself listen, not to the words but to the voice, the tone, pauses, cadence. Krycek sounded strained, hesitant. Maybe even a little afraid? Scully would have said he sounded like a man making a confession.

Mulder finally clicked off the tape and combed his fingers through his damp hair and felt the room's chill wrap around him. He went back to the couch and burrowed under the blankets, flicking off the TV. With the night closing around him and the soft gurgle of the aquarium in the background, he stared up at the ceiling, knowing sleep would elude him again.

***

Krycek fiddled with the straps on his prosthesis, moving his shoulder to settle the weight and fit of it more securely. He looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, felt that now familiar moment of revulsion as his eyes swept over his body and focused on the flesh-colored plastic that was his left arm. He wondered if the feeling would ever go away. He doubted it. He'd never be a whole man again.

"You got what you deserved, remember that. No self-pity, asshole," he warned his reflection. There was really no other mindset for him if he was going to survive. He knew how to compensate for the arm. The prosthesis was manageable, much better than the first one. He'd also figured out a proper calisthenics routine for himself and he'd stuck to it conscientiously. His body was in good shape. He was stronger than he'd ever been. He couldn't afford to look vulnerable, to be vulnerable. "So what do you do, asshole? You go and invite Mulder back here."

Krycek shook his head, banishing the subject that had kept him tossing and turning for most of the night and walked back into the bedroom. The gray dawn had passed into serious daylight, the weak winter sun filtering through the tall windows. He rummaged through the closet, not particularly surprised to find that all the clothes he had left behind were still hanging there. The old man hadn't wanted him to look like a refugee and had stocked the closets accordingly. He smiled faintly as he recalled how the Well-Manicured Man had been the only one to object to sending him in as Mulder's partner four years ago. The Smoker had retorted that it was probably Krycek's suits that the old man found most offensive about the plan. The Brit hadn't found the comment amusing. Krycek's smile faded as he wondered how things might've turned out had the Syndicate listened to the Brit instead of the Smoker. He shrugged the thought away. It was a pointless waste of time to speculate on a past that couldn't be changed.

Krycek put on a tee shirt and tucked it into his black jeans. Then he picked out a thick wool burgundy sweater. Like the tee shirt, he put it up over his left arm first, just one of the thousand little ways he'd had to adjust his routine activities to the prosthesis, but at least it was getting easier, more automatic. He paused as he smoothed the fine wool over his waist. Strange how the old man never referred to his fake arm at all, as if he didn't notice it. The other Syndicate bastards never failed to remind him.

He headed downstairs a few minutes later, going first into the living room to look for his bowtie. Several futile minutes later, he wondered if maybe Mulder had taken it with him by mistake when he stalked out of the place. He could just imagine Mulder rummaging through his musty collection of X-Files paraphernalia for a suitable voodoo doll to wrap it around.

Giving up the search with a sigh, he headed for the kitchen where he was a little surprised to find fresh milk and other groceries in the refrigerator, but then he supposed the old man had expected to spend the night here and had made arrangements in advance. He was certainly a meticulous man who planned every detail.

As Krycek waited for the fresh coffee to finish brewing, he walked over to the large, three paned window that overlooked the garden. It was an unusual window in that half of the middle pane was actually an insert of stained glass. The long, rectangular piece was made of deep blue, azure and green colored glass in the shape of a cluster of tall blue irises, with a dab of yellow in the center of each flower. A border of small beveled crystal squares framed the rectangle. It caught the pale sunlight and spilled it across the white floor in bright shafts of blue and green. When he'd first seen the window, he'd found it disturbing. It had instantly reminded him of a long ago garden filled with irises swaying in the summer breeze. His mother's favorite flower. He had forced himself to sit and just look at the window, sometimes for hours, facing the memories and methodically ridding himself of every feeling. Now when he stared at the irises, he felt nothing. It was just a pretty piece of glass.

He only wished he could banish Mulder from his thoughts as well. He reached out and touched a deep blue petal on one of the flowers. It felt cold against his fingertips as he traced its outline. He shouldn't have called Mulder. It was such a clearly stupid mistake and yet he couldn't seem to stop himself. Mulder was his weakness, his Achilles' Heel. He knew that now. Had realized it the moment he'd given Mulder back his gun that night in his apartment. And if there'd been any doubt, it had been forever erased the night of the storm.

"You're up early, Alex."

Krycek turned to see his host standing in the doorway, impeccably groomed in a dark three-piece pinstriped suit, his silver gray tie matching his neatly combed hair.

"I don't need much sleep."

"Ah, the boundless energy of youth," returned the Well-Manicured Man with a tiny smile. "I, on the other hand, am far too old to waste any more time than necessary in sleep." He walked over to the window and looked out at the garden, at the bare trees and shrubs, stripped by the winter chill. "I must remember to tell the gardeners to plant roses this Spring. They would do well here."

Krycek glanced outside then back at the old man. "Do you have any plans for today?"

"First, I believe I'll have a coffee."

Krycek nodded with a grin and went to pour two cups. "Any plans after the coffee?" he asked as he placed a cup on the table and went back to retrieve his own. They sat down across from each other.

"I'll spend a few days in Virginia. I've already called. Someone will be here shortly to drive me back." The old man sipped his coffee. "No matter how long I've stayed in this country, I'm afraid I still can't tolerate driving on the right side of the road. Seems so uncivilized."

"You didn't need to call anyone. I can drive you."

"That's quite all right, Alex. You should settle in here." The silver brows rose slightly. "I'm sure you have matters of your own to attend to. You can use the Mercedes for as long as you like. I have no need of it. The Syndicate will be meeting early next week. I'll want you to be there. I expect we'll have some progress reports on locating our absent colleague."

"Are you sure he's not dead?"

"Quite certain. Yes. Don't look so disappointed, Alex. Remember, he is the means of solidifying your position in the Syndicate."

Krycek merely stared into his cup.

"I think Agent Mulder was lying."

Krycek glanced up and met the old man's eyes. "Lying?"

"Yes, about the Ridley papers. I think he has indeed discovered something. It's a pity he's disinclined to share the information with us." The old man smiled briefly. "Of course, I can certainly understand his reticence. Ridley's research and the man's involvement with the Project seems peripheral at best, but the fact that the Colonists are so interested in his work would indicate that there is something valuable there. Whatever Mulder has found, it could be significant. We mustn't take the chance of the other Syndicate members discovering that we know the whereabouts of that material. That limits our interference in any case. However, if you have an opportunity to speak with him, you might try and question him about it."

"He won't tell me anything."

"Perhaps he will if you tell him something in return."

Krycek's eyes narrowed. "Assuming I'd even see him, what could I possibly tell him?"

"Something helpful. Oh, nothing that would jeopardize your position or mine, of course, but... something. Mulder is an addict for knowledge. He is also a man with a Mission, a man obsessed. Play to his obsessions, Alex, and you will have the key to Fox Mulder."

"Why would I want it?"

"Mulder is an important player in our grand game. He could affect its outcome more than any of us, and that could ultimately be to your advantage and mine." The Well-Manicured Man gazed at the stained glass irises for a moment. "Besides, you may find you have more in common with him than you realize."

"That's a frightening thought."

"For you or for Mulder?"

Krycek couldn't help but smile at the old man's rejoinder. "For once, I'm sure I know what Mulder would say to that." He paused, playing absently with the handle of his coffee cup. "I think you want me to keep in contact with Mulder. Why?"

The old man looked at him solemnly. "Two years or so ago, I met Agent Mulder late one evening in Central Park. He was looking for you. So were we all, as it turned out. At the time, you had possession of a certain, valuable DAT tape. Do you recall?"

What he could recall of that time, he remembered only too well. He nodded grimly.

"I found my brief discussion that night with Agent Mulder quite illuminating. He was quite intent on locating you. I assumed he wanted to kill you and I told him so. He didn't deny it. Then I asked him why he hadn't killed you already, since he seemed to have had ample opportunity." The old man's lips pursed thoughtfully. "It was his physical reaction to my question that fascinated me. It was as if the question disturbed him so much, he literally had to take a step back from it. His response came a beat too late. I saw something in his face, in his eyes then. I do not believe that Mulder wants to be your enemy, Alex. I believe he simply feels he has to be. If the circumstances allowed, you two would make formidable allies."

"It's too late for that."

The Well-Manicured Man's lips thinned in a rueful smile. "Perhaps. Perhaps not." The antique clock in the hallway chimed the hour in bell-like tones and he rose from his chair. "I have some calls to make to England before my driver arrives." He picked up his cup. "I'll be in the study."

Krycek watched silently as the Brit walked out of the kitchen. He found himself wishing that the old man was right and he was wrong.

***

Mulder was having a generally lousy day. He managed to complete his reports for Skinner just in time for their meeting. The Assistant Director, as expected, was less than thrilled with their inconclusiveness. Mulder's obvious preoccupation and tendency to glance at his wristwatch during the meeting didn't exactly help to improve his boss' reaction either. At least Scully's data had given his report some substance even if her summary notes didn't quite validate his theory. Status quo.

After a lunch he could barely recall and a bag of sunflower seeds that disappeared over the course of an unproductive afternoon, Mulder was ready to call the whole day a wash. His only notable moments were a call from Byers who told him that the Gunmen had traced a clue to the whereabouts of the sixth man. The man had been staying in Manila most recently, but seemed to have gone off to do some sort of unspecified research on the island of Mindanao. The trail went cold at that point. Byers sounded apologetic.

"Don't worry about it, Byers. Just keep digging. Find out whatever you can about his background, what he was researching in Toronto and in Mexico. I also want you guys to keep checking on the other five scientists. Find out as much as you can. We're getting close, I can feel it."

The other moment was his call to Scully. After a few perfunctory comments about their latest reports and his meeting with Skinner, he almost told her about the Ridley papers. He stopped himself as he decided the best thing to do was just to bring his copy of the material over to her house and hit her with it all at once. When she asked him about his source, he'd tell her the material came from the Well-Manicured Man. That wouldn't be a lie, after all. It just wouldn't be all of the truth. Then, after she read him the requisite riot act, he was sure he could persuade her to review it, including what the Gunmen had found. Scully hated being accused of not keeping an open mind. Mulder would not only be able to sound her out on all his questions about Ridley's research, but he also wouldn't be able to be anyplace else. Yeah, that would be perfect.

"So, Scully, you got any plans for this evening?"

"My mom is paying a visit tonight. She said my ankle gives her the excuse to come over and make dinner for me. Actually, I think she's a little worried about me. I haven't seen her in quite a while, we've been involved in so many cases lately. I'm looking forward to spending some time with her. Why do you ask, Mulder? "

Mulder grimaced. "I'm feeling the sand shifting beneath my feet."

"What?"

"Nothing. I, uh, just had something I wanted to talk to you about. Um, kinda related to an old X-file--"

"Oh, no, Mulder. Unless it's a life and death emergency, you can forget it. I've worked all week at home on those damn reports as it is. Whatever it is can wait until Monday." She paused. "Is it really important, Mulder?" Another pause. "Mulder?"

He realized he was chewing on his thumbnail. Or what was left of it. "Uh, it's okay. It'll keep. I'll tell you about it when I see you. Whenever."

"Good. You're okay, aren't you?"

"Oh, yeah, sure. Great."

"I know I'm not much better at it than you, but it wouldn't hurt for you to try and put the work aside just for an evening, once in a while."

"And do what?"

She sighed. "Go see a movie--with some dialogue in it? Feed your fish. How about that gym where you play basketball every other leap year or so? I don't know, Mulder. Just something normal human beings do."

It was as close to a non work-related discussion as they ever got and it wasn't even new. "If only they'd bring back Disco," he said, sensing her smile across the phone line.

"Well, they might by the time you get around to it."

"I'm that spooky, huh?"

"No, you're not. It's just that I think it's important to step away from the work sometimes."

"Yeah, I know what you're saying, Scully. You have a good evening with your mom, okay?"

"Mulder?"

"I promise. I'll feed the fish." He was pleased to still hear the smile in her voice as she told him she would see him on Monday and hung up.

Though he was disappointed, it was also one of those altruistic moments when he realized that Scully might not be living the kind of life she wanted to live, when he caught sight of what Scully's involvement with the X-files had cost her. She'd given up so much and yet he kept asking her for more and more. Another wave of guilt washed over him because he knew he would just keep on asking her, for as long as she would let him.

After the call, Mulder ignored the other report he told Skinner he would finish and divided what was left of the day between researching the Island of Mindanao and reviewing sections of Ridley's notes that he'd hidden among his files.

He left work around 6:30, stopping to buy some fish food on his way home. He kept his promise to Scully as soon as he walked into his apartment. Fish satisfied, he changed into his sweats and went out for a long run. It was cold and windy but he needed to burn off some of the energy that just seemed to be building and building inside him. He ran until his legs felt like rubber and he was gasping for breath.

When he staggered back into his apartment, he dragged his ancient portable radio into the bathroom, turned on one of the oldies stations, kicked up the volume and took a shower. The driving beat of "Jailhouse Rock" and the Supremes helped mask the sound of the water. All the same, he showered in record time.

He ordered a pizza that arrived a little after 9 o'clock. Four and a half minutes after nine to be precise. It was as if he could hear every single tick of every watch and clock in the place.

"Why the hell should I go over there," he muttered as he took another bite of pepperoni and cheese. "Am I that crazy?" Five minutes later, he threw the half-eaten slice into the pizza box and slumped back against the couch. Krycek's bowtie was still on the coffee table. He looked at it for a while then reached over and picked it up, draping it over his fist. "Spoils of war," he whispered. His body was tingling again. He heard Scully's voice in his mind. 'Just something normal human beings do.' He stood up slowly like a man resigned to the inevitable. "Well, at least I fed the fish," he said to the empty room.

***

Krycek read through the material on Senator Matheson twice and made a couple of calls to find out a few things that wouldn't ever show up in any computer records. It was beginning to add up to something very useful and possibly very powerful. The fact that certain parties now considered him a close associate of the old Brit's hadn't hurt either. There were new avenues opening for him everywhere, and he was going to use every single one of them. He shut off the computer and sat staring at the darkened monitor.

All told, it had been a productive day. When the clock in the hallway chimed ten, he wondered why he still felt so disappointed.

Mulder wasn't going to show. That was... fine. Just fine. The call had been a mistake, a moment of ridiculous weakness that he was never going to repeat. So, he was lucky, lucky that Mulder didn't give a damn.

When the bell rang, his head snapped towards the front door. He stared in disbelief. No, it couldn't be. He stood up, body tensing, as the bell rang again. He was halfway to the door before he realized it. Before caution and common sense could stop him, he was opening the door. With a terrible flash of déjà vu, he found himself looking into Fox Mulder's bright hazel eyes.

At least, this time, it wasn't raining. A strong wind was blowing, though, ruffling Mulder's thick chestnut hair across his forehead. Krycek only had a moment to register that Mulder was wearing a black leather jacket before he was pushed back and the door was slammed shut behind them. The sound made him flinch. Mulder reached into his left pocket, the movement making him take another step backward until he saw the black satin cloth. Slowly, Mulder held the crumpled bowtie out towards him. "Yours," he said, his face beautiful and utterly unreadable.

Krycek watched the full lips open slightly as Mulder stood waiting and he felt his own heart pounding. He raised his hand to take the bowtie and their fingers touched, Mulder's chilly hand suddenly closing over his.

It was like coming together in a strange, dreamlike dance, Mulder filling his space, right arm snaking around his waist as he pulled them together. Krycek caught a glimmer of black satin falling to the floor as he moved his own arm across Mulder's back and their lips met in a kiss.

He leaned his body into Mulder's, his arm clutching at his jacket, fingernails scrabbling against the soft black leather. When he felt Mulder's hands pushing him away, he couldn't quite keep a whimper from escaping at the loss of that cool, tender mouth.

Mulder was staring at him, his breath quick and his eyes burning with light. He gazed up towards the staircase and back again. "C'mon," he said, the word harsh, insistent. He headed up the stairs, glancing back only once.

Krycek followed him, his brain watching from a distance in amazement as his body carried on without it. Mulder had turned on the light in the bedroom and stood looking intently at the big, four-poster bed as if it was some sort of intricate puzzle, his head tilted slightly. Then, puzzle suddenly solved, he shrugged out of his jacket, flinging it over a nearby chair.

Mulder walked up to him, arms going around him again, but this time, hands gripped his ass roughly, long fingers scraping along the seam of his jeans between his cheeks. There was something calculating about the gesture, something cruel that didn't seem like Mulder at all. Memories that were dark and enraging rose from a buried corner of his mind.

"I want to fuck you, Krycek." Mulder's voice was cold, detached.

The words hit Krycek in the face. They were a grim echo rising from another past. Suddenly, his whole body tensed. He pushed Mulder away and managed to answer calmly, with effort. "It's a fact of life that we don't always get what we want."

The long brown lashes blinked, hazel eyes staring into his. "You don't like to get fucked in the ass, Krycek?"

The anger began to coil through his insides. Perhaps it was the tone of Mulder's voice or the sudden hint of contempt in his eyes. "Did you think I would?"

Mulder raked him up and down. "I assumed your experience in that area would be extensive."

"Taking a dick up the ass is a painful, humiliating, disgusting act. Why would I want someone to do that to me? Maybe you want me to do that to you?"

Though there was a fleeting sense of satisfaction in seeing the nonplussed expression on the usually bland face, he immediately regretted it. He bit down on his lip, wishing he could take back the words. It was old history. Mulder had nothing to do with any of that. Krycek had dealt with it long ago. Dead and gone. He couldn't believe the anger was coming out of nowhere, choking him again.

"No, but then I've never tried it." The voice was suddenly mild, the hazel stare so innocuously curious that Krycek had to look away. When he glanced back, Mulder was standing by the bookcase. His hardon was pushing against the front of his jeans. "Some of these look like first editions," he said as he pulled a book off of a shelf and put it back again.

Mulder's turn of conversation baffled him. Krycek frowned, struggling between his old rage and the palpable sexual heat that seemed to overtake him whenever Mulder was close by. He let out a breath as he tried to find his mental equilibrium. "I--yes, some of them."

Mulder went over to the bed and picked up a dog-eared paperback from the nightstand. "This is the old man's, too?" he asked, eyebrows rising skeptically.

"No, that's mine."

"Yeah? I wouldn't have thought it'd be your kind of book." He shrugged. "Billy Pilgrim is one of my favorite characters."

"That figures. You're as lost as he is." There was a certain edge of insanity to their exchange. Here they were, standing a few feet from each other with straining erections, and Mulder was commenting on his literary selections. Krycek squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, feeling the anger dissipate in the face of the sheer lunacy of the moment. When he opened them again, Mulder was smiling, a real and genuine Mulder smile, a rare event in Krycek's presence. The temperature in the room went up a few notches.

Mulder's smile faded. "Look, you called me because you wanted to have sex. All right. I'm here because I want to have sex. I'd prefer to do it with my clothes off. How about you?" No coldness, no contempt. Just need. Just a statement of facts.

Yes, it was really that simple, wasn't it? Mulder was right. It was a mutual bad itch that was driving them both crazy. Just scratch the itch and make it go away. And then Mulder would go away. He'd be free. Then again, that's what he thought the night of the storm.

Mulder was pulling off his gray sweatshirt. He wasn't wearing a tee shirt. He dropped the sweatshirt on the plush carpet and turned towards Krycek. The bulge in his crotch pushed impressively against the worn blue denim. He unbuttoned his jeans and slid the zipper down, eyes never leaving Krycek's face. He crouched, ridding himself of his socks and Nikes. And then he stood up wearing nothing but his too-snug, unzipped jeans. He was a wet dream with his wind-blown hair and pouty mouth and burning eyes.

Krycek couldn't even swallow as Mulder walked up to him and kissed him, tongue sliding in deep. Cool fingers burrowed underneath his sweater, under his tee shirt, played over his ribs, his back.

Krycek's cock was so hard, it almost hurt. He moaned into Mulder's mouth as a hand cupped his groin and fingers glided over his black jeans, snapping them open and tugging the zipper down.

Mulder pulled away again, leaving him aching. "I want to look at you. Take your clothes off. Please."

You won't want me, thought Krycek suddenly. The thought cut through him like a razor. If you see me, you won't want me. It had already happened before, another ugly memory, but he hadn't cared then. It hadn't been Mulder then. "Turn off the light."

"No."

At that moment, he wanted Mulder more than anyone, more than anything. It would be all, and then nothing. Slowly, fearing what he would see in Mulder's face and aching with a need he hated himself for, he pulled off his sweater, working it down and over his prosthesis. He clutched the soft wool in his hand for an instant before tossing it on the bed. He reached for his tee shirt and carefully took it off. It was quiet enough to hear the wind outside the tall windows. He fixed his gaze on the pale ivory curtains and waited.

Mulder walked past him and for one, crushing second, Krycek thought he was leaving. But Mulder just stopped to stand behind him. Krycek caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and watched in surprise as long fingers caressed his lifeless hand, trailed up to the elbow joint, moved still upward to where the prosthetic limb met what was left of his arm. Fingertips methodically traced the thin straps that crossed his shoulder and he felt Mulder's hand, the touch fading in and out as he stroked from flesh to plastic and back again.

Mulder seemed fascinated by it. Perhaps Krycek should have expected as much. Then again, Mulder was a man he was rarely able to second-guess. He shifted to look into Mulder's face, to see if there was pity in those eyes. He didn't want that, not that, not from anyone, and especially not from Mulder. But there was only heat and hunger in Mulder's eyes. Simple. Yes, perhaps it could be simple after all. Krycek's thought was blown away as Mulder licked his neck, a long, slow swirl that ended in a sloppy, wet kiss. Krycek bared his neck for more. Hands encircled his waist and began sliding his jeans down.

A few minutes later they were both naked, rolling and twisting across the pristine, rose-colored sheets on the big four-poster, their hard bodies grinding against each other. Both were too impatient and needy, too hungry for restraint. They came quickly, almost together.

Krycek opened his eyes, gulping for air, chest heaving. Mulder's body covered him like a blanket, puffs of warm breath tickling the side of his neck. Their bodies were slick with sweat, semen smeared between their bellies. Mulder's weight pressed him down, trapped him. It felt good all the same. He realized with a mental start that he had wrapped his arm around Mulder's shoulder, hand caressing the thick brown hair, the heavy strands falling like silk through his fingers. They didn't talk as their heartbeats settled, neither man moving.

"I hate it when it rains now." Mulder's soft monotone broke the silence. Krycek tried to turn his head to see his face but Mulder only burrowed deeper against his neck, his voice vibrating against his skin. "Every time there's a storm, every time the rain pounds, you're in my head. Bad, bad weather equals Alex Krycek."

"There's no storm tonight," replied Krycek quietly after a moment.

"Isn't there?" Mulder shifted off of him, rolling onto his back. "Felt like lightning to me," he said, his voice low. Their shoulders touched. He couldn't feel the rest of Mulder's arm. His prosthesis lay between them like an odd little wall.

Drawing in a breath, Krycek looked beyond it, to the familiar profile, wondering at the tightness in his chest as Mulder turned his head and met his eyes. He reached over slowly and brushed the kiss-swollen mouth with a fingertip. Lips opened and sucked it in. He pulled his hand away, shocked by the jolt that went through him at that small contact. His heart was racing again and he slid out of the bed, needing to put some space between them. He felt Mulder's eyes boring into his back as he walked into the bathroom. He gripped the edge of the marble vanity top, head lowered. Why did the hunger just grow stronger? The sex should have banked the need. Returned some of his sanity. Why did he still want Mulder so much? So very much. It was all wrong. He couldn't let this damn... feeling throw him off balance.

If it was only sex, he could handle it. It would mean as little to him as it apparently did to Mulder. But he was afraid now. It wasn't just sex for him. It was madness. A flicker of movement in the mirror made him look up. Mulder was standing in the doorway, watching him with that intense gaze that made him want to squirm. He looked away and reached for a wash towel just to have something to do. He wet it under the faucet and began cleaning away the semen that trailed cross his groin and belly. Go away, Mulder. Come closer, Mulder. The feelings chased each other round and round. Madness.

He froze with a gasp, dropping the towel, as Mulder's palm cupped the back of his head, sliding slowly down over his hair, his neck, and along his spinal column, pausing at the base of his spine. Mulder's lips caressed his left shoulder while his hand continued over his right buttock, palm rubbing in delicate circles, very gently. Nothing like before.

"We've crossed into Rod Serling territory, Krycek," Mulder breathed into his ear.

Krycek shivered as he fought to keep his voice cool, to build some façade against the feeling. "There are those who'd say you've always been in the Zone, Mulder."

He heard a sound that wasn't quite laughter as Mulder's tongue danced along his earlobe, making Krycek gasp again. Turning, he put his arm around the other man's neck, catching the flicker of confusion that mingled with the need in the bright hazel eyes. It was reassuring to see the confusion. He kissed Mulder long and deep.

Maybe it was the kisses. It had all started with a kiss, after all. Krycek didn't like to kiss men. There was too much intimacy in the act, too much exposure. So, he didn't. Not until Mulder. Strange how he'd thought of kissing Mulder almost from the beginning. He'd even dreamed about it. He should have seen it as a warning.

They broke apart finally and Krycek stooped to pick up the towel, rinsed it out in the basin again and began wiping away the semen across Mulder's crotch and stomach with the warm washcloth. Mulder accepted it docilely, but when he was finished, Mulder took the cloth from his hand and tossed it into the sink. Once again, the lush mouth drew him like a magnet.

Krycek's cock was twitching as they made their way back to the bed.

There was less urgency. It was both more exciting and more disturbing. He was almost too aware of Mulder, of the faintly greenapple smell of his hair, the pale freckles across his shoulders, the uneven line of his teeth, the round tightness of his buttocks. He wanted all of him, all at once, in every way there was to have him. He wished he wasn't so aware of it, that it wasn't so clear to him, so inescapable. When this strange encounter was over, where would they be? Where would he be? He wished he knew what Mulder was thinking, what he was feeling. Was it a sexual kink and nothing more for him? Is that how Mulder was able to stand to be with him like this? Why was Mulder touching him so carefully? The long fingers seemed to be mapping his body. He couldn't think, couldn't think...

***

Smooth. Krycek's skin was so smooth. Mulder lay his cheek over the middle of Krycek's chest. He could hear the man's heartbeat, strong and steady. He has a heart, after all. Surprise, surprise. He rubbed his face over the firm muscles and kissed a nipple until it stiffened, heard Krycek's puffs of breath quicken. Krycek's hand touched his hair and fingers stroked his temple, making Mulder sigh.

'Just something normal people do.' Scully's words echoed in his head. But Mulder didn't know what 'normal' was anymore. He hadn't in years. Maybe never. More to the point, Mulder wasn't sure he was cut out for 'normal' even if he could have it. His life was a mosaic of the unbelievable, the unexplainable, the bizarre. Just like tonight, he thought, raising his head a little to look into Krycek's face. His eyes were closed, eyelashes fanning long and dark over pale skin. He was very attractive, much too close to pretty. Mulder had thought maybe there'd be scars and marks on his chest, on his body, evidence of a life lived in the dark, but aside from a long, faded line near his groin, there was nothing to mar the silken smoothness of his flesh. Nothing but the truncated arm. He glanced across Krycek's chest at the prosthesis. Mulder felt no pity. He felt no satisfaction either. He wouldn't have wished that particular fate on a dog. It wasn't justice that took Krycek's arm, only miserable, bad luck. Strangely, ironically, it made Krycek more real to him. Krycek's shame was real. That, more than anything, made him damaged, just like everybody else, though in every other way, Krycek was not like everybody else. The dichotomies that permeated everything about this odd relationship with Krycek seemed endless.

Mulder licked at the other stiffening nipple with his tongue. Krycek's chest rose and fell to the sound of his quick, soft gasps. Mulder pushed himself up and kissed the parted lips lingeringly, then settled himself against the warmth of Krycek's body. Mulder threw his arm over his chest, the back of his fingers brushing against the plastic arm. Though his cock throbbed a little, he suddenly felt too comfortable to move. He closed his eyes for just a moment, Krycek's warmth and sound and scent seeping into him, lulling him.

When he opened his eyes again, the room was very bright. He lifted his head, blinking owlishly. He was lying on his stomach, half on the mattress and half on Krycek. The sheets were tossed over them haphazardly, though the room wasn't cold at all.

"This is the second time we've been... together like this, and the second time you've fallen asleep on me." Krycek's voice was raspy and low. Tired. His eyes looked bloodshot. A faint stubble covered his jaw.

Mulder glanced around. The lamp was still on. Sunshine streamed in through the tall French windows. "Wh-what time is it?"

"A little after eight. I thought you'd never wake up. I heard you had insomnia, Mulder."

"Eight? In the morning?"

"That's not moonlight shining in the windows."

Mulder blinked again, shaking his head. His arm was tucked around Krycek's waist. He lay his head back down against the warm shoulder. "I've had trouble sleeping for years."

"Could've fooled me. Move. I want to get up."

"Why didn't you just get up before?"

There was an uneasy pause before Krycek answered. "You wouldn't let me."

Mulder frowned at the reply. Had he been clinging to him? Krycek could've just shoved him away, woken him up, kicked his ass right out of the bed, smothered him in his sleep, for that matter. Krycek didn't look like he'd slept very much, while Mulder felt blissfully rested. In fact, he hadn't slept so well since... his last night with Krycek. Suddenly, Mulder felt a little uneasy, too.

"Will you move? You're pinning my arm."

Mulder shifted over, kicking the sheets off and watched as Krycek flexed his fingers and rubbed them roughly against his thigh. A sudden hazy image of Krycek cradling him in the night rose in his mind. Mulder reached out and took hold of the other man's wrist, feeling him tense. He held on and felt the resistance ebb away as he slowly began to massage the taut muscles from shoulder to elbow and then down to the tips of the long, tapered fingers. He stopped when he heard Krycek sigh, then he leaned over and kissed him. When he pulled away, they looked into each other's eyes. It seemed that neither of them knew what to say. As the moment stretched, Mulder found himself unnerved by that fragile 'something' he glimpsed in Krycek's eyes, yet he couldn't seem to break the contact. He remembered tears spilling from those eyes, and the sound of a rainstorm. As if Krycek could somehow sense it, he turned his head, lashes lowering to veil his eyes.

Mulder bent down and kissed him again, harder, needing to blot out what he didn't want and couldn't afford to acknowledge. Urging simple, uncomplicated lust to take over and obliterate everything else. From the way he responded, Krycek must have wanted it, too.

When Mulder found himself with Krycek's cock in his mouth, he was almost as shocked as Krycek himself. Even so, it wasn't as strange as he thought it would be. In fact, it didn't feel strange at all, and that was the real surprise. Krycek was silky and hard, hot in his mouth. Mulder's tongue licked and danced over and around the slick shaft and caressed the balls. When he felt an arm pulling at his thigh and a few moments later, felt Krycek's warm, wet lips around his penis, it was like an electric circuit completing itself, rushing through and between them. Mulder was clumsy, Krycek was awkward, but it still felt so good he thought his heart might stop. Mulder couldn't tell his own gasps and moans of pleasure from Krycek's. The taste and feel and scent of a man's cock, of Alex Krycek's cock, was wild and thrilling, intoxicating and dangerous, all the more because it was something he never would have imagined of himself.

It felt more like a vivid dream than reality. It wasn't as desperate and frantic as their earlier coupling, but even more intense for all that. As he felt his balls tightening and his orgasm shooting through him, he pulled away from Krycek, his fingers clenching around the slim hips as he cried out helplessly, his body shaking as he came. Krycek's semen splattered against his mouth and jaw, the side of his cheek. It felt warm and rich and unbelievably erotic. He whimpered as the last ripples of his orgasm rocked through him. The room seemed to spin around him, tumbling him this way and that, and only when the universe finally steadied did he realize that his softening cock was still in Krycek's mouth.

He shifted carefully, hearing Krycek gag and begin to cough as he withdrew. Semen dotted Krycek's parted lips as he fought to swallow and breathe evenly again.

Mulder reached out and gently stroked the side of Krycek's face.

A dog began barking, the sound jarring them both, and Mulder drew back. At the sound of muffled voices and car doors slamming, Krycek was out of bed and carefully peering from the side of the nearest window.

Mulder wiped at the semen on his face with his hand and gazed at Krycek's naked back. Sunshine lit the room and even though Krycek stood away from the direct light, it still touched him, outlining his muscles and tinting his skin a warm, golden hue. The prosthetic seemed even more lifeless against it, the flesh tone flat and cold.

"It's the family across the street. I think they're going on a weekend trip or something. They have an Irish setter. I think they call him Casey. Looks like they're taking him with them."

Mulder listened to this mundane and incongruous bit of news with a sense of bemusement. He was used to hearing about vast alien rebellions and sinister worldwide conspiracies from this man. Shadowy rooms and shadowy nights. Now here he was, lying in a very comfortable bed, in a very comfortable house, sunlight streaming in through the windows, watching Krycek's naked ass while he talked about the neighbors' dog. The barking, along with the sound of children's laughter, faded with the hum of a car driving away. "Is it a beautiful day in the neighborhood, Mr. Rogers?"

Krycek turned back to the bed and stared at Mulder. A moment later, a hint of a smirk grew over his face. He raised his hand to his mouth and paused. Mulder watched as Krycek's tongue tip slid over his upper lip, delicately licking at the milky smear across his lips. "I wouldn't know. It's not my neighborhood."

"Then how do you know the name of the dog across the street?"

"The Sandersons next door in the blue house have a Siamese called Jolie. The Meyers in the cream house have a daughter named Becky. No pets. Know the territory, Mulder, whether it's yours or not."

Mulder gathered the scattered pillows and propped himself up. "You don't exactly blend in, do you?"

"Hardly. But they know the old man. Of him, at least. He doesn't exactly blend in either, but he's owned this house a long time even though he rarely uses it. He's a rich and worldly man of influence to the people around here and that goes a long way. They think I'm his long lost nephew."

Mulder snorted. "What a family. I bet you'd put the Corleones to shame."

"You could ask me for a favor and make your own comparison test." Then Krycek smiled. It transformed his face, making him look younger and so...

Mulder looked away. Silence filled the room.

"The night's over, Mulder." Krycek's voice was soft as a sigh. "You better wash your face, get dressed."

When he turned back, Krycek was picking up some of their clothes, strewn across the thick carpet. Mulder got up and headed for the bathroom. At the door, he looked back. Krycek was standing by the bed, holding his shirt. They looked at each other from across the room. "It was... good," said Mulder, reluctantly. It was more than he wanted to admit, and much less than the truth.

He watched Krycek's lips tighten for a moment, the emotions flickering across his face, holding in his unguarded green eyes. "Yeah. Yeah, it was."

Mulder nodded once at the acknowledgement and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. When he came out, his clothes were neatly laid out on the bed and he was alone. He dressed and walked out into the hallway. Curious, he headed for the rooms at the far end. He stopped as he passed a closed door. Running water, a bathroom. He tried to open the door but it was locked. Krycek was in there taking a shower. Mulder tried to picture him without his prosthetic arm. He wondered if Krycek would ever let him see. He frowned at his own thought. It didn't matter. He might not ever see Krycek again in any case. It didn't matter, he told himself again. He knew he had to leave. Turning, he hurried downstairs.

He was almost at the front door when he saw it, a crumpled piece of black satin on the polished hardwood floor. Slowly, he picked it up, stared at it. He was running again. Just like last time, like a rat trying to find escape from his own personal Krycek Maze. Running in circles. Running away.

Mulder knew he had failings, plenty of them, but he never thought of himself as a coward. There were too many questions. He wasn't sure he wanted all the answers, but this time he wasn't just going to run. Carefully, he tucked Krycek's bowtie into the pocket of his leather jacket.

***

Krycek finished adjusting his prosthesis and dressed in the fresh clothes he had brought into the bathroom. He drew his fingers through his damp hair and tugged the charcoal gray sweatshirt over his jeans. Even after his shower, he could still smell Mulder's scent. It was in his nostrils and sunk down deep into his skin. He'd never forget it. Just like he'd never forget the softness of Mulder's brown hair against his cheek or the sound of his snuffling breath as he slept or the warmth of his body against him. Or, worst of all, the feeling of being held as if Mulder really needed him. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing away the images.

It didn't matter, he told himself. Mulder was gone.

He unlocked the door and walked towards the stairs, stopping at the door to his bedroom. As he expected, the room was empty.

It didn't matter.

He had things to do. He had to get to Senator Matheson to begin setting that piece into place, and he still had to deal with the Syndicate bastards and whatever plans they were weaving with the Colonists. He couldn't let anything stand in the way of what he had to do, not even Mulder. It was better this way. He would never have what he wanted for himself anyway. Not ever. He would always be alone. That was the consequence of his choices and he knew it.

He had his promises to keep. They had formed his life and he would see them through to the end. Whatever the cost.

He went downstairs and into the kitchen, and froze as he caught sight of Mulder, back turned to him, staring at the stained glass irises.

"Wh-what are you still doing here?"

Mulder looked over his shoulder at him, frowning. Then he turned slowly and faced him. "We had unprotected sex."

Mulder wore an expression that made him look like he was thinking about something else. Krycek stared, his eyes widening. "You never cease to amaze me," he replied after he realized that Mulder wasn't going to say anything more. "All right. Mulder. Unless all the information, all the surveillance, all the monitoring on you has been wrong all these years, then you are just about the safest man on Earth. As for me, well, you don't have to worry. I'm clean. See, unfortunately, my social life has been almost as lousy as yours. Worse yet, I don't even have your video collection. Now, if that's all you wanted to know." He stepped aside and waved his arm towards the front door.

Mulder was shaking his head. "Last night and the night of the storm. We have a problem, Krycek."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Mulder's eyes lowered and he sighed. "If I was to walk over to you right now and kiss you on the mouth, we wouldn't be able to stop. That's what I'm talking about. Fate threw me a hell of a curve ball when you darkened my life, Krycek." He looked up. "I don't understand it. I don't want it. But I can't make it go away."

"Just leave, Mulder. Just walk out the door and never look back. End of problem."

"No, that doesn't end it. It's not going away. I'll just take it with me, like I have for the past few weeks. Like I have for--" Mulder stopped, lips clamping into a tight, hard line. He drew a breath and spoke again. "And it's not just my problem, is it? You feel it, too, don't you?"

Lie to him. Go on, tell him you don't give a damn. It means nothing to you. He means nothing to you. Nothing. Go on, tell him, you fool. But Krycek couldn't seem to make his voice work. He couldn't say a word.

Mulder took a few steps towards him, and he started backing away. Mulder stopped. "We're going to make an arrangement."

Krycek found his breath. "What?"

"How long are you going to be here?" Mulder's eyes swept the room, his hand gesturing at the house around them with a wave.

Krycek swallowed. No. Don't tell him. Don't let it go any further. You have to stay away from him. You have to end it. "I--I don't know."

"I'll be back next Friday night."

"I don't know if I'll be here."

"Then leave me a message. Like you did last night."

Don't do this. Don't set yourself up. You can't afford the price. "All right."

Mulder nodded once. "Friday night then." He started walking towards him again. Krycek stumbled back another step as Mulder passed him, but Mulder was looking straight ahead, his expression as troubled as Krycek's.

A few moments later, Krycek heard the front door open and slam shut. Slowly, he walked back into the kitchen and stopped just where Mulder had been standing, in front of the windows. He looked up at the irises, the sunlight filtering through the colored glass in a swirl of blues and greens. He could see the memories surging up again, and in the midst, a pair of unforgettable hazel eyes. He suddenly felt as if he had willingly taken the first step towards his own downfall. All his careful emotional shields were crumbling down around him. He wrapped his arm across his stomach, drew in a succession of unsteady breaths.

He didn't know if he was going to laugh or cry. The hardest part of it all was realizing that he wouldn't be able to control himself, either way.

***

Mulder slumped down into his leather couch and stared at nothing. He wondered if he'd made a seriously bad mistake, just as he had been wondering for the entire ride from Arlington to his apartment. Had he finally crossed the Rubicon? An "arrangement," for godssakes. What in the hell had he just arranged? A way of finding the key to the bewildering obsession that drew him to Alex Krycek, a man he had every right, every obligation, to hate? Or had he just set up a neat little schedule for getting laid on a regular basis? A fuck a week, guaranteed. More or less. Or maybe all he was really after was a good night's sleep. Nothing more restful than cuddling up to a cold-blooded killer. Yeah, it all made perfect sense. If you had holes in your head.

Mulder rubbed his hands over his face. He wanted to know what made Krycek tick. He wanted to know the man's secrets. And he wanted to fuck him. Maybe then, it would be over. He could let go of all the conflicting feelings that were tying him in knots. He could finish it and go on with his life.

Krycek's satin bowtie lay on the coffee table. Maybe he'd have it framed one day, or bronzed like a trophy. Mulder shook his head. There was work to do. He had the Ridley papers. Perhaps they would give him the answers to some very different questions, answers he'd been searching for long before Alex Krycek came into his life. His attaché case containing a copy of the papers was on the desk.

He stood up and went over to the phone. Then he dialed Scully's number. Belatedly, he glanced at his watch. It was a little after ten. His stomach growled, reminding him he hadn't had breakfast.

The phone rang twice. "Scully."

"Hi Scully, it's me. Got a minute to talk?"

"Yes, of course. What is it, Mulder? Don't tell me you're in the morgue again."

Mulder smiled. "Not quite. I'm in my apartment. Uh, I know you don't want to talk shop, but I have some information that I need to show you."

"Does this have to do with what you mentioned when you called me yesterday?"

"Yeah. I know I said it could wait until you were back at work, but I really want you to take a look at it right away. In fact, I should have told you about it weeks ago."

"Weeks ago?"

"I can explain when I see you. Okay?"

"Mulder, are you in any trouble over this, whatever it is?"

"Depends on what you mean by trouble." He winced. "No, Scully, I'm not in trouble. I think it's something that can help me find the truth about a lot of things. Can I come over?"

There was a pause, as if Scully could sense the mixture of emotions in his voice and wasn't quite sure what to make of it. "All right, Mulder. I'll be waiting."

"Thanks, Scully." He hung up and let out a long breath. Scully would help him with the Ridley papers. He was sure of that. At the moment, it was the only thing he was sure of.

Mulder pulled on his leather jacket and headed for his desk. As he passed the coffee table, he stopped and picked up the bowtie. He opened a drawer of his desk and paused again. Slowly, he brought the strip of black satin to his lips, held it there for a moment, and then placed it gently inside the drawer.

With a strange, new sense of anticipation, he grabbed the attaché off the desk and walked out the door.


~ End of Part III ~


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