torch 1997

Disclaimer: The characters of Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Alex the rat babe Krycek, Walter Skinner and the gentleman with the nicotine habit belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. The rest of 'em are mine. The town of Leyden Creek does not exist outside of my imagination; the state of Virginia definitely does. This is a work of speculative fiction and no copyright infringement is intended. Thanks, as always, to Misha, Claire, Maria, Maeg and Cindy; I'm convinced I have the best beta readers and the most energetic naggers in the known universe. And a belated thanks to Jane M for providing the original inspiration for this story way back when. And thanks to everyone who's written nice things to me along the way, sniff, you're too good to me. I'm starting to sound like an Oscar winner so I'll shut up now. Oh, and I know that as of Small potatoes Mulder apparently doesn't have a bed, but he had one when I started the story and I can't very well take it away now. Comments are very welcome. Do not archive this story without permission.

Ghosts IV: But I don't know who I'll marry

"Not all that you want and ought not to want
Is forbidden to you,
Not all that you want and are allowed to want
Is acceptable.
Then it gets late on
And things change their value." — Brian Patten, Remembering

"Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?" — W H Auden, Twelve songs: XII

I'm dizzy as I stagger around the room, trying to find something dry to wear. Mulder is already outside, banging on Scully's door. I'm impressed by the way he's shifted gears, and I wish I could do the same, but my body is busy telling me how much it wants him, until I go into the bathroom and splash cold water on myself. I find a pair of jeans that are almost dry and brush the mud off. This will have to do.

While I get dressed I listen to Mulder telling Scully about the phone call from Larkin. Janet Clough has been found dead in her kitchen. A neighbor staying up late saw strange men leave the house without closing the door, and went to investigate. "We've got to get over there right away, Scully."

"Do you mind if I get dressed first?" The sound of her door closing makes me smile. I pull on the nearest sweater and pair of socks. My boots are still damp inside, but they're all I've got, unless I steal Mulder's running shoes. Which may not even fit me. I try one on. Not impossible. And most importantly, dry. I can take being hustled out of bed in the middle of the night. I may even be able to cope with not kissing Fox Mulder any more. But not if I have to wear wet boots as well. There are limits to my capacity for suffering, I think and curse silently at the shoe laces.

So I'm wearing my jacket and his shoes when I step out of the room into the small crowded hallway. I hand Mulder the cell phone he left lying inside the room and he takes it, fingers brushing against mine. I can't tell whether it's deliberate or not. Moments later, Scully appears, neat as always, looking a little paler without makeup. She's pulled her hair back into a ponytail to save time. It makes her look younger and more vulnerable, which I suppose is why she does it so rarely. I like it.

Mulder locks the door to our room, and the key goes in his left trenchcoat pocket. I've reached a point now where I can look at him without wanting to ravish him. Much. Instead I think about the death of Janet Clough. She must have known more than we gave her credit for, or she would still be alive. Mulder is probably kicking himself for not having spent more time on trying to winkle secrets out of her. He held back out of respect for her grief, even when it was obvious she had a connection with a certain gentleman who will remain nameless. Maybe I've overestimated his ruthlessness.

We troop downstairs as quietly as we can, then Mulder stops and looks annoyed. "We can't just walk out and leave the door unlocked."

"I'll lock it behind you. Just ring the bell when you want to be let back in, if it's before six thirty." The soft voice belongs to Laura Ann, who comes out of the kitchen, apron still in place. So I was right, she never sleeps. That's useful for us. Warm light spills out from the kitchen door, and I can smell cinnamon buns.

She lets us out and closes the door behind us again. The rain has faded into a gentle drizzle that barely gets my face damp. Scully found a parking spot right outside the diner last night, and we all get into the car to drive the short distance to the Cloughs' house. We could have walked, but I guess they don't want to risk the puddles, and I'm glad, because Mulder's running shoes would never have survived that. The sound of the car engine starting seems loud in this empty street and I look for windows lighting up as we pull out and drive away.

"Was the neighbor able to provide any kind of description of the men who left the house?" Scully asks, rounding a corner and sending up a spray of water.

"I don't know, Larkin was in a hurry. There's no street light close to the driveway. But the porch light might have been on." Mulder sounds hopeful. He glances up and our eyes meet in the rearview mirror. But only briefly. I can't hold that look; I have no idea what I want it to say.

I don't know if the bright, glittering feeling inside me is euphoria or terror. He kissed me. His mouth on mine was the most wonderful thing in the universe. It was like nothing else ever, and it's that awareness that unsettles me. All of me aches to touch and be touched again, as if nothing else is important. And I can't think like that now, and I know I can't, and I can't stop. My tongue can still taste him, and every pulse beat is a silent repetition of his name.

The porch light is on when we get there, but it could be that the police turned it on to be able to see better. The driveway is crowded with police cars. No, that's a slight exaggeration; there are only three of them, but in a town this size, that is a crowd. Nice, earnest policemen bustle this way and that. Lieutenant Anderson's team is here, too; I would have thought they'd have gone back to Norfolk by now.

Larkin meets us in the door. He is starting to look harried, and no wonder. His little town has become the setting for the current battle in the war between the consortium and two Federal agents. Although I know I'm exaggerating when I call it a war. To Mulder it's a crusade, to Scully it's a mission, but to the consortium it's a game, annoying or entertaining, depending on who you ask. They take it seriously, because they take everything seriously. But it is a small part of a very large picture.

"Come inside and take a look," Larkin says, shepherding us through the hall. By now he's so accustomed to my presence, he doesn't even give me a second look. Looking around, I try to pin down what it all reminds me of, what is causing the slight feeling of unreality. Yes, that's it. This house used to be a home; now Annie is dead, her mother has been shot, her father is in jail. The rooms are nothing more than the setting for a tragedy, and there is no normal way of moving through them. This is how I felt when I waited behind walls that had lost their ability to give shelter, waited with a gun in my hand for someone to come through the door. All the connotations have changed. No place is safe.

Mrs. Clough's body is still lying on the kitchen floor. She's been shot twice, through the head and through the heart. Scully drops to her knees, making professional noises. I try to blend into the wallpaper as I study the scene. The weapon was found by the body. I don't need to look at that. I know exactly what happened here; I've done it myself. What I need to figure out is why. Why her and not me? She knew things, and perhaps she had to be silenced, but I'm a far greater threat to their security, and they know I'm here. Still nothing has happened since Clough's pathetic attempt yesterday.

There are no Morley butts in the sink now. He wouldn't have been here when it happened. I wonder who did the clean-up. Mulder is talking to Larkin, getting a quick run-down of everything that has happened since the neighbor made his call. So far they've found nothing. Body, gun, blood. The gun's already been taken away for testing. I smile a little to myself; I know they have to do it, and I know what they'll find. Yes, this is the gun that was used to shoot Janet Clough; no, there are no fingerprints on it. No clue anywhere, nothing that might give away anyone's identity. After Cardinale's carelessness, they've stepped up security. Don't spit on anyone as you leave, guys.

The calendar with the floral prints is still in place. I wonder whether the collage of vacation photos was destroyed, or if by any chance it's been hidden away somewhere in the house. I wouldn't mind looking for it. Not that it proves anything, of course. That's the hell of it, and I start to get a glimpse of the frustration Mulder must experience nearly every time he's on a case. No wonder he takes his hunches so seriously; it's the only way to move past the infuriating lack of evidence.

I look at him. He's listening to Larkin, questioning him now and then, his face beautifully solemn and intense. It's good to watch him when he doesn't know I'm looking, to see him as he might appear to other people. Just a man standing there. But then he turns his head a fraction and his eyes meet mine again. And I forget to breathe.

It's not the same feeling any more. It's not the slippery slide and pull of desire, the awareness that I must have him, somehow. This is different, darker and deeper; it overshadows everything I normally think of as reality. I wouldn't be surprised if they all vanished, the cops, Larkin and Scully, the corpse, the house, to leave us alone with whatever strange energy it is that pulses between us. This is what I thought of as obsession. He can insinuate himself into every thought, every dream, and I can't stop it. If I ever had any kind of protection against this, it's gone now.

Then his face turns carefully blank, and I move away from the wall, walk over to Scully and crouch down next to her. She greets me with a raised eyebrow and goes on working. "Death was virtually instantaneous," she tells me quietly, "and there was almost no time between the shot to the heart and that to the head."

"They don't waste anything. Time or effort." I look dispassionately at the dead woman. "I wonder if they took anything from the house before they left."

"Like what?" Scully is interested, although she doesn't interrupt what she's doing. "Do you think she had anything incriminating in her possession?"

I shrug. "Probably not. Probably the only dangerous information she had was in her head. I was thinking they might have taken valuables to make it look like a robbery. But there's nothing out of place here that I can see."

"You might want to check the living room and the bedroom," Scully suggests. I nod and straighten up, and head out of the kitchen. Anderson and her team are busy going over the door, checking for prints, signs of damage to the lock. I'm not sure they're going to find anything. This is the kind of town where people don't lock their front doors much, particularly not if they're home. She turns her head as I walk by and gives me a small nod of acknowledgment, very serious. The other members of the team are either scowling or yawning. I don't know why they're here.

There are people in the living room, and so I head upstairs first. All the doors are standing ajar, and I push the first one open with my shoulder, trying to avoid damaging any possible prints. Not that I think there will be any. The tidy bathroom holds nothing of interest and doesn't appear to have been disturbed, so I move on.

The second room was Annie's. I pause in the doorway and wonder if she kept it this neat or if her mother imposed this rigid order after her daughter's death. There's a small pile of books on the bedside table and a pink plush bunny leaning against the headboard. It all looks so innocent, it's hard to imagine Annie and Linda making love here. Perhaps they never did. When I look around I see that one patch of the wall over by the window looks different. I walk over and find a square of wallpaper that hasn't been bleached by the sun. Something used to hang here; to judge by the size, it might well have been the calendar that replaced the photos in the kitchen.

"What are you doing?" I turn around and see Mulder by the door. He's backlit by the hall lamp and I can't see his face.

"Admiring the wallpaper. What time did the neighbor see them leaving?" When I walk back across the room he steps out into the hall, keeping a distance between us. I follow him and make for the next door. Storage room, and apparently untouched.

"About an hour ago now. Do you think you're going to find anything in there?" Now he comes a little closer, looking over my shoulder. I lock my knees to stop them from shaking.

"Not really. The calendar in the kitchen used to hang in Annie's room. Janet Clough was fully dressed, did you notice? Same clothes as yesterday. Either she never went to bed, or she got up in the middle of the night and put her clothes back on before they arrived."

"With her daughter dead and her husband in prison, I'd say she had sufficient reasons to be suffering from insomnia." Mulder moves away as I turn around, and he's the one to push the next door open. This is the master bedroom, and it looks untouched as well. No sign that anyone's slept in the bed, either, so I guess Mulder is right.

"I wanted to see if they'd faked a burglary," I say, "but it doesn't look like it."

"Doesn't look like they searched the place either," Mulder comments. "There might be something somewhere." And with those vague words as our inspiration, we start to search the rooms ourselves.

It's hopeless, of course. We don't know what we're looking for, so what we get is nothing. Nothing incriminating, nothing even remotely interesting. Certainly not the missing picture from the kitchen. All I find, as we go from room to room, is that Mulder keeps a careful, deliberate distance from me at all times. He's got that look on his face, the 'don't ask, I'm all right' look that means he's anything but. Scully's bound to see it.

Digging through the top shelf of a closet, I wonder what to do about it. If there's anything I can do. I'm humming to myself without conscious thought as I work, until Mulder clears his throat and asks, "Are you making a political statement here, Krycek?"

Then the words filter through. "Soyuz nerusyimyi respublik svobodnych splotila naveki velikaya Rus..." I start to laugh. Well, it's a catchy tune. "No."

He laughs, too, but then the laughter is gone in an instant to be replaced by That Look. I want to talk to him, ask him... I don't know what I want to ask him. Maybe all I really want to know is if I can hold him again. We're back in Annie's bedroom, and he straightens up after having examined the contents of her desk drawers. It isn't until he turns his head to look at me that I realize how closely I'm watching him. I've been doing it like breathing, not thinking about it. Now I walk towards him, still not thinking about it, and put my hand on his arm.

He holds still for all of a second, maybe. Then he shakes his head in one single sharp movement and steps away. He doesn't say anything, doesn't have to. I stand where I am for a moment and watch as he goes out into the hallway and down the stairs. When I follow, slowly, I'm walking on broken glass.

Downstairs, Anderson's team has cleared out and Janet Clough's body has been taken away. Larkin is standing in the kitchen like Dido amidst the ruins of Carthage, contemplating the blood stains on the floor with suicidal desperation. At first I can't see Scully, and then she comes out of the living room, carrying a stack of magazines. "Mulder, take a look at these." She sees me coming down behind him, gestures at me to come and look too. So I do, ignoring the way Mulder shifts to keep Scully between us.

"What about them?" he says. They're science journals, some of them glossy and popular, others academic and badly typeset. And I know why she's picked them out. I recognize most of them, not just the journals but the actual issues.

"They all feature articles by Andrew Davis," she explains, flipping the pages to show us. "It seems odd that the Cloughs would have these old magazines lying around unless there was a connection."

"Maybe they're just really interested in biology." The reversed roles seem to amuse them and they share a brief smile. "There's nothing more recent?" She shakes her head, and Mulder takes one of the journals out of her hands and looks through it idly.

"I realize it proves nothing." Scully puts the pile down on the hall table. She straightens her back, a small movement that would have been a stretch in anyone else. "But it suggests a relationship of some kind between the Cloughs and Dr. Davis, beyond the merely professional. Add that to the photograph you saw in the kitchen—"

"Yeah, they knew him. But it doesn't get us anywhere."

"It gives us something to ask Siward Clough about," Scully says briskly. She taps the magazines with one finger. "He might not even know about his wife's denial. And—"

"Oh, hell," Mulder says almost inaudibly. He looks as though he's about to hit himself. "Scully, I'm such an idiot. God — damn — it—" He takes a step away and then a step back again. "Skeat told us, Scully. He said Annie Clough had gone to Davis before she came to him. We could have confronted Janet Clough with the truth right away. It was in Annie's medical records."

"Maybe that's why she's dead," I say. He shoots me an annoyed look and I raise my hand. "No, wait. Janet Clough wasn't much of a liar, and they must have known that we'd put two and two together sooner or later." I can't believe it either; I wonder what we were thinking. "If she'd been forced to lie, as opposed to just deny everything, she probably would've made a slip. So they had her killed."

"But now that we know, we can still ask—" Mulder breaks off. All three of us head for the kitchen at the same moment, with the grace and coordination of the Three Stooges. Scully and I stumble against each other and have to pause to get untangled, so Mulder gets there first, and when we get through the open door he's already grabbed Larkin by the arm. "Do you have anyone watching Clough? Call in, make sure they've got a guard on him. His life's in danger."

Larkin looks startled. "How do you know that?" he demands to know, but when Mulder pushes the cell phone at him, he takes it and dials.

I lean back against the wall by the door and watch the scene with an attempt at detachment. There's so much on my mind. My thoughts refuse to flow smoothly, and every tangle I try to unravel has Fox Mulder at its center. Being with him has turned out to be more complicated and more painful than being without him. But I knew as much when I left St Petersburg. I knew, and I did it anyway. Pressing my lips together, I hold the pain down.

A hand touches my arm. "Are you all right?" Scully is standing so close she has to tilt her head back uncomfortably to look up at me. She's wearing her doctor face, assessing me thoughtfully, but there's no underlying accusation, no deep Ice Queen chill. And I stare at her, speechless. "Does your leg hurt?"

I try biting my lower lip this time, I bite down on it till it bleeds, but it doesn't help. I open my mouth to tell her that I once stood in her living room and waited for her with a loaded gun the way someone waited for Janet Clough tonight, and she has to stop looking at me like that. A sound from Larkin drags me back from that precipice. He's staring at the cellular, his jaw working, color rising from annoyance to near-apoplexy. "Dammit!" He looks wildly at Mulder and pulls his arm back, intending to throw the phone against the wall.

Mulder steps forward and relieves him of it. "What is it?" he asks tensely. "What's happened? Didn't they find Clough?"

"They found him all right." Larkin's voice is bitter. "Found him in the cell. Strangled." He breaks into profanity, then stops just as suddenly with a guilty and frustrated look at Scully. "Did you know this would happen?" Larkin rounds on Mulder again. "Couldn't you have said something earlier?"

"I should have." And he means it, too. It comes so naturally to him to believe that everything is his fault. Conditioning, I think. Train them early and train them hard. They did give me extensive files on him. Oh, they told me everything about him. Except what he is. Except what he could be, which they never guessed, a sweet raging fire, burning through me.

I shiver, and Scully's fingers tighten on my arm for a moment. She thinks I'm not well. She's right. "Did anyone see anything?" she asks crisply. "Is there any chance that the fatal injuries were self-inflicted?"

"Hell, I don't know." Larkin's shoulders slump. "Lou just said he was lying in there with a belt round his neck." Crude, I think, very crude. Scully lets go of me and steps forward.

"I'd like to view the body," she says. "We'd better hurry, before someone attempts to move him." Mulder nods and they both head for the door.

I linger behind for a moment, looking at Larkin. Clough was his friend; then his friend went berserk and blew up a barn and shot a police officer; now his friend is dead. Larkin must have seen his fair share of violent and senseless behavior even in this seemingly peaceful corner of Virginia, but I know this is different. It's always different when it's someone you know. Someone you never expected to act that way. Larkin's feeling betrayed. He never had an idea what Clough was up to, all that time. He'll probably never know what went on and how the man was pressured into acting the way he did.

Larkin straightens up with an effort and looks at me. "Let's go, then," he says, unable to inject any energy into his voice. I nod, and walk ahead of him out of the kitchen.

* * *

He stayed silent during the drive back to the police station, and after a few attempts at speculation about Siward Clough's death, Scully fell silent, too. Krycek was, surprisingly, riding in the police car with Steve Larkin. Mulder felt grateful for that. He needed a few moments of distance and quiet to try to collect himself. The deaths of Janet and Siward Clough deserved his full attention, and when he was close to Krycek his thoughts scattered like startled sheep.

The more he tried not to dwell on it, the more insistently it pushed its way to the top of his mind. He'd never kissed anyone like that before. He'd never been kissed like that before, with such tender ferocity. Alex Krycek. Oh, dear God. Mulder closed his eyes and very deliberately conjured up the memory of a bathroom floor, a cool night breeze, his father dying in his arms. His muscles clenched and a violent quiver ran along his legs, cramped his stomach, made his arms and hands shake. Alex Krycek.

"Scully," he said through his teeth, "stop the car, just stop the car a moment." When she pulled over, he struggled out of the seat belt, flung the door open, half fell outside and was sick. Talk about being distracted, he thought with black humor even as he retched and coughed.

"Mulder!" She got out of the car on her side and came around to hand him a tissue to wipe his mouth on. "Are you feeling ill, too? I think Krycek's got something, he didn't look too good back there in the kitchen."

Oh, but he did, Mulder thought and tried to spit the sour taste out of his mouth. Far too good. He breathed slowly, straightening up to lean against the car, clutching the tissue tight as if it could support him. The muscle cramps in his stomach gradually gave way to a distant ache, mild nausea. It hadn't happened when they'd gone through the house, hadn't happened when Krycek touched him up there in Annie Clough's bedroom. When he thought about that now he couldn't hold back another shivering muscle spasm.

"I'm not ill," he told Scully, and watched the way she looked at him. "I'm all right now."

"Mulder, you're practically green. Sit down." She pushed him firmly down to sit on the passenger seat again, but when she attempted to lift his legs inside he scowled at her and moved by himself. Scully closed the door and went around the car. She rummaged in the back seat for a while, then got in next to him and handed him a small plastic bottle of Evian, half full. "Here."

He rolled the window down so he could rinse his mouth and spit, then drank. The water was lukewarm and tasted faintly of plastic, but it settled him a bit. Mulder leaned back in the car seat. "We have to get to the police station, Scully. They could be moving Clough by now, destroying evidence."

"Larkin and Krycek will stop them. How do you feel now?" She put a hand to his forehead.

"Like a complete idiot." When he closed his eyes again he didn't see his father, he saw Krycek, eyes dark and shining, lips slightly parted. This time he was a little better prepared, and hunched forward around the wrenching ache as his stomach clenched again, arms wrapped tight, trying to keep the pain in.

"If you're going to be sick again, open the car door," he heard Scully say, but her voice sounded far away. Breathe. Remember to breathe. He had no time for this. And he wasn't going to be sick again. Not even over the fact that only a few hours earlier, he'd wanted nothing in the world beyond another kiss from the man who'd admitted to killing his father. Delayed shock, a distant corner of his mind said.

After some more long, slow breaths, the cramps ceased again and he could sit up properly and look at Scully. She was even more worried now; not that she hadn't seen him in worse states, but then it was usually with a good reason. This time, he couldn't tell her what it was that wrenched at him, couldn't give a glib name to the sickness that still lurked inside. There was no subtle contagion at work. He had done it all of his own free will. And he wanted, had wanted so much more. Remembering the deep heat of his own desire, he bit down on a sound of desperate anger and clenched his hand instead of beating it against the car door.

"Let's get going," he said, and overrode the beginning of a concerned protest with, "We can't sit here all night. Morning. I feel better now. I'll take it easy."

Scully started the car, and not until they were back on the road did she look at him again, a measured sideways look that still held concern, but steely determination as well. "I'm going to take a good look at you when we get there," she said.

"Siward Clough first," he reminded her. "I'm fine. Just something that didn't agree with me." Only it had, then. It had been beyond wonderful, that open, hot, eager response to his hesitant approach. And for long moments, nothing had been wrong with the world at all.

Well, Mulder told himself coldly, Krycek was attractive, there was no denying that, and it had been stupid as hell to share a bed with him. It wouldn't happen again, and that was all there was to it. It wouldn't happen again... because he'd had no defenses, waking up like that, warm and close in the intimacy of darkness, touching. He'd slept next to Krycek, and felt safe. He was insane. That wouldn't happen again.

When they got to the police station Mulder could see the first signs of a hesitant dawn. It showed him a bleak world, which suited him well. He slammed the car door and strode across the sidewalk with long steps; Scully half ran to keep up with him. It wasn't raining, and a deep breath confirmed that the air held that shimmering after-the-rain smell. Not so bleak after all. He went in through the door and found Krycek waiting in the hall, looking anxious; when he caught sight of Mulder and Scully his face lit up.

And something inside Mulder twisted and turned over yet again, so that he reached out and almost clutched at the wall, to stop himself from reaching out for Krycek. Could he trust nothing, then, not even the strength of his own resolve? Scully went past him. "You should sit down," she told him severely, and headed down the hall to where Larkin stood in earnest discussion with Lou and a couple of others.

"Clough's still in the cell," Krycek volunteered, not coming any closer, sticking to his own wall. "We got back here just in time to stop them from moving him. Do you need to sit down, or do you want to go take a look at him? It's pretty obvious he didn't do it himself."

"You've seen the body?" Mulder asked stupidly.

"With Larkin. I stuck with him, and he took me right into the cell." Krycek seemed quite aware of the irony. He smiled a little before he went on, "But if you're not feeling all right..."

"I'm fine," Mulder said in a curt voice and made himself abandon the support of the door frame. That made him feel slightly dizzy and his mouth kept moving. "I'm just in the 'before' stage 'cause I haven't had my morning cup of coffee yet. Once I get that my hair will be combed, my shirt will be ironed and I'll be able to recite the times table up to twelve, and the principal exports of Brazil."

"Where the nuts come from," Krycek said with another faint smile. He looked sidelong at Mulder through his lashes, and Mulder found himself holding his breath, waiting for what Krycek might say. But it turned out to be, "Come on, then, the cell's through there and we can grab some coffee on the way."

The coffee was awful, but Mulder held on to the styrofoam cup as Krycek led him down another dingy hallway. Security seemed to be an alien concept here. Fifty assassins could have come and gone with no one the wiser. If he clutched the cup any harder it would come apart in his hands.

"Krycek." Alex slowed down and looked inquiringly over his shoulder. Now that he had the man's attention, Mulder didn't know what to do. He cast about wildly for something to say, something that would distract him from his churning stomach and his churning thoughts. The first thing that came to mind was, "Why haven't they tried to kill you?"

"I don't know," Krycek said in a low voice. "I guess someone's decided that I can be useful somehow. And that worries me a bit."

Mulder nodded slowly. "There was Clough, but—" Then he broke off and looked more closely at Krycek. "Damn. That was clever. They were trying to get rid of him, so they sent him to kill you."

Krycek looked startled. "I told you, he could never have killed me. — Oh."

"Exactly." Mulder paused for a moment. "It's still damn risky. How do they know you haven't allied yourself with us, that you're not going to testify against them?"

A shadow of a smile crossed Krycek's face. "Because they know I know what they're capable of, and because nearly everything I've witnessed or been part of implicates me as much as it does them." He looked around quickly to make sure they weren't being overheard before going on, "Plea bargaining would never work. And even if I miraculously got a suspended sentence—" He broke off.

"What?" Mulder prompted him. He was starting to feel a little sick again, listening to Krycek's assessment of his own degree of guilt.

Krycek looked away. "It's a bit odd to be discussing this with you, of all people." He didn't fidget, exactly, but his shoulders moved under the leather of his jacket. "I was going to say, I'd rather kill myself than be locked up, but they don't know that."

The tone of Krycek's voice was so unbearably casual that Mulder couldn't doubt he was telling the truth. He thought about Krycek's reactions in the barn, and imagined the reaction to a prison sentence. Then he clenched his jaw, not knowing how to brace himself against all the different emotions that were battling for supremacy inside him. He was drifting, he thought desperately, losing his bearings. Had to get things straight. "Let's go look at Clough," he said.

There was a brief pause before Krycek answered. "All right. Mulder, you're spilling coffee on your trenchcoat."

He dabbed inefficiently at it with a crumpled kleenex as they walked on down the hall. Inside the small cell, Scully had just concluded her examination of the body and was straightening up, her face serious. Mulder barely noticed that Clough's face was a dark purplish blue or that his tongue protruded between swollen lips. He'd seen bodies that looked a lot worse. Smelled worse, too, although Clough was wearing the same muddy, urine-stained clothes. "Well?" he said.

She stripped off the thin latex gloves she'd procured from God knew where and turned towards him. "He was strangled between four fifteen, when the guard last looked in on him, and four fifty-five, when Larkin called and Lou went to find him," she said. "The leather belt isn't his own. The leather is old and cracked and probably won't show fingerprints, even partials, but the buckle might. There is no possibility that he might have done it himself. The belt was looped around his neck and pulled tight from behind with considerable force. Marks on the skin and a couple of dislocated vertebrae indicate that the assailant braced himself with a knee against the back of the deceased, but strangulation was definitely the cause of death."

Mulder made a face. He looked at Clough and felt a sensation more of depression than distaste. Remembering Clyde Bruckman's words about auto-erotic asphyxiation, he shook his head. Oh no. No way. "And no one saw anything." It was a statement, not a question.

"No." That was Lou, peeking in over Krycek's shoulder. "And we haven't discovered where the killer found keys to the cell, either." Lou seemed more frustrated by that than by the death of Siward Clough. Not even Scully's presence could bring out a smile. "I didn't see or hear anything, but I had the printer running most of the time."

The sound of a cell phone ringing was unexpected. Mulder and Scully both reacted to it, but it was his phone. Stepping out into the corridor, he answered it with half his attention still concentrated on Siward and Janet Clough. Maybe it was Skinner wondering why he hadn't delivered the frequent reports he'd promised. "Mulder."

"Agent Mulder. I trust you are well." His spine snapped to rigid attention. "I would like to have a word with your young friend... Carstairs."

That voice was unmistakable. Mulder bit back a curse. He wondered whether he should simply hang up, but any information was better than no information. "What do you want from him?" he asked.

"Nothing," the ironic cheerfulness bit deep, "I merely want to offer him some advice. Advice that might be beneficial both to his career and his health. Give him the phone, Agent Mulder. Now."

Curses wouldn't do him any good, and sticking his tongue out at the phone certainly wouldn't have any effect. Mulder held the cell out to Alex, who raised an eyebrow. He mimed taking a drag from a cigarette, and a muscle in Krycek's jaw jumped as he took the phone.

"Yes." A lengthy silence followed, as Krycek's brows drew together and his eyes narrowed. Mulder watched him tensely, trying to tell what was happening, what the black-lunged smear of sewage scum was saying. But after the first faint frown, Krycek's face turned unreadable. He pressed his lips firmly together and looked down at the floor, lids and lashes all but hiding his eyes.

Scully came out of the cell and looked from Krycek to Mulder, coming to stand by his side. "What's going on?" she asked quietly.

"We've got the Morley Man on the phone," Mulder told her. "Called up and asked for Carstairs. And I'm starting to wonder just what kind of career advice he's offering." Scully's eyes widened slightly, and Mulder stepped forward and reached a hand out to take the phone away from Krycek. Krycek shook his head and turned away, still listening. "Tell him I want to talk to him."

Krycek raised an eyebrow and drew breath to say something, then paused. His brows drew together again; he lowered the cellular and looked at it with distaste before handing it back to Mulder. "He hung up. Sorry." The expression on Krycek's face was that of someone who's taken a shortcut across a cow pasture and stepped in the wrong spot. His eyes flicked towards Lou, who was standing in the cell door, arm in a decorative sling.

"Where's Larkin?" Mulder asked.

"At his desk," Lou said, "trying to organize a search for the killers. Is it all right if we move the body now?"

"Yes," Scully said. "I think you should do that." They all waited in tense, awkward silence as Lou walked off, rather reluctantly, to arrange for Siward Clough's body to be taken to a more suitable location. As soon as Lou was out of earshot, Scully asked, "What did he say?"

Krycek shrugged. "Not much — no, really. He has a way of conveying a multitude of implications while never saying anything truly incriminating. I know he's behind this, but even if we'd taped the conversation there was nothing that would have given him away."

"He said he wanted to advise you on your health," Mulder said.

"He asked me if I wanted to stay alive." Krycek didn't look as concerned at that as he had while they had only been speculating earlier. It was as though he was more comfortable with a definite threat than with an unseen menace. "Said this case is over, that nothing more will happen and nothing else will be discovered, and it's up to me to convince you two of that."

Mulder opened his mouth to say that he was not going to let himself be manipulated by a gray-faced man in a cloud of smoke, and then he put two and two together. He looked at Krycek for a long moment. "What do you think he's counting on?" he asked. "That we'll back off to save your life, or that we'll go ahead and give him a good reason to have you killed?"

Scully looked up, startled; then she, too, saw what Krycek's statements added up to, and her eyes darkened with anger and distaste. Tilting his head to one side, Krycek appeared to consider the matter objectively. "It probably doesn't matter to him," he said finally. "Whatever clean-up operation has been going on is probably in its final stages by now. I don't think you'll find much if you go ahead. But he'll probably be pleased if you do."

"Just so he can have you killed?" Scully asked, sounding slightly incredulous.

"No." Krycek shook his head and now he was, unbelievably enough, smiling slightly. "That it happens to be me is just a bonus. But he would love to see you two decide to sacrifice a human life in order to try to find the truth. Once you believe that the ends justify the means, once you start acting on that belief—"

Scully looked revolted. Maybe it was her turn to be sick now, Mulder thought. He didn't feel too good himself. Not that he would have said 'good riddance' and gone ahead, no matter what. But there were ways of getting around threats, offering witness protection, round the clock guards. The kind of thing he would have tried to offer Janet Clough. "He wants to corrupt us," Scully said. "We could try to keep you safe. But—"

The presence of Siward Clough in the cell behind them needed no words. Mulder leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. He was outmaneuvered, they all were. This case report was going to be hell. Skinner would flay them both.

Scully was too angry to stand still. She set off down the hallway, her heels clicking with a regular, determined sound that usually cheered Mulder up. Now he heard her go and his stomach clenched up again. Things had fallen apart so suddenly, and he couldn't even manage to breathe life into the few flickering sparks of emotion inside. He felt lost. When he opened his eyes again, Alex Krycek was watching him. The impact of that green gaze produced a sensation not unlike jumping out of a plane and wondering if you've remembered to put on a parachute.

Mulder didn't move as Krycek crossed the hallway and came to stand right in front of him. Close. Very close. Krycek reached up and touched his cheek gently, and instead of flinching away, Mulder let those warm fingers coax the sparks into an uncertain flame. All his muscles were clenching and unclenching, not just his stomach. He hoped he wasn't going to be sick again.

"I'm sorry," Krycek said seriously, and leaned in and kissed him.

This was a careful kiss, almost polite in its precision, tasting more of comfort than anything else just at first. For a moment he thought it was going to end like that, too. And then the pressure returned, increased, and a tongue found its way past his lips. Mulder shivered so hard he thought his spine would shatter, just like Siward Clough's. Clough lay dead on the other side of this wall, and here he was kissing — kissing— His hands came up to catch at Krycek, push him away. Pull him closer. It was insanity, here in this drab hallway with its gray concrete floor. And he couldn't stop. He'd sworn it would never happen again, and he couldn't stop.

It was Krycek who drew back, and Mulder tried hard not to give voice to the sound of protest that rose to his lips. "Don't," he found himself saying, "don't," and what he meant was, don't stop. When Krycek shifted backwards, Mulder kept hold of him, refused to let him go. He kept expecting to hear Larkin's heavy footsteps, or Scully's quick light ones. Someone would come. He didn't care.

"Are you feeling all right? You've been sick." Mulder felt his cheeks heat at that. So he had. He must taste like— "I think you have a fever." Krycek pressed the back of his hand against Mulder's forehead. "You should get Scully to take a look at you."

"I will. She will." He did feel light-headed. Dizzy. Mulder ran one hand up Krycek's back, curved his fingers around the back of Krycek's head and pulled him in again, and kissed him until Krycek lost all caution and kissed him back just as wildly. Body pressed against body, trying to get closer than what was physically possible. The only thing holding him upright was the wall at his back. Did he have a fever? Oh, yes. He felt at once terrible and elated.

The sound of returning footsteps broke them apart finally, but it was neither Larkin nor Scully. Lou looked apologetic. "Agent Scully is asking for you, and—"

"I'll be right along," Mulder said, well aware of how he must look, all mussed up and leaning against the wall, his mouth probably with the same slightly moist and swollen look as Krycek's, his face just as flushed. Lou did not look particularly surprised, or shocked. In fact, Lou shot Krycek a look that could almost be described as conspiratorial before turning around and heading back again. With an effort, Mulder made himself stand upright. His head was spinning, and he wasn't sure if it was the after-effect of Krycek's kisses or this fever he kept mentioning. "Maybe someone's been drugging my water supply again."

"Mulder, you've caught cold," Krycek said, sounding amused. "You got soaked to the skin yesterday. Get Scully to give you some pills, salicylic acid or paracetamol or whatever you prefer."

They followed after Lou. Mulder resented the implication that he wasn't thinking clearly, and he wanted to talk to Krycek, but he still couldn't think of exactly what it was he wanted to say. It could wait, he supposed, while he found out what Scully was up to; he walked in to find her perched on a corner of Larkin's desk, flipping through papers. Krycek vanished in the direction of the men's room.

When Scully caught sight of him, she got to her feet, took his arm, and tried to push him down into Larkin's desk chair. Mulder resisted, even as she reached up and felt his forehead. He wondered if he should start charging people for that. "Sit down. I'll give you something—"

"Scully, I feel fine."

"You'll feel even better when you've taken something for that fever." She looked up at him. "Don't be unreasonable, Mulder. It's in your own best interests to have a clear mind when you're dealing with a case, and you damn well know it."

The unexpected profanity distracted him enough that he actually sat down and accepted the pills and the cup of water she offered him. Scully was right, he definitely needed a clear mind. He doubted that a couple of aspirin were going to help; Krycek burned under his skin. But he swallowed the pills anyway, downed the water and sat for a while watching Scully work her way efficiently through the stack of papers on Larkin's desk.

That reminded him that he had no memory of where he had put the file on the deaths of Andrew and Margaret Davis. With any luck it was still in the room at Laura Ann's, but he couldn't entirely make himself believe that. And he'd put nearly all his own case notes in that file. "I hate being blackmailed," he said angrily.

Scully nodded. "And we don't even have a good explanation for the car accidents that brought us down here in the first place."

"I saw the ghosts, Scully," he contradicted her. The memory of it was enough to send another chill through him. He wondered if they were laid to rest now or if they would come back. The resumed project had obviously been cancelled yet again — if that had been their intention. And they had seen their son. What kind of communication had taken place between the ghosts and Alex Krycek was still unclear, but it had to mean something that they had changed their appearance for him. "We both saw the ghosts," there were people around him who might be listening, so he used the alias, "Carstairs and I."

The look she shot him said that she was nowhere near believing that, but to his surprise, she didn't start arguing the point. Instead she said, "That's our next problem. Carstairs." Another ripple of muscle cramp made itself felt. Scully dropped her voice. "What are we going to do with him, Mulder? You said you hated being blackmailed. He's helped us on this case, but I don't know what he's planning to do now. By rights we should have arrested him days ago. But..." She didn't finish the sentence, just looked at him.

She couldn't know, of course. There was no way she could know. There was nothing to know, he tried to tell himself. But Krycek, the question of what to do with Krycek — it would have been complicated even without the additional tangles Mulder found himself caught in.

"I don't know," he said, aware that he sounded tired and depressed, hoping she would attribute it to this damn cold. Krycek. Krycek, who killed Mulder's father. Krycek, who let them take Scully away and hurt her. Krycek, who was blackmailing him. Who should suffer for that. Krycek, who had faced the ghosts of his parents, and cried in Mulder's arms. Krycek, who would rather die than go to prison; Krycek, whose mouth tasted like cinnamon and candle-flames. "I don't know."

Scully's view of the problem had to be less complicated. She had just as many reasons as he to hate Krycek, and didn't suffer from Mulder's peculiar personal involvement. All the same, there was a certain hesitation in her manner. Maybe, Mulder's mind offered in a flash of lucid objectivity, it was some kind of Stockholm syndrome in reverse manifesting itself. Krycek had been in their power, despite the blackmail threat. It was hard to hate someone who seemed to trust you and depend on you. Scully did not kick puppies; she had a compassionate heart.

But no matter what side of himself Krycek had shown over the past couple of days, he was no sweet innocent. The man was a confessed killer and a former double agent — at least, his mind added cautiously — whose involvement in the whole shadowy conspiracy was certain, even if the extent of it was unclear.

"First we need to decide what to do here," Scully said. "Larkin wants to track the killers, of course. It's not really our case. At least, it's not what we originally came here to investigate."

Mulder tried to get all his thoughts moving in the same direction. "They've had hours to disappear," he said. "And we don't have anything to track them by, no descriptions, nothing to give away their identities, not so much as a license plate. Not that that would help," he added bitterly. "What we might do is get a look inside that storage facility in Manassas." His phone rang and he checked his watch as he answered it. Office hours. "Mulder."

It was, of course, AD Skinner. "Agent Mulder, your idea of regular progress reports leaves much to be desired."

"I'm sorry, sir. We've been busy here. Two of our suspects were murdered this morning."

If he thought that statement would check Skinner even slightly, he was wrong. "Mulder, I've been given to understand that you have Alex Krycek with you. Is that true?" Stunned speechless for a fraction of a second, he stared at the wall opposite. "Is it? Agent Mulder, you should bring him in. He is in possession of vital information—"

"I know," Mulder said, "that's the problem." It didn't matter that he had admitted to Skinner with those words that Krycek was here; Skinner already knew, had known since the day before yesterday. That the AD was asking about it now had to mean something else. "Sir, has someone been suggesting things to you again?"

"Maybe," Skinner said tersely. "Bring him in, Mulder. Better yet, put him on the phone right now, if you think he can be civilized about it." Looking around, Mulder realized that Krycek hadn't come back yet from the men's room. He doubted it was because of constipation. He frowned, and Scully caught it from him. "Mulder?"

"I'm looking for him, sir," he said, got to his feet and strode out of the room. The men's room was an echoing, white-tiled emptiness, and when he got out of there again, he almost ran into Lou in the hallway. "Have you seen Carstairs?"

"He went across the street to get something from his room at Laura Ann's," Lou said, nodding towards the door. Mulder made for the door, phone still in hand, buzzing with Skinner's unheard questions. The street was empty and clean in the early morning light and he ran across it, opened the jangling door and entered the comfortable breakfast hum of the diner.

Laura Ann came out of the kitchen to meet him and waved a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs enticingly under his nose. The smell made his stomach clench up for the hundredth time this morning. "Where is he?" he asked abruptly. "Upstairs?"

She raised an eyebrow. "I haven't seen him since you all left together," she said. Mulder looked at her a moment longer, then turned away abruptly and headed for the stairs. He ran up and felt his heart beat much too fast. The door to their room was still locked, and he had the key. Despite that, he went inside just to be certain. Everything looked just as it had when they'd left it, the piles of clothing, the messed-up bed. Krycek's boots stood on the floor looking lost. The bathroom door stood ajar, but there was nothing but emptiness behind it.

Mulder sank down on the bed for a moment. He put his hand on the pillow, let his fingertips drift across the cotton with the lightest touch he could manage. It felt almost rough. The heated dizziness in him was turning into a dull pounding ache that started at his temples and sent heavy waves rolling through his skull whenever he turned his head. And there was a faint buzzing sound... oh, Skinner on the cell phone.

"Sir?" Skinner didn't answer, so Mulder held the phone to his ear and tried again. "Sir? He's disappeared."

Skinner didn't actually swear at him, but came very close during the following few minutes. After a while, Mulder stopped listening, got to his feet, and walked out of the room, remembering to lock it. When he got downstairs, Skinner seemed to be winding up, and Scully was there, waiting. He handed her the phone, and she took it after giving him a wary look. Mulder wanted to tell her there was no need for that; Skinner would be nice to her, she hadn't lost Alex Krycek. Well, actually, she had. Just not the same way Mulder had.

While Scully attempted to get a few words in, Mulder found himself leaning against the wall by the noticeboard. He tried to find anything of interest there, and failed. Scully was telling Skinner that Krycek had been cooperative and they'd had no indication that he might intend to leave, and then she got a look on her face that meant she'd realized she was wrong. Mulder caught her eye. She raised an eyebrow, meaning should I tell him, and Mulder nodded; it couldn't hurt.

"The smoking man called and asked for him. It's quite possible that he made some threat beyond what we were told of—" She tucked a stray lock of hair back behind her ear with a determined gesture as Skinner interrupted her. The ponytail was starting to slip. "No, sir, we don't know where he went. — About twenty minutes. No. Yes." For a moment she looked bewildered, and then her face cleared. "Of course, sir. As soon as we get back."

She came over to the noticeboard and held the phone out to Mulder; he slipped it into his pocket. "So we're going back?"

Scully nodded. "He told us to wrap up the case as quickly as possible. And frankly, Mulder, there isn't much to wrap up. We can't solve them all, we can only try. We could try to track down the men who killed Siward and Janet Clough, but right now we have nothing to go on."

"What about tracking Krycek down?" he asked.

"I thought Skinner would want us to go after Krycek," Scully said, "but he doesn't. He hinted very strongly that it would be pointless. My impression is that a certain someone wants us to deliver Krycek to him by way of Skinner, and Skinner is just as pleased that we won't be able to do that."

"Yeah, he doesn't like it when it's suggested he's nothing but a balding errand boy," Mulder muttered. Scully shot him a look, half outraged, half amused. "I'm allowed to pick on Skinner. He's my boss. You have to complain about your boss, it's in the rules."

Tilting her head back, she looked at him for a good ten seconds before saying in a calm voice, "I'll take care of things over at the station." Scully took his arm and steered him towards a table. "Larkin may disapprove of us leaving so suddenly, but I'll talk to him. There isn't much else for us to do here. I could stay for the autopsies, but it's obvious what killed the Cloughs. Just sit here, Mulder." She pushed him backwards onto a padded seat. "I'll be back in a little while."

He closed his eyes as he sat, because moving his head too fast made the headache-waves break against the inside of his skull with a sound like distant thunder, and he heard her walk away. It would be very easy to get up and follow her, ignore this stupid cold just to prove a point. He wasn't nearly as unwell as she thought he was. Mulder knew that; a fever, a headache, it was nothing.

He just felt so strangely tired.

Slumping against the backrest, he considered going upstairs to pack instead. He'd have to fold up all those damp dirty clothes and put them in his bag. And what was he going to do with Krycek's boots? And what was Krycek wearing on his feet, since he'd left his boots behind? Mulder opened his eyes again abruptly, as Laura Ann set down a tray in front of him with a large glass of water, a smaller glass of orange juice, a mug of coffee, three extra strength Tylenol, a napkin, a plate of toast, and three little pots: butter, honey, and jam.

He looked at her, but found himself incapable of a cutting comment on the subject of this unasked-for mothering. A strange, prickling sensation in his eyes and nose made him think he was going to sneeze, and then he bit down on his lower lip to stop it. Laura Ann patted his hand wordlessly and then went off to talk to Susie, her voice sharper than he'd ever heard it before. Mulder quickly took one of the Tylenol and tossed it down with some water, then got to his feet and took the coffee mug with him as he went up the stairs.

As he'd suspected, his running shoes were gone. And one of his sweaters. In the bathroom, Krycek's torn and bloody jeans hung like a black banner heralding disaster. Mulder put the coffee mug on the edge of the sink and gathered up and folded all the clothes that had been dumped in the bathroom the day before. He took the pile under one arm, picked the mug up again and went out into the room. Then he realized that he'd forgotten his toothbrush and shaving kit and went back into the bathroom again. He hesitated for a moment about whether to take the toothbrush Krycek had been using. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror above the sink, he turned away so he didn't have to see.

Once everything was packed away, he looked at the room again. There was a little mud on the carpet. And one of the beds was quite obviously untouched. Mulder thought, in the detached way of someone contemplating a mathematical problem, about messing it up. Instead he picked up the bag, the Davis file, and the coffee mug, and left.

Downstairs, he set the bag down by the table, sat on his chair and picked up a piece of cold toast. He lost interest after a bite, and just sat there sipping his coffee and waiting for Scully. The breakfast crowd had thinned out; Susie sat reading a historical romance. When the doorbell jangled after a long silence and Scully came back, he felt more than half asleep. She smiled at him and seemed about to come over to the table, but then she caught sight of the bag at his feet and headed for the stairs instead.

Laura Ann came over and refilled his mug, and still didn't say anything, which was starting to make him nervous. Then again, he'd seen himself in the mirror. Scully wasn't gone long. She'd probably broken the southeast Virginia speed record for packing a small suitcase. Downstairs again, she came up to him, and he started to rise. "Let's go, then. You've got the car keys?"

"You can finish your coffee if you want, Mulder." Meaning that she hadn't had any breakfast. Sure enough, she broke off a piece of toast and stood nibbling at it. He didn't feel up to adding another full mug of coffee to whatever his stomach had been doing lately, though, and got to his feet all the same.

Laura Ann came up to them with two styrofoam cups of yet more coffee, and a paper bag. He could smell cinnamon buns through the brown paper. Mulder let Scully deal with the usual courtesies, although he did say both a good-bye and a thank you, trying to avoid meeting Laura Ann's eyes. Then he picked up both his and Scully's luggage and headed outside to the car.

She wouldn't let him drive. For a while he thought about arguing, but there was no fire in him for it. Instead he got into the passenger seat and accepted responsibility for the coffee and buns. As Scully opened the door on the driver's side, Lou came out of the police station and stopped on the sidewalk. Scully waved, with a brisk and somewhat over-cheerful smile, then got into the car and started it. Lou slowly waved back as they pulled out of the parking space and drove away.

"So did you?" Mulder asked. Scully shot him a sideways look. "Last night, when you went to return the truck keys..."

"I returned the truck keys. That's all." She sounded firm but also a little amused. So probably nothing had happened. Well, he'd never thought Lou was Scully's type, anyway. Hard to say what was Scully's type, really. Not Lou, and not Frohike, but that still left a vast spectrum of humanity to choose from. "And I'd like one of those cinnamon buns."

She drove, and Mulder drifted. He wasn't deep in thought; he was deep in something other than thought, a state that did not allow him to think. Scully probably thought he was asleep. He knew that he should be thinking, that things had slipped away from him and he should try to recapture them, but he couldn't. At some point, he'd lost control. With the phone call that had forced them to abandon the investigation, with Skinner's suggestion that they drop it — no, earlier than that. Last night. Last night... this morning...

Shifting in the car seat, he was aware that he'd left the empty place in his mind, and something was twisting inside him again. "What did you tell Larkin?" he asked. And then, without waiting for her answer, as his mind finally started to function again, "Damn it."

"What?" Scully sounded more tolerant than anything else. "Skinner called Larkin as well. We have — well, you have a theory about the ghosts, but no evidence to back it up. The deaths of Siward and Janet Clough can't be conclusively connected to—"

"He's gone. He's gone, Scully." Now she started to look nervous, and Mulder tried to collect himself and make his voice sound normal. "The smoker was blackmailing us — drop the case or he kills Krycek, right? But Krycek's gone. Now he doesn't have anything to hold over our heads. It's just Skinner who wants us to let it go."

She was silent for a few moments. Then she said, "We don't know that Krycek left of his own free will." Mulder turned his head abruptly to look at her, but she kept her eyes on the road. "It makes sense that he must have known the investigation had come to an end and we were bound to try to arrest him. But we also know that man was looking for Krycek, and some of his operatives were in the area very recently, and might still have been there when Krycek vanished."

"You think he was taken? Or killed?" His tongue felt thick and slow in his mouth, unwilling to say the words. "Scully, we have to go back." She didn't answer. "Scully, turn the car around." He tried to infuse some authority into his voice, but it wouldn't come.

When he was about to try again, swearing or begging, he wasn't sure which, she finally spoke. "Mulder, I know how you feel, but I—" The brief shake of the head was curiously indecisive, for her. "If he was killed by the same people who killed the Cloughs, there's nothing we can do, and Detective Larkin has got half the state looking for those men. But I think he left of his own free will, trying to stay alive. Skinner doesn't want us to bring him in. And he wouldn't survive unless we provided him with twenty-four hour protective custody. And—" Scully shrugged, a minimalist motion, without letting go of the steering wheel.

"And?" Mulder pressed her quietly. "There's something more, isn't there."

"And," she drew a deep breath, "it was easier to hate him when he wasn't a real person. I still want to see him punished for what he's done, but not by them. And if we found him and brought him in now, we'd be handing him over to them. We would be doing exactly what the smoking man wants us to do."

"So you're willing to let Krycek go to preserve some obscure moral principle." He wasn't sure where the words were coming from, they just rose smoothly into his mind.

"Yes! Yes, I am!" A faint flush appeared on her cheeks, though she still remembered to look at the road and not at him. "And I thought you were, too. Without our principles, we're no better than they are. I believe in justice, Mulder, and turning Krycek over to those men would be vengeance, pure and simple. Whatever he's done, he deserves justice, and even if that justice would be harsh, that's not the same thing as leaving him in the hands of a private executioner."

The flush on her face was nothing compared with the fire that burned through him. He recognized it for what it was now, the impulse to lash out at someone, even at Scully. She was defending herself against his misery. Mulder tensed up, waiting for another muscle cramp to hit him. "I know," he said, the edge gone from his voice as suddenly as it had appeared there. "I know, Scully. Did you tell Larkin to look for Krycek — or his body?"

She nodded. "Yes. And." That couldn't be a smile on her face. "I asked Lou to let me know if there were any developments."

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself." And then, of course, it hit him again. If anyone ought to be ashamed... he suddenly folded forward, bending around a gut-deep wrench that wouldn't stop. It hurt. It really, really hurt. "Don't stop the car," he wheezed. "I'm all right." He tried to straighten up to prove it. "Are we going straight to see Skinner?"

"I am," she said. "You're going straight home, and straight to bed. And I'm buying you oilskins and an umbrella for your birthday." She reached out and touched his shoulder lightly. It was more calming than he would have expected it to be. Sinking back against the seat again, he fumbled through his pockets for a tissue, blew his nose, and tried to fall asleep.

~~ The stars scattered when he breathed on them, blowing away, and he leaped after them, trying to catch them. An instant of flight and then the inevitable fall, down through the darkness of the universe, down where there was no direction, down towards the end of eternity. Falling, and falling, and falling. ~~

The next time she touched his shoulder they were at Hegal Place. "I'm awake," he said, although he hadn't been. The sky was gray here, too. "Scully, I'm fine, I can come with you to talk to Skinner."

"Do you want me to walk you upstairs?" she asked pointedly.

He was defeated, and admitted it. He didn't have the strength to fight her right now. And not the inclination, really, either. All he wanted now that he was here was to go up to his apartment and be alone, to wrap himself around the darkness inside and try to assimilate it. Hold it back. Repress it. Deny it. People can live perfectly well with bullets lodged in their bodies. All he needed was some time to himself.

"No, that's okay. If I fall over before I make it to the front door you can come and rescue me." He opened the car door and swung his legs outside, and paused. "Do you think Krycek was bluffing? About the black cancer?"

"Yes," she said firmly. Maybe a little too firmly, as if she'd been waiting for him to ask. "You've had a physical exam since you came back from Russia, and you were fine."

"But no one looked at my pineal gland, as far as I can remember."

Scully tilted her head to one side. She had taken the ponytail out, and her hair fell smoothly forward to frame her face, the way he liked best. "If you're concerned about it, we can schedule another checkup once you're feeling better."

"I'm not concerned, I just—" He started to get out of the car and was aware that he was being ungrateful. "Scully." Looking back at her over his shoulder, he thought about smiling. "Thanks." It seemed to be enough, because she smiled back.

The bag wasn't that heavy, despite the extra weight he carried in it now, and of course he didn't fall over. But in the elevator going up, he also thought about falling; there was no sensation of moving upwards, none at all. The hallway looked the same, the door looked the same, and when he went inside everything was in the right place and just as dusty as when he'd left, so if anyone had searched the place, they'd done a good, professional job. Always nice to know.

He walked into the room and dropped the bag; it landed with a clunk. Krycek's boots. He shouldn't have packed them, he should have left them behind along with the rest of Krycek's stuff, torn and dirty souvenirs he did not need. The fish were still alive, and he went to watch them. They swam this way, that way, aimlessly, around and around their little world. After a while he gave them some food and they responded to it with mindless hunger. He could always flush them down the toilet.

Going back into the hall again he picked up the mail and looked through it. Mail order catalog, mail order catalog, Szechuan menu, mail order catalog. Someone seemed to think he had a burning need for a gargoyle to put on top of his computer screen and a Swiss pocket knife with thirty-four different gadgets. He was about to throw away all of it, but changed his mind and kept the menu. They delivered till two. Bending down and straightening up had made him dizzy again; the pills had worn off a couple of hours ago.

He got himself a glass of water and carried it into the living room, intending to take off his tie and crash on the couch. A couple of hours' sleep would make things better, and then he could go in to work and find out what Scully had told Skinner. But his feet refused to stop where he wanted them to, and walked him into the bedroom where the unmade bed waited for him. Mulder stood and looked at it; then he carefully put the glass down on the floor before sitting on the edge of the bed. He kicked his shoes off, shrugged out of the suit jacket, loosened the tie and pulled it over his head.

Pausing in his undressing, he reached out and put a hand on the pillow in the depression left by Krycek's head. There was no warmth to be found here. Mulder unbuttoned his shirt and added it to the pile on the floor, wriggled out of his pants and threw them down too. He crawled in under the covers and tugged at the scrunched-up pillow, hugging it close to his body, wrapping himself around it until he lay curled up in a ball under the covers. Closing his eyes, he buried his face in the cotton, and wondered if he'd ever stop falling.

* * *

I can hardly believe it's me standing here throwing stones at a girl's window in the moonlight. Romeo in black jeans. It's a good thing Linda is a light sleeper, and that her parents' bedroom faces the other way. It only takes a minute before I see her behind the curtains; she looks down, and motions at me to wait. So I do, moving deeper into the shadows.

When she creeps outside she's dressed in jeans and a heavy knitted sweater. She closes the back door carefully, takes my hand and leads me across the yard, through a gap in the fence, past the neighbors' garage and out into the street. We walk along side by side for a while without saying anything. Most of the rain water has drained off by now. Linda walks like someone who does it often, with an even, steady pace; she breathes deeply of the cool night air.

Reaching the nearest crossing, we turn left at random. Any direction is fine with me, as long as we don't go to Main Street, don't go past Laura Ann's and the police station. Her fingers squeeze mine, and after another half a block she says, "I thought you'd left."

"I'm in the process of leaving. Just thought I'd say good-bye." The bright orange of her hair is leeched away by the moonlight and she's just pale, and pretty. "Have you decided which college you're going to?"

"No. William and Mary, maybe. Or maybe somewhere really far away. Another state, even. The west coast or something." It does sound as though she's decided, but maybe she's not aware of that yet. I'll leave it to her to find out for herself. "I want to get away from all this. I can't believe Annie's parents are dead, too." She looks at me sideways, hesitant but curious. "You saw them, didn't you."

After a moment I understand that she means the bodies. "Yeah. I was there with—" The names won't make it past my lips. Linda tugs at my hand and leads me in through a low wooden gate. We're in a playground. Someone has left a small yellow bucket and a small red spade behind in the sandbox. She lets go of me to sit on one of the swings, and I take the other one. The chains creak alarmingly. "Will you be all right?"

"Yeah," she says. "I guess so. I don't know what the hell else I can do except try to cope with it, so I guess I will. Will you?" I don't answer. "Why did they leave without you?" I shake my head, and she falls silent for a while, swinging back and forth. Then she slows the swing down and says gently, "Did you have another fight with that guy?"

I lean back and look at the moon. It's cool and lovely and far away. Mulder was all fire when I held him. He didn't know I was kissing him good-bye. He was upset and feverish and passionate and tired and angry, and it was almost impossible to let go of him. But I had to. Everything was getting too dangerous, still is, and it's better for me to be on my own. I shouldn't be here with Linda, either, and I feel a stab of guilt. I don't want anything to hurt her. But I've done a good job today of staying one step ahead, and that has to count for something.

"It doesn't matter how many fights I have with him," I say. "It makes no difference. Everything's screwed up between us, it can't get any worse."

"You could fix it," she says with innocent certainty. "You don't have to keep fighting with people. You can fix it if you want to, you just have to decide if that's what you want."

She makes it sound so reasonable, and in another mood I might have laughed, or cried. I don't ever want to see her leave that certainty behind, the simple belief that tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner.

What do I want? I want Fox Mulder. I want to lick his eyelids and see if they taste like rose petals. I want to fuck him slow and hard until his bones and mine crumble into powdery ecstasy. That's what I want, and yet it's not half of what I want, only the part of wanting that I can find words for.

"Linda, it's not that simple. I did things that, well, if he forgave me for them, he'd never be able to forgive himself for doing that. And it would eat at him forever, and he'd hate himself even if he tried to stop hating me. It just wouldn't work."

The moon seems more distant than ever and I turn my head to look at Linda instead. She's watching my face. "You're in love with him." This is said with the same complete conviction that she used to tell me that Mulder would forgive me if I only explained everything.

"No. Fuck, no." I shake my head. "No, I just..." The swing twists under me. I wrap my arm around the chain and lean my head against it. It's cool, almost cold against my temple. There's nothing perfect about my memory. There are lots of things I have chosen to forget, and others that have simply sunk into oblivion under the weight of their own insignificance. And then there are scenes that can be replayed at any time, not a detail lost. "He's got the biggest collection of ugly ties in DC. I can't understand why a guy with taste in suits like that can't manage to buy a single decent tie."

"You could give him one for Christmas." She runs both hands through her hair, scratching at her scalp, then yawns a little. She should be in bed. All of Leyden Creek is in bed sleeping the sleep of the just, except for Steve Larkin, who's sitting up with a mug of coffee, mourning his poker buddy. When Linda reaches out and touches me I almost jump. "You really mean it, don't you. You really did something awful to him."

"Yeah. I did."

It's nice to sit here and swing back and forth, nice and peaceful, with the night all around us swallowing up any secrets that might be spoken. I feel like I can tell her anything, anything at all, even though I know I won't. She doesn't need to know me that well, because... I look at her quickly and then away, but she manages to catch my eye during that brief moment. "What?" she asks.

"Nothing." I want her to like me, and Mulder is right, she wouldn't, not if she knew. Nobody could.

But he kissed me. In bed, warm skin against skin, willingly. He kissed me in the police station, but he was running a fever by then, so maybe it doesn't count, falls under the heading of temporary insanity or whatever. That's what I thought this was, all of it, when it first gripped me. Insanity, madness, obsession. Possession. He's claimed some part of me for his own, and I'll never get it back.

I don't want it back.

Linda doesn't like that answer. "No, that's not what I meant. What did you do to him?"

"I can't tell you." When she squeezes my arm, I shake my head. It's not going to help, I won't let her hear it. Can't make myself say it.

"Why not?"

"Because I don't want you to know," I say softly. I tilt my head back and look at the moon again. "You know that it's possible to eat arsenic?"

"But that's a poison." She's looking at me, I can tell, twisting around to try to face me, but I'm not taking my eyes off the moon. "No, wait. I read about that in a detective story, some guy who ate poisoned candy."

"Yeah, you start with a very small dose and then increase it, build up a tolerance to the stuff. I'm just wondering what happens when you stop. Linda, I have to go." I get to my feet and steady the swing to keep it from clipping me across the back of my legs. She stands up too, stretches a little and suppresses another yawn. Her arms go around my waist under the jacket and she hugs me tight. I pull her head down against my shoulder and we stand like that, not speaking. The dyed half of her hair is rougher than the undyed half, I can feel that against my skin, even with the stubble getting in the way. I need a shave.

When she lets go of me she smiles, a small smile, barely noticeable. "Take care," she says, turns around and walks away, out of the playground and back up the street. Once she's gone, I leave as well, going in the opposite direction. The streets are quiet and all the windows are dark. It's over, here. There will be no more accidents by the walnut tree, and no one else will be found shot in the kitchen. It's over, and I have things to do. And a job offer to contemplate. Well, I already know what my answer will be, and now I need to get out of this place.

I'm going to have to steal a car, and there probably isn't a decent set of wheels in the whole town.

At least I know where I'm going.

* * *

art i || art ii || the x‑files || e‑mail