[main] - [updates] - [my fanfiction] - [recommendations] - [livejournal] - [about me] - [miscellaneous] - [guestbook] - [webrings]

How to throw a Curve Ball
Part 5: Strike Zone
by Courtney Gray


Title: How to throw a Curve Ball - Part 5: Strike Zone
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...
Author's Notes: Spoilers: Nothing much beyond Season 5 because, sadly, I don't like much beyond Season 5.
Warning: This story won't make much sense if you haven't read any of the preceding chapters.
Series/Sequel: Story V in the "How to throw a Curve Ball" Series



V.



There were about a dozen cylindrical containers in the darkened traincar. They were all standing on end, braced up against both sides. They reminded Mulder of metal coffins. An intricate webbing of tubes, filters and cables joined them to a large electronic panel and what looked like a fancy set of hydraulic pumps at the far end of the car. An empty operating table stood in the middle. Surgical instruments were laid out on one end, partially covered with a crisp white cloth.

He stooped down to check the body sprawled near the entrance. The man was dressed in green, surgical scrubs. A gun was clutched in one lifeless hand. A bullet hole gently oozed blood from the middle of his forehead. Another man, considerably more thug-like, lay dead just outside, gun also in his hand and several bullet wounds in his chest.

Mulder stepped over the body and swept his flashlight beam over the panel. One or two red lights blinked here and there but most of the displays were dark. He walked down the length of the car, his flashlight playing over the metal containers. All of them had a thick glass viewplate set into the upper half. He looked into each one. Most were the same: greenish, viscous material smeared the glass, mixed with blobs of... something else. Not quite flesh, not quite bone. The things that were in those containers were disintegrating, but he could still make out something akin to a human shape in them. It was the other containers that made his stomach lurch. Humans. Or at least, they had been. Ashen and shriveling now, with tubes snaking out of their mouths and nostrils, with open, dead eyes covered in a film of greenish-black fluid.

A sharp chemical smell hung in the air and it was very cold and quiet. The sound of his footsteps echoed against the metal flooring.

Mulder had expected the Centers to look different. Maybe he wasn't sure exactly what he had expected. Huge underground complexes perhaps. Something larger, more impressive, more elaborate. Something with vast and deadly security systems and a round-the-clock troop of guards. Yet, this was a far more elegant solution, certainly far more practical. Traincars. Relatively small, mobile, difficult to pinpoint amidst a sea of traincars in a sea of railroad yards, or hidden off on some little used track in the middle of nowhere, as this one was. The contents could be offloaded into trucks or other vehicles in the middle of the night and moved with little notice.

And there were railroads all over the world.

When he reached the hydraulic equipment, he saw the damage. Several lines were cut, green fluid still dripping from them into a thick, widening pool on the floor. Gauges were smashed, cables severed. A corrosive had been poured over and into the electronic equipment. Broken wires hung from a small camera mounted in one corner of the ceiling. On the other side of the electronic display, on top of the keyboard, lay a DLT tape. He scooped it up and put it in his coat pocket. He checked around a little more, but there was nothing else.

He left the traincar and paused for a moment to look up at the stars that dotted the blue-black sky. He started running back across the tracks, back towards his car. As he reached a rise, he could just make out several sets of headlights in the distance, weaving towards him. He ran faster, through a line of trees to the quiet, two-lane road that lay beyond. When he got in his car, he kept the headlights off, and drove away in the opposite direction.

The drive back to D.C. wasn't a long one, but it was already morning when Mulder neared the city.

The image of those tortured faces behind the thick glass screens hovered before his eyes. Was that what had happened to Samantha? Was that what they had done to her? Mulder felt the heat of tears but fought them back. The pain was always there, rooted deep in the center of his heart where it would ache whenever he thought of her.

He patted his coat pocket to make sure the tape was still there. He hoped there would be some answers in it.

He thought back to last night's phone call. When the phone had rung, he'd looked at it and known it was Alex Krycek calling him. He'd just... felt it. When he'd answered and heard that low, husky voice, he hadn't been surprised even though almost two months had passed since they'd last spoken in the house in Arlington.

"Mulder, just listen, I haven't much time. The Centers. They're using railroad cars."

"Wha--"

"Just listen. They've moved one and I have a shot at it. If there's anything useful, I'll try and leave it for you. We only have a few hours before they discover what's happened. You have to get here as soon as possible."

Then Krycek had given him the location and hung up.

Mulder glanced at the gray dawn sky, pulled out his cellphone and called Scully. Two rings later, she picked up. "Scully, it's me. I'm on my way to see the Lone Gunmen and I want you to meet me there as soon as you can."

"Mulder, it's not even seven yet. And it's a workday. And we have a meeting with Skinner first thing this morning."

"Tell him I'm following up on a case lead and I need you to join me. Tell him I'm sick and you have to bring me some chicken soup. Tell him anything, Scully. Just get over to the Gunmen's as soon as you can, okay?"

"Mulder, I just can't brush Skinner off without--."

"This is important, Scully. I've seen it, one of the Centers. I have a tape that was left there. I want to find out what's on it right away. Maybe it'll tell us how we can use what we found in Ridley's research." He could picture her eyebrow rising in the short silence that followed.

"You've actually seen one of those places, Mulder? What, how--"

"I'll tell you all about it at the Gunmen's. I... I have something else I need to tell you, too."

"What is it?"

"I'll tell you when I see you."

The pause was longer before she spoke again. "All right, Mulder. I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Thanks, Scully." He clicked off his cell and stepped on the gas.

***

The burly doorman's gold and russet uniform blended nicely with the lobby's Art Deco décor. He gave Krycek a discreet appraisal as he announced his name over the house phone. "Yes, sir, a Mr Krycek is here to see you." After a pause, he ended with another "yes, sir" and turned to Krycek with a polite nod. "Ninth floor, Apartment D, Mr Krycek."

Krycek thanked him and headed for the elevator. As the gilded doors opened for him, he idly wondered if the doorman was on the Syndicate's payroll and decided that his paranoia was definitely running on overdrive.

A few moments later, he was standing in front of apartment D, the letter gleaming from a small, polished bronze plate on the carved wood door. Before he could ring the bell, the door opened.

"Ah, Alex, please come in." The Well-Manicured Man was dressed in an elegant dark blue suit. The tiny flecks of blue dotting his gray silk tie exactly matched the pale color of his eyes. He looked tired. "How was the shuttle flight?" he asked conversationally as he led Krycek into the study.

Deep burgundy wallpaper and dark wood paneling gave the room a stylish air that was underscored by the floor to ceiling bookshelves that took up one wall. Morning sunlight slanted in through the partially opened drapes. A silver coffee service with two china cups stood on a corner of the wide mahogany desk.

"On time and uneventful," replied Krycek. He glanced around the room, noting the layout and took a chair in front of the desk.

The Old Man poured coffee into the two cups and handed one to Krycek. "I received a call a little while ago," he began as he seated himself behind the desk. "It seems the Project has suffered an unfortunate setback. One of the Centers has been sabotaged."

"Serious?" asked Krycek.

"Most definitely. In fact, I was informed that it's a total loss." The old man sipped from his cup, his gray brows rising as he gave Krycek a calculated stare. "You should have told me you were going after the Center, Alex."

Krycek looked up as he added milk to his coffee. "I took the opportunity when it came. You were here in New York with the rest of them. I didn't want to risk trying to contact you first."

The old man's lips pursed thoughtfully, and then he let out a soft sigh. "The Colonists will want answers. Our cigarette smoking colleague will be very busy in the next few days. We must be particularly cautious now."

"I covered my tracks. They won't tie it back to me. And I still think I should have killed him when I had the chance." Krycek drew in a breath, remembering the moment when he stood on that snowy ridge, his gun pointed at the Cancerman's head...

'Go on, take your shot, Alex,' he'd said.

Oh, and how he had wanted to. The bile had risen in his throat as he'd forced out his reply. 'I was sent to bring you back.'

Krycek pushed the memory away as the Brit spoke again.

"The Colonists insisted on his return. They are certain of his commitment to the Project. He has proven his loyalty to them far more... unreservedly than the rest of us. That's what makes him so dangerous. He believes in the Project and in his own destiny as one of its architects." The Well-Manicured Man gave Krycek a wry little smile. "I remember when I believed in it as much as our driven colleague. I remember when you believed in it, too."

"No. I just wanted to be as powerful as the rest of you."

"Then we were both fools, weren't we?" The old man paused, measuring Krycek's expression. "Our colleague's presence buys us more time. He can be useful. Our game has reached a critical stage. You must put any personal vendettas aside, Alex. We cannot afford them now."

"I'm not an amateur."

"Indeed you're not. Please remember it." He took another sip of his coffee, and sat back in his chair. "Have you had any further contact with Agent Mulder?"

"No, not since I spoke to him about Jeremiah Smith."

"Yes. It would seem it was most fortuitous that he came to see you. We can only hope that Smith's information is true and that Mulder will be able to use it to find what we need to know about the Alien disease in the Ridley material. Do you think he'll contact you if he discovers something in the papers."

"I don't know. Does it matter, as long as he's able to put it to use?"

The Well-Manicured Man leaned back in his chair, head angled thoughtfully. "I had hoped that you and Mulder would be able to bridge your past... history."

Krycek put his cup down and met the old man's stare. "Why?"

"Strategy, my boy. To win, it's vital to have the best players on your side. Individually, you and Mulder possess unique abilities. You are both believers in extreme possibilities. You each have access to resources that the other does not. As I've told you before, working together, you can accomplish far more than you can alone."

"Mulder already has a partner."

"There are many kinds of partnerships. They need not be mutually exclusive."

Krycek wondered how much the old man really knew. "I called Mulder and told him about the Center. I found the backup tape there and I left it for him." He waited to see what the old man would say.

The gray brows rose as a hint of a smile touched his face. "Good. Very good."

"You surprise me."

"How refreshing, though I don't see why. When Mulder came to the Arlington house the night of the charity gala, it confirmed something I have suspected for quite some time." Krycek kept his face a careful blank. "Really? What was that?"

The tiny amused smile returned to the old man's face. "Whatever's between the two of you, it is certainly not indifference. And it's far more than animosity. If you are to work together effectively, you must recognize the true nature of your relationship."

"Relationship?" echoed Krycek.

"What other name would you give it?" replied the Well- Manicured Man.

"I'm not sure what I'd call it." Krycek looked away from the other man's steady gaze. He saw now that the Brit had deliberately arranged for his path and Mulder's to cross. He could understand the old man's wish to get Mulder more firmly on their side of the quiet little war of the worlds, but he doubted that his mentor realized how deeply his machinations had affected Krycek's life. "You may have overplayed your hand this time," he said. "I... I don't know how to deal with Mulder. It's just made everything more complicated."

"Mulder is not the sort of man to draw a neutral response from anyone. Perhaps it's because you cannot remain dispassionate with him that you find Mulder... unsettling. You've worked very hard at making sure your emotions never interfere with what you've had to do. That's one of the reasons you have the reputation that you do, though I'm sure it's been a most difficult struggle for you at times. Still, I believe you've handled Mulder quite well, and if it's any consolation, from what I observed of your interactions that night of the gala, I would say that Mulder has as much difficulty 'dealing' with you as you do with him."

"No, it's different for Mulder. He doesn't ca--" Krycek stopped. "It doesn't matter to him," he amended.

"Oh? Fox Mulder strikes me as a man who only bothers with the things that matter to him."

Krycek swallowed, gripped by a confusing twist of emotions in his gut and the sudden memory of Mulder's eyes staring into his. "I'm better off alone."

The silence that followed finally made Krycek look up. The expression on the old man's face was almost kind as the pale blue eyes met his. "No one should ever feel better off alone, Alex. You've been alone too long."

"Why do care? Is it because of my father? Is that it?"

"Your father did the best he could."

Krycek's eyes narrowed. "The best? You call suicide the best he could do?" His lips tightened into a cold line. "He put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger because he was a coward."

The Well-Manicured Man shook his head slowly. "You were a boy. You didn't know the choices he was forced to make. He was a fine scientist, Alex. The Syndicate brought him out of the Soviet Union because they knew what he could do for the Project. We gave him a new life. All he wanted was to be able to do his work. He realized too late that his work was creating something far different from the new world of his dreams."

"He could have fought them. He should have found a way." His voice was rough and accusing. "Where were you? You said you admired him. Why didn't you help him? Help my mother?"

"I wasn't here. I began heading the Project in Europe shortly after your father set up his laboratory here. We were all working in different parts of the world then, establishing the foundation for the work that lay ahead. We each had our particular responsibilities, our particular domains. You know who headed those Operations here."

Krycek voice was soft and chilling. "Bill Mulder."

"Yes, but our smoking friend was in charge overall. And he was as efficient then as now." He waved away Krycek's angry glare. "We were all terribly efficient, terribly dedicated in those days, myself included. It wasn't until I heard about your father's death that I began to doubt..." The old man's voice trailed away, his eyes distant with memories. "Nothing was clear after that. With each passing year, it became more difficult to ignore what your father had foreseen: that we were actively helping to destroy our world instead of saving it."

"Was the car crash that killed my mother really an accident?"

The gray brows rose in surprise. The old man's lips pursed thoughtfully before he answered. "I truly do not know, Alex."

Krycek lowered his head. Why had he expected the other man to be able to answer the question? He shouldn't have even let it slip out. There were only two men who could give him the answer, and one of them was dead. And he didn't believe he would ever hear the truth from the other. Still, just the fact that the Brit was unsure told him that the old man had his suspicions, too.

Krycek slowly raised the coffee cup to his lips and drank. The action gave him time to wrestle his emotions under control, to banish the vision of his mother standing alone in the garden surrounded by the irises she loved, with that terrible, desolate look in her eyes. As he had run to her, clung to her unknowing, she'd tried to smile, tried to hide the fear. It was the last time he'd seen her alive.

He put his cup down and looked back at the man behind the polished desk.

"The past never really leaves us, Alex. We each carry it with us, but how it shapes our future depends on what we do... now. In that, the past has only as much power over us as we choose to give it."

Krycek considered the old man's words and slowly leaned forward in his chair, raising his chin, his voice firm. "I need more information about the Centers. I need to find out what the Colonists are doing now. Can you get me into the next Syndicate meeting?"

***

"Well, guys, what have we got?"

"Looks like there's mucho data on this thing, Mulder. There's a multi-level password schema too, pretty fancy, but we'll dig through it. Just need a little time."

"How much time?"

"You just got here an hour ago, man. Relax, willya, and leave it to the masters."

"Yeah, Mulder, how many times do we have to tell you, our kung fu is the best."

Mulder glanced at his wristwatch and then back at the three heads bent over several computer consoles and assorted techhead equipment. He felt like he'd just brought a fancy new toy to kindergarten. The Gunmen were happily in their element. Somehow, he doubted that Scully would be in the same frame of mind.

When Scully showed up an hour later, the Gunmen were still working on breaking the password encryption. Frohike beamed at her with his usual hint of a leer as his colleagues nodded a greeting before turning back to their task.

Scully gave them a brief smile and turned a raised eyebrow towards her partner. "Well, Mulder, Skinner isn't thinking too kindly of either of us right now, especially since he already suspects we've been keeping him in the dark about something. There's only so much more leeway he's going to give us before he demands some answers. I can hardly blame him."

"Yeah, I know, but he'll get them. We're almost there, Scully, I can feel it." He took her elbow and steered her over towards the kitchen where he could talk to her alone.

"You said you saw it... one of those Centers?"

Mulder nodded, pouring mugs of coffee for them both. "They're using traincars, Scully, outfitted like small mobile laboratories. I saw what they're doing. The hybrids." His jaw clenched as the images flashed through his mind's eye. "It was a torture chamber, Scully. That's what they're doing to those victims, turning them into fodder for their fucking Project. Alien incubators, that's all they were." He went on to describe the contents of the metal canisters, his hazel eyes finally gazing off into a distance only he could see.

After a silence, Scully's reply showed how well she could read him. Her voice was gentle. "You don't know what really happened to your sister, Mulder. It doesn't mean that what you saw in that traincar has anything to do with what happened to Samantha."

Mulder squeezed his eyes shut at her words. A moment later, he looked at her and nodded.

She drew in a breath. "In that traincar... are you sure what you saw involved alien lifeforms?"

"Scully, why can't you believe--"

"It's not a matter of belief, Mulder, I just want to make sure we know exactly what we're dealing with. Your description, as horrific as it sounds, could just as well apply to genetic experiments, DNA manipulations conducted illegally by unscrupulous scientists for any number of reasons. Joseph Ridley conducted just that kind of research to find his so-called fountain of youth. He was grafting salamander cells on human tissue. He was re-engineering human cells, Mulder. Developing his own morphogens to affect normal tissue differentiation. His experiments were horrific as well." She seemed to sense his frustration and reached out to put a hand on his shoulder. "Mulder, I'll try and be open to all the possibilities. I'm only asking you to do the same."

It was an old standoff, as old as their partnership. Her skepticism had kept him grounded and focused on his own quest, her persistent doubts balancing off his own wild flights of intuition. After all their years together, he knew their perspectives would never change, not until Scully could be shown irrefutable proof of the alien conspiracy.

"Fine, Scully. I'm hoping we'll both find the Truth. And soon." He glanced towards the other room where the Gunmen were diligently working. "Once the guys access that tape, we may find out exactly what they were doing in that traincar, and to who."

"You said it might tell us how to apply some of the anomalies we found in the Ridley material?"

Mulder nodded, his gaze still on the three heads huddled amidst the computer equipment. "That's what I'm counting on."

"How did you find out about the traincar in the first place? Was it the Englishman again?"

The question made him turn back, a tiny knot tightening in his stomach as he stared into her bright blue eyes. He swallowed once, feeling he had to be honest with her. "Alex Krycek." And waited.

Scully placed her coffee mug back on the counter with a clunk, her face registering her surprise. "Krycek? He's still alive? I thought someone would've killed him by now." She shook her head slowly. "And he's your source?"

"Yes. He's working with the Englishman now."

"I can't imagine a man like Alex Krycek working with or for anybody but himself." She looked up at him with a frown and gestured to the three men in the other room. "Are you telling me that we're working on information given to you by a liar and a murderer? Mulder, this could all be an elaborate set-up. He could be setting us up right now."

"No. You've examined the Ridley material. It's genuine. And what I saw in that traincar was real."

Scully ran a hand across her forehead. "What makes you think you can believe Krycek now any more than you could before?"

"I know him better now. I've had a chance to really talk to him, be with him. It's changed. It's different. He's different."

His answer seemed to stun her into a momentary silence. Her crystal blue eyes searched his face. "You've been meeting with Krycek all this time?"

"I've... met with him a few times, yes. I didn't tell you about it because--" He faltered for a moment. "Because I knew you'd react like this. I need your help and... and I know I'm right about him."

"Damn it, Mulder, if you could only hear yourself. Have you forgotten what Alex Krycek has done? Do you really think a man like that can change?"

Mulder drew in a breath and looked down at the floor. "No, I haven't forgotten. I'll never forget." He swallowed hard, feeling Scully's eyes on his face. "But this goes far beyond all that." He shook his head, uncharacteristically reluctant to delve into his reasons for defending Krycek... and himself. "The information he and the Englishman have given me is important. Yes, they may have their own agenda, but I think they want the Project to fail. This Project, if it succeeds, could mean the end of human existence as we know it, Scully. We have to stop it, or else what I saw in that traincar is going to be our collective future."

She listened, but he could see the doubts behind her eyes. He couldn't blame her. There was no reason for her to believe that Krycek would not betray them again, any more than he could explain why he believed that Alex wouldn't.

"I think we should bring Skinner in on this now." The edge in her voice matched her expression. "We need the Bureau to back us up."

"Scully, the men behind this Project own a lot of people in high places. They had Blevins in their pocket. I think we should at least wait until we've seen what's on the tape. We're too close to risk it all now."

"Risk?! You think that's a risk?" Scully rolled her eyes.

"Damn it, Frohike, I told you that wouldn't work! We could've lost everything."

"Whaddya mean, you told me? I told you that decryption sequence was crap when you started it."

Mulder turned his head towards the raised voices, ignoring Scully's frustrated sigh. He walked back to the three men. "What's happening?"

"We've never seen this kind of encryption layering before. It's very ingenious," Byers told him as Langly and Frohike grew silent. "It's going to take more time to break it. We'll have to do some testing to insure we won't harm the integrity of the data."

"How much more time?" asked Mulder.

Langly threw him a look over his shoulder. "Let's just say, we'll call you."

"No offense, Mulder, but you're just in the way right now. We've got some serious hacking to do here, " added Frohike. "Perhaps you and the lovely Ms Scully should hightail it back to your Federal salt mines for a while."

"It's gonna take you that long?" whined Mulder.

Byers looked from Mulder to Scully and back. "There must be very valuable information on the tape to warrant this kind of protection. We want to do it right."

"C'mon, Mulder, if you want them to help you, then let's do as they ask."

Scully's comment earned an adoring look from Frohike and nods from the other two Gunmen.

"All right, but I want you to call me the second you open it up, understand? You've got my cell number. I'll keep it with me. Okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, Mulder, now hasta la vista," replied Langly, already turning back to his equipment.

Scully tugged on Mulder's elbow and headed for the door. As they walked outside, she paused in the darkened archway. "Let's talk to Skinner."

Mulder fumbled for his keys, fighting his irritation. "Why can't you wait until the guys break through the tape?"

"Because I don't trust Krycek." Each word was distinct and sharp as she paused and stared into his eyes. "Do you?"

The keys jingled softly in his hand. He opened his mouth, shut it again. He realized he couldn't give Scully the answer she expected. He couldn't lie to her. He couldn't just say, 'of course I don't trust him.' It seemed he couldn't lie to himself either.

His hesitation was enough. "Oh, Mulder. What could Alex Krycek possibly have done to make you trust him?"

Mulder bit down on his lip. What could he tell her? 'It all began one stormy night.' No. He wasn't usually at a loss for words, but his interactions with Krycek, his... relationship with Krycek was still something he could not quite comprehend himself. It was all so... visceral, in some way elemental, yet terribly complicated, all at the same time. All he could do was shrug. "He turned human on me when I wasn't looking."

He realized his answer sounded glib by the flash of hurt in her blue eyes. Scully was worried about him and he didn't know how to reassure her. He would have tried to explain the meaning of it to her if he could only understand it himself. "I just believe, Scully," he said at last, realizing it was the only answer that applied to every significant mystery, every significant person, in his life.

"What about my opinion, Mulder? My instincts, my arguments?"

"I'm just asking for a little more time, Scully. I'm asking you to believe that I wouldn't willingly endanger you or the Gunmen. Or myself."

He watched her turn her face away, her mouth opening as if she was searching for air. She drew in a breath and let it go before turning back to him. "All right, Mulder. We'll wait. I just hope your belief isn't misplaced, for all our sakes." She gazed off towards her car. "I think we better get back to the office now. I still have to finish up those reports for Skinner's department meeting."

As she walked away, he took hold of her arm gently, stopping her. "Thanks, Scully," he said.

She nodded with a flat, rueful smile. He let her go and stood watching her until she reached her car and drove away.

Mulder spent the rest of the day in the office, his cellphone by his elbow, waiting for the Gunmen to call. He helped Scully with some expense reports though he was sure he was more of a hindrance given the level of his impatience and lack of interest in all things bureaucratic. Scully finally just told him to leave her with it. He followed up on some lab reports and made a stab at filing away some closed case files.

He hated the passivity of waiting. Waiting was a prerequisite in his job, came with the territory. He waited for evidence, he waited for suspects, he waited for informants, he even waited for X-files. Waited and waited. It was the worst part of his job, of his life. But now, with so much at stake, it was even more difficult to endure.

It also gave his mind too much time to wander, to review and obsess. Images from the traincar kept drifting through his thoughts: visions of the metal caskets and their inhuman contents, and of the two dead men, bullet-riddled bodies sprawled at his feet.

And Alex Krycek.

Mulder didn't want to think about him, to wonder where he was and what he was doing. But he did. He sat at his desk and thought about him.

Finally, late in the afternoon, Frohike called. They'd broken through the password screens. That was the good news. Then Frohike told him the bad news.

Within the hour, Mulder was over at the Gunmen's, staring at a computer screen with a seemingly endless scroll of numbers and words, dates and medical symbols.

"There's an enormous amount of data here, as you can see," Byers told him. "But it's raw data. The indices, they're missing."

Mulder stared at the nonsensical jumble on the screen. "You mean, it's worthless?"

"No, of course not." Frohike came up beside him. "The data's there. Part of the program is missing. We need to reconstruct the framework, that's all."

Mulder frowned down at the smaller man. "Sounds like a lot more than just, 'that's all'."

"No, it's hardly a minor point," conceded Byers. "But it's not insurmountable. We just need more time and a little specialized assistance."

"What do you mean?"

Langly swiveled around in his chair in front of the monitor. "Programmer we know. This is right up his alley. He's a database freak. Lives and breathes them. He eats up problems like this."

"You mean, you can't figure it out yourselves?" He glanced around at the trio.

Langly's cheeks turned a vague pink as he pushed up his glasses with a finger. "Well, of course we can. Eventually. Hey, c'mon, like nobody knows everything, you know."

"If you want it faster, we have to tap into our brain pool reserves." Frohike patted his arm. "Don't worry, Mulder. We don't deal with anyone we can't trust, you know that."

"I'd just rather not involve any more people than necessary."

"If this tape is really as important as you say it is, than it's necessary," replied Byers. "We'll be careful. As always."

Mulder blew out a breath and stared at the screen full of disordered words and numbers. "I guess it could be worse. It could've been in Navajo." He ignored their curious looks. "How long do you think it'll take you to consult with your db freak and have something solid for me?"

The trio looked at the screen of scrolling gibberish and then at each other. Frohike turned to him and shrugged eloquently.

"Shit," said Mulder.

"We really don't know," confirmed Byers somberly. "It could take a few days, weeks, maybe only hours. We just can't say at this point."

"We'll do the best we can, Mulder," added Frohike.

Mulder looked into each earnest face and reminded himself of how much they were risking for him. He banked his impatience and managed a smile. "Yeah, I know you will. Hey, I'm sorry for giving you such a hard time, guys. If you can come through on this one, you can name your price."

They grinned back at him. Frohike wagged his eyebrows. "Then you can kiss your video collection goodbye, buddy."

Mulder chuckled. "For you, Frohike, I'll even throw in my subscription to Celebrity Skin." He glanced back at the monitor. "Be careful, okay, guys? Call me as soon--"

"Yeah, yeah, already. We know the drill."

Mulder nodded but still cautioned them to be as circumspect about the tape as they could be with their db freak. Then there was nothing left for him to do but go home.

Almost a week went by and Mulder was about ready to chew through his cellphone. It had taken the Gunmen two days just to locate their wizbrain programmer in the cyber underground scene. While the guy had agreed to help once they contacted him, the database configuration was coming together slowly and with excruciating trial and error. There would be no fast breakthroughs. "A few more days, Mulder, and we should have it for you," Byers told him over the phone.

It had been all Mulder could do to keep from screaming out loud. His friends were doing their best, he told himself. It was just that he desperately wanted the waiting to be over.

He and Scully had just spent several miserable days in northern Louisiana investigating the mysterious disappearance of a Federal marshal. If there had been a paranormal aspect to the case, Mulder might have been able to focus his excess energy on it. There wasn't. Instead, the truth they'd quickly uncovered had only given him another look at the dark and ugly side of human nature. He could have done without it.

And now he had to wait some more. And think, and remember.

Mulder wriggled around in the driver's seat, trying to get comfortable. A half a bag's worth of sunflower shells littered the floor and passenger seat. He'd been sitting in his car for hours. He'd moved the car once, from one block to another when he saw one of the neighbors staring at him through the window. Now that it was dark, he wished he'd parked closer. Still, he had a fairly unobstructed view of the house from around the corner without being visible himself.

He knew no one was in the house. Spending his Saturday evening like this was crazy, but he just couldn't sit in his apartment any longer. He'd even resorted to spending the previous night digging out his bedroom, throwing out the stacks and piles of old magazines and outdated clippings that had barricaded his bed for years. All the same, he'd spent the remainder of the night on his familiar leather sofa, gazing sleeplessly at the shadows on his ceiling. He couldn't stop thinking about the tape, the railroad car, what Scully had told him, and oddly, the case in Louisiana, until he thought his brain was going to implode. And, once again, in the center of his raging storm of thoughts, Alex Krycek.

Mulder felt like his emotions had been thrown into a pressure cooker and the gauge set on 'high'.

Which was why he was sitting in his car in a very nice neighborhood in Arlington, at 10:25 at night, waiting for Alex Krycek to appear. Knowing with a stubborn and eerie instinct that defied all logic that he would be coming back tonight.

About a half hour later, he watched as a black Mercedes drove slowly up the street and turned smoothly into the driveway of the house. Mulder waited while the garage door opened and the Mercedes slipped inside. He waited a few minutes longer until a faint light came on inside the house. His day's store of patience more than depleted, he tucked his cellphone in his jacket pocket, got out of the car, and walked slowly towards the door.

***

Krycek hung his coat in the hall closet and stood in the middle of the foyer, nerves tingling. As the grandfather clock softly chimed eleven, he drew his gun out of his holster and stood motionless, sensing the air around him, listening. The sound of the doorbell was almost jarring. The knocking that followed had him raising his gun, a frown growing over his face as he approached the door.

"C'mon, open the door. I know you're there."

Mulder's voice froze him where he stood. The knocking grew louder. Chest suddenly heaving, Krycek drew in a steadying breath and stepped to the side of the door, flicking off the locks and turning the handle. The door burst open as Mulder plowed inside. Krycek kicked the door shut and glared at him. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Mulder was staring at his gun. Krycek clicked the safety on and slid it back into his holster. "You shouldn't have come here, Mulder. What do you want?"

"The tape you left for me, is it a setup? Are you setting me up?"

Krycek gazed into the shuttered face and slowly shook his head. He felt an odd pang somewhere in his chest. "If I wanted to set you up, you would've been dead long ago." He turned his back on Mulder and walked towards the living room. "Go away," he rasped over his shoulder.

With a tired sigh, he slumped into one of the suede covered wing chairs and stared into the cold fireplace. The room was dim, lit only by the light from the hallway. He blinked as one of the lamps came on and Mulder came to stand in front of him. He didn't bother looking up. He hadn't really expected Mulder to leave. He never expected the man to do anything he wanted him to do. "Was there anything on the tape?" he asked instead.

"Oh, there's a lot there. It just doesn't make any sense."

Krycek squeezed his eyes shut. Damn. Damn. He'd been so sure it was the master backup. He ran his hand over his face.

"It'll take longer than I thought to put the data together. There was a helluva password schema on it, too."

Krycek looked up. "Then, then the information on the experiments is there? You'll be able to decipher it after all?" Mulder nodded slowly and he let out a sigh of relief.

"We have some anomalies from Ridley's research that could tie in with the data on the tape. It... it could give us what we need, what Jeremiah Smith said we could use to defeat them." Mulder glanced away and drew both hands through his hair. He began pacing back and forth in front of him. When he finally stopped, Krycek could see the emotions flickering through his eyes, his face. "Scully thinks you're setting us up."

Krycek gritted his teeth. So, Mulder finally told her. He would have had to, he supposed. Poor Mulder, emotionally sliced and diced. "I'm not," he answered softly. "But then, she'd never believe that, would she?" Then he paused. "Can you?"

Mulder raked at his bottom lip, the small action almost making Krycek smile. "I want to. Yeah. I just needed to hear you say it."

Krycek felt the air flowing back into his lungs... He watched as Mulder walked over to the other wingback chair and sat down. They faced each other over the gulf of ten feet. Mulder's hair was tousled, shiny brown waves tumbling over his forehead. He was wearing a dark blue shirt and a black leather jacket over worn blue jeans. It reminded Krycek of the kind of clothes he usually wore. It was strange for him to be the one in the Hugo Boss suit. Reality was tilting again, as it always did whenever they were together. His gaze settled on Mulder's long fingers, drumming restlessly on the chair arm.

When he finally looked up into Mulder's face, the soft hazel eyes locked with his, the silence stretching heavily between them.

Krycek pushed the words past his own need and the thudding of his heart. "You shouldn't have come here, Mulder. It's getting too dangerous."

Mulder just kept looking at him before he finally spoke. "It's always been dangerous. I'll take my chances."

"I'd rather you didn't," Krycek found himself saying.

"Why?"

Krycek hesitated, struggling with himself. "I... the Project has to be stopped. If the means to that end is really in the Ridley data, then until you've put it all together, you can't afford to take any unnecessary risks. The Syndicate just met in New York. Members from all over the world. The destruction of that Center is having serious repercussions for them. I was only allowed to sit in for part of the meeting. Those old bastards are running scared and they're angry. They might do anything now, if only to appease the Colonists."

He stopped, feeling Mulder's eyes burning through his skin. He got up and walked behind his chair as if the added barrier could somehow protect him. He gripped the back of the chair with his hand.

Mulder sat back, his expression solemn and thoughtful. "Do they suspect you?"

"I don't think so."

"Are they watching you?"

"No, but they might."

Mulder nodded, accepting the answers without reaction. "Skinner sent us to Louisiana to check out the disappearance of a Federal marshal," he said. "It wasn't an x-file. It was a fairly simple case actually."

Krycek was puzzled, but he sensed the tension in Mulder's voice, so he waited, not interrupting.

Mulder tipped his head back. "It used to be the marshal's home town. Most of the residents knew him. Little podunk town. He was a friend of the local minister, they grew up together. We found out the minister had disappeared, too. Turns out the two men were more than friends." He glanced at Krycek. "There were rumors about them, floating around for years. Someone finally saw them... together." Mulder paused. "Three of the minister's congregation killed them. Broke into the minister's bedroom and shot them in the head. Blew their faces off. You know what the ringleader told me when we arrested him?"

Krycek shook his head silently.

"He told me 'they were an abomination and not fit to live on this Earth'." He wiped his hand over his face and looked at Krycek. "Imagine saving the world for people like that. It just hit me, you know, when I was looking into that righteous man's face. As far as he was concerned, you and I aren't fit to live either." He paused again, teeth raking his lip. "Human nature, what the hell does it mean anyway?"

Krycek heard the pain beneath the bitterness even as he realized what Mulder had just acknowledged about them. "You're the profiler, Mulder. I thought you knew by now that there are a lot of fucked-up assholes in the world. So many flavors of fucked-up that we couldn't begin to count them. But they're not the only people out there. It just seems that way most of the time."

Mulder gave him a twisted smile. "Is that a page from your philosophy of life?"

"Call it a lifelong observation."

Both men were quiet then. Krycek gazed at Mulder's face, drinking in every detail like a man dying of thirst.

"So what flavor of 'fucked-up' are we, Alex?" asked Mulder, breaking the silence.

"I-I don't know." Krycek tried to smile but it faltered a little.

"Are we hopelessly fucked-up?"

Krycek's smiled faded altogether. "Most likely."

Mulder frowned, as if he was testing Krycek's reply. After a moment, he shook his head. "No. Not... hopelessly." To Krycek, it sounded more like a decision than a comment.

Mulder got up slowly and walked towards him. Krycek gripped the back of the chair until his fingers clawed the fabric, his heart pounding faster with every step Mulder took. When they were almost face to face, Mulder reached out and Krycek felt himself pulled gently into Mulder's arms.

He felt the coolness of Mulder's cheek rubbing lightly against his jaw and heard himself sigh as his arm burrowed inside Mulder's leather jacket to circle his waist.

"Shelter in the storm," whispered Mulder close by his ear.

Krycek wasn't sure what he meant or what was happening when Mulder just kept holding him. It felt so good, he didn't trust it. "Did you come here for sex?" he asked softly, forcing himself to draw back so he could look into the soulful eyes.

"I don't know. Maybe. Maybe, it was for this. Just this." His arms tightened around Krycek, bringing them close again. "I'll leave in a few minutes if that's what you want." He stepped back and took hold of Krycek's right hand, leading him to the sofa. "Sit with me, okay?"

It felt like they were in a dream as Mulder led him to the sofa and they sat down, close but not touching except for their hands. He expected Mulder to talk but he didn't. Instead, he sandwiched Krycek's hand between both of his, long fingers stroking his skin from knuckles to wrist.

Was Mulder thinking about them? About the Center tape? About two dead lovers in a small Louisiana town? About the nature of storms? Krycek had no idea, but he knew that Mulder had just shared a private pain with him and, amazingly, had found a measure of comfort for it in Krycek's presence.

Swallowing hard, Krycek gazed down at their joined hands. "I was sent to a boarding school after my parents... died," he began. "Several boarding schools. Expensive, very private." He swallowed again as he let the dark memories free. He didn't look up but he could feel Mulder's eyes on him now. "I hated them. Then, when I was 15, I became friends with one of the older boys. I didn't want any friends. Preferred to keep to myself, but he was different. It was the first time I realized--" He stopped. He'd never talked about it to anyone before.

"You realized what?" asked Mulder softly. He was still stroking Krycek's hand.

"I realized that I could feel that close to another boy. I didn't even know what it was really. He was one of the big jocks, popular, center of attention. Everyone wanted to be his friend. I wasn't sure why he even bothered to talk to me."

"What happened?" prompted Mulder when Krycek stopped again.

"I was on the list." His voice was rougher as the images flooded back. "Some of the seniors, they had this club. Each year they drew up a list of lower classmen. The list of fledgling faggots, they called it, pretty boys with all the signs. I was on it. They told me... afterwards."

He made himself glance at Mulder's face. "One night, I thought we were alone. He said it would be special." Krycek dropped his gaze, trying to find the words. "I-I wanted him to like me. Stupid. It was so important to me. So, I did what he wanted." He drew in a breath. "After it started, they all came in. Two of his buddies. The other members of their special club." Mulder's hand gripped his tighter. "I... the worst of it... even worse than the pain, was hearing them laugh. They all started to laugh. I was nothing. They made me feel like nothing. They just kept laughing, laughing, even when I begged..."

He could hear their voices, hear himself crying, pleading. He bit down on his lip, his chest heaving with the memory. "When they were finished, one of them had this little switchblade, sharp as a razor. He cut me. Said if I told anyone about them, they'd cut off my balls. I still have the scar, just a thin line near my groin..." His voice faded.

The touch of Mulder's hand on his shoulder brought him back. Mulder's other hand still gripped his fingers. Krycek pulled away and stood up quickly, crossing to the fireplace. He didn't like what he saw in Mulder's face. It seemed too close to pity. He raised his chin and kept his voice cold. "That's how the world works, Mulder. If you're weak enough to show someone you care, you're fucked. In my case, literally. That's why it's important to be a fast learner. I only needed one lesson. I never forgot it."

Mulder's teeth raked his lower lip. "What happened to them, Alex? Those... jocks?" he asked gently.

Krycek shrugged. "The next boy on their list wasn't so lucky. Internal bleeding. He nearly died. They were expelled. Ruined their promising Ivy League careers, I heard, but that was all." He waited and watched Mulder's expression. "I didn't kill any of them, if that's what you're asking. I wanted to for the longest time, but eventually, when I actually could have, it didn't matter anymore. It wouldn't have changed anything." He raised his chin again. "I didn't care anymore."

He turned his back as Mulder got up and walked over to him, remained motionless as Mulder's arms went around his waist, warm breath brushing his neck as he spoke.

"It's not a weakness to care. The catch is that we can't really choose who we care about. It just happens, right or wrong, good or bad. Denying it is the weakness." And then Mulder kissed his neck.

"No, Mulder, don't. Don't."

"Don't what?" Mulder nuzzled his hair, lips brushing his ear. "What, Alex? Don't touch you? Don't kiss you?"

Krycek swallowed, his eyes squeezing shut, the words barely audible. "Don't care."

"Are you saying that to me, or to yourself? I told you, Alex, the catch is that we can't choose who we... care about. We can only pretend that we don't."

Krycek turned around slowly. He was surprised at the struggle he saw in Mulder's eyes. Somehow he'd thought he was alone in that. Hesitantly, he leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth. As their lips brushed, Mulder's arms tightened around him, pressing them close. The kiss lingered, deepened. Their mouths opened. Krycek moaned.

The sudden beeping of Mulder's cellphone jerked them apart. For a moment, Mulder glared down at his jacket pocket has if it had somehow betrayed him before he reached in and pulled out his cell, flipping it open.

"Mulder," he snapped. He listened for a minute, his eyes sweeping over Krycek's face. "It's done? The configuration?" He listened again, his free hand reaching out to curl around Krycek's neck in an unconscious caress. "That's great! Yeah, yeah, I'm on my way." He clicked off the cellphone and put it away. Then he pulled Krycek to him and kissed him quick and hard. He broke away with a grin.

"The tape?" asked Krycek in a breathy whisper.

Mulder nodded. "It's readable. It's all there. Now we can check it against what we've found in the Ridley files." His eyes were bright with anticipation.

Krycek found himself smiling back. "Then you'd better go."

Mulder nodded again, his expression growing somber. "If we can confirm the means of synthesizing the catalyst to the Alien, we'll need to get close enough to them to use it. We'll have to know--"

"Where they are," finished Krycek. " If the Colonists have any settlements here, they haven't shared the information with the Syndicate. The Old Man would've heard something, and he's told me that as far as he knows, none of them has ever met with more than a few Colonists at any given time. It seems as if the Aliens have tried to disperse themselves as widely as possible. Even using the traincars, they've kept their hybrid research in small mobile units." Krycek frowned. "But there must be some central command headquarters or a main disembarkation base. I'll try and find out whatever I can."

Mulder gave him the number to his cellphone, then asked. "What if I need to contact you?"

"You can't. I've got some leads I want to follow. I don't know where I'll be, or with whom. It'll be too risky from now on. The Syndicate has to be brought down. The Project has to be destroyed before it's too late. We have to finish it, Mulder."

They looked at each other in silence then, and Krycek felt a tightness in his chest at the unguarded emotion he saw in Mulder's eyes. He raised his hand and cupped his palm against the side of Mulder's face. There was so much he would have liked to say, but there didn't seem to be enough words, or time. Krycek felt that he'd been given a gift he didn't deserve in the precious moments he'd shared with Mulder. In this moment in time, he finally felt as if they were truly united. Truly... together. If there was never a chance for anything more, it would be enough to see him through to whatever end awaited him.

He dropped his hand and stepped back, fighting the need to hold Mulder one last time. "You better go," he said again. He saw that there was a struggle in the other man's eyes, too, so he forced a shaky smile. Mulder managed a small, wistful smile in return, and without a word, turned and walked out the door.

***

Mulder hurried towards his car. Halfway down the block, he gave in to the urge to look back at the house, at the drawn curtains in the windows. He bit down on his lip and looked away. A cool night breeze rustled through the tree branches as he walked resolutely on. He felt as if every nerve in his body was on fire. He could hardly wait to get to the Lone Gunmen's office. Yet, he desperately wanted to stay with Alex Krycek. He wanted it so much, his body was aching for it. More than that, he felt... connected to Krycek in a way that transcended their ever-present physical attraction. It was almost as if an emotional Berlin Wall had finally crumbled between them, revealing two scarred halves of the same country.

He wished they could have talked more. He fumbled with his car keys, his mind and heart split in two different directions. He got in quickly and drove off.

The hours and days that followed were a blur of activity. Using the Gunmen's extensive technical resources, he and Scully began cross-checking the Ridley files against the data on the Center tape. Despite her skepticism and her distrust of Krycek's involvement, Scully spent every spare moment beside him, pouring over the information. The Gunmen were bringing their own skills to bear in quickly correlating the comparisons they needed in dozens of different schemas. Mulder knew that his partner and friends were not doing it so much for the truth he believed they would find, but rather they were doing it because they believed in him, Scully in particular.

The hybrid experiments were cataloged on the tape in dry and exacting detail. It became obvious that it was not just a description of the activities at one center, but a summary of the Project's accumulated research. There was column upon column of statistics with every minute change in formula and environmental variables of every experiment. There were notations and entries dating as far back as the early 1950s. Subjects were only referred to by number. There was a chillingly long column titled "terminated" that contained only row after row of numbers. Mulder had stared at the list for a long time, visions of Samantha sending a chill through his insides.

The medical data was extensive and complex. There were formulas containing chemical compounds and derivatives that even Scully had never heard of. Though the scope of the material was daunting, they knew they were looking for something in the data that would link to the short list of possible relevant anomalies that Scully had extracted from Ridley's research papers.

"Mulder, I think I've found it."

And Scully had.

Their weapon was so small they couldn't even see it. A microbe.

It was well past midnight. They gathered in the kitchen for their fourth pot of coffee to discuss the last cross- analysis and Scully's conclusions. "The answer appears to be in Ridley's failures, in his experiments with cell grafting using salamander and human tissue. His results showed that several of his attempts to stimulate cell growth had actually created bacterial mutations, prokaryotes of common bacteria with minor variations," she told them. "Ridley went no further with those particular experiments because the grafts were rejected. He didn't care about the bacteria because it appeared to be completely benign and inconsequential to his aims. But the data on the Center tape clearly indicates that the scientists performing the hybridization experiments were very careful to avoid the kind of tissue generation that could create any strain of bacteria similar to those that were a by-product of Ridley's work. In fact, the reports emphasize their efforts to shield and even prevent the appearance of any variant of that particular microbe."

Byers rubbed his hand thoughtfully over his beard. "Microbes were already established on earth over 3.5 billion years ago. They've had a long time to build up a capacity for mutation and regeneration. Researchers have actually revived bacterium from the gut of an extinct bee that was preserved in amber. That bacterium had remained dormant as a spore for two and a half million years before it was reawakened."

Frohike slurped at his coffee and grinned. "Your gushing font of trivia never ceases to amaze, Byers."

"Ditto," replied Byers succinctly.

"Who would've thought that the answer'd be so... tiny," shrugged Langly. "I was kinda hoping for the traditional mega-howitzer style weapon. Well, you know, at least something big enough to see."

"Which proves once again that size doesn't matter," quipped Mulder. He glanced at his friends with a tired but genuine smile. He took a moment and silently thought of Jeremiah Smith, the Alien who had willingly provided Krycek with the information that could now lead to his self-destruction and that of his entire race. He shook the thought off and turned to Scully. "Let's figure out how we can use this thing."

Two days later, Mulder stretched out on his leather sofa and craned his neck to look at his answering machine. No red lights blinking. If it all went as they planned, the cultures would be ready soon. What they needed now was information on the best place to strike.

He sat up and rubbed his hands over his face. He should make himself some dinner. Instead he got up and fed the fish, and tried not to stare at his phone. The dark thoughts trickled though his consciousness anyway. Was Krycek alive or dead? It had been a week since Mulder had seen him. It seemed as if a lifetime had passed in those few days. As if the end of the world was staring him in the face. There was a sense of urgency that ticked away the seconds in his brain. He knew time was running out. If Krycek couldn't get him more information about the location of the Colonists... If Krycek had been found out...

If Alex was dead... The depth of the fear and pain in that thought startled him.

The first time his phone rang, it didn't even register. With a sharp intake of breath, he jumped at the phone on the second ring. "Mulder," he answered quickly.

"Agent Mulder, I must meet with you. It's quite important."

At the sound of the polished, lightly accented voice, Mulder barely stopped himself from blurting out, 'Is Alex all right?'

"Agent Mulder?"

"Yes, I'm here. Why do you want to meet? Has... has something happened?"

"Can you meet me tonight?" returned the Well-Manicured Man.

Mulder swallowed back a dozen anxious thoughts and glanced at the window and the cloudy night sky beyond. "Yes. When and where?"

A little more than an hour later, he was at L'Enfant Plaza, standing in the shadows near a hotel entrance, watching the occasional taxi or limo glide by, a trickle of people still wandering about, even this late in the night.

A few minutes later, a black Lincoln Towncar slowed near the curb in front of him and the rear door swung slowly open. Mulder let a moment's apprehension slide across his mind before he stepped towards the car and got in. He settled back into the plush leather upholstery as the car began heading towards the Capital.

He turned towards the gray-haired gentleman beside him as the old man lifted a phone receiver and spoke to the driver on the other side of the thick dark glass that separated them. "Just take us for a leisurely drive, Harris," said the Brit.

The Well-Manicured Man replaced the receiver and inclined his head towards Mulder with a ghost of a smile. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me at this late hour, Agent Mulder."

"I didn't expect to hear from you again."

"Ah. You've been communicating with Alex Krycek." It was not a question.

Mulder looked into the other man's eyes and considered his reply. "Yes. In fact, I've been waiting to hear from him."

"Alex is playing a particularly dangerous game these days. I sometimes wonder how we could have underestimated him as much as we have."

"By 'we,' do you mean your Syndicate pals?"

The old man smiled. "Everyone underestimates Alex Krycek. Much as we have all underestimated you." Then he reached slowly into his jacket and pulled out a small, padded envelope. He offered it to Mulder. "Alex asked me to give this to you."

"Do you know what it is?" asked Mulder as he took it. It was an ordinary brown envelope, unmarked and weighing relatively lightweight. He could feel something rigid in the envelope but the padding was too thick to make out the exact shape.

"He didn't tell me and I didn't inquire. However, I have my suspicions."

"I thought Krycek worked for you," probed Mulder as he tucked the envelope into the inside pocket of his leather jacket.

"Alex hasn't truly worked for anyone for some time now, though my colleagues may not realize it. He is his own man. He always has been, in many respects. He simply doesn't let anyone know it. I would say that has served him very well."

Mulder couldn't hold back the question any longer. "Is he all right?"

The Brit gazed at him steadily. "Are you worried about him?" he asked gently.

Mulder suddenly felt as if the old man was looking right through him. He didn't answer.

"I saw him briefly today when he gave me that envelope. He seemed to be in something of a hurry. He only asked if I would do him the favor of giving it to you as soon as I could. Alex never asks for favors, so I realized it must be very important. I hadn't heard from him in over a week before that, but then that's not unusual. He's been rather blatantly independent of late. Fortunately, he understands with whom he is dealing and the risks involved, especially now. There is a great deal at stake and my colleagues are suspicious and unforgiving men. We've spent the majority of our lives working in the shadows, Mr. Mulder."

"For the Project."

A gray eyebrow rose in acknowledgment. "Yes. And now that Project has divided us as never before. Any of several factors can alter a plan that has been carefully nurtured for over fifty years. You yourself are one of those factors, Mr. Mulder. You have been for years, of course, but perhaps the Ridley material has finally provided you with the means to affect the outcome of our long-standing game. That envelope in your pocket may be another of those factors. And, no, Mr. Mulder, I no longer wish to know if any of that is true, one way or the other. You see, my own situation has become... precarious. That is the other reason why I asked to meet with you. I feel it is time for me to tidy up loose ends."

Mulder glanced through the passenger window. The Washington Monument loomed in the distance like a pale white sword against the night sky, poised for battle. He felt a sudden apprehension creeping over his skin as he turned back to the old man. "What loose ends?"

"I believe you deserve to know the answer to a question that has been extremely important in your life." The Well-Manicured Man paused, the lines deepening across his forehead. "About the fate of your sister, Samantha."

Mulder tensed, fists clenching in his lap. "My sister. You... you can tell me what happened to her? You know?"

"Yes, Mr. Mulder, I know. I've known for a long time."

It was Mulder's turn to stare into the other man's eyes, testing for the truth. "Tell me."

"She was taken that night, just as you believed, abducted for the Project."

Mulder leaned in towards him, unaware of how his hands suddenly gripped the leather seat. "Where is she? Is she alive?" He felt a painful numbness spreading through his chest as the old man shook his head.

"Your sister is dead. She died within days of her abduction. Many subjects were tested during that time. Reactions to the tests varied widely. She never regained consciousness, Mr. Mulder. For what little consolation it may give you, she didn't suffer."

The silence stretched as Mulder felt his whole body tremble. Emotion choked his voice when he spoke. "Why should I believe you?! Why should I believe Samantha's dead? You're all liars! How do I know you're not just feeding me more lies? Playing more of your sick games?!"

"I am weary of games, Mr. Mulder. I have been wrong, deeply wrong. The realization has come too slowly perhaps, but it is no less bitter. I cannot change what has happened, or stop what may happen. I am giving you the truth because I know it is a commodity you value highly and because I believe it is owed to you. I cannot prove that I am not lying to you. Your sister's body was cremated, like all the others, to leave no trace. It was one of our specialties, leaving no trace." The Syndicate elder spoke calmly, in a tone shaded with sadness. His gaze never wavered from Mulder's.

Mulder swallowed back a flash of rage and hatred towards the old man and all that he represented. He drew in several harsh breaths to steady his voice. "My parents, did they know?"

"Bill Mulder knew, of course. Your mother... never asked, but I believe she knew."

Mulder sagged back against the seat, his eyes closing as if he could block it all out. He wished with all his might that his instincts were wrong, that his gut feeling was wrong. But he knew in his heart that it was true. The old man was not lying to him.

Samantha. Sam. Dead. All these years. Dead. He'd been searching for a ghost all these years. He saw her face, could still hear the sound of her laughter in his mind. He could still remember the feel of her small hand in his.

He was oblivious to the tears that rolled silently down his cheeks, just as he was unaware of how much time had passed before he pulled away from the memories and felt the sharp pain of loss stabbing at him again. He opened his eyes and gazed blankly through the passenger window. The limo wasn't moving. They were back were they started, at L'Enfant Plaza, around the corner from where his own car was parked.

He realized his face was wet and swiped his palms across his cheeks and chin. Pain and numbness should have been a contradiction, yet he felt them both. He felt empty and aching. There were questions eating at the edges of the pain, but he couldn't focus. He felt like running, running until the air was gone and there were no more memories, until all feeling left him. He reached for the door handle. The old man clasped his shoulder and he turned around, the rage rushing through him again.

The pale eyes gazed at him, brows furrowing. "There have been enough tragedies, Mr. Mulder. Fight for the people who still matter in your life. For those who truly care about you. Fight for the kind of future you believe in." The Well-Manicured Man drew his hand away, sorrow and a kind of strange finality in his eyes. "Do not let us win," he said.

Mulder suddenly felt as if he would never see the old man again. He opened the door and started to get out, but then he looked back for just a moment. "I'll try," he managed to answer, and watched as a strange calmness settled over the other man's face.

Mulder didn't sleep that night. He lay on his couch, staring up at the ceiling, replaying his life across the cracked plaster. But mostly, he thought about Samantha. The affection and acceptance he had longed for and never quite seemed to earn from his parents had always been there in his sister's guileless eyes.

He'd always known that Samantha loved him.

With the pale gray dawn touching his windows, he still felt caught in the shadows. The conspiracy that had killed her and scarred so many around him had to be destroyed. It was the only thing left he could do for the sister he had lost forever. He sat up slowly and switched on the lamp. Then he pulled the brown padded envelope from his jacket pocket and carefully opened it.

It contained a single sheet of paper and a wad of corrugated cardboard that concealed a metal cylinder about six inches long. He opened the folded paper and looked down at Krycek's familiar handwriting. The note was brief: "I'll call your cell with directions." Followed by a date and time: in two days at 11pm. It was signed simply, "A."

Mulder picked up the cylinder and stared at it, remember the last time he'd seen one before. His lips tightened at the memory. He looked back down at the note. Krycek had located them. The Colonists. Or the Rebels. A base perhaps or a ship? His mind raced with a other possibilities. Whatever it was, they had to be ready. They might not have a second chance.

He saw Samantha again in his mind, pictured her small figure fading away into a deep, gray mist.

Then he got up and called Scully.

There was a lot to do over the next forty-eight hours. Mulder was silently grateful for his 'most unwanted' status in the Bureau. His basement office afforded him the solitude he needed to work on their plans. Aside from a consultation with Violent Crimes about a murder case similar to one he'd handled years ago, his time was his own.

Thanks to the Gunmen's seemingly endless underground contacts, Scully had already had access to a lab and had been able to work on the bacterial cultures using Ridley's formulas ever since they'd made their breakthrough on the tape data. Despite her own reservations about Krycek and the existence of an 'alien' threat, Scully focused on the scientific challenge with her usual skillful professionalism.

By the evening of the second day, they were ready.

"There's still time to call Skinner," Scully told him as he paced back and forth across his living room.

Mulder stopped, glancing at the special medical bag that lay on his coffee table. They'd discussed the subject over and over again but it only seemed to solidify their opposing opinions. "No. We can't take the chance of tipping them off."

"I think we can trust Skinner."

"So do I, but asking him to back us up now means involving the Bureau. I don't want it to leak into the wrong hands. Not now."

"So we're just going to follow whatever directions Alex Krycek gives you?"

Mulder looked at his watch. It was a little after ten. "Not we. Me."

Scully shook her head firmly. "I'm not letting you go alone."

"I don't want to put you--"

"Stop right there, Mulder. Don't even try to argue about it. I'm going with you. Not just because I'm your partner and your friend, but because I know what to do with those vials in that bag better than you do, and you know it. I may not be convinced about your alien Colonists, but it's clear to me that secret biological experiments are being conducted on unwilling human subjects and our government is involved. I've been one of those subjects. What you saw in that traincar, whatever threat we're facing, human... or alien, I have as much at stake in stopping it as you do. You need me on this, Mulder."

Mulder saw the unshakeable determination in her eyes and realized that he was wasting his breath. "You're right Scully, I do need you." He tried to smile.

They were silent then, Mulder finally taking a chair, occasionally glancing at his cellphone on the desk.

"What if he doesn't call?" asked Scully.

"He'll call." Mulder felt Scully's speculative gaze on him, though she made no other comment. They sat and waited.

At eleven o'clock, his cellphone rang. Mulder picked it up on the first ring.

Krycek's voice was husky and edgy. "Did you get anything useful from the tape?"

"Yes. We're ready. Did you find them?" returned Mulder.

"Yes. I don't know how much longer they'll be here."

"You're... with them?"

"Yes. Cancerman is meeting with them. He's brought them a prize."

Mulder frowned. "What prize?"

"Jeremiah Smith."

Mulder swallowed hard, forcibly holding back the questions, knowing there wasn't time. "Tell me how to get there." He waited a moment. "Krycek."

"It may be too risky."

"Tell me where you are. Now." Mulder heard a quick sigh and then listened carefully as Krycek described the location and gave him directions, then told him where and at exactly what time he'd meet him. "Okay, Alex, we can get there in a few hours. That should still gives us plenty of time to meet you on schedule."

"Scully is coming with you?"

Before Mulder could answer, Krycek spoke again. "I have to go, I hear something. Bring the cylinder; it might come in handy." And then the line clicked off.

Mulder stared at the receiver, teeth raking his lip.

"What did he tell you?" Scully's voice was close and he realized she had moved to stand beside him.

He hung up and reached for the medical bag. " C'mon, we've got a long drive. I'll tell you on the way." He hurried towards the door, knowing Scully was right behind him.

***

Krycek slipped the phone into his jacket pocket and stood very still, blending into the darkness around him. The scurrying sounds drew nearer, just beyond the tall trees and foliage that separated him from the path. Krycek waited, peering through the thick covering and letting out a breath as he caught sight of two raccoons scrambling across the path towards the woods.

A pale half moon and a faint dusting of stars hung in the Spring sky. Glancing around, he noted with irony that it was a lovely landscape. Oak and birch trees mingled with flowering shrubs, looking like wildly tangled shadows in the wan moonlight. A gently sloping road snaked through the greenery, bordered by low stone fences on either side. If he listened carefully, he could hear a stream nearby, gurgling over the rocks. Much further down the road, out of sight, was a covered wood bridge, a reminder of a much simpler past. A sprawling, two story house nestled in this peaceful pastoral setting. He imagined how particularly beautiful it would all look in the sunlight.

In that house was the end of the world.

Krycek was carrying two guns, one in his shoulder holster and the other strapped to the small of his back. They would do him little good against the Colonists. He wasn't even sure he could tell them apart from the humans. The only one he knew he could kill was the Smoker. The Cancerman. A grim smile flitted over his lips. If all else failed, if there was nothing else left for him at the end of this night but death, he was going to keep his final vow and take the smoking bastard down with him. At least that much was within his grasp. And he had the pernicious old asshole himself to thank for it.

He had his suspicions about why the Smoker had requested that he come along. The other Syndicate members had decided that the Cancerman would act as their intermediary for this special meeting with the Colonists. Perhaps they hoped, if the Aliens were still greatly displeased with the sabotage of the Center, that they'd take it out on their least-liked associate. It was a happy thought but an unlikely possibility. Not that the Smoker objected to his role. It seemed that of all the old conniving pricks, he was the one most intrigued by the Colonists themselves. He was as afraid of the Aliens as the rest of them, but he was also fascinated, and in some twisted way, honored to be singled out by them. Perhaps it gave him a peculiar sense of privilege and distinction to be the chief lackey to creatures with the power to obliterate all human existence. The Smoker actually believed in the rightness of their proposed New Order and in whatever 'sacrifices' were required to achieve it. To Krycek, that made him the craziest one of them all.

Though he had covered his tracks thoroughly, Krycek had the feeling that the Cancerman suspected him of being somehow involved in the traincar's destruction. Knowing the bastard's fondness for cat and mouse games, and which of them invariably wound up playing the mouse, he had mentally prepared himself for anything. Even so, he hadn't been prepared for the sight of Jeremiah Smith being hauled out of a windowless van, trussed up like a mental patient in straight jacket and gag, soon after their arrival. It was only with practiced effort that he covered up his shock and managed to project only an offhand curiosity. Whatever new game was being played, it seemed the stakes were rising for everyone.

As soon as he was close enough, Krycek stepped out into the path and walked casually down the road towards the picturesque country house. As he neared, he could see two of the thugs who had brought Smith out of the van standing near the other cars, smoking cigarettes. Krycek flexed his leather-gloved hand for a moment, deliberately letting his boots crunch over some twigs under his feet as he approached them. The men looked up, giving him a stony-eyed stare of recognition, then returned to their smokes.

He wondered with grim amusement if Aliens smoked menthols or regular, but decided that these two were the Smoker's personal hired muscle. He would take them out before he met Mulder later tonight.

Mulder. He thought about the sound of Mulder's voice on the phone. Strange, how it had soothed him just to hear it. There had been conviction in his voice. He'd done it. Mulder had the weapon, the means to finally rid them of the Alien threat. The crucial link had been there in the Ridley papers all along. And now, it could all end in a matter of hours. They could all be free. Or they could all be dead.

With a shrug of his shoulders, Krycek walked up the short flight of stairs to the front door and went in.

***

They would have made better time had they not had to travel on country roads for the last half of their journey.

"And on your left, and right, we have the charming foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, an excellent area for hiking and biking, with perfect locales for that luxurious vacation hideaway or that extraterrestrial home away from home," quipped Mulder.

It was the first words either of them had spoken in over an hour. He could feel his adrenaline levels go up another notch as he took the last turnoff towards their destination. Beside him, Scully turned off her flashlight and refolded the map she had been reading."You must have been one hell of a Boy Scout, Mulder. I bet you never got lost."

"No one every talks about the down side of a good memory, Scully. And I never wanted to be a scout."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?"

He could hear the smile in her voice. Except for the distant half moon and stars overhead, there were no other lights anywhere. Mulder had his window rolled down. The sound of the breeze and the rustling of the leaves as they sped along, the cool night air wafting over them, made it almost seem as if they were all alone in the world.

A short time later, Mulder slowed the car down to a crawl. "That's the covered bridge ahead." He managed to steer them off the road and down a slight embankment behind a clump of tall shrubs. He turned off the engine. "It's about a half a mile past that bridge. We have to go in on foot from here."

They were both dressed in dark clothing and hiking boots, Scully carrying the medical bag and Mulder leading the way, his gun drawn. They walked silently across the wooden bridge, the only sound the rush of the wide stream beneath them. They stayed off the road once they crossed the bridge, making their way through the trees and brush, but always keeping the road within sight. It was further away than Mulder has expected, but they finally caught sight of the country house in the distance.

There were several lights on in the house and at least three cars, including a van, parked in the clearing nearby. There was no one outside that they could see. Mulder glanced at his watch. They had 34 minutes to get to where Krycek said he would meet them. Mulder carefully scanned the layout of the house, the path, the stone fences, recalling Krycek's directions. "We have to go this way," he whispered, pointing towards a dark stand of trees just northwest of the house.

They reached their rendezvous point and waited. Crouching by the trees, they remained still and quiet. As the time drew closer, Mulder knew that Scully was as tense as he was, probably moreso, given her distrust of Krycek, but what he could see of her expression through the dimness was as cool and impassive as ever.

Mulder looked at his watch again, the numbers glowing dully in the darkness. Krycek was late.

After another twenty minutes had passed, Scully nudged his shoulder, her words low. "What if he's not coming? I think we should make our way back to the car."

"Give him a little more time," he whispered. His palms sweating and his throat dry, Mulder grappled with a mixture of fear and doubt as the minutes continued to tick by.

Then he felt Scully's hand on his arm. She pointed to something and reached for her weapon. Mulder did the same as he spotted the dark shadow detaching itself from all the others and begin to move in their direction. As the shafts of moonlight filtering through the tall trees played over the slowly moving figure, Mulder relaxed a little.

"It's Krycek," he said to her. There was no one else who moved quite like that.

Scully didn't lower her weapon as Mulder holstered his gun and rose carefully from his crouch, wincing as knotted muscles complained. Krycek seemed to spot his movement, heading right towards them.

Scully stood up, too, but kept her Glock aimed at Krycek's chest.

Krycek walked up to them silently, merely glancing at the gun pointed at his heart before he turned to Mulder. They just looked at each other for a moment, Mulder wondering at the profound sense of relief that ran through him at seeing Krycek standing before him, even in this most dangerous of venues. And shocked at the sudden urge to reach out and pull Krycek into his arms, right here in front of Scully. Instead, he dug his nails into his palms until it hurt.

"Are they in there?" he asked Krycek softly.

Krycek gazed around at the trees that shielded them, stepping deeper into the shadows. Mulder and Scully moved with him, waiting for his answer. "Could be the mother lode," he replied, shaking his head. "I still can't believe it."

"What?" prompted Mulder.

"I was trying to locate Smith because I know the Smoker went with him. There are two Colonists 'interrogating' him in there. I found the room but I couldn't get in. I started checking out the place, see what I could find." Krycek paused, drawing in a breath. "There's... something beneath that house." He frowned as if he couldn't quite trust his own words. "Could be some kind of underground complex. I found a bank of electronic equipment in the basement. Looks like something out of NASA Command Central. I thought because of all the monitors, that it was some kind of fancy setup to watch the outside of the house, a security system, but it isn't."

"What are they monitoring?" asked Mulder.

Krycek raked his lip with his teeth, looking from Mulder to Scully and back again. "On the monitors, I saw metal containers, like the ones in that traincar, only much smaller. Most of them are stacked one on top of the other, horizontally. Looked like there could be hundreds of them. Joined together by a network of conduits. It looks like a... honeycomb in a beehive. It's underneath that house."

Mulder felt a chill creep up his spine, his mind forming an image. "It's a ship. It's the Colonists' ship."

"An alien spaceship is buried underneath this country house in the Allegheny foothills?" Scully's question contained an unmistakable tone of incredulity.

But Krycek was nodding. "A ship. Yeah, that's what it is! Maybe it's been here for decades or even longer."

Mulder could sense Scully's eyebrows rising. "What else did you see?"

"One of them was in there, watching the equipment. It saw me. I only had a minute or two."

"The alien saw you?"

"It was strange. It... he, just stared at me. The door to that downstairs room hadn't even been locked. I walked in, looked around, asked him flat out what it all was. He told me it was none of my concern and to go back upstairs. He said if I came back again he'd kill me. Very matter of fact, like he was ordering a cheese sandwich. They don't have much personality, but somehow they manage to make their point."

"We've got to get in there," said Mulder. He looked up at the scrap of sky visible through the trees. "It'll be dawn in a couple of hours. We can't wait." He turned back to Krycek. "Why did they grab Smith, do you know?"

"The Syndicate pulled out all the stops to get him. They think the Colonists feel he's the one behind the Center sabotage, him and his little cell of nihilistic traitors. They know the Colonists have been after them. I guess they were as good a scapegoat as any."

"There were others with Smith?"

"Not any more. They're dead. Smith is the last. The Colonists didn't kill him like the others. Cancerman said he was valuable to them because he's a healer. That's rare for them; they have very few healers and never any in what they call the drone class. Smith is a drone. Like the other healers, his ability works best on humans. I think they want to find out everything he knows and then 'reindoctrinate' him. Have him use his ability specifically in their hybridization experiments. Maybe they'll stick him back in one of those little metal canisters to bring him into line. Or maybe they'll just dissect him when they're through. Your guess is as good as mine."

Scully still had her gun poised. "Do you believe all that, Mulder? Do you really want us to go in there?" Her tone was calm and steady.

Mulder took a step towards her, until he could see her eyes shining in the darkness. "Yes, Scully, I believe him. But you don't have to go. Stay out here. Keep watch. Give me the medical bag."

She shook her head. "We'll go together." He saw her glance sharply at Krycek, reholster her gun and pick up the medical bag. He was certain she doubted everything Krycek had said, but it wasn't Krycek's words that held her here. Her faith was not even in what Mulder believed. It was her loyalty to Mulder himself and her own determination to see it all through that kept her by his side.

Mulder became acutely aware that he was standing between them: Scully, his partner, his dearest friend and Alex Krycek, his enigmatic enemy, his... lover. Strangely, they both seemed so much a part of him. The inextricable ties that crisscrossed between them had generated the most significant events of their lives. And now they were here, together, facing perhaps the ultimate moment of truth. Mulder gazed from one to the other, all the brilliant words in his head seeming inadequate and insufficient. He simply nodded and turned towards the house.

Krycek's soft, husky voice stopped him. "Do you have the weapon I sent you?"

Mulder reached into his jacket pocket and drew out the slim, silver cylinder. He touched a point along the side, releasing the pick-like blade.

"Good. You'll probably have to use it. Do you know how?"

"I know."

Krycek seemed to hesitate, his body leaning slightly towards Mulder before stopping. Mulder watched Alex's lips part, as if to say... something, and then clamp shut into a firm line. The dark head turned away as Krycek stepped back. When he spoke, Mulder felt sure it wasn't what he had wanted to say. "Then let's finish it."

Krycek began leading them silently towards the side of the house.

***

He had wanted to tell Mulder that he loved him. Stupid. With Scully standing beside him and a nest of aliens, Cancerman and his goons just down the road, he had longed to touch Mulder and tell him that he loved him. How pathetically stupid. As if Mulder would have wanted to hear such a thing. As if it mattered. Yet Krycek had felt, for just a split second, that if he didn't say it then and there, he wouldn't get another chance. His instincts were telling him his time was finally running out. But when he'd looked through the darkness, he'd seen the fire in Mulder's eyes. And the strength in Scully's. And Krycek knew that Mulder would make it, and it was that knowledge that kept him from saying the words. Kept him from marring the moment for Mulder with an absurd emotional declaration the other man surely didn't want or need.

Instead, he locked the feeling away and focused on the goal before them. As they stealthily approached the country house, he hoped his handiwork with the alarm system had not yet been discovered. Except for the rustle of the cool night wind through the trees, everything was quiet as he led them to the back window that he had left ajar. The house was big and fortunately, at this hour, mostly dark. The Colonists were still upstairs with Smith and Cancerman.

Krycek could sense Mulder's impatience as they climbed inside and slowly made their way to the door and the stairs beyond that led down to the basement.

At first glance, the shadowy basement looked fairly ordinary. A furnace and shelves filled with old boxes and dusty knickknacks. Gardening and work tools spread on a worn bench. Some stacks of old papers and magazines. Krycek led them to a concealed door on the far wall. "There's no way that he can't see us once we walk in there," he whispered to Mulder. "If we're lucky, he's still alone. Let me go down first. I'll try and draw him off. You won't have much time to prove to me that you can really use that thing," he finished, nodding towards the silvery weapon in Mulder's hand.

"What if he's not alone?" asked Scully.

"Then I guess our luck runs out," replied Krycek flatly.

But their luck held, at least for a while.

"I told you not to come back here or I would kill you," the alien told Krycek. "You humans do not know how to listen. I see no use for any of you." And then the alien rose slowly from his seat in front of the strange electronic panel and began advancing towards him.

Krycek circled quickly to the other side of the room. "Well, you know, that's funny because I don't see any use for any of you either." He reached into his jacket and pulled out his gun, the silencer already connected.

Something resembling a smile flickered over the alien's face as he eyed the gun and continued walking towards Krycek. There was only a few feet left behind Krycek before he hit the wall. Even though he knew it was useless, he fired into the thing's chest just as the alien reached for his throat. As the cold fingers closed around his windpipe, Mulder appeared behind the alien. A blur of movement and the alien grimaced in shock, freezing in place as Mulder stabbed the deadly point through the base of its neck.

Krycek pulled the clawing fingers from his collar and watched as the alien collapsed in front of him, a green pool of liquid bubbling up from the wound in his neck as Mulder pulled out the long silver point.

They both stepped away quickly from the disintegrating corpse and that's when Krycek caught the stunned expression on Scully's face. Welcome to the world of little green men, Dana Scully. C'mon down and play.

To her credit, Scully recovered herself immediately and began examining the equipment in the room. Though the lights were on, they were fairly dim, the readouts and monitors providing almost as much illumination as the soft track lights in the corners of the steel-walled room. Mulder walked over to the bank of monitors and stood beside Scully, staring at the images on the screen.

Krycek knew what they were looking at, he'd seen it. He could imagine Mulder's horror and Scully's shock. He almost felt sorry for Scully. Her long-held scientific reality was twisting itself into a very odd shape before her big blue eyes. He walked over to them. "If you have some magic potion in that bag of yours, I suggest you pull it out and figure out what to do with it while we still have time."

Scully's head snapped around, her eyes meeting his for a moment. "How do we know if these images are real? If it isn't just fabricated footage? A fake set up by you and Cancerman for your own purposes?"

"You think this is fake?" replied Krycek. "Like that thing on the floor that just tried to kill me?" He gestured at the corpse on the other side of the room, its head already softening into a pool of green goo.

Mulder turned away from the images on the monitors and stared at her. His voice was raw when he spoke. "Scully, are you so afraid to believe? Even now?" The sound of it tore at Krycek's insides. He could see that the naked pain in it had reached Scully, too, by the look on her face.

Her lips tightened for a moment. "I don't know what to believe, Mulder. I... I just have to ask the questions." She turned to Krycek again. "Watch the entrance." Then she looked back at Mulder and put a hand on his arm. "Help me check out this equipment." After a moment, Mulder nodded.

Krycek figured she was dealing with it the only way she knew. He glanced at the monitors, watched the cameras panning methodically down each row. The alien, almost-faces were visible through the view panels of their containers; they looked like they were frozen. A vague gray-blue gas seemed to swirl around them. On the other monitors, the camera angles were different, the containers viewed on end, looking like hexagons joined together in a honeycomb pattern. Hundreds of them. A series of small lights blinked in sequence above some sort of digital panel in the center of each hexagon. Yellow, blue, blue. Yellow, blue, blue.

Mulder and Scully were moving across the large room, checking the panels, the series of pipes along one wall, the air ducts. They moved professionally, efficiently, like the partners that they were. At one point, Scully called Mulder over, and they conferred together softly, Mulder's head bent down close to Scully's red hair. The empathy was there between them, the unspoken trust. Krycek felt a pang of something indefinable as he glanced at them from across the room.

He stayed near the door, keeping a lookout, as the two FBI agents continued their examination of the room's contents. As the minutes dragged on, he began to wonder if their luck was running out. He rubbed at his shoulder. The prosthesis chafed against the stump of his arm. He'd pulled the straps too tight and his muscles ached. He glanced down at the black leather glove that covered the cold plastic hand and gritted his teeth. He stopped rubbing at his shoulder and looked back at the stairs. He pulled his gun out again.

"Come over here." Mulder was gesturing at them and staring down at the floor.

"What is it?" Scully asked him.

Mulder crouched and pointed to a barely visible seam that ran along the side of one of the electronic panels and meshed with the square metal grates that made up the floor. Then he stood up and studied the controls closest to him. He reached out, long fingers not quite touching the various keypads and switches before pausing over one of the levers. He exchanged a glance with Scully who nodded once, then he slowly pushed the small lever forward. A few seconds later, a section of the floor began to move.

Krycek was surprised at how quiet it was. If it hadn't been for the slight vibration beneath his feet, he wouldn't have known that a piece of the heavy metal flooring was moving. It was in itself quite an engineering feat. What the opening revealed was even more impressive.

Bathed in an eerie reddish glow, it was a network of multiple layers of large, clear ducts intertwined with metal tubing and a variety of gears and gauges like nothing Krycek had ever seen before. For a moment, he had thought it would be an entrance to the... alien ship he believed lay buried beneath the house. By the look on Mulder's face, he guessed that the other man had hoped for the same thing.

"What is it?" wondered Krycek aloud as took a few steps closer to the opening.

"They look like oversized oxygen tanks," replied Scully as she crouched near the edged. "These are pressure gauges," she continued, pointing to a set of small clear tubes set between two of the large ducts. "It reminds me of some of the special equipment I've seen in experimental isolation units, where every environmental variable has to be measured and adjusted to prevent any kind of contamination. The equipment isn't even placed in the same room as the subject to keep everything as sterile as possible." Scully stopped, drawing in a breath. "This isn't 'alien' equipment, Mulder. It's sophisticated, yes, advanced beyond anything I've ever seen, but human beings made this. Look, the gauges are inscribed with metric measurements. These symbols are from our own element table."

"The Syndicate has been covering up the Alien presence for decades. They're keeping them safe. This is a filtration system for the aliens in those containers. And they are aliens, Scully. It's connected to their ship, to keep them in a proper level of stasis until it's time for them be... revived," said Mulder. The familiar conviction was in his voice but Scully was frowning at him.

"It could take us forever to figure out how to get into that ship. If you have some kind of chemical or serum or whatever the hell you brought in that bag, can you just dump it into their air ducts or whatever?" cut in Krycek impatiently. He glanced towards the stairs. "We don't have time to debate human versus alien conspiracy theory right now."

Two pairs of eyes snapped a glare at him before turning to each other. Mulder raised a hand towards the images on the monitors. "You agree we have to stop this, don't you Scully?"

She looked at the images on the screens then slowly reached for the medical bag. "Yes."

Krycek felt as if, somewhere, the sands in an hourglass were running out. He kept glancing at the door and back at Mulder and Scully. They were having trouble. Scully had a vial and a hypodermic needle in her hands. Mulder seemed to be frantically searching through the network of ducts in the floor opening for something. More minutes ticked by.

Finally, they had found whatever they were looking for as they huddled over a section of the exposed floor. Scully was unrolling a thick pad that revealed several tubes filled with a pinkish liquid, along with several different types of hypodermic needles. Mulder stooped down beside her and they talked in hushed, hurried tones. Krycek couldn't make out what they were saying. He turned his attention back to the door, his gun poised in his hand, his sharp sense of dread growing stronger.

A seemingly interminable while later, he felt Mulder briefly touch his shoulder. "All right, let's get out of here." The opening in the floor was closed.

Krycek merely nodded, not bothering to ask what they'd done. He glanced back to see Scully close behind Mulder, the medical bag in her hand. Silently he opened the door and led them back into the old basement.

Had they left a few minutes sooner, they might have made it.

But instead, Krycek saw the two Colonists who seemed to be in charge here, dragging Jeremiah Smith down the stairs. Smith looked ashen and disheveled, restraints binding his arms behind his back. The aliens pushed Smith roughly down the few remaining steps as they spotted the humans. One headed towards Krycek and Scully and the other towards Mulder. Mulder was edging towards the other side of the basement, separating the two aliens as much as possible as he drew out the stiletto-shaped weapon from his pocket.

"They're all dying right now, all your little buddies on that ship down there. Yeah, we've killed them, just like we'll kill you," taunted Krycek as he deliberately focused the other alien's attention on himself.

The second Colonist looked towards the door to the control room, then back at Krycek, its dark eyes glittering. It lunged at him. He felt the useless Glock in his hand as he tried to maneuver around a stack of boxes, upending a few to block the alien's path. He couldn't risk a glance towards Mulder or Scully as he kept backing away, only hoping they would have a chance to make it up the stairs.

Then the alien was on him, large hands closing like a vise around his throat. He knew Mulder couldn't save him this time. Get away, Mulder. Get away. Be safe. Be... free. The thoughts flashed through his mind as he began to choke, air leeching out of his lungs.

Everything seemed to happen simultaneously then, the seconds oddly stretching like a slow motion nightmare as he thought he heard the Smoker's voice yelling from a distance. "What've you done? What've you done?!"

The hands around his throat tightened and the room began to swirl into a fog. Abruptly, the hands released him. The Colonist began to shudder violently, and Krycek fell back, gasping for air. A hypodermic needle was lodged in the side of the alien's neck. It's mouth gaped opened in a grimace as it crumpled to the floor, dark eyes clouding almost instantly as the veins began to bulge and pulse grotesquely through its skin.

Scully was reaching into the medical bag, her eyes on the other side of the room. But Krycek didn't have a chance to look for Mulder as he caught sight of the Smoker's gun rising, aiming at Scully.

Krycek's gun was firing even as he shoved Scully to the side. He felt something jar his prosthetic, then a fiery bolt pierced his chest and he cried out. Even as he was falling, he kept shooting, using his last seconds to keep his final vow.

He didn't feel the floor when he hit it. It was as if his whole body had gone numb except for the burning pain in his chest.

Krycek knew he was dying. He tried to raise his head, but he could only angle it a little. He could hear noises: boxes crashing, something heavy hitting the floor, the scuffle of footsteps. He heard his name.

"Alex! Alex!" And then Mulder was kneeling beside him, and Scully, too. Scully was pressing down against his shirt. He could feel something warm bubbling through his chest, saw bright red soaking through the ragged edges of the large hole in his black shirt, seeping though Scully's fingers, turning them the same bright red.

"Help him, Scully!"

Krycek forced his lips to move. "Dead... he... dead?" It was barely a whisper. He watched as Scully glanced towards the stairs. "Yes, Cancerman's dead."

"They're all dead, Alex." It was Mulder, arms gently supporting his head and neck. "Don't talk," he said. "Scully--"

"There's nothing I can do, Mulder, not with a wound like that. He has a few minutes at most."

"No!"

Krycek felt the light fading. He tried to keep his eyes open, to keep Mulder before his eyes until the light was gone. He wanted to say... so much, but he couldn't talk any more. The pain seemed to be fading, the numbness spreading inward, towards his heart. Suddenly, Mulder moved away from him and he wanted to call him back, wanted to cry out.

His eyes were still open but it was growing so dark... so dark. Mulder. Oh, Mulder.

As if from a great distance, he could hear voices, as the light dimmed to darkness.

"Smith, you have to help him! Please, help him... help him. Don't let him die!"

"Mulder, what are you doing? It's no use!"

"Free my hands. I must touch him..."

It was so peaceful. He hadn't expected the lulling quiet. The voices were fading away. Everything... fading. The darkness was so... peaceful...

The sudden sensation of air rushing into his lungs forced his eyes open in shock. The room's light was glaringly bright. He gaped at the haggard face of Jeremiah Smith leaning over him, the alien's hands rubbing over his chest.

Krycek felt his own heart beating like a drum even as panic spread through him. He felt so strange, dizzy and floating. Dazedly, he looked around him. Mulder was lifting him, tearing his jacket and shirt away.

"His arm... can you? Can you try?" he was asking Smith.

Fear gripped him as Krycek felt Mulder unbuckling the prosthesis, pulling it off. "N-no." His voice sounded so weak and feeble. He tried to struggle, to shake his head, catching sight of Scully's astonished expression. She seemed frozen, her blue eyes locked on Smith's hands.

Smith was touching his mutilated arm, cold fingers wrapping around the stump of his flesh, stroking the scars, rubbing over his skin again and again and again. Krycek felt a sharp burst of agony as if his arm was suddenly on fire, burning all the way up to his shoulder blade. He found he could scream after all and then he lost consciousness.

When he opened his eyes again, he felt a rolling motion. He barely had the strength to turn his head as he tried to focus. Scully was beside him and they were moving. Car, they were in a car. No. He was stretched out. The van, they were in the van. "Wh-wha--" his throat felt rusty. He felt tired, overwhelmingly tired.

"It's all right, Krycek," she told him. She was holding something around his arm, his mutilated arm. Towels. Towels wadded around his stump. He tried to blink away the dizziness. Something was wrong. Blood was oozing through the towels. Dark red streaks. And there was something else. The end of his arm seemed... longer, almost down to the elbow.

"Wh-what's... happening?" he asked hoarsely, trembling with a sudden wave of panic. "M-mulder? Mulder?!"

"It's okay, Alex, I'm right here. Everything's going to be okay." Mulder's voice was somewhere close behind and above him. The driver's seat. "We're on our way back to D.C. Close your eyes, Alex. Try to sleep."

The panic rolled back a little at the sound of Mulder's voice. He had to fight the fear, get himself under control. Why did he feel so very weak? He turned his face away from Scully's measuring gaze and the sight of the bloodied towels and closed his eyes in sheer exhaustion, sinking into sleep.

When he surfaced again, it was to the sound of their voices drifting in and out of his consciousness.

"..and you'll pull it all together, Scully?"

"To tell you the truth, Mulder, I'm not sure what to think about anything anymore."

"Hey, that sounds like a damn good first step to me..." The voices fading once more.

"He should be in a hospital, Mulder."

"For what? Spontaneous limb regrowth? What do you think the learned doctors would say when they saw that?"

"I can only conjecture that the amount of energy his body is expending as the regeneration continues must be enormous. It's sapping every bit of strength he has. He needs close care until it's over--"

"I'll take care of him."

"Mulder, that's crazy--"

Krycek struggled to open his eyes but couldn't and sleep stole over him again.

The next time he woke, he saw a window. The shades were down, but he could tell it was daylight. He tried to swallow. His mouth tasted like cotton. He was in a bed. A thin blanket covered him up to his armpits. His chest was bare. The sheets smelled like soap. Moving his head with effort, he tried to look around. There was a pillow under his left arm and it was swathed in a thick towel, a different towel, blue. He could see the outline of his arm. It was... longer, even longer than before. It was the length of a whole arm. Fear pinched at his nerves as he stared at it. His throat felt like it was closing up.

"Do you want some water?" It was Scully's voice.

He nodded, the motion making him dizzy.

She raised his head a little and put a glass to his lips. "Slowly," she said.

He sipped at the water, his breathing labored as he managed to swallow a little.

"You're very weak, Krycek. Better lie back. You can have some more in a few minutes."

He looked at her and found his breath. "Mulder?"

"He's picking up some supplies." She glanced at her wristwatch. "He should be back any minute now."

"Where... am... I?"

He watched a small frown come and go on her face. "You're in Mulder's apartment. It was no picnic getting you up here either. Be grateful you were unconscious."

He wanted to ask about his arm, about Smith, about the aliens. He wanted Mulder to be here with him. Mulder. But it was a strain just to keep his eyes open. It seemed as if Scully could read something in his face because she sat down in a chair beside the bed, on his left side. She touched the edge of the blue towel. "You probably have a lot of questions. I'm not sure we have all the answers but you can ask them when Mulder gets back. Close your eyes now and rest."

He woke to the sight of Fox Mulder staring down at him. All he could do was stare back, gathering his breath. It was a relief to feel stronger, if only marginally.

"You slept for several hours. How do you feel?" Mulder asked him gently.

He swallowed. "I was dying. I--I should be dead."

"Death Takes A Holiday, one of my favorite movies." Mulder's lips stretched slowly in a smile as he reached out and gently brushed Krycek's cheek with the back of his fingers.

The touch made his skin tingle. He took a deep breath, then another. "Smith. What did he do to me?"

"He healed you, saved your life."

Krycek glanced towards his arm. "Wh-what did he do?" he asked again.

"You're whole, Alex." Mulder was sitting in the same chair that Scully had used. He lifted part of the towel, his hazel eyes bright with wonder. "Look, look at your arm."

Krycek didn't want to look, didn't want to see the thing. He turned his face away. "What about the aliens on that ship? Was I telling the truth--are they dead?"

He waited for Mulder to answer him and thought he could feel the man's gaze boring into the back of his head. He knew Mulder wanted him to look at the arm, but he couldn't. He heard Mulder sigh.

"Ridley's experiments had produced a by-product, a new bacterial strain. That was the weapon. The data on the tape you gave me confirmed it. Injecting it into the filtration system of that ship, into that sterile environment, was like immersing a human being in the Ebola Virus. Yes, the aliens are dead."

"The Smoker... Scully said..."

"Two bullets in the head, one in the chest. Damn good shooting considering the circumstances. Yeah, the bastard's puffed his last Morley." Mulder sighed again in the silence that followed. "Will you at least look at me?" he finally asked.

Krycek squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "Where's Scully?"

"She's meeting with Skinner. Telling him what's happened. There's no way to hide or destroy the proof this time. That ship has been buried in those foothills for a long, long time. That's why there was relatively little security. Decades of complacency. They were sure that no enemy would ever find it. They never had any intention of ever using it again except as a kind of stasis chamber for the other aliens until they were ready to implement full-blown colonization. But any alien that tries to enter that ship now will be infected, and die. It's Ground Zero for them. Now, Skinner can authorize an official investigation. We finally have the means of stopping all of it, the Syndicate and the aliens, stop the abductions, and the... experiments. We've done it, Alex."

Krycek suddenly thought of the Well-Manicured Man. He hadn't heard from him since he'd given him the envelope for Mulder. Soon the other Syndicate members would know what had happened, if they didn't already. Those gray old men would finally be running for their lives. Given the kind of men they were, they would be turning on each other with a vengeance, assuming the remaining Aliens didn't get to them first. That would be a kind of justice, finally. But the Brit, he deserved better. Krycek owed him. He would have to try and get in touch with him.

"Alex, please look at me."

The soft voice drew him back. He took a deep breath and turned his head towards Mulder.

"Thank you for helping me, and for helping Scully. He would have killed her if you hadn't--"

"You needed her more than you needed me. Besides, she saved my life with that magic hypo. We're even."

Mulder frowned at him, lips working as if he wasn't quite certain what he wanted to say. Instead, he looked down at the blue towel and slowly unwrapped it. "There's nothing wrong with your arm. It's almost fully formed. Can you feel my fingers?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Mulder's hand begin to stroke... it, somewhere near the wrist. And Krycek felt it, the shocking unexpectedness of it. It was eerie and unbelievable and terrifying.

"Just look at your arm, Alex." Mulder's voice was low and coaxing like he trying to persuade a frightened animal. Krycek might have even found it funny if it hadn't been so close to the truth. Instead, he forced his gaze to move from Mulder's face down to his arm.

It looked like his arm. Almost. It was too pale and... new. He grimaced as he saw the hand, the fingers were much too smooth, even around the knuckles. His fingertips tapered into blank round tips with only vague indentations where nails should be.

"The cuticles should be formed by tonight. And then the hair. There's a little fuzz here already, along the forearm. It's very light, very soft. See?" Mulder gave him a big, boyish smile.

Mulder was on top of the world. His beliefs had been validated. He'd triumphed over a Conspiracy that had fought hard and dirty for years to break him. The truth was indeed out there, and he'd found it. And now, like icing on a cake, he even had Alex Krycek as his own personal X-file, here to entertain him.

Krycek stared at the arm for a few more seconds, looked up into Mulder's shining hazel eyes, and then turned his face away, a lump in his throat. He couldn't understand why he suddenly felt so miserable. He was alive, after all. And seemingly... whole. He'd beaten the odds again and survived. He was out from under the thumb of the Syndicate. He was even on the Right Side, for a change. Deep inside, he was truly, genuinely happy for Mulder. The man deserved his victory more than anyone. And yet Krycek felt a swarm of conflicting feelings that took him from the heights to the depths in seconds. It was the kind of effect Mulder always had on him, only now all his careful defenses seemed to have deserted him.

"There's nothing alien about your body or your arm, if that's what's worrying you. It's perfectly normal. At this rate, your arm should look exactly like it used to by tomorrow. You'll start feeling stronger, too. In a few days, you'll be able to go ten rounds with the best of them, and probably develop a dynamite left jab while you're at it."

Krycek couldn't keep a harsh laugh from escaping. He turned back to Mulder. "Hell, Mulder, my arm was chopped off. It's rotting in the ground somewhere in a Siberian forest. I had a bullet in my heart. I was bleeding to death. An alien does something to me, uses some kind of extraordinary force or power and makes the wound in my heart disappear and my arm grow back. There is no one else on earth but you who would refer to that as being 'perfectly normal'."

Mulder bit his lip, an embarrassed flush on his face. "Okay, so I'm not exactly the best judge of normality, but I just want you to realize that you're as human as you ever were, that's all." He reached out and took hold of Krycek's new hand in both of his, stroking the back of it lightly.

"Pins and needles," murmured Krycek.

"What?"

"Your touch. It feels like pins and needles, like the hand was asleep."

"I guess in a way, it is. It's sort of coming alive, meshing with your body." Mulder moved a hand up to where the stump had ended and rubbed at the new flesh beneath. "How does it feel here?"

"More... normal," replied Krycek, frowning at the word. Mulder's fingers were warm, his touch soothing and a little unnerving. Krycek's mouth felt dry. "Can I have some water?"

"Sure." Mulder let go and got up. "Are you hungry? I actually did some shopping earlier. Do you want some soup or a sandwich?"

"No, just some water." His stomach felt like a knot was slowly forming in it.

Mulder returned with a glass and a pitcher of water that he placed on the bedside table. Krycek tried to shift himself up a little and was surprised at the wave of dizziness that hit him.

"Take it easy, Alex. Here, let me help you."

Mulder had been calling him 'Alex' a lot. He was also mothering him like he was a sick child and Krycek wasn't sure how to take any of it. There never seemed to be a simple, easy-to-grasp middle ground with Fox Mulder. Then again, maybe they'd both been living their lives on the extreme edges for so long, they didn't know anything else. Maybe for them, the 'norm' would be the most uncomfortable place of all.

Mulder propped some pillows behind his back and helped him drink some water. He left the room for a minute, returning with an oddly-shaped jug that he placed on the bedside table.

"What's that?"

"Urine bottle," replied Mulder. "Same kind they use in hospitals. You know, until you're stronger, it'd be easier for you. Um, uh," Mulder sputtered a bit, adding, "If you need to use the, um, toilet, um, we can, you know, deal with that, too."

There was something unexpectedly endearing about a tongue-tied Mulder. "Thanks."

"Listen, Alex, I have to go into the office and talk with Skinner. There's still a lot to be done and I need to be there. I've called some friends of mine and they'll take turns staying with you until I get back. I wish I didn't have to leave right away, but--"

"It's all right, Mulder, do what you have to do."

"Frohike should be here any minute. Byers and Langly will come by later, if I'm not back."

"The Loony Geekmen," quipped Krycek with a faint smile.

"You know them?"

"Let's just say, the Smoker mentioned the Lone Gunmen a time or two. He didn't like them. Thought they were way too helpful to you."

"Yeah, well, they have been. They helped break open that tape you gave me." Mulder shrugged. "And, yeah, they're weird, but they're also my friends."

Krycek nodded just as the phone began to ring. Mulder went into the living room to answer it and returned a few minutes later. "That was Scully." Mulder gave him a quick grin. "She said Skinner's reaction was 'profoundly memorable'. I wish I could've seen it. He's setting up a full-scale investigation. He's already on his way to see it with a team of agents."

Krycek didn't need ask what 'it' was. "Then you better go."

"I told Skinner I'd get there as soon as I could. I'm not leaving you alone." He walked over to the side of the bed and sat down again, his gaze never leaving Krycek's face.

Krycek felt like he was drowning in Mulder's eyes and he looked down at the blanket that covered his chest. "I wanted to ask you something else," he said, struggling for the emotional distance he needed to keep from blurting out something he would only surely regret.

"What?"

"Jeremiah Smith. W-what happened to him?"

"I don't know. After he healed you, he refused to come with us. We told him that we could try and isolate him from the bacteria, but he said 'no.' He realized he couldn't survive exposure to the strain but it didn't matter to him. He said he wanted to heal, to do what he could to help as many people as he could, for however long he had."

"If only the others had been like him. It would've been a different world, wouldn't it?"

"Yeah, it would've."

The doorbell rang just as he felt Mulder's hand touch his hair.

Frohike was an odd little man who reminded Krycek of an overgrown gnome with glasses. He approached Krycek with cautious friendliness as Mulder made the introductions and gave him instructions.

"... and there's groceries in the kitchen. You've got my cellphone number. I want you to call me if you need me," finished Mulder. He looked at Krycek. "You should eat something pretty soon. Keep your strength up. Believe it or not, Frohike here actually enjoys cooking and he's not half-bad at it."

The little man snorted indignantly and pushed up his glasses. "Hell, the fact that you have fresh food in this apartment is the real Ripley's, Mulder."

Mulder grinned and nodded good-naturedly. "I'll get back as soon as I can, Alex. Get some more rest, okay?"

"I'll be fine," answered Krycek, his eyelids growing heavy. He could see the little man glancing curiously at his left arm. He assumed Mulder had told his friend about it. "Frohike can watch my arm grow while I take a nap." He managed a weak chuckle at Frohike's bug-eyed reaction.

He wasn't sure if he was already asleep and dreaming when he saw Mulder smiling softly at him, his hazel eyes tender, before he turned and slowly walked out the bedroom door.

***

What Mulder thought would take hours turned into days. While Scully supervised the production of more of Ridley's bacterial strain in the Bureau's labs, Mulder went back to the country house and met up with Skinner and his teams. Half-expecting to find the house burnt to the ground and the evidence of the ship somehow destroyed, it was a heady relief to discover that, this time, it was there. It was all there, just as they'd left it.

The investigation had been given the highest level of security and priority. Skinner had ordered that nothing be touched or moved, not even the bodies until everything was photographed and all evidence collected and documented in painstaking detail. The Smoker's body remained crumpled at the foot of the stairs. The sight of the aliens in the basement, or what was left of them, had shaken even the team of seasoned FBI agents, but when they saw what was on the monitors, even Skinner had admitted to being stunned speechless.

Skinner called it the installation beneath the house. Mulder figured that saying the phase 'alien spaceship,' however accurate, would be more than his colleagues could handle at that point. From the look of it, it would take some concerted effort to even find the entrance to it. It seemed that the Colonists had gone to great effort to secure the ship. Fortunately, they hadn't expected an assault from an enemy small enough to fit into a syringe. Whether from arrogance or oversight, they had made it possible for Mulder and Scully to turn the ship into a tomb.

While he and Skinner reviewed how the investigation would proceed, Mulder would catch the expressions on the faces of the other agents when they glanced his way. 'Damn, how about that? Spooky Mulder was right all along.' There was an exhilarating satisfaction in the almost reverent looks they gave him. He was no longer the Oddball in the Basement.

As the hours unfolded, Mulder found himself replaying the events of that night over and over in his mind, just as he found he had to break away from the proceedings with obsessive regularity to call his apartment and check on Krycek's condition. By the second day, he realized his priorities had taken a serious turn when he was more interested in the fact that Krycek wasn't eating than in the news that a large number of suspected Syndicate members had been torched to death near an airplane hangar just outside D.C.

As the third day dawned, he told Skinner he was going home. The A.D. was less than comfortably aware of who had taken up residence in Mulder's apartment but, after giving his agent a list of reservations even longer than Scully's, he finally gave in to Mulder's obstinacy and let him go.

Mulder made it back to Alexandria in record time. Strangely, his footsteps grew more hesitant as he approached his apartment building. So much had happened in such a short length of time. Reality had somersaulted on him and he was still dazed by it all. He'd always trusted his instincts, but he wasn't sure about his emotions. At least, not now that the grand battles seemed to be over and there was nothing to deal with but his own life and the handful of people in it who still mattered to him. And one person in particular. He stood in front of the elevator for several minutes, staring into some invisible middle distance. After the frenetic activity of the past few days, he should have been exhausted but he didn't even feel tired. He felt alive in a way that almost frightened him. He felt like someone who had just fought and crawled his way out of a deep dark hole into fresh air and sunlight only to realize he didn't know what to do or where to go.

With a sigh, he got on the elevator and pressed the button for his floor. When he walked into Apartment 42, the first thing that hit him was the smell of bacon. The TV was on and it looked like the Weather Channel was forecasting rainstorms along the Eastern seaboard.

"Honey, I'm home," he called, just as Langly stuck his head around the kitchen doorway and waved at him.

"Hey, Mulder, you're just in time for breakfast."

Glancing at the closed door to the bedroom as he passed, Mulder went into the kitchen. "How is he?"

"Weird." In the middle of ladling scrambled eggs on his plate, Langly caught Mulder's expression and added. "He's fine. Well, he seems fine anyway, except he's not eating much. Want some eggs? Your guest declined so there's plenty."

"No, thanks. Is he asleep?"

"I don't think so. He's been sitting in the chair by the bed for a while. Sometimes he just paces back and forth in there."

"You mean he's not in bed?" replied Mulder, already heading for the bedroom.

"It's been three days since you left, Mulder. He's not as weak and he's been able to walk around, even goes to the bathroom all by himself, for which I am truly grateful. Byers said he was out here using the phone yesterday." Langly continued in a stage whisper to Mulder's back. "The guy's a little scary, man, and I don't mean just his homegrown arm either."

Mulder tapped on the bedroom door, waited ten seconds, then walked in. Krycek was sitting in the chair by the bed. He was wearing a pair of Mulder's pajamas, the dark blue pair with white piping that his mother had given him a couple of years ago. His head was bent and Mulder could tell he was staring at his hands.

"Alex?" He approached the other man slowly and crouched by the chair. "Alex?" When Krycek still didn't answer him, he reached out and gently took hold of his left hand. It looked perfectly... ordinary. The nails had grown out. He could see the veins beneath the pale skin and his flesh was warm.

Mulder glanced up to find the green eyes watching him intently. "Hello, Mulder."

Butterflies started a dance in the pit of Mulder's stomach. "Hi." He smiled, finding it remarkably easy. "I didn't expect you to be out of bed."

Krycek pulled his hand away and stood up. "I can't stay here. Have... things to do." He started walking around the bed. As he turned back to Mulder, he began to sway, eyes squeezing shut. Mulder jumped up and grabbed him just as he lost his balance, maneuvering him back into the bed.

Krycek was breathing hard and scowling. "Can't stay here."

Mulder settled the light blanket over him and sat down on the edge of the bed, wondering why Krycek's words depressed him. After all, they were true; Krycek couldn't stay in his apartment indefinitely. He probably shouldn't have brought him here in the first place. "Okay, but you can't leave if you don't have the strength to make it into the living room. Just take it easy and I'll bring you something to eat in a little while, okay?"

Face averted, Krycek's scowl barely lessened as Mulder got up and headed for the kitchen.

Langly was wolfing down his eggs and bacon. "How's Prince Charming?"

"Not that charming at the moment." He ran a hand through his hair, then stopped midway. "I've got to pick up something I forgot," he said. "When I get back, you can head out, okay?" He rushed off before the blond could give him a reply.

He was back in less than twenty minutes.

"Hey, man, you've got plenty of food here already, you know," greeted Langly as he caught sight of the grocery bag Mulder was carrying.

Mulder nodded distractedly. "Listen, Langly, thanks for helping me out. I can take it from here."

"You sure?" But Langly couldn't quite hide the flicker of relief in his eyes.

"Yeah, get out of here. Tell Frohike I'll dig out some of my video hits for him the next time I drop by."

Langly grinned. "Don't bother, he already cherry-picked your collection while he was here. He said to tell you to consider it your down payment." The blond grabbed his coat and his laptop as Mulder brought his bag into the kitchen. "Are you sure you don't want me to hang around? Or I could call one of the guys to get back here--"

Mulder grinned. "Get lost, Langly."

Langly gave him a shrug and a smile. "Now that we've all helped to save the world from extraterrestrial domination, one of these days you're going to have to give us the real lowdown on your tall, dark and dangerous buddy in there. I have a feeling it's a helluva story."

"One of these days, I will, and thanks again."

"Remember, dude, we're but a phone call away. Call if you need us."

Mulder watched as Langly tried not to break the speed record scooting out the door. He put away most of his purchases and then made a couple of toasted cheese sandwiches, fixed up a makeshift tray and brought it into the bedroom.

Krycek was staring at the window. He didn't turn his head as Mulder set the food down on the bedside table.

"C'mon, Alex, I made enough for the both of us."

"I'm not really hungry, Mulder."

Mulder studied the dark head for a moment and reached for the bottle on the tray. "Then just have a drink with me." It was just past ten a.m. and he saw the puzzled frown forming as Krycek turned his face towards him. Mulder lifted the bottle in a toasting gesture. The frown faded as the green eyes widened, suddenly filling with emotion as Mulder held the bottle of chocolate milk out towards him. "I bought five quarts. All the bottles they had on the shelf. I figured you didn't like the plastic cartons."

A small, tremulous smile grew over Krycek's face. It made Mulder very glad he'd made the trip to the market. Krycek sat up slowly and took a few swallows from the bottle, then watched as Mulder did the same. Mulder settled in the chair by the bed and started eating his sandwich. He held out the plate. "Goes good with the milk," he offered.

Krycek hesitated, then he picked up the sandwich and slowly took a bite. They ate in silence, passing the cold bottle of chocolate milk between them. Mulder noticed that Krycek never used his left hand.

When the milk and the sandwiches were gone, Mulder stood up and stretched, finally feeling the last few days catching up with him. "I could use a little sleep. Do you mind if I lie down with you?"

Krycek shifted over, making room on his right side. Mulder walked around the bed, kicked off his shoes, stripped down to his underwear and tee shirt, and slid under the blanket. He debated with himself for a moment and then inched closer, carefully watching Krycek's profile as he gently placed his hand in the middle of the other man's chest. He thought he could almost feel Krycek's heart beating against his palm. His hand rose and fell with each strong and steady breath.

Mulder felt a rare contentment welling up inside him and he smiled into the green eyes, wishing they didn't look quite so guarded. He drifted into sleep with the warmth of Krycek's body beside him.

When he woke up, his face was pressed against Alex's neck and his arm was wrapped around his waist. The room was darker. He snuggled closer and sighed. It seemed perfectly natural to kiss the warm skin beneath his lips. He kissed his way up until he reached a small earlobe. He sucked the lobe between his lips and heard a gasp.

Mulder pulled his head away just enough to see Krycek looking back at him from the corner of his eyes. Irresistibly drawn, Mulder closed the distance and kissed him.

"Good morning," he said.

"It's evening, Mulder."

Mulder smiled. "Good evening." And he kissed Alex again. His fingers moved to undo the buttons of the dark blue pajama top. He tossed the blanket aside and bent to touch his lips to the silky smooth chest, on the place where the Smoker's bullet had ripped through flesh and bone and put a hole in his heart. No sign of the deadly damage remained. Mulder drew his tongue over the warm skin and moved to lick and swirl at a nipple, feeling it stiffen against his mouth.

Alex was breathing harder, and Mulder heard him gasp as he continued to nuzzle his chest, trailing slowing downward.

He didn't expect the sharp tug as Krycek gripped his hair, pulling him off. He grimaced and rubbed at the back of his head. "What's wrong?"

Krycek stared up at the ceiling. "I don't feel like fucking right now, okay?"

"That's not what I--" Mulder stopped. "I shouldn't have--" He stopped again, not really sure what he wanted to say. He got out of the bed and started fumbling for his clothes.

"I heard your cellphone ring earlier."

Mulder had one leg in his jeans. "When? I didn't hear it."

"Maybe around four. You were out like a light." Krycek sat up and started getting out of the bed, too.

"Where do you think you're going?" Mulder didn't know why his voice sounded angry.

The green eyes met his steadily. "Bathroom. Do you mind?"

Mulder swallowed, wondering what was happening between them now, and shook his head. "I--I'm going to check in with Scully." He finished pulling on his jeans and stopped to watch Krycek's slow but steady walk into the bathroom, the door shutting firmly behind him. He didn't hear the click of the lock.

Instead of going out to the living room, Mulder found himself standing by the bathroom door. He listened for a moment, his hand reaching for the doorknob, then drawing back. He heard the sound of the toilet flushing, the sound of the faucet. He considered walking away, but he wanted to make sure Alex was all right, so he waited. After a few minutes of silence, he started to worry. He reached for the doorknob again just as the sound of the shower began. Krycek was still weak. What if he got dizzy and fell?

Mulder wondered why he was behaving like some overprotective, neurotic parent. Krycek was not an invalid. He was not a child. He was not Mulder's responsibility. And yet, he kept on standing there, listening to the sound of the shower. Stood there until it stopped. Stood there through more minutes of silence until he heard the sound of glass breaking.

He rushed in and spotted the shattered water glass on the floor. Krycek was standing by the sink, naked and wet, holding a razor blade, his eyes fixed on his left hand, at the bright red line of blood across the middle of his palm.

Mulder took in the scene and carefully approached him. "Don't move, Alex," he said quietly. "Let me have the razor." He reached out slowly and took the blade away, placing it back into the open safety razor near the sink.

Krycek's attention seemed riveted to the blood that was spreading across his palm.

"Just don't move until I get rid of this broken glass." Mulder crouched down and quickly started picking up the larger pieces of glass, dumping them into the small wastebasket near the sink. He swept the smaller pieces out of the way with a towel. Grabbing his terrycloth robe off the hook on the back of the door, he put it on Krycek, meeting no resistance. "We better put some ointment on that cut," he said at last. He waited until Krycek finally looked at him before he asked, keeping his voice as calm as he could manage. "Why, Alex? Why did you do this?"

Krycek seemed to consider the question as if there was something terribly mysterious about it. "I-I had to make sure it hadn't changed. I had to make sure it wasn't inside me." He gazed down at his palm again, as Mulder found some first aid cream in the cabinet. "It's... it's really my arm," he whispered, as if he couldn't quite believe it.

Mulder took his hand and cleaned the blood away and applied the ointment and a bandage. He found a fresh towel and rubbed at the sleek wet hair and dabbed away the trails of water that trickled down Krycek's face and neck. "C'mon," he said, giving Krycek a gentle nudge towards the bedroom.

In the bedroom, he watched as patiently as he could as Krycek shuffled back and forth in front of him. It was Krycek who spoke first. "I dreamt once that I could really hold you, that I had both my arms, but then... my blood... it was green and your eyes... the black oil..." He stopped, drawing in a shuddering breath.

"Alex, this isn't a dream. This is real. I'm real. Hold me. Put your arms around me."

He watched Krycek's chest rise and fall with another deep intake of breath and then the troubled green eyes were looking into his. "Put your arms around me, Alex. Please."

Slowly, haltingly, Krycek raised his arms and slid them around Mulder's shoulders. Mulder could feel their warmth even through the robe. He could feel their strength as they wrapped around his back. He felt Alex's face burrowing against his neck and felt his quickening breath. Krycek began to tremble, suddenly clinging to him tightly. Mulder swallowed hard as he felt tears spilling against his neck.

Mulder anchored his arms around Krycek's waist, luxuriating in the feel of his body against him. "It'll be all right, Alex. It'll be all right." He said it because he wanted it to be true.

They stood like that for a long time. When Krycek finally pulled away, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, turned and walked to the bed. He shrugged out of his robe and lay back against the pillows.

Mulder felt his fear begin to recede, replaced by a rising heat as Krycek held out his arms towards him.

This time there was a harmony between them, their touches and kisses blending into a heightening rhythm. Krycek kept rubbing his hands over and over Mulder's body. They were both hard and hungry for each other, starving for as much contact as they could get.

Mulder had wanted it to be slow and gentle but he couldn't stop the frantic need that seemed to sweep over them both. They came just from the friction of their bodies burning against each other, their semen mingling between their bellies.

Krycek lay half on top of Mulder, his leg thrown over Mulder's thighs, his arm, his left arm, cradling Mulder's chest.

As the rapid beating of their hearts gradually returned to normal, Mulder raised a fingertip and ran it along Krycek's kiss-swollen lips, watching as long dark lashes fluttered open. As usual, what he couldn't read in Krycek's face was there in his eyes. Mulder smiled, finding it easier to lighten the moment than meet it. "I'd say you've made a full recovery." He was pleasantly surprised at the blush that stole over Alex's cheekbones.

Mulder took Krycek's left hand and kissed the bandaged palm. He held it to his lips a moment longer, kissed it again. He knew he'd better get out of the bed while he still had the willpower. "I should check in with Scully. See if she was trying to reach me." Still, he didn't move or let go of Krycek's hand.

Alex nodded with a smile in his eyes and shifted away on the bed. "I should get up, too."

"Maybe you better just rest."

"I'm okay, Mulder. I need to make a call anyway."

Mulder gave him a curious glance but didn't ask the obvious question as he got out of bed and picked up his tee shirt and jeans.

"What happened to my clothes?" asked Krycek.

"Your boots and jeans are in my closet. The rest was too torn and... bloody to salvage. You can borrow some of my stuff." Mulder paused. "You're not getting dressed, are you?"

"Seems like a reasonable idea."

Mulder caught himself before he could begin to argue. He wasn't Krycek's keeper, he reminded himself.

"I'm hungry. Do you mind if I fix myself something to eat first?"

Mulder shook his head, inordinately pleased by the question.

Several minutes later, he was in the living room calling Scully and listening to the sounds of Krycek moving in the kitchen. "Hi Scully, it's me. I was wondering if you tried to call me earlier..."

After he finished talking with Scully, he went into the kitchen. Alex was already halfway through another bottle of chocolate milk and most of a tuna fish sandwich. Mulder plucked an apple from the small bowl on the table, resisting the urge to bend over and lick the chocolate moustache off of Krycek's upper lip.

"Scully said several high-ranking staff members in the NSA, the CIA and the Bureau have disappeared over the last forty-eight hours."

"Probably alien infiltrators or Syndicate puppets," shrugged Krycek as he drank more of his milk. Mulder reached over and snagged the bottle, taking a long swallow before giving it back. The idea of alien infiltration was as obvious and acceptable a fact to Krycek as it was to him. He watched as Krycek rose from the table.

"I tried to call the Brit yesterday. He left me a special number. He told me that if he didn't answer, there would always be someone to take a message for him. But the phone just rang and rang. I want to try and call him again--"

"Alex, no one's going to answer." Mulder hadn't wanted to tell him yet, hoping Krycek might not even ask about the old man.

"What do you know? Tell me."

Mulder rubbed at the back of his neck and sighed. "Skinner got the report while we were at the country house. The Englishman and his driver were killed by a car bomb even before you called me to tell me about the country house." He stopped as Krycek sank back into the chair, his face paling. "He knew the game was over for him, Alex. He told me as much the last time I saw him. He was probably as prepared for death as any man could be. I... I'm sorry."

Krycek's hands balled into fists beside his plate. "He was a cunning, old bastard, but he didn't deserve that. He could be ruthless when he had to be, but he never took pleasure in it. He wasn't the same as the others. Those fucking old cronies of his, they killed him."

"They're all dead now, Alex. The aliens took them out. The final payback for the defeat of their Project."

The dark head lowered, Krycek staring down at the table top, lost in his thoughts.

Mulder wasn't sure what sort of bond had existed between Krycek and the Brit, but it was obvious that Alex had had some feeling for the old man. And perhaps he hadn't even known it until this moment. For himself, Mulder would always remember the Brit as the man who gave him the answer to a lifelong-search and as the wily manipulator who sent him to meet an enemy on one fateful, stormy night. He didn't know what else he could say to Krycek to make the loss easier, so he didn't say anything.

The phone rang again a little while later. It was Skinner. The conversation was a long one. With the investigation now an around-the-clock operation, Skinner was burning the midnight oil. There was more and more information coming in all the time: locations of experimental labs and names of Project collaborators all over the world. He also confirmed what Scully had told Mulder earlier, that they would have an airborne version of Ridley's bacteria ready for dissemination within days.

Skinner's special teams were now working with units from Interpol and other Bureau counterparts abroad. Yet, despite the breadth of the operation, there was no media awareness, no news at all of the quiet, insidious war that had threatened the very existence of humanity. In the interest of averting unnecessary panic, no breaches in security would be allowed. The world would never know the real truth and Mulder realized that it didn't matter to him whether the world knew or not. Humanity would survive. The people who mattered in his life knew the truth, and that was enough.

As he listened to Skinner, his gaze would shift towards the kitchen. He could see Krycek sitting, still and silent at the table.

Skinner wanted Mulder to report back to work in the morning. "I know you've been through a lot, Mulder, but this has all come about because of you. You're the one with the most knowledge, the most expertise. Yes, you've already helped plan out the current operations, but now you can make sure that we cover all the bases."

Mulder kept his eyes on the dark profile a room away. "I'll try and come in tomorrow, but I have some personal matters I have to take care of first. You know you can reach me here if you have to." He could sense by the strained silence that Skinner was trying not to ask him about Krycek. He made it easier on both of them by quietly hanging up.

He walked back into the kitchen and sat in his chair, opposite Krycek. "I think I'm having a problem coping with my newfound credibility," he told him wryly.

Krycek looked up at him and gave him a sad little smile. "Does it feel strange to be taken seriously, to be believed?"

Glad that Alex was talking, Mulder smiled back. "It's not something I'm used to. It's refreshing."

"Enjoy it, Mulder. You might even get the X-Files some serious respect in that constipated, tight-assed Bureau."

"Yeah, they might actually stop bitching about my expense reports from now on."

"Maybe they'll even give you an office on one of the regular floors," suggested Krycek with a hint of a grin.

Mulder seemed to consider the possibility and shook his head firmly. "Nah, I like the Basement. More privacy. The ceiling takes pencils better. There's more room for my posters."

They were both quiet for a minute, Mulder finally asking the question that was bothering him most. "What about you, Alex? What are you going to do... now that it's over? You have a chance for a new start, you know."

Krycek's expression grew distant and a little hard. "It'll take a long time before I stop looking over my shoulder. I'm not--"

The phone rang again and Mulder threw it a glare.

"Maybe you better answer that," Krycek told him, after the third ring. "Could be important."

"Let the machine pick it up." He heard the distant sound of Frohike's voice leaving a message.

"Sounds like the Gnome. Wonder what he wants. Probably wants to make sure I haven't grown horns and a tail and eaten you for dinner."

Mulder wasn't about to be distracted. "You didn't answer my question."

With a sigh, Krycek rose from the table and headed for the bedroom, pausing in the doorway, back still turned. "I can't tell you because I don't know."

Mulder watched Krycek walking away with an inexplicable sense of loss. There were no ties to bind them any longer. They were not enemies, but there was no further need to be allies either. There were no outside forces to draw them together. They were two men who had fought their battles their own way and won a war together. Now it was over, and they were just... two men.

What happens when a war is over and you have to go home and start your life again? What happens if you discover that the war was all your life had been?

Mulder felt the shadows of the past rising and he blocked them out before they could stop him. Instead, he got up slowly and followed Alex into the bedroom.

Krycek was taking his jeans and boots from the closet. He flicked a glance at Mulder. "Do you have a pair of socks and a sweatshirt or shirt that you can spare?"

"Yeah, sure. There are some sweatshirts in the second drawer, socks in the first. Are you leaving right now?"

Krycek looked down at his hands for a moment. "I'm feeling fine. There's no reason for me to stay."

A sense of powerlessness, the sense of something slipping irretrievably away from him, seemed to grow stronger as Mulder watched Alex opening the drawers, pulling out a gray sweatshirt, a pair of black socks. Before he could think, he was walking up behind him, grabbing him by the shoulders, turning him around. Mulder pulled him close, kissed him once, twice, clasped him in a tight embrace. "Don't go. Not yet," he whispered hoarsely. "Stay, Alex."

He felt the tension, the resistance, melting slowly, heard it in sudden whimper as he pushed Krycek towards the bed. They sank down into the mattress, pulling off their clothes. Their bodies pressed close, the room filled with nothing but the sound of their rough breathing. It was as if they both just wanted to hold the moment and not let it go.

Minutes later, Krycek murmured something into Mulder's shoulder. His palm stroked across Mulder's chest, fingers tracing his nipples.

"What?" asked Mulder, amazed at how quickly the gentle caress was arousing him.

Krycek pulled just far enough away to look at him. "You can fuck me, if you want," he said, his voice low and husky, his green eyes dark with emotion. "I know that's what you want." Shifting, he turned over before Mulder could respond and buried his face in the pillows, hands by his head. Then, slowly, he spread his legs apart.

Mulder's cock throbbed into complete erection. He drank in the sight of Krycek's pliant body, the smooth round buttocks quivering ever so slightly. Mulder raked his lip, desire curling in his belly like a flame. Krycek was right. He did want to. He just never expected to be offered...

"Do you have something you can use?" Krycek's question was muffled against the pillow.

Mulder suddenly thought of the lube and condoms he'd left at the Arlington house, and of his arrogant insistence that they would use them the next time he was there. He also remembered how Alex had told him he wouldn't be able to give Mulder what he wanted. Remembered the shadow of fear and regret in the green eyes.

He thought about three rich punks raping a lonely, fifteen-year-old boy.

He looked again at Krycek's body and noticed the tension in his back and shoulders, at how his white-knuckled fingers gripped the sheets.

Mulder wanted to take him, wanted to feel Krycek's ass around his cock, wanted to push himself into that tight heat and fuck him through the floor. If he was honest with himself, he'd wanted it for a long time. But now, he wanted Alex to want it, too.

Mulder didn't want a sacrifice. If Krycek was walking out of his life, he didn't want that to be their last memory. The prospect turned his stomach.

"Yeah, I have some stuff here," he answered finally. He sat up and rummaged through the bedside table, finding a plastic bottle of lubricating lotion. "But you're in the wrong position."

Krycek turned his face, gazing at him in puzzlement. Mulder grabbed his shoulder and moved him onto his back. As Mulder expected, Krycek had lost his erection.

"I want you to fuck me," Mulder told him. "I want to know what it feels like." As he said it, he realized it was true. It felt right.

Krycek's mouth dropped open, frown line deepening between his brows. "N-no. I can't."

Mulder placed his hand on Krycek's flaccid penis, his lips turning upward in a brief smile. "Not at the moment, but we can work on that."

Krycek shook his head, shifting away from Mulder's touch. "I-I don't understand. How can you want that? How can you want me to do that to you?"

"I've heard it can feel pretty damn good, and I'm all for expanding my pleasurable experiences. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. Besides, you just offered me the same thing, didn't you?" He propped himself up on an elbow, his mind drawing images of Krycek's hard body wrapped around him... and in him. His cock twitched.

"I don't want to hurt you."

"That's good because I don't want you to hurt me either. And I know you won't." With that, Mulder bent forward and touched his lips to Krycek's cock, pleased to hear a gasp as he kissed the slit and licked a circle around the head. He didn't want too much time to think, to examine too closely what he was doing or why it seemed so important.

"Alex, you can obviously see that I want this. I'm probably as surprised about it as you are. It excites me, okay, and, yeah, it scares me a little, too. Maybe that's part of the turn-on, I don't know. Look, I don't usually indulge in soliloquies about what sex acts I want to perform, so help me out here, okay?" He glanced up from his perusal of Alex's bellybutton to meet the confused green eyes.

"Make love to me, Alex," he said softly, all his faint bravado falling away. And then he was reaching up and stroking the pale, unguarded face. He didn't realize that his own vulnerability was as transparent in that moment as Krycek's.

Krycek closed his eyes and turned his face slightly, kissing Mulder's palm. "I--I'm not sure how."

Mulder simply smiled and kissed him.

It was awkward at first, Mulder lying on his side, maneuvering them into position, more concerned about Alex's fear than his own. They groped, fumbled, used an excessive amount of the lube. Krycek hesitated. Mulder initiated, uncertain himself how much to demand and how much to allow. Ultimately, their bodies knew, despite the turmoil of their emotions; their bodies were drawn to each other like magnets, the passion far stronger and more insistent than any of their doubts.

Yet Krycek moved as if Mulder was made of glass. When Alex's cock finally slid into him, oh so slowly, Mulder was already desperate for it, the discomfort nowhere near what he had expected. Mulder could feel the sweat slicking their bodies, Krycek's self-control radiating from every inch of his skin as he made himself hold still, waiting for Mulder's command.

"C'mon, Alex, c'mon baby, c'mon..." He pushed back, forcing Alex all the way in. The sensation of it burst inside him like stars and he moaned ecstatically. He reached behind him, grasping Krycek's hip, raking his fingers across his thigh. "Y-you feel... so good... so damn... good..."

"Oh... god... Mulder...Mulder..." The velvety voice was thick with desire and heat, and Mulder felt that exact, exhilarating moment when, with a cry, Alex lost control at last and they both began to fly...

They went higher and higher and higher together and the pleasure was almost too much to bear, being that close, feeling... so much. When he felt Alex climaxing and his own orgasm spilling over his hand, he wasn't sure where Alex ended and he began. They were a circle with no beginning and no end. And he felt complete at last.

When he finally came back to himself, it was to the feel of soft, little kisses on the side of his face and on his hair and to Alex's voice murmuring his name between panting breaths. He was himself again. Apart, but not alone. He shifted so they were facing each. He felt sticky and sweaty, a little sore, and blissfully content.

Worried green eyes blinked at him. "Are you all right? Are you okay? Mulder?"

"Do I look like I'm in pain?" he asked, sealing the question with a slow, wet kiss. He put his arm around Alex. "Are you all right?"

Krycek closed his eyes and touched his forehead to Mulder's, his words a whisper between them. "It... it was... unforgettable. I never thought..." The words trailed away in a sigh. His eyes opened again. "Thank you."

Mulder nodded past the lump in his throat. He drew in a breath and cuddled closer. "Do you mind sleeping smeared with semen?" He was rewarded with the sound of a muffled chuckle.

"No."

"Good 'cause I'm not moving, and neither are you." With one last smile and a brush of a kiss, Mulder closed his eyes and fell asleep.

***

Krycek remained still for a long time, just feeling Mulder's warmth snuggled against him. Mulder's breathing was slow and steady, punctuated by an occasional snuffling sound that was not quite a snore. Krycek pulled back a little so he could look at his face. The kiss-swollen lips were slightly open, revealing the edge of white teeth, and the chestnut hair tumbled in thick waves across the tall forehead. One arm still lay heavy across Krycek's waist.

Lying there in the quiet, Krycek could almost believe that Mulder loved him. Certainly, Mulder must trust him, at least enough to offer his body so completely.

God, it had felt... He couldn't even find the proper words for the feeling that seemed like a glow, a light, inside him. The echo of boys' laughter, vicious and taunting, seemed suddenly blunted in his memory. He had something else to replace it with now.

He gazed at the sleeping face and whispered, knowing Mulder could not hear him. "I love you. I love you more than anything and anyone in my life. I'll love you forever."

As he lay there, watching Mulder, the events of his life drifted through his mind. He recounted all that had happened to bring him to this point and place in time. Slowly, inexorably, Bill Mulder's image rose before him. It would always be there, he knew, like a malignant shadow looming over them both. All the love and all the longing he felt for the man lying beside him would never be enough to banish it. Krycek's secret hope for some kind of future with Mulder was a fantasy, a hope too fragile and slender to survive the darkness of his past. Mulder was denying it now, perhaps out of a sense of gratitude, but it would only be a matter of time before its specter rose again and destroyed the tenuous bond between them.

Krycek knew that Mulder would never be able to love him. The tender lovemaking, the sweet passion, they were moments stolen from a future that could never be. The sorrow of it settled in his heart like a weight. He held up his left hand, turning it back and forth. He flexed his fingers against the small bandage. He reached over and gently stroked Mulder's hair, feeling the silky strands against his skin. Before he lost Mulder, perhaps he could create one more memory.

He rolled away, careful not to wake him, and turned off the lamp. Then he returned to his place, smiling wistfully as Mulder automatically snuggled against him. With a sigh, Krycek closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

It must have been several hours later when he opened his eyes. Mulder was still peacefully asleep, his arm draped around Krycek's neck, their legs entwined. Krycek glanced at the windows. The night was waning, the sky a deep blue gray. A new day was about to dawn. Once again, Krycek slipped out of Mulder's embrace. He went into the bathroom to relieve himself and wash up a little. When he returned to the bedroom, he stood by the bed for a moment, a strange mix of emotions gripping him. Then he climbed back in and waited for Mulder to wake up.

A little while later, he felt Mulder stirring beside him and then the touch of lips against his shoulder.

"Hi."

He looked into the soft hazel eyes. There was a lightness, a... happiness in Mulder's eyes that made him catch his breath. This is the way it should be. Ruthlessly, he pushed the thought away. "Hello yourself," he answered.

Mulder kissed him on the side of his mouth. "Pretty early, isn't it?"

"Want to go back to sleep?"

"Nope."

"Want to discuss conspiracy theory?"

Mulder grinned. "Not particularly. Don't even want to talk baseball." He licked a line up Krycek's biceps.

"Hungry?" asked Krycek, prolonging the playfulness.

"In a manner of speaking."

"Want me to fix you some french toast?"

Mulder raised an eyebrow. "I'm getting this mind-blowing image of you slaving over a hot stove. I don't think I'm ready for it yet." Rolling gracefully out of bed, he announced, "gotta take a leak and clean up." Then he pointed an admonishing finger at Krycek. "You. Don't. Move. Understand?"

Krycek smiled indulgently. "Okay." And watched the enticing view of a naked Mulder walking away from him. While Mulder was in the bathroom, he retrieved the bottle of lotion from the floor where it had fallen and placed it within reach. He straightened out the sheets and pillows and lay back down, his heart already beginning to beat a little faster.

Mulder came back damp and smelling of pine-scented soap. Krycek made a mock protest as Mulder climbed on top of him and shook his head like a dog, water droplets spraying over the bed and Krycek. "Damn, Mulder, you're cold and wet!"

Cool lips pressed against his mouth in a kiss. "Um, sorry, I was in a hurry."

Krycek quickly gave up any pretense of complaint. It felt too good being with Mulder like this, seeing him happy and carefree. Instead, he wrapped his arms around him, savoring the joy in the simple act that he had once thought would always be denied him.

Mulder's erection pressed against his thigh. Krycek was hard, too, and his heart was pounding now, in expectation and a little fear. In one swift move, he rolled them over until Mulder was trapped beneath him. He looked into the hazel eyes, more gold than green in the pre-dawn light. "I want to feel you inside me, Mulder."

He could see the surprise in Mulder's eyes, the uncertainty, but the flare of desire was there, too. Mulder's hands framed his face tenderly. "Are you sure, Alex?"

Krycek thought about the conversation that they would have to have later, the one that neither of them could run away from. He thought about last chances and memories. "Yes, I'm sure," he answered. He rolled to one side and reached for the bottle of lotion and held it out to Mulder, injecting a casualness into his voice that he didn't feel. "This worked pretty well last time. Good thing it's the large size, still plenty left."

"Are you really sure, Alex?"

Krycek smiled at the concern in Mulder's voice. "I know it can be good now. I want it to be you, Mulder. It has to be you."

"But maybe it's too soon. Maybe--"

"Now, Mulder. Please."

Mulder took the bottle and lifted himself on one elbow.

Slowly, Krycek traced Mulder's erection with his fingers. "You're bigger than they were," he murmured, more to himself than Mulder.

But Mulder seemed to understand. "I wouldn't hurt you, Alex."

Krycek looked up at him, irony in his voice. "You're the only one in the world who really could."

Mulder's lips tightened, comprehension and regret shadowing his expression. "But I don't want to. Not anymore."

Krycek placed his hand over the center of Mulder chest. "I know." Then he settled back against the pillows and took hold of his own cock, pumping it firmly until it was hard and aching, sensing the heat in Mulder's gaze as he watched him, moaning as he forced himself to stop. "You want to fuck me, don't you?"

Mulder's tongue licked across his lip. "Yes." Mulder reached out and traced the faint line of a scar near his penis before cupping his balls and rubbing them gently. "But I want you to like it. I want you to love it."

Mulder played with his body for a long time, fondling and stroking him until he almost purred. When he felt Mulder's finger pushing into him, lubricating him thoroughly, there was the briefest flash of panic, but it was swept away by the touch of Mulder's mouth against his lips. As another finger joined the first and moved deeper inside him, he kept his eyes on Mulder's face. The invasion was careful and deliberate. Mulder waited until he gasped from a sudden tantalizing spark of contact before increasing the movement. Soon, he could barely keep from growling out his pleasure.

"Stay on your back. I want you to see me," Mulder told him. "Let me put this pillow under your hips."

It was so different from what he had known. So utterly sensual. He bent his knees and watched as Mulder moved between them. Mulder looked wanton and wholly desirable, his erection jutting out, long, hard and gleaming from the lubricating lotion.

"I'm going to put my cock inside you now, Alex. I'm going to fuck you slow and you're going to want it as much as I do." His voice had a tremor in it as if he was fighting for control.

Krycek gripped the sheets between his fingers and spread his legs wide. His own cock was arching against his belly. "Yeah, make me want it, Mulder. Make me." He let out a breath as Mulder slid his hands up and down his thighs. Then he felt the tip of Mulder's cock nudging his balls, slipping lower.

Mulder pushed his legs up, braced them against his shoulders and began to enter him. His body automatically tensed against the penetration. He couldn't stop a cry from escaping at the sudden burst of pain as the head of Mulder's cock pushed through the ring of muscle. Mulder stopped, both of them breathing heavily. "You're so... tight... hot. Incredible... beautiful."

Krycek gritted his teeth, squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the urge to pull away.

"Look at me. Alex, look... at... me. I want you... so much. So much."

Krycek opened his eyes. Mulder gazed down at him, but despite his words, he remained still. Waiting, even though his body was trembling. Krycek looked down at himself, at the place where their bodies were joining. He gulped a breath, his voice hoarse. "Do it."

Inch by inch, Mulder entered him. Krycek watched the thick cock sinking into his flesh, until it was fully sheathed inside him. Mulder was murmuring something, something unintelligible, his face flushed with need, body slick with sweat.

Krycek felt utterly possessed, utterly vulnerable, yet he wasn't afraid. It was Mulder. He was giving Mulder what Mulder had given him, and as the pain began to subside, he realized it was going to be all right. It would be the memory he wanted.

He drew in several deep breaths and began pumping his cock. "I want it. Want you. Fuck me, Mulder."

They moved together slowly at first, but then a delicious pleasure shot through him as Mulder's thrusts plunged deeper and their flesh melded together in a quickening rhythm.

He came with a shout, his muscles squeezing convulsively around Mulder's cock. He was swept up in a cascade of sensations and its center was the hard shaft pulsing deep within him. He thought he heard Mulder crying out, wild and exultant.

Later, when Mulder slipped free from his body, he felt the loss with a pang of regret, but then Mulder was lying on top of him, kissing his face. Krycek hugged him close and kissed him back. They rolled to their sides, Mulder stroking down his shoulder to his hip, cupping a buttock with his hand, rubbing soothingly. "You feel okay?"

Krycek could only nod.

"That was a pretty fantastic way to start the day." Mulder moved his hand over Krycek's belly and smiled. "We're smeared again."

"I don't mind." He glanced at the windows, at the early morning light. He could sense Mulder following his gaze. They lay in silence for several minutes, bodies touching, calming.

"Stay with me, Alex."

Mulder's softly spoken words made his heart leap but he said nothing.

"I don't mean just for today. Stay with me. Live with me," continued Mulder after a moment.

Krycek kept his face turned away. "You don't know what you're saying. You're taking one of those giant leaps of yours, Mulder. You're not thinking." He moved away and swung his legs off the bed, too aware of the soreness in his ass, his back to Mulder. He found he couldn't say the rest. He wanted to hold back the past for just a little while longer. "I-I don't think we should talk about this right now. We... we better get up. Skinner expects you in the office today, doesn't he? You better get dressed." He started to stand when Mulder grabbed him around the shoulders.

"Let's talk about it now," whispered Mulder in his ear.

"No." And he broke away, got up and hurried into the bathroom. Leaning heavily against the closed door, he tilted his head back and shut his eyes. He'd dreamed of hearing Mulder asking him to stay, asking for them to be together. Gossamer dreams spun in the sweet, dark hours of the night. But cold reality told him it couldn't work. Perhaps it seemed right to Mulder in the afterglow of what they had just shared, but it wouldn't last. Mulder needed the truth. Maybe he didn't want to hear it now, maybe he might even convince himself that, for the moment, it didn't even matter, but Krycek knew better. There was no chance for a real life together if they denied the past or tried to run from it. Krycek didn't want to run anymore. Not from Mulder. This time, it would be Mulder's choice. It had to be.

Yet, here he was, hiding, trying to prolong a dream that was already over.

The next hour passed in a surreal and tense silence. Mulder seemed wary and confused by Krycek's sudden emotional distance. They moved around each other as if there was an invisible wall between them that they were afraid to breach. They showered separately, dressed on opposite sides of the room.

In the kitchen, Krycek poured himself a cup of coffee and drank it standing by the counter, waiting for Mulder to leave. Hoping Mulder would leave.

"I don't understand." Mulder stood in the doorway, dressed in his suit and tie. Looking like the cover of a magazine. He was beautiful, except for the pain in his eyes.

Krycek dropped his gaze and pulled at the edge of his dark blue sweatshirt. Mulder's sweatshirt.

"What's happening here?" continued Mulder. "Why are you running from me?"

"I'm not running!" The force of his own reply surprised him. He met Mulder's wounded eyes and sighed with the weight of what he knew he had to say. There would be no postponement after all. "It won't work, Mulder."

"Why?"

"Because there's a part of the past that will always be between us."

"If we let it."

Krycek crossed the room and stopped in front of the one person in the world who truly mattered to him. His voice was low, flat and controlled. "The Russian Syndicate placed a death warrant on Cancerman... and Bill Mulder... years ago for a variety of transgressions, including the murder of several of their syndicate members. They didn't follow through, of course. Too many problems at home, struggles with the black oil experiments, political changes, a society crumbling around them. I'm sure all of those syndicate leaders are dead now, too, just like the gray old men here. But back then, aside from making sure they never set foot in Russia, the Smoker and your father didn't really worry about it much." Krycek paused, drew in a long breath.

Mulder stepped back, as if he didn't want to hear, but Krycek grabbed him by the arm. There was no point in trying to explain the rest. It all came down to one inescapable fact. "I killed Bill Mulder. I was there, that night. I shot him in the head. I did it."

He stopped, watching the color drain from Mulder's face, the white agony in the hazel eyes cutting through him. He forced himself to go on. "It's not only because I killed him that... that it won't work between us. It's because the only thing I regret about it is that he was your father. There's nothing of him in you. I can't tell you 'I'm sorry' he's dead. I'm not and I never will be. That's the truth, Mulder. Can you live with that? Can you look at me and not hate me for it, every day, every second?"

He saw the battle of emotions in the other man's eyes. Watched with resignation as Mulder turned his face away, his voice tortured. "You could have lied to me. Damn you, why couldn't you lie?"

The pain twisted around Alex's heart like barbed wire. "No. No more lies."

Mulder clenched his hands together, a shudder running through his body. Very slowly, almost as if he was in some sort of trance, he walked out of the kitchen. He walked to the front door and stood there. Krycek could see the tremor in his shoulders. He wanted to reach out and pull Mulder into his arms, but it was too late for that now.

His lips tightened as he fought back the terrible feeling of emptiness that settled inside him. Fought to keep his voice from breaking. "Wh-what do you want me to do?"

Mulder pulled the door open and took a step into the hallway. His head turned slightly but he didn't look at Krycek. "I-I want you to be gone when I get back." Then he shut the door behind him.

Krycek stared at the closed door for a long time. He couldn't seem to move. It was the sound of a car horn blaring in the street outside that finally jarred him. The world was going on about its business. Life went on. Even when it didn't matter much any more.

Eventually, he went into the bedroom to gather the wallet and keys that had been in his ruined jacket. He tried not to look at the bed. He had some money in the wallet and there was a lot more in a safe deposit box in D.C. He'd get to it when he decided what he was going to do.

At the moment, he didn't really care.

He walked through the other rooms of Mulder's apartment, already feeling like some sort of ghost. He fed the fish. He stood and looked out the windows, some tiny, foolish part of him hoping to see Mulder walking back to him. He stood and watched until it hurt so much he knew he had to leave.

Suddenly, as he was about to go, he regretted not telling Mulder everything, not telling him how he really felt. He decided he would try and leave a letter. He went over to the desk and picked up a pen. He started opening the drawers, looking for paper.

In the center drawer, set aside from a little stack of papers and news clippings, was a photo of Mulder and his sister, Samantha. Two children smiling at the camera, unaware of the future that awaited them. And, beside the photo, neatly folded, was a strip of black satin.

Breath catching in his throat, he reached down and picked up the bowtie. It was the one he'd worn on the night of the charity gala. A bowtie that was already knotted so that even a one-armed man could manage it. He bit down on his lip as he eyes blurred. He'd thought Mulder might have picked it up accidentally and then just thrown it away. But Mulder had kept it, kept it in a drawer next to a picture of his sister.

His hand shook as he placed it back and gently closed the drawer again.

He threw the pen on the desk. There were no words that could change the past. Nothing he could say that would bring Mulder back to him now. Anything he could say would only hurt Mulder more, and he didn't want to do that. Didn't want to make it any harder for him to go on with his life.

Slowly, Krycek turned and left the apartment.

The sun was shining, the sky a pale blue dotted with cottonball clouds. It was a lovely spring day. As he stood on the pavement in front of Mulder's apartment building, Krycek realized he had nowhere to go. It was the first time in a very long time that he had nothing to do, nothing planned. Nothing to run after or away from. Everything was finished.

He looked up and down the street, checking out the people, the cars, more from habit than anything else. He felt uncomfortable walking around in broad daylight, but that, too, was habit.

He decided he would go to the Arlington house and see if he could pick up the clothes that he'd left there. He needed something to do.

A very expensive cab ride later, he was heading up to the door of the elegant house in Arlington. He pulled the key out of his pocket. The black Mercedes was still parked in the driveway. He should have put it in the garage. As he opened the front door, he was relieved that the lock hadn't been changed. He supposed the old man's retainers hadn't gotten around to dealing with the house yet. Or maybe they were dead, too.

Catching a movement out of the corner of his eye, he quickly glanced towards the house next door. A Siamese cat was scampering up the path just before disappearing into the gap in a neatly trimmed hedge. He heard the dog barking across the street as two kids rode by on their bikes. Life went on.

As he closed the door behind him and stood in the foyer, a rush of memories assailed him. He shook them off forcibly and frowned as he caught sight of a large manila envelope on the small table near the entrance. His name was printed on it in clear, block letters. He picked it up and scrutinized it carefully, noting the return address of a prominent D.C. legal firm. Envelope tucked under his arm, he went upstairs.

As soon as he walked into the bedroom, his eyes were drawn to the bed, and another set of bittersweet images flashed across his mind. He looked away, letting his gaze sweep the room. His paperback book still lay on the night table. The closet door was open and he could see his clothes, the clothes the old man had given him, still hanging there. Finally, his eyes settled on the painting of the foxhunt. He still liked it.

He went over to the antique writing desk and tore open the manila envelope. As the contents spilled out over the desk, his eyes widened. He looked through the legal documents, flipping through the pages several times.

The Brit had left him the house. He looked at the deed again. The old man had given him the house and everything in it. Even the Mercedes. Krycek could only gape as he sank down heavily into the chair. There was a square, cream colored envelope among the documents with his name written across it in the old man's narrow, precise handwriting. He picked it up and opened it, removing the single sheet of matching stationary.

Dear Alex, the note began. I assume you are sufficiently shocked by my generosity. It rather amuses me to think so. Be assured that if you have survived to read this, then it is nothing more than you deserve. When the game is over and the players are gone, all that is left is to begin again. Use the house for your new beginning.

And, Alex, remember, no one is better off alone.

The note was unsigned.

Krycek read it again and sat back with a sigh. You sly, surprising old bastard, he thought to himself. He stood up and walked over to the bed, the single piece of stationary still clutched in his hand, his left hand. He raised it up before his eyes and glanced again around the room.

Sunlight poured through the fine voile curtains in the tall French windows, giving the room a warm, golden glow.

He had survived, against all odds. He had his arm. And now he had this beautiful house with all its beautiful things.

The Brit's note fluttered to the floor. It was a measure of how much he had changed that Alex Krycek's first reaction was an acute and painful awareness of what it meant to be alone.

***

Mulder spent long hours in the office again, often sacking out on a makeshift cot. At first, he barely ate. He barely slept. He spent as little time as possible in his apartment.

He worked with Scully and Skinner on implementing the systematic distribution of the newly developed airborne variant of Ridley's microbe, along with coordinating all the other aspects of the investigation. He pored over the files and materials that were found in the eerily abandoned Syndicate offices in New York and D.C. He threw himself into each task with a single-minded intensity that bordered on the obsessive. Only Scully seemed concerned about his seemingly revitalized focus on wrapping up the details of a Conspiracy that was now ended. To the small circle of agents who were involved, he was just enjoying his success as only 'Spooky' Mulder could.

As the days stretched into weeks and a process of methodical documentation replaced the sense of urgent action, it was harder for Mulder to lose himself. Especially since he knew that all the reports, all the evidence, would be sealed in top secret Bureau files that the public would never see. The Conspiracy was dead. Humans - 6 billion, aliens - Zero. Game over.

He never considered, in his darkest nightmares, that he might miss it.

Spring turned to summer and outwardly, his life was returning to as ordinary a routine as Mulder had ever managed to have. Inwardly, it was a different story. Every day, he fought an emotional battle to push Alex Krycek out of his mind. Every day, he lost. It hurt to think about him. It hurt not to think about him.

Either way, it meant he couldn't escape the rest of his life any longer. Couldn't pretend that it could be just the same as before. He still had the X-Files, of course. He even got a raise and a bigger budget, the Bureau's stiff acknowledgment for his years of crazed tenacity.

As the final reports on the Conspiracy were being archived, one last set of documents was given to Mulder for his review before they were sealed with all the others. These documents specifically concerned his father. They revealed a man he had never known, though one he had perhaps always suspected. They confirmed his worst fears, and stripped him of what little hope he'd tried to cling to that his father was not like the others. He was, in fact, much worse because, unlike the others, he had known what he was doing was wrong. Cancerman, for all his festering evil, truly believed and dedicated his life to the Conspiracy and its Project; he saw it as the Great New Order. Bill Mulder had had no such faith, but he let the suffering and death continue anyway. Helped orchestrate it and then covered it with lies and deceit for decades.

The detailed revelation about his father's role was one more wound for Mulder to add to an emotional core that was already raw and bleeding. To cope, he focused on the X-Files, his mental refuge, but it felt strangely as if he was simply going through the motions while he tried to convince himself that, eventually, the pain inside him would fade. He had almost begun to believe it when, one day, Scully said she had something important to tell him.

"I'm going to leave the Bureau, Mulder. I've given my resignation to Skinner this morning."

"What?"

"It's time." She tilted her head, her lips turning upward in a soft smile, the same calming smile that had steadied him through so many rough and dark days. "I've stayed with the X-Files because of you, Mulder. Not because I believed in the X-Files, but because I believed in you. Because you're my friend. I wanted to help you in your search for the truth. That search has come to an end, for both of us. You've found the answers to those questions that haunted you for so long, Mulder. And, I, well, I've seen the extreme possibilities you've always known were out there. We've both changed. Now, I think we both have to go on with our lives."

Her blue eyes scanned their familiar basement office. "Your life will always revolve around the X-Files, one way or the other. They're a part of you. They feed that insatiable curiosity of yours and challenge that boundless intelligence. You're in this basement because you love it here, Mulder."

"Scully, I--"

"No, Mulder, let me finish." Scully drew in a breath and looked at the 'I want to believe' poster behind his desk, the smile touching her face again. "I do believe, Mulder, because I've seen, but I don't belong here any more. I'm still a doctor and a scientist and I want to try a different direction for my life. I'd like to see what it's like working with living patients instead of corpses. I want to work on research to help cure diseases instead of figuring out what bizarre pathology caused someone to die." She started to pace slowly across the room, glancing up at him as she walked. "I want a home and a family or as close to one as I can get. I want a normal life, Mulder. For you, normal is a midnight drive to the middle of Nowhere to investigate reports about blood-sucking goat creatures."

Mulder frowned but listened as she continued.

"That'll never be normal for me, Mulder."

He felt as if the ground was breaking and crumbling beneath him as she went on.

"I've thought about this for months. I-I would've talked to you about this sooner, but I've been worried about you. I know you've had to deal with all that you've learned about your father's involvement in coordinating the... experiments and the cover-up. I know that's been very hard for you. I thought if I waited, you'd start to pull yourself out of it, but instead, it's as if you've placed yourself in some kind of emotional stasis, Mulder. There's something more that's unfinished, isn't there? Something I can't help you with, no matter how long I stay."

"There's nothing unfinished," he insisted. "I don't want to lose you, Scully."

"You couldn't, Mulder. You'll always be my friend. And, if you need me, I'll be there for you. But being friends doesn't mean two people stay the same and never change, never grow. I need to go on with my life and I think that maybe my leaving might help you to go on with yours."

Mulder wiped a hand over his face as his mind struggled with her words, and met her steady gaze. "What are you going to do?"

Scully came to stand before him, the soft smile in her eyes. "I'm going to San Diego. My mom wants to move back there, and I think it'll be a good place for me to settle down, and start over. It's where I grew up. I have family there, and old friends. There are some very good teaching hospitals and research institutes in that area. I've already sent out some preliminary inquiries and I've received some very promising responses."

"San Diego, but that's so far away..."

"Mulder, it's just a phone call away, that's all. In fact, with the time zone change, you can call as late as you like." Her face grew serious as she came around the desk and leaned back against it, reaching out to clasp his shoulder. "You were happy, Mulder. After we'd beaten them. After we returned from that country house and Skinner began the official investigation, even as exhausted as you were, you were happier than I'd ever seen you. Then it all changed. That was even before you saw those files about your father."

Mulder pulled away from her touch and stared down at the top of his desk.

"What happened to Krycek, Mulder?"

Mulder traced a scratch on his desk with his fingertip, back and forth, back and forth. "He... he left." The silence that followed finally made him look up at her.

Scully's lips were pursed in thought and Mulder could see that it was as difficult for her to ask the questions as for him to answer. "Is... is that what you wanted?" she asked him at last.

He propped his elbows on the desk, his fingers lacing together as he tapped them against his mouth. He drew in a breath. "Yes. No." He squeezed his eyes shut. "I don't know."

The silence settled between them again and he felt her hand lightly stroking his hair. "Oh, Mulder. Is that what's been tearing you apart all this time?"

He couldn't answer her, the words caught in his throat. Her hand left his hair and she was wheeling his chair around to face her. She waited until he met her eyes. "You have to confront it, Mulder, whatever it is, or you'll never be at peace with yourself."

Mulder felt the tears burning in his eyes. "I don't know what to do, Scully. I'm not sure what's right anymore."

She shook her head. "I think you do know, Mulder. Maybe... maybe you're just afraid to accept it. If it involves Alex Krycek, then I can see where it would be a very difficult decision. For what it's worth, he isn't the man I thought he was either." She reached out and took his hands in hers. "If there's anything I've learned from you after all these years it's that there are no neat solutions, no simple answers to the things that matter most in our lives. Sometimes we just have to trust our instincts. Take that chance when everything and everyone says that we shouldn't, that it makes no sense, that it's not right. You taught me that, Mulder. Have you forgotten it?" She smiled at him then. "I think we've both earned the right to some happiness, Mulder. I think we both know what we have to do to find it, too."

Long after Scully had left for the day, Mulder remained in his office, thinking about what she'd said. He knew that Scully was making the right decision for herself. As much as he would miss her, he knew that she would never find the kind of fulfillment she wanted and needed by remaining with him and the X-files. As he thought about it, he realized that Scully was also right about something else. Her choice had indeed helped him to begin resolving the conflict inside him.

While he lay on the couch in his apartment late that night, watching the greenish glow of the fish tank reflected on the ceiling, there was a crackle of thunder, followed by a flash of lightning that lit up the living room. A few minutes later, it began to rain. It drummed against his windows in a steady cadence. He turned his head and stared at it, and remembered another storm for the thousandth time.

It was in that moment that he knew he would never stop loving Alex Krycek. The realization jolted him, stunned him, because it was the first time he'd put a name to the feeling. He lay there listening to the rain and contemplated again, this time with a sense of calming acceptance, the nature of inextricable relationships and inescapable destiny.

That night, he fell asleep to the sound of the rain.

He thought it would be hard to find Krycek. He knew all too well that if Alex chose to disappear from sight, it would be almost impossible to find him. He'd readied himself mentally for a long search. When he was back in the office, he accessed the Bureau's database to see if he could pull up anything at all about Krycek's present whereabouts. To his amazement, within seconds he found himself looking at a screen of information. Krycek was residing in the house in Arlington. DMV records listed him as the duly registered owner of a black Mercedes. The county records listed a transfer of title of the house to Krycek several months prior. Mulder sat back in his chair and shook his head with a smile. Sometimes, he decided, the curve balls were pitched just right.

It was a cloudy afternoon as he drove up to the house in Arlington. The trees were dressed in autumn shades of gold and red and the air had a cool crispness to it from the recent rain. Mulder walked up to the door and paused, taking a deep calming breath that did nothing to ease his nervousness. He wasn't even sure what he would say. It was only as he pressed the doorbell that it occurred to him that Alex might not want to see him. He waited a minute and when there was no answer, he pressed the bell again. And again. Another minute went by. He tried glancing through the windows but the drapes were drawn. Please be there, Alex. Please. He knocked loudly on the door and then pressed down on the bell and kept his finger on it.

He was thinking about breaking in when he heard the lock click and the door swung open.

"Damn it, stop ringing th--" Alex Krycek froze in mid-word, his eyes wide in surprise.

Beautiful green eyes, thought Mulder as he dropped his hand from the bell. "Hello." He noticed that there was a smudge of dirt on Krycek's chin and dirt on his jeans, streaks on his gray sweatshirt. There was dirt all over his hands, too.

Alex stepped back from the door to let Mulder enter. Mulder took it as a good sign. They both just kept looking at each other. Finally, Mulder couldn't stand it any longer. Krycek's expression seemed wary, but his eyes...

"Um, did I, uh, interrupt something?" Mulder gestured towards Alex's clothes. "Something to do with dirt?" He thought his voice was remarkably steady given the inanity he was spouting.

Krycek blinked as if he was coming out of a spell and looked down at himself. "Damn it, I have to finish... I'll... just a minute... garden..." He pointed towards the kitchen and hurried off.

Relieved that he was not the only one having trouble speaking coherently, and soaring with relief that Krycek seemed to want him to stay, Mulder followed him.

It was a lovely walled garden, with an elegant layout of flowers, scrubs and trees that was beginning to show the change of the seasons. There was a rock fountain in one far corner. The faint scent of English lavender wafted in the air. Krycek was kneeling beside a small bare section near one wall close to the house where there was a hole, a water hose, a bag of compost and a plant that was nothing more than branches dotted with thorns, laying on it side, roots exposed. He placed it carefully in the center of the hole and began filling in the area around it, patting the earth down quickly with his hands. Mulder walked over to him and picked some up wrapping that had been around the plant. It was a picture of a rose. It was an unusual color, a pale yellow with a pink tint to the outer edges of the petals. Mulder read the name and smiled. The rose was called "Peace."

"Have you taken up gardening?" he asked as Alex finished and stood up.

Krycek looked a little embarrassed. He gazed down at the scrawny bush. "No. It probably won't make it. I think it's the wrong time to plant..." He cleared his throat. "The old man mentioned one time that he wanted to plant roses out here. He said he thought they'd do well. I suppose I should've let the gardener handle it, but I just... I just wanted to do it myself."

"I think it'll make it," replied Mulder. "The Englishman would've been pleased."

Krycek looked at him then, his voice low and husky. "Why are you here, Mulder?"

Mulder reached out and rubbed away the smudge on Alex's chin with his thumb. His skin felt warm, with a hint of beard stubble. "Can we talk inside? It's getting chilly out here."

Krycek frowned but nodded, turning to lead them back into the house. When they were in the kitchen, he washed his hands in the sink and leaned back against the counter. "Okay. We're inside."

Mulder ignored the flutter in the pit of his stomach. He gazed around the room. "The old man left you the house. He wasn't all bad, was he?"

"Most of us aren't," replied Krycek quietly.

"Yeah, I know." Mulder closed the distance between them. "I'm here because... because I couldn't stop thinking about being with you." He ran his fingers through his hair impatiently and looked away, at the stained glass irises in the window, wondering why it was so hard to say the words.

"Do you miss the fucking?"

He heard the bleakness in Krycek's voice and turned back to him. He took a deep breath. "No. I miss the loving."

The long dark lashes lowered for a moment. Krycek raked his lip as if he didn't quite trust himself to speak. "Mulder... are you sure? It doesn't change the past, won't make what happened before any different--"

"I know that. I've had a lot of time to think... about my father, about you. About us. I'm not saying it'll be easy. I feel like a part of me can never forgive you for what you did. But the rest of me can't stop loving you. I don't even know if we could make anything work between us. I just... I just know that I want to try. It's too important to me not to try. You're too important to me. If you don't, if you don't want me to stay, I'll understand."

He waited for Alex's answer.

"I want you to stay." Krycek reached out and wrapped his arms around him, buried his face against Mulder's neck. "Oh, yes, I want you to stay."

Mulder hugged him tight. Alex felt so good in his arms. He wondered how he'd survived the months without it. They were both trembling a little, the emotion gripping them both. Before it could take him completely, Mulder gathered what was left of his willpower and pulled away. "I--I brought you something," he said, fishing into his jacket pocket. He found the rectangular white box and held it out. "It's not really a present, more a replacement."

Alex gazed at him and then at the box, curiosity mingling with the happiness in his eyes. He took it and, with a nod of encouragement from Mulder, opened it. Slowly, he pulled out the tailored strip of black satin and draped it over his fingers.

"I kept the one you wore that night and I'm not giving it back, so I got you a new one."

Alex sniffed and gave him a wide-eyed look. "But my bowtie was already knotted."

Mulder shrugged. "Yeah, but you've got two hands now. You can tie it yourself."

Krycek stared down at the piece of satin and swallowed hard. When he finally looked up, his eyes were shining. "Well, that's where you're wrong, Mulder. I never could figure out how to tie these damn things."

Mulder welcomed the light-hearted grousing and the sudden sense of comfort and rightness between them. He knew then that they could make it. "Oh, did I forget to mention that I've devised a surefire method for tying the perfect bowtie? I can show you."

Alex's lips quirked upward in the beginnings of a grin. "Is that a fact? What's your method?"

"You have to be naked."

"Naked?"

"Yeah. See, it's all a matter of focus. If you're naked, then you can concentrate on the intricacies of the proper knotting technique without being distracted by all that other clothing."

"Naked?" repeated Alex as he stroked the black satin gently with his fingers.

"Well, I'll take my clothes off, too, of course, so I can demonstrate on myself first."

Alex snorted, then coughed, though Mulder suspected he was trying not to laugh. "What if I, uh, can't learn it?"

Mulder nodded sagely. "I'm a tireless and determined instructor when I put my mind to it. Granted, it could take a lot of practice, maybe years and years, but I have a feeling it'll be worth the effort." His grin grew softer as he leaned forward, their lips meeting in a kiss that was tender and filled with promise.

When they broke apart, Alex held up the strip of satin and gazed into Mulder's face.

Mulder smiled, seeing all that he had hoped for in the clear green eyes. "Time for us to begin."

The sound of their laughter filled the house as the two men raced each other up the stairs.


~ End of Part V ~


<<<< back to the "The X-Files" recommendations back to the main index >>>>
<<<< back to the main recommendations page back to Storyteller's Campsite >>>>