Ghosts

torch 1997, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
Rated R for language and some violence.

Disclaimer: The characters of Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Alex Krycek, Walter Skinner and the CSM belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. The rest of them belong to me, with the exception of Laura Ann, who belongs to herself. The town of Leyden Creek does not exist; the state of Virginia definitely does. This is a work of speculative fiction and no copyright infringement is intended.

Many thanks to my most persistent nagger Misha (kick!) for questions, answers, and MiSTing, to beta readers Maeg and Maria for spell checks and feedback, to Taffy and Cindy for advice on geography and botany, to Mrs. Fish and Marita for assistance with terminology, police procedure and legal matters, to E. for help with the Russian (any errors are his fault ;), and LA for letting me take her name in vain. The author would like to point out that any remaining grammatical perversities, particularly when it comes to punctuation, capitalization and hyphenation, are entirely attributable to her own warped preferences and do not reflect on the abilities of the beta readers. Comments are very welcome. Do not archive this story without permission.

Ghosts II: And I know who's going with me

"How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!" — Shakespeare, Sonnet no 95

"All my sins...
I said that I would pay for them if I could come back to you
All my innocence is wasted on the dead and dreaming" — Counting Crows, Angels of the Silences

The silence in the car is tense, but not unbearably so. I don't know what Mulder and Scully have been saying to each other during our brief stops, but they haven't left me behind yet, although they had a perfect opportunity to 'forget' me in the restroom back in Colonial Heights. Then again, Scully would never deliberately set me free to prey on society again (God, I can hear her say it), and Mulder is either hoping for more information out of me or worrying about his pineal gland.

Blackmail isn't nice. Useful, though. And I really don't like the idea of Mulder being a ticking black cancer bomb ready to be set off by anyone who knows the secret. He's bad enough in his natural state.

In the clear light of day, I should start being sensible, think clearly about things and leave the mad intoxication of last night behind. I have to be prepared for anything that might happen down in Leyden Creek. I know I'm heading into enemy territory and I'm going in blind. I should make plans. Instead I spend most of the ride watching the back of his neck, the line of his jaw.

He's not really beautiful, in the strictest sense of the word. That's not what it is. He's just himself, uniquely, irritatingly, irrevocably himself, and it hurts to look at him, and I can't tear my eyes away.

It feels as though my awareness of him fills up the car and makes the air a little thicker. I wonder if Scully can feel it. I wonder if he can feel it. I'm tempted to roll down the window to make sure we can all breathe. Right then Scully finds our exit, turning off the 460 with the same smooth efficiency that has taken us all the way from Washington, and as she does so she tilts her head slightly and says, "What were you planning to tell the Leyden Creek PD about him?"

He comes out of one of those Mulder-trances and says, "I don't know, his shoe size?" I can't see the look she's giving him, but it's obviously having an effect, because he goes on, "There's no reason why there shouldn't be three agents assigned to this case."

"Were you planning to pass him off as a Federal agent?" With Scully outrage is a subtle thing, and she can pack the quietest words full of meaning.

"Well, we know he can pull it off." A light comment, but his voice scorches, even worse than Scully's. I don't know what to say. I was a Federal agent, of course I can pull it off, but—

"Apart from the fact that he doesn't have a valid FBI badge, they know we're coming. Do you want this Detective Larkin to call Skinner and ask him why there's suddenly three of us?"

"Parthenogenesis," Mulder says happily with the air of someone about to do combat for a theory. I wonder why he's in such a silly mood. Scully points at a road sign that says, Leyden Creek 3 miles, and he slumps down a little like a boy who's been told he won't get a fire-breathing dragon for Christmas. "Maybe we can say that he's your boyfriend and you can't live without him."

"Not on your life," she says, and I breathe a relieved sigh. That's one charade I know for certain neither of us could keep up. And it wouldn't get me onto the sites, anyway. Scully's fingers tap the steering wheel. Then she cranes her head and catches my eye. "Can you pretend to be our psychic consultant?"

I'm relieved to see that she goes back to watching the road again as soon as she knows she has my attention. "I'm not psychic," I say. Not as far as I know, anyway.

Scully sighs. "You just have to pretend to be psychic. I'm sure that's not beyond the scope of your acting abilities."

"He looks all wrong," Mulder says critically. "No self-respecting psychic would run around looking like a refugee from the James Dean fan club. We'd have to stop somewhere and get him something nice in crushed velvet, and a bunch of crystals he can wave around." The temperature in the car is suddenly below freezing. He notices at about the same moment I do. At least he's not slow to understand. "Scully. I'm sorry."

And so am I, because I can tell she's debating which one of us she'd like to hurt first, and it's probably going to be me. Mulder may have brought up the subject, but she knows I was involved in her sister's death. One of my least favorite moments. It's strange, come to think of it, how many of my least favorite moments in life have involved these two.

Eventually she draws a slow breath and says, "We could pass him off as the last primate on earth."

That makes him chuckle, and harmony is restored. I don't get it, but then, I'm not supposed to, and it doesn't really matter. I'm just pleased that they're in a good mood; it makes all of this easier. Easier for me, and probably easier for them as well. I dig my hand into the pocket of my jacket and pull the last Hershey's kiss out of the bag. Any minute now, we'll be there. I find myself watching the road intently, wondering, was it here, down that slope, against that tree, where did it happen?

I've never been here before. Never felt I needed to go.

"Scully," Mulder drawls, "if you see any ghosts, drive straight through 'em." She smiles, and I catch her eyes in the rearview mirror and smile back. She knows, and I know, that if anyone sees any ghosts he'll be yelling at her to stop the car at once.

But nothing happens and we pull up safely in front of the Leyden Creek police station, a square uncompromising building next to the bank and across the street from Laura Ann's Diner, Delicious Home Cooked Meals. I wonder if Laura Ann lives in the diner or if she's engaging in a spot of false advertising. I wonder if there is a Laura Ann.

Getting out of the car, I stretch my legs and straighten my spine. It feels great to be out in the fresh air again. To be able to breathe and look around. I don't like staying in enclosed spaces for too long, not even cars. Mulder and Scully head straight for the door to the police station, not even taking a moment to survey the street or note what it says about the town. I guess to them it's just another place, one where they don't particularly want to be.

Still, out of habit I look around, slot the layout of the street into my head, what buildings there are, the stores, the cars, the people, which way is north. This looks like a peaceful little town, and I nod to myself. Then I follow Mulder and Scully inside.

They've already been met in the hallway by a lean, graying man who introduces himself as Steve Larkin. He shoots a quick, suspicious glance my way as I join the group, but then goes on tersely to explain that there's been another accident, only this morning. "Same place. Janine Kendrick was driving into town to visit her daughter." He raises his voice to be heard over the rattling of an old dot-matrix printer and several conversations going on behind a glass partition to our left. "I've been out on another case; I only just heard about it myself."

Scully is calmly professional. "We'd like to interview Mrs. Kendrick."

"You can't. She's dead." Larkin's chin juts out. It's hard to tell if he knew and liked her, or if he just feels protective of this entire little town and wants to keep it, and its problems, to himself. He's not the police chief, but he acts as though he is. Now that I've seen him, I wonder who turned this case into an X-file, who first mentioned the word ghosts. It wasn't this man.

Mulder and Scully start to speak at the same time, then stop and start over, sorting themselves out. I try not to smile — usually they interact so smoothly, it's nice to see them fluff their lines for once. She wants to view the body; he wants to see the site of the accident. Larkin doesn't look too pleased at the idea of an FBI stranger getting her hands on Mrs. Kendrick's body. He tells Scully the facilities are nothing like what she is used to, but she just nods and insists anyway, until he agrees.

"If you give me directions to the place where the accidents have occurred—" Mulder begins as Scully walks off, guided by Larkin's frazzled-looking assistant, but Larkin cuts him off.

"I'll go with you. Just let me get my coat." Larkin disappears into another room. Mulder walks outside, and I follow him. He's got that look on his face, that faraway look in his eyes; a look I have good reason to recognize. His mind is working on this case. Someone needs to keep an eye on the rest of him.

I wonder if I have the time to go over to the diner and get a cup of coffee. Today's specials are chalked up on a blackboard propped in the window. A grilled cheese sandwich Laura Ann style might work wonders, settle the uneasiness in my stomach. "You're not going anywhere." I thought Mulder was still in a trance, but he's grabbed hold of my arm and he's shaking his head, scowling.

I think about explaining that I would have brought him along, but then Larkin comes after us, shrugging into his coat; he heads for a slightly battered police car. So does Mulder, not letting go of my arm, and I sigh: I guess I get to sit in the back seat again. Larkin stops with his hand on the car door and nods at me. "Who is this?" he asks Mulder. "I was told two agents would come down, you and Agent Scully."

"I can't tell you that," Mulder says, and again, I try not to smile. He opens the car door and gestures at me to get in. While I appreciate the courtesy, it isn't as though I have a choice. "I take full responsibility. Consider him an observer."

Larkin doesn't like it, that's easy enough to see, but he doesn't mention it again as they, too, get in the car. We drive down the main street and turn south. I relax a little. As long as Larkin accepts my presence, it doesn't matter how grudging he is about it. Whenever you can get away with it, the best explanation is no explanation at all.

Mulder is asking Larkin about the previous accidents. The one this morning was the fourth. The first one involved two necking teenagers, mildly drunk; the surviving girl's claim to have seen ghosts had been dismissed as an attempt to shift at least a little of the blame away from herself, and a weak attempt at that. Mulder wants to see her; Larkin looks like he's having teeth pulled. The second accident was one of the bank tellers going to work. He lived long enough to say they scared me before breathing his last in the ambulance.

"And that didn't make you reconsider the girl's statement?"

"No, Agent Mulder, it did not." I'm starting to wonder about Larkin. He must be one of those people who live in a perpetual state of resentment. He certainly puts a lot of work into that attitude of his. "Dan Bettens had an argument with his sons that morning over them having driven without his knowledge in an illegal dirt race in Sauberville. Another boy was crippled for life in that race. Bettens was upset and worried and didn't have his mind on what he was doing."

Mulder nods. "That would make it even more likely that the sudden appearance of something he wasn't expecting would startle him enough to make him go off the road."

Larkin looks as though he'd like to argue with that. Then he ignores the comment altogether and instead says, "Third time, five ladies on their way home from a Tupperware party went into the ditch. No serious injuries, but they were all pretty shook up. The driver claimed she'd seen something, but she couldn't describe it."

"I'd like to interview the girl first," Mulder says. When Larkin gives him a look he elaborates patiently, "The girl who survived the first accident. Linda Pulaski? If we get hold of her now I can talk to her when we get back."

"She's in school." Larkin is clutching at the steering wheel, his knuckles white with annoyance. "Which is where she should be. Stan and Elizabeth have had enough trouble with that girl—"

"This is a Federal investigation." And nobody gets in Mulder's way when he wants to mess around with a witness. Particularly not a small-town detective who wants to protect his own people. I could almost feel sorry for the guy if he weren't such a bore. "I'm sure her parents would like her to cooperate, and I'm sure the girl herself would like the truth about her boyfriend's death to come out."

"Girlfriend," Larkin corrects, one corner of his mouth twisting as if this is a lemon no one but him has ever bit into before. If he's hoping for it to have any kind of effect on Mulder, he must be sadly disappointed. Now if one of them had been Bigfoot, or whatever the local equivalent is, he might have gotten a reaction. The only reason Mulder would be interested in two teenage girls sleeping together would be if they let him watch.

We're coming down a slope and crossing a low bridge over what might be a stream in another season. The road climbs again and then Larkin pulls in to the side, at the top of the knoll. There's a large walnut tree growing here, and there's the remains of Janine Kendrick's car, wrapped around it. Mulder gets out. He's all concentration now, and Larkin gives him a look of grudging admiration. That lasts all of three seconds, maybe, until Mulder's dug his cell phone out of his pocket and thrust it at the detective. "Call the school," he says and heads towards the wreck without a single backward look.

"I think you'd better do it," I say as I get out of the car, too. Hey, I don't care if Larkin hates me, and to judge by the look he shoots me, he wouldn't mind if the earth opened up and swallowed both me and Mulder. I've seen a fair bit of small-town hostility towards the Feds, but this is ridiculous. Not my problem, though.

I walk towards the wreck, too, but don't go too close to where Mulder is doing his own poking and prying. Nothing's been tidied up here apart from the removal of the body. I can see the bloodstains fine from here, and I'm hardly going to pick up on any psychic residue from Mrs. Kendrick's last moments on earth. Her accident isn't what interests me.

Instead I take a deep breath and look around. Behind the tree there's a low stone wall that curves to the left and then heads up the next gentle incline towards a large, run-down barn about a quarter of a mile from where we are standing. It's a pretty place, but not safe. The road makes a forty-degree turn right at the crest of the knoll, the kind of thing that locals get used to but that runs strangers off the road. It would be easy enough for an accident to happen here. To anyone.

I head towards the road, but away from the police car. Walking along the road for a while, I turn when I hear Mulder start to call out something. He's emerged from the smashed car and I suddenly realize that the only thing that's stopping him from yelling at me to get my ass back there is that he knows it might not be a good idea to proclaim my name out loud in these parts. That's very considerate of him, since the only other person within earshot is a law enforcement officer. He must remember that I said it might get me killed. I've no idea whose side Larkin is on. His own would be a good bet. I give a reassuring wave and look at the scene in front of me.

Driving from this direction, a little too fast. Trying to turn where the road turns and failing, suddenly heading out across the grass and dirt, braking too late, hitting... the walnut tree? The stone wall? I can picture both, easily enough. I'm not sure it matters. I start to go back again, slowly, tracing the imagined path with eyes and feet. Trying to reconstruct. Larkin's looking from me to Mulder as though he can't decide who's the weirder. I feel like telling him I've never been able to figure that out, either. But instead I study this place, committing it to memory. And try to imagine what it would have looked like ten years ago.

Mulder comes striding to meet me, moving like a nervous racehorse. "Don't try to sneak away," he says under his breath. I shake my head absently, and find my eyes drawn again to follow the line of the stone wall, all the way up to the barn. "I don't know what you're after, but we're here now, and you'd better start—"

He breaks off as Larkin comes up to us and hands the cell phone back to Mulder. "We can pick her up from school when we drive back. I had to talk to the principal and her parents," he adds, as though that's the worst thing that might happen to anyone around here. Maybe it is.

"Good," Mulder says and draws breath to ask something else.

I get in ahead of him. "There was another accident here ten years ago, wasn't there?"

For the first time, Larkin gives me his undivided attention. I'm not sure I like that, but what the hell. "I don't remember every single car accident," he says. Probably a lie, too, in a small town like this. "I guess there was one, yeah."

"Married couple from out of state," I say, figuring I'll just go on reminding him until he can't pretend not to remember any more. "Andrew and Margaret Davis. Both died. Was it right there, in the same spot?" I gesture at the site of the accident and feel it draw my eyes again.

Mulder's looking at me as though I've suddenly sprouted wings, or grown horns, take your pick. Larkin just looks tired, but he stops prevaricating. "Yeah," he says, "pretty much. I was doing road patrol then. They missed the tree — barely — and went into the wall. Messy." There's a nice little piece of understatement, and I ignore the way it makes my stomach start to churn with cold nausea. "It's a tricky piece of road for strangers," he adds with a shade of his previous belligerence. I'm not about to argue, since I reached the same conclusion myself.

"What's up in that barn?" Mulder asks. I don't think he's ignoring what just passed between me and Larkin. It's in there somewhere, in his mind, and I know he's busy drawing his own conclusions. I know I'm going to have to tell him sooner or later anyway. I want to see how much he can figure out on his own, find out if that sixth sense of his is still operative.

"Nothing much," Larkin starts to explain, and I allow his comments about some long-dead farmer to become so much noise as I watch the place again, wondering if I'm missing something. There's movement up by the wall, beyond the tree; probably a small animal moving around in the grass. This place is unnervingly rural. If it weren't for the car wreck and the bloodstains it would look downright sweet. There's a movement up there again, and I try to catch sight of whatever it is, a rabbit maybe, or a cat from a house nearby?

Mulder's decided that we're going back now, and he puts his hand on my arm again and shakes it. It must be so frustrating for him not to be able to drag me around and slap me to get my attention the way he did before. The thought of the look on Larkin's face if Mulder kept hitting me every five minutes almost makes me wish he'd do it.

"I just thought I saw something up there," I say and take a couple of steps that way. That must be the exact spot. Past the tree, Larkin said. I know it's ridiculous to think that I can find any sign of it now, ten years later, but I go up there anyway, passing Mrs. Kendrick's car without a look.

Mulder is right behind me and Larkin follows as well. We probably scare the poor animal away before we've come closer than ten feet. I get right up there, next to the wall, and put my hand on it. Some of the stones are shifted slightly out of place here, but then that's true of spots here and there all along its length, for as far as I can see. Doesn't mean anything. Then I find a small fragment of rusted metal twisted into a narrow space between two of the stones.

And I'm certain that it was here, right here.

When I turn my head I find that Larkin is watching me with a slightly scornful expression on his face; Mulder is trying to hide his annoyance and bewilderment. "Find anything?" Larkin asks sarcastically. "Do you sense anything?" He has a clear opinion of the X-files, all right. I wonder how Mulder feels about letting me carry the burden of weirdness this time.

I turn back and carefully pry the piece of metal out of there, and hold it so hard it digs into my palm as I stand up. "Not really," I say. "I just thought I saw something up here."

"You're going to have to do better than that," Larkin says and walks off back towards the police car again. He's going to be wonderfully cooperative, I can just tell.

Mulder comes to stand right next to me. "Next time you decide to pull the psychic consultant business," he hisses, "tell me first. I want to know what I can expect from you here, K—"

"Call me Alex," I suggest. He doesn't look too pleased with the idea. But when I take a step to follow Larkin, he does as well. "I just wanted to get a look at this place. It's where the first car crashed."

"How do you know that?"

"Larkin said so," I say, a little surprised that he doesn't remember. "Besides, I found this." It's actually something of an effort to open my hand, I've clutched the piece of metal so hard. I'm aware that Larkin, who's reached the car and turned around, is watching us. So is Mulder. He just nods.

We walk back together and I try hard not to walk too close to him. It's difficult. The knowledge that Larkin is watching us helps, though. That man is going to think we're strange enough as it is; he doesn't need to get any more ideas about us. Twice, I look back over my shoulder because it feels as though that place right by the stone wall is watching me. The grass moves again.

Mulder doesn't hold the car door open for me this time. I'm disappointed.

Larkin gets in and starts the engine, and as we're driving off, I think I see something out of the corner of my eye, up behind the tree. Maybe it's just my paranoia. No one can know that I've come down here. Peskow's dead; Mulder and Scully are the last people who'd call my former employer with this information, even though they did have plenty of opportunities when we stopped for gas. No one else can possibly know anything. No one can know that I am here, let alone why I am here.

And then my eyes suddenly, unaccountably blur, and anything I might have seen is lost, and I concentrate on staring straight ahead instead, watching the road, nails digging into the palm of my hand.

Even when the moment passes, I don't look back and I try not to look at Mulder. That way lies madness. Well, too late to do anything about that. That fight was lost long ago. But when I look at him for too long, I am completely consumed with wanting him, and I want to at least try to keep my wits about me for a little longer.

Larkin drives us in sullen silence to the Lukas Cranach Memorial High School and asks us to stay in the car while he goes in and gets Linda Pulaski. Well, he doesn't ask so much as order. Mulder just nods and the moment the car door closes behind Larkin he turns around in his seat and looks at me. "Talk fast, Krycek. What were you expecting to find up there?"

"That stone wall is perfect to hide behind," I say. "Or the walnut tree would do, too. It's so quiet out here in the country, you could hear a car coming from a mile away." Thinking about it for a moment, I add, "The wall's probably the best bet. If you move up a bit you'd have a clear view of the downslope towards the south. Plenty of time to get ready."

He's frowning. "You don't think there's anything in this ghost theory? You think we're dealing with a couple of kids dressed up in bedsheets, is that it, Krycek?"

He almost looks hurt. I shake my head, realizing that I'm about to say I'll believe in any number of phantoms, for him. That's not the point here. "I don't know anything about that, Mulder. You're the one who's looking for ghosts."

"And what are you looking for?" The look he gives me burns and I'm about to answer, when his cell phone rings. He swears under his breath and digs it out of his pocket. "Mulder." I watch his face change minutely, and know that it's Scully on the other end. "So what did you find? Mm hm... I never doubted the car accident as such. Was there anything else?" There is a brief pause, and his eyes go wide. "Did you take it out? Can you check it out under a microscope? If we send it back to — yeah, but— We're on our way back, Scully, we just stopped to pick up the girl who was in the first accident. I'll be right there."

"What is it?" I ask as he puts the phone away. If I thought he burned brightly before, he's incandescent now. She told him something important.

And he's so immersed in the idea that he tells me without thinking about it. "The Kendrick woman had an implant at the back of her neck." I don't know who is the more surprised: Mulder that he just told me this, or myself at hearing it. I shake my head a little. This is bigger than I thought. No way is it just a coincidence, but what the hell does it mean?

Before I can frame another question discreetly enough, Larkin comes back with a girl who would much rather not be here. She's got that scuffling teenage walk, shoulders hunched, kicking at the ground and raising little clouds of dust. Her pale hair is clipped short and half of it is dyed orange. The whole town must know who she is. I like her already.

Larkin opens the car door and she gets in next to me, takes one look at Mulder, then turns to me and gives a crooked grin. "Nice jacket."

"Thanks," I say as Larkin settles himself in the driver's seat again and revs just a little too much, pulling out of the parking lot. He really shouldn't burn rubber that way where the teens can see him. It sets a bad example. The girl doesn't like him; he doesn't like her. I hope Mulder isn't planning to interview her when Larkin's around. "Nice hair."

She runs a hand through it self-consciously. Then she glances towards Mulder and catches my eyes again, and mouths the words ugly fucking tie, man! I nearly pull a stomach muscle trying not to laugh out loud, and she's so pleased at my reaction, her blond, almost invisible eyebrows wiggle.

"Linda," Larkin says heavily from the front seat, "I want you to cooperate with Agent Mulder and get this over with as quickly as possible so you can get back to school again. You know you can't afford to let your grades slip—"

"I only had one more class this afternoon, and I'm going to miss that anyway, and—"

"And you have homework to do." I wonder if Larkin takes such a personal interest in every bored teenager in town. Linda's lips move again — asshole! — and I have to hide another smile. "The sooner you can put this unfortunate incident behind you the better."

At least half the disapproval in his voice is aimed at Mulder, for making him drag the girl out of school. But she can't know that. "Unfortunate incident!" I'm starting to wonder why Mulder hasn't gotten into this yet, as her voice rises, and cracks. "Annie's dead!" She turns her head sharply and stares out the window, defying us to notice that she's crying. In the front seat Larkin bites off a curse, and Mulder turns his head and looks at him.

I put my hand on the girl's shoulder anyway and she doesn't shrug it off. After a while she turns towards me, carefully ignoring Mulder and Larkin. She's holding the tears back, keeping her sobs trapped between clenched teeth. I wonder if Mulder will manage to have the dead girl, Annie, exhumed. It's been two weeks; she has to be buried by now. No way can he get a court order because he wants to look for implants. Still, it makes you wonder. Not even Scully is going to claim that this is a coincidence — she can't possibly.

I dig around in my pocket and find a wad of Kleenex that's clean except for a couple of chocolate stains. "Here." Linda Pulaski blows her nose defiantly. Her mascara's running. The new southern belle.

"Linda." Mulder's squirmed around in his seat again. The look he's giving her would make the bottom of my stomach fall out if it were directed at me. She looks completely unaffected. "We want to find out what really happened that night, to you and Annie, and you're the only one who can help us."

Her chin comes up. "Yeah? I know how that goes. I tell you I saw ghosts, you pat my head and wham, I end up on Prozac and Annie's still dead."

"My partner and I investigate paranormal cases. That's why we're here." Slowly, she meets his eyes and I can see a spark of hope there, a faint touch of amazement at the thought that someone might actually listen to her.

She nods. Then she blows her nose again, and flicks a quick glance at me. "You two are the ghostbusters of the FBI?"

"I'm not Agent Mulder's partner," I tell her. Not any more, Linda. I was once. I'm not sure whether I miss those days or not. At least this way it's more honest. "I'm just an observer. He's a very good ghostbuster, though." I can't resist teasing Mulder like that. Linda chuckles. She probably sees the way he looks at me better than I do.

Larkin doesn't say anything else as we get back again and he parks carelessly outside the police station. I bet he plays poker with Linda Pulaski's father every Thursday night. I bet he's a really nice guy when you get to know him. We all get out of the car and he takes Linda's arm and starts to lead her inside; she shoots him a look that by rights should peel the skin right off his face.

Mulder is about to follow them and I stop him, touching his arm. Any excuse will do. He scowls at me, and maybe it's just because he's so focused on talking to the girl that he doesn't want anything getting in his way. Or maybe he's regretting having me along. "What, Krycek? Another ghostbuster joke?"

He's about to turn away and head inside without waiting for an answer, so I tighten my grip on his arm to stop him. Maybe I won't ever let go. "Mulder. Go easy on her. She looks tough but she's about to fall apart."

"I don't need you to tell me how to conduct an interview." He grabs my wrist and pulls my hand away. "And I don't need you to give me lectures on compassion."

I shrug. "I was just being practical. You push too hard, you won't get anything." And as much as he'd like to deny it, he does push them hard. He thinks everyone else can take as much as he can, thinks nothing of letting others relive their pain over and over because he does it all the time. And I know that as soon as he finds out the truth, he'll be doing it to me too. But I'm better prepared to cope with it than Linda Pulaski is. She never asked to be given a Fox Mulder third degree.

Mulder walks inside. I hang back for a moment, scan the street again. It looks much the same as last time. I'm hungry, and I give Laura Ann's diner a longing look before following Mulder.

It's the same chaos as last time, with phones ringing and printers clattering, and right in the middle of it Scully is trying to tell Mulder about Mrs. Kendrick's implant, Larkin is trying to tell Linda she needs to work on her grades, Mulder is trying to tell Larkin that he wants to talk to Linda alone, and Larkin's assistant is trying to convince someone to come to the phone and talk to AD Skinner. I just stand back and watch the show.

After a while the name 'Skinner' gets through and Scully gives up her attempt to explain things to Mulder and follows the assistant, who plainly adores her already. Now it's just Mulder and Larkin arguing. "I prefer to do this alone or with just my partner present."

Larkin doesn't want Mulder to have his way, no matter if it's reasonable or not. "She'll feel more comfortable if someone she knows is present during the interview. She's a minor. I could call her parents—"

"Forget it, Steve." Linda Pulaski steps in between the two men. She barely comes up to Mulder's shoulder. "Don't drag Mom and Dad into this. I'll talk to him," she jerks her head at Mulder, "if you stay out of it. He's a Federal agent, he's not interested in my grades, for chrissakes."

Scully comes back and defuses what might have turned into an ugly situation. "Detective Larkin, Assistant Director Skinner wants to talk to you." Larkin scowls, nods, and walks off towards the phone. "Mulder, you didn't tell me that we were supposed to call Skinner when we got down here."

"I forgot." He shrugs. "What did he say?" Scully shrugs in return. She doesn't really know what Skinner wanted either. I remember Skinner's way of saying nothing, and keep my mouth shut. Mulder seizes the moment to ask Larkin's assistant where he can find an empty room, and they go off with Linda Pulaski.

Scully looks after them for a moment, then turns to me with barely perceptible reluctance. "Did you find anything at the accident site?"

I shake my head. "No new evidence, no. But there are several good hiding places around there."

She gives me a different look; thoughtful and serious as if she's weighing evidence in her head. "You think the accidents were arranged — that someone was deliberately targeting these people?"

I'm amazed that she'll discuss these things with me. But then I realize she's trying to find out what I'm after. It has to come out sooner or later. "I think that's a lot more likely than ghosts. But it sounds like the most impractical setup for killing people that I've ever heard of."

Those words remind her of who I am again and her face closes up. "I'm sure you have the experience to judge that."

I take a deep breath, then lower my voice. "Mulder told me that you found an implant in Mrs. Kendrick." Scully turns her head sharply and looks up at me again. I think the look means Mulder's the one who's in trouble, not me. "Maybe you should take a look at Linda Pulaski. And I don't know if you can ask to have the body of the other girl exhumed, or Mr. Bettens, but..."

"Mulder will want it," she says under her breath. "But we have no grounds to ask for it." Her words remind me of their legal and moral limitations, what they will and won't do, what they can and can't do. In my line of work, you sometimes forget the rules other people operate by.

She's pulled a small glass vial out of her pocket and is turning it over; the tiny piece of metal inside makes a clatter so soft it's almost lost in the noise that surrounds us. I can't help staring at it. I've never actually seen one before. Quite an educational trip, this.

Larkin comes back again. He's scowling, but then he's almost always scowling, so it isn't easy to guess what Skinner may have said to him. Hopefully it was something about full cooperation being required of him on pain of eternal FBI disapproval. I wonder if he mentioned my presence. I wonder what Skinner said. I decide not to wait for him to tell me. "Detective Larkin, do you still have the files on Mr. and Mrs. Davis accessible?"

I figure it's not very likely; it's been ten years. But to my surprise, he nods without any visible surprise. "Back in the old archive." He jerks his head towards the back of the building. "Lou!" Larkin's assistant appears again out of nowhere, looking even more nervous. Probably thinking that Larkin's going to ask about Mulder and Linda. "Go get the Davis files."

"I'll just go along," I say and cut between Larkin and Scully, following the harried Lou. As we walk away I can hear Scully ask Larkin if Annie Clough has been buried yet. He doesn't know what he's in for. I look at Lou. "You know where all the files are?"

Lou nods. "Well, we had this one out only last week." I stop as if I've run into a wall. Fortunately Lou stops, too, and starts to jiggle the archive door open. It swings up with a heavy metal creak and Lou hits the light switch; fluorescent lights rattle into action, showing file cabinets, shelves, and what appears to be at least fifty years of paperwork. Lou heads unerringly for one of the shelves. "Should be right here."

"How come you had it out?" I ask, trying to sound unconcerned. "I mean, it's been ten years."

"These guys came by," Lou's voice is a little muffled, "they were working on a missing persons case and just wanted to make sure." That's a nice vague explanation. Lou, I think, is rather a trusting person. But I don't believe Larkin is, and his lack of surprise seems suddenly more ominous. "Jeez," Lou sniffs, "I used to think the dust was bad enough but now the whole place stinks of cigarette smoke. I'm asthmatic, you know."

And ice settles into the pit of my stomach. Oh, fuck.

"Yeah, those smokers are the worst," I agree when I can breathe again. "I knew a man once who left cigarette butts everywhere." Moving up behind Lou, I scan the floor, then crouch down. Right. I knew it. I scoop it up and look at it, although I really don't have to. Then I put it in my pocket in time to have my hand free for the file that Lou hands me. "Thanks."

"No problem." Lou is already heading for the door again, and I follow. "I'm glad you people decided to investigate this case. I knew it was an X-file, and to actually have Fox Mulder down here!" Lou sounds quietly happy, like someone about to watch a good movie. Larkin must hate that. "I have to get back to work. Will you be all right on your own?"

"Yes, of course. Can you tell me where Agent Mulder is?" Lou points at another door, and I nod my thanks and walk that way.

I slip inside quietly, to find bare white walls and a bare gray floor. Mulder sits facing Linda Pulaski across a rickety table; she's cradling a mug of coffee in her hands, staring down into it. The door clicks shut and Mulder turns his head, probably expecting Scully. When he sees me his eyebrows draw together. "I'm interviewing a witness here."

"It's okay," Linda Pulaski says, and he looks at her. "He can stay. He's kinda cute." Mulder doesn't look as though he's about to agree with that assessment, but I didn't really expect him to. I take a chair, sitting down at a distance from the table, where the light from the one window will fall on the files. The knowledge that they've almost certainly been tampered with makes me hesitant to touch them. I can't believe anything I find in here, can I? Some of it can be verified by asking Larkin, if Larkin tells the truth. Lou's too young to have worked here ten years ago.

Still, there has to be something in here. I flip the file open. "So you'd only had a couple of beers," Mulder says, "and you were taking Annie back home. Can you tell me what happened then?"

He's being gentle, and I'm oddly relieved as I browse through a typewritten report. Larkin is not a writer, far from it, but he does include a lot of detail. He describes the scene of the accident. It sounds exactly the way I imagined it. The people in the car were dead, but he called for an ambulance anyway.

"We were driving pretty slowly, and I knew the hill was coming up so I was concentrating on the road 'cause it's tricky, and Annie was — anyway, I told her to knock it off, you know?"

"So you were being careful." There was nothing wrong with the car. Road conditions were excellent, apart from that damn curve, of course. "Then what happened?"

"I thought I saw something run across the road, like maybe a rabbit." Her voice is hushed now. "And I followed it with my eyes and I saw... they were standing up by the tree. And I couldn't look away and Annie saw them too, and she screamed and grabbed at me and I lost control of the steering wheel, and..."

"What did you see, Linda?" Mulder's voice is soft and reasonable, the voice of someone who will accept whatever he's told. But underneath that is the tension, the escalating expectations, the wish for wonders, and truths, and miracles.

I flip past the last page of Larkin's report and the next thing in the file is — photographs. I freeze and the file slips from my hand and falls to the floor, papers scattering everywhere. Linda jumps and spills coffee on the table. "I'll help you with that," she says quickly, turning away from Mulder's intense gaze. She gets off her chair and crouches on the floor next to me. Mulder's about to curse me for distracting her. Then she makes a sound in the back of her throat, a hoarse sound that turns into "Oh God, ohgodohgodohgod..."

"What is it?" Mulder asks, getting up. I hear him but I can't turn to look at him because I'm looking at her. She's pale and sweating, and she's holding the photographs in her hand, staring wide-eyed at them. Mulder puts a hand on her shoulder and sees what she's seeing. "Damn it," he says to me, then to her, "You don't have to look at that."

Linda tilts her head back finally and looks up at him and then at me. "It's them," she says, her voice little more than a whisper.

"What do you mean?" Mulder asks softly. "Who is it? Have you seen these people before?"

"I saw them." Too flat to be hysteria, the thread of emotion almost buried beneath a landslide of shock. "I saw them, right there. That — it's — even the blood, it's exactly..." Her voice catches on a rasping sob and then she drops the photo and lunges at me, burying her face against my shoulder.

I put my arm around her. My hand is shaking, but I try to stroke her hair. Mulder kneels down next to us and picks up the photos the police took at the site of the accident, and the morgue shots. He looks at me and for once there's no resentment in his gaze, just that burning need to know. I feel trapped by it, by my sudden knowledge of the interrogation to come. I've known it would happen, but not like this. Then he gets to his feet abruptly and walks out of the room, leaving me with a sobbing seventeen-year-old girl and a lot of questions.

"I'm sorry, Linda," I say. I can't tell her it's okay, because I don't think it is. And I can't say anything sensible, either. She saw them. She saw them. There's no way her reaction now could be faked; her shoulders are shaking, her whole body is shaking with the shock.

"It was horrible," she says into my shoulder. "Oh God — Annie — what if Annie — what if that happens to her—" Then she can't speak any more, and she's still crying when Mulder returns again. Scully's with him, and so is Larkin. I see Larkin open his mouth and I manage to catch his eye. He shuts his mouth again.

Mulder comes to kneel next to us again. "Linda, your parents are coming to get you," he says softly. "You want a glass of water or something?" She shakes her head.

I look at him. "Kleenex." He looks a little surprised and it's Scully who comes forward; she hands me some tissues and I get to wipe Linda's face and persuade her to blow her nose. We get to our feet finally, a bit unsteadily. She's still holding on to me. Scully, Larkin and Mulder start a low-voiced conversation over by the door. Linda doesn't let go until her parents get there. The moment they walk in the door she moves away from me and they descend on her, with Larkin in tow.

I'm about to say something. but Mulder and Scully come to get me. Mulder grabs my arm in his usual way and drags me out of the room. Scully walks briskly alongside of us, nods at the infatuated Lou, and holds the entrance door open as Mulder more or less shoves me outside. It's late afternoon now and the light has changed. I look up; the sky is beautiful.

We cross the street and enter Laura Ann's. No one says a word as we find a booth and settle in, Scully scooting over to make room for me on the vinyl-clad bench. Only now do I notice that she is carrying the file; everything's been shoved back carelessly and bits and pieces stick out. I can glimpse the edge of a glossy color photograph.

A waitress comes to our table at once. She wears a blue and white checked dress and an apron, and unashamedly checks Mulder out as she hands him a menu. Scully orders a salad. Mulder asks for a bowl of chili. I want the creamed chicken corn soup, and a turkey and bacon sandwich on rye, with a side order of coleslaw. "And a glass of Coke, no ice. And a cup of coffee. And—" I'm about to order a piece of chocolate cake when Mulder looks at me across the table. I shut up and the waitress walks away.

Well, we didn't have any lunch. And it's getting closer to dinner. And... and I always eat when I'm upset. My shirt — no, Mulder's shirt — is still damp from Linda's tears. Scully, who sits by the window, puts the file on the table, and a tense silence reigns until we finally get our food and can count on being left in peace for a while. I try the soup. It's pretty good. I have time for about two spoonfuls before they start in on me.

"I take it this case, the death of Mr. and Mrs. Davis, is the reason why you wanted to come down here," Scully begins, and I simply nod. She tucks her hair back behind one ear. "And you don't believe in ghosts?"

I don't know what to say. I don't want to believe. The memory of the horror in Linda Pulaski's voice makes me shiver. I can deal with it. But I find myself praying silently that it isn't true.

"Krycek." I turn my head to look at Mulder instead. For once the impact he has on me is a welcome distraction. "Who were these people?" He taps the file.

At least I can answer that. And I'm so tired, I can't find the words to dress it up; I just say it, staring into his eyes.

"My parents."

* * *

He didn't know what to say at first. Krycek had gone back to eating his soup right after dropping his little bombshell, head bent forward, face carefully blank, but when Mulder looked more closely he saw the white-knuckled grip on the spoon. So Krycek did have feelings in there somewhere. Obviously it took a lot to bring them out.

His parents. Really.

Mulder pulled the file closer and flipped it open, taking another look at those photographs. They weren't your average plain morgue shots, these had been taken at the site of the accident and they seemed deliberately set up to resemble stills from a horror movie. It was hard to make out what the couple might have looked like before death and a stone wall had rearranged them. It was even harder to try to make out some fleeting resemblance to the man across the table.

"Davis?" he said finally, without closing the file. "You told me your parents were Cold War emigrés from Russia."

Krycek didn't look up. "They were. Taking a new name on arriving in the US is a good old immigrant tradition." Another spoonful of soup. "Makes it easier to blend in, for people who want that kind of thing."

People who are up to no good, Mulder's mind automatically translated. That seemed to run in the family.

"But your name is Krycek," Scully said. She was sitting very still, a piece of tomato speared on her fork, studying Krycek's profile closely. Behind the cool assessment in her voice was something else, and Mulder did not have to think very long to identify it: a reluctant sympathy. It was the last thing he'd have expected Scully to feel for Krycek. Then he looked at the photos again as she went on, "Isn't it?" No answer. "What is your name?"

That earned her something that mostly resembled a smile. "Alex." Krycek — Alex — appeared to be in love with his soup. "Look, we have a lot more important things to think about—"

"No," Mulder disagreed. "It's time for you to come clean, Kry—whatever. This is where you tell us everything you know." He was aware that Scully was giving him a look, and if she thought he was being a jerk towards Alex Krycek, then that probably meant he was. But what the hell was he supposed to say? They had to get past the lies somehow. The man's own words about Linda Pulaski came back to him: looks tough, but is about to fall apart.

"You owe us the whole story," Scully said, not quite so coldly. "Finally."

"You can call me Krycek. I changed my name legally before joining the FBI." Krycek pushed his soup bowl aside and started picking at his sandwich. "There is no story. I used to believe my parents died in a genuine car accident, before a professional killer told me he knew the truth about it. Now I want to find out what happened."

It sounded so simple, Mulder was inclined to doubt it just for that reason. But Krycek wasn't faking anything, emotionally. His voice was flat, almost harsh, his face still expressionless. Even a bad actor could have done it better. "It seems that it might be related to our investigation," Scully said, and despite the way she qualified her statement, Mulder could tell she'd decided to treat this information as part of the case.

Well, they had to. It seemed pretty damn clear that there was a link, and nothing like what he had been expecting, either. "We have to find out how they died," he said. "Scully, you think we can exhume the bodies?"

"Not without more evidence of a link between the cases than we already have, which amounts to nearly nothing," she said. "We don't even have enough to get a court order for exhuming Annie Clough. And after ten years, there wouldn't be much you could tell from, well. I think we should start by looking at the autopsy report."

"Why do you want to look at Annie Clough?" Mulder asked, and at the same time Krycek said, "It isn't there."

All three of them looked at each other and finally Scully said, "One thing at a time. At Krycek's suggestion, I want to find out if Annie Clough had an implant. And I'd like to take a look at Linda Pulaski, too, if we can convince her parents to let her be examined."

Krycek snorted softly. "Just ask her." Then he went back to eating his sandwich.

"You think there's a connection between the implants and the accidents?" Mulder looked at Scully in surprise. It wasn't a Scully-type theory. Then again, she'd just said it had been Krycek's suggestion. "Then I suppose we should interview the Tupperware ladies too. I'd rather talk to Linda Pulaski again and find out if her girlfriend had ever mentioned anything about an abduction experience."

Scully nodded briskly. "We can do both. The deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Davis may have to wait a little. And as I said, the obvious place to start is the autopsy report."

Mulder started to flip through the file again. "It's not there," Krycek repeated. And it wasn't. Looking up, Mulder met Krycek's dark gaze. "And I have a pretty good idea where it went." The man put his sandwich down and started to root around in his pocket, only to bring out a cigarette butt. It lay in the palm of his hand, silent witness. "Found it in the archive. Lou said a chain-smoking bastard had been there asking for the Davis file a week ago."

Leaning forward with his elbows on the table, Mulder found himself glaring at Krycek as though he could wring the truth out of him with just his eyes. He certainly wished he could. "What the hell are you getting us into?"

Krycek scowled. "If I'd known this would happen, I wouldn't have come here. I don't know what's going on any more than you do." He turned his head to look at Scully. "When you talked to Skinner, did he say anything about why you'd gotten this case?"

She shook her head reluctantly. "All he said was to tread carefully around Larkin because he's known to be prickly."

"That's all?" Krycek gestured expressively with his one hand. "And how often does he call just to check on you, when you're out in the field?"

"Do you think Skinner set us up?" Scully only looked mildly shocked. Mulder scowled. Trust Krycek to see betrayal and double-dealing everywhere. So do you, his mind told him. But with Krycek it was all so sordid. He flipped over another picture in the file.

"Not necessarily," Krycek said, and Mulder gave him a sharp look. "But maybe someone put pressure on him. Maybe there's more going on behind the scenes here than you've been told." Again, he opened his hand, and the cigarette butt, its MORLEY legend faint but clearly readable, seemed to laugh at them. Then he put it back into his pocket and went back to eating his sandwich.

Mulder drew a deep breath, but right before he started to speak, Scully caught his eye and shook her head. She turned a polite smile on Krycek. "Would you excuse us for a moment?" The smile she got in return was more ironic, but he rose and gestured at her to get out of the booth, then slid back into his seat as she walked off. Mulder followed her.

She went across the diner and stopped by a board where notes about used baby carriages for sale vied with brightly-colored fliers for attention. Evening classes in macrame. A day trip by bus to Colonial Williamsburg, lunch included in the price. Five kittens needing a home. Mulder sighed and then cleared his throat, as Scully was still studying the noticeboard. "What's your cunning plan?" he asked.

"I think we should be careful," she said seriously. "It was your idea to bring Krycek," he winced at the reminder, "but I don't think things would have been much different if we hadn't, and he was the one who discovered Cancerman had been here."

"If he's telling the truth."

Her eyes suddenly danced with laughter. "Don't you sometimes get a headache from all that paranoia? I don't think he'd lie about that when we could just ask Lou about it."

Mulder had to smile. "Yeah, I think Lou would tell you anything, Scully." She socked his arm; his smile broadened. Then the realities of the situation came back to him. "So he's been here and screwed with the case already, probably removed vital information, whatever was in that autopsy report, and God knows what else. And when Krycek says he thinks someone might have put pressure on Skinner about this case, it's pretty obvious who he has to mean. I don't like this. It all adds up to that smoking son of a bitch trying to lead us around by our noses again, and I've had enough of that."

"Maybe," she said softly. "It's clear that someone has a hidden agenda. But we can't just give up the case and go home. Whatever is happening here, it's killing people, Mulder. Whoever's behind it all, we have to try to stop that."

He drew a deep breath, and felt something come pouring back into him, something his nerves and his irritation had kept from him. She was right. And he'd been so distracted, he'd almost forgotten his sense of purpose. Looking at Scully he saw the calm good sense in her eyes, and her own resolve, different from his own yet working so well with it. "So where do we start?" he asked. "There's Linda Pulaski and her family, Annie Clough's family, Janine Kendrick's family, the Tupperware ladies..."

"Do you want us to split up?" she asked. "It's past four now. I can get the names of the women who'd been to the Tupperware party from Lou." She looked up at him. "And you get to keep Krycek."

"But it's your turn to baby-sit him now," he whined and was rewarded with an amused smile. "I think if anyone knows anything about Annie Clough's abduction experiences, it's probably Linda Pulaski."

"Be careful with her," Scully said neutrally.

"What am I, an ogre? First Krycek and now you. I don't pull witnesses' nails out and put burning matches between their toes." They both turned around. Krycek was sitting where they'd left him, flirting with the waitress. "Do you trust him?" Mulder asked abruptly.

"No." Her voice indicated he shouldn't have had to ask. "But I do think he'll cooperate with us if he thinks it's in his own best interests. And I don't think all that pain is an act." Then she started to walk back to the table ahead of him before he could answer. Mulder followed her again, thinking about her words. Pain. All that pain.

Krycek scooted in, making room for Scully. He had persuaded the waitress to give him chocolate cake with a double helping of whipped cream. Scully looked tolerantly amused when she sat down, like an adult at a McDonald's birthday party. "Come on, then," Mulder said, leaning with one hand on the tabletop.

"I think we have time for Krycek to finish his food first," Scully said blithely.

"No, we don't," Mulder disagreed, even as he sat down. "We'd be here till tomorrow, he never stops eating, haven't you noticed?"

Krycek actually laughed, and pushed the plate towards the center of the table. "I'll share," he offered, and Scully picked up the spoon from her coffee — when had she ordered coffee? — and took a tiny bite. Mulder took a moment to enjoy the sight of Scully eating something unhealthy, then turned back to the file again. It drew him irresistibly, in much the same way that chocolate cake appeared to draw Alex Krycek.

Another look at the photos was enough to make him lose any appetite for cake. It was impossible to tell whether the couple in the car had any injuries inflicted before the crash. They couldn't have seen ghosts — they were the ghosts. Would a mere accident drive them to haunt the place and drive others to their deaths? Mulder flicked a quick glance towards Krycek, wondering if he could ask the man whether his parents had been the vindictive type. Then he decided not to risk it right then. Scully would break his metatarsals, stomping on his foot under the table.

He flipped through everything again, hoping against hope there was some other clue hidden in here that had escaped him. The autopsy report was still missing, of course. The list of possessions found in the couple's car yielded absolutely nothing: clothes, toothbrushes, things any vacationing couple would have. The bad photocopy of the man's driver's license was still as uninteresting—

Mulder froze, staring at the face in that grainy, gray-shaded picture. He bent closer and tried to be certain, traced the man's features again and again. Tried mentally to subtract a few pounds, tone down the jowls, add some more hair. Then he looked up to find that Scully and Krycek were both watching him with their spoons in their hands. One small corner of his mind wondered at the way Scully had gone from utter disapproval of Alex Krycek's presence to sharing a padded diner seat and a piece of chocolate cake with him. But that wasn't important right now.

"Scully," he said, "do you remember those pictures my mother showed me of my father and his old friends, way back when?" She nodded uncertainly. Mulder put the photocopy down in front of her and pointed at the man's face. "He was in there." Looking up, he caught Krycek's eyes. "What else aren't you telling us?"

"I thought you knew," Krycek said. "My father worked with your father on a couple of projects for a while, before he went to teach at UVa." Something changed in his eyes. "I thought you knew," he repeated a little uncertainly, almost pleadingly.

"No. I didn't." Mulder felt a sharp stab between his eyebrows; screw paranoia, this was the kind of thing that gave him a headache. "This has to stop," he said roughly. "You spring one more surprise like this on us, and I'll ask Larkin to lock you up with the town psycho and make you eat the key. Is there anything else you haven't mentioned?"

"My father told me he'd stopped being involved." Krycek's voice sounded dull now. "I think he lied to me. I think he was killed, they both were killed because of something that's going on here. Probably killed by the man who told me he knew the truth."

"And now," Mulder made himself say, "other people are seeing them and getting themselves killed in the same place."

Scully and Krycek turned identical skeptical glances on him. If he hadn't been angry he would have laughed. So Krycek's claims to have a genuine interest and belief in the X-files had only extended to conspiracy issues. Naturally enough, Mulder told himself. But Linda's recognition of the picture of Krycek's parents had not been faked. And when he looked more closely, the look in Krycek's eyes was more that of someone who did not want to believe.

"I'll get Lou to lend me a car," Scully said, breaking the silence and putting the keys to their rental car on the table. She looked at her watch. "We can meet back here again around seven."

Mulder nodded. "Fine." Then he looked at her as she stood up. "Scully—"

"Skinner mentioned that Kim had booked rooms for us," she said, and walked towards the exit. He followed her with his eyes until she was outside, then shook his head at the waitress, who seemed ready to head over again.

"For such a confirmed skeptic, she's a good mind-reader," Krycek commented. "Where do you want to start, with Linda Pulaski?"

"No." He shut the file and gripped it securely. "With you. We'll talk in the car." Krycek just nodded, slid out of his seat and went to the door. Mulder was about to leave as well when he caught the reproachful gaze of their waitress. He sighed, and fished out his wallet.

When he got outside Krycek was waiting on the sidewalk, looking across the street to where Scully was having an intense conversation with Lou. "There's someone who's found true love," he said, grinning. "Do you have Linda's address?" Mulder nodded. "Well, do you know how to get there?"

They crossed the street together, and Krycek waved cheerfully at Scully before getting into the car. She acknowledged him with a moderate scowl, and Mulder felt a surge of annoyance. If anyone was going to tease Scully, he would be the one to do it, not Alex damn-his-eyes Krycek. He drove off, half his mind occupied with showing him the map of the town that had been pinned up in the corridor at the police station.

"Did you know what your father was working with?" he asked, making a right turn and seeing Scully and Lou vanish from the rear view mirror. "Did you know what they were up to all along? Did you want," his voice was getting all quiet and angry and he couldn't stop it, "to be just like him when you grew up?"

"No." Krycek suddenly sounded tired. "No, I never wanted that. Look, Mulder, I don't want to talk about this."

"What, you don't have any pretty rationalizations?"

"Not any more."

Mulder felt a kind of obscure pleasure in that, in the words, in the hurt that he could hear in Krycek's voice. All that pain, Scully had said. "I want to know what the hell is going on with you, Krycek. I want to know what else you're hiding."

"No, you don't," Krycek muttered. He was staring straight ahead, studying the road. "I asked you to help me find out what happened to my parents, Mulder. I didn't ask to be analyzed as well. If it's a bonus, you can keep it."

Next right, his mind told him and he made the turn, coming to a stop outside a pretty white house with green trim. There were two cars in the drive already, a battered Volvo station wagon and an almost new Subaru. He turned to Krycek. "You really are Russian," he said. "I'm convinced. You're like one of those dolls, secrets inside secrets, made to be picked apart. I guess it's useless to wonder what you're like deep down, when there probably isn't anything there."

"That's very poetic, Mulder," Krycek told him gravely and got out of the car. Mulder got out too, more slowly, and paused for a moment. He looked at Krycek across the car roof. Then he closed his eyes, opened them and looked again, trying to see, and see past what he saw. He had to fight his anger. It was getting in the way of this investigation; that was what Scully had been trying to tell him before. He couldn't bring the case into focus properly when stray thoughts of Alex Krycek kept tugging him from concentration into anger.

But he's a lying bastard and he killed my father, his mind said. He helped with Scully's abduction. He's blackmailing me, damn it. Then again, this might go faster if he and Krycek could cooperate a bit better. Might be easier, and then he'd be rid of the man. And no closer to understanding what went on inside that devious mind. Mulder scowled. Alex Krycek, psychological X-file.

It seemed even Scully could look at the rat bastard and see not just a man involved in the death of her sister and her partner's father and her own abduction, but someone in a lot of pain. And if she could do that, he owed it to her to try to keep friction between himself and Krycek to a minimum. But it was going to be hard, when nearly everything Krycek said and did only served to fuel his anger.

He locked the car door, reflecting that it was probably unnecessary, and walked up the drive, dodging a fallen tricycle. Krycek followed him and came up on the porch just as Mulder knocked on the door. It opened almost under his hand, and he realized the woman who looked at them must have heard the car, must have watched them and wondered.

"Mrs. Clough?" As he fished out his ID, he sensed Krycek's surprise. "I'm Special Agent Fox Mulder, with the FBI. I'd like to talk to you about your daughter."

She was a tall woman with bleached blonde hair and delicate bone structure; her large, deep-set eyes clouded over and for a moment he thought she was going to shut the door in his face. "All right," she said instead, gracelessly. "Come in." Then she paused and looked at Krycek. "And who is that?"

"I'm sorry to impose, ma'am," Krycek said smoothly. "I'm not here in any professional capacity, I'm merely an observer. I can wait outside if you prefer."

Mrs. Clough looked at him for a moment longer, then seemed to lose interest. "Doesn't matter. You come inside, too."

They both followed her into a neat kitchen; flowers on the table, no breadcrumbs. She turned around and leaned against the counter, reached out without looking and pulled a cigarette from a packet lying by the bread box, lit it, and watched them steadily while she took a deep drag and then blew the smoke out slowly. "I'm sorry to intrude on your grief," Mulder said, thinking that neither Scully nor Krycek, his most persistent critics, could find any fault with that. "I know it must be difficult for you, but—"

"Just ask whatever it is you want to ask," she interrupted him. "This to do with Linda Pulaski?" Mulder opened his mouth to reply. "She killed my daughter. Killed her and lied about it, driving drunk like that, it's a shame. She was always getting Annie into trouble."

He thought that that was very likely true — Linda Pulaski was the kind of girl who got other girls in trouble, probably on a regular basis. But it wasn't because she'd been drunk that night that Annie had been killed. There was no point arguing with Mrs. Clough, though. This woman wouldn't take heed of arguments. Nor would she even notice if he handled her with kid gloves. Instead he said, "Did your daughter ever say anything to you that led you to think she might have had an abduction experience?"

Silence reigned as she watched him over the cigarette. Then she flicked it into the sink, almost as if daring him to comment on it. He wondered who kept the house so clean. "You shouldn't listen to what Linda Pulaski says," she said. "Annie always had a vivid imagination, but Linda was the only one who took her seriously."

"I take it you and your husband didn't believe her." Mulder was half aware of Krycek moving in the background, looking at something. He refused to turn his head and watch the man. "What did she say about it?"

"Nothing that made sense," Mrs. Clough said shortly. "Not then. She embroidered the story as she got older." Suddenly her face crumpled into tears. She turned her back on them both, leaning her hands against the counter top.

Mulder was about to reach out and touch her shoulder when Krycek's hand on his arm stopped him. He turned his head and saw Krycek jerk his head silently towards a framed picture on the wall. Stepping closer, Mulder saw that it was a collage of old vacation photos, the same smiling people squinting into the sunlight in various different locations — here in front of the White House, there part of a guided tour around Monticello, and standing in front of the red-brick buildings of the University of Virginia. That was the picture Krycek was pointing at. A much younger Mrs. Clough, holding a small child who had to be Annie. Mr. Clough in the same striped sports shirt he'd worn to Monticello. And Krycek's father, standing between them, smiling benevolently.

"I've never met them," Krycek said in a low voice, anticipating his question. Mulder turned around, to find that Mrs. Clough was wiping her face with a tissue and giving them a hostile look.

"I think it would be better if you came back when my husband is home," she said, her voice making it more of an order than a suggestion. Mulder didn't really mind; he wanted to talk to Linda Pulaski, and Krycek. The way the woman had reacted to the abduction suggestion, she probably wouldn't be able to give any details anyway.

But first he smiled at Mrs. Clough and gestured at the photos. "Is this an old friend of the family?"

She came closer with a few brisk steps, and looked, then immediately looked away again. "No," she said shortly. "We met him when we were walking around the campus."

"So why did he get to be in the picture?" Krycek asked.

"I don't know!" she said, making it sound aggressive. "That was years and years ago, I barely remember. Because he was friendly, I suppose. Showed us around, explained things to us." She walked closer to them, just about shooing them out. Behind the forceful manner her eyes were full of splintered glass.

"And you've never seen him again?" Krycek was already by the door and Mulder followed him, tossing the question over his shoulder. Out on the porch, he was relieved to get a breath of fresh air. "Never met him here in Leyden Creek?"

"No." She stood with one hand on the door, prepared to close it behind them. Only the angry suspicion in her eyes made her hold back another moment. "Are you really investigating my daughter's death?"

"We are looking into all the recent accidents," Mulder said. "We believe there may be a link between—"

"Come back when my husband is home," Mrs. Clough said. Then she shut the door. Mulder stared at it for a moment, then he turned around and went to the car, almost tripping over the tricycle again. When he looked at Krycek he found the man appearing serious and preoccupied, and he allowed it for a while as they got into the car and pulled out of the Cloughs' driveway.

His mind was turning over everything about the case, the facts, and the hints, and the unspoken things that colored the whole investigation. Mulder concentrated on driving, letting things work themselves out at their own pace. The question that filtered itself out was, "What did your father teach at UVa?"

"Biology," Krycek answered readily enough. "Although he didn't teach much, he mostly did research."

"Not medicine?"

"No. He had a medical degree from the Soviet Union, but he chose not to practice here." Krycek turned his head and looked at Mulder. "She was lying. She knew him."

Mulder nodded. He found a convenient spot at the side of the road, pulled off and turned off the engine. Dusk was falling but he could still see Krycek's face well enough. It was closed, uncommunicative, and even the expressive eyes were held firmly in check. Everything was shut away. "Bothers you, doesn't it, that strangers know things about your father that you don't?"

"It's amazing how perceptive a psych degree makes some people. What will you come up with next?"

He had to push; the blank facade had to crack sooner or later. Mulder got his fingernails underneath an edge and tugged. "Did he ever tell you what project he was working on for the consortium?"

All the fire he could have asked for was suddenly there in Krycek's eyes. "No. Did your father ever tell you anything—"

He didn't know he was going to do it until his hand was around Krycek's throat. "You killed him before he could say anything. Don't you fucking talk to me about my father."

"He had over thirty years to tell you his secrets," Krycek said dryly. "It's not my fault he procrastinated." Then he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. The fire was gone just as abruptly. Or perhaps just banked down, hidden away. "If you move your thumb half an inch to the left and press a bit harder, you can kill me." Mulder left his hand where it was, and watched Krycek's profile, trying to see a likeness to the man in the photographs. After a moment Krycek turned his head and opened his eyes. "What's the matter, don't you want to see me die in agony?"

"No, I want to see you live in agony," Mulder countered.

Krycek unexpectedly smiled. "That's all right, then," he said. Mulder released the man's throat and put both hands on the steering wheel instead. He spent a few moments working out how to get to the address he'd been given for Linda Pulaski from here. His fingers could still feel Krycek's throat and he wondered what would have happened had he really moved his thumb, applied pressure. "Genetics."

"What?" The man did not look like a villain. It was the nose, probably, the way it tilted up slightly, lending Krycek an air of childish innocence that not all the leather jackets in the world could change. Krycek might want to be a big bad guy but he just looked like a bad little boy.

"The research my father did. It was mostly to do with genetics." Their eyes met in silent awareness. Mulder started the car.

* * *

It's getting dark. In every sense of the word. I sit back and relive the little scene of a few moments ago, watch his hands on the steering wheel, remember that touch against my neck and throat. Yes, I know it's sick. But God, how I want him to touch me. I want it so badly, it's like a constant ache in me, worse than the phantom pains in my missing arm.

And it distracts me from what is really going on here. Maybe it was a mistake to maneuver Mulder into this investigation. He may find the truth, but what else will he find along the way? If we're allowed to find anything at all. I keep expecting to smell cigarette smoke. I should get out of this now, before it blows up in our faces. Before everything falls apart.

But I need it. I need to know. I need...

I turn my head and look at something else instead, the houses, windows starting to light up now, people moving inside. This is a pretty town; only a few architectural horrors from the sixties and seventies prevent it from being a complete idyll. It's one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and nobody locks the doors, even now. It's so cosy, it would make a perfect setting for a Stephen King novel.

Or an X-file, of course.

Mulder's driving quite slowly and I realize he's looking for a street number. He hasn't told me where we're going, just as he didn't tell me before, but this time it has to be Linda Pulaski he wants to talk to. Her parents may not like that idea, after the scene not too long ago at the police station, but I don't mention that. We'll find out.

It does feel strange to sit here, thinking while he drives, working on a case. It's been a long time, a very long time. I remember who I was then and I want to laugh, or cry. He's still the same. The same driven, tormented, obsessed, beautiful idiot. I wonder what it would take to change him, but probably I don't want to know the answer.

We pull up into yet another driveway that could be the twin of the Cloughs'; Mulder hasn't said a word to me since we got moving again, and now he just gets out of the car and walks towards the house. I follow him, of course. I wish he'd talk to me, tell me what's going on in his mind. He rings the doorbell, I join him and we wait together until the door opens.

"Hey." It's Linda herself, looking a little more collected now. She's changed into a loose pale yellow dress, sleeveless, that shows a small tattoo high up on her left arm. A heart. She nods at Mulder, nods at me, then gives me a slight smile.

"I'm sorry to intrude," Mulder says, "but I'd like to ask you a few more questions."

A shadow crosses her face. She takes half a step backwards. I try to catch her eye. "It's about Annie," I say, knowing that that will make her see things differently.

Mulder gives me a look. He wants to do this his way. And it's not as though I'm his partner any longer or anything like that. But Linda nods and draws breath to ask us to come in, when a man comes up behind her and she turns around instead. It's her father, and I see now that he has the same pale hair and square chin. He looks over her shoulder at us and his brows draw together. "Yes?" he says forbiddingly.

Mulder goes into his Federal agent spiel again; he can draw that badge of his so fast, I wonder if he practices in front of a mirror. "I'd like to ask your daughter a few more questions."

"You upset her enough last time." Pulaski comes forward. He's a big man, has the kind of heaviness that comes with long, hard physical labor, and I wonder what he does for a living. The house is so firmly upper middle class.

"It's okay, Dad." Linda shoves her father aside with an ease born from long practice. "I'll talk to them." He takes a few steps back again. "Come on in."

"Thank you," Mulder says, and we do. Pulaski still doesn't like us being there. I look around for his wife, wondering what Linda's mother might look like, but she's nowhere to be seen. Linda leads us into the kitchen while her father hovers. She turns around and catches my eye.

"You want a Coke or something?" I nod, and she opens the fridge and gets a couple of cans, then pauses and gives her father an assessing look. "We're going up to my room," she decides. He looks about to protest. "You don't like to hear me talk about Annie anyway," she says, and her voice could cut glass. I can feel the anger coming off him in waves, but he doesn't follow us when Linda shows us the way. Up the stairs and to the right.

She has a comfortable room, quite large and with a slanted ceiling. I'm surprised, because the bed is not only made but covered with a pretty quilt, and there are no dirty clothes on the floor. There is, however, a large poster of Courtney Love right next to the book shelves, which are packed to overflowing. Linda puts the Coke cans down on the bedside table, takes one and opens it, drinks and hands it to me. I drink as well and try to keep the smile off my face as I turn and offer it to Mulder. He just looks at me; I shrug and hand it back to Linda. She winks at me, and I can't hold the smile back any longer.

"I need to ask you a few more things, Linda," Mulder says. He looks all wrong in here, with his trenchcoat and his serious expression. And the restlessness shows in him, the wish to just get on with this, the way he doesn't like my being there and distracting her. When he looks around the room his gaze falls on a chart of various genital piercings pinned up over the bed. A corner of his mouth twitches.

"Go ahead, then," she says and sits down on the bed, curling up with her legs crossed. She catches my arm and pulls me down beside her, and there's something slightly desperate in the way her fingers link with mine. Any other girl would have been holding her mother's hand now. When she drinks some more Coke the gesture is more defiant than relaxed.

Mulder, of course, doesn't mess around but goes straight to the heart of the matter. "Did Annie ever tell you anything that led you to think she believed she had been abducted by aliens?"

"Aliens." She doesn't seem all that fazed by the question, a perfect match for Mulder at that moment. "Yeah, she told me." Linda pauses and spends a few moments staring at her poster of Courtney Love. Her hand closes around mine, hard. "She had this little mark that she touched when she got nervous. She liked me to kiss it."

"At the back of her neck?" Mulder asks softly. Just when I'm about to give up all hope he folds himself up and sits on the floor like a teenager, looking up at Linda with a concerned expression. She nods, and brushes her fingers against her own neck almost unconsciously. "Could you feel something hard there, like a little piece of metal?"

"How do you know all this?" she asks. Then she tries to crush my knuckles again as terror comes into her eyes. "You didn't — you haven't—"

"No," I say, stroking the back of her hand with my thumb, trying to persuade her to ease up a little. "Even if there were grounds for getting her body exhumed, it would never happen this fast, and it probably never will happen."

"I know it doesn't really matter," Linda says. "It's not really her any more, is it?" I don't quite know what kind of reassurance would work best, so I just hold her hand. "I just don't like... I always hated it when other people touched her." Mulder ignores this, seemingly oblivious to the bite of love and pain in her voice; he gets us back on track again.

"According to Annie's mother, she was a child when it happened. Did Annie tell you how old she was? Did she tell you anything about how it happened?" It doesn't matter how gentle he makes his voice, the questions are always the same, hard, determined. It's the truth he's after, but he doesn't do it out of cruelty. It's as if he believes the truth will help them, too, those who are caught in his furious cross-examinations. The truth will set them free. Right.

"Her mother never listened, what would she know about it!" Curling up more comfortably, Linda goes on, "I knew her then. We've known each other since we were three. She was always there, she was my best friend forever." A tiny pause, and then raw shock, as it hits her again. She drops her head forward and stares down at her hands and her nails bite into me, but I don't mind.

"Were you with her when it happened?" I ask. "The abduction, I mean?"

"Yeah. Well, sort of, you know?" There's a name inside the heart on her arm. Annie. "I thought it was all my fault when she disappeared, 'cause she'd never have gone out there to play if I hadn't talked her into it. I dared her. We were all scared of the old Mitchell barn."

"Why?" It's Mulder on his best behavior. He doesn't snap it out, he just slides the question into her narrative, carefully, naturally.

Linda shrugs. "The usual thing, someone had seen lights out there once at night, someone had heard a funny noise, you know how kids get," she says, with all the seventeen-year-old disdain she can manage. "We told each other horror stories about it, so of course I had to go out there."

I carefully work my hand free of her grasp and bend down and pick up the Coke can, drink some more, set it down again. "Go on," I say, "tell us what happened when she disappeared."

She looks appraisingly at me. "Why do you only have one arm?" she asks.

"The other one got cut off."

"Well, you're cute anyway," she says as if that settles the matter, and reclaims my hand. I want to smile but I have to look away for a moment. Mulder, on the floor, is watching us both as if we're mutating into a different species in front of his eyes. He ought to understand that she's still in shock, with all that training of his. Even I can tell. But I have no idea what the expression on his face means.

"Did you see it happen?" he asks. "Did you see anything strange at all?"

Linda shakes her head. "Annie had found some pansies, it was early summer. She said they were dying and I went down to the creek to get some water for them. When I came back she wasn't there any more. I looked and looked for her, and then her parents came looking for us both."

"How long was she gone?"

"Two days. The whole town searched the woods for her. Then she turned up again almost exactly where I'd last seen her. Everyone thought she'd gone into the barn and been shut in somehow, and wriggled out again. She had these bruises and scrapes all over." Linda pats arms and legs as if to illustrate. "She couldn't speak much then but later she told me that there had been these strange people who had hurt her."

"Strange people?" Mulder leans forward. "Not aliens? Did she describe them?"

"She just said, strange. I mean, she was a kid then, you know? Later she didn't want to talk about it much. She had nightmares, though." Linda looks protective, defensive, as if Mulder's questions imply that Annie could have done better, gathered more information. I can't reach to kick him. "She said they had big eyes, and they hurt her."

"The Mitchell barn." I shrug out of my jacket; it's warm in here, I don't know why Mulder isn't sweating in that trenchcoat of his. "That's out where the accidents were, isn't it, the one up on the hill there."

"Yeah." Now it's her time to lean down and reach for the Coke. After she's swallowed some of it she offers it to Mulder again and to my immense surprise he shifts closer and accepts the can. "She only said they had big eyes. Oh, and they were real pale." His face lights up with a mixture of anger and delight, like someone who's had his worst suspicions confirmed and is pretty damn pleased about it. "Do you believe me?" she asks, and now she's asking him, not me. "Do you believe this happened to Annie?"

"I believe it," he says. "It's happened to other people." Samantha doesn't get a mention, instead he drinks some more Coke. "Is there anything else you remember, any other detail she told you?"

Linda shakes her head, pauses to think, then shakes her head again. "I always thought she'd tell me more," she whispers. Then she clears her throat. "Annie had a thing about needles. After it happened. She went crazy when she had to take shots, I had to hold her hand. She was going to go see a specialist in Charlottesville in a week and she'd asked me to go with her."

Mulder nods in perfect understanding and for a moment his face is unguarded, his eyes are clear and open. Everything shows. It's like being kicked in the stomach. And I know he's thinking about what happens to the abductees, to those little girls. Thinking about the one who was never returned. I wish I hadn't made fun of that a moment ago, even of it was only in my mind. It means so much to him, this is why he can be so relentless, put everyone else through so much. And I can't argue with that, now.

The grip around my hand tightens again, and I look at Linda. She looks from me to Mulder and back again. We're not exactly behaving the way government agents should, I'll grant you that. He never has, and I'm not an agent any more. Mulder straightens up a little. "Do you think you can talk about it again now — the accident?" he asks. "Perhaps you'd like your mother to be with you."

"No." Linda shifts on the bed. She reaches out with her free hand and grabs a pillow, wraps her arm around it. "She's not home, anyway. It's okay. If, if I don't have to look at those pictures again."

"Of course not," I say immediately. Mulder's got the file with him, and I can understand that; I'm just as pleased he's not letting it out of his hands, God knows what else might disappear if we took our eyes off it. But she doesn't have to look at that again.

I don't want to look at that again. I look at Mulder instead. He's unbuttoned the trenchcoat and he's leaning back against the wall next to a wicker laundry hamper. When he tilts his head back like that, the line of his throat is irresistible. Well, almost irresistible. I don't jump off the bed and pounce on him, much as I would like to. Linda brings my hand along with her own up to her face, to prop her chin on. She'll keep me from any improper behavior.

"The couple you saw," Mulder says, "were they doing anything, or were they just standing there?"

"They just appeared." A shiver runs through her. "Or he did. She was more... cloudy somehow. They could have been moving, I don't know. After Annie screamed I didn't really notice much of anything, I was just trying to control the car, and she was yelling that he was dead, that she didn't want him to get her."

My throat hurts and I swallow, painfully, look for the Coke and find Mulder still has it. He has drawn his own conclusions and I get in ahead of him with the question, just because I have to. "Did it sound as though she knew who he was?"

"How the hell should I know? It was all just chaos — what's your name, anyway?"

"Alex." I stare at the Coke can in Mulder's hand longingly and to my surprise he moves forward and holds it out to me, but I can't work my fingers free of Linda's grip without hurting her. Instead she takes the can and hold it to my mouth. I close my eyes and drink, and then she drinks.

"Alex," she says experimentally. I like the way it sounds, coming from her. "I don't know, okay? I'd never seen him before that moment. And I don't know who Annie would have known that I didn't know."

"Who was Annie's doctor?" Mulder asks. I can almost see little wheels turning inside his head. But I told him—

"Dr. Skeat, same as everyone else here." Linda looks bewildered. "Her parents took her to someone in Charlottesville when she was a kid, but she goes — she went to Walter Skeat for at least the last ten years."

And Linda with her, holding her hand. She seems to be good at holding people's hands. I flick my thumb against her chin. "How come she was going to go to a specialist? Was she ill?"

"They were going to run a blood test and check for something." Linda shrugs. "I don't really know, it was something that just came up out of the blue not long ago. Her parents told her she had to go. And I wanted to get some stuff from UVa anyway. We were both going to apply there."

"I see." Mulder gets to his feet and walks over to the window and looks out. It's dark now. Linda lifts the Coke can towards my mouth again and I shake my head. It's kind of her. But it makes everything so obvious. Suddenly I want her to let go of me. "Thank you for your help," he says, turning around again. "We might be back to ask you a few more questions eventually."

"That's all right." She shrugs and tries to look careless. "Drag me out of English class and I'll love you forever." I stroke her chin again and she releases my hand, and I flex my fingers to get the blood back into them. When I stand up, she does as well. Mulder returns from the window and Linda walks us down the stairs and all the way to the door.

Her parents are in the kitchen. I can hear them talking together and the sound of dinner cooking. Mr. Pulaski appears in the doorway, backlit by the kitchen lamp, and scowls but says nothing. I wish I could put some money into Linda Pulaski's college fund. "Take care," she says to me, and I blink in surprise.

Then we're outside, and as we head for the car, I can hear an argument breaking out in the house. Mulder hears it too; his shoulders tense up, but he keeps moving. And we're not here to be family counselors, really. We get into the car and I look at his profile in the dim bluish light. "I told you my father didn't practice medicine here in the States."

"I think we've already established that there's a lot you never knew about your father." But he doesn't make it a challenge this time. He sits there for a while longer, then shifts in his seat to face me. "You're not being very professional towards Linda Pulaski."

"You're the Federal agent here, Mulder, not me. It makes her feel better to hold on to someone. I don't know why it's me, but I have no reason to stop her." I flex my fingers again. "Not unless she breaks something. She's got a strong grip."

"Just think about what you're doing," he says, dry disapproval layered through the words as though he believes I'm planning to sneak in through the bedroom window and ravish her in the middle of the night. Then he goes on to say, "I'll ask Scully to check Annie Clough's medical records."

"You think there's anything left to check?" That stops him for a moment, hand on the ignition key. So he hasn't thought about that, or at least tried not to think about that. "Someone's been here before us, Mulder. Maybe he's still here somewhere." I fight the urge to look over my shoulder. "We have to count on the possibility that anything to do with this case may have been tampered with, or destroyed. If I'd known, I wouldn't have asked you to look into this."

"Getting nervous?" There's no telling if it's a taunt or not from his voice alone, and I can't see his eyes properly now that it's so dark.

"Yeah, and if you had any sense, you would be, too." Then again, if he had any sense, he wouldn't be Mulder.

"If you ask Linda Pulaski nicely, I'm sure she'll hide you under the bed."

That does make me laugh. "Could you talk to Skinner and ask him how you got this case?"

"He didn't want to tell me," Mulder says thoughtfully. Then he frowns. "He started to say that he'd gotten a call, but I interrupted him." Pulling his cell phone from his pocket, he starts to dial.

I lean back and wait. Sitting in a car in the dark like this makes me feel like a teenager, like we've parked here to make out. Too bad it isn't true. I wonder if I could get him in the mood by whispering sweet nothings in his ear, or if he's only turned on by serious dirty talk about near death experiences, demonic possession and sordid experiments involving mutated frogs and clones of high-ranking government officials. I wonder what kinds of sounds he makes in bed, if he's quiet, if he moans, if he'd scream for me if I did everything exactly right. If he'd ever let me—

To get my mind off that track, I ask, "Will Skinner be in his office this late?"

He shrugs. "We'll find out." The sound of that one word, 'we', sends a strange feeling through me, a mixture of fear and champagne. Suddenly I have to struggle to sit still. "It's Mulder. Sir, I have to ask you—" He runs a hand through his hair and looks exasperated. "I'm sorry, I forgot to call. Agent Scully said you didn't have any particular information." Then he freezes and very pointedly does not look at me. "I see. Thank you, sir." His voice is like ice. A deep breath and he goes on, "Where did this case come from?" There is a longer pause. "I can't tell you that. Yes, but—"

I let him sit and stare at the phone in his hand for a few moments before I clear my throat. "What did he say?"

"That rats always leave a sinking ship." Mulder lifts his gaze from the cell phone and turns it off. "Someone asked him to pass on that message to me."

I drop my head into my hand and swear quietly to myself; when I run out of words I switch to Russian, which is a better language for swearing in, anyway. Mulder just sits there and doesn't say anything. I feel like pounding my fist against the car door, but my fingers still hurt from Linda's fierce grip. "How did he find out?" I finally growl. "How the hell does he know?!" I turn my head and stare at Mulder. He knows I am not referring to Skinner. "The only people who know I'm in the country are you and Scully."

"And you think the first thing I did when you fell asleep in my bed was call Cancerman and tell him about my surprise visitor?" God, but he's angry. "It would be no more than you deserve," he hisses. "You betray everyone, don't you, sooner or later? Me, him, the militia, the Russians... no wonder the whole world wants to kill you."

"I've noticed," I say. "Do you want to kill me?" There is a moment of silence. "Do you, Mulder? You can if you want to."

"You make it sound like deciding to have another slice of chocolate cake. Weren't you the one who told me yesterday I don't do things like that? Guess what, Krycek, you were right. You're the amoral son of a bitch who does things like that, not me." He draws another deep breath, fingers closing around the steering wheel as if around my throat again. "I don't know how you manage to live with yourself, but I won't end it for you." A moment later he adds, "Skinner asked if you were with us."

"Thanks for telling him." While I don't think Skinner would set my enemies on my trail as long as I'm with Mulder and Scully, God only knows what he might choose to do when we go our separate ways again. I've always suspected that he has fewer scruples than Mulder, that he wouldn't mind any kind of rough justice catching up with me. I shouldn't have hit him so hard in that stairwell.

"I didn't tell him."

"You said you couldn't tell him. Skinner's not stupid." Then I shrug; even if Skinner decides to hand me to my former boss on a plate, he won't do it as long as I'm with Mulder and Scully, probably. He does look out for them.

Mulder ignores my comments. "He said he had been given a message not to let this case come to our attention." My respect for Skinner increases again. "Then he received this second message, apparently about you. He's worried." I try to picture a worried Skinner. It isn't easy. "He thinks you've set me up. You seem to think I've set you up."

"I'm sorry," I say. Once again I turn to look at him, thinking the darkness will keep me safe. "I don't really think either you or Scully would do that. And I'm not setting you up either. I'd never sell you out to him." An unwilling laugh rises in my throat. "He wouldn't let me stay alive long enough to try."

Then I bite my tongue as he says, "Nice to hear you have such noble motives, Krycek." I didn't mean it like that, but it's no use trying to take it back. Mulder finally starts the car, and I struggle with the seatbelt to give myself something to do and not have to look at him. I am tangled up in a barbed net that stings me whenever I move; there's no telling where the next hook will sink into me. Even breathing can hurt, around him. I wish I could look at him forever.

It's not far from the Pulaskis' home to Laura Ann's diner. Nothing is far from anything here in Leyden Creek. There aren't many street lights, but the moon is up, cool, white and distant. As we drive, I collect myself enough to say, "Lou said they were here last week. It's possible they cleared the evidence away and left. But I don't know how they knew we were coming, particularly not when Skinner was told not to let you have the case."

Mulder is silent, and I think he may still be angry. But when he does speak he sounds merely thoughtful, an intelligent man faced with a puzzle to solve. "They didn't know we were coming. Not that Scully and I were coming. But they may have been expecting someone." He turns his head briefly and looks at me. "It could be you've been set up after all."

I think about Peskow, dying, telling me about Leyden Creek with his last breaths. If he'd been told to give me that hint, if he knew what it would mean, it would explain his struggling to get the words out in the face of death. If he thought it would get him a posthumous revenge... but if he was in league with them, I'll eat my gun. It doesn't make sense. Maybe if I'd waited a bit longer I would have gotten something more useful out of him.

"It's possible," I agree cautiously. And if it is true, it means that it's the presence of Mulder and Scully that's keeping me alive. "Can you lend me some money?"

"What? Why?" Mulder actually starts to reach for his wallet for a moment, a small motion but I don't miss it. "Don't tell me, you want to buy something to eat again."

"I should leave. The sooner the better." My mind goes over the alternatives, not that there are many. "There's an airport in Wakefield—"

"Leaving the sinking ship already?" The softer his voice gets, the more it tears into me. "I thought you wanted the truth here. I should have realized the truth could never be as important to you as your own safety. And weren't you the one who said nothing could happen to you in the company of two Federal agents?"

"Listen, lisitsa—"

"If you try to bolt I might be forced to arrest you," he says, ignoring what I said, which is probably just as well. I feel like biting my tongue off.

"Consortium assassins have a talent for hitting the wrong person," I finally get out. He should know that's true. "If they're really after me, they wouldn't have any objection to going through a lot of people to get at me. Perhaps not you, but very likely Scully would be at risk." And he will not want to put Scully in this kind of danger, he cares far too much about her for that.

"You'll just have to stay with me, then," he says in a voice that will not take no for an answer. I bite my lip, hard, and hope that any sound might have made was covered by the steady purr of the engine. Oh God yes, lisitsa. I want to stay with you. But I don't want to get you killed. "Do you want to know what happened to your parents or don't you?"

There is a tense silence that lasts all the way down the main street. He parks right outside Laura Ann's and gets out without waiting for an answer. I follow more slowly and look across the street at the police station. Mulder's already got his hand on the door handle and he turns to look over his shoulder; I know he won't let me set off on my own, so I join him and we walk inside.

Scully is standing over by the noticeboard, apparently engrossed in the recreational possibilities that the Leyden Creek community has to offer, but she turns her head quickly enough when we approach. "Is it going to be macrame after all, Scully?" Mulder asks teasingly.

"As long as I don't have to look at more Tupperware," she says. Her eyes take in both of us as she goes on to ask, "Are you hungry?"

I nod, and Mulder shoots me a sideways look. Then he says, "We might as well eat something." Neither he nor Scully ate more than a third of what they ordered, last time. She leads the way to the same table and we settle in, in exactly the same places — Scully by the window, me next to her, Mulder across the table from us. He picks up the menu and looks at it, which is ridiculous; Scully takes it out of his hand and runs a finger down it, her eyes counting calories.

I look at Mulder instead. "I do want to know," I say quietly. "I just wasn't counting on complications like these." After a short pause I go on, "You probably won't believe me, but I wasn't out to get you and Agent Scully into this kind of trouble."

"What kind of trouble?" Scully asks behind the menu. Our waitress appears, as if on cue, and I know the look I give her is a little too suspicious. She's the same cheerful girl who was here before, and she's still checking Mulder out. He still doesn't notice. She stands with her pencil poised and her smile looks warm and genuine. According to her name tag, she's called Susie. We all order quite quickly, and as the waitress walks off, Scully repeats, "What kind of trouble?"

"I called Skinner," Mulder says. "He was told not to give us this case, so he did. And he's gotten another message. It seems someone knows Krycek is here with us." Perhaps he meant to go on, but Scully is already nodding; she knows as well as I do who 'someone' is. And despite the way I feel about Skinner, I admire his guts.

Scully raises an eyebrow. "What can we expect?" It takes me a moment to realize that she's asking me, not Mulder.

"I wish I knew," I say honestly. "Mulder thinks he tried to lure me down here and that you two are just unforeseen complications. If that's true you can probably expect to find me dead sooner or later." I pause for a moment and consider the few facts we have. Another idea occurs to me. "But we may not be dealing with anything so direct. I'm not sure he would try to kill me outright at this time, it could upset the balance of things. If he's cleaned up here, as it seems he's tried to, maybe all he's hoping is that I'll get in trouble on my own."

"Perhaps," Scully says calmly, "he hoped to get you in trouble with the Leyden Creek PD."

* * *

Mulder leaned back and watched the two of them exchange ideas. You'd never guess that Krycek was a back-stabbing little rat, or that Scully loathed him, from the way they talked to each other. Despite being so utterly different it seemed they had momentarily found common ground in professional behavior. Although Krycek's profession was rather unlike Scully's.

The waitress returned and it became apparent that Krycek still did not know the meaning of the phrase cholesterol count, not to judge by the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, buttered corn, biscuits and gravy on his plate. The thank-you smile he turned on the waitress made her blush. Fortunately, Scully seemed far less susceptible to Krycek's rough-edged leather jacket and stubble charm.

He waited until all the plates were distributed and the waitress had retired to the kitchen before saying, "Never mind the police department. It's probably revenge. He thinks seeing the ghosts of your parents will break you without any real effort on his part. Trying to save something from the wreckage."

"What wreckage?" Scully said.

"But I haven't seen any ghosts," Krycek objected.

Mulder paused for a moment and looked at them both. He was used to Scully's treatment of his theories, but if he had to put up with it from Krycek as well, he was putting in for combat pay. Didn't he have enough trouble in his life as it was? He didn't like the way Krycek turned a little more light-hearted when Scully was present. If it were left to him he'd dredge Krycek's mind and soul like one would dredge a harbor, probably turning up just as much disgusting crap in the process, too.

"You felt something when we were out at the accident site." He made it a statement, not a question, but got the expected answer anyway.

"No." Krycek stared down into his mashed potatoes. "No, I didn't." Then he looked up and his eyes were dark with denial. "I didn't!"

"We should try going back without Larkin." Krycek shook his head. Mulder held his eyes for a moment longer, trying to convince him through sheer force of will. "You might see something."

"I don't want to!" Krycek kept his voice low, but the suppressed violence in his words made Scully lean a little away from him, as if to make room for it all. "All I wanted was to see the place itself. Now I've done it."

"And the fact that Linda Pulaski claims to have seen your dead parents means nothing to you?" It wasn't hard to choose the words, they seemed to come by themselves. Krycek actually flinched, and Mulder felt no regret, only calm certainty that he'd hit the right spot.

"She could be mistaken." Krycek was still speaking quietly, still under control. "It was late, she was upset, she's still upset. She'd say anything if she thought it meant she didn't kill Annie by careless driving. And anyone would freak out on seeing those photos. They probably brought it all back to her, how Annie must have looked after it happened."

Mulder speared a piece of steak and ate it, waiting while Krycek wound his way through the frantic rationalizations. "Linda said she recognized them. Annie Clough was a skinny, blonde sixteen-year-old girl. She did not particularly resemble your father. And Linda claimed to have seen ghosts long before she saw the photos."

"It may be a case of mass hysteria," Scully said calmly, cutting through the tension between them. "Two of the women I interviewed also claimed to have seen some kind of ghostly apparition by the walnut tree." Despite the way she sounded and what she said, Mulder felt himself grow suspicious. "It's very likely that they'd heard of Linda's story before their own accident occurred, too."

"Did you give the women a physical exam?" he asked.

"Yes." Scully concentrated on her trout.

"And did you find anything?" Mulder kept himself patient. He shouldn't have to drag information out of Scully like this. The conspiracy theory that occupied most of his thoughts right then was that Scully and Krycek had decided on a joint course of action just to frustrate him. Krycek might not care about the case in general, but Scully was the one who had reminded him that they had to solve this before someone else died. He remembered the look in Linda Pulaski's eyes as she'd sat there quietly, holding Krycek's hand. Remembered the way her voice had sounded.

"Two of them have implants," she finally said, and looked up from her plate to catch his eyes before he could ask the question. "One of the ones who says she saw something, and one who said she didn't notice anything at all."

"You should have brought one of the pictures to show them," Mulder said, "to see if they too would have recognized the people in it."

"You saw what kind of effect it had on Linda Pulaski," Scully said, reproachfully. "It's pointless to put people through that kind of thing — they'd be so shocked by the photographs, they wouldn't be able to judge rationally whether they recognized the faces. What you can see of the faces."

Mulder was about to argue. Then he shrugged. He felt certain that the women in that car had seen Krycek's parents. What he didn't know was why. "I want to see their medical records. Not all of them, just the two with the implants."

"Why?" Scully wondered. "It's highly unlikely their physician would have noticed the implants. In fact, if he had, he would probably have removed them, so..."

"I want to know if either or both of them went to a doctor in Charlottesville up until ten years ago."

"I can call and ask them."

"You think my father was behind all this, don't you," Krycek said tiredly. "He's dead, Mulder, you're never going to find out. If there ever was any evidence, it's gone."

Mulder slapped his hand down on the case file, angrily, protectively. "What was in here, what was down on paper might be gone. But what's in people's memories might still be there. And you were the one who wanted to know. Have you changed your mind?" His voice turned nasty and taunting, and he let it. "Is it getting to be too much for you, Krycek? Don't you want to know the truth about daddy?"

"Fuck you." Still tired, but with steel underneath, Krycek fought back. "You can cast him as the villain if you want to. But my mother died there, too." And the rush of pain at that moment was far too open for Mulder to ignore. More clearly than he wanted to, he remembered hospitals and white walls and waiting forever. "If it makes you feel better to do this, go ahead. Do things your way. As long as you're looking for the truth, and not just evidence that everything is the way you want it to be. You want my father to have been just like me." Then he paused. "No. You want my father to have been worse than your father."

The silence was so awful and complete that the sudden sound of Scully drawing an uncontrolled breath was louder than a gunshot. Mulder stared at the tabletop and clenched his hand around his fork and tried not to reach across and stab it into Krycek's lying throat. He breathed, shallow breaths, around the sudden black pain. The bastard fought dirty. That shouldn't be a surprise.

"We're going out to the accident site again," he said, surprised at how even his voice was. "Tonight. Scully, you might want to call those women before we go and ask them about their medical history and what doctors they've seen. Better eat up fast, Krycek, if you're going to manage putting on those extra ten pounds before you have to go back to Russia again."

Krycek leaned back, away from the food, away from Mulder. His face had closed up again but his eyes were still wide open, as if he didn't care if anyone looked into them, looked into his soul. Mulder wanted to shake him, hit him, anything. New rules now. It wasn't going to be like that again, was it. Nothing was going to be like it had been, again. If only Krycek hadn't mentioned... He took a deep breath. His father.

How dared Krycek sit there and talk like that about a man he had killed. Mulder tried to squash the thought that it was because Krycek actually knew something about it. He didn't need to think about this right now. Didn't need to be reminded of his father or of anything besides the details of this case that he was, damn it, going to solve somehow even if Cancerman had fucked with the evidence, even if Krycek was full of shit and denial, even if it started raining frogs and hot coals over this goddamn little town.

The soft beeps of Scully's cell phone were a distraction, and he half-listened as she talked to the women, making little matter of fact notes on a paper napkin. Krycek wasn't touching his food again, and Mulder knew that was because of what he'd said. Sulk all you like, he thought vindictively, it won't help, we are going out there again. You wanted help, you're getting help, you can damn well live with it.

Susie the waitress returned and gave Krycek a concerned look. "Is there something wrong with the food? Don't you like it?"

Krycek looked up and slowly, a smile appeared on his face. "The food is fine," he said, his voice a little husky, nothing more. "I guess I'm just not as hungry as I thought I was." He gestured for her to take the plate away and she did, looking a little regretful that all that good food would go to waste.

"Do you want something for dessert?" Krycek shrugged. "Well, think about it," she said with a wink, and walked off towards the kitchen. Mulder watched the way Krycek's eyes followed her. There was no hunger there, no desire, just cool assessment. He felt his skin crawl.

"I don't care if she's on the menu, Krycek, forget about it." Mulder turned to Scully, who had finished her calls and tucked the phone away. "What did they say?"

She looked at them both, one after the other. "Both of them had been going to a Dr. Davis in Charlottesville for a while, ten to twelve years ago, for a special treatment for persistent sinus infections." Mulder raised an eyebrow. Scully nodded. "It's an unusual thing to be sent to a specialist for, unless it's far more serious than what both women described. I'll make a few calls tomorrow and find out if Dr. Davis was ever licensed to practice medicine here."

Krycek merely shrugged. "I don't know. He never had a practice of his own though, not a real..." His voice trailed off. "He used to treat me when I was a kid. Get me pills, shots when I needed them. Would that have been illegal, if—"

"If he wasn't licensed to practice, yes," Scully confirmed. "It doesn't seem to have done you any lasting harm," was that really humor in her eyes, "and I assume he knew what he was doing, if he had medical training in the former Soviet Union, but it was definitely illegal."

"He was a doctor," Krycek said, staring out the window for a few silent moments. Then he said, "They always told me that he was a doctor. I don't know." There was another pause. "He did know what he was doing."

Scully just nodded, and Mulder tried as hard as he could to ignore the wealth of implications behind those words, and got to his feet instead. "Come on," he said. "We're going back out there."

"Mulder." Scully sounded tired. "It's dark already, you won't be able to see anything. And we haven't even checked into our motel yet."

"Ghosts come out at night, Scully." These ghosts apparently came out in the daytime too, but all that meant was that it didn't matter what time they went there, and the sooner they went the better. Mulder looked at Krycek, who was leaning back still, with his head against the wall of the booth, turned sideways to look out of the window. He could see the pulse jumping at the base of Krycek's throat. "It's only eight thirty, it's not like we'd be going to bed now. Get going, Krycek, we have a case to solve. The case of the Phantom Physician."

"Yeah, and you're Nancy Drew." Krycek got to his feet and Scully moved out after him. "I'll go pay for dinner." Mulder let him go, feeling oddly confident that Krycek wasn't going to bolt. Scully raised an eyebrow as she stopped by him.

"I used to think that I disliked Krycek's assumption that we're all on the same side now," she said.

Mulder waited for her to go on, but she just stood there, and watched Krycek until he turned his head and did too. The man was paying Susie the waitress, flirting slickly with her; it all seemed to be automatic. "And now?" he asked.

"You're certainly making it clear to him that we aren't." Krycek leaned over the desk by the cash register to look at something the waitress was pointing out to him. Mulder thought they were looking at a tourist map, something like that. When he straightened up again the leather jacket slipped off his shoulders, and he bent down to pick it up.

Susie the waitress's smile stiffened into a mask, and when Krycek stood up again she was pretending not to look at his missing arm. Mulder watched as Krycek turned to stone; he could guess that the man's next smile was going to be ten times as fake as Susie's, and a hundred times more convincing. Her lips moved in a feeble excuse and then she vanished. Krycek stood where he was, so still it was hard to tell if he was even breathing.

"I'm not going to feel sorry for him," Mulder said. He didn't realize he'd spoken out loud until he saw Scully look up at him again.

"Come on, Nancy," was all she said as she headed for the door. Mulder sighed. He was going to have to hear that for a long, long time. Damn Alex Krycek.

It was a lot cooler outside now and Krycek struggled into his jacket, a motion that should have been awkward, smoothed out by time and practice. Mulder unlocked the car and looked across the street to where light spilled out from the police station. He'd be glad not to have to talk to Larkin until tomorrow, but he had a feeling the man was expecting some kind of progress report. Maybe they should call him at home, but what did they have to report? He was used to pushing his theories into the faces of uncaring and unbelieving local detectives, but right now, he just damn well did not feel like it.

Scully got in next to him, and Krycek was in the back seat again, staring out the window, barely acknowledging their presence as they drove off again. The darkness that hadn't been all that noticeable on the main street turned into a presence in its own right as they got out on the road and Mulder found himself driving more slowly than he normally did, waiting and watching.

He wasn't sure if he expected anything to happen out at the accident site or not. He was sure Krycek had felt something, noticed something when they'd been here before, however much the man might like to deny it. That spooked look and the odd behavior that had convinced Larkin that Krycek was some kind of tame FBI psychic (tame psycho, his mind whispered) had been more than just an act. And wouldn't Krycek's parents want to appear to their son?

It all depended on why this was happening. And when he searched his mind for the stray facts and random clues that would shape up into a beautiful whole, they refused to come. Mulder scowled, then saw the black on black silhouette of the walnut tree, the twist in the road. He slowed even more, and pulled over in the same spot Larkin had chosen before. If anyone went off the road tonight, they'd be sped on their way by Avis, not a stone wall.

They all sat in silence for a moment, as Mulder turned off the engine and cut the lights and night fell all around them. It was dark. Really dark. He glanced up at the spot next to the walnut tree and saw nothing.

"This is ridiculous," Krycek said from the back seat. But then he shifted around, opened the door and got out of the car. Mulder followed and a moment later Scully got out as well. It was a clear night and stars glinted up there, twinkling lights he had not considered friendly for over twenty years. All around them was the sound of the night-time countryside breathing. Krycek seemed unaffected by it; he just took a couple of steps away from the car, and stood there. "I don't feel anything."

Mulder walked away from the car too, up towards the tree. Sometime during the afternoon, the remains of Janine Kendrick's car had been taken away; the wheels of investigation would keep turning, and he felt sure that no one would find anything wrong with the brakes, with the steering, with anything. He turned around when he'd reached the walnut tree and leaned his back against it, watching Scully and Krycek and the car and the night. "What did you feel when we were here before?" he asked in a far kinder voice than he would have believed himself capable of. "You saw something."

"Just the wind in the grass," Krycek said. "Or maybe a small animal running around." He was coming closer, moving slowly, as if testing the ground. "It wasn't anything like what you think, Mulder. I don't see ghosts."

"I wonder." He leaned his head back against the tree and looked up through the crown; the night sky looked better this way, seen through a lace-work of heavy black branches. "Are they trying to warn others away from the place where they had an accident themselves? Sure as hell isn't working. Or are they trying to," he couldn't resist putting a Gothic spin on his words, "lure innocents to their doom?"

Krycek was standing in the same spot now as he had been this afternoon, shoulders set defiantly. "Bullshit, Mulder, you don't believe that. You think it's something to do with the implants." He ran his hand over the stone wall lightly, an almost caressing touch. "They all had implants, they were all treated by my father over ten years ago. And this is supposed to start things happening now? The time frame is all wrong."

"Linda said Annie's parents were going to take her to a specialist for no particular reason." He barely noticed Scully coming up to them, going over the site in her own methodical way, with a flashlight.

"You don't know that it was for no particular reason. Linda just didn't know."

"We can check the medical records, talk to this Walter Skeat about her, and about the other women, see if they had been referred to a specialist too." Mulder pressed one hand against the tree trunk, picking carefully at the bark. "And Annie's parents knew your father."

"Yeah," Krycek finally admitted. "Yeah, they probably did."

"How do you know that?" Scully asked, turning her flashlight off and coming to join the conversation. "Did they mention him during the interview?"

"They were standing with him in a framed photo on the kitchen wall," Mulder said. "We can show the driver's license to those women, Scully. Not the photos from the accident. Just to make sure he's actually the Dr. Davis they went to back then." He did not feel any doubt at all of how the women would respond, but everyone else needed the confirmation, and it was all right, really. He would be right, and Scully and Krycek would admit it.

"All right," she said. "And I assume you want to ask them about possible abduction experiences, too." He nodded. "Mulder, these women are highly strung, and might be eager to please. I think there's a large chance that they could simply tell you what they think you would like to hear."

"Scully." This time it mostly made him want to laugh. "You really think I am incapable of seeing through that?" He did have training, after all. He had interviewed witnesses before. And he could tell when people lied to him. Most of the time, he amended, as he looked from Scully to Krycek.

"I just wanted to mention it," she said in her primmest voice, the one that meant she wasn't going to let him get at her thoughts if he'd keep shooting her conclusions down. Mulder felt a little sorry, but at the same time it still annoyed him that he was the one with the psych degree and both Scully and Krycek persisted in treating him as though he knew nothing of human nature.

He knew the darker side, he thought to himself. He knew that a little too well sometimes. "Meanwhile," Krycek's voice cut through his musings, "I still don't sense anything, and it's getting cold."

"Have you even tried?"

"Mulder, I don't know how the hell I'm supposed to try." Krycek sounded completely exasperated. Sounded, in fact, like a man who had been dragged away from his dinner by someone whose company he did not enjoy to stand in a cold field on a dark night trying to contact ghosts he didn't believe in. "Buy an ouija board for next time, and now can we please get back in the car?"

"In a moment," Mulder said, pushing himself away from the tree. Only now did he notice that the grass was slightly damp and his trouser cuffs were soaking up the moisture. He went over to where Krycek was standing, the first accident site, and knelt down by the wall where Krycek had picked out a piece of metal. There was nothing there now, as he ran his fingers over the cracks and gaps.

"You're going to get bitten by something," Krycek muttered. "It was only the one piece."

Scully walked past them. "What's that building up there?" she asked, peering through the darkness.

"The old Mitchell barn," Mulder and Krycek replied at the same time. They broke off; Mulder looked up at Krycek, then slowly rose again, bracing himself against the wall. Two decisive strides, and then he vaulted over the wall, the effect slightly marred by his coat catching on one of the stones. Mulder took off over the field, and heard the two others scramble to follow him.

"Mulder," Scully clambered down and tried to trail the beam of her flashlight on him. "Mulder, where do you think you're going? If it's just an old barn—"

"It's where Linda Pulaski said that Annie Clough was abducted," Krycek told her and Mulder turned his head to see that Krycek was also on the other side of the fence now and striding along by Scully's side. He didn't slow down. The blacker than black solid shape of the barn ahead drew him. It had happened somewhere around here. Two little girls playing, one of them went away for a few moments, and the other... what had happened to the other? They'd found her here two days later, hysterical, cut and bruised.

And with an implant at the back of her neck, an implant no one else ever saw and believed in. Once again he remembered the pain in Linda Pulaski's voice, the way she'd clung to Krycek's hand. Could imagine her as a child, trying to explain what had happened to Annie, there one moment, gone the next and she couldn't help it, couldn't help it, it wasn't her fault.

He bit down on the inevitable associations, and kept walking, fast.

The barn seemed a lot bigger and less run down when he came up next to it, though as dark as it was, he knew he wasn't really seeing much. Mulder got his flashlight out and started looking around for a door; he was prowling along one long blank wall when Scully and Krycek caught up with him. "Larkin was lying," he said, crouching down to check the stone foundations. "This place hasn't been abandoned for fifteen years."

"He said that?" It was Krycek who asked — Krycek, who'd been there when Larkin had talked about it. Mulder ran a hand over the one small opening he'd found, feeling at the edges. "A cat could get through, maybe," Krycek said, bending down as well. "Not a child."

"There has to be a door." He straightened up and made for the nearest corner, stumbling a little at the uneven patches in the ground that he couldn't see. It wasn't that the barn was freshly restored, it was just not very run down. Around this corner were the big doors, big enough to drive a tractor through, tightly closed and chained up. He tugged at the chain, just on general principle. It moved, but the doors didn't. "Krycek? How are you on picking locks?"

"Mulder." Scully sounded annoyed and he didn't know if it was just because she was wearing the wrong shoes for a hike across the countryside, or if there was more to it. "You can't go around breaking into buildings in the middle of the night." He thought about pointing out that it was only around nine, decided against it. "We can do this tomorrow, through Larkin, if you really want to get inside an old barn."

Krycek ran his hand over the lock, and shook his head, a small decisive motion. Mulder looked at the doors again; there wasn't even a crack. "She can't have gotten in here, either. What's wrong, Krycek, is it too difficult for you?"

"I'd need two hands for it," Krycek said dryly. "I don't see why you want to get inside, either. She was never in there. She can't have gotten in there, even if people think she did. This just strengthens the abduction theory, so what do you think you'd be looking for?"

He backed away a couple of steps and looked at the large dark shape of the barn looming in front of him. It was too solid. "Something's wrong with it," he said patiently. "Everyone thinks this place is a ruin, the old Mitchell barn where kids are warned not to play because they might get trapped. But no one can get inside, and it's obviously well maintained by someone even though the former owner has been dead for fifteen years and his heir lives in Maryland and has never been here."

"It's odd," Scully agreed, "but it doesn't have anything to do with our investigation. Probably someone's taken advantage of the absent owner to use this place for extra storage or something."

Mulder scowled at the lack of cooperation, and started to move again, determined to at least walk around the whole building before he returned to the car. Away from Scully's flashlight, his eyes started to adjust and he could see quite well, barn and fields and distant trees, and a thin white mist rising. It was getting colder. He followed the third wall almost to the end before he found the smaller door, set into the wooden wall and of a piece with it — only his fingers sliding along the surface discovered the crack. Absurdly, he tugged at it with his nails before raising his voice to call the others. "Over here." It didn't yield, and he felt further, to a keyhole. "I've found another door."

"God, Mulder, don't you ever give up?" Scully should know better than to ask him questions like that. The narrow beam of her flashlight caught his hand neatly just as he tried to poke at the lock with one of his own keys. "What do you think you're going to find in there? Whatever it is, just wait until tomorrow. This is illegal, Mulder, you can't do this."

"You're going to damage the lock like that," Krycek added. "Or your key."

"Fine. You do it, then, you're the one who has experience with breaking and entering." Dark as it was, he could tell Krycek was looking at him. But then he went to work, taking something out of his pocket and bending close to the lock. Mulder turned to Scully, who had her mouth open to protest. "If she wasn't abducted, she may have been kidnapped. Does the idea of a human agency behind her disappearance seem so implausible to you, Scully? And if she was kidnapped right here, and returned right here, she might have been held right here."

"Right where everyone would have been searching for her?" Scully shook her head, diverted for the moment from what Krycek was doing. "Besides, what kind of evidence would you expect to find over ten years later?"

The door swung silently open behind them. Mulder turned around to find Krycek leaning against the wall, looking rather pleased with himself. Much as he'd like to wipe that look off Krycek's face, he had to admit to himself that he'd be on shaky moral ground objecting to the man's skills while making use of them for his own purposes. "Let's go in," he said, and gestured at Krycek to precede him. Krycek shook his head. "I wasn't actually giving you a choice."

"You wanted to go in and now you can. I'm not interested." Krycek couldn't cross his arms, but he shoved his hand into the pocket of his jeans and set his jaw. Mulder put a hand on the door. Krycek shook his head again.

"This is ridiculous," Scully grumbled. "I can't believe you talked me into this." She ducked under his arm and walked in through the door. Her voice floated out to them, "And I want to make it clear that I'm only doing this because I believe you'd get into even more trouble if I let you go in here on your own." Mulder's first impulse was to go right after her. Then he looked at Krycek again.

"I'm not leaving you alone out here." He reached out and grabbed Krycek, realizing finally that Larkin wasn't around any longer, and shoved him forcibly in through the open door, into the darkness beyond. Going in after him, he saw the beam of Scully's flashlight outline a smallish room, and another doorway; saw her go through it. Mulder took two steps that way and walked straight into Krycek. "Don't just stand there," he said impatiently, "come on," and he pushed Krycek ahead of him again, through that doorway and into a large open space.

It wasn't until he stopped again on the dusty wooden floor, watching Scully train her flashlight on the corpse of a John Deere tractor and some metal junk that looked like torture instruments for giants, that he realized that the shoulder under his hand was shaking. Badly. He let go, and wondered if he imagined the small sound that followed, or if it was just a strangled cough. It was certainly dusty in here.

"There doesn't appear to be anything out of the ordinary here," Scully said, starting to walk along one of the inside walls. "For what it's worth, the inside does look as if it's been abandoned for a long time. I think you're wrong about possible maintenance, Mulder. Mitchell just built his barns to last. And we should leave immediately before someone catches us here and—"

Mulder walked along the opposite wall, shutting out the sound of her rational voice, concentrating. There was something about this place, some subtle sense of wrongness, something about how it sat here at the top of the hill and watched over the road below, over the walnut tree and the stone wall. Something that did not make sense. There were no tracks in the dust on the floor, apart from their own. There were no cracks in the walls. Annie Clough could never have gotten in here. There was something wrong.

"The walls are wrong." Krycek's voice was only a rasp, but it got his attention, and Scully's. Krycek was gesturing around the open space. "Too short, compared with the outside. Look down there," and he nodded at the opposite end from the large shut doors. Mulder was already heading that way, and Scully followed him, her flashlight showing a wall like the other walls. No door.

Stepping carefully around another of the rusty iron horrors on the floor, Mulder knocked on the wall, then felt foolish. Of course there was an open space on the other side; the question was, was it a field, or a secret room? There were no cracks in this wall either, no gaps between the planks. Scully went along it methodically, tapping the wall as well. Krycek just stood and watched them in near-paralyzed stillness, head down, hand holding onto the opposite shoulder, and Mulder felt himself start to get annoyed. He was about to ask the man to do something useful for a change, when Scully's "Look here, Mulder," got his attention.

She hadn't found a door, but a grille in the wall, its lower edge set flush with the floor. The grille was perhaps five inches high and ten inches wide, its metal slats suspiciously unrusted. Mulder knelt down, then mentally kissed his suit good-bye and lay down flat on the floor, trying to peer in between the slats. "Scully, give me your flashlight."

"You have a flashlight of your own."

"Yeah, but I'm lying on it." He accepted hers and angled the light in through the narrow openings. "Either that or I'm more excited by all this than I thought I was." She kicked his leg, but quite gently. Mulder wriggled in the dust and managed to hold the light steady and look inside, while Scully turned away.

"Krycek, are you all right?" Mulder barely heard the words. The flashlight played over a spotless floor, gleaming metal, the legs of a table, counters and file cabinets and — he almost dislocated his neck, trying to look higher — was that translucent glitter glass, tubes, what? It was a laboratory. It was an operating room. It was... his mouth twisted.

This was where Annie Clough had been for two days. This was the explanation. His killjoy mind did not kick in until a moment later, telling him this did not look over ten years old, and he had bare moments to consider that before there was a loud slamming noise and they all jumped.

"The door probably blew shut," Scully said, although she sounded tense. Mulder got to his feet as fast as he could, about to offer a less palatable suggestion, when he became aware of the raw sound of pure terror coming from Alex Krycek. When he turned the flashlight beam that way he only got a momentary impression of dark panicked eyes in a pale, pale face before Krycek bolted.

Scully bit off an exclamation and followed him, and so did Mulder, banging his shin on something that tore both cloth and flesh. He cursed loudly as he limped after the others, feeling a thin trickle of blood run down his leg. For a moment he was tempted to stay and try to find a way into that room instead, let Scully deal with Krycek. But she'd made it clear that Krycek was his responsibility, and he had her flashlight, and the entrance might be on the outside after all.

The door was open when he reached it, and he slowed down and went out cautiously, uncertain of what he might find. He saw no one right outside, but turning his head he caught a glimpse of Scully's trenchcoat disappearing around the corner. Mulder turned the flashlight off, pushed it into his pocket and ran.

He didn't catch up with them until they'd both stopped, down by the stone wall, all the way down the long slope. Krycek was crouched on the ground, head bent, his breath loud and rasping and coming far too fast. It had nothing to do with being out of shape. Hyperventilation caused by panic. Scully stood next to him, digging through her pockets. To Mulder's surprise, she actually produced a paper bag, shook out the sandwich crumbs, knelt down and instructed Krycek to breathe in it.

Satisfied that Krycek wasn't going to disappear, Mulder turned around and looked up at the barn again. He couldn't describe afterwards quite how he saw it; it was as if the whole place took a deep breath, as if an instant of freeze was followed by complete disintegration. Between one heartbeat and the next, the explosion hit; walls buckled outwards, the roof started to collapse even before fire ran over it, a wild dance of red and orange, and the sound of the blast made his ears ring. The shockwave drove him backwards until he hit the wall.

"Oh, shit," he breathed, the words lost in the noise. He managed three steps back before a hand took hold of his arm.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Scully, there was evidence up there — there was a fucking lab up there, in that secret room, I can't let it just—" Her grip tightened. "Scully."

"There's nothing you can do except call 911," she said. When she gestured towards the barn again he saw that most of it had gone down with the blast and it was burning fast, far too fast in this damp weather. Mulder nodded reluctantly. He stared at the dancing flames, willing them to leave him something, to let him have some proof of what he'd seen up there. Then he got his cell phone out and called.

Krycek was on his feet again by the time the fire trucks and police cars got there, leaning against the stone wall, Scully's fingers on his wrist as she checked his pulse. Mulder watched the firefighters drive up the dirt road to the barn, watched the police car that stopped half way there. Larkin got out and headed across the field towards their little group. It couldn't still be his shift, but here he was. Mulder felt his shoulder muscles tighten with fatigue and dislike. He deliberately did not acknowledge the man until Larkin was right next to them.

"What's going on here?" It sounded more like an accusation than a question. "What are you doing here? Who set fire to the barn?"

"We don't know that." It was a good thing Scully answered, she was the most collected of the three of them. "There was an explosion before the fire. I believe you'll find traces of—"

"An explosion." Larkin didn't shout, he just dropped the words heavily in their faces. "You're telling me someone blew up the old Mitchell barn, the most worthless piece of real estate in the state of Virginia, right at the moment when you just happened to be here."

"It's a cover-up," Mulder said. "Someone's trying to keep us from finding— Ouch!" Scully didn't just kick his leg, she managed to hit the spot that was already bleeding.

"We came out to look at the site of the accidents again," she said firmly. "Agent Mulder believed the ghosts might be more likely to materialize after dark." Larkin stared at her. She stared back. The fire crackled in the background. Mulder decided not to add to the tension; instead he turned his head to check on Krycek, who was still leaning against the wall, but breathing evenly now.

Finally Larkin said, "Take your car back and we'll talk at the station." He turned around and strode back across the field.

They stood together in silence for a moment, all of them watching the fire. Mulder tried to shrug his coat straight over his shoulders and realized that two flashlights in one pocket did not make for a high fashion statement. He pulled out one of them and handed it to Scully. "You lied to him." She looked up at him. "You lied to him."

"No, I didn't. I just didn't tell him everything." Mulder just shook his head.

"I don't trust him," Krycek rasped. "He'd love to accuse us all of arson." Stepping away from the wall, Krycek handed a neatly folded paper bag to Scully, who put it back in her pocket. Then he started to walk slowly towards the car.

"He wouldn't," Mulder said but then he got himself moving as well. He kept his eyes on Krycek, who was very deliberately not looking at the walnut tree or the spot beside it. Back over the stone wall and he scraped his shin again. "Damn." He rubbed the spot and his fingers came away slick with blood. "Scully, did you bring your taking-care-of-Mulder kit?"

Her smile was wry, but when she saw his fingers and his leg her brows drew together. "Everything I have is still in the car. Come on."

So he did, and sat on the passenger seat with his shredded trouser leg rolled up while she dabbed painful isopropyl alcohol all over the scrapes and cuts and taped them up despite his protests. "There's a reason I don't wax my legs, Scully. That's going to hurt, coming off."

"Don't be such a baby." She packed her kit away and stowed it in the trunk, got into the driver's seat, then paused with the door still open. "Krycek?"

A piece of deeper darkness within the darkness of the night moved. "Yeah." Krycek clambered into the back seat, shut the door and immediately rolled the window down. Scully started the engine and got them back on the road again. Up the slope, the burning barn had taken on the quality of a surreal painting, and Mulder half expected the glass his fingers found between it and himself, before he realized it was the car window. He rolled his window down too, and drew a last breath of smoke-laden air before they were pulling away from the scene.

Seeing the flames at a distance, he slowly came to realize that they would have been caught in the middle of that if something hadn't spooked Krycek so badly. He cursed softly at how slowly his mind was working tonight. Everything must have been set up well before they went inside. It was only because of Alex Krycek that they were still alive.

He twisted around in his seat and saw that Krycek was practically leaning out the car window, doing nothing but breathing, in a careful way Mulder recognized. "You have a problem with enclosed spaces," he stated. Krycek made a choked sound that caught in the back of his throat, and his shoulders started to shake again. "Damn. Scully, pull over."

Krycek was opening the car door almost before they'd stopped rolling, and just about fell outside, retching. Mulder rubbed at the spot between his eyebrows as he got outside as well. A problem, hell, this was a full-blown phobia. He walked around the car and found Krycek on his knees, spitting and coughing and not happy at all. "You say the nicest things, Mulder," he gasped out after a few moments. "A handy phrase for every occasion."

"We don't have any water." Scully sounded faintly troubled as she came out of the car too, bent down and put a hand on Krycek's forehead. "Will you manage the drive back into town?"

"Yeah. Give me a minute." Krycek's ragged breathing was already evening out again. He spat one last time and wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand; Scully scowled reproachfully, and produced a tissue. It was put to good use. Mulder felt sure Krycek would have given a lot for a glass of water. He grimaced a little as the smell hit him and moved back a step or two.

It didn't take long before Krycek was back on his feet again. He swayed a little, but that was probably an after-reaction to the panic attack more than anything else. It hadn't been that bad, he hadn't lost touch with reality, Mulder thought, had known all the time where he was and what was going on. Still...

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know it would have that kind of effect."

"Neither did I," Krycek muttered, leaning against the car. There was a short moment of silence, and then Krycek shook himself, and looked up at them. "Let's go."

"Are you sure?" Scully asked softly.

"I'm sure." The hand that opened the car door shook, but not so badly that he didn't manage, and Krycek climbed inside with every line of his body screaming that he did not want to. Mulder met Scully's eyes and nodded; if Krycek felt he could go through with it, they'd better get going at once.

They drove back into town in silence, with Scully at the wheel and Mulder turning every ten seconds to check on Krycek, who was huddled up close to the open window and wouldn't look at either of them. When they parked in what had become their usual space outside Laura Ann's, Krycek was out of the car so fast Mulder almost thought he was going to bolt. But no, the man was still there when he and Scully followed.

Before Mulder could say anything, Krycek nodded across the street. Larkin was standing right outside the police station, waiting for them. "We're going to have to spend the rest of the evening explaining this to him," Scully said, sounding tired. "It was your bright idea, you can do the talking."

"Who blew up the barn?" he countered as they started to cross the street. "Okay, it was a hunch. But you can't tell me now that there's nothing strange going on out there."

"Only you, Mulder, would go looking for ghosts and find explosives."

Larkin was most definitely not happy. He didn't accuse his two visiting FBI agents of arson, but he couldn't believe they hadn't noticed anything out at the site. Neither, in retrospect, could Mulder. Someone had just about blown up a building around them, and they'd been busy making sure Alex Krycek could breathe properly. Priorities just a little off, maybe? He scowled his way through Larkin's questions, and Scully was absolutely no help. Krycek managed to sneak off to the bathroom; when he came back, he sat as close to the door as he could get and pretended to be invisible. He was pretty good at that.

When Larkin started to repeat himself for the third time, Mulder felt he had had enough of this. He shoved his chair back with enough force to make the legs squeak dangerously against the painted cement floor, and got to his feet. "We've told you all we know, detective. You've been asked to cooperate with us, not put us through third degree on something totally unrelated."

It galled him to have to say that, but tomorrow they'd have found the remains of the lab and he could claim a legitimate interest in them then. If he went out there now and pointed them out, he could say good-bye to any kind of cooperation from Larkin ever again. Not that he'd miss the man, personally, but Skinner wasn't going to like it. Not after warning them about Larkin in the first place. Imagining Skinner with an I-told-you-so look made Mulder long even more for a beer and some late-night TV.

Scully had risen, too. "Good night, Detective Larkin," she said sweetly. "We will be back tomorrow to sign our statements."

He looked at them both as if about to argue and then just nodded and made a shooing motion with one hand. "Try to see if you can remember anything else till then. You are trained observers, aren't you?" No one answered as they trooped out the door, feeling and probably looking like school children who'd been sent to the principal's office. Mulder had a momentary vision of himself as Calvin, and wondered if that made Scully Hobbes.

"I hope he develops hemorrhoids the size of bowling balls and acute phimosis," Krycek muttered on the way out, and Scully cracked up, laughing harder and longer than Mulder had heard her laugh in a long time.

"It doesn't really work like that," she finally wheezed, "but—oh, what a lovely thought." Mulder felt parts of himself twitch once his mind had tracked the word down, but he had to agree that it would be a just punishment.

The night outside was refreshingly cool after the airless room where Larkin had kept them, and he paused on the sidewalk, breathing slow deep breaths. "I'd settle for giving him permanent diarrhea, myself," he said, "but it would be too hard on Lou and the others."

When the chuckles died out they were left looking at each other. The street was quiet, the only sound coming from the police station behind them; there wasn't even a car in the distance. "They've probably given up on us at the motel," Scully said, and with the laughter gone, her voice was tired.

"They wouldn't do that, "Mulder said with more assurance than he felt. "Not with the FBI paying for the rooms anyway."

"It's past midnight," Scully said drearily, ignoring him. "We should have checked in before we went out to the site. We should have checked in before we had dinner. We should have checked in when we got here—"

"Scully." It couldn't be that she was sleepy, they'd been through worse. Far worse. But she did get cranky when people tried to blow them up. And that got him thinking. "I don't think we should stay there anyway. Someone seems to know far too much about what we're doing here. It would be easy to find out where Kim booked rooms for us."

"Mulder, it's past midnight," Scully repeated. "We're not going to find anything else."

"Laura Ann rents out rooms," Krycek said unexpectedly. He sounded a lot less tired than Scully. Presumably international villains kept late hours. Mulder looked across the street; there were still people inside the diner, all the lights were on, and the sign in the door said OPEN.

"Doesn't that place ever close?" It looked as warm and welcoming as it had before, and he had to admit it didn't seem like a bad idea.

"If you don't want to go to the motel, it's probably our best choice." Scully started to cross the street, and Krycek followed her. Mulder stayed where he was for a moment, and tried to think. Ghosts. Implants. Explosions. His mind drifted among random associations, Larkin's constant bad temper, Linda's ragged voice, the chain-smoking Mrs. Clough, Krycek's claustrophobia... Was it all connected? Or did the pieces belong to different puzzles, and he was a fool for trying to make sense of them?

He shrugged. Enough people had called him a fool over the years that he didn't need to do it to himself as well. The connection was here. It would come. He could only hope, painfully, that it would come before another car crashed against the walnut tree, before another house blew up around some people whose guardian angels were off duty.

Mulder was halfway across the street when he stopped as though he'd run into something. He stood where he was for a few moments. Feeling rather foolish, he sucked on his index finger and held it up in the air. After a few moments a door opened and closed somewhere behind him, and Lou's voice called out, "Agent Mulder? What are you doing?"

"Nothing," he said, feeling even more foolish. He waved a friendly good night and went on across the street, stopping at their car to get the bags before remembering that Scully had the keys. Instead he went into Laura Ann's. The warmth inside the diner was welcome, even if the greasy food smells weren't. Scully was standing just outside the kitchen door, negotiating with a blonde woman Mulder assumed was Laura Ann herself. As he thought that, she looked over at him, winked, and resumed her conversation with Scully.

Krycek was on reading duty at the noticeboard, hand in pocket, shoulders slightly hunched. Deciding that Scully didn't need any help, Mulder went over to join him. "There isn't any wind," he said. Krycek gave him a blank look. "There is no wind. So the door couldn't have blown shut."

The green eyes came alive, just like that. "Shit. If someone was trying to lock us in—"

"—don't you think they'd have done a better job of it? It was a warning. Someone was trying to save our lives. Or something."

"An angel? What do you think this is, a course in miracles?" Krycek kept his voice low even when he was being sarcastic. "Anyway, you don't warn people to get out of a building by shutting the door." The pulse was jumping in his throat again, and he glanced over at the window. "It could have been an animal or something."

"So you keep saying." Mulder turned away to watch Scully again; she was smiling, and he assumed that meant they had a place to sleep. It seemed useless to suggest to Krycek that the ghosts of his parents might actually be looking out for his well-being. And Mulder didn't think much of ghosts who killed Annie Clough and saved Alex Krycek. Family feeling was all very well, but that girl— A muscle in his cheek jumped and he tried to unclench his teeth.

After a few moments Scully said a final thank you to Laura Ann and came back to them. "This is going on your card," she informed him. "The rooms were described to me as simple but clean, which is all I'm asking right now. Let's go get our bags."

They had to carry everything up the narrow stairs at the back, and Mulder nearly walked into Scully as she stopped in the equally narrow hallway. "Here," she said, turning around and handing him a key. "I'm going to bed. Oh, and Mulder?" Her face was perfectly serious, but he hadn't worked with her for years without learning when he was being teased. "You still get to baby-sit Krycek."

She unlocked the nearest door and went through it, while Krycek chuckled in the background. Mulder turned around and scowled at him. Then he opened the second door and stepped inside, hitting the light switch. This was more like a room in a private home than a place that would be rented out to strangers; a hardwood floor with woven rugs, sturdy wooden furniture, a tall window, flowered wall paper. The door at the far end had to lead into the bathroom. There were two beds covered with quilts. There was no TV.

He frowned again, then dropped the bag so he could smooth out the crease between his eyebrows with the back of his hand. Mulder considered going over to knock on Scully's door and ask her if she had a TV. But that would not go over well, and besides, she probably didn't. He turned to look at Krycek, who was still out in the hall. "Don't just stand there. Come in and close the door." Then he paused for a moment, while Krycek came inside silently, and closed the door just as silently. "I don't remember you being claustrophobic."

"I wasn't." Krycek walked over to the window and stood with his hand on the frame, looking out. "Something happened."

Mulder claimed the bed by the inner wall for his own by dumping everything in his bag on top of it. "What?" he asked, pulling the sweatpants out of the pile and tossing them onto the other bed. "What happened?" He wondered if he'd packed Krycek's toothbrush, too.

"Remember the silo?" There was something in Krycek's voice that turned it from an innocent question into the first sentence of a horror story. "They locked me in there. In with the fucking UFO." Despite the flat tone, Mulder heard Krycek start to breathe a little faster.

"Don't have another goddamn panic attack," he said warningly. Then he turned around; Krycek was still facing the window, but he hadn't thrown it wide open. Not yet, Mulder thought and decided not to give him any reason to do it. "You didn't seem to have a problem when we got thrown in prison."

"There was a window." Krycek finally turned around, leaning back against the wall. A half-smile appeared on his face. "Besides, I knew I could get out again."

Mulder remembered running, the air burning his lungs as hoof-beats thundered behind him. He remembered a hoarse, half insane voice whispering and whispering; being thrown down on the floor, the needle sliding painfully under his skin; dimly remembered being trapped under the chicken wire as something slithered into his body.

He took two steps towards Krycek, who had known he could get out, then stopped. "Damn you," he said quietly. He went to lock the door from the inside, then went into the bathroom. The familiar routine calmed him down. Mulder paused halfway through brushing his teeth and looked at himself in the mirror. Was it in there somewhere? Inside him? What would it do to him? He spat into the sink, and tried to convince himself it was nothing. When he returned to the room, Krycek did not appear to have moved an inch. "How did you get out of the silo?"

"I don't know." It was no more than a whisper.

"What do you mean, you don't know? You were in there and now you're not. Something must have happened." Mulder shoved everything off his bed and kicked off his shoes. "Who got you out of there?"

Krycek finally shoved himself away from the wall. "I don't know." He went to the bed and scooped up the sweatpants, then looked up to meet Mulder's gaze. "I don't know. I. Don't. Remember." And then he went into the bathroom and slammed the door.

"Missing time to you, too," Mulder said, staring at the doorknob. Then he stripped down to his boxers and got into bed, and reached out for the remote before his mind reminded him that there was no remote. He turned on the bedside light instead, and lay staring at the light switch on the wall, hoping to develop telekinesis, until Krycek came back. "You didn't brush your teeth. Nasty habit, Krycek, no wonder you don't have a girlfriend." That got him a green glare. "It's in there somewhere," he waved a hand at the jumble at the foot of his bed.

Krycek, in sweatpants now, crouched down and rummaged through the pile. "Some people hang their clothes up so they don't get wrinkled." He disappeared into the bathroom again, but didn't slam the door this time. When he came back he turned off the overhead light before Mulder could ask him to, and got into bed. "You planning to sleep with the light on?"

"Maybe."

"Oh well. Good night," Krycek said in a resigned tone of voice, and turned over to lie with his back to Mulder. Silence followed his words, a silence that started between the two of them and seemed to spread through the room, through the house, through this little town. Mulder tried to hear something, anything: a car going past outside, laughter from the few remaining customers downstairs, Scully snoring next door.

There was nothing. It was a terribly peaceful night. And it had been a long time since he'd actually slept in a bed, with real sheets. The unfamiliar sensation of soft cotton against his skin distracted him. He curled up and longed for a mindless late-night talk show. It was so quiet. The only thing he could hear was Krycek breathing a few feet away. Mulder concentrated on that sound, and closed his eyes.

~~ ...falling, falling, twisted out of shape by the speed of it, all the bits of his self working loose and scattering in the fall... ~~

He sat bolt upright, teeth clenched, jaw aching. It seemed as if only a few seconds had passed since he'd last looked at this room. The light was still on, everything was the same. Krycek's bed was empty. Mulder had his feet on the floor before he realized that the man was standing over by the window. He got up anyway and padded over on bare feet.

"Don't you ever sleep?" he asked brusquely, looking out where there was nothing to be seen. Krycek, or whatever the hell his name was, turned his head and smiled faintly.

"You should talk." Then he shrugged. "Got any leftover sunflower seeds or something?"

"We did have dinner," Mulder said, failing to sound reproachful. There was something oddly endearing about the way Krycek ate. Besides, most of that dinner was lying by the side of the road now. "I think I have a couple of after-dinner mints somewhere."

Krycek grinned. Then, slowly, the grin faded. Light from the street fell across part of his face, highlighting a cheekbone, throwing long spiky eyelash shadows down his cheek. "You had a bad dream." The aching muscles in his shoulders and neck knotted further. Mulder shook his head. "I heard you."

"Did I wake you up?"

"No." Krycek shifted further, and now Mulder could see the thin lines of pain around his mouth, the way his eyes shied away from contact as though it burned. "I was already awake." What he had taken for stillness was as far from peace as it could get. At that recognition, paradoxically, the twisting sensation inside eased up a little. Instead of feeling grateful, he had to push.

"What is it?" he asked roughly. "The alien? The silo? The room down there, where you're alone and at the same time not alone, and time never moves and nothing ever happens?" A fine tremor ran through Krycek, and suddenly Mulder was more aware than before of the darkness around them, of the walls that seemed more there than moments ago. Maybe it was catching.

"You pay if I break the window, Mulder." Krycek's voice was barely under control, the thinnest of ice over a deep dark dangerous sea.

"Or do they hold you down in your dreams, and come for you with a knife?" Even as he said it he knew he'd gone too far. Hurting Krycek did not soothe his own pain, it was more like fighting fire with fire. "Does it happen over and over again, and you can't stop it—"

The sound of Krycek's hand slamming into the wall made him wince. He had expected it to hit him, had been prepared for it, had waited for it. Now he felt oddly cheated. Mulder reached out and put a hand on Krycek's shoulder, the left one. The man spun around to face him. "Maybe," and now the ice had broken up and the depths were there, "maybe I dream about killing your father." The room turned cold.

"You killed my father."

"Yes, I did." He hadn't really been expecting that clean answer and now that he got it, it made him feel strangely empty. Drained. He looked at the man standing there and felt he might as well be looking at an alien artifact, something he had no chance of comprehending. "Aren't you going to try to strangle me again?"

Mulder shook his head slowly. He drew a fingertip along the window pane, feeling the chill, willing it to numb him. "No." He looked at Krycek again. "You dream about that?" Krycek nodded. "Nightmares."

Another slow nod. "Yes." Mulder looked more closely at him. Alex Krycek, former Consortium assassin and all around villain, was crying. Silent tears slid down his face, and he ignored them to look back at Mulder for a moment, before walking away from the window and getting back into bed again.

And I thought it was me he was hurting, Mulder thought slowly. He stayed where he was for a moment and tried to regain his balance, but he couldn't remember if he'd ever had one, if this roller coaster ever went past a point called sanity and if there were instructions for how to stop it there. Outside in the street, more nothing happened. He walked towards his bed and sat down heavily. The silence was back, worse than before.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he ran his fingers through his hair and bit his lip. He was tired and irritable and confused, his head ached, and all he wanted was to lie down and go back to sleep, a deep dream-free sleep. But that dreadful silence wouldn't let him. It ate at him, at his pain and at his defenses, until he stood up unsteadily and took the few short steps across to the other bed, and tugged at the covers.

"Move over." Krycek looked up, eyes wide and startled, soundless tears still sliding down his face. "Move over," Mulder repeated, getting into bed beside the other man. He wrapped the covers around them both, and stole half the pillow from under Krycek's head. "Now shut up and go to sleep."

* * *

Ghosts III: I know my dear love

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